Chapter 30: A Shiny Friend

Hello Readers,

Chapter 30 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it! (Author’s note: sorry for the late release, I apparently scheduled it for 12am the 26th and not 12pm the 25th! )

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Leaves rustled in the cool breeze, fanning Leliana while she caught her breath. She couldn’t remember being so winded before.

The forest canopy was high, but it wasn’t all that dense. A patch of glittering green leaves reflected sunlight down into a shining mosaic broken across the underbrush of the forest floor. Crickets and mosquitoes sang their deafening chorus, drowning all else in the shadows.

But something was definitely wrong.

Leliana turned in a slow circle, feeling things out. She’d been pretty careless just skipping into the trees. Expecting the brothers to just be hanging around near the tree line she supposed.

“Where are you?” She whispered. Her eyes swept everything they could while she backed away.

Her instincts were shrieking at her, raising the hair on the back of her neck. Shut up she told herself. Panic just clouds the issue.

“Wait…”

Where were the birds, the tiny forest fuzzies?

SNAP

Leliana hurled herself forward as the world erupted behind her. Dirt and decayed leaves blew themselves into her eyes and mouth even after she’d rolled behind a tree.

What the hells?! She whirled and came face to face with a big, brilliantly blue eyeball.

The size of her face.

The beast pulled back, rising two, three times higher than her. Dazzlingly green scales shimmered and sparkled, and the biggest snake she’d ever laid eyes on loomed above her. It’s mouth was a sharp, green beak and huge fan-like ears jutted out from either side of its face. There were gems peppered along the beasts’ skin, encrusted in divots or atop ridges. Those scales were gorgeous, too, and they were a damn decent camouflage; she’d had no idea he was even there. He? It?

“You the protector?” She asked.

Muscles rippled up its jaw. Leliana rolled through a low branch, the whoosh of the beasts’ open maw gouging a chunk of lichen-covered bark. As soon as all fours were on the ground she sprang to the side and was rewarded with a fresh scrape the entire length of her arm. She met its eyes, waiting for its next move.

The snake’s tail flung her solidly into a tree. She twisted to catch herself but was too weak to catch herself. “What the h-”

BOOM

The enormous beak slammed into the ground inches away. She wrapped her hands inside the nostrils and held on for dear life. The snake shook its head and sent her flying. With a flick of the jaw, she flew a dozen feet through a bush that she was pretty sure had thorns.

Leliana’s arms gave out as she tried throwing herself to her feet. Damn. She scanned the surroundings. There were lots of huge logs and boulders and an infinite amount of tiny twigs and rocks. Nothing useful as a weapon. It was a pretty big stretch to think she’d have been able to take this thing even in peak condition. She grit her teeth.

Ivy and ferns flew when the serpent charged again. All these jerky, jumpy movements were getting a bit predictable though and Leliana was able to control her reaction to this time. She hopped up into the air a split second before the sharp beak bit into a jagged tree stump, landing atop the scaly head. She latched onto one of the ears.

The inside of the ear was an alien black and purple color with a bizarre, sharp odor. It oozed a viscous slime which both made it difficult to get a good grip, and made her want to wash her hands. Leliana managed to cling to its head while it thrashed this time. The snake whipped back and forth, gashing trees and splintering saplings while it tried to scrape her off.

“Ha!” She’d caught on to the trick to keep her footing and was focusing on just riding the snake now. The forest suddenly accelerated. Branches flashed by as the snake dodged between saplings, fallen trees,

“Woooo!” She hooked a leg around each slimy ear and threw a hand in the air. “Let’s G-”

OH.

Leliana jumped clear as the ground rushed to meet her. The snake’s head disappeared into a cavernous hole in the ground it’d tried to use to scrape her off with. Successfully. She watched, mesmerized as the sparkling jade colored scales disappeared row-after-row. She caught a whiff of dank must and mildew from behind her, and turned to see it rocketing out a side-tunnel straight for her again. Leliana moved forward, under its jaw, and gave it a few good punches. Damn this thing was strong.

The snake fanned a wide arc around her. She realized too late that the shiny green snake encircled her entirely now.

Damn.

The huge, toothless grin weaved back and forth at the top of its thick neck. Undulating slowly in each direction, beautiful blue eyes boring straight through her. Leliana took an involuntary step back.

Now what?

The gemstones scattered along the skin were twinkling of their own accord, casting a rainbow of shadows through the small clearing. As the serpent wriggled back and forth, they threw multicolored reflections of light dancing across her face, each a new color. Pinks, blues, yellows. Had she ever seen gems this big? They must have been the size of- SLAM!

She was suddenly pinned to a tree. With astonishing speed, the gemstone reptile wound itself around her and the tree five,six times. She managed to get her hands free to protect her head, arms trembling. It wasn’t enough to free herself entirely. Her lower half was stuck fast against the wood on her back, but now her upper half was losing room too. She moved her face sideways to avoid being smothered, but it was all she could do.

The tree groaned in protest, and small splinters exploded from the trunk like little bullets. Shards of wood impaled themselves all along her face. Every time she breathed, she lost just a little more breathing room.

Alright, she thought to herself. It’s time to have a brilliant idea and bust out of here, right?

Chapter 29: Awakening

Hello internet family,

Chapter 29 of Lead Heart is up, our girl is awake!

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A lonely eagle drifted on the warm air over the dusty plain.

Leliana lie on her back and stared at that bird for a long time before she realized she was finally awake. The gears turned in her head, slowly coming back to life. The eagle screeched into the empty, blue sky before soaring back toward the mountains behind her.

She sighed.

The dust rattled in her lungs, and she could feel every fiber of her body. Not in a good way. She picked herself up.

“Ooooh. Ugh, what in the 9-” Her back popped in a dozen places all the way down and her legs almost quit on her. Soft blankets fell to the floor and she noted that she’d been sleeping in the middle of a wooden cart, surrounded by an assortment of blanketed bundles she assumed were others like herself. “This is new.”

Over the edge of the raised platform she made out a score of small fires scattered between a few hundred people. Most everyone was  sitting around the fires engaged in conversation in the afternoon sun.

There were no signs of storm clouds. “Gross, how long was I out?”

Everything looked so different from the ground than it did from above, it was hard to find any familiar landmarks.

A brown-robed figure leapt up into the cart suddenly, stubbled face grinning and arms wide. Leliana readied her fists. “Who are you?” The loose fitted clothes hid his figure, so it was hard to get a read on him. His right eye was closed and shriveled, likely for the same reason he sported a shiny crescent scar over the right side of his face. He beckoned and jumped back to the ground.

She whistled low drawing near the edge. That must’ve been an 8 foot drop.

She let herself drop to the ground. Her knees gave out and slammed into a clump of pointy grass. ”Ah!” Dammit legs, she thought. The robed man offered a hand, but she didn’t take it.

He shrugged, indicated for her to follow him and took off across the camp.

Leliana’s head swiveled non-stop while she passed through crowds of people. There were a lot of men and women sporting the loose brown robes. There were just as many, and maybe more, who were clearly outsiders. She walked through a group of women who’d be more modestly dressed if they’d actually just stripped naked. Then she walked around the group of men admiring those women from a distance.

Of course.

The crowds thinned quickly, and she found herself staring at the back of a familiar head. Straight, clean black hair sitting atop a straight-backed, olive-skinned-

“Antros?” The last time she’d seen him was right before- Oh, right. Right before she’d fallen unconscious a thousand feet in the air.

How long had she been trapped in that damn dream, everything seemed so unreal. Wait. Was she actually awake though or-

“Leliana, you’re awake! How you feeling, kid?”

“The hungriest I’ve ever been in my life.” She answered. “You got any spare aurocks hanging around?”

“Understandable.” Antros nodded. “You were asleep over a week, I was getting a bit concerned myself.”

Leliana blinked.

A week?

Over a week?

“Wait go back. When you say over a week. You mean like, a day. Two days?” It was hard to remember a time she’d slept longer than a few hours.

Antros glanced at a gnarled old woman stooped over an iron cauldron bubbling merrily over a fire. She nodded in turn, gesturing a young girl forward. “A bowl for our guest, darling.” Her whispy voice was barely audible over the crackling flame.

Leliana’s stomach roared despite herself. She glanced down, then back to Antros.

“Sorry kiddo, I mean more like 11 days. Heck of a fall you took, I’m surprised you’re up and walking around.” He raised his hands in the air, slamming one fist into his palm. “Broke a tree straight in half! You’ll need a bigger chute if you ever want to work on an airship again.”

The girl returned then with a bowl of steaming white rice. It was scented with some earthy, herby nonsense that Leliana would’ve killed anyone in the world to eat right now. The girl paused near the old woman to allow a ladle of soup to be dropped in, then handed the bowl to Leliana.

“Eat, child. We will restore your strength, and then your memories.” The old woman bade them sit down.

They watched in amusement, and no small amount of amazement, as she ate enough for a small army. The old woman only smiled, refilling it each time.

Finally, she could eat no more. She slumped to the dirt and stretched in the hot sun. “Whoooa I’m so full. If I’m still trapped in a dream, I’m about to die a happy woman.” She stayed sprawled in the dirt as dozens of others showed up to eat from the cauldron.

Antros and Leliana caught up while the speaker met with the rest of the travelers.

“You jumped out of a perfectly good airship just to pull my parachute? That’s…pretty stupid.” She was impressed.

“I didn’t like the idea of being on the same ship as the deranged queen driving like a madman.” He waved offhandedly. “Besides, I helped introduce you to the job, it would be pretty impolite to let you just die, right?”

“I liked her better after she dropped the act.” Leliana smiled. “People who are too nice always have something to hide. I’m just glad she was hiding a maniac.” She yawned, then jumped as she realized the speaker standing right behind her. “Hey! When did you get there?” How did she not notice?

“Are you well, child?” The speaker’s face was gentle and she had an easy smile.

“Oh yeah, I’m fine. It’ll take more than a fall to stop me.” The girl flexed, then frowned at her diminished muscle. “Dang 11 days of sleeping sucks.”

“What’s on your mind, speaker?” Antros ventured.

“I merely wanted to ask your intentions now.” She said. “Many are those who seek refuge with us. Many, too, are those who seek our help and part ways.”

“I thought we could stay on at least until the next city.” Antros replied. “I’m familiar enough with the area, but it’s always safer in numbers.”

“Wait what about Teena and Gib, the crew?” Leliana interjected. “Shouldn’t we figure out where they went?”

Antros frowned. “They were careening out of control in the middle of a storm. They could be anywhere.”

“But they were cool. Fun to talk to.”

“There’s a lot of people around here to talk to.” Antros offered.

“I’m not really a fan of crowds.” She countered. “Puts me on edge.” She looked at the people assembled around them. There really were people of all types mingled here. “Besides, I think I was on the verge of being friends with Karina.”

“Don’t get invested in the client, kid. First rule of being a guard.” He said.

“Shouldn’t ‘keeping the client alive’ be the first rule of being a guard?” She giggled when he scowled. “Besides, I’m more about the travel than the guarding.”

The speaker interrupted. “We will be crossing the Pladitus mountains, soon.” She said. “You can get a good view of the plains from up there.”

“That sounds like a good start.” Antros said.

“I guess, but I hate walking.” Leliana replied.

“You’ve been asleep for 11 days.” He countered.

“You seem like a great warrior, young lady. You may travel with the War Brothers to train while we travel, if you like.” The speaker gestured vaguely to the distant forest.

“I hate training too.” She said sheepishly.

The speaker shrugged. “They wrestle wild animals with their bare hands. You strike me the type to enjoy that. A chance to regain your strength, once you’ve fully healed.”

Leliana’s ears perked. “Wait, I mean, I guess I could give it a try.” She stretched, popping what felt like every joint in her body. “I’m probably fine.”

Antros smirked and shook his head. “I’ll sit this one out, kid. You’re on your own.”

“I’m surprised you can walk, with the condition you were found in.” The old woman nodded. “I have no doubt you can handle yourself.” She walked to the edge of the clearing, pointing to the edge of the forest about a mile away. “If you are ready, just enter the woods straight ahead, they’ll find you. Ask for the protector.”

“Woo okay. I need to burn off some of that food anyway.” She waved and ran the mile to the shelter of the trees. The wild growth on the forest floor probably made the easiest method of travel here to be by treetop.

“I’d fall on my head if I even tried.” She decided. “How far do I have to go anyway. The protector? Weird guys. Maybe I can be ‘The Killer’. Do we get to choose our own names?”

crack

Chapter 28: Desperate Times

The world was chaos.

Screams of panic mingled with shouts of encouragement by leaders to stay their men.

“We won’t be the first to bring down a demophant lads!” A wiry officer with an accent yelled at the few men by his side. Most had already bolted, but not all. “Spit on whatever gods you believe in then, and let’s kill this ugly bastard!” He blasted a couple of shots into the air and got his men roaring.

“That’s it lads! Let’s GO!”

The black, slimy worm crashing out of the forest dwarfed every building in town. Every sloppy lunge forward caused an explosion of dust and debris like shrapnel.

Rat watched in horror as the lengthening shadows of the setting sun were overwhelmed by a blackness that spread from the huge monster.

Those were thousands of small, black buggers flooding toward them. Again.

The fading light made it hard to count just how many there might’ve been. But then, it didn’t really matter how many there were.

He needed to get the hells out of there.

“Kids!” He turned on the small troop around him. “There’s no way to take that thing down with what we’ve got, we need to get out of here. Go!”

He pointed them back down the stone road to the city entrance, but they didn’t move.

“We have to kill it mister Rat! My pa says demophants destroy everything.” The eldest cried out, to a chorus of agreement from the rest. His brown eyes welled, though he fought the tears.

“No shame in running to fight another day boys.” Rat clasped the young man’s shoulder. “You’ve all performed admirably today, you’ve done your families proud.”

He shoved the kid toward the town entrance.

“Let’s go!”

The boy stomped back to the small group. “I won’t leave, I can’t. My mum’s had The Lock for a whole year. The doctor’s just said she could start walking again last week!” Tears flowed unheeded down flushed cheeks. “If I run now…”

Rat sighed. “Won’t be anyone to help her walk again if you turn to paste under that thing.” He jerked a thumb backward, his words punctuated by another thunderous crash. “Bravery is admirable, bravado is foolish little man. Carry your mum to safety if you need to.”

He sounded like his father. He was about 10 seconds from leaving these kids to their fate if-

Boom BOOM

A new set of explosions rocked the battlefield, an enormous shadow drifted silently across him.

He looked up.

Three airships flew overhead, volleying cannon fire onto the battlefield. Chunks of worm splattered everywhere, jerking and boiling as they hit the dirt. More tiny black dots burst out of each like a popped boil, adding their numbers to the swarm.

The shots that missed the demophant flickered like fireflies dotting the landscape, disintegrating small groups of the black creatures.

“Looks like the brothers decided to get off their asses.” someone grunted nearby, popping a clip of rounds off into the coming horde.

“Isn’t it just like ‘em to swoop in at the end.” One of his companions shouted back. The two worked in tandem, one reloading while the other shot any little bastard in range.

The demophant’s progress slowed considerably, but its overtaking the city was just a matter of time.

Rat peeked backward. Most of the buildings were made of wood. This thing wouldn’t have any trouble turning all that to kindling. Damn it, he thought. Even if they kill it, we’ll be overrun. There could be thousands more inside.

The sun slunk behind the mountains, casting the world into utter darkness.

No moon? Figures.

Time crawled as the ragged line of defenders put their all into stemming the tide against them. Dozens of bright flares popped into existence overhead. They floated gently while shedding their light below. A boom followed by a bright streak of light from one of the ships exploded high in the sky into near-sunlight levels of brightness. The ships hammered relentlessly at the giant worm.

A shriek pierced him from behind.

The women tending the dying behind the cannon-line had their hands over their mouths, pointing beyond Rat. Over him. He turned just in time to watch two sailors smash into the ground.

They all watched in horror as the two corpses were engulfed. Moments later, the horde parted and the blackened men dragged themselves forward on shattered limbs.

Rat swore under his breath. Companies of men were breaking and retreating and these damn kids held fast. He could make out tiny specks darting back and forth between the floating ships. Two of the vessels flipped around, speeding to town on huge jets. Two dark blue rings of fire flashed into the sky preceding them. Two more bone jarring retorts and two more overbearingly bright flares exploded into existence as the first faded.

The remaining vessel drifted straight into the tree-line opposite the town. The crash was loud, but was no match for the deafening peals of thunder as the demophant moved closer.

BOOM

Rat spit leaves and dirt from his mouth. “Alright kids.” He collapsed the empty canvas bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Good luck.” Damn they were stubborn, there was no p-

“AAH!”

The eldest fell as a spindly-legged bastard made a lunge for him. The boy gasped as a small set of jagged teeth punctured his hand, struggling to keep it at arms length.

Then the creature separated, cut in half.

Rat cursed every god he could name as black ooze dripped from his blade. “Go!”

The assembly of boys listened this time, sprinting to safety.

Great.

His knife glinted dully as it flashed from body to body. He couldn’t kill them fast enough already, and the main body of the swarm wasn’t even here yet. Debris clogged his throat as his chest heaved, exhausted. One beast went down and before he could raise his knife again, a huge black spider wrapped itself around his face.

Panic ran away with him and a very unmanly scream tore from his mouth as he hurled the spider. It tumbled, then came back for another jump.

KABOOM

The sound shook his bones as a single shotgun blasted the spider to pieces. Rat was hauled to his feet and came face to face with probably the only familiar face in town.

“Em?!”

“I got you boy.” The old woman dragged him to safety as the police to either side closed the gap behind them.

One officer tossed a revolver back at her. “Aunt Em, catch!”

“Get a move on, lad.” Aunt Em pushed him behind her, popping shots off wildly.

Rat made it as far as the stone road into town before running smack into captain Gainz, whose eyes were to the sky.

“Civilians retreat! Squad leaders, form a line of defense to pull back.” His voice carried across all but the explosion of the demophant, booming over the battlefield. “I want everyone as far back as we can get!”

Another ship glided out of town, just one. It was dotted with torches and crisscrossed with brass pipes.

A huge man with a mane of white hair broke through the cluster of attendants around Gainz, moving up with a dozen men. They were all outfitted in the same heavy leather uniform, puffed up backpack and torch. They spread behind the defense line 20 meters apart.

Once the last man was in place, the leader pulled a horn to his lips. “Alright men, fireline! Everyone else, cover fire!”

They marched simultaneously to the front and sprayed a layer of thick, white powder in a single continuous line. Volleys of gunfire felled an increasing number of beasts as the men painstakingly completed their task.

Gainz pressed a revolver into Rat’s hand as he slunk by.

“Good to see you hunter.” He gestured back the way he’d come. “Got a pavilion of wounded being evac’d back there. Take this, protect them. I owe ya.”

He left, leaving Rat alone in a crowd of strangers.

Dammit.

***

Captain Gainz watched the firemen finish the white line. Seconds later, a deafening fwoosh and a wall of fire stood between the town and the invaders. It wasn’t enough to stop them, but it slowed them down.

What a load of rat piss.

“How far do we need to move from the blast to be safe?” He addressed a small weasel of a man.

“My apologies captain.” Wheezed the reply. “We’ve never actually tested this bomb, and as such, I cannot tell you. It could raze the city. It could give the demophant a stomach-ache.” He shrugged.

“What do you mean you don’t-”

“A moment.” The short man silenced the captain. “I know the materials, allow me to guess.” He scratched an equation into the dirt at his feet, continually looking down his thumb at the enormous monster and back at the ground.

“I don’t have time for guesses, Five! We’re risking real lives on thi-”

“My guess, not your guess, captain.” The shadowy voice cut him off again. “There is a difference. Now hush, I cannot think.”

Gainz bit his tongue.

“The lethality zone should be 200, 250 meters.” Five declared, a full square meter of equations scratched into the soil beneath him.

Gainz sighed. Every man here was in the blast zone. “Dammit Five. This whole thing could’ve been cleaned up by now if the brotherhood had acted sooner!” Gainz slammed his fist into his hand, a moment of frustration. Then he dished orders to half a dozen orderlies and bellowed orders to the rest.

“MOVE BACK! EVERYONE, MOVE TO THE FARMYARDS IN AN ORDERLY-” He gave up. People screamed and ran each other over, pulling wagons and chickens and children haphazardly. They weren’t listening.

“Of course, captain.” Five collected his belongings to leave. “Perhaps. Perhaps we would’ve expended ourselves much earlier then. The brothers willing to die for you might already be dead, and we all die anyway.” He started the trek back to the Brotherhood HQ to get packed. “Besides,” Five called. “I was on the ‘leave and save our own asses’ side of the vote. Brother Sam dies for you today.”

***

Samuel felt the fire from the torch burning his back as the fire in his throat burned its way down. He whistled the tune he’d whistled for the last ten years every bedtime. Each passing second brought him closer to death.

The screams and shouts of the people that had caused him so much anxiety two hours ago were so detached and distant now. Nothing he could do but hope this damn thing did its job. There was no coming back this time.

A few small, black flyers thumped onto the deck and made for the torches. One bit the nearest flame, its head disintegrating.

“Heh heh. Stupid buggers.” Sam downed another gulp of the cheap liquor he’d swiped on the way out.

Two of the little bastards heard him laugh and scurried over twisted brass tubing and tangles of copper wire littering the deck.

“Come on over you thrice cursed little-”

They leapt simultaneously. One burst into flame, encountering a swung torch. The other exploded on the end of the liquor bottle.

The other ships should be back to the tower by now. He was alone up here.

KEEEEEEEE

“I’m a comin, I’m a comin.” Sam stood as it roared and tossed the bottle overboard.

“Dinner time, big daddy.”

***

Rat spotted the captain hanging out on a second story balcony, watching and waiting.

But for what?

The hunter hauled himself up a set of pipes onto the roof and dropped next to the captain. A solid set of hands wrapped around Rat’s throat, a knife teasing itself into his flesh.

“WHO GOES THERE!”

“Release him, Waymon.” Gainz sighed. “He’s just a visitor with unfortunate timing.”

The soldier released him.

“I never actually expected you to stay, Mr Hunter.” Gainz looked at Rat approvingly. “I applaud your bravery, if not your wisdom.”

“Yeah, well.” Rat said. “I didn’t really have anything pressing at the moment, and you said the magic word.”

“Kill?”

“Money.”

Captain Gainz shrugged. “Fair enough. Give me a few minutes and I’ll let you know if I’m alive enough to pay you.”

“Alive enough? What’s that supposed to mean.”

Gainz gestured toward the field. “Seems the brotherhood has a secret weapon they thought we could borrow. It’s either going to do piss all, or we’ll be cooked like rabbits.”

Rat was not amused.

They watched the single airship sail toward the monster. Then it dipped, diving straight toward the giant worm. The huge beast shrieked and coiled, then bounded into the air. The ship was swallowed whole.

The flares in the sky dimmed, plunging the world back into darkness.

The captain sighed. “I’ve doomed us all.”

Rat looked to the captain. “What can we-”

As he opened his mouth, the night turned back into day.

A fireball washed the city in daylight. Anyone unfortunate enough to look at the explosion was blinded instantly.

“AH!” Rat clamped his palms onto his eyes.

BOOOO-

The shock wave splintered the balcony railing and tossed Rat like a ragdoll. People screamed and smashed into each other below, the frenzied crowd running over friends and neighbors alike.

From his back, Rat watched the captain step to the edge of the balcony. His cloak of office snapped wildly in the wind. The world was a cacophony of confusion. The ringing in his ears threatened to deafen him and his eyes burned.

Then Gainz was there, helping Rat to his feet. He threw a last glance at the growing mushroom-shaped cloud hovering over the landscape.

“Skyfather save us all.”

Chapter 27: Invasion

Hello internets

Chapter 27 of Lead Heart is up!

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Broken teeth and gnarled jaws snapped inches from his heels as Rat sprinted on the dirt road. He hadn’t expected wolves this far West this early in the autumn. He’d been running for what seemed like hours, tossing a few caltrops here and there to slow them down.

 

His lungs burned and threatened to quit if he didn’t figure something out quick. The heavy bag on his back must have weighed a thousand pounds, turning his legs to jelly. It also contained hundreds of hours of patience and work and he was not about to lose it.

 

No, it stayed.

 

Thunder rumbled in the distance the direction he was running. Great. The sky was clear, but one shouldn’t underestimate the world’s ability to dump on him at a moment’s notice.

 

A black streak crossed the road and he stopped mid-stride, his feet sliding another foot and wheeling his arms to keep from falling onto the long tendril of shadow snaked across the path.  It twitched back and forth, and he leapt when the limb bent back toward him. The tendril instead wrapped around one of the wolves, yanking it into the thick bushes. He shuddered. Definitely don’t remember those being here.

 

The rise looking over Barley’s Bowl felt about a million miles away, yet he finally caught sight of it. Elation put his heart in his throat; he’d made it! The creatures behind him had flagged and fallen behind, and he’d slowed his pace to a slow run. That beautiful ridge was finally his. He glanced over his shoulder to check for immediate threats.

 

Boom

 

An explosion shattered his hopes of a relaxing stay before he ever caught a glimpse of the town.

 

He finally made it over the hill into the bowl shaped valley the town was named after. It didn’t look good. Squads of police and soldiers formed a barrier between the city and an ocean of tainted animals and insects. He could even make out men with empty, glass eyes and shiny black and purple skin mindlessly crashing through corpses heaped on the battlefield.

 

Groups of civilians and police ran back and forth setting blaze to the dead within reach.

 

Following the tide of monsters back to the forest’s edge with his eyes, Rat noticed the trees had been burned back further than he’d ever seen them before. Even then, saplings and brush sprouted up through the new ash, as though a little fire were no obstacle.

 

A squelch dragged Rat’s attention behind him. A shiny, hairless panther dragged its broken body toward him on two front paws, the rear legs sticking out at odd angles. Another panther fell out of a tree beside the first. The animal’s jaw shattered outward in a mosaic of bone and gore. The animal picked itself up and ran after him.

 

He wasn’t giving up this close! Rat bolted downhill. Wind and dirt hit him in the face as many disgusting animals took swings at hime while he ran.

 

A group of police swung his direction, all bringing at least one firearm to bear.

 

“Wait, wait! I’m normal, don’t shoot!”

The men popped dozens of shots off, adding to the cacophony of bellows and cannonfire and explosions. Moments later, Rat’s pursuers littered the road behind him as he stood, relatively unscathed.

 

“You’ve picked a terrible time to visit stranger!” A few armored men pulled him into the center of a ring of police. The one on his left belted out a series of orders to the others before turning back to Rat. “Get yourself down this road 200 meters and the captain’ll tell you what to do. Go, MOVE!”

 

A fluid reflex on the soldier’s part had a sword singing out of its sheath by his side, a shiny-black forest glider crashing to the dirt in halves.

 

The man dispatched a young boy, probably no older than 12, to guide Rat. The stone road into town was clogged with messengers and soldiers, and ended in a small square. A series of canvas tents littered the plaza, filled with people and provisions. The runner dragged him straight to the biggest tent and explained his situation to the man in charge.

 

“What in the father’s name are you doing running out of a forest crawling with nightmares, son?” The captain was a grizzled man with more scars than teeth with a voice like pitted iron.  He glowered into Rat’s eyes, then shifted, focusing behind him. “What’s in the bag?”

 

They spent a few minutes discussing the contents of the bounty hunter’s bag. The captain sifted through containers and tools, weapons and jars of oil, asking few questions and being constantly interrupted by runners. Finally –

 

“Listen…er, Rat. I’d love to let you into town to cower behind the women and children. Fact is, I need you and your bag. We can use all the help we can get right now. Thirty years in the city watch and I’ve never seen something like this” He spread his arms wide, half-smile on his face. “Think of it like a bounty, except the bounty is 10,000 little bastards.”

 

This was not a tempting offer.

 

“Captain, I’d rather n-”

 

“Or I can kill you and give your stuff to my people.” The smile stayed as the captains’ eyes glinted with steel.

 

“Like I was saying, I’d rather not have your men hurt themselves on my equipment. I’ll see what I can do.” He turned, and was gone.

 

Well crap, he thought. What am I supposed to do about those? Damn these small city states.

 

When he returned to the fight, there were even more animals than before. The hillside  swelled and writhed, washing over more and more of the defensive line.

 

Perfect.

 

He had no idea if traditional tranquilizers worked on these things. They bled, right?

 

Rat unfurled a brace of darts already dipped in a concoction of his own devising. He selected a black deer a few feet away, slunk up behind it, and jammed the dart deep into the beasts neck.

 

It howled an unearthly shriek and whirled to confront him. The deer snapped at his face and threatened to gore him, taking an unsteady step forward. Then another. Then collapsed before its third step.

 

The soldier he saved spurted the body with a flask of lamp oil. A dirty young man, battered and bruised, and full of resolve, ran from behind the wall to light the oil and disappeared again.

 

“Well, I may be able to help after all.” Muttering to no one but himself, Rat counted a quick inventory. He had a few braces of tranq darts, but that was a pointless gesture with the scene in front of him. The monsters were endless and swarming. Smashed together, especially susceptible to… something with an area effect. “Blast it all.”

 

Rat retreated behind the front lines and loosed a few select ropes of the enormous bag. A few moments later, and the bag had unfurled into a mobile workstation. “These are no use to me if I die, but they’re still a pain in the ass to make.” He pulled a string of small bombs. He pulled a small cloth with his symbol printed on it, draping the cloth over a broken stone wall. The wind was gently drifting East. Well, at least he didn’t need to worry about bombing himself with the backdraft for now.

 

One by one, his 5 second bombs flew as far and as quickly as he could muster.

 

BoomboomboomBOOM

 

This design was Rat’s own, so he took  a moment to be proud of his handiwork. The poison inside those bombs needed to be an intense concentration, and then further pressurized inside their containers individually. When the explosives fired, the viscous liquid absorbed a lot of the energy and converted into the clouds of purple smoke wafting parallel to the defensive force now. Huge swaths of the monsters dropped where they stood.

 

Cries of alarm sounded behind him. A small squad of young men rushed forward delivering oil and fire with wild abandon. While they completed their grisly job, something caught Rat’s eye.

 

A small crowd of tainted foxes was twitching, or convulsing he could say. Odd, there were no-

 

The shiny, black skin of the hairless foxes began boiling. The animals’ limbs fired in all directions as they jerked back and forth as a group.

 

Was this some sort of defense mechanism on the part of the foxes? He considered himself well-traveled, had visited more city-states than most people had a right to, and spent a good majority of his time in the wilderness coaxing mushrooms and flowers to bloom. He’d never encountered anything like this though.

 

Suddenly, a small black spike pierced out of the fox’s eye, wriggling like a sharp little worm.

 

Rat’s heart leapt into his throat. His feet stumbled over themselves to be the first to get away from the abomination. The tiny, alien, thing, pulled itself free of the eyeball just in time to be set on fire by the converging crowd of boys. Rat noted dozens of similar tiny appendages wiggling and sticking out of the other unconscious animals. In minutes, there was a wall of fire a hundred meters long.

 

His vision darkened around the edges as he fought the urge to spew his stomach all over the ground. If pre-pubescent boys were man enough to deal with it. Ugh. What a nightmare. He did some quick recalculations. The freakish little things were still moving, so they probably weren’t susceptible to the sleeping gas. The animals they hosted were though, and the doses in these bombs were a bit strong. He had a thought.

 

He lit one of the fuses. 1, 2, 3, THROW!

 

Boom

 

The bomb exploded 20 feet above the animals. That purple haze expanded far more than when he threw the bomb on the ground, and it looked to be more than twice as effective ,judging by the sheer number of paralyzed monstrosities .

 

The fire brigade lunged forward to light the blaze but was pushed back under the onslaught. A police officer cut in, level 2 by the look of him, whirling a sword so naturally it was hard to tell he had a weapon. A small blaze caught and spread quickly, and Rat watched as the little bastards shriveled and wilted under the flames.

 

Fire wielding children surrounded the bounty hunter. “Sir! If you have any more tricks in that bag, we can stick by and help with the cleanup.” A stocky boy of about 15 saluted and signaled his group behind Rat.

 

“Alright boys, let’s see what we can do.” Inwardly, Rat was hoping not to empty his stores. It was nice to be backed up for once though, even if it was just a gaggle of boys.

 

A loud whistling overhead drew his attention. The men behind the walls had strung giant, makeshift slingshots and were hurling huge sponges soaked in something foul-smelling overhead. A contingent of riflemen atop the walls opened fire with incendiary rounds and flames erupted across the war zone.

 

Time was a blur as wave upon wave of these little bastards smashed into the town defenses and, in some cases, converted several humans to their side. The sun traveled its lazy arc across the sky until it hung just above the mountaintops. The tide slowed. More and more of the defending force were allowed a drink and rest before swapping out with someone still embattled. A small group of civilians who hadn’t evacuated were used to run water, food and bandages to the front to ensure their best chances of survival.

 

Rat’s muscles tingled as they rested after a long day. The group of young men lying on the ground and covered in soot and grime from the hard fight.

 

“Did we do it?” One of the young men asked. A slight boy with bushy red hair, though the hair was slick and matted to his head.

 

Rat shushed him. “Never ask the W-question lad. It’s bad luck.” He stretched, pulling his tight muscles loose, and lay on the ground with the boys. It felt good to stop moving. He could still feel the telltale vibration of his explosives in his body as he lie still.

 

boom

boom

boom

 

Wait a second.

 

Rat sprang to his feet. Companies of guards dotted the city’s-edge uneasily, nibbling at rations and looking nervously into the lengthening shadows.

 

Boom

 

Boom

 

BOOM

 

BOOM

 

SCREEEEEE

 

A gigantic black worm jutted up out of the treetops with a horrifying squeal. The children smashed their hands to their ears and cried. The blackened worm fell, crashing back to the ground as if in slow motion. Trees exploded into a hail of shrapnel under the beast and the assembled defensive force felt the strong winds from a hundred meters away.

 

“D-DEMOPHANT!”

 

Chapter 26: Waiting

Antros blinked stars from his eyes, taking a deep breath to steady the spinning world. He rose slowly, feeling the groans and creaks of his bones on the way up. “My ancestors would disown me if they saw me flung by a small child.” He smiled wryly at the young man a few feet away. His neck cracked, loudly, and he winced as he ran his fingers across his ribs. “Think you could teach me?”

The young man bowed, bald head glistening in the warm noon sun. He pulled rough, over-sized robes over the top of a tight-fitted cotton jumpsuit. He tossed a departing wave to Antros before resuming his place on the infirmary cart.

Antros took a few minutes to catch his breath. The last few days had been an excellent teacher of just how much he had to learn. The sky was dazzlingly blue in the wake of the storms that rocked the plains for the last three days and it felt good to just stare up into it.

How the hell had he ended up here?

He hopped up into the large cart beside him. Well, platform with wheels really, just a rolling floor. Leliana lay clutching the light blankets they covered her with and shook her head back and forth furiously. A few days ago he’d have thought she were on the verge of waking up. “Any idea how she’s doing?”

The young man shrugged halfheartedly. Those big blue eyes trained on Antros with a tinge of regret.

Antros sighed. “Well damn.” He let his gaze drift from the sleeping woman.

The nightmares seemed less frequent now, at least based on the obscenities belting out of her mouth. Her eyes fluttered. She murmured something incoherent. The two brown-robed men on the cart and Antros stepped back a pace.

She frowned, eyes closed. Her body coiled. Suddenly her fists whipped the air feverishly overhead. A few moments later and she was still.

“Now I know why you kept sleeping outside the bunk room.”

Antros grunted and hopped down off the med-cart. His eyes were drawn to the poor man who had been tending the girl when they first learned of her sleep-fighting episodes and fought back a smirk. It was the only time in three days he’d heard any of the group laugh. Antros weaved through packs of men, women and children – some robed, others not. Everyone was mingling and getting ready to move again. He moved straight for the head of the column where he knew the speaker’s place was.

This week, the speaker was an older woman who was still strong enough to break him in half with leisure. Deep wrinkles etched into thick, leathery skin from years of toil and abuse. The sun shone off of her bald head, and she gave a small bow at Antros’ approach.

“Be welcome, Antros.”

Both speakers he’d met had raspy, whispered voices. He wondered if this were an effect of not speaking for a year at a time, or if people with throat trauma just gravitated toward the monk lifestyle.

“Be welcome, Speaker.” He bowed in turn, hand-on-fist at his chest. “I’m afraid my friend is still unwell, so I’ll travel a bit further with you.” He used the formal speech he knew they preferred. “Do you have any tasks I might assist with while we’re in your care?” He already knew the answer, but walking was excruciatingly tedious. He might well sweep the dusty plains before their feet if she would just ask.

“I am appreciative of your offer, child. Caring for your friend is enough. Seek your peace while we travel, my son.” She touched his arm with a gnarled hand. “You are troubled. Those with troubles must help themselves before they may be of assistance to others.”

“Thank you speaker.” Antros bowed once more and shuffled back to the rear.

Dammit.

“Aah!”

The young man who he’d sparred with earlier flew in an arc and Antros bolted forward to catch him. They both tumbled end over end. “Are you alright!?”

The monk gestured at the cart. “The girl!”

Chapter 25: Falling

Hello internet

Chapter 25 of Lead Heart is up! Please feel free to comment with any suggestions or feedback – I always love hearing from you guys.

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Wind whistled in her ears as Leliana hurtled to the ground. Landing gently at the last minute.

She giggled.

Her parents swung her up into the air once more before setting her loose into the annual fair crowd. She couldn’t make out their faces from this angle, but that was just a trick of the sun. It had to be. She was enveloped into the sudden sweet, spicy embrace of the smell of unhealthy fair food.

Mmmmmm.

Everything smelled and looked and sounded so amazing her tiny body was already going into an overload. She was acutely aware of how many more of her she wished there to be versus the reality of how many of her there were to go around. Dad had given her a fresh set of pennies to spend on snacks while mum had wrapped her up in a fabulous pink and yellow scarf so she were easier to spot. Just one thing left to do then. She flung both hands into the air to frolic when-

BOOM

A burst of air threw her golden locks all over her face. What!? She spun around. “Dad!” Leliana put hands to hips, her father hastily hiding a huge balloon behind his back.

“It…wasn’t me.” He said.

“I saw you!” The two laughed and she tried circling behind him to get the evidence. The distant trumpeting of a baby elephant drew her attention immediately and she sprinted off to the petting zoo. “Elephants! YES!” The sun was only a couple of fingers above the horizon and she expected she only had an hour or so. Well, until they started looking anyway.

The rest of the night felt like it lasted mere moments, everything flying by in a blur. Baby animals and games of skill (that she was pretty sure were rigged) and all kinds of sugar in different forms.

It was one of these that she was visiting then when she caught sight of a couple wearing the same garish pink and yellow scarves down the boardwalk. Oh no! Leliana threw herself behind the lemonade man’s cart and pulled the scarf into her shirt. The tall man smiled through rough stubble, white hair piled high like a thunderstorm as he pantomimed buttoning his lips. She thought she could make out her father’s leather jacket still, over by the big dome tent with the animal tamers inside. That tent was huge and bright white, a stark contrast to both the red and white stripes of the other tents, as well as the muddy brown of her fathers’ jacket. She looked across the fairgrounds for a hiding place. The big slides and carousel were really fun she’d be wide open. The haunted house was…no.

Oh!

The fun-house was just across the walkway separating the rows of small wood and canvas buildings. Most were littered with shoddy wooden carvings and toys, but the fun-house stood alone. Through a window she saw there must have been at least a million mirrors inside. She’d tried getting in last year, but the ticket taker wouldn’t let her in. “I’m basically a grown up now. Grown ups aren’t scared of mirrors!” Little eyes darted to and fro, forming a diabolical plan.

A minute later, she collapsed onto a wooden table. “Oh no, I hurt my leg! Someone help!”

No one helped.

“Grr.” She’d been sure that would work. The ticket taker stood at the entrance to the house of mirrors, scowling at anyone who dared approach. She noticed a chair midway between the table she was lying on and the old man barring her way to excitement. She hopped up off the table, calmly walked to the chair, and slowly walked it back to the wooden table.

“Hey!” Skin wobbled angrily as he came after her. “Put that back where it was!”

Leliana’s heart thundered, but she sat still as though nothing were amiss. He was about ten feet away still when – “Bye mister!” She bolted around him like a tiny lightning bolt. She left his croaks and cries behind, swiftly vanishing into the tent.

“Oy! Get on out here, or I’m gonna throttle ya!”

She knew exactly where he was, if the grumbling were any indication. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The heavy fabric of the tent walls trembled violently. It made her shudder. The wind must have blown some candles out too, because it was even darker in here than it was outside. She set off, more than once bumping her stubby little nose straight into a mirror. Leliana wandered about for some time in the near-blackness inside the tent. She didn’t hear the old guy grumping anymore, and the windows of the tent were pitch dark now.

“Mister, are you in here? I’m ready to leave now!” She hushed, straining  her ears. Nothing. “Mister?” Nobody answered. Dang, he was right behind her a few minutes ago. The little girl whirled, staring herself in the face.

But it wasn’t her.

It was an old lady, mean and scary. She was smeared in blood from head to toe, and she was staring straight at Leliana.

Leliana gasped and sprinted away,  running straight into a mirror face-first. Lightning crackled overhead, forcing her hands to her ears. Leliana was surrounded now. Some reflections were her, but most were the scary lady. She tried navigating the maze without touching the walls. Mom always said mirrors were a window to your inner beauty. But that lady wasn’t beautiful.

Arms wrapped around her from behind as one of the reflections stepped out of the mirror.

“AAH!” Leliana shrieked and pulled, the images were everywhere now, all staring. They looked pissed. Blood trickled from Leliana’s nose as the figures closed in. Leliana threw herself on the ground, sobbing into dirt and straw. She didn’t even care if anybody saw her, she just wanted somebody to find her. What kind of scary house was this? She screamed for her mum and dad time and again, but nobody came.

A long while later, or it could’ve been seconds, time didn’t matter, she awoke. Face-down in the dirt and filth and straw on the fun-house floor. It was pitch black, barely enough light to see the furious eyes collected on her from the mirrors. The world flashed bright white, blinding her just before another bellow of thunder. “Stop it! Leave me alone!” Leliana bolted through the outstretched hands, smashing bloody limbs aside like they were twigs. She bolted, knowing exactly the right way to go this time. She sprinted between heavy iron bars and concrete walls until she found the mirror she was looking for. This one was a one-way mirror, she now knew. She threw manacled fists into the glass, shattering the panes easily. A few empty chairs and an idle mastiff dozed alone.

She vaulted the chairs, and dodged the hunting dog as best she could. He was quick though, and the only hall to the outside world was suddenly full of snarls. Sorry pup. She feinted, and he lunged. Thick chains coiled around the dog’s throat and he was carried through the dim halls by his neck.

Woops, now there was a guard. Leliana hurled the do, both of them crashing to the floor in a tangle of limbs and angry teeth.

The mirrors around her bore her own reflection now: strong, blond, and alone. She sprinted through the security compound and exploded out the side door she’d neutralized earlier.

Brutus and the executioner, arms crossed, stood grimly next to the security gate.

“Well, well. Mrs. weapon. Back again? Is this a game to you?” The sneer on the short, ugly man was matched only in intensity by the executioner’s white-knuckled grip on his enormous hammer. The silent giant loomed behind Brutus and hefted the weapon easily. “How many times must we re-train you.” Brutus pulled a small, black disk from his jacket. His face was slick, smug even, as he pressed the button.

“Executioner, break her-”

He cut off, watching Leliana’s swagger instead of crashing into rippling seizures.

“What is the meaning of this? What did you do with your collar?”

She smiled.

“Go ahead and push that button. Push it all day. I left a surprise for you in my cell, I think you’ll like it.”

Brutus’ calm exterior cracked, his scarlet face snarling orders at the executioner before growling at her.  “Blast it you fool, why won’t you accept your fate!? You could live a life of comfort. Luxury! I provide you food. I provide you safety! All you must do is-”

“Bark when you tell me, bite when you tell me. Jump when you tell me.”

She cut him off. She’d heard this scat a thousand times. “But there’s a problem with that, Brute. A big problem.” Leliana and the executioner closed in on each other. “You’re just a giant ass, brute. And I don’t take orders from ass. You should know. You’re the one who taught me to kick it.” She lashed out at the punisher, who blocked her attacks with the head of the hammer. Like always. She grabbed the hammer-head and hopped on, bouncing up off with the force of his sudden swing to flip behind him.

The executioner spun and reached for Leliana, but she ducked inside his reach. By the time he closed the gaps in his hands, she rolled clear.

The sky was black. No, the sun was black. She was showered in darkness and sudden wailing screams washed over her senses. Then the wind whooshed by her neck, the hammer scratching the tip of an earlobe. Steamed piss that was close. She whirled and dodged a second swing, then a third. “Don’t come after me Brute. You won’t want to come face to face again.” Leliana scaled the wall in two seconds.

Then the wall bucked and leapt under her. Lightning threatened to burn her to a crisp. The skies were thick suddenly with dark, angry storm clouds. She caught her balance once, twice.

A freakish, black-and-white painted man laughed in her face, close enough to taste his rotten breath. He picked her up like a child, and leapt overboard, plummeting a thousand feet to their doom.

BOOM

A burst of air threw her golden locks all over her face. What?! She whirled, and laughed. “Dad!” Leliana put her hands to her hips as the tall man shuffled a giant balloon behind his back.

 

Chapter 24: Flight of the Clowns

Hello Internets,

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

 

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

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

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

What the…?

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

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

She didn’t wait for the circle to close.

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

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

“We gonna show you piss poor!”

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

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

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

“AAH!”

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

Then the world erupted.

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

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

Dammit.

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

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

He needed to die.

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

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

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

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

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

“Heee heee heee.”

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

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

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

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

Damn it.

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

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

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

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

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

How had she missed that?!

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

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

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

Forever, it seemed.

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

What horse piss.

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

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

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

SNAP

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

CRASH

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

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

Dammit. I’m not finished.

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

The world went black.