Marcus and Julianne stood back to back in the stippled moonlight. They waited, still and silent as nearby leaves and branches quietly rustled in the darkness.
How many? Marcus asked.
He felt the subtle shrug of her shoulders against his own. No idea, she sent back. Remnant minds are too fuzzy for me to get a real read from.
I hope they at least put up a good fight, he mused a moment later.
You realize that’s just asking for trouble? Julianne replied.
Damn straight. Do you know how long it’s been since I faced a real challenge? He whipped his head around just long enough to shoot her a grin, his white teeth sparkling in the moonlight.
As if spurred on by his movement, the enemy attacked. Four scowling remnant, eyes glowing red above yellow crooked teeth, exploded from the trees.
“Told you I smell dinner,” the tallest snarled to his friends.
Marcus groaned. “It was Garrett’s cooking, wasn’t it? What did I say? That stench is enough to attract every scavenger on Irth.” He swung his sword and the remnant caught it in one hand, heedless of the blood that poured from its fingers.
“You need to stop giving him grief about that,” Julianne said. “He’s only trying to help.” She lazily kicked a remnant back with one foot, then belted another in the knee with her staff. It crumpled to the ground with a scream.
Marcus slammed his head forward. Cartilage crunched, and the remnant howled. “That’s the problem. He needs to stop trying.”
Julianne jabbed the butt of her staff into the ribs of a remnant and her target coughed and gasped. A second thrust landed higher and Julianne groaned.
“Ugh. This bastard just got brain on my staff. Now I’m going to have to find somewhere to wash it.” She shook the gobbets of flesh away, then ducked a flailing arm.
Marcus swung his sword and his opponent crumpled to the ground. Its head rolled away into the bushes.
“I’m just saying…” he continued, leaning one hand against a tree, “the only thing Garrett’s cooking is doing is clearing the entire valley of anyone with a sense of smell.”
Julianne smacked a remnant in the back with the head of her staff, then spun to clip the other in the jaw.
“Speaking of helping,” she growled. “Are you just going to stand there all day?”
“You seem to have this in hand,” he said, not moving. “I didn’t want to cramp your style.”
Julianne let out a grunt of frustration and Marcus was sure he heard her mutter something rude under her breath. He hoped it was just rude—he took heart from the fact her eyes didn’t change color when she said it.
He didn’t move, mesmerized by the graceful motions of her arms as she dropped her staff, drew the twin daggers, and leaned backward to avoid a spear thrust.
“Next time I’ll leave you back at the campsite to cook dinner,” she said. “Danil’s getting better at fighting, but if he doesn’t pull his weight against the beasts he’ll at least wash my boots for me afterward.”
“Sounds like Polly has him well-trained.” Marcus snorted.
He was rewarded with a furious glare “Really?”
Marcus backpedaled. “I mean… He’s trained to…to look after leather properly.” He grinned nervously. “You know how boots get when you don’t clean them right. Right?”
Julianne was silent, but he thought she was attacking with more force than necessary. She rammed her blade into the throat of one remnant and spun to kick the other in the midriff. As it stumbled back she continued her momentum and swept out a leg. She hooked her foot around the remnant’s ankles and it tumbled to the ground. Julianne stood over it, panting for breath.
“I’ll leave my boots outside the tent for you,” she told Marcus with a glare. “And my robes. And my staff, too. And you know how much I hate it when my staff hasn’t been properly scrubbed.”
Julianne stomped away, ignoring the remnant who jumped back to its feet in a rage. By the time the beast had regained its bearings Marcus was the only one left in the clearing.
He sighed. “I deserved that,” he told the remnant. “Really, I did. Unfortunately, you’re going to suffer a lot more for it than I am.”
A minute later Marcus strode back toward the campsite. A spray of fresh blood decorated his sleeve and he had a satisfied smile sat on his lips.
He ran his eyes over the four people sitting by the glow of the campfire. Julianne had already shed her robe and dumped it by one of the simple tents next to her boots and staff.
Julianne noticed his glance and raised an eyebrow as if daring him to sit down.
“I’d best get those clothes clean, hey?” He coughed awkwardly. “Before the blood gets dry and crusty.”
“Sensible idea,” Julianne said with a grin.
Marcus sighed dramatically and clomped over to the piled mess. He bundled everything into his arms and disappeared in the direction of the ruined village.
“Should he be headed that way alone?” Danil asked.
Garrett snorted. “Aye. He’s not a wailin’ child—”
Something thwacked him in the back of the head and he scurried to his feet to see what had attacked him. When another slap stung his cheek, he spun back to Danil.
Danil shrugged and pointed at Julianne. Her white eyes were easy to see in the darkness.
Garrett opened his mouth angrily, only to have a sock stuffed in it. Not a clean sock, either. He coughed and gagged, trying to use his fingers to dislodge the cloth. As he swiped at his mouth, the eerie sensation of feeling an object with one part of his body but not the other made him dizzy.
He turned beseeching eyes to Julianne.
All right, I’ll bloody behave meself, he thought, trying to form the words clearly in his mind.
The suffocating sensation vanished immediately. Garrett sucked in a breath, nostrils flaring in anger.
All it took was a raised eyebrow from Julianne to deflate him. “I’m…thinkin’ I might go help the lad wi’ the cleanin’,” he mumbled.
As Garrett stomped off, he swore he could still taste the lingering flavor of old sock in his mouth.
“Who’s there?” Marcus called when he heard boots crunch on the dirt road. He gripped the wet staff in both hands.
“Steady on, lad,” Garrett said. “I just came ta see if ye needed a hand.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes. “You want to help me wash Julianne’s stuff?”
The rearick nodded ruefully.
Marcus’s eyes bulged, then a laugh bubbled up. “You did something to piss her off, didn’t you?”
Garrett snarled and picked up a boot. He grabbed a piece of Julianne’s robe that Marcus had soaking in a horse trough and started rubbing grime off the leather.
They worked in a companionable silence for a while, scrubbing and dunking, then changed the dirty water for a final rinse.
“I’m bein’ an arsehole,” Garrett finally sighed. “I’m just on edge, ye ken?”
“I know,” Marcus said. “I mean, come on… demon monsters from the stars? Tiny villages at the mercy of hordes of remnant?”
Garrett dropped the boot he was holding and looked up in surprise. “What? No, lad. I’m just fidgety because it’s been a whole week since me lady tended me nethers!”
“Your what?” Marcus choked.
“Me nethers!” Garrett grabbed his crotch for emphasis. “A well-endowed rearick like meself has considerable needs! Me balls are so heavy they’re damn near draggin’ on the ground!”
“That’s because your legs end at your knees instead of your ankles,” Marcus replied. “Your ass brushes the ground when you walk, too.”
“Oh, that’s low…” Garrett said. He flicked his hand in the water, sending a spray toward Marcus.
“Garrett! This is my last clean shirt.” Marcus shook the water off with a scowl.
Garrett’s face fell. “Ach, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean ta be an arsehole about it. I only came over ta—”
He yelped as Marcus tackled him, his momentum propelling them both into the trough. Garrett gasped as the chill soaked through to his bones.
“Ye fuckin’ bastard!” he wheezed.
Marcus rolled out of the trough and onto the ground, barely managing to hold himself up on all fours since he was laughing hysterically. Garrett struggled, unable to get purchase on the sides. A boot was jammed in his ass cheek and each time he tried to roll himself over, his only reward was a face full of water.
Eventually he stopped trying. “Get me the fuck out of here.”
Marcus staggered to his feet and offered a hand. He helped Garrett out and steadied the rearick as he removed his boot and tipped a thin stream of water onto the ground.
“Sorry,” Marcus said as Garrett shoved his foot back into it with a noisy squelch. “I couldn’t resist. You looked so sad when you thought I was angry with you!”
“Aye, well. Been a bit of a crotchety old bastard, haven’t I? I deserve a good thrashin’. Or a splashin’.”
“What has got you so pissed?” Marcus asked, serious. “And don’t lie—I know it’s not just that you miss Bette.”
Garrett shrugged. “It’s like ye said. Beasts from the sky, and Bitch knows what’s happenin’ ta the people wi’out our protection. I feel like I shoulda been pushin’ ta come out here earlier, but we had our hands full in Tahn with that bloody rift…”
“You feel guilty for leaving people to fend for themselves?” Marcus asked gently.
Garrett furrowed his brow, then nodded slowly. “Aye, I think I do. Bloody useless thing ta be dwellin’ on, innit?”
“Useless is right,” Marcus said. “We’re here now—let’s give those red bastards a run for their money while we are.”
Garrett gave a resolute nod, then flung his head to the side and smacked himself in the head. “Water in me earhole,” he explained, seeing Marcus’s bewildered expression.
“If you thump the Skrima as hard as you just hit yourself in the head I won’t need to lift a finger,” Marcus pointed out.
“Can’t get the water out unless I dislodge the rocks first!” Garrett chuckled.
“At least we have somewhere to sleep tonight,” Marcus said. He gestured toward one of the intact buildings.
“Are you serious?” Polly screeched. “I wouldn’t sleep in the house of a dead person if you paid me.”
“We don’t know that they’re dead,” Marcus protested. “We haven’t found a single body to suggest they are.”
“As much as I hate ta admit it,” Garrett said, “the lad has a point. We’ll be safer if we’ve got solid walls between us and whatever’s out there.”
“I’m with Polly.” Danil shuddered. “Give me an open sky and plenty of room to run away any day.”
“Of course ye’d run, ye pansy,” Garrett retorted. “But I’m not freezin’ me arse off just cuz yer a wee scaredy-boy.”
“Freeze?” Danil scoffed. “You spent last night complaining it was so humid that your ball sweat kept dripping down your ass crack and making it itch.”
Polly slapped him. “Thanks, Danil. I spent all day trying to get that image out of my head. Now it’s stuck there forever.”
“I can jump in there and take care of that for you if you want,” Danil said with a wink.
“Not a chance.” Polly slapped him again, this time hard enough to make him wince. “After what you did last time you were in there you’re banned for life, Mister.”
Julianne arched an eyebrow. “And what exactly was that?”
Danil coughed, Polly blushed, and both shuffled their feet. Neither answered her question.
“Look, whatever kinky mind-sex play you two are up to in your spare time, that’s your business.” Marcus winked at Danil. “Until later tonight, anyway—then I want all the details. But right now I feel like I’ve been dragged ass-backward through a meat grinder, so I’d really like to settle in and get some sleep for the night. Can we just decide where we’re going to be sleeping, and be done with it?”
Julianne just watched as the fight erupted. Polly and Garrett argued and Danil backed Polly up, which only seemed to make the rearick more stubborn. Marcus occasionally threw in a point in Garrett’s favor but seemed half-hearted about it.
“We’ll sleep outside,” Julianne decided, using a touch of magic to make sure they listened to her. “Danil, Polly, would you please set up camp on the outskirts of town? I’d like to have a look around before we settle in.”
Julianne waited until the young couple had disappeared before gesturing to Marcus and Garrett. They followed her over to one of the smoldering buildings.
“What exactly do you think went down here?” she asked. “It doesn’t make sense. How would you coax an entire group of remnant into one building?”
Marcus shrugged. “Maybe they set a trap of some kind. If the remnant thought there was an easy mark in there they’d be on it like flies on a turd.”
“If the people ‘ere were expectin’ an attack they might have fled ta safety.” Garrett scratched his whiskers as he thought. “Not a bad plan, really. Get the old an’ the weak to safety, lure the bastards inside, an’ trap ‘em in there.”
Julianne nodded. “Maybe these smaller settlements aren’t as helpless as we thought they would be.”
“When you’re on your own you learn to survive.” Marcus brushed her arm gently. “And I’m sure they did survive this. There’s nothing to tell us otherwise.”
Hot timbers cracked and popped in the cooling air and Julianne shivered. Indecision tugged at her . If they had abandoned Tahn to come on this wild goose-chase for no reason she would never forgive herself. Of course, if they saved just one life it would all be worth it.
Garrett let out an irritable grunt and stomped away. Marcus edged closer to Julianne and wrapped his arm around her shoulders.
“We’re doing the right thing out here,” he murmured in her ear. “These people may have gotten away, but we don’t know who else is out there waiting for help.”
“I know,” Julianne said with a sigh. “I just hate not knowing what’s going on.”
They wandered toward the campsite. Polly had already erected the tents and Danil blew on a small pile of sticks that was just beginning to smoke.
“What’s for dinner?” Julianne asked. She stole a glance at Garrett, willing to use a compulsion spell on him if he insisted on cooking again.
“I err… I have ta be…” Garrett’s face turned beet-red and he scowled. “I’m busy, all right? Some other ugly bastard’ll just have ta cook dinner.” He stomped back into the town.
Danil laughed. “Thank the Bitch for that.”
“I suppose I should slap you for that.” Polly giggled. “But I’m as relieved as you are. Now, you two toddle off and do whatever it is you do while Danil and I make up for that awful breakfast.”
“Just keep an eye out,” Marcus told her. “We don’t know what’s lurking around out there.”
Polly rolled her eyes. “We know, soldier boy. I swear you’ve reminded us of that every five minutes since we left.”
Marcus gave a wolfish grin. “Then you‘ll expect me to remind you every five minutes for the rest of the trip too.”
“I’m sure they’ll be careful, Marcus,” Julianne said. “Why don’t we go find something to eat? If we don’t replenish our stores we won’t last the week.”
“Wait a minute,” Polly begged. “You’re not going to look for food in there, are you?” She pointed toward the empty buildings.
Julianne shook her head. “No. There’s a small chance the people who lived here will return. I don’t want to take anything that belongs to them. They’ve lost enough.”
“Try to catch something bigger than a rabbit this time.” Danil ducked away from Marcus’s glare.
“If you’re going to complain about what we bring back, next time you can go hunting instead,” Marcus growled at him.
“Let’s go,” Julianne said, “before you two find anything else to argue about.”
Julianne unstrapped her staff from her horse and slung it over her back, then pulled a pair of shiny daggers out of her pack. Marcus raised an eyebrow.
“I haven’t seen those before,” he said.
Julianne shrugged. “Bette had them made for me. She said that as much as I enjoy beating things over the head with my stick, I at least need something sharp to cut my meat with.”
Marcus snorted. “And I suppose it had nothing to do with the mess you make when you beat things over the head.”
“You really think disemboweling with a sharp blade is going to be any neater?” she asked.
Marcus chuckled and walked into the dense forest surrounding the little town. Despite the late hour, a full moon hung low in the night sky. Shafts of moonlight speared the canopy, allowing them to see.
“You do remember where you set the trap, don’t you?” Julianne asked quietly.
Marcus shot her a dirty look. “Of course, I do. Mostly. I mean…I know the general direction.”
Julianne was glad he couldn’t see her roll her eyes. He and Garrett had set the trap before they’d reached the small town. They had hoped an offering of fresh meat would make the townsfolk more welcoming. When the two men had come back they were arguing loudly over the best way to prepare salmon. The discussion had nearly turned into a good-natured brawl. Polly had immediately laid a wager on them not being able to find the trap again.
Danil was the only one to take that bet, and this time he might have lost his money. It seemed that in the excitement of finding the town deserted and in ruins, Marcus really had forgotten where he’d laid the trap.
“I’m sure it was just around here,” Marcus muttered. He squatted.
Behind him, Julianne slipped into a trance and embraced her magic, filling up to the world around her. In this state she had a tangible connection every leaf, every stick, and every grain of dirt. The sharp metallic scent of blood reached her nose and her eyes immediately cleared.
“Marcus,” she said in a low voice. You did leave your trap here, she sent to him, but something took your prize.
Marcus froze, then silently stood up and drew his short sword.
Didn’t you bring your rifle? Julianne sent.
Marcus grimaced. It’s back with the horses. I didn’t think I’d need a rifle to catch a rabbit.
I think we’re about to catch more than a rabbit, Julianne sent.