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Hazel

I was not used to walking this much, my inner thighs ached from riding the horse still, but as the night hours wore on, the ache in my feet began to replace the ache in my thighs. I followed the broad back of Raziel. He seemed to know where he was going, and more than once he’d side stepped something I couldn’t see on the forest floor, the first time I had not paid attention and suddenly he was practically holding me off the ground by my blouse and overcloak. I struggled momentarily with him, I’d be in awe of his strength later, thinking he’d lost his mind, but he moved me aside and brushed leaves away from where I had been inches of putting my foot. A bear trap lay open and ready to spring, hidden by leaves.

“Step where I step,” he stated very firmly, and I could only nod, hoping that the night made the embarrassed blush that I felt rush into my cheeks invisible to him. Raziel picked up a stick, about the size of my ankle, and dropped it onto the trigger plate of the trap. I gasped at the speed of the trap as it shut and the fact it had nearly severed the stick. That could’ve been me…

So we now played Follow the Leader, where he walked I walked, where he ducked, I didn’t have to. There was a height difference after all. If the night was so dangerous, I didn’t quite understand why we traveled during it. I had yet to see any of the returned dead that Raziel had mentioned that the land was supposed to be plagued with. Other than the wyvern, I’d not seen any creatures other than normal night forest animals. They kept their distance, even though I was a friend to all forest creatures, they were obviously wary of Raziel.

So intent on stepping where Raziel stepped I didn’t notice he’d stopped walking. I practically bounced off his large form, nearly lost my balance then had to peer around his bulk to see what had made him stop. The largest spider web I’d ever seen was fixed across the pathway between two trees.

“What spider makes a web that size?” I asked. I’d never seen such a thing and I moved to go around Raziel to inspect it.

“One that eats large prey,” Raziel replied quietly in what seemed like a faraway voice as if he was just as puzzled about the web as I was. He removed one of the swords from his back, and slashed at the web, it fell away as harmless as curtains in a dying breeze.

“With a spider that size I’d never need spider legs for potions ever again, one leg would probably set me for…” I trailed off as I realized that I was talking to Raziel, who was now looking at me funny.

“Quick! Get behind me!” He barked the order at me and I suddenly obeyed, without even a second thought. Raziel removed the other sword from his back, and with a flick of the wrist, had twirled them once, expertly.

I suddenly noticed a sound, like someone or something moving very fast through the forest. Twigs were snapping, leaves were rustling, birds were suddenly fluttering up from the trees. What burst from the trees was a man, not one of the specimens of perfect masculine form of the Nightsorrows, but still a man. He saw Raziel, screamed, flailing. Raziel brought down one of his swords.

“No!” I screeched at Raziel, there was an audible crack, as I realized that Raziel had someone changed his grip on his weapon, and brought the hilt of the sword down on the man’s skull, rather than running him through with his blade. The man crumpled to the ground as if a marionette with all its strings cut.

I moved from around Raziel to help the poor man but Raziel was already rolling him over with his foot. Now that he was unconscious I had a better look at the man. He’d might had been handsome before whatever pox he was currently suffering from had inflicted him. His skin was lumpy and then pock marked in places. One eye was swollen shut, the other was a vibrant brown when I opened it. He’d been of average height, shorter than Raziel but taller than myself. He looked more sinewy than muscular, he was dressed in plain peasant clothes that were torn, mended in places, bloodied and covered with clumps of spider webbing. In the webbing were pieces of twigs and leaves from his exodus from the forest.

“Let’s move,” Raziel ordered, and I gave him my most incredulous stare as I removed my pack from my shoulders.

“No, this man needs our help,” I stated, “We cannot just leave him here.”

“I don’t care about him, all I care about is getting you to the dragon, and saving my father,” Raziel tried to grip me by my arm and pull me away from the unconscious man, I tried to struggle with him.

“No! I won’t go” I shouted in anger and suddenly we were blown apart by some unseen force. I fell backwards, tripping and landing on my rear end. Raziel of course was much more composed and didn’t seem to lose his balance at all. He looked at me with what seemed like a mix of fury and disbelief. His hands curled into fists and for a moment I thought he’d hit me, knock me out, and carry me to the dragon.

“Very well,” he acquiesced, “but I warn you no good will come of you helping him.”

“What?” That was silly, there was no good of not helping someone. I turned my back to Raziel and opened my pack to remove the smelling salts I’d brought. I removed the stopper from the small vial and waved it under the unconscious man’s nose. He suddenly jolted awake, screamed, and fainted. I rolled my eyes and used the smelling salts again.

He awoke a second time, tried to scoot away from me and in my most soothing voice I tried to calm him. I glanced at Raziel who had taken this moment to lean against a tree trunk, arms crossed over his chest, looking extremely aloof and I realized extremely alluring. I tore my gaze from Raziel to focus on the injured man.

“Everything is alright, you’re safe now,” I said and Raziel scoffed. I ignored him. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“Sp-sp-spiders!” He practically shouted, his eye was rolling in fear, the other seemed to be leaking black tears that were streaming down his cheek. “We have to get away!” He tried to get up. “They’ll eat you! Or worse!” I quirked a brow, what was worse than being eaten? I began to rummage in my pack, I knew I had packed a small jar of salve. It would help the oozing pockmarks on his skin.

“See no spiders here,” I indicated the trees, I hoped he didn’t notice the webbing we’d cut from the one tree. He suddenly contorted in pain, screaming. I noticed his open eye was bulging from its socket, as if it was a bladder filling with liquid. Black tears began to dribble from that eye, and black snot from his nose, black saliva from his mouth.

“GODS! They’re IN ME!” He shouted and suddenly I was on my feet, backing away from the man. His bulging eye now looked inhumanly huge and swollen, it burst and I gasped as black ichor was spouted from it and a white spider crawled from the socket to move rapidly down his cheek. I was too terrified to scream, this was worse than being eaten. The lumps on his skin were suddenly alive, moving and then bursting like his eye, more spiders crawled from his body. Black go thrown everywhere.

“HAZEL!” I suddenly heard the thundering shout of Raziel waking me from my frozen terror. He had me by the arm and was trying to lead me away from the man.

“No! My pack!” I realized it was on the ground next to the spider victim. I needed it, and at the moment it wasn’t crawling with spiders. I freed myself from Raziel’s grasp and was frozen again, as soon as I put my hand on the pack, the spiders seemed to have noticed me, they turned from where they had been eating the man they’d hatched from. Like a tide of water they turned and began to come for me. Some leapt onto my skirts, others began to climb up my boots.

Pack in one hand, Grandma’s walking stick in the other I tried to brush them off, stomping on the ones that were crawling rather than jumping me. I was screaming and suddenly Raziel was there, he grabbed me by one arm, grabbed my outer skirt with the other, and-

RIIIIIIIIIIIIP!

-he tore the skirt from me, flung it one direction and me the other. He grunted and smacked his arm, a sticky mass of black goo was on his arm and hand.

“RUN!” He ordered and this time I didn’t wait to be told twice. I was on my feet, my pack forgotten, a white knuckle grip on Grandma’s walking stick. I burst deeper into the forest, not realizing I was moving in the direction that the spider man had run away from.

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