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The Strangers

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The sun hung high in the sky, shining warmth upon the earth like a benevolent king. The Thestrals milled about the open field under its gaze, grazing on the fresh spring grass as they enjoyed its gentle heat. Every now and again, Eirene glanced up from her meal to scour the distant skyline for signs of predators. Even though the half-giant that often visited their territory with promises of distant castles and seemingly endless forest was kind to them, she knew that not all wizards were that way — and the recent birth of the season's foals made it all the more important to be wary. The younglings knew how to fly, but their smaller wingspan and lower endurance made fleeing much harder for them than it was for the adults.

As her sharp gaze passed over the large rock formation that humans often picnicked near, the slightest hint of movement caught her eye. Before she could investigate it further, her nose prickled with the tantalising smell of fresh meat. The herd surged forward as one, eager to replace their meagre diet of foliage with something more substantial, but her instincts screamed at her to stop them. Something was wrong. The scent was too strong for the small amounts of cooked meat that most humans brought with them to eat. And the half-giant who often visited them with food and compliments would never hide from them like an errant filly.

Neighing out a warning, Eirene galloped forward as fast as she could. Fortunately, the others had enough sense to remain in a group to protect the youngsters, so she quickly got far enough ahead of them to cut them off. Stomping one powerful hoof on the hard ground, she watched as they swerved to avoid her before slowing to a halt. With one last whinny at them to stay back, she turned and ventured forward to investigate.

Within seconds, she reached the stacked rocks. Cautiously, just in case the creatures on the other side could see her, she inched around the formation until she could see the source of the movement.

Two humans stood beside one another, both staring off into the distance impatiently. The one holding the meat was a tall woman with dark eyes and a mass of curly black hair, while the other was a thin, angular man who exuded an aura of lofty arrogance.

Eirene's gut twisted at the sight. There was something unnatural about the man; she was used to sensing magical beings' relationships with death, but he was somehow out of sync with the natural realm. Darkness radiated from him, and her instincts screamed at her to put as much distance as she could between herself and the unusual stranger — yet her muscles refused to budge.

"Where are these mystical assets you promised me?" the man eventually asked in a voice so cold that it dripped evil. The subtle malice in his tone sent shivers scurrying along Eirene's spine like ants fleeing a hungry sparrow. "You know what I think about people who waste my time, yet, so far, all you have procured for me is an empty field," he paused, eyeing the meat in the witch's hands, "and raw meat."

"I would never waste your time, my lord," the dark-haired figure assured him with unbridled glee. "They won't be able to resist the meat, and when they come — "

She let out a sudden, shrill laugh as her gaze met Eirene's. Pure longing filled her eyes, as if she not only understood but openly courted death. The Thestral was used to the large array of emotions that tended to surface when people were confronted with the idea of mortality, but she had never seen someone look so utterly obsessed and fascinated by it. Holding out the rabbit meat, she made clicking noises with her tongue in an attempt to lure Eirene closer.

"Bellatrix, what — " Catching sight of the half-hidden Thestral, the man recoiled violently, his face draining of all colour as terror flitted across it. One of his hands darted into the pocket of his strange garment and pulled out a short wooden stick. A few short moments later, he schooled his expression into something resembling disinterest, but his scent still reeked with fear. The unpleasant odour was so overpowering that Eirene could no longer smell the meat that his companion was still clutching in her hands. "Bellatrix, what have you done?"

"It's a Thestral," she told him as she shuffled forward, still holding out the meat. "There's a whole herd here; I've seen them. We could recruit them — come on, you great big brute; come closer — and we could ride them to the Ministry for battle. Just looking at them is like staring death in the face; the pathetic Ministry workers will know what's happening as soon as they see us flying in on these things." The woman bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, and Eirene flinched at the sudden movement. "Does the idea please you, my lord?"

"No, your pathetic attempt at dramatic imagery does not please me. Our aim is to defeat death, not to embrace it. It would make a mockery of what we stand for."

Eirene could identify the moment the young woman registered the extremity of her companion's displeasure. Flinching back, she turned to him with wide eyes. "But, my lord, I — "

"No, Bellatrix." He raised that wooden stick, pointing it directly at Eirene.

Adrenaline rushed through her at the sight. She didn't know what it was, but it was obvious that the intruders viewed it as some sort of weapon. Snapping her batlike wings out to their full length, she charged straight at them, using her speed to bowl through them before either of them could react. They fell to the ground in an ungraceful heap, and she used the opening to propel herself into the air.

The man's voice called out after her, but she ignored him, even as green light after green light flashed past her like dragon's fire. Beating her wings faster, Eirene swerved to loop back around to where the rest of the herd awaited her. She let out a harsh cry to warn them of the threat. As loath as she was to leave the idyllic field they had come to call home, she knew they wouldn't be safe until they put the intruders far behind them.

The silhouettes of ten dark Thestrals rose into the sky above the field. As Eirene finally got out of the reach of the strange lights, her mind returned to the half-giant who had offered them protection and care in exchange for domestication. Although the idea had seemed preposterous at the time, it was growing more appealing by the second. She knew the others weren't ready for it yet. But, by the time the foals were old enough to scatter out into the world on their own, they might be.