Mateo

Patreon Snippets 8 (Heretical Edge)

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Author note:  I have decided to present these particular snippets without a preface before each one spelling out what they are about/who they are focused on. This is for a couple reasons. First, each snippet flows into the next in a deliberate way which a note like that would interrupt. And second, I believe even without that, these snippets are better if you find out exactly what is going on as you read them. But I would definitely appreciate any feedback any of you might have as to how well that works. Thanks!  

Through an empty, long-abandoned building, six figures fled. Though the place should have been dark, the corridors they desperately raced along were lit by globes of fire, lasers that shot through the air after them, and other flashes of light which served mostly to illuminate the fact that the fleeing beings, though each shaped very differently, were all almost completely transparent.

As a species, they called themselves Sceyl. But most referred to them as Glasswalkers. The name came both from their ability to transport (as well as manipulate and shape) any and all forms of glass and similar transparent material, and from the fact that the Sceyl themselves quite literally looked like living, moving glass sculptures. Their own shapeshifting ability meant that they varied wildly in size and shape, from small figurine-sized beings who looked like ballerinas, cats, horses, or other animals, all the way up to enormous hulking (yet still clearly glass-like) troll or ogre-shaped humanoids. No two Sceyl looked much alike, aside from their transparent body structure. They considered it offensive to copy each other, and always sought to make themselves look unique in some way.

The potential for evil, for the most part, existed in all species. And the Sceyl were no different. Some of their people who would be called Nocen even took on the forms of various weapons and allowed themselves to be used by others, purely to be directly responsible for deaths and destruction.

Yet, the group running frantically through this particular abandoned building were not those types. They were simply a group of travelers, heading for a gathering of their people on the northern edge of Arizona. Unfortunately, they had been spotted by a trio of Heretics, who had spent the past ten minutes chasing the group of Sceyl down, herding them here, to this building.

The place had to have been prepared ahead of time. There was no glass anywhere in it. The windows had all been smashed out, the shards taken away. There were no mirrors, no bottles, no glass bulbs, literally nothing that could be used by the fleeing, terrified Sceyl.

As they careened around a corner, searching desperately for a way out of this trap, the group suddenly skidded to a stop. The six glass-like figures, two fairly humanoid, one looking like a walking tree, another like a pixie, the fifth like a miniature horse the size of a chihuahua, and the last like a large rolling ball three feet in diameter, all came to a halt.

One of the Heretics was in front of them, waiting in that room. “Right,” the tall, bearded man announced as the room was abruptly illuminated by several glowing balls that appeared throughout it, “I think that’s far enough. If there were any more of you monsters, they would’ve shown themselves by now.” He held a long black-metal sword in one hand.

Behind the group of Sceyl, the remaining two Heretics appeared. The first was a dark-skinned woman with white hair, holding a double-bladed axe. Her companion was also female, a quite small and somewhat pale brunette woman who appeared to hold no weapon or defense, aside from a series of dozens of metal rings lining both of her arms from wrist to shoulder.  

Looking to one another, the glass-like figures all turned to put their backs to one another. Three faced the man in front, while the other three faced the women behind. With a sound that was a mix of shattering glass and ringing chimes, the ball-figure reshaped himself into something more like a humanoid lizard with a scorpion-like tail. At the same time, the small pony became a much larger centaur.

“So,” the male Heretic snarled under his breath. “You show your true selves after all. Good. Then let’s finish this.”

The six Sceyl broke in opposite directions, lunging for the three Heretics. Unfortunately, that only lasted for an instant before a wave of force knocked five of the six to the ground as the two female Heretics each used some form of gravity power to keep them there.

The last, one of the humanoid figures, was yanked backward, his neck caught and held by the male Heretic. “Now,” the man snarled while hurling his captive down as well, leaving him prone on the floor. “You’re never gonna kill anyone else.” The ebony blade in his hand was raised high up. “Not in this–”

He stopped then. Stopped talking and even stopped moving, aside from physically reeling backward as his eyes closed briefly, the sword in his hand wavering a little. On the other side of the room, the two female Heretics did the same, a pair of gasps escaping both. The smaller, pale woman staggered back a step, almost falling before catching herself against the nearby wall.

No longer pinned, the six Sceyl stared in confusion and apprehension. After a brief moment of that, as if they had all come to the same conclusion, they tried to jerk upright. But with a sudden roar of rage, the male Heretic’s eyes opened, and he drove his blade downward, on course toward the prone figure at his feet.

With a brief whistling sound punctuated by a loud clang that echoed through the room, the sword was struck in mid-descent by a metal ring that flew through the air to collide with it. Knocked off course, the sword was driven several inches into the floor beside the terrified Sceyl’s head. The ring itself, meanwhile, bounced off the blade, then off a nearby wall, a pillar, and then returned to its owner. The pale, small woman had straightened, arm extended to let the metal bracelet fall perfectly back onto her arm to join the rest. It latched into place with a click.

“Lillian!” the dark-skinned woman nearby snapped, while the male Heretic simply stared with his mouth open. “Stop, you can’t–”

“Can’t what?” Lillian Patters asked sharply. “Can’t make my own decisions? Can’t trust the people I was supposed to be able to trust? Can’t have my own memories? Yeah, I think all of that was made perfectly clear.”

“Lillian…” Speaking slowly, the bearded man straightened his blade. Instead of pointing it at any of the utterly bewildered Sceyl, he turned the end toward the small woman. “Don’t do this. We’re on the same side.”

Lifting her chin, Lillian retorted, “I’m going to go ahead and say that my side is the one that doesn’t slaughter innocent people wholesale. Oh, and also doesn’t wipe the memories of everyone who doesn’t think the exact same way we do, and then force them to keep murdering the same innocent people they already chose not to. And what was the other thing? Oh, right.”

Her eyes hardened, and the woman snapped both arms out to either side. The series of rings that extended up to her shoulders all flew off, ricocheting around the room wildly for a second before each ended up hovering around her at various heights and angles. She was surrounded by dozens of the metal hoop-like rings that hovered there, spinning rapidly with a soft buzzing sound, like angry hornets.

“We,” Lillian finished, her voice dropping into a dangerous tone, “don’t side with people who kidnap infants and hold them hostage.”

“You’re right.” The words came from the other woman.

What?!” the man snapped, jerking his head that way.

The black woman held up her hand, voice stammering a bit. “About… about the last part. That was–I… I don’t know what… That was wrong. It was wrong. But you’re wrong too. You have to be. Lillian, please. We can figure this out. We’re friends.”

“My friend,” Lillian informed them quietly, “is Joselyn Atherby. As long as you side with the people who kidnapped her children and mindwiped the rest of us… we are not friends.”

“Fine.” Voice dripping with venom, the male Heretic snarled, “Then I suppose we’re not friends. Your choice.” He took a step that way, sword raised. As he moved, the rings surrounding Lillian all began to spin faster. Some turned white, sending off chilling waves of cold, while others turned red, flames flickering around them. The rest became yellow, electricity crackling in the air where they were spinning.

Just as it looked like an all-out brawl would break out, the dark-skinned woman suddenly appeared behind the man. Grabbing his arm with one hand and his neck with the other, she blurted toward Lillian, “I don’t want to fight you!”

Then both were gone, as the woman transported herself and their male companion away. Left facing the empty space where they had been, Lillian slowly extended her arms, summoning the rings back.

“Wh… wha… what?” The voice of one of the Sceyl finally broke the silence that settled once the rings had all stopped spinning and finished attaching themselves to the woman. “What just… happened?”

“It’s a long story,” Lillian softly informed them, her voice cracking a little. “I have to get out of here. I have to find my granddaughter, my… my… she’s at Crossroads now. And Felicity. Oh my God, her baby girl. She’s–” Snapping out of it, she looked to the group of terrified Glasswalkers. Her voice softened. “I’m sorry. I know this won’t make any sense to you, but I am so… so sorry. There isn’t time to explain.”

“Uh…” One of the Sceyl raised a hand. “We sort of picked up the gist of it from your conversation. But… just… one question.

“Who is Joselyn Atherby?”

*******

“I have no idea who Joselyn Atherby is.”

With a sigh, Abigail Fellows dropped her gaze to the glass of iced tea in front of her on the table where she sat. The plate holding the crumbs of her finished lunch was nearby. “She’s my mother. She’s my mom, and I… I never knew her. I never met her. I’ve never spoken to her, never looked her in the eyes. Not since I was an infant, anyway, and I don’t… I don’t remember any of that. Or the Edge vision, I guess. I saw her then, but I didn’t… really talk to her. I never got to know her.”

From where he was sitting across from her, the cabin’s other occupant, Lincoln Chambers, winced. “Hey, I… I didn’t know her as a Heretic either. But I know Joselyn the person. And I know she would be so… indescribably proud of you, Abigail. You raised a beautiful, brilliant girl. You’re a lawyer. You stand up for people. You defend people who don’t have anyone else to defend them.”

Swallowing before taking a breath, Abigail raised her gaze from the glass to meet his gaze. “I can find out plenty about Joselyn the Heretic by talking to… to anyone here, I guess. Especially with that memory spell gone. It’s Joselyn the person I want to know about.”

With a little smile, Lincoln nodded. “Then I’ll tell you all about her. Anything you want. I…” He paused before giving a soft chuckle. “Sorry, this whole thing is just kind of… I don’t want to say–”

“Weird?” Abigail finished for him. “Yeah, it’s okay. You can say it. It’s weird. I mean, I’m sort of like your… stepdaughter, but I’m also older than you.”

“It’s a weird situation all around,” Lincoln agreed. “For us anyway. I get the feeling it happens more than not with these Heretic people.” He smiled despite himself then, adding, “But for the record, weird as it might be, you and Wyatt are a couple of the best people I’ve met. The way you stick up for everyone, the way Wyatt plans everything out so well… that’s Jos. I just… I just hope you get to know her for yourselves. So you can see how similar you are.”

“Well,” Abigail offered, “if this whole rebellion thing works out, maybe people can focus on getting her back from that psychopath.”

“True.” Lincoln started to nod before heaving a sigh. “I still can’t believe Felicity and that headmistress of hers pulled that off. Bringing the rebellion back, restoring all those memories… If they’d been caught before they managed it, if anyone else saw what was in that notebook, or looked too closely, or–”

Abigail stopped him with a raised hand. “They didn’t. The spell worked. There’s enough things to deal with as it is without fretting about bad things that could have happened.”

Coughing, Lincoln gestured. “Right, point. See? You’re already helping your dear old stepdad feel better.”

With a squint, Abigail snorted. “Right, dear maybe. Old… ehhh, you’re still a whippersnapper.” Pausing then, she added, “Speaking of which, you know what everyone’s wondering.”

“Yeah.” The man sat up a bit more. “They’re wondering when I’m going to do the Heretic bonding thing. I just… I haven’t decided exactly who or… or what… I…”

Resting her hand against his arm, Abigail met his gaze. “No, see, if you think about it, I’m pretty sure you know exactly who you should be bonded to.”

With a slow, soft exhale, Lincoln managed a very slight smile. “I suppose you’re right. Would you believe I’m nervous?”

The woman’s response was a simple nod. “Yeah. It’s a pretty big deal. But hey, I can’t think of a better person for you to be Bonded to than the Seosten kid who sees you as her father.” Her eyes focused on him once more, as she added pointedly, “You m–” Voice cracking slightly, Abigail cleared her throat. “You make sure she knows you see her as a daughter, okay? You make sure she knows every day. You don’t make that girl think for one second that she’s not wanted.”

“Never,” Lincoln vowed, his throat tightening at the very thought. He remembered all the times he had laid in bed with that girl curled up against him. He’d thought it was Felicity at the time, sure, but that didn’t matter. He knew now. He knew and he loved that kid as much as his own. Because she was his own.

Smiling at that thought before shaking himself a bit, the man finally spoke once more. “But hey, we’ve got some pretty impressive kids all around, huh?” His bright words turned to a very slight sigh. “Bright kids who are now part of this rebellion.”

“Better than being part of monsters who hunt down and slaughter innocent people and creatures,” Abigail pointed out. “Your daughters helped stop that. Every single person out there who remembers what they really believe, who remembers the choice they made not to kill innocent people anymore? That’s because of your daughters. Both of them.”

Lincoln’s smile had returned by then. “You’re right. They’re pretty damn special. Just like their mom. And their big sister.”

Picking up her glass, Abigail took a long, slow sip of her iced tea before she spoke again. “Don’t forget their amazing, goofy, wonderful big brother.” Pulling the straw out of her glass, she teased slightly, “Who might just be listening in on us through this thing right now, for all we know.”

With a snort, Lincoln shrugged. “Well, if he is, maybe he should go ahead and turn up the eavesdropping spell. Because I’m going to tell you all about Joselyn. The Joselyn I know. The one I hope you get to know someday.”

“Before you get started,” Abigail replied, “give me a second and I’ll get him in here in person. I want Wyatt to hear about our mother too.

“After everything he’s been through, my brother deserves that.”

********

“My brother does not deserve that!”

Brown eyes blazing with rage, Ian Gerardo swung his fist. It collided with the brick wall of the building next to the alley he was in, leaving a sizable hole. He stood there, two inches over six feet in height, his broad, muscular arms exposed by the sleeveless black shirt that he wore. He also had black jeans, combat boots, and a belt with several pouches. His black hair was slicked back, and he wore a single silver earring in his left ear.

As the dust settled, his companion, a red-haired man several inches taller than even Ian was and considerably better built, nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed while shaking out his long crimson locks, which fell almost to the middle of his back. “I don’t know your brother, but no one deserves to be left in time-accelerated solitary like that. That’s fucked up.”

“Look, you don’t–” Ian’s eyes were wild. “You don’t understand. I–I’ve been a pretty shitty big brother, okay? Especially lately. But now? I can’t just leave him in that hellhole! I have to get him out! I’m gonna go to my fucking parents and make those evil, psycho–”

“Ian, Ian!” the other man put both hands on the younger Heretic’s shoulders, squeezing firmly. “Stop. Listen. If you run off half-cocked like this, you’ll just end up captured too, okay?” As Ian’s mouth opened, the man quickly pressed on. “And you think you don’t care, I get it.  You feel like you have to do something right now. But do you want to help your brother, or do you want to feel better about yourself for two seconds just to fuck it up again?”

At first, Ian glared, his rage almost transferring itself to his companion. Then he sighed and deflated. “I know. Fuck. Frode, I just… I can’t leave him in there. I can’t.”

“I know.” Speaking softer, Frode leaned back to watch the younger man, who was barely in his twenties. “Look, I owe you. Penny, Owen, and I, we all owe you.”

When the spell that restored everyone’s memories and flooded the minds of every Heretic with the full and unfiltered details of the rebellion and everything related to it had happened, Ian, Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of another group of Heretics. They had been out on practice maneuvers, training to head for a newly discovered potential colony world.

Then the spell had happened. Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of Joselyn Atherby’s group back in the day. And all three were taken by surprise when the rest of their companions acted quickly enough to the reveal to take them prisoner, preventing them from escaping to rejoin the rebellion.

Ian was too young to have been part of all that. He had been ignored, dismissed as the trio of former rebels were secured.

But young or not, Ian was capable of seeing right from wrong. Ignored as he was, he had been able to take the Crossroads loyalists completely by surprise, knocking out two of them before managing to free Frode and the others. Together, the four had escaped before they could be brought back to Crossroads.

“You guys don’t owe me anything,” Ian insisted. “You’ve got enough problems.”

“We do owe you,” Frode informed him, giving the boy a firm nod. “And we’ll repay it. Trust me, just… just stick it out a little longer. We’ve still got friends. The rebellion… we’ll get your brother out of there, okay? We just have to meet up with some people. We’ll get Sean out. But we’ll do it together. Do it the right way?” He offered his hand.

Accepting the hand, Ian nodded. “Yeah. The right way.” He sighed then. “I can’t believe Madre and Padre would do something like this. I mean… I just… you know, I wish I could just tell them exactly what I think of them right now.”

*****

“I’m sorry that you can’t tell them.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s voice was gentle as she sat on a chair across from Flick in her office. The Crossroads headmistress was watching her student carefully as she continued. “The idea of keeping secrets, especially one this important, is probably quite troubling. But it is imperative that, if our plan is to succeed, no one else know about it until it is too late.”

Shifting in her seat, Flick met the woman’s gaze. “Even me, right?” she offered with what was clearly a weak attempt at humor. “I mean, even I won’t actually remember what I’m doing or why. Once we start this, you’ll be the only person who actually knows what’s going on.”

Except that wasn’t true. Once the memory spell was in place to prevent Flick from remembering the plan she and Gaia had come up with or from consciously realizing what she was doing whenever she wrote in that notebook, there would be one more person beyond the headmistress who would remember, one person who would know what they were doing.

And neither of them knew she existed.

Tabbris was silent, as always, as she watched through Flick’s eyes. She felt a flicker of sadness at the thought of what would happen when the girl one day knew about her. As much as some small part of herself might retain a tiny spark of hope that the two of them could be friends, she knew it wasn’t to be. The betrayal and horror that Flick would feel as soon as she knew just how long Tabbris had been possessing her, that would ruin any potential there might have been for friendship.

It was too late already for any explanations. Flick would hate her, would loathe her for that violation. Tabbris knew that. She was terrified of it, but she knew it would come.

But in the meantime, she would help as much as she could. She would continue to keep Flick safe from possession. And now, she would keep this particular secret.

How much would her own people, her… her mother’s people, want to know about this? A plan to undo the revolution-eraser and restore everyone’s memories? They would, quite literally, kill to stop that from happening. They would kill Gaia, and they would kill Flick.

If they found out. Which was why Tabbris would do absolutely everything she could to stop that from happening. Because even if… even… when Flick did end up hating her, Tabbris would still do everything in her incredibly limited power to keep the older girl safe.

Restoring the rebellion. That was what Mama would do. Tabbris knew that much. If her mother was here, she would be helping Gaia and Flick. Heck, she’d already started with the plan of restoring Flick’s mama’s memories before finding out that the woman had been abducted. So she would definitely be on board with this. She probably would’ve found a way to do it by herself already… if she was here.

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t here. Tabbris didn’t even know if she wa–how she was doing. All she knew was that her mama would have helped with this if she could. And since she couldn’t, Tabbris would instead. She would keep it secret. She would make sure the notebook was safe. She would watch for anyone paying too much attention to it. She would be a second set of eyes keeping the secret safe until it would be too late for anyone to stop it.

And maybe someday… someday if–when she saw Mama again, she would look at Tabbris and say…

******

“I’m proud of you,” Sariel announced to the group of huddled, traumatized figures crouched in what amounted to a crater that had been driven into the ground by a particularly hard stomp from a passing giant. That giant’s body lay just over a hundred yards away, being literally eaten from the inside out by a swarm of Fomorian-created insects the size of large dogs. A few of those insects had crawled out of the desecrated corpse to look for their next meal, only to be set upon by a trio of griffins that came soaring down out of the sky.

“P-proud?” one of the huddled group in front of Sariel stammered. She was a Relukun, a wood-person. Her companions were an assortment of other Alters and two young Eden’s Garden Heretics who had probably only graduated within the past few years. “Wh-what are you proud of?” the Relukun demanded. “That we’re all gonna die together? If we’re lucky?”

One of the Heretics peeked over the edge of the footprint crater, a slight whimpering sound escaping him. “Di-did you see what they did to that big guy? We can’t fight that. We can’t fight them. We’re gonna die. Oh God. Oh God in heaven. We’re going to die. We are going–”

“I’m proud of you because you’re here,” Sariel interrupted, drawing their attention to her. “Live or die, you’re here. You’re trying. You’ve made it this far. You knew the odds and you came anyway.”

“If we didn’t, we’d all die anyway,” one of the other Alters put in, his voice barely audible over the sound of fighting, screaming, and dying going on all around them. “Th-those monsters, they’ll just keep coming.”

“You’re right, they will.” The confirmation came not from Sariel herself, but from the enormous (for a human) gray-haired man who dropped into the crater with them. At his full standing height, were he not crouched as he was now, the man would have been just a hair under seven feet. The incredibly muscular physique of his bare torso had been the stuff of legends for thousands of years. Though there was only one person in this deep footprint who recognized the man, who knew exactly who he truly was.

“Alcaeus,” Sariel greeted him simply, her voice careful and measured.

“Sariel,” he returned just as carefully, both of them watching one another for a moment before the man offered her a very slight grin, showing his teeth. “Of all your people that I could’ve run into in this pit, you’re one of the only ones I wouldn’t chuck right out of it.”

“I shall measure myself relieved then,” Sariel replied smoothly. Sobering then, she looked into the man’s eyes. “It’s good to have you here. The battle is…” She turned slightly to look over the edge toward the continuing violence. “It’s not going well.”

“Fighting Fomorians rarely does,” the man who had once been known as both Heracles and Hercules murmured. “But someone’s got to. Otherwise those genocidal cocksuckers will just kill every last person, plant, and animal on this forsaken planet.”

“They’re coming!” one of the other Alters blurted. His eyes were wide as he stared over the rim of their cover at the horde of variously-shaped Fomorian creations that were swarming over the open ground toward them.

With a thought, Sariel summoned her bow to her hands. “Alcaeus?”

“It’s just Al,” he corrected, straightening. “And I’m right with you.”

Giving him a brief nod of thanks, the Seosten woman addressed the others. Her voice was sharp. “The rest of you stay here until you see an opening. We’ll take the brunt of it. Hit when you get a chance, once they’re focused on us.” Sparing them a brief glance, she added, a bit more softly, “For the dead. Those who are, and those who would be.”

The sentiment was echoed by the others, just as Sariel and Alcaeus heaved themselves out of the crater. The two found themselves facing dozens of Fomorian-crafted nightmares literally running over each other to reach them. Beasts of all shapes and sizes, some with only two legs, others with more than could be easily counted at a glance. Fat, skinny, tall, slimy, furry, and some that were all of those at the same time. They were a tidal wave of monstrous flesh and claws pushing inexorably onward.

Together, the woman who had been Artemis and the man who had been Hercules met their charge.

Taking the lead, Al ran straight for the incoming mass. In mid-step, his hand touched a rune that had been drawn on his opposite shoulder, and he spoke the command word to trigger the spell attached to it. Instantly, his bare torso was covered in gleaming silver and red armor, his head encased in a helmet in the shape of a lion’s head, complete with a long, flowing mane. In both of his hands appeared enormous weapons. One held a claymore, while the other gripped a massive hammer. With both of his weapons raised high, the man bellowed a roar of challenge that matched the lion’s helmet he wore, before charging straight at his enemies.

Four arrows, released simultaneously from the woman behind him, flew past the man. Two shot under each arm. All four impaled themselves through the assorted eyes of two of the nearest creatures in the horde before bursting into flames that engulfed their targets.

Ignoring the screaming, flailing monsters, Al lunged up and over their falling bodies. His hammer came down so hard on the skull of a crocodilian creature with its jaws open wide that it literally caved in the beast’s head. Blood, brains, and other fluids (some of which should not have been fluids) went flying. At the same time, his sword was driven up under the rib cage of the furry, two-legged beast who had been reaching for him from the other side.

“Boom!” Al called, while pivoting with his sword still embedded in the fur-covered creature. It was all he had to say. Just as he presented his foe’s back to the woman behind him, Sariel shot three quick arrows into it.

The moment the arrows were in place, Al heaved the monster off his sword, tossing it back into the incoming swarm. An instant later, the explosive arrows detonated, sending chunks of the Fomorian beasts flying in every direction.

It was a good start. But Sariel and Alcaeus had a long way to go to even begin to stall the Fomorian advance. If they were going to stop Earth from being yet another in a long, long line of worlds that had been destroyed by those monsters, they would need a miracle.

But they would keep trying. Because there was an entire world’s worth of innocent lives at stake. Alcaeus, Sariel, and the others who fought would protect those people from the Fomorians. They would save them, whatever it took.

******

“Whatever it takes, I’m going to fucking kill them!

As the words burst from her lips, Roxa Pittman’s face transformed partly into her wolf-self. Her teeth grew, face elongated partway, while her eyes darkened with rage. Claws had already appeared from her fingers, as she gripped the post at the end of the basketball court tight enough to leave deep grooves in the metal.

“I know.” The more careful, measured response came from Mateo, as the slight man stood behind her. His hand found her shoulder, shaking just a little before he caught himself. He took a deep breath. “Believe me, pup, I know. Sebastian, he’s… he’s basically in the same shape as you. It’s his brother that’s doing this to his own son, to Sebastian’s nephew.”

Whirling toward him, Roxa furiously spat, “How?! How can they do evil shit like this and still think they’re the good guys?! How fucking deluded are they?!” Her fist lashed out backwards, denting the post. “They’re torturing their own fucking child!” The bellowed words echoed over the otherwise empty basketball court, before her face shifted back to normal. Tears of rage and helplessness filled her eyes. “Mateo, please! Please! We have to do something. We have to–to… to stop this! We have to get him out of there! He can’t–we can’t–he’s–” She was in such a blind panic that she kept tripping over her words.

“Roxa.” Putting his hands against either side of the girl’s face so she would look at him, so that her eyes would be focused on his, Mateo spoke in a voice that was equal parts firm and gentle, forcing confidence and reassurance into his words. “Sean is going to get out of there, okay? Whatever it takes, everyone out here is going to find a way to get him out. You know that. No one is abandoning him.”

“B-but… but…” Squirming there on her feet, trying to keep her anger at the forefront of her mind so that despair and helplessness wouldn’t overtake it, Roxa stared into the eyes of her pack leader. “What if we can’t? What if he loses his–his everything in there? How could they do that? How could they–” She closed her eyes and looked away then. “I’m not supposed to be surprised,” the girl said softly, voice cracking with each word. “I saw too much bad shit as a Bystander. This isn’t supposed to surprise me.”

“The cruelty of those who believe themselves righteous very often outweighs that of those who know that they are evil,” Mateo quietly informed her. “And it almost always strikes much harder. They are his parents. They are supposed to protect him.”

“There’s a lot of parents who don’t,” Roxa muttered darkly. “They’re nothing new.”

With a nod, Mateo agreed, “You’re right, they’re nothing new. And we’ll stop them. We’ll get Sean out of there. As soon as there’s a plan, we will get him out. Which means you have to be ready. No running off, no getting yourself hurt or… worse, okay?”

It took Roxa a moment, but she finally nodded, lifting her gaze to him. “Okay,” she murmured softly. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. But just for the record, I still want to break every bone in their fucking bodies.”

“You and me both, pup,” Mateo confirmed, thinking back to his long discussion with Sean’s uncle when Sebastian had found out what was going on. It had been much harder to talk the man out of storming off to give his brother and the man’s wife every last piece of his mind. The rage, helplessness, exhaustion, and confusion in his beloved Sebastian was also here now in Roxa. And not just in her. The same feelings were in the whole pack. The werewolves had all known Sean since he was a kid. Hearing this… hearing what those psychos were doing… it was too much. It reminded Mateo of… of times spent with his own ‘well-intentioned extremists.’ And that thought… that was almost enough to drive him into a blood-rage the depths of which he might never escape.  

“You and me both.”

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Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marissa hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marissa once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marissa started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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Mini-Interlude 40 – Roxa and the Pack

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“You know, when most people think of werewolves, I’m pretty sure five-star hotels and casinos in Las Vegas are not the kind of thing that immediately pops into their heads,”  Roxa informed Mateo as the two of them (accompanied by Gidget) walked through the noisy, gaudy, incredibly lavish subject of her observation.

The man himself chuckled. “What can I say? Wonderland insisted on compensating us for the work, and I didn’t want to insult them. Besides,” he added, “our people deserve the vacation.”

Apparently that Gabriel Prosser guy had promised to send them anywhere they wanted to go when they left the camp, and the answer from most of the pack had been to rest and recuperate in Vegas. So that’s where they had gone, while she and Mateo finished up with what they needed to do with Prosser’s people and Flick.

The rest of the pack still didn’t know that Roxa had decided to stay with them, rather than returning to Crossroads with the choker. She’d asked Mateo to wait until she could be there, and the man had agreed.

“Plus,” she added slyly then with a look toward the older man, “I bet it wasn’t exactly hard to convince your boyfriend to come stay in a place like this for awhile.” She’d heard that Sean’s uncle would be joining them before long, though he was taking an actual plane to so.  

That time, Mateo outright laughed at her words, attracting the brief attention of a couple dead-eyed slots players. Their eyes lingered on Gidget, but Roxa wasn’t worried. The cyberform cougar was projecting her usual massive dog holographic disguise at the moment, and they had added a vest that would make her look like one of those service animals.

Getting his laughter under control, Mateo replied, “The day that Sebastian Gerardo actually lets people pamper him like they’re supposed to in a place like this is the day I check him for being possessed by those Seosten malparidos.”

They continued on then, reaching the elevator. While they were waiting for it to descend, Roxa reached down to rub Gidget’s head before looking to the man beside her. “I’m confused about something though,” she started slowly.

“By all means,” Mateo replied, gesturing for her to continue.

After trying to think of how to phrase it properly, she finally settled on a simple, “How are we here? I mean… how are we here without being attacked? It’s the middle of Vegas in a big casino, shouldn’t the Heretics be watching everything around here like hawks? I’m–how can we walk more than three feet without a dozen of them jumping us?”

The ornate, glass elevator had arrived by that point, and the two of them stepped onto it, turning to watch the casino floor below while it rose after Mateo hit the button. The man smiled a little once they were underway. “Well, there’s several reasons, actually. First of all, it’s almost as dangerous for Heretics to stake out a specific location and stay out in the open as it would be for people like us.” He glanced toward her while continuing. “After all, we can recognize them too. Heretics are powerful, sure. But if they set up camp and start being too predictable, Alters can hit them with massive numbers. We all know they’re not unkillable. Hell, while there are some unbelievably powerful ones, the majority, the rank and file, are still vulnerable. Especially if they get ambushed.”

Roxa nodded slowly, absorbing that. “Right, plus, Crossroads and Eden’s Garden can only make so many Heretics per year. They’ve got a limited supply.”

“Yup.” Mateo looked out over the by-then far distant casino floor while continuing. “But werewolves? We can turn as many as we want, technically. No telling how many survive the process, but you get the point. Most Alter species drastically outnumber Heretics. They’ve got to be careful about where they position themselves. If we couldn’t recognize what they were, then it might be different. But as it is, we know as soon as we see them, just like they know when they see us.

“But that’s just in general,” he went on while stepping off the elevator as it came to a stop on their floor. “In Vegas, the three families rule, and they don’t allow Heretics to set up shop.”

Roxa blinked over at the man as she followed him. “What three families?” Looking back into the elevator, she called, “C’mon, Gidget!”

The cougar reluctantly turned away from the stunning view, trotting over to catch up with them before nuzzling against Roxa’s leg briefly.

Mateo explained, “One family of vampires, one family of sorcerers and witches, and a third family of Oni.”

“Oni like the Japanese demons?” Roxa asked, eyes widening a little.

“It’s more complicated than that, but yes,” the man confirmed. “The way the story goes, the vampires and the sorcerers were mortal enemies. I think the mages were called Vestage or… Vestil, that’s it. The vampires and the Vestil were mortal enemies until the Oni showed up. Then they established a truce to fight the Oni. That lasted long enough that one of the vampire leaders’ sons fell in love with a Vestil princess. Now it’s all complicated, but there’s basically a really tense ceasefire between all of them. They break it a lot for individual spats, but mostly they’re all in their own corners of the city, with the strip being neutral ground.”

“What does this have to do with the Heretics?” Roxa asked, amazed by everything Crossroads either didn’t know about or didn’t teach.

Mateo smirked a little bit. “The three families may not really like each other all that much. But they hate Heretics even more. If they find out there’s Heretics trying to push in on their territory, they’ll join together to get rid of them.  Vampires, Vestil, and Oni all working together? The Heretics don’t wanna commit that kind of manpower to the situation.”

By that point, the two of them had reached the doors leading into the suite that had been rented. Mateo swiped the keycard for the room, pushing the door open before gesturing for Roxa to precede him. She did so, with Gidget at her side.

The room that they walked into was enormous. It was more like a living room than something in a hotel. The ceiling was two floors up, while straight ahead there were two couches surrounding a giant television. In the back left of the room was a kitchenette next to a door that led into the bathroom. Two more doors across the room, opposite the entrance led into full sized bedrooms. A set of stairs led to the second floor of the suite where there was a wraparound balcony overlooking the living area, and more bedrooms. Finally, to the right from the entrance there was a sliding door leading to an outside patio.

The rest of the pack was in that living room. The massive Fezzik was in the kitchenette, filling several cups of coffee. Lesedi was standing just in the open sliding door that led out to the patio. Meanwhile, Corson and Hasty, who had both been heavily injured, were each lying on one of the couches, watching the television.

When Roxa, Mateo, and Gidget entered, all eyes turned to them. Lesedi stepped back fully into the room, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the matter?” she demanded. “I thought that choker thing worked.”

“It better fucking work,” Hasty put in from her place on the couch. “I took three goddamn silver knives into my fucking stomach. If it doesn’t work, I swear to God–”

“It works,” Roxa quickly put in. “But I don’t care. I’m not using it. Call me crazy, but I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life only surviving because I’m wearing some magic piece of jewelry that makes it so that the people who are supposed to be my friends don’t murder me.”

Beside her, Gidget got up and trotted over to Fezzik. She loved the giant, since he was always feeding her scraps of metal that he collected. Sure enough, as the cougar approached, the big guy dug into his pocket and came out with what looked like an iron plate that had been torn off of something. Gidget took the treat eagerly, crouching down to gnaw at it with the somewhat muffled sound of tearing metal.

“You sure you’re not just gonna change your mind again?” Lesedi asked, a challenge in her voice. “Spend another couple weeks and then decide you like the Heretics better after all?”

“Lesedi,” Mateo reprimanded, “take it easy.”

“It’s alright,” Roxa insisted, shaking her head. “I get it. You guys just–” She stopped, taking a breath. “No. I’m not going back there. Not to stay, anyway. You guys knew what I was and you took me in anyway. You went out of your way to help me, and they would’ve just killed me. You…” She paused, biting her lip. “If you guys don’t want me to stay, I won’t. But I won’t go back there. I’ve been on my own before, I can do that again.”

Hasty tried to push herself up before groaning in pain and slumped back down again. “You, by yourself? You’d be dead in a week, puppy.”

Fezzik nodded in agreement. “You don’t know where to go, who to trust, who could kill you for being Heretic and who could kill you for being werewolf.”

“They’re right,” Lesedi confirmed. The black woman had stepped over in front of Roxa by that point, raising an eyebrow. “You out there by yourself, you wouldn’t last. You need a pack.”

Lifting her chin, Roxa asked quietly. “Do I have one?”

Lesedi smirked a little at that. “Sure thing. But only cuz we don’t wanna give up Gidget over there.” She nodded toward the robotic cougar. “Seems like you two come as a package deal.”

Despite herself, Roxa smiled at the teasing. “Guess I’m lucky she’s so useful.”

Mateo cleared his throat. “Alright, if that’s settled, then let’s enjoy this vacation. Because we’ve got work to do when it’s over.”

“Work?” Roxa echoed, blinking over her shoulder at the man.

He nodded. “I’ve already told the others. But there’s a group of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.”

She stared, clueless. “What and what?”

The man chuckled at that, repeating himself. “Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They’re a bunch of Heretics with Mayan origins. Not like Crossroads or Eden’s Garden. They’re… different. One of their tribes is making trouble back down in Colombia, and one of the other packs down there asked for some help. So we’ll spend a week here, resting up and recuperating. Then we’ll get busy.”

Corson spoke up from his couch. “Sure you’ll be okay with doing that, Roxa?” The pain in his voice faded a little as he shifted himself. “After all, it doesn’t really concern you like this last trip did.”

“You guys are never gonna let me live that down, are you?” Roxa asked, getting a collective head shake from all of them. Snorting, she shrugged. “Besides, you’re wrong. It does concern me. Because it concerns you guys, and you’re my pack. What concerns you, concerns me, right?”

“Right,” Mateo agreed. “Now let’s have an actual vacation. Everyone who can still stand, let’s go have some fun.”

“Heeeey, what about us?” Hasty demanded. “Don’t we deserve some fun? We were injured in the line of duty. And I say, if we can’t all enjoy Vegas, then none of us should. We should all stay here, one and all. We’re a pack, right? When one or two of us are out and suffering, we’re all suffering. Right, guys?”

At least the injured wolf-girl’s reflexes were still working, because she easily dodged the TV guide that was thrown at her just before the door closed behind Roxa and the rest of the still-standing pack on their way out.

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Spy Hunt 26-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the conclusion to the 3-part Sariel and Larissa interlude series that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, it’s gonna work, right?” Despite myself, I couldn’t keep the tenseness and worry out of my voice. “Please, after everything we went through to get it, tell me that thing is gonna do its job.”

We were back at the Atherby camp by the lake, with some company in the form of Mateo’s pack and a few of the Wonderland people like Seth, Namythiet, and Fennicus, though most of that particular group was back reuniting with the children that had been abducted by Lemuel’s pack.

Of the people who were actually here at the camp, the majority were milling around, talking about the battle or celebrating the fact that Lemuel and most of his people had been dealt with, aside from those who had managed to scatter and flee. The point was, the big threat of the massive combined werepack had been dealt with, for the moment at least.

I’d also been eager to meet up with my father here at the camp after everything that had happened. Apparently, however,  Asenath and a couple other Alters had taken him out for a hike to take his mind off what was going on and so that he wouldn’t obsess over me being in a fight. They were on their way back, but it would take awhile. Long enough for us to deal with this.

Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, Mateo, and I (Vanessa and Tristan were off doing something with Duncan and Misty) were watching as Gabriel and an elderly-looking woman that he had brought in examined the choker. Gabriel had introduced the old woman with the simple name of Kay. Or maybe it was just the letter K. I wasn’t sure on that point. In any case, she was their expert in magical artifacts, their version of Wyatt, basically. For the past ten minutes, the woman had been carefully examining the choker, while I watched anxiously. The only reason I’d agreed to let her take it in the first place was that Gabriel had vouched for her, and was standing right there. If she would have asked to take it out of our sight, I’m not sure even that would’ve been enough. I was seriously thoroughly paranoid about that damn thing disappearing.  

On the other hand, I was also paranoid that, even after we got it, the thing wouldn’t work right. That was why I’d agreed to Gabriel’s offer to have his enchantment-expert look it over a bit.

And yeah, we could have just had Roxa or one of the other Alters put it on and see if it would stop the Heretic sense from going off.  But honestly, taking a magic enchanted necklace that I had just stolen from a completely demented, psychotic, probably possessed girl and putting it on someone else without having it checked over first sounded really, really stupid. But maybe that was just me.

Even then, however, I’d still made Gabriel use the Seosten-detection rune on the woman (as well as Mateo, since he was there too) right in front of me just to prove that they were safe. Maybe that was more evidence of blatant paranoia, but hey, better to be safe than choker-less.

Kay examined the choker for another second, running her fingers along it before finally giving a slight nod. Her voice was brittle, yet strong enough to hear as she announced, “The intended effect of allowing the wearer to be disguised from the Heretical Sense remains fully intact.”

A breath of relief escaped me before I realized what she had said. Blinking up, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “You said the intended effect remains intact. What about the rest of it?” Her voice sounded as suspicious and ready for bad news as I felt.

Beside Shiori, Roxa folded her arms over her stomach, looking a little sick (also like I felt). “They mean the ability to identify Seosten,” she announced quietly. “Please say it still works.”

Raising her gaze from the choker to give all of us a long look, Kay paused before answering. “Being altered into a different form has… somewhat weakened that particular effect.” Even as my heart dropped down into my stomach, she continued. “Calm yourselves. It is still effective, so far as I can tell. When used properly, it will inform the wearer if the subject is possessed or not.”

“When used properly?” I echoed, more confused by her phrasing than elated by the news that the enchantment would identify Seosten-possessed people. “What do you mean by that?”

“As I said,” the woman answered, “the effect has been somewhat weakened. It will no longer allow the wearer to identify any Seosten simply through sight. Now, you must touch the person.”

My mouth opened, then shut, as I absorbed the explanation. “Touch them. You have to touch them and… and that’s it? Just touching them will, uh, reveal if they’re possessed or not?” Sure, it wasn’t the best, but from the way she’d been talking (and probably from my own growing pessimism over the situation), I’d actually been at least half-expecting a lot worse than that.

“Yes,” Kay confirmed. “Physical contact will reveal whether the person being touched has been possessed. It need not be skin-to-skin, simple contact will be sufficient. Presuming,” she added, “that the contact is not hindered by anything thicker than perhaps a couple layers of clothing.”

She offered the choker to me then, her expression softening. “In other situations, I might offer to try to fix it. But I’m afraid that, as little as we understand the enchantment itself, any more work done to it may damage the magic further. Trying to expand its ability could make it worse, or simply remove its power entirely. If you can accept the limitation, it would be safest to leave it.” After a brief pause, she added, “In any case, this enchantment is a work of art. I have honestly never seen anything like it before. And I have been working with magic for a very long time.”

“Yeah…” I murmured, taking the choker from her thoughtfully. Maybe Wyatt could do something else with it. But I wasn’t going to say that to her after everything she’d done. Instead, I turned slightly and offered the choker to Roxa. “We got it for you,” I reminded her. “If you want it.”

Instead of taking the choker, however, the girl hesitated before looking toward Mateo. “I… I’m going to stay with the wolves. If that’s okay with you,” she added quickly, toward the pack leader.

I wasn’t that surprised. After everything that happened back during the fight, when she’d taken off to help her pack, I’d kind of expected her to choose to stay. After all, the werewolves had accepted her even knowing she was a Heretic, while she would have to trick the Heretics to accept her after becoming a werewolf. If it was me, I’d probably choose to stay with them too.

For Mateo’s part, he simply smiled. “If that’s your choice, then yes, of course. You are a part of this pack for as long as you want to be.” As he spoke, the man reached out and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder while repeating, “If it is your choice.”

“It is,” Roxa confirmed. “I want to stay with you guys. I’d rather be able to be myself, all of myself, than hide behind a magical artifact.”

With a sly look in his eyes, Mateo winked. “Well, I would say that the girl who went and killed Lemuel would be welcome in any pack she wanted to join. Are you sure that you want to stick with our little ragtag group? Maybe you’d feel more at home with one of the big fancy packs. With the rep you’re getting, you could probably even start out pretty high up.”

“Yeah right,” she snorted. “Pretty sure they wouldn’t want me after meeting me.” Looking toward me then, she blanched a little bit. “Sorry, after everything you went through to get it…”

Shiori spoke up before I could respond. “Hey, we needed the choker anyway. And besides,” she added easily, “just because you don’t want it right now doesn’t mean you can never use it. Since we have it, and it’s supposed to work, anytime you need to talk to a Heretic, you could just borrow it.”

I nodded at with that. “She’s right, anytime you want it, it’s yours. And,” I added with a quick look toward Avalon, “if you could actually use it really soon, and talk to your old team so that they know you’re okay and stop looking at me like I’m the devil or something. That would be really cool.”

Roxa snickered a little bit, covering her mouth. “They’ve been really coming after you, huh?”

“Actually,” I corrected her while shaking my head, “I would’ve preferred that kind of direct confrontation, honestly. Mostly they’re just staring at me, particularly when they don’t think I can see them. It’s kind of unnerving to keep glancing at a reflection, only to see one of them lurking around watching my every move. It’s kinda creepy. Please, tell them you’re okay and not stuffed into a freezer in my basement or something.”

Blinking at that, she gave a quick, vigorous nod. “Uh, oops. Yeah, I’ll talk to them in person. Maybe that’ll help get them off your case.”

Gabriel spoke up, his voice thoughtful. “If you’re going to be using it, maybe we should test the choker in a live situation, let you see how it actually lets you know that someone’s possessed.”

Shiori started, clearly reflexively. “If we had a Seosten, we could–oh, wait. Ermahgerd could possess people. Does that mean he’s a, uh, you know. A Natural you-know-what?”

Putting a hand over his mouth to cover an obvious smile briefly, Gabriel corrected, “It’s Enguerrand, actually, not, ah, Ermahgerd. And yes, he is what you call a natural-Seosten Heretic.” To me, he added, “If you would like to test the choker, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

I agreed with that, and he called the knight-guy over. A brief explanation followed before Ermagh–damn it, Shiori– before Enguerrand nodded to me. “Of course, m’lady. ‘Twould be my honor to assist in this endeavor.” To Gabriel, he added, “Prithee, allow me entrance briefly?”

“Of course, Guerrand,” the other man agreed before bowing his head a little bit as he waited.

As the rest of us watched closely, Enguerrand reached out to touch Gabriel’s arm. As soon as he made contact, the armored man disappeared, vanishing entirely in an instant. A second later, Gabriel raised his head, giving a brief shudder before moving his eyes to me. “I am prepared.”

Kay gestured to me then. “There is no command phrase or any other method of activation. Simply put the choker on and then touch him. It should signal the truth to you immediately.”

So, I followed her instructions. Lifting the choker to my neck, I slipped it on and tightened it a bit before taking a breath. As soon as it was comfortable, I slowly reached out to touch the possessed-Gabriel’s arm with two fingers, a bit gingerly since I didn’t know what would happen.

As it turned out, what happened was simple: I saw a blurry, almost translucent  overlay of Enguerrand over top of Gabriel’s body that disappeared and reappeared randomly for a few seconds. When Gabriel’s body moved, the image of the other man duplicated the motion.

It lasted about six seconds through that brief touch, enough time to definitely notice without completely taking over or going on for too long. Other than that, there was no alert or anything. Touching him didn’t burn, or give an electric shock, or any of the other things I’d worried about.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, and even Mateo were all watching me anxiously. Roxa was the first one to find her voice. “So?” she pressed curiously. “Does the thing work, or what?”

“It works,” I confirmed with a nod before explaining what I saw. Taking the choker off, I offered it to Avalon first, so she could try. One by one, she, Shiori, and Roxa used the choker before touching Gabriel to see what it was like. Once they were done, Enguerrand released him and stepped out, shaking himself off. “I believe,” he announced “that it has performed as desired?”

“Exactly as desired,” I confirmed, looking at the choker in my hand after Roxa handed it back to me. “I mean, it’d be easier if it worked all the time, constantly. But if it’s a choice between not working at all and needing to touch them, I’ll go with touching them every goddamn time.”

“Sure,” Shiori piped up. “And it’s not like it’ll be hard to touch anyone close enough to you to be a threat. Just gotta make up an excuse to hug them or something. Oh, and not give it away.”

I nodded at that. “Exactly. Finding the one that Charmiene is possessing shouldn’t be that hard, not with this. But we can’t go after her until we find out who the other guy is possessing. That um, Manakel guy. He’s gonna be harder. But we can start ruling people out. Like Deveron.”

That was one of the biggest reliefs of all this. Not only would we be able to find out who was possessed, we would also be able to find out who wasn’t possessed. And as soon as we could start ruling them out, we could start confiding in them again. I was really looking forward to that part. This whole ‘keeping secrets from my friends and people I trusted’ thing was for the birds.  

Gabriel started to say something then, before pausing. Raising his gaze to look past me, he spoke with a slight smile, musing aloud, “Maybe now is a good time to take a short break.”

“A short brea–” I started to question that before glancing back to see what he was looking at. What I saw was my father walking into view from around one of the cabins, accompanied by Asenath, Twister, and Calice, the female Relekun (tree-person) that I’d met before.

I stopped talking. Every other thought left my head. Before I knew what I was doing, my body had already pivoted, and my feet were carrying me that way. I sprinted, trying to call out, but the words caught themselves in a lump in my throat. Finally, I managed a thoroughly choked, “Dad!”

My father’s arms opened as I approached, and just like that, I was a little kid again. I could bench a thousand pounds, but I was a little kid again. I had just been involved in a massive battle against the largest combined pack of werewolves (and other weres) on the continent, but I was a little kid again. My father had his arms around me… and I was a little kid again.

I held tight (but not too tight) to the man who had raised me pretty much on his own for the past decade, who had spent ten years thinking that his wife had abandoned him and their child for no reason, who had broken through the Bystander Effect to learn what really happened. I wrapped my arms around him and held on, clutching my father for the first time since he had discovered the truth. Sure, we’d talked over the phone. But that was different from actually being there with him. Nothing, not even Fossor himself, could have made me let go in that moment.

For awhile, there was nothing else but this: holding onto my dad and feeling him holding onto me. I didn’t care about anything. The whole camp could have spontaneously exploded and it was iffy whether I would have noticed or not. My dad was there. That was all that mattered.

He seemed just as affected. I felt his arms close around me, and remembered all the times that I had run into his arms as a child, or crawled into his bed after a nightmare, or clutched onto him in the middle of the day for no reason other than the terrible thought of losing him like I had my mother. Every time, no matter what he had been busy with, my father had held me for just as long as I needed him to. He was never too busy for me, never too distracted to give me all the support and reassurance that he could. He was my dad.

My dad.

After a minute or so, I felt him run a hand up and down my back, coaxing me a little bit. “Well, hey, you.” There was a smile in his voice as he gently kissed the top of my head. “Fancy meeting you in a place like this.” Even though he was teasing, I could hear the lump in his voice.

Despite myself, I reflexively replied, “You’re right, I did meet Fancy in a place like this.”

With a tiny smirk, Dad raised an eyebrow. “Damn, you met the kobold too, huh? I had a whole thing planned for that.” He used a hand to muss up my hair. “Oh well, glad you’re here.”

“I had to come,” I pointed out, gulping before continuing, “you’d get lost without me around to help.”

“Kid,” my dad announced while leaning back so that he could put a finger under my chin, lifting it up to meet my gaze. “I’d be lost without you, period.”

“Dad…  Daddy.” Choking up again, I dropped my head to his chest and hugged my father once more, unable to help myself.

That took another brief time before I gathered myself, straightening to look at him. “Dad,” I whispered hoarsely. “I don’t… I don’t know where to start.”

“Honestly?” he replied, “neither do I. I–Felicity, you’ve got so much going on. All this–everything you’ve been doing, it–how are you even–” He sighed, embracing me tightly once more for a moment. “Did you… do what you needed to?”

“Pace got away,” I admitted. “But we got what we needed from her, and they think it’s destroyed.” Pausing, I added, “And Roxa killed their pack leader.”

“Killed.” Dad’s voice was flat. “You… say that so easily. You–”

“I killed too,” I admitted quietly, glancing away for a moment. “I killed then, and I killed before. Self-defense, mostly.” I wasn’t sure if it counted when the school put us in the situation where we had to fight to survive. But then again, the things we hunted were killing innocent people, or would have if we didn’t intercede, so… talk about a gray area.

“There’s a lot I don’t understand yet,” Dad murmured, watching me intently. “But I know you. If you say you had to do it…” His head shook. “God, Flick, this is… and your mom is–”

“Alive,” I interrupted. “That’s the important part. She’s alive and she’s out there. We just have to–to find her.”

Dad looked at me again, his gaze serious. “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to it than that,” he pointed out. “But… you’re right. We’ll find her. Right now I’m just trying to wrap my head around all this.”

Smiling a little, I nodded. “Take your time. You… um, seem to be coping with it pretty well, actually.”

His voice was dry. “With my job, I’ve learned how to freak out on the inside.”

From that point, my brain stalled out for a moment. There was so much I wanted to say to my dad, so much I wanted to get his opinion on, now that I could actually talk to him in person instead of just over the phone. “I…” Swallowing, I reflexively looked over my shoulder. And then I knew.

We had the choker. Soon, I would use it to check each and every person on our team, and everyone else that I could. We would figure out who Charmeine and Manakel were possessing. We would find a way to deal with all that. I would tell my dad everything I could. I would do everything I needed to do.

But right now, there was something that I wanted to do. So I took my father my the hand, leading him back that way.

“You, um, you know Shiori,” I started, weirdly nervous. “And this is-um, this is Avalon.

“Avalon, this is my dad.”

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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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