July 4th, 2018, just over six weeks since the Exodus.
With a sudden squeal of brakes and protesting tires, a dozen or so cars came to an unexpected stop in the middle of one of Los Angeles’ ever-busy streets. Their drivers proceeded to shout and curse. The ones further back shouted at the people ahead of them, while those close enough to see what had caused the interruption directed their vocal annoyance at that instead. The words ‘fucking mutts’ and ‘mongrel dogs’ were heard, along with added words about calling animal control or the pound. Or, for those far less controlled of their temper, dealing with the dogs themselves.
And yet, the creatures currently causing this delay in the drivers’ morning commute were not ‘mutts’. If the Bystander Effect had not been clouding their perception of what they were seeing, the people in those cars would have realized that what they were looking at was actually a collection of wolves. Each was a beautiful, perfect specimen, their coats shiny and clear, bodies in prime condition. These were no random homeless canines.
On the other hand, they also, technically, weren’t really wolves.
There were six of them. The male in front, leading the others, was brown and a bit shaggy. Arrayed behind him were another male, this one with red fur, and four females. One had black fur, another was more of a caramel coloring, the third was tawny, and the last, who trailed somewhat behind the others, was gray.
All six of the wolves went sprinting across the street, ignoring the sound of angry drivers. Their attention was focused exclusively on following a very specific scent, and even if they had generally been of the mindset to wait at a crosswalk, in this case, there was no time. They chased the scent, running full out to the point that they nearly collided with a group of shoppers trying to cross the street from the other direction. At the last instant, the wolf in the lead gave a sharp bark, startling the unobservant pedestrians into jerking back. That provided an opening, which the half-dozen wolves took, lunging from the street to the sidewalk as they continued running.
In a single-file line, the wolves raced onward, forcing people on the sidewalk to quickly jump aside or be plowed through. They ran together down that block, hanging a sharp right at the end as their noses directed them. From there, they went two more blocks before abruptly skidding to a halt at the mouth of a long alley that sloped downward, toward some kind of loading dock behind several buildings. The lead wolf poked his head around the wall of the alley, sniffing once before giving a very soft whine. Looking back to his pack, he made a quiet whuffing sound, eyes focusing on the caramel-colored female and the rust-colored male before making a quick jerking motion toward the alley with his head. Next, he made eye contact with the three remaining females, gesturing with his snout the way they had been going before making a circular motion with his head. To an outside observer, it could have looked as though he was simply shaking it sharply.
The rest of the pack understood. The two he had instructed to go to the alley moved that way, flanking either side of the alpha before they slowly, cautiously crept toward the loading dock. Meanwhile, the other trio took off running once more, heading down the street to the next corner before making their way around. More people got in the way, but only briefly, as the sight of even simply a trio of large ‘dogs’ running full tilt at them instead of six was enough to make them jump aside. Some did so angrily, but they all moved.
Together, the trio of female wolves tore their way to the bottom of the street. A small corner grocery store was there, which the three went straight into. The manager, sweeping near the front, saw them come in and immediately swung the broom at them while shouting for the dirty mutts to get out.
All three spared a brief moment to growl at the man, showing teeth. That was enough to make him decide that his broom wasn’t a good enough weapon to deal with three enormous dogs after all, so he dropped it and ran to throw himself over the nearby counter, dropping out of sight.
The man popped up a moment later with a shotgun in hand. Where he expected to find three dogs, however, he found only two… and one very naked Latina girl with dark hair and a darker expression.
“Really?” she snapped, her hand lashing out to snatch the shotgun away from the man. “You were gonna shoot dogs, asshole?”
“I… I…” the man stammered, before his eyes looked past the girl. Behind her, the other two wolves grew and shifted, becoming a blonde Caucasian girl and another Hispanic. Neither were quite as bereft of clothing as their companion, as they wore dark blue skin-tight bodysuits. All of which the shop manager took in as he stared for a brief second, mouth falling open.
Then his eyes rolled back and he literally fainted, collapsing to the floor.
“Really, Hasty?” Roxa spoke up, giving the older Colombian girl a look. “You had to freak the guy out that badly?”
“He was going to shoot dogs,” Hasty retorted flatly. “Besides, you changed too. And the BS Effect’ll make sure he doesn’t remember anything weird. Now come on, we’re in a hurry.” She stepped right past the counter where the man had collapsed, tossing the weapon aside while moving into the back storage room.
Glancing to Pace, the Hispanic girl who stood beside her, Roxa murmured, “So you see, if you join Mateo’s pack, it’s mostly just boring, routine days that totally blend in to each other.”
Pace, currently sans Theia as the two of them were working on being separate people, coughed under her breath before starting to follow Hasty into the back room. “Oh, sure, totally boring. You better have Netflix, or I don’t know what I’ll do with myself.” The girl was getting better at remembering to respond without Theia controlling her, though there still tended to be a brief pause in conversations now and then, or even times when she glanced beside her as though looking for the Seosten to input on something.
Together, the three of them moved through the storage room to the back door where deliveries were made. They stopped by the door there, heads tilting as they listened intently. With their enhanced hearing, the three could very easily make out what was happening out on the loading dock beyond the door.
“Look,” a male voice was saying, “I’m telling you, they’re not gonna show up.”
Another male voice snapped, “And I’m telling you, this shipment is worth three times what the last one was. We’re waiting. The deal was arranged two months ago, you really think they just forgot?”
A female voice spoke up then. “You think those rumors about the Heretics being in some kind of civil war are true? What if they’re too busy fighting to show up and pay for their delivery?”
“Then we’ll find someone who does want to pay for it,” the second voice retorted, sounding even more impatient than before. “Now shut up and try to look professional. If and when our customers do make it, I’d prefer they not think we’re a bunch of children.”
“Ahem.” That was Mateo’s voice, the man clearing his throat. “Pardon the interruption, but–”
“Not another step, wolf-man,” the first voice who had spoken blurted. “You or your pets there come any closer, and–”
His words were interrupted by the second voice, who was very clearly the leader of the outfit. “Ain’t nothing here for you scavengers. Buzz off.”
The girls inside the store could hear the dangerous smile in Mateo’s voice. “You should go back to your zoology class if you think wolves are just scavengers. But in this case, we’re here to make a deal. Trust me when I say, the people who were going to buy this shipment from you aren’t going to show up.”
Cursing under his breath, the man in charge took a moment before snapping, “You know what, something tells me you still can’t afford the kind of prices those Eden people were planning to pay.”
“Yeah,” the woman agreed, “and even if you could, where exactly are you keeping your wallet, naked guy? Actually, never mind, don’t answer that. It was supposed to be dismissive, but it got weird.”
There were a pair of growls then, from Corson and Lesedi, who were clearly still in their wolf forms. But they stopped just as suddenly, apparently at a gesture from Mateo before he spoke again. “I’m not actually in the habit of paying people like you. The deal we’re making is that you get to walk away from this with your lives, if you turn around and go right now.”
His words were met with a laugh from all three, before the first male voice, the one who was not in charge, blurted, “Go? You think we’re scared of you and your two sidekicks there? We make deals with Heretics, asshole. Go run back and try to intimidate the three little pigs or something, before we get annoyed and show you why you’ve made a big fucking mistake.”
“I think you’ve forgotten to count the sidekick behind you, friend,” Mateo’s casual response came. On the heels of his words, Roxa and the other two heard exclamations of surprise and confusion, along with a familiar growl.
“The fuck is that?!” the voice in charge blurted. “You got a cyberform, you cheating cocksuckers?!”
It was indeed a cyberform. Roxa’s cyberform, in fact. She could picture Gidget now, flying down from the sky before resuming her cougar form behind the trio. The mechanical cat was as much a part of the pack by now as Roxa herself was, and already listened to Mateo as the alpha.
“I don’t consider bringing back-up to be cheating,” the man himself was already informing them. “So like I said, walk away with your lives. That’s the best deal you’re getting today. There’ll be other times. If you’re lucky, those ones’ll go better.”
There was a brief pause then, before the guy speaking for the trio slowly drawled, “Now see, that right there might’ve been a decent offer. Leave with our lives instead of fighting a few wolf-peeps and their pet robot? Sure. But see, this deal here? It’s worth a hell of a lot to me, and I kind of expected those Eden people to try to rip me off. So I went ahead and made sure I had a little back-up myself.”
With those words, the man whistled sharply, and the sound of several doors suddenly opening reached Roxa and the other two, along with the sound of weapons being drawn, and footsteps. There were a lot more audible heartbeats. Assuming none of the beings out there had more than one, a couple dozen new people had suddenly arrived, spread through the alley. They’d clearly kept themselves hidden magically before, as the wolves hadn’t smelled or heard them at all.
“So you see,” the leader continued, “now’s really not the time for the three little wolves to screw up our deal. Maybe we’ll have to sell to someone else, but we’re sure as hell not just walking away from it. Then again, I don’t particularly want to waste the effort it’d take to put down a trio of weres. How about you get one chance to walk away? How’s that sound?”
“You make a compelling point,” Mateo conceded amicably. The girls could hear his footsteps as he turned as though to walk away, before abruptly stopping. As he did so, the sound of the raised weapons being adjusted to train on him once more, along with Corson and Lesedi’s growls in response, were audible as well.
“I will say,” Mateo started, as casually as ever, “that was good showmanship. You whistle and all those doors open? Good stuff. You plan that out with your people?”
“Like I said,” the guy in charge replied, “it’s an important deal, and I didn’t trust the Heretics to play nice. They’re not exactly known for treating people like us with the respect we deserve. So yeah, we were ready for a backstab.”
“Not a bad plan,” the werewolf leader agreed. “And a decent group of minions to follow orders. But you see, the difference between a group of minions and a pack? I don’t have to spell everything out for my pack. When you’re a pack, you learn to trust each other. You learn to read each other. And you most especially learn… exactly how long it’ll take them to map out exactly where everyone in a group is standing.”
Without needing any other encouragement, Roxa and Hasty moved together. Rearing back, the two of them kicked the heavy metal door as hard as they could. It was sent flying off its hinges, crashing out onto the loading dock beyond with a loud scream of tearing, clattering metal.
The instant the opening appeared, Pace shot through, hands already alight as she crafted a ball of fire between them before sending it off toward two of the people to the left. Hasty, emerging directly behind her, turned to the right to face another guy before lunging at him with a violent roar that filled the alley. The sound was matched by Pace and the four (including Gidget) who had already been there, as battle was officially joined. Howling, snarling, suppressed gun and laser fire, and more filled the air.
Roxa, meanwhile… waited. Counting off seconds in her head, she focused on listening through the chaos. Her senses were… indescribable compared to a human. When focusing, she could hear people’s heart beats, smell their breath, hear the slight shift of their feet on the concrete. Putting all of it and more together, she knew which way people were facing. She knew when those closest to her were otherwise occupied.
She knew when to make her exit, slipping through the open doorway and into the carnage beyond. The fighting was everywhere. To her left, she could see Pace, covered in bone-armor, spit a ball of acid into a large crocodilian-figure’s face while simultaneously shooting two bone spears from her hand in the direction of a smaller gray-skinned man.
Roxa’s focus, however, was on the two figures, a large Orc and smaller humanoid female, directly in front of her. As planned, their backs were to her as they focused on Mateo, taking advantage of the werewolf leader’s apparent preoccupation with other attackers.
She didn’t bother sneaking. Her power meant that no one would detect her unless they were looking right at her, no matter how loud she was. And even in the chaos of this battle, the two randomly turning around wasn’t likely.
A year ago, the runaway orphan who had lived on the streets for so long might have taken a swing at someone from behind. But she wouldn’t have killed, save for possibly in self-defense. Now? Now Roxa was different. And she knew exactly what kind of things these people had done.
So, she didn’t hesitate. Stepping directly behind the pair, the blonde girl grabbed the humanoid female by the throat, already shifting her form enough to let her claws rip through the tender flesh there. In the same moment, she threw her other hand up, launching a ball of dark oil-like liquid. As the Orc turned at the sound of his companion having her throat ripped out, the ball engulfed his face before solidifying at a thought from Roxa. The orc stumbled backward, flailing with a large warhammer before dropping it as he clawed at the solid orb that had cut off his vision and air supply.
The woman must have died then, choking on her own blood, because Roxa felt a sudden rush of pleasure as her orange-red aura flared to life. It wasn’t too much, so the woman couldn’t have been that strong. Still, it made her gasp softly, taking a second before her hand found the struggling orc’s flailing arm.
At that touch, Roxa created a golem-like duplicate of the orc made of stone. With a word of command, she ordered it to attack, and the stone orc drove its fist into the stomach of the original, doubling him over while he was still blinded and choking for air that wouldn’t come.
Roxa put him out of his misery then, driving her claws into his exposed throat to finish him off. She didn’t feel bad about that at all. They’d done enough research about the group that she knew this orc. He was known as Kegt, and he’d killed enough innocent people that putting him down like a dog made the world just a little bit safer. The woman who had been with him, meanwhile, was probably his long-time partner Torni, who was possibly even more psychotic and dangerous.
Sending the stone orc off to give cover for Mateo after recovering from the brief rush of pleasure, Roxa continued making her way through the impromptu battlefield. She used her stealth power to put herself behind people, aiding her pack by dealing with threats who had no idea she was there. One by one, the girl essentially assassinated every enemy she could find.
Not that it took long. Between Pace openly using her assortment of powers, Gidget’s weapons, the stone orc, four other werewolves, and Roxa playing Assassin’s Creed: Werewolf, the enemy group was completely and quickly outclassed. Their numbers meant very little against beings who could take a lot of damage before even temporarily going down, and with both Roxa and Pace’s assortment of impossible-to-predict abilities, there was very little the other side could do.
Finally, none were left. Mateo himself finished off the leader, face and bare chest thoroughly soaked with blood as he knelt by the dark-skinned man’s body, panting heavily. “That’s it,” he muttered, “they’re done.”
He rose, as Roxa, Pace, and the rest of the pack moved in around him. Lesedi and Corson resumed their own human forms, and Roxa passed out clothing to those who needed it, simple shirts and loose pants. Once there were more Seosten bodysuits to go around, she would try to get some. For the moment, they were an incredibly limited commodity.
Once dressed, the pack moved together past all the fallen bodies, until they reached a semi truck that had been parked there. After checking for magical traps (and disabling several), they broke the locks and opened up the back.
They were greeted by dozens of figures. Alters of various shapes and sizes, who had been captured by the group that Mateo’s pack had just killed in order to be sold as either slaves or kill-fodder to the Eden’s Garden people. Now, they huddled in the back, staring with wide, fearful eyes after everything they had likely heard.
“It’s okay,” Mateo announced to the group, raising his voice as he repeated, “It’s all right! No one’s going to hurt you, okay? Come on, it’s okay. Come on out.” He stepped back, gesturing for the anxious, uncertain, fearful people to very slowly emerge.
Roxa watched them, eyes scanning the group until Pace nudged her with a muttered, “There.”
Sure enough, the short man just stepping into view from behind a larger female figure matched the picture Roxa had produced. Glancing to the picture, then to the man himself, she stepped that way and held it up. “Jiorge Taklen?”
The man, whose dark orange skin was lined with wrinkles that went with the light green hair that was apparently his species’ indication of old age, held up both hands. “I–I don’t want trouble,” he began to stammer.
“No, no, it’s okay,” Roxa quickly assured him.
“You know Wonderland?” Pace added, “their new Tiebreaker told us about you. You know, with a word from her pixie apprentice to vouch that we weren’t nasty. The Tiebreaker said to tell you ‘Far fields run wet, near fields are dry.’”
The orange man blinked a few times. “Jeanne d’Arc sent you to me? I… very well, I suppose I will trust in her judgment.”
Roxa nodded to that. “Thanks. Sorry for cutting that so close, it took us a long time to figure out which group grabbed you, and where they were going to sell their… stock.” She grimaced before pushing on. “Jeanne d’Arc told us that you… you specialize in communication spells, homing spells, that kind of thing. She said Jiorge Taklen can beat any privacy magic in the world, that your communication spells can’t be blocked.”
Anxiously, the man worked his mouth a little before offering a weak, “K-kind of? I… I can get past security to send messages, but the harder the security, the shorter the message.”
“It’s okay,” Roxa informed him, “we don’t need a long message. We need you to create a spell that can be a… a beacon. You know, sort of like… ‘Here’. That’s all it needs to say. The spell just needs to cut through the best security in the world and let us find where it is.”
“But… why?” the man asked in confusion. “Why would you need something like that?”
Roxa gave him a slight smile. “Let’s just say, someone I care about is locked in a secret prison somewhere. And we want you to create a spell that can show us where he is.”
“I don’t understand,” Jiorge murmured, “how can that help? You’d have to get the spell to him first.”
“Trust us, that part’s covered,” Pace replied. “You make the spell, we can get it to him.
“And then we work on getting him, and anyone else in that place, the hell out of there.”