Chapter 46: Training

Hello internets

Chapter 46 of Lead Heart is up!

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Wind playfully tussled Leliana’s hair as she sped through the clearing. It almost tickled until it, and the air in her lungs, departed at a sudden stop. There was a loud CRACK and she collapsed to her knees.

She looked back just for a second, long enough to confirm the beech tree was the one who cracked, not her.

A shadow blocked the sun for a fraction of a second and it was time to move. Leliana threw herself to her feet and kicked off the sturdy tree just in time. Vea’s naked fist impacted the same trunk, shards of wood falling into a growing collection of debris on the ground.

“You are getting faster.” Vea complimented in her slow, southern drawl.

“Not fast enough.” Leliana’s back was like liquid fire burning without end. Every tree in the forest must have had an imprint of her ass
now.

Her opponent smiled and crossed her arms. The wide A-stance Vea took let Leliana know she had a few seconds to catch her breath. She used it. Afternoon sunlight shone brilliantly off the monk’s dark complexion, the sheen of perspiration taking a golden hue. Damn she looked cool.

“So when are you going to teach me that awesome boomie clappy thing?”

Vea smirked. “When are you going to make me?”

Leliana smiled back. Two seconds later, pain exploded up her forearm as she split the rock with her fist, the same one the other woman had been standing on moments ago. Leliana grabbed a fist-full of gravel and sprang to the left, rolling to her feet so Vea’s bare foot sailed harmlessly overhead, quickly followed up with a much more successful backhanded strike. Sparks decorated Leliana’s vision, although she did stay conscious this time.

That was an improvement.

Rocks whistled through the air, chipping away at the trees as they missed. Leliana bounced a few stones and put a spin on a few of the big ones to help alter their trajectory, so she was in the perfect position to receive the monk as she ducked from the last of them. Vea’s eyes grew wide as her opponent’s arms wrapped around her waist and flung her three meters straight up.

Leliana smiled. The Protector had taught her how difficult it was to control oneself while flailing about in midair. She launched herself after Vea and grabbed her from behind, hurling her straight at the tree which Leliana herself had face-planted in moments ago. At the last second, the big woman threw out a hand and grabbed a thick branch. She kicked off the intended tree trunk with lightning speed, meeting Leliana’s landing spot at the same time as Leliana herself. Two rough hands circled under her arms as Vea somersaulted over her head and the next thing she knew, Leliana was soaring through the leafy canopy of the trees.

“OH.” Was all she managed. The clear, blue skies and the rocky terrain below mingled as she flipped end over end, her stomach threatening mutiny if she didn’t cut it out. She tucked her limbs and curled into a ball, leaning into the spin to get some control. Leliana’s pose was victorious when she finally straightened out and hurtled toward the ground at breakneck speed. Only to land safely in Vea’s arms before the impact, and yet another crater opened up beneath the monk.

It hadn’t been the first time she’d been sent flying, nor that she’d been caught by the huge woman. It was the highest she’d been thrown, though. Ever. “What was that!” She could barely restrain herself, bouncing as her feet touched the ground.

Vea was less enthusiastic. “I apologize girl. I should not ha-”

“That was amazing!” Leliana cut her off. “I’ve never known a man who could so much as toss me into a swimming pool, much less put me onto an airship from the ground!” The hammering in her chest was going wild, and she found it difficult to control her voice.

Vea looked away, but not before Leliana caught the smirk on her face. “Let us call it a day for now. We should get back soon or Carkus will eat our supper.”

Leliana gasped and stopped bouncing. The taste of the hardtack bread she’d eaten the first day was not one she was keen to retry. They stepped through a war-zone of shattered stone and splintered trees before they entered the shadows of untouched forest.

“I am pleased with your progress girl.” Vea commented. “It reminds me of a talented protege I trained beside when I was younger.” This time it was Leliana’s turn to be uncomfortable.

“Er…thanks. Is she a war brother too? Or uh, war sister?”

“She’s dead.” Was the reply.

“What!? Don’t compare me to someone who died!” Leliana’s reply wasn’t meant to be genuine, though Vea’s eyes dropped. “Uh sorry, I mean, what happened to her?” Vea gave her a small smile.

“Do not worry. My friend Quinra died honorably. She was undefeatable in strength on our home island. Yet nature did what man could not do, and she swept away when the great sea came for us. She lifted over two score of our people out of the waters that night. Do not grieve. I know she watches from Teppu Lei Lei in heaven, waiting for me to join her.”

“Slag and ash. Sorry to hear that.” Leliana hoped that was the right thing to say. Usually she was the one doing the killing, so condolences weren’t really an issue.

She was about to ask what in the nine hells Teppu..what? Even was, when her focus was stolen by a tiny, pink-haired engineer furiously waving and yelling her name.

“Leliana! Leliaaanaaaaaaaaaa!”

“Go.” Vea gestured. “You are free the rest of the night.”

Teena hopped up and down, hurling insults at a wrench under her feet refused to budge. “Leli! I can’t turn these bolts, can you do it for me?” She pouted playfully and sealed Leliana’s decision on the matter immediately.

“Yeah sure I- Wait what did you call me?”

“Leli? It’s your nickname I made up for you today!” Teena’s transition from pout to joy was too adorable, so she let the name slide for now. She’d never wanted a cutesy nickname, but nobody had ever bothered to give her one before either. She tightened a score of nuts and bolts Teena pointed to, on the top and bottom of the…

“What is it?”

She almost took his head off when Bristol’s huge head popped out of a tiny opening. “It’s an individual airborne transport!” He bellowed. “We finally got all the pieces we need for a test flight!”

Don’t do that!” Leliana forced herself to lower the wrench, away from his head. A thought struck her. “Wait, why didn’t you help Teena if you’re right there?!”

Bristol laughed. “Can’t get out!” He tugged the edges of the ‘window’ to demonstrate. “Had to make some sacrifices to get it built in a day, after all!”

Leliana shook her head, handing the wrench back. She was positive it weighed as much as the tiny tinker, but Teena hefted it with a professional’s familiarity.

“Yay! Now we can test it out, stay and watch Leli! Okay Bristol, HIT IT!”

Big, bushy eyebrows shot up. “I thought I was supposed to kick it?!” Teena huffed and crossed her arms. Bristol laughed and went to work.

Leliana wasn’t sure what that work was exactly, but he was suddenly bouncing rapidly in his seat, hooting and hollering. Four huge blades shaped out of something Leliana couldn’t identify jerked into motion, pinned to the center of the top of the vehicle. They spun faster and faster, until they were an insubstantial blur. Inch by inch, Bristol lifted off the ground in the ridiculous contraption, until he was about ten feet up. From her vantage point on the ground, Leliana saw the ridiculous sight of a grown man pedaling furiously on a de-wheeled bicycle.

“Woooo!” Teena cheered him on. “We did it!”

Bristol’s face was a concerning shade of red after just two minutes of exertion in the craft, his shirt slick with sweat. The rotating blades slowed as his energy waned, until it was seated firmly in the grass once more. Leliana couldn’t help but giggle at their excitement.

“Sorry guys. An aerial transport that puts a guy like him in a state like this after two minutes of flight that low to the ground? I don’t think it’s going to be useful.”

Teena rolled her eyes. “No silly, Bristol isn’t what we had in mind for the actual working model-”

“Maybe!” He cut in.

“It’s just a model to test our hypothesis on the equations for the surface area to mass ratios required to offset the-”

“Stop.” Leliana crossed her arms. “Pretend I’m Gib when you explain things to me.”

“I am?” Teena said.

“O-oh.”

“I get it.” Teena sighed. “The ultimate design should have a steam engine or something to apply the mechanical force required to get into the air, silly. Bristol is just a prototype.”

“Test am I? Could I test some fresh air then?” Bristol’s body was contorted and almost halfway through the tiny window somehow, but he appeared to be stuck. They all laughed and disassembled the device as quickly as they could.

“So this is what he’s been teaching you this week?” Leliana asked when they set off toward their main camp. Bristol barked with laughter as Teena giggled.

“Nay, lass. The wee one is the brain behind this particular operation. Today at least.”

Leliana was far too drained from an afternoon of breaking rocks with her face to be surprised. They cleaned up the campsite, clearing away scrap metal and fed a stack of discarded blueprints to a big fire blazing under the evening’s meal.

Two days left.” Leliana mused. “Anything else you hope to get done?”

“Nah.” Teena scoffed. “Indulging my inner inventor was amazing fun, but I miss Gib and Karina, and Sekkel! And Jovi. Plus-” She focused her attention on the lengthening shadows of the forest, suddenly intense.

“Plus what?” Leliana asked, curious.

“Well…It’s just that, Karina did some things to help us get by back when I was building The Nightmare…”

Teena quietly tore at the grass for a while. Long enough that Leliana thought she was finished. She was about to offer some of her own experiences when-

“Some things she did weren’t the best. They were scary!” She wove grass into a tiny crown. “She mentioned a few days ago that she was thinking of training again. Because she’s useless now. It makes me nervous.” Teena’s big, blue eyes suddenly bored into Leliana. “She’s not useless, I told her and Gib told her, but she doesn’t believe us!”

“Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine for now at least.” Leliana plucked the crown from Teena’s hands and put it on her head. “We have a ways to go before Gungrave still, so she can’t be too scary until then. Besides,” she patted the girl’s back. “I got nothing else to do. Maybe I can hang out with you guys for a while? She’ll be safe with me around.”

“Maybe.” Then her eyes suddenly narrowed. “Wait a second – nobody ever crashed my ship until you came along!”

She still sounded worried, but Leliana thought she detected a hint of hopefulness, and couldn’t help but laugh at the good-natured jab. A change of topic was in order. “What else did you and Bristol do this week? Today’s the first day I’m conscious enough to realize I have no idea what you two have been up to.”

“OH! Mostly theoretical discussions and diagrams for the most part.” Pink pigtails bounced enthusiastically. “First I wanted to know how he made that coooool wagon because I think if The Nightmare had had some hot swappable gun placements we would’ve saved a lot of money hiring useless mercenarie-” Teena gasped. Deep red blanketed her cheeks when she remembered who she was talking to. “Uhhhh, no offense.”

Leliana smiled. “I hate ‘em too, don’t worry. Besides, I only turned merc because I wanted to fly on your pretty ship, otherwise I would’ve just blown through town on my way North.” This cheered Teena somewhat, it was at least enough to get her chatting again.

From pint-sized engines to the personal aircraft they’d built earlier today, Teena and Bristol had mainly focused on vehicular design and mechanical force. Most of the details flew right over Leliana’s head, she had to admit. But it was still relaxing to lay under the stars and listen to someone passionately describing the subtleties of copper tube design.

As the first tiny snores signaled the end of the conversation, and Teena curled up in her plump little sleeping bag, Leliana took care to sneak further toward the edge of the clearing. She’d felt sick every time she remembered almost hurting that adorable engineer and, bad dreams or no, was determined to never repeat the mistake.

Leliana drifted into sleep to the deafening chorus of the night insects and birds, reflecting on the conversation. Could she really stick around for a while? Was there nobody coming to drag her back?

 

Chapter 45: Meeting new people

Hello readers,

Please enjoy chapter 45 of Lead Heart –

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The days following their introductions to camp, time whizzed by in a blur. Leliana was dragged from clique to clique behind the other two girls on a mission to meet everyone and see everything. Led Mostly by Teena. She spotted unique and interesting things every single day that she simply had to talk to the owner about. A backpack that folded out into a tent, a tamed panther. Anything shiny. And while her muscles felt every second of inactivity, Leliana decided that she enjoyed learning about other peoples’ pasts too, their reasons for escaping their old lives, and their future aspirations.

Antros, surprisingly, had hit it off with a collection of mercenaries and was seriously considering joining their band. If only for the travel opportunities.

She learned that the ‘main camp’ was, in reality, just a wandering mob of people with a protective ring of trained monks. She knew all too well what they needed protection from, shuddering involuntarily as she remembered the enormous jaded serpent. Leliana cringed when she passed a score of new mothers breastfeeding around a campfire on the third night. Her imagination helpfully supplied an image of the huge snake having its way with these people. The monks covered the basics: food, water, and protection, but not much else.

The entire mob was mobile during the day, walking at a constant, lazy pace. Lazy enough that a person in the middle of the pack could stop to rest, conduct business, or even nap, and would have almost a half hour before the end of the column caught up to them. It didn’t seem like a march so much as a leisurely walk through the open plains. At night, the center of the camp was transformed into a bazaar in which services and objects were traded in the absence of any real currency. Things like pastries, candy, herbs, fur, leather, dried meats and new shoes could all be traded for.

Leliana was surprised to learn that a majority of the roughly one thousand people in the traveling horde were refugees. Large cities waging war over territory, people, or resources, had a habit of wiping out small settlements in order to build something better. Many of the inhabitants were run off into the wilds, and many didn’t survive. The reputation of the wandering monks preceded them, and many poor and working class people living in slums had abandoned their old lives for a chance at some change.

Of course, this meant that a lot of the travelers were used to living rough, taking what they wanted from whom they wanted. This created some friction when two belligerent personalities clashed.

“OY! I wuzzn’t talkin’a you, bitch.” A scrappy looking guy, dressed in tatters and with bloodshot eyes, gripped a terrified Teena by the collar and slurred at Leliana. “But ‘f you wanna go I’ll be happy to oblige. It’s been too long since me knickers dropped.”

“I…” Leliana had no idea what the hells she’d just heard, but she was pretty sure she was offended. “You don’t make any sense. Put my friend down or I’ll break you in half.”

“She’ll do it!” Teena squeaked, her feet kicking the air.

“Oh ho ho.” With his free hand, the drunk snapped his fingers, summoning two misshapen cronies to his side. “Clem. Dog. Hold that one down and stuff her. We gonna drag her out to the woods tonight.” His slick sneer twisted Leliana’s stomach.

Why in the hells was this guy under the monk’s protection? There was a flash of dark red hair and suddenly Karina was whispering into Leliana’s ear. Leliana’s eyes darkened.

Without a word, she stepped into the biggest crony and knocked him senseless with the back of her hand. Before his eyes had even rolled back, she’d grabbed and tossed him into the air. When his waist was level with her head, Leliana’s hands wrapped around the man’s feet, swinging him into his friend like a club. They collapsed with a sickening crunch.

They hadn’t even hit the ground before Leliana was halfway to their leader.

“H-hey now.” The man’s eyes bulged and he held up Teena like a shield. “You can just stay right there, or I’ll..I’ll hurt your f-AAAAH!” She hadn’t even slowed, pleasure welling inside of her as his wrist bones ground and separated in her clenched fist. Teena fell and made a hasty retreat while her attacker’s hand suddenly jutted at the wrong angles.

“You sag sucking, scat licking son of a beggar.” Leliana spit. He slapped at her weakly, drool pooling on his tunic. She couldn’t deny how good the tears rolling down his face made her feel. Damn, it had been a long time since those bastards at the lab had brought her a prisoner to break, hadn’t it? She crushed his nose with her forehead and dropped him with a solid kick to the gut, her vision tinged red at the edges. Leliana dragged him onto her shoulders, then over her head-

“Wait!” Karina shouted. She’d rushed over to check on her sister and was even now hoisting the small woman onto her own shoulders. “This isn’t the place for that.” She said, quieter and with a meaningful look into Leliana’s eyes.

“I warned him. Now I’m going to break him in half.” Adrenaline surged and Leliana’s nostrils flared before she tossed him up again.

“Don’t you do it.” Her friend repeated.

She sighed, and the man’s body crumple to the ground.

“Why?” She snapped. Leliana put a finger to Karina’s chest, “you told me he was going to-”

“I know what I said.” Karina cut her off smoothly, speaking increasingly lower and looking nervously at the throng who’d gathered to watch. “But he’s defeated. Look at him. He couldn’t hurt anyone if he wanted to.” The three unconscious men lay still in the grass, presumably still alive. “I feel the same as you,” she continued under her breath, her words for Leliana alone. “But if we killed or maimed every depraved man who threatened us, we’d be killed in our sleep.” She stressed. “I don’t doubt that you could actually fight while you slept, but I sure as hell can not. And I’ve been by your side for days now.”

Leliana’s vision cleared while she considered the situation. She could recall more than one book she’d read which detailed the usage of friends and family as leverage against a target. The faces watching the spectacle weren’t all of fear either, she realized. There was a lot of malice staring back. “Well…” She grumbled, not wanting the smaller girl to be right. “Can I castrate them?”

“No!”

Leliana stalked away through the crowd, most of whom gave her a wide berth. She spotted a few brown robes mingled among the people, most of whom seemed satisfied the hostilities were finished. One robed young woman caught her eye and nodded, a small smile tugging at her lips.

Still, the rage inside Leliana had been denied sweet release. She glared at everyone who’d meet her gaze. Most backed away, though several stared back. No clue where to go, Leliana let her feet carry her without direction until she found herself alone, outside the pack. A monk drifted by, nodding a silent greeting before moving on. Leliana spent many long minutes fuming, staring at passersby and entertaining ways she could’ve killed the drunken pervert. She’d met a lot of these people over the last week. They weren’t bad, she admitted. She’d shared more campfires with more people in the last five days than she’d been around collectively in the entire rest of her life.

But dammit, she’d been bred to fight.

The rush of violence coursed through her like a drug, addictive and uplifting in its promises. While wrestling for control of herself, she became acutely aware of the smell of sweat and copper. Was that blood on her shirt? Damn, she’d missed that. She must have looked like a crazed murderer storming through hundreds of people, death in her eyes and on her clothes.

“Hahaha.” Pent up fury deflated suddenly under wracks of laughter that gripped her without warning. “Hahahaha, HA HA HAAA!” Leliana laughed herself hoarse and collapsed to her knees exhausted. “Not killing people is harder than I expected.”

“Ah, Leliana. It is excellent to find you in a light mood.” Said a familiar voice.

She swiped her eyes and held a steadying breath. “Protector, hi.” She noticed Karina heading this way in the distance as she turned to face Protector Atreides. “What can I do for you?”

“I had hoped to have a word with you after my meeting with the Speaker, yet such serendipitous circumstances like these cannot be ignored. Are you free?” He waited for her silent nod before continuing. “I am sure you are aware that Bristol has invited Teena to study under him during the rest next week. I am overjoyed, for the shadow which has dampened his spirit since the loss of his last partner I can see dissolving.” Leliana kept her expression neutral, despite the whirlwind news that had just blown her mind. He continued. “We had some concern over her safety in the event he needed to be called away, or if another great monster appeared.”

He was much more chatty than usual, she realized, and wondered why. Was he actually this talkative all the time? She had gotten the impression that he was a particularly reserved man, at least among the war brothers who didn’t hold themselves to the vows of silence. Maybe he was just… Suddenly his smile faded, his eyes searching her own. Waiting.

He’d asked her a question while she was distracted.

“I’m sorry… What?” She asked dumbly.

“I asked if you would like to study under Vea while Teena is with Bristol. Then keep an eye on Teena if the rest of Vea’s squad are occupied.”

Another brain explosion. “Me? Vea? Why would, I mean, did you-” Leliana stumbled over the words, irritated at how girly she sounded. She coughed took a slow breath. “It would be my pleasure?”

He smiled. “Excellent. Bristol will be coming by tomorrow at the mid-morning meal, picking up supplies as well as Teena. Meet them behind the cook’s pavilion, in the North quarter.” They exchanged a few pleasantries and wished the other well before the Protector continued toward his meeting with the Speaker.

Karina waved to the man who’d saved her and the crew as he left. “We were going to tell everyone at dinner tonight.” She said. “Teena’s so excited to go back, she won’t stop talking to me about the tools he had.”

“I can appreciate professional pride in one’s tools.” Leliana smiled. She missed the rifle she’d lost in the airship battle. She found herself reaching for it occasionally, disappointed each and every time she turned up empty handed.

“I’d hoped you and I could hang out while she was gone.” Karina mentioned wistfully. “It’s been a fun week.”

“Yeah it has.” Leliana agreed. “It sounds like it’s just for a week though. And it’s only mid-afternoon, we should be setting up camp soon. Let’s grab dinner and find a quiet place to eat.” She suggested.

And they did.

The two girls ate the rice and vegetables offered that night slowly, talking well into the night.

Later the following morning, after the main group was well on its way, three men awoke still in the previous night’s encampment. Alone.

Chapter 44: Planning the hunt

Hello internet

Chapter 44 of Lead Heart is ready to go!

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The noon sun sparkled in the chill mountain autumn, breathing warmth into a mountain valley.

A few hundred miles south of the wandering monks, a quickly constructed laboratory warehouse of wood and canvas stood tall among a sea of smaller tents and latrines.

“Mother’s arse!”

Alone, save for a single watchman to ensure his safety and compliance, Brutus dunked his sizzling arm into a barrel of water he’d set aside for just this occasion. He sighed as the cool liquid soothed the chemical burn. “Stupid, idiot, forsaken for a gods damned fool. I should have retired when I had the chance.”

He trudged over the tarpaulin floor to 5 vats of bubbling liquid near the bay doors, rubbing his blotchy skin. The soldier, clad in Brutus’ own overalls, eyed him intently under the weight of a small arsenal.

“I don’t suppose that bitch left any counter-reagents with you?” He scowled, not expecting an answer. Nor did he receive one. He grumbled and hauled another barrel of the lye crystals to the top of his small step-ladder. He dumped them much more gingerly this time. “This is a fool’s errand anyway,” he’d been complaining to the silent warden for the last three hours already. “I’ve already provided Lilith with the documentation she requires in order to form an effective countermeasure against the creatures. Their anatomy isn’t the problem, it’s just the numbers. Whoever she buggered to admit such a simpleton to the headmaster’s chair should be-”

*clink*

The massive chains stirred and stunned him to silence as he recoiled. Cast iron cages big enough to hold four men dangled over the cauldrons, and they’d been stationary since the creatures’ sedation after breakfast that morning. The biggest, containing a wilted deer-like creature with serrated teeth, began to sway as the creature stirred. Its eyes had been melted, due to the caustic steam that billowed around it or because of the parasites wasn’t clear. Massive antlers were looking decidedly pockmarked, yet the creature was still a thousand pounds of murder, infested with a parasite who specialized using others to do their killing. This was not an ideal situation.

The beast’s flesh dripped from its bones, sloughing off in chunks when the animal rocked against the bars.

“Stop that!” Brutus demanded. “I don’t have time for this hogshit.” He chucked the barrel across the floor and stomped next to the lever that kept the cage suspended. The things’ cries grew harsher as it struggled to stand. Slick footing and the unstable container knocked it down time and again and it started to get hysterical, screeching and bucking. It lunged against the solid iron bars and suddenly split from groin to sternum, the distended stomach emptying its wriggling contents all over the cage. A few slid over the side and into the liquid with a hiss, their wings too slimy and wet to save them from the solution.

Before the rest had a chance to problem solve or jump to safety, Brutus kicked the lever with a snarl and sent the creatures, cage and all, plummeting into the fluid. Deep, bellowing shrieks mingled with tiny squeals as the host and parasites were dissolved over a matter of minutes. He snatched his notes from a rickety desk to document the incident.

He winced as a door slammed outside. She’d returned.

Lilith stormed through the warehouse door and hurled a bag to the floor, collapsing into the only cushioned chair in the place. One Brutus was forbidden from using. He found himself suddenly extremely interested in stirring the contents of the huge tanks when his guard approached his superior to report. The fires and boiling of the solution made a lot of noise so he didn’t catch everything, but he definitely caught the word ‘bitch’ near the end.

She sighed and sunk into the chair.

Minutes dragged by, stretched into an uncomfortable eternity.

He nearly dropped the wooden oar he was stirring with when she broke the silence.

“Brutus!” She sneered. “Get your disgusting ass over here.” She waited for him to trudge over to her, arriving simultaneously with two armed and armored men who’d come from behind and stood at attention. Lilith fell into the chair, too exhausted to affect any venom into her words. “Is this stupid scrap ready to go yet?”

“Y-yes, madam. It can be transported after it cools.”

“Piss. That’s going to take hours. Wake me when you have it loaded.” Thirty-hour days had clearly taken their toll on the woman.

There was a jingling that approached as they spoke. A tall, thin man with a grand mustache and black and red blood stains covering his white field uniform came to attention next to Brutus.

“Field reports, mistress.” His loud, nasally voice shook her awake. He waited patiently as his superior let out a loud, exasperated groan that seemed like it would never end. When she finally ran out of breath, he continued. “The containment commander has advised that the infection boundaries have tentatively been mapped to completion. I’ve brought a copy of the document for your inspection. The state coalition estimates a sixty percent containment of the infection, though we have yet to hear from the Gungrave or Rosewood governments as of this morning.”

A long tube of laminate parchment came from somewhere inside his long trench coat, and he offered it to the two men standing behind her. One man came around to hold it up to see. Drawn was a lightly detailed map of the continent of Amica, multicolored lines crisscrossing each other near the east coast. There was a long black streak, basically just a thick, straight line which started from their laboratory headquarters and ended somewhere two hundred miles north.

The scientist pointed to the map while he spoke. “As far as I know, this northern section is completely uncontested. That may change once we hear from the states themselves but I will refrain from speculation at this time. These sections here, and here,” he traced two areas encircled by blue and green, “are under the protection of Triad’s army. To keep the things from spreading Eas-”

He stopped, interrupted by a light snore. Lilith’s head slumped in one hand, propped up on the side of the armchair. One of the guards clapped loudly, and she jumped to her feet.

“Right. Proceed, Trudy.”

Trudy bowed. “As you wish. I’ll cut to the chase ma’am. You’ll notice the unusual area of influence under the infestation’s control. We expect they would spread from a central point in all directions, forming a circle. Yet clearly they’re moving in more or less a straight line, give or take. They move randomly at a micro-level, yet from the map we are able to plot their course almost in a straight line Northeast, to Barley’s Bowl.”

Lilith narrowed her eyes as she inspected the map. “Why does the mark balloon around Barley?” She asked. Indeed, the black streak on the map which was a fat line suddenly blossomed out around the small town to a radius about thrice the average.

“The team sent to investigate discovered that the town had been besieged by the infection some weeks ago. They fought a large scale battle against many infected animals. I suspect the devastation around town is due to the parasite gathering forces, as it were. Reportedly that battle was ended by an experimental weapon which incinerated the creatures, along with half the town.”

“Piss.” She spat.

“The trail comes out again here, about seven miles North. The trail is no more than five miles at the widest, I believe we can safely conclude that they picked up the girls’ scent and abandoned the town.”

“So…she was at Barley’s Bowl then? How long ago?”

“Correct madam. Accounts place the girl in town about a month ago. A few say she left on an airship, although we were paying for the information in a recently destroyed town. Who’s to say the information can be trusted.” He shrugged.

“Stupid.” She plopped back into the chair.

“As you can see,” He continued. She sighed, standing up. “Other states have set up a loose perimeter to keep things contained for now, but there isn’t a lot of pressure from the column to expand. The fact that we haven’t seen the creatures at headquarters is no accident by any means. The southern-most tip moves further North everyday, allowing us to tail them safely.”

Lilith’s eyes widened a bit. “Really?” She tapped her lips in a rhythm, then grimaced. “So we catch her, put her in a box for two months, then vaporize everything in sight?” She laughed mirthlessly. “I have but a few short years to prep for the annihilation of mankind, yet still I must traipse through the woods on this-” The woman’s face grew darker shades of red with every word, death in her gaze as she eyed the weaselly scientist cowering behind the taller one.

“Brutus, remind me to torture you again when this is all over. I couldn’t afford the time to be lavish last time.”

“Y-y-yes, madam.”

Chapter 43: A Chill Day

Hello internet friends

Chapter 43 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it.

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A cold autumn day dawned over the dense forest. Leliana’s breath came out as steaming clouds, huddled close to the cooking fire and pressing up against Karina for warmth. Mostly she was just happy to have someone to chat with, but the stories themselves were undeniably exciting in their own right. Leliana paid rapt attention as the red-haired girl described an ‘excavation’ she’d performed in a lost city a couple of years ago.

The drown city had been recently discovered by the Toro and Missi city-states, who’d locked down access until they had a chance to pick it clean.

The Nightmare slipped under the cover of darkness, allowing Karina to drop in from about one hundred feet into the icy water. She wore a dive suit, SCUBA gear, and a mesh bag. Three hundred feet below the waves lie the ancient city. It was beautiful. Coral covered almost every surface in bright pinks and greens and yellows, with huge schools of colorful fish weaving between the sunken giants.

Also it’d been night. And terrifying. The old buildings jutted at odd angles where they’d fallen, ancient bodies looming in the silent graveyard she was in the act of defiling. “I only managed to swipe a couple containers full of silicon wafers.” She said ruefully. “They still sold for a solid fifty gold, but I had to make a run for it after someone spotted me. One minute I was picking safes, the next I was ducking harpoons.”

Leliana felt a thrill down her spine, imagining being able to explore a lost city in the dark, dodging sea monsters and ducking bad guys. “Do you still have that SCUBA?”

Karina shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, I sold it about six months ago.” She gestured toward her tiny sister traipsing all over the wagon. “I never used it and Teena wanted this chemical station aboard The Nightmare. It was worth it in the long run, I guess.” They were distracted as Teena fawned over Bristol’s tool collection and assorted wagon attachments.

What is this?!” Teena was shouting.

“Ah, my favorite all-in-one!” Bristol’s booming voice rattled Leliana’s skull, even from this distance. “We’ve got a caliper, a vice-grip, c-clamp, wire-cutters-”

Leliana couldn’t help but whistle at the sheer number of gadgets that bulky tool was hiding.

“Ohmahgad you have these?” The pink haired engineer hurled tools from a cache in the vehicle, some as large as herself. “Oh I love this! And this! I think I had one of these once but they pinched me and I threw em into the ocean, haha woops. Ah this is very nice.” After amassing a small mountain of iron and steel beneath the cart, Bristol and Teena set about actually dismantling the huge wagon itself. He stood back and let her figure things out for herself, although Teena’s practiced hands managed to dismantle it entirely in under twenty minutes.

“Oh HO, very impressive lass. Now can ye’ put it back together?” Bristol’s huge smile issued the challenge, and Teena rubbed her hands together in anticipation.

Leliana shook her head, smiling, and left the two to their work. Curious, she glanced around the clearing to check on the others, now that everyone was awake.

Sekkel wore a pair of thick gloves, helping Kahlin mix a dozen flasks of a concerning looking slime. Each completed glass was glowing an iridescent green. They steamed in the chill air, and the two men were stuffing them into a cloth sack over Sekkel’s splint once they were stoppered. That’s a pretty good idea, she thought to herself. Experience told her how painful a sprained limb was going to be in this cold.

Carkus and Zimi wrestled far too closely to their own blazing bonfire, a tiger and a goat roasting on a huge spit. Zimi’s face was freshly smeared in bright red blood, a treat from his half of the tiger. The winged lizard landed atop Carkus, pinning him to the ground and licking his face with abandon.

“EEWWW YOU’RE GETTING BLOOD IN MY MOUTH!”

The naked man struggled to free himself from the clutches of his reptilian counterpart, but there was a clear weight disparity and he was on the losing end.

Gib nursed a hungover Jovi at the edge of the clearing, plying her with food and water in abundant quantities until she could finally carry herself. Leliana wasn’t sure what was going on with the captain, but it didn’t seem like something she should interfere with – even if she did want to go say hi to Gib.

The Protector had vanished overnight, though the other monks assured them this was a very normal occurrence. Chances were good that he’d be back soon. He’d charged the small company with monitoring the still smoldering corpse of the plant monster for another two days, and had given them free reign to do whatever they wanted otherwise. The monks had also agreed to allow the crew of The Nightmare to stay with them for the day, to get some rest.

Breakfast and lunch were an odd assortment of clashing tastes. A long table was set out with plates of bacon, ham, and sausages produced from the now-dismantled wagon. There were heaping trays of the roast goat that Carkus and Zimi had provided. Even Kahlin had produced several exotic varieties of flower and herb that most of them had never seen before. Leliana bit into a juicy, bright blue succulent. Thick gel flooded her mouth at the first bite. Rather than being disturbing, the viscous liquid was tangy, with a sweet citrus bite that reminded her of the orange she received for a birthday one year.

Leliana closed her eyes for a minute to let the sweetness take over.

Kahlin was quick to warn about the dangers of wandering through the woods eating brightly colored plants. These were ones he knew to be safe through years of research, and it was his pleasure to share part of himself with the rest of the group this once.

Day stretched into evening, the bright sun marching beneath the treeline much too early for anyone’s liking. Storm clouds threatened to make the night even colder than the one before. The wide clearing was completely shrouded in shadow by the time the protector ambled in. “Hello brothers and sisters. All is well, I hope?”

They all nodded an affirmative, offering him some of the leftovers that had yet to be stowed. He accepted gratefully, sitting in the freshly rebuilt wagon and catching up with everyone. He got down to business once he’d finished eating.

“I believe I have found a suitable group to place you five with.” He said. “Another small group, a ship crew, newly come to the main body. I’ll be happy to take you once it’s a bit more safe. Tomorrow morning, most likely.”

Karina and Leliana shared a glance. They weren’t quite ready to be separated again.

“Leliana,” he continued. “I believe I have also located a suitable position for you, if you still wish to train yourself. However-” He raised a hand, preempting her objection. “You are in no condition for training right now. You are in remarkable shape all things considered, but I’ll come to check you again in one week’s time. It should be interesting to see how you fare, even if you’re not fully recovered by then.”

She felt a little guilty about the relief that washed through her at those words. It’s not like she had anything pressing to be doing, she tried to remind herself. The urge to train every single day hadn’t subsided since she’d left the facility, and even now her muscles ached to be used. Well, that didn’t mean she had to spent the whole week sitting on her hands. She would use the time to eat, regain her strength, and get to know her peers a bit. Who knew, she might even make a friend or two.

Chapter 42: Meeting in the Dark

Hello readers,

Chapter 42 of Lead Heart is up!

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“Look out!”

A familiar voice echoed out of the darkness, though Leliana couldn’t pay it any mind. Behind the small group and dying torch, a small army of silhouettes toed the edge of the light. She was vaguely aware of the group scattering when she bounced into their midst, but she was in a hurry to stop a long tendril reaching out to wrap around the smallest one. Thick, slimy scales coated her hand and she came face to face with a…snake? Slug? Its eye sockets were empty, but the dripping fangs it bared as it sprang were unmistakable. Leliana couldn’t stop a little scream, barely grabbing the serpent before it buried its teeth into her eyes. There was no resistance as she tore it in half, tossing it to the forest floor.

“Leliana?”

She paused. That voice was very familiar.

Suddenly a huge, four legged thing waddled into the dim light. Its blackened skin writhed endlessly as it charged the small group. Drawing back, Leliana unleashed a series of blows that could’ve dropped a lion. Warm blisters popped under the onslaught, showering her in a viscous fluid. She nearly gagged. The beast hadn’t let up at all, plowing through the underbrush like it wasn’t there.

“I leave this to your capable hands, child.” Protector Atreides’ voice was almost lost over the hissing and growling of the creatures suddenly surrounding her.

“What!?” Two emaciated foxes threw themselves at her, only to be splatted against a thick tree. “You can’t leave me here!”

“I will get these people to safety while you cover our retreat.” He yelled back, shouldering Sekkel to allow Gib could take up Jovi. He tossed the torch onto the ground.

Leliana wanted to respond, she wanted to scream. Instead, she fought for her life.

Within seconds of the torch dropping, she felt the clothes on her back pulled in all directions as a small horde of rodents climbed her. The huge mystery beast managed to get itself turned around and approached slowly this time. She caught a better look at it this time, wishing she hadn’t.

Sunken, dead eyes stared from what must have been a moose at one time. Its face and nose had caved in and gone soft, revealing muscle and skull. The worst part of the beast were the living tendrils dripping out of the patchwork of holes on the things’ body.

Tiny snakes.

She swallowed a wave of nausea and threw her back against the nearest tree. Satisfying squeals shot up from all the tiny creatures she’d smashed off of her. She executed a complex set of leaps and body slams between a few fir trees and managed to lose most of them. Pain flared white hot as mouths of teeth clamped down onto her thighs and calves. She screamed at the offending wolf, and felt the satisfying crunch of bone as she brought a fist down. The wolf fell limp, immediately replaced by a second. Before it had a chance to bite her, a 3 foot blade jutted out of its furry spine. Slobber flew as it went wild, biting the air and trying to get rid of the pain, but the wound was fatal.

“Wha-?” Not expecting help, Leliana traced the blade to its wielder. A slightly built redhead with pigtails, and cheeks spotted with freckles that stood out against a pale blue jumpsuit.

“Karina! What are you doing here?” Leliana batted a few snakes out of the air that had been shrugged off by the big monster.

“I wanted to help!” Karina cut down the monsters around her with a grim determination that she hadn’t possessed before.

Leliana watched her a moment, then realized the girl was using Leliana’s knife!

In the hands of an untrained combatant in an unknown forest in the middle of the night, it was unfortunately not as effective as either of them would have hoped. Karina was covered in scratches and bites, blood running freely into her left eye out of a gash in her forehead.

The big shaggy beast waved its deformed mouth in Karina’s face, but reeled back as the knife bit deep into its face. It roared what was likely once a mighty roar. It was deceptively fast, smashing her onto the forest floor with heavy antlers. She was immediately engulfed in the miniature slug-like serpents.

Leliana scooped up her old comrade, jumping into the low branches of a nearby pine. “Stay here.” She said. Karina nodded, wide-eyed, as Leliana plucked the long knife from her hands. “I just wanted-”

“I know.”

Leliana squeezed the hilt, gave it a practice swing. It felt good.

Dozens of the slimy snakes fell in two pieces over the next dozen seconds. Leliana kicked off the tree she’d placed Karina in, bouncing from trunk to trunk, waves of diseased animals falling to the ground with each pass. It was almost too easy, until the horned beast joined the fray. She sprang off from a sapling, running face-first into a wall of rotted muscle and slimy worms.

“GROOOSSS!”

Slick guts invaded her nostrils, eyes and mouth. Leliana retched, her head spinning. She missed the rampaging beast as it charged, pinning her to the trunk of the tree Karina was sitting in.

“You bastard.” She whispered into its ear.

Bones shattered as she rained heavy blows onto its face. As soon as it backed up a couple of steps, Leliana rolled aside, slashing at it’s flanks. The monster bellowed like a diseased bull with every slash, severing muscle and tendon on each limb. Finally, it collapsed.

“Ah HA!” With a flourish, she drove the blade deep into it’s spine. It dropped with a whimper.

She smiled.

Waves of wriggling, slithering, disgusting snakes flooded out of its body.

She screamed.

Time to go! Leliana swept Karina from her branch, grabbed the dying torch, and made their escape.

***

They caught up with the group after about a mile. She hadn’t exactly been tracking the Protector, she had no idea which way he’d gone. But she knew they’d been moving away from the moon this whole time, so she logically ran straight toward the moon’s position in the sky.

Once regrouped, they traveled in a silence broken only by the labored breathing of the injured until they finally came into view of the enormous burning plant monster. It had caved in at some point, forming a huge hollow inside and shrinking rapidly now.

The crew collapsed against each other in a heap next to the wagon. Jovi kept her head down in a sullen silence, but the rest of the group were vocally grateful.

“Many thanks for your aid.” Gib voiced.

“Thank you very much.” Sekkel added.

The Protector bowed. “It is good to see you again, Gib. Jovi.” The captain of The Nightmare jumped when she was mentioned by name, but continued staring at the soil beneath her boots.

“What the heck were you guys doing out there!?” Leliana nearly yelled.

“I, too, would like to hear the tale.” The Protector chimed in. “But they have been through a harrowing experience Leliana. Let them rest for now.”

“It’s alright.” Karina said. “I think talking things through will help us relax a bit.”

After the fight with the clown pirates, Jovi had lost more control over the ship even than she had of herself. The crew did their best to ground the ship quickly, but due to the storm, had flown for dozens of miles before they finally shed altitude. And once they finally set down, the grassy plains had already given way to the wild forest. The Nightmare smashed its way through half a mile of thick vines and trees and brush, punching holes on every exposed surface. The crew hadn’t seen sunlight in days.

Leliana noticed the silent tears slowly falling from Teena’s face as her big sister talked. She wanted to say something, but Gib beat her to it. He scooped up the tiny engineer, setting her on his shoulder. “Chin up, sweet tinker. We live to fight another day. Surely we can build an even grander ship!”

Teena tried smiling. “Yeah, you’re right. It took so long to build her though. She’s been our home for years.”

Bristol butted into the conversation too. “Aye, wee one. The loss of a great invention can cut as deeply as the loss of one’s own child.” He crossed one hand over his heart and bowed.

During the exchange, Kahlin had approached Sekkel and helped the older man re-set his splint, as well as providing some concoction for the pain. The two sank into a world of alchemical discussion which nobody else could follow. Leliana watched them chat, but she was too tired to even pretend to understand.

In fact, as soon as she allowed herself to relax, she’d been hit with a wave of pain and exhaustion that threatened to knock her out. She collapsed to the grass to gaze at the stars.

“Thanks for your help back there.” Karina limped over and lay next to her.

Leliana laughed. “Thanks should go to the Protector, he’s the one who heard you guys out there. Somehow.”

“That half naked guy?” Karina laughed. “But you’re the one who snatched me from the jaws of that thing.” She shuddered. “What in the 9 hells was that, anyway?” She wondered aloud.

“I’m…not sure.” The other admitted. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The rest of the night passed peacefully as the two girls caught each other up on the events of the last two weeks. Leliana didn’t have much to report, seeing as she’d been asleep for most of it, but she listened to Karina breathlessly retelling her own story in much more detail. Leliana’s body eventually remembered that she was too tired to stay awake, and they drifted off to the quiet roar of the flame.

Chapter 41: Alone in the dark

Apologies for the late upload! I’ve had the flu for the last week and I had to make some last minute fixes before I could publish today’s chapter.

Please enjoy,

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A small fire crackled merrily under a small lean-to, oblivious to the plight of its sole observer. Insects sang their song into the blackness of the night, giving the feeling as if the entire forest around her were alive. Aside from being comforting, the thought was rather terrifying when you’re the only being lit in an ocean of smothering darkness.

To make matters worse, Gib had tromped off into the wilderness almost an hour ago to investigate some oddly human sounds. As if someone were trapped inside a cave and calling for help.

Karina tugged at her messy braids as she watched the flame slowly heat the contents of a kettle. “Come on!” She whispered. “It doesn’t take this long to boil water. Are you messing with me right now?”

BOOM

She nearly flipped the steaming liquid all over herself as an explosion rocked the night, followed by a mind-shattering scream in the distance. The cacophony of the forest dimmed briefly for a moment, the only sounds being her own terrified breathing. She’d set the metal container on a small rock encircling the fire and was pressed up against the broken ship behind her. Karina’s hand caressed the hilt of a large knife that hung off her hip, pulling the blade to check its sharpness before turning her attention away.

The kettle whistled.

She jumped, then breathed a sigh of relief. Karina grabbed the two tin cans she’d prepared with tea leaves, topped them both with the hot water, and navigated her way into the crew hold on deck.

When The Nightmare had crashed in the midst of the storm all those nights ago, the ship had carved a path of destruction through hundreds of meters of branches and vines and darkness to its current resting position. The deck listed almost 45 degrees to the right, making navigation around the ship treacherous at best. Already it had claimed one ankle.

It was to him that she brought the tea now.

“Hey Sekkel.” She smiled. “Midnight brew?”

The aged doctor accepted the warm cup gingerly. “Ah, delightful. Thank you Karina.” He offered a small bow. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, but if this foot of mine doesn’t heal up soon I might have to amputate out of boredom.”

She shuddered. “At least your lamp lights up the place.” She said. “Being outside is like stepping into blindness. But the monsters all around us don’t have that limitation, I can feel them watching me any time I’m alone.” She touched the worn leather of the knife hilt one more time. A keepsake, she said, as well as a weapon. To remind her of the two companions they’d lost.

“There’s no way falling has any way to hurt that gal.”

Her sister had said. Teena snored from her cot across the room loud enough to make them jump. Karina smiled at her sister. Another explosion echoed through the inside of the ship and caused little bits of debris to rain down onto them. The still sleeping form of Teena got to her feet and kicked a propeller she’d been trying to fix, then collapsed back into bed.

Karina giggled. She and Sekkel discussed their options to getting out of this predicament before Karina sighed and rose. “That last one sounded close. I better get topside in case Gib needs me when he gets back.

She navigated the obstacle course that was the stairs back to the surface and settled into the darkness to watch.

***

Thorns and needles relentlessly ripped at her hair, skin and clothes as Leliana hurtled through the darkness at breakneck speeds. It had been a little while since the sounds they were following had quieted, and she was beginning to wonder if the Protector was lost. Was that a human screaming in the distance, or some terrifying beast coming to rip them apart? She had no way of knowing. The forests she’d been sleeping in up to this point had all seemed laughably tame in comparison.

Leliana nearly flattened her running companion as he suddenly stopped mid-stride. “Ah! Little warning next time?”

He offered no reply, just raising a finger for silence. Finally, less than five minutes after stopping, they went careening through the forest at speeds that would surely kill them before they reached their destination.

***

Blood and sticky ichor oozed down his hand freely as Gib made a mad dash through the underbrush. His breath heaved, sounding hollow even to his own ears. He navigated the terrain by torchlight, fighting for every step of ground he gained. The carpet of moss which covered the entirety of the forest floor easily hid pitfalls or fallen trees in his path, one wrong step would send him tumbling. And dead.

Finally the twisted wreckage of the ship loomed out of the shadows.

“Karina!”

The woman in question nearly hurled herself from the top of the ship as he suddenly appeared behind her.

“I bring ill tidings, o’ friend.” Gib never stopped moving as he spoke, collecting a half a dozen things from the storeroom before moving to the stairs. “We must leave. Tonight. Right now. There are monsters out there which are, even now, hunting our little family as we sleep.”

“Wha? Right now, but we can’t. Sekkel hasn’t had time to heal proper- Gib! Your arm!” She was in the middle of following him downstairs when she caught sight of that gruesome mess on his arm.

“’Tis not mine,” he replied. “Some creatures of the night. They bleed black and infect others, making their bodies into slaves.” He said grimly. “Grab Teena, we should away before long!” His generally booming voice was kept confined to a whisper to avoid unwanted attention from outside.

“Are we going somewhere?” Sekkel had heard them start down the stairs and heard the panic in his friends’ voice.

“Monsters, Sekkel. Large and small, they seek to consume all.” The big man was wearing three backpacks now, and gently collected the old doctor into his arms. “Quickly Karina, raise our fair Teena and let us away!”

***

“Listen to the night.” The Protector instructed her. “Tell me what you hear?”

They were currently in the lowest branches of a forest pine, resting on its rough bark. Leliana squeezed her eyes, listening as intently as she could. “Bugs? A dying cat? The…uhh, whispers of the moon?” She had no idea what he was looking for.

He smiled. “All of that and more. But you’re being too specific.” He explained. “Allow yourself the freedom of listening without listening. Accept the sounds you are given, but do not identify them.” He moved next to her, closing his eyes. “I hear the sounds I would expect of a natural wilderness in this direction, for example. The bugs call to each other. The cats, hunt. Deer and mice, die.”

Leliana though she heard loud squeaking in the distance at this.

She felt him shift, facing left. “And this way, the same. Allow the night to draw your attention to the difference.” They absorbed the sounds in silence for several long minutes, turning in sync with each other.

“Wait.” She had no idea which direction they faced now, as her eyes had been closed to listen this whole time. She really hoped he knew his way back. “There. Everything is quieter this way. The bugs and birds and everything.”

Now that she was clued in, she didn’t know how she’d ever missed it. The difference was glaring.

“Good. The sounds of humans in need have been coming from there as well. There are no human towns this far out, so we must investigate.” He explained. “It is this task which I wish you to fulfill in the future, as well. For now, I will follow. You lead the way.”

What!?

***

Teena teetered up the steep slope of the stairs with two armfuls of metallic tools and glass vials. She’d been expecting this day for a while now, so it wasn’t too big of a shock. Still, she hadn’t expected to leave while she was sleeping. “Okay I got-”

BOOM

Any traces of sleep the tiny engineer displayed evaporated as the captain’s door exploded off its hinges.

“Gib? Wha’s it? Leave me alone, you hear.” Jovi slurred from inside the room.

He didn’t care.

“We leave now, Jovi. Grab what you can and let’s go.”

“I’m not goin’ an’where now am I? Look at me.” Teena grimaced at the sounds her former captain was making. “Leave me forever. I deserve it.” She wept.

Gib glared. A minute later, he stepped down to the forest floor, three backpacks and two crew members in hand.

“Pu’ me DOWN!”

One of them seemed more reluctant to be saved than the other.

“Jovi, pull yourself together.” Teena chided. “Look at Gib right now. Is that the face of a man who’s going to leave you alone because you threw a fit?” She clucked her tongue. “Get your ass in gear, girly.” Pink pigtails bounced in the torchlight as she yawned and stretched, clipping various tool pouches and belts into place.

Jovi opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Instead, her eyes bulged, and she screamed in terror. “Look out!”

A trio of blackened, fur-less wolves materialized into the torchlight around Gib. The leader of the pack lunged, receiving a brutal kick to the face in reply.

“RUN!” Karina hauled her sister onto her shoulders and set off at a dead sprint, followed none-too-cleanly by a staggering Jovi. Gib brought up the rear with Sekkel, lashing out at the animals when they got too close.

Teena clung to her sister, digging through the zippered pouches on her hips. “Stop that, I’m going to fall!” Karina warned her.

“We’ll never make it.” Teena rebuffed. “I’ve got something that can help though. I just have to…find…it…AH!” The small woman leveled a flare gun at one of the pursuing monsters and pulled the trigger.

There was a bright burst of light as the bright explosive flew straight into the pack leader’s mouth. Seconds later, he exploded.

“YES!”

Without warning, two figures dropped out of the trees, nearly landing on top of Karina and Gib.

“Look out!”

Chapter 40: Exploring the past

Hello internet fam,

Chapter 40 of Lead Heart is up! Please comment with any suggestions or improvements!

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During Leliana’s 11th birthday, she’d asked Brutus about her parents for the first time in 5 years. He was surprised to say the least.

“You think you have parents?”

She remembered him prancing around theatrically, opening cabinets and upending shoes. “Mummy? Daddy?” She still felt the drop in the pit of her stomach remembering the look in his eye when he stopped.

“You don’t have parents, idiot.” He sneered. “And who told you it was your birthday anyway? You don’t have that either.” The 3 week beating she received at the hands of his enforcer afterward almost had her believing it, too. Almost. Each time Leliana let go of that precious part of her mind, it exploded to the surface. Haunting nightmares blasted her for weeks at a time. The fair, the candy, the house of mirrors. Her parents’ smiling faces.

Well, she never saw their faces, but she knew they were smiling. She had a family. More than 10 years of “training” had never eclipsed the sliver of hope she had locked away.

One day, fate knocked.

Brutus briefed her during a morning workout about a mission. A test. Rivulets of sweat disguised a stream of tears falling to the floor while he shoved his face with everything in sight. “The mission is easy.” He said. “Some sovereign-city or another is losing control of the villages outside its walls. One of them is built on the other side of an infested crater. You drop in, behead the people, you fly out.”

He’d never even stopped eating while he sentenced those people to death. It made her sick. She’d called him every name in the book, and a few she invented, and in no uncertain terms had turned down the mission.

That was fine, he said. No problem. I’ll bomb the town instead, and you can spend the night with Executioner’s hammer instead. Leliana’s memory got a bit hazy after that, but she was suddenly standing over a disemboweled guard in a cell missing a door. That’s when she made her break, taking a few of her favorite toys and scattering into the wind.

Atreides took the story in silence. He contemplated the possible ramifications and, more importantly, the implications held within her story.

He’d heard of the mercenary laboratory of course. They were oft used as a covert weapon when unique solutions were desired. They changed identities almost yearly, but it was always the same people.

“Did they perform any surgeries on you?” He ventured. He’d never imagined they were haphazardly implanting experimental hardware into children.

“Did they? HA!” Leliana pulled down the front of her shirt, revealing a straight, white scar running the length of her breastbone. “Got cut open so many times my body started preemptively fixing itself. Woke up mid-op one time, knife buried under my lungs.” She shuddered against the ghastly memories. Then giggled. “Spewed so much blood after he jabbed an artery, Brutus almost died choking on it.”

She was laughing so hard remembering her former tormentor turning blue in the face that she missed the glance the Protector shared with Kahlin. The lean alchemist leaned thoughtfully against the wagon. “I knew Lilith had some weird ambitions before I left. I was part of chemdiv though.” He spread his hands wide. “What she’s been up to since, is beyond me? Sorry Atreides.”

Leliana’s smile froze. She didn’t see the Protector glance at her. Fury at hearing that woman’s name coursed through her as she lifted the small man by his neck. “I’ve heard that name before.” She sneered. “You worked for her?!” She ignored the hands gripping her own. “YOU worked for such a monstrous, slag bastard, evil, conniving…?!”

“I…It was a long time ago.” He rasped. “I left when they-” His eyes bulged as she squeezed.

The fear in his eyes felt good, she could almost see Brutus standing there. See his fat little head exploding his disgusting brain into paste around her fists. She wanted to…

She was suddenly keenly aware of the men surrounding her. Bristol and Carkus mere inches away, both stayed by the outstretched hand of their superior.

“Kahlin is not your enemy, child.” Atreides’ gentle voice was commanding. “Put him down.”

“I…I didn’t…” She felt like an idiot. Killing the wrong guy wasn’t going to do her any good. Leliana put him down. She blinked as a blade nicked her throat, Kahlin sheathing it in one fluid motion. “Sorry.” She said lamely.

All save Atreides retreated to the others. Her fears about his judgment intensified with his next statement. “To leave you with a team of war brothers would be to endanger the team itself, I fear.” He shook his head. “I acknowledge your strength, of course. But strength, untamed, will always be more harm than help.”

“But you can help me, right? Tame it, I mean. I got a little carried away with your man, but…” Her arms hung in the air helplessly. She watched a series of emotions march across his face, before settling on grim.

“Whom would you have me pair you with? The war brothers can ill afford to watch their backs in the field, it’s true. Those who have not taken the robes would likely stand little chance were you to lose control. Would you risk their lives for your sake?”

Risk their lives? She thought.

He opened his mouth again. Before he said anything, a blood-curdling scream pierced the night. It was unmistakably human.

The Protector’s vision shot into the distance, unfocused for a moment. “Come with me.” He decided. “I may find a place for you yet.”