Broken Skies - Chapter One
“I could have taken him,” Julianne said.
Marcus blinked, as thoughts dragged back to their earlier conversation after a period of weary silence. “I told you, that remnant was too big. He’d have squashed you.”
“You’re not actually any taller than me,” Julianne noted. “Well… maybe a finger-width, but not enough to make a difference.”
“It’s not about height.” Marcus patted his rifle, now securely strapped to his saddlebags, and straightened his shoulders. “It’s about strength, dexterity, precision in the face off—” His words stopped short as he stumbled on a rock, hidden by the lengthening shadows and washed out colors of dusk.
“You were saying?” Julianne asked with a laugh. “Tell me again how precise you are.”
“Shut up.” Marcus focused his eyes ahead, trying to will the heat from his cheeks. “You know what I meant.”
“You meant that you were too scared to take the beast on in a fair fight, so you assumed I would be, too.” Julianne lifted her hand and rubbed her thumb across a jagged bit of nail on one of her fingers. She’d broken it in the fight earlier. “You know what they say about people who assume things?”
“That Marcus is an ass,” he grumped. “Fine. Maybe you could have taken him. But why? This rifle isn’t for decoration. If we’d waited for you to fight off old fish-breath, we wouldn’t make it out of the Mads until well after dark. And blow a fair fight—I’m dying for a soft bed, Jules.”
“Well, it’s all behind us now,” Julianne consoled him. “We’re past the big mean remnants keeping you from your beauty sleep. We can—”
A hiss cut her off, and her horse skittered to one side as a figure leaped out from behind a tree.
“Dinner!” The red-eyed beast bared his teeth and growled.
“Shit!” Julianne squealed. Her horse agreed and reared back on two legs with a high-pitched whinnie, almost kicking Julianne in the head in its distress.
The remnant took advantage of her distraction and lunged forward. Julianne yanked at the horse, fending off her attacker with a clumsy kick. The remnant barked a short laugh and tried again.
This time, she was ready. The big, white horse came down, eyes wide and flank twitching. Julianne, now able to use the slack in the reins to move more freely, met her attacker with an elbow jab to the face, followed by a swift punch to the gut.
It made little impact. Yellow, cracked nails clawed at her face and fetid breath washed over her as the remnant opened its mouth, trying to snap crooked teeth at her neck. The remnant’s face brushed hers, and Julianne felt the greasy, white face paint it wore as it smeared onto her skin.
A pulse bounced through the air that could be felt more so than heard. The remnant convulsed and coughed, blood-filled mouth spattering Julianne’s face with warm liquid.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Julianne spat. “Ugh, that’s disgusting.” She dabbed her eyes with a sleeve and opened them again.
“Let me guess,” Marcus said. “You could have taken him?”
“Don’t be silly.” Julianne patted the horse’s neck, soothing him. “I was busy with old ‘fraidy-pants here. What took you so long, anyway?”
“What… Gah!” Marcus threw up his hands and turned away, missing the glimmer of mirth in Julianne’s eyes.
“Thank you, dear,” she called after him. “And sorry for being a crotchety old woman earlier.”
“And?” Marcus prompted.
“And?” Julianne repeated, not willing to give him too much ground.
Marcus sighed. “You’re never going to admit I was right, are you?”
“Of course, I am,” Julianne quipped. “As soon as you actually are right.”
Marcus prodded the dead remnant with the toe of his boot. “What’s he doing this far from the Madlands, anyway?”
Julianne shook her head worriedly. They were too close to Annie’s for comfort. “Bastian said they’d been infesting the area, but I didn’t realize they’d come this far. Did you see the face paint? It’s not one of the Madlands pack members.”
Marcus nodded. “Well, that’s what we’re here to fix.” He left the still-warm corpse and mounted his horse. “Let’s ride the rest of the way. I want to make sure these pricks haven’t been bothering Annie.”
Julianne nodded absentmindedly as she slid a hand into the deep pocket of her robe. Inside, her fingers brushed a small, round object, hard as stone and cold to her touch. She stroked it gently and felt it shudder, then unfurl.
Tiny claws clutched her middle fingertip, and a dry snout wrapped around it. “Sorry, little one. No treats just yet.”
The tiny creature soon grew bored with the lack of offering from Julianne. It pulled away, wriggling around to wedge deeper into the cloth. A moment later it began the rhythmic, telltale shudder that signaled it was asleep.