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The Scarecrow was fast, and he had a significant head start. There was only one way Lahr could catch him. He took only his first few steps as a man. He tugged at his loose-fitting clothes, and they were fluttering away behind him by the fourth step. On fifth step, Lahr leapt. He came down on paws instead of feet. He surged forward, powerful feline muscles propelling him faster than his prey could ever hope to match. The Scarecrow was still ahead, but Lahr was no longer concerned. Focusing on the running man's back, Lahr adjusted his gait and leapt again.
The impact drove the Scarecrow forward, stumbling. It wasn't a direct pounce, which would have shattered the man's spine. It was more of a glancing blow, with Lahr landing mere inches behind the Scarecrow, thrusting his head into the man's pumping legs, tripping him.
Instead of going down, the soldier staggered, then spun. He slashed with one blade.
Lahr leaned out of the way-
-and directly into the path of the second blade, plunging toward his throat A human would have been too slow to realize the mistake, with reflexes too sluggish to do anything about it. Lahr was not human. He twisted, catching the sharp blade along his shoulder. He bounded out of reach, then crouched, eyes meeting the Scarecrow's.
There was nothing there.
Then there was a brief flicker of confusion-
The emptiness swallowed the nascent emotion before it was fully reflected in the man's eyes.
The soldier turned back the way he'd been running.
Lahr tried to shout "NO!", but oversized teeth and a jaw made for tearing flesh instead of sculpting speech turning the word into a deep cough.
Ahead of the soldier-
-another soldier waited patiently. It was an older man, with an expression that spoke not of friendship or camaraderie, but of violence. As if the knives clutched in his hands weren't enough of a sign. Not a friend, then... not luring the Scarecrow with love, but its opposite. Lahr wondered if he had more in common with the Covenant soldier than he wanted to admit.
As if reading his thoughts, the figure of the older soldier changed. For an instant it became Pardus. The shape faded, becoming indistinct for two heartbeats... three...
The figure couldn't decide who to imitate. It became the soldier... then flickered to Pardus, then back again in rapid succession. The only feature that remained the same was the expression: Hatred. Violence. Everything else swam around that one constant like water around a rock.
Whatever the shadow really was didn't seem to realize what it was doing. It remained where it was, arms outstretched... waiting for them, as if expecting them to be lured by its chaotically shifting face.
They would have... if there had only been one target.
But as long as it tried to lure them both, it would get neither. It couldn't catch two fish with a single bait. But if Lahr moved his attention to one of the OTHER shadowy figures-
-he resisted the urge to do so. That would leave the Covenant soldier at the mercy of whatever creature fed on men at the edges of the pit.
Lahr shifted into human form and, without taking his eyes off the now-ineffective bait, yelled out to the Scarecrow.
Lahr started back. He didn't look to see if the Scarecrow was following suit, but when he'd taken several steps he noticed that the soldier hadn't yet come into view. So he must have been behind him.
Good. As long as nothing unexpected happened-
Nicolas's wife waved lovingly at him as he approached. His gait was unsteady; his legs were not designed for optimum mobility on loose rock. But she was as patient as she had always been. She said she'd wait for him, and she had. She still was.
"I.AM.COMING!" The Woodsman's voice reverberated oddly off the rocks and large, jutting stones. It echoed across the walls of the enormous pit that yawned nearby.
This was a dangerous place. This Blight was a disease... a rotted, gangrenous speck on the skin of reality. And it was surrounded by savages who fed on other people. His heart should not have come here for him; she should have waited in Verdentia.
Why would she come here? Had she somehow known he would take this path? How had she gotten here?
Thoughts of the uncharacteristic and implausible nature her presence skittered off the shell of Nicholas's regimented mind. She was here. He would go to her and escort her to safety. Then Mazoz would restore him, as promised.
A giant metal foot came down on the rocks, shattering one of them. As the machine shifted its weight, several of the rocks popped free beneath him. The Woodsman's arms flew out automatically to adjust its balance, twisting his torso.
The figure that was his wife slid out of his field of vision-
All Woodsmen are identical. How had she even recognized him?
-But his green eye-ports found her again just as quickly.
It must been Mazoz's doing. HE had told her where he would be, and sent her here under his protection. Perhaps Mazoz himself was here, waiting to restore him! Yes!
The Woodsman covered the remaining distance in an awkward, almost comical lurching gait. His wife reached up for him as he came. He towered above her in this metal form. But soon they would stand side by side, hand in hand.
"I.AM.HERE!" He announced.
The female figure shimmered-
"WARNING! VISUAL.DISTORTION.DETECTED. SENSOR.CALIBRATION.FAILURE."
The woman vanished, and at the same instant there was a wet POP from the ground where she had stood.
The Woodsman's sensors detected rapid movement, and a soft impact across his torso and right arm. His 'skin' lacked the capacity for pain, but it could report damage. Nicolas looked down at himself and saw the stringy, organic substance that had spattered across his body. His armor sizzled where the net touched it, releasing tiny puffs of smoke.
"WARNING! DAMAGE CONSISTANT WITH ACIDIC CONTACT! RECOMMEND AV.OID.ANCE!"
Nicholas stepped back. The organic net tightened around him, slithering across his chassis like dozens of acid-covered snakes, scoring his 'skin' with sizzling burns. Rocks shifted under his feet as he tried to apply additional force.
"UNABLE TO BREAK CON.TACT!"
Nicholas followed the net to its source. The acidic tendrils led to a large, fleshy tube that jutted from the rocks. The tooth-ringed mouth of the tube was about a foot in diameter, but its shaft was anchored deep in the stone. It might only have been a foot long. Or it could have gone on for miles beneath his feet.
Not that it mattered.
The Woodman's right arm was hopelessly tangled, and beginning to report internal damage from acid dripping into the gaps. The left, however was fully functional.
The elongated housing clicked open, and the large blades popped out, sliding forward with a metallic CLANG.
"STAND CLEAR!" The Woodsman boomed. The blades came up to speed in seconds. Nicolas sliced through the flesh connecting his torso to the thing beneath the rocks. Pulp and acid sprayed in all directions. The Woodsman jerked backward, almost stumbling as the tension holding him vanished. He still wore the sizzling net, but it was no longer connected to the ground. The trailing end slipped back into the tube with a high squeal and a loud, wet slurp.
At his feet, the tube-creature pulled downward, retracting into the rock-
-or it tried to.
The Woodsman's foot came down hard and fast, not on the creature, but on the rocks immediately behind it. Sparks.... and blood... flew as metal, rock, and flesh slammed together. Instantly, the Woodsman reached down and grabbed the open end of the still-protruding tube. Metal fingers curled around the worm-like creature just below the yawning mouth. Then he pulled.
Rocks shifted as the creature came... not free... but UP. Six... eight... ten feet of long, ropy appendage with the color and consistency of giant entrails came away in the Woodsman's hand, with the trailing end still buried in the rock. Nicholas brought the open end to his 'face', peering into it with one pair of glowing green eyes.
"WHERE.IS.SHE!" He boomed.
The creature hissed, gurgled, and roared. Only the first two sounds came from the creature in Nicolas's grasp. The third... the deep, resonating roar... came from the bottom of the massive pit at the center of the blight.