• Published 29th Jun 2015
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A Sparkle-ling Perfection - Cast-Iron Caryatid



Changeling Twilight Sparkle and her number-one assistant, Sunset Shimmer, try to study magic without learning any wholesome lessons of friendship. They fail.

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Chapter Two 【Sunset】

My name is Sunset Shimmer, and oh Celestia, what the hay am I doing here? I silently chide myself for swearing in Celestia’s name, but this one time, it’s apt. I’m not foalish enough to blame her for the things I said that brought me to be waking up in a house full of creepy bug-ponies, but she is one-hundred-percent at fault for the perfectly-aimed sunbeam prodding me in the eye.

A shiver runs down my spine, and I’m suddenly fully awake as some part of me remembers the old stories about Celestia being able to see whatever the sun’s light touches. It’s ridiculous, but I scoot over to curl up in the shadow of the bed nonetheless. It’s not that I believe the old tales, but even if she’s not looking in on me in truth, I find it hard not to picture her here in spirit, and that’s not something I’m ready to face just yet. I wasn’t supposed to have to face it.

I was supposed to be in another world by now. A world where I would be as a god. That world had turned out to be full of sad, magicless ‘humans,’ and I among them. Now, I am lying on the floor of a little filly’s room in the noble quarter with a tiny purple head poking over the edge of the bed, looking at me like I am some sort of curious animal to be studied. I suppose, from her point of view, I am.

“I see that you have come to appreciate how troublesome your pony apertures can be for those of us who would prefer to remain hidden, but you need not fear discovery, Sunset Shimmer. According to the hive mind, your princess has ‘taken the bait,’ as it were. She believes you to be beyond her reach for at least thirty moons, if not forever.”

“Swell,” I say as I watch her crawl stiffly out of bed and stretch her tiny filly body. Not for the first time, I ask myself if she really is a filly and if I’m really going to let her do weird bug-science things to me for the sake of… well, for the sake of making all my dreams come true. Not for the first time, I answer… yes.

Yes, I am.

It’s not an easy choice, but I am not known for being indecisive. It is the right choice. It is the only choice. So long as I believe that Twilight Sparkle can and will hold up her end of the bargain, I will see this through. Otherwise… I don’t know where I’d go.

Twilight Sparkle opens the door and exits into the hallway while I’m still lying on the floor. Looking back, she says, “There is a bathroom at the end of the hall. Shower and come downstairs, but do not eat. The less waste in your system, the better.” With that said, she leaves, not even waiting for a response.

The contents of the instructions don’t surprise me, but their timing does. “Wait,” I say, getting to my hooves and rushing over to the door. Twilight Sparkle is already at the end of the hall leading to the stairs. “You mean you’re going to do it today?”

She stops and cranes her neck to look back at me. “Yes and no. We will start the process as soon as you come down to the lab. I will explain in detail then.”

The soft thumps of the filly’s hoofsteps down the carpeted stairs are drowned out by the much more rapid beating in my chest. Now? She was going to do it now? Twilight Sparkle had emphasized that I would need to be patient. I wasn’t expecting this.

Of course, if I’d stayed in the mirror, I’d already be some wretched ‘human’ thing, but even in that nightmare scenario… even if the portal had closed on me before I realized my misfortune, I’d still have been able to come back after thirty moons. Wasting two and a half years of my limited mortal life without magic would have been a complete disaster, but that would have been the extent of it.

This is more real. This, I’m pretty sure, is going to be permanent.

Slowly, I work up the courage to shut the bedroom door behind me and make my way to the bathroom, as requested. After a restless night on the floor, I definitely need a shower one way or the other. If I try, maybe I can pretend that I’m just going about my usual morning ablutions and not… preparing myself for a life-changing operation.

‘Operation.’ That’s one way to put it, I think to myself as I find the bathroom’s light crystal, drop it into the receptacle, shut the door and turn on the water, directing my magic for each process with my horn.

My horn. I reach up and feel the smooth curves and subtle ridges with my hoof. Even if everything goes exactly as planned, I’ll be giving it up if I go through with this. I know, intellectually, that dragons have a rich, primal magic that can be just as nuanced as unicorns’ if they choose to develop it, but at the same time, I can’t imagine ever being without my horn. What will it be like, doing magic without it? To live and breathe magic instead?

I step underneath the nearly scalding water and let it warm me up. I try to picture myself as a dragon, but I fail. Dragons are petty, idle creatures happy enough to laze about under the sun or sleep their lives away atop beds of gold and jewels until their bodies calcify from disuse and they forget how to do or be anything else. I punch the tiled shower wall with my hoof and lean into it, gritting my teeth. That will not be me.

Anger fills me, and I hit the wall again, but this time, the anger is not focused inward. This time, I am reminded of why I said the things I did to Princess Celestia. It was so much easier to fantasize about becoming an alicorn—to be the same pony I always was, just better—but the truth is, they are one and the same. Alicorns and dragons are both given everything I would kill to have, and they both inevitably squander it.

Twilight Sparkle is not going to squander her power. She’s going to take it and use it to improve not just herself but her entire race. I haven’t put much thought into her motivation of needing an ‘assistant,’ but there are worse ways I can imagine spending my early years as a dragon.

My early years as a dragon. I repeat it in my head, as I wash myself, still trying to picture each pony feature replaced with a draconic one—hooves replaced with claws, coat replaced with scales, cutie mark with… with…

…with nothing.

In spite of the hot water pouring down on my back, I shiver.

My damp coat prickles underneath the cool, dry air as I find my way down the hall to the stairs. The house really is like something out of a picture book, I think, as if I have ever in my life actually read picture books. I am not exactly new to expensive architecture, having lived in the palace for the last few years, but the dark wooden hoofrail, polished by use over centuries, has a different feel under my hoof than the cold, timeless stone of the palace.

It seems odd to me that I can appreciate such a thing, given the value that I place on my own timelessness, but maybe not that odd. Even after Princess Celestia took me in, I spent far too many nights crying myself to sleep, alone in an empty stone tower. This… feels like a home—though, the piercing eyes of the white stallion watching from the bottom of the stairs tell me it is not my home.

The stallion says nothing as I walk by, and my hackles rise. “Would it kill you to show me some respect?” I ask sourly, not turning to look at him directly. “I’m here because I choose to be.”

He gives a snort at that, and the look he gives me makes my skin crawl. “You’re here because you have nowhere else to go.”

I don’t argue. It’s not worth my time. “Yeah, well, get used to it,” I bite back. “I get the feeling that I’m going to be here awhile.”

“We’ll see,” is all he says and starts up the stairs. I guess the conversation is over. Good riddance.

I haven’t yet had a chance to get a sense of the layout of the first floor, but I find it easy enough to retrace my steps back to the basement, where I find Twilight Sparkle.

“Remind me which one of you is supposed to be the ten-year-old?” I ask her with as much biting sarcasm as I can muster, which, this early in the morning, is quite a bit. “Your ‘brother’ is still acting like a spoiled child who didn't get his treat at the grocers.”

Twilight Sparkle gasps. “Not my knight in shining armor!”

My mouth drops open, and I gape at her comically. “Please don’t tell me that’s actually his name,” I beg. I’m actually half serious.

“Only the second half,” she informs me, and I facehoof a little on the inside. Also a lot on the outside.

“Seriously?” I groan. “That makes him, what, ‘Shining Armor?’ Is that supposed to be ironic?”

For some reason, she hesitates to answer. “Umm, I'm not… actually sure.”

“You do know what irony is, don't you?” I ask. Given her oddly haphazard knowledge of ponies, it seems like a reasonable question, but for some reason it makes her a little snippy.

“Of course I do,” she huffs. “I'm just not sure the hivemind does. It has a queer—by which I mean incorrect—sense of humor, and I'm not sure ‘Shiny’ actually has one at all.”

“The… hivemind,” I say, stalling the conversation as I think back to the odd conversation we’d had before bed. “Right, you mentioned that before. How does that, um, work, exactly? I mean, believe me—I really, truly do not give a shit about you or your race, and under normal circumstances, you’d be entitled to your secrets, but that only flies up to the point where you said I’d be spending a few weeks as one of you. Also, that. Explain that too, because that’s kind of important.”

She just looks at me for a moment, and I wonder if I’ve annoyed her or if she’s holding some sort of conversation in her head with that hive mind of hers—asking permission to answer my questions? ‘Shining Armor’ certainly didn’t seem to think I needed to know anything.

For the record,” she says, stressing each word until I’m pretty sure that her brief silence was indeed a show of annoyance, which is a relief. “I had a presentation planned that was to be the first topic of discussion until you mentioned Shiny,” she tells me before turning away to rummage around behind the large chrysalis that dominated this side of the room.

I roll my eyes and remember that I’m putting up with all of this for a good cause—me. “Yeah, well, I’m sorry your whiny sibling got in the way of what I’m sure will be a riveting ‘presentation,’ but I’m sure you’ll get over—are those charts? And a chalkboard? Changelings use chalkboards?”

Twilight Sparkle cranes her neck from her position setting up an easel for the chalkboard to looks at me like I’m an idiot. When she wordlessly goes back to what she’s doing, I think for a moment that she’s chosen to ignore me, but after pulling the legs of the easel into place with a snap, she stands back up and brings it over to me in a weak green glow from her horn.

There is a strip of masking tape on the side that reads, Property of Meadowview Elementary School.

“No, Sunset Shimmer, changelings do not use chalkboards,” she informs me, and I’m not quite sure if she’s being haughty or bitter. Maybe she doesn’t know either, considering her purpose in life is to address the failings of the changeling education system. For all she went on about knowing her place in life last night, there sure are times when she doesn’t seem to be very happy or content. She does seem to brighten a bit as she finally stands in front of the easel, baton in hoof and ready to lecture.

It’s a shame that I can’t really share her enthusiasm, as I don’t really like lectures. I’ll try to make an exception this time, though, since becoming a giant bug thing is maybe not really the best time for the ‘learn by doing’ approach. It isn’t that I never study, mind—it’s just that, nine times out of ten, I'd be better off with an hour to myself and a book on the changeling facts of life.

Pity they don’t make those.

“Okay, here’s how this is going to go,” Twilight Sparkle says, putting on a lecturing tone—and damn if it isn’t a good one. I can feel myself automatically sit straighter. “Your pony queen should have already taught you about souls, I assume?”

“Uhh, princess,” I automatically correct her. “But yes; a pony’s soul is the seat of their identity, the source of their cutie mark and name, and the heart—but not the body—of their magic,” I recite for her, falling back into old habits as if I hadn’t burned all my bridges to that life just yesterday.

Twilight Sparkle nods, satisfied, and turns to a childishly-drawn diagram of a pony’s head and a glass of water. “Correct. Your body only performs the gross mechanisms of thought, magical and physical processes, and it is the soul which provides the impetus that drives these actions. The body is important, as without it, you could no more think than you could eat a hamburger—”

“What’s a hamburger?” I ask, interrupting her, but she ignores me. Typical.

“—but as far as what we call a pony, is concerned, all of it can be moved—not copied—to a new container. Even memories, which the body is responsible for keeping separate and contained, are in fact a part of the soul, though the most volatile part.”

I nod, but warily. “Which is why nopony has ever done it,” I tell her. “Not successfully, anyway. The test subjects always ended up… flat—like all of their experiences were blended together into one homogenous whole that meant nothing to them. Eventually, Celestia forbade the research, barring breakthrough advances in other fields that could promise real progress. I take it you have such a workaround that’s specific to changeling physiology?”

Twilight Sparkle nods, but holds up one hoof to forestall further comment. “Yes,” she says. “And I’ll get to that in just a moment, but first, I just need to make sure we’re both on the same parchment—”

“Page,” I manage to slip in, and it gets about the same reaction as my last interjection—which is to say, none.

“I am emphasizing for your sake that you have no reason to be attached to your meat, and you know this,” she says, staring me down and enunciating clearly. Somehow, I get the impression that she expects me to react badly to the news.

“Look, I get it, alright?” I grouse, irritated at all the pussyfooting around the issue. “You are going to remove me from my body, which is already all kinds of squick to start with, and then you’re going to put me in a baby bug thing—”

“Pupa,” she corrects, which, okay, I admit gets a snort of laughter from me, and I have to pause to get myself back on track. I guess I fail at the whole ignoring interruptions thing, but I don’t let it stop me.

“You’re going to put me in a pupa,” I say, starting over from the correction. “Whereupon we, plural, will be studying the intimate crevices of my comatose body to divine the secrets of, if not necessarily everything that makes me such an awesome unicorn, at least the physical characteristics of one so finely honed to the production and control of magic. Somewhere during that, you’re going to move me on into a freaking dragon’s egg for me to be reborn again, and then you and ‘Shiny’ will take turns on the drawing board so you’re prepared to systematically pick up the pieces of my bucked up, aborted life and take my place! Then, you’re going to use that information and resources of a princess’ student to produce an army of clones and take over the world!” By the time I’m done recapping all the weird-ass crap that Twilight Sparkle’s plan entails, I find myself panting for breath. “I—bucking—get—it!”

Twilight Sparkle just purses her lips and waits for me to finish. “Fine,” she says after I’m done, turns to the easel and flips all of her charts and graphs onto the floor. “I am going to liquefy your brain and lay eggs in it.”

I stop to process that for a moment, and I feel something like a claw around my heart. My silence does not go unnoticed.

Twilight Sparkle looks up from the mess she’s made of her materials. “Sunset Shimm—?”

A clap of thunder and a flash of light drown out her words and my world fades to white.

I wake up to a blurry impression of trees, my horn burning. It isn’t like waking from a restful sleep in a haze of blissful ignorance. The sun filtering through the trees and the wind in my mane instantly fill me with an icy dread.

“Oh, balls,” I state eloquently, realizing what I’ve done. For some reason, my panicked teleportation has brought out the Trottingham in me.

I’m not from Trottingham, nor have I ever been there. I briefly pray that I’m not there now, but teleportation doesn’t work like that—nor does language, for that matter. At least, I’m pretty sure local dialect isn’t plucked from the aether in the same way as names are. I feel like somepony would have mentioned that at some point, and that the hippogriffs working in the palace kitchens would have been easier to understand if it were true.

I roll over on the grass and shield my eyes from the sun with my hoof to ease the throbbing in my head. After lying there for a few moments just breathing in and out, I let out an audible groan. “I am such a lily-livered, sallow-ankled, snub-nosed mule. Buck!” I tell the trees and limply slam my forehooves into the grass at my sides. Great, throw a tantrum, why don’t I? Real mature. “I don’t need this right now.”

My anger peters out into self pity almost as fast as it came for a lack of any ability to express it or a target to aim it at. I try to stand and make it halfway, but my horn feels like a leaden weight anchoring my head to the ground, and I just flop over onto my other side.

As I lay there, I can’t help but reflect on how bad this is. Somepony could see me—Princess Celestia could find me—and Shining Armor is going to be such a smug, self-righteous prick when he finds out I bolted just because that little bug-sister of his wants to lay eggs in my head—oh bucking Celestia, how do you respond to that?

You respond to that by running the buck away as fast as equinely possible, you literally Celestia-damned child.

And what’s wrong with that? That’s the sensible response, isn’t it? Not only that, but… I am a child. I hate to admit it—I hate that it’s true—but I am. I am fourteen freaking years old—how is this my life?

It doesn’t have to be. Deep down, I know that. I could swallow my pride and crawl back to the princess. I could tell her how wrong I was—tell her about the horrible hive of shape-changing, fillynapping, brain-liquefying bugs hiding in her city. She would take me back and set torch to the infestation. She would.

And I would hate myself for it. I would never be happy, and she would always look at me with that sad face full of pity, and she would never forget. She would take me back, but there’d be no taking back what’s already been said—doubly so not when my mind hasn’t actually changed on what’s important.

I could run, though. I could go to Trottingham. Do they have changelings in Trottingham? Would anypony know if they did?

Buck.

I knock on the door with my face. This is unfortunate because, for the moment, I’m still a unicorn, and unicorns are known for the curious quality of having rather sensitive horns attached to their faces. Mine in particular feels like I’ve used it to plow a rock farm and then touched it up with a pencil sharpener before ramming it into the solid oak door of my buggy benefactors.

“Ow,” I mumble into the wrought iron door knocker and fumble around for the latch with my hooves. I know I’ve found it when the wooden surface pressing into my face disappears, only to be replaced moments later by the floor, which is of similar construction but features a much nicer polish.

I’m not gonna lie—I’m kind of miserable right at this second, and I basically hate everyone and everything. Finding my way back from the outer palace gardens without magic or the ability to focus for more than five seconds without questioning my choices in life basically sucked, and it’s a miracle I made it without drawing the attention of anyone who knows me. I would explain how I managed it in greater detail, but the fact is, I don’t know either, since I wasn’t present at the time.

Of course, avoiding friends, family and the constabulary is one thing, seeing as I had precious little of the former, a poor opinion of the latter and all but nothing in between, but I don’t believe for a second that I avoided the notice of the vaunted changeling spy network. Kind of makes them assholes for not lending me a hoof, but this surprises no one.

It’s as I’m imagining just how many bugs-in-ponies’-clothing must have been secretly laughing at me dragging myself dead through the icy streets, that I hear a stilted sniffle coming from the door to my left, opposite the storeroom that leads to the cellar.

You have got to be kidding me.

Getting to my hooves feels like I’m trying to push the whole world off of myself rather than vice versa, but somehow I manage in spite of the hyperbole weighing me down and make my way over to what I divine to be the kitchen by the presence of an icebox and a small, purple unicorn sitting on a high stool with her head buried in her hooves on the counter.

Mostly, it’s the icebox.

Shoot. How do I do this? At least Shining Armor isn’t around, from the looks of it. Letting my body fall heavily against the doorjamb, I take a deep breath and give it a knock in lieu of the presence of a door. “Um, hey,” I say, announcing myself without much of my usual charm.

Tiny purple ears swivel in my direction, and slowly, the head attached to them lifts out of the barrier formed by two stubby forelegs. Damn it all, she has been crying. She looks at me with unfocused eyes, like I might be a hallucination, and she doesn’t want to get her hopes up. Or a changeling, I guess—wow, it must suck to grow up with shapeshifting siblings. Do they do that? Laugh and play and prank each other by making themselves look like old granny bug down the street? I didn’t even know they could cry—for real, I mean—which seems horribly racist when you think about it, but then, they are face-sucking, life-stealing bugs, so maybe it isn’t unreasonable to think of them as a teeny bit inequine.

Shoot, I’m going to have to be the one to make the first move, aren’t I?

I pull myself off the doorjamb and make it over to the counter, pulling up a stool beside her. It feels wonderful to be able to get off my hooves in a way that doesn’t use my face in their place, and my legs thank me.

“You came back?” she asks with a crack in her voice, and I’m not sure if it’s a puberty thing, a changeling thing or just a crying thing. In any case, it works, and I’m left feeling like a heel.

I drum on the counter with my hooves for a second as I figure out what to say. “I came back.” Time well spent, Sunset Shimmer. Time well spent indeed. “I’m not gonna lie; you… kind of freaked me out back there.”

“’Mmsorry,” she mumbles. “’Swhat I was trying to do, ‘cause I’m a dumb.”

Well, she has a point—wait, no, now is not the time for that. “Look, I realize that I… was not at my most agreeable either, so for what it’s worth, I’m… uh, I’m sorry, too.” I think it’s been years since I actually said those words and meant them, but this changeling, Twilight Sparkle… I don’t know. For all she’s been talking down to me the entire time, she’s at least been treating me like an adult. This is serious business, and I should have been acting like it.

Twilight Sparkle, for her part, takes my apology like a boss—lying down and moaning—leaving me to drive the conversation onward. “So, how come you didn’t know that I was coming back until I walked through the door? I mean, I kinda assume you’d have had half of your hive out looking for me.”

Shiny is, because he’s worried about his mission, but there’s no one else,” she tells me, finally showing a little vigor, if only through bitterness, but hey, it works for me. “They can’t be bothered. I’ve been here six months using resources and ordering changelings around, and the first step I tried to take is a f-failure because I can’t keep my big mouth shut. The only reason I haven’t been recalled is because they already spent the jelly to hatch and raise me.”

Harsh. “It’s kind of early to call it a failure, isn’t it?” I say. I am here, and all.

“You mean, you’re willing to help?” she asks, a tiny thread of tired hope working its way into her voice.

Yeah, well, guilt, greed and an astounding lack of options can have that effect on a mare. “I’m willing to hear you out, at least,” is my non-committal answer.

She seems confused. “Hear me out?” she asks.

“Well, yeah,” I say, thinking that this was kind of obviously the next step. “You said you wanted to liquify my brain and lay eggs in it in order to freak me out. What’s the real plan?”

Twilight Sparkle stares me dead in the face. “That is the real plan,” she says. “I wouldn’t lie to you about that, Sunset Shimmer.”

“Um, okay…” I say, by which I mean not okay at all, but I’m not going to book a trip to Trottingham just yet. See? Progress. “I’m trying to be reasonable, here, Twilight, but it’s getting very, very difficult. I feel like this should be obvious, but pony brains don’t work when they’ve been liquified, and they respond similarly poorly to being penetrated by multiple objects the size of tomatoes.”

“That is… technically correct,” she admits, which I’m not sure is good or bad, to be honest, but at least it is honest, I guess. “But I have charts downstairs that I’m sure will explain—”

“Twilight,” I interrupt, firm, but hopefully not too abrasive. It’s not a skill I’m well versed in. “Come on, we’ll get to the charts later, but for now, just sit here and talk to me, okay?”

Twilight Sparkle purses her lips like she just tasted something sour and looks away from me. “It is a slight exaggeration to say that the brain is liquified by the process, but not by much. After being placed in the chrysalis, certain enzymes are introduced into the amniotic fluid that render the neural tissue into a jelly-like state without compromising its structure. There is some danger involved, as significant shock at this stage can result in hemorrhaging and death, but this is extremely unlikely unless the pony is removed from the chrysalis prematurely.”

“There, see?” I say, unable to keep myself from sounding a little patronizing. “You made it sound almost reasonable, that time. Almost. And the… eggs?”

Now that I’ve got her talking, she’s doesn’t hesitate much to continue. She’s definitely not as comfortable as she would be with her charts and easel, though. “Changeling eggs can be influenced in a variety of ways to produce different breeds from the same stock. The most classic example of this is the process of using royal jelly to produce a queen, and the methods for producing soldier and worker caste changelings are as old, or older. Using these as a framework, we’ve learned that we can tie the genetic material collected from breeding programs to specific stimuli.”

“Special goop makes special changeling,” I summarize.

Twilight Sparkle takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Quite,” she says. “And the ‘goop,’ as you call it, that produces one very specialized strain of changeling, is the equine neural jelly.”

No amount of scientific professionalism can make the phrase ‘equine neural jelly’ not sound disgusting. I think I’m feeling a little green. “You showed me the egg last night. I still don’t see even one of those… you know… fitting. Inside my head.”

This time, she hesitates to answer, fidgeting with a napkin in her hooves until she works up the courage. “For our purposes, the embryo—singular, though it develops into two distinct organisms—will be removed from the egg before being introduced into the cranial cavity through the spinal column via the back of the throat, but, um… what it eventually comes down to is, there are parts of your brain that you won’t be… needing… and these parts will be… disrupted by the entry of the embryo.”

By the time she’s done with her explanation, I have to lean in to hear her tiny, timid voice. My voice, though? Not so timid. “What?!

“Th-the spinal column, brain stem, cerebellum and motor cortex a-are really not that important!” she insists. “They just interface with the body to do meat things, and they’ll be replaced by changeling analogues once development is complete!”

I open my mouth to say something—yell about how attached I am to the motor and coordination centers of my brain and how they’re directly involved in magic, which is only my special talent, I guess—but I just… I just… I can’t even…

I get up, and I walk out of the room.

An empty hallway greets me, and I’m at a loss for what to do. My rump itches where I landed on it earlier, and I realize I’m filthy from the subsequent trek back, so I head back upstairs to shower again.

Because I need a shower, not because… you know. Not that.

I think.

My shower goes by in a haze of hot water and steam, and though my mind is no clearer getting out than it was going in, at least the soreness in my muscles and the tension in my back have gotten some relief.

Shining Armor is there when I open the door. He looks like he needs a bath and a pair of hedge trimmers. I expect some sour comment at least, and his face certainly looks like he’s come armed for bear, but the moment passes, and he just pushes past me and slams the door behind himself. I guess he’s as past dealing with this crap as I am.

My opposition bypassed, I continue on down the hall, drying my mane as I go with a towel held aloft in my teal magic, still weak from my unplanned teleportation, but recovering. I’m almost to the stairs when something crosses my mind.

I’m pretty sure that I used up all the hot water.

A moment later, a crash from inside the bathroom tells me I’m right.

Twilight Sparkle is no longer in the kitchen, so I head on down to the basement because… because. True to my expectations, I find her there cleaning up the mess of charts and—are those index cards? Ugh. “Okay, lets finish this up. Bug eggs in my brain—what does that actually get us?”

“The embryo consumes the neural jelly, effectively becoming that pony, body and soul,” she tells me, as she levitates her materials into one of the dressers that make up the makeshift wall that hides the lab. “At the same time, the part of the embryo that would normally connect the embryo to the hive mind splits off and develops in parallel. Eventually, the growth of the embryo pushes it out of the cranium back through the entry cavity, while the part that split off remains behind and integrates itself into the pony’s body in place of the brain.”

“So, you’re telling me that you can take a pony, scoop out their brain, replace it with a changeling one, and there’d be no way to tell the difference?” That’s not really a pleasant thought. “It’s a wonder there are any real ponies left in the world. There are real ponies left, right? It’s not just Celestia and me in a world where changelings rule in all but name, right?”

Twilight Sparkle rolls her eyes at me like I’ve read too many dimestore novels, but at this point, I think I could believe anything. “It’s nothing like that, no,” she says, to the relief of a small, paranoid voice in the corner of my head. “It can’t actually think. It’s not even a brain at all, just an… antenna that connects it to the hive mind, which itself runs mostly on subconscious thought—like the sum total of everyling mumbling to themselves in a quiet room. The neurospast will look normal from a distance and respond to commands as the hive mind understands them, but it lacks a cutie mark, and even so much as speaking is beyond it. Honestly, they aren’t very useful under normal circumstances.”

Not useful, maybe, but supremely creepy. “So you get, what? Some sort of… pod pony?”

“Well, yeah, pretty much,” Twilight Sparkle says, glancing over at the large chrysalis that towers over the both of us. “You’re looking at the ‘pod,’ after all.”

Right. Pod ponies are real. I probably should have seen that coming. “And the pony? They’re trapped in the body of a changeling, but not a changeling, since they’re not a part of the hive mind?”

“Yes and no,” she says. “Even without possessing a specialized organ for communicating with the hive, there are still certain connections that can be made with a nymph just by virtue of changeling anatomy, particularly in close contact and especially with physical contact. We’re going to exploit some of those qualities to get your soul into that dragon egg, so they’re good things, but all the same, we’ll probably want to keep you away from too many other changelings and minimize the actual time spent in that form.”

“Got it. No ‘intimate’ contact with other changelings as a nymph if I don’t want them in my head,” I summarize, as if I wanted to spend any more time around changelings than I have to. “Do I want to know why you call them ‘nymphs?’”

She cocks her head and looks at me. “Why would we not? They are an immature juvenile form that does not go through a pupal metamorphosis.”

“Bug science,” I grunt. “Okay, that’s… reassuring. What else?”

Silence.

“That’s it?” I ask, and she nods. “Buck it. Fine, let’s just do it. I’ve come this far, I don’t honestly have a lot of options and I’m sick and tired of all this waffling and pretending I do. Worst case, you’re lying, I get turned into some sort of jelly-brained mind-slave and Princess Celestia feels bad when she has to cut me down during the bugpocalypse. Best case, you’re telling the truth and I get turned into a jelly-brained mind slave, but it’s cool because my brain already got eaten by bug larva and I grow into a ‘nymph’ with personal space problems. That about covers it?”

“You mean you’ll do it?” she asks—though, she should know by now not to second-guess me. “Yes, that should be just about everything.” She nods curtly, and I step up to the chrysalis, ready for—wait.

All this talking about what’s going to happen, and I realize that I don’t actually know how the thing opens.

A short while later, everything is actually ready to move forward. My stomach rumbles, but I’m not allowed to eat and I only have myself to blame for delaying things.

“Wait,” Twilight Sparkle says, stopping me with a hoof on the shoulder. “One more thing before you get in.”

I pause, and a small part of me hypocritically welcomes the chance to put this off for just a minute or two in spite of what I just said. A chance to change my mind is the last thing I need. “What?” I ask in irritation that seems lost on Twilight Sparkle.

“I need to know,” she says, falling into a posture that reminds me of Princess Celestia when she’s acting all parental. “What is your motivation for doing this, Sunset Shimmer?”

It irritates me, just like it used to when Princess Celestia did it. “I think you’ve shown that you know very well what I want. I mean, at this point, you’ve even convinced me to let you put eggs in my brain.”

She sighs, “I know what you want,” she says, making it sound like a bad thing as she paces around behind me. As she reaches the other side of the lab, she turns around. “But why? You came back, and I don’t… understand that, given that you fled in the first place. You ponies are complicated, full of conflicting goals, and last thing I want to do is misunderstand. I can guess and plot and plan, but it seems more sensible to ask. To… talk.”

Privately, I wonder how she manages to sound so insufferably superior and reasonable at the same time. I just walked in on her crying a half an hour ago, for Celestia’s sake. “I just want what I deserve,” I say, but even as I do, I know it for a cop-out.

Twilight Sparkle doesn’t call me on it directly, but I can tell that she’s not satisfied. “And Princess Celestia?” she asks, causing me to frown. “If I could make you into a grown alicorn this instant—I can’t, obviously, but if I could—what would you do with that power? Would you confront her? Attack her? Kill her? Would you take her throne and rule Equestria with an iron hoof? You keep joking about changelings overthrowing her. Is that what you expect? What you want?”

I can’t help it, I blanch at the thought, not because I could never do that, but because I could. My gallows humor doesn’t come from a desire to go on dates or play hoofball, after all. “N-no,” I stutter absolutely convincingly, leaving no doubt whatsoever in my voice as to my conviction. Well, half of that is true, I guess, but not the way I mean it.

“No?” Twilight Sparkle asks, raising one eyebrow in question. I wish it was as easy to lie to her as it is to lie to myself.

I take a breath and try to picture it. I am an alicorn brimming with power, what do I do? Like earlier, when I was trying to picture myself as a dragon, I fail. Why? It was always so easy, before. Of course, I was still her student before. I still had a chance of earning her approval.

“All I ever wanted was to rule at her side,” I say, punctuating it with a groan. “To be what she was grooming me to be. I mean, I was her apprentice. Apprentices follow in the hoofsteps of their mentors; that’s how it works—and I’m not just some crazy kid with delusions of grandeur, either—she admitted it!” That gets a look from Twilight Sparkle that I haven’t seen before. Good to know she can actually be surprised by something other than me doing something colossally stupid.

“But that just makes it worse, doesn’t it?” I ask with a bit of hysteria creeping into my voice. “She could have done it at any time, but she didn’t. If I went back to her as an alicorn, it wouldn’t change anything. Celestia, this whole thing has been stupid from the start. I don’t want to fight her, but she just makes me so mad!”

“Hrm,” she says, digesting my anger like it gives her indigestion. “Really? No megalomania? I’m honestly surprised.”

“What?” I ask, incredulous. “If you thought you could use me against her just because I’m pissed off, then you don’t know me half as well as you like to think. If it wasn’t for that stupid lie about the mirror that you planted, I might still be her student!”

“No, no! It’s good!” she insists with a panic that I hope is genuine. “I don’t want you fighting Celestia at all—just the opposite! I could keep you away from her, but it’ll be much easier if I don’t have to. I just really expected it to be more of a problem, given your… drive.”

Oh, I guess that kind of makes sense—the whole taking over my life thing. “Yeah, well… maybe it just hasn’t sunk in, yet,” I grumble. “This whole thing is just so far out there. I still kind of feel like I could wake up and find out none of it ever happened. I mean, look at me; look at you; look at the conversations we’ve been having. How is this even real?”

“Do you think that would make you happy?” she asks, setting a friendly hoof on my withers. “Think about what I said last night. She isn’t the type that sees power as a reward.”

Would I go back to being just her student if I could? In a heartbeat. “I’d be happier.”

Twilight Sparkle sighs and her hoof drops off my withers. “I know you feel like you’re being strong-armed into this, and I am going to do terrible, monstrous things to you, but I really wish you’d see it as an opportunity. For what it’s worth, I never meant for the mirror to tempt you to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do; I just wanted to be sure I knew where you would go. I… apologize, if you feel this is my fault, but do remember… you came back, even after I tried to push you away with my childish outburst.”

“Thanks, I guess,” I say automatically, but my heart isn’t in it. The reminder that she was planning for my falling out with Princess Celestia stings, but she’s probably right. I probably would have screwed up eventually, and I did come back. This is on me at least as much as it’s on her.

“Really, though, if all you want is a second chance with her… well, you’re going to get it, aren’t you?” she asks, and I can hear the excitement in her voice. “And not just a chance to go back to your life as a disgruntled unicorn, but something else entirely. How do you think your life would have gone if you’d been an alicorn from the start? If you didn’t have that specter of inadequacy hanging over you?”

“I was not inadequate!” I snap with a growl, and Twilight Sparkle actually steps back. Good. Well, no, bad. Ugh. She kind of pisses me off, but she really has a tendency to be right about all the worst things. “Look, you talk too much, and I’m kind of a bitch, but I’m not going to screw this up, okay? I’ve made my decision, so let’s do this.”

Twilight Sparkle stands there and blinks. “Uhh, right. Okay. Go ahead and step into the chrysalis, then.”

I take one step forward and stop. There’s still one question that hasn’t been answered.

“How exactly do I… do that?”

Author's Note: