by Smudge Proof

Chapter 1: Echoes

by Smudge Proof
proofed by Gustav von Aschenbach
Chapter 1:

It could no longer hear the chittering of the others in its head; instead, there was confusion and turmoil; alien tasting thoughts that made no sense flooded its mind in place of the calming buzz of the others. There was chaos in the hive now. Something had gone terribly wrong. It tried to think with the others, but its thoughts felt like they were rocks thrown into a dark, still and bottomless pond with no shores; there were no ripples from the others, no echo, nothing; just a yawning, terrifying emptiness that its thoughts went into, where all the other foreign thoughts it was now feeling went into and came from. Just the process of thinking felt wasteful to it now. One of the alien thoughts wedged itself in its mind, as if it found a hole in its mind it could fit into. Its legs began carrying it somewhere. It dropped the pupae it was carrying in its maw on the floor. It walked out of the hatchery, through the maturation chambers, its pale blue pupil-less eyes not focused on anything that was located in the alcove. It ignored the hungry and frightened high-pitched pleas of the developing changelings. The younglings did not comprehend even the blind panic of the others, not developed enough to be able to properly hear the voice of the hive. On basic survival instinct, most of them took the shape of rocks or crystals, trying to hide and blend in. Some too weak or young did not succeed, resulting in odd forms that resembled badly carved statues that were half alive. Occasionally, when their limited strength was exhausted, a hatchling would change back into its base form, panting and half-fainted with exhaustion, trying desperately to change back again. Our changeling had no idea where it was going; the four legs seemed to have a life of their own, carrying it through the upheaval. It could not think; it could not dare to think, because every thought reminded it that it was all alone now in a turmoil of chaos. There were fellow changelings everywhere, some confused, some panicking, and some just standing still in a spot, not reacting to anything happening. Not one of them seemed to be able to function normally now. A changeling tried walking through a solid wall repeatedly, its head banging against the hard surface, again and again… its exoskeleton was slowly giving away, cracking and ripping, its head covered in the green coppery circulation fluid of its body, making its vision hazy. Our changeling kept going, in its mind confused, alien thoughts flickering and flying by. They all felt foreign, and it let them pass by without trying to observe any of them, not daring to try to observe any of them.

Its mind did not register when it walked out of the hive, its decentralized brain did not note when it wandered through the wastelands and wilderness for days without stopping, the voice of the turmoil fading slowly as the distance grew. There was an inexplicable force driving it forward straight as a ruler’s line, and only when meeting an insurmountable obstruction did it change its route, only to return to its course as soon as possible. It did not possess wings, and it walked thorough thorn fields and rock-ridden badlands without stopping, the chitin-laden exoskeleton tarnishing on its hooves and wherever spikes and thorns rubbed against its body.

After what was perhaps a few days later, it slowed down and stopped. It felt weak, and only now something that could be called conscious thought was appearing in its head. It was dark at night now, in the middle of a forest; Princess Luna’s full Moon was covered by a shroud of clouds. It was standing in a small clearing, not moving. As if in clue, the clouds opened up, letting the pale moonlight illuminate where it was standing, and the entire opening in the midst of the wilderness as if it was a stage against the rows of pitch black trees. The woods were dead silent, as if it was watching the start of a performance with breath held back. The clearing was overgrown with plants and tall grass, but there was an odd place, a few meters in diameter where barely anything would grow, except for a small apple tree. It walked closer, observing the young plant. It looked sick, the branches crooked, half of them dry, the yellow leaves falling as it was autumn. Yet, it was defiantly bearing a single, perfect red apple. Its leg bumped into something hard. It looked down, and found that it was a rusty band of steel, half-buried in the soil, bits of decayed wood sticking to it. Looking around, it could see three more of the metallic objects. Cart wheels. A couple of paces away, there was a pile of stones. It sat down next to it, staring into the blaze of a long-gone flame. It opened its mouth, trying to speak, but only hissing air escaped and odd, scraping sounds mixed with gurgles. It shifted its tongue, changing the shape and structure of its larynx and mouth. It tried again.

“We… have a beautiful …night, don’t we?” it asked, the dark forest swallowing his stuttering words. The voice was raspy and had an odd tone to it at the start, but it was that of a young male pony. It waited. About half a minute later, there was a reply.

“Only… because you… are here with …me” said a feminine voice with equal trouble of pronunciation. It raised its head. There was a dark form sitting across the once-been fireplace. With difficulty, one part of its mind recognized a fellow caretaker from the maturation chambers by its scent, but it felt as it has known the other one long before it could remember anything. Our changeling then chuckled.

“What can ah say to that? You look just as…beautiful as the day ah met you” it said to the glittering ebony creature across. It got up and walked around the pile, as if the blazing orange fire was still burning in it, but the only light was that of the cold, silvery Moon now. It sat right next to the other one.

“A real gentlecolt and a charmer… handsome at that too, just like the day we met at the country fair” the one with the feminine voice replied.

“What struck my attention the most were your eyes…” the other one continued, turning its head to our changeling. For a split second, they paused, there was no movement, then cold green flames enveloped our changeling’s eye, and by the time they were gone, a pair of pale orange-and-red pony eyes stared back at it.

“Applebloom has got your eyes…” the feminine one continued, placing its hooves on the knee of the other. “Do you think we will really make it back in time? We promised we would be back for Applejack’s birthday... she was so upset that we were going away again” Rosy Eyes smiled reassuringly, the plates on its body clicking as it moved its head, laying its forehead against the other one’s, the two spiky horns bouncing slightly against the other’s forehead.

“I promised we would be back and I never broke a promise, did I? They don’t call me ‘Honest Apple’ for nothing. Don’t worry, dear, we will be back ahead of time with the seeds, saplings and the presents we bought…” It went to hug the other one, but then it paused, raised its head quickly, ears perking. The forest was still completely silent.

“Did you hear that?” it asked, and suddenly, it fell on his back, as if it was pounced by an invisible creature, and they screamed in terror. Then they both went quiet at once, freezing and panting, and they looked around as if they were blind all through their lives, and were able to see for the first time. The performance was over now. Rosy Eyes turned its head and looked at the dark, shiny creature across it with its pony eyes. It felt that a floodgate in its head was opened, and the presence that was wedged in the cracks of its mind flooded it with memories.

“Wild Flower?” Rosy asked.

“Apple Core?” the feminine one replied, and despite its exhaustion and weakness, green flames enveloped its body, and took the form of a large and strong earth pony stallion with pale orange-red eyes.

“No, I am Apple Core…” it said, and took the shape the other one was wearing, the two identical looking changelings staring back at each other as if their mirror images came to life.

“You… YOU are… Wild Flower” it said with emphasis on the words, getting on its legs.
The feminine one changed slowly, the transformation taking much longer this time, but finally, it took the shape of an earth pony mare. Rosy Eyes walked closer, and stood in silence for minutes, examining the other, then it raised its own hooves, looking at them, turning them around in front of its head.

“My goodness, what have we become?” Rosy asked with a raspy voice, its voice breaking up, and it hugged the other one with shaking hooves in the form of Wild Flower, breaking down in crying. Wild Flower’s shape hugged the other reluctantly, then slowly it joined Rosy in crying, breaking down too.

“What…have…we… become?” Rosy kept repeating, as if it was a mantra against evil, hugging the other one strongly as if its life depended on it. Occasionally, green flames would flicker across either of them, being unable to keep up a constant shape due to exhaustion and mental anguish, but they would force themselves back into shape, too terrified of how they looked beneath the veil of magic.

When they were too exhausted to keep awake, they slept together for the rest of the night in changeling form, cuddling together for warmth and protection in the chilly autumn night, too weak to assume even a simple disguising shape like a rock for protection. In the late afternoon they woke starved and with aching muscles and limbs, raided a beehive they found nearby, smashing it open with their hollow hooves and gulping down honey, bee wax, larva and bees alike, their coat offering protection against the sting of the maddened drones that lost their home. Then, they set off in the direction for Ponyville.