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“It was so kind of these slavers to leave such a tell-tale trail for us.” Rosewood said bitterly.

“I doubt that they had a choice in the matter.” Cedric, now known as Wraith, muttered in reply. “You can't drag several dozen prisoners through the underbrush and not leave a trail. The sheer number of men required to keep that many prisoners in line also made it impossible for them to be stealthy.”

Neither of them were an expert tracker. Cedric/Wraith had some nominal skill in the art and Rosewood wasn't one to pay attention to any science not directly related to separating life from limb. Fortunately, the trail left in the slavers' wake had been so overtly obvious that it would have been all but impossible to miss.

Despite the passage of time and the loss of his title and position, Wraith found himself at home with the situation. He had followed in the wake of criminals many a previous time. The thought caused a familiar ache in his heart. In the past Lara would have been doing the tracking. Stanley would have beeen cracking wise and annoying Eryne. The woman's bum leg made it hard for her to travel on foot through rough terrain-- the archer's glib attitude would only add to her frustrations.

But they were gone now. The only one of them to be returning would be Eryne; he fully intended for her to make that trip in chains. If only he knew how.

He pushed those thoughts aside and tried to concentrate on his surroundings. He kept his eyes moving: up to scan the horizon, and down to check the trail. His ears were alert and every sound and rustle was carefully checked to see if it was man-made.

“We're getting close.” Wraith whispered.

“Good. I don't want to leave those beast-kin in chains any longer than we must.”

“Then we had best go to ground. Follow me.”

Wraith veered from the path and entered the underbrush. His footsteps were careful and coordinated in an effort to make the least noise possible. Ahead, he could see the abrupt break of a wide clearing. Behind him, Rosewood was fallowing in a less stealthy fashion.

He moved as close to the opening as he dared and then went to ground literally. Wraith dropped to his belly and began crawling forward across the forest floor. Rosewood's voice, low and hushed, drifted over his shoulder. She sounded annoyed.

“And we're playin' in the dirt, why?” She asked.

“To stay out of sight. Any sentries posted will be looking for people at about their level. They'll be more likely to miss any motion low to the ground, or write us off as a pair of rabbits or something.”

"Interestin' choice of words."

There was a hint of... something... deep in Rosewoods voice. Cedric wasn't sure that he liked it.

"What?" He asked.

"Nothing."

Part of what made-- had made Lara such a wonderful assassin was that she was short. Not extremely short, but small. It allowed her to get through small areas and hide below most people's line of sight, much like he was doing now. It was where he had learned that particular trick. Wraith shook his head, fiercely. He did his best to toss the thought away. He couldn't afford to get distracted now.

Rosewood spoke again: “And we care about bein' all sneaky, why? We're supposed to be fightin' these guys, not playing child's games with them.”

“Because we need intelligence.”

“You callin' me dumb?” There it was again. Cedric couldn't quite put his finger on the emotion lacing the bearess' voice.

“No. I'm saying that we need to know what we're up against. Now, quiet. We're there.”

Wraith came to rest beneath a large mulberry bush. He squirmed aside so that the bear could worm her way up beside him. Through the foliage and branches, they could see a wide clearing. It was spacious, probably more spacious than any other that Wraith had seen thus far in these woods; it was also an obvious semi-permanent hideaway for these slavers. Crude shacks and huts formed a ring around the perimeter. A few cooking fires and bonfires had been established in the four inner corners of the encampment. In the middle of the space sat a huddled mass of beast-kin. Wraith could see bears, frogs, foxes and a few other races that he couldn't easily distinguish. They all seemed packed into far too small of a space to suit the crowd.

After studying the situation for a few moments, Cedric could see why that was. The beast-kin were manacled and short chains ran from one prisoner to another. The captives had no choice but to stay practically right on top of one another. Escape in such a situation would be impossible.

And there were guards-- lots of guards-- milling about the area. Most were at ease and taking their duties less than seriously. They apparently felt safe in the area. Their numbers, however, made Wraith nervous.

A growl reached his ear. Wraith's head turned to find Rosewood snarling at the camp through clenched teeth.

“Traitors.” Spittle flew through the air. She had literally spat the word. “Their fur should be taken for pelts.”

That puzzled him. Humans didn't have fur and he highly doubted that she was talking about the prisoners.

“Who?”

“Are you blind? Look!” Rosewood punctuated that command with a sharp thrust of a clawed finger.

Wraith turned once again and studied the guards anew. His blood froze. His mind had marked the guards as hostile without even bothering to fully examine them. Now that he took a second look, he was aghast to find several beast-kin, rhinos and hippos from the look of it, standing watch over the prisoners. They were far more alert than their human counterparts.

His jaw hit the ground. Wraith wasted several precious seconds returning it to his face.

“But-- why?”

Rosewood gave him a sharp look; it was the sort of look one gave to an idiot.

“What? You think that just because the beast-kin are victimized around these parts that we're all angels? I've got news for ya, some of us can be real jerks. Some of us don't care if they're oppressing their own kind or committing atrocities against their own race. They'd sell their own mothers for a quick coin.”

“Astonishing...” It truly was to his mind. “I'd never realized...”

“And people say that I'm clueless. Listen, bud, beast-kin, human, it doesn't matter. We're all the same. Some of us try to better ourselves and be decent people; others could care less about anything not marked 'me, myself and I'. In some places, the humans oppress the beast-kin. In some places, the beast-kin oppress the humans. If we were at the south of the continent, then there's a very real chance that the roles would be reversed and we'd be rescuing some humans from some beast-kin slavers.”

Wraith stared at his partner for a long moment. He searched her face, desperately hoping to find some sign that this was all just a really cruel joke. That she was making a mockery of such evil things at his expense. There was no jest to be find in her features. She was deadly serious.

“Anyway.” She continued. “From all this skulkin', I take it that you're the sort that likes to plan before doin' anything. In that case, you'd better start coming up with a course of action before I lose my patience, get angry, and just storm the place.”

With that, Wraith jerked his mind back to the present. There wasn't time to be shocked.

“Don't go axe-crazy just yet. If we go in weapons-first, then we're liable to get the captive beast-kin slain. There's a smarter way to do this.”

“I know. That's why I'm letting you take the lead.”

“Then give me a few moments and I'll see what sort of plan I can develop.”

And with that, Wraith set to scheming.
Word Count: 1335

I don't really have much comment about this chapter. It pretty much just is what it is. Although I can't tell you how many times I accidentally typed 'Cedric' instead of 'Wraith'. Name changes can be so interesting, y'know?
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January 5, 2014
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