Pace

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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Suspects 24-07

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Note: Please make sure to read my first comment after this chapter for an important announcement regarding donations for the past month and rewards. 

As the two crazed werewolves came for us, Roxa and I did the best thing we could in the moment: we went straight to meet them. With barely a glance exchanged between us, we both moved. Roxa took three steps forward before dropping a bit, bending so that my subsequent hop let me put a foot on her back to push off of into a leap. Spinning in the air, I came down between the two, behind Lemuel and facing his back but ahead of Pace with my back to her.

Bending backwards slightly, I brought my staff up in both hands, held horizontally behind my head at the last second before one of the knives that Pace had produced smacked off of it with a loud clang, narrowly stopping her from cutting straight into my neck. At the same time, I lashed out to kick Lemuel in the back in order to shove him off-balance and toward Roxa.

Unfortunately, the kick missed as the big wolf smoothly pivoted to avoid it. Roxa, who had produced a silver knife of her own, just missed cutting into the big black man’s arm. Just as quickly, he caught her wrist and I heard a snapping sound from the bone there as she yelped.

I couldn’t focus on that though. Roxa’s werewolf and Peridle healing would take care of it. Spinning toward Pace, I snapped the staff around my back and to the front to just in time to catch the knife in her left hand against the bladed end of my own weapon. Her foot lashed out at me, but I snapped my own leg up to catch it, both of our shins rebounding off each other.

Pace dropped into a low, spinning leg-sweep at the same time that I leapt and spun in a kick of my own. My leg passed over her head, while hers passed directly beneath me. At the same time, I caught the end of my staff and gave a hard swing back and down with my arm at full extension in order to reach. The blow caught Lemuel against the shoulder. It barely did any damage to the big guy, though it did slow him for half a step, giving Roxa a chance to launch herself up and forward. Her right foot hit the man in the stomach, her left foot hit his chest, and then she did a backwards flip that smacked her left foot against his chin before landing on Gidget’s back as the cyberform cougar leapt into her hoverboard form right below Roxa.

Meanwhile, as I came back down, I used the recoil from my staff bouncing off of Lemuel’s shoulder to spin the weapon back around and down into a vertical blow at the spot where Pace had dropped in her attempt to sweep my legs. It was too late, the girl was already gone. Her enhanced speed brought her back to her feet and out of the way of the staff, lashing out with a swipe from the knife in her right hand that my werewolf-enhanced reflexes barely let me jerk away from in time to avoid the worst of the damage. The blade still cut across my cheek, stinging a bit. But at least it wasn’t my throat.

Not that I had time to be glad about that fact, since Pace followed up her first swipe with half a dozen more, all of them coming so fast that I didn’t have time to block or dodge them all. I took three more cuts across my arms and shoulder while frantically spinning my staff up to take the worst of the damage. Distantly, I felt the pain, but it barely mattered. There was nothing debilitating about the damage she’d done, nothing to make me stop fighting. Not yet, anyway.

To give myself a little room, I snapped the staff up and triggered a blast of kinetic force that knocked Pace up and back about ten feet. Using the same momentum from the blast, I spun around, pivoting on one foot while swinging at Lemuel’s head with the bladed end of the staff.

His hand snapped backward, catching the staff just under the blade before yanking me off my feet. As he hauled me up, I hit the button that sent sand shooting out of the staff, directing it in a cloud to his eyes and mouth before triggering the last of the charge in my weapon. The force shot out the bottom of the staff, propelling it (with me attached) up and out of the man’s grip, flying into the air. He gave a violent snarl, lashing out at me on the way, but with the sand blinding him, he missed.

Flipping over in the air, I aimed the staff down, giving a sharp whistle toward Roxa, who was still on her board. With her attention, I shot the grapple out of my staff, launching it at Lemuel.

The big, dark-skinned half-wolf easily jerked aside, avoiding the grapple. But that was okay, I’d been expecting him to. And so had Roxa. Even as the grapple had shot downward, she already had Gidget flying forward. At the last second, she leapt off the hoverboard, catching the line from my grapple to spin herself around it, planting both feet into Lemuel’s side with all that force.

The big guy went down on his side, the blow knocking him over.

Unfortunately,  we couldn’t follow up the moment of vulnerability, because Pace had recovered by that point. She was a sudden blur, appearing out of nowhere to kick Roxa in the side, a blow that knocked the blonde girl onto her back. As Roxa hit the ground hard, Pace brought both hands up. A literal ball of flame appeared between them, which she launched at the briefly prone girl while cackling wildly.

Luckily, I had already been reacting. As I fell toward the ground, my finger found the button to make the energy-cord of the grapple retract. I was yanked forward and down, arriving just as Pace let loose with that fireball. Seeing the orb of fire coming as I landed between both other girls, I focused on the energy-absorption power that I had gained from killing Doxer. The spinning ball of heat and flame crashed into me… and disappeared. I felt warm, but not burned. And there was that familiar tingle as my body was charged up with the energy, mostly heat but also a little kinetic, that I had absorbed. For the moment, however, I held it in. Just like during training, it felt a bit like needing to use the restroom. From experience, I knew that feeling would rapidly worsen. I could only hold the energy that I had absorbed for a very brief time.

“Naughty Present!” Pace snapped out with a crazed giggle. “Using Doxer’s power, how rude.”

The good news then was that Roxa was back up. The bad news was that so was Lemuel. The big werewolf lunged at me with a roar, even as Pace’s arm lashed out, covered in that bone armor of hers. A short, sharp, eight-inch shard of the bone was already shooting toward me.

When I had faced Pace back in Wonderland, the bone-dart had been too fast for me to even see coming. But that wasn’t true anymore, not with the super-reflexes that I had absorbed from the wolves in that very same encounter. As the sharpened bone flew at my stomach, I snapped my staff up and around with my left hand to slap it out of the way. At the same time, my right hand pointed, releasing the fire that I had absorbed in a spray of flame that took the incoming Lemuel in the face. His reflexes saved him from charging straight into it, letting him recoil while barely getting singed. But it did at least stall his attack, forcing the evil pack leader onto the defensive.

It also meant that he didn’t see Gidget bounding forward until the mechanical cougar had already latched onto his arm. She yanked him down with a snarl (from both her and the wolf-man himself), just before Roxa jumped on his back. The blonde girl drove that silver knife of hers at his throat, but Lemuel snapped his head back, driving it into Roxa’s face hard enough to knock her off of him before her knife could do more than lightly scrape his shoulder.

Pace had already followed up her first thrown bone-dart by launching several more before rearing back to spit a glob of metal-eating acid right at me. Quickly, I snapped my staff around, slapping the incoming bone-darts out of the way while simultaneously releasing another burst of sand. This one was much larger than the other bit I had summoned before, as I sent most of what I had out into a large ball that collided with the acid. The caustic liquid ate through the sand almost immediately, but it was still able to block it enough that I could side-step the last of the stuff.

It did not, however, save me from Lemuel. The big werewolf had freed himself from Roxa, lunging forward to catch hold of my shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he hauled me off my feet and slammed me into the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me. His foot came down toward my face, and I barely had the presence of mind to jerk my head out of the way an instant before that foot slammed into the dirt, putting a foot-deep hole in the ground where I had been a half-second earlier.

Before he could lift the foot to try again, I snapped my fingers twice before opening my hand to catch the silver knife as it popped out of the watch on my wrist. Driving the blade down into the man’s foot, I couldn’t help the snarl of satisfaction at the sound of his cry of both pain and fury.

As he was reacting to that, Gidget dropped out of the sky, shifting from hoverboard to cougar just in time to land hard enough on the wolf-man’s shoulders and back to knock him into a hunched position. The cyberform leapt off him immediately, colliding with the incoming Pace while snarling. The two rolled away, tumbling end over end.

With a grimace, I lashed out at the man’s face as he was doubled over. He jerked backward, easily avoiding the blow… and put himself in the perfect position for Roxa as the other girl leapt to put her fist right in his face with enough force to snap his head to the side.

Doing a quick kip-up to bring myself back to my feet, I spun, the bladed-end of my staff lashing out at the other side of the man’s face.

Again, he caught it, snarling angrily. Before he could do anything though, Roxa was there. She drove a quick kick into his side, drawing a grunt from the man even as I triggered enough of a burst from my staff to yank it from his grasp. Using that momentum, I spun around, driving the shaft of the weapon against his stomach. It was like hitting a brick wall with my own normal human strength. The guy was tough.

And he was fast too. His fist collided with the side of my head, knocking me stumbling as white-pain flashed through me briefly. At the same time, the man back-handed Roxa across the face. As she stumbled a step, his foot kicked up. I saw the silver blade that I had driven into his foot fly up before he caught it, driving the blade backward into the girl’s chest. Making a noise of triumph, he stabbed twice more into the same spot, into her heart before kicking her away from him.

He faced me then, tossing the bloody knife away before snarling, his voice amused. “One down,” he drawled slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to play with his food, “two to–”

A blade appeared… in the man’s throat, driven through it from the back. As blood spurted forth freely, he made a strangled noise of disbelief, choking and gurgling while half turning, already stumbling a little.

Roxa stood there, still bleeding, but standing despite being stabbed in the heart with a silver blade. Her own knife was one in the big man’s throat, where she had leapt to shove it. Meanwhile, her other hand held the one that had stabbed her before he threw it away.

“Redundant organs,” she snarled at the bewildered and drastically injured man. “Extra heart. Jekern power, bitch.”

Her own dagger had nearly killed the man. And with mine, she finished the job, driving the blade up through his throat and into his brain as he choked on his own blood.

Pace, who had extricated herself from Gidget long enough to give the cyberform a kick that sent it tumbling away, spun back around in time to see her pack leader collapse to the ground. As he dropped, Roxa’s glowing bronze aura appeared, and the injured girl dropped as well, giving a moan of pleasure.

The big wolf was down. But we still had the other one to deal with. And from the look of things, Roxa wasn’t going to be able to help.

So I’d do it myself. Taking advantage of Pace’s extremely brief stunned silence, I released the charge in my staff while letting go of the weapon itself. It flew forward, slamming into the crazed (probably possessed) girl’s stomach, the force of the blow doubling her over for a second. Even as the staff started to fall away from her then, I was there, catching the other end of it. Spinning while shifting my grip on the weapon, I did a full three-sixty to put myself behind her. In the same motion, my staff hooked against the girl’s throat, hauling her up and backward while I continued my pivot. She landed hard on her back against the ground even as my staff ended up pointed down at her. An instant later, before she could recover, the silver-coated grapple shot from the end of it, tearing through the wolf-girl’s leg to pin her to the ground as she gave a howl of pain.

I was on her then, diving on top of the girl even as she gave another scream, this one mostly in rage. We fumbled a bit, she produced a wave of fire that I absorbed before she covered herself in bone-armor and launched a dozen darts. About half of them hit me, three in the arms (two in the left and one in the right), one in the leg, and two in the right side of my chest, narrowly missing anything important. Still, it hurt like a bitch. But I kept at it. My hand snapped up and closed around the choker that was on the girl’s neck before I triggered my staff. It had only charged a little bit, but it was enough to launch me up and backward away from her, while the clasp holding the choker in place snapped.

It was a close thing, but I kept hold of my prize. The choker. The thing we needed. Coming down from being launched by my staff, I hit the ground in a roll, ending on my stomach briefly, clutching the precious item against my chest.

For a second, I lay there, breathing out before rolling over. I came to my feet, choker in hand and smile on my face. “Sorry,” I announced to Pace, who was still pinned by the grapple through her leg (the energy-line attached to it had extended as I was launched away from her). “Finders-keepers?” I held the choker while stepping that way, dangling it practically in her face.

Her snarl turned to a smile. “Well,” she half-purred while staring at me intently, “you know what they say. If I can’t have it…” Abruptly, the girl spat a glob of that incredibly potent acid. My hand jerked away, but it was too late. The acid caught the choker, and I had to let it go. Stumbling back as my eyes widened, I stared at the acid-coated choker on the ground as a cry of disbelief and denial burst from my lips. The green liquid had already melted through half of it by the time it landed. A moment later, and most of it was gone. The choker had been destroyed.

Pace took advantage of my horrified distraction, reaching down to yank the grapple out of her leg before heaving herself up. She landed on her good foot, cackling like someone had just told her the most hilarious joke in the world. “I guess, I guess–” she managed between fits of laughter, “you don’t get your prize after all, huh? Uhhh oh, too bad, so sad for the little blonde wolfy-cub. Too bad for everything, all your little things. So sad. Maybe you’ll feel bad for killing my friend, huh? Maybe feel bad for Doxer.” She cackled madly once more, though I saw a brief glimpse of genuine anger and… maybe even sadness there when she mentioned her old teammate.  

Running footsteps approached, and our eyes snapped that way. Roxa had recovered from both her injury (at least enough to move, even if her regeneration wouldn’t work that well against the silver), and from the brief moment of pleasure from killing Lemuel. And she had been joined by the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were all on their way as well, the five converging.

“Oooh,” Pace all-but purred. “Friends. They can make you feel better for failing, Present. We’ll finish later.” She was still favoring her leg, the silver in the grapple stopping the werewolf regeneration from healing her so easily. Still, her amusement was obvious as she waved at me, and I saw the piece of bark from the Eden’s Garden tree in her hand. “Toodles!”

An instant later, just as the others arrived, she slammed the wood down and disappeared.

I stood there, staring at the spot where she had been before my gaze dropped to the ground where the mangled, melted remains of the choker lay. There was almost nothing left of the thing.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was hesitant. “The fight’s mostly over. They’re retreating and scattering.”

Quietly, my voice cracking just a little, I asked, “What about the kids they took?”

Tristan spoke up then. “One of the wolves spilled. They’re being held at a cabin about a quarter mile away. They’ve already got people on the way. So um…” He paused before asking, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just stared at the ruined choker. Then I looked up, seeing the others gathered around to stare at me. My flat, stunned expression slowly melted away as I reached into the pocket of my uniform jacket… and I smiled while producing the choker. The real choker, which I had switched with the fake one while I’d laid on the ground. The fake one that Namythiet had built at my request and secretly snuck into my jacket earlier when she dove in there back before the fight had begun, while we had been chatting at the top of the ridge.

If I was right about Pace being possessed, the other Seosten were connected to her. Even if she hadn’t escaped, they’d know the instant that we had the choker, and they never would’ve let us get away with it. They would’ve brought hell itself down on us to get the damn thing back. But now, well, I’d given the girl as big of an opening to let her destroy the fake as I could without being too obvious, and she had taken the bait. Then I’d let her escape, because it was more important that they think they’d won than it was for us to catch Pace, or Lies, or whoever she was, right then. That could wait. The important part was, now they thought the choker that could identify them was destroyed. They thought it was gone forever. They thought they were safe. Good. Let them believe that they’d won the battle.

Because with the choker, we had the means to win the war.

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Suspects 24-06

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“We’ll go in first,” Mateo announced a moment later. “My pack and our friends. We can get a lot closer than any of you can.” He gestured not just at us, but toward the other Alters as well. “Weres know each other. We can get right into the camp. There’s so many people down there, they won’t know that we don’t belong there. We’ll get as close as we can, then start trouble.

“Once we’ve got the attention on us, the rest of the Alters can come in. Try to close over them like a net. They’ll be focused on us, which should give you a chance to hit them from behind.”

His eyes moved back over to us then. “Roxa can stay back with the Heretics. Heretics, the second any of them see you, they’ll know what you are. Stay back until the fight’s in full swing. Wait for your chance. Once everyone’s engaged, pick off targets of opportunity. Try not to let the word spread about Heretics being involved until it’s too late for them to regroup. Wait for the moment, then hit fast and hard as soon as they’re involved. The Heretic-Were is the priority.”

Looking to me then, he paused before asking, “You look a little confused. Is everything alright?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I just sort of thought there’d be a more specific plan than just ‘go here and fight at this time.’”

The werewolf smiled then. “Specific plans lead to specific failures. It’s a poor leader who tries to micromanage every aspect of a battle. Everyone here knows how to fight, they know how to react to circumstances. So everyone goes where they need to go, and we’ll get through this. You all understand?”

He waited for nods from those of us who were standing there before gesturing. “Alright, then get back to the rest of your groups and tell them what’s going on. Remember, Weres first, then Alters, then Heretics. It’s like the classic one-two punch, but then you kick ‘em in the balls too.”

“I guess in this scenario, we’re the ball-kickers,” I put in then with a raised eyebrow.

Mateo winked at me. “Seems appropriate, all things considered.” Pursing his lips then, he whistled. “Let’s move!” Briefly, he looked back to us. “Be careful, kids. Seriously. I know you already know it’s not a game, but… watch each other’s backs. You may not be a literal pack, but… act like one. Stay together. Take care of each other. You got it?” Waiting until he was given an assortment of nods, the man started off.

I turned to say something to the others, only to pretty much get a faceful of squealing teenage pixie. Which sounded so much like a euphemism even in my head that I blushed just thinking it.

“Flicker!” the pixie in question blurted while hugging tightly onto my face for a moment. “Did you hear?” She fluttered back, hovering there while yanking the tiny sword from her hip to wave it around a little, a tiny, winged swashbuckler. As she finished speaking, the little pixie dove forward to put herself in the pocket of my jacket of my uniform, popping her head back up after a second to grin. “We’re gonna go kick were-whatever ass!”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Hey, Namythiet. Yup, we really are. Be careful though, okay?”

Her head bobbed up and down as she flew back up out of my jacket pocket. “O’course! I’ve gotta back up my mentor, you know.” Her mouth opened to say something else before she hesitated, blinking at me as her head tilted “Heeeeey,” she drawled, “why doncha look like a—how come you’re not a Heretic?” A gasp escaped her then. “Oh no, did you lose your powers?!”

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, I just–it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic, I promise.” We’d already explained the situation to Mateo. There had been some discussion about using the fact that I didn’t trigger an Alter’s warning sense to let me get close to the camp. But that had been dismissed as too dangerous, since it would leave me alone and my face was probably well-known to the werewolves that Pace spent enough time with anyway.

Namythiet fluttered back then, giving a salute with her sword before flying off to join Seth. The vampire himself was looking our way. As Namythiet joined him, he gave us a nod, pointing toward Shiori before tapping a finger against his head and saying something that I didn’t pick up.

“Use my head,” Shiori provided. “He wants me to be careful.”

“I’m gonna take that as advice for all of us,” I replied while absently buttoning the pocket of my jacket once more. Then I looked back to the others as the people around us started moving out. “I guess we wait for this whole thing to get started then, huh? Anyone see Pace down there yet?”

“Blue tent to the left of the white pick-up,” a new voice announced. Turning, I saw Duncan approaching along with his sister, Misty. The two of them were the brother and sister natural Heretics (Duncan taking his power from a metal-manipulating Ullus while Misty gained hers from an Ogre) that I’d met back at the Atherby camp, the ones who had grown up in the clan after Mom had surrendered herself.

“The one called Pace,” Duncan clarified as he and Misty stopped by us. “That’s where she is.”

Roxa nodded. “He’s right. She was hanging around Lemuel for awhile, but then it looked like she got bored and went back into the tent. She’s come out a few times since then, mostly just grabbing food or messing with one of the other Weres. She’s back in the tent right now.”

“Hi Duncan, hey Misty.” Briefly, I introduced them to the others. “I guess you’re staying with us?”

“Yup,” the brown-haired girl with blonde strands scattered through it nodded. “We’re sort-of your bodyguards through this fight. Well, us and the big guy.” She nodded over her shoulder as the other natural Heretic I’d met that night, Enguerrand (the old, chainmail-armored Heretic who looked like he had time-traveled straight from the middle ages), approached. The teleporting Abeonas, Berlin, was with him.

“I’m  your lift,” Berlin announced as the two of them got close enough. “Soon as you’re ready, I’ll jump you right over there. Just say the word.”

Duncan added, “We’re also supposed to tell you that your father says if you get yourself hurt, he’s going to ground you for a month.”

Enguerrand, meanwhile, simply greeted us politely, giving me a slight smile before taking up a place almost directly behind me. At the moment, he was all business. And his business, apparently, was watching our backs, literally. Then… well, then we watched the field below and waited.

Mateo’s pack (aside from Roxa) and the other werewolves that they’d recruited were already making their way across the field. There were other weres from Lemuel’s gathered army meandering in and out, so it didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, behind us, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters were getting organized with their own teleporters, waiting for the moment to jump in. Everything was tense, all eyes on the camp in the distance.

“I wish I was there,” Roxa muttered beside me. She sounded surprised by her own voice, her own words. Lifting her chin, she stared down at the dots that were Mateo and the others. “… I wish I was there. Not here. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“You’d give away their cover,” Tristan reminded the girl. “Every single Were down there would see you as a Heretic. And they know there’s only one were-Heretic on their side. Pace.”

“I know,” she mumbled, arms folded. “But I don’t have to like it.” The girl rested a hand on Gidget’s head, who was busy glowering down at the figures in the distance.

It was Enguerrand who spoke up, his voice quiet, yet measured. “You are devoted to your allies, Miss Pittman. It is an admirable quality, and one that many should learn to emulate.”   

Before anyone else could respond to that, Quing spat a series of words that I didn’t know, but sounded an awful lot like curses. My head snapped that way to ask what was wrong, but then I saw it. In the field below, Mateo and his people had been surrounded by a ring of other weres. At the front of them was a figure I couldn’t make out the details of, but something told me it was…

“Lemuel,” Roxa snarled, binoculars held to her eyes. “It’s him and his pack. Mateo and the others are in trouble.” She dropped the binoculars, taking a step that way.

“Wait,” I caught her arm. “The other Alters are gonna make their move now. The plan can still–”

“Screw the plan,” the other girl snapped. “Screw everything. I’m not gonna stand here and let that psycho hurt Mateo or any of the others. I’m not gonna stand here and watch them die! Gidget!” At the sound of her name, the cyberform abruptly shape-shifted and folded in on herself, going from cougar to armored hoverboard as Roxa stepped up on her back.

My hand stayed on her arm, and I started to say something else to convince her to wait. Before I could, however, the sound of a cry from far below caught our attention.

Fighting. Mateo’s pack and the other weres were fighting. It had devolved into an all-out brawl. Exactly like it was supposed to. Not as far in as they’d planned, but still. Lemuel was there and the focus was on Mateo’s people.

As outnumbered as they were, they couldn’t last long like that, with everyone’s focus on them. Luckily, however, they didn’t need to. The moment the fight was underway, I heard calls from the Alters around us. They had already organized themselves into groups. Seeing the brawl underway, the cry went up to move in.

In groups of mostly three or four, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters vanished, only to reappear at spots on either side of the were-encampment in the desert valley below. Lemuel’s recruits barely had time to tear their attention away from the brawl at the edge of the camp to realize that they were being attacked by more Alters. In seconds, what had begun as a relatively easy curbstomp of Mateo’s people was suddenly an all-out war as dozens of beings from both sides fell in on each other.

Roxa tugged her arm away from my grip then. “I’m going to be with my pack,” she informed me. “I won’t abandon them.” As the blonde girl gave a sharp whistle, Gidget flew off the ground, diving down to join Mateo and the others.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Okay. Pace. We focus on Pace. Get the choker from her while helping everyone else, like Mateo said. Where is she?”

Quing pointed a feathered hand down into the chaotic battlefield. “There. She is… enjoying herself.” He grimaced a little before speaking again. “Tulmin, to your left. Buddy, take three steps forward, the bear behind the tent is trying to ambush our friends. Scolpa, weresnake burrowing under you, move now.”

He was acting as a sort-of overwatch, I realized. The bird-man was keeping an eye on everything that was going on, and communicating with the Wonderland Alters somehow to give them directions and advice.

Swallowing, I looked back to the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan from Crossroads. Duncan, Misty, and Enguerrand from the Atherby camp. And myself. “Right in the middle of things. Great. Okay, guys… um…” I didn’t know what to say. I froze up.

“We’re doing this,” Avalon interrupted. Her gaze was steady as her hand moved to very briefly touch mine before falling back. Straightening, she nodded toward Berlin. “Take us in.”

“I think she means,” Shiori started, “Beam us–”

And just like that, we weren’t watching the battle anymore.

We were in the middle of it.

******

I was standing a few yards away from a canvas tent, staff in one hand. To my right, there was a scream of panic, accompanied by the savage roar of a wolf and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone. The scream turned to gurgles before stopping entirely. The sound of the wolf’s victorious snarl turned to a squeal as a larger figure slammed into it hard enough to shatter half the bones in the wolf’s body.

I didn’t even know which of them was on my side. I should have, but in the heat of the moment, in the dust and furious sounds around me, my brain froze up for a second. I stood there, surrounded by blood, by violence, by death.

Ahead of me, a dark-blue, twelve-foot-tall giant with no shirt was locked in a pitched battle with a nine-foot tall werebear. Despite the height advantage, they both seemed to be equally matched, neither giving an inch. A little to the right of them, a were in full wolf-form bounded forward and started to leap, only to tumble backward with a yelp as an arrow whistled through the air and straight into the wolf’s eye. Fennicus, the centaur, galloped past while already lining up another shot with his bow that took the still tumbling wolf in the side. To the left and a hundred yards away, Seth was busy dealing with a pair of werewolves in their half-wolf forms, as well as a fully-formed jaguar. Meanwhile, there was a giant vulture swooping around above him that kept trying to dive in, only to be thwarted repeatedly by the tiny, darting figure that was Namythiet.

Hell, right nearby, I could see the natural Heretics from the Atherby camp going to work. Misty had her enormous sword, the thing that was big as she was, spinning over her head like it was made out of foam. A massive, armored werecrocodile was lunging for her, jaws snapping down. Just before it would have bitten her in half, however, she shoved that sword into its mouth, catching the descending jaws. As the crocodile made a noise of surprise, the tiny waif of a girl grinned before triggering something on the handle of her giant sword. An instant later, the croc was literally hurtled away as a deafening boom filled the air. Smoke was coming out of the end of the sword, which had opened up a bit to reveal a gun barrel equally huge. Even as the crocodile flailed its way back to the ground with a hole in its back (injured, but not dead), Misty was shouting something about loving cannons.

“Chambers!” Avalon’s shout penetrated my briefly frozen mind, and my eyes focused on her. She and the others were all standing behind me, spaced out a little bit. “Don’t tunnel vision,” the other girl snapped while pivoting, eyes scanning. “You’re not a spectator! You know better than that!”

“Got it, sorry.” Focusing, I hoisted my staff into position, ordering Jaq and Gus into position to convert the thing into its bladed-form right from the start. The others already had their weapons drawn, and had spaced themselves out enough not to get in each other’s way. Which was good, because it was at that moment that the weres surrounding us realized that they had even more company. Heretic company. And they weren’t too happy about it.

As the shout went up and around them, Avalon spoke flatly. “Clear a hole, get to Pace. That’s what matters. She doesn’t get away.”

And that was all she had time to say before the surrounding weres fell in on us.

The werelion that ran straight at me in his half-human form was clearly young. Maybe even my age. He was eager, too eager to have fought many Heretics and probably still too awed by his own power to consider that someone else might be able to match or beat it. He wore ragged jean shorts that had mostly snapped under the force and pressure of his body growing into the larger battle-form, and no shirt. His chest was crisscrossed with some kind of barbed-wire tattoo with a skull in the top center, just under his throat. In this battle-form, he was much heavier and more muscled than a normal human, with a fine down-like layer of fur over his skin, a face that looked rough and bumpy like a neanderthal, incredibly pronounced teeth, and visible claws protruding from his slightly elongated fingers. Oh, and he had a mane of hair surrounding his head. 

He lunged, one long, muscled arm lashing out to bring those nasty-looking claws swiping at me. In response, I took a quick step forward, pivoting to put my back to the lion-man while bringing my staff up vertically in my right hand. His swinging arm was caught against the staff, blocking him from cutting me. At the same time, I continued my pivot, driving the elbow of my left arm back hard into his face. With the strength of a normal seventeen-year-old girl, he would have shrugged it off. But I had the absorbed strength from Valentine, delivering a blow to his jaw that knocked the werelion stumbling back a step.

Following that up without an instant of hesitation, I continued turning until I was facing the figure, who was just then catching himself. He recovered quickly, launching himself forward once more while lashing out with a series of wild swings. But I was already set, spinning my staff up to catch the first swing from his left arm before snapping the other end up to smack his right arm out of the way, then back again for the left. One, two, three, all in the span of about a second. Before he could attack again, my staff was snapping up, spinning in my hands so that one of the flat sides of of the grapple smacked off the bottom of his chin, snapping his head back to expose his throat. An instant later, the staff continued spinning in my hands so that the other end with its attached blade sliced a hole right through his exposed jugular.

Once more, he stumbled back, grabbing for his throat with widened eyes as it spurted blood. Without waiting for him to even realize just how bad the injury was, I took two quick steps forward and leapt up, kicking out to put my foot into his shoulder. The blow knocked him backwards and down, so that he landed on his back with me standing on top of him, one foot still on his shoulder, while the other rested on his stomach. He stared up at me, gurgling for a second just before I brought the bladed-end of the staff down with a decisive slash that separated his head from his neck.

Doubling over a bit as the pleasure rushed through me, I had the sense of mind to mutter, “Did I forget to mention that Nevada added enough silver to Jaq and Gus to let them hurt a were? Oops.”

Because yeah, knowing how soon I was going to be fighting werewolves again (especially given how they’d basically named me as one of their enemies), I would’ve been an idiot not to ask Nevada to include silver in my weapon upgrades. And as for not telling anyone else about it, well, that let it be my little secret.

The others were just as busy. To my left, I caught a glimpse of the Moon twins working together against a fully-transformed werejaguar. As the supernatural wildcat leapt at them, Vanessa’s whip cracked the air directly in front of it. As it did so, a glowing red circle about the size of a manhole cover appeared. When the jaguar passed through it, the thing burst into flame. With a squeal, the transformed Alter dropped to the ground, its fur on fire as it rolled and flailed to put it out.

Yeah, at the beginning of the year, the whip that Vanessa used had just been capable of exchanging any inanimate material it struck with any other inanimate material. But apparently, I wasn’t the only one who upgraded my weapon as time went on. Now the whip could produce those ‘mines’ of different elemental effects. Not just fire, but lightning, ice, and even a poison gas.

While the burning jaguar was recovering, Tristan took aim. Bobbi-Bobbi, his cyberform snake, was in her weapon-mode. The lower half of the long mechanical serpent was wrapped around his upper body to form a sort-of protective armor, while her upper-half and head had attached itself to Tristan’s arm. It made him look like a bit like MegaMan with his armcannon. You know, if MegaMan’s armcannon looked like the head of a snake at the end.

It looked even more like the video game robot when the blast of powerful red light shot out of his cannon to collide with the fallen jaguar, knocking the thing back down long enough for Vanessa to wrap her whip around its hind legs. A hard yank pulled the figure across the ground close enough for Tristan to jump on it with his silver knife.

Shiori and Avalon were equally busy, also working together. In their case, there was a gigantic fucking wererhino galloping around them. It had shrugged off all their attempts to do damage to its heavily armored hide. Even the silver knives couldn’t actually penetrate, despite all their efforts. They could avoid his charges, but not really do any damage. And if they left him alone, sooner or later, he’d find his target.

Finally, the two of them looked at each other. There was a brief exchange of about three words between them before they nodded. Then the pair ran straight for the rhino, even as he ran at them.

Avalon’s inherited speed allowed her to run at about thirty miles per hour. She used that to her advantage, quickly moving ahead of Shiori. At the last second, she jumped, the leap carrying her up and over the thing. As she flew above it, both of hands lashed out. From her gauntlets, a pair of energy coils extended and flew down to wrap around the rhino’s horn. Avalon landed on its back while heaving on the energy coils as hard as she could.

Shiori, meanwhile, stood her ground as the wererhino ran straight for her. I wanted to cry out, but stopped myself. Distracting the girls right then would be… bad.

They were ready anyway. As Avalon yanked back on the coils that she’d wrapped around the rhino’s horn, it involuntarily opened its mouth. And as it did so, Shiori opened her own mouth. A deafening scream erupted from the girl. It was like she was speaking in literal thunder.

And that thunder was accompanied by lightning. The girl had combined the sonic scream that she had inherited from the Cù-Sith she had fought back when we were dealing with Fahsteth, with the lightning breath she had inherited from the Jekern. As a result, she could literally scream lightning with associated thunder.

The combined sonic and electrical attack tore straight into the charging rhino’s open mouth, avoiding all of its armor entirely in the process. The force of it stopped the thing in its tracks, while the lightning knocked it to the ground, twitching along with the burning smell of flesh.

Before it could recover, Avalon hopped off, spun around, and lashed out with her gauntlet. A blade of energy appeared in mid-swing, cutting through the rhino’s open mouth and up into its brain. Avalon’s pale green aura quickly rose around her.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Shiori shouted a warning, just as a second werecrocodile, different from the one that Misty had been dealing with, appeared almost out of nowhere. This one was in half-human form. He looked like a massive green-scaled figure with a long, bladed tail and an elongated mouth. Actually, he almost looked more like a half-dinosaur than a half-crocodile. He grabbed for Avalon, who managed to slip free just in time to spin around and kick out. Shiori was already there, going up on his opposite side.

Then I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of one of the pickup trucks that had been parked along the edge of the camp. It was heading out, swerving around the worst of the fighting. And behind the wheel was–

“Pace!” I blurted, raising a hand to point at the truck.

Avalon, still grappling with the half-crocodile, grimaced. “Stop her, Chambers!”

Stop her. Right. I could do that. Taking a breath, I looked at my staff, at the transformed Jaq and Gus. “All right, guys. Let’s do this.”

With that, I started to move. Cutting a diagonal path across the battlefield not toward where the truck was, but the way it was heading, I sprinted..Ten feet in, and a tiger was coming straight at me, gathering itself for a leap. At the last second, however, a sedan came flying in out of nowhere to smack into the tiger. And that was literally flying. That Duncan guy was nearby. With a flick of his hand, he sent the empty car flying up before bringing it down hard on top of the still dazed weretiger.

I kept going, truck in sight as it rounded the corner of the camp. A short burst from my staff carried me on top of the sedan that Duncan was using, and he gave it a hard shove upward, a move that, combined with another burst from my staff, carried me a good half of the distance I needed to cover.

Running, running. Others were faster than I was, but I could go all-out for hours. I sprinted across the camp, even as not just one, but two positively massive bears reared up to block my path. The things were huge, twelve feet tall if they were an inch. Even as the one on the left hauled itself up, however, something much smaller knocked it back down again. Misty came flying in out of nowhere, her tiny figure looking more like a toothpick that the bear would use. But her fist slammed into the bear’s face with enough force to knock the damn thing onto its back, even as Misty gave an excited whoop.  

The bear on the right, meanwhile, had just turned that way when someone else approached. Enguerrand. He jumped at the thing too, but rather than slamming into it, he… well, errr… slammed into it. Literally. The man disappeared. For a second I thought he’d gone through the thing. But he never came out the other side. The bear, meanwhile, staggered for a second, then pivoted and leapt onto one of the nearby barechested half-wolves.

Possessed him. Enguerrand literally possessed the bear, like a–

Truck! Focus on the truck, it was getting away. And these guys had just cleared enough of a path to catch up. Grimacing, I took off again. This time, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that truck, from getting to Pace.

Arms, claws, and tails lashed out at me, most haphazardly as I moved in and then out of their range I ducked, dove, rolled, then popped up and kept running. I hopped over a fallen tent, dropped into a slide to take myself under a swinging sword, and narrowly spun away from a burst of fire. Through it all, I kept my eyes on that truck as it hurtled its way across the desert, heading for a bumpy dirt road that would lead it out of the battlefield. And through it all, I kept charging my staff.

Time it right, had to time it just right. If I didn’t, I was gonna lose the truck entirely. Three seconds, two seconds, one second–now, now, now! Flipping my staff around and down, I pointed it at the ground before triggering a burst that sent me flying up and forward. Again, not to where the truck was, but to where it was going to be. Right at the spot where the actual road started, the road that would take the truck, with Pace inside it, away from the fight.

By the time I reached the apex of my flight, I had already converted my staff into its bow form. Flipping over in the air to point my feet up so that I could look straight down, I took aim, using the last of the staff’s kinetic charge to set a powerful energy arrow just as the truck approached. As it passed directly beneath me, I loosed the shot with a grunt.

The arrow careened down, colliding with the back of the pickup before releasing all of its charged-up kinetic force. The explosion of energy from the impact literally launched the speeding truck up and over, sending it flipping end over end a few times before it came down on its hood and roof.

Landing in a kneeling position a second later, I kept my eyes focused on the truck. There was no way that would even slow Pace down very much, let alone actually hurt her.

Sure enough, the crazy (probably possessed) werewolf-Heretic crawled out of the truck, picking herself up with a squeal that I belatedly realized was a laugh. “Whooo! That was fun! Let’s do it again, do it again, do it again!”

“Later,” another voice grunted. The door of the truck was kicked free, flying a good fifteen feet before a second figure shoved himself out and stood.

Lemuel. It was Pace and Lemuel. Both of them focused on me, almost identical smiles coming to their faces.

“Aww,” Pace announced with a giggle of joy. “Present came back! Let’s play with the present. Huh, huh, can we?”

“Oh,” Lemuel replied, the pack-leader already shifting into his much larger half-wolf form. “I think we can spare enough time to unwrap your treat.”

“Yay!” Pace bounced up and down like an excited little girl, even as she produced two silver knives, one in each hand. “How fun! And she’s all by herself too!”

There was a sudden sound in the air above me, before a figure landed at my side.

“Wanna bet?” Roxa asked Pace, even as Gidget dropped to transform into her cougar shape beside her. To me, she added, “Sorry. I… I had to help them.”

“No problem,” I replied, raising my staff. “You’re here when it counts.”

Lemuel lifted his chin then, his smile growing. “My little pup? How… glorious. This’ll be fun.”

“I’m not helpless this time, you piece of shit,” Roxa snarled at him.

Lemuel’s response was a low chuckle. “Good,” he retorted. “I prefer it when my toys have a little spirit to them. Makes it a lot more fun when they break.”

He and Pace glanced to each other for a half-second.

And with that, they lunged.

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Mini-Interlude 26 – Pace

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of the crazy werewolf-Heretic we know as Pace. 

A little over one year ago.

Darkness.

“Hi, people!”

There was a pause, followed by a muttered curse and the sound of something being fumbled with. Suddenly, light appeared as the lens cap of the camera was removed, and a face popped into view. It was the face of a Hispanic girl in her late teens, with dyed green hair that was cut short on one side and long on the other. She was obviously holding the camera up pointed at herself. Now in sight, the girl waved. “There! Sorry, technical difficulties. The camera’s the technical, and I’m the difficulty.”

Giggling at her own self-depreciating joke, the girl known as Pace for her hyper-activeness (something that inheriting enhanced speed early on had only exacerbated) cleared her throat. “Okay, hiya, people of the Heretical-persuasion. People of Eden’s Garden, People of Crossroads, People of Etcetera. If you’re watching this, it means my plan worked. Or maybe I got caught and this is evidence at my trial. In that case, in lieu of a lawyer, I’d like my side’s closing argument to be Matthew McConaughey’s speech at the end of A Time To Kill. Just throw it up on the big screen. Not cuz I expect it to convince you fascists of anything, but it’s a really good speech and if we’re gonna waste everyone’s time with a sham like that, we might as well be entertained.”

The camera shook a little as she turned it around, showing the massive forest of Eden’s Garden in front of her. “Shh. You wanna know what we’re doing out here? I’m gonna show you what kind of ‘heroes’ our side really is. Because the truth is, sometimes we really suck.”

Again, the camera view spun back around to face the girl. “Actually, I’m gonna turn you off for a second. Cuz everyone knows the worst part of found footage movies is when they’re running around, you can’t see anything, and you just get motion sick. So I’m gonna turn you off. But we’re going that way.” She pointed, turning the camera a little to show a direction off in the forest of enormous trees. “Ten miles. We’re going that way ten miles. Be back in a flash!”

The camera cut out then, screen going black for about five seconds before the view came back. Now the view was clearly taken from up in one of those giant trees, looking down at a small clearing below. In that clearing, two men stood in front of a large cage, with a fur-covered figure huddled inside. The view zoomed in close enough to identify the figure as a werewolf in his half-human, half-wolf form. But unlike most such figures of immense power and strength, this one was so scrawny it looked half-skeletal. The figure had clearly been starved almost to death, with additional burns and other marks to show that the men standing over the cage hadn’t been content with simple starvation as a form of punishment.

“There it is,” Pace’s voice came in a whisper. “Our grand, conquering heroes, saving the world from vicious monsters.” Even as she spoke, one of the men shoved a long silver pole with a sharp end through the cage and jabbed it into the huddled, miserable, broken figure. Just as the yowl of pain came, he triggered a burst of electricity, just to make it worse.

“Stupid bastards,” Pace snarled before adding, “And don’t worry, they can’t hear me up here. Cone of silence. We can hear them, they can’t hear us. We–”

Whatever she had been about to say then was cut off as the second man used his own electrified silver spear to jab the emaciated werewolf hard in the leg while ordering, “Get your ass up! We got more spells to test, see if they keep you mutts where you belong.”

Surprisingly, the scraggly, seemingly almost-dead wolf gave a low chuckle. It sounded… strange, like the wolf wasn’t all there. “Again,” he pleaded. “Do it again. Do it again. Make us dance again. Bring the silver-fire, make it burn, make it sing. The fat lady sings, make us play your tune.”

“The fuck is this mutt’s problem?” one of the men asked the other. “You break him already?”

The second man shrugged. “Been playing with him for a few weeks, Anguis. You just didn’t notice cuz you’ve been having too much fun.”

“Yeah?” The first man, Anguis, tapped his silver spear against the cage. “Well we need a better one then, cuz the last one lasted two months before we had to put ‘im down. They’re boring when they break too fast.” To show his annoyance, the man jabbed his spear at the figure in the cage again.

“See?” Pace’s voice came in what was almost a growl. “This is how we treat them. Does that werewolf look like a threat to anyone? Are we really the good guys if we—hold on, let’s get a better view. These are the guys who–”

As she was speaking, the girl shifted around, trying to slide further down the branch to get a better shot of the pathetic, starved werewolf. Unfortunately, she happened to slide a little too far. There was a yelp, followed by the air spinning around the camera as it and the girl holding it fell rapidly.

She landed hard on the ground with a yelp of pain, the camera bouncing over into a nearby bush, falling onto its side as it continued recording.

Before Pace could stand, the man who wasn’t Anguis had his foot on her throat to hold her there. “The hell is this?!”

“Hey,” Anguis called. “I know that one, Tin. She’s one of Lost Scar’s cadets. What’s she doing out here?”

“That’s a good question,” Tin replied while staring down at Pace. “Now why don’t you just start–”

Unfortunately for the man called Anguis, he had been distracted by Pace’s abrupt arrival while in the midst of shocking his prisoner yet again. As he’d turned to see what was going on, he had left the silver spear where it was, half in the cage. And in that distracted moment, the werewolf’s hand lashed out to grab it. Somehow, he managed to tear the weapon from the man’s grip, twist it around, and then abruptly gave the thing a hard jab right up through the Heretic’s throat and out the other side.

The man was already falling even as Tin spun that way. He acted too slow, however. The emaciated werewolf caught hold of a gun that was on Anguis’s belt. Tearing it free, he fired three quick shots. They took Tin in the knees, dropping the man with a shout of pain.

While the man was on the ground, the werewolf fired another handful of shots at the door of the cage itself. There was a shower of sparks, and then he was able to shove his way free.

Pace tried to push herself up, but let out a gasp of pain. The fall had taken too much out of her. Her legs were broken, at the very least. And it would take her healing power some time to stitch her back together. Too much time.

She looked up then just in time to see the werewolf shove the spear through the chest of the injured Tin. He pulled the spear back, then shoved it down again, then back and down again. With each thrust, more blood spurted forth. And with each crimson spurt, the werewolf giggled. “Pretty! Do it again! More pretty!”

There was the slightest sound of leaves crackling as Pace shifted slightly, her mouth opening to say something, anything. At the sound, however, the almost-skeletal werewolf twisted to look at her, jerking the spear free of the the dead man.

“O-okay,” Pace started. “I know this is g-gonna be hard to believe, but I was trying to help. I mean I was going to help. I was going to… to try to–”

“Pretty girl,” the werewolf murmured. He came forward, limbs dropping a little to let the spear drag along the ground in one hand while the pistol hung limply from the other. It was like the burst of energy had faded and now he was back to being almost dead. Clearly, the wolf was running on fumes. And yet, something kept him going, something kept driving him forward.

“Pretty girl,” he repeated. “Pretty Heretic girl. Stronger. Not like this one.” He gestured to his own broken body. “Sick. Dying.”

“I–I’m sorry,” Pace spoke hesitantly. “I’m sorry, if I could… if I can do something. If I can help you…”

The broken, deranged, starved werewolf smiled slowly. “The pretty Heretic wants to help?”

“If I can,” she confirmed. “I can’t–I mean I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”

Abruptly, the werewolf was there. The weapons had fallen to the ground, and he was kneeling over her. The suddenness of his arrival made her jerk backward, almost hitting her head on a nearby rock. As it was, even that bit of movement made her cry out in pain from her not-yet-healed wounds.

“Oh, there is,” the werewolf almost purred. “There very is. This one almost dead. So very almost dead. Too sick. Couldn’t escape. Fun to see tears. Fun to see pain. But too late now. Far too late. Can’t get better. Silver wounds.”

Pace’s mouth opened, but before she could say anything, the werewolf abruptly grabbed her chin with one hand, twisting her head to the side before drawing a single black claw down her cheek.

She yelped, jerking a bit as her hand grabbed for her face. “What–what did you–what–” She knew. She’d had the lessons. She knew what the thing had done to her, but the shock was still setting in.

“Yay!” the half-dead werewolf cheered. “Can let this one go now. Didn’t wanna let it go. Liked the wolfy. Pretty furry wolfy. But now, wolfy-heretic. Even better!” He leaned closer to Pace, speaking in a stage-whisper. “I’m broken. Broken, broken. They call us Lies. Lies cuz we can only hold one at a time. Not like them. Supposed to go in any, leave any, any time. We’re broken. Handicapped. Something wrong when we’re born, so we can only take one. One at a time, and can’t let them go til they die, you see? Handicapped. Take one form, only hold it until they die. Then take another. Can’t leave, can’t jump in and out. Stuck. Pick a form, stuck until it dies. Lies, they call us Lies. English-human word is Lies.”

“I… I don’t know what you’re–” Pace started, only to yelp in surprise as the werewolf abruptly stepped back from her and straightened up. He had the silver spear back, holding it in both hands. And yet, just as the injured girl made to defend herself, the werewolf stabbed the weapon not at her, but up through his own throat.

The body dropped lifelessly to the ground… leaving a second body standing there. This one was a girl. An ethereally beautiful girl who looked to be about fifteen years old, with light brown hair and matching eyes, along with skin that was almost porcelain pale.  

“Happy re-birthday!” the girl announced, before lunging forward.

Pace jerked back, only to stop short as the other girl simply disappeared inside her. There was a spasm of movement, and a cry from the Heretic student before she fell onto her back.

A few seconds passed like that as the girl jerked and made a few pathetic mewling noises. Then she went completely still. For almost a minute, she laid there, body healing while she simply remained silent and seemingly frozen.

Just as suddenly, she sat up. Her head turned from one side to the other, as though taking in her surroundings. Gradually, she stood, testing her newly healed legs. First one, then the other. She took a few steps, looking down at the corpses at her feet. The bodies of the two Heretics, and the one of the werewolf.

A giggle escaped her. A giggle that suddenly became a laugh, which itself was just as abruptly cut off into an eerie silence.  

Slowly, her head turned. She looked toward the fallen camera with eyes that were no longer Pace as she had been only minutes earlier.

“Oh,” the Seosten Lie announced.

“This is gonna be fun.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-07

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For once, Pace seemed to be stunned into silence. She hadn’t moved by the time Shiori reached the spot where I was still kneeling and put out a hand to pull me up to my feet. “Are you okay?” the Asian girl asked quickly, her tone and wide-eyed expression making it clear that she couldn’t decide whether to be worried or seriously impressed. Belatedly, she added in a cute little whisper, “That was really badass.

“I’m okay,” I promised while accepting the hand up. Despite my flippant remark while shoving my knife into the wolf, I was actually shaking. My mouth and throat felt dry, and I kept seeing the dead wolf at my feet from the corner of my eyes. Not wolf, I reminded myself. Werewolf. Dead werewolf.

Pace had apparently recovered by that point. Not only mentally, but she’d also physically recovered the weapon that I’d shot out of her hand. She was holding both, staring at the two of us like we were particularly interesting toys that had somehow managed to start moving and talking. “Well… well… well,” the girl muttered audibly in a tone that was more surprised and vaguely curious than it was outraged or grieving. Which, frankly, was a weird reaction to me killing one of her pack-mates. It made me wonder if she even actually cared about them at all, considering how she’d been acting. Hell, she’d even made a holiday joke about Valentine, the first of her supposed pack that I’d ended up killing.

Shiori turned slightly to face the girl, hands tightly clutching her discs. “Oh right, still one left.”

“One?” Pace echoed before giggling with obvious amusement. Which, again, seemed strange given what I had just done. Dancing from one foot to the other almost like a child that really needed to use the bathroom, she remarked with suspicious casualness, “Sooomeone should learn how to count.”

My mouth opened to ask what she meant by that, but before I could say anything, the slightest squeak of movement on the floor somewhere behind us caught my attention. Shiori had obviously heard it too, because she spun that way at the same time that I did, both of us with our weapons raised defensively.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t have mattered how many weapons we had. Because as I turned, my eyes took in the sight of six werewolves coming straight at us. Half were in full wolf form while the others were in that large half-wolf shape. And every last one of them were in a blind, frothing-at-the-mouth rage. They weren’t in any mood to capture us. No, going by the looks in those eyes and the bloodcurdling chorus of snarls and howls filling the air, they were going to quite literally rip us apart.

They were almost on top of us. Shiori was reacting already, but she was trying to grab me instead of taking care of herself. My hand snapped up to give her a hard shove out of the way. It wasn’t quite full strength, but it was enough to send her flying several feet and take her out of the wolves’ path. Which left me standing directly in front of the bloodthirsty, enraged beasts as they lunged, spittle flying.

My brain shut off, and I simply reacted. The nearest wolf was basically on top of me as I gave a quick lunge forward while ducking my head away from his jaws as they snapped shut where my throat would have been an instant earlier. Directly past him, one of the wolf-men was swiping down with his massive claws. But at the last second, I pivoted abruptly on my left foot. It was just enough to make him miss tearing a big chunk out of my side. Then the second full wolf was there, trying to grab for my leg to tear me to the ground. Just before its powerful jaws would’ve closed around my throat, I pushed off into a flip that carried me over him. Which brought me directly in front of the second wolf-man.

He was slamming both of his arms together to catch hold of me in a bear hug (wolf hug?) that probably would’ve crushed my ribs into powder if he’d managed to actually get hold of me with it. But even as I landed, my body was dropping into a sudden roll that took me between his legs. Which took me right to the third full wolf, whose blinding rage looked briefly overtaken by surprise at my sudden appearance before he lunged for me, clearly thinking that my position rolling on the floor had left me vulnerable.

He was wrong. Even as the wolf leapt with his mouth open and teeth bared, I managed to somehow get a foot underneath myself. Kicking off with it, I did this side-flip off the floor, barely clearing the wolf.

That side-flip took me directly in front of the last wolf-man, who was just starting to react to the fact that I was there. His claws came for me as I landed, but I twisted first one way, then the other. My body dipped, evading both of his rapid swipes before I dove into a low somersault under his third, even more enraged attempt. There was no skill or thought to his attack, just like there hadn’t been for any of the others. They were attacking blindly, without planning anything they were doing. All they cared about was murdering me as quickly (and preferably painfully) as possible in revenge for their pack-mate.

Even enraged, however, they should have been able to utterly destroy me. Honestly, six of them versus one of me, even in a blind rage they should’ve torn me apart in about two seconds. And yet somehow… somehow I had just basically danced my way through all six of them without even being touched once.

As I rolled to my knees and spun back, only one thought came to mind. How the hell had I done that?

“How the hell did you do that?!” Shiori blurted my own thoughts as she skidded to a stop next to me.

“I… I… I…” My mouth worked a few times while I crouched there before admitting, “I don’t know.”

The wolf I’d killed. That had to be it. Instead of improving the enhanced strength that I’d already gotten from killing Valentine, apparently this one had given me… what, super-enhanced reflexes and agility?

By that point, the half dozen wolves that I had worked my way through had managed to collect themselves and recover. They spun back to us, and I could tell that while they were still furious, their initial uncontrollable rage was ebbing a bit. Which wasn’t good, since it meant that they wouldn’t be blindly attacking next time. And six werewolves plus Pace versus Shiori and me would be a massacre.

“Oh boy, oh boy.” Speaking of Pace, the crazy girl had already worked her way to the front of the pack of furious werewolves. “You really ticked them off there, Present.” Her tone turned to a stage-whisper as she leaned forward, cupping a hand to the side of her mouth. “I think you’re off their Christmas list.”

Somehow, through all of that, Shiori had managed to grab my staff. She passed it back to me while keeping her eyes on the wolves, who were starting to spread out a little bit. “I think we’ll survive.”

“Don’t be so sure.” That was from one of the wolves, rather than Pace. He had shifted back into his human shape, looking remarkably like a mild-mannered accountant. Well, except for the whole naked thing. He wasn’t that tall, and his figure was pale with heavily freckled skin and light brown hair. And he was also glaring at me with a hatred that actually made me shiver. “No,” he added darkly. “I don’t think you’ll survive at all. Which still works. Kill one of us, maybe we let the Heretics play with you. Kill two of us…” His face started to shift back a little as he began to resume his man-wolf form.

“We should really be going,” Pace put in idly, looking like she didn’t particularly care much either way.

The man-wolf’s voice was a rough, gravely growl. “Not yet. It won’t take long to kill these bitches. Monty and the other two are still holding the back door, so we’ve got time. Just enough to finish this.”

Other two? There were three more wolves besides the ones that we had already seen? Three more who were apparently holding the back door. Fantastic, so these guys weren’t even in a rush to leave yet.

Beside me, I felt Shiori set herself with her weapons drawn and ready. Swallowing, I did the same. In front of us, the six wolves had finished spreading out to cover the width of the mall corridor. They weren’t blinded by rage anymore. They were going to work together as a pack to take us down.

The tension was rising. The air was thick with it. Any second, they’d lunge. I just didn’t know which one would make the first move. Whoever it was, Shiori and I had to stay together. We had to watch each other’s backs and just try to last as long as we could. Maybe Asenath or Buddy would show up.

And then, just as I saw one of the wolves bracing himself to spring toward us, something came sailing in from the side. My eyes spotted it, widening at the sight of the mangled, broken form of another werewolf in full wolf form. Its head was twisted around the wrong way, it was bleeding from half a dozen wounds, and most importantly: its chest had been ripped open and its heart was missing. Along with what looked like several other very important organs. The thing had basically been butchered.

Every eye turned that way, only to see a single figure walk out of one of the mall’s staff-only corridors. Seth. The vampire that Asenath knew, the one who was one of the Septs. He was strolling casually into view. And he was dragging two more very dead wolves along the floor with him, one in each hand.

Three werewolves. Three combat prepared and trained werewolves on the attack, working together to guard a single point. And Seth had just—he’d killed all of them. With what seemed to have been ease. Hell, he didn’t seem to have a scratch on him. Which, to be fair, could be the vampire healing. But still.

“I wouldn’t really, ahhh…” the vampire drawled while giving both of the wolves a simple toss that put them in the middle of the floor next to the third one, “… count on that ‘watch the back door’ thing.”

Stopping nearby, he cracked his neck to the side and I heard an audible pop. “Hey, kids. You all right?”

Tiebreaker,” the wolf-man who had been talking before snarled, even as all of them took a step back. When they saw me kill one of them, they’d flown into a blind rage and rushed me. But when they saw the vampire kill three of them, they were intimidated into taking a step back. And then another one.

For his part, Seth just smiled almost sleepily while replying, “And bones… and necks… and don’t forget about the occasional heart here and there. But yeah, I break ties too. You know, when I feel like it.”

Instead of rushing us, or making another threat, the wolf-man turned toward Pace. “Exit,” he ordered.

At first I thought he was just telling her to leave. But Pace flipped her kusarigama up, catching them by the handles. Then she hit something, and the weapons shifted in her grip. Some kind of protective sheathe covered the blades, allowing the girl to slip her hands down to use them as grips. At the same time, the very end of what had already been the handles dropped open, revealing a gun barrel hidden inside each. Pointing the weapons over at the nearby wall, Pace pulled a trigger that had appeared on one, then the other. From the first, a white blast emerged, freezing part of the wall. The red blast from the second weapon blew a hole into the exact spot that the first one had weakened by freezing.

Right, not only could Pace freeze (and apparently burn) things with the chains of her weapons, but they could also turn into guns that did the same. Because that’s what she needed: to be more dangerous.

The wolves and Pace retreated through the new hole, all of them keeping wary eyes on us. Well, okay, that was flattering Shiori and me. Ninety percent of their attention was clearly centered solely on Seth.

Once they were gone, I slumped. Shiori did the same, panting as she looked at the vampire. “You… you…” Her mouth was working, eyes flicking down at the three dead werewolves and then back to him.

Before the other girl could finish whatever she had been trying to say, there was a blur of motion. Asenath came skidding to a stop, blood drenching her front. She was carrying two knives that looked somewhat similar to the one I still had in one hand. “Reathma,” she blurted, looking first to her sister, then to me. “You’re… You’re okay.” Dropping her weapons, she moved to embrace Shiori tightly.

Shiori returned the hug while blushing a little. Her voice was hesitant. “You—you’re okay too? Everything else, the wolves, they’re all gone?”

Smiling a little, Asenath nodded. “Dealt with or gone. The survivors took off. And I’m fine. Wrestled tougher wolves than those before.” Exhaling, she paused before glancing to the dead werewolves. Then she looked to Seth, voice neutral. “Those yours?”

“Eh,” the man shrugged with what was by now patented casualness. “A few. Your Heretic there killed one of them.” He nodded toward me, eyebrows raised. “Pretty impressive for a trainee, by the way.”

My mouth opened, but before I could respond, another thought struck me. “Oh!” Shoving the knife away, my hands fumbled into my pocket until I found my phone. “I’ve gotta call Wyatt before he sends in the entire National Guard.” Quickly hitting the speed dial button, I held the phone up, muttering to myself about what would happen if my half-brother finished rounding up a posse and came charging in right then.

“Wyatt,” I blurted as soon as he answered. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. We’re fine. We’re good…ish.”

Surprisingly, he answered far more calmly than I thought he’d be, “I know. We’re watching you.”

I blinked at that, then blinked again. “Who—what?” I asked dully. “What do you mean you’re–” My head moved up and I looked to a security camera in the corner, my eyes wide. “You’re watching us?”

“I came to Gaia,” Wyatt explained. “She did something to make the ceiling in her office show the security footage from where you are. So we watched, just in case you needed help. But you didn’t.”

No wonder he was actually calm. If anyone could make Wyatt slow down and breathe, it was Gaia. And if she’d actually taken over the security cameras (probably similar to the way she had taken over the portal machine on the Meregan ship) to let him see what was going on, it obviously helped. Though I wasn’t really sure how the other Septs would feel about that if they found out about it.

A glance toward the other three confirmed that they had most likely heard all of that. Swallowing, I hesitated before murmuring, “Tell Gaia I’ll call and explain everything as soon as we’re done here.”

As I disconnected, Asenath stepped over to embrace me as well. “Sorry I wasn’t here earlier. Wolf might not have been the strongest one I’ve dealt with, but he was tenacious. Glad you’re okay.”

“Me too,” I agreed, before looking at Seth. “But we wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t shown up.”

The two vampires looked at each other in silence for a moment before Senny quietly spoke. “Thank you.”

In response, Seth just gave a shrug of one shoulder. “Eh, it’s like I said. We’re practically family.”

“How–” My voice caught, and I had to swallow hard before pushing on. “How many did they kill? What—what’s going on back there?” I was afraid to look back to see just how many bodies there were and how much damage had been done.

Sobering, Senny straightened. “I haven’t seen everything,” she admitted quietly. “If… if you want to leave before they blame you for what happened, I understand.”

My head shook at that. “No. If we’re going to make an alliance work, we can’t just run away because it gets hard. We need to show them that we’ll be there, that we’ll stick around even when things go bad. It’s the only way to convince them to trust us.”

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed. “They might be mad now, because the wolves attacked while we were here. But if we leave without talking to them, they’ll never listen to us again. They might not even listen to you anymore.”

After looking back and forth between us for a couple seconds, Senny finally nodded, a small smile touching her face. “Okay.” Turning, she started back the other way.

For a second, I hesitated. Despite my words, I was afraid to go back and see everything that the wolves had done. Not only because of how the Septs and the other Alters might react to seeing us after what happened, but also because… well, because I didn’t really relish seeing the kind of damage that a bunch of werewolves could do to innocent civilians.

Then I felt a touch. Glancing down, I saw Shiori slip her hand into mine before squeezing it. When I looked up, she gave me a slight smile. “It’ll be okay, Flick.”

And somehow… I believed her.

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Winter Wonderland 18-06

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Please note that there was a brief mini-interlude focusing on Avalon and Gaia posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may want to click the Previous Chapter button. 

Twelve werewolves might not have seemed like a lot when compared to the fact that this place was filled with Alters of every shape and size. After all, Alters weren’t like humans. Most of them had some kind of enhanced ability or power that, ostensibly, allowed them to defend themselves from threats.

Unfortunately, most of the Alters in the mall were civilians. They weren’t trained or accustomed to fighting. They did have powers, but the majority had seldom if ever used them in an open battle. That’s why they were here, because they didn’t want to fight. They were supposed to be safe in this place. And they had been, until I came. Or rather, until Pace and her band of murder-wolves chased me in here.

The werewolves, by contrast, were a cohesive combat unit. They had clearly trained extensively and knew exactly what they were doing. Each moved with purpose, following what was obviously an actual plan. They were ready (and a little too willing) to kill anything that got in the way of their objective.

So basically, the wolves were an elite commando unit while most of the Alters in the mall barely counted as armed security guards with an afternoon of training and some kind of firearms certificate.

There were, however, legitimate threats to the werewolves even in this place. One of whom was currently smashing one of the invaders’ hairy faces repeatedly into the wall until it was little more than bloody mush while simultaneously holding another of the wolves pinned against the ground by impaling him through the back with the jagged end of the broken telephone pole that served as his club.

“Nyet!” Buddy lectured, giving the one in his hand another hard slam into the wall face-first (what was left of his face anyway) “No coming in srough dze roof! Alvays use dze provided entrances!”

Unfortunately, Buddy couldn’t be everywhere at once. There were still others that were good in a fight (such as Quing), but they were outnumbered, and the werewolves were rapidly spreading through the mall. People were screaming, and it looked like the invaders were trying to do as much damage as possible as quickly as they could. Which was obviously meant to spread that chaos even further.

Asenath was dealing with another of the werewolves. He was an enormous figure (as far as humanoids went), towering over the other girl by a good three feet in his half-wolf form. And despite his size, the damn thing was also wicked fast. Almost as fast as Asenath herself. The two of them crashed through one of the glass window displays of a nearby store, and all I could do was hope Senny would be okay.

Because Shiori and I had our own problems. Namely: Pace. The werewolf-heretic was stalking toward us almost leisurely considering what was going on in all around the mall. Her smirk hadn’t wavered. “Here girls,” she cooed while quirking a finger. “If you do what you’re told, I’ll give you a treat. And if you don’t… well, I’ll still give you a treat.” She leaned forward, stage-whispering, “The treat is both of you screaming in agony. It’s really a treat for me, but I thought you might both be generous people.”

My mouth opened to say something, but the next thing I knew, the girl was right in front of me. She moved so fast her motion was a blur, like Asenath. Her fist hit me in the chest hard enough to send me flying backwards. The air rushed out of me as I hit the ground and skidded before catching myself.

Not long ago, that would have left me on the floor for at least a few seconds as I recovered from the harsh punch. But now, I drew my legs back and did a quick kip up to get back to my feet, staff raised.

Shiori was in the midst of blocking two of Pace’s lightning-quick punches. Then an unexpected kick took her in the leg, and I saw the Asian girl stumble before turning it into a roll that carried her under Pace’s follow-up swing. The crazy bitch was already spinning to grab her, but Shiori planted a hand to stop her roll, using that to lift her body up and kick out so that one of her feet slammed into Pace’s face.

I wanted to run back that way instantly. But I knew even more bad things could happen to this place if I didn’t do something else first. If the security enchantments that Wyatt had provided went off, he could call a bunch of Heretics into this place without knowing what he was sending them into. I couldn’t let that happen, so my hand grabbed for the little button that he had provided before I left the school. Rubbing my thumb over the thing to activate it, I muttered, “In trouble, but do not send Heretics that don’t know about everything. Repeat, do not send anyone that doesn’t already know everything. Pace and some of the werewolves are here starting shit, but we have innocent Alters stuck in the crossfire.”

Hoping that message would be enough to convince Wyatt not to alert everyone and their dog to descend onto this place (which would obviously raise a hell of a lot of questions I couldn’t answer), I kicked myself into gear again and ran to where Pace and Shiori were still fighting. Pace obviously had the edge in several ways. For every hit that Shiori landed, the crazy werewolf-heretic landed two or three. But I had the feeling that Pace hadn’t expected the other girl to be able to keep up with her at all.

As I approached, she looked over her shoulder at me while simultaneously catching Shiori’s fist. “Oooh,” she purred. “Two for one.” Then she shoved the other girl away from her before spinning to face me. Her foot came up and around to kick my staff aside, and I saw the gleam of excitement in her eyes. “You wanna make me bleed? You wanna take my toy?” Her hand gestured to the choker around her neck. “Come take it then,” she snarled gleefully. “Come break my bones and rip my throat.”

My eyes flicked over her shoulder to check on Shiori. The other girl was standing there at the ready position, having taken the time to produce her disc weapons. She gave me a quick nod of assurance.

“Why’d you come here, Pace?” I demanded while giving my staff a slow spin as I charged it up. “What the hell do you want? These people didn’t do anything to you. Hell, you’re part Alter yourself, so you know they’re not all evil. But you bring a pack of werewolves in here for… for what? What’s the point?”

“The point?” Pace echoed, sounding amused by the question even as she lazily stretched. “Well, you did kill Valentine, naughty girl. I mean, I don’t really care. It’s a fake holiday made up by the greeting card companies anyway. Also, he was pretty rude. But you really ticked off the other big bad wolfies.”

I shook my head at that while trying to ignore the sound of fighting going on in the background. Forcing myself to focus, I retorted, “Bullshit. That may be why you could talk the pack into this, but it’s not why you’re here. You don’t care about the one I killed. Not to mention that if you don’t care, Doxer definitely doesn’t. Does he even know you’re a wolf? You’re here for something else, aren’t you?”

“Eh,” the psychopath gave a dismissive shrug. “Two birds, one stone. They get revenge for Easter—ahh–” She rolled her eyes. “Wrong holiday. They get revenge for Valentine, and me? I get to hurt you. Trice’ll like that.” Eyes narrowing pointedly, the girl added, “Especially right after your little moment.”

Little moment? I blinked once before my eyes widened. Wait, did she mean… was she talking about my… my kiss with Avalon? How could they know about that already? How could they know about it at all? Fuck, just how good was their spy? I thought no one saw that, and Avalon wasn’t the type to go blabbing about it. So how the hell did Pace (and presumably Trice and Doxer as well) know about it?

Shiori looked confused, her gaze blinking up at me with a slight frown of uncertainty. And that was the opening that Pace needed. In a motion so fast that I barely registered her movement, the girl spun to kick Shiori in the stomach. At the same time, she thrust her hand out toward me. I had a brief glimpse of the girl’s arm turning white and hard, as if a bony exoskeleton had covered it before a sudden pain abruptly flared up in my shoulder. An eight inch long shard of bone like a big dart was sticking out, while blood leaked from the wound. It hurt, but Pace’s mocking laughter was probably even worse.

It was laughter that was abruptly cut off as what looked like a bolt of lightning slammed into her. Pace’s giggles turned to a cry, and the crazy bitch was sent flying away from me, hitting the floor and rolling.

It was Shiori. The girl’s mouth was still open from the bolt of lightning breath that she had hurled at Pace, and she took two quick steps to me while panting a bit. “Can’t… do that… again for a few minutes,” she admitted quietly once her movement brought her to my side. “Have to recharge.”

Utter turmoil still filled the mall. Screams reached me now and then, even as I tried to tune them out for the time being. I had to focus. Had to deal with Pace, then the rest of the pack would probably take off. She was the one leading this particular raid, which meant we had to put her down before anything else.

Not to mention the fact that the crazy bitch still had the necklace that I had promised to find for Roxa.

Nodding to Shiori, I reached up to grab the bone dart, yanking it out of my shoulder before tossing the thing aside. Rolling my arm, I grimaced while trying to ignore the pain. The Peridle healing would take care of it. I muttered, “Sent Wyatt a message, told him not to bring the whole cavalry. Not here.”

Unfortunately, it also meant that he probably couldn’t easily just go gallivanting off to our rescue, since he wouldn’t be able to tell the Pathmaker people why he needed to go. Hopefully Gaia would be able to do something about that in a way that didn’t draw too much attention, but I knew that even she had to be careful. Especially with Ruthers keeping an eye on what was going on through his little minions.

All of which meant we were on our own for at least the next few minutes. We had to deal with Pace.

Meanwhile, the girl herself had gotten back to her feet. She was staring daggers at the two of us while cracking her knuckles. “Bad little presents,” she muttered with obvious annoyance. I could see scorch marks on her clothing from the lightning that Shiori had hit her with. “Mummy’s gonna spank you.”

“You okay?” Shiori asked quietly without taking her eyes off of Pace. Her discs spun in her hands.

Nodding, I rubbed my wounded shoulder with my free hand before focusing. “I’ll be fine. It’s not bad.”

“Good.” The dhampyr took a step toward our opponent. “Then let’s go get Roxa’s necklace for her.”

Obviously hearing that, Pace’s smirk grew. The Hispanic girl gave a sharp shake of her head, sending the long half of her obnoxiously green hair flying. “You want my toy for baby-wolf?” she all-but purred at us before reaching behind her back to tug out a pair of what looked like sickles with chains attached to the bottom of the handle. At the end of the chain there was a heavy iron ball.

Thanks to Katarin’s class, I knew what they were called. Kusarigama. They were a Japanese weapon. The general point was to wrap the chain with the weighted ball around an enemy and then use that to get close and hit with the kama, or sickle. One of the Heretic-born first year students that I hadn’t spent enough time around to know very well used one. But Pace was using two at the same time, and I had no idea what hers were capable of. Fuck, this must be what it felt like for Alters to fight Heretics, never knowing what kind of powers they were going to pull out or what their insane weapons could do.

Snapping the chains with the balls out testingly, Pace cracked her neck. “Then come take it, Presents.”

Pointing my staff at an angle behind me, I used part of the charge to blow myself forward, straight at the girl. Nearing her, I brought the staff up and around, slamming it into the floor. The enhanced strength meant I could stop myself like that without snapping my arms. As the end of the staff planted into the floor, one of Pace’s chains wrapped around it. But I used the momentum to swing my body up and around in a kick that slammed into her arm, knocking her off-balance so the chain released.

Still spinning from the full kick, I dropped down and swing the staff low at her legs with both hands. Pace, however, just flipped over it, landing beside me with a cackle of amusement. One of her kamas swung for my shoulder, only to be deflected as one of Shiori’s discs came flying in to ricochet off it. The impact knocked Pace’s arm back, but she used the motion to swing herself into a full butterfly kick high in the air, knocking the second disc out of the way even as one of her chains flew down at me.

Before the chain could hit me, I brought the staff up. As the chain wrapped around it, I suddenly felt my weapon grow incredibly cold almost immediately. A layer of ice had already formed around it by the time I quickly hit the button to send a kinetic blast out. The blast shattered the ice, and I was able to yank the weapon back. But it had been a very close thing. Another second or two and the staff would’ve frozen solid. Okay, so don’t let the chains wrap around the weapon. Or myself. Got it.

Pace was still right on top of me. She came in hard, one of her kama blades swinging up at my midsection. Charging the staff again, I shoved myself up and caught the blade with it before pivoting to smack the other kama out of the way with the other end. My foot went up to kick the girl, but she twisted aside and inward, driving an elbow toward my face that I barely turned my head away from.

Feeling Shiori’s arrival, I turned abruptly and stooped. The other girl took a quick leap, using my back as a spring-board to fling herself up and into the air before she turned over to throw both of her discs down onto either side of Pace. A line of electricity connected each disc, catching her in the middle. And while she was jerking backward with a cry, I brought the staff up and around, triggering some of the stored energy into a blast just as the staff itself took her right in the face. The blow spun her around so that her back was to me, and I flung myself into a full spinning hook kick that slammed into the girl’s back. Just before my foot landed, Pace’s body was covered in that bone-armor once more. It didn’t hurt my foot, the strength I had inherited made sure of that. But the armor was also good enough that Pace wasn’t hurt nearly as much as she should have been.

Shiori summoned her discs back and went straight forward, holding the discs in her hands to deflect both of the kama blades as Pace swung them at her. The armored werewolf-heretic lashed out with a sudden kick that made Shiori stumble. But before she could follow up, I came at her with a wide swing to catch the girl’s attention. She spun toward me, catching the staff with one of her blades while sending the chain of the second one at my face. I threw myself into a backward roll, using a bit of charge from my staff to send myself further away from her chain.

Rolling to a stop along the floor, I tugged at the ends of my staff even as I came up into a kneeling position. In one move, I pulled my weapon into its bow-configuration and tugged the energy-arrow into place. Sighting in, I released the arrow before Pace could realize that my being away from her didn’t make me less of a threat anymore.

Sure enough, she was focused on Shiori, waiting for me to get back up. The arrow caught the chain of one of her kusarigama, tearing it from her grasp before sending it flying away down the mall corridor.

Spinning toward me with her remaining weapon, she spat, “Technical foul!” Literally. A glob of greenish ooze launched itself from her mouth with the words, and I flung myself sideways to avoid it. The stuff landed on the floor where I had been, immediately melting a hole into the floor.

Before she could follow up with that, Shiori was on her. The crazy girl had to spin to block one of the flying discs, ducking the second one.

“You think that’s bad?” I asked while using the distraction to push myself up and set my weapon back into staff mode as I ran back to her. “You should see the rest of my tricks.”

With that, I brought the staff up and around while triggering the portals on the ends. At a pull from my power, sand erupted from each end of the staff. A quick spin filled the small area around us with the stuff, creating a thick, obscuring cloud. But I could sense everything Pace had on her, which meant I could sense her.

She was trying to say something, but I immediately shoved some of the sand into her open mouth, sending as much of it as I could down to choke her. I focused it into her eyes and nose, flooding her face with more and more sand while clouds of it continued to spin out around us.

Even then, Pace fought like a wildcat. Her foot came up and around so fast I could barely react to it even though I sensed the movement. Jerking my face out of the way, I still took the kick along the side of the head hard enough to briefly daze me.

But Shiori was there as well. Sensing the other girl catching Pace’s remaining weapon before she could follow up on me, I called out, “Sand!”

It wouldn’t mean anything to Pace, since there was already sand all around us. But Shiori knew what I meant. Instantly, I felt the girl use her power to shift her body entirely into sand. As far as Pace knew, she had just abruptly disappeared.

Taking a quick step back, I waved a hand to send all of the sand into the air above us while keeping my staff up. “I don’t suppose you’ve had enough yet?”

She stood there, covered by her bone armor as she looked one way, then the other, obviously warily watching for Shiori. “Enough?” Her laugh filled the air. “I’m famished. Yum, yum, yum. So hungry for more. I’ll eat you right up. Just like a big… bad… wolf.”

Her tone turned mockingly sweet then. “What’sa matter, huh? Did your friend run away scared? I’ll keep you nice and warm until she gets back.”

“Two problems with that,” I informed her. “One, you’re too cold to keep anyone warm.”

“My wounded heart,” she retorted airily, still watching warily for Shiori. “But you said two problems.”

Nodding, I took a breath. “And two, Shiori didn’t go anywhere.”

As I said those words, the Asian girl herself reformed directly in the middle of the cloud of sand that I had held up in the air above us. Pace instantly sensed her and jerked backward, but it was too late. Shiori had finished recharging. Her mouth opened, and another bolt of lightning erupted from it. The bolt slammed into Pace, taking the girl full on from above.

At the exact same time, I had already launched myself forward with a blast from my staff. Whipping it around, I used the last of the stored energy in a blow directly into the already-reeling girl’s bone-armored face. The bone shattered under the impact and she was flung away with a cry, skidding along the floor before hitting the wall. She lay there, mostly still while groaning quietly.

It wouldn’t keep her down for long, I knew. Not with werewolf healing and whatever other powers she had that would get her back on her feet. We had to follow up.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to. Even as Shiori landed on the floor and I took a step that way, the sound of something moving incredibly quickly reached my ears. I barely had a chance to register what it was before the thing slammed into my side. The staff fell from my hands, and there was a heavy weight on my chest as I fell onto my back.

A werewolf perched there in full wolf form, growling hatefully at me with his front paws pinning my shoulders down. The thing, even as a full wolf, was huge, and its teeth were right at my throat. Even with my strength, I didn’t have the leverage to throw the thing off me before it could bite.

“Flick!” Shiori shouted, spinning my way only to go still as the wolf growled menacingly and put its open mouth nearer to my throat.

“Awww.” Pace had picked herself up, breathing hard as she dusted herself off. “So close, but now we’re still taking the blonde present. Wave goodbye. Say bye bye, bye bye!”

“Bye,” I started while snapping my fingers once, then a second time. As my hand moved back into the shape of a grip, the watch on my wrist popped open, and the silver knife from my mother flew out of the contraption that Columbus had made. It leapt into my hand, and I slammed the blade into the paw of the wolf that was pinning my shoulder down.

The wolf gave a deafening noise that was half-scream and half-howl. Its paw lifted off me, and I twisted free. Coming to my knees, I shoved the silver knife into the wolf’s throat, dragging it along to cut as much as I could before driving the blade up into his brain. The golden aura sprang up around me, and the orgasmic feeling rushed through my body.

“Bye.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-05

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“Let me see if I understand your claim, Miss, ahhh… Chambers.” The centaur spoke gruffly, his voice sounding like he was auditioning for the role of Batman. Squeezing the back of the chair that he was standing behind, he met my gaze intently. It was like he was trying to stare straight through me. “According to you, for a good portion of this past century, a group of Heretics led by your dam—err, sorry, your mother– and a group of Alters were part of an alliance combating the rest of your Heretic herd in an attempt to change their ideology? And then your mother’s entire identity was completely erased from their—possibly our memories, and with it, all knowledge of this supposed alliance?”

Swallowing, I forced myself to keep meeting his stare. “Yes, sir,” I confirmed. “That’s about the size of it. They were rebelling against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, trying to change things. And they were doing pretty well. The establishment thought they won when they kidnapped–” I stopped, frowning.

The vampire, a pale guy who looked like Sufjan Stevens with longer hair, leaned forward in his seat. “When they kidnapped whom?” His voice was silky smooth, and hearing it combined with the look that he gave me actually made me forget what I was saying for a second. Which, judging by the smirk that immediately crossed his face for a moment before he controlled it, was what he had been going for.

Shaking that off, I turned my attention toward the other Septs. “I—um, I can’t really say,” I admitted before quickly explaining. “There’s a spell protecting it. One of their memory spells. I can’t say who was kidnapped, just that someone important was taken, and they used it to make my mother surrender. So they thought that would be the end of it. But the rebellion kept going on for decades after that. They finally figured that if they erased my mother entirely, since she started the rebellion, it would disappear. And they were right. My mom lived as a normal person and everything in the Heretic world went back to the way the establishment wanted it to be. At least, she lived a normal life until Fossor abducted her.”

That got plenty of attention. I immediately saw all seven of the people up there, Calvin included, stiffen and look around at each other. The short, gnome-like guy was the first to speak up. “Fossor,” he repeated in a high-pitched voice after jumping to his feet to stand on his chair. “Did you say Fossor?”

Swallowing hard, I gave a slight nod to the gnome. “I take it you know him,” I murmured quietly.

“We are well aware of the Nocen Necromancer,” the older, beautiful blue-skinned woman confirmed. Her voice sounded pained, like she was remembering something specific and personally tragic. “He has caused our people a great deal of pain. If he has your mother in his custody, you have my sympathy.”

The Rakshasa female straightened a little, nodding. “He is a monster of the worst kind. And–” she added after a thoughtful pause, “there have been reports that he has been accompanied by an unknown female here and there. Some even claimed this female was a Heretic, though none of those reports were ever truly taken seriously.” Meeting my gaze, she mused softly, “Perhaps they should have been.”

“It was probably her,” I agreed while trying not to think about the kind of stuff that Fossor would have taken my mother onto field trips for. “And he made her… he made her have a son with him. Ammon.”

“We know of the spawn,” the rocky Thing-like man grumbled with as much obvious anger as the Septs had shown at the name of Fossor. “His experiments with his abilities have ended many Alter lives. And those are the ones we consider to be fortunate. Suffice to say, the child is as monstrous as his father.”

“Wait, you’ve actually had Alters around that encountered Ammon enough to know about him?” I was surprised by that. My impression had been that Fossor didn’t let his son out that often, but if these guys knew enough just to recognize him by name, then he must have been more active than I’d thought.

Behind me, Asenath spoke. “How much do you know about him? I have a case that involves the boy.”

“A case, hmm?” the male vampire spoke up, his tone and posture making it clear like he found the whole concept incredibly amusing. “You sound like a real detective when you talk like that, Senny.”

The look that she shot back at him could have frozen magma. “And yet, you still don’t sound like an actual leader, Seth. Also, my friends call me Senny. Which means you will always call me Asenath.”

“Not friends?” the vampire, Seth apparently, lamented with raised arms. “We’re practically family. After your father saved my life at the Battle of Trenton, I might as well be your big, handsome brother.”

Whoa. Apparently there was history between the two of them. Quite a lot, it seemed like. This Seth guy was turned by Asenath’s father during what was probably the American Revolution, from the sound of it. And Asenath herself really didn’t like him very much, despite that connection. I wondered what had happened between them, and what Tiras himself would have thought of it. Hell, why had he chosen to save this single man and turn him into a vampire? What had drawn him to do something like that?

Senny looked like she was going to say something nasty back to Seth, but stopped herself. Instead, she forcibly turned away to focus on the other Septs. Her voice was hard. “You mentioned the boy.”

The centaur spoke up in his rough voice again. “Rumors that would appear to be more substantiated given the information you have already provided. They say that he appears to be a Heretic, but different. Those who have escaped him say that his… mind control ability is stronger than any they have ever encountered. Even those who should be immune to such effects are still vulnerable to it.”

“Yup, sounds like Ammon,” I muttered. “He was even able to affect a high level Heretic. Our security chief, actually. And you’d think if anyone would be stacking up anti-mind control powers, it’d be her.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I paled and felt the sudden urge to smack myself very hard in the forehead. Or possibly lower. “I mean–” I winced, shaking my head. “Sorry. I just—she should have plenty of defense against being controlled, and it still affected her. That’s all I meant.”

From the looks I was getting, the Septs didn’t enjoy being reminded about the fact that Heretics essentially harvested powers from Alters that they killed. But none of them said anything. Not even Calvin, which was odd since I would’ve figured that he’d jump on any excuse to turn the rest of their opinions against us. Actually, he hadn’t really said much of anything since I’d started telling the story.

Finally, the blue woman interrupted the awkward silence that had settled over the room. “Your point is taken, Miss Chambers. It seems that in all of our experiences, the boy’s power is stronger than it should be.” She paused then before looking toward the Rakshasa. “Perhaps there was some truth to the rumor.”

“Rumor?” I blinked, looking back and forth between them. “There’s a rumor about Ammon’s power?”

Asenath suddenly started with obvious realization. “Denuvus,” she blurted. “They think it’s Denuvus.”

“Denuvus?” Shiori finally piped up, looking from her sister to the Septs and back again. “Who’s that?”

The gnome who answered in that high voice. “Denuvus was never more than a rumor. His existence was never, ever confirmed. You’re talking about a rumor about a rumor. It’s utterly unsubstantiated.”

“And yet,” the Rakshasa almost purred, “it would seem to fit quite well, would it not?” To the rest of us, she added, “Denuvus is—or possibly was– supposedly a boogeyman among both Alters and Heretics. Rumor had it that he was both. An Alter who became a Heretic. Or an Alter with the ability to gain powers from other Alters, like a Heretic. But his most powerful ability was the one he began with: his ability to control others through his voice. Even those he really shouldn’t have been able to control.”

“Like Ammon does,” I murmured before looking back over to her with a thoughtful frown. “But what do you mean, an Alter with Heretic powers? How is that possible? I mean, I assume he wasn’t just a Reaper or a Hangman. He wouldn’t be just a rumor then, so it’s gotta be something more than that.”

Seth spoke then, having lounged lazily back into his seat with one foot up on the arm of it. “Got that right. According to the rumors, whatever Denuvus was, it came with the most powerful mind control anyone ever saw. Nobody was safe. He told you to do something, you did it. All he had to do was-”

“Say his name,” I interrupted. “He introduced himself, and then everyone who heard it had to obey.”

There was a series of nods from the whole group, before the rock-guy took over the explanation. “According to the rumors, he had a Djinni under his control. They, ahhh, they say that he made the Djinni use her magic to merge him with a Reaper, so he could have its power. Sort of a homebrewed Heretic. So whatever he was with that mind control that worked on everyone, suddenly he was a hell of a lot more dangerous. And he killed Heretics and Alters alike. Didn’t care who they were as long as they gave him power. Like they said, kind of a boogeyman. Especially since he didn’t register as a Heretic to anyone that looked at him. Normally your kind are—well we know you by sight. Not him.”

Rocking back on my heels, I thought about that. “So now you think that Ammon… that he was…” Swallowing, I pushed on. “You think that Fossor made him a Heretic by taking this Denuvus guy’s blood. Maybe killing him, maybe not. The point is, you think Ammon’s a Heretic based on Denuvus.”

“And no one knows what he was before?” Shiori interrupted. “Denuvus, I mean. You don’t know what um, what species of Alter he is, or where his mind control power came from and why it’s so strong?”

There was a collection of shaking heads before Calvin finally spoke up for the first time. “You know, we’re saying an awful lot to these two when we don’t even know if we can trust them or not.”

“And I’m trusting all of you,” I shot back. “If certain people find out what I’ve told you, it won’t be hard for them to figure out where that information came from. And if that happens, well, we’re pretty screwed. All of us. Me, my friends, and especially Shiori.” Nodding toward the girl, I added, “What do you think the Heretics are going to do as soon as they find out that there are half-Alters among them?”

“The girl has a point,” the centaur allowed with a stomp of one of his hooves. “And these are not the sort of tactics that Heretics normally use. They would have to respect us as a civilization to bother with this kind of underhanded strategy. You don’t send someone to infiltrate an organization with a story that appeals to their compassion unless you believe that the organization you’re infiltrating has compassion. In my experience, Heretics would never even entertain such a notion, let alone build a plan around it.”

Calvin immediately shifted gears. “But the point remains, what do they want from us? And is providing it to them worth the risk that they pose? You heard the girl. Fossor is after her. Having her around attracts his attention and the Heretics. She’s got two different bullseyes on her from two really god damn scary sources. And that’s just the ones we know about. If you ask me, she’s too dangerous.”

The gnome gave Calvin a look before nodding once. “I’m not one to agree with the new Bebarlang, but he raises a fair point. What exactly do these two expect us to do now that they’ve told us their story? Are we expected to start another war against the Heretics, just because she says that her mother led the last one? Or will she instead insist that we aid her in rescuing her mother from the necromancer?”

“I don’t expect you to do anything,” I insisted. “I didn’t even know we were coming here today. But now that we are here, I just… I just want to be able to come and get information that I can’t get other places. Maybe later it can turn into something more. But right now, I’m just trying to be a student. I…” Biting my lip, I paused before going for it. “In less than a year, Fossor’s going to come for me too. I’m training to fight him, but—but I’m still just a teenager. I’ve barely been a Heretic for a few months. When he comes, it’ll be a year. That’s not enough. They’re teaching me, trying to help, but I’m afraid it’s still not enough. I need to learn more. I need to learn from sources that Fossor won’t plan for. I don’t expect you to help me fight him. But I would… I would like it if you could teach me to fight for myself. Teach me things that the Heretics won’t or can’t. Teach me things that Fossor might not know about.”

That made them whisper among themselves for a few seconds before the blue woman held a hand up to stop them while looking at us. “Miss Chambers and Miss Porter, we have been incredibly rude to you both in demanding answers without introducing ourselves. I am called Limnoreia. My people are known as Nereids.”

The rock-man gave a slight nod, clearly agreeing with her decision. “I am Stav, the Granakin.” Lifting his large hand, he indicated the others. “You already know Calvin, the Bebarlang. The Centaur’s name is Fennicus, the Rakshasa is Xi, Kimper is the Gnome. And, of course, the vampire is called Seth.”

Slowly looking down the line of them, I nodded with each name. “Calvin, Stav, Xi, Seth, Fennicus, Limnoreia, and Kimper. It’s a um, surprise to meet you today. But I uh, thanks. Thanks for listening.”

Clearly I didn’t exactly have the charisma of my mother in leading massive groups of both Alters and Heretics to follow her into a war. But at least they were paying attention and considering what we said.

“We would like to discuss what you’ve told us in private,” Limnoreia explained gently. “There are some other considerations to be made, and… well, quite frankly I would prefer you not have to stand there listening to our arguments. If you would like to continue looking around Wonderland while we discuss, you are welcome to do so. Quing will ensure that you are not accosted. Correct, Quing?”

The bird-man stepped forward before giving a sharp nod. He didn’t look happy about it, but he agreed. “Yes, Sept Limnoreia. They’ll be safe.” Pausing then, he added pointedly. “Just like everyone here.”

That bit was clearly meant as a warning to Shiori and me, but I let it roll off my back. I couldn’t blame him for his reaction, or his suspicions. Especially not after finding out about what he’d lost.

“Good,” the Rakshasa, Xi, gave a wave of her paw. “We will send for you after we’ve deliberated.”

So we left. Walking back past all those guards and out into the main mall, Asenath remained quiet until we were out. Then she looked at me. “Sorry. I know that probably felt a bit like an ambush. But I wanted whatever you said to come without sounding rehearsed. The Septs have ways of detecting lying, and sometimes rehearsed speeches come off as lying. It could be explained, but… I thought it was better if it came out completely naturally.”

“I guess I get that…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “But you didn’t know they had any information about Ammon?”

“I thought they might,” the vampire admitted. “But this was the best way to get it out of them without Seth sabotaging things because he thinks it’s amusing.”

Shiori raised a hand. “Um, what’s the deal between you two? Is he really… basically family?”

Asenath shook her head sharply. “No. Not–” She sighed. “Not exactly. He showed up after Papa left, said he was supposed to help take care of us. But he’s not exactly the ‘caretaker’ type. Whatever my father saw in him that made him save his life… I don’t know. He’s not a Nocen or anything, but he just… doesn’t take anything seriously. Everything is one big joke, and his world revolves around whatever amuses him the most at the time.”

I opened my mouth to say something else, but before I could actually speak, a sudden boom reverberated throughout the mall. It was followed almost immediately by another. They felt like earthquakes or small explosions.

“What th–” I got out before a hand abruptly grabbed my arm. Senny yanked me backward, moving so fast she was a blur. An instant later, a chunk of the ceiling slammed into the floor where I had just been standing. It had to weigh a couple hundred pounds, and hit with another boom.

There was a figure on top of the chunk of ceiling. Or rather, a body. What looked like a lizard man lay there, a gaping wound in his stomach and another in his throat.

“Pestel!” Quing took a step there, the horror and grief in his voice hitting me hard. “Our man on the roof. He–”

“Down!” Asenath grabbed me around the waist and leapt backward just before another huge chunk of the ceiling fell in right where I had been standing.

By that point, most of the Alters who had re-emerged were running for cover. I heard one of them scream that the Heretics were there and that it was all a trap. My mouth opened to try to shout something, anything. But before I could, something else fell from the ceiling.

Or rather…dropped. The figure landed easily on the same pile of debris that had just fallen, straightening with a shake of her head.

“Aww,” Pace lamented. “I really thought that one was gonna hit you. How rude.”

“Pace!” Eyes widening, I grabbed the staff from my hip, yanking it free. “What the hell-how did—what?”

Grinning, the crazy werewolf-heretic did a little spin. “Dear old Doxer’s really good at finding people.” She focused on me, her smile growing. “Peekaboo.”

“You made a mistake, Heretic,” Quing informed her, straightening away from the body of his subordinate. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“You’re surrounded, Pace,” I managed through gritted teeth. I was trying not to stare too much at the choker that hid her werewolf status from my Heretic-sense. “I don’t know what you thought you were gonna do here, but–”

“Surrounded?” Pace echoed, as if the thought had only just occurred to her. “Huh. Surrounded. That was dumb. I guess I shouldn’t have come by myself.” Pausing, her head tilted slowly, that manic smile returning. “Oh yeah.”

She snapped her fingers, and an instant later, there were over a dozen more figures falling through the holes in the ceiling, all the way past the railings around the other two floors. They landed all around us, large figures that were growing bigger and hairier by the second. Werewolves. There were over a dozen werewolves surrounding us, while Pace gave that chaotic laugh.

She wasn’t alone. She had brought her pack with her.

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