"Ponyville Station!" called the conductor as the train came to a stop. "Everypony off who's getting off!" Pinkie and I stepped from the train amid a crowd of other ponies. I looked around at the ponies thronging the station, on high alert. Somewhere in Ponyville lurked six changelings, bent on mayhem. They could be anypony. They might be right here, ready to attack immediately. I wished they would; I wanted to get this over with.
Unfortunately, we left the train station without seeing any sign of changeling attack. Somehow I wasn't surprised. Chrysalis had never done anything efficiently before, so why should she start now?
We drew no more than the usual number of looks as Pinkie and I walked through town. I wondered what the ponies of Ponyville would have thought of me, were I not currently disguised. I had used my shape-shifting talents to do something very strange indeed; I'd turned myself into an ordinary drone. Would ponies have run in fear at the sight of a near-queen? I hoped I would have the chance to find out someday, if everything went as planned.
We reached Sugarcube Corner without incident. The Cakes greeted us happily, and Pinkie practically dove into the kitchen. "Need to bake!" I chuckled and went up to our room.
The changelings weren't waiting for me there either, so I flopped down on the bed, letting my eyes slide half-closed, and watched Pinkie bake. She was bouncing all over the kitchen, completely delighted to be back at last. This meant, of course, that she was getting as much flour on her as in the bowl. It was good to feel her so happy, though.
The rest of the day passed without incident. As I lay beside Pinkie that night, I found I couldn't sleep. The changelings were out there, six infiltrators from my old hive—my former siblings—waiting to attack at any moment. I wished they had found me today. If they didn't attack soon there would be problems.
"Can't sleep?" said Pinkie quietly.
"No. I keep worrying. It's strange to want to be attacked, but I wish they would and get it over with already. If they don't soon, Shining's spell will wear off, and then I'll really be in trouble."
"We can go back to Canterlot and have him cast it again."
"True. But we can't keep doing that forever. And everything else that we've set in motion can't wait forever, either."
"I'm sure they'll attack soon. They're just not very organized, so they probably didn't think to watch the train station or Sugarcube Corner. Lots of ponies saw us yesterday though, so I'm sure whoever they're being will hear about it."
"Yeah. I hope the ponies they've replaced are all right, too."
"I'm sure they are." Pinkie nuzzled me reassuringly.
I sighed, not having any reply to give. They probably were. If they weren't, there was nothing I could do about it. Pinkie soon drifted off by my side, but I lay there, staring at the ceiling, for a long time before sleep finally found me.
That morning I worked in the kitchen alongside Pinkie. We'd both woken early enough to do most of the baking for the day, and the Cakes had thanked us and gone upstairs to take care of their two babies, a task which Pinkie often helped with and which I tended to avoid. I wouldn't know what to do with a changeling infant, let alone a pony one. I always had the feeling that I would somehow break one if I touched it.
Muffins, on the other hoof, were not something I worried about breaking. My horn glowed green as I pulled the latest batch from the oven. A glance at the clock told me that the shop was due to open in just ten minutes, so I headed for the front counter, an assortment of finished pastries in tow, to stock the display case in preparation for the early morning rush.
The was a click from the door.
My head snapped up, to catch a glimpse of green. Somepony—or something that wasn't a pony at all—had just picked the lock with magic. The door swung open and six ponies filed in.
Even if I hadn't already been certain what they were, they way they moved—stepping as one, every motion bristling with menace and aggression—would have told me that these were the changelings I'd been waiting for.
They're here, I told Pinkie. Stay put until they're gone, then you know what to do.
Yepparooni! Good luck. I could tell she was worried, but her mental voice was cheerful all the same. She believed I could do it. I hoped she was right.
"We open in ten minutes," I said mildly to the changelings as I walked around the counter to face them. I found I was strangely calm.
None of them answered, they just advanced on me. I recognized the forms they wore. One was a brown-coated stallion, Time Turner, who I often saw coming in with Derpy for a muffin. The easily-panicked Lily stood beside her equally-skittish friend Rose, and the more sedate Daisy was there as well. Bon Bon, with her roommate Lyra, completed the sextet. All of them ponies who did sometimes come into the bakery in the morning. But of course these were not ponies at all.
A moment later they'd dropped their disguises and leaped at me.
I flicked a shield into existence even as they jumped, scattering the attacking changelings across the room as they rebounded off of it. The one that had been Time Turner recovered first, shooting out a thin beam of green magic at my shield. I wanted to laugh, it seemed so feeble. The shield didn't even shiver. It would be so easy to invert it and catch a few of them. I had more than enough power to summon a second shield. Probably a third and a fourth too, which would be plenty to encapsulate all of them.
Instead I just maintained the shield I'd raised. One of the other changelings joined the first, drilling her magic into the shield. I let my horn blaze just a bit brighter, as though I needed more power to hold the doubled attack off. At that, the other four attacked too. I let my shield flare, as if stressed, and then popped it.
The beams impacted me, throwing me back against the counter. I yelped. That had hurt. Fortunately it hadn't broken my disguise, nor harmed the second, invisible shield that clung to me like a second skin. Shining Armor had cast that spell, and as I let myself slide down to the floor, groaning a little in pain, I knew his spell was about to be tested.
I looked up to see the drones standing over me. One of them spit, sending a large gob of green resin flying out to cover my horn. I felt a little bit of tension go out of me at that. The horn was the one area not covered by Shining's spell. Covering me completely would have cut my bond with Pinkie and the small hive. I didn't want either of those things to happen, especially as I wasn't completely certain I could re-form the bond with Pinkie. If one of the changelings had touched my horn, I'd have been pulled back into Chrysalis' hive, and that would have been very bad. There was no risk of that now, though.
Of course the gob of goo also meant that my magic was nearly useless. I scrambled to my feet and was immediately tackled by the nearest drone. The next few minutes were a chaos of lashing hooves, during which I took several hits that would have been bruising were it not for the hardness of my carapace. Finally one of the drones kicked my feet out from under me and I went down. Next thing I knew I was pinned firmly under two of them, while a third spit another wad of resin onto my forelegs. I fought; I wasn't going to let them win that easily, but in the end it was useless.
Moments later I lay on the floor of the shop, panting, front and back hooves glued together with green resin that was rapidly hardening to a cement-like consistency. The six drones stood over me. One of them grinned broadly. "The queen will be very pleased," she said. The others grinned back. Then the one who'd spoken lit her horn. The rest did too, and in an instant green fire flashed over us all, teleporting us out of the shop.
It was a rough teleport, leaving me feeling nauseated and singed. Glancing around I saw that we were on the edge of town. I also noticed the six lighting their horns again, and braced myself. The second teleport was even rougher. It was all I could do not to vomit. Fortunately that seemed to be the end of their magic, as instead of teleporting again, they picked me up roughly and slung me over the back of one drone. I didn't fight, I just let them carry me.
The second teleport had brought us into the Everfree forest. Soon, the little group was wending its way through the woods, moving with wary caution. There were few things here that would take on so many changelings, but those that would were dangerous indeed. Being attacked by a forest monster wasn't at the forefront of my worries, so I tuned the passing forest out. Instead I reached out to Pinkie. She was, as I had hoped, at the library with Spike. I looked through her eyes as his green fire consumed a sealed scroll. Everything was going according to plan.
Pinkie noticed my attention and spoke silently. You okay?
A little bruised, and really wishing that they were better at teleport spells, but otherwise fine, I replied. I tried not to convey the nervousness that flickered at the back of my mind. Things were going well so far, but getting captured was the easy part. The hard part still lay ahead.
Meanwhile, I had to put up with the rather uncomfortable ride across a drone's back. They switched off which one carried me as the hours passed. Though I couldn't keep track of which one was which, they all looked very much alike. Without a hive bond I had difficulty telling them apart.
They stopped at noon and ate a brief, basic lunch. I was not offered any food. By then we'd reached the edge of the Everfree. The forest lay in a fairly thin band here, and beyond it stretched the badlands. With the early autumn sun still far too hot overhead, they set off through the twisting canyons. Rocks towered over us, reaching higher as we went. Soon we walked in shade at the bottom of a narrow slot that wove a sinuous path among the plateaus.
I knew this path. I'd usually flown above it, but I'd walked it as well at times. It was cool in the shade, but it was also dusty. My captors stopped now and then to drink. They didn't share the water with me. My mouth was soon parched and coated with dust, and I was almost glad that I was being carried rather than having to walk.
As the day lengthened, however, my thirst occupied my mind less, and what lay ahead loomed larger in my thoughts. My stomach was a clenched knot of fear by the time the sky darkened to its sunset colors. I felt Pinkie sending me reassurance, and Minder and the hive too hummed with soft confidence at the back of my mind. They trusted me. They knew I could succeed. I wasn't so sure, but I drew strength from their presence.
By the time the sunset light faded and the stars began to come out, the landscape around me looked far too familiar. Even in the dark, the outcroppings were easily recognizable. We were almost there.
We turned from the broad canyon we'd been traversing into a narrow side canyon. Stone walls rose all around us, soon blotting out the sky above. The point at which the path ceased to be a canyon and became a tunnel was impossible to pinpoint, but the point at which it became the hive was marked by an obvious change. The walls became regular, forming a smooth, organic arch overhead, while the floor was carefully sculpted into an even, ribbed texture that gave a good purchase underfoot. There were small crystal globes embedded in the ceiling, shedding a dim, greenish light. It would still have been very dark to pony eyes, but mine adjusted to it easily. The entrance was also marked by a pair of guards, the warrior drones slightly taller than the infiltrators who carried me.
The tunnel soon met others, and before long we moved amid a throng of changelings going about their duties. The hive never slept; there were always drones at work, tending to the fungus farms, caring for the egg pods and nymphs, keeping the tunnels in good repair; there was an endless supply of work to be done.
Most of the drones paid us no attention as I was carried deeper into the hive. They had no reason to be curious. The hum of the hive mind was peaceful, so they knew that all was well. If all went according to plan, however, it wouldn't be peaceful for long.
After some time, we came to a part of the hive that I'd never visited before. We were at its very heart now. Guards flanked a high arched door, which was decorated with an abstract motif of flowing curves. The doors to Chrysalis' throne room. I'd never had cause to be called before her, until now.
The guards opened the doors.
I was carried inside and dumped on the floor with no chance to get my bearings. I found myself staring up at an arched ceiling, far above. I struggled to right myself, then found myself picked up in a strong magical grip and held upright at eye level with a pair of all too familiar eyes.
Chrysalis. She smirked at me. I almost felt as if I should be tasting her smug satisfaction. I heard the doors shut and looked around to find that we were alone.
"I stayed up late just to see you, little grub. You should feel honored." She strolled down the beetle-green carpet that ran the length of the throne room, towards the huge, ornate throne at the end of it, pulling me with her in her magic. I waited and let her pull me.
Pinkie Pie was a tickle at the back of my mind. Distance thinned the bond a little, and she was more than a day's travel away, back in Ponyville.
Minder was present too, and she was much, much closer. I could practically hear through her ears as she moved through the desert night. She was almost in place...
My mind snapped back to the throne room when I heard a soft, cheerful humming. Chrysalis had reached her throne. She climbed up onto it and settled herself, planting me in front of her. She used her magic to position me like a doll, making me kneel in front of her throne. I put up no resistance. Not yet.
"I have been looking forward to this moment for some time," said Chrysalis, still smirking at me from atop her throne.
I just looked up at her, saying nothing.
"What, you're not going to beg for your life? I'm sure you will, eventually. I'm going to take my time, you know. I plan on thoroughly enjoying my revenge on you for daring to defy me and spoil my plans." She started humming again. The tune was curiously bright and cheerful. Suddenly, somewhat to my surprise, she started singing. "Here comes your doom," she sang, smiling at me almost fondly.
Here comes your doom
Here comes your doom, and I say
It's been a long, cold loveless exile
It feels like years since you've been here.
Here comes your doom
Here comes your doom, and I say
My mind was pulled away from the spectacle of the queen's delighted song of revenge by a tug from Minder. The music faded for a moment as I looked through her eyes and saw the same canyon path I'd walked only minutes ago, viewed from the cliffs above. Two tall, dark shapes flanked her, peering down into the dark canyon below. Her wings buzzed and she stepped off the edge of the cliff. It was almost time...
The smile's returning to our faces
It seems like years since I was there
Here comes your doom
Here comes your doom, and I say
Doom, doom doom, here it comes!
Doom, doom, doom, here it comes!
Now! I shouted it in my mind even as my horn suddenly flared, casting the one spell that the resin on it couldn't block, for it didn't touch the world at large, it affected only me. Green fire flared over my body, burning away the drone's form I wore and replacing it with my larger, true form. The change in size as I grew a foot taller shattered the resin that bound me, the bonds crumbling away from horn and hooves.
Chrysalis's singing rose into a screech of anger and she launched herself at me, not realizing the futility of her attack. Even as she was bunching to spring, my horn flared into life as a second spell sprang to my mind. One that Shining Armor had taught me, and which I'd rehearsed over and over again until I could cast it perfectly and swiftly. A bubble of green snapped into being around the queen.
She collapsed onto the steps of her throne, as abruptly as a puppet with its strings cut. For a moment I hoped that it might end there, that the shock had been too great and she'd passed out.
Then she screamed. It wasn't a scream of pain, it was a scream of rage. She rose to her feet, her horn blazing, and shattered the spell.
Oh buck, oh buck, oh buck, was all that went through my mind. I was very dimly aware of Minder's excitement and knew that she was guiding Luna, Twilight Sparkle, and a squad of the Night Guard through the tunnels towards me. But even with the whole hive thrown into leaderless chaos by what I'd just done, they still had to force their way through hundreds of confused changelings. If Chrysalis left this room, she would be able to re-establish contact with the hive. I had to keep her here until the princesses arrived.
Right now, however, she didn't seem remotely interested in leaving the room. She seemed much more interested in flattening me. I dove aside from her first maddened charge, tumbling across the floor. I didn't even look back, knowing she would be right behind me, but came out of the tumble with a leap that sent me aloft, wings buzzing.
I heard her shriek, and twisted in the air just in time to avoid a beam of power that that scorched a line across the ceiling behind me, leaving the resin bubbling and spitting in its wake. I formed my magic into a shield, a simple wall of force that would hopefully keep her from frying me immediately, and spun in mid-air to face her.
She hissed at me and rose into the air as well, streaking up to meet me. Her horn was aglow, and this time she flung a gigantic, sizzling green fireball at me. There was no dodging that. It slammed into my shield, shaking it but leaving it intact. I strained with everything I had to hold it. I had gone into this with as much of Pinkie's love as I could carry, and that was a lot, but Chrysalis was frighteningly strong. I considered a counter-attack, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor. All I had to do was delay her. Getting killed trying to swat her myself would do me no good.
She snarled and threw another fireball at me. This one seemed a little smaller. That was odd. I would have thought that she would escalate things again. I didn't have time to think about that, though; my full attention went to holding the shield in the face of this second attack. No sooner had the fireball dissipated than Chrysalis herself was flying up at me, horn first.
I dropped abruptly, almost to the ground, and she whirred by overhead. She turned with far too much speed for something her size and flew back at me. Yet again I frantically twisted aside, but not far enough. She clipped the edge of my wing as she passed, sending me tumbling out of control.
I crashed hard into the stone floor. Chrysalis came down on top of me like a ton of bricks. Her horn scythed towards me and I raised my head in an instinctive gesture, blocking it with my own horn.
Our minds met.
It was like being dropped into the middle of a hurricane. She was a raging storm of emotions. Hatred and anger battered at me, and somewhere in the back of my mind I felt Minder falter as that onslaught spread into the minds of my hive as well. Behind hatred and anger, though, lurked other emotions. Even while I lay beneath her, practically helpless, I could feel terror coursing through her. She was afraid. Frustration came with it, and fed the rage that threatened to completely overwhelm my mind.
Trying to fight my way free somehow, struggling physically and mentally against Chrysalis' enraged attack, I caught a snatch of thought. She was out of magic. She'd spent it all already. Hope surged in me and my horn lit, grabbing at her with a crude telekinesis spell.
Even as I grabbed her she whipped her head around, her horn stabbing into my side. Now it was my turn to scream. The point of it shattered my chitin and drove into the flesh beneath. The shock made me drop my spell. Chrysalis twisted to rise to her feet above me. I wish I could kill you slowly, her mind hissed into mine, and she reared up, neck arched, horn ready to impale me completely.
A magenta glow sprang up over me, Chrysalis' horn striking sparks off of it as she struck. "I don't think so!" said a blessedly familiar voice. I turned to see Twilight, Luna, and Minder, flanked by a dozen of the Night Guard.
"No!" Chrysalis' voice raged in my head even as it filled my ears. Feeling even more mentally battered than physically hurt, I finally summoned the concentration to cast the spell that cut the connection between us, leaving my mind in blessed silence. Even as I did so, deep blue magic wrapped around Chrysalis, holding her captive. She hissed, and I'm sure her mind was still screaming, but I was blissfully unable to hear it anymore.
Wow. That was crazy. But it worked! I could nearly see Pinkie Pie bouncing happily as she spoke in my mind.
It did, I said, feeling incredibly relieved. I started to get to my feet, but Minder was at my side, pushing me back down.
You're injured. Let me tend to you, my queen.
I was aware of a great deal of angry screeching from the captured Chrysalis as Minder knelt beside me, but with her magic drained and both Luna and Twilight there to handle her, I felt fairly safe in dismissing her from my thoughts. Instead I looked down at the wound in my side. I winced. The whole plate was cracked, and a hole at the center where the chitin had been completely shattered was freely oozing greenish blood.
Minder set to work cleaning it out, which she did by licking the wound, picking fragments of chitin out of it with her teeth as she found them. I flinched as she worked. It was necessary, but also a little bit painful. When it was clean, she spat on it, sealing the crack with a blob of resin that swiftly hardened.
It still ached, but it felt better than it had. I got carefully to my feet. "Are you all right?" I looked up to see Twilight walking towards me. Behind her, a pair of wary bat ponies guarded the door, while another pair guarded Chrysalis, who was so wrapped up in shining magical restraints that you could hardly see her. Princess Luna was also standing next to her, her horn glowing, preparing some sort of spell.
"I think I will be," I replied. "Minder patched me up."
"That's good." Twilight smiled at me, and I tasted a mixture of admiration, excitement and guilt from her. It was a very strange combination. "I'm sorry we didn't get here sooner. You did an amazing job holding her off for so long."
"I was an idiot," I said ruefully. "She was nearly out of magic; I had plenty. If I'd been a little more level-headed, this would have been a ridiculously uneven contest. As it is, I am very grateful you got here when you did."
"So am I. Pinkie would never forgive me if I let something happen to you."
Ah, yes I would! I'd be super, super sad, but it wouldn't have been Twilight's fault, said Pinkie, obviously still listening through my ears.
I chuckled. "Pinkie says that she would forgive you, but all the same we are both very glad you came to the rescue."
Twilight smiled. "Luna's building a portal so we can take Chrysalis straight back to Canterlot. Going back out through the hive is probably too risky. You and Minder can come back with us, of course."
I nodded and looked around for Minder. I frowned when I couldn't see her anywhere in the room. She should have been easy to spot, even in the relatively dim light. I reached for the sense of her with my mind, and found her outside, walking through the unusually empty tunnels. The drones had gone into hiding, it seemed. I didn't blame them. They'd just lost their queen and been invaded by ponies. I knew that Twilight and Luna had used non-lethal methods to fight their way in, which the chaos of losing Chrysalis had made possible, but quite a few drones had no doubt been rather roughly handled by the pair all the same.
I focused my attention on Minder, trying to figure out why she had ventured out into the hive. I sensed an odd feeling of determined purpose around her. What are you doing?
What is best for the hive, was her reply.
I pulled my attention a little closer, looking out of her eyes. She was in a corridor I recognized, it led to a sleeping chamber. In fact she was at the chamber's entrance now. She stepped inside and was faced with a dozen drones, all of them looking terrified and confused. I felt more than a little confused myself. Then Minder leaped forward, her hooves reaching for the nearest drone. Even as she moved, I realized what she was doing, but it was too late to stop her. A moment later a cacophony seemed to explode into my aching head as my hive and Chrysalis' hive became one.
Or tried to become one. I could feel a kind of tension, a pressure building in my mind. The new hive and the old pushed against each other, with that same weird feeling I'd felt when I first touched Minder, trying to join together while simultaneously trying to reject each other and pull apart. On top of that, a babble of mental voices erupted into my mind. My tiny hive was peaceful and harmonious, but this hive wasn't. Without Chrysalis, the under-queens were fighting for dominance, a mental battle like a constant shouting match, all of it suddenly right there in my head. I put a hoof to my head, a spike of pain going through me. After the mental beating Chrysalis had given me this was too much.
SHUT UP! I shouted. They all fell instantly silent and, at the same time, the tension between the two hives vanished like a popped soap bubble and they were one again. One that immediately bowed to me, the mental murmur that began again from that stunned silence like a thousand voices whispering, "My queen."
Woah, said Pinkie silently.
"Oh buck," I said out loud, and dropped to my rump on the throne room floor.
Your head is suddenly all glowy and bright! What happened? asked Pinkie.
I think I just accidentally became queen, was my rather dazed reply.
"Sweetcake? Are you all right?" Twilight was peering at me, radiating worry and concern.
I groaned, resisting the urge to curse again. Minder! What the buck did you think you were doing?
What is best for the hive. All of the hive. None of the under-queens would care for the hive like you will. You have cared for us better than Chrysalis ever did. You are like Queen Sepal, when I was a nymph.
"Sweetcake?" Twilight's worry was growing stronger. "Did something happen?"
"Minder just elected me queen of the whole sun-forsaken hive," I said, the pony expletive summing up how very un-enthused I was about my sudden elevation. I rubbed my head again, feeling the headache intensify. My throat was still parched, my stomach was empty, my side was throbbing dully, and I felt awful. But with the hive buzzing in the back of my mind again I also knew what my new position required of me. "So I guess I won't be coming back through the portal with you after all."
"What? Why not?"
"Because the hive needs me right now. They're terrified. Chrysalis wound them up into a fever pitch of aggression and paranoia, and in their eyes all her crazy rhetoric has been proved true tonight. Ponies invaded the hive. Their queen is gone, dead for all they know, and there was no under-queen strong enough to just step in and take over. They're terrified and in utter chaos, and if I cut them out of my mind, I'd be leaving them to suffer." I sighed. "I don't think I want to be queen, but they need someone to be queen, and for tonight at least I guess it has to be me."
See? This is why you should be queen. You think of the hive first, and yourself second.
Oh shut up. Maybe so, but I still kind of wish you hadn't done this, I said to Minder, feeling cranky.
"I see," said Twilight. Trying to keep track of two different conversations wasn't helping my headache. "Well... you'll be all right here?"
"Yes. They wouldn't hurt me. I can have them leave you alone as well, if you'd rather go back the way you came."
Twilight looked over at Luna. Her horn was still lit, and a glowing web of magic hung before her. Twilight shook her head. "Luna is almost done, so we might as well just go back directly. I'll go let her know you're not coming." She trotted away, leaving me to sprawl exhaustedly on the floor. It had been a very long day, and it wasn't even close to being over.
Minder appeared in the doorway again, carrying a basket filled with mushrooms in her teeth and a container of water in her magic. I will care for you, and you will care for the hive, said Minder softly. The guards flanking the door moved to stop her, but let her through when Twilight gestured them aside.
She passed the water to me and I took it eagerly, guzzling half the container in one swig. I suppose I forgive you, I said. She just smiled and gave me the basket of mushrooms. I devoured them eagerly, finding the taste a little bland, but also comfortingly familiar. This was the food I'd lived on for most of my life.
With those needs tended to, I became more aware of the feel of the hive in the back of my mind. I felt a mental hug, and smiled as Pinkie Pie reached out to me. Your head is all hummy and busy, she said.
I sighed again. Yes. It's odd, I had actually gotten used to being mostly alone in my mind. It was strange having the small hive there. Having such a huge hive now is even stranger.
I'm sure you'll be used to it in no time! If you're not going back to Canterlot, will you be coming here?
I wish. I think I need to stay with the hive, at least for a day or two while I figure out what to do.
Okie-dokie-lokie, said Pinkie cheerfully. I chuckled a little. I was very glad she was still there. I had the feeling that I was going to need her more than ever now.
"We're going," called out Twilight. "Are you sure you're not coming with us?"
"Yeah," I replied. "I have too much to do here. Though if you need to reach me, the hive there is still mine, so just tell any of the drones and I'll know."
"That's... weird but useful," said Twilight with a little smile.
I smiled tiredly back.
"Come, Twilight, the portal is open!" called Luna.
"See you, Sweetcake," said Twilight. She turned and trotted after Luna through the glowing disk that hung in the air. The night guard went after them, the portal closed, and I was alone.
Except, of course, that I was not alone. I was never alone. I smiled tiredly and got to my hooves. There was work to be done.
The first thing I did was reach out to the under-queens. They were a mixed lot. Several of them were vastly grateful to me for taking over. A few seemed fairly indifferent, apparently to them a queen was a queen and so long as the hive had one they didn't care who. A few more, however, were full of anger and resentment. They were each convinced that they would have won the battle for dominance and become queen. I had taken that from them. Those I ignored for now. I would have to deal with them eventually, but now wasn't the time. To those who didn't currently hate me I said, What does the hive need?
They were surprised to be asked. I caught a whisper from one ...like Sepal... and a murmur of confused communication ran between them. They weren't used to being asked. Chrysalis did what she wanted, their duty was to obey.
I am different, I told them, and then asked again. What does the hive need?
Reassurance, said one. Tell them the ponies have left.
Set them about their duties, said another. Routine is comforting.
Energy, said a third, the hive's stores are low and the drones are hungry.
Another, though, responded to that with scorn. Don't ask for the impossible. How can she feed us all?
I will do what I can, I replied.
I reached for the hum of the hive, two thousand drones buzzing in the back of my mind. The ponies have returned to Canterlot, I told them, projecting soothing calm at them. They are not our enemies, they wanted only Chrysalis. She is gone too, but I am here. I will take care of you. I felt some of the agitation in that hum fading as I spoke. I could still feel specks of fear and uncertainty though. I sought them out, one by one, finding the minds who still feared. I touched each one in turn, offering a comforting mental embrace and further reassurance. They were safe. No drone had been harmed by the ponies. All was well. I encouraged those who had tasks to return to them, and those who did not to sleep and rest. I could not fully soothe all of them, not without pushing myself into their minds to the point of thinking for them, but most were willing to let go of their fears and return to their lives.
Soon the hum of the hive was a serene, drowsy thing in my mind. It was not perfect, a few were still upset, and all were hungry, as the under-queen had said. Yet it was much, much better than it had been. I relaxed, feeling better now that the hum in my head was less agitated.
That task accomplished, I walked on weary hooves to the door I knew lay behind the imposing throne. Through it was a chamber only slightly less magnificent than the throne room itself. Chrysalis' bedroom was smaller, but far more opulent. A gigantic bed—pony style rather than the mats that changelings tended to use—lay at the center of it, hung about with silk drapes that matched the colors of Chrysalis'—and my—wing cases. My attention, however, went to the feeding crystal set into one wall.
The hive's feeding crystals were attuned to each other. Energy fed into one would be dispersed among them all, so the state of one was the same as the state of all others throughout the hive. This one was nearly empty. I could barely make out a feeble golden spark at its heart. I was shocked to see it like that, I'd never seen the hive's resources so low. We were the most prosperous of the hives; we always had plenty of energy. Except it seemed that now we didn't. No wonder Chrysalis had run out of magic.
I knew that the love energy that I carried wouldn't go far among so many, but it would be criminal for me to keep it when the hive's store of food was so low. I went over to the crystal and touched my horn to it. The love I'd stored ran into it easily, like pouring water downhill. I didn't resist the pull, but let it suck the power up freely. Eventually the energy in the crystal reached equilibrium with the energy in me. I considered, and balanced how I felt now with the state of the hive and the changelings in it. I pushed a bit, giving the hive more. I only stopped when I started to feel faint. Finally I lifted my horn, gratified to see that the tiny spark had spread into a dim golden glow. It was still not much compared to the way I remembered the feeding crystals, but for now I'd done all I could. Now it was time to rest.
I fell into the huge bed and was asleep before I'd even found a pillow.