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Manas frowned. “I thought your father told your mother not to say anything about that.”
“To me,” Lilavati said. “There was never any censure on her when she left the house.”
“So she could have easily told the entire city what you were,” Manas said. Lilavati nodded. “Aren’t those with your gift valued among your people?”
“It would depend on the method of the emergence of the power,” Lilavati said. She would have continued, but her mare stopped and tossed her head. Her body was stiff and she was sweating. “Manas, something is not right here.”
She looked up and gasped. Littered all around the vast field they faced were piles of dead. Some she could see were real, and in varying stages of decay. Others were the mere shadows she was growing accustomed to seeing. “What in the name of the Twelve?” Theda asked, putting her hand on the handle of the mace on her belt.
Lilavati could hear the feline deep within her snarling. “It’s here,” she said. “Watching us.”
“I doubt that,” Ludger said as he joined them. “Nothing would attack a party this large.”
“She’s right,” Manas said, his amber eyes filled with a hunter’s gleam. He looked around, watching and listening.
“I sense something dark in that direction,” Theda said, pointing.
“It is not there,” Lilavati said.
“Then where is it?” Ludger asked. Manas looked at Lilavati, who shrugged helplessly. “I’m more inclined to go with Preester Theda’s information. The power of the Twelve wouldn’t drive her wrong.”
“Then send ten men to investigate, but they’re not to engage whatever it is until they report back,” Manas said. “I want an idea of what we’re fighting.” Ludger nodded before heading back towards the ranks. Manas turned to Lilavati. “My dark scholar, can you sense it?”
“No,” Lilavati said. “Only that it is watching us and not where the preester is being led by the Twelve.”
“You’re certain of this?” Manas asked. Lilavati nodded. “How?”
Lilavati cast a look over her shoulder to make sure no one else was within hearing distance of her weakened voice. “Something awoke within me the first night we spent together. It is like a great feline itself. I have heard it speaking to me twice, and just now it has alerted me to the presence of danger as a cat would.” She patted her mare’s neck. “Also, she is near panic and our hooved sisters are taught to fear nothing.”
Manas put his hilt on his sword. “I wish I had the instincts I do when I am in beast form,” he muttered.
Lilavati looked at him, eyes wide. “You do not? All those under the curse of the shape shifter in my land do. It is a part of the change. The learning to hear and heed those warnings is most difficult, but it is possible.” She paused. “Especially if there is an inkosi tiikeri to help them.”
“Do you know how to awaken this awareness?” Manas asked, still looking around.
“I do not. I was not trained as most of my kind are,” Lilavati said. Her voice cracked. “I am useless in so many ways, and now I cannot even do what little I am capable of to any great extent.”
“You aren’t useless, Lilavati,” Manas said. “You barely know what you are. It’s only because of a single comment made by your mother, that she was punished for, that you have any inkling. We’ll learn what it means together.” Lilavati jerked her head up at the same time he did. “Pull back!”
Lilavati was able to pull her mare back before the beast landed on the road in front of them. The horse screamed in fear, giving voice to the sound that her rider couldn’t let out on her own. “By the Twelve,” Theda shouted. “What is that thing?”
Lilavati stared at the creature, struggling to keep her horse from bolting like so many of the others. The beast’s legs were covered in fur but scales covered the rest of its body. The face was that of a monkey, but in place of fur it had scales. Long pointed fangs extended from its jutting lower jaw. Black eyes glowered down on the traveling group.
“Lilavati, have you seen such a thing before?” Manas asked as he moved in front of her, his sword drawn.
“No,” Lilavati said. “It is unknown to me.”
“Not to me,” Ludger said, joining them. “It is a guljter medveda. They are drawn to places with stagnant magic.”
“We passed this way before. Why weren’t we attacked then?” someone asked.
“Figure it out later,” Manas said. “Ludger, how do we kill it?”
“We don’t. Only Master Magi from the capital could take it on and survive, and that’s if they were lucky,” Ludger said.
“How do you propose we get past it then?” Theda asked.
“We turn and run. It won’t follow us,” Ludger said. “We go back five spans and then turn to the west. A good three or four spans that way should get us out of its range.”
“You four, ride at Lilavati’s back,” Manas ordered, pointing to four of the battle ready soldiers. “Defend her.”
“Yes Great Lord,” one of the men said. Lilavati could see their expressions. A sense of dread filled her.
“I’ll ride with them,” Theda said.
“Stay with your guards, my dark scholar,” Manas said. Lilavati nodded. With the chaos swirling around them he wouldn’t hear her voice. She headed back down the road, those sworn to protect her at her back.
They were just past the line of sight of the rest of the group when her mare shuddered and let out the scream of a dying animal. It fell, taking the frightened woman with it. As if they hadn’t seen anything, the preester and her guards rode on. Unable to cry out, Lilavati fought to free herself from the saddle.
A strange wheezing growl froze the blood in her veins. She looked up into a pair of cold, black eyes. Another guljter medveda stared down at her, drool dripping from its gaping maw. She screamed with what little strength she had as it roared and lunged towards her.
to be continued…