Lesedi

Suspects 24-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So in the end, I just… talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was going to be a war.  

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Interlude 21 – Roxa

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For as long as she could remember, Roxanne ‘Roxa’ Pittman had been accustomed to eyes following her whenever she entered a room. As a child, she had been judged by the other orphans. With her pretty blonde hair and bright blue eyes, there had been plenty of others in the foster system who saw her as a threat to their own ability to be adopted. And of course, there were the parents themselves, people who were basically auditioning kids to be part of their family. Everything she said, everything she did, everything she was had constantly been judged.

Once she’d run away from her last foster family at the age of nine (after stabbing the abusive father with a knife when he tried to touch her), people had started watching Roxa for a variety of other reasons. She was a blonde girl out on the street. Some people watched her for… less than savory reasons, while others simply wanted to help. But their way of ‘helping’ was usually to call the cops. And the police would just take her back to the system that she’d already given up on.

Then there were the people who watched her not for either of those reasons, but because they saw a thief, a ratty, dirty girl out on the streets who stole from them. They saw her as something less than human because she had no roof over her head, no family to live with, no school to go to. They saw her as something to kick out of their stores, away from their paying customers and out from under their roofs. They watched her, judged her, and wanted to make her disappear.

The point was that throughout every ‘phase’ of her life, Roxa had been watched and judged by people who didn’t actually know her. Whether they thought she was a criminal, a potential daughter, a little thug who belonged in prison, or a clueless Silverstone in the case of her recent Heretic classmates, everyone had their opinion based on little more than looking at her.

And now… well, now she was still being watched and judged for several reasons. Some of them just as familiar as they had always been, while others were… somewhat new.

The door of the bar that Roxa stepped into had barely closed behind her when a massive form stepped into her path. Her head tilted up to find a big black guy, a few inches over six feet tall and built like a truck, standing there. He eyed her before rumbling, “Little young, aren’t ya?”  

“It’s my birthday,” she replied, hand smoothly tugging the driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. She held it up for the man to see the date, which proudly proclaimed her to be twenty-one as of that morning. It was a lie, of course. Well, mostly. Her birthday was that day, but she definitely hadn’t turned twenty-one. The fake ID was a few years off. She was actually eighteen.

“Well, happy birthday to you,” the bouncer announced, handing the ID back with a shrug. “But the dog can’t come in.” He jabbed a finger past Roxa, to the animal that entered alongside her.  

Roxa’s gaze followed his, and she glanced down to what looked, for the moment, like a rather large doberman. “Gidget,” she spoke easily, waiting for her hologram-covered robotic cougar to look up at her. “Wait outside, girl.” Gesturing back to the door, she repeated, “Outside.”

Gidget made a noise of disagreement, but turned and plodded back out the door before parking herself next to the entrance.

The bouncer looked like he was going to say something else about it, but in the end, he just grunted and stepped aside to let the girl walk past.

In the background, Roxa’s werewolf hearing picked up the mutter of a man describing what he’d like to do for her birthday. She ignored it, along with the chortles of his companions at the table.

Her attention, instead, was focused on the other end of the bar, where two pool tables were set up. Specifically, on the handful of men whose eyes had been on her since she entered. Like the others in the bar, they were judging her. But their judgment was very… very different.

The bar was busy, yet only those three were at the pool tables. Two-thirds of the bar was taken up by a couple dozen steadily-drinking customers, while the other third was taken up by these three men and the two pool tables. They used one, while their jackets lay over the other. None of the other patrons challenged that fact, or even approached. They knew better.

The pool-playing men’s eyes stayed on her as she approached, gazes never wavering. Three of them, all standing there with pool cues in hand as their lips tightened. Their senses were obviously yelling at them as much as Roxa’s had been shouting its warning in her ear from the moment she’d seen them.

One of the werewolves, a dark-skinned man with the tattoo of a bison on his exposed bicep half-muttered and half-snarled as she drew near enough, “You come in here to start shit, little baby Heretic, you might bite off more than you can chew. Maybe a hell of a lot more.”

“Give it another sniff, Vince,” one of the other men cut in. “She ain’t just a Heretic. Not unless they’ve been getting damn sight more accommodating than they used to be.” He gave her a long look then, eyebrows raised. “Close my eyes and use my nose, I smell a wolf. Open my eyes and ignore my nose, I see a Heretic. So which are ya really, kid? Heretic or wolf?”

For a moment, Roxa just looked at the man. He had red hair that had been fashioned into a simple crew cut, and was very slightly balding in the front. If he was human, she would have put his age at around forty-five. But for a werewolf, she had no idea. They aged slower than humans, that much she knew. But she wasn’t good enough to even make a wild guess.

Finally, as the man’s two companion (the black guy named Vince and another man with long dirty blond hair) pushed away from the pool table with hard looks, she responded. “Last time I checked, ignoring either your nose or your eyes was a bad idea. Why not listen to both of them?”

“A werewolf-Heretic,” the red-haired man muttered, head shaking slowly. “Now I’ve seen everything. Most times one of your kind get turned, his ‘friends’ make it a special a point to get rid of him. Or her. So why’re you special? And the point was, you here as what I can see, or here as what I can smell? Werewolf or Heretic, which one just walked into my favorite bar?”

“I’m not here to start a fight,” Roxa replied simply. “Does it really matter what I am beyond that? I’m just here to ask for information. Information that I can pay for.” From her pocket, she produced a roll of fifty-dollar bills, counting off four of them before putting them on the pool table. “For taking the time to talk to me. The rest of it if you answer my questions.”

The blond man, the only one who hadn’t spoken yet, snatched the money off the table and passed three of the four bills over to his obvious leader. “What do ya wanna know? Maybe then we decide if we wanna talk, or just take the population of Heretic-Wolves back down to zero.”

“A man named Lemuel.” Roxa watched each of their reactions closely. “I’m looking for him.”

The red-haired leader gave an obvious snarl. “You looking to join up with that bastard, pup, and we’ll have more problems than that wad o’bills you’ve got there can get your ass out of. His kind’s less welcome here than yours is. So if he’s the one you’re looking for, go on and piss off.”

Raising a single shoulder in a shrug, Roxa continued to meet the man’s gaze while casually replying, “I’m not looking to join him. I’m looking to kill him.”

That drew a laugh from the blond man, who ran a hand back through his long hair and gave her a mocking smirk. “Got news for you, pup, Lemuel’s pack’ll tear you down to the bones before you get within twenty feet of the old prick. You might think you’re hot shit cuz you’ve got werewolf mixed in with Heretic, but you ain’t nothing but a bug on a windshield to someone like Lemuel.”

“That’s enough, Silas,” the red-haired leader informed his subordinate before looking back to Roxa. “But he ain’t wrong. You go after Lemuel, his pack’ll take you apart. And if you’re looking for him, you came to the wrong bar. Wrong neighborhood. Wrong zip code. His kind ain’t welcome here. This is my territory, and I don’t like people like that fucking up the peace and quiet. Wolves like Lemuel and his kind, they draw attention. Attention we’d rather avoid.”    

Roxa’s head turned slightly, and she sniffed twice. Two more–no, three more werewolves had entered the room. She could smell one standing by the entrance that she had come in, while two others stood by the hall that led to the restroom and the emergency exit. Clearly, all three had been summoned as backup in case she started something. Six werewolves, all watching her every move, several of them itching for any excuse to put her down.

“I dunno, Tomas,” the black guy, Vince, remarked. “She might make a good recruit, if you talk her out of this suicide plan. Heretic-wolf on our side? Could add a lot of muscle to the pack.”

Before the leader, Tomas, could respond to that, Roxa shook her head. “Not interested. Like I said, I’m here for information. I just have one question. And that question is…” Holding up the wad of bills so that every wolf in the crowded room could see it, she finished, “Which one of you is working with Lemuel to kill Tomas and take over so that he can absorb your pack into his?”

Well, if she wanted to get their attention, Roxa sure succeeded then. Silas took a quick step forward. His hand caught her arm, while his other hand took her opposite shoulder. In an instant, Roxa was shoved hard up against the nearby wall with enough force to rattle it. “The fuck did you just say?” he snarled, showing teeth that went from human to sharp canine for a moment.

In the background, she saw a few of the patrons looking over at the disturbance. One stood up and made as though to approach, but the bouncer stopped him. Leaning closer to her would-be rescuer, he whispered something that was too quiet even for her hearing to pick up from across the bar.

The man who had stood up gave Roxa one more look, then made for the door. Around him, most of the other customers did the same. None looked at her, or so much as glanced in that direction. They all left, followed eventually by the bouncer himself. In the end, even the bartender made himself scarce through a door labeled as being for the staff.

Another wolf had entered in the interim. Seven of them. Seven wolves all standing at various parts of the room, and each of them staring at Roxa. One of whom still held her pressed against the wall, the sharp claws of his fingers digging painfully into her skin.

“I think,” Tomas started while moving behind Silas to lay a hand on the man’s shoulder, “that you should leave. Questioning my pack’s loyalty, not your best move, pup. But you walk out now without looking back, and I’ll let you go.” He paused, amending, “We will all let you go.”

Instead, Roxa watched the eyes of the man holding her. The words she spoke, however, were for Tomas. “I wasn’t questioning the loyalty of your pack. Only one of them. The one that’s been talking to Lemuel for the past week, making plans to kill you. Like I said, he kills you, takes over the pack, and Lemuel absorbs them into his own. He gets your territory, your people, and all it costs him are whatever it took to buy off whichever one of these guys is your personal Judas.”

Over the sound of the chorus of growls that came from every werewolf in the room, Tomas carefully, yet dangerously spoke. “Is that what I get for giving you a chance to leave? You’re still trying to make my people doubt each other? You the one working with Lemuel? That the plan? You come in, try to make us all start snapping at each other and then he picks up the pieces?”

Shifting as she was held against that wall, Roxa quietly asked, “Can I say one more thing?”

“Kid,” Tomas replied, “deep as the hole that you keep digging yourself into is, my suggestion is that you stop talking. But if you insist on going on with that shovel, I ain’t gonna stop you. Yet.”

Her head bowed in a nod. “Like I said. I just need to say one more thing. Namy, you done?”

While the wolves were trying to work out what that meant, the pixie in question flew straight down from the overhead light where she had been perched. “Yup! Nice distraction, Roxa.” She hovered down beside the blonde girl’s head, announcing, “We’re a badass, bitchin’ team.”

The other nearest wolf, Vince, grabbed for the pixie. But Roxa quickly slipped free of Silas’s grip. Twisting and ducking under his arm, she put herself between the black wolf and her diminutive partner, raising a hand to stop him. “Wait,” she snapped.

Her attention turned to Tomas. “My friend here did one thing while I was making sure that you called all these guys in to deal with me. She hacked their phones with this.” Holding her hand out, she waited for Namythiet to produce what looked like a simple red orb about the size of a tennis ball. The pixie simply pulled it out of the vastly smaller pouch at her waist, a simple feat for the race that had invented the extradimensional storage spaces that so many Heretics used to store things like their weapons.

Under the watchful, distrustful stares of seven werewolves, Roxa turned the orb over. There was a single button on the side. “See, Namythiet’s a Hephaestetical pixie. In other words, she really likes technology. And she’s really, really good with it. So like I said, she hacked their phones. And this thing,” she continued while tossing the orb up and then catching it. “Is gonna play back a very… special conversation that one of your people had on their phone a few minutes before I walked in here. You hear that conversation, then we’ll see whether I’m still your biggest problem.”

Tomas gave her a long, silent look for a moment before flatly insisting, “I trust my people.”

In response, Roxa’s thumb pressed the button on the orb. As she did, there was an audible click. Silas’s hand lashed out to smack the ball out of her hand, sending it across the room while the blond man himself backhanded her across the face with his other hand.

Yet even as Roxa hit the wall once more, with the other wolves lunging to get their piece of her, a voice filled the room from the orb, which had rolled under the nearby pool table.

“Tonight,” Lemuel’s voice insisted with obvious annoyance. “We’re not waiting around anymore. Get it done, or the deal’s off. You really think you can hold that pack together without my help? No more excuses. No more delays. Kill Tomas tonight, or he won’t be the one you have to worry about. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” a now-familiar voice replied. “I got it. He’ll be dead by morning, you have my word. Just stick to your side of the deal. I don’t wanna be fucked over when this is done.”

The recording stopped, and every eye in the room turned toward the source of that familiar voice.

“Vince,” Tomas spoke in a voice that was far more dangerous than any tone he had used with Roxa. “You wanna explain that one?”

The black werewolf’s head shook rapidly. “It’s a trick. It’s a trap. It’s a–” Abruptly, he spun. His hand lashed out, and Roxa barely had time to see a knife with a silver blade pop into his hand before it tore into Silas’s throat. He gave the suddenly-bleeding man a hard kick straight into Tomas before spinning back to sprint straight for the door that the bartender had gone through.

The rest of the wolves were caught flat-footed, shocked by their packmate’s sudden betrayal. They were so surprised, that Vince was able to make it through the staff door before anyone else moved.

Anyone, that was, except for Roxa. She was already on the fleeing werewolf’s tail, calling back, “Help him, Namy!”

Lunging up and over the bar, she went through the still-swinging door in time to see Vince crashing through another one at the far end that led out into the alley behind the bar.

In the alley, Vince was already yanking a motorcycle around that had been resting against the wall there. He glanced over his shoulder, gave her a dark glare, and then took off with a squeal of tires and the loud roar of the bike’s engine.

For most werewolves, that would have been the end of it. They were fast in human form, but not as fast as a motorcycle. And changing into wolf-form would’ve taken far too long, even for those who were very good at it.

But Roxa wasn’t most werewolves. She was a werewolf-Heretic. And the very first power, aside from the peridle’s healing ability, that she had absorbed during her time at Crossroads had been enhanced speed. It didn’t let her break the sound barrier, or even move as fast as a good car could get up to. But she could reach speeds approaching seventy miles per hour. And she put that speed to work catching up with the man on the motorcycle.

Whistling sharply, she sprinted after the fleeing figure. Vince hit the end of the street and took a sharp left, tires screaming in protest.  

Roxa, meanwhile, pivoted and ran straight for the nearest building. Summoning all the strength that she could, the girl leapt high enough to barely catch hold of the bottom of the fire escape. With a grunt, she hauled herself up and onto the metal railing there. Instead of continuing to climb that way, however, the blonde girl threw herself off the fire escape. Her feet landed on the edge of a windowsill further up, and she jumped from there back to the metal railing on the next landing up.

She continued that way, jumping from window to fire escape to climb much faster than simply using the stairs. With the shortcut combined with her own enhanced speed, the girl was on the roof of the building within a handful of seconds.

Hitting the roof, she took off to the other side, arriving just in time to see Vince far below as the man completed his turn around the corner and began racing away, perpendicular to the way he had been going before.

Roxa didn’t hesitate. Still sprinting, feet kicking up small pebbles from the roof, she leapt out into the open air. Her feet windmilled a few times as she soared across the width of the entire street, before landing on the roof of the building on the opposite side. She stumbled slightly, but caught herself, glanced down at the motorcycle on the street below, and kept running.

Still, despite her enhanced speed and elevated position, Vince was already pulling away. The motorcycle wasn’t stopped by traffic, able to weave in and out as needed, and could even leap onto the sidewalk where it needed to. Other cars, or even pedestrians, weren’t an issue. He was slowly, but steadily, pulling away.

But Roxa wouldn’t let that happen. Taking three more steps to the edge of the last building, she leapt off while giving another sharp whistle. Rather than jumping toward the next roof, she leapt down toward the fleeing motorcycle.

As she plummeted, Roxa saw a small metal figure racing along the road far below. An instant later, Gidget threw herself up, transforming in mid-air. The robot cougar shifted into her hoverboard form, flying straight up at an angle that let her intercept the blonde girl in mid-fall.

Catching herself on the board, Roxa angled to continue the chase. The board streaked down, pulling up a bare foot from the pavement before leveling out.

Now the motorcycle wasn’t nearly as much of an advantage. And despite the time that it had taken for her to join up with Gidget, Roxa had managed to stop Vince from gaining an insurmountable lead. He was only at the other end of the block when she got her board under control. And that distance was about to shrink rapidly.

A car was coming straight for her, horn blaring. Roxa simply angled her board up, flying slightly higher to go up and over. On the far side of the car, which was already screeching to a stop, she kept going without even glancing back.

Another car, weave to the right. Doing so put her right up against a moving truck, so she angled the board to ride along the side of it, even as Gidget put out straps to hold Roxa’s feet to the board so that she could fly along basically sideways without falling off.  

More cars, coming and going. None presented much of an obstacle for the combination of Gidget’s maneuverability and Roxa’s own reflexes. She flew around, over, and in the case of one particular semi-truck, under the vehicles without taking her eyes off of her quarry.

Through it all, she had no idea what the normal humans were seeing while this was going on. A particularly skilled skateboarder? What the hell was the Bystander Effect showing them?

She had no idea, and no time to worry about it. Angling  around another truck and onto a side street, Roxa barely managed to see the massive, gray-furred figure before it lunged at her. The thing was bigger than a normal human, it looked like what a normal human would call a sasquatch, an enormous furry form with long arms, thick fur, and a combination of nasty claws and teeth. It was clearly a werewolf in his half-wolf, half-man form.

Just as clearly, he had been waiting for Roxa. It wasn’t Vince. Even the fastest-changing werewolf wouldn’t have been able to switch that quickly from the time that she had lost sight of him. This was a different wolf.

Kicking off the board as the furry, overly-muscled figure lunged at her, Roxa threw herself into the air. She sailed over her attacker’s head, while Gidget flew under his outstretched arms.

Both landed on the other side of him. Roxa caught herself on her feet, while Gidget shifted into her cougar form.

The motorcycle had stopped, idling just down the street while Vince himself stepped off and shoved it aside. The man turned, glaring back at Roxa.

Meanwhile, the wolf-man was already facing her. Towering over the blonde, he showed his teeth and gave a chuckle. “Good dodge, girl,” he informed her, his voice thick with mockery.

“Not that it matters,” another voice cut in as a third werewolf stepped into view from the opposite side of the small, narrow side street, cutting off that avenue of escape as well.

“Yeah, what do you think of that, huh, cunt!?” That was Vince. The man stalked back over, his glare hateful and vindictive. “You really think Lemuel would just leave me by myself back there without having a couple watchers? Now you just–”

One of the other two werewolves, the one in human form, just looked at him. Vince immediately fell silent. Then the newcomer spoke. “You can fight if you want. But we outnumber you three to one. In the end, you’ll tell us everything we want to know about what the hell you’re doing here and what you want with Lemuel.” He smiled faintly. “I hope you try fighting. It’s more fun that way.”

“Your math’s a little wrong,” Roxa informed him, standing there with her guard up. “It’s not three on one.”

The man’s eyes flicked down toward Gidget, and he shrugged a bit dismissively. “If you want to count your little metal friend, be my guest. Three on one or three on two, it won’t help.”  

Slowly, Roxa shook her head. “I wasn’t talking about her. And it’s not three on two.”

From both sides of the street, more figures appeared. Wolves. Five of them.

“Actually,” the blonde girl continued almost conversationally as the rest of her pack stalked into view, surrounding the men who had thought that they were surrounding her.

“It’s more like six on three.”

******

“Sorry for giving your little pup there a hard time.”

About an hour after that little fight, Roxa and the rest of her pack were back in the bar. This time, the others were all in human form. The man speaking was Tomas. Beside him sat Silas. The blond man was still injured, since the silver from Vince’s blade wouldn’t regenerate the way most injuries did. But it had been bandaged up, and Namythiet had helped to make sure that the man didn’t bleed out before the man’s packmates could get to him.

“It’s all right,” Mateo replied, speaking up for his own pack. “The whole reason she came in here by herself was to draw attention. We had to give Namythiet over there a chance to get into their phones, and do it publicly so you knew what was going on. After that, we figured your traitor would run right to wherever his handlers from Lemuel’s pack were. Just had to make them believe that she was on her own so they’d show themselves.”

“You get what you needed from them?” Tomas asked before slowly turning to look at the far corner, where the unconscious, heavily injured form of Vince himself was trussed up. “Because I don’t mind asking my old friend a few more questions.”

“We got enough before his men died,” Mateo assured him. “We know where Lemuel’s pack is heading next. Which means we can get ahead of them.”

Tomas shook his head. “Still think you’re crazy, going after that psycho. I’ve got a hard enough time just keeping his bastards out of my territory.” His eyes glanced toward Vince again. “… though maybe I ain’t doing as good of a job on that as I thought.”

“Lemuel and his super-pack are a problem that’s not gonna go away,” Mateo intoned flatly. “They keep getting bigger. He’s snatching Alter and human kids, turning them, building his forces. He’s gonna keep expanding until someone stops him, until that pack gets broken up.”

For a moment, Tomas didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, hand Silas’s shoulder. Finally, he asked, “You asking for help, Mateo? Cuz I don’t have the freedom you’ve got. I can’t go traipsing all over the country hunting these guys down. My pack leaves here, and another one is gonna move into our territory. We live here. This is our home.”

Mateo shook his head. “Not asking you to wander around with us. Just asking you to be ready. If we can get Lemuel’s pack in open ground, find them in a good spot, we’re gonna need help. We’ve got Wonderland backing us up, but having another pack like yours, that’d be good too.”

Tomas was silent again. He seemed to be considering things for several long seconds before eventually letting out a long sigh. “Yeah,” he muttered. “If something ain’t done, that son-of-a-bitch is gonna ruin everything. And he already came after us once. Turned one of my own people, one of my friends.” Grimacing then, he nodded. “You find a good way of hitting them, get to a point where all you need is numbers, you let us know.”

The two pack leaders shook on it, before Tomas glanced to Roxa. “You ever get tired of running around with this guy, you let me know, pup. You’ve earned a place here. Heard you even killed one of those fucks yourself.”

It was true. Roxa had killed the one who had threatened her. And after doing so, she had absorbed some of his power. She was still a Heretic. A Heretic and a werewolf. What did that mean? Absorbing some of a werewolf’s power while she herself already was a werewolf? What would it do? 

Swallowing, she slowly shook her head. “Thanks, but I think I’m okay.”

Her eyes turned, taking in the sight of Fezzik gleefully poring over the jukebox with Namythiet’s help, a still-bloody Lesedi steadily drinking two of Tomas’s pack under the table, Hasty teaching three other wolves to dance while loudly bitching at Fezzik to pick a song and stick to it, and Corson playing cards with another wolf while trying to pretend that he didn’t know what he was doing.

“It’s like Mateo always says,” Roxa murmured mostly under her breath. “Pack isn’t just friends.

“It’s family.”

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Interlude 18A – Namythiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before it’s too late.”

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Mini-Interlude 10 – Mateo

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Mateo and Roxa interacting with the pack shortly after he introduced her to them. 

The rhythmic, somehow soothing sound of a basketball bouncing against pavement mixed with the shuffling of sneakers in a sort of orchestra of sounds that also included the occasional grunt, bang of the ball against a backboard or rim, and swish of the net.

And if those sounds were the music of the song, the trash talk was its lyrics.

“C’mon, you ain’t got nothing. Nothing. I’m gonna take the ball, toss it, and then put you through the net, midget.” The words came from an enormous Samoan man who appeared to be patient zero for the stereotype about his people being large. His face was fresh and smooth, his head entirely hairless. His shirtless torso rippled with muscles.

The other figure playing defense alongside the giant was a young black woman with short hair that had been dyed purple to match the color of the lenses in the sunglasses that she wore. She wore an Indiana Pacers jersey and running shorts. “Man, you better put it up!” she taunted their opponent while working for an opening. “Put up the rock! He gonna take it from ya! Strip it from ya like a hooker in a convent!”

The one with the ball wasn’t quite a ‘midget’ as the Samoan teased, though anyone seemed to be next to that giant. He was slightly under average height at five foot six, with red hair and a pale complexion that made him stand out whenever he went out in the South American city of Bogotá where they made their home.

He also gave as good as he got, firing back at the two defenders, “Maybe we could go up to that convent y’all keep talking about and get a couple of those nuns to play some decent D for you.”

The man-mountain took a step forward at that, moving to grab the ball from the small red-headed guy. Before his arm could come down, however, another figure blocked his way. Her dusky skin and long, luxurious dark hair currently tied into a ponytail betrayed her Hispanic heritage. She was, in fact, the only member of their group beyond the leader who had actually been born in Colombia.

“Just cuz they call you a mountain,” she informed the giant of a man after putting herself between him and her teammate with the ball, “doesn’t mean you always gotta move that slow.”

As the game continued that way, the two figures who stood at the edge of the court continued to watch. The male of the pair was clearly older, a thin and unassuming-looking Hispanic man who appeared to be in his early thirties and who would look perfectly at home sitting behind an accountant’s desk. His companion, meanwhile, was a teenage girl with blonde hair and a swimmer’s build.

“Can I ask you… I mean is it rude to ask—I mean is there a good way to…” the little blonde girl trailed off then, biting her lip indecisively as she struggled to find the right way to phrase her question.

Mateo Dias just smiled faintly, thinking back to the time that all her questions had been on the tip of his tongue. The awkwardness, confusion, even the fear. He remembered it all as if it had been yesterday.

Mierda, he still couldn’t believe it had been as long as it had. The memories and scars (even if they were emotional rather than physical ones) were still fresh enough to sting if he paid attention to them, like a physical burn that he couldn’t help but touch just to see if it was still painful.

“How did I get this way?” he offered easily while his eyes followed the path of the ball as it arced up to bounce off the backboard before dropping into the net. The score prompted groans and cheers from each pair of teammates. “How’d I become a wolf-man?”

The girl—Roxa, he reminded himself, flushed a little bit. “I mean, you don’t have to talk about it right now,” she quickly responded. “If it’s… just… rude or whatever.”

Mateo shook his head. “For some it is. Me—well, it was a long time ago. Back when it was a lot harder to find a date if you were…” He paused, glancing sidelong to the girl. “If you were gay,” he finished. “I was a teenager, just a dumb kid who thought I found the right guy to experiment with these new feelings I had. Turned out to be a bad choice. He was part of a super-religious pack of wolves who thought it was their calling to turn kids like me into soldiers for the faith. They called it education. It was torture and reconditioning. They tried to strip away the bits they didn’t like. Made boot camp look like paradise. It wasn’t a school, it was a torture camp.

“People thought they had a good success rate. Turns out, shock a kid’s genitals enough times when you ask him if he’s attracted to the picture of the naked guy you put up on the wall, and it doesn’t take long for him to figure out which answer you wanna hear.”

Roxa was staring at him in horror, her mouth open. “Oh my god. I—I didn’t—I’m sorry, I–”

“Like I said, it was a long time ago.” Mateo put a hand on her shoulder. “After a few weeks of games like that, they thought they had me broken. Say what they wanna hear, convince them you’re serious and you get fed. Even get a blanket to sleep with. Say anything wrong, let them think you’re still a nasty little sinner, and you get electro-therapy, poison food so you throw everything up until it feels like your stomach’s turning inside out, and… shit I’m not gonna tell you about. Point is, I played good little soldier for them, said what they wanted to hear. So they turned me, made me one of their wolf-troops. But as soon as I had a chance, I tore my recruiter’s throat out and took off.”

He gestured behind them at the tiny, unused church building where his pack had made their home. “Maybe that’s why I set up shop in this place. Felt like just another way of giving them the middle finger.” The thought made him smirk to himself before he nodded to the court. “I know you just made introductions yesterday, but you remember everyone?”

“Oh,” Roxa straightened with a nod. “Yeah, I think so. The um, the big guy’s Rangi, but he prefers Fezzik because he loves that one movie–”

The Princess Bride,” Mateo confirmed. “And yeah, might as well stick with Fezzik because he barely responds to the other one. Oh, and don’t even think about getting between him and the TV when Star Trek’s on. He may look like he eats linebackers from the American football teams, but he’s really a giant nerd.

Clearly snickering in spite of herself, Roxa continued. “His partner with the purple hair, she’s ummm…. ummm… Lesedi, right? From South Africa.”

“Right, those two are Fezzik and Lesedi. They usually work together whenever we have to go out in pairs. And the other two?”

“The red-head’s from Texas,” Roxa recited, thinking about it for a second. “His name’s… Corson? Franklin Corson, but it’s mostly just Corson.”

Nodding once again in confirmation, Mateo was about to say something else when the last member of their pack, the Colombian girl, called out to them while holding the ball under one arm. “Yeah, and I’m Hasty. Now you gonna hurry up and get in on this game or what?”

“You see why we call her that,” Mateo muttered an aside toward Roxa even as his own amusement made a smile pull at his lips. Her name wasn’t actually Hasty, of course. But it fit the girl more than her given name of Nicole did. She tended to act without thinking, rushing into things in ways that often got her in trouble. But she was loyal, and fierce.

Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty. Along with Mateo, they had been a pack for the past several years. There had been others, more before them, but between the Heretics, rival packs, and the actual Nocen (otherwise known as Alters who had gone completely dark and evil) that roamed the streets of Bogotá, they lost members more than he liked to think about.

And now they had Roxa. It was going to take the former-Crossroads student time to settle into the situation, he knew. Just like it was going to take the rest of the pack time to get used to sensing a Heretic whenever they saw her. But at least they were trying, on both sides. Which was good, because if this worked out, the girl would be an incredible asset to the pack. Especially considering the fact that she retained her Heretic-abilities.

“What do you think?” Mateo asked her with a little nudge. “Should we show these losers how to play some real BloodBall?”

“BloodBall?” Roxa echoed with a slight frown. “What’s that?”

Hasty smirked from the court. “What’s BloodBall? You know how they say, ‘no blood, no foul’? We take it a step further than that. No foul, period. If you’re not making the other team bleed, you’re not playing hard enough.”

Mateo clarified. “Since we heal everything anyway, we play hard and we hit hard. Full contact. You okay with that?”

For a second, Roxa seemed to be considering it. She shifted her weight a little, biting her lip before giving a short nod. “Okay. Sure. Might as well give it a shot.”

“Cool! Three-on-three!” Corson grinned, his pale face flushed from their work-out so far. “We’ll take the new girl. Shorty and the purple people-eater can take Mateo, since y’all need the help.”

“Shorty?” Fezzik demanded, obviously trying hard not to laugh. “Right, just because I can fold you into–”

That was as far as the big guy got before Hasty threw the ball to literally bounce it off his forehead. As Fezzik reeled from the blow, Corson lunged to catch the ball and did a quick alley-oop behind his back. As the ball neared the backboard, Hasty leapt, her enhanced werewolf strength carrying her high enough to catch the ball. By that point, Lesedi was already jumping to intervene. But Hasty put a foot against the other girl’s chest, kicking her down while tipping the ball through the hoop.

“BloodBall,” Mateo repeated for Roxa. “If it goes too far, hold a fist up. Means you need a second to heal or something’s wrong. Got it?” When the blonde nodded, he gave her a little push. “Great. See? Since you’re here, I actually get to play. You’re making good things happen already.”

His trio took the ball out then, tossing it in before working their way down the court. Mateo kept an eye on their newest recruit, but Roxa seemed to be doing just fine. Especially considering where she’d been. Every once in awhile, he caught either her or one of the pack staring at each other. Obviously, it was going to take some time for them to get used to the Heretic thing. But he trusted his pack. He had to. They weren’t just a family. They were both family and warriors. They depended on each other to survive. Which meant they had to trust every member to have each other’s back no matter what happened.

Thankfully, his pack had spent enough time around Sebastian that sensing Heretics wasn’t completely foreign to them. That helped enormously. He was pretty sure that if they hadn’t had that much familiarity at least, it would have taken much longer to get them to accept Roxa’s recruitment.

Shaking the thought out of his mind, Mateo gave the ball a hard pass straight through Corson’s outstretched arms and into Lesedi’s hands.

Catching the ball, the girl pivoted around on one foot while her other one lashed out to nail the incoming Hasty (who was living up to her name) in the side of the leg. The blow made her stumble with a wolf-like yip, and Lesedi took advantage to rush toward the net.

Roxa was the only one still in her way, and Lesedi smiled at the blonde. “Think I’m gonna take it easy on you just because you’re the rookie, Pup?”

Continuing to back up, giving ground as the black girl came closer, Roxa shook her head. “Nah, if you did, this’d just seem unfair.” As she finished speaking, the blonde girl gave a feint lunge forward before spinning around. She dropped to one knee, her other leg lashing out to sweep Lesedi’s out from under her. As the other girl hit the ground, Roxa caught the ball.

Then she was gone. Wolves were fast runners, even in their human form. But they were still bound by human speeds that way. Roxa, on the other hand, must have hit sixty miles per hour before she even reached the other side of the court. She tossed the ball up and through the hoop while everyone else was still realizing that she’d stolen the ball.

As the ball dropped to the ground, the girl caught it and turned to find the rest of the pack all staring at her. Her mouth opened and then she hesitated, looking unsure of herself. “Err, you did say full contact and power, right? That means… wait, did I… I mean… was that… shit, sorry I–”

Lesedi laughed, doing a quick kip-up to put herself back on her feet. “Good trick, Cub. But it ain’t gonna work again. We’re onto you now.”

Smirking a little, Mateo walked that way, holding his hand out for the ball. “No need to apologize. Like we said. Full power. Full strength. No fouls. You give as good as you get, you’ll fit in here just fine.”

Something damp was in Roxa’s eyes before she blinked it away and cleared her throat. She rolled the basketball over in her hands, then threw it to him. “Okay,” she said simply, though that one single word, ‘okay’ betrayed more emotion than he’d heard in some entire speeches.

Taking the ball out once more, Mateo watched the others. His pack. His people. Roxa would be one of them. He knew that just by looking at her. She belonged here. Belonged with them.

And he was going to make sure she knew that.

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