“You told me I was the only one," I stated flatly to the zebra sitting at the dilapidated crystal table, one forehoof nudging aside a small counter in a game she seemed to be playing.
"No, I said you were the only you, not the only changeling," Churnabo corrected, shifting another counter before tapping her hoof on the table and making the game vanish with a magical pop.
"Because there is only one of you, and that makes you so important." She was at my side in a flash, shoulder, and flank rubbing against my own like an affectionate kitten before I jumped away with a yelp.
"S–stop it... I know what you said, she's not me. But you made her the same way," I retorted, brushing loose strands of her coat from my chitin.
"Oh, well haven't you considered the fact she might be lying? Your royal friend certainly didn't seem to trust her, and she was raised by Chrysalis after all." I opened my mouth to respond, jabbing a forehoof at her before the words died to nothing but a dry squeak in my throat.
"Your innocence is adorable, so naive, so hopeful," she cooed, twirling a forehoof in the air. "I can see how much you want Cicada to be real and genuine. I can see how loyal you are to your princess, you want to believe her too."
Words came to me no easier then they had seconds ago as I thought about that, gears rattling in my head as ideas conflicted with each other. She was right, I did want Cicada to be more than some plant by Chrysalis. I really wanted to believe she was like me, thrown into this mess of a life from Celestia knows where. Everything the lavender drone had said in the brief time I'd known her suggested that was the truth, she knew more about whatever plan we'd been born into then I did.
But Flurry was right too, Cicada was the daughter of a master manipulator, the fact that she'd openly admitted that alone was suspicious. The princess had grown up learning how to pick up on any aspect of deceit from our kind, how to counter it, how to manipulate us back. There had been far more changelings trying to kill her then protect her, she'd had to live like that. How could I call myself her friend if I did not listen to her? I tried to think back on anything either of them had said that would give me an idea of where I stood. But right now I just felt like the plaything of all four mares; Flurry, Cicada, Churnabo, and Chrysalis. I knew who I should trust, I knew who I wanted to trust.
All the while, Churnabo's senseless giggling permeated the cool air that lingered around her ghastly canyon home. I shook my head free of my thoughtful stupor and looked at the striped mare, a forehoof pressed to her chest as she gasped to reclaim her breath.
"It's funny to you, I know. You really are sick," I declared and in a snap, she recovered from her laughter as if there'd been no humor at all.
"Sick, bored, the two can go together very well if you think about it." She tapped a hoof on her chin. "But I have reasons, you have something I need and you're the only one I can talk to after Chrysalis locked me out of Cicada's head."
"And you think I'd trust you? You can go on and on about what I'm stuck with, but Flurry taught me enough about real manipulators to know one when I see one," I insisted, jabbing a forehoof at her, only to draw back at the chill she suddenly began to radiate.
"You really talk about that as if you have a choice." She was in my face before I could blink, darting across the ledge like striped lightning. "You see, I really like you... I might even play along for you if I can get you to see the big picture, think the right way."
I tried to back away from her, yet one look right into my timid eyes and she had my muscles seizing up like they'd turned to rock. Oh, please don't be part cockatrice too!
"If you even think I'd do anything for you... Like you even... You really are insane," I stammered back, and from the shrill laugh she gave in response, it was pretty clear 'insane' was an understatement.
"I'll take it as a compliment. But you, my little bug." She rubbed my cheek with a forehoof, sliding it down to my chest as I trembled, unable to move. "You just found what I've been after for so long, liberated it from the hooves of that backstabber and now have the power to go anywhere, but no knowledge of how to use it."
She smiled a deceptively warm, almost motherly smile. "I would very much appreciate it if you brought it to me, I'll even tell you how. Simply activate and align the three icons that look like stars with the peak of the pyramid, that's it."
"We're taking it home, back to Twilight, and then you'll never have it," I stammered, and she rolled her eyes.
"Always so noble, a glorious knight of good just being dragged around by his two far more useful friends." No matter what, that stung. "You'll come to your senses eventually, you'll long for what I know more and more. You just better hope I find you before Chrysalis does."
I swallowed hard, unable to rip my quivering eyes from her piercing stare. "You said it yourself, she'll never find us."
Churnabo half giggled, half snorted. "I did, but you don't trust me, remember... So, let's just hope, because I know for sure, mommy will be very, very angry with you two."
Muffled silence began to bubble and ripple with peculiar sounds as I felt a sharp intake of breath through my stuffy nostrils. The darkness unhinged as my eyes cracked open and where there had been a dark cave roof only seconds ago I now saw a bright blue, filled with blurred green and brown shapes. There was a sensation of hot and cold light over my chitin and that of the wind blowing lightly as leaves rustled and birds sang. I lifted my head and the moment I did so, I wished I could just stay laying down forever.
My temples throbbed, ears rang and vision swam as the world around me became a blurred mess once again. It was as if somepony were dancing on drums in my brain while others pranced around shouting at the top of their lungs. I pressed a forehoof to my forehead, then the back of my skull, checking for blood. I'd been foolish enough when I was younger to fall over and seriously hurt myself only once. Having the foresight to be safe from a life before my own will do that to you, I suppose. Yet as I rubbed just below my horn and around my mane, I came across nothing that would suggest I'd hit my head too hard.
So I took one deep breath, then another, cool air filling my lungs where the dank atmosphere of Chrysalis' hiding place had once polluted them. Finally, my sight became clear enough for me to make out the blurred brown pillars around me as tree trunks. Grass brushed at my hooves and haunches as I shifted, noting that there were a series of odd orbital patterns scorched into the low lying vegetation in a perfect pattern around me. Just like that, things came flooding back. The three of us in the cave with the cartographer, Chrysalis advancing and Cicada screaming for me to do something with the device we'd just stolen.
My eyes went wide, my ears perked and I felt around for my friends. When I found nothing but myself and the odd pyramid shape of the cartographer, I felt my heart begin to race. I had no idea where I was, or even when I was if what Cicada had told me about the device was right. It could just be another dream Churnabo had conjured or the entire thing just Chrysalis using mind control. I had no idea what to believe anymore and my overactive imagination did little to help. Nevertheless, I staggered to my hooves and shook myself off, looking around one last time before finally calling out.
"H–hello, Flurry, Cicada, is anypony there?" There was no response from the woods save for the leaves rustling in the wind and the singing of skylarks above.
I can't be stuck here alone, what kind of portal does that?! I thought to myself as I hefted the cartographer onto my back. Well, you don't really have any idea how it works, and you were the one to activate it. So who knows?
I shook my head, hoping that Cicada would not have intentionally separated us if she could avoid it. Or at least separate herself from the device she'd apparently been trying to get her hooves on for years. Of course, that's if I was right to trust her, unlike Churnabo said. Even so, when calling out again produced no further results, I was forced to start walking. Only a few steps later did I come to realize that I was starved of both food and water. A dry mouth and low grumble from my stomach was enough to tell me that my friends were not the only things I needed to find.
Funny, I did not feel hungry or thirsty when Chrysalis was around. I wondered, sickened by the implications of that. What, and you'd rather starve?
It wasn't long until I came upon a small stream at least, and lowering my head to the water, taking a sniff then a small taste, I deemed the clear liquid safe enough for consumption.
Lapping up water from a stream in the woods like some animal. Here I thought you'd at least become a civilized creature. My mind remarked, noting that I'd at least grown up unlike the animal I'd become.
Yeah, well I can argue that when I at least know what I was before, if anything. I shot back at my wandering thoughts. Maybe you should go ask Churnabo, you have the Cartographer and the code.
I lifted my head from the stream, fanged muzzle dripping as I paused, then slowly glanced back over my shoulder at the faintly glowing runes that marked the peak of the pyramid. I could make out the stars Churnabo had talked about, they were unaligned but there was no mistaking the symbols in the hodgepodge of other scribbles and glyphs that marred the Cartographer. I glanced back at my blurred reflection in the stream and my wings buzzed. What would I do to know the truth, how far would I go? Had Churnabo only intended to plant a seed of temptation with little care for my real wellbeing or contentment?
From the way she flirts with you, it's hard to say. My mind snickered and I shuddered. She's trying to get into my head, nothing more.
Before I could stand there and cringe too hard, however, my ears perked and picked up on a sound other than the natural melody of the forest.
"Rarity, did you really have to drag that thing all the way out here?" My head shot up along with my erect ears at the somewhat raspy voice, not to mention the name.
That sounds like Rainbow Dash! Also, 'Rarity', it can't be? I heard the sound of wing beats and hoof steps in the distance and instantly homed in on their location. Never let it be said that I'm not sometimes really glad for these equine senses.
"Pfft, yes, dear, one cannot come out here to relax without the proper lounging decor, you don't seriously expect me to lay in the dirt, do you?" came Rarity's unmistakably elegant voice and if I knew Rainbow Dash, I could only assume her eyes rolled at that.
Regardless, I started making my way through the undergrowth in the direction of the pair's voices as they began to grow faint, keeping pace with the sounds as the two argued about overdramatizing things and how Rarity could make Dash look beautiful if she'd just let her.
"No way, Rarity. I let you do my mane once, that was enough!" Dash snapped, the two seeming far more heated then I recalled as I finally saw a break in the trees.
It was just as the sun from the clearing graced my face that I heard another voice I knew explode into existence.
"Ooo, Dashie! You're here and Rarity too! Yay, finally the best sunfall picnic party ever can begin!" For a moment I was terrified it was my face Pinkie Pie was going to materialize inches in front of next as I saw the flash of pink fur dart between the trees.
There was a shocked gasp from Rarity and a chuckle from Dash as I finally poked through the vegetation to see the three of them. True to what my ears told me, the pale fashionista looked about ready to collapse, while Dash hovered right next to Pinkie Pie. It was then that I had to double-take, noticing that Pinkie was not suspended by some crazy Pinkie Pie absurdity as I knew, but by a pair of rapidly beating wings. I blinked as the pink mare darted around her friends like an oversized dragonfly, giggling all the while.
"Dianna, must you always insist on almost giving me a heart attack?" Rarity asked as she sat up and pressed a forehoof to her chest.
Pinkie Pie giggled. "Well, no it's not my intention... Though as long as you keep calling me by my middle name, Rarity." The pink mare hovered down and booped the alabaster unicorn on the muzzle as she frowned.
"Formality is key, dear," Rarity responded with a knowing look and once again I could almost hear Rainbow Dash's eyes roll like stones grinding in their sockets.
Pinkie Pie just continued to giggle. "Oh, you're silly so, Rarity." She flew up and wrapped a hoof around Dash's shoulders, pulling the prismatic pegasus into a hug and nuzzling her neck. "We're all just friends here, silly."
"Just friends, sure," Rainbow Dash added, playfully shoving Pinkie Pie away. "So you going to take us to the rest of the gang or what?"
"What do you think, silly?" Pinkie added, then winked at Rarity. "Oh, and don't worry, I'm sure AJ will come and help you with that, Rarity." She pointed a forehoof at a golden sofa with plush red cushions Rarity was dragging and instantly the unicorn blushed and began to stammer.
Both Rainbow and Pinkie erupted into a fit of giggling as Rarity shot them a death glare, yet the winged pair darted off before she could respond. I simply blinked, ears still tall as I listened to the trio move on.
"What in Equestria was that?" I muttered to myself, looking back at the device on my back once again.
Isn't it obvious, it's like they all said, this is not your home. My mind told me as I considered just what to do. Maybe there's a Twilight and a Starlight here, you could talk to them... At least if they don't hate changelings here.
"Miss Dash, Dianna, how dare you two leave a lady alone in the woods!" Rarity called after the pegasus duo as she marched off after them and I did my best to keep pace yet again.
The more I walked, the more things started to look familiar. A tree I swore I'd passed before, a brook with a layout of boulders that I felt like I'd once hopped across. Even the birds sounded like I knew them, only a little off.
"Hey gang, guess who I found!" Pinkie Pie called from beyond the tree line and once again I found a small spot to peek through the undergrowth, seeing a clearing with three benches that I knew I recognized.
I'd been here for picnics with Flurry and Twilight before, Starlight had tried to teach me foliage manipulation magic here too. Sitting there now were two ponies, however, and at first glance, they were almost unmistakably those I knew. Then came the second glance.
"Why, howdy there ya' two. Dash, Miss Rarity," said a large, orange pony with rugged cowpony hat and wooden collar.
I had to blink several times before it finally sunk in. For all intents and purposes, the pony looked exactly like Applejack, only last I knew she was a mare, not a stallion almost the size of her brother.
From the way Rarity stuttered and swooned at the sight of him, I guess there was more of a reason as to why she'd brought her infamous fainting couch. Yet my confusion was only just beginning. Fluttershy was the next to sit up and smile at the newcomers, her flowing pink mane filled with flowers hiding one green eye and just allowing a horn to poke through.
"Hello girls, glad you could join us. I made tea." The butter-yellow unicorn levitated over a tray of teacups, her soft voice still as I knew it at least.
"Oh, dear, I am famished, thank you so much," Rarity beamed, shooting Rainbow and Pinkie a disapproving look before awkwardly side-stepping Applejack and taking a seat beside Fluttershy.
"You're very welcome, Rarity," the kind unicorn said, before breaking up a piece of bread to feed to a dove she had perched on the tip of her horn.
"Hey, can I have some?" came a gruff, feminine voice, and each pony looked as a small, purple-feathered griffin poked out from a wicker picnic basket.
"Oh, of course you can, Ginny. You want green tea or mint?" Fluttershy asked, and the griffin shrugged.
"Ehh, I'd rather just have one of the scones." The mention of food made my stomach ache even more, yet with no clear sign that I would not be attacked, making a move to where they could see me was not on the top of my to-do list.
"Hey, Little G, how's it going!" Rainbow declared as she hovered down and hoof bumped the small griffin. "Those flying lessons coming along, I take it?"
"Well, duh, I can be the best flyer in all of Equestria! Though, are you sure you can't teach me? Sunny's kinda... Well, Sunny," Ginny responded, and for a moment Dash looked unsure.
"Aww, I wish I could, squirt. But weather duty is really kicking my flank."
"Miss Dash, language in front of the little ones!" Rarity snidely snapped, only for Dash to frown.
"The lady's right, Dash. Mind ya' mouth," Applejack added in support, and Rarity looked like she was about to melt like an overcooked marshmallow.
"Pfft, whatever. She'd have heard far worse if she'd been around more griffins," Dash responded, forcing Ginny to try and hide a wince. "But seriously, where's Sunny, I'll have a word with her for you, squirt."
"Well, she's back in the library, she said..." Before the little griffin could finish there was a swirling wind and a spark of magic between the group.
The small flare bloomed into a sphere of bright orange, before blasting outwards with enough force to knock each of them back.
"Oh, sorry I'm late everypony, I just had to finish clearing up before the celebration tomorrow and..." The bright orange mare with dark red and orange highlighted mane flashed into existence and started to stammer, only to trail off and wince. "Oh, by Luna, sorry! I was aiming for the edge of the park."
What I clearly made out was that the mare with the odd sun blaze cutie mark and cyan eyes was not Twilight. I had to double-take again, because if this was not Twilight, then who else in the world was an alicorn princess?
"Sunset, dear, quite the dramatic entrance," Rarity was the first to address the fiery mare, first dropping into a bow before smiling up at the alicorn. "Though rather fitting for the new princess role, I have to say."
The fiery princess, Sunset, I guessed, winced at the mare bowing before her, rubbing the back of her neck with a forehoof.
Funny, Twilight talked about a pony like that once. Something about a mirror... I could not get the loose thoughts together, even if there was a small hint of recognition.
"Well, you'd be surprised how much difference there is between alicorn and unicorn magic." Sunset gave a nervous chuckle. "But you really don't need to go along with all that formal stuff, it's still me."
"Nonsense, dear. Princess Luna gave you your station for a reason, you should be addressed with the proper respect," Rarity insisted, standing back up as Sunset manufactured an awkward smile.
"Wha ah think she's tryin' ta say Rares, is that we're all still tha same ponies here," Applejack added, earning a series of nods and some unsure murmers from the rest of them.
"Exactly, Applejack... Urg, by Luna, you have no idea how long I've been waiting for somepony to just come out and say that!" Sunset exclaimed, jabbing a hoof at the orange stallion.
"Meh, you're still the same old Sunny to me," Ginny admitted with a shrug as she pecked at one of the scones she'd retrieved from the basket.
Sunset giggled. "And that's why you're my number one little helper. Takes more than a crown to make you see differently." She nuzzled the little griffin and Ginny huffed.
"Okay, okay, I get it... No more lovey dove stuff." No matter how much of a grumpy look the griffin was putting on, I could feel her love from here.
It was an odd sensation, and only then that I noticed it. I'd grown up around Twilight and her friends, felt their feelings towards each other and here that was nowhere near as strong. It did not even satisfy my aching hunger, not to mention that I could see no trace of either of the ponies I needed most.
What is Twilight here, where is she? What about Starlight? I could not help but imagine the two mare's that had raised me as something else, griffins, earth ponies or even dragons. Just calm down and think. Starlight and Twilight would be good for sure, but right now you need Flurry and Cicada.
"Well, I for one think the wings are awesome. The rest of it kinda stinks. Kinda like Luna wants you to be the new Celestia or something," Rainbow Dash declared, earning a series of gasps.
"Miss Dash, what is the rule about that name!" Rarity scolded as the others muttered among themselves.
"What, just because we're not supposed to talk about it does not mean it's not real. Besides, it wasn't really Celestia that did all the bad stuff it was..."
"Okay, okay, Dash, please just stop. I've had enough without being compared to a power-hungry maniac," Sunset cut off, waving a forehoof at the cyan pegasus.
"Awww, don't be silly, Sunny. You don't seriously believe that anypony here believes your even capable of doing something like that?" Pinkie interrupted, flying down to give the alicorn a hug.
"She's right ya' know. Ya' may have sun in your name but that don't make ya' tha same," Applejack added, with a nod from Fluttershy.
I sat down in the cool shade of a tree, back pressed against the trunk. My head surged with possibilities, I'd seen my friends, they were so similar and yet so different. No matter what Chrysalis had told me it was still disorientating, like I'd been thrown into foaming rapids and spat out somewhere utterly alien. There was an odd reflection of the day I'd appeared on Twilight's table, so displaced and abnormal.
If there was no Twilight here, then who was there? No Starlight, then who was she here? There had to be alternative versions like Chrysalis had said, the only thing there could not be, if she was right, was another me or another Cicada. Was there another Flurry here, if there was then was Twilight still her aunt, what about her parents, was her mother still alive? The possibilities continued to spin no matter how I'd come to expect them.
Then one of the alternate ponies said something that caught my attention. "Of course, everything with Grogar's defeat and the whole Changeling negotiations. Urg, life's a pain right now."
That sounded like Sunset, what was that about Changeling negotiations? Did that mean I was safe here, could I go up and ask for help? Maybe this is a world where the war never happened, do they have a Chrysalis, a Scolopendra?
I stood up and brushed myself off, gingerly hiding the cartographer under one of my wings. Not quite the same as feathers, but the metal was dull enough to be almost hidden against my dark chitin.
I could really do with shapeshifting. I thought stubbornly, yet every attempt I made was met with a flicker and a puff of smoke from my horn. Magic's not quite the same when Chrysalis is not there to back it up, ironic.
The thought stung as I envied the moment I'd been able to summon a magical attack from my horn. Still, honesty was the next best policy, maybe if I went to them like this it would be a better first impression. That in mind I took a step forward and shoved one of the bushes aside. That was the moment I was tackled.
"Oh, by the hive, there you are! What in the great cocoon's name are you doing!" I'd never been so glad and so petrified at the same time as my heart pounded and I stared into Cicada's wide, lavender eyes.
"I... I... I woke up and I couldn't find you, then I found..." She pressed a forehoof to my mouth to silence me as she adopted the form of a grape purple mare with darker mane and green eyes, before poking the cartographer as if to confirm it was still real.
"Shush! If you'd listen to them you'd know why it's a bad idea for us to be here looking like ourselves," she told me, nodding to the clearing as Rarity spoke up.
"Oh, my dear, I can't even begin to imagine what yourself and Luna must go through talking with those fiends. I'm shocked the princess even considerers peace an option." I gulped, very glad the changeling had stopped me when she did.
Getting killed by my family because they think I'm a monster, literally my worst nightmare.
"Urg, the Jump may have thrown us a little off, but we're lucky we're close. Have you seen your alicorn friend?" she asked urgently, and I felt a shudder of panic jolt through me.
"Flurry? No, I thought she was with you?" Immediately my mind jumped to the conclusion that I'd sent my friend to some Celestia forsaken realm of sand and dust alone while we were stuck here.
"Damn it, no. If only I'd had more time to plot the coordinates," Cicada exclaimed, stomping a hoof and stepping off me. "It must have defaulted to here somehow."
"Wait, what? So where is she? We can find her, right?" I asked, jumping to my hooves and praying I'd not sent Flurry to some underwater dimension or another place devoid of life.
"She has to be here, we're just scattered around this universe's hard point, so she has to be close," she elaborated. "I can only find you so easily because we're both changelings. There's somewhat of a connection if you know how to feel it."
I had no idea how I felt about that latter part, but as I shook my head I didn't care. "Wait, you said a hard point was like Twilight's table right?"
"If that's what you call it where you're from then yeah I..." she trailed off. "Y–you mean the cutie map. How... How do I remember that?"
She pressed a forehoof to her head, swaying a little as I looked around. I could still hear the group of friends talking, so assuming we were as of yet undiscovered I spoke up.
"But if that is it then I know where it should be, right in the middle of Ponyville." She shook her head free of her stupor, then nodded.
Then I winced and added. "And then there's me... If they want to kill me I can't go around looking like this and well... I can't shapeshift." I hated the green glow and heat in my cheeks.
"You what? Seriously?" Cicada deadpanned as she marched over to me and pressed a hoof to my shoulder.
There was a green flash between us and just like that I had strands of dull blue mane hanging in my eyes and a pair of feathery wings. Then I looked back over myself and saw that I was no longer myself, I wasn't even male.
"W–what did you do... I... I... I'm a mare!" I exclaimed my voice now soft, almost like Fluttershy's. "I've only managed to shapeshift once, into an earth pony!"
"It's second-hoof changefire, beggars can't be choosers," Cicada told me simply, jabbing a forehoof at my shoulder. "You'll get all your... Assets back when we're done, but right now you're my best friend Digit the weather pony, okay?"
"I... I..." I looked back at my own tail, wiggling my rear and ruffling my wings. "Fine," I finally snorted through clenched teeth.
"Good because we're going to have to find your friend before..." Cicada was cut off as there was a magical buzz from the clearing, then a puff and a pop, followed by a gasp.
We looked at each other, then peered out into the clearing to see Sunset's horn was glowing as she levitated a scroll in her magic.
"By Luna," the orange mare muttered as each of her friends strained to peer in.
"Oh, oh, what is it, Sunny, something exciting?" Pinkie beamed, bobbing in the air like a pink balloon.
"We have to get back to town, now." Sunset looked up from the scroll. "My royal guard think they found another alicorn."
"Hey, who in the great egg's name are you two!?" Before I or seemingly Cicada could even process what Sunset had said, a gruff voice called out from behind us.
We both turned and only then did I realize that of all the ponies I'd seen peering in at Sunset's note, the little griffin Ginny had not been one of them.