Council of Crowns: Rise of the Royals

by ShadeLeshyr


The Power of a Name

3000 years prior to the rise of Nightmare Moon...

The depths of the earth was a place that offered a comforting darkness to those that could not live in the light above. Deep below the flora and fauna of the world above, a frightening number of creatures lived, adapted, and thrived and created a unique ecosystem. From the quiet mole, to the savage diamond dogs, and to the terrifying tatzlwurm, each organism possessed its own abilities and place in the world beneath.

The same could be said for those to whom the underground offered a place to hide between journeys to the surface. This was the case for the insectoid equines that quietly dug their maze of tunnels, trying to keep from drawing the attention of larger predators.

Changelings.

A name that did not exist yet, but an image that had spurred tales of dangerous creatures among those that called the world above home. In truth, they held a parasitic nature toward the budding civilizations of that world, feeding on the emotions of their prey by using their natural ability to mimic appearances of others.

However, they lacked individuality and intelligence. Existing as an extension of their Queen, the drones of the hive knew nothing of thoughts beyond the feral needs of their ruler. This made it easy for the growing villages above warn each other and tell a disguised changeling from the real thing and so the starving queen had become even more feral, turning to foalnapping their prey and draining them into emotionless husks.

The nature of emotion and thought is difficult to predict. Without the intelligence to possess philosophy, no changeling could have guessed what was going to happen on this particular day. Today, a single, hungry drone found himself staring up at the feeding cocoon, mesmerized by its soft glow as he drained the emotions from the equine within.

However... something was different about the taste. Sweeter than usual, twice as filling, and carrying a hint of something... more. It was a subtle thing. So small that one wouldn't be able to detect it unless there was nothing to distract the individual observing it. No outside stimuli... and no thoughts to get in the way.

The drone gave a start, the usual muddied awareness of his mind clearing. He sat there, the pale blue color of his magic fading away as he finished feeding. A moment passed. He took in a breath and the experience shocked him, sending a jolt of surprise through him. It was the first time that he had been aware of the action... and then he did something that no other changeling had done before...

He began to think.

He thought about the sensation of breathing. Then he thought about the way his thoughts entered his mind. Chittering softly, he experienced surprise, excitement, caution, fear, and curiosity in a single moment before gazing up at the pod suspended in front of him. Something was different about the situation and he thought about it in the limited way that his new intelligence allowed.

As he thought about it, he became dimly aware of another changeling entering the small feeding cave... then another... and another. After a moment, eight more changelings had surrounded the pod and begun to feed. An awareness flooded him. The equine within would not survive this many of them consuming his emotions. A bitter thought burned into his mind at the thought that he would not get the chance to taste the strange emotions again.

Thankfully, the reaction of his fellow changelings to their meal gave him something else to focus on. One by one, he watched them suddenly give a start and the room began to fill with a curious energy. Linked by the great hive mind, the drone could feel similar things to what he had gone through when the strange emotions had pulsed inside of him. He slowly turned his head, scanning over them all.

Between the nine changelings present in the cave, they numbered an almost equal number of each caste position. Outsiders would have been stumped to tell each type apart, but between the hive mind and the insider knowledge, he observed them quietly.

Two Infiltrators, both female. Slender in comparison to the others and moving with a more organic grace. Both of them presented a cautious aura, still uncertain about the change or what it meant for those present. They spent days if not weeks disguised as creatures from above and had to avoid the hunting parties that came after them. Their suspicion was justified.

The Warriors, one male and one female, stood stoically but their minds were abuzz with uncertainty, waiting for a compulsion to tell them what to do. Their chitin was much sturdier than other changelings' and they served as a last line of defense if their hive should be discovered, allowing the others to escape. One could easily underestimate them as their forms seemed diminutive, offsetting the true nature of the dense fibers of muscle beneath their shell.

Two Caretakers, one male and one female, took in the sight of the others with unrestrained curiosity. It made sense. Before they were properly grown, many grubs experienced a need to learn and an aptitude for trouble. The fact that the Caretakers were simply rolling with the new situation wasn't out of line for their role with the hive.

Inclining his head, the first drone blinked at his fellow Digger, another male. All of these feelings were new and confusing to them since they spent most of their time expanding the hive or strengthening the structure through various means. They never really had time to experience things so they, like the Warriors, were waiting for one of the others to give an impulse through the hive mind to tell them what to do.

Thus, eight pairs of eyes turned toward the final changeling to have been affected by the meal. She was a Herald, a right hoof of the Queen herself and in hindsight would be the one closest to having these sensations before. The problem was that she was just as confused.

The Herald blinked, probing through the hive mind to them and collecting the experience from their perspective to create a better understanding for herself before sharing it with them. Expressing confusion through their link, she questioned the patterns of thought.

Inclining their heads toward her, the Infiltrators probed back with memories of the world above. Stalking their prey and watching them interact with one another. Due to the nature of their meals, every changeling was born with the inherent ability to sense and read emotions in order to avoid poisonous feelings such as despair or hate. As the memories played out, it became apparent that their thoughts mirrored several instances of interactions that they had observed.

Probing into the thoughts, the Caretakers pressed upon the feelings and shared their own memories of raising wayward grubs whom had refused to fall in line with their tasks and place in the hive for some time. If what they presented was true, it seemed as if they were learning. Learning what? The Caretakers couldn't comprehend.

Nervous chitters and buzzing of wings filled the small cave as the changelings considered this information. The Herald in particular seemed frightened by the prospect. Without much prompting, memories of “defective” changelings being destroyed by the Queen to ensure that her rule would not be challenged.

To this, the Digger who had eaten the influencing emotions first tilted his head. What did she mean by “challenged?”

The silence through the link was palpable and several long moments passed before the Herald pressed back with an inability to explain. However, if they did not want to be destroyed, it was very important that they not act in any way that was counter to the Queen's impulses. She would attempt to gather information about the defects and search for a cure, but in the mean time, she would keep in contact with them to observe anything new for future reference.

Closing her eyes, the Herald encapsulated their minds, forging a bond that would keep the nine of them together through the hive mind. A shot of fear lanced through her as she realized that what she was doing was technically forbidden... but she couldn't remember why. With that done, she urged them all to return to their duties and to avoid contact with the Queen as much as possible.

**

While the sun and moon never penetrated this far into the earth, there was always a sensation in the back of his mind that let the Digger know when the time had come for his rotation to dig. Wandering through the twisting maze of tunnels, he passed another of his caste, the one he was taking over for. Years had passed with this being a reoccurring thing and he had never noticed anything off about it.

Today was different.

As he passed his fellow Digger, something about the other changeling's eyes drew his attention. They looked the same as they always had, yet now... they invoked a primal fear in him. It ate at him the entire time he spent in the tunnel, burrowing through the dirt with his hardened hooves. For hours, he agonized over the look and the feeling, trying to find a word for it to explain the fear that pumped adrenaline into his motions for his rotation.

It wasn't until the impulse came down from the Herald that oversaw this section of the hive that he was to take his rest that it hit him. Turning around to gaze at the length of tunnel that greeted him, he gazed into the emptiness lit by the spots of glowing slime that he'd left behind him, the feeling it evoked gave him the feeling again and from somewhere in the back of his mind the sensation named itself...

Empty...

**

A few days passed without incident, the drone in question continuing to dig and avoid looking at the eyes of the other changelings around him. In that time, he'd come across the other Digger a few times, but the two of them had only acknowledge one another in passing. Still, the brief interactions had soothed the strange feeling in his chest for a moment, allowing him to suppress the fear.

The one thing he couldn't stop was the thinking. Over the days, he'd come to notice a number of things that previously hadn't even gotten a second glance from him in a new light. He'd noticed just how many of his kind wandered the tunnels each day, which had left him considering how he'd never noticed it before. The next was the way that the Queen's impulses, issued through her Heralds, seemed to slide through his mind and then out.

The Queen's orders were absolute. Without question. So why did it feel like he could just choose to not listen? The thought was absurd... yet strangely appealing.

On a more personal level, the drone had begun to notice how... he felt different.... how good that felt. In a hive full of changelings, he had begun to see himself as an individual body. He could still feel the hive mind and the impulses trickling down from the Queen but where the other drones around him just seemed to fade into the link between them all, he had developed a sense of where he ended and the hive mind began.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was certain that this was a taboo but he couldn't understand why... and it didn't fully stop him.

All of this had created a problem though: it felt like he was missing something. All the sensations that he'd been learning to enjoy over the past few days were culminating into something inside of him and needed... something. As his hooves jabbed into the earth before him, shoving dirt to the side and sealing it there with the hardening slime of his hooves, he mulled over it.

The feeling always seemed to intensify whenever he thought about his position in the hive. The idea of being a Digger burned into his mind a sensation of... him. However, it wasn't just him. Most of the changelings he encountered every day were Diggers. He needed something that was... just him.

As he was thinking, he felt his hoof push through a section of dirt into open air. Curious, he softly pinged the Herald in charge of this section with the information and received back that there were no adjacent tunnels in the area. He paused until the Herald fired an impulse to explore the space into him and he finished digging out the tunnel into the space beyond.

The first sensation he became aware of was the vibrant light that assaulted his eyes, causing him to squint and hiss. As his eyes started to adjust, he cautiously looked around for danger. Before him lay a massive cavern, extending far above his head to the source of light. A ray of sunshine peered down into the cavern from a hole in the ceiling. As it extended down, it met with a series of crystal formations that caught and refracted the light, creating a kaleidoscope of colors.

It was... awe inspiring.

However, the Herald would be waiting for a response from him and if they didn't receive anything then they would assume he had been killed and collapse the tunnel. They wouldn't be interested in the visual aspect, so he forced himself to look away from the shining treasures and observed the cavern. The walls had been purposely molded, but there was no sign of anything living here for some time. No scents to suggest that the occupant was simply outside at the moment. It seemed safe and that was what he sent to the Herald.

The Herald replied with a dismissive impulse. If there wasn't a clear and obvious threat, it meant little to the hive unless it could be re-purposed. Of course, the hole in the ceiling was a hazard to the safety of the hive. The tunnel that he'd just dug would be collapsed and other Diggers in the area would be relocated. He was to return to the closest junction immediately.

He deflated, feeling a sinking sensation in his abdomen. A part of him had been wanting to further observe the way that the crystals shone as they reminded him of the pod that had started his sense of self. However, if he didn't want to be labeled as defective, he would need to follow the impulse.

Turning back to look at the crystals again, he let his eyes roam over them once more, committing the sight to memory. As he did so, he noticed a strange rock formation amid the vibrant lights. It stuck out due to the dark, simple color of it and he approached it, leaning his head down for a closer look.

It was black as a slime-less tunnel yet the surface held its own unique shine. Reaching out with one hoof, he touched the smooth, cool surface of the rock and couldn't help but see how similar the color was to his own chitin. Looking around at the crystals around him as they shone in the sunlight, a sense of kinship with the stone filled him and a word came unbidden to his mind...

Onyx

At first, it held no meaning other than a specific series of noises but the more he focused on it, the more meaning appeared in his thoughts. Soon, a stray thought forged itself into his mind: this rock was unique and was different enough to be itself... like himself. It had given him something...

I am Onyx

A name. A label that was only for him and meant only him. Onyx bowed his head reverently to the glossy, dark stone as something slid into place within himself. After a moment, he raised his head and turned away, knowing that he would never return to this place but knowing that he would not need to. He had everything he needed from this place. As he moved through the tunnel and collapsed it behind him as he went with sharp cracks of his hooves, Onyx smiled...

**

It was a few weeks after the feeding incident that the Herald whom had been affected contacted them all, calling them all to the same feeding chamber where it had all began. The pod had been removed following the death of the equine within and replaced with a fresher one. However, the changelings present ignored it for the moment as the Herald paced back and forth between them.

The Herald was nervous and took a few moments to reach out to them through her connection to explain. Most changelings were unaware of all the things that they ingested when feeding but could recognize emotions that were filling and emotions that made them feel more hungry. Each emotion held a sense of the prey's thoughts and feelings and could affect a changeling based on what it was.

The pony that had been in the previous pod was an elderly earth pony that had been foalnapped from a small village not far from the hive. Despite how weak his body had been, his emotions had been much stronger than others in the village and lead the infiltrators grabbing him to feed the hive. As best the Herald could gather without drawing the Queen's attention was that the pony must have been... introspective and that feeling had passed through his emotions into the changelings gathered.

The general question that poured out of them was simple. What happens to us now? The Herald was quick to put up the solution she'd discovered: undergo a purge in order to get the emotion out of their systems so they could go back to being normal before the Queen began to pick up on the stray thoughts from them. They had been lucky to avoid detection thus far, most likely thanks to the fact that they had avoided being together and blending into the hive mind for the moment but every passing second was a chance to be found out.

The answer was simple, so... why was there a reluctance from all of them?

Onyx sat there, gazing around the group and sensing the general air of dissatisfaction with the idea. It even came from the Herald. She was supposed to be the right hoof of the Queen and enforce her will upon the hive. Ultimately, it seemed as if each of them was waiting for one of the others to step forward either way. None of them wanted to be the one responsible if things went sour, but not a single changeling present wanted to purge... yet none of them understood why. They also didn't understand why what they had experienced was wrong... or how they knew it was wrong.

Tapping his hoof against the floor of the cave, Onyx looked into himself, sifting through his feelings over the weeks since the feeding. He was... unsatisfied. Not with his position in the hive or the feeling of being one with the hive. However there was something that made him shift and feel... ill at the idea of going back to the way he was before... like the other drones...

Empty...

He hadn't meant to express the sensation across the link the Herald had formed and he flinched as the others turned to look at him in confusion. He tried to retreat back into himself until the Herald prompted him to explain. So he shared. He shared the experience of looking into the eyes of other drones and feeling like something was missing from them. It was a thought that, in hindsight, the others were quick to share. Then he shared his thoughts as he entered the crystal cavern until it came to the point where he'd chosen his name.

Onyx... I am Onyx. I... want to be me. Onyx.

The admission filled his with a sense of purpose and power like he'd never felt before and the other changelings took a step back, shock and awe flowing from them. The emotions boiling within him resonated across their link and after a moment of hesitation, the others began to revel in the echo. They each began to look around, their thoughts become sharper and more complex.

Sensing this, Onyx perked up and gave a small inquiry: Names?

The question startled them all. They looked around nervously, a feeling of deep taboo echoing from the deepest parts of their minds. However, with Onyx as the example, it wasn't long before they began to respond.

Chirp, responded the male Caretaker. It was the first noise he heard from the grubs he took care of. A call that pulled his attention to them.

Blue, the female Caretaker followed, the small bubble of appreciation for the wonderful color of a changeling's eyes filling her thoughts.

Aegis, The female Warrior, choosing the purpose of her role that reminded her why she was strong.

Fang, her male counterpart added cautiously. His weapon of choice when defending the hive.

Stone, his fellow Digger finally chimed in, taking the moniker of the thing it gave him the greatest sense of accomplishment to dig through.

Shadow, one of the Infiltrators submitted. Her greatest ally in the world above.

Silence, the other Infiltrator, referring to the other ally of their caste.

Then finally, as one, the group turned to look at the Herald. There was a sense of finality to it, as though her name would be the tipping point across the line of taboo. Despite the fear that grew stronger with each given name, the Herald was not contacting the Queen as her instinct told her to. Instead, she pushed the impulse down and swallowed as she thought.

Then, with a weak thought, it came: ...Hope

With her choice, her new namesake swept through them all. None of them could truly understand the significance of what they had done but it didn't matter in the end. What mattered was that the first and longest step had been taken. They had become... something... and the link held by Hope strengthened. Whatever came next, they would work together like changelings should.

Which was the last sense they had before a group of warriors stormed into the cave and surrounded them, hissing and spitting violently. Cowed by the show of aggression, they watched in horror as another Herald stepped in, glowering down at them disdainfully. The impulse came forcibly across the greater hive mind.

They were going to see the Queen...