Chapter 79: A Cataclysmic End

Warm sweat sprinkled the air with every twist and turn, burning her eyes and helped her remember what it was like to be alive. “Not so tough without the old man, are you?” The blue monster of a man she faced off planted a fist into her shoulder in reply. Her entire being shuddered on impact. Damn, how did they hit so hard?

She pivoted with the force of the blow, narrowly avoiding the follow up. Leliana ducked inside his defense and hammered her forehead into his face. She smiled as thick fingers tangled her hair and yanked, then disappeared moments later when their owner’s eye split down the middle.

All these months ignoring self maintenance had payed off. Long nails were actually pretty nice.

Leliana threw herself backward as a spear sang its way into her personal space. She sprang out of a roll and winced as the pain hit. The bastard must have split her ear. She clapped the blade as it stabbed at her face and yanked its wielder off-balance. Vea destroyed him from behind, the light in his eyes extinguished before he slumped to the ground.

“Hey, that one was mine!”

“We have plenty of fish to-”

Radiant pain lit up her mind as a mental shriek exploded reality. Leliana vaguely recognized even her friends being affected from the corner of her eye. Flashes of blue scales and white hair imprinted her eyes. Complete and utter terror etched a location into her senses and she bolted, joining her brothers to the Watchers’ aid. They had to be alright. They had to be protected, or all was lost.

The ground rushed up to slap her in the face without warning. She suddenly couldn’t breathe. “Get off me!” She bucked and bit and flailed to get free. Dammit why now, why her? If the Watchers were in danger…

Electric fire hit like a lightning strike.

When the fog cleared, she was herself again. Struggling to breathe under the combined weight of no less than four people. “Guys…” she wheezed. “Guys it’s okay.”

She made a mental note never to give cause for Bristol to tackle her ever again.

Leliana ripped a piece of shirt off to stymie the renewed fountain of blood spurting from her left arm. “Sorry I thought this was working.”

“No harm, lass. We all felt it, must have been a wallop!”

Bristol was out of his mind if his idea of ‘no harm’ constituted crushing someone to death. She let it pass. “What happened, where are we?”

“We’re almost there, actually.” Karina rounded the bed ahead. “They just crashed a party Carkus was having with Zimi. Teena’s in there, c’mon!”

Leliana’s lungs unwillingly permitted a light jog, and she fell slowly behind the others. She rounded a corner into a gargantuan corridor lined with windows and absolutely devastated with gore. These were the Watchers.

Well, used to be.

Two blue guys rushed Carkus. Sharp teeth ripped the throat out of the first guy. A fountain of green added to Carkus’ macabre mask and the growing lake of blood. She’d never heard him make the sounds rumbling out of his throat as the second foe grappled him from behind, eyes wide with terror. Slick with blood, Carkus twisted and popped a blue arm free from its owner. He blinked to a window nearly three meters away and ripped the Watcher screaming from their chamber.

For the first time in memory, Leliana shuddered and looked away from the carnage.

In a far corner, the remnants of the Sha gathered around the old man. Golden staff in hand, the geezer had gone almost white. Served him right. His goons held hands and began the baritone chanting anew. She couldn’t make out whatever the old man was saying this far away, but she definitely saw the living Watchers begin to glow a bright white. Scat, that couldn’t mean anything good.

Someone rained screaming out of the sky and bounced with a sickening thud, and Zimi swooped down to pounce a guard behind Carkus moments later.

Carkus charged the survivors in the corner, howling and clawing against an invisible barrier. He paid no heed to the swirling vortex of light forming above him.

Atreides leapt into action, wrestling Carkus to the ground. Tooth- and claw-marks crisscrossed the smooth floor before he was finally pinned. Zimi dove to his friends’ defense, his momentum used against him as Vea flipped him ass-over-heels. He wound up on his wings in a headlock to the powerful woman. The Protector flipped Carkus around and slapped the blood clean off his face.

“WHAT THE HELLS IS WRONG WITH YOU STUPID ASS SCAT LICKING PIECE OF-”

Another smack echoed off the walls.

“OW OKAY I GIVE UP.”

“I apologize, old friend.” Atreides planted Carkus on his feet, who ran to soothe Zimi. “Three hours since we met with Lilith approaches, friends. We must leave. Now.”

Karina peeked a corner, cradling a pouting Teena. “I think I know the way!”

Leliana took one look at the old man, glowing brilliantly behind his men, and sprinted to catch up with Karina. She heard distant thunder as the ship rocked to one side. She almost went face-first into the floor. What now? Her chest was tight, she couldn’t breathe. Dread wrapped its icy fingers around her neck and squeezed with a terror like she had never known. Why? What in the hells? She couldn’t resist a look over her shoulder.

Oh. No.

An ethereal dragon stretched from the golden staff, golden teeth extended to bite her in half.

“GO GO GO!”

Everyone cast a glance back before panic put a new wind in their sails.

Who the hell…WHAT were these guys?

The pace quickened until both Teena and Karina were hefted onto someone’s back to keep up. The ghastly image of death swam hot on their heels snapping and growling.

“Throw me!” Teena squeaked over Bristol’s shoulder.

“AYE!”

The ship groaned as they scrambled aboard. That wasn’t a good sign. Teena rocketed off Bristol’s shoulder into the driver’s den and accelerated every remaining propeller to a screeching frenzy. Leliana nearly collapsed as the translucent wyrm plowed into their vessel mouth-first.

Apparently, ‘see-through’ wasn’t a problem for this things’ teeth.

Teena struggled to get them dislodged from the Spire in a deadly game of tug-of-war. Shards of wood splintered off in the maw of the beast as it crunched its way up the bow. Slowly, but steadily, the broken research boat ripped free of the crystal pyramid. Shattered wood and metal instruments poured into the belly of the beast.

Leliana cringed at the way the materials slithered into its throat, pulverized after few meters.

The deck shuddered as it was ripped in half. They were free! The creature raged and came after them.

The eight of them locked themselves inside the drivers’ area with Teena so they wouldn’t fall to their deaths while the ship rocked wildly back and forth. The huge windows cracked and splintered, it was almost impossible to see the shield through all that…shield? Where was the shield?

“You guys…what’s that?”

Karina pointed at the two suns burning brightly in the sky, except one of them grew larger by the second.

“I believe we should not remain here for long.” Atreides said.

“Aye lass, give it all you got!” Bristol added.

“I AM giving it all I got! It’s not enough!” Teena flailed at the instrument panel. Switches and levers clicked back and forth at random to try eking out a few more seconds of power. “I’m surprised we even got off the ground in this thing!”

Leliana’s stomach twisted into a knot as the loudest, most disgusting sound of crunching wood she’d ever heard tore the wall from their hiding place. Nails squealed in protest. The entire side of the ship exploded.

“AH HAHAHA. I GOTCHYA!” Jovi’s deranged grimace screamed over the gales of the atmosphere behind the wheel of an unfamiliar ship. A ship she had just driven straight through theirs. Leliana’s heart constricted. She respected the woman, but she might be safer with the ghost dragon. “That BITCH already fired her big gun! Le’s GO! We gotta go!”

Carkus and Zimi wasted no time jumping overboard and speeding away. Vea and Bristol snatched up Teena and Karina and made the leap into the open sky. They all landed ‘safely’ on deck. It was her turn. Leliana’s legs wobbled, but it was only a dozen meters. She could do that. She took a running lead and jumped-

She missed.

She gasped when her left arm slammed into the new ship, her fingers numb. The ship jerked as it yanked free of the wreckage. Ah, dammit. She couldn’t get a grip, what a useless hand. She’d survived all that just to die?

Well actually, she’d fallen that far once, right?

Then the Protector was there. His entire body flexed as he fought to pull her up. She fought the panic rising in her throat as a crushing force bit down on her feet. That stupid dragon. Her hand slipped, but she caught him with the other. They both trembled under the strain. They were slipping. And then Bristol was there. And Vea, and Karina. Even Teena showed up. “Pull you slugs!” She peeped. “Put your backs into it!”

These idiots. Leliana couldn’t help but grin like an idiot the whole time.

Frigid wind blasted her bare feet as her shoes ripped free, and with them, the beast. Jovi held the remnants of the ship’s throttle triumphantly as they tore out of there.

She still hated them all for giving her to Lilith, but… They definitely had kept true to their word.

Sigh

She curled in a heap, panting and fighting the waves of exhaustion that always struck after a fight for one’s life. The fireball in the sky was closer, thrice the size of the sun and twice as bright. She frowned. And it was screaming?

“Here’d COMES. ‘Ts COMIN!” Jovi slurred. Oh gods. Someone had to get control of that wheel.

Nobody heard her pleas over the shrill wail bearing down on the world. The fireball streaked out of the sky like a meteor and impaled the invader’s capital ship like a spear.

The concussive wave hit her like a grenade.

The massive ship disappeared inside a haze of plasma. The ship was knocked near-vertical by the resulting explosion. Jovi cackled, singing to the Skymother while she wrestled the belligerent wheel. The city of Gungrave loomed above them while the ship looped once, twice, thrice. Leliana was crushed to the floor as they rolled, all the different ways she was about to die playing across her vision like a mirage.

Any second, The ship would drop out of the sky or they’d explode or they were going to be cooked. Leliana burgers! Everything was happening all at once and she had no idea where to turn or how to keep up. Eventually gravity was able to pick a direction and stay that way, and she didn’t feel broken or shattered this time. Yet.

She opened her eyes.

Jovi fought the wheel as the ship raced at the front of the massive explosion. She’d lashed herself, upside down, to the reinforced steering column.

“WOOOOOOOOOO!”

Leliana smiled. This was the real Jovi. The breeze gentled as the ship coasted to a glide after many, harrowing, minutes.

The city-sized ship demanded their attention as soon as the danger had passed. Flames poured out every window and surface. Blue and red and yellow fires ate at every exposed surface while molten crystal rained into Gungrave.

Gungrave!

Leliana crawled to the edge, fearing the worst. Relief nearly brought her to tears when she discovered the city already evacuated, its people congregating on what was, days ago, a bloody battlefield.

Tears? What rotgut had poisoned her to be happy these strangers were alive? Ugh, she was getting weak.

Thunder cracked across the plains, though not a cloud was in sight. The dragon was gone, in its place naught but the rage from within as the Sha fought to save their ship. A roaring crevasse streaked the length of the hull as it sagged under its own weight. Gods, the generations it took to put that thing together were just…gone.

In spite of herself, Leliana longed to save that ship and her people, if only to preserve such a beautiful thing. She daydreamed of the relationships formed in its hallowed halls. At the-

She jiggled the spike in her arm again. “Oooh you slag eating scat bags. Burn in all the nine hells, and stay out of my head!”

Almost invisible behind torrential flames and crackling electricity, a tiny fleet of ships darted from the wreckage and zipped into space. The world herself screamed as the two halves of the ship became too heavy. Each half gouged canyons into the plains on either side of Gungrave. They screeched and scraped until her ears bled before finally coming to a rest, steepled above the ruined city and casting a perpetual darkness.

The city of Gungrave was in for a long night.

Chapter 78: Breaking Out

“This is amazing!”

The cool corridor echoed Teena’s raspy whisper as she flicked the hovering trinket. A fist-sized pyramid of clean, blue crystal hovered over a little podium in the middle of a crossroads. It spun mesmerizingly, drinking in Teena’s rapt attention. Harsh voices rumbled somewhere just around the corner and Teena squeaked, speeding down the opposite direction.

Gutteral shouts she couldn’t understand chased her through the hall like they were an arms’ reach away. She ran for minutes and and hours and days, alternating left and right every time she reached a new turn until her legs couldn’t take another step. Teena plopped to the glassy floor to listen.

Silence.

Phew, that was close.

Only after a prolonged period of silence to ensure she was really alone did she allow herself to check her new surroundings. Thousands of glittering windows dotted the biggest room she was pretty sure she’d ever been in. It was so high she couldn’t even see the ceiling, or what she thought must have been the ceiling. It might have been that the swirling runes climbing the walls played an optical illusion and the top was a lot closer than it looked, but she didn’t think that was probably the case. Maybe the ceiling was mirror-polished? If that were the case, then where was she?

Teena cocked her head, staring upward. It was a beautiful room, but she had to know how high it went.

Her backpack clanged as she tossed it aside, one of the bronze amplifiers cold and heavy in her hand.

It flew into the chasm overhead, falling to the floor with an almost musical chime. Delighted, she tossed another, adding to the chorus. “It sounds so pretty!”

_______________________________________________________________

“AGH!” Leliana gasped as blue fingers dug into the profusely bleeding hole in her left arm. She offered a token resistance, giving up immediately when hot fire shot up into her shoulder. Fatigue from the earlier fight draped over her like the weighted blanket she’d slept under when she talked back to Brutus. Ugh.

Ki to-bah le corond a’.”

The blue monsters muttered gibberish to each other as they milled around the prisoners. The monks, Antrose and Karina had been tossed in a heap against a far wall, but the guards were clearly waiting for-

BOOM

A heavy drum drew everyone to attention.

A stooped old…man? Hobbled into the room. He leaned on a golden staff for support, and his shaggy mane of hair had gone pure white probably ages ago.

“Oh good, grandpa. You’re here.”

The blow landed fast and hard from behind, knocking her to the floor. Leliana grimaced and started to rise. When her hands were kicked out from under her a second time, she glared at the bastard, but stayed down. None of her friends made any sound, though she could tell by the roving eyes that plans were being made and remade.

She sighed.

Te la kim she lisk?” The geezer directed behind her. His eyes piqued at the response, and he bent low for a better look.

Leliana felt the slimy embrace of his mind as he probed at hers, doing her best to keep him locked firmly out. It wouldn’t be good if he rooted around and found out about the-

This sneaky bastard, almost tricked it out of her without even trying. “Stop that.” She leered at him, swiftly kicked from behind in reply.

The old man payed her no mind, straightening and retrying leisurely. He had an air of authority, and she was beginning to wonder if bogging this old man down messing with her was buying them precious minutes to evacuate the people of the city.

He shrugged, nodding.

The light in the room flickered, going black for just a second. This got a frown out of him. He closed his eyes, hands to his head in concentration. In eerie unison, half the men in the room sprinted from the room down a side corridor while the other half hauled her and the others to their feet. They were herded together and surrounded by Sha weaponry, swords and spears and squiggly knives.

Weird, she thought, you’d figure a civilization of mind reading freaks who could set you on fire from afar would use some flashier stuff.

The old man frowned as he cracked the staff on the floor. The ring of blue bastards outside the ones with the weapons all joined hands and began a baritone chant that she couldn’t quite make out. Moments later, the old man’s mind shot into hers like a javelin hurled by a ballista.

She shrieked as the world plunged into darkness. There were hands on her, she didn’t know whose.

The room dimmed, and the pain with it. Then the brightness returned, and the screaming resumed.

_______________________________________________________

“Aw man!”

Teena squinted at the mangled amplifier, details a bit hard to make out in the dark. Why was it dark? The strip of her shirt she was using like a sling hung over one shoulder as she wrestled to restore her new favorite instrument.

Darkness faded as the other three amplifiers became muted. Finally she held the broken one triumphantly, as good as new.

“Ah HA! That was at least thirty meters this place is so huge!”

Then she sighed, collecting the tools back into her bag. She’d better get back to finding the others before something bad happened.

“Okay, okay, one more try,” she promised herself. “If I don’t hit the ceiling this time, I’ll…I’ll give up chocolate! No wait, I’m not doing that. I’ll let Karina pick the next ship’s name!”

Fabric sang as she whipped it giant circles over her head, the amp starting a low resonance with the whine. When she felt like her arm would fall off, she put her whole body into the direction change and let go, whistling as it winked out of sight.

A clang tinged her ears, almost too quiet to hear.

“WOOO I did it! WHOA! How did they-” Another sound started. A low rumble, quiet at first. An animal? She hoped she hadn’t killed anything! It wasn’t long until a slim figure materialized above her, tumbling and flailing and screaming as its nude body slammed to the floor.

“Carkus you’re alive!” She ran to his side, grateful to see a friend. Well not really a friend. A not-enemy.

“Tch…” he gasped.

“It’s so good to see you because everyone was worried and we all came aboard to see if we could find you and- erm, what?” She bent low. “What did you say I didn’t catch it?”

“You…bitch…” He gasped, more strongly than before.

“Is that any way to talk to the woman who saved your life and quite possibly is on track to saving the rest of the entire WORLD?”

“YOU HIT ME IN THE FACE!”

“How was I supposed know you were just hanging out at the top of a giant room full of windows!”

Carkus rose, narrowing his eyes. “No, not windows. These bastards hung me out to dry and then a bunch of ‘em started digging through my brain like some kinda…” He shuddered, not willing to finish. “Give me that.” Teena was just stowing the amplifier back into her bag when Carkus yanked it from her, hammering it on the nearest window. Minutes later, every side had been molded into a shiv.

“You’re gonna break it!”

“You’re damn right I am.” Carkus reversed his grip and plunged it through what turned out to be a thin layer of clouded crystal. A wrinkled blue man stirred inside, blinking rapidly. Carkus wrapped a hand through the man’s salt-and-pepper hair and ripped him screaming from his tiny cell.

Teena’s stomach flipped in knots. She turned away, slamming her hands over her eyes. A moment later she opened them to a tap on the shoulder.

Carkus was covered head to toe in thick, green blood, and pieces of the body were scattered everywhere. “Thanks, I owed him one.” He said. “I owe it to the rest of ‘em too, but that guy deserved it first.”

“Let’s go find everybody else and get going.” Teena said. “Everyone got caught by the scary guys and I was hiding because I’m not big enough to charge in guns blazing and I snuck out after them and there was this really cool-”

“Let’s get Zimi first.” Carkus said. He explained briefly how he’d almost woken up several times while she’d been playing one-man-band on the floor, and that he though the chiming of the bell was what interrupted them.

Together they made enough noise to wake the dead.

Carkus hurled the pointed instrument at the same time, hitting his friend effortlessly to wake him. Zimi drifted wearily to the floor a moment later.

“You alright old pal?”

The flying lizard shook his head to clear it, then nodded.

“Good,” Carkus retrieved his weapon. “Let’s meet our new friends face to face.”

___________________________________________________________________________

Pain arced through Leliana’s entire body. The old man drove his will through her mind in brutal waves of agony. Every time she managed to fight him back, there was a sort of recoil like a gunshot distributed all the way down her spine. She focused on the cool floor on her fingertips to stay sane.

She couldn’t let him win. She would not let him win.

Old bastard.

The ring of chanting intensified their incantations and, with it, the force of will being directed against her. Lilith’s words came back to haunt her. Your father was very specific on the consequences for mixed breeds among his people.

Her father. Was he really still alive? Where did Lilith say he was? She was pretty sure Lilith mentioned him being under the lab, but that was hundreds of miles- Wait just a damn minute.

“You sly bastard,” Leliana spat on his feet.

The old man growled and smashed her hand with his staff. She didn’t care. She felt the death sentence before he even turned back around to leave.

Qiul fodda.”

The armed guards closed on them while the chanters collapsed to catch their breaths. The one that kept kicking her earlier came again, the sword she’d stolen held high. The blade was still completely soaked in Sha blood.

She smiled.

He whipped the sword over his head and back-

The world plunged into darkness. Longer this time. It didn’t matter though, this was it. She’d fulfilled her purpose anyway. She waited a dozen heartbeats or more. What the scat was taking so long? It’s not like she was-

When light donned the world again, Atreides and the blue bastard were locked above her in a deadly embrace. Each tried to wrest the blade from the other, their off-hands a blur of attack and defense.

“Prot?” She could practically hear the grinding noises her brain made as it tried to start up again. Vea’s dark-skinned fist plowed into the things’ face.

They were free?

She raised her left arm. Bloody tendons and the spike were still there, but the bindings… Did they fall off when it blacked out? She looked up in time to watch Vea clap her hands against her captor’s head. The silent concussion blew blood out of every orifice as he slumped to the ground.

Leliana stared at the blue corpse. “How?”

“Now is not the time for how,” Atreides hauled her to her feet. “Now, we do.”

Chapter 77: All Aboard

Ice cold pain lanced through her arm like a lightning bolt. Leliana gave a light chuckle, after she stopped screaming, inspecting the small metal bar she’d just driven through her left arm. “See, nothing to it.”

Atreides winced while Vea stared open-mouthed. “You…”

“It’s the only thing that’s stopped me from attacking every time.” She explained. “Nobody in their right mind would assault an enemy base with that kind of liability behind them.”

Atreides nodded.

“I still wish someone would’ve mentioned the suicide part of the mission before I came along.” Karina said. “I could’ve saved them the trouble and just jumped when Teena fired the rockets earlier.”

Leliana smiled apologetically. The cargo hold lay in shambles, a testament to how difficult it had been to wrest the mind-control from the Sha. “I’d probably have skipped out too, if I knew…” She waived at the room. “But it’s useful to have an inside view on the enemy’s thoughts, right?”

“Alright you kids! One big, blue spire, dead ahead!” Teena’s voice floated down the stairs, dragging everyone back to the main deck.

“And you’re sure you’re not going to stab anyone in the back with this thing?” Karina gingerly held the Sha sword Leliana had used against them earlier.

“Nope, but it’s our best shot.”

Karina sighed. “So what’s the plan? Shoot the glass and then plow through it?”

“It’s crystal, and yes.” I hope.

Leliana and the monks lugged the heavy cannons all to the front of the ship, facing forward. The huge vessel’s shields dampened almost all sound, though they all felt the vibrations of the shield just a few meters away as the others continued the assault from the outside. The bronze amplifiers hummed increasingly more loudly as they drew closer to the action.

The citadel was dead ahead. A laughably gigantic, thin pyramid of transparent blue crystal stood tall even among the other structures. An overwhelmingly vast presence kept scraping at the edges of her mind, faster and faster as they drew nearer the citadel. She felt her heart drumming a war song in her ears and kept up the pain in her left hand to maintain control. Hopefully the wrapping kept her from losing too much blood before she passed out.

“Alright lads and lasses, prep the guns and grab your asses!” Bristol’s booming laughter hit like a thunderclap.

The ship bore down on the citadel with ten loaded cannons ready to go. She’d aimed Teena where she felt the most activity near the top. Leliana stuffed her head inside a thick, soundproof helmet they found stashed in the hold. It looked stupid, and she wouldn’t have wore it if nobody else had. At least she wouldn’t go deaf with all these cannons clustered in one place.

“READY!”

Scat and slag, how was he so damned loud even through the helmet?

“FIRE!”

Sulfur stuck to their throats as all ten cannons blasted the citadel. Everyone whirled to action, reloading without waiting to see where the first shots landed. Their schedule included two shots each, and then run like hell into the makeshift padded room downstairs.

Ten cannons fired in tandem again. Leliana’s bones felt like they’d separated in the middle of the concussive shots, but she held together as she fled.

“WOOOOOOOOO”

Blanketed in half a ton of padding and separated by a flight deck, they still knew when the moment arrived by Teena’s insane war cry. Then the world imploded on itself, throwing them around like rag dolls.

Leliana’s stomach tried to escape her throat as she experienced a moment of weightlessness, the ship bucking and shattering as it impaled the blue crystal pyramid. She bounced off the ceiling with her left hand, then skidded to a stop in the remnants of the front of the ship moments later.

“Nek mah a’le!” New minds? Take them!

Leliana grit her teeth, bearing down on the rod in her left arm. Then she was on her feet, Sha blade singing its way through its former masters. She felt a deep sense of satisfaction as she dropped the two men that had approached so callously, separating heads from bodies. The others fell into a bizarre formation without a second thought.

They swarmed like a school of fish, there must have been at least fifty of them charging in unison.

The world faded away as Leliana clawed through the enemy ranks. Always another twist or dodge or parry. The Sha fought like devils and none of them were pushovers after the first two. Leliana found herself backed into corners more than once, channeling her training with Vea, leaping meters into the air before kicking off against the walls. She buzzed by Vea and prot more than once, taking potshots at their opponents on her way to another.

Leliana smiled. She moved by instinct, always trusting her gut for the next move. Always slipping away before they had a numbers advantage in any one spot. She knew where they were going to be before they got there. And she used that knowledge.

An eternity she danced. When she couldn’t hold onto the blade any longer, she tied it to her hand. And when her legs threatened to give out, she just danced harder. Fatigue crept in like a poison. No, no not yet, not now. Her vision blurred.

She slipped.

Leliana hadn’t even hit the ground by the time she was covered in angry blue men, beating her with fists and feet and clubs. She caught a glimpse of her friends as she curled to protect her head and core. They were beaten, and now, so was she.

She counted through a swollen eye as they picked her up and bound her limbs. Ha. Nearly a score of the bastards lie on the floor unmoving.

“Hok. Asae hon ame dakt Orus. Keiru.” Enough. Their sins are too great to join the harmony. To the sacrifice!


_____________________________________________


The silence was deafening.

Teena peeked her head out from the driver’s den, then ducked back inside.

It seemed empty?

Those blue things were so creepy. She definitely didn’t want to meet one face to face. Besides, technological prowess was a scarcity in the modern world and civilization could ill-afford her demise, after all.

She picked up the satchel with the four amps she’d wrapped and tiptoed through the empty chamber, careful not to slip in the, quite frankly, horrific quantities of blood. She’d packed the bag to muffle the noise, but you can never be too careful,” she quoted Karina. She just had to channel her sister long enough to free the feisty rogue and then she could hand this whole affair over to her and get back to what she knew best.

Teena cleared the wreckage and started for the exit, making a beeline straight to the colossal wall of instruments.

Whoa, this thing was massive. There was a ring of monitors rimming the panels like sunbeams. Weird, loopy runes illuminated the sides. Judging by their proximity to the monitors and other instrument panels…

“Woops, distracted!”

Teena reigned in her curiosity and crept like a spy into the wider ship.

Chapter 76: Going In

If anyone could give Teena a run for her money in technical jargon, it was Lilith. She assaulted Leliana with a series of explanations that might have been technical theory, or a foreign language.

The sky started falling and Leliana snapped, ready to fight.

Everyone stared at her.

“Uh.” What did she miss? “Yep, totally got it, good to go, ready to deploy…” Leliana said. Lilith sighed.

“You,” she pointed to Teena, whose eyes bulged. “You understood what I just said, didn’t you? Good. These don’t need to be configured or prepared or anything, just drop them all over.” She tossed one to Teena. It looked like four or five brass horns just welded together in the middle. The most ineffective caltrop in the world? Leliana kept her mouth shut. She didn’t care.

She wasn’t going up there for arts and crafts, she was going up there to fight.

Lilith turned away from her, addressing the responsible adults of the crew. Which was everyone else. “In the past, we’ve noticed the big bubble shield around the ship isn’t always consistent. They can fold it in on itself, but it opens gaps on the opposite side. Once you’re behind the ship, my job will to get that opened up for you. You fly through, scatter the amps, then get ready to run like the 9 devils are behind you.”

“Ummmmmm.” Lilith signaled the other ship, but Teena’s tiny voice stopped her from taking the rope ladder. “How long do we have on this timetable, exactly?”

Lilith considered the enemy ship. She measured space with her hands, nodding and mumbling. “About two hours. Probably”

“What!” Teena said. “It’s gonna take two hours just to get over there! Why did you make such stupidly slow ships?”

“Ah,” Lilith untwisted a keyring from her belt, tossing a key to Teena. “I assume you’re driving. Use this on the safe in the back of the navigation quarter. 720 degrees clockwise, 360 back.”

Wooden planks thumped as Teena sprinted back to investigate, eyes sparkling. At the same time, Lilith flagged her people and drifted away.

Antros and Atreides joined her, both frowning. “You don’t really trust all that crap, do you?” Antros said.

“I do not.” Atreides said. “Though this would be an odd time to still be trying to kill Leliana, with so much else at stake.”

Leliana scowled. “I’ll find a special way to kill that bitch one day. But no. I think…I think she’s being honest. Well, at least I didn’t…feel anything wrong from her.”

“Really?” Antros crossed his arms. “So do you think we should-” He stopped. The ship was rumbling. Like a thunderstorm was raging in the hold.

“What’s that?” The three of them looked high and low. There was a high pitched whine, and the hair on her neck stood on end. “Wait…where’s Teena?”

“You guys!” Karina’s voice hits them from behind. “You should grab onto something. Now!”

Leliana had been with the sisters long enough to take Karina seriously. She dove, wrapping herself around one of the instruments bolted to the floor.

The ear-shattering roar overwhelmed all sense of time or reality.

At some point she wasn’t aware of she’d become airborne, snapping in the the wind like a frayed string. She had no clue how long she fought to keep hold of that big metal box, but by the time rational thought started to creep back into her mind Leliana found herself thrown down in a heap. She almost didn’t hear the gleeful cackling through the buzz in her ear.

“TEENA!”

Oh no, mistakes were made.

Leliana retched, her stomach finally catching up with the ship in a fury. She struggled to her feet, Teena’s prone form still clawing its way out of the back room. She wanted to be mad, she wanted to be pissed. But the absolute joy radiating from the small woman infected her anger, killing it, and she cursed this stupid ability not for the first time today. Something needed to be done about that.

Later.

“Alright, is everyone okay?” Leliana conceded. She took a quick head count: the sisters, prot, Vea, Antros, Bristol. Those bastards better not have hurt Carkus and Zimi.

“Uh, kid?” Antros swatted at her, staring off to port side. She followed his gaze.

It was so much bigger up close.

They were barely a few hundred meters away from the invaders; close enough to see the rippling of the shield, to taste the electricity of their beam weapons. They gawked wordlessly. Leliana felt the shift in emotion as reality sunk in. This was all real. But six months ago…

“It appears they are beginning.” Vea said.

A shriek pierced the air as a fresh barrage of violence started hammering the shields from the front. The science vessels splayed in a semi-circle, lobbing firebombs and rockets designed to scream as they flew. Lilith’s flagship shot a cannon that Leliana could feel in her bones.

The shield slithered and bubbled, but held. “Teena, get us a bit closer.” Leliana said.

The ship drifted closer. There was a high-pitched whine that emanated from the shields, spiking and sagging with the tides of the translucent material.

Gungrave joined in the attack at the front of the ship. Cannons from all five walls had pivoted to jab with their explosive rounds, even faster than when Teena had rigged them. The Gungrave navy drifted out of sight, but they were dropping dozens of bombs by the sound of it.

“There!” Karina yelled. A tiny hole split the shield nearby. It pulsed like a living thing, slowly growing more and more until the gap must have been at least a half mile wide. As soon the shield was open, it was like a dam had broken, and Leliana was washed away in a flood of mental commands and locations, orders and feelings.

“Going in!” Teena said. The crew braced as she navigated the ship closer. They had to skim the alien vessel if they were going to fit inside that shield at all. Smooth blue spikes and spires jutted off the ship more and more as they moved toward the front until Teena was navigating a maze of blue crystal structures. The design she knew had been the product of generations of research and work, an acoustic design meant to direct and concentrate mental communications from anywhere in the ship.

No. Wait, how did she know that? She shook her head to clear it.

The bright clang of bronze on crystal chimed as the crew started dropping the amplifiers onto the ship. With a disruption loud enough, they’d take out the Golden Prayer gateway from the central spire for sure. The shields would hold as long as the Heaven gateway stood, but what if they found that too?

She had to stop them.

Leliana drove her consciousness into the Sha blade as it sang free of the makeshift sheath on her side. The aluminum instrument panel screeched when the blade plunged through it where Antros had been standing a moment before.

The humans shouted in a language she couldn’t understand, but their movements were telegraphed easily enough. Chips of wood exploded as she plunged the blade through the floor, barely missing the bald woman. By the divines these ones were fast. The whirring blade left a streak in the air while she danced with them.

She cursed her useless left arm. Why couldn’t she just… How had she…

No.

No, no, no. What was going on?

Leliana jammed the sword into the big metal box, letting go this time, throwing herself clear. She tripped over something and went down hard on her injured hand. “AH!” Their voices started to make sense as she focused on the sharp pain.

“Kid?” Antros kicked her foot gingerly.

“I…”

She what? She was okay?

“I’m…Me.” She tried to catch her breath.

“Vea, let us escort Leliana below decks for now.” Atreides said. “The others can take care of the amplifiers, but I believe it best if she is protected separately.”

So they could take her down without risking others if she turned again, he meant. Still, it was hard to be mad about that.

“Wait,” she said. “This path we’re flying down? It’s like a canal I think, for thoughts instead of water. There’s more we need to find.”

“Okay, okay,” Atreides gently took her good arm. “We shall address those as time permits. For now, we should go below.

Chapter 75: Planning

Hello readers!

Please excuse my tardiness, this chapter took a little longer to get where I wanted it this go ’round.

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Wood smoke tickled her nose from the deck of the commandeered ship. Two hundred or more cottages and farmsteads blazed in the wake of the huge ship dominating the horizon. The destructive light show was getting more and more active the closer they flew to Gungrave, blue and red and white flashes of light buzzing the air and giving the air an electric taste for miles.

They were going to pay for that.

But how? Leliana frowned. The crack and boom between the invaders and the Gungrave military was a constant as the ship started intruding into the airspace over the city. Huge cannons, measuring their range in miles, volleyed explosive charges while a steady stream of rockets streaked from buried silos surrounding the city. It was an amazing display of force.

Amazing, but useless.

The ship was obviously almost unaffected by the maelstrom of destruction directly below it. If she squinted, Leliana saw a nearly invisible wall ten, maybe twenty meters out from the hull. The crew stared, transfixed, while Teena navigated the ship ever closer.

Dammit. Six months she’d spent trying to purge the training that had been beaten into her for years. Now she found herself scouring her head for the same lessons. What in the hells were they up against? She’d never been to another continent, but was it possible something so alien existed without her knowing?. She glanced at her slightly blue hands uncomfortably. Nobody else was staring at least, for that she was grateful.

Still. The situation was winnable. It had to be.

“They’re definitely setting up above Gungrave,” she finally broke the silence. “Any ideas?”

“See how the red lights go for miles, but the blue ones only stay directly under them?” Bristol said. She nodded. “I’m thinkin’ they’re higher and lower powered, the high powered being shorter.”

Leliana’s eyes flit between the rapid, blinking beams of light. Staring directly at the underside of the ship was painful and left pinprick of shadows across her eyes. Two white beams concentrated on the city wall. One by one, the city’s prized cannons went up with a concussive blast she felt all the way up here. “What do you think it means? And why would they attack the wall if the guns can’t hit them?

“Their defense must be finite,” Vea said.

“Maybe,” Bristol said. “More likely is that they have a new weapon to show us, much shorter rage, much higher power, and they don’t want shot at while they get it ready. Could be they’re afraid of that shield bein’ dropped before they use it!”

Leliana was barraged with concentrated bursts of orders before each beam of light lit up another target. It was distracting, and she hated how much energy it took to concentrate. If that thing were full of blue bastards, why didn’t they just teleport to the ground and wipe the defenses? Or at least have sent backup when she’d turned the last one to mincemeat.

“I don’t think they have the army they want us to think they have,” Leliana said. “Too cautious, too reliant on guns. I say we run this junker straight up their ass and kill them all.”

“I forgot what a reckless psychopath you are,” Antros sighed. “They may not have an army, but you do remember how they wiped the floor with us just a minute ago, no?”

Her left arm hung limp and useless at her side. A reminder. And then she was airborne.

It didn’t last long, and pain rocked her skull as she hit the deck face-first.

A larger ship, flying the same flag, had careened into the bottom of them unexpectedly. Teena jerked the wheel and kept them from capsizing somehow, the ship rocking back and forth violently in the wind. The whole damn sky to fly in and this bastard couldn’t steer around them? She had no time to consciously process her actions as Lilith thumped onto the deck. She flashed behind the older woman, pinning her arms, in less than a heartbeat.

In a monumental feat of self control, Lilith’s lifespan was longer than that one heartbeat.

Some deeper part of Leliana whispered treachery, suggesting Lilith was here for a purpose. That she didn’t do anything without cause.

But she was here.

Alone.

To be killed.

Lilith’s smooth, exposed throat brushed Leliana’s calloused fingertips teasingly. Lilith grunted as she was hugged tight, blood from Leliana’s left arm smearing her neat smock. Leliana’s fingers twitched.

Jovi’s face loomed in the shadows.

Stop it! Leliana closed her eyes, eager to let the darkness take over. Yet, curiosity kept Lilith breathing.

“What.” Leliana growled. She was vaguely aware of the others’ stares, but it was impossible to care.

“I need your help.” Lilith said.

“What!”

“Assist me with this, and I’ll disappear. Forever.”

Leliana squeezed a little tighter. The slight rasp from Lilith as she did was intoxicating. “Pretty stupid to throw your life away like this.” She adjusted her grip and –

Hope. Millimeters from her death and this bitch had the audacity to hope.

Leliana growled, and tensed.

But her hand stayed.

Dammit.

“This day is the reason for your entire existence. You can feel that, can’t you?”

“Shut up.”

The gang crowded, breathlessly waiting to see what she would do. Now she felt every single stare burning holes into her. Even Teena was there.

Damn it to the nine hells.

Lilith’s haughty calmness pissed her off, made her twitchy. “What’s in it for me?”

It was gratifying to hear the throatiness as Lilith spoke with a clenched trachea. “As I’ve said, you would be free. No more running.”

“No point in saving the world if I can’t live in it, old lady. What about money. A ship? How about you tell all your lackeys right now to never set foot in my direction for rest of my fucking life.”

“Done.”

Leliana lost her grip. Lilith smelled like irritation and impatience, but it was hard not to be cautiously optimistic. Lilith flagged her own ship. The hands tightened around her throat again as her two enforcers stomped aboard. She used them to relay orders back to the captain, with instructions to signal the rest of the fleet. Lilith’s gaze was hungry when she turned back this time.

“…what’s my job?” Leliana released her throat, but kept her arms pinned.

“First I need to know what you can do. You’re as blue as ice, so you’ve clearly broken the inhibitor. Can you read minds? Did you inherit the telepathic projections?”

“Are you telling me this scat is permanent?” Leliana raised an arm.

“FOCUS.” Lilith commanded. “Minds. Can you read mine? Do you hear theirs?”

“Read them?” Leliana scoffed. “I can’t read anything. I can…feel them, I guess. I know you’re oozing curiosity, and about as bitter as an old bag right now, for instance.

“Interesting,” Lilith yanked free and started to pace. “You get nothing from the Sha? No commands or suggestions, does your body move against your will?”

“Sha?”

“We have hours before this city is transformed into a molten puddle of ex-humanity. I’d love to answer every stupid question you have, I really would. But not now.”

Leliana’s face heated, though she managed to reign herself in. Barely.

“I get flashes. It was really strong in the cage, stronger when they boarded my ship. It never fades completely, but they’ve never controlled me.”

Everyone stared while Lilith paced the deck, chewing a thumbnail as she muttered to herself. The song of destruction picked up as the huge ship crept closer to the center of town and the East, West and South wall cannons pivoted to join in the attack.

“This can still work,” Lilith whispered. “The primary advantage of the Sha is their empathic link. Like an intelligent hive-mind. It’s also,” she tapped her forehead, “their biggest weakness. The only reason I took your father alive was because of a sonic decompression-”

“My father?” Leliana stopped her. “What did you just say?” White, hot fire shot through her left arm while she pulled Lilith against her again.

Lilith swore.

“I told you this days ago, pay attention! Your father is Sha. Rior’Da. We caught him slinking around twenty years ago and killed everyone in his landing party. You were the only seed that survived, and only because I bore you myself. The complications of interspecies breeding turned out to be more insurmountable than I thought.”

She’d known, of course. The blue skin was…but not this. It had to be a lie.

One look at Lilith’s unconcerned face made it easy enough to believe. But it didn’t make sense…

Leliana took a steadying breath. She felt herself spiraling. She needed to focus. Get through this, at least. “If you already beat them once, why do you need me?”

“I don’t have the tools to ensonify something that big. I don’t even know what that would do to the atmosphere,” Lilith said. “The tricks I used last time won’t work at this scale. But if what we learned two decades ago still holds, that fortress is almost empty. If someone, you, were to plant my sonic amplifiers in the right places, I believe we’d be able to disrupt anything and everything that relies on the supersonic transmission spectrum to function on board that ship. Perhaps permanently.”

Leliana’s head ached. “You sound just like-” She glanced down at Teena’s bulging eyes. “Nevermind. Just tell me what to do.”

Chapter 74: Seeing Blue

Hello readers,

Please enjoy this chapter of Lead Heart!

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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!

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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.