"Eight years, all too easy," Starlight stated as she shoved me back, the pain in my head growing with every effort I made to get the odd arcane device off of my horn. "Stupid magic. She'd come to me first and I could have found you in eight days... Seconds even."
"S–Starlight... W–what are you doing?" I forced, face contorting with pain as the ring tightened. "What is this thing?"
I really tried not to dwell on the fact that the first sensation of any real note from my horn was one of such intense pain as I fell back and tried to pull it off. It was like what little magic I did have in me was all trying to get out at once, only to be trapped and then forced back into my head like a drill. My muzzle wrinkled, teeth grinding as I closed my eyes tight and tried to come up with anything I could do. Starlight was in my face seconds later, looking down at the stone around my neck as she rotated it in her hoof and sighed.
"No power, what was I expecting?" she observed, then reached back into her saddlebags.
Agony or not, the almost identical rock she pulled out caught my attention like it was a glittering diamond worth a fortune. To me, seeing anything that even remotely hinted at the truth of my existence was worth its weight in gold. She did not even look at me as she pressed the stones together and the runes that had so long been faintly etched into its smooth surface lit up brightly. There was a cracking sound, and my whole body jumped at the electrical jolt as sparks of purple lighting arched between the two stones. The glow passed over both of us like a warm wave, and I looked at her just in time to see the maniacal smile on her face.
I'd known Starlight my whole life, she'd been a pony who'd raised me and I knew for a fact that no matter what I'd heard about her past, this was not the mare I'd known for eight years. So I did the only logical thing my mind told me to do upon confirming it was not a friend I was going to hurt. I grit my teeth and lurched forward, smacking her horn with mine and forcing a yelp of pain from both of us.
She fell back across the floor, sprawling as the magic between the stones fizzled out with a pop and a small blast of purple energy. The arcs of lighting spanned us both like a writhing spider web, singeing her mane and sparking out the device around my horn. The pain faded, and I swayed as the two halves of the ring fell off.
"S–Starlight... What are you doing, what's gotten into you?" I asked, yet as the mare shot to her hooves and growled at me, I did the next thing my mind ordered.
Running. Running was good on all fours, running on adrenaline was even better. It had been a long time since I'd ever had to run like this. Sure, Ponyville seemed like the center for almost every monster attack or crazy spell related catastrophe in Equestria, yet most of those blew over before I even had a chance to realize there was something wrong.
Oh, why does Twilight have to be so insistent on not having guards in Ponyville? I thought as my legs worked.
The odd dragon attack and diamond dog invasion aside, I'd like to think my life had been pretty peaceful. Nevertheless, as I'd been taught to run, use magic and even prompted to try and fly over the years, no motivator spurred change better than the threat of being attacked again.
What's gotten into her, why is she trying to attack me? I found my mind asking as I paused for breath and tried to go over what had just transpired. She looks like Starlight, sounds like her. But would she really ever do that?
Tales of my adopted mother's cultist past came to mind, the details were not entirely known to me, but from what I'd heard it was not pretty. I shook my head at the thought, the mare I knew was past that. She may have issues, she was less forgiving and more ambitious than Twilight, yet I knew that was something she'd never do again. One rub to the singed ring etched into my horn and a wince, however, and I had second thoughts.
No, it can't be her... I was adamant, I'd run to find the real Starlight to prove it. Running away to safety, just like a deceitful coward.
I looked at one wing pressed flat against my side and really tried not to think about how changeling like it was to run away and hide. Just about everything I did not want to be, and the opposite of what my crystal wings should stand for. At least in the idolized vision I had for the few of my kind who'd actually done the right thing.
"You put a remarkable level of faith in that idea," came a wispy voice from the corridors around me. "I've only ever seen a few places where your kind truly is good."
That last word was spat out like bile. Even so, the disembodied tone was recognizable and yet I could not place my hoof on from where. I found myself staring down at the stone around my neck seconds later, the runes etched into its surface glowing a faint purple after the sparks between the two rocks had arced. Trying to take it in a hoof, only to recoil at the sharp electrical shock, uttering a reverberating yelp as I tried jumping away.
She wanted this, but why? She's the one who gave it to me, made it? Twilight said it had no magic? I tried to reason to myself.
Regardless of the stigma, however, the facts were clear. Starlight or not, I was no match for a full grown mare who seemed to have saddlebags filled with traps designed to really hurt my head. I needed to get help and the closest room with an escape balcony was Flurry's, she could at least fly and use magic. I formulated the plan, coward or not. The thwack of a coil of faintly glowing iron thorns striking the wall only inches to my left spurred me into action faster than my wings could buzz.
"Give up, the time has come. What is forever for you is only seconds for me," sounded that ethereal voice as I heard hoof steps running behind me. "You can't hide from fate, and I assure you, you have such a great fate to come, indeed."
I shook off the voice in my head, its whole existence just seemed to revolve around showing up and taunting me, as if it simply enjoyed the cruelty. Answers were the last thing on my mind right now as I came to another stop, gasping for breath. Nostrils flaring and muzzle wide open, I slouched against the wall, lungs demanding far more air then I could manage to take in. It was at times like this that I wished my ability to turn into inconspicuous objects worked, yet with my head still pounding from the attack that was about the last thing I was capable of.
All that I could hear on the ghostly wind that seemed to blow through the crystal halls just to taunt me was the insistent rambling about eight years. That voice was like a foal promised a new gift, only to never shut up about it as the time drew near. The sounds of slow hoof steps creeping up behind me were less evasive, however, and heart racing or not, I forced myself forward and slammed against the first bedchamber door I came across. Then fell flat on the carpet, energy unnaturally sapped.
"What in the Empire..." The spear that was levitated towards the door by a golden aura as Flurry sat up in her bed would have been pressed right to my face had I been able to stand.
Woe to the pony who thought they could sneak up on a princess that had spent most of her foalhood years worrying about attacks from evil shapeshifters, and then been trained by one of the best soldiers in Equestrian history. Of course, the most I had to worry about was the discarded weapon clattering down beside my head as she released it from her magical grip with a gasp.
"Digit? What are you doing here?" Mane slightly frazzled as she shot up from her bed and trotted over, her look turned skeptical. "Why do you look like you've done ten laps around the crystal stadium?"
"I... I... No time to..." Making words when I could hardly provide my body with the air it needed was hard.
I had to stagger to my hooves, forehoof to my chest as I breathed in and out slowly before I collected myself enough to get the words out.
"S–Starlight... Or not Starlight, somepony is after me... We need to get down to the others," I stammered through my exertions.
She blinked at me and levitated her spear back to her side. "Starlight's after you?"
For a moment I was afraid she would not take me seriously as she snorted a small laugh and rolled her eyes. The stern look I shot her, coupled with a bitter frown, seemed to change her mind, however.
"Why in Equestria would Starlight be after you? Almost sounds like she's not the real..." Her words trailed off as her eyes went wide.
In the same instant, there was a clatter and a whoosh as one of the powerful magical suppressors whizzed through the air and coiled around her horn like lightning. Like how I'd felt only a few minutes ago, the effects were instantaneous, all-powerful alicorn or not.
Flurry's face contorted with pain as she recoiled and the weapons dropped from her subdued magical grip. The ring around her horn glowed a molten orange as the magical aura spread half way up her spire before stopping short as the arcane device constricted. I swayed, ears perking only seconds before I ducked my head and the second magical restrictor shot right over me. There was a grunt from the open doorway and without thought, I bucked it shut and flicked the lock before leaping on Flurry'.
"Aargh... W–what is this thing?" she forced, growling through the pain as she tried to scrape the thing off with a forehoof.
I reached for it, only to burn my hoof as the thing glowed red hot. "Stop using your magic, that's what it wants."
"You try saying that when it feels like it's trying to suck your brain out of your head!" she screamed as she closed her eyes and took a deep, haggard breath.
"Well, I had one on my horn about five minutes ago, so don't try to tell me how it feels!" I shot back in a panic.
Yeah, but my magic is irrelevant compared to hers, so can I really pretend to know how it feels to have that much power ripped from my mind? I banished the belittling thought as I reached for the thorny coil again.
The metal burned. But, wincing at the sting, I slid one forehoof up the length of her horn and flicked the thing off. It crumbled like dust on the floor as she let out a gasp and staggered onto her side.
"W–what in the Empire was that?" she asked, looking at the disintegrated pile of dust as I rubbed my burned hoof.
"No idea but we need to make sure she can't get us again," I insisted as she shook herself and levitated over her spear.
The exhaustion it had left in her was clear, yet nowhere near as effective as it had been on me as her face turned from worried princess to furious royal guard.
"Oh, I'll make sure whoever did that won't get another chance," she warned, and I looked worriedly between her and the balcony we could use to escape.
"Flurry, maybe now is not the best time to be the hero," I stammered, but she levitated the spear vertically before her face and planted its base on the floor at her forehooves.
"Why not, I love a challenge." The smirk on Starlight's face was heralded by her creeping through the solid door like a ghost, body outlined in green fire as she did so.
The look on Flurry's face as the green light lit up her eyes was instant, even to me it felt familiar. Yet I was far more focused on the point on the mare's body it seemed to flow from... A small emerald star sat on her chest, like the hanging charm of some invisible amulet. Before I could speculate any more, however, I was shoved back by Flurry's wing and planted behind her as she jabbed the spear at our mysterious attacker.
"You're not Starlight, who are you?" she demanded as I peered around her to meet the imposter's fixed gaze.
She didn't do anything more than prowl around the two of us like a hungry manticore stalking its prey. Flurry kept the sharp end of her weapon fixed on Starlight, only for me to catch a glimmer of green in the corner of my eye. It was small, unremarkable at first, until I swore I saw a hoof, then eyes. My mind playing tricks on me again, I was forced to double take only to see another Starlight looking back at me.
I opened my muzzle to call out just as the second mare reached into her bag and tossed another pair of magical suppression coils at us. I was getting good at ducking, I was also good at tugging Flurry's wing and pulling her down with me. Getting away from danger was my specialty it seemed, and I was taking her with me. Flurry yelped as the tossed projectile whizzed over us and struck the first Starlight imposter that the alicorn had been threatening. The image of the mare flickered out revealing a clear illusion spell and leaving the real one free to try and hit us again.
Not much for killing, so not an assassin. She wants to capture us or just get the stone? My mind evaluated as Flurry shot up and caught the coil aimed at her around the shaft of her spear.
It crackled and popped, fizzling into a fit of sparks that swiftly set the wooden length on fire. The princess winced, a shrill grunt escaping her as the heat blurred her magical grip and she tossed the weapon aside. The next set of projectiles that came out seemed to suggest that our attacker was running out of options. The swarm of spiked balls that exploded into a shower of tiny spiny shrapnel also put my assumptions of her trying to kill us to the test.
Okay, so maybe the stone is the really important thing here then?
"Look out!" It was all I heard the princess cry before the oncoming swarm of painful spikes was intercepted by a golden shield.
I looked over at Flurry to see a strained look on her face, the scar etched into her horn sparking as she fought to keep up the spell, then her face contorted further as she masterfully opened a small hole in the shield and blasted one lance of golden energy through it with her last bastion of magical strength. I knew there were not many ponies that could create a firing port in a shield like that, yet she had learned from the best.
Our attacker seemed to underestimate her in that regard too, throwing down a smoke screen before darting aside. I had to fight not to choke on the haze as the shield dropped and Flurry waved it away from us with her wing, before slumping and gasping for breath.
"I... I don't think I can do that again," she panted as she rubbed her horn.
I remained close to her side as the smoke cleared, yet even without my sight, I could sense that whoever was really after us was not so unscathed. Pain was not so much a taste, more like a scent in the air. I had no idea whether it was because my kind were really predators, but I could sense injury and smell the rush of emotions that came with adrenalin like a shark.
"Y–you got her, I think, she's...." Before I could finish there was a blast of fiery green magic overhead, clearing the smoke in spreading waves that formed a funnel right back to Starlight.
The image of the mare flickered like her illusion, yet this time it was as if there were something underneath as that green fire lapped across her body in fleeting waves. It was impossible, I knew that magic, even if I struggled to conjure it for myself. Yet what was below the disguise was not dark and fanged like me, but looked smooth and almost metallic. There were wings, but not insectile ones. I saw flashes of claws and tattered feathers, odd, lens-like green eyes and a scarred hide under cracks in metal barding. Then the illusion corrected itself seconds later and the image of Starlight was back looking very frustrated with us.
"Your fighting is impressive, I don't believe I've ever met you when you were so..." She twirled a hoof. "On point, shall we say."
Flurry snorted. "Met me? Believe me, I'd know if I'd met whatever you are hiding under there. You think I don't recognize a changeling charm?"
"Flurry, that should be impossible, the queen destroyed that magic right?" I interjected, recalling what Twilight had once told me about Scolopendra destroying her race and their magic along with them.
The fake Starlight smirked. "Such narrow-mindedness. Maybe for you, it is impossible, but I've been to far too many places where it is not ."
"We should find Twilight, now," I suggested, tugging at her wing as she glared daggers at the imposter.
"A lot of my friends, even my mother, died to stop that monster. I want to know where you got that," she growled, pushing me behind her like I was some weak foal.
"There's far more here than you know," Starlight said as she reached a hoof into her bag. "Though you should really listen to your friend there, at least that would be if you could escape."
Flurry glanced at me, then took a deep breath. I knew that look, I knew it meant she was about to do something reckless and I was not going to like it.
"I would not be so sure about that... I... You're not the first shapeshifter that's tried to kill me." There was a spark and a crackle from her scarred horn, her face scrunching as she groaned and forced all of her might into one spell.
I knew that look, I knew her, and I knew that if there was one thing she could do that I hated, it was what I thought she was about to do. The flash that came seconds later, along with the sensation of my whole body being awkwardly forced down a spiraling tube and pushed through the eye of a needle, was just that. The force of the floor slamming into me as I fell onto it face first was just a painful bonus as I groaned and rolled onto my back, carapace, and mane singed.
"Life on the line or not, teleporting still sucks," I grumbled, pressing a hoof to my muzzle as I sat up. "A warning next time would be nice."
She shook herself, ruffling her wings to put out some of the sparks that had ignited there and looked at her scorched black horn.
"I... I don't think I'll have to warn you anytime soon," she admitted as she reached up with a wing, only to wince as the pinions ran over the coiled scars on her horn. "Are you okay? What was that?"
Always on point, she was looking at me as if I had all the answers, and when I told her about everything I knew from the five minutes I'd known the fake Starlight, she frowned.
"Changeling magic like that should be impossible, she'd have to get it from a real changeling, and you'd tell me if you'd been giving it out, right?" My frown said it all as I huffed.
"Oh, sure, I just let Starlight pluck magic out of my head every day." I tapped my horn. "There's hardly any magic in me to start with."
She sat down, ruffled wings folded around her as she pressed a forehoof to her chin and seemed to become lost in thought. Meanwhile, I looked around, seeing nothing but darkened corridors around us.
"Hey, Flurry, where were you aiming for with that spell?" The lack of anypony around had me on edge as the princess perked up.
"I was trying to use the homing spell auntie Twilight gave me, though I just had a magical drill in my head so forgive me if I was a little off." I could not fault her there as I slumped.
"And you're okay, right?" I asked and despite an apprehensive glance at her horn she nodded, then paused and looked at me closely.
"Hey, is that supposed to do that?" She nodded to me, and I looked back in confusion before she rolled her eyes and jabbed a hoof at my chest. "Your little gem thing, silly."
The moment she touched the stone around my neck I felt the chain tug as the thing started to squirm, markings flashing. The panic it was going to choke me subsisted as I noticed that it seemed to be trying to edge away from me or at least in some direction to my right.
"What... No, but she did something to it, she had one just like it." I tapped the stone and like a dog on a leash, it started to tug hard, practically flying away from my neck and dragging me along. "F–Flurry, this really is not normal!"
"What, you're telling me?!" she exclaimed as I was dragged across the floor before finally standing and walking along with the stone's pull. "Take it off!"
She bit it and yanked it from off my neck, only for it to pull forward from her muzzle and rip from her teeth's grip as if levitating in a magical aura. Instinctively I reached out to catch it, only to once again be pulled along by my outstretched forehoof as it snagged in one of my gnarled holes.
"You know, some magic would be really useful right now," Flurry grumbled as she tried to hold me back, yet even with her unnatural strength, the stone continued to drag us along with it, at least until it came upon a door.
The pair of us fell back as the snagged chain slipped and the stone shot to the door, rattling against it as if suspended be some great magnet on the opposite side. Sprawled out over the princess's fluffy plumage, I lifted my head, only for her to groan and knock me off as she got to her hooves and shook herself. I took one look at the door the levitating stone was trying to burrow its way through, and a chill ran down my spine.
"You know what that room is right?" I asked and Flurry made her way over to the door and pressed a forehoof to it.
"Yeah, auntie Twi's map room... Don't tell me you're still scared of it?" she asked and I got up and shook myself off.
"No... I... Well, I have reasons to be at least." She rolled her eyes and pushed the door open allowing the stone to shoot through where it swiftly found a place to hover above the central table. "Reasons like this."
"Okay, I know weird stuff happens in this room, but I've never seen anything like that," Flurry commented as she started to make her way around the table, eyes fixed on the suspended stone as it started to rotate.
"Oh, I can very much tell that you haven't seen anything like this." My ears perked and her wings flared as we both turned to see Starlight standing in the open doorway.
I glanced between the imposter and the stone, my expression considerably less fierce than Flurry's as she lowered herself like a chimera ready to pounce.
"Wait... What is that, what did you do?" I asked, shuffling up beside my friend as the desire to know the truth overcame my self-preservation.
I've never been closer to the truth, there's got to be a chance? My heart and mind were racing as the fake Starlight took out her own stone and a spark of purple lightning arced between it and mine above the table.
"More than you know, changeling," she stated as the lightning around the floating stone started to crack and fizzle furiously.
I looked into that swirling mess of sparks and stars as it grew and grew like a storm on the horizon. I'd seen planets, meteor showers, even galaxies in Twilight's observatory in Canterlot and they all looked like they were made miniature in that expanding mass of purple that seemed to rip the very air itself into oblivion.
"Digit!" Flurry called, covering me with one wing as the storm started to grow and spit flames. "What did she just do...? We should not let them mess with Twilight's map!"
I forwent listening to Flurry's chastising as the rock began to glow and spin, faster and faster until there was a virtual whirling of purple light blasting from the table in a great cone. The whole chamber started to shake, the chimes hanging from above rattling as arcs of amethyst lighting lanced outwards to scorch the walls. If it had not been for Flurry I might have been blinded, yet as the last surge of magic erupted from it in a prismatic shock wave, we both ducked behind her wings.
The storm of magic disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. I saw the fake Starlight's eyes go wide as my stone clattered to the table, and it rolled to the forehooves of a tall, gaunt-looking creature, with long, gnarled legs, a slender body, tattered wings, and a swampy mane and tail. The figure took off a dark scarf and mask that had been covering her face and muzzle, glowing eyes scoured the room in a frenzy before coming to rest on us. The smile on her muzzle, one unbroken fang glinting, was too impossible to be true.
I'd never seen a changeling queen, I'd only seen images. Yet from what I'd learned my whole life, they were literally the evilest things imaginable.