Chapter 74: Seeing Blue

Hello readers,

Please enjoy this chapter of Lead Heart!

_______________________________________

The cold sting of the blade caught her in the gut before she could react. Almost as an afterthought, her body went electric with pain.

DAMN that hurt.

The sword was a weird one. About 30 inches long and slender, it was…blurry. She couldn’t investigate any further before they were on her again. The three…men? Moved as one, each attacking in a blind spot created by another. Each protecting the other, wordlessly, moving in rhythm. Cheaters. She took another slice to the gut and gagged.

“What the f-”

Pain thundered through her tear-streaked face with the fist, and the wall to the driver’s den splintered when she flew into it.

Dammit. Her legs refused to hold her after that. The trio broadcast their moves loud and clear, but she couldn’t move fast enough to do anything about it.

Someone screamed as they flew in again, sinking the sword into the meat of her arm. She realized then that it was her own voice.

Then one of them went flying instead, tumbling end over end from the wrong end of one of Vea’s concussions.

Then it was just one bastard in front of her, the one with the blade. The other two held their own against Vea and the protector, while Carkus and Zimi took to the air.

Then sword-guy came at her again and the rest of the world fell away. The swish of the blade and thrum of the motors swelled louder and louder until it was all she could hear. Instinct and training slowly took over. Slide back, duck left, grab right.

I’m doing it!

Stars exploded as she took a boot to the eye.

No more thinking!

Blue guy snarled and surged in on her, blade whirling. Leliana caught the blow with a sheet of scrap and staggered backward. She heard the clunk of his boot before she registered any movement, denting the boiler with her head when his kick sent her flying.

This was getting real old, real fast.

She caught a glimpse of Vea face-down across the deck. At least she wasn’t the only one getting her ass kicked.

Her assailant stalked slowly over debris, his huffing reminding her of the time that panther chased her through the woods. His malice was overpowering. The cold air stung all over, and she couldn’t catch her breath.

She needed to calm down, focus. She knew she could win. She had to! Should she run? How would she even get away. Rudder, wheel, science junk… The ship’s propellers roared behind her. Where were the damn parachutes! Her mind slipped back and forth, out of control. She needed to block that damn mind-reading or whatever it-

Leliana’s heart skipped a beat. Pink pigtails bounced into view from where she lay on her back.

“You stay away!” Teena threatened, with an absurdly gigantic wrench. “Or I’ll kick your ass, you big ape!” The engineer took a menacing step toward the bemused behemoth. He stood a little taller, then laughed outright.

Su dricka va DAT?

Teena growled.

He shifted his stance subtly, like he was about to –

“AGH!”

Leliana blanked as the sword stabbed all the way through her arm, stopping inches from Teena’s face. That adorable, terrified face. Leliana’s protective grip tightened on the tiny woman. She bit her tongue to keep from crying out as she jerked the sword from its owner.

“Thanks,” she muttered to her brave friend.

She put everything she had into the quiet fury boiling inside of her, willing it at the monster in front of her. The satisfaction when he stepped back a pace was delicious. Now that it was out of his hands, the sword wasn’t blurry anymore either. It was oddly curved and etched up and down the blade, elegantly crafted and perfectly balanced. Not that she cared.

“Let’s try that again.” The void of pain in her left arm was all-consuming. She’d have to fight without it.

Blue guy lunged for his weapon. Leliana crunched her forehead into his face. He went down hard.

She smiled.

Teena bolted back to safety. “Get him! Bite him! Kick his butt!”

Leliana pinged his shaggy head off the boiler with a kick and jammed the sword into the floor before going after him. Didn’t want it over too fast.

The fighter flipped onto his feet and into a 2×4 she pried from the deck. Leliana wrapped a hand around his throat and squeezed.

Something popped.

Leliana yanked him face-first into the lit boiler. The sizzle and screams and terror coming out of the man, after everything he’d put her through, was delicious. She ripped him off the boiler to smash him back into it, over and over until everyone was staring. His teammates started tearing their way through her friends, but they were too far to save him.

A violent calm had overtaken her, absorbing all the panic and anger and confusion around her.

The maelstrom suddenly screaming as Teena kicked up the engines whipped her hair into her eyes, and she knew what to do. She ignored her prey’s feeble attempts at freedom, walking toward the rear of the ship. His panic was addictive, a feeling of power she’d never experienced before.

Jovi’s face frowned from a distant memory, shaming her for the wanton murder.

Who cared? This slag eating, scat sucking son of a pig tried to kill Teena. Chances were good that Jovi would’ve killed him too. Boards thunked as she approached the rotors. These things were steel, right? She wrestled the terrified blue man while he tried clawing his way free. Without her left arm, it was easier to just beat him against a wall until he stopped. Part of her knew she was completely and utterly under the influence of something else. Something sinister. Everything she felt was so foreign. Another part of her didn’t care. Most of her didn’t care. It was time to show these assholes what happened when she got serious.

The two others had closed half the distance and moved with a desperate determination. Vea was finally up, helping prot against one while Carkus and Zimi bit the other bloody and raw. She made sure she caught those wide, purple eyes, holding their gaze as she pushed their friend into the whirling blades of the airship. His cries were sharp, then cut short. The body was yanked out of her hands as the ship bucked and kicked and sent them all sprawling. Then he was gone.

A thought flickered across her mind about whether or not these things might have some world-ending technology on that huge floating castle. Hopefully not. Right?

The two remaining bolted. One covered for the other, who screamed out some nonsense language into a device in his hand. Leliana’s cold, calculating mind went to work as she took a step closer to them.

“GET DOWN!” Teena’s tiny voice pierced the chaos and Leliana hit the deck on instinct.

Iridescent blue light washed over the ship for less than a heartbeat, like looking at a blue sun. When it was gone, so were the blue men.

And so were Zimi and Carkus.

“What was that!” Karina slammed out of a trapdoor to the cargo hold.

Atreides and Vea scanned the skies above and below, their faces falling. “They were taken.” Vea said.

“Do we go after them?” Karina answered.

“I do not know,” Vea started. “Against this unknown foe, they could already be dead. Else, we may die.”

Leliana marched into their midst, holding aloft her mangled arm. “I didn’t survive ten years of Lilith for these bastards to come out here and gut me like a fish.” Not to mention the mind games. “I’m going to knock on that door, then kick it in and kill them all. Who do they even think they are?”

She couldn’t help but notice the distance everyone was keeping between her and themselves.

“I agree,” Atreides said finally. “They’ve stolen away with our friends, and I must follow no matter the consequences.”

“ME TOO!” Teena chimed. “Look how cool that thing looks OHMIGOSH I want a look at the engines!”

Karina sighed.

“Alright Teena,” Leliana laughed. “Let’s go say hello.”

Chapter 73: Preparing for the end

Hello readers –

I’m back from the move, please enjoy chapter 73!

______________________________________-

Leliana’s hair blustered and snapped into her eyes in the icy winds fleeing the floating city. She reflexively swiped the hair, making a mental note to shave later.

Reality brought her back to her senses.

The mountainous ship was so vast it felt like she were already being crushed beneath its weight, even at this range. The sunlight hit it like a sparkling diamond being lowered slowly into an abyss, only that abyss was its own shadow. Night fell on the open fields beneath as it slid silently toward Gungrave. This was… It was them. These were the bastards that had been invading her mind this whole time. There was no mistaking that mental signature. Like sandpaper against her brain.

Despite its mind-boggling proportions, Leliana felt most of them congregated closer to the middle. There was a big, thick field of something weird around the outsides of the ship, but the ones she hated were straight in the center. She wasn’t fully familiar with this new power yet. She didn’t even like it. For now, though, she was content to let it guide her to those bastards that wouldn’t leave her alone. She glared up at them, doing her damnedest to broadcast the thought of her kicking their asses.

Wait, wasn’t she in a fight? Where’d these stupid scientists go? The navy had vanished. After some looking around, she found them half a mile away huddled around a bizarre flagship, smokestacks going wild as they piled all in on the fires. She wanted to laugh in victory, but the laugh died on her lips whien the huge ship’s hull flashed blue and white, colored by the intense beams flashing out from the unknown ship. One of the smaller, wooden airships went up like a candle, its crew all parachuting to the ground.

There’s no way she was telling the truth. She couldn’t have…

If Lilith been right about them, what else had she not been lying about?

Leliana snapped her mouth shut. No point gawking.

“Hey!” She drifted between the unconscious crew, slapping and shaking to get somebody to wake up. At least half the crew sported new bruises before she got one. A scrawny girl with an outfit matching Lilith’s white smock. The woman was defiant for about nine seconds before the screaming light-show to the North sent her into a panic.

“Gods!” She scrambled for the driver’s den.

“Ah-ah,” Leliana snatched her back.

“What are you doing,” The woman demanded, “the Azure Sky has descended! We need to-”

Leliana picked her up roughly, rearing back. To her credit, the woman did not flinch. “No, we don’t. You need to set this piece of junk down. I will be leaving with my friends.”

“Your friends are irrelevant if the world ends.”

“The world’s end is irrelevant if you end first.”

The woman puffed out her chest. For a minute, Leliana thought she might have to follow through on idle threats. Then the woman deflated. “Fine.”

Leliana stalked up and down the spacious driver’s quarters with the scientist at the wheel, marveling at the range of view the ship offered the helmsman through a thick, amber-colored material that was mostly translucent. It felt like glass, but gummy. When they got closer to the ground, she was happy to see her friends still waiting for her. She was not happy to see the monks. “Those scat eating-”

She flew to the floor as the ship ran aground, dust and debris scattering everywhere. Her driver fled without another word.

Leliana knelt on the warm wood, breathing rhythmically to cool her boiling blood. The planks were smooth beneath her fingertips, and she used the texture to ground herself. The the look of horror on her friends’ faces if she ripped the woman in half was the only thing preventing her from doing just that.

Suddenly, two tiny arms were wrapped around her neck. “Leli! You’re okay! I was worried you’d been baked inside that tiny prison Lilith made for you and then dropped a bomb all over you! I’m about ready to go give that woman a piece of my mind. Even I wouldn’t go THAT far what was she-”

A cool, soft hand touched her other shoulder, and Karina smiled down over her still-chattering sister. “Hey you.”

Leliana smiled back. “Hey. I was hoping you two would show up.” Footsteps clunked up the deck toward them and the smile turned into a scowl. “What are they doing here?”

“We’ve come to ensure your safety, per our bargain.” Protector Atreides voiced from behind her.

“Damn your bargain, and damn you.” Leliana whirled, fists raised.

“Girl.” Before she had a chance to get worked up, another voice soothed her ears. “You have much cause for anger. Yet, the enemy for which you were imprisoned lies yon. Will you turn your back on them to spite us?” Vea slid into the narrow doorway, arms crossed.

She’d never realized how cathartic it was to just be pissed off about something, and how infuriating it was to keep having her anger redirected. But Vea was right. These bastards had betrayed her days ago, but those sparkly slag suckers in the sky were the literal bane of her existence. She considered her options.

On one hand, the monks would beat her for sure, but she could punch them. Right in their damn mouths.

On the other hand, did the inhabitants of the Azure Sky even have mouths? Could she break them? If Lilith wasn’t some lying scat-monger, they were probably like her. Could be interesting to fight someone like that. She chewed on a fingernail…

Then blinked. She’d been furious moments ago, now she was wondering about alien physiology? What the scat? Another minute ticked by before she realized the two monks were emitting an ocean of passive tranquility, and she was drowning in it. Gods damn them.

“You two really like this all the time?”

They looked questioningly at each other, but said nothing.

“Whatever. Teena, you have any idea how to take that thing down?”

“Take it DOWN what are you CRAZY that thing is amazing!” Teena said. “Let’s go take it apart or,” gasp “maybe they’ll let me DRIVE IT!” She bounced up the stairs two at a time, a smiling Karina in tow. “Think of how long it would even take to build that thing I bet they were working on it for a hundred years!”

Leliana moved to follow them up, but ran smack into Antros on his way down.

“Hey kid. Good to see ya in one piece.”

“Why the hells are you here?” She asked with a smirk.

Antros laughed. “Every time I turn my back, you try to get yourself killed. Figured I should stick around a few days after that war ended. Yep, there we go. Invasion.”

“That’s not my fault!” She punched him lightly.

“Right, neither was the civilization of slime zombies, huh? So what are you thinking about this one. I go left, you go right?”

She laughed and stared at the massive thing. “Maybe.”

Front this vantage point, she heard city bells from Gungrave. They watched in fascination as black smoke billowed and the city began to reorganize itself using the rail system. The Gungrave navy clustered above the North gate, and the cannons were already hammering a steady rhythm.

She jumped as she realized Carkus and Zimi were staring at her from next to the boiler. Usual attire, as always – naked.

“Hey.” Carkus said.

“H-hey,” she replied.

“Cold out here.”

She shook her head and ran after Teena, interrupting whatever the engineer had been saying. “Hey! You think you can drive this thing and get me on top of that thing?”

“Hell yes I could!” Teena didn’t miss a beat. “This baby’s got some power, it almost picked up my Titanic Teena and it was so cool you should’ve heard the -”

Leliana glanced to Karina a bit guiltily. “That fine?”

Karina’s flushed cheeks turned a shade darker. “Doesn’t really matter, her mind’s made up. Look,” Karina gestured. Teena was working the boiler and staring at the sky with wonder.

“Looks like we’re off to kick some ass, then.” Leliana started back inside, but looked around and changed her mind. “Hey Carkus, you want to help me toss these bastards overboard?” She tossed an unconscious man over the railing for emphasis.

Carkus and Zimi perked up.

“Loser buys the meat?”

“You’re on,” she smiled, then tossed another over.

Chaos reigned for thirty seconds as the three sprinted u and down the deck, grabbing shirts and ankles and whatever else before hurling the poor scientists free of the ship.

“Fifty!” Carkus finally declared.

“There weren’t even fifty to begin with!”

“You must have miscounted.”

They started hashing out terms and logistics of the contest briefly before Leliana caught site of Lilith’s ship in the corner of her eye. What is she doing?

Lilith shot a bright, white jet of light South over the mountains.

Blinking furiously, Leliana opened her eyes in time to witness a thin sliver of darkness stretch slowly out of the floating city, shattering Lilith’s favorite ship to pieces. The tiny figure of Lilith fell, opening a parachute a few moments later.

Damn. Leliana cursed as the science fleet converged to aid their mistress.

The flying city was closing in incredibly fast for something so big. Its shadow nearly brushed Gungrave’s walls. She didn’t know what they had in store, but it was never a good idea to let your enemy reposition uncontested.

“Teena! You ready to go?”

“Aye, captain!”

They shot into the sky without another word, miraculously managing to keep upright as Teena pushed the power to max.

The mood turned somber as they streaked toward certain death. Multicolored beams of light streaked non-stop from the ‘prow’ of the enormous vessel, leaving a wake of fire and destruction as they passed. Leliana set her jaw with determination. We’re coming for you, she found herself thinking at them.

She was suddenly enshrouded in bright blue. Not just her, the entire ship was awash in the blue light. She panicked, trying to figure out what it was doing to her ship. Then then light was gone. In its place towered three humanesque creatures, each a deep blue hue with a thick black mane framing their very hair-free face.

They did, in fact, have mouths.

The three were smiling as they materialized. One look at Leliana wiped the smiles from their faces, and then she was fighting for her life.

Chapter 72: Out of Time

Thunder rumbled in the icy valley of Blind Man’s Pass, vibrating the frigid metal beneath her feet. The sharp crack of another boulder shattering made her wince, and the thunder rumbled anew. Mixed with the howling plague monsters in the periphery, the world sounded like an impending hurricane.

“SCAT!”

Karina’s fingers had confounded all attempts to light this damnable wood for at least ten minutes, and were staging a full-on rebellion against her for their icy working conditions. “Stupid wood light your stupid ass on stupid fire AAAGH!” Her assortment of twigs and yellow grass withstood showers of sparks without so much as a smolder. “Next time you guys can haul your own stupid snow.”

An enormous log splintered somewhere with a gigantic crunch as the Titanic Teena snapped it like a twig. She really did come up with the stupidest names.

“Hey!” She shrieked up at the cockpit from a staging platform just far enough away from the boiler not to benefit from its heat, but far enough above the nearest steam vent that any blasts of gloriously hot vapor clung to her boots as shards of ice.

“Yeah?” Teena popped her head out of the control room.

“Give me some of that stupid gel so I can light these stupid sticks!”

“No!” Teena was shocked. “We need those for go-time!”

“I’m gonna go, alright,” Karina mumbled. She knew how excited her sister got for new toys, but why was it suddenly her responsibility to make it run? What a crock of-

“Karina!”

“AAH!” Bristol must have come up the ladder while she’d been distracted yelling at her sister. “What!?”

“HAHAHA. I got you some more wood, lass! How fares it?”

She thrust the firestarter into his hands in disgust, retreating up to bask beneath the boiler. It was an unfairly short amount of time before Bristol had a merry little blaze smoking her out of the most comfortable spot on the…Titan.

The trio had managed to slink up the steep slope of the pass under the cover of night, even with soldiers shooting flares onto the battlefield just a few steps behind them. They’d sneaked around the slavering horde and retreated into a well-sheltered alcove in the pass. Just a divot in the mountaintop glacier really, but it put several layers of rock and ice between them and the site of the explosion.

Twilight cheered into morning as the sun dawned on the wasteland of boulder corpses from Teena’s long hours of practice. No rock or tree was safe, and she’d scratched offensive words all over the side of the ice wall. Dexterity practice my ass.

Watching the sunrise from the top of a mountain, Karina couldn’t help but feel just the slightest bit rejuvenated. At least until the warships showed up.

Then the deep throated roar of the heavy ships started in a low drone, like a pissed off beehive coming for revenge. It wasn’t long before the specks on the horizon swelled in size, a squadron of five tailing a sixth, gigantic beast of an airship. Eight rows of propellers both above and below, matched by four more in front and back. It had a couple of rows of empty air-sacs down each side, but was definitely meant for the props to provide main power.

Ohhhh…I bet those boilers rooms are the warmest place in the world. She shook the thought away; this was no time to daydream. She held onto the railing as Teena maneuvered the titan into place, nestled further into the small alcove.

The huge ship at the front of the aerial group made a pass and tossed a package overboard that began drifting into the small canyon at the end of a parachute.

Metal hummed as Teena plopped down next to the boiler. “Alright! It’s go time!” She growled.

Karina kept as far back as possible as Bristol and Teena delicately pulled a huge block of the fire jelly. She looked again at the semi-translucent tower of sludge, measuring at least a half meter or so in length, and took another few steps back.

“Alright B, you know the plan?” Teena asked.

“Aye,” he replied. “Close valves, open door, light jelly, chuck it in and slam the door.”

“Right! Ready? Goooo!”

Hinges squealed as the huge steam pipes were locked on both sides of the boiler, and the pressure gauge jerked into the red immediately. Bristol flung the top wide, bathing Karina in that sweet, sweet hot air, just as Teena sparked the accelerant and dropped it with a squeak. The boiler lid smashed back down under Bristol. The needle stayed in the red even after the valves were opened back up.

“Woohoo!” Teena scurried back into the cockpit, Bristol and Karina cramming in after her.

It was time to find out if they’d calculated their distance correctly, or if they were going to boil alive in this titanic coffin.

The world flashed white.

It wasn’t two seconds before the heat and shock waves ripped the ice and snow to pieces. The titan slammed into the cliff behind them hard enough to shatter stone.

Karina’s vision blurred through a stream of unending tears while she tried keeping her eyes peeled, but it was like staring into the sun. By the time she could see again, the titan stood knee-high in a trembling lake. It was miserably hot, but not deathly hot.

“We…we’re alive?”

This bitch,” Teena yelled, “dropped a light atom bomb on top of Leliana? I’m gonna rip her apart!” The Titanic Teena moved with new steam in its step as the giant fireball in the sky slowly stopped glowing. Teena made sure to snag a couple of boulders along the way, lobbing them into the returning airships as they crested the hill. Most of the boulders fell short and wide. One lucky rock landed on the deck of a smaller escort vessel, rolling across it lengthwise and scraping off men and machine before it fell.

The wing split formation, making them harder to target.

The prison holding Leliana captive was much, much smaller than the day before. It was partially submerged in the center of the new bowl-shaped canyon, torrents of new melt boiling away as it came in contact with the red-hot steel. Black and red sludge coated everything in sight.

The huge ship dropped a massive chain and hook through an equally massive bay door beneath it. They were headed straight for the loop jutting from the top of Leliana’s container.

“You wretched bastards!” Teena kicked the titan into motion, sliding dangerously across the goo that had been the plague a few minutes ago. The science crew reached Leliana before the titan, and slipped the hook into the loop with practiced ease.

They flipped the ship in full reverse, looking to put as much distance between themselves and the walking giant as possible.

It didn’t work.

Titanic Teena grappled the glowing shell as it cleared the water. Karina’s ears popped as the pressure increased dramatically. Gears groaned as the two played tug-of-war with the imprisoned girl. “Let GO!” The real Teena growled. She heaved on the controls, pulling the airship off-balance for a moment. The moment was all she needed. The Teena grabbed the propeller nearest to it, mangling both blade and hand in a horrific jumble of sparks and metallic shrieks. Teena didn’t wait for the vessel to recover – she reached out the stub and jammed it into another propeller, robbing the vessel of much needed power. The scales slowly tipped in the titan’s favor, the heavy lifter being dragged slowly closer and closer until-

BOOM

Water shot onto the giant as a cannonball fell short. Karina swung around, noticing the other ships moving to surround them. “Sis!”

“I see it!” The air was thick with hissing steam and the overpowering drone of the airships, making speech difficult. Then another sound started to cut in: the deep groan of bowed wood and snapping beams.

The lifter was forced to release the chain before gutting itself, and the titan flew backward, smashing into the steep slope.

“We got her!” Karina nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Break the shell, lass. No way we’ll make it with that big lolly in our only hand.” Bristol warned.

“You’re right…” Teena jammed a frayed end of the iron ball against the left arm stump, scraping at it until the edges started opening up.

STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING.” The airships moved into position as quickly as possible, but they weren’t fast enough. With a final shriek, the cage holding Leliana was shredded as the outer plate tore free.

Teena lobbed it overhead, onto the ledge behind them. “Woohoo LELIANA!” She called. A diminutive figure rolled out of the capsule and stood, peering around for a moment. Karina had just opened the cockpit door when the figure vanished, a blur of motion headed due South.

“Leliana!”

Karina was blinded suddenly, and a brilliantly reflective airship hovered near enough to make out the fury of the woman inside.

________________________________________________________________________________________

Run.
Run.
RUN.

Leliana’s feet were a blur, like the landscape as she sprinted through the pass. Snowflakes and drops of slush sizzled as they came into contact with her. She could feel the fear and grief radiating from behind her, but she also felt malevolence, hatred and greed. Her mind was all in a fog. After days of intrusions on her mind, she didn’t even know who she was anymore. But she knew one thing.

She had to get away.

Pebbles cascaded beneath her as she ran up a small rock face, throwing herself up and over the edge in the blink of an eye. It wasn’t fast enough. The hatred and greed had caught up with her. A small, reflective ship zipped into view, hovering just above her.

“Lilith…”

Then she was on the ground, shrouded in a familiar bright blue glow. It seemed to add about a thousand pounds.

Then Lilith was there, familiar iron rod in hand and panting heavily. “Do you have any idea how much DEMO SHITE I’ve had to crawl through to get you back!”

Leliana cried as the rod snapped something in her lower back.

“Months of GODS FORSAKEN hunting. And for what?”

CRACK

“Are you listening? They’re on their way, maybe even now, Leliana. Do you care? You think you’re worth more than all of humanity?”

ZZZZZAP

Ah, so it could still do that. Cavernous booms echoed through the canyon in the distance, and the terror from afar began to overpower the hatred emanating from this horrible woman. A familiar terror.

Lilith panted, hands on her knees, glaring at Leliana with a scowl that would kill a lesser man. “You’ll die too, you know? Your father was very specific on the consequences for mixed breeds among his people.”

An overwhelming need to fight washed over Leliana at the mention of her father, though she had no idea where it was coming from. She was suddenly full of rage, and determined to make those who’d wronged her pay dearly for it.

She looked at Lilith, who took a step back.

“You do understand.” It was a statement, not a question. “I was unsure if you’d retain your human intellect once the inhibitor broke. So you do understand? They’re coming, girl, come back with me. This is your purpose. This is what you were created for.”

Something inside Leliana snapped.

She remembered the decade of prison, and beatings, and shame. And the feeling of freedom, ever since she’d escaped. The feeling of being her own boss, the wind in her hair from the deck of the…

Suddenly, the terror permeating the world around her sharpened into focus. She remembered that fear. It had stared at her, wide-eyed, after waking from a nightmare. On the Nightmare.

A single tear slammed into the dirt. “They came for me.”

“What?” Lilith snapped.

Leliana slowly rose, shuffling to her knees, then to her feet. The next swing of the rod never landed, Leliana’s white knuckled grasp pulling it free easily. “I’ve found a new family, mother.” Her voice felt raspy. “I can’t abandon them. They are who I will be protecting when your mysterious enemy shows its face. Not you.”

“You dare -”

The iron rod creaked as it bent in half, and she took aim at the other woman. Lilith stopped talking and took slow, measured steps back toward her ship. Leliana reveled in the cold breeze through her hair.

“This time, you run. I chase.”

Leliana drank the woman’s fear like a fine wine, waiting until Lilith had boarded the aircraft before putting the iron rod through the windshield. Lilith screamed in surprise.

The blue beam dimmed, then extinguished.

Leliana smiled.

The ground blurred as she bolted after Lilith back toward the battle. She ran up a shallow side of the mountain, trusting her speed to keep her aloft. The path led her up and around a sharp left, giving her a swipe at Lilith as she leapt and nearly caught the rear of the ship. The game lasted almost a full minute before Teena’s…whatever it was came back into view. They’d gained the top of the hill and out of the water, but the science crews were still drifting listlessly a dozen meters or so overhead, getting into new positions to take shots at the giant metal man.

The annoyed indifference drifting out of the ship crews who were trying to bomb her terrified little friend bit deep. Teena was in no position to sling projectiles at the ships now that they were focused directly on her. She knew it, the crews manning the ships knew it, Leliana knew it. But it still pissed her off that they didn’t care. With a scowl at her former master, Leliana broke pursuit and diverted to her friends. Her family. She arrived just in time to catch an exploding barrel in midair, returning it to sender.

BOOM

“Leli you came back omiGOSH I KNEW YOU WOULD!” Teena practically gushed out of a battered ball close to top of the construct, screaming her excitement to the world.

Leliana’s smile relaxed as Teena’s fear clicked instantly to excitement.

“Can you get me up there?” She yelled back, pointing to the ships.

“YOU GOT IT SISTER!” Teena disappeared, and the giant bent to scoop Leliana into its remaining hand. She was crushed to the bottom as gravity took over, pinned as the hand slung her upward at nauseating speeds.

Then the fist opened, and she jumped. She was airborne.

Leliana rocketed into the sky.

The nearest ship rushed to meet her, and she flipped easily over the edge and onto the deck. There was a moment of silence as the sailors lazily carrying out their tasks realized what had just happened.

Then all hell broke loose.

Men and women scrambled every which way – retreating into the main cabin or falling back behind crates of weapons for cover. Leliana’s body was electric as the nonchalance energized into a collective panic and bombarded her from three hundred and sixty degrees. She bounced into a burly woman coming out of the cabin with a shotgun, sending her and at least two others hurtling into the far wall. A man with a syringe was next, and she pumped him full of whatever he’d wanted to hit her with. She frolicked across the deck leaving pain and defeat in her wake until the entire crew had been immobilized.

She took a deep breath. She knew, in her mind, that she should kill them all. Maybe throw pieces of them at their colleagues for horror and humor. Yet somehow, she was content to leave them disabled… For now. Weird.

Then there was an explosion, and a cannonball whooshed over the top deck nearby. Psh, she scoffed. If they couldn’t hit her at this range, what were they even doing…

Oh.

Every single man and woman, on every ship, no longer paid her any heed. Their frenzied panic tapered off.

She was hit with a wave of cold dread in its place.

“What the hells are you doing?” She called at the nearest sailor. He just looked at her, grim, then pointed North. Her gaze followed.

The biggest, most beautiful city she’d ever seen – in person or on paper – loomed over the plains, nearly a mile in the air. There must have been thousands of shimmering buildings clustered on top of one another, the entire complex pulsing in sync. It felt almost alive. It was encased entirely in glass, or something similar, and created an artificial night for the people of the plains below.

“What. The.”

_____________________________________________

Watching the same scene unfold, Lilith was having similar thoughts.

“FUCK!”

 

________________________________________________________________________________________

Hello dear readers

I am moving next week and have a ton of packing to get done, so please enjoy this extended chapter in lieu of next week’s. There are just a few chapters left to dive through in the story! Please let me know your questions while I’m out moving and I’ll be happy to work them into the ending wherever I possibly can,

Chapter 71: Let’s get out of here

“STOP”

Bristol scooted Teena behind him for some weak measure of protection, heavy drags of sulfur tainting the air as he tried to catch his breath. Twenty-two rifles threatened them from the only exit to the small alleyway. Steel plates thrummed beneath his feet as the city itself continued its autonomous chores.

He smiled, the exasperated cursing coming their way telling him exactly who’d saved them. Temporarily.

“You sniveling, stupid, asinine…IDIOTS.” Tao’s clean demeanor had apparently blasted away with most of her hair, leaving a smoking ruin where her hat once sat. “You have to be the stupidest…I…you…AHH!” She him in the shoulder. “To think I almost asked the Overseer for leniency on your behalf! Did you really even fix the southern battery?”

“Well-” Bristol began.

“SHUT UP!” Tao stalked close enough for the soot on her head to tickle his nose. “You’re nothing but scat-faced little twats who think they can talk down to me without consequence. ME! You’ve made your last mistake.” She turned on a heel and stomped between her waiting men.

“Sir,” The lead man shouldered his rifle, “should we just…”

“At ease, captain,” Tao growled, loud enough to be heard. “Someone needs to take the fall for all this shite and they need to be alive to be sentenced.” She flicked her eyes back to Bristol and Teena before stalking away. “Return them to the Overseer, waste of my gods damned time I swear.”

Palpable silence settled over the two sides. At this rate, they were doomed. Bristol’s gaze shifted to the low walls surrounding them, more bundle-of-hardware spewing haphazardly across the street at industrial levels than walls really.

“Teena!” He scooped up the small engineer, eliciting a cry of alarm and no small reaction from the armed onlookers. “Chief Engineer Tao is absolutely right, you know.”

“No talking!” He was ordered. “Put the girl down, hands on your heads.” Teena dutifully grasped her pigtails.

“Aye gents, when you’re right o’ course you’re right.”

“They are?” Teena cocked her head.

He stepped behind her, grabbing both shoulders to move her forward a few steps. “O’ course! Methinks you owe these men an apology, lass.”

“I do?” Teena looked back and forth. She was confused and a little hurt, if he were to guess.

“I…I’m sorRYYYYYYYYYY!” Teena’s apology pitched into unintelligible garble as she was flung up and over the 10-foot fixture behind them.

The men at arms charged, stopping suddenly as Bristol stepped forward. “AH HA HA. I gotchya lads, you should see your faces right now. C’mon, c’mon, let’s get going – can’t keep the Overseer himself, can we?”

“You stupid jerk!” Teena faded into the distance with a curse. Bristol accepted the heavy steel handcuffs with a smile.

A scant mile away, squinting into the fading sunset, a redheaded woman lay still next to a 5 gallon bucket. Her hair was plastered to the cold, silvery foot of the metal giant she was trying to nap on. I’m gonna kill her, she promised herself. I’m gonna wait, and when she shows up-

Luckily the water source had only been a scant mile away, so she’d only had to run forty miles to get this stupid thing filled up.

“Dammit Teena you’d better feed me wine and bacon the next time we’re someplace sane.”

Gun shots in the distance, to the South.

“That better not be…” She started, before remembering who she was related to. Then sighed. “Thank the gods I found the ladder.”

Karina started the long trek to the cockpit nearly twenty meters up, using the oblong rungs she’d found inset into the shin of the metallic monster. She’d made it a few steps when her sister materialized out of the darkness at a dead sprint.

“Kariiiinnaaa!”

Karina sighed again. “I knew it. What did you goofs do this-”

“Less talking more climbing, go go go!” Teena scurried up the ladder, brushing her sister aside when she blew passed.

“Wha-! What’s the hurry?”

To punctuate her sisters’ point, a troop of military police whipped around the same corner, taking potshots that pelted the surface of the giant. Karina’s muscles screamed in protest as she took the rest of the ladder two rungs two at a time, hauling herself over the platform as bullets continued to ping off the metallic shell. Teena was already in the center of the disaster zone that used to be her toolbox. The shrill screech of metal-on-metal set Karina’s head ringing as Teena hurled handfuls of wrenches aside until she found what she was looking for.

“SIS! You still have the firebombs you bought? What about the rope?” Teena made demands and wildly hacked at a section of the giant with a diamond chisel. The thrum of the ladder told her their pursuers weren’t far behind.

“Yes…” Karina emptied her pockets. “What’s this about? Why are they after us again?”

“No time for that!” A growing handful of soft white flakes filled Teena’s hand, still sawing at the metal. “Wrap the bomb in that gel stuff you bought – BE CAREFUL! Don’t pull the pin!”

Karina gingerly pulled and molded the thick gel around the grenade. It was cold and a little squishy, she couldn’t tell if it amused or disgusted her.

“Good!”

Teena sniped the bomb and smashed the metal flakes all around the outside. She pulled the small metal sphere from the cockpit, and from it, a translucent, green stone. Karina could feel the heat radiating from it at once. Teena yanked the pin from the grenade and hurled both items into the water reservoir just as the men reached the bottom of the platform. The lid rang like a church bell when it slammed shut until Teena spun the lock into place.

BOOM

“Look out!” Teena cried.

Karina dove, lashing out with a kick as the first man gained purchase on the ledge. He stumbled back, tipping over the edge. A knife appeared in each hand, and the second man to grab the ledge lost a finger.

That slowed their approach.

“Stall those guys!” Teena called over her shoulder, hurtling into the cockpit.

“For how long?!”

“I don’t KNOW!”

Scat.

Karina played a game of musical fingers with the next one trying to gain ground on her, severing the web between his thumb and his forefinger just as a long barrel snuck around behind her and took a shot. It missed, but left a good sized dent in the water reservoir. “Oh no you don’t!” Karina yanked on the gun, unbalancing the man and gaining a weapon. If these steam pipes were pierced before they left town, she had a pretty good hunch that they’d all be doomed.

Suddenly the metal giant whirred and hissed to life, the grinding gears and spinning belts giving the climbers pause. The entire thing started vibrating concerningly beneath her feet.

“Uhhh…Teena?”

Then the whole world swung to the right, leaving her stomach behind, as the giant lurched sickeningly and dislodged no small number of attackers.

BOOM

The platform tipped forward until its violent stop, tools, rifle and Karina all skittering unsteadily to the edge.

“AH hahahahaha!” The mad scientist in the cockpit was delighted.

The monster lurched left this time, the wind blowing the hair from her eyes so Karina could watch an entire building pass by in a single footstep.

BOOM

At least she was already laying down this time.

Karina encouraged the few men hanging onto the leg to let go, raining a few of her last knives onto them. Once they were clear, she stumbled into the cramped cockpit where her sister was wrapped head to toe in wires and straps. She was squinting through the wide window at the front. “Quick! Chuck a flare out so I can see! We have to find Bristol before they get him locked up!”

Karina rummaged until she found what she was looking for, tossing a bright-white flare to illuminate the streets.

Teena stomped through Gungrave, kicking military vehicles aside like toys. Flocks of civilians returning home from a late night and the armed forces on the ground alike trembled before her very step. The tings and zings pinging off the armored shell gave clear indication that they were still very much under fire.

Karina retreated into the sheltered cockpit, passenger compartments apparently never having been a priority.

“THIS IS AMAZING!” Teena was manic with excitement while she stomped through the city.

Karina was happy for her sister… She really was.

But.

She always harbored just a tiny wish in the back of her mind that her sister’s hobbies were a little bit safer. “Yeah it’s…It’s really something.” She coughed. The burning lubricant and smothering heat of the boiler were stifling.

“Another flare!”

Twisting metal and tiny screams marked the giant’s rampage until Karina eventually spotted the lone figure standing amid the chaos, hands cuffed behind him. “There he is,” she reported, “stop the…thing, I’ll be right back.”

She didn’t wait for confirmation. Karina slid down the ladder all the way to the ground, tucking into a roll at the bottom and coming up behind Bristol.

“Hurry lass,” Bristol cautioned, they ran for explosives and airships. We’ve got to get out of here.”

She’d sprung the lock before he’d even finished. “I know I know, hurry up!”

Sparing his freed wrists a puzzled glance, he followed her up the leg and jammed into the cockpit.

“He says they’re bringing the birds, better hurry up out of here.” Karina struggled to breathe with all three of them crammed into the small space, but it was better than being shot at.

“Aye, straight ahead then, right through yon South gate,” Bristol pointed.

“Woooo Hooooooo!”

The war machine stomped through Gungrave’s street-level defenses like an angry child, finding the South gate already open and waiting.

“Looks like they’re finally learning,” Teena said.

The giant pounded out of town and into the waiting darkness, enveloping them like a shroud.

Chapter 70: Working and Waiting

“HO TEENA!” Bristol’s merry salute stayed all hands in the busy street, and at least fifty engineers stopped what they were doing to stare. The street was rank with crude oil and body odor – the perfumes of her profession.

“H-hey guys,” Teena waved weakly. Having that many eyes of her peers boring into her was unnerving to say the least. Many of them wore the ridiculous utili-cloaks that the Gungrave technical community seemed to fancy so much, burdened with pockets and pouches in the traditional gold and red. Even more wore more than 1 tool belt, brimming with anything from everyday screwdrivers to nearly-obsolete butterfly clasps. There were even a few…apprentices? Lackeys? Toting around carts of tools.

While she hesitated at the entrance, she was approached by a well-muscled woman with her hair hidden beneath a tight cap and the most casual attire of the whole group.

“Chief Engineer Tao it’s great to see you again! I was just attaching some belts and chains that seem to have slipped out of place before you handed over the keys to my new toy so I’m really busy but these GUYS wouldn’t stop shouting so I came to see what all the hubbub was about. So what’s the hub, bub?”

“The hub is that your instructions are nonsense and my patience has depleted,” Tao replied coolly. “I told that nitwit you were just buying time, and your friend has been worse than useless.”

“Hey!” Boomed Bristol, hand over his heart. She just glared back. Then crossed her arms, looking back to Teena.

“Mortimus demands a working array by nightfall, so get moving.”

“Okay, okay. I thought you guys could handle it!”

Bristol fell in step as Teena sighed and made her way to the end of the street.

The afternoon slogged by while she and Bristol inspected each gun thoroughly, looking for indicators the others had followed directions exactly. That’s what she told Tao at least, and the military police dogging her every step. They ran through many, many spare parts, half a dozen apprentices, and no small number of curses to the gods above between the two, and it was nearly dusk by the time the last cannon was flagged and approved.

Teena flopped onto the ground, sweaty as a pig and twice as greasy. “Finally!” She sighed. She rapped the big pipe wrench nervously.

Bristol sat gently nearby with a knowing smile. “It’s a right test to do the right thing sometimes, lass. Especially with so many lives on the line.”

They both jumped to their feet as Tao rounded the corner and clucked her tongue. “It’s almost an insult that someone like you bested my work,” she sneered. “Have you finished then, or will this be break thirty seven?”

“WHAT!? I didn’t take no damn thirty breaks you slovenly hag for a-”

“AYE! Ready and waiting to shoot some beasties!”

“Show me.”

Teena punched the protected command panel next to her defiantly. The resulting explosion deafened everyone.

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Tao demanded.

“You said-”

“Ever heard of ear protection?” She replied, flipping a padded headband from a pocket.

“Ha!” Teena scoffed. “What for? My ears protect me with a constant ringing.” She giggled again at Tao’s frustrated sigh as the woman rubbed her brows, breathing slowly.

“That- no, it doesn’t matter. Excellent.Everything is in order, I’d thank you but it was your fault anyway. Take them.” Tao waved and the military police advanced.

“Ahem,” Teena said.

“You’ll get my prototype over my dead body, you little rat. You hear me? You’re going into the deepest hole I can throw you in.”

Bristol jumped as Teena smacked him with her big wrench, but something in her eye caught his attention. “Karima was right, you were two-timing me the entire time!”

She found herself staring down the barrel of a rifle and threw her hands in the air. “Alright, alright, don’t be a JERK about it.” She bent low as the man backed off.

“As you were!” He bellowed. More rifles.

“This wrench is heavy,” she complained, “I’m just gonna put it on the-”

Before she finished, Bristol pulled a flare gun and angled it at the ground, pulling the trigger in one smooth motion. The projectile ricocheted once before plowing into the group with concussive force and two pulses of bright blue light. Gunfire lit the dark night like lightning as Teena finished prying open the bay door underneath her and disappeared.

Moments later, an artillery shell popped out into Bristol’s waiting arms. “HA HA!” He whirled once before whipping the projectile into the crowd and dove aside.

BOOM

The fire charge gouged a two-meter crater in the side of a command node,tossing armed men and engineers alike into a superheated cloud of steam. The explosive round tore into the actual cannon behind them, erupting with a brilliant flash of white and blue flames.

BOOM BOOM

Teena and Bristol bolted down an alley, twisting and turning randomly in a wild flight through enemy territory. The explosions called enemy soldiers swarming into the area and they were constantly ducking or doubling back to escape the hail of bullets.

Teena’s blood ran cold as their flight ended at a dead end.

“I…I can’t…” She huffed, dizzy from the run.

“Aye lass.” Bristol acknowledged.

They turned in unison, smiling in spite of the armed men bringing arms to bear.
_________________________________________________________
The twisted darkness had morphed an eternity ago into an unending blanket of howling, shrieking monsters. Leliana had lost even the meaning of time in this tortured abyss. If she promised to stay in the cell, maybe they’d take mercy and throw her to the fiends.

She clenched one hand to stop the twitching. Her hands were beginning to fight her commands, grasping the bars or balling into fists independently. I’ll kick my own ass if I have to she threatened herself. She bunched both hands into fists and bore down on a breath.

Then her eyes began to twitch.

“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”

The feeling of impending action assaulted her at all times now, devouring her mind until she was nothing but the wait.

Chapter 69: Preparations and Boredom

Hello readers,

Please enjoy the newest chapter of Lead heart

_________________________________________________________

“Wrench?”

“Wrench.”

“Caliper?”

“Caliper.”

“Peen?”

“What!?” Karina pivoted away from her sister.

“It’s a hammer!” Teena yelled, and heaved out of the tangled wires she’d been swimming in for two hours.

“Then just say hammer!”

“But I need the roundy one!” The engineer huffed and scattered borrowed tools all across the steel platform. A wayward set of pliers skidded between Karina’s legs, and she made the mistake of watching it plummet to the city streets some thirty meters below. Her stomach rebelled as her vision blurred and twisted in repulsion to the great height.

She doubled over, head between her knees, until the vertigo took pity enough to let go. The stench of rot and gunpowder from three days of war outside the walls did nothing to quell her vindictive stomach. She hadn’t even recovered before her sister was already beating on whatever it was that needed to be peened.

“You’ve been fidgeting for two days already, is this thing almost done?” She tugged at the knives in her sleeves nervously, scanning the crowds for soldiers.

“It’s not my fault, you can’t rush perfection!” Teena replied.

“We don’t need perfection,” Karina said. “We need survival.”

Teena scoffed.

“You worry too much. My plans are foolproof! What could go wrong?”

Karina looked around worriedly as thunder crashed ominously in the distance.

“Besides it’s basically done I just-”

“HO THERE.” An amplified hail from street level cut her off.

“Scat, it’s the damned cloaked ones.” Karina hit the floor to avoid being spotted, but her efforts were futile. Teena peeked unflinchingly over the edge.

WHAT!?”

“YOUR PRESENCE IS REQUIRED. COME DOWN IMMEDIATELY.”

“WAIT!” Teena waved away their reply held out a hand to Karina. “You got that thing I asked for?”

Karina blinked, her mind struggling to change direction. “What? Oh, yeah that stupid rock?” She fished a lead ball out of a pouch. The thing weighed a ton for its size, just a few centimeters across, and it was scalding to the touch.

“I… probably shouldn’t have let you keep this on your person for so long… I hope the casing is good.” Teena stroked her lip as she muttered a terrifying string of words. “Oh well, you’re probably fine!” She disappeared into the innards of their new ride, tinkering away and ignoring the increasingly frantic uniforms below.

Karina sighed. “You’re going to be the death of me.” She took ten minutes to spy out the targets she’d been monitoring the past few days; the shiny ship on top of the hotel, the monks outside the wall, the increasingly fortified Gungrave military in the field. Teena had disabled the South wall cannons, but they’d be fixed soon enough. Once the Overseer had his weapons back in order, she had no idea what would stop him from taking them into custody. She’d been trying to convince Teena to sabotage the cannons again, but she kept saying it “wouldn’t be fair” to be paid for something and not deliver. The belligerent agents below told Karina that their time may be running out.

“Ta-da!” Teena bounced out with a flourish. “Just gotta fill the reservoir and she’ll be good to enough for a test.”

“Really?” Karina narrowed her eyes. “How much does the reservoir hold?” She asked.

HEY!” Her sister screeched over the edge.

“GET DOWN HERE!” Came the reply.

“I NEED A HUNDRED GALLONS OF WATER!” She called back. There was audible frustration from the men on the ground.

“I ORDER YOU COME WITH ME IMMEDIATELY.”

There was a finality to his voice that made Teena sigh. “I guess they figured out my instructions were circular after all,” she giggled. Then pointed behind Karina, East, the closest side to the steep mountains. “Need you to find me one hundred gallons of water for this bad boy, K,” she said with a straight face. “The ditch for the industrial district runs under the wall over there, but it’s gotta come out somewhere right?”

“What-?!” Karina grabbed her sister before she could scurry down the mechanical guts of the huge mechanical man. “How in the hells do you expect me to get that much water!?” She demanded.

“Just use a bucket silly. Or the toolbox, it should be five or ten gallons easy. The intake is that big hole on top of the cockpit okay?”

“Not okay!” But her sister was gone, scampering down pipes and wires like a rat. “AAAAAH!”
____________________________________________
Drip. Drip. Drip.

Leliana’s mind drooled. How long had it been? An hour? A day? Fifty years? The darkness was an eternal, unending purveyor of…nothing. Her fingers twitched at the idea of lighting a wick again, but if the darkness was oppressive, the claustrophobia of the tiny space around her was maddening. The constant drip of blood pooling below her was enough of a reminder of that, at least.

Getting some light meant she’d have to see the condition her knuckles were in, too.

Hard pass, she thought to herself.

The void she called home was definitely insulated. Every time the blood stopped falling, she was drowning in silence – the waste and exhaust pipes beneath her providing the only inlet for the faint sounds of the murderous monsters rampaging outside. There was no way out down there either. She’d tried. Even with her new strength, she was no match for whatever the hell these bars were made-

“AGH!” Pain lanced through her right eye. Not again. She smashed one hand over the eye, pushing as hard as she dared. The pressure alleviated the pain a bit, but not much. Worse was the uncontrollable rage that washed over her every fiber. Incredulity, betrayal, blind hatred – morphing the stupor of boredom into something feral she couldn’t begin to understand. The clang and crunch of bone hitting steel was the only sound as she lashed out at the prison under a new wave of adrenaline that she couldn’t control. “Get out of my head!” She growled.

As fast as it appeared, the feeling vanished, taking with it the surge of energy. Leliana collapsed into a heap, gasping for air and nursing her poor knuckles. The fits were getting closer together, leaving her more drained every time. Her body felt heavier than when she’d been caught in that stupid light Lilith hit her with in town. Hells, maybe that’s what was happening.

“Damn it.”

A tear, or blood, trickled unheeded down her left cheek. She was too empty to be furious, but she noted it anyway – something to fuel her anger.

Later.

After a nap.

Chapter 68: Locked Away

Leliana’s vision swam dizzyingly, and her stomach flipped upside down in protest. Still, she couldn’t tear her eyes from the distant scene of the hovering airships descending into the mountain pass up the steep slope.

The first vessel down was one she was familiar with, Adolade, though she’d never seen it in action. She’d been required in her cell anytime something exciting happened back in that place. She watched in irritable fascination as the ship’s propellers revved, audible even from this far away. The deep throated roar of the engines screamed at the influx of creatures, blowing all but the sturdiest tumbling end over end. It probably ate through fuel like crazy, she guessed, but it was a damn fine monster sweeper.

The second-through-fifth airships swooped in under the blistering winds of the Adolade to deliver their payload – another prison, just for her. “Oh good,” she seethed, “it’s like getting all tucked in at home by my best friends.” She didn’t miss the guilty looks from the monks, but she didn’t care. If she’d been let out of the cage right now, she’d kick all their asses before leaving this dump to its doom.

They were apparently all Leliana’d out after the hate she’d been spewing all afternoon, as none of them breathed a word back.

“Brothers,” Atreides called to his people, “you all remember your places? Good. Let us go.”

Leliana gripped the bag she’d been provided with white-knuckled fury. More to keep her from reaching out to strangle one of them than anything else. The thick leather straps felt good as they dug into her palm, and she breathed deeply as the steel box was hefted. Most of the brothers moved in a V-formation in front of her, wrestling with the howling ocean of oozing beasts clamoring for a piece of her. Maybe if I rip out that one’s throat, the rest will be distracted and ripped into the little pieces of-

Deep breath. In. Out.
Ugh. She’d felt weird ever since before she’d been drugged, and the leftover grogginess wasn’t helping. She wanted some good ol’ fashioned destructive fantasies to play their deaths out in her head like she used to, and some asshole part of her kept jumping in the way with this peaceful slag. She turned her attention to the contents of the sack she’d been given. Might as well figure out what she had while she could, didn’t look like that shell was going to give her much light to read by. A ton of tinned food containers, some skins, probably water, and a sealed pouch full of oiled wicks made up the bulk of the space. She also had a firestarter, a sealed note, A History of Amica and the fall of the Mulica Empire? “Wow can’t wait to dig into this,” she scoffed.

She looked up. That egg-shaped dome loomed in the distance, pulling her ever closer. She hated the way it made her heart race. The snap and snarl of the bewildering horde outside the kennel she called home now swirled around her like a monstrous blanket. The air was so thick with the things that she almost couldn’t even see the sky anymore. She might’ve been impressed by the way the fighters struck the monsters aside, blow for blow, if she didn’t wish for them to get ripped apart so she could see them dead before she died herself.

Sigh. Stupid Lilith. Stupid Brutus. Stupid monks. She’d been so stupid.

She recoiled as a slimy black snout slithered into the cage and nearly took her head off. She wrapped a fist around its disgusting neck and felt briefly satisfied as she separated its head from its body. “Hey, hey!” She cried. “If you’re damning me to a life of prison, can you make sure I’m alive at least!?”

“I am sorry, girl.” Vea gasped. She ripped the arm from what was likely a gorilla once, ramming it into the throat of a lunging crocodilian.

Psh. No she wasn’t. Leliana scraped the gooey ichor off on a bar held by one of the war brothers, catching sight once again of the weird blue tinge her hand had taken on. What the hells did they do to me.

She felt powerful, at least. The sky was more radiant than she remembered, when she caught a glimpse of it. But more, she…felt something. Some murmur of consciousness below the roar of the pitched battle around her. She wanted time to figure out what the hells was going on. “I guess a week of detention will give me time to think,” she laughed bitterly. And all too quickly they arrived.

The egg-shape was harder to see up close; The outer shell was a gigantic circular dome, welded into a single solid sheet of what was probably steel. The cage was gently set onto a wheeled dolly left inside the outer-most blast door upon a set of tracks.

“Leliana, listen,” the Speaker began, rolling the cart deeper into the darkness.

“Choke on it you scat faced whore for a mother.” She growled. A blast of pain lit up inside her head and blurred her vision. She lashed out to hit him, hit anything. When she could see again, she found her fist imprint set into a bent steel bar. Had she always been that strong? They passed through the outer shell into a the next layer, a reddish geometric affair with long and short spikes studded everywhere. The doorway was at least as thick as a few fingers from what she could tell.

Who cares. There was no way she was going to rip enough of the metal out to escape, even if she did feel powerful. More powerful than she’d ever felt, in fact.

The layer inside the spiked metal was a solid concrete box. It was too dark to see how thick it was, but the cries of the monsters outside were hushed to a whisper inside. Guess I’ll just hope they’ve added air holes?

“Right,” the Speaker shrugged. “Fare thee well, lass. I am sorry it had come to this and, fear not, we will not leave until we see you safely do the same.”

“Better hope I don’t see you first.”

The last layer of the cage was a crisscrossed mash of some sort of metal, steel presumably. There was a thicker, softer layer of padding on the inside that she couldn’t make out, but it was damned dark. And quiet. Her heart hammered in time with each door that closed behind the speaker on his way out until the last door slammed shut with a resounding BOOM.

Then she was alone.
____________________________
Little more than a mile away, two eyes glared as the monks retreated from the mountaintop, closing only long enough to drain the glass of wine in her hand. “Let me be absolutely clear, Gregory,” she scowled and turned on the war room. The usual facade of smooth seductress broken by the twitch of an eye and wavering voice. “If you make a single. Solitary. Move. That undermines my position here-”

“Wait just a damned minute!”

“-And I will end this pathetic quagmire of a polluted hellhole you call home.” She finished. “Your people, vaporized. Your legacy melted and burned to ash. Your precious domains.” She closed her eyes, breathing deeply to regain some semblance of control. Control that snapped into rage the moment the Overseer of Gungrave opened his idiot mouth.

“I’ll damned well do as I see fit to keep myself alive you arrogant b-”

“Don’t you dare shite my bed you little prick,” she snapped. “Not today. The bomb drops in four days, after which we may depart from each others’ lives. You’re free to mess yourself all you like, after that.”

The Overseer looked to his advisors and guards, none of whom so much as twitched. “Fine.” He finally agreed. “You’d better not…Four days? A bomb!?

“Four days! My heavy lifter is standing by. Once the initial fireball dissipates the creatures will be disintegrated and I will be on my way with my weapon.”

“Overseer Mortimus,” his civil defense engineer cleared his throat nervously.

“Maintain the plan,” he stated. “This changes the time, not the plan. Push everything three days. Tell IC their pet project is mine now, give it to the girl whether she does as promised or not, I don’t care. Two birds with one stone and all that.”

Alone in the dark, inhaling the dank air of the ventilation duct over the meeting, a hidden pair of eyes narrowed.

Chapter 67: Hand her over

If the battlefield noticed Leliana’s fall, it did not show it. Wave after wave of gooey monstrosity crashed against the city’s defenders and Ilth es Trada talents holding their own in the field. A disturbance in the pass stymied the flow of plague, though it was unclear as to the cause. The Gungrave gates opened in the distance with a BOOM as a convoy of vehicles powered through full-steam.

Chaos swirled around Vea as slumped under the girl’s immense weight.

How does this girl make sense? Then she shook it off. This was neither the time nor the place to ponder frivolities.

The Gungrave frontline split as she landed, most shooting into the flood of diseased animals coming from the pass with about a third flipping about-face to defend, should Vea try anything. She did not blame them. She had a bad feeling about the convoy headed this way though, and hastened to the safety of her own people.

“Thank you, Vea.” The Protector commended. Many assembled war brothers glanced uneasily at the girl in her arms whom some knew had just recently been their guest. It did not sit well with them, she knew, to betray a friend who’d given over her trust.

“You are welcome. I do not think it wise to hand the girl over to Lilith Freely, Protector.” A lot of heads nodded around her.

“I know ‘em better’n most, prot.” Bristol said. “Be better on the lass to feed her to the things and just get it over with.”

Atreides was interrupted as the fight reached their small group again, everyone breaking formation to dish death to the monsters in their own way. Vea and Atreides fled the scene with the girl, unconscious but still stirring. They were a quarter-mile from the front when the convoy pulled alongside them, one massive tank in the lead surrounded by half a dozen smaller vehicles. Vea backed behind the Protector and was joined by a huffing Bristol and Speaker.

The tank was painted Gungrave gold and red, roaring with power as its treads ate up the open ground. There was a blast of steam, and a solid steel door clanged open. The Overseer climbed out, planting himself to the side as Lilith slid to the ground after him. “Ho criminals!” He called. The monks clustered as they approached, Lilith’s two hulks in tow. A reinforced steel cage no bigger than 1 meter cubed bounced out after them.

“Excellent work all, hand her over and we’ll spring the trap on this disaster.” Lilith reached for the girl as Vea stepped back.

“No.”

“What do you mean NO!” She looked nervously as the creatures swelled ever closer even now. “We need to get this circus under wraps girlie, or we’re all dead. Understand?” She stepped forward again.

“Yes,” Atreides intervened. “We understand, which is why we have subdued the girl. Tell us how to stop them and we will be happy to execute your plan.”

“Now you wait just a damned minute!” A tiny voice called over the fray. “What’s going on here?! You better not be handing Leliana over to that witch after all we’ve done for you!” Teena stomped into the middle of them all with her hands on her hips. A harassed looking Karina stumbled in behind her sister, battered and bruised and gripping a bloody pair of knives.

“Stay out of this you tiny freak,” Lilith growled and turned back to the monks. “A very sophisticated, very destructive superweapon is on its way from my headquarters and will be here in less than a week.”

“A week!” Teena cut her off. “That ship is fast as hell!”

Lilith growled. “Yes. It is. It is also mine, and there’s only one. I NEED her to corral these bastards away from the city so I don’t have to bomb it into dust so give me the damn child before I kill you all!” Spittle splattered out as she ascended into screaming.

“Don’t even think about it.” A new voice growled behind Bristol. Antros sidled around the big man, shouldering a shotgun at nobody in particular. “Just what the hell is going on here.”

Overseer Mortimus snapped, and a score of barrels swiveled on the backs of the vehicles. “This is ridiculous, hand over the girl so we may end this farce.”

Antros whistled a single, piercing note. It was returned immediately, and the Drifters materialized at his back a moment later – locked and loaded.

Mortimus spat. “Who the hells is this one?!”

“I do not think it needs to be said, but this cage will not keep the girl safe from those monsters.” Vea moved forward. Leliana was moving a lot more now, and Vea wasn’t looking forward to still be holding the girl when she awoke.

Lilith scoffed. “The cage isn’t to protect her, it’s to keep her. My team is assembling the breech shell as we speak, it’ll be done by dusk,” she spat. “That is a very special girl you’re holding, and she has a very special role to play. I don’t get that girl, we all die.”

She let the threat hang in the air.

Special? Thought Vea. “Is that why she is so heavy? Because of what you’ve done to her?” Lilith waved the question away.

“Likely a combination of factors,” she dismissed. “The alien architecture of her biology releases a bacterium which reinforces traumatic damage to her body from the inside. The side effect of that is a condensed musculoskeletal system with no limits that I’ve been able to find on her father. And she’s only fifty percent them.” She narrowed her eyes.

Vea exchanged an uncomfortable glance with Bristol.

“What the devil are you on about?” Mortimus spun on the woman.

“Shut up, Gregory.” She snapped. “You don’t need to understand, none of you needs understand it. Or believe it,’ she added.

“I do not doubt you, Lilith.” Atreides jumped in. “Yet we hold the bargaining chip and the power in this. The girl will not sleep forever. Provide us the cages and the instructions and we will do as you bid.”

“And we want a getaway ship for when it’s done!” Teena peeped.

“YOU!?” The Overseer spun on Teena as if he just remembered who she was. “You get your tiny arse back to my city and fix that gods damned cannon wall!”

“You still haven’t fixed that yet? It’s been hours it should’ve been pretty easy for whoever designed the wall to…” Teena’s eyes suddenly sparkled in the sunlight. “Alright.”

“What!?” Karina asked.

“What?” The Overseer mimicked.

“Yeah I’ll do it.” Teena said. “Let’s go, I’ll tell you what I want for it on the way. Consulting fees, you know?” Red-faced and spluttering, the Overseer chased after as she leapt into the open tank.

“Haha, now THIS I gotta see!” Bristol laughed. “I’m going with the girl to make sure she stays in one piece!” He yelled over his shoulder and muscled his way into the open hatch. It slammed shut, and the tank took off with another roar. The small convoy followed, leaving Lilith and the two brutes alone.

“I could take her by force.” She said quietly.

“You and I both understand what a bad idea that is,” The speaker said. “Be reasonable woman. If truly the existential threat exists as you say, give us some specifics. You need us. It’s what the Ilth es Trada were made for, it’s in our blood.”

She glares death at each of them in turn, face turning an unhealthy shade of red. The two brutes behind her take a step back. A long minute passes before she lets out the breath she’d been holding.

“Very well,” she straightened out. “We’ve known each other a long time Mirin, and I’m impressed you’ve lived for so long.”

The speaker nodded.

Lilith lifted a finger. “The protective shell will be assembled and dropped in the pass by nightfall. Get the girl inside as you see fit. Put her in this cage or it won’t hold her.”

She lifted a second finger. “I’ll also drop a folio of extremely sensitive information, known only to a handful of people on the planet. I’ll give it to that pipsqueak on her way back. You and I are enemies now, and I suggest you take the data back to your homeland. Provided you survive this demoscat.”

Third finger. “The trail of creatures is three days long. I deploy my weapons in five, at noon. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re ready or not, it’s going off and I’m on my way. You can explain the girl’s duty to her, if you care for her so much.”

“I appreciate-”

“Don’t.” She interrupted the speaker. She turned on her heel, walking back toward town.

Vea looked to the open cage just a few meters away. The open door loomed ominously in her mind. Leliana must’ve been dreaming, because she crushed the woman in a bear hug for just a moment. Vea choked.

“Kahlin,” Protector Atreides yelled to his alchemist as the other war brothers pulled back, “how long will the girl be down, by your estimation?”

Kahlin held up a few vials and counted absently with one hand. Finally, “the dose she took was enough to put everyone here to sleep for a week. Best I can tell, maybe an hour?”

Leliana growled, just once.

“I hope.”

Chapter 66: Not my problem

Atreides noticed immediately how much the girl had improved since their last go. He and the Speaker grappled the girl for a long minute, trying to negotiate. “Please consider those unable to defend themselves against this unprecedented threat,” he implored. “Tens of thousands of people could be converted into these monsters-”

“That sounds like a ‘you’ problem, prot,” Leliana growled and tried to break free. “Not my plague, not my problem.”

The Speaker opened his mouth only to have it rammed shut as Leliana’s fist slammed home. He flew back into a crowd of talented who’d come to assist. Atreides dropped, losing his grip on the girl but avoiding a vicious kick that threatened to take his head off. She was fifty meters away by the time he was on his feet again. She threw herself into the ocean of oncoming monsters.

“We gotta go get her,” the Speaker grunted.

“Kahlin!” Atreides flew to his best alchemical mind. “I need you to get something ready. Once we get her back in position, don’t hesitate to take the shot.” Kahlin nodded and threw himself into his work.

Atreides and the Speaker dove headlong into the morass chasing Leliana, ducking and dodging the gnashing and swiping that swung from every angle. The creatures worked themselves into a renewed frenzy, wailing and diving unpredictably in their fervor. He hit the dirt when a disintegrating jade-serpent flew by open-mouthed, nearly swallowing him.

They weren’t gaining any ground. Every meter they gained, she pushed two more. Damn she was fast. Then there was an explosion.

A shriek. A sizzle.

What the devil is-

Before he finished the thought, a blast of vapor swept out of an exploding barrel. It burned. Eyes, nose, mouth, every moment an agony of existence. His instincts took over and he found himself panting next to the Speaker, the Overseer, and Lilith a moment later.

“What is the meaning of this?” He managed between gasps. Lilith’s science corp drifted lazily overhead, tossing exploding barrels into the raging mass below. Swaths of the things were losing shape, melting into puddles of sinew and bone and gore.

“I’ve spent months perfecting this mixture,” Lilith answered with a grin. “It’s a pain in the ass to make, but I instructed my pilots to flush the girl back here with any means necessary.”

“You’re gonna kill the girl!” The Speaker objected.

“Relax,” Lilith sighed. “She’ll be fine. Leliana is a special specimen, she’s not going to die under a simple lye mixture.”

“That girl is not a specimen,” Atredies interjected. “I will not allow you to endanger her so casually Lilith. Tell them to stop or -”

“Relax,” she scoffed again. “Leliana is perfectly safe, you damn busybodies. She was designed for much more than this. She will feel much more than this. I didn’t waste twenty years of my life building a trump card for it to get itself killed on a fool’s errand in a backwater city.”

“Hey!” The Overseer objected. He was interrupted by an unearthly howl that seemed to go on forever.

The air trembled. A moment later a massive stag catapulted straight into the circling airships. One after another, nearly a score of putrid animals sailed into the air before the scientists scattered. Out of the half-dozen vessels, only four managed to escape. The two remaining listed and plummeted in their own time, propellers and engines full of entrails.

“Oops. I wish that hadn’t happened.” Without explanation, Lilith spun and bolted toward Gungrave. The Overseer did a double-take, taking off after her. He yelled at a commander in passing, and the Gungrave army repositioned themselves as a barrier between the creatures and the city walls. The men watched nervously as more and more of the things streamed through the pass and over the mountains in an unending parade of death.

The airships were back, even higher than before. Atreides had a split second to wonder what they were dropping this time before an enormous blaze heated the air around him. The fire was almost two hundred meters away, yet he felt as though he were warming himself by a campfire. He cursed himself under his breath, looking for ways to extract her from that swarming hellscape.

It wasn’t long before flames engulfed enormous sections of the plague host. They burned in a semi-circular pattern with a clear corridor free of any flames leading straight toward the city gates. Atreides swore again. Lilith was trying to use the Gungrave military, though he was much less confident in the girl’s survival. So deep in thought, the protector didn’t notice the bull’s head fly at him until he was tackled to the ground. Yellowed horn gored the space where he’d just been standing. Leliana blitzed out right behind it, and he was almost too slow to catch her.

“Leliana!”

Her cold, pale eyes were…strangely emotionless. Her skin tinged a slight blue. He winced as she squeezed his hand. “You must listen to me,” he yelled over the cacophony of the monks and military at war with the beasts all around them. He didn’t get a chance to say anything more before the air erupted with fists. There wasn’t a direction he could dodge fast enough to avoid being pummeled. The beating lasted an eternity before the Speaker materialized behind the girl to save him.

“Move!”

Atreides ducked out of the way just before a 12-inch needle stabbed into Leliana’s throat.

Leliana stopped just long enough to look at the projectile before she slammed her head back, breaking free with brute force.

She blinked to where Kahlin still held his blowgun, white and wide-eyed. Then he was lifted by a strong hand around the throat, feet kicking feebly against an uncaring Leliana. She pulled the barb free and reversed it in her hand.

A dark fist clenched around the pale hand holding Kahlin.

“Girl. Do not continue.”

Atreides could barely hear Vea, but he rushed to her side to stop the war brothers from renewing their assault. I hope she is still in there.

Leliana’s cold stare bored into Vea, but the woman did not relent. “I will protect you. Everything is going to be okay.”

Leliana’s scowl morphed into a feral growl and she hurled unconscious man to the ground. She snapped Vea’s grip and flew into the air, faster and further than Atreides had ever seen. Vea shot into the air after her.

She landed behind the Gungrave line of fire, cradling an unconscious Leliana.