When you were little, did you believe there were monsters in your closet? Did you believe there were monsters under your bed? In the alleyways? Behind fences? In the dark? Try and remember what that monster was supposed to look like. Did it have claws and fangs? Was it slimy? Have multiple eyes? Did it breath fire and eat children?
Of course, you know now that there never was any monster in the closet. It was just the heater coming on or your dad flushing the toilet across the hall. The monster was just a sweater in your closet or a pile of clothes on the floor. There was nothing in the dark that wasn't there in the light.
For me, that last part rings oh so true. If being a human was like walking around my house with the lights on, being a changeling is like running around it in the dark. Things are confusing and scary, but I'm still in the same house. I'm still me on the inside. The things I'm doing, the things I've done, everything up until now is simply what me as a person would have done.
Isn't that a frightening thought? I'd feed on the innocent to save my own life. I did that! Me! No one held a gun to my head and said "eat their love"! I don't even think they have guns in this world.
You're probably wondering why I'm going off on this. Well, let's pick up where I last left off.
Dear Nonspecific Deity, when a changeling gets the rumblies in their tumblies they get it bad. You know what they say about being thirsty: if you're thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Well, the rule for changelings seems to be this: if you're hungry, you're already dying. I've got to eat something, and the sooner the better. I've been wandering around looking for something to eat, but I haven't had any luck so far. This might be easier if I knew the city a little better. I mean, this is a city, right? On Earth, if a dude finds himself in a city and he's looking for quick love, he's just got to locate the-
"Well hey there big boy."
And bingo was his name-o.
"You looking for a good time?" I turned and looked at the mares who were calling out from me from the opposite side of the street. There are three of them, and I guess all of them are what ponies consider "dolled up". The changeling part of me was telling me the appropriate term here was "garnished". As the smell of food invades my brain, the last of my sanity remembers my first encounter with Wrenchell and Aqua. The two of them had smelled and tasted like fine dining. These mares smelled more like carnival food. I wonder if changelings can get indigestion.
"Hey buddy, if you just look much longer we'll have to charge for that too," one of the mares complained. The last of my sanity was sucked away. The smell of food just drives me nuts, you know? I'm a king though, so this time I'm not just going to gorge myself like an idiot. That was a special and unrefined moment, but tonight I shall be truly royal in my actions.
Without even a fraction of the effort as before, I reached out into the minds of the mares before me and bound them to my will. It's such a simple technique, why did I struggle with it so much before? One as regal as me shouldn't have to stalk prey in such a roundabout manner.
"Let me feed," I demand. My subjects comply, but did they really have a choice? They brought this upon themselves. Isn't this what they want? Isn't this exactly why they're out here? I feel the love that's stocked up inside them begin to flow into me. It's a scant meal, but food is food. A king deserves a feast though. These mares are merely the appetizer.
"Bring me more," my regal voice decrees. The three mares, which I made sure not to drain fully of love, begin to lead me through the dark, city streets. The first pony we come across is a patrolcolt. When he sees me and three mares who are obviously up to no good, he takes out his flashlight and heads towards us. This oughta be fun.
"Stop right there! Where do you think you're going?" the pony asks. My minions stare at him blankly, but I can't help but sneer. May as well let the peon in on our secret.
"We're going to the feast, and you're invited!" The patrolcolt looks delectably shocked by what I've just said. He doesn't react fast enough as the three mares grab him and hold him down. He struggles against them, he struggles against my spell, but in the end he succumbs. I draw out his love and continue down the street with my now larger entourage.
We run into a mare walking alone. We come across two young colts in an alley, both of them up to no good. We stumble upon a stallion and his daughter having an argument on the front stoop of their home. Our group meets three sanitary workers slacking off from their nighttime duties.
I add a stallion walking his two dogs to the group. I add two mares in formal attire to my followers. I add a young filly who strayed a bit to far from home to my horde. A nurse leaving her night shift at the hospital joins the swarm.
"I want more..."
Two ponies join in. Three ponies get tacked on. We run into another pony and then another pony. We meet four ponies the next time. Next is one pony. Now we'll add these two.
"Bring me more..."
I'm on the inside of myself looking out. Somewhere in all of this, I'd converted back to changeling form. Right now I was using one of the stallions like a throne while I sent all the other ponies out to fetch me food. I don't know where they're getting these ponies from, but I don't care for some reason. This is wrong, I shouldn't be doing this. I can't be doing this. How is this even possible? Ponies crying and confused, begging for an explanation of why they've been brought here. Young ponies, old ponies, and everypony in between is brought in. Once I've taken the majority of their love, I send them off to find me more food.
When you eat food, you only taste it and feel it fill you up. When you're on the inside though, you see it getting chewed up. Love isn't made of bread, meat, or stuff like that. No, I'm chewing up thoughts, feelings, and all matter of things I can't explain. I hear voices, I experience powerful longings, and I feel comforting hooves. The feelings are there, then they're mushed up and turned into something wicked, but that something wicked sustains me. It's my lifeblood, but to the ponies who provided me with it, it's poison.
I'm on the move again. My conscious isn't at the helm, but something inside me is telling me it's time to finish the meal off. Wherever I've gone, there are guards. I drain them as my massive herd begins wreaking the place. I go through a gate, then a door, then up stairs, and all the while it feels very familiar. I've been here before.
My eyesight is hazy, but I suddenly see a pony very clearly. A pony who once genuinely cared for my safety and reached out to me out of kindness: Aqua. I scream out to halt, but my mouth and body don't obey. I add her to my collection, but I'm not done yet. I turn back into Duncan Doughnuts and continue on my own. I knock on a door I've never seen before and call out.
"Mayor Marine! It's me, open up!" No sooner do I ask than Mayor Marine opens the door swiftly and lets me in. He redoes all the locks and rushes to me.
"Duncan! Thank heavens you're alright! What's going on, where's Aqua?"
"Aqua is safe, sir. I made sure of it," I lie. He looks so relieved by it. What a pure and innocent man. More concerned with the safety of his daughter than his own well-being. Why am I here and lying to him? What in all that is good's name have I been doing? I've got to stop! I've absolutely got to stop!
"Any idea what this mob is? Why are they attacking?" the Mayor asks. The sudden increase in volume in his voice causes me to jump. In fact, the general increase in volume is scaring the heck out of me. Do I smell smoke?
"Mayor!" I shout, my body obeying me again. "I'll take care of it! You stay here!" I turn and begin unlatching the door.
"I can't let you go alone Mr. Doughnuts!" the Mayor tried to stop me. Unfortunately, one of these locks needs a key. If I want to leave and fix this, I need to get it from him.
"Yes, Mr. Doughnuts?"
"I'll make this up to you later."
"Pardon?" I reach out into his mind with my magic. What had been so darn simple a moment ago became incredibly difficult. The Mayor's brain actively struggled against the magic I was forcing onto it. My reserves of energy were larger than they'd ever been, so it was simply a matter of out muscling his mind. It took three whole minutes, but he became obedient.
"I'm so, so sorry! Please just give me the key and forget all about what happened," I pleaded. The Mayor complied, smiling warmly all the while. That just made me feel even worse. Just out of curiosity, I reached back into his mind and felt around the epicenter of his love. It appeared to be completely closed off, but I'd somehow been breaking and entering the love supplies of ponies all night. I can't imagine how I went about it, but I don't have to. There is no excuse to having to resort to feeding off ponies whose minds I'm controlling.
I exited the Mayor's office, tossing his key back to him as I closed the door behind me. Sure enough, ponies who are supposedly under my control are running rampant through the mansion. I was trying to think of a way to stop a giant mob, but since they're under my control they should obey my commands.
"Stop!" Everypony in the place stopped moving. That was easy enough. What next?
"Everypony go to sleep and... uh... stop being controlled by me?" Once again, everypony in the place obeyed, each of them falling to the floor and closing their eyes. I wandered towards the entrance of the mansion, surveying the destruction. All of this is my fault. I dragged these ponies out of their peaceful lives. I'd taken their love from them. Why had I come here? Why did I go completely bonkers? What the heck is wrong with me?
Now I'm sitting at the entrance of the mansion, just brooding. Policeponies and medics came eventually and they asked me what happened. I told them that the King of the Changelings had happened. They didn't believe me, but there was one pony among them who payed heed to my words.
"So he is in the city." Lou's sudden appearance caught me off guard. I just nodded in response. "Then we can't waste any time. Let's go."
"Go where?" I mumble. I'm really not in the mood for chasing myself around anymore tonight.
"The sewers." I look up at her. She looks down at me, dead serious.
"Why go now?"
"It's the only place we haven't checked." I know that isn't true. "It might be dangerous, but the King of the Changelings could be down there." She hadn't thought that earlier. "If we go now, we might catch him retreating." She reaches out a hoof to help me up. I take it and pull myself up, but I know she's lying to me. I've got a terrible feeling in my gut, even worse than when I realized the massive amounts of chaos I'd incurred tonight. I seem to recall a certain draconequus thinking I didn't have it in me. As we made our way out of what was quickly becoming the site of a major disaster, I let my curiosity get the better of me.
"Did you plan on going to the sewers all along?"
"To be honest, I decided we should probably check them out. I told Aqua and Wrenchell about it, but you weren't around so I couldn't tell you. The plan was for me and you to go to the sewers while Aqua and Wrenchell look about town."
Sirens were going off in my head. Lou tells Aqua she's going to bring me to the sewer. Aqua freaks out afterwards when I get back from being gone too long. The three investigators reject going into the sewer in the first place. I don't know why, but something tells me they're worried about more than cave ins. Were their worries Sphinx shaped? I'm jumping to conclusions. I don't have any evidence to that effect.
Why am I so darn worried?
"Down here." Lou levitated a marehole cover out of it's resting place. After awkwardly descending into the sewer by climbing down the ladder on hooves, we were in. Lou lit up her horn, revealing that the stretch of sewer we were in was no different from the sewer I'd been in before. It was murky, dark, and wet. You know, the whole shebang.
We started walking. We walked and walked down the dark sewer passageways. It could be my mind playing tricks on me, but I feel like Lou is traveling very purposefully. She hasn't once stopped to consider moving down one branch of the sewer or the other and she's been keeping up her quick pace for a while now. If I didn't know any better, I'd say she has a destination in mind.
"Hey, Duncan," Lou broke the silence that had been maintained for so long.
"Have any regrets?" I stopped dead in my tracks. She must have anticipated this because she swung around and faced me after asking the question. Nobody asks that kind of question unless the possibility of death is in the range of extremely likely to certain. I didn't care if I was jumping to conclusions anymore. That feeling in my gut wasn't coming from there being no threat at all.
"Just one," I growled, "trusting you."
"Good answer!" The sewer shook as something dropped down behind me. I knew the voice, so I didn't have to turn and face the Sphinx to know he'd shown up. I turned and looked at him anyway, knowing all to well what the beast was capable of.
"What are you doing Charon? Just eat him already," Lou complained. Her voice didn't indicate her having any qualms with Charon here eating me.
"This pony has a good head on his shoulders," Charon laughed. "I'm a reasonable Sphinx. For amusing me, he should get the answer to one question before he dies."
"Whatever," Lou grunted. Okay, I know she hates me, but I didn't think she'd want me to get eaten. I don't plan on dying here... but I really don't see this going any other way. I could ask "how do I get home", but that would be a moot point. Maybe I should ask him to divide by zero, just for kicks. No, I'd better go with a serious question.
"Why is Lou feeding me to you?" I asked just as bravely as I could.
"Well, that's an interesting story, isn't it Lou?" Charon smirked. Lou didn't say anything, she just displayed her impatience by flicking her tail. "You see, Lou here was at the top of her game up until a few months ago. She was an investigator for the Manehattan police and one of the mayor's closest advisers. She realized how fragile her position was and was stressed out most everyday. Then she found me!" Charon spread his wings and glided over next to Lou.
"You see I'm a Sphinx, a creature born to rule of cities. I see everything that goes on, big and small, in this city. Lou is a clever girl. See she trapped me here with her spell, basically condemning me to starve to death. I started messing up the sewer to attract the repair crews down for me to survive on, but the mayor pulled the plug on that. I was sure I was going to die."
"I could still see what was going on in the city though, and I noticed that Lou was refusing to investigate what he mayor thought was random incidents in the sewers. Her refusal to fulfill her duty got her kicked out of the police, and that's when she revealed her plan to me. The deal was this: she brings me ponies to eat and I give her information that lets her solve cases. Good deal, right?" I cast my gaze on Lou.
"You would've done the same thing," she accused.
"You'd let innocent ponies die so you can keep solving crimes?"
"None of them were innocent." She shook her head slowly. "I fed him criminals to catch criminals. It was all justice."
"That's not justice, it's just murder! What would Wrenchell or Aqua say if they knew you're doing this?"
"They don't need to know."
"So you admit that it would look bad!"
"Charon, eat him already," Lou grunted. Well this was bound to happen. I turned to run down the sewer, but Charon swooped around and cut me off. He advanced on me, raising his claws to strike me.
"Oh! Where are my manners?" Charon suddenly retracted his claws and sat down in front of me. "I forgot the riddle."
"Charon! Stop screwing around!" Lou barked. Charon guffawed in response.
"Oh please, there's no way he's going to get it right anyway." Charon licked his chops... his lamb chops... he-he. Oh jeez, this immanent death thing is making me loopy. "Answer me this pony: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?"
Wait a second... I know this one! The answer is "a man", but there aren't any "men" in Equestria. C'mon something bipedal, something bipedal, something bipedal...
"A minotaur?" The effect of the correct answer was instantaneous. Charon's body froze in place and crusted over with grey stone. His statue still looked ironically smug. I turned and faced Lou, who appeared quite shaken.
"Lemme guess, you were going to sacrifice me to find the Changeling King?" I feigned anger. Truth be told, I was so freaking happy I wanted to dance a jig. I ain't gonna get eaten!
"You idiot! The Changeling King was my ticket back onto the force!" Lou growled.
"You see, that's what I don't get," I grunted. "If you want to be on the force, why did you refuse to turn in the Sphinx? That's what got you kicked out in the first place, and plus a Sphinx is just as good as a Changeling King."
"Idiot," she flat out insulted me. "A Changeling King could easily best a Sphinx."
"He could?" Please, tell me more!
"A Sphinx might be intelligent, but it's still just a monster. It has no defense against a Changeling King's Mind Poisoning."
"That mob that attacked the Mayor's house? They were all poisoned by the King. The poison gives him control over their actions! A monster that can control other creatures and ponies like that needs to be stopped! I kept the Sphinx down here because I knew I could control him! I could use his powers to benefit this city. I am using his powers for the good of this city!"
"I can't let you continue on like this, Lou."
"And I can't let you blab my secret." Crackling energy began gathering in Lou's horn. "Charon has accepted dead bodies in the past. He'll break out of there soon enough, and when he does he'll be hungry."
"So... it's gonna come down to this?" I sighed.
"Any last words?"
"Just one." I have been waiting to do this for so long. "Surprise!" I shifted back into my normal form. The sight caused Lou to lose her concentration as she gaped up at me.
"No... way," I didn't hesitate. I reached out with my magic and snagged her mind, but that turned out to be a mistake on my part. Lou's mind was soldered shut against my magic, and the expression on her face told me she knew full well I'd just realized that. She charged her horn and shot a blast at me. I countered with a blast from my own finger. The magical collision caused an explosion, the brunt of which I must have took as I got knocked back into the stone Charon. Lou was still advancing on me, charging another bolt in her horn.
"When I found out the King of the Changelings was here, I made sure to find and prepare the spell that blocks changeling magic. It's a fairly common spell, so casting it was a no brainer for a genius like me." Lou dipped her horn down and released the blast. There was nowhere to run and blasting it with my own magic would just make it explode in my face. As my mind slowed everything into slow motion, I tried to formulate some brilliant escape plan.
... Nope, nothing.
Blasting it was my only option, but in my panic I threw out both hands in protection. The entire tunnel flashed green as a dense and writhing beam of green energy jumped from my hands. Lou's attack got pulverized. My attack survived the the collision and made a beeline right for Lou. Lou tried to jump out of the way, but my attack caught her on her hind leg.
The effect was akin to what I always imagined being struck by lighting was like. Even if the lighting grazes you, the current flows through your body and fries you. Lou's body lit up violently with green sparks as she screamed and writhed in pain. When the display was over, the tunnel went dark. Lou's horn had been lighting the place, so I lit up my hand and inspected my handiwork.
I checked Lou's body, confirming that I hadn't actually killed her. Even if she was technically evil, I didn't want to kill her. Sure, she would have blasted me to bits without a second thought, but that's no excuse. Besides, I was still pondering how I shot that huge bolt of energy. I looked down at my hands and thought hard.
"Your majesty, I would ask you to be careful where you point your horns like that."
"Careful where you point your horns like that."
How could I be so stupid! Heck, I'd even realized it the first time I thought my fingers were horns! All my fingers were horns, but I'd just been doing the blasting with one finger! For maximum effect, I must utilize all the horns I have! Sweet.
With that out of the way, I turned back to the stone Charon. There was still one thing that was bugging me about all this.
"If you know everything that happens in this city... how come you didn't know I was Duncan Doughnuts?"
The statue smiled even wider than it had been. I backed off as Charon shone with red light, causing the stone around his body to melt away. This was bad, bad, bad. It was perfectly bad!
"I did know, bug. I just needed you to do something for me, and what a fine job you did!" Charon chuckled.
"Explain yourself... better yet, I'll just make you!" I reached out for him with my magic, but Charon leapt into the ceiling, literally into it. The Sphinx touched the ceiling, and with an ominous red glow melted into it. I thought he'd escaped, but then I heard his laughter echoing through the sewer.
"I have to say, it's such a huge stroke of luck that you've come here, changeling! The last time you knocked her out cold right outside the city, the barrier went down, but I didn't realize it until it was too late! I was going to eat you initially, but then I came up with this great plan to have you knock that accursed unicorn out for me again! The barrier is gone and now it is my turn to feast! Ta-ta!" The sewer went silent.
Is it just me, or does everything I do just make things worse than before?