Dances with Wizards + Part 2 (cont)

-- oOo --

This is almost ridiculous.

I've studied magic-users since I was young - that's what I was trained for, after all - and I've dealt with more than a few. But these three... They display their weaknesses far too easily. I can read the lot of them like they've got their personalities printed on their faces.

"Here's the bag." The blond sorcerer brings over the supplies needed for cooking. "I hope it's the right one - sometimes it's hard for me to tell." He smiles.

Quatre, their supposed leader, is soft-hearted. He follows his feelings and trusts easily - even to the point of disregarding his instincts at some points. I believe he's the only one in the strange little group who has actually started to like me. I think he knows he shouldn't trust me, but he chooses to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Careless. Very careless.

I've begun to think that wolf he always seems to have following him around is the only thing that would keep him from being accidentally killed or taken advantage of. Of course, I've yet to see him in a fight, so I'll refrain from judging him on that.

"Yeah, it's the one." The dark-haired wizard takes the offered bag with a brisk thanks, and digs into it. "Get out of my way for a while. I don't like people looking over my shoulder while I cook." The easterner, Wufei, is proud. He's got a rigid sense of honor and, though he's not exactly conceited, his opinion of his skills and his worth is high. He's also overly serious and takes his actions and his words just as seriously. He's quick to judge, and doesn't like to back down from any position, even though his feelings or instincts might warn him otherwise.

Too easily manipulated.

I think that of the three of them, Wufei would be the most difficult to defeat in straightforward combat. He leaves himself open to trickery, though, mostly because his own sense of honor won't allow him to fully consider the possibility that an enemy would be so dishonorable.

"Got the firewood." The braided druid sets down his sizable bundle next to Wufei. "Think that oughta last you long enough, Wuffie? I could always get more, no problem."

Out of the magic-users, the druid intrigues me the most - more than likely a result of the fact that I've never actually dealt with one before. Druids aren't combatants by nature, so one rarely finds oneself in a position to fight against them. Duo seems typical of their kind - efficient and disdainful of any waste. He's close to nature and values life of any kind. Most people would say there's something beautiful about that. I think that he's flighty and unreliable - not to mention stubborn. It's always interesting to hear the same argument about honor presented in different ways. Maybe some day someone will actually convince me.

He shouldn't hold his breath for that.

However, Duo wouldn't make a very challenging opponent. His weakness lies in the fact that, because of his views on the importance of preserving life, he'd be hesitant to kill unless he could see the absolute need for it. I know exactly how to take advantage of that sort of hesitation.

"Heero?" Quatre glances at me. "You're awfully quiet - is something the matter?"

I shrug. "Just thinking."

Duo rolls his eyes and sits down by Wufei. "Mr. Cheerful. He's worse than you." He nudges the easterner.

Wufei scowls at him.

Dorothy's final instructions to me were to bring back all five of the companions - but I only saw four. Well, four if you counted the wolf. Relena had spoken of a beast, so I assume that was what she was talking about.

I haven't seen anything of a man who was lost.

Still, I could bring these four in. Dorothy seemed most interested in the magic-users anyway; she probably wouldn't mind. And I'm not about to go hunting aimlessly after some obscure phrase. If she kills the others, it won't have any meaning anyway.

I have to consider my options carefully. If I decide to take them all at once, I'll have to be sure of their fighting skills. I haven't seen any of them fight yet, so I have no idea.

Perhaps it's time to do a little bit of field research...

I'll just have to make a request of my superiors.

I casually reach for my bag. Inside is a small knife, like the type used for skinning animals. I twist the handle to the right, one half turn.

That'll be enough to show me what I need to know.

"What are you doing?" Wufei demands suddenly. He's looking at me. I meet his gaze. "Getting myself a blanket."

"Keep your hands where I can see them, mercenary," the easterner tells me coldly. "I don't entirely trust you not to stab us while our backs are turned."

"Wufei!" Quatre hisses.

"It's perfectly normal to have suspicions." I pull out the wool blanket. "I have no honor, after all."

The wizard glares at me suspiciously.

"Don't worry about it, Wuffie," Duo speaks up suddenly. "As long as our backs aren't turned, he doesn't have a place to stab us, now does he?"

His gaze meets mine - that is a definite challenge. There's more intelligence behind those eyes than I thought at first. I suddenly see the purpose behind the light, offhand comment.

I'm impressed. Maybe he's not so flighty.

Beside Quatre, the wolf snarls.

Duo turns from me. "Something's out there," he tells the others. I make sure my weapons are in place. This should be interesting.

"What's out there?" Wufei asks. "Another wolf?"

Duo shakes his head, and glances back at the wolf again. "Nothing that belongs in this forest," he answers.

Quatre actually looks intrigued rather than frightened or tense. "Really? Well, maybe we should find out if it's friendly. If it is, it might be interesting to - "

"It's not," Duo interrupts him. He looks vaguely disturbed. "It's killing trees."

"Trees?" Wufei repeats. "Just how big is this thing?"

I could answer that one. Really big.

"Really big." The druid unconsciously echoes my thoughts. "And it's not normal. It's something created - unnatural."

By this point even Quatre is on guard. We can hear nothing from the surrounding forest; everything is completely silent. That's it then. I brace myself for the initial attack.

The creature bursts through the trees around the camp, and roars, leaping at its first victim - Solo.

An arrow hits its face, and the wolf has time to jump out of the way before the thing lands. I hadn't even seen Duo pick up his bow, much less draw it and fire.

Very impressive.

"What is that?" Quatre gasps, as the wolf lopes over to his side. It stands between him and the beast, snarling, as if it intends to protect him. "It looks like a monster!"

I don't know the answer to that myself, but the creature is menacing enough. It has a huge snout like a boar's, and a broad expanse of thick skin over its enormous back. It's nearly as tall as the three of them put into one person, and its arms are apelike and twice the size of my waist. It doesn't carry weapons - there's no real need. The fur covering the thing is dark grey - appropriate, for a beast of darkness.

"Call it whatever you like!" Wufei has a thin strip of paper between his fore and middle fingers. "But speculate after we've killed it." He holds the paper in front of him like a weapon. "Quatre."

""Right." The blond holds out his hand and a blast of what I recognize as pure inner energy - knocking the creature back and dazing it. Quatre wavers where he stands. That's the main weakness of a sorcerer; their magic comes from within, so it drains them to use it.

Time to join in. I jump in from the other side and attack the sensitive part of its stomach. That's enough to enrage it. I deliberately slow my reaction time to the point where the thing can and does throw me aside with a clumsy swipe of one thick arm. Pain rushes through me when I land. I ignore it in favor of watching the battle. I have plenty more to learn.

"Duo!" Quatre manages to recover fairly quickly - not bad. "Fall back and keep shooting! It can't take too much of that!"

"Got it!" The thing aims another swipe at Duo, who skips back out of the way and gives it a few more arrows. The tips must be poisoned, because it slows a little more with each one.

The wolf growls, and comes to the rescue of his comrade, jumping onto the creature's back and sinking its teeth into the back of that throat. It does no good, of course; its hide is too thick. The wolf is thrown back with very little effort.

"Solo!" Duo and Quatre both shout, out of sync with each other.

"Quatre!" That's a warning shout from Wufei's side.

The sorcerer appears to understand, and focuses on the charging creature. "Give it a hit!" he tells the wizard. "Duo needs space to shoot from!"

Wufei holds up the slip of paper and shut his eyes - then with a flick of his wrist, releases that energy.

A thick wall of flame bursts from where he stands and hits its target with a satisfying scorching sound, burning the creature in its side. It roars in anger and lashes out - at Quatre rather than him, forcing the sorcerer to take a dive into the bushes.

"Quatre! Watch it!" Duo calls, distracting the thing with another volley of arrows. Stupidly, the thing flails at him, and he dodges neatly. It hits Wufei instead, winding the wizard. "Wufei!"

It seems that the easterner is out of commission for the moment; he's lying prone, and gasping for breath. Duo is already running to his side, heedless of any danger.

Quatre finishes floundering in the bushes, and comes back up with a determined look. "I'll give us some breathing room! Hold on!"

He brings the statement to life by pressing his hands together as if praying, and shutting his eyes. "Shield," he says, in the same kind of tone as Relena when she's in one of her seer spells. The air seems to shudder and solidify around us - creating a kind of energy bubble that pushes the beast out and locks the magic-users in.

Quatre collapses to his knees, momentarily spent.

The thing howls its fury and beats against the translucent wall, but Duo's arrows appear to have done their work well. It slows, stops, and then falls.


Impressive. I admit to a grudging respect there. I had expected more hesitation, less skill... it was a little clumsy, but I can see the beginnings of a very strong fighting team growing there. With more practice, and more battles, they could easily become a force to be feared.

It's too bad they won't get the chance.

-- oOo --

It was dead?

The massive form lay in the trampled snow, muddy and stained with blood. It twitched, writhing a bit, but did not rise.

Quatre was the first to recover and typically, his first action was one of concern. "Are you all right?" he asked, pulling Heero out of the snowbank he'd been thrown into. "Is anyone hurt?"

Wufei was throwing up into a bush. Duo had an arm around him and was rubbing his back. "We're fine," he said. "Just a bit shaken -- where's Solo?"

Heero grunted, shaking off Quatre's hand. I suspected he felt he'd lost face by his part in the battle -- having to be rescued by the others would rankle. Quatre didn't notice, he was concerned -- for me.

"Oh no -- Solo? Solo!"

"Sooloo! Answer us!" Duo was getting upset. I barked in answer.

"Oh my." Quatre stared.

"Stay there! Don't move!" Duo was even more frantic. "We'll get you down!"

I barked at him again, telling him not to be foolish. As if I was going anywhere --

Four legs might be okay on the ground, but they were not much use in a tree. I couldn't move much for fear the branches that had caught me would let me go --

In short I was pretty much stuck.

"How did that happen?" Wufei wondered, recovering himself. "That ... thing just tossed him up there?"

I sighed. It had happened when I'd jumped on the beast's back. It had shaken me off like I was a flea -- which I suppose was accurate in terms of our respective sizes. Still -- I'd been powerless against that thing. I did not like that at all.

"Wufei, do you have a levitation spell?" Quatre asked.

The Wizard nodded. "Why?"

"I can make a solid surface out of the air. If you raised it we could use it to gently lower Solo down -- "

Wufei nodded and they went to work. Duo hovered nervously, probably the most worried out of all of us, and Heero watched silently. The cloud-like platform Quatre had constructed was raised slowly to me, until I brushed the branches. Problem -- I still couldn't free myself. I barked this information to Duo.

"Hang on -- I can fix that," Duo said, walking over to the tree.

"You can't climb it, Druid," Wufei said. "Those branches won't take both of your weight -- "

Duo ignored him, wrapping his arms around the tree trunk and shutting his eyes.

Quatre and Wufei exchanged a glance.

"He's not thinking of -- that's not possible is it?"

"I heard rumours -- always assumed they were rumours -- " Wufei broke off as the branches below me abruptly shifted.

I was slowly lowered through the branches to the floating cloud, the branches passing me along like so many hands. I barked and tried to fight them, not at all happy with this new development.

"Steady Solo! We've almost got you!" Quatre called. I looked down to find the cloud just below me -- and suddenly I was sitting on it, rather startled. The cloud carried me down, dissolving into nothing as I reached the ground.

"Solo! Are you all right?"

"You're not hurt?"

I was immediately fussed over by Duo and Quatre, both of whom had to pat me strenuously in order to be satisfied that I was indeed still alive. I barked, wagging my tail, to show them I was okay.

"How did you do that?" Wufei demanded. "It looked like -- the tree obeyed you!"

Duo hugged me. "Don't be silly, Wufei. If Druids could do things like that, don't you think everyone would know about it?"

"We'd better get going," Heero said sourly. "It's getting late -- we don't want to be here when night sets. There might be others."

"Lead on," Quatre motioned to Heero. As Duo stood to walk after them I fastened my teeth in his sleeve.

"Solo? What -- "

I hauled him into the bushes. I would talk with you. It's very important.

"Duo?" Quatre called back. "Is something wrong?"

"Solo wants to talk to me," Duo yelled. "We'll catch up with you later." He turned to me. //What's the matter, hunt-brother?// I took a deep breath. //I would be human.//

-- oOo --

"Goodnight, Duo -- Solo," Quatre lingered by the fire. "Are you sure you're not tired?"

"It's a beautiful night," Duo said with a shrug. "Look at that moon." I barked in agreement.

Quatre followed our gaze upwards. "I don't think I'd noticed before -- how bright the moon is -- or the stars."

"The air is clearer up here in the mountains. Makes for great star gazing," Duo said, leaning back. "Sure you don't want to join us? It'll be good -- take your mind off -- you know -- "

Quatre hesitated, then a yawn decided him. "Some other night. I think I need the sleep."


I watched Quatre leave then lay down beside Duo. He'd said he'd think about my request and answer me tonight. I hardly knew what I hoped -- on one hand there was the prospect of achieving my desire -- losing everything I knew in the process.

"Solo?" Duo said. "Before I answer you, tell me why you want what you do."

I growled. Was such hedging really necessary?

"Yes. I've never used my magic to change another before -- I have no idea how it may affect you. Therefore I want to be satisfied that it is for a good cause or I will not attempt it."

Of all the times for Duo not to act like an irresponsible cubling! I told him of my resolution to travel with them, of my feeling during the battle when my inability to aid my pack-mates had been amply demonstrated. As a human I could aid them where as a wolf I could not -- and I would protect Quatre.

"Always it comes back to Quatre -- " Duo smiled. "Ya think I should tell him what a lucky guy he is?" He sat up as I bared my teeth at him. "Only joking!"

This is no joking matter! I growled. Duo --

"Easy, Solo. I know this is important to you -- and for that reason, I'll do it."

Really? I stood, tail wagging. Now?

"No! Course not!"

My tail dropped. Why not?

"All sorts of considerations. I mean -- you'd be naked! Not a great way to make an entrance -- not to mention catching hypothermia -- and if your build as a human is anything like your wolf form then my clothes aren't going to do you much good -- and then there's the magic aspect! If I use magic here Wufei and Quatre will pick it up -- and we're not supposed to use our magic openly! And I've already blown that rule once today -- and am I ever in trouble when the Council gets together next -- "

I nipped Duo to bring him back to the matter at hand. So when can you change me?

"I remember there being a town to the East of here a bit. We could get ahead of the others a bit -- I could get clothes for you there -- and the others could catch up with us when they get there. What do you think?"

I was already padding towards the forest. Let's go.

Duo whined a bit about missing sleep but a couple of assertive bites put a stop to that.

"What about tomorrow when the others wake up and find us gone? Do you really want to upset Quatre?" he asked, cunning.

I wavered. We'll come back quickly.

"Fine," Duo sighed. "The fact we're wandering through woods that, as we saw recently, are inhabited by monsters, in the height of night, all on our own doesn't bother you?"

I snorted at his statement. Anyone might think you were scared.

"You're really bent on leaving now?" Duo sighed. "Lead on, O besotted one."

I looked at him suspiciously. 'Besotted' is not in the vocabulary of most wolves -- but as Duo seemed resigned to the journey I let it pass. We made good progress through the woods. The snow had started to fall again, softly, giving the night a soft, veiled feel.

"I don't like this," Duo said. "Another one of those monsters might be out there, and we wouldn't hear it until it was on top of us." I growled at him. We couldn't do anything about the situation, so what was the use in bringing it up?

Duo laughed at me. "Maybe there is something we can do. Take my clothes."

I listened amusedly to Duo swearing as he fastened his bundle of belongings onto my back. Having lived among humans for a while, I knew the meaning of a few of the words -- You're done?

"Sssh," Duo told me, with his eyes shut. I watched as his form suddenly seemed to become fluid, reforming itself into a soft white body and wings. The owl blinked at me once, revealing bright yellow eyes, before spreading its wings experimentally.

I was impressed.

Duo launched himself into the air with a flutter of wings no louder than the sound of the fallen snow. He was quickly lost amongst the falling snow but a soft hoot floated back to me from several trees ahead, an invitation to follow.

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully. With Duo in the air we made much better progress -- I could travel at my own speed rather than having to adjust my gait to match the two-leggers. Just as dawn began to lighten the sky and the snow stopped falling, Duo swooped down to inform me the human village was in sight.

"We'll be there in time for breakfast," he said, pulling on his clothes. "I might even have time to take a bath -- a hot bath -- with real hot water -- "

I barked. He hadn't forgotten the reason for this journey?

"How could I?" Duo said. "You'd bite me if I did."

The human village was strange, unsettling. So many of them crowded into one space -- enough for several packs. Not surprisingly, sharing such a confined territory, there were plenty of sharp voices and shouts. I stayed close beside Duo, wondering how he could thread his way through the confusion with such calm.

"Here we go -- tailor," Duo said, pushing open the entrance to one of the human dwelling places -- a sort of wooden cave, enclosed, but situated right out in the open. I followed him inside, not liking the feeling of being trapped that rose within me as the door closed.

"May I have a look at your wares?" Duo asked the man seated inside the den. He described what he wanted as the man looked me over with a sour look.

"There'll be no dogs inside my shop, thank-you," he said.

I bared my teeth, unnerved by this strange place and ready to defend myself against any slight. Duo came to my rescue.

"It's okay," he said. "Solo's a wolf. Now, about these prices -- "

The shopkeeper gave the clothes to us for nothing.

"I ought to go shopping with you more often!" Duo chortled as we returned to the woods. "What's the problem, Solo?"

I fretted. The man at the shop -- dismissed me.

"I'm afraid most humans are that way to animals. Ignore them -- they don't know any better," Duo replied. "Are you ready?"

I tried to dismiss my worry from my mind. I'm ready.

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