Chapter 37: The Test

Hello Internets

Chapter 37 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it!

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Cries of frustration and exhaustion echoed through the night air. Thinly veiled anger simmered beneath a facade amusement as Leliana threw her hundredth empty blow. The Protector was a small, wiry man, and damn was he fast.

She feinted a strike and dropped to her hands, aiming a kick to his knee. Damn. Those blasted robes made it impossible to tell where to land a solid hit. The protector leapt gracefully over her outstretched foot and vaulted off of her unbalanced body. He soared a few meters to land on his feet while Leliana face-planted. She sputtered, scraping the dirt from her tongue.

“Are you just going to run away?”

He smiled.

“Are you just going to chase me?”

Her Blood raced. Was that the test, to catch him? She was beginning to hate the constant game of riddles their formal speech necessitated.

Leliana’s pulse hammered in her ears while the two played a game of cat and mouse by moonlight. Every time she got close, he danced out of reach. He used her momentum to power his own, spinning off in random directions. When she was forced to stop and catch her breath, the man wasn’t even breathing hard. Leliana grunted. “I can’t even touch you.”

“You’re impatient.” He pointed out. “You lack imagination. It’s likely you’ve made it this far in life through brute force and ample muscle, correct?”

She averted her eyes, not trusting herself to speak through heaving gasps.

“But I see a fire in you.” He continued. “A small spark, perhaps for now, but not unpromising. All you need is a little fanning of the flame, so to speak.” Moonlight shone off a glint in his eye she wasn’t altogether confident in interpreting.

She frowned. Before she made her next attempt, the Protector closed the distance between them in a blur. She blinked, and he was behind her. She whirled, but found herself back to back with him again. She spun left, he followed. Acting on impulse, she lunged forward and whipped around to grab him.

He wasn’t there.

The distinctive crunch of footsteps was the only warning before he wrapped her in those skinny arms. His breath was hot on her ear.

“Let’s fan that spark.”

Damn he’s strong. She fought to breath under that crushing embrace as he constricted further. Leliana’s stomach lurched as she was suddenly lifted horizontal; the Protector grunted and tossed her up to adjust his grip, then sent her sailing across the clearing. Air buffeted her ears while she flew blindly through the dark. “AAH!” Rough grass came to meet her faster than she’d have liked, bouncing and rolling until slamming to a stop against a tree. “Ow…” She coughed.

She stumbled to her feet, wary of the small man. “You’re stronger than you look.” Scat, she could barely keep up with her eyes, how could she catch him.

He smiled warmly.

“We all have our inner strengths, child.” The Protector fidgeted with the ornate clasp near his breast, letting the bundle of his robes fall with an explosion of dust. He was thankfully outfitted with another outfit underneath; a black set of shorts and a tight shirt displayed a ridiculously well muscled body. “I commend your efforts, Leliana. I doubt very much you’d be much of a threat in your condition, to my kinsman or to the monsters.” The words stung like fire as she realized they were entirely true. “But I would also like to test your defensive ability. On the ready, now.”

Wind howled through the trees as the words sunk into her skull like molasses. Test her defenses? So like…

The protector disappeared.

“What-!?” Glancing between Bristol’s smiling mug and where the protector had been moments before, Leliana almost missed the telltale sound of crunching grass. Meeting his outstretched palms with her own, she narrowly avoided another crushing embrace. She took a trick out of his book, pivoting wildly to grab his hands with her own, and put all her strength into sending him flying. To her dwindling surprise, she was the one who slid backward. Entrenched firmly in his stance, the smaller man smiled approvingly. “Very good.” He crowed, smiling broadly.

Alarm bells went crazy in her ears and her instincts took control before she realized it as a storm of fists rushed in to meet her. Dodging him was like fighting 5 men at once, she mused. Always a fist or a foot to run away from but never a man to throw into another.

Damn. Was all she had time to think. The symphony around them was interrupted with yelps and gasps as the two traded blows. Air whooshed from her lungs when solid blow took her in the ribs, the blow itself knocking her into the air. Before she could react, he was behind her. Strong hands wrapped around an arm and a leg and suddenly she was airborne again, the world spinning like she were some top in a children’s game. Bile forced its way up and she forced it right back down. She couldn’t help but growl in frustration; the last time she was this outmatched she’d been 12.

The bruises from that encounter had taken months to heal.

Red started to tinge the edges of her vision. Why was he doing this? Was he just taunting her, letting her know how weak she really was? The man clearly was out of her league. In fact, why was she still doing this? A whirlwind of questions and thoughts of failure kept her spinning mentally even after she’d rolled to a stop in the spiky grass. Little pinpricks against her forehead.

“You have a few tricks up your sleeve, yet. I’m impressed.” He admitted. “Though your reactions now are more in line with where I would assume in a layperson. Was the first then, a fluke?” The deep timbre of his voice, soothing and comforting at first, was accusatory and derisive now. Or was that just her? His words echoed in her mind endlessly until she couldn’t be sure he was ever the one who actually spoke them, a trick of her own loathing consciousness.

“Do you yield, child?”

His face was imperceptible. Leliana’s breathing was ragged, her mouth filled with the taste of dirt and copper. Even by moonlight she saw how much blood she spit out.

“No, I’m not done with you yet.”

He smiled.

“Good.”

Oof. AH! She caught a left and a right swing full-force in the ribs, vision swimming while she fought to keep breathing. The protector leaned just to the left and she got her hand up in time to catch it. He smiled. Blow after blow the two pounded fist against fist – he as a test, and she to survive.

She didn’t know exactly when it happened, but she found herself relying less and less on what she could see and more on pure intuition. More and more of his blows were glancing off forearm or hand, and she retreated much less than at the start.

A tiny shift in weight and she dropped, letting his foot sail harmlessly overhead before moving in to take advantage of that opening. The Protector, for his part, managed to get both feet on the ground in time to receive a barreling charge. He tossed her aside like a child. The crunch of grass on her left had Leliana’s guard up before she registered the sound, catching a wild blow against crossed arms.

Uh-oh, was that a crack? Quick shallow breaths were all she could manage. Her pulse was fast, racing even, though not from exertion. Every tiny beam of light, every insect wing, every single grasshopper song felt like they were clamoring for attention to her heightened senses as she strove to take it all in. It had been so long since she’d been free to feel this way. The Protector’s moves were almost predictable at these speeds. Leliana watched, frustrated when he dodged everything she threw at him.

He was smiling.

She smiled.

Let’s give him something to smile about.

Leliana kicked off into a near-horizontal charge at her opponent, wrapping one arm around his waist before he could move. He stood solid as she used her hooked arm to come up around him –

“What!?”

Then vanished from sight, letting Leliana fall on her face. Bone shattering force exploded into her left arm as she instinctively blocked. The same arm protested when she dropped to all fours and flung herself backward as far as she could. He spun to meet her, batting her aside one-handed. His brow furrowed, or she thought it did. What little light she could see by blurred suddenly, so much that she saw two protectors. She couldn’t breath. He said something, but she didn’t hear him. Fire coursed the length of her body, and something popped inside her chest. Packed soil scratched her up as she collapsed.

The world went dark.

Chapter 36: A chat

Hello dear internet readers,

Chapter 36 of Lead Heart is up!

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Leliana and the big man found common ground unexpectedly easily. Once he revealed it was his own javelins that she’d been playing her macabre game of dolls with while fighting the Jesters, the two flew into a world of artillery and siege weapons. For his part, Bristol was enamored with her tales of violence from the last couple of weeks. He was especially interested when she enlisted onto the Nightmare.

“She what?!”

He was currently coming to terms with the fact that her last employer had made use of a diminutive woman to build their vessel. “This big  you say?” He pointed to his knee. “How did she? I mean, how could she?”

Leliana giggled. “As far as I know, she had a big dude, bout your size, to do some of the heavy lifting. She was mainly the brains of the operation.” Leliana said. “She was damned adorable too, wish I knew where they were.” Haunting shrieks and cries echoed between the foothills. The constant noise was even worse than the wooded areas further south, where she’d been traipsing it alone.

Bristol pshaw’d her concerns. “If she’s got a guy like me handling things, she’s fine.” He puffed out his chest with a smile. She doubted those words, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it until she fully recovered.

The last few hours really highlighted how much she’d fallen since…well, falling.

“I hope you’re right.” She said at last. She felt a chill breeze brush against her neck and noticed for the first time that the clearing was shrouded in shadow. The sunlight was practically set, and the sky paraded a procession of deep reds and oranges to herald the night. The brazen buzz of the insects finally drown out the songbirds as the latter sheltered for the night, and Leliana looked uneasily over her shoulder. It was somehow worse being exposed in the open like this than it was sleeping under the forest canopy.

“Bristol?” She asked.

“Hmm?”

“Does your team always stay out here?”

“Well where else would we stay, lass?” He replied, confused.

“I mean, I almost ended up as excrement in less than five minutes during the daytime. You guys just march about at all hours of the night?”

“Of course! We’re the ones supposed to be managing those rascals, after all.” He chuckled. “It wouldn’t do for the people supposed to be protecting you to need protecting, would it?”

She considered that. “I would’ve put wrestling that green snake as beyond the capabilities of any single human I’d ever met. You’re right though. Vea, was it? Didn’t really seem worried about it. She just kind of…slapped it around for a while. Wait.” She was hit with a flashback to that encounter. “She did something to it. I don’t know what it was, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. What was that?”

Bristol laughed. “Caught you in the area of effect, did she? Vea must like you, if you were allowed to be that close while she worked her art on that creepy crawly.” He said. “I can’t say too much, not my place. Suffice to say, that woman knows how to shut em up.” He settled back against a cushion near the front to admire the star-speckled sky. “Most things in the world ain’t out looking for a fight, they’re just looking to eat. You gotta make yourself more trouble than you’re worth.” He punctuated this with a loud clap and vigorously hand gestures. “That, and making sure to travel in pairs. Too easy to get snuck up on out here. Even if you know what to look for”

“What about you?” She asked. “You’re here all alone?” The thought of being surrounded by giant snakes in the dark made her shudder.

“True enough.” He agreed. “We used to be six and I’d be out there with the rest. Things happen, and now we’re five.” Bristol seemed wistful. “I’m here to hold down the fort, as it were, seeing as how it’s my fort!” His tone brightened suddenly and he hopped into the tall grass. “Well, not your problem lass. Looks like prot himself has come to chat. Look lively now!”

Grass crunched underfoot as she panicked, trying to look in every direction at once. “What!?” She hadn’t seen anything? Now that he mentioned it, there was a definite scaling down of the forest symphony behind them. The sun was fully set, leaving them with naught but moonlight.

Seconds later, a wiry figure materialized out of the shadows. His tattered brown robes adorned with some straight and stern looking letters. The letters were foreign to Leliana, but they exuded authority and she could guess at their intent. His warm eyes twinkled out of an otherwise unadorned face and bald head.

“Protector!” Bristol shouted, embracing the smaller man roughly. Though he was only half the big man’s size, the protector seemed, bigger, somehow. Almost like he towered over Bristol, yet only half his size. “It’s been a turn and a half old man. What have you been up to?” The two embraced warmly, Bristol hauling the other into the air like a child.

“It is good to see you well, old friend.” The protector’s voice was soft and inviting, like being verbally wrapped in a warm blanket. “Zimi told me there was a lamb in need of a shepherd.” He added. “Is this she?”

“I don’t need a shepherd.” Leliana cut in before Bristol said anything scandalous. “I only came out here because the speaker asked me to.” She held her chin high under the intense scrutiny of the smaller man, daring him to refute the statement. When he said nothing, she continued. A little more subdued. “She wanted me to train with the war brothers?”

“I see.” Was the only reply. Crickets chirped merrily all around them, and the older man rocked backward into a relaxed stance. Bristol hopped back up into the cart with a smile, hands in his lap. “To join the brothers, you must pass the test.” The Protector made a show of stretching and cracking his knuckles before he settled back to face her. “Begin.”

The words thundered in her ears, though she couldn’t immediately comprehend the meaning. “Uh. I. What? What’s the test? Do we fight?” Her eyes bounced between the two men, but the Protector just smiled. His eyes were cloaked in shadow, so she couldn’t tell if the smile was vitriol or humor. His legs were wide and shallow to make an easy pivot or change as warranted, and he wiggled his upturned fingers at her in a challenge.

“The test is yours to make.”

Chapter 35: Waiting

Hello Readers,

Chapter 35 of Lead Heart is ready to go!

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“Who. Are. You?”

Leliana’s arms dug into her sides painfully, and she struggled to wrench them free. Muscle memory kicked in and she mentally skipped down an internal checklist.

First, she loosened her shoulders and let her feet fall from under her, jerking her arms up to dislodge the ones around her. She was satisfied as the man grunted and nearly toppled, but didn’t let go. Before he righted himself, she planted her feet again and tried to spring backward over him. He didn’t let go. She hammered her head back toward his face, but missed. Finally Leliana sprinted perpendicular to the attacker and he almost let go. Instead, his feet wrapped around her waist.

Everything happened so fast, the whole thing only took a couple of heartbeats; Leliana had forgotten the audience and thus had paid no heed to their amused expressions.

Leliana’s ingrained training handed control of her body back to her when it realized they were still caught. Irritated at her automatic responses, Leliana decided to try brute force. She clasped her hands in front of her chest-high and used them as leverage to break the hold. She was satisfied when the gruff voice cursed and the feet fell away, giving her the freedom to dive and come up facing her attacker. Pinpricks lighted softly on the exposed flesh of her windpipe, and she found herself staring into the yellow eyes and slitted pupils of a naked…

Man?

His disheveled white hair looked like it’d been used as a bird’s nest recently, and the tanned leathery skin covering his body had a visible sheen of hardened calluses covered in scratches and scrapes. His pointed teeth smiled from chest height, one of his clawed hands hovered beneath her chin. “That’s enough of that.” He growled.

His smile shallowed when the deep baritone of the bulky woman called somewhere to Leliana’s left. “Indeed it is Carkus.” Carkus glared around the girl’s side at the rest of their grinning faces.

“Who asked you?” His voice was like a normal person with a mouthful of gravel.

“She is under my parole until prot arrives yon, so she is under my protection.”

Leliana recoiled when the small figure leapt to his hands and bolted through the tall grass on all fours. The woman continued.

“Besides, you would know who she is if you’d been listening before you sneaked up on her.” She put her hands to her hips, looking like a mother admonishing a boy.

“It wasn’t my fault I didn’t hear.” Carkus’s voice had moved from deep and growling to shrill and whiny. “She should’ve talked louder so I could hear her.”

“She did.”

“So who is she?”

Leliana stood slack-jawed while her rescuer filled in the crowd. Her fighting instincts profiled them as she stared, taking care to remind her that she was most likely hopelessly outclassed by every single one. Maybe even the lizard. The thought was more exciting than she cared to admit.

“You better not expect me to do any babysitting this time.” Carkus complained. “I’m the one who took care of the last two and one of them wouldn’t stop talking. For hours!”

The huge man in the weird wagon was next. “She’s free to stay with me, Vea. That girl’s the one what fell from the sky, no?” The strong woman nodded. “It’s a rare opportunity to talk to someone at the other end of my aim.”

Leliana could tell he was trying to be quiet, but he seemed to be struggling to talk at anything lower than booming shout. Even his whispers were loud.

“That is agreeable.” Vea replied.

“Fine by me.” The scrawny man chimed in an airy, singsong voice. “I have things to do.”

Trees rustled in a light breeze and a silhouette glided smoothly over her. Moments later Carkus squealed in surprise as he flew to the ground under a blue blur.

“Ah!”

He rolled, tumbling end over end in a tangle of blue scales and tanned hide. The two rolled to a stop, the reptile coming out on top. Its tailed lashed back and forth and its mouth hung in what Leliana was pretty sure was the closest thing to a smile she’d ever seen on a lizard. Two batlike wings buffeted the man on the ground with dust and sand. The two wrestled until the small man gave in.

“Okay, okay, you win already. You cheater!” The smile returned to his sharp teeth as he stood and waved. “Alright,  Zimi is back. We’re out! The two bolted on all fours until they were swallowed by the dark forest. The afternoon sun cast long shadows. Vea called Leliana to the wagon.

She was still struggling to comprehend exactly what in the hells she had just witnessed, and found herself stopping in front of the cart before she realized she’d moved.

“You will remain with Bristol until the protector arrives.” Her dark skin was almost invisible in the dying light beneath her dark-brown robe. She and the blue-robed figure with silver hair departed across from where Carkus and the…And Zimi? Her head spun trying to keep it all straight.

HELLO GIRL.”

Bristol could’ve given orders to a fleet of airships on a stormy day.

“Come on up!”

Chapter 34: Falling

Hello Readers,

Chapter 34 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy!

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The world around Leliana slowed to a standstill as she sailed over the safety of solid ground. Colorful patches of bright blue and dark green zoomed in to sharp focus far below. She could pick out individual details in a the stone clearing against the cliff face she’d just hurled herself off of.

Jagged rocks cradled a medley of decayed vegetation and gave way to a gentler, still rocky slope littered with debris. The crisp, blade-shaped leaves of coniferous trees contrasted sharply with the darker pine needles interspersed randomly between the waiting giants.
Every heartbeat stretched into an eternity while she hung, weightless, and decided which boulder she wanted to decorate.

Suddenly she had a better idea.
The momentum of the jump was just enough to get her as far as the first or second tree beyond the clearing. Her eyes snapped between the trunks. An interesting idea struck. She’d look pretty cool if she landed it, though she would look like an idiot if she didn’t.
If I’m going to die, she mused, might as well do it in style.
Leliana folded her legs and wrapped her arms around them. Muscles twitched and strained while she inhaled and bore down. Hard.

Another heartbeat, another eternity. A series of mostly bad decisions sprang to mind to remind her of why she was here.
She released the built-up tension into a swirling somersault mid-air.
The instant she made contact, a crater exploded into the strong dogwood. She ran down the rough bark and her knees nearly buckled when she made the push off to the next tree, a dark-wooded fir. The leap took her face-first through a viper nest, surprising the both of them. She ricocheted between trees at breakneck speeds, instincts driving while her conscious mind struggled to comprehend. One desperate, last minute leap to shed the downward momentum flung her at the rock face itself.
One quick gyroscopic movement and the stone splintered beneath her heels.
One more excruciating heartbeat stretched into eternity.
Finally, she let gravity drag her down until she collapsed with a cheer. “WOOOO!” She was still grinning like an idiot when a thick leather boot planted into the gravel beside her.
“What a reckless child you are. Though I am glad you did not die.”
The frown showed disapproval, but the look in her eyes when she observed the cratered trees held a different meaning.
Leliana’s heart still hammered a hundred times a second and she could only sigh with relief. “It was amazing. You have to put that on your to-do list.” She winced when the older woman plucked a few thorns from her poor face.
“I will pass. You are impulsive and unsound of judgement, yet bid to meet the protector by the seeker herself.” Arms crossed and the woman towered over the sprawled girl. “I find this difficult to believe, but easily enough disproven. If you are eager to see your last day, I will not stop you from following me to my brothers in arms. I cannot guarantee your safety, however.”
Leliana bounced to her feet. “Fair enough.”
Then the monk did something unexpected.
She smiled.
“Besides.” She continued. “I have a funny story for them thanks to you. You should be there to see their reactions.”
Leliana coughed. “We can probably skip over some of the details on this one.” She felt her face flush and cursed her traitorous body.
The monk gave a short bark of laughter before disappearing into the dark shadows. “Keep up!” Was the only thing Leliana heard before she realized she’d been abandoned.
“Not again!”
Trees were a blur as they whizzed by, her feet somehow managing to stay upright. The telltale snap of a twig or rush of leaves was all the clue she was offered as the monk sped unbelievably fast through the shadowy forest. More than once Leliana found herself pushing off the sturdy trunks to prevent herself from running into them with her face.
She burst into a small clearing to a chorus of laughter. No more than 100 feet across and dotted with tall grass and bright flowers, the clearing was currently home to a bizarre contraption. Brass wheels supported the wooden frame of what appeared to be a smaller version of the huge wagon she’d woken up on just earlier that day. The dark wood was rimmed with a brighter set of troughs filled with dirt and various plants and herbs. The most notable feature was of course the thick metal column running through the front and rear of the wagon. The bottom of each column was buried into the soil beneath the vehicle, and each were topped with a metal orb.
“And here she is.” The large woman gestured to Leliana while she skidded to a stop.
There were three others in the clearing, all sitting atop the weird looking wagon. The first was giant of a man, as big as Gib and likely twice as strong, a dark and untamed mess of a beard adorning his otherwise bald head. An extremely lithe man lounged against the first, his light chuckle all but drown out by the guffawing giant. His silver hair cascaded over a shoulder and his blue eyes lighted on Leliana for just a moment before he returned his attention to the woman. Lastly was the blue-scaled and winged lizard standing as high as the big man’s torso as it stood on two hind legs surveying the scene. Mottled blue and green patterns swirled around the creature’s body in a way that she knew would’ve been impossible to see if it wasn’t sitting inside the wood and metal box.
“Uh, hey! I’m Leliana…” Was all she could think of to say. She moved to step toward the group when she was caught in a crushing grip from behind, pinning her arms in the process.
“WH-”
“Who. Are. You.”

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.