One of the very first things a Changeling learns is “keep asking questions.” Any and every question that comes to mind, not just to keep from being asked too many questions about ourselves—which is always dangerous—but for the one weapon that Changelings alone are the masters of masters at wielding: information.
One never knows what question, asked at the right time, will lead to something important.
At that moment, however, as Forge and Twilight Sparkle stand alone with my body, there are no more questions—no more that can be answered adequately.
Except, perhaps, one.
The steady alarm of my flatline-ing heart monitor has attracted the attention of Nurse Redheart, who gasps and takes a step back as Forge, finally, pulls his horn out of the back of my neck and turns to the new arrival; to her credit, she only has to glance at Twilight to understand that, at the very least, this must have been arranged between the two of them. -somehow, for some reason.
“What-” the nurse hesitates for a fraction of a second, “-should we do with her?”
Twilight only blinks and looks up at Forge, silently inviting him to answer—she cares, but even her curiosity in seemingly all things could not even partially gloss over the tragedy of the situation that she (contrary to reality) feels responsible for.
Forge, not cleaning his horn of my blood (even as Redheart frowns at the sight and finds herself unable to look away), turns me onto my side, steps off my bed, and purposefully slides one hindhoof to drag the blanket off my body. “Twilight, is there any way we can get her body back to the mal- the outpost? -where you found us?” Twilight raises her eyebrow for half a second at the self-interrupted Hasharbanu word, but her sorrow washes over the emotion again quickly, and she finds herself unable to do anything but nod—she has to make up for what she’d done; this is the least of anything she could think of, so she tells herself.
“What about… pre-preparing her?” Twilight asks, pausing and stuttering, only able to continue after taking my blanket in her magic, ready to cover me again, but completely now, as ponies do to their dead, but Forge, suddenly frantic, stomps on the sheet to prevent this.
“Stop!” He cries, making Twilight jump and her magic to flicker—she allows it to fall away completely in the next moment. “Don’t ever cover a Changeling’s body,” Forge huffs, and realizing Twilight is probably going to ask for clarification, goes on, “It is a-… It is part of our beliefs—Changelings’—that, between the time of its body’s death and its release, the soul fears being enclosed or constrained in any way, even something as simple as being covered or wrapped in cloth. I’m sorry for scaring you; of course you wouldn’t know…” He lowers his head submissively: apologetic.
Twilight, with a forehoof to her jumping heart, almost-whispers, “Tha-That’s okay. -really!” she interjects when Forge opens his mouth again. “I shouldn’t have- I should have realized you pulled the blanket away for a reason…” Twilight shakes her head and sighs while lowering her hoof, and afterwards looks remarkably more put together—a façade, any Changeling could tell. “Anyway… yes, it won’t be a problem to get there, but… what about Rainbow Dash? -and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle?” She almost pleads.
“Them seeing her—nothing else!—is fine; however… are you sure about the Cutie Mark Crusaders seeing Imi like this? I’m not going to cover her up just for a couple of fillies eyes if you insist they be allowed the option to ‘say goodbye’, as you ponies say.” Forge finishes with a subtle derision that Twilight either doesn’t pick up on or chooses to ignore.
Twilight—finally—looks straight at my body, and I can only try to imagine what goes trough her mind until she repeats some of my words from earlier. “‘It’s bad enough, what they heard in the cell’… I-. You know I can’t decide… not something like this; I’m going to talk with Applejack and Rarity about it. They’ll decide.” Twilight then turns away, appearing intent on doing this right now—knowing Rainbow Dash and the other Cutie Mark Crusaders wanted to see me, it’s easy to imagine them already somewhere else in the hospital, waiting… probably thinking I’m still alive.
A moment of quiet.
“Alright.” Forge shrugs. “So, you should go tell them now?” A nod from Twilight. “I’ll go with you, in case you need any help explaining.” Another nod, now with the tiniest smile for thanks. “Nurse,” He turns to Redheart, “Watch over Imi, and make sure no one, even yourself, covers her body. -or touches her.” The nurse also nods, but more stiffly, in the manner of one who will gladly carry out the mission given.
“The guard!” Twilight rushes to the door, but the hallway outside is empty of any golden-armored ponies, and a grimace grows on her as she fruitlessly turns her head back and forth a number of times. When Forge steps up next to her, she sighs, “Well… let’s go,” she says over her shoulder, and looking forward again, whispers to herself, “No more putting it off…”
Still, it’s plain on her face that her heart and mind aches for a distraction, and she blurts out the first thing to come to mind. “About what Imi said about Changelings’ horns, can you still feed through the dampener?”
Forge shakes his head. “No.”
Twilight gasps. “I could remo-!”
-but Forge cuts her off. “Doesn’t matter. -unless you also allow me to disguise myself, there’s no love for me to have here, anyway.” He scoffs, dismissing the idea as a joke—something that Twilight would never allow—but Twilight watching him seriously out of the corner of her eyes makes he sober quickly. “Nng…? Twilight?”
Twilight shakes her head and looks forward again. “Sorry.”
Forge waits for her to elaborate, but nothing seems forthcoming as they turn into another hall. “For what?” he prompts.
“For-…” Twilight trails off as she slows to a stop; Forge has to step back to stay side-by-side with her. Turning to face him, she lights up her horn and removes the dampener and discretely slips it into the saddlebags of a guard standing at the end of the hall; to this, Forge can only gape. “For… us. -Ponies,” she clarifies when Forge abandons his surprise as confusion comes over him. “Everything that’s happened regarding Changelings has made me look more closely at certain things about ponies, you see… -things that I never thought about before; that I probably overlooked because of how ugly it is. We talk about harmony and friendship, but we’re not very… welcoming to anything that’s not ‘a fellow pony,’ are we?” She lowers he head to look sorrowfully at the floor. Of course the question is rhetorical, so Forge only continues standing and staring, unsure whether he should agree or contradict.
“You-” when Forge finally speaks, Twilight jerks her head up with such a tiny amount of hope only a Changeling would be able to tell. “You can’t be sorry for the rest of your race—that’s not how it works—and you, yourself, have nothing to be sorry for.”
“But I-.” Twilight is quick to say, but Forge is just as quick to interrupt.
“I said you can’t be sorry for how anypony else acts any more than I can apologize for Gi- my queen’s actions.” Forge turns away slightly, indicating he’s ready to continue towards where the others are waiting. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t, nor would any other Changeling,” he adds in an only slightly quieter tone that borders on threatening; Twilight takes a step back, then, to Forge’s surprise that Twilight doesn’t see, also turns to lead them on through the hospital’s halls.
-without another word.
“Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight half-heartedly calls for their attention when she and Forge reach the meeting room that had been haphazardly repurposed to Twilight’s needs in dealing with the matter of attending to the injured Changelings; all five Bearers and the two remaining Cutie Mark Crusaders look up. “I… need to talk with you three. Everypony else, please step outside for a moment.”
The hitch in her voice doesn’t go unnoticed, and Fluttershy, instead of following her order, rushes to Twilight’s side; Pinkie merely stands up and wavers on her hooves uncertainly. Fluttershy, making small comforting noises, leads Twilight to the seat Fluttershy herself just vacated, and Forge steps in behind, walking in a way that suggests he wishes he could meld into the walls to avoid the stares he, and his un-dampened horn, receive. “Twi, did ya know this Changelin’ with you doesn’t have that magic block-?”
“Yes, I know,” Twilight quickly assures, but this doesn’t comfort the others; visibly pulling herself together, she notices and goes on, “I took it off him after learning that-” Twilights eyes go wide when she realizes what she had almost said, glancing at the two fillies now tilting their heads, waiting for her to continue, but she won’t—not in their company. -not yet, anyway. “Just trust me—first I need to speak with you three.” she waves a forehoof towards the three she had mentioned upon first entering. “-only you three.”
The others sense the seriousness in Twilight, even though she does not exhibit it in tone or words or even body language—known instead by something else that can be “felt” only by being intimately familiar with another. Fluttershy and Pinkie quickly herd the protesting fillies out, asking questions about me. I think they already have some inkling—unintentional troublemakers they may be, but not unintelligent. They had to have seen the blood still on Forge’s horn, and I don’t think it would take long for them to connect that fact with their theories on what Twilight had almost said…
“As I was about to say,” Twilight starts when she makes sure the door is shut well with no little ears pressed against a crack, “I took it off after learning that Changelings-…” she has to stop to let out a shaking sigh. “Changelings absorb love through their mana arteries; a dampener, or losing their horn… starves them—prevents them from being able to eat.” Twilight looks down and away, waiting—hoping—somepony will find their own way to that conclusion and voice it so she doesn’t have to.
“Twilight, you’re not saying-?” Rarity puts a forehoof over her gapping mouth. Applejack and Rainbow Dash turn to her as Rarity suddenly finds she can’t take her eyes off Forge’s horn. “That blood isn’t-?!”
“Scootaloo’s…” Applejack and Forge interrupt-answer at the same time; Forge continues quickly when Rainbow Dash looks ready to start throwing punches again—or at least yelling. “The only other option would have been to wait for her to die slowly from starvation while all the time being surrounded by ponies who love her… even after being discovered as a Changeling, and not needing a disguise… It would have been nothing but torture, for her instincts would be telling her to take that love in, but that would have been impossible. It likely would have driven her insane, as well, before the end.”
Rainbow Dash grimaces and takes to the air with apparent offensive intent, but her eyes show otherwise; she doesn’t want to believe Forge, but why else would a Changeling kill one of its own? I know how many ponies think of her because of her athleticism, but Rainbow Dash isn’t brainless. “You mean… I, when I hit her horn-”
“There was no way you could have known!” Twilight steps forward. “Even I didn’t know! Because of her lies, we all thought Scootaloo was dead!”
“-and then I murdered her!”
“RAINBOW! Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle might hear you!” Rainbow flinches at this, landing and drawing back a bit, but her eyes are still fierce behind the swimming tears.
Forge puts a hoof on Twilight’s withers then, silently asking to put his thoughts forth; she answers with a small smile and a few steps back.
“Rainbow Dash, if-... when a Changeling replaces a pony’s husband or wife, and they, as you might say, ‘lay down in bed together’, would you accuse that pony of cheating? No, of course.” Forge doesn’t give her time to answer. “That is the same thing that has happened here, only in reverse—you had no idea the Changeling you were attacking was actually the ‘pony’ you hold so close to your heart. You can’t be blamed, not even by yourself. -and if you try? Your friends will fight you every step of the way.” Forge tries to finish on as positive a note as possible on such a subject, even offering a smirk that makes Applejack smile, but Rainbow Dash only looks down.
“Easy for you to say, you emotionless bug,” she growls.
“Rainbow!” Twilight calls outs, but before she can reprimand, Rainbow Dash rounds on her.
“What, Twilight? What?! Look at it! It’s left her blood on its horn! It killed her before I- before I could-” Whatever Rainbow Dash had wanted, she can’t voice, but the way she falls to floor, bawling, leaves little question.
“R.D.!” Applejack cries out as she and Rarity rush forth, first with the intent to support her as they watch her fall, then when they reach her, they merely lay next to her, huddled close for comfort. Twilight, meanwhile, turns away, head down as if defeated, and looking up at Forge with apologetic sorrow.
“No, Rainbow Dash… is right,” Forge sighs and closes his eyes. “-or at least she might as well be, as far as ponies are concerned. As our nymphs grow, they are constantly warned against making any emotional attachments to anything that isn’t another Changeling, as at best it only leads to heartbreak and at worst-… Poor Imi… not only was she not given enough time to take in such warnings, but without her own siblings to develop deep bonds with, of course she would want to be close to something that could be called ‘friend’… The Hive failed her…”
“Wait.” Rainbow’s word comes as a shock, all three other ponies staring as she works her way out of the worst crying session they had seen the mostly-stoic pegasus fall into. “What was… that? -‘Imi’?” The way she asks, I’m sure she already has a good guess.
“A shortening of ‘Scootaloo’s’ real name, Imitation.” Forge lets his voice fall into cold emotionlessness, which makes Twilight stare in worry—Forge doesn’t show any recognition of this, even though he has to see her step around and duck her head into his field of view.
“… Imitation…” Rainbow whispers in between sniffles as she raises herself back to her hooves with some help from the other two. “Can I see… Imi?” She swallows as if fearful her request, for whatever reason, would be neighed.
“Yes, Rainbow, you can,” Twilight says with a hint of a sigh behind her words as she lets herself slump with relief.
“-see her,” Forge clarifies, “Nothing more.”
“Oh, yes.” Twilight suddenly stands straight, reminded of Forge’s request. “Yes… Scoota- Imi’s body is going to be handled according to Changeling customs, as directed by Forge. I’m guessing this includes… not touching the body? You mentioned that a few times now…”
Forge nods. “Touching her with anything except magic is forbidden, and even then it is better to do so only for the shortest amounts of time possible—oh, that reminds me: Transporting her with a stretcher would be preferable, if one can be arranged and spared?…”
“Of course,” Twilight is quick to answer with as cheerful a smile as could be expected in such a situation as this. “I already anticipated that, since the area has been warded against magic like teleportation anyway.”
“What are you going to do to her?” The quiver in Rainbow Dash’s voice is barely discernable.
“Normally, she would be taken to the Queen, who would perform the rites, but in cases where that’s impossible… like now, instead the body can be taken to an altar, where the living apologize for being unable to deliver the dead to the Queen before praying for a safe voyage to the afterlife and finally burning the body to release-”
“Burn! You’re going to burn her?!” Rainbow Dash growls jumping forward aggressively towards Forge.
“Yes, I will.” Forge returns the move, pushing her muzzle against Rainbow Dash’s as they both narrow their eyes. “Imi is a Changeling, and I’m going to make sure she is handled in the Changeling way; she will not be desecrated with your pony burials. If you want her rot under the earth, being slowly eaten by worms—her soul trapped and unguided!—you will have to kill me first.”
“Monsters! How can you even think of doing-!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight inserts herself between the two, pushing them away from each other. “I know it’s different. -and difficult, but Forge is right. I know you care about Scootaloo, but she’s actually Imitation—a Changeling, and as such, she should be treated according to Changeling culture.”
“Culture…” Rainbow Dash grumbles lowly. “Like a bunch of dirty, foalnapping, lying bugs can have any culture.”
“Rainbow Dash…!” Twilight grumbles as she puts a forehoof to her temple, likely starting to get tired of reprimanding the pegasus.
“… Forget it, Miss Sparkle.” Forge slumps into himself slightly, looking down and away. “I know how most other species don’t think much of us Changelings. We spend so much time, after all, disguised as others, playing roles not our own-… After everything, how much personality can a Changeling have? -much less a collection of them have a culture?!… We don’t. -not really,” Forge is quick to add, suspecting—correctly—that Twilight had been about to contradict him. “What we cling on to is the barest skeleton of a culture, most of it stolen, but I- I’m not going to give a single bit of that skeleton up!” Forge turns his head back forward to glare past Twilight at Rainbow Dash. “I’ve never cared if a pony, or any other creature, believes that Changelings have culture, and I’m not going to start now.”
“No! I won’t forget it! -and you should care!” Twilight throws at Forge before instantly rounding on Rainbow Dash. “You still care about Scootaloo, even after finding out she’s never existed and she’s actually Imitation! Is she a ‘dirty, foalnapping, lying bug’?!” Rainbow Dash winces at the implied accusation. “If you’re going to respect her, you need to respect all of her, including her heritage.”
“Twi,” Applejack says as she steps forward, unable to remain silent any longer, judging by her grimace, “Heritage or no, culture or no, burnin’ a body is a desecration, not tha other way around.” she directs this to Forge with narrowed eyes before turning more kind ones to Twilight again, “There’s no question about it! A soul bein’ ‘trapped and unguided’; you really believe such a thing can happen, Twi? Buryin’ a body for their last rest is a kindness and show of respect; settin’ it on fire is tha exact opposite.”
“Not for Changelings!” Twilight tries to insist, but she begins wavering under the combined force of the two athletic friends; she’d never imagined there would ever be a time when the two put their wits together against her in a battle of words. “Do you two think… this Changeling would lie about Changeling late rites just to… -to what?! Hurt everypony who cares about Scootaloo!? Changelings are more clever than that! They could come up with a hundred more hurtful things just to say, never mind do! They all could have corroborated with Imitation, telling us ‘yes, Scootaloo is dead’ instead of assuring us that Scootaloo was actually Imi all along! -or maybe they were lying then, too, huh? In which case, why do you care what happens to Imi at all?!” Twilight stands with her legs locked, body shivering, and tears streaming, but she doesn’t blink them away, instead glaring through them at the shocked frozen Rainbow Dash and Applejack. “I was trying to be nice, asking if Imi could wait while I ask if you, Rainbow Dash, wanted to pay your last respects, and ask you two, Applejack and Rarity, if it was alright for your sisters to do same, because Changelings have a strict belief to never cover up the dead!”
This last point jostles Applejack out of her stupor, and she gags before starting to say, “Now, Twi, you have to know that ain’t right! Leavin’ a body out in-?!”
“NO! I am through being nice! I can see it’s futile to try to convince you to not disrespect Imi in her death, but Apple Bloom should be given the chance to make the right choice, instead of being bound by her sister’s ram-skulled ignorance and intolerance!” Twilight turns and begins stomping toward the door where the two fillies and two mares are surely worrying about all the yelling by now.
Applejack rushes around to block her. “Now hold up there, Twi! Apple Bloom is my family; I’m responsible for her growing up right, and I will not have her thinkin’ it’s okay to leave a body out in the open and burn it! These things don’t deserve the mercy we’ve-!”
“Applejack,” Twilight interrupts with deadly softness. “I said I’m done with being nice about this. The Princesses appointed me responsible for dealing with these Changelings, and any problems that arise concerning them, which includes this situation surrounding Imi’s death. I will follow these orders, even against your wishes if you force me to. Believe whatever you want, but I will not let you stop your sister from saying goodbye to her friend. Now. -get. -out. -of. -the. -way.”
For a moment, Applejack stands firm, looking ready to fight, if Twilight had had the chance to force her, but Rarity chooses that moment to finally speak up. “Applejack?” The farmer only flicks her eyes towards Rarity for a fraction to show she’s listening before returning her focus to Twilight. “Please, Applejack, move. I know what those Changelings want to do to Scootaloo isn’t… it’s different, but if you raised Apple Bloom right—and of course you have! I’m sure!—she’ll know what is and isn’t right, and you can always reinforce it to her afterwards, but for now, don’t let this ruin her only chance to say her last goodbye. All three of them were so close, Applejack; dare I say even closer than we’ve ever been, for as different as we are.” Rarity finishes her plea with careful emphasis that Applejack can’t help but notice.
It makes her grind her teeth, to think such a parallel could invalidate her position so effortlessly.
Turning her eyes on Rainbow Dash, asking her silently for some kind of help, nothing comes; instead, her friendly rival only gives her the very same eyes as Rarity: begging her to let Apple Bloom give Scootaloo her last goodbye. Twilight still stands coldly indifferent, waiting for her decision, but Applejack sees a tiny spark when she flicks her eyes to meet Twilights—a spark of something like hope for her understanding, rather than simply being stronghoofed into acquiescence. “Alright!… Alright. Just… whatever’s happening, don’t do anything to make Apple Bloom think anything about what those Changelings do is in any way okay.”
“Nopony is saying anything otherwise, Applejack.” Rarity’s smile flickers as, encouraged, she steps next to Applejack and puts a hoof to her withers. “Just remember this is for Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle… and for Imi, too; try to focus on that.”
“I will,” Applejack says, tone defeated, as she steps aside so Twilight doesn’t have to walk around her to the door. “I’ll try to do that, Rares. Thank you… for remindin’ me of what’s really important here.” Her voice is the one that wavers now as she initiates a hug with Rarity that she instantly pulls Applejack tighter into.
Apple Bloom is right there on the opposite side of the door, standing and looking up exactly where Twilight's head appears. “When can we see Scootaloo? -the Changeling that’s Scootaloo?” Her begging is not hopeful, but anxious; it puts Twilight on edge, making her start to fidget and wonder how she should go about this where just the second before she had felt so energized and confident. Instead of answering right away, she mumbles incomprehensibly for a long moment.
Finally. “You can see… her very soon, but your sisters and I need to explain a few things first.” Another pause. “Why don’t you come in and sit down?” She steps aside to let them in, but when Apple Bloom only lowers her head to stare at the floor, a strange chill rattles Twilight’s spine
The filly confirms her fears. “She’s… dead, isn’ she?” Of course Apple Bloom would know about death more than the average foal; it becomes obvious when one considers her lack of parents and how her sister values both honesty and, particularly, family—she wouldn’t lie about something so critical to her younger sister.
Sweetie Belle lifts a forehoof as if wishing to flee from this horrible statement—she doesn’t want to hear Twilight confirm it, because, even if only subconsciously, she knows she will; an almost imperceptible whimper leaves her as she fights with her urge to flee.
As much as Twilight didn’t like being confronted like this, it certainly streamlined the whole unpleasantry. Yes, of course; I am dead. What more is there to say? A million things, but nothing Twilight wants to say any more than she’d wanted to tell the fillies that I’m dead. Mutely, she nods, and even though Apple Bloom is still staring at the floor, Sweetie Belle’s sudden shuddering gasp is enough to start her tears flowing. Knowing.
As she watches her sister’s tears begin to drip onto the floor, all the last remaining traces of resistance fade from Applejack’s face. The soft tak made when Applejack takes a first step forward seems to break a spell, for in the next instant Apple Bloom whirls around and pulls Sweetie Belle into a hug; Applejack hesitates for a only a second before wrapping both fillies in her forehooves, Rarity joining them all lastly, and a glance communicates all they need to say. Differences: If such ponies as Applejack and Rarity could be friends, then differences cannot be as important as ponies usually paint them as—that they are not so much “overcome”, but ignored. So they’ll later write in a friendship lesson later.
Twilight hesitates at interrupting the scene, but Forge has no such qualms. “Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle…” He waits until Applejack and Rarity pull away and the two fillies look up at him, not without some fear. “Before we go to Imitation—Scootaloo, to you—you must know two things: One, her body will not be covered, so… if you don’t think you can deal seeing her as she is…” He pauses again, but no answer, at least in the negative, appears forthcoming. “Two, you cannot touch her, not even to hug or kiss her or to pat her head or anything, no matter how much you may want to. Do not even ask; such things are expressly forbidden by The Oldest Laws of Queen Taaxyir, and I know how you ponies are fond of such gestures, even to your dead, but for Imi you must restrain yourselves. Do you understand this?”
The two look somewhat awed—in a frightened way—at being addressed by a Changeling. After a long moment of simple gawking and nothing else, Forge makes to repeat himself, perhaps thinking the two had been too shocked to take in anything of what he had said, but that’s when Apple Bloom finally speaks. “Yes, I understand, Mister-… uh…” She looks around for some kind of prompt, and Twilight jolts at being reminded even she—first to be thoughtful of Changeling culture—never got his name.
“Forgery,” he answers the implied question. “-or just Forge.” He adds with a shrug, not expecting the fillies—or likely any of the ponies, except perhaps Twilight—to use this nickname.
“-Mister Forgery,” Apple Bloom finishes somewhat quickly.
“Yeah, we understand.” Sweetie Belle adds, speaking towards the floor.
Forge narrows his eyes almost imperceptibly against the two fillies—the feeling of the glare on the back of her neck causing Sweetie Belle to glance up—before relaxing, giving another shrug, and turning to Twilight. “I believe that is everything for now; I can give further instructions as they become necessary, so… a stretcher?”
“Right!” Twilight looks over the assembled ponies. “Uh, I’ll go grab one while you all head to Imi’s room to-… yeah, that’s what… I’ll do.” Leaving, she turns back from the doorway with a sudden, serious frown. “While I’m leaving you all with Forge, I’m trusting every one of you to not mistreat him. Right now he’s… an honorary priest-!-, and I expect every single one of you,” she takes a fraction of a pause to glance significantly at Applejack; something the Earth pony doesn’t miss. “-to treat him with every bit of the respect and courtesy that title deserves.” Casting her eyes around one last time to take in all the nodding heads (some tinier, slower, and/or more reluctant than others), Twilight steps out; it takes a long moment after the door closes behind her for anypony left to begin moving.
“Well, then,” Rarity’s words sends something akin to a petrification-cure spell through the room, “There is no sense… in waiting to-…” Rarity trails off, but everypony, knowing what she means, nods again and they all trickle out into the hall. “Ah, Mister Forgery, we do not know the way, so, if you would, please, lead on?” She gives him something too nervous to be a hopeful smile, but it’s an honest attempt—friendly, certainly; even if it wasn’t, Forge would have nodded and began back down the path he and Twilight had just taken.
When they reach the final hallway, the sounds of a yelled argument reach them; they all pause for a moment so as to focus on the words better. “-expect me to change my answer?! I gave my word! You would ask me to the trust that was put in me?!” Comes a mare’s voice.
“Nurse, I’ve said I don’t want to hurt you, but you’re wearing down my patience to a record low. We’ve explained to you that there are Changelings still injured from the raid that don’t have a bed, and certainly need it more than this corpse!” The aggravated sigh manages to carry all the way to the still frozen ponies—Forge takes it upon himself to rush forward. “Since it seems you are incapable of understanding this, we will, regrettably, have to-. What is-?” The higher ranked of two guards (neither being the one from before) interrupts himself upon hear the agitated buzzing of Forge’s wings accompanying his pounding hooves.
“Atmiiqii! Don’t!” Forge shouts upon finally reaching the left-open door; at this time the ponies recover themselves—the fillies being slightly faster—and soon enough join the odd sight Forge intruded upon: Nurse Redheart, standing with legs widespread over my body, the blanket, wrapped in an orange glow matching that surrounding one the of the guards’ horns, still firmly held under one hoof even as it’s jerking movement threaten to send her sprawling to the floor.
“Ah! You’re back with-! Where’s Twilight Sparkle?” Nurse Redheart relaxes, then tilts her head.
“She is fetching a stretcher with which to transport Imi with,” Forge answers while staring at the two guards. “She should be back within minutes, at worst, and then this bed will be free. Until then,” Forge lowers his tone, “I expect you all to treat Imi’s body with respect, which includes not covering her, nor touching her.” He ends with another buzz of his wings before finally stepping into the room so that the others can enter; upon seeing Forge’s support, the guards only have to glance at each other before deciding to make a swift, silent retreat.
Watching them, Nurse Redheart jumps from the bed only after Pinkie Pie kicks the door closed behind them; when she makes for the door and opens it to leave herself, Rarity holds out a hoof to her shoulder, but she shrugs it off quickly. “No, this is for all of you, who knew her best. Of course, I knew Scootaloo, but only ever as her nurse. I’ll do my best to make sure those two didn’t leave just to get some backup.” She lets out a few dry chuckles at the attempted humor, then, as swiftly as the guards before her, leaves.
“Scootaloo…” Rainbow Dash mutters as she turns around to face me and hovers over to me, her movement bobbing somewhat from the slower-than-usual flapping of her wings. “-‘knew Scootaloo.’” She mimics the nurse’s tone with an added bite of both sorrow and nastiness. “…-as if any of us every knew Scootaloo at all…” There is no mistaking that her tone isn’t directed at me (and though, by the expressions, I’m sure the other mares thought of things they could say to reassure Rainbow Dash this isn’t true, they recognize this isn’t the time for such things) by the way she hangs her head and puts out one shaking, needy foreleg over my body. Forge tenses, but Rainbow Dash restrains herself, and the hoof’s shivering gradually increases in time with the growing unsteadiness in her breathing until she finally decides to flutter to the side to land on the bed before me. “Why did you have to say that? -say that Scootaloo-? You-. Gah! Why?!” Rainbow sits back to place her forehooves over her face, rubbing at wet, itchy eyes. “… Why?…” Her last question is almost lost to her determinedly-not-crying-induced hiccupping.
How I wished I could answer her… thankfully, one does so in place. “Rainbow-…” Applejack announces her presence next to her on my bed, for Rainbow Dash had failed to notice her hoofsteps and light bounce caused by her jumping onto the bed next to her. “Rainbow,” she repeats as she places a hoof around the other mare’s back; Rainbow finally mumbles an incomprehensible jumble of sounds that Applejack takes to mean she’s listening. “-you got’ta know that we wouldn’t’a believed her if she told the truth, which… is sad enough-…” By her tone it’s obvious she’s not done speaking, but as her eyes fly back and forth between my body and Rainbow Dash’s still-hidden face, she chokes for a long moment. “-but-… -and then… nothing would’a changed, I’m sure. The outcome would’a been the same.” With that, she bows her head and tightens her grip on Rainbow Dash, finished.
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle seem to be running out of tears by then, and only look more distraught for it (or perhaps because of it—I, as their friend, wouldn’t rule it out), and after staring at the two mares now practically statues but for Rainbow Dash’s occasional, but much less pronounced, shiver, the two look up at Rarity. Kneeling, she whispers as lowly as possible, “Go ahead, just remember Mister Forgery’s rules.” Still, a small tug from Sweetie Belle around her sister’s leg prompts Rarity to follow behind the two as they approach my bed; Applejack puts her other forehoof around Apple Bloom as soon as she jumps up next to her, and Sweetie Belle wraps both her forehooves around Apple Blooms barrel, whereas Rarity can only prop herself up on the edge of the bed with her forehooves to nuzzle her sister—with two mares and two fillies, in addition to myself, the bed is a little too crowded for her to join without risk of somepony touching my body.
“Scootaloo-… Imitation,” Apple Bloom grimaces; I know she’s struggling to think of something to say—I imagine she thinks everypony expects her to say something. “… I- I’m gon’na miss you. Not just the you that was Scootaloo, but I’m gon’na miss that I never got to know Imi. I wish- I wish that ya never had to hide from us… an’ lie. I’m sure- I know that you would’a been just as good a friend as a Changelin’. It’s just not fair that ya had ta-… ta-…” Apple Bloom makes a few choking-like sounds with her eyes squeezed shut in apparent concentration, when she finally opens them, they’re narrowed dangerously. “-Just everythin’! Everythin’ wasn’t fair for you! Ya had a family that needed ya, but ya also had everypony that you cared about that you had to hurt to help yer fam’ly!…” Just as suddenly as it had come, her anger dissipates, leaving cooling sorrow. “I don’t know what I would’a done if I was you. I don’t know if what I would’a done was right, or if I would be able to figure out a way not ta jus’ survive, but be able to live with mah’self. Even though it wasn’t fair, though… I think ya did the right thing… an’ I’m sure ya know already, but I got’ta say it: I love you.”
“That... was beaut-…-tiful, Apple… Bloom.” Sweetie Belle sobs into Apple Bloom’s fur. Don’t mistake me: I’m grateful for every word Apple Bloom said, and I’ll cherish them forever… but “beautiful”? I’m not sure, but perhaps, in its own way, Apple Bloom’s last farewell to me can be so. “You got everything. I-… I don’t know… what to add… Imi… except that I agree… with everything.”
Afterwards, everyone falls into relative silence until Forge speaks up a few minutes after Sweetie Belle’s last words. “Well, if that is all, and even if it’s not, that injured Changeling is waiting for us to move.” Looking up and around, the mourning ponies find they hadn’t noticed Twilight return with the stretcher—partly because she had used her magic to carry the thing in instead of risk one of its wheels squeaking and interrupting Scootaloo, for it had been during her goodbye Twilight had entered.
“Alright…” Rainbow Dash says as she leads the way off the bed. Once all of them are off, Forge steps forward and gently, but swiftly, so as to hold my body for as short a time as possible, transfers me to the stretcher.
With that, Twilight asks everyone to huddle together as closely as possible around the stretcher so her teleportation spell is the least straining as it can be for teleporting such a large amount. Still, as she had explained, the teleport can only go so far due the wards the ponies had placed on the maaliynayu. All the same, on the morose walk the rest of the way there is no trouble—the pony guards placed at the entrance of the caves, as well as the ones standing or walking with researchers inside, don’t even flinch, even as Forge leads the way, except to glance at Twilight. I suppose the guards placed here have been made more familiar than the ones at the hospital with the fact Twilight is in charge.
Only when we finally reach the altar room itself does the single guard posted here scramble upon hearing the procession’s approach. “Ah! Ehr! Sparkle! -Miss Sparkle!” The guard at first salutes with the wrong hoof and hastens to correct himself. “What is-? Should I-?” The poor stallion can’t figure out what to say, for his eyes flick between Forge and my body.
“At ease,” Twilight says easily enough, using what she remembers from watching her brother at work. “We only require the use of this… temple-?-… for a short while.” Forge shakes his head, silently answering her questioning tone, but she doesn’t look back to confirm this terminology with him. “I… suppose you can either remain here, or step outside for a moment, but… so you know, what we’re here for is to conduct a Changeling’s final rites. -to… release and guide her soul?” This time Twilight looks back to see Forge nodding.
“Oh…” Is the guard has to say, and I wouldn’t blame him or any pony with being confused about what to do in such a situation—he seems to decide to default to continue following his orders and remain. Nodding to him, Twilight turns away to finally take in the room.
To pony’s eyes, I know it must seem unremarkable—too plain to be any kind of place of religious meaning, but this is just another part of our cultural differences. Where ponies gild their religious buildings, we Changelings believe that the only feature any altar room should have is The Protection of Queen Taaxyir—a rather simple cross-shaped symbol—so that the eyes cannot be distracted. There is not even seating or a vent to exchange air with the outside.
Taking me into his magic for the last time, Forge places my body before The Protection, positioned on my belly, with The Protection to my right side. Taking up position in front of me, Forge turns to the ponies as they assemble themselves, sitting, in a semicircle. “Stand,” Forge orders, then explains, “It is another way of how we Changelings show respect to the dead: stand before their body until nothing of it remains.
“Now… before I set Imitation on her last journey, is there anything else any of you wish to say to her?” Forge takes his time to look into the eyes of each one of the ponies, pausing longer on Rainbow Dash, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom, but no one does anything besides look at each other, wondering if others might say something, but no one does. Everything that could be said already had been.
Except… With slow nods, they all agree to say their last words to me at the same time, as ponies do. “Goodbye… Imi.”
“… Bazhu, Imiitashyun,” Forge whispers, following their example, even though this is not of Changeling tradition. Then, he turns to me and lowers his head until the tip of his horn is millimeters from the tip of mine, and begins. “Amaa Usalul-”
“Tiimaqaa, Furjharii…” The guard interrupts, revealing herself, at least to Forge and me, to be Queen Chrysalis, for only a queen is allowed to use that inflection. Forge instantly scrambles away from me, from both surprise and from the rush to follow the power behind the order; the ponies merely turn around to stare in nonplussed shock. Before any questions can be asked, she continues as she steps around the ponies to take Forge’s original place before me. “There is no need for this… ‘soldier’s rite on the battlefield’; I am here for her.”
Again, before the ponies can raise any question, she wraps herself in the green flames of Changeling Magic to pull away her guard disguise. She only spares a glance out of the corner of an eye at the now-open-mouthed ponies before disregarding them. As she lowers her head to the same position Forge had just been in, he swiftly takes his place in the semicircle. “Amaa Ufazun,” she begins, and the rest… -it is lengthy blessing that I don’t know how to translate, and repeating it would be… Well, confusing.
However, having already received a shock, the ponies have recovered by the end of My Queen’s blessing, but even expecting it, they can’t help but jump when a spark jumps from Queen Chrysalis’s horn to mine, and in another flash of green flames, my body is simply disintegrated, or more accurately, transformed into oxygen—no smoke or ashes. “Breathe in, deeply, and hold as long as you can,” Forge quickly instructs in a half-whisper, wanting to be quiet out of respect, but also wanting to make sure none of them miss the order, before he does so himself; Queen Chrysalis does likewise.
After releasing her breath, Twilight instantly begins, “Queen Chrysa-”
“I suppose now is when you tell me I’m going to pay for what I did?” She interrupts using the breath she had been holding, at the same time turn her head to face Twilight while keeping her head down in the same position with the consequence of leveling it on her.
Applejack instantly jumps forward, with a somewhat reluctant Rainbow Dash narrowing still-sorrowful eyes on My Queen stepping in behind Applejack. “O’ course! Where you expecting anything else?”
“No!” Twilight is quick to step to the side, partially in between Queen Chrysalis and her friends, and looking at Applejack as she answers, then turning back to My Queen to say, “I just want to-… want-…” Twilight lowers head head, but looks down instead of forward.
“I’m sorry,” My Queen hisses, not sounding it at all. “What was that last bit?” Using Twilight’s distraction, she steps to the side so as to be better prepared to flee.
“I…” Twilight finally looks up, and the determination on her face makes My Queen actually step back and pull her horn up in surprise. “I just want to ask you a few questions. -if that’s okay?” Still, her voice is hesitant; she must expect her request to be denied , and not without reason. Changelings don’t like answering questions; we’re taught from our earliest years to do anything to avoid being asked any kind of question.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of everything that had happened, My Queen instead allows herself to relax. “Go on…”