• 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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23. The Legacy of Love

Sure Stroke watched with rapt attention as Aspire turned the page to an image of changelings playing their tricks on unsuspecting ponies; an earth pony seduced to follow a beautiful mare deep into the mountains, a grinning changeling playing terrible pranks on unsuspecting unicorns, and a false pegasus slipping into the ranks of the ancient legions without notice.

He read aloud, “In the age before the Three Tribes unified, changelings were feared and reviled for fearsome appearance and trickster nature. They hunted and played tricks on ponies with abandon, and lured their prey into their hives to be charmed and bound to their will, the perfect supply of the love they were denied.”

He turned the page to show an image everypony in Equestria knew quite well. The three leaders and their subordinates, all standing around a table with smiles on their muzzles as they shook hooves. A signed document sat between them. Below, though, the three tribes stood together as one army, glaring down a crowd of changelings led by a changeling queen with a pewter mane and sharp blue eyes. “As the ponies united, they discovered a common enemy. Tired of the tricksters who lived in their midst, their armies banded together to chase the ancient hive away …”

Slowly, Sure Stroke let his voice fade into the background. Her eyes scanned over the pages. She took in every detail. From the angry snarl gracing the old Legionnaires’ muzzles, to the way the changelings bared their fangs and tried to fight back against insurmountable numbers.

The Queen of the Ancient Hive had no choice. When the ponies were divided, her changelings had been free to feed and charm ponies as they pleased. It was a delicate balance of nature. The pegasi warred, the unicorns studied, the earth ponies farmed, and the changelings fed and tormented with abandon.

But once the ponies united, the changelings were faced with greater numbers they could possibly imagine. The unicorns offered magic to detect their disguises while the pegasus legions drove them out of villages, the earth ponies learned their strength to batter the changelings back and force them to retreat.

Little by little, the ponies pushed them out of the new Equestrian territory toward the far reaches of the north, where the land was covered in barren tundra for most of the year. Soon, the changelings found themselves with a new problem: starvation.

They wandered aimlessly, struggling to survive in the harsh winter. The Ancient Queen led them into a cave, fearful of her race dying off in the cold as a mighty snowstorm raged around them. It was as if all their misdeeds had finally caught up and the fates had come to collect old debts.

She watched as her changelings grew weak. Day by day, the youngest and oldest of their number grew sick and frail without the sweet nourishment of the love they so craved. She longed to send scouts in search of a town or outpost for aid, no matter how unlikely the prospect.

But the Queen couldn’t bear to send them off into the endless white abyss. Her changelings were her children. Their survival as a species fell upon her shoulders.

“I will go out into the storm,” she told her kind. “I will find us a new home and food aplenty. This cave will not be the end of us.”

“But Highness,” they protested, “surely we can handle such a task. Let us go, you must stay safe here. We will return with news of a new home and food, and will bring nourishment back for you.”

She refused. “T’was my arrogance and foolishness that led us to this, my children. I should have seen the changing tides in Equestria, but I ignored the signs. I shall go, for it is my duty as Queen. None shall bear this burden save me.”

The Queen set out, leaving her mate in charge until she returned, with orders to wait one week. If she wasn’t back by then, he was to assume she had been lost in the storm and assume control of the hive.

She set out with her race’s survival at the forefront of her mind. Stumbling through the frigid winds, her vision obscured by walls of pure white on all sides as she was battered by the furious storm, she wandered without aim. Day after day, she searched, her strength fading with every effort she made to trudge through the snow.

She collapsed, unable to go on, the hunger pangs and numbing cold rendered her helpless against the frigid north.

Sure Stroke felt a tiny pang in her chest as she regarded the picture of the ancient Queen laying face down in the snow, too weak to go on. She couldn’t help but see Queen Euphoria in her place—the aquamarine and pink mane with beautiful gold circlets wound around laid over the ancient Queen’s tattered pewter.

“She was willing to go that far?” she whispered.

“Far enough that she’d risk freezing to death,” Zephyr replied. “If not for her, we might not even be here today.”

In front of her, Aspire broke from his reading to glance over his shoulder at Sure Stroke. “The Ancient Queen was said to be the epitome of what a changeling was in that age, and she’s the one who most of the modern queens look to as some sort of model, whether it be her trickery, her affinity for blending in, how charming and seductive she could be, or how much she cared for her kind.” He gave a small yawn, then turned back to his reading. “The Queen lay in the snow, helpless against the cold. Her vision blurred, she could feel her carapace freezing and becoming as brittle as glass, her magic was so drained she couldn’t even shapeshift to protect herself. All hope seemed lost … until she saw them.”

He turned to the next page and shifted to the side so she could see more clearly.

The picture showed the Ancient Queen, still laying in the snow, but with one eye cracked open to peer into the storm, straight at a group of glowing lights.

“At first, the Queen was certain she was seeing things, hallucinations brought on by hunger and sleepless nights. The glowing lights came closer and closer until she could make out the forms of several ponies, the likes of which she’d never laid eyes on before. They called out to her, their eyes wide in concern, but she didn’t have the strength to speak. Sleep took her just as their leader, a gleaming pony with a long, flowing cloak, offered a hoof to help her rise to hers …”

The Queen awoke in a warm bed and found herself laying in a strange room of soft peach crystalline walls. Startled, she looked around trying to get her bearings. She happened to steal a glance out the window and let her jaw drop.

A city of crystal buildings that seemed to reach up toward the heavens themselves, with gleaming ponies who glowed at their very core and shone with the sun’s light smiling as they went about their day as if there weren’t a raging storm.

She checked again. The city was completely untouched by the storm itself, yet she could see the dark clouds stretching out toward the horizon, with lightning flashing in the distance.

“I was hoping you would awaken soon,” a stallion’s voice sounded from behind her. “You gave us quite the fright, stranger.”

The Queen turned to find herself face to face with a gleaming stallion garbed in a pink and purple cloak with the image of a blue heart on his chest, a kind smile gracing his muzzle as he levitated a cup of hot soup over to her. She held her hooves out, gaping dumbly at him.

His smile never abated. “Drink,” he ordered softly. “You’re very lucky the Crystal Heart’s enchantments enabled us to see you by our southern gate. Any longer and you might have frozen to death.”

She drank as commanded, her parched throat soothed as it passed her lips and filled her stomach. Her chest filled with warmth she hadn’t felt in an age, as though she’d just fed on love itself.

But that wasn’t possible. Ponies couldn’t infuse love like changelings. And yet, she was filled like she hadn’t been in ages.

“Where am I?” she found herself asking. She ran her tongue along her lips, both to savor the delicious soup and to taste the stallion before her. Curiosity and kindness reached her tongue, a sweet taste to be true.

“You’re in the capital city of the Crystal Empire,” he replied. “My sister’s Empire, to be precise.” He paused a beat, then said, “Forgive me, stranger, but we haven’t seen any pony quite like you before. You appear similar to our cousins to the south, yet clearly aren’t.”

The Ancient Queen nodded once. “You are correct, my glimmering savior. I am a changeling, this is my natural form.”

His brows raised. “The tricksters?”

She flinched, but nodded again. “Yes. I am their queen.”

“Oh? I had no idea I was in the presence of fellow royalty,” he said with a smile. “I am called Snowshine, younger brother to the Crystal Princess, Amortia. If you don’t mind my asking, my sister wondered what brought you this far north. And, given that your kind is from the south, I find myself curious as well.”

Bowing her head, she replied, “We were chased north by Equestria’s unified tribes, they fear and hate us for how we appear and for how we require love to survive. Our trickery and deception came about as necessity, which angered them more over the ages.”

He thought for a moment, then asked, “How many are you?”

“Few,” she said sadly. “Two hundred at most, counting the nymphs.” Pausing a beat, she corrected herself, “Our foals.”

“I see.” Snowshine frowned. “Wait here and rest. I’ll speak with my sister and see what she thinks on this.”

Aspire broke off to stifle another yawn. He blinked owlishly and gave his head a shake. “Hoo! Sorry, I’m more tired than I thought. What time even is it?”

From his spot on Aspire’s bed, Vector glanced up at the clock slimed to the wall. “It’s going on eleven thirty.” He stared a moment, frowning and biting his lip as if he were trying to hold something back. Then he brought a hoof to his mouth to cover a yawn. “Darn it, bookbug! Now I’m doing it!”

“I said I was sorry! Sheesh!”

“Maybe we should break for tonight,” Nimble offered. She nodded to Toola, who was cuddled up against her side with her eyelids drooping. “Little miss bouncy is just about to conk out, and I haven’t even cocooned her yet.”

Toola let out a whine of protest. “Am not.”

Nimble nipped at her ear. “The only way you could be more tired is if you let me feed right now.” Turning her attention back to the group, she said, “Maybe we should put the rest of the story on hold. It’s not exactly a foals’ book, after all.”

Frowning, Sure Stroke gave her wings a little rustle. “But I want to know what happens next!”

Aspire turned to smile sleepily at her. “We can always read it together another day, or you could borrow it.” He glanced at Esalen. “Er, if Essy’s okay with it. This one is hers.”

“It’s fine by me,” Esalen replied without missing a beat. She leaned against Sure Stroke and rubbed their shoulders together. “If Doodle’s that excited about reading our history, she’s more than welcome to borrow it for a while.”

Sure Stroke glanced around the room, each of her friends certainly looked as though they were about to nod right off in front of her. She sighed and let her wings droop, nodding once. Her curiosity would have to wait a little longer.

She had more questions than before, even with the start of their journey to the north.

Thinking about it a moment, she went over what she’d heard of changeling culture since moving to Respite. Aspire and Queen Euphoria both made mention of “Sainted Ones” when they spoke, the former speaking as though they were allies, while the latter talked about how the changelings had been taught a new way.

She wracked her brain, she couldn’t remember much about the Crystal Empire from her history classes other than its fall at the hooves of King Sombra and subsequent disappearance due to his curse. Could that be it?

Were the so-called “Sainted Ones” the lost crystal ponies?

Her friends stood and began filing toward the door so they could go brush their teeth and prepare for bed. Sure Stroke followed suit, resolved to get her answers another time.

Sure Stroke couldn’t help but feel a bit awkward as she felt her friends’ stares on her back while she pulled her sleeping bag from within the confines of her shoulder bag. She let her ears lay flat and ducked her head low. “Is there something wrong?”

“Uh, not really wrong,” Vector began, a bemused smile fixed upon his muzzle. “But … well, we don’t really use sleeping bags when we come over.”

Blinking, Sure Stroke wrinkled her snout. Who didn’t use sleeping bags at a sleepover? Come to think of it, Esalen gave her an awful funny look when she first walked in and mentioned it, and so had Aspire.

What did they sleep in if—wait a minute. Her eyes went wide. Sure Stroke let her gaze flit between her nymph and pony friends, namely Toola, Esalen, and Aspire himself. What was it they mentioned in front of Queen Euphoria’s cottage? Bed wraps?

She licked her lips. “You wouldn’t happen to mean the, um, wrap things, would you?”

Vector nodded. “Yeah, bed wraps. They’re nice and warm.” He sidled up to Zephyr and bumped shoulders with the nymph. “Bookbug and Zeph wrap me all the time, right up to my chest. It’s almost like my blanket at home.”

“Hey!” Zephyr scolded, sticking out his long, forked tongue at Vector. “I’ll have you know my wraps are at least twice as comfortable as that silly pile of fluff and thread you call a blanket!”

Sure Stroke felt her throat tighten as though she were about to gag, but she fought the urge down. Inhaling deep through her nose, she gave her wings a rustle. “So, you guys do this, um, wrap thing a lot at sleepovers?”

“All the time, really.” He shrugged. “Ever since we were hatchlings and newborn foals.”

Nimble and Toola bobbed their heads in unison. “And Nimmy’s been wrapping me since her parents adopted me!” Toola added.

“I … see.” Sure Stroke shifted her weight from hoof to hoof. “And that’s comfortable?”

More nods from her fellow ponies. She bit her lip, curiosity overrode her aversion. “So, how does that actually work?”

They smiled.

“We’ll show you,” Toola said. She trotted up to Sure Stroke and bumped their hips together. “It’s a little odd the first time, but there’s nothing that keeps me warmer at night.” She moved toward the door, then turned to Nimble and added, “Let’s head to Essy’s room so you don’t have to carry me this time. Come on, Doodle.”

With a tiny yawn, Nimble followed her out, though not before smirking at the colts. “Try not to get in a wrestling match before bed this time. Or else Faith just might wrap the three of you up and stick you to the wall for the night.”

Aspire laughed and stuck his tongue out. “You just shaddap and worry about yourself!” he shot back before turning to Sure Stroke and smiling. “Sleep well, Doodle. Enjoy your—ahem—sleeping bag.” He fixed the item with a wry look, then shrugged and trotted over to give Esalen a quick hug. He whispered something in her ear that drew an amused snort and a nip as they parted. Humming a tune, he hopped and buzzed his wings, flying lazily over to his bed where he landed with a cringe-inducing splat as the gelatin-like substance moulded around him.

A shiver ran down Sure Stroke’s spine as she allowed Esalen to lead her out of Aspire’s room and just down the hall toward her own, the nymph’s horn wreathed in a green glow as she floated her pod seat behind her.

They strode into Esalen’s room just in time to see Nimble and Toola sitting on the large pod bed, the nymph held her adopted sister in her hooves and nuzzled between her ears. A show of affection not unlike that of sisters back home in Cloudsdale, though perhaps a bit closer.

Then, Nimble Hooves took a deep breath through her nose, her cheeks puffed up and filled as she secreted her cocoon slime. She brought her hooves up to her muzzle and spat a thick stream on her left hoof, coating it in the sticky green substance until it looked like a spoon wrapped in honey.

Nimble laid her head atop Toola’s and closed her eyes. She wrapped her hooves around Toola again, tugging at the slime with her right hoof until she held both hooves out to full length. Humming, she pressed it against her side, then reached behind her back to take another strand.

With practiced ease, she deftly worked until both she and Toola were wrapped together in a translucent green cocoon from their torso to their shoulders. Within a few seconds, she had finished. Nimble gave a happy purr as she wrapped Toola in a hug and nosed against her cheek. “Goodnight, sis,” she muttered.

Toola smiled and tilted her head so she could rub her cheek against Nimble’s chin. “Goodnight, Nim,” she whispered in reply.

The pair snuggled up together, letting the gelatinous pod form around them until it held them comfortably in its warm, slimy embrace.

Sure Stroke sucked in her lips, she let her ears droop as bile stung the back of her throat. She tightened her grip on her sleeping bag and took a cautious step closer to the large pod, shooting a glance out of the corner of her eyes at Esalen.

Her friend nudged the pod seat over to rest before her desk and reached up to unfasten her mane tie, letting her long, flowing, sugar pink mane fall down to her shoulders. Then moved to join her with a smile on her muzzle. “See?” she asked. “It’s not all that bad, and Toola’s nice and snug.”

Questions raced through Sure Stroke’s mind, none more prevalent than something that harkened back to her own experience with the strange cocoon slime. “How does she get out?”

From her place in Esalen’s bed pod, Toola turned her head to call, “Come on up so you can see.”

Glancing at Esalen again, Sure Stroke shrugged and did as asked. She let Esalen go first, then hopped onto the bed, holding back a little shudder as the pod let her hooves sink and formed around her. Sure Stroke looked down at Toola, the filly smiled and simply looked down at her hooves.

“I can sort of wriggle my way out,” she said. “Because of the way bed wraps work. They’re not made extra sticky or wound really tight, so it’s almost like when you roll your blankets around you to keep warm in the winter. When I want out, I just push.” With little effort, Toola pushed out with her forehooves. The cocoon stretched out, making a sound like heated rubber stretching as she worked her shoulder free and waved a hoof at Sure Stroke. Then, she slipped it back inside and let the cocoon slowly retract until it formed around her again. “And once I stretch it out, I can just get out like I would climb out of blankets.”

“Or I can slice it with my fangs,” Nimble pointed out. “Either way, they sort of meld with the bed pod once they’ve been used so it keeps fresh. Recycling, you might say.”

Sure Stroke blinked. She hadn’t even thought about how disposal might work. Though if it just melded with the original bed pod, that would make things rather easy, and would be an efficient means of keeping the pod warm and gelatinous as they liked it.

On the other hoof, though …

Old slime.

She glanced down at the slime she was sitting in, cringing as she shifted in place.

“We do make new pods every now and again,” Esalen said as if hearing her thoughts. “Usually every couple of months. We drain out the more gel-like slime and refill the inside every couple weeks, though.”

“I didn’t want to say anything,” Sure Stroke mumbled. “But thanks.”

Esalen grinned. “No problem. Just think of it like cleaning your sheets every week or so. It’s a little easier that way.”

Unsure how to reply, Sure Stroke just gave a mute nod. She unrolled her sleeping bag and unzipped it enough so she could slip inside. Laying herself down in the soft, goopy pod bedding, she maneuvered her legs inside and pulled it all the way up to her torso.

Sure Stroke wriggled a little to get comfortable as the pod’s slime worked to let her rear and shoulders sink while it cushioned the rest of her body. A soft snort of laughter made her flick an ear. She turned to regard Esalen with a quizzical stare. “What?”

“Oh, nothing.” Esalen’s grin left little doubt that there was something.

“Don’t give me that, you’re thinking something. Say it.”

Stifling a chitter behind her hoof, Esalen filled her cheeks with slime, then slathered it over the very same hoof just as Nimble had. “Oh, nothing much,” she replied as she began to wrap herself in her own cocoon. “I was just thinking, for someone who tasted so unsure when we talked about bed wraps, you look kinda like you’re in one right now.”

Nimble snorted and cracked open an eye. “She’s right, you know.” A playful gleam shone in her eye. “You could always ask before Essy finishes up.”

Sure Stroke bit her lip, glancing over her shoulder at Esalen. The nymph stopped in mid wrap and met her eyes, a curious look crossed her muzzle as if she were waiting just in case.

“I think … I’ll pass.” She fidgeted in the warm confines of her sleeping bag. “For now, at least. I don’t know if I’m quite used to all this, um, stuff to be trying that.”

Esalen smiled and leaned forward to nuzzle her cheek. “Don’t worry about it. I figured as much when I tasted you a bit ago. Just relax and get some rest, Doodle.” She set about finishing her bed wrap cocoon and laid her head down, closing her eyes as she snuggled against Sure Stroke. “See you in the morning.”

Sure Stroke offered a smile in return, then laid her head against the bed of slime. “Yeah,” she muttered. “Goodnight.”

She closed her eyes and let herself drift off into the land of dreams.

A rolling green field awaited her, with foals and nymphs laughing and playing together while she sat under her tree, a sketchpad and pencil in hoof. A young nymph with blue mane wandered over to sit next to her, his lips curved into a crooked, fanged smirk as he rubbed their shoulders together.

“Hungry?” she asked without looking.

Aspire gave a short laugh. “Starving,” he replied, nosing against her cheek. “Can I?”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, a coy smile fixed upon her muzzle. “You’re going to get fat off my love one day, aren’t you?”

He waggled his ears. “Yes. And it’s worth it.” Leaning in, he muttered, “Your love is just so sweet, and so rich. I’ve never had any so filling.”

“Oh, fine!” Sure Stroke made a show of rolling her eyes and setting her sketch pad down before turning her head so their noses touched. “You owe me cake after this.”

“All you want,” he confirmed. With a bright smile, he kissed the tip of her snout, his sky blue eyes fluttered shut as he cupped her cheeks and brought his lips just a hair’s breadth away from hers …

Author's Note:

In which the original name for this fic is recycled as a book title and chapter name.

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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