The hive was black and twisted, squirming through the cracks in the ancient, grayish canyon. Its nighted chitin was as thick as dragonhide, and what holes were present in its ancient surface had been plastered firmly over with transparent material in a pattern like a honeycomb, blue and shimmering. There was a note, indeed, of bees and wasps to the whole area of the hive- and it was in fact a hive. But its aspect was inescapably sinister, and as Trixie glanced upon it, all the way unto its highest spires, she felt transcendent dread.
Although of course, the being standing firm beside her was a mighty source of dread in his own right. “Hmmm,” cooed Reiziger, tilting his great antlered head. “It is bigger than I expected.”
“Is that bad, my lord?” Trixie asked.
“On the contrary,” said Reiziger. “Bigger means more inhabitants. Bigger means larger folk. Bigger is better. Come.” And he in a trot set off, his long black legs carrying him forth with palpable swagger. Reiziger, to use a common phrase, walked toward the hive like he owned it. Which, in some sense, he did.
They met the first resistance when they were perhaps a dozen feet away. The entrance to the hive was filmed over with translucent bluish slime, at once both hard and plastic. As they approached it seemed almost to melt, oozing backwards into the black edges of the massive open space. A loud and most infernal buzzing issued forth from deep within the hive. They did not have to wait much longer for the source of this terrible noise to assert itself, for from the depths of the dark space there came things that at first glance seemed like ponies. Their basic body shape was faintly similar, as fate would have it.
No ponies, however, were so black and slick as these, their bodies carrying the faint, weak glint of buglike plating. Nor, in fact, were ponies so sickeningly, upsettingly pockmarked. The creatures' stubby legs and stout torsos were peppered with holes, totally unfilled openings that let the other side of space see through them. Tattered sky blue wings swung back and forth faster than sight, slowing to a stronger, deeper thrum as the creatures hovered down to touch the earth. Their mouths were full of whitened fangs, their eyes were cruel cyan and had no pupils.
“Halt!” one of them cried, voice faintly reverberated. “Who disturbs the Hive of Queen Chrysalis?”
“Queen?” Reiziger said, arching an eyebrow above one wicked crimson eye. “Since when was Chrysalis the queen of anything?”
“She is our lady and our mistress!” cried another of the things. “She is Absolute Ruler of the Changelings! This is her domain, and you are trespassing. Now give us a good reason not to drain you dry!”
“Drain?” Trixie said.
“Yes, little pony, drain,” buzzed the third of the changelings, ever so slightly taller than his fellows. “We-”
“They feed upon emotion,” said Reiziger. “They take the powers of the spirit and use it to fuel the magic that keeps them moving. Their favorite food is love, but when pressed they can consume other emotions also.”
“So you have studied our kind,” said the third changeling.
“I know you better than you know yourselves, little changelings,” said Reiziger. “I am quite familiar with your methods. The way you eat from the souls of creatures is a dim reflection of my own feeding.”
“Your own?” said the first changeling. He gave a buzzing snarl and bared his fangs. “Enough of this! You-”
“Wait!” the third changeling stepped forward. Reiziger tilted his head ever so gently toward the left. The third changeling took one more step forward, then another, then yet one more. Reiziger was still and quiet. The changeling's empty blue eyes met the Herd Lord's empty red. “No...” he breathed. “No, you cannot be... can you?”
Reiziger smiled with all his terrible sharp teeth. “Can I not?”
The third changeling gasped. He stepped quite sharply backward, but not too far- just far enough that he had ample room to fall upon his knees. “M-Master! My Lord!”
“What?” said the second changeling. “What is this? What madness has come over you?”
“If you knew in whose presence we stood, you would be on your knees too!” said the third changeling. Firmly he pressed his forehead to the dirt. “Forgive them, my lord! They are young!”
“And you are not?” Reiziger asked. “Are there any of the original stock left?”
“I am older than they, my lord, though I was still born after the Second Sun's rising,” said the third changeling. “But my breed... my comb... we are the archivists of the changelings, my lord. I know the history. I know the truth.”
“Good,” said Reiziger. “It is always gratifying to be remembered. Now, where is Queen Chrysalis?”
Queen Chrysalis' great cerulean wings fluttered sharply as she flew down from the sky. It seemed each beat would cause the air to shudder, and her passage through the clouds left faintest ripples in her wake. Chrysalis, like her subjects, fed upon emotions that were stored within the hearts of other beings. Chrysalis, however, had been elevated far above a normal changeling's bounds. She was capable of consuming greater concentrations of love, of hate, of fear than all the rest, and thus as a result she could ascend far higher with her magical constitution. This time was one such occasion. Chrysalis, roaming far into the coves along the shores of deep eastern Equestria, had found a mother dragon nursing nearly adolescent hatchlings. She had guzzled up the love that passed between parent and child, leaving her surpassing powerful. Of course, with no love to arouse comforting treatment, the mother dragon had turned upon her spawn, consuming them with the same zeal she might have used to feed upon a bison. Such bursts of awful cruelty were common side effects of changeling feeding, but Chrysalis made no apologies. A lady had to eat, after all.
She landed with a burst of dirt around her charcoal feet. Her long and oily mane wound seaweed blue about her neck and back and shoulders, drooping down along one side of her extended throat. Her horn, jagged with chunks taken out of it, glinted slimy green, pulsing with the power that her subjects recognized. Chrysalis stood smugly before the oozing bluish gate. She couldn't wait to receive the adulation of her subjects when they felt the immense store of love she had harvested. Of course she'd keep the bulk for her own strength, but there was so much power in her now she'd spare some yet for all inside the hive. She would-
She would do all this when she was through the gate, but there seemed to be some delay to her ingress. The blue ooze had not budged, though Chrysalis had sent her signal inside several minutes ago. “Oy!” came her cry, voice echoing back upon itself within her throat. “It is I, your queen! Let me in!”
Still there was no answer. Chrysalis stood still a little while more, irritation at her subpar treatment growing ever stronger all the while. At last her patience ended. She pulsed green power all throughout her horn, and the blue ooze split apart, flowing back into the confines of the black chitinous walls.
“I am going to punish someone thoroughly for this,” rumbled Chrysalis as she trotted into the darkened depths of the hive. Her anger only strengthened as she moved yet further in. Where there should have been strong drones awaiting her, to hail her and to do her proper homage, instead she found mere emptiness, the surging antechamber stretching barren far before her and far high above her head. “Attention!” Chrysalis cried, voice swallowed by the thickened, moistened air. “It is I, Queen Chrysalis! I demand my subjects come at once!”
Again there came no answer. In the stifling quiet, however, Chrysalis could faintly hear the pulse of untold voices. She would know their location if her eyes had been put out: it came from the throne room. She broke into a gallop, hurrying down slime-paneled halls and across chasms bottomed with black combs. At last she wheeled round one impressive corner, stopping at the crude, enormous entrance to the place her throne was set. The space was filled with changelings. There must have been some fifth of all the hive within the chamber, crammed in every spot upon the floor and buzzing with their wings above her head. When they saw her, their expressions were of whole, complete surprise.
“What is this?” Chrysalis cried, shoving her way through the shellshocked throng. “What is the purpose of you gathering here? Why was I, your queen, not feted at the gate! There will be serious-”
“Calm yourself, lieutenant,” came a voice from back and up. “Such an agitated temperament does not befit royalty.”
Chrysalis felt shudders up her spine. She hadn't heard that voice in more than three thousand years, yet she would know it if ten millennia had passed. Fear and loathing gripped her as she turned herself around. Upon the throne, upon her throne, there sat a pitch black deer. His red eyes were like lanterns in the heavy shadow. When their eyes had come to meet, he smiled, showing all his glinting teeth, so white and sharp. A small pony with a bluish coat stood just beside the throne, gazing down upon them with great bafflement inside her purple eyes.
“M-Master!” Chrysalis cried, shouldering aside the changelings round her so as better to fall down upon her knees. “My Lord! I never dreamed to see you again!”
“Then perhaps you should have slept more soundly at night,” said the black deer. “You must have known it was impossible to kill me.”
“Well, I... I didn't know anything back then, my lord,” said Chrysalis. “I was merely a second-in-command. I thought that when you were beaten, you were beaten. I could never have imagined you might return.”
“Well, here I am,” said the black deer.
“Yes!” Chrysalis said, forcing notes of joy into her speech. “Yes, how wondrous to see you again, O My Lord-” the next word made her throat constrict, her talking stopping sharply.
“Unfortunately, my old name can no longer be used,” said the black deer. “Pity. I rather liked it. Ah, well. I am called Reiziger now.”
“Reiziger! A fine, fine name, my lord!” said Chrysalis, again sounding more happy than she felt. “So what... what brings you to my humble hive?”
“Well, Queen Chrysalis,” said Reiziger, “perhaps we could discuss that in private?”
“Oh, of course!” Chrysalis swiftly beat her wings and rose full up into the air. “There's an excruciation chamber just to the right of the throne room here,” her horn flashed green and one wall pulled away, “where we can speak.”
“Excellent,” said Reiziger. “Wait here, Trixie,” he said to the pony. He took a step down off the throne and promptly vanished. Chrysalis noticed him appear inside the newly unveiled chamber, and so she flew to meet him, buzzing low just feet above the heads of her dear subjects. Her subjects- yet they had stood in rapt attention in Reiziger's presence.
She touched down inside the chamber. It was filled with racks and hooks and chains of every size and sort, so shaped to hold all manner of poor creatures as she tortured them with glee. Now it was she whose torture was exquisite, her blackened heart awrack with doubt and illness to behold her master yet again. “Ah, so, my lord,” said Chrysalis, flashing horn inciting the chamber door to seal itself, “what business have you with me, your humble servant?”
“Firstly,” said Reiziger, “what is this business of you being a queen? I gave you no such rank.”
“Y-You must understand, my lord,” she said with fervor, “these changelings, the common ones, they recognize royalty! You conditioned them to follow kings and lords! It's a holdover from the days when you and the other black deer were in command. I had to give them greater reason to follow me when you were gone.”
“But queen?” said Reiziger. “'Lady' I could understand. But queen implies coronation, Lieutenant Chrysalis. It implies final authority.” Crimson fire flashed upon the black tines of his antlers. “Even in death and absence, Chrysalis, there is only one creature at the top of all things: me.”
“Of course, my lord,” growled Chrysalis, striving with all might to keep her irritation down. “Forgive any untoward behavior on my part.”
“It is forgiven, provided you assume your former place,” said Reiziger.
“So you need me as your second again?” Chrysalis asked. “Whatever for?”
“For war, Lieutenant Chrysalis,” said Reiziger. “What do you think my intentions are? I am at a little more than half strength now, but I shall wait no longer to begin my campaign against Celestia and Luna. The foundations of their demise must be laid, and I shall count on the changelings to do my bidding.” He trotted across the chamber, glancing back over his shoulder. “Naturally, you will be commander of all our moves on the battlefield. I well recall your strength as a tactician.”
Indeed, Chrysalis had been a great military mind in her day, engineering victories with most cunning use of force and strong design. Her mind was built to gain the edge, and now she worked it feverishly to weigh her options. Reiziger, her would-be lord, was back. He expected her to take orders again. But I don't want to! Chrysalis had grown content with being supreme ruler. She would not so readily return to working in the service of another. Yet what to do? What was her plan? Great Reiziger could not be challenged lightly. He was- at half strength. Chrysalis recalled the words that were only just spoken. She remembered her lord in his illustrious heyday, wielding magics that could level mountain ranges. Yet he was at one half of his old power, and she... she felt the power roiling in her form. The love she had consumed had granted her magic most tremendous. She felt she might herself reduce the tall Archbacks to rubble. Perhaps...
“Lieutenant?” said Reiziger. She glanced up at him, meeting with the luminescent crimson of his eyes. “Shall we introduce ourselves anew to the hive?”
No! There was no overcoming him. Reiziger's amazing strength would vanquish her at even half its level. She would have to bend the knee. But she hated it. She couldn't! She wouldn't! But she had to! “I...” she breathed, “I...”
“Come come, lieutenant, there's no need to tarry.”
Chrysalis surveyed her stratagems. She could feign loyalty until such time as Reiziger was vulnerable. She could inspire a riot in the changelings and then slip a knife between his ribs while he was much distracted. She could- none of it would have success! She'd fail at every turn! Reiziger was glancing at her. As her eyes fell on him yet again he gapped his lips and smiled wide with all those horrid teeth. That grin, which once she had most gladly served, now turned her stomach. How could she serve him, after all her years of comfortable reign? How could she? What could she do? What? What?
“I... I...” Chrysalis was scrambling in her thoughts, “I... m-my lord, before we go, do have a look over here.” She cursed herself for this stupidity. What was she thinking?
“Oh yes?” said Reiziger, stalking past her toward the wall that she had indicated. Once his back was to her Chrysalis' mighty logic failed her totally. Her horn lit up with putrid green emission, and with her heart and mind gone wild in panic, she fired a gout of battle magic straight at her would-be lord.
Reiziger did not turn in time to shield himself. The blast erupted at his flanks, sending him far back to crash against one chitin wall. With bestial fury Chrysalis fired again, then yet again, over and over in a furious succession. The hive began to quake and rock from all the power being summoned, earth shaking, stalactites of sticky substance cracking off and shattering on the floor. Reiziger was smashed deep up against the wall, pounded like a nail into the blackened surface by the furious assault of his lieutenant. The top half of the wall, in fact, gave way, crumbling in massive chunks to crash down upon Reiziger and all the space around him.
Chrysalis very nearly blasted straight through to the outside. As it was, when her great magic finally ceased she found she'd bored a chasm in the hive, a crude grotto whose sides still glowed from all the power they had witnessed. She skittered backward, breaths now coming hard. The great mountain of rubble in which Reiziger was buried did not stir. She waited with her nerves afire. Nothing.
“I... I did it?” Chrysalis stammered. Her toothy mouth broke out into a wild grin. “I did it! I-I don't believe it! Ha! Ha ha ha!” Her bursts of laughter broke down into chuckling, giddy glee consuming all her heart. “I actually did it!” She turned back toward the entrance of the chamber with a flick of her webbed tail. “Sorry, my lord, but I've grown fond of being in charge. And if you couldn't even withstand that, then what good would all your plans have done you?” She trotted briskly toward the exit, preparing with her magic to pull back the door and be amongst her subjects- they were her subjects, indeed. She would have to deal with the pony, perhaps torture her a bit-
That was foolish, lieutenant.
Chrysalis whirled immediately around, her deep jade green eyes abulge with absolute despair. Her body was enveloped in an aura of infernal crimson, holding her most firm in place as Reiziger stepped from the rubble, his own eyes blazing red. Red fire raged in torrents on his antlers, filling all the chamber with the deeply scarlet blaze. Chrysalis gazed upon him and knew his majesty, yet also knew eternal terror. She was lifted into the air then smashed against the door of the chamber.
“Did you think you could beat me, you ungrateful cretin?” Reiziger snarled. “Did you think, even with all that love to fuel you, that you would have enough strength to bring me down? Did you think you would ever be anything but a second?”
Reiziger's battle magic flashed in a gout of crimson. Chrysalis was blasted back through the chamber seal, hurtling with billowing black rubble out into the midst of all the changelings. They scattered to the best of their abilities within the packed expanse. Chrysalis tried to force herself to stand. Reiziger stepped out of the ruined chamber door, the shadows swelling dark and fell about him.
“The stupidity! The audacity of you, to think you could usurp me!” Reiziger bellowed, conveying clear to all the changelings in the space the crime for which their mistress had been struck. “I knitted you together from nothing at all and this is the thanks I get?”
“M-Master, forgive me!” Chrysalis with all her effort hauled herself to standing. “You must know that I-”
“I know you are a traitor,” Reiziger said. He took one graceful step and swiftly vanished, then reappeared just right in front of her. His razor teeth flashed out and sank with fervor deep into her neck, tearing strongly at the flexing outer skin. Chrysalis screamed as a huge and oozing chunk was bitten from the right side of her throat. She staggered backward, shocked and numbed, and thus did Reiziger make his penultimate move. He drove forward, dove forward, and caught Chrysalis' lean and limber torso within the thorny tines of his black antlers. She rolled onto her back amidst the tines, and Reiziger pulsed magic through them. They grew and swelled, becoming spikes that trapped her firm in place atop his head. She writhed where she was pinned, long legs flailing in the shadowed air.
“My Lord! Please!” Chrysalis exclaimed. “Please, please forgive me!”
“Do you think me stupid?” Reiziger cried. “No, not now, not ever.” The shadows round him swelled to depths unfathomable, and for long moments he seemed fuzzy, out of focus, some thing with far too many antlers, eyes, and teeth. “First, I shall take all the love you have harvested for myself.” Chrysalis grew noticeably feebler, her flailing losing energy as Reiziger drained all the love she'd stolen. He, meanwhile, stood that much taller, that much straighter, shadows swirling with might and strength unspeakable.
Trixie, from her perch next to the throne, gazed in wonder at her lord. She was of course immensely pleased to see he had survived the strike that had been meant to kill him. Of course, there was also fear- it was impossible not to fear Reiziger, so horrifying was it to be anywhere within his nearby presence. However, it was a horror she had learned to tolerate, fighting back revulsion as she told herself it was all to her benefit. At length, Chrysalis seemed old and worn, while Reiziger seemed younger and far stronger now than ever, looking all the more like some proud deer in the midst of a great rut.
“Now that that is done, it is time,” Reiziger growled.
“My Lord!” Chrysalis screamed. “My Lord, mercy! I'll take the lowest place! I'll wash your antlers, I'll kiss your hooves clean of dirt each day! Please, my lord! Please!”
“You know the law, Queen Chrysalis!” he cried. “The old law of my forces, the law above all others! There is only one crime: disloyalty!”
“Please, My Lord!”
“And there is only one punishment!”
“Death!” The air began to shake from all the power being summoned. Trixie prepared herself to witness Chrysalis' being blown apart. If only that had been the route Reiziger chose. Instead, Reiziger suddenly ceased his buildup. Chrysalis was allowed one final second to believe she might be spared. Then Reiziger smiled with all his awful teeth, and with the silent shuffle of a spark on tinder, crimson fire came alight upon his antlers.
Chrysalis screamed and writhed as she was burned alive. The changelings watched, held fast by their deep horror, none lifting so much as a hoof to help their would-be queen. Trixie, from her spot, watched just as long as she could manage, beholding the way Chrysalis' eyes were burning thickly, the way her mane caught special, brightened fire, the way her wings erupted in quiet explosions at her sides. But the more Chyrsalis burned, the sicker Trixie became, and so at last there came a point at which she had to close her eyes, for good measure falling to her belly and covering up her eyelids with her hooves. This, however, left her ears still open, so she kept on hearing Chryaslis' terrible screams, which grew higher and higher in their pitch until at last there was one final, horrible wail, a keening screech that rose into the highest reaches of the ceiling of the hive. Then all was still. Only the rustling of the crimson flames filled up the space with noise.
Trixie opened her eyes. Where once there had been Chrysalis within Reiziger's antlers there was now a curled up husk, blackened so completely that it was indeed no longer black, but rather the dull gray that things become when they have had their carbon burnt. Reiziger's flames grew lower, then diminished. He shook his head sharp to the side-
The husk that had been Chrysalis collapsed into a bursting cloud of ash, streams of soot that pooled down from his antlers to fall dusty at his hooves. Reiziger stepped hard upon the cremated remains of his old second-in-command, back into the mass of all the changelings. They parted around him, fearful of his touch. In this way they made a path that led him to the throne, which he silently mounted step by step until he reached the chitin seat. There he settled back upon his haunches, gazed upon the massed changelings with a most eerie serenity, and whispered, “Bow.”
He may as well have shouted. The changelings' swift response was stark and sharp: every drone within the throne room got as low as he or she could manage, falling to their knees as best they could when they were so crowded round by all their fellows. Trixie, for good measure, bowed as well. Thus they remained for several agonizing minutes, so intensely frightened that they could not have stood up if all the hive had been collapsing round their ears.
“Rise,” Reiziger said at length, so the horde came to their hooves. “You there,” he said, glancing down toward the frontmost of the mass. His antlers shimmered red, and a red outline came up around one changeling, slightly taller than the rest. “You- you were the first to hail me at the gate. Step forward.” The changeling did so, each step ashake with trembles. “What is your name?”
“W-Well, I... I don't have a name, my lord.”
“Do you not?”
“No,” said the changeling. “We of the drones do not have names. We know each other by our scents.”
“Ah, yes, that's right,” said Reiziger. “But if you were to choose a name, what might it be?”
“Well, my lord, I've always been partial to the word 'metamorph.' I think it would suit me.”
“Then stand tall, Lieutenant Metamorph,” said Reiziger, his antlers covered up with crimson flames. A ring of reddish power came all over and upon the lonely changeling, so that it quite suffused him. Thus did he begin to change: his legs stretched out, his torso grew all lengthened and then leaned, a horn sprouted tall up from his forehead. His wings grew long and deadly like a wasp's. When he was finished, he bore nearly the same body structure as the executed Chrysalis, though slightly thicker, just a hint more masculine. Attention to all changelings in the hive! Reiziger pressed out his thoughts into the many corridors and chambers, along with images of everything that had transpired between himself and Chrysalis. I, Reiziger, Lord of all the Herds, am once more your master and your god! However, I shall delegate some measure of authority to my lieutenant, Metamorph, as well as to my high priestess, Trixie! Obey them as you would me, and prepare for great things in the days to come!
“High priestess?” Trixie asked, turning his way.
“Well of course,” said Reiziger. “Did you think I wouldn't give you a title? I reward loyalty, Trixie, just as I punish disloyalty.” He swept his crimson gaze upon the gathered changelings far below the throne. “Lieutenant Metamorph, I would have you join me at my side. The rest of you are dismissed!”
Metamorph took several moments to adjust the buzz of his much longer, newer wings. At length he seemed to grow more used to them, for he flew up to Reiziger in swift succession, touching down at last upon the left side of the throne. Trixie already stood at Reiziger's right side, and it struck her then that this was fitting. Here she was, a handmaid to a lord with a new army, after spending so much time down on her luck. There were still soft misgivings in her mind at how far down she had gone from her earned morality, but what of it? Was there not a price to pay for some good luck? Now she was high priestess to an awesome god. How greatly had her fortunes changed! And all it took was stabbing Equestria in the back, a tiny voice spoke up inside her mind. She squelched it, but could not ignore it fully.
“Lieutenant Metamorph,” said Reiziger, “how many changelings are in this hive, and are there more hives?”
“This is the only hive that we know of, my lord,” said Metamorph. “However, we are not small in the least. We number some thirty thousand full grown changelings, not counting pupae and eggs.”
“Excellent,” said Reiziger, “a perfect number for my designs. Give the hive three hours or so to come to terms with their new circumstances. Then, you must inform them that they are to be split up into three groups, of ten thousand each.”
“What shall those groups be used for, O my lord?” asked Metamorph.
“The first group shall be instructed in the ways of battle and of slaughter,” said Reiziger. “I have felt inside the minds of all these changelings; they know how to fight, but they do not know how to kill. I shall make them warriors again, as they were of old.”
“And the second group, my lord?”
“The second shall continue with dear Chrysalis' old command,” said Reiziger. “They shall go out and harvest love, hate, fear, and other strong emotions. But instead of consuming them, they are to bring them here to me. I shall use all that spiritual power as the raw material with which to forge new creatures, new and terrible servants for my mission of conquest.”
“And the third?”
“The third group's job shall be: spread discord!” Reiziger smiled, flashing his terrible teeth. “I should like them to use their shapeshifting abilities to go out among the towns and cities of Equestria. There, they are to wreak chaos upon the present order. They are to spread confusion and fear, to sow mistrust, to weaken ponies' faith in the princesses and the Elements of Harmony! An Equestria divided against itself is primed to fail. That will be their mission.”
“It will be done, my lord,” said Metamorph. “What shall we do in the meantime?”
“In the meantime, O Lieutenant, and High Priestess,” said Reiziger, glancing Trixie's way, “we must begin to plot how best to topple Equestria, where and when to strike.” He chuckled. “I have a perfect first target in mind.”