Lemuel

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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Search And Rescue 14-03

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As terrible as the sound of Roxa’s scream was, in some ways it almost encouraged me. She was alive, and she was near enough that we’d been able to actually hear her. And it gave me a direction to go in.

Those were all the things that I told myself to take the edge off the indescribable horror that ran through me at the thought of what could be happening to Roxa in order to draw that kind of sound out of her. It helped a tiny bit, at least enough to let me focus on getting there as fast as humanly possible.

Well, I suppose humanly possible was the wrong term. There weren’t a lot of humans who could meld with trees, launch themselves out of branches, and use a stick to create concussive explosions to push themselves further. Unless, of course, other people had much more interesting puberties than I’d had.

A couple of the Blemmye had tried to follow me, but apparently they had shoved all their evolutionary points into ‘being as disgusting as possible’ while neglecting the ‘travel quickly through the forest’ skill. They fell behind as I launched myself from tree to tree, though the pretty monkey thing was still keeping up. I caught a glimpse or two of the thing while I was focused on following the awful scream.

The way that scream echoed through the forest and off of the trees made it a little disorienting to actually narrow down exactly where it was coming from, but I focused and knew I had to be getting close. Despite myself, as I dropped from a tree to the ground, I called, “Roxa?! Roxa, where are you?”

There was a noise from the side, and I pivoted that way just in time to see a trio of wolves emerge from the bushes. They were in full-on stalking mode, the leader slightly bigger than the other two. His fur was a little bit darker, though he had a white patch under his right eye that was shaped like a dagger.

Oh, and my Stranger-sense very kindly informed me that these were not ordinary wolves. Which was easily confirmed as all three of the wolves abruptly grew, shifting and contorting until three people stood in front of me. Three naked people, the leader a huge black guy while the other two were a skinny little blonde guy who reminded me of David Spade, and a girl that I was all too familiar with.

“Pace!” I blurted, my eyes going wide. Yeah, it was the girl from Trice’s little group of thugs. I’d never had a real close look at the girl aside from when she had been fighting Columbus and Sean, but it was definitely her. She was a tall, Hispanic girl with hair that was cut short on one side and long on the other. It was also dyed vivid green. And unlike the other two, she wasn’t completely naked. There was a silver choker with a couple of bright sapphires embedded in the middle of it around the girl’s neck.

A wide smile crossed the girl’s face then, and she clapped twice before pointing. “You! You’re the pretty little blonde Doxer wanted to play with! Ooooh, maybe I can wrap you up and give you to him for a birthday present! Though you’d have to stay in the present until it’s time, but you don’t mind sitting in a box for a couple months, do ya? He’ll love you much more than the socks I was gonna get him.”

“You know this one, huh?” the big black guy asked contemplatively while he continued to stare at me.

“Oh, yes, yes.” Pace all but purred the words as she eyed me like… well, like a wolf staring at prey. “She’s from Crossroads, which means the other one is too. Guess that’s why I didn’t recognize her.”

I was floundering a little, gaping while the words stumbled their way awkwardly out of my mouth. “You—but you’re—how—wha–huh?” She was a werewolf. But she was a Heretic. I knew she was, and Miranda hadn’t said anything about the girl she’d been following around regularly being turned.

She laughed at that, a disturbing sound to match her equally disturbing smile. Pace seemed almost like an alien that knew the basic idea of what a smile was supposed to be, but was terrible in the execution.

“Isn’t this fun?” she asked before giggling creepily. “I get to be both. One side, both sides, fun sides. Whatever happens, I get to play. And nobody,” she leaned closer, putting a finger to her lips. “Shh. Nobody else gets to know. Don’t want you spoiling my secret fun. That’d be really, really mean.”

“But how—you can’t—” I would have stammered a little more, but a distant, agonized cry drew my attention past the three of them. God, it sounded even worse by that point, and I blurted, “Roxa!”

Reflexively, I started to take a step around the three, drawn by the horrible scream of pain. But Pace was suddenly right in my face. She gave a hard shove that knocked me backward a step while blurting, “No! Bad present! You can’t see her now, the other one isn’t done making her change yet, and we promised she’d be alone the whole time. You don’t wanna make liars out of us, do you? Rude Present.”

“Stop calling me Present!” I blurted, bringing my staff up. “And what do you mean, making her change? You–” My eyes darted from the werewolves to the spot in the distance where the sound was coming from, and then I made a horrified noise as the truth dawned. “Oh—oh god, no, you didn’t–”

Pace gave a loud, rather terrifying laugh at that. “Isn’t it funny?! She can be a wolfie too, but not like me. Not like me, cuz she doesn’t have my toy.” Her finger flicked at the choker on her neck. “So they’ll know. They’ll know when they see her. Cuz she doesn’t have the secret-keeper. So they’ll see her and kill her. Won’t that be funny? They get to kill the girl they were supposed to train to kill Strangers!”

“Oh yeah,” I agreed. “It’s hilarious. Just one thing though.” Abruptly and without any other warning, I brought my staff up and around as hard as I could, triggering the kinetic charge. It took Pace in the face, knocking her head sideways as she was sent hurtling backward ten feet to hit the nearest tree.

The other two werewolves lunged for me, crossing the distance between us terrifyingly quickly. But I was ready. Rather than facing them head on, I simply took one step back. My foot came down on the root of the tree behind me, and I instantly merged myself into the wood. A thought sent me flying up and through the rest of the tree, over the branch above before I leapt from that tree to the one that Pace had been thrown into. Merging with that one as well, I sent myself down from the branch to the trunk.

The girl was just picking herself up when I reached the spot behind her. Leaning out of the tree, I brought the staff up and around. All I had to do was put her on the ground and get the choker off of her.

I wanted to help Roxa, but first I had to get the thing that was somehow letting Pace hide in plain sight without anyone realizing that she was a werewolf. If these monsters had really turned Roxa, she needed a way to hide it. I owed her that much, since it was my fault she’d been dragged here in the first place.

Unfortunately, Pace clearly didn’t agree. And she wasn’t nearly as stunned as she should’ve been. Before my staff got anywhere near her head, the other girl pivoted while ducking, moving so fast she was a literal blur of motion. The staff whiffed where she had been, before the girl lashed out with a punch toward my stomach. I tried to twist aside, but all I managed to do was take the hit in my side.

It hurt. I yelped, even as her strong hand took hold of my bicep and yanked me hard. So hard, in fact, that I heard something snap as a sharp shock of pain lanced up through my arm. Then I was thrown to the ground while the girl brought her foot back to kick me, sending even more pain through me. “Bad Present!” she shouted, already drawing her foot back to kick me again. “That’s a bad, bad Present!”

Before she could finish that kick, however, the big guy interceded. His hand caught Pace, yanking her back away from me. “That’s enough. We have other things to do. Things I need you for.” He looked toward the skinny blond guy, the one who had been silent up to then. “Valentine can deal with her.”

But Lemuel,” Pace whined. “I wanted to make her a present for Doxer, remember? He’s my friend.”

The big werewolf, Lemuel apparently, looked like he was about to tear her head off for arguing with him but visibly restrained himself after a second. “Fine,” he gritted out before speaking to Valentine.”Don’t kill her. Hurt her, cripple her, whatever you need to do to subdue her. Make sure she won’t fight back. Then wrap her up. Meanwhile, Pace and I will take care of that… other thing. Got it?”

“Ayup,” the other male werewolf replied in a slow, easy drawl. “Ah got it. Hurt, cripple, don’t kill.”

“She’ll heal fast,” Lemuel reminded him. “So don’t worry about how much damage you’ve gotta do to put her down for awhile. As long as she survives, she’ll bounce back from it. Other than that, have fun.”

Pace blew me a kiss then. “Have fun playing with Valentine, Present! We’ll see you real soon, okay?”

I tried to scramble back to my feet, ignoring the pain in my arm as it began to heal. But even as I clambered my way up, the other two were already shifting into their wolf forms. “Pace!” I shouted, trying to find a way to make the girl stay longer, long enough to get that choker off of her neck.

Too late. The two of them were gone, bounding off into the giant woods. Valentine, tilted his head hard from one side to the other, cracking his neck each time. “Well, Ah guess it’s you and me now, Heretic-kid,” he murmured thoughtfully in that slow drawl of his. “Ya wanna jest lay on down on that ground there an’ let me break a couple legs so ya stay that way, or do we gotta do this the real hard way?”

Gripping my staff with the hand of my good arm, I focused on the man even as yet another scream of agony in the distance reminded me that, even if I couldn’t catch up with Pace, I still had to get to Roxa. “I’ve been told that I’m really bad at doing things the easy way,” I informed him. “It’s kind of a thing.”

“Ah’ll teach ya,” he informed me with a small smirk. Then he took a step to me, his body already shifting once more. This time, rather than shrinking into the shape of a wolf, he grew, adding a foot of height and a lot more muscle while fur sprouted over his body. His head contorted, turning into a half-wolf shape with a muzzle full of sharp teeth. This was the werewolf’s battle form, a halfway point between wolf and human that gave them most of the advantages of both and was incredibly strong.

He came at me, and I launched myself sideways, using a burst from my staff to move faster. Even then, it was a close call, as the big werewolf tore through the air right where I had been a second earlier.

He spun around almost as quickly. Before I could even think about going on the offensive, the werewolf was coming at me again. He lashed out with an arm, long claws sliding out of his fur-covered hands. With a yelp, I ducked the first swing and the blow took a solid chunk out of the tree behind me.

The man followed up with a swing from his other hand. That one I managed to deflect with my staff, using a burst of energy from it to smack into his incoming arm and knock it aside. Even then, with the assist from the kinetic charge, the blow from the werewolf almost knocked the staff from my hand.

Then his foot came up and kicked me in the chest. The air rushed out of me as I was launched backward against the tree. Just before I would’ve hit, I regained enough sense to merge with the wood.

I could run, throw myself out of the other side of the tree and find Roxa. But Valentine would follow me, and I had no way of throwing him off. Especially since he’d know exactly where I was going.

So no, I had to deal with this guy before I could help her. But how? My arm was still in pain despite the healing, and it was going to take too long to get back to decent shape. And even if it had been, I wasn’t sure I could take on a full grown and trained werewolf, especially on his home turf. This was bad.

Still, I had to try. Roxa was in even worse trouble than me. Sending myself up to one of the lower branches, I aimed for the werewolf before launching myself out toward his head from above.

He saw me coming almost too late, head snapping up as he swept a hand into the path of my staff to stop it from hitting his face. I triggered the concussive charge anyway. The blast snapped the figure’s head back, and I was rewarded with a yelp from him that time as he staggered a step or two backward.

Then I was on the ground in a crouch. Before the werewolf could recover, I snapped the staff up, aiming for the special place between his legs. Considering his lack of clothes, it was an obvious target.

Except he had recovered. His foot lashed upward, kicking my staff off target so that it whiffed through the air once more. Hell, that casual kick nearly knocked the weapon out of my hand completely.

Before I could move again, the wolf-man came in hard and fast. His claws tore through my shoulder, drawing a deep line of blood that I distantly felt through the adrenaline that was fueling me. At the same time, I managed to slam my staff into his snout, knocking two of his teeth out in the process.

Unfortunately, that just pissed him off. Valentine snarled before launching a series of attacks. I managed to block or avoid most of them, but the ones that hit really hurt. I was bleeding from half a dozen places, my arm still hadn’t fully healed, and I was pretty sure that a couple of my ribs were at least cracked if not outright broken from the earlier kick. There was a sharp pain whenever I breathed.

Worse, when I hit the ground from the last blow and rolled over onto my side with my staff up, the wolf-man just smiled at me, showing his returned teeth in his perfectly healed mouth. All of that, and he was fine. The damn werewolf just healed entirely too quickly for me to do any real damage to him.

Fuck, I needed silver to do any real lasting damage to this asshole. But where could I get it?

“Ya tired yet?” he asked mockingly while he stood over me, his voice a deep, extremely guttural growl that was almost unrecognizable as speech unless I really focused on understanding it. He sounded like someone sarcastically impersonating Christian Bale’s Batman voice to make it even more absurd.

I made a motion as though trying to push myself up, then slumped with an exhausted groan while letting the staff roll out of my loose grip. Turning my head to the dirt, I murmured under my breath.

“What was that?” Valentine demanded in that gutter growl while reaching down for me. “Speak up.”

Rolling over abruptly, I answered, “I said, ‘Come closer, assface.’”

Because I wasn’t tired, not at all. Hurt, yes. Tired, no. The Amarok’s power had made sure of that. But it was a different power that I had been focusing on: the one that I’d absorbed from the Harabeold. As I rolled over, my hand came up and opened, revealing the small plastic film canister that I’d pulled from my pocket. My thumb flicked the lid off, revealing the contents: sand. Yeah, Columbus and Avalon hadn’t had time yet to finish making my special container that would carry a lot more of the stuff. So all I had was this tiny bit that barely amounted to a handful.

But it would do. Before Valentine knew what was happening, I sent the sand up into his eyes and nose. Sure, there wasn’t a lot of it. But even a little bit of sand directly in your eyes and nose is disorienting, especially if you’ve got a wolf’s senses.

I had my weapon back in my hand and was on my feet again while the werewolf recoiled and howled from the sand blinding him. Pointing the staff at the ground, I made two quick mines before calling, “Hey, didn’t you hear me? I said, ‘come closer, assface!’”

He roared, taking a quick step my way with his hand raised. I was pretty sure he’d forgotten about the ‘keeping me alive’ part, because that swing probably would’ve taken my head off.

Except that one step brought him right onto the two mines that I’d put down, and the resulting blast tore him off his feet, sending him flailing and howling in agony.

I kept up the pressure, coming after him with an overhead swing from the staff that caught him in the throat, then another before he could recover from that one. The third blow, however, was intercepted by a wild, blind swing that sent me tumbling toward the bushes.

Fuck, fuck, fuck. I had the advantage, but I was going to lose it if this went on any longer. I just couldn’t do enough damage to keep the bastard down! I didn’t have anything silver on me, which was an oversight I vowed never to repeat.

Valentine was swiping at the sand in his eyes. I was trying to move it around, keeping him busy a bit longer, but it was getting harder. I hadn’t had much sand to begin with. Whatever I was going to do, it had to be fast.

Just as I had resigned myself to simply trying to hit him even harder, a noise in the bush I’d fallen near caught my attention. My head snapped that way, and I saw… the monkey from earlier.

“Wha–” I managed, just as the thing sprang forward. I jerked back in surprise, a yelp escaping me.

But the monkey wasn’t attacking. Instead, it landed right beside me before holding something up to me. My gaze focused on it… but my brain didn’t believe my eyes.

It was a dagger. A small, unimpressive looking dagger… that was made of silver. It was a silver dagger.

“What are—how–” I started, but the monkey just hissed at me warningly before shoving the dagger closer. Obediently, I snatched the weapon and pushed myself up. I didn’t know. I just had no idea. But I also wasn’t going to argue. Not right then.

By that point, Valentine was on his feet as well. “Aight,” he drawled. “That’s enough o’that.”

He came at me, still mostly blind as I hid the dagger behind my back while holding the staff with one hand.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It is.” Rearing back with the staff, I triggered the last of the concussive charge on it while throwing the thing like it was a javelin. At the same time, I threw myself backward into the nearby tree, once again merging with it.

My staff released its kinetic charge directly in Valentine’s face, the sand having sufficiently blinded him to the incoming threat until it was too late. The blow snapped his head back… just as I launched myself out of the lower branches of the tree with the dagger held out.

I collided with the larger figure, stabbing as hard as I could into his throat while the air was knocked out of me from the impact. There was a roar of pain and I felt his claws dig deep into me. But I held on, wrapping one arm around the back of his muscular, furry neck while stabbing that small dagger everywhere I could. He was howling and I was screaming.

Finally, we hit the ground together. For a moment, there was no movement, no sound, nothing. His howls had gone silent, turning into simple gurgles.

With a groan of pain, I rolled off him. My whole body hurt, and it was all I could do to lift myself up. I stared at the werewolf while his suddenly terrified eyes stared right back at me. He didn’t seem scary then. He seemed completely surprised as blood from half a dozen stab wounds poured out of his throat and upper chest.

His mouth opened to say something, but no sound emerged. He couldn’t speak. Then the figure gave one last spasm before his head fell.

The sudden pleasure that shot through me was evidence enough that he wasn’t faking. He was dead. I had killed a werewolf, with the help of the little monkey that… was gone. When I looked to where it had been, the creature wasn’t there anymore.

Roxa. As sore and injured as I was, as long as it was going to take even the enhanced healing that I had to fix everything wrong with me by that point, I still had to find her.

Pushing myself into a somewhat staggering run, I followed the same path that I’d been on before. Another scream spurred me onward.

Less than a minute later, I half-stumbled into a small clearing, just in time to see the sweat-soaked and red-faced blonde girl arch her back as a terrifying scream escaped her once more.

God… god, she looked bad. Roxa was half-changed. She looked like some terrifying combination of wolf and girl, with fur sprouting in blotchy spots over her skin. One of her legs had fully changed, while the other was still contorted outward with the bone visible. Her head was twisted in what looked like a completely unnatural position, and as I stared for a second, her jaw pushed out another inch as more of her snout formed.

Pace, Lemuel, and Valentine had changed in a few seconds, with no apparent pain at all. But this… this first change was taking forever. I remembered something about the first change taking about an hour to get through. And unlike the subsequent changes, they felt each and every agonizing alteration as their body shifted from human to wolf.

Her eyes closed, and the girl spasmed again, giving a shriek of torment that shook me. She didn’t even know I was there, or that anyone was. The poor girl was too lost in her misery.

“Roxa!” I blurted, flinging myself that way, my own pain forgotten as I fell to my knees by her. “It’s okay, you’re okay. I’ve got you, I’ve got you.” Even as I said it, however, I felt the doubt. How? How could I help her get through this? What was I supposed to do?

What… was I… supposed…. to do?

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Interlude 13B – Roxa

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July 1st, 2010

“Damn it, get your ass back here! Stop!” The angry voice was accompanied by the sound of running footsteps, two sets of heavy ones that were accompanied by as much panting as they were annoyed shouting, and one set from someone who was much smaller, in better shape, and less prone to yelling.

Through the shadowy mists of the late-night air, a small blonde girl appeared from around the corner of a building. She was sprinting full-tilt while carrying a heavy backpack that bounced against her with each step. She wore ill-fitting pants that were held up by a rope belt, and she wore a dark green army jacket that fairly well dwarfed her diminutive figure. The girl’s face was streaked with mud and dirt.

Within the girl’s next few steps, her pursuers came into sight from around the same building. Two uniformed police officers stumbled a little and bent over to pant heavily for a couple seconds before focusing on the girl. One shouted a curse, calling her a name that she was pretty sure no adult, let alone a police officer, was ever supposed to call a kid. Both set out after her again, their growled threats about how much trouble she was in contributing nothing toward their goal of actually convincing her to stop.

Roxa Pittman didn’t look back, didn’t slow down, and certainly didn’t even think about stopping. Instead, she continued to run down the dark California street, straight toward the nearby beach. Soon, the sound of her rapid footfalls changed from cement to the creaky wood of the pier. It protested even more as her pursuers made it onto the dock as well, and the three of them kept running toward the end.

“Give it the fuck up, you stupid little bitch!” One of the cops shouted furiously. “It’s the end of the god damn line, you don’t have anywhere else to go! I swear to god, if you don’t stop making me run, I’m gonna kick your skinny little ass so hard you won’t be able to sit down again for a fucking week!”

He said some other things, him and his partner, but Roxa had already tuned them out. She focused on running, on making it those last few steps. One foot, then another, just keep going. As the girl approached the end of the pier, she didn’t slow down. In fact, she pushed herself to go even faster.

“Aww fuck, no! Don’t you even think about it! I will beat you until your own mother doesn’t recognize—don’t do it! Don’t you fucking do it!” The cursing man lunged at the last second, fingers grasping.

Too late. Roxa took a step while shifting the heavy backpack off her shoulders. Through the next step, she flung the pack out as hard as she could. And after one final step, with the nearest cop’s fingers brushing slightly through her hair, she leapt off the edge of the pier as well. Tucking and turning in midair, the young girl dropped herself into a perfect dive straight down off, dropping twelve feet before hitting the water smoothly while the sound of the cops shouting behind and above her was cut off.

They were shining their flashlights down over the water, but Roxa didn’t rise to the surface. Instead, she simply shook her army coat off before swimming deeper. She continued downward, legs kicking behind herself as she made her way toward a cluster of mossy boulders a short distance from the pier.

It took almost thirty seconds for the girl to reach the boulders. As dark as it was, she had to go mostly from memory, and almost missed it. Once her grasping hand brushed the edge of the outer-most rock, she scrambled back that way and felt her way down to the very bottom of the middle boulder. There was a hole there, just big enough for the girl to squeeze her way into. By that point, her lungs were screaming at her. Turning onto her back, Roxa wormed her way through the hole while simultaneously sitting up. The very top of her head emerged into a small pocket of open air, and she nearly banged her head off the rocky ceiling. There was only enough room for about half of her head to be out of the water, but the air pocket itself ran all the up through to a couple small holes in the part of the rock that stuck out of the water. Roxa was able to tilt her head back to get her mouth all the way out of the water and took a deep, gasping breath before shuddering. Then she just sat there, panting for a few seconds.

Once she’d caught her breath somewhat, Roxa shifted to a slightly more comfortable position in her hidden underwater cave that was barely big enough for her. Then she settled in to wait, eyes closing.

Ten minutes passed before she felt comfortable enough to believe that the cops had given up and moved on. She counted off the seconds, all six hundred of them. Then the ten-year old took one more deep breath before eeling her way back down and out of her hidden air pocket. Once she was out and back into the open ocean, Roxa worked a small underwater flashlight out of one pocket and shone the light around the area between the rocks and the pier. Seeing nothing at first, she rose to the surface to breathe again while also looking tentatively out to the pier itself, ready to dive once more if need be.

No one was there. The cops had already moved on. Smiling a little, the girl dove down again. It took a couple more trips like that, up and down, before she finally found what she was looking for: the backpack. Grasping it in one hand, Roxa kicked her way back to the surface one last time before striking out for the beach. Considering how soaked she was, it was cold, even in the California summer air. She was shivering as she climbed out of the water and shook herself off. Nearby, the jacket that she had tossed away had already washed to shore, and she grabbed the sodden thing. After tucking it under one arm, she turned and hurried under the end of the pier that was attached to the land. Crawling into the small area there, she leaned as far as she could before snagging hold of a second, much dryer and lighter bag. This one had a change of clothes and a towel in it.

Once she had the bag of fresh clothes at her feet, Roxa glanced around again to make sure no one was around. As late as it was, that area of the beach was completely deserted. Still, she hurried through drying off and changing her clothes before shoving the wet ones into the bag the dry ones had been in.

Fully changed, the girl picked up both packs, slinging the heavy one over her back before simply carrying the other by the strap. Then she gave one last look around before jogging down the beach.

Fifteen minutes later, the girl made her way into an alley that was barely noticeable from the outside. The opening was mostly covered by a chain-link fence that wasn’t actually attached, but could simply be pushed out of the way. Even as she came into hidden area beyond, several sets of eyes were watching her apprehensively. The alley was full of homeless people, mostly older people. All of them were jumpy, and the sound of the fence being moved had them tense. But when they saw who was there, they all settled once more. A few called soft greetings to the girl, while one woman gave a merry, “Happy birthday!”

It wasn’t Roxa’s birthday. But then, Millicent greeted everyone by wishing them happy birthday, no matter who they were, whether she knew them or not, or what day it actually was. For the old woman, every day was everyone’s birthday. And she loved to give presents. Most of them were simple little crafts consisting of whatever she had been able to pick out of the garbage that day, but Roxa still treasured them.

Shifting the heavy pack off her shoulders, she unzipped it before stepping over to the nearest person. She didn’t know the man that well. He was old enough to have a face that was completely lined with thick wrinkles, and his hand shook a little as he waved at her. Roxa smiled slightly at him before reaching into the bag. Her hand found a can of ravioli, and she held it out to him. After a momentary hesitation brought on by a combination of pride and not wanting to take her food, the man accepted it.

One by one, Roxa made her way through the crowd while emptying her bag of stolen groceries. She handed out cans of food, meat, and fruit, as well as a few packs of hot dogs that she’d managed to snag. Beyond that, she also gave out medicine, mostly for headaches and other pain killers. But there was also cold and cough medication to help Cara, and some rash ointment for poor old Eugene.

Finally, her bag was pretty much empty. Roxa took the other one with her clothes and made her way to an out-of-the-way corner where a little sleeping bag had been set up with a set of boxes surrounding it. Tossing both bags down, she settled herself in while taking the last item out of the bag of stolen groceries: a can of chili. Popping the lid off, she reached around in her sleeping bag until she found an old metal spoon before starting to dig in.

After only a single bite, a mangy old tan dog, some kind of Cocker Spaniel/Labrador mix came nosing around. He looked up at Roxa, giving a little uncertain whine of hunger.

She hesitated for a second, looking at her can of food, her dinner. Her empty stomach growled warningly. But she ignored it, leaning over to empty about a third of the can out onto the ground. “There you go, buddy,” she offered. The dog hurriedly began to lap up the chili from the ground, and Roxa smiled before sitting back. Working her spoon through the can, she took a bite for herself before murmuring appreciatively. As hungry as she was, even the cold chili tasted incredible.

Roxa had never really known her real family. Her father was in prison for killing her mother’s sister, and her mother herself had died when she was still a toddler. Ever since then, the girl had been bounced around between various foster homes. None of them stuck, though some were worse than others. The last one had been the final straw. The man there had been a real creep who smacked his wife around whenever the kids were too loud. When he’d gone as far as trying to touch Roxanne, the then-nine-year-old had grabbed a nearby kitchen knife and stabbed him in the arm with it. Then she ran, while the man bellowed about how he was going to call the cops and get her sent to prison like her daddy.

Ever since then, Roxanne (now Roxa), had been living on the street, avoiding the police. She didn’t stay very long in any one place. The month that she had spent here was the longest she’d spent anywhere. And the girl knew she’d have to move on soon. The people here liked her well enough, but it still didn’t quite fit. They weren’t family. They weren’t… exactly right.

She didn’t know what she was looking for, but she did know she’d find it if she kept looking.

******

Present Day (Very early Friday, November 24th, 2017)

In the end, Roxa had found the place where she belonged. She had been recruited by Crossroads right out of her beach-front tent where the seventeen-year-old had been teaching herself math using an old laptop. She had scavenged the thing out of the trash and paid one of the more tech-minded street people to fix it for her by getting him enough candy to give himself cavities in every single tooth he still had.

Professor Pericles had been the one who found and talked to her, who had given Roxa an actual purpose. He had brought her to Crossroads, had given her the medicine that let her temporarily remember things that the Bystander Effect should have erased. The medicine was a brief measure, used to allow new Bystander recruits to make an actual informed choice about whether to join the school or not. If they chose not to, the effect wore off and they were sent home without any memory of any of it.

But Roxa had stayed. Of course she had. This was where she belonged. Saving people? Taking down monsters? Living on an island with the most perfect surf she’d ever seen in her life? She was home!

Except… now she wasn’t. Now… she had no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there. One second she had been teaching that cute new boy Tristan how to windsurf, while Gidget (her mechanical cougar/hoverboard) stayed on the beach and watched them carefully. In the next second, she was suddenly falling. Before she had even been able to do more than start to cry out, Roxa’s side had hit a tree branch hard enough to knock the breath from her. She had smacked into the tree a couple more times on the way down, before hitting the ground hard enough to snap her arm in several places while simultaneously knocking herself unconscious for a few minutes.

Or maybe it had done worse than that. Roxa wasn’t sure, because when she came to, there was blood all over the tree and ground. Her body felt fine, thanks to the regeneration effect from the Peridles, but all that blood…

At first, the groggy blonde had thought that she was in the jungle on the island. But that wasn’t right. First of all, the trees were entirely too huge, towering far higher than any real tree should. Not to mention the fact that, pretty as the jungle was, Roxa was positive that it didn’t look like this.

Then there was the fact that, as dangerous as the jungle was supposed to be, she was pretty sure there weren’t supposed to be centaurs in it.

Yeah, centaurs. But they weren’t the cool, majestic horsemen that she’d always thought of them. These were more like beasts. Their human torsos were covered in a light hair, they had long thick beards, and as soon as they had seen her picking herself up while staring at them, they had opened fire with their bows. Roxa would have been speared through by half a dozen arrows in the first few seconds if her acquired super-speed hadn’t kicked in. She had flung herself out of the way before deciding discretion was the better part of valor and took off.

The centaurs had chased for awhile, but while they were faster than most horses and could probably hit speeds of forty to fifty miles per hour, Roxa could hit sixty. In the end, she managed to escape, hiding behind the crook of a tree while the herd went thundering past her before she set back the other way.

And now… now she was lost. She was lost and had no idea where she was going or what she should do. The truth was, she couldn’t do much. She had no weapon, she was wearing nothing more than a bikini and a pair of surf shoes, and there was no way for her to contact Crossroads.

Where was she? What was going on? Despair and confusion threatened to overwhelm her, but Roxa fought it back. No. She would not freak out. She’d been on her own before, plenty of times. She had grown up on her own. She could figure this out. She refused to be a victim. She hadn’t let it happen while she was a child, and she sure as hell wouldn’t let it happen now.

Someone would find her. The headmistress, one of the teachers, they wouldn’t just abandon her. All she had to do was survive until they arrived. Which meant that she needed a way to defend herself.

The arrows that the centaurs had shot at her. She could use those, assuming she could find her way back to where she had been…

She set out that way, but had only taken a few steps when a low chuckle interrupted. The laugh was dark, and seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, echoing through the heavily-shadowed forest. Roxa spun one way toward where she thought the chuckle was coming from, only to catch a hint of movement from the corner of her eye that made her jerk back the other direction.

That happened several more times, the girl whipping her head every which way to try to follow the sound of the chuckle as it kept changing direction. Finally, it stopped completely. Roxa stared at the last spot it had been coming from and took a tentative step that way before abruptly spinning around to face the opposite direction.

A wolf sat there only a few yards away, regarding her with obvious amusement. And as soon as her eyes fell on the thing, Roxa’s Stranger sense started to scream a warning at her.

She took a step back, but the wolf rose. In the same motion, it began to change. The thing grew and shifted, skin and bones snapping and cracking while the fur retracted. Within a few seconds, an enormous dark-skinned man stood naked in front of her. Somehow, he seemed no less intimidating than he had as a wolf.

Then he gave a humorless, entirely predatory smile. “Well hello there, little Heretic girl. Don’t you look scrumptious.”

Roxa watched him for a moment, then spun to run away. Sixty miles per hour, she could outrun him, she could–

One step in, and the man’s hand closed around her arm. He turned, flinging her hard to the ground behind him. The girl hit the dirt and rolled painfully, feeling something in her arm snap once more from the impact.

“Where ya goin’?” The werewolf taunted. He stepped over while Roxa was still recovering. Before she knew what was happening, the man brought his foot down heavily on one of her legs. His strength was enough to break the bone in two different places in that single stomp.

She cried out, and he repeated the gesture with the other leg before giving her a kick that knocked her from her stomach onto her back. His voice was a snarl. “We’re just getting started, kid.” His hand snagged her by the throat, and he lifted her off the ground with a smirk. “I haven’t even begun to have fun with you yet.”

He leaned in close, his teeth bared as he stared directly into her eyes for a few seconds. “My pack calls me Lemuel. Not that a name is going to do you much good, my delicious little morsel. You–”

She head-butted him directly in the nose. As the wolf-man recoiled with a surprised yelp, Roxa fell to the ground, landing on her backside. She twisted, grabbing a heavy rock from nearby. Bringing it up in both hands, she slammed the stone hard into the sensitive bits between the naked man’s legs that were dangling directly in front of her.

The wolf-man collapsed, groaning in pain. Roxa rolled over. She couldn’t run away, not on her injured legs. They were healing, but it would still take too long to get far enough away that the werewolf couldn’t find her. Their senses of smell were too good. No, she had to finish this.

Still holding the heavy rock, the girl pushed herself up near where the man had fallen. He was already starting to recover, but she brought the rock hard against the side of his head. The blow simultaneously knocked the man back down with a grunt and broke the rock into two pieces.

He was dazed but already recovering, his own healing and toughness making it hard to hurt him in any lasting capacity. But Roxa didn’t let up. Taking the largest piece of rock that remained, she aimed the jagged edge where it had broken directly at his exposed throat and began to drive it down with a scream.

An instant before she would have connected, something hit Roxa hard from the side. She was knocked onto her back, the rock flying away. For a few seconds, the girl was too dazed and in pain to realize what had happened.

Then her eyes opened, and she thought she was seeing double. Two more wolves stood there, stalking toward her while baring their teeth.

No, there were two more wolves. One of them had hit her, knocking her off of Lemuel before she could finish him. And now they were about to finish her.

“Enough,” Lemuel spoke and the wolves instantly stopped stalking toward her. The man was back on his feet. He glared at Roxa before smirking. “See? I have a pack. Friends. And you have…” He trailed off then, pausing before that smirk turned into a knowing grin. “Ah. Now there’s an idea.”

Roxa started to sit up, but the man snapped, “Hold her.” At his word, both wolves lunged forward. Each took one of her arms in its teeth, holding tight enough to hurt a little without actually breaking anything more than the skin. Still, her blood filled their mouths from the wounds, and they made appreciative noises.

She kicked out, but Lemuel stepped over and pinned both of her legs with one knee while dropping down in front of her. “Yes, that is an idea,” he murmured before holding up a single finger. “You see…” As he spoke, the fingernail elongated into a sharp, black claw. “Some people think that werewolves spread their… gift just by biting. That’s absurd. Do you have any idea how many people we bite? There’d be an epidemic. No. We have to purposefully share this gift with someone with a special little scratch.”

He wagged that claw back and forth in front of Roxa’s eyes. “Now, most people don’t survive the first change. That’s why we have to choose carefully. Your first change, that one… it’s nasty. Gets better, but the first one…” The man whistled low, demonstrating how bad it was before smiling. “Of course, we have family, friends, packmates there to help get the new recruit through it. Someone to hold onto you, coax you, protect you, give you food and water while you’re working your way through the worst.”

That smile turned vindictive as he drew the claw carefully down Roxa’s cheek before she could jerk her head away. “But you… well… you’re different.”

Standing up and brushing his hands off, Lemuel gestured. “First change takes about an hour. And it is going to be one of the most incredibly painful, torturous hours you could ever experience. Unlike us, you won’t have any friends, no one to help you through it. You will lie here and you will scream. Even if you make it through without that killing you… well, there’s lots of monsters in this here forest. And they’d love to find a tender little meal like you just… lying there… helpless… screaming from the agony.”

He shrugged then. “But hey, maybe you’ll survive the change. Doubtful, but maybe. Maybe you’ll somehow make it through with no one to help you, all alone out here. And maybe, maybe you’ll get even luckier and none of the monsters in this place will find you. Maybe you’ll survive the change and the forest itself.”

The two other wolves released her and retreated back behind the man while he smiled down at Roxa. “But you know what? Survive all of that, survive all of it, and you’ll still be one of us. You’ll still be a werewolf without a pack, without anyone.

“And all those little classmates, all those other Heretics, every last one of your so-called friends? Well, they’ll know what you are as soon as they see you. And they’ll kill you. You’ve got nothing, kid. Nothing but an hour of the worst pain of your life followed by a lifetime of being hunted by the people that were supposed to be your teachers, your mentors, your allies. So if the change doesn’t kill you… your friends will.”

With that, the man laughed once more. Then he turned and shifted, his body turning into a wolf once more. The three of them stared at Roxa like that before giving a trio of simultaneous howls.

Then they were gone, vanishing into the woods while Roxa felt the first spasm in her gut. She twisted, rolling even as her legs snapped out. The bones in all of her limbs simultaneously broke apart, the skin bulging up. A cry tore its way out of her throat as her vision blurred.

No. She would not be a victim. She didn’t care what the man said. She would not let him win. Never. Even as the pain shot through her, blinding her to everything else, Roxa held onto that one single thought.

She was not a victim. She would survive this. Somehow, someway, she would survive.

That thought filled her mind, and she clung to it like a life preserver in the middle of an ocean of agony.

And a few seconds later, her screams truly began.

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