• Published 9th Mar 2014
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The Changeling of the Guard - vdrake77

Not all changelings are fit for life in a hive. But that doesn't mean they're capable of life outside it, either. Join one such changeling as he tries to find his place in Equestria, and what the difference is between survival and living.

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Mourning Woods

“In other words, recruits, there’s only two ways timber wolves die; they burn, or something larger eats them. Thankfully, under most circumstances, they’re not aggressive.”

There was a plethora of information that was deemed important to being a guard, I was finding. The physical aspects of the training were intense, true, but the education was, according to Shining Armor, something of a ‘crash course’, though I could see no concern amongst the pegasi. While we rested tired and sore muscles, polished our armor, or otherwise were not employed in a task that required our utmost attention, we received a great deal of information of varying usefulness.

Hydras could not be killed by decapitation directly, but they could be suffocated by tricking them into eating rocks too large for them to swallow. Ursa Minors and Majors could be lured with music, preferably classical but they had shown a surprising interest in tamborines, though it seemed to make them more excitable than sleepy and unless one wanted to flatten a hillside, a dancing ursa was rarely desired. The rare windigo was to be dealt with by newlyweds, the newer the better in most cases. Manticores were usually dealt with via sleep spells, and a brave half-dozen guards would milk the stingers for antivenom.

Buffalo were both peacefully nomadic and fiercely territorial; they ranged in and out of a large portion of southern Equestria and had no issues with any who traveled with or past them… but often grew restless if any of their ranging territory had new permanent structures built on it. Many of the long and winding paths went for decades at a time without being roamed before suddenly becoming absolutely necessary to their trail, and woe betide those who had foolishly built homesteads, but generally they held no ill will towards the builders of such... temporary obstructions.

Griffins, unfortunately, were a different matter. There’d been peace, officially, for centuries. That didn’t make the borders any less dangerous. There were always problems on both sides; ponies who thought it would cause no trouble if they started farming the fertile land on the edge of the Griffin borders, and Griffins who took offense to hooved mammals in their sky. Bloodshed, while not common, was too often an occurrence to call it ‘rare’. As a rule, those on the border didn’t care a whit for Equestrian law; and ponies in their territory were expected to walk softly, and fly at their own peril. One of the pegasi in our class pointed out that there was some sort of ‘exchange program’ going on in Cloudsdale, but most weren’t exactly hopeful with the results. A handful of griffin chicks had been sent and every pegasi had been rebuffed as ‘not worth their time’. Not that any sane parent would send their children to Griffinland anyways.

Our trainer snorted derisively. “Celestia has a lot of sway with most, but you’d be surprised how much weight she can throw around there. If Celestia says she’s watching out for those foals, any sane griffin would give their life for their safety. They’ll croak and caw and roar at any fool who thinks they’re getting one over them, but when Princess Celestia comes to call they’re a bunch of songbirds. That aside, you use magic on a griffin, you better be ready for a tussle. They take offense, and they take it hard. Lot of them don’t think it’s natural, unclean or some such.”

After a moment, Shining raised a hoof. “Sir, then why do we make so much effort with them? It sounds like they… well, hate two-thirds of our population.”

“Not all of them, recruit. There’s the rub. As a rule, they don’t like having magic used on them. Doesn’t feel right and might even hurt them a bit. But there are plenty that like ponies just fine, like seeing magic shows and watching the Wonderbolts. And a lot of those live on the border, travel in when they feel the need. What you need to watch out for are the ones who are viciously against. Griffins don’t have a governing body like we do. Griffins might say they have no trouble with ponies, and as a whole they don’t. But the rare few that do? They have beaks like shears, talons that can puncture armor, and every last one of them can fly. One griffin out to make trouble can ruin a family’s day, and troublemakers flock together. No real government means only the rest of the griffins being decent keeps the troublemakers from being a blight to those that can’t protect themselves… and even the ones that like us don’t see much cause to interfere on our behalf. Fly or fall, they call it.”

“Had a king years back but even then he was more figurehead to the rest than a ruler. About every big mountain out there has its own hierarchy, the higher you live the more important you are. Leader lives at the peak, and bigger mountains mean more bragging rights. Any laws laid down varies from mountain to mountain, and if you see one that says ‘No ponies allowed’ you better understand that they aren’t wanting to be friends and the crown itself will have to intervene to get you out. So please. Those of you who go to the Griffinnish border? Don’t be that pony. Celestia might not give you the hoof upside the head you deserve, but the rest of us will, and gladly.”

And so it went. Much of the information seemed unlikely to be useful (About one in a thousand ponies was allergic to Breezy dust and could go into convulsions when presented with the tiny fairy-ponies), and others were absolutely worthless, as far as I could tell (apparently ponies only eat three spiders a year, which is an absolute shame) , but then we’d receive information that was stunningly useful in my opinion, only to be treated as unlikely to come to any use at all! Chewing charcoal to absorb poisons fascinated me, but most ponies expressed disgust at the very idea.

I had finally determined the proper way to shine my bronze hoof-shell for the perfect amount of reflectiveness when I realized we were discussing the Everfree Forest. “-which is why it has the highest concentration of monsters in the Equestrian borders.”

“So why don’t we just… you know. Burn it down?” Bold commented, sounding bored. He usually did, I found, the large earth stallion was quite good at most guard duties, showing his best during combat training, but seemed to feel he had something to prove in matters of education. “If all these problems come from it, why not?”

“Damn good question, Bigflank. Tried something like that once, round a thousand years ago.” The sergeant drew a map down from the wall. I eyed it with interest, trying to trace my travels through the desert, badlands and to Canterlot, but Stalliongrad did not seem to appear on this map. Disappointing. I frowned, seeing a large forest that should have been on the way but I could recall no such thing. “This. Is where Everfree used to be. Once that one started to die because ponies tried to cut trails into it, the new one popped up. So they burned that one too. The next one…” He pulled a second map down. “Grew right around the Castle of the Royal Sisters.” Here he scowled. “And it grew fast. New trees came out of nowhere, daily, according to records. The Princess herself eventually moved the capitol to Canterlot because it became untenable. Forest didn’t like it, apparently.”

“Alright, so… what does it matter? No Royal Guard with any sense at all would set a single hoof within ten miles of that forest, and- s… sir? Why are you smiling?”

The following day, on the edge of Everfree Forest, Bold retained a very sour mood and it looked as though it would continue for at least the rest of the day. I, myself, was hardly filled with great cheer at the prospect of entering this wretched place for any reason. This appeared to be shared by the twenty-odd ponies and even their sergeants.

“Alright recruits, groups of five, each group stick to an officer. You will rendezvous out here, no later than dusk. This is a border patrolling. Unless you are ordered, and specifically ordered, you do not enter this forest. Start pitching tents.”

“Oh praise Celestia.” Bold murmured, sounding vastly relieved.

“Armor, Bigflank, pick a recruit each and prepare to enter the forest. We roll out in five.”

Bold only barely managed to hide his curse with a cough, but the glare he cut at the rising sun was bordering on treasonous. He then looked about, finally settling on a navy blue pegasus mare with a brown mane. I recognized her as one of his preferred sparring partners; she too had a tendency to fling me about in an undignified manner. She seemed pleased by the attention, and strutted up proudly.

To my great distress, Shining aimed a questioning look towards myself. Still, he was ordered to pick a pony, and apparently chose myself. I could not for the life of me guess what logic the sergeant had in delegating the task of choosing, but decided that it was simply not my place. I marched up, though I maintained a more suitably neutral expression than the mare had. The opportunity for obedience was its own reward.

“Sir!” Shining Armor stated with a salute, just before we entered the forest. “I hate to bring this up sir, I really do, but… my marefriend is pretty vehement that I shouldn’t ever set hoof in the forest. Absolutely not, she said. Personally I’d love to, but you understand-”

“Recruit, do I look like I give a buck what your marefriend wants? I’m giving you the order to do just that, so do it.”

“Sir, gladly, sir!” And with that, Shining Armor trotted several yards into the forest before turning around, grinning widely. “So, where to?”

The sergeant looked dumbfounded. Then, with a sigh and a shake of his head, he muttered. “I feel like I’m going to regret that.”

“Most likely, sir.” I agreed, finding the forest… even more forbidding than expected. I could sense… maliciousness to it. As though the forest itself did not want my presence. Or, for that matter, any of our group.

Our sergeant spared me a quick scowl, but stepped after Shining and swiftly took the lead down a path of sorts, overgrown and covered in vines. “This is just a quick run to get your hooves under you. One of the tasks of the Royal Guard is to rescue the bumpkins who get lost in here from time to time. With luck, we bring them back. With more, alive.”

“And we’re going in?” Bold squeaked, which seemed odd coming from him.

“Tartarus, recruit, this isn’t even through the border. There’s a guard outpost here, kept stocked with supplies. It doesn’t get dangerous for the first few miles, and for that you’ll be fine during the day. Don’t eat that, Hooves, it’s poisonous. Keep up, and don’t touch anything blue.”

“...Why not anything blue? What’s wrong with blue?” The mare questioned. Her name eluded me. I attributed that to the consistent head trauma when I sparred with her. It did not make me more confident. Thundercloud, I thought.

“Don’t ask questions, just obey. If it’s blue, it might be worse than poison. Stay away from blue. Now spread out a bit, keep an eye out. Anything starts coming for you, scream and get out of its way.”

I followed them, avoiding anything that even appeared blue, which seemed to be a disturbing amount of things. Something splashed in a stream nearby, and when I investigated briefly, wondering if it was perhaps a fish, I saw something bubbling just beneath the surface… and then something dark streaked through the water and the bubbles stopped. I swiftly returned to my group, feeling distinctly queasy. Still, the shadows were growing disturbingly long before our brisk pace slowed.

“What in the deepest pits of Tartarus…?” The sergeant groaned, then picked up his pace. We were perhaps five feet away when I recognized the shack for what it was. The walls were covered in vines, moss grew everywhere, and, in general, I could not tell if it had been intentionally camouflaged or if it was simply terrible maintained. “WOODS! MEADOWS!”

The door cracked only a bit, enough for a pony to peer at us with one frightened eye. Then the door flew open and a green hoof gestured us in, armor stained. “Get in, get in!”

“The buck have you been doing out here, Woods?! This outpost is falling apart!” The sergeant practically roared. He stormed inside, glaring. “Wha… you don’t have any supplies? Where’s your rations? Where’s Meadows?!”

“Sir, forest is in a very bad mood, sir. I recommend we abandon the post. Now. Immediately, if not sooner.”


“Shhhhh! They’ll hear you!”

“Soldier, where is your partner?” The sergeant growled, gritting his teeth. Again, for a non-carnivore species, pony growling was always remarkably intense.

“Haven’t seen him in days. A week. Maybe two.” The green pony whimpered. I stared at the shaggy, unkempt pony in dismay. Even his armor had stains on it. “Can’t leave, things out there, hear them at night, big things, manticores and hydras and everything. Have to lock the door so they don’t get in. Can’t stay out long, can’t get provisions, and Meadows had our dragonfire. Can’t get provisions, had to graze.”

“You’ve been grazing in Everfree?!” This time, the sergeant sounded almost as horrified as he was furious.

“It’s actually really good grass, sir.”

The sergeant’s expression bordered on murderous. “Clearly.” He took a deep breath, calming himself. “We’re getting you out of here, and we’ll send a search party for Meadows. Recruits, settle down. We’re in for the night.”

The green earth pony stared at us, then at him. “You brought rookies into the forest? What’s wrong with you?”

“This was supposed to be in and out. Recruits, Dank Woods, one of the wardens of Everfree.”

Shining looked distressed. “You’re one of the wardens? You… aren’t what I expected.” He lit the darkening room with his horn. Moss had spread even under the doorframe, amazingly. As I watched, a tendril grew across the glass, thickening until what had been a strand was now a thick rope of vine that seemed to be quickly hardening.

“Try spending six months in this horror story forest.”

“Tours are three months, soldier. Everypony knows you don’t keep anyone here longer than that, the forest gets something of a taste for them.”

Woods giggled. “Who are we supposed to complain to, exactly?”

I stared into the growing darkness. “Sir, is this the best time for discussing logistics?”

The stallion grunted, eyeing the four of us. “No. But right now leaving isn’t an option. Shouldn’t have taken us this long to get out here… Forest might be moving again. If that’s the case, we need to let Canterlot know and verify it isn’t spreading towards Ponyville. If it is… relocation.”

Bold stared at all of us. “Wait. Wait. We’re staying here? In this shack? Not… not behind fortifications or something?”

“Best defense here is not being noticed. But the point of the outpost is that you have to be able to find it. Fortifications would mean cutting down trees. Cutting down trees is… dangerous, here. Things start paying attention. For now, we’re bedding down. You do have spare bed rolls, Woods?”

“Of course, sir.”

And so, we bedded down for the night, my first in the Everfree forest. I will not say we slept, as every unnatural sound, from the creaking of the shack to the screams of the myriad of horrors that forest had to offer kept us unnecessarily alert. I couldn’t help but resent my fellows a bit, in this. After all, if they could stop feeling so much fear, surely I too wouldn’t have had so much distress. I chalked it up to the whims of ponies, but when Shining finally put up his shield, silencing the outside world while bathing us in its soft glow, I couldn’t help feel a bit guilty. We, at least, had the dubious privilege of this shack and Shining’s shield. Poor Meadows, wherever he was, had to do without.

The next morning, I learned that finding a manticore on your doorstep was not the worst thing that could happen to a pony.

Finding half of one is actually more disturbing by far.

Author's Note:

Sorry for the huge delay folks, I wasn't sure I liked how this chapter was going. But... I think I'm comfortable with it now.

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