Princess Celestia was looking through the library shelves when a delicate ‘pop’ sound caught her ear. She turned around to face a panting Twilight Sparkle and Wub, the masqueraded changeling’s face swollen to the point of being barely recognizable.
“My goodness,” gasped the Princess, cocking her head slightly at the sight. As strong as her power of will was, a totally un-regal snort escaped her lips. “I’ve never seen somepony so, uh …” She felt her composure falling apart, so the royal mare covered her face with a wing and coughed, discreetly wiping a tear of joy. On the inside, she wished she could drop to the floor and roll with laughter.
But it would be very inconsiderate of a Princess to laugh at somepony else’s misfortune.
“I’m sorry Princess,” wheezed Twilight, who seemed to have put quite some energy into her recent spell. “It’s all my fault, please, punish me if you must. It was my idea and I am prepared to take responsibility for my thoughtlessness.”
Chip wished to voice his own opinion on the matter of guilt, but all he managed to do was spit some more on his fur and overall. After all, he was the one who chose to eat the damned treat, not Twilight. Should he be a bit more careful with pony cuisine, they would be already relaxed and ready for some more work.
“Twilight, Wub-” started the Princess, but was swiftly interrupted.
“Princess! My fault, I did it, I swear! It was my idea, I proposed we go out and take some fresh air…”
“I understand Twilight, still-”
“Please, don’t mix Wub into this, she’s already got her share of trouble with that … face,” pleaded the mare, waving her hooves in Chip’s direction.
Just don’t look, thought Celestia, don’t you even dare giggle. No, his face does not resemble a tomato. With two large, golden eyes. And a white mane. I told you not to look. Damnit! The princess really wanted to be cross with the two. But the sight of the changeling, and the mare’s imagination that put the swollen head on the true bulky changeling body Chip had….
Totally confused, Twilight and Chip stared as the Princess convulsed in held back laughter, her eyes watering lavishly. What could be so funny? Their mission was nearly put in jeopardy and Celestia thought it was hilarious?
“Princess?” asked a worried Twilight.
“I’m sorry Twilight,” replied the regal pony, cooling her blushing face with her wings. “It’s just that Wub looks just so … you know.” And she lost it again, laughing like she hadn’t had the occasion to in the last couple of days.
Chip tried to pout, but that did very little to change his facial expression. Still a bit lightheaded, the changeling picked himself up, being extra careful not to touch anything with his sensitive face.
“Oh, I’m so sorry Twilight Sparkle, Wub. It’s just that these last days were … intense to say the least. And now this. It’s as if everything is fighting against us, my friends,” the mare sighed, finally calming down. “We need to talk. In private, only the three of us.”
“Oh, yes, of course Princess … Spike! You, uh …”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll just bugger off,” complained the baby dragon, waddling towards the library door. As they closed behind him, a click was heard – the library was closed by Twilight.
As the librarian trotted around the room closing and covering all the windows with their curtains, Princess Celestia performed her spell, making sure that nobody else was in the room. Chip continued to stand on his shaky legs, gently poking his disfigured features.
“Right. As I said, this incident couldn’t have happened in a less desirable moment. I’ll start from the beginning, as that will be simpler than the two of you guessing and asking unnecessary questions. You see, right after Wub left…”
It didn’t take long for the most trusted servants of Celestia to finish securing the room that contained her private collection of books. To be honest, she knew only one or two titles, but figured that an indecent set of tomes would be a perfect cover up for keeping such a chamber under guard and a secret. But this was just one thing that needed a cover up.
The other was the changeling assassin’s body that they recovered. It was a pity the head was destroyed, but the creature would prove useful even in this state. Finding a suitable place to store it wasn’t as hard as trying to do it while juggling everyday duties. Even her little sister, Luna, was to be kept away from the research, in fear of her safety. While Celestia did not doubt the capability or devotion of the Night Guards, she dared not underestimate the guile of the enemy either.
Luckily for the Princess the mines under Canterlot, old and forgotten, were just the right place to conduct research of such delicate nature. Deep within the heart of the mountain that housed Canterlot, surrounded by gems of unimaginable beauty, the royal mare lay the body along with the equipment she believed would come in handy. It took a lot of time to prepare the site, placing all sorts of trap spells and false walls to hinder anypony that would wish to snoop around, or be unfortunate enough to wander down here.
The first day Celestia stayed well up into the night, cutting and prying the chitin away, a task that turned out to be a lot harder than anticipated. The damn plates were nearly knitted into the skin, something more of a solid coat rather than armor. As the mare put away various parts of the black carapace, she wondered just how much a changeling can feel through it. It seemed to be very durable, and the rate at which it healed was mind-boggling. At least, she saw that much on Chip.
The monster’s body bare, the Princess believed it to be feminine. It was hard to discern, given no feminine or masculine organs were present. Her bone structure didn’t differ much from that of a pony, save for the strange hooves. They were riddled with holes, something that seems to be more of a weakness than strength. A form of defect? Maybe those parts were missing to lower the overall mass of the creature?
Reluctantly, the mare had to stop for that day – she could feel she spent nearly half the night prying and cutting. Her white coat was stained with bits of green blood that still resided in the layers between the chitin and skin. A quick cleaning spell fixed that nicely, although Celestia would have to endure her fur being a bit more fluffy than usual – the spell used ionization to clear away dirt on a microscopic level.
“That doesn’t sound so bad, Princess!” said Twilight with a glint of hope. It was good to know that her teacher also did her own research. That way, they could independently and using different techniques verify acquired data. And check if Chip was lying or not.
“Yes, indeed, the first day wasn’t bad, despite me being tired later on. But it was the second day that things started going downhill…”
It was night yet again, and the Princess teleported to the mines below. She appeared mid-air, making sure to land on the right spot. Waving her horn around, she disarmed or delayed certain traps and moved walls, slowly making her way to the table surrounded by medical apparatus. The lifeless body of the changeling lay there as it did yesterday, bare, its armor neatly arranged on the floor to resemble that of the creature’s structure.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes, the hooves…”
The Princess worked on the appendages for some time, gently removing skin and considering what she saw. These holes didn’t seem to be random at all. Each leg had the same amount of holes that were of the exact same sizes. There was no doubt that this did serve some purpose.
Curious, Celestia set the body straight and put the hoof to the ground. Not a sound. She did it again, a bit harder this time. Nothing. When she slid the leg across the surface of the table, yes, there was a scraping sound. But when the hoof connected to the floor from above...
The changelings could sneak very effectively. Somehow, the arrangement of holes in their hooves absorbed the vibrations of hoofsteps, nulling them out or at least making them nearly inaudible. This theory was further enforced by how flexible and muscled their legs were overall – their shoulders could dislocate slightly, probably allowing to fall down like a cat would from high places. The bones were even elastic to a degree, bending just a little bit.
The Princess again slammed the hoof against the desk. There was a faint sound, but it did not come from the point of impact – it was a bit higher, where the last of the holes was. Remarkable…
Next on the list was the torso. It felt a bit disgusting to open it like that, but there was no way around it – the fewer ponies were involved, the lesser the danger of anypony getting hurt. Comparing the organ structure to the book she brought along helped a lot. Most of the organs were right where they should be, although some of them were smaller or bigger. The heart and lungs were larger in particular, probably giving the changeling more stamina and endurance overall. The stomach was quite small, and whatever passed for intestines was meager and ended before it even reached the flank. As the Princess noted, the changeling didn’t have any way of, um, waste disposal. That is to say, the hole was there, but the pipe didn’t quite connect.
And that would be enough for the night, thought Celestia, feeling a bit sick by now. At least now she knew she would not be a good doctor or veterinarian. She felt dirty and desperately wanted to take a bath.
She wanted to turn around when something in the still open torso caught her eye. It was a small sack, right next to the stomach. It was nowhere in the image the Princess looked at, and compared to the rest of the slightly greenish innards, this thing was bright red.
Carefully, she tugged at the thing, plopping it out of place effortlessly. Huh, it wasn’t connected to anything. What could it be? It felt cold to the touch, a chilling sensation that managed to travel down the Princess’ hoof. The mare yelped as something icy ‘bit’ her shoulder, causing her to fumble and drop the organ.
It hit the floor, splattering like an egg, unleashing a red fluid. It quickly solidified into tiny quicksilver-like balls that gathered at Celestia’s hooves, sticking to her royal horseshoes. She felt the cold again, creeping upwards with threatening speed.
Panicked, the mare took flight, shaking off the aggressive whatever-it-was, causing it to bounce around the floor for a few moments. Slowly but surely, the liquid returned to form one solid shiny ball under Celestia. It seemed to be reaching for her.
Cautiously, the mare flew a bit to the right. It followed. She moved forward. And so did the ball. She flew higher. It did not move, still trying to raise itself to catch the mare.
“Day’s light save me, what is that thing?” whispered Celestia, eyeing the fluid.
“Oh my … What was that Princess?” asked Twilight.
“I still have no clue, Twilight. I managed to close this liquid in a container, sealed by a very potent spell. It remains there to this day, probably pressed against the glass…”
“Chip, do you know what it could be?” The librarian turned to Chip, who still looked ridiculous.
Deciding that an elaborate answer would fall flat and wet on his stomach, he just shook his head. He saw many a dead changeling, some of them were even sometimes consumed. He didn’t pay special attention to any red things, though.
“Well, since that thing is contained, it’s not all bad, right? We can still test it, right?”
“I wish that were true, Twilight Sparkle…”
The third day, Princess Celestia had a bad feeling creeping up her spine. As usual she snuck out at night, cautiously making her way to the room with a table, a dead changeling and a vicious bottle with a fluid that daunted her in a way she could not understand.
“What else can we learn from this…” hummed the mare, glancing mindlessly at the various scalpels, tongs and drills before her. “Maybe it’s time for some magic?”
Opening yet another book on medicine, Celestia started forming a plan. She needed to know how changelings reacted to certain spells, or stimuli. It would be best if perhaps a tranquilizer spell would work, or a simple put-to-sleep spell. It was hard to check that on a dead body, though, so she had to settle for tracing how the nervous system worked.
“If only you had a head,” tsked the mare, flipping the pages in search of something easy and effective.
She finally chose one and concentrated, trying to replace finesse and the required experience with sheer force and power. As she predicted, the effect wasn’t much like in the book, but some veins of yellow light appeared on the skin, all tracing back to the spine that shone brightly. Everything was more or less as the book said. The hooves had a much denser net of nerves than usual, which made sense, as a sneaking changeling should be able to feel the ground beneath his hooves.
The spell was very taxing in Celestia’s rendition, but she kept sustaining it, flipping the body as fast as she could and tracing the threads of light on the body. Her focus made her oblivious to a dangerous fact, though. The body was twitching, in a resting position.
Too tired to continue, the mare broke the spell, panting and sitting on her haunches. She turned around to scribble a few notes. The body’s leg scraped against the desk.
“Hmm?” Celestia turned around. The jar was still where it was supposed to be, and the liquid inside was … stirring?
Another hoof twitched, this time observed by the royal pony.
“What? Could this be a side-effect of the spell?” she asked aloud, cautiously approaching the carcass.
Without warning, the body leapt from the table, startling the Princess into taking flight. It kept wiggling on the floor, the convulsions shaking the already loose innards, making the mare feel sick. The jar on the shelf was rattling, the red liquid inside banging around frenzily.
“What’s going on?” gasped Celestia, uncertain if she should flee or act.
But before she could do anything, it all stopped. The fluid settled, oozing down the container’s wall. The body was motionless again. Looking at it made the mare taste her own supper a bit.
She still hovered in mid-air, trying to understand what just happened. To her bewilderment, the body begun to fizzle, collapsing on itself, forming a small puddle beneath the desk that served as an operation table. The vicious liquid no longer tried to press against it prison, turning a darker shade of crimson.
It was but a few moments, and the body was no more. In its stead there lay a puddle, one that looked slippery and reeked foully. Covering her face, Celestia finally flew down and levitated over a spatula, prodding the gooey mass. At this point she was ready to believe it would spawn a maw and attack her.
“Nothing,” uttered the Princess, unable to take a deep breath in the hideous air that filled the room. It wasn’t just the smell of death, it was something else entirely. Something like this would probably be found in a bog; one that nopony ever came to, a place inhabited by mythical creatures, poisonous and deadly.
“… And then what, Princess?”
“I left it there, sealed the room and … wasn’t sure what to do next,” sighed Celestia, allowing her wings to slump slightly. “I was hoping that Wub could shed a little bit of light on what has happened, but in this state, he won’t be able to talk for a day or two at least.”
“We’re sorry, Princess … If we only knew! We’re so sorry!” Twilight bowed deeply, again pleading her teacher for forgiveness.
“It’s … fine, Twilight. I was a little worked up before. As I said, these few days took their toll on me. I don’t like showing weakness, especially in public like this.”
“Princess…” All Twilight could do now was stare at her teacher. Little by little, she came closer to her, looking into the tired eyes of her mentor. She was a pony too, after all, and a very old and tired one. She had a country to rule, a threat to expect at any time and moment…
The librarian was close now, softly touching her muzzle against Celestia’s chest. The regal pony sighed and put her head down on Twilight’s.
“Don’t worry, Princess,” whispered the purple pony, shyly patting the hoof of the ruler of Equestria. “I’m sure everything will turn out just fine. We’ll finish our research, find a fail-safe way to defend ourselves.”
“And then what?” asked Celestia. “Wait?”
The two went silent, each mulling over their own concerns.
Chip on the other hoof was still astonished after hearing the story. So many things he didn’t know about himself. What was that strange red organ, tucked away under his belly? Why did the body melt all of a sudden? Was it a coincidence it was the same day that Twilight and Chip had their mind-switching adventure?
In any case, he had to wait until he could speak to voice his concerns.