"You have the whole world to choose from and this is the job that you pick?" Leopold asked, looking out over the swamp that stretched before him. It was thick with trees and swamp plants but not so thick as to hide the sticky, squelchy mud underneath. The smell was horrible but every so often a large bubble would rise to the surface of the mud and burst, releasing a foul odor that, as Midas was fond of saying, would knock a buzzard off a manure wagon. A dull sucking sound indicated that this had happened again, and Leopold's nostrils were assaulted by the awful stink.
"Holy cow!" Midas said. "That's strong enough to knock a buzzard off a manure wagon!"
"I didn't have the 'whole world' to chose from, as you would put it," Daniel responded to Leopold's earlier question. "This was the only job that was even worth doing. It was either this or kill stray dogs that were killing some poor fool's chickens. I mean seriously, why doesn't he just get a dog of his own and have it chase off the strays?"
"Because then the domestic dog would eat the chickens," Raven countered.
"Teach the stupid thing not to eat them," Daniel said. "It is possible to train a dog."
"So instead of killing stray dogs we're in a swamp," Leopold grumbled. "We'd better be getting paid a lot more to be in this filth."
"What are we even doing out here?" Midas asked. True to form, no one in The Group bothered asking Daniel what the job was until they had arrived at their staging location. Of course, that was because the contracts that he took were always good ones. This time was doubtful on that count.
"We're collecting stedillion," Daniel answered. "It's a plant that grows only on swampy ground. Apparently this swamp has more of it than anyplace in the surrounding area."
"So why are we gathering plants?" Leopold grumbled. "Couldn't someone else who was a little less overqualified do it?"
"Yeah, I seriously doubt there will be much use for my sword out here," Midas said. He slapped at his neck. "Unless I can figure out a way to use it to kill these infernal mosquitoes."
"Quit your belly aching and let's just get to work," Raven said. She was growing tired of the complaining of her three companions. "The sooner we start to collect these blasted plants, the sooner we can get out of this infernal swamp. What the heck does this plant even look like, anyway?"
"Like this," Daniel answered, stooping to pick a scraggly weed-looking plant from the mud at his feet. It had a long, thick stalk with large thorns protruding from it. Its leaves were small and located along the length of the plant.
"There's tons of this stuff," Midas said, looking at the swamp around them. "This shouldn't take much time at all!"
"How much are we supposed to gather, exactly?" Leopold asked. He was ever the cautious one, never jumping to conclusions.
"Seventy bushels," Daniel said.
Leopold and Midas stared open mouthed at the wizard. Raven gave a sharp oath. Daniel ignored them and began to gather more of the stedillion.
"Be careful of the thorns," he said as he picked a stalk. "The plant carries a poison that is dispensed through the thorns. It won't kill you if you prick yourself on one, but it won't be pleasant either. Expect a lot of swelling."
"Well this just keeps getting better and better," Midas said. "Poison to go along with the stupid job. Are you aware of how long it will take to gather seventy bushels?"
"Yes, which is why I made sure that we brought equipment to set up a camp here," Daniel answered. "We have enough bags to gather the plants, and I've arranged for a courier to come every day and deliver what we have gathered to our patron."
"Setting up camp in the swamp," Leopold complained. "It's bad enough that it smells this bad, but we're going to be here for days. Holy crap, Daniel, sometimes I kind of hate you."
"I know it's not great, but it will pay the best," Daniel said. "Quit complaining and set up an area for camp and to collect the bags. The sooner that we collect our seventy bushels, the faster we can leave this stinking slime hole."
"Let's go, guys," Raven called as she walked to the horses. Reluctantly her friends followed her.
"It looks like the solid land ends here," Leopold noted. "Do we want to set up camp right where everything turns to mud?"
"It's kind of like the end of the world, in a way," Midas noted. "Once you step off into that marsh, no one knows if you'll come back or not."
"Shut up you big baby," Raven said. "Get the bags off of the horses and stack them in piles. Find someplace dry so that the full ones don't get moist."
"Yes mother," Midas said, somewhat uncharitably. He went off to perform the task, leaving Leopold and Raven to set up the camp site. They didn't have any tents but only bed rolls, so the only task was to find an area that was relatively flat and dry. It had to be large enough for a fire in the middle with room around it for four people to sleep. The arrangement was easy to find, and Leopold and Raven were soon stripping off their outer garments and getting ready to go out into the swamp.
"It's so hot in this bloody place," Raven said. She pulled off her cloak and began to roll it.
"Hot as hell," Leopold agreed. He folded his cloak and dropped it on top of his bed roll. His boots and leggings came off next followed by his belt and trousers. Now all that he wore on his legs was a pair of knee length under breaches.
"You haven't said much about this contract, Raven," Leopold said.
"There's not much to say," Raven responded. "We get in, we finish, we get out, and we get paid. It's simple, just like everything else that we do."
"But why in heaven's name would Daniel take this contract?" Leopold asked. He pulled his tunic over his head and dropped it with the rest of his clothing. All that covered his torso now was a short sleeved undershirt.
"He said that it paid the most," Raven shot back. "We've trusted him to bring in the contracts so far, and we need to keep trusting him to do that. Just because we don't like the contract doesn't mean that it isn't the best one he could find."
"But we aren't supposed to do this sort of thing," Leopold said. He shoved his feet into his boots and began to fasten them back. "We're not weed collectors, we're assassins; we're thieves; we're problem solvers."
"Exactly," Raven agreed. "Right now the problem is that someone doesn't have seventy bushels of stedillion."
"That's not what I meant," Leopold said. He stood and turned to face Raven. She had removed her outer garments as well and was dressed as Leopold with the exception that she also wore a knee length skirt. Her hair was pulled back now and fastened behind her head, exposing the scars that adorned her cheeks. In a strange way, they complemented the one across her eye and mouth.
Leopold felt his breath catch in his throat momentarily at the sight of his friend. It must have been the marsh air gumming up his lungs. He cleared his throat, but there was still a sizable lump in it. Raven retrieved her belt and knife from her clothes and strapped it around her slim waist. Leopold swallowed hard, noting again how difficult it was to breath. Drat this marsh air!
"You ready to go?" Raven asked. Leopold grabbed his knife and nodded. Quickly he strapped it to his left thigh where it belonged and followed her out into the swamp. They didn't have far to go; the stedillion was everywhere.
"You and your stupid contracts are going to get us killed one day, Daniel," Midas groaned. He waved his swollen hands in the air. "What am I supposed to do about this?"
"Suck it up and be a man," the wizard suggested. "Everyone else has the same problem."
Raven and Leopold nodded in agreement as they looked over their swollen bodies. No matter how much care they had given, the thorns of the stedillion always seemed to find and pierce their skin. They had taken on so much of the poison that their hands and arms were swollen almost beyond use. One side of Leopold's face was also swollen due to an unfortunate accident with one plant.
The biggest problem with the plants was their stems. Though they were tough enough to require a knife to cut them, they were also extremely flexible. Trying to slash through their stems simply resulted in them bending over and not breaking. It was necessary to hold the plant with one hand while cutting through it with a knife. In other words, there was no good way to do it.
"I don't get it," Raven said suddenly. The Group had stopped gathering a half hour ago and were now waiting on their dinner to cook.
"What don't you get?" Leopold asked. He was using his knife, as well as he could given his swollen hands, to sharpen a stick.
"I get that it sucks to gather this stuff, but why are we out here gathering it?" Raven asked. "I mean, I'm not complaining, but we're not your typical peasant. We don't work unless it's for a lot of money; I guarantee you that whoever we're getting this for could find someone a lot cheaper to do this for him."
"That would probably be true if it weren't in this swamp," Daniel said. "No one ever comes out here. People avoid it like the plague, and the stedillion is only one of the reasons."
"Oooo, scary!" Midas said. "What, is the stench going to kill us?"
"No, but there is a fair number of people who have disappeared here in the past," Daniel said. "Suffice it to say that we need to be extremely careful. Right now we're always in sight of camp and dry land, but already we're clearing the area of the stedillion. We're going to have to expand our search eventually. When that happens, stay on the lookout. Some strange things are reported to have happened here."
"What, like ghosts or something?" Raven asked. She was the skeptic when it came to supernatural things.
"No one's really sure since nobody has ever survived an attack," Daniel said. "We don't even know if there are attacks at all. Perhaps the people just got lost and died in this infernal place."
"Well, that's comforting," Midas said. "I think that I would have preferred ghosts to getting lost and dying of exposure."
"Except that it's a moot point," Leopold countered. "We're going to keep our wits about us, gather these stupid plants, and leave, all together, all in one piece."
"Agreed," Midas said. He spoke the next words with a sidelong glance at Daniel. "I'd rather die together with you guys than survive by myself."
"I'm still voting for leaving together," Raven said.
"I second that," Leopold said. Then, to change the subject, "Daniel, how much of the stedillion did we gather today? Actually, answer this instead; how long do you think that we'll be here?"
"That's hard to say," Daniel answered. "We made a lot of progress today, good job all around on the hard work, but eventually we'll have to start moving out into the swamp. We're going to slow down at that point. All things considered, if we don't have any major complications, I believe that we can finish in another eight to ten days."
Eight to ten more days of swamp air, poor accommodations, and too many bugs was not Leopold's idea of a vacation, but they weren't on vacation. It was contracts that paid the bills, kept them in food and clothing, and kept their arms in good condition. If this was what it took, he was willing to suck it up and do it.
No one said much for the next half hour while dinner was cooking. Everyone was thinking of ways to make the next week and a half go faster. Occasionally Daniel would stir the food over the coals and Leopold continued to whittle, but otherwise there was little movement. The day's exertions had tired The Group, and they were ready to rest and to go to sleep. Midas was trying to get a jump start on his sleep, but every time that he tried to get comfortable, his swollen extremities would get in the way and he would give a muffled yelp before trying to reposition himself. Raven lay down on her blankets and closed her eyes. It was hard to tell if she was asleep or just pretending to be.
Leopold tossed his stick toward a tree and sheathed his knife. He looked out over the swamp. The stedillion was still visible, but their gatherings of the day had caused it to retreat further into the swamp. Another day like this, and they would have to move out of the sight of the camp to camp to gather it. Leopold sighed and looked at his hands. Some of the swelling had worn off, but they were still at least twice as big as normal. It was going to be a very long ten days. If it turned out to be more than that, he didn't know what he would do but figured that it would involve going insane and dying in this blasted marsh. Maybe that was why people disappeared here; it was a theory anyway.
"Food's done," Daniel called, pulling Leopold out of his thoughts and Raven and Midas out of their slumber. After eating, they went straight to bed. They needed as much rest as they could get, drained as they were from the day's work.
Leopold unstrapped his knife and crawled between his blankets. He closed his eyes though the difference from the darkness that had fallen over the swamp was negligible. He emptied his mind as tried to go to sleep, but found that he couldn't. Thoughts kept traipsing unbidden through his mind. First there was the Castle Rajikline, the job that he had completed only two weeks ago. It had been dangerous but extremely exciting; more exciting by far than The Group's current contract. Then there was the day that he had met Midas and the two of them had become like brothers. The day that Daniel found them was close behind as well as a hundred other memories. Then, suddenly, the mad whirlwind of thoughts stopped replaced by one, solitary person: Raven.
In his mind, Leopold could see her face as it had been today with her hair pulled back. Scars traced back and forth across her cheeks and the largest most prominent of them stretched across her face. Again he wondered where they had come from, remembering that she had promised to tell him someday. He'd have to ask her again in the near future; though he had forgotten about it recently, he was still interested. A hundred times Leopold had seen her face but this time, reflecting on it, recreating it in his mind, he noticed something that he never had before: her eyes were green. It wasn't a wonder that he'd never noticed it before since he had no reason to care. Eyes were just eyes, after all. But for some reason that he couldn't put his finger on, he did care.
Then there was Raven herself. Something had changed in his mind when he had seen her today. What it was exactly, he couldn't put his finger on; he had never felt something like this before. It was all quite frustrating to him, having something bother him and not knowing for the life of him why it did or even what it was. He eventually fell asleep that way, arguing with himself, looking for answers and finding none.
The sun was up again and shining through the trees, and the mosquitoes and gnats were out in full vengeance. Leopold led The Group out into the marsh, heading toward a large patch of stedillion. Daniel had suggested that he lead the party since he was the youngest and had made some lame excuse out of that fact. Leopold knew that it was just an excuse; he could tell that Daniel was scared of this swamp. The wizard simply didn't want to be in the front in case there were ghosts or something of the sort lurking about. Leopold certainly didn't put any stock in stories of the sort; the worst thing that they had to contend with would be the plants that they were gathering and the bugs that continued to bite them. A snake might happen along or perhaps something a bit larger, but it was sure to be nothing that they couldn't handle. He looked back at his brother. The older boy had brought an axe today, ostensibly to aid in the plant gathering, but more likely it was to fight with should that become necessary. Even Raven seemed ready for a skirmish. Though she was dressed as lightly as the previous day, her hand rested on the hilt of her dagger, always ready to use it at a moment's notice.
Leopold smiled to himself. They were definitely a group of mercenaries, soldiers for hire, not herbalists paid to gather plants for some inquisitive doctor or scientist. Their skills were in the art of war, not in collecting plants and not in traversing swamps. He stepped in a hole hidden by the mud and sank up to his waist. Carefully he pulled his leg up, locking his foot so that his boot would not come off of it. He had almost pulled it free when he felt a large body bump into him, throwing him off balance and back into the hole.
"Not looking where you're going again, Midas?" Leopold asked as began to work his leg free again.
"How'd you know that it was me, Leo?" Midas asked, ignoring the question posed to him.
"Well, you're kind of too large to miss, even if it is just through a sense of touch," Leopold answered. "Pretty sure that Raven couldn't knock me over like that and Daniel, well, he's considerably more spindly than yourself."
"You calling me small?" Raven asked.
"Um, yes, I think so," Leopold answered. "Is that bad?"
"You think that I couldn't handle Midas in a fight, isn't that right?" Raven accused.
"Well, not too many people could handle Midas in a fight," Leopold responded. He had finally worked his foot out of the hole and continued walking. "You know, a lot of people would consider it a complement to imply that a girl is small."
"Since when?" Raven asked, turning to the other two for support.
"He is correct," Daniel said. Since he got out more than the rest of them combined, he had the best understanding of popular trends. "Last year is was fashionable to be big. The fatter the better was the slogan, I believe. Now, however, it's popular to be small, almost comically so."
"So despite his best efforts, my brother managed to be complimentary," Midas said. "That's classic Leo for you."
"It wasn't despite my best efforts," Leopold argued. "I wasn't trying to insult her. I was just saying that you're considerably larger than she is."
"I get it, though I think you should stop while you're behind," Daniel said. "I don't think Raven really likes this conversation much."
"How about this one," Midas said, coming to his brother's rescue. "Ever wondered what makes a swamp a swamp?"
"No," Raven said shortly. She was still glaring at Leopold.
"Why yes, I have, Midas," Daniel said. "What exactly is it that makes swamps like they are?"
"I have no idea," Midas answered. "I was kind of hoping that you would know. Then we could listen to you for a while, ooo and ahh over what you had just said, and maybe throw out a few theories of our own if we were feeling adventurous."
"Well, as it so happens, I actually have a theory about the topic," Daniel said. "Mind you, I don't know if this is true, but it does seem to have some validity to it. I came up with it, after all."
Daniel launched into his explanation, but Leopold wasn't paying attention, and from the looks of it, Raven wasn't either. The Group had reached the stedillion and were now gathering it, but she did not pay attention to the plants as she grabbed and cut them. Instead her eyes were fixed on Leopold, glaring a hole through him. He was impressed by her ability to handle the plants without looking at them and still keep her skin free of the thorns. She was obviously upset about something, though for the life of him, he didn't know what. With an inward sigh, he began to cut and gather the stubborn plants.
Three more days passed slowly due to the monotony of the contract that they were fulfilling. Every day they would cut and gather the stedillion, and every night they would bundle and bag it to be taken away the following morning. The swelling of The Group as a whole seemed to have gone down though it wasn't due to their increased ability to avoid the plants' thorns. At least, that certainly wasn't the case with Leopold. He continued to stick and scratch himself, the swelling simply wasn't as severe as before. It seemed as though he was developing an immunity to the poison of the stedillion.
The search for the plants continued unabated, and it was becoming harder and harder to find them. By the end of the second day the annoying, prickly stems could not be seen from the camp site anymore, and now, on day five, it was at least a half hour's walk to reach a descent patch. It appeared as if the plants liked solid ground for they were always found within sight on an island of it. Daniel noted this in his journal one night; Leopold figured that it would go into one of his scientific books when they got back to their headquarters.
Whoever it was that retrieved the bags of plants from their campsite was still a mystery to Leopold. Though they picked up the freshest crop every morning, it was after The Group ventured into the swamp again. Leopold worried at first, but Midas pointed out that Daniel seemed to trust them. He hadn't led them astray yet, and now wasn't the time to start doubting him. Leopold agreed that the logic of the argument was sound, but something still didn't sit right with him. His gut told him that something was out of place, but he had no proof to back that feeling up, so he kept it to himself.
When Leopold woke up on this particular day, the sixth of their sojourn in the marsh, everything seemed normal. By now he was oblivious to the rancid stench of the place and didn't even think about it as he stretched and sat up. The sun was probably getting ready to rise, but it was impossible to tell from beneath the trees. Eventually more light would begin to filter in, but right now the marsh was trapped in dusk. No one else appeared to be awake yet, so Leopold was silent as he rose and walked out of the camp.
For most people, "being silent" was just a turn of phrase, something that was to be strived for but never achieved; for Leopold, being silent was a way of life. Before being recruited into The Group, he had spent most of his life homeless on the street, stealing whatever he could to fill his belly, and silence had been a very successful method to accomplish this. Nowadays, with the jobs that Daniel dug up for him, he spent a large part of his life moving silently and keeping his mouth shut. These traits had carried over into his character over the years, and now he was as silent as was humanly possible.
Stepping past the pile of bags filled with stedillion, he headed a short distance to a large rock that rose out of the muck. To him, this was the icon of an ideal person, living in the swamp but rising above it. Though everything around it was soft and spongy, it provided a solid foundation to stand on. This what he wanted to be when he grew up, someone who was solid, even when everything around him was waiting to suck him down. Life did it a lot, he knew, taking descent people and turning them into slime. He didn't want to be like that, though deep in his heart he knew that he was already. He was a mercenary by profession, someone that would, that had, done anything as long as the price was right. He didn't want to be like that, it was just the hand that the world had dealt him.
Leopold heard the voices of the others and slid off of the rock with a sigh. It sucked going through life, hating what you did and hating even more the person that you were becoming. His only consolation was that he told himself that later he would be a better person. When he got rich, that was when he could straighten himself out. After all, scruples and a conscience were the commodity of the wealthy.
"Where were you off to so early?" Daniel asked as Leopold rounded the pile of full bags. The boy shrugged and ignored the question, heading instead for his blankets and equipment.
"Probably off watering a tree," Midas commented as he stretched.
"Or trying to solve the world's problems with only little old him to come up with solutions," Raven added. Clearly she still hadn't forgiven him for his comment four days ago. Leopold didn't say anything so the conversation turned to other things.
"How many bushels did you say that we've gathered so far?" Midas asked.
"We've been averaging about ten a day," Daniel answered. "I think that the count last night was forty-nine."
"Twenty-one more to go," Midas said. "What is that, seven apiece?"
"It's five and a quarter," Leopold spoke up immediately. He hated it when his brother was wrong and vowed for the millionth time to teach him how to do math.
"So the little man has found his voice, finally," Raven said. Leopold didn't know what it was with her and the word "little," but she sure seemed to be stuck on it.
"Enough of this bickering," Daniel said. The members of The Group had been getting on each other's nerves recently. He wasn't certain if it was the marsh air that was making them cranky, but whatever the reason, it was no way to complete this contract.
"Yeah," Midas agreed with another stretch. "Time to grab a bite to eat and then get to work."
It was half an hour before they left the camp site to search for stedillion again. This time Midas took the lead. He didn't particularly want to, but his brother had been doing it for the last five days, and it looked like he had had enough of it. Not to mention all of the other things that Leo had on his plate on the moment. Raven was the icing on the cake of the situation. After Midas' and her talk during the last contract, he had thought that her attitude toward his brother would change, but it had not at least until now. But now, instead of being nicer and more caring, it seemed like she had turned the brunt of her wrath on him. What the reason for this was, Midas couldn't fathom.
He led his comrades forward through the thick muck, holding his axe high to avoid getting it dirty. Though he claimed that he brought it in case they had to cut through trees or underbrush, he really carried it as a weapon. Though everyone else seemed to have accepted the marsh for just that, he had not. He had deemed it unwise to allude to this fact, and plodded along with the others, acting as if he was not bothered, all of the while expecting something terrible to happen at any moment. Little did he know that that moment was fast approaching.
"Can I sit here?" Leopold asked.
Raven looked up from her lunch and stared at him for a few long moments. To him they felt like eternity. Finally she swallowed the food that she was chewing and made a sweeping gesture with her hand to the rock that she was sitting on.
"Be my guest." The tone was less than sincere. "I thought that I was so small as to escape your notice." She clearly didn't want him to sit, but he did anyway.
"I don't get it," Leopold said.
"Oh, it's very simple," Raven explained. "I've been insulting and avoiding you over the past three days."
"No, I get that part," Leopold said. "I know what I said as well before you get started on that rabbit trail. What I can't figure out is why you're so upset."
"If you don't know then I'm not going to tell you," Raven responded, going back to eating her lunch.
"That's not going to help anyone out, now is it," Leopold said in what he thought was a reasonable voice. "If you tell me, I can make sure not to do it again."
"Fine, if you're going to be so pushy," Raven said as she chewed. "How would you like it if I called you small? How do you like it since I've been doing it for the past three days? That's how I felt when you said it to me."
"I still don't get it," Leopold said. "Of course I'm small. That's why I'm good at what I do."
"You're hopeless!" Raven exclaimed and threw her hands up in frustration. "I swear, you don't feel anything, do you? You're too bleeding logical all of the time."
"That's because logic provides me with the best course of action," Leopold answered. "If logic guides what you do, you will rarely go wrong."
"This is exactly what I mean," Raven countered. "You said that with logic you will rarely go wrong? Well right now is one of those rare times."
"I still don't get it," Leopold said.
"Which is why you're hopeless," Raven answered. She stood with an exasperated huff and stalked away, as well as she could stalk through the mud.
"Raven, don't go too far," Daniel called after her. Midas gave him a look and made a gesture indicating that he should stop.
"Well, it's not safe to separate from the group," Daniel mumbled to himself. "Apparently nobody cares about safety when emotions are involved."
"It's a stupid marsh, what could she possibly get into?" Midas asked. "We haven't seen anything out here except for mosquitoes and gnats for six days. I seriously doubt a crocodile is going to mysteriously rise out of the mud and attack her."
"Leopold!" Daniel called out suddenly. Midas just looked at the wizard and shook his head. The man clearly had no concept of teenagers.
"This isn't a good idea, to split up like this," Daniel said. He was clearly worried, though of what Midas could hardly guess.
"It'll be fine," Midas countered. "There's nothing dangerous out here except for those two getting into a full-fledged fight."
"First of all, they'll have to fight before they'll work anything out," Daniel said.
"That may be true," Midas said. "I hope that it isn't, but if they're going to fight, we don't need it to be out here. We have about two days of this stupid contract left, and then we can go home. They can fight there."
"Not if they get killed out here," Daniel said. "It'll take forever to collect the rest of the stedillion, plus we'll have lost half of our group. We'll never get any more contracts."
"And we'll have lost two of our friends," Midas added. He was disgusted by Daniel's priorities.
"Yeah, yeah, that too," Daniel amended. "The point is that we don't want that to happen which means that we need to go and collect those two as quickly as possible." He started to head after Raven, but Midas put a hand on his chest to stop him.
"You seem awfully worried about the swamp," Midas commented. "As long as we've been out here, we haven't seen anything that could actually hurt us, and now you're talking about it not being safe to split up. You made the comment 'not if they get killed out here.' What do you know that I don't?"
"Nothing, this swamp just isn't safe," Daniel said and tried to push past Midas. The larger man stood his ground. "People have disappeared out here, okay," Daniel added. "Strange things happen out here. I don't want to fall prey to that."
"That's not the whole truth," Midas said. "You know more than you're saying, and I want to know what it is. Why exactly won't people go into this swamp? Why did you think that this was the contract for us?"
The wizard looked about ready to answer the string of questions when a terrific roar tore across the marsh followed immediately by a shrill scream. It was Raven. Midas didn't waste a second, axe in hand, he tore across the marsh as quickly as possible. What the heck had that stupid wizard gotten them into?
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."
"What the heck was this thing?" Midas asked again, looking at the massive trail of destruction cut through the trees.
"Where do you think it went?" Daniel asked. "Raven's living on borrowed time right now."
"If anyone can track it, Leo can," Midas said, looking toward his brother.
"It's going to be tough at best," Leopold commented, looking down at the mud. The tracks left by the creature, large as they were to begin with, were now gone.
"Come on, don't screw around," Midas said. "I've seen you track things a lot smaller than this."
"But that wasn't in a marsh," Leopold countered. He scanned the surrounding area for something, anything that would allow him to track the beast. Footprints were only a small weapon in the arsenal of an accomplished tracker.
“What does this being a marsh have to do with anything?” Daniel asked. Leopold knew that he was just as concerned as anyone, but he masked it far better.
“The mud flows too quickly,” Leopold answered, moving toward the tree line and examining a splintered tree trunk. Some sort of mucus-like substance clung to it.
“Which means that the tracks disappear quickly,” Daniel concluded.
“Exactly,” Leopold answered. “Even so, I might be able to track this thing if I can find something else that it leaves behind when it moves.”
“Then shouldn’t we be down there looking?” Daniel asked as he pointed toward the far end of the swath of destroyed trees. “That where it ceased destroying things, right?”
“No, that’s completely wrong,” Leopold answered. “Raven was walking away from us. If she ran into the beast and it proceeded to chase her, she would have run back in our direction. Also, it was practically on top of the noise just before it disappeared and that was on this end of the clearing.”
“So you’re saying that Raven ran into this thing, whatever it is, ran back towards us, but it chased her down and caught her?” Midas asked. “Then, just as you were about to find it, the thing just disappeared?”
“No disappeared; simply left the area silently,” Leopold said. He pointed toward north. “I think it headed in that direction.”
“Well, let’s go get her back,” Midas said, hefting his axe onto his shoulder. He knew just as well as the others that Raven was likely dead already but didn’t voice the suspicion. So long as there was a chance that she was alive, no matter how slim it was, none of them could entertain the thought.
Leopold led the way into the marsh, constantly scanning for evidence that the creature might have left behind. The strange mucus that he had noted at the site of the attack lasted for a hundred yards or so. Strings of it hung from branches or simply clung to the bark of tree trunks. Eventually it simply stopped, and Leopold had to use other methods of tracking the monster. Truth be told, the task was actually relatively easy once he figured out what he was looking for. For the tracks that it left at the site of the attack, he had determined that it was snake-like, but that theory was quickly falling to pieces. Though usually not obvious, claw marks showed the way as efficiently as street signs. From the signs, it appeared as though the thing slithered on it belly like a snake but also had claws sharp enough to gouge tree. This was something that Leopold had never heard of before.
“Do you think that we’re getting close?” Daniel asked after half an hour. Leopold turned back and glared at him for breaking the silence.
“What does it matter if we’re close?” Midas asked. Clearly his brother’s displeasure had been lost on him. “We’ll get there when we get there.”
“We can’t keep this up,” Daniel said, stopping abruptly. “We’ve been walking through this swamp too far for too long. Do you even know where we are anymore?”
“That doesn’t matter!” Midas said in a loud voice. “We have to find Raven.”
“You as well as I do that she’s probably dead anyway,” Daniel said. “We have to start looking to our own safety now.”
“There’s no way in heck that I’m doing that,” Midas snarled. “Leopold, tell him he’s being ridiculous.”
“You’re both being ridiculous for making so much noise while we’re tracking a monster,” Leopold shot back. “It probably already knows that we’re here thanks to you.”
“Another reason to not risk our lives on a futile mission,” Daniel said.
“Wrong,” Leopold countered in a quiet voice. “Raven isn’t dead as far as I can tell. I can get us back to camp, so we aren’t in any danger at the moment as long as you to shut up. We’re going to continue.”
“You’re not thinking,” Daniel argued. “Raven has been captured by a beast of significant size and will be dead soon if she isn’t already. Even if we find the thing, we won’t be able to anything to it. You saw the destruction that it wreaked; we’ll be like gnats to it.”
“If you want to go back, be my guest,” Leopold said sharply. “Take your amazing tracking skills and find your own way back to the camp. Take our stedillion, take our contract fee, but take it away from here.”
“You know that I can’t find my way back,” Daniel complained. “You’ve gotten us so lost and turned around I don’t know which way is north.”
“Well I do, which means that you have two options,” Leopold said. “Either leave right now or stay, but if you stay, you had better keep your mouth shut or I will shut it for you.”
The harsh statement from the younger boy caught Daniel off guard.
“We really are close, aren’t we?” he asked.
“Yes we are, and unless you want to end up dead, you need to be quiet.”
Midas, and Daniel stood frozen for a few moments, the weight of Leopold’s words still handing in the air. All three scanned the trees surrounding them. The shadows seemed a little darker than before, and everything was a potential threat.
“What exactly are we looking for?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t exactly know,” Leopold responded in a low voice. “I have no idea what we’re even following or how big it is.”
“Just look for anything out of the ordinary,” Midas hissed.
“Out of the ordinary?” Daniel asked. “In a swamp? How familiar do you think I am with stinking wet-land environments?”
“Shut up,” Leopold hissed. He lifted his nose slightly and sniffed experimentally. “Do you smell that?”
Before anyone could answer, a deafening roar shook the swamp. The sound accosted them from behind, accompanied by a roiling gust of warm, moist air. Midas tried to spin on his heels, but his feet stuck in the mud and he fell to the ground. Leopold twisted at the waist to see what was happening but only saw what looked like a tree trunk rushing toward him. At contact he knew it was no tree; the texture was too scaly for that. The force of the blow knocked him fifteen feet through the air and out of his boots which were still stuck in the mud. He landed on his back but immediately righted himself, thankful that none of the foul smelling mud had gotten into his eyes. He looked to where he had been standing only moments ago and gaped slack-jawed at what he saw.
The beast was like nothing Leopold had ever seen, heard about, or even read about. The body of the monster looked similar to pictures that he had seen of gorillas except that it was covered in scales and was much larger, standing at least fifteen feet tall. The most significant difference, though, was the creature's tail. It was massive, making up half of the monster's length and was as thick as a tree. The creature stood on its hind legs, swinging its tail back and forth menacingly, and Leopold knew that this was what had knocked him off his feet. The beast folded its legs against its powerful tail and slithered toward Daniel. So that was how it was able to move about the swamp so quickly and without leaving footprints. The thing moved faster than a galloping horse and would catch the fleeing wizard in no time. Midas was still down trying to wrench himself out of the mud and would be no help for a while. It was up to Leopold to distract this monster until his friends could gather themselves and regroup.
Leopold knew that the trees were still his best ally so he struggled to the nearest one and clawed his way up it. He dug his bare feet into the rough bark, using his legs and arms to quickly scale the trunk. He pulled himself onto a branch and evaluated the situation. The monster had to pass almost directly under him on its path to Daniel. With no time to think, Leopold leaped from the branch, drawing his knife as he fell through the air. He hit the right shoulder of the creature and bounced on the tough scales. He rolled to his stomach and scrambled for purchase on the smooth plates as he slid toward the monster's back. His knife blade found a joint between two scales and sank in half way. A moment later, he was hanging from the monster's shoulder, feet dangling over open air, both hands clenched on the knife handle. The beast gave a roar of pain and swatted him, sending him sliding across its back. He searched frantically for anything to hold onto and found a particularly knobby scale on its left shoulder. He crashed back into the beast's side and was climbing before he had time to stop swinging. In moments he was up on its shoulder.
The beast had Daniel now. Reaching out with its long arms, it grabbed the screaming wizard and hoisted him into the air. Now was the time to act if there ever was one. Leopold rose to his full height and grabbed a scale on the monster's head, but the monster had different plans. In an instant, it unfolded its legs from its tail and dropped them to the ground. The jolt knocked Leopold sideways and he slipped off the monster's shoulder. He landed flat on his back in the mud; he was back on his feet in a moment. The beast's foot was only two yards away and provided an excellent platform for his next assault. Faster than he had ever climbed in his life, he worked his way up the massive leg and across the beast's broad back to the right shoulder where his knife was still embedded. The beast had lifted Daniel to his mouth and was beginning to cover him with the same sticky saliva that Leopold had noticed before. What the purpose of the saliva was, he didn't know, but this was not the time to find out. With a powerful motion, he jerked his knife free and slammed it between two more scales, these ones located on the monster's neck.
The beast gave a roar of pain and dropped Daniel into the mud below. Though the wound was nowhere near fatal, it still pained him and he would not allow the nuisance who had done it to survive. He swung at Leopold again, but this time the boy was ready. He ducked below the massive arm, jerked the knife blade out and stabbed it in again. The other arm swung around and he dodged it as well, stabbing the beast twice more in the process. He didn't see the next blow until it was almost too late. Leaving his knife in the monster, he jumped backwards to avoid the blow and flipped to land feet first on the monster's tail. He smiled to himself, he was just that good, but the smirk was wiped away by a rumble beneath his feet. The monster was on its feet again which left its tail free to move. Under the scales, Leopold could see the ripple of muscles rushing towards him. He didn't have time to react before he was flung upward and into a tree trunk. He fell stomach first onto a branch and clawed his way on top of it.
Crouching on the branch, fingers just touching it for balance, he looked down and found himself staring directly into the eyes of the monster. It growled, dowsing Leopold with a blast of rancid air and showing all of its teeth. As impressive as it looked at this moment, Leopold was not frightened. The thing wasn't tall enough to reach him, so he had a few moments to breathe easy. The monster's tail flashed, and Leopold cursed as he leaped off the branch just before it was splintered. As he flew through the air, everything seemed to slow down around him, and thinking became easier. He saw his brother working his way toward the monster, his axe gripped in his hands; the pieces of the splintered branch rained down to the mud below; the monster's cavernous maw was open, guarded by rows of sharp teeth dripping with saliva; his knife was where he had left it in the beast's neck. Suddenly everything fit together; he knew how he could kill this beast even if the plan seemed ludicrous.
Leopold landed with knees bent on the monster's shoulder. His feet were moving instantly and he yanked his knife from where it was stuck as he climbed up the beast's neck. He climbed to the monster's head, dodging a blow as he moved. It seemed distracted, and when he reached the top, he saw why. Midas had reached it and was swinging his axe as hard as he could into the scales that covered its feet.
"Midas, tree branch!" Leopold yelled from his precarious perch. His brother looked up at him and Leopold pointed to a large branch lying near him. There was no way Midas could have known what he was pointing at, but in that telepathic sibling way, the message made it through. Midas grabbed the piece of wood and flung it to his brother. The throw was short, and Leopold knew it. Sliding his knife into its sheath, he slid down and off the monster's nose, grabbing one of its top teeth. With his other hand, he grabbed the tree branch out of the air and swung into the beast's mouth, wedging the branch upright before its jaws could close. He had expected the tongue to be slimy, but it was much more slippery than he had anticipated. His feet slid on the saliva and he fell to his butt. Using his hands, he directed his slide to the side of the mouth where he grabbed onto the monster's teeth, climbing down them like a ladder to the back of its throat.
The next part of the plan was tricky, absolutely ridiculous even compared to what he had already done. Hooking his feet around the teeth, he dangled head first down the creature's throat. If it had an anatomy similar to every other thing that he had ever killed, the jugular artery would be in the neck. All that he had to do was cut through the esophagus, and the thing would bleed into its own throat. It was possible that it would bleed out and die, though it was much more likely that it would drown in its own blood first. It was pitch black now, and he had to use his hand to feel around the throat. Just where he thought it would be, he felt the strong pulse of a jugular artery. Carefully he reached up and extracted his knife from its sheath, noticing for the first time the remarkable lack of jolting. Apparently despite the action that must be going on outside, the monster was able to keep its head remarkably motionless. Using the knife, Leopold carved a large gash in the throat wall. The action was immediately followed by a gush of warm liquid which splattered on Leopold and a sudden jerking. The monster was in the throes of death, and it knew it.
The blood cascaded across Leopold making it hard for him to grip anything. His knife slipped out of his fist and fell into the blackness and he was barely able to get any sort of grip with his fingers on the throat wall. Putting his fingernails to good use, he managed to claw his way back into the mouth cavity and up the teeth to the front. The branch that he had lodged there was still holding, though it was bowing greatly. The beast was thrashing about now, and it was all Leopold could do to maintain his balance. The scenery through the teeth kept changing, now the ground, now the sky. Leopold knew he was taking a chance, but there was no other choice. Steeling himself, he jumped between the teeth; the fall was a lot shorter than he had expected.
"Get out of the way!" was the first thing that he heard. The voice was Midas', and Leopold knew better than to question it. Without looking up, he scrambled as quickly as possible in the direction of his brother. The seconds that he clawed his way through the mud felt like an eternity and finally he felt the shock of a massive body hitting the ground behind him. It was finally finished. He rolled onto his back and looked at the trees above him. Vaguely, as if in a dream, he could hear his brother asking if he was alright, but his attention had been captured by what was above him.
"Look," he told his brother, pointing up. "I think I found Raven."
Leopold used Midas’ knife to carefully slice through the slimy substance that encased Raven and tore it open, revealing her face. Her eyes were closed and her skin was pale and clammy, but at least she was breathing. He continued to remove the substance until the girl was completely free of it.
“I still don’t get it,” Midas said. He gestured to several other mucus covered forms lying on the ground. Opening these cocoons had revealed several swamp creatures and even a deer. Leopold wondered absently how a deer had made it this far from its natural habitat.
“It’s like a spider,” Leopold explained to his brother. “You carry Raven and I’ll explain on the way back to camp.”
“You can find the way?” Daniel asked. “Even out here?”
“Tracking an animal may be difficult in a swamp, but I can always backtrack, no matter where I am,” Leopold answered. “I can most certainly find the way back.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” Midas asked. He threw the limp form of Raven over his shoulder. “Which way do we go?”
Leopold didn’t answer but instead headed into the marsh. To anyone else it would have been difficult or even impossible to find the way but not for him. He had spent his life navigating cities, much of which looked exactly the same. Compared to that, the natural variety of the marsh may as well have been a massive yellow arrow showing the way.
“I’m with Midas in that I still don’t understand,” Daniel said after several minutes had passed. “You said that the creature was like a spider?”
“Exactly,” Leopold answered. “The thing would capture animals and, based on the condition that Raven is in, inject them with some sort of poison.”
“So Raven’s been poisoned?” Midas asked. “Shouldn’t we be doing anything about that?”
“It’s not bad enough to kill her,” Daniel interjected. “Her vital signs are strong, and there does not appear to be any fatal injury.”
“Right,” Leopold agreed. “Maybe the word poison was a bit strong. Think of it more like a knock out drug. I don’t know if the creature bit her or what, but the poison only served to knock her unconscious. Once she was out, it wrapped her in a mucus cocoon and hung her up with the rest of its prey. It would have come back later and eaten her if we hadn’t come along.”
“Then it’s a good thing we did,” Daniel commented. Midas nodded in agreement.
Leopold shook his head in disbelief at how quickly his brother could forget. Not long ago, Daniel had been arguing that they should leave Raven to the beast and save their own skins. Now he swept in to take credit for her rescue and Midas didn’t even notice the inconsistency. Well, Leopold was certainly not going to be fooled by this. He didn’t blame Daniel, after all this was a cut throat business and not one that you survived in by playing the hero, but he would make a note of this. Clearly his own life was more important to Daniel than the life of anyone else.
Leopold led the group back to the camp without much trouble at all. By the time they arrived, the sun was setting, or at least he assumed that it was. The trees blocked the view of the sky and the varying amount of light was the only thing that indicated that the sun even moved. Midas laid Raven beside the fire ring and headed out into the marsh for wood, taking Daniel with him. After the events of the day, he was not taking any chances. Leopold made sure that Raven was comfortable and covered her with her bed roll. Then he turned to his own injuries.
The adrenaline rush during his fight with the swamp monster had prevented him from feeling the many injuries that he had sustained, but there were quite a lot of them. His limbs and torso were beginning to ache and dozens of bruises were darkening. Actually, there were so many of them that the argument could be reasonably made that his body was one large bruise with a few spots in it. Leopold unsheathed his sword and tossed it on his bedroll. Next came what was left of his shirt. The fight had turned it into little more than a collection of rags roughly maintaining the shape of the garment it had once been.
Now it was time to deal with the actual injuries, an activity that Leopold had been studiously procrastinating against. The provisions that they had to patch up gashes were certainly not top of the line though they would do the job. He retrieved them and sat cross legged near the fire ring using the remaining light to examine his skin. It was a given that he would have small cuts and abrasions everywhere, so he tried to ignore them and their blood as he worked. His legs only boasted two major gashes which he quickly cleaned and stitched up. His chest was an entirely different story. Having taken several brutal beatings, it was almost entirely purple with bruises. He was fairly certain that he had several cracked ribs and half a dozen nasty cuts presented themselves immediately to be taken care of. Leopold sighed inwardly and began to clean and stitch. He had finished two of them when Raven finally spoke.
“You look terrible.”
“You’re awake,” Leopold said, turning to look at her. “Yes, I imagine I do.”
“We match now,” Raven said and reached to touch the large scar tracing across her face. Leopold felt his face and found what she was talking about. It was bloody but not deep. It might scar but certainly not as much as Raven’s.
“Yes, I guess we do match,” he said.
“What happened?” Raven asked. She tried to sit up but was unable to do so.
“Don’t try to move,” Leopold cautioned. “You’ve been poisoned and aren’t exactly in great shape at the moment. I can help you sit up, but I’ll probably get blood on you.”
“That can’t be any worse than whatever else I’ve been covered with since we got out here,” Raven countered.
“Fair enough,” Leopold said. He laid aside his medical supplies and stood, flinching at the simple action. The stitches pulled at his skin but the real pain was in his chest. He’d have to do something about the ribs eventually. Painfully he crossed the short distance to Raven and crouched beside her. Ignoring the pain flaring through his body he helped her to sit, bracing her for a few seconds to make sure that she wouldn’t fall.
“You’re probably thirsty as well,” Leopold said. He looked at the canteen, the water from which he had been using to clean his wounds. It was only a handful of feet away but in his condition, it might as well have been a hundred yards.
“I am parched,” Raven agreed.
Leopold retrieved the water as well as his medical supplies. He certainly wasn’t going to be making that trip again.
“So what happened?” Raven asked after a long swig of water.
“How much do you remember?” Leopold asked.
“We were fighting about something,” Raven said. Her face indicated that she remembered what it was, but if she wanted to forget it, Leopold certainly wasn’t going to bring it up. “I went running off into the swamp. That’s the last I remember. There’s also a large shadow running around my head, but nothing concrete.”
Leopold was about to answer when Midas came blundering back into camp followed by Daniel. Each had a load of wood in their arms which they carried straight toward the fire ring.
“You’re up,” Midas exclaimed when he saw Raven. “How are you feeling?”
“Like crap though I imagine not as bad as Leo does,” Raven answered. “What exactly happened while I was out?”
“He saved your life,” Midas answered, dropping his wood. “I mean, Daniel and I helped, but Leo did most of the saving.”
“Well, I’d better thank him,” Raven said.
“If you feel up to it, you could just stitch up a gash or two and we’ll call it even,” Leopold said. “I think I feel one on my shoulder blade and I obviously can’t get it myself.”
Raven took the needle and thread from Leopold, and he rotated so that his back was to her. There was the cold of water running over the wound and then the sharp prick of the needle piercing his skin. Raven leaned forward far enough so that he could feel her breath on his ear.
“I’ll stitch up this gash,” she said in a low voice that only he could hear, “but don’t think that this makes us even.”
Leopold didn’t know whether to be afraid or to smile. With Raven you could never tell.