Search And Rescue 14-08

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In the months since I had been recruited by Crossroads Academy, I’d had to do some very difficult things, things that I thought were impossible at the time. But none of the things that I’d had to do in these months came anywhere near being as hard as it was to spend over a day around my father without telling him that my mother had made contact with me. None of the fights, none of the life-or-death situations, absolutely none of it even scratched the surface of the kind of effort it took not to tell my dad that I’d spoken to her. As simple and unimportant as it might have seemed to some, that single conversation was everything to me. And I knew that it would have been everything to him as well.

My mind had started trying to come up with justifications ever since Seller had dropped me off back at home late Friday afternoon after I’d had a chance to sleep for a solid six hours. Because as it turned out, I had left Eden’s Garden before Abigail woke up. With, of course, the promise that they’d let me know the second the woman was conscious and take me back there.  It was just the easiest way to avoid lying even more to my father about what was going on. Besides, spending time with him was important, and it kept me busy.

In any case, my brain kept pointing out that I didn’t have to include any of the supernatural stuff. I could just tell him that she’d sent me a message to see how I was doing, that she made contact. I didn’t have to say anything about the actual circumstances, did I? It could be enough just that she was alive.

But that was wrong. It wouldn’t have been enough. I knew that because it wouldn’t have been enough for me if the positions were reversed. I would have wanted to know more. I would have wanted every single detail, and after he gave me the details, I would have used all of them to try to track her down.

Whether to hug or to scream at her, I didn’t know. But I would’ve done it, and I knew my father was the same. He’d pick at me for absolutely everything he could use to track her down. And, well, that would be bad. Especially since anything I told him would be a lie. The truth was, as much as I wanted my dad to know that I’d had a chance to talk to Mom, I didn’t want to lie to him any more than I had to.

So, as hard as it was, I spent the rest of Friday night and all of Saturday trying to pretend that everything was fine. Shiori and Asenath knew, of course. But they couldn’t really do much with my father there. We talked about everything that happened while I was ‘showing them around town’, and they helped. Even Twister hung out with me a little bit sometimes while the others were asleep and dad was safe. She didn’t really talk much about herself, but she did say that she had a child of her own out there somewhere from one of her previous lives. Apparently she still sent them money regularly.

In any case, Saturday seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly. Eventually, however, it rolled over into Sunday. It was mid-afternoon and I was reading the Sunday comics on the living room floor while Shiori and Asenath slept (my cute classmate was trying to stick as much to her sister’s schedule as possible for these few days that she had to spend with her) when I finally got the call from Seller. Telling my dad that I had to run out and visit with someone, I ran to meet the man about a block away.

“She’s awake?” I asked quickly while pretty much skidding to a stop next to the well-dressed man.

“They’re checking her over right now,” he replied. “One last set of tests, just in case. Koren wanted me to get you asap. Something about wanting you to be there when they’re ready for her to have visitors.”

Breathing out, I nodded. Koren had already made it clear to me that she wanted me there when her mom woke up. Which was fine with me, because I really wanted to be there to meet my half-sister.

Before we went anywhere, I produced my phone and quickly typed out a text message to Tristan, who had gone back to Crossroads once I was back home. I warned him about what was about to happen. Once he sent a response back that he was ready, I nodded to Seller. The man took me by the arm, leading me out of sight behind some trees. He produced another of those pieces of bark, holding me while activating it to send us back to Eden’s Garden.

The nausea leapt back to me, twisting my stomach even more than it had the first time. Maybe part of it was my own nervousness and emotion. Either way, I almost lost my lunch, stumbling sideways a bit.

A hand stopped me from falling over, and I heard Wyatt blurt, “Felicity! Are you all right? What happened to you? Is it magic?” His voice turned dark, directed toward Seller. “If you did something–”

“I’m okay, I’m all right,” I interrupted quickly. Straightening, I forced a smile to my face. Putting my hands on my older (extremely protective) half-brother’s shoulders, I met his gaze. “See? Fine. I’m just not used to that teleportation. And I guess it affected me more right now because… well, I’m nervous.”

To say that Wyatt had been upset when he found out what Koren and I had been up to had been an understatement. He’d basically been out of his mind. Especially when he’d found out what actually happened. And he wasn’t just upset about Koren and me being in danger. When we told him what happened to Roxa, he had been just as pissed off. It was his job, he’d said, to protect all the students. He took his security position incredibly seriously, and thought that it was his job as the only Crossroads security team member at Eden’s Garden to make Pace pay for what she was partly responsible for.

Actually, it had been all we could do to convince him not to go tearing off to find her on her own tribe’s branch. He hadn’t cared about starting a war with Garden over attacking one of their own members, or how impossible it would have been to get to her. All he had cared about was that someone had hurt one of the students he was supposed to be taking care of, and had tried to hurt me. If we had let him, he would have stormed in there and dragged Pace out to face justice, every other consequence be damned.

Finally, however, we had convinced him that the time would come to get the crazy girl. Attacking her when she had the backing of the rest of her tribe or her werewolf pack was a phenomenally bad idea. Not to mention the fact that starting a war with Eden’s Garden would put more of the Crossroads students at risk. It was that last point that had finally calmed Wyatt down enough to think clearly.

Despite that, however, he was obviously still even more protective than usual. I’d had to point out that Dad wouldn’t let him stay with us, and that I had plenty of protection at home already. Besides, I’d added pointedly, he had to stay here at Eden’s Garden to protect Abigail and Koren. That had finally been enough to convince him to let me go home without his supervision. And now, here we were.

“Have you seen Abigail since she woke up?” I asked, changing the subject away from my thankfully rapidly fading nausea. “Have they let anyone in yet? Where’s Koren?” I was already looking around.

A different, yet familiar voice spoke up. “The healers are just finishing up their examination, Flick.”

Looking that way, I smiled in spite of myself at the sight of the large, red-armored man standing near the edge of the freeway-sized branch that Seller had brought us to. “Croc! What’re you doing here?”

The Unset man gave me a brief, small smile, touching his fist to his chest in a brief gesture that looked like a salute. “Visitors to our Garden require escort, Flick. Even ones who are here for a second time.”

That was about as far as we got before another voice yelped, and I saw Tristan come stumbling out of nowhere. Our connection had, sure enough, dragged him along for the ride. Actually, I still had to wonder about the difference between Crossroads and the rest of the world. I thought it was another world as well, because of how it was on the same time-scale as North America despite being in the middle of the ocean. Yet Tristan hadn’t been yanked away from Crossroads when I went home for Thanksgiving. Which meant… I had no idea. It was another thing I was going to have to ask Gaia.

“You okay?” I asked the boy once he had stumbled to a stop near the edge of the branch.

He gave me a quick smile, saluting with two fingers. “At least I had a chance to warn Vanessa this time. Though I had to talk her out of holding onto me when it happened. She really wants to see this place, but ahh, after Roxa fell off…” His face darkened just a little bit. “Not taking that chance with Nessa.”

“Boy,” Croc grunted. “I see you chose to arrive with clothes this time.” His tone was hard, but I could tell he didn’t mean it. The man clearly enjoyed giving Tristan a hard time about his original arrival.

“Yeah, well,” Tristan replied while giving the man a charming grin, “I didn’t wanna show off too much and end up luring a bunch of your students back to Crossroads. I don’t think we have room for them.”

Together, Croc and Seller guided Wyatt, Tristan, and me along the enormous tree branch. We passed several buildings built into and alongside the branch, before eventually reaching the main trunk of the tree itself. It was like walking up to the Empire State Building, if it had been made out of wood. The thing was beyond incredible. At some point, I wanted to come back here and look around while I wasn’t worried out of my mind about Abigail and everything else that was piling up. I wanted to enjoy it.

At the moment, however, Koren and her mother were all I could think about. Croc led us into an opening in the giant tree, and I saw a grand entrance hall. The place was enormous, just like everything else about this place. It wasn’t just a hole in a tree, the place looked like some kind of grand ball room or something. There were three different levels of balconies all overlooking the central area. There were stairways and ladders connecting all of the balconies to each other and to other holes that I could see led to other branches. Clearly, the balconies belonged to the tribes, and the holes were their own entrances.

Beyond that, in the center of the large room I saw more Unset. Each of them had their weapons ready and were warily watching over everything and everyone who entered. This place wasn’t like Crosroads. Miranda had already explained that a lot of the tribes loathed each other and would take any chance they had to start a fight. They were allied against the outside world, but inside there were rivalries.

I also saw wooden elevators and stairways that seemed to lead everywhere, all of them guarded either by Unset or by random tribe members. A lot of them were staring intently at Wyatt and me. I had the distinct impression that they weren’t exactly happy about our presence, but they said nothing. Probably because of Croc’s presence, because the large man met each person’s gaze until they turned away.

Then he led us to one of the wooden elevators, flicking a finger that made the other Unset guard standing near it step out of the way. We climbed on, and Croc pulled a lever that made the platform start to sink down into the floor, slowly taking us further down into the base of the giant tree.

We descended for several minutes before the elevator stopped. There was a metal door in front of us that Croc put his hand against. After a couple seconds, the door slid out of the way, revealing a corridor cut into the middle of the tree with more metal doors along both sides. Straight ahead, there was a semi-circular desk with a man in some kind of white medical uniform seated behind it. The guy didn’t seem to be much older than I was, maybe a couple years or so. He had semi-long black hair that hung close to his eyes, almost covering them like a sheepdog. The ends of his dark hair were tinted white.

As we walked off the platform, the man glanced up and immediately straightened. “Ah, you must be the Crossroads visitors.” His voice was firm and business-like, but I thought I heard just a bit of curiosity behind it, like he really wanted to know more about us but didn’t want to push his luck.

Croc stepped forward, saying something in a low voice to the man, who nodded and stepped out from behind the desk. “Right this way, I’ll take you to where they’re keeping Miss Fellows and her daughter.”

As we walked that way, the man introduced himself as Thieter, basically pronounced like Peter only with a Th sound. He explained that he was a junior level medical assistant, which basically left him to man the desk and mop up puke and other nastiness whenever he had to. He was also part of the Dust-Striders tribe, a group that Miranda had mentioned awhile back had originated in Egypt. Hence the name.

It turned out that Abigail’s room was at the far end of the medical wing, as far from the entrance as possible. I wondered if they did that on purpose, to make it harder for anyone to notice her presence, or to find her if someone decided they wanted to see the woman (for ill purposes or just out of curiosity).

Either way, as we approached the end of the hall I saw Koren pacing back and forth. She pivoted quickly at the sound of our footsteps, and came to us. “I can hear her in there,” she blurted. “They’ve gotta let me in! Why aren’t they letting me in? Is something wrong with her? What’s going on?”

Tristan stepped out of the way, while Thieter moved to open the door. I heard a voice inside say something to him, and he turned back to us. “Uh, you can go in now. Just family members.”

Together, Koren and I moved that way. Wyatt stalled, looking a little nervous until I took his hand. “It’ll be okay,” I promised him. “We’ll explain everything to her. It might take awhile, but… she’ll get it.”

Then we were in the room. A couple of the other medical personnel gave us brief looks before they left, and my eyes finally settled on the woman who sat in the nearby bed.

Abigail looked even paler than she had before, though her face was flushed with obvious confusion. As soon as she saw her daughter, however, she tried to sit up. “Koren!” Her arms opened, and the girl beside me fairly leapt that way to embrace her mother. “What’s happening? Where are we? These people aren’t explaining anything. They’ve barely said a word to me since I woke up. Is this a hospital?”

“Mom…” Koren hesitated a bit after giving her mother a long, firm hug. “I—how much do you remember?” She asked the question a little awkwardly, glancing back toward the two of us.

“I…” Abigail trailed off, frowning noticeably. “I remember your father… wait… no. No, that man wasn’t–” She sat up abruptly, eyes widening considerably. “That man wasn’t your father! He was… he was…” Her frown deepened and I saw the rush of emotion. “Why can’t I… remember what your father… what… what…” With each word, her voice grew louder, and she was trying to get out of the bed.

“Mom, it’s okay! I—we know, we know, Mom.” Koren winced, holding her hands up to calm her mother down. “It’s… oh god. It’s a long story.” Her voice cut off a little, sounding a bit strangled from emotion. How was she supposed to tell her mother that her husband had been erased from her memory?

Trying to help her, I stepped forward. “Miss… Umm… Abigail?” I started a little awkwardly. God, this was my sister. I had a sister. It was all I could do not to hug her, which probably would have confused the woman even more than she already was. Beside me, I could feel Wyatt tensing up as well, obviously stopping himself from lunging that way.

The woman’s eyes found me and she frowned a little. “Do I know you?”

Swallowing, I put a hand on Koren’s back. “I don’t think so. Not yet. My… my name is Felicity. Felicity Chambers.”

“Felicity,” the woman echoed, her eyes widening even more. “I know that name. I… no, that was a dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream, Mom.” Koren’s voice was quiet. “It was a vision.”

“A vision?” Abigail shook her head. “I don’t—did someone slip something into my food? Did I overdose on something? Is this–”

“Mom, listen,” Koren interrupted. “Please, just… just listen for a minute. I know you’re gonna want to interrupt. I know you’re not gonna believe this at first. I know you’ll think it’s crazy and impossible. So let’s start with the impossible and… and move on from there.” She looked to me then. “Flick, could you…?”

I nodded and stepped a little closer. “Abigail, I—umm, just watch, okay? It’s okay, no one here is gonna hurt you, I promise. We just have to show you some stuff.. and tell you about… the world.”

Abigail opened her mouth to say something then, but I preempted her by focusing on my face-shifting power. At a thought, my features morphed until I looked identical (from the neck up anyway) to Koren.

Well, that got a reaction. Abigail practically jerked off the bed, her eyes wide as she blurted a curse. “How did you—what—wait–wait, you–!”

“Mom, Mom, it’s okay!” Koren stepped closer, catching her mother around the shoulders to hug her tightly. “I know, Mom. I know it’s a lot. I’m sorry. We just had to—I didn’t want to tell you the whole story until you knew that the impossible things really are possible. We needed you to understand that we’re not crazy. You’re not crazy. Look.” She pointed to me, while I changed my face back to myself, then to Abigail’s own face, then back once more.

“What we’re going to tell you is going to sound insane,” I told the woman before gesturing to get her attention down to the clip on my belt. While she was watching, I tugged my staff up and out of the tiny container, showed it to her, then pushed it down again. “But it’s the truth.”

“The truth? How were you… how were doing that thing with your face?” Abigail demanded, clutching her daughter tighter to her. “Who are you? What was that… that dream about… about…” She trailed off, her expression pensive. “And who…?”

Her gaze moved toward Wyatt then, before she froze. “You… I know you. I… I’ve had dreams about you.”

The poor guy seemed to freeze up briefly before shifting a little awkwardly. “I—Uhh, my name is–” He gulped, sending his pronounced Adam’s apple bouncing. “My name is Wyatt. Um, I’m… I’m…”

“We should start from the beginning,” I announced, helping him as much as I could.

“Right,” Koren sat down on the edge of the bed, still holding onto her mother. “Mom, please, just listen okay? Like I said, this is going to… it’s gonna sound insane. But it’s true. It’s all true.”

Then, between the three of us, we started to tell Abigail the truth. All of it.



Search And Rescue 14-07

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled BONUS chapter (14-06) posted on Wednesday. If you didn’t happen to read that one yet, this chapter isn’t going to make much sense, so you should click the previous chapter button above before moving on. 

“Hey, Flick.” Tristan spoke up as we made the long walk back toward the Garden tree. He had slowed his own pace until it matched mine, his eyes full of concern. “Are you, uh, are you doing all right?”

I didn’t answer at first. Taking a long, deep breath, I asked myself the same question before looking back to him. “I got to talk to my mom,” I answered quietly, emotion still making my voice shake in spite of myself. “I got to talk to my mother, Tristan. That was the first time since I was… since I was seven that I actually got to talk to her. I’m really happy. I’m so happy I… I keep crying. I’m happy and I’m sad because she’s not here anymore, and she’s still in danger. I’m so… I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel. I’m happy and I’m sad and I’m scared and I… I want her to be okay. I want my mom back.”

Swallowing hard, I flinched at a sudden realization. “But I guess you know what that’s like.” Looking back to him once more, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Tristan. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean that your–”

But the boy shook his head. “Hey, it’s not a competition. I can be glad that you get a chance to talk to your mom, and still wish that we could find mine. It’s not an either-or thing here, Flick.” He gave me another one of those perfect model-worthy smiles. “My parents are still out there somewhere. We’ll find them. Vanessa’s still in full-on research mode, and when she gets a lead, I’m gonna go get them back.”

Nodding, I poked the boy’s chest (while telling myself I was just doing it as part of a spirit of camaraderie and not because he looked so good without a shirt). “And I’ll be there to help you do it.”

Miranda (or one of her, there were others out scouting ahead to make sure that we didn’t run into any of the other Garden people) joined the two of us. Her hand found mine and squeezed. She didn’t say anything. Nothing really needed to be said out loud. It was enough for then that she was there with me.

For a little bit, we walked in silence. My gaze was focused on Koren. The brown-haired girl was walking up ahead, her head down. I wondered how she was dealing with all this. Her father had been murdered and she couldn’t even remember him enough to grieve. Any actual grief she had was at the idea of her father being dead. She had no real memories of him or what he had been like. That was… a kind of horrific that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Some might have said that not remembering her father after his death spared her. I didn’t believe that for a second. She had no nice memories to fall back on. When most people lost someone they loved, they could at least keep the person alive in their memories. Koren couldn’t do that. Thanks to the Fomorian, she had nothing left of her real father.

On top of that, she had spent hours being forced to pump her own mother’s heart to keep her alive, and now the only reason the woman was still alive was because Koren made the choice to have her turned into a Heretic and brought into this world. And all of it, her mother’s condition and the loss of her father, was because the Fomorian wanted Koren. That… yeah, I had no idea how she was dealing.

Then there was Roxa. My eyes moved back behind us to the other girl, who was walking with Mateo on one side of her and Sean on the other while Vulcan and Gidget brought up the rear. Roxa and the other two were deep in conversation, but even simply looking at her made me feel guilty again. All she had wanted to do was be a part of the school, a part of her team. That was gone now, until and unless we got that necklace away from Pace. Thanks to Mateo, she wouldn’t be on her own. But she also wouldn’t be able to be a part of the school. She couldn’t even let pretty much anyone else from Crossroads see her without letting them realize what she was now. Most of them wouldn’t understand.

Roxa and Koren had both lost a lot today. It felt… well, it felt wrong for me to be happy at all. The joy of actually being able to talk to my mother wasn’t just tainted by the fact that she was still trapped by Fossor. It was also dampened because I felt like any happiness I had was betraying the other two.

So, we walked on, spirits not exactly jumping for joy. Occasionally, I would glance up through the giant trees and catch a glimpse of one of the even more gigantic branches of the Eden’s Garden tree. Yeah, the damn thing was so huge that it took us hours to walk back toward the base of the tree even though we could see the branches above us. It was mindbogglingly huge. Technically, if we could’ve gone straight up high enough, we’d be in the tree just by getting to the branch. But Miranda had explained that the branches were all owned by different tribes, most of whom wouldn’t take kindly to our little invasion, no matter how we explained it.

Which meant we needed to keep walking all the way back to where we’d left from. Or close enough that Seller could get involved again without breaking the orders from the Victors. Most of us were lost in our own thoughts, until one of the other Mirandas eventually came jogging back to join us. Waving for us to stop, she explained, “We’re getting close to the tree. You guys should probably wait here while one of us goes in and gets Seller out here to send you uh, where you need to go.” Her eyes glanced toward Roxa briefly.

Nodding, Mateo stepped closer. “Yeah, I’d really prefer not to get into a fight with any Garden Heretics today, if we can avoid it. Besides,” he put a hand down on Roxa’s shoulder, “before we go anywhere, the kid and I still need to talk a bit more about what’s gonna happen when we meet the pack.”

That version of Miranda went off to find Seller, while I hesitated before moving closer to Mateo and Roxa. “Sorry, I know you’re still talking, but I um… I just wanted to say I’m sorry again.” Swallowing hard, I focused on meeting Roxa’s gaze. “I’m really sorry that I… that I helped bring you here. I wasn’t thinking straight, and I forgot about the connection to Tristan. I know you didn’t ask for any of this, and it’s not what you wanted. And you don’t have to forgive me or anything like that. Especially not right now. It’s too soon and too…” Trailing off, I sighed. This was too awkward. “I’m really sorry, Roxa.”

The other girl didn’t say anything for a moment. She just stood there, biting her lip before giving a short, sort of jerky nod. “I know you didn’t mean to,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re sorry.”

Another moment of silence passed before I spoke up, still feeling awkward in spite of myself. “Good luck. And… and like I said, we’ll get the necklace from Pace. We’re not gonna give up on that. Miranda’s gonna keep an eye on her, and as soon as we get a chance, we’ll take it away from her.”

Looking back at me, Roxa was quiet for a few seconds. Finally, she let out a visible sigh, head bowing briefly before speaking in a voice that was barely audible. “Yeah. And if you need help dealing with any of these other problems you’ve got, especially the son of a bitch that’s actually responsible for this, or any of his people, let me know.” Her eyes were hard. “You don’t deserve to have me be as angry at you as I am. I know that. I know, Flick. I just can’t help it. I’m trying, I swear. But those guys, the freak that hurt Koren’s mom and any of his friends, they do deserve it. So if you get a chance to hurt them…”

“We’ll let you know,” I promised. Knowing that was the best I was going to get (and more than I deserved), I added a simple, “I hope things with the pack go okay.” Glancing to Mateo, I exchanged nods with the man before stepping back out of the way so that the two of them could continue talking.

Sean stepped away with me as well, with Gidget and Vulcan trotting over to join us as well. The mechanical cougar gave me a look and a slight whine of confusion until I hesitantly reached out to give her gentle pet. When I stopped after a moment, she bumped her head against my leg until I did it again.

Of course, that meant that Vulcan needed equal treatment. But that was okay, it let me clear my head. Eventually, I looked up to Sean while rubbing both of the robot animals. “Thanks for coming,” I murmured quietly. “I know it’s gotta be really late for you.” Pausing then, I amended, “Or really early. I’ve sort of lost–” In mid-sentence, I yawned wide, surprising myself. “Sorry, lost track, I mean.”

So much had happened since… god, was the last time I had slept really before I’d had Thanksgiving dinner at the buffet with my dad and the others? How was that even possible? It felt like this day had been going on forever. Even with the Amarok’s power, I was pretty much running on just fumes.

Chuckling, Sean shrugged at me. “No problem. We’re teammates, right? You’d be there if I needed you.” He hesitated, eyes glancing over my shoulder and toward Roxa. “Besides, she needed help too.”

Watching the expression on his face for a moment before glancing back toward the other blonde, I realized that he’d come out of more than just obligation. Sean obviously had feelings for Roxa. The realization made me cringe a little bit even as I tried to push that incessant feeling of guilt aside.

Yawning again, I made myself focus. “Mateo, he’ll take care of her, right? Him and his pack, I mean.”

“I haven’t met his pack,” Sean admitted. “I only just let him and my uncle know that that I knew what he was. But I know Mateo. And yes, he’ll take care of her. You can trust him, Flick. He’s not gonna let anything bad happen. Not as long as she’s with him. And Uncle Sebastian’ll be there with her too.”

Before I could say anything to that, Koren joined us. She approached quickly, her gaze focused on the boy beside me. “You talked to Seller, right? Did he say anything about what happened back at my house?” Biting her lip, she added, “I mean, did he say if Dare and the others killed that piece of shit?”

Wincing, Sean’s head shook. “Sorry, we didn’t really get that far. He just gave us the basic stuff.”

“I’m sure they got him,” I started to assure the other girl. “I mean, they had plenty of power there.”

Rather than being reassured, however, Koren just gave me a brief squint before speaking in a thick voice. “I know you’re trying to help,” she said firmly, “but don’t say you’re sure when you’re not.”

“Fair enough,” I admitted. “What I should say is, even if he did get away, it won’t be for long. Gaia and the others won’t let him get away with what he did, Koren. Whether they killed him at the house, or have to hunt him down later, they’ll put him down. After all, killing monsters is what they do.”

Looking away from me, Koren’s shoulders hunched a little, her voice small and quiet. “Part of me wants him to be alive so I can kill him myself. But another part is…” She hesitated, her voice going even quieter than it already was. “… scared. Part of me is scared of him. After everything he did, I… I’m mad, so mad I want to rip his fucking throat out. But he’s just… I’m scared, Flick. I’m scared of him.”

After hesitating a second, I reached out to take the other girl’s hand. Squeezing it, I spoke quietly, my own voice cracking a little. “I know what you mean. I swore that I was going to save my mother from Fossor. But just thinking about him terrifies me. I hate him. I hate him more than anything. But I’m also… I’m also really scared of him. So trust me, I know exactly how you feel. It seems contradictory, like… like if you’re so afraid of someone, you shouldn’t be able to fantasize about killing them.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Koren nodded. “I guess you would understand.” Her hand squeezed mine in return as she straightened up. “I’m glad you were there. I—if you and Deveron hadn’t shown up…”

“I’m glad we did too.” Smiling a bit in spite of myself, I added, “And at least you were here so Mom could meet you. I know a lot of this sucks, but I’m glad you got to talk to her.” My expression fell. “I just wish there was some way that I could actually tell my dad about…” I trailed off, my eyes widening.

“Flick?” Koren and Sean spoke at the same time. She glanced at him before adding, “Are you okay?”

My head was already shaking as I slapped my head. “Oh damn, oh damn, oh damn. Dad is gonna kill me! I was supposed to go over there for dinner, for dinner. And now it’s—fuck, I don’t even know what time it is there. He’s gotta be losing his mind! He probably called the National Guard by now, and–”

Sean caught me by the shoulders. “Flick, Flick calm down. It’s okay. Seller may not have explained much, but he did mention that Gaia took care of any problem with your dad being worried about you.”

Blinking at that, I stopped my panic, but the worry only switched gears. “Stopped him from being worried? Oh god, please tell me they didn’t fuck with his memory again.” I was really getting to the point of hating memory magic with a passion, even if it was done with good intentions. If they absolutely had to do it, I understood. Better that my dad not remember than get himself into trouble. But even then, I still kind of wanted to tell everyone to leave my family’s memories the hell alone.

Fortunately, Sean shook his head. “No, according to Seller, Gaia figured a simpler option was better than using memory magic to solve everything. So she impersonated your voice, called your dad, and told him that you were going to stay there overnight because of some nasty storm that rolled in.”

Koren looked to me. “Good thing there happened to be a bad enough storm to justify th….” In mid-word, she trailed off, looking at both of our expressions before getting it herself. “There didn’t just happen to be a storm, did there?” When we shook our heads, she swallowed. “And there really was a storm, because she wouldn’t take the chance of your dad checking. Which means Gaia actually made… oh.” Her last word was quieter and softer, mouth working a few times before she added, “Wow.”

“Tell me about it,” Sean muttered before looking off to the bushes. “I wonder how far your…” He looked toward one of the Mirandas that was close enough to hear. “… other self had to go.”

She started to answer, but before she could, I spoke up. Without thinking about what I was saying, I replied, “A little over a quarter mile. One thousand four hundred and ten feet.”

They all looked at me, until I realized what I had said. “I mean… wait.”

“Wow, I didn’t know you knew this place that well already,” Tristan had joined us, whistling. “You almost sounded like Vanessa there.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I don’t know it at all. But I know that Eden’s Garden, the tree, is exactly one thousand, four hundred and ten feet from where we’re standing.” My mouth opened and shut and then I got it. “Oh. Wait, is this what I got from the… what did you call that ugly thing?”

“A Blemmye,” Randi answered. “And I dunno. All I got was a little enhanced strength. Barely noticeable.”

“Same here,” Tristan confirmed.

Koren just shrugged. “I killed one, but I’m pretty sure I just improved the healing the Peridle gave me before. I got hit by one of their spears and it healed faster than it should’ve.”

“Try it with something else,” Sean suggested. “How far is your house from here, or the island?”

I thought about it before shrugging. “I’ve got nothing. It’s just blank. Probably because we’re on a different world.”

“What about the spot where we talked to your mom?” Koren put in curiously.

That one came up immediately. “Twenty-four thousand, six hundred and thirty-two feet that way.” I pointed back the direction we had come from. “About four and three quarter miles.”

“Well, that’s pretty useful to avoid getting lost,” Tristan pointed out with a chuckle. “Even if you do have to be on the same world as whatever you’re trying to find. I wonder if you have to know where it is.”

“Can you tell me how far away my room is?” Miranda asked curiously. “You’ve never seen it.”

I thought for a second, then shook my head. “Nope. I guess I need to know where it is first.”

We experimented a little more with it, but before long, there were sounds approaching. One of the Mirandas came back to wave that it was okay, just before Seller and another Miranda appeared.

“My mom?” Koren immediately asked the man in the fancy green suit.

“Still sleeping, still as okay as could be expected,” he answered before his eyes took in Roxa. “So this is the new wolf, huh?” he asked while using a finger to push his sunglasses down a bit so he could watch her over the top of them. “Sorry, kid. Sounds like you’ve got a place to go, at least.”

“Seller,” I spoke up after Roxa had a chance to mutter her response. “What happened back at the house, do you know yet?”

He looked to me first, then toward Koren, who was watching him intently. “Good news and bad news on that front. The good news is, the bubbly one that teaches your class on Strangers killed him.”

“Nevada,” I breathed out while letting that sink in. “Nevada killed him, Koren. She killed the bastard.”

“The bad news?” the other girl insisted, still staring at Seller.

The man sighed. “The bad news is he got off some kind of message first. They don’t know what he said or who it went to. Probably to another one of his people.”

Well that sounded horrifying. At least the one that had hurt Koren so much was dead, though. I didn’t know how much that would help the girl, if at all. But I was glad the one that had done… all that to her family was gone for good.

“Anyway,” Seller gestured. “Lemme send the wolves on their way, then I’ve been told to make sure the rest of you get some actual sleep before anything else happens.” Before Koren could say anything, he added, “And if your mom wakes up, I’ll let you know.”

Turning to Sean, who would be going back with Mateo and Roxa, I hugged the boy. “Thanks again, Sean. Thanks for coming. And thank Mateo.”

“Heard that,” Mateo spoke up, flicking a finger against his ear while winking at me.

“Roxa!” I called, meeting the other girl’s gaze.

Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. We just looked at each other until she gave me a slight nod. “Remember what I said. If you need help, ask for it. I may not be happy, but you’re dealing with some pretty heavy shit. That’s more important. So you need me, I’ll be there. Even if I do kind of want to use my teeth to shake you around a little.” She gave me a weak smile. “But that’s probably the wolf talking.”

Seller went to send them off, and I turned to the others, another yawn escaping me. “I guess he’s got a point. It’s… it’s time to crash.”

Because one thing was for sure. I wasn’t leaving this place until Abigail woke up. I wanted to talk to my sister. I wanted to be there for her as she took all this in. I wanted to help explain things, get her adjusted to the truth.

But first, it was time to sleep for about a bazillion years.

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Search And Rescue 14-06

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My legs folded beneath me, and my knees hit the ground. I barely noticed. My attention was fixated solely on the red and gold creature that was crouched there, looking at me more solemnly than any ordinary animal. But then, this wasn’t just any monkey. It wasn’t even just some magical one, was it?

“It’s you,” I managed, emotion so thick in my voice that the words were barely recognizable. “You’re…” Slowly, I lifted my visibly shaking hand toward the monkey before stopping. I was afraid, afraid that if I touched it, the thing would disappear, that she’d disappear and I’d never see her again.

Time seemed to stand still, yet it was only my own silence and inability to breathe. I held my hand there, afraid to move any closer yet terrified to take it away. All I could do was kneel there, staring at that small creature while hope carried out a full-scale guerrilla war against doubt within my own mind.

Four seconds that were a million lifetimes passed before a red hair-covered hand pressed against my own. The monkey made a soft chittering noise, and when I moved my eyes from our fingers to her eyes, I saw tears that matched my own. Eyes that I knew. Eyes that made my own tears redouble as I choked on the word that fought its way out of my throat and into my shaking voice. “… Mommy…?”

The monkey’s fingers interlaced with mine, squeezing before she moved closer on shuffling feet. I couldn’t breathe, or even think. All I could do was sit there and watch as she came close enough to lift her other hand, pressing it against my cheek. The coo sound that she made as her fingers brushed my cheek needed no translation. Its tone, and the look in her eyes, said everything I needed to hear.

Leaning instinctively into her smaller hand while tears ran freely down my face, I brought my own free hand up to press against the back of hers to hold it there. My shoulders shuddered heavily and I fought to find words. “Mom… Mommy… I…” Closing my eyes, I shivered violently before bowing my head.

“I… I’m…” Choking a little more, I fought to speak through the emotion. “I’m sorry. I’m–” Again, I gave a violent shudder. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I hated you. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mommy. I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. You were gone and Dad was sad and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know why. I’m sorry. I can’t… m-my… I was mad. I was mad at you, and you were doing all this for me. You did it for me and I’m a bad person. I hated you. I was wrong, I was wrong, I was…” Words failed me entirely then as the tears grew overwhelming.

The monkey’s hand brushed down my cheek before she stepped right up to me. Her long, deft fingers slipped down to my chin, tilting it up so that I was looking into her eyes again. Once I met her gaze, she shook her head at me, her eyes soft and compassionate. A barely audible coo came while she tugged my hand to gently kiss my fingers. At the same time, her other hand moved up to brush down through my hair as she gave me what was obviously a smile of pride and complete understanding.

Slumping down a little, unable to hold myself up, I reached out to pick up the monkey. Drawing her tight to my chest, I hugged her. I hugged my mother, or at least as close as I had gotten to doing so in more than a decade. “Mom,”I murmured before giving a slight shudder. “Mommy, I…” Swallowing hard, I stopped trying to talk. All I could do for a long moment was hold her tight against myself.

Through it all, her hand gently brushed my hair while she held onto me. In those seconds, I didn’t care that she was using a monkey body. I didn’t care that she was smaller than I was, or that we were in the middle of a forest with people watching. I didn’t care about any of it. One thing and only one thing mattered: I was hugging my mother. I was talking to my mother. She was there. It didn’t matter what form she was in or how it happened. She was there. My mom was there with me. That was everything.

Finally, the one thing more important than touching my mother (or the closest thing I could get to that) overcame my sheer shock at her (sort-of) presence. And that was talking to her. My head pulled back to stare at her while I sniffled. “Mom,” I managed, blinking rapidly to clear the tears from my eyes. It didn’t really work that well, but at least I could see more than just a blur. “Mom, I love you. Okay? I don’t know how long you have or what’s going on or what’s going to happen, but I n–” I choked a little in spite of my determination to get all of it out. “I need you to know that. I love you, Mom. I love you.”

After everything bad I had said about my mother over the ten years before I knew the truth, telling her that right then felt incredibly, unbelievably important. Even if she’d never heard any of the bad things I’d said, even if she had no idea how I felt about her before, she had to know now. She had to know the truth, that I loved her, that I cherished every memory that I still had of her. That I missed her so much.

It felt like I had to erase everything bad I’d ever said or even thought about my mother by telling her how much she really meant to me, and as if I had only a few seconds to get all of it out before she’d disappear again. The words past those few at the start came out in an utterly incomprehensible jumble.

Her small hand gently brushed over my face and then down through my hair once more, her touch as tender now as I remembered it being as a child. Neither time nor the difference in her current body had changed how she touched me. It was her. It was my mother’s touch, and I would know it anywhere.

“Mom, how did you—what did—you—wait. Wait.” Horror at my own insensitivity struck me then, overwhelming my brief attempt to get some actual information out of her. Turning slightly, I found… the others weren’t there. I could see them off in the distance at the base of another giant tree, but they had moved away to give Mom and I some privacy. The stone that Miranda had used to guarantee that the werewolves wouldn’t detect us was sitting nearby, and they were clearly using a different one.

All of them had moved away except for two people. One of them was Tristan, who was crouched in the bushes some distance away, watching the canyon below. Obviously, he was keeping an eye on the pack of werewolves so we wouldn’t be taken by surprise if they happened to come up this way.

But it was the other person that my eyes focused on. She stood awkwardly far enough away that it wasn’t like she was hovering or intentionally eavesdropping, yet close enough to be noticed.

“Koren,” I spoke quietly, beckoning with a hand for her to come over even as I sniffed back the tears.

Mom’s gaze had snapped up at that, as I held the hand out that way. She watched with an intent, alert stare as the other girl slowly moved closer. Once she was close enough, I took her hand and pulled her down with us. “Mom, I… I don’t know how much you remember. But you had twin children before… before the Heretics sent you out. Twins. Koren and Zedekiah. They changed their names to Abigail and Wyatt, and they’re grown up now. But this is Abigail’s daughter… Koren. She remembered the name Koren somehow, Mom. This is your granddaughter. Koren, this is… my mom. Your grandmother.”

“Um.” Koren looked a little awkward as she lifted her hand in a wave. “Hi, Mrs… uh, oh.” The realization that she had no idea what to refer to my mother as showed as a brief flash of panic crossed her face. In any other situation, it would have been amusing. At the moment, I was too overwhelmed.

Mom, however, reached out with one small-yet-strong monkey hand and pulled Koren down to embrace her tightly around the neck. I could see even more tears in her eyes as she clung to Koren.

My mother, I realized again, loved her family more than absolutely anything else. Twice, she had given up absolutely everything in order to save her children. She surrendered to Crossroads in order to spare her first children, Wyatt and Abigail. And later, she had surrendered to Fossor to save me. She was a powerful, incredible woman who challenged the leaders of an ancient army of hunters, who led a revolt against titans. And yet, she gave all of it up and subjected herself to misery twice for her children.

If I lived for a thousand years, I would never meet anyone who was more of a hero than my mother.

Eventually, I reached out a hand and touched the monkey’s arm to get her attention. “Mom. Mom, I—th-there’s so much. So much I want to tell you. Wyatt—I mean Zedekiah, he’s okay. He’s a security guy at the school now. A-and Abigail–” There, I blanched a little, cringing in spite of myself. I tried to control it, but the monkey’s hand was already touching my face, her worry evident in her gaze.

“She’s okay, I mean—she’s going to be okay,” I managed. “Mom—I–” Closing my mouth I forced myself to think clearly. Everything was a jumble, and it was hard to focus on anything other than the fact that my mother was finally right there where I could touch and talk to her. But this was too important for me to screw it up. “Mom, I don’t know how you’re here, but does he.. does he know?”

The monkey’s gaze was solemn for a few seconds, and then the head shook slowly back and forth.

“But how?” Koren spoke up before I could. “I thought he—the bad guy was a super-powerful necromancer that umm, that like… controls you. How would he miss something like, well, like this?”

Hopping down, the monkey took a step back before sticking a finger in the dirt. Slowly, she used it to trace letters that eventually spelled out, ‘Had business on other world. Not here now.’

My heart soared for a second. “He’s not there? So you can just tell us where you are and we can come get you. Gaia’ll help, I know she will. And Deveron—he’ll be there. We’ll come find you and–”

The monkey’s hand gently touched my lips to stop me then, her head shaking with a look of regret. Before I could protest or plea, she wiped away what she’d written in the dirt before tracing more letters.

‘Strict orders. Can’t disobey. Can’t do anything–‘ She ran out of room then, waiting for us to read them before wiping those letters away and writing some more. ‘—to endanger him or his plans, or risk–‘ Again, she had to wait for us to read the words and scratch them out to make more. ‘his enemies finding him.’ Sitting back on her haunches, Mom regarded us for a moment before finishing, ‘This didn’t directly disobey orders–‘ One last time, she brushed it out. ‘—Told not to leave house. Still in house.’

In spite of the situation, I had to smile a bit at that before frowning. “But how did you know to make your little… umm, magic monkey thing and send it out to us now, right here? How did you find me?”

I thought I saw a slight smile cross the monkey’s face before she put a finger down to write some more, taking a couple of times to wipe out previous words. ‘Accident. When twins taken, made alert spells and placed in areas to track them down. Included spells in E.G. Forest. Spell finally activated. Detected you 2. Not twins. Still glad.’ She paused, hand on the last word before using a finger to underline it.

“So he’s gone, so you can’t tell us anything that would help find you.” I resisted the urge to sigh, pushing on in spite of the feeling. “And anything we told you about what we’re doing to find you, you’d probably have to tell him as soon as possible because of that ‘don’t do anything to endanger him’ thing.”

The resulting nod made me drop my head, shoulders heaving a bit before I stopped. No. I was not going to waste this time I had feeling sorry for myself or lament about how hard things were. Fuck that. “Fine,” I said instead. “Then we’ll be productive in another way. First, Mom… I love you. I know I said it before, but I need you to know that. Okay? I love you and I miss you so much. Dad’s okay. I mean, he misses you too. But he’s getting along. He’s still working, and we’ve been taking care of each other.”

A flicker of obviously intense emotion crossed the monkey’s face before she gave a slow nod at that.

Frowning as a thought came to me then, I quickly asked, “Wait, how did he make you into a Heretic again? Can you tell us that much? Because I’m pretty sure he couldn’t smuggle you into Eden’s Garden or Crossroads to do it.”

Then I watched as Mom’s monkey scratched out the answer. ‘Had EG Apple to give me.’

“One of the Eden’s Garden apples? But… but how would he… how would he have… that…” Trailing off, I worked my mouth before giving up. I’d have to ask Seller about it. “And Ammon,” I was unable to keep the hate out of my voice. “He gave him one too?”

That time, she shook her head before writing, ‘No. Made Ammon Heretic another way. Old way. Buried with blood.’ The monkey seemed to pause then, looking up at me before deliberately writing, ‘Ammon sweet before. Good boy. Fossor did something. Changed him. Broke him.’

Rocking back a little bit, I tried to think of an Ammon that was… sweet. I couldn’t do it. The image of what he had done to the poor girl at the gas station, along with everything else he was responsible for… I couldn’t imagine him being innocent.

Finally, I tried to deal with it by pushing on. “Anyway.. like I said, Abigail was hurt. This Fomorian came after her. I um, I don’t know if you re–” My gaze flicked up then, and I saw the look in her eyes. “Oh. I guess you do know them after all. And I guess you know why he came after her….” Another nod came, and I swallowed. “He was trying to get Koren to go with him, and he hurt Abigail pretty bad to do it. She was… she was gonna die, Mom. But we brought her here and they made her a Heretic so that they could use magic to heal her. Wyatt, he’s with her now. He’s taking care of her, because he’s… he’s really good with magic. I mean really good.”

I explained a little bit more, trying to be careful not to say too much that we couldn’t afford to have Fossor eventually find out. It was hard though, because it all kept coming out in a jumble, and there was so much that I wanted to talk to my mother about. I kept losing track of what I was saying. But Koren stepped in a few times, filling in or helping when I got sidetracked. Together, we told her about the Fomorian and Seller. Eventually, I took her hands and told her about Professor Pericles. It turned out she already knew the man was dead. But when I explained what Miranda and I had figured out about why he was killed, she was visibly shaken. I guess the idea that your old mentor and father-figure was killed while the person the murderer actually meant to kill was your son had that kind of effect.

Through it all, Mom sat there and listened while I went through the entire story about Avalon before finally finishing with, “So we’re going to go into the hospital and see if this Professor Tangle is really in a coma or… what. Because her connection to whoever here at Eden’s Garden who wants to kill Avalon so badly is the only lead we’ve got. If she really is in a coma, that means there’s a different mole in Crossroads. And if so, I don’t know how to smoke them out without putting Avalon out there as bait or something, and I… I can’t do that.”

Almost before I had finished speaking, Mom was already writing with her finger. ‘Her father.’

My head nodded. “I thought of that—we thought of that. He has tried to kill her. But the person behind it is someone here at Eden’s Garden. That message on Tangle’s phone said ‘She won’t have any friends here.’ Here as in Eden’s Garden. So whoever she was involved with lives here. Not only would Avalon have recognized her own father, but I’m pretty sure they’d all notice a vampire hanging around.”

The response came quickly, scratched into the dirt. ‘Ring of Anuk-Ité.’

“Anuk-Ité?” I blinked down at the words, shaking my head. “I don’t know what that is.”

In response, the monkey looked over her shoulder at nothing for a few seconds. When she turned back, her hurry was even more pronounced. ‘Have to go soon. Look up Ring of Anuk-Ité. And find out why Fahsteth there that night. Not coincidence. Find Fahsteth, find answer.’

My eyes widened then, and I blurted, “Wait, you can’t go. I… I need you, I need you, Mom. I…” Realizing how selfish that was, I stopped myself. If she got caught… if anything bad happened to her just because I wanted to spend a few more precious seconds with my mother, I’d never forgive myself.

“Mom. Mom, if you get another chance to use this, umm, leave a message for Miranda to find, okay? I saw this tree right on the edge of the clearing beneath the Eden’s Garden tree that’s kind of bent in half near the top, with the branches pointing down. If you have anything to say, leave a message there. If you want to arrange a time to meet, or… or anything, just leave the message and she’ll tell me. I’ll find a way to get back here, no matter what. O-okay? I’ll do it. I promise.”

The monkey leaned up to hug me tightly before doing the same with Koren. One hand caressed each of our cheeks before she wrote in the dirt, ‘I love you.’

“Mom.” I was choking on my own words again, tears streaming freely once more. “Mom, please. Please be okay. Mom, I love you. I love you, Mommy. Please, please we’re going to find you, I promise! I promise, we’ll find you! I won’t abandon you, I swear! I won’t forget about you or give up on you! I’ll find you, Mom! I’ll…”

The monkey vanished, leaving a small wooden block in its place.

“… find you.”

My strength left me then, and I slumped backward against Koren, who caught me. For a moment, all I could do was close my eyes and shiver.

“What… what do you think that Ring of Anuk-Ité is?” she asked after a few seconds.

Shaking my head, I managed a soft, “I don’t know.

“But we’re going to find out.”

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Search And Rescue 14-05

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If Pace had gone straight back to the tree, our chase would have been over before it had even begun. She and Lemuel had what amounted to an absurd head start. If the psycho-girl had been heading home, there wouldn’t have been the slightest prayer of catching up with them before she was out of our reach.

But she wasn’t going straight home. I remembered Lemuel distinctly saying that they had something else to do. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that something was, where it would take them, or how long it would take. Hell, for all I knew, they had already gone somewhere to leave the forest entirely.

Which meant that, as I sprinted after Roxa and her glider, most of my thought process was being devoted entirely to fervently promising every higher power in the universe all the favors they wanted if they’d just make sure that those two werewolf psychopaths were still close enough for us to find them.

It was a good thing that I had so much adrenaline running through me. Even with the power that I had taken from the Amarok, it had been a long day. Honestly, it was hard to believe it had only been a few hours since everything had happened at Koren’s house. Hell, it hadn’t been much longer than that since I’d had Thanksgiving dinner with my dad, Senny, Columbus, and Shiori. It felt like an entire lifetime.

Still, I shoved away any thought of being tired and kept running. Sleep could happen after we helped Roxa. My eyes stayed locked on the back of the transformed Gidget, only straying to watch out for obstacles. The others jumped over logs and ducked under branches of the lowest trees. I, on the other hand, simply merged with each before coming out the other side. I didn’t even have to slow down.

Eventually, however, Roxa’s board came to a stop. The blonde girl turned her head to look one way, then another. I could see her nostrils flaring a bit as she sniffed. A frown of frustration crossed her face as she started to direct Gidget one way before redirecting her to go back the other direction. Finally, she just shook her head rapidly. “Damn it! I can’t tell. The scent, it was strong before, but it’s been getting harder to follow. And now… I can’t… I can’t tell which way they went.” Again, she sniffed futilely before shaking her head once more while hopping off Gidget. “It’s too faint. I just… I just don’t know.”

Miranda looked like she was about to say something, but hesitated. Glancing to me, she bit her lip before pushing on. “A werewolf has good senses… but they’re better in full wolf form than human.”

Looking toward her, Roxa started to shake her head. “That doesn’t really…” She trailed off, eyes widening as the realization came to her. “Wait, wait. Wait, you’re saying you want me to—you think I should–” She took a step back then, fear written across her expression. “No. No, I can’t. I can’t do it.”

Wincing, Miranda looked to me again before stepping that way. “I’ve seen werewolves change before. It only hurts that first time, I promise. It’s because your body isn’t used to the change. After that initial transformation, the one you’ve already done, it’s a lot easier. Your body knows what to do now.”

Still, Roxa hesitated. She clenched her fists, looking down at the ground for a few long seconds to gather herself before her head turned toward Gidget, who had transformed into her own cougar form. “I guess if you can do it…” Sighing, the girl nodded while looking up. “W-we have to find that bitch. Even if it means… changing…” she trailed off, looking at her hand fearfully, her last word a whimper.

“It won’t be bad,” I promised her. “Remember when you turned human again? It’s like Randi said, only the first change really hurts. Your body has it now. And the more you do it, the faster it’ll probably be.”

Roxa gave me a long, silent look then, biting her lip before speaking in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You said there’s a really long story about this whole thing? I wanna hear all of it when this is over.”

“You will,” I promised. “But right now, we have to find Pace.”

The other girl took a deep breath, then let it out. “I can do this… I can do this…” She clearly had to psyche herself up. Honestly, the fact that she was even willing to try so soon after the agony that she’d gone through the first time was incredible to me. I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to do the same.

After a few seconds of obvious focus like that, the changes started. They stopped almost immediately as Roxa flinched. I was pretty sure it didn’t actually hurt though. She was just psyching herself out because of how much torture her initial transformation had put her through. Still, the girl took a breath.

“Can you guys look away?” she asked in a small voice. We did so, and a moment later the shirt that Roxa had borrowed from Tristan was tossed nearby. I saw Gidget quickly scoop the shirt up in her mouth before swallowing it. Hopefully, she was somehow saving the shirt for Roxa and didn’t just have some kind of irresistible taste for sweaty cotton. We didn’t have a lot of clothes to spare.

Even though we weren’t watching, I could tell that Roxa had started her transformation once more. It seemed to pass much more quickly that time. Still not nearly as fast as I’d seen Pace and her two friends shapeshift, but still much faster than it had been before. Within about a minute, a yipping sound made us turn that way, only to find a fully-formed tawny-colored wolf sitting there inspecting her own paws.

She looked up, head turned toward us before jumping a little in surprise at the realization that she had completed the change. I saw a brief look of hesitation cross her eyes, then Roxa looked away, back the way we had been going. Nose to the ground, she sniffed a few times before starting to bound off.

If Gidget was at all put out or confused by the transformation of her owner, she didn’t show it. As soon as Roxa started running off, the mechanical cougar was right behind her. Which left the rest of us to follow, running through the forest again while trying to keep the two four-legged creatures in sight.

There were other animals in the forest watching us, many of them Alters. I caught glimpses as we were running, often seeing just enough for my Stranger-sense to kick in before the figure would disappear back into the foliage. None of the Alters seemed to want to hang around with a group of Heretics. Not that it was that surprising, considering they were either the nasty kind that didn’t want to pick a fight with a group of alert hunters, or they were the innocent kind that didn’t want to be killed or enslaved.

Unfortunately, just because the forest’s inhabitants were leaving us alone didn’t mean that there was no danger at all. At one point, in mid-sprint I heard Miranda shout a warning toward Koren. My head snapped that way just in time to see one of the smaller (yet still enormous for us) trees starting to tip over toward her. She hadn’t seen it yet, her head just starting to turn that way. Too late, it was going to slam into her.

Without thinking at all, I flung myself that way. My hands lashed out together and I literally shoved the falling tree. The blow stung my palms a little bit, but the tree itself shifted over, landing with a terrifying crash about a foot away from crushing Koren.

The other girl’s eyes were wide as she looked at the tree, then back to me. “Wh-what—what…”

Miranda was already there, grimacing as she held up a frayed rope. “Trap. You triggered it when you went through that bush back there. Some of the… smarter Strangers in here like to set them up.”

Then they were both looking at me, along with everyone else. Even Roxa in her wolf-form was staring.

Biting my lip, I stepped around them and bent to give the fallen tree an experimental push. Then I grasped it and lifted. “Uggnn… heavy. But… uhh…” I had brought it off the ground.

“That thing’s gotta weigh about a thousand pounds,” Tristan managed. “And you can… lift it?”

“Barely,” I grunted before letting it fall, breathing hard. “Uh, I umm, I guess we know what I got from the werewolf, huh?”

We all looked at each other, and Tristan pointed at me. “You’re still gonna have to explain how you managed that. But um, I guess we should keep going.”

Everyone else nodded, and we set off again. This time, we were much more careful to avoid traps.

So intent was I on keeping up with Roxa and Gidget while also watching out for any other falling trees or worse problems,that I almost missed when both of them came to a rather abrupt stop. Skidding just short of tripping over them, I started to ask what was wrong before a hand went over my mouth. Koren was standing beside me, finger raised to her lips before she nodded toward the nearby tree, gesturing for me to look around it.

Frowning, I moved forward, peering around the edge of the relatively small tree. The thing must have been a baby sapling, because it was only slightly bigger than a normal one would have been on Earth. As I put both hands against the bark and leaned around it, my eyes searched for what the problem was.

I didn’t have to look for very long. Just beyond the tree itself there was a steep drop-off that led down into a canyon a couple hundred feet below. And at the bottom of that canyon there was the pair we had been looking for. Pace and Lemuel were standing right there in plain sight, easily within reach.

That was the good news. The bad news was that they weren’t alone. Not in the slightest. No, rather than just the two of them, we could see over a dozen other figures all down there with them. All of them set off my Stranger-sense, and several were still changing out of their wolf forms. So, apparently not only had we found the two we were looking for, but we’d found the rest of their pack as well. Yay.

Miranda reached into her pocket before producing a small, rounded red stone. She held it up, clearly invoking some kind of spell that had been put on the thing. I felt a shiver run through me and my ears popped before the other girl nodded in satisfaction. “There,” she announced out loud, breaking the silence. “Now they can’t hear us down there. Just, uh, try not to go very far away from the rock.”

Clearly, she knew a spell similar to the one that Deveron used on those coins. I vowed silently to make sure she told me how she did that one before shaking my head. “We can’t take that many of them.”

Roxa, meanwhile, had moved behind another tree and shifted back into her human form. Her hand waved out and Gidget went bounding over before opening her mouth to spit up the shirt. It seemed… clean and dry enough, and Roxa quickly pulled it on before emerging. Her gaze was locked on mine, her eyes anxious. We have to!” she blurted. “They’re right there! The bitch with the necklace, she’s there. And Lemuel, the piece of shit who did this to me, he’s just… he’s right there!” The frustration in her voice was obvious and painful to hear. “We have to—we can—we can’t just… we can’t just do nothing!” She turned, taking a step that way as though she was about to charge in there all by herself.

Tristan, however, moved quickly in front of her. “Roxa, no.” He winced, hand up to catch her shoulder. “No. You can’t—listen, we could probably take two werewolves. Maybe one or two more than that if we worked together and got lucky. But there’s not two, three, or four down there. There’s close to twenty. Twenty werewolves. We can’t fight that many. If they knew we were around, we’d get torn apart in seconds.” He looked completely frustrated, but firm. “We can’t fight them right now.”

Before Roxa could argue, I spoke up. “That doesn’t mean we’ll give up. Pace won’t be with that pack forever. We’ll get the necklace from her. Maybe Seller can talk to her tribe, make her take it off so they see… so they see what it is. Whatever it takes, I promise we’ll get that necklace. We’ll get it for you, I swear, Roxa. It’s… it’s the least we can do, after accidentally dragging you here to begin with.”

That was… the wrong thing to say. Roxa stiffened, and I saw confusion cross her face for a moment before she squinted at me intently. “Wait, what do you mean?” she asked slowly and deliberately, taking a step toward me. “What do you mean, accidentally dragged me here? What happened?”

Oh. Apparently she had still been too out of it when Tristan had started to apologize before, while she was a wolf. Wincing, I hesitated before explaining. I told her about how Tristan and I were linked, and that Koren’s mother had needed to be brought here to Eden’s Garden so they could save her life. I explained that I’d forgotten about the link to Tristan, so he’d had no idea what was about to happen.

Finally, I finished with a quiet, “So I guess since you happened to be touching him, it dragged you along too. I’m sorry, Roxa. I was just… I wanted to help Koren’s mother, and everything happened so-”

That was as far as I got before Roxa was right in my face. Her teeth were bared, already changed into canine fangs as a furious growl erupted from her. I jerked backwards, my back hitting the nearby tree.

“You!” she blurted, eyes filled with anger that I honestly couldn’t blame her for. “You brought me here?! You made me fall right into their laps, you put me, you… you…” Her growl deepened then.

Miranda and the others were already starting to intervene, but I held a hand up to stop them without taking my eyes off her. “I’m sorry, Roxa,” I said firmly. “I am so, so sorry. If I had just called to warn Tristan, if I’d thought… but I didn’t. I just wanted to save Koren’s mother. I forgot about the link. It’s my fault. It is. But I swear, I won’t stop until we find that necklace for you. We will get it away from her.”

Roxa just stared at me, teeth bared. Her growl slowly subsided until the girl turned away. Her shoulders hunched up and I could see how much of an effort she was making to control herself until she finally took a step away from me. Her fist came up and she punched a nearby tree hard enough to actually put a hole in it. The girl’s shoulders were literally shaking as she fought to keep her anger in check.

“All… I wanted…” she started then, “was a place to belong. All I wanted was…” Rather than finish that sentence, Roxa just trailed off while shaking her head. She gave the tree another punch, this one much more half-hearted before slumping backward. Her head was lowered. “Now what? I can’t go back to Crossroads like this. What about my team? What about my friends? They’ll kill me if they see me. What am I supposed to do, live here? Any Strangers that see me will know I’m a Heretic. And any Heretics that see me will know that I’m a werewolf. What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?! There’s—there’s nothing. I can’t do anything. No one is going to want me around, no one!”

“That’s not true.”

My mouth had opened, but it was a different voice who spoke up before I could say anything. Someone who hadn’t been here before. My gaze snapped that way, and I found two figures standing nearby. At the sight of the nearest, my eyes widened and I blurted, “Sean?!”

Sure enough, the boy was there. And he was accompanied by a rather short, thin man that was clearly just as Hispanic as the boy he was with. At the first sight of him, my Stranger-sense started yelling.

“Hey, guys.” Sean held up both hands to stop anyone from moving. “Listen, this is uhh, this is my uncle’s boyfriend, Mateo. Mateo, this is Flick, Koren, Tristan, Roxa, and umm… wait…” He paused.

“Miranda,” I introduced them, staring. “How did you—what did–” Then I got it. “Gaia.”

I had no idea how Gaia had known what happened or that she needed to send for Mateo, or even how she knew the man at all. But by that point, I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Mateo nodded, his gaze on Roxa, who was staring at him with wide eyes. “She sent the man named Seller to find us. He explained what had happened, and said that the little one might need some help.”

Quickly, we explained what had happened. Mateo took a step closer to the edge of the canyon, peering down that way for a few seconds before turning back. He was already shaking his head. “That’s a trained pack down there, and they’re ready for a fight. No way you get anywhere near the girl.”

Roxa slumped down a bit at that, her gaze downcast. “So I’m stuck. I have nowhere to go.”

Mateo reached out then, but rather than hug or even pat her, the man flicked her forehead. It was just a light tap, but it got her attention. “Hey,” he started. “You really wanna spend time feeling sorry for yourself?”

Roxa’s head shook immediately. “No,” she said sharply, as though it was abhorrent. “No, I—I’m sorry. I don’t. I just… I just… don’t know what to do.”

“You want others to feel sorry for you?” the man asked then. When Roxa’s head shook again, he smiled faintly. “Good. Because if I’m gonna introduce you to my pack, you’re gonna have to be tough.”

It took Roxa a few seconds to catch onto that. “Introduce me to… wait…”

Mateo smiled and cuffed her lightly against the shoulder. “You didn’t think I just showed up to tell you how screwed you were, did you?” He sobered then. “I ahh, I know you didn’t ask for this. And I know if you get this… this necklace thing, you’ll want to go back to the school of yours. But if you need a place to stay, my home is open to you. And my pack is yours to run with.”

Roxa’s mouth opened and shut a few times before the girl gave a little shudder. She swallowed hard, then nodded once. It was clear that she didn’t trust her voice. Then she glanced toward me. “I—Flick–”

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “I know why you’re mad. But I promise, we’ll find the necklace. We’ll get it.”

Mateo stepped away with her then, to explain what they were going to have to do. Meanwhile, I looked toward Sean. “So Seller just showed up and transported you here?”

The boy nodded quickly at that. “Yup, he um, he sort of half-explained what was going on. But he left a lot out. There was… something about your…” He stopped talking then, eyes flicking toward Koren. “I mean her mom?”

“It’s a long story.” I sighed. “We need to get out of here before Miranda’s silence spell wears off and that army of wolves down there hears us. Because I’m pretty sure this little knife isn’t gonna do much.” I pulled the silver blade out, gesturing with it.

That’s how you killed that wolf?”

I nodded, turning it over in my hand. “Yeah, that uh, monkey thing brought it to me.”

“Monkey thing?” Tristan and Miranda both spoke together, staring at me in confusion.

Nodding once more, I turned in a circle. “Uhh, yeah, the thing that was… oh, there it is.” I gestured with the knife toward the gold and red figure that sat in a nearby tree, watching us. “Hey, buddy. You want your weapon back?”

Tristan looked up, then laughed. “That’s not a real monkey, Flick. That must be Gaia.”

I blinked, looked at the figure, then back to the boy. “Uhhh… Tristan… that’s a–”

“I mean, it’s a spell,” he explained. “Nicholas showed it to me. Look, it’s an advanced spell, I never learned how to do it. But basically, you start by taking a block of wood. When you cast the spell, it turns the thing into… well, some animal. The animal’s different with everyone, but every time you cast the spell, it’ll be the same one. Then you sort of… see through the thing’s eyes and control it. That must be how Gaia knew what was going on.”

“But it sets off the Stranger-Sense,” I pointed out.

He nodded. “That’s one of the side effects. Actually, that’s part of why the spell always makes one of the colors of the resulting animal that bright ruby red. It’s one of the signs that you’re looking at the… damn, I can’t remember what he called the spell.” Tristan thought for a moment before shaking his head. “Anyway, the animals that come out of the spell are always the same for the person casting it, and they’re always red combined with the color of that person’s Heretic-aura.”

I started to nod at that, but then Koren shook her head. “It’s not Gaia,” she said quietly. “I’ve seen um, I’ve seen her do that before. It’s the same gold and red color like that, but hers looks like a cat. And if it’s always the same animal, then…”

Frowning at that, I shook my head. “Well, it’s been useful and helpful the whole time. Maybe…” Turning that way, I called, “Seller?”

The monkey hopped to the ground, staring at me while coming forward.

“Seller?” I repeated. “That’s you, right?”

Slowly, the monkey reached out, sticking a finger in the dirt before starting to scribble that way. I realized after a second that it was writing letters. Gradually, there were two words scrawled there in the dirt.

My Felicity.

The knife fell from my hands, hitting the dirt. Someone else said something, but I didn’t hear them. Slowly, I looked up from the words in the dirt to the monkey that crouched there. Something thick had settled in my throat, but I still managed to speak a single word past the sudden rush of tears that blinded me.

“…. Mom….?”

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Search And Rescue 14-04

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So, apparently neither the bastard werewolf nor the ugly face-in-chest Blemmye that I had killed had ended up giving me super-nurse-healing-caretaker powers, because nothing sprang to mind about how to help poor Roxa deal with what was happening to her. I was frozen for a moment, staring uncertainly.

While I was frozen, the girl jerked against the ground, her hand shrinking slightly into more of a paw shape as a brand new shriek of agony escaped her. And in that moment, I shoved all that doubt aside.

My hand moved to stroke through her hair tenderly while I put one hand on her bare back. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, feeling a wretched guilt tear itself through me at the sight of her agony. “I’m so sorry.”

Roxa gave another heavy shudder, a terrible wail escaping her as she arched her back against me. I saw bits of fur sprouting all along her skin, pushing their way out while she made a sound of abject misery.

“Oh god, I’m sorry, Roxa. I’m sorry.” Cringing, I tried to hug the girl to me without interfering with what was happening. She had to get through it. As awful as it clearly was, the best thing was to get it over with. I just wished that there was something I could do to make it easier for her. Anything at all.

Just as another sob of agony tore its way out of the tortured girl’s throat, something touched my other arm. I jumped a little bit reflexively, but glancing that way revealed the same gold and ruby-colored monkey from before. There was a somber look in his eyes, while he held something out to me.

My eyes flicked to the thing the monkey was holding, and I saw a bowl-shaped leaf. There was water in it. While I stared for a brief second, the monkey pushed the leaf up toward me with an urgent sound.

Realizing what it wanted, I took the bowl-leaf and brought it to Roxa’s mouth. It was already partially transformed, but when I held the water close, she opened up. I poured the water in slowly, letting her swallow in between gulps. Meanwhile, the monkey had scampered off again, back into the bushes.

Giving Roxa a bit more water, I rubbed her back, whispering softly to her. I wasn’t even sure what I was saying beyond trying to be as reassuring as possible. Every time she cried out, every time she whimpered or spasmed in pain, I held onto her and promised that it was going to be okay, that she’d be okay. It was all I could really do, offering encouragement and trying to soothe her as much as possible.

After a minute of that, the monkey returned once more. My eyes glanced that way to find the thing carrying another leaf. This time, however, when it held the leaf up there were small blue berries inside rather than water. Before I could even ask what it was doing, the monkey set the leaf down and carefully picked out one of the berries. Holding it close to my face, it squeezed hard to pop the berry. As it did so, a tiny little bit of light blue smoke shot out of the crushed berry. I recoiled in surprise, but when the smoke came close to my nose, I felt… better. A little bit of the tension left my body, and a curiously pleasant sensation ran through me. It almost felt like… like… “Anesthetic,” I gasped out loud.

My eyes darted between the berries and Roxa before I picked up one of the little bits of fruit. Rolling it between my fingers, I brought the berry close to the girl’s face and pushed in on it to pop the thing. As the resulting puff of smoke emerged, Roxa jerked just like I had. Then, also just as I had, she slumped a little bit. A gasp escaped her, and her eyes opened just a little bit. There was still pain there, but she seemed a tiny bit more aware. “Wha–” she managed before moaning in pain. Her eyes flickered a little.

“It’s okay, Roxa,” I promised her. “I’m here. I… I’ll keep you safe, I promise. I promise, you’ll be okay.” I held her close, running a hand through her hair as she shivered. I didn’t know if she really understood, but the girl seemed to lean a bit closer into me so maybe she at least got the basic gist of my intention.

I began to ration out the berries then, using another one on her only when the pain seemed to be getting unbearable. It felt awful, and part of me wanted to use each one the second she showed any signs of pain. But I knew that there couldn’t be an unlimited supply. These berries had to last through her entire transformation. So I resisted the urge, carefully doling them out one at a time as gradually as I dared.

Time seemed to drag on as poor Roxa very gradually continued her transformation. The back of her head had already mostly finished reshaping itself before her ears began to slide ever-so-slowly up along her skull. Her body was entirely covered in tawny-colored fur by that point, even though she retained enough of her human features to be recognizable. Her moans of pain were gradually becoming whimpers more akin to the wolf that she was turning into. And through it all, I did everything I could to assure the girl that she wasn’t alone. I held her, used the berries to ease her suffering, and whispered encouragement. I promised her that I wasn’t going to leave, that she would make it through this change.

Even the monkey seemed to be trying to soothe Roxa. It sat on the other side of the girl, rubbing her gently with its own paw while making soft, somehow encouraging chittering noises under its breath.

Finally, I was sitting there with a fully-formed wolf lying in my lap. Roxa’s head was against my stomach as she lay there panting heavily. For a few seconds, she didn’t move. I just ran my hand down her side, essentially petting the changed girl while telling her that she’d made it, that she was okay.

After a minute of that, her head turned a little and I saw the wolf take a little sniff of the air. Her eyes opened to look at me, blinking twice as she clearly fought to understand what was happening. Then she got it, those eyes widening as a yelp escaped the wolf. She jerked upward, scrambling over in her rush to get away from me. Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t exactly accustomed to moving on four legs yet. They all got tangled up with each other, and the wolf tumbled over onto her side in the dirt with a yowl.

“Roxa!” I quickly jumped to my feet, hands raised in front of me. “Roxa, it’s all right. It’s okay. I know. I know it’s you, I know you’re not… listen, it’s okay. I’m not trying to hurt you, I swear. I know what they did to you. I know you’re not an evil monster, okay? Just focus. Look, I’m not attacking you.”

The wolf backed up another step after regaining her feet, her eyes clearly wary as her ears began to flick all over the place. She started turning her head in every direction, clearly hearing things from much further away than I could. The wolf’s senses were overwhelming her, in addition to her obvious fear about being found by a Heretic. I had to do something, say something that would calm her down.

Before I could find the right words, however, Roxa abruptly spun around the opposite way. Her ears were laid flat back against her head as she let out a warning snarl that seemed to surprise her as much as it did me, because it stopped almost immediately while she made a noise of obvious confusion.

It wasn’t a threat that emerged from the trees, however. It was Tristan, Miranda, and Koren. All three of them looked pretty haggard and beat up, and Tristan was holding a wound in his side that was bleeding.

“Flick!” Miranda called out, taking a step that way before stopping short as her eyes found the wolf. Her eyes fell and she made a noise of realization. “That’s her… she finished changing,” she murmured.

“You guys knew?” I blurted, looking from them to Roxa. The wolf was snapping her head back and forth, clearly nervous about everyone being around her. Considering what she had to be thinking, I couldn’t blame her. “Roxa,” I said quietly, taking a step before stooping down on one knee. “It’s okay. No one here wants to hurt you. We know you’re not evil, I promise. We are not going to hurt you.”

Tristan had taken a step forward as well, his face falling. I saw anger there. “Yeah, we knew,” he muttered. “We saw a couple werewolves on our way. The big one said… well, he said enough. I tried to kill him, Roxa. I hurt him, but he…” The boy grimaced, glancing down at the wound in his side that was still busy healing. “I gave him about as good as I got, and he ran. I would’ve chased them anyway, but… but I wanted to get here.” His hand moved out, palm up for the wolf to sniff. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Roxa. If I’d known that I was about to be dragged here, if I could just… not…” He looked away then.

Honestly, I knew how Tristan felt. The guilt was an awful pit that sat in my stomach. Roxa looked back and forth between us, a confused whine escaping her. In the midst of that whine, her snout abruptly began to shrink. I blinked at that, briefly confused (it had been a long day). But as the fur on her body began to retract and her paws elongated, I immediately understood. “Oh!” Straightening, I stepped around her while waving my hands for the others to turn around. “Guys, uh, little privacy for her?”

The change still wasn’t as quick as the other werewolves had. It took a couple of minutes while the rest of us looked away. But at least Roxa didn’t seem to be in any pain while doing it. She made a few confused and worried noises, but the agony wasn’t there anymore. That was something, at least.

While we were waiting, I looked toward the others. “You really saw the other two wolves?”

Tristan nodded, moving his hand away from his side and lifting his shirt a bit to show that it had almost fully healed. “Like I said, I took a chunk out of that son of a bitch. Wish I’d had something silver to finish him off. But I didn’t, and he just healed too damn fast. Then he and that other wolf ran off.”

“Are you okay?” Miranda pressed. “They said there was another one. The way they talked, they left him behind to…” She trailed off, her worry obvious as she stared at me, hand moving to touch my arm.

I nodded at that, glancing back to her. “They left one of them behind to stop me. But… I killed him.”

That got all three of them looking at me with obvious surprise. Koren was the one who blurted out what they were thinking, asking incredulously, “Killed him? How? You didn’t have silver either, did you?”

My head started to shake, but before I could say anything, Roxa cleared her throat behind us. “Um. Uh.” There was a mixture of fear and uncertainty in her voice. “Could… could I um, I’m sort of…”

Tristan immediately pulled his borrowed shirt up and off, tossing it over his shoulder without looking that way. “It’s sort of bloody and there’s a bit of a hole in the side, but it should help at least a little bit.”

After the other girl had a moment to pull the shirt on, we turned around. She was there, looking dirty and disheveled as she stared at us. Even now, I could tell part of her wanted to bolt and run for it. She was on the tip of her toes, shifting her weight as she stood there wearing just the shirt that came to her mid-thigh. As she spoke, her eyes darted between all of us. “Flick–Koren… Tristan… You… You know what happened. You know what I am, what they did to me. But you… you’re not…” she trailed off, frowning uncertainly for a moment before demanding. “You’re not trying to kill me. Why? Why aren’t you trying to kill me?”

“It’s a long story,” I informed the girl quietly. “But I promise, we know you’re not suddenly evil. And we’re not going to try to kill you. I—listen, right now, you’re in the forest outside of Eden’s Garden.”

Her eyes widened, and she looked, if possible, even more confused. “Eden’s Garden?” Her eyes darted past us, up to the giant trees and back before blurting, “you mean the place the bad Heretics are from?”

Miranda made a noise that I realized was a chuckle after a second. “That’s okay, we call you guys the lazy Heretics. So I guess we’re even.” She focused on the girl then. “The name’s Miranda. I’m one of those ‘bad Heretics.’ But I promise, we’re not that bad. Just different. You know, like other sports teams. Or countries, I guess.” She frowned thoughtfully before sighing. “But you’re not safe here either.”

“They don’t outright kill every Alter,” I explained to Roxa. “But they don’t treat them very nicely either.” She looked more confused, and I belatedly added, “Alters are what Strangers call themselves.”

Poor Roxa’s mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “What’s going on?”

I started to say something, then stopped. That repeated twice more before I just sighed. “There’s a lot to tell you, Roxa. I’m sorry you got dragged into this. Really. I… there’s so much we have to talk about.”

“Why don’t we start at the top?” Tristan suggested. “First of all, Strangers aren’t all evil. As uh, you may have noticed from the fact that you don’t have the irresistible urge to maul and devour all of us.”

Roxa’s head shook. “I don’t understand. Why would they teach us that they’re evil if they’re not? Are we… I mean, are Heretics…” Trailing off, she lifted her gaze to stare at us. “Are Heretics the bad guys?”

I sighed. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. There are good and bad guys on both sides. Like I said, there’s a lot to talk about. But the fact is, you’re not any more evil than before and you’re not alone.”

“Not alone?” she blurted. “I’m a werewolf. A werewolf. You know, the kind of thing you’re supposed to kill as soon as you see me?”

“But I’m not,” I pointed out. “None of us are, see? Like I said, it’s more complicated than that. But listen, you’re not alone. You know Sean? His—he knows a werewolf too. He knows a werewolf that isn’t evil, just like you’re not, okay? You’re not alone.”

Biting her lip, the other blonde girl seemed to consider that for a moment. “But the other Heretics, they’re not like you, are they? They’re not going to listen. And as soon as they see me, they’ll know.”

Grimacing, I nodded. “There’s others that know the truth, but… yeah, most of the Heretics will try to kill you as soon as they see you.” I took a breath. “That’s why we have to find Pace, as soon we can.”

That brought everyone’s eyes around. Miranda squinted at me, clearly confused. “Pace, you mean Trice’s psycho friend? Why do we need to find her? What does she have to do with any of this?”

“She was the other wolf,” I informed them quietly. “The one that was with the big guy Tristan fought.”

“What?!” Miranda was staring at me with wide eyes. “What does that—you mean she wasn’t changed just recently? But I’ve seen her, how does—she’s not a Stranger, I’ve seen her. Plenty of people have, and she’s not—I mean she doesn’t set off…” The implications were setting in as she went silent.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “She’s got some choker necklace thing that hides what she is. It makes it so that the Heretic Stranger-sense doesn’t pick her up. Trust me, I know. I tried to grab it, but… they got away.”

Another noise in the bushes made us all spin that way defensively. This time, there was a glint of metal before another familiar figure came trotting into view, looking absolutely pleased with herself.

“Gidget!” Roxa cried out, dropping back to her knees as the mechanical cougar came bounding up to her. She threw her arms around her pet/weapon, hugging the robotic cat. “How did you get here?!”

My mouth opened then shut as it came to me. “Gaia,” I managed. “She must’ve sent Gidget to help.”

The other girl’s eyes snapped up to me while she clung to the metal cougar’s neck. “Gaia… she… she’ll… want to kill me now. She’ll take Gidget away.”

My head shook reflexively. “No she—I… like I said, it’s a long story. But we need to find Pace. We need to find her and get that necklace away from her. If we can get it, then you… you won’t have to run away. You can come back to the school with us.”
“That’s not gonna be easy,” Koren pointed out. “It’s not exactly a little forest.”

“And if she gets back the Tree,” Miranda added, “there’s no way we’ll get it off her. Trust me, they will not believe us if we tell them she’s a werewolf. Her tribe and mine don’t get along much to begin with. If we start throwing those kind of accusations around, it’ll just get worse.”

Groaning, I put my hand to my forehead. “So we have to find her before she gets back there. We have to catch her out here in the forest.”

“She can’t be too far away,” Roxa said quietly before visibly sniffing the air. “I can still smell her.”

We stared for a moment before Tristan blurted, “The werewolf senses! You can still smell her because of the wolf—wait, can you track her down?”

“It’s… I’m not sure…” Roxa looked doubtful, afraid as she abruptly stopped sniffing at the realization of what she had been doing.

“Rox,” Tristan stepped that way, putting both hands on the side of her face as he knelt beside her and Gidget. “It’s okay. It’s all right. You can do it. Those senses you’ve got now, it’s no different than when you absorb powers from a Stranger, okay? You’re still you. The werewolf isn’t going to make you evil. You can do this. We’ll get that necklace for you. But we need your help. We need you to track her down, okay? We need you to help us help you.”

Visibly calming as she stared at him, Roxa finally swallowed. “I’ll do it,” she murmured. “I’ll track her.”

She turned then, hesitating before making a whistling noise at Gidget. The cougar immediately sprang into action, jumping in front of her before transforming into her hover-board form with the weapons platform attached.

Stepping up on her ride, Roxa had it float just a little off the ground so that she wouldn’t have to walk on bare feet. Then she nodded her head. “It’s… her trail goes this way.”

The rest of us looked at one another, then started to follow at a jog that quickly picked up into as close to a run as we could manage through this forest of increasingly thick underbrush. We had to find Pace and get that necklace off of her.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. She and Lemuel had a head start and they knew the forest better than we did. They had most of the advantages in here, including time. We couldn’t let any other Heretic see Roxa and realize what she was until we found that necklace.

Meanwhile, all I could do was hope, with each running step, that we wouldn’t be too late.

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Search And Rescue 14-03

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As terrible as the sound of Roxa’s scream was, in some ways it almost encouraged me. She was alive, and she was near enough that we’d been able to actually hear her. And it gave me a direction to go in.

Those were all the things that I told myself to take the edge off the indescribable horror that ran through me at the thought of what could be happening to Roxa in order to draw that kind of sound out of her. It helped a tiny bit, at least enough to let me focus on getting there as fast as humanly possible.

Well, I suppose humanly possible was the wrong term. There weren’t a lot of humans who could meld with trees, launch themselves out of branches, and use a stick to create concussive explosions to push themselves further. Unless, of course, other people had much more interesting puberties than I’d had.

A couple of the Blemmye had tried to follow me, but apparently they had shoved all their evolutionary points into ‘being as disgusting as possible’ while neglecting the ‘travel quickly through the forest’ skill. They fell behind as I launched myself from tree to tree, though the pretty monkey thing was still keeping up. I caught a glimpse or two of the thing while I was focused on following the awful scream.

The way that scream echoed through the forest and off of the trees made it a little disorienting to actually narrow down exactly where it was coming from, but I focused and knew I had to be getting close. Despite myself, as I dropped from a tree to the ground, I called, “Roxa?! Roxa, where are you?”

There was a noise from the side, and I pivoted that way just in time to see a trio of wolves emerge from the bushes. They were in full-on stalking mode, the leader slightly bigger than the other two. His fur was a little bit darker, though he had a white patch under his right eye that was shaped like a dagger.

Oh, and my Stranger-sense very kindly informed me that these were not ordinary wolves. Which was easily confirmed as all three of the wolves abruptly grew, shifting and contorting until three people stood in front of me. Three naked people, the leader a huge black guy while the other two were a skinny little blonde guy who reminded me of David Spade, and a girl that I was all too familiar with.

“Pace!” I blurted, my eyes going wide. Yeah, it was the girl from Trice’s little group of thugs. I’d never had a real close look at the girl aside from when she had been fighting Columbus and Sean, but it was definitely her. She was a tall, Hispanic girl with hair that was cut short on one side and long on the other. It was also dyed vivid green. And unlike the other two, she wasn’t completely naked. There was a silver choker with a couple of bright sapphires embedded in the middle of it around the girl’s neck.

A wide smile crossed the girl’s face then, and she clapped twice before pointing. “You! You’re the pretty little blonde Doxer wanted to play with! Ooooh, maybe I can wrap you up and give you to him for a birthday present! Though you’d have to stay in the present until it’s time, but you don’t mind sitting in a box for a couple months, do ya? He’ll love you much more than the socks I was gonna get him.”

“You know this one, huh?” the big black guy asked contemplatively while he continued to stare at me.

“Oh, yes, yes.” Pace all but purred the words as she eyed me like… well, like a wolf staring at prey. “She’s from Crossroads, which means the other one is too. Guess that’s why I didn’t recognize her.”

I was floundering a little, gaping while the words stumbled their way awkwardly out of my mouth. “You—but you’re—how—wha–huh?” She was a werewolf. But she was a Heretic. I knew she was, and Miranda hadn’t said anything about the girl she’d been following around regularly being turned.

She laughed at that, a disturbing sound to match her equally disturbing smile. Pace seemed almost like an alien that knew the basic idea of what a smile was supposed to be, but was terrible in the execution.

“Isn’t this fun?” she asked before giggling creepily. “I get to be both. One side, both sides, fun sides. Whatever happens, I get to play. And nobody,” she leaned closer, putting a finger to her lips. “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

“But how—you can’t—” I would have stammered a little more, but a distant, agonized cry drew my attention past the three of them. God, it sounded even worse by that point, and I blurted, “Roxa!”

Reflexively, I started to take a step around the three, drawn by the horrible scream of pain. But Pace was suddenly right in my face. She gave a hard shove that knocked me backward a step while blurting, “No! Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

“Stop calling me Present!” I blurted, bringing my staff up. “And what do you mean, making her change? You–” My eyes darted from the werewolves to the spot in the distance where the sound was coming from, and then I made a horrified noise as the truth dawned. “Oh—oh god, no, you didn’t–”

Pace gave a loud, rather terrifying laugh at that. “Isn’t it funny?! She can be a wolfie too, but not like me. Not like me, cuz she doesn’t have my toy.” Her finger flicked at the choker on her neck. “So they’ll know. They’ll know when they see her. Cuz she doesn’t have the secret-keeper. So they’ll see her and kill her. Won’t that be funny? They get to kill the girl they were supposed to train to kill Strangers!”

“Oh yeah,” I agreed. “It’s hilarious. Just one thing though.” Abruptly and without any other warning, I brought my staff up and around as hard as I could, triggering the kinetic charge. It took Pace in the face, knocking her head sideways as she was sent hurtling backward ten feet to hit the nearest tree.

The other two werewolves lunged for me, crossing the distance between us terrifyingly quickly. But I was ready. Rather than facing them head on, I simply took one step back. My foot came down on the root of the tree behind me, and I instantly merged myself into the wood. A thought sent me flying up and through the rest of the tree, over the branch above before I leapt from that tree to the one that Pace had been thrown into. Merging with that one as well, I sent myself down from the branch to the trunk.

The girl was just picking herself up when I reached the spot behind her. Leaning out of the tree, I brought the staff up and around. All I had to do was put her on the ground and get the choker off of her.

I wanted to help Roxa, but first I had to get the thing that was somehow letting Pace hide in plain sight without anyone realizing that she was a werewolf. If these monsters had really turned Roxa, she needed a way to hide it. I owed her that much, since it was my fault she’d been dragged here in the first place.

Unfortunately, Pace clearly didn’t agree. And she wasn’t nearly as stunned as she should’ve been. Before my staff got anywhere near her head, the other girl pivoted while ducking, moving so fast she was a literal blur of motion. The staff whiffed where she had been, before the girl lashed out with a punch toward my stomach. I tried to twist aside, but all I managed to do was take the hit in my side.

It hurt. I yelped, even as her strong hand took hold of my bicep and yanked me hard. So hard, in fact, that I heard something snap as a sharp shock of pain lanced up through my arm. Then I was thrown to the ground while the girl brought her foot back to kick me, sending even more pain through me. “Bad Present!” she shouted, already drawing her foot back to kick me again. “That’s a bad, bad Present!”

Before she could finish that kick, however, the big guy interceded. His hand caught Pace, yanking her back away from me. “That’s enough. We have other things to do. Things I need you for.” He looked toward the skinny blond guy, the one who had been silent up to then. “Valentine can deal with her.”

But Lemuel,” Pace whined. “I wanted to make her a present for Doxer, remember? He’s my friend.”

The big werewolf, Lemuel apparently, looked like he was about to tear her head off for arguing with him but visibly restrained himself after a second. “Fine,” he gritted out before speaking to Valentine.”Don’t kill her. Hurt her, cripple her, whatever you need to do to subdue her. Make sure she won’t fight back. Then wrap her up. Meanwhile, Pace and I will take care of that… other thing. Got it?”

“Ayup,” the other male werewolf replied in a slow, easy drawl. “Ah got it. Hurt, cripple, don’t kill.”

“She’ll heal fast,” Lemuel reminded him. “So don’t worry about how much damage you’ve gotta do to put her down for awhile. As long as she survives, she’ll bounce back from it. Other than that, have fun.”

Pace blew me a kiss then. “Have fun playing with Valentine, Present! We’ll see you real soon, okay?”

I tried to scramble back to my feet, ignoring the pain in my arm as it began to heal. But even as I clambered my way up, the other two were already shifting into their wolf forms. “Pace!” I shouted, trying to find a way to make the girl stay longer, long enough to get that choker off of her neck.

Too late. The two of them were gone, bounding off into the giant woods. Valentine, tilted his head hard from one side to the other, cracking his neck each time. “Well, Ah guess it’s you and me now, Heretic-kid,” he murmured thoughtfully in that slow drawl of his. “Ya wanna jest lay on down on that ground there an’ let me break a couple legs so ya stay that way, or do we gotta do this the real hard way?”

Gripping my staff with the hand of my good arm, I focused on the man even as yet another scream of agony in the distance reminded me that, even if I couldn’t catch up with Pace, I still had to get to Roxa. “I’ve been told that I’m really bad at doing things the easy way,” I informed him. “It’s kind of a thing.”

“Ah’ll teach ya,” he informed me with a small smirk. Then he took a step to me, his body already shifting once more. This time, rather than shrinking into the shape of a wolf, he grew, adding a foot of height and a lot more muscle while fur sprouted over his body. His head contorted, turning into a half-wolf shape with a muzzle full of sharp teeth. This was the werewolf’s battle form, a halfway point between wolf and human that gave them most of the advantages of both and was incredibly strong.

He came at me, and I launched myself sideways, using a burst from my staff to move faster. Even then, it was a close call, as the big werewolf tore through the air right where I had been a second earlier.

He spun around almost as quickly. Before I could even think about going on the offensive, the werewolf was coming at me again. He lashed out with an arm, long claws sliding out of his fur-covered hands. With a yelp, I ducked the first swing and the blow took a solid chunk out of the tree behind me.

The man followed up with a swing from his other hand. That one I managed to deflect with my staff, using a burst of energy from it to smack into his incoming arm and knock it aside. Even then, with the assist from the kinetic charge, the blow from the werewolf almost knocked the staff from my hand.

Then his foot came up and kicked me in the chest. The air rushed out of me as I was launched backward against the tree. Just before I would’ve hit, I regained enough sense to merge with the wood.

I could run, throw myself out of the other side of the tree and find Roxa. But Valentine would follow me, and I had no way of throwing him off. Especially since he’d know exactly where I was going.

So no, I had to deal with this guy before I could help her. But how? My arm was still in pain despite the healing, and it was going to take too long to get back to decent shape. And even if it had been, I wasn’t sure I could take on a full grown and trained werewolf, especially on his home turf. This was bad.

Still, I had to try. Roxa was in even worse trouble than me. Sending myself up to one of the lower branches, I aimed for the werewolf before launching myself out toward his head from above.

He saw me coming almost too late, head snapping up as he swept a hand into the path of my staff to stop it from hitting his face. I triggered the concussive charge anyway. The blast snapped the figure’s head back, and I was rewarded with a yelp from him that time as he staggered a step or two backward.

Then I was on the ground in a crouch. Before the werewolf could recover, I snapped the staff up, aiming for the special place between his legs. Considering his lack of clothes, it was an obvious target.

Except he had recovered. His foot lashed upward, kicking my staff off target so that it whiffed through the air once more. Hell, that casual kick nearly knocked the weapon out of my hand completely.

Before I could move again, the wolf-man came in hard and fast. His claws tore through my shoulder, drawing a deep line of blood that I distantly felt through the adrenaline that was fueling me. At the same time, I managed to slam my staff into his snout, knocking two of his teeth out in the process.

Unfortunately, that just pissed him off. Valentine snarled before launching a series of attacks. I managed to block or avoid most of them, but the ones that hit really hurt. I was bleeding from half a dozen places, my arm still hadn’t fully healed, and I was pretty sure that a couple of my ribs were at least cracked if not outright broken from the earlier kick. There was a sharp pain whenever I breathed.

Worse, when I hit the ground from the last blow and rolled over onto my side with my staff up, the wolf-man just smiled at me, showing his returned teeth in his perfectly healed mouth. All of that, and he was fine. The damn werewolf just healed entirely too quickly for me to do any real damage to him.

Fuck, I needed silver to do any real lasting damage to this asshole. But where could I get it?

“Ya tired yet?” he asked mockingly while he stood over me, his voice a deep, extremely guttural growl that was almost unrecognizable as speech unless I really focused on understanding it. He sounded like someone sarcastically impersonating Christian Bale’s Batman voice to make it even more absurd.

I made a motion as though trying to push myself up, then slumped with an exhausted groan while letting the staff roll out of my loose grip. Turning my head to the dirt, I murmured under my breath.

“What was that?” Valentine demanded in that gutter growl while reaching down for me. “Speak up.”

Rolling over abruptly, I answered, “I said, ‘Come closer, assface.’”

Because I wasn’t tired, not at all. Hurt, yes. Tired, no. The Amarok’s power had made sure of that. But it was a different power that I had been focusing on: the one that I’d absorbed from the Harabeold. As I rolled over, my hand came up and opened, revealing the small plastic film canister that I’d pulled from my pocket. My thumb flicked the lid off, revealing the contents: sand. Yeah, Columbus and Avalon hadn’t had time yet to finish making my special container that would carry a lot more of the stuff. So all I had was this tiny bit that barely amounted to a handful.

But it would do. Before Valentine knew what was happening, I sent the sand up into his eyes and nose. Sure, there wasn’t a lot of it. But even a little bit of sand directly in your eyes and nose is disorienting, especially if you’ve got a wolf’s senses.

I had my weapon back in my hand and was on my feet again while the werewolf recoiled and howled from the sand blinding him. Pointing the staff at the ground, I made two quick mines before calling, “Hey, didn’t you hear me? I said, ‘come closer, assface!’”

He roared, taking a quick step my way with his hand raised. I was pretty sure he’d forgotten about the ‘keeping me alive’ part, because that swing probably would’ve taken my head off.

Except that one step brought him right onto the two mines that I’d put down, and the resulting blast tore him off his feet, sending him flailing and howling in agony.

I kept up the pressure, coming after him with an overhead swing from the staff that caught him in the throat, then another before he could recover from that one. The third blow, however, was intercepted by a wild, blind swing that sent me tumbling toward the bushes.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had the advantage, but I was going to lose it if this went on any longer. I just couldn’t do enough damage to keep the bastard down! I didn’t have anything silver on me, which was an oversight I vowed never to repeat.

Valentine was swiping at the sand in his eyes. I was trying to move it around, keeping him busy a bit longer, but it was getting harder. I hadn’t had much sand to begin with. Whatever I was going to do, it had to be fast.

Just as I had resigned myself to simply trying to hit him even harder, a noise in the bush I’d fallen near caught my attention. My head snapped that way, and I saw… the monkey from earlier.

“Wha–” I managed, just as the thing sprang forward. I jerked back in surprise, a yelp escaping me.

But the monkey wasn’t attacking. Instead, it landed right beside me before holding something up to me. My gaze focused on it… but my brain didn’t believe my eyes.

It was a dagger. A small, unimpressive looking dagger… that was made of silver. It was a silver dagger.

“What are—how–” I started, but the monkey just hissed at me warningly before shoving the dagger closer. Obediently, I snatched the weapon and pushed myself up. I didn’t know. I just had no idea. But I also wasn’t going to argue. Not right then.

By that point, Valentine was on his feet as well. “Aight,” he drawled. “That’s enough o’that.”

He came at me, still mostly blind as I hid the dagger behind my back while holding the staff with one hand.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It is.” Rearing back with the staff, I triggered the last of the concussive charge on it while throwing the thing like it was a javelin. At the same time, I threw myself backward into the nearby tree, once again merging with it.

My staff released its kinetic charge directly in Valentine’s face, the sand having sufficiently blinded him to the incoming threat until it was too late. The blow snapped his head back… just as I launched myself out of the lower branches of the tree with the dagger held out.

I collided with the larger figure, stabbing as hard as I could into his throat while the air was knocked out of me from the impact. There was a roar of pain and I felt his claws dig deep into me. But I held on, wrapping one arm around the back of his muscular, furry neck while stabbing that small dagger everywhere I could. He was howling and I was screaming.

Finally, we hit the ground together. For a moment, there was no movement, no sound, nothing. His howls had gone silent, turning into simple gurgles.

With a groan of pain, I rolled off him. My whole body hurt, and it was all I could do to lift myself up. I stared at the werewolf while his suddenly terrified eyes stared right back at me. He didn’t seem scary then. He seemed completely surprised as blood from half a dozen stab wounds poured out of his throat and upper chest.

His mouth opened to say something, but no sound emerged. He couldn’t speak. Then the figure gave one last spasm before his head fell.

The sudden pleasure that shot through me was evidence enough that he wasn’t faking. He was dead. I had killed a werewolf, with the help of the little monkey that… was gone. When I looked to where it had been, the creature wasn’t there anymore.

Roxa. As sore and injured as I was, as long as it was going to take even the enhanced healing that I had to fix everything wrong with me by that point, I still had to find her.

Pushing myself into a somewhat staggering run, I followed the same path that I’d been on before. Another scream spurred me onward.

Less than a minute later, I half-stumbled into a small clearing, just in time to see the sweat-soaked and red-faced blonde girl arch her back as a terrifying scream escaped her once more.

God… god, she looked bad. Roxa was half-changed. She looked like some terrifying combination of wolf and girl, with fur sprouting in blotchy spots over her skin. One of her legs had fully changed, while the other was still contorted outward with the bone visible. Her head was twisted in what looked like a completely unnatural position, and as I stared for a second, her jaw pushed out another inch as more of her snout formed.

Pace, Lemuel, and Valentine had changed in a few seconds, with no apparent pain at all. But this… this first change was taking forever. I remembered something about the first change taking about an hour to get through. And unlike the subsequent changes, they felt each and every agonizing alteration as their body shifted from human to wolf.

Her eyes closed, and the girl spasmed again, giving a shriek of torment that shook me. She didn’t even know I was there, or that anyone was. The poor girl was too lost in her misery.

“Roxa!” I blurted, flinging myself that way, my own pain forgotten as I fell to my knees by her. “It’s okay, you’re okay. I’ve got you, I’ve got you.” Even as I said it, however, I felt the doubt. How? How could I help her get through this? What was I supposed to do?

What… was I… supposed…. to do?

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Search And Rescue 14-02

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Damn it, damn it, damn it. We had to find Roxa! We had to find her before… before anything happened.

With my staff in one hand, I jogged through the giant forest. Instead of taking the time to go around the tree ahead of me (itself about three hundred feet high and a solid forty feet wide) I just ran straight into it. At the last second, I used the wood-walking power that I’d absorbed on the Meregan world. Rather than face-planting straight into the tree on that next step, I melded with it. It was, as usual, a strange sensation of being able to see through a fishbowl-like image of the area around where I had merged.

The nearest branch of the tree was a good hundred and fifty feet up, but it only took me a few seconds to somehow traverse that distance after directing myself that way. I popped out of the tree, landing in a crouch on the edge of the enormous branch itself. From that height, I surveyed the area around us.

There was no sign of Roxa, though the compass insisted that we were going the right way when I glanced at it. Ahead, I could see a couple of the Miranda duplicates picking through some of the bushes to make sure we weren’t jumped by anything unexpectedly. Meanwhile, the others were working their way around the tree. Koren had passed the message-tube to Tristan, and he was taking his turn shouting into it. Not that I could hear what he was saying, but if Roxa was anywhere nearby, she would.

If she was in any condition to hear anything at all, my annoying brain insisted on reminding me.

Ignoring that, I kept looking, eyes straining for anything useful. It was hard, not just because of the thick foliage we were moving through, but also because my eyes kept being drawn to every incredible sight. Every tree that towered high above us, every flower that was an impossible color, every hint of movement that drew my eyes before whatever had made it escaped back into the safety of the leaves.

I saw a bird that was as big as a small horse, its feathers bright purple and yellow as it flew through the air above me. I saw a dark green snake with two separate heads work its (their?) way along the branch of another tree. I saw what looked like an elk, only it was twice as large as it should have been, and appeared to be made entirely of unmelting ice. I saw all of that and more, my Stranger-sense constantly warning me about what these things were. Yet I didn’t move to attack them. I just watched for a second.

Still, the thought of Roxa erased pretty much any enjoyment I could have gotten out of this little tour. Sobering, I was about to move on when a sudden chattering noise startled me. Jerking in place, I spun with the staff up, only to see a monkey perched a few feet away. This wasn’t just any monkey, though. The thing was essentially shaped pretty much like a white-headed capuchin. Except, in this case the ‘white’ part that made up his head, upper arms, and neck was actually a beautiful gleaming gold color. Meanwhile, where the rest of a normal capuchin’s body would be black, his was a metallic ruby red.

For a second, the monkey and I stared at each other. My Stranger-sense was going off, though it wasn’t freaking out nearly as much as it had at more obvious threats. This one was more of a mild warning.

“Hey, buddy,” I started. “Don’t worry, I’m just looking for my friend. I don’t suppose you’ve seen–”

The gold and ruby-colored capuchin screeched at me before flinging itself off the tree branch. A few feet into its fall, the thing extended its hands and somehow reversed course. For a second, I thought the damn thing was actually flying as it zoomed up through the air, straight to one of the other branches.

Then it held one hand out, and a stick that had been discarded further down the branch flew straight to it. The thing shoved the stick into its shoulder, clearly scratching itself while staring at me curiously.

It hadn’t been flying, I realized. The monkey had some kind of power that let it either pull itself toward wood, or pull wood to it. It was obviously a useful ability to have in a giant forest like this.

Oh well. Speaking of useful abilities, I saluted my little monkey observer before taking a running start off of the branch. Flinging my body into the air similar to the way he had done, I let myself fall for a few seconds before triggering the charge on my staff. The explosive blast rocketed me up and forward, propelling me just far enough to reach the branch of the next tree. Technically, I reached far enough to have impaled myself on it. But rather than let that happen, I used the wood-walking power again, disappearing into the branch. Another thought sent me all the way along it, through the trunk of the tree and out along a branch on the opposite side before I popped back out again. The others were just passing below me, and I straightened before giving another look around this incredible forest.

Still nothing. Nothing that indicated Roxa was anywhere nearby, anyway. With every minute that passed, I was getting even more worried. The longer we took to find the girl, the more certain it was that something much less savory than us would find her. And I really didn’t want to think about that.

Tristan’s voice came to me then as the boy shouted into the tube so that only I would hear. “Anything?”

Looking down that way to them, I raised my left hand and shook it back and forth. The left arm was our signal for a negative, since it would’ve been a bit hard to see head movements from that far away.

Tristan didn’t respond to that, but he did pick up the pace even more than before. We continued that way, with Mirandas clones scouting ahead while I watched from above by flitting between the trees, using my power and staff in conjunction to move faster than the others could down on the ground.

Every once in awhile, I’d catch a glimpse of that pretty monkey following after me, clearly curious about what I was doing. Whenever I looked that way, the thing would scamper off with a chitter.

Finally, one of the Mirandas emerged from the bushes holding something. I couldn’t see what it was, but Koren looked up toward me and waved her right arm, the signal that they found some kind of clue.

Melding myself with the tree I was perched on, I zipped all the way down to the ground before popping out in mid-jog. I ran that way, practically tripping over myself. “What? What is it, what’d you find?”

Miranda held the thing out for me to see. An arrow. “There’s others,” she informed me. “They’re all through those bushes over there, along with human footprints and hoofprints. Centaur hoofprints.”

“Centaurs firing arrows at a human?” I managed before blanching. “That’s not good. Really not good.”

“But aren’t centaurs supposed to be like… wise forest elders or whatever?” Koren demanded. “Why would they just start shooting at some—oh right, Heretics hunt, kill, and enslave them. Never mind.”

“Clearly you’ve been reading the wrong stories,” Miranda informed her. “Because they’re also a lot more violent to intruders than you might think, even without the Heretic thing. Centaurs are incredibly territorial, not to mention proud and hot-tempered. Add in the Heretic bit and… well, it’s not good.”

“Was there any blood?” I asked, already afraid of the answer. “And did they… take her anywhere?”

“No blood,” another Miranda spoke up while coming out of the same bushes where she’d obviously been looking around some more. “And judging from the tracks, the centaurs were obviously chasing her. I can’t tell if they caught up yet, they keep going that way.” She gestured off into the distance.

Even as she finished speaking, Tristan was starting to move. He’d just taken a step when the hair on the back of my neck stood up. That was followed immediately by a loud screech from high above as the monkey that had been following me for the last little while screamed an obvious warning.

Instantly, I spun around with my staff already up and swinging. There was a flash of something long and sharp flying toward me just before my staff smacked into the thing to knock it out of the air. As it fell to the ground, I finally saw what it was: a spear. I had smacked a spear out of the air about a second before it would have gone right through my chest. The sight made my eyes widen as a slight yelp escaped me.

“Flick!” Miranda was beside me even as two more spears came flying at us. She had produced a round metal shield on one arm. It was about two feet across, and black with emeralds adorning the front.

The spears were coming in at slightly different angles. Miranda held her shield up toward one and there was a flash of light before she turned it toward the second. Where the shield had originally been, there was a glowing green circle of energy: a forcefield. She repeated the same maneuver again, creating a second circular forcefield the same size as her shield in the path of the other spear. Both of the incoming projectiles smacked off of the glowing green energy like they’d hit an actual wall.

As soon as the spears were down and no longer a threat, Miranda turned her arm and made a hard throwing gesture. Rather than physically tossing her actual shield, however, it was the forcefields that she had created that went flying off into the trees toward where the spears had come from. There was a crash and a bellow of pain just before a figure came storming into view with a spear held in each hand.

At first, I thought that it had its head tucked down against its chest or something. Belatedly, however, I realized that the thing had no head. It was shaped roughly like a human with two legs, two arms, and torso, but where the neck and head should have been, there was just a relatively flat surface.

Not that the thing didn’t have eyes. It had them, they were just high up on opposite sides of its chest and about twice as large as a normal human’s. There was a burn mark from one of the forcefields just under the left eye where Miranda had nailed the thing, and it looked about as pissed off as possible.

The damn thing was also naked and, well let’s just say ‘heavily endowed.’ The amount of euuuuch was impossible to over-state. I was going to need an entire bathtub full of bleach when this was over.

Then its chest and stomach split open vertically, from just a little below the eyes all the way down to the thing’s waist. It was like a doctor opening up a body for open heart surgery. Only instead of seeing internal organs, I saw several rows of teeth. Some were arranged vertically, while others were the standard horizontal like in human mouths. All of them were dripping with saliva, and two separate tongues came flicking out of the recesses of the chest-mouth as the thing let out a scream of rage.

“Blemmye,” Miranda spat the word, and I belatedly realized that she was speaking the thing’s name, not just saying ‘blame eye’. “It won’t be alone. They travel in tribes. But if we can get away before-”

Before she could continue,the Blemmye threw those spears it was holding. Tristan, however, was already sprinting that way. The boy leapt into the air, spinning into a sort of sideways flip in order to catch hold of one of the spears, snatching it out of midair while simultaneously kicking the other one aside. He landed on one foot before using his momentum to hurl the captured spear right back at the ugly monster, impaling it straight through its right eye. Its scream was silenced as it collapsed, and Tristan stumbled just a little, letting out an audible gasp as a bronze glowing aura rose up around him.

God, I really hoped he didn’t get a vertical mouth in his torso. Please, please don’t let that happen. I was pretty sure that the absorbed powers didn’t work that way, but still. The threat of it was bad enough.

Unfortunately, the threat wasn’t over yet. Just a few seconds after that thing’s scream had been silenced, the sound returned. This time it was coming from all around us. I had time to turn slightly toward the nearest source just as another of the headless creatures came running out of the bushes. Instead of a spear, it held a rough-looking, jagged sword. Continuing its rage-filled shriek, the thing swung at me.

Grimacing, I parried with my staff, smacking the incoming blade out of the way. Behind me, it sounded like two of the Mirandas were dealing with another of the things. And from the corner of my eye, I saw a third rushing toward Koren with a heavy axe held high. The other girl threw one of her hunga munga, using it to teleport behind the thing just as it swung before she pivoted to stab into its side with a scream of her own. She hit it again and the thing stumbled. Koren still didn’t let up. She went after it with a vengeance, hacking into it as if that thing was responsible for what had happened to her parents.

I had my own problems by that point. The Blemmye that I was facing drew back its sword and spun into a swing toward my waist. I snapped the staff up to block, but that seemed to be exactly what the thing was waiting for. As soon as my arm was in position to block the blade, the damn monster opened that vertical mouth. One of its tongues lashed out, wrapping tightly around my bicep like a whip. Before I realized what was going on, it yanked me in toward its open mouth and those horrible teeth.

There was only one thing I could do before my arm would have been yanked into that mouth and likely bitten off. I triggered the kinetic burst from the staff, sending it flying into the thing’s open mouth instead. The staff hit the back of the thing’s mouth, stopping me short just as the teeth clamped shut.

Unfortunately for the Blemmye, it hadn’t fully retracted its tongue since it was still wrapped around my arm. A muffled bellow of pain erupted from the thing as it bit into its own slimy muscular organ before the thing released me. It also left behind a present in the form of a bucket-load of nasty saliva.

Rather than dwell on the gross, however, I reared back and kicked the thing as hard as I could in its dangling manhood. At the same time, I yanked my staff out of its mouth, already charging it again.

The kick didn’t drop the Blemmye, but it did make the thing stumble a little with a screech that was as much pain as it was anger (and there was an awful lot of the latter to begin with). It flailed with that ugly sword, lashing out almost blindly at me with a rapid flurry of strikes that would easily have taken me out not that long ago, even through its obvious agony.

Now, however, I smacked the first blow out of the way with my staff, then the second, and guided the third up and just over my ducking head. And after that third swing, the flailing Blemmye had over-extended itself. I spun, smacking the wrist holding the weapon as hard as I could. The sword went flying, and I used the chance to flip my own weapon around to point at the ground before triggering just a bit of the charge that I had been building up. I used just enough to send myself up and over my opponent, flipping in the air before I came down behind it.

Then I pivoted, planted the staff against its back, and triggered the rest of the kinetic charge. The blast lifted the Blemmye off the ground and sent it hurtling toward the tree that we had been fighting near. Its mouth opened in a scream as it flew straight at the low-hanging branch that I had been aiming for. It was just like earlier when I had been launching myself through the tree-tops and had almost impaled myself. But unlike me, this thing didn’t have the ability to merge with the wood. There was a sick squelching noise as the heavy branch tore right through the creature and out the other end. It was skewered, and immediately stopped screaming.

The familiar rush of pleasure rose in me then, even as the golden aura flared up. My eyes fluttered a little before I caught myself.

There were more. The whole small clearing that we were in was flooded with Blemmyes. Two of them were coming straight for me. Needing to catch my breath, I took two quick steps backward to the very same tree that I’d used to kill my last opponent. Merging with it, I sent myself up to one of the other branches, where I popped out to look down and take in what was going on.

The others were all holding their own. The Blemmyes had numbers, but lacked both power and discipline. They were enraged, attacking seemingly randomly and without much coordination. Meanwhile, Miranda’s duplicates helped make up for our lack of numbers, while Tristan was already putting his robot-snake cannon to use blasting away at them. Koren was zipping here and there, hitting the things wherever she could to drive them back.

Then there was another scream. This one, however, wasn’t one of the Blemmyes. It wasn’t a scream of anger. It was a shriek, a wail of absolute agony, a cry filled with so much pain the sound of it almost brought actual tears to my eyes.

It wasn’t a monster’s scream. It was the cry of a girl in pain. Roxa. It was Roxa.

Pivoting that way, I looked into the distance. I couldn’t see her, but the scream came again, echoing through the trees.

“Go!” Tristan shouted up at me, even as a powerful beam of red light shot out of his snake-cannon. “You can move faster than we can! We’ll hold these things off, get to Roxa! Go, go!” he repeated.

I hesitated only a second longer, looking toward Koren and the nearest Miranda.

Then I turned, leapt off the branch, and followed the sound of Roxa’s screams.

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