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The bladed lance skidded across the Woodsman's armored chest, missing the intended target. The Woodsman's torso twisted sharply and one massive hand slapped the reptilian head of the lizard mount-
It picked up the flailing, headless mount... to which the screaming rider was still attached... and swung it at the three soldiers on the ground. Two scattered, but one was too slow. He was crushed beneath the mount's flank; his pulverized flesh and shattered bones merging with that of the lizard.
"INVASIVE SPECIES TERMINATED!" The Woodsman's voice boomed from deep within the armored torso. Green lights pulsed from the ports on its head as it turned to the remaining soldiers.
One was running for the trees. The other appeared to have vanished-
Something struck the Woodsman from behind, and he detected the weight of a foreign object hanging from his back. The soldier clung to him with one hand, and was trying to jam his blade into a gap in the Woodsman's armor.
"WARNING! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO RIDE THE WOODSMAN UNIT WHILE IT IS IN OPERATION. DEATH AND DISMEMBERMENT WILL OCCUR!"
The Woodsman twisted back and forth, attempting to dislodge the soldier as the man tried to position himself for a strike at the glowing machinery beneath the armor. The dangerous blades had already been disabled, and the machine's crushing hands couldn't reach him on the machine's back. All he had to do was-
The Woodsman's left elbow folded backward with an audible CLICK. The limb reversed itself, plucked the soldier from the armor like a bug, and held it up before the machine's squat dome of a head.
"YOU WERE WARNED." The Woodsman boomed.
He then threw the man across the clearing. The scream rose... then stopped abruptly as the man collided with the fleeing soldier with a CRACK. The impact threw both men forward into the nearest tree, which they struck with a wet sound before settling into a heap of awkwardly bent limbs at its base. The tree was unharmed.
A sound drew the Woodsman's attention to the mess at his feet. The lizard mount's rider was still alive, his lower body pulverized and trapped beneath the ruptured carcass.
"...help..." The soldier gurgled.
The Woodsman raised one metal foot and poised it over the man's head.
Then he paused.
If the Woodsman had had eyes or lips, it would have blinked and gasped in surprise. But it had neither, so it stood motionless for three seconds, before speaking.
The foot came down, narrowly missing the trapped soldier's head. The Woodsman started toward the edge of the clearing, where an ominous red halo surrounded Dee as she struggled with one of the soldiers.
The Scarecrow hissed as the soldier's blade sliced a shallow groove across his chest. At the same time, his own blade stabbed out at the soldier's side... and missed.
The men started to spin apart, but it was a bluff. The soldier swung his secondary weapon... a short, spiked bludgeon. The Scarecrow avoided the attack, sliced at the swinging arm while simultaneously delivering a kick to the man's midsection. The knife missed. The kick drove the older soldier back- -but it was too easy. The Scarecrow was in no position to push the attack without opening himself up... which was what the soldier had been counting on all along.
"Too good to fall for the old tricks, eh?" the soldier growled. The men circled one another. Both men held their weapons ready, but neither tried to feint, slice, or jab at the other. Those distractions were useless, and both men knew it. They were too good. Too similar. "I'd say I taught you well... but I claim nothing of the monster you've become. You'll be dead soon enough. Then I can erase the thought of you."
The Scarecrow's face was bloody from having taken bites out of a half-dozen soldiers since the carnage began. The hate-filled eyes of a madman glared from the face of the monster.
"Are you in league with the wench? Is that how you got off that cross? What are you planning? What secrets do you take back to your master Mazoz?"
The soldier attacked, stabbing out with his blade while swinging his baton to block the counterstrike that was already on its way. He twisted to his right, and the Scarecrow's second blade sliced the collar off of his coat without touching the skin beneath.
Now they had changed places. The soldier had his back to the trees, cutting off the Scarecrow's intended escape route.
Just as he had planned.
Realizing his mistake, the Scarecrow backed away, heading into the center of the clearing once again.
The soldier's eyes shifted, looking at something behind the scarecrow and off to one side.
It was probably a feint to lure the Scarecrow into another attack. He didn't take the bait.
The soldier's expression changed. Changed several times in the space of a second. Shock and fear chased each other across the older man's features. The expressions looked genuine, but the Scarecrow held his position and kept his own eyes where they were.
"No!" the soldier hissed. "The Red! This can't be! NO!"
And then the soldier took three quick steps backward and disappeared into the trees.
Still wary, the Scarecrow waited for the man to re-appear. He heard the Woodsman thundering past behind him. Someone started screaming.
There had been plenty of screams before now, but this.... this was... something else.
The Scarecrow risked a quick glance toward the sound.
He gasped. And ran.
Sneering into the soldier's face Dee straightened her arm, pushing the soldier up and off of her. His weight fell away. The blade vanished from her own neck while she tightened her grasp on the soldier's throat. She sat up, and then stood... carrying the soldier with her like a doll. She held him by the throat in front of her.
Dee glared at him with more senses than she knew she had. She felt the blood pulse through his flesh. She felt each rush... pause... rush... The cells buzzed past her fingertips. She felt each one, envisioning them like a river of fireflies. But instead of light, they carried energy of a different kind. Life. Power. The soldier's muscles thrummed with it. Organs bathed in liquid energy, drinking their fill. There was so much life. Every cell sang out to Dee.
With a flash of Red, Dee extended some new, unknown part of her awareness INTO the man. Suddenly the pulsing river of energy was rushing through HER as well as him. Not the blood, but the power that it carried... stripped away by her hand on the soldier's throat. Just a taste.
It... was delicious!
She tasted deeper. She inhaled through her skin, and felt the solder tremble. She heard him scream.
She drank more... sucking the energy from the soldier. The power in his blood began to flicker and dim, but more flooded out of his flesh and organs to replace it. His skin grew pale and loose around his withering frame.
Dee basked in the life force as it rushed into her, filling her own cells and tissues. When they were full, it pushed at the boundaries of her skin, seeking release. The bleeding stump of her severed finger crackled with power... and then pain the stolen energy wove new flesh, bone, and nerves. The air crackled around her. The ground trembled.
The soldier had stopped screaming. The flesh of his larynx had no energy with which to shape the sound of his wheezing breath. His throat had shriveled around Dee's fingers, and now it felt like a stick wrapped in loose cloth. The effect had spread upward into his face, which now resembled a mummified skull. ...only it was still alive. Milky eyes stared out of sunken sockets as the surrounding flesh drooped. The mouth hung open in an 'O' of shock. Dee could see the flesh of his gums receding, exposing loosened teeth that began to wiggle in their sockets.
One fell out and landed in the dirt at Dee's feet.
A thin, withered tongue flopped back and forth, attempting to form sounds out out whispered, labored breaths. His body was consuming itself to feed her. She was drinking him dry-
She was somewhere else for a moment. Hiding in the dark. Watching a giant... THING... suck the fluids out of a helpless man. The horror of that memory echoed out of the past and into her mind like a solid blow.
"Wha..." she whispered. "What am I doing?"
She saw the man's decaying face before her and recoiled.
"NO!" she screamed. She was killing him! She had ALREADY killed him! He couldn't possibly be alive now, after she had... she had...
Disgust squeezed Dee's stomach tight and forced her last meal to the top of her throat.
But her last meal wasn't food. It was this man!
Maybe... maybe it would work...
Still clutching the red gem in one hand and the soldier's limp neck in the other, Dee began to force the energy out of herself. Out of her engorged cells... down her arm... into her hand and out into the soldier.
The man gasped.
Lungs that could barely draw breath an instant before suddenly inhaled long and hard. His eyes widened as his limbs began to flail. Dee watched his skin darken and grow vibrant. The soldier opened his mouth and filled the clearing with a new, powerful scream.