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"WHERE.IS.SHE!" The Woodsman shouted once more. He hauled upward on the intestine-like creature he held in one metal fist. More of the thing slid free of the rocks. Its length undulated, then whipped back and forth trying to free itself.
The Woodsman's featureless face was incapable of expression, but the intermittent green pulse from his eye-ports grew brighter. He didn't move. Slick flesh oozed from between his fingers as his grip tightened.
The Blight shuddered in response. Rocks of every size shifted as the surface beneath them vibrated.
"What?" Lahr felt the shudder, but kept his eyes fixed on the figure before him. The thing continued to shift rapidly, unable to fully imitate either Pardus or the older Covenant soldier so long as both Lahr and the Scarecrow were watching it.
But that didn't stop it from disappearing altogether.
Just as the ground shook, the figure vanished. There was movement on the ground, and Lahr's quick eyes caught a glimpse of something large and worm-like being sucked into the loose rock where the Pardus-Soldier had stood.
"What?" Lahr repeated.
The Scarecrow frowned at him. Lahr couldn't judge the expression, but he must have thought that Lahr had done something... and was perhaps waiting for him to do something else.
"It wasn't me!" he hissed. "Go! Quickly!"
The silent soldier slid his knives back into their hiding places and tried to dart back the way they had come. At his first step, however, the Blight shook as if the ground beneath them had been struck with a giant fist. From below.
Lahr dropped to all fours. The Scarecrow stumbled, but caught himself with one hand.
"What's happening?" Lahr risked looking around. He expected to see more of the shadowy figures that seemed to pop into existence whenever there was someone to see them. He saw none. He did see his clothes, and as he retrieved them he saw the Woodsman struggling with something near one of the large, protruding rocks.
The giant machine grasped some kind of thick, fleshy tentacle, and was attempting to pull it out of the ground. Whatever it was didn't want to come. Every time the machine yanked, the Blight shuddered.
The foul stench wafting from the pit at the Blight's heart intensified. And with each shudder, Lahr heard the sounds of crunching rocks and wet, scrambling movement from somewhere below.
A lot of movement.
As if something very large was pulling itself upward... dragging itself across the rot-covered rocks that lined the sides of the pit.
Loose rocks slid down the edge of the pit at the Blight's heart, giving it the appearance of a widening mouth.
Perhaps that's exactly what it was.
Lahr didn't want to see any more.
"WOODSMAN!" He called. "LET IT GO!"
"SHE.IS.HERE!" The machine shouted back. He pulled hard on whatever it was he had captured. More of the undulating flesh slid free, with no sign that it was anywhere near the end. Perhaps the giant worm went on forever. Perhaps it was connected to the thing in the pit. From below-
One of the enormous jutting rocks near the Woodsman tilted suddenly as most of the ground behind it vanished into the pit. The monolith started to fall.
"BEHIND YOU!" Lahr shouted.
The Woodsman's eyes pulsed, perhaps in recognition of Lahr's warning- perhaps not. Nicholas started to turn. Woodsmen were faster than they appeared, but that wasn't nearly fast enough. The falling slab struck Nicolas across the back and right shoulder. Lahr flinched at the sound of twisting metal, followed by what sounded like the ringing of an enormous bell. The Woodsman staggered, falling to what would have been knees on a human. His right shoulder twisted out of place. The arm fell loose, but not completely away as whatever mechanism held it in place yielded before the impact.
"DAM.AGE!" There was a warble in the mechanical man's voice. The fleshy appendage that Nicolas had been holding slipped free of his grasp and, with a high squeal, vanished into the rocks. "IN.I.TI.ATE. AUTO-RE.PAIR"
"Woodsman!" Lahr shouted. He wondered just what he was supposed to do. The Woodsman looked hurt, but the machine was not a person.
Yet... if it wasn't a man, how had it been lured like the rest of them? The woman's dog had been immune to the Blight's shades. But not the machine?
The Blight interrupted the dilemma by shaking violently. There was an odd pulling sensation, as if the world had been briefly tipped to one side. Lahr threw himself backward, trying to regain his balance.
He collided with something soft and squealing.
Dee opened her eyes directly in front of him.
"What's happening!?" she said. She looked around, confused "Why is the ground shaking; Where are the trees!? You told me to-"
"Why did you turn BACK!?" shouted Lahr.
"I DIDN'T! What's Going ON!"
"I WAS going back!"
Lahr looked past the confused woman and saw what had happened... and was still happening. The Scarecrow was running for the trees, but as Lahr watched, the patch of trees that was directly ahead of the soldier not only receded away from him, but slid away to one side. The Scarecrow's straight path turned into a gentle curve, with the edge of the Blight literally twisting away from him. Treach, the pit bull, barked furiously at the Scarecrow, but the dog's voice was too distant to hear despite him literally being a handful of steps away. The Scarecrow stopped running and regarded the suddenly-distant trees with suspicion. He moved toward them once more.
They moved back.
The Blight didn't want to let them go. It wanted them so badly that it was twisting its already warped reality even further just to keep them inside.
But it wasn't content just to keep them.
Dee's path... and the Scarecrow's... were taking them into the heart of the distortion. Toward the pit at Blight's near center, where something large and foul was clawing its way up toward them.