Changeling Heart and the New Moon
Wind played along the membranes of Surreal’s wings, its whispers heralding the end of nighttime. The sun was yet to rise, but the sky had started glowing like molten glass ready to be crafted into the shape of a new day.
Surreal blinked against the ethereal night playing out the last refrain of its final act. The upper reaches of the ancient tree towered higher than any of the spires of Canterlot and presented a panoramic view that far surpassed anything that had been built with the confines of walls or ceiling. No branch obscured the sight; all limbs that might have done so had crumbled and fallen generations ago.
The heights of the monolithic dead tree were as battered and open to the elements as anything. Here and there were the scorches of old lightning strikes. Those few vines that clambered up so far existed in a constant state of struggle against the wind and rain, showing nothing but sickly little leaves for their great effort.
This dawn promised, in the sweet tones of a lover, to be gentle and kind. On a barren patch Luna sat in calm repose, still and tranquil amidst the battered, broken wood and skeletons of dead vines, facing the coming dawn.
Surreal had to wonder about Luna’s sleeping habits, or lack thereof. Since being released from the pod the princess had consistently been among the first awake and the last asleep. The changeling couldn’t decide if it was part of being an alicorn, or just part of being Luna.
Either way, her weariness was not reflected in the softness of her deeply coloured coat or the suppleness of her feathers, folded neatly against Luna’s sides. What the mare’s expression was, the changeling could not see.
Surreal felt as if she intruded upon something otherworldly, seeing Luna for the first time free of confine and gloom. Not many changelings came up here, beyond the view there was little else to do.
The former warden wasn’t an exception, and she questioned herself as to why she had come. Well, that wasn’t quite true, but she kept asking herself in the hope that if she did so enough times she’d get a different answer from the one she suspected.
She wasn’t trying to be stealthy, but opted to keep a respectful distance and quiet. Luna made no move to acknowledge the changeling, no move at all, but Surreal couldn’t help but feel that the alicorn knew she was there all the same.
So, why had she come up here? Luna certainly was an interesting figure, and in the short time Surreal had known her she’d only become more interesting.
Of course, interesting did not mean likeable. Luna was moody, hypocritical and openly antagonistic. She’d been downright abusive of Surreal, despite how she’d tried to be nice.
And now her Queen had dismissed her from the sudden and strange duty of being Luna’s warden. Surreal should be happy, she didn’t like being around Luna, yet here she was, and she waited.
If there had ever been thought that the majesty of dawn should be accompanied by an incredible score of music, it must be said that it in fact already was.
It was called silence, and as is said, it was golden. As was the dawn. The first tongues of liquid fire licked at the edge of the sky and the world glowed with hues of warm vermillion.
Luna breathed slow, deep breaths. It seemed almost as if her inhalations drew the blazing orb upwards. Each she held for a time, then let go with a low sigh, like a dream to be consigned back into the sinking darkness, to be forgotten by the light of day.
When the sun was halfway above the horizon Luna turned to face Surreal. Whatever magic there had been in the moment, magic beyond simple lights and motions, it faded. The princess once more looked more mare than mystical.
“Did you raise the sun?”
Luna smiled sadly. “No. It is not my place to do so.”
Quite to her surprise, Surreal stepped forwards. “Why are you still here?” she blurted out, loud enough to startle a ratty bundle of black feathers, which alighted upon a raucous caw that echoed into the distance.
Luna looked away, back into the glowing dawn. “I don’t know. Something compels me to remain.” The princess’ expression took up a hint of mischief, a welcome glimmer after the solemness. “What of you? Did Chrysalis not dismiss you from watching me? And I see no other changelings about.”
Surreal said nothing and averted her eyes. Luna didn’t press further.
“Very well,” the princess said tersely. After a moment’s thought, she continued. “Perhaps none of us knows why we are doing as we are. Maybe Chrysalis. Would you tell me of her and what she is planning, if I asked?”
Surreal weighed the easy answer against the honest one. Lying to a pony was one thing, easily dismissed, but Luna seemed much more than that somehow. She put it simply.
“Than it is good I did not ask.”
Luna had no inclination to speak further. Surreal struggled vainly to find something, something that could break the silence, but it was so big and so encompassing that she stood there, dumbly waiting in it.
The buzz of wings broke the changeling from her awkward reverie, and even Luna turned to see what had come. Another changeling, burlier and deeper chested than Surreal. Where her body tended to faded black, the newcomer’s opted for glossy.
Luna presumed this to be a male, based both on her growing awareness of the subtly of changeling form and from the way he barged bluntly into their lack of conversation, trying to take charge of something he had no idea of.
She cut off any attempt to speak with a lazy cast of magic that enshrouded the changeling in a dark glow, gently lifting and swinging him around to meet Luna’s gaze.
He struggled indignantly. “Let me down.”
Luna innocently looked from the changeling to the open air below; she hadn’t been sitting far from the ledge.
“Poor choice of words,” she said, but only swung the levitated changeling back around to a spot of petrified wood near - but not too near - her side.
Whatever tirade of grievance the changeling had, he turned it on Surreal. “You should not be here,” he growled.
“I can go where I want,” she said simply.
The newcomer grinned with a hard edge. “It is the Queen’s own words.”
“What? No, no. She said I was no longer to tend to the princess, not that I couldn’t see her,” Surreal spat back, like an angry cat caught up a tree.
“She has now. Do you challenge her word?”
Surreal crumpled inwards. “No...no. Of course not.”
“Then go. Now.”
Surreal’s worried eyes flew back and forth between the two before settling on the alicorn, her wings fluttering with worry. She found none of the sympathy she wanted in Luna’s eyes, only bemusement.
Surreal hesitated, then hesitated further. The other changeling flicked his head in no uncertain terms of dismissal, and with a last spitting hiss she was gone.
Luna faced her company with something between good spirits and sarcasm. “A fine way to break in a morning. Mind telling me what this was about?”
The changeling huffed, shying away and baring its teeth like an animal. “None of your business.”
The alicorn stood with easy grace. “So you say. What now? You hardly came here to just to shoo off Surry.” The dead wood beneath her hooves was jagged and uneven, still cold and damp from the night passed. She strode across it as if it were no more challenging than a garden stroll, but for a different variety of plants and pathing. The tree had been hollowed and gutted; where the rest of the husk stood in defiance nothing of the same could be said for the heartwood. Either by nature or changeling intervention nothing remained of it. Even at such height as this the uppermost opening into the changelings’ home was wider than most full, healthy trees, let alone the struggling and sickly grey trunks that made up the forest far below. Luna could not help but wonder how much higher it must have spanned in life, how far such mighty limbs must have reached into the horizons.
Her newest escort thought only to flitter away in a flurry of translucent wings as she neared it.
Luna unfurled her soft wings and gently shook some feeling back into them. “I don’t bite.”
The changeling found this decidedly not funny, keeping his distance as if he genuinely doubted this and would make sure that, come to blows, he’d bite first.
The hostility called for a strangely obvious realization on Luna’s part. Apparently not all the changelings’ were as unanimous in their cautious acceptance of her as she’d thought, a point that in hindsight she should not have found surprising. More surprising still was her easy acquiescence of this fact, something Luna put down to the tranquility she felt from the dawn. It did her soul good, even so far away, in so many ways, to feel a semblance of connection to her sister.
The alicorn descended with lazy spirals into the perpetual night, like the inside of an immense coffin. The burly male kept to as much of a distance as he could, staying well above the darkling princess. Maybe the changelings had been unanimous before; they seemed so now, emulating his own reserve. Green eyes that almost glowed kept their distance. Where before they had shone with curiosity, now they seemed withdrawn, as if Luna had left a princess and returned a pariah.
Yes, she thought with sudden bitterness, that is about the sum of it. Again her feeling on the issue faded abruptly, like so much salt into the sea. No doubt Chrysalis had spun another machination for her to dance through. If the prospect lacked a certain appeal, at least Luna felt she was learning the steps and wasn’t quite on the precipice of having her head bitten off over something or other.
The deeper she went the less she could ignore the curious shift in her hosts’ behaviour, but she resolutely resolved to pay no mind to it. If they wanted to be strange, let them.
Luna’s eyes scanned through the darkness like few others could, but no sign of Surreal presented itself. Whether the princess glanced over her as another face in the crowd or the expressive little changeling simply weren’t present, she didn’t know. Intuition said something in it was relevant to these stony faces, and understanding it lurked just behind the shadows of her thoughts.
Yet another mystery to consider. As Luna lightly landed on an outcropping and followed a now familiar path of winding gloom she thought. Well, she’d thought she’d been going to see the Queen, but her wings and legs seemed of another mind and lead her to the impromptu little closet that was her room.
Someone could be sent to request her presence, and thinking this Luna laughed like crystals chiming in the heavy-aired silence. How often had she openly disdained the fastidious following of protocol and polite nothings in social circles, only now to retreat into them as a refuge in the face of a different culture?
Well, it was simpler than culture, it was pride. Battered and self-debased as Luna’s was, she still kept it around somewhere. Let the Queen send for her. In the meantime she wandered restlessly around the tiny space. A flick of magic she barely thought to cast called the journal of Fallow Field to her from where she’d left it on the corner of the bed.
Thoughts and questions spawned a tangle of more thoughts and questions, all running loose, and she hadn’t even opened read the thing yet. Like flinging oneself into a cold shower, it was a thing she danced around actually doing.
She didn’t start now. A black leg swept the tatty curtain aside, but went no further.
“Queen wants you.” Ah, yes. This one again. Setting the journal down with carefulness, she stepped out of her little room. For his part, the changeling grumbled and leapt away as if she were more revenant than reverent.
“What?” she said testily. “And here was I, thinking Surreal was bad.” Luna dropped her rump to the floor with a decisive lack of ceremony. “I’m not taking a step further until I get at least a name from you, if not an explanation.”
The changeling keened a low chittering whine, glancing over his shoulder for someone to come save him. None were apparent.
“Beetle,” he muttered, wincing as if some layer of protection had been stripped away.
“Well than, Beetle, you may take me to Chrysalis now.”
“You know the way,” he protested.
“Too bad. Escort me.” Luna noticed the way he really did pull away as if the very air she breathed were heavy with contagion. She felt somewhat affronted, but largely curious.
Chrysalis would have answers. Whether she’d divulge them or not was an entirely separate matter, but there was nothing else to do for it.
“Well? Lead on,” she said. Beetle looked decidedly frustrated and fearful, but Luna couldn’t quite deny the petty delight she was feeling for it.
Into the darkness he hesitantly lead, keeping as much a distance as he could.
Chrysalis had also had an early morning. There’d been a choice, and she’d made a choice, and between it and the thousand consequences to follow, all choices of their own of course, she’d possibly decided the fate of the world.
At least, that one important little bit of the world that belonged to changelings.
“You can’t do this,” Surreal said stiffly.
“I can’t do this?” Chrysalis tasted the words like flavourful venom. Surreal trembled, but held. The Queen of changelings found a sneaky admiration for that. Provided it didn’t go too far, having subjects stand up to her was a bit thrilling. Authority without challenge was unhealthy, or as Chrysalis thought of it, boring.
“Brave words. I want to see how deep you can dig yourself into this hole. Do continue.”
Surreal blinked. This wasn’t the fight she’d expected, but she could almost feel the jaws of some trap closing around her. Well, if she was going to rile the hornets’ nest, she might as well rouse the Queen herself for the effort. Changelings weren’t keen on fire, and words like glory and honour tended to be synonymous with foolishness, but her little heart felt a blaze of defiant glory all the same as she dove headlong into idiocy.
“No. You can’t. You know I’m the best caregiver for the young here, and I’m saying that with you and so many others gone it would stunt their growth, and there’s few enough children as it is this year.”
Were it not for the overtures of amusement, Chrysalis’ tone might have been eerily neutral. “You want me, no, are telling me to take small children with me through the forest and further on a journey? Did I mention the dangerous forest? The long journey?”
Surreal flickered her wings in annoyance, a gesture that set nearby changelings to whispering amongst themselves. “Being with you is as safe as anywhere, my Queen.”
“And Luna,” Chrysalis chuckled. “Or so I strongly suspect will be the case.”
Surreal faltered. The whispers thickened. “My...my Queen?”
“Oh come on, I’m sure you could have figured it out with a little thought. I am going to Equestria, with a certain select few, to play at the diplomacy game. I wonder if she’ll mind be a walking stockpile for us? Of course...how could my little moon say no to hungry children? That’s clever of you.” The Queen’s chuckle escalated into a laughter darker than the gloom. Surreal floundered, knowing not what, or even how to respond to that.
“Naturally you’ll want to come along as well.” After a pause slightly too long Chrysalis added, “For the children.” All eyes turned to the little changeling.
Surreal felt as if teeth swirled all around her, just out of sight, and every one of them her Queen’s. She felt afraid like she hadn’t ever before.
“Do you trust me?”
“Of course! With my life!”
“Then trust me to take good care of it.”
The ghostly echoes moved through Surreal. It was an easy thing to say, it was always an easy thing to say, even with earnest conviction, but here...now...
She took a deep breath and tried to steady her racing heart and force order on her swirling thoughts. It came down to the question of trust. Did she?
“Yes," Surreal said severely. "I want to go with you. If you command me to stay. I’ll follow anyway. For them. And for me.”
There was silence, a deep, deep silence, the kind that doesn’t just have no sound, but actively snuffs it out where it may.
Chrysalis’ sneering grin faded, leaving a curious expression, almost innocent. Surreal didn’t know to be relieved or mortified, but after going so far past reason she couldn’t give two hoots for the latter.
The tension broke like so much mist. “Alright. You may come if you like. That was a strong thing to say, Surreal, and nobody challenges a Queen lightly. You are going to need that strength soon.” Chrysalis sounded sad, somehow. It stirred the embers of Surreal’s fears, but the Queen left it at that.
Queen and cohort were ready to travel in no more than two hours, and much of that was browbeating Luna into compliance. Though they lived in one place and had suited it to their needs, the changelings had never shucked off their somewhat nomadic natures. Those that were to go with the Queen could redefine ‘traveling light,’ for most carried nothing at all and seemed content at that. What had seemed to Luna an utter lack of regard for possessions, from another perspective, was a firm disinterest in the unnecessary. It didn’t make her feel much better about seeing her cloak made useless by damp and mildew after days in darkness.
The sun was still rising as Queen, princess and thirty or so changelings stepped, each and every one blinking like the newborns into the unseasonably bright and heated day. Something snagged in Luna’s thoughts.
“Will the rest be alright?” Her words sounded strange to her, but she could think of no other way to phrase them.
By the light of day Chrysalis looked no less impressive. Where the dark allowed the imagination to make her bigger and sharper, the mercilessly accurate details of sunlight proved that it wasn’t even necessary to bother. The big changeling really was the big changeling, and her fangs glistened with that certain gleam only found in things usually called ‘hypodermic.’
Chrysalis looking insulted didn’t help matters. “Hmm?”
Luna felt the awkward foal, but something in the way the sunshine warmed her insisted. She was not a hundred paces away from the familiar dark, but already it seemed a world away. “Without me here, I mean.”
“Concern, little moon? It’s almost touching. They will be. I’ll make sure of it.”