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.