• Published 20th Apr 2016
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The Village Called Respite - Carapace

There is a hidden village deep within the untamed forest surrounding Neighagara Falls. Should one ever journey to this village, the changelings who live there will welcome them for a simple price: love.

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13. A Flock Amongst the Hive

Sure Stroke jolted awake and tried to move her legs, fighting against the green slime that bound her limbs together. Her mouth was covered, her screams reduced to nothing but muffled cries and pleas for help or mercy.

“Well, well, she’s awake!”

She felt her breath hitch in her throat at the sound of Mister Warm Welcome’s voice. Craning her head, she saw him standing alongside a full-grown changeling mare with golden eyes and a mane as yellow as sunflowers, both giving fanged grins as they loomed over her parents.

“Did you enjoy your nap, dear?” the mare purred, running her hoof through Drizzly Day’s matted gray mane. She leaned down and nosed against his quivering cheek, trailing her long, serpentine tongue along his jawline. “Mmm, delicious! Full of love and seasoned with a healthy dose of fear!” She sat back on her haunches and pulled him close to her side, tilting his head up with a hoof so she could lick his snout then turned to her husband. “We should keep this one, darling. It’d be a shame to let such a strong stallion go to waste.

Chuckling, Warm Welcome kissed her cheek. “I was just thinking the same thing.” With a flick of his wrist, he nudged Skydancer onto her back, earning a startled squeak from the trapped mare. He leaned down and licked her neck, his eyelids fluttered shut. “Mmm, I may have to let you try her, love! She’s delectable!”

“There’s plenty of time for us to enjoy our share of each of them!” She scooted close to him, chittering as they shared a kiss. “They’re ours now!”

“The Queen always lures in the tastiest treats! We’ll have to share them with her once we’ve finished our meal!”

“What a wonderful idea! Do you think she’ll let us have Cool Breeze? It’s been a while since I’ve tasted him!”

Sure Stroke’s struggles renewed. She fought against her bonds, whining as the sticky slime seemed to tighten with her every struggle. Even her wings were bound and stuck against her side, leaving her helpless to watch as the changeling couple held her parents tight in their powerful embrace, sharing another deep kiss over their meal.

Something warm and wet ran across her cheek. Sure Stroke started and made to move away, but found herself pulled by two pairs of hooves. She turned, her blood ran cold in her veins as she met Aspire’s gaze.

Her friend snaked his hoof around her neck and pulled her in close. He ran his tongue from the nape of her neck all the way up to her chin. “She’s just as tasty as you said she’d be, Essy.” Sure Stroke watched him lick his lips, her eyes caught sight of a bit of drool. “It was worth the wait to season her a little!”

Another tongue teased her ear. Warm breath washed over the tip. “Love, desperation, fear, and betrayal!” Esalen said breathily. “All part of a good nymph’s diet, especially when it’s wrapped up in such a cute little package!”

“I never should’ve doubted you, sis!” Aspire leaned over to nuzzle Esalen’s nose. “Ponies are so silly, thinking they’re anything but food!”

“Well, they make good servants,” Esalen said as though talking about the weather. “And they’re a lot of fun to trick, of course.”

He hummed, releasing his grip to bring a hoof up to his chin. “I suppose you’re right.” Shrugging, he leaned in close, baring his fangs. “Either way, this one’s ripe and ready to eat!”

Sure Stroke’s ears pinned back, a whimper escaped her throat. She gave one last struggle, but Esalen held her tight.

“Now, now, just relax,” Esalen cooed, nuzzling her ear. “It’ll only hurt for a minute, then you’ll get a nice little buzz once our venom kicks in.” Soft lips pressed into her mane. “Why would we hurt such a yummy little thing when we can feed on you for as long as we like?”

Aspire tilted her chin up with a hoof. “Thanks for coming to dinner, Sure Stroke! It’s gonna be great having you!”

With a hiss, he darted forward, his fangs seeking out the side of her neck …

A terrified shriek escaped her lips. Sure Stroke sat up straight. Her chest heaved, her body shivered as she frantically searched for any sign of changelings or her parents.

There were none. Just four wooden walls, her old attempts at painting some of Cloudsdale’s more famous landmarks, and her bed.

She was alone in her room.

It was all just a terrible nightmare.

Sure Stroke brought a hoof to her chest, she felt cold sweat matting her coat as she tried to steady her breathing.

Wrinkling her snout, she thought back. Aspire and Esalen walked with her until they made it to her house, then pointed further down the main road toward their family’s home—Aspire fixed her with a sly smirk, saying “Looks like you’ll get real familiar with how changelings play tricks, eh neighbor?”

A shudder ran down her spine as she thought of his trick during hide and seek, the sly smirk he’d shot her overlapped with the wicked grin he wore in her nightmare.

She shook her head. Aspire and Esalen weren’t like the nymphs in her nightmare. They were both kind, patient, and caring. Aspire had even taken the time to coat her leg in slime to bandage her wounds—regardless of how strange, and icky, it was.

Her eyes flitted to her legs, staring at the sickly green slime still coating her cuts. Unbidden, another thought crept to the forefront of her mind:

Was he really being kind because I’m his friend? Or is he tending to me because he wants to keep me in good health until tomorrow night so he and Esalen can feed on me?

Again, she shook her head. No, they wouldn’t spend all that time trying to make sure she was comfortable, especially all that stuff with shortening their fangs, for just one meal.

Would they?

Sure Stroke bit her lip. She touched the slime wrap with a hoof, cringing a little at the strange, goopy feeling it left her with. It’s still warm.

Whatever Aspire’s changeling slime was made of, it managed to keep warm somehow and stuck to her without being spread onto her bed sheets as she slept. Though, it did seem to cling a little bit, almost like tape. But with a quick tug, it stretched and dislodged, staying fast on her legs.

She thought back to how he spoke of the slime’s purpose. “He mentioned some sort of magic to make it heal or do other things.” Furrowing her brows, she brought her hoof closer for inspection. Her eyes found the scrape marks on her knee.

Curious, she rolled out of bed, giving her wings a couple flaps to work out the post nap stiffness, then slowly arched her back. She winced as her muscles protested her stretching, the ache from her breakneck sprint through the forest and subsequent fall left her with a twinge right in her lower back.

Maybe a bath will help. She checked the clock sitting on her desk. Five fifteen, dad should’ve just gotten home from his first day with the weather team a half hour ago. By now, he’ll have taken a bath and sat down at the kitchen to drink cider so he can talk to mom while she cooks.

Sure Stroke walked over to her bedroom door and pushed it open. She pricked up her ears to listen out for the sound of her father’s low, almost sleepy sounding voice, her mother’s more lively, chipper tone, and the telltale hiss of the stove.

“… Wasn’t too bad today. I talked with Raindance about the weather going forward.”

“Oh?” Skydancer’s voice floated down the hall. “What’d he say?”

Sure Stroke’s ears flicked as her father gave a noncommittal hum. “He said we should only see a few showers coming in over the course of the next week, so as long as we coordinate that with some of our own rain, we should be okay. Storms are a bit more sparse this time of year, so not much in the way of thunderhead wrangling.”

“Well, at least you’ll get a chance to meet your team and learn how they do things without a formal weather factory. Hopefully, you’ll have a little bit before nature throws any stray storms our way.”

“Hopefully so, but I’m preparing for storms either way.” There was a beat of silence, then he added, “I saw that you’ve put your name down for emergency weather duty.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke tilted her head. Mom’s never been a weather pony. At least, not that I know of. She perked her ears up and trotted slowly down the hall, doing her best to keep her hoofsteps quiet.

“I did, yes,” Skydancer replied. “I thought you might like the help.”

“Any particular reason why? We have a decent number on our roster, and quite a few of the changeling guards volunteer from what I’ve heard.”

“I’m sure they do, but I know enough about weather magic and formations to help out in a pinch.”

Drizzly gave a low grumble. “You like teaching foals better, though. And I thought you were more excited about the chance to help rehab injured flyers.” There was a soft thump, the sound of his mug being placed on the table. “You’re not a trained weather pony, Sky.”

Sure Stroke reached the banister and poked her head around the corner just in time to see her mother stop stirring vegetables and turn, brandishing a wooden spoon at her father. “Just because I didn’t work in the weather factory or get a piece of paper doesn’t mean I can’t push clouds, Drizzly!”

He leaned back in his chair and held his hooves up in surrender. “I wasn’t trying to say you couldn’t! I’m just saying you’ve never dealt with rogue thunderheads before!”

Skydancer’s cheeks puffed up, she flared her wings out wide and pawed at the floor, ready to launch into a tirade.

By chance, she glanced out of the corner of her eye at Sure Stroke.

With a surprised squeak, Sure Stroke ducked behind the banister, bringing her wings up to cover her head.

“Sure Stroke?” her mother called, drawing a flinch. “Honey, I know you heard us. Come out.”

Laying her ears flat against her scalp, Sure Stroke poked her head around the banister again. She offered a crooked smile. “H-Hi, mom! Hi, dad!”

Drizzly raised an eyebrow at her, a wry smile crossed his muzzle. “What have we told you about eavesdropping, young filly?”

She ducked her head. “To not to …” Her cheeks burned as she shifted from hoof to hoof. “Because it’s rude, and I don’t know if I’m meant to hear the things ponies are talking about or not.”

“That’s right,” he said, giving a single nod. He beckoned her in with a wave of his hoof. “Come on in, sweetheart. Tell me how school was today.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, her eyes flitted to the slime on her legs, then back up to meet her mother’s. She sucked in her lips and tried to send a silent plea for help.

Fortunately, she had years of practice doing so with her mother.

Skydancer cleared her throat. “Drizzly,” she began, speaking soothingly. “Sure Stroke had a bit of an accident during recess today, and ended up getting a few cuts on her legs.” Glancing at Sure Stroke again, she added, “And her cheek.”

He blinked, looking from Skydancer to Sure Stroke. “I don’t mean to sound cold, but you seem okay, sweetie. You didn’t hit anything too hard, right?” Drizzly leaned forward in his seat, craning his neck. “I don’t see anything on—wait a minute …” His eyes narrowed. “What’s that on your cheek? Did somepony stick gum to you?”

Sure Stroke flinched. “N-Not exactly gum. It’s, um …” She shifted from one hoof to the other, screwing her eyes shut and taking a deep breath. Just get it over with. Like pulling off a band-aid. Except this one is made of slime and got spat on your leg by one of your friends.

With a sigh, she stepped into the kitchen. Her ears twitched at the sharp gasp her father let out.

“What in the name of Celestia,” he began. His chair scraped against the wood as he stood up. An angry scowl marred his muzzle, his wings flared. “Who did this to you?”

“It was Aspire—wait, he didn’t do it to be mean!” she said hastily, holding up a slime-coated leg before he could make a move. “When I got scraped, he put this on my legs like he was bandaging them. He said changelings can use their cocoon slime for stuff like that.”

Drizzly thought a moment, folding his wings against his sides. He glanced to Skydancer. “You knew about this?” he asked.

She nodded. “I spoke with Aspire and Esalen today. They told me the same thing.” Thinking a moment, she tilted her head to the side, laying one ear flat against her scalp. “Though, I could always double check with their parents. Or perhaps, Breezy, so we don’t make it awkward.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate that.” Drizzly looked down at the floor a moment and mumbled, “I’m not comfortable enough with Raindancer or Stormy Sky to bother them about stuff like this yet.”

“We could talk to Queen Euphoria,” Skydancer offered. “She was rather adamant that we could go to her with any questions or if we felt uncomfortable.”

Sure Stroke’s head snapped up, her ears stood up straight. She glanced between her parents and made to speak, but found herself unable to form the words.

On one hoof, no pony should get in trouble for trying to help, even if they had to help after scaring the feathers off of her. On the other, her nightmare and Esalen’s words still plagued her thoughts.

“Mom loves having friends for dinner!”

A cold shiver ran down her spine. Was he actually trying to help, or was he just preserving a meal for himself?

“Either way,” her father’s voice brought her back to reality. “We’ll ask and decide then.” He walked over and leaned down, surveying her legs with a gaze that spoke of curiosity and unease. “It doesn’t hurt?” he asked. “You don’t feel uncomfortable at all?”

Biting her lip, Sure Stroke rubbed at the slime to show how it stuck to her hoof. “It’s a bit strange, but not painful. It feels like some kind of mixture of gum, syrup, and tree sap.” She tugged at it, watching with muted fascination as it stretched a little, then snapped back like a rubber band. “It didn’t get all over my sheets, though. So I suppose that’s a plus.”

“I wasn’t as concerned for the laundry, but at least we won’t have to ask how to wash it out,” Skydancer put in. “I’d still like to wash your sheets, though. No offense to your little friends, but sticky sheets aren’t fun.”

Drizzly sniffed, wrinkling his nose and drawing back. “Yes, speaking of which, you’ll need to take a bath, sweetie. You’re sweatier than me.” He raised a brow. “Did you go out back and run around while we weren’t looking? I thought your mother said you went to lay down for a nap.”

Sure Stroke let her ears droop. The image of Aspire grinning that fanged grin and thanking her for coming to dinner before he lunged for her neck was still fresh in her mind.

She looked down at her hooves, staring at Aspire’s slime wrap for a moment. “I had a nightmare,” she mumbled.

“Oh?” Drizzly placed a hoof on her back and pulled her in close for a hug. “Must’ve been rough if it made you sweat like this. Do you want to talk about it?”

A whine sounded from the back of her throat. She laid her head against Drizzly’s chest and gave a single nod.

Drizzly nuzzled the top of her head. His wings wrapped around her, soft feathers brushed against her sides as he held her tight, just like he had when she was younger.

Sure Stroke took a deep breath in through her nose. “I dreamt about their family having us for dinner,” she said.

Skydancer let out a sharp gasp.

“Go on,” her father said softly. He ran a hoof through her mane. “Tell me about it.”

Leaning into his touch, she continued, “Mister Warm Welcome and his wife had you both bound with cocoon slime and were talking about how they wanted to play with you before they fed on you. Aspire and Esalen had me bound as well and were talking about how silly of me it was to ever trust them. Aspire even thanked me for coming to dinner before he bit my neck.”

Drizzly stiffened, he tightened his embrace and continued his ministrations. “It was just a dream,” he said after a moment. “They haven’t tried to do anything like that, have they?”

Sure Stroke fidgeted in his grasp. “I heard one of my classmates offer to let Aspire feed on her in exchange for help with our math homework, and Vector said that they’ve been tasting my emotions whenever they flick their tongues out.”

“That … I didn’t know.” Drizzly shifted, his free hoof trailed down to wrap around her. “Sky, did you?”

“I had no idea. I’d seen a couple changelings shapeshift in front of me, and I’ve seen those brothers from the ice cream parlor wrinkle their snouts whenever somepony in a bad mood walks by.” Sure Stroke glanced over to see her mother bringing her spoon to her chin. “To be honest, I just thought they didn’t like seeing ponies in a bad mood. I never considered that they were tasting for emotions.”

“Another thing to ask Queen Euphoria, then.” Sighing, Drizzly folded his wings against his sides as he turned his attention to Sure Stroke again. Concern flashed across his face. “I thought you were getting along well with those two.”

“I was—I mean, I am!” Sure Stroke frowned at her slip up. “I’m trying to get along and be open to new things and stuff, but they’re just so different!” With a groan, she brought her hooves up to cover her head. “It’s their stupid fault I had that nightmare, but I don’t even think they meant to scare me—well, I don’t know if Esalen did, Aspire definitely did when we were playing hide and seek.”

Skydancer moved to sit with them. “What do you mean he scared you? And what did Esalen do?”

For a moment, Sure Stroke sat in silence. She chewed on her bottom lip, flicking her tail as she tried to think of a way to word it best. “W-Well, before we played hide and seek, Esalen and I teased Aspire a little. Apparently, the changelings take that as an invitation to play and tease in turn, so …” she trailed off, mumbling the last bit.

“Speak up, sweetie.”

With a low whine, Sure Stroke ducked her head. “He snuck up behind me and copied another pony’s voice so he could scare me. I panicked and flew through the forest as fast as I could, and then—”

“That’s when you fell,” Skydancer finished for her, wrapping her up in a hug. “Oh, sweetie, you know the foals back in Cloudsdale would’ve started roughhousing if you’d teased them.”

Drizzly snorted. “Sky, you can’t exactly blame her for being a little scared. Roughhousing and chasing is one thing, but taking another foal’s voice to play a trick is a bit off the wall, even for me!”

“He said he was sorry,” Sure Stroke mumbled. “He thought I was comfortable and wanted to play.”

Pulling back a moment, Drizzly made to speak but stopped short to think. “I didn’t mean to imply that he—sweetie, I don’t mean to accuse your friend of being a bully, I just meant changelings imitating others is just so … different for us.” He ran a hoof through his mane and heaved a sigh. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired, and I want you to be happy here, and I guess I just worry about you.”

She hung her head. “I know, Dad.” Raising her head, she gave a hesitant smile. “But at least he helped me afterward, right?”

He gave a hum, but let the issue drop.

A pang of guilt shot through her chest. How sad was it that she could go so easily from wondering if Aspire was sincere to using his strange show of kindness?

It was just a dream like dad said. Still, she wasn’t entirely sure. Aspire and Esalen were nice enough, but the way they invited her over just bothered her so—the wording in combination with how they fed on love and all those stories she read just made her coat stand on end.

“Do you think that’s what gave you such a horrible nightmare?” Skydancer asked. “Aspire scaring you during your little game.”

“Um, well, that might be a part of it. There’s … other stuff because of those stories about changelings. And another thing that happened today …” She glanced at her parents, then back down at her hooves. I have to tell them anyway if I want to go over to their house. “They invited us over to their house for dinner tomorrow night.”

Her parents exchanged confused looks. “That sounds rather nice,” Skydancer began. “Why would that give you a nightmare—oh!” Comprehension dawned on her, she brought a hoof to her mouth. “Those old stories!”

Wincing, Sure Stroke nodded. “Kind of. But that’s just part of it.” She rubbed her shoulder, her wings unfurled and made to wrap around her barrel. “They said their mom loves having friends for dinner, and I sort of froze and started thinking …”

She felt her mother’s grip on her tighten. Out of the corner of her eye, Sure Stroke noticed Drizzly’s wings unfurl and his ears pin back, as though he were ready to leap to her defense.

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Slowly, he relaxed, folding his wings against his sides.

After a moment, he opened his eyes again. “Perhaps they misspoke,” he said. “They probably meant that she loves having friends over for dinner—I hope that’s what they meant.”

“Hope?” she squeaked.

“Hope,” he repeated. “Otherwise, I’ll be having words with Queen Euphoria. She promised your mother and I that feeding without consent was forbidden here.” Drizzly drew in a breath through his nose, then released it. “I would like to meet them so I can get another look at how they act. Warm and his foals—er, nymphs, rather—seemed nice.”

He turned to Skydancer and met her gaze, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “What do you think?”

Skydancer unwrapped one hoof from around Sure Stroke to hold his. “I think that’s fair. But—” she looked at Sure Stroke. “—I won’t make you if you’re uncomfortable being in their home. We could always ask Queen Euphoria to move us elsewhere in the village, or … something,” she finished lamely, offering a forced smile.

Sure Stroke let her head drop, nosing into her mother’s chest. It was comforting to have her parents with her as she tried to weigh her options.

Aspire and Esalen had been friendly, and so had the rest of the foals and nymphs in her class. By Celestia, none of the foals so much as blinked at the nymphs flicking their tongues out or baring their fangs.

And when Toola offered to let Aspire feed, he said no because he’d only helped with one problem. Her ears perked up. He was going to have her eat a piece of cake if he did so she could keep her strength up.

He was looking out for Toola’s health. Perhaps as part of a way to ensure he could feed on her more later, but it was less predatory or parasitic than she’d thought. In fact, if she looked at the way they both acted, along with the other foals and nymphs, it was more akin to something else.

They’re almost symbiotic.

Curious. Very curious.

But what did that mean for her friendship with them? Did they just think her well-being and happiness was a means to ensure a regular snack? Were they genuinely trying to be friendly?

Or was it both?

She rubbed her hoof against the slime covering her knee. If she wanted answers, there were only a few ways she could get them. Each involved speaking with the changelings themselves.

Sure Stroke would have to go deeper into their culture to understand the strange creatures she lived among.

Her mind was made up.

“I want to go.”

Author's Note:

What do you mean it's not Thursday? Shut up. Tuesday starts with a T, therefore I am allowed to update today if I damn well choose.

I'm not crazy! You're crazy!

Especially, you, Timaeus!

Thank you for reading the misadventures of my ponies and changelings in this strange village called Respite! If you like the story, please consider reading my other works and donating to my Patreon.

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