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.”

Chapter 39: An uncomfortable return

Hello internet readers

Chapter 39  of Lead Heart is up! We’ve crossed the 50,000 word threshold and still going strong.

 

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Leliana leapt out of the concrete bed, ready for a fight. Dull, grey bars of steel stood at attention around the perimeter of the “room.” White, hot pain flared,collapsing her to her knees. A trickle of blood seeped from the stitches down her chest she’d managed to tear open. Again.

“You’re able to walk already?” Brutus was laughing at her from outside the bars now. “Excellent, the operation seems to be a tentative success.” He rubbed his greasy hands together.

“What did you do to me?!” Sudden panic gave her the strength to rush the gate, pounding at the solid steel.

“HA HA HA HA!” His twisted face grew, the suddenly cavernous room filling with his disgusting smile. “Dance for me, you little worm!”

Leliana’s knees buckled, and she backed into the wall. This couldn’t be. She’d left it behind. She’d escaped! Cold steel bit into her knuckles as she hammered at the bars over and over again. They groaned under the onslaught and bent further with every strike. The bars exploded into a blizzard of dust and howling winds, blinding her. Brutus’ face emerged like a nightmare from the whirling sands and she realized the howling wasn’t the wind, but him.

Then his face started to melt.

Skin sloughed off in great blobs to pool at her feet, revealing the grinning skull of her former master. The skull was painted bizarre reds and yellows and a sudden thrill of realization hit her as metal spikes jutted up from within. A spiked clown?

Rotting hands jumped out of nowhere and dragged her to the ground. They rose up from beneath the slimy flesh, pulling her inexorably into its depths. She fought like a demon, fingernails ripped free in a desperate attempt to break them away. The cold, smooth embrace of the stone lapped at her ankles, then calves. She was knee-deep when self-control was wrenched from her by something inside. “AAAAAAAAAAH!”

Hands and half-eaten arms lost their purchase and she fought them off with renewed vigor, pulling the long knife out of its scabbard on her back. She hacked and sliced at the hands until she was blue in the face, but she was already chest-deep in the flesh. She couldn’t breath. The stitches spanning the entire front of her abdomen split to reveal herself again, five years younger. She gnawed the chain manacles for hours, waiting for someone, anyone to show up, to save her.

“At ease, child.” The world rumbled at her.

No, not the world. The Protector?

She noticed for the first time that the sandstorm was gone. Instead, the dark yellow specks coalesced into the brown and tan robes of a monk of gigantic proportions. Gone was the gooey flesh holding her fast. Instead she found herself in the clutch of an enormous fist. Blood raced while she tried to make some sense of just what in the nine hells was going on. She couldn’t breathe. The fist got tighter and tighter, driving the wind from her. Leliana pulled feebly, vision blurring at the edges as it faded to black.

The Protector began to speak, but no actual words come out. Her entire being trembled in that deep voice It droned on and on, never stopping. It’s going to shake her to pieces. She’s consumed with fury or panic, she’s not sure which. Flames explode in all directions, enveloping her. Her heart races, fire coursing her veins. Before she can be squeezed into paste she smashes free of the fist. His smiling face gets bigger and bigger and bigger, darkening the world until the only thing she can see is an eye as big as the moon.

What? No. This wasn’t right.

Nothing exists but the Protector. His pupils dilate out of existence, his voice the deep rumbling of the universe. Suddenly his eye is the moon. It drains the life from her until she collapses, scarcely able to open her eyes.

The moon shone in the night sky, stars twinkling into existence. The overbearing voice of the protector finally fades, a deep thrumming to the tapestry of pain that is her life. Leliana is exhausted. Everything hurts. She tries to rock forward to her feet, but no part of her will comply.

“Ugh.”

It’s all she can do. Suddenly the pale moon flares into brilliance, blinding her and setting flame to the excruciating headache she hadn’t known about yet. The gears of her mind were trying, but nothing was making sense.

What…Who?

Stars drew little circles in the sky and confounded any attempts to focus. They did a good job to help clear the contents of her stomach again, though. The retching brought new sparks of fire into her ribs. Damn, had her body always felt this heavy?

“Easy now.” A wispy voice laid a hand on her shoulder from behind.

Leliana gurgled meekly. She rolled across her left shoulder to spring to her feet, pivoted and ready to fight.

Well, she tried.

It was an unfortunate time to discover the lack of fine motor control, and she just managed to throw herself into the dirt face-first.

The voice stifled a giggle. “Hey, you’ll need to take it easy.” He managed to choke out. “The antidote needs time to work.”

“Wha…t?” The dust tasted remarkably fertile. Fresh and…dirt-y. Still, it would be bad to fill her lungs overmuch. Leliana made the long climb to her feet and she could feel the gears grinding again while they clamored to remember the silver haired beauty in front of her. His easy smile was almost disarming when the moonlight wove patterns in the air behind him like that.

“You really should sit back down.” Kahlin chided. “It’s a miracle you’re even able to open your eyes right now. I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in moving.” He gestured to a small bundle on the ground she must have just been laying on.

Leliana grunted. The fog was dissipating slightly around the edges, she just needed to get her blood flowing. She started a morning routine she’d never expected to be forced into again. Jumping, handstands, the inverted stretches. It actually felt pretty good.

She hated it.

“Where am I?” The forest behind her was dead quiet and glowed a bright orange. Across the clearing, 60 feet away, the team of elite monks pulled the enormous carcass of a burning monster clear of the trees. Most of them collapsed once it was free. One figure turned and strode her direction.

“Leliana.” The familiar, normal sized Protector hummed. “I am delighted to see you rational again.” She tried to pull away from the hand in the small of her back, but his other hand gently closed around one shoulder.

“Come. We have much to discuss.”

Chapter 38: Unexpected

Thank you all for reading with me this far!

I hope you enjoy this longer-than-usual chapter. I’ll be taking a short break from writing Lead Heart for the holidays and I wanted to leave a gift of my own. Expect the story to pick up again the first Friday of January, and until then, have a great couple of weeks.

See you in 2020!

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Atreides watched the young woman huffing into the dirt, ragged gasps that spiraled out of control. Enough is enough, he thought. Concerned that he’d misjudged her abilities, the Protector jogged the distance through the stiff brush of the clearing to check on her. Leliana collapsed into the dirt, her labored breathing the only sound now in the still night air.

The insects and night birds are silent rang a warning in his mind, even as he bent to help the girl. Dust blossomed in great clouds around her face, it would have been poor form to allow her to choke in such a state. “Leliana, child. Can you hear me?” He tapped her shoulder.

No answer.

Clattering from somewhere deeper in the forest made him uneasy. He was tense, though he couldn’t say why. The winds shifted direction constantly, bombarding his senses with half a dozen new scents and sounds every couple of seconds. Leaves whistled in the changing breeze, a ghostly song to his unsteady nerves. “Bristol.” He called to the big man in the wagon.

“Aye Capt’n?” Was the reply.

“Ready your machine for close combat. My intuition is uneasy.”

“Captain?” The other questioned the order, but did as he was bade, a cacophony of wooden and metallic pieces tumbling together under the wagon.

Atreides dug his palms beneath each of the girl’s shoulders and pushed.

The demonic growls were unexpected; the flurry of blows she threw at his face were even more so. Eyes wide, the Protector retreated only a dozen feet before the girl was on her feet and in his face. Her pupils were so wide that her eyes looked black in the darkness. He managed a couple of halfhearted blocks, feeling every impact in his bones. “At ease, child. The testing is complete!”

She made no signs that she heard him. The cocky smirk had been replaced by a malicious sneer, and no human sounds escaped her throat in this new state.

What is this? He had an instant to reflect before she was on him again, her strength and speed greatly outpacing the capabilities she’d demonstrated moments before. Had she been holding back so completely? The Protector stepped back and felt the breeze from a wild swing buffet his face. He feinted a blow high, then swept the legs from beneath her. Before she had time to hit the dirt he’d grabbed hold of each ankle and spun to build momentum before launching her, spinning madly, across the clearing.

The dark woods were stock silent; not a cricket, nor mosquito, not a single peep had resumed their nightly song for…When had he last heard them? The winds howled suddenly, shifting and coming at him from behind. The sweet, sickly smell of death wafted over him ever so slightly. An oddity in these parts to be sure. There was a fragrance beneath it though. Something…concerning.

The Protector jumped back, overcome by a cloud of dust and debris as the girl rocketed passed with a snarl. She hit one of the massive trunks ringing the clearing with a snap of bark before coming at him again. She came at him like a wild animal, feral but predictable, and he sent her sailing through the night yet again. This time, she reached out with one hand mid-flight and punched the ground, swinging herself around feet-first onto the trunk. A moment later she was back in his face.

I’ll need to deal with this, he thought. The young lady, and the evil.

Haunting moans echoed in the night air as the increasing wind tormented the canopy. Was that a twig snap, or just trees clamoring together? There was a jarring clang as one of Bristol’s ballistae slammed into place. Leliana rushed him again with astonishing speed. She resembled a giant spider, skittering on all fours. He braced himself, but she flew high instead, using herself as a projectile to crush him into the dirt. Atreides choked on the billowing cloud of dust, twisting into a complex maneuver to unseat her from atop him. He noted a trace of brown nearby. His robe? The two tangled in the dirt, closer and closer, until he was able to get the clothes wrapped securely around her arms.

“GAAAAH!”

He fought to keep her under control. This was not going well. His instincts suddenly panicked, and he threw them each different directions. A moldy wolverine whipped out of the sky, raking and biting into the grass next to him. A moment later, and it snapped back from wherever it had come from.

Saints above and below.

Leliana whipped her cloth prison to the ground like a beast and charged him yet again. Atreides met her charge with an outstretched palm. The Protector closed his eyes to the night as he received the attack. He took a calming breath, dissociating his sense of sight, zooming in on the sounds and smells in his surroundings. The brush of wind through swaying branches contrasted sharply to the crack and snap of the abominations footsteps behind him. Further still was the wheezing as Leliana struggled to breath, hefted off the ground as she was by the firm hand around her throat.

He kept his eyes closed, letting his other senses come truly alive.

There, about 50 feet to his rear, rustling leaves and needles marked its passing. It sounded big.

“Bristol, my friend.”

Without opening his eyes he knew the huge man had already strung both cart-mounted ballista. The quiet clank of iron indicated he was stockpiling ammunition.

“Ay’ captain?” Came the reply.

The scratch of sharp microhair against bark was all the warning he got before the barbed tendril hammered into the soil where he was standing just a hearbeat before. He had a scant moment to regain his footing before he had to rebuff a wild attack from the girl, who he’d been forced to release. Blow after blow jarred him to the core as he blocked each in turn. Where had this power come from?

Shrill hisses alerted him to danger as the creature’s minions converged. He kept his eyes closed; better to keep his senses open. Even now he could picture it in his mind. Some poor tiger or panther, maybe a colony of monkeys or chimps swarming out of the trees. Eyes of green moss or a carpet of mycelium replacing fur. Tongues rotted away with jaws most likely missing in an endless, macabre smile of humorless delight. This was an opponent that didn’t see or smell, hear or taste. It didn’t need to. They were just a vehicle of sorts for a monstrous horde of foliage that would wrap mercilessly around each and every victim before invading its their body. It was a species of plant that drank directly from the hosts, and something he’d silently wished never to encounter again.

Leliana didn’t seem to notice the ring of rodents sneaking up behind her. It wouldn’t do to allow her to fall prey to this thing though; she was much too powerful to be allowed to fall into its clutches.

Atreides whistled, as loud as he could, then summoned the power from inside. The high-pitched sound bounced back at him from all directions, painting a vivid picture of his surroundings. Moving at speed between fist and foliage, he allowed himself to fall back on instinct to through the sudden maze of hostile limbs. Something grazed his right cheek, another his left arm. He took no notice which was which. He slammed back into a firm, smooth branch as he attempted to retreat and realized he’d almost been noosed. “Interesting.” He murmured.

This one’s tactics were different than the last, though they didn’t usually have any sort of intelligence. Green limbs whooshed overhead and Atreides fell, rolling back and jumping as far as he dared.

Leliana, to her credit, took a brutal swing full in the face and was only down for less than a heartbeat. As soon as she hit the dirt, the girl slammed both fists into the ground and hurled herself to her feet. The huffing and growling changed in his ear as the girl shifted focus to the new enemy.

Great.

“Captain?” His comrade called, concern shining through as plain as day.

Atreides breath quickened. In and out, in and out.  After a moment he could feel himself getting amped. This was going to be problematic. His eyes drank the moonlight when they snapped open, though he almost wished they would stop. The sweet smell of death he’d caught earlier was accompanied by mangled, rotting corpses emerging from the wood like some sick menagerie. Yet even with the twisted bodies still emerging from the trees, he was almost already completely surrounded.

He twitched in surprise when the girl hefted a big cat overhead and ripped in half across her own shoulders.

That was going to be problematic.

The corpserider had a nasty habit of lancing warm bodies in close proximity to the tips of the long tentacles. Even as his mind raced to accept the situation, Atreides had kicked off the dense soil and was at her side in a flash. Leliana buried a fist into his left cheek as his arms wrapped around her, knocking him back in surprise. She came at him again, that same intense speed almost matching his own.

Of course she can’t know what she’s dealing with, he chided himself. She thinks it’s time to fight me again. Again and again he deflected devastating blows meant to end him, and he watched the rage building behind her eyes. He took a brief moment to wonder what had been done to her to allow such superhuman feats. A moment was all he was afforded. Once she’d lured him into an attack-and-defend pattern, Leliana suddenly charged and wrapped her arms around him, this time.

“Hng!”

Air was driven from him in that feral embrace. She lifted him overhead like she had the forest lion. Fortunately, he was a bit more creative than the zombie cat. Once he passed her center of gravity, he kicked to keep the momentum. The effect was instant, and she toppled face-first. It was the merest of seconds, but when she reached for him again, there was a bear, a fox, and about 20 feet of distance between them. The two animals hadn’t seen him zip between them, judging by the way they slobbered over her. The bear lumbered while the fox zigzagged around behind. Leliana leapt 6 feet straight up and delivered a stunning blow to the bears’ head. Well, it would’ve been stunning, if the animal was alive.

Almost invisible by moonlight, black and twisted vines crossed behind her as the fox threw itself over her shoulder. It rebounded against the bear, then twisted, using her throat as an anchor to swing on. At the same time, the bear grappled her in a crushing hug.

Oh.

This one really was smarter than any he’d encountered before. “Bristol! I fear we risk losing the girl if the corpserider is allowed free reign to hide in the shadows. Recall your team, and be ready to shoot!”

“Aye, captain!”

Concussive force rocked his vision as a shockwave rang into the night. Bristol bustled into activity while Atreides tried to sever a thick vine controlling the fox. It was too strong to brute force, but it managed to at least distract the thing. The undead bear charged on all fours and left the small canine to finish its job.

As soon as she was free, a pair of strong hands wrapped around the canine’s head and squeezed. A sloppy explosion of goo and grey matter coated girl and grass alike.

She is not going to appreciate that smell, he mused.

Furry paws rained down on him as the bear tried to smash him to pieces. Atreides dodged inside its reach and leapt over the furry head. He was always revolted to do this part. The way the plant embedded itself into the animal’s brain was gruesome. The “plant” contained a central stalk, a dirty rust color tinged with green though it looked black in the moonlight. That was the feed and control stem, transferring its will into the beasts, and nutrients to the main body. It was covered in a twisting, braided network of crimson tubes that carried a blood-like substance to slow the rotting process. It was these deep-red veins that drew his attention. He yanked each in turn, heaving with his entire body. He watched with satisfaction as the bear listed, slowly losing control as it tried to dislodge him. The monk grunted heavily with every heave. The bear crumpled as soon as the last vein was free. The central trunk loosed itself unexpectedly, and he almost caught a bloody barb to the face. Only his heightened reactions had saved him; this one really was thinking for itself.

This one cannot be allowed to live. Atreides set his jaw, taking stock of his surroundings. The beginnings of a plan started spinning in his mind.

Leliana faced off against two tigers now, and something he’d never seen before. It had six legs and serrated teeth. Atreides considered briefly how far away this corpserider could possibly be from. Normally they’d move with up to 5 or 6 bodies at a time, yet this one had fielded more than 5 without even emerging from the safety of the thick trees.

The fact that it remained in that safe haven was cause for concern, come to think of it.

Atreides bolted between bloody zombie and thick vines to deliver a stunning strike to Leliana from behind. She stiffened, and he grabbed her as she collapsed. The field was too uncertain to walk her to safety. He drew back, hurling her back across the clearing toward Bristol. Or that was the idea.

An eagle of some giant proportions darted out of the gloom and snatched her in midair. It wasn’t strong enough to fly with the girl, but it had at least kept her in striking distance. The monk frowned. He zoomed to the spot beneath her, before she crashed to the ground, and caught her. This at least had given him a chance to extricate himself from her previous attackers, and he ran them both back to the wagon.

Bristol had installed both of his short-range, but super-powered, ballistae onto the metal knobs anchored into the ground. Both were loaded with brutal looking bolts some 3 feet long.

“Something is different about this one.” Atreides confided. He lay the girl gently on the ground where she would hopefully be safe. A small army of half-eaten bodies invaded the clearing, each connected directly into the shadows at the other end. It looked like an attack of puppets, only the puppets were terrifying and smelled bad. “The beasts are coordinating, working off each other.”

“Aye. And did you see the birds, captain?” Bristol’s voice sounded like a child at yule. He was a former airship captain, and had kindled a special fondness for mountain birds. “I’ve naught seen one like this before. We should take it-”

“No.”

The huge man stopped short, and his face fell. “Are ye’ sure?”

“This one is too dangerous. I’ll need to have a word with your team about this as well. How they could’ve missed something of this magnitude is concerning.” Atreides said. “For now, it dies. I need a flare in the trees right there.” He hopped up to the big man’s shoulder to mark the exact spot. Then he hopped down and wrapped Leliana with the thick cord that had strapped the weapons to the cart. Hopefully that would hold her.

Atreides looked to the moon as Bristol closed his eyes, the shriek of the flare a haunting cry in the night. The world exploded into bright, blinding white light. The marionettes recoiled briefly. Each individual creature suddenly veered off their straight course, crashing into each other or careening completely astray. A disgusting, guttural howl gurgled out of the trees.

He smiled.

A creature which has newly found its ability to see with purpose cannot know how easily that vision can be used against it.

The forest canopy swayed, and some of the smaller saplings were splintered outright. Suddenly illuminated, Atreides watched a bulbous, veiny thing emerge from the forest.

Thirty feet high and probably as big around, the core was littered with half-eaten and exposed brains and human heads. They were all staring at him. Some had eyes. On others, thick bramble crisscrossed the head in a network of dirty green and brown. At the very bottom of the monstrosity, like some twisted octopus, grew the corpsevine he’d been expecting. There were dozens of bodies simply supporting the main body. Those, along with another fifty or so wriggling in the air and on the ground, made it look like an angry ant colony rushing out to devour their attacker. This thing must’ve been sporting at least 100 bodies.

“Ancestors protect us.” He murmured.

The corpsevine had been taken over by something he’d only heard rumors of. A fungus that engulfed living bodies. They kept the victim alive in a comatose state, forcing it to eat anything and everything that touched its mouth. Further, it was theorized the plant had the ability to use the brains of the victims to sort of “think” for itself.

It was probably safe to call that one confirmed.

Huge vines dangled even more bodies in the air. Lions hanging from the treetops and seals flopping through the underbrush were all as clear as day. Birds of prey soared up and over the flare, and he had a feeling they were reorienting themselves much faster than he would’ve liked.

“Captain.” The delight in his voice gone cold, Bristol’s horror was mirrored by the Protector himself.

He needed to give the man a job. “Bristol. Aim for the heads in that big mess. It may buy us precious moments to act.”

Bristol offered no response. The deep thrum of his war machine shook the bones in his body as the shaft was fired straight through the mass. There was a ripple as one of the greasy skulls exploded.

“AAAAAAAAAAAH”

Shrill screams jolted Atreides from his stupor. He watched as the small, white haired form of Carkus fell out of the sky, his lithe form still completely naked. He bounced between a score of undead on the way down before ripping a ten foot gash with his clawed hand. A family of howling monkeys tried to converge on his position, only for him to be snatched away by a blue blur. Zimi. “Woo!”

“Bristol, tell him to play it cautious until the rest of the team arrives.” Atreides commanded.

Bristol boomed the Protector’s command to the entire forest, leaving the poor man’s ears to ring. Then he took aim with his second loaded weapon-

“Wait!”

A wispy, singsong voice stayed his hand. Kahlin, the slight silver-haired alchemist, bounded onto the wagon. “Use this.” He unstoppered a vial of clear liquid. “It should break down that thing’s control mechanisms. Maybe.”

Bristol froze, mid-application. “What do you mean maybe!?”

Kahlin shrugged. “Hopefully?”

Bristol heaved a sigh and used it anyway, landing the second shot closer to the center of mass. “Where’s Vea? I thought she was with-”

BOOM.

A familiar sensation hit him, and a bear exploded 20 feet away.

“Oh.”

Bristol exhausted his ammunition while Vea and the protector managed to keep another score of beasts at bay. At least a dozen more crunched into piles of gore, falling out of the sky as Zimi and Carkus severed the connections with tooth and claw.

Leliana snapped awake, shattering the bonds with a feral scream. She was on her feet and wading through zombies in seconds. She smashed a small armored animal to pieces against a tree before rending the wings from a raptor.

“What’s-” Kahlin began.

“No time for that.” Atreides said. “I take responsibility for the state she is in, and we will protect her if we can.”

Kahlin shrugged, silver hair shining like a beacon in the flare-light. “I can help with that.” Slim fingers whipped a line of corked bottles onto the wagon for Bristol. With a few instructions to the engineer, who was quickly assembling his only cannon, Kahlin set off to subdue the girl.

Atreides watched him slink into the shadows, probably to start throwing sedatives at the young lady. It can’t be helped, he thought. He blew a shrill whistle, beyond human hearing. Zimi and Carkus thudded to the ground nearby.

“What’s up, prot?” Carkus was awash in shredded plant matter, blood and gore. As was his reptile companion.

Atreides relayed a quick set of instructions to the two, and they were off in a blink.

“Bristol, have you any fire rounds for that thing?” He asked, gesturing to the cannon.

“O’ course I do!” Bristol hefted a cushioned box out of a storage compartment. “Isn’t that dangerous though, surrounded by wood and all?”

“Yes. Which is why we’re going to anchor the beast to us.” He explained. Ignoring the others’ objections, Atreides ran to help Vea.

The warrior woman had discarded the brown robes of her station and was dripping sweat amid a mountain of corpses. Yet more still came, and she was flagging. The Protector stomped a pack of rodents nipping at her heels into paste while Vea dispatched the lumbering ape she’d been wrestling, then she fell back to catch her breath gratefully. Grim determination lit her eyes while he delivered his instructions, and he clasped her shoulder. She asked for a weapon as he turned to leave, and he made a promise to return with one.

Kahlin, meanwhile, was fending off a howling Leliana. Barely. Her spine was littered with darts like protective spikes. He’d managed to keep her from dismembering him, but it was only a matter of time. “She should be sleeping for a month!” Kahlin shouted. “What did you do to her?!” Though she was standing, Leliana spaced out mid-attack several times. The sedatives were making a valiant effort.

Atreides smashed another fist to the back of her skull, more forcefully this time. She collapsed, hopefully alive. “Kahlin, do you still have those vials of necromange?” He asked, pointing at the other’s pouch belt. The sooner he could end this, the better. He could already feel himself waning as the fight drew on.

Kahlin hesitated. “N-no, you said-”

“Forget that now.” He dismissed. “When Bristol puts an anchor through that thing, I need all the necromange you have placed on that second head from the center. The one with the most skin.”

Kahlin nodded grimly.

Atreides hefted Leliana and returned her to the wagon. He took a few moments to check her vitals; she was alive, at least. He kicked a hidden door on the wagon and watched a pile of weapons clatter to the ground. He selected a thin sword for himself, and a wicked looking spear for his comrade. Upon his return, they dropped another dozen beasts in an instant.

Bristol’s next shot set the plan into motion.

His spear drove straight through the thing’s central mass until it was caught on the opposite side by a waiting Carkus and Zimi. Together, they wrapped the rope around as many thick trees as it would manage, all while rebuffing the monsters’ minions attempts to eat them both.

As the rope was tied, Kahlin set up one of his last blowgun projectiles to deliver a deadly payload. He aimed high, letting the dart fall unnoticed near to the target.

Immediately after the bacterial delivery, the jarring KABOOM of a cannon exploded into the night. The dwindling light of the flare was accented by the yellow of a burning sulfur round, its acrid tang drifting into the breeze. They watched as the disgusting mass rippled like a boulder thrown into a pond, and shot a viscous slime across the clearing. It covered everyone. Every disembodied head screamed in impotent rage as the flames grew. A constant stream of sticky sap rained from the sky, thrown by Carkus and Zimi to feed the fire. Tongues of flame raced down its sides, engulfing the grotesque heads. Multiple human puppets bolted out from beneath and tried to beat the flames with their bodies, succeeding only in fanning the flames before they were incinerated in turn.

The entire world shrieked and screamed around them, rage and pain echoing in the glowing light of the enormous fire. It seemed that the entire forest shook and splintered as the monster fought to flee, but the anchors held firm.

Atreides noted, with some displeasure, a growing ring of black flesh in the midst of the flame. It was slowly dissolving from the center as it was eaten from the necromange. Everyone fled the ghastly howls of dozens of dead throats, retreating behind the wagon. Bristol converted his shelter to a protective mode, a great wooden shield popping up to protect them.

Then, it stopped.

If the death throes of the creature were terrible to behold, the crackling silence afterward was almost worse. The only sound the crackling of flame. The survivors, too exhausted to move, huddled behind what small protection they could. The clearing was blanketed with the stench of sulfur mingling with the aroma of sweet, decaying flesh. Burnt, decaying flesh. He almost gagged.

The ragged group of monks and one unconscious ex-soldier stayed in a stunned silence for a few..seconds? Minutes? Hours?

“Well done, my students.” Atreides managed. A shiver ran the length of his spine against the chill, autumn breeze coming out of the mountain. “We need to watch this body for a couple of days, to make sure nothing crawls out. Come,” He limped forward. “We will rest when the flames die.”

Too exhausted to protest, they followed.

 

Chapter 37: The Test

Hello Internets

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

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

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

“Are you just going to run away?”

He smiled.

“Are you just going to chase me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t there.

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

“Let’s fan that spark.”

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

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

He smiled warmly.

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

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

The protector disappeared.

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

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

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

The bruises from that encounter had taken months to heal.

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

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

“Do you yield, child?”

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

“No, I’m not done with you yet.”

He smiled.

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

He was smiling.

She smiled.

Let’s give him something to smile about.

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

“What!?”

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

The world went dark.

Chapter 36: A chat

Hello dear internet readers,

Chapter 36 of Lead Heart is up!

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

“She what?!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Bristol?” She asked.

“Hmm?”

“Does your team always stay out here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The test is yours to make.”

Chapter 35: Waiting

Hello Readers,

Chapter 35 of Lead Heart is ready to go!

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“Who. Are. You?”

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

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

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

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

Man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She did.”

“So who is she?”

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

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

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

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

“That is agreeable.” Vea replied.

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

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

“Ah!”

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

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

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

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

HELLO GIRL.”

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

“Come on up!”