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Lahr ushered them back toward the trees. The Scarecrow appeared... from where, Dee couldn't say... behind him and followed close. This seemed to unnerve Lahr, but he kept walking without comment.
"You bringing up the rear, big guy?" Dee said to Nicholas. The Woodsman's 'eyes' punctuated his response with bright green flashes.
"UN.KNOWN. ENERGIES DE.TEC.TED IN THIS A.REA. RECOMMEND AVOID.ANCE."
"You're late. Lahr just said." Dee smiled and stepped around the large machine. She paused for a moment to look back. She intended to ask the Woodsman if this direction coincided with his knowledge of where Verdentia sat... but she didn't.
She could see past the Woodsman's bulk, into the Blight. She was looking toward the foul-smelling pit at the Blight's heart when she caught a movement.
A shape moved out from behind one of the large tooth-like stones. At first Dee thought it was a man's shadow, but as she watched the dark shape took on depth and form. Not the shadow of a man, but the man himself.
He was familiar. Dee squinted-
"THIS way!" Lahr's hand grasped Dee's wrist and pulled. It wasn't a gentle tug.
"Hey!" Dee snatched her arm free. "I was just..." Dee pointed. "There's someone back there!"
"No there isn't."
"You didn't even look!"
"And neither should you," he snapped.
Dee was facing Lahr, with the Blight behind her. Lahr stared into her eyes, forcing himself not to look over her shoulder.
"But if there's someone-"
"THERE.IS." The Woodsman boomed. He turned, and his metal arm rose toward the pit... and then above it. He wasn't pointing at the shadow that Dee had seen, but at something higher.
Dee turned to look.
"Don't-" Lahr began, but stopped. He looked where the Woodsman pointed. "Oh, no."
It was the bird that had been circling them for the past few hours. Now that it was lower, Dee saw it was a freakishly large hawk. It must have emerged from the trees when she was talking to Lahr.
The hawk soared straight out over the Blight, then changed direction... wings flapping frantically. Dee got the idea that something had surprised it. The Blight? Lahr said that it moved, but Dee couldn't see how a large landscape feature could sneak up on someone, especially someone with an aerial view. Nevertheless, that's exactly what appeared to have happened.
Now the bird was trying to get out.
The hawk was on the opposite side of the pit, and instead of simply reversing direction or heading for the nearest tree, it tried to continue its mission... following them.
"No, no, no..." Lahr muttered as the hawk veered up and over the large hole at a steep angle. "Don't."
"What's going to happen?"
Lahr stiffened. He took a step forward and halted suddenly.
"I... can't help him."
"Help him with what? What's-"
Dee caught a movement on the ground. Her eyes flicked lower, and she saw a shadow. A different shadow, easing out from behind a different rock. The original one she'd seen was gone.
The shadow solidified into a more solid form... familiar again, yet different from the one she thought she'd seen earlier.
The hawk saw it too. It changed course, swinging in an arc toward the figure. It flew over it, then circled around for another approach... moving lower as it did.
"Who IS that?" said Dee. But she knew. She remembered the hawk that had flown into the clearing to warn Pardus and the others about the Woodsman's approach. That hawk had briefly transformed into a tall, thin man with wild hair.
That same man now stood near the edge of the pit, waving slowly at the bird circling above.
"Two of them?" said Dee.
Lahr stepped past her and waved his arms over his head.
"STOP!" he shouted. "IT'S NOT HIM! TURN BACK!"
The hawk adjusted course, but not to leave. It did another fly-by of the figure on the ground and circled still lower.
Lahr turned to the Woodsman.
"You! You should be safe! You have to go and get him!"
Nicolas's eyes pulsed once.
"You just HAVE to!"
Lahr undoubtedly thought the machine was being... inhuman... but Dee didn't understand the urgency either. So far, nothing had happened except the sudden appearance of someone who was probably following them anyway.
"Lahr, what's going on?"
"He things it's... never mind! Someone is going to die; that's what's going on!"
Dee sighed in exasperation.
"Stay here!" said Lahr. "I mean it! Don't come into the Blight!"
"Fine," Dee replied, still confused. "Whatever. I don't want to get close to that smell anyway."
The hawk had made several passes over the waving figure near the edge of the pit, circling a little lower each time.
Lahr took a few hesitant steps toward them, then stopped to shout.
The hawk veered up... then made a tight circle and shot back down again. From the speed and angle, it looked like it was coming in for a landing.
"NO!" Lahr ran a few more steps... paused... then sprinted across the rocks toward the pit. "STOP! FLY AWAY!"
Dee spotted more movement. Another shadow-shape appeared on the ground, seeming to spring up between Lahr and the edge of the pit. It solidified, and Dee recognized it instantly.
"Lahr, LOOK OUT! It's PARDUS! It's a trap!"
The tall shape-shifter turned toward Lahr and spread his arms wide. It must have been a signal of some kind, because more shapes appeared soon after.
Shadows sprang out from behind stones and became solid. The first... a woman... was not familiar. But the second was easy to place. It was the soldier that the Scarecrow had fought in the clearing where they'd found the Woodsman. The older man flashed a wicked grin and reached for his blades.
A blur sped past Dee. The Scarecrow flew like an arrow toward the man, his own blades already drawn.
An instant later, the ground shook as the Woodsman began to move.
"MY.HEART." He boomed. Metal feet crunched among the rock as the Woodsman started toward the woman.
Dee started to ask who the woman was... until she recognized the third figure.