• 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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Being Economical With The Truth

Being Sandy will always be a bittersweet memory. I was a foal, and knew very little of how my kind had to hide ourselves. The next weeks took us through a few small towns as we approached the border of the badlands and continued alongside them. I’d questioned the logic of staying in the allegedly inhospitable desert as opposed to more sturdy terrain, and was jovially informed by Wasta that ‘at least a desert sounds delicious, badlands just sound awful’. I began assuming that his sunny disposition was a result of too much sun, hence the term, and he chortled and took to telling everyone just that. It pleased me that my comment had renewed his humor, which had begun to grow somewhat stale as our trip continued.

As I understood it, the young stallion was not used to travel, and to hear him tell it, much of his youth had been spent carousing, flirting with older mares, and living off his many uncles. Zaimare was the cousin of an aunt’s sister in law, an extension of relation that I found bizarre. Changelings do not have ‘families’, but one generally recognizes their sire and dam, as well as any larvae they produce. Siblings are… well, we are all siblings. We are hive, after all. The idea of placing special attention to one member of the hive is very strange, and the mere suggestion that ponies in Saddle Arabia practiced some form of preventing young workers from… working was abhorrent. As Wasta explained that it wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to work, more that he was not expected to work hard because of those his family knew. I began to despair of understanding at all when he finally admitted, with some odd embarrassment, that he’d become tired of it and wanted to be known for something he did and was practicing under Zaimare with the intention of surpassing her one day. This disturbed me, as when the Queen placed a drone in a position of some authority, that drone simply… was.

“Spurs and Saddles, Sandy. How do you think Zaimare became caravan leader?”

I hesitated. “Somepony… made her caravan leader?” I offered lamely. The princess, surely, or perhaps one of her chosen lessers, the ‘nobility’ I’d heard spoken of?

Wasta snorted, grinning broadly. “She just is.”

“What the bucking idjit means, is that she started doing this on her own with a wagon and some cactus chunks.” Rough Shod interjected with annoyance. “Ponies said she was crazy, that this path was the worst one out of the desert. Too close to the badlands. Not smart to cross. Better to head to the river and take a barge. Takes about a month longer.” He scowled at Wasta. “Should know this, colt.”

“But-“ The red-maned stallion lifted a triumphant hoof to the sky. “She was right!”

“Wrong at first. First three trips were complete failures, last one she got snakebit, and each time she took longer and made less bits. Probably not until the seventh or eighth time she was back early, with more bits, a map, and the biggest grin you ever saw on a filly.”

I stared at him, perplexed. Not one, not two, but potentially seven failed attempts? And this was the mare they followed? “I don’t understand. Why was she chosen after those failures?”

Rough Shod snorted. “Nopony chose her. She knew the way. She could be there and back before some of the slower caravans even made the first half of the trip. A few years later she started taking others through the passes she’d found.”

“But… but who chose her to lead them?”

Nopony did. Colt, they just followed her. That’s how these things start. Nopony points at somepony and just says ‘there’s your leader’, what kind of bucking sense would that make? She knew what she was doing and where she was going, they bucking didn’t. If they hadn’t followed her, there wouldn’t be a caravan. She’d still be pulling her own cart and these folks would be trudging along and waiting for a barge.” I tried not to interrupt, but the idea made perfect sense. If the Queen chose a leader, they were the leader. The Queen would have obviously had a reason.

“Or clouds. You could cloud-ferry.” Wasta interjected helpfully.

“…You ever seen cloud haulers around here? They dry out, and then you don’t have a wagon, cart, or wheels to keep pulling things. Plenty of pegasi have tried, and plenty pegasi have had to get help from the nearest settlement because their load of fine silks has been sitting in the desert for a day or three.” The stallion shrugged a wing into his saddlebag, pulling out his familiar flask without offering it to Wasta or myself. I’d begun to fear that my lack of interest had been insulting to him.

“Trains!”

“Trains can work. But you have to lay track. And keep them clean. Sand on the track and you’re even worse off. No, Zaimare has it right. If you want to be fast, this is the way to go. Or you don’t much care for barges. Some ponies like the rest.”

I began to edge away, my interest in the topic waning. I had seen neither cloud-ferry nor train, and the terms meant nothing to me, though seemed common enough to both ponies. My excuse of lost memory seemed to be wearing thin for many of the caravan members, and I had begun to see other flaws. Many of the things I ‘knew’, while true, were false to my pegasus self. A mare with a young foal was being menaced by a scorpion at the entrance to a tent, and after I stepped on it, I was frantically informed that it was a ‘dangerous beast’ and that I was surely poisoned. I was clarifying that this particular scorpion was harmless when Zaimare arrived and spoke up, with some alarm, that it was known to be both aggressive and highly poisonous to ponies. To my kind, the creatures either lacked the appropriate venom or simply could not sting through our chitin. Regardless, I received a surprisingly harsh scolding from Zaimare that all strange scorpions, spiders, and snakes should be treated as dangerous, and that I could have endangered myself and others with bad advice and where did I learn such a foolish thing.

I could not tell her, of course, that my kind routinely ate them upon finding them, and that the tail was considered akin to a delicacy. Saving it had therefore been completely out of the question, to my chagrin.

She had not taken my intention to leave well. I should say, she had taken it extremely poorly. She was not about to let me go wandering off into the badlands, and for good reason. My memory had not returned and worse, some of the memories I had were apparently addled, if my supposedly near-disastrous encounter with the scorpion was any indication. So, my efforts to leave, while not actively opposed, were also not actively supported. In terms of exiles, I believe it preferable to finding myself outside of the camp with a saddlebag and the knowledge that I had until the next day to remove myself from their company.

Wasta, surprisingly, was far more supportive. As he understood it, doing what I had to do didn’t mean doing the sane, normal, or even the right thing. And so, in a strange change of pace, he assisted me in various tasks and procurements to allow me to make my own way. Zaimare’s disapproval began to fade by the third day, having observed my efforts as traded my labor of those days for various small goods such as a sleeping roll (rendered useless for sleep by virtue of a cocoon, but still a very important piece of equipment for ‘any traveler’), and one of Rough Shod’s spare flasks, which was larger by far than Wasta’s own canteen. Rough Shod, in a rare display of positive emotion bordering on an outburst, handed me another, smaller bottle of ‘the good stuff’. He said I could use it in place of antiseptic in a pinch. At this point, Zaimare and Oaken Stave became apoplectic and gave me a small bottle of liquid and made me vow not to use Rough Shod’s vile beverage on my skin. Having ingested it once, I was not inclined to do so, regardless. A good healthy coating of resin would do just fine, besides. I had been pleased to see that some ponies had such a sensible method of dealing with injuries, though their saliva was too runny and they did not mix it with a proper amount of soil before applying it.

My emotional needs were well cared for, to my surprise. Zaimare’s concern, Wasta’s eagerness to see a friend off, and Rough Shod’s pleasure at my decision to make my own way added up to a sizable meal. The mare whose foal I had apparently ‘saved’ had laden me down with enough gratitude that I was initially concerned. Gratitude is odd, to my understanding. My kind are assigned a duty and perform it until we are no longer capable. Failure is unacceptable but does not preclude continued efforts to reach success. Doing something outside of your duty may occur, but some duties require more physical might than one changeling is easily able to provide. All effort is for the benefit of the hive as a whole. Ponies, on the other hand, recognize individuality on a higher basis. Risking one life to save another is considered highly noble amongst their kind. What I had done had been something akin to the Queen chasing off dragons or hydras interested in changeling eggs. In lesser measure, of course. And not in truth, as the scorpion could not harm me, but many of the caravan had mixed emotions about that. Many clearly thought I had made a mistake, others still thought I had done something impressive. The duality of the response was confusing, but the focused emotions from such a small thing had ‘topped me off’ as Oaken Stave would have put it. Gratitude, as far as emotion tastes, seems like love in several senses but less… shareable, as though bound more strongly to a specific action the individual may have performed. I do not think a hive would be able to live on the efforts of a group of gatherers, though the gatherers themselves might be well-sated. Besides, love was easier to gather by my reckoning, as one simply had to replace another pony who was loved for a period of time.

The night I finally decided to leave was after we had finally crossed out of the desert and into the badlands, many miles out of range of my hive’s territory. Zaimare ensured the entire caravan stopped for a good meal, some music, and in general attempted to convince me not to go. Her efforts were transparent, but I admit, I had to appreciate the effort. The sendoff was cut short as Traveling Bilberry overindulged in cactus juice and began singing a song that I understood to be a very detailed description of anatomy until Zaimare hauled him off by the ear. She returned shortly thereafter with a chastised Bilberry, and began giving as much last minute advice as she could.

“-and you have to stay away from the black stone passes, the loose stone near the top can shift and when it does it rolls all the way to the base-“

“Yes, Zaimare.”

“And here, these flowers are all safe to eat.” She began stuffing a few more into my saddlebags. “If you eat anything that doesn’t agree with you, there’s mint in the pouch, it doesn’t have flowers so you’ll recognize it, and-

“Yes, Zaimare.” I stated, giving her a smile that I hoped was reassuring.

“And don’t forget you can always come back, we’ll be going a little more slowly through here and we’ll rest a day or so just to make sure-“

“Yes, Zaimare. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” I spread my wings to allay her fears and she trailed off.

“And you go to Canterlot, you hear me. I’ll feel much better if I hear that you’ve gotten some help and found some family. Or if you get everything back.”

“If I start to recall anything, I assure you I will be in touch.” Not a lie, exactly, but then, I had nothing to regain and thus would likely not see her again. The thought was an unpleasant one. The older mare had been kind and patient.

She sighed. “Oh, very well, Sandy. Celestia watch over you.” She offered her right hoof, and I shook it with a nod.

“Trade well, Zaimare. Have a pleasant journey.”

I trotted out of the reach of the firelight, seeing the dark shape of Rough Shod. I reasoned that the old stallion had already said his piece, but he nodded to me as I walked past.

“Sure about this, colt?”

“Not entirely.” I admitted. “But it must be done.”

The gruff stallion shook his head, but smiled. “Plenty of things in life like that. Plenty. Don’t be afraid to kick it in the head if it doesn’t go your way. You buck life a few times or you’re the one taking a bucking upside the head. You think any on what you’ll do if you don’t get it back?”

“No, sir.”

“Better start. Not saying you can’t wander around forever, Harmony knows plenty of ponies would love that. No cares, no responsibility save to yourself… but taurtarus, I know I can’t live like that. Structure, colt, something to do with yourself. You find yourself needing somepony to get you that, you go to Canterlot, you use my name with the guard recruiters. Somepony will remember me. I think you’d fit right in.”

That offer carried a wealth of emotion, none of it I could easily identify, but I could tell Rough had made the offer in earnest. I had not given the trade of goods or service for wealth more than passing attention before, and I was no guard drone… I doubted I was suited for such a life. Buuuut… the offer of structure was intriguing all the same. It would bring too much scrutiny, I decided. I needed to work on fitting in to Equestria before I considered anything of the sort. I thanked Rough Shod for the offer all the same, and went on my way.

Leaving was hard, and only slightly due to my more heavily burdened self, with my single pack from the Queen seeming small and secondary beside its much larger companions. I was not firmly familiar with the idea of personal desires, but I understood that much of my reluctance to leave was because I had found a strange hive amongst these ponies. It worked together, but for different reasons, reasons that I lacked. To live meant more to them than just surviving. Music, friendship, mentoring. Rough Shod was allegedly antisocial, but as a protector, he maintained that the small group would continue its travels. There was something to that I liked, but I could not put a hoof on it. Perhaps it was only how similar it was to changeling society.

I walked, not truly paying attention, into the badlands. I needed time to hone my abilities, and to rest my shapeshifting abilities until I was fully recovered. I’d sated my needs, managed to prepare myself for the journey far better than I had during my exile, and felt a good deal more optimistic about my chances. I needed to expand my stable of identities, and Sandy was most likely going to have to permanently retire. The thought saddened me, but now that I was away from the desert, a disguise that blended with sand and helped to alleviate the scorching sun was neither required nor exceptionally useful. I began to design a new shape in my head. A unicorn would be more useful. I could use my magic for typical unicorn things, I was already not exceptionally comfortable in the air, and my wings were far easier to cover. It would make sense to make this a ‘default’ form, one which I could slip into more easily should another be compromised. Perhaps a gray coat, like Rough Shod. Wasta’s red mane flitted through my head, and I dismissed it as too flashy. Brown hair. Blue eyes. All good earthy colors. I could mottle it with brown for the time being. Pintos were not exceptionally uncommon, as I understood it. I took flight again, intent on traveling well away from the caravan before settling for the night. The dark was hardly a concern, my night vision far better than that of most ponies, likely from a lifetime of living underground.

I found a large, smooth cliff, examining it for flaws from above before landing to begin to painstakingly carve a small niche for myself. If I was going to spend time here in practice, I should have a somewhat safe location to rest. In the morning, I would determine if this was acceptable… and for the time being, it would do.

I already missed the caravan. How very strange that was. I did not… miss the hive, as it was. The comforting hum, yes. The safety, certainly. But… I regretted that I would not be able to listen to more of Rough Shod’s grumbling, Zaimare’s stories, or Wasta’s strange jokes. But the short time I spent with them had been a lie. My life would always be a lie. Connecting to ponies like that wasn’t for me or my kind. I had risked my entire existence for that comfort, and that was foalish. I would do better. I had to. All the same… I looked to the sky, to the stars above, to the mare in the moon, and I wished them a safe journey, and I hoped they too found the things they were looking for.

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