In a split second, Bill found himself in completely new surroundings, but it wasn’t a place he had expected to find himself in.
He was stood in some kind of meeting room, for it was filled with dining chairs all lined up, facing him. He was stood upon a raised platform, and opposite, stood Smoulder in Bill's form.
Bill jumped back, his fur bristling in alarm.
Smoulder had predicted he’d be coming for him! How did he do that?!
“You!” he shouted.
“No, you,” Smoulder answered in the same voice, hands behind his back, “I’m Bill Bayleaf now. You can be Phil, my identical twin,”
“What are you playing at?” Bill asked, swishing his tail, angrily, “Why were you on television?”
“To help get your website all the attention it deserves,” Smoulder answered, “although I must admit, I am a little hurt. You found facts on everyone but me, how’s that going to help people feel peaceful towards me?”
Bill wanted to ask why on earth he would do that, when he realised what Smoulder was really saying.
“You don't just mean you, do you?” he said, quietly, “You mean your species. And you’re not dragons,”
“I mean my species, yes,” Smoulder repeated, “and you'd best be careful what you say about us, because the room is full of us,”
Bill's eyes darted round the completely empty room.
He looked back at Smoulder. His whole figure said ‘I’m not joking’.
“Ok ...” Bill said, slowly, feeling spooked, “So what are you?”
“I'm a Shape Shifter,” Smoulder replied, “You’re in a room of Shape Shifters. Could everyone please say ‘Hello’ to Mr. Bayleaf?”
“Hello,” came several dozen voices from nowhere.
Bill worked hard not to be scared, for it was creepy, and it was plain why such a species would get the hardest times, in all the ways he could think of.
“You're all invisible in your natural form?” he asked in as police and calm a tone as he could manage.
There came a gentler scatter of ‘yeses’.
“Correct,” Smoulder nodded, “I often wonder if our nature should be treated as a disability, for our kind can only survive by playing copy cat,”
Bill went quiet as the gravity of these words sunk in.
Smoulder kept his face carefully composed, and turned to his audience.
“If everyone would be so kind as to Shift, please?”
There came a vision like a tidal wave, as people on the back row appeared first, and then those in front immediately after, row by row.
Bill gulped. Many of them took on the images of elves and vampires, some were nymphs, and others fairies. To his amazement, Bill spotted the two ogres from Smoulder's Manor.
“Thank you everyone,” Bill said, and the Shape Shifters faded away again.
He turned back to Smoulder. There was a question he hadn’t asked him yet.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s always been me – You targeted me for the Cornerstone to be hidden in, and now you’re taking on my image. What’s so special about me?”
“Because I knew that the Cornerstone would like you as people do,” Smoulder answered, quietly, “This was why I stole the Cornerstone, Bayleaf. Not for gold. I wanted you to open people’s eyes, and you wouldn’t do that trapped at home, scared of speaking to city folk. I needed you to get out of there more badly than Molly did. You're the nice guy with lots of friends in the country. The best friend. The dreamer. The comic relief. And yet, you are – or were - an outsider, like me. Now, the local hero! Better than Pierce,” he scowled, suddenly, “Didn't he tell you he was an orphan?”
“Stop it, Smoulder!” Bill cried.
“My name is not Smoulder!” the other snapped back, “I made that up for while I was a dragon,”
“Then you have to come clean!” Bill said back, “as representative for your species, you have to be honest!”
He dropped his voice.
“Do they even know you’re a criminal?”
Smoulder was forcing himself to keep eye contact now. At last, he spoke.
“My name is Ian Mist. And they’re my family. All of them,”
Bill paled and stared at the crowded room again. He would have to speak to them.
Bill approached the front of the platform, and projected his voice.
“Hello, everyone ... I presume you’ve read my website?”
There were many nods and an elderly wood nymph at the front said in a loud whisper, “That’s why we’re here, darling!”
“Ok, thank you,” Bill smiled, blushing now, “I am Bill Bayleaf. I understand this is a fragile situation that must be handed with care-”
They all jumped as the door burst open, and Smoulder’s family vanished as one in a split second.
Policeman poured into the room, bristling with helmets and guns, and shouting commands. Pierce streaked in at the lead and up onto the platform.
He pointed at Bill and Smoulder.
“Which one of you is Bill!” he said, loudly.
“I am!” they both shouted.
Bill glared at the Shape Shifter.
“Stop lying, Ian!” he hissed, “How will you ever come out in public?”
“Ian?” Pierce murmured, then louder, pointing at Bill.2, “Ian, if you have to stop impersonating Bill,”
Bill took matters into his own hands, “He brought me here for something important!” he told Pierce, quickly, “His family are there in those chairs!”
The other officers looked where Bill was pointing. The room looked empty again.
Pierce was fuming, looking back and forth from one to the other.
“I told you to stay put, Bill. Instead, you put yourself in mortal danger,”
“He just wanted to talk,” Bill replied.
“And you believed him?” Pierce asked, incredulously.
“Yes! His family are all here - He’s a Shape Shifter! They’re all Shape Shifters-”
“That species died out centuries ago,” The real Esme replied.
There was a silence as Ian lowered his eyes.
“No, we didn’t,” he answered, deliberately giving himself away, “Did we?” he called to the room at large.
One by one, the Mist family timidly reappeared.
The police officers gaped and Pierce cuffed Ian at once, driving him to his knees.
“Ian Mist, I am arresting you for theft, kidnap, arson, and impersonating a police officer,” he said, fiercely.
Ian didn’t say a word. He didn’t even look at Pierce. Instead, he stared at Bill.
“You're lucky that your history isn’t always your present,” he said, quietly, and faded into his true form so that only a pair of handcuffs hovered in the air.
Bill went straight home that evening without speaking to Pierce. He had mixed feelings over everything that had happened that day. He had gone in, like Pierce, with the full intention of arresting a villain.
He sat awake on the sofa for a long time, thinking about it. Not even his after-dinner cheese sandwich brought him comfort.
How would it feel to be invisible all your life? He supposed it would drive the most decent, kind person mad ... or to acts of crime.
Yet his family had been surprisingly gracious towards Bill, and had even made a donation towards the site, all of which he used for raising awareness and creating support to Shape Shifters.
One year later,
The country was a patchwork of rolling, green fields, and dark forests, capped with a cloudless sky and dazzling sun.
Perfect farming weather, well, perfect anything weather, really.
Bill and Molly had invited Bill’s friends, all trolls, to join them for drinks at the local food festival.
There were pork pies, lamb pies, duck and orange pies, sausage rolls, fish and chips, fruit, vegetables, beer, wine, juice and lemonade for the kids, fudge, a dozen different types of cheese, and a hundred different kinds of chocolate.
“A toast to Bill and his stupid, thick head for ever leaving such quantities of beer,” said Mark, Bill’s best friend, a mud-coloured troll, raising his own beer glass.
“Cheers?” said Bill, uncertain whether he should be grateful or not.
“And,” Mark went on after they’d drunk, “another toast to Bill for coming back,”
“To Bill!” they chorused, clinking drinks again, “for coming back!”
Another hand, pale with a black sleeve, reached in from nowhere to touch Bill’s glass as the others did.
“For being a good friend,” said the voice of the holder.
It was Pierce.
The others, luckily, were all a bit tipsy by now, so they weren’t bothered about the stranger in their midst.
Bill on the other hand, beamed at him.
“Cheers,” he said, and they drank together.