Chapter 52 of Lead Heart is up! One year of chapters!
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?
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.
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.
“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?”