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"Hey! Treach, come back!" Dee knew the dog wasn't coming back before her shout left her lungs. Treach was well-trained, but there were some things from which she'd never been able to break him. Digging up and chewing on shiny objects was one. Chasing birds was another. The dog would eventually find his way back to her, but that might take a while. And she had no idea what kind of wildlife might be prowling behind the rows of strange plants.
Sighing, Dee adjusted her backpack and pushed her way into the field. The dry, drooping leaves slashed at her, and the points jabbed through her shirt as if it wasn't there. Hissing, Dee threw one arm across her face, lowered her head, and forced her way through. The scent of the strange crops... a dry, musty odor with a hint of something unrecognizable... closed around her. It was slightly unpleasant, yet somehow appetizing at the same time. Dee ignored the growl from her stomach and pushed on.
She followed the insistent rustling of Treach's passage even as it grew more distance.
"SLOW DOWN!" She called futilely.
She heard the pit bull erupted into furious barking. The shriek-like cries of birds quickly swallowed the dog's aggressive barks. Dee looked up as a dozen dark shapes shot into the air... swooping over the field in tight arcs before looping back and dipping out of sight.
Treach had apparently stirred up something. A nest of some kind?
Dee doubled her efforts, no longer slipping between plants stalks but pushing them down and stepping on or over them. The crackle of the dry stalks under her feet gave her miniature jolts of satisfaction.
"TREACH!" she yelled. She heard the dog growling a short distance ahead. It wasn't a warning growl... it was his 'now I get to chew something into pieces' growl. What was going on? She caught a glimpse of something through the wall of plants ahead. Movement and dark shapes. And something else. Something big.
"Tre-" Dee began. Before she could finish, she pushed through the last row of plants. Her toe caught on something in the stalks and Dee's momentum carried her into the clearing with an awkward stumble. Black shapes launched themselves skyward all around her. Wings battered her arms and face as, completely out of control, Dee staggered and finally fell.
But as she did, her hands flew out and caught something solid. A post of some kind. She grabbed it, arresting her fall and stabilizing herself. She pulled herself upright as the birds screamed around her.
Dozens of them flew in a tight circle overhead. Below them and a few yards ahead of Dee, Treach stood over a quartet of mangled bird-corpses and barked at the sky. Each bark sent a ripple through the circling formation. Each distortion sent a few birds looping away over the fields, only to return seconds later to rejoin the crowd. They were cowardly, whatever they were. They wanted no part of Treach or herself, but they didn't want to leave. Something was drawing them...
Dee looked at the post that she had grabbed onto. Her eyes followed the rough, untreated wood upward-
"Oh, my God..."
It was a cross.
A large, wooden cross jutted from ground beside her. A man hung at its center, arms spread, wrists lashed to crossbeam with thick rope. More rope bound his ankles to the ascending beam, and his bare feet hung over Dee's head, just out of arms' reach. The man wore the remains of a shirt and pants, like the one Dee had seen on the dead soldier earlier. He'd been beaten; Dee saw more skin and blood than tattered cloth on his body. His head was a bloody mess. Dee couldn't tell what color the man's hair had been... it was all red now. His features were likewise hidden behind a veil of blood, bruises, and wounds. Some of those wounds were new.... probably made by the sharp beaks of the birds that circled overhead. Similar wounds decorated his chest and outstretched arms.
Whoever this man had been, someone had beaten him and tied him to a cross in the field, leaving him as a meal for the birds.
One of the birds swept down and landed on the end of the crossbeam. It squawked once, then strutted along the beam toward the man's hand. It pecked at the soft meat between two of the limp, dangling fingers.
The fingers twitched suddenly, sending the bird flying.
The crucified man's eyes opened and stared down at Dee.
"He's alive!" Dee stepped away from the cross as instinct took over. A dead body tied to a cross was horrible... but when that body had a pulse, everything changed.
She had to help him. She COULD help him. She had medical supplies in her pack, and more importantly, she knew how to use them. This man was alive... She couldn't just leave him there.
She had to help him.
But first she had to get to him.
Dee looked around the field for... anything. What she saw among the fallen stalks and the swooping shadows of the birds were three ropes. The cross wasn't just driven into the ground, it was held in place by a trio of ropes tied to stakes.... one of which had tripped Dee on her way in.
Dee pulled the knife from the rough sheath on her belt.
It occurred to her that she had no idea what she was doing. If she cut the ropes at random, the cross might fall forward and crush the man face-first into the ground. Worse yet, it might fall on her or Treach.
But there was no one here to help her figure it out.
She ran to the first rope and put the knife to the rough strands-
The blade was so sharp that it almost seemed to pull itself through the rope. With surprisingly little force, Dee severed the rope... which whipped away suddenly, narrowly avoiding her face.
The cross groaned.
Not the man on it... the cross itself.
Was it... leaning? It was. Leaning to the left.
Dee cut the next rope, shielding her face as she did. Then moved on to the last.
Now with no support, the weight of the cross and its occupant was forcing the large beam to one side. The ground around the base swelled as the buried portion pushed up. The post wasn't buried very deep... thus the need for the stakes. Dee ran forward and put her shoulder against the wood and pushed. She wasn't trying to stop it, but if she could ease it down and guide its fall...
The cross was heavy, and Dee's shoulder informed her that she was nowhere near strong enough to accomplish what she was trying. She ended up darting away as the wooden frame fell... thankfully falling to one side instead of to the front.
The cross-beam hit the ground with a thump that Dee felt as well as heard. Then it fell back, leaving its occupant staring skyward.