Dawn of Days - Chapter Two
Marcus sat with his rifle across his lap, fiddling with it.
“I thought you were going to ask Jakob to charge it before we left,” she chided.
“I did!” Marcus protested. “And I tested it, too, so I know I put it back in properly.”
“Maybe he did something to drain it by mistake,” Julianne mused.
“There’s nothing to drain,” Marcus said, frowning. He held up the weapon, showing her the empty slot where the stone would normally sit. “The amphorald must have fallen out.”
Julianne pressed her lips together. “Marcus, it can’t just fall out.”
He shrugged. “Well, it’s not there now. And before you say ‘I told you so’, I know using it as a club wasn’t the best idea, but every now and then it was needed.”
Julianne arched an eyebrow.
“Ok, maybe it wasn’t needed that often. Still, I’ve got my sword.” He grinned, patting the weapon at his side.
“Sure, until you slap a remnant skull with it sideways, and bend it out of shape,” Julianne pointed out.
“Oh, come on. I only did that once!” He protested.
“I rest my point.”
They rode on, enjoying the morning sun that warmed their skin, even as a cool breeze trailed past, raising goosebumps on Julianne’s arms.
“It’s going to be an early winter,” she said.
Marcus nodded in agreement. “Bastian better hurry up and get his school running, if he wants you back for the opening. The roads will be impassable once the heavy snows start.”
Julianne laughed. “Do you have any idea how much he has to do first? I’ll be lucky if he needs me back by next winter!”
Marcus shrugged. “Throw up a few walls and a roof, right? It’s not that hard.”
“He’ll need to build the schoolrooms, and accommodation for the students that don’t live close by. Kitchens and a dining hall to feed them. He’ll need to find teachers, draw up contracts, provide accounting to the Temple and Lord George to show how our investment is being spent.” Julianne spread her hands. “It’s hard work.”
“Ok!” Marcus said, waving her down. “I get the picture. Lots of boring paperwork, and then throw up a few walls.” He winked.
“You men,” Julianne replied. “Always–” she stopped when Marcus jerked up a hand and motioned for her to be silent.
Julianne gently tugged the reins, pulling Cloud to a halt. Behind her, Artemis’s horse stopped too, thought it was more likely because it was taking cues from the other two. The old man could sit a horse alright, but paid far too little attention to guide it far.
“I smell smoke,” Marcus whispered. “Jules, are here people ahead?”
Julianne’s eyes turned white as she reached out with her mind. She shook her head. “No people, but I can sense remnant, I think.”
Remnant minds were hard to feel, noticeable only because of the low buzz Julianne felt instead of the familiarity of a human mind. She tried to narrow down their location and numbers, but the odd sensation was too indistinct.
“They’re probably setting up camp,” Marcus commented. “We should be too, but I don’t think it’s a good idea of there’s a horde of them this close.”
“I agree.” Cloud took a few nervous steps and Julianne leaned down to pat her neck. “So, let’s go clean them out.”
“I had to fall for a girl with a death wish,” Marcus muttered. “Fine. Shall we go now, while we’ve got the element of surprise? I don’t want to give these bastards a chance to organise.”
Julianne wheeled Cloud around and slapped her flank.
“I guess that’s a yes,” Marcus said to Artemis. “You wait here. Back soon.” He kicked his horse into a gallop and followed Julianne into the remnant camp.
Artemis watched them go, shaking his head. “And people say I’m the crazy one.”
Julianne plunged through the bushes and emerged in a circle of remnant. Cloud Dancer reared back, kicking one in the face and pummelling it to the ground, as Julianne reached down and smashed another in the side of the head.
Marcus flew through, using his momentum to make a clean swipe at a remnant. Its head jerked to the side, attached to its neck by nothing more than some sinewy tendons on its back.
“Three more!” Julianne called, pulling the horse around for another run.
The first kills had happened so fast, the other remnant hadn’t had time to react. Now, however, they stood, baring teeth and grabbing nearby rocks to use as weapons. Marcus steadied his horse, and gripped his sword tighter.
One drew a rusty spear, raising it at Marcus. He didn’t see the big horse behind him plunge forwards. Cloud Dancer smashed the remnant to the ground and stomped on its head, crushing the skull with a wet splat.
Marcus had slid off his horse already, and Julianne joined him on the ground, aiming for the ribs of a remnant that reached for Marcus’s face.
It was a good strike. Julianne felt the crunch of broken bones and the squelch of damaged flesh. Still, the remnant whirled around to face her, mouth open to show corroded teeth behind scabbed lips.
“You ruined my dinner, fucking whore!” It spat, seemingly unaware of the jagged bone sticking out of its chest, or the blood pouring from the hole.
When it stepped forwards, it winced, looking down. Seeing the wound only enraged it more. Julianne swung her staff, missing as the remnant ducked at the last minute.
Without waiting, she spun, using the movement of her weapon to propel her around on one foot as the other raised in a kick. Her boot struck the remnant in the back, pushing it forwards into the dirt.
“Last words?” She asked, her boot pinning the remnant to the ground.
“Fuck you,” came the muffled reply.
Julianne took one hard, well-aimed swing and the last remnant was dead. “You too,” she said cheerily, leaning on her staff.
“Could you try to look a little less smug, please?” Marcus asked. “Because if this keeps up, you’re going to end up a better fighter than me, and I don’t like that.”
“Challenging your manhood?” Julianne asked. She sauntered up to him and leaned in close, pouting her lips.
“That would be totally sexy any other day, but you’re covered in gore. Again.” Marcus stepped back, flicking off a tooth that had somehow landed on his shoulder. “Come on. I’m dying for a hot bath and some clean clothes.”
They mounted their horses after Julianne gave Cloud Dancer a stern talking to for trying to shuffle away when she reached for the saddle. “Listen,” she said, pulling the mare’s head around. “I know it’s gross, but the sooner you get me home, the sooner you get a good wash and lots of treats. Ok?”
Pulling herself up, Julianne ignored the horse’s disgusted shudder. “I swear, Mathias has been talking to you and putting ideas in your head, horse. Go on, git!” She nudged with her knees and they slowly walked back to the spot they’d left Artemis.
Marcus looked around, frowning. Artemis’s old horse was tied to a limp branch, but the old man was nowhere to be seen.
“It’s like herding cats,” Marcus said as he dismounted.
A trail of broken branches and flattened grass soon led to Artemis. He leaned on the ruins of a building, sifting through a pile of rubbish. Above him, a scatter of crumbling plaster fell from the wall, scattering in the wind.
The building was old—beyond old. Too-smooth walls eroded into cracked rubble, showing it was likely built even before the Madness.
“Artemis?” Julianne called carefully.
He ignored her, picking something out of the pile and holding it up to the light.
“Marcus, that wall…” Julianne said, pointing just as another handful of fine pebbles tumbled out of cracks in the brickwork.
These landed on Artemis, and the old man irritably flicked his head from side to side. He looked up, blinking, as Marcus started creeping towards him.
Artemis looked back towards the ground, discarding the nearly-invisible filament to pick up another. This time, he held it up, grinned, then flicked the end.
“Found one!” He yelled, jumping to his feet.
The fast movement made him teeter and he grabbed the wall for support. Marcus dashed forwards, yanking Artemis forwards. The old man fell to the ground with a cry as the ruined structure rumbled, then collapsed in a cloud of dust, sending larger rocks flying out like missiles.
Marcus threw himself over Artemis as Julianne watched, helpless. Without thinking, her magic grabbed for Marcus’s mind.
Are you hurt? She sent urgently
There was a pause. She couldn’t reach past Marcus’s shields without forcing past. Marcus?
I swear to the Bitch herself, if this man doesn’t have some kind of lifesaving information in that thick head of his, I quit. Marcus relaxed his shields, letting Julianne quickly reassure herself he was, indeed, unharmed.
He grunted when Artemis suddenly started struggling beneath him.
“Where is it? You fool, where is it?” The old man cried, scratching at the dirt.
Marcus stood and brushed himself off. “Where’s what?” He asked tiredly.
“My thread!” Artemis scrambled to his feet and grabbed Marcus by the shoulders. “Do you know how hard they are to find?”
Marcus raised an eyebrow and reached out one hand to pluck something from the bushy beard that had been shoved in his face. “You mean like this one?”
Artemis’s eyes lit up and he grinned, snatching the wire from Marcus and spinning around to examine it. “Yes! I found it!”
Marcus coughed. “Who found it?”
Artemis stormed away, calling, “If you hadn’t toppled a building on my head, I wouldn’t have had to find it a second time, would I?”
Marcus opened his mouth but Julianne grabbed his arm, shaking her head. You know you can’t win this, she sent to him.
“Fine,” Marcus muttered, and set off through the long grass after Artemis. “But you can deal with him until we get through the Madlands. No—all the way to Craigston!”
Julianne laughed. “Fine, but you owe me.”
“I’ll give you the world,” Marcus said, raising a hand to his forehead dramatically.
“Oh, I’ll be taking more than that, thanks,” She replied, grinning.