• Published 28th Jun 2014
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For Whom We Are Hungry - Cold in Gardez



You didn't want to come here, but fate cares nothing for insects. The story of a changeling in Ponyville.

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The Market

Once, you never dreamed.

But life itself was a dream, then. Time was not a cruel metronome, always ticking at the same remorseless tempo. It ebbed and flowed around you like the tide, rushing fast and oozing slow, with its own heartbeat, as organic as moss consuming a log. Alive, dying, yet eternal.

Your thoughts were not your own, then. You shared them, unconstrained by the limits of your own fragile skull. One day, on a whim, you flew to the top of the hive and perched upon its highest spire and gazed out at the twilight world. A million brothers and sisters saw through your eyes, all sharing the final moments of the day. A few joined you, then more, and more and more until the whole sky vibrated with the sound of your wings. As one, you watched the stars emerge, and you felt a kinship with them. You were the same, you realized – innumerable and beautiful.

You remembered the creches, the deepest, warmest pits in the hive. You remembered crawling atop the bodies of your brothers, biting them, being bitten by them, rubbing your aching new wings against theirs, your blind eyes stinging as the ichor of your birth dried and flaked away. You heard their first mewling thoughts, so like yours, incohate and disoriented. But not alone – never alone. To be a changeling, to be a part of the hive, was to never be alone. You were greater than yourself.

You remembered being born. You remembered dying. It hurt, but always your sisters were there to share your pain. Even when you lay, broken and alone, a thousand miles from the hive, they were with you in your final moments, comforting you, promising you that the pain would end.

And it always did, and you were reborn in fulfillment of her covenant. Always she was there to welcome you back, her child. As long as she lived, and you were hers, you would never die. A thousand years might pass, shedding bodies like a snake sheds its skin, but always you were hers. Always the million minds of the hive whispered to you, sharing your shell as you shared theirs, and ever she was with you, your mother, your queen, your god. You lived and died for her. You went to war for her, and always she was there, a warm cloak for your thoughts, protecting you, guiding you.

Until, one day, she wasn't.

* * *

You wake up staring at the ceiling, still wearing the body of the stallion whose love you ate last night.

That won't do. You bleed a bit of magic, letting it reshape your form into your usual disguise. Tan coat, tanner mane, mud eyes. Three gray rocks for a cutie mark. Completely, entirely forgettable, in other words. Perfect.

You can't afford to be remembered. Ponyville is a small town, but even here you are bland enough to slip through the cracks. Don't smile. Don't make eye contact. Never give the impression that you are worth knowing.

It is how a mouse lives, in the den of lions.

You make your bed, because that is what ponies do. You cook your breakfast of boiled oats, because ponies eat breakfast. It does nothing to ease the gathering ache in your stomach, but you force it down anyway.

Your life depends on how well you can pretend, and that means attending to all the silly rituals that dominate pony lives. Eating, sleeping, talking. You hate talking the most – it is pitiful, using sound to share your thoughts. It takes minutes to convey the same information the hive could share in seconds with their linked minds. It is banging rocks together compared with a symphony.

But it is what ponies do, so you do it too. Anything to fit in.

Today is Saturday, which is your day to visit the market, because that's what ponies do. You can't stay hidden forever – that draws its own sort of attention. On Saturdays, you hide in plain sight.

The sun has already started to warm the morning. The frost that rimed the grass last night is gone, melted into countless shining beads of dew. They wet your fetlocks as you walk, and you wish you had worn a scarf. Changelings have little tolerance for the cold, and even wearing the body of an earth pony does little to dispel the chill remaining in the air.

Ponies see you, and their eyes slide away like water flowing across oiled glass. Part of it is your mundane, forgettable appearance; another part is the faint ember of magic always burning in your heart. It's not much, not anymore, but it nudges their attention away. It doesn't make them forget, for no magic can do that, but it lets them know you're forgettable. Their minds do the rest.

The streets are already full when you reach the center of town. You step into the crowd like a heron dipping its feet into a stream. The ponies flow around you, water around your stone. They spin away in eddies, already forgetting you exist.

Perfect.

Something about the day – the light, the weather, the scent in the air – reminds you of the first time you saw Ponyville. It is a bad memory.

You were bleeding at the time. Maybe. Things were a bit hazy, but there was pain. Disorientation. You remembered Canterlot, and then a bright light that tasted like love but burned like the sun, and then the sensation of flying, although not with your wings.

You don't remember the landing. Or the impact. Whatever. That's probably for the best.

You woke up before anypony found you. Other changelings, survivors of the battle of Canterlot, were not so fortunate. Most were still insensate when they were discovered, still wearing their true forms, their beautiful, chitinous bodies.

You were surprised when, days later, ponies warned you about the black invaders, the insect monsters. Partially surprised to still be alive, of course, but mostly surprised by their ignorance. Changelings are not black – they are only black to ponies' weak eyes, which cannot see the full range of colors. They cannot see ultraviolet, or the dark burn of infrared. They are half-blind, compared with you. They will never see the iridescent beauty of a changeling drone, or the stunning, blinding spectacle of your queen, who radiated a million invisible colors.

Come to think of it, now, neither will you.

You pause in the street and look down at your tan coat. It has ruffled in the breeze, and you smooth it down with your hoof.

A pony bumps into you and mumbles an apology. You are gone before he even turns around.

The market at the center of town is busy, even this early in the morning. Ponyville is an earth pony town, and earth ponies do not waste the day. Perhaps if they had wings, and could fly anywhere in minutes, they'd be a bit lazier; perhaps if they had magic, and could use it for their bidding, they would not work so hard. But they have none of these things, only that firm earth pony work ethic, and so they are already awake and busy.

A few of them see you, despite everything you've done to make yourself invisible, and they smile and wave as you pass. You smile back. This is not a disaster – hiding in plain sight means acting like a pony, and that is how ponies behave. They are friendly. They are kind.

Except when they find unconscious changelings in the woods. Then they are not.

You berate yourself for even allowing that thought to cross your mind. It does you no good to dwell on the past. What matters is now, right now, this very minute as you walk through the market, smiling at your neighbors, being happy. Being a pony. Ponies don't think about their sisters lying in the autumn leaves, their wings broken, their skulls crushed.

Ponies don't think about that. You don't think about that. You stop thinking about that. Stop it. Stop.

Stop. You stop in front of a young mare's stall that is filled to the brim with specialty fruits and other produce. Bananas, plantains, banana-plantains, mosses that taste like peppermint, starfruit, apple-cucumbers, potatoes, and even more exotic things. Life on the edge of the Everfree Forest is sometimes dangerous for the ponies of Ponyville, but it also lends itself to unique sales opportunities.

The mare, a cinnamon-coated earth pony whose sole expression seems to be a delighted smile, beams at you as you approach. She smells like fresh dirt and thistles and hope.

“Hey Gin,” she says, using that ugly mocking pseudonym you accidentally created for yourself. To be fair, you were dazed at the time, still wondering why you weren't part of a changeling army conquering Canterlot. All things considered, Gin Star was close enough to a real pony name that nopony questioned it, though you sometimes get some odd looks.

“Good morning, Cinnabar.” You plow through the words like eating chalk. Talking is so slow, so painfully slow, you sometimes wonder how ponies managed to cobble together a civilization at all. You could pantomime your intentions faster than using words. “How are you?”

“Good!” She practically chirps the word, and you can taste the exuberance in her voice. Literally. It is delicious, though sadly does nothing to ease your hunger. “Got anything for me today?”

You realized, shortly after arriving in Ponyville, that you needed work. A job. Not only because you needed money, but because earth ponies had jobs. All of them. Every single earth pony you have ever met has a job that they love and could talk about for hours. You know this through sad experience.

Earth ponies have jobs. You needed a job. You found a job. It's not bad, all things considered, and if you get eaten doing it, that's still better than starving to death or melting into a pile of green goo during a failed metamorphosis.

You don't talk about your job, though. You hate talking.

“A few things,” you say. You unbuckle the plain burlap saddlebags draped over your sides and begin pulling out specimens from your trips through the Everfree. Cinnabar doesn't need all of the items you've collected – many will go to other ponies here in the market – but there are a few she wants. More importantly, she'll pay for them. Even more importantly, she'll be happy, and happiness tastes very good indeed.

You set a bough of shivernettles on her counter, careful to only touch the stems with your teeth. Shivernettles aren't painful, not like regular nettles, but the toxins in their spines have a mildly hallucinogenic effect on mammals, and when brewed into tea become intensely relaxing. They would have no effect on you, of course, but Cinnabar doesn't know that.

She lets out a quiet “Oooh” at the sight, and you lap up the delicious emotion when she isn't looking. Before the feeling fades, you pull out your next find.

“Spiderbrambles!” She squeals with glee and carefully nudges one of the stems. The tiny flowers, dozens of them per stalk, are all living, fully functioning spiders. They skitter away from her hoof, as far as they can, and then freeze in place. Her breath stirs the cobwebs they have begun to weave.

“I can never find these things,” she says quietly, still eyeing the spiders. “I thought I found one, once, but it turned out to be wild mustard with a bunch of real spiders on it. They weren't too happy with me, either.”

“You just have to know where to look,” you say. It is the longest string of words you've put together in days, and it feels like hours pass while you force them out. Cinnabar's ears flick in your direction as you speak, but her gaze and attention remain fixed on the spiderbrambles. “Next to freshly fallen ash saplings, you should try.”

“Mhm.” She plucks the spiderbramble stalk from the counter and plops it in a glass of water. Within a few days it will send out rootlets, and she will be able to plant it in her garden. “Anything else?”

“Yes. Be careful with this.” Normally you don't have to warn her – Cinnabar knows her plants – but this could cause real problems if mistreated. You stick your nose into your saddlebags until the last item finds you, and you let it wrap around your muzzle. When it has a good grip, you carefully bite the loose end and pull it out.

“Celestia!” Cinnabar gawks at you, or more precisely, at the tiny severed vine attempting to constrict your face. She backs up a step, and then starts to lean forward to help.

You stop her with a raised hoof. After a minute, the vine grows tired and relaxes. You set it down on the counter and work your jaw absently.

“Arbormaw tendril,” you say. “Dangerous, but useful.”

“I'll say.” She vanishes beneath the stall for a moment and reappears holding a earthenware jug. She sets it on its side next to the tendril. Sensing the darkness inside, the severed vine sluggishly crawls toward it, looking for all the world like a leafy inchworm. When it is fully inside, she tips the jar upright and pops on the lid.

“How in Equestria did you manage to get that?” she asks. “Those things can eat ponies.”

“Was a small one.” You shrug. “Overreached. Bit off a piece.”

“Huh, well, if you get a chance, tell the mayor where you found it.” Cinnabar ties the jar's lid on with a stout piece of rope and sets it on the ground. It wobbles and teeters as the vine inside bashes at the walls of its new prison, but after a few seconds of this it lapses into a sullen quiescence. “She'll want to send a team to burn it out.”

You shrug. What the mayor does or does not want is of little concern to you, and an arbormaw deep in the Everfree Forest is only a threat to ponies with too little common sense. It's not even the most dangerous plant in the forest, much less the most dangerous creature.

You exchange a few more pleasantries with Cinnabar, which is to say she chirps and buzzes while you reply with grunts or monosyllabic words. Other ponies might think it rude, but most of the town is used to your taciturn nature by now, and anyway, you're not sure Cinnabar is capable of being offended. Some ponies are like that – their natures are so ebullient that that nothing short of a natural disaster is capable of bringing them down from their perpetual high. The pink one who's always planning parties is like that as well.

You try to avoid her.

Eventually Cinnabar peters out, and you mutter something about other ponies and escape.

There are a few ponies who regularly pay for such curiosities you find in the Everfree. Compass Call, a pegasus stallion who buys the lodestone larvae you dig out of the Everfree's iron ore veins. Winter Green, whose collection of phoenix nests burns itself up every month or so, and needs you to find her new ones.

There are ponies who could fetch such things, ponies who aren't afraid of the Everfree and have the necessary talents to harvest its dangerous fruits. But these ponies are rare, and they tend to specialize. You, though, with your liquid nature and changeling magic, manage what most ponies cannot: finding these treasures, snatching them up, and escaping with your life.

It's a living. You like living. Everyone wins.

The sun is well on its way to the zenith, now. Standing beneath it, at the height of day, is like crouching beneath the eye of an unblinking god, a god with a deep and abiding and admittedly well-founded antipathy for your kind. To the ponies around you, Celestia is a kind and loving queen, but then, they've never had reason to feel her wrath. Hopefully, they never will.

You stick to the shade as much as you can. You find a tree, a tall and stately poplar whose springtime branches are yet to fully bud, but their boughs block some of the sun's rays. You'd be happier if it were a bit warmer, but at least there is no breeze today. You even manage not to shiver while you wait for the crowds to thin.

A gaggle of foals bounces past you, laughing as they chase an inflated red ball across the square. They don't seem to mind the cool air at all, and you can already see sweat glistening on their coats.

It took you a while to grasp the concept of “foal” when you arrived in Ponyville. Among your kind, there are no such things; each changeling hatches with its full mental capacity. Even before your birth, the dreamsong of the hive already shaped your thoughts. New, young changelings (the terms mean the same thing to you) are simply smaller than full-grown changelings. After a few summer molts, the size difference vanishes, and only the state of a changeling's wings gives any clue to their age – elders develop holes and rips that never fully heal, until they die and are born again.

But not your queen's, of course. She is ageless. Or she was – you're not sure what has become of her after Canterlot.

The foals continue their play, chasing the ball around and through the legs of the adult ponies still milling about the market square. It puzzled you, at first, that ponies would tolerate such frivolity from their children, but apparently such hyperactivity is normal for small mammals, and you've learned to accept it. Their happiness eases some of your hunger.

A few other ponies loiter in the shade with you. They appear to be mated pairs, though your perception of such matters is still incomplete. You notice they seem to be focusing on individual foals, and you can taste the love and affection flowing from them.

Parents, that's the word. These must be parents, and the foals their offspring. They are not all from the same tribe – you're still figuring out the genetic basis for wings and horns or the lack thereof – and some of them bear little semblance to their children, but the emotions are never wrong. Their love is like another sense, as real as sight or taste or scent, and you could use it to match the families with their foals in the dark.

Once, a love like this sustained you. It was a fire that burned in your heart, in every heart of the swarm, a thousand million sparks of love, all radiating from your queen. The ponies who mock her, who fear her, they know nothing. They saw only a monster coming to enslave them as they deserved. They didn't know – couldn't know – of the love she felt for you. Even when she sent you to die, it was with love. It was all you ever knew.

And now it is gone, and you sip from the waterfall of love these ponies feel. Stealing it in the night, lapping at their heartblood.

Like a thief.

“I am not a thief,” you mumble it beneath your breath. “Not a thief. Not a thief.”

A few of the ears near you flick in your direction. You duck your head and fall back into silence.

On some unseen signal, the foals finish their game and break apart. They drift in twos and threes away into the town, or toddle back to their parents. That's mostly the smaller – the younger – ones, you notice. The older ones, those with a few more molts – years – are more independent. They probably gather their own food and bring it back to their nests.

As the foals depart, so too do the parents, and you're left standing by yourself beneath the swaying poplar tree. Time to go home.

The streets are thinner now, no longer a river of ponies but a thin trickle, like a summer stream that creeps between the gravel and cobblestones of its bed. You imagine the ponies are leaves, drifting in the wind, and you are flying between them.

A huge stallion hauling a wagon filled with apple-packed baskets crosses your path, and you pause to let him pass by. You've seen him before, this one, the largest earth pony in town, with a coat the color of mammal blood – red, you remember – and a bisected apple on his flanks. He smells of apples, as always, and sweat and dust and determination. He is not a pony who lets things slow him down.

The wagon creaks, a sound you've never heard before. A quick glance reveals that the spokes on one of the rear wheels have cracked. It's unlikely that ponies can hear the sounds – your ears hear different pitches than theirs. You consider for a moment warning this stallion about his wagon, to reap the wages of affection such a warning would surely earn. On the other hoof, that would draw attention to you. You don't like attention, especially not from strangers. Granted, this stallion isn't a real stranger, but the principle—

It doesn't matter, as it turns out. The failing wheel strikes an outsized cobblestone, and three of its spokes snap like twigs. The whole wagon, apples and all, begins to tilt.

If that were all, nothing more might have happened. But the sound of the snapping wheel startles the stallion, and he spins around, perhaps forgetting the yoke still strapped around his shoulders. He is a big pony, and strong, with muscles in his shoulders that probably weigh more than your entire body. The motion unbalances the wagon even further, the load of apples shifts, and the entire thing tips onto its side and begins to fall.

Directly onto a foal who is walking by.

You're not sure what happens next. Time freezes, and you don't remember deciding – one moment you were a spectator watching an accident, the next you were right there beside the wagon, practically beneath it as it fell. It didn't seem like a big wagon before, but now that it is falling toward you it is the size of a building, the size of a train car, loaded with a warehouse full of apples.

Strangely, none of that matters. Not the terrible size of the crushing wagon, or the dozens of ponies surely staring at you now. None of that matters. None of it occurs to you.

You give the foal a rough shove with your shoulder. It's not much – you're not very strong, even when wearing an earth pony's body – but it's enough. You barely leap away in time yourself before the wagon crashes onto its side, breaking, spilling hundreds of pounds of apples all across the road.

Time resumes its normal pace. You're panting for some reason, like you had just flown a hundred miles. The shock of the ponies around you leaves an bitter, electric tang on your tongue, and a cold wave crashes over your body as you realize what just happened. You nearly died. You nearly died, and there's no queen to bring you back anymore. No hive, no swarm, no rebirth. You nearly died, and that would have been it. After countless thousands of years, the end. Goodbye.

Fear, that's what this feeling is. It tastes terrible.

A quiet sound catches your attention, over the babble of a dozen ponies pointing and gesturing at the crash. A few feet away, a mound of apples shifts, and up pops a foal's head, its mouth open and its eyes blinking in surprise. It is sand coated, with a seafoam mane and eyes like the sky. It – he? she? – seems just as confused as you.

Your ankle hurts. You look down and see there's a good reason for that – a splinter of the wagon the size of a manticore's fang has pierced the illusion of a pony's coat, pierced the black chitinous exoskeleton beneath. A steady flow of dark green ichor bleeds out onto the cobblestones.

This is not good. You cannot transform your leg back, not with that wood shard in it. Even if you could rip it out with your teeth, the wound itself would still show, and the ponies gathering around the wagon aren't stupid. They know what green blood means.

You hold your leg against your chest and look around. So far nopony has noticed the injury. They're all clustered around the red stallion and the foal, who seems unhurt aside from a few apple-related contusions. All of their panicked eyes are on the foal. They care for their young, these mammals.

The foal, though. The foal is watching you. The foal sees you. The foal sees the smear of green fluid leaking from your leg all over your chest.

You turn and run.