Ashia noticed Old Tasa’s gaze lingering in the distance and followed it to a group of horses with a single rider clomping through the hills far from any particular road. Both she and the old woman had been so engrossed in their Working they hadn’t noticed. The rider was about twenty meters away and obviously nephilim, as he was wrapped in heavy black robes and a thick cloth cowl with layers of black gauze covering his face. They could keep out even a hint of the deadly sun. The robes glinted with silver embroidery done in magical patterns and lettering. Two pistols were kept at his waist and they gleamed as if their handles had been freshly polished, even though their wooden bodies were well worn. Small metal rings were set into both pistols’ barrels and from these rings hung odd talismans, tiny prayer scrolls inscribed with tiny mystical writing, and other curious charms.
Ornate weapons hung within easy reach, including two rifles. One was a short Chevalier Model 377 Rifle stamped with the familiar Judicci family seal. That seal meant it had to come from the Judicci gunsmiths of Lhazandu, the distant capital of Rataan province. Almost all of Father’s soldiers at Kuturi used Chevalier 377’s. The stranger’s looked too clean to have been used more than a few times.
The other rifle was unfamiliar to Ashia. It approached two meters in length and was both well-worn and well cared for, with the battered beauty that only rifles that had seen many battles could acquire. Ashia recalled seeing something like it as a child in her grandfather Maxime’s collection in the Boucher estates in Limou so far to the west. Her grandfather’s rifle had been polished, decorated with silver and gold, and had obviously never been fired. Besides the guns, attached to the saddles were an assortment of blades, swords, knives and more esoteric weaponry.
The figure’s horse was huge and powerfully built, like a horse from the northlands, whose back was higher than a man. Its hooves gave off dark sparks and smoke as it clomped forward, and its mane was in constant motion and ended in smoky wisps. A lithe and slender black cat sat in the figure’s lap against the saddle curled up as if it had not a care in the world. The pretty thing had not one but two tails that swished around behind it, and when they touched, dark energy crackled between them. It was a strange figure indeed. Two horses, these more mundane ponies, were tied off to the first horse.
A foul burnt smell carried with the figure and horses, and at first Ashia assumed it was the horse, as if it was some demon from the depths. She glanced at Old Tasa questioningly but she motioned behind the horses. A rope trailed from the final horse down to a figure, black as midnight and impossibly thin, being dragged through the dust behind them. The black body smelled of burning flesh and still moved and still weakly cried out.
A disfigured burnt hand, so emaciated as to be almost skeletal, reached up and weakly gripped the rope. Once the figures approached more closely, Ashia could make out the word “Mercy…” whispered from the burnt man’s blackened lips. He spoke Gwanjo, a language of distant Anara to the south, long ago lost to the Death Lords. Now the only living souls who spoke that language were refugees pushed northward for generations. The robed figure paid no heed to the man’s cries and clomped on towards the two of them. Perhaps he didn’t speak Gwanjo. Few outside of the refugee camps did, besides Ashia herself.
“Whoever he is,” Ashia said, and she was sure the robed figure was a he, “he knows how to impress without speaking a word.”
Old Tasa shushed Ashia into silence and rolled up her rug with practiced speed, then tossed both to the side of the tree in the bushes and fanned the air to dissipate the lingering smoke from her concoction. Tasa stood very firmly between Ashia and the figure and set her walking stick solidly on the ground before her. Ashia peeked out from behind the old woman and watched the approaching figures closely. Old Tasa’s firm stance almost frightened Ashia as much as the figure. She was rarely so direct and forceful, preferring to blend into the background and be dismissed as a quaint old woman of no importance. In spite of her trepidation, Ashia was curious. There were so few travelers out this far other than father’s soldiers and Rataan tradesmen, and never one as intriguing as this.
The figure stopped at the edge of their clearing near where Old Tasa stood. He nudged the cat and it reluctantly yawned, stretched out lazily and then hopped to the ground. It bore a thick collar made from an unfamiliar animal hide with a leash of interwoven black hide strips connecting to something hidden under the voluminous layers of the robed figure’s arm. The cat, with its tail swishing behind it, sniffed the air near them. Ashia could feel a pressure, a light brushing across her life-force which sent nervous vibrations through the bright white strands of her life-paths. Ashia could tell from Old Tasa’s shudder she felt it too.
The cat’s body turned to inky blackness and stretched and pulled in all directions. Though it took but a moment it shook Ashia seeing it transform in such a messy fashion. When the inky mass was roughly the size of a small pony, it congealed into a black jaguar, which let out a curious growl. Then the panther lost its fur and shifted in turn into an unnaturally slender and pale skinned woman with long black hair that hung nearly to her waist. She was nude and retained vestigial feline traits like black furred feline ears, green slitted eyes and two ebon cat tails as long as she was tall that swished enthusiastically behind her. Even without the extra parts, her slender physique and otherworldly features would mark her as something other than human. Was this creature one of the fey? She’d never heard of one so far east, those that remained lived in the distant west.
“A Dharaki witch and a half breed,” the cat girl said in a pleasant and musical voice that betrayed a mocking tone, “possibly her apprentice.”
Old Tasa hissed and reached back to touch Ashia’s arm. “Go back to house,” she said in a voice like cold steel. Ashia looked back. Suddenly their distance from the Steward, Monsieur Grignon, was not a positive.