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Dee felt the power rush out of her body. There was no pain, but the surge of weakness was unpleasant. Cells that throbbed with power a few moments ago cried out in hunger. She teetered on the edge of sucking the power back in... reclaiming what she had already taken, and then taking more. Taking it ALL. Draining the soldier dry, and then crushing his corpse beneath her heal.
He deserved it.
And she was so very hungry.
But the very idea... the thought that she COULD do such a thing... pushed her away from that edge. She was not a monster. She was not the thing in the ruins. She was a human being. A nurse. She HELPED people. She did NOT want this.
Dee pushed harder. More of the stolen life force cascaded down her arm and sizzled past the soldier's skin, into his blood. His scream had become a roar. His muscles burned with so much energy that he couldn't control them. He shook with increasing violence as the rush overwhelmed him.
"...that's enough!" said Dee. She threw the man aside, breaking the connection. She'd intended to merely push him back, but ended up throwing him several feet.
He landed in a breathless heap and rolled.
The Woodsman's metal foot came down behind him, and the soldier slammed into it, grunting. He looked up at the machine, and then at Dee. When he moved, it was only to fold his legs behind him and kneel, facing Dee. Still trembling, he bowed before her.
"I..." he began. But that's all he said.
Dee looked down at him. He was thinner than she remembered from before. His skin hung loose about his neck and jaws, as if he'd lost a lot of weight. Some of his hair had fallen out, and he was still missing a few teeth. He looked like a cancer patient, but he wasn't dying.
She hadn't killed him.
Her friends, however, still might.
The Woodsman reached down, grabbed the man's head in one giant metal hand, and pulled him upright.
"Hey!" Dee began.
Before the next words came, a shape slipped behind the still-trembling soldier, and a knife appeared at the man's neck.
The Scarecrow's face... bloody and gruesome... grinned at Dee. Gore-slick teeth opened as he leaned down to bite-
"STOP!" Dee shouted. Her voice echoed loudly through the clearing, and beyond.
The Scarecrow didn't move.
"Get away from him!"
The Scarecrow took a single step back, slowly. An eerie red light reflected in his eyes. The light came from HER, but it made him look like a demon.
"You wield the red!" the soldier hissed. His eyes left hers. Dee followed them and saw the pulsing red jewel... a giant ruby... in her right hand.
She wasn't holding it. It was just... there. She tried to drop it. Her fingers relaxed, but the gem did not fall. It was holding onto her hand.
"This thing is wielding ME..." she whispered. "Can somebody help me get this thing off?"
No one moved. The Scarecrow regarded her with bloody wariness. The soldier watched in horror as Dee tried to remove the gem from her hand.
"Why isn't anybody helping!?"
"YOU. WEILD. THE. RED." the Woodsman boomed. As if that explained everything.
She shook her hand, but the glowing ruby wouldn't come free. She grabbed it with her left hand.
"OUCH!" Something stabbed the side of Dee's right wrist. When she looked, Dee saw that she'd jabbed herself with her claw.
The soldier had sliced off the small finger of her left hand. Now she had a new one. It was a perfect replica of the one that probably still sat in the soldier's pocket, except for the fingernail. Instead of a normal nail, this new finger ended in a curved black claw, a half-inch from base to pointed tip.
"What... the hell? This isn't happening! This isn't HAPPENING TO ME!"
Dee grabbed the gem and pulled. The ruby was attached to her skin.
"Why isn't anybody helping me!?"
"What are you doing!?" the soldier gasped. "Don't-"
The gem came free with a ripping sensation and a bolt of hot pain. Dee immediately dropped it and kicked it away. The ruby bounced a short distance in the grass, where it continued to pulse for several seconds before fading to a normal dull red.
Dee inspected her hand. The palm was raw. The top few layers of skin were gone, and blood welled up in several spots. The gem had been burrowing into her... trying to become a part of her.
The soldier squirmed in the Woodsman's grasp, trying to twist free. His eyes were fixed on the ruby.
"GIVE ME THAT!" He hissed. He reached for the ruby, but it was well out of his reach. "It belongs to US! The Covenant-"
There was a loud whirr as the Woodsman's fingers tightened around his head. The man stopped squirming and lowered his arms
"What the hell is that thing and what did it do to me!" Dee shouted at the soldier. She held up her bloody hand.
"IT IS. THE RED-" The Woodsman began.
"WASN'T ASKING YOU!" Dee snapped. She pointed at the soldier. "YOU! TALK! EXPLAIN THAT!" Dee pointed to the ruby. "AND THIS!" Dee held up her hand, showing him the small black claw. "HOW DID IT DO THIS!?"
"The Red! It... transfers life! And weaves flesh! But you... you can't have it-"
"But what IS it!?"
"NO. ONE. KNOWS. WHAT. THE. GEMS. ARE." said the Woodsman.
"You can't have that!" the soldier repeated. His tone was one of disbelief rather than a command. As if he were seeing something that he thought impossible.
"I don't WANT it!" said Dee. "But damned if it doesn't seem to want ME! Wait... gems? Plural? There's more than one!?"
"THERE. ARE. SEVEN."
"All like this thing?"
"They're all different!" said the soldier.
"And the Queen of the Covenant held the red! Until... you."
"Until I dropped a truck on her," said Dee. "But she was a monster. She was EATING people! Innocent people! That's what this thing does.... turns people into monsters? What does the Green do? What do the other colors do?"
"The Green animates the inanimate," said the soldier.
"Ah," said Dee. She looked past the soldier at the mechanical Woodsman. "That explains a lot. And the others?"
The Scarecrow stepped forward. He gestured with his knife, sweeping it along the edge of the clearing. He made a stabbing motion, then pointed in the opposite direction.
"Something out there?"
"Go get my dog," said Dee. "Tin man, let this guy go."
The Woodsman's fingers swung apart with a squeak. The soldier staggered, and righted himself. He glanced from Dee to the ruby in the grass, and back again.
"I'd run if I were you."
"Don't be stupid. My two friends killed... what... everybody you know? You still wanna make trouble? Really?"
"But the Red!"
"Isn't yours. I don't want it... but I want you people to have it even less. I don't know what this Covenant is, but it's broken. Now get out of here."
The soldier hesitated, then ran into the trees.
Dee wondered if she was going to regret that. But there had already been so much killing. The words she'd used to taunt the soldier were probably true. The Scarecrow and the Woodsman had likely killed their way through his entire address book. And what SHE had almost done...
She wasn't a monster. But if she travelled with monsters, did it matter if she wasn't one herself? Even Treach had displayed a disturbing eagerness to rip out throats on her behalf since they'd arrived. Maybe there was something about this place... Or something about HER.
Dee retrieved her backpack and used the emergency blanket to wrap the red gem. She tucked the bundle back inside and zipped the bag shut.
"IT.CANNOT.BE.DESTROYED." said the Woodsman.
"Huh?" Dee turned and looked up at him. "What?"
"THE RED. IT CANNOT BE. DESTROYED."
"I... wasn't thinking of destroying it."
Something inside the clockwork golem made a whining sound.
"THEN. IT IS ALREADY. TOO LATE. FOR YOU."
Dee looked at the claw on her left hand.
"We'll see," she said.