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Dee was moving before she could stop herself.
Her father was dead... but there he was, standing just outside of the shadows, beckoning to her.
But he was dead.
Dee slowed. She thought she had stopped entirely, but her feet kept moving... shoes scuffing across the loose stones as she continued unknowingly toward the reeking pit. The Blight shifted around her, moving her closer still. She didn't notice.
This wasn't possible. But then, men that turned into giant animals weren't possible either. NONE of this was possible. Unless...
"I'm dead, aren't I? None of this is real. I made all this up... and my dad has come to tell me that it's okay to let it go. I can move on..."
That made so much sense. It was over now. All this craziness. Monsters and clockwork woodsmen and giant magic rubies... All of it was finally over.
With her father's presence now justified, Dee quickened her pace.
Her friends had all run ahead. The Scarecrow passed Lahr without slowing.
"NO!" Lahr shouted. He turned back, and saw the Woodsman coming up behind him, his bulky form unsteady on the oddly shifting rocks. His eyes met Dee's, but Dee barely saw him. He was there, but he was just an obstacle between her and her father. "GO BACK!"
"But he's right THERE!" Dee pointed.
"No, he isn't! You have to focus! Focus on the rocks! That's all that's here! Nothing else is real! Don't look at anything else but the rocks!"
Dee heard him clearly. But she chose to ignore him.
He wasn't real, after all. He was just a figment of her imagination, like all the others.
Her father was real. HE was her way out of here.
She looked past Lahr, past the Scarecrow and the Woodsman.... she saw the figures beckoning them all. The one that she thought was Pardus had vanished, but the others... the woman and the soldier... and her father, had become even more solid. So had the one that had appeared first, the one that stood with open arms, waiting for the diving hawk to get within reach.
Lahr appeared before her. She saw him for only an instant before his hand clamped around her face, blocking her eyes.
"Stop looking at them!" he hissed.
Dee felt something twist in her mind... the slight loosening of a grip that she hadn't known was there.
"Turn around!" Lahr barked as he spun her to face the way she'd come. "Eyes closed, and walk straight ahead! Don't stop until you hit a tree! Then just wait with your eyes closed! No matter what you hear... do NOT look into the Blight! Now GO!"
Dee shut her eyes as the loosening grasp fell away entirely. She took a step, but rocks twisted beneath her shoe and she stumbled, barely managing to catch herself.
"I can't walk on these rocks with my eyes clo-"
"THEN CRAWL!" Lahr shouted from behind her. His voice was further away than it had been. Either the Bight had shifted to separate them, or he was going back after the others. Dee kept walking, unaware that the trees to which Lahr had pointed her were slowly creeping into the distance, while the ground just beyond her toes began to curve...
At the edge of the pit, the large hawk that had flown into the Blight after them shifted into human form and dropped the remaining few feet to the rocks. The naked man paused before the figure that had drawn it.
He said something. Lahr was too far away to hear what, just as the shapeshifter was too far to hear his screams of warning.
The shapeshifter stepped forward... not curiously or cautiously, but with the safe confidence of a man moving to embrace an old friend. The figure before him leaned forward, arms stretching... wider... too wide...
There was a wet POP, followed by a scream. The shapeshifter was suddenly alone, but he was entangled in a stringy, oily substance that had burst up from the ground ahead of him and snared him like a net. His entire upper body was engulfed. The fleshy net drew tight against his skin... and then INTO his skin. The slick moisture that coated the thin pinkish-green strands was not mucous or water... it was acid.
Screaming, the man-hawk tried to pull away. Skin and muscle peeled away from one arm as he twisted and yanked. The part of his arm that finally came free was mostly wet, sizzling bone. The 'net' was attached to something unseen on the ground where the dark figure had been standing. The something pulled back, yanking the man off balance. Still screaming, he fell.
In a final effort to escape, he shifted into bird-form. The flesh-net instantly pulled tight around the new shape. One dissolving wing reached skyward-
Then the entire sizzling mass was pulled forward and down... into the ground.
Feathers drifted silently to the blood and gore-covered rocks.
Lahr saw it all, his own useless scream caught in his throat. He could do nothing. Not for him. But the others!
The Scarecrow and the Woodsman were racing toward the pit. The Woodsman was closer to him, but was likely in the least amount of danger. He was metal. He was a Woodsman. They were better off without him anyway. The Scarecrow, however, was flesh and blood. The silent man sped toward another blurry dark outline that Lahr refused to focus on. A third outline... one that for a brief moment appeared to be Pardus... waved to get Lahr's attention.
It would be so easy to finish this. All he had to do was confront him... finally... and end it all-
Lahr's eyes drifted quickly past it, and then down to the rocks at his feet. Focusing on the stones, he ran after the Scarecrow.