Changeling Heart and the New Moon
Hills, stone and scrawny conifers gave way to rich loam and lowland woods as the days passed. Four in all. Through each Luna had became increasingly reclusive, almost despondently so. It had gone on to the point that Chrysalis caught only the occasional glimpse of the alicorn, always by the half-lights of morning or evening, and only ever at a distance. More and more so she took to being as a wraith, haunting the fringes of the changelings’ procession. If Luna ever slept, Chrysalis never saw.
What brought on this change in her, the Queen couldn’t say. With Luna there were a hundred likely reasons and as many unlikely ones. As always, Luna made for an intriguing puzzle. It was a change to be wary of though, first and foremost. Despite everything that could be called progress and understanding between them, the night princess had already proved herself more violent than her reigning sister, and less in command of her emotions. If Luna wanted to keep to herself, Chrysalis would not push her from that privacy unnecessarily.
The alicorn stayed just near enough, by choice or happy coincidence, for the band of changelings to feed from her. If the constant drain upon Luna’s heart contributed to her behaviour... well, there was nothing to be done about it. To the last, the changelings kept their tasting to a minimum, instinctively wary of the princess.
Except for one. After that first night Chrysalis had commanded Surreal to remain by her side, and by day she proved herself a fine example of duty. Indeed, the morning after that forbidden visit Surreal had faced the day with an alacrity unusual for any changeling, but through the course of the day this had sunk, then sunk further still into a melancholy equally unusual. The second night Surreal had done the same again, and the next day had proved a repeat of that pattern.
The third night Surreal had lain there, feigning sleep, not realizing her Queen did the same. Chrysalis snuck onto her a soft enchantment, and so Surreal’s sleep became genuine. Luna had no visitor that night. The coming morning had seen Surreal weak, temperamental and slightly feverish. When Chrysalis alluded to this her attendant played ignorant, or more worrying still genuinely didn’t notice the subtle bait of her Queen’s words. When Chrysalis called her out bluntly Surreal snapped at her with such brief, savage denial that it put pause to the big changeling’s thoughts.
Chrysalis could only wonder on it grimly. No other changeling would, for Surreal became as much a pariah as Luna, though for one it was self-imposed, for the other it went went unnoticed. For her part, the Queen felt too piteous for the increasingly wretched changeling to chastise her harshly for the outburst, but all the same the rest of that day was spent putting up with Surreal apologizing profusely, seeming always at the edge of openly weeping.
The next night to pass, Chrysalis again imposed a magical sleep on her unsuspecting little subject, than considered the tiny body in oblivious repose before her. Carefully, after much deliberation and with unblinking eyes she drew forth the jewels, those strange, enigmatic jewels wrought from Luna’s own heart.
Of course Chrysalis had brought them, she could trust their mysteries to no other, least of all Luna. All the same, her initial thrill and interest had steadily been shaded with suspicion. Were they alive or weren’t they?
In a way they were, but then again fire had a lot of things in common with life too. And didn’t ponies have an adage about playing with fire?
She brushed the thought aside. What Chrysalis did know for certain was that they were crafted from Luna’s being, and here she had a subject becoming increasingly attuned to the alicorn. Just as the princess was more powerful, more intense than any normal pony, so too did the effects on Surreal compound all the more profoundly, all the more quickly.
With barely a thought they spun a silent orbit above the sleeping changeling. With a little more effort Chrysalis interposed her magic between those of the jewels and that intrinsic to Surreal. Like breathing, feeding could be both passive and active; even in sleep a changeling could gently siphon off nearby founts of love.
Oblivious to it all, Surreal slept peacefully, but even under the delicate touch of magic her breathing might have been ever so slightly too shallow, too quick.
Chrysalis stared a long, sad moment at her little attendant. It seemed unfair that all the choices she could think of were bad ones. All the same, she choose.
“Maybe I’m not worth your trust after all,” she whispered to no one in particular. Then, carefully, she let the love of the blue gem spill past her defense. Like a newborn, Surreal instinctively opened herself to it, stretching and murmuring happily in her sleep as it poured into her. Of the three, the blue was the least forceful, and even then it would be much too potent for a single ordinary changeling to feed from unchecked, let alone for poor Surreal, hardly in control of herself.
And so, with an unflinching gaze, Chrysalis did it for her. When she felt Surreal had had enough, she tapered off the flow. The sleeping changeling mumbled and shifted, then fell back into peaceful sleep.
Maybe it was holding these powerful loves at bay against her own habits, or maybe it was just the culmination of all the things that had happened since Luna’s arrival. All the changes, all the thoughts, all the struggles. The alicorn certainly managed to twist everything around her into intrigue.
It rose up in Chrysalis, a dull anger. She was angry that her simple world had been toppled, she was angry that for the first time in her considerable life she’d had to drip-feed her unwitting subject poison. She was angry that she couldn’t even have plain old furious anger anymore, the sort with shouting and violence, because too much hinged on who she was and what she was, and that too enraged her. She’d learned to think, really think and it only gave her more things to think about.
No, Chrysalis couldn’t have the wild flames of impassioned wrath anymore. Instead anger settled and seethed in her like the calm coals beneath, nevertheless hotter than the open flame. In those coals, in all those reasons to be angry she intended to forge a new path for the changelings and carve a bloody chunk out of this world for their own.
If only she could resolve not to pummel Luna into the dirt next time she saw her, because too much of this rested on the elusive alicorn. And that too angered Chrysalis.
The milky white streaks of colour seethed across the black jewel, the darkness of it redoubling its endless, futile efforts of drowning out the white entirely, almost seeming to throb in tandem with her feelings. With an unrepentant flash of power the Queen of changelings banished the three jewels back into the depths of her magic.
Sleep was a long time coming.
Night swung back around to day, as it is prone to do. This one found that Beetle was not a happy changeling. This was accurate pretty much all the time, but more poignantly so since the expedition began. He was caught between a rock and a hard place, or more specifically and much to his misfortune, Chrysalis and Luna. Rocks seemed the better option by far.
Still, there was nothing for it. His Queen had arisen in a foul mood. Between this, the disgraced Surreal she kept practically leashed to her side and her own natural charm, Chrysalis’ temper was very short. She’d decided he was the changeling to go get Luna and bring her back into the fold for a friendly chat. Beetle had been happy enough to leave the pony to stay out of their way, except of course he wasn’t happy per se, just nominally satisfied that she was somewhat gone. Now he had to go get her, and he still chafed about how it’d gone the first time.
The terrain itself reflected how much closer they had come to pony occupied lands. The changelings followed the beginnings of a path through the woods, trodding blackening leaves underhoof. Lately Luna’s haunt had been the thicker trees off to either side of the way. Equestria boasted many terrible and wondrous monsters, least of all ponies, and there was already too many things that could unsettle the changelings, least of all a dangerous alicorn skulking in the shadows.
But that was his Queen’s skulking alicorn somewhere out there, and Beetle had to go in and get her. He felt the apprehension a knight might feel at the mouth of a dragon’s cave, only grittier. His natural armour shone for the part, but only as a black knight. His caustic cynicism could be considered his sword and shield.
Hoisting it high with grumbles and mutters, Beetle flew on buzzing wings between the trees. The sooner he found her, the sooner he could go back to staying well away from Luna.
The low thrumming of changeling wings rose and fell several times before she even considered letting them find her. Luna was not easily found when she did not want to be found. Even without the power and grace of an alicorn she would have been subtle in the utmost.
Once the sound came quite close, accompanied by the gruff barking calls of Beetle, though there was no question of whether or not he’d actually find her. It wasn’t quite an illusion, and it wasn’t quite a preternaturally deep shadow, but her spell drew elements from both. The heart spoke straight into the mind.
Everyone else’s, to be precise. It whispered don’t see me and, lo and behold, they wouldn’t. The midnight darkness Luna shrouded herself in was for her own comfort. After marking her page in the journal, she sighed and let the enchantments dissolve. In the sudden return of light eyes black as oil blinked, then reclaimed their natural colours.
A royal princess of Equestria, when not being elusive, was rather hard to miss, especially in vastly empty woodland. Beetle still took the better part of a minute to find her on his next pass.
“You! The Queen wants you.”
Luna snorted with regal disdain, but as always it came across with impossible elegance.
“What of it? Do you think I am a plaything at her beck and call?”
Beetle sneered. “Yes.”
If he’d aimed to upset her, Luna’s pointed smile gave him no such satisfaction, only a fair deal of dread. “Well then. Let us go see what she wants of us.” The night princess stood silently, but two strokes of her wings struck the air like genteel thunderclaps. Folding her feathers once more, she forced the changeling to lead at a sedate pace, back into the tumult of their misadventure.
Chrysalis loomed. It was in her nature to be a loomer. Beetle lead the princess to her and the Queen of changelings looked to her little moon. She spared her changeling a fleeting dismissal.
“You can go,” was all she said.
So he did, wordlessly.
A casual glance over his shoulder said much. They stood as duelists, a ways apart and facing one another with a wary calm. This lasted only a moment, as soon they were dragged into the ongoing motion of the changeling group. Walking abreast of one another, they spoke in low tones, but to the last the changelings gave them a wide berth.
Beetle pushed against the current of black bodies. More changelings silently drifted by, and what seemed all too quickly the numbers thinned out, a last few that kept eyes on the child bearers and the path behind.
Silently he added his eyes to theirs. Their destination grew ever nearer, but they wouldn’t find him wanting it. For a while more they walked. Clouds came and went by with stately slowness, and with them rain broke, stilled and broke again. It was not heavy rain, but alone each raindrop was and made music of their silence.
By magic he lifted one of the young from the back of another, settling the child between his wings. The relieved changeling nodded and blinked, then moved ahead in the procession.
Beetle flickered his wings, doing his best to make them both comfortable. The child kept some of the rain off him, and seemed fascinated into stillness by the raindrops as they went plink plink off of leaf, branch, wing and forehead alike.
To say silence reigned would be affront to the rain, the breeze and footfalls, the occasional flutter of changeling wings. All the same, a voice broke the tranquility.
"Carrying a child? You?”
“It’s been known to happen.”
“No. It really hasn’t. Give her to me.”
Surreal’s magic tried to grasp the child, but Beetle shooed it away with his own. He turned to look to her and the wide, mystified eyes of the child followed his gaze.
“It’s a she?” he asked, with a distinct lack of care. Surreal rolled her eyes and flickered her wings with agitation. She opened her mouth to speak, looked to the uncomprehending curiosity of the young changeling, then sighed and started again.
“You’re holding her wrong. Her head should be behind your neck, Beetle.”
He shrugged, the gesture somewhat muted by precious cargo. “It doesn’t care.”
“I do,” Surreal grumbled. Few changelings lingered this far back. Now there were only three, and that count included the big-eyed, small-bodied child. All the changelings not around him reminded Beetle of Surreal’s place.
“I don’t either. Go away.”
Surreal went rigid and her eyes narrowed. When they eased open again, they seemed somehow glazed. “Nobody’s letting me carry them. It’s why I’m here at all. Isn’t it?” Surreal looked left, then right, peering into the trees and shadows. She shuddered and faltered in her step.
For a second she looked as if she might collect herself, but simply sat down instead. Beetle didn’t bother to look back. All the other changelings were well ahead of them now, past the nearest bends in the path.
Nobody would come back for her.
He took ten paces.
He took twenty more.
The tiny changeling child cooed, a sound not unlike a bubble popping. In the rain he hardly heard it at all.
Muttering darkly, Beetle turned around.
A bewildered pony of soft carnation colours struggled to focus on the approaching Beetle. He looked away in barely restrained disgust.
“Have you seen mistress Luna?” she asked piteously.
“No,” he said flatly. “Get up. Come on.” He turned about again, not waiting to see if she followed.
Surreal stepped and stumbled out from a gout greenish flame that consumed the pony. As she scurried to catch up, she grumbled with sudden ill humour.
“Carrying a child? You?”
Beetle said nothing.
“You’re holding her wrong.”
Wordlessly he levitated the cooing child to Surreal. As she shifted her wings to accommodate the tiny creature, much of the haze lifted from her eyes.
“Not much farther left to go now, is it?”
Beetle wouldn’t look at her. “No. Not much further.”
Surreal blinked. “That’s good. I’m sure she’s hungry.”
Beetle said nothing. Raindrops kept falling on his head.