• 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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Digging the Hole Deeper

As it turns out, Wasta did not return that day, nor the next three, and Zaimare ensured that I spent my time getting my hooves back underneath myself and introducing myself to the rest of the caravan, as she claimed idle hooves only served to get ponies into trouble. Or perhaps I should say that she attempted to do so, as my lack of a name was beginning to grate on me as my attempts to choose one were failing miserably. This was a staple of daily pony life, to be referred to by name and respond to others by name. The idea that I would have to recall all these strange phrases was growing daunting. Silver Tongue, the caravan’s other lead trader; Travelling Bilberry, a perhaps overly friendly musician only joining because he had important reasons to leave the area that Zaimare quietly informed me involved two mares and one stallion who met very suddenly and equally unpleasantly; and Oaken Stave, camp quartermaster, cook, and ‘brew-master ordinaire’ were among those I found most interesting, though Oaken was given strict instruction not to allow me to drown my troubles. As I doubted I could find a pool or river deep enough to harm myself even accidentally, I decided this to be a pointless restriction, but I would have to confess that I had no idea whether I possessed the ability to swim or not.

There were precisely fourteen other members of the caravan, six of which I could not tolerate the presence of due to their immediate feelings of pity for me, three who were put off by my inability to recall my name and found conversation very awkward, and one who found my lack of a cutie mark ‘utterly disgusting’ for a stallion my age, and would not be put off of it no matter what was said to him by Zaimare. As I understood it, he was tasked with protecting the caravan and his bitterness was a defensive mechanism to prevent larger predators from devouring the rest of us. Out of respect for his efforts, I made little attempt to converse with or otherwise bother him, and he seemed to appreciate that.

On the fourth day, I found myself standing face to face with the red-maned pony from before, who grabbed my hoof with alarming speed and proceeded to try to rip it from my torso. He began chattering at me about a great many things I didn't know about with no introduction to speak of, and finally I had to interrupt him to ensure that I was correct that this pony was who I thought.

“Wasta Matter?”

“Not a thing, Wasta Matter with you?” The pony then began to laugh uproariously, and the shocking amount of sheer mirth pouring from him overcame me, and I began to feel an urge to reciprocate as the pony’s cheer overflowed my ability to store it. For the life of me, I could not understand how any pony could feel such joy at simply being questioned on their name.

I stared with the beginning of a grin that did not fit my confusion. “But you are with me. Right now.”

Wasta practically howled with laughter. “But you are with me, he says. Ohhh, Sandy, you are too much.”

I recoiled, but his laughter was completely overwhelming me and I’d begun with a wheezy sort of laughter that made it seem as if I could not breathe instead of merely trying to hold it in. “Sandy?” My name was not going to be this horrible useless dirt that refused to hold a decent shape.

Wasta nodded, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to name someone after such a terrible thing. “That’s where I found you, and I brought you home. That means I get to name you. Unless you’ve found a better one yet?” Realizing he must have spoken to Zaimare already, part of me seethed. Of course I had not. Still… he had claimed that he had a right to name me. It was as good a name as any for this shape, which was already beginning to irritate me with its lack of a horn. “Well, it’ll work for now then. Besides, Auntie Zaimare says you’ve tried six already and none of them fit.”

“Eight.” I offered, allowing myself to feel a bit foalish even as I contained the absurd quantity of mirth I’d been given. I’d been helpfully informed that my last attempt was more of a common first name for mare earth ponies in Saddle Arabia than one ever ascribed to pegasi, and I had been beginning to give up hope of finding an appropriate phrase. Sandy, though personally abhorrent, would have to do.

All things considered, I found Wasta to be a pleasant companion. The gangly stallion craved three things, I was to learn; Good stories, great deals, and very, very bad jokes that would inspire groans even if those in hearing range found it amusing. It was fascinating. I found that my direct, if bewildered, takes on his ‘puns’ and ‘wisecracks’ were considering to be a form of friendly teasing that actually made several members of the caravan find me more approachable. Beyond that, the jokes were interesting puzzles. The logic behind domestic fowl crossing paths seemed very reasonable to me, but then, I’d never before known our gatherers to ascribe wisdom to farm creatures. Perhaps they were so stupid that giving them logic was the joke. Convinced I had mastered comedy, I explained in detail the reason bears would be required to do their business in the woods, a joke I believed relevant to one of Wasta’s many odd comments.

It was apparently not funny. Wasta found that highly amusing for days.

Wasta’s trip to a nearby settlement had, of course, been entirely fruitless with regards to my identity, though he’d clearly spent much of his stay doing some additional trading, to Zaimare’s displeasure. Allegedly he had found several passable offers, and one very good deal on coffee, a bitter, crunchy bean that I found very satisfying. I spent the rest of that morning assisting with every camp project that an extra set of hooves would improve, marveling at my newfound energy.

By lunchtime, I quietly decided that I was dying. Wasta’s jovial insistence that I should have drank the beans was ludicrous and I stoutly informed him of such. As delicious as those beans were, the idea of mixing them in water, boiling or not, was too outlandish for me to accept and I continued to lift my nose at the idea for the entirety of our trip, preferring to chew one or two as the mood struck me, thankful for Wasta’s generosity. Sugar cubes I found reminded me of the slimy nourishment provided to me as a hatchling, and the sensation of homesickness was enough to make me forgo more of them, though the rest of the camp seemed to think they were a pleasant enough snack for day to day use.

I began to learn of other things that these ponies did to make the trip more pleasant as I helped pull their carts, finding this a much better substitute for sitting in a cart like some of the foals, as not only did it give me the chance to learn more about pony society, I learned several useful tricks. Oaken Stave, for example, had a cart that was oddly heavy and difficult to pull, which eventually lead him to show me a set of grindstones he’d a connected to the bottom of his cart. This allowed him to mill his own fresh flour just by turning the wheels of his cart, which explained some of the gritty fresh bread the quartermaster tended to produce. It was ‘a work in progress’ and he was quite confident that he would someday make it a useful device for carts everywhere, which would be just as soon as he found a way to make it in any way more convenient than buying flour or using a regular millstone. Still, the large earth pony was enthusiastic about his work, and though none of his products were exceptionally good, Wasta claimed it was by and far better than average travel rations, it was all freshly made and relatively cheap. The others found themselves agreeing, if with good-natured reluctance, especially after the ‘freshly milled’ flour Wasta had brought back from his own trip turned out to consist almost entirely of weevils. I found the insistence that this flour must be thoroughly sifted somewhat pointless, and ate the collected pests in secret.

Silver Tongue had been Zaimare’s business partner for years, the two of them making tidy profit. Silver knew when to lay it on thick, and Zaimare knew when to strike the iron when it was hot. Though I was not sure what was being layered on, nor what iron Zaimare was striking, this all seemed to mean that the two of them worked well together and had now mostly traveled out of familiarity than need, which wasn't the case for everyone in the caravan.

Rough Shod, for example, wanted enough bits to move far out into the badlands, live comfortably by himself, and never see another pony again for the rest of his life. For all that, when I helped him pull his small cart he begrudgingly offered to share a brown bottle with me that very nearly made me wretch, and I was disinclined to accept further offers. The irritable pony seemed pleased with my silence and work ethic, eventually accepting that my lack of a cutie mark was only a ‘bucking shame’, and that I was ‘less worthless than his own bucking sons’ even if I was a ‘bucking pegasus’. Having never kicked him once, I began to wonder if I misunderstood the term. The old teamster was quick to pick up on my discomfort when some of the other caravan members would try to help my ‘lost’ memory, and took to telling the ‘bucking vultures to leave me the buck alone and let the bucking colt think in peace’. I believe this was meant to be supportive. All the same, siphoning off some of his ready supply of anger seemed to bring the old stallion a measure of his own peace, and I’d like to think he was happier for it.

Things would have continued in this way until well into Equestria, if not for my growing realization that I could not possibly travel to Canterlot like this. My disguise would hold up to scrutiny, thankfully, but I personally would not.

There are two main ways for a changeling to disguise themselves. The first, and most common way, is to form a sort of ‘shell’ around themselves and use only enough shapeshifting to ‘fit’ within. This shape can be damaged or shattered without gravely hurting the changeling within, but it was also more fragile and required to be either renewed or repaired routinely. The other method was to shapeshift oneself fully into the other form. This was costly and time consuming, but provided more advantages such as a sturdiness and a direct connection to the outside world. Touching a shell is more akin to touching clothing; you may feel it indirectly but damage to it does not always alert you immediately. It also may not feel exactly like a pony’s hide. A full shapeshift, on the other hand, borders on undetectable, going so far as to bring a changeling’s body temperature up to match that of a pony, though this costs a small amount of energy to upkeep as well as a mental effort, as opposed to the shell which only requires the cost of repair or replacement as needed. Unfortunately, injuries to a shapeshifted changeling are real injuries that bypass our natural exoskeleton, forcing us to take steps to repair them, either with magic directly, which is costly, or by sealing the wound over with the green mucus in the same way we would seal a damaged cavern wall. Though this obviously defeats the purpose of a disguise, it’s preferable to bleeding out.

Over the course of a scant few weeks, I had fully charged my own capacity for the basic positive emotions, save love. Nonetheless, I could survive on that for a few weeks, though they would not last nearly so long as love, which I had almost completely expelled. More immediately concerning, I had never held a shapeshifted form this long, and it was beginning to exhaust me. I needed to return to normal, and obviously I could not do that in camp. That night, I snuck out of camp, wandering far out of eyeshot, and let down my defenses, dropping the form and letting out a soft sigh as knots seemed to come untangled. I examined my chitin for any damage, checking my joints and stretching. My body and especially my horn ached from the prolonged usage, and I was pleased to have the chance to be myself. I would put on a shell, sleep out here, under the stars, and go back in the morning after taking on a full form of ‘Sandy’. So, I drew forth the energy, pictured the form in my mind, and went to form the shell.

And nothing happened. Of course.


Author's Note:

Hey folks, hope everyone's doing well. Hope you're all still enjoying this.

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