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.
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.