Thirty unheard messages. Voice mailbox full. Please listen to or delete messages to receive new ones.
Lincoln Chambers stared down at the cell phone in his hand as he lay on his side in bed. The phone wasn’t his, of course. Not his original phone, anyway. That had been tossed away much earlier so that he couldn’t be tracked quite as easily. No, this was a random, prepaid phone that one of the Atherby clan had picked up for him. He’d used it to call his old phone’s mailbox so that he could check the messages that had been left for him. Or, at least, that had been his intention days ago.
He had checked several of the messages at the time. Most were either from his work, wanting more answers than his original, terse ‘going underground for a story, back eventually’ call had given them. The others were from his parents, who wanted… well, any answers at all, really.
When he had asked for the phone, Lincoln’s intention had been to keep up with any questions the people in his life had. He’d intended to keep giving them updates on his supposed investigation while also fishing for hints about which of them wanted to know too much. There had been some vague idea there of working out who the Seosten had possessed to get to him.
Except he couldn’t do it. After listening to a few of his messages from the people he cared about, from his parents and friends, Lincoln had stopped. The idea that any of them could have been possessed, that they had been enslaved by those goddamn alien body snatchers, had been too much. He couldn’t make himself listen to their messages while having no idea if the person speaking was really themselves, or if they were being puppeted by an evil alien overlord.
It was even worse knowing that his daughter, his daughter was out there in their space. He had no idea how Felicity was doing, if she was okay, or anything. He was even more helpless and incapable of helping than he had been before. Which, honestly, was really saying something.
He wanted to pull them in, his parents at least. But if they were possessed, getting to them and testing them for possession without giving anything away or endangering anyone else was going to be hard. He needed to be ready for something like that, not just run off halfcocked.
Sighing and giving up on his latest attempt to psych himself up into actually listening to those messages, Lincoln clicked the phone back into sleep mode before sitting up in bed. The room that he had been sleeping in was sparse, decorated only with the bed itself and a single dresser where the few clothes that he’d been able to get were tossed. On top of the dresser was a cheap lamp, and a single photograph in a gold frame. It was one of only three rooms in the small cabin he’d been assigned to live in while he was staying here at the Atherby camp.
Other than this room, there was just a tiny bathroom and a combination living room/kitchen. There was very little to it. But honestly, he didn’t mind. The place reminded him of camping trips that he had gone on with his father back in the day. They were good memories. Safe memories.
Stepping out of bed, Lincoln squeezed himself into the small bathroom and took a long, almost scalding shower to wake himself up. That was one good thing about this place. There seemed to be an utterly unending amount of hot water. If that was a spell, he really wanted to find out how to use it before he left this place. If he left this place, which itself was really up in the air.
Just in time, as he finished dressing after enjoying the shower, there was a knock at the door. Lincoln gave his hair one last brush through with the comb before eying himself in the mirror. Satisfied after a moment, the man turned on his heel and moved through the main room of the cabin, taking in the early morning light coming in through the windows before tugging the door open. “If I didn’t know better,” he announced in the process, “I’d say that one of your powers was perfect timing.”
“How do you know it’s not?” The woman who stood there looked like she was in her early to mid-thirties, with dark blonde, almost brown hair that was layered in waves and fell to her shoulders. She was tall, a full six feet in height and almost distressingly thin to the point that Lincoln had more than once had the rather absurd urge to make her eat a sandwich despite the fact that he had seen her put away even more food than he did.
Her name was Kaste, or at least that’s what she called herself. Which was a pretty appropriate name, since ‘casting’ was her whole thing. The woman used magic a lot, which took energy. Hence how much she ate, all while never gaining a pound and remaining stick-thin. She was also an Alter of some description, though he’d yet to find the right way to ask what kind.
For a second, he squinted at the woman. “You used magic to know when I’d be ready.”
Rather than confirm or deny that, she just winked. “Does that mean you are ready now?”
“Need to throw some breakfast together,” Lincoln replied before stepping back and gesturing. “But uh, yeah, why don’t you go ahead and come in. You hungry? I’m not much of a cook, but I can pour cereal with the best of them. Behind my back and blindfolded, even.”
Stepping into the cabin and closing the door after her with a soft click, Kaste raised an eyebrow at him. “And you do all of that without spilling anything? That is most impressive, indeed.”
He grinned. “Never said I did it without spilling. Just that I could do it.” With that, the man moved to the nearby cupboard and took down a couple of bowls before filling them (not behind his back) with cereal from the nearby box. Adding a couple of spoons and milk, he set the bowls down at the table while asking, “Something to drink? I’d suggest coffee, but uhh, still not sure where the Starbucks is around here, and the machine broke last night.” He waved a hand to indicate the object in question, which lay on its side on the nearby counter.
Glancing that way, the woman smiled faintly before shaking her head as she tugged a pair of what looked like coasters from her pocket. “I’ve got this one,” she announced. Dropping the coasters on the table next to one another, she waved her hand over them while speaking a word. A second later, a pair of mugs appeared on the coasters, each filled with steaming coffee.
Lincoln’s eyebrow almost popped off his face. Curious, he reached out to pick one up, trying it. “Now that,” he announced after taking a sip, “is a spell that you really have to teach me.”
That was what the woman was here for, why she came to visit every morning. Kaste had been teaching him beginner’s magic. While he wasn’t a Heretic or anything, he could now use spells since the Bystander Effect had been broken. He wasn’t exactly fantastic at the stuff yet, but he had at least managed a few small effects, mostly thanks to Kaste’s teaching. She was patient with him, and seemed just as delighted with any small success that he had as he was.
Winking then, the woman promised, “We’ll get there. But now you see what you can look forward to, once you learn enough.”
He took another sip of the coffee before nodding. “You sure know how to inspire your students, I’ll tell you that much.” With a smile, he took a bite of his cereal even as a slight pang made him wince inwardly. Flick. Felicity. Was she okay? How could he be enjoying himself when his daughter was out there. Even knowing, thanks to the message that had been delivered from the Moon twins, Vanessa and Tristan, that Felicity was not under some Seosten operating table but had actually been rescued by Larissa Mason and Haiden Moon wasn’t enough to alleviate his fear. He wanted her back on Earth, back where he could see her, not off running around in some alien empire while the Seosten tried their damnedest to snatch her away for their experiments.
Kaste, clearly recognizing his train of thought, spoke up then. “She’s strong, you know. I haven’t spoken to her very much, only met her the one time. But she’s definitely strong. She’d have to be, considering she’s descended from one of Arthur’s Knights.” She winked at him. “He didn’t choose them just because they looked good in a suit of armor, you know. They were all incredibly powerful. Your daughter and her mother are both descended along that line.”
Coughing at that, Lincoln shook his head. “Yeah, and don’t think that doesn’t still freak me out. My wife and kid are descended from one of the Knights of the Round Table? My daughter’s related to someone who ran around with King Arthur? The King Arthur? How do you ground someone like that? Not that that’s been an issue for a long time, but seriously. She’s my kid, and now I know that she’s… how do I talk to her now? How do I look at her knowing that she’s got that kind of blood, that she’s…” He trailed off, unable to find the right words. Logically, he knew it was silly. But whenever he thought about it, about the fact that Felicity was descended from a legend like that, it made him feel utterly inadequate.
Kaste put a hand on his, shaking her head. “You do what you’ve been doing, Lincoln. Felicity Chambers is who she is because of you, not because of any blood she has. Her power, the resources she could end up with, the way others treat her, that is because of her bloodline. But the person she is, that’s because of you. Don’t change that just because of what you know now.”
“You sound like you have a lot of experience raising kids like that,” Lincoln observed.
The woman looked away briefly, her voice quiet. “My sister and I have experience being that kind of kid. Our parents didn’t exactly take it that well, so Rain and I eventually ended up on our own. Trust me, you don’t want that for your daughter. She’s still Felicity, no matter who her ancestor was.”
Smiling, Lincoln nodded. “Of course she is. Still,” he added then, “it is a little hard to get used to the idea that I used to change her diapers. I always knew she had potential, but this?” He whistled, shaking his head before taking another bite of cereal. “It’s intimidating.”
“What you need,” Kaste informed him then, “is a lot more experience with magic. Then you’ll feel better. Practice. Lots and lots of practice.”
He returned her smile. “Well, in that case, you’ve got me for the rest of the morning.
“Let’s see what you can teach me today.”
Hours later, Lincoln was standing on the edge of the lake, while some other figures played in the water about thirty yards away. He had just finished the sandwich that he had prepared for lunch after spending the entire morning learning magic from Kaste.
For a moment, the man watched the kids in the water. They were all teenagers, or close to it. Most of them didn’t look any older than thirteen or fourteen. There were ordinary humans mixed with Alters, though some of those Alters were so human-like that he couldn’t tell the difference from where he was even without the so-called Bystander Effect clouding his senses. Others were clearly not human.
As far as Lincoln had been able to find out, there were about a hundred regular, full time residents of the camp. Of those, about two dozen or so were combat capable adults. The rest were a mixture of civilians, children, and teenagers. The population seemed about evenly split between non-humans–Alters, he remembered to think of them as- and humans, or so-called ‘Natural Heretics’. Beyond that, there were almost as many ‘temporary residents’, people who would only be staying for anywhere from a few days to a month, depending on how long it took to find them another safe place to go.
He’d asked once, and learned that there were smaller enclaves or safehouses spread across not just this country but several others as well. Places that were under the Atherby Clan protection. It was some kind of combination of an underground railroad and a witness relocation program, keeping hunted Alters safe from the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics. All told, Gabriel Prosser had estimated the Atherby Clan’s total official membership at close to a few thousand. Not terribly large, and very spread out with the only real connection for a lot of them being Prosser himself. Yet still larger than Lincoln had expected. And it had apparently been much larger in years past. But the combination of the long war with the Heretics and not having an official Atherby to lead them over most of the past half century had made their numbers dwindle a bit.
Now, he watched a blue-skinned figure with visible fins and gills splashing several of the others. She was directing a large wave over them with a simple gesture, laughing the whole time. They all were. The rest of the young teens ganged up on the blue-skinned figure, trying to get the jump on her while she kept holding them off from all sides with various directed waves.
“Helena is getting stronger every day,” a voice behind Lincoln announced, and he turned to find the two-headed hyena-like humanoid standing a few feet away from him. One of the two heads was male, while the other was female. It was the male head that had spoken just then.
Jones. That was his–her–their name, Lincoln remembered. He lifted his chin, nodding back over his shoulder at the laughing teenagers. “Helena, that’s the uhh, water girl out there?”
The female head nodded, speaking up then. “She is a Melusine. It’s good to see her laugh again. Her parents were…” She trailed off, baring her teeth briefly before looking away.
“Murdered,” the male Jones finished for his female half. “Her parents were murdered by Heretics. They tried to kill Helena as well, and would have if Duncan and Misty hadn’t gotten to them first.” As he spoke, they waved a hand back across the camp to a spot where the siblings in question were apparently teaching another group how to fight using wooden swords.
Lincoln stared that way for a few seconds, his eyes taking in the group as their training weapons cracked against one another. “They’re children,” he announced quietly. None in the group appeared to be older than nine or ten, and all of them looked entirely too serious while they listened to the instructions that Duncan and Misty were giving them. “They’re just innocent kids.”
“Can’t be innocent kids for long with the Heretics running around.” The bitter announcement came from the female Jones, who was staring that way as well. “All those kids are here at the camp because they don’t have anywhere else to go. They’ve already had at least one encounter with the Heretics. Most of them lost someone in the process. Maybe more than one someone.”
Jones’ male head nodded. “Some of ‘em will move on once there’s a good enough safe house to send them to. Others’ll stay here. Gabriel doesn’t force anyone to do what they’re not comfortable with. If they want to stay at the camp instead of going back out there, they can.”
Swallowing hard at the thought of what those kids had gone through, and would continue to go through, Lincoln took a moment to find his voice. “You’ve got quite a set-up here. Seems like you help a lot of people who need it.”
“Not as many as we’d like to,” the male Jones replied. “Sometimes we fail. Like…” His voice turned hoarse as he clearly spoke through a thick lump in his throat. “Like with the twins.”
“You mean Joselyn’s other kids?” Lincoln guessed. “Abigail and Wyatt.”
“When we knew them,” the female Jones announced, “they were Koren and Zedekiah. The poor kids.” Her head shook sadly, tears forming in her eyes. “We cared for them so much. They were only babies. Babies, and that monster stole them. Stole them and used them to force our Joselyn to surrender. Who would do that? What kind of coward abducts a mother’s tiny babies to use as hostages? Whatever moral ground Gabriel Ruthers once held, he surrendered it the moment he threatened the lives of innocent children to achieve his goal. He is a monster.”
“Believe me,” Lincoln replied, “the more I hear about this Ruthers son-of-a-bitch, the more I want to put my fist through his face.”
Clearly changing the subject quickly, the male Jones asked, “Must be strange for someone like you, raised human I mean, to get used to the idea that your wife has adult children out there. Children who are technically older than you are, even.”
“Oh, God.” Lincoln rocked back on his heels, head shaking. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I have stepchildren. Hell, I have a step-grandchild. It’s–God, it’s a lot to take in.”
“You met them, right?” the female Jones asked, her tone curious. “How did that go?”
Nodding, Lincoln answered, “Yeah, we met, once. They came with… with Deveron, Joselyn’s old–I mean her young–I mean…”
“We know him,” the male Jones assured him. “He is a good man, if a bit impulsive. But still, good.”
“Yeah, I got that impression too.” Lincoln sighed. “I mean, that’s good. It’s real good. They all seem great. A bit confusing sometimes, but great. Jos has great taste. I can see why she was–why she was involved with that… with Deveron. It’s just really awkward, looking at this kid, this guy that looks that young and thinking about how he knows Joselyn so much better than I do. She’s my wife. But she’s also his wife. And they were together for a long time. When I look at him, I think… I think about how he knows the real Joselyn, the full Joselyn. Me, I know the Joselyn after they wiped her memory, after they turned her into a normal human. I love her. God, I love her so much. But I think he knows her better than I do. He grew up with her. He went to war with her. He’s fought–the man has fought for decades to save her, to find her.”
“And yet,” the female Jones remarked, “you still feel a little bit like he’s stealing your wife.”
Lincoln put his hands up to his face, letting out a long, pained sigh. “I shouldn’t. I don’t want to. He deserves–he’s a good man. It’s just… complicated. It is incredibly complicated.”
“What about the others, your step-kids and step-granddaughter?” the male Jones asked.
That made Lincoln smile a little despite himself. “Wyatt might be a bit eccentric, but I like him. He’s loyal, and he’s brilliant. Thinking about what happened to him, to all of them, it still pisses me off. But he’s great guy. And Abigail seems like a brilliant lawyer. I feel sorry for anyone that tries to argue with that woman. Apparently she’s been devouring every book, scroll, and notepad they’ve got in that place that’s got anything to do with procedure or rules. Keeps quoting their own laws at them to get what she wants. That uh, that Seller guy, he thinks it’s hilarious.”
He sobered a little bit then. “They’re looking for that… Pace or Lies or whoever she is. Them and Miranda.” The reminder that his daughter’s childhood friend was also a Heretic was still enough to make the man shake his head. “Apparently Koren, Abigail’s daughter Koren, not Abigail herself, and Miranda are convinced that they can find a way to help the real Pace. They think that if they can get that handicapped Seosten out of the girl, she might be able to tell them everything she found out while she was possessed.”
“But,” the female Jones pointed out, “the only way to remove a Seosten Lie from a host is to kill the host.”
The two (or three depending on how one was counting) of them stood there in silence for a moment, darkly contemplating that.
“Oy, you lot!” The call came from nearby, and Lincoln turned while automatically looking down. The voice was distinctive enough that it could only come from one person.
Sure enough, the well-named Fancy stood there. The snazzily-dressed Kobold with his top hat, miniature suit, and monocle pointed his gold-tipped cane. He spoke in an affected accent that made it sound like he was channeling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. “Wot’s wif all the ruddy broodiness over here, eh? Why, Oi just look to the beautiful sky an’ there’s a roight bloody rain cloud glooming its way over this spot roight here. Gonna mess up the kids’ lovely day out, you lot is.”
“You’re right,” Lincoln admitted. “No sense in dwelling. Not when there’s work to do.”
Both of Jones’ heads nodded, the male speaking. “Kaste left with Rain, so that must mean that she’s done teaching you for the day.”
“Yeah,” Lincoln confirmed. “She said they had plans. So uh, you guys think you’ve got time for another of our lessons before the kids are ready for me?” Not only had Lincoln been taking magic lessons from Kaste, but he had also been both learning everything he could about various Alters and their history so that he could catch up on as much as possible, and teaching as many mundane subjects to the kids around here as he could. He was no actual teacher, but they had books, and he could do a decent job of faking it up to a point. The kids and early teens needed to learn, and he wanted to give something back to these people. Thus, he would spend a few hours each day with as many of the elementary and middle school-aged kids as he could in order to teach them basic math, english, history, and more.
“O’course!” Fancy chirped, gesturing grandly. “Come wif us, Sir Lincoln. We’ve got a roight good lesson plan today, we do.”
With a nod of her head, the female Jones confirmed, “Yes, we thought we’d walk around the camp and have a pop quiz. See how many types of Alters you can match to the people they are.”
Lincoln whistled. “Bringing out the hard stuff, huh? Alright, let’s do it. But I warn you, I have an excellent memory.”
The male Jones smiled. “No doubt born of all your experience as a reporter, Mr. Chambers.”
“Call me Lincoln,” he replied. “And actually, it was uhh, born of a few years of college spent with entirely too many last second desperate cram sessions the morning of a test after being out too late. But don’t tell my daughter that. She’s under the impression that I was a perfect student who never even saw a drink until I was thirty, and I don’t wanna crush that part of her naivety just yet.”
Both of the Jones heads smiled, speaking together. “Don’t worry, Lincoln. Your secret is safe with us.”
A knock to the door of his cabin late that night brought brought Lincoln over to open it. He found the man himself, Gabriel Prosser, standing there with his coffee maker.
“I present,” the man started dramatically while holding out the machine, “Busy’s greatest triumph. Apparently it doesn’t just make coffee, you can program it to make it exactly like any of the top thirty coffee shops on the planet make theirs.”
“Heh.” Lincoln took the machine, joking, “Sure, but can it make it like Ricardo’s diner on thirty-fifth in LA? Because that’s the one that I–”
“Number three on the preset,” Prosser informed him, adding, “Busy says he looked into your preferences.”
Both men stared at each other for a moment then, Lincoln admitting, “That Kitsune scares me sometimes.”
“He is very thorough,” Prosser agreed, chuckling a little. “I hear that your lessons are going well, though. Both with Kaste and the others.”
“I’m doing my best.” Lincoln shrugged while giving the man a brief look. Gabriel Prosser. Lincoln had done a history report on the man (or the regular human understanding of him) back in his Freshman year of high school. Talking with him now, it was… disconcerting.
The man was a living legend. Literally. He was important history even to ‘Bystanders’. And clearly to Heretics, from what he had heard, Gabriel Prosser was an outright hero, a literal legend among legends. These were people who could knock down buildings, fly, teleport, even move mountains in some cases. And they were in awe of the man in front of him.
“You wanna come in for a minute?” he finally asked, moving to put the coffee maker down. “I’d say ‘get out of the cold’, but I doubt it bothers you.”
Prosser gave a slight smile at that, stepping in before turning to close the door. “Sure. Actually, I wanted to ask if you gave any thought to what I told you before.”
Lincoln took in a breath at that before letting it out. “About becoming a natural Heretic of one of your people?”
With a nod, the other man replied, “Any single one of the people here would be honored to be bound to you, Lincoln. They have all asked me repeatedly if they could possibly be the one to share their blood with you. And becoming a Natural Heretic would protect you a lot more than simply being a human who knows some magic. Especially with the kind of threats that are going to be coming after you if they get half a chance, both from the Edge Heretics and from Fossor.”
The man had a point, Lincoln knew. He bit his lip, slowly nodding. “I know, I know. I just–it’s a hard decision to make. Like you said, they all want to help. But I can only make that choice once. What can I…. who can I bond to that would actually do the most good for me and my family?”
“You’re right,” Gabriel agreed then. “That is a very difficult decision to make.”
“I’ll tell you what I do want to do,” Lincoln announced pointedly. “If your people will agree to it, I want to write their stories. Anyone who will talk to me, I think… I think this stuff needs to be written down. It needs to be shared. Some people need to see it to understand just how bad these things are, for a human context, if you forgive the phrase. I’m not sure what else to… call it. Anyway, some people need these personal stories to have context. And other people… they need to read the stories to understand that they’re not alone. That can… it can help. Their stories, their histories, their lives deserve to be recorded. Their struggles deserve to be shared.”
Gabriel watched him briefly, seeming to look through the man for a few seconds before his chin inclined. “I see that Abigail is not the only one who will be putting her lifetime of accumulated skills to good use.” A small smile touched his face. “I will speak to the others. Some will agree. But I am sure that I don’t have to tell you to only record the stories of those who agree.”
Lincoln nodded, and for a few minutes, the men kept talking. They discussed the possibilities of different Alters that he could be bonded to, before Lincoln promised that he would think more about it. It wasn’t a decision that he would make on a whim.
After bidding the other man good night and seeing him out, Lincoln locked up (a matter of habit more than anything else, really) and made his way to the bedroom, turning out lights as he went.
Who would he ask to become bonded to? Who could he become a Natural Heretic of? What kind of Alter would give him the best chance of actually helping his wife and daughter, of helping his family with everything that was coming after them?
It was going to take a lot to try to decide, a lot of thinking and a lot of research. As he lay in bed, all Lincoln could do was hope that he would eventually make the right choice. Because there was a lot riding on it.
His eyes were open as he lay there, staring at the photograph on the nearby dresser. The picture was of himself, Joselyn, and little Felicity. It had been taken only a month or so before Joselyn’s disappearance, and was the last family picture that they’d taken together.
Blinking back tears, the man reached out to touch his fingers against the photograph, brushing over the images of his wife and his daughter. “My girls,” he whispered, his voice sounding rough to his own ears. “How can I help you? What can I do?”
There was no response, of course. Slowly, Lincoln lowered his hand from the picture, before raising it enough to turn out the light. Then he lay back on the bed in the resulting darkness.
Before long, he was asleep.