A Sparkle-ling Perfection

by Cast-Iron Caryatid

Chapter Eighteen 【Twilight】

It was time.

The chrysalis loomed over me not entirely unlike its namesake, more ominous than malicious. It would have been a momentous occasion even if all I needed to do was to flip a switch, but this was far more than that. I was going to be reborn.

Technically, I had already had been reborn once in order to fix the repeated trauma to my face, but this was a different matter. This was a true rebirth. The tests had been done, the experiments run and the chitin issue solved to the hive mind’s satisfaction. I would step into that chrysalis with a nearly useless magical network, and when I eclosed, I would have taken the first step on the road to queendom.

I had wanted that step to be fuzzy changelings, but I had been overruled. If chitin interfered with spellcasting, the simplest and most direct solution would be to just get rid of it. I was, of course, biased; as a changeling who had a single disguise burned into my genetics, simply making changelings that are indistinguishable from ponies seemed like a starting point that was worth exploring.

The hive mind had disagreed. I had argued that there was every possibility that I would be able to recreate the ability with a more internal structure, but I was overruled. A changeling’s ability to disguise itself was one of the oldest things written into our genetics and not well understood. I wasn’t forbidden from performing experiments to that end somewhere down the line, but here and now, the hive mind wanted me to start with the impossible and work my way down.

It burned inside that the hive mind’s directive had turned out so well.

I had started with Sunset Shimmer’s fantasy solution of separating the horn and chitin from each other. It was harder than it sounded, requiring not only an insulating ring at the base of the horn, but an entirely separate magical network as well. Fully expecting it to fail miserably, I hadn’t even bothered with the physical alterations to the horn that would have been needed to match it to Moon Dancer’s disguise, said disguise not being able to cover that which was insulated from it.

It had, unfortunately, worked. In fact, it had worked so well that Moon Dancer had discovered the ability to disguise her horn. I had simply copied the original magical network, never even thinking that doing so would allow the horn its own disguise. Casting spells on top of maintaining disguises with two separate magical networks was apparently a bit of a shift to manage, but Moon Dancer found it entirely manageable. You couldn’t even see the insulating ring at the base of the horn; the disguises were able to bridge the gap.

My attempts to take credit for this failed, which was hardly fair. Disagreements or not, I’m the one who put in the hours upon hours designing the alterations. Call it luck, but I doubt it would have gone half as well without my attention to detail.

Story of my life.

Well, fine. The story had barely begun, and from here on out, things were going to change.

My back itched.

More specifically, Moon Dancer’s back itched, but since I was using it, I was the one who was stuck scratching with irritation, cursing my impatience. As it turned out, skin irritation was not a completely unexpected result of re-bleaching and re-dyeing a pony between different coat colors, especially when you hurry the process. In hindsight, with as fast as the rebirthing process was given all the excess love we have, I probably should have just taken Shining Armor’s lead and spent the two days doing something in the hive mind. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have plenty of design work and growth simulations to immerse myself in.

But no, this was the entire purpose I’d acquired Moon Dancer for and I’d wanted to actually use her neurospast for once. Admittedly, it was summer break and I probably hadn’t even needed to re-dye her neurospast to my colors, but I’d wanted to do the thing properly, damn it.

I suppose, at the very least, that I’ve learned not to rush the dyeing process—or at least not the rinsing afterwards. I was tempted to go up and take another shower right now, but I was busy instructing Moon Dancer on how to check up on the progress of my rebirthing.

Pulling her horn out of the chrysalis with a wet, sucking sound, she spread a glob of waxy resin over the small access aperture and announced, “You’re fine.”

“The spells don’t return ‘fine,’” I told her, feeding my irritation into my sarcasm. “I need more details than fine.”

“Hive mind says the results are fine,” she said, clarifying herself while still re-forwarding the information to me. Attached to the packet of information was a distinct exasperation that implied I had been a recipient of it the first time as well and had simply ignored it.

That was entirely possible.

And irrelevant.

Also, I was fine.

Kneeling on the ground coughing and hacking my lungs free of amniotic fluid is not a pleasant experience. Unlike Moon Dancer, I didn’t spend all day controlling one of the neurospasts, so I had to struggle to my hooves and stagger over to where I kept the lab rags and towels.

It was empty.

I curse everyone and their mother over the hive mind.

Most of them are amused; their mother, not so much.

Well, fine. Since noling seems to have shown up to see me rebirthed, I’ll just stomp upstairs like this and take a shower. I do as I’ve always done to assume my disguise, but the pink flames sputter and flicker, leaving me as bare and chitinous as the day I was born.

I let that sink in for a moment.

The flames were pink.

My magic was pink.

You know what? No. I didn’t have time to think about that or how many samples I would need in order to actually prove that it wasn’t just a coincidence and pink was the new green. I didn’t care what it meant that my pink was exactly the same as Shining Armor’s pink, leaving Moon Dancer the odd changeling out, because my disguise had failed to take hold.

That was a problem—and not just a problem problem, but a massively actually terrifying problem because the exams for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns were tomorrow and all of my plans hinged on me actually being able to be there.

I tried to calm myself—tried not to panic. Surely one failed disguise didn’t mean anything. I hadn’t changed a single thing from Moon Dancer’s previous rebirth, so there was no reason there should be any actual problems. Just to reassure myself that everything was going to be fine, I directed my magic to levitate the two day old glass of water I’d left for myself because I couldn’t count on anyling actually helping me for anything.

If the hive mind had expected me to drop the glass for it to dramatically shatter like all my hopes and dreams, it would remain disappointed. Instead, my horn just sparked and sputtered; the glass failing to even so much as wobble.

I was doomed.

If I couldn’t use magic, I would fail the exams.


Fail exams.

Everything would be ruined.

The hive would turn on me like sharks scenting blood.

I set to panicking. In theory, some would have said that there was no time for panic, but I would argue that there was no time not to panic. Rather than waste time trying to calm myself, I worked myself into a fervor casting again and again—levitation, light spells… levitation… light spells… Okay, I didn’t actually know a whole lot of actual pony magic since there hadn’t been much point as weak as changeling magic was, but I hardly think it mattered.

None of it worked.

No matter how hard I tried and tried, all I got was sparks and the odd wobbly mote of pink.

This wasn’t working. I was going to need… I cringed to even think it. I was going to need… help.

“Moon Dancer!” I shouted as loud as I could and waited. One. Two. Three. No response. “Moon Dancer!” I shouted again, and again there was no response.

Frustrated, annoyed and a little bit scared, I took to my wings and buzzed out of the lab and up the basement stairs. I’d be in even bigger trouble if I went out into the house without a disguise, but I could yell from here, and… Actually, that wasn’t a great idea either—hadn’t been a great idea to begin with. Not only was there the chance that an inconvenient princess could hear me, but my voice had the typical changeling buzz to it.

I did not want to end up attracting the wrong kind of attention, which meant… ugh, fine.

I opened myself up to the hive mind and shouted for Moon Dancer there. The irritated grousing I got from Shining Armor informed me that the two of them were out having hayburgers with Cadance.

I was not jealous.

In no way was I jealous.

It was just funny that the moment I have to spend a couple of days in a chrysalis, suddenly they’re off to have hayburgers. Moon Dancer doesn’t even like hayburgers as much as I do.

Whatever. It was fine. I wasn’t upset. Instead, I focused on informing Moon Dancer that something had gone wrong with my rebirthing and I needed her help to narrow down what could be causing it in the blind hope that it would be fixable before the exams. If this had happened only a few weeks later, I would have the option of borrowing Moon Dancer’s changeling body for the exams, but while she had almost caught up to me in apparent age, she still looked a year or two younger.

Wait, wouldn’t that mean that Moon Dancer was having hayburgers with her neurospast and should be lazing around the house somewhere in her changeling body? I did not appreciate being jerked around like this when I had a real, serious problem here and I said so over the hive mind.

Apparently Moon Dancer’s changingling body had joined them as a friend from school.

That meant that Moon Dancer… had gotten two hayburgers.

That just wasn’t fair.

I didn’t have time to bemoan my lack of hayburgers, however, so I had to push past my sorrow and growling stomach. I needed Moon Dancer as soon as possible and I said as much.

The hive mind informed me in no uncertain terms that the four of them were going to the theatre.

Surely Moon Dancer’s friend from school could bow out? It wasn’t as if Moon Dancer hadn’t already gotten her two hayburgers, and this was important!

Apparently Cadance had gotten ahold of four tickets and wanted to take Shining Armor and his sisters and they’d had to go through a whole mess of hoops to explain Twilight’s absence and stage a meeting for Princess Cadance with Moon Dancer’s ‘friend’s’ parents in order to set this whole thing up, so no, Moon Dancer would not be coming home.

I cursed and I swore over the hive mind; I’m not even sure what the difference between the two is, but I’m sure I did both. This wasn’t happening. This could not be happening. I hemmed and I hawed and I fretted, trying to come up with something I could do rather than just spend the entire afternoon and evening trying to set myself on fire with tiny little sparks from my horn.

There was… one option, I supposed. I was loathe to do it, but there was too much at stake here for me to ignore the possibility. Out of options, I swallowed my pride and… gave Moon Dancer permission to use my body in any way she wanted. In order to troubleshoot my magic issues, I mean. She was the only one who actually had experience with this magical network configuration, so she might be able to tell me what was wrong.

It wasn’t actually an absolutely terrible experience, having someling else use your body. It wasn’t comfortable by any means, but it was… bearable. Actually, it wasn’t unlike the feeling of being bloated on love, which was a sensation that we’d all gotten very familiar with in the past few months. What I wasn’t used to was having that bloated feeling localized in other parts of the body or, worst case, in my entire body.

Moon Dancer was not gentle.

I would have staggered if I’d been able, but Moon Dancer had a significant amount of experience with neurospasts and she managed to keep me on my feet just fine, but it was clear she’d never actually had need to practice with bodies that were actually occupied. There were reasons that borrowing entire bodies wasn’t common.

Just when I thought I’d gotten ahold of myself, my entire world tilted—or half of it did, anyway. The profound sense of vertigo was so intense that I didn’t even notice my horn lighting up and… lifting the glass of water to my lips with no problem. The two-day-old water tasted stale, doing nothing to wash away the overwhelming disdain of the hive mind.

I slammed shut my connection to the hive mind.

The glass fell and shattered.

I sat leaning up against the chrysalis I’d come out of in the complete and utter silence of an empty house on top of an empty hive mind.

I was shaking.

It was obvious in hindsight, I supposed, that a changeling who had gotten used to riding her neurospast around and using it in tandem with her changeling body would have no problem channeling magic through two magical networks into two different foci at the same time. I had known that the sort of things she could do with her neurospast hadn’t been quite what you’d call normal, but the sheer vertigo that even now turned my stomach spoke of an ability to multitask that I don’t think I could have predicted.

And I had to learn to do it in less than a day.

And I was still shaking.

It was more disorienting than I had expected, shutting myself off completely from the hive mind. Even when I wasn’t listening to it, even when I was keeping secrets from it, my efforts to block it off had always been… less than perfect, like voices behind a closed door. Now, the door was still there; I knew I could open it with just the slightest effort, but for once all the cracks had been filled in—the whole thing buried behind layers and layers of insulation. I was completely isolated.

It was slightly maddedning… and a tiny bit addictive.

I was, after all, genetically predispositioned to separate myself from the hive mind—to do exactly what the hive mind wouldn’t. It seemed to forget that a lot. It rankled, being told what to do as if I’m just a normal changeling with an independent streak. Yes, this whole thing with Princess Cadance was important, but as had been made very clear to me, dealing with her was not my job. I shouldn’t have had to deal with the changelings whose job she was complicating everything I do.

That was… neither here nor there, though, I suppose. I can’t blame her or Shining Armor for my current situation, but all the same, I’d be handling this all a lot better if it wasn’t for the constant pressure and disagreements from the hive mind… and if I could actually ask for help from my own assistant without being shamed out of the room.

Maybe… maybe I should cut my losses and move on. Moon Dancer was entirely capable of being both Moon Dancer and Twilight Sparkle. I could go somewhere else—find another identity to take over and work in silence. I would, at least, still have Sunset Shimmer to be my assistant.

Then again, I doubted that the hive mind would entirely appreciate me leaving my lab and three entire chrysalises behind to a family that didn’t even really need a single one.

Although… Hrm. Actually, I did have an out, and it was even a pre-approved one. Not for the first time, I don’t think anyling in the hive mind really thought through what it would mean if I became the god-queen’s personal student like Sunset Shimmer had been. True, Sunset Shimmer had been an orphan, but she had hardly been the only young pony that Celestia had ever taken under her wing and a lot of those young ponies had lived at the palace with her—especially the particular fillies and colts who had special needs.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel.

All I had to do was learn to use my horn properly in under a day.

My stomach rebelled at the idea, but I got up anyway and tried to remember how Moon Dancer had done it.

I wasn’t going to enjoy this.

It was early evening by the time the others returned from the theatre. I would have thought that my continued absence from the hive mind would have made it clear that I didn’t want to speak to any of them, but it unfortunately had the opposite effect.

Head hanging low and panting from exertion, I stiffened when I heard the door to the basement open and close. The heavy clopping of hooves on the stairs could only be one pony.

“Oh good, you’re not dead,” came the voice of Shining Armor from the door to the lab.

I didn’t even look at him, nor did I have the breath to curse him out.

“I’m serious,” he said, walking in and circling around me, giving me a once-over. “We actually weren’t sure you hadn’t had a brain aneurysm and keeled over; I was worried.”

“Well, that would have made things awkward with Cadance, so I guess the hive mind can’t blame you for that,” I snarked back, not mentioning my previous thoughts about being easily replaced if it should come to that.

Shining Armor didn’t seem to know what to say. One awkward silence later, he pinched the bridge of his nose in the crook of his hoof and let out a sigh. “Can you not do that?”

“I’m not doing anything,” I told him, and it was true. My head felt like it was splitting in two and just talking to him was enough to keep me occupied.

“You’ve completely blocked out the hive mind,” he reminded me as he made his way over to the cistern and began to unload six saddlebags worth of love. “It’s making this weird.”

“Your face is weird,” I grumbled with no particular heat or meaning as I swayed on my hooves; not exactly my best rejoinder.

Shining Armor shook his head and continued emptying various identical sports bottles into the cistern in silence. Once he was done, he packed the bottles back up into the saddlebags, reserving one.

“Hey,” he said, making sure he’d gotten my attention before tossing the last bottle of love in my direction.

I stared blankly at it the entire time until it struck me directly in the face and sent me tripping over my hooves to the floor.

Shining Armor cringed at the impact, looked like maybe he was going to come over and help me and then thought better of it. Eventually, the sheer awkwardness pushed him to edge his way over to the door and step out.

I was sorely tempted to just lie there for a while, but I couldn’t ignore the deadline bearing down on me and figured that some love was probably just what I needed right now. Slowly, weakly, I pulled myself up into a sitting position.

Sitting there scanning the room for the bottle of love I’d been assaulted with, I noticed the sound of the door at the top of the stairs opening. That would be Shining Armor leaving, I assumed, but I didn’t hear the door close. Just when I began to suspect I’d just missed it, he spoke up. “In case it wasn’t obvious, Moon Dancer is up here if you need her.”

I, of course, didn’t answer, and eventually he shut the door and walked off, the soft clopping of hooves echoing through the wooden structure of the house and turning to barely audible thumps when he reached the carpeted living room.

I finally spotted the bottle of love at the back of the lab, wedged underneath one of the tables. Scowling at it and not feeling like crawling under there, I tried to fish it out with my magic. It wasn’t entirely hopeless; I had, at least, made some progress, now able to make pops and sparks at the location of whatever it was I was trying to manipulate instead of just at the point of my horn.

As expected, this didn’t help me actually get the bottle out from it’s dark and sticky domain. I could, of course, have just gone to get some love from the cistern, but I was annoyed and feeling stubborn, so I continued to try, closing my eyes against the hissing and spitting of the magic coming from my horn.

I was doing it wrong. I mean, obviously I was doing it wrong since what I was doing wasn’t working, but no amount of attempting to brute force it would help. I knew that; I was just too tired and spent to try and twist my perception in any attempt to do it right. Maybe I was hoping that if I pushed enough power into my attempt, one of the little pops or snaps would be strong enough to jostle the bottle free, or maybe I was just so disassociated from what I was doing that I didn’t care.

Either way, that was when it happened.

The rugged, steel sports bottle lifted up in my pink magic… and crumpled, splattering love everywhere like a teenaged colt getting attention from an attractive mare.

I just sat there, stunned, absently wiping the love off my face.

Looking down at my pink-smeared foreleg, I licked it.

Buzz it all, that had been good love, too.

I was not so lucky as to be able to repeat my stunt at will. Honestly, I can barely remember what I’d been thinking, let alone the twisted mental gymnastics required to only use half of the magical network in my body. Even so, I had a few more near-successes after filling up on love from the cistern that there was some small amount of hope that I would figure it out in time so long as I didn’t actually manage to give myself a brain aneurysm as Shining Armor had suggested. The love did manage to take the edge off my splitting headache, but I still felt like I was trying to pry my head apart every time I tried to do two different things with my magic.

It wasn’t until two in the morning that I realized that I could have been using Sunset Shimmer’s neurospast to practice identifying the feeling of having two different magical networks in the same way Moon Dancer had with hers. I hadn’t thought too much about it before, partially because I couldn’t actually cast anything in my current body and partially because I hadn’t wanted to connect to the hive mind, but, with it being a neurospast, I didn’t actually need to connect to the hive mind to connect to it—just touch it physically—and I was getting desperate.

At the very least, using the neurospast allowed me to clean up all the love from my little accident. I poured all of the recovered love into a jar; since love wasn’t actually an entirely physical thing, any contaminants should filter out easily and noling should be the wiser about my carelessness.

The neurospast turned out to be a massive help. It would have been a lot more help if I’d thought of it before ruining my own magical network, but at length it paid off—eventually. It was after five in the morning, going on six, when I felt a sensation from somewhere behind my horn not unlike pony ears popping, and the levitation I’d barely managed to do finally stuck.

I struggled to keep it up—struggled to keep that feeling going so I could get a better grasp on it. Once again, the remains of the sports bottle I was levitating crumpled in the grasp of my magic, but I didn’t let it distract me. I held onto it desperately, and, to my triumph, I was able to hold onto it.

“In your face, you stupid hive mind!”

The hive mind took that opportunity to inform me me that it didn’t have a face. Also, my desire to gloat had reopened my connection, so there was that; I didn’t let it ruin my morning.

What ruined my morning instead came five minutes later when my complete and utter exhaustion had caught up to me and was dragging me off into blissful unconsciousness.

The basement door opened. “Time to get up, honey! Today’s the big day—best to get an early start!”

I was going to kill that changeling some day.

I would deny to my grave any assertions that ‘daddy’ not letting me sleep had any kind of silver lining… but I had to eat my breakfast cold because it was an extra two hours until I was actually able to maintain my disguise and use my horn for magic. Normally, maintaining a disguise wouldn’t take any additional effort, but, I’d already established that having two different magical networks is apparently ten times more complicated than using just one for two different things, which just sounded backwards, if you asked me.

“You’re sure you’re ready?” Shining Armor asked as I spooned soggy, room-temperature Celesti-O’s that had been poured two hours ago into my mouth. “You’re only going to have one shot at this.”

“All I have to do is feed a bunch of magic into the egg to hatch it and all the extra should be automatically dumped into fueling temporary growth,” I told him. “With all the adjustments I’ve made after putting Moon Dancer through half a dozen rebirths, I should have the power to slingshot Sunset Shimmer to manticore-sized, at least.”

“And you think a rampaging dragon is all it takes to become Princess Celestia’s new student?” he asked, unconvinced.

I stared blankly into my Celesti-O’s, trying to remember the rest of the plan. “It’s been six months since Sunset Shimmer disappeared, and ponies have started to talk about whether or not it’s time for her to move on. Stuff like that. In her presence. Changelings. They’re changelings.”

Shining Armor stood there for a moment, then sat and buried his face in his hooves. “Great mother,” he groaned.

“Hey!” I objected, insisting, “There’s more to it than that! They were subtle and… and…” I stopped to yawn. “I did research on how she came across all of her old students and… stuff. All I have to do is stand there and… magic.”

He looked me up and down and gave me a look that asked if I could even do that much.

That… was fair.

We weren’t actually due at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns until the second testing period at one in the afternoon. This gave my ‘doting father’ enough time to take me out to the park to ‘wake me up and get my mind off the tests.’ We spent two hours playing frisbee, catch, dodgeball and anything else he could think of to run me ragged without having to actually do anything himself.

I was wide awake and exhausted when he decided we could shower and spend the other half of the morning picking out a nice outfit for me to wear to the exams. Tragically, in spite of starting out with over four hours, we were ‘running late’ and didn’t have time to go several blocks out of our way for hayburgers; I was given a fruit cup from the grocery store followed by unsweetened yogurt that he’d somehow forgotten to give me with the fruit cup.

It was going to be painful when I killed him.

Just about the only bright side to the day was that I was apparently adorable in a white blouse with a plaid skirt and tie, because the only necessity I wasn’t short on was love. Actually, it was kind of concerning the amount of love I was getting from certain ponies as we found our way around the CSGU campus, though by far the one that made me grind my teeth was the scowl I got from the old tawny mare who was overseeing the exams.

“I’m afraid that clothing is not allowed during exams,” she informed us, looking down her nose at me through thin-rimmed half-moon glasses, her lips pressed into a thin, unapproving line. “We’ve found that it encourages prospective students to smuggle in… Hrm… unapproved exam materials.

My left eye twitched.

I… breathed. Every muscle I had was aching and taught with pure, focused hate, and if I said or did anything, I was liable to actually make good on my threats of entirely justified murder. I tried, instead, to focus on Sunset Shimmer’s egg, which was being wheeled down into the front of the room.

‘Daddy’ patted me on the head. “Aw, that’s too bad, honey; I know how much you were looking forward to showing off your outfit.”

And that’s how I became the princess’ student by hatching a dragon and turning my parents into potted plants.