Chapter 70: Working and Waiting

“HO TEENA!” Bristol’s merry salute stayed all hands in the busy street, and at least fifty engineers stopped what they were doing to stare. The street was rank with crude oil and body odor – the perfumes of her profession.

“H-hey guys,” Teena waved weakly. Having that many eyes of her peers boring into her was unnerving to say the least. Many of them wore the ridiculous utili-cloaks that the Gungrave technical community seemed to fancy so much, burdened with pockets and pouches in the traditional gold and red. Even more wore more than 1 tool belt, brimming with anything from everyday screwdrivers to nearly-obsolete butterfly clasps. There were even a few…apprentices? Lackeys? Toting around carts of tools.

While she hesitated at the entrance, she was approached by a well-muscled woman with her hair hidden beneath a tight cap and the most casual attire of the whole group.

“Chief Engineer Tao it’s great to see you again! I was just attaching some belts and chains that seem to have slipped out of place before you handed over the keys to my new toy so I’m really busy but these GUYS wouldn’t stop shouting so I came to see what all the hubbub was about. So what’s the hub, bub?”

“The hub is that your instructions are nonsense and my patience has depleted,” Tao replied coolly. “I told that nitwit you were just buying time, and your friend has been worse than useless.”

“Hey!” Boomed Bristol, hand over his heart. She just glared back. Then crossed her arms, looking back to Teena.

“Mortimus demands a working array by nightfall, so get moving.”

“Okay, okay. I thought you guys could handle it!”

Bristol fell in step as Teena sighed and made her way to the end of the street.

The afternoon slogged by while she and Bristol inspected each gun thoroughly, looking for indicators the others had followed directions exactly. That’s what she told Tao at least, and the military police dogging her every step. They ran through many, many spare parts, half a dozen apprentices, and no small number of curses to the gods above between the two, and it was nearly dusk by the time the last cannon was flagged and approved.

Teena flopped onto the ground, sweaty as a pig and twice as greasy. “Finally!” She sighed. She rapped the big pipe wrench nervously.

Bristol sat gently nearby with a knowing smile. “It’s a right test to do the right thing sometimes, lass. Especially with so many lives on the line.”

They both jumped to their feet as Tao rounded the corner and clucked her tongue. “It’s almost an insult that someone like you bested my work,” she sneered. “Have you finished then, or will this be break thirty seven?”

“WHAT!? I didn’t take no damn thirty breaks you slovenly hag for a-”

“AYE! Ready and waiting to shoot some beasties!”

“Show me.”

Teena punched the protected command panel next to her defiantly. The resulting explosion deafened everyone.

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Tao demanded.

“You said-”

“Ever heard of ear protection?” She replied, flipping a padded headband from a pocket.

“Ha!” Teena scoffed. “What for? My ears protect me with a constant ringing.” She giggled again at Tao’s frustrated sigh as the woman rubbed her brows, breathing slowly.

“That- no, it doesn’t matter. Excellent.Everything is in order, I’d thank you but it was your fault anyway. Take them.” Tao waved and the military police advanced.

“Ahem,” Teena said.

“You’ll get my prototype over my dead body, you little rat. You hear me? You’re going into the deepest hole I can throw you in.”

Bristol jumped as Teena smacked him with her big wrench, but something in her eye caught his attention. “Karima was right, you were two-timing me the entire time!”

She found herself staring down the barrel of a rifle and threw her hands in the air. “Alright, alright, don’t be a JERK about it.” She bent low as the man backed off.

“As you were!” He bellowed. More rifles.

“This wrench is heavy,” she complained, “I’m just gonna put it on the-”

Before she finished, Bristol pulled a flare gun and angled it at the ground, pulling the trigger in one smooth motion. The projectile ricocheted once before plowing into the group with concussive force and two pulses of bright blue light. Gunfire lit the dark night like lightning as Teena finished prying open the bay door underneath her and disappeared.

Moments later, an artillery shell popped out into Bristol’s waiting arms. “HA HA!” He whirled once before whipping the projectile into the crowd and dove aside.

BOOM

The fire charge gouged a two-meter crater in the side of a command node,tossing armed men and engineers alike into a superheated cloud of steam. The explosive round tore into the actual cannon behind them, erupting with a brilliant flash of white and blue flames.

BOOM BOOM

Teena and Bristol bolted down an alley, twisting and turning randomly in a wild flight through enemy territory. The explosions called enemy soldiers swarming into the area and they were constantly ducking or doubling back to escape the hail of bullets.

Teena’s blood ran cold as their flight ended at a dead end.

“I…I can’t…” She huffed, dizzy from the run.

“Aye lass.” Bristol acknowledged.

They turned in unison, smiling in spite of the armed men bringing arms to bear.
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The twisted darkness had morphed an eternity ago into an unending blanket of howling, shrieking monsters. Leliana had lost even the meaning of time in this tortured abyss. If she promised to stay in the cell, maybe they’d take mercy and throw her to the fiends.

She clenched one hand to stop the twitching. Her hands were beginning to fight her commands, grasping the bars or balling into fists independently. I’ll kick my own ass if I have to she threatened herself. She bunched both hands into fists and bore down on a breath.

Then her eyes began to twitch.

“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?”

The feeling of impending action assaulted her at all times now, devouring her mind until she was nothing but the wait.

Chapter 69: Preparations and Boredom

Hello readers,

Please enjoy the newest chapter of Lead heart

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“Wrench?”

“Wrench.”

“Caliper?”

“Caliper.”

“Peen?”

“What!?” Karina pivoted away from her sister.

“It’s a hammer!” Teena yelled, and heaved out of the tangled wires she’d been swimming in for two hours.

“Then just say hammer!”

“But I need the roundy one!” The engineer huffed and scattered borrowed tools all across the steel platform. A wayward set of pliers skidded between Karina’s legs, and she made the mistake of watching it plummet to the city streets some thirty meters below. Her stomach rebelled as her vision blurred and twisted in repulsion to the great height.

She doubled over, head between her knees, until the vertigo took pity enough to let go. The stench of rot and gunpowder from three days of war outside the walls did nothing to quell her vindictive stomach. She hadn’t even recovered before her sister was already beating on whatever it was that needed to be peened.

“You’ve been fidgeting for two days already, is this thing almost done?” She tugged at the knives in her sleeves nervously, scanning the crowds for soldiers.

“It’s not my fault, you can’t rush perfection!” Teena replied.

“We don’t need perfection,” Karina said. “We need survival.”

Teena scoffed.

“You worry too much. My plans are foolproof! What could go wrong?”

Karina looked around worriedly as thunder crashed ominously in the distance.

“Besides it’s basically done I just-”

“HO THERE.” An amplified hail from street level cut her off.

“Scat, it’s the damned cloaked ones.” Karina hit the floor to avoid being spotted, but her efforts were futile. Teena peeked unflinchingly over the edge.

WHAT!?”

“YOUR PRESENCE IS REQUIRED. COME DOWN IMMEDIATELY.”

“WAIT!” Teena waved away their reply held out a hand to Karina. “You got that thing I asked for?”

Karina blinked, her mind struggling to change direction. “What? Oh, yeah that stupid rock?” She fished a lead ball out of a pouch. The thing weighed a ton for its size, just a few centimeters across, and it was scalding to the touch.

“I… probably shouldn’t have let you keep this on your person for so long… I hope the casing is good.” Teena stroked her lip as she muttered a terrifying string of words. “Oh well, you’re probably fine!” She disappeared into the innards of their new ride, tinkering away and ignoring the increasingly frantic uniforms below.

Karina sighed. “You’re going to be the death of me.” She took ten minutes to spy out the targets she’d been monitoring the past few days; the shiny ship on top of the hotel, the monks outside the wall, the increasingly fortified Gungrave military in the field. Teena had disabled the South wall cannons, but they’d be fixed soon enough. Once the Overseer had his weapons back in order, she had no idea what would stop him from taking them into custody. She’d been trying to convince Teena to sabotage the cannons again, but she kept saying it “wouldn’t be fair” to be paid for something and not deliver. The belligerent agents below told Karina that their time may be running out.

“Ta-da!” Teena bounced out with a flourish. “Just gotta fill the reservoir and she’ll be good to enough for a test.”

“Really?” Karina narrowed her eyes. “How much does the reservoir hold?” She asked.

HEY!” Her sister screeched over the edge.

“GET DOWN HERE!” Came the reply.

“I NEED A HUNDRED GALLONS OF WATER!” She called back. There was audible frustration from the men on the ground.

“I ORDER YOU COME WITH ME IMMEDIATELY.”

There was a finality to his voice that made Teena sigh. “I guess they figured out my instructions were circular after all,” she giggled. Then pointed behind Karina, East, the closest side to the steep mountains. “Need you to find me one hundred gallons of water for this bad boy, K,” she said with a straight face. “The ditch for the industrial district runs under the wall over there, but it’s gotta come out somewhere right?”

“What-?!” Karina grabbed her sister before she could scurry down the mechanical guts of the huge mechanical man. “How in the hells do you expect me to get that much water!?” She demanded.

“Just use a bucket silly. Or the toolbox, it should be five or ten gallons easy. The intake is that big hole on top of the cockpit okay?”

“Not okay!” But her sister was gone, scampering down pipes and wires like a rat. “AAAAAH!”
____________________________________________
Drip. Drip. Drip.

Leliana’s mind drooled. How long had it been? An hour? A day? Fifty years? The darkness was an eternal, unending purveyor of…nothing. Her fingers twitched at the idea of lighting a wick again, but if the darkness was oppressive, the claustrophobia of the tiny space around her was maddening. The constant drip of blood pooling below her was enough of a reminder of that, at least.

Getting some light meant she’d have to see the condition her knuckles were in, too.

Hard pass, she thought to herself.

The void she called home was definitely insulated. Every time the blood stopped falling, she was drowning in silence – the waste and exhaust pipes beneath her providing the only inlet for the faint sounds of the murderous monsters rampaging outside. There was no way out down there either. She’d tried. Even with her new strength, she was no match for whatever the hell these bars were made-

“AGH!” Pain lanced through her right eye. Not again. She smashed one hand over the eye, pushing as hard as she dared. The pressure alleviated the pain a bit, but not much. Worse was the uncontrollable rage that washed over her every fiber. Incredulity, betrayal, blind hatred – morphing the stupor of boredom into something feral she couldn’t begin to understand. The clang and crunch of bone hitting steel was the only sound as she lashed out at the prison under a new wave of adrenaline that she couldn’t control. “Get out of my head!” She growled.

As fast as it appeared, the feeling vanished, taking with it the surge of energy. Leliana collapsed into a heap, gasping for air and nursing her poor knuckles. The fits were getting closer together, leaving her more drained every time. Her body felt heavier than when she’d been caught in that stupid light Lilith hit her with in town. Hells, maybe that’s what was happening.

“Damn it.”

A tear, or blood, trickled unheeded down her left cheek. She was too empty to be furious, but she noted it anyway – something to fuel her anger.

Later.

After a nap.

Chapter 68: Locked Away

Leliana’s vision swam dizzyingly, and her stomach flipped upside down in protest. Still, she couldn’t tear her eyes from the distant scene of the hovering airships descending into the mountain pass up the steep slope.

The first vessel down was one she was familiar with, Adolade, though she’d never seen it in action. She’d been required in her cell anytime something exciting happened back in that place. She watched in irritable fascination as the ship’s propellers revved, audible even from this far away. The deep throated roar of the engines screamed at the influx of creatures, blowing all but the sturdiest tumbling end over end. It probably ate through fuel like crazy, she guessed, but it was a damn fine monster sweeper.

The second-through-fifth airships swooped in under the blistering winds of the Adolade to deliver their payload – another prison, just for her. “Oh good,” she seethed, “it’s like getting all tucked in at home by my best friends.” She didn’t miss the guilty looks from the monks, but she didn’t care. If she’d been let out of the cage right now, she’d kick all their asses before leaving this dump to its doom.

They were apparently all Leliana’d out after the hate she’d been spewing all afternoon, as none of them breathed a word back.

“Brothers,” Atreides called to his people, “you all remember your places? Good. Let us go.”

Leliana gripped the bag she’d been provided with white-knuckled fury. More to keep her from reaching out to strangle one of them than anything else. The thick leather straps felt good as they dug into her palm, and she breathed deeply as the steel box was hefted. Most of the brothers moved in a V-formation in front of her, wrestling with the howling ocean of oozing beasts clamoring for a piece of her. Maybe if I rip out that one’s throat, the rest will be distracted and ripped into the little pieces of-

Deep breath. In. Out.
Ugh. She’d felt weird ever since before she’d been drugged, and the leftover grogginess wasn’t helping. She wanted some good ol’ fashioned destructive fantasies to play their deaths out in her head like she used to, and some asshole part of her kept jumping in the way with this peaceful slag. She turned her attention to the contents of the sack she’d been given. Might as well figure out what she had while she could, didn’t look like that shell was going to give her much light to read by. A ton of tinned food containers, some skins, probably water, and a sealed pouch full of oiled wicks made up the bulk of the space. She also had a firestarter, a sealed note, A History of Amica and the fall of the Mulica Empire? “Wow can’t wait to dig into this,” she scoffed.

She looked up. That egg-shaped dome loomed in the distance, pulling her ever closer. She hated the way it made her heart race. The snap and snarl of the bewildering horde outside the kennel she called home now swirled around her like a monstrous blanket. The air was so thick with the things that she almost couldn’t even see the sky anymore. She might’ve been impressed by the way the fighters struck the monsters aside, blow for blow, if she didn’t wish for them to get ripped apart so she could see them dead before she died herself.

Sigh. Stupid Lilith. Stupid Brutus. Stupid monks. She’d been so stupid.

She recoiled as a slimy black snout slithered into the cage and nearly took her head off. She wrapped a fist around its disgusting neck and felt briefly satisfied as she separated its head from its body. “Hey, hey!” She cried. “If you’re damning me to a life of prison, can you make sure I’m alive at least!?”

“I am sorry, girl.” Vea gasped. She ripped the arm from what was likely a gorilla once, ramming it into the throat of a lunging crocodilian.

Psh. No she wasn’t. Leliana scraped the gooey ichor off on a bar held by one of the war brothers, catching sight once again of the weird blue tinge her hand had taken on. What the hells did they do to me.

She felt powerful, at least. The sky was more radiant than she remembered, when she caught a glimpse of it. But more, she…felt something. Some murmur of consciousness below the roar of the pitched battle around her. She wanted time to figure out what the hells was going on. “I guess a week of detention will give me time to think,” she laughed bitterly. And all too quickly they arrived.

The egg-shape was harder to see up close; The outer shell was a gigantic circular dome, welded into a single solid sheet of what was probably steel. The cage was gently set onto a wheeled dolly left inside the outer-most blast door upon a set of tracks.

“Leliana, listen,” the Speaker began, rolling the cart deeper into the darkness.

“Choke on it you scat faced whore for a mother.” She growled. A blast of pain lit up inside her head and blurred her vision. She lashed out to hit him, hit anything. When she could see again, she found her fist imprint set into a bent steel bar. Had she always been that strong? They passed through the outer shell into a the next layer, a reddish geometric affair with long and short spikes studded everywhere. The doorway was at least as thick as a few fingers from what she could tell.

Who cares. There was no way she was going to rip enough of the metal out to escape, even if she did feel powerful. More powerful than she’d ever felt, in fact.

The layer inside the spiked metal was a solid concrete box. It was too dark to see how thick it was, but the cries of the monsters outside were hushed to a whisper inside. Guess I’ll just hope they’ve added air holes?

“Right,” the Speaker shrugged. “Fare thee well, lass. I am sorry it had come to this and, fear not, we will not leave until we see you safely do the same.”

“Better hope I don’t see you first.”

The last layer of the cage was a crisscrossed mash of some sort of metal, steel presumably. There was a thicker, softer layer of padding on the inside that she couldn’t make out, but it was damned dark. And quiet. Her heart hammered in time with each door that closed behind the speaker on his way out until the last door slammed shut with a resounding BOOM.

Then she was alone.
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Little more than a mile away, two eyes glared as the monks retreated from the mountaintop, closing only long enough to drain the glass of wine in her hand. “Let me be absolutely clear, Gregory,” she scowled and turned on the war room. The usual facade of smooth seductress broken by the twitch of an eye and wavering voice. “If you make a single. Solitary. Move. That undermines my position here-”

“Wait just a damned minute!”

“-And I will end this pathetic quagmire of a polluted hellhole you call home.” She finished. “Your people, vaporized. Your legacy melted and burned to ash. Your precious domains.” She closed her eyes, breathing deeply to regain some semblance of control. Control that snapped into rage the moment the Overseer of Gungrave opened his idiot mouth.

“I’ll damned well do as I see fit to keep myself alive you arrogant b-”

“Don’t you dare shite my bed you little prick,” she snapped. “Not today. The bomb drops in four days, after which we may depart from each others’ lives. You’re free to mess yourself all you like, after that.”

The Overseer looked to his advisors and guards, none of whom so much as twitched. “Fine.” He finally agreed. “You’d better not…Four days? A bomb!?

“Four days! My heavy lifter is standing by. Once the initial fireball dissipates the creatures will be disintegrated and I will be on my way with my weapon.”

“Overseer Mortimus,” his civil defense engineer cleared his throat nervously.

“Maintain the plan,” he stated. “This changes the time, not the plan. Push everything three days. Tell IC their pet project is mine now, give it to the girl whether she does as promised or not, I don’t care. Two birds with one stone and all that.”

Alone in the dark, inhaling the dank air of the ventilation duct over the meeting, a hidden pair of eyes narrowed.

Chapter 67: Hand her over

If the battlefield noticed Leliana’s fall, it did not show it. Wave after wave of gooey monstrosity crashed against the city’s defenders and Ilth es Trada talents holding their own in the field. A disturbance in the pass stymied the flow of plague, though it was unclear as to the cause. The Gungrave gates opened in the distance with a BOOM as a convoy of vehicles powered through full-steam.

Chaos swirled around Vea as slumped under the girl’s immense weight.

How does this girl make sense? Then she shook it off. This was neither the time nor the place to ponder frivolities.

The Gungrave frontline split as she landed, most shooting into the flood of diseased animals coming from the pass with about a third flipping about-face to defend, should Vea try anything. She did not blame them. She had a bad feeling about the convoy headed this way though, and hastened to the safety of her own people.

“Thank you, Vea.” The Protector commended. Many assembled war brothers glanced uneasily at the girl in her arms whom some knew had just recently been their guest. It did not sit well with them, she knew, to betray a friend who’d given over her trust.

“You are welcome. I do not think it wise to hand the girl over to Lilith Freely, Protector.” A lot of heads nodded around her.

“I know ‘em better’n most, prot.” Bristol said. “Be better on the lass to feed her to the things and just get it over with.”

Atreides was interrupted as the fight reached their small group again, everyone breaking formation to dish death to the monsters in their own way. Vea and Atreides fled the scene with the girl, unconscious but still stirring. They were a quarter-mile from the front when the convoy pulled alongside them, one massive tank in the lead surrounded by half a dozen smaller vehicles. Vea backed behind the Protector and was joined by a huffing Bristol and Speaker.

The tank was painted Gungrave gold and red, roaring with power as its treads ate up the open ground. There was a blast of steam, and a solid steel door clanged open. The Overseer climbed out, planting himself to the side as Lilith slid to the ground after him. “Ho criminals!” He called. The monks clustered as they approached, Lilith’s two hulks in tow. A reinforced steel cage no bigger than 1 meter cubed bounced out after them.

“Excellent work all, hand her over and we’ll spring the trap on this disaster.” Lilith reached for the girl as Vea stepped back.

“No.”

“What do you mean NO!” She looked nervously as the creatures swelled ever closer even now. “We need to get this circus under wraps girlie, or we’re all dead. Understand?” She stepped forward again.

“Yes,” Atreides intervened. “We understand, which is why we have subdued the girl. Tell us how to stop them and we will be happy to execute your plan.”

“Now you wait just a damned minute!” A tiny voice called over the fray. “What’s going on here?! You better not be handing Leliana over to that witch after all we’ve done for you!” Teena stomped into the middle of them all with her hands on her hips. A harassed looking Karina stumbled in behind her sister, battered and bruised and gripping a bloody pair of knives.

“Stay out of this you tiny freak,” Lilith growled and turned back to the monks. “A very sophisticated, very destructive superweapon is on its way from my headquarters and will be here in less than a week.”

“A week!” Teena cut her off. “That ship is fast as hell!”

Lilith growled. “Yes. It is. It is also mine, and there’s only one. I NEED her to corral these bastards away from the city so I don’t have to bomb it into dust so give me the damn child before I kill you all!” Spittle splattered out as she ascended into screaming.

“Don’t even think about it.” A new voice growled behind Bristol. Antros sidled around the big man, shouldering a shotgun at nobody in particular. “Just what the hell is going on here.”

Overseer Mortimus snapped, and a score of barrels swiveled on the backs of the vehicles. “This is ridiculous, hand over the girl so we may end this farce.”

Antros whistled a single, piercing note. It was returned immediately, and the Drifters materialized at his back a moment later – locked and loaded.

Mortimus spat. “Who the hells is this one?!”

“I do not think it needs to be said, but this cage will not keep the girl safe from those monsters.” Vea moved forward. Leliana was moving a lot more now, and Vea wasn’t looking forward to still be holding the girl when she awoke.

Lilith scoffed. “The cage isn’t to protect her, it’s to keep her. My team is assembling the breech shell as we speak, it’ll be done by dusk,” she spat. “That is a very special girl you’re holding, and she has a very special role to play. I don’t get that girl, we all die.”

She let the threat hang in the air.

Special? Thought Vea. “Is that why she is so heavy? Because of what you’ve done to her?” Lilith waved the question away.

“Likely a combination of factors,” she dismissed. “The alien architecture of her biology releases a bacterium which reinforces traumatic damage to her body from the inside. The side effect of that is a condensed musculoskeletal system with no limits that I’ve been able to find on her father. And she’s only fifty percent them.” She narrowed her eyes.

Vea exchanged an uncomfortable glance with Bristol.

“What the devil are you on about?” Mortimus spun on the woman.

“Shut up, Gregory.” She snapped. “You don’t need to understand, none of you needs understand it. Or believe it,’ she added.

“I do not doubt you, Lilith.” Atreides jumped in. “Yet we hold the bargaining chip and the power in this. The girl will not sleep forever. Provide us the cages and the instructions and we will do as you bid.”

“And we want a getaway ship for when it’s done!” Teena peeped.

“YOU!?” The Overseer spun on Teena as if he just remembered who she was. “You get your tiny arse back to my city and fix that gods damned cannon wall!”

“You still haven’t fixed that yet? It’s been hours it should’ve been pretty easy for whoever designed the wall to…” Teena’s eyes suddenly sparkled in the sunlight. “Alright.”

“What!?” Karina asked.

“What?” The Overseer mimicked.

“Yeah I’ll do it.” Teena said. “Let’s go, I’ll tell you what I want for it on the way. Consulting fees, you know?” Red-faced and spluttering, the Overseer chased after as she leapt into the open tank.

“Haha, now THIS I gotta see!” Bristol laughed. “I’m going with the girl to make sure she stays in one piece!” He yelled over his shoulder and muscled his way into the open hatch. It slammed shut, and the tank took off with another roar. The small convoy followed, leaving Lilith and the two brutes alone.

“I could take her by force.” She said quietly.

“You and I both understand what a bad idea that is,” The speaker said. “Be reasonable woman. If truly the existential threat exists as you say, give us some specifics. You need us. It’s what the Ilth es Trada were made for, it’s in our blood.”

She glares death at each of them in turn, face turning an unhealthy shade of red. The two brutes behind her take a step back. A long minute passes before she lets out the breath she’d been holding.

“Very well,” she straightened out. “We’ve known each other a long time Mirin, and I’m impressed you’ve lived for so long.”

The speaker nodded.

Lilith lifted a finger. “The protective shell will be assembled and dropped in the pass by nightfall. Get the girl inside as you see fit. Put her in this cage or it won’t hold her.”

She lifted a second finger. “I’ll also drop a folio of extremely sensitive information, known only to a handful of people on the planet. I’ll give it to that pipsqueak on her way back. You and I are enemies now, and I suggest you take the data back to your homeland. Provided you survive this demoscat.”

Third finger. “The trail of creatures is three days long. I deploy my weapons in five, at noon. I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re ready or not, it’s going off and I’m on my way. You can explain the girl’s duty to her, if you care for her so much.”

“I appreciate-”

“Don’t.” She interrupted the speaker. She turned on her heel, walking back toward town.

Vea looked to the open cage just a few meters away. The open door loomed ominously in her mind. Leliana must’ve been dreaming, because she crushed the woman in a bear hug for just a moment. Vea choked.

“Kahlin,” Protector Atreides yelled to his alchemist as the other war brothers pulled back, “how long will the girl be down, by your estimation?”

Kahlin held up a few vials and counted absently with one hand. Finally, “the dose she took was enough to put everyone here to sleep for a week. Best I can tell, maybe an hour?”

Leliana growled, just once.

“I hope.”

Chapter 66: Not my problem

Atreides noticed immediately how much the girl had improved since their last go. He and the Speaker grappled the girl for a long minute, trying to negotiate. “Please consider those unable to defend themselves against this unprecedented threat,” he implored. “Tens of thousands of people could be converted into these monsters-”

“That sounds like a ‘you’ problem, prot,” Leliana growled and tried to break free. “Not my plague, not my problem.”

The Speaker opened his mouth only to have it rammed shut as Leliana’s fist slammed home. He flew back into a crowd of talented who’d come to assist. Atreides dropped, losing his grip on the girl but avoiding a vicious kick that threatened to take his head off. She was fifty meters away by the time he was on his feet again. She threw herself into the ocean of oncoming monsters.

“We gotta go get her,” the Speaker grunted.

“Kahlin!” Atreides flew to his best alchemical mind. “I need you to get something ready. Once we get her back in position, don’t hesitate to take the shot.” Kahlin nodded and threw himself into his work.

Atreides and the Speaker dove headlong into the morass chasing Leliana, ducking and dodging the gnashing and swiping that swung from every angle. The creatures worked themselves into a renewed frenzy, wailing and diving unpredictably in their fervor. He hit the dirt when a disintegrating jade-serpent flew by open-mouthed, nearly swallowing him.

They weren’t gaining any ground. Every meter they gained, she pushed two more. Damn she was fast. Then there was an explosion.

A shriek. A sizzle.

What the devil is-

Before he finished the thought, a blast of vapor swept out of an exploding barrel. It burned. Eyes, nose, mouth, every moment an agony of existence. His instincts took over and he found himself panting next to the Speaker, the Overseer, and Lilith a moment later.

“What is the meaning of this?” He managed between gasps. Lilith’s science corp drifted lazily overhead, tossing exploding barrels into the raging mass below. Swaths of the things were losing shape, melting into puddles of sinew and bone and gore.

“I’ve spent months perfecting this mixture,” Lilith answered with a grin. “It’s a pain in the ass to make, but I instructed my pilots to flush the girl back here with any means necessary.”

“You’re gonna kill the girl!” The Speaker objected.

“Relax,” Lilith sighed. “She’ll be fine. Leliana is a special specimen, she’s not going to die under a simple lye mixture.”

“That girl is not a specimen,” Atredies interjected. “I will not allow you to endanger her so casually Lilith. Tell them to stop or -”

“Relax,” she scoffed again. “Leliana is perfectly safe, you damn busybodies. She was designed for much more than this. She will feel much more than this. I didn’t waste twenty years of my life building a trump card for it to get itself killed on a fool’s errand in a backwater city.”

“Hey!” The Overseer objected. He was interrupted by an unearthly howl that seemed to go on forever.

The air trembled. A moment later a massive stag catapulted straight into the circling airships. One after another, nearly a score of putrid animals sailed into the air before the scientists scattered. Out of the half-dozen vessels, only four managed to escape. The two remaining listed and plummeted in their own time, propellers and engines full of entrails.

“Oops. I wish that hadn’t happened.” Without explanation, Lilith spun and bolted toward Gungrave. The Overseer did a double-take, taking off after her. He yelled at a commander in passing, and the Gungrave army repositioned themselves as a barrier between the creatures and the city walls. The men watched nervously as more and more of the things streamed through the pass and over the mountains in an unending parade of death.

The airships were back, even higher than before. Atreides had a split second to wonder what they were dropping this time before an enormous blaze heated the air around him. The fire was almost two hundred meters away, yet he felt as though he were warming himself by a campfire. He cursed himself under his breath, looking for ways to extract her from that swarming hellscape.

It wasn’t long before flames engulfed enormous sections of the plague host. They burned in a semi-circular pattern with a clear corridor free of any flames leading straight toward the city gates. Atreides swore again. Lilith was trying to use the Gungrave military, though he was much less confident in the girl’s survival. So deep in thought, the protector didn’t notice the bull’s head fly at him until he was tackled to the ground. Yellowed horn gored the space where he’d just been standing. Leliana blitzed out right behind it, and he was almost too slow to catch her.

“Leliana!”

Her cold, pale eyes were…strangely emotionless. Her skin tinged a slight blue. He winced as she squeezed his hand. “You must listen to me,” he yelled over the cacophony of the monks and military at war with the beasts all around them. He didn’t get a chance to say anything more before the air erupted with fists. There wasn’t a direction he could dodge fast enough to avoid being pummeled. The beating lasted an eternity before the Speaker materialized behind the girl to save him.

“Move!”

Atreides ducked out of the way just before a 12-inch needle stabbed into Leliana’s throat.

Leliana stopped just long enough to look at the projectile before she slammed her head back, breaking free with brute force.

She blinked to where Kahlin still held his blowgun, white and wide-eyed. Then he was lifted by a strong hand around the throat, feet kicking feebly against an uncaring Leliana. She pulled the barb free and reversed it in her hand.

A dark fist clenched around the pale hand holding Kahlin.

“Girl. Do not continue.”

Atreides could barely hear Vea, but he rushed to her side to stop the war brothers from renewing their assault. I hope she is still in there.

Leliana’s cold stare bored into Vea, but the woman did not relent. “I will protect you. Everything is going to be okay.”

Leliana’s scowl morphed into a feral growl and she hurled unconscious man to the ground. She snapped Vea’s grip and flew into the air, faster and further than Atreides had ever seen. Vea shot into the air after her.

She landed behind the Gungrave line of fire, cradling an unconscious Leliana.

Chapter 65: An offer to refuse

“Alright, hold on tight. I think we’ll be fine.”

“You better not drop me!”

Teena tightened her death-grip around Leliana’s neck. Leliana wheezed in one last gulp of air before she slipped over the city wall, letting gravity do its thing. The wind whipped Teena’s pigtails free in what was a mercifully, terrifyingly short trip back to the ground. Leliana cradled the smaller girl in her arms as she landed the most perfect tuck-and-roll she’d ever performed. The excess momentum was still too great however, and both still took a mouthful of scraggly grass for their trouble.

“Are you okay?” Karina, taking a much slower and safer route, padded over nearly a minute later. Teena spat raspberries to dislodge the dirt and grass from her mouth and slapped playfully at Leliana, who still lay on the ground and gasped for air.

“You big jerk I got dirt all in my mouth eeewww.”

Leliana giggled. “I didn’t drop you. You didn’t say anything about eating dirt.”

Teena grumbled and accepted her sister’s hand to her feet. She did a double take, looking from the wall to the battlefield. “Now what! We made the distraction but everyone is still out here smashing and shooting and…and…UGH! What even was the point!” Leliana’s smiled faded as Teena surveyed the scene.

“I can’t tell who’s winning…” Karina sighed. The stench of gunpowder and the copper tang of blood was strong, even this far from any of the actual fighting. “I can’t see anyone I recognize”

A monstrous shriek split the air without warning. All three snapped their attentions to the mouth of the mountain pass where a herd of refugees fled in terror from a …thing. A big, ugly thing. “What is that!” Leliana demanded.

“I can’t tell,” Karina fought the bile in her throat as she spotted Jovi on the hill leading away from the pass. “But we need to get up there now.”

Leliana hoisted Teena onto her back and took off running, slowing only to drop the tiny woman at Jovi’s position as she sped by. It seemed like no time at all before she was ass-deep in slimy ichor, teeth and claws gnashing and snapping so close they fanned the sweat from her forehead. Once she joined the fray an unearthly howling began, slowly at first, until every creature was singing the same haunting note. They went into a frenzy, ripping each other apart and diving Leliana en masse like a wild orgy of death, spraying the most foul smelling liquids she’d ever had the misfortune to taste.

“Girl!” Some ripped guy muscled a disintegrating moose out of the way to talk to her. “More on the way, they’re focusing on you! See if you can pull them to the enemy!” A wrinkly wolf leapt onto his back to get at her and Leliana grabbed it by the throat, using its body to beat back another.

“Okay!” It was nearly impossible to be heard over the chorus of snarling, shrieking, and barking. She plowed through a family of ground birds to get some perspective, seeing at once that the fighter was right. Nearly all of the beasts clustered around her, leaving the refugees to flee in relative peace. That didn’t mean the Gungrave soldiers were mitigated as a threat to them, however.

Leliana sprinted to the edge of the overlook, slipping on the recently-frozen gravel. Realizing she had no time to find a safe route downhill, she did the only thing she could think of.

She jumped.

I can do it I can do it I can do it she chanted over and over, remembering her leap of faith over the cliff when she’d chased Vea through the woods. The beasts slavered mindlessly after her, flying and running and tumbling end over end, hot on her heels all the way down. Leliana braced herself as the ridge sloped out, slamming into the ground at a near vertical sprint. At least a quarter of the beasts ended their chase at the bottom of that ridge.

She shrieked, in fear, or excitement. Or both? Before she had a clear idea of what was happening, she was halfway across the battlefield with a host of rampaging monsters at her back. Her lungs burned as she closed the distance to the nearest Gungrave bunker. They were busy shooting at a group of war brothers hiding behind a big metal suit, not noticing her impromptu raiding party until the beasts slammed into the flimsy log walls.

“Hi guys,” she yanked a rifle out of the group as the palisade fell and unloaded it into the middle of the rotting army.

It did nothing.

“Damn!”

The assault had the intended effect. Leliana wove a path through the Gungrave forces, leaving a trail of terror everywhere she went. The creatures were single minded in their pursuit, snapping and smashing anything that stood in their way. The many of the remaining soldiers ordered a retreat to consolidate their forces. The monks, shocked by the violence of the monsters, leapt into the fray to protect Gungrave’s wounded and fallen from the onslaught. The small, sharp-winged fliers pop out of their dead hosts like a boiling pot of water and are gunned down just as quickly.

After nearly an hour, the last of the infected withered under a hail of bullets. Finally, no more came to join them. An uneasy silence falls over the field, the men and women uncomfortable with resuming a fight against those who’d they’d just teamed up with against a common enemy. Leliana stealthily made her way back to the monk’s side of the field. As she did, a deep, brass horn pealed through the silence from the direction of the city.

Gungrave soldiers across the field came to attention, never letting their weapons leave their hands. The Overseer and a woman, Lilith, marched onto the battlefield. They strode confidently out into the peaceful chaos until they stopped in front of Leliana, guarded now by the Speaker and the Protector.

“You!” Leliana shrank back, ready to flee but too tired to do so.

“Hello Leliana.” Lilith purred. “It’s so nice to see you again.”

“Why do you attack my people, Mortimus?” The Speaker demanded. “The fourth section of The Peace accord strictly allows free passage-”

“Of all natural born Amica nationals, I know.” The Overseer sneered. Then he smiled. “But you’re not from Amica, are you?” He took one step forward, hand on his pistol.

“Enough.” Lilith shoved the Overseer aside. “I didn’t come out of my warm laboratory to freeze my ass off and watch you two piss all over each other. Speaker, hand over that girl so I can end this farce and you can get back to killing each other. I might even be willing to sell you something beautifully destructive, if you cooperate.”

Mortimus and the two monks looked at her with open mouths.

“Don’t you play this game with me, Atreides.” Lilith said. “You saw as well as I did how those things reacted to her. They went rabid.”

Leliana retreated a step and put her chin out. “No!” Her fists came up, daring anyone to approach. “I’ll never go back to that hellhole of a torture prison. I live my life on my terms from now on. I have friends now. I’m going to find my mother and father and then commandeer a ship and fly around the world. Under my own rule.”

Lilith giggled. “Allow me to check one off your bucket list then, little girl,” she said. “You’ve found your mother, I’m right here. Though daddy is all locked up hundreds of meters under that ‘torture prison’, I’m afraid. There’s no meeting him unless something goes catastrophically wrong.”

Leliana’s mind screeched to a halt.

“W-what? No, no you’re not my mother. You’re some two-timing, conniving, deceptive, evil bitch!” It wasn’t possible.

“Believe me or don’t, I don’t care. All that matters is that we stop this ridiculous infection. We have another project after that, you and I. And soon.”

The peace shattered as another shrill scream signaled a new horde of things lumbering out of the cold pass, knocking each other down the steep slopes in their hunt for Leliana.

The Speaker looked uncomfortably at the Protector. Protector Atreides turned to Leliana.

“I think her words ring partially true, at the very least Leliana. Those things did react differently to you.”

“Brutus whipped them up after utterly failing to find you himself, if that brings you any sense of pleasure.” Lilith chimed.

“No…” Leliana stepped back again. “You won’t take me. You can’t.”

“I don’t want to give you over to this woman, of course.” Atreides raised his empty hands in a gesture of peace. “Yet, if your cooperation would save thousands of lives, do you not feel it to be your responsibility to at least try?”

“No! It’s not my responsibility that they unleashed some demo-scat all over themselves and now they need me to clean it up for them!”

Protector Atreides and the Speaker looked at each other for a long moment, and then sighed. The Speaker took a step toward Leliana. “The Ilth es Trada have always moved to help the people of this wounded land Leliana. We will ensure your safety after the danger is passed, but we need to insist on getting your help out of this one.”

Leliana’s breathing came ragged as the world closed around her.

“I really would appreciate working through this together.”

Leliana, the Speaker, and Atreides flickered from view for a scant moment, suddenly standing a dozen meters away locked in fierce embrace.

“You’ll kill me first, you rotten bastards.”

Chapter 64: Captive

Hello Readers

Time to catch up with our sisters!

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“You better keep your hands to yourself you evil mongrel, or I’ll keep them for you!”

Karina sighed, her cheeks warming as Teena put up her fists.

“Wha-? I can’t even reach that low to the ground, shorty. Back in line!” The grey-uniformed man shoved Teena with the butt of his rifle, recoiling as it was yanked it from his hands. He grabbed for it, and she pivoted and shattered the weapon all over the pavement.

“Ha! Just as I thought. Flimsy piss-iron for a flimsy man. Bet your gran smelted the ore in her oven before a nice round of biscuits.”

Karina covered her crimson cheeks with her hands and allowed her hair to drape over her face. She’s so embarrassing. She jolted when she was jabbed between the shoulder blades, muttering while she resumed walking.

“Stop pestering the prisoners.” An older man barked, this one in a blue uniform. “Overseer wants ‘em in his office yesterday. Move!”

“Make me!” Teena took another swing.

“You’ve had your fun, girly. You been caught, now it’s time to face the music.” He growled.

“I bet the music is as bad as your hardware,” Teena huffed under her breath, then obediently turned and followed.

The girls were escorted through a wild maze of increasingly complex wires and tubes and gauges, all cramming together tighter and harder until the walls were a solid mass of copper spaghetti. They marched parallel to the southwestern wall for about twenty minutes, as far as Karina could figure. It was easy to keep track of time with the huge wall-mounted cannons firing rhythmically every sixty seconds, but they’d cut off about midway through the forced march.

The city was like an overturned anthill, thousands of bodies all crammed in the streets, all trying to be on their way at once. It was almost a relief when they finally sidestepped the busy street onto a well-manicured plaza. There was a small patch of grass and a few scraggly trees surrounding the most dour looking fountain Karina had ever seen. They were in a sprawling complex of simple, squat bunker-like buildings. They were all single story, splayed in a wagon-wheel pattern with the ‘spoke’ of the wheel clearly the command center. It was taller, twenty, maybe thirty meters high, and built like it was supposed to stand against the end of the world.

“Now this is architecture,” Teena’s eyes sparkled. “Do you still have the lift? Can I see the engine room? Give me five minutes to take it apart. I’ll be good, I promise!”

“Quiet!”

Teena crossed her arms. “No wonder the guys in the South say Gungrave was the technological capitol of the-”

“I said QUIET!” He snapped.

“Teena,” Karina chimed in. “You’ll hurt their feelings if you keep being so mean.” She was awarded a sharp look and a deep sigh from the officer.

“Gods, let’s use the lift. Anything to get them out of my life faster.”

“Wahoo!”

The lift turned out to be a box of solid steel grates connected to a pulley somewhere inside the building. It slid up and down the outside wall on a track, “which would probably be a lot faster if they let it hang free instead of scaling the side of the building.” Karina giggled as her sister belted out a verbal essay on the working conditions of the machinery and promised to make it run more efficiently if they’d just give her a chance. As soon as the doors to the third floor opened up, she and Teena were practically hurled into the waiting soldiers’ arms.

“Here, take them. By the gods take them from me now!”

Karina stumbled into a dimly lit corridor, her eyes adjusting to the dim light. There were windows every few meters down the length of it, but they were all shaded from the outside. There was no other decor. They were pushed into a room on the far end moments later to a dour-faced welcoming committee.

“What is this?” A big guy in a wrinkled uniform snarled as the door opened.

“The two female captives, sir. We caught them against the South wall artillery, CDE Scapps ordered them directly to you sir.”

Overseer Mortimus snatched up the sealed letter and scanned its contents. His eyes widened. “I got word that we’d fixed the guns. These two are responsible?”

Teena laughed. “It’s not like you really tried to stop them from being hijacked. I coulda broke those things one eye and two arms short!”

“Not sure how you’d survive getting any shorter,” the Overseer said. “Nevertheless, that does answer my question, in a manner of speaking. What do you have to say for yourselves? How many countless lives had to be lost for your bloodlust to be sated?”

“Now you listen here-!”

Karina trod on her sister’s feet to shut her up a second. There were times for posturing and times for finesse, and this was no time for posture. “If I may, your lordship. The cannons were a diversion, a protective barrier between our friends and your soldiers, so they could escape before you turned the guns on us. We certainly didn’t kill anyone, according to our lookout.”

Oops.

“What lookout?”

“She escaped before we were taken. I don’t know her name.” Karina said.

He grumbled into his hand, stroking his chin for a moment. Then he glared at a withered old man in a bathrobe on the other side of the war table. “Is she lying?”

The older man hesitated. “I don’t…believe so, Overseer. Reporting appears to agree, at least. A trench of craters half a dozen meters deep now runs South away from the wall, in fact.”

The Overseer paced the room, occasionally stopping to look out a window or read through a scrap of parchment. “These gods-damned vagabonds, why can’t they leave us in peace.” Then he seemed to remember they were in the room with him and directed his question, less rhetorical this time. “Why can’t you bastards leave us in peace? What did you hope to gain from the attack this time?”

Teena piped up again, and Karina tripped as the engineer took a half step forward to avoid being stepped on again. “What do we hope to gain? How dare you! You bunch of bullies, we were just passing through! We’re not the jerks setting up a whole army to keep some poor refugees off our doorsteps.”

Karina sighed.

“Passing through? Last time you passed through your people left half my city in shambles. It took years to recover economically.” He growled.

“The last time I was in Gungrave I was choking on your smoggy garbage air from the deck of an airship, I didn’t break nothin’.” Teena countered.

“And what are you doing hijacking our most important defense, exactly? Wait-” The Overseer double-snapped at a teen behind him, “how did you hijack our most important defenses?” The page at his back whipped open a yellowed notebook and began scribbling furiously.

“Well. It all began when I was back in school in Vinyard next to Craggy bay.” Teena started. “I was on a field trip to the-”

“PLEASE START WITH THE EVENTS THAT TRANSPIRED TODAY.”

Teena scoffed. “Alright but you should know this sort of impatience is why you’re losing your touch as a military leader of the world.” Karina wasn’t sure whether to laugh at her sister, or cry at her inevitable hanging. “So there we were, slinking through the dark like a couple of ne’erdowells on a clandestine mission through hostile territory.” Teena recounted the day’s events with excruciating detail and speaking in a conspiratorial whisper the entire time. By the time she’d started in on the elevator scene the Overseer had had quite enough.

“Enough, ENOUGH. I get the-” Mortimus rifled through a stack of fresh reports wearily and suddenly cut off. He stomped to the nearest window. “Thrice damn that cursed woman. General Smite,” he whirled on the old man, “that infection of Lilith’s has arrived. We need to shift focus, defense, fortify the men. See if we can’t use those bastards in the field as a meat-shield.”

“YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” Teena broke from her guard to peek through the window. “They could be killed, we have to wave them through! YOU GUYS!” She waved through the window. “RUN YOU GUYS!”

Mortimus shoved her away. “Take them to the basement, I don’t have time for this anymore.”

“You bastard I’ll kick your-” Teena broke off as her sister intervened.

“Not now. They’ll take care of themselves,” she whispered. Better to break out of a prison cell than be shot in the streets or, whatever served as capital justice around here.

They were surrounded immediately, but that didn’t deter Teena from shooting her sister a dirty look and stomping through the open door. “Fine!” The rest of the party scrambled to catch up and get control of the situation, Karina fighting through the soldiers to walk next to her sister.

Without warning, the window to her left exploded inward, spraying shards of plate glass every which way. Before she recovered her wits Karina found herself in a hard embrace, picked up off the ground like a babe, followed by Teena’s cry of surprise.

“Whaaa!”

One man went flying through another solid window on the opposite side of the corridor, smashing it out of place. The wind whistling in her ear told her she was plummeting out the window before her mind caught up with her eyes to see the same. Karina’s heart leapt into her throat as the ground rushed up to meet her.

WHOOMP

Karina was set gently on her feet.

Teena was elevated just above eye-level, her arms wrapped around the shoulders of a sturdy blond girl, a smile plastered to them both.

“Hey guys,” Leliana said. “Long story short, we gotta go. Run!”

Chapter 63: Surprise from above

Hello readers,

Chapter 63 of Lead Heart is ready to go!

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Cold, crisp mountain air filled his lungs as Antros breathed in his newfound freedom. The Continental Drifters were laid back enough to sleep in until noon, and disciplined enough to roll out of bed ready to march. No slacking, no moaning.

His kind of people.

“Bout ready to go, boy?” Gramps was the unofficial leader of the corp. Having traveled in merc bands for over a decade and still counting all four limbs, it was a good idea to follow his lead anyway.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, old man. Where to?”

Gramps shrugged. “Never much one for planning,” he said. “Figure we head West ‘til we hit the coast, turn South if nothin’ comes up.” The two walked in step back to the rest of the group. “Shame them fellers went North for the winter. No money to be made that way,” he grunted.

“It was a nice reprieve if I’m honest,” Antros drained his water skin and moved to refill it. “I’m used to working with idiots. Was real nice working with-” A hair-raising screech split the air, cutting him off and turning twenty pairs of eyes skyward.

“Sky eater?” Silliby’s magnifying glasses, always near to hand, were to his face in a second. Everyone hushed while they listened for the second cry.

“Awful low, init?” Romper broke the silence to ask. Odd pairings of prey and predators soared overhead, undeviating from a straight path back toward Blind Man’s Pass.

Odd…” Gramps commented after an extended silence. “Ain’t usually see birds go North for-”

BOOM

Antros ducked into a roll a fraction of a second before two giant talons would’ve cleaved him in two. “WHAT -” A massive beak smacked him mid-dive and sprawled him across the dirt. A roll to the left saved him, barely, from getting skewered like a kebab. He finally got a good look at the thing; those wings must have been at least fifteen meters wide! The sky eater’s skin was sick and slimy, rotten flesh sloughing off every time it flapped its wings. The moment of hesitation cost him, and a huge, yellowed beak clamped down on his hips and lifted him into the air.

“AHHH!” He’d never felt anything like it. White-hot pain exploded from his knees to his ribs, each bone in the affected area screaming for relief.

“MAN IN THE MIDDLE!” Gramps bellowed.

The squad went full business mode at his command, fanning out into a loose ring with the winged lizard in the center. It had enough time to get a good look at the men around it before they laid into the beast with everything they had. Gunshots and small explosives choked the air with a thick fog that infiltrated noses, mouths, and eyes.

The beast shrieked, a shrill sound known for paralyzing prey at a distance. Through tear-soaked eyes, Antros saw the outline of the animal with a marked lack of wings. The men tore into the monster methodically, as a well trained unit, until it finally crashed to the ground.
Antros ripped himself free of the spasming beak. The enormous body jerked and shook in a freakish way while half a dozen little black… things clawed their way out of it, not unlike what he imagined it would look like if your own skeleton clawed its way out of your skin. He shuddered, unholstered his revolvers, and emptied both cylinders into the little bastards.
When the smoke cleared this time, everything not human lay dead.

“Scats’ name, what is this thing? What are those things!”

Antros caught a nose full of putrescence while the zombified animal was being riddled with holes and gagged when he tried to reply. His mind reeled from the reality of the twisted animal in front of him, and yet…

Something told him he should know something about this. Gramps appeared to his left, dripping concern, but Antros held up a finger. If he lost his train of thought now…

There it was. The Speaker and that crazy lady, right after they’d just finished beating on that meek navy with the monks. “These must be what that old lady was talking about,” he said, mainly to himself.

“Come again?” Romper asked.

“That crazy flit with the lackeys and the weird-ass ship a few days back,” he explained. “She told the Speaker she was chasing an infection that kills…everything.” Another memory popped up, unbidden. He swallowed hard.

The freak with the lizard plopped into the middle of negotiations. “Prot slipped that new Leliana girl…” And that evil bat practically wet herself, “It sounds like my cure might be there too”

“Aw damn.” He sighed. “I think I just morally obliged myself into another rescue.”

“Morals? HA!” Gramps elbowed him in the ribs. “Only morals I got are the ones in my wallet, Antros m’boy. Those monks can handle a few wild birds, besides!” He chuckled, then took a look at Antros and sobered up. “You serious?” The older man turned to follow his gaze.

Antros looked to the horizon, drawing another deep, putrid this time, breath, dreading his near future. The skies over the forest to the South were no longer the placid, peaceful skies he’d sailed through a month ago. The air was clogged with every sort of flying thing he could imagine, swarming like a pissed off hive of hag bees. He definitely spotted at least one more sky eater.

“Never better. Least this time I won’t have to jump from an airship.”

Chapter 62: The fray

Hello readers,

Chapter 62 of Lead Heart is UP! Please enjoy it,

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Leliana’s lungs burned as she choked in the thick cloud of concrete powder. The familiar copper tang of blood filled her mouth. The thrum from the weird beam of light died down as the wall dissolved to dust. Another wave of light enveloped her before she escaped, this one blue. She snapped to the floor feeling like she’d gained a thousand pounds, the light itself felt like swimming through an ocean of slime and stinging ants at the same time.

“You. Bitch…”

She crawled a few inches, using pockmarks in the street to pull herself. Then there was an explosion and the blue beam wavered to the side, and the steel pipe it hit suddenly drooped to the ground. By the time Lilith refocused, Leliana was two streets away.

“MADAM LILITH.” Leliana heard a tinny loudspeaker flagging the woman even from this far away. “DESIST YOUR ASSAULT ON THE CITY OF GUNGRAVE OR WE WILL BE FORCED TO RESTRAIN YOU.” She turned, just for a second, curious what the old bag was going to do. She hadn’t even turned fully around before the shiny vessel bounced off of a big, 2-story building behind Leliana.

“Scat, she doesn’t know when to quit!”

Leliana kicked the door of the building out of its foundation and sprinted inside. She entered a well-ventilated room with a score of men milling around a pond of molten metal. She never slowed as she cleared the scorched air over the glowing pool and busted through the large loading-bay doors on the other side. The cries of surprise turned to panic as the roof to their workshop dissolved scattering the workers.

The alley behind the building split two directions; a huge driveway for loading vehicles, and another, smaller path only about a meter across leading left. She used both hands to help launch herself down the narrow corridor and hoped she’d be hard to spot. It worked. Kind of.

She made it nearly a dozen city blocks, shoving people to the ground and smashing handcarts threatening to slow her down, before Lilith popped out of the street ahead of her. Leliana’s legs burned, and the polluted air was wearing her out a lot faster than she’d anticipated. Maybe it was an effect of the weird light? A streak of green blazed by as she ducked, rolling behind a shop next to her. On legs of putty, Leliana jumped between two buildings until she could snatch a slate tile from the rooftop. She slung the plate, then another, and another. Each bounced harmlessly off of a shimmering bubble protecting the vessel. “Dammit.” She collapsed under the slimy blue beam again.

Mind whirling, she took survey of her situation, suddenly realizing… This roof, these tiles. Was she in the Poors? Memories of the short-lived revolution flooded her mind. These people couldn’t afford having their belongings zapped out of existence. They could scarcely afford belongings. She needed to get the hells out of-

Where were Teena and Karina?

“Leliana you scat-eating coward.” She growled. Smiling faces bubbled into her mind unbidden, a buff little engineer and her scrawny older sister, with flaming hair and sideways smirk. Hadn’t she promised herself never to make Teena cry again? Leliana’s face was hot, the pounding in her ears louder than the screaming sirens of the warships tailing Lilith. She couldn’t just…leave them. But what if she were caught?

…What kind of life could she lead outside of prison if she were willing to abandon the only friends she’d ever had?

This time when the warships interrupted the beam of light, Leliana had a purpose.

_____________________________________________________________
Two three-eyed red skulls with thirteen black teeth gazed over the battlefield from the mouth of Blind Man’s pass. A whistling wind muffled the sounds of their comrade’s fight with Gungrave, but wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the smell of so much devastation. Gib’s feet thrummed as the catapult loosed a boulder thrice the size of his head.

“Look alive, mate. Trouble on the slopes.” The Speaker pointed to the five, three-meter tall mechanical suits blasting out of their pods in front of the refugees.

Gib hefted the boulder he held into the bowl of the catapult and dropped to the ground. “Alas, fair Bristol.” He adopted his best theater voice. “Mine family has need of me far below, and so far below I go!” He galloped a handful of steps before a firm hand gripped him by shoulder. The Speaker.

“D’you think I’d let a fellow eyes out on the field of glory to soak it up for hisself, lad? Let’s take the beasts together!”

“That’s the spirit!” Bristol boomed his bone-shaking laugh and kicked the chocks holding his empty wagon in place. “Take the wheels, gents, and ride for your lives!”

Gib’s mind spun, it’d been a long time since he’d done anything so reckless. Yet he was glad to submerge back into his reckless youth if but for a moment. He and the Speaker clasped hands with Bristol once more and jumped into the box-on-wheels.

They picked up speed immediately, wind whooshing by as the uneven ground rattled the teeth in their heads. The Speaker was crying battle hymns to the sky that Gib had long forgotten, though he couldn’t help but feel his blood race as they picked up speed. Refugees fleeing uphill threw themselves out of the way as the two barreled passed at breakneck speeds until it was just Jovi, surprise in her eyes as she whirled to watch them go.

“ONWARD, FAIR PARTNER!” He called to her.

And then it was go-time.

Gib threw himself to the back of the cart while the Speaker threw himself at the front. The result was the overturning of the vehicle, flinging Gib like they’d flung so many rocks from the top of the hill just minutes before. He fought the force of the wind to bring his arms and legs to bear before he smashed into one of the metal suits terrorizing their small force of unarmed travelers. The suit hit the ground hard, steam pipes exploding at the shoulders as the limbs fell limp. The soldier inside struggled to free himself, but his four partners all pivoted to target Gib after the sudden assault.

He leapt into the air between two of them, forcing a cease-fire lest they hit each other, and then zigzagged toward the one on the left. The Speaker ran up behind the other, and Gib could only hope its aim would be distracted before he got shot in the back. “TO LIVE IS TO DIE.” He boomed.

“TO DIE IS TO LIVE!” The Speaker answered.

The battlefield was chaos. The wall cannons gouged a trench between the main force and the small battalion of metal suits, but they also separated Gib and the Speaker from most of their reinforcements. He crawled up the back of the three-meter suit looking for a weak point when his head exploded in fiery pain, and a small galaxy of stars filled his vision. He flew through the air and barely rolled to a stop when a small crater erupted out of the soil just a meter from his head. He lay dazed, staring into the sky at a blue star circling over head. His head was light, he couldn’t move a muscle. The star grew bigger. And bigger. Finally, it took the shape of a winged lizard standing over him.

“Get UP!” The gravelly voice commanded.

Tears welled in his eyes. His time had come. “Am I to feast with the gods?”

A white-haired face peeked out from behind the lizard’s confused face. “What?! Stop saying stupid crap and get your ass on your feet!”

Reality crashed back down around him. “Master Carkus! You have my thanks!” He was on his feet and sprinting unsteadily back into the fray in seconds. Several talented defenders were now locked in the struggle alongside the Speaker by now. Oscar, a young man with skin like stone, was hurling himself through the cockpit of the second armored suit to be felled and ripped the pilot brutally out of the harness. Then the Speaker was next to Gib, towing the cart.

“Master Gib, let’s show that one why he’s mistaken in his position by the trench, shall we?” The stout man nodded at a pilot standing too close to the cannon-fire, shooting with abandon into the crowd of defenders.

“Let’s!” Gib agreed.

Using the cart, first for cover, then as a battering ram, they charged the soldier in the armor and sent the machine flying to the bottom of the pit. They backpedaled out of the danger zone, waiting for the next shot.

But it didn’t come.

Sounds of fighting dwindled as the fighters realized whatever had been going on with the wall had been fixed. Gib’s heart fluttered briefly. He saluted the wall.

“Godspeed, lady Valkyries.”