Miranda

Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed to narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Mini-Interlude 32 – Miranda

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda as a character outside of and apart from Flick. 

About Six Months Ago

“Duck, duck, throw your duck! Come on, Randi, just try it. Right over here. I got you. I got you. I’m right on you. Just try it.”

Pacing sideways quickly, following the circular line that had been drawn over the grass a short distance from the base of the giant tree that she had called home for several years, Miranda eyed the boy who was taunting her. His name was Duane, and he was standing in the middle of the sixty-foot wide circle, right next to a wooden stump that was about two feet tall. In the middle of the stump, a softball-sized stone had been set.

Miranda held a similarly-sized rock in her left hand, as did the nine other people who were all pacing around the outside of the circle as well. The ten of them had spread out along the circle, watching for an opening even as the boy in the middle continually turned, pivoting to keep an eye on as many of them as possible. Every once in awhile, he’d call out a taunt, trying to goad one of them into making the first move.

From what Miranda had heard over the years since she’d come to this place, the game they were playing, ‘Duck On A Rock’, had been the initial inspiration for what had eventually become the game of basketball. Not that there were that many similarities when it came down to it. The rocks she and the others were carrying were called ducks, as was the rock that was sitting on the stump in the middle of the circle. That one was the titular ‘duck on a rock’, though in this case, the duck part was a rock and the rock part was a tree stump. Sports were weird sometimes.

It was originally a medieval children’s game, though here they played with enough variations to make it interesting even for the older teens, such as making it a full circle surrounding the stump instead of the single throwing line from the original game, as well as some other changes.

One of the other boys, seeing Duane’s distraction, took three quick steps sideways to put himself more into the boy’s blindspot before rearing back to hurl his own stone. The rock arced in toward the rock that was sitting on the stump, coming oh-so-close to colliding with its target before Duane spun around to catch the incoming rock out of the air with one hand.

Along the sidelines, several of the people who were just watching the game rather than playing began to count out loud, “One! Two! Three!” They continued that way, each number growing louder as more people joined in the count.

Meanwhile, the boy whose stone had been caught ran straight at Duane. If he didn’t manage to get his own stone (or duck) away from the guard before the audience’s count reached thirty, he would be considered ‘turned’, and would become another guard alongside Duane.

Essentially, the goal of the people outside the circle was to throw their own rock/duck in order to knock the one that was sitting on the stump off and to the ground. If you missed and your stone hit the ground, you had to retrieve it. But any time that you were inside the circle, the guard (or guards) could try to take you to the ground (originally it was simply tagging, but they played with rougher rules). If they took you down, the guard who managed it earned two points, while every other guard earned one point. If you made it to your rock, you could put your foot on it as a safety zone. As long as your foot was on your stone, you couldn’t be attacked by a guard. But neither could you do anything else. You had to wait for the right opportunity, while the guards were distracted by those outside of the circle, and use that time to pick up your rock and run back outside the circle. If you managed to retrieve your rock and make it out, that was worth two points. If you got taken to the ground, the guards got a point and you were expelled from the circle without earning any.

If the rock on the stump was knocked off its perch, the person who threw it earned an immediate three points. The guards couldn’t chase or tag anyone until one of them returned to the stump to put their rock back where it belonged. Additionally, for every non-guard in the circle when the guard’s duck was knocked off the stump that managed to escape because of that period of safety, the thrower earned another point. So, assuming the person who knocked the guard’s duck off the stump managed to retrieve their own rock and escape, that was five points for them and an additional point for every other person who managed to escape the circle because of it.

However, if, as in this case, your rock was caught by one of the guards before it touched the ground, you had that thirty second countdown before you became one of the guards yourself. There was strategy involved there. Some people did better as guards than as attackers, and so they would deliberately let themselves be turned.

They had turned what began as a very simple children’s game into an intense, often-brutal affair as rocks were thrown from all sides, the ratio of attackers to guards gradually changed, and some encounters in the middle of the circle turned into small-scale fistfights. After all, the rules were ‘taken to the ground’; it didn’t say how, exactly.

It was a fun game, and one that Miranda had gotten very good at over the years. Her accuracy with the thrown rocks was almost legendary among the group that they played with, so most guards tended to focus at least part of their attention on her so that she couldn’t get a good shot at the stump.

In this case, however, Miranda saw an opening while Duane was dealing with the other boy trying to get his rock back. Taking aim at the one on the stump, she was about to let fly when something else caught her attention. Far beyond the circle, deeper in the forest, there were several more boys. Not that that was anything newsworthy. She wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that a few of the boys were clearly throwing something back and forth between them to keep it away from the other one, who kept trying to get it back. Whatever it was, the boys were playing keepaway with it rather effectively while heading deeper into the forest. And from the look of things, it wasn’t exactly a game.

Bullies. For as long as Miranda could remember, she had hated bullies. People who used their own strength or power to push others around. Be they adult or child, she had always loathed them. Her very first memory, the earliest that she could remember, was of being in preschool and dumping a cup that was full of water that had been dirtied and stained by watercolors over the head of a girl who had stolen an Oreo from one of the other students.

It was a proclivity that had followed the girl throughout her life, right up to (and definitely including) the present day. So instead of throwing her rock, she paused before dropping it at her feet. Muttering something to the others about being right back, Miranda jogged around the circle to follow the other group further into the woods. If it turned out to be nothing, she’d come right back. No harm, no foul. But if it was what it had looked like… well, she didn’t put up with bullies.

About ten minutes later, the girl found herself crouched behind a tree. She was there, hidden just out of sight, as the group of what turned out to be five other students gathered around a moss-covered boulder about twenty feet away. Four of the students were standing a bit apart from the fifth, a boy whose dark hair was tied back with a green bandana. He was the one who had been trying to get something back from the others as they had led him deeper into the forest.  

He was also actually somewhat bigger than any of the people who were tormenting him. Which might have looked strange among Bystanders, but Miranda had long since found that size didn’t exactly always equal power among people who could gain superpowers and who were trained to fight and kill their entire lives. In a world with enhanced supernatural strength, a five foot nothing girl could easily be strong enough to pin a six foot six overly-muscled bodybuilder to the floor with a pinkie.

“Come on, guys, give it back,” the boy was pleading. “It’s my grandma’s ring, okay? Seriously, just give it back. It’s not funny anymore.” At those words, he gave a little lunge toward the nearest other boy, who was holding something tiny between two fingers. Obviously the ring.

Unfortunately, the boy’s lunge carried him straight through his target, who had turned intangible. Laughing, the second boy gestured while stepping back. “Hey, hey, hey, no need to get all handsy. You really want the ring back, Ankh?” He rolled the thing between his fingers. “You know what you’ve gotta do. We all did it, you really wanna be left out?”

“This is stupid,” the boy (Ankh, apparently) blurted. “It’s a dumb ritual, someone’s gonna get hurt.”

One of the other boys started snickering while calling Ankh a chickenshit, while another sneeringly told him to grow a pair. Meanwhile, the first boy reached down to touch something on the boulder, and a glowing, light green, circular portal appeared beside it.

Miranda had seen things like that before. Over the years since Eden’s Garden had been founded, students and grown-Heretics alike had hidden portal accesses all over the place, ways to the regular world and back again without going through the tree. They were especially popular among older students.

“Javier,” Ankh started, “come on man. I told you, I don’t wanna do it. It’s stupid.”

“Yeah?” Javier retorted. “Well I guess you better start acting a little dumb if you want Grandma’s ring back, huh?” Turning, he made as though to throw the ring through the portal.

“Stop!” Miranda couldn’t take it anymore. Moving from behind the tree, she put herself in plain sight. “Give him the ring back, idiot. Come on, how stupid do you have to be? Where does that portal even go?”

“Aww,” Javier snickered, running the ring between a couple fingers. “Look Ankh, looks like you’ve got a little girlfriend.”

That, of course, led to more teasing and taunting from the other boys about Ankh having a girlfriend that was at least a year younger than he was. Which was quite possibly the most idiotic thing to taunt someone about that Miranda had ever heard.

Smirking at the rise that had gotten out of his friends, Javier eyed the two. “So, you gonna propose to your little princess, Ankh? If you are, I guess you’ll need to… get this back.” With that, he turned slightly before chucking the thing through the portal.

“No!” Ankh shouted. Clearly not thinking, he dove for the portal as well, going after the ring,.

Javier was in the middle of laughing when Miranda hit him hard from the side. Her hands slammed into the boy’s chest, knocking him onto his back as she snarled, “Jackass.”

Rather than follow that up, however, she went after Ankh. Thinking just as little as he had been, the headstrong girl dove through the portal.

She landed on the other side in what looked like an old, rundown library. Most of the books were gone, shelves were broken and falling apart, and there was a distinct smell of mildew and worse in the air.

“Where are we?” she asked Ankh, who was a few feet away.

He spun around, jerking in surprise. “The fuck–what’re you doing here?!”

“Helping you,” she replied easily. “So where are we?”

Staring at her, the boy worked his mouth. “You… stupid… Damn it, fine, we’re at a place in South Carolina. It’s a–” He sighed. “It’s a stupid game the guys play. You know the enchantments the adults use to lure Stranger pests? The little mindless ones.” When Miranda nodded, he continued. “There’s one of those in here. It lures some dumb little Stranger in, one of the minor ones. Then it shuts off and traps the thing in here. Every once in awhile, the guys send someone in to kill whatever showed up. Like I said, it’s a stupid game.”

“Stupid–that’s the dumbest–that’s… that’s…” Miranda started to rant, too stunned to even think straight. “What if it attracts something worse than–what if–that’s–that’s–”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ankh demanded. “Why do you think I didn’t wanna do this? But I’ve gotta find Grandma’s ring. So help m– wait. Did you hear something?”

The two of them looked up, scanning the room before Miranda pointed. “There.”

It sat in the middle of the corridor, directly ahead of them. At first glance, the thing looked like a particularly mangy German Shepherd. But there were particularly differences. First, it had four eyes instead of two. Its tongue was forked like a snake, and it had two tails.

Most disturbingly, there were two human-like arms with attached hands sticking out of the thing’s chest, partially-hidden by its front dog legs.

“What–” Miranda started, before the boy cursed.

“Damn it! Get the fuck back. Go, go back to the portal.” He waved her away while pulling a heavy-looking machette-like blade from his belt.

“What is–” Miranda was already turning to move back, taking his advice. Unfortunately, the path back to the portal was blocked by another of the creatures. “Uhhh….” A particular shake of her arm made her own weapon appear: a round metal shield that was black with bright green emeralds decorating it.

“Fuck!” Seeing the one there, Ankh snarled. “It’s already started duplicating.

“Duplicating?” Miranda echoed. “What’re you–” Then the single dog-thing in front of the portal was abruptly joined by three others. At the same time, the one on the other side of them became four as well, resulting in eight dog-things.

A second later, the eight became thirty, spread out over both sides of them.

“Only attracts pests, huh?” Miranda had to say.

“Like I said,” the boy retorted, “it’s a stupid, stupid game. They’re gonna keep duplicating until we find the source, the leader.”  

By that point, the man-armed dog-things were already growling. They had duplicated again, leaving dogs spread back as far as Miranda could see through the room.

“Uhhh, you take that side, I’ll cover this side?” she asked a bit weakly.

The boy nodded once. “Right. Good luck. And for the record, those guys are idiots. I totally wouldn’t mind dating someone like you.”

Miranda would have responded, but the first dog-thing was already lunging.

*******

“And somehow,” Vigile Hisao announced some time later as he stood in front of the chair that Miranda was planted in somewhere in one of the Garden interrogation rooms. “You didn’t just survive that attack. You also managed to protect Ankh after he was knocked unconscious. And you killed the leader of the Ksani in the process.”

“The dog-things?” Miranda shifted nervously in her seat. “I guess so, Vigile Hisao. I… um, I just got lucky.”

“Sure you did,” the man replied. “But it was a combination of luck and skill, and I’ll take that any day.”

“Sir?” Miranda blinked up at that. “What–I thought you were supposed to tell me how I was being punished. You know, for going through that portal.”

Vigile Hisao gave a short nod. “You’re right. And your punishment is… three years.”

“I’m sorry?” Miranda looked at him, confused. “Three… three years of what?”

“Of being my apprentice,” he replied. “I need a new one, and the school year’s about to start. You’re seventeen now, which means you need a fresh mentor. Unless you’ve got one in mind?”

“But I–I didn’t… I was… I thought…” Miranda stammered.

Hisao’s eyes softened. “I don’t throw away potential, kid. And you’ve got a lot of it. So unless you want to submit a complaint to the Victors and ask to be taken away from my custody…”

“No, no, no.” Miranda quickly blurted, straightening. “I mean, I just, I didn’t expect…”

The man smiled just a little, gesturing. “I do want one thing in exchange. Lemme see it, what you got.”

Knowing what he meant, the girl paused to focus on the power that she had inherited from the original Ksani. A moment later, another her stood beside the chair, blinking as she came into existence.

“That,” Vigile Hisao announced with a broad smile, “is going to be incredibly useful for you. And, well, it’ll make punishing you with extra chores a little tricky. But I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.

“For now, let’s go for a walk… apprentice.”  

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Interlude 22A – Miranda

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March 17th, 2012 (Just Under Six Years Ago)

“Flick, are you sure they’re gonna come?” twelve-year-old Miranda Wallbern asked her best friend while glancing across the food court table that the two of them were sharing. Right beside them was a railing that overlooked the first floor of the mall below, where they could see people walking.

The blonde girl bobbed her head up and down quickly, eyes centered on that lower area while she absently sipped her soda. “Uh huh,” she murmured under her breath. “They’ll be here, trust me.”  

“Duh, always,” Miranda retorted. “It’s just, we’ve been waiting here for two hours already and we haven’t seen ‘em. We’ve gotta get on the four o’clock bus if we’re gonna make it home before six.”

Saturday or not, six o’clock was dinner, and Miranda had to make it home in time. Unfortunately, the mall they were in wasn’t actually in Laramie Falls, the girls’ hometown. Instead, it was in a larger town about an hour and a half away. If they missed the bus getting back, they’d have to call one of their parents for a ride. And if that happened, they were going to have to explain not just why they weren’t where they were supposed to be, but why they were in a whole different city.

“We’ll make it,” Flick insisted, still not turning her gaze away from the lower level. “Kendall’s gonna be here. That’s her favorite store.” She nodded toward the front of the shop that could barely be seen down there from where they were sitting. “And that sale ends after today. She’ll be here.”

Giving her little blue flip phone a nervous look to check the time once more, Miranda nodded. “Okay, but we’ve gotta leave in an hour if we’re gonna make it to the bus, Kendall or no Kendall.”

Flick opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, a smile formed and she gave a little nod. “See?”

Sure enough, looking that way, Miranda saw the girl in question. Kendall Harver was walking right below them, accompanied by two of her friends/cronies. The trio were pretty much the most popular girls in the eighth grade, two years above where Miranda and Flick were. In their middle school, Kendall didn’t even know that the two of them existed. They were invisible sixth graders.

But after this… well, they wouldn’t be invisible to the girl anymore. That was for sure.

From their seats up on that second floor, Miranda and Flick watched. They caught glimpses of the girls moving back and forth through the store, picking up various clothes here and there. But mostly, they just waited. Eventually, Kendall and her sidekicks brought a stack of their selections to the checkout counter, which was perfectly framed in view from where the girls were sitting.

“Here we go,” Flick announced while holding her hand out. “How long do we have left?”

Digging into the bag at her side, Miranda came out with a camera, handing it to her friend before checking her phone again. “Fifteen minutes,” she announced. “If we run all the way to the bus.”

Flick smiled. “See? Plenty of time.” She took the camera, focusing it on the scene through the store window below. There was a rapid clicking sound as she took several pictures in quick succession, then paused before taking a few more. “Wait… wait…” the blonde murmured, clearly talking to herself as she held off from taking any more for a moment. “Wait for the money shot.”

She didn’t have to wait long. As the clerk in the store totaled u the older girls’ purchases, Kendall reached into her purse and came out with a white envelope full of cash. The second the envelope was opened, Flick started taking pictures again. She took pictures of the cash in the envelope, being taken out of it, being handed to the clerk, and of the clerk carefully counting all of it.

Finally, it was over. Kendall and her friends were handed their purchases, and Flick took a couple more quick photos of the three walking out of the store. Then she straightened and nodded to Miranda. “Time to run?” she asked, smiling brightly from the exhilaration of success.

Returning the other girl’s grin, Miranda’s head bobbed. “Yup,” she replied before adding, “All those pictures, that means we’ve got ‘em, right? And we’re not gonna get in trouble this time?”

“Randi,” Flick replied, standing up from the table. “I promise, we are not gonna get in trouble.”

*******

“You two girls are in so much trouble.

Two days later, Miranda and Flick sat in the principal’s office at their school. Principal Augustine Bonnelly was an older, severe-faced woman who had been the head of the middle school pretty much forever, according to anyone Miranda had asked. She had dark gray hair with flecks of white in it, almost like paint splotches. Her glasses were thick, and she always wore a dark red turtleneck that looked like it was so tight that it should’ve been choking her. Her expression at the best of times was optimistically put as ‘unhappy.’ And right now definitely wasn’t the best of times.

But if she expected Flick to be cowed by her words, the woman clearly didn’t know her at all. Beside Miranda, the blonde lifted her chin stubbornly. “I think you mean Kendall’s in trouble.”

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t correct me, Miss Chambers,” Principal Bonnelly retorted. “We’re dealing with your issue right now. Would either of you care to explain what this is?” Reaching down to her desk, she picked up a piece of paper. Both the front and back were covered with text and a couple pictures, while the title across the top of the front read: ‘FESTIVAL OF FRAUD’.

“It’s a newspaper,” Miranda informed the woman while shifting a little in her seat with a quick glance toward the other girl. “Well, um, sort of. It’s more of a flier, I guess. Cuz we couldn’t make a real newspaper, so we just printed out a bunch of those from the computer in the lab.”      

“A newspaper,” Principal Bonnelly echoed, her voice incredulous. “This is the very same… newspaper, as you call it, that the two of you distributed into every classroom of this school?”

“And every locker,” Flick reminded her. “Every classroom and every locker. Oh, and we put some up on the bulletin board by the trophy case and in the teacher’s lounge too. And there was one left over, so we put that one in that room the janitors hide in so they can smoke. Just in case.”

The woman took a visible breath at that before letting it out. “The two of you plastered these accusations across the entire school, without a single thought about the potential consequences.”

Flick’s head shook. “Nuh uh,” the twelve-year-old insisted with an even more stubborn look. “We thought about the consequences a lot. Mostly consequences for Kendall. You know, for stealing.”  

“Be careful, Miss Chambers.” Principal Bonnelly’s eyes narrowed. “You may be able to write whatever unproven accusations you want to in that ‘newspaper’, but when you’re talking to–”

To Miranda’s horror, Flick interrupted. “It’s not unproven. We have evidence and witnesses. Kendall and her friends took a bunch of money from the carnival and spent it on clothes.”

Sounding like she was really lamenting the fact that corporal punishment had been outlawed, Bonnelly retorted, “Are you referring to the carnival that was meant to raise money for our end-of-year field trip? The one that succeeded? We have the money, Miss Chambers.”

To Miranda’s own surprise, she was the one who spoke then. “Of course it did. They didn’t take all the money. That’d be stupid. As long as they left just enough for the trip, people wouldn’t look too close. If they didn’t, there’d be questions and stuff. People might talk about how much they spent.”

Flick added, “Kendall was the one with the cash box. All she did was walk around once an hour to get the money from all the games and refreshments, and they put the cash in the box.”

“A box,” the principal cut in to add with a note of obvious impatience, “which was padlocked. And Miss Harver didn’t have the key. Are you suggesting that all of the people, many of them adults, who were running those games were in on this scheme, Miss Chambers?”

“Didn’t you read the–” The sound of Flick’s incredulousness that the woman hadn’t even bothered to read through their entire article made Miranda flinch, and she quickly elbowed the other girl.

“Um,” she hurriedly put in, “in case you missed it, we answered that in the story. Kendall was the only one carrying the lock box around, so she knew exactly how much was in there all the time.”

Flick’s head bobbed, and she added on the heels of Miranda’s words. “So when she knew that there was enough in there for the trip, she switched boxes. She had another box, just like that one. She hid the real one and walked around with the fake one so that people would put money in it. At the end of the day, she switched back and gave you guys the first one, the real one. You opened it up, counted the money, and saw it was enough. Then she took the fake box and everything in it. And bought clothes, and other stuff.”

“And your evidence of this is…” Principal Bonnelly prompted, waving a hand impatiently.

Miranda answered first. “We talked to Mr. Jenkins at the store. He said that Kendall bought a box just like the one that was used at the carnival, and a padlock too. Except Mr. Thomas,” she named the eighth grade chemistry teacher, “already bought the box himself. So she bought an extra.”

Flick nodded. “And we talked to everybody that was running booths that day. Jackie Townsend’s dad said that he thought the box was lighter in the afternoon, but Kendall told him that you guys emptied it after lunch. And Tricia Comess said that the padlock was on backwards the first time she saw the box, with the key part facing in. But when she saw it later, the lock was facing out. Oh, and we added up the amounts that people could remember putting in the box, and it’s almost enough to make the field trip by itself, even though a lot of them couldn’t remember. So it should be way over the goal, not just a little bit over.”

“Plus,” Miranda finished while tapping the paper, “We’ve got pictures of them paying for all that stuff at the mall in cash.”

“There’s more pictures,” Flick helpfully added while reaching out to point at the bottom of the page. “See? You just have to go to this website right there and you’ll find them all.”

Heaving a long, annoyed sigh, Bonnelly started, “If you had come to me or a teacher first-”

“You would’ve tried to deal with it quietly,” Flick interrupted. “Just because Kendall’s the star of the soccer team. The one that’s supposed to be going to state. They’ll lose without Kendall, and she definitely can’t play with something like this. Whoever we talked to might try to keep it quiet.” She shrugged then. “So we made sure they couldn’t. You know, by making sure everyone saw it.”

Steepling her fingers, the principal rested her forehead against her thumbs briefly before straightening. “I will be calling the police. Unfortunately, there’s no choice now. But no, Miss Chambers. My thought was that if you had come to me first, I could have ensured that your identities were kept secret. As it is, several students saw you putting up these papers, which means that now everyone is aware of where and who they came from. In your eagerness to spread the truth, you have made targets of yourselves.” Pausing then, she added, “I’ll also be calling your parents to help handle this. Miss Chambers, please wait outside for a moment. I’d like to talk to Miss Wallbern alone.”

Miranda gave her friend a nod of encouragement when the girl looked at her, then waited as Flick left the room to wait in the receptionist’s office.

Once they were alone, Principal Bonnelly took a breath. “Miss Wallbern, I understand that you and Miss Chambers are close friends. But you may wish to… reconsider just how much time you spend with her. She is a… troubled girl, lashing out at authority. It’s understandable, after what her mother did. Yet… it’s also something that she will find a way out of much easier than you will.”

“You mean cuz I’m black,” Miranda finished for her while folding her arms over her chest. “You think Flick’s gonna get us both in trouble, only she’ll get out of it and I won’t because she’s white and I’m black.”

It wasn’t anything all that new for her to hear. Miranda had been the only black girl in their grade ever since her family moved to Wyoming several years earlier. And the rest of the town wasn’t exactly swimming in them. She was used to people staring a bit, was accustomed to those that tried to ‘help’ when the best thing they could’ve done was leave well enough alone.

“The facts are the facts, Miss Wallbern,” the woman informed her. “Unfair though they may be. Miss Chambers’ mother was the sheriff before she… left. She still has friends on the force. Her father is a respected reporter. If things go wrong, you are the one who will bear the brunt of any punishment should someone need to be made an example of.”

“Principal Bonnelly,” Miranda started, “How come you’re acting like Flick and me did something wrong, just cuz we told the truth and found out about someone stealing?”

The woman sighed at that. “Sometimes things are more complicated than we want them to be,” she replied flatly. “I’m not saying that you didn’t… have the right intentions or accomplish something positive. I’m saying that the effects of those actions may come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t foresee. And that it is you who will most likely bear those effects, Miss Wallbern. Fair or not, that is what will happen. So, for your own sake, you may wish to think about just how much trouble you’re willing to let Miss Chambers drag you into.”

“Drag me into?” Miranda echoed. “Principal Bonnelly, Flick doesn’t drag me anywhere.

“We run into it together.”

******

Present Day

 

The stares weren’t subtle. As Miranda made her way through her assigned chores for the day, she felt the eyes on her, heard the whispers, felt the people who made a point of bumping into her as they passed, despite having plenty of room. Over the course of the day, the stares stopped looking away when she glanced in that direction, the whispers grew louder, and the bumps were more forceful. There were a lot of words, but traitor was the one she heard most often.

She knew why. Flick had already let her know what happened, just in case someone from Doxer and Trice’s tribe tried to go for a little revenge. Unfortunately, she had the feeling that Flick had been picturing a lone, fringe element, a single person or small group that would take offense. This was more than that. Most of the worst of it was from Lost Scar people, but not all, by any means.

Everywhere she went, there were people muttering thinly veiled insults and threats. Not everyone by any means, but enough. And most of the ones who didn’t actually say or do anything still simply walked away without intervening. Even some from her own tribe made a point of disappearing.

Things has just been pushed too far. First Hannah (Now Avalon) had killed Torv before escaping from any kind of trial by being taken under the protection of the Crossroads headmistress. Then Abigail Fellows had been brought on and given one of the precious few Eden Apples despite a lot of people saying that she was too old to learn how to fight or do anything productive. And to make things even more tense, Hisao had taken what he called a ‘leave-of-absence’ to teach at Crossroads. Her own mentor had left Garden to teach at the school of their rivals, a school that happened to be attended by her friend. More than a few people had made that connection, and Miranda had found herself pointed at more than once as the reason that Hisao had left.

So not only was she left temporarily mentorless, but all the people at Garden who were pissed off that the man was gone to teach their rivals were pointing at her as the reason behind it. That had been going on for weeks, though she didn’t tell Flick or Hisao anything about it when they talked. There were enough problems going on for them to deal with, serious problems. She could take care of herself.

And now it seemed like this was the tipping point. Doxer was dead. Trice was missing, ostensibly hiding out somewhere to avoid answering for what happened. Two more promising and powerful Garden students were gone, at least one permanently. In less than a year, Torv, Trice, and Doxer had all been lost, with the blame for it falling onto Avalon and Flick, both of whom were under Gaia Sinclaire’s protection. And Hisao, one of Gardens’ best Vigiles, was off teaching for her.

Hisao was gone. Avalon/Hannah was gone. Flick was out of their reach. All of them were protected by Gaia and the rest of Crossroads. The people who were upset couldn’t get near them.

But they could get near Miranda. They could whisper threats and insults, bump into her, and glare. Which would have been fine. She understood their anger, their frustration. She could deal with it if it stayed like that. But it wouldn’t. She knew that. They knew that. The only real question was how long it would take. And the answer was… not very long.

They waited until Miranda wasn’t on her tribe’s branch. She was down on the ground, feeding some of the animals that had to be penned up there, when she heard people approaching. Turning, the girl found herself facing half a dozen figures. Adult Heretics, most of whom had only graduated within the past few years.

All of them were from the Lost Scar tribe.

They had already formed a semicircle, one lifting his chin. “Hey, Wallbern, got a name for you when your birthday comes around. How about Traitor?”

Another boy shook his head. “Crossroads’ Bitch is better. Isn’t that what you are now? Just a little bitch for those other bitches they’ve got. Your mentor went over there, plus you’re like… super-duper-best friends with one of them. A friend who–uhh, what’d she do again?” he prompted, clearly already knowing the answer.

“Killed Doxer,” one of the other boys answered. “Bitch killed Doxer. Probably killed Trice too, they just won’t say so.”

The first boy shook his head. “Nah, I bet Tits McGee killed Trice. That’s why they’re trying to say he got away, cuz killing two guys in the same family… that’s bad news.”

Miranda took a breath, letting it out as she replied, “If Doxer didn’t wanna die, he shouldn’t have picked a fight he couldn’t win.” Pausing, she added, “again. And Trice ran away like a coward.”

“You fucking watch your mouth,” one of the boys snapped, taking a step that way. “Doxer and Trice were out there to get justice from the cunt that killed Torv. Now Doxer’s dead, and Trice is missing. So maybe we’ve just gotta get justice some other way.”

“Maybe,” another guy put in, “we let ‘em know that we’ve got the bitch’s friend right here. See if they’ll pop over for a visit then.”

“Nah,” another one replied, “I’ve got a better idea. We’ll invoke the Right of Reparation.”

Miranda knew what that was. Essentially, it was a way for various individual Garden Heretics to take payment either in monetary goods or blood from another Garden Heretic without getting in trouble for any damages done. When one Heretic invoked the Right of Reparation, they named a price. Sometimes it would be a flat amount, while other times it would be an amount of time that the person they were invoking it against would have to serve as essentially their slave for all intents and purposes. As long as the Right was upheld by one of the Vigiles, the Heretic that they challenged had to either pay that cost/serve them for the allotted time, or choose to face them in a one-on-one arena fight. If they lost the fight, the assigned penalty of either serving time or cost was doubled.

“Yeah,” one of the boys announced, his eyes on her. “We’ll invoke Right of Reparation. All of us, one at a time. Think your friend’ll show up if she finds out you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the arena?”

“Last time I checked,” Miranda retorted, “Right of Reparation means you’ve gotta get a Vigile to sign off on it.”

To that, the assembled Lost Scar boys chuckled. The one who had spoken first reached into his pocket and produced a small golden pin that looked like a spear piercing an apple. “Promoted last week,” he announced. “Looks like I can accept all the Reparation trials I want to.”

“You think anyone else is gonna step in and stop it?” another boy asked. “Look around. Your own tribe ain’t even here. They left you alone on purpose, bitch. After everything that happened, they ain’t gonna step in for you. Not now. Someone’s gotta pay, and you’re the only one here. No one else is gonna throw themselves in the crosshairs just to help you out.”

“So which is it gonna be?” one of them asked. “You gonna call your little friend and get her over here so she can pay for Doxer, or are we just gonna have to start kicking your ass over the arena over and over again until you change your mind?”

“Actually,” a voice started from nearby, “there’s a few problems with that.”

Miranda and the boys assembled around her all looked that way, only to see Abigail Fellows. The thin, older woman stood there with her arms folded across her chest as she stared them down.

The freshly minted Vigile pointed at the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Just be glad you get to walk around our tree pretending to be a real Heretic, and keep your ugly nose out of other people’s business.”

If she was cowed, the woman didn’t show it. Instead, she walked right up to put herself beside Miranda. “You can’t challenge her like that.”

Rolling his eyes, one of the boys snapped, “It’s called Right of Reparation. Just cuz you’re a clueless little Bystander bitch who doesn’t know what she’s–”

“Section Seventeen, paragraph forty-two of the Garden Rules and Standards,” Abigail interrupted. “Unless the accused party can be conclusively demonstrated to have harmed Eden’s Garden in some way themselves, they cannot be held accountable for the actions of those outside of the Garden. Also, section three, paragraph twelve: any connection, familial or otherwise, with members of Crossroads cannot be solely used to hold judgement against any Garden Heretic unless there is some other evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, if Miranda is found guilty of some kind of crime, then you can use her connection to Crossroads against her. But until then, she can’t be judged just because she has a friend who lives there.”

For a moment, the boys just stared. Then one of them sputtered, “That one was–that was written back when we first split from Crossroads. It was just supposed to stop all the infighting about who still had friends there, whose family didn’t come with them, and that kinda shit.”

“Funny, it’s still on the books,” Abigail informed them. “Which means it’s still the law. And Vigiles don’t get to change it. You need the Victors to do that.

“Oh, and speaking of which,” she added pointedly, “page forty-four of the Vigile Regulation Handbook says that they cannot preside over any Reparation trial that they have a personal stake in. And page forty-six says that a single Heretic can’t be challenged more than once for the same thing.”

Still not quite done, the woman pressed on. “Also, on October 29th, 1974, a trial that was brought before the Victors ended with them concluding that any Garden Heretic who is under the age of twenty may pass any challenge made against them to their mentor.”

“Yeah?” one of the boys snapped, “Well her mentor’s not exactly here, is h–”

Abigail cut him off. “Page eighty-two of the Vigile Regulation Handbook states that whenever a Vigile’s duties take him away from Garden for an extended time, he may pass all responsibility for his charge to another adult Heretic.”

“And that,” another voice put in as Seller revealed himself, stepping into view on the other side of Miranda, “would be me. Hi, mentee.” He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” a boy blurted. “You’re not even in the same tribe!”

Seller shrugged at that. “Funny, it doesn’t actually say anything about that. I mean, maybe they assumed that tribes would just stick to their own without it being written down, but the fact remains that it’s not specifically said.”

“So basically,” Abigail summed up for them, “you can’t challenge her because of something that someone outside of Garden did. She can’t be taken to trial just because she has a friend who lives at Crossroads, until she’s tried for some actual crime. You can’t invoke Right of Reparation more than once for the same thing. The Vigile who accepts and presides over the Reparation can’t have a personal stake in it, which you do. And even if you do get past all of that, you can’t challenge her directly, because she’s a minor. You’ll face her surrogate mentor instead.”

“Me,” Seller added. “And I’ll tell you what, I’d be willing to dismiss all those other things if you boys want. We’ll find another Vigile, grease his palms a little so he’ll accept the trial, then see what happens. Which one of you wants to be the first one to give it a shot?”

The answer, apparently, was none of them. They made a few noises about it not being over, and about how they’d make her pay for being a traitor before slinking away.

“You okay?” Abigail asked. “Felicity called. She said you might need a little help dealing with some of the fallout from what happened, so we’ve been trying to keep an eye on you.”

Miranda bit her lip, head nodding. “I’m fine. You didn’t have to do that. Now you’re a target too. They don’t care that much about the rules. If they can’t come at us straight on, they’ll find a quieter way to do it.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Seller informed her. “For now, they’ll back off. Keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself be alone again. Because you’re right: next time, I doubt they’ll announce themselves like that.”

Hesitantly, Miranda glanced to the woman beside her. “How’d you know all that stuff? You only got here a couple months ago and even I’ve never read most of the stuff you were talking about. And I’ve never heard of someone from another tribe being able to step in and be a temporary mentor for someone from another tribe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.”

“Oh sweetie,” Abigail replied with a little smile. “I may be a terrible Heretic as far as all the fighting and killing goes. But this wasn’t about that. This was about rules and laws. It wasn’t about being a Heretic, it was about being a lawyer.

“And when it comes to that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Bystanders.”

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Search And Rescue 14-07

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled BONUS chapter (14-06) posted on Wednesday. If you didn’t happen to read that one yet, this chapter isn’t going to make much sense, so you should click the previous chapter button above before moving on. 

“Hey, Flick.” Tristan spoke up as we made the long walk back toward the Garden tree. He had slowed his own pace until it matched mine, his eyes full of concern. “Are you, uh, are you doing all right?”

I didn’t answer at first. Taking a long, deep breath, I asked myself the same question before looking back to him. “I got to talk to my mom,” I answered quietly, emotion still making my voice shake in spite of myself. “I got to talk to my mother, Tristan. That was the first time since I was… since I was seven that I actually got to talk to her. I’m really happy. I’m so happy I… I keep crying. I’m happy and I’m sad because she’s not here anymore, and she’s still in danger. I’m so… I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel. I’m happy and I’m sad and I’m scared and I… I want her to be okay. I want my mom back.”

Swallowing hard, I flinched at a sudden realization. “But I guess you know what that’s like.” Looking back to him once more, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Tristan. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean that your–”

But the boy shook his head. “Hey, it’s not a competition. I can be glad that you get a chance to talk to your mom, and still wish that we could find mine. It’s not an either-or thing here, Flick.” He gave me another one of those perfect model-worthy smiles. “My parents are still out there somewhere. We’ll find them. Vanessa’s still in full-on research mode, and when she gets a lead, I’m gonna go get them back.”

Nodding, I poked the boy’s chest (while telling myself I was just doing it as part of a spirit of camaraderie and not because he looked so good without a shirt). “And I’ll be there to help you do it.”

Miranda (or one of her, there were others out scouting ahead to make sure that we didn’t run into any of the other Garden people) joined the two of us. Her hand found mine and squeezed. She didn’t say anything. Nothing really needed to be said out loud. It was enough for then that she was there with me.

For a little bit, we walked in silence. My gaze was focused on Koren. The brown-haired girl was walking up ahead, her head down. I wondered how she was dealing with all this. Her father had been murdered and she couldn’t even remember him enough to grieve. Any actual grief she had was at the idea of her father being dead. She had no real memories of him or what he had been like. That was… a kind of horrific that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Some might have said that not remembering her father after his death spared her. I didn’t believe that for a second. She had no nice memories to fall back on. When most people lost someone they loved, they could at least keep the person alive in their memories. Koren couldn’t do that. Thanks to the Fomorian, she had nothing left of her real father.

On top of that, she had spent hours being forced to pump her own mother’s heart to keep her alive, and now the only reason the woman was still alive was because Koren made the choice to have her turned into a Heretic and brought into this world. And all of it, her mother’s condition and the loss of her father, was because the Fomorian wanted Koren. That… yeah, I had no idea how she was dealing.

Then there was Roxa. My eyes moved back behind us to the other girl, who was walking with Mateo on one side of her and Sean on the other while Vulcan and Gidget brought up the rear. Roxa and the other two were deep in conversation, but even simply looking at her made me feel guilty again. All she had wanted to do was be a part of the school, a part of her team. That was gone now, until and unless we got that necklace away from Pace. Thanks to Mateo, she wouldn’t be on her own. But she also wouldn’t be able to be a part of the school. She couldn’t even let pretty much anyone else from Crossroads see her without letting them realize what she was now. Most of them wouldn’t understand.

Roxa and Koren had both lost a lot today. It felt… well, it felt wrong for me to be happy at all. The joy of actually being able to talk to my mother wasn’t just tainted by the fact that she was still trapped by Fossor. It was also dampened because I felt like any happiness I had was betraying the other two.

So, we walked on, spirits not exactly jumping for joy. Occasionally, I would glance up through the giant trees and catch a glimpse of one of the even more gigantic branches of the Eden’s Garden tree. Yeah, the damn thing was so huge that it took us hours to walk back toward the base of the tree even though we could see the branches above us. It was mindbogglingly huge. Technically, if we could’ve gone straight up high enough, we’d be in the tree just by getting to the branch. But Miranda had explained that the branches were all owned by different tribes, most of whom wouldn’t take kindly to our little invasion, no matter how we explained it.

Which meant we needed to keep walking all the way back to where we’d left from. Or close enough that Seller could get involved again without breaking the orders from the Victors. Most of us were lost in our own thoughts, until one of the other Mirandas eventually came jogging back to join us. Waving for us to stop, she explained, “We’re getting close to the tree. You guys should probably wait here while one of us goes in and gets Seller out here to send you uh, where you need to go.” Her eyes glanced toward Roxa briefly.

Nodding, Mateo stepped closer. “Yeah, I’d really prefer not to get into a fight with any Garden Heretics today, if we can avoid it. Besides,” he put a hand down on Roxa’s shoulder, “before we go anywhere, the kid and I still need to talk a bit more about what’s gonna happen when we meet the pack.”

That version of Miranda went off to find Seller, while I hesitated before moving closer to Mateo and Roxa. “Sorry, I know you’re still talking, but I um… I just wanted to say I’m sorry again.” Swallowing hard, I focused on meeting Roxa’s gaze. “I’m really sorry that I… that I helped bring you here. I wasn’t thinking straight, and I forgot about the connection to Tristan. I know you didn’t ask for any of this, and it’s not what you wanted. And you don’t have to forgive me or anything like that. Especially not right now. It’s too soon and too…” Trailing off, I sighed. This was too awkward. “I’m really sorry, Roxa.”

The other girl didn’t say anything for a moment. She just stood there, biting her lip before giving a short, sort of jerky nod. “I know you didn’t mean to,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re sorry.”

Another moment of silence passed before I spoke up, still feeling awkward in spite of myself. “Good luck. And… and like I said, we’ll get the necklace from Pace. We’re not gonna give up on that. Miranda’s gonna keep an eye on her, and as soon as we get a chance, we’ll take it away from her.”

Looking back at me, Roxa was quiet for a few seconds. Finally, she let out a visible sigh, head bowing briefly before speaking in a voice that was barely audible. “Yeah. And if you need help dealing with any of these other problems you’ve got, especially the son of a bitch that’s actually responsible for this, or any of his people, let me know.” Her eyes were hard. “You don’t deserve to have me be as angry at you as I am. I know that. I know, Flick. I just can’t help it. I’m trying, I swear. But those guys, the freak that hurt Koren’s mom and any of his friends, they do deserve it. So if you get a chance to hurt them…”

“We’ll let you know,” I promised. Knowing that was the best I was going to get (and more than I deserved), I added a simple, “I hope things with the pack go okay.” Glancing to Mateo, I exchanged nods with the man before stepping back out of the way so that the two of them could continue talking.

Sean stepped away with me as well, with Gidget and Vulcan trotting over to join us as well. The mechanical cougar gave me a look and a slight whine of confusion until I hesitantly reached out to give her gentle pet. When I stopped after a moment, she bumped her head against my leg until I did it again.

Of course, that meant that Vulcan needed equal treatment. But that was okay, it let me clear my head. Eventually, I looked up to Sean while rubbing both of the robot animals. “Thanks for coming,” I murmured quietly. “I know it’s gotta be really late for you.” Pausing then, I amended, “Or really early. I’ve sort of lost–” In mid-sentence, I yawned wide, surprising myself. “Sorry, lost track, I mean.”

So much had happened since… god, was the last time I had slept really before I’d had Thanksgiving dinner at the buffet with my dad and the others? How was that even possible? It felt like this day had been going on forever. Even with the Amarok’s power, I was pretty much running on just fumes.

Chuckling, Sean shrugged at me. “No problem. We’re teammates, right? You’d be there if I needed you.” He hesitated, eyes glancing over my shoulder and toward Roxa. “Besides, she needed help too.”

Watching the expression on his face for a moment before glancing back toward the other blonde, I realized that he’d come out of more than just obligation. Sean obviously had feelings for Roxa. The realization made me cringe a little bit even as I tried to push that incessant feeling of guilt aside.

Yawning again, I made myself focus. “Mateo, he’ll take care of her, right? Him and his pack, I mean.”

“I haven’t met his pack,” Sean admitted. “I only just let him and my uncle know that that I knew what he was. But I know Mateo. And yes, he’ll take care of her. You can trust him, Flick. He’s not gonna let anything bad happen. Not as long as she’s with him. And Uncle Sebastian’ll be there with her too.”

Before I could say anything to that, Koren joined us. She approached quickly, her gaze focused on the boy beside me. “You talked to Seller, right? Did he say anything about what happened back at my house?” Biting her lip, she added, “I mean, did he say if Dare and the others killed that piece of shit?”

Wincing, Sean’s head shook. “Sorry, we didn’t really get that far. He just gave us the basic stuff.”

“I’m sure they got him,” I started to assure the other girl. “I mean, they had plenty of power there.”

Rather than being reassured, however, Koren just gave me a brief squint before speaking in a thick voice. “I know you’re trying to help,” she said firmly, “but don’t say you’re sure when you’re not.”

“Fair enough,” I admitted. “What I should say is, even if he did get away, it won’t be for long. Gaia and the others won’t let him get away with what he did, Koren. Whether they killed him at the house, or have to hunt him down later, they’ll put him down. After all, killing monsters is what they do.”

Looking away from me, Koren’s shoulders hunched a little, her voice small and quiet. “Part of me wants him to be alive so I can kill him myself. But another part is…” She hesitated, her voice going even quieter than it already was. “… scared. Part of me is scared of him. After everything he did, I… I’m mad, so mad I want to rip his fucking throat out. But he’s just… I’m scared, Flick. I’m scared of him.”

After hesitating a second, I reached out to take the other girl’s hand. Squeezing it, I spoke quietly, my own voice cracking a little. “I know what you mean. I swore that I was going to save my mother from Fossor. But just thinking about him terrifies me. I hate him. I hate him more than anything. But I’m also… I’m also really scared of him. So trust me, I know exactly how you feel. It seems contradictory, like… like if you’re so afraid of someone, you shouldn’t be able to fantasize about killing them.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Koren nodded. “I guess you would understand.” Her hand squeezed mine in return as she straightened up. “I’m glad you were there. I—if you and Deveron hadn’t shown up…”

“I’m glad we did too.” Smiling a bit in spite of myself, I added, “And at least you were here so Mom could meet you. I know a lot of this sucks, but I’m glad you got to talk to her.” My expression fell. “I just wish there was some way that I could actually tell my dad about…” I trailed off, my eyes widening.

“Flick?” Koren and Sean spoke at the same time. She glanced at him before adding, “Are you okay?”

My head was already shaking as I slapped my head. “Oh damn, oh damn, oh damn. Dad is gonna kill me! I was supposed to go over there for dinner, for dinner. And now it’s—fuck, I don’t even know what time it is there. He’s gotta be losing his mind! He probably called the National Guard by now, and–”

Sean caught me by the shoulders. “Flick, Flick calm down. It’s okay. Seller may not have explained much, but he did mention that Gaia took care of any problem with your dad being worried about you.”

Blinking at that, I stopped my panic, but the worry only switched gears. “Stopped him from being worried? Oh god, please tell me they didn’t fuck with his memory again.” I was really getting to the point of hating memory magic with a passion, even if it was done with good intentions. If they absolutely had to do it, I understood. Better that my dad not remember than get himself into trouble. But even then, I still kind of wanted to tell everyone to leave my family’s memories the hell alone.

Fortunately, Sean shook his head. “No, according to Seller, Gaia figured a simpler option was better than using memory magic to solve everything. So she impersonated your voice, called your dad, and told him that you were going to stay there overnight because of some nasty storm that rolled in.”

Koren looked to me. “Good thing there happened to be a bad enough storm to justify th….” In mid-word, she trailed off, looking at both of our expressions before getting it herself. “There didn’t just happen to be a storm, did there?” When we shook our heads, she swallowed. “And there really was a storm, because she wouldn’t take the chance of your dad checking. Which means Gaia actually made… oh.” Her last word was quieter and softer, mouth working a few times before she added, “Wow.”

“Tell me about it,” Sean muttered before looking off to the bushes. “I wonder how far your…” He looked toward one of the Mirandas that was close enough to hear. “… other self had to go.”

She started to answer, but before she could, I spoke up. Without thinking about what I was saying, I replied, “A little over a quarter mile. One thousand four hundred and ten feet.”

They all looked at me, until I realized what I had said. “I mean… wait.”

“Wow, I didn’t know you knew this place that well already,” Tristan had joined us, whistling. “You almost sounded like Vanessa there.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I don’t know it at all. But I know that Eden’s Garden, the tree, is exactly one thousand, four hundred and ten feet from where we’re standing.” My mouth opened and shut and then I got it. “Oh. Wait, is this what I got from the… what did you call that ugly thing?”

“A Blemmye,” Randi answered. “And I dunno. All I got was a little enhanced strength. Barely noticeable.”

“Same here,” Tristan confirmed.

Koren just shrugged. “I killed one, but I’m pretty sure I just improved the healing the Peridle gave me before. I got hit by one of their spears and it healed faster than it should’ve.”

“Try it with something else,” Sean suggested. “How far is your house from here, or the island?”

I thought about it before shrugging. “I’ve got nothing. It’s just blank. Probably because we’re on a different world.”

“What about the spot where we talked to your mom?” Koren put in curiously.

That one came up immediately. “Twenty-four thousand, six hundred and thirty-two feet that way.” I pointed back the direction we had come from. “About four and three quarter miles.”

“Well, that’s pretty useful to avoid getting lost,” Tristan pointed out with a chuckle. “Even if you do have to be on the same world as whatever you’re trying to find. I wonder if you have to know where it is.”

“Can you tell me how far away my room is?” Miranda asked curiously. “You’ve never seen it.”

I thought for a second, then shook my head. “Nope. I guess I need to know where it is first.”

We experimented a little more with it, but before long, there were sounds approaching. One of the Mirandas came back to wave that it was okay, just before Seller and another Miranda appeared.

“My mom?” Koren immediately asked the man in the fancy green suit.

“Still sleeping, still as okay as could be expected,” he answered before his eyes took in Roxa. “So this is the new wolf, huh?” he asked while using a finger to push his sunglasses down a bit so he could watch her over the top of them. “Sorry, kid. Sounds like you’ve got a place to go, at least.”

“Seller,” I spoke up after Roxa had a chance to mutter her response. “What happened back at the house, do you know yet?”

He looked to me first, then toward Koren, who was watching him intently. “Good news and bad news on that front. The good news is, the bubbly one that teaches your class on Strangers killed him.”

“Nevada,” I breathed out while letting that sink in. “Nevada killed him, Koren. She killed the bastard.”

“The bad news?” the other girl insisted, still staring at Seller.

The man sighed. “The bad news is he got off some kind of message first. They don’t know what he said or who it went to. Probably to another one of his people.”

Well that sounded horrifying. At least the one that had hurt Koren so much was dead, though. I didn’t know how much that would help the girl, if at all. But I was glad the one that had done… all that to her family was gone for good.

“Anyway,” Seller gestured. “Lemme send the wolves on their way, then I’ve been told to make sure the rest of you get some actual sleep before anything else happens.” Before Koren could say anything, he added, “And if your mom wakes up, I’ll let you know.”

Turning to Sean, who would be going back with Mateo and Roxa, I hugged the boy. “Thanks again, Sean. Thanks for coming. And thank Mateo.”

“Heard that,” Mateo spoke up, flicking a finger against his ear while winking at me.

“Roxa!” I called, meeting the other girl’s gaze.

Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. We just looked at each other until she gave me a slight nod. “Remember what I said. If you need help, ask for it. I may not be happy, but you’re dealing with some pretty heavy shit. That’s more important. So you need me, I’ll be there. Even if I do kind of want to use my teeth to shake you around a little.” She gave me a weak smile. “But that’s probably the wolf talking.”

Seller went to send them off, and I turned to the others, another yawn escaping me. “I guess he’s got a point. It’s… it’s time to crash.”

Because one thing was for sure. I wasn’t leaving this place until Abigail woke up. I wanted to talk to my sister. I wanted to be there for her as she took all this in. I wanted to help explain things, get her adjusted to the truth.

But first, it was time to sleep for about a bazillion years.

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Search And Rescue 14-05

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If Pace had gone straight back to the tree, our chase would have been over before it had even begun. She and Lemuel had what amounted to an absurd head start. If the psycho-girl had been heading home, there wouldn’t have been the slightest prayer of catching up with them before she was out of our reach.

But she wasn’t going straight home. I remembered Lemuel distinctly saying that they had something else to do. Unfortunately, I had no idea what that something was, where it would take them, or how long it would take. Hell, for all I knew, they had already gone somewhere to leave the forest entirely.

Which meant that, as I sprinted after Roxa and her glider, most of my thought process was being devoted entirely to fervently promising every higher power in the universe all the favors they wanted if they’d just make sure that those two werewolf psychopaths were still close enough for us to find them.

It was a good thing that I had so much adrenaline running through me. Even with the power that I had taken from the Amarok, it had been a long day. Honestly, it was hard to believe it had only been a few hours since everything had happened at Koren’s house. Hell, it hadn’t been much longer than that since I’d had Thanksgiving dinner with my dad, Senny, Columbus, and Shiori. It felt like an entire lifetime.

Still, I shoved away any thought of being tired and kept running. Sleep could happen after we helped Roxa. My eyes stayed locked on the back of the transformed Gidget, only straying to watch out for obstacles. The others jumped over logs and ducked under branches of the lowest trees. I, on the other hand, simply merged with each before coming out the other side. I didn’t even have to slow down.

Eventually, however, Roxa’s board came to a stop. The blonde girl turned her head to look one way, then another. I could see her nostrils flaring a bit as she sniffed. A frown of frustration crossed her face as she started to direct Gidget one way before redirecting her to go back the other direction. Finally, she just shook her head rapidly. “Damn it! I can’t tell. The scent, it was strong before, but it’s been getting harder to follow. And now… I can’t… I can’t tell which way they went.” Again, she sniffed futilely before shaking her head once more while hopping off Gidget. “It’s too faint. I just… I just don’t know.”

Miranda looked like she was about to say something, but hesitated. Glancing to me, she bit her lip before pushing on. “A werewolf has good senses… but they’re better in full wolf form than human.”

Looking toward her, Roxa started to shake her head. “That doesn’t really…” She trailed off, eyes widening as the realization came to her. “Wait, wait. Wait, you’re saying you want me to—you think I should–” She took a step back then, fear written across her expression. “No. No, I can’t. I can’t do it.”

Wincing, Miranda looked to me again before stepping that way. “I’ve seen werewolves change before. It only hurts that first time, I promise. It’s because your body isn’t used to the change. After that initial transformation, the one you’ve already done, it’s a lot easier. Your body knows what to do now.”

Still, Roxa hesitated. She clenched her fists, looking down at the ground for a few long seconds to gather herself before her head turned toward Gidget, who had transformed into her own cougar form. “I guess if you can do it…” Sighing, the girl nodded while looking up. “W-we have to find that bitch. Even if it means… changing…” she trailed off, looking at her hand fearfully, her last word a whimper.

“It won’t be bad,” I promised her. “Remember when you turned human again? It’s like Randi said, only the first change really hurts. Your body has it now. And the more you do it, the faster it’ll probably be.”

Roxa gave me a long, silent look then, biting her lip before speaking in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You said there’s a really long story about this whole thing? I wanna hear all of it when this is over.”

“You will,” I promised. “But right now, we have to find Pace.”

The other girl took a deep breath, then let it out. “I can do this… I can do this…” She clearly had to psyche herself up. Honestly, the fact that she was even willing to try so soon after the agony that she’d gone through the first time was incredible to me. I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to do the same.

After a few seconds of obvious focus like that, the changes started. They stopped almost immediately as Roxa flinched. I was pretty sure it didn’t actually hurt though. She was just psyching herself out because of how much torture her initial transformation had put her through. Still, the girl took a breath.

“Can you guys look away?” she asked in a small voice. We did so, and a moment later the shirt that Roxa had borrowed from Tristan was tossed nearby. I saw Gidget quickly scoop the shirt up in her mouth before swallowing it. Hopefully, she was somehow saving the shirt for Roxa and didn’t just have some kind of irresistible taste for sweaty cotton. We didn’t have a lot of clothes to spare.

Even though we weren’t watching, I could tell that Roxa had started her transformation once more. It seemed to pass much more quickly that time. Still not nearly as fast as I’d seen Pace and her two friends shapeshift, but still much faster than it had been before. Within about a minute, a yipping sound made us turn that way, only to find a fully-formed tawny-colored wolf sitting there inspecting her own paws.

She looked up, head turned toward us before jumping a little in surprise at the realization that she had completed the change. I saw a brief look of hesitation cross her eyes, then Roxa looked away, back the way we had been going. Nose to the ground, she sniffed a few times before starting to bound off.

If Gidget was at all put out or confused by the transformation of her owner, she didn’t show it. As soon as Roxa started running off, the mechanical cougar was right behind her. Which left the rest of us to follow, running through the forest again while trying to keep the two four-legged creatures in sight.

There were other animals in the forest watching us, many of them Alters. I caught glimpses as we were running, often seeing just enough for my Stranger-sense to kick in before the figure would disappear back into the foliage. None of the Alters seemed to want to hang around with a group of Heretics. Not that it was that surprising, considering they were either the nasty kind that didn’t want to pick a fight with a group of alert hunters, or they were the innocent kind that didn’t want to be killed or enslaved.

Unfortunately, just because the forest’s inhabitants were leaving us alone didn’t mean that there was no danger at all. At one point, in mid-sprint I heard Miranda shout a warning toward Koren. My head snapped that way just in time to see one of the smaller (yet still enormous for us) trees starting to tip over toward her. She hadn’t seen it yet, her head just starting to turn that way. Too late, it was going to slam into her.

Without thinking at all, I flung myself that way. My hands lashed out together and I literally shoved the falling tree. The blow stung my palms a little bit, but the tree itself shifted over, landing with a terrifying crash about a foot away from crushing Koren.

The other girl’s eyes were wide as she looked at the tree, then back to me. “Wh-what—what…”

Miranda was already there, grimacing as she held up a frayed rope. “Trap. You triggered it when you went through that bush back there. Some of the… smarter Strangers in here like to set them up.”

Then they were both looking at me, along with everyone else. Even Roxa in her wolf-form was staring.

Biting my lip, I stepped around them and bent to give the fallen tree an experimental push. Then I grasped it and lifted. “Uggnn… heavy. But… uhh…” I had brought it off the ground.

“That thing’s gotta weigh about a thousand pounds,” Tristan managed. “And you can… lift it?”

“Barely,” I grunted before letting it fall, breathing hard. “Uh, I umm, I guess we know what I got from the werewolf, huh?”

We all looked at each other, and Tristan pointed at me. “You’re still gonna have to explain how you managed that. But um, I guess we should keep going.”

Everyone else nodded, and we set off again. This time, we were much more careful to avoid traps.

So intent was I on keeping up with Roxa and Gidget while also watching out for any other falling trees or worse problems,that I almost missed when both of them came to a rather abrupt stop. Skidding just short of tripping over them, I started to ask what was wrong before a hand went over my mouth. Koren was standing beside me, finger raised to her lips before she nodded toward the nearby tree, gesturing for me to look around it.

Frowning, I moved forward, peering around the edge of the relatively small tree. The thing must have been a baby sapling, because it was only slightly bigger than a normal one would have been on Earth. As I put both hands against the bark and leaned around it, my eyes searched for what the problem was.

I didn’t have to look for very long. Just beyond the tree itself there was a steep drop-off that led down into a canyon a couple hundred feet below. And at the bottom of that canyon there was the pair we had been looking for. Pace and Lemuel were standing right there in plain sight, easily within reach.

That was the good news. The bad news was that they weren’t alone. Not in the slightest. No, rather than just the two of them, we could see over a dozen other figures all down there with them. All of them set off my Stranger-sense, and several were still changing out of their wolf forms. So, apparently not only had we found the two we were looking for, but we’d found the rest of their pack as well. Yay.

Miranda reached into her pocket before producing a small, rounded red stone. She held it up, clearly invoking some kind of spell that had been put on the thing. I felt a shiver run through me and my ears popped before the other girl nodded in satisfaction. “There,” she announced out loud, breaking the silence. “Now they can’t hear us down there. Just, uh, try not to go very far away from the rock.”

Clearly, she knew a spell similar to the one that Deveron used on those coins. I vowed silently to make sure she told me how she did that one before shaking my head. “We can’t take that many of them.”

Roxa, meanwhile, had moved behind another tree and shifted back into her human form. Her hand waved out and Gidget went bounding over before opening her mouth to spit up the shirt. It seemed… clean and dry enough, and Roxa quickly pulled it on before emerging. Her gaze was locked on mine, her eyes anxious. We have to!” she blurted. “They’re right there! The bitch with the necklace, she’s there. And Lemuel, the piece of shit who did this to me, he’s just… he’s right there!” The frustration in her voice was obvious and painful to hear. “We have to—we can—we can’t just… we can’t just do nothing!” She turned, taking a step that way as though she was about to charge in there all by herself.

Tristan, however, moved quickly in front of her. “Roxa, no.” He winced, hand up to catch her shoulder. “No. You can’t—listen, we could probably take two werewolves. Maybe one or two more than that if we worked together and got lucky. But there’s not two, three, or four down there. There’s close to twenty. Twenty werewolves. We can’t fight that many. If they knew we were around, we’d get torn apart in seconds.” He looked completely frustrated, but firm. “We can’t fight them right now.”

Before Roxa could argue, I spoke up. “That doesn’t mean we’ll give up. Pace won’t be with that pack forever. We’ll get the necklace from her. Maybe Seller can talk to her tribe, make her take it off so they see… so they see what it is. Whatever it takes, I promise we’ll get that necklace. We’ll get it for you, I swear, Roxa. It’s… it’s the least we can do, after accidentally dragging you here to begin with.”

That was… the wrong thing to say. Roxa stiffened, and I saw confusion cross her face for a moment before she squinted at me intently. “Wait, what do you mean?” she asked slowly and deliberately, taking a step toward me. “What do you mean, accidentally dragged me here? What happened?”

Oh. Apparently she had still been too out of it when Tristan had started to apologize before, while she was a wolf. Wincing, I hesitated before explaining. I told her about how Tristan and I were linked, and that Koren’s mother had needed to be brought here to Eden’s Garden so they could save her life. I explained that I’d forgotten about the link to Tristan, so he’d had no idea what was about to happen.

Finally, I finished with a quiet, “So I guess since you happened to be touching him, it dragged you along too. I’m sorry, Roxa. I was just… I wanted to help Koren’s mother, and everything happened so-”

That was as far as I got before Roxa was right in my face. Her teeth were bared, already changed into canine fangs as a furious growl erupted from her. I jerked backwards, my back hitting the nearby tree.

“You!” she blurted, eyes filled with anger that I honestly couldn’t blame her for. “You brought me here?! You made me fall right into their laps, you put me, you… you…” Her growl deepened then.

Miranda and the others were already starting to intervene, but I held a hand up to stop them without taking my eyes off her. “I’m sorry, Roxa,” I said firmly. “I am so, so sorry. If I had just called to warn Tristan, if I’d thought… but I didn’t. I just wanted to save Koren’s mother. I forgot about the link. It’s my fault. It is. But I swear, I won’t stop until we find that necklace for you. We will get it away from her.”

Roxa just stared at me, teeth bared. Her growl slowly subsided until the girl turned away. Her shoulders hunched up and I could see how much of an effort she was making to control herself until she finally took a step away from me. Her fist came up and she punched a nearby tree hard enough to actually put a hole in it. The girl’s shoulders were literally shaking as she fought to keep her anger in check.

“All… I wanted…” she started then, “was a place to belong. All I wanted was…” Rather than finish that sentence, Roxa just trailed off while shaking her head. She gave the tree another punch, this one much more half-hearted before slumping backward. Her head was lowered. “Now what? I can’t go back to Crossroads like this. What about my team? What about my friends? They’ll kill me if they see me. What am I supposed to do, live here? Any Strangers that see me will know I’m a Heretic. And any Heretics that see me will know that I’m a werewolf. What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?! There’s—there’s nothing. I can’t do anything. No one is going to want me around, no one!”

“That’s not true.”

My mouth had opened, but it was a different voice who spoke up before I could say anything. Someone who hadn’t been here before. My gaze snapped that way, and I found two figures standing nearby. At the sight of the nearest, my eyes widened and I blurted, “Sean?!”

Sure enough, the boy was there. And he was accompanied by a rather short, thin man that was clearly just as Hispanic as the boy he was with. At the first sight of him, my Stranger-sense started yelling.

“Hey, guys.” Sean held up both hands to stop anyone from moving. “Listen, this is uhh, this is my uncle’s boyfriend, Mateo. Mateo, this is Flick, Koren, Tristan, Roxa, and umm… wait…” He paused.

“Miranda,” I introduced them, staring. “How did you—what did–” Then I got it. “Gaia.”

I had no idea how Gaia had known what happened or that she needed to send for Mateo, or even how she knew the man at all. But by that point, I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

Mateo nodded, his gaze on Roxa, who was staring at him with wide eyes. “She sent the man named Seller to find us. He explained what had happened, and said that the little one might need some help.”

Quickly, we explained what had happened. Mateo took a step closer to the edge of the canyon, peering down that way for a few seconds before turning back. He was already shaking his head. “That’s a trained pack down there, and they’re ready for a fight. No way you get anywhere near the girl.”

Roxa slumped down a bit at that, her gaze downcast. “So I’m stuck. I have nowhere to go.”

Mateo reached out then, but rather than hug or even pat her, the man flicked her forehead. It was just a light tap, but it got her attention. “Hey,” he started. “You really wanna spend time feeling sorry for yourself?”

Roxa’s head shook immediately. “No,” she said sharply, as though it was abhorrent. “No, I—I’m sorry. I don’t. I just… I just… don’t know what to do.”

“You want others to feel sorry for you?” the man asked then. When Roxa’s head shook again, he smiled faintly. “Good. Because if I’m gonna introduce you to my pack, you’re gonna have to be tough.”

It took Roxa a few seconds to catch onto that. “Introduce me to… wait…”

Mateo smiled and cuffed her lightly against the shoulder. “You didn’t think I just showed up to tell you how screwed you were, did you?” He sobered then. “I ahh, I know you didn’t ask for this. And I know if you get this… this necklace thing, you’ll want to go back to the school of yours. But if you need a place to stay, my home is open to you. And my pack is yours to run with.”

Roxa’s mouth opened and shut a few times before the girl gave a little shudder. She swallowed hard, then nodded once. It was clear that she didn’t trust her voice. Then she glanced toward me. “I—Flick–”

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “I know why you’re mad. But I promise, we’ll find the necklace. We’ll get it.”

Mateo stepped away with her then, to explain what they were going to have to do. Meanwhile, I looked toward Sean. “So Seller just showed up and transported you here?”

The boy nodded quickly at that. “Yup, he um, he sort of half-explained what was going on. But he left a lot out. There was… something about your…” He stopped talking then, eyes flicking toward Koren. “I mean her mom?”

“It’s a long story.” I sighed. “We need to get out of here before Miranda’s silence spell wears off and that army of wolves down there hears us. Because I’m pretty sure this little knife isn’t gonna do much.” I pulled the silver blade out, gesturing with it.

That’s how you killed that wolf?”

I nodded, turning it over in my hand. “Yeah, that uh, monkey thing brought it to me.”

“Monkey thing?” Tristan and Miranda both spoke together, staring at me in confusion.

Nodding once more, I turned in a circle. “Uhh, yeah, the thing that was… oh, there it is.” I gestured with the knife toward the gold and red figure that sat in a nearby tree, watching us. “Hey, buddy. You want your weapon back?”

Tristan looked up, then laughed. “That’s not a real monkey, Flick. That must be Gaia.”

I blinked, looked at the figure, then back to the boy. “Uhhh… Tristan… that’s a–”

“I mean, it’s a spell,” he explained. “Nicholas showed it to me. Look, it’s an advanced spell, I never learned how to do it. But basically, you start by taking a block of wood. When you cast the spell, it turns the thing into… well, some animal. The animal’s different with everyone, but every time you cast the spell, it’ll be the same one. Then you sort of… see through the thing’s eyes and control it. That must be how Gaia knew what was going on.”

“But it sets off the Stranger-Sense,” I pointed out.

He nodded. “That’s one of the side effects. Actually, that’s part of why the spell always makes one of the colors of the resulting animal that bright ruby red. It’s one of the signs that you’re looking at the… damn, I can’t remember what he called the spell.” Tristan thought for a moment before shaking his head. “Anyway, the animals that come out of the spell are always the same for the person casting it, and they’re always red combined with the color of that person’s Heretic-aura.”

I started to nod at that, but then Koren shook her head. “It’s not Gaia,” she said quietly. “I’ve seen um, I’ve seen her do that before. It’s the same gold and red color like that, but hers looks like a cat. And if it’s always the same animal, then…”

Frowning at that, I shook my head. “Well, it’s been useful and helpful the whole time. Maybe…” Turning that way, I called, “Seller?”

The monkey hopped to the ground, staring at me while coming forward.

“Seller?” I repeated. “That’s you, right?”

Slowly, the monkey reached out, sticking a finger in the dirt before starting to scribble that way. I realized after a second that it was writing letters. Gradually, there were two words scrawled there in the dirt.

My Felicity.

The knife fell from my hands, hitting the dirt. Someone else said something, but I didn’t hear them. Slowly, I looked up from the words in the dirt to the monkey that crouched there. Something thick had settled in my throat, but I still managed to speak a single word past the sudden rush of tears that blinded me.

“…. Mom….?”

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Search And Rescue 14-04

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So, apparently neither the bastard werewolf nor the ugly face-in-chest Blemmye that I had killed had ended up giving me super-nurse-healing-caretaker powers, because nothing sprang to mind about how to help poor Roxa deal with what was happening to her. I was frozen for a moment, staring uncertainly.

While I was frozen, the girl jerked against the ground, her hand shrinking slightly into more of a paw shape as a brand new shriek of agony escaped her. And in that moment, I shoved all that doubt aside.

My hand moved to stroke through her hair tenderly while I put one hand on her bare back. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, feeling a wretched guilt tear itself through me at the sight of her agony. “I’m so sorry.”

Roxa gave another heavy shudder, a terrible wail escaping her as she arched her back against me. I saw bits of fur sprouting all along her skin, pushing their way out while she made a sound of abject misery.

“Oh god, I’m sorry, Roxa. I’m sorry.” Cringing, I tried to hug the girl to me without interfering with what was happening. She had to get through it. As awful as it clearly was, the best thing was to get it over with. I just wished that there was something I could do to make it easier for her. Anything at all.

Just as another sob of agony tore its way out of the tortured girl’s throat, something touched my other arm. I jumped a little bit reflexively, but glancing that way revealed the same gold and ruby-colored monkey from before. There was a somber look in his eyes, while he held something out to me.

My eyes flicked to the thing the monkey was holding, and I saw a bowl-shaped leaf. There was water in it. While I stared for a brief second, the monkey pushed the leaf up toward me with an urgent sound.

Realizing what it wanted, I took the bowl-leaf and brought it to Roxa’s mouth. It was already partially transformed, but when I held the water close, she opened up. I poured the water in slowly, letting her swallow in between gulps. Meanwhile, the monkey had scampered off again, back into the bushes.

Giving Roxa a bit more water, I rubbed her back, whispering softly to her. I wasn’t even sure what I was saying beyond trying to be as reassuring as possible. Every time she cried out, every time she whimpered or spasmed in pain, I held onto her and promised that it was going to be okay, that she’d be okay. It was all I could really do, offering encouragement and trying to soothe her as much as possible.

After a minute of that, the monkey returned once more. My eyes glanced that way to find the thing carrying another leaf. This time, however, when it held the leaf up there were small blue berries inside rather than water. Before I could even ask what it was doing, the monkey set the leaf down and carefully picked out one of the berries. Holding it close to my face, it squeezed hard to pop the berry. As it did so, a tiny little bit of light blue smoke shot out of the crushed berry. I recoiled in surprise, but when the smoke came close to my nose, I felt… better. A little bit of the tension left my body, and a curiously pleasant sensation ran through me. It almost felt like… like… “Anesthetic,” I gasped out loud.

My eyes darted between the berries and Roxa before I picked up one of the little bits of fruit. Rolling it between my fingers, I brought the berry close to the girl’s face and pushed in on it to pop the thing. As the resulting puff of smoke emerged, Roxa jerked just like I had. Then, also just as I had, she slumped a little bit. A gasp escaped her, and her eyes opened just a little bit. There was still pain there, but she seemed a tiny bit more aware. “Wha–” she managed before moaning in pain. Her eyes flickered a little.

“It’s okay, Roxa,” I promised her. “I’m here. I… I’ll keep you safe, I promise. I promise, you’ll be okay.” I held her close, running a hand through her hair as she shivered. I didn’t know if she really understood, but the girl seemed to lean a bit closer into me so maybe she at least got the basic gist of my intention.

I began to ration out the berries then, using another one on her only when the pain seemed to be getting unbearable. It felt awful, and part of me wanted to use each one the second she showed any signs of pain. But I knew that there couldn’t be an unlimited supply. These berries had to last through her entire transformation. So I resisted the urge, carefully doling them out one at a time as gradually as I dared.

Time seemed to drag on as poor Roxa very gradually continued her transformation. The back of her head had already mostly finished reshaping itself before her ears began to slide ever-so-slowly up along her skull. Her body was entirely covered in tawny-colored fur by that point, even though she retained enough of her human features to be recognizable. Her moans of pain were gradually becoming whimpers more akin to the wolf that she was turning into. And through it all, I did everything I could to assure the girl that she wasn’t alone. I held her, used the berries to ease her suffering, and whispered encouragement. I promised her that I wasn’t going to leave, that she would make it through this change.

Even the monkey seemed to be trying to soothe Roxa. It sat on the other side of the girl, rubbing her gently with its own paw while making soft, somehow encouraging chittering noises under its breath.

Finally, I was sitting there with a fully-formed wolf lying in my lap. Roxa’s head was against my stomach as she lay there panting heavily. For a few seconds, she didn’t move. I just ran my hand down her side, essentially petting the changed girl while telling her that she’d made it, that she was okay.

After a minute of that, her head turned a little and I saw the wolf take a little sniff of the air. Her eyes opened to look at me, blinking twice as she clearly fought to understand what was happening. Then she got it, those eyes widening as a yelp escaped the wolf. She jerked upward, scrambling over in her rush to get away from me. Unfortunately for her, she wasn’t exactly accustomed to moving on four legs yet. They all got tangled up with each other, and the wolf tumbled over onto her side in the dirt with a yowl.

“Roxa!” I quickly jumped to my feet, hands raised in front of me. “Roxa, it’s all right. It’s okay. I know. I know it’s you, I know you’re not… listen, it’s okay. I’m not trying to hurt you, I swear. I know what they did to you. I know you’re not an evil monster, okay? Just focus. Look, I’m not attacking you.”

The wolf backed up another step after regaining her feet, her eyes clearly wary as her ears began to flick all over the place. She started turning her head in every direction, clearly hearing things from much further away than I could. The wolf’s senses were overwhelming her, in addition to her obvious fear about being found by a Heretic. I had to do something, say something that would calm her down.

Before I could find the right words, however, Roxa abruptly spun around the opposite way. Her ears were laid flat back against her head as she let out a warning snarl that seemed to surprise her as much as it did me, because it stopped almost immediately while she made a noise of obvious confusion.

It wasn’t a threat that emerged from the trees, however. It was Tristan, Miranda, and Koren. All three of them looked pretty haggard and beat up, and Tristan was holding a wound in his side that was bleeding.

“Flick!” Miranda called out, taking a step that way before stopping short as her eyes found the wolf. Her eyes fell and she made a noise of realization. “That’s her… she finished changing,” she murmured.

“You guys knew?” I blurted, looking from them to Roxa. The wolf was snapping her head back and forth, clearly nervous about everyone being around her. Considering what she had to be thinking, I couldn’t blame her. “Roxa,” I said quietly, taking a step before stooping down on one knee. “It’s okay. No one here wants to hurt you. We know you’re not evil, I promise. We are not going to hurt you.”

Tristan had taken a step forward as well, his face falling. I saw anger there. “Yeah, we knew,” he muttered. “We saw a couple werewolves on our way. The big one said… well, he said enough. I tried to kill him, Roxa. I hurt him, but he…” The boy grimaced, glancing down at the wound in his side that was still busy healing. “I gave him about as good as I got, and he ran. I would’ve chased them anyway, but… but I wanted to get here.” His hand moved out, palm up for the wolf to sniff. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Roxa. If I’d known that I was about to be dragged here, if I could just… not…” He looked away then.

Honestly, I knew how Tristan felt. The guilt was an awful pit that sat in my stomach. Roxa looked back and forth between us, a confused whine escaping her. In the midst of that whine, her snout abruptly began to shrink. I blinked at that, briefly confused (it had been a long day). But as the fur on her body began to retract and her paws elongated, I immediately understood. “Oh!” Straightening, I stepped around her while waving my hands for the others to turn around. “Guys, uh, little privacy for her?”

The change still wasn’t as quick as the other werewolves had. It took a couple of minutes while the rest of us looked away. But at least Roxa didn’t seem to be in any pain while doing it. She made a few confused and worried noises, but the agony wasn’t there anymore. That was something, at least.

While we were waiting, I looked toward the others. “You really saw the other two wolves?”

Tristan nodded, moving his hand away from his side and lifting his shirt a bit to show that it had almost fully healed. “Like I said, I took a chunk out of that son of a bitch. Wish I’d had something silver to finish him off. But I didn’t, and he just healed too damn fast. Then he and that other wolf ran off.”

“Are you okay?” Miranda pressed. “They said there was another one. The way they talked, they left him behind to…” She trailed off, her worry obvious as she stared at me, hand moving to touch my arm.

I nodded at that, glancing back to her. “They left one of them behind to stop me. But… I killed him.”

That got all three of them looking at me with obvious surprise. Koren was the one who blurted out what they were thinking, asking incredulously, “Killed him? How? You didn’t have silver either, did you?”

My head started to shake, but before I could say anything, Roxa cleared her throat behind us. “Um. Uh.” There was a mixture of fear and uncertainty in her voice. “Could… could I um, I’m sort of…”

Tristan immediately pulled his borrowed shirt up and off, tossing it over his shoulder without looking that way. “It’s sort of bloody and there’s a bit of a hole in the side, but it should help at least a little bit.”

After the other girl had a moment to pull the shirt on, we turned around. She was there, looking dirty and disheveled as she stared at us. Even now, I could tell part of her wanted to bolt and run for it. She was on the tip of her toes, shifting her weight as she stood there wearing just the shirt that came to her mid-thigh. As she spoke, her eyes darted between all of us. “Flick–Koren… Tristan… You… You know what happened. You know what I am, what they did to me. But you… you’re not…” she trailed off, frowning uncertainly for a moment before demanding. “You’re not trying to kill me. Why? Why aren’t you trying to kill me?”

“It’s a long story,” I informed the girl quietly. “But I promise, we know you’re not suddenly evil. And we’re not going to try to kill you. I—listen, right now, you’re in the forest outside of Eden’s Garden.”

Her eyes widened, and she looked, if possible, even more confused. “Eden’s Garden?” Her eyes darted past us, up to the giant trees and back before blurting, “you mean the place the bad Heretics are from?”

Miranda made a noise that I realized was a chuckle after a second. “That’s okay, we call you guys the lazy Heretics. So I guess we’re even.” She focused on the girl then. “The name’s Miranda. I’m one of those ‘bad Heretics.’ But I promise, we’re not that bad. Just different. You know, like other sports teams. Or countries, I guess.” She frowned thoughtfully before sighing. “But you’re not safe here either.”

“They don’t outright kill every Alter,” I explained to Roxa. “But they don’t treat them very nicely either.” She looked more confused, and I belatedly added, “Alters are what Strangers call themselves.”

Poor Roxa’s mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “What’s going on?”

I started to say something, then stopped. That repeated twice more before I just sighed. “There’s a lot to tell you, Roxa. I’m sorry you got dragged into this. Really. I… there’s so much we have to talk about.”

“Why don’t we start at the top?” Tristan suggested. “First of all, Strangers aren’t all evil. As uh, you may have noticed from the fact that you don’t have the irresistible urge to maul and devour all of us.”

Roxa’s head shook. “I don’t understand. Why would they teach us that they’re evil if they’re not? Are we… I mean, are Heretics…” Trailing off, she lifted her gaze to stare at us. “Are Heretics the bad guys?”

I sighed. “It’s a lot more complicated than that. There are good and bad guys on both sides. Like I said, there’s a lot to talk about. But the fact is, you’re not any more evil than before and you’re not alone.”

“Not alone?” she blurted. “I’m a werewolf. A werewolf. You know, the kind of thing you’re supposed to kill as soon as you see me?”

“But I’m not,” I pointed out. “None of us are, see? Like I said, it’s more complicated than that. But listen, you’re not alone. You know Sean? His—he knows a werewolf too. He knows a werewolf that isn’t evil, just like you’re not, okay? You’re not alone.”

Biting her lip, the other blonde girl seemed to consider that for a moment. “But the other Heretics, they’re not like you, are they? They’re not going to listen. And as soon as they see me, they’ll know.”

Grimacing, I nodded. “There’s others that know the truth, but… yeah, most of the Heretics will try to kill you as soon as they see you.” I took a breath. “That’s why we have to find Pace, as soon we can.”

That brought everyone’s eyes around. Miranda squinted at me, clearly confused. “Pace, you mean Trice’s psycho friend? Why do we need to find her? What does she have to do with any of this?”

“She was the other wolf,” I informed them quietly. “The one that was with the big guy Tristan fought.”

“What?!” Miranda was staring at me with wide eyes. “What does that—you mean she wasn’t changed just recently? But I’ve seen her, how does—she’s not a Stranger, I’ve seen her. Plenty of people have, and she’s not—I mean she doesn’t set off…” The implications were setting in as she went silent.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “She’s got some choker necklace thing that hides what she is. It makes it so that the Heretic Stranger-sense doesn’t pick her up. Trust me, I know. I tried to grab it, but… they got away.”

Another noise in the bushes made us all spin that way defensively. This time, there was a glint of metal before another familiar figure came trotting into view, looking absolutely pleased with herself.

“Gidget!” Roxa cried out, dropping back to her knees as the mechanical cougar came bounding up to her. She threw her arms around her pet/weapon, hugging the robotic cat. “How did you get here?!”

My mouth opened then shut as it came to me. “Gaia,” I managed. “She must’ve sent Gidget to help.”

The other girl’s eyes snapped up to me while she clung to the metal cougar’s neck. “Gaia… she… she’ll… want to kill me now. She’ll take Gidget away.”

My head shook reflexively. “No she—I… like I said, it’s a long story. But we need to find Pace. We need to find her and get that necklace away from her. If we can get it, then you… you won’t have to run away. You can come back to the school with us.”

“That’s not gonna be easy,” Koren pointed out. “It’s not exactly a little forest.”

“And if she gets back the Tree,” Miranda added, “there’s no way we’ll get it off her. Trust me, they will not believe us if we tell them she’s a werewolf. Her tribe and mine don’t get along much to begin with. If we start throwing those kind of accusations around, it’ll just get worse.”

Groaning, I put my hand to my forehead. “So we have to find her before she gets back there. We have to catch her out here in the forest.”

“She can’t be too far away,” Roxa said quietly before visibly sniffing the air. “I can still smell her.”

We stared for a moment before Tristan blurted, “The werewolf senses! You can still smell her because of the wolf—wait, can you track her down?”

“It’s… I’m not sure…” Roxa looked doubtful, afraid as she abruptly stopped sniffing at the realization of what she had been doing.

“Rox,” Tristan stepped that way, putting both hands on the side of her face as he knelt beside her and Gidget. “It’s okay. It’s all right. You can do it. Those senses you’ve got now, it’s no different than when you absorb powers from a Stranger, okay? You’re still you. The werewolf isn’t going to make you evil. You can do this. We’ll get that necklace for you. But we need your help. We need you to track her down, okay? We need you to help us help you.”

Visibly calming as she stared at him, Roxa finally swallowed. “I’ll do it,” she murmured. “I’ll track her.”

She turned then, hesitating before making a whistling noise at Gidget. The cougar immediately sprang into action, jumping in front of her before transforming into her hover-board form with the weapons platform attached.

Stepping up on her ride, Roxa had it float just a little off the ground so that she wouldn’t have to walk on bare feet. Then she nodded her head. “It’s… her trail goes this way.”

The rest of us looked at one another, then started to follow at a jog that quickly picked up into as close to a run as we could manage through this forest of increasingly thick underbrush. We had to find Pace and get that necklace off of her.

But it wasn’t going to be easy. She and Lemuel had a head start and they knew the forest better than we did. They had most of the advantages in here, including time. We couldn’t let any other Heretic see Roxa and realize what she was until we found that necklace.

Meanwhile, all I could do was hope, with each running step, that we wouldn’t be too late.

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Search And Rescue 14-02

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Damn it, damn it, damn it. We had to find Roxa! We had to find her before… before anything happened.

With my staff in one hand, I jogged through the giant forest. Instead of taking the time to go around the tree ahead of me (itself about three hundred feet high and a solid forty feet wide) I just ran straight into it. At the last second, I used the wood-walking power that I’d absorbed on the Meregan world. Rather than face-planting straight into the tree on that next step, I melded with it. It was, as usual, a strange sensation of being able to see through a fishbowl-like image of the area around where I had merged.

The nearest branch of the tree was a good hundred and fifty feet up, but it only took me a few seconds to somehow traverse that distance after directing myself that way. I popped out of the tree, landing in a crouch on the edge of the enormous branch itself. From that height, I surveyed the area around us.

There was no sign of Roxa, though the compass insisted that we were going the right way when I glanced at it. Ahead, I could see a couple of the Miranda duplicates picking through some of the bushes to make sure we weren’t jumped by anything unexpectedly. Meanwhile, the others were working their way around the tree. Koren had passed the message-tube to Tristan, and he was taking his turn shouting into it. Not that I could hear what he was saying, but if Roxa was anywhere nearby, she would.

If she was in any condition to hear anything at all, my annoying brain insisted on reminding me.

Ignoring that, I kept looking, eyes straining for anything useful. It was hard, not just because of the thick foliage we were moving through, but also because my eyes kept being drawn to every incredible sight. Every tree that towered high above us, every flower that was an impossible color, every hint of movement that drew my eyes before whatever had made it escaped back into the safety of the leaves.

I saw a bird that was as big as a small horse, its feathers bright purple and yellow as it flew through the air above me. I saw a dark green snake with two separate heads work its (their?) way along the branch of another tree. I saw what looked like an elk, only it was twice as large as it should have been, and appeared to be made entirely of unmelting ice. I saw all of that and more, my Stranger-sense constantly warning me about what these things were. Yet I didn’t move to attack them. I just watched for a second.

Still, the thought of Roxa erased pretty much any enjoyment I could have gotten out of this little tour. Sobering, I was about to move on when a sudden chattering noise startled me. Jerking in place, I spun with the staff up, only to see a monkey perched a few feet away. This wasn’t just any monkey, though. The thing was essentially shaped pretty much like a white-headed capuchin. Except, in this case the ‘white’ part that made up his head, upper arms, and neck was actually a beautiful gleaming gold color. Meanwhile, where the rest of a normal capuchin’s body would be black, his was a metallic ruby red.

For a second, the monkey and I stared at each other. My Stranger-sense was going off, though it wasn’t freaking out nearly as much as it had at more obvious threats. This one was more of a mild warning.

“Hey, buddy,” I started. “Don’t worry, I’m just looking for my friend. I don’t suppose you’ve seen–”

The gold and ruby-colored capuchin screeched at me before flinging itself off the tree branch. A few feet into its fall, the thing extended its hands and somehow reversed course. For a second, I thought the damn thing was actually flying as it zoomed up through the air, straight to one of the other branches.

Then it held one hand out, and a stick that had been discarded further down the branch flew straight to it. The thing shoved the stick into its shoulder, clearly scratching itself while staring at me curiously.

It hadn’t been flying, I realized. The monkey had some kind of power that let it either pull itself toward wood, or pull wood to it. It was obviously a useful ability to have in a giant forest like this.

Oh well. Speaking of useful abilities, I saluted my little monkey observer before taking a running start off of the branch. Flinging my body into the air similar to the way he had done, I let myself fall for a few seconds before triggering the charge on my staff. The explosive blast rocketed me up and forward, propelling me just far enough to reach the branch of the next tree. Technically, I reached far enough to have impaled myself on it. But rather than let that happen, I used the wood-walking power again, disappearing into the branch. Another thought sent me all the way along it, through the trunk of the tree and out along a branch on the opposite side before I popped back out again. The others were just passing below me, and I straightened before giving another look around this incredible forest.

Still nothing. Nothing that indicated Roxa was anywhere nearby, anyway. With every minute that passed, I was getting even more worried. The longer we took to find the girl, the more certain it was that something much less savory than us would find her. And I really didn’t want to think about that.

Tristan’s voice came to me then as the boy shouted into the tube so that only I would hear. “Anything?”

Looking down that way to them, I raised my left hand and shook it back and forth. The left arm was our signal for a negative, since it would’ve been a bit hard to see head movements from that far away.

Tristan didn’t respond to that, but he did pick up the pace even more than before. We continued that way, with Mirandas clones scouting ahead while I watched from above by flitting between the trees, using my power and staff in conjunction to move faster than the others could down on the ground.

Every once in awhile, I’d catch a glimpse of that pretty monkey following after me, clearly curious about what I was doing. Whenever I looked that way, the thing would scamper off with a chitter.

Finally, one of the Mirandas emerged from the bushes holding something. I couldn’t see what it was, but Koren looked up toward me and waved her right arm, the signal that they found some kind of clue.

Melding myself with the tree I was perched on, I zipped all the way down to the ground before popping out in mid-jog. I ran that way, practically tripping over myself. “What? What is it, what’d you find?”

Miranda held the thing out for me to see. An arrow. “There’s others,” she informed me. “They’re all through those bushes over there, along with human footprints and hoofprints. Centaur hoofprints.”

“Centaurs firing arrows at a human?” I managed before blanching. “That’s not good. Really not good.”

“But aren’t centaurs supposed to be like… wise forest elders or whatever?” Koren demanded. “Why would they just start shooting at some—oh right, Heretics hunt, kill, and enslave them. Never mind.”

“Clearly you’ve been reading the wrong stories,” Miranda informed her. “Because they’re also a lot more violent to intruders than you might think, even without the Heretic thing. Centaurs are incredibly territorial, not to mention proud and hot-tempered. Add in the Heretic bit and… well, it’s not good.”

“Was there any blood?” I asked, already afraid of the answer. “And did they… take her anywhere?”

“No blood,” another Miranda spoke up while coming out of the same bushes where she’d obviously been looking around some more. “And judging from the tracks, the centaurs were obviously chasing her. I can’t tell if they caught up yet, they keep going that way.” She gestured off into the distance.

Even as she finished speaking, Tristan was starting to move. He’d just taken a step when the hair on the back of my neck stood up. That was followed immediately by a loud screech from high above as the monkey that had been following me for the last little while screamed an obvious warning.

Instantly, I spun around with my staff already up and swinging. There was a flash of something long and sharp flying toward me just before my staff smacked into the thing to knock it out of the air. As it fell to the ground, I finally saw what it was: a spear. I had smacked a spear out of the air about a second before it would have gone right through my chest. The sight made my eyes widen as a slight yelp escaped me.

“Flick!” Miranda was beside me even as two more spears came flying at us. She had produced a round metal shield on one arm. It was about two feet across, and black with emeralds adorning the front.

The spears were coming in at slightly different angles. Miranda held her shield up toward one and there was a flash of light before she turned it toward the second. Where the shield had originally been, there was a glowing green circle of energy: a forcefield. She repeated the same maneuver again, creating a second circular forcefield the same size as her shield in the path of the other spear. Both of the incoming projectiles smacked off of the glowing green energy like they’d hit an actual wall.

As soon as the spears were down and no longer a threat, Miranda turned her arm and made a hard throwing gesture. Rather than physically tossing her actual shield, however, it was the forcefields that she had created that went flying off into the trees toward where the spears had come from. There was a crash and a bellow of pain just before a figure came storming into view with a spear held in each hand.

At first, I thought that it had its head tucked down against its chest or something. Belatedly, however, I realized that the thing had no head. It was shaped roughly like a human with two legs, two arms, and torso, but where the neck and head should have been, there was just a relatively flat surface.

Not that the thing didn’t have eyes. It had them, they were just high up on opposite sides of its chest and about twice as large as a normal human’s. There was a burn mark from one of the forcefields just under the left eye where Miranda had nailed the thing, and it looked about as pissed off as possible.

The damn thing was also naked and, well let’s just say ‘heavily endowed.’ The amount of euuuuch was impossible to over-state. I was going to need an entire bathtub full of bleach when this was over.

Then its chest and stomach split open vertically, from just a little below the eyes all the way down to the thing’s waist. It was like a doctor opening up a body for open heart surgery. Only instead of seeing internal organs, I saw several rows of teeth. Some were arranged vertically, while others were the standard horizontal like in human mouths. All of them were dripping with saliva, and two separate tongues came flicking out of the recesses of the chest-mouth as the thing let out a scream of rage.

“Blemmye,” Miranda spat the word, and I belatedly realized that she was speaking the thing’s name, not just saying ‘blame eye’. “It won’t be alone. They travel in tribes. But if we can get away before-”

Before she could continue,the Blemmye threw those spears it was holding. Tristan, however, was already sprinting that way. The boy leapt into the air, spinning into a sort of sideways flip in order to catch hold of one of the spears, snatching it out of midair while simultaneously kicking the other one aside. He landed on one foot before using his momentum to hurl the captured spear right back at the ugly monster, impaling it straight through its right eye. Its scream was silenced as it collapsed, and Tristan stumbled just a little, letting out an audible gasp as a bronze glowing aura rose up around him.

God, I really hoped he didn’t get a vertical mouth in his torso. Please, please don’t let that happen. I was pretty sure that the absorbed powers didn’t work that way, but still. The threat of it was bad enough.

Unfortunately, the threat wasn’t over yet. Just a few seconds after that thing’s scream had been silenced, the sound returned. This time it was coming from all around us. I had time to turn slightly toward the nearest source just as another of the headless creatures came running out of the bushes. Instead of a spear, it held a rough-looking, jagged sword. Continuing its rage-filled shriek, the thing swung at me.

Grimacing, I parried with my staff, smacking the incoming blade out of the way. Behind me, it sounded like two of the Mirandas were dealing with another of the things. And from the corner of my eye, I saw a third rushing toward Koren with a heavy axe held high. The other girl threw one of her hunga munga, using it to teleport behind the thing just as it swung before she pivoted to stab into its side with a scream of her own. She hit it again and the thing stumbled. Koren still didn’t let up. She went after it with a vengeance, hacking into it as if that thing was responsible for what had happened to her parents.

I had my own problems by that point. The Blemmye that I was facing drew back its sword and spun into a swing toward my waist. I snapped the staff up to block, but that seemed to be exactly what the thing was waiting for. As soon as my arm was in position to block the blade, the damn monster opened that vertical mouth. One of its tongues lashed out, wrapping tightly around my bicep like a whip. Before I realized what was going on, it yanked me in toward its open mouth and those horrible teeth.

There was only one thing I could do before my arm would have been yanked into that mouth and likely bitten off. I triggered the kinetic burst from the staff, sending it flying into the thing’s open mouth instead. The staff hit the back of the thing’s mouth, stopping me short just as the teeth clamped shut.

Unfortunately for the Blemmye, it hadn’t fully retracted its tongue since it was still wrapped around my arm. A muffled bellow of pain erupted from the thing as it bit into its own slimy muscular organ before the thing released me. It also left behind a present in the form of a bucket-load of nasty saliva.

Rather than dwell on the gross, however, I reared back and kicked the thing as hard as I could in its dangling manhood. At the same time, I yanked my staff out of its mouth, already charging it again.

The kick didn’t drop the Blemmye, but it did make the thing stumble a little with a screech that was as much pain as it was anger (and there was an awful lot of the latter to begin with). It flailed with that ugly sword, lashing out almost blindly at me with a rapid flurry of strikes that would easily have taken me out not that long ago, even through its obvious agony.

Now, however, I smacked the first blow out of the way with my staff, then the second, and guided the third up and just over my ducking head. And after that third swing, the flailing Blemmye had over-extended itself. I spun, smacking the wrist holding the weapon as hard as I could. The sword went flying, and I used the chance to flip my own weapon around to point at the ground before triggering just a bit of the charge that I had been building up. I used just enough to send myself up and over my opponent, flipping in the air before I came down behind it.

Then I pivoted, planted the staff against its back, and triggered the rest of the kinetic charge. The blast lifted the Blemmye off the ground and sent it hurtling toward the tree that we had been fighting near. Its mouth opened in a scream as it flew straight at the low-hanging branch that I had been aiming for. It was just like earlier when I had been launching myself through the tree-tops and had almost impaled myself. But unlike me, this thing didn’t have the ability to merge with the wood. There was a sick squelching noise as the heavy branch tore right through the creature and out the other end. It was skewered, and immediately stopped screaming.

The familiar rush of pleasure rose in me then, even as the golden aura flared up. My eyes fluttered a little before I caught myself.

There were more. The whole small clearing that we were in was flooded with Blemmyes. Two of them were coming straight for me. Needing to catch my breath, I took two quick steps backward to the very same tree that I’d used to kill my last opponent. Merging with it, I sent myself up to one of the other branches, where I popped out to look down and take in what was going on.

The others were all holding their own. The Blemmyes had numbers, but lacked both power and discipline. They were enraged, attacking seemingly randomly and without much coordination. Meanwhile, Miranda’s duplicates helped make up for our lack of numbers, while Tristan was already putting his robot-snake cannon to use blasting away at them. Koren was zipping here and there, hitting the things wherever she could to drive them back.

Then there was another scream. This one, however, wasn’t one of the Blemmyes. It wasn’t a scream of anger. It was a shriek, a wail of absolute agony, a cry filled with so much pain the sound of it almost brought actual tears to my eyes.

It wasn’t a monster’s scream. It was the cry of a girl in pain. Roxa. It was Roxa.

Pivoting that way, I looked into the distance. I couldn’t see her, but the scream came again, echoing through the trees.

“Go!” Tristan shouted up at me, even as a powerful beam of red light shot out of his snake-cannon. “You can move faster than we can! We’ll hold these things off, get to Roxa! Go, go!” he repeated.

I hesitated only a second longer, looking toward Koren and the nearest Miranda.

Then I turned, leapt off the branch, and followed the sound of Roxa’s screams.

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