[Candidate] [Rider] [Frenzy]

The air smelled of grass and earth and damp wood. Ancient, gnarled trees shadowed the lush earth and lent the place an otherworldly feel, full of darkness and mystery. Birds, unaware of the happenings far below them, twittered and told of hatchlings and food and flying, the main topics of conversation for most avians. A squirrel, busily stuffing a newly-discovered nut into its secret cache, stopped suddenly and abandoned its hard-found treasure for the safety of the tree-tops far above.

Somewhere, deep below the tiny mammal's hiding place, in a dark, musty log-hollow, a baby cries.

Loud music full of bells and drums and gaily-whining strings filled the hall as people dances in intricate steps and circles, laughing and throwing their arms and skirts and long, untethered hair around the room as loudly and gleefully as they could possibly manage without injury. Even the children raced around the walls, imitating their parents in all but consumption of the strong-tasting fermented drink that the adults seemed to enjoy so much. Older children were enticed into good behaviour for the night with promises of a taste, and those too young to indulge were taken to bed with a few grudging parents as their eyes began to droop.

A small, rotund, and cheerily attractive woman had given birth not a week earlier, and despite her wishes, said her farewells before her cheeks grew too ruddy and her spirits too high. Her little daughter Aralie was fussing for her cot and Anala couldn't refuse her. The woman's husband stayed to supervise their three elder children, and Anala left humming a lively tune.

The night was dark but the air was warmed with a musty, dry heat rising from the sun-drenched ground and filled with the smells of midnight and summer and sweet, nocturnal flowers. As she walked merrily towards the house her family had lived in for many generations, Anala felt a prickle run down her spine and shivered unexpectedly.

"What a funny thing to do on such a warm night," she murmured to Aralie, unconcerned. "Someone walked across my grave, I suppose." Shrugging, she continued home, but a vague feeling of unease stayed with her.

Home was a welcome sight, and the short woman opened the unlocked door gratefully, sneaking a wary glance out into the night before closing it firmly behind her.

Long ago, one of the ancient trees had fallen. Crashing to the forest floor, it took with it many smaller saplings and a good number of bird nests and squirrel hollows, but in doing so, created an entirely new world beneath its branches and termite-ridden gnarls. Insects, reptiles, small mammals and even some ground-dwelling birds had made the once-mighty obelisk their home. All these, and one more.

"Hush, my little one," a small, sweet voice whispered soothingly. "Don't cry, my love. It's all going to be wonderful very soon, you'll see. You're going to be so loved. So lucky."

He was barely a foot tall, with short black hair that stuck out in every which way and deep-seeing amazingly green almond-eyes edged by luxurious dark lashes. High, sharp cheek bones and a delicate nose added an almost feminine appeal to his face, and a dark pink thin-lipped mouth whispered sweet nothings and grand promises to the squalling child.

The Dark Faerie, Tevaberiel, sported glistening dragonfly's wings and wore a black makeshift tunic, ratted and torn around the edges, and black leggings made in the same manner. He was beautiful. None could resist his promises of love and happiness, not even the small child before him.

The baby, birthed just a week before, had downy, ash-blonde curls and big, misty blue eyes that would clear to a darker colour. She thrashed her arms and legs, disturbing the straw-filled hollow in which she lay, and whinged and grunted, still upset at being stolen from the warmth of her familiar bed, and confused and hungry - but the small Faerie was enticing.

"There," Tevaberiel whispered, smiling sweetly. "There you go, you're happier now, aren't you, my beauty?"

The baby looked, bemused, at the little creature and blinked several times as if trying to clear her vision. A child that young cannot yet focus on even an object directly before her, but she knew he was there. And at some base level, she could feel him touching her mind. Those clouded eyes closed slowly as something began to happen.

Subtly, slowly, with a whisper and a touch a gentle persuasion from the Faerie, the child began to grow. Though not physically. Her mind evolved from that of an infant to that of a fully aware human animal in the body of a chubby, innocent child. She had no intelligence, nothing to do with that consciousness, but when she opened her eyes - now clear and vivid blue - she knew. She saw the Dark Faerie before her and recognise him for who and what he was. That much she did know. But she wasn't afraid. This strange, beautiful creature had offered her love and tenderness and given her a Gift of great significance. What was there for be afraid of?

Tevaberiel smiled tenderly. He truly did love the child, although he had only stolen her a few hours earlier. He loved all his children, and knew them all by sight. Travelling through a foggy night he could spot one from the heights of the darkened sky and greet them with his mind. This little girl was no different.

He had been stealing and Changing babies for as long as he could remember. And he was not a young Faerie. It was not his job, or his duty, but his passion. Tevaberiel would watch their mothers closely, catch thoughts and emotions form the unborn children and from all the world, he would choose two so similar their mothers would hardly know the difference. His preference was beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed innocents, but he would accept any child eagerly. He would take a child from one mother, grant it his Gift, and give it to the other.

And now the time had come for this latest chosen child to follow him into the blissful darkness. He reached out a slender, long-fingered hand and touched her forehead.

With a smile - partly from the drink and partly with love for her newest daughter - Anala laid the sleepy infant in her cot and bent down to kiss her soft and rounded cheek. The cot was in the adults' room until a new bedroom could be added onto the house for the growing family. But Anala was not going to bed quite yet. She would not leave the house untended with her daughter inside, but had some darning she had been meaning to finish for some days. Humming softly to herself, the mother left the door ajar and closed the lantern.

Aralie fell into her dreams quickly, her tummy full of warm mother's-milk and her mind spinning with colours and sounds and new experiences of the day just passed. She did not wake when the window slid up, and she did not cry when she was lifted from the bed.

Tevaberiel, his strength for his size not uncommon amongst his kind, held the two virtually identical babies simultaneously with the aid of a touch of magick, whispered in each of their ears, and smoothly lowered the Changeling child into the cot.

The Changeling watched with full awareness as the Faerie carried the second infant through the window with a soft rush of night air. Silently, the shutters closed behind him and then they were gone.

After completing the deed with the second child, Tevaberiel was alone once more in the warm darkness of the fallen tree. He thought about the vast number of babies he had Changed with a sense of pride and satisfaction he always felt after such an evening. His Gift was one not of pure Evil, but of Mischief and Mayhem and the promise of Evil to come. It was the power of suggestion and planted ideas. He took an innocent baby and gave it awareness, then planted the seed that would make them into the kind of person he liked. The kind that would gleefully pull off a fly's wings and use a piece of glass to burn an ant's nest. The kind that would grow up and extend his or her skills to other, great things. In his time, Tevaberiel had created heroes and monsters, from great mythical figures to naughty children who lit one too many fires.

And though he would never tire of spreading his Gift through the world, Tevaberiel wanted more. Hallows Eve was hastily approaching, and rumours of a great dragon hatching floated through the land. He would search for one more pair of changeling children, and then he would travel to the land of the dragons: The Kshau Protectorate. Then he would see.