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The air came alive as the dark vines slid across one another, dipping toward the soldiers below. Their motion was swift and silent save for the occasional thud of the large, elongated fruits as they bumped into one another. Dee saw several of the leathery things drift silently past the ledge as they descended.
Below, the soldiers altered their formation to form a tight circle. Each clutched a long knife in one hand while he stared either up the descending vines or out at the shadows.
What were they looking at? What were they so afraid of-
The thought hadn't yet completed its trip across Dee's brain when something darted out of the darkness to the left of the soldiers.
It was a man. Clearly, it was a man... but something was wrong with him. He was small. Not short, but thin... emaciated. What little clothing he wore hung in tatters from the almost skeletal frame. Dee caught only glimpse of him as he ran for the nearest soldier. And the eyes.
The eyes were red. Red and glowing.
The soldier stepped back into an odd stance, crouching deeply with his empty hand held in front of him, open fingers shielding his throat. His knife was drawn back at his side, ready to thrust or slash. The running figure darted straight at him. The soldier twisted to one side, making two slashing motions. The first opened up the running man's abdomen; the second brought the blade back across the throat. Still moving, the soldier pivoted into a spin that ended with his blade buried in the man's chest.
Blood oozed from the wounds. Oozed... It didn't flow or spurt or spray... it oozed like thick syrup. Dee could see it clearly even from a distance because the bright red fluid pulsed with the same light that beamed from the man's eyes... the same light that pulsed ominously in the shadows above where the woman had disappeared.
But they weren't the only light glowing now. Dozens of smaller lights gleamed in the shadows around the soldiers. Dozens of... pairs... of glowing red lights. They moved in silence; circling just out of sight as more and more eyes filled in the gaps between them.
"HERE THEY COME!" one of the soldiers shouted.
More of the tattered figures began to appear, streaking out of the shadows and running silently toward the soldiers. First one. Then another. Two became five.... five became eight.... then twelve... Twelve became too many to count as the red-eyed figures poured out of the darkness from every direction.
Dee's eyes went back to the soldier that had already been attacked. Impossibly, the raggedy figure wasn't dead.
It wasn't even down.
The wounded man stumbled back... more from the force of the soldier's final thrust than from his wounds. Instantly it lurched forward again. The soldier met it with another abdominal slash. Dee flinched-
-but the attacking man didn't. Thin fingers closed around the soldier's forearm. Dee was too far away to hear the snap, but suddenly the soldier had a new joint halfway between his wrist and his elbow. The soldier stabbed the attacker in the arm, and one of the other soldiers closed in to help. One raised his blade and brought it down in a downward arc, plunging it into one of the glowing red eyes.
The eye exploded in a brief jet of light and glowing red steam.
The attacker convulsed, releasing the first soldier and staggering backward... but it didn't look dead. It looked angry.
Dee didn't see what happened next. The mass of tattered men swarmed the soldiers, and the scene below became a riot of slashing blades and silent, running figures. Dee heard shouts of pain, exertion, and fear... but only from the soldiers. Their attackers made no sound other than that of their running bare feet on the stone floor.
"THESE ARE MEN NO LONGER!" Someone called. Dee recognized the voice of the leader and quickly found him in the melee. The man was a whirlwind. He held two of the long knives, and kept both of them moving with equal speed and deftness, even as he barked out orders. "DO NOT WASTE YOUR STRIKES ON FLESH! AIM FOR THE EYES-"
One motion of his arm brought a blade across the face of one of the attackers, just above the nose. Both of the glowing red eyes went out with simultaneous pops. The tattered figure collapsed like an abandoned puppet.
A second attacker leapt over the corpse of the first, one arm extended in a reaching grab for the leader's throat. The soldier made a motion that Dee couldn't follow, but it ended with both his knives closing around the attacker's arm like a pair of shears. An instant later the leathery hand flopped to the soldier's feet. The soldier drove both knives into the attacker's eyes, then kicked the lifeless corpse away from him before gravity could claim it.
"DO NOT LET THEM TAKE YOU!" He shouted as a trio of tattered figures closed, one slightly ahead of the others. He kicked the first one to one side, where another soldier moved to engage it. He stepped between the remaining two, knives seeming to move independently, as if wielded by two different men. Two more motionless figures joined the growing pile of corpses around the man. More came, and he met them without hesitation. Soldiers fought on either side of him, dispatching anything that made it past his spinning blades.
For a second it looked as if the soldiers might win.
But Dee had forgotten about the vines. They hadn't stopped moving, and now the black tendrils dangled above the heads of the fighting soldiers. One of the hanging shapes... the things that Dee had assumed were impossibly large fruit... erupted with a wet, tearing sound.
Fluid sprayed down on the knife-wielding soldiers. Something dropped out of the ruined husk and fell into the center of the formation.
It was a man. A tattered, emaciated figure with glowing red eyes. It fell into a crouching position, and immediately sprang at the nearest solder. It landed on the man's back and drove him to the ground. The soldier's blade spun away. Another pair of fiends grabbed the soldier's flailing arms and began to quickly drag him into the shadows. They took him forward... toward the deepest part of the darkness, where the woman had vanished.
Another soldier darted after him.
"LEAVE HIM!" Their leader shouted. "TAKE YOUR POSITION! WE RETREAT! ANYONE WHO CANNOT FIGHT OR MOVE IS ALREADY DAMNED!!!"
The soldier ran back toward his comrades-
One of the attackers fell on top of him. They both went down; the soldier struck his head on a stone. He was dazed, but not unconscious. It was enough. The soldier didn't scream as the newly-born fiend dragged him into the darkness.
Another figure fell into the melee. And then another. The vines continued to move, positioning each payload above a knife-wielding soldier before releasing it.
More men started screaming. Struggling figures vanished into the shadows.
The soldiers began to move as they fought. Their formation was now a rough circle, and as Dee watched, the circle began to move backward, rotating as it did. Fiends closed in from all sides... even from above. They weren't dropping one at a time now, but in threes and fours. Then fives. Gaps appeared as soldiers were overwhelmed and dragged away.
The soldiers tried to obey, but too many of them were missing. Attackers sprinted (or fell) into the middle of the circle and attacked the fighters from behind. One soldier, seeing the man beside him go down, broke from the formation and simply ran. Dee didn't see what happened to him, but when another soldier tried to follow, fiends closed in on him, threw him to the ground, and dragged him off by the legs.
"NO!" The leader commanded. "STAY TOG-"
He was cut off as a small mob rushed him. Too many to fight. He backed away, stepping deftly over corpses as he did. Another group of the silent fiends rushed him from behind. He didn't hear them until it was too late. In an instant he was lost in a crowd of silent, reaching hands and red, glowing eyes. Dee saw the knives flash amid the mob... then nothing.
Any semblance of order in the soldiers' retreat vanished. There were only a few men left, and they all sprinted away from one another. One ran toward where their leader had gone down, but the others simply ran as dangling pods exploded over their heads