“And then the princess transforminged into a dragon and said, ‘oh, maybe you want me to breathe fire instead of you letting my daddy go, cuz if you don’t–if you don’t–if my daddy isn’t free, if you don’t let my daddy go, I’ll breathe fire.’ And then he wasna let go, so she did, and the witch was all burned up to ashes and ashes like fwoom!”
The tiny, not-quite-six-year-old little girl with curled blue horns that stuck up from her forehead finished her story with a dramatic wave of her arms, and a chirped, “The end!”
Lincoln Chambers put a hand to his chest as he reeled backward, letting out a loud gasp. “Oh! What a story!”
Giggling self-consciously, the little girl shifted back and forth on her feet there on the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby Camp. She lifted her eyes shyly, blushing deeply while tentatively asking, “Did you really like it, Mr. Lincoln?”
With a smile, Lincoln took a knee in front of the girl, ignoring the damp sand and gravel that he had just stuck his leg into. “I’ll tell you what, Ylena,” he started sagely, “that was one of the best, most engaging stories I’ve ever heard. That whole bit about them trying to stop the prophecy about how a dragon would ‘take’ the princess, only for it to actually be the princess shapeshifting into a dragon instead? And then saving everyone with it? That was beautiful.” He gave the girl a mock-stern look. “Are you really sure you just made it up?”
Ylena, who had been blushing with even more self-conscious embarrassment, gave him a quick, wide-eyed look while her head bobbed up and down. “I did!” she insisted, lifting her chin stubbornly. “I made it all up myself! I mean, sorta. The princess and the legend and the witch and all that. But the dragon thingie is sorta like me. Sorta.”
Blinking once, Lincoln regarded the girl. He had been talking to her as part of the project that he had started, to collect the stories from the Alters whose lives had been affected (and in so many cases, broken) by the actions of the overzealous Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics.
In her case, she wasn’t really a resident of the camp, exactly. Instead she was actually from the place known as Wonderland, having been a resident of the place since her parents had been killed by Heretics a year earlier. Making matters worse was the fact that the woman who had taken the girl in, her aunt, was killed over Christmas vacation when the werewolves along with that Pace/Lies girl had attacked the place while Flick was there. Ylena had been left completely on her own… except she wasn’t. The entire community had pretty much banded together to adopt her and anyone like her. And now that Wonderland and the Atherby camp were so connected (thanks in part to Asenath and Seth having more to do with both groups), they were sharing the load. Ylena was here to spend some time at the lake, and to see humans and Heretics who weren’t trying to kill her.
“The dragon thingie is sorta like you, huh?” Lincoln asked, trying not to push the girl too much despite his intense curiosity. If she wanted to say more, she would.
She did. Bobbing her head up and down quickly, Ylena chirped once more, “Uh huh! I mean–” She stopped, face pinking a little. “Not really a whole dragon, those are really, really strong! But um–watch!”
With that, the little girl took a step back. Closing her eyes, she focused, her brow knitting in visible concentration. Slowly, over the course of roughly a minute while Lincoln stared, her skin changed. Beautiful, intricate blue scales that matched her horns appeared in patterns before solidifying as if she was wearing armor. It rose up over the girl’s face, which extended into a clear snout. At the same time, she began to shrink, while a long tail emerged from her backside.
Finally, the small humanoid figure had been replaced by an even smaller dragon-like figure. She was only about two feet long from the tip of her nose to the start of her tail (which itself was as long as her entire body), and lacked any wings. But she was still an incredible sight.
“See, Mr. Lincoln!?” The transformed girl announced while looking up at him eagerly, her tail wagging back and forth, “Not a dragon, Drake! I’m a Drake!” Her voice dropped along with her head then, as she gave a soft, forlorn, “But I’m not a princess… and I couldn’t save my family.”
Swallowing hard at that, Lincoln reached out to put a hand under the Drake-girl’s snout, lifting her head to look at him. “You know, your mommy and your daddy, and your aunt, would all be so very, very proud of you.”
Her vertical-slit eyes filled with tears then, as the girl’s snout quivered. “They w-would?”
The man nodded firmly, cupping both sides of her elongated head. “You are being so brave. You’re learning, and you’re helping everyone, and you’re telling those wonderful stories…” He forced himself to smile, because it was something that she needed to see. “You are a beautiful, brilliant, brave little girl. And you would be an amazing princess.”
It must have been faster and easier for the girl to regain her human-shape, because her Drake-form melted away within a few seconds, leaving her looking much more familiar, as she leaned up into him, her little arms wrapping tightly around Lincoln. Her face was buried against his shoulder as he knelt there.
“I miss Mommy… and Daddy… and Aunt Sarai…” Her voice cracked, breaking a little while her tears soaked into his shirt. “Why did they have to kill my mommy and daddy, Mr. Lincoln? What did my mommy and daddy do? Why did they have to die, Mr. Lincoln? Why… why…?” With each passing word, she cried a little bit harder.
Feeling his heart crack just a little bit more than he had thought possible, Lincoln held the girl to him. He said nothing, because what could he say to that?
What could anyone ever possibly say to it?
“Me and Duncan, we’ve been with the clan our whole lives.”
A few hours later, Lincoln was listening as Misty, the waifish young woman with unbelievable strength thanks to being a Natural Ogre Heretic, spoke in between bites of the enormous slice of pepperoni pizza that she was busily devouring.
“Your whole lives?” he asked curiously, taking a sip from a can of coke. The two of them were seated at a picnic table behind one of the cabins. In the distance, as the sun set, they could hear the sound of wood clacking loudly against itself. More of the camp residents training with their practice weapons.
The girl gave a quick, vigorous nod, sending her brown and blonde streaked hair bouncing. “Yup, our parents were part of Eden’s Garden until your wife convinced them to leave back when the rebellion was still going on. So they joined up. Then little baby Duncan came along, and they knew they had to do better than that, so they eventually had me too.
“Funny thing is,” she continued, “I didn’t even really wanna be a Heretic when I was little.”
Raising an eyebrow at that, Lincoln took a bite of his own slice of pizza while prompting, “You didn’t?”
Misty shook her head. “Actually, I wanted to be an architect. Only I didn’t want to just make apartment buildings or skyscrapers. I wanted to design castles.”
“Castles?” Lincoln echoed, his curiosity raised even more.
“Sure.” Winking, the girl continued. “You know how little kids wanna be princesses and knights living in a palace? I wanted to design and build the palace. You should’ve seen how many Lego sets I had, how many reams and reams of paper I used up with all my designs. I had all these layers of walls and traps. They were beautiful. Watching things like the Lord of the Rings movies, my favorite parts were the castles.”
That little tidbit made Lincoln smile. “I’d like to see those castles you designed. What made you change your mind?”
“I’ll see what I can dig up,” Misty replied before lifting her chin. “And you mean besides the fact that there isn’t really a very big career field for ‘castle designer’ out there?”
Coughing, the man gestured. “Fair enough, I guess those are pretty rare anymore. Still, what made you decide to go with being a Heretic and fight right on the front lines? I mean, linking yourself to an Ogre. You can’t really get much more into the direct line of fire than that.”
For a moment, Misty didn’t answer. She looked away, biting her lip softly before slowly replying, “I was kidnapped by a bunch of Nocen. Mom and Dad saved me, but they were… they didn’t make it.” The guilt and shame in the young woman’s voice was palpable. “Duncan barely managed to get me out himself, and we couldn’t…” She took a deep, shuddering breath then, unable to finish what she had been saying. Instead, she moved on. “So I decided that what I wanted to do was protect people. Like my parents, like they… like they did for me, and for everyone else. I wanted to be strong, so… Ogre.”
Swallowing, Lincoln shook his head, his voice quiet. “I’m sorry that happened. I would have liked to know your parents.”
Managing a ghost of a smile, Misty gave a little nod at that. “Pretty sure they would’ve liked to know you too.” She rubbed the back of her neck, looking self-conscious. “Um. Sorry. I didn’t mean to get all emotional there. It’s been a long time, it shouldn’t–”
“No,” Lincoln interrupted before the girl could continue. “You don’t have anything to apologize for. Trust me, I… I may not know exactly what it’s like, but… I understand. It’s not something that just goes away.”
“You’re right,” she agreed in a soft, barely audible voice, “it’s not.
“But Duncan and I already killed the fucks that killed our parents. So at least there’s that.”
Later that night, as darkness had settled over the entire camp, Lincoln stood at the end of one of the docks, sipping coffee (a wonderful, wonderful brew thanks to Busy’s work on the machine) while speaking with the elderly man who stood beside him.
“So, I guess you don’t really talk much about the particular Alter you were bonded to,” he noted in a soft voice, his eyes on the dark water before them.
Enguerrand gave the faintest hint of a smile, standing with his arms lightly folded. “No,” he replied quietly, “I suppose I do not. It is difficult enough to assure Alters that we do not mean them harm, to say nothing of their reaction to the fact that I am connected to one of their… bogeymen. The Seosten are not well-liked among those who know anything about them. Though even that is fairly rare here on Earth. My companions find it better if I, as they say, play down my connection to the bodysnatchers.”
Lincoln nodded once then. “I can believe that. But uh…” He paused, choosing the right words. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but–”
“You would like to know how I am connected to one of the Seosten,” Enguerrand guessed, glancing that way. “Because there are not any around here.”
When Lincoln confirmed that, the old knight cracked his neck before explaining. “When I was a very young man, still a child, really, I was taken in by one of the Seosten who had been on this planet for a very long time.”
“One of the Olympians?” Lincoln guessed. He had learned enough about that whole situation to make the assumption.
However, Enguerrand chuckled while shaking his head. “No, actually. The man who took me in was the child of a couple of the Seosten who came to this planet while it was still free, while it was the sanctuary that it had been before the rest of his people found it. They were his parents, and they lived in the place we now know as Egypt. When the Seosten empire found the planet, his mother was heavy with child, and they were afraid that any excitement would cause her to… to lose the baby. It is very difficult for Seosten to carry their children to full term.
“So, they helped to give what aid and information they could to certain people there, before fleeing under the cover of night. Any Seosten who would have been found there would be known to have rejected the Empire and would have been punished as traitors and deserters. They left, and in time, had their child. For years, they traveled that way, moving all the time to keep themselves away from their own people and out of sight of not only them but also those who would see all Seosten as enemies no matter their current allegiance.
“Sadly, both eventually passed away. My lord’s father was quite elderly even before they arrived on the planet. And his mother, while much younger, relatively speaking, only lasted another thirty or forty years without her beloved. My lord was a grown man by then, of course. Left on his own, he buried his mother and set out to see the rest of this world, while avoiding his own people.”
Heaving a long, heavy sigh then, the man shook his head. “Unfortunately, when the Seosten created the Bystander Effect, they also cast an attached spell that erased much of the knowledge of the Seosten in general not only from the humans, but from the vast majority of every species.”
Lincoln blinked at that. “They erased the knowledge of–ah. I suppose that makes sense. Explains why every Alter here on Earth doesn’t know all about them.”
The other man gave a faint nod. “My lord was not entirely exempted from that. Why would he be? After all, they had no idea that he existed. His naturally enhanced memory protected him somewhat, but he lost much of what his parents had told him about his own people. Their spacefaring nature, the extent of their manipulations, their power, all of that had faded. It came and went, certain details rising, particularly later in his life. But for the most part, the stories that his parents had told were simply… gone. He remembered being told the stories, but not the details.”
“That must have been horrifying for him,” Lincoln observed, “and tragic, to lose so much of what his parents taught him, so much of what they said.”
Enguerrand grimaced slightly. “Yes. It was. But he moved on, even becoming a knight of rather high regard. Eventually, he took me on as a squire, and gradually trusted me enough to tell me what little he still knew of the Seosten and what he had been able to piece together. I served him for many years, and he connected me to him by blood. Then he… he saw that I had fallen in love with the woman who would become my wife, and released me from my service. I swore to come if he should ever need me, and then I took up with my own new family.
“That, however, was not meant to last. My wife and child were… murdered by a group of Nocen. In a rage, I killed the one responsible for their deaths, but the others, his friends… they would have killed me in return. But I was saved by Lyell Atherby, who became my best friend after that. He dragged me out of the pit of depression that losing my family sent me into. We were very close. I helped him raise his son, Joshua, and then his daughter…”
“Joselyn,” Lincoln finished for the man.
“Just so,” Enguerrand confirmed, giving him a brief look. “I took care of that kid when she wasn’t even big enough to hold onto my finger, before we lost her… her parents.”
“They died stopping the Fomorian invasion, right?”
The old knight shook his head. “Her father did. Her mother’s still alive, or was back then. We just lost all memory of who she was. And it has to stay that way. Anyone finds out who Joshua’s wife actually was, and it weakens the spell keeping the Fomorians away. It’s the ongoing part of the sacrifice.”
Deciding to change the subject a little, Lincoln asked, “What about your old master, the Seosten who practically raised you. Do you think he’s still out there?”
Enguerrand nodded. “I am certain he is. I do not know where, or what he has been doing, but he is out there, somewhere.
“The true question is, when will he show himself again?”