• Published 28th Feb 2017
  • 5,594 Views, 731 Comments

That Changeling's a Bad OC! - Raugos



What is a changeling to do when she finds herself dragged along on a Daring Do adventure? Fangirl right the heck out, of course.

  • ...
7
 731
 5,594

Chapter 2

Max tasted grainy dirt on her tongue and smelled charcoal. A groan escaped her as she ratcheted up her eyelids and squinted ahead. Pale, yellow sunlight filtered into the basement from the trapdoor, just brightly enough to make her horn cast a blurry shadow on the splintered floorboards in front of her.

Her limbs felt stiff, tight and practically creaked when she tried to move, as if somepony had stuck her in a full body cast and left her splayed out on the floor. Or like a fly stuck in a web. Panic welled up in her chest when she imagined herself being dragged to a dungeon by half a dozen royal guards. But the moment passed when she heard a sharp crack and a snap, followed by a sudden chill and release of pressure at the back of her neck.

Oh.

The explosion must’ve done so much damage to her chitin that the shock had triggered premature moulting.

She grimaced and stretched, forcing herself to get up onto all fours. Her aching muscles protested, but she kept straining against her personal prison, grunting as the old chitin split lengthwise down her spine, between her wings to her hindquarters. Finally, the split grew large enough to extricate herself, and she did so with a squelch, leaving a cracked and crumpled mess of translucent skin and black chitin in the mini crater. The air felt chilly against her damp hide as she stretched and inhaled deeply to flex and expand the new protective layer.

Once she’d gotten comfortable in her new skin, Max sighed contentedly and sat on her haunches to catch her breath and groom her new wings. They would take a while to dry out of their floppy state, but she had no intention of flying right then, anyway. Something looked a little off about them, though. They almost looked like they had a glittery, iridescent sheen on the translucent membrane, or maybe that was just a trick of the light.

Whatever. Worry about that later.

She had more important concerns, like trudging upstairs to inspect the damage. Motes of dust swirled around her hooves with each step, and she yelped when the topmost plank snapped and gave way entirely. Stumbling forward, she caught her balance just before smashing her muzzle into the floorboards and gasped when the devastation greeted her eyes.

It looked like a tornado had punched a hole through part of the wall and taken a casual spin through her kitchen, scattering splinters, glass and bits of porcelain everywhere. Three splotches of warped, splintered floorboards and black soot marked the spots where the dynamite sticks had gone off. Her windows were blown out. Anything that wasn’t made of metal or sturdy wood had pretty much shattered in the triple blast, and something must’ve caught fire too because her wall and part of the roof were scorched. At least the rain had soaked everything beforehoof, or she might’ve woken up to nothing but a mound of ash above her head.

Not that she liked this much better. She’d paid good bits to have her house furnished!

A low growl escaped her throat as Max gritted her teeth and bared her fangs.

Seriously, what the hay was that all about?

At this point, she was sure that they weren’t part of any Daring Do Adventucation programme. If they were, then it was the craziest one she’d ever seen on top of being the most irresponsible. They’d used real dynamite! And blown up her house!

Somepony was going to pay. Of all those involved within the last twenty-four hours, one name stood out amongst them all: Short Fuse. She had no face to put to the name, but she remembered his unhinged emotional signature, peppered with foal-like glee and a love for explosives. She hoped he had a very punchable muzzle, because she was going to give it a very intimate introduction to her hoof if it was the last thing she did. Preferably at a very high velocity, from the top of—

Something rumbled in the basement and snapped Max out of her little revenge fantasy. She dropped to a low stance, tense and ready for action, until she remembered who she had sleeping down there.

Horse apples.

She wasn’t wearing her disguise, Daring Do could wake up at any moment, and she’d left her old exoskeleton lying on the floor like some gross Nightmare Night prop. It was still a little too soon after moulting for her to shapeshift, but at least she could do something about that last one.

Ignoring the urge to buzz her wings, Max strode downstairs with as much quiet speed as she dared and dragged her old chitin across the floor towards the farthest corner of the basement. The crunchy mess fit easily enough in an empty packing crate, and she draped a spare curtain over the whole thing for good measure. She could always come back to eat it later, when she didn’t have unwanted guests.

Daring Do didn’t so much as stir during the whole process, and Max felt a little stupid for getting all panicky about it when she saw her curled up tightly on the old mattress with a goofy smile plastered on her face. Max ground her teeth.

That is so not fair.

She’d just had her house invaded, ransacked and blown up, and Daring was napping away like a foal as if none of it had happened. Granted, it was technically her fault for sedating her in the first place, but the explosion was way out of proportion to her crime!

And what was her relation to those idiots? If they weren’t all part of some elaborate scheme…

No.

Max refused to concede the possibility. Daring Do wasn’t real. Somepony would’ve noticed by now if that was the case. Ponies who weren’t conspiracy theory crackpots.

But then again, she felt her eyes drawn to Daring’s saddlebag, and she felt the faint echoes of… something. Something powerful beyond comprehension had touched her mind last night; it reminded her of Mother in the sheer amount of authority it demanded, but colder and deader. Max shivered at the memory of its grip, of how helpless she’d felt in the pit inside her own mind.

Just then, Daring Do let loose another tremendous snore, and Max’s belly answered with a rumble of its own. With it came the realisation that her horn’s chitin felt like jelly whilst its insides ached like a bad tooth, and her guts, though partially filled with physical food, felt like somepony had twisted and tied them up in knots and left them out to dry in the hot sun. Using magic to protect herself from the explosion had drained most of her reserves, leaving her an empty husk of a changeling in severe need of refilling.

Her mouth watered as she loomed over Daring Do. Joy and excitement leaked out of her dreams, calling to her with vibrant colours and flavour.

Whatever Max had gotten herself tangled in, she decided that it was kind of Daring’s fault for bringing it to her. Therefore, it was only fair to exact a little fee for all her trouble. After all, if she wanted a sidekick, a strong one would do more good than a starving one.

Feed. Now!

Max leaned close enough to whisper in Daring’s ear and drew in a soft breath. A wisp of green energy wafted up from the mare, and she sucked it in slowly and steadily – taking in too much at once might sour the dream prematurely and even wake her. Daring Do twitched in her sleep, but otherwise showed no sign of discomfort whilst Max fed.

A minute passed. Then another. The process felt agonisingly slow, but Max kept a tight leash on her hunger and fed at a steady pace as strength returned to her limbs. Her horn soon tingled with renewed energy, and her wings buzzed as warmth trickled back into her and dulled the edge of her hunger.

All too soon, Daring Do groaned and stirred. Max just managed to transform into Sunny Spring before she started blinking the sleep out of her eyes. Then, whilst Daring Do was busy yawning and stretching like a cat, Max backed out of her personal space and retreated to a respectful distance to avoid any accusations of watching her sleep. That would get awkward pretty quickly.

“Oh wow, I think I’d forgotten what a good night’s rest feels like,” Daring Do muttered as she took a glance at her surroundings. Then, she blinked a couple of times and swept her gaze this way and that in bewilderment, until her eyes settled on Max. “Wait a second… how—what happened last night? How long was I out for?”

Daring sprang up, saddlebag and hat forgotten, then dashed over to the stairs. Yellow sunlight poured into the kitchen, and one stray golden beam shone on the few topmost planks of the stairs. Dust glittered in the light.

“Is that—that’s your kitchen, isn’t it? Why are we still in your house?” She whirled to face Max, licked her teeth, then levelled an accusing hoof at her. “You drugged me, didn’t you? What was in that tea?”

Max stood her ground and snorted. “Hey, you were acting like a deluded cosplayer all night, and I got scared that maybe you were pulling a fast one on me. Was going to see if you were still going to blab on about being Daring Do with the cops sitting next to you or something. But then…” She gestured viciously at the wreckage upstairs. “That happened.”

Daring’s hoof hung in the air for a couple of seconds before she lowered it. “Well, okay then. I’m guessing that things didn’t get that far before they went south on you.” She sniffed the air a couple of times, and her mouth settled into a grim line. “Dynamite. Galleon’s thugs visited last night, didn’t they? Did they hurt you?”

“No. They left after searching the house.” Max pawed at a blackened splinter on the floor. “And one of them decided to leave me a few presents.”

Daring studied her, as if trying to pierce her with those magenta eyes. A moment later, she dropped her frown and sighed. “Well, I’m sorry about what they did to your place. I’ll find a way to make it up to you. We were lucky they didn’t find your basement, or we’d probably be tied down to a pair of stretchers, being delivered to their secret cathedral for a bloodletting ceremony or something.”

“So what happens next?”

“That depends.” Daring quirked an eyebrow at her. “Do you believe me now, Miss Spring?”

“This is freaking bizarre,” said Max as she levelled a penetrating gaze at her favourite heroine. Then, she glanced at the floor and kicked the charred splinter away. “But hay if I’ve got a better explanation for random ponies blowing up my house in the middle of the night, so I guess I’ve got no other choice… Daring Do.”

“Hey, that’s the spirit!” Daring grinned and clapped her on the shoulder with a wing. “By the way, I think I’ve gotta get some of that stuff you put into my tea last night. I slept like a dragon, and I feel amazing compared to yesterday. Dreamweed extract, maybe? That stuff’s insanely expensive.”

“Umm…” Max scratched the back of her head. “Not exactly. It’s a, umm… secret family recipe.”

“Right, right. Whatever it was, it’s pretty good.” With a wary squint, Daring leaned in close and said in a conspiratorial undertone, “It’s not illegal, is it?”

Asking the important questions, aren’t we?

“Okay, something’s not right,” Max said with a frown of her own. “The books never mentioned you being into anything like this. Are you sure you’re the real Daring Do?”

“Like I said, publishers love that teen rating. Once you’ve been around Equestria as much as I have, you wouldn’t be surprised by the variety of substances I’ve accidentally or deliberately put into my system.” Daring waved a hoof dismissively and cracked a grin. “I remember this one tribe of hippogriffs in Horsetralia that wouldn’t let me so much as flap a feather above their sacred ruins unless I took part in their ceremonial feasting, which had, well… I can’t remember what exactly they gave me, but it knocked me on my flanks harder than a boulder trap and got me higher than a pegasus with gas. They didn’t let Doctor Caballeron get in without it, either, and when he caught up with me, it made things… interesting.”

That sounded awfully familiar. It took her a moment to recall the exact scene, but once Max got the image in her head, her jaw dropped. “Wait a second. That was the reason why the two of you kissed right in the middle of the fight for N’yungoro’s mask? I thought that was just AK Yearling pandering to the shippers!”

Daring reddened a bit. “Hey, I would neve—I mean… AK Yearling’s a professional. She doesn’t pander; she’s writing it like it is on my behalf!” She coughed into her hoof, then added, “And in my defence, it’s not my fault the stuff I was on shaved twenty years off Caballeron and made him look like a brown, hornless Prince Shining Armour. Wouldn’t you have done the same?”

Max decided not to answer that question. She simply stared at her idol and slowly shook her head. “Wow. My world is a lie. Daring Do’s a junkie, and she’s made out with old stallions. This is just too weird.”

“Well, welcome to Adventure 101: it never happens exactly like in the books. Also, I resent that remark; at my age, I’m allowed to make bad decisions.” Daring Do spun around and stomped on the rim of her pith helmet so that it flipped upwards and spun a few rounds in the air before landing neatly atop her head. She then grabbed her saddlebags and rummaged through its contents, saying, “Let’s get packing. We’ve got a long walk ahead of us. Make sure to grab something to munch along the way.”

Way ahead of you.

She’d siphoned enough emotional energy to take the edge off her hunger, but nowhere near enough to make up for the reserves she’d drained protecting herself from the explosion. Certainly better than nothing, but she still felt inclined to scowl at Daring’s chipper attitude; she seemed to have somehow benefitted more from the exchange than Max had. Maybe the next time she took a nap, she could—

All thoughts of further feeding vanished when she saw Daring Do standing by her bookshelves, brushing the tips of her feathers over several plushies of herself neatly placed in a row. Each one had a different outfit, ranging from her standard shirt and pith helmet to the ancient plate barding that she’d worn when fighting the Dreaded Balehorn of Canterkeep.

Max suddenly felt glad that changelings didn’t naturally sweat the same way ponies did.

Upon noticing her attention, Daring shot a smirk at her and said, “Oh, this explains a lot. Big fan, huh?”

She nodded mutely.

“And what’s this?” Daring’s smirk grew wider still as she lifted up a notebook with Max’s scribbling on the cover. “Fan fiction? You really do know how to flatter a girl.”

Max schooled her expression to a neutral one. “Really? You’re not bothered or anything?”

Daring set the notebook down with a chuckle and clapped her on the back. “Hey, relax. I’m an adventurer, not a lawyer. And speaking of adventuring… you ready for one? I know I’m like a broken record at this point, but maybe third time’s the charm, huh?”

Max bit her lip.

This is really happening, isn’t it?

She felt giddy and light as a feather.

Wait, no. Stay calm. It’s not irrefutable yet. Oh grub… I don’t know how the heck I’m supposed to feel about this.

Glancing skyward, she drew in a deep breath and released it slowly, then turned to Daring and said, “Well, I don’t have a better plan. Let’s just see how this plays out.”

“Best attitude, right there. You’ll be a proper sidekick in a day or two, tops!”

* * * * *

Most changelings eventually learned to deal with abandoning everything they’d built for themselves and moving on to start afresh. Leaving her house exposed to the elements and any passers-by whilst she went traipsing about the countryside with Daring Do wasn’t quite as drastic, but it still carried the risk of coming back to find it in shambles since she had no one to housesit for her. Max spent the better part of fifteen minutes frantically packing her collection of books and toys into various containers, nooks and crannies whilst Daring scrounged for supplies in the kitchen. With luck, they would still be around when she came back.

The sun had hidden itself behind an overcast sky by the time they stepped out the front door. A quick scan of the surrounding fields and forest revealed no intruders, but they had no safe way of checking if the heavy clouds were hiding pegasus sentries. Leaving under cover of darkness was better for avoiding detection that way, but staying also increased the risk of a second search party coming to finish what they’d started. They decided to simply make a run for it and hope that nopony was watching the house.

The ground still squelched and every blade of grass glistened with last night’s rain. Max’s own pair of saddlebags bounced against her sides as she galloped alongside Daring Do towards the forest, feeling a bit like a squirrel under a hawk’s hungry gaze. It was really too bad that Daring had seen her wearing Sunny Spring’s earth pony appearance; she would’ve preferred something much less conspicuous than the bright teal coat and golden hair. Having wings or a horn would’ve been nice, too.

Alternatively, if she was going to be Daring’s sidekick for the day, she was sorely tempted to go all-out as one of her own original characters.

Less fantasising, more running, she scolded herself.

They reached the treeline without incident, and Max hadn’t detected anypony else’s emotions in the immediate vicinity. But to play it safe, they kept cantering at a steady pace northwards.

“Need to get some distance between us and our last known location,” Daring explained. “Also, I need some time to think on our next move.”

Max saved her breath for running and her brainpower for digesting everything that had happened to her in the past twenty-four hours. Progress was slow on the latter.

After what felt like an hour of cantering through the leafy undergrowth, they stopped at a narrow stream to rest and fill their bellies. Birds and squirrels chirped high up in the branches overhead whilst Max sat on a mossy boulder, munching on a daffodil sandwich. Daring had spread a crumpled map of Equestria on the ground between them, using the black stone as a paperweight, and she wore a thoughtful frown as she chewed on a carrot.

The rune on the stone still glowed with soft, green light, but more faintly than she remembered.

“Is that supposed to be ancient Griffish?” asked Max.

“Hard to say. It’s vaguely similar to claw-script, but look at this.” Daring rotated the rock on its flat surface until it had spun in a complete circle. “Nearly all griffon cultures wrote with the sharp tips of their alphabet pointing downwards, but we won’t be able to determine this one’s alignment without a proper line of text or having it printed on something that isn’t as ambiguous about its orientation as a circular stone. I could be looking at this thing upside-down for all we know.”

“So if it’s not griffish, then what is it?”

“More importantly, what’s it for, and where is Galleon planning to use the rest of them?” Daring idly slid it over the map like a hockey puck and rubbed her chin pensively. “Come to think of it, I'm sure I’ve seen this symbol before. I just can’t put my hoof on it right now. How about you?”

Max made thoughtful clucking noise and shook her head. “Never seen it before in my life.”

“And yet it responded to you when just about every wizard and academician has tried and failed. I’m not sure if even Galleon has managed to make that much progress.”

“You’ve mentioned him before. I suppose he’s the bigshot leading these crazies?” Max almost immediately pictured a red and black pseudo-alicorn covered in tribal tattoos or garbed in impractically spiky armour. “Sounds like somepony the Elements of Harmony would’ve already dealt with a long time ago.”

“Hey, it’s not like the Elements can be everywhere at once,” Daring said with a shrug. “And – I can see it on your face – no, he’s not quite as flashy as Ahuizotl. He’s more like Doctor Caballeron. If he was a green and purple unicorn about half his age. Smart stallion that dropped out of college because they didn’t share his views on history or society. If I’ve got a read on the guy, he fancies himself a revolutionary – somepony who’s been chosen by a higher power to make the world a better place for all, whether we like it or not.”

A memory of Thorax flashed in Max’s mind, but she quickly dismissed it. Galleon probably had more spine than that grub, anyway.

“Up until last night, I was sure that Galleon’s just using his cult as an excuse to pilfer ancient artefacts for the black market,” Daring continued, tapping the rock in emphasis. “But since you’ve shown that these things are actually magical, I’m thinking that maybe he’s actually got the chops to back up his ideas.”

“It’s not magical,” Max said.

Daring raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know?”

“Because I can’t sens—”

Max stopped just short of pointing out that she couldn’t actually feel any magic in the little thing, despite it glowing like a stereotypical magical doodad. After spending years around unicorns and that one time getting blasted out of Canterlot with a love shockwave, she was pretty sure she knew what magic felt like. She’d just forgotten that earth ponies typically didn’t have much experience in that area.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

“You were saying, Sunny?”

She gave Daring a sheepish grin. “I mean, I can’t say for sure, being a plain earth pony and all, but I just got a feeling, you know?”

Her grin felt a tad strained at the edges when Daring simply looked at her. After a while, though, Daring shrugged and said, “Well, you wouldn’t be the first. I got professors everywhere telling me that it has no magic whatsoever. Looks like they’re all mistaken, unless we’re dealing with an ancient civilisation that knew how to make batteries and lightbulbs ages before we figured out electricity.”

The rock in question produced a solid clack when Daring struck it against a nearby boulder. “And I’m very sure that this thing isn’t battery-powered. You happen to have any powerful warlocks or necromancers in your family tree, by any chance? Some schools of magic are unrecognisable to outsiders.”

Max blinked. “Wow, straight to the killer questions, huh?”

Daring shifted her gaze to the rock, then back to Max. “Well, you know what they say about anything lime-green. It’s not intended to be an insult, by the way; practitioners of the dark arts tend to obsess about bloodlines and inheritance even more than the nobles – the ones who aren’t already descended from nobility, anyway – and it’s possible for their great-great-grandkids to have access to powers that they’re totally unaware of.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I’m not related to any warlocks or necromancers,” Max said with a firm shake of her head.

Love-sucking monsters, on the other hoof…

The rune stone did share some characteristics with the ancient obsidian scarabs they kept for long-distance communication with the hive, but those always emitted a magical signature recognisable to anyone with a horn. Still, she couldn’t ignore the similarities in colouration and… function. She’d communicated with something the last time she touched it – definitely a one-way connection, if nothing else. Was that the ‘higher power’ that Daring said Galleon was on about?

If that unicorn was actually some long-lost sibling of hers, it might explain why the rune stone responded to both of them…

Max dropped out of her thoughts and saw Daring in the middle of jotting something down in a little notebook, mumbling to herself as she radiated an aura of curiosity tinged with suppressed impatience.

Just how much of a hint would she need to drop in order to get Daring on the right track? And more importantly, how the hay was she supposed to redirect any suspicion away from herself once Daring made the connection? Suspicions of bughood had an annoying tendency to turn ponies into unpredictable panic bombs, and she couldn’t say for sure if Daring was as level-headed as the books suggested, let alone open-minded enough to put up with one for a temporary sidekick. The most exotic travel companions she’d ever had were Cumber and Patch, the dracogriff couple – if they were even real – and their kind hadn’t invaded Canterlot within the last couple of years.

Eh, I’ll figure something out later. Maybe.

For now, she started with, “I think it’s a communication device.”

Daring hummed and nodded sagely. “It could be. You looked like you’d seen a ghost after touching it. Who was it?”

Come.

She remembered the deep, rippling voice and its wordless command. At least, she thought it was wordless; she couldn’t remember it uttering recognisable words despite having a voice. Now that she’d thought of it, the whispering voices still echoed in the deepest corners of her mind, like creeping mould. And the eyes… thousands of them.

Max gave her a helpless shrug. “No idea. Just freaky voices and lots of eyes. All I know is that something wanted me to go to it… wherever it is. It didn’t tell me where.”

“Do you trust it?”

“Oh, oh yes. Totally,” Max deadpanned with half-lidded eyes. “Can’t wait to take instructions from the voice that sounds like it eats foals and granite for breakfast.”

“Well, I wouldn’t write it off so quickly…” Daring prodded the rune stone with a hoof, as if she might convince it to spill its secrets that way, but aside from the steady glow, it remained inert as ever. She then casually picked it up and held it out to Max. “I don’t suppose you’re keen on taking another look at it? We’re really short on leads right now, and if there’s a chance we might learn some—.”

Surreptitious whispers tickled the edge of Max’s hearing, growing sharper and more distinct with incomprehensible words as the stone inched closer her foreleg. With a start, she just about managed to hold back a bug-like hiss and snatched her hoof away from it. “Wait, what?”

“I’ll take that as a no.” Unfazed by her outburst, Daring chuckled wryly and slipped the stone into her saddlebag. “Sorry, was a little insensitive of me. You’re right; it’s probably too risky right now.”

Sighing, Daring reached into her bag and pulled out a little pouch about the size of a stack of a dozen bits. When she loosened the drawstrings, it revealed a corked phial filled with a dancing mote of green flame.

“I’d hoped to save this for an emergency, but you’ve convinced me that Galleon’s involved in something a whole lot nastier than I’d imagined,” said Daring as she neatly tore several pages out of her notebook. Max recognised a detailed sketching of the rune as Daring uncorked the phial and held them directly over the hungry flame. “Hopefully, a friend of mine will give us enough of an edge to outmanoeuvre him before it’s too late.”

And how the heck is burning your notes supposed to help us?

Daring noticed her frown and snorted. “Aww, come on. Don’t give me that look. It’s dragonfire – great stuff for sending mail to the exact location of your contact, so long as they’re on the same plane of existence. In this case, it’s somepony who might recognise our mystery rune and help us find a lead. See?”

The gout of dragonfire devoured Daring’s notes faster than regular flame, converting it all into a cloud of greenish smoke. Once it had finished consuming the last scrap of paper, the smoke rose into the air several tail-lengths above their heads and whisked off into the forest like a miniature, twisting comet.

“Sounds expensive,” Max said as they watched it disappear between the trees. “Where do you even get the bits for stuff like this?”

“Royalties, of course! Seriously, even with what I’m able to wrangle out of our book deals, I’d bet AK Yearling laughs her way to the bank every season.” Daring shook her head and pouted. “Also, it’s probably because her lawyers are better than mine.”

“Is that it?” Max quirked an eyebrow. “How has nopony wised up to this? Heck, with all the world-ending catastrophes you’ve prevented, how has Princess Celestia not knighted you or something?”

“What makes you so sure she hasn’t?” Daring waggled her eyebrows. “I just happen to do my best work as an independent agent. And as for the first bit, well, it’s just too obvious to be true, isn’t it? Anypony claiming I’m real is almost immediately written off as a conspiracy theorist. Kind of brilliant, if you ask me. Hay, even you aren’t completely sold on me yet.”

“I’m that transparent, huh?”

“Nah, it’s all about experience, Sunny. Some ponies would rather walk into a cragadile’s maw before admitting I’m the real deal.”

Max had no response to that, so she settled for stuffing her mouth with the remains of her sandwich. Daring did the same, and they simply sat there quietly, listening to the bubbling stream and the calls of birds.

Heh. I’m having picnic with Daring Do. Wonder how many would give a wing and a leg for this.

The lull in conversation didn’t help Max come up with any ideas on their next move, but she supposed that’s what Daring was for. After taking a long swig from her canteen, Daring inspected the trunks of nearby trees for moss. Once she’d gotten her bearings, she trotted back to Max, folded up the map and pointed a hoof northward.

“Okay, my contact will probably need some time for research, so we’ll need to be ready to haul flank to any part of Equestria the moment we get the all-clear, and that means the railways.” Her mouth flattened to a grim line as she flexed her wings experimentally. “These are still sore, so I’m not using them unless I absolutely have to, and since you’re ground-bound like me, the trains are our best bet for getting around quickly.”

Max knew a thing or two about royal guards, and one thing they loved to do when on the hunt for changelings was to set up checkpoints at transport hubs. If the cultists had any brains between them, they would probably do the same to limit Daring’s ability to get around.

“They’ve probably got lookouts at the stations.” She then frowned as she inspected Daring from hat to hoof. “And you aren’t exactly blending in in that getup. Like, at all. Don’t you ever get mobbed in public areas?”

Daring waved her objection off with a wing. “Good thing I’m not planning to buy tickets, then. We’ll just catch the train ourselves.”

That doesn’t make any—

Max’s eyes widened as understanding dawned upon her. “Wait. You want us to hop onto a speeding train?”

“I know a ravine up near the foothills forces a sharp bend in the tracks. The train will slow down enough for us to hop on from a ledge. It’ll be fun!”

“And what happens when the conductor asks for our tickets?”

“Bits make the world go round, as they say. And if our conductor’s too much of an upstanding citizen for my natural charm, well…” Daring shrugged and thumped a hoof into the ground. “I’ll just have to use, uh, advanced persuasion techniques.”

For the first time since meeting her, Max felt a genuine grin coming on. “Do any of those ‘techniques’ come with the risk of assault charges?”

Daring’s eyes twinkled as she tossed her mane and wiped her brow in an exceedingly woeful gesture. “Alas, I’m an adventurer, not an Element of Harmony. Can’t always save the world without stepping on a few tails.” She then turned and headed north at a brisk trot. “And right now, I smell some world-saving on the horizon. Chop-chop!”

Daring Do plays dirty! Maybe this whole deal doesn’t have to suck, after all.

Ears perked and hidden wings a-twitching, Max hopped off the boulder and trotted after her now not-so-idealistic idol.

* * * * *

The books never mentioned just how close of an affair walking had with adventuring.

So. Much. Walking.

If AK Yearling didn’t cut out those parts entirely, Max suspected that each book would triple in size. And possibly expose her to the risk of legal action for literally boring ponies to death.

In retrospect, it was quite obvious that Daring would have to spend a lot of time traversing from one end of Equestria to another, but she’d never quite made the connection until then. Sure, she’d done much of the same as a wandering changeling, but that was different. After nearly six hours of continuous, brisk walking without even so much as an ambush from predators or highwaymares, she found herself considering the merits of shouting to give their position away just to prod fate into putting some action into her supposed Daring Do adventure.

Every now and then, a voice at the back of her mind would remind that the mare ahead of her was probably just selling her a fantasy for some obscure purpose. But she would then banish it with the memory of her house getting blown up, along with the voices she’d heard from touching the rune stone. It was just annoying that everything else up to this point had to be as mundane as walking. Daring wasn’t much of a conversationalist, either. At least, not when she wanted to maintain a somewhat urgent pace.

The leafy undergrowth of the forest gradually gave way to rockier terrain, and towering conifers appeared a lot more frequently amongst their deciduous neighbours. It didn’t make the going much easier, though, as Max realised after nearly falling into her third crevice. Creepers and detritus had a habit of covering those up quite nicely, especially the ones just big enough to bite a leg or swallow half a pony.

But progress was progress, and Daring Do eventually got them to a ledge covered in scraggly trees that overlooked the curving tracks. A short wait later and the train came roaring along, with just a few tail-lengths to spare between the carriage roofs and the stony ledge on which they stood.

As a pegasus, Daring had no difficulty making the jump and landing with reasonable grace.

Max leapt after her a second later, and immediately lurched into a roll as soon as her hooves hit steel. Her cheek bonked against the roof, and the train’s momentum happily kept her going until she tumbled over the edge with a shriek. But just before surrendering to the reflex to shapeshift her wings back for use, she heard a grunt and felt a sharp tug on her tail.

Her back bounced a couple of times against the side of the carriage as it swayed on the tracks. Bending her neck forward to look between her legs, past her belly, she saw Daring Do standing with a wide stance at the edge of the roof, her teeth clamped firmly down on Max’s tail hairs. The roaring wind whipped away her pith helmet, but aside from a frantic glance, she paid it no heed as she slowly lifted Max up, neck muscles bulging with the strain.

Great. That’s just great. Just a few hours in, and I’m already classified as the bumbling, comic relief kind of sidekick.

As if on cue, a passing tree branch smacked her in the face and left a parting gift of several bitter leaves stuffed into her mouth. She spat them out and yelped when another branch whipped her loose mane just as Daring finished hauling her back on board.

“Thanks,” Max muttered whilst clinging onto the roof.

“Hey, don’t mention it.” Daring threw a brief glance backwards and gave her a reassuring grin. “Nothing I couldn’t manage.”

Max could feel a little disappointment slipping through her bravado, though. Her ears drooped as she averted her eyes and said, “Sorry about your hat.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Let’s get inside before we hit a tunnel, or we’ll have to worry about losing more than a hat.”

Luckily, they’d jumped onto a freight carriage, so they didn’t have to worry about anypony witnessing her little accident through any windows. They simply had to make their way to the nearest passenger carriage, and this time, Max shapeshifted the undersides of her hooves to make use of her natural ability to cling to almost any surface, utilising just enough adhesion for added stability without looking like she was glued to the roof.

They got another lucky break when they found a passenger carriage with an empty cabin, and a reasonably classy one at that. It had long, thickly-padded seats big enough to comfortably sleep on, wide windows, and a table to do work on. If the few ponies they trotted past to get in had recognised Daring Do at all, they gave no sign of it.

Once safely within the privacy of their own cabin, Max slumped onto the soft seat and sighed. Daring did the same, and they spent the next few minutes in companionable silence as they watched the countryside roll by.

Eventually, Max spoke up. “So… what’s next? We just wait for your mystery contact to get back to us?”

“Yup,” said Daring as she laid her map out on the table, whilst scratching her mane absentmindedly with her other hoof. “We’re going to need more intel to narrow down our search. Galleon’s been hitting archaeological dig sites all over Equestria, but I haven’t been able to do proper research with all his goons breathing down my neck. No shame in getting a bit of outside help.”

“A few books ago, you wouldn’t have said that.” Max tilted her head. “It wasn’t because Spectrum Lash made that much of an impression on you, was it? I thought she was really annoying in The Ring of Destiny.”

“Oh, she was.” Daring rolled her eyes and added in an undertone, “And still is, come to think of it…” Then, her eyes softened and she smiled ruefully as she continued, “But her help also made a difference, and I like winning more than I like hogging all the glory.”

Max grinned. “I can get behind that.”

Daring’s ears suddenly perked up, and she hastily pulled the window pane half open to admit the green cloud of fiery smoke that whizzed in barely five seconds later. It hovered in front of her muzzle for a moment, then fizzled out and coalesced into a rather fat letter envelope.

“How’d you—”

“Dragonfire messages give you an itch when there’s one inbound, so you’ll always know when you’ve got mail.” She tore the envelope open in one swift motion and beckoned Max over. “All right, let’s see what we got.”

Dear DD,

The illustration you sent me is of an ancient rune that has been referenced several times across the span of nine centuries’ worth of archaeology, from 104 ANM to the present. It shares similarities with markings found on artefacts and ruined structures in several locations across Equestria; most of which were ancient settlements most likely from the pre-Unification Era. Many of them don’t exist anymore due to natural weathering and in some cases, iconoclasm, but the more recently discovered sites have been relatively well-preserved thanks to improved excavation and restoration techniques. I have marked the most promising locations on the attached map.

As for who made them, I cannot say for sure. The most reliable sources all agree that it belongs to an ancient civilisation, but there’s no consensus on what they were. Some records suggest a minotaur-like race of bipedals, whilst others claim that their architecture is more suited to ones with smaller stature like diamond dogs. Some even insist that only ponies had that level of sophistication at the time, thereby ruling out everyone else. Personally, I suspect that it was a multicultural society, or at least one that had subjugated other races.

However, one thing that they all agree on is that they seem to have gotten by without any form of magic. I have seen records detailing artefacts with no discernible magical signatures despite functioning in similar ways to modern enchantments (much like what you encountered). However, accounts of their fantastic abilities such as moving mountains and healing the sick will have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the majority of those were written in the Discordian Era.

As for your concerns about these cultists, your suspicion that they have unlocked the secret of activating these artefacts is not unfounded. Unfortunately, I will not be able to determine how without first seeing your new partner in action. My best guess is a physical catalyst of some sort, but I cannot be sure without rigorous tests, and I have a feeling that she would strongly object to the necessary tissue sampling.

I am afraid that that is all I have at this point. If I discover anything new, you will be the first to know. My notes, reference list and bibliography are attached in case you intend to follow up on my research.

Good luck!

Your friend,

TS

PS: We can’t wait to see what happens in the next book!

Max felt her eyes widen when Daring flipped to the list of items that her contact had apparently covered in her research. It involved several series of journals with volumes going from one to forty-something, over thirty books on history and magic, and at least twice as many smaller documents like letters, inscriptions and decorative artwork. It even referenced the number of pages she’d covered in each item, where applicable.

“Unless your friend can absorb information by simply eating books or something, I’m pretty sure he or she hasn’t done that much research,” Max muttered with a shake of her head. “There’s no way anypony can read that fast, let alone tie everything together in their head.”

“Well, that’s why she cheats. Stretching time is awfully useful in situations like this, eh?”

“Stretching time? As in, time dilation? That’s ridiculously advanced magic. Just who the hay is your—” Max stopped in mid-sentence when she glanced back at the letter and saw the sender’s initials. TS. She blinked a couple of times, then felt her jaw drop. “Hayseed, is… is your contact Twilight Sparkle?”

“Got it in one!”

“And… Spectrum Lash.” She facehoofed groaned. “You just changed Rainbow Dash’s name, didn’t you?”

Daring chuckled. “Well, somepony’s a pretty sharp cookie.”

Max’s eye twitched.

Oh grub, she has close ties with them.

She remembered getting her flank kicked by the six Elements back in Canterlot. Sure, they’d eventually overwhelmed the six mares with sheer numbers, but getting Rainbow Dash’ed in the face really left a lasting impression, in some cases physically – Fibula still had a dent on her head where the crazy mare had drop-kicked her. And by most accounts, having your disguise personally disrupted by Twilight Sparkle’s spellwork often resulted in faulty shapeshifting for days, and that was before she’d turned into a freaking alicorn.

If she didn’t tread carefully during her adventure with Daring Do, she might just find herself on the wrong end of a dissection table with the crazy princess looming over her, giggling gleefully at the chance to learn more about changeling anatomy.

Might still be worth it, though.

“Hey, are you there?”

Max blinked and saw Daring’s hoof waving in front of her face. “Sorry, spaced out for a moment. Didn’t expect you to be so close to the Elements of Harmony.”

“Well, two of them, at any rate. I’ll introduce you if we ever bump into them.”

Please don’t.

“Uh, sure.” Max leaned over to get a better look at the map. “So, where are we headed?”

The Purple Menace had highlighted several locations using bright-red ink, with reference numbers corresponding to those in her notes. She peered at the small and neat writing, but Daring’s hoof soon blocked them from view.

“Leave that to me. We’ve got a couple of hours to kill before reaching the hub, and you look like you’re in need of some major shut-eye.”

Max opened her mouth to protest, but she quickly shut it when she realised just how much she felt like a bunch of wet noodles tied together. Hunger for love gnawed deep inside her chest; the hours of endless walking coupled with her premature moulting had taken a toll on her reserves, and sleep sounded like a much better use of her time than pretending to contribute to Daring’s efforts to find their target. Especially when she hadn’t understood even a quarter of Twilight’s terminology and abbreviated references – attempting to help Daring would only slow her down with the need for explanations in laymare’s terms.

She glanced at the comfy seat, then turned back to Daring. “You sure?”

Daring clapped her on the back with a wing. “Don’t worry. I’ll wake you up when it’s my turn.”

Mere moments from curling up on the seat, Max felt her world slipping away, helped along by the rhythmic rumbling and swaying of the train.

Just a short one, she promised herself.

* * * * *

A distant voice called to her.

Max didn’t bother answering. Instead, she shifted to a more comfortable position and chased after a fading dream. It had been a rather pleasant one, with lots of partying and delectable pairs of ponies, and she had every intention of diving back in if she could.

The voices didn’t let her, though.

They started off soft and indistinct, but gradually increased in volume and clarity until it sounded like a swarm of angry bees inside her ears. She grumbled loudly and flattened her ears, but they didn’t relent.

“Wakey, wakey, little missy!” somepony said in a singsong voice, reminiscent of a colt just hitting puberty.

“Gerh away…” she mumbled.

Max heard a sharp smack, followed by pain in her muzzle as the world turned on its side. She yelped and flailed, then grunted when the floor collided with her face and the rest of her body fell into a crumpled heap on top of her head.

Groaning, she immediately recognised the dark view of wooden beams and bolts as the underside of the seat, and the hooves of several ponies standing in the cabin. Red, grey and brown, two with unshorn fetlocks. No light gold of Daring Do. The air carried a faint scent of rotten eggs, and she could taste a mixture of anxiety, impatience and savoury triumph in her immediate vicinity.

Her heart raced as she considered the possibilities for finding herself alone in the train cabin with strangers and a smarting snout, chiefly the one where Daring Do had simply ditched her, or worse, had sic’d a bunch of undercover police or royal guards on her. But before she could come up with an appropriate response, her assailant hauled her back up onto the seat.

“Are we awake, now?” asked the stallion with a cheerful smile.

Max simply stared at him. He was a pegasus of moderate build, with icy, sky-blue eyes and a very muted shade of spiky, greenish hair. His cloudy-grey coat had darker splotches of coal-grey that made it rather difficult to tell whether his general sooty appearance was due to natural colouration or actual soot.

“Yeah, I know you’d love to stare at my handsome mug all day, but I’m on a job for the big boss.” His smile widened to a toothy grin as he put a hoof firmly under Max’s chin and guided her gaze towards the cabin door.

Two other pegasi, one big, red stallion and one sleek, brown mare, stood guard by it.

“You happen to know the mare who shared your cabin?” asked the red one gruffly.

Max flicked her gaze over to the table, where Daring had left the map and all her notes out in the open for all to see.

Oh, that’s not good.

It all clicked together at once. Max remembered their voices as belonging to the homewreckers who’d blown up her house. Magic pooled into her hidden horn, ready for her to call upon in a pinch as she itched to explode into action.

No, no, play it cool. They don’t know for sure.

She took a slow, calming breath to still her heart. It didn’t quite work, so she covered it with an annoyed scowl instead.

“She owe you guys money or something?” she asked with a shake of her head. “I thought there was something shifty about her.”

Big Red returned her scowl. “You could say that. She took something from a friend of ours, and he’s willing to go to great lengths to get it back, if you catch my drift. So if you know anything about our missing friend, you’d best spill your guts right now before somepony gets hurt.”

“And by somepony, he means you,” the brown mare huffed.

No proof yet…

“Look, all I know is that she was acting weird when she barged in here as if she owned the place,” Max said testily. “So just leave me out of whatever business she has with—”

Big Red clicked his tongue, which Grey immediately followed with a swift back-hoof to Max’s cheek that nearly toppled her.

“Drop the attitude, missy,” said Red calmly.

Blinking tears out of her eyes, Max curled up to make herself smaller and let out a practiced whimper. Then, after a sob for good measure, she blubbered, “Sorry. I—I really don’t know anything! You want my bits, take them! Just leave me alone!”

Grey glanced back at Red. “You sure she’s hiding anything?”

“Ugh, this is a waste of time,” said Brown with an exasperated growl. “Just jump straight to the flank kicking; that’ll loosen her tongue faster!”

After raising an eyebrow at his companions, Grey shrugged and slammed a hoof right into Max’s gut with enough force to drive out all of her breath. She then curled up and wheezed as she attempted to draw in a ragged gasp through the blinding pain.

“Okay, okay, she’s with me! Just stop hurting her!” Daring Do’s frantic voice rang out from somewhere outside the cabin.

Oh, hayseed.

On one hoof, it looked like Daring hadn’t ditched her, after all. On the other hoof, she’d gotten herself captured.

Brown grinned at the other two. “Oh, would you look at that. You owe me fifty bits.”

Both stallions snorted at her, and Grey produced a pair of hoof cuffs that he swiftly clamped around Max’s forelegs whilst muttering, “Oh, sure, violence only works when it’s your idea. But when I make a suggestion? Nooo, nopony listens.”

“There’s a world of difference between good, old-fashioned hoof therapy and dynamite, Shorty.”

Shorty?

Max blinked and turned to stare at the grey pegasus as he marched her out of the cabin. Leaning a little to the side, she just managed to get a glimpse of his cutie mark: a cherry bomb with a sparkling fuse.

“Short Fuse?”

He paused and regarded her with a frown. “That’s my name. Don’t think I’ve introduced myself, though.”

For a moment, her fearful mask slipped. She resisted the smouldering urge to sink her fangs into him, settling for a frown instead. “You blew up my house.”

After tilting his head and blinking a couple of times, realisation dawned on his face, followed by a grin. He then chuckled and said, “Oh, that. Sorry, but I sometimes get carried away when I’m having fun, you know?”

Max recognised that pulse of colt-like glee. Sweet and savoury, just like long-overdue revenge. He certainly had a very punchable smirk, to boot.

Yeah. Just you wait. I’ll be having fun, too, before this is over.

“Enough talk. Brother Galleon is waiting.” Red then pounded his hooves twice on the floor and shoved Max out into the corridor. “Get a move on. Hop to it!”

Outside the cabin, she saw Daring Do similarly shackled and flanked by a pair of thuggish ponies, one unicorn stallion and one bat-winged mare. Daring heaved a sigh and gave her an apologetic grin laden with so much genuine concern and relief that Max could almost eat it.

“Stay calm. I’ll think of something,” Daring mouthed to her as the cultists marched them up the carriage, towards the front of the train.

I asked for this, didn’t I? I’m going to be in a novel. This is crazy.

Max had tangled with authority figures and ponies of Canterlot’s underbelly before, but never in the context of a fictional series that turned out to be not-so-fictional after all. She could feel these ponies’ readiness to hurt them on a moment’s notice, but the danger just felt surreal.

But within that surrealism, she felt a spark of predatory delight kindling in her chest. Dozens of ideas for breaking free and incapacitating her captors flitted through her mind as she cast surreptitious glances about for escape routes and makeshift weapons, but she kept her growing excitement in check. Better to play the part of damsel in distress first; ponies had a tendency to drop their guards around the really irritating or useless ones. She’d wait until they got into a situation where the odds were less skewed in favour of the cultists.

Other wide-eyed passengers gave them a wide berth – very, very politely – as they passed. The train conductor barely took notice of their presence even when Big Red barged past him and knocked his glasses askew with a wing.

After crossing several noisy gaps between carriages, they ended up in a huge one that consisted mostly of red, velvety seats, fine dining tables, ornate woodwork and lots of lamps that gave off warm, yellow light to compensate for the dark curtains that practically blocked out the entire outside world. It looked exactly like the kind of place that rich ponies or stereotypical snazzy villains loved to lounge in.

As they stepped into the cool air of the cabin, a grassy-green-coated unicorn stallion looked up from his scrolls and books on the table before him and focused his deep purple eyes on Max and Daring Do. He’d done his pale, whitish mane up like a short ponytail with a bit of a messy forelock at the base of his horn, and his cutie mark looked like an blue, undulating wisp of magical fire surrounded by sparks.

That’s him?

Max felt a little let down by the distinct lack of a goatee, extra horns or scars. He wasn’t even wearing ominous, black robes or sporting any magical artefacts. In fact, his colours kind of reminded her of a spring onion.

But the moment he spoke up, her doubts melted away.

“You’ve led us on quite the merry chase, Miss Do,” he said with a clear voice that, although no deeper than the average stallion, somehow carried an undertone of power that nopony looking like him should’ve been able to possess. “Did I not say that our victory is inevitable?”

Something dark and terrifying had added its nearly-imperceptible whisper to his voice, and Max thought she’d caught a glimpse of its shadow in the gaze of his purple eyes. For a moment, her disguise wavered at the thought of the eldritch horrors she might face.

But when she cast a sideways glance and saw Daring’s unfazed determination as she stared down the leader of the cultists, the spark in her heart reignited, and she allowed the corners of her mouth to curl up ever so slightly.

Time for the changelings to make their debut in Daring Do.

Author's Note:

Lately, I've been getting a little anxious about my pacing and conciseness. Sometimes I feel like half the stuff I write is just tedious filler. :facehoof:

Please let me know if that applies to any parts of the story so far, and I'll see what I can do to improve. :twilightsheepish: