When Onyx opened his eyes, an internal sense that had been growing over the past month told him that something was out of place. Scrunching his nose and yawning softly, he noted that the day had given way to night and left only a scarce amount of starlight to see by. Of course, this was more than enough for the eyes of a Digger that had spent his entire life in next to no-light conditions and he made out the slumbering forms of his companions as they snoozed softly.
Turning his attention inward, he took stock of himself and tried to identify the feeling of change. The connection to his little group was still strong and he could feel the stray dreams coursing through the changelings around him so that wasn't it. It was like an itch at the back of his mind as he stood up and stretched before moving toward the entrance to the small den. Pausing at the opening, he lifted his nose and sniffed at the air to get a sense for the creatures nearby.
Onyx blinked. That... wasn't a Digger's instinct. Not only that, but he was also able to recognize that it wasn't. Craning his neck to look back, the confused changeling lightly probed the minds of his group and noted that each of them was still asleep. They wouldn't be able to push their knowledge and instincts into him, but what he'd just done was definitely an Infiltrator's instinct... and the clarity that he held for that thought was much clearer than his mind had been yesterday.
Still... something was missing...
Moving out of the den, Onyx looked up toward the sky and sat on his haunches. The night sky... was different than the day sky. Darker, like the depths of the earth, but spots of light had taken up residence there. Surrounding the pale disk of the moon, they shone like exposed gemstones and Onyx found himself entranced by their light. They were so small when compared to the moon... like how small he was when compared to the Queen. They were so vast in numbers, just like the changelings that served the Queen. Separate and shining with their own lights...
Sitting there with only the soft rustling of wind and flowing stream to break the silence, Onyx let his thoughts roam again to the stallion that had unwittingly started all of this. A deep, intense curiosity was building in his gut and causing him to want to see more of the stallion's home and try to understand the feeling that had come from feeding upon his emotions. Hope had told them that the emotions they fed on could carry states of mind with them into the changelings consuming them but Onyx couldn't understand. The Herald had said that the old stallion was introspective... what did that mean? How did it factor into their new minds?
A spark of awareness across the group's link alerted him that Hope was stirring. Her mind brushed across his to determine where he was and it wasn't long before she came to sit next to him. She could feel that he was troubled by something and in return he could feel the same confusion of self from her. Quietly, he continued to stare up at the stars as he shared the thoughts he'd been having over the last few minutes. Hope observed his thoughts, a spike of surprise coming from her as she fell into thought.
Extending a questioning thought, Onyx turned his head to look at her and she met his gaze for a moment before shaking her head. He didn't get a chance to press her for the reason behind her surprise due to the others slowly starting to rise and ping their own thoughts across the connection. One by one, they crawled up from the den and blinked the last vestiges of sleep from their eyes as they noticed Onyx and Hope sitting next to the river.
Gathering together once more, the nine of them looked around at each other, a sense of having no direction pouring from them all. It was the first time in the entirety of their lives in which they were not immediately put to work as soon as their eyes opened. All around them, the peaceful scenery stretched on and, despite knowing that the darkness was home to unseen predators, the changelings could just sit and look.
It was Chirp that finally broke the stalemate, quietly observing that the ponies that they fed on lived in places like this. Perhaps by watching them, the nine of them could try and figure out where to go from here and maybe discover the reason behind the sensations that each of them were feeling more and more with each passing day. With no better plans coming forth, they agreed and stood, starting to move with the Infiltrators at the front of the group since they had knowledge of where the nearest village was.
Shadow and Silence took the time to instill as much as they could into their fellow changelings about the ponies and the things to do to avoid being noticed. The ponies that were their most common prey came in three variations, but they focused on the images of very base looking equines with more earthy tones to their coats. Earth Ponies. Larger on average than the other two variations, these ones made up for lack of flight or magic by being impressively powerful. A growing foal of this kind was strong enough to stand hoof-to-hoof with a Warrior drone in terms of raw strength.
The weakness was that this strength went to their heads. Most were convinced that they could overpower any problem with strength of limb and were susceptible to illusions and mind manipulation, which made them easy prey for quick infiltrators. Of course, if they were alert, the stubborn nature of their race could easily repel the magic of changelings.
Their emotions also tended to be very benign, but quite filling to the average drone and that was something that they needed if they didn't want to starve to death within a couple weeks. Of course, that wasn't a desired outcome, so the non-Infiltrators quickly processed the information being given to them.
By the time that all of them felt up to the task of stalking prey, they had reached the edge of the forest and just beyond they could see the soft glow of firelight. The village was little more than a cluster of maybe twenty buildings that had been erected hastily and reinforced over time with lumber from the woods. Even from the distance between the trees and the closest home, Onyx could sense the flow of unconscious emotions flowing from the ponies that called this place home. Swallowing reflexively, he turned to look at Hope, seeing her as the closest thing to a figure of authority as they had.
Hope was having a similar reaction and quickly asked the Infiltrators to do what they do best. Shadow and Silence all but vanished into the darkness and if they hadn't been connected to he link between them, Onyx was sure that he would have no idea where they had gone. After a few minutes of silence, the two of them sent back a signal that they were in position and the rest of them slowly let their minds slip closer to those of the Infiltrators to see what they were looking at.
As their vision was shared, the group saw that the village was built in a rough circle and was lit by torches set up near the entrances to the huts. While most of the ponies calling this place home were asleep, a few of them were wandering on patrol around the village. Immediately, the Warriors noted that the trio were not moving in a particular pattern and pointed out the various holes in their movements which prompted Shadow and Silence to sneak further into the village, staying out of the torchlight as much as they could.
Peering into homes, they saw families of ponies within each hut, usually an elderly pony or two, two adults, and somewhere between four and five foals with three of them missing an adult at the moment. Each one of them gave off their own unique emotions and Silence would move in to get a taste of them while Shadow stood watch. A variety of emotions were twisting together from the sleeping equines and the changelings were making note of which houses had the most filling emotions. Hope was quick to point out that with only nine of them, they couldn't afford to foalnap any of them and draw their ire; they would have to feed and go.
Everything was going smoothly until a filly in one of the homes stirred with a spike of fear as Silence turned to leave. Thinking quickly, the Infiltrator dove into the darkest corner of the hut and froze just as the filly began to cry. It didn't take long for the noise to wake the mare nearby and she lifted her head, fumbling gently with one hoof to lightly pull the filly in close. As the changelings watched through the Silence's eyes, the mother began to speak softly to her foal. Curiosity spiked from Chirp and Blue and they lightly prodded the Infiltrators to share their knowledge of the pony's language so they could see how the mare would soothe the fearful youngster.
“What's wrong, little one?” The mother asked in a gentle, tired tone. She was obviously eager to calm the younger pony and get back to sleep before the crying woke the other foals in the room. For her part, the filly turned her head into her mother's side, sobbing relentlessly as she babbled for a moment. Eventually, with some coaxing from the mare, the nonsense turned into words and the changelings listened intently from Silence's hiding spot.
“I had the bad dream again... about grandpa getting dragged away by the monsters...” The changelings tensed, an uneasy feeling growing in them, “g... grandpa can fight them off right? He'll come home? I miss him...”
“I do too, little one... Grandpa is... he's strong,” the mother struggled, obviously not willing to dash the filly's hopes, “it... may take some time, but we'll be reunited again... now, come... let's go look at the stars until you're ready to sleep again.” The two rose and exited the hut and Silence soon slipped out as well, rejoining Shadow and retreating back to the group. A quiet stretched between them as the changelings digested what they had just heard.
As their bodies sat in a circle, staring at the ground, a division formed within their link. A heavy, cold, almost painful sensation was welling up within the Caretakers and Diggers while the Infiltrators and Warriors were becoming confused by the feeling coming from their fellows. Those feeling... weak for some reason could only relay the information that Hope had given them before leaving the hive that the stallion who had started their situation and how they were certain that the “grandpa” that had been mentioned... had been that same stallion.
Shadow was quick to ping back that it was the law of nature for them to feed and how it was necessary. Still, the conversation had affected some of them, the Caretakers in particular. Back and forth the emotions shot across the link. Hope, acting as the anchor, stamped her hoof to give them pause. A compromise. They would need to feed, but she couldn't deny how... horrible the feelings that the Diggers and Caretakers had were. They would feed, but do so separately so as not to drain any one pony too much and to avoid drawing attention to their activities.
Even the stubborn Warriors could see the logic in her thoughts and an agreement was reached between them. Like dark thoughts, they spread into the small village using the the knowledge held by Shadow and Silence and slipped into the huts that had been scouted. As the village ponies slept, the changelings fed quietly and filled their bellies with the positive energy that resided in those having pleasant dreams.
As Hope gave the signal to fall back towards the woods, Onyx found himself sneaking past the familiar hut that held the little filly who had cried for her grandfather. He paused, hearing the subtle shift of chitin and he nosed around the entrance to peer inside. The filly and her mother had returned to sleep, cuddled close together against the slight chill in the air and standing over them was Blue. She peered down at the filly, her mind closed off from the connection to the others and Onyx found himself closing off as well, feeling that this moment he was witnessing... it was... private. It was... Blue.
Moving one hoof carefully, the Caretaker gently brushed a strand of mane out of the filly's face and seemed to be intently studying her face. Moving to one side of the hut, Onyx turned his head to make sure that the patrolling stallions weren't near enough to spot Blue by chance and stood ready to warn her if they came close.
His ear twitched slightly as a soft noise reached them. Within the hut, Blue folded her ears, dripping of the dark, vile feeling that had crept into them earlier. Her lips parted and a soft breath came from her before she did something that changelings had never needed to do: she spoke.
“I'm.... ssssorry... little... one.”
The sleeping filly made no motion to show that she'd heard anything and none of the other ponies roused at the quiet apology. Blue turned, creeping out of the hut to Onyx's side, sensing him there and the two of them looked at each other. For the first time, they didn't need a connection to understand one another and giving voice to his thoughts suddenly felt more profound than any trading of information or feelings over the hive mind or connection.
“Not... your... fault.” Onyx struggled to get out, the strange motion of his mouth to form words causing him to falter.
“Before... fed... without... feeling,” Blue countered, ears drooping, “we... owe... Grandpa...for...us...”
Onyx felt his own ears mirror the Caretakers and once more, he looked up into the sky. The stars above seemed to peer down at him as the two of them began to quiet trek back towards the forest. Seeing the glowing lights that looked so similar, the difference in size and brightness pulled a thought out of him. Turning toward Blue, he asked, “Us... what is... us? We... the same... but... different... here..” Reaching up he tapped his head lightly with one hoof.
Another stretch of quiet invaded the walk as they noticed the rest of their group gathering near the treeline. Blue's eyes looked over them and she spoke up, “When sleep... minds change,” she tilted her head to indicate their companions, “since feeding... minds like... hatchlings... taking in thoughts,” she paused, turning to put a hoof on Onyx's shoulder to bring him to a stop and look him in the eyes, “Onyx... not us... not others. First to say... I. Why?”
It was a simple question... so why did it feel like seeking the answer was like staring into a deep abyss? Down in the darkness, he could feel something staring up at him and waiting for his answer. The pit within himself only served to remind him of the empty look within the changelings still under the sway of the Queen not far away....
Looking into Blue's eyes, Onyx spoke as honestly as he could, “Every day... dig... listen... do as told. Again and again... until dead. Saw it in other Diggers... nothing... here,” he pointed to his eyes, “Grandpa... fill emptiness with... something... final moments... look into empty Diggers... Infiltrators... Caretakers... Warriors... and Herald... as we drain... connecting for food... he...”
Onyx hissed, clenching his eyes and quickly bringing his hooves to his head as a line of thought shot through his mind... and the world around him faded into darkness...
It was a memory... one he didn't remember having, yet he couldn't stop it from surging upwards from a subconscious piece of him. Floating helplessly into the dark, Onyx was staring forward, unable to turn his head away. There in front of him a light appeared... drawing closer.
The soft, orange glow outlined a figure that grew more tangible the closer it game. An old stallion with a simple brown coat and fully gray mane and beard peered at him with a sad expression. The stallion was aware of his death drawing closer. Onyx was sure of this... yet his expression and sadness were for somepony else... no... something else. The one who peered at him and he stared back at.
“Grandpa” stared into an endless void that consumed all before it and felt himself being pulled in. Nine dark shapes sat before him, illuminated by rancid green as they pulled something from him and his life faded. Sadness... for them...
“It must be terrifying... knowing that you are together and yet there is nothing any of you can do to avoid your fate... bound by a will that is not your own and not even knowing it. I, at least, know how this ends and where I go from here... the young fear death while old stallions like me only know that something is waiting for us... but you... you don't even get a satisfaction in knowing anything...”
Movement in the dark drew the stallion's attention. One of the figures, a younger one if its size meant anything, flicked an ear as if listening. Grandpa chuckled, a small smile gracing his muzzle as he stepped through the darkness, following the tugging sensation that yanked at his very soul until he stood just before the chitin-clad youngster. The world seemed to stand still as he looked into the empty eyes looking behind him... at the place that he had left his body.
“Aye... you're a monster, alright... but I've seen that motion in my grandfoals... the motion of somepony that wants to know but doesn't understand where to start... well, look well, young one... you might learn something...”
The old stallion turned away, inclining his ears toward a soft, chiming melody and in a moment that could only be observed in the trivial time between thoughts, the world flared with a vibrant flash of rainbow colors. Connected so intimately at the end to a stallion who had nothing left to hide from the world, nine changelings were touched by a force they could neither explain or even comprehend...
...and nine sets of empty eyes filled...