July 1st, 2010
“Damn it, get your ass back here! Stop!” The angry voice was accompanied by the sound of running footsteps, two sets of heavy ones that were accompanied by as much panting as they were annoyed shouting, and one set from someone who was much smaller, in better shape, and less prone to yelling.
Through the shadowy mists of the late-night air, a small blonde girl appeared from around the corner of a building. She was sprinting full-tilt while carrying a heavy backpack that bounced against her with each step. She wore ill-fitting pants that were held up by a rope belt, and she wore a dark green army jacket that fairly well dwarfed her diminutive figure. The girl’s face was streaked with mud and dirt.
Within the girl’s next few steps, her pursuers came into sight from around the same building. Two uniformed police officers stumbled a little and bent over to pant heavily for a couple seconds before focusing on the girl. One shouted a curse, calling her a name that she was pretty sure no adult, let alone a police officer, was ever supposed to call a kid. Both set out after her again, their growled threats about how much trouble she was in contributing nothing toward their goal of actually convincing her to stop.
Roxa Pittman didn’t look back, didn’t slow down, and certainly didn’t even think about stopping. Instead, she continued to run down the dark California street, straight toward the nearby beach. Soon, the sound of her rapid footfalls changed from cement to the creaky wood of the pier. It protested even more as her pursuers made it onto the dock as well, and the three of them kept running toward the end.
“Give it the fuck up, you stupid little bitch!” One of the cops shouted furiously. “It’s the end of the god damn line, you don’t have anywhere else to go! I swear to god, if you don’t stop making me run, I’m gonna kick your skinny little ass so hard you won’t be able to sit down again for a fucking week!”
He said some other things, him and his partner, but Roxa had already tuned them out. She focused on running, on making it those last few steps. One foot, then another, just keep going. As the girl approached the end of the pier, she didn’t slow down. In fact, she pushed herself to go even faster.
“Aww fuck, no! Don’t you even think about it! I will beat you until your own mother doesn’t recognize—don’t do it! Don’t you fucking do it!” The cursing man lunged at the last second, fingers grasping.
Too late. Roxa took a step while shifting the heavy backpack off her shoulders. Through the next step, she flung the pack out as hard as she could. And after one final step, with the nearest cop’s fingers brushing slightly through her hair, she leapt off the edge of the pier as well. Tucking and turning in midair, the young girl dropped herself into a perfect dive straight down off, dropping twelve feet before hitting the water smoothly while the sound of the cops shouting behind and above her was cut off.
They were shining their flashlights down over the water, but Roxa didn’t rise to the surface. Instead, she simply shook her army coat off before swimming deeper. She continued downward, legs kicking behind herself as she made her way toward a cluster of mossy boulders a short distance from the pier.
It took almost thirty seconds for the girl to reach the boulders. As dark as it was, she had to go mostly from memory, and almost missed it. Once her grasping hand brushed the edge of the outer-most rock, she scrambled back that way and felt her way down to the very bottom of the middle boulder. There was a hole there, just big enough for the girl to squeeze her way into. By that point, her lungs were screaming at her. Turning onto her back, Roxa wormed her way through the hole while simultaneously sitting up. The very top of her head emerged into a small pocket of open air, and she nearly banged her head off the rocky ceiling. There was only enough room for about half of her head to be out of the water, but the air pocket itself ran all the up through to a couple small holes in the part of the rock that stuck out of the water. Roxa was able to tilt her head back to get her mouth all the way out of the water and took a deep, gasping breath before shuddering. Then she just sat there, panting for a few seconds.
Once she’d caught her breath somewhat, Roxa shifted to a slightly more comfortable position in her hidden underwater cave that was barely big enough for her. Then she settled in to wait, eyes closing.
Ten minutes passed before she felt comfortable enough to believe that the cops had given up and moved on. She counted off the seconds, all six hundred of them. Then the ten-year old took one more deep breath before eeling her way back down and out of her hidden air pocket. Once she was out and back into the open ocean, Roxa worked a small underwater flashlight out of one pocket and shone the light around the area between the rocks and the pier. Seeing nothing at first, she rose to the surface to breathe again while also looking tentatively out to the pier itself, ready to dive once more if need be.
No one was there. The cops had already moved on. Smiling a little, the girl dove down again. It took a couple more trips like that, up and down, before she finally found what she was looking for: the backpack. Grasping it in one hand, Roxa kicked her way back to the surface one last time before striking out for the beach. Considering how soaked she was, it was cold, even in the California summer air. She was shivering as she climbed out of the water and shook herself off. Nearby, the jacket that she had tossed away had already washed to shore, and she grabbed the sodden thing. After tucking it under one arm, she turned and hurried under the end of the pier that was attached to the land. Crawling into the small area there, she leaned as far as she could before snagging hold of a second, much dryer and lighter bag. This one had a change of clothes and a towel in it.
Once she had the bag of fresh clothes at her feet, Roxa glanced around again to make sure no one was around. As late as it was, that area of the beach was completely deserted. Still, she hurried through drying off and changing her clothes before shoving the wet ones into the bag the dry ones had been in.
Fully changed, the girl picked up both packs, slinging the heavy one over her back before simply carrying the other by the strap. Then she gave one last look around before jogging down the beach.
Fifteen minutes later, the girl made her way into an alley that was barely noticeable from the outside. The opening was mostly covered by a chain-link fence that wasn’t actually attached, but could simply be pushed out of the way. Even as she came into hidden area beyond, several sets of eyes were watching her apprehensively. The alley was full of homeless people, mostly older people. All of them were jumpy, and the sound of the fence being moved had them tense. But when they saw who was there, they all settled once more. A few called soft greetings to the girl, while one woman gave a merry, “Happy birthday!”
It wasn’t Roxa’s birthday. But then, Millicent greeted everyone by wishing them happy birthday, no matter who they were, whether she knew them or not, or what day it actually was. For the old woman, every day was everyone’s birthday. And she loved to give presents. Most of them were simple little crafts consisting of whatever she had been able to pick out of the garbage that day, but Roxa still treasured them.
Shifting the heavy pack off her shoulders, she unzipped it before stepping over to the nearest person. She didn’t know the man that well. He was old enough to have a face that was completely lined with thick wrinkles, and his hand shook a little as he waved at her. Roxa smiled slightly at him before reaching into the bag. Her hand found a can of ravioli, and she held it out to him. After a momentary hesitation brought on by a combination of pride and not wanting to take her food, the man accepted it.
One by one, Roxa made her way through the crowd while emptying her bag of stolen groceries. She handed out cans of food, meat, and fruit, as well as a few packs of hot dogs that she’d managed to snag. Beyond that, she also gave out medicine, mostly for headaches and other pain killers. But there was also cold and cough medication to help Cara, and some rash ointment for poor old Eugene.
Finally, her bag was pretty much empty. Roxa took the other one with her clothes and made her way to an out-of-the-way corner where a little sleeping bag had been set up with a set of boxes surrounding it. Tossing both bags down, she settled herself in while taking the last item out of the bag of stolen groceries: a can of chili. Popping the lid off, she reached around in her sleeping bag until she found an old metal spoon before starting to dig in.
After only a single bite, a mangy old tan dog, some kind of Cocker Spaniel/Labrador mix came nosing around. He looked up at Roxa, giving a little uncertain whine of hunger.
She hesitated for a second, looking at her can of food, her dinner. Her empty stomach growled warningly. But she ignored it, leaning over to empty about a third of the can out onto the ground. “There you go, buddy,” she offered. The dog hurriedly began to lap up the chili from the ground, and Roxa smiled before sitting back. Working her spoon through the can, she took a bite for herself before murmuring appreciatively. As hungry as she was, even the cold chili tasted incredible.
Roxa had never really known her real family. Her father was in prison for killing her mother’s sister, and her mother herself had died when she was still a toddler. Ever since then, the girl had been bounced around between various foster homes. None of them stuck, though some were worse than others. The last one had been the final straw. The man there had been a real creep who smacked his wife around whenever the kids were too loud. When he’d gone as far as trying to touch Roxanne, the then-nine-year-old had grabbed a nearby kitchen knife and stabbed him in the arm with it. Then she ran, while the man bellowed about how he was going to call the cops and get her sent to prison like her daddy.
Ever since then, Roxanne (now Roxa), had been living on the street, avoiding the police. She didn’t stay very long in any one place. The month that she had spent here was the longest she’d spent anywhere. And the girl knew she’d have to move on soon. The people here liked her well enough, but it still didn’t quite fit. They weren’t family. They weren’t… exactly right.
She didn’t know what she was looking for, but she did know she’d find it if she kept looking.
Present Day (Very early Friday, November 24th, 2017)
In the end, Roxa had found the place where she belonged. She had been recruited by Crossroads right out of her beach-front tent where the seventeen-year-old had been teaching herself math using an old laptop. She had scavenged the thing out of the trash and paid one of the more tech-minded street people to fix it for her by getting him enough candy to give himself cavities in every single tooth he still had.
Professor Pericles had been the one who found and talked to her, who had given Roxa an actual purpose. He had brought her to Crossroads, had given her the medicine that let her temporarily remember things that the Bystander Effect should have erased. The medicine was a brief measure, used to allow new Bystander recruits to make an actual informed choice about whether to join the school or not. If they chose not to, the effect wore off and they were sent home without any memory of any of it.
But Roxa had stayed. Of course she had. This was where she belonged. Saving people? Taking down monsters? Living on an island with the most perfect surf she’d ever seen in her life? She was home!
Except… now she wasn’t. Now… she had no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there. One second she had been teaching that cute new boy Tristan how to windsurf, while Gidget (her mechanical cougar/hoverboard) stayed on the beach and watched them carefully. In the next second, she was suddenly falling. Before she had even been able to do more than start to cry out, Roxa’s side had hit a tree branch hard enough to knock the breath from her. She had smacked into the tree a couple more times on the way down, before hitting the ground hard enough to snap her arm in several places while simultaneously knocking herself unconscious for a few minutes.
Or maybe it had done worse than that. Roxa wasn’t sure, because when she came to, there was blood all over the tree and ground. Her body felt fine, thanks to the regeneration effect from the Peridles, but all that blood…
At first, the groggy blonde had thought that she was in the jungle on the island. But that wasn’t right. First of all, the trees were entirely too huge, towering far higher than any real tree should. Not to mention the fact that, pretty as the jungle was, Roxa was positive that it didn’t look like this.
Then there was the fact that, as dangerous as the jungle was supposed to be, she was pretty sure there weren’t supposed to be centaurs in it.
Yeah, centaurs. But they weren’t the cool, majestic horsemen that she’d always thought of them. These were more like beasts. Their human torsos were covered in a light hair, they had long thick beards, and as soon as they had seen her picking herself up while staring at them, they had opened fire with their bows. Roxa would have been speared through by half a dozen arrows in the first few seconds if her acquired super-speed hadn’t kicked in. She had flung herself out of the way before deciding discretion was the better part of valor and took off.
The centaurs had chased for awhile, but while they were faster than most horses and could probably hit speeds of forty to fifty miles per hour, Roxa could hit sixty. In the end, she managed to escape, hiding behind the crook of a tree while the herd went thundering past her before she set back the other way.
And now… now she was lost. She was lost and had no idea where she was going or what she should do. The truth was, she couldn’t do much. She had no weapon, she was wearing nothing more than a bikini and a pair of surf shoes, and there was no way for her to contact Crossroads.
Where was she? What was going on? Despair and confusion threatened to overwhelm her, but Roxa fought it back. No. She would not freak out. She’d been on her own before, plenty of times. She had grown up on her own. She could figure this out. She refused to be a victim. She hadn’t let it happen while she was a child, and she sure as hell wouldn’t let it happen now.
Someone would find her. The headmistress, one of the teachers, they wouldn’t just abandon her. All she had to do was survive until they arrived. Which meant that she needed a way to defend herself.
The arrows that the centaurs had shot at her. She could use those, assuming she could find her way back to where she had been…
She set out that way, but had only taken a few steps when a low chuckle interrupted. The laugh was dark, and seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, echoing through the heavily-shadowed forest. Roxa spun one way toward where she thought the chuckle was coming from, only to catch a hint of movement from the corner of her eye that made her jerk back the other direction.
That happened several more times, the girl whipping her head every which way to try to follow the sound of the chuckle as it kept changing direction. Finally, it stopped completely. Roxa stared at the last spot it had been coming from and took a tentative step that way before abruptly spinning around to face the opposite direction.
A wolf sat there only a few yards away, regarding her with obvious amusement. And as soon as her eyes fell on the thing, Roxa’s Stranger sense started to scream a warning at her.
She took a step back, but the wolf rose. In the same motion, it began to change. The thing grew and shifted, skin and bones snapping and cracking while the fur retracted. Within a few seconds, an enormous dark-skinned man stood naked in front of her. Somehow, he seemed no less intimidating than he had as a wolf.
Then he gave a humorless, entirely predatory smile. “Well hello there, little Heretic girl. Don’t you look scrumptious.”
Roxa watched him for a moment, then spun to run away. Sixty miles per hour, she could outrun him, she could–
One step in, and the man’s hand closed around her arm. He turned, flinging her hard to the ground behind him. The girl hit the dirt and rolled painfully, feeling something in her arm snap once more from the impact.
“Where ya goin’?” The werewolf taunted. He stepped over while Roxa was still recovering. Before she knew what was happening, the man brought his foot down heavily on one of her legs. His strength was enough to break the bone in two different places in that single stomp.
She cried out, and he repeated the gesture with the other leg before giving her a kick that knocked her from her stomach onto her back. His voice was a snarl. “We’re just getting started, kid.” His hand snagged her by the throat, and he lifted her off the ground with a smirk. “I haven’t even begun to have fun with you yet.”
He leaned in close, his teeth bared as he stared directly into her eyes for a few seconds. “My pack calls me Lemuel. Not that a name is going to do you much good, my delicious little morsel. You–”
She head-butted him directly in the nose. As the wolf-man recoiled with a surprised yelp, Roxa fell to the ground, landing on her backside. She twisted, grabbing a heavy rock from nearby. Bringing it up in both hands, she slammed the stone hard into the sensitive bits between the naked man’s legs that were dangling directly in front of her.
The wolf-man collapsed, groaning in pain. Roxa rolled over. She couldn’t run away, not on her injured legs. They were healing, but it would still take too long to get far enough away that the werewolf couldn’t find her. Their senses of smell were too good. No, she had to finish this.
Still holding the heavy rock, the girl pushed herself up near where the man had fallen. He was already starting to recover, but she brought the rock hard against the side of his head. The blow simultaneously knocked the man back down with a grunt and broke the rock into two pieces.
He was dazed but already recovering, his own healing and toughness making it hard to hurt him in any lasting capacity. But Roxa didn’t let up. Taking the largest piece of rock that remained, she aimed the jagged edge where it had broken directly at his exposed throat and began to drive it down with a scream.
An instant before she would have connected, something hit Roxa hard from the side. She was knocked onto her back, the rock flying away. For a few seconds, the girl was too dazed and in pain to realize what had happened.
Then her eyes opened, and she thought she was seeing double. Two more wolves stood there, stalking toward her while baring their teeth.
No, there were two more wolves. One of them had hit her, knocking her off of Lemuel before she could finish him. And now they were about to finish her.
“Enough,” Lemuel spoke and the wolves instantly stopped stalking toward her. The man was back on his feet. He glared at Roxa before smirking. “See? I have a pack. Friends. And you have…” He trailed off then, pausing before that smirk turned into a knowing grin. “Ah. Now there’s an idea.”
Roxa started to sit up, but the man snapped, “Hold her.” At his word, both wolves lunged forward. Each took one of her arms in its teeth, holding tight enough to hurt a little without actually breaking anything more than the skin. Still, her blood filled their mouths from the wounds, and they made appreciative noises.
She kicked out, but Lemuel stepped over and pinned both of her legs with one knee while dropping down in front of her. “Yes, that is an idea,” he murmured before holding up a single finger. “You see…” As he spoke, the fingernail elongated into a sharp, black claw. “Some people think that werewolves spread their… gift just by biting. That’s absurd. Do you have any idea how many people we bite? There’d be an epidemic. No. We have to purposefully share this gift with someone with a special little scratch.”
He wagged that claw back and forth in front of Roxa’s eyes. “Now, most people don’t survive the first change. That’s why we have to choose carefully. Your first change, that one… it’s nasty. Gets better, but the first one…” The man whistled low, demonstrating how bad it was before smiling. “Of course, we have family, friends, packmates there to help get the new recruit through it. Someone to hold onto you, coax you, protect you, give you food and water while you’re working your way through the worst.”
That smile turned vindictive as he drew the claw carefully down Roxa’s cheek before she could jerk her head away. “But you… well… you’re different.”
Standing up and brushing his hands off, Lemuel gestured. “First change takes about an hour. And it is going to be one of the most incredibly painful, torturous hours you could ever experience. Unlike us, you won’t have any friends, no one to help you through it. You will lie here and you will scream. Even if you make it through without that killing you… well, there’s lots of monsters in this here forest. And they’d love to find a tender little meal like you just… lying there… helpless… screaming from the agony.”
He shrugged then. “But hey, maybe you’ll survive the change. Doubtful, but maybe. Maybe you’ll somehow make it through with no one to help you, all alone out here. And maybe, maybe you’ll get even luckier and none of the monsters in this place will find you. Maybe you’ll survive the change and the forest itself.”
The two other wolves released her and retreated back behind the man while he smiled down at Roxa. “But you know what? Survive all of that, survive all of it, and you’ll still be one of us. You’ll still be a werewolf without a pack, without anyone.
“And all those little classmates, all those other Heretics, every last one of your so-called friends? Well, they’ll know what you are as soon as they see you. And they’ll kill you. You’ve got nothing, kid. Nothing but an hour of the worst pain of your life followed by a lifetime of being hunted by the people that were supposed to be your teachers, your mentors, your allies. So if the change doesn’t kill you… your friends will.”
With that, the man laughed once more. Then he turned and shifted, his body turning into a wolf once more. The three of them stared at Roxa like that before giving a trio of simultaneous howls.
Then they were gone, vanishing into the woods while Roxa felt the first spasm in her gut. She twisted, rolling even as her legs snapped out. The bones in all of her limbs simultaneously broke apart, the skin bulging up. A cry tore its way out of her throat as her vision blurred.
No. She would not be a victim. She didn’t care what the man said. She would not let him win. Never. Even as the pain shot through her, blinding her to everything else, Roxa held onto that one single thought.
She was not a victim. She would survive this. Somehow, someway, she would survive.
That thought filled her mind, and she clung to it like a life preserver in the middle of an ocean of agony.
And a few seconds later, her screams truly began.