Chapter 44 of Lead Heart is ready to go!
The noon sun sparkled in the chill mountain autumn, breathing warmth into a mountain valley.
A few hundred miles south of the wandering monks, a quickly constructed laboratory warehouse of wood and canvas stood tall among a sea of smaller tents and latrines.
Alone, save for a single watchman to ensure his safety and compliance, Brutus dunked his sizzling arm into a barrel of water he’d set aside for just this occasion. He sighed as the cool liquid soothed the chemical burn. “Stupid, idiot, forsaken for a gods damned fool. I should have retired when I had the chance.”
He trudged over the tarpaulin floor to 5 vats of bubbling liquid near the bay doors, rubbing his blotchy skin. The soldier, clad in Brutus’ own overalls, eyed him intently under the weight of a small arsenal.
“I don’t suppose that bitch left any counter-reagents with you?” He scowled, not expecting an answer. Nor did he receive one. He grumbled and hauled another barrel of the lye crystals to the top of his small step-ladder. He dumped them much more gingerly this time. “This is a fool’s errand anyway,” he’d been complaining to the silent warden for the last three hours already. “I’ve already provided Lilith with the documentation she requires in order to form an effective countermeasure against the creatures. Their anatomy isn’t the problem, it’s just the numbers. Whoever she buggered to admit such a simpleton to the headmaster’s chair should be-”
The massive chains stirred and stunned him to silence as he recoiled. Cast iron cages big enough to hold four men dangled over the cauldrons, and they’d been stationary since the creatures’ sedation after breakfast that morning. The biggest, containing a wilted deer-like creature with serrated teeth, began to sway as the creature stirred. Its eyes had been melted, due to the caustic steam that billowed around it or because of the parasites wasn’t clear. Massive antlers were looking decidedly pockmarked, yet the creature was still a thousand pounds of murder, infested with a parasite who specialized using others to do their killing. This was not an ideal situation.
The beast’s flesh dripped from its bones, sloughing off in chunks when the animal rocked against the bars.
“Stop that!” Brutus demanded. “I don’t have time for this hogshit.” He chucked the barrel across the floor and stomped next to the lever that kept the cage suspended. The things’ cries grew harsher as it struggled to stand. Slick footing and the unstable container knocked it down time and again and it started to get hysterical, screeching and bucking. It lunged against the solid iron bars and suddenly split from groin to sternum, the distended stomach emptying its wriggling contents all over the cage. A few slid over the side and into the liquid with a hiss, their wings too slimy and wet to save them from the solution.
Before the rest had a chance to problem solve or jump to safety, Brutus kicked the lever with a snarl and sent the creatures, cage and all, plummeting into the fluid. Deep, bellowing shrieks mingled with tiny squeals as the host and parasites were dissolved over a matter of minutes. He snatched his notes from a rickety desk to document the incident.
He winced as a door slammed outside. She’d returned.
Lilith stormed through the warehouse door and hurled a bag to the floor, collapsing into the only cushioned chair in the place. One Brutus was forbidden from using. He found himself suddenly extremely interested in stirring the contents of the huge tanks when his guard approached his superior to report. The fires and boiling of the solution made a lot of noise so he didn’t catch everything, but he definitely caught the word ‘bitch’ near the end.
She sighed and sunk into the chair.
Minutes dragged by, stretched into an uncomfortable eternity.
He nearly dropped the wooden oar he was stirring with when she broke the silence.
“Brutus!” She sneered. “Get your disgusting ass over here.” She waited for him to trudge over to her, arriving simultaneously with two armed and armored men who’d come from behind and stood at attention. Lilith fell into the chair, too exhausted to affect any venom into her words. “Is this stupid scrap ready to go yet?”
“Y-yes, madam. It can be transported after it cools.”
“Piss. That’s going to take hours. Wake me when you have it loaded.” Thirty-hour days had clearly taken their toll on the woman.
There was a jingling that approached as they spoke. A tall, thin man with a grand mustache and black and red blood stains covering his white field uniform came to attention next to Brutus.
“Field reports, mistress.” His loud, nasally voice shook her awake. He waited patiently as his superior let out a loud, exasperated groan that seemed like it would never end. When she finally ran out of breath, he continued. “The containment commander has advised that the infection boundaries have tentatively been mapped to completion. I’ve brought a copy of the document for your inspection. The state coalition estimates a sixty percent containment of the infection, though we have yet to hear from the Gungrave or Rosewood governments as of this morning.”
A long tube of laminate parchment came from somewhere inside his long trench coat, and he offered it to the two men standing behind her. One man came around to hold it up to see. Drawn was a lightly detailed map of the continent of Amica, multicolored lines crisscrossing each other near the east coast. There was a long black streak, basically just a thick, straight line which started from their laboratory headquarters and ended somewhere two hundred miles north.
The scientist pointed to the map while he spoke. “As far as I know, this northern section is completely uncontested. That may change once we hear from the states themselves but I will refrain from speculation at this time. These sections here, and here,” he traced two areas encircled by blue and green, “are under the protection of Triad’s army. To keep the things from spreading Eas-”
He stopped, interrupted by a light snore. Lilith’s head slumped in one hand, propped up on the side of the armchair. One of the guards clapped loudly, and she jumped to her feet.
“Right. Proceed, Trudy.”
Trudy bowed. “As you wish. I’ll cut to the chase ma’am. You’ll notice the unusual area of influence under the infestation’s control. We expect they would spread from a central point in all directions, forming a circle. Yet clearly they’re moving in more or less a straight line, give or take. They move randomly at a micro-level, yet from the map we are able to plot their course almost in a straight line Northeast, to Barley’s Bowl.”
Lilith narrowed her eyes as she inspected the map. “Why does the mark balloon around Barley?” She asked. Indeed, the black streak on the map which was a fat line suddenly blossomed out around the small town to a radius about thrice the average.
“The team sent to investigate discovered that the town had been besieged by the infection some weeks ago. They fought a large scale battle against many infected animals. I suspect the devastation around town is due to the parasite gathering forces, as it were. Reportedly that battle was ended by an experimental weapon which incinerated the creatures, along with half the town.”
“Piss.” She spat.
“The trail comes out again here, about seven miles North. The trail is no more than five miles at the widest, I believe we can safely conclude that they picked up the girls’ scent and abandoned the town.”
“So…she was at Barley’s Bowl then? How long ago?”
“Correct madam. Accounts place the girl in town about a month ago. A few say she left on an airship, although we were paying for the information in a recently destroyed town. Who’s to say the information can be trusted.” He shrugged.
“Stupid.” She plopped back into the chair.
“As you can see,” He continued. She sighed, standing up. “Other states have set up a loose perimeter to keep things contained for now, but there isn’t a lot of pressure from the column to expand. The fact that we haven’t seen the creatures at headquarters is no accident by any means. The southern-most tip moves further North everyday, allowing us to tail them safely.”
Lilith’s eyes widened a bit. “Really?” She tapped her lips in a rhythm, then grimaced. “So we catch her, put her in a box for two months, then vaporize everything in sight?” She laughed mirthlessly. “I have but a few short years to prep for the annihilation of mankind, yet still I must traipse through the woods on this-” The woman’s face grew darker shades of red with every word, death in her gaze as she eyed the weaselly scientist cowering behind the taller one.
“Brutus, remind me to torture you again when this is all over. I couldn’t afford the time to be lavish last time.”