Changeling Heart and the New Moon
Soon enough the gray clench of decay -psst- was left behind. The -fizzt- land steadily raised, and from it so too did conifer -fwiszzt- forest. The lowest branches were far above, but in such numbers that they made the tightly spaced trunks -tzzzZIP!- stand in perpetual twilight, despite the fine day. Dozens of hooves pressed the soft bed of pine needles as -fwwCRACKLE!- dark shapes wove through the trees, following no discernible trail in the silent -Fwuzzz- wilderness.
It was about to get -phwuuPOP!- much less silent, but also much more wild.
“I can take no more of this! Burn, you little wretches. All of you, Buuuurn!” Luna’s voice alone shook the trees, while the dark powers she called forth set the nearest with scorches and blistering oils. The maelstrom of wrath swallowed the princess whole and everything within reach, groping for more. All the little black bodies were blasted into oblivion, torn apart, limb and wing as they burned into a nothingness that left not even specks of ash.
The vortici of blackened magic died abruptly, a few swirling wisps persisting in their orbits of Luna a second or two more. As burned bark crackled and spat, pine needles drifted down to ground, all else returned to stillness. Luna’s heavy breathing was the only other sound.
Chrysalis watched from the top of nearby ledge, while green eyes peered from the woods like emerald fairy-lights. Her laughter rang out. “Mosquitoes bothering you?” She’d been keeping close enough, as had many of the changelings, to watch the light show of insects flying into Luna’s starry mane, subsequently exploding with a spitting snap of energy.
“They are relentless! Without end!” Already more buzzing pests closed ranks, and at these Luna levitated pine needles, enchanting them into slivers of darkness that tirelessly hounded the bobbing insects, running them through, wing, body, and big beady eyes alike, incinerating the evidence in a puff of acrid smoke. “Into a screaming abyss with you! Come at me and meet your dooms! You shan’t take me alive!” Luna’s howls stirred the wind and blew the forest floor at her hooves bare of detritus.
Even Chrysalis kept a minimum safe distance as Luna hacked, slashed, cursed, detonated, eviscerated and burned her way through the private war. The changelings hadn’t been following a trail, but they, or she, was certainly leaving one.
As amusing as it was to watch Luna’s torment, the princess was dragging the whole group to a halt. Grudgingly the Queen decided that, being such, it was up to her to put a stop to it before it went from amusing to hilarious. What a shame.
Green flames wrapped about the entirety of the night princess as she was lifted bodily into the air. Her realization that this kept the mosquitoes at bay occurred quickly enough, but Luna’s reaction of indignant protest was nigh instantaneous.
The Queen met the princess’ sour look with her sharp grin. As they left the gutted glade behind, with changelings regrouping from every quarter, the alicorn drifted to Chrysalis’ side.
“Why do they attack me alone?” Luna muttered. She didn’t like being carted along like an object, but if it kept the maddening bites off she wouldn’t protest. A ready swarm of antagonists crowded about the glowing princess, bouncing off the magic harmlessly. But they didn’t stop trying, and more gathered all the time.
The Queen of changelings shrugged. “Skin and blood, probably.” At Luna’s confused look she rolled her eyes. “You have those. We don’t. Mosquitoes can’t bite into us, so they don’t bother trying to. Oh wow, look at them all...”
Luna was blurred by the haze of hundreds, and the spell did nothing to block out the droning hum in all its mind melting monotony.
Chrysalis halted suddenly. “My little moon, I’m hardly going to carry you all the way to Canterlot.” The glint of evil mischief flashed across her eyes and fangs.
Luna went very still and very pale, though that might just have been her body trying to save as much blood as possible. “No. Don’t you dare.”
Chrysalis weighed her choices with delicious slowness, but part of her, a growing, thinking part of her made sure she did so carefully as well. A Queen just couldn’t catch a break now, could she?
With a regretful little sigh Luna was dropped to her hooves, but she stumbled and landed heavily on her rump into the soft forest floor, screaming bloody murder all the while. Again, it took a few seconds for her realization to catch up with her reactions, which invariably were loud.
The protective green flames still enshrouded her, though they were flames only in appearance. Nothing they touched burned, nor were they even warm. They were just there, just existing. Luna found herself suddenly curious as to the nature of the spell; it seemed intrinsic to the changelings, and like so much of them, she knew nothing of it.
She made to ask about them, but Chrysalis interjected as if the princess hadn’t spoke at all.
“That won’t last for long, my little moon. Much as I’d love to see you fighting, and losing, your little battle we’re going slow enough as is. For all your books and towers, I would’ve thought your ponies might actually have some sense in dealing with a land that isn’t so entirely under your control. Aren’t you lucky you’ve got me?” she said with sickly sweetness.
Luna glowered, but said nothing.
“Go find the children. Until their first moult they’re still soft enough to be bitten, so the ones that carry them cast a spell to keep parasites away. I’d cast it myself, but then you’d have to be near me for a long while, and I’d rather arrive with you alive and all limbs attached. Then I’d have to carry you. And maiming a princess isn’t a great way to start at ‘diplomacy,’ don’t you think?”
“I do,” Luna said with chill neutrality. Chrysalis really didn’t have much of a sense of humour, but what bothered the princess was that she could not tell how much of this was joke, however tasteless, and how much was warning.
The Queen flashed her another shining smirk. “You should hurry, that won’t last long.” For once, she spoke truth. Already little flecks of green flame peeled away from Luna’s coat and burnt out. Whether by her imagination or the tantalizing closness of their prey, the frenzy of the mosquitoes grew ever fiercer.
The Queen of changelings stopped grinning. After so many threats, jibes and taunts, Luna had thought she might welcome a moment of a calmer, more dispassionate Chrysalis. She was wrong, and had to yank herself away from those suddenly expressionless eyes. “Tell Surreal I want her.”
Chrysalis barely seemed to notice that she had progressed to telling one of the most powerful figures in the world to run a simple errand for her, or hardly cared if she did. Luna didn’t bother finding out which and was all too glad to leave her.
The...uh, foalsitters - Luna supposed they were like enough to that anyway - would be nearer the rearguard. She backtracked against the soft stream of black bodies and, like a stream, they carefully flowed around her. Respectful as ever, of course, in that informal changeling way, but tinged with fear now.
Those she looked at directly didn’t even avert their eyes from her, for they hadn’t been staring at her to begin with. From sneaky glances all she caught were their usually stony looks, though at one point Beetle passed by with a wide berth and sneered before hurrying on.
All in all, it was rather like Luna’s first Nightmare Night. What had she done to drive a wedge between her and, well, everybody else this time? Memory provided a list of suspects much too long, much too quickly. They probably did not even know of Nightmare Moon, but Luna realzied this with a perverse satisfaction that seemed to stem from nowhere she cared to consider.
At least now it was on her own merits, not the shadow of a monster from which she unwillingly cultivated their fear and distrust.
Luna tried not to think about this. The explosion of a particularly ravenous mosquito proved a welcome spur, and she moved on.
Chrysalis called a halt that evening, in that she decided to stop and let everyone else put two and two together. It was a rough spot of ground she chose, all rocks and ledges erupting from a hillside, facing into the wind. A few scraggly pines clung to crevices, but these more highlighted the barrenness than anything. It made for a fine view of the lands below and the stars above, at least. And there’d not be any buzzing pests out here, not counting her resident alicorn. Curled up on an exposed outcropping, Chrysalis rested.
Between dismissing Luna and Surreal’s arrival entirely too many minutes had passed, but the Queen made no mention of this to the little changeling. Chrysalis, in full affront to what could be expected of her personality and experience made excellent small talk, which was to say her mouth handled a select few words of prompting while her mind churned elsewhere.
Surreal was peaky and energetic in that jittery way that comes from sickness or stress, more than she had any right to be after a single day’s travel.
“Er, my Queen, where has Luna gone?” she asked hesitantly.
Chrysalis didn’t know and said as much, all the while giving her subject a disapproving look. Changelings felt no particular need to clump as tightly together as ponies seemed to need to, so despite their relatively few numbers they had spread out thinly.
No, she couldn’t see the dark alicorn. Something within told her she didn’t need to. Given every opportunity to leave, Luna wouldn’t. The princess wouldn’t even think of it as escape anymore.
She’d be around.
Chrysalis raised herself up. “My leg still hurts.” It was a lie, not simply in the merit of narrative but to Surreal as well, a big lie bold enough to stare her in the eye and wink. She knew it for what it was, and that she couldn’t challenge it anyway.
It was an old changeling superstition everyone knew and no-one believed that the one that had mended the first wound should be the one to continue tending to it.
“I think it will ache for the next few days,” the Queen said flatly.
Surreal stifled a twitch. “What about-”
“There are others. You stay with me.” If it was hypocritical in the utmost, well, she was the Queen. She felt rotten for it though, a rare feeling in Chrysalis. Surreal glanced wistfully at the surrounding hillside and, seeing naught but fellow changelings, she shivered, just a little.
Surreal dabbed a thin new layer of that peculiar changeling mucus over the off-coloured flesh. It was a superfluous gesture, they both knew.
Chrysalis grinned, but only because her face was well used to the expression. Inside she felt bad in both understandings of the word. And somewhere, inside, Chrysalis found a little node of guilt and use and duty and compassion, wrapped all together under the name ‘Surreal.’ The Queen felt tired, more so than she expected to be. Thinking and feeling and choosing did that though. She bedded back down on the flat rock, resting her eyes and letting the soft sounds of wind fill her mind. With a gesture she motioned Surreal to do much the same. The awkward little thing scuffed and fidgeted as she did so, close enough for Chrysalis to hear her breathe.
The changelings were not predisposed to judging their Queen, but tiny eyes that glinted like emeralds from the hill would have nodded ever so slightly with approval, were they inclined to do so.
Evening gave way to nightfall. The moon rose and shone. Soon after there was the soft scuffling sounds of hooves on stone, someone trying to be silent and doing poorly at it, but Chrysalis made no move. Once she was alone the Queen of changelings sighed, then curled up slightly tighter.
“Mistress Luna?” It was dark, even by changeling eyes. The moonlight didn’t banish the dark, instead polishing it like silverware, adding sharp edges and smooth surfaces. Surreal stumbled further up the hill, away from her kin. Feeling for the princess.
Then there she was, sitting in calm repose. Surreal suspected she could have passed within a pace of Luna and not seen her if she had not wished it to be. It was a feeling of being watched, but reversed - as if Luna had whispered ‘see me’ into Surreal, the changeling’s mind filling in for where her eyes failed. By night Luna decided who found her and who didn’t, none other.
“Have you read this, by any chance? It is intriguing, this account of Fallow Field.”
“Um. No. I haven’t.”
“I’m not surprised, but it is a shame just the same.”
Her horn lit up with pale white light and eyes that, for the briefest second seemed pools of blackest obsidian. Only now could Surreal see that Luna had been reading, and the paper rustled as Luna set the journal down. The magic condescend into a candlelight star that hovered between them.
She’d been reading by darkness. Seeing in blackness. Surreal hesitated.
“I thought you were not to see me?” Luna asked softly.
Surreal opened her mouth.
Surreal closed her mouth and looked away.
“There are plenty of things I must wonder about. Why would Chrysalis make such a demand of you? Why would you break it? You seemed so...loyal.” Luna spat the word as if the sour taste were a festered thorn plucked out. As quickly the moment passed and she regained her poise.
Papery wings fluttered in the night. “I love my Queen!”
“And I have loved a great many things. Love does not make a thing right or wrong.” Her voice brokered no argument. “Why did you come to me?” Somewhere in the imposing alicorn Surreal caught the edges of a confused and worried mare.
She wanted to answer, and answer honestly but...couldn’t. She had no answer. She said as much.
Luna gave her a stony look, but it seemed more disappointed than aggravated. “Is that so?”
“I should go,” Surreal whispered in a voice that hardly seemed her own.
“I won’t hold you,” Luna said sadly. With the passing of a long moment of hesitation Surreal finally skittered away and the tiny conjured star winked out as if it had never existed.
The changeling had not taken ten steps when she glanced over her shoulder. Darkness, total and absolute. It rushed in on a thunderclap of impassible silence. A shiver caressed Surreal with loving tenderness. The chill of it kept her company as she descended the hill, finally curling up near her Queen where she fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.