• Published 22nd May 2014
  • 5,654 Views, 292 Comments

Renegades - TheAndyMac

When the Hive speaks with one voice, what do you do when your voice speaks out of synch? For two changelings, there is only one answer; run.

  • ...

After-Action - II

Three guards stood behind the Princess of the Sun; two rank-and-file ponies and a stallion in armour that bore more ornate decoration and an officer's badge. All three of them were hidden behind the graceful form that was Celestia, and her impossibly fluttering mane. Breeze didn't even notice them until the alicorn stepped through the door, dipping her head to keep from brushing her horn against the lintel, and said in a clear, warm voice:

"Thank you, Lieutenant. I should like to be alone with them."

He pursed lips that were only a few shades darker than hers.

"With respect, your Highness, I don't think it's such a good idea to-"

"I'm grateful for your concern, Lieutenant, but I'm sure I can defend myself from two restrained prisoners." Was that a hint of amusement dancing around her voice?

The lieutenant clicked his heels and nodded, stepping back with his two soldiers and closing the heavy door. Celestia stepped up to the table, pushing aside a seat that was obviously too small to accommodate her, and gazed at the changelings. Though his chitin was incapable of perspiration, Breeze was expecting to feel the trickle of a cold sweat running down the back of his neck.

As those violet eyes – eyes that looked far older than the face that held them – drifted over each of them in turn, Breeze found himself breaking the thick silence, as much to his own surprise as anyone else's.

"He's new, isn't he?"

The alicorn almost smiled. Almost. Just as her lips threatened to twitch, though, she let out a soft hum and fixed him with a gentle stare.

"My Captain thinks you're the forerunners of some grand changeling invasion. Here on some mission of mayhem, to spread chaos and disinformation though the country. I've been given quite a number of gloomy scenarios, some of them ending with Chrysalis herself marching up to dethrone me."

Her eyes moved, just slightly, to better meet Breeze's.

"Is that what you're doing here?"

His throat seemed to lock up. Any trace of amusement at the idea of Chrysalis challenging Celestia vanished, along with a dozen pithy and sarcastic responses about the likelihood of such a thing. He could feel his eyes trying to slip sideways, to look to Sun for support, and the Princess followed the urge, turning to Sun.

"So, you're the leader?"

The older changeling looked uncomfortable, to say the least, but he nodded and spoke with a voice that might have been calm, if not for its brittleness.

"I suppose so."

"Then I'd ask you the same question."

"No," he said more firmly. More firmly than Breeze could imagine himself speaking. "We're not here on anyling's orders. We're on our own. In more ways than the obvious."

Celestia's eyes closed and she inclined her head.

"So I'd suspected. Quite apart from the fact that you turned yourselves in, I wouldn't have thought that the advanced guard of a changeling invasion would have been so sloppy. No offence meant."

"None taken," Breeze croaked before he knew he was speaking. "I think 'sloppy' is a pretty apt description of our time here."

This time there was no mistaking the gentle laughter in her voice nor the way her lips quirked up into a smile.

"Noted. Then why don't you tell me the real reason that you're here?"

And Breeze found, for some reason that he couldn't quite articulate, that he wanted to talk to her, in a way that he hadn't with Silver Lining. It went beyond the simple desire to be compliant. Maybe it was the way she looked at them, scrutinising but never superior, neither afraid nor disgusted. It could have been the soothing sense of calm she extruded in every measured glance and careful movement. Or maybe just the sheer awe that he felt being in the presence of the being who moved the sun. Whatever it was, Breeze realised he wanted to tell her everything. He wanted, without any rational reason, to trust her.

He didn't like it. It didn't feel right. There was a sudden fear that if he opened his mouth to answer as she wanted, he might lay bare everything he had to her, good and ill and all in between. He wasn't ready for that. So, with some effort, he forced himself to change the words that wanted to come.

"Why? What does it matter to you? Isn't it enough if we say we're not here for any invasion? You said yourself that you don't believe we are."

The Princess's gaze met his once more, but this time it seemed to have cooled by a few degrees, and was somehow detached from the slight smile still gracing her muzzle.

"I think you know why I can't simply accept that. I’m Princess of this land, and as such my subjects are everything to me. All that I do is done to keep them happy and safe. But now, across from me, sit two changelings. I don't need to tell you what that would mean, under any other circumstances. Indeed, harm has already been done. You can, I hope, understand why I'd be interested in your motives."

Before Breeze could answer he heard and felt Sun lean forward, felt the thrill of anxiety pass through the air between them as if it were his own.

"And what do we get? You have to know how much you're asking of us. Nobody here believes that you'll stop without asking about the Hive, asking us to betray our kind." He swallowed before going on. "We want to cooperate, but not if we're just going to be thrown back into a cell to rot once you've gotten what you want out of us. So what do we get?"

The younger changeling couldn't help himself. He jerked his head to the side as Sun started talking, and stared throughout. He could see the sense in the question, might even have been the one to pose it in another time and place. But sense or no, Sun was sitting there in front of the closest thing Breeze knew to a living goddess, and he was trying to bargain?!

But Celestia's smile regained its warmth, and there was something like satisfaction in her eyes. Not smug, nor self-assured, but merely pleased. It took the menace from her next words that might have been present had they come from someone like Silver Lining.

"That depends on your answer."

Sun stiffened, his eyes narrowing by the slightest fraction. The air between the two of them seemed to come alive as they stared at each other. Sun's eyes seemed to probe and prod, while Celestia's weathered the assault, turning Sun aside as easily as stone sloughed water. The silent debate lasted little more than a second and it ended when Rising Sun broke and turned his gaze to the table.

"Of course," he said in a small voice. "You already know anyway."

"I suspect," she confirmed. "But knowing would be preferable."

Sun glanced over to Breeze as if seeking permission. His expression made it seem as though he were folding in on himself in Breeze's eyes, becoming as small as his voice. But the younger of them pushed back the ache that rose in his throat and nodded.

Together, one picking up when the other's voice faltered, they answered her. They spoke of the Hive and of the way of things within, though they gave only what details they couldn't avoid. No solid locations, no suggestion of numbers, expounding on the rules that held them. They spoke of the choice they made to run, of the hard march into Equestria, and how the fear of Celestia herself had brought them north where no changeling would follow. And, through halting words and sticking tongues, they spoke of the things that they'd done upon entering her land.

By the time they were done, Celestia seemed a little less bright. She sat digesting their words for a while, her head tilted down, while both changelings waited with tight chests and tense limbs for her response.

"I think," she said at last, "that I've learned a great deal more about your queen than I ever wished to know." Her voice was soft in a way that Breeze had heard only a few times before, when drones spoke with the oldest of their broodfellows as they started to wither.

"She's not our queen," he snapped, aware of an unpleasant crawling sensation against the back of his neck. "Not now, and never again."

And despite everything he could have expected, she backed down.

"Of course. I apologise. But you have to understand, the few subjects of mine who know anything of changelings as more than legend are just as confused as I am. There hasn't been proof of a changeling willingly betraying their monarch since... Well, not for a very long time. And even then, they still showed at least some loyalty to their rulers."

Sun stayed silent, a brow-plate quirked in disbelief, while Breeze clicked his tongue against his fangs.

"Well you can rest easy as far as that's concerned. If the Queen of the Moon Hive herself came down from the heavens, I'd be more likely to swear loyalty to her than Chrysalis."

At that moment Celestia's head gave the slightest of jerks, and she turned towards Breeze with a strange look in her eyes.

"Queen of the Moon Hive? You mean the Mare in the Moon?"

"I've heard some ponies call her that," the changeling allowed. "But we always called her Queen. Drones all have their own stories about her. Usually something to do with watching changelings down here."

"Do they say that she protects you while she watches?"

He nodded, and Celestia was silent again, turning away so that, for the first time since entering the cell, she couldn't see them.

"I can't say that I fault your motive, and I sympathise with your plight,” she said, as if the subject of the Moon had never come up. “But... However understandable your position was at first, you have since done terrible things. You've hurt my ponies, far more than you've helped them. Any subject of mine who sat where you sit now would be facing trial, and doubtless a long prison sentence.

"In your case, though, the circumstances are...different. And there is an opportunity here that I'd be a fool to squander."

"What opportunity?" Sun said, leaning forward. There was a sense of trepidation about him.

Celestia didn't seem to heed the question.

"This land isn't kept safe by kind thoughts and soft words alone, as many of my ponies seem to believe. My reputation with your kind perhaps runs closer to the truth. For Equestria has enemies, both external and internal, mighty and cunning. A time is coming when the image of strength alone won't be enough to protect us, and we will have to rely on other defences. Some might suggest military might, but war is a last resort. Diplomacy and subterfuge will always be preferable to conflict. Diplomacy is something I have much experience with, but subterfuge... Well, here I have two shapeshifters, creatures who thrive on duplicity thrown into my castle seeking sanctuary. And, I think, seeking to make amends."

Her head held high and proud, so that her horn almost stroked the ceiling, she turned back to them. "Let's be honest with each other. A prison sentence for you might be as good as a death sentence. But I can offer you another way to repay your debts. One that was extended to prisoners in years long past, when Equestria still had an army. I can house you, find out how best to feed you, and in return for this you'll help to protect the ponies that you hurt."

"You... You aren't..." breathed Breeze.

"You'd take disguises and join my Guard. Stand on my borders. On our borders."

"You can't be serious," Sun said. Not as a refusal of the offer, nor with any mockery in his voice, but as a simple statement of obvious fact. "Not even if you were just asking for guards. But you wanted us to be honest, so let's be. You're looking for spies."

She nodded, a brow arched.

"Of course. I thought that much was clear, given what I said about subterfuge. But I need spies and guards both."

"But think about what you're asking. No, think about who you're asking. How in the world can you trust us with that sort of duty?"

"If you run, where would you go? You still have those moonstones around your legs, in case you slip out of reach of the handler who'll keep a watch on you."

"We can block the signal."

"How quickly can you gather what you need? You won't have much free time during the training you'll have to go through first. A hard time, closely watched."

"Well... How would you keep us fed? You wouldn't let us loose to suck love out of your subjects."

"I'm given to understand that you were making regular visits to certain disreputable parts of Fillydelphia during your time there. Apparently learning to subside on lesser emotions? Besides, as changelings are often slow to realise, there are more forms of love than one might first assume."

Sun was visibly running out of steam. He said a few words, faltered, then sat back as Celestia spoke again.

"You're showing me that I'm making the right choice even now by trying to tell me I'm making a mistake, believe it or not. I'd rather trust someone reluctant to take this sort of offer than one who jumps at the chance. In any case, this is rather the point of trust, isn't it? Taking a chance because you believe, rather than because you know."

This time it was Breeze who shook his head, scowling.

"That's not what... Different sort of trust. Something isn't right. Either this is some kind of game, or something has you scared."

To this, she offered a shrug of her wings.

"I said as much, that times were changing. Though it's taken much work, the last millennium has held the longest period of extended peace in Equestria's history. But it cannot last forever. Already, things are starting to stir, and they will only get worse. In a few years the storm that's building on our horizon will break." She lifted her eyes to the ceiling, blinking slowly. "Equestria needs - I need - every ally and asset. I can only hope that you'll choose to be both."

Then she stepped back. "Or you could choose trial. However you wish to pay the debt, the choice is ultimately yours." Her horn glowed, the delicate beams of a spring evening swirling around it, and the door swung open. "Talk it over. When you make up your minds, tell the guard that you're ready to speak to me again."

This time, under Celestia's orders, when they were returned to the regular cells they found themselves sharing Sun's cell, with fresh meals awaiting them. The guards stood far enough away that any hushed conversation would be an unintelligible hum but, for the longest time, there was no conversation. Sun sat on the bench, his back against the wall, while Breeze lay on the floor and let the heated stone warm his belly.

As the exchange in the room played itself over and over in his mind he sketched some meaningless pattern on the floor with a hooftip. Every loop made the encounter seem less real, but gave him more thoughts to fill his head until he felt that one of them would have to spill out, else he'd burst.

"Can we actually decline?" he said at last, not looking up from the floor. "Obviously it's possible, but really..."

Sun shrugged; Breeze could hear the scrape of chitin on the bricks.

"She said herself, it's a death sentence. And not just for us. You know what happens to a changeling who starves, before the end. Even if they threw us in a hole it would only take one guard with a little sympathy, and..."

There was a dull smack as he punched one hoof into the other. "If she's knows even half as much about us as she implied, she wouldn't expect us to decline. She can't."

"Unless it's just a test. Almost makes me want to say no, just to see what she does," buzzed Breeze, his scar twisting as he smiled. "Almost. But it feels like there's a nest of trouble there that I wouldn't want to kick up. Maybe she'd send us back to the Hive instead."

"If she told us that was the other choice, I'd put on a gold helmet there and then," Sun replied, his grimace clear in his voice.

That made Breeze chuckle out loud, and he turned his head back to face Sun.

"I did say, though, that you'd make a good fit with their guard. Remember, the second day out?"

Sun nodded, slowly at first but then faster as recollection hit him, and he smiled.

"I remember. And I think I remember you saying something about not wanting to be a soldier again. What was it, you didn't want to do the same job that you did before escaping?"

The younger changeling's smile shifted towards sheepish, his shoulders giving a careless shrug.

"Well, I've never actually been a spy before. Isn't that everyling's dream, when they're nymphs? To be an Infiltrator?"

"Maybe it was yours. I always wanted to be in the Queen's Guard. The younger me never had much ambition that went beyond guarding things. Guarding an entire country, though... That sounds interesting."

Feeling a little knot of uncertainty settle and loosen inside of him, Breeze sighed.

"We're going to say yes, aren't we? Just as soon as we work up the courage."

"It sounds a lot better than spending the rest of our days in some prison, even if they do manage to keep up fed," said Sun, pushing off from his bench and stretching with a short grunt. "You said you wanted to stop being a monster and start doing some good. Seems as though this might be a good place to start."

With a thoughtful nod Breeze stood, stretching in a catlike fashion.

"You're not wrong..."

Hoofsteps echoed through the cavernous halls of Canterlot Castle as the small party followed Silver Lining. Here and there the hollow clacks were deadened by lengths of rich purple carpet, but otherwise the stone floors rang with their passing.

The late evening air was dim and orange, and flickering flames burned in recessed sconces to guard against the coming night, but that was the only similarity between the Castle proper and the dungeons below. Where there had been dark walls and close, claustrophobic spaces there was now white marble, tall windows and a fresh, airy feeling.

Behind Silver came the changelings, still undisguised and feeling vulnerable, though their route had been cleared of prying eyes, and flanking them were a pair of sergeants. They walked in silence, the light waning, until the EDSO mare drew them to a halt in front of a pair of ornate glass doors. Beyond them Celestia stood on a small balcony, her wings unfolded and her mane sparkling in the dying light of the sun. Stepping to one side, Silver motioned for the changelings to step through and join the Princess.

Standing beside her was somehow more breathtaking than sitting before her, and it took Breeze a moment to tear his eyes away from the alicorn and admire the view. The balcony faced south; the city of Canterlot stood on their left to the east, open farmland occupying their right, while the great dark blanket of the Everfree spread itself before them in the far distance.

"So, you've reached a decision?" Celestia said, her voice soft but clear. She was gazing down into the city, though her body faced south, towards the faraway trees.

"Yes," Breeze murmured, turning his eyes briefly towards the setting sun far to the west, then to the city, beyond which the first silvery glow of the moon could be seen. "I doubt it'll come as any great shock. Not to you, anyway." He wondered if she understood the barbs behind the words, but she showed no reaction either way.

"We accept your offer," Sun continued without ceremony. "Consider us at your disposal." As one being they dipped heads, bending their forelegs a few degrees.

Celestia said nothing at first. There was the slightest exhalation, a suggestion of an exasperated sigh, then her horned flared to life as she closed her eyes. Her mane and tail shone brighter and fluttered more rapidly, as if the phantom wind that stirred them had started to gust. The sun dipped below the western horizon, its very last rays rising high, the sky above darkened, and the pale moon rose above the gleaming marble city.

"I'm glad," she said, her monumental task done with no more apparent effort than it took Breeze to lift a cup in his own magic. "I hope you won't object if I place Silver Lining in charge of you? Of all the ponies in the EDSO, she’s the most knowledgeable of changelings, as slight as that knowledge may seem. And the one who best knows you in particular, I think." When they shrugged she smiled and went on. "She'll accommodate you. Arrange for lodging, and see to it that all the proper paperwork you'll need is in place once you pick your disguises. I assume you'll both want to keep your own names?"

Both nodded. Breeze gave a firm "Of course," to make the point as clear as possible.

"You'll be given a room in the Castle for tonight," she continued. "I'd advise you to sleep in disguise, though, since I doubt I can guarantee your privacy to the same degree as I could this evening. Before that, though, there are a few more things that need to be taken care of. First, I wanted to ask... Is this your 'Queen of the Moon Hive'?" She swept a hoof towards the rising moon, its mares dark smudges against the white surface, the image of a mare's profile standing strong and proud.

"That's her," Breeze confirmed. As Sun stepped back, he stepped forward, up to Celestia's shoulder. "I suppose you wanted to know about her, from a changeling's point of view?"

"I do. Very much so."

He hesitated. His prayers seemed like a very silly habit, now that he was on the cusp of actually speaking about them, and too a goddess no less.

"Well," he started slowly, "there are a lot of stories about her. We were never supposed to talk about such superstitions, but... Some of the drones would pray to her, when they didn't think anyling else was watching. As if she were some kind of Queen above Queens. I admit, I've said a few myself, in hard times. And times haven't exactly been easy lately."

Those gentle eyes blinked without hurry. The Princess's next words were just as slow, and oddly measured.

"Why pray to her, in particular?"

Shrugging, Breeze stared up at the bright circle, crisp and beautiful on the cold night.

"If she's the Queen of Queens, she must watch over all changelings. Even runaways. There's one reason. But I always preferred the other story. About how she used to be a pony."

"Tell me, please..."

And he called the old, whispered words up from the dredges of his memory.

"She was a pony once, as mighty as Celestia. In old days, before the Hive, she ruled over a great kingdom, and commanded more subjects than there are stars in the night sky. At first she was wise and just, but something made her grow cold and turn on them. There was a great war, when the stars themselves fell from the darkness, until after one last deadly battle her subjects defeated her and drove her away to the Moon itself."

The air around him was growing even colder as the warmth of the sun was leached away into the ink-blue sky, but he didn't seem to feel it.

"She stayed there, trapped, until the years made her see what a terrible thing she'd done, and she wept. From that day she devoted herself to atonement for her sins, watching over all those who pray to her and her Moon."

When he looked back up at Celestia he thought, for a moment, that he could see the glimmer of tears in her eyes. But she blinked, and when he looked closer there was nothing.

"A very fine story," she said, turning to walk back indoors with slow and graceful steps. "I can see why it would resonate with you. Though, terrible as it is to admit, it isn't the sort of story I would have expected from a changeling."

"There's a great deal even learned folk don't know about changelings," replied Sun as they fell into a loose formation behind her, the doors shutting out the night and the guards taking up their positions once more. "And a lot even we don't know about ourselves."

Celestia turned back, her smile in pace again, and she started walking with more purpose. The small party followed close behind.

"You've told me one of your stories, and I'd like to return the favour. Long before our time, much like your tale, when Equestria was still young and growing, there were specially trained guardsponies who scouted the frontiers for potential friends and enemies. In times of war they moved ahead of armies, tracking our foes and watching their strongholds, and in times of peace they watched their cities. They called themselves 'exploring officers' to mask their true calling as the spies of Equestria.

"This order was disbanded many centuries ago, but the time has come for them to be reborn. This is what you'll be. The first members of a new corps."

She halted in front of a large slab, made of some black glossy stone, resting against the wall of a small chamber deeper within the castle. Writing of some sort was carved into the smooth face in two columns; the left ran the full height of the slab, the right a little less than a third.

"As I said before, it will not be an easy life. Training itself will be hard enough, but you will have to prove yourself to everyone. To your instructors, your handlers, and even me." She came face to face with them and her smile now was small and tight. "There are plenty of ponies who would say I'm making a terrible mistake tonight. But I think all things deserve a second chance. Some even deserve a third. It falls to them to prove themselves worth or unworthy of it."

"We understand," Sun said, his head bowed. "Truly."

"I hope so. Silver will arrange your enlistment, and she will watch you. Once you've passed your first tests in training, you'll receive more specialised instruction. But you'll spend time as members of the regular Guard until she tells me that you're ready to take on greater responsibilities.

"For your first task, though, I want you to study this list. Commit as much of it to memory as you can."

"Why?" Breeze said as he peered past her at the slab. "What's on it?"

She met his eyes her tight smile fading.

"Names. The names of every mare and stallion who gave their lives in the protection of Equestria, since the day this castle was built."

Without another word she strode between them and out into another room, her hooves barely making a sound even on the unadorned tiles.

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