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"Oh, my," Lahr mewled from within the tangle of ropes. "That was unnecessary."
The forest murmured around them. Hushed voices muttered just beyond the tree line as Pardus glared at the Scarecrow as if seeing him for the first time. Perhaps he was. Pardus had previously dismissed them both as prey, but now things had changed.
"What is this? Why is there a soldier of the Covenant in MY LANDS!"
"Just taking a shortcut," Dee explained. "Obviously a mistake. Whatever you've got going on here is none of our business, so if you'll just let us g-"
Pardus's eyes shifted. He wasn't looking at Dee or the Scarecrow any longer. He was looking behind them when he shouted:
The ground shook as Dee spun-
"You've GOT to be kidding me!"
The gorilla was larger than the SUV that had brought Dee here, and as she watched, the incredible beast launched itself straight at them.
Again, the Scarecrow appeared between Dee and the threat. Treach, now free from Dee's restraint, ran at the beast as Dee backpedaled. The ape reached for the Scarecrow, who slid out of the way and ducked under the sweep of the giant beast's arm.
Light glinted off steel. The ape roared. Blood spurted from the stump of a missing finger. It stepped back, and Dee's dog clamped its jaws around its ankle. The gorilla kicked, and Treach flew a short distance... still clutching a tuft of wet fur in his jaws. The dog landed with a yelp and quickly got to his feet. Howling, the ape backed up again. Clearly it hadn't expected to be attacked, let alone hurt. It looked out toward the trees and roared-
The giant bear didn't move. Neither did any of the humans and animals hiding themselves behind the trees.
Everyone seemed content to watch.
"Pardus isn't king yet, Pithek!" said Lahr. "And neither are you! "
Suddenly, the gorilla charged. The Scarecrow stood his ground, knives held low, crouching slightly. Dee didn't need to be psychic to see what was about to happen. Like the wolf before him, the giant ape was about to be outmaneuvered and embarrassed. To death.
Or maybe not.
Just as Dee expected, the Scarecrow threw himself into a forward roll, dodging under the ape's arms and intending to come up either beneath the beast or in front of it... too close for Pithek to defend himself against a few dozen fatal knife wounds to abdomen and groin. But instead of continuing his charge, Pithek leapt over the man and landed on the opposite side of the clearing, near the trees.
This was not a last-minute realization... this was a plan. Pithek grabbed a tree and snapped one foot thick trunk off at the base.
The Scarecrow rolled to his feet and spun. He remained low and ready, then dodged as the tree slammed into the ground. If he'd been two seconds slower the fight would have been over.
Pithek swung the makeshift club again. The Scarecrow twisted away. Dirt and moss flew away from the impact and rained down across the clearing. The tree then swung in a horizontal arc and slammed into one of the large, rotted tree trunks in the center of the clearing.
For a second it looked as if Pithek had finally found his target. The Scarecrow vanished behind a blur of bark and leaves, only to reappear an instant later, clutching the tree trunk as Pithek lifted it again. The Scarecrow swung himself upward... flipped... and landed on the trunk. He then darted down its length toward the ape as Pithek did a very human double-take.
Roaring, Pithek slammed the trunk down again. The Scarecrow leapt an instant before the impact. He flipped... knives re-appeared in his hands as he descended.
Pithek twisted away-
"NO!" Lahr shouted. "DON'T!"
Blades dove into flesh at the base of the ape's neck. One knife went in to the hilt. The other scraped against bone. Pithek recoiled. The Scarecrow released one knife pulled the other free. He planted his feet on the ape's chest and used his legs to flip clear just as Pithek's hands closed around the empty space he'd just vacated.
He landed in a crouch, then stood to watch Pithek stagger along the trees, trying to grasp the tiny knife in his neck with the oversized hands of a giant ape. The Scarecrow wasn't smiling. The look on his face was one of expectant hunger... as if he were waiting for something. Dee didn't know about ape anatomy, but the placement of the knife protruding from Pithek's neck was dangerously close to a human artery. If it had nicked it on the way in, pulling it out would be spectacularly bloody.
The Scarecrow couldn't have...
...of course he could. That's why he was waiting.
Pardus roared in rage.
It was not a human sound, but the roar of a giant panther. Pardus shifted into cat form and crouched, preparing to spring for the Scarecrow's exposed back.
The panther either didn't hear, or didn't care about the pit bull that had maneuvered himself directly behind him. It was a fight that Treach would probably lose. Perhaps there was something that could be done.
Dee's hand shot into her backpack, seeking the red stone. It slipped between the folds of the cloth-
She ducked as something shot over her head. A high-pitched shriek filled the clearing. Dee's hands went to her ears as she dropped to one knee. The impossibly loud sound...
She'd heard it before. They'd ALL heard it when they'd entered the clearing.
The giant hawk swept down toward Pardus. Then it became a tall, naked man that dropped the final few feet to the ground before pointing past Dee. He was older, with hair that looked like a family of rabid raccoons had used it as a crackhouse.
"WOODSMANNNNN!" the man screamed.
Pardus blinked. Then blinked again... this time with human eyes. The naked man-panther rose to his feet, scowling.
"Fool, there are no more woodsma-"
"ONE COMES! I SAW IT! THAT WAY! THAT WAY!"
The newcomer gestured wildly and continued to shout.
The large bear, which had remained motionless until now, shifted into human form. He was surprisingly small for a man that could transform into a bear. Short and stocky, but with the same well-defined muscles that all the shapeshifters seemed to share. He knelt and placed his hand on the ground by his feet. He looked up at Pardus.