Agent Jurgen Crayne tried to make as little noise as possible. Right around the corner from where he crouched sat a 6 year-old, playing with her dolls. Her parents had, unbeknownst to her, already been removed from the house, a house that had by then already been warped beyond recognition.
His thoughts replayed every retrieval mission he'd ever participated in. There'd been gruesome sights, there'd been sanity-blasting weirdness, but there'd never been unbearable cuteness.
"And then the king came in and saw the princess kissing the boy who washed the pigs," the girl said giggling and added in as gruff a voice she could manage, "YOU THERE! PIG BOY!"
"Oh no! It's the king!" she squeaked and mimed one of the dolls trying to flee the scene.
Crayne only heard her, but he was trying to figure out how to approach this. He didn't look his best, to say the least, and this was her turf. Even if she didn't immediately scream her lungs out, her abilities might instinctively affect him. And who knew what'd happen then. He might turn into a prince, although an ogre was more likely. Hell, he might even turn into a damn coach horse. Or a pumpkin. His strange sense of humor made him chuckle at the image of a pumpkin swearing like a boozed-out sailor in heat.
She must have heard him, because a frightened voice asked who was there.
And then he had two choices. He could ignore the question, hope she wouldn't come looking, and wait for a better opportunity to approach, or he could answer it. Only time would tell what the better option was, but he chose regardless.
"It's just me, a peasant from the fields," and after a moment's hesitation he added, "your highness."
He sincerely hoped he wouldn't be spending the remainder of his life as a misanthropic vegetable.
There was no reply for a precious few seconds, during which Crayne's bladder contemplated preemptively releasing its burden.
"I have soldiers," came a fearful little voice.
I don't doubt you do, thought Crayne.
"I'm just a farmer, I would never hurt you, princess."
A giggle was his answer.
"Come here, farmboy."
Crayne swallowed hard, made sure to put his gun down on the ground, and then showed his face around the corner.
"Here I am, princess," he said and slowly moved into view. He held out his hands, palms up and waited. Crayne tried, but failed to ignore that his jeans and nondescript red t-shirt had somehow changed into a burlap sack. It itched.
She had long blonde hair, bright green eyes, and was sitting in the middle of what must have once been a bedroom. Its walls had been transformed from wallpapered drywall into coarse stone mortar work. In glancing, he noted the stones were uniform and featureless. The one window had lost its glass and showed a view of rolling hills, sprawling forests and even a distant shoreline. All perfect storybook material. He knew that out in the real world, his colleagues were staring up at that window.
Anderson comforted the mother, following protocol as the amnestic began to take hold. He repeated back the cover story Planning and Control had issued him. Her daughter had tragically fallen down the stairs when she'd tried to go downstairs after an afternoon nap, and broken her neck. Her wails cut through him like a knife, but he kept his voice level and went on to explain that her daughter would be buried next Tuesday in a nice, quiet affair. It really was all for the best.
Crayne hesitated and then curtsied, his lack of interest in medieval etiquette showing.
"Milady. I have come to tell you that we need to flee the castle. A dragon is coming."
He regretted his hastily chosen words the moment they'd left his mouth. When he got back, he'd probably be locked in a room with the manual on child reality benders.
"A DRAGON?!" she shrieked and Crayne immediately heard the sound of a bedsheet hung out to dry, flapping in the wind.
Okay, that was fucking stupid, he thought and wished he had brought his gun. Wouldn't have done me much good anyway. It'd probably have been turned into a goddamn pitchfork.
"We can run, princess. The queen is somewhere safe already, but we need to go now," he said, hoping he'd put enough urgency into his voice.
The girl looked up at him and he saw something behind that gaze.
"Where's my mommy?" she asked and nearly cried.
Crayne noticed a slight movement ripple through the walls, the return to mundane subjects having a direct effect on her surroundings.
"Mommy's fine, Lily. I can take you to her right now, before the dragon gets here."
A roar sounded. It was…cartoony. He'd heard plenty of roars in his time, usually right before someone got bitten in half by some godforsaken mutated thing with too many teeth. That thing out there, beyond the window, might be in his league. Then again, it might not. He wasn't about to take the chance.
Now genuinely frightened by what her own subconscious had served up, she looked up at him expectantly.
Crayne stuck out his hand and bowed once more. "I'll help you escape the castle. We'll go beyond the gate to your mom, princess Lily."
That at least got a little giggle again. Another roar sounded, closer this time. She cringed and took his hand.
That flapping was beginning to get on his nerves.
"Okay then, but you have to promise," she implored.
"Promise what, princess?"
"Promise me that you'll kill the dragon," she whispered anxiously.
"I will, princess. I will," he said as he quickly administered a dose of sedative.
And the roar was no more.