Chapter 52: A Warning

Hello Everyone

Chapter 52 of Lead Heart is up! One year of chapters!

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Karina’s eyes burned in the rushing wind. The ground, so far away, swam dizzyingly as she fought to control herself. She could barely see anything with her own red curls whipping her in the face.

Think, Karina. First things first: why did you jump?!

I panicked, okay? This isn’t helpful, focus!

It felt odd arguing with herself, but not quite as odd as free falling to her inevitable death. As the first parachute rushed at her, an idea started to form.

Oooh. Second: hitch a ride.

She hurled the rope at the skinny scientist far too late and the throw lacked any real power, she nearly blacked out as it whipped back to smack her. She plowed blindly into the parachute at breakneck speeds, which turned out to be bad for both of them. The fabric was different than she was used to, it felt like a rough slap on a cold day. As she rocketed through the material, the scientists squealed in alarm as he began an unexpected aerial acrobatics routine.

Right. Third option! This time, she readied her makeshift lasso well before the next parachute, angling herself to miss the slick fabric this time. The rope wrapped the man’s backpack and his arm together and she had no time to worry about whether it would hold or not.

“AAAH!” Brutus squealed and set her ears ringing.

Karina’s hands turned out to be the weakest link this time. The rough strands gouged deep grooves into the palms of her hands, taking several layers of skin as the rope ripped itself free. For a single eternity, Karina’s free fall was arrested as she locked gazes with an angry, fat scientist. Then the eternity passed, and she resumed her flight.

She flipped end over end, flung wildly astray from her original course. By the time she stabilized, she was almost directly above the middle of the monk’s camp.

Scat, she scolded herself. Teena’s gonna be pissed.

The camp was sharper now, the people more distinct. She scanned frantically for anything moderately non-lethal to land on, though she knew it were impossible.

Then she started looking for that stuck up woman with the knife; if she was going to die, she might as well traumatize someone on the way out. Movement caught her eye. A tiny pink dot shot across the camp, knocking people out of the way.

What in the steaming hells? It was captivating. She wanted to turn away, to keep looking for a way, but that dot was moving fast. Faster than anything she’d ever seen. It made the five minute walk across the camp in thirty seconds. Then it started growing. Bigger?

No…it’s closer?

Fascination kept her gaze locked on to the scene until several things happened at once. Karina realized the pale pink dot was screaming and headed straight for her. Then she realized it was a head. And not just any head.

“Tee-!?” The words broke off as the two sisters smashed together.

Teena’s white-knuckled grip almost wasn’t enough, the centrifugal force threatening to tear them apart. The collision knocked them whirling in uncontrolled circles. Karina clung to her sister for dear life, she felt her shirt tear where Teena’s vice-grip hands were locked.

“What are you doing here!?” She screamed over the wind. .

“What are you doing here!?” Teena screamed back. Then, “hold on tight!” It took a moment before Karina realized her sister had been wearing a set of wings this whole time. They were little more than cleverly entwined wooden beams coated in some leathery fabric.

Despite the wings, the ground seemed eager to claim them.

Karina gripped her sister’s waist as the tiny engineer fought the glider for control. When the spinning finally stopped, they were seconds from impact. “Wooooooo-” Teena whooped a tiny warcry and flung herself backward, forcing the nose of the glider up. Flags and pavilions were a chromatic blur as they level out, shooting through at bone shattering speeds. Teena wrestled the glider a few more times, gaining the tiniest bit of altitude each time.

They had at least cleared the big shopping pavilions when they finally hit. The world erupted in pain as the girls’ momentum flung them wildly in separate directions. Karina skipped across the ground like a stone over a pond, spinning fast enough that the sky and the ground blended into a single entity.

After three or four skips, old muscle memory took over. Karina curled into a ball without realizing, unfurling at the peak of the next bounce. She landed braced for impact, both hands ripping the soil. She slid over a meter before stopping. Her legs trembled. Her heart both stopped and raced simultaneously. The dust settled.

She was alive.

The red haired girl giggled unexpectedly. Then she fell to her knees and laughed and laughed. Hysteria took control and didn’t let go until the tears streamed freely and a familiar voice came to scold her. “What in the heck were you thinking are you TRYING to give me a HEART ATTACK what are you even doing falling out of the sky like a rock you didn’t even have a PARACHUTE?!” Karina didn’t stop laughing. She couldn’t. She was alive! Instead, she pulled her big sister into a bear hug, laughing maniacally while Teena struggled to break free.

It was several minutes before the mania would subside, though her heart still pounded in her ears.

“I love you sis.”

Teena stopped struggling and heaved a huge sigh. “Love you too.” Then she put her hands on her hips. “I won’t always be there to save you, you know. You’re going to have to be more careful!” She broke into a big grin, then she looked back where they’d landed and her face fell. “My glider…”

“I’ll help you make a new one,” Karina assured.

“Well, that’s okay then. I have all KINDS of things to show you that I’ve been working on. Bristol has this mini-forge that we used to-”

Karina half-listened to an intricately detailed breakdown of something that was probably very impressive for several long minutes while she got her bearings. A small crowd had gathered around the two, and had almost immediately dispersed when it became apparent that the two were okay. Relatively. Most eyes were now fixated around the landing spot of the two scientists.

Scat. She’d forgotten about them.

“Excuse me where do you think you’re GOING?!”

Leaving Teena, she rushed to the landing site along with everyone else, snagging a hat from someone’s pocket at the last minute. She flipped it over her head and shoved the long, red mess that was her hair up into it.

“What do you mean you don’t know where they went?!” The skinny one demanded. “A person fell from an airship into the middle of a thousand people and they just vanished into thin air?” Nobody offered him any answers, despite the crowd. The speaker arrived at the same time Karina did to intervene. He made a symbol of peace and bowed.

“Peace be with you, gentlemen. We’ll have some initiates look around for them,” he assured. “For now, let us discuss why you two dropped from an armed warship over an empty field into the middle of my people.”

The Speaker’s ponytail bounced amicably, though there was a hint of steel in his voice.

The tall, huffy scientist came to his senses first. “What? Ah,” he cleared his throat, “quite right.” Brutus scowled as his companion spoke. “My name is Terrion Samson Delainey,” the scientist began, straightening to his full height and striking an important pose. “To my right is my field research assistant Brutus.”

He looked at Brutus, then to the speaker, whose eyes raised expectantly.

“Just Brutus.”

Karina noted with alarm that some of the elite defense force had clustered in the crowd around her, acting for the world as if nothing interesting were happening. She glanced instinctively behind her, and was surprised to find that she was surrounded.

Damn they’re good.

She didn’t know if they’d just been toying with her while she’d skulked about at night for a week, or if her own perception was just that bad. It was safe to assume both.

“We’re here on behalf of the Ironclad Defense Corp research division in a good faith effort to warn you that everyone here is in grave danger.” Terrion held a hand on one side of his glasses, reciting what was definitely a rehearsed phrase.

The Ironclad Defense Corp was familiar to Karina. They’d been a pain in her ass for years as a street urchin, supplying training and equipment to the local police when the gangs became too much to handle. In a matter of months, they’d turned the chumps in the small police division into a squad of well-trained soldiers with top tier armor and weaponry. This donkey’s ass is with them? Tidbits of conversations with Leliana started falling into place as she recalled Terrion and Brutus’s conversation from earlier.

Karina’s blood started to boil.

“A plague of apocalyptic proportions consumes the lands to the South, and this group lies directly in its path.” He paused for effect, the corners of his mouth hiding a smirk as the people murmured to themselves. “Ironclad Defenses has been at the forefront of this from the beginning, and I can assure you that there will be no survivors.”

The Speaker frowned. “The Ironclad Defense Corp has our gratitude Mr. Delainey. We will depart at once.” He looked pointedly to the billowing warship in the distance, now settled on a hill downwind.

Karina did a double-take. Are you kidding me!?

“Further,” Terrion raised his voice to be heard over the open chatter of the crowd, “we have reasons to believe the infection is hunting an individual among your party. An escaped criminal, a ‘Leliana Mordarlan.’ Can you confirm her whereabouts? If she is here,” he nodded sagely, “you are all in mortal danger.”

What a load of demo scat Karina snorted. The gasps and murmurs that rippled through the people irritated her. Gullible fish. She had to give Terrion credit where it was due; asking one or two people may have led nowhere. By putting everyone’s lives on the line, true or not, he ignited a host of willing snitches.

“Isn’t that the weird blonde girl?”

“I know her!”

“I’m afraid Leliana is no longer with us,” the Speaker raised his voice over everyone else. “Fortunately, we leave for Blind Man’s pass on the ‘morrow. Will this lead us away from your plague, master Delainey?”

“Quite.” Terrion narrowed his eyes.

“You fools,” Brutus hissed, stomping forward. “Hand over the girl or everyone here will die! Harboring her puts their blood on your hands,” he jabbed a finger into the Speaker’s chest.

The sudden silence was deafening.

The Speaker stood a little straighter, his smile vanished. Terrion glanced nervously at the brown robes all around them, and even Karina could feel the danger in the air.

The tall scientist choked his companion by the collar and bowed. “My apologies. My partner is mentally challenged and does not know when to shut his mouth. He is quite correct, though. Without the girl, we may be unable to stop this infection. It would be in the best interests of the people of this land if she found her way into our custody.”

Karina’s blood ran cold. The Speaker looked directly at her. “Miss Debonara. Please step forward.” She strode forward, tossing aside her stolen disguise.

“My hat!” Someone snatched the head piece from the dirt.

“What can you tell me about these two?” He asked her.

The two scientists had recognized her as soon as the hat was gone. “Wait,” Terrion demanded, “this is the girl who attacked us on the way down! How did you even get aboard the Falcon?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” she tossed her hair with a flick of a wrist. “I was there long enough for you to tell fatty that he had to wait to ‘crush’ Leliana until you had your own way with her.” She jabbed a thumb toward Brutus, marching straight up to stare them in the eye. Brutus’s gaze fell.

“I…er…I didn’t-”

“Turn of phrase, darling.” Terrion soothed. “He meant he was going to crush her in chores once we recaptured her.” The mood was decidedly against them now, and they seemed to know it. “She will come to no harm I assure you. She is a wanted criminal under the care of Ironclad, and we must insist on her return.” People had begun to chatter again, though no one outright offered any information.

Terrion looked around and nodded, reaching a decision. “Very well. I will return to my mistress with our report. I suspect she will be interested in a personal visit.” With that, they turned and trudged to the waiting warship, boarding and taking off without another glance.

“Karina, brother Mikel. Walk with me,” the Speaker ordered.

Karina and who she assumed to be brother Mikel fell into step behind him. Brother Mikel was a short, serious looking man. He was bald, with a litany of tattoos adorning his scalp. They walked in silence for some time while the two monks signed a plan of action back and forth without anything ever being spoken aloud. That was a useful idea, she mused. Finally, the shorter man left.

“I have to admit, I never expected to see you throw yourself out of the sky when I asked for information, Miss Debonara.”

“…Sorry.” She felt the heat creep into her cheeks. “It didn’t look like they were going to land, and I didn’t want to get stuck.”

He just smiled.

“No matter. You’ve learned a valuable lesson, and have taught me one as well.” He paused, and Karina could see him admiring Teena from afar. “I was quite impressed with your sister. She would be an excellent addition to our team.”

Teena stood on a pile of inventions just outside their tent, tossing things aside. Bristol was nearby, conversing with brother Mikel in their secret sign language.

“She’d only barely cleared the shadows of the forest when you made your leap of faith,” he laughed. “Spend some time thanking her properly. I expected Leliana to be with her and Bristol. Since she is not, I may ask you to go and find her. Keep her from coming back for now, if only to elude those who seek her.”

Karina agreed, though made a mental note to keep Teena nearby from now on as well. She trusted the monks through their history with Jovi, but things were developing she didn’t yet understand.

Karina crossed the short distance to the tent she shared with her sister. Teena was in the middle of attacking some poor innocent bystander with a lifetime’s worth of technical detail. Then Karina frowned. Teena was perched on two metal bars wrapped in steel coils, both of which were attached to a harness belted to her waist.

What in nine hells are you wearing?”

Chapter 51: A Curious Pair

Hello internet!

Chapter 51 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it..

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The iron monstrosity of the Triad airship was surprisingly easy to get close to.

It was one of those giant-bladed fliers which used steam to spin propellers both above and below, making it faster than conventional balloon or glider designs like the one Teena had used. It also meant the deck was as hot and sweaty as a mariner’s ass in July.

Karina simply waited for the wind to blow thick, black smoke back into the eyes of the miserable sentries, then bolted into the shadows under the ship. She was engulfed immediately in the oppressive heat of the engines. The smell brought tears to her eyes.

Despite her reckless proximity to the ship and the soldiers manning it, she didn’t catch any interesting conversation for almost an hour. The wind occasionally relieved her with a glorious blast of fresh air, drying the sweat from her eyes and smelling of sweet grass and dirt, only to vanish like a mirage. While waiting for something interesting to take back to the Speaker, Karina daydreamed about spending the gold roses she was about to earn. She wondered how fast Teena could burn through an entire gold coin if they were in a major city, then giggled. She loved her big sister more than anything in the world, but the little pipsqueak had no concept of money or frugality.

A steel cage smashed itself almost to pieces a scant meter from her hiding place. Karina nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Be careful with that!” Someone shrieked.

Another box crashed down a bit further away, on the other side of the gangplank. The voice huffed again, and a lanky guy in a lab coat stomped down the plank. He was tailed by a shorter, squatter man with mean eyes and greasy hair. Both wore spotted white overcoats and black pants and boots, though the tall one kept his hair short cropped and neat, while the shorter one’s greasy mane had been allowed to go wild. Two soldiers marched behind them, scanning the horizon with high-powered rifles at the ready. Both soldiers were adorned in the steel plated leather armor and shaved heads that were in style in the southern cities.

Well damn. If she’d known they were going to throw junk at her, she would’ve picked a better hiding place.

Tall, pale, and handsome fussed with both crates while his assistant stood off to the side wringing his hands. They were both grumbling under their breath, but she couldn’t make anything out over the dull roar of the boiling water inside the ship.

Karina’s heart skipped a beat as the two scientists held a mini-conference an arm’s reach from her hiding place. As was typical, she felt the need to sneeze immediately as soon as they encroached on her space.

“Will you do something,” the skinny one hissed. “I shouldn’t even be out here in the first place, I’m not about to spoon feed you like a gods damned baby.”

“Stuff yourself into that twat’s twat all you like,” the fat one growled. “This is a fool’s errand. Surely you understand why this sort of experimental testing should be confined to a proper sterile environment.”

“Properly stocked with food, you mean. Nobody gives a damn about your infantile views on field testing, just do as you’re told. Before that ‘twat’ learns about how unhelpful you’re being.”

They split, each picking one of the dented metal boxes. They disassembled and re-assembled the units for about half an hour before things started making sense. Karina still didn’t know what they did, but she saw some familiar equipment from spending all that time with her sister. There were microscopes and oscillators and gyroscopes jutting out at odd angles. The boxes themselves re-arranged into tall worktables, complete with desk, flask and beaker stands, space for a burner and fuel, and a bunch of belts clamped in place on the sides. And, of course, a ton of shattered glass.

What in the nine hells?

Karina watched in mild fascination as the two men spent the next two hours closely analyzing…Dirt.

They trudged downhill with boxes, scooped up some dirt, then trudged back and dumped the box onto various scientific instruments. It took about ten minutes to analyze a sample as far as she could tell, but the string of numbers they spouted while recording results was pure nonsense to her. Thankfully there were still a few hours of daylight when they started tearing down.

The soldiers at the bottom of the boarding plank came to attention as another, older, soldier appeared. “Gentlemen,” he had a thick accent she couldn’t place, and was nearly impossible to understand. He was bald of course, but he had more stripes and pins on his coat than the others. “What have you found?”

“Nothing,” Rasped the smaller scientist.

“Shut up, Brutus.” The tall one had a reedy voice that made him sound like he was perpetually on the verge of hysterics. “My colleague is correct, Lieutenant. Not a trace of the infection to be seen. It’s possible we may find traces if we expand the scope of our tests, but I deem it unlikely to be worth our time.”

“For your sake, I hope you’re right.” The lieutenant huffed. “We’ve only got maybe two days on the fuel if we take it slow. One of the vans says there’s a mess of people parked a few miles North, too. If you don’t see anything on the ground, that means they’re probably not infected yet. Might be polite to give ‘em a chance to save their asses if we have time.”

“People?” Greasy grumbled aloud. “Can you show me where they are on the map?” He pulled a crumpled map of the continent out of his overcoat and held it up expectantly. Karina could make out a thick, black line on the map tracing the route from Barley’s Bowl straight up through the valley and hooking around the mountains, nearly all the way to Gungrave.

It was eerily similar to the trek The Nightmare had taken North. What exactly were they looking for?

The lieutenant traced the map for several minutes, and there was a brief back and forth before the tall one interrupted. “Brutus, would you even recognize the girl if you saw her at this point? It’s been months, hasn’t it?”

“I see that bitch every day in my nightmares,” Brutus growled. “I will recognize her at once. And I will crush her for what she did to me!”

“Crush her on your own time,” sighed his companion. “We need her alive until we can eradicate the swarm, you idiot.” The tall man clasped his hands behind his back and set one foot on the ramp leading back to the ship. He stopped to address the military man. “Have your men pack those in the hold, they’re not needed anymore. Let’s go North to warn the people, see if they’ve heard of Leliana, then report to Lilith and Lord General Ferralis.”

The name drop woke her up like a slap to the face, and Karina was suddenly very interested in keeping an eye on these two. “There’s no way I’ll get back to the monks first,” she ignored the white-hot pain lancing through her palms as she climbed the side of the ship. “I better hitch a ride…”

The soldiers packed the equipment away and lifted off again, black fumes belching into the air and propellers whizzing above and below. The ship thundered in a dozen ways, and nobody noticed the red-headed spy cram herself into a starboard cannon.

Ten minutes later and the monk camp drifted lazily below, scarcely the size of her palm. Karina’s stomach somersaulted in place. Knowing you’re that high up was one thing. That familiar aerial view she’d missed so much coupled with the alarming fact that she wasn’t packing a parachute was enough to paralyze her with fear. She tried edging toward the cannon’s mouth once or twice, only to shrink away at a sudden gust of wind.

She forced herself to think of Teena. What would she do if their positions were reversed? That was easy. She’d jump off the ship and expect Karina to catch her somehow.

Dammit Teena.

A million ideas to sneak off the ship once they landed came to mind in a flash and were discarded just as quickly. The ground below was flat, featureless, and not conducive for sneaking out of a warship. What assets do we have? She forced herself to go through the motions to distract her panicking mind, forming a mental checklist.

It wasn’t much.

She’d been emptied out by those geezers earlier. Some rope she used as a belt, a tiny wooden penguin, and the element of surprise. Actually, the penguin was for Teena, better keep that tucked away-

Something whizzed by the cannon barrel.

What the-?

Another blur, and a flash of white.

Caution to the wind, Karina scooted forward to witness her hosts drifting lazily on parachutes. Uh oh. She’d assumed they were just going to land again. Who the hells jumps off a ship!?

Desperation demanded she cobble together the skeleton of a plan immediately. The rope around her waist flew into her hands and formed a slipknot. Her eyes darted from one chute to the other; of the two, the fat guys’ parachute was more substantial, and his drifting was a lot more predictable. She heaved one last breath –

And flung herself into the open sky.

Chapter 50: Karina’s task

Karina’s cheeks were flushed despite the chill morning. The murmur of spectators and hushed whisper of robes set her teeth on edge as she impatiently waited for the old men to determine her fate. Of course, she didn’t fault anyone aside from herself for her sloppy habits after nearly ten years out of the trade.

She would have swiped a coat if she’d have known how damn cold it was going to be.

“It is the opinion of this council,” the Master of Ancients wheezed through an impressive beard, “that these robberies were all in fact committed by you, Karina Debonara.”

Dammit.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

The master’s hunched shoulders were supported by a gnarled ironwood staff half-again as big as he was, and Karina felt a little bad for making him stand for such a long trial. She thought about whether she actually did have anything else to say, tapping a thumb to her bottom lip. The master continued, “if not, the atonement is the redistribution of all of your earthly possessions, or banishment. The choice is yours.”

Well, she didn’t feel that bad.

“Of course I do! These accusations are an assault on my character. That old bag didn’t see me take anything!” Karina flung an accusatory finger at a middle-aged woman, who clutched her bag and gasped.

“But you had my knife, how do you explain that? It was my knife, it has my initials!”

“They’re my initials too,” Karina dismissed.

“P.A?” The woman replied. “You…your name is Karina?”

“They’re old initials,” Karina scowled. “I changed my name for religious reasons.”

The skepticism was almost strong enough to taste. Stupid, she chastised inwardly.

The Master banged his staff against a metal plate, the tin-shod bottom resonating against the iron plate with authority. “Enough. What of the other possessions on your person, Miss Debonara. For example, why do you carry a man’s protective cup?”

Don’t, she warned herself. “I-” Don’t you dare. She struggled to stop the next words flying from her mouth of their own volition. “I used to be a man.”

I’m doomed.

Worse, she had no idea if she was still holding a straight face anymore. “That’s when my initials were different.”

The Master of Ancients’ wrinkled eyes opened wider than they probably had in years, and muffled laughter permeated the crowd. Noisy busybodies with nothing else to do. “A what? You what?” Shrilled the woman across the way. “No, no you were not. Where did you even…It…it’s mine. It’s my knife and I want it back!”

The group of men and women huddled the woman nodded grimly. Karina had already known once those four testified to seeing the woman make the knife a few months back that it was probably over, but she was going to give it back. Later. She’d stupidly pulled it out in front of the woman by accident, to finish the little wooden penguin she’d been carving for Teena.

But she really had intended to give it back. She almost never stole something permanently

“Miss Karina, please stop,” the master’s voice belied the twinkle she caught in his eye. “The Council of Ancients has made its determination. Turn over your possessions at once, or be cast from the protection of the Ilth es Trada,” the old man evoked the official name of the wandering monks and she knew he was serious.

“Fine. Take it,” she sighed.

A small mound of items grew as she emptied her bags and hidden pockets. Papers, clothes, toys, candy, a wrench, two glass eyes and a bottle of spirits. The master’s eyes lingered on her hands. She got ready to fight in case he demanded the figurine tucked into her sleeve. But he just nodded.

“Very well, you are dismissed. Please refrain from thievery for the duration of your stay with us, Miss Debonara, and we will accept you with open arms.”

His hands cupped into a small moon as he bowed, then retired to a nearby tent. A couple of buff monks in brown robes collected her things while the mousy woman clung to her precious knife and disappeared into the crowd, throwing dirty looks over her shoulder.

“Dammit,” Karina kicked a stone. The crowds all dispersed now that the day’s entertainment had concluded. There were a lot of chuckles as she made her way through them, and she heard a lot of whispering.

“A man? Wait til we tell-”

I’m never going to live that one down, she thought testily. She fondled the little penguin she’d saved from redistribution. The little feet weren’t finished, but the hilarious face and tufts of feathers sticking out either side of its head were perfect. Teena would love it.

“May I join you?” A voice broke her concentration. This week’s speaker, a rotund blond man with a jovial expression and a ponytail, fell into step alongside her.

She shoved the wooden figure into a pocket. “Speaker, uh, yeah what can I do for you?”

He chuckled. “I have not come to take, child. Rather, I come to ask.” She cocked her head. “There are few enough of my kind trained in the discreet arts, and most have taken the war brothers’ oath,” he said. “I wondered if I might employ your services. I have it on good authority that you could use some coin.”

“I’m not sure what you mean, Speaker. Discreet arts? I’m no artist. I can’t even draw a stick figure,” she protested.

“Let’s dispense with the usual dance, for brevity’s sake,” he waved her off. “I will not judge the skills which you possess. I, too, once made my living in the shadows. I’ve seen you skulking about at night, in fact. That I did not witness your liberation of my own bottle of brandy is a testament to your abilities, if I do say so myself.”

Karina was mesmerized by the undulating waves of the man’s stomach as he laughed a big, hearty laugh.

“I won’t take up more of your time Miss Debonara,” he said. She couldn’t say she was happy with how many times her name had been thrown about this afternoon. She’d be the talk of the town, so to speak, for some weeks to come. Infamy made training a lot harder. “Our perimeter sentries have informed me that a Triad warship has set down a couple of miles due South.”

“Wait, why would they land?” She questioned.

“That’s what I want to know. There’s been a decrease of air traffic recently but we’ve seen more and more military vessels just this week,” he concluded. “I’d like to find out what they’re doing, if possible.”

“Ohhh,” she realized. “You want me to spy on some soldiers because if I’m caught, I can’t be tied to you. And if I’m killed, it doesn’t matter, right?”

“I trust you with your own life, of course,” he said. “And I’m willing to part with a Rosewood gold or two for your troubles.”

“Sky mother’s arse,” Karina stole one of Jovi’s favorite expressions. “A gold piece? Consider them spied, Speaker.” She bowed.

The portly monk bade her goodbye and Karina sprinted South, hesitating just long enough to slip someone’s breakfast into her bag for the trip.

Chapter 49: Precipice

Hello internet,

Please enjoy chapter 49 of Lead heart. Almost 1 year of weekly chapters!

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Leliana’s fingers were dead. She gasped when the icy breath of the mountains found a little tear in the shirt she wore and teased its cold fingers up and down her spine. There was a coat of frost on her hair, and she idly wondered if one of her ribs might be cracked. It was amazing. This was why she’d busted that prison open. These were the moments worth living.

Then she looked down.

Oops.

Vertigo hit her like a brick wall. The air whooshed out of her and everything started to spin. After the longest game of cat and mouse she could ever imagine, soaring over rivers and slipping like a shadow between the densely packed forest, she couldn’t believe this was the way she was going out. A few frozen millimeters of rock was all that stood between her and certain doom.

She couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.

Vea loomed just a scant meter up the rock wall, solidly situated on a stable shelf of stone. “You will return to your friend Teena and remove her to safety” she frowned, “and I will pull you to safety.”

“Nope.”

“Girl. Do this which I ask of you so I may continue my duties as war brother.”

“Are you a war brother if you’re a girl?” Leliana snickered, “are there no war sisters?”

“This is irrelevant. Give me your hand and go back immediately,” Vea offered up a helping hand. Leliana wasn’t buying.

“Are you kidding, I can’t leave now!” She said. “That’s too far! Not to mention, I want to see what they’re blowing up the mountain with. It’s been months since I had a good bomb supply, you know?” The cold rock was sapping the warmth from her trembling muscles every second. She had to do something. “Be a darling and move, will you?”

Vea’s eyes went wide as Leliana started swinging back and forth, swaying dangerously over thin air. Leliana could feel the ice loosening.

“Don’t die don’t die don’t die,” she chanted quietly. She couldn’t let Vea help her, that was giving up. Quitting wasn’t really something she’d ever been good at. It wasn’t really the offer of help, she reflected, but the condition that she leave. She had to know what was going on up here, and what the monks had to do with it. She hadn’t solved so much as a crossword puzzle in months, and her brain was starting to atrophy.

“Alright. Live with your decisions as you see fit. Or don’t,” Vea tossed over her shoulder and vanished.

“Yeah, you go on ahead! I’ll catch up!”

Unearthly wails drifted out of the valley like a death wail, anticipating her half-mile drop. “Oh no you don’t,” Leliana threatened the ledge. She had one shot, and she had to take it. The muscles in her forearms were trembling, desperately clinging to the sharp edges while she gained the momentum in her hips to launch up to the ledge. Now or never! On the next swing, she flung herself straight up-

-or meant to. The little outcropping had finally had enough of her nonsense, crumbling to pieces and throwing her into the void.

“Ah, dammit!”

All of Leliana’s dreams flashed in front of her eyes. Spelunking the ancient cities, swimming in the ocean. Jumping off of an airship in a wingsuit. She sighed, accepting her own stupidity as she plummeted through the depths, the sting of the air racing into her nose was…

Wait.

“You are such a pain in my ass.” Vea dumped her unceremoniously into a snowdrift, safely on solid ground.

“You came back for me!”

“I need to feel like the last week of my life was not fruitless,” Vea grumbled.

Leliana’s heart pounded mercilessly in her ears. The wet noodles attached to her hips forced her to lie in the snow for longer than was comfortable. Carkus and Zimi swooped by to laugh at her before he and Vea left her to freeze, trudging through the pass. As soon as she could manage, Leliana raced to catch up.

She was surprised, to say the least.

“Carkus. Give me a good reason not to kill you.”

Vea stood ankle-deep in the middle of a fifty foot patch of shattered wood and rope, viscera, and mostly frozen human remains. And the biggest puddle of blood Leliana had ever seen.

She was impressed.

Drowning in the aura of violence emanating from the monk even at this distance, she kept her opinions quiet.  This whole time she’d been picturing the monks as a band of stoic do-gooders, roving around, saving people and cuddly animals. Even during the encounter with the Jade Serpent, Vea had left the snake alive, only applying as much force as necessary to discourage the animal. There may be more to this, she thought.

The watchtower had been constructed in a little bowl-shaped depression in the mountain near a sheer precipice. And from her vantage point, Leliana could make out at least three human hearts.

“Be reasonable,” Carkus whined. “I didn’t kill any of ‘em ‘til they started shooting. Haha, stupid humans!” He kicked a lung which out of the bloody slush and left a speckled trail of blood across his senior’s face. He froze, the tanned skin of his face turning white.

“I’m dead.”

“Yes.”

Zimi bolted, anticipating Carkus’ path so the small man could hook an arm around his neck without stopping. The two flashed into the sky like blue lightning, Carkus’ shrieks only fading when they vanished from sight.

“Whoa.” Leliana breathed. She’d barely been able to follow the action with her eyes. Something told her Vea had been toying with her.

“Come,” the monk ordered. “We must interrogate the soldiers before Carkus’ appetite overcomes him.”

Chapter 48: Suspicious Thunder

Hi internets

Chapter 48 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it.

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Thunder washed over the small clearing before dawn broke, the stars still twinkling in the sky. The jagged mountain peaks to the North were obscured by a thick blanket of clouds, though Leliana wasn’t seeing any sparks in the storm just yet. There was a swirl of dead leaves as Vea jumped down from her elevated vantage point to land between Leliana and Teena.

“That is going to be a problem,” she grimaced. “We will need to leave early today, to offer our aid in beginning the march in earnest.”  She thumped the top of Bristol’s wagon as she spoke before collecting her bag. Leliana frowned.

“Why does it matter?”

“We march through Blind Man’s pass in less than two weeks’ time,” the monk flattened her hand, pointing the direction of the pass. “There is no way through the Watcher mountains for hundreds of miles. If we do not make it through before the snows come, many in our care will die.”

Teena hopped down from her perch atop Bristol’s cart, the fruits of yesterday’s inventing strapped securely to either foot. “I’m ready!” She was roughly equal to Leliana’s chest now, standing on two metal stilts each with a thick spring wound around one collapsible limb, while a second piece supported her weight fully.

“What the hells is that?” Leliana dropped to the floor to get a closer look.

“My springy sprinters!”

“Do you name anything normal names?”

“Not if I can help it!”

Leliana smiled in spite of herself. The small girl’s excitement was too damn infectious. “Alright, what do they do. Springy sprint?” Teena hopped back and forth from foot to foot with barely constrained glee.

“They’re my new shoes,” she excitedly performed a backflip.

“Hold up.”

“I made them yesterday while you were out with Vea and now nobody’s gonna have to carry me on their shoulders anymore because I can run just as fast as everyone else thank you very much.” The tiny tinker streaked across the field, stopped herself by bouncing off of a tree, and zoomed back. A fifty meter trip in under twenty seconds, a far cry from what she could’ve managed the day before. “The pegs recoil after hitting the ground to minimize the chance of them getting caught ommmhmmm nmmhmm.” Teena didn’t stop talking until she completed her explanation, despite the big hand materializing over her mouth halfway through.

“More importantly,” Leliana rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “You think they could fit me?”

“You’re fast enough!”

They laughed as they got ready together, and Leliana realized she’d allowed herself to relax in the last couple of days. Probably shouldn’t get used to that, she thought to herself.

“I don’t get it, Vea,” Teena wondered. “Why did everyone take a break for an entire week if we’re suddenly behind schedule?” Bristol’s booming voice nearly knocked her off the sprinters. “Waah!”

“They’ve been walking for months, lass!” He popped out of the wagon like a prairie dog. “Most o’ the folk we pick up out here are half-starved or hurt, after all. We can’t expect ‘em to march hundreds of miles and then climb a mountain at the nips of winter!”

“I guess that makes some sense.”

Leliana pestered Teena about making a bigger pair of springy sprinters to play with, and possibly rename, while Bristol made a series of adjustments to his cart. He flipped a couple of flaps and latches with a practiced hand, and ducked beneath the front of the wagon so it rested on his shoulders. The wood and joints groaned as the big man rose to his feet, and the newly-detached parts of the cart fell around him like a wood-and-steel suit of armor. Complete with the two multi-purpose prongs jutting over each shoulder, each outfitted with a small cannon. Bristol hefted a shotgun big enough that Leliana thought she could’ve slept inside it, stuck it in a holster at his back, and struck a proud A-pose as the girls’ jaws hit the ground.

“Like it?” He smiled.

“What in the actual-” While Leliana dug for words, Teena gushed more than enough for the both of them.

“Ohmygosh that is the coolest thing I’ve ever SEEN!” She springy-sprinted over to the touch the wooden frame and fawn over the complexity of the joints holding everything together. “Woooow that’s so cool how did you do it can you show me the schema someday?”

A shadow flitted across the rising sun. There was a flash of blue scales, and a very naked Carkus vaulted into the center of attention. “Vea, trouble ahead,” he growled. “The guys from Gungrave are doing something weird.” While he spoke, Carkus bent down and scratched a rough approximation of the pass into the dirt, drawing circles here and there. He spoke without stopping, allowed no questions until he was finished. “Zimi and I smelled something weird in the wind and went to check it out. That thunder we’ve been hearing? Not thunder. Those guys are blowing holes into the mountain, lining up the boulders and building…stick houses. Or wooden boxes. Or something I don’t know.”

This bodes ill. Did you speak with anyone there?” Vea’s face darkened.

Carkus ran a clawed hand through his previously white hair. Leliana stifled a giggle when Vea noticed the crimson stains for the first time. “I…tried?”

“Carkus!”

“They started it!”

Her mentor heaved a frustrated sigh. “I will go personally to investigate then. Bristol, can you escort them back and report to the speaker alone?”

“Wait a second,” Leliana cut  him off. “If these guys are doing some shady scrap then I think we should go with you. We can help!” She pleaded.

“No.”

“Come on,” she whined. “What if they put up a fight? Who knows how many of them there are out there.”

“I will be fine. Your words betray your intentions, girl. I do not intend to fight anyone. You will return with Bristol to where it is safe.”

“Carkus!” Leliana changed tactics, yelling in a stage whisper to the small, angry man. “Take me with you.”

“No,” he growled as he swung up onto Zimi’s shoulders. “I’m not a babysitter.”

“Girl-” Vea warned.

“I’ll tell the protector that Vea was the one who killed those guys.” Leliana countered.

Vea’s eyes shot wide open. “What?! Stop this-”

“Done,” Carkus laughed. “There’s no way he’ll buy it, but I love to watch the captain blush. HAHA!” He and Zimi launched into the sky, beckoning the way.

“Woooo!” Leliana bolted, dodging left and jumping right to avoid the livid monk hot on her heels as they plunged into the forest.

Chapter 47: Beginning again

Hello readers,

Chapter 47 of Lead Heart has arrived. What is Karina hoping to do in the future?

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Wind ruffled Leliana’s hair as she stargazed, waiting to fall asleep. It blew through the forest, over trees and beasts, and rippled the waters of countless streams before finally brushing the crowds of the main body of the traveling monks. More than once a listener whipped their head toward the darkness beyond their campfire. Jumping at shadows, most decided.

Most were asleep already, sore and drained from a day of tearing down pavilions and preparing their own gear for travel. Veterans of the march understood how terrible it felt to spend the day packing and set off the next, so everything was usually completed two days before they set off.

More than night-owl returned to their conversations to find something out of place. Knives, coin purses, bottles of alcohol, vanished into thin air.

A few cries of confusion caused those nearby to check their own possessions. In just a few minutes, the camp erupted into chaos. Neighbors accused neighbors of theft,a few started brawling outright. Many of the monks were drawn from their posts at the perimeter to mediate disputes. Amid the chaos of it all, a slim figure skirted the throng of people before slipping into the darkness. No sound issued from the retreating footsteps. No eyes watched the figure become the darkness to watch them from afar.

Karina’s blood raced and she was smiling ear to ear, having a hard time forcing herself to be quiet.

I forgot what it was like acting under peoples’ noses she thought to herself.

Crisp, sweet honey sticks snapped and dissolved in her mouth. Wordlessly, she watched the robed figures sort the crowd from atop a grassy knoll. Guilt gnawed at her, demanding the return of the stolen possessions – and she would! Most of it.

Not the candy.

“It’s unhealthy. I’m doing them a favor.”

Not too much time passed before the situation had calmed below, allowing the monks to pull back. “I guess it’s time to get back to work.” She sighed.

Karina slipped the blue shirt over her head and pulled off her jeans, revealing the tight black-and-grey mottled body suit. The fabric was sufficiently loose at the joints, yet tight enough elsewhere to be quiet while she moved. It was also extremely soft.

The discarded clothing was shoved into a small cloth bag that made a soft whump as it was tossed aside. Karina slunk back down the slope. She stayed well away from the flickering firelight this time, instead tailing a young man in the customary brown robes. The monk orbited the big encampment, one of a score that patrolled every hour or so.

Grass crunched beneath his wooden sandals, covering her approach. She kept a good dozen feet between them as her feet re-learned the art of stealth. They walked in sync, Karina matching the youth’s cadence, a trick she was praised for many times as an amateur footpad. The young man’s head lolled in front of her.

Probably tired, she mused. Not a particularly difficult target, admittedly.

A sudden thought set the blood pounding in her ears, her fingers itching to be used. An amusing way to up the difficulty, she smiled.

Small sticks and stones, and an unfortunate mummified prairie dog, all made their way into the boy’s loose pockets over the next mile. She wasn’t exactly sure this counted; sure he was a monk, but he couldn’t have been more than 19, and the boy was practically sleep-walking.

Well, practice is practice.

Karina lobbed a rock to the left, timing the next throw so the two collided with a crack.

“Huh!?”

The boy looked left, she escaped right. She stalked carefully until well outside earshot. The mile-and-a-half back to her bag was a good warm up, late-fall air caressing her flushed cheeks with its icy tendrils. She allowed herself to enjoy the exercise

“Might as well enjoy it,” she huffed.

“Might as well enjoy it.” A sinister echo crawled in her ear. Dirty claws traced a line down one exposed shoulder. “The task is simple. Climb to the top, or die.”

This promised to be a long night.

***

“Are you quite sure you’ve made up your mind, weary little friend of mine?”

Gib set aside the copy of The Traveler he’d been reading while his best friend slept. He’d been positive he’d caught every last one, but she’d snuck a bottle by him anyway. He realized his oversight when the sound of retching oozed out of the tent.

Jovi’s bloodshot eyes seemed unclouded by both doubt or spirit. “I’m sure Gib. I love you dearly and I’m sorry to say it, but I’m not cut out for that lifestyle anymore – if I ever was-” She was cut off by a spell of dry heaving. “I’m holding you back big guy, you need room to stretch your legs, after all. Go have some fun, see the sights, come grab me in a year.”

Gib embraced his friend. An acrid tang hit his nose like a blow, a sensation he focused on to halt the tears threatening to escape. “Alright then. Indulge me once more. Allow me to be the steed to carry you triumphantly into the presence of the Speaker. For old times’ sake.”

Jovi squealed as she was hoisted up, playfully punching the shoulder she was sat upon. “Be careful you brute. Any jostling and I can’t guarantee you won’t be in the splash zone when I hurl.”

Gib laughed.

They marched to the edge of the camp together, and Jovi would don the brown robes once again.

Chapter 46: Training

Hello internets

Chapter 46 of Lead Heart is up!

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Wind playfully tussled Leliana’s hair as she sped through the clearing. It almost tickled until it, and the air in her lungs, departed at a sudden stop. There was a loud CRACK and she collapsed to her knees.

She looked back just for a second, long enough to confirm the beech tree was the one who cracked, not her.

A shadow blocked the sun for a fraction of a second and it was time to move. Leliana threw herself to her feet and kicked off the sturdy tree just in time. Vea’s naked fist impacted the same trunk, shards of wood falling into a growing collection of debris on the ground.

“You are getting faster.” Vea complimented in her slow, southern drawl.

“Not fast enough.” Leliana’s back was like liquid fire burning without end. Every tree in the forest must have had an imprint of her ass
now.

Her opponent smiled and crossed her arms. The wide A-stance Vea took let Leliana know she had a few seconds to catch her breath. She used it. Afternoon sunlight shone brilliantly off the monk’s dark complexion, the sheen of perspiration taking a golden hue. Damn she looked cool.

“So when are you going to teach me that awesome boomie clappy thing?”

Vea smirked. “When are you going to make me?”

Leliana smiled back. Two seconds later, pain exploded up her forearm as she split the rock with her fist, the same one the other woman had been standing on moments ago. Leliana grabbed a fist-full of gravel and sprang to the left, rolling to her feet so Vea’s bare foot sailed harmlessly overhead, quickly followed up with a much more successful backhanded strike. Sparks decorated Leliana’s vision, although she did stay conscious this time.

That was an improvement.

Rocks whistled through the air, chipping away at the trees as they missed. Leliana bounced a few stones and put a spin on a few of the big ones to help alter their trajectory, so she was in the perfect position to receive the monk as she ducked from the last of them. Vea’s eyes grew wide as her opponent’s arms wrapped around her waist and flung her three meters straight up.

Leliana smiled. The Protector had taught her how difficult it was to control oneself while flailing about in midair. She launched herself after Vea and grabbed her from behind, hurling her straight at the tree which Leliana herself had face-planted in moments ago. At the last second, the big woman threw out a hand and grabbed a thick branch. She kicked off the intended tree trunk with lightning speed, meeting Leliana’s landing spot at the same time as Leliana herself. Two rough hands circled under her arms as Vea somersaulted over her head and the next thing she knew, Leliana was soaring through the leafy canopy of the trees.

“OH.” Was all she managed. The clear, blue skies and the rocky terrain below mingled as she flipped end over end, her stomach threatening mutiny if she didn’t cut it out. She tucked her limbs and curled into a ball, leaning into the spin to get some control. Leliana’s pose was victorious when she finally straightened out and hurtled toward the ground at breakneck speed. Only to land safely in Vea’s arms before the impact, and yet another crater opened up beneath the monk.

It hadn’t been the first time she’d been sent flying, nor that she’d been caught by the huge woman. It was the highest she’d been thrown, though. Ever. “What was that!” She could barely restrain herself, bouncing as her feet touched the ground.

Vea was less enthusiastic. “I apologize girl. I should not ha-”

“That was amazing!” Leliana cut her off. “I’ve never known a man who could so much as toss me into a swimming pool, much less put me onto an airship from the ground!” The hammering in her chest was going wild, and she found it difficult to control her voice.

Vea looked away, but not before Leliana caught the smirk on her face. “Let us call it a day for now. We should get back soon or Carkus will eat our supper.”

Leliana gasped and stopped bouncing. The taste of the hardtack bread she’d eaten the first day was not one she was keen to retry. They stepped through a war-zone of shattered stone and splintered trees before they entered the shadows of untouched forest.

“I am pleased with your progress girl.” Vea commented. “It reminds me of a talented protege I trained beside when I was younger.” This time it was Leliana’s turn to be uncomfortable.

“Er…thanks. Is she a war brother too? Or uh, war sister?”

“She’s dead.” Was the reply.

“What!? Don’t compare me to someone who died!” Leliana’s reply wasn’t meant to be genuine, though Vea’s eyes dropped. “Uh sorry, I mean, what happened to her?” Vea gave her a small smile.

“Do not worry. My friend Quinra died honorably. She was undefeatable in strength on our home island. Yet nature did what man could not do, and she swept away when the great sea came for us. She lifted over two score of our people out of the waters that night. Do not grieve. I know she watches from Teppu Lei Lei in heaven, waiting for me to join her.”

“Slag and ash. Sorry to hear that.” Leliana hoped that was the right thing to say. Usually she was the one doing the killing, so condolences weren’t really an issue.

She was about to ask what in the nine hells Teppu..what? Even was, when her focus was stolen by a tiny, pink-haired engineer furiously waving and yelling her name.

“Leliana! Leliaaanaaaaaaaaaa!”

“Go.” Vea gestured. “You are free the rest of the night.”

Teena hopped up and down, hurling insults at a wrench under her feet refused to budge. “Leli! I can’t turn these bolts, can you do it for me?” She pouted playfully and sealed Leliana’s decision on the matter immediately.

“Yeah sure I- Wait what did you call me?”

“Leli? It’s your nickname I made up for you today!” Teena’s transition from pout to joy was too adorable, so she let the name slide for now. She’d never wanted a cutesy nickname, but nobody had ever bothered to give her one before either. She tightened a score of nuts and bolts Teena pointed to, on the top and bottom of the…

“What is it?”

She almost took his head off when Bristol’s huge head popped out of a tiny opening. “It’s an individual airborne transport!” He bellowed. “We finally got all the pieces we need for a test flight!”

Don’t do that!” Leliana forced herself to lower the wrench, away from his head. A thought struck her. “Wait, why didn’t you help Teena if you’re right there?!”

Bristol laughed. “Can’t get out!” He tugged the edges of the ‘window’ to demonstrate. “Had to make some sacrifices to get it built in a day, after all!”

Leliana shook her head, handing the wrench back. She was positive it weighed as much as the tiny tinker, but Teena hefted it with a professional’s familiarity.

“Yay! Now we can test it out, stay and watch Leli! Okay Bristol, HIT IT!”

Big, bushy eyebrows shot up. “I thought I was supposed to kick it?!” Teena huffed and crossed her arms. Bristol laughed and went to work.

Leliana wasn’t sure what that work was exactly, but he was suddenly bouncing rapidly in his seat, hooting and hollering. Four huge blades shaped out of something Leliana couldn’t identify jerked into motion, pinned to the center of the top of the vehicle. They spun faster and faster, until they were an insubstantial blur. Inch by inch, Bristol lifted off the ground in the ridiculous contraption, until he was about ten feet up. From her vantage point on the ground, Leliana saw the ridiculous sight of a grown man pedaling furiously on a de-wheeled bicycle.

“Woooo!” Teena cheered him on. “We did it!”

Bristol’s face was a concerning shade of red after just two minutes of exertion in the craft, his shirt slick with sweat. The rotating blades slowed as his energy waned, until it was seated firmly in the grass once more. Leliana couldn’t help but giggle at their excitement.

“Sorry guys. An aerial transport that puts a guy like him in a state like this after two minutes of flight that low to the ground? I don’t think it’s going to be useful.”

Teena rolled her eyes. “No silly, Bristol isn’t what we had in mind for the actual working model-”

“Maybe!” He cut in.

“It’s just a model to test our hypothesis on the equations for the surface area to mass ratios required to offset the-”

“Stop.” Leliana crossed her arms. “Pretend I’m Gib when you explain things to me.”

“I am?” Teena said.

“O-oh.”

“I get it.” Teena sighed. “The ultimate design should have a steam engine or something to apply the mechanical force required to get into the air, silly. Bristol is just a prototype.”

“Test am I? Could I test some fresh air then?” Bristol’s body was contorted and almost halfway through the tiny window somehow, but he appeared to be stuck. They all laughed and disassembled the device as quickly as they could.

“So this is what he’s been teaching you this week?” Leliana asked when they set off toward their main camp. Bristol barked with laughter as Teena giggled.

“Nay, lass. The wee one is the brain behind this particular operation. Today at least.”

Leliana was far too drained from an afternoon of breaking rocks with her face to be surprised. They cleaned up the campsite, clearing away scrap metal and fed a stack of discarded blueprints to a big fire blazing under the evening’s meal.

Two days left.” Leliana mused. “Anything else you hope to get done?”

“Nah.” Teena scoffed. “Indulging my inner inventor was amazing fun, but I miss Gib and Karina, and Sekkel! And Jovi. Plus-” She focused her attention on the lengthening shadows of the forest, suddenly intense.

“Plus what?” Leliana asked, curious.

“Well…It’s just that, Karina did some things to help us get by back when I was building The Nightmare…”

Teena quietly tore at the grass for a while. Long enough that Leliana thought she was finished. She was about to offer some of her own experiences when-

“Some things she did weren’t the best. They were scary!” She wove grass into a tiny crown. “She mentioned a few days ago that she was thinking of training again. Because she’s useless now. It makes me nervous.” Teena’s big, blue eyes suddenly bored into Leliana. “She’s not useless, I told her and Gib told her, but she doesn’t believe us!”

“Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine for now at least.” Leliana plucked the crown from Teena’s hands and put it on her head. “We have a ways to go before Gungrave still, so she can’t be too scary until then. Besides,” she patted the girl’s back. “I got nothing else to do. Maybe I can hang out with you guys for a while? She’ll be safe with me around.”

“Maybe.” Then her eyes suddenly narrowed. “Wait a second – nobody ever crashed my ship until you came along!”

She still sounded worried, but Leliana thought she detected a hint of hopefulness, and couldn’t help but laugh at the good-natured jab. A change of topic was in order. “What else did you and Bristol do this week? Today’s the first day I’m conscious enough to realize I have no idea what you two have been up to.”

“OH! Mostly theoretical discussions and diagrams for the most part.” Pink pigtails bounced enthusiastically. “First I wanted to know how he made that coooool wagon because I think if The Nightmare had had some hot swappable gun placements we would’ve saved a lot of money hiring useless mercenarie-” Teena gasped. Deep red blanketed her cheeks when she remembered who she was talking to. “Uhhhh, no offense.”

Leliana smiled. “I hate ‘em too, don’t worry. Besides, I only turned merc because I wanted to fly on your pretty ship, otherwise I would’ve just blown through town on my way North.” This cheered Teena somewhat, it was at least enough to get her chatting again.

From pint-sized engines to the personal aircraft they’d built earlier today, Teena and Bristol had mainly focused on vehicular design and mechanical force. Most of the details flew right over Leliana’s head, she had to admit. But it was still relaxing to lay under the stars and listen to someone passionately describing the subtleties of copper tube design.

As the first tiny snores signaled the end of the conversation, and Teena curled up in her plump little sleeping bag, Leliana took care to sneak further toward the edge of the clearing. She’d felt sick every time she remembered almost hurting that adorable engineer and, bad dreams or no, was determined to never repeat the mistake.

Leliana drifted into sleep to the deafening chorus of the night insects and birds, reflecting on the conversation. Could she really stick around for a while? Was there nobody coming to drag her back?