Pain in every part of my body brought me back to reality. I needed a minute to remember what might have caused it. Disjointed images came to mind: a mountain… then a bridge… some rocks… a city… pony soldiers…
I opened my eyes and sprang to my hooves with a jolt, only to be knocked down again by the stab of intensified pain. The world was still spinning, but after another minute I was starting to regain my focus.
Looking myself over, I found more injuries than I cared to count. It would have been easier to list the parts of my body that hadn’t been broken or bruised, assuming I could find any! Then again, considering what had happened to me, it was a miracle my injuries weren’t far worse.
But where was I, and how long had I been out? Surely I would have been captured and locked away by now! But if that was the case, why was I lying on grass? I’d heard plenty of rumors about pony prisons, and had my share of assumptions about details the rumors hadn’t covered… but grass growing on the prison floor? Something didn’t add up.
Finally I regained more strength, enough to take a look at my surroundings. It turned out I was at the base of a mountain. A forest spanned the entire horizon one one side of it, and on another, there were endless fields with cottages here and there. In the middle, between the two, was a picturesque little town with a familiar crystally tree-like structure near one edge.
I was still at the base of Mount Canterlot! I hadn’t been captured! But, had the guards assumed I couldn’t have survived the fall and just left me here, or had it been only a few moments since my fall, too short a time for them to come looking for me?
One look up solved that mystery.
I could easily see the ledge where Canterlot sat. Just to the side of it, a few tiny specks were circling in the air, too small at this distance to identify with certainty, but I was sure I knew what they were.
They would come down soon enough, and I didn’t want to be around by the time they were close enough to notice me... assuming they hadn’t already, of course. Even changelings were familiar with binoculars, and for all I knew, the unicorns might have developed an equivalent in the form of a magic spell. Whether or not they were aware of my condition, it was time to leave, or at the very least, to hide in the nearby vegetation. Shapeshifting wasn’t an option; they’d notice the flash of my magic even from their altitude, leaving them no doubt I was still alive and telling them a bigger search-and-capture party might be advisable!
Going to Ponyville or into the fields was out of question, too; even if I could expect to get help there, there was nothing I could use as cover along the way! The Everfree Forest was even less appealing after what had happened the day before, and the bare mountainside could be searched easily enough. That left only one option: to circle the mountain base and go east. From my last time here, I faintly remembered seeing a forest there too - a normal, predictable one, that is.
I got back on my hooves carefully. Walking hurt, but at least I could walk, or limp to be more accurate. It would have to do; my wings were useless, both of them bent at an unnatural angle in a few places. At least the guards seemed to be taking their time, probably inspecting the cliff as they descended.
I had just reached a group of trees growing halfway to the actual forest when I was tackled by a dark creature.
“Got you now, traitor!” it hissed.
I couldn’t believe it - another changeling?! But where had he come from? And if he’d been sent to hunt me down, where was his battle gear… and what about the rest of his group?
We started wrestling. I resisted as best as I could with my limited - and rather rusty - skill, expecting him to defeat me any second… except it wasn’t happening. For the first time in my life, I was able to keep up with my opponent for longer than half a second, despite the pain I was feeling! Then I noticed why: he was injured too.
“What happened to you?” I asked, attempting to hold him still.
“Did that fall knock your brain out of your head?” he grunted, pulling himself out of my hold. “Timberwolves may have saved you the first time, but there aren’t any around now!”
So one of the soldiers had survived the timberwolf attack somehow. He must have come here at some point afterwards hoping to recover, or to join with another group, or to inform the hive about my last known location as soon as he got the chance, which I hoped he hadn’t yet!
Pondering his predicament distracted me enough to give him a chance to turn me belly-down and pin me to the ground. I thrashed wildly, but couldn’t get him off my back! He proceeded with an immobilizing hold. It worked well, except for one little detail he’d neglected, or maybe assumed I wouldn’t have the nerve or presence of mind to take advantage of.
His foreleg was now within my fangs’ reach.
I bit down on it instinctively, unleashing the paralyzing venom into his bloodstream. He froze for a moment - out of surprise, I assumed, because although I’d never bitten anyone before and couldn’t be sure, I didn’t think the venom could have worked that quickly. Then I felt his fangs touch my neck, but before he could bite, my venom seemed to have gotten to him, and he toppled over and fell on the ground, motionless.
In any other circumstances I might have waited around for him to recover, attempted to help him even, but not today.
The pegasi guards had gotten close in the meantime, and having noticed them through the foliage, I hid quickly in a nearby bush. Soon enough they landed at the side of the now-unconscious changeling soldier.
“So there he is,” said one.
“How did he get so far here?” asked another.
“Maybe he regained consciousness for a while and fainted again after getting a little away from where he’d fallen,” suggested the third.
“Never mind that! We should take him to Celestia, quick,” urged the fourth.
The others agreed.
I had taken the chance to transform into a bunny while they were distracted with their find, just in case they decided to go looking for any more changelings, but it had been unnecessary. They simply picked him up and flew away. I wondered if, and how soon, they would realize the changeling they’d captured wasn’t the one they’d chased through Canterlot. Whether or not they decided to send another search party, either after realizing they’d gotten the wrong changeling or simply as a precaution, I had no desire to remain here any longer! As soon as I was fairly sure they were too far away to see me, I dropped my disguise and got underway.
It was slow going with all my injuries; just getting to the other side of the mountain took me two whole days when normally it would have taken a single afternoon at most. I didn’t want to stop there, though - I was still too close to Canterlot - so I kept going despite the growing pain and exhaustion, willing myself to persist despite the growing hopelessness. At least I didn’t run into ponies; this was uninhabited territory, save for an occasional harmless wild animal.
After what must have been a week of desperate struggle, I came to realize I’d been making less and less progress every day, and I couldn’t go on much longer; my strength was running out. At this point, my only hope would be to enclose myself in a healing cocoon for as long as it took to recover. It wasn’t without disadvantages, though: I’d be left vulnerable and at the mercy of any pony, changeling, or wild animal that happened to find me, and healing required a lot of energy which I would have no means of replenishing while cocooned. Hopefully I would manage to find a good enough shelter to conceal myself; I didn’t want to break out of the cocoon only to find myself in a pony prison or in Chrysalis’ dungeons! As for energy needs… well, I was used to being hungry. With any luck, the love I’d gained… stolen… from the pegasus in Ponyville would be enough to last me through the healing process!
After the best part of a day spent searching, I found an abandoned cave on the slopes of a nearby hill. This would have to do! I blocked off the entrance as best and as quickly as I could in my condition and proceeded to build the cocoon. When it was done, I got in and closed it, wishing myself luck in remaining undisturbed until I was ready to come out. Maybe, just maybe, the Royal Guards and changeling hunters would forget about me by then.