• Published 10th Jun 2016
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In Sheep's Clothing - Kydois



An unfortunate decision by Nymph plants her in the role of an infiltrator, dealing with the worst terror of all. Ponies.

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Chapter 1 — Nymph

NOW

Nymph

I sighed.

I missed the hive. I missed being able to sit back in a high nook in the cool caves under the Badlands and flip through a pony novel brought back by the infiltrators. The training was difficult, but I didn’t have to worry about hostile changelings as the counter-espionage lings had to. My talents never lent themselves to love collecting and espionage, but rather how to spot, to find, and to scout, and I thank the queen my broodmother figured that out sooner rather than later.

It’s strange to think that was only a week ago. My head spun with how quickly I went from finishing my training to sitting out in the field. I was barely even out of my nymph years.

I shifted unsteadily on the tree branch I perched myself on, still recovering from the disorientation from the queen’s teleport. It was an honor that the queen saw me off personally on this assignment, but I wish my broodmother could’ve been there too. There was barely even enough time to comprehend what I was being told in my briefing before I found myself staring down into the queen’s flaming green portal.

Still, it wasn’t difficult to figure out what was happening, even with my limited understanding of changeling politics. Our hive’s infiltrators in Equestria fed us a few important pieces of information. One was that Princess Celestia was up to something, and when the leader of a country known for being one of the best sources of love, if not the best source, gets an idea in her mind, changelings notice.

No-ling knew what it was—without an infiltrator deep in their government structure and with Celestia using only verbal communication exchanged behind arcane privacy seals, it was highly unlikely our hive would be able to hear anything—but the few lings in the Royal Guard did give us a lead to follow.

Guard Captain Brave Blade, a known member of Celestia’s inner circle, was sending a scouting group to the Everfree Forest.

That’s it.

Well, that was a lie. We knew the names of the scouting party and what they looked like outside of their enchanted armor, but regardless, that was the extent of our hive’s knowledge of Celestia’s workings. It certainly speaks to the wisdom of the ponies’ princess to keep information so tightly handled. If anything, our hive knew more about the workings of other changeling hives than about Celestia.

Speaking of the workings of other hives, the second piece of information was that a rival hive’s infiltrator group was currently in the Everfree waiting to ambush and replace this particular pony scouting party. That bit of information alone bumped Brave Blade’s order from “questionable oddity” to “paramount priority.”

I just needed to trail the pony scouts and prevent the rival hive from completing their mission without alerting the ponies. It was just as paramount that the ponies never learn of the existence of changelings as it was securing the upper hoof over the other changelings.

The reasoning behind choosing me for this operation made sense. It was a job made for a ranger, but at the same time, I was completely baffled as to why they assigned this to me. Why send such a fresh ranger on such an important mission? Was there no-ling else available for the job? Well, that was unlikely with how large Queen Chrysalis expanded her hive. Did they think the Everfree Forest would provide a great place for my first outing? There was plenty of cover, certainly, but very few lings had not heard the horror stories of the uncontrollable, unresting jungle that was the Everfree.

My brow furrowed as I waited patiently for the pony scouting group to arrive. I started to think of myself as some sort of disposable decoy, a distraction for the hostile changelings to drill down on, and who would care about some unimportant, unproven ling if she failed?

I couldn’t even be certain I was the only changeling from my hive here. It made sense to have lings that could hide from other lings by suppressing their emotional hoofprint, but it made me feel a lot lonelier than really necessary.

My ear twitched, and I raised my head to scan the distance. I took a whiff of the air.

Apprehension. Nervousness, well hidden. A strong overtone of excitement.

An unusual flavor, tasteless and bland, yet overpowered by a tangy citrus flavor.

From my perch in one of the trees at the border of the Everfree, I finally saw the expected group of three approaching. An earth pony mare led the party, light blue with a neon pink mane. Silent, but itching to move faster. She was where most of the citrus was coming from.

A pegasus stallion followed shortly behind, white coat with an indigo mane. Straight posture even while walking suggested a by-the-book sort of guard.

Lastly, a unicorn mare, charcoal black with a light gold mane and deep amber eyes. Wore an unseasonal heavy scarf draped around her neck.

Alright. Breathe in, breathe out, just like Broodmother Chorion said. I had a task to complete. My hive demanded something of me, and regardless of their true intentions, I could think of no reason I should put in anything less than my best on my maiden voyage. Failure was not an option.

It was time, and I hopped down from my tree and began trailing the ponies from afar.

Overwatch

I adjusted my scarf nervously as I stared at the border into the Everfree. Spending a majority of one’s life in a city meant there weren’t a lot of opportunities to get out into the wilderness, but I was certain that the forest before me was not representative of forests as a whole. Besides the clear lack of pony maintenance, something I’ve been told was an impossibility with the Everfree, the atmosphere also gave me an uncomfortable pressure in my horn. It wouldn’t stop me from using magic regardless, but the pressure weighed heavily enough to make a unicorn think twice about using any more magic than necessary.

I was surprised there was a path into the forest to begin with. It was strange that ponies would willingly venture into the Everfree, let alone enough to justify a government investment in a piece of infrastructure leading in. The path itself wasn’t particularly well maintained though. Probably laid down a long time ago and forgotten, but it begs the question of why anypony laid it down in the first place.

Vice, like the ham-headed earth pony she was, proceeded to walk straight in. I exchanged a nervous glance with Steel Blade before walking in after her.

“So…” I hesitated, looking awkwardly at the other two members of my group. “Any of you know why we’re—”

“Nope!” Vice Grip replied, a huge grin on her face.

I rolled my eyes. “No, not you. You don’t actually pay attention to anything besides what’s in front of you,” I said, turning to the pegasus of the group. “Surely you must have heard something of what we’re doing out here. I’m all for vacation time in Ponyville, but an expedition to the Everfree isn’t what I had in mind for nice, family fun.”

Steel Blade let out an awkward cough into his hoof. “I uhh… I only heard a smidgen of what we were supposed to do. Dad was never really one for big details.”

I stumbled over an errant root lying in my path, blinking for a moment. His… father? I thought Brave Blade was supposed to—

“Wait, your dad’s the captain?”

“Um, yes?” Steel Blade stated, looking legitimately confused. “I thought everypony knew. Nopony seems to want me to forget it with how often they bring it up.”

“Und here, I thought I vas not-paying-attention one,” Vice said with a wink, her Stalliongrad accent thick. “Say, vere you not asking something earlier?”

I let out an exasperated sigh. “Right, fine, but we’re talking about this later. I can’t believe you’ve only taken until now to say anything about it,” I grumbled, taking a deep breath. “Anyways, this whole scouting thing. What’re we here to do exactly?”

“According to Dad, there’s some sort of castle ruins in here somewhere. We’re supposed to scope out the area, take notes on the surrounding region, and… hold on.” He stopped, reaching into his saddlebags with a wing and pulling out a scroll, which he unrolled. “Here we go. We also need to make sure this sculpture is still in the castle.”

He turned the scroll to me, which I took hold of in my magic. It showed a general map of the area, with the location of the castle clearly marked as well as the path we were currently taking. In the corner, somepony had drawn a rough sketch of what looked like a fountain. It had a large base and a central pillar with five arms extending from it, each holding a stone orb on top.

“What in Tartarus is this supposed to be?” My brow furrowed as I looked up to Steel Blade. “And why does the captain give a flying feather about it?”

Vice Grip finally appeared to notice the discussion at hoof. “Vhat’s vhat supposed to be?” she said, turning back and snatching the paper from my magic. “Huh. Vhat are ve supposed to do vith this? Are ve blowing something up?”

Steel Blade blanched. “What? No nonono no!”

“Ahh. Huh.”

I immediately walked over to Vice, flipping open her saddlebags. “Please don’t tell me you… Nooo, you did.”

I snatched a small, dark red booklet from an interior pocket, thrusting it into Vice’s face. “No! Celestia, no! Why are you even carrying this around? No, don’t answer that. I know exactly why you’d carry explosive runes around, you maniac. You probably forgot you even put this in here in the first place. No, we’re not blowing up anything today.”

“Awww vhat?” Vice whined. “I know how to handle them! You know I know how to handle them! Und it’s the Everfree. Y’know, the place known for vonderful things like hydras und manticores?”

“When I said we’re not blowing anything up today, that includes the local wildlife!” I quickly stowed the book into my saddlebag. “I’m keeping this until we get back to Canterlot. I can’t believe you even managed to sneak this from the armory.”

“C’mon, is not like—”

I whipped out the spray bottle from my saddlebags and squirted the earth pony down, much to her wide-eyed dismay. “No! No! Bad Vi!”

Steel Blade massaged his forehead with a hoof. “Look, we just need to make sure the statue is there. Mostly, we just need to take notes on the area around the castle.”

I stopped, putting my bottle away as Vice shook the water off her face. “I guess, but for what? Field trips?” I snorted. “I didn’t expect my first assignment out of boot camp was to be a glorified guard sponsored cartographer.”

Steel Blade shrugged, before trotting down the path, which was beginning to give way to rough ground tangled in roots. “Well, we should do it anyways. I don’t believe they would give us an assignment without a reason for doing so.”

“But this feels like some sort of… lesson.” I took the map back from Vi in my magic, keeping it open ahead of me as I followed. “You know, the type of lesson that’s completely pointless besides showing you can do it.” I sighed. “Well, no point in going against orders now. Let’s just get this thing done.”

Nymph

I stalked slowly behind the three ponies, thankful that the brush was so thick. It was easy to disguise a black carapace in all this shadow, nevermind my relatively small stature.

For now. If I’m still growing. I hope I’m still growing. I don’t want to stay this size forever.

I shook my head to clear my thoughts.

I gleaned a little more understanding into the situation from their conversation. It made sense as to why the other hive would target this particular group of ponies. If the enemy hive were to ambush and replace the son of one of Celestia’s confidants, they’d instantly have a ling right next to some of Equestria's most important ponies. This group didn’t sound like they were very in-the-loop, but a lot of hives would kill for that kind of proximity.

Speaking of replacing ponies, if they were to replace every pony here, that means there were at least three changelings in the area.

And I couldn’t detect any of them.

I frowned as I moved to the next piece of cover, a tall, obstructive brush. The ponies were arguing over which direction to go. The black unicorn mare had her face buried in the map, tracing out a proposed path with her hoof.

I was fairly certain no hive outside of Queen Chrysalis’s could hide their emotions. Fake their emotions, maybe, but hiding their emotions also meant suppressing their link, and other changelings were loath to give up the link for what seemed like a useless tool for blending in with the ponies. Detecting nothing outside of the three I was tailing concerned me, especially with how emotionally sensitive I was. Perhaps they were farther in?

My gut started to churn. As a ranger, I was expected to be able to find and take care of the problem without ever being noticed, often separated from the rest of my hive. Long-range precision spellcasting may be one of my specialties, but I was going to have to stop an unknown number of changelings from completing their goal in a forest so thick that sight lines were nonexistent. I would have to be uncomfortably close to them to be able to do anything.

Now that I thought about it, they left me with only barely enough love to survive a week alone. I really started to feel like some sort of bait, just there to lure the enemy changelings into revealing themselves so my own hive could come in and clean up.

I bit my lip. I hoped my hivemates were nearby, or I was going to leave the world a lot sooner than I wanted to.

Or later if the enemy changelings were inclined to torture.

Stop. Stop. No. I had to keep myself calm and collected. A ranger was made on patience, and I should not be losing my composure this early. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The earth cracked loudly, and I quickly curled up into a ball of terrified ling when the ground began to rumble. There was a panicked yelp and shouting in the distance, but I waited until the forest had settled down before I peeked out towards the pony group.

The pony group currently two members short.

Overwatch

“A-are you alright?”

I peeked hesitantly over the edge of the cliff I stood on, one that had just crumbled before my very eyes when Vice stepped up to it. There was a hole in the treeline below, but the canopy was still too thick to see through clearly.

“Yes, ve are good!” Vice said in a chipper tone. “Steel Blade is vonderful pony!”

I started breathing again. I nearly had a heart attack when the ground shifted under Vice, and I nearly had another when Steel Blade dove down to stop her sudden descent. I was really regretting suggesting that we try to find where we were by using a vantage point up ahead. Yes, it was a cliff nearly twenty meters high, but I wanted a clear view of the rest of the forest that its height would give.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to fly us both back up though,” Steel Blade’s voice carried up to me. “One of my wings got clipped by a falling rock. We’ll have to find a way around this cliff face if we want to meet up again.”

A grimace found its way across my muzzle. I shouldn’t feel guilty about Steel Blade getting injured from following on one of my calls. Plenty of ponies would tell me there was no way I could have known the cliff was loose, but Celestia, I still felt really bad about it.

I looked left and right, my gaze following the edge of the cliff. “If there’s an easy way down, I can’t see it from here. It looks like there’s a path somewhere to the west on the map where we can regroup. You two can both walk, right?”

“Course ve can valk!” Vice’s voice again. “It vill take more than cliff to stop us. Vest, right? Ve shall follow it to meeting place!”

“I’ll see you two soon!” I called down, before scooching quickly away from the cliff edge. I didn’t need to tumble down after them. I did, however, need to find those two again if we were to get this assignment done at all. Picking myself up, I began my brisk trot alone.

The sooner I found Vice and Steel, the better. It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable alone. In fact, I generally kept to myself other than when I had to intervene and keep Vice from destroying something. If anything, it was the forest getting to me. The headache was messing with my concentration, and a certain sense of paranoia had begun to set in.

It felt like I was being watched, and it started to make me extremely worried for my friends. I knew Vice could punch through anything she wanted to, but even she’d be hard pressed to fend off a hydra.

I held a hoof over my eyes, looking up into the sky. It looked like it had passed midday, sometime into late afternoon. Soon, night would fall, and who knew what lay waiting in the dark.

I began to trot a little faster.

Nymph

I didn’t think of myself as a particularly bitter ling, so it came as a bit of a surprise when I found myself scowling.

To be fair, the ponies I was trailing had been forced to split due to pure happenstance. It didn’t make my situation too much more difficult, but it meant relying more on my empathy sense to keep track of all three of them.

Like most other changelings in my hive assigned for excursions into Equestria, I was fairly sensitive to the emotions of others. Keeping track of the ponies was like using an internal compass. Although I might not be able to tell exactly where someone was, I could accurately estimate direction and distance. In short, it was hatchling’s play to keep track of the deeply concerned aura of Overwatch and the two other auras, one annoyed and one amused, representing Steel Blade and Vice Grip.

I lurched forward over a gnarled root, barely getting my hooves under me before my face could meet the soft forest ground. If it was possible, my scowl deepened. Using my empathy sense to keep track of the ponies made it feel like I was trying to navigate with only a mental map and a blindfold. I stopped and closed my eyes, taking a few calming breaths to refocus.

I reached out with my senses again, finding the ponies moving in generally the same direction, following the edge of the cliff. This time, however, I reached further, trying to find any sign of the rival changelings supposedly in the area.

And I found something, to my surprise. On the very edge of my range was a small group. Their echoes were too far to tell their emotional state or exact number, but they just had to be the changelings I needed to stop. At the very least, I had a direction. Opening my eyes again, I turned towards them and squinted at the horizon.

There. A tower. Multiple towers.

I let out a hum before the answer popped into my mind. The castle ruins. It had to be. Whoever the rival changelings had in Equestria knew about the goal of the pony scouting party before my own hive knew and were waiting at the one place they knew the ponies would be. At this rate, it would be a while before the ponies got close enough to trigger the ambush, thankfully, giving me plenty of time to plan. I just needed to keep them occupied, or at least spook them enough to pull out.

I needed to get there to survey the area. The castle’s layout itself was a mystery, let alone the hiding spots of the changelings. On the other hoof, that would mean losing sight of the ponies, and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them alone in case the other hive had a trap prepared further away.

In the end, I decided on leaving the ponies and moving deeper into the forest. If I kept track of them on my empathy sense, there should be plenty of time to react should the rival changelings spring something on them. I would have to loop around the end of the cliff where the ponies would regroup, but after that, making it to the castle should be straightforward now that I could feel out the changelings. Then, I could properly take stock of the situation and—

My hoof caught on another root, and I tumbled headfirst into a tree trunk with a yelp before tumbling sideways into a thick bush.

Oooowwwwww…

I tried to sort out which direction was up and where my hooves were. My horn was throbbing from gouging the tree, and I carefully maneuvered a hoof to my forehead to massage it. I really needed to stop trying to use my empathy sense when I had to look where I was going. Dumb forest, putting stupid little things in my path for me to trip on. There was a loud rustling as I attempted to remove myself from the local flora.

More rustling followed, and I froze. Not all the rustling was due to me. Actually, it sounded like it was coming from right behind me. And it was breathing. Very loudly, with a growling undertone.

I turned around slowly, and found myself staring right into the eyes of a manticore and its great, fanged maw.

I shrieked involuntarily, dropping all pretense of stealth as I turned and bolted. A vicious snarl and a loud thud reverberated through the air as it pounced at where I was, but I had created distance.

Tree branches and undergrowth scratched at my carapace as I blitzed through the Everfree, trying to ignore the thundering of the manticore behind me tearing through foliage like tissue paper.

Which was exactly what it would do to me if I let it get close.

My small stature was on the fast track to killing me. I was barely clearing obstacles that older changelings would have no issues with, breathing harder than I ever had to before. A fallen log. A wide ditch. A trap of hanging vines. All the little difficulties were conspiring against me.

The roar from behind told me the manticore was almost on top of me, despite my best efforts to keep from stumbling. I broke from the treeline into a wide open area, a clearing in the middle of the Everfree.

I instantly regretted leaving the safety of the trees. The trees and low hanging branches hindered the manticore much more than the understory could stop me, but out in an open field, there was nothing keeping the predator from charging at me full speed.

It leapt, and my heart dropped as its shadow fell over me. Attempting flight would’ve been suicide, especially with my flying skill, so I tried stopping. Tried pivoting on the spot to move in another direction, darting around unpredictably. Anything to prolong my life, with the hope that those twists and turns could magic me away from impending death.

It connected, but not solidly. A heavy paw clipped me behind the head, and inertia carried me head over heels through the air. I tumbled across the ground before gasping for air face first in the grass. The manticore landed somewhere not too far away.

I tried to scramble upright, dazed, looking around with blurred eyesight for the manticore, but it was already in front of me, a great black shape against the dimming light.

It swiped with a paw. A searing blaze exploded above my left shoulder.

I let out a piercing scream, though it sounded muffled, as if heard through glass. It drew blood. It drew so much blood. My foreleg went numb, and I stumbled.

My eyes nearly closed, my vision reduced to a blurry squint. It had to be coming for me again. Where is it!? Where did it go!?

I aimed my horn at the biggest shape and threw out whatever magic I still had. One of those bolts had to have hit.

One of those bolts needed to hit.

It came around with its other paw and slammed its fist into my chest, lifting me bodily off the ground.

Something cracked. I was certain that the carapace over my chest had cracked from the impact.

I fell in a heap, my eyes clenched shut and my lungs heaving a staccato of gasps. There was a stabbing pain every time I took a breath.

I had to get up, but my foreleg crumpled under the weight. I couldn’t distinguish my limbs through the burning. Tears obstructed what little vision I had.

Was I sobbing?

I shouldn’t be here. I should have said something when they told me what to do. I was too young, too fresh, to be wandering through the Everfree, and now I was dead. A shadow fell over me, pausing, as if gloating about its victory over what amounted to barely more than a hatchling. A passing thought for its morsel before moving on to bigger game.

It roared.

But even through my clouded mind, I noticed it wasn’t a roar of victory, but of surprise. Agony. I felt a little shock emanating from the manticore, and I tried to see why it hadn’t ended my life yet.

“Hey, you get away from that poor filly, you-you… overgrown house cat!

And there, on the other end of the clearing behind the manticore, standing defiantly at the edge of the treeline with a curl of smoke from her horn, was the charcoal unicorn mare with the amber mane.

Overwatch

I did it.

I lost my marbles.

I should’ve thought more when I heard that scream, that panicked cry for help, but when I heard it, my brain just shut off.

I had to do something.

So I galloped through the Everfree, found the swath cut through the branches, and followed the disturbed foliage to this clearing, where I saw a manticore hovering over a prone body, one shaped like a pony.

One of the first lessons I learned in the guard was that there was no waiting in some situations. No time to talk down a robber, or to persuade an armed kidnapper to consider giving up. Some things demanded immediate action, and this time, I took it. I charged up the fastest bolt I had ever conjured and sent it speeding towards the manticore like a laser, stinging it in the rear.

It arched its back, clutching at the singed area as it roared in pain, yet even its cry of shock was one of the most terrifying things I had ever heard. Never one for knowing when to stuff it, I decided to draw its attention with a little something more.

“Hey, you get away from that poor filly, you-you… overgrown house cat!

Yes, I was quite the wordsmith. Regardless, I got the manticore’s attention, and it turned to me with an angry scowl across its feline face, baring sharp, serrated teeth.

Now would probably be a good time to figure out what I was going to do.

Nymph

It couldn’t be. One of those ponies actually heard me.

On one hoof, I was dead in more ways than one. If the ponies found my body, my incompetence would publicize the existence of the changelings, and that alone could cause immense hardships for my race. Every hive would be forced to adjust, and many large hives could lose a large portion of their population simply because of the failure of the collectors to return sufficient love.

And yet a little part of me hoped beyond anything that the pony could find a way to take down the massive behemoth of a manticore before her. It was the shameful shred of hope keeping me conscious.

The manticore charged the unicorn, moving way faster than anything of its bulk should be allowed to move. It seemed to slither through the air, and in a blink, it was already halfway to the pony. The pony, however, was prepared. She had already charged up a spell, and when the manticore crouched to the ground to pounce on her, she released an impossibly fast bolt from her horn. The spell split from one into a trio of glowing weights, each connected by an ethereal tether to each other.

The arcane bola wound itself tightly around the manticore’s hind legs, abruptly arresting its motion and causing it to fall forward onto its face. With the creature downed, the pony charged another spell on her horn and shot it directly at the manticore’s head.

The beast stopped moving, and the pony looked warily at it before trotting around it, giving it a wide berth as she approached me.

Shock. Horror. Sympathy. Determination.

“Tartarus, you’re bleeding all over the place,” she said as she knelt down beside me. She removed her saddlebags before leaning in to survey my ruined carapace. Green ichor had splattered everywhere from my open wound. “I’m not familiar with your biology, but I’ll see what I can do to keep you from falling apart.”

I shrank away, staring at my savior incredulously. This pony saw me, undisguised, and she was still willing to help me? “Why?” I rasped. “Why are you helping me?”

She started. “Oh, you can talk! Celestia, I—” She cleared her throat. “Look. I don’t know who you are or what you are, but you were going to die, and I wasn’t going to stand by and let that thing do that to you.”

I made to stand up, but she forced me back down with a hoof before I could strain myself. “No, don’t move. I need to find something to bandage you up with, or at least stop the bleeding with.” The pony turned to rifle through her bags. With a frustrated growl, she slipped her heavy scarf from around her neck. “Alright, I don’t have anything else to use as a tourniquet, so this’ll have to do. I’ll have to lift you up, but hopefully I can keep that chestpiece of yours together until I can get you to a medical facility.”

“B-but I…” I turned my attention to the ground, staring intently into nothing as she lifted me up gently with her magic.

But I noticed something off on my empathy sense, and I looked up, horrified.

She noticed it too, and her eyes widened as a shadow fell over her. She tried to bolt upright, but it was too late. The jaw of the manticore closed almost completely around the base of her neck, and she let out an ear-piercing shriek as she tried to fire off another bolt at it. The beast thrashed around violently, throwing off any attempt that she could have made to stop it and tearing at her flesh.

She may not have had a clear shot, but I did, the pain having subsided enough for me to concentrate properly. I threw a bolt with what little love reserves I had left at the manticore’s face, scoring a direct hit at its eye. It howled, dropping the unicorn to the ground, but in its bloodlust, it almost immediately shrugged off the damage and lunged at us again, its maw stained red.

The unicorn’s saddlebags lit up with magic, and the pony drew a small booklet fluidly from its depths and shoved it straight into the manticore’s mouth. The book flared a bright red before one last magical display from the unicorn brutally slammed the beast’s mouth shut and shoved it away from us.

The manticore’s head blossomed into a searing white corona. The blast sent both of us reeling back, but the pony took the brunt of it, flying back twice as far as I did. My eyes widened as she landed with a wet splat in the treeline, and despite the throbbing in my chest and the weakness in my left foreleg, I limped over as quickly as I could.

Overwatch

Hmm.

Well, it looks like Vice had a point in taking that book of explosive runes.

I giggled, a light-hearted giddy thing. Everything hurt, but if I thought about other things, maybe it would hurt just a little less.

The insect filly approached me slowly, her walk stilted and unbalanced. What a nice little girl, helping distract me from what I was sure was a fatal wound.

“A-are you alright?” the bug filly hiccuped. She sounded like she was on the verge of panic.

Well, perhaps not as nice as she could have been, but I should probably take a look at the extent of my injuries before I judge—

Oh Celestia, it’s everywhere. My rib should not be visible, and my leg is going in entirely the wrong—

I stopped looking. I don’t think I had the strength to keep my head up anymore anyways. “There’s a fifty-fifty chance I’m probably, maybe not okay.” The underlying gurgle to my voice was likely not okay either.

Turning my gaze to her as well as I could, I said, “Oh right, I forgot to wrap up your chest thing. Do you know where my scarf is? I usually never lose that thing. My mother gave me that scarf, you know, before she died.” Something blocked my airway, but was dislodged with a choking noise. “Ahh, dad would be super sad that I lost it. He was so distraught when Mom died. Lost his research job and everything. Can’t imagine how he’d take it when I choke here.”

I giggled again. I made a funny.

The little bug filly’s face scrunched up, as if she were staring at a drunk pony trying to balance a meter tall tower of plates on her nose. I should know. I’ve used that expression tons of times with Vi, at least twice with that exact situation.

“W-why are you thinking about your dad?” she said unsteadily. “Why are you not more concerned about yourself?” Her gaze flickered over to my wounds, but she tried keeping her eyes pointedly away from them.

“Because I love my dad,” I replied with a chuckle. “Of course I would care about him. Besides, death can really get your priorities in order. I guess I just loved others more than I loved myself.”

The bug filly looked down, fidgeting with her hooves. Her ear twitched, notably enough that it drew my eye even in my stupor. She looked around with an air of urgency, biting her lip as she used her hoof to rub her foreleg. The filly drew a breath and turned to me.

“I can… I can make sure your father doesn’t worry about your death.”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “Well, I’m sure that Dad joined Mom pretty recently. Probably doesn’t have anything to worry about now.”

“Then I can make sure your hive—teammates don’t worry about you. It’ll be like you never died.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, even as hope built in my chest. “Explain.”

The bug filly seemed reticent, looking down at her hooves and mumbling unintelligibly. She finally took a deep breath and looked at me again. “I can take your appearance. Down to your cutie mark and the way you wear your mane.”

“And my personality? My friends would definitely be suspicious if you started acting completely differently from me.”

“Memory transfer. Ch… changelings like me can take a copy of your memories. I can be exactly the same as you. Here, watch.”

With that, she closed her eyes and started concentrating. Her brow furrowed together, and it looked like she was straining. A flare of green flames swirled around her, and in her place was a mirror image of me, save for the three nasty lacerations above her left shoulder. She was even taller, maybe not quite my height, but not immediately noticeable to the typical observer. Even my cutie mark, a single apricot with a leaf, looked exactly how I’d been used to seeing.

It was uncanny how much it looked like me.

I kept my gaze on her a little longer, trying to eke out any weaknesses in her composure, but I couldn’t keep it up. I let out a breath, and asked one more question. “C-could you have taken my m-memories even if I say no right now?”

She stiffened, thrown off kilter, but she quickly regained her composure as well as she could. “Y-yes.”

I let out a contemplative hum. “...What’s your name?”

“N-Nymph, ma’am.”

I smiled at her, and she seemed almost surprised by that, her eyes widening just a tad. “Good luck then,” I murmured, my eyes drifting closed as I lay there. “Take care of them for me, will you? Remember, don’t let Vice out of your sight for too long, make sure Steel Blade gets out more, and…

“Thanks.”

I waited there, barely registering as the bug… as Nymph murmured something under her breath and lowered her horn to mine.

Nymph

I had felt two more echoes on my empathy sense. Horror. Urgency. Dread.

They had to be the other ponies, and they knew something had gone horribly wrong. The pony in front of me was on the cusp of death, but I wasn’t going to escape far enough to avoid the others and I didn’t have the energy to transform.

It was strange, speaking with the pony. Of all the things she was worried about, she was worried about the lives of others. Even when she first came into the clearing, she was worried more about me than herself, facing a manticore head on because she was worried for someling she had never met before.

She was dead, and she knew it, yet her heart was filled not with bitter regrets, but with love. I used it to absorb her magic eagerly, even as a part of my mind panicked over my own death and my betrayal of the changelings by being discovered by the other ponies. It was nowhere near enough to keep me from bleeding out, but I tried to sate my hunger anyways, feeling my magic rejuvenate.

There was plenty of love though, enough for one transformation, and I had a thought. If I were to take on the unicorn’s appearance, I could hide the existence of the changelings and, if the ponies were fast enough, hopefully recover in one of their hospitals. I could secure an advantageous position in the pony’s Royal Guard for my hive, and subsequently away from the rival hive, and the pony’s memory would provide plenty of information to keep an infiltrator planted for a very long time. The spell I was planning to use wasn’t common fare amongst the hive rangers, but since it was a common spell for the infiltrators, I felt I could perform it without issue.

It was a plan banking on the slim chance there was enough ambient love to heal, but it was a chance to survive.

I proposed my idea to her, and she seemed to regain some clarity as she registered my words. She was not suspicious, but curious, seizing onto the hope that her death would not hurt those closest to her. I reassured her, and I was happy when she eventually gave me her blessing.

It occurred to me that I didn’t need to propose this to her, that I didn’t need to answer honestly when she asked if I would have done this anyway, but I did. I did on both counts.

I don’t understand why. What point was there in showing politeness to prey?

“Thanks,” she finished, the word dying on her lips as I felt her fade.

I let out a sigh. “I’ll see you in Elysium,” I murmured as I lowered my horn to hers and began channelling the spell.

I released it, and…

I’m not sure what I expected. Most of the pony novels I had read through would suggest something like a slideshow, with images streaming past my eyes as I took in her memories, but instead, I went blind. My mind completely shut down, like that moment just before falling asleep, and I realized offhoofedly that it wasn’t just my vision that died. I wasn’t getting any input from the outside world at all. I couldn’t hear the ambient chirps and rustling of the forest, nor could I feel the blood-soaked ground under my hooves. The smoke that used to fill the air was filled with nothing instead, and my empathy sense told me I was completely alone.

I would be panicking if I had the mental capacity to do so, but as it was, I was completely content to sit in the little pocket of calmness partitioned away in my own mind. A part of me noticed that the spell was continuing without my input, continuing to draw energy from the pony and me as it combed through everything in the pony’s mind.

It was hard, perhaps impossible, to know how much time had passed, but just as suddenly as I had entered my fugue state, I left. The world came into sharp relief around me as I snapped back into consciousness. Sights, sounds, and smells fought for attention in my reawakened mind, but the most urgent signal came from my empathy sense.

The two echoes were no longer echoes, but more like sirens. They were close and fast approaching, so I had to move fast.

I left my… the pony’s body in the brushes just inside the treeline. It wasn’t especially hidden, but it was in a shadowy corner, and in the dim light of the moon, it would hopefully remain unseen. Nearby, not far from my—

Her. Her body… was the scarf she had been levitating, even after the explosion. I strained to levitate it with my last little bits of magic and carefully stained it red in m—her blood. My mouth twisted into a grimace as the wet weave brushed against the sensitive injury on my neck, but I had neither the time nor the energy to close the long lines left behind by the manticore’s claws.

My muscles strained to pull me back into the clearing. The moonlight temporarily blinded me, but I crawled on. I tried keeping my cracked chest from scraping against the dirt, but it was difficult with only one foreleg supporting my weight. I yelped involuntarily each time a lurch left my chest shifting where it shouldn’t have.

My vision was swimming by the time I collapsed next to my saddlebags, and I drifted away as I lay there.

“Overwatch? Overwatch?

I smiled. It was good to hear their voices again.

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