Chapter 33: Ill Laid Plans

Hello dear readers,

Chapter 33 of Lead Heart is up!

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Dull overhead lights buzzed and dimly lit the inside of a laboratory hundreds of miles from the wandering monks. A small, grungy man, dressed in what used to be a white smock, stuffed his face and glared impatiently at a slowly swirling beaker. The effervescent liquid was gradually changing from its milky white upper half to the crystal-clear gradient at the bottom. The change was excruciatingly slow and he needed the tincture to set before he could retire for the night. His attention was so intense, he missed the no nonsense footsteps just outside.

The thick wooden door exploded off its hinges, pebbles and shards of wood peppered the inside of the room.

He shrieked and leapt back, smearing a plate of food across the dull concrete floor. Brutus watched in mounting trepidation as a shoe the size of his thigh clunked inside the chamber. Then another. The enforcer ducked through the doorway and glowered at Brutus before stepping to one side of the door. Another small giant stepped to the opposite side, arms crossed. The two were almost identical, save the differing facial tattoos; a swirl design on one, the front of a skull on the other.

“Brutus,” purred a sultry voice.

He snapped to attention.

“It’s been a while.”

“H-hello mistress.” He feigned a smile. “A pleasure to see you.” He kept motionless while the lithe figure clad in brilliantly white lab clothes slid through the doorway. The white coat and slim leggings accentuated her platinum blond hair, cropped short in her serious way. His mouth moved wordlessly. His mind raced back in time to figure out what he’d done. The woman sidled into the room, eying her surroundings disdainfully and taking care not to touch any debris scattered on the floor.

“I doubt that,” she smiled. “Nevertheless I find myself in need of a discussion of a particular sort Brutus. Everyone says you’re my guy.” The woman slowly stepped over the myriad of discard until she stood over the nervous subordinate. His eyes shifted, seeing the state of his lab for the first time. The oppressive silence brought him back to the moment and he realized she was waiting for an answer.

He bowed low. “Of course, mistress. What service can I provide to you.”

The sultry tone shriveled into a bitter note as her face transformed to disgust. “I need to know what you’ve done” She said. “I haven’t seen you since the inquiry and I know you’ve been skulking about, using the aerie and bribing the groundskeepers.” The woman’s furrowed brow locked Brutus in place when he moved to step back. He wrung his hands while she continued. “Normally I don’t give a damn what you do quite frankly, especially after your monumental cock up with the girl. But normally I don’t have to stare down the wrong end of a small army outside my office, either. So you’d better have some damn good answers.”

“A what? I don’t know what you mean, Mistress Lilith,” He protested. “My research was aimed at a new breed of hunter to offset the lost revenue from the-”

What did you make?” Cold blue eyes shot through him.

“I…it was just a few locals put together.” He stammered. “I sampled the small raptors and spliced in a bit of the mindless we have growing outside the walls. I incubated them in the underground tunnels.”

Lilith rubbed the bridge of her nose. “You mashed a zombie fungus into a pack hunter?” She sighed. “Give me your notes.” Delicately manicured nails thrust into his face. Brutus knew better than to refuse, and he especially knew better than to refuse an order from this woman with enforcers by the door. But he’d gotten drunk some weeks ago and tossed the notebook somewhere.

“I have not yet had opportunity to duplicate the notations, mistress. Allow me but a week and I will have a clean copy in your hands, I swear it.” He bowed low again, and this time received a slap to his balding head.

“Do not presume your safety in these halls to be iron-clad Brutus.” She snapped. “Put everything you have in my hands before these two rip it from your dying lips.” The echoed words amplified the violence behind them. Brutus felt the cold steel of the cabinet on his back as she advanced. The metal drawers spewed their contents everywhere, bathing him in foul odors and caustic liquid.

She visibly forced herself to regain control.

“You have one hour from this second to have what I want, where I want it, or I will deliver your head to the gentlemen waving their guns outside my front door.” She loomed over him. “Am I clear?”

Wide eyes wavered between his superior and her loyal muscles before Brutus squeaked an affirmative.

Lilith turned on her heel and strode to the door. Without another look she warned him. “You’d better pray that you or I can find a way to undo whatever you’ve done, or your insides will adorn your outsides before tomorrow dawns.”

She left.

The enforcers left.

Brutus melted down.

Chapter 32: A Stroll in the Woods

Hello Readers!

I’ve been practicing a few things lately – trying to casually flesh out descriptions on the fly and the such. Let me know if you have any feedback and as always, happy reading!

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Leliana’s ribs made a sound she was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to make. That, or the snake’s mouth was really squeaky. Either way, she needed a plan.

Let’s start simple, she thought. Muscles strained as she pulled back, then she rained blow after blow up at the monster’s face from her tenuous position.

The serpent didn’t care. She didn’t blame him. Gravity was pulling her the wrong direction, She wondered if he even felt it.

Fair enough.

Next idea. There were two small pits on the front of the jade-green nose.  Nostrils, she assumed. She winced when the memory of the grotesque ears came flooding back to her. Well, she thought, better disgusted than digested I always say… I never say that. Leliana hunched herself in midair and plunged her hand elbow-deep into the thing’s nose.

EEEWWWW!

A growl and irritated bite from the snake drove the air from her lungs with a whoosh. At least he seemed as perturbed as she was. The moment she felt something brush her fingertips, she wrapped it around her fist and yanked as hard as she could. The pressure around her waist lessened, and some weird noises emanated from the creature. It stopped moving for a minute to shake her violently back and forth for that. A lot of pops and snaps went off inside her that she wasn’t fully ready to account for, and instead chose to focus on keeping up an iron grip. When the flinging eased up, Leliana braced her left arm against the giant mouth and put her entire body into yanking the beasts…whatever she was holding right out of its nose. What appeared to be a slimy, purple tendril of flesh came away in her hand and leaked weird blue blood all over the place. Sparkling eyes rolled back in its head until –

It sneezed.

Leliana rocketed across the small clearing, her surroundings a blur. She shot through a complicated tangle of vines and fern and rolled to a stop covered in viscous slime. Whatever was left of the rice from earlier threatened to rebel. Then the time for weakness was gone as a grove of saplings shattered when the serpent barreled toward her. Leliana, a better appreciation for her position on the food chain, jumped up into a nearby fir tree. She clung to the jagged bark long enough to make sure the snake was still after her, then used the tree to jump higher into the canopy. She bounced off five more pines before the snake caught up. It weaved in and out of the dark trees at dizzying speeds. The snake coiled on itself for a scant second, then shot up like a bullet. A brown robed figure flew in from the tree-tops and slammed itself onto the serpent’s face mid-flight. The lunge missed by meters.

It was that woman again! Damn she’s good.

Leliana watched those strong hands clap together between the creature’s eyes. She could see the ripple in the air as the shockwave shot out in every direction and another BOOM slapped her like a physical blow.

What in the 9 hells!?

The serpent’s eyes rolled back once more. This time the monk took the advantage and smashed both fists into the scaly face, still standing on its head. The pupils refocused and the big woman jumped stand in front of Leliana. The gemmed snake threw its eyes wide and slithered in circles. It seemed to make up its mind after a minute and fled back the direction they’d come. Damn it was fast.

Leliana watched it recede into the shadows, hands on her knees and huffing heavily. “Thanks.” She managed between gasps. “I. Totally. Had him. Cool trick though.”

The monk eyed her stoically. “You should not be here.” Her voice was deep and husky, with the most fascinating accent Leliana had ever heard. Each syllable was fully enunciated, slow and commanding. “Return to the safety of the encampment child. The speaker can provide you purpose, if that is what you seek.”

“Wait!” Leliana yelled as the monk turned to leave. “The speaker gave me a purpose. She told me to find the Protector. With the war brothers? Are you him, uh, her?”

She withered under an intense gaze.

The woman was unconvinced. “You are not wise to seek the war brothers. The tasks we perform are dangerous, and you are without strength. Return to the elders. The congregation is there.” The monk waved pointedly to the left, then turned on her heel and jumped seven feet straight up. One more glance to Leliana from her perch, then she was off, jumping branch to branch.

I know she did not just call me weak. An insult died on her lips as the woman left earshot in the dense forest canopy. Dammit. Leliana sprinted through the thick greenery on the forest floor in an attempt to catch the woman. She tried hauling herself up into a tree once, since the branches were generally an easier pathway than untrod forest floor, but her arms buckled immediately and dumped her into a thorny bush.

Why does everything in this thrice damned forest grow THORNS? Angry at the monk, irritated at the world, and furious especially with herself, Leliana pursued the dark woman as best she could. She wasn’t averse to running at breakneck speed through an unknown forest full of dangers, that was just another day. She wasn’t really a fan of all the things slapping her in the face that she was sure were toxic in some way, and she was especially frustrated that she was still losing ground to the monk.

Faster. She pushed herself harder, and harder. The forest surroundings became a blur as her singular focus narrowed to a field of vision just immediately in front of her. There were definitely one or two things chasing her at any given time. The hoarse grunts and growls would crop up randomly, follow her for a short distance, and then fall away. She didn’t care. Running this fast through this many trees required rapt attention in order to prevent herself from staining the forest floor with her clearly malfunctioning brain.

Faster.

Her field of view was almost nonexistent, arms and legs correcting for obstacles automatically while she hurtled at breakneck speeds. Limbs, rocks, dips and bumps all zoomed by as she corrected her trajectory accordingly. They must have run for at least a mile or so, Leliana projected, her breaths heaved and her lungs burned like fire. The monk woman had stopped jumping and dropped from the canopy just a bit further ahead though. This was Leliana’s chance to burst out of the trees and prove that she wasn’t weak. She’d managed to keep up even with all this damn forest in the way. She crested the hill and, at a whim, put her all into a last grand leap of faith.

“Haaa-!”

The wind felt good on her face and she practically exploded out of the sudden end of the tree-line with incredible speed. Right over the surprised woman clinging to the side of the small cliff of about 100 feet or so.

Oh.

“-aaaaaaah!”

Chapter 31: Escape?

Hello dear internet readers

Chapter 31 of Lead Heart is up! Hopefully I’ve scheduled it for the right 12 this time; our heroine gets to escape the clutches of that unruly serpent, finally. Right?

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Leliana’s chest was going to explode. She choked on the dust being squeezed out of the tree while the serpent did its best to make a Leliana-shaped impression in that thick mountain pine. The wood squealed in protest, and jagged cracks opened up around her. She couldn’t move, she couldn’t breathe. The first licks of panic blurred the edges of her consciousness.

And that was infuriating.

There was no way to win a contest of strength against the thing, it was massive. Still, the pine didn’t seem like it was going to last much longer either. She needed a plan.

Ideas whizzed past a mile a minute, discarded just as fast. It was hard to think clearly with a shiny bastard doing his best to huge the life out of you. She gagged every time she managed to breathe the slightest bit, with the sweet pine unable to mask the scent of rancid reptile. It tasted like the undertaker’s sweaty underwear, something she learned by trying to bite it. Ugh, kill me faster.

If there was something she hated more than being killed, it was being forced to wait to be killed.

She needed to focus, to get control. ‘A panicked soldier is the first to die’ according to the wrong end of the baton which had been her teacher for so many years. Leliana grit her teeth at the memory. She obediently slowed her limited breathing and counted her heartbeats, listening to the rasp as she drew breath.

In…Out…In…Out…

This wasn’t really the best time to practice those control exercises, but she didn’t really have any other obligations at the moment.

In…Out…

The scaly hide shifted, rearranging the loops of the body in front of her. Curious, she waited. Two of the segments of coiled serpentine body in front of her split just a few inches to reveal a huge cerulean eye peeking in at her.

She punched it.

Furious growls rocked her in the clutches of the snake and shook her to the core. A few seconds of what she imagined was the snake swearing at her in its own language and then renewed the attack with a vengeance. The pine which had been her brother in resistance up to this point shattered into powder, and the cavernous coils of the serpent closed in to smash her with brutality. She vomited. Darkness tinged the edges of her vision while her own bile was smashed into her face and hair.

“Worth it.”

Leliana pulled herself into a tight curl, limbs trembling to hold. Damn, she thought, that old lady was right. The girl punched feebly at the muscle walls binding her from the inside. She was absolutely certain that this scaled bastard didn’t feel any of it, but it made her feel a little better. She was starting to get the inklings of an idea.

The serpent was strong, overpoweringly so, but it had a hard time getting a good grip with which to snap her like a twig. Judging by the cracks and crevices that remained when it wrapped her up, this thing was prone to going after much larger prey. It would still kill her, just not instantly as it apparently hoped. She put her hands together and forced two segments of body to part, just a little.

Well that would’ve been helpful, if she was stronger.

Spots were dancing through her field of vision now, tiny lightning bolts seeming to coalesce around her. This was a good example of a reason she might have asked around all those people for a gun, or a knife. Literally anything.

Sigh

The world quieted around her, perhaps in reverence to her impending demise. She felt a soothing warmth washing through her. She closed her eyes to take it in.

BOOM

Something shattered the world around her. It felt like she’d been punched in the gut and had every bone broken simultaneously. At first she thought the beast finally finished the job, but it was a different kind of pressure this time. That and-

And the snake had gone slack, the coils almost falling away from her for a second before they pulled back into the deadly embrace. She managed a huge lungful of air, if not outright escape.

What the nine hells was that?

What sounded like another tree exploding hit her ears. It was muffled to unrecognizability, but something was definitely going on. She was jerked one way and then another, shuddering at one impact and then suddenly weightless before the next. Then it seemed the serpent was in motion; the body around her stayed firm, but not crushing. A prison, but not the press. The shifting gravity and constant flipping was pretty fun, as long as she didn’t think about the end of the ride. One such move unpinned her arms enough to get a good swing and she flailed at the inside of the scaled stomach using her bound feet for leverage.

“Just you wait!” She gasped between swings. “I’ll bust out of here. Break your stupid neck. Roast you over the longest bonfire I’ve ever seen!” She felt a satisfying crack beneath her fists.

BOOM

Another explosion of force pulsed through her entire body and she couldn’t move for a second or two. She recovered quickly, noting that the serpent had gone slack again too. Leliana coiled, ripping her legs free of the beast, and rocketed to freedom just as the walls snapped closed again.

“Haaaaaa!”

Nothing could stop the gasp of pleasure she released at that first breath of fresh air. Clean, crisp pine and dust filled her entire body. The pins and needles of circulation returning made her eyes water and almost laid her out. She wobbled on all fours, skidding to a stop on her face, before hazarding a look back.

The serpent’s huge mouth was locked in a contest of strength with what must have been the strongest person she’d ever seen. Bulging muscles sprouted from other bulging muscles beneath glistening dark skin. She’d have placed them somewhere in the seven-foot-tall range, bald head coated in some of everything on the ground and a brown robe which had the sleeves ripped off unevenly.

The struggle intensified when the snake’s jaw hit the forest floor and it thrashed the relatively smaller human back and forth like a child’s toy. The monk held on stubbornly, wiggling and waving in the erratic thrashing of the beast. Then the monk’s legs were locked around the upper jaw while a flurry of blows mangled those big, blue eyes.

“Steamed hells!” She cried as the figure hit the ground nearby. Thick, brown cloth billowed as the monk whirled to face her. When they settled, the outlined the outrageous curves of the most hulking woman Leliana had ever seen in her entire life. “I…you…who?!”

The woman opened her mouth, then leapt to the side. A hooked beak gouged the forest floor where she’d been standing seconds ago. Without warning it was suddenly in Leliana’s face, barely allowing enough time for her to instinctively grapple that enormous jaw. Moments later she was dangling from about 20 feet up, and the snake bolted away from her would-be savior.

This is going well, she thought.

Chapter 30: A Shiny Friend

Hello Readers,

Chapter 30 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it! (Author’s note: sorry for the late release, I apparently scheduled it for 12am the 26th and not 12pm the 25th! )

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Leaves rustled in the cool breeze, fanning Leliana while she caught her breath. She couldn’t remember being so winded before.

The forest canopy was high, but it wasn’t all that dense. A patch of glittering green leaves reflected sunlight down into a shining mosaic broken across the underbrush of the forest floor. Crickets and mosquitoes sang their deafening chorus, drowning all else in the shadows.

But something was definitely wrong.

Leliana turned in a slow circle, feeling things out. She’d been pretty careless just skipping into the trees. Expecting the brothers to just be hanging around near the tree line she supposed.

“Where are you?” She whispered. Her eyes swept everything they could while she backed away.

Her instincts were shrieking at her, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Shut up she told herself. Panic just clouds the issue.

“Wait…”

Where were the birds, the tiny forest fuzzies?

SNAP

Leliana hurled herself forward as the world erupted behind her. Dirt and decayed leaves blew themselves into her eyes and mouth even after she’d rolled behind a tree.

What the hells?! She whirled and came face to face with a big, brilliantly blue eyeball.

The size of her face.

The beast pulled back, rising two, three times higher than her. Dazzlingly green scales shimmered and sparkled, and the biggest snake she’d ever laid eyes on loomed above her. It’s mouth was a sharp, green beak and huge fan-like ears jutted out from either side of its face. There were gems peppered along the beasts’ skin, encrusted in divots or atop ridges. Those scales were gorgeous, too, and they were a damn decent camouflage; she’d had no idea he was even there. He? It?

“You the protector?” She asked.

Muscles rippled up its jaw. Leliana rolled through a low branch, the whoosh of the beasts’ open maw gouging a chunk of lichen-covered bark. As soon as all fours were on the ground she sprang to the side and was rewarded with a fresh scrape the entire length of her arm. She met its eyes, waiting for its next move.

The snake’s tail flung her solidly into a tree. She twisted to catch herself but was too weak to catch herself. “What the h-”

BOOM

The enormous beak slammed into the ground inches away. She wrapped her hands inside the nostrils and held on for dear life. The snake shook its head and sent her flying. With a flick of the jaw, she flew a dozen feet through a bush that she was pretty sure had thorns.

Leliana’s arms gave out as she tried throwing herself to her feet. Damn. She scanned the surroundings. There were lots of huge logs and boulders and an infinite amount of tiny twigs and rocks. Nothing useful as a weapon. It was a pretty big stretch to think she’d have been able to take this thing even in peak condition. She grit her teeth.

Ivy and ferns flew when the serpent charged again. All these jerky, jumpy movements were getting a bit predictable though and Leliana was able to control her reaction to this time. She hopped up into the air a split second before the sharp beak bit into a jagged tree stump, landing atop the scaly head. She latched onto one of the ears.

The inside of the ear was an alien black and purple color with a bizarre, sharp odor. It oozed a viscous slime which both made it difficult to get a good grip, and made her want to wash her hands. Leliana managed to cling to its head while it thrashed this time. The snake whipped back and forth, gashing trees and splintering saplings while it tried to scrape her off.

“Ha!” She’d caught on to the trick to keep her footing and was focusing on just riding the snake now. The forest suddenly accelerated. Branches flashed by as the snake dodged between saplings, fallen trees,

“Woooo!” She hooked a leg around each slimy ear and threw a hand in the air. “Let’s G-”

OH.

Leliana jumped clear as the ground rushed to meet her. The snake’s head disappeared into a cavernous hole in the ground it’d tried to use to scrape her off with. Successfully. She watched, mesmerized as the sparkling jade colored scales disappeared row-after-row. She caught a whiff of dank must and mildew from behind her, and turned to see it rocketing out a side-tunnel straight for her again. Leliana moved forward, under its jaw, and gave it a few good punches. Damn this thing was strong.

The snake fanned a wide arc around her. She realized too late that the shiny green snake encircled her entirely now.

Damn.

The huge, toothless grin weaved back and forth at the top of its thick neck. Undulating slowly in each direction, beautiful blue eyes boring straight through her. Leliana took an involuntary step back.

Now what?

The gemstones scattered along the skin were twinkling of their own accord, casting a rainbow of shadows through the small clearing. As the serpent wriggled back and forth, they threw multicolored reflections of light dancing across her face, each a new color. Pinks, blues, yellows. Had she ever seen gems this big? They must have been the size of- SLAM!

She was suddenly pinned to a tree. With astonishing speed, the gemstone reptile wound itself around her and the tree five,six times. She managed to get her hands free to protect her head, arms trembling. It wasn’t enough to free herself entirely. Her lower half was stuck fast against the wood on her back, but now her upper half was losing room too. She moved her face sideways to avoid being smothered, but it was all she could do.

The tree groaned in protest, and small splinters exploded from the trunk like little bullets. Shards of wood impaled themselves all along her face. Every time she breathed, she lost just a little more breathing room.

Alright, she thought to herself. It’s time to have a brilliant idea and bust out of here, right?

Chapter 29: Awakening

Hello internet family,

Chapter 29 of Lead Heart is up, our girl is awake!

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A lonely eagle drifted on the warm air over the dusty plain.

Leliana lie on her back and stared at that bird for a long time before she realized she was finally awake. The gears turned in her head, slowly coming back to life. The eagle screeched into the empty, blue sky before soaring back toward the mountains behind her.

She sighed.

The dust rattled in her lungs, and she could feel every fiber of her body. Not in a good way. She picked herself up.

“Ooooh. Ugh, what in the 9-” Her back popped in a dozen places all the way down and her legs almost quit on her. Soft blankets fell to the floor and she noted that she’d been sleeping in the middle of a wooden cart, surrounded by an assortment of blanketed bundles she assumed were others like herself. “This is new.”

Over the edge of the raised platform she made out a score of small fires scattered between a few hundred people. Most everyone was  sitting around the fires engaged in conversation in the afternoon sun.

There were no signs of storm clouds. “Gross, how long was I out?”

Everything looked so different from the ground than it did from above, it was hard to find any familiar landmarks.

A brown-robed figure leapt up into the cart suddenly, stubbled face grinning and arms wide. Leliana readied her fists. “Who are you?” The loose fitted clothes hid his figure, so it was hard to get a read on him. His right eye was closed and shriveled, likely for the same reason he sported a shiny crescent scar over the right side of his face. He beckoned and jumped back to the ground.

She whistled low drawing near the edge. That must’ve been an 8 foot drop.

She let herself drop to the ground. Her knees gave out and slammed into a clump of pointy grass. ”Ah!” Dammit legs, she thought. The robed man offered a hand, but she didn’t take it.

He shrugged, indicated for her to follow him and took off across the camp.

Leliana’s head swiveled non-stop while she passed through crowds of people. There were a lot of men and women sporting the loose brown robes. There were just as many, and maybe more, who were clearly outsiders. She walked through a group of women who’d be more modestly dressed if they’d actually just stripped naked. Then she walked around the group of men admiring those women from a distance.

Of course.

The crowds thinned quickly, and she found herself staring at the back of a familiar head. Straight, clean black hair sitting atop a straight-backed, olive-skinned-

“Antros?” The last time she’d seen him was right before- Oh, right. Right before she’d fallen unconscious a thousand feet in the air.

How long had she been trapped in that damn dream, everything seemed so unreal. Wait. Was she actually awake though or-

“Leliana, you’re awake! How you feeling, kid?”

“The hungriest I’ve ever been in my life.” She answered. “You got any spare aurocks hanging around?”

“Understandable.” Antros nodded. “You were asleep over a week, I was getting a bit concerned myself.”

Leliana blinked.

A week?

Over a week?

“Wait go back. When you say over a week. You mean like, a day. Two days?” It was hard to remember a time she’d slept longer than a few hours.

Antros glanced at a gnarled old woman stooped over an iron cauldron bubbling merrily over a fire. She nodded in turn, gesturing a young girl forward. “A bowl for our guest, darling.” Her whispy voice was barely audible over the crackling flame.

Leliana’s stomach roared despite herself. She glanced down, then back to Antros.

“Sorry kiddo, I mean more like 11 days. Heck of a fall you took, I’m surprised you’re up and walking around.” He raised his hands in the air, slamming one fist into his palm. “Broke a tree straight in half! You’ll need a bigger chute if you ever want to work on an airship again.”

The girl returned then with a bowl of steaming white rice. It was scented with some earthy, herby nonsense that Leliana would’ve killed anyone in the world to eat right now. The girl paused near the old woman to allow a ladle of soup to be dropped in, then handed the bowl to Leliana.

“Eat, child. We will restore your strength, and then your memories.” The old woman bade them sit down.

They watched in amusement, and no small amount of amazement, as she ate enough for a small army. The old woman only smiled, refilling it each time.

Finally, she could eat no more. She slumped to the dirt and stretched in the hot sun. “Whoooa I’m so full. If I’m still trapped in a dream, I’m about to die a happy woman.” She stayed sprawled in the dirt as dozens of others showed up to eat from the cauldron.

Antros and Leliana caught up while the speaker met with the rest of the travelers.

“You jumped out of a perfectly good airship just to pull my parachute? That’s…pretty stupid.” She was impressed.

“I didn’t like the idea of being on the same ship as the deranged queen driving like a madman.” He waved offhandedly. “Besides, I helped introduce you to the job, it would be pretty impolite to let you just die, right?”

“I liked her better after she dropped the act.” Leliana smiled. “People who are too nice always have something to hide. I’m just glad she was hiding a maniac.” She yawned, then jumped as she realized the speaker standing right behind her. “Hey! When did you get there?” How did she not notice?

“Are you well, child?” The speaker’s face was gentle and she had an easy smile.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine. It’ll take more than a fall to stop me.” The girl flexed, then frowned at her diminished muscle. “Dang 11 days of sleeping sucks.”

“What’s on your mind, speaker?” Antros ventured.

“I merely wanted to ask your intentions now.” She said. “Many are those who seek refuge with us. Many, too, are those who seek our help and part ways.”

“I thought we could stay on at least until the next city.” Antros replied. “I’m familiar enough with the area, but it’s always safer in numbers.”

“Wait what about Teena and Gib, the crew?” Leliana interjected. “Shouldn’t we figure out where they went?”

Antros frowned. “They were careening out of control in the middle of a storm. They could be anywhere.”

“But they were cool. Fun to talk to.”

“There’s a lot of people around here to talk to.” Antros offered.

“I’m not really a fan of crowds.” She countered. “Puts me on edge.” She looked at the people assembled around them. There really were people of all types mingled here. “Besides, I think I was on the verge of being friends with Karina.”

“Don’t get invested in the client, kid. First rule of being a guard.” He said.

“Shouldn’t ‘keeping the client alive’ be the first rule of being a guard?” She giggled when he scowled. “Besides, I’m more about the travel than the guarding.”

The speaker interrupted. “We will be crossing the Pladitus mountains, soon.” She said. “You can get a good view of the plains from up there.”

“That sounds like a good start.” Antros said.

“I guess, but I hate walking.” Leliana replied.

“You’ve been asleep for 11 days.” He countered.

“You seem like a great warrior, young lady. You may travel with the War Brothers to train while we travel, if you like.” The speaker gestured vaguely to the distant forest.

“I hate training too.” She said sheepishly.

The speaker shrugged. “They wrestle wild animals with their bare hands. You strike me the type to enjoy that. A chance to regain your strength, once you’ve fully healed.”

Leliana’s ears perked. “Wait, I mean, I guess I could give it a try.” She stretched, popping what felt like every joint in her body. “I’m probably fine.”

Antros smirked and shook his head. “I’ll sit this one out, kid. You’re on your own.”

“I’m surprised you can walk, with the condition you were found in.” The old woman nodded. “I have no doubt you can handle yourself.” She walked to the edge of the clearing, pointing to the edge of the forest about a mile away. “If you are ready, just enter the woods straight ahead, they’ll find you. Ask for the protector.”

“Woo okay. I need to burn off some of that food anyway.” She waved and ran the mile to the shelter of the trees. The wild growth on the forest floor probably made the easiest method of travel here to be by treetop.

“I’d fall on my head if I even tried.” She decided. “How far do I have to go anyway. The protector? Weird guys. Maybe I can be ‘The Killer’. Do we get to choose our own names?”

crack

Chapter 28: Desperate Times

The world was chaos.

Screams of panic mingled with shouts of encouragement by leaders to stay their men.

“We won’t be the first to bring down a demophant lads!” A wiry officer with an accent yelled at the few men by his side. Most had already bolted, but not all. “Spit on whatever gods you believe in then, and let’s kill this ugly bastard!” He blasted a couple of shots into the air and got his men roaring.

“That’s it lads! Let’s GO!”

The black, slimy worm crashing out of the forest dwarfed every building in town. Every sloppy lunge forward caused an explosion of dust and debris like shrapnel.

Rat watched in horror as the lengthening shadows of the setting sun were overwhelmed by a blackness that spread from the huge monster.

Those were thousands of small, black buggers flooding toward them. Again.

The fading light made it hard to count just how many there might’ve been. But then, it didn’t really matter how many there were.

He needed to get the hells out of there.

“Kids!” He turned on the small troop around him. “There’s no way to take that thing down with what we’ve got, we need to get out of here. Go!”

He pointed them back down the stone road to the city entrance, but they didn’t move.

“We have to kill it mister Rat! My pa says demophants destroy everything.” The eldest cried out, to a chorus of agreement from the rest. His brown eyes welled, though he fought the tears.

“No shame in running to fight another day boys.” Rat clasped the young man’s shoulder. “You’ve all performed admirably today, you’ve done your families proud.”

He shoved the kid toward the town entrance.

“Let’s go!”

The boy stomped back to the small group. “I won’t leave, I can’t. My mum’s had The Lock for a whole year. The doctor’s just said she could start walking again last week!” Tears flowed unheeded down flushed cheeks. “If I run now…”

Rat sighed. “Won’t be anyone to help her walk again if you turn to paste under that thing.” He jerked a thumb backward, his words punctuated by another thunderous crash. “Bravery is admirable, bravado is foolish little man. Carry your mum to safety if you need to.”

He sounded like his father. He was about 10 seconds from leaving these kids to their fate if-

Boom BOOM

A new set of explosions rocked the battlefield, an enormous shadow drifted silently across him.

He looked up.

Three airships flew overhead, volleying cannon fire onto the battlefield. Chunks of worm splattered everywhere, jerking and boiling as they hit the dirt. More tiny black dots burst out of each like a popped boil, adding their numbers to the swarm.

The shots that missed the demophant flickered like fireflies dotting the landscape, disintegrating small groups of the black creatures.

“Looks like the brothers decided to get off their asses.” someone grunted nearby, popping a clip of rounds off into the coming horde.

“Isn’t it just like ‘em to swoop in at the end.” One of his companions shouted back. The two worked in tandem, one reloading while the other shot any little bastard in range.

The demophant’s progress slowed considerably, but its overtaking the city was just a matter of time.

Rat peeked backward. Most of the buildings were made of wood. This thing wouldn’t have any trouble turning all that to kindling. Damn it, he thought. Even if they kill it, we’ll be overrun. There could be thousands more inside.

The sun slunk behind the mountains, casting the world into utter darkness.

No moon? Figures.

Time crawled as the ragged line of defenders put their all into stemming the tide against them. Dozens of bright flares popped into existence overhead. They floated gently while shedding their light below. A boom followed by a bright streak of light from one of the ships exploded high in the sky into near-sunlight levels of brightness. The ships hammered relentlessly at the giant worm.

A shriek pierced him from behind.

The women tending the dying behind the cannon-line had their hands over their mouths, pointing beyond Rat. Over him. He turned just in time to watch two sailors smash into the ground.

They all watched in horror as the two corpses were engulfed. Moments later, the horde parted and the blackened men dragged themselves forward on shattered limbs.

Rat swore under his breath. Companies of men were breaking and retreating and these damn kids held fast. He could make out tiny specks darting back and forth between the floating ships. Two of the vessels flipped around, speeding to town on huge jets. Two dark blue rings of fire flashed into the sky preceding them. Two more bone jarring retorts and two more overbearingly bright flares exploded into existence as the first faded.

The remaining vessel drifted straight into the tree-line opposite the town. The crash was loud, but was no match for the deafening peals of thunder as the demophant moved closer.

BOOM

Rat spit leaves and dirt from his mouth. “Alright kids.” He collapsed the empty canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Good luck.” Damn they were stubborn, there was no p-

“AAH!”

The eldest fell as a spindly-legged bastard made a lunge for him. The boy gasped as a small set of jagged teeth punctured his hand, struggling to keep it at arms length.

Then the creature separated, cut in half.

Rat cursed every god he could name as black ooze dripped from his blade. “Go!”

The assembly of boys listened this time, sprinting to safety.

Great.

His knife glinted dully as it flashed from body to body. He couldn’t kill them fast enough already, and the main body of the swarm wasn’t even here yet. Debris clogged his throat as his chest heaved, exhausted. One beast went down and before he could raise his knife again, a huge black spider wrapped itself around his face.

Panic ran away with him and a very unmanly scream tore from his mouth as he hurled the spider. It tumbled, then came back for another jump.

KABOOM

The sound shook his bones as a single shotgun blasted the spider to pieces. Rat was hauled to his feet and came face to face with probably the only familiar face in town.

“Em?!”

“I got you boy.” The old woman dragged him to safety as the police to either side closed the gap behind them.

One officer tossed a revolver back at her. “Aunt Em, catch!”

“Get a move on, lad.” Aunt Em pushed him behind her, popping shots off wildly.

Rat made it as far as the stone road into town before running smack into captain Gainz, whose eyes were to the sky.

“Civilians retreat! Squad leaders, form a line of defense to pull back.” His voice carried across all but the explosion of the demophant, booming over the battlefield. “I want everyone as far back as we can get!”

Another ship glided out of town, just one. It was dotted with torches and crisscrossed with brass pipes.

A huge man with a mane of white hair broke through the cluster of attendants around Gainz, moving up with a dozen men. They were all outfitted in the same heavy leather uniform, puffed up backpack and torch. They spread behind the defense line 20 meters apart.

Once the last man was in place, the leader pulled a horn to his lips. “Alright men, fireline! Everyone else, cover fire!”

They marched simultaneously to the front and sprayed a layer of thick, white powder in a single continuous line. Volleys of gunfire felled an increasing number of beasts as the men painstakingly completed their task.

Gainz pressed a revolver into Rat’s hand as he slunk by.

“Good to see you hunter.” He gestured back the way he’d come. “Got a pavilion of wounded being evac’d back there. Take this, protect them. I owe ya.”

He left, leaving Rat alone in a crowd of strangers.

Dammit.

***

Captain Gainz watched the firemen finish the white line. Seconds later, a deafening fwoosh and a wall of fire stood between the town and the invaders. It wasn’t enough to stop them, but it slowed them down.

What a load of rat piss.

“How far do we need to move from the blast to be safe?” He addressed a small weasel of a man.

“My apologies captain.” Wheezed the reply. “We’ve never actually tested this bomb, and as such, I cannot tell you. It could raze the city. It could give the demophant a stomach-ache.” He shrugged.

“What do you mean you don’t-”

“A moment.” The short man silenced the captain. “I know the materials, allow me to guess.” He scratched an equation into the dirt at his feet, continually looking down his thumb at the enormous monster and back at the ground.

“I don’t have time for guesses, Five! We’re risking real lives on thi-”

“My guess, not your guess, captain.” The shadowy voice cut him off again. “There is a difference. Now hush, I cannot think.”

Gainz bit his tongue.

“The lethality zone should be 200, 250 meters.” Five declared, a full square meter of equations scratched into the soil beneath him.

Gainz sighed. Every man here was in the blast zone. “Dammit Five. This whole thing could’ve been cleaned up by now if the brotherhood had acted sooner!” Gainz slammed his fist into his hand, a moment of frustration. Then he dished orders to half a dozen orderlies and bellowed orders to the rest.

“MOVE BACK! EVERYONE, MOVE TO THE FARMYARDS IN AN ORDERLY-” He gave up. People screamed and ran each other over, pulling wagons and chickens and children haphazardly. They weren’t listening.

“Of course, captain.” Five collected his belongings to leave. “Perhaps. Perhaps we would’ve expended ourselves much earlier then. The brothers willing to die for you might already be dead, and we all die anyway.” He started the trek back to the Brotherhood HQ to get packed. “Besides,” Five called. “I was on the ‘leave and save our own asses’ side of the vote. Brother Sam dies for you today.”

***

Samuel felt the fire from the torch burning his back as the fire in his throat burned its way down. He whistled the tune he’d whistled for the last ten years every bedtime. Each passing second brought him closer to death.

The screams and shouts of the people that had caused him so much anxiety two hours ago were so detached and distant now. Nothing he could do but hope this damn thing did its job. There was no coming back this time.

A few small, black flyers thumped onto the deck and made for the torches. One bit the nearest flame, its head disintegrating.

“Heh heh. Stupid buggers.” Sam downed another gulp of the cheap liquor he’d swiped on the way out.

Two of the little bastards heard him laugh and scurried over twisted brass tubing and tangles of copper wire littering the deck.

“Come on over you thrice cursed little-”

They leapt simultaneously. One burst into flame, encountering a swung torch. The other exploded on the end of the liquor bottle.

The other ships should be back to the tower by now. He was alone up here.

KEEEEEEEE

“I’m a comin, I’m a comin.” Sam stood as it roared and tossed the bottle overboard.

“Dinner time, big daddy.”

***

Rat spotted the captain hanging out on a second story balcony, watching and waiting.

But for what?

The hunter hauled himself up a set of pipes onto the roof and dropped next to the captain. A solid set of hands wrapped around Rat’s throat, a knife teasing itself into his flesh.

“WHO GOES THERE!”

“Release him, Waymon.” Gainz sighed. “He’s just a visitor with unfortunate timing.”

The soldier released him.

“I never actually expected you to stay, Mr Hunter.” Gainz looked at Rat approvingly. “I applaud your bravery, if not your wisdom.”

“Yeah, well.” Rat said. “I didn’t really have anything pressing at the moment, and you said the magic word.”

“Kill?”

“Money.”

Captain Gainz shrugged. “Fair enough. Give me a few minutes and I’ll let you know if I’m alive enough to pay you.”

“Alive enough? What’s that supposed to mean.”

Gainz gestured toward the field. “Seems the brotherhood has a secret weapon they thought we could borrow. It’s either going to do piss all, or we’ll be cooked like rabbits.”

Rat was not amused.

They watched the single airship sail toward the monster. Then it dipped, diving straight toward the giant worm. The huge beast shrieked and coiled, then bounded into the air. The ship was swallowed whole.

The flares in the sky dimmed, plunging the world back into darkness.

The captain sighed. “I’ve doomed us all.”

Rat looked to the captain. “What can we-”

As he opened his mouth, the night turned back into day.

A fireball washed the city in daylight. Anyone unfortunate enough to look at the explosion was blinded instantly.

“AH!” Rat clamped his palms onto his eyes.

BOOOO-

The shock wave splintered the balcony railing and tossed Rat like a ragdoll. People screamed and smashed into each other below, the frenzied crowd running over friends and neighbors alike.

From his back, Rat watched the captain step to the edge of the balcony. His cloak of office snapped wildly in the wind. The world was a cacophony of confusion. The ringing in his ears threatened to deafen him and his eyes burned.

Then Gainz was there, helping Rat to his feet. He threw a last glance at the growing mushroom-shaped cloud hovering over the landscape.

“Skyfather save us all.”

Chapter 27: Invasion

Hello internets

Chapter 27 of Lead Heart is up!

_________________________________________________________________-

 

Broken teeth and gnarled jaws snapped inches from his heels as Rat sprinted on the dirt road. He hadn’t expected wolves this far West this early in the autumn. He’d been running for what seemed like hours, tossing a few caltrops here and there to slow them down.

 

His lungs burned and threatened to quit if he didn’t figure something out quick. The heavy bag on his back must have weighed a thousand pounds, turning his legs to jelly. It also contained hundreds of hours of patience and work and he was not about to lose it.

 

No, it stayed.

 

Thunder rumbled in the distance the direction he was running. Great. The sky was clear, but one shouldn’t underestimate the world’s ability to dump on him at a moment’s notice.

 

A black streak crossed the road and he stopped mid-stride, his feet sliding another foot and wheeling his arms to keep from falling onto the long tendril of shadow snaked across the path.  It twitched back and forth, and he leapt when the limb bent back toward him. The tendril instead wrapped around one of the wolves, yanking it into the thick bushes. He shuddered. Definitely don’t remember those being here.

 

The rise looking over Barley’s Bowl felt about a million miles away, yet he finally caught sight of it. Elation put his heart in his throat; he’d made it! The creatures behind him had flagged and fallen behind, and he’d slowed his pace to a slow run. That beautiful ridge was finally his. He glanced over his shoulder to check for immediate threats.

 

Boom

 

An explosion shattered his hopes of a relaxing stay before he ever caught a glimpse of the town.

 

He finally made it over the hill into the bowl shaped valley the town was named after. It didn’t look good. Squads of police and soldiers formed a barrier between the city and an ocean of tainted animals and insects. He could even make out men with empty, glass eyes and shiny black and purple skin mindlessly crashing through corpses heaped on the battlefield.

 

Groups of civilians and police ran back and forth setting blaze to the dead within reach.

 

Following the tide of monsters back to the forest’s edge with his eyes, Rat noticed the trees had been burned back further than he’d ever seen them before. Even then, saplings and brush sprouted up through the new ash, as though a little fire were no obstacle.

 

A squelch dragged Rat’s attention behind him. A shiny, hairless panther dragged its broken body toward him on two front paws, the rear legs sticking out at odd angles. Another panther fell out of a tree beside the first. The animal’s jaw shattered outward in a mosaic of bone and gore. The animal picked itself up and ran after him.

 

He wasn’t giving up this close! Rat bolted downhill. Wind and dirt hit him in the face as many disgusting animals took swings at hime while he ran.

 

A group of police swung his direction, all bringing at least one firearm to bear.

 

“Wait, wait! I’m normal, don’t shoot!”

The men popped dozens of shots off, adding to the cacophony of bellows and cannonfire and explosions. Moments later, Rat’s pursuers littered the road behind him as he stood, relatively unscathed.

 

“You’ve picked a terrible time to visit stranger!” A few armored men pulled him into the center of a ring of police. The one on his left belted out a series of orders to the others before turning back to Rat. “Get yourself down this road 200 meters and the captain’ll tell you what to do. Go, MOVE!”

 

A fluid reflex on the soldier’s part had a sword singing out of its sheath by his side, a shiny-black forest glider crashing to the dirt in halves.

 

The man dispatched a young boy, probably no older than 12, to guide Rat. The stone road into town was clogged with messengers and soldiers, and ended in a small square. A series of canvas tents littered the plaza, filled with people and provisions. The runner dragged him straight to the biggest tent and explained his situation to the man in charge.

 

“What in the father’s name are you doing running out of a forest crawling with nightmares, son?” The captain was a grizzled man with more scars than teeth with a voice like pitted iron.  He glowered into Rat’s eyes, then shifted, focusing behind him. “What’s in the bag?”

 

They spent a few minutes discussing the contents of the bounty hunter’s bag. The captain sifted through containers and tools, weapons and jars of oil, asking few questions and being constantly interrupted by runners. Finally –

 

“Listen…er, Rat. I’d love to let you into town to cower behind the women and children. Fact is, I need you and your bag. We can use all the help we can get right now. Thirty years in the city watch and I’ve never seen something like this” He spread his arms wide, half-smile on his face. “Think of it like a bounty, except the bounty is 10,000 little bastards.”

 

This was not a tempting offer.

 

“Captain, I’d rather n-”

 

“Or I can kill you and give your stuff to my people.” The smile stayed as the captains’ eyes glinted with steel.

 

“Like I was saying, I’d rather not have your men hurt themselves on my equipment. I’ll see what I can do.” He turned, and was gone.

 

Well crap, he thought. What am I supposed to do about those? Damn these small city states.

 

When he returned to the fight, there were even more animals than before. The hillside  swelled and writhed, washing over more and more of the defensive line.

 

Perfect.

 

He had no idea if traditional tranquilizers worked on these things. They bled, right?

 

Rat unfurled a brace of darts already dipped in a concoction of his own devising. He selected a black deer a few feet away, slunk up behind it, and jammed the dart deep into the beasts neck.

 

It howled an unearthly shriek and whirled to confront him. The deer snapped at his face and threatened to gore him, taking an unsteady step forward. Then another. Then collapsed before its third step.

 

The soldier he saved spurted the body with a flask of lamp oil. A dirty young man, battered and bruised, and full of resolve, ran from behind the wall to light the oil and disappeared again.

 

“Well, I may be able to help after all.” Muttering to no one but himself, Rat counted a quick inventory. He had a few braces of tranq darts, but that was a pointless gesture with the scene in front of him. The monsters were endless and swarming. Smashed together, especially susceptible to… something with an area effect. “Blast it all.”

 

Rat retreated behind the front lines and loosed a few select ropes of the enormous bag. A few moments later, and the bag had unfurled into a mobile workstation. “These are no use to me if I die, but they’re still a pain in the ass to make.” He pulled a string of small bombs. He pulled a small cloth with his symbol printed on it, draping the cloth over a broken stone wall. The wind was gently drifting East. Well, at least he didn’t need to worry about bombing himself with the backdraft for now.

 

One by one, his 5 second bombs flew as far and as quickly as he could muster.

 

BoomboomboomBOOM

 

This design was Rat’s own, so he took  a moment to be proud of his handiwork. The poison inside those bombs needed to be an intense concentration, and then further pressurized inside their containers individually. When the explosives fired, the viscous liquid absorbed a lot of the energy and converted into the clouds of purple smoke wafting parallel to the defensive force now. Huge swaths of the monsters dropped where they stood.

 

Cries of alarm sounded behind him. A small squad of young men rushed forward delivering oil and fire with wild abandon. While they completed their grisly job, something caught Rat’s eye.

 

A small crowd of tainted foxes was twitching, or convulsing he could say. Odd, there were no-

 

The shiny, black skin of the hairless foxes began boiling. The animals’ limbs fired in all directions as they jerked back and forth as a group.

 

Was this some sort of defense mechanism on the part of the foxes? He considered himself well-traveled, had visited more city-states than most people had a right to, and spent a good majority of his time in the wilderness coaxing mushrooms and flowers to bloom. He’d never encountered anything like this though.

 

Suddenly, a small black spike pierced out of the fox’s eye, wriggling like a sharp little worm.

 

Rat’s heart leapt into his throat. His feet stumbled over themselves to be the first to get away from the abomination. The tiny, alien, thing, pulled itself free of the eyeball just in time to be set on fire by the converging crowd of boys. Rat noted dozens of similar tiny appendages wiggling and sticking out of the other unconscious animals. In minutes, there was a wall of fire a hundred meters long.

 

His vision darkened around the edges as he fought the urge to spew his stomach all over the ground. If pre-pubescent boys were man enough to deal with it. Ugh. What a nightmare. He did some quick recalculations. The freakish little things were still moving, so they probably weren’t susceptible to the sleeping gas. The animals they hosted were though, and the doses in these bombs were a bit strong. He had a thought.

 

He lit one of the fuses. 1, 2, 3, THROW!

 

Boom

 

The bomb exploded 20 feet above the animals. That purple haze expanded far more than when he threw the bomb on the ground, and it looked to be more than twice as effective ,judging by the sheer number of paralyzed monstrosities .

 

The fire brigade lunged forward to light the blaze but was pushed back under the onslaught. A police officer cut in, level 2 by the look of him, whirling a sword so naturally it was hard to tell he had a weapon. A small blaze caught and spread quickly, and Rat watched as the little bastards shriveled and wilted under the flames.

 

Fire wielding children surrounded the bounty hunter. “Sir! If you have any more tricks in that bag, we can stick by and help with the cleanup.” A stocky boy of about 15 saluted and signaled his group behind Rat.

 

“Alright boys, let’s see what we can do.” Inwardly, Rat was hoping not to empty his stores. It was nice to be backed up for once though, even if it was just a gaggle of boys.

 

A loud whistling overhead drew his attention. The men behind the walls had strung giant, makeshift slingshots and were hurling huge sponges soaked in something foul-smelling overhead. A contingent of riflemen atop the walls opened fire with incendiary rounds and flames erupted across the war zone.

 

Time was a blur as wave upon wave of these little bastards smashed into the town defenses and, in some cases, converted several humans to their side. The sun traveled its lazy arc across the sky until it hung just above the mountaintops. The tide slowed. More and more of the defending force were allowed a drink and rest before swapping out with someone still embattled. A small group of civilians who hadn’t evacuated were used to run water, food and bandages to the front to ensure their best chances of survival.

 

Rat’s muscles tingled as they rested after a long day. The group of young men lying on the ground and covered in soot and grime from the hard fight.

 

“Did we do it?” One of the young men asked. A slight boy with bushy red hair, though the hair was slick and matted to his head.

 

Rat shushed him. “Never ask the W-question lad. It’s bad luck.” He stretched, pulling his tight muscles loose, and lay on the ground with the boys. It felt good to stop moving. He could still feel the telltale vibration of his explosives in his body as he lie still.

 

boom

boom

boom

 

Wait a second.

 

Rat sprang to his feet. Companies of guards dotted the city’s-edge uneasily, nibbling at rations and looking nervously into the lengthening shadows.

 

Boom

 

Boom

 

BOOM

 

BOOM

 

SCREEEEEE

 

A gigantic black worm jutted up out of the treetops with a horrifying squeal. The children smashed their hands to their ears and cried. The blackened worm fell, crashing back to the ground as if in slow motion. Trees exploded into a hail of shrapnel under the beast and the assembled defensive force felt the strong winds from a hundred meters away.

 

“D-DEMOPHANT!”