Chapter 24: Flight of the Clowns

Hello Internets,

Chapter 24 of Lead Heart is ready to go! This one is a bit longer – I considered cutting it in half, but then I lose a bunch of impact of the scene. Tough it out, I believe in you all ❤

 

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The emaciated crowd of men confronted Leliana immediately.. The smell of ozone mingled with wafts of acrid tang that made her throat recoil, and the deck was slick from the rain. There was a shadow of a rainbow sheen of oil floating atop a gunpowder slurry mixed with…something else. A few men hung back at the “rudder” and worked the boat around The Nightmare’s wild jabs.

The man in the floppy hat came at her with a sneer. Bulging fat which looked to be layered on a mountain of muscle rolled and danced endlessly at every step. It was mesmerizing. Until he spoke.

“I’m gonna wear your face while I kill your disgusting family!” His shrill, nasal voice pierced her ears and bewildered her mind.

What the…?

The storm came back to start the fight again, the wind trying its best to toss her over a cannon while the rain stung like a thousand tiny shards of glass. The men had clearly learned to work as a unit, and wordlessly spread into a half-circle conveniently separating her from the fat one. The ship swayed dangerously in the unsteady currents and more than once she was bucked into the air without warning. Lightning left a streak of white floating in her eyes and she allowed herself the pleasure of the explosion to shake her to the bone. Reminded her of the night she…Wait. Why was she thinking about-

“Wait, what the hells did you just say?” She blinked the spots away. “You have such a stupid voice I almost missed your abhorrent manners. Shouldn’t you offer me a drink, juggle my balls? You’re the worst clown I’ve ever met.”

She didn’t wait for the circle to close.

A leap to the left put her boots into the chest of a snarling scrawny thing with a huge loop in his ear. She rebounded off him and wrapped an elbow around his friend while he pin-wheeled over the edge into the open sky. She squeezed and felt a familiar crunch, and grunted in satisfaction. “I don’t know what you did, but my pacifist captain was frothing at the mouth to get your head on a stick. You must be a piss poor person and captain.”

“Oy don’t you disrespect King King, tramp!”

“We gonna show you piss poor!”

Two Jesters collapsed the ring formation, snarling and baring chiselled teeth. She set them back on their asses.

“Dammit, is that why you put that weird crap in your body?” One of them wore a stupid looking earring with a bizarre half-snake thing, which apparently had been sharpened to a razor point at the tail. The other sported a rusted metal spike jutting from his jaw. Jagged cuts on her fist dripped a sloppy stream of blood down her new jumpsuit. “Aw da- Wait. King King? Is that…did your parents name you King?” Another arc of electricity hit the sky and highlighted movement in the corner of her eye. It was… Just a random harpoon popping up, 50 feet away in mid-air, like a surfacing whale. Where-

A chain dug itself into her throat while raucous laughter erupted from its owner. “You ain’t got nothin’ to brag about, whore.” He reeled her in, hot breath slithered across her neck. She almost retched. She’d cleaned latrines less fragrant than this clown. His bony chest pressed into her as three others stepped in to take shots. Darkness ebbed around the edge of her sight and two of the attackers had found studded planks. Scat. Leliana kicked one in the face and tried to use her weight, but two of the jeering crowd ran forward and grabbed hold so she stayed aloft. Damn it. One of the bastards shattered his plank over her gut, driving the wind out of her. Then he jammed the remnants of the filthy plank into a tear in the jumpsuit.

“AAH!”

She curled up instinctively, frustrated as the group tried exposing her middle again.

Then the world erupted.

Wood and steel shrieked as The Nightmare ran itself across the lesser ship’s deck. Cannons busted loose to frolic with abandon, downing a few of her foes for her. The impact slammed into the small group and then scraped a wide swath of destruction all the way to the “bow.” Leliana had a brief impulse that Jovi may still be unaware she were down here. No time to care about that – she’d managed to get an arm under the chain and yanked her captor over her shoulder onto his head. A quick flick of the metal had wrapped the chain around his neck and she tried to throw him. Her arms and lungs screamed their refusal. Leliana raised the chain up for a snap but instead went tumbling forward, end over end in a tangle of limbs with two more. They’d all rolled a lot closer to the unguarded edge of the ship than she was comfortable with. A pair of hands grabbed at her hair, but she kept that crap short for a reason.

Then she was crushed, pinned face-down with the weight of the world threatening to crack her ribs. Cackling like school children, they took turns kicking while she was pinned.

Dammit.

She watched The Nightmare came in for another hit, to the stern this time. The crash was brutal, and Leliana was ready for it. The others were tossed haphazardly onto their faces while she used the momentum to spring to her feet and whip around, she grabbed- “A CANNON?!” The clowns rolled back to their feet – one of them was just in time to catch that same cannon when she whipped it around. The man wrapped his arms around the big gun and plummeted. “You bastards…Used…A cannon…” She growled between ragged breaths. Two others advanced, the ones that didn’t have a rudder to steer any more. She stepped low and felt the ribs crack beneath her fist. He doubled over, taking a knee this time. That one flipped onto his stomach while the other leapt high with a half-scream half-giggle. Leliana whipped a left hook that he ducked under and followed it with a right, which he also ducked under. “Quit dancing around you little rat.” She’d backed up to smash an elbow into him, but he deftly rolled out of reach with a toothy smile.

“Come on welp! You can’t catch ME, heeheehee!” Filed, metal teeth were accented by a dirty silver spike jutting out over each eye. They wobbled to and fro when he broke into a little jig, only to tumble out of the way of her next few blows. “Nope nope nope! Little girls like you have no hope! Hahahaha.”

He needed to die.

King King emerged from the single room on deck with a short barrelled shotgun in one hand, huge curved sabre in the other. They were chipped and battered, but she wasn’t keen to test them out. The huge man ran at her gun-first.

The ropes holding the odd balloon in place had taken a beating from that last impact and several flailed wildly overhead. Leliana launched up to grab one, soaring across the deck from that big barrel. She landed atop one of the other bastards, taking him by surprise. His scream muffled to a gurgle as his jaw turned to confetti. The girl bounced off him and wrapped her hands through the long hair of another. She whipped him around head-first, using his limbs like a chunky whip to slap his friends around. Somewhere along the way he’d stopped screaming. Her poor arms burned with fatigue and she went ahead and tossed him into the swirling storm.

Lightning exploded everywhere, providing a brief glimpse of the destroyed vessel. Rain hung like tiny jewels suspended mid-air in that bright flash before joining the slurry of remains and debris on the deck. She was suddenly face-to-face with King. Years of muscle memory launched her at him before he could pull the trigger. The blast knocked the sound out of her left ear and set the right to ringing. None of the actual pellets landed a hit, but damn was her face on fire from the muzzle flash. Leliana’s forehead broke his beefy nose and she kicked both feet off his chest, bounding across the deck before he got a swipe in with the blade.

He stomped after her. “King King does not permit you to live, wench!” Droplets sliced the air as the blade flew inches from her face.

She’d barely had time to wipe her eyes when the burning set in. “AH!”

“Heee heee heee.”

The mental map she’d built of the deck rose to the front of her mind as her eyes refused to open. It was like she’d put her eyes into a campfire.

“Do you like it?” His freakishly high voice sang from somewhere to the left. A heavy step landed a split second before she jerked back, a thin line of drops hitting her face again. “It’s the finest blend of fire pepper seeds and salted scorpion.” He kissed the air. “Delicious and painful. Such a symbol of life, no?” He stomped forward. Leliana blocked left, agony screaming up her left arm as the blade bit deep. Swinging right, she felt another satisfying crunch of bone and snatched the sword. She caught glimpses through a series of fast blinks to try clearing her eyes. The dick-faced one came around his boss with a cannonball over his head. The momentum of the cannonball carried him over the edge behind her with the blade deep nto his chest.

She blinked furiously and the rain cleared up her vision a bit. Three on one now. That wasn’t so bad. She landed a fist to the big guy’s gut and the air whooshed out of him. The other two jumped her at the same time, the dancing one from earlier flipping impossibly over her head and wrapping his arms around her own. “Time for your judgement wee one.” She kicked his partner, but King grabbed that leg and pulled her up in the air again. “The King King presides in this court!” The giggly bastard behind her was strong, she couldn’t break his grip.

King’s weasley laugh sent a chill down her spine. The Nightmare crashed through the cabin on deck and the back-half of the ship fell to pieces, tumbling to the ground below. The balloon jerked above, desperate to escape. “If we die tonight, we die fulfilled!” Two fists raised to the sky and smashed her into the deck with the force of the storm. Leliana’s eyes rolled back, but she refused to let go. Another huge weight pinned her down. It was a person this time, and King straddled her to the deck.

Damn it.

She bucked and kicked but the two others were putting their all into keeping her down. King leaned closer. Crooked, rotting teeth greeted her with fetid breath that the wind blew straight into her mouth. “Give us a kiss!” The two beside him giggled like madmen. Well, were madmen. She got a hand free and pushed his face to keep it back. The bastard didn’t react, he just giggled and kept pressing in on her hand. She was suddenly extraordinarily aware of the emptiness underneath her head. She glanced instinctively, immediately wishing wishing she hadn’t. The ships were losing altitude fast but the dizzying height still made her head spin. Rain pounded down onto her face, rushing to fill up her eyes and nose and mouth. Everything blurred together as the edges of panic set in. For a split second, Leliana was a scared little girl in a dark basement somewhere. Coughing and retching, forced under the water again and again. The rightful punishment for being ungrateful, they said. The sounds of water dripping into a filthy, stinking basin drown out the storm; the darkness closed in like a funeral blanket. Dirty fingernails cut her scalp, scars she could find years later. The punishment for disobedience, for speaking out of turn. Crying for her parents.

Leliana lost awareness of the weight on top of her, couldn’t feel his smiling face beneath her hand. Her world devolved to fear and pain. Flashes of manacles and chains and bars flew by. Damn it. All these years and she was still helpless to fight back. Damn it. Fire raced through her veins. Fear evaporated in a pool of boiling rage. “DAMN IT!”

Her body was white-hot, the normally pallid complexion flushing crimson under the already bright rivulets of blood seeping from every inch of her body. Muscles bulged, fingers tightened, and King squealed. An explosion of blood and bone and brain mingled with the rain pouring onto her face. She clung to the remnants of his disgusting skull, that stupid smile plastered on even in death. The other two shrieked. In the second of shocked silence that followed, Leliana rocked herself forward and used King’s bulk to launch straight to her feet. Another harpoon had been flung at some point and jutted straight up through the deck. The distance between the smallest clown and Leliana disappeared so fast he didn’t have time to scream until he was sliding down the shaft of that huge spear. Sounds unbecoming of a pirate swept away on the wind. She roared furiously as the shifty one grappled her from behind again. “I’m gonna rip you in half!”

“You horrid peasant! DON’T TOUCH THE KING!” The clown’s teeth tore jagged rips down the back of her neck and behind her ears.

She whipped her head into his face and yanked him by the hand. The black and white face radiated fury and he dug his fingernails in where the skin sagged open on her left arm. The two struggled for dominance, edging ever closer to a dangling propeller still stuck to the ship somehow. The Nightmare rushed in out of nowhere and battered the maimed vessel. The Nightmare itself was littered with jagged holes and Leliana caught sight of Gib stretched taught, struggling to hold a sail to its mast. Antros was hacking at the cabin door with a fire axe, and…And there was a tiny figurehead of Teena at the bottom of the prow of the ship.

How had she missed that?!

She was forced to her knees as he flipped and landed on her back. Needles shot through her when his teeth ripped off the skin of her left shoulder. “GRRAAAAH!”

Leliana gripped one of the frayed ropes whirling about and hauled them both up. Sharp, ragged gasps of air sucked in mouthfuls of rain and threatened to choke her. They hung, suspended by an unraveling rope. One fighting to keep consciousness, the other trying to take it away. She glanced down. The deck seemed miles away, her vision swam and dimmed erratically. One more inch. One more. More. More. Why was this so hard. Damn these clowns.

Time stopped. Sound stopped. A single stroke of lightning wreathed the two ships beautifully.

Forever, it seemed.

She gazed into the brilliant light and caught glimpses of herself. A little girl at the city fair. Then older, underground. Suddenly she was watching the demophant from a treetop. Teasing Antros and killing his employer. A lifetime of prison and these clowns cut her freedom to a single month? Leliana plucked a single raindrop from the air.

What horse piss.

Ten years of tears and screams and beatings rocked her. Eyes wide, she grabbed the bastard’s arms to keep him pinned, free-falling backward. The impact drove the air from her lungs. What was left of the deck shattered, splinters stabbing deep into the clown beneath her.

She hobbled to her feet and scooped him up. He leered and slapped feebly, blood and snot spouting freely from them both. Together, they stumbled back to the harpoon stuck fast in the thick wooden planks.

“Hey! Hey! Shush now, listen to me.” Frayed lines overhead snapped and the balloon edged closer to freedom. The deck swung wildly, Leliana somehow keeping her footing. “I want you to look at me big guy. That’s it. Yeah, look. I get it.” They gazed into each others’ eyes as she raised him over her head. “Sometimes you fall in with the wrong crowd. Get caught up in weird cults. Kidnap people.” His eyes bulged and rolled wildly, and Leliana fought to keep control of his jerking, flailing limbs. “Sometimes you have to kill a poor girls’ parents, you know? Sometimes you get skewered like a pig by a low-life like me. Hey, it happens.” Lifeless eyes stared back, the huge spear simultaneously holding him aloft like a scarecrow and draining the lifeblood out of him. She glanced around the deck…Victoriously?

SNAP

One of the last ropes holding them aloft whipped up and cut the bulging bag of gas. The hiss of escaping air blended into the cacophony of the storm. Leliana sagged to her knees.

CRASH

The Nightmare came back one last time, splitting the derelict vessel in two. The balloon finally won its freedom, fleeing on the wild winds.

She wanted to jump, or scream, or leap onto the departing ship. But she didn’t. She collapsed. Muscles trembled and turned to mush and she fell on her face.

Dammit. I’m not finished.

She caught sight of Antros just before the darkness fell. Far away, safely watching from the other ship. Was that pity? Better not be.

The world went black.

 

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Chapter 23: The Storm’s Arrival

Hello readers,

Chapter 22 of Lead Heart is up! I was trying a few new things on this one – not sure if it worked or not, let me know what you think!

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The clown ship swept in with a raging storm.

The cannons ceased their assault on the monks, their operators lay motionless. Junk and garbage were hurled her direction, swept into the wind. She noted two of them did actually have real weapons, but shotguns wouldn’t make it far .

Leliana smiled. 5 more shots, this time just 1 kill and 3 hits. “Damn. Wind sucks.”

“Where in Cain’s name did you learn to shoot” Antros had his own gun ready, but the enemy ship still too far. That and the fact the clowns were practically riding a thunderstorm. He wouldn’t be able to hit anyone until they were basically a stone’s throw out.

The ragged zeppelin swayed unsteady in the strong winds. As it approached, they could make out the mismatched propellers hammered and taped into place on the sides. What Leliana initially had taken to be splotched paint on the balloon actually turned out to be many different fabrics woven together. Poorly. The balloon bulged oddly, like it was trying to escape its rope prison.

The two ships rushed toward each other. A team of Jesters gathered around a wide plank, a manual rudder of sorts, and started into a wide arc. The floppy hat bounded unpredictably about his deck and screamed at everyone.

The Nightmare matched the turn easily. More than once, the ship dropped without warning as the storm twisted the sails violently. They were close to level with the cannons at this point, and still Jovi turned into them. Suddenly, the ship trembled with a roar. An enormous blast of flame jetted out, licking the air in front of the opposing ship. The flames aimed directly for the balloon fell just short.

Damn.

The fame pointed down and washed the deck. Leliana was amused that the Jesters’ fire-fighting technique was just throwing themselves on top of burning debris. “Balls and scat, Teena’s gun is bigger than mine.” The Nightmare’s momentum carried her past the clowns without any return fire. With everyone smashing themselves into blazes and ducking the larger blast, there was nobody to man the cannons. “I want it.”

The ships swept apart. An explosion rocked the air as the fire found a deposit of gunpowder.

Leliana realized how much the jet had slowed them, when it swiveled and shot them forward. The deck tilted almost horizontal as Jovi spun the wheel. The door to the cabin slammed wildly now in the wind, and Jovi’s voice drifted out every time the door opened.

“Oh no you”….”You damn clown bastar”…..”And feed them to your grandm”…..”AAHH!”

The sniper stifled a giggle, sighting back to the clown ship.

The world was dark. Angry clouds blotted the sky.

Boom Boom

Thunder almost masked the sound of return fire. A tiny shriek floated up on the wind and the flamethrower spiraled and sputtered out of sight. The canvas sails sprouted holes. A jarring lurch indicated that at least one shot had hit something important. “Teena!” Leliana tore at the ropes.

“Wait! We’re coming up on them again, you have to get some hands off of those cannons. Trust Gib and Karina to take care below.”

Antros had to scream to be heard. He was right though. She grit her teeth and took aim as a blast of rain hit her in the face. Both ships were tossed back and forth like toys, and the growing flames on the clown ship sputtered and died.

Damn.

They’d lost a lot of height. The two ships barrelled forward on a collision course. The Nightmare turned aside at the last second to brush just passed.. Smart, since it allowed her to dictate what they could target. Unfortunately, every shot was a guaranteed hit. Leliana had time for 4 shots. 4 clowns fell.

“Hit the deck!”

Boomboomboomboom

The railing exploded shards of wood and screws into her face. Someone screamed. The ring in her ears drown everything but the howling wind, and she lined up another shot.

“Jump!”

The world spun then and the realization hit her like a brick. The mast! The thick beam teetered and Leliana tore at the ropes binding her to it. The wood groaned, shrieked, and then she was airborne.

Oh.

The knife sang and the rope fell away while dozens of scenarios whizzed inside her head. Only one left her alive at the end.

She grabbed the beam with both hands. The oncoming ship looming. She took a breath. Closed her eyes. Then hurled the mast full-strength straight down. Time slowed as she floated, weightless, drifting ever closer to the looming spikes on the Jester ship. A few seconds later, she hauled herself aboard. 21 eyes locked onto hers. Glee, contempt, rage and delight played across a cluster of painted faces. Pierced eyebrows and ears and noses stuck out in all directions, and she noted at least one phallic tattoo. The heavy storm politely quieted for a moment of introductions. She smiled and swiped her eyes, coating the deck in blood.

“Hey guys.”

***

A thousand feet below, a quick conference took place. The group of empty-handed monks vaulted out of the treetops. A small team already on the ground were unpacking a heavy ballista, and many were winding a rope into a complicated knot around the trees.

Furrowed, grey eyes looked to the sky. Calculating.

Chapter 22: Snacks and Stories

Hello internet friends,

Lead Heart chapter 22 is up, please leave comments with any feedback!

 

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The skies were unpredictable the closer to the sea they flew. Lightning storms would surround them in brilliant displays of white and blue, deafen everyone for a few hours, and then scatter just as quickly. Leliana saw many ships along the way over the next few days as they drew closer to the main shipping lanes. Well, at least that’s what Karina had said, after she’d brought some cold sandwiches up to chat . Several uneventful days started to dull the excitement of flying. Weren’t there supposed to be pirates and monsters and stuff up here?

Sigh.

“Leli darling, I’d like to have a chat.”

Here it goes, she thought. Jovi didn’t seem like the type of captain to throw people overboard, but Leliana checked the parachute in the back of her jumpsuit anyway.

“Hey. What’s up.”

The older woman hoisted herself up and sat down a sack of food and a bottle of mead. “Gib and Teena had something to say about an issue a few nights ago. Something about her breaking a box. I wanted to hear your side.” She offered up a piece of bread and some fruit, though Leliana made no move to eat.

“Yeah, sorry about that. Bad dreams, you know. I started sleeping up here to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

“Is that why you’ve been up here all this time? I thought you were sulking because I was averse to your killing spree.” Jovi forced a small laugh and the two picked at the fruit in silence for a few minutes. “Gib had something to say about it too, darling. He told me you’d been… crying before you woke up. His descriptions were exceedingly all too familiar to my own a couple of years back.”

What? “To your own what?” Leliana forgot her problems as the captain opened up about her own past.

“My own dreams. Terrors, really. I drank myself to sleep every day back then. Gib was always there to hold me down in my fits and help me regain control.” Jovi regaled Leliana with stories of insane pirates and heroic saviors. Night terrors pushing her to the brink, and a huge friend to keep her anchored through it all. Apparently the crew of The Nightmare used to be bigger, but most had been pushed away by an angry drunken captain frivolously throwing their wages into casks of alcohol. The only ones left were the 3 from the beginning and Sekkel, an old retiree to whom Jovi was just a drop in the bucket as far as angry captains went.

They chatted most of the morning away. Clear, blue skies gave way to a darkness gathering at the horizon.

Leliana was wiping tears of laughter by the time the story finished. “You punched him so hard you broke your hand? Hot steam I would’ve loved to have seen that.”

“Oh, no you wouldn’t have. I was a wreck. Makes me embarrassed to remember it.” Jovi’s cheeks were bright pink, flushed with mead or embarrassment or a combination of the two. “But I’m also incredibly grateful to have the crew I do.”

Something on the earth below caught Leliana’s eye. It looked like a centipede or a skinny worm, but visible from a thousand feet in the air. She dug out her scope while Jovi gazed into the distance. “Huh. There’s a bunch of people walking through the middle of nowhere down there. Bunch of guys in brown coats.”

“Really!?” Jovi retrieved her own spyglass to have a look.”Oh! Those are the traveling monks. The Wandering Monastery they call themselves.” The group was some hundred strong with bruised and battered people huddled between them. Some wore backpacks, others had nothing. Two large carts, pulled by 4 garbed men each, pulled up the rear. One was laden with bundles and boxes, the other bore several people laid out in various positions. “They’re the saviors I was telling you about. I lived with them for almost a year before I met Gib.”

“Are they, like, taking slaves down there or…” The name ‘Wandering Monastery” sounded pretty cool to Leliana, but there was a clear divide between the upright, robed individuals and the others.

“No, not at all. At least they weren’t when I was a girl. They walk between cities, picking up animals and people along the way. Anyone can join them for as long as they like.” Jovi handed Leliana the spyglass for a better look. “Here, check it out.”

Leliana took the offered device and marveled at how much clearer things were. “Man this thing is way better than mine.” Jovi laughed. She was right about the situation on the ground, Leliana could tell now. Several men gingerly carried children and small animals. One man standing atop a cart was feeding a bandaged panther, who lapped at a bowl in the monk’s lap.

Leliana felt a tremor in her ear. The hair on her neck raised, and she felt the sudden prickly sensation that screamed caution. Two more tremors followed in quick succession. She looked to the storm. It was certainly headed this way, but not what she was hearing. A cold wind picked up, throwing a bowlful of berries overboard.

“Haha, oh no!” Jovi merrily swept the remnants of the improvised picnic back into the bag. “We better get inside girly.”

There was the tremor again, almost audible this time.

Leliana loosed the ropes around her and scurried up the mast to have a better look. After a few minutes, she spotted it. A ship running in front of the storm. “Hey Jovi, question.” She yelled to be heard above the brisk wind blowing now, so she jumped back down.

“Yes, Leli darling?”

“You know anything about a red flag with a…clown?” She’d zoomed in for the best possible look, but nothing else really came to mind. Pasty white face, black rimmed eyes and a freakish red smile. Looked like a knife or spike sticking out of the right eye. Reminded her of some of the old carnival comics she’d burned through one winter. Something else tugged at the edge of her mind. It felt so familiar. “I think I’ve seen that somewhere…”

“Leliana, hand me that glass please.” The woman’s smile was plastered in place, but her voice was harsh, commanding.

“Sure thing boss.”

Jovi’s hands trembled while she gazed at the bizarre airship in front of them. A rainbow of sickly hued reds and yellows and greens were painted haphazardly everywhere, a huge blimp roped to the ship to keep them afloat. Minutes of silence whooshed by in the growing wind. The metal tube suddenly squeezed out of the captain’s fist, hurling itself overboard.

Leliana snatched it, though she almost dropped it herself after a glance at the captain. Despite looking the calmest she had been since the two had met, Leliana’s fighting instincts recoiled from the vitriol exuding from the small woman. A thump-thump-thump caught Leliana’s attention and she saw Gib walking across the deck. “Hey big guy, I think you better come over here.”

Gib changed mid-stride from a walk to a frolic, his wavy black hair floating through the air as he bounded to the watch nest. “What can I do for you today, o’ friend of mine and pretty maid?”

“Pretty what the hells did you… Nevermind. Liste-”

“Gib. Dearest. The Jesters have come to play.” Jovi smiled as Leliana back away from her suddenly cheerful voice. “It seems they’ve taken a fancy to shooting at my old friends, as well.”

That tremor hit Leliana’s ear once again. Something clicked, and she whipped around to stare through the glass at the men and women below. A plume of dust and rock and smoke puffed out of the hillside near one of the now-abandoned carts. The robed figures were all carrying a man, woman, child or beast and scattered in all directions. She let out a small whistle. They were split and each carried a burden, yet they all migrated as one unit. Well, a small group had split and run for the forested hills at a sprint.

“Damn, even wandering monks have cowards huh?” Jovi was suddenly not behind her anymore. She was below. Gib had one hand on her back, and one on his own chest. They were breathing in sync.

“There we are, Jovial. You’re doing a tremendous job. You shall slay these demons yet one day.”

Outwardly, Jovi was calm and in control. Yet to any observer, the energy coming out of her was more wild than the lightning in the approaching storm.

BOOM

Leliana’s ears perked. Speaking of lightning.

Jovi laughed defiantly into the oncoming storm. The captain pulled a wide, metal hammer from the center-most mast and looked to Leliana and Gib. “Not one day, Gib.” She brought the hammer against the mast.

Clang

“Today.”

The metal anchor inside the mast echoed wildly through the ship.

Clang

“I have a chance to save my own saviors. The Skymother ushers me toward them as we speak. My own nightmares have presented themselves for retribution. I can’t deny such a clear path my friend. I slay my demons today.”

Clang

I’ll not have that blood on my hands.

Sparks of their last encounter flickered through Leliana’s mind. The Jovi a couple of days ago and the one in front of her were not the same person. The crew emerged from below at a run.

Clang

Clang

Clang

The last tone was allowed to die as the distant rumbles picked up, both of thunder, and now cannons.

***

A heated discussion followed regarding their course of action. Jovi’s plan was apparently for everyone to abandon ship while she drove it into the Jesters’. Gib was only the first objection.

“Nay, captain. Many years you’ve looked out for me. I’ll not be departing so easily.”

“Are you kidding me?! The months of design I spent preparing just for this.” Teena was next. “Not to mention the years it took to build the little minx. There’s no way I’m letting you get away with her!” The small woman climbed up to Gib’s shoulder and pointed dramatically back to the stairs. “Onward, Gib! To the war room!”

“Aye-aye, mini capt’n.” Gib saluted nobody in particular and they disappeared below-decks.

Sekkel and Karina ran below to secure all the important stuff and ready a huge batch of sealing foam.

Jovi looked to the two security guards. “This isn’t your fight, I apologize I must ask this of you, but you’ll need to hop overboard and chute to safety. The Wandering Monastery has come back from worse than this, go to them if you need.”

Antros’ frown deepened as he furrowed his brow. “My contract technically states that I’m here purely for defensive measures.” He crossed arms and looked to the watch-nest. “That being said, I’m curious how the girl is going to handle this one. There’s no way she’d leave a fight, right?” He tightened his own parachute. “I’ll keep an eye on her for now.”

***

Leliana’s heart pounded as she tied herself and the rifle to the watchtower. Snippets of her own past flashed in her mind. Brutus with a syringe. The executioner’s hammer. A faceless overseer and an electric collar.

If she couldn’t exact her own revenge, then she was damn well going to enjoy someone else’s.

Antros stood over her with the captain’s spyglass, Jovi having retreated to the wheel-room to fight the steering wheel. “That’s a long shot.”

“Yep.”

From this distance she could tell the… Men? On deck were all wearing white and black makeup, just like their flag. Most of them were whooping and hollering, tossing cannonballs between each other. A row of cannons bolted to the deck on each side, though only one side was manned at the moment. An angry clown with a big floppy hat and a spike in his right-eye stood among them, hand raised. He yelled something and dropped his hand, and another volley thundered onto the scattered monks below.

“Damn, looks like those shots are actually hitting.” Antros was keeping an eye below and above. The element of surprise was important when ambushing a force larger than your own. So far, none of the clowns had bothered looking up. “You ready?”

“This is literally what I’ve lived for.” Her dirty blond hair whipped at her face as she sighted the enemy. Leliana had 5 figures already picked out of the group, and had memorized positions and behaviors. The flag was a lot more prominent from this distance. It was easy to see the tears of blood now. And the clown didn’t have a red mouth, it just had lips dripping in blood the same color as the background. The flag took turns whipping this way and that as the blustering winds continually changed directions. 5 shots was probably pushing it from the distance she was willing to take the shot from, but the thunder might mask the first shot or two anyway.

Boom

The storm was rushing in. Jovi was roaring into the wind as it tried wresting the wheel from her. “You’ll have to do better than that, you piddly clown infested whore of a storm! AAAH!”

Leliana almost felt bad about how much better she liked the woman in the throws of psychotic fury. Almost.

She smiled.

The scope highlighted the enemy captain’s sick grin, and she led the shot a few inches to the right. She swung the gun back and forth a few times, getting a feel for the wind and how much to lead the shot. She swung it back to the captain. His sick grin flipped upside down as their eyes met. The wind hushed as time slowed. Her heart skipped a beat.

Oh. Scat.

She pulled right a few inches and hammered out the shots.

Bangbangbangbangbang

5 shots, 4 corpses. The clown in the big hat bellowed in rage, and some 37 eyes whipped her direction.

Chapter 21: The Past Returns

Cold steel cut her wrists. She felt blood oozing from a dozen different cuts all over her body, even if the iron mask blocked her vision. She struggled helplessly, muscles screaming in concert.

“Did you think we wouldn’t find you? That we couldn’t bring you back?”

*Crack*

“That we wouldn’t have the sense to follow the trail you blazed? Stupid girl.”

*Crack*

White-hot pain followed this time as the unseen torturer pressed a glowing iron into the wound, something he enjoyed randomly.

*Hiss*

“We’ve caught you so many times, yet you continue to try.”

*Crack*

“That’s enough, executioner. It doesn’t appear to be working.”

*Tsss*

The brand seared into her one last time. The deep baritone voice reverberated endlessly inside the heavy iron helmet. “I think this time, we’ll break both legs.”

Leliana’s heart raced. Cold sweat dripped from the mask onto her lips. She sprayed it in a wide arc between ragged gasps. “I’ll kill you.” The hoarse whisper was everything she could manage.

He laughed.

“No. You won’t.”

The chains binding her wrists lowered, forcing her to bow. The harsh squeal of a rusted lock pierced her mind. A jarring note against the buzz of the overhead lights. A cold, hard bar was forced painfully against the front of her thighs. She bit her tongue. She wouldn’t give this bastard the satisfaction of hearing her cry again.

“Proceed, executioner.”

The nerves on the back of her thigh lit up like a forest fire and she felt the crack of bone. It washed through her in a sickening wave. She screamed. In agony, in fear, in rage. The sledgehammer, a familiar punishment, slammed into the other leg. Sparks of light danced across the darkness while she fought unconsciousness. Her blood boiled. She squeezed her eyes. She was not going to cry. “I hate you.” The metal pressing into her eyes glowed a brilliant white. “I. HATE. YOU!” The mask was gone, molten iron carving little rivers into her flesh as it flowed freely.

*Crack*

She snapped as pain blossomed across her neck. Leliana ripped the chains from their bolts. The pitted metal frame bent and shattered on the stone floor. She glared at the executioner. He took a step back. She stalked forward as he retreated until his back met the cold concrete wall. She grabbed the whip, grating bones and grunts of pain brought a smile to her face. Moments later, a hooded head squelched against the suited man back by the rack.

“You’ve finally managed to do something right. Bra-vo.” Shiny black shoes kicked the head away while fine white gloves raised another whip. This one was barbed and, she knew from experience, coated with a painful toxin. He snapped it at her face.

*CRACK*

“YOU!”

Leliana hurtled across the room and grabbed a fistful of suit. She yanked him off his feet and raised his sneering face, pulling back to smash him apart.

“EEEEK!” His cruel face emitted a tiny squeal as he hit her over the-

What?

Leliana froze. Brutus? The forest. The escape. The ship?

Teena’s pink pigtails trembled behind shaking hands. Her feet dangled helplessly above a small broken box. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to drop it I know everyone was sleeping but I just wanted to fix a little hole I missed earlier because it was really cold and drafty and I-”

“Teena?” The reality of what she was about to do hit her like a brick wall. The room tilted and swam around her and she forced the contents of her stomach back down.

Gib watched from his own hammock, one foot on the ground. “Easy does it little friend. Let’s put Teena down, and count to ten.” He stood slowly, breathing deeply, then slowly exhaling. Leliana allowed herself a slow breath, and set the small woman gently on the floor.

“Teena I’m…” No words came to mind. What could she say? The buzz of the overhead lights and those cruel eyes shined brightly at the forefront of everything. She fled from those tiny frightened eyes and took Antros’ spot in the nest.

***

Over a hundred miles from the sailing ship, someone else was living their own nightmare.

“What the hells is going on?” Ricken stomped through his tent’s flap. “How am I supposed to pack the dynamite if you lot keep…” Tools littered the clearing while their owners disappeared into the distance. “HEY! Get back here! Stupid, flea-bitten, ugly sonof-” Tents flew in every direction as an explosion hit the clearing behind him. He dropped to his knees as the world shook. An ear-shattering screech thundered across the forest.

He whipped around to see the demophant corpse struggling to rise. Spasms rippled across its tube-like body like the rings in a lake on a windy day. Everything around him was sucked toward it as the beast leapt into the air. This time, the blast flung him through the camp. He narrowly missed being impaled when a rotted tree snapped like a twig. He gagged as he was covered in a slimy coat of entrails.

An inky darkness he mistook for a shadow slowly grew in size. A small dot under the creature’s eye at first, the dark pool was thrice the size of a man now and boiled like a pot of disgusting soup.

“By the gods!” Instincts took over and he sprinted after the others. First the power core, now this? It was time for a new job.

Chapter 20: Visitors

Hello friends

Chapter 20 of Lead Heart is up!

__________________________________________

The world hung silent, just for a moment. Six pairs of eyes stared up into one very sheepish pair. The ship jerked to the side as someone latched on from below. Leliana’s instincts took charge and she was standing on deck with a cut rope before anyone else registered what was really happening. She sprinted to the closet she knew held the docking rope and tied it to the same one she’d been wearing all day. The door to the stairs smashed open as Sekkel flew through it.

“Captain, there is a giant hook sticking into the hold from below.” He splayed his hands roughly 3 feet wide. “Have Teena bring her toolbox down, quick!” Everyone on deck scattered, all hands getting ready to repel the attack. Leliana had no time for those distractions.

“Catch!”

The rope snaked through the air, landing on Gib. His huge hands wrapped around the cable as she sprinted the opposite direction. “Got it!” His triumphant smile flipped upside down as she sailed over the edge. “WAIT!” The rope pulled taught and his feet gouged the deck all the way to the railing, saved at the last minute by Jovi and Antros. The ship lurched sideways and swung slowly like a pendulum as the girl passed under it.

Below, a huge blade ruthlessly dealt with the attackers. One man whizzed past two others clinging to a rope. Moments later, his arm followed. Another dangled unconsciously from two hooks embedded into the ship. A scrawny girl flailed at Leliana with a torch, eyes wide. She wore a similar set of hooks and had started to burn a hole through the wood. The harpoon was embedded solidly in the center, and held the rope the two men clung to.

Leliana rebounded off the opposite wall and shot across the ship like a bullet, forcing the ship itself to jerk upright. She spun and watched two men on a rope and one unconscious guy plummetting through the air, cleanly cut free. The two puffed up with their own wingsuits after about 200 feet. Damn.
She was suddenly reeled in by the panicked trio on deck. “There’s still another one attached, she’s going to cut through the hull!” Leliana hopped up onto the railing, but was engulfed in a massive hug from behind. “Ack!”

Jovi rushed over. “You nearly flipped us over girly! Leave the last one to Antros and help me check the other side.” She was yelling to be heard above the wind and consfused shouting on deck, and Leliana handed over the harness reluctantly. “But I…”

“Got it!” Antros threw on the gear while Gib ran the rope around the mast. He crouched low and heaved a couple quick breaths, then disappeared overboard with a roar.

“Right, I’ll get the ones that escaped!” Muscle memory assembled the rifle for her and Leliana was sighting over the opposite edge in a heartbeat.

“Escaped?” Jovi ran after her. “What do you mean escaped?”

“They were on a rope but I cut ’em free so I could fight the torch lady.” She selected a couple of heavy, metal bullets – the improvised ones would be far too light. The men were gliding fast, she needed to concentrate.

Load the chamber.

Line up the shot.

“But the bastards are all wearing some weird flight suits so…” She trailed off to lead the first target.

“STOP!”

The shot missed by a mile, Jovi’s singed hands gripping the hot steel. The drifting men starting screaming and zigzagging slowly.

“What are you doing!?” Leliana’s nostrils flared. The price of the bullet sprang to mind for a split second.

“They’re not a threat anymore, why are you going to kill them?”

“Wha- Er, I mean.” The girl glanced between Jovi and the two men below, her hands grasping for answers. “They’ll get away. They’ll just come back and hit us again. Strategically it’s in our best interest to -”

Jovi’s hands shot up. “No.”

Leliana’s eyes shot open. “What! Those guys probably have a team somewhere, they might just land and start shooting at us with something bigger!” She was gesturing wildly now, yelling to be heard over the whistling sails.

“And they may not!”

She pointed at the men with the barrel of the rifle. “They started this fight, they could’ve killed us. We can’t just let them leave!”

NO!”

Two pairs of eyes stared into each other, raging wills struggled for control in a suddenly silent world. “I don’t need that blood on my hands.” Jovi’s lip quivered as her voice dropped, but her eyes were hard.

“But I’m the one-”

Jovi’s eyes shot wide open. “I am the captain. I am responsible for every single thing you do on this ship. That includes making sure people don’t sneak up on us, and that includes murder. Do not kill those men.” Jovi suddenly towered over Leliana, regardless of who actually stood taller.

Leliana shoved the gun back into her bag. “Fine.” She found herself, arms crossed, tracing lines on the wood with her eyes. A technique she’d picked up back “home” to keep control of herself. The ship creaked and groaned as Gib helped Antros back up, a long, black streak running the length of his forearm.

“Man she got me good, but I shook ’em loose. No more that I could…” He looked from face to face. “Uh. Everything alright up here?”
Leliana counted grains in the wood.

“We’re all alright, thanks to you two.” Jovi replied breathlessly. She looked at Leliana, then back to Antros. “Let’s get below and check everything out, fire is definitely something to worry about.”

Chapter 19: Soaring skies

Hello readers,

Chapter 19 of Lead Heart is up!

__________________

“Aaahh.”

Leliana swung lazily from the mainmast watch harness. An ocean of
trees swept over mountains in every direction, and a cold breeze tickled
her face.

“Normal people generally stand in the crow’s nest. The ropes are just for accidents.”

“Normal people are boring. “She glanced at Karina from the corner of a droopy eye. “What’s up?”

“They’ve been talking about that map for hours, thought I’d jump
overboard to cure my boredom.” Karina slouched against the wooden frame
and took a deep breath. “I always love flying over mountains. It smells
so clean.”

Leliana opened both eyes then. “Are there things you don’t like flying over?”

“Cities and deserts mostly. It either smells like filth, or it’s hot
enough to make me smell like filth. Not a fan. One time we flew over
this huge canyon in the middle of nowhere filled with weird purple and
green stuff growing out of it, like a boiling pot frozen in time. We
circled it to get a better view and the ship reeked like rotting fish
for weeks. I think Sekkel’s the only one who could stomache food for a
few days.”

“Cooool.” Bad smells didn’t bother Leliana, but checking out weird,
bad smelling things was definitely on the to-do list. “Do you remember
where it was?”

“Ugh, not a chance.” Karina shuddered. “There’s other things to remember to check out without going back there again.”

“Like what?”

“Hmmm.”

She screwed up her face and got lost in thought for a few minutes.
Leliana zoomed in on Antros and Jovi’s conversation, using her rifle
scope to check out the map through their windscreen. Antros was trying
to explain that losing a couple of days was better than encountering the
gang of mountain-folk who’d setup shop at the choke in the faster
route.

“Oh.” Leliana almost dropped the scope as Karina bounced out of
thought. “There was an expedition off the coast one time looking through
an old city. They were pretty far down, but their lights lit up the
ocean floor like the damn sun, I could see all kinds of buildings and
stuff.” She gazed at the forest below, remembering what it looked like.
“I would love to check something out like that someday.”

Leliana definitely agreed.

“Kari!”

The girl departed as her tiny sister called across the ship. Leliana was once again suspended in her own imagination.

Technically she was supposed to be on watch, but she’d “watched” the
trees earlier and woke up who knows how much later. So now she was
discovering.

“Once we shoot out of the Northern pass here, it’s basically just a
straight shot Southeast to get to Gaffsgrave. It’s about 300 miles due
East from there to Rosewood.”

Antros’ baritone voice droned on, working in sync with the cool breeze to sink Leliana once again into the embrace of slee-

“AH!”

She slapped her cheeks and did a suspended work-out to get the blood
flowing. “Who knew staying awake was so hard.” She pulled the rifle
scope back out of her pocket, muttering as she peered through and looked
for curiosities. “Whoa, cooool. A fishing quillbear.” She’d never seen
one alive before, but she’d seen them dead a time or two when the
hunters brought them back to eat.

She swiveled the glass to and fro, smiling to herself. A spotted
flycatcher digesting a tiger? Holy scrap that’s a big flower. A bunch of
hag bees taking down a huge worm. Gross. Cool there’s an old dude with a
harpoon on a cliff above us.

Wait.

“Uh? You guys?”

She raised her voice above the wind, but nobody answered. “You gu-”
She stopped as the old man spread his arms and leapt from the side of
the mountain. Through the magnifying glass, she followed him over as
big, billowy wings puffed up between his arms and legs. Instead of
plummeting to his death, he was headed straight for them. “Slag in my-”

Crack

Silence fell as a spear pierced the hull. She could feel six pairs of eyes burning into her from below.

“Oh, uh, hey guys. I think someone’s out there!”

Chapter 18: A New Threat

Hello Internet Friends –

Chapter 18 of Lead Heart is up!

____________________________________________________________________

Several hundred miles from an airship take-off, someone else was preparing for a new flight of their own.

“Cock!”

A bulky scientist dressed in thick leathers hopped up and down, wringing his hands. “You little bastards.” The grate squealed as he slammed it with his hip, shuttering the cave entrance behind it. “I will certainly not! If she’s going to waltz about wasting everything I’ve put into her, I’m damn well going to use her for something else!” The shorter of two men sprayed the other with spittle, grunting as he coated his bleeding fingertips with a clear solution. “What’s it to you anyway? You’ve been asking a lot of questions lately. Why?”

The taller man shrugged. “I suppose if you have too much money on your hands, it’s a good way to lighten the load. But wasn’t stealth and evasion one of the first skills you gave her?”

“This is different. I trained her, yes, but gave her? No. I gave her many things. Free will was not supposed to be one of them.” The stocky scientist stuck his hand into a large hide glove, the furred inside smooth and comfortable. “I have fixed in them all of her flaws. As a matter of fact, it’s feeding time. Would you like to watch? Tomorrow this flight is freed for me to start the next.”

The second shivered. “Ah, sure. Thanks Brutus, I’ve heard a lot from Mikhail about the creatures. Seeing them in action should be interesting.”

“Indeed.”

They strode from the dank underground room until the bright sun beat down from the courtyard. It was still early, the air cool and pine scented. “I’ve spent weeks infusing her scent into this batch’s feed. Who knows if they’ll ever find her, but if they do…” He trailed off, rubbing his hands together with a sick smile.

Brutus motioned his colleague to stop and stepped to a tripod holding a long, bronze tube next to an open cavity in the wall. He pointed the large end at the hole, then his cheeks puffed full out as he blew it. They both felt, more than heard, the shrill whistle permeating the air. He was still panting as he trotted over and hit a button on the wall.

The loud warning alarm issued three times. The wall slowly pulled up, grating against the frame with painful squeals. Inside the small garage, a huge lizard with an enormous wingspan and elongated head roared, lunging. The roar choked off as it hit the limit of a chain.

Brutus guffawed before turning to help his colleague back to his feet. “Sorry, sorry. I can’t resist Tilly.” He tossed a pair of thick earplugs. “These will protect against the paralysis, if not the rattled skull should it roar again.”

“Blasted steam pipes and piss on a brick, Brutus. You have a sky eater in here?” Tilly shoved the earplugs in and rubbed the back of his head where he’d hit the ground. “Do the leads know about this?”

“Of course. Do you think I locked this up myself?” Brutus scoffed and led the way to a concrete room near the entrance. “Now let’s let it go, shall we?” Tilly locked the door. Brutus, tentatively, put his hand out of a small opening to pull the pin to the chain. He shrieked and flung himself against the wall when the sky eater bit the glove suddenly. “Blasted filthy piece of- I HATE WHEN IT DOES THAT!”

Red-faced in the wake of Tilly’s deep laugh, he yanked the pin and flung it. “Alright, you’re free! Go on! Go get eaten!” He flipped his sneer into a smile as the huge animal tried futilely to smash the concrete barrier.

“Er, this wall is reinforced, I’m assuming?” Tilly swallowed loudly as the room shuddered with every deafening explosion of force.

“You’re welcome to step outside if you don’t trust it.”

The sky eater, satisfied the humans were sufficiently threatened, pivoted and jetted through the doorway. The two men’s ears popped as it swung its monstrous wings, clearing the walls in a single stroke. Out of nowhere, small, black specks darted in and latched themselves onto the beast. Comparatively tiny black blobs whose only distinguishing trait was the thundering buzz of a sudden swarm of wings and the bizarrely white, sharp teeth contrasting with the absolute blackness of its body.

“What in the hells?”

“Watch this.”

In a matter of seconds, the beast sprouted more than a dozen little black monsters. Each time a new one appeared, a flurry of teeth set to work grinding away. From each one sprouted dozens of smaller black dots which enveloped the monster entirely before vanishing into it. The sky eater was panicking mid-air, gnashing left and right to dislodge the attackers from its back, dropping several squishy mouthfuls to the ground before another took its place.

Seconds later, the huge lizard froze in place mid-flight. Tilly trembled inwardly as his heart fell with the beast, his feet shaking with the earth as it made impact. The small monsters screeched a guttural, gargled shriek as they fell upon it, burrowing into the skin.

After a few minutes, Brutus left the bunker and blew the whistle again. A swarm of the monsters rose out of the fallen sky eater, departing like a scorned shadow. In its wake, a bloody skeleton and little else.

Brutus laughed at the stricken look on Tilly’s face. Tilly smiled, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. This could be bad.