A twelve-year-old boy sat on the side of the terrace of the meadow, turning the page of the book he was reading carefully, recognizing the pages were worn as it is and touching them carefully.This book was printed so long so ago. Alistair thought. Before the Earth underwent Assimilation. And I prefer the name Al. Alistair’s the pretentious name my mother gave me because it sounded nice. Al’s pretty simple.
Al turned to the front cover to see the title of the book read, in large bold letters, Gulliver’s Travels. It was strange to the boy, of all the books they’d scavenged in the library from ancient astronomical texts to medical anatomy books he’d never found a stranger book. Al wondered if there were Changelings given the power to change their size, sort of how he wondered the Liliputans seemed to be able in this book. That’s what he guessed. Surely whoever wrote would address why there were small people in this world as compared to Gulliver.
Or maybe that was how the world once was. Alistair thought to himself. After all, we’ve been told there were no such things as Changelings before the Assimiliation. Maybe there were little humans wondering about, enslaving giants like the traveler Gulliver. I’ll have to talk to Soto about that and have to do research on it. A few more books should confirm or deny it.
Al had not been much on the outside the perimeters of his own village. This drove him to curiosity about the outside world. While printed books were not so common nowadays, Alistair had his friends, mother and Soto do everything they could to dig up as many texts as they could. Whenever Al’s Circle would get close to what appeared to be remains of a building, they would send a party of men and women along with armed Sentry to scavenge long-lost items and technology from the civilizations before the Assimilation.
From Alistair had heard it was possible for their scientists that manned their Circle’s equipment to study them. Of course, not all the machines they found were in good order. Some were too damaged to be of any use and were thrown away. However, when they found books with worn, often damp pages, Soto was there to bring them to the boy as he read them, intrigued by the lost world of another era.
However, just as he was about to turn the other page, Alistair caught two familiar faces out of the corner of his eye running towards him. Al sighed as he closed his book and put it to the side, a tall girl and a short boy flanking his right side. The boy had a big smile on his face that made Al groan.
“What is it, Cal?” he asked.
“We want to take home some fruit,” Cal answered. “Want to come with us to get some?”
“Hmm,” Al groaned.
“Please…?” Cal asked cutely.
Al let himself be led to the grove of thirty-seven Blasin fruit trees that grew in the courtyard. While the Circle had only limited space to have rich soil and could only spare so much water, Blasin fruit trees were the result of crossbreeding using a gene splicer powered by Blood Energy. They resisted lack of water well and didn’t need much soil to grow as their root system was fairly compact. However, the Blasin fruit itself was slow to grow and the trees themselves were prone to dying if conditions were either too hot or too cold. The Circle had to be careful where to dock just for these trees.
Cal, Al, and Sina stood underneath the tree’s branches as Al looked up at the yellow fruit with small spikes on it.
“You think you can get it?” Cal asked.
Al focused on the air around him, feeling the wind swirl around his arm before swatting at the tree overhead. The tree’s leaves rustled as though it were blowing in a storm before four Blasin fruit fell down to the ground. Cal and Sina smiled before taking the fruit into their arms.
Cal smiled with gratitude.
“Thanks a lot,” he smirked. “Now our mother won’t have to be too concerned about rationing out supplies. Right, Sina?”
“You did a very good thing helping us,” Sina said. “It was awfully kind of you.”
“What do they call you exactly?” Cal asked. “A triple Changeling?”
Alistair sighed, Cal always asking that question and forgetting the answer.
“Quadruple Changeling,” Al said. “Because I was born with four powers. Wind, as you just saw, abnormal strength, nigh-invulnerability, and the power to manipulate darkness, granted I have some shadow already around me.”
“That’s awesome,” Sina said. “You can do anything with those powers! I heard you were the son of the legendary Black Wind! You must have a cool destiny to be borne from someone so powerful!”
“I don’t know about that,” Al replied.
“Yeah you can!” Cal answered. “Just think of everything you can do! You could probably beat anybody you wanted!”
“Fighting isn’t all that great,” Al replied. “As Soto told me, it’s just a means to an end.”
“Oh come on,” Cal said. “Isn’t being invincible great? You sound like you were born to be a killer.”
“No,” Al said. “That’s not the reason I’m was born. Not for a selfish reason like that. I…my mother told me that Changelings like myself are born in order to produce strong soldiers so that as few as possible Sentry-men will be sent out to risk their lives. I was literally born for the sake of helping others and defending the Blue Kingdom Circle!”
Cal shot him an annoyed glare.
“You know there’s a lot infighting among various Circles!” he said. “Who are just not satisfied with the Stadium’s amount of Blood Energy given to them! They’re greedy and just want to make conquest of everything they see!”
Al sighed as he noticed his voice was growing too loud.
“I want to go out and use my powers to help people and rebuild this planet to the civilization it once was,” Al said. “To be a leader, just like my father was.”
Sina looked up at Cal who was shaking his head in annoyance.
“Why is that?” Cal asked. “You sound like you owe people something. You don’t think you do, do you?”
“Of course I do,” Alistair said. “Every day people have been extremely nice to me. My mother, Soto, everyone I know has always loved and comforted me. Even strangers in this Circle seemed to like me. Of course, that may have been because of who my father was. However, I have to return their kindness by stepping up and doing what’s right. I have to defend the Blue Kingdom Circle and then help go rebuild the outside of the Bizarre Realm.”
“What?” Cal asked. “You don’t owe anybody anything! Just because they were nice…that’s not enough you have to dedicate your life to serving them.”
“But…but if I don’t-”
“If you don’t, what?” Cal asked. “You’re taking yourself too seriously. You’re only twelve…and you think like that?”
“That does sound too mature,” Sina said. “Adults do that with every kid. They believe in us because they have to, otherwise accept failure.”
“I just want to help people,” Al said. “I mean…yes. I just have to help them in any way I can.”
Cal scratched the back of his head.
“Fine then,” he replied. “If you want to go out and do all that. Just don’t be surprised if you’re not up for the job.”
“I’ll try my best.”
The three children turned to see a man with a small stubble walking towards them while a few Sentry-men stood at his side. Al heard Cal and Sina both sigh and he understood why. When Soto sought Alistiar out it was usually for serious purposes. Soto was aware of the effect presence and his behavior was usually always conservative as a result, as though he expected anyone in the area to obey.
“Yes, sir?” Al asked. “And you know I like to be called Al.”
“Al,” Soto said. “You need to come back to your home. You need to be introduced to something new. It’s important.”
“You mean that big mansion in the center of the town?” Sina asked. “Can we come?”
“No,” Soto said. “I’m sorry but this is a private matter for Alistair—Al-- alone.”
“K then,” Cal said as he and his sister turned away. “Just don’t tell him about how you helped us steal the Blasin fruit.”
“What?” Soto asked casually.
The siblings ran off down the street, the fruit in the arms bouncing with them. Soto looked down at Alistair a bit skeptically as though he were trying to understand what Cal had just said.
“Al,” Soto said. “Don’t you know not to let a couple kids coax you into getting things for them?”
“I’m sorry,” he said sheepishly.
Soto led the Sentry and Alistair from Blasin orchard down the street of the Circle to his home and, Al had to admit, Sina was right to call it a mansion. Two Pegasus ordained the parts of the brass gates. When the Sentry woman in front pushed it open to reveal a circular lawn of grass that grew bushes of berries to the sides of the walkway that led to the mansion that was at least twice as big as any one of the houses in the other parts of the Blue Kingdom Circle.
To think. Alistair said. All this was made for me and my mother. Furnished by the kingdom because of the powers I was born with…One day I hope to do great things with them. That’s why I’ve got to be the most useful Changeling out there, because everyone’s been so kind to me for so long.
Alistair looked down at his right hand, manipulating the shadow cast by the mid-noon sun to look like a swan with its wings outspread.
Let’s hope I’m up to whatever the Kingdom puts me through. He thought. And that I’m enough for anything they ask of me.
The door was pushed open for them as they let their party in.
Al was greeted with the common white tile floor. There were no stairs in front of the mansion like Al had read about in books but the hallway they stepped into was fairly wide, leading directly to the kitchen. Soto turned to the Sentry.
“You may leave us,” he said.
The Sentry-men exited the mansion with a wave. Soto smiled down at the boy.
“Sorry if they scared you kid,” Soto said. “Had to do a bit excavating down in what was essentially a cross between a desert of red sand and a hurricane of snowflakes. Didn’t find anything for you to read.”
“Sounds exciting,” Al said as the two made their way to the kitchen.
“Not so exciting when you’re spending half an hour picking sand and ice from your goggles, scratching your ass because you can’t tell whether it’s too dry or to wet.”
Al had to bite his tongue from laughing too hard. While Soto wasn’t the most jovial person, he sure could make Al laugh at the right times. His mother met them both at the doorway, smiling slightly.
His mother’s white hair fell back mid-way to her neck, like Alistair’s did. His mother was also a Changeling, but unlike him she only had one power, that of super-strength. Alistair had inherited his three other powers from his father which were the ability to manipulate shadows, to control and create wind, and near invulnerability.
Alistair didn’t just want to be used a military pawn, but legitimately wanted to help people in unfortunate circumstances for there were many. He’d often thought about how he would go about it.
It’s possible I could fly faster than most people could get to others in time. He thought. By manipulating wind I can run faster than most kids my age. My strength, once tested, could help rebuild buildings from the wars being fought for Blood Energy. No doubt I could protect people with these powers, but I want to do more than just fight. I want to make her proud of me.
Al and Soto entered the kitchen to sit at the table in front of them. Alistair had expected something to eat but apparently that wasn’t the case right now. He sighed as he wished he had taken some of that fruit that he’d helped Cal and Sina get. His mother sat down at the opposite of the wooden table looking a bit optimistic.
“Al,” his mother said. “We…we have a surprise for you.”
Al knew what it was immediately. He had no way of confirming for sure but it was that subtle, lingering in her voice that made him know that, yes, this was it. He was…he was…
No. He thought. It’s too early…isn’t it? I can’t…I have too much I’m leaving behind. Come on…I..I don’t. No, I want to. Yes I want to. I want to be…
“You’re going to be trained,” Soto said. “As a Changeling to fight for the Blue Kingdom Circle. You will be mentored and disciplined alongside other Changelings. I hope you’re ready.”
“I…thought I would be too young,” Alistair said.
“No,” his mother said, shaking her head. “Most Triple or higher Changelings are procured at the age of twelve or thirteen to become warriors.”
Al sighed to himself.
“Alright,” he said. “To where am I leaving?”
“A section of the Blue Kingdom that’s not far away,” Soto said. “This being the central Circle of the Blue Kingdom there is one Circle dedicated entirely to a training ground for Changelings. You’ll be safe there while you’re under the instruction of several active-duty Changelings. You may have trouble with the Changelings who will be your peers though.”
“That’s fine,” Al said. “How long until I go?”
“One week,” his mother said. “Soto and I will be helping you to pack your things.”
“So be it,” Al said as he looked down a bit solemnly.
It’s finally going to happen. He thought to himself. I’ll be a Changeling for the military of the Blue Kingdom…just like Dad. If only he was around to see this…no. He will find out. And once I help everyone after being disciplined I help turn this broken world into a better place. That’ll surely return the kindness I’ve been given.
“Al,” his mother asked. “Do you think you’re ready for this?”
Alistair smiled up at his mother.
Alistair had never really liked the closed Circles. Unlike the main Circles that were so big you hardly ever felt the ship move unless they were just lifting off the ground and when they were moving in the air horizontally you barely felt them. In closed Circles which were closed-in houses with circular shapes you could feel every lurch the ship gave that may your stomach feel queasy. Al sat down in a chair in front of a table, his mother sitting at the other end while making coffee from a machine.
“It’s amazing what the people of this world used to have,” she said. “I probably would have loved to see more of the technology of the world we lost.”
“Or maybe we have it better,” Soto said as he was piloted the Scooter. “With blood energy outputting more power than ten times that of ordinary electricity, the energy source the peoples from long ago used, our Circle ships have more power and can fly at greater lengths of time and space than we estimate their machines ever could.”
His mother sighed.
“But don’t you think it’s interesting to explore the cultures that were around long before us?” Al’s mother asked. “I mean, part of me has always loved that. It’s why I try requisitioning stuff like this coffee maker right here. I don’t have to, I just feel it’s cool to use this stuff. I feel connected in some way.”
“You told me before you wanted to be an archeologist,” Soto said.
“I’ll give it a try,” his mother said.
The Scooter stopped as Alistair felt himself lurch forward as he felt the Circle stop.
“We’re here,” Soto said.
The door opened as Soto pressed a button where Alistair stepped out into the open. He hugged his bag next to him as he stepped off. His mother waved him goodbye before the Scooter zoomed off into the distance. Alistair turned around, looking at the tall tower that awaited him for his training.
Well. He said, his lips curling into a smile. I guess this is it. Time to earn the kindness I was given.
Alistair walked down the path before him that led to the tower that, at the height the Circle was hovering at the moment, pierced white clouds against the blue sky background.
Picturesque. Al thought to himself.
When Al reached the large, metal doors that stood before him he touched them apprehensively, noticing they didn’t automatically open as he thought they would. When Al peaked in side he saw a large gathering of youths that looked about his age. That all stood around in a crowd as they stood and talked with their bags over their shoulders or at their feet in the great hallway before him. Alistair, being a bit shy, apprehensively walked into the crowd.
As Alistair made his way through the crowd of kids his age he found that most of them actually seemed to be well-disciplined and respectful, not at all like the twelve-year-olds back at his home Circle would be acting like.
I guess the pressure has already gotten to them. Al thought. They know why they’re here and don’t want to screw anything up. But who do they fear to act so decently?
Al chose to be similarly well-mannered and found a vacant space near the wall he rested at, setting his pack down before leaning against it while he sat down. He waited for whatever was supposed to happen by counting the number of children. After a while, Alistair counted more than fifty in total, choosing to stop after doing so. That was about when everyone turned their attention to the front.
At the front stood a man who seemed to be in his late thirties, wearing golden tussles that ran down his tunic and pants.
“All you are Changelings here for training,” he said. “Is that wrong?”
No one seemed to make a whisper in response.
“If that’s correct, then come with me.”
The large group of them were herded out of the hallway while they dragged their belongings behind them. Al followed suit and was led into a wide and plain, circular room where dozens of doors surrounded them.
“Make yourselves at home in these rooms,” the man said. “You’ll be staying there for the next seven years.”
Al sighed to suppress a loud moan of fear from escaping his lips. He was scared—maybe terrified at the thought of being somewhere unfamiliar for almost a decade—but had to remind himself why he was here in the first place.
Have to help people. He thought. Have to learn to be a valuable Changeling. Must do what is right for the sake of others. Make parents proud… Return the kindness.
Alistair puffed up his chest, gathering his pack into his arms before leading himself to the closest door. He saw it was already open, revealing two already in the plain cots that pressed against the walls. One was a girl with blond hair with a spaced out expression and a burly boy with red hair piddling with his thumbs. Al sighed before rolling his bag out before him, trying to take out all his packed things onto his cot.
“So who are you?” the blonde asked.
Alistair looked back up, somewhat afraid.
What should I say? He thought. That my father was the legendary Black Wind? Would that command respect or not? I can’t just say I’m Al. I…need to sound important.
“Alistair,” he said.
The girl shrugged.
“Name’s Kelly,” she said. “I think that guy over there told me he was Hale.”
He waved at Al. Al turned to see a boy with brown hair step in and immediately bounce on the fourth and last cot. He gave a jovial smile to everyone in the room.
“Name’s Mike,” he said.
“Don’t care,” Mike said as he turned over.
Al slightly glared at Mike, regarding that as rude. He didn’t know what this place was like, but he’d hoped no one made it harder than it really was. Soon after introducing themselves, a young man in red stepped into their doorway, gesturing them to come out. The four stepped out as commanded before they were all back in the crowd and herded into the outside.
There, Al saw before him a large stadium with a white line dividing it into two halves. The few instructors that stood in front of the crowd stared down the group of students with an intense look.
“Alright,” the man in yellow tassels said. “If you are to be a Changeling in service to the Blue Kingdom, come up here show us your powers.”
He pointed to the girl nearest to him.
“We’ll start with you,” he said. “Get on up here.”
She walked up to him and nodded respectfully.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Sonia,” she replied meekly.
“So Sonia,” he said. “How many powers do you have?”
“I’m a triple Changeling sir.”
“Show us your powers.”
Sonia swallowed, giving herself some room as she stretched out her hands. In her palms the light of the sun intensified to create a ball of shimmering white that she sent off at the ground. It burnt the surface of the ground, creating an obvious black spot.
Al looked visibly shocked at this, impressed at the girl’s display of power.
Impressive. He thought. I’m not even sure anyone else here could do such a thing.
However, the man in yellow tassels looked down at her, almost smirking.
“Is that it?” he asked. “Is that all the destructive power you could bring yourself to?”
“For now,” Sonia said.
“Move on,” he said. “What’s next?”
Sonia then lifted her left hand and, to everyone’s shock, her fingers severed from her hand, levitating above her palms a few inches. She did it with her right hand as well. He fingers then pushed together to create smaller balls of light that were sent out to burn small parts of the ground. The man in yellow smirked.
“That’s not a bad trick,” he said. “Your last ability?”
Sonia’s fingers reattached themselves to her palm.
“Abnormally good hearing,” she said. “I could hear you muttering to yourself about how long it’d take to make wimps like us into something special.”
The man before her almost laughed.
“That’s right girly,” he said. “Away with you.”
These trials went on for a good while. Every time a Changeling had been tested they’d been tested and sent to the back of the crowd. Al quickly became bored as he looked off in the distance, his vision somewhat dimmed by the lack of interest. Eventually Al made it to the front of the line where he witnessed Kelly showing off her ability to coat her body with sand and dirt from beneath her as armor covered her back. The man in yellow tassels eventually pointed to which Al stepped up.
“Changeling power number?” he asked.
“Quadruple,” he said.
Al focused in front of him to blow a gust of wind in front of his instructor. However, the man looked unimpressed as ever.
“Is that it kid?” he asked.
Al looked slightly sheepish as his head hung low. Afterward though, he raised his neck and Al looked him in the eye.
Without a moment’s hesitation the instructor punched Al in the chest, sending him to the ground. The whole crowd behind him gasped in shock while Al looked back up at the instructor as he stood back up.
“Not bad kid,” he said. “Name?”
“Al,” he said.
“Alright Al, what else?”
“Strength.”The instructor held out his hand. Al reacted immediately, punching his palm. His palm moved back a bit after Al punched it. The instructor withdrew his arm, rubbing the middle of his palm.
“Not bad,” he said. “Your last one?”
Al had to repress a smile. He looked over at the shadow the instructor was casting. Alistair quickly walked around the man in yellow tassels as he stepped into the shadow.
And Al disappeared. The instructor, like everyone else in the crowd, whirled around as if he would appear around their shoulders. Al observed every one of them as he watched from the darkness of the instructor’s shadow, smiling. He willed the dark space to be cast farther along the ground, stretching it to be almost twice as long as it already was.
Then, Al stepped outside of the shadow, the darkness clinging to him as he stepped out. He walked back over to the instructor, fighting back as smile as he did. The instructor cocked his eyebrows at him.
“The spawn of the Black Wind?”
Al was surprised he’d guess it right off the bat but only shook his in response to confirm he was. The instructor tugged at his mouth.
“Well,” he said. “Another confirmed prodigy. Get back there, you’ve done enough.”
Al waited at the back of the crowd as he the instructor finished up with the remainder of the Changelings. After he was done, he finally sighed at them, a bit of anger letting loose under his breath.
“Alright,” he said. “Listen up. You’re going to be learning how to be killing machines today. So now, I’m going to be testing all of you, seeing when you’ll break. I hope all of you are ready.”