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Changeling Child

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***


"Are you looking for something, young la-- oh, Dame Sheba, I am so sorry, I almost didn't recognize--"

Sheba shrugged the elderly librarian's politeness aside. She had grown used to it all her life -- a little ungrateful, maybe -- but now wasn't the time. Though being addressed like that felt strange after half a year among friends and equals, she supposed she had earned the title, as one of the Warriors of Weyard. (She refused to call it Warriors of Vale as most of Angara did. She wasn't from Vale, and neither was half the party.)

Sheba put on her most polite smile, and asked, "Do you have any books on Anemos?"

The old man put a finger to his chin in quiet thought. "Ahh... let me see..."

She waited, only a little impatiently, until he spoke again.

"A few, on the history shelf," he said, "and there might be another in storage. Are you sure this is the best place for what you're looking for?"

It wasn't, but a trip to Contigo would be too conspicuous and time-consuming, especially with the Teleport Lapis still in Jenna's possession in New Vale, and the Lemurian ship out sailing. She wasn't ready to ask any of them for help, either. Not until she had some answers herself.

The history shelf was maybe an arm's length wide, shallow enough many books hung halfway out over the edge, and crammed so tight removing a single book would be a battle. She suspected the force of the books pressed together was the only thing keeping some of them from falling out entirely, something proven when the first tome she removed pulled out its neighbors, too.

Though the spines were faded and smudged, and a few in languages she couldn't read (several looked like Daila's script, but one called to mind a letter Isaac had kept from that Xianese girl), it didn't take long to find the library's three books on Anemos. As she flipped through the pages of the first book, slim compared to the others but still thick as two fingers together, she found surprisingly little she didn't already know. This book had been written by someone who'd never left the Angaran continent, with information taken secondhand by traders and a single foreigner from southern Atteka, who had lived maybe thirty miles from the crater.

The second book wasn't about Anemos so much as the surrounding geography, judging by the pictures. The words were both foreign and faintly familiar, but she shrugged it off after a moment of squinting at the pages as if they might spontaneously translate themselves into some Angaran tongue. This one was useless without a translator, and she couldn't even say for certain where to look.

The third book was heavier than a cat, with thin parchment pages and spindly handwritten text suggesting either a single sage's personal work, or age predating the printing press. As she opened it, a charcoal sketch smeared beneath her fingers, and she hastily adjusted her grip.  At least the words were in ink. And a language she knew.

She flipped through the work, cautious with the fragile materials, and searched for answers.


***


There were few images of the Anemos people themselves. Descriptions suggested tan brown skin and pale hair, with light-colored eyes, green or blue or purple, but the four she found were all sketches or plain ink, no coloring. Nothing about odd gleaming transparent skin like -- no, she wasn't thinking about that yet. Just looking for information. No certainty.

Hair that floated like feathers, yes. There was a passing mention, ambiguous but useful. She didn't want to consider what it meant, so she turned to the next chapter, skimming the text. Magical traditions and practices, often rituals or simple household tasks, more advanced spells such as...

Illusions. The old Anemos clan were skilled at them, apparently, and many Jupiter adepts could manage simple ones with practice. Anemos took most of its secrets to the grave, though. Their descendants in Contigo had only a fraction of their knowledge.

She flipped through, scanning for further mention of glamours or something similar. Nothing clear. There was so much to read, she couldn't imagine getting through the whole thing in one night. Pages had to be skimmed unless a word jumped out, diagrams scrutinized and abandoned.

A sketch on one page jumped out at her: an Anemos child from a picture older than some civilizations, originally etched and painted on a wall, according to the caption. Their hair hung in wisps and floated around like downy fluff, and their eyes sat as dark spaces beneath their hair.

There was no description of why they looked this way. It simply was, but Sheba couldn't hold back the startled flicker in her heart as she stared at the picture.

It seemed her guess was right.


***


Sheba had always known she was different. She had fallen out of the sky and left a crater in her wake as an infant, and no one then could guess where she'd come from. She was a gift of their gods, a blessing from the heavens, and even as a small child she could see the wonder in their faces. She had pale hair, fine features, and eyes that could have been lavender or green in the light, all no doubt hallmarks of distant lands nobody in the village knew. During their journey, Felix told her some of the fables from his hometown, about changelings and fairy children, and she couldn't help but think it fit.

Thought nobody knew yet, something had changed, in the year after the lighthouses were lit. She had found something wrong in the mirror, a sheen to her skin and hair that made her look almost ill, a warping of light that seemed to shine through her arms and legs in the sun. Sometimes it flickered for a moment, and her father would stare. The first time, she could only imagine what he had seen. The second time came at the pond near the docks, and she could see her own clear reflection in the still water. What stared back was alien, discolored and wrong but unmistakably her face.

She reached down to it, half-hoping that somehow if she touched the surface and reached through it would give her answers, but the picture just rippled and distorted into nothing. Her hand before her gleamed in the sunlight, translucent violet like thick glass, and flickered as the color and texture shifted with fizzling sparks.

When the water stilled again, her hair was pale and golden and her skin a warm light brown as always.


***


It had happened a number of times after, little snippets of changes. At first, it was always temporary, gone almost as quickly as it appeared. She took to wearing more covering clothes, scarves and long loose sleeves and skirts with hems just brushing the ground. Her father joked she looked like a pious woman in her new dress code, but his mind held a hint of worry, though the thought of his little girl already being a woman soon swept it aside.

A full month after the first time, her left shoulder changed and didn't turn back, letting violet light refract and shine through her pale dress. It didn't feel heavier, like glass would, though; if anything, it felt light and insubstantial, like her head had felt after she'd first cut her hair short. Like it would float away any second.

She added a brighter colored shawl to her outfit, pulled from her mother's wardrobe, and decided something had to be done.

She considered speaking with Felix and Jenna and the others, but they were all too far away to speak with without trouble. Jenna and the others from Vale had returned for a festival she'd declined to visit, Ivan was still in Contigo exploring some of the Anemos ruins, Mia had gone home to Imil for the Angaran winter to help her townsfolk, and Piers and Felix were still out in the western sea, somewhere. At best, she might have the luck of Jenna or the others using the Teleport Lapis for a surprise visit when the festival ended, or the Lemurian ship might dock at Lalivero or somewhere near it. Chances were, she'd get neither.

Her only other idea for long-distance communication was the djinn, as they could often travel great fast with their own psynergy, but the only one who stayed by her side these days, Breath, had vanished in the last few weeks, leaving Sheba alone.

She would have to take this matter into her own hands, for now.


***


The book didn't have much information beyond what she first found, but even that helped her. If this was really what the Anemos people looked like, and they were truly that skilled at illusions, they might have cast longer-lasting spells to disguise themselves from ordinary humans. From her guesses, Sheba herself might have had a spell on her all along -- a disguise she had believed for fifteen years.

She still wasn't sure how to think of that. She had been a strange child, yes, fallen from the sky and otherworldly, but she still couldn't imagine looking in a mirror and seeing anything but a human. She still tried not to think about what she has seen at the pond. As a child, she might have been comfortable, seeing herself that way, but to consider herself now so distant and different from other people -- not just her family and the townsfolk, but even people with gifts like hers, people like Ivan or Felix or Jenna or Piers... something in her chest twisted and ached at the thought.

After another day of impatient thoughts as she tried to decide on her next move, the cracks in her glamour worsened. Most of her left hand had turned the same shade and texture as her shoulder, and she could swear her hair had gotten lighter, nearly white.

Her father saw her hand as she bandaged it and planned her lie. Their eyes met for a moment, and she couldn't keep his thoughts out of her head. Worry and uncertainty washed off him in waves, and it would have surprised her, had this not been the man who raised her from the day she appeared. He worried for her sake, not just in the way any of the village did for their divine child and symbol of good fortune, but as a father. She could practically feel him blaming himself as he listed off possibilities and tried to work out where he had gone wrong, and she listened for a moment as he berated himself for not acknowledging or speaking about this sooner.

"It'll be fine," she said at last. The lie tasted heavy in her mouth, mingling with the doubt in her father's mind.

He knew it might not be, but wasn't sure what else to ask, and she couldn't bear to admit how little she knew.


***


The illusion spell she tried that night failed. She was inexperienced and unfamiliar with that type of psynergy, so she blamed that, along with her lack of Mercury djinn. The gleaming rings around her hand bobbed and wavered uselessly around her right hand as she held it over her left like that might change the results.

Breath, the only djinn still in town at the moment, hummed into the room to hover weightlessly by her shoulder. It paused and watched a moment before speaking.

"Are you trying to fix the glamour?" it asked her with a voice like cool autumn air. There was no judgement, not even surprise, only curiosity. "I don't think that's going to work."

"What?" she asked, interrupting the spell to glance up at her old companion. One who had been missing for the better part of a week, now that she thought about it.

"You're still pretty new to illusion magic. That kind of glamour takes a lot of practice to create," Breath informed her.

"You know what kind it is?" Sheba asked, switching to mind-speech as her brother shifted in his bed across the room.

Breath nodded, bobbing up and down. "Of course I do. It's standard for Anemosian travelers."

Sheba sat where she was for a moment in total silence, save for the wind murmuring through the windows and the sounds of a shop down the street closing up for the night. The room stood still.

Breath hung in place, tilting its head slightly to the side as Sheba grabbed the pillow off her bed, pressed it tightly to her face, and let loose a muffled groan of frustration.

As quickly as she'd taken it, she replaced the pillow, took a deep breath, and asked, "What do you mean, 'standard for Anemosian travelers'?" She gestured to her still purple hand, which glinted in the moonlight. "Did you...  know about this? The entire time!?"

"Yes... ?" Breath expressed confusion well for a creature with so few discernible facial features.

Sheba took another moment to calm herself. "What is it? And where have you been? This would have been so much easier if you'd been here last week."

"I was giving you some time to yourself," Breath explained, still sounding puzzled. "Is this a problem? You're very worried over something rather small."

"Rather small?" Sheba asked, carefully controlling her temper. Which was to say, roughly two words from trying to wring Breath's ethereal little neck. "Is this--" she pointed to her hand again. "'Rather small'?"

"It's just your true form showing through," Breath said. "Did you... not know that?"

"No, I really didn't! This is completely new!" Sheba replied.

"Oh."

Breath thought about this privately for a moment before answering. "If you really don't know, I suppose I can explain. You live among normal humans, so I suppose I should have expected this."

It focused on her for a moment, then asked, "Is there anything you'd like me to start with?"

"You could explain this," Sheba said, rapping her knuckles on her arm. The soft clinking sound didn't help the feeling of how wrong it all was.

"That's just your body," Breath told her.

Sheba groaned again inside. "Yes, but why does it look like this?"

"That's what your people look like."

The elephant in the room. "And by that, you mean I'm not human."

"Of course not," Breath chirped. "You're from Anemos!"

Sheba sat back, very quietly, and repeated, "I'm from Anemos."

"Yes...?"

She leaned back against her bed, and laughed, quiet and a little hysterical. "I knew it."

"It sounded like you didn't, but it's true."

Sheba shook her head, still shocked, wheezing softly as the weight of the information sunk in. "I'm actually from Anemos. The city on the moon."

"Yes." Breath sounded uncertain how to respond.

"I fell from the moon. The actual moon in the sky." She covered her face with one spread hand and tried to stifle her breathy, shaking laughter. "The actual moon."

"That is the current location of the city, yes. Are you all right, Sheba?"

Sheba stared at the wall. "How am I... supposed to be calm about this?"

A thoughtful pause from Breath. "You're probably not supposed to be?"

They both fell silent for a moment.

"All right, then," Sheba said, thinking over her next question and trying to compose herself. "Why is this happening now?"

"That glamour's pretty old. I'm surprised it took as long as it did to wear off." Breath hovered closer, scrutinizing her hand.

"Why did I have it in the first place?" she asked, trying to nudge the little creature towards useful answers.

"Well, otherwise, everyone would see what you really look like! Your parents probably did the original spell to keep you safe when you lived with humans."

"Do you know why I ended up here?" she said, voice tinged with trepidation.

Breath shook its head, a full-body action with those squashed proportions. "I don't know or remember anything between the sealing of alchemy and the theft of the elemental stars. We djinn were all sealed away in that time."

"Oh." She tried not to hide her disappointment. A dead end already.

At last, Sheba got up and crawled back into bed. "I'll panic in the morning," she said, and closed her eyes. "I'll probably think of better questions then, too."

Sleep came surprisingly quickly. Breath watched the moonlight pass across Sheba's face through the window, and settled down on top of her blanket to rest.


***


The moon was falling out of the sky.

She could see the shape, first a faded daylight crescent, then something rounder and brighter and swelling larger and larger as it grew behind the clouds. She squinted like it might help to make sense of the sight before her.

Someone called to her. She couldn't make out the words, but their presence lay enough to find their mind. Familiar shouts. Her friends, doing all they could. Her family, huddled close in the basement with the townsfolk. There had been no time to run away.

The four from Vale had formed a loose circle, psynergy buzzing and pulsing around them in rings and reaching to the sky, but it wasn't high enough, and she knew before she looked up that it would shatter in impact, a deflection at best. Ice rose up to either side, equally futile. A storm growing, curling towards the shape, the best chance they had but still too easily brushed aside, air giving way to stone as it approached.

They would fail. She knew, even if she didn't know how she knew. It was certain.

The moon fell ever closer until she could hear it, over the screaming gales and the flames licking the front of the shape as it came closer, over her own voice, over the hum of psynergy and the rumble of glaciers.

She could hear them.

Too many voices, more than the town, sounds unraveling with speed and distance, approaching ever faster--


***


"Hey, Sheba, it's morning!"

Sheba rolled over and sat up in one sharp motion. Her months traveling in a monster-infested wilderness had taught her to wake up quickly, even if she'd had a year to relax since. She struggled to recall her dream. Something about the moon...? She clung to the memory as best as she could, and filed it away for later.

Gyasi grinned cheekily and pointed out the window while sitting on her bed. "It's already bright out! You slept in."

"You are the worst little brother," she grumbled halfheartedly as she tried to smooth out her inevitable bedhead. He laughed and climbed off, running downstairs to the kitchen.

Sheba sat on her bed for a minute, trying to reassemble the piece of her dream. They always faded so quickly when her eyes opened.

When Gyasi came back upstairs to remind her about breakfast (not long later; he just wanted her to eat with the family this morning), she gave up on the dream and went to go eat. She left her sleeves down for now. She'd break the news when she was ready.


***


She tracked down Breath around noon, when she slipped away for a moment to sit on the roof and watch the clouds. It took maybe twenty minutes of pacing and thinking of what she wanted to know before Breath showed up, floating down to the rooftop and perching on the low wall around the edges like a bizarre magical bird.

"Tell me about Anemos," she said, the moment it arrived.

"That's a lot of information," Breath noted. "But I'll try. Do you remember Prox? The town Felix lived in for a few years before you met? The one near Jupiter Lighthouse?"

"The one with the dragonfolk?" She furrowed her brow for a moment, before it started to dawn on her. "Wait. What--"

Breath continued over her spoken thoughts. "The people of Anemos are to Jupiter Lighthouse what the people of Prox are to Mars."

Sheba stopped to think about that. "... okay. Go on."

"However, when the lighthouses were extinguished, and alchemy sealed, the people of Anemos were unhappy with that solution. They didn't want to live in a world ruled by non-adepts, with such primitive technology -- their leaders' words, not mine -- and they decided to move their city to the moon, living apart from both the other clans and the new world the lighthouses created."

"And now?"

"I don't know. I wasn't around after that -- you'd have as much luck chasing rumors in Contigo, honestly."

She sat back for a moment to think about that. "Do you have any idea why my p-- why I was sent here?" She didn't know who her parents were, didn't know if they were involved or alive. No assumptions. Not yet.

"I mean, back then, not a clue. But now... well."

"What?"

"Jupiter adepts like you are known for their powers of foresight. Alchemy returning is definitely something big enough to feature in prophecies. You've had moments of it too, haven't you? Where you had a dream that happened in the real world later on, or you knew something you couldn't have until you found out again later?"

Sheba thought on that for a moment. "I had a dream last night. I don't remember much, but it felt like those dreams. The ones that come true."

"Oh?" Breath's voice tilted up in a question. Sheba continued almost before it finished.

"It was confusing, but I think the moon fell out of the sky. And we tried to stop it." She didn't have to clarify who 'we' was.

"Sometimes dreams like those are symbolic." Breath shrugged with its nubby wings, but she could feel the quaver of excitement in the words. "It might be a symbol for Anemos, or something else entirely..."

"No, I'm pretty sure it was the literal moon."

“You're sure?”

“It was falling out of the sky! We were trying to stop it, I think.”

"Did you succeed?"

Sheba shook her head with a scowl. "I don't remember."

"I guess we'll find out, then."

Breath oozed barely-concealed anticipation, and Sheba couldn't help the conflict that feeling forced inside her. Breath was excited to see Anemos again, to be reunited with the Jupiter Clan, and even she couldn't stifle the flutter in her heart at the thought of seeing her other family she'd never met, but she also couldn't help seeing the disaster attached. The dream had been tense and panicked, everyone scrambling to safety and fleeing the soon-to-be crash site. What did that mean for real life?

Breath continued with questions about the dream, helping make deductions based on the few details Sheba remembered. Her friends' clothes and appearances stayed mostly the same, so it couldn't be too far into the future. She had been afraid for Father and Mother and Gyasi, but couldn't say if they were nearby or not, so location wasn't certain but probably Lalivero.

She'd do well to keep an eye out any time all eight of the Warriors of Weyard were in the same place together. That would be an obvious clue, they decided together.

She dreaded having to explain, but not as much as with her family. At least the Warriors were used to this kind of mess. Sheba finally got to her feet, stretching her stiff back and legs, and took in the panorama of the sky. The sky in Angara had been rimmed with trees that boxed in the clouds like a picture frame that covered half the painting, but her hometown's trees never grew that far, and they were far and few. she could see all the way to the river, if she climbed the right buildings.

A strange light in the sky hooked her eye and dragged it almost forcefully to the space just above the horizon past her house. Something was there. Something that didn't belong.

The day moon was never so large and bright. She squinted at it, the shape refusing to fade away or move with her vision like an afterimage. It stayed firmly in place, and if she kept her eye on it, she could swear it was expanding.

"Already?" she murmured. Breath pressed close to her side, as if seeking protection.

"What?" it whispered, nudging the edges of her mind. She pointed.

Breath's eyes went very, very, wide. "Oh."


***


The decision was quick. The prophecy had shown no sign of waiting for the Warriors to arrive, so they would have to come to it.

Breath could fly fast, Sheba reassured herself, watching the moon swell past twice its size over the next half hour as she busied herself with warning the townsfolk. Breath would find Jenna, and Jenna would find everyone else. They would assemble in the village, and they would do all they could to keep the moon from turning Lalivero into a burning crater.

Her dream, as far as she could recall, hadn't shown her what came next. She wasn't even sure it would work, but it was the only plan she had. The moon's presence was clear. The future could not be denied.

The moon had begun to dwarf the sun by the time Sheba saw the familiar ripples and psynergy of the Teleport Lapis in use.

"How bad is it?" Jenna asked, by way of starting the conversation. She didn't mention the purple enroaching on Sheba's face, or the paleness of her hair. Sheba directed Jenna's gaze up to the massive moon, the full round shape too visible behind the scarce wisps of clouds. Something felt deeply wrong about even looking at it. Behind Jenna, Isaac grimaced and Garet raised his eyebrows.

Jenna whistled, and Sheba nodded silent agreement.

"All right," Isaac said, voice calm and level as he watched Breath take off to find the others. "I've got an idea."


***


There were clearly differences from the dream, Sheba noticed. Rather than huddling in their basements, the townsfolk (Mom and Dad and Gyasi and the librarian and everyone-- ) had left their homes to set up camp some several miles out towards the Suhalla gates and passage, and the moon was already massive, filling the open sky.

Breath had found the ship, and Jenna had followed, quickly grabbing the others: the Lemurian ship had docked by the river, and Jenna had collected Mia and Ivan quickly as she explained the situation over the rattling of windows and rushing air and the looming mass above.

(Ivan seemed to know what was happening, more or less, before Jenna opened her mouth. Sheba wondered if he'd dreamed it too.)

The four Valean adepts had taken up posts on rooftops in a rough circle. Sheba and Ivan summoned up the biggest cyclones they could muster, directing them out to the shape as cushions of air, while Piers and Mia had started moving clouds and raising the river into glaciers to soften the impact.

The cyclone didn't quite reach the moon yet, but she could still focus on holding it in motion, and watched it shake and spin. Ivan sent her something mentally, a question -- are you sure this will work? -- and she didn't have an answer. The wind churned around them as she thought.

It wouldn't, would it?

The plan wasn't working. Nothing they could do would be enough, and Sheba could feel that with the same certainty as in her dream. At this rate, they were going to die here.

She considered calling the others to leave. The town could be rebuilt. It wasn't worth that sacrifice, but it was too late to flee. She could hear a thousand minds screaming in air, hurtling closer with horrible certainty, feel her family huddle together and for a moment she could taste their fear and grief as they watched the moon meet the town, and--

It stopped.

The moon hung in the air above the town, just low enough to break through the clouds, and stayed there.

Nobody moved for several seconds.

Garet was first to break the near-silence. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't think we're doing that."

Felix mumbled something unintelligible, and Piers hummed quietly as he appraised the large celestial body parked less than a mile over their heads. Isaac stared up at the moon in confusion so deep Sheba was nearly caught up in its intensity.

"What is this?" he asked, as if any of them knew.

Ivan stepped past Sheba, his mind a quiet swirl of ideas and connections. He turned to Isaac. His gaze was full of wonder.

"It's Anemos," he said, so softly Sheba almost didn't hear him.

"Of course it is!" Everyone jumped a little, and their attention turned to a Jupiter djinni floating by Ivan's shoulder. Sheba filed the priceless look on his face away for future teasing.

The djinni -- Gust, she guessed by the plain frills and chirpy voice -- was joined by Breath a moment later. "Did you think the moon was really just falling out of the sky for no reason?" Breath asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "Sheba, we talked about this! The moon is Anemos."

A second silence. Gust shook its head, and Sheba could practically see the processes as everyone considered the idea.

Felix sighed. "That explains... a lot."

"You're really sure it's the Jupiter clan there?" Piers asked, for his sake and that of half the party.

"Who else could it be?" Gust replied, its voice the rumbling of a gale on the horizon. "I can feel them even now."

"And I can see them!" Breath added, making a joyful little loop midair.

That comment, along with a faint buzz of psynergy from above, alerted them all just in time to see a small dark shape emerge from the underside of the moon. The stone slid away in cleanly cut panels, and the shape descended, growing clearer with each second.

The air shimmered as it approached, and the afternoon light revealed a smooth violet bubble around a simple platform that seemed unaffected by the rush of air around it. Four strangers stood inside, in unfamiliar clothes. Their hair was white as snow and moved like feathers more than hair, and their skin, in the few spots it became visible, glinted purple and crystalline.

The platform slowed to a stop just a few feet above the second-story rooftops, and hovered in place. A door came into sharp definition at the front, starting the size of a fist and expanding until a whole person could walk through.

One did. They had long hair, and their lavender and white robes felt alien compared to the town below. Nobody spoke as they stepped forward.

"Citlalmina?" Their questioning voice echoed through the town. The accent was strange, and the vowels and consonants sounded distorted, like the speaker was underwater. "Are you here?"

The stranger smiled warmly, and looked directly at her.

"It's time to come back home."