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Dee froze, but her eyes kept moving. The three unnaturally large animals that had come to greet them weren't alone. Other shapes moved behind the trees. Dee caught glimpses of fur, skin, and scales. A handful of beasts became a dozen. And the dozen became dozens. Dee couldn't identify them all.
"Okay, WHO'S idea was it to take a shortcut through the zoo?"
Something large moved behind them. Dee didn't turn to look. She wasn't sure she wanted to know what it was. Beside her, Treach continued to growl. She pretended she was holding him back, but the dog's muscles were like brick. If he wanted to go, he was going. The only reason he hadn't was because nothing had actually threatened them yet.
That wasn't going to last long.
The enormous panther took a step forward. The wolf and bear matched the motion a second later.
"Here we go..."
The panther's eyes swept past Treach and focused on Dee, travelling down her body and back up, as if she were being studied, measured, judged, and then dismissed. It did the same for the Scarecrow.
"You... in the net..." Dee whispered. "...what the hell is going on?"
"I'll let him explain."
The panther made a sound like a growl and... a word? It shifted its weight back and began to sit, but instead of sitting, it thrust itself upward onto its hind legs.
And then it was a man.
Dee blinked. It had happened so quickly that her mind took a few seconds to process what had just happened. There was no drawn-out transformation. No shifting of bones or tortuous twisting of flesh. Not even a shimmer, a blink, or a puff of fairy dust. He had transformed from panther to man instantly, without going through any sort of intermediate state.
He was tall and lean, but extremely well-toned.
He was also naked.
Another man moved out of the trees behind him. This one was shorter, and dressed. He carried a large cloak made from a yellowish-brown, almost golden animal hide. He draped over the panther-man's shoulders before scurrying back into the trees, keeping his eyes cast downward the entire time.
The panther pulled the cloak around him, and smiled.
It wasn't a good smile. There was amusement in it, but no humor. It was mocking, cruel, and triumphant.
"LAHR!" The man roared. His voice was deep and fluid.
"Uhh... I don't understa-" Dee began.
"Pardus," said the man trapped in the net. Dee assumed his name was Lahr. "A trap. Very unlike you. Wasn't expecting it."
Pardus walked toward the net, but stopped a few yards a way. He folded his arms across his chiseled chest and looked down at the small brown-haired man.
"Trapped like a mouse," Pardus replied. "Like prey. Is that what you are now? Prey?"
"Insulting me won't get you what you want."
"How about this?" Pardus fingered his cloak, clearly gloating. "Do you like my trophy?"
Lahr made a disgusted sound and looked away.
"Turning away won't change the truth."
"And chasing me won't get you what you want. Clearly, you already HAVE it... or else you'd be standing there by yourself."
"They are loyal to the Rite and the Way... not to me. Not yet. Not until I wear YOUR hide on my back."
"Well then... you have a problem. I will not fight you."
"Really? Or else what, Pardus? You'll kill me? Will THAT get you what you want? No, I don't think it will..."
"You are a COWARD!"
"I don't care what you call me," said Lahr. "The opinions of savages mean nothing to me."
"We are your people!"
"People who want to kill me, rip my skin off and wear it as a trophy? Just so you can be king until someone does the same thing to you? I don't think so. I'll have nothing to do with you! ANY of you! If you're going to kill me for it, you'll just have to do it like this and be done with it!"
"There is no honor in that! We must do battle in our TRUE forms!"
"You really should learn better insults."
"Excuse me," Dee interrupted. "We're not a part of whatever this is, so... maybe we could just go? Please?"
Pardus gave her another examining look, then turned to the large wolf to his right.
"The food speaks. Silence it."
The giant wolf bounded past Pardus, touching the ground for only an instant before springing at Dee and Treach.
That instant was all that the Scarecrow needed. A blur the color of pale skin an old blood slipped between Dee and the wolf. Dee had time to take a single step back and twist to one side. She released Treach as her backpack slipped from her shoulder to dangle around her elbow. The urge to reach into the pack and grasp the red gem barely had time to form before the wolf was on them. The Scarecrow ducked under the leap, his blades flashing, not wildly, but with the efficient grace of a chef slicing meat for an audience.
There was a yelp, and a furry, brown and red shape sailed past Dee and hit the ground with a thump. The impact sprayed the entrails from the open wound along its belly. It wasn't a slice... it was an autopsy. Bloody loops of flesh splattered across the moss-covered ground, just missing Dee's shoes. The wolf convulsed in grunting spasms as word of its unexpected demise reached its brain. Dee expected the beast to transform into a man, but it didn't. It just changed into a dead wolf.
The Scarecrow rose from his crouching position and pointed one of his blades at Pardus.
Two lumps of flesh dangled from the tip of the knife. Dee glanced back at the wolf, eyes finding the empty red hole between its hind legs. The Scarecrow flicked the blade downward, dropping the tender meats to the ground. Then he lifted his foot and brought it down. The fleshy sacs popped wetly beneath his heel.
The Scarecrow smiled. The smile started on his face, but travelled all the way through Hell and out the other side before reaching Pardus.
Pardus's gloating, arrogant grin froze in place as shock twisted his other features around it. The resulting expression was so comical that Dee almost laughed out loud. She resisted that urge, and spoke instead.
"Anyone else want to play with the food?"