Edits by LittleRobotBird & Burraku Pansa
Cerci transformed her wings a second time—pegasus wings now—as she caught an updraft from the ocean below, soaring like an albatross even with Sweetie’s added weight on her back. Though the prison they’d escaped from had been out to sea, a part of Sweetie had assumed it couldn’t be too far from shore—an assumption that proved false, as she and the two changelings ended up flying for hours over a flat stretch of dark, foreboding ocean. Sever’s griffin body seemed to have a harder time of it, and as the sun began to set, it was clear that both changelings were nearing their limits.
It was twilight when a small light pierced the veil of darkness on the horizon, and like a pair of moths, the changelings headed right towards it. Whatever that pinprick of fire was, Sweetie could only hold tight and trust that she'd pull through.
Even in the darkness, she could make out a rocky and treacherous shore ahead. Jagged cliffs broke against the sea, rocks and shoals kicking up a white froth that quickly receded into the dark waters. This was no place for a late night cruise. Which was likely why some smart pony had erected a lighthouse on a promontory. Bitaly, she recalled, was a very sea-bound province, but it was not all warm harbors and clear blue lagoons.
“Hold tight,” Cerci warned, angling her wings as she went into a short dive.
The trio circled the lighthouse, checking for any signs of things being out of place.
Only when her hosts appeared confident that things were as they were meant to be did they land and let Sweetie jump down to her hooves. The group approached a pair of slanted shutter doors that clearly led into a cellar.
Digging up a key from beneath a hidden plank in the scrubby bushes nearby, Sever set to work on the padlock and used her claws to pull free a long metal fastening rod.
The old storage cellar below was much like Fluttershy’s root cellar, with stacked barrels of water and other provisions kept edible in the cold.
Cerci’s magic closed the basement doors behind them and fastened the inside lock, plunging them into darkness. Not that Sweetie saw the dark as much of a hinderance, but still her horn lit up with a basic illumination spell. Cerci’s did likewise, and a few seconds later, she pulled aside one of the barrels and revealed a concealed door. This lead into a second, deeper cellar that Sweetie could see past a short flight of stairs.
It was a room clearly too small for more than a few changelings. Sweetie could guess that this wasn’t their hideout, but it was definitely some sort of safe room. Which could only mean one thing, given that she had been taken here first.
“We’ll rest here for the night,” Cerci told them, or rather, told Sweetie Belle. She smiled, revealing the hint of pointed teeth behind her lips. “It’ll give us time to talk.”
“That’s right,” Sever echoed, still in her griffin form. She paced behind Sweetie and sat on her haunches. She was far enough to not be hovering, but still close enough to pounce.
Sweetie had seen what the yellow changeling could do with that much space.
“Let’s start with your story,” Cerci said, falling to her stomach to rest her legs and wings. A magical ripple passed across her torso like a wave, gliding over her equine transformation to correct any pattern errors. She didn’t seem to be making much of an effort to hide her exhaustion, but given all she had done before, it wouldn’t have been smart to underestimate her.
An old firefly lantern hanging from the ceiling flickered as the insects within fluttered around, detecting the movement of shapes outside their home.
Sweetie tilted her head. "You already know I'm a changeling. What else do you want to know?"
Her eyes studied the other two changelings but she tried not to be too obvious about it. Since they clearly thought her one of their own and had gone to such extremes to save her, it was probably best to continue the deception. But what to say? 'I'm not even able to transform unless I somehow make a contract of some sort... but there seem to be all kinds of changelings. What to say?'
"Ever since Canterlot, I've been travelling trying to find others from my hive," Sweetie added.
“And where is your hive?” Cerci asked, quietly, but with a dark weight to her words. “Where do you come from? You smell like one of us... but your hive was never part of the gathering or The Swarm. Our grandmother never brought you into our crusade. We don’t even know what color you are.”
"And other than your names and colors, I know very little of you two," Sweetie pointed out, mind working overtime to figure out how to convince them that she was telling the truth. "As for my hive..." She sighed, thinking back on the changelings Twilight Sparkle had gathered and was trying to protect from Fae and ponies alike.
"We were invited, but tried to stay out of the fight—we were secure where we were and just about everypony was unaware of our existence. We thought we had fortified ourselves enough and tried to weather the storm. But we were wrong. We were found out. I've kept hope that some of our scouts or spies had escaped, but..." She left it there, not wanting to go into further detail. The more information they had, the easier it would be to pick apart her story.
Sever snorted, beak snapping in distaste, and looked at the wall in anger while Cerci leaned forward.
“The Equestrians will never stop hunting us,” Cerci said, her eyes narrowing as she no doubt imagined the fall of Sweetie’s hive. “This is what some changelings refuse to understand.” She shook her head, putting that aside for later.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Cerci. Granddaughter of Chrysalis and Crown Princess of the Biscione, the Green Hive.” Cerci touched her chest with her hoof and inclined her head in a respectful little bow before gesturing to her companion.
Sever paused in mid-preen, ruffling her griffin feathers. “Sever. I was Inkanyamba before the migration. Golden Hive. Or Yellow. Whatever.”
"Allure," Sweetie said, relying on her old fake name. Biscione—that's a heraldic monster. Monster… She fell back again into memories of Twilight's Changeling fortress and all the crazy stories Vinyl Scratch, Octavia or Luna would tell her. A monster. "Princess of the Jabberwocky, the Pink Hive. Last of my kind as far as I know."
“That makes you a Princess by default, then,” Cerci reasoned, nodding to herself. “How much royal jelly have you accumulated? You don’t look that big, so it can’t be much more than a few milligrams...?”
Sweetie looked down, disguising her confusion with embarrassment. Had Chrysalis ever mentioned anything like that? A memory of the changeling queen mentioning royal jelly did pass fleetingly through her mind, but Chrysalis had never talked about it at length... and Sweetie certainly had no intention of making something up that she would be unable to prove.
"Not even that at this point," she whispered.
“She must’ve been pretty low on the totem pole,” Sever noted, relaxing slightly. “I probably have more swimming around in my head than she does in her whole body.”
Cerci sighed. “Well, it was worth asking, just in case. Still, as the only member of her hive, she should be accorded due respect.” She turned to Sweetie and smiled, albeit a little weakly. “Rebuilding our hives means first creating a new Queen. We must not make the same mistakes of the past. We must remain united while also drawing on our diversity for strength! Once we have a new Queen and new males, then every one of the old hives will have a subordinate Princess, answerable only to the new Queen. For the Pink Hive, you can take up that role, Allure, if you feel you are able.”
Sweetie considered Cerci's words carefully, as she didn't want to upset the changeling princess. "I think I'd like to know a little bit more about what's going on before any compromise is made."
“Hey, Cerci, you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, aren’t you?” Sever asked, resting her head between her paws. “I’m still not entirely convinced this changeling is a real changeling. Remember how the ponies found us in Neighpon.”
“We’ll be sure of her before we make introductions to the rest of our band,” Cerci promised, and she spent a long second or two examining Sweetie. “Every changeling hive has a different manifestation of our ability to transform. The Greens are the best mimics and can use unicorn magic, the Reds can mimic their surroundings and turn invisible, the Browns can transform parts of their bodies to attach to their prey and control them, and the Blues can mimic other changelings... So what does the Pink Hive bring to us?”
“She did some sort of magic before,” Sever remembered. “Made it easier for me to climb the wall when we escaped.”
"My hive specialized in merging with the environment and mimicking it,” Sweetie explained. “We were so in tune with it that we can not only hide in plain sight, but also take on aspects of it and use them to transform us. Illusion was secondary to us, falling behind communion with the elements."
She hesitated, gauging the reactions of the true changelings before her. Neither seemed to be howling about how impossible to believe the story was so far. "Those truly gifted, like myself, were generally used as spies and scouts, which is why I hold out hope that I'm not the last of my hive."
Touching the stone wall, Sweetie's body was encased in rock, forming a second skin around her and growing on her back to emulate wings until for all intents and purposes the statue of an alicorn stood in front of them, silent and still as anything else made of rock.
Until Sweetie smiled. "Don't turn around or even blink," she said, moving without a problem despite being covered in solid stone. "The statues move. And listen."
“Ho! Look at that! Reminds me of those damned Zilant,” Sever growled, watching Sweetie with leonine eyes. “The flesh-eating Reds and their invisibility trick.”
“Environmental mimicry isn’t that far removed,” Cerci reasoned, tapping her chin with her hoof. “If this magic is like the Reds’, then an environmental illusion with no gender component would be resistant to Sparkle’s Sublime Severance. That could definitely be useful.”
“Maybe a little too useful,” Sever warned. “What about testing her with a little Princess Poison? Just to be sure.”
“Poison?” Sweetie asked, glancing back at the feral changeling but doing her best to hide her anxiety as the stone that made her disguise crumbled around her. “What do you mean, poison?”
“Princess Poison is merely a droplet of royal jelly extruded through the poison glands,” Cerci explained, though how her explanation was supposed to put somepony at ease, Sweetie couldn’t begin to speculate. Cerci pointed to one of her sharp, dagger-like teeth. “We discovered after the war that it amplifies the poison’s potency in Equestrians. A pony bitten with it will experience intense hallucinations, nausea and fatigue and eventually death.”
“And in changelings?” Sweetie asked, trying to sound offhoof.
“Drowsiness, dizziness... It depends on the amount of jelly in your system,” Cerci replied with a smile. “I have much more in me than you do, so you might feel it a bit more, but there won’t be any lasting harm. In fact, in many changelings it helps to trigger maturation. And don’t worry—I don’t have to bite you. You can ingest it normally.”
Sweetie Belle considered the offer. 'I'm completely different from a pony now... I can drink and not get drunk. If I get injured, I bleed miniature musical crystals, for Celestia's sake! But poison? Is it magical? How would it even work on me?' She found herself nodding. 'It's either take it or fight them, and even if we fought and even if I kill them, that wouldn't solve the problem that Lady Belle, Tiara and the others have. There are clearly more changelings, after all, and if one of their leaders dies or is captured... who knows what they might do?'
"Well, I guess we'll find out how it affects me, won't we?" she finally conceded.
Cerci lifted her hoof up to her mouth and, very gingerly, wiped a droplet of brackish liquid off the tip of one of her fangs. She then extended her hoof out, clearly intending for Sweetie to lick or kiss it off.
Trying to appear unconcerned, Sweetie leaned in and licked the liquid off of Cerci's hoof.
Sweetie didn't feel any different for a moment. She had thought the poison would taste disgusting, but it was in fact very sweet, like nectar or raw honey. She took a step back, blinking as her body shivered with a pleasant warmth, similar to what she had experienced when drinking a chocolate martini.
At least to start with, there were no effects that made her feel worse, and she didn't feel dizziness or faint. It gave her a feeling of welcoming, oddly enough.... It wasn't quite fae or changeling or pony, but it was somehow inclusive and potent in a strange, emotional way she couldn’t quite describe.
She heard a distant voice, and it took her a moment to realize Sever had said something. She finished her sentence, but it was slurred sounding and incomprehensible. Sweetie blinked and saw Cerci leaning in closer, saying something, but... it all sounded too indistinct, like listening to somepony yelling underwater. In seconds, the strange sensation moved from her ears to her eyes and then settled in the forefront of her mind, lulling her inexorably into a numb sleep.
She slumped forward into a pair of hooves.
Mumbling, echoing voices and the sharp sound of hooves striking rock shook Sweetie awake, although her vision took some time to return. It felt like she had slept a whole night, or maybe even longer, but there was no hangover feeling. She actually felt well and rested—revitalized! Slowly, Sweetie pushed herself up, shaking her head and trying to figure out where she was.
The area was dark, but her eyes quickly adapted to the low light. Her ears twitched as she felt the familiar voices and presence of rocks and crystals all around her. There was another flickering lantern in the corner, partly covered by a dark cloth to shade the light. Beneath her was a straw futon, just the sort she remembered Applejack occasionally bringing into the barn for CMC sleepovers. Like that one, it was adult sized and functional, though not exactly as comfortable as a real bed. The rest of the room was basically bare: plain, white-washed stone, hewn not built, which implied she was underground...
A chittering sound—changeling applause, maybe—interrupted her thoughts. It was coming from outside, past a rather plain-looking wooden door. Sweetie could see light shining from beyond the door; it wasn’t flush with the floor or the ceiling. Rising onto all fours, she crept closer and pressed her ear to the wood.
“Friends! Sisters!” It was Cerci. “Let us observe a moment of silence for Agave, Carnation, and Hyacinth.”
The chitters died down, and Sweetie’s ear twisted as the waited and listened.
After a short while, Cerci began speaking again. “Listen as I tell you how they died in our great cause, Sisters. Agave went below to provide our distraction, just as she swore she would do. Though I did not see her, the Black Sprite was released within the prison. I can only assume she lost her life in this. Know that many Equestrians were traded for her. Too few, but still many. She died well and did honor to our Fallen Queens.”
There was a pause again as the changelings beyond chittered. Cerci gave them a moment and resumed her speech. “Listen as I tell you how Carnation fell, Sisters. Brave Carnation. We were en route to the prison’s Auspex when a pair of the facility’s elite guard came upon us. Carnation dove into them, keeping them occupied while Sever and I delivered killing blows to the beasts. She succumbed to her wounds soon after, but not before seeing us to our objective. Only then could she allow herself to rest. She died well and did honor to our Fallen Queens!”
More chittering, this time accompanied with what sounded like buzzing insect wings.
“Listen as I tell you how Hyacinth died, Sisters. Listen well! Without her, we would not have succeeded in our mission! After our rendezvous with the Auspex, we needed to escape from that wing of the prison and find another of our captive sisters. Yet there was word of the disturbance we had caused. Knowing there was no other way, Hyacinth remained behind, setting fires and causing chaos, drawing the attention of the prison guards to her. This alone allowed Sever and myself to escape in the confusion and find our imprisoned sister. Allure! Three lives were traded for one, and we three will honor that debt! Hyacinth died well and did honor to our Fallen Queens!
“Very soon, My Sisters, we will strike a blow against the Equestrian animals that have hounded us and hunted us! We will begin to pay them back for the Queens that fell that horrible night in Canterlot! It begins in Bitaly, but I promise you, sisters, it will end in Canterlot! It will end in the Palace! It will end in blood!”
The changelings chittered, cheering, but all Sweetie felt was a chill run down her spine.
“They think we are beaten! They think we can be driven to ground!” Cerci declared, and the changelings hissed angrily, like a bed of serpents. “They are wrong! We are not beaten! We are changelings! Equestria is still ours for the taking! A future where all feast and none fear! The dream of my grandmother has not been extinguished, not yet! I still believe in our destiny! We will win it if only we fight for it! Will you fight with me, Sisters? Will you bleed with me, Sisters? Will you?”
The room beyond broke into more chittering cheers, and Sweetie could make out voices with them.
“Sisters, this dream of mine would be impossible without you. I salute you all. Sever.”
“I’ll get her,” Sever’s voice was soft, but distinct.
Sweetie backed away from the door just before it opened a second later, revealing the yellow changeling in griffin form.
“Oh? You’re up,” Sever said, simply. Sweetie hadn’t quite had the time to jump back on the bed and pretend to be asleep or otherwise play coy.
It wasn’t quite being caught flathoofed, ear to the door, but it was close.
“Yeah,” Sweetie admitted.
Sever inclined her head, motioning for Sweetie to follow. Past the door was a large room, also clearly hewn out of stone, but the size of it was entirely greater than Sweetie had been expecting. A vaulted ceiling rose high up enough that a few changelings were hovering like pegasi, instead of standing. Cuts of stone were left bare and arranged like giant toy bricks and blocks. A dozen lanterns provided ample lighting in the chamber.
Slowly, it dawned on Sweetie Belle that this had to be an old salt mine. The look of the white stone, the way everything was cut, and the scale of the mining... She had read about this. And Bitaly and the Quartz Clan were famous for their salt monopoly.
Sweetie looked down at the comparatively small crowd of changelings arrayed before them. Cerci hadn't been exaggerating when she had said there were very few of them. If anything, the massive cave simply made their small numbers look even more insignificant. Some changelings were in Equestrian guise, a few were more bestial—yellow changelings, all of them, she realized—and others were in their natural form.
There were green changelings, like she was most familiar with, but there were also mantis-like red ones with spines and spindly front legs. There was a small clutch of blue ones keeping to themselves on one of the stone blocks. A trio of purple changelings in cloaks hung off to the side. Then there were the monstrous figures... They looked like minotaurs or diamond dogs, covered in rags, but on each she could see a small brown-and-black changeling attached to the back or shoulder.
“I present to you our newest sister: Allure!” Cerci announced, sweeping her hoof and stepping to the side to motion Sweetie forward so all could see her. “Her hive was recently lost, and I have recognized her as a Princess of the Swarm. Embrace her and welcome her as I have! She will lend her strength to our cause! Our Sister!”
“Our Sister!” changelings greeted her, many bowing their heads.
“Young Princess!” another cried.
Many more muttered amongst themselves.
‘So much like ponies,’ Sweetie couldn’t help but think. Her attention was diverted to the brown changelings. The single one with a pony host seemed to be glaring at her, and Sweetie would have been completely oblivious if the host pony didn't share that look of distaste on his face.
Shaking it off and taking the best approach from her lessons under Blueblood, Sweetie bowed politely to the gathered changelings. "Thank you for your warm welcome," she said, smiling as sincerely as she could and trying to make eye contact with as many changelings as she could while hiding her wonder at the differences in all of them. It was a bit of an assumption, that the rules she had learned for speaking to groups of ponies would translate to changelings, but so far none of them seemed to be interpreting her eye contact as an invitation to rip out her throat.
"It's my honor to join you”—Cerci did seem to like harping on about honor and dying for it—“and it is my honor to ensure our sisters’ sacrifices were not in vain.”
There were very equine nods of approval among the crowd so far, and a few changelings were rubbing their forelegs together—and making a chirping sound of some sort—in what was also likely approval. Probably. Hopefully it wasn’t them just being hungry.
“I look forward to getting to know you all and working together." Sweetie took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts and bringing back memories of what she had learned under Chrysalis for what came next. "In the months leading up to the invasion of Canterlot, my hive was approached by Queen Chrysalis to join her cause. Although we did not have the ability to provide as much backup as we wished we could, due to the small size of our hive, we did send a few changelings to assist the—” Sweetie recalled what Chrysalis had liked calling herself. “...the Queen of Queens as spies, using our abilities to meld with the environment to provide her with information. When things turned out as they did..."
She let it hang for a second, lowering her eyes as if bereaved. Just how things turned out, she wasn’t sure, but it seemed by all accounts like the changelings had gotten a new hole bucked in.
She continued, "We tried to go back into hiding. I hope none here begrudge us that. It did us little good... We were eventually found, our hive attacked... and destroyed.”
Sweetie almost marveled at how the crowd of changelings followed her story. If she ever met up with Blueblood again, she made a silent vow to thank him for showing her just how easy it was to tell ponies what they wanted to hear.
“And now, I find myself surrounded by kin, and though we are all of different hives, born of different Queens, I am sure we can find a way to not only ensure our species' survival, but also a way to thrive!"
Changelings chittered in approval, some rubbing their legs together to produce their strange warbling sound and others stamping their chitinous hooves just like a normal pony would.
With a methodical eye, Sweetie noticed that the changelings who acted the most pony-like were Greens—the changeling color she was most familiar with. Just like Twilight would have, she took the opportunity to study and categorize the different changelings on display. She wondered if they saw one another like unicorns see pegasi, or if it was more divisive, like how ponies see griffins.
There was quite a variety before her, and most of it was totally unknown to her. Where had all these changelings come from?
“Our new sister, Allure!” Cerci stepped in, and she leaned close in what Sweetie almost mistook for an affectionate nuzzle. Except Cerci only darted in, brushed cheeks, sniffed once, and then repeated the ritual on the other side. Sweetie did the same, catching on quickly, though she couldn’t say she smelt anything. Changelings, for all their terrible appearance, didn’t have any particular smell a pony could pick up, neither sweet nor strong.
“Behold as well...” Cerci said, taking center stage again. Her magic levitated out a piece of crystal from a pouch under her wing. She lifted the tiny crystal higher. “The fruit of our labor, as promised! An Auspex Crystal!”
No stranger to crystals, Sweetie schooled her features and simply followed the floating gemstone with her eyes.
An Auspex Crystal, Cerci had called it. She hadn’t much experience with them personally, but she had read about Auspex Crystals. They were produced from resonant quartz and used for encoding and decoding documents. A letter written under the influence of a specific crystal could only be decoded by a similar crystal cut from the same master stone.
Was that what Cerci had broken into the prison to get?
Why had it even been there?
“Rejoice, my sisters!” Cerci floated the crystal down and back under her wing where it could be kept safe. She smiled, revealing two pearly rows of sharp teeth. “Soon we strike back against Bitaly, Canterlot, and all of Equestria! We shall repay our suffering a hundredfold!”
Sweetie had to fight to keep from flinching at how that particular promise drew cheers. She gently stamped a hoof on the floor, one eye on Cerci and the other on the threatening presence of Sever nearby. She tried not to think about how she was the one not-quite-defenseless swimmer trying to blend in with a school of hungry hippocampi.
‘How do I keep ending up in these messes, anyway?’
Stepping down and mingling with the changelings, Sweetie eagerly tried to identify more differences now that she was amongst them. It was truly, truly tempting, even under these circumstances, to summon up her private journal to take some much-needed notes.
'What did Cerci say? Sweetie pondered. That the Reds could also mingle with their environment? What does that mean for the others? Her eyes scanned the crowd. The Yellows seem the most normal of the bunch, insofar as a changeling could be called normal, but just like Sever they seem much more... feline—and feral rather than Equestrian. There's also a distinct lack of horns there.'
She wasn’t sure where to even start with the Blues or the pair of Purples, and then there were the Browns. The Browns and their patchwork of hosts seemed to be almost shunned, as every member of the other hives would shift away from them.
Then there was that changeling that had been glaring at her earlier. Sweetie was sure it had been one of the brown ones, but which one?
She started moving around, observing the little groups that had formed as Cerci’s rally dispersed. Despite their claim of being under one unified flag, the changelings—much like ponies, only more so—stuck to their own.
While they were by no means openly showing any hostility towards her yet, it was clear that—for now—they simply tolerated her presence rather than truly or enthusiastically welcoming it. They were watching her, she could tell—watching her to see what she would do and who she would approach first.
It was thus that her heading towards the cluster of misshapen Browns drew more than one arched eyebrow, but she was sure she had seen one of their hosts looking particularly angry, even if she hadn't seen it again after a second look. If she wanted to sort out enemy from friend, she needed to find out why some changelings might not be too happy about her presence there.
From Cerci's speech, Sweetie had no doubt whatsoever that they would clash... and that she would eventually have to fight Sever as well, given her obvious loyalty to Cerci. But perhaps not all changelings would need such a decisive response.
She stopped in front of the group and smiled.
"Hello," she finally said, taking a step forward and speaking to the first brown changeling she saw. "I'd like to speak to one of you I saw a little earlier, but I don't seem to see her around..."
She was talking to a hunched diamond dog in thick, well-worn rags and was reminded of stories her sister had told about diamond dogs: that bunch had worn simple armor, but not rags. This one looked like he might’ve been a beggar once, but his arms were heavily muscled for digging like any other diamond dog. Only some of the face was really visible, and even then only the toothy lower jaw, the rest concealed by more rags like a dirty mummy down on his luck.
Resting atop the diamond dog, however, was a small brown shape, looking more like a larva at first than a normal changeling. Only on closer inspection could Sweetie see the brown was actually segments of chitin over the usual black underlayer. There were small holes in the weak-looking changeling’s limbs, and rather than end in hooves, they ended in little, sickled barbs—for grabbing hold, she reasoned. The brown changeling attached to this dog reared up slightly so Sweetie could see it in its entirety.
“This one greets you humbly, Princess Allure,” it—she, Sweetie supposed, since they were all supposed to be female—said in a clear if accented voice. Sweetie was struck again by how small she was.
“This one is known as Coaxoch.” The parasitic Brown gave a little bow as she introduced herself. The diamond dog itself barely moved. “Do you seek Princess Olinca?”
"A pleasure to meet you, Coaxoch," Sweetie replied. "If Princess Olinca was attached to a pony, that is indeed who I am looking for."
“I shall introduce you, Princess,” Coaxoch said, quite politely, and the diamond dog that she rode—it was easier to think of it that way rather than as a parasite’s host—ambled over to the small gathering of brown changelings. The largest she could see was astride a minotaur, its face concealed, but Sweetie did note the many scars criss-crossing its chest. The smallest was held in the arms of said minotaur, cradled like an infant. It was a strange sight.
They parted so Sweetie could approach the sole Brown melded with a pony—an earth pony in this case. Olinca was, like the others, attached somehow to the back of the pony, but Sweetie couldn’t see exactly where or how. Like the others, she was swaddled in rags, though now that Sweetie got close, it didn’t seem as though they were particularly filthy. It was just whatever they could find.
“Come forward and greet me,” Olinca said in a feminine voice, still strangely accented, but more confident and fluent than Coaxoch had seemed to Sweetie’s ears. She probably meant that ritual that Cerci had done before, but Sweetie hesitated at whether to cross cheeks with the pony or the changeling...
She picked the changeling, and just like Cerci, the tiny, shriveled Olinca inhaled something, moved to the other cheek, and did the same. Sweetie mentally filed it away as the way changeling princesses shook hooves. Why they did it, she had no idea. Something scent based, obviously.
“What brings you to our hive?” Olinca asked, stretching out her little forelegs to encompass her ‘hive’ of five individuals.
Sweetie shrugged. "It was hard not to notice the look you were giving me when I was being introduced, Your Highness," she said honestly. "So I figured I would come to you and talk. I'm not looking to make enemies here, after all."
Olinca lowered her eyes in apparent contrition. “My rudeness was uncalled for. Misplaced. My heart aches for you, Princess. You are more alone than even I.”
Sweetie's smile wavered at the truth of the princess' words, even if it wasn't for the reason Olinca was thinking. "Thank you, Princess. Being lonely is a hard thing, even when you find others similar to you... and I hope you will forgive me saying so, but I sense that the reason for your mistrust goes deeper than how many of my swarm remain." She tilted her head. "I'm trying to understand what the situation here is, and where my place is, and perhaps understanding the motivations of the other Princesses here will aid me in this."
“I see.” Olinca made a small gesture with her jagged little hoof, and the other brown changelings retreated slightly to give the princesses more room. Olinca walked past Sweetie a short distance so they could have an unobstructed view of the changelings that still remained gathered in the chamber.
Sweetie could easily make out Cerci mingling freely with a group of yellow changelings, Sever close by as always. The feline changelings were lounging about, but still listening intently to the green changeling as she spoke.
“I do not know how well you know those who freed you,” Olinca began, gesturing towards the group. “But you must have deduced by now that Cerci is our... Princess of Princesses and First among Equals.”
Sweetie nodded. "It was hard to miss," she muttered, her eyes studying the green princess' body language. "Her resemblance to Chrysalis is uncanny." Olinca's words carried more weight than the obvious, however. "I take it that the title was assumed by her rather than granted? Or does she truly have the most support?"
“I never met or even saw Chrysalis myself... Does she resemble her forebear that much?” Olinca didn’t wait for an answer. “She is the granddaughter of the old Queen, but she did not found our society here in Bitaly. She was brought in by one of her sisters. In time, she convinced the others to become more... assertive towards the Equestrians. She does not call herself anything more than ‘Princess,’ and we are all equals in name and rank, but there is no question who leads and who follows.”
"And yet it seems that you don't entirely agree with her methods," Sweetie noted, sensing the hesitation in Olinca's choice of words. "Is it really wise to court war with the ponies when our own numbers are so depleted? I get the feeling that she is severely underestimating her opponents."
“If we are to survive, as a race, then we must remain united,” Olinca answered, and it was a rehearsed, diplomatic answer if ever Sweetie had heard one. Still, she was quite sure that she’d gotten her measure right in that Olinca wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic supporter of Cerci. Getting her to openly admit as much to someone she had just met, though... Well, that was another story.
“Cerci rescued you,” the princess went on to say. “She has saved many here. They are loyal to her out of gratitude.” Olinca’s little foreleg twitched towards Cerci... and her ever-present shadow. “Sever was being hunted by Equestrians after breaking masquerade in a small town. Frustration and loneliness got the better of her. She killed. Ponies do not forgive those who slay them, not anymore. Cerci saved Sever, risking her own life without fear. Should she ask it, Sever would follow her into Tartarus itself. Understand that this is why Cerci leads, and why opposing her is generally unwise. Her followers are often even more zealous than their princess.”
Sweetie nodded, taking note of Olinca's warning. "Does that mean that others have attempted to oppose her? You said one of her sisters brought her in. What happened to her?"
“Ah. You suspect treachery.” Olinca made a little chittering sound. “ No. Cerci followed her sister, Princess Tagma, loyally. Though they did not always see eye to eye. Tagma was not well loved by the other princesses, however. She kept us hidden, insisting we never risk ourselves.
“Some years ago, afraid we were about to be found out, Tagma organized a change in location that led us into a trap. Changelings died, and we returned to hiding elsewhere.” She pointed to another changeling, this one blue. “A vote was held and leadership passed to another Princess. Svikja, the blue one, over there. Shortly after, Tagma ended her own life. It took time, but Cerci won enough allies to be voted leader. Svikja still openly opposes Cerci to this day... but she is wise enough to know when to pick her fights and when to bow her head.”
"Knowing what fights to pick is definitely a good skill to have," Sweetie admitted. "Which is what worries me." She bowed to the other princess. "Thank you for enlightening me, Princess Olinca. This has been very informative."
“You will fit in, in time, Sister,” Olinca assured her. “We are all different—so very different—but the only ones we have are each other.”
It was hard to read any sort of expression on the brown changeling’s pinched, shrunken face. She sounded pensive, but beyond that, Sweetie couldn’t say.
“When you have matured enough, you may petition for a male. Cerci controls access, as is her right as leader.” Olinca explained, “As our most depopulated swarm, you will want a daughter in case the worst happens. Cerci will understand that and give you priority. We cannot lose another hive. We are few enough as it is.”
Sweetie kept her expression as calm as she could. "We shall see what happens, Sister," she replied, trying not to think about it.
A mother? Her?
Sweetie had been given a small niche of her own (officially a crèche for her non-existent swarm) in the salt mines. She had quickly done what she could to pile stones and discarded equipment far in the back, enticing the elements to hold them in place to form a small gate resting against the wall and, to all appearances, leading nowhere.
After making sure she wasn't being watched, she softly traced her hoof against the wall, speaking words that she didn't really know the meaning of, and yet made perfect sense to say. Slowly the wall faded and she could see the brambles of the little part of the Hedge she had been granted. Letting out a breath she hadn't noticed she had been holding, she whispered what sounded like a thanks and the wall once more became solid rock.
She didn't know if she would need her access to that personal space, but it was good to know that she could access it, if she wanted.
‘Just in case,’ she told herself.
She followed that by walking around the supposed crèche, noting where she could add some spell matrices to provide desired effects should she need to defend herself while in there. Perhaps, if she needed some secrecy, she could start with silencing spells. Maybe even something that would bring down the whole structure?
This was too much for now, however. It had been a long day, and she had too many thoughts clouding her mind to concentrate enough to produce the effects she wanted.
Choosing to lay down, Sweetie Belle finally thought back on the day as a whole. It was clear that Cerci had control of the changelings here. Not just control based on fear, either, or at least not a fear of her. Fear of Equestria, maybe. That was always the worst sort of enemy: the popular one. By all accounts, Chrysalis was dead (or locked in so deep a hole that she might as well be dead), but she had her spiritual successor in Cerci.
Sweetie could even respect how Cerci had kept her sisters alive against all odds, but the relish the princess had for fighting combined with her stated intent to wage war again was what drove most of Sweetie’s reservations about the changelings’ leader.
It was clear that Cerci would opt into any fight she thought she could win, but from the discussions earlier, it was clear as well that Cerci had no idea what she was getting into. How could anyone think that after so many hives were lost in battle, a much smaller group would even stand a chance without risking their species altogether? It was one thing to fight for survival, but another altogether to court destruction. Did she just want to go out in a blaze of glory?
Sweetie rolled onto her side, restless at the thought.
It just didn’t fit. There had to be more. Cerci didn’t seem suicidal. She’d taken risks back at the prison, but they’d been calculated risks. She wasn’t just angry or vicious. Did she really think she could win somehow? Against all of Equestria?
It was impossible.
Was she just doing it all to keep a hold on power? What was her end game? Sweetie realized she just didn’t have enough information to know, not yet. What she did know, deep down in her gut, was that whatever Cerci wanted to do was going to be bad.
Bad for Equestria. Bad for the changelings.
So Cerci had to be stopped, then. Somehow.
Perhaps she could use the help of some of the other changeling princesses? Olinca had obvious doubts, but appeared too cautious, while the blue Princess—Svikja—seemed a little more proactive. It was doubtful that the two of them would be the only ones to have reservations about Cerci's approach, either.
Sweetie sighed, leaning her head against the wall. She hated politics. She didn't have a mind for them like Blueblood did. And speaking of...
What had happened to Diamond Tiara? Had she informed Lady Belle of how Sweetie had pretty much been threatened to join or Tiara would have died? And had her big brother written back to Lady Belle about Sweetie?
Closing her eyes, she briefly entertained the fantasy of him kicking in a wall like a drunk knight, a bottle of alcohol in one hoof and a pair of shot glasses in the other. Sweetie snickered softly to herself. Slowly, though, mirth was replaced by a darker feeling.
Alone, half asleep, Sweetie frowned. ‘I shouldn’t even be here.’
That was the thing that annoyed her the most about Cerci. The changeling princess had spoiled Sweetie’s best chance to prove that she wasn’t a changeling herself... and now she was pretending not only to be one, but the last scion of a lost hive no less.
What did she even know about being a princess? Wasn't it all about drinking tea, eating cake and listening to nobles whine? Now they wanted her to choose a male and have a daughter? What kind of society was this?
‘Family?’ Chrysalis had told her once, offhoof. Sweetie had mentioned family, and asked if changelings had them. ‘My family is my hive, my swarm. I have a thousand daughters. Most are simply drones. A select few are greater, true daughters. You may meet in time, if you are worthy. It is their duty to carry forward my great purpose and embody my indomitable will.’
Apparently they were also expected to pick up the slack when it came to egg-laying. Sweetie shuddered. She’d been through a lot of physical changes lately, but she was pretty sure changelings would notice when she failed the Princess’ First Egg Laying Exam.
‘You must be looking forward to rebuilding your hive,’ a well-meaning changeling had said to her earlier.
Sweetie shook her head.
"One day," she promised, whispering into the darkness. "One day, I'll find out what force controls my jumps. And when I do, I'll buck them in the face so hard Applejack will hire me on the spot."
“Ah, Allure!” Cerci said, raising a hoof to gesture for her to approach. “Come, Sister. You’ll be looking after our clutch today.”
Sweetie stared at the changeling.
"I'm sorry, I think I misheard." She nodded towards the little area up ahead where a number of changelings, some big and others starkly small, were assembled. “You don’t mean...”
The room was very much like Sweetie’s own... if her room had been covered in black wax and sticky mucus. Cerci herself was inspecting the place and Sweetie also got a look at where the princess must sleep: a raised platform of wax near the back of the room. Below it, the floor was layered with more black wax, inlaid with some sort of fibers. The air, she noticed, was a little moist.
A bit more shocking than just how the changelings approached interior decorating was the sight of two strange-looking blobs poking out of the floor and another pair of changelings, these ones tiny and frail looking. They were partly wrapped in some sort of white goop, and Sweetie could see that neatly arranged next to each one were a few sets of mostly intact exoskeletons.
‘Molts, of course,’ the little Twilight Sparkle in her head lectured her. ‘They likely go through a few instars before reaching maturity.’
Sweetie could feel whatever passed for blood in her system grow cold. "I'm not entirely sure this is a good idea, Princess Cerci," she said. "I have no experience whatsoever taking care of anything smaller than a minotaur, and it would be inadvisable for me to attempt such an endeavor without—"
“Nonsense,” Cerci interrupted her, wearing a rather disarming smile. “You’ll have supervision, of course,” she went on, still gesturing the wary ‘Princess Allure’ closer. “It is important we start to stimulate your Royal Gland. One of the best ways to do that is to expose you to young larvae and nymphs. The first duty of a Princess is to provide a future for her hive.”
“So, let me introduce you.” Cerci wrapped a foreleg around Sweetie’s shoulders and pointed to the two blobs sticking out of the floor. “These are my two larvae... Why, Allure, you look like you’ve never seen a larva before!”
“Hahaha. Yeah. I guess I do!”
“My mother’s stories say that Chrysalis could spawn a hundred larvae in a single clutch, such was the power of a Queen.” Cerci shrugged at her rather less impressive contribution. “We make do with what we have, I’m afraid. I have only a fraction of my mother’s jelly, and she had only a fraction of the Queen’s. This one here”—she pointed to the larvae on the right—“is three weeks old. And this one”—the one on the left—“four weeks. She should be hatching soon.”
Sweetie found herself strangely warming up to this side of Cerci. There was a lot more care and love in the princess' words than she had expected. A memory came back to her, unbidden, of Chrysalis smiling once and only once when she had thought about teaching her children how to sing. It appeared she’d never had the chance.
"They look healthy and strong, Princess Cerci," she said gently, not hiding her smile.
Cerci nodded, projecting more than a little motherly pride. “I’m quite happy with them so far,” she stated, imperiously. “They took to their bonding right away. I’ve never had a rejection. We used a unicorn, of course, so they should all have unicorn magic once they mature.”
Sweetie wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but she nodded along. Maybe the chance to look into it would come later.
“I have two nymphs.” Cerci moved on to them. “No names yet. Our hive’s tradition is to assign names only after a year, when they reveal their talents.”
They get their special talents after just a year?! Sweetie twitched. "So unfair..." she muttered.
“This one is on her third molt.” Cerci said, stopping behind the mostly immobile little bundle on the floor. Next to it was a pair of empty shells preserved like insectoid report cards. She gently brushed her hoof against the seemingly unresponsive nymph and then moved on to the other, slightly larger one. “This one is on her fourth and final.”
And unlike the smaller one, this one was roused by the touch. It was mostly curled up, but Sweetie could see thin little legs with tiny pits in them, the edges of little wings partly covered in chitin, and the bands of green that marked it—or her—as a descendant of Chrysalis herself. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a functional changeling drone in miniature.
Sweetie couldn't help but bring her nose level with the little changeling. "Adorable!"
“I’m not sure how they do things in your hive,” Cerci explained, walking around behind Sweetie, “but taking care of larvae and nymphs isn’t particularly hard. I don’t know how equines deal with it...” She emerged to Sweetie’s right, shaking her head. “Luckily, we don’t have any diapers to change or larvae to burp or wild magic to deal with. The most important thing is to occasionally rotate the nymphs while they molt. We Greens also try to expose our young to magic and read to them while they develop. The old Queen found that this helped them to become more... ‘useful,’ when they grew up.”
"It seems simple enough," Sweetie said. "And it makes sense to increase their cognitive abilities by reading to them at an early stage," she added, a bit of her inner Twilight shining through. "By feeding their natural curiosity and building up their knowledge, they can be more effective in any number of ways."
“Exactly,” Cerci agreed, trotting back to her waxy resting place. She sat down, able to survey her little crèche like a proper Queen. “A smart drone will outperform a dumb one in almost every scenario. This is especially true in the Green Hive, where some of our drones are expected to take on leadership positions on the squad level. Not that we have many squads left anymore... but it is a boon to everything from infiltration to magical combat.
“I’m told you are literate; read to them and use your magic,” Cerci told her. “Talk to them if you feel comfortable doing so. I know talking to larvae and nymphs is strange to most changelings from other hives. They won’t respond, of course, but they are listening. We sometimes use magic to throw balls back and forth or play other games to try and stimulate them, and sometimes we also play music, though we’ve been without anyone with musical talent for some time.”
Sweetie grinned. "I might be able to do something about that, but, before we get to that point, who is going to help me? I wasn't lying when I said I am very new at this."
“I will be overseeing things at first. When I need to step out a little later, I’ll bring in one of my drones with experience in nymphal care,” Cerci waved her hoof in a dismissive way. “I’m also training one of my younger sisters. She should be along shortly and she’s also learning to acclimate to the crèche.”
"Oh?" Sweetie asked. "So she is also a recent addition?" She smiled. "It'll be nice to make a new friend."
“Pupa has been with us for some time. She’s my sister’s oldest and most promising daughter,” Cerci explained, and right on time, Sweetie heard:
“Aunt Cerci! I’m here! Ooph!”
A small changeling, scaled down almost perfectly from Chrysalis or Cerci, slowly picked herself up off the ground near the entrance to the crèche. Then again, maybe she wasn’t such a perfect clone.
She was a little gangly—or maybe, as with ponies, it was just a phase. She rubbed her nose and started gathering up the books she’d dropped where she’d slipped on a raised ridge of changeling wax on the floor. Also noteworthy was that she seemed capable of the same partial-transformation Cerci was: her mane and tail were both hairlike rather than membranous, though still two tones of green.
“Oh, hi there!” the young changeling said, giving a particularly pony-like bow and greeting, extending her hoof out. “You’re Allure, right? Oh, Princess Allure, sorry! I’m Pupa!”
Sweetie couldn’t help but grin at the younger changeling and take her hoof. "Very nice to meet you, Pupa. It seems you'll be helping me today since I've never taken care of nymphs." She assisted the younger changeling, levitating all the books into an orderly pile next to them.
“I’m pretty new to it myself!” Pupa admitted, using her own sepia-tinted magic to levitate a book of Equestrian nursery rhymes from the pile.
Sweetie had to resist pointing out the irony.
Everything here was Equestrian-made for Equestrian foals. There were even a couple oversized building blocks that wouldn’t have been out of place in any foal’s play room.
"Well, let's get started!" Sweetie exclaimed, missing Cerci smiling and shaking her head before walking out of the nursery. "What book are you going to read them first?"
Sweetie Belle had never foalsat before, though like many fillies, she had expected to someday. For the most part, she had always assumed it would be easy.
Sweetie didn’t want to say as much, but the way changelings cared for their young—even when they didn’t have to—was downright Equestrian. In some ways, the green changelings in particular acted more Equestrian than changeling. Not that she had any intention of bringing that up to Cerci.
"Okay," Pupa said with a smile. "We have three books excellent books to pick from today. "The Mare in the Moon, A Scholarly Analysis of the Heraldry of Equestria through the Ages, and finally, Pinkie Pie and the Cake Castle Kaboom."
Sweetie blinked. "Pupa. One of these things is not like the others..."
"What do you mean?" Pupa pouted. "Heraldry through the Ages is an amazing adventure through history!"
"I swear, you sound just like Twilight Sparkle."
Pupa recoiled. "What?! Why?!"
"Um, nothing!" Sweetie quickly amended herself, holding up her hooves in placation. Twilight Sparkle was probably some sort of changeling boogiemare. "How about we just read Pinkie Pie and the Cake Castle Kaboom?"
Pupa gave her a dubious look but nodded. "Okay, Pinkie it is... Oh, hey, did you know it's based on a real pony?"
Sweetie smiled. The mental image of Pinkie popped up, a decade older but no less zany and hyperactive. "I've heard of Pinkie Pie."
"Good!” Pupa held out the book invitingly. “Then you tell the story!"
Sweetie sighed, taking the book in her own magical grasp. "Okay, but you read the next one." She cleared her throat and sat down close to the cocooned nymphs and larvae, opening the book and floating it up next to her so that the little changelings could look at the pictures. "Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away but also in the Land of Equestria, there lived an energetic young mare called Pinkie Pie. She loved cake! In fact, she loved cake so much, she decided one day to make her own Cake Castle..." Sweetie's voice went high-pitched as she imitated Pinkie to the best of her ability. "But how can I make a cake soooo big and stupendously, uniquely and deliciously tasty as I need it to be? I can't bake this on my own!
"Pinkie pondered and pondered. Day and night, she would think of a way to make her castle a reality. Then one day, as she woke up, Pinkie thought of all the old pony tales her Granny Pie used to tell her, and she remembered one that might work!" Sweetie's voice went high-pitched again. "Gee! How could I forget about the lake?! I'll go up to the secret grove and make more copies of... me!" Sweetie's voice drifted off and she stared at the book for a moment before looking at Pupa. "Are we sure this is a fairy tale? Because this sounds exactly like what Pinkie would actually do."
Pupa gave her a quizzical look, complete with helpless shrug.
Sweetie stared blankly back. "Anyway. Pinkie Pie skipped out of town..."
After story time was done, the larvae were rotated and the nymphs checked for flaws, the latter job Pupa showed to be mostly a matter of making sure their wings grew unhindered. Pupa had explained that other Princesses had larger and less mature clutches, and that changeling grubs, before they became sedentary larvae, were quite troublesome.
Sweetie had also noticed that, while reading stories earlier, several changelings of all breeds—including some of the other Princesses—had paused on their daily goings to look into the crèche. A couple of their visitors even smiling as they watched the pair foalsitting before leaving them to their work.
"Cerci says she wants this one to be a new princess." Pupa sighed, magically bouncing a plushie in front of the molting nymph between her forelegs. "She’s even been given some ambrosia. You can already see she’ll be a little bigger than her sister.”
Sitting next to the other nymph, Sweetie could see what Pupa meant. So that was how Princesses were normally made? From birth?
“Do you have any royal jelly?" Pupa asked, innocently. “You’re a Princess, after all.”
Sweetie cringed. "I haven't been able to produce just about any."
Pupa rolled her eyes. "Well, you never will if you don't try! Come on, try it with this one," Pupa insisted, leaning in to nudge the larger nymph over. "Remember that the princesses have been checking on us; if they don't see you try, you'll have trouble later on."
Sweetie shuffled forward. 'There's no way I can do this! I'm not a real changeling!' She remembered the taste of the jelly and the effects it had had on her. But to produce it...
She looked down at the little nymph. It was unresponsive, but as far as she could tell, changelings didn’t have a ‘foal’-like stage of development. They were more like birds or bees when it came to caring for their young.
'Wouldn't it be crazy if you could?'
Sweetie stopped, eyes wide at the intrusive thought. She thought she recognized the sound of the voice but—
"Allure!" Pupa's harsh whisper made her jump.
"Oh! Sorry!" Sweetie shook her head and leaned down. She felt something soft—which she was very sure hadn't been there earlier—up behind her teeth compress and decompress, and suddenly she had a tiny droplet of ambrosia in her mouth. Eyes wide, she opened her mouth and let it drip off her tongue and into the mouth of the waiting nymph.
"You did it!" Pupa called. She pulled the nymph back and cradled it just like an older sister might do with a baby sibling. “I knew you had it in you!”
Sweetie nodded, still a little rattled.
What had she just done? Had she just done what she thought she had?
Sweetie sat there, looking at her new friend fussing over Cerci’s oldest nymph while her tongue played with her teeth and her brain refused to address the impossibility of what had just happened.
"Aunt Cerci says the more ambrosia a nymph gets, the stronger it will be when it finishes the molt," Pupa muttered. "I thought you said you didn't have any royal jelly?"
"I-I didn't!" Sweetie grimaced, feeling along the inside of her teeth. ‘Great, I have poison fangs or something now, too?’ "I'm not even sure how that happened!"
"Well, it did," Pupa sighed. "When Aunt Cerci gave you some, it probably kickstarted yours. Since you're a Princess too, it's only natural. Soon you’ll be ready to start your own clutch! Won’t that be great?"
Sweetie looked away, fighting the urge to run away in a panic. She gulped. "How about we sing them a song so they can sleep? We can talk about the jelly later."
Despite her earlier misgivings, and the fact that she had suddenly started producing poisonous honey, Sweetie was feeling surprisingly positive about the whole experience.
For her part, Pupa had been a refreshing changeling to deal with, reminding her more of Bon Bon in the previous world with how friendly she was, although the whole thing with the royal jelly was making Sweetie second-guess herself constantly now. The last thing she wanted or needed was more funny business going on with her body. All the changes were supposed to be done and over with. She hadn't messed around with anything to create this situation, and it was really worrying that she had heard a voice of all things just before it had happened.
'Anyway, now is probably not the best time to question myself,' Sweetie thought, her mind turning to darker tidings. 'I should try and see who else doesn't agree with Cerci's politics... and that means Svikja.' She frowned. 'I never really got the chance to meet the other swarms when I was here before. I wonder how many differences they have? The browns were certainly unique.'
Just as with the night before, she headed straight towards where she wanted to go, approaching the Blues' group slowly and making sure that they were aware of her movements. She did have a tendency to creep up on everypony, and if she seemed to suddenly materialize in their midst, there was a chance they would be hostile.
Things were a little different this time when she entered the section of the mines set aside for the Blue Hive, in contrast with her meeting with Olinca. Rather than a gaggle of fairly equine-looking blue-colored changelings, she saw Reds and Yellows and Greens. For a moment, she even wondered if she’d made a mistake and gotten turned around somehow in the maze of shafts and corridors. Then one of the red changelings rippled with blue fire... turning yellow.
This was the ability the Blues had, she recalled: the ability to mimic other changelings. Which might have meant that they fed off of other changelings instead of Equestrians! Looking around, she found she couldn’t begin to tell which, if any, of the changelings here were their genuine color and which were secretly blue.
Going out on a limb, she approached the nearest red-looking changeling. "Hello there. My name is Princess Allure. I'm here to speak with Princess Svikja, if she is presently available?"
The Red hissed, rising to her full height, much like a pony could rear up on hind legs but clearly with more comfort. She then gestured to her left, to the other red changeling she had been talking to.
“I can help with that,” the other Red said, not bothering to rear up or stand. Her body shifted amid azure flames, undoing the illusion and revealing a basic blue changeling. In that state they were very much like the Greens, Sweetie thought, though the blues stood a little taller and had no horn. Instead, a strange flap extended forward from their membrane-like manes. The changeling leaned a bit closer, narrowing her eyes, and her illusion returned, this time copying Sweetie herself.
“I can’t quite feel your magic,” the blue stated, and a second ripple passed over her as she tried to correct it. “Still not quite right! Hmm. You’re a tricky one.” It sounded like a compliment. "Follow me."
The pair marched deeper into the cave, and Sweetie discovered that Svikja was not far away. Unlike the other Blues, she wasn’t in disguise. Much like Cerci, though, she had her seat of power in another crèche. The walls were again layered with a waxy coating—this time having a blue tint to it—with small, neat alcoves along either wall. Sweetie looked around but didn’t see any cocooned larvae or molting nymphs. On first glance, she guessed that if there were any, then they were kept in those little wall alcoves.
“Vyshay, Allure,” Svikja greeted her, motioning her forward. She didn’t stand or rise from her little dais. “What can we do for one another?”
Sweetie considered greeting the princess in the traditional way she had been greeted by Cerci and Olinca, but given that Svikja had shown no intention to move, it might put her at a disadvantage if she did follow protocol.
"Well, Your Highness, I’ve been here for a little while, and I was hoping that we could talk about how this group of different swarms functions. I have heard you are an experienced leader, and being young myself, I am seeking the wisdom of other princesses so that I might find my own place here."
“A wise course of action,” Svikja agreed, and she made a little head bob. “Come. Sit.” Unlike Cerci, she had a spot next to her on her raised platform, large enough to accommodate a second changeling. “What would you like to know?”
Taking the offered seat, Sweetie pondered the question for a moment. She couldn't reveal exactly what she was looking for. If anything, Olinca's unwillingness to own up to her own stance was very telling in and of itself.
"I believe I should learn a little more about the power structure here," Sweetie began. "I understand that Cerci has become the defacto leader, but if you'll forgive my bluntness, there seem to be quite a few leaders here in their own right, so I do wonder how the others view this current hierarchy. We can all aim for the same result, but we don't necessarily want to achieve it by the same means."
Princess Svikja tapped her chin at the question, and posed one of her own. “I take it this is the first group of survivors you’ve run into since your hive was lost?”
Sweetie nodded, opting for a partial truth. "Other than a single other changeling far away, I haven't run into any... much less any of my own. But my experience with bands with several strong leaders, limited as it is, has never indicated a perfectly smooth operation."
“No,” the blue Princess agreed. “Our experience was much the same. Changelings within a hive get along in relative harmony, due to our physiology, but when hives interact, it can be... difficult to maintain order.” She ran her foreleg along her web-like mane. “Chrysalis subordinated the other Queens to her through force of personality and because her Green Hive had the benefits of modernity.”
She explained in detail, “She defeated the Reds, decisively, using Equestrian technology, tactics and magic. She talked the Browns into following her with a sweet tongue and sweeter gifts. She used her new alliance to force the Blues to comply with her wishes and she confronted the Yellows with something they had never seen before—an alliance of all their peers and old enemies. When talk failed, she used force, and Chrysalis did not lack for power.
“All that changed in Canterlot, of course. Those who survived splintered. Some tried to return to the homeland, but we had been revealed and all the world hunted us. In that time, Chrysalis had princess-daughters. She cultivated them into powerful lieutenants: Instar, Exuvia and Ecdysis were the great three, and no other hive had anything like them. Those early princesses led the first splinter groups after our defeat...”
Svikja paused to glance over at Sweetie and read her face.
Sweetie nodded. "It was my understanding that Chrysalis did a lot of things in a different way than other hives, from the way they help their nymphs grow to their tactics. I was aware of her love for her daughters, and it doesn't surprise me that she would groom them all for leadership and efficiency."
“Those princesses are gone now, of course,” Svikja continued, examining her hooves with a bored expression. “No princess has the power to truly command those outside of her own hive. A new system was needed to maintain our unity, so it was eventually decided—at least here, with us—to give every princess an equal voice and an equal vote. Thus our leader is decided fairly based on who is most popular at any given time.”
Sweetie smiled a little. "Popularity among us princesses, or all changelings?" It felt so weird to call herself a princess. "She seems very decisive and aggressive... I imagine that a lot of the anger and resentment at ponies contributes to those ideas."
“The vote is reserved for princesses only.”
'Well that explains that, at least...' Sweetie watched as Svikja faced forward but keeping her in the corner of her eye.
“Cerci believes we must strike back against Equestria," Svikja added. "That to hide is both cowardly and only prolonging our own extinction. She believes that, through force, we can force the ponies into giving us what we want.”
She gave Sweetie a calculating look. “But I’m curious. What do you think, Allure?”
"I..." Sweetie tried to organize her thoughts. "I agree that hiding indefinitely is just waiting for the inevitable, but I am not convinced that outright attacks on the ponies will not achieve the same result."
“What would you suggest we do, then?”
Sweetie sighed. "I'm not sure. If Lady Belle's initial attitude towards me is any indication, things here in Bitaly are not going to solve themselves as peacefully as I would hope, but the fact that both she and Di—her assistant were not only willing to listen to me, but give me a chance... I believe there is a window of opportunity we could use to find a peaceful solution." Sweetie looked away. "Or I hope. After the prison break... it's anyone's guess what will happen."
Svikja hummed and rubbed her lower lip with the edge of her foreleg. “An interesting answer. In your place, I would think most changelings would be chittering for blood.”
Sweetie shook her head, trying to put words to her thoughts. "To what end? Shouldn't we value more the lives we have left than the ones we have lost? Thousands of changelings died because the most pressing intent of Queen Chrysalis was conquest. Are we really just going to repeat her mistakes? Over and over? And if it's really just one of my hive left after all, exposing myself as an enemy would guarantee my hive's extinction.”
Sweetie saw the blue princess was watching her, but it was hard to gauge whether she agreed or not, not yet.
"In any case," Sweetie quickly continued, "we are few, and although our cause and reasons are just, we can't survive another war when we almost didn't at full force."
She gritted her teeth, putting herself in the other changeling's hooves. In the place where Twilight Sparkle had stood several worlds ago. Fighting for acceptance. For her people.
"I'm not saying we should surrender,” she explained. “That is not an option. But if we can survive and thrive without war destroying us all, isn't that a better choice?"
“There is no doubt that the time in which changeling could rule over pony, as Chrysalis promised, has passed...” Svikja seemed to have been speaking a little more measuredly. “But”—she resumed her normal tone—“the obstacle remains: finding a way to survive alongside those who hate us, who will not even let us flee? Not many here think as you do, Allure.”
Sweetie had thought as much.
"I believe we can. I befriended Lady Belle's assistant, and I even broke through Lady Belle's reservations." She looked evenly at Svikja. "Lady Belle, who has been trained by none other than one of the most notorious of anti-changelings nobles out there." She motioned to the ceiling as if encompassing the world beyond. "That was partly why I allowed myself to be captured without a fight. Ponies are not hateful by nature, but the more we give them reason to hate and fear us... the more I fear what will become of us."
The blue princess closed her eyes, as if contemplative.
“Let me share an observation,” she said, slowly. “Not about ponies, but about things here.” She opened her eyes. They were an icy, glacial blue, very otherworldly on a changeling. “I told you every princess here had an equal vote. That includes Cerci, myself, Olinca, Urda, Nkosazana and Sever, though she neglects her princessly duties. Until yesterday, we were six. Now, we are seven.”
“Because of me.”
“Do you think Cerci freed you purely out of sisterly love of her fellow changeling?” Svikja asked, shaking her head. “No. You, the last of your hive, are a symbol of the wrongs done to us, the injustice of our fall. Which way do you think most changelings expect you will vote?”
Sweetie blinked, understanding dawning on her. "You would all expect me to vote for my 'rescuer', of course, backing her every move to attack the ponies and avenge our kin!"
She shook her head. Politics!
“But she affected my own plans to reach a peaceful agreement with them." 'Even if it was for my own benefit and I hadn't thought about changelings at all until Diamond Tiara told me about Ponyville.' "Is the voting so divided on our next course of action that she needs another vote to fight?"
“No, she is not so desperate as that, though there is... dissent.” Svikja was clearly weighing her words on this subject very carefully. Sweetie had no doubt that was because word was slowly getting out that she herself was one of those dissenters now. “Cerci enjoys the support of the Yellow and the Red in all things. The Purples follow her as well, but oft with reservations. The Browns are more wary, as Olinca is a cautious princess, and we Blues... or rather, I personally, have my issues with Cerci as well. Yours could be a vital swing vote, if it came to a vote of no confidence.”
Sweetie nodded silently, weighing what she had just learned. "You know now which way I lean when it comes to conflict with ponies," she said, studying her host. "But I don't know what your intents are, Princess. Do you think we should fight until only one proves superior? Or would you settle for peace between our species?"
Svikja favored her with a wry smile. “We Blues are different from most changelings. We draw our sustenance not from ponies, but from other changelings. If they die, we die. If they thrive, we thrive. I’ll favor whichever option aligns with these interests.” She hesitated a moment, leaned in closer, and whispered, “But between you and me, I would favor a settlement of some kind.”
Sweetie nodded. "It's understandable. After all, your swarm thriving will come from others' victories. I do believe that, handled the right way, we can achieve peace... and if we do, changelings will not hunger for sustenance, and ponies will learn to live with us." She stood up, bowing to Svikja. "I think I'll try to sway things towards peace, Your Highness, as I am sure that it will benefit us all the most."
Svikja returned the bow with one of her own. “I hope it will.”
The last few days I have been learning about the different types of changelings and their motivations. It's strange to think that, not so long ago, they would have been ready to kill each other rather than cooperate, but necessity has made them allies and even put them above petty fights. They’re still united even after their mothers and Queens died. I guess that’s admirable, isn’t it? That they haven’t gone back to fighting one another?
They’re unified, but who are they unified under? I'm not entirely sure what Cerci's plans are. She seems ready to go to war with the ponies here in Bitaly. She wants to keep fighting, and it's not a good idea. I don’t think I’m just saying or thinking this because I’m not one of them, either.
I've grown attached to Pupa and the nymphs and grubs, and some of the other changelings—particularly the Browns—are sweeter and less aggressive than I would have ever imagined. I fear that if she carries on provoking Sand Dune and Lady Belle, Cerci's going to bite off more than she can chew and all the changelings here will pay for it. I’m sure she thinks she truly has the best interests of the changelings at heart, but her objectives and the best option for everyone here are not necessarily
“Princess?” came a sibilant hiss from outside her chambers. “You are needed.”
“What is it?” Sweetie asked, looking up and stopping mid sentence.
“A quorum has been called,” the changeling outside answered. “All princesses are to attend.”
Looking down at her entry, Sweetie sighed and shook her head, closing the notebook and dismissing it into its pocket dimension. "I'll be right there."
As she left, she spared a thought or two for her situation, and more than that, the changelings’ situation.
From what she had heard, the Queens during the invasion had all been directly subordinate to Chrysalis, styling herself ‘the Queen of Queens.’ Cerci here did not call herself ‘the Princess of Princesses’—instead, she seemed to both act and refer to herself as a first among ostensible equals. That the changelings had compromised their old hive structures as they had was proof of their adaptability and their tenacity, wasn’t it?
Sweetie was left to find her way, to the quorum chamber. Recognized as the Princess of the Pink Hive, other changelings deferred to her and gestured respectfully as she passed by. To them, she was a future mother of a future hive.
It was the role and the reason princesses had power in changeling society. Cerci herself was likely Sweetie’s junior in actual age, but she was considered mature by virtue of having enough royal jelly to produce fertile nymphs. It was such a strange and surreal situation and society, so alien in so many ways, but with so many trappings of Equestria. It was almost like the changelings themselves could not entirely separate physically mimicking ponies and mimicking their society and culture. Pupa was just one of the more extreme examples of it.
Sweetie passed under an arch made of changeling wax, long since hardened. It was rigid as stone, but softer to the touch. Sweetie had seen some of the green changeling workers regurgitating it and molding it into supports as they excavated and refurbished another part of the mine.
Beyond the arch was her destination. The walls of the room were covered in black, brackish wax that lined every surface like plaster. This was the traditional changeling way, she guessed, but it was marked by the new ways as well. There were patterns etched into the wax as it hardened: squares and hexagons, very simple, and yet the result was a complex and impressive weave that caught the light in an otherworldly way.
Hooks had been fashioned for the walls to support colored banners, much like noble families in Canterlot would display their coats of arms. The simple colors were left as place markers for the princesses of the various hives.
There was no head of the room, built as it was in a circle.
Cerci sat beneath the green banner, off to the right. She sat proudly with her head held high, her jagged horn marking her as the tallest of the princesses present, her black and viridian chitin immaculate and clean. Her bearing often reminded Sweetie of the noble ponies she had met in Canterlot, no doubt another affectation adapted by the Greens in their infiltration of Equestria.
Next to her was Olinca, representing the Brown Hive. Unlike Cerci, Olinca covered herself with rags and wrappings, the hunched form of her earth pony host silent, face likewise obscured. It seemed to be a cultural thing: even amongst their own kind, the browns seemed to prefer to keep their true bodies hidden and act entirely through their hosts. Sweetie had at first assumed they were ashamed of how frail they seemed to be, that they didn’t want others to think of them as parasites. After speaking with some of them, though, she suspected it was something different. They acted through their hosts out of pride and not shame—they took the size and strength of the host to be their own size and their own strength. Of the hives, Sweetie thought them possibly the strangest of all.
Nkosazana sat at Cerci’s left side, speaking for her Purple Hive... all three of them. Sweetie did not know the purple changelings well. They were called the Aida-Weddo by the other changelings, or more commonly, the Death Witches. Like the Browns, they covered themselves in hooded clothes, but their bodies were their own... or seemed to be. The purples covered their faces with wooden masks like those that Zecora had back in the Everfree Forest.
Hyacinth, the Red Princess, was the next in the clockwise circle, and Sweetie took the spot next to her. There were quite a few red changelings around, but they kept to themselves. Their forms were mantis-like, with lean limbs studded with barbs and blade-like grooves for cutting. They could turn invisible, Sweetie had learned, mimicking their environment instead of their prey. Hyacinth was a thin and haggard-looking Princess, and Sweetie knew she only had a clutch of two eggs in her hatchery. All her nymphs had died last year, a fact that upset many in her hive. Her sister and next in line was Urda, a much healthier-looking changeling. Other changelings whispered that someday soon Urda would overcome ‘the compulsion’ and kill her sister and become princess, eating the jelly in her sister’s body in the process.
Sweetie silently hoped she wouldn’t have to watch it if it happened.
To Sweetie’s right was Svikja, the Blue Princess. Her kind mimicked other changelings and fed off them as well, a fact that the other changelings seemed to accept with minimal complaint. Because of this, maybe, the blue changelings were all hale and hearty—and multiplying. Svikja’s children were all strong and healthy—Sweetie had seen them herself—and her hive was on the rise. Svikja herself had a proud bearing similar to Cerci’s.
Finally there was the Yellow Hive, represented by Sever. Until a few days ago, Sweetie would not have assumed the savage changeling to be a princess, given how she acted as Cerci’s muscle. The Yellows were a little different from the other changelings. They didn’t have much of a nursery for their young. They still set one up like the others but they didn’t attend to it. The young ‘lings were left to develop or not on their own. When they were in their larger nymph stages, supposedly the older Yellows would capture medium-sized animals, like dogs or cats, for them to mimic.
All this left the Pink Hive... Sweetie’s hive... unaccounted for.
What were they? How did they practice the changeling ways?
Of course, there were no real answers, because there was no real Pink Hive. It was a growing problem as more and more changelings became curious and Sweetie had to keep making up vague answers. Like Blueblood had told her once: ‘The more you lies you tell, the easier they are to see through.’
How long did she have before they saw through her?
“Sisters!” Cerci spoke when all were assembled. She always called her fellow princesses ‘sisters.’ Sweetie wasn’t sure if it was a calculated bit of wordplay or genuine affection and camaraderie. “My Sisters,” Cerci said, making a show of looking around at them. “I have called this quorum in advance of our next strike against the equestrians. Sever and I will both be leaving, and though we should not see battle... there is always the chance that I may die.
“As before,” she continued, fixing her peers with a brief stare, “I ask that you recognize Pupa as my legitimate and legal successor in this event.”
“And my sister, Impel, as mine,” Sever added.
Around the chamber, the other princesses and Sweetie gave their words. Supposedly, without a body to recover, a new princess like Pupa would be at a severe disadvantage and need extra help to pick up where their fallen predecessor left off. Hence, the agreement for all princesses to aid all the other new princesses rise up and join their sorority. It was a practical solution, really, and even an egalitarian one. Sweetie just wished it hadn’t been developed under such unfortunate circumstances. Not for the first time, the adaptability of the changelings here impressed her.
“What of this strike against the Equestrians?” Hyacinth asked when the formalities were done. “Are you finally ready to procure sustenance for us?” She coughed into her hoof, not to make a point, but out of very real weakness. “My Red Hive suffers, Sister. My children... You know the difficulties I have had...”
“We know it well,” Svikja assured her.
“That is part of our objective, yes,” Cerci said, and Hyacinth bowed her head in thanks. “We will return with flesh for you, but it must be discreet...”
"I'm sorry, Sister, but the meat does not necessarily have to be from those you drain of emotions, correct?" Sweetie spoke up, looking at the Red Princess. "If that's the case, wouldn't it make sense to... disguise ourselves as griffons and procure food for you without drawing attention to captured ponies?"
“Wise words,” Olinca said, her voice soft at first. Sweetie noticed the mouth of her earth pony host moving as well, as if they were both saying the same words. “We Browns have noticed the tension between Red and Green when the former request what few emotional hosts we have for their.... use.”
“Mimicking a griffin is not difficult for us,” Sever said, in apparent agreement, referring to herself and her Golden Hive. “We have papers as well, forged ones, that no butcher will bother inspecting. There is a griffin enclave further along the coast. We might procure some protein for you there.”
“My good Sisters have taken the words out of my mouth.” Cerci nodded. “We will see it done, Hyacinth. And if a problem should arise, Sever, be on the lookout for some street urchin or other pony that none will come looking for.”
Sever sniffed in distaste. “Of course.”
“My hive will be in your debt...” Hyacinth looked to Cerci and Sever in particular and bowed her head again in gratitude. Procuring red meat in Equestria was actually easier said than done, but at least the changelings were trying for an alternative before jumping right to foalnapping.
It was another particularly distasteful thing Sweetie had seen in her short time here. Changelings needed to feed on the emotions of others. The Blues didn’t have a problem; they just mimicked other changelings and went on their merry way. The Browns were also fine, as they fed off their hosts.
The other hives—the Greens, Reds and Yellows in particular—had to foalnap ponies to feed on. The Greens, with their growing knowledge of magic, had developed a way to do this while the pony was unconscious. The poor ponies were simply kept cocooned like batteries, but at least they were unhurt. Some were supposedly even released later, none the wiser, in order not to cause suspicion.
The yellows, though... They weren’t as sophisticated as the Greens, and they kept their own prey locked up, feeding as readily on their fear as the Greens would their love. The Reds were a peculiar problem in their need for flesh and animal protein. It was offset by the fact that they needed much less emotion than the others, but it meant no one would share a table with a Red, so to speak.
Not for the first time, Sweetie was quietly grateful Equestria hadn’t fallen to the Chrysalis in this dimension. By every Princess in every dimension, it would not have been the kind of world she cared to visit.
After a few minutes, talk turn to the other matter at hoof.
“The raid,” Sever began. “We must draw the eyes of Sand Dune elsewhere.”
“Sand Dune. Will no one rid us of this annoying unicorn?” Svikja growled, stamping a chitinous hoof. “We were able to scare off her brother last year, after he came so close to finding us...”
“Sand Dune has control over time itself,” Cerci reminded the Blue Princess. “She is not easily scared or dissuaded. Instead, we must maneuver her out of our way until we are ready to strike. Do not worry, Sister.” Cerci smiled, revealing a pearly row of razor sharp teeth. “Our grandmothers' revenge is slow but sure. Their blood shall be answered with blood, their murders repaid in kind. Until every Equestrian Princess lies broken, as our Queens were broken.
“Baby steps until we get there,” Cerci quickly added, calming herself somewhat, repeating it again like a mantra. “Baby steps. The time when we could darken the skies with our numbers is not likely to return, so we must be more subtle.”
“Nothing subtle about this raid, though?” Sever asked, clearly not a fan of subtlety. She smiled at her fellow princesses. “Sisters, to draw Sand Dune’s eye, we must poke out another’s. It shall be great, bloody fun!”
Sweetie cringed inwardly. She didn't want any more carnage for either race, much less to risk the lives of innocent nymphs or sweet changelings like Pupa.
“The subtlety is in how we poke that eye out,” Cerci explained, the dangerous ice to Sever’s obvious fire. “Some days from now, the ponies of Neighples will be in a rather convenient uproar. While traveling through the streets, the Lord and Lady Sand Castle will be assaulted by peasants. They will barely escape with their lives. Given the disposition of Lady Sand Castle in particular, we can expect a hasty and poorly thought out crackdown that will only further agitate the peasantry.”
“A riot?” Svikja asked. “And leaving these two noble ponies alive, you think they will call to Sand Dune for help?”
'If they start a riot, how many ponies will suffer? How many will die?' Sweetie wondered, worriedly looking at the others and trying to judge how many of them agreed with this plan.
“The opposite,” Cerci answered her with a huff. “They will try and handle it themselves. Only when the situation has deteriorated and word has reached Sand Dune’s ears will she be compelled to travel there and fix the situation herself. When she does, we will strike—our real strike—where she is not.”
"And what would be the real objective?" Sweetie asked. "If they find out that it was us creating these distractions, Sand Dune will more likely try and cut down the root of the problem... and there's no way we could fight them off if they do find us." She looked around the chamber at the other princesses. "I know that we are suffering for a lack of sustenance, that we need to rebuild... and that we can't trust them right now to not attack on sight, but from what I experienced, ponies were already paranoid enough about changelings that they will not question whether the peasants are changelings or not. Their first instinct will be 'yes' and their second will be 'kill them or we will be killed.'"
“There is no reward without risk,” Cerci argued, narrowing her eyes slightly at the supposed Pink Princess. “Let the ponies fear us, as well they should. We have caused chaos in their hearts and their streets already. In this war, the one who fears most is the one who has lost.”
Sweetie shook her head, pleading with her eyes for Cerci to reconsider. "Fear can drive ponies to desperate measures!" She stood up, gesturing with her hooves as she leaned forward, trying to find a way to convey her experience in other worlds without betraying anything.
Her thoughts turned to a certain pink filly in a space suit.
"Ponies, when afraid and desperate, have less to lose than when they feel secure,” she tried to tell them. “My hive was subterranean, but when we thought that ponies were soft and easy to scare, we learned how vicious they can be when fueled by thoughts of revenge. And we are a lot less than we were before. We can't afford to lose any changeling, or worse, have them captured knowing this location."
Hyacinth spoke up, looking worried. “There are tales told of the Dark Princess... the one called Luna, how she tore the Great Tlanextli apart, ripping her in half from the inside out. Equestrians are terrible creatures... especially the damned alicorns.”
Cerci glared at the weak Red Princess, baring her teeth in what was definitely not a smile. “Watch your words and your tone, Sister. I will brook dissent and I will embrace caution, but fear has no place in this quorum!”
“The true danger is not in their magic, but in their insidious ideology,” Sever said with a growl. “It infests all in contact with it, like a disease.”
"Have you ever seen," Sweetie spoke up slowly, not looking at Sever, but rather focusing on the waxy pedestal in the center of the chamber between them as her memory was jogged, “a five alliteration spell, like the ones their Princesses can conjure?" She took a deep breath as the others fell silent. "The ground boiled when it was cast. And I was informed that anyone—changeling, pony, minotaur or griffon—who stepped in the area where it had occurred would still burn slowly in invisible fire." She looked up at Sever and Cerci. "I don't think we have to fear them, as much as realize that they are not the pushovers our predecessors assumed they were, to a conclusion we are all painfully aware of."
“Instar took detailed notes on the magic of those fiends,” Cerci answered with a naughty smirk. “Exactly why we will not oppose them directly. It was a mistake for Chrysalis to join with Alpha Brass, curse his name, and it was a mistake for her to try and use creatures like Celestia and Twilight Sparkle for her own ends. Both should simply have been executed, throats cut while they slept. Demons like that have no place in this world.”
She shook her head, and she held up a hoof for silence.
“Sisters, we are already committed to this fight, this righteous fight for survival. Should we hold another vote as to our plans? To fight or to flee? All here save our newest have agreed to fight.”
"When both options are terrible, pick a third!" Sweetie spoke up. "Peace. We don't feed only on one emotion. We can make it work and feed off of—”
“Enough!” Cerci roared, her wings beginning to vibrate against her back. “I will hear no talk of peace in this quorum! Or capitulation! I will not suffer surrender! Defeatist talk will only engender more fear and more defeatism! You would hollow out our resolve!”
"You will not consider peace even at the cost of those nymphs you educate yourself?" Sweetie retorted. "Or the fact that to even have a chance at a fair fight we would need more mating than we can accomplish in a few lifetimes?"
“Which is why we will not fight their battles their way!” Cerci was in a rage, but it was a slow, simmering rage.
"Cerci," Sweetie sighed. "You will try not to fight like that, but sooner or later, they will find us. And then what will you do?"
“By then it will be too late,” Chrysalis’ descendant promised. “We are too close to stop, too close to relent, too close to second-guess. Our bridge was burned before you came to us, Sister, before I even thought to rescue you from that prison.”
"I was brokering peace!" Sweetie said. "I even got Lady Sweetie Belle of all ponies to consider it!"
“There can be no peace between changelings and ponies.” Cerci said it coldly, like a curse. Like peace was the same as death. Her tone was almost lecturing, the calm just a thin illusion to disguise the fury beneath the surface. “No more than there can be peace between lions and sheep. No more than the hawk flies alongside the dove. It is against the natural order. Even if it wasn’t, the blood of seven Queens cries out for revenge! Would that we had seven alicorns to satiate them!”
Sweetie gaped, looking around the room for support.
Svikja seemed at least partly sympathetic and met Sweetie’s eyes, but she was the only one. Olinca had her host cover her with a heavy hoof as if to shield her from the argument. Sever was grinning maliciously, amused by the exchange and the result it was coming to. Nkosazana of the purple hive was as silent as she had been since the start of the quorum. Hyacinth was coughing softly into her hoof and pointedly staring down at the floor.
“I am duly elected and recognized as leader of this quorum, this council of Sisters and peers,” Cerci said, and Sweetie knew that the Green Princess was not going to be directly challenged, not by anyone else here. “I have sacrificed and bled and fought for our kind all my life! I will continue to do so. Please, Sisters, speak not of defeat... or surrender... or peace. All mean the same thing in the end: the death of who and what we are. Changelings!”
“Changelings!” Sever snarled.
“Changelings,” Hyacinth agreed.
“Changelings,” Nkosazana finally spoke.
“Changelings,” Olinca grumbled. “That is what we are.”
Their eyes all turned to Sweetie. She had to say it. So she sighed, and said what they needed to hear. "Changelings."
'Changelings afraid of change.'
And it was increasingly looking like she’d sink or swim as one of them.