The forest felt like a living, breathing beast, fighting the hunters' efforts to penetrate its depths. Rhaeme's curved blade hacked ceaselessly through the thick undergrowth of twisted vegetation. They marched in a sideways gait, their armored sword arms bent to push forward, wielding the curved blades typical of Hidden Circle warriors.
Their shield arms held thick ironvine cloaks tightly to protect against lashing razor leaves and the seeking tendrils of bloodthorns.
The rain had eased since they'd passed beneath the almost-solid canopy of branches. Rhaeme was glad for the gloom of the sky beyond that wooded ceiling. In sunnier times, he'd witnessed the effect of the trees in silhouette. He knew they looked like giant arms and fingers, interlaced and huddled together like conspirators over their victims.
The image was unsettling, as was the way the canopy moved as a single organism when the wind was strong. He put such thoughts out of his mind and focused on the task at hand, locating an easier passage so the group might search in a more stealthy manner. The only saving grace of the heavy rain was that it covered the sound of their movement. Their noisy approach echoed in his ears. Better to get in, discover the source of the region's troubles, and get out, he thought.
Easier said than done. The hunters were growing nervous. The improvised path they'd left behind them would soon begin to close itself as the forest's predatory foliage reset its traps and vicious intentions. Rhaeme stopped and waved the man behind him ahead to take point. He needed a moment to rest his weary arm and take stock of the situation. Direction was a problem inside the Qurth. Landmarks were few, and, when found, were well hidden. He'd hoped to find a small clearing, some overgrown ruin or sign of intrusion, perhaps even the sound or sight of an enemy encampment. His prayers to Savras had so far yielded only confirmations of his own fears. The Hunters of the Hidden Circle were not as receptive as the oracles to visions and prognostication, but they were gifted with a sense of insight, usually manifesting as flashes or images. Each time he'd attempted to focus his awareness on this ability, he'd smelled blood, stronger and stronger as they moved inward. He closed his eyes and again raised the small ring of dried fethra to his lips. The scent came again, this time accompanied by a warmth that covered his skin like a wave of fever. Sucking in a quick breath, he opened his eyes and looked past the men ahead of him. He sensed that they were being watched. The feeling of distant eyes on him was chilling. The darkness of the forest revealed nothing, but he was innately aware of something getting closer. The three men at the rear recognized his alarm and froze. The four ahead continued moving. A young man called Laen, a hunter for barely a year, whispered, "What do you see?" Rhaeme did not answer right away. He wasn't sure how, but he knew that whatever they sought had found them first. As he prepared to alert those in the front, the point man who had replaced him moments ago lurched to a stop and groaned. The man's sword fell from his hand and he turned around, wide-eyed and clawing at his stomach furiously. The groan became a gurgling scream as blood streamed from beneath his leather breastplate. Then it was pushed outward violently, torn apart from the inside.