• Published 26th May 2014
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Wedding Bells Bug Hunt - Trinary

Dashverse AU: The Canterlot Wedding is on and a changeling scheme to subvert the Elements of Harmony is underway! Can Rainbow Dash find the imposter?

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Chapter 2

Rainbow Dash felt her jaw idly drop open as her thoughts raced a dozen different ways at once. Each thought, each question jockeyed to be vocalized first only for them to trip over each other. In the end, all Rainbow could get out was “W-whaaa?!”

Princess Celestia dipped her head, her horn glowing. Rainbow heard the tell-tale ‘click’ that indicated that she had locked the doors and latched the windows. With the drapes and curtains drawn closed, the normally bright, open and well-lit room of the Princess of the sun was unnaturally dark. “Forgive me, but we cannot risk being found out.”

After nodding weakly, Rainbow managed to straighten her thoughts out enough to ask the foremost question on her mind. “What about my friends?”

Celestia sighed and sat back on the floor. “If the changelings are moving against Equestria—going so far as to infiltrate and replace members of the royal guard—then they must have taken steps to ensure that the Elements of Harmony cannot be used against them. With even one of your friends missing, the Elements are incapable of functioning.”

“Who is it? Are they okay?” Rainbow blurted out, pacing back and forth and lashing her tail. Her wings twitched as she repressed the urge to fly through the door and check on each and every one of her friends.

“I do not know.” Celestia’s shoulders sagged. “I can tell you that whoever has been replaced has not been harmed. It’s not their way.”

Rainbow felt herself untense slightly. “Just—what are those things?!”

“Nopony can say for sure.” Celestia rose to her hooves and walked over to her window, staring out despite the curtains being drawn. “The origin of the changelings has been lost to history; theories abound about where they came from and how they came to be. Some say that they were creations of Discord. Some believe that they were the result of a mad unicorn’s experiments. A few even claim that they were ponies once, a lost breed once known as Flutter Ponies, twisted and ruined by some fell enchantment or curse.” Celestia turned back to face her pupil.

“Regardless of what they may have once been, now they are parasites. They feed off the emotions of other beings—especially love. But they are incapable of feeling genuine love or affection themselves; thus, they are forced to feed off the love of others. They do this by abducting a pony and masquerading as them—drawing strength and sustenance from the love of their victim’s loved ones.” She frowned, and held up a wing to forestall Rainbow’s question. “They keep their victims alive and cocoon them so they can feed on their love too, as well as access their memories so they can better impersonate them. In time, those who the changelings feed on for an extended period begin to fall under their mental thrall.”

Rainbow felt the gorge rise her throat as she pictured Twilight, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity or Pinkie Pie trapped in some disgusting bug cocoon so they could feed off them and rifle through their minds on how to better pretend to be them. If she saw a changeling right then and there, she would’ve splattered it with her bare hooves. “We gotta find and rescue them!”

“I assure you, we will do everything possible for them,” Celestia vowed. “However, finding changelings is no easy task when they can impersonate a pony’s appearance, voice, memories, and even their skills to a limited extent. Worse still is their leader, the insidious Queen Chrysalis. She is a cruel, vicious and avaricious monster.”

“How come I never heard of them?” Rainbow asked. “I mean, okay, I might not be the absolute best student ever, but I think I would’ve remembered hearing about giant bugponies that steal love.”

“They reside in hives in the most isolated and desolate regions of the world: deep in mountains or in caverns beneath the ground. They’ve been so far removed from pony consciousness that most forgot that they even existed.” Celestia shook her head. “Some dismissed them as mere rumors—bedtime stories to scare naughty foals into behaving.”

Well how the feathering hay did they get so far?” Rainbow demanded. “I mean, there had to have been something, some pony you could have appointed to keep this sort of stuff from happening!” She shivered in an adrenaline-fueled rush of fear and anger. Celestia approached and slowly extended her hoof, gently rubbing Rainbow’s frightened face. Although she wanted to stay angry, Rainbow nuzzled her mentor's hoof, welcoming her comfort.

Once Rainbow was calm enough, Celestia continued. “Before she became Nightmare Moon, Princess Luna was Equestria’s defender of the night. One of her greatest strengths was flushing out creatures who sought to use her night as a cover. Since Luna was banished, so many creatures that sought to lurk and hide in her night were able to elude detection and were lost to our sight and our knowledge.”

A sad, tired look crossed her regal face. It was Rainbow’s turn to comfort her, nuzzling the princess’s long neck lovingly. Celestia draped a wing over Rainbow’s back. “With Luna’s absence, Equestria’s ability to monitor such beings was greatly hampered. I can assume that with her return and Sombra’s downfall, the changelings sought to strike first before they could be discovered.”

“And now they’re here.” Rainbow’s face hardened. “And they took one of my best friends? Oh, they are so asking for it! Let’s call my friends in and flush the fake into the open with magic and force it to tell us where the real pony is!”

Celestia hesitated. “I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple.”

Rainbow stomped her hoof in frustration. “What? Why not?”

“As I said, I had begun to hear rumors that something was stirring. I sent Luna with an advance force to patrol the borders of Equestria. Even if I sent her a message asking her to return, it would take some time for her to do so. Her arrival would only tip our hooves that we know the changelings are in Canterlot. It might cause them to accelerate their plans. Worse, I cannot be entirely sure that Luna herself has not been replaced by this point.”

Rainbow stomped again. “Grrr … darn it! Can’t you do it?” Celestia paused, as if weighing on how to best deliver bad news. Dash groaned. “There’s more?”

“I’m afraid so,” Celestia confirmed. “Changelings share a limited group consciousness. Even if we were to locate and isolate the imposter, it could easily send a warning to the others.” She looked to Dash. “You said the ones that confronted you and Zecora didn’t recognize you?” When she shook her head, Celestia continued. “It’s possible Zecora had cast some sort of glamour or magical guise that distorted their vision of you. While your escape was unfortunate from their point of view, it was not so critical as to force them to step up their timetable.”

“So, that’s good--they don’t know we’re onto them, right?” Rainbow asked. “So what do we do now?”

Celestia straightened herself up and looked Rainbow squarely in the eye. “Rainbow Dash, I am charging you with investigating and finding the imposter amongst your friends without letting on what you are doing, before the changelings can initiate whatever plan they’re up to.”

The young pegasus was rocked back on her hooves, sitting down hard on the floor. “Me?! But—”

“It can only be you.” Celestia urged. “You know your friends better than I; and I must, carefully, begin my own investigation to determine who among my guard and the castle staff is not who they say they are. Until we are sure that all the changelings in the palace are accounted for, we cannot risk informing anypony of what we’ve learned.”

Rainbow’s mind raced. “W-what if all my friends are changelings?”

“Unlikely. That would be a pointless duplication of efforts on Chrysalis’ part, when only one of your friends needs to be removed for the Elements to be rendered sterile. Having more would only increase the risk of detection and draw their resources away from other venues.” She slowly wrapped a wing around Dash. “I know this is a lot to absorb and that what I’m asking you to do is not easy. But there is no other way. I know you can do it. I have faith in you.”

Rainbow gave a shaky sigh. “Yeah. Of course I can!” She shot Celestia her most winning smile. “I can do this!”

I can’t do this!” Rainbow Dash groaned to herself as she made her way down to join her friends for dinner. “I’m not Fetlock Hooves! How am I to find the fake without letting them know that –I– know they’re a fake? Twilight could do this; she’s super smart and stuff! And Applejack’s so honest she can probably tell whoever’s a fraud. Rarity can spot a knockoff design a mile away and Fluttershy could just ask nicely and anypony—or changeling—would just spill the beans. And Pinkie Pie—well, she’s Pinkie Pie. But ME?”

Dash stopped by a column and bonked her head against it, ignoring the odd looks by a pair of passing guards. I’m such a lunkhead that I didn’t even notice that one of my friends was replaced out from under my own nose. I can’t even figure out who keeps raiding the icecloud at the weather office and eats all my snacks!

“No. Pull it together, Rainbow Dash.” She pulled herself up and smacked herself with a hoof. “You are Rainbow Miriam Dash and you can featherin’ handle this. The fate of Equestria and your friends rests on finding out which one of them is a no-good, low-down lying, love-stealing bug monster. And you’re gonna do it. No, ifs ands or buts about it. You go that? Remember who you are! Who are you?”

“Um, Rainbow Dash?”

“That’s right! I’m Rainbow DaAAH!” She whirled around, wings flared open and hooves boxing the air in front of her. “Who is it, show yourself?”

Twilight Sparkle looked at her as if she had lost her mind. “Uh, it’s just me Rainbow. I was going to walk with you to the dining room … I kinda got a little lost.” She sheepishly added. “Kind of took a detour into the guards’ shower room.” She looked down and traced a hoof along the floor, her face heating.

Rainbow Dash chuckled and felt herself relax. “So, you got a show before dinner? Nice.” It was just Twilight being Twilight. Then she stiffened. But then, if she were a changeling, she’d know just how to act like Twilight, wouldn’t she?

Twilight blushed and rubbed at her neck, “So, is everything okay? I mean, you were talking to a wall.”

“You hear anything?” Rainbow demanded.

The purple unicorn shook her head. “Just you reminding yourself that you were, well, you.” She tilted her head at her. “You okay?”

“’f course I am! I was just—” she thought quickly “—psyching myself up for my Sonic Rainboom!” She flashed Twilight what she hoped was a confident grin. “You gotta get yourself in the right mindset, y’know? S’like that one guy said: the mental is to the physical as … um, something big to something small.”

“That’s Neighpoleon, and it’s ‘as three is to one.’” Twilight rubbed her muzzle. “Hm, I hadn’t thought of it before, but that’s a good point. That’s actually really insightful of you!” She nudged her athletic friend and ribbed her playfully. “Who are you and what’ve you done with Rainbow Dash?”

It was all Rainbow Dash could do not to break down either laughing or crying. She was saved by a sudden loud growl from her stomach. Dash had been hungry even before she encountered Zecora and got into a fight with the changelings. Now she was really hungry.

Twilight quirked her brow. “Wow. I guess you’re really famished, huh? We better get a move on. We don’t want Rarity and the others to think we kept them waiting.” She paused. “Also, I don’t want to risk Pinkie Pie eating all our desserts.”

“Good idea.” Rainbow nodded. “After you.” If Twilight was the changeling, she didn’t want to turn her back on her. Of course, there were four other suspects … gyah!

Twilight smiled at her, oblivious to Dash’s internal torment. “Thanks. But I still don’t know where we’re going.”

“Right. Okay, come on then.” Rainbow hurried ahead, barely giving Twilight a chance to catch up.

“Whoa, hold your horses, Rainbow!” Twilight trotted up beside her, leaning against her comfortingly. “No need to rush.” She paused as she felt Rainbow flinch away slightly. “…is everything okay?” She gasped when she saw a bruise on Rainbow’s side, mistaking that for the cause of Rainbow’s flinch. “What happened?

Rainbow winced. She’d forgotten about the fight. It was a good thing there weren’t more injuries for her to hide. Most of what she’d gotten in that little dust up were minor and easy to hide. “Oh, that? I, er, well I—I—”

With a martyred groan, Twilight shook her head. “Did you crash into a mountain again?

Despite the situation, Rainbow couldn’t help but defend her reputation. “Hey! Pinkie Pie was totally distracting me that one time!”

“I thought you were aware of all your surroundings when you fly?”

“Yeah, well Pinkie is so Pinkie that she can drown out everything else around me.” Rainbow grumbled, crossing her forelimbs in a pout.

Twilight gave a faint nod of acknowledgement. “Well, just be careful alright?”

You don’t need to tell me, Dash repressed a sigh. “Sure. So, dinner?”

“Dinner.” The two made their way through the long corridors of the castle and soon found themselves in a large, private dining room. Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were already seated around a long table, laden with plates of delicious looking, but untouched, food. They looked up when Twilight and Rainbow Dash walked through the doors.

“There y’all are!” Applejack beamed. “’bout time you showed up. I don’t know ‘bout the rest of you, but I’m hungrier than a chimera without a hunk of ricotta!”

Rarity blinked owlishly. “That doesn't even begin to make sense.”

“Yes it does.” Applejack and Pinkie said in unison. Applejack looked at her curiously, but Pinkie just smiled. Deciding not to dwell on it, AJ turned back to Rarity. “...’xactly.”

Rarity rolled her eyes. “Do speak for yourself, Applejack. And at any rate, some of us were perfectly content to wait with poise and grace for our friends to arrive before eating. Isn’t that right?” She looked to her remaining two friends…only to find that Pinkie had burrowed her face into her plate the moment the others had walked in the door. Rarity groaned. “Fluttershy?”

“If you say so Rarity,” the yellow pegasus ducked her head behind her mane as she softly added. “I was getting awfully hungry … but it wouldn’t have been nice to eat without Rainbow Dash and Twilight.”

Rarity gave Applejack a proud smirk. “You see? None of us had trouble waiting…” her stomach chose that moment to let out a growl worthy of a manticore. Pinkie pulled her face out of plateful of noodles and gasped.

“Rarity’s tummy is gonna eat all the food! And then it’s gonna eat us! Oh my goooooosh! Run for your lives!” She leapt into the air and ran for the door. A moment later she came back, loaded her forelimbs full of plates—going heavy on the desserts—and then ran from the room again.

“You were sayin’ something?” Applejack drawled smugly as Rarity sank in her seat, cheeks red.

Rainbow felt a smile tug at her lips as she sat down…only to remember that one of the ponies at the dinner table was a fake. The thought was depressing enough to almost kill her appetite. Almost.

Pinkie Pie poked her back through the door after Twilight and Rainbow Dash sat down. “Aww, aren’t any you gonna panic with me?”

“Panic later, food now.” Applejack rubbed her hooves together as she looked over the spread in front of her. “I dunno where to start!”

Her dignity having recovered itself somewhat, Rarity chimed in as Pinkie rejoined them. “You start with the appetizers! You’re in Canterlot now, you can’t simply dig into your meal at random like an uncultured hayseed bumpkin!”

“You leave my cousin Hayseed out of this!” Applejack huffed, rolling her eyes. “Fiiiine. So which are the appetizers?” Upon seeing the plate Rarity pointed to, Applejack blinked incredulously. “Those? They’re so tiny! They look like the free mints y’get on your pillow at hotels!” She frowned. “Kinda disappointed we didn’t get any of those in our rooms, come to mention it.”

“…This isn’t a hotel.” Rarity said slowly, incredulousness building with each word. “This is Canterlot Castle.”

“I’m just sayin’ is all…”

As the two bickered, Rainbow Dash looked from Applejack to Rarity and back again. Was one of them the changeling? If so, the love-stealing bug was doing a pretty darn good job of falling into their normal routine.

Hay, this was pretty familiar ground. Having found the first course of her meal, Applejack hesitated as she was confronted with a mountain of virtually indistinguishable silverware. Everytime she reached out a hoof for one implement, Rarity let out a dainty cough and gave her a look. Rainbow Dash sympathized with AJ. She’d been there.

“Rainbow Dash?” She barely repressed jumping out of her seat as Fluttershy gently tapped her shoulder. “Are you okay? You’ve barely touched your food.”

“Fine!” Dash yelped loudly. “Totally fine!” She swallowed nervously as everypony’s eyes turned on her. Ack! I can’t raise their suspicions! Must act like everything is normal. Act like me, me! …Okay, how do I act like me? Acting solely on instinct, Rainbow picked up a bread roll and tossed it at Rarity, which made a rather amusing bonk sound as it bounced off her head and ricocheted off Applejack’s. “Nice, two for one!”

An aggrieved expression on Rarity’s face told her that she’d been successful. “Rainbow Daaash! I cannot believe you!”

“I can!” Pinkie chimed in helpfully. “That was so totally Rainbow Dash! And did you see that bread roll? It was all zoom, bonk, bounce, bap!”

“Funnily enough, I can believe it too.” Applejack deadpanned as she reached for a bread roll of her own, eyes narrowing in Rainbow’s direction. Dash readied another roll of her own.

Rarity sputtered indignantly. “Rainbow Dash! Applejack! Stop that! We’re in Canterlot! In the palace! We cannot simply behave like uncouth ruffians who—Ack!” She was cut off as not one, but two bread rolls found their mark.

“Mighty fine shooting, Rainbow.” Applejack snerked as she grabbed another and throwing it at Dash.

Rarity fumed, her face glowing red. “Oh it is on!” She began loading up bread rolls and tossing them back at her assailants. “Take this! You! Uncultured! Louts!”

One errant bread roll lodged itself in Fluttershy’s mane. “I think this is yours, Rarity.” She gently lobbed the roll back at her … then giggled as it landed in Rarity’s soup, splashing the white unicorn’s coat.

Fighting the urge to get fully into the awesome looking food fight that was shaping up, Rainbow Dash took a step back to observe. Okay. One of my best friends—the most awesome, greatest friends ever—has been replaced by a love-eating bug. She had to repress the urge to fly over and shake each one of her friends one by one until the fake confessed. Instead she forced herself to take a deep breath and try to think things through, the way Princess Celestia had been trying to get her to do.

So which one of them is acting strangely?

She watched as Pinkie Pie leaped out of her seat and sailed across the table—somehow managing to do so in slow motion. “Nooooooooooooo…” A slow-drawn out version of Pinkie’s voice exclaimed as a bread roll went sailing towards her. Her mouth opened wide, becoming a gaping black maw that swallowed the bread whole before Pinkie’s dive returned to moving in regular time.

Nope, nothing strange there.

Rainbow Dash looked to Fluttershy, who was neatly making her way through her meal but stopping every once in a while to giggle and playfully toss a napkin or something at the others. Normally Dash would be happy to see Fluttershy being more outgoing and playful. Hay, she’d been trying to get Fluttershy to do that for years. But now she wasn’t sure if she was seeing her efforts pay off—or a changeling who didn’t quite have all of Fluttershy’s facets down.

Applejack, silverware and fancy manners forgotten, stuck her face into her food and was happily chowing down like a pig at the slop trough. If anything, she made a show out of her disregard for manners in order to Rarity in a fit of apoplexy.

While clearly affronted by Applejack’s display, Rarity just ended putting that much effort into being as dainty and polite as possible, going overboard even by her standards: taking tiny bites, chewing slowly and dabbing a napkin at her mouth after every single solitary mouthful.

Not seeing anything that screamed ‘I’m a changeling imposter!’ Rainbow Dash turned to Twilight to see her … completely and utterly pigging out on her food with all sense of restraint or dignity forgotten.

What. The. Hay?

Rainbow’s jaw dropped when she saw Twilight use a stray bread roll tossed down her end of the table to use as an ersatz napkin: wiping off ketchup and sauce and other stray bits that clung to her muzzle—and then proceeded to eat it!

Aaand suspect number one is…

Apparently, Dash wasn’t the only one who noticed. Pinkie Pie, who had been licking her plate clean with her tongue, stopped to stare with wide eyes. Fluttershy let out a surprised squeak and stopped eating.

Applejack and Rarity stopped what they were doing and watched Twilight in horrified fascination for a moment. Then, as one, they turned to each other.

“You still wanna complain about my manners?” Applejack asked faintly.

Rarity shook her head numbly. “…No, I think not.” She made a face and pushed her half-eaten food away from her.

Everypony’s attention was drawn from the spectacle of Twilight eating by the sound of chuckling. They turned to see Shining Armor and Cadance walking into the room together. “I see Twily’s manners are as demure as ever,” Shining quipped.

Cadance sighed and shook her head in mock-sorrow. “And to think, Rainbow Dash actually had better manners when she was a filly.”

Suddenly aware of everypony’s focus on her, Twilight blushed and hastily wiped her muzzle clean with the back of her hoof. “H-hey!”

“Twilight.” Pinkie’s voice was still awe-struck and full of deadly seriousness. “That was the messiest, slobbiest and most funniest way to eat that I’ve ever seen.” She took a deep breath. “Please say you’ll teach me!”

Rainbow was still a bit taken aback herself. “Geeze Twilight. Dinky made less of a mess with her first birthday cake—and she shoved her face into it!”

“For pony’s sake, I’ve seen Winona eat neater than that,” Applejack agreed. “I’ve never seen y’all do that before!”

Dash rubbed her muzzle. So she wasn’t the only pony to think that was strange. She leaned forward, eager to hear ‘Twilight’ explain herself.

Twilight blushed crimson and sank down in her seat. “I-I usually don’t! Honest! Just when I’m really, really hungry and I’m not thinking about it I kinda…” she waved a hoof limply. “…Forget myself?”

Shining snorted, walking over to muss Twilight’s mane. “Yeah, that’s my Twily. Most powerful and brilliant unicorn of her generation, top graduate from Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, two time savior of the world … and reigning champion for Equestria’s messiest eater.” He grinned and gently pinched her cheek with his magic. “Don’t make me tell mom and dad your eating habits haven’t improved.”

“HEY!” Twilight flailed her hooves as she tried to break free. “Leggo!” Her friends held their hooves up to try to hide their chuckles at her situation while Twilight threatened dire retribution.

Rainbow settled back and watched Shining Armor and Cadance interact with Twilight. Okay, so Twilight being a slobby eater isn’t THAT unusual. Still, Shining Armor and Cadance would probably be able to spot anything wrong with Twilight before anypony else! Rainbow smiled and was about to congratulate herself on her cleverness when a niggling, doubting thought rose up. A captain of the guard and the princess of the Crystal Empire...those are important positions. She felt her eye twitch. They could have been replaced too! Darnit!

Twilight used her magic to smack her brother with her rolled up checklist until he let go. “Grr…just for that, Shiny, I’m gonna make sure your dress uniform itches and is too tight.”

“Not seeing a downside to that.” Cadance smirked.

“I can help adjust his uniform!” Rarity volunteered quickly. Then she coughed and quickly added, “For…hm, fashion purposes and…things.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Much as I’d like to see y’all making foals of yourselves, I have a big day tomorrow; gotta get things set up in the kitchen.”

“I need to make sure my birds are well rested.” Fluttershy chimed in. “They must be so tired from the long trip to Canterlot.”

“And I have to make sure to set my party cannon to the ‘Grand Galloping Gala/Royal Canterlot Wedding setting.’” Pinkie nodded. “Don’t wanna get the confetti and the batter mixed up. Again … again.”

Shining Armor furrowed his brow. “Party … cannon?”

“Don’t ask.” Twilight sighed as she ran a hoof through her mane. “Just…don’t. So, I guess I’ll see you all in the morning,” she looked to her friends. “I’m going to spend the night at home with my family.”

“Aww, that sounds super nice!” Pinkie Pie nodded. “Tell your mom and dad I say hi! They know who I am right?”

A bemused smile worked its way onto Twilight’s muzzle. “Yes, Pinkie, they know who you are. We’ll meet for breakfast and then split up. I’ll make my way around to each of you with my checklist!” She clapped her hooves together excitedly.

Rainbow started to think of a plan. It was still only half-formed when she blurted out, “Hey, Twilight! Mind if I hang with you and your family tonight?”

Twilight gasped gleefully. “Ohmygosh, you want to come over to my house?!” She danced up and down gleefully. “I’ve never had a friend over to my house for a sleepover before! This is going to be so much fun! We can do all the things in my book that we didn’t get to do on the train to the Crystal Empire!”

Cadance smiled. “Aww, that sounds like a wonderful idea.”

“Gotta admit, that does amusing,” Shining teased. “Just try not to pig out on ice cream and cookie dough. And don’t keep mom and dad awake with all your gossipping and girly stuff.”

Rainbow Dash glared daggers at him. “All in favor of spending the night swapping Shiny stories?”

“Seconded.” Twilight snorted. “All opposed?”

Realizing the hole he’d dug himself into, Shining raised a hoof. “Uh, neigh?”

“Two against one Shiney Hiney,” Dash snerked. “You done goofed.”

Twilight grinned as she began pulling Rainbow Dash towards the door. “Sorry I can’t invite you all over.” She said to her friends. “Maybe once we’re back in Ponyville I can schedule something.” Turning back to Dash her eyes lit up. “Ooh! We can do makeovers this time, right? Please, please please please?”

Dash bit her lip and plastered a smile on her face as she realized that in the best case scenario, she had just agreed to spend the night with Twilight geeking out in her obsessive compulsive way about the by-the-book way to do a sleepover. And in the worst case scenario, she just agreed to sleep under the same roof--ponyfeathers, the same room--as a changeling!

Either way, she wasn’t about to get any sleep tonight. It was moments like these that made Rainbow wish she thought things through before she said them aloud.