"Get your filthy claws off of me!" Flurry growled from behind her muzzle, kicking and flapping her wings at the diamond dog taking it off before he scampered back towards Chrysalis.
"Go and check the lower levels, I have a feeling I'll be caught up here for some time," the queen instructed the canine, and with a nod he swiftly disappeared into the maze of tunnels, leaving Chrysalis to peer at me.
She shoved me forward, her firm hoof not as hard as I was expecting. It was as if she were being strangely gentle. Not like the monster I'd heard about, despite how cruel and blunt she'd been about our situation. Sure, she'd made it pretty clear she disliked me, her glower alone made sure of that. Yet I couldn't help but feel that there was something more to her motivations. If I was a danger to her, the universe or her plans, then why not just kill me? If she needed me to stop whatever this Churnabo had planned then why not just go right to where the zebra was hiding and stop her?
I knew I could not trust either of them, one had admitted she was just messing with me for the fun of it and the other was an infamous master of deception. Even so, if I did not know any better I'd assume that the queen may actually care what happened to me. Though whether that was the corrupted love of a mother or the love for the last of her pure kind, I could not say. Either way, the idea made my chitin crawl and my wings twitch nervously.
"Digit!" I had never before been so glad to hear somepony call my name and wrap me in a soft wing hug as the bars shrieked and slammed closed behind me with a loud, reverberating clatter. "Oh, by the empire, are you okay? Where were you, what did she do to you... I woke up and you were gone!"
Her panicked questions gushed like a waterfall as I nuzzled into her soft feathers, simply taking in the companionship for a long moment. The sensation of her emotion was a warm relief in the cold abyss of this new world, like a life-saving pyre on a frozen winter's night. Nevertheless, I could hear the queen groan in my mind, yet she did not interrupt. Her telepathic tone was certainly disapproving, maybe even a little jealous, yet even as I expected her to scold me for acting so un-changeling like, she remained begrudgingly silent.
"It's okay, Flurry, I'm okay... She didn't do anything to me," I assured, patting her wings, and as much as I'd like to admit that I was being forced to lie about what the queen had done, it was the truth.
Well, she did nothing aside from speaking in your head, an invasion of yourself and your privacy. My mind chimed even as I tried to cover my thoughts, lest the queen overhear.
Whether she had picked up on my mental debate or not, Chrysalis said nothing. She'd terrified me, put me in my place, tried to start building me to be a real drone. Yet other than that what had she really done other than try to keep me safe? Albeit in her own twisted way. Of course, trying to get a princess who'd grown up during a war with changelings to believe that unlikely story was like trying to get Twilight to believe that all the books in her vast library were useless.
"What, really?" Flurry looked at me like I was ill, even lifting my chin and feeling my brow with a wing tip.
Then she locked eyes with the queen lingering just beyond the bars. "That's a lie, I know what your kind does to your subjects, get out of his head!"
The queen snorted. "I never did any such thing to my hive, mind-control was always so crude. They followed and betrayed me willingly, thanks to ponies like you." She glared at that latter part, muzzle wrinkled in a sneer.
"That's not what I heard, stop lying!" Flurry demanded, surging towards the queen only for her chains to yank her back.
"My sweet princess. Where you come from I was apparently dead. You have no idea what you've heard about me," Chrysalis responded matter-of-factly, then looked at me. "He is the same changeling your incessant kind raised. I can work on his mannerisms once you help me with my problems."
Flurry looked at me, then, lifted a wing to shield me from the queen's gaze as she shot back. "I'd never help you with anything!"
"Aren't you just as predictable as ever," the queen mused, much to Flurry's steaming annoyance. "The fact is, you are going to help me otherwise you, him, me..." She uttered her own name in the collective very reluctantly. "We're all going to end up dead."
"Likely story, let me out of these shackles and you'll be the one who ends up dead," Flurry warned, and Chrysalis laughed, adding to my friend's rage.
I looked between them, truly considering what the queen had told me. If she was right and Churnabo posed such a threat to the world that Chrysalis herself would run and hide in what was the most forsaken backwater I'd ever seen, then maybe we should help her. The lesser of two evils or just the fact she was my queen? I looked myself over, my gnarled limbs to the tips of my sparkling wings. I wished I had other options, but so far Chrysalis had backed me right into a corner. She'd not killed me or possessed me, I had to give her the benefit of the doubt and if she was right we had everything to lose.
"F–Flurry, maybe we should do what she says... Just for now." Even suggesting that to the one I knew had lost everything in a war that a version of Chrysalis had a big hoof in starting made me sick to my stomach.
The look she gave me only made that sensation hit harder and as she weakly mouthed her disbelief, I could do nothing other than stutter.
"Look, she didn't kill us... I know we're stuck here but if we want to get home then..." I started to say, but one look at the queen and I was pretty sure getting home was a reward off of the table.
Even so, she did not look malicious, merely uncaring about the fact. Her face was still as her emerald eyes between us. I had no real idea what had gotten into me, maybe she really was controlling my mind and I just did not know. Churnabo had apparently been influencing me for years and I'd had no idea. Maybe I was just a coward for so devotedly accepting the only relatively safe option that had presented itself, or maybe following her was just instinct to a drone. No matter the case, I knew I'd do what I could to keep us safe. I just didn't think there was much I could really do.
"What did you do to him? He'd never agree with you if he could think straight!" Flurry snapped, bristling like a hissing cat as she glared at the queen.
I could feel the queen's patience running out as Flurry's conflicting emotions burned like Celestia's sun.
"I will tell you again, I have done nothing," the queen deadpanned, then began to pace up and down the outside of the cell. "I merely elaborated to him the situation in which we find ourselves, what is at stake. I know not what Churnabo will do, but she threatens reality as we know it and as long as we are here, we're safe from her."
"That's ridiculous, you've probably just been hiding in a cave for all these years. The only enemy you need to worry about is my family and they'll come for you!" The way she used the word 'my' instead of our, stung, but I tried not to let it show.
"I assure you, that we're far beyond the reach of those irritations," the queen spat and Flurry snorted, feathers ruffled.
"I’ll find out where in Equestria we are and tell them where you're hiding!" I did not have the heart to correct her, seeing what I'd seen of this place it really did not seem like part of Equestria.
"If you thought I'd hide in your pathetic kingdom, you're mistaken. I'd take you out of that cell and show you if you'd obey. Rage is a good motivator, yet it fails for negotiation, Princess," the queen stated. "Still, if you can listen maybe we can come to an agreement."
"Don't tell me how to be a ruler you monster, you can lie here, but I still know what you do to your subjects," Flurry growled, and the queen did not seem to have the effort to once again remind my friend that this was not her Queen Chrysalis, even if I was sure she was capable of just the same evil.
Seeming to move to the point with a dismissive flick of her forehoof, Chrysalis once again began to set our options on the table.
"I have in my possession an object of great significance. One that, were I to access its full capabilities, would prove most useful. " She looked at Flurry in particular, seeming very unhappy about something that eluded me.
"It is, however, a shame that I find myself unable to access this power due to a shield spell that no changeling could ever break." She informed us of her powerlessness like it was the bane of her very existence, as if to be outsmarted by another caster like that was killing her inside.
I dare not think of her ego least she hear me as Flurry snorted. "Well, it should stay that way. I see where this is going and if you think I'm opening anything for you then you're wrong."
"So predictable," Chrysalis smirked and flicked a forehoof, looking at me as she added. "Well, I do hope somepony can convince you otherwise if you ever want to keep him."
I felt my whole body turn colder than ice as I wilted. I'd given her the benefit of the doubt, believed that everything was at risk and she was still threatening me. But why? I was the last, the only one and she needed me somehow, even if I (and seemingly the queen herself) was not sure for what.
"You lay a hoof on him again and you'll regret it," Flurry warned, but the queen looked more humored then fazed as the alicorn’s still blackened horn crackled.
"You continue to prove your predictable nature, Princess," she commented, right before the scattering of claws behind her drove her to glance back.
"M–my queen, the claw-stalkers are burrowing in through the lower catacombs again... yes, yes!" Cygor muttered through a heavy fit of pants as he stopped beside the queen, gasping for breath.
The queen's muzzle wrinkled as she growled, lone fang flashing, then her attention snapped to us as her head turned with a sharp hiss.
"Ugh, stay here and watch them," she ordered the dog, then snapped at us. "You have until I'm done with this irritation to come to a decision. I do hope that you listen to your friends as much as you preach, pony!"
Her eyes passed from Flurry to me as the alicorn also glanced in my direction. "Your friendship with a changeling could save you a lot of trouble."
"You're adorably naive," the ghostly apparition of Churnabo said as she perched atop of a rock at the ledge side, rear legs swinging and a tune humming between her words. "Your knowledge of bigger things grows every moment, it's getting hard to keep secrets from you."
She said that like it was neither an advantage nor an inconvenience, simply a part of her game. In here she could bend and warp the rules as she saw fit, turn strengths into weaknesses, cheat at life. Now that I knew her, however, it was hard not to get mad.
"Now I can remember you, you can’t hide anything from me!" I challenged and she giggled, flicking a forehoof at her billowing cloak.
"That was more for your sake then mine, can you imagine how you'd have turned out if you actually knew I was in your head all that time?" I really tried not to see the benefit in her logic there as I frowned.
"That still does not make it right!" I spat and she hopped down before starting to prance around me, forcing me to take a step back.
"Oh, you really are adorable... I have such a thing for nobility in a stallion. If I was just a few millennia younger," she winked at me and that idea made me more uncomfortable than anything else she'd done.
It had taken me a while to become attracted to ponies as I'd used to feel the echoes of attraction to whatever came before. I'd had a crush on Scootaloo, maybe thought that way about Flurry at least once, the crusaders' obsession with me going out with the princess had come from somewhere, after all. But romance was so far from me I could only see it as food, and I hated that. This was just another way to mess with me, I knew that was all she wanted to do.
"What? No... Look, you know what the queen said, so you have anything to add or not?" I asked, pretty sure I wouldn’t believe a word that came out of her mouth, yet craving for anything else that may broaden my view of things.
She smiled giddily, like when a filly or colt had come into school with something really awesome to show off in the playground and could hardly contain the excitement throughout the boring day.
"Oh, right, big queen bug has had her say." She tapped a hoof to her chin. "Hmm, well first off, I did not expect you to be so accepting of the truth... Then again, you are from another world, so..." She turned with a flick of her tail, lifted a hoof to her muzzle, and glanced back at me with a smirk.
Part of me had to wonder whether Chrysalis was really telling me the truth about this mare. Little more than a filly, teasing me like a schoolyard crush, and yet she spoke as if she still had the deck fully stacked in her favor.
"Do you know why your queen ran away to hide in the space between spaces?" she asked, and at my stumped reaction, she snickered. "Oh, right she did not tell you... Yeah, the one place I can't really reach, you're literally nowhere, and all around everywhere at the same time. Confusing, right?"
She practically sang that last part as I shook my head and taking a note out of my queen's book, jumped right to the point.
"What do you mean, where am I from, what did you do to me... Enough with the games!" I stomped a forehoof, hissing at the grinning zebra.
"You see, if you'd have just come to me like you were supposed to, I'd have told you everything," she countered.
"Well forgive me if the welcome wagon you sent to pick me up was not so welcoming!" I retorted and she snorted with a roll of her eyes.
"Stratus? Ha, just another lost soul put to good use... You have my apologies, for I cannot leave this place unless in somepony's thoughts." She gestured to the chasm around us. "Cursed when I was but a filly. It's one with me, I with it. It feeds me, nurtures me... I never grow old and my power is never free."
She scuffed a hoof at the dust with a sigh, for once actually appearing like she was the downtrodden one in need of happiness. I trusted her about as much as I did a rock, and yet I crept closer, the cold sensation that often surrounded her gone as her seemingly fickle personality shifted into melancholy.
"You mean you're trapped here? Where even is here? This is not some crazy place like where the queen is?" I asked, noting that the jungle above was not something I'd seen growing in the abyss Chrysalis had shown me.
"It is the one place, in every reality, every time, that exists exactly the same with me locked inside... The one and only," she glanced up at me and I felt a shudder run along my spine.
"Just like me?" I asked, mouthing it more to myself then I did to her.
Was I like her, was this my destiny, to be locked away like a monster? I shook my head. No, they could be lies, she could just be playing mind games again.
"Of a sense, yes. You are unique because I made you that way," she told me, admiring a hoof-full of dust as if it were the most unique thing in the universe.
"Then why the games, why not just tell me the truth?" I asked and she giggled again, the tone just a little too sinister for my liking as she blew the dust away.
"Tell me, what would you do with what little free power you had if not mess with ponies while stuck in a crater for millennia?" There she had a point, boredom would surely drive her mad if she was not insane already, but cruelty was still not in my nature in the same way it seemed it was in hers.
Even so, how could this little striped filly be such a great danger to the universe like Chrysalis claimed, there had to be a reason. I needed the truth and it was pretty clear that neither of them were going to tell me unless I made them, and I could not do that while locked in Chrysalis' dungeon.
"You're ambitious, I know that look... What an odd soul to fit a changeling." she mused, teasing me with more lures of the truth.
I gave her a flat look and she fed the facts to me like I was some pleading puppy. "Then again, it's random, I did not pick where you came from."
She grinned and added, "She gave me a body, I needed a soul. Plucking a recently departed one from the multiverse is not hard, it just has to be one that died the exact right moment."
My ears perked even as I tried not to allow her working ideas to infect my logic too much. It's mind games, even if that's the truth, she'd never come straight out with it all.
"There's a reason you have flashes of something before, you know? Your fate now is merely a result of your passing at the right moment from a life that you can't recall." She grinned as my eyes narrowed.
"That's stupid, that's not how life works... I... I..." My words died, how did anypony really know how life worked? I'd had the idea of my very reality blown out of the water, now for life and death too?
"Oh, you have no idea... Still, you want more, you come to me, I won't ask so nicely for much longer," she cooed, creeping up and rubbing along my side.
I jumped away, her almost flirtatious new demeanor the worst mind trick of all as she turned back to me and giggled once more. "Well, won't that attitude prove interesting?"
She's utterly insane, it's the only reason she's acting so crazy! My mind desperately tried to reason.
"And even if I wanted to, how am I supposed to find you?" I asked, reasonably, and she lifted a forehoof to her muzzle.
"Interesting question. The reach is beyond the sight of any reality-bending magic, your queen hides there without the use of her magic so I can't pinpoint her location... Though..." She loomed over to me as if gliding across the dusty ledge.
"The thing she stole from me, the thing she wants your friend to break my spell on for her... Let's just say, if somepony wanted to get out of the void it would be very useful." From the way she looked at me, I knew she was perfectly aware that no matter what I now did I'd still be playing into at least one of the plans of the two mares deceiving me.
If whatever this thing Chrysalis had was so important to each of them then would it not be best to just destroy it like I'd failed to do the keystone in the castle? Would taking it back to the castle be the best plan, give it to Twilight to keep it safe?
Churnabo seemed to see the cogs grinding in my mind more than even Chrysalis could as she tapped my forehead.
"You'll make your choice, I know you will." She dropped back and from nowhere chains and padlocks materialized to bind her like iron snakes before she looked up at me with pleading eyes. "After all, we're just as trapped as each other, really."
"Digit, hey, Digit... You awake? I... I'm sorry for yelling." I awoke to the sensation of a hoof poking at my side and the nudge of feathered wings. "I just thought... Well, Scolopendra pulled the mind control thing on a few of my friends in the war so..."
"Flurry, I'm thinking as straight as I can, okay... I was just told that I'm from another universe," I muttered as I sat up, then fell against her side as I sniffed. "Though I kinda wish I was taking it better."
She peered down at me, blinked, and then wrapped me in a wing. Understandably, after the queen had left us with the choice of helping her or remaining locked away forever, I'd tried to push Flurry to do what we needed. She'd like me fighting Chrysalis' battle about as much as she liked the queen herself, and the argument that ensued had almost ripped my heart out.
Her anger and sadness alone had made me sick, like a bullet through the chest. If whatever bounds the queen had put on her had not suppressed her magic, I'd been afraid she may even try to blast what mind spells she thought might be in me out. Yet when I'd finally managed to explain the truth Chrysalis had told to her, and almost broken down in tears in the process, her understanding had at least bloomed into something more than a brick wall that rejected every compromise.
Nevertheless, sleeping on the idea had done nothing, now I was left with Churnabo's argument too. The zebra was trapped and how did I know that was not Chrysalis' doing? How did I know that the monster that had kidnapped me was not the real villain?
Well, one of them did send an assassin after you? My mind noted. Chrysals was the one to try and same me. But how much of a drive is desperation on for Chunabo to do what she thinks she needs to?
I nuzzled into Flurry's feathers as she went on apologizing about how she acted, even if she was still very adamant that she was not about to fulfill the queen's wishes.
"That's just it though... What if we do, then take it for ourselves?" I offered and she cocked her head.
"You mean steal from her?" she asked, then smirked. "Okay, I know I was harsh before but by the empire, what turned you into me?"
"You know I could never pull off your looks even if I could shapeshift," I retorted and she blushed as I stood up and sniffed.
Take it to Twilight, if Churnabo really is right and it can get us out of here, then what can she do to stop me from going back home? I could not fault the logic, even as anxiety demanded I do so.
I told Flurry my plan and she shook herself, chains rattling as she stood. "Okay, you want to do this our way then I'm game. I wanna get home too, but if she catches us..."
She looked up at her horn and I winced. There was another thing I hoped Churnabo wasn't lying about, even if I'd seen evidence to back it up.
"I think Chrysalis is too scared to use her magic here, you won't have to fight her like that," I assured and she looked at me suspiciously.
"Okay... And this thing she has, you know what it looks like?" she asked, and recalling the way the queen had looked at the oddly shielded pyramid structure in her map room, I had a fairly good idea.
Relaying that information to Flurry, I crept over to the bars. Getting out was the next thing to worry about and as I laid eyes on the sleeping diamond dog across the tunnel I had an idea.
"Hey, hey you!" I whispered as loud as I dared, stretching out my wing to catch what little light it could as it glimmered. "Hey... Look at this, shiny, shiny things!"
Kicking a stone through the bars into his cheek the canine shuddered. Then his twitching ears perked and his loud snoring cut off abruptly as his one yellow eye cracked open. He lifted up, looked at my shimmering wings with a hungry gleam in his eye, then snorted a laugh.
"Haha, dog know traitor wings when he see one... You good bug, but bad to queen, dog not get..." From the moment his words began, my heart sank, only for confusion to spark as his words were cut off by a loud thud to the head.
The dog fell forward with a groan, sprawled out unconscious on the cave floor with Chrysalis standing over him. In her single-fanged muzzle was a broken stalagmite, one she dropped the moment her wide eyes fixed on me. I shot right back toward a defensively positioned Flurry as the queen slowly walked to the bars. Only now I could taste her disbelief all of a sudden and it was impossibly strong. Why had she been hiding her emotions before and not now?
"Well, we made our choice, now let us out," Flurry said, even as I caught a hint of her uncertain improvisation.
"You really are real?" The queen said without care for Flurry's words as I looked back at her. "The one thing that was not a lie."
What in Equestria has gotten into her now? Are both her and Churnabo just two crazy old coots going at each other with the fate of the universe in hoof? Chrysalis really did look like she'd seen a ghost and in a green flash of change-fire, I knew why.
Her disguise gone, the dark purple drone with deep lavender carapace, purple eyes, and small fangs looked at me and I at her. Then my mind utterly stopped, gears grinding to a halt as I realized that, besides the queen, I was staring at the first real changeling I'd ever seen. Not to mention this one was a drone just like me.