"No, we had a deal... If you think I can be so easily manipulated then you are a fool."
"Times change, small plans make room for greater revelations. You speak far too highly of yourself... They'll be the perfect specimens"
"You really have no idea... I was the one who was supposed to be perfect, I brought you this, it was to be mine!"
"Nopony ever remembers the catalyst for greatness, only the one bold enough to cause the change... Now you see, you will be forgotten."
"Flurry!" I awoke with such a jump that my head almost slammed into the low ceiling of dark stone just inches above me.
Ghostly voices spun in my head, but the last word I could remember exploded from my throat as my mind blasted back to consciousness. "I... the map, she...."
I pressed a heavy forehoof to my heaving chest as I breathed in and out, air seeping past my fangs as my thoughts swam and my distorted vision awkwardly came into focus. I saw flashes of magic, a wall of swirling purple light, heard the roar of thunder and felt as if my whole body had been stretched like taffy. As soon as the initial rush faded and my blurred vision reassembled itself into a relatively clear view, a hole formed in my chest, a hole that felt like it had been momentarily filled by something powerful and new to me.
Then came more memories, metal talons inches from my face, the green eyes of Queen Chrysalis as she loomed over me, fanged muzzle wide with a triumphant grin. I saw Starlight and Twilight looking up at us, the Princess tossed aside as Starlight was pinned by magic. Then my name called out in an instantly recognizable voice as pale hooves reached out for me, wings beating to battle through the amethyst storm. Reality slammed into me like a wall, almost knocking me to the dusty floor as I recalled the sensation of teleporting and that of feathers folded around me.
"Flurry!" I called again, struggling across the rocky ground only for a set of glowing green chains and shackles binding my limbs to go taut and rattle, yanking me back.
I looked back and the arcane bonds felt like the least of my issues as I saw the unconscious form of the young alicorn under the same crevice I'd awoken in. She was bruised and her wings ruffled as her chest slowly rose and fell, she was chained up too, only with a very crude looking muzzle over her snout. I edged back over to her, my own chains chiming, yet before I could reach out the creeping sensation of sharp eyes fixed on me caused my chitin to crawl.
"She won't wake up, not yet." The low, reverberating tone was like ice down my spine, spreading to the tips of my wings as they anxiously buzzed at my sides.
I could almost hear the stiff muscles in my neck grind like stones as I turned around slowly and my quivering eyes came to rest on Queen Chrysalis looming just beyond a set of jagged cell bars. Her dark body and black scarf were almost indistinguishable from the gloom in the tunnel around her. If it weren't for those slitted eyes glowing like balefire orbs in the shadows, she'd have been almost invisible. Her gnarled body even mirrored the jagged cave around her perfectly.
"You would still be asleep too if I were to allow it. Yet I was never one to allow drones to sleep on the job," the queen mused as she materialized into a pillar of sickly yellow light like a ghost.
"Though I'm sure you'll come to respect and yearn for the effect a queen can have on her drones, Digit." She gagged that name like it was the most disgusting thing in the universe, and I shrank back with a rattle of chains.
"What... What have you done, where's Twilight and Starlight?" I stammered, and she flicked a hoof as I forced. "I... I'm not yours... I should not even look like this!" There was a memory of somepony telling me that this was not my true body, a new memory.
Chrysalis did not look impressed as she snorted. "I care not, probably having fun with Chunrabo's lackey back in their castle, while they futilely try to plan how to rescue you." Her tone was so casual, yet made my heart sink.
She grinned at that. "You'll find ponies are most predictable, no matter where they come from."
They are still in the castle? Left with that metal monster? A cold sensation in my mind caused me to be careful what I thought as I hoped the rest of my family was still alright. They'll come after us, neither of them would ever give up.
"Oh, is that disappointment I feel in you? Do not worry my little nymph, I'm sure you will come to appreciate what it is to be a real changeling under a real queen." She pressed a forehoof to the scarf around her chest and grinned.
"What, I... I don't care about anything you can offer me, I was perfectly happy knowing you were dead," I retorted, putting on my best mean face, which would have been better if I was not shivering more than a foal caught in a blizzard.
The queen snorted, rolling her eyes. "My sweet little nymph, I didn't mean to imply that you had a choice." She slipped right up to the bars, sneering at me as she pressed her muzzle through, and I gulped.
"Y-you... You..." I clenched my jaw, furrowed my brow and swallowed my fear, I was not dead, I could still think for myself, there had to be reasons. "What do you want with us, where are we?"
The cave around us was dark and dripping wet. The rocks were sharp and ragged, riddled with rugged holes and pits akin to my limbs and the queen's. The look seemed to be that of a changeling hive, based on what I knew from school, Twilight's books and the stories Rainbow Dash told from when she was fighting as an aerial combatant in the war. The brash pegasus had always been way more eager to talk about how she and her Wonderbolts awesomely cleared changeling hives then Twilight or Starlight ever had. Yet this place looked dead, not afflicted by the shape-changing magic I knew a real hive should have. The only break in the stillness here were dripping sounds, the cold wind and the rattling of my chains.
"You're somewhere where nopony will ever find you," Chrysalis responded, more matter-of-factly then threateningly. "Where I can keep you away from those ridiculous ponies and..."
She stopped herself and growled. She looked far less imposing for a brief moment and in the back of my mind I heard a sly giggle, a voice that I recognized. In the same instant, Chrysalis' eyes snappted to me, eyes meeting mine and once again making me wish I could just turn into a rock and disappear.
"You, what is in your head?" she demanded, taking a step back from the bars as I blinked at her. "Tell me, nymph! Your queen doesn't ask twice!”
I pressed a hoof to my forehead, and just like that it hit me. The memory of the young zebra mare, a forbidden ledge bathed in moonlight and a cracked table forged from amethyst crystal. I saw her hooded eyes flash in my vision, but above all else, I could remember her.
Stammering, I told the queen as much, even if it looked like she knew exactly what I was thinking.
"She's been in my head for as long as I can remember, but I could never remember when she wasn't actually there." She'd been the one to teach me about all of this, tell me that I was not a real changeling, tell me that this thing... This queen was my mother?
"The mother of your body, not whatever wretched soul she stuffed in there," the queen swiftly corrected my thoughts, before seeming to consider something to herself. "Hmm, so the downfall effect does nullify her spells... Her influence is weak..." she mumbled to herself as she lifted a forehoof to her chin.
"Wait... So you know what I am, where I came from?" No matter how scary she may be and how disgusted I was to have been spawned from her, the idea she may finally be able to tell me the truth lightened my heart.
Then she glanced back at me suddenly, making me jump back. "I'd have thought ponies of all creatures would have told you how rude it is to eavesdrop."
I shrank back towards Flurry, wishing that the sleeping mare would just wake up and tell me she was okay. I needed her back, I needed the truth. Yet as the queen had said, her breathing was the only evidence she was even still alive. That in mind, I fortified my resolve once more and turned back to Chrysalis.
"Okay... M–my queen, why has there been some striped filly messing with my head all my life and I can only now remember she exists?" I asked, trying to appeal to her better nature with a reluctant bow.
She scoffed at the gesture, offering a glare so hard I could only tremble under it as I peered up at her, my perfect attempts at a loyal drone apparantly pathetic. She stared at me for a long second, a multitude of complex thoughts seemingly swelling behind those dead, green eyes. Then she lifted her head and called out.
"Cygor, the cage, now!" She stomped a hoof to emphasize and just like that a creature shambled from the gloom.
Shorter than the queen, yet more thickly built, the bipedal canine had shaggy gray fur, a mangy tail, and battered to reveal pale scars and bald flesh. His back was hunched, his scabbed knuckles dragging as he slouched and shambled along. An under-bitten chin sat below a mouth of sharp, yellowed teeth, torn nostrils and ears. One yellow eye peered at us, the other covered by a black eye patch as he stopped beside the queen and bowed. I'd never seen a real diamond dog, yet all I knew told me that was definitely what this creature was. From the smell alone, I could clearly assume he matched most of Rarity's old stories.
"Yes, yes, my queen... Anything you would desire," he half cackled, half croaked to the larger changeling, and she grumbled, rolling her eyes.
"Unlock the cage, now," she jabbed a hoof at the bars and I was left wondering why she did not just use her magic to do it herself as the creature nodded and pulled out a set of keys.
The bars swung open with a shriek, and as he staggered towards us I was torn between getting as far away from his mangy claws as possible and making sure he got nowhere near Flurry while she was unable to defend herself. The way he awkwardly nodded at me, grinning ear to ear, however, made me pause... at least long enough for him to seize my chains and unlock the shackles.
"Good bug, such a nice looking good bug," he muttered, reaching out with a paw that I swiftly darted away from before bolting for the door.
I had to get away, find a way to get Flurry out and we could both go home. The queen was there glaring down at me before I could even make it halfway across the cell, her gaze alone like a brick wall for me to slam into as I felt pressure on my mind.
"Cygor, leave us!" she snapped at the dog that was regarding Flurry curiously.
When he failed to hear her the first time she snarled, and even I felt like hissing defensively at the sight of him so close to my friend. "Go now, or any gems will be forfeit!"
At the mention of gems, his head and tattered ears perked, and like a gray blur he scampered off in the direction she'd indicated with a forehoof. That just left me and her as she peered down her wrinkled muzzle at me. One fang flashed and I got the idea she thought of me as if I was some disgusting insect she'd scraped off of her hoof. I could not look back up at her, yet after a few seconds, she kicked the cell door closed behind me and suddenly turned, giving a hiss as she flicked her tail to indicate for me to follow.
"Follow, nymph," she ordered simply, voice not even raised as she marched off into the tunnels.
I hesitated for just a second, and one glance back from her was all I needed to know that she really would not ask again.
"By the moons, what a squalor. This is seriously the place she chose to hide?" Now that I knew who she was, the voice of the zebra mare taunting me felt a little less mysterious echoing through my brain.
Yet the more I could now clearly think about her, the more it felt like she was digging, leeching my thoughts for information as she'd done behind the enchantments for years. I recalled what she'd said about messing with me merely for the fun of it, no matter if she had plans on the side. Therefore, I did my best to block her out, yet one giggle from the mare and a glance at my reflection in a pillar of jagged black obsidian to my right, and I jumped away, almost plummeting into a deep chasm left of the narrow ledge we were traversing. Fragmented as it may look in the stone, I did not remember my reflection looking so much like an amethyst eyed, cackling zebra.
"Stop acting so cowardly, behave more like a real changeling," Chrysalis shot back at me from where she was trotting ahead.
I looked back at my reflection, seeing it as normal as it had been for the past eight years of my life. Finally daring to lock eyes with Chrysalis, I was getting far more desperate to demand she tell me what was going on. That demand became a little less threatening after about a second, however, as my voice became a whimper under her imposing stare.
"That is kinda hard when you won't tell me anything. Where am I really, what's going on?" I glanced off into the void of the pit beside me and gulped. "Can't we just go home?"
The queen let out a low growl as she trotted on with her head held low, and I had no choice but to follow or get left behind.
"You could go home and die at the claws of whatever assassin Churnabo sends next, the spell only shrouded you from her for eight years ." She seemed reluctant to elaborate. "Yet time can flow differently depending on one's location."
Yeah, because I feel so much safer here with her! My mind sneered back, only for her to fix me with a dangerous glare.
"Mind your thoughts, little nymph. If I wanted you dead then your brain would not be here to chastise me." She smirked and I wilted powerlessly as her reverberating voice rang out in my mind.
"Hmm, really not used to having a real queen, are you?" she asked over her shoulder as the pair of us left the ledge and began up a set of steps. "I don't even want to consider what those ponies... what Starlight Glimmer may have done to you."
I felt her thoughts start to burn like cinders at the mention of one of the mares who'd raised me as if Starlight had been the one to break her. Funny, last I saw she was kicking Starlight and Twilight's tail at the same...
I whacked my head with a forehoof and silenced my thoughts as she smirked back at me. "I'll forgive your ignorance this time. True, your Starlight Glimmer never wronged me, but revenge is sweet no matter the reality."
"My Starlight? B–but you say that as if there's more than just one?" I pressed as we reached the top of the stairs and came out into a large cylindrical chamber.
"So you do have a brain, I'm surprised with Twilight having such a hoof in your upbringing it took you so long," Chrysalis retorted as I took in the new space.
The roof was low, littered with stalactites and more gnawed holes. The floor too was hardly any better, nor were the walls, even if some of the holes seemed to lead out into a far larger and illuminated space like twisted windows. In the center of the room, below a point where the roof rose in a great shaft the slick, black rock rose up to form a table, very much akin to Twilight's map. Beyond, embedded into the wall like the two had been melted together long ago, was some kind of odd, metallic pyramid.
Small enough to fit in one's hooves, the thing was encased in a fine green glow that sparked and flickered on occasion. Just looking at it made me want to look away as if the mere sight of the green field were toxic. Chrysalis eyed the artifact like an age-old enemy as she prowled around the central table.
"Curious?" She thought at me as I stared at the small pyramid. "I would advise you to steer your thoughts away from curiosity, no changelings can break that field."
No matter how aware I was that she could read my mind, I could not help but wonder why she'd go to the length of shielding something and not simply use her magic like normal. Not once had I seen her horn even glow to lift something. The way she dismissively snorted at me made it pretty clear that there were some secrets I was not becoming privy to, so I instead focused on her previous words as she seemed to wish of me. The way she talked about more than one version of somepony made the table in the middle of the room look even more familiar.
"So... so, there's more than one map? " I raised a hoof to my muzzle, recalling the story Starlight had told me about how she may have almost ended multiple alternate universes.
Like a pony who could read my mind, Chrysalis simply smirked at my revelation. "Smart nymph, a step closer to the perfection I envisioned."
She moved over and brushed a hoof across the dusty stone table. "Where you come from is just one of many places where things happened differently. You were the last of your kind in your home, our race killed by a daughter I never had. Yet here you are with your true queen."
She directed a forehoof at me as I tried to come to terms with the fact that what Twilight and Starlight had proposed to be a theory their whole lives was true. Even as I thought that there could only be countless more versions of those mares who'd come to the exact same conclusion. What about me too, how many more Digits were there? What was it all worth, did this version of Chrysalis come from a world where she'd survived the wedding, only to be wronged by Starlight somehow? Were there really places where my kind was not wiped out, where I could see more of them? A place where the war never happened, where we were good? Where Flurry could see her mother again?
I shuddered. Or are those worlds were we won and wiped out ponies, like all of the dark war stories.
"You take the fact that most of existence is rather pointless well," Chrysalis growled as she crept around the table toward me. "It took me years to come to terms with it, figuring out how to use the truth to get my revenge."
"Y–your revenge? Why, what happened to you?" I asked, the idea that this was just one of many versions of her making her a little less threatening.
I mean, there's got to be a super, three-headed dragon Chrysalis out there if it's unlimited possibilities right? I would not like to see that. From the way her eyes narrowed and she growled at my idea, I got the feeling she did not appreciate the humorous sentiment.
"Where I come from the ones you would call family mutilated our perfect form, usurped my rule, and left me the last true changeling." The way she somehow put pressure on my thoughts again as she spoke made me shudder.
No, they'd never do that, they were my family... They... Limitless possibilities. I felt the blood drain from my cheeks and I looked at my shimmering wings like they were the only hope I had left as the queen loomed over me. Was there a reality where I was just another evil drone?
"It's not good, is it? Feeling so small all of a sudden. Your safe veil of ignorance has been broken, little nymph. Your island of belief that you are safe with the life you have has been flooded," she elaborated as she turned and trotted over to a large gash in the wall.
Like the rock had been slashed by a massive set of talons, the looming fissure allowed a view out onto whatever lay beyond the gloomy hive. Even so, I had to steady myself against the table as I thought about just how big things really were. Then an idea hit me, seemingly thrown from somewhere deep amidst my thoughts.
"Then why me? Why pick me if there are so many other versions of me out there?" I asked and she hissed, voice hard and low as she snarled back at me.
"Because you are one of a kind, unique. There are no others." That gave me pause as I finally staggered over to her and looked beyond the opening.
The vast chasm outside was like a whole other world. One could have fit Ponyville, Canterlot and even the rolling countryside in the huge space that stretched on far below. I saw black sand deserts, rivers of glowing green slime, and groves of pale crystals. The landscape was broken by monolithic stone pillars that rose up to support the equally vast stone sky far above. Each was like a mountain, odd ruins built like spider webs into their sides and illuminated only by sickly green beams that shone down through fissures in the ceiling.
Crumbling bridges spanned the impassible gaps above and below the ledge upon which we peered, and odd four-winged bat-like creatures swarmed around thundering torrents of falling water as junk seemed to materialize from nowhere and clatter down to the endless wasteland far below. It was how I imagined Tartarus, only far, far more vast and empty, and from the scraps of ships, castles, bones, and even whole cities below, it appeared to be a literal trash heap.
"W–what is this place?" I stammered, bracing myself against the side of the ledge as a bitter wind threatened to throw me into the open air.
"The Reach. It is safe, a place where Churnabo will never find us," the queen admitted, even if she regarded the dead environment with distaste too. "Full of so many secrets that I have never been able to reach."
I looked at her, my thoughts and expression pretty clearly displaying that I had no idea who or what she was talking about. The queen half sighed, half hissed at the knowledge she had to explain yet more details.
"Urg, Churnabo, a vile excuse for a zebra shaman... Her mastery over the magic needed to traverse reality is impressive, power one like her does not deserve." The way she stomped a forehoof in the ground and growled suggested she could put that power to far greater use should she have it.
I backed away slightly, a crackling voice in my head as I asked. "She... she's the one who has been in my head for all this time?"
"Yes and until the nullifying effect of this realm warped your mind, you have lived forgetting every time she spoke to you. To her it's all a game, yet for anypony else, she could spell the end of reality as they know it," she elaborated and I felt that pit in my chest grow even more.
"And that has what to do with me? Why am I the only... me?" It was the strangest question I'd ever asked and she grumbled something inaudible before finally responding.
"I know not her true plans, all I know is that keeping you here will prevent her from fulfilling them." Spite was clear on her face and in her tone no matter how good she was at hiding it from me, nor the fact I could not feel any of her emotions. "Not until I can find a way to take what she has and use it for myself!"
I could not help but feel invigorated by her rage as if I too felt her emotions second-hoof. It sickened me to my core, I'd been taken from my home and locked up in some dark world only because she had a grudge. What about Flurry, why had the queen made sure she stayed here too? Things did not completely add up.
So much for saving me from that assassin, she hardly cares if I'm alive. I thought, all too aware that the fact that I was the only Digit, may make me just as much a treasure as it did a target. That's if this is not a trick.
"Take care with those arrogant thoughts of yours. I assure you, were this a trick then I would not so readily explain," her thoughts buzzed in my mind. "Or you would simply be dead."
"What about Flurry, you don't need her, why not send her home?" I challenged, coming to terms with what was happening if only to spare my friend the suffering. "If I'm so important then I'll stay but..."
"You are home now, both of you, whether you like it or not. She should have thought twice about jumping into the portal if she did not wish to be stranded," the queen snapped, pulling out a stone from under her scarf and throwing it to my hooves. "The keys are dead, there is no escape. Now you're here and you will not move, sleep, eat or even think without me knowing!"
I looked down at the rock rolling to a stop before me, its runes just as dead as they'd been my whole life. We were all stuck, I'd robbed my friend of her life, abandoned the ponies that had cared for me and left them with some crazy assassin from a genocidal zebra. All for what? Because I could not just ignore my will to seek the truth and smash the stupid keystone when I'd had the chance.
"Changelings do not regret, remove that foul taste from your mind," Chrysalis groaned, yet I could not help but feel that the most regretful pony here was her.
I had no idea what she'd really done, but as far as I could see there was a lot of ponies now paying for those mistakes, me most of all. What was her revenge really worth wherever she came from? Was it worth a whole universe? She reached out a forehoof and swiped the stone away from me, hiding it back under her scarf before the sound of claws on stone caught her attention. Both of our heads turned and my ears perked as the one-eyed diamond dog came bounding in, panting hard.
"Mistress, she's awake, the pony," Cygor informed through his exertions and knowing he could only be talking about one pony I felt a small glimmer of hope.
Chrysalis extinguished that hope with one snide look as she hissed. "Of course, I'm not one to pass up what fate offers me. An alicorn princess has many uses... I trust you can make her cooperative."
I gulped, the brave facade I could hold onto gone as she mentally added. "I certainly hope you can, my little nymph, for both your sakes."