It appeared to be a house cat, huge and gray, crouching and staring at them from there. Mord came out of the woods and began barking, but Nam silenced her with a gesture. Her faithful canine specter gave the animal a wide berth as she ambled around it, aiming to join them. She could feel her hound’s thoughts focusing on protecting her mistress, so she pushed a calming emotion back, to keep her settled.
Mord could sense the same thing that she was certain she could feel about it. This cat was absolutely the same entity that had been running Mord ragged the past two days.
This was the most substantial specter she had ever seen. Even Mord, as firm and physical as she seemed to be whenever Nam petted her, had a clearly supernatural hint to her, a slight translucency, like a dense smoke given weight and form. This cat… looked like a living, breathing cat. Only, she realized, it looked like a cat shot in black-and-white photography.
Its tail moved back and forth slowly, as it watched them. Its ears were not down, and it appeared to feel confident, but it did seem wary all the same. Gray-scale eyes blinked.
Mord continued glaring at the thing as she moved slowly up to join them, and then Nam realized she was glaring at Jack from time to time as well. She was giving he and the cat the same vigilance as she took up a station next to her mistress.
After a long pause, Nam cleared her throat. “Jack. Is that cat… yours?”
Rogan looked over at her in puzzlement. “Nam, it’s obviously a specter.”
“Yes, Rogan, it is a specter,” she agreed with patience, “but that beast is no Maryahdin’s pet. In fact, it feels like Jack’s ethen. It feels exactly like it. Mord thinks so, too.”
Jack let out a breath that he had been holding. “That’s what feels weird about it. It feels familiar. But I can’t how that could be.”
“The flux in specters and forms pick up the nature of the tools and the casters that channel them. Your ethen’s aura and the cat’s aura are the same, which suggests the cat is supported by the ethen.”
He frowned as he tried to understand it.
“See if you can call it, Jack,” Nam prompted.
After staring at her for a moment longer, he walked forward, still holding his wrist at first, but then extending his left hand toward the ‘cat’.
He began calling softly. “Here, kitty… good kitty… come on over…”
The cat stared at him, but did not show any inclination to move. He switched to his right hand. The dangerous hand….
Rogan cleared his throat. “Nam….”
Nam replied in a firm voice. “I am ready if it does anything, Rogan.”
Jack stopped and knelt down near the cat, still holding his hand out and calling softly. It began to walk toward him slowly.
“Come on,” he coaxed. “That’s right. Good kitty….”
The thing was huge for a house cat, she realized. A real animal that size and physique would be pushing twenty pounds, with none of it being fat. The cat lowered its head and bumped into his hand, accepting a head rub in a perfectly normal feline fashion, as if it had known him for years.
She realized that the thing was purring, just like a regular cat. This was every bit as fully-functional a spectral beast as her Mord or her Ooe.
Nam had walked up behind him. When the cat finished receiving its head rub, she reached down and gave it a one-fingered caress on the back.
“Rest, now, Puss,” she said, then whispered, “Sifash.“
The thing turned into gray vapor, which streamed quickly into Jack’s palm.
Jack looked up at Nam in surprise. She said nothing for the moment, simply stood up straight again and waited for him. He stared at the back of his hand again, and then stood up, as well.
Rogan finally agreed, “It belongs to your ethen, somehow.”
Nam added her own analysis while staring back up the hill where the attackers had vanished, at the appalling crater the guardsman’s hand had excavated.
“The cat was not hunting us. It must have been keeping an eye on us. For what purpose, we cannot say. Maybe it was scouting like Mord, thinking that Jack could receive information from it, such as I receive. The bigger ones in the woods…”
She paused, sensing, then resumed, “…are still out there. They are different than our attackers, but they are keeping an eye on us too. There may be more, but I am unsure. Ah, there goes our aircraft…”
She checked in on her flying scouts. Her hawk was trying to follow. Ooe was looking for the bigger targets. She ordered her to continue that search.
“Ecoue cannot keep up with it. It looks like a Tasuithan flyer.”
Rogan commented, “That tells us nothing. Tasuith will sell weapons to anyone. And those soldiers were wielding Chaldan weapons. Although they may well have salvaged them from a weapons cache here.”
“But the soldiers were…” For some reason, Nam didn’t want to complete her statement.
“Aye.” The big man nodded with a deep scowl. “That lot were Gireid, just like us. What were they on about, attacking us like that?”
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