Ylena

Mini-Interlude 57 – Lincoln

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“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 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?”    

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Winter Wonderland 18-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to give it a look with the Previous Chapter button. 

The aftermath of the werewolf attack made the mall that was Wonderland look like it had been hit by a tornado. Or even a bomb. There were holes in the walls, stands tipped over, glass from broken windows spread everywhere, and more debris than I could process. Worse, however, were the bodies lying on the floor. Some were being tended to by others, but far too many were lying still and empty with sightless gazes, their broken forms torn apart too much to even try to save. And… not all of them were adults.

I had heard of massacres before, had seen reports on the news about what happened in war or during terrorist attacks. I wasn’t that naive. I knew that innocent people died a lot, even children. I knew it, logically in my head. And finding out that not all Alters/Strangers were evil had made it clear that this kind of thing could happen even to them. Hell, hearing about what happened to the Meregan was heartbreaking. And yet… this… seeing it in person, seeing these innocent people who hadn’t done anything wrong lying there, broken or dead was… it made me want to throw up. Everywhere my eyes turned, another sight of blood, of ripped organs or exposed bone made my heart want to shrivel up and die. I saw a little girl, no older than five or so with a pair of small blue horns on her head sitting in a corner with her obviously dead mother’s head in her lap. The girl herself was covered in blood, and I couldn’t even tell if it was hers or not. She was just sitting there with dust and bodily fluids covering her, a shell-shocked look on her young face as she stared at nothing, stroking her dead mother’s face.

I must have stopped walking, my gaze centered on that little girl with the body of her mother, because Shiori squeezed my hand to get my attention. “Flick,” she whispered under her breath, “are you okay?”

I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t. Because that little girl was just one of many sights that tore my heart out when I saw them. And I couldn’t just walk past. Releasing Shiori’s hand, I slowly moved that way, putting one foot in front of the other before I consciously realized what I was doing. In a moment, I was standing near the girl. My mouth opened to say something, but I had no idea what. I’m sorry? How stupid and trite was that? What could I possibly say that would make any of this even a little bit better?

In the end, I said nothing. No sound would come out of my mouth through the confusion in my brain and the lump in my throat. But I must have made some kind of sound, because the blankly staring girl turned her head. Her amber eyes found me, and I heard a squeak of wordless terror. Her arms went down, and I realized belatedly that the girl was covering her mother’s body as much as she could. All without ever taking her gaze off me, while big, thick tears of indescribable fear flooded her eyes.

Then Asenath was between us. Her hand found my shoulder and she gave me a brief sympathetic look before turning to the girl. “Ylena,” she whispered, kneeling for a moment to give the terrified, grieving girl a hug. Those terrified eyes stayed on me for another second before the girl let herself be embraced.

Turning away, I moved back to Shiori. “They know,” I murmured softly, my voice dull. “They know to be afraid of us. Even that girl, her mom was—and she was… even then, she was scared of us, of me.”

“They teach ’em young.” It was Seth, leaning against a nearby decorative pillar that had managed to remain standing. “Recognize the Heretics and run away. Hide. Run and hide, because the monsters are gonna get you.” Pausing, he took a cigarette out and stuck it between his lips before flicking open a lighter. Giving the lit cigarette a couple puffs, he finished with, “In this case, you’re the monsters.”

The words were harsh, but they were nothing I hadn’t already been thinking before he said anything. Heretics were the monsters to Alters. They had us and the actual evil Alters to worry about, the Nocen.

For a few moments, Shiori and I stood there in silence. Eventually, Asenath joined us once more. From the corner of my eye, I saw another adult Alter kneeling with the little girl, Ylena. Senny looked to me, her expression soft. “She didn’t mean it like that. She’s just—her aunt was the only family she had left.”

I winced, but it was Shiori who spoke. “Aunt?” she asked, her voice making it clear that she was afraid of the response even though she couldn’t stop herself from continuing. “I thought that was her mother.”

Shaking her head, Senny explained, “Her parents were killed about a year ago, by–” In the midst of her sentence, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes flicked over to us and I saw the truth in her brief hesitation.

“Heretics,” I finished for her. “Her parents were killed by Heretics.” I wanted to ask if it was Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretics, or even natural ones. But in the end, it didn’t really matter at all.

“Yes,” the vampire girl confirmed softly before letting out a low sigh. “That’s why this is important.”

“I know.” Swallowing hard, I forced myself to nod. “I get it. The war that my mom started, the rebellion, it was… it brought Heretics and Alters together. We can’t let that just be forgotten forever.”

With that clearly on all of our minds, we started back toward the Septs place once more. My eyes kept wandering, taking in even more of the destructive scene. I’d thought that the little girl, Ylena, with her dead aunt would be the worst thing that I saw. But that was just one of many examples that were all warring for the top position. Or, to be more accurate, the bottom position in this endless sea of tragedy.

Still, they all seemed to be pulling themselves together more quickly than I would have thought. Shiori clearly noticed that too, since she murmured, “It’s like they’re all…” She stopped talking for a second, and I saw realization dawn in her eyes even as the last few words escaped her weakly. “… used to it.”

Asenath hesitated before nodding. “They are. We are. This isn’t the first place Wonderland has been, and it won’t be the last. These people, they deal with potential attacks from Heretics and Nocen all the time. They grow up learning to watch out for Heretics, to keep their eyes open and avoid leading any of the hunters back to their homes. But it doesn’t always work. Attacks happen. They pick up the pieces and move on.” Her gaze found mine briefly. “Most of them have spent their whole lives like this.”

Their whole lives, spent dealing with one attack after another. The thought made me physically ill. That girl, Ylena, most of these Alters had grown up just like her. They’d lost parents, other family members, friends. All because of what they were born as, not anything they had actually done. The Heretics, we… we hunted them down and made their lives miserable, made them hide, because they weren’t human.

Of course, it was more complicated than that. There were a lot of bad Alters that did horrifying things to humans. Look at what happened to Koren’s father. And I knew that a lot of the Heretics, even the hardliner ones, genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. It wasn’t all black and white, and if I fell into the trap of assuming that all Alters were good and innocent and all Heretics were vicious killers, it would be no better than the hardliner Heretics who thought the opposite. There was nuance. Good Alters, bad Alters. Good Heretics, Bad Heretics. And somehow, Mom had been able to convince a large enough group of each of that fact to start a rebellion that had lasted more than half a century.

Walking back into the former Sears where the Septs were located, we found the group already waiting aside from the empty chair that Seth casually strolled over to and dropped himself in. None of the faces looked happy, though I couldn’t tell how much was directed at us and how much was at the situation.

Fennicus, the centaur, spoke first. “You’ll forgive us,” he began in a low voice, “if we hurry this along. We have things to do. People to take care of.” There was a brief pause before, “Loved ones to bury.”

Flinching, I nodded. “I’m sorry. We can come back another day if you… if you want. I just—I didn’t want to just walk away, not after…” Unable to find the right words, I finished with a weak, “I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them from killing anyone. I’m sorry that they were here, that they followed us to Wonderland. I tried to stop her. Pace. She’s a Heretic, but she’s also a werewolf, like the others. And she came to take me because… because she and her friends want to hurt my friend, someone I care about.”

“They fought another Heretic to save Alters,” the rock-man, Stav, pointed out. “That aids their claim.”

Unfortunately, the little gnome guy, Kimper, shook his head. “It does nothing of the sort. We already know the hybrid was of the ilk that call themselves Eden’s Garden, while these two are from their Crossroads. And those two groups fight and hate each other almost as much as they fight and hate us.”

Xi, the Rakshasa, inclined her head. “That is true. However, in any case I could think of, Heretics from both organizations will put aside their differences to focus on what they see as the much larger threat: us. They may hate each other quite a bit, but they hate us far more than that. Generally speaking.”

“I don’t hate any of you,” I interrupted in spite of myself. Then I hesitated before nodding toward Calvin. “Well, okay, I’m not his biggest fan. But to be fair, I didn’t like him back when I thought he was human, so that shouldn’t count. The point is, I know that Pace and her pack came here because of us, because of me. They were here for me, and I can’t—I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them from killing anyone.” It was repeating myself, I knew, but no other words would come to mind. I just felt… numb.

“How did they get past your security so easily?” Shiori put in. “I mean, shouldn’t it have been harder for them to get as far as they did? Or at least, shouldn’t there have been an alert sooner?”

Kimper nodded, arms folded over his tiny chest. “Yes. But we lowered a number of the security spells in order to allow your entrance.”

That hit me hard, and I paled. “So… it was our fault they were able to get in here.”

Limnoreia, the blue-skinned Nereid shook her head. “No, Heretic-child. It is not your fault. We had the choice of either lowering our defenses entirely, or adding both of you into their exceptions. We chose the former because we did not trust you enough to risk giving you specific access through those spells. The thought was that if you caused trouble, the defenses could easily be raised and they would target you immediately. It was our mistake. Unfortunately, it is not one that we have paid for.”

Cringing, I thought about Ylena’s dead aunt. “I know. The… the people who died, the ones who were hurt, I’m sorry there’s nothing we can… nothing we can do…”

To my surprise, it was Calvin who spoke. “Oh gods, would you just tell her the truth? She’s either not falling for your little test, or she didn’t have anything to do with it. Probably the latter. I don’t like the little self-righteous snoop, but she’s too much of a damn goody good to be into the whole abducting children thing.

Confused by that, I stared at the man before looking toward the others. “Wait, what’s he talking about?”

“Yes,” Senny agreed with a voice that sounded just as confused as I felt. “What is he talking about?”

The rest of the Septs looked at each other, but it was Seth who spoke after linking his arms behind his head. “Turns out, the fleabags weren’t just here for you after all. Well, maybe they came for that and just took advantage of the situation. Whatever it was, they didn’t end up taking off empty-handed.”

Limnoreia explained in a pained voice. “While we were distracted by the primary attack, several other wolves, accompanied by another Heretic, infiltrated the areas where our nursery and daycare are located. They took several of the children there before they could be stopped.”

More of Pace’s pack—Lemuel’s pack, I reminded myself. Twelve attacked directly. Three more had been keeping the back clear until Seth killed them. And others, apparently, had gone after the children.

A hard, heavy weight seemed to slam itself deep into the pit of my stomach at that. “W-wait,” I blurted, eyes wide. “What do you mean, they took several children? Why—why would they take… take kids?”

“Weres,” Asenath said quietly, sounding pained. “They took were-children, didn’t they?” When the group of Septs nodded, she cursed. “Damn it! Of course they did.” To Shiori and me, she explained, “That’s how a lot of Nocen were-packs expand their numbers. They either turn humans that they think have potential, which has its own risk of failure if the subject doesn’t survive the first change. Or they take the children of weres. Those have… a much higher survival rate because the change is natural.”

While I was reeling from that, something else struck me, and I looked back to the Septs. “Wait, you said there was another Heretic with them. Do you have a picture of them, or a description or anything?”

“He was tall,” Xi explained after exchanging looks with the rest of them. “And he was of the Moors.”

I started to ask what ‘of the Moors’ meant, but Asenath quietly murmured, “She means he was black.”

“Doxer,” I muttered aloud. “It had to be Doxer. Pace, she said something about him helping them find us—me, but I didn’t think he was actually here. Why would he help the pack abduct were-children?”

Senny shrugged a bit. “Maybe he was trying to impress Pace, or owed her. Whichever, the point is-”

“The point,” Fennicus interrupted with a heavy and obviously irritated stomp of his hoof against the floor, “is that we shouldn’t be sitting around in here. We should be working to find those children.”

Kimper was standing in his seat, head bobbing up and down. “We need to send teams out after them!”

“We do that,” Seth pointed out idly from his place, “and we leave Wonderland vulnerable. We already lost enough as it is. If we send enough to challenge this other pack and get the kids back, we leave the people that are left here vulnerable to another attack.” He glanced to me while flicking a switchblade open and shut. “And if we don’t send enough, we’re just handing the pack more victims to play with.”

“What would you have us do, then?” Fennicus demanded. “If we do nothing, the parents and guardians of the were-children will go off on their own. Some of them might do that anyway, regardless. They’ll spread out and get themselves killed, or taken. We must be seen to take action on this, immediately.”

That started a whole new round of arguments between them, some arguing for rescue teams while others continued to point out that lowering their numbers more was going to leave Wonderland weak.

In the midst of all of that, I interrupted. “Hey! Hey, I think we can help. Let us help find the kids.”

All of their eyes turned to me, and Stav spoke in a rumble. “I think you underestimate how long such as search will take. This is not a short or small endeavor, and from what you have said, there is more than enough on your… how do humans say… bowl already.” Beside him, Xi leaned closer to whisper, and the rock-man corrected himself. “Plate. Enough on your plate. How will you spend the time to search for the children, particularly without arousing the confusion and suspicion of your school teachers?”

Wincing at that, I admitted, “Not us, exactly. You’re right, we already have a lot to deal with. And it’s not like we can just wander all over the place searching the country for wherever the pack is holed up. But we do know others that can search. And they’d have sort of a… sort of personal stake in the matter.”

Clearly surprised, Shiori glanced to me. “Wait,” she blurted quickly. “You’re talking about asking–”

I nodded. “There’s another werewolf pack. A smaller one, but… capable. One of them was another Heretic until she was turned by Lemuel, the leader of the pack that attacked you. He didn’t do it to recruit her, he did it to make her die. But she survived, and she was taken in by this other pack. And they want to deal with Pace and the rest of them as much as you do. When they hear that Lemuel’s pack took were-children, I think they’ll want to be involved.”

“A pack of werewolves…” Limnoreia murmured thoughtfully. “Their senses would give them a better chance of tracking the abductors, assuming they could arrive soon enough…”

They conferred quietly for a moment before Xi spoke up for them. “Contact them, Miss Chambers. See what they can do. And for the time being, you may consider us… not quite allied. Not yet. That is something we will have to explore further, preferably without interruptions. But we are not enemies either. We shall see where this goes. Particularly if your contact is able to save the children.”

Taking a breath, I nodded and turned to take the phone from my pocket. Going through the contacts briefly, I hit one of them and brought the phone to my ear.

“Sean? Yeah. Um, listen… is Mateo there?

“I have a really, really big favor to ask.”

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