Gidget

Suspects 24-07

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As the two crazed werewolves came for us, Roxa and I did the best thing we could in the moment: we went straight to meet them. With barely a glance exchanged between us, we both moved. Roxa took three steps forward before dropping a bit, bending so that my subsequent hop let me put a foot on her back to push off of into a leap. Spinning in the air, I came down between the two, behind Lemuel and facing his back but ahead of Pace with my back to her.

Bending backwards slightly, I brought my staff up in both hands, held horizontally behind my head at the last second before one of the knives that Pace had produced smacked off of it with a loud clang, narrowly stopping her from cutting straight into my neck. At the same time, I lashed out to kick Lemuel in the back in order to shove him off-balance and toward Roxa.

Unfortunately, the kick missed as the big wolf smoothly pivoted to avoid it. Roxa, who had produced a silver knife of her own, just missed cutting into the big black man’s arm. Just as quickly, he caught her wrist and I heard a snapping sound from the bone there as she yelped.

I couldn’t focus on that though. Roxa’s werewolf and Peridle healing would take care of it. Spinning toward Pace, I snapped the staff around my back and to the front to just in time to catch the knife in her left hand against the bladed end of my own weapon. Her foot lashed out at me, but I snapped my own leg up to catch it, both of our shins rebounding off each other.

Pace dropped into a low, spinning leg-sweep at the same time that I leapt and spun in a kick of my own. My leg passed over her head, while hers passed directly beneath me. At the same time, I caught the end of my staff and gave a hard swing back and down with my arm at full extension in order to reach. The blow caught Lemuel against the shoulder. It barely did any damage to the big guy, though it did slow him for half a step, giving Roxa a chance to launch herself up and forward. Her right foot hit the man in the stomach, her left foot hit his chest, and then she did a backwards flip that smacked her left foot against his chin before landing on Gidget’s back as the cyberform cougar leapt into her hoverboard form right below Roxa.

Meanwhile, as I came back down, I used the recoil from my staff bouncing off of Lemuel’s shoulder to spin the weapon back around and down into a vertical blow at the spot where Pace had dropped in her attempt to sweep my legs. It was too late, the girl was already gone. Her enhanced speed brought her back to her feet and out of the way of the staff, lashing out with a swipe from the knife in her right hand that my werewolf-enhanced reflexes barely let me jerk away from in time to avoid the worst of the damage. The blade still cut across my cheek, stinging a bit. But at least it wasn’t my throat.

Not that I had time to be glad about that fact, since Pace followed up her first swipe with half a dozen more, all of them coming so fast that I didn’t have time to block or dodge them all. I took three more cuts across my arms and shoulder while frantically spinning my staff up to take the worst of the damage. Distantly, I felt the pain, but it barely mattered. There was nothing debilitating about the damage she’d done, nothing to make me stop fighting. Not yet, anyway.

To give myself a little room, I snapped the staff up and triggered a blast of kinetic force that knocked Pace up and back about ten feet. Using the same momentum from the blast, I spun around, pivoting on one foot while swinging at Lemuel’s head with the bladed end of the staff.

His hand snapped backward, catching the staff just under the blade before yanking me off my feet. As he hauled me up, I hit the button that sent sand shooting out of the staff, directing it in a cloud to his eyes and mouth before triggering the last of the charge in my weapon. The force shot out the bottom of the staff, propelling it (with me attached) up and out of the man’s grip, flying into the air. He gave a violent snarl, lashing out at me on the way, but with the sand blinding him, he missed.

Flipping over in the air, I aimed the staff down, giving a sharp whistle toward Roxa, who was still on her board. With her attention, I shot the grapple out of my staff, launching it at Lemuel.

The big, dark-skinned half-wolf easily jerked aside, avoiding the grapple. But that was okay, I’d been expecting him to. And so had Roxa. Even as the grapple had shot downward, she already had Gidget flying forward. At the last second, she leapt off the hoverboard, catching the line from my grapple to spin herself around it, planting both feet into Lemuel’s side with all that force.

The big guy went down on his side, the blow knocking him over.

Unfortunately,  we couldn’t follow up the moment of vulnerability, because Pace had recovered by that point. She was a sudden blur, appearing out of nowhere to kick Roxa in the side, a blow that knocked the blonde girl onto her back. As Roxa hit the ground hard, Pace brought both hands up. A literal ball of flame appeared between them, which she launched at the briefly prone girl while cackling wildly.

Luckily, I had already been reacting. As I fell toward the ground, my finger found the button to make the energy-cord of the grapple retract. I was yanked forward and down, arriving just as Pace let loose with that fireball. Seeing the orb of fire coming as I landed between both other girls, I focused on the energy-absorption power that I had gained from killing Doxer. The spinning ball of heat and flame crashed into me… and disappeared. I felt warm, but not burned. And there was that familiar tingle as my body was charged up with the energy, mostly heat but also a little kinetic, that I had absorbed. For the moment, however, I held it in. Just like during training, it felt a bit like needing to use the restroom. From experience, I knew that feeling would rapidly worsen. I could only hold the energy that I had absorbed for a very brief time.

“Naughty Present!” Pace snapped out with a crazed giggle. “Using Doxer’s power, how rude.”

The good news then was that Roxa was back up. The bad news was that so was Lemuel. The big werewolf lunged at me with a roar, even as Pace’s arm lashed out, covered in that bone armor of hers. A short, sharp, eight-inch shard of the bone was already shooting toward me.

When I had faced Pace back in Wonderland, the bone-dart had been too fast for me to even see coming. But that wasn’t true anymore, not with the super-reflexes that I had absorbed from the wolves in that very same encounter. As the sharpened bone flew at my stomach, I snapped my staff up and around with my left hand to slap it out of the way. At the same time, my right hand pointed, releasing the fire that I had absorbed in a spray of flame that took the incoming Lemuel in the face. His reflexes saved him from charging straight into it, letting him recoil while barely getting singed. But it did at least stall his attack, forcing the evil pack leader onto the defensive.

It also meant that he didn’t see Gidget bounding forward until the mechanical cougar had already latched onto his arm. She yanked him down with a snarl (from both her and the wolf-man himself), just before Roxa jumped on his back. The blonde girl drove that silver knife of hers at his throat, but Lemuel snapped his head back, driving it into Roxa’s face hard enough to knock her off of him before her knife could do more than lightly scrape his shoulder.

Pace had already followed up her first thrown bone-dart by launching several more before rearing back to spit a glob of metal-eating acid right at me. Quickly, I snapped my staff around, slapping the incoming bone-darts out of the way while simultaneously releasing another burst of sand. This one was much larger than the other bit I had summoned before, as I sent most of what I had out into a large ball that collided with the acid. The caustic liquid ate through the sand almost immediately, but it was still able to block it enough that I could side-step the last of the stuff.

It did not, however, save me from Lemuel. The big werewolf had freed himself from Roxa, lunging forward to catch hold of my shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he hauled me off my feet and slammed me into the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me. His foot came down toward my face, and I barely had the presence of mind to jerk my head out of the way an instant before that foot slammed into the dirt, putting a foot-deep hole in the ground where I had been a half-second earlier.

Before he could lift the foot to try again, I snapped my fingers twice before opening my hand to catch the silver knife as it popped out of the watch on my wrist. Driving the blade down into the man’s foot, I couldn’t help the snarl of satisfaction at the sound of his cry of both pain and fury.

As he was reacting to that, Gidget dropped out of the sky, shifting from hoverboard to cougar just in time to land hard enough on the wolf-man’s shoulders and back to knock him into a hunched position. The cyberform leapt off him immediately, colliding with the incoming Pace while snarling. The two rolled away, tumbling end over end.

With a grimace, I lashed out at the man’s face as he was doubled over. He jerked backward, easily avoiding the blow… and put himself in the perfect position for Roxa as the other girl leapt to put her fist right in his face with enough force to snap his head to the side.

Doing a quick kip-up to bring myself back to my feet, I spun, the bladed-end of my staff lashing out at the other side of the man’s face.

Again, he caught it, snarling angrily. Before he could do anything though, Roxa was there. She drove a quick kick into his side, drawing a grunt from the man even as I triggered enough of a burst from my staff to yank it from his grasp. Using that momentum, I spun around, driving the shaft of the weapon against his stomach. It was like hitting a brick wall with my own normal human strength. The guy was tough.

And he was fast too. His fist collided with the side of my head, knocking me stumbling as white-pain flashed through me briefly. At the same time, the man back-handed Roxa across the face. As she stumbled a step, his foot kicked up. I saw the silver blade that I had driven into his foot fly up before he caught it, driving the blade backward into the girl’s chest. Making a noise of triumph, he stabbed twice more into the same spot, into her heart before kicking her away from him.

He faced me then, tossing the bloody knife away before snarling, his voice amused. “One down,” he drawled slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to play with his food, “two to–”

A blade appeared… in the man’s throat, driven through it from the back. As blood spurted forth freely, he made a strangled noise of disbelief, choking and gurgling while half turning, already stumbling a little.

Roxa stood there, still bleeding, but standing despite being stabbed in the heart with a silver blade. Her own knife was one in the big man’s throat, where she had leapt to shove it. Meanwhile, her other hand held the one that had stabbed her before he threw it away.

“Redundant organs,” she snarled at the bewildered and drastically injured man. “Extra heart. Jekern power, bitch.”

Her own dagger had nearly killed the man. And with mine, she finished the job, driving the blade up through his throat and into his brain as he choked on his own blood.

Pace, who had extricated herself from Gidget long enough to give the cyberform a kick that sent it tumbling away, spun back around in time to see her pack leader collapse to the ground. As he dropped, Roxa’s glowing bronze aura appeared, and the injured girl dropped as well, giving a moan of pleasure.

The big wolf was down. But we still had the other one to deal with. And from the look of things, Roxa wasn’t going to be able to help.

So I’d do it myself. Taking advantage of Pace’s extremely brief stunned silence, I released the charge in my staff while letting go of the weapon itself. It flew forward, slamming into the crazed (probably possessed) girl’s stomach, the force of the blow doubling her over for a second. Even as the staff started to fall away from her then, I was there, catching the other end of it. Spinning while shifting my grip on the weapon, I did a full three-sixty to put myself behind her. In the same motion, my staff hooked against the girl’s throat, hauling her up and backward while I continued my pivot. She landed hard on her back against the ground even as my staff ended up pointed down at her. An instant later, before she could recover, the silver-coated grapple shot from the end of it, tearing through the wolf-girl’s leg to pin her to the ground as she gave a howl of pain.

I was on her then, diving on top of the girl even as she gave another scream, this one mostly in rage. We fumbled a bit, she produced a wave of fire that I absorbed before she covered herself in bone-armor and launched a dozen darts. About half of them hit me, three in the arms (two in the left and one in the right), one in the leg, and two in the right side of my chest, narrowly missing anything important. Still, it hurt like a bitch. But I kept at it. My hand snapped up and closed around the choker that was on the girl’s neck before I triggered my staff. It had only charged a little bit, but it was enough to launch me up and backward away from her, while the clasp holding the choker in place snapped.

It was a close thing, but I kept hold of my prize. The choker. The thing we needed. Coming down from being launched by my staff, I hit the ground in a roll, ending on my stomach briefly, clutching the precious item against my chest.

For a second, I lay there, breathing out before rolling over. I came to my feet, choker in hand and smile on my face. “Sorry,” I announced to Pace, who was still pinned by the grapple through her leg (the energy-line attached to it had extended as I was launched away from her). “Finders-keepers?” I held the choker while stepping that way, dangling it practically in her face.

Her snarl turned to a smile. “Well,” she half-purred while staring at me intently, “you know what they say. If I can’t have it…” Abruptly, the girl spat a glob of that incredibly potent acid. My hand jerked away, but it was too late. The acid caught the choker, and I had to let it go. Stumbling back as my eyes widened, I stared at the acid-coated choker on the ground as a cry of disbelief and denial burst from my lips. The green liquid had already melted through half of it by the time it landed. A moment later, and most of it was gone. The choker had been destroyed.

Pace took advantage of my horrified distraction, reaching down to yank the grapple out of her leg before heaving herself up. She landed on her good foot, cackling like someone had just told her the most hilarious joke in the world. “I guess, I guess–” she managed between fits of laughter, “you don’t get your prize after all, huh? Uhhh oh, too bad, so sad for the little blonde wolfy-cub. Too bad for everything, all your little things. So sad. Maybe you’ll feel bad for killing my friend, huh? Maybe feel bad for Doxer.” She cackled madly once more, though I saw a brief glimpse of genuine anger and… maybe even sadness there when she mentioned her old teammate.  

Running footsteps approached, and our eyes snapped that way. Roxa had recovered from both her injury (at least enough to move, even if her regeneration wouldn’t work that well against the silver), and from the brief moment of pleasure from killing Lemuel. And she had been joined by the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were all on their way as well, the five converging.

“Oooh,” Pace all-but purred. “Friends. They can make you feel better for failing, Present. We’ll finish later.” She was still favoring her leg, the silver in the grapple stopping the werewolf regeneration from healing her so easily. Still, her amusement was obvious as she waved at me, and I saw the piece of bark from the Eden’s Garden tree in her hand. “Toodles!”

An instant later, just as the others arrived, she slammed the wood down and disappeared.

I stood there, staring at the spot where she had been before my gaze dropped to the ground where the mangled, melted remains of the choker lay. There was almost nothing left of the thing.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was hesitant. “The fight’s mostly over. They’re retreating and scattering.”

Quietly, my voice cracking just a little, I asked, “What about the kids they took?”

Tristan spoke up then. “One of the wolves spilled. They’re being held at a cabin about a quarter mile away. They’ve already got people on the way. So um…” He paused before asking, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just stared at the ruined choker. Then I looked up, seeing the others gathered around to stare at me. My flat, stunned expression slowly melted away as I reached into the pocket of my uniform jacket… and I smiled while producing the choker. The real choker, which I had switched with the fake one while I’d laid on the ground. The fake one that Namythiet had built at my request and secretly snuck into my jacket earlier when she dove in there back before the fight had begun, while we had been chatting at the top of the ridge.

If I was right about Pace being possessed, the other Seosten were connected to her. Even if she hadn’t escaped, they’d know the instant that we had the choker, and they never would’ve let us get away with it. They would’ve brought hell itself down on us to get the damn thing back. But now, well, I’d given the girl as big of an opening to let her destroy the fake as I could without being too obvious, and she had taken the bait. Then I’d let her escape, because it was more important that they think they’d won than it was for us to catch Pace, or Lies, or whoever she was, right then. That could wait. The important part was, now they thought the choker that could identify them was destroyed. They thought it was gone forever. They thought they were safe. Good. Let them believe that they’d won the battle.

Because with the choker, we had the means to win the war.

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Suspects 24-06

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“We’ll go in first,” Mateo announced a moment later. “My pack and our friends. We can get a lot closer than any of you can.” He gestured not just at us, but toward the other Alters as well. “Weres know each other. We can get right into the camp. There’s so many people down there, they won’t know that we don’t belong there. We’ll get as close as we can, then start trouble.

“Once we’ve got the attention on us, the rest of the Alters can come in. Try to close over them like a net. They’ll be focused on us, which should give you a chance to hit them from behind.”

His eyes moved back over to us then. “Roxa can stay back with the Heretics. Heretics, the second any of them see you, they’ll know what you are. Stay back until the fight’s in full swing. Wait for your chance. Once everyone’s engaged, pick off targets of opportunity. Try not to let the word spread about Heretics being involved until it’s too late for them to regroup. Wait for the moment, then hit fast and hard as soon as they’re involved. The Heretic-Were is the priority.”

Looking to me then, he paused before asking, “You look a little confused. Is everything alright?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I just sort of thought there’d be a more specific plan than just ‘go here and fight at this time.’”

The werewolf smiled then. “Specific plans lead to specific failures. It’s a poor leader who tries to micromanage every aspect of a battle. Everyone here knows how to fight, they know how to react to circumstances. So everyone goes where they need to go, and we’ll get through this. You all understand?”

He waited for nods from those of us who were standing there before gesturing. “Alright, then get back to the rest of your groups and tell them what’s going on. Remember, Weres first, then Alters, then Heretics. It’s like the classic one-two punch, but then you kick ‘em in the balls too.”

“I guess in this scenario, we’re the ball-kickers,” I put in then with a raised eyebrow.

Mateo winked at me. “Seems appropriate, all things considered.” Pursing his lips then, he whistled. “Let’s move!” Briefly, he looked back to us. “Be careful, kids. Seriously. I know you already know it’s not a game, but… watch each other’s backs. You may not be a literal pack, but… act like one. Stay together. Take care of each other. You got it?” Waiting until he was given an assortment of nods, the man started off.

I turned to say something to the others, only to pretty much get a faceful of squealing teenage pixie. Which sounded so much like a euphemism even in my head that I blushed just thinking it.

“Flicker!” the pixie in question blurted while hugging tightly onto my face for a moment. “Did you hear?” She fluttered back, hovering there while yanking the tiny sword from her hip to wave it around a little, a tiny, winged swashbuckler. As she finished speaking, the little pixie dove forward to put herself in the pocket of my jacket of my uniform, popping her head back up after a second to grin. “We’re gonna go kick were-whatever ass!”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Hey, Namythiet. Yup, we really are. Be careful though, okay?”

Her head bobbed up and down as she flew back up out of my jacket pocket. “O’course! I’ve gotta back up my mentor, you know.” Her mouth opened to say something else before she hesitated, blinking at me as her head tilted “Heeeeey,” she drawled, “why doncha look like a—how come you’re not a Heretic?” A gasp escaped her then. “Oh no, did you lose your powers?!”

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, I just–it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic, I promise.” We’d already explained the situation to Mateo. There had been some discussion about using the fact that I didn’t trigger an Alter’s warning sense to let me get close to the camp. But that had been dismissed as too dangerous, since it would leave me alone and my face was probably well-known to the werewolves that Pace spent enough time with anyway.

Namythiet fluttered back then, giving a salute with her sword before flying off to join Seth. The vampire himself was looking our way. As Namythiet joined him, he gave us a nod, pointing toward Shiori before tapping a finger against his head and saying something that I didn’t pick up.

“Use my head,” Shiori provided. “He wants me to be careful.”

“I’m gonna take that as advice for all of us,” I replied while absently buttoning the pocket of my jacket once more. Then I looked back to the others as the people around us started moving out. “I guess we wait for this whole thing to get started then, huh? Anyone see Pace down there yet?”

“Blue tent to the left of the white pick-up,” a new voice announced. Turning, I saw Duncan approaching along with his sister, Misty. The two of them were the brother and sister natural Heretics (Duncan taking his power from a metal-manipulating Ullus while Misty gained hers from an Ogre) that I’d met back at the Atherby camp, the ones who had grown up in the clan after Mom had surrendered herself.

“The one called Pace,” Duncan clarified as he and Misty stopped by us. “That’s where she is.”

Roxa nodded. “He’s right. She was hanging around Lemuel for awhile, but then it looked like she got bored and went back into the tent. She’s come out a few times since then, mostly just grabbing food or messing with one of the other Weres. She’s back in the tent right now.”

“Hi Duncan, hey Misty.” Briefly, I introduced them to the others. “I guess you’re staying with us?”

“Yup,” the brown-haired girl with blonde strands scattered through it nodded. “We’re sort-of your bodyguards through this fight. Well, us and the big guy.” She nodded over her shoulder as the other natural Heretic I’d met that night, Enguerrand (the old, chainmail-armored Heretic who looked like he had time-traveled straight from the middle ages), approached. The teleporting Abeonas, Berlin, was with him.

“I’m  your lift,” Berlin announced as the two of them got close enough. “Soon as you’re ready, I’ll jump you right over there. Just say the word.”

Duncan added, “We’re also supposed to tell you that your father says if you get yourself hurt, he’s going to ground you for a month.”

Enguerrand, meanwhile, simply greeted us politely, giving me a slight smile before taking up a place almost directly behind me. At the moment, he was all business. And his business, apparently, was watching our backs, literally. Then… well, then we watched the field below and waited.

Mateo’s pack (aside from Roxa) and the other werewolves that they’d recruited were already making their way across the field. There were other weres from Lemuel’s gathered army meandering in and out, so it didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, behind us, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters were getting organized with their own teleporters, waiting for the moment to jump in. Everything was tense, all eyes on the camp in the distance.

“I wish I was there,” Roxa muttered beside me. She sounded surprised by her own voice, her own words. Lifting her chin, she stared down at the dots that were Mateo and the others. “… I wish I was there. Not here. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“You’d give away their cover,” Tristan reminded the girl. “Every single Were down there would see you as a Heretic. And they know there’s only one were-Heretic on their side. Pace.”

“I know,” she mumbled, arms folded. “But I don’t have to like it.” The girl rested a hand on Gidget’s head, who was busy glowering down at the figures in the distance.

It was Enguerrand who spoke up, his voice quiet, yet measured. “You are devoted to your allies, Miss Pittman. It is an admirable quality, and one that many should learn to emulate.”   

Before anyone else could respond to that, Quing spat a series of words that I didn’t know, but sounded an awful lot like curses. My head snapped that way to ask what was wrong, but then I saw it. In the field below, Mateo and his people had been surrounded by a ring of other weres. At the front of them was a figure I couldn’t make out the details of, but something told me it was…

“Lemuel,” Roxa snarled, binoculars held to her eyes. “It’s him and his pack. Mateo and the others are in trouble.” She dropped the binoculars, taking a step that way.

“Wait,” I caught her arm. “The other Alters are gonna make their move now. The plan can still–”

“Screw the plan,” the other girl snapped. “Screw everything. I’m not gonna stand here and let that psycho hurt Mateo or any of the others. I’m not gonna stand here and watch them die! Gidget!” At the sound of her name, the cyberform abruptly shape-shifted and folded in on herself, going from cougar to armored hoverboard as Roxa stepped up on her back.

My hand stayed on her arm, and I started to say something else to convince her to wait. Before I could, however, the sound of a cry from far below caught our attention.

Fighting. Mateo’s pack and the other weres were fighting. It had devolved into an all-out brawl. Exactly like it was supposed to. Not as far in as they’d planned, but still. Lemuel was there and the focus was on Mateo’s people.

As outnumbered as they were, they couldn’t last long like that, with everyone’s focus on them. Luckily, however, they didn’t need to. The moment the fight was underway, I heard calls from the Alters around us. They had already organized themselves into groups. Seeing the brawl underway, the cry went up to move in.

In groups of mostly three or four, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters vanished, only to reappear at spots on either side of the were-encampment in the desert valley below. Lemuel’s recruits barely had time to tear their attention away from the brawl at the edge of the camp to realize that they were being attacked by more Alters. In seconds, what had begun as a relatively easy curbstomp of Mateo’s people was suddenly an all-out war as dozens of beings from both sides fell in on each other.

Roxa tugged her arm away from my grip then. “I’m going to be with my pack,” she informed me. “I won’t abandon them.” As the blonde girl gave a sharp whistle, Gidget flew off the ground, diving down to join Mateo and the others.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Okay. Pace. We focus on Pace. Get the choker from her while helping everyone else, like Mateo said. Where is she?”

Quing pointed a feathered hand down into the chaotic battlefield. “There. She is… enjoying herself.” He grimaced a little before speaking again. “Tulmin, to your left. Buddy, take three steps forward, the bear behind the tent is trying to ambush our friends. Scolpa, weresnake burrowing under you, move now.”

He was acting as a sort-of overwatch, I realized. The bird-man was keeping an eye on everything that was going on, and communicating with the Wonderland Alters somehow to give them directions and advice.

Swallowing, I looked back to the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan from Crossroads. Duncan, Misty, and Enguerrand from the Atherby camp. And myself. “Right in the middle of things. Great. Okay, guys… um…” I didn’t know what to say. I froze up.

“We’re doing this,” Avalon interrupted. Her gaze was steady as her hand moved to very briefly touch mine before falling back. Straightening, she nodded toward Berlin. “Take us in.”

“I think she means,” Shiori started, “Beam us–”

And just like that, we weren’t watching the battle anymore.

We were in the middle of it.

******

I was standing a few yards away from a canvas tent, staff in one hand. To my right, there was a scream of panic, accompanied by the savage roar of a wolf and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone. The scream turned to gurgles before stopping entirely. The sound of the wolf’s victorious snarl turned to a squeal as a larger figure slammed into it hard enough to shatter half the bones in the wolf’s body.

I didn’t even know which of them was on my side. I should have, but in the heat of the moment, in the dust and furious sounds around me, my brain froze up for a second. I stood there, surrounded by blood, by violence, by death.

Ahead of me, a dark-blue, twelve-foot-tall giant with no shirt was locked in a pitched battle with a nine-foot tall werebear. Despite the height advantage, they both seemed to be equally matched, neither giving an inch. A little to the right of them, a were in full wolf-form bounded forward and started to leap, only to tumble backward with a yelp as an arrow whistled through the air and straight into the wolf’s eye. Fennicus, the centaur, galloped past while already lining up another shot with his bow that took the still tumbling wolf in the side. To the left and a hundred yards away, Seth was busy dealing with a pair of werewolves in their half-wolf forms, as well as a fully-formed jaguar. Meanwhile, there was a giant vulture swooping around above him that kept trying to dive in, only to be thwarted repeatedly by the tiny, darting figure that was Namythiet.

Hell, right nearby, I could see the natural Heretics from the Atherby camp going to work. Misty had her enormous sword, the thing that was big as she was, spinning over her head like it was made out of foam. A massive, armored werecrocodile was lunging for her, jaws snapping down. Just before it would have bitten her in half, however, she shoved that sword into its mouth, catching the descending jaws. As the crocodile made a noise of surprise, the tiny waif of a girl grinned before triggering something on the handle of her giant sword. An instant later, the croc was literally hurtled away as a deafening boom filled the air. Smoke was coming out of the end of the sword, which had opened up a bit to reveal a gun barrel equally huge. Even as the crocodile flailed its way back to the ground with a hole in its back (injured, but not dead), Misty was shouting something about loving cannons.

“Chambers!” Avalon’s shout penetrated my briefly frozen mind, and my eyes focused on her. She and the others were all standing behind me, spaced out a little bit. “Don’t tunnel vision,” the other girl snapped while pivoting, eyes scanning. “You’re not a spectator! You know better than that!”

“Got it, sorry.” Focusing, I hoisted my staff into position, ordering Jaq and Gus into position to convert the thing into its bladed-form right from the start. The others already had their weapons drawn, and had spaced themselves out enough not to get in each other’s way. Which was good, because it was at that moment that the weres surrounding us realized that they had even more company. Heretic company. And they weren’t too happy about it.

As the shout went up and around them, Avalon spoke flatly. “Clear a hole, get to Pace. That’s what matters. She doesn’t get away.”

And that was all she had time to say before the surrounding weres fell in on us.

The werelion that ran straight at me in his half-human form was clearly young. Maybe even my age. He was eager, too eager to have fought many Heretics and probably still too awed by his own power to consider that someone else might be able to match or beat it. He wore ragged jean shorts that had mostly snapped under the force and pressure of his body growing into the larger battle-form, and no shirt. His chest was crisscrossed with some kind of barbed-wire tattoo with a skull in the top center, just under his throat. In this battle-form, he was much heavier and more muscled than a normal human, with a fine down-like layer of fur over his skin, a face that looked rough and bumpy like a neanderthal, incredibly pronounced teeth, and visible claws protruding from his slightly elongated fingers. Oh, and he had a mane of hair surrounding his head. 

He lunged, one long, muscled arm lashing out to bring those nasty-looking claws swiping at me. In response, I took a quick step forward, pivoting to put my back to the lion-man while bringing my staff up vertically in my right hand. His swinging arm was caught against the staff, blocking him from cutting me. At the same time, I continued my pivot, driving the elbow of my left arm back hard into his face. With the strength of a normal seventeen-year-old girl, he would have shrugged it off. But I had the absorbed strength from Valentine, delivering a blow to his jaw that knocked the werelion stumbling back a step.

Following that up without an instant of hesitation, I continued turning until I was facing the figure, who was just then catching himself. He recovered quickly, launching himself forward once more while lashing out with a series of wild swings. But I was already set, spinning my staff up to catch the first swing from his left arm before snapping the other end up to smack his right arm out of the way, then back again for the left. One, two, three, all in the span of about a second. Before he could attack again, my staff was snapping up, spinning in my hands so that one of the flat sides of of the grapple smacked off the bottom of his chin, snapping his head back to expose his throat. An instant later, the staff continued spinning in my hands so that the other end with its attached blade sliced a hole right through his exposed jugular.

Once more, he stumbled back, grabbing for his throat with widened eyes as it spurted blood. Without waiting for him to even realize just how bad the injury was, I took two quick steps forward and leapt up, kicking out to put my foot into his shoulder. The blow knocked him backwards and down, so that he landed on his back with me standing on top of him, one foot still on his shoulder, while the other rested on his stomach. He stared up at me, gurgling for a second just before I brought the bladed-end of the staff down with a decisive slash that separated his head from his neck.

Doubling over a bit as the pleasure rushed through me, I had the sense of mind to mutter, “Did I forget to mention that Nevada added enough silver to Jaq and Gus to let them hurt a were? Oops.”

Because yeah, knowing how soon I was going to be fighting werewolves again (especially given how they’d basically named me as one of their enemies), I would’ve been an idiot not to ask Nevada to include silver in my weapon upgrades. And as for not telling anyone else about it, well, that let it be my little secret.

The others were just as busy. To my left, I caught a glimpse of the Moon twins working together against a fully-transformed werejaguar. As the supernatural wildcat leapt at them, Vanessa’s whip cracked the air directly in front of it. As it did so, a glowing red circle about the size of a manhole cover appeared. When the jaguar passed through it, the thing burst into flame. With a squeal, the transformed Alter dropped to the ground, its fur on fire as it rolled and flailed to put it out.

Yeah, at the beginning of the year, the whip that Vanessa used had just been capable of exchanging any inanimate material it struck with any other inanimate material. But apparently, I wasn’t the only one who upgraded my weapon as time went on. Now the whip could produce those ‘mines’ of different elemental effects. Not just fire, but lightning, ice, and even a poison gas.

While the burning jaguar was recovering, Tristan took aim. Bobbi-Bobbi, his cyberform snake, was in her weapon-mode. The lower half of the long mechanical serpent was wrapped around his upper body to form a sort-of protective armor, while her upper-half and head had attached itself to Tristan’s arm. It made him look like a bit like MegaMan with his armcannon. You know, if MegaMan’s armcannon looked like the head of a snake at the end.

It looked even more like the video game robot when the blast of powerful red light shot out of his cannon to collide with the fallen jaguar, knocking the thing back down long enough for Vanessa to wrap her whip around its hind legs. A hard yank pulled the figure across the ground close enough for Tristan to jump on it with his silver knife.

Shiori and Avalon were equally busy, also working together. In their case, there was a gigantic fucking wererhino galloping around them. It had shrugged off all their attempts to do damage to its heavily armored hide. Even the silver knives couldn’t actually penetrate, despite all their efforts. They could avoid his charges, but not really do any damage. And if they left him alone, sooner or later, he’d find his target.

Finally, the two of them looked at each other. There was a brief exchange of about three words between them before they nodded. Then the pair ran straight for the rhino, even as he ran at them.

Avalon’s inherited speed allowed her to run at about thirty miles per hour. She used that to her advantage, quickly moving ahead of Shiori. At the last second, she jumped, the leap carrying her up and over the thing. As she flew above it, both of hands lashed out. From her gauntlets, a pair of energy coils extended and flew down to wrap around the rhino’s horn. Avalon landed on its back while heaving on the energy coils as hard as she could.

Shiori, meanwhile, stood her ground as the wererhino ran straight for her. I wanted to cry out, but stopped myself. Distracting the girls right then would be… bad.

They were ready anyway. As Avalon yanked back on the coils that she’d wrapped around the rhino’s horn, it involuntarily opened its mouth. And as it did so, Shiori opened her own mouth. A deafening scream erupted from the girl. It was like she was speaking in literal thunder.

And that thunder was accompanied by lightning. The girl had combined the sonic scream that she had inherited from the Cù-Sith she had fought back when we were dealing with Fahsteth, with the lightning breath she had inherited from the Jekern. As a result, she could literally scream lightning with associated thunder.

The combined sonic and electrical attack tore straight into the charging rhino’s open mouth, avoiding all of its armor entirely in the process. The force of it stopped the thing in its tracks, while the lightning knocked it to the ground, twitching along with the burning smell of flesh.

Before it could recover, Avalon hopped off, spun around, and lashed out with her gauntlet. A blade of energy appeared in mid-swing, cutting through the rhino’s open mouth and up into its brain. Avalon’s pale green aura quickly rose around her.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Shiori shouted a warning, just as a second werecrocodile, different from the one that Misty had been dealing with, appeared almost out of nowhere. This one was in half-human form. He looked like a massive green-scaled figure with a long, bladed tail and an elongated mouth. Actually, he almost looked more like a half-dinosaur than a half-crocodile. He grabbed for Avalon, who managed to slip free just in time to spin around and kick out. Shiori was already there, going up on his opposite side.

Then I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of one of the pickup trucks that had been parked along the edge of the camp. It was heading out, swerving around the worst of the fighting. And behind the wheel was–

“Pace!” I blurted, raising a hand to point at the truck.

Avalon, still grappling with the half-crocodile, grimaced. “Stop her, Chambers!”

Stop her. Right. I could do that. Taking a breath, I looked at my staff, at the transformed Jaq and Gus. “All right, guys. Let’s do this.”

With that, I started to move. Cutting a diagonal path across the battlefield not toward where the truck was, but the way it was heading, I sprinted..Ten feet in, and a tiger was coming straight at me, gathering itself for a leap. At the last second, however, a sedan came flying in out of nowhere to smack into the tiger. And that was literally flying. That Duncan guy was nearby. With a flick of his hand, he sent the empty car flying up before bringing it down hard on top of the still dazed weretiger.

I kept going, truck in sight as it rounded the corner of the camp. A short burst from my staff carried me on top of the sedan that Duncan was using, and he gave it a hard shove upward, a move that, combined with another burst from my staff, carried me a good half of the distance I needed to cover.

Running, running. Others were faster than I was, but I could go all-out for hours. I sprinted across the camp, even as not just one, but two positively massive bears reared up to block my path. The things were huge, twelve feet tall if they were an inch. Even as the one on the left hauled itself up, however, something much smaller knocked it back down again. Misty came flying in out of nowhere, her tiny figure looking more like a toothpick that the bear would use. But her fist slammed into the bear’s face with enough force to knock the damn thing onto its back, even as Misty gave an excited whoop.  

The bear on the right, meanwhile, had just turned that way when someone else approached. Enguerrand. He jumped at the thing too, but rather than slamming into it, he… well, errr… slammed into it. Literally. The man disappeared. For a second I thought he’d gone through the thing. But he never came out the other side. The bear, meanwhile, staggered for a second, then pivoted and leapt onto one of the nearby barechested half-wolves.

Possessed him. Enguerrand literally possessed the bear, like a–

Truck! Focus on the truck, it was getting away. And these guys had just cleared enough of a path to catch up. Grimacing, I took off again. This time, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that truck, from getting to Pace.

Arms, claws, and tails lashed out at me, most haphazardly as I moved in and then out of their range I ducked, dove, rolled, then popped up and kept running. I hopped over a fallen tent, dropped into a slide to take myself under a swinging sword, and narrowly spun away from a burst of fire. Through it all, I kept my eyes on that truck as it hurtled its way across the desert, heading for a bumpy dirt road that would lead it out of the battlefield. And through it all, I kept charging my staff.

Time it right, had to time it just right. If I didn’t, I was gonna lose the truck entirely. Three seconds, two seconds, one second–now, now, now! Flipping my staff around and down, I pointed it at the ground before triggering a burst that sent me flying up and forward. Again, not to where the truck was, but to where it was going to be. Right at the spot where the actual road started, the road that would take the truck, with Pace inside it, away from the fight.

By the time I reached the apex of my flight, I had already converted my staff into its bow form. Flipping over in the air to point my feet up so that I could look straight down, I took aim, using the last of the staff’s kinetic charge to set a powerful energy arrow just as the truck approached. As it passed directly beneath me, I loosed the shot with a grunt.

The arrow careened down, colliding with the back of the pickup before releasing all of its charged-up kinetic force. The explosion of energy from the impact literally launched the speeding truck up and over, sending it flipping end over end a few times before it came down on its hood and roof.

Landing in a kneeling position a second later, I kept my eyes focused on the truck. There was no way that would even slow Pace down very much, let alone actually hurt her.

Sure enough, the crazy (probably possessed) werewolf-Heretic crawled out of the truck, picking herself up with a squeal that I belatedly realized was a laugh. “Whooo! That was fun! Let’s do it again, do it again, do it again!”

“Later,” another voice grunted. The door of the truck was kicked free, flying a good fifteen feet before a second figure shoved himself out and stood.

Lemuel. It was Pace and Lemuel. Both of them focused on me, almost identical smiles coming to their faces.

“Aww,” Pace announced with a giggle of joy. “Present came back! Let’s play with the present. Huh, huh, can we?”

“Oh,” Lemuel replied, the pack-leader already shifting into his much larger half-wolf form. “I think we can spare enough time to unwrap your treat.”

“Yay!” Pace bounced up and down like an excited little girl, even as she produced two silver knives, one in each hand. “How fun! And she’s all by herself too!”

There was a sudden sound in the air above me, before a figure landed at my side.

“Wanna bet?” Roxa asked Pace, even as Gidget dropped to transform into her cougar shape beside her. To me, she added, “Sorry. I… I had to help them.”

“No problem,” I replied, raising my staff. “You’re here when it counts.”

Lemuel lifted his chin then, his smile growing. “My little pup? How… glorious. This’ll be fun.”

“I’m not helpless this time, you piece of shit,” Roxa snarled at him.

Lemuel’s response was a low chuckle. “Good,” he retorted. “I prefer it when my toys have a little spirit to them. Makes it a lot more fun when they break.”

He and Pace glanced to each other for a half-second.

And with that, they lunged.

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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Interlude 18A – Namythiet

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“They shouldn’ta locked the door!” The pint-sized, purple-winged and blue-haired pixie teenager huffed the words with obvious annoyance and agitation. She hovered in front of Seth Dozeran’s face, hands on her hips as she ranted at her mentor. “I coulda helped with those bad dogs. I’d give ’em a poke in the eye with ol’ Cataclysm here.” Her hand moved to pat the tiny sword at her hip pointedly. “I’d poke the eye out and skewer it on my blade, like an olive on a toothpick! An olive on a toothpick!

The vampire arched an eyebrow for a silent moment as he seemed to consider her before replying smoothly. “I’m the one that used the code to lock the store, Shortstop.” It was a nickname that Namythiet had objected to until Seth explained that the shortstop was one of the most important defensive spot in baseball, since they had to field more hit balls than any other position.

Still, his words made her flutter up a bit higher as she blurted, “You? You locked me in here so I couldn’t get out? But why? I thought you trusted me to fight with you! Don’t you… think I could help?” Her wings beat a little slower as she sank a bit in the air, the equivalent of a human hanging their head.

For a moment, it looked like the man was going to say something dismissive. Then he heaved a sigh and muttered something about feelings. “Needed you to be around for back-up, kid, in case there were more of the bastards. You know how tricky wolves can be. They hit us again from behind, we would’ve needed you to play guerrilla tactics and take them by surprise. Better than just being out in plain sight.”

Hovering a little closer to him, Namythiet studied his gaze with the intensity of a teenager valiantly attempting to spot the loopholes in a parent’s unwanted instructions for a few long seconds. Finally, she bobbed up and down in the air a bit before nodding. “I woulda kicked their asses! Me and Clubber both.” Her hand pointed down to the emerald-furred saber-toothed tiger cub that sat studiously licking down his own shoulder until he went so far that he fell over onto his side with a squeak of surprise.

“Yes,” Seth replied dryly, “I’m sure they dodged a number of bullets by avoiding that fight. But look.” He raised his hand, palm up so that the pixie could land on it. “The other Septs need to ask you a favor. They’d be in here themselves to do it, probably Limnoreia or Fennicus, but they’re busy making sure those werecub parents don’t go running off on their own to get their stupid, panicky asses killed.

“So that leaves me to talk to you about the favor. But I want you to think about it before you say yes, you got it? This isn’t a normal favor. It’s important, and it’s dangerous. More dangerous than anything you’ve done before. So don’t just go agreeing just because you think it’ll make you look brave, got it?”

Feeling intensely curious (even more than usual) by that, Namythiet alighted onto his hand and cocked her head to the side. “The Septs wanna ask me for a favor? Really?” She had to stop herself from immediately blurting out an agreement to anything they asked for. “Um, well, what do they want?”

The man who had bypassed every other eligible and eager potential student that longed to be the Tie-Breaker’s protege to instead begin training her, a four and a half-inch tall pixie (a fact that most people in Wonderland insisted was supposed to be his idea of a joke), regarded Namythiet in silence for a moment as though considering how much to tell her. Finally, he sighed. “You know the Heretics that were here? Asenath says she brought them to see you before everything went down. And I can still smell ’em.” His gaze flicked around the small shop where the most of Namythiet’s pixie-kin were still cautiously poking their heads out of their hiding places, or fluttering outside picking up bits of debris.

Bobbing up and down in the air in short, excited hops with a single flap of her wings that brought her off the man’s palm repeatedly, the pixie chirped, “Sure, they visited. They brought a friend for Clubber to play with too, a Jekern! His name’s Choo. Is she really your sorta-sister? The girl I mean, not Choo.” She giggled at the unintentional insinuation, spinning in the air after her latest wing-assisted bounce.

“Shiori, yeah.” The vampire nodded. “More of a sort-of niece than a sort-of sister, I guess. Not really into the whole family thing anyway, so let’s not put a label on it. Besides, you say that too loud and Asenath’s bound to poke her head in and start ranting about how we’re not related, so keep it down.”

Shaking that off, he went on. “Point is, apparently the other one, the blonde, she knows some other werewolf pack that has a problem with the one that attacked us. So they’re gonna go look for the pricks, maybe try to find out where they took the kids they stole. But they’re not a big pack, not like the others. There’s just a few of them. So they’re gonna need a little more muscle when they do track ’em down.”

Perking up, Namythiet drew her sword and flew up off the man’s palm. “I’ll be the muscle!” Her sword swished through the air rapidly. “Cataclysm and me, we’ll teach those wolves the meaning of fear!” Gesturing belatedly downward with the end of the needle-like blade, she added, “Oh, and Clubber too. He’ll make the dumb little puppies pee their furry panties with one mighty roar. Won’t ya, buddy?”

The green saber-toothed tiger yawned so wide he fell over backwards, and then proceeded to spin around rapidly as though trying to figure out what had tipped him over. Settling on the fact that it must have been his own tail, he pounced and turned over in a somersault while letting out a squeaky yowl.

“Oh yeah.” Seth’s voice was as dry as kindling. “I’m sure he’ll strike the fear of God into the bastards.”

Before Namythiet could respond to that, the man’s hand lashed out to catch hold of her. He was clearly careful not to grab her wings, instead letting them flutter about uselessly as he held onto the rest of her body in his fist. It was tight enough to be uncomfortable (and no pixie enjoyed being held like that), but not quite painful. “You listen, got it?” He had his serious voice on, one he hardly ever used. But it combined with the way he was looking at her made the pixie stop squirming and stare with wide eyes. “This isn’t a game. Those wolves, they will kill you like a human swatting a fly. And then I’m gonna be every shade of pissed off, cuz that means I’ve gotta name one of these other losers my apprentice.”

Pulling his hand in with her still clasped tightly in it, he stared intently at her. “So don’t die, you got it?”

When she nodded quickly, he released her carefully so she could fly. It wasn’t the kind of point that he made often, but he did make it. As much as he was teaching her, Seth still took the time now and then to illustrate just how vulnerable she really was if he thought she was getting too big for her britches.

“If you agree to go,” he continued once she was hovering once more, “it’s as a scout, not a front-line soldier. You go with these guys, and if they find what they’re looking for, you send a message back so the rest of us can come run the attack. Understand? No charging in, no stupid heroics. You send the message and wait for us to show up. You run off on your own and you’ll never be my apprentice again.”

For once, Namythiet nodded seriously, meeting the man’s intense stare. “Send the ‘help’ message to you once we find the stupid, ugly bastards. You got it, boss!” She saluted him with the blade of her sword.

“Good.” He grunted the single word of approval and paused then before squinting at her. “That… thing you were working on earlier, before the Heretics showed up, is it ready for the road?”

If she had perked up at the thought of going out to help hunt down the Nocen wolves, that question made the pixie positively beam while blurting, “Ready? You mean they might actually use it?!”

“I asked if it was ready,” he reminded her. “Or can you get them ready in–” He checked his watch. “About two hours. That’s how long it’s gonna take this pack to get up here through the foldjumps.”

The foldjumps were areas where two points that were hundreds of miles apart could be briefly connected into a single location. They were created by Alters known as Abeonas, for which the Roman Goddess of Outward Journeys had been named. Basically, the Abeonas would designate one point in one location and then travel hundreds of miles before designating the other point to link the two together. From that point on (until the Abeonas dismissed the connection or died), if someone was in that exact location and gave the proper password (deliberately thinking the password was good enough, since many Alters couldn’t speak normally), the two areas would connect again. Which meant that if someone started in one place, connected the areas with the password and then moved forward before the connection stopped, they would be just past the point of the second area. Usually, Abeonas charged exorbitant rates to use their foldjumps, but Wonderland had a special arrangement with a few of them.

“Yup!” Namythiet nodded confidently. “It’s almost ready now, if I work the whole time, it’ll definitely be ready by the time the good werewolves get here. Do you really think they’ll use it?”

“Well,” Seth replied casually, “they probably won’t want to run around on all fours the whole time they’re wandering over the countryside hunting this pack o’nasties. So I’d say yeah, they’ll use it.”

While she was pumping her fist with excitement, he extended a finger to her. On the end of it was something that, to him was an incredibly tiny thread. To the pixie, it was a normal sized belt. “Take this. After you find the guys and send the message about where you are, snap it. It’ll summon Venice.”

He wasn’t giving the pixie the ability to conjure up an ancient Italian city known for canals and drop it on her enemies, unfortunately. Venice was the name of one of Wonderland’s allied Abeonas, as all of them were named after a city, usually one that was famous in some way. Wonderland’s were Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia (the latter insisted that his chosen city’s contribution of the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich qualified it as at least as important as the former two cities, perhaps even more so).

“Find the bad wolves, summon Venice, help you lay the smack down on the furry assholes. Got it!” Tying the belt around her waist, Namythiet gave him a thumbs up. “Good. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when we crash their party.” Despite her words, the little pixie’s voice shook with anger as she thought about what the wolves had done to her home, to her friends and the people she lived with.

“Just remember what I said,” Seth warned her flatly. “No stupid heroics. None. Do what you’re told.

“But yeah, maybe if this works out, we can give them a taste of their own medicine.”

******

“We cannot begin to express the extent of our appreciation and gratitude for your actions,” Limnoreia announced quietly a few hours later, as she stood in the middle of the mall parking lot. “This is far beyond the call of anything we could have expected from those who are not fully allied with us.”

Namythiet, perched on the Nereid’s shoulder, turned slightly to look at the group that the Sept was addressing. The pack of werewolves wasn’t that large, only six in number. They were still in their wolf-forms from their run up through the foldjumps. There was a big dark brown one that was almost a head taller than the others, full of muscle. Beside that one was a slightly lighter one that seemed to be the leader. Arrayed behind them were a tawny-furred female who wore a red choker with a green gem in it, a black female, a male with rustic red fur like a fox, and a caramel-colored female that kept pacing back and forth sniffing everything. The choker on the tawny wolf was the only decoration any wore.

The pack all exchanged glances with a few yips before five of them took a couple steps forward and began to shift, changing shape and growing into their human forms. Meanwhile, the tawny female about-faced and trotted over to one of the nearby parked cars, sliding under it and moving out of sight.

While Namythiet was trying to figure out what the sixth wolf was doing, the others finished changing. The lead-wolf was a thin Hispanic man who looked utterly unassuming and unimportant, the kind of man who would almost always be overlooked. Beside him, the enormous wolf had turned into an even more enormous man, a giant Samoan who looked massive even to the pixie’s distorted perspective.

The other three wolves had turned into a black woman with short purple hair, a pale, red-haired man that was even shorter than the lead-wolf, and a Hispanic woman with long dark hair tied into a ponytail.

All five were naked, though none seemed to care that much.

“Our greetings to you, Sept.” The leader started once he had finished the change. “Sorry we couldn’t be here sooner, but… well, even with the foldjumps, Colombia is still pretty far away from San Jose.”

That was where Wonderland was located: San Jose, California. With the foldjumps that Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia had created and continued to maintain, it was at least semi-connected to enough cities in North and South America that even a trip from as far away as the wolves had started only took a few hours for them to run. The vast majority of that time was spent running from one fold to another.

Limnoreia shook her head. “Please, call me Limnoreia. And there are no apologies necessary, pack-leader. As I said, you have already gone far above and beyond what we could possibly have expected. Your pack owes us no particular favors or effort, yet you have already gone quite far out of your way to assist us. That is…” She paused before shaking her head. “It is more than I can properly express my gratitude for. Though…” Turning her gaze slightly toward the car in the distance, she asked, “Is your pack-mate quite… all right?”

It was the Hispanic woman (still pacing back and forth the same as she had been doing in wolf form) who answered. “That’s just Roxa. She’s not used to being a wolf yet, so she’s still embarrassed by changing. Or, you know, the naked part after. And she’s not as fast at it. So she changes over there.”

“And Hasty’s only saying that because she knows Roxa can hear her and likes teasing her,” the leader announced, giving the woman a look before he turned back and extended a hand. “My name is Mateo, Limnoreia. As I said, that’s Hasty. The big man beside me prefers the name Fezzik. That’s Lesedi and Corson.” He gestured to the black woman and the red-haired man respectively. “And like she said, over there is Roxa. She’s still a little shy.” Shaking that off, he focused on the Sept once again. “Flick said you had a run-in with the pack we’ve been looking for. How’d they even get in here? I would’ve thought that this place would be… well, a pretty tough nut to crack.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment, Limnoreia spoke quietly. “In ordinary cases, yes. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of simply lowering our defenses rather than adding the Heretics into them. The thought was that if anything went wrong, the defenses could be immediately raised to expel them. But when the other pack invaded, the defenses failed to come back. After an inspection, we found that the second Heretic who arrived with the pack, the one that the Chambers girl called Doxer, used some skill he acquired somewhere to take control of the lowered defenses once he was through them. He prevented them from being raised. It was an… unfortunate combination of events. Our lowering the defenses allowed him access to them so that they could not be raised again.”

Mateo’s head shook. “Heretics working with Nocen. Isn’t that just our worst nightmare?” Giving a shudder, he pushed on. “Like I said, we were hoping to find the pack anyway. This is a decent lead. But if they’ve got the numbers we think they do, there’s no way we can take them on ourselves.”

“We never expected you to,” Limnoreia quickly confirmed. “That would be… completely absurd on our part. We’re just afraid that… sending our people out now, as emotional and unstable as they are, would create more problems than it would solve. If they did find the other pack, they would not wait for reinforcements or for any kind of plan. And more likely, they’d simply walk into some other threat in their rush to find their children and other loved ones. It is our hope that by keeping them here and allowing them to train and busy themselves in other ways, they will be ready when the time comes.

“That is what Namythiet here is for.” Lifting her hand, the woman indicated the pixie. “She will accompany you and send a message back that will summon our forces once you have located the pack. With the aid she’s been provided, they will be able to arrive almost immediately. And rest assured, should you require any other assistance at any time, we will provide anything we can.”

“Good.” Mateo nodded. “Going after this Nocen pack, it’ll be good to have some back-up. I can’t even–”

Before he could finish speaking, a blonde teenage girl emerged from behind the car that the tawny wolf had disappeared behind, dressed in shorts and a simple tee shirt. As soon as she saw the girl, Namythiet flew up off of Limnoreia’s shoulder, drawing her needle-sword.

“Heretic!” she blurted in a half-panicked voice. “Run, Sept, I’ll protect you!” Holding the sword in front of herself, she flicked back and forth through the air. “You want to take my Sept, Heretic, you’ll have to go through me and my little friend! Sic her, Clubber!”

The green tiger cub, who had been lounging nearby, lifted his head to look that way for a moment. Then he proceeded to pounce… at a passing butterfly… which he missed entirely.

A blue hand moved up under her feet to catch the pixie gently. “Easy,” Limnoreia softly counseled. “It’s all right, Namythiet. We already knew that one of their wolves used to be a Heretic.” To the girl herself, she added, “Though we had not heard that you possessed the ability to summon clothes for yourself. That must be quite useful.”

Flushing slightly, the Heretic-wolf (Roxa, apparently), shook her head. “It wasn’t me.” To demonstrate, she reached up to the choker that she still wore. As her hand approached the jewel, it literally disappeared from sight. A moment later, she began withdrawing handfuls of clothes, which she tossed to her packmates so that they could start to get dressed.

“My old headmistress sent this to me,” she explained. “It’s like the pocket dimensions that hold our weapons, only it can hold clothes and anything else we can’t carry in wolf form. Oh, and speaking of weapons…” Trailing off, she looked toward Mateo.

“Go ahead, Roxa,” the pack-leader replied with a nod. “Call her down here. It seems safe enough.”

The blonde gave a loud whistle then. A moment later, there was a rush of motion. Namythiet quickly looked up and flew a little higher in time to see some kind of metal hoverboard come flying down out of the air. As it approached, the board shifted and transformed, four legs extending out to catch itself while it finished changing into the shape of a mechanical cougar.

“We thought it’d be good to have some back-up,” Mateo explained while he and the others began to get dressed in the clothes that Roxa tossed them. “You know, just in case.”

Namythiet, however, didn’t hear anything the Sept said in return. She was too busy flying straight up to the robot cat with a squeal of joy. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! A real life Heretic animal-weapon! And it’s not gonna eat me! Wait, it’s not gonna eat me, is it?”

The blonde girl blinked, stepping over before laying a hand on the robot cougar’s head. “Gidget won’t eat you. You like robots, umm… Namythiet, was it?”

“That’s me!” the pixie chirped excitedly, unable to help herself. “And do I like robots? Do I like robots?!”

Limnoreia calmly explained, “Namythiet is a Hephaesetical pixie. They’re quite rare. Most pixies are connected or tied to nature in some way, be it to plants, water, the earth itself, or even particular animals. Hephaesetical pixies, however, are connected to technology and… well, artificial constructions.”

“She means I like to build stuff!” the young pixie summarized while inspecting the mechanical cougar. “I always wanted to see what the Heretics built. Can I look, huh, huh, can I? Please?” She gave the blonde her best wide-eyed innocent pleading stare.

“Why don’t you call the van over so they can see what they’re working with?” Limnoreia suggested. “I’m sure you’ll have a chance to ask anything you want later.”

“Van?” Hasty perked up, moving from her pacing to stand beside her pack leader. “What van? There’s a van?”

In response, Namythiet turned in the air and put her fingers to her mouth to give a piecing whistle that was quite loud considering her small size.

Immediately, a dark green van that was parked across the parking lot started up. Its headlights turned on, and the vehicle roared over the lot before skidding to a stop nearby, engine idling.

“We thought that, considering your search may take you anywhere, something more subtle than a pack of wolves would be better,” Limnoreia began. “And as Namythiet has been working on this for the past several weeks to indulge her Hephaesetical urges, it was already prepared.”

“You uhh, built a van?” Roxa asked, her tone curious.

“Not just a van,” Namythiet blurted excitedly. “The van!” Flying over to the side of it, she raised her arms and gestured the way she had seen human models do. “See, it’s got armor that’s hard enough to take most human gunfire without even scratching it. And it’s got stabilizers to keep it upright even if an Amarok or a Nemean crashes into it. It’s got all kinds of surveillance stuff in it, both human technology and magic. It can get up a hundred and thirty miles an hour. It can change colors or turn invisible, and it has these…”

Whistling a short, complicated song, she waited until two ballistae rose out of the top of the van. One faced forward, the other backward. Both could rotate all the way around, allowing a full three hundred and sixty degree firing arc.

“A couple of really big crossbows?” the black girl, Lesedi, asked curiously.

“Ballistae,” Namythiet corrected. “And they can fire three different things. EMP bolts to shut down electrical things like if you’re chasing a car, explosive bolts to do boom damage, and bolts that spray out this knock-out gas to put them to sleep. Pretty cool, huh?” She was beaming with pride.

Smiling, Mateo nodded. “Very… cool indeed. And you’re right, spending time in a van’ll be a lot better than running across the country on all fours. Even if it is a little cramped.”

“Cramped?” Namythiet echoed, her broad smile widening even more. “Wanna bet?”

With that, she flew around to the back and landed on the handle before giving one more whistle. In response, the handle dropped out from under her feet before the door opened, revealing the van interior.

The pack of werewolves stood there and stared. “Okay,” Corson started as the first to find his voice. “What the hell?”

Instead of looking like the ordinary back interior of a van, what they saw through the open door was more like an entire apartment. There was a living room ahead of them with a couch, recliners, and a television on plush blue carpet, an open doorway to the side with a visible bathroom, a connected kitchenette just off from the living area, and another couple doors further in.

“It’s like the Heretic pocket dimension stuff,” Roxa blurted while the rest stared. “Like the stuff for our, I mean their weapons, or the apartments that the teachers use that are bigger on the inside.”

“It’s a freaking TARDIS,” the big Samoan announced, sounding utterly overjoyed. “It’s a TARDIS!” Turning, he carefully took Namythiet in his massive hands and began to literally jump up and down with her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Giggling, the little pixie squirmed her way free eventually before turning on Roxa. “And it’s not Heretic pocket dimension stuff. They stole it from pixies. We made it first.”

The blonde flushed. “Oh, uh, sorry. I didn’t… umm… I didn’t know.”

Mateo stepped forward then, laying a hand on Roxa’s shoulder. “Are you sure you want us to take something this important….?”

“Finding the kids is important!” Namythiet insisted. “You need all the help you can get. And besides, like Sept Limnoreia said, Clubber and me are going with you!”

The Nereid herself gave a slight nod. “Indeed. As I said, you’ll have every bit of assistance we can provide. I know you’ll want to leave soon, but would you mind coming inside for a few minutes first? We’d like to introduce your pack to the parents of the children who were taken, so that they can see who will be leading the search. And we have supplies we’d like to give you.”

Glancing to his pack to make sure they were all right with it, Mateo nodded. “Sure. Yeah, let’s go in for a bit. But we’ll have to get on the road soon. Because I have a feeling, wherever Lemuel’s pack took those kids, we need to find them as soon as we can.

“Before it’s too late.”

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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 14-05

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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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