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!
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.
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 The cocky smirk had been replaced by a malicious sneer, and no human sounds escaped her throat in this new state.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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!”
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-”
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.
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.
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-
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-”
A familiar sensation hit him, and a bear exploded 20 feet away.
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.