Dances with Wizards + Part 1 (cont)

Politics.

I bring the sword up in a swift, harsh cut.

Estates.

I stab viciously to follow up.

Nobles.

One more angry swipe, and the ridiculous straw figure crashes to the ground.

I sheath the sword.

"Oh no-o-o!" The servant in charge of maintaining the training grounds has spotted the disemboweled dummy. "Why can't you train without destroying them?" he wails, mourning the bundle of junk. I ignore him and walk out of the area.

"Who does he think he is?" the offended servant fumes, behind me. "Shh!" another admonishes. "Her Ladyship's bodyguard can do as he wishes." There's a nervous tone in that voice. "Don't make him angry." I'd take more satisfaction in that if I actually cared.

I'm not actually a bodyguard - I'm a mercenary. Relena - the Lady I "guard" - wasn't the one who hired me, and she has no idea what I was hired for. I've been sent out to work for Relena's "advisor", who calls herself Dorothy - whether that's her real name or not, it doesn't make a difference. Her objective is to prevent the three major orders of magic from forging an alliance. Currently, she's using an ability of Relena's to find out who I need to kill for her.

The girl pounces on me the moment I enter the estate again. "Where have you been?"

I turn. "What?"

Dorothy frowns, but doesn't seem bothered. "I've been looking everywhere for you, Heero." She comes nearer and lowers her voice. "Relena has lapsed into a trance. She'll be having a vision shortly, so I'll need you to come with me."

I move to follow her.

Relena is a seer. She's also an idealistic, trusting politician with her heart set on total peace. From what I can see, it was ridiculously easy for Dorothy to gain her trust, brainwash her into 'forgetting' her visions, and make use of the ability herself.

And I just kill.

We enter the room a moment later. Relena is sitting in a plain but straight-backed chair. She's a pretty girl, for those who have an eye for it - blonde hair and large eyes, slender and regal and foolish at the same time. At the moment, her body is perfectly still, as if she doesn't even breathe, but she is sitting up very tall, head raised. Her eyes are closed and her lips parted, like a sleeping girl in a fairy tale waiting for a prince.

What she'll get is a demon.

"We've returned, my Lady." Dorothy smiles a little, facing the entranced girl. I hang back and lean against the doorframe - partly to keep free of the area where the vision's taking place and partly to make certain we're not interrupted. "Have you Seen anything yet?"

Relena's head rolls around on her shoulders, and her mouth opens wide, but she doesn't speak. It feels like there's a breeze in the tower room, but nothing's being moved by it. I stand where I am. I've seen enough of her visions, but even with the first one I didn't flinch.

I've dealt with magic before. And I will again.

Besides, I'm told that a person would need a soul to feel afraid. I've killed mine many times over.

At the center of the storm, Relena's head continues tossing wildly. The first time, I wondered if it would snap her neck. But it never has. Her fingers grip the arms of the chair she sits in, and all at once her eyes shoot open. They glow a perfect, flawless white.

Dorothy takes the girl's face between her hands. "What do you see?" she demands.

"They come." It's Relena's voice, but at the same time, it isn't. "They come with your destruction."

It must have been something Dorothy expected, because she leans forward, eyes intent. "At last," she breathes. "She Sees them, at last." Then she addresses Relena again. "Tell me who they are, and where I can find them."

"They come from the north and west. The Sorcerer, the Wizard, the Druid. And…" Her 'voice' shudders, and her body quakes, as if rejecting the vision.

"And…?" Dorothy repeats. "Tell me!"

"Two more!" Relena's head tilts back, so far that an ordinary person would be amazed that her neck didn't break in half from the strain. "There will be two more! They will kill you! Kill you!"

Her 'voice' is nearly a shriek.

"Enough!" Dorothy snaps. "Tell me who they are!"

Strangely enough, Relena's head twists toward me at that point. "A beast," she says, in a strange tone. "And a man who is lost. With… the magic users."

"Good enough." Dorothy frowns. "We'll get them all once we find out where they are. Tell me their location."

"Traveling." Relena's back arches. "From the western mountains… to the eastern."

Her voice is starting to fade. I glance at Dorothy, but she has her attention focussed entirely on the girl in front of her.

"Be more specific!"

"The woodlands to the north… ah!" Relena starts to convulse, inhuman grunts escaping her.

"Damnit!" Dorothy straightens, then turns toward me again. "Did you understand what she said? Is that enough information to track them down?"

I push myself up. "It'll do. When?"

"Relena will tell you when she sends you out herself." Dorothy smiles, watching as the girl's body finally ceases jerking and goes limp. "Here, my Lady," she says, in a concerned tone, "drink this."

She holds out the mug she had prepared, pressing it to Relena's lips. The girl drinks obediently, not awake enough to resist. Then she goes limp again, dead to the world for the moment.

"They're not to be killed this time," Dorothy tells me, putting the mug aside. "I want all three - or five, as it sounded - brought to me alive, willing or not. And whatever you do, you can't let them reach the eastern mountains."

I don't ask for her reasons. "Done."

She smiles. "Aren't you ever curious about anything, Heero?"

"Facts are insignificant if they won't help me," I reply. "I have my orders. If I need to know anything else, you would have told me already."

"True enough." She faces me completely. "The three magic users, at least, will have powers at their disposal. I understand you've been trained to handle that. Do you have magical abilities as well?"

"I have myself," I tell her. "That'll be adequate."

"I'm impressed." She seems about to say more, but we're interrupted by Relena, who suddenly decides to stir awake.

"Oh… dear." Her voice is muggy. "I must've dozed off." She looks up. "Dorothy, Heero - I don't remember you being here. How long have I been asleep?"

"Not long, my Lady," Dorothy assures her. "We only just arrived. You had just sent me to fetch Heero - don't you remember?"

"No." Relena sounds confused. "I don't." She turns her puzzled gaze on me, and smiles. "Did you have something to tell me?"

I glance at Dorothy. Better to let her do the talking.

"We've discovered something that might interest you, my Lady," Dorothy interjects smoothly. "You remember how you wanted a sorcerer to help you in your upcoming campaign? Of course you do. We've located one who just might be open to such a venture."

"Wonderful, Dorothy!" Relena's smile widens as she turns to regard her advisor. "Thank you so much for your searching. Is he here?"

"No, my Lady," Dorothy says, in an apologetic tone. "We'd have to send for him, of course. And he'd need the best protection when traveling to your estate… I wonder… just who could we send?"

"We can send Heero, of course." Relena turns toward me again. "Would you mind, Heero? Please go and ask this sorcerer to join us. I'll give you a message with my seal telling him all about our ideals."

"No need for that, my Lady," Dorothy says. "I'm certain he knows what the situation is. You can explain the details to him in person when he arrives."

Relena brightens. "Yes, of course. Thank you again, Dorothy."

"When should I leave?" I interrupt. I don't use titles. Neither of them has protested it yet.

"You can leave at your earliest convenience, please." Relena sounds like she's asking me rather than ordering me. "Tomorrow morning, perhaps?"

I bow and leave the room without another word.

Tomorrow morning.

I estimate that I'll have the magic-users back at this estate before a month's time.

--oOo--

My tail was low as I returned to the woods.

He may be a foolish cub, but Duo was my friend, and had been my constant companion since -- well, I couldn't remember when exactly he'd wandered into our pack. It would be lonely without him.

I ploughed resolutely through the snowdrifts. I did not know how it went with humans, but it was probably best for Duo to be in a pack of his own kind --

I stopped. If humans were anything like the pack -- if they were passing through they might be wary of admitting another to their ranks to share their kills. If they were planning on settling they might be stringently territorial in order to pass the word about their claim to the land.

Either way -- Duo who was a nice enough cub, if somewhat distractible, would need another set of teeth at his back. I decided to retrace my steps to the humans' bonfire, and watch the proceedings until I had determined whether or not Duo needed my aid.

I passed Duo along the way. Apparently, he was still remembering how to walk on two legs -- not made easier by the deepening snowdrifts. I would have loved to have teased him about his difficulty navigating these obstacles, but that would have defeated the purpose of going to the fire.

The smell of human was almost unbearable as I reached the fire. I growled low in my throat as I crept closer -- it was hard to ignore the feeling that this was a mistake, that I should not be trying to get as far from the humans as possible -- even further from the fire --

Two lone males. That should be good -- females made things cagey. I shifted my position until I was downwind and well hidden, although allowing myself a good vantage point. The humans were seated round the fire, eating something from the fire -- I didn't know the scent.

I picked up Duo's scent in the breeze and settled down to my watch. It was somewhat reassuring that his scent hadn't changed -- that he was still the same, even though he was a human. Scent is very important for a wolf.

"Is there room by your fire for a weary traveler?"

Although I'd noticed Duo's arrival, the two humans by the fire started. Evidently they'd been caught unawares.

Not necessarily a good thing. The dark haired one's posture was defensive as he stood. "And who might you be?"

I was rather astonished that I could understand the human words. Understanding Duo was not such a surprise -- we'd traveled together so long so as to be more or less in tune to the other's thoughts. But -- Duo had spoken so clearly into my mind before -- had that had some effect?

Duo laughed, swinging into view with a posture that said 'I'm harmless.' The two seemed to relax as he continued. "A wanderer, like yourselves, I see. I smelled your fire and hoped you'd let me join you." As the black haired one still hesitated, Duo smiled at the other, the sunlight-haired one. "It's been a long time since I've talked with any people," he said, wistfully.

Ah. So he too had noticed that in contrast to his companion, the lighter furred one was open in posture, more welcoming. And he had to snicker at Duo's insinuation he'd been alone. That showed cunning, while not actual deceit. He waited the outcome of Duo's ploy.

"There's more than enough room -- and I don't mind sharing what food I've got -- Wufei?"

The blond deferred to the black haired one -- obviously the dominant male. He was still inclined to hesitate.

"I don't think its wise for us to associate with civilians. I apologise for my abruptness, but we are both magic users on our journeys -- the challenges we face may be unsafe for any unprepared people. "

Duo laughed.

This was not a good idea, as it immediately attracted the ire of the somewhat dour pack leader. "I see nothing humorous in this situation," he said.

Duo shrugged. "I just find it amusing that you should be worried about me. I'm a magic user too."

"Really?" The blond human was on his feet instantly. "What kind? You're not a sorcerer -- "

"Druid," Duo said.

"Druid!"

I bristled instantly. The tone with which Wufei said that word, even if I didn't fully understand it, made my fur rise.

"All the more reason for us not to welcome you," Wufei muttered.

The blond had a very different reaction. "A druid? That's fascinating -- and you're on your testing journey too? Sit down -- let me get you something to eat -- "

The blond had gone against the will of his leader. I waited tensely for the outburst, but all that happened was that the dark haired human sat down grumbling to himself.

Interesting. Perhaps the blond was the dominant male?

He was now bustling round, settling Duo like a mother wolf. I shook my head and decided to creep closer, to see if their scent might solve this puzzle.

"I only just left on my journey," the blond announced. "My name's Quatre."

"Duo." My friend shook his hand. Maybe this was how humans exchanged scents?

The dark-haired human did not offer his hand, remaining aloof. "I heard that no druid has managed to complete their testing journey in the last twenty years."

"That's partly right," Duo said. "But our testing journeys are different than yours. A druid's journey ends when he dies, and not before then -- we don't believe you can ever stop learning. This stew is really nice."

"That's an interesting philosophy," Quatre said. "Wufei made it. Would you like some more?"

"But, if you don't end your journey, how do you earn your ranks?" Wufei asked.

"The elders keep an eye on us, rule us, that kind of thing. When they want to retire they chose another to take their place. Apart from that, there is no rank divide. We're all druids."

"I'm on my journey now to become a sorcerer, not a novice sorcerer," Quatre said. "After this journey, I'll be accepted among the ranks of sorcerers. After that is the rank of Master Sorcerer, which is extremely hard to get."

"That sounds more like the wizard's school," Wufei said. "We have five ranks of wizard, and seven half-ranks."

None of this made much sense at all. I sighed, hoping humans didn't always gab this much. Trying to follow their conversation made my head hurt.

"Don't be too generous with the food," Wufei warned the others. "We don't have that much in the way of rations."

That was obviously directed at Duo. I bristled. The dark-haired male was obviously attempting to establish superiority over Duo, and I knew my friend was mild tempered enough that he wouldn't try to resist it.

Well if he wouldn't, I would.

With a growl and a sudden leap I was inside the camp circle. I snarled at the dark-haired human, taking up the classic 'challenge' posture. Ready for attack, I deliberately met the dark-haired wizard's surprised eyes.

You want to bully Duo? You have to get past me first, I snarled.

"What the -- " Wufei drew something from the inside of his tunic and waved it at me. There was a crackling sound then --

"Solo!" Duo yelled, crashing into me.

We rolled a bit, and then there was this almighty flash.

"Hell," said Duo.

I dimly became aware that Wufei and Quatre were conversing in highly excited tones behind us. I was more interested in the fact that the snow drift we'd landed in was now a puddle … and that the tree branches above us were still burning.

"Were you trying to kill him?"

"How was I supposed to know he was going to dive in front of it? I was aiming it at the wolf!"

"Solo? Are you all right?" Duo was more concerned with me. I barked in the affirmative, standing up and shaking. The area where I'd been standing was scorched, there was no snow and the crisp smell of smoke lingered on the air.

I was somewhat impressed.

"Solo? You mean this thing is yours?"

I growled at him. Was he suggesting I was Duo's property? That was an insult to any wolf.

"Not mine exactly. A friend of mine, sure," Duo said hastily.

"You set him on us?"

Incredible! I snarled at the black-haired human again. That human is just asking for a good nip --

Stop that! Duo swatted me. "I had no idea Solo was here," he said. "He must have heard our conversation and thought you were threatening me -- he's rather protective of those he considers pack."

"And he considers you pack?" Quatre asked, kneeling down by Duo's side, and looking at me with interested, though not frightened, eyes. I wagged my tail briefly, keeping a watch on Wufei. "How long have you been in these woods for?"

"Uh … I can't actually remember," Duo laughed, embarrassed. "It's easy to lose track of time up here. I've been studying wolves and -- "

"This one adopted you? I don't believe you."

Wufei again. This time I bared my teeth.

"Ignore him," Duo told me. "This isn't like the pack. Humans don't have set ranks -- well not in this situation at least. We travel as equals."

I was sceptical.

"He can understand you?" Quatre asked.

"Pretty much. Wolves interact through gesture and tone and smell -- he can still pick up the first two things."

"How do we know you're not making this up? I think you made the wolf attack -- "

"His name is Solo -- "

"Stop bickering!" Quatre commanded. "Wufei, I've got a well developed sense of empathy, I know that neither Duo nor Solo intended to harm us. Duo -- what is, uh, Solo doing?"

I'd walked right up to Quatre, deliberately making eye-contact then rolled over onto my back, so that my throat was unguarded.

"He's, uh, decided that you are the pack leader and he's giving you his throat -- its kind of like throwing himself at your mercy and saying that he'd like to be part of your pack."

"You're not serious," Wufei groaned.

"Uh -- what do I do?"

"Make eye contact with him -- then, Uh -- I don't know. Our old pack leader would bite here -- "

Quatre shut his eyes. A moment later I felt a gentle pressure against my thoughts -- much like Duo had done. The sense of being welcome was strong --

I sat up, wagging my tail.

I had joined the human pack.

--oOo--

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