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Dee had no idea what was she witnessing, but she knew it was bad.
She heard the sound of men and women screaming, and realized that she'd been hearing it the whole time. It wasn't the soldiers-
The prisoners! She'd been so focused on the men with the long knives that she'd forgotten about the prisoners. Red-eyed fiends surrounded the cage, and Dee watched as they began to yank at the bars. Those trapped within huddled in the middle of their mobile cell. The cage rocked back and forth as more attackers joined the frenzy. One of the wooden bars gave way with a loud CRACK, which only served to draw more of the fiends into the mob. More bars gave way. Shriveled shapes surged in, and Dee saw the first struggling human form dragged out of the cage. It was a woman. She screamed and kicked as the fiends dragged her away into the darkness. Another prisoner was right behind her. The sound of snapping wood stabbed at Dee's nerves as the cage was torn apart from the outside. Soon there was a continuous line of naked forms being forcibly removed from the wreckage.
It reminded Dee of a swarm of ants devouring a piece of bread, carrying away one tiny chunk at a time.
The strange animals that had pulled the carriage were gone. The fiends had inadvertently freed them as they reduced the cage to kindling, and now the beasts where nowhere to be seen.
A shout elsewhere on the floor below drew Dee's attention. The crowd of the strange, shriveled men had mostly dispersed. Some had followed fleeing soldiers, others concentrated on the prisoners. Most had simply vanished, disappearing into the shadows with their prisoners. But the leader of the soldiers had not been dragged away.
He'd been surrounded, but they hadn't yet brought him down. Dee saw him staggering amid a mound of motionless, shriveled figures. A second figure limped behind him... the one soldier that had joined him in combat while the others had scattered. Together, they'd slaughtered about two dozen of the fiends. The second man was dragging his right leg as if it were attached to his body only by the clothes that he wore, but he still had his knife and looked ready to use it.
But there was nothing to use it ON.
Everything around them was dead. The vines over their heads had already disgorged their fruit, and now hung nearly motionless as the leader and his one remaining soldier stood amid the field of carnage.
Eyes gleamed in the shadows behind them, cutting off their retreat. The lead soldier raised his knife and shouted at the darkness at the front of the chamber where the single red light gleamed.
"HOW MANY MORE!" There was no weariness in the soldier's voice. None at all. "HOW MANY MORE WILL YOU LOSE TO TAKE US! ANOTHER DOZEN!? TWO!? WILL TWO MEN SERVE YOU THAT MUCH MORE THAN WHAT YOU'VE LOST!? YOU'RE ALREADY ENDING THIS WITH FEWER THAN YOU STARTED... EVEN WITH THE TRIBUTE!"
Who was he shouting to? The woman? Dee hadn't seen her since the carnage had begun.
"LET US GO!" The soldier continued. "WE'LL DOUBLE THE TRIBUTE! TRIPLE NEXT TIME! THERE IS NO TREACHERY HERE! LET US GO TO SEAL THIS NEW BARGAIN!!"
Nothing happened for a heartbeat... two...
Then the red eyes began to move in the shadows. Move...away. Glowing eyes vanished two at a time as the waiting creatures fell back. The last of the naked prisoners was already gone, and soon there was nothing visible on the floor below except rubble, bodies, the two soldiers, and the single red light that glowed ominously at them.
Dee could see more, now. It was still dark; but dawn was approaching. Dee could now verify what she'd thought she'd only imagined before: some massive shape in the darkness where the red light hovered. It looked... serpentine.... but not quite. Even if it had been a snake, it would have been enormous. There were other shapes as well: Human-sized shapes arrayed on the floor before it, some held in place by creatures with glowing eyes. They seemed to be waiting for something...
"THE BARGAIN IS MADE!" The soldier shouted. The soldiers began to back away slowly. Both still clutched their knives warily.
The shape moved, uncoiling and lowering itself to the ground with the barely audible hisssss of dry flesh sliding against stone. The single red light moved with it... lowering, and then moving forward with a smooth, fluid surge.
The soldiers moved back more quickly. The leader draped one arm around his compatriot and helped him along.
The shape emerged from the shadows... and kept emerging. Dee gasped and more and more of the creature's glossy black length unfurled from the darkness. She understood why it looked serpentine, but it clearly wasn't.
It was a bug... A giant millipede-like thing with multi-segmented body. It was flat, almost like a tapeworm, but each squat segment bore three pairs of short, spindly legs. All the legs moved in a single undulating rhythm, propelling the beast along the floor. The head was broad and triangular, reminding Dee of a massive tick. It was the size of two cars, and instead of mandibles or mouthparts, the arrow-like head ended in a blunt point with a giant, oblong sucker on the underside. Concentric rings of inward-curving teeth flexed around the fleshy hole. A ridge extended up and back from the mouth, forming the top of the head. Two faceted eyes gleamed in deep sockets on either side of the ridge. Between and above them sat a smaller, central eye... an eye that glowed bright red.
All three orbs fixed on the soldiers.
The men turned and ran. Or tried.
The creature looked as if it could have caught them easily, but instead, it drew itself up so that the head and first few segments were off the floor. Dee saw a large scar on the underside of the first segment. The beast curved back, looping over its still-emerging length and then snapped forward.
There was a wet, hissing sound. A stream of thick pale liquid sprayed out of the creature's circular mouth. The single blast hit both men squarely as they fled, soaking the soldiers and around them for several yards. One of the men let out a single scream, and both men stopped moving instantly. They didn't fall... they just stopped as the fluid solidified almost on impact Dee saw them struggling against it... one foot trembling in mid-air as the leg that held it tried to force it to the floor. It didn't work. The fleeing soldiers looked as if they'd been drenched in glue. Dee couldn't even tell if they were breathing any more.
The creature that has captured them glared down at its prey, then eased forward, moving almost leisurely across the floor. The head lowered again, and the round leech-like mouth descended to within a few feet of one of the figures. Both men were just whitish lumps now, but Dee knew that the larger lump was the lead soldier, the one who'd tried to bargain with the giant bug.
There was no bargaining now.
The man didn't move... COULDN'T move. Something else emerged from the creature's mouth now. A long, tubular tongue with a spiked tip. The tip stabbed down into what might have been the soldier's head... Dee couldn't tell. There was a faint wet crack that echoed across the distance, and then the tongue's translucent length became red.
Dee swallowed, then fought the urge to vomit as the creature sucked the fluids from the trapped soldier. Blood wasn't all it took. Thick clots and bits of tissue slid along the tongues' length, visible as darker shapes amid the reddish-black flow.
"Oh God," Dee muttered under her breath. She eased back from the ledge. Now she knew. Now she knew what was going to happen to the soldiers... and to the prisoners they'd brought to feed to this giant... thing.
And now she could guess where the red-eyed men had come from, too. Why the looked so... shriveled.
Dee risked one more glance over the edge, and saw that the creature had finished its meal. The circular mouth hovered above the other soldier, but the creature paused. The head pulled away and twisted upward.
One eye... then all three fixed on Dee as a wet, hissing sound filled the chamber.