The world grew darker as Iohan and his charges followed Maria and Pol’s footsteps into the woods. The high walls of the citadel and its castle and the flags that the nobles flew from the towers disappeared through the ever thickening wall of trees. The branches twisted like grasping fingers, like claws frantically reaching out to claim their prey. The ground grew soft, like walking upon the flesh of some massive beast. The air turned thick and cold, and their breath hung and trailed behind them like ghosts.
The nobles’ hunting parties didn’t ride out this far. The paletas wouldn’t venture this deep in search of sustenance or firewood. Not even cazadores, alone or in groups, sought their quarry in such dark and distant places. If these thoughts flitted through Iohan’s mind like creatures scuttling through shadows, then they were surely gnawing at the novices’ with ravenous glee.
“Bartolome,” Iohan said, his voice the first noise other than their own footsteps and the sounds of animals that they’d heard in quite some time. “Get in front and follow the trail. We might as well do something productive with this time.”
The boy moved deftly and sure-footedly now that he had been given a task he could focus on. Even as the trail became muddled, two pairs of footsteps presenting a scene that spoke of an argument and a splitting up, Bartolome pressed on with certainty, following the heavier tread for he assumed it to be Pol’s. Iohan watched on, pleased to see the boy’s skill and pleased to have a distraction from the dark thoughts that troubled his mind. The boy would likely never be a great leader, too temperamental and not quite intelligent enough for a field marshal. But he’d make a fine colonel some day.
“Cazador. Cazador, you should look at this.”
“What is it, novice?”
“The trail… disappears, I think. I don’t see any footsteps.”
“What? How?” Santi asked.
“Pol surely didn’t take off his boots and go around barefoot,” Jimeno said with a snort.
“Don’t you take that tone with me,” Bartolome shot back. “I don’t see you up front, brave enough to be the first line of–”
Bartolome’s words ended suddenly, a single wet cough slipping from his lips. An arm, thin and impossibly long, reached from high in the branches of the trees, the fingers of its hand as long as serpents and wrapped around Bartolome’s neck like a noose.
Jimeno was silent. Santi screamed. Iohan drew his sword from its sheath and ran forward, ready to put the blade to work. But before he could close the distance between the two, the arm retreated into the trees, dragging Bartolome’s body up with it.
To his credit, the boy didn’t scream. But Iohan knew that was only because he couldn’t.