• Published 17th Jul 2017
  • 3,979 Views, 829 Comments

An Exercise In Management - Nameless Narrator



A simple drone "accidentally" failed to leave the Badlands hive for the invasion to Canterlot. He was only two weeks old, one of the clutch specifically created to break through the protective shield. Now starving, he's just trying to survive.

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35: Together to the ruined castle!

I can feel their horror and rage. The chaotic wave of hatred surrounds me from all sides, rises like a pillar, and then crashes down.

My real eyes shoot open.

Realizing the apple orchard is behind us and a menacing treeline shows against the the dim light of morning, I must have been following One on autopilot for the entirety of my “vision”.

In the distance, there’s a small cottage surrounded by wide open pens. Thankfully, neither its inhabitant nor the possible animals living around it have noticed us yet.

”Equestria to King,” Eight pokes my nose, ”We’re almost in the Everfree. What’s our next step?”

Were the visions real? Did Eight really kill one of the memories of the ancient rulers?

I shake my head, dispersing the final stupor from the contact with the hive mind. Thankfully, One is leading the way without any problems.

We pass through the wall of trees in the gloomy forest, and sit down in a clearing few minutes later.

For some reason, I feel safe.

”Well,” One raises an eyebrow, ”What’s the grand plan? We’re hidden, as far as we know we haven’t been followed, and we’re near an enemy settlement with little to no protection.”

“Eight, did you find the… traitors?” I feel dirty calling someone a traitor. Maybe it’s aftermath of the vision, but I just… feel like I’m branding someone for disagreeing with what I wanted.

Then I recall Three’s loveless, freshly dead body. Image which would have been a reality without One.

Eight grins, shows as much teeth as she can, and twirls her new necklace of severed changeling horns.

”All of them,” she winks, tossing a filled pair of saddlebags on the grass, ”They even got these.”

The open bags reveal two love crystals, faintly shimmering in the dark. Every changeling shuffles closer to them.

”Plus, I got whatever love wasn’t spent in the fight. It’s not much, but right now it’s all we’ve got.”

Looking around at the circle of skinny changelings with their carapaces covered in spiderweb cracks, I realize they’ll have to wait even further.

“I think we’ve got only one option, and you’ll bite my head off when you hear it,” I sigh.

Eight licks my ear.

”Maybe just a nibble. After that daring escape from Canterlot, you deserve a little… leniency from me.”

”Pff, as if you even knew how to use your body properly,” One walks by, her tail wrapping around my neck before flicking Eight’s muzzle, ”Plus, a proper King needs to build a proper hive, which means the best genes possible,” One sticks her tongue out at Eight, ”Even a low-rank warrior like you must admit that I am the best potential broodmother here.”

Eight growls, but to my absolute shock, she hangs her head.

”Yes, you are.”

”Too proud for your own good, but smart enough to be honest. You’ll make a good mistress, although I doubt our King will ever have an itch I won’t be able to scratch, heh..” One chuckles in victory, but Eight is far from being defeated.

”I will do ANYTHING, you cheap, second-rate seductress. I doubt you can enjoy screaming in pain as your King and owner rips love straight from your flesh as roughly as possible. I know you, manipulator. You CRAVE power and influence. You don’t know how to properly submit… give up all control… and find your freedom at the end of a leash.”

Do I get a say in this, or will one of them drag me to some cellar again?

”Cheap? Second-rate? You-”

“Orders, you two,” I clear my throat, forcing my voice to stay firm. They hesitantly stop staring each other down, and face me, “The love Eight recovered plus the crystals mean we don’t have to leave anyone behind, but that’s about the extent of it. We need more, and before Eight beats me to death with my own foreleg, I’m sending out you, One. Grab whomever you need, and go to this... Ponyville. We can hole up here-”

”I advise against that,” says Eight, avoiding One’s refreshed glare.

“Eight, she is the best suited for-”

”We shouldn’t stay here, it’s too close to the edge of the forest, and as we saw before there’s somepony living nearby. There’s an abandoned castle several hours east from here, which would make a far superior base.”

“Sooo… for the record, you aren’t against One leading our infiltration attempts in Ponyville?”

Eight gives me a smug smile.

”Once she screws up, they’ll catch her, not me. One less love sponge to fill.”

One answers the smile with a grin of her own.

”King, I will require the assistance of Four and Ten. You said I could take anyone I needed. That, and considering the shape they are in we’ll need some love for the road.”

Eight’s smile withers instantly. One winks at her.

“Eight,” I look at her very carefully. To her honor, she walks over to Four, then Ten, and finally One, transferring a little love into each one.

Staring into One’s eyes, their muzzles touching, she nods slightly towards Four before tapping on her necklace. That little gesture was more terrifying than any war of words and posturing before.

She meant this one.

One puts a hoof under Eight’s chin…

...then kisses her, necks of both bulging from One’s thick tongue. Paralyzed Eight only stares with jaw dropped when One withdraws, and then gently shuts her mouth with her hoof, and pats her cheek.

”Mmm, just a little lust for you. You’re cranky when you’re hungry. Now be a good girl, and lead my King to the castle. I’ve got a hive to rebuild later.”

Reinvigorated, Ten, Four, and grinning One leave back the way we arrived.

”I’m gonna kill her...” whispers Eight, her shaking body mirroring the burning fury I sense from her mind.

“Eight…?” I ask quietly, “The castle?”

She takes a long breath in, then breathes out.

”Of course, my King.”

***

I was hoping for a bit more… cover than what the main entrance leading through somewhat open hallway straight into the throne room offers. It’s not like the one in our good old hive, but you can’t have everything when you’re on the run.

”What’s that, boss?” Three's poking the nearest stone.

Scratches on the wall? I shrug.

”Stone carvings from pre-Equestrian era. Considering this castle is about twelve hundred years old, I’d assume they’re fake,” Eight answers what I can't.

”You’re so smart, miss Eight,” Three nods.

”I’m not just a punching machine, Three.”

”But you’re so good at that too!”

”I strive for improvement in any way I can, Three.”

”Cool. Is that a pony?” Three's now examining something new, equine-looking.

”Full platemail armor. Only the shell part, but maybe serviceable. If One, cross my heart and totally hope that doesn’t happen, fails to get us some love, I might use it.”

”Looks heavy.”

[”It definitely is, but these are the best armors pony soldiers used to wear. Judging from the shape and the helmet, it’s an earthpony one.”

We reach the throne room despite Three jumping from side to side and asking about everything from worked stairs to gilded iron railings.

”Oooh, this pony looks scary. I didn’t know some have bat wings and pointy teeth.”

”That’s princess Luna from the days she rebelled against her sister Celestia,” Eight points at the torn tapestry lying in front of the throne the throne as a rug, ”She called herself Nightmare Moon at the time, then she disappeared. I don’t know what happened to her. Drawing random information from the hive mind isn’t easy. As far as I know, Celestia had this castle built for Luna while hers was the one in Canterlot.”

”That one looked a lot better.”

”Shockingly...”

”Can we make this our home, boss? It’s cool and shady, I can sense tunnels under our hooves, and there are ponies not too far away we can become friends with… maybe. The town looked small like Wet Soil, not huge like Canterlot, and those ponies liked us.”

Eight doesn’t answer this one, gesturing towards the throne. I frown, sitting down in front of it onto the shredded tapestry of Celestia instead. Can we?

“This does look like a good place to settle down, at least temporarily. We can’t do much anyway until One and the others return.”

”If she hasn’t eaten them already and ran off,” grumbles Eight.

“Come on, you don’t actually believe that, do you?” I raise my eyebrow.

”I… have my doubts about her,” she raises her hoof as I open my mouth to object, ”but for now she’s been doing her job… reasonably well. It would be prudent, however, if she remained last on the list of love filling.”

I choose to believe it’s because One would barely feel the amount of love required to fill up everyone else in our group put together, not because Eight hates her.

As everyone sits down, Three keeps walking around, sniffing various walls, tapping on the floor, and generally not acting as exhausted as I know he is.

“What’s going on, Three?”

”Can I go look around, boss? I like this place a lot.”

“Alright, try to find some cellar or cave we can use for healing, but avoid making trails in the dust, at least on the upper floors.”

”Wohoo!”

”Wait!” Eight interrupts Three's dash towards the nearest way out of the throne room. She walks over to the Luna’s tapestry, tears a long strip off, and tosses it at the drone, ”Use it like a cloak. It will disrupt the dust and hide hoofprints behind you.”

After few attempts with his mouth, Three manages to drape the tapestry piece over his back, then looks at Luna’s head on the side of his barrel.

”I’m a pony princess’ guard now!”

”Shoo! Your real King gave you an order,” Eight stomps the floor. When Three rushes off, faint smile grows on her muzzle, ”He’s doing his best to make our situation seem less grim, isn’t he?”

“I think that’s just how he really is. Drone life wasn’t… fun at any point. Before I left the hive, I didn’t know anything about… well, anything. Sky, grass, trees… nothing. All I knew was the layout of the hive, what deep caves to avoid, where to carry what others told me to carry, and that in case of emergency I’m food as it should be.”

”I see...”

“And without you, Eight, I wouldn’t get to know much more. So, I’m sorry if you feel like I don’t listen to you or that you aren’t MY number one. I just want to give One a chance, I want everyone to get the chance I got by pure luck thanks to meeting you. I know it will bite me in the ass at some point, but… we were happy in Wet Soil, the ponies were happy, and I believe that can happen again.”

Eight turns away, slowly walking towards the main entrance.

”I’m going on patrol, King. If there’s a threat around the castle, then I will find it and kick its teeth out, so that it can’t bite you in the ass. That’s my job.”

Chuckling to myself, I relax with my back resting against the base of the throne, and close my eyes. A moment later as I drift off to sleep, I open Three’s.

He giggles, booping a stone pony statue’s nose.

*Click.*

”Eeeee?” Three grabs the statue’s leg for balance as a circular section of the floor spins around along with the wall and the drone. When the movement stops, Three’s standing in a narrow, pitch black hallway, ”COOL!”

Without missing a beat, Three heads down the short hall and then a winding stone staircase leading further into the depths.

”Now THIS is a good healing cave,” his eyes go wide as he enters a replica of the throne room, only underground. The main difference aside from it being in much better shape than the upper one thanks to not being faced with the elements for ages, are long metal rails along the ceiling, and tapestries of ponies with bat wings hanging around.

”Agreed.”

”Welcome back, boss. This still isn’t a proper throne room like back home, but definitely better. Should I carry the love crystals and other changelings here?”

”Can you do that? We’re all exhausted.”

”I feel alright.”

Hmm… he actually is in a strangely good shape. That’s weird.

”Okay, go for it. Just don’t push yourself too hard.”

”Miss One, Miss Eight, Four, and Ten are all doing their best. I’ll do what I can too.”

Over the next few hours, I follow Three running through the underground floors of the castle, mapping every nook and cranny. He eventually finds a much better place for healing - a simple small room into which about ten changelings could fit comfortably.

My surprise comes when he helps the first changeling get down there, and I feel his dissatisfaction with his job as the patient lies down.

”This won’t do,” he mumbles, poking the changeling’s chitin which gives in like normal skin.

”What are you doing?” I ask as he leaves the castle through the first hole in the wall he can find, and starts gathering grass into a makeshift bag made from his ‘cloak’.

He spits out grass and dirt.

”Surprise, boss,” and he just keeps going.

Well, it’s not like I’ll miss it, so I watch. When his ‘bag’ is full, he trots off back to the healing room where he arranges the grass into six makeshift softer spots.

”Beds?”

”Yeah. Everyone’s chitin is so weak it can’t be comfy lying on the stones, so I thought this would help.”

”Good idea, Three.”

Soon after, the hungry changelings plus the heavily wounded dormant warrior still somehow clinging to life are sleeping around the two glowing love crystals, faint green shimmer thinning the otherwise complete darkness in the room.

”Back to scouting, I guess,” Three wraps himself in the tapestry again, and brushes off some grass before stopping himself and mumbling, ”Wait, no. Ca… moo… flag-e?”

”Camouflage?”

”Yeah, that thing.”

Alarm goes off in my head, and I realize someone is shaking me. Wait, there shouldn’t be anyone in the throne room anymore.

“Huh? Back already, Eight?” I look up into the mouth full of sharp teeth, and into the two green eyes above.

”Already? It’s been half a day. Anyway, I think we have a problem.”

I link up everyone I can, which at this moment are only Three and Eight, and stand up.

“What problem?”

”I found two sets of pony tracks around the castle, each different. One set only passed by, and belonged to a zebra. I guess she’s some kind of local florist, because she kept taking samples of various flowers. She lives in a hollowed out tree not too far away from here, closer to the edge of the forest. If we want to take her out, it should be easy. However, that means-”

“That somepony might come looking for her, I get it,” I finish Eight’s thought, rewarded by her nod and a smile, “We’ll discuss it with the others when they get back.”

”Serviceable. Now, the reason I’m back is the second set of tracks. I caught sight of some green pony, but I chose to follow the zebra instead at first. However, when I returned to check the other target, I found the tracks leading here.”

“What?! Here like here into the throne room?” I gasp, “I’ve been asleep all this time, following Three.”

”Well, that was stupid,” she facehoofs, ”Anyway, no, not into the throne room itself. The pony went inside through a hole in the back. I circled around the castle in case they left, but found nothing. I’m pretty sure he or she is still here.”

“Oh dear,” I frown.

”Three, be careful!”

”I’m like a shadow, boss,” he mumbles.

Suddenly, hoofsteps.

”Hide!” whispers Eight, shoving us behind the throne.

”I can hear yooooooouuuuuuu!” comes a cheery voice from outside.

I peek out. Is that…?

Yep, judging by Eight’s scowl, it definitely is.

“One?”

”In the good old smooth chitin,” she enters the throne room, quickly followed by Four and Ten, both practically glowing with love.

”Well done, now shut the hole up, because we’ve got an intruder,” Eight waves her over, voice lowered.

My mental links to all three recover. Great, One can block me from an area now…

”Well, isn’t that your job, miss love and brute force conquer all?” One lightly smacks Eight over the head. Eight’s eye twitches, but she knows full well that right now One could tie Eight’s legs behind her back with a single flick of her horn, ”Don’t worry. Mama One’s here now, so you can go play soldiers in your corner until I’m done.”

”One...” Eight growls.

“Enough, One!” I raise my voice, walking between the two, “How did it go?”

”I would say well enough. Earthponies are easy targets, and it turns out that unicorns living among them for a long time aren’t much smarter, heh. We’ve got love, we’ve got lust… I even brought Ten back alive just to annoy your little pet,” she tilts her head to catch Eight’s glare, and sticks her tongue out, ”If she begs, I might actually share some spoils with her.”

“One, did you come here to gloat at our failure, or did you bring the love for us? You know no one here can force you to give it up.”

”I sure as all holes can try!” hisses Eight.

”Please do, I could use a good laugh.”

“One!” I stomp my hoof. Yep, I look as silly as this gesture is.

”Oh my little new king, how about a deal?” One grins, ”If miss Hundred- no, Thousand and eight here genuinely admits how low she is in comparison to myself, that I am the most worthy breeder here, and says her real rank, I’ll give you what I brought from Ponyville. If you can’t handle a low rank pet like her, meaning she won’t obey your order, why should someone as perfect as I serve you? In that case, I’ll leave you with Four and Ten, and you can grow your little hive out of the way of everyone. Or I might just decide to eat you all on a whim. It’s not as if you can stop me.”

I turn my head to Eight who is standing there, eyes closed, grinding her teeth, and shaking with powerless rage. She senses my focused presence inside her head, and her answer echoes through our link:

”I’ll do it if you order me, my King.”

Idiot.

“I won’t order you anything, Eight,” I say out loud, facing One down, “One, thank you for your help until now. So, are you leaving, or are we fighti-”

”I...” a trembling, weak voice comes from behind me, ”...am a nopony in comparison to you, One. If you are in the picture… I don’t deserve to breed, there is no need to use second-rate genes like mine,” Eight walks forward, staring at the floor. I can feel her pride crumbling with each word, ”My rank doesn’t matter, there is so much difference between us that it doesn’t matter whether I’m rank Eight or Eight million.”

One makes Eight look up into her eyes with her hoof, cruel smile on her lips.

”Don’t hide. Say that to my face so that I know you mean it.”

To my surprise, Eight smiles despite the tears in her eyes, and breathes out. It’s a smile of relief.

”I am the King’s tool. I don’t need a name, nor a rank. I am the extension of his will. His toy, his soldier, his shield, his pet. I am a thing, not an independent changeling,” Eight’s smile only grows wider as if a massive burden was lifted from her back, ”You are more powerful, more beautiful, more experienced, and better… but I am his, and that’s all that matters,” she finishes, and wipes her eyes, "at least to me. Thank you for making me realize it."

One bares her fangs. Through her still open link I sense that this hasn’t gone the way she hoped.

”Always find a way to one-up me...” One whispers, snarling at Eight, ”Well, that backfired completely. Alright, a promise is a promise,” her horn glows, filling me with an amount of energy that’s enough to nourish and heal everyone, ”Now, we still have one mistake to right… if you still want me?” she raises an eyebrow.

“Eight?” I nod at her, “Do we want her?”

”She’s been an excellent teacher to Four, and she’s a fountain of knowledge neither of us can possess. She’s also a greater threat than any ponies that chased us. I will support your decision, no matter what it is, and enforce it if you say so.”

“Coming from you, that’s a glowing endorsement,” I nod towards One, “Welcome back, One. Don’t scowl so hard. I have never seen anyone so disappointed with winning.”

”Winning, eh?” One sighs, ”Glad to be back… King.”

Eight looks at me, her expression not intense or teasing like always, but one completely peaceful, decorated with a soft, warm smile.

”Let’s find our pony intruder, my King, shall we?”

”Boss, boss, boss!” Three runs out a nearby hall, ”I found a medusa pony, I think! Like the one in my book. Well, the ones I used to have. She smells weird. Very herb-y. She’s all green and has thick brown snakes for hair.”

“Where?”

”Follow me!” he rushes off.

It doesn’t take long to find a room on the main floor without a broken roof. It’s fairly warm, there’s a small fireplace in its center, and of course a light green mare lying on a soft pillowy blob, sinking into it. She blows a small cloud of blue smoke from her mouth before greeting us with a surprised but friendly smile.

“Heyyy, black ponies. Wait, that’s not racist, is it? You look cool, but your chakras are all messed up. Come and relaaaax...”

Author's Note:

And you thought I'd go with either Pinkie Pie or Fluttershy.
I'm about as predictable as Discord.

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