Mateo

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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Suspects 24-05

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So in the end, I just… talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was going to be a war.  

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Interlude 21 – Roxa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s more like six on three.”

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s family.”

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Interlude 18A – Namythiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before it’s too late.”

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Mini-Interlude 10 – Mateo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he was going to make sure she knew that.

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