The tent in the middle of nowhere doesn't contain much; it's a fairly plain affair, a white cloth showing its age. In the middle on an old Altar to a forgotten god lies a map, it's mostly blank and what's there is probably isn't so accurate.
In the corner a hammock hangs and hanging in it is figure. Any observer looking in might be surprised to see that whoever it is constantly changing. The shape and colouration casually drift.
They are toying with a knife, playfully for now. The blade looks old, much older than the young face reflected in it.
Then suddenly outside the tent there's a noise, breaking the dim ambiance of the surrounding landscape. The knife is instantly drawn and pointed in the direction of the door.
The person holding it starts changing more violently now, their entire form rippling like stormy seas. The body blurred. Ready to capture the image of whoever steps across the threshold, her changeling instincts poised to perfection.
Running. That was all he was doing as he made his way through the forest. Running from what he was unsure about, all that his mind was telling him is that he should. His coat was flapping wildly in the breeze that followed him, its hood keeping his head warm. The sword he had always carried with him made a scraping sound as it rebounded off of word and stone. He didn't know how long he had been running either, only that he breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the forest entrance; whatever had been chasing him was gone... for now.
The man's body slumped against a tree, his breath heavy and deep as he regained his stamina. One question had entered his mind.
"What are you that seeks my end, and for what purpose?" His thoughts soon turned to his gun, a weapon he had been using earlier in the chase; hoping that the random shots might scare off his pursuer, as you can see, it didn't. After a while though, he got up, and it started to rain heavily.
"No rest for the wicked it seems." The man muttered to himself as he looked around for any signs of shelter. He dared not re-enter the forest, who knows where that thing was. It was all but hopeless the search, until he came across what looked like a tent in the distance.
"That's strange, what is a tent doing in the middle of nowhere? Still, any shelter from a storm like this is better than none." The man told himself as he made his way towards the one beacon of refuge in this strange place. As he got closer, the man could see a figure was already inside, although it was difficult to say who or what it was. Soon, however, curiosity got the better of him and he entered; only to be greeted with a less than friendly welcome.
From the other end of the room, he could see what looked like a female body, but its colour changed rapidly. It was also holding a knife, this put him a little on edge.
"What the hell are you?" He quietly asked, before regaining his sense.
"Sorry for intruding upon your tent, it's just I need shelter from the storm that rages outside. Apologies, I haven't even introduce myself yet, how rude of me; my name is..." The man said politely, before stopping at the mention of a name. His mind had been so preoccupied with running, he had forgotten it. A dreadful silence hanged over the tent, until finally he remembered.
"...my name is Atano, Ashley Atano."
She was walking calmly on the road, with a large carved pumpkin in her arms. Her hat was pulled down over her eyes and she couldn't see anything, but it didn't matter, as she could sense the world around her with the help of her magic. Skills she had trained for years before setting out on her journey across the land. There was a forest on the right side of the road, and a field on the left. Behind her was the village she had strolled through earlier the same day. The townsfolk had stared at the woman with an oversized hat and a pumpkin passing through, but made no attempt to talk to her. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps because they had heard about her kind and thought it the best course of action.
She noticed a man running out from the forest, seemingly frightened. It began to rain shortly after and he went to the tent, which had been raised on the field, seeking shelter. The pumpkin smiled, when the woman picked up on the changeling inside the tent. The godess must have brought her here this night for a reason, she thought and left the road, to skip over the field towards the tent.
The woman entered the tent, and pushed the man out of her way, so she could get inside. He had stopped in the entrance. She sat down on the floor, with her back against a wall of the tent. The pumpkin's eyes darted between the changeling and the man in the entrance. She wasn't afraid of them, as she couldn't detect any weapons other than a knife, a gun and a sword. They might be able to destroy her current avatar though.
"She is Penelope." The pumpkin's mouth moved and spoke with a hoarse female voice, as she channeled magic through it. Then it smiled awkwardly, maybe she was a bit nervous when meeting new beings.
Now one stranger would have been understandable that's just bad luck.
But two, come one she's had to find who ever sold her the concealment charm for this place and have him executed. Actually the way things were she probably couldn't do that any-more. She'd just have to morph and eat him.
As soon as they entered her form had settled down somewhat, both were human as far as she could tell, she could remember the exact breed they had in this region. Her skin became a sort of dirty brownish, it had go bright orange for a second but when she realised her mistake she stopped trying to mimic the pumpkin.
"You two?" Her tongue wasn't used to the language. "Hill kind?" She'd never understood the drive to re-name all the races as something kind, apparently it was an inclusive thing but until now she'd not understood why. She pointed to herself "Mirror kind."
This was her first time in this region, well her first time interacting with the people at least. Last time she was her was a festival years ago, and with all the staff she'd never actually spoken to a native.
She presumed he was a solider, looked pretty experienced to boot new how to hold his weapons. Maybe he could teach her, or she could just suck the ideas out of her head but then again she wasn't a savage. She wasn't even sure what cutlery one would use for eating mental constructs.
Even if the girl hadn't been so obviously a witch (no one who isn't a magic user would ever have such poor fashion sense to wear a hat like that) the changeling would have noticed.
She stank of void oil, the smell took the changeling back to days in the palace library's some mage imported from a place she'd never heard of spending hours trying to teach her how to manipulate the silvery purplish liquid by drawing various symbols in it.
She never was any good, then again they say when there's magic is territorial. Doesn't like other magic to enter your system once it's found a home in you, and of course as a changeling she had more than enough magic in her blood from the get go so she was hardly going to learn pyromancy even if it was royal tradition.
Her mind came back to the present. The vegetable was looking at her.
There were millions of good questions but only one she had the time and effort to really articulate.
"What are you doing in my tent?"
The changeling asked her where she was from, and Penelope wasn't able to lie. She had already taken that vow, but she didn't need to blurt out everything about herself either.
"This one is of heaven." The pumpkin said, while looking at the changeling. She wondered if they'd understand the meaning. Penelope was still undergoing the trials and had yet to graduate. As such, she had not gotten to choose between the wings or the horns. One would think that wings were more practical, but it wasn't about practicality. It was a choice she'd have to make at the end of her journey, and would affect how she'd serve the godess for the rest of her existence.
She missed the academy, but she had to prove her dedication to them before she could return. Walking across the planet in a human avatar was the trial they had set upon her to perform. It might take years, but she understood why they wanted her to do it.
"What are you doing in my tent?"
The trial wasn't just about dedication, to the ideals she one day hoped to uphold or try to tear down. It was also a way for them to experience the world up close and personal. Did she think that those living on this plane of existence deserved good or evil? When she had been at the academy, the answer had come easier to her, but now she wasn't so sure anymore.
"She is taking a walk through this garden of life. The godess brought her here tonight." The pumpkin was the one to speak again. Penelope didn't want to show her face.
Suddenly, there was a young man in the center of the tent, sitting on a wooden chair. It felt like he had been there for a longtime, but the other occupants of the tent could remember his absence mere moments ago
He was wearing a black fedora and a long black button-up coat with a dark red button-up shirt underneath it. He was also wearing dark blue denim jeans and a pair of primarily black tennis-shoes. He looked to be about 17, with long brown hair, Caucasian skin, and brown eyes. He had a lit cigaret hanging from his mouth, and was reading from a small soft-cover book, the kind that fits in a coat pocket. The covers of the book were a dull green color, completely devoid of text.
None of the others knew how to react to this person somehow appearing in the tent, but they all became defensive as this figure stood. He smoothly slid the book into his front coat pocket without marking the page, took his cigaret from his mouth between his right middle and index fingers, then said in a simple, human, voice,
So not just any witch but a fanatic, now logical questions like why and which of the thousands of gods and goddesses she was supposed to represent, would probably need to be saved for a later time.
The changeling looked at her, curious as ever. The girl wasn't meeting her eyes.
"You know I'm not going to steal your face right?" Did people really still believe that rubbish? Her voice was annoyed with a mixture of offence for good measure.
The changeling was still wondering which of them was technically the monster in this situation when the bloke on a chair was suddenly there.
"How do people keep finding this place?" He didn't look like he was with the champions so he probably wasn't an assassin.
Ashley pulled himself off the ground after he was pushed out of the tent by a girl carrying around a large pumpkin and wearing a pointy hat that looked several sizes too big for her. He finally entered the tent proper and set himself along one of the tent's sides, keeping his weaponry close by; as for the moment he didn't trust either of these two. The changling from earlier had turned into a more familiar human form.
"What are you doing in my tent?" Whilst he already explained himself earlier, Ashley thought it wouldn't hurt to repeat himself.
"As I already told you, there is a storm raging outside, and this tent was the only signs of shelter that I could see." It was after he spoke that another person appeared in the tent, but this time seemingly out of nowhere. He had a lit cigarette between his right middle and index fingers. Ashley instantly raised his gun at the man.
"Hello." Ashley said quickly, his gun still aimed.
"How do people keep finding this place?"
"Don't ask me miss, I just happened across this tent by sheer coincidence." Ashley remarked calmly as he lowered his gun, thinking that the newest arrival wasn't a threat for now.
"To be honest, I don't know how I found this place. Seems like it might have found me."
He flicked the cigaret to the ground and stepped on it, then unbuttoned his coat without taking it off.
"Do any of you know what year it is, or if there is such a thing as years yet?" he asked.
His casual manner stood out among the generally tense attitude of the room, as though he had nothing to worry about despite not seeming to know where, or when, he was.
How did they not know the year?
"It's the 12th year of Allimeir IX." Or mum as the changeling called her.
"I don't know about local calendars but I think that makes it 647 or 649 by the standard date."
She began inspecting Ashley
"If it's the storm you avoiding then sure, you can stay but I'm not sure how free this tent will be from disturbances. If you can fight then you can stay here for a story.
As for you witch
What magic is it you practice?"
The pumpkin grinned, when the changeling told her that she wouldn't steal her face. Penelope didn't think she needed to worry about that, but it'd be best for everyone if she kept the hat on. A man appeared out of nowhere on a chair, smoking a cigarette.
"Greetings." The pumpkin turned to the man and answered him. The question of what year it was, was brought up, but time mattered little to her. She knew what years it was to the humans and wasn't surprised to hear the answer the changeling gave.
"As for you witch. What magic is it you practice?"
She thought about correcting the changeling and telling her that she wasn't a witch, that her true nature was as a disciple of the godess. It was probably better if they didn't start asking too may questions about her though, so she didn't correct her.
"She is a master in the schools of mysticism and the altering of reality. I am just a pumpkin she found on a doorstep." The pumpkin said and hesitated for a while, before continuing. "She lost the skull."
Ion's thick gray fur continued to get soaked as he walked through the rain. With each step his bare feet trudged through mud and puddles. His eyes scanned the countryside for any sign of his target. Ion would get him eventually no matter what, however as the rain continued to gain strength he decided it would be wise to locate shelter. As luck would have it, he stumbled upon a simple tent near the edge of a forest.
As Ion came to the door of the tent, he set his hand on the handle of his broadsword in case the occupants he saw inside were hostile. He lifted open the tent door and walked inside, his towering body dwarfing the occupants. "Hello, friends, I hope I am not disturbing, I am merely wishing to find shelter from this rain," Ion said in a deep voice as he took his first steps inside. He quickly scanned the interior and saw a coated man, a witch, a simple human, and another human but something seemed off about her.
"Well well, that's a first."
The young man with the fedora said, looking at the werewolf.
"At least I know where I'm not." He rubbed his chin speculatively and then shrugged at no one in particular.
"Have any of you ever heard of a 'train' or an 'airplane'?" He said with a bit of hopeful curiosity in his voice.
I really hope so, I don't want the sight of a pair of sneakers to cause a medieval revolution.
"Well of course I have I'm no idiot, I know my old times. They even had a piece of an old playnne in the palace." She paused, not wanting to have just said that.
She tried distract from that.
"What's your interest in them anyway? Are you some sort of historian or something?" Her mind flashed back to the Slight Kind and their bazar machines, why anyone would choose machines over the arcane was anyone's guess. I mean she knew of plenty of peasants that had the odd automaton knocking about for farm work or something but she'd always found the idea fairly silly."
"A 'train' or 'phane'..." Ion had trouble pronouncing that last word due to he and his kind having no lips.
"If my memory serves me correct, I was only told of machines like those in fairy tales my parents told me when I was a child. Myths or possibly ancient relics they seem to be." Ion then untied his sword from his side and took a seat with his back against the tent wall and his arm propped up on his knee, while his sword laid right next to him. "If I may ask, are any of you the 'owner' of this tent, and if I may prod any further, if any of you are the owner, may I ask what the purpose of this tent is?"
While he waited for a response, Ion sized everyone inside the tent up. The witch is too quiet and shady to get any idea from her; he will need to keep his eye on her, as well as the strangely dressed man. Talking of ancient machines and dressed in such fashion obviously makes him a suspicious candidate. The human with the sidearm did not seem to pose much threat, so Ion did not worry with him, and the last figure in the tent, another human though something still seemed off about her, might also pose trouble. So far most occupants could possibly be threatening enemies, and Ion made a mental note to keep watch on all of them.
"It's my tent, and it's for shelter. Also it's for holding."
She moved back over to the hammock picking up a bag hanging on the side of it. She pulled something from it before revealing it to everyone.
A metal ball a mash of a clockwork skeleton and a clay face. The eyes were a uniform deep night black without any pupils so they gave the impression of not looking anywhere. At the moment it wasn't even moving, its mouth parts were fairly open probably still surprised that it had been separated from whatever kind of body a creature like that would have.
Between its eyes there was the symbol of the golden sun with the sliver gear printed on it.
"It's sleeping at the moment. The storm has cut it off from its mistress but I'm honestly not sure how long this is going to last. Anyone willing to try and kill it please go ahead."
Holding? Holding what exactly? Ion thought before the woman pulled out a strange looking skull. It was obviously mechanical, but the strange human said "kill it" which meant it was alive. How that was possible, Ion did not know, through magic possibly, but Ion does not delve into the mystical arts.
If only I was at my workshop, I could possibly take it apart. Ion thought.
" Mam, you wouldn't happen to have any tools in this tent would you? Oh, I forgot my manners, my name is Ion Channing, may I ask for yours?"
"If it's the storm you avoiding then sure, you can stay but I'm not sure how free this tent will be from disturbances. If you can fight then you can stay here for a story." The changling responded with, causing Ashley to nod his head.
"Thank you, most appreciative about you letting me stay. And if there is a story as well, then all the better for it, I like stories." Ashley said with a smile towards the changling. Suddenly the young man in the chair spoke up.
"Have any of you ever heard of a 'train' or an 'airplane'?" The young man asked with a hint of hopeful curiosity.
"Yes, I have heard of a train, haven't traveled on one of those for quite some time." The changling then brought out a most curious item. On first glance, it looked like it was clockwork driven, and had a clay face. Its eyes were a deep black and lacked pupils, giving it a slightly daunting appearance. Between the eyes, was a symbol that was of a golden sun with a silver gear beneath it.
"It's sleeping at the moment. The storm has cut it off from its mistress but I'm honestly not sure how long this is going to last. Anyone willing to try and kill it please go ahead."
"Hmm, that is a rather curious object you have miss. Pray, what is it exactly?" Ashley asked, intriguied by the object and its unusual features.
"No tools here, I didn't exactly have time to bring much."
She placed the head on the altar.
"I was hoping the stories weren't true that Sollyanian's servants can't be destroyed by anything that doesn't understand them. But I've seen this one take mortar rounds and arcane fire without stopping. Makes you wonder who it let do the decapitation.
Just make sure it doesn't get back into the sun."
One of the other's asked what it was.
"They call them Novae, the sun and steel goddess's personal army. Well that's if you believe in her, but what's true is they are probably the most advanced automata I ever heard of."
She still didn't get the machines? The craftsmanship was marvellous but what was the point. Everyone knew the weak built because they couldn't be. But the sun priests weren't weak; they had the void oil for all the magic they could ever want.
"What do you think makes them do it?" That was more out loud than she'd intended it to be.
Then she remembered the other question.
"It's Ance." She omitted the numerous numerals that would usually follow if she was being formal.
Penelope knew what a train and an airplane was. She had seen wrecks of the old machines on her travels. Maybe they had been used for something once, but now they mostly seemed to be used as shelter, or beasts lived in them. She had spent a night in one of the so called trains, after chasing the beasts away.
Another creature had entered the tent. Something that wasn't quite human, but no one reacted. Maybe she was the only one who could feel its true nature.
The changeling took out some form of skull and asked if anyone could kill it. She wondered why they were so eager to kill it, but since she still wore her hat she could only sense its shape and not see it.
"She wonders why you want to kill it?" The pumpkin asked.
Strange question for a witch to ask.
"Consider it self-defence."
Her tone was completely serious devoid of even fear.
In a moment of weakness or contemplation or whatever you'd call it she added.
"This one knows me."
She listened to her explanation of what it was, and recognized the names mentioned. It wasn't her own godess, but maybe she wasn't as well known among mortals as the sun godess.
"You spent too much time around it?" The pumpkin had a curious expression now.
Why would it know her? If she knew that much about it, then it would have been a better idea to avoid it altogether. If it had knowledge stored in its memory about her, Penelope could understand why she'd want to destroy it.
"She offers to disassemble it."
It wouldn't actually kill it, but it was the best she could do with her magic. She wasn't even sure if automata could be considered alive to begin with.
"It's something like that.
It's seen me... well you know what I am; you won't meet my eyes. So I reckon you can figure it out.
Now be careful, you never know what they've built into these things."
Best not to mention the stories, of what these creatures were capable of, if she did the witch would run and who could blame her.
"Have you done anything like this before?"
She nodded and put the pumpkin down on the floor. It made it harder for her to talk with them, since it was easier to channel magic into something if she held it in her hands. The pumpkin returned to normal and Penelope stood up.
Walking over to the changeling, she reached her hands out in front of her, to show her that she should give it to her.
Ance handed over the head.
She handled it gently which was strange when the head looked like it wouldn't be particularly bothered if it was dropped off a cliff. It still wasn't moving and probably wasn't even really alive at all but managed to convince Ance it could wake up at any moment.
Penelope took the skull in her hands. She couldn't feel any presence within it or curses laid upon it. It didn't mean there couldn't be when she tried taking it apart though. It was probably best if she cast a protection spell first, but both spells would mean she needed to speak. Her voice wasn't intended for mortal ears. There were many stories about what happened to those who heard the voices of her kind. Some went mad, some fell in love and others were inspired to do great deeds. Those were stories and she had never experienced its effect herself, but some of her elders warned them about using their own voice, hence the pumpkin.
She began channeling magic, to make a shield first. The air around her glowed white.
"Custodio." Penelope spoke, with a powerful angelic voice, unfit for this plane of existence. A white shield surrounded her and the skull.
Channeling magic into the skull, she could feel it resist her and how it began to twist. Whatever powered these automata must be close to her own magic.
"Effodiunt." She spoke with the same angelic tone to her voice, and broke the skull into smaller pieces before it could activate.
Penelope let go off her shield, as she didn't think the skull could do any harm anymore. Instead she kept the smaller pieces it consisted off, floating in the air.
The head was contemplating; it had doubted the plan initially, decapitating itself would have reduced combat efficiency by a significant amount but the infiltration potential was endless. It sat making notes when suddenly it was disturbed. The princess wasn't capable of magic of course so this was interesting as developments go; strange she'd team up with a witch. The head was almost flattered.
Everything went dark; the witch unwound the cogs behind cognition. It slept.
Elsewhere years and years ago right here right now in the head of the witch something was happening.
The ground was dotted with brilliant gold, the bioluminescence of the fungi made it hard to tell it was night, and the hive was grounded taking advantage of the stillness of the earth this season.
This is the first time the metallic guard had been to changeling country. Why they chose to stay in this heat and swamp, when the capital had been there's for decades already, was a mystery. The ground was barely even solid not good ground for metallic feet.
The instincts coursing through the clockwork brain were this and this alone, the crown must be protected. The instructions were older than anyone could really know but they'd been kept just to for as long. Of course the original programmer was most probably not thinking the crown would change between families and races many times, now if he'd said protect a single blood line the metallic man might not have turned on a few former charges every so often.
However even the metal man had been surprised when the changelings took power, they were so obvious about the fact they wanted to take over you couldn't even call it infiltration. I mean they were barely even people, and no one liked seeing people that had nothing to do with them in power. But then that's what changelings did, they got involved, you felt like they were your friends and they even looked just like you some of the time.
And then across the swamp on a raft comes the metal man's charge. She looks young barely a juvenile, just old enough to start transforming ready to move to the capital and learn the forms of the other races. She's surrounded by other changelings, carapaces thicker than the best armours money can buy.
They handed her over into the care of the metal man, she was young and the clay face designed to look as human as possible was completely alien and frightening to her, but it would have been even if the attempt to make him look human had worked.
The memory fades, or more accurately loses focus speeds forwards an unspecified amount of time.
There's a new girl, human this time but something about the memory links her strongly to the young changeling.
Them memory cuts out again this time completely.
The mind of the metal man hadn't ever been uploaded into a flesh kind before. But this witch, well she was interesting, he could see her memories as easily as she could see his and if he'd have to have chosen a body, he was glad it could be hers, flattering you could say.
Meanwhile outside the witches head and back in the tent the changeling is looking at the witch.
"Are you ok? What happened?"
The word she'd spoken to cast the spells still hang in the air as clouds of many colours. The changeling ducked to avoid one. They were probably mostly harmless but no doubt inconvenient as well.
The changeling was looking over the witch, as if she'd fallen to the ground.
"Don't worry you've not been out long."
Penelope got a glimpse into the memory of the skull. She got to experience what it had experienced at one point and found it very interesting. It was the kind of knowledge they'd love to get their hands on at the academy. Something she shouldn't have been able to get herself, but had somehow anyway.
As she searched its memories, she couldn't help but wonder if it had come with a price. Even if she couldn't tell what that price was, she was afraid it might discover her secrets or the secrets of her kind.
"Are you ok? What happened?"
The words pulled her back to the reality of the tent her avatar was currently in. It was a shame that she couldn't get home to the academy for years to come, since she still needed to finish her journey. If she prayed to the godess Xantriah she could tell her about what she had discovered.
She simply nodded, with a slight bow, in response to the changeling's words. Penelope walked over to the pumpkin and picked it up again, to be able to give her a proper answer. The pumpkin had already had a spell put on it, but it only activated when she channeled her own magic through it. At least she didn't need to speak again.
"She is fine and believes that you don't need to worry about the skull anymore. It had some interesting memories which it shared."
She sounded shocked.
"How is that even possible? Tell me what you saw."