Chapter 27 of Lead Heart is up!
Broken teeth and gnarled jaws snapped inches from his heels as Rat sprinted on the dirt road. He hadn’t expected wolves this far West this early in the autumn. He’d been running for what seemed like hours, tossing a few caltrops here and there to slow them down.
His lungs burned and threatened to quit if he didn’t figure something out quick. The heavy bag on his back must have weighed a thousand pounds, turning his legs to jelly. It also contained hundreds of hours of patience and work and he was not about to lose it.
No, it stayed.
Thunder rumbled in the distance the direction he was running. Great. The sky was clear, but one shouldn’t underestimate the world’s ability to dump on him at a moment’s notice.
A black streak crossed the road and he stopped mid-stride, his feet sliding another foot and wheeling his arms to keep from falling onto the long tendril of shadow snaked across the path. It twitched back and forth, and he leapt when the limb bent back toward him. The tendril instead wrapped around one of the wolves, yanking it into the thick bushes. He shuddered. Definitely don’t remember those being here.
The rise looking over Barley’s Bowl felt about a million miles away, yet he finally caught sight of it. Elation put his heart in his throat; he’d made it! The creatures behind him had flagged and fallen behind, and he’d slowed his pace to a slow run. That beautiful ridge was finally his. He glanced over his shoulder to check for immediate threats.
An explosion shattered his hopes of a relaxing stay before he ever caught a glimpse of the town.
He finally made it over the hill into the bowl shaped valley the town was named after. It didn’t look good. Squads of police and soldiers formed a barrier between the city and an ocean of tainted animals and insects. He could even make out men with empty, glass eyes and shiny black and purple skin mindlessly crashing through corpses heaped on the battlefield.
Groups of civilians and police ran back and forth setting blaze to the dead within reach.
Following the tide of monsters back to the forest’s edge with his eyes, Rat noticed the trees had been burned back further than he’d ever seen them before. Even then, saplings and brush sprouted up through the new ash, as though a little fire were no obstacle.
A squelch dragged Rat’s attention behind him. A shiny, hairless panther dragged its broken body toward him on two front paws, the rear legs sticking out at odd angles. Another panther fell out of a tree beside the first. The animal’s jaw shattered outward in a mosaic of bone and gore. The animal picked itself up and ran after him.
He wasn’t giving up this close! Rat bolted downhill. Wind and dirt hit him in the face as many disgusting animals took swings at hime while he ran.
A group of police swung his direction, all bringing at least one firearm to bear.
“Wait, wait! I’m normal, don’t shoot!”
The men popped dozens of shots off, adding to the cacophony of bellows and cannonfire and explosions. Moments later, Rat’s pursuers littered the road behind him as he stood, relatively unscathed.
“You’ve picked a terrible time to visit stranger!” A few armored men pulled him into the center of a ring of police. The one on his left belted out a series of orders to the others before turning back to Rat. “Get yourself down this road 200 meters and the captain’ll tell you what to do. Go, MOVE!”
A fluid reflex on the soldier’s part had a sword singing out of its sheath by his side, a shiny-black forest glider crashing to the dirt in halves.
The man dispatched a young boy, probably no older than 12, to guide Rat. The stone road into town was clogged with messengers and soldiers, and ended in a small square. A series of canvas tents littered the plaza, filled with people and provisions. The runner dragged him straight to the biggest tent and explained his situation to the man in charge.
“What in the father’s name are you doing running out of a forest crawling with nightmares, son?” The captain was a grizzled man with more scars than teeth with a voice like pitted iron. He glowered into Rat’s eyes, then shifted, focusing behind him. “What’s in the bag?”
They spent a few minutes discussing the contents of the bounty hunter’s bag. The captain sifted through containers and tools, weapons and jars of oil, asking few questions and being constantly interrupted by runners. Finally –
“Listen…er, Rat. I’d love to let you into town to cower behind the women and children. Fact is, I need you and your bag. We can use all the help we can get right now. Thirty years in the city watch and I’ve never seen something like this” He spread his arms wide, half-smile on his face. “Think of it like a bounty, except the bounty is 10,000 little bastards.”
This was not a tempting offer.
“Captain, I’d rather n-”
“Or I can kill you and give your stuff to my people.” The smile stayed as the captains’ eyes glinted with steel.
“Like I was saying, I’d rather not have your men hurt themselves on my equipment. I’ll see what I can do.” He turned, and was gone.
Well crap, he thought. What am I supposed to do about those? Damn these small city states.
When he returned to the fight, there were even more animals than before. The hillside swelled and writhed, washing over more and more of the defensive line.
He had no idea if traditional tranquilizers worked on these things. They bled, right?
Rat unfurled a brace of darts already dipped in a concoction of his own devising. He selected a black deer a few feet away, slunk up behind it, and jammed the dart deep into the beasts neck.
It howled an unearthly shriek and whirled to confront him. The deer snapped at his face and threatened to gore him, taking an unsteady step forward. Then another. Then collapsed before its third step.
The soldier he saved spurted the body with a flask of lamp oil. A dirty young man, battered and bruised, and full of resolve, ran from behind the wall to light the oil and disappeared again.
“Well, I may be able to help after all.” Muttering to no one but himself, Rat counted a quick inventory. He had a few braces of tranq darts, but that was a pointless gesture with the scene in front of him. The monsters were endless and swarming. Smashed together, especially susceptible to… something with an area effect. “Blast it all.”
Rat retreated behind the front lines and loosed a few select ropes of the enormous bag. A few moments later, and the bag had unfurled into a mobile workstation. “These are no use to me if I die, but they’re still a pain in the ass to make.” He pulled a string of small bombs. He pulled a small cloth with his symbol printed on it, draping the cloth over a broken stone wall. The wind was gently drifting East. Well, at least he didn’t need to worry about bombing himself with the backdraft for now.
One by one, his 5 second bombs flew as far and as quickly as he could muster.
This design was Rat’s own, so he took a moment to be proud of his handiwork. The poison inside those bombs needed to be an intense concentration, and then further pressurized inside their containers individually. When the explosives fired, the viscous liquid absorbed a lot of the energy and converted into the clouds of purple smoke wafting parallel to the defensive force now. Huge swaths of the monsters dropped where they stood.
Cries of alarm sounded behind him. A small squad of young men rushed forward delivering oil and fire with wild abandon. While they completed their grisly job, something caught Rat’s eye.
A small crowd of tainted foxes was twitching, or convulsing he could say. Odd, there were no-
The shiny, black skin of the hairless foxes began boiling. The animals’ limbs fired in all directions as they jerked back and forth as a group.
Was this some sort of defense mechanism on the part of the foxes? He considered himself well-traveled, had visited more city-states than most people had a right to, and spent a good majority of his time in the wilderness coaxing mushrooms and flowers to bloom. He’d never encountered anything like this though.
Suddenly, a small black spike pierced out of the fox’s eye, wriggling like a sharp little worm.
Rat’s heart leapt into his throat. His feet stumbled over themselves to be the first to get away from the abomination. The tiny, alien, thing, pulled itself free of the eyeball just in time to be set on fire by the converging crowd of boys. Rat noted dozens of similar tiny appendages wiggling and sticking out of the other unconscious animals. In minutes, there was a wall of fire a hundred meters long.
His vision darkened around the edges as he fought the urge to spew his stomach all over the ground. If pre-pubescent boys were man enough to deal with it. Ugh. What a nightmare. He did some quick recalculations. The freakish little things were still moving, so they probably weren’t susceptible to the sleeping gas. The animals they hosted were though, and the doses in these bombs were a bit strong. He had a thought.
He lit one of the fuses. 1, 2, 3, THROW!
The bomb exploded 20 feet above the animals. That purple haze expanded far more than when he threw the bomb on the ground, and it looked to be more than twice as effective ,judging by the sheer number of paralyzed monstrosities .
The fire brigade lunged forward to light the blaze but was pushed back under the onslaught. A police officer cut in, level 2 by the look of him, whirling a sword so naturally it was hard to tell he had a weapon. A small blaze caught and spread quickly, and Rat watched as the little bastards shriveled and wilted under the flames.
Fire wielding children surrounded the bounty hunter. “Sir! If you have any more tricks in that bag, we can stick by and help with the cleanup.” A stocky boy of about 15 saluted and signaled his group behind Rat.
“Alright boys, let’s see what we can do.” Inwardly, Rat was hoping not to empty his stores. It was nice to be backed up for once though, even if it was just a gaggle of boys.
A loud whistling overhead drew his attention. The men behind the walls had strung giant, makeshift slingshots and were hurling huge sponges soaked in something foul-smelling overhead. A contingent of riflemen atop the walls opened fire with incendiary rounds and flames erupted across the war zone.
Time was a blur as wave upon wave of these little bastards smashed into the town defenses and, in some cases, converted several humans to their side. The sun traveled its lazy arc across the sky until it hung just above the mountaintops. The tide slowed. More and more of the defending force were allowed a drink and rest before swapping out with someone still embattled. A small group of civilians who hadn’t evacuated were used to run water, food and bandages to the front to ensure their best chances of survival.
Rat’s muscles tingled as they rested after a long day. The group of young men lying on the ground and covered in soot and grime from the hard fight.
“Did we do it?” One of the young men asked. A slight boy with bushy red hair, though the hair was slick and matted to his head.
Rat shushed him. “Never ask the W-question lad. It’s bad luck.” He stretched, pulling his tight muscles loose, and lay on the ground with the boys. It felt good to stop moving. He could still feel the telltale vibration of his explosives in his body as he lie still.
Wait a second.
Rat sprang to his feet. Companies of guards dotted the city’s-edge uneasily, nibbling at rations and looking nervously into the lengthening shadows.
A gigantic black worm jutted up out of the treetops with a horrifying squeal. The children smashed their hands to their ears and cried. The blackened worm fell, crashing back to the ground as if in slow motion. Trees exploded into a hail of shrapnel under the beast and the assembled defensive force felt the strong winds from a hundred meters away.