Leopold watched as Raven walked away. With her nose in the air as it was, she was unable to see where she was going and stepped into two holes. It would have almost been funny had she not been mad at him. What it was that he had done, he still didn't know. He'd have to ask his brother when he got the chance. Midas seemed to have a better grasp on what other people thought; maybe he would be able to explain it.
Leopold drew his knife and slashed at a strand of swamp grass. The razor sharp blade severed the plant easily, and for the first time, Leopold realized that he was angry with Raven. He certainly had the right to be angry, he told himself. She had latched onto something that he had said and blown it incredibly out of proportion. The least that she could have done would have been to explain what it was that he had done that was so bad. Instead, she had held it against him for four days. This was utterly ridiculous.
The other thing that concerned Leopold was that he cared so much. Sure, Raven was his friend, and he cared what she thought, but this was excessive. He didn't even care this much when Midas was mad at him, so why care now? His own emotions were betraying him, and he didn't know why. He would have to get a better grip on himself, though how he would do it was unclear to him. Given enough time, he was certain that he could figure it out. He just needed to finish this contract and get back home. He could think clearly there without unnecessary distractions.
He stopped his rambling thoughts and saw the marsh in front of him. It didn't look familiar nor did any of it around him. It was no problem, he would simply follow his footsteps back to the others. He turned to find his trail and cursed silently. The mud had flowed back in to cover the tracks that he had left only moments ago. He could barely see the last footprint; any beyond that would be a hopeless cause. He berated himself for his stupidity. It would be an easy thing for him to find the others again, or at least their camp, but that would all take time and he wanted to get out of this infernal place as quickly as possible. He scanned the ground in silence, trying to pick up any sign of his passage but was unable to do so.
A ear-shattering roar broke the silence that hung over the swamp and was followed immediately by a shriek. It was definitely Raven, of that much Leopold was certain. He also knew that she was not frightened easily. Her scream alone told him that something was terribly wrong, but if that wasn't enough, the roar told the rest of the story. Most likely she had encountered some sort of beast, though the specifics were not important; she was in trouble and Leopold was determined to help.
He began to run through the marsh, fighting the mud that sucked at his legs and feet. Twice he almost lost his left boot and had to stop to work it loose of the mire. There had to be a better way to do this, and as soon as he looked up, he knew that he had found it. The nearest tree was typical of one in a forest; it stood quite tall and had no low branches. For a regular person it would have been a chore to climb the thing, but for Leopold this was nothing more than a exercise. He wasted no time in climbing to the lowest branches and scanning the surrounding area. Another scream echoed across the marsh, and he honed in on the direction. Running out on the branch that he was on, he was able to transfer to another tree's branch and follow it in to the trunk. The next tree was closer, but there were no branches strong enough to take his weight. Instead he jumped for the biggest limb and caught it with hooked hands. In a moment he was on top of the branch and moving toward the trunk, his eyes scanning for his next move.
In this way, Leopold was able to cover the distance relatively quickly. In many ways, the movements required were much like those necessary to climb anything else. A quick eye, strong legs and upper body, and nerves of steel went a long way in this department, and Leopold had all of them. The roars and shrieks continued almost incessantly, interrupted only by moments of uncanny silence. Every time this happened, Leopold froze, his mind churning with possibilities of what had happened. Had the beast killed Raven? It was possible that she had defeated it, but this was a remote chance at best. After a few moments, the ruckus would reconvene, and Leopold would again determine the direction that it was coming from and continue through the tree tops. He could tell that he was getting closer with every passing tree. The roars were getting louder every second, and in a short time he had determined that he was practically on top of it. Then, as if to elude him, the noise ceased suddenly. As before, Leopold stopped, gripping the tree branches and expecting it to return as before, but this time something was different. He waited breathlessly for several long moments but the swamp remained as silent as death.
Leopold realized that something had changed and continued in the same direction as before, scanning the marsh floor as he moved. He was so intent on what was beneath him that he didn't even notice the large barren section until he was on top of it. The trees that covered the marsh in a thick canopy everywhere else simply stopped. Something had cut through a long swatch of them, leaving the trunks broken and tossed carelessly to either side.
Leopold stared at the sight silently for a few moments. It was impressive for certain, though if it was related to Raven's disappearance was another question altogether. He needed more information before he could render a verdict. Slipping off of the branch that he was perched on, he fell the twenty feet to the ground, landing as he would on a harder surface. The bent knees helped to take the force out of the fall, but what he hadn't counted on was his effect on the mud. The stinky, sticky substance splattered up onto him, getting into his face. Rising to his full height, he wiped the mud out of his face before scanning the surrounding area.
It didn't take long to determine that this was likely the area where Raven had been accosted. The broken tree trunks were still oozing sap, a clear indication that they had been destroyed recently. More importantly, a deep gash had been sliced through the mud, showing the approximate direction that the beast had retreated with his prey. The surrounding mud was already beginning to slide in and fill it, another sure sign that his had been a recent occurrence. This was certainly the beginning of the trail that Raven's captor had left, but tracking it would be difficult at best. The trail of destroyed trees ended after a distance of a hundred and fifty yards or so and signs of the beast besides this were difficult to see. Evidently it could be very elusive if it wanted to. Behind Leopold, Midas and Daniel broke out of the tree line and into the clearing.
"Was this it?" Midas asked breathlessly. "Did you see it? What are we up against?"
"No, I didn't see it," Leopold answered. "I arrived just after it left." Already the trail scratched through the mud was gone.
"Well, do you have any kind of idea what we're up against?" Midas asked.
Leopold looked out over the area of destroyed trees again.
"I have no idea," he said finally, "but whatever it is that we're up against, it's big."