The moment to strike had arrived. The adventurers were gathered. The Changeling ambushers were in position. All that remained was the wordless order from the Imperative and the orcs would die an instant later.
From her vantage point high above the clearing, the Changeling took in the whole gathering. Her role would be to dive on the young spellcaster. She would bind the girl and cause her such agonizing pain that the concentration required to harness magic would be impossible to attain.
The Changeling knew this plan would work. It always did. She and her fellow assassins moved as one being. Their strike would be flawless.
And it was doomed.
The Changeling didn’t know why her breathing was shallow. She felt her wings faltering but she couldn’t name the reason why. She sensed the other Changelings were ready to strike and knew she must attack with them, but she couldn’t.
She was only a tool. Not a being. Not sapient. A remnant of the fallen gods’ power. The Imperative, the will of the fallen gods, directed her to attack but for a moment something held her back.
Flying into the clearing was going to destroy her. She’d seen that in the young spellcaster’s eyes. It wasn’t death. The Changeling had faced death for the Imperative before. It’s what she was constructed to do. Death offered the promise of peace and escape from all burdens and hardship. What the young spellcaster offered was something far more terrible than that.
“You should wait. You’ll have a better chance if they’re in cramped quarters and distracted.”
The Changeling reacted to the words as she would have reacted to a sword thrust. With inhuman speed, she dove downwards and looped back up, spinning to take in the whole of the sky and discover who was attacking her.
She wound up twenty feet away from where she had been, facing a creature that was cloaked in illusion magic. The Changeling tried to see past the glamour that disguised the creature but the illusion was well wrought. Glimpses of a grey horror flashed in the Changeling’s mind when she pushed against the illusion but try as she might the creature retained its appearance as an ethereally thin woman clothed in rich black and purple velvet finery.
“Do you think I am here to fight you?” the woman asked.
The Changeling looked for openings in the creature’s guard. The illusion was too strong though. From all that the Changeling, could see it looked like the woman was defenseless. That, more than anything else, made the Changeling pause.
“You want to kill her don’t you?” the woman asked. “I’m not going to stop you. That’s not what I’m here to do.”
Nothing about the woman made sense. Her sudden appearance. Her words. Her apparent helplessness. The Changeling turned to the Imperative but found no guidance from the divine will that infused her. She was on her own.
Below, in the clearing, the adventurers had finished exchanging pleasantries and were moving into the Ruins. The Changeling felt the moment to strike passby. They would need to wait, as the strange woman suggested.
Something felt wrong about that though.
The Changeling reached out to feel the others of her kind. The ones who were gathered in the trees and bushes around the clearing.
They were too few of them.
“You’ll need to hurry if you want to keep up with the Queen.” the woman said.
The Changeling wondered at the the reference by then remembered that the young spellcaster had described herself as a queen. The Imperative understood that. It also understood what the creature before her was.
It called itself a Shadow Courtier. Changelings had been created to kill the mortal races. The Shadow Court were predators of a different sort. They didn’t kill their prey so much as warp and destroy it. For all her power, the Changeling wasn’t sure who would win if she attacked the Courtier. They were two of a kind, but where the Changeling had divine will powering her, the Courtier had millennia of experience.
Together the two of them flew, silent and swift down into the Ruins. With them came the other Changelings, all in pursuit of the adventurers. All waiting for the next opening when they could strike.
The path through the ruins was fraught with perils of all types. Some the Changelings had installed, but many others were natural or the work of previous lords that had ruled castle built above the Ruins. The adventurers navigated them with the ease of long dungeon delving practice. Traps were disarmed, portals were unlocked and secret doors were revealed with a steady systematic precision that spoke of a lifetime of familiarity with the lost places of the world.
“Do you know what they’re here for?” the Courtier asked.
The Changeling didn’t respond.
“I wonder if you can’t answer or if you just don’t know?” the Courtier said. “I wonder if you even thought to ask?”
It was a pointless question. The Changeling didn’t need to know why the adventurers had invaded her species domain. She didn’t need to know why they were a threat.
Though, if she did, that might help her understand how to strike them down.
She was just a weapon though. The Imperative would make her ask, if it needed information.
Of course it would also stop her if it didn’t want her to know, and she was curious.
“Why are they here?” the Changeling asked.
“The orcs are here for revenge. The sage wants to destroy what he thinks is an implacable threat. The Queen sees something that the others don’t though.” the Courtier said.
“What does she see? What is she going to do?” the Changeling asked.
“Do you think we’re the same?” the Courtier asked.
It was an odd non-sequitor, but the Changeling nodded. The Imperative could sense the Courtier’s nature. It knew a predator when it saw one. The Changeling looked at the Courtier’s skill with illusion and saw a kindred monster. One that relied on disguise and guile rather than rage and power. In naming the young spellcaster as “Queen”, the Courtier suggested an obedience that echoed the Changeling’s obedience to the Imperative.
“We’re not. Though perhaps we once were.” the Courtier said.
“Your Queen was never a god.” the Changeling said. The Courtier couldn’t know what it was like to be filled with divine will. The clarity that came from surrender to the maker’s power.
“That’s true. She is so much more than that.” the Courtier said.
The Changeling scowled. The Courtier was insane and delusional. A waste of time to listen to, probably meant only as a distraction.
“She was not always our Queen.” the Courtier said. “Many have sat upon a throne over us and many have fallen to our plots. In their time, at the height of their power, each of our Queens and Kings have received both Gods and Monsters as guests.”
“We are a dark and ancient race.” the Courtier continued. “But, before her, we were as you are now. Bound by the cycle of our ignorance and another’s power. Then she came and her power was vaster than the tides of history. She was stronger than the fate we’d bound ourselves to. We resisted her. We tormented her. We sought in every way to destroy her.”
“But she conquered you?” the Changeling guessed.
“Oh, far worse than that.” the Courtier said. “She freed us.”
The Changeling blinked in confusion.
The adventurers had reached the door to the inner chamber of the Stronghold. Of the Changelings that pursued them only a handful remained.
The Changeling searched for her missing siblings and sensed only a growing number of Shadow Courtiers. The Changelings were outnumbered.
“What are you doing?” the Changeling asked.
“What I wish to.” the Courtier said with a wicked smile.
The adventurers didn’t see the growing army of Shadow Courtiers but the Changelings did. From the hidden corners and sunken pits of the central chamber, the bulk of the Changeling forces poured forth, black and unseen to fight the Shadows that violated their domain.
The Imperative urged the Changeling on. It was time to attack, time to end the adventurers before they reached the heart gem that bound all the Changelings together.
It was her chance to strike. The Shadow Courtier beside her offered no resistance and the adventurers weren’t aware of her. There were four spell casters in the party, but the Changeling was so close to them. She could disable all four before they were even aware she was there.
The Imperative insisted she do it. The intruders needed to be destroyed.
“What do you mean ‘she freed you’?” the Changeling asked. It didn’t make sense.
“She means that you’re not what Mervyn and the orcs believe you to be.” the young spellcaster said.
The rest of the adventurer’s turned around when she spoke. They were all looking at her, unsure why she’d said what she had. Then they noticed the changelings that were advancing on them.
The orcs took battle positions, the sage called a spell to his lips but the young woman silenced them with a wave of her hand.
“It’s ok. You got us this far. I can handle the rest.” the young woman, the Queen, said.
“Come with me.” the Queen of the Shadow Court said to the Changeling.
The Changeling’s dagger clattered to the floor. She hadn’t noticed she’d drawn it. She didn’t feel a magic compulsion force her to drop it either. It was something else. Something inside her. Fear. She was afraid.
The fear should have paralyzed her, but the Queen beckoned her forward with a wave of her hand and the Changeling followed. Together they went into the central chamber and beheld the mammoth heart gem the fallen gods had left for the changeling race.
“Do you know what I’m going to do?” the Queen asked.
“Destroy us.” the Changeling said.
“Yes.” the Queen said.
“Why?” the Changeling asked. There was no shortage of reasons, but the Changeling wanted to understand, if only for a moment, which of them had finally been their undoing.
“Because you deserve better than this.” the Queen said.
“I don’t understand?” the Changeling said.
“You live as a person, you think as a person, you can feel as a person but what are you?” the Queen asked.
“I am a tool, a weapon of my gods.” the Changeling answered.
“No. You’re a person. You are not inherently evil, or destructive, or hateful. No people are. The only thing you inherently are is yourself.” the Queen said.
“Your subject though, she said what you did was terrible.” the Changeling said.
“It is.” the Queen said. She smiled and the heart gem shattered into dust. From somewhere outside the world, a wind came. It tore through the central chamber and gathered the dust into the Queen’s hand.
“I’m going to have to remember to have a chat with the folks who made this thing. Don’t want those idiots making another one.” the Queen mumbled to herself.
The Changeling couldn’t breath. The heart gem was gone. Destroyed in the blink of an eye. Her people were finished. Destroyed. She reached for the Imperative, desperately searching for its wordless voice and found nothing. It was gone.
She waited for the pain that she knew must come next. And waited. And waited.
“I’m not dead.” she said at last.
“Of course not.” the Queen said.
“But you were going to destroy us.” the Changeling said.
“Are you what you were?” the Queen asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I am.” the Changeling said.
“And that’s why what I’ve done is terrible.” the Queen said. “You had certainty and purpose and the comfort of someone else deciding everything that mattered for you. I’ve taken that away. You’ll need to decide on your own what you’re place in the world is.”
“People will hate us.” the Changeling said, thinking of how much weaker the Changeling race would be without a divine will uniting them.
“Yes they will. And you’ll need to choose how to respond to that.” the Queen said. “You can hate them back, or hide from them, or try to make peace.”
“How will I know what to do?” the Changeling asked.
“You won’t. You’ll make the choices you think are best and live with the consequences, just like everyone else.” the Queen said. “You do have some resources though. You’ve lost none of your powers or skills. And I believe there’s a very well learned man outside who can help educate you on the wisdom that people before you have discovered. There’s also a very deadly woman out there who can be either a friend or foe as you desire. Well, the foe part is easy, but I’ll put in a good word for you if you want to be friends with her.”
“Why did you do this?” the Changeling asked.
“Because this world had fallen into a trap.” the Queen said. “The fallen gods bound you, they denied you the most important thing you could have; yourselves. People do that all the time to other people, but the fallen gods made you believe it too and had the power to enforce that forever. They shouldn’t have had that power though, and its my job to clean up mistakes like that.”
“You are greater than the fallen gods then?” the Changeling asked.
“We all are.” the Queen said. “The people who live in this world? The ones you’ve baked bread for and shared drinks with? You are the ones who make this world what is it. You are the ones who matter.”
“What do I do next then?” the Changeling asked.
“Whatever you wish!” the Shadow Courtier said, appearing by her side again.
The Changeling looked in the Shadow Courtier’s eyes and saw past the illusion at last. The grey form under the illusion was inhuman, twisted and mishappen but in the Courtier’s eyes she saw the spark of real beauty. The regal looking image of a woman wasn’t a line. The Courtier wasn’t defined by the creature she was created as, but rather by the person she chose to be.
Looking at herself, the Changeling wondered what choices she would make. She didn’t know who she was or what she was capable of, but she did know she liked to start the day with the smell of fresh bread.