Julianne looked down at the tattered ragdoll at her feet. It was splattered with mud and missing one of its little button eyes. She bent down and gently picked it up. She cradled it in her hand and wondered what had happened to its owner.
On second thought, maybe I don’t want to know.
“What have you got there?” asked Marcus. He glanced at the small scrap in her hands and frowned. “I’m sure they got away, Jules. We haven’t found any bodies so far.”
“Course ye had ta bloody say that,” Garrett grumbled. “Look.”
The rearick jutted his chin at Polly as she stumbled out of a barn. Her face was pale and her eyes were rimmed with red.
“What do ye think she found?” Garrett asked quietly.
“Stay here.” Marcus briefly gripped Julianne’s shoulder and strode off toward the barn.
Julianne shuddered, but knew she couldn’t leave him to deal with this alone. She took a moment to center herself, blew out a slow breath, and marched after him. She darted to the side as he and Garrett stumbled back out of the barn, Garrett almost stepping on her foot in his haste to evacuate.
Julianne gritted her teeth against the sound of Polly retching behind her. She prodded the squeaky wooden door open, then reeled back from the foul smell. She stumbled back, then sucked in a big breath of fresh air and plunged inside.
Her eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness, but she had a hard time dealing with the carnage inside. Rotting bodies covered the floor and blood and limbs were strewn about like unwanted rubbish.
“Well,” Garrett said, peeking over her shoulder. “At least it weren’t people. Well, not this time, anyway.”
Julianne quickly realized he was right. Past the rotting and decaying dead flesh, she saw their clothes. Tattered and loose, some of them missing altogether, and all of them mismatched as if the owners had no idea how to dress appropriately.
There were broken teeth and crude handmade weapons scattered about. Still, she needed proof, and her eyes roamed the violent scene in search of it. There it was—a pair of red eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling.
“Remnant,” whispered Julianne. Relief made her limbs sag and she stepped back, closing the barn door behind her to stifle the cloying stench of death.
“Whatever they are,” Polly said from behind her, “they smell even worse than what Garrett made for breakfast yesterday.”
“Hey!” Garrett protested. “That were a fine meal.”
“Yeah,” Marcus interjected, “if you want to eat something that smells like that.”
Julianne exhaled. “Would you three stop bickering already?” She held a finger up when Garrett tried to interrupt. “Not a word, you. You lot have been arguing since we left Tahn.”
“They keep insultin’ me cookin’,” Garrett grumbled.
Julianne rolled her eyes. “Garrett, I know you miss Bette but it’s making you crotchety. And I know you think you cook quite well.” She steeled herself to deliver the blow. “But you don’t.”
She winced at the wounded expression on his face. “I know you try, and maybe…” Julianne grasped for something to say. “Maybe it’s just a regional thing? We mystics have our elixir, and rearick have the…the…” She gestured helplessly, looking to the others for support.
“The slop you made for breakfast,” Marcus said.
Marcus, you’re not helping, Julianne thought to him. Her eyes snapped the warning she couldn’t say aloud.
He shrugged apologetically. “I’ll stop complaining about your food, rearick. As long as you let me cook from now on.”
Garrett snorted and stomped over to the remains of the tiny village. Julianne understood the prickle of unease that had the rearick on edge.
They had left Tahn knowing that danger lurked on the open road, but no one was willing to leave the outlying villages and settlements to fend for themselves against the monstrous beasts pouring through portals. At least, they thought there were more portals.
Ruefully, Julianne admitted that they were going by the word of a single remnant who had only divulged the information under threat of torture. But even if they had closed the only portal in the region which kept the strange Skrima from coming through it, there was still the remnant threat.
Why are they on the move? Why now, after all these years? The question tumbled about Julianne’s mind endlessly.
The hordes were traveling the countryside as they fled from the threat—real or imagined—of the Skrima. They had descended on Tahn twice. The townspeople were prepared and fought the beasts, but there was a real concern that those in smaller settlements would not have the same capability.
Looking around, Julianne’s heart was heavy. The remnant trapped inside this building were dead, and though they hadn’t found any human corpses, whoever had lived here had still lost their town— their home. She just wished she knew where they had gone.