He felt queasy. He stared at the bleak ground as he staggered onward. The men behind him were silent, with the exception of the occasional rustle of gear. They left their companion where he lay and continued in pursuit of their remaining comrades.
The men were growing weary. Days of tracking without a positive result were draining them of their enthusiasm. To top things off, they were utterly outmatched. They had scared one away by surprise, but they could not fathom the damage which could be inflicted by a concentrated effort of the infernal creatures. They felt as if they were walking toward their graves.
They trod doggedly for hours. The sun was shining unobscured for the first time in days. Men raised their faces to the warming rays. It brought some energy back into their bodies, but mentally, some men had already accepted their fates. Some screamed out for the creatures to take them. Why should they prolong the inevitable? Their requests would be answered in a timely fashion.
The sun made the hardened snow glisten. Pristine white sheets stretched between the pines. The men were making their way through scattered trees, sloughing their way through deep snow. In the distance, something seemed out of place. A long, slender object was hanging below the branches of a tall pine. They were too far away to tell what it was, but a shiver went down his spine that warned him to prepare for the worst.
They approached cautiously, muskets at the ready. The men fanned out in a semi-circle, scanning in all directions. Striding across the clearing, they had a relatively safe line-of-sight. They did, however, have the previous encounter fresh in their minds. The creatures could be upon them in seconds, even from the distant treeline. At least a gunshot could warn the others, given they had time to pull the trigger.
As they neared the solitary tree, hues of red and pink could be seen shimmering on the surrounding snow. His fears were ratified. A skeleton, stripped to the bone, was hanging upside down from a large bough. It swung slowly in the breeze, the skull facing them, the hands reaching in their direction; a request for assistance that had come far too late.
The men came within a few yards of the tree and sat down. Some looked at the ground, while others couldn’t take their eyes off of the bare bones. The ribs had been removed, picked clean, and scattered in the snow. Large footprints encircled the tree and dotted the blood-stained ground. A condensed circle of prints packed the snow tightly under the body. They must have feasted on him in unison.
The man’s feet had been laced to the bough with stripped evergreen branches. They were pulled so tightly, that the only bits of flesh remaining were directly under the knotted wood. Even the toes had been picked clean. There was not a shred of flesh remaining aside from the middle of the feet. Their quiet investigation lasted a few minutes before the men stood, and began making camp. The sun was setting behind the mountains as the skeleton was cut down, and covered with a thick covering of snow.
Dusk was rapidly approaching, and storm clouds were brewing in the distance. The bassy echo of thunder met their ears, as lightning filled the sky. The wind came in frequent gusts, bringing the smell of precipitation along with it. The temperature dropped dramatically as the last light of day sunk beneath the horizon. Darkness was coming, and the men situated themselves as best as they could around the campfire.
Four faces were illuminated by the flames. The four others were facing away in the cardinal directions, muskets on their laps. Setting up camp in the clearing allowed for a clearer line-of-sight, but exposed them to the elements. The storm was moving slowly towards them, foaming and rolling with increasing intensity. The starry sky was blanketed by dark clouds, as the wind blew fiercely across the open plain.
Tents flapped noisily, the fire sprayed embers skyward, and the men huddled under their blankets. Thunder boomed overhead and flashes of lightning exposed their surroundings intermittently. Despite the weather conditions, they hoped the lightning would continue; the glimpses of the landscape brought them relief.
The men on watch swung back to the fire, and the others turned to continue the lookout. As the turnover completed, faces and hands warmed, as cold backs collected the heat. This exchange persisted for two more rotations uneventfully. The tents gathered snow, as the storm churned violently overhead. A flash of lightning suddenly revealed that the expedition was not alone.