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It was hard to tell how many there were.
She counted fifteen people standing in a tight, triangular formation. They wore uniforms. Or at least wore identical jackets that hung just below the waist. Each jacket bore a double row of buttons down the front, and had a ridiculously high collar that reached the base of the skull. They had a military look, but they didn't resemble any military dress she'd ever seen.
There were other people down there as well. Beside the formation of soldiers was a large cage resting on a four-wheeled wagon. The wagon was hitched to a pair of what must have been horses, but the beasts were... odd. Their flanks were too broad; their necks far too long. The beasts looked more like a cross between a cow and a small giraffe. The cage held another ten or fifteen people... these without uniforms. In fact, they looked naked. Dirty hands grasped at the wooden bars; terrified eyes beamed out from the collection of dirty faces.
That would make the uniformed men guards.
But who was the woman?
The last figure on the ground was an impossibly tall, eerily slender shape clothed in all black. There was enough of a curve to the hips and bosom to indicate sex, but everything beyond that was lost in the shadows and folds of her black garment. It wasn't a dress. It was... Dee couldn't tell what it was. It seemed to flow and float across the woman's figure like water. It didn't help that the woman stood half-concealed in the shadow of one of the columns, which made her dress seem to flow off of her body and disappear into the darkness behind her. Dee peered into the shadows behind the woman, but her eyes found nothing. For an instant she thought she saw a light.... a brief flicker of red... but if it was there at all, it faded as soon as her eyes found it, and it didn't re-appear.
It took only a second for Dee to take in the scene. Guards. Prisoners. Some strange woman and some even stranger animals. She'd apparently stumbled into a prisoner transport of some kind, but where? And were they going to help her? All of the uniforms on the ground were looking up at ledge where the SUV had landed. Some had already found her crouching a few yards away from the Explorer; other seemed to be searching the ledge for other signs of intrusion.
Whoever they were, they were clearly distressed by her arrival.
Distressed.... no. No, they were frightened. Their faces were almost as terrified as those of the naked prisoners on the wagon. Some of the uniformed men had drawn long knives.
It was dark down there, but Dee couldn't spot anything that looked like a firearm among the men. And no one had produced any flashlights to help search the shadows, or radios to call for assistance, either. The soldiers were silent, motionless, and afraid.
But not the woman.
The wall woman moved... floated?... a few steps to one side to get a better look through the vines. Her face was already tilted upward toward Dee. The "face" was a pale, featureless thing. It looked as if someone had wrapped a tight white cloth around her head, obscuring everything but the hint of a nose and mouth, with deeply shadowed indentations for eyes.
It was impossible to read the woman's expression, but her movement stirred the soldiers. They backed away in unison; some began looking back nervously, as if making sure the path to escape was still clear.
The white face tilted curiously as it studied Dee. It swept back and forth along the ledge, pausing for several seconds to take in the Ford Explorer before returning to her.
"Hello?" Dee shouted. She waved her arm back and forth over her head. "Helloooo! Up here! Can anybody help me get down?!"
All movement ceased.
Even the prisoners on the cage stopped squirming and pulling at the bars.
The tall woman lowered her gaze; aiming her eyeless white face at the closest soldier... the one at the point of the triangular formation.
She pointed at him. The long, slender arm jutted from the folds of the constantly shifting garment to aim an impossibly long, crooked finger at the main.
Dee jerked away from the ledge. Too loud. The single word seemed to come from two different spots in the scene below. From the slender, black-draped figure it emerged as a loud shriek that shredded the air with its suddenness. But from behind her... from the shadows where the growing light hadn't yet reached... the single world rolled across the debris like the hiss of an alligator. A very large, very angry alligator. And it was too high. Not the pitch... the location. Dee couldn't place it exactly, but the hiss had seemed to come from about twenty feet off the ground.
Treach appeared beside Dee. He crouched and began to growl deeply... not at the woman, but at the darkness behind her.
Dee saw something move back there. Something large and dark, shifting position in the shadows.
Treach saw it, too. The pit-bull's growl changed pitch as the animal bared its teeth.
"No!" the first soldier... the one transfixed by the woman's pale stare... backed away suddenly. The formation of men behind him flexed and deformed, but the men retained their triangular arrangement as they started to retreat... not slowly, but not running, either. They were leaving the prisoners behind. "No treachery!" the soldier/guard continued. "W-we bring the tribute as we've always done! T-tribute in exchange for-"
Again, the single word erupted in two voices, from two distinct places. The woman's arm swept to one side and upward; a gesture encompassing the crowd of soldiers as well as Dee. Three more words followed.
"TAKE THEM ALL!"
The slender woman quickly sank back into the shadows and vanished. An instant before she disappeared, Dee saw her drift suddenly UPWARD, as if she'd been picked up and swallowed by something... something in the dark.
Near the spot where the woman had vanished, but further back and much higher... a red light began to pulse.
Then the vines in the air between Dee and the soldiers began to move.