• 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 Four 【Sunset】

My first thought upon waking is that there is a reason that equines do not remember their births. That reason is, technically, that those centers of the brain have not yet fully developed and bonded with the soul, but at this point I’d be willing to believe that the process is just that unpleasant.

Because, trust me, the process is that unpleasant.

Between one moment and the next, I go from a muddling half sleep, floating comfortably inside the chrysalis, to my alien body and brain telling me I’m drowning. The fluid around me is thick, viscous and never-ending as I thrash about, searching for a way out. When I’d gone to sleep, it had been inside a slightly claustrophobic chrysalis barely half again as long as I was when laid out on my back; now, the only sign of anything but murky ocean was a dim yellow glow in front of me.

My newborn muscles scream at me as I scramble to fight my way through to the light, either swimming or digging—I’m not sure. The light gets brighter, and soon enough, my nose bumps into the waxy wall of the chrysalis.

What now?

Panic wells up inside me as I feebly beat at the thin film of hazy green barrier between me and life. I have no idea what to do—but my body somehow does. The next time I throw myself against the chrysalis, I bend my head low and bury my tiny horn into it. Unicorn horns are sensitive and used solely for magic, so the natural instinct is to protect them. Changeling horns, on the other hoof, are sharp enough to take lives.

Or, in my case, save them.

Pulling my head back, I see a spot of lighter yellow in the wax in front of me. The wall is intact, but only just. One more time, I thrust my head forward—this time with purpose—and the barrier bursts.

The waxy wall collapses, flushing me out onto the hard resin floor, where I fall over onto my front hooves, coughing up the stringy fluid that had nearly drowned me. It takes everything I have to take those first few gasping breaths, and once my throat is clear, I collapse onto my side in exhaustion.

I feel a hoof rubbing my back to help me breathe and look up to see a giant Twilight Sparkle two or three times my size, and towering over us both is a statuesque, dead-eyed, pale yellow unicorn with red and gold hair. Me.

It’s not just the cold cellar air on my wet chitin that makes me curl up into a ball as I drift off to sleep. Those eyes and the emptiness within stir a sickness in my throat.

What have I done?

My dreams are of a Canterlot populated entirely by puppets with empty eye sockets filled with a roiling sea of insects; roaches and spiders and tiny purple Twilight Sparkles churning and writhing over each other just beneath the surface. Princess Celestia sits above them all in her throne, completely oblivious that she is the only pony left in a city of hollow faces. At the end of the day, she gets off her throne and returns to her chambers where her most favored, trusted student awaits her; Sunset Shimmer, her eyes the same as all the rest. The doors close, leaving me outside.

The next time I awake, it’s to a much more pleasant atmosphere, but the feeling of sickness in my throat remains. The terry cloth blanket I’m wrapped up in is warm, pink and has that special tingly smell like it’s just been horn-dried. I can’t help but rub my face in it just to feel the fuzzy cloth against my fur.

I… I have fur. For a moment, I begin to think that everything that happened since I stormed out on Princess Celestia has all been one, long, bad dream, but my heart sinks as soon as I see my hooves—tiny, barely formed, and… white?

My attempt to find my way out of the bedding and get a better look at myself elicits a titter and coo from somepony, telling me that I’m being watched. When my face finally pokes out into the world, I feel the warmth of the sun shining down on me, as well as the warmth of… something else.

“Oh, how precious!” squeals the voice of a stranger. “Is she yours?”

I feel my method of conveyance shake a little under somepony’s hooves, before they answer. “Oh, Celestia no! My two are quite enough for me. This little one is… well… it’s actually a little embarrassing.”

“Oh, this, I have to hear,” the other voice says with a lighthearted giggle. By now, I’ve determined that I seem to be in a stroller of some sort, but any attempt to open my eyes and see where I am blinds me. “Come on, Velvet, you can trust me. Do you have a much younger sister who’s not ready for motherhood, then?”

Velvet… that must be Velvet Sparkle, the changeling posing as Twilight Sparkle’s mother. “Something like that,” Velvet says with a chuckle. “But not quite. I do have a much younger sister, and she certainly is not ready for motherhood, considering she’s not out of diapers yet.”

Wait, am I…? Yes, I am indeed wearing a diaper. Swell.

The other voice gives a gasp mixed with feigned shock and delight. “This little thing is your sister? How adorable! I’ve heard of that, you know—mothers giving it another go after their first has left the house. I can’t imagine going through it all again, myself.”

“Yes, well, mother is certainly spry for her age, and she does love children.” Translation: the queen bug is immortal and has thousands of offspring. Isn’t reading between the lines grand?

I make another go at trying to open my eyes, but they don’t seem to have adjusted at all, and trying to force it only lasts a second before I’m burying my face back in the blanket.

“Oh dear, is something wrong?” the stranger asks.

No, no. Nothing is wrong. Princess Celestia’s just being a bit of a bitch with the sun today. Would it kill her to turn it down every once in awhile?

“Ah, well, you see, I’m afraid the poor dear has albinism,” Velvet says as she reaches down and wraps me back up in a bundle of warmth and darkness. “The white coat and mane certainly set her apart, but sensitive eyes are an unfortunate side effect.” Translation: It would have been super awkward to be walking around with a baby Sunset Shimmer, so they gave me a debilitating disease instead of buying a box of mane dye.

Changelings.

I hear some more cooing, though the words are muffled by the blanket now pressing my ears flat, and another wave of warmth washes over me in spite of my being shielded from the sun. I want to jump up and curse out the changeling pushing my stroller for this indignity, but suddenly I just don’t have the energy. I feel as if I’ve gorged myself on carrot cake, and before long I find myself drifting back to sleep.

My dreams are much more pleasant this time, I think, though I don’t really remember them. That seems to be the way of my life; skimming over the good so I can dwell on the bad. That’s hardly going to change any time soon, though. In order to focus on something positive, I’d have to have something positive to focus on.

Right now, all I have to focus on is a dark room and the fact that I’m a bug, and I can’t even come to terms with that because I don’t actually look like a bug right this second. You’d think that I’d prefer this, and maybe I will, but it’s super creepy not even knowing what I really look like.

Well, middle of the night or not, I’m awake now; might as well find a mirror and see if I can shake this transformation. I’d rather not wake anypony—anybody? Anyling?—mostly because I can barely stand the lot of them, not for any concern about interrupting their sleep. I’m not waiting until morning for my changeling orientation speech if it turns out that I need it.

I thank my luck that the changelings haven’t gone so far as to put me in a crib, as demeaning and inconvenient as that would be—at least, in theory. What they’ve actually done, at least from the look of the brass handle sticking out above me, is stuffed me in an open drawer wrapped in swaddling. Given the lumps I feel prodding me in the back, I don’t think they even bothered to empty the drawer first.

It takes some doing to unwrap myself from the swaddling, and it surprises me how cold the air feels, but it makes sense, given the difference in my ratio of surface area to mass, so I take what little comfort I can in it. Even more encouraging is that, if a blanket is capable of keeping me warm, then I can’t be cold blooded. Best yet, it looks like I’ve been upgraded to toddler.

Look, I’ll take what I can get, okay? This whole thing is incredibly surreal, considering I know that this… me… isn’t real. My ghost-white coat all but glows in the moonlit room, and I almost don’t even notice the silken tail pooled beneath me for all the different it looks from the rest of me. Ponies aren’t supposed to have identical coats and manes.

From my vantage point in the top drawer of the nightstand, I can tell that I’m in the same room as before, which means the lump in the bed that’s twice-my-size is, in fact, the diminutive purple form of Twilight Sparkle.

My options were clear: climb from the nightstand to the bed, and then down to the floor, and risk waking her, or jump straight down and risk landing on my face.

The answer is obvious.

Way to take one for the team, face.

The fall barely fazes me thanks to my weighing about what a cat does, just without the natural grace or even so much as a fifty-fifty chance at landing on my hooves. Like the cold, it’s one of those changes you go through growing up that sneaks up on you, and before you know it, gravity has you under its hoof—unless you’re a pegasus, I guess. Lucky bastards.

I try not to let my mind go straight to alicorns. I’m not an alicorn. I’m never going to be an alicorn. I’m a changeling… thing. A nymph. I’m going to be a dragon. Do dragons all have wings? Am I going to have wings? Do I have wings now? All perfectly valid, important and even actionable questions. They don’t feel like it, though; they feel wishy washy and theoretical. I still feel like a pony.

I… think that needs to change. I need to find a mirror and get rid of this transformation so I can see what they’ve done to me. So I can see what I am now.

I manage to get the door open with a weak green glow from my horn, but doing so feels surreal in a way I can’t quite pin down. Having green magic is weird, sure, but it’s not that, nor is it the effort it takes me to turn the knob. It’s something else. Something about how the magic works inside me that’s just subtly wrong. Nonetheless, the door creaks open and I slip through.

The hall is dark, but the lack of light proves no hinderance. I’m not sure if I’d rather attribute my improved night vision to being a changeling or just the albinism they gave me. It’s probably the former, in any case; I’m pretty sure albinism just interferes with the eyes’ ability to block out light rather than actually making them any more sensitive.

The bathroom is at the end of the hall, past a few closed doors with changelings behind them in some configuration that’s unknown to me. Presumably, Twilight’s parents have one room in the hall and Shining Armor another. Apart from Twilight’s room, which I just came out of, that leaves only one left that may or may not be empty. Not good odds. I’ll just have to be as quiet as possible the entire way.

I needn’t have worried. My tiny hooves barely make a sound, even on the much denser carpet running down the center of the hall, and though I trip over myself no less than three times, no one seems to notice. I slip quickly into the bathroom, doing my best to ignore the strange feeling thrumming through my magic for the sake of expediency.

Maybe a little too expedient, seeing as I find myself in a pitch black bathroom with only the vaguest memories of where the bathroom’s light crystal is.

Once again, I light up my horn—this time, just for the dim green light that barely makes it to the corners of the room. I grumble unkind words when the crystal doesn’t seem to be in its holder by the door where it’s supposed to be. Usually it’s kids that do that, but Twilight doesn’t seem the type. Probably Shining Armor, then. Fine. Whatever. I can do this in the dark.

I have two options; either I climb up the side of the bathtub and then from there up to the sink, or I can just try and shed this disguise down here, and hope I can figure out insect wings if I have them. Given the difficulty I had just walking down the hallway with these stubby legs, the former sounds daunting, but latter is risky. I might not have wings, they might not be mature, or they might be too alien to work, and if I fail, I’m not sure chitin on porcelain would make climbing any more doable.

Hard way it is, then.

That’s… the first one, specifically, in case it wasn’t clear. I’d kind of like to get a look at how I look with albinism anyway.

I find it easy enough to jump up and throw my forelegs over the side of the tub, and from there, it’s the easiest thing in the world to pull myself up, over… and slide down the other side using my face. My horn sputters out as I lay there in the tub.

Why is it always the face?

Not a problem. I flop out of my awkward position by rolling onto my back, then again to get my hooves under me and relight my horn. It’ll be easier to get up onto the sink if I don’t have to turn around on top of the wall of the tub anyway—and that’s what I do. I repeat my jump to get my forelegs onto the side of the tub, repeat pulling myself up, get my hooves precariously under myself and finally repeat the entire process with the sink, complete with toppling over into the basin—intentionally, this time. Mostly.

Ah, that’d be the light crystal in my ear now. It’s just like a bug… stallion… thing… to leave it in the sink. I shake it out of my ear and levitate it up to the secondary receptacle above the mirror, where it lights up, leaving spots in my sensitive eyes before I can look away.

Well.

That’s me in the mirror… only not. The identical colorless coat and mane colors are as weird in whole as they were in part, and even my eyes are only slightly bluer than the whites around them. Strange, I thought albinos had pink or red eyes—something about the blood showing through. Maybe that was just small animals, though. There were a lot of subjects that I neglected on the path to power. I guess it’s true that life, like Princess Celestia, always ends up testing you on the subjects you didn’t study.

My hoof drifts to the mirror, almost as if to touch the pony in front of me to see if it’s real or not. I had wanted to shed my disguise, so I could see what I really am, but this form… actually doesn’t leave as much to deny as I thought. I may look like a pony, but it’s more like I’m a paper cutout. It doesn’t feel real.

Still, I have to see what is real. I light up my horn and get to work poking and prodding myself with magic. Again, I feel that same weirdness throughout my body, and this time, I focus on it. It’s like the border between my horn and the rest of me is indistinct, and every time I try to focus magic through it, some of that magic is drawn away to the rest of the body. At first, I suspect that it’s the magic powering the transformation, but it’s not. It’s just… seeping away into the air.

In the end, my cursory inspection using the weak, unfamiliar magic tells me little, but even if it’s not what’s powering the transformation, I think I can use the overlap to disrupt it. Locking eyes with my reflection, I take a deep breath and push as much magic into my horn as I can without letting it go anywhere. It’s kind of plugging your nose to pop your ears, and the feeling is similar. For a brief moment, I feel the pressure build up to a small percentage of what I’m used to, and then it bursts into green flame around me, leaving a pricking sensation and the smell of ozone in its wake.

I don’t know what I expected, but the image of bone-white chitin in the mirror was not it. Several questions of biology crash into my train of thought and exit out the other side, leaving me staring at my reflection.

I look like a bone doll like you’d find hanging in a zebra hut.

It’s the eyes that really do it. In her changeling form, Twilight Sparkle had solid blue eyes, probably to filter out the high energy light and let through the red and infrared spectrums for better night vision. I don’t have that; the albinism has stripped me of it. The entirety of each eye is unshielded, black pupil, making my head look like a hollow-eyed skull that I can barely make out from the hazy, blinding light of the bathroom around me.

All in all, I’m not sure which is worse; the fake-feeling pony mask, or the real me underneath that manages to make me creep myself out. I swear, this Celestia-damned albino thing had better not stick when they make me a dragon.

Okay, I’ve had just about enough of eyes the size of baseballs without an iris; the light is starting to give me a headache. I can only solve one of the two right now, so I grope with my magic for the light crystal.

Big mistake; my eyes aren’t the only thing that are over-sensitive. That’s what that weird feeling was. That’s how changeling transformation works.

The entirety of my chitin conducts magic, and it feels good. The light crystal barely wiggles before I collapse forward onto the sink faucet, gasping for breath. That… was amazing.

Too bad it’s shit for actually using magic.

I get it, now. I understand Twilight Sparkle’s mission. Changelings, if they want to be as good with magic as ponies… well, from a pony’s point of view I would say it can’t be done. Taking a pony’s form is just a patch on the problem; they would need to be redesigned from the ground up to get anywhere near pony proficiency in magic.

It’s not the sensation; even though feeling magic ripple across an entire body of interlocked chitin is like being dipped in static-charged silk, that’s just a distraction, and it can be adjusted to. The problem is the physical design of the whole thing. Changelings are built for transformation, and they probably evolved that way from the very beginning. The horn itself might even be a later addition to allow them to mimic pony magic. It’s only mimicry, though. Trying to do real magic with it…

It’s like dipping the entire quill in ink and trying to write calligraphy.

My chitin is crawling, and it’s not from the magic. I’m excited. Magic is what I do, and even if changelings are starting at a disadvantage, the idea of changing that is something I can get behind. For the first time since I came here, I can actually imagine the future. I can see the problem, and I’m already thinking of ways to fix it. I have something to look forward to—and not even for selfish reasons. I’m almost disappointed that I won’t get to experience the changes, but then I remind myself about the dragon’s egg and all the possibilities that holds.

I have hope, and for one, brief moment, it’s enough to make me forget about the circumstances that brought me here.

Bracing myself, I fill my horn with magic and let it flow over me while I concentrate on removing the light crystal properly this time. It takes a moment, but my blind groping finally latches onto the shotglass-sized crystal and pulls it free, sending the room back into sweet, bearable darkness.

I elected to let my eyes relax for a moment or two before cracking them back open and extricating myself from the faucet I had my hooves wrapped around. Interestingly, with no iris, there was no adjustment period in returning to the dark—at least, outside of the actual lingering spots left by the bright light that completely filled my vision.

As the haze begins to lift, I spot a figure in the mirror looming over me with cold, dead eyes.

“Buck!” I cry, spinning around to look behind me. My hoof slips on the porcelain and I topples out of the sink. As I fall, the last thing I see is the bearer of those eyes dispassionately watching me and doing nothing.

Crack, my head hits the side of the tub and my vision is taken from me once again.

I don’t think I actually lose consciousness, but it’s a while before I can process anything outside of the pain shooting through the back of my head. I can feel myself being dragged by the hoof down the hall, the carpet an odd feeling against my chitin, and I try to kick off my assailant, but it’s useless; the force holding my back hoof isn’t physical—it’s magic.

It’s also not the green magic of changelings, but a bright teal. My bright teal. I lift my head just enough to drop it back down in exasperation. Ow. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Sure enough, the figure stops at the sound of my voice and cranes its neck to look back at me. It’s me. It’s my body with those nightmarish, lifeless eyes. It might seem like I’m overstating the matter; they’re not actually physically different form than those of a normal pony. They are still just my eyes, after all—but that’s just it. I know those eyes, and looking at them from the outside is bad enough, but… how can I explain it?

It’s like seeing a pony whose meaning and purpose in life has been stripped from them. There is nothing in those eyes, no light, no life, no recognition. The pony behind those eyes has resigned itself to a soul crushing, despondent malaise, and you can’t help but deeply empathize because that pony is you.

Stunned to silence as I am, the thing loses interest in me and resumes dragging me… down the stairs.

“Ow! Buck! Ow! What—” I yell as I hit each step on the way down, until a teal glow shuts my mouth, forcing me quiet as my lungs desperately try to push enough air through my nostrils to feed my elevated heart rate. I focus on taking long, deep breaths in order to avoid hyperventilating, and I almost have a handle on myself long enough to be thankful that the steps are carpeted. Unfortunately, the landing isn’t.

Clunk.

The thing wearing my body doesn’t hesitate a single step as in continues on, dragging me over the hardwood floor and towards—oh no. I grunt and do my best to brace myself as my journey continues on down the filthy, roughly made stairs and into the basement. Just when the horrible scraping of chitin on concrete slows to a stop and I think it’s over, I remember the doorway to the lab is a wardrobe embedded askance in a wall of junk.

The wardrobe creaks open, and the teal magic swings me around and tosses me in, clipping my horn and tail on opposite sides of the passage in the process.

Ow.

A wiggle of my leg confirms that I’m free of the magic grip, and I just drop it back down in exhaustion. What energy I had is spent, and I just lie there for a moment cataloging my hurts and bruises as my body steps out the back of the wardrobe, shuts the door and… stops.

As I lay there in silence, I realize that the glow around my mouth is also gone. “What the hay?” I say, but there’s no response, or even so much as a reaction. Just those eyes staring at me. What was it Twilight Sparkle had said about the thing?

“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.”

Wonderful. It can’t speak, but it can creep up behind me and drag me down to the dungeon. My chitin shudders uncomfortably underneath its gaze and I curl up on my side in response. It wasn’t so bad when I was alone, just thinking of myself as having been transformed into a changeling, but having my body standing there… the body that used to contain my brain but now doesn’t… makes the disturbing reality of the situation hard not to think about.

An insect embryo burrowed into my brain and consumed it from the inside out, drawing my soul inside it to inhabit its body while it claimed mine for its own. It had all worked, my soul, memories and emotions all intact. I was still me, and yet, it was still disturbing to think about.

Okay, that’s enough. The thing wearing my body is just standing there doing nothing, and though I need to accept what’s happened and what I am now, exposure therapy starts with short durations, and I’m at my limit. I roll myself up onto my shaky white legs and make for the door.

Just as I’m about to pass by the thing wearing my body, I get a facefull of canon, and for the instant it’s in contact with me, it’s as if the floor has fallen out beneath my hooves. The sensation of drowning is all too familiar, but instead of stringy birthing fluids I find myself at the bottom of a vast a morass of tar and voices. Individual thoughts flow like honey in winter, barely managing to overcome the sheer inertia of the whole. Every emotion is rationed, each decision held in committee.

My request for panic is denied.

They warned me. Twilight Sparkle told me to avoid physical contact with other changelings as a nymph, and my mind had gone straight to the gutter. It’s not my fault—it’s the name. ‘Nymph’ has unfortunate connotations outside of the insect world. I pictured, at worst, getting into a fight with Shining Armor, if not the two of us working out our mutual anger in some other way like the plot of a tawdry romance novel.

It never occurred to me that, in housing the part of my changeling brain that would have connected me to the hive mind, my own body was the greatest danger of all.

They find me the next morning, curled up in one of the lab’s alcoves as far from that thing as possible, shivering in my sleep, dreaming again of the infested Canterlot from before, only this time there is no other Sunset Shimmer by Celestia’s side. It’s just me, crying on the inside as a vast swarm of insects plucks the invisible strings of my bondage from inside my own head.

According to Twilight Sparkle, a normal changeling can control how deep in the hive mind they go, but the neurospast living in my body… can’t, and I got the full brunt of the experience. Oh, and she tells me the reason it dragged me down here is because I’m not allowed out into the house without a disguise, and that I need a changeling in my head to help me with that until I learn to do it on my own.

I’m not sure why Twilight Sparkle’s face is already bandaged, but on the bright side, it keeps the blood from getting all over the place when I hoof her in the face.

Author's Note: