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Dee noticed the Scarecrow peering at her from around the back of the Woodsman. He looked concerned.
"What?" she said. "Did something-"
She was about to ask if something had just happened. But, of course, nothing had happened. Nothing at all. Why would she ask such a thing? It was a ridiculous question.
He made a jabbing motion with his blade, pointing it at the machine.
"Oh," she said. "Uhh... I think it's harmless." She knocked on the dented metal shell in front of her. "Right? No more chasing and trying to kill us?"
Something made a sound just below the machine's head. Another spring popping out of place, followed by a brief grinding noise, and then a loud click.
"Much. Better Now." The machine said. The voice was stronger. The odd hesitations between syllables were almost gone, but the voice still sounded like it was being broadcast through an old, analog radio. But the 'signal' was much better now.
"You sound different," said Dee.
"Self Repair. At Sixty. Percent."
Something began to whirr deep inside the machine... a softer, quieter cousin to the ominous buzzing growl it had made when it was chasing them. It rose in pitch, and then quickly faded away.
"Uh-oh..." Dee backed away.
"Do Not. Fear," said the machine. "I Am A Woodsman. I mean you. No Harm."
"So what was all that before?"
"I was Con.Fused. How Long. Have I Been. Offline?"
"You tell us. We just found you here."
The flickering green lights on the machine's head pulsed in a new pattern. One light went bright green, and then dimmed before the light adjacent to it did the same. The pattern continued all the way around the dome, after which the lights resumed their chaotic flickering.
"This area is fa.mil.iar. But there is much. New Growth. There should be. No Trees.
Dee looked around. There wasn't much light, but from what she remembered, none of the trees looked particularly new. Then again, plants probably grew differently here. The days and nights were certainly much shorter than she was used to.
"So, you... cut down trees?"
"I Am A Woodsman."
"Right. Stupid question."
"Really? Did you just... never mind. I forgot you're a person inside there."
"I Forget As Well. I Do Not Feel. Human."
"So what's your name?"
"Okay, Nick. I'm Dee and this guy behind you is... umm... I call him Scarecrow. The dog is Treach. We're the people you almost killed."
The metal torso made a loud squeak as it shifted slightly. Dee started to move back, but realized the Woodsman had made a clumsy attempt at a bow.
"Okay. Now, Nick, maybe you can-"
"I Must Return. To Ver.den.tia. Immediately."
"Verdentia? Is that... a city?"
"The. Emerald. City."
"Good! Good, that's exactly the kind of information we need. See... I'm not from around here. I'm... lost. Kinda. I don't know where I am, or what direction I need to go to get home. We were going that way, I think-"
Dee pointed in the direction she thought she'd been traveling, but she wasn't sure.
"Ver.Den.Tia." The Woodsman repeated.
"That's the right way? We were just following the road."
"All Roads. Lead to Ver.Den.Tia."
Treach, who had been surprisingly calm given the presence of a talking machine with green eyes, started to sniff loudly. The Scarecrow noticed and stared out into the darkness. His expression was... disturbingly blank. Dee didn't see or smell anything unusual. Or at least nothing more unusual than anything else she'd seen or smelled since her arrival.
"So... uhh... is there someone in this Emerald City that can help you? Or me?"
"Is that a name?"
"You Have Not Heard of Mazoz The Great? Son Of Zoz the Power.ful?"
"Uhh... no. Is he a... what is he, exactly?"
"Ruler of Ver.Den.Tia. Wielder Of The Green. Creator of The Woodsmen Corps."
"Green? Is that anything like-" Dee paused and blinked as if something had flown into her eye. "-Nevermind. You think he can he get me home?"
"His Power. Knows Few Limits."
"Hey, Scarecrow, you ever hear of this guy?"
The scarecrow nodded and tapped his forehead, but he didn't look at her. He was focused on something in the darkness beyond where the campfire used to be. Dee saw nothing.
"Is something going on out there?" she asked.
He didn't answer, but Treach did. The dog let out a single bark.
The Scarecrow's gaze snapped to Dee. He pointed to the trees behind her. She looked, and saw nothing. But as she turned back to the Scarecrow, she heard a rhythmic thumping sound from beyond the ruined campfire. It sounded like-
No. The rhythm was all wrong... but there was definitely something coming their way.
Treach started to whine... then abandoned the whine and erupted into growls and barks.
"Ri.ders Approach" said the Woodsman.
The Scarecrow gestured emphatically at her as he backed away from the machine and toward the thicker trees behind him.
Then he was gone.
At that same instant, five shapes erupted from the darkness.
Dee screamed without realizing she'd taken a breath.
They were men... soldiers of the long coats and knives that had chased them before. But THESE men rode huge beasts that looked more like velociraptors than equines. The creatures long, loping strides caused the riders to bounce up and down in their saddles, but the men were obviously well-practiced in controlling the mounts. Leathery, tooth-filled snouts snapped at the air as the riders yanked at the ropes and straps that held them in place. The monsters' clawed, feathered feet sent chunks of dirt flying behind them as they veered to either side, attempting to surround Dee. Three of the riders had long poles that ended in pointed blades, another held a short metal staff with a spike-studded ball at one end, and the fifth was twirling something over his head. It looked like a rope, but there were objects attached to it-
"GET THE FEMALE!" The staff-bearer shouted. "SECURE THE PERIMITER!"
Treach shot toward mounted men and their creatures.
The center rider released his rope, flinging it toward Treach. Spherical weights pulled at the ends, unfolding a large net as it flew. It dropped over the charging pit bull, and Treach instantly became entangled in the thick strands. The dog yelped as he fell, rolled, tried to get up, and fell again, snarling.
By that time, Dee was already running. She darted behind the Woodsman, but then kept running toward the trees near where the Scarecrow had exited-
Something exploded out of the foliage directly in front of her. It was another of the lizard-mounts, bearing a rider with a bladed lance. The animal leapt straight at her with its mouth wide.
Dee half-spun, half slipped. The monster's flank struck her HARD, sending her flying back into the clearing. The giant lizard twisted as it landed, and immediately sprang after her. It landed almost on top her Dee. The mount's dagger-like teeth snapped together an inch from her head with a sound like dry bones cracking.
The rider pulled the reigns back, causing the lizard to back away a step, but then he swung his pike toward Dee. The blade came to rest against Dee's neck.
"DO NOT MOVE!" He growled.