I'd grown up thinking I was the last of my kind. For all intents and purposes, where I'd come from, that was true. Changelings had been wiped out in a war. Rebellion and mind control had been factors, leaving pony-kind with a pang of guilt that made sure that when I'd appeared they'd safeguarded me and raised me to be better. Like the changelings that had betrayed the ruler of their hive before me, I had the shimmering wings to prove that.
When I'd discovered all of that was, in fact, just one way reality had diverged in an apparent multiverse of options and other scenarios, however, it was both fulfilling and left a hole in my chest at the same time. I was the only one of myself in that multitude of other possibilities according to the ones that had stolen my soul and put me here, from where they'd taken me I knew not. What I did know was that listening to either of them was a sure way to drive me insane. So when I was finally presented with another one of my kind, not an evil queen or zebra's illusion, it was hard not to see it as another trick or just another pointless possibility in infinity.
That was all up until the point the new, purple-tinted changeling gasped and charged towards me, wrapping me in the tightest hug I'd ever been exposed to. Given that I'd grown up best friends with an all-powerful alicorn princess with the strength of five ponies her age, that was certainly impressive.
"Oh, by the hive! You're real, you're real!" she sang over and over again, squeezing hard as I tapped her back and forced out.
"Can't... Can't breathe!" She drew back in a flash, holding my shoulders in her forehooves as she winced and blushed pale green.
"Oh, sorry... I... Well, surviving here kinda needs you to have a strong grip," she assured me as I gasped for breath, trying not to dwell on confusion and the shock of seeing another drone.
Then Flurry very bluntly intervened by shoving the lavender drone aside and snorting as she flared a wing between us.
"Okay, that's it. What trick is this, Chrysalis?" she spat, scuffing a forehoof at the floor as if to charge before adding mockingly. "I'll admit if you've fallen to this level to get us to listen, it's kinda adorable."
The lavender drone cocked her head and frowned as I shoved Flurry's wing out of my face and exclaimed. "Wait, how do you know she's the queen?"
I used the word 'queen' and the alicorn frowned back at me. "Look at her wings, Digit. One thing a changeling's disguise cannot imitate is the effect of friendship."
At that, I could not fault my friend's point. She'd been the one raised to spot these things, after all. One glance at my shimmering wings, then at the lavender drone, and I could not help but hope that this really was not another trick.
The drone huffed and rolled her eyes before buzzing her wings generously for us both to see.
"Oh, I do apologize, princess. Please, forgive me if there are very few ponies in this hive-forsaken place to make friends with," she shot matter-of-factly.
Flurry grunted, jabbing a forehoof at the insectoid mare and opening her muzzle before words seemed to die in her throat. Slipping past her wing, I crept towards the drone, still unsure as I marked her position in an effort to avoid any affectionate assault again. From the giddy excitement I could feel coming off of her, it was clear she was happy to see me, even if she did a good job of masking that on the outside. Still, unlike Chrysalis, I could feel her emotions. Unless this really was the queen just letting me feel her feelings as a ruse.
Could she do that? With what I'd learned today I really had to wonder what was possible anymore. Worlds and universes are so mixed up. She could really just be from somewhere else like Chrysalis?
And what does that do to prove she's not evil? She could be from a world where everypony you know is a bug? My mind reasoned, even as I concluded. Yeah, but if she is from another reality then she must have a keystone to get back!
"Okay then, prove you're not her and tell us who you are?" I asked, sitting down before her, even as Flurry mumbled that such a confession would do little to prove anything.
The drone looked between us, seeming unsure for a second before she pressed a forehoof to her chest and cleared her throat with a cough.
"My name is Cicada, I have lived in this squalor for most of my life..." Her way of giving such a bold speech reminded me of Twilight, even if she faltered just a little. "And no, I'm not the queen, but she is my adopted mother."
That made Flurry's eyes narrow and mine go wide as what Churnabo had told me forced me to come to a realization.
"Wait... wait, so you're my sister?" The question felt hasty, a surge of hope that I had some genuine and not crazy family in this world.
She shook her head and waved her forehooves like that was the last thing she wanted to be. I felt my hope plummet into an abyss as she swiftly assured me.
"What, no, no, no." She gave an awkward smile. "I'm not her real daughter, and you..." She paused to think. "You admit it then, you're him?"
Confusion blooming even more so, I cocked my head. "I'm who? I was told she was my mother, yeah." I admitted, shuddering.
"By a crazy zebra filly in a cloak, I'm guessing?" she asked, and I once again perked and nodded rapidly.
"So you are him... No, she's not our mother, just a template but..." She trailed off and looked around. "This is really not the place to talk or think about that, if she gets close she can hear everything we think."
"Erm, sorry to interrupt your little meetup, but what's going on?" Flurry interjected, clearing her throat. "Because we were just about to break out of here and you came to what? Stop us?" She eyed Cicada suspiciously.
"On the contrary, as soon as I discovered that Chrysalis had brought somepony back here after all these years I came to see for myself... And then break them out," the drone responded with a smirk and buzz of her wings.
"Wait, so you know the way out of here, how to get around?" I asked and she nodded before I added. "How about... Getting out of this place... Like, the going home kind of getting out?"
At that, she sighed and shook her head. "Nopony leaves the reach without a keystone and I'm pretty sure Chrysalis is the only one to have a stone that's charged."
So she did lie. My stone will still work, but hers must still be charged and able to teleport her. I thought as Flurry strode up to Cicada.
"I'll ask again, why should we trust you?" she pressed and the lavender drone looked between us.
"You two were just talking about Chrysalis' treasure, right?" she asked and I nodded as Flurry grunted and spat.
"Oh, eavesdropping. I so wanna trust you even more now." Cicada rolled her eyes at that and turned to the door.
"Well, if it means anything, you're right about it. The queen stole it, but can't break the spell." She looked at me in particular, as if she knew more than she was letting on about me.
"And what does it do, it can take us home, right?" I asked and she nodded.
"From what she told me it can do that and way more. It's why she wants it so much and why I've spent my whole life trying to steal it too." She looked at Flurry. "But I've never had an alicorn princess before."
I found myself looking at my feather-winged as she begrudgingly looked between me and Cicada. I put on my best, cute, baby, buggo cousin look and she growled as her eyes rolled. There were some ways I could make it hard for her to say no, same as she could for me.
"Okay, fine, we'll go break out this thing. Then we leave, this place is really giving me the creeps." She ruffled her feathers and fur anxiously as I nodded.
"Well, that's good," Cicada began as she trotted off swiftly and called back. "Because this place has been giving me the creeps for years now."
"You know, you guys may be all small and sneaky, but crawling through here is not so easy for me," Flurry grumbled as the three of us crawled our way through a narrow tunnel.
"Yeah, well at least you fit. Chrysalis can't get in here, I used to use it to hide from her all the time," Cicada retorted as she shoved a strand of hanging red vines out of her way.
"What do you mean, so you really grew up here, what was it like?" I questioned, before wincing. "Sorry if that... You know, brings up bad memories."
"I don't remember most of it, all I do is when Chrysalis was in my head. Her telepathic range is significantly less than natural here though. I liked to think she really cared about me in her own way, always telling me how to be safe, how to give our kinda new start. Once I even overheard her saying getting involved with Churanbo may have been a mistake, but I don't know," she elaborated.
I opened my mouth to respond as the tunnel opened up into a slightly larger chamber, walls covered in what appeared to be stone thorns. Before I could say anything Cicada lifted a foreleg to block my path, stopping Flurry coming up behind me in turn as there was a scattering of dust in one of the chamber's other tunnels.
"Don't make a sound, don't move a muscle," she warned suddenly as from the other tunnel stalked an odd, snake-like creature with short, clawed legs, long barbed tail, and razor-sharp fangs.
Covered in sleek, green scales, it had a series of red markings across its flanks and a trio of triangular mounted eyes on each side of its narrow skull. A forked tongue flicked in and out of its mouth as it perked up on its hind legs and looked about. I felt my heart in my throat at the sight of any creature that looked predatory. Carnivorous I may have been my whole life, but being raised by ponies did little for my instincts. Changelings were supposed to take on threats as a swarm, according to Twilight, not on our own. That was the time to run and hide as a rock or fern.
"W–what in Equestria is that?" I asked as Flurry peered over my shoulder, a more curious look in her eyes.
"Claw stalker, pretty much feed on all the dimensional trash that ends up here. Wait right where you are and don't move, they're not hard to deal with," Cicada said and both I and Flurry shot her a suspicious look as she stepped out before the sleek creature.
Its eyes fixed on her the second its head snapped to face her, the hiss escaping its throat as it did so making me jump. Flurry grabbed my shoulder, holding me still as she watched Cicada closely, and with a green flash, the drone was gone, replaced by a far larger version of the creature she was faced with.
By Celestia, she's so good at that! The effect was instantaneous, the Claw-stalker went from hissing to drooping, one growl from Cicada and it was scampering off whimpering.
"By the Empire, it's been years since I saw a transformation as good as that," Flurry observed admirably, and the idea that it had not been me to show off such a skill made my heart sink more so.
No, I'm not jealous... That tastes awful. Urg, why does it seem I'm the only changeling that's useless! My thoughts conflicted as Cicada reappeared before us and waved for us to follow with a foreleg.
"That was pretty impressive, I'm not going to lie," Flurry commented as she moved up towards Cicada in a now slightly taller passageway. "I saw a couple of rebel Change-guard back where I'm from, they could pretty much become anything."
"Thanks, I guess I learned from the best. Not that I'm proud of it," Cicada admitted, and Flurry frowned as I tasted a hint of sympathy.
"So she really is your mother? Or not? How's it work?" she asked, seeming to dig for a far more clear, in-depth answer.
She looked at me just like she did the changeling she had not known for years and I really dreaded what Cicada may tell her about us.
The lavender drone sighed. "No, I told you... She just raised me, she never told me the whole truth, but I got pieces. She made a deal with Churnabo, the two of them created... us, I guess." I looked at my reflection in a wall of dark obsidian, disgusted with myself as she spoke.
"Though our souls come from somewhere else. If I were to guess, I'd say it's hard to construct a body using magic, and impossible to make a soul." It was just like Churnabo said, but where did we come from, what was I before this?
"And what do you remember about... well, before?" I asked, rotating a forehoof in the air as I searched for the right words.
Flurry gave me an odd look. "You mean like what auntie Twi said she looked for in your memories?" she asked.
"I guess, though she never found anything, remember. Just numbers and blurred shadows," I admitted, looking to Cicada in hopes she'd have anything to add only to see she'd stopped mid-step.
"T–T...What did you..." she shook her head and snorted, wings buzzing. "Never mind, no I don't remember much. Stars, shouting, pink and purple... Magic, I think, somepony calling out about saving somepony and then... Cold, I think it was water."
Both I and Flurry exchanged glances as the lavender changeling seemed momentarily crippled by the memory.
"So, no countdown?" I asked, daring to push her for the truth even if it was pretty clear she did not want to think about it.
"Not that I can recall, no... Why, is that all you can remember?" she countered and I paused, really wracking my brain for anything more.
There was a beeping sound, those shadows looming over me seemed to move with purpose and urgency, then there was Churnabo in my head, meddling and telling me a mix of lies and the truth and outright teasing me. For what? Because she just finds it fun?
"Hey, you okay?" Flurry was at my side with a wing over my back as I apparently once again regressed into a still cocoon of thought. "He's never been good with this, nightmares his whole life. Maybe this is not the best place to talk about it."
She looked at Cicada, and I could sense that part of her was almost daring for the lavender drone to continue probing me for information. I'd been the one to ask, and here I was, the victim once again. I hated it, I hated my inability to understand!
Even so, Cicada nodded, squeezing through a narrow crack in the rock that the two of us were forced to scamper through behind her. The two times Flurry got stuck almost led to her blasting the whole cave apart until eventually the three of us came out into an open space. The dark rock table at its center and magical pillar across the cave were a dead giveaway as to where Cicada had led us as she glanced around warily.
"Okay, it's clear, follow me and do exactly what I say," Cicada instructed as she crept low across the chamber.
I did exactly what she told me as Flurry rolled her eyes and marched behind us. When she got close to the dark table in the center of the chamber, however, the princess paused.
"What is this, it looks so much like Twi's cutie map?" she asked, the question once again raising my own suspicions as we both looked at Cicada.
"It's what's called a hard point, a place where reality is weak enough to push through. I don't know what yours' back home will be, but structures like this are usually where keystones can open bridges. The baseline of the stone is a spell, the stone itself is a catalyst and the hardpoint is guidance for the spell matrix," she elaborated as if we should know.
Then her look fell flat. "Seriously, you two ended up in the reach and you have no idea how interdimensional magic works? The roots of the world, primal forces, nothing?" she exclaimed and I looked at Flurry as the princess shrugged.
"I only learned all this was possible a few hours ago, so forgive me if there was not a lot of time to study," she shot back with a grin that made Cicada huff.
"Should we know?" I interjected, stealing Cicada's scowling attention away from the princess. "The only ones I've seen with stones where the queen and whoever Chunabo sent after me. My stone has been dead for years."
"It would sure help, but I guess I'll have to roll with what I have," she huffed before trotting over to the odd bubble of green magic. "Plus, you'll be lucky if you see another keystone again, there's only seven of them in all exitance according to Chrysalis."
Great, and queen crazy has at least two! I mentally huffed, wondering just how powerful the thing I'd worn around my neck as a trinket for yeares actauly was.
Nevertheless, I followed Cicada, peering through the glimmering shield to see the strange, pyramid-like structure levitating perfectly in the center of the magical orb. Its dark, metallic surface was an intricate weave of smooth markings and etched symbols, most looking like waves, thorns and zebra glyphs. It seemed to hum and pulse a dark purple light, yet through the magical barrier, the glow was hard to make out.
"So what is it? What does it do and why's it so important?" I asked as Cicada moved to put a forehoof against the shield, only to pull away.
"Chrysalis called it the cartographer, a core matrix for interdimensional travel and its own hard point," she elaborated in awe. "If not for this shield she could have done so much with it."
From the blank, confused look on my face, I could tell the frustration I was picking up on directed towards me was probably justified. She's really lived her whole life for this? How many lives could that even be?
Cicada rolled her eyes, uttering a reverberating sigh before elaborating. "It's a map, you pick a point anywhere or when and you can go there, free of the limitations associated with keystones. You'd just need somepony who can read it."
"And you're one who can do that, right?" Flurry asked, stepping up to the cartographer. "Because it sounds like the ability to be anywhere at any time is one I wanna keep away from Chrysalis."
I could not disagree with her there, to think that the queen could go anywhere, even any-when at will was baffling. With that power, she could really do anything, but with it, we could also get back to Twilight, make sure the thing was safely locked away.
"No, I can't," Cicada admitted, and my hopes dropped along with Flurry's expression. "But I know how to activate it, we end up anywhere and at least it's not here, then we figure things out without Chrysalis breathing down our necks."
I looked at Flurry, very unsure as I considered what the lavender drone was telling me. Do I really trust her? I'd known her for an hour and here we were with what was probably one of the most powerful artifacts in the whole multiverse.
"You know she has a point. If we get somewhere we can figure this out, maybe we can find a way to get it back home where it will be safe," I suggested, feeling Flurry's inner conflict as she looked at me, face scrunched in thought.
"Think of it as not letting the queen get it because that would be really bad," Cicada enticed, and Flurry finally groaned.
"Okay, I'll do it!" she declared then shoved the two of us aside with her wings and lowered her horn to the shield.
"What, you don't want to know how to do it first?" Cicada asked hesitantly, and Flurry shot her a smug look.
"If there's one spell art I know, it's shielding. My father's a master and I learned from the best," she assured, igniting her horn and instantly her face contorted. "Arg, okay... Maybe it’s a little complex."
"The matrix is triple entangled, there's soul sorcery gone into that too, you have to un-weave it carefully because it will not break under force," Cicada told her as her horn began to fizzle and the shield rippled.
"Okay, okay, I got it... Untangle the shield," Flurry forced through gritted teeth as the orb began to part with a sharp scraping sound.
Oh Celestia, everything in a hundred miles is going to hear that! I mentally exclaimed, patting my friend's shoulder. Claw-stalkers or the queen, they're going to come running in here any moment!
"Come on, Flurry, you got this," I encouraged, patting her shoulder as her eyes closed, tears streaming across her cheeks as she grunted.
Cicada only looked at the breaking shield in wide-eyed exhilaration, her hope so overwhelming it made me feel lethargic. The magical sphere began to crack, pull apart and warp as if it were gasping for breath. Then what had started as a small fracture in the magical surface spiderwebbed into a series of vast cracks, shattering like glass with one final effort from Flurry Heart. The thing gave a spark and a pop, a flash of green lightning blasting the three of us back as the smell of singed fur filled the air. I really tried not to think of the wailing sounds or the ghostly faces I saw dissipating in the faint wisps of smoke coming off the broken shield.
"Flurry, Flurry!" I called, jumping to my aching hooves and darting over to my friend's side. "Are you okay? You did it, the shield is broken."
"I... I got it? Ha, though remind me to warm up next time," she croaked, opening one eye as she smirked up at me.
"There was no time for that, come on we need to go now..." Cicada began to say as she reached for the cartographer, only for an aura of golden magic to levitate it over to Flurry before the drone could get it.
"Oh no, you really think I'm so dumb," Flurry grunted as she got to her hooves and once again shoved me behind her wing as she accused. "I've seen this trick before, you knew I was never going to open it for you. So now is the point at which you turn back, Queen Chrysalis!"
I felt a cold jolt run down my spine and flare to the tips of my wings at the idea. That made sense. If she was sure we'd never open it for her willing, Chyrslais could have aways just tricked us. How could I have been so naive?
Peering round I saw Cicada blink once then snort. "What, are you serious? I told you that she won't use her magic here, she won't change!"
"Likely story from the master of manipulation. Well, if you won't stop me then I guess I'll just go ahead and use this," Flurry retorted, rotating the cartographer in her magic.
"No, be careful with that, one wrong move and you'll end up anypony knows where!" Cicada called, darting for the pyramid, only for Flurry to snatch it away.
"Hey, Flurry, maybe we should believe her. She... she doesn't feel like the queen," I spoke up.
"That's because she's probably just done something to you, Digit. I can't take the risk believing this is all as convenient as it feels," Flurry insisted.
"What, we argued about this. This is me, Flurry, I swear!" I pressed and her frown deepened as I felt her regret.
"I'm sorry, Digit, but I don't know anymore. All I do know is that, if this thing does what you say, I can trust it to anypony else." She shot Cicada a dangerous look.
"I'm not one of them. I've done way more for myself then Chrysalis ever did for me, she's a lunatic!" the drone declared with a stomp of her forehoof.
"Oh, my daughter, what lovely words after so long." The sly, reverberating voice shut us all up in an instant. "Good to see you're still as good at bickering as ever, but I assure you, I'm here to put an end to your doubts."
True to her words, any doubts in my mind that Cicada was a traitor or that she was the queen trying to manipulate us were put to rest as the real queen, forelegs freshly scarred with claw-stalker slashes, stepped out of a gloomy tunnel.
"Though I must thank you, now I have to go to no effort at all to finally get that foalish princess to get me what I want," Chrysalis purred as her sharp eyes fixed on the cartographer.
"Who are you calling foalish, witch? Get back!" Flurry declared, shoving me back towards the open ledge with a wing as she backpedaled and levitated the cartographer away from Chrysalis.
Cicada was at her side, glaring eyes fixed on the queen as she stalked towards us. Believe her now, Digit? You really do have so much faith in the goodness of your kind.
"I'm not your daughter, don't lie to yourself!" Cicada spat as I felt my rear hooves brush against the edge of the sheer cliff.
"Oh, that's not true, you and her, both mine." I heard the queen coo in my mind as before. "Do what's right for our race and give me that thing!"
"Oh, your words hurt me, Cicada. Now, why don't you be a loyal drone and give me what our kind needs!" she openly declared, jabbing her horn at us.
"Yeah, like that's going to happen!" Flurry insisted as Cicada stepped between her and the queen.
"You want it, then you'll have to get past me," she stated and the queen paused, her words in my head going silent as she stared right at the lavender drone. "Go on, do it, charge me, cook me, shove us off the edge! You want it, come kill me and get it. I know you're powerful enough!"
The queen looked like she was trembling as her muzzle wrinkled and her eyes narrowed, her one remaining fang bared as she growled.
"Get out of the way you insufferable little nymph!" she hissed, but Cicada remained unmoving.
"Once I would have done exactly as you asked, but not anymore!" Her wings buzzed as she lifted into the air and flipped back, snatching the cartographer from Flurry's magic.
"No, don't you dare!" Chrysalis screamed as Cicada landed on Flurry's back and prompted me to grab the shocked alicorn’s foreleg.
With a twist of her forehooves she jolted one half of the cartographer away from the other, the thing gave a flash and around us lit up a vast, glowing sphere of magical lines, symbols, and markings. It was like Luna's night sky captured in bright purple. Stars, galaxies, comets, even entire constellations drifting amidst ethereal cosmic clouds. Once again what I knew of the universe was put to shame by the sudden beauty. Then came a flash of green fire as the queen roared a blast of outrage, her horn finally igniting with green flame.
A golden shield was between us and the flames in a flash as Flurry seemed to react on instinct. Cicada was knocked back, the cartographer still in her grip as her other forehoof held onto Flurry's mane.
"Choose somewhere, one of the stars, anything just press it now!" she called down to me and the moment the instructions registered I looked around at the vast array of specks projected before me.
"What if I'm wrong and we end up somewhere that'll kill us?!" I shouted back reasonably, as the force of Chrysalis’ flames against the shield forced Flurry to stagger over the edge, sweeping the two of us with her.
"The thing has a certain wisdom to it, it won't, trust me!" Cicada called as time seemed to slow in our free fall.
I heard the queen roar above, felt the intense heat of the flames as gravity took hold and lurched my whole body upwards. My wings buzzed on instinct as my eyes fixed on the nearest point of amethyst light in the projection and without thought, one forehoof shot out to press it. The thing lit up, sending a pulse rippling through the array of constellations forming the sphere around us, then the whole thing flickered and sucked back into the cartographer. My view of the cliff face as I plummeted by was stolen by a bright purple flash as the queen howled one last, desperate plea.