"I suppose I can't talk you out of it, then?" the female changeling asked, her front teeth chomping down on her lower jaw as she awaited the undesirable, certain answer.
"Sorry mom, but this is something I have to do. If it were anyone else, they'd never even take our apology into consideration," Aurus said quietly, reluctantly agreeing to his mother's fears.
"The boy's right, dear," his father chimed in calmly, standing next to Aurus with pride. "We've always known our son wasn't like other changelings... We raised him differently. Don't you think that maybe this might be what he was born for?"
Aurus' mother sighed in defeat, clearly outnumbered. "It's dangerous out there, you know..." she began, but Aurus cut her off with a calm, confident smile.
"I know, mom. But I've always dreamed of going to see the world. Even better if I can change it in the process. It has to be me, and I have to do it alone. Until the other races no longer regard us as monsters, the work rests squarely on me. And I think I'm ready," he finished warmly.
His mother teared up a bit. Aria was too caught up in bragging to her friends that she was now a princess, and had opted to stay out of the adult discussion, so only his mother and father remained to see Aurus off. He had stopped for one final visit at his home in Rikkit, for he would be preparing and departing for his journey from the castle in the capital.
"Just promise me you'll come home safe? I know you're the king now, but you're still my boy, and I worry about you," she said, nuzzling him gently. His father joined in, rubbing his head and smiling with a semi-sad expression.
"I know, and you'll both always be my parents. I love you guys, and I promise I'll be home soon, safe and sound," he vowed, hugging back. A knock at the door brought them apart, and Aurus knew it was his guards, come to collect him.
Smiling and waving, he made his way outside. The door closed behind him on the worried, but still smiling faces of his parents, and he sighed to clear his chest of the already gathering feeling of homesickness.
"Your highness..." one of his guards prompted, buzzing his wings to illustrate that they should be taking off soon.
"Yes, I know. And please, just call me Aurus."
"The council wanted to send you out like a hero, you know. Fanfare and all," Korrick harrumphed, wandering about the royal study. "I put that one away though. It's not much your style, I don't think."
Aurus sighed, sitting on one of the room's many overstuffed couches, doing his best to find some way to get comfortable without drowning in the furniture. "Well, you're right about that much," he admitted, finally giving up and joining Korrick on the floor. "I really don't think I'm cut out to be royalty. My body's not built to handle that much magic; it just makes me feel sick," he grumbled.
Korrick just chuckled slightly. "Well, as I've said, you'll adapt. And you told me yourself you're not very skilled with magic on the whole. Part of it might just be that you don't know how to control it inside yourself, not just when casting it. But there's no better teacher than time or experience."
Aurus nodded, looking out one of the windows to the capital below. It was beautiful city, as far as he was concerned. Nothing was round or boring, nothing simply black and white. Lights dazzled him as sunlight bounced off green glass windows or polished slate roofs. The city was a wondrous maze of colors and shapes, and even from such a lofty perch as this he could not tell where some roads ended and others began.
A part of him didn't want to leave; wanted to stay and revel in the sight of that city. His city now, he realized. He subjugated that greedy notion quickly, however. His city, but his to protect and guide, not to dominate or terrorize.
"Aurus?" Korrick asked politely, sensing no reply coming from his king.
"Sorry Korrick," Aurus replied sheepishly, jumping as he was jolted from his musings. "I was just thinking that it's a long ways to travel... and a long time to be gone. I'd miss it more, but to be honest, things are changed here now. I'll never live the quiet life I used to. Perhaps it's best, even for me, to stay away for a bit. As much as this mission is for the people, Korrick, I know I need it too," he said quietly.
The old changeling looked upon his young king and smiled in understanding. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to sort things out for yourself, Aurus. If you're worried that it's a selfish notion, let that go. In the end, you are doing what is right for all of our kind."
Aurus and Korrick had grown closer in the week or so since the coronation. Aurus had refused to be sly-talked by any other politicians or councilmen, preferring Korrick's wise counsel and good company to all else in the capital. He was beginning to warm up to a few others, but only in the elderly changeling did Aurus find a willing friend, not just a follower. And so it was with a heavy sigh of resignation that Aurus accepted his advice, letting his worries go.
"You're right, of course." Aurus walked over to a low table, Korrick following closely behind. They had outlined their plans on the map that rested there, had decided together the best route for Aurus to take into Equestria. Though the council had argued loudly that he should go to the ponies' capital directly, Aurus had turned them down. It would be better to test the waters in a smaller village. A changeling would be reported to the capital either way, he had pointed out, and so their politicians would learn of him in due time.
The leaders were not who he was most concerned with anyways. It was the common folk who truly needed to understand. So Aurus and Korrick had decided together on a place present on their old, dated maps of Equestria. A small village called Ponyville, not very far from the capital. Aurus was to fly through the Red Gorge, then on past Lone Peak and into Everfree forest. From there he would be on his own, using his best judgement to meet with and engage the populace.
"I'm in for a long flight," he groaned good-naturedly, his eyes taking in the dotted path of his travels for the umpteenth time. The energy that came with his position was bubbling miserably within him, practically begging for that airborne marathon to help let it loose.
Korrick smiled, sensing that perhaps Aurus was a bit eager. "Then maybe it's best if you go now."
Aurus smiled, having desired just such an answer to his problems. "And the council, the people?"
"They know about your mission, and all the nation is waiting with bated breath to see what will become of it. I'll take care of things here in your absence," Korrick assured him.
Smiling, Aurus made his way out onto the balcony. "Thank you, Korrick. I'm lucky to have such a loyal advisor."
"A loyal friend, your majesty," Korrick chuckled, winking one of his blue lenses as Aurus smiled and flared his wings, which had grown larger in the last few days, though not by much. "The rest of our kind and I are behind you. Wherever you might go, you will not be completely alone."
With a nod of gratitude and an eager grin, Aurus was off the ledge of the balcony, diving down out of sight. By the time Korrick reached the railing, Aurus was only a small black dot in the afternoon sky, already making his way far to the east.
Everfree was a beautiful and mysterious place. Aurus loved every uniquely twisted and gnarled tree, every fanged set of eyes in the darkness. He was too enthralled to be fearful, too taken in to be nervous of his mission. It had taken him all of the previous evening to close the distance between their nations, nearly twelve full hours of hard flying. Even so, he felt balanced; neither drained nor overly full of energy. And that suited him just fine.
It was dark still, the morning very early yet. Dawn was a couple of hours off, and though his wings ached and his mind hungered for sleep, he knew he had to make himself a place to lie for the night. That thought at last brought some cautious notions to his mind. It was all well and good while he was alert, but there was no telling what would become of him in such a foreign place if his guard was down.
He could feel the energy of his people, many leagues away, already beginning to fill back up within him. A slow drizzle of magic, pushing the limits within himself back to the fill-line. Ever since the magic had been filtering into his body like that, he had discovered the misfortune that he couldn't sleep unless he expended it. No matter the exhaustion of his mind, he would simply toss and turn all night unless something was done about it.
Between his latest worries and the fear of another sleepless night, he determined that designing a shelter was in order. He wandered about, using his magic to create a light at the end of his horn, until at last he found a cliff deep within the woods, stemming from the wall of one of the many canyons reaching out from Lone Peak in the northeast. A waterfall dropped nearby, a soothing and enjoyable sound. The pool it created filtered off in a shallow stream, fueling the various bogs within the forest with a steady supply of fresh water.
Aurus came to the quiet realization that everything was in equilibrium here, causing the place to hold and never change its form. The bogs existed because the water coming in was equal to the water being consumed or draining out. The wildlife was diverse, because they were dependent on one another. Where something truly independent, such as a changeling or pony society existed, it was rare to find any other creatures, for their dominance often forced out lesser life forms.
He smiled as he considered it, his new home for the time being. He was displeased that his arrival might upset the ancient, careful balance of such a place, but he was determined to affect it all as little as possible. Returning to his work, he found a series of small caves that branched off near the waterfall. Sounds within warned him that these were already inhabited, and he was not overly fond of having questionable neighbors so nearby in the wee hours of the night.
He followed the canyon further in, until at last it reached a small clearing. The ruins of a once grand castle lingered there, deeply scarred by the weathering of time, though still keenly beautiful. It was a different kind of art from that of his own people; sweeping and elegant, all the stonework rounded and smooth, not angular or jagged.
It had a feeling of security about it, an aura of timelessness that kept most things respectfully at bay. Determined that this would be his station, his outpost in foreign lands, Aurus set about with his work. He wandered inside, moving stone slabs and shattered glass aside, piling pieces of once-grand pillars to form the low stone walls of his makeshift house within the ancient castle.
At last, as the pink tinge of dawn stained the world's edge, he had crafted a simple stone dwelling out of the pieces of the past. He had no doubt that this was some ancient pony structure, and so he paid it due respect, careful to have left all of the pieces undamaged as he piled and arranged them. It was little more than ten feet deep in any direction, and only about seven feet high. It boasted no windows on its walls, and only a solitary door, also made of stone, too heavy for most creatures to move on their own. It gave him a sense of security, though he knew the safety of his home was compromised by the roof.
It was made from shards of stained glass windows, fused together by arcane means into a single plate, which rested atop the uneven stone walls of his 'home'. In the morning, it would allow the sun to filter through, waking him and casting beautiful arrays of light all about.
Satisfied, and now magically exhausted, Aurus at last made his way inside. There was no furniture, no adornments. A humble house for the king of his nation. And as he fell into slumber, he could not have been more pleased.
He could see it from the edge of the woods, exactly where his maps had indicated. Even from this distance he could tell that it was a much larger town than he had anticipated. Still, his goals weren't about to change; this community needed to be taught the value of his people, needed to be shown their worth.
He sighed as he felt his heart rate elevating. He was nervous, of course. He knew full well that what he was about to do would be borderline catastrophic. Ponies would likely panic and flee, some might even try to attack him.
He had decided during his flight over that he would simply walk into town. It wouldn't do him any good to expose himself slowly; sightings of a changeling might not be so traumatic to the ponies, but it wouldn't help him accomplish his goals. It did him no favors to simply be seen. He needed to be present among them.
Simply walk into town. He gritted his teeth and willed his knees to stop shaking. He wasn't going to disguise himself, though his instincts begged him to transform himself into the very first pony he met, and then hide them away somewhere. He needed to be himself. Part of all of this was appearing exactly as he was, showing that he had nothing to hide from them.
He willed his legs to move, heading down the dirt road that led from Everfree to Ponyville. It wasn't a long trek, but the possibility of running into somebody on the way nagged at him. That would undo nearly everything he had planned. Again his instincts urged him to disguise himself, at least until he was in town, and again he fought them hard. He kept on at a quick pace, glad to see that this road looked very seldom-traveled.
He knew he could get there faster by flying, but the journey on hoof served two purposes. First, flying into town would cause immediate problems, might get ponies thinking that another invasion was on the way. Walking was more... normal. Secondly, it gave him time to try and settle his nerves.
At last he entered the edge of town. Ponies were everywhere, talking in their customary, lilting language. All changelings were fluent in the languages of other cultures, a mandatory education for infiltrating other societies. He listened idly to what they were saying, letting it take his mind off of things a little. At first nobody paid him any mind. He was black, and black ponies weren't unheard of, and he had a similar shape. If anyone caught him out the corner of their eye, or noticed his outline in the background, they would never notice. Anyone deep in conversation was sure to let him pass by.
That obliviousness was shattered as a pony, out on her daily errands, nearly ran him over. She was a light cream-yellow, her mane fiery orange and curly. Aurus backed up a polite step to let her regain her balance, smiling pleasantly at her to show it didn't bother him. The truth was that it did; he was finally making first contact, and he was more frightened and nervous than he had ever been.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," she began, not looking at him and bending down to pick up a bag she had dropped, holding the strap in her mouth. "I didn't mean to-" she stopped abruptly, facing his fanged grin, which in changeling circles would have been considered charming and polite. Judging by the way her eyes widened and the bag fell from her suddenly hanging jaw, that was clearly not a view ponies shared.
The signs were way too obvious for Aurus to ignore, and so he let his smile fade and sighed, mentally preparing for the coming catastrophe.
The mare screamed loudly and turned, running from him, shouting 'changeling' over and over. Everyone in that corner of town immediately latched onto her sudden distress, trying to find the source. When they finally spotted him, they too began shouting and running, all heading to their homes, or joining one of the many groups making their way towards the center of town, instinctively looking for strength in numbers.
Aurus just stood by, heartbroken and ashamed. What had his people done to them? How could simply smiling at a pony cause so much dread and fear? He couldn't even begin to estimate the trauma that the changeling invasion in Canterlot had caused, and he certainly had no idea how much the pony media had allowed the story to evolve. Even ponies who had not been present at the royal wedding had heard tales of changelings and how terrible they were by now.
He followed cautiously, keeping his own pace and letting them run from him. Patience was key here, he knew; it would be the deciding factor. By the time he had reached what he imagined was the center of town, there wasn't a pony in sight. He could hear them though; huddled around corners of buildings or behind locked doors, talking in low panicked voices to one another.
Listening carefully, he began to sort out a few key conversations, most of which were very similar.
"Look at him. He's monstrous!" one older mare whispered to her friends.
"Why is he just standing there?" a younger male asked of nobody in particular.
"Is he the only one?" someone finally chimed, realizing at last that it was just Aurus by himself, standing idly in the center of town.
Aurus had his attention ripped away as a shop bell chimed, the front door swinging open as a grey pegasus with a blonde mane walked out, humming to herself and carrying a paper bag in her mouth. He immediately determined that whoever she was, she hadn't yet caught on to all the chaos. She stopped moving when she realized that it was oddly quiet, and finally noticed him, her golden eyes taking a few seconds to focus on his position.
Aurus braced himself for another panic attack, doing everything in his power to fight his nature and not to smile at her; that seemed to have an opposite effect around here.
He nearly toppled in surprise when all she did was wave, smiling around the bag clamped in her mouth. Confused beyond all reason, but not about to waste this opportunity, he waved back. He was even more fascinated as she began to trot over. Again, he could hear the rushed, confused whispers of hidden ponies.
"What is she doing?"
"Derpy, you idiot..."
She stopped directly in front of him, bending low to set the bag on the ground. When her head came back up, she fixed him with a goofy grin, her eyes not quite in line. Aurus though that the asymmetry was wonderful; unique and interesting. Unable to help himself, he smiled back, infected by her carefree expression.
"Hi there!" she chimed pleasantly.
"Hello," he returned, the accent from his own language somewhat affecting his speech. He didn't have any spells active to alter his voice, since he wasn't currently disguised.
"Wow, you sound funny! Kind of cool though. Sorry if that was rude," she finished suddenly, looking forlornly at her hooves as if she had already resigned herself to being yelled at for pointing out that he talked funny. She stayed like that for a few seconds, clearly expecting a reprimand.
Aurus laughed lightly, smiling wider and more sincerely. "Not rude at all, actually. I'm sure you noticed, but I'm not exactly from around here. What's your name?" he asked politely.
She looked back up at him as if she were confused at first, not quite catching on that he wasn't offended. She finally snatched that little detail up though and grinned, doing a little bounce side to side in her enthusiasm. "Nope, definitely never seen you before. My name's Ditzy, but lots of ponies call me Derpy instead. I don't mind it much. What's yours?"
Derpy? Well, near as he could tell, that word didn't translate to anything, so he just assumed it was some kind of arbitrary thing. Best just to call her by her real name, then. "Nice to meet you Ditzy. My name is Aurus." Pronouncing his name using the pony inflection of the various vowels wasn't that difficult, and in fact they were nearly identical, luckily for him. For many others of his kind, the names didn't translate well.
"Wow, that's a pretty name. Well, I hate to say so, but I have to go. I deliver the mail for Ponyville, and I'm on lunch right now, so I need to get back to it. Nice meeting you though, and I hope we get to talk again sometime soon!" she said cheerfully, her apology very upbeat, as if there was just no way around it and she expected him not to take it personally.
He certainly didn't. He was about to say something to her when a shout from across the way interrupted him.
"Derpy, get away from that changeling!" a purple unicorn shouted, her eyes narrowed dangerously and her horn pointed directly at Aurus, glowing gently. The orange-maned pony Aurus had bumped into earlier was standing behind her, clearly still fearful of him.
Whoever this purple unicorn was, she was likely some kind of guard for the town. It was only natural that somebody had gone to fetch her, Aurus concluded. He was about to tell Derpy to step aside so she wouldn't get caught up in the oncoming mess, but quickly found she could take care of herself. In a way.
"Yep, was just about to!" she called back cheerfully, waving at the purple mare. "We had a nice talk, but I'm on lunch, so I already told him I have to go! You can talk to him now if you want, I'm all done!"
The purple mare brought her head back up, no longer pointing her horn at Aurus. Her expression was caught somewhere between completely confused and stunned.
Figuring that it was all sorted out, Derpy spread her wings and trotted a few paces away before taking off, bag in her mouth once more. "Bye Aurus!" she mumbled around the paper container.
Aurus just waved, thinking it might benefit him to pretend whatever had just happened with the purple mare had never occurred. "Bye Ditzy! Have fun at work, and enjoy your lunch!"
The purple mare down the street actually fell over from surprise, taking a few moments to right herself. Once she was back on her hooves she charged right in, her face once again a mask of skepticism, ready to explode into anger at any moment. "Alright then, what did you do to Derpy?"
"Nothing," Aurus replied sincerely, looking at her without concern. It was best to let her anger fizzle out, not encourage it with a reaction. In the meantime, answering her questions honestly might help to alleviate her concerns some. "Just like she said; we talked. We introduced ourselves, though we didn't get very far past that. Still, she seems like a nice lady, if a bit on the odd side. That's just part of her charm though," he said. He knew that the small-talk was highly unnecessary, but it might help to inject a sense of normalcy between himself and this town guard.
She reeled back like she had been slapped, finally coming back down on her front hooves with an eyebrow quirked. "You just... talked," she stated as much as asked.
"Yes," he replied with a curt nod.
"No terrorizing?" she asked with a slight scowl.
"Well, she was a little forward, but otherwise I'm fine," he replied jokingly, trying to find some way to lighten the mood.
The purple unicorn had no idea what to do with that teasing comment, so instead she took it literally and growled at him. "No, I'm asking if you terrorized her."
He sighed. "Look, the only creature being terrorized here is me," he said, pointing to himself to indicate that she was the tyrant here. He wasn't pleased to be stereotyped so quickly, even though he had expected it.
That backed her off a few steps, and she looked almost sheepish. "W-well then, what about all the ponies hiding?" she stammered, clearly looking for some change of discussion.
"I honestly have no idea. I imagine they're just going by what they've been told about changelings. All I did was walk into town from Everfree forest," he said, putting a hoof over his heart to show he meant it honestly.
The purple mare turned to the orange-maned one and quirked an eyebrow again. "Is that true? He hasn't done anything?"
She shook her head after a moment's thought, clearly surprised by that realization. "No, he really did just walk into town. I bumped into him, but that's not really his fault, I guess," she stammered, her voice going out as the purple pony scowled again, clearly frustrated that there wasn't any trouble at all.
"Then what in the name of Celestia is going on here?" she growled, puffing hot breath out her nose in anger. "You are supposed to be evil," she said, pointing at Aurus as if he had let her down somehow.
"I'm sorry, but I'm just not," he said flatly, insulted despite the fact that he had expected ponies felt that way about his kind. "We're not the monsters you clearly think we are."
She seemed to puzzle over that, her anger abating slightly. "Well if you're not here to make us all miserable, then what do you want?" she asked at length, still being coarse with him. "Who are you, anyways?"
"My name is Aurus, and I'm the new changeling king," he said quietly, loud enough so that only she could hear him. Her eyes went wide at that. "The queen you might remember has been locked away for her misdeeds against your people and mine. You might say I'm her replacement," he finished lamely. He knew that it wasn't a very convincing case, nor did he appear very royal.
She trotted closer, clearly feeling as he did that this discussion didn't need to be overheard by everyone just yet. "Alright then, Aurus, let's suppose that's true. What if you are the changeling king? That still doesn't explain why you're here," she pointed out.
"I'm here on a mission of peace, believe that or not," he said with a small smile. "To try and correct all the damage that Chrysalis caused."
"Then why here? Why not Canterlot?" she asked, unwilling to counter any of his motivations without evidence. He'd been doing a good job of turning everything around on her so far, so that was a road better not tread for now.
"If I walked into Canterlot, do you think they'd be this considerate? You almost magicked me yourself, if I'm not mistaken. And as you can see, I didn't exactly come with anyone to guard me," he said gruffly, looking around to illustrate that he was indeed alone.
"Fair point," she conceded, shaking her head as she realized she had just agreed with him. "You realize that word will still reach them, and when the princesses arrive they might not be so 'considerate', as you put it."
"A risk I'm ready and willing to take. I won't fight you, or them. I just want my chance to appeal to you all on behalf of my people. To show you that we're not all monsters like her," he said with distaste, scowling at his reference to their traitor-queen.
That seemed to convince her a bit. "Are you staying in town?" she asked, clearly not a fan of that notion.
"I have a place that I set up in the ruins of an old castle in Everfree. Not the nicest neighborhood, but I can stay there as the people here get used to me," he pledged.
She nodded. "And what if I told you not to come back?" she asked idly, her eyes now full of curiosity.
"I would anyways. You don't understand what this mission means to my people; this is our hope for a better future. Peace with those we have angered. We're looking to earn the love of your people this time, not to harvest or steal it," he said quietly, his expression and voice both the pinnacle of determination.
The purple mare smiled, as convinced as she could be for the time being. "Alright then. Only one rule; you need to let me know whenever you're in town. I don't trust you yet, and I want to keep an eye on you. My name is Twilight Sparkle," she said, her voice now loud enough for the other ponies, who were all peeking out of their hiding places, to hear her.
"Fine by me. I'm Aurus Marz. I know you might not feel the same, but it's a pleasure to meet you," he said, letting his voice return to normal levels as well.
"You'd be surprised, I think. Just because I'm nervous about you doesn't mean I hate you," she said with a small smile. "Now then, why don't you come with me? I'm interested to hear more about this mission of yours... among other things."
Aurus just nodded, ignoring the sudden mutterings of the now revealed crowds of ponies. No doubt they were wondering why their town guard was offering to escort him around.
As he followed her to the east end of town and into a building that appeared just to be a large, hollow tree, he allowed himself some time to reflect on the events so far.
It certainly could have gone much, much worse.