Margit? She sent the call across Irth, all the way back to the Mystic Temple on the other side of the Madlands.
The thought still filled her with wonder—though she’d been using Artemis’s device for month to stay in contact with Bastian, the ability to ‘speak’ to those back in the Temple while she was gone… well, it changed everything.
You’re late, came Margit’s brisk reply. Run into trouble, did you?
The blasted rains slowed us down, Julianne explained. The ground was so soft even the horses were having trouble.
But you’re safe in Tahn?
Yes. Julianne sent a quick mental image of their arrival at Annie’s, followed by one of her perched on the rocker by a hot cup of tea.
Margit quickly shot back a vision of her own predicament—sitting in Julianne’s office, paperwork piled high beside her and a congealed plate of barely-touched food.
Watch out, girl, Margit said. I might just waltz across the Madlands and join you, if these fool Mystics don’t stop making work for me.
Concerned, Julianne wondered what had gone wrong. I made sure everything was up to date before I left!
Bah, Jonsen has it in his head that everything needs to be double-annotated while you’re gone, and wants me to check the papers Artemis has been producing, too. Margit’s distaste at the idea leaked through the thoughts she sent.
Tell him to stop. By direct order from me, if need be. Julianne felt Margit’s mental eye-roll and added, If he won’t listen, hook him up to a device of his own and I’ll tell him my damned self.
Margit snorted, the tone and inflection so perfect that Julianne knew she must have made the sound out loud. That might even stop him. Silly old goat is petrified of the sight of his own blood—maybe that can be my threat of choice while you’re gone.
Julianne sent a wave of affection, laced with commiseration. The mystics were an odd bunch, and loyal to a fault, but in Juliane’s absence they tended to make everything into a drama.
As much as I’d like to reminisce about Jonsen’s frustrating attention to detail, Julianne sent, ignoring a second snorting impression from Margit, We have things to discuss.
That we do, Margit sent, voice resigned. Will you go first? I don’t expect you have much to share.
We were attacked by a roving remnant well beyond the Madlands, Julianne sent flatly. Just the one—it was either separated from its pack, or had abandoned them.
Or been abandoned by them, Margit pointed out. They’re not exactly known for their strong family ties, after all.
Fair point, Julianne conceded. But still, this was a little far out for my comfort. The beast wasn’t from the Mads, I don’t think.
How can you tell? Margit’s interest was caught, now, and her thoughts were soaked with curiosity.
Julianne took a sip of her tea, and grimaced when she realised it was already starting to go cold. It was a common problem. Always busy, always distracted. Still, she enjoyed the adrenaline coursing through her as she faced this new problem.
It had white marks painted on its face, like the creatures we saw who claimed Chet as their leader. That was a story that had fascinated the mystics when she’d told them. Remnant rarely claimed a leader for more than a raid or three.
Margit didn’t respond immediately, going quiet for a moment to think over the ramifications. If remnant had indeed travelled all the way across the marshy forest toward a rival group, something must be driving them.
Do you mind if I pull Amelia and our Tahn contingent in? Julianne asked. I still haven’t told Bastian I’m back yet.
Oh, go ahead, Margit sent comfortably. The boy will be knocking on my mind any minute now.
Oh? Margit hadn’t mentioned that earlier.
Yes, she sent wryly. Every afternoon, checks in like clockwork to see i you’ve reached your checkpoint.
Why doesn’t he ask me himself? Julianne wondered.
Doesn’t want to bother you, I imagine.
Shaking her head, Julianne reached out to Bastian and Amelia, twin tendrils of magic stretching across the world thanks to the amphorald at her wrist.
They both answered immediately, Amelia with a buoyant excitement and Bastian with a rush of relief.
Julianne! Amelia sent. I’m so glad to hear from you. Are you really so far away? Her thoughts had the same eagerness as Julianne’s had the first time she used the communication device.
I am, Julianne replied, reflecting the other woman’s wonder. Isn’t it amazing?
You arrived safely? Bastian sent.
More or less, Julianne thought back, making sure to keep her communication open to all three of them. Bastian, have the townspeople complained of any remnant attacks out this far? I ran in to one just past Annie’s.
Startled alarm suggested he hadn’t. We’ll need to set patrols to circle the whole town. Worry flickered at the edge of his thoughts, now. I don’t know how much farther Bette can stretch her men, though.
I’m desperately short of soldiers myself, Amelia broke in, but let me know if the situation is desperate and I’ll see what I can do.
Gratitude suffused their bond, from both Julianne and Bastian. We can discuss that with Francis later today, Julianne said. Amelia, you’re an absolute gem. Margit, do you have any updates?
There was a pause and Julianne imagined the older mystic shuffling papers. The first crate of communication devices arrived from the rearick. Found out why that bastard Tavich took so long—he made the damn things look pretty!
Julianne had to hide a wry appreciation for the old man’s tactics. Julianne had ordered over two-hundred of Artemis’s communication devices, to be delivered in staggered lots over the next two years.
Though she hadn’t explained their use to Tavich, he would know that the mystics would wear them—and that meant they would be seen. Nothing less than the very best could be associated with rearick crafting, so Tavich had made sure that fine details and quality work would be clearly visible.
Julianne rubbed her own bracelet. The gem was the one Artemis had used, but it was reset into a heavier strap with an ornate surround. It would easily pass as a simple piece of jewellery—something Julianne had insisted on.
She didn’t intend to keep the communication devices a secret, specifically, but the mystics were, in general, a mysterious bunch. Julianne certainly wouldn’t be advertising their new ability to communicate across Irth and she didn’t think anyone else would, either.
Let them be, she told Margit. You know what the rearick are like. If you tell them to make the devices less detailed, they’ll turn the blasted things into works of art.
Silly old fools. The thought escaped Margit and echoed through the mental bonds they all shared. Julianne smiled at the sentiment. It was something Margit had been called more than once.
Bastian quickly filled the silence. Did you manage to bring one for Danil, Master? He’s been dying to try it.
I did. Julianne shared a brief mental image of the bracelet she’d had made for her fellow mystic. And I brought two more, in case they are needed this side of the Mads. She had hoped for more, but could not afford to wait for the crafters to finish them.
We can discuss the bracelets later, Margit said pointedly. Despite their valuable nature, I want to know what’s going on at that portal.
Has your research turned up anything new? Julianne asked her.
A resounding sense of frustration flooded her mind in reply. These Bitch-forsaken records are so incomplete! Not a damned word about them. For all we know, they’ve never been seen before.
Maybe they haven’t, Julianne thought back. She was dubious about it—the Matriarch had travelled so far, seen so much that it seemed impossible for anything to occur that she hadn’t experienced.
We’ve gone through what little information we have here, Amelia said. There’s no mention of strange creatures or portals.
Julianne shrugged off the light disappointment she felt. No one had really expected to find the answer to what they were facing in their degraded, incomplete histories. Bastian, any new developments?
The arrivals have slowed. Just one in the last three days. Concern touched his thoughts about the small creatures like the ne Julianne had adopted as a pet. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad one.
Do you have a total count?
A scatter of numbers crossed her mind as Bastian’s mental calculations leaked through the bond. I’d say… thirty or more?
Julianne’s eyebrows shot up. That many?
It’s just a guess, but I don’t think I’m far off. Of course, quite a few of those are dead—the remnant seem bent on wiping the poor things out. Bastian’s shudder or distaste made goosebumps run over Julianne’s skin.
Absentmindedly, she reached into her pocket to stroke the little creature inside. It was curled up tight, probably in response to her use of magic. Every time she’d cast a spell or used mental communication, the little beast had skittered away or wrapped itself into an impenetrable ball.
The increased remnant activity is certainly a worry, Julianne said. But, I wish there was a way to stem the flow of incoming… whatever they are. At least until we work out what they are.
You think they’re dangerous? Bastian asked dubiously.
Worry twisted Julianne’s gut. Though the small things had so far caused no more trouble than a few eaten bits of paper, her mind was weighed down with the possibilities—more of them, in plague numbers; larger beasts, more destructive than their tiny kin; or, something else entirely.
No one knew what lay on the other side of the portal. It could be a fiery hell, or paradise lost. It could harbour all manner of creatures, and likely not all would be as friendly as their little companions had been so far.
Amelia saved Julianne from sharing her fears. Bastian, until we know without a doubt what these things are and where they are from, we can’t say how dangerous they might be.
Fair enough. Bastian almost managed to hide the reluctance in his voice, but Julianne wasn’t fooled. She knew the younger man wanted the portal to become a beacon of hope and progress. Julianne wished she were still that naive.
Bastian, I know you want this to turn out to be a good thing, a new frontier. Julianne filled the words with warmth, then added an edge to them. But we have no idea what’s out there. Remember, Bethany Ann left Irth to face threats we can’t even imagine.
That was hundreds of years ago! he protested, though a trace of disappointment in his thoughts showed the warning had begun to sink in.
And she was, as far as we can tell, immortal. If she’d beaten the threat, would she not have come back? Julianne waited, letting the heavy silence stand for a moment. Of course, the very fact that we don’t know anything about these portals means I could be completely wrong. Just… don’t do anything crazy, ok?
Of course, Master. I’m not Danil. A cheeky mirth crept back into Bastian’s thoughts and Julianne shook her head wryly.
And thank the Bitch for that, Margit interjected. Not even a mystic could put up with two of him.
Margit! Julianne admonished. Amelia, I’m sorry for this lot.
Amelia’s humour flooded Julianne’s mind. Oh, I don’t mind a bit. It’s a welcome distraction.
<Candy, can you please add a pertinent question and answer regarding the state of Arcadia here?>
I hate to cut this short, but I really need to go, Julianne admitted. We almost rode straight through the Madlands—Marcus wouldn’t stop for more than a few hours at a time, and I’m exhausted.
I heard the noise you two were making in the wee hours every morning you were here, Margit huffed. Don’t pretend you’re not used to missing a bit of sleep in favour of spending time with your man.
Margit! Julianne had to concentrate to block her embarrassment leaking through the mental link. If Margit saw that, she’d never let the matter drop. We were training. To fight!
Is that what the kids call it now? Margit’s tone was sweet enough to make sugared sweets taste like lemons.
Goodnight, Margit. Julianne promptly dropped her connection to the older mystic. You too, Bastian. I’ll see you in the morning. She let him fall away too, leaving her link to Amelia until last.
Jules… how much of a threat are we facing, really? The deeply-etched worry of a leader facing an endless battle coloured Amelia’s thoughts.
Julianne’s heart ached, knowing that if she dropped her shields just a little, the same fears for her people would be mirrored back to the Arcadian Chancellor. I wish I knew, Amelia.