The Changeling of the Guard

by vdrake77

Bad Faith

My initial reaction was to consider panic, then set aside the urge to use the emotion as, for right now, level headed thinking was more likely to succeed. That is not to say the urge was easily repressed, but it seemed exceptionally wasteful as a first response. If I could not shape shift, I was very likely doomed.

My horn felt exceptionally tender, and I touched it lightly with a hoof, only for my world to go white with pain. I sucked in a deep, hissing breath, forcing the pain deep into my reserves for the moment. Pain is interesting, for our kind. It has both physical and emotional aspects; physical in that you are injured and it is unpleasant, the body’s way of telling one to cease a current action, and emotional in that you are immediately struck with the possibility that the pain will not cease as quickly as your action does, among other things. Pain is not a good source of fuel or energy, and is, if anything, more of a waste product. Worse still, it has a tendency to seep, causing everything to feel unpleasant for a longer period of time. It can be used quickly, though sharp enough pain can even rip a changeling from a shifted form or shatter a shell.

The ability to adjust when one feels pain is a mixed blessing. An injured warrior can ignore a large portion of it until it overflows his capacity or until its body simply fails, but when their guard drops the shock of the pain all hitting at once can prove fatal on its own. The only other use for pain is to inflict it upon others. At least one hatchling in every brood tries it. The experience is… traumatic.

So, I made two assumptions. The first would be that I had pushed my body to its physical limits while in pegasus form, and only the fact that the form lacked a horn entirely had kept me from realizing it, as my sensitivity to magic was far lesser when bound by pegasus limitations. The second was that having ‘compressed’ my horn into a pegasus was giving me the rough equivalent of a cramp, or even what a pony would call ‘sleeping hoof’. As my body readjusted, I would regain control of my horn, though in a greater period of time than I liked, and for the duration I would be without disguise. I could hopefully restore my shape for a day or so at a time and rest in natural form at night, but the cost would be much higher. Having never done a long-term shift like this, I’d not fully considered the implications. Horns were a mixture of chitin and bone, very difficult to ‘compress’. Our wings, on the other hoof, were already thin and flexible enough that adjusting them was actually a matter of extending our shell. This made sense. And yet... and yet I was fond of the pegasus form. The feathery wings were needlessly complex, it would be a terror for mining, and for all that, I was growing fond of it. Besides, all changeling magic is a similar shade of green by nature, and I can imagine few things that would act as such an obvious giveaway.

My only path at the moment became clear. I’d have to wait this out. I was not tired, ponies seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time being busy at things that were unimportant as opposed to sensibly dozing, but they also seemed to require more time to achieve the comfort of sleep as well. It seemed a reasonable idea to further supplement my diet, as well, and the night was surprisingly busy in the sandy area. A cactus’s thorns were hardly enough of an issue to deter me from the sweet flesh, which Rough Shod had also informed me provided a fair amount of moisture. The thorns scraped off easily with my chitin, a bonus I had not considered, making the spiny plant far easier to harvest without the presence of a unicorn. A small lizard voiced its displeasure with my choice of snack and took an aggressive posture, but was quickly subdued and made into a very pleasing side dish, though I was unfortunately unable to procure another. Several of the ponies in the caravan had ‘pets’ which I had initially assumed were meant as a emergency food source if the situation would become dire, but I no longer supported that assumption.

Stomach full, I opted to rest, digging myself a shallow trench in the sand, lining it with mucus in layers to provide a shield from the sand, and settled in, weaving a cocoon which I decided I would not seal. The night air was pleasantly cool for a change, and clouds overhead blocked much of the moonlight, but sleep would not come. I looked up, pondering idly. The Mare on the Moon. Princess Luna. Nightmare Moon. I could relate, I supposed. Banished. I wondered if the ponies’ reactions to her exile were similar to how my hive would handle mine. I wondered if Celestia had ‘sent her to the moon’ as suddenly as the Queen had tossed me out of the hive. Did she regret it? Was it only duty? Ponies, I had found, tended to have strange views on truth, and easily let it color their experiences. I could see the shape of a mare on the moon, but had Celestia truly only banished her? It seemed amazing. How far was the moon? Was the princess entombed within it? If so, what did she do in her exile?

I suddenly became aware of how very, very alone I was, and how much effort I’d expended into avoiding the thought. I’d wandered into the desert, marched to exhaustion, slept, and marched again upon waking, walking headlong into doom, saved only by the kindness of a species I would feed off of… some of whom only helped me out of pity. I shuddered at even the memory of the emotion, cloying and almost slimy, horrible and disgusting. Sympathy I could tolerate. Rough Shod had shown me the difference in the two. He liked things quiet and simple, with little fanfare and only as many ponies present as required. An appreciatively changeling-like pony, though a little more anger than appropriate. I supposed he’d have made a fine warrior drone. And that thought only made me feel that much worse. I was a changeling, and so flawed that I was no longer part of the hive, and in the short time I’d been amongst a small group of ponies, I’d already found several more suited to my old life. This was what I deserved. A barren wasteland full of angry animals, thorny plants, and worthless dirt. I shouldn’t even go back to the caravan. It was a pointless charade. Being a pony hurt in ways I hadn’t expected. Ponies made things complex on purpose. I just did not understand.

I don’t know how long I grieved for my losses. I realize now that walking into the desert as I had was an attempt to flee from it, but as with all pain, it had to be felt eventually. It had finally caught up with me. To be truthful, I do not know that I could have put these realizations off for much longer before I succumbed to the emotional poison. Though the pain was still there, it felt… lessened by having recognized it. But walking blindly into the future was foalish and I would do it no longer. There were several truths I had to face. I was without a hive. I knew nothing of the details of a successful infiltration, and thus would have to watch my step. Perhaps the most painful realization was that ‘Sandy’ would have to vanish. I could not afford to draw so much attention to myself as Canterlot would apparently give me in their attempts to help me ‘remember’. By necessity, I would have to cut short my stay with this caravan. The very idea of being alone again in that way frightened me, but the pony I had established myself to be required assistance. I could even potentially put the caravan itself at risk if my secret were discovered. The thought of Zaimare, Wasta, or any of them being held liable for my incursion into Equestrian territory was appalling enough to make my chitin itch. And it was, unfortunately, entirely possible that the caravan members themselves would harm me. I did not relish the thought of bringing them harm, but I also saw no reason to allow them to do me injury either. Leaving, then, would be required. If I could restore my false form by morning, I would return and begin gathering my things. If I could not, they would have to be given up as lost… but the queen had given me that pouch. For reasons I couldn’t quite grasp, I did not want to leave it behind.

It was with these thoughts that I eventually drifted off to a troubled slumber, watching thick stray clouds roll across the late night moon. The cocoon was wonderfully snug, and I was vaguely pleased to nestle into one again.

I awoke with a splutter, now panicking without regard for propriety. There was fluid in my cocoon! Cursing myself for a foal with several very expressive phrases I had heard Rough Shod use, I burst out of my hiding spot, staring at the world around me even as the remains of the light rainfall rinsed the sand from my shell.

The sand, the horrible, horrible sand, had flowed. Into patterns. Swirls and dips and sprays, carried by the water. The sparse vegetation around me, previously brownish and much of it withered, had taken on a more vibrant cast. Several had even begun to flower, and I stared around me in amazement, wondering at first if my cocoon had been carried off. I took a tentative step into the wet sand, and paused as it settled easily instead of sinking in. I scooped some of the wet sand into a hoof, shaping it, forming a ball easily. Why, this was delightful. I wondered if there was some way to make material that shaped this easily on a constant basis while retaining some structural integrity. The way the ball began to melt in my hoof made me doubt it, but still. I looked up at the sky as the rain lessened still, the clouds drifting off. A stray rainstorm. Zaimare had said they were uncommon, but not unexpected. She had plans to catch as much of it as any pony could, and I hoped she succeeded… but that likely meant my disappearance had been noticed hours prior.

Cautiously, I braced myself and attempted to retake the form of ‘Sandy’. I felt the lick of flame as my body shifted and twisted slowly, filling into the pegasus form. The transformation slowed at my upper torso, and I had to close my eyes to concentrate. Compress the horn. Feather the wings. And…. Done. I looked down at myself and scowled. I wasn’t white, more of a beige. I liked the way the sand had changed, but this was unacceptable. Well. For now. Fur the color of sand might make for very effective camouflage, and I would have to recall this later. A minute later and pristine white fur again coated my body, and I felt that I was well on my way to recovery, as far as my horn went. Perhaps I had only overreacted. I shaped a bit of sand over my shattered cocoon, obscuring it from view, and began the flight back to the caravan.

I saw Rough Shod wandering over the wet sand, moving in the general direction of my cocoon. The grizzled older pony seemed quite displeased, and the rain clearly hadn't cooled his ire at the world in general. I believe I might have actually heard him muttering to himself even before I laid eyes upon him. I landed behind him and walked a few steps behind him, noting a few new curses and at least one allusion to someone’s mother and her inordinate fondness for stray animals.

“Sir?” I asked, realizing he had actually not noticed me.

The stallion kicked instantly, his hooves grazing my face in a motion that was astonishingly fast. “What in Celestia's glorious backside’s name are you doing, colt?! You have to know bucking better than to sneak up on an old pony like that!” The scowl he leveled at me felt like it should have burned off my false fur. “And where have you been? Zaimare thought you’d wandered into the desert again like a sun-addled idiot.”

I took a slow breath, glad the pony had missed. Changeling or not, disguised or not, two hooves to the snout would have very likely shattered any composure I had. “Well… I had, sir. Wandered off. Last night.” I hadn't even considered a good explanation for my disappearance. How did the gatherers even manage this? “I… was unwell.”

The stallion glared at me, dark eyes hard for a long moment before softening, if only slightly. “Too many ponies, too much bucking noise, eh? It gets to you. Sometimes you just want to walk off and let the night have you. Then the silence gets to you. Lets you think, or makes you. And then you’re back to wanting noise.” He sighed, offering me his little bottle again, which I declined adamantly. “Suit yourself. You find what you were looking for out there, or am I going to have to trudge out here looking for you every few days until we reach civilization?”

“I… I found something, I think. But… yes. A little time to myself would help.”

He nodded, mulling this over. “You tell Zaimare next time. She doesn't leave a thing half done, and she won’t half-start something. You apologize to her for this. Mother hen thinks you’re all her chicks.”

I frowned, perplexed. “She’s not a bird, sir.”

“It’s another bucking figure of speech. Now get moving. Caravan already started and Stave has some new slop for us. Weren't for the fact that you got Wasta and Bilberry to do some honest work for a change, I’d still be bucking irritated with you.” The waves of irritation, annoyance, anger, and relief rolling off the pony made me question that assessment, but together, we turned around and started at a brisk trot, back towards the ponies I knew, my temporary home, and food.

I would still have to leave, of course. This could not last, I had made too many mistakes. I had to escape before I failed one time too many, and revealed myself. And I would. But not today.

Today, I went home, to a small tent, with a small wagon, with a stallion gruffly grumbling about grown ponies wandering around playing in the sand like small foals, and the desert beginning to bloom around us. It was temporary, and it wouldn't last. But… for now, I would be Sandy. And maybe I’d be happy with that.