Chapter 42 of Lead Heart is up!
A familiar voice echoed out of the darkness, though Leliana couldn’t pay it any mind. Behind the small group and dying torch, a small army of silhouettes toed the edge of the light. She was vaguely aware of the group scattering when she bounced into their midst, but she was in a hurry to stop a long tendril reaching out to wrap around the smallest one. Thick, slimy scales coated her hand and she came face to face with a…snake? Slug? Its eye sockets were empty, but the dripping fangs it bared as it sprang were unmistakable. Leliana couldn’t stop a little scream, barely grabbing the serpent before it buried its teeth into her eyes. There was no resistance as she tore it in half, tossing it to the forest floor.
She paused. That voice was very familiar.
Suddenly a huge, four legged thing waddled into the dim light. Its blackened skin writhed endlessly as it charged the small group. Drawing back, Leliana unleashed a series of blows that could’ve dropped a lion. Warm blisters popped under the onslaught, showering her in a viscous fluid. She nearly gagged. The beast hadn’t let up at all, plowing through the underbrush like it wasn’t there.
“I leave this to your capable hands, child.” Protector Atreides’ voice was almost lost over the hissing and growling of the creatures suddenly surrounding her.
“What!?” Two emaciated foxes threw themselves at her, only to be splatted against a thick tree. “You can’t leave me here!”
“I will get these people to safety while you cover our retreat.” He yelled back, shouldering Sekkel to allow Gib could take up Jovi. He tossed the torch onto the ground.
Leliana wanted to respond, she wanted to scream. Instead, she fought for her life.
Within seconds of the torch dropping, she felt the clothes on her back pulled in all directions as a small horde of rodents climbed her. The huge mystery beast managed to get itself turned around and approached slowly this time. She caught a better look at it this time, wishing she hadn’t.
Sunken, dead eyes stared from what must have been a moose at one time. Its face and nose had caved in and gone soft, revealing muscle and skull. The worst part of the beast were the living tendrils dripping out of the patchwork of holes on the things’ body.
She swallowed a wave of nausea and threw her back against the nearest tree. Satisfying squeals shot up from all the tiny creatures she’d smashed off of her. She executed a complex set of leaps and body slams between a few fir trees and managed to lose most of them. Pain flared white hot as mouths of teeth clamped down onto her thighs and calves. She screamed at the offending wolf, and felt the satisfying crunch of bone as she brought a fist down. The wolf fell limp, immediately replaced by a second. Before it had a chance to bite her, a 3 foot blade jutted out of its furry spine. Slobber flew as it went wild, biting the air and trying to get rid of the pain, but the wound was fatal.
“Wha-?” Not expecting help, Leliana traced the blade to its wielder. A slightly built redhead with pigtails, and cheeks spotted with freckles that stood out against a pale blue jumpsuit.
“Karina! What are you doing here?” Leliana batted a few snakes out of the air that had been shrugged off by the big monster.
“I wanted to help!” Karina cut down the monsters around her with a grim determination that she hadn’t possessed before.
Leliana watched her a moment, then realized the girl was using Leliana’s knife!
In the hands of an untrained combatant in an unknown forest in the middle of the night, it was unfortunately not as effective as either of them would have hoped. Karina was covered in scratches and bites, blood running freely into her left eye out of a gash in her forehead.
The big shaggy beast waved its deformed mouth in Karina’s face, but reeled back as the knife bit deep into its face. It roared what was likely once a mighty roar. It was deceptively fast, smashing her onto the forest floor with heavy antlers. She was immediately engulfed in the miniature slug-like serpents.
Leliana scooped up her old comrade, jumping into the low branches of a nearby pine. “Stay here.” She said. Karina nodded, wide-eyed, as Leliana plucked the long knife from her hands. “I just wanted-”
Leliana squeezed the hilt, gave it a practice swing. It felt good.
Dozens of the slimy snakes fell in two pieces over the next dozen seconds. Leliana kicked off the tree she’d placed Karina in, bouncing from trunk to trunk, waves of diseased animals falling to the ground with each pass. It was almost too easy, until the horned beast joined the fray. She sprang off from a sapling, running face-first into a wall of rotted muscle and slimy worms.
Slick guts invaded her nostrils, eyes and mouth. Leliana retched, her head spinning. She missed the rampaging beast as it charged, pinning her to the trunk of the tree Karina was sitting in.
“You bastard.” She whispered into its ear.
Bones shattered as she rained heavy blows onto its face. As soon as it backed up a couple of steps, Leliana rolled aside, slashing at it’s flanks. The monster bellowed like a diseased bull with every slash, severing muscle and tendon on each limb. Finally, it collapsed.
“Ah HA!” With a flourish, she drove the blade deep into it’s spine. It dropped with a whimper.
Waves of wriggling, slithering, disgusting snakes flooded out of its body.
Time to go! Leliana swept Karina from her branch, grabbed the dying torch, and made their escape.
They caught up with the group after about a mile. She hadn’t exactly been tracking the Protector, she had no idea which way he’d gone. But she knew they’d been moving away from the moon this whole time, so she logically ran straight toward the moon’s position in the sky.
Once regrouped, they traveled in a silence broken only by the labored breathing of the injured until they finally came into view of the enormous burning plant monster. It had caved in at some point, forming a huge hollow inside and shrinking rapidly now.
The crew collapsed against each other in a heap next to the wagon. Jovi kept her head down in a sullen silence, but the rest of the group were vocally grateful.
“Many thanks for your aid.” Gib voiced.
“Thank you very much.” Sekkel added.
The Protector bowed. “It is good to see you again, Gib. Jovi.” The captain of The Nightmare jumped when she was mentioned by name, but continued staring at the soil beneath her boots.
“What the heck were you guys doing out there!?” Leliana nearly yelled.
“I, too, would like to hear the tale.” The Protector chimed in. “But they have been through a harrowing experience Leliana. Let them rest for now.”
“It’s alright.” Karina said. “I think talking things through will help us relax a bit.”
After the fight with the clown pirates, Jovi had lost more control over the ship even than she had of herself. The crew did their best to ground the ship quickly, but due to the storm, had flown for dozens of miles before they finally shed altitude. And once they finally set down, the grassy plains had already given way to the wild forest. The Nightmare smashed its way through half a mile of thick vines and trees and brush, punching holes on every exposed surface. The crew hadn’t seen sunlight in days.
Leliana noticed the silent tears slowly falling from Teena’s face as her big sister talked. She wanted to say something, but Gib beat her to it. He scooped up the tiny engineer, setting her on his shoulder. “Chin up, sweet tinker. We live to fight another day. Surely we can build an even grander ship!”
Teena tried smiling. “Yeah, you’re right. It took so long to build her though. She’s been our home for years.”
Bristol butted into the conversation too. “Aye, wee one. The loss of a great invention can cut as deeply as the loss of one’s own child.” He crossed one hand over his heart and bowed.
During the exchange, Kahlin had approached Sekkel and helped the older man re-set his splint, as well as providing some concoction for the pain. The two sank into a world of alchemical discussion which nobody else could follow. Leliana watched them chat, but she was too tired to even pretend to understand.
In fact, as soon as she allowed herself to relax, she’d been hit with a wave of pain and exhaustion that threatened to knock her out. She collapsed to the grass to gaze at the stars.
“Thanks for your help back there.” Karina limped over and lay next to her.
Leliana laughed. “Thanks should go to the Protector, he’s the one who heard you guys out there. Somehow.”
“That half naked guy?” Karina laughed. “But you’re the one who snatched me from the jaws of that thing.” She shuddered. “What in the 9 hells was that, anyway?” She wondered aloud.
“I’m…not sure.” The other admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The rest of the night passed peacefully as the two girls caught each other up on the events of the last two weeks. Leliana didn’t have much to report, seeing as she’d been asleep for most of it, but she listened to Karina breathlessly retelling her own story in much more detail. Leliana’s body eventually remembered that she was too tired to stay awake, and they drifted off to the quiet roar of the flame.