“A new mission?” Alistair asked.
“That’s what Julian said,” Kelly replied as she leaned against the wall. “Julian said he wanted me to tell both of you since he couldn’t be here exactly.”
Kelly kneed down on the floor and laid down the map and notes given to her by their master. Alistair sat down while Hale put one knee on the ground to examine it.
“Julian sat that if either of you have any animosity leftover from the last mission that he would advise you to put it aside,” Kelly replied. “Julian said that from our fight with Octavian he believes we are able to hold our own against stronger foes.”
“How long have they been watching us?” Hale asked. “Have they been subtly monitoring every battle we’ve taken place in?”
“I’d say it’s safe to assume that,” Kelly said. “My guess is they pushed us so hard by making us fight Octavian simply because they thought we were ready for more.”
“How hard did Julian act like this would be?” Alistair asked. “Did he say anything to give away the difficulty level of this new mission?”
Kelly shrugged and shook her head at the same time.
“He didn’t say anything about the level of difficulty,” she replied. “As much as he made it clear that it would be harder than anything we’ve ever tried to accomplish.”
“What do you mean?” Hale asked.
Kelly traced around the perimeter of the structure drawn on the map, the thing that was meant to represent the Circle they would be invading this time.
“Most of the Changelings in this Circle are off fighting in the Stadiums,” she said. “While it may not look like it, the Circle is considerably low on Blood energy and has been doing everything it can to maintain the appearance of not being close to crashing into the ground.”
Al sighed a little, remembering the Stadiums as Soto had explain to him what they were.
Ever since what had been termed the Assimilation (where Earth began absorbing matter and energy from across the galaxy to drastically change the planet’s surface) it also gave humans unique changes to their biology. Human blood had been altered by the new laws of nature to contain a substance that could be used as fuel. The energy it produced, known as Blood energy, was powerful enough to fuel great ships and homes like the Circles the remaining human inhabitants lived on. The population of each Circle would draw a set amount of blood from every individual to power their home ships.
However, even drawing as much as they could without killing anyone, drawing blood alone from the population barely sufficed in keeping the Circle moving. Whenever the landscape below drastically changed the Circle would have to move to avoid any potentially dangerous phenomena or matter like windstorms, tall icebergs, the formations of a spot with no gravity, ect. A Circle had to have enough Blood energy to change course or location at a moment’s notice, and doing so often depleted the energy rather quickly.
This posed a problem as some chose to, out of desperation, to capture dozens humans and draining them until they died of blood loss to power the Circles, some of the population were willing to sacrifice themselves and some were desperate enough to actually try and capture Changelings whose blood produced a far greater power output. This resulted in great conflict including small wars, constant skirmishes and very bloody conflict.
This was solved when the Stadiums were established, to serve as mock wars, contests to prevent further conflict. Stadiums were where tournaments would take place for Circles to garner greater quantities of blood. Usually two Circles would arrange for a battle with one another and have their Changelings competing against one another in fights. The Circles would each bet the same amount of gallons of blood and the winning Circle’s Changelings would take the opposing Circle’s gallons they’d bet. If one Circle lost then it was not uncommon for that Circle to join the winners.
“This particular Circle is the center and capital of the Ulrichian Kingdom,” Kelly explained. “It’s slowly coming into power and has already absorbed a considerable amount of Circles under its Kingdom. However, while the capital is weak they said we could take it. Their best Changelings are gone, competing against another Kingdom’s for more gallons of Blood energy.”
“We’re supposed to effectively takeover another Circle?” Hale asked. “Why us? Do they think we’re just that good?”
“From what I’ve seen,” Kelly said. “They only have three Changelings that are to be taken care of. Julian actually explained it’s more efficient to send in a smaller force but I think I agree with you. Sending cadets out to invade and conquer other Circles seems more like a professional militant’s job, don’t you think?”
“Anything else important he said, beside the mission objective?” Hale asked.
Kelly pulled out three photographs from among the notes, each one a picture of a different person: a large woman with bright red hair, a blonde man with a slender build and very muscular man with an iron helmet.
“These are the only Changelings guarding the Ulrichian Kingdom’s center,” Kelly replied. “The Stadium fight they’re having should only take six days so the Ulrichians didn’t believe they’d need that much security in the meantime. Julian did say that he designated us as the perfect team to take out these three Changelings.”
“Why us?” Alistair asked.
“He listed two reasons,” Kelly answered. “One is that our Changeling powers are good match-ups against theirs. The second is that our team did comparatively well on our last mission compared to other teams.”
“What?” Hale asked. “But we failed the mission, didn’t we?”
“Yeah,” Kelly replied. “But that wasn’t all they were looking at. Actually almost a fifth of the teams lost one Changeling student and almost half didn’t manage to usually kill any. We killed two Changelings.”
Kelly didn’t dare mention we lost one but she didn’t need to. The statistics Kelly had just mentioned relieved Alistair as it assured him it could have easily been worse compared to others.
Actually, that made sense to Alistair. He’d noticed that there were fewer students at the training area and walking the halls than usual. He didn’t want to say anything on account he’d find out the truth but it answered that question he’d had for the better part of the year.
Hale then butted in with a question of his own.
“How much time do we have in preparation for the mission?” he asked. “And, just to be clear, what is our mission objective?”
“The objective is to eliminate these Changelings,” Kelly replied. “While damaging the Circle itself or killing the population as little as possible. And we have four days to prepare for this mission.”
Well that’s good. Al thought to himself. At least we won’t be killing anyone innocent. These Changelings probably have committed their own share of murder…probably.
“Eliminate them?” Alistair asked. “You mean kill them? Are they a threat to us? Have they…have they killed any of our citizens?”
“Yes, Al,” she replied. “They have. The last I heard the Ulrichian Changelings were responsible for capturing hundreds of people from different Kingdoms and Circles and drained them of all their blood. It happened about a year ago though when their periphery circles were running low on Blood energy.”
Al was paralyzed in fear as he heard that. He’d never heard of a Kingdom that had sacrificed that many people for Blood energy at once.
They…they must be incredibly ruthless. Alistair thought to himself. What would they do to us, their enemies if they did just that to random people?
“Why that long?” Hale asked. “We didn’t have more than two days last time.”
“It has to do with the fact that the Ulrichian capital is restricting its usually large influx of visitors,” Kelly said. “They attract newcomers to increase their population size as many become potential residents or trade supplies with them. However, because their strongest Changelings will be gone for almost a week they’ve restricted those potential residents and can only come during the day we are sent to strike and the day after. It’s only during the afternoon they’re allowing visitors to their Circle. Julian also said he wanted us to get used to our new teammate.”
Kelly turned around.
“You can come in now,” she replied.
Stepping in through the doorway was a girl with pale skin and black hair. She waved at them with a bit of enthusiasm.
“Hi,” she said. “My name is Sasan.”
After four days of sparring with one another and getting to know their new teammate’s abilities, the four of them arrived in a closed Circle with walls that surrounded them, sort of like how Alistair arrived to the Blue Sky Kingdom’s Academy. He sat down in the corner, his normal black robes replaced graying rags like an individual coming from an impoverished Circle would. He felt naked going into battle without his sword across his back as he leaned against the wall. Apparently before you entered your closed Circle you were traveling on was to be checked by armed Sentry so that meant no weapons, for any of them.
While Sasan and Hale tried to smooth out the complications with their battle plan Al was focused on trying to get his apprehension of killing out of his head.
We won’t be doing any harm to the locals. Al thought to himself. We’ll only be killing their Changelings, their militants who willingly put themselves in the line of duty. Anyone in agreement of what the Ulrichian Kingdom did last year is abominable and should be punished for such. Even if they may have not participated in it by allowing it to happen it proves they’re evil.
Al sighed at his half-hearted attempts at justifying what they were going to do. He just did not have the heart for it right now. Alistair sighed before Kelly turned to them after she’d been glancing out the window for a while.
“We’re in line to enter the Ulrichian Circle,” Kelly said. “Just stay calm.”
“How does it look?” Sasan asked.
“Almost everything in line is a small closed Circle like ours is,” Kelly said as she sat down. “We’re currently at the back of the line as they’re letting others enter the Ulrichian capital.”
Hale turned to Al and then to Kelly.
“Everyone knows their part, right?” Hale asked.
Kelly, Sasan, and Alistair nodded.
They waited patiently as Alistair felt the manual control of the closed Circle slow in speed as they presumably entered the traffic ahead of them. Al felt the rush of adrenaline in him, just like he experienced before the other mission. Alistair tried to calm his nerves by breathing in and out gradually, something Soto had taught him. However, he couldn’t seem to get a grip.
I can’t do it. He thought. I can’t do it. I’m not prepared enough, I’m not strong enough. The only reason I was able to defeat anybody last time was just because I had that sword with me. I don’t even think I’m much of a fighter without it.
The slow movement stopped abruptly and Al was tossed sideways by the halt, feeling and hearing something anchor to the door to the front of their closed Circle. Kelly turned to them from her position of looking out the window.
“They’re coming,” Kelly said. “Don’t make any sudden movements and comply with everything they tell you. Got it?”
Al was the only one who nodded while Hale and Sasan just looked up at her bored while shrugging before Hale nodded to Alistair.
He nodded back before reaching under a small cut in the carpet that he was sitting beside. Most people would have mistaken for a loose gap of aging material so it was safe to assume the Sentries wouldn’t notice. He pulled out a small radio that could fit into one’s ear and was sensitive enough for the receiver to hear through talking. Sasan reached around and tossed Al his sheathed sword which he fastened around his back before slipping into the dark spot of the floor where he sat.
Al then watched from within the shadows to see five armed Sentry militants with swords and bluish-gray armor on their bodies enter. He saw Hale and Sasan take care of the small talk between the Sentries, mostly covering their false motives for seeking to become citizens of Ulrich before they patted Kelly, Hale and Sasan down. After finding nothing objectionable went to thoroughly search the inside. It didn’t take them long to search the closed Circle but while they did they checked places Al never even looked to hide objects. They then bowed respectfully before exiting back through the door but not before adding:
“You are now supposed to pick up your belongings and exit your closed Circle,” a Sentry woman said. “Please do so right away.”
Hale and Kelly picked up a couple of bags full of stuff provided to make their entering the Circle look legitimate.
And that was Alistair’s cue.
He walked through the shadows that enveloped him, noticing that there was far less darkness to move in than the last mission, seeing how it was still afternoon. However, since it wasn’t night time that meant Al didn’t have to worry about the barrier of light surrounding the perimeter of the Circle like he did at Yageran. There were still plenty of dark, shady spots for him to slip into, such as within the shadows of tall buildings or the shadows of the monstrous crowd of pedestrians walking on the streets of Ulrich’s capital.
Al couldn’t communicate over the earpiece while he was in the shadows since nothing was tangible, neither sound nor solid matter could be touched or heard so long as it was within the shadows. However, Alistair had trained himself to be able hear what was being said from the outside of the shadows while he was within them. He also could make out things from the bluish-green outline that surrounded the silhouette of many objects.
He found a cloud above him that extended the shady area to over the flat roof of a large skyscraper. Alistair watched as sort of floating up the teal silhouette of the building before hovering of its roof. He saw most of the roof was covered in shade but a small corner of it wasn’t. He slipped out of the darkness to appear in the corner of light. Alistair then turned on the earpiece microphone with a slight tap.
“I’m on Hale,” Al said.
“Are you covered?” he asked. “Can anyone see you?”
“No,” Alistair answered. “They’re too far below, just as planned.”
“Okay, good,” Hale replied. “Okay, can you at least see most of the Circle?”
Alistair looked around him, being able to see most the Ulrichian city’s large buildings, their roofs occasionally reflecting sunlight.
“Yeah,” Al answered. “I can.”
“Good,” Hale replied. “The Changelings we’re looking for should be in a large building in the center of the Ulrichian Circle. It looks like a giant, grayish-yellow dome that stands taller than any structure near it. You see it, right?”
Al leaned forward, looking farther down through the city. He could in fact see a dark yellow building that looked like nothing more than half a globe sitting perfectly in the center of the Circle.
“Yeah,” Alistair said. “I see it. It has no structural support except for that of a dome.”
“Alright,” Hale said. “What you’re going to have to do is find Kallen, the red woman who was pretty stocky. You remember what she looks like right and her Changeling powers?”
“Yeah,” Alistair reply. “Her powers are telecommunication via psychokinesis. That psychic power also allows her to sense the life energy of others within a certain radius. She can communicate well with her other comrades so long as they’re nearby. She also can create explosive powder from her body and exude it from her mouth that can create small combustions.”
“Okay,” Hale said. “And don’t forget she’s able to turn herself invisible for anywhere between five to ten minutes at a time. Our spies are not lazy in their research.”
That sent a chill down Alistair’s spine as he wondered how many spies were in their own academy. But besides that, Al felt somewhat confident. While Kallen was not a very experienced combatant, her powers proved to be far too dangerous for frontal assaults against her person. It’s possible, though, that with Al’s ability to slip inside the shadows that he could get near her without at all being detected. It was also likely he could see her teal outline from within the darkness as well, so Julian was probably right in saying Alistair was a pretty good match-up against her.
“Listen,” Hale said. “Usually she’s not far from the capital building, specifically near the west side. The reason is to keep an eye on the capital as well as keep an eye on the flow of pedestrian traffic. Because of this, she doesn’t leave her post too often. Since the other two Changelings are most likely either not near the traffic of newcomers at all, possibly inside the capital.”
“Isn’t the capital closed off to everyone except authorized personnel?” Alistair asked. “I know the capital of the Blue Sky Kingdom is.”
“Since it’s restricted we’ll use Sasan’s shapeshifting abilities,” Hale answered. “But we only have thirty minutes before her transformation wears off. Sasan and I will go in and out as quickly as possible. Kelly’s checking the periphery area to see if the other two anywhere beside the capital.”
“Hale,” Alistair remarked. “Didn’t you say that no one could start the assassinations until I killed Kallen?”
“That’s right,” Hale said. “It’s entirely possible Kallen could still have a psychic link to any of the other Changelings. You’ll have to finish her off very quickly, before she can react and alert anybody? Got it?”
“I understand the directive,” Alistair said. “But I don’t know if I could find a shadow long enough to fit me from my present location all the way to where you told me I was to attack Kallen from.”
“I understand,” Hale said. “From my position, there isn’t much of any shade or shadows that extends to the capital building so you’ll probably have to avoid being seen as much as possible. Move around the buildings and keep in the streets, that way you won’t attract attention. If you have to, hide your sword some place where you can retrieve it if you need to and, once you kill Kallen, remember, tell me immediately. If you wait we lose the element of surprise and our best chances for a quick kill of these guys are mitigated. Do you understand?”
“I do,” Alistair said.
“Good,” Hale said. “West side. Get to it.”
Al shut off the earpiece with a quick tap before sinking back into the shadows. Within the darkness he looked around the Circle, seeing plenty of pedestrians in teal. He tried to find the streets that were separate from the crowds before finding a narrow, darkened alleyway soon. After locating the shadowy street he ascended the blue-green silhouette of another building, jumping out of the darkness as most of the roof’s flat surface was bathed in light.
Alistair looked down to the alleyway below, seeing that the darkness only extended to the outside street where pedestrian traffic was. His heart beat fast as he didn’t see any shadow extending through the main streets, the only way to the capital building. In other words, he couldn’t transport himself there with his shadow-walking powers
If anyone sees me with this sword, my cover is blown and I’ll attract too much attention. Al thought to himself. Won’t I? I won’t dare fight Kallen without this sword, this blade was the only reason I was able to save Hale and Kelly back at Yageran. It’d be far easier to kill her with it. If I’m coming from the shadows and no Sentry ever saw me…and even if they did they couldn’t do anything while I’m in the shadows, right?
Al decided it was better than nothing before walking back over to the shadows and submerging himself inside before travelling through the alleyway inside the darkness.
Even if they see a suspicious kid with a sword on his back, there’s nothing they can possibly do to stop me while I am inside a shadow. He thought to himself. It’s a perk of being intangible.
Al then reappeared outside the alleyway’s shadow before walking down the street, a crowd of people looking at him with a passive glance. His nervousness lessened somewhat as he casually walked through the crowd to the opposite street.
They didn’t seem to care about the weapon across my shoulder. Alistair thought to himself. If that’s true then I can walk casually to another shadow from which to spring my attack!
Alistair tried staying out of sight as much as he could, walking along the edges of the shops that decorated the streets, his head held a little low as he breathed slowly.
They may just think I’m part of the Sentry. Alistair thought to himself. Most of this crowd are just newcomers so they probably don’t have much of an idea about the kind of military employed by the Ulrichians. So long as I don’t see any Sentry no one will probably pull me over and ask what I’m doing with a sword on my back. I may just act all innocent and say I’m playing war with a friend and it’s fake.
The thought then struck Al with a bit of pain.
That sort of reminds me of what I was doing with Cal and Sina just a year ago. He thought. My how things have changed. If I ever go back home, if Cal ever asks I to play war again I’ll probably tell him ‘No, I’ve killed enough people in real life to know it’s not all that fun.’ before walking away.
Al finally made it to a spot where he could see the dull yellow dome. He could even see a large red haired woman standing at attention, directing crowds of pedestrians where they needed to go. Alistair looked around wildly for a shadow that lead to her. Just in luck he was able to find a shadow of a skyscraper that extended almost to her boots she wore. Adrenaline pumped through Alistair’s body as he saw his opportunity.
Alistair turned the microphone on to alert Hale, just as he planned.
“I’m about to commence the killing,” he said. “Ready your positions.”
“Understood,” Hale replied. “Sasan has confirmed our own target, Misato’s, position. Kelly told me she was directly within killing range of the other Changeling, Sydney. We’re ready when you are.”
“Understood,” Al replied before breathing in deeply.
Here goes. He thought as he stepped into the shadow.
Alistair slipped inside, not even looking to see if anyone saw him. He then saw his target, her back toward him as moved through the darkness, readied his presently-intangible-hand to grab the sword’s hilt and slay Kallen. When he saw he wasn’t even five feet from the stocky woman’s teal silhouette, he quit moving to ready himself.
Alright. Al thought to himself. As soon as I kill her, everyone will see me do it, so I’ll have to immediately tell Hale so he can commence the elimination. A thrust through the back of the throat should-
Excuse me. That’s not polite.
Alistair’s mind almost went blank with fear, within the white space that had become his mind only one thought could be conceived.
Who are you? He thought back.
I am Kallen. The sharp voice thought. Your target.