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 man’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?