• Published 17th Jul 2017
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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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49: Seeking silence

I wake up on a pile of changelings, or more accurately in a pile of changelings, with One and Eight on each of my sides, and Four sleeping across all of us as if we were a bed. Ten is nearby, drooling into plush Celestia’s chest fluff. He’ll be so mad he’s ruining the toy beyond the point of cleaning when he wakes up. We might want to make a custom one for him eventually, one that could survive changeling spit.

A quick mental check reveals that Nine is patrolling through the house, checking the broken windows and glass carefully scattered under them for any signs of possible intruders. For now, it seems that none of Mayor Mare’s associates deemed it smart to return to the scene of crime.

Turning my head, I gulp when see twin golden eyes staring at me. It seems that no matter how light my mental touch of everyone was, it woke One up.

“Any plans for today, King, or do we send the foals to play outside and have some real fun?”

“...backoffthot...” snores still half unconscious Eight.

“The permanent link between the two of you is kinda annoying,” One pouts, but doesn’t seem really disappointed, “If things keep going like this, I’m gonna need a plush you to call my own.”

“I’ll add it to the order for Ten’s new Celestia.”

One looks at the sleeping changeling in question.

“Meh, just a neck. For a ‘nobility hunter’ he’s surprisingly innocent regarding Sunbutt in a way. Nevermind, what do we do today, then?”

Damn One, making me use my brain this soon after waking up.

“How about we keep doing what we’ve done until now? We’re well fed, and no one is trying to kill us.”

“Hmmm...” One doesn’t seem convinced, “I’m not the one to look into a gift changeling’s mouth, but I think we shouldn’t have you walking around in the open regularly.”

“How come?”

“Two reasons,” her voice gains the good old lecturing tone, “First, unless Star Trail and his zealots starved in the castle dungeons-”

Which I know they didn’t, thanks to Four telling Celestia about them.

“-then they’ll be on our tails eventually. All it takes is a wrong word at the wrong time. You being regularly outside makes you a much easier target.”

“Alright, agreed. And the second reason?”

“I assume we’ll want to use this place as more than just shelter, right? If not only because an abandoned house in Las Pegasus would bring unwanted eyes to us.”

“I was thinking we could become sort of an attraction, maybe this house could be a front like Mayor Mare used it - a business barely keeping itself afloat while being our base from which you and the others can go out and hunt.”

“That’s not an option,” mumbles Ten, looking at us with barely open eyes, “We’ll have to find a way to make money if we want to keep this place. This isn’t Ponyville where you could just build your own house. We’re near the main promenade, so we’ll have to pay rent to the city, and soon.”

“Is what we got from the changeling rides enough?” I wish I had any idea how much money any pony things cost.

“Not even close,” Ten shakes his head, “but that’s just because we’ve been doing parlor tricks until now. Now, though, we have the parlor. The question is what we do with it...”

“Changeling rides inside don’t feel like the best idea,” I comment.

“Depends on what kind of rides,” Ten shrugs, “Nine could give you some pointers.”

“You want to make this place into a brothel, really?” One raises an eyebrow, “I was expecting a more interesting idea from you.”

“Sometimes the simplest solution is the best. THE perfect place for extracting lust, and if we gain some love on the side to dilute it and avoid the unwanted effects, we’ll be good. I’m not exactly stoked about it, but it’s simple, and it would work, although I think we’d need more changelings to be effective.”

From my links gradually lighting up, I can sense everyone is listening now, although Eight looks as if she’s fast asleep, Four’s ears are twitching, and Nine is still patrolling.

“As much as I’d enjoy spawning the first proper clutch of our little hive,” One winks at me, “the brothel bears a lot of risks. Shady and often violent ponies here on daily basis, dealing with trafficking rings around the city, and… somehow even I can’t force myself to send Four to service a half-drunk earthpony five times her size. I must be sick. As simple and effective the idea is, it means a rut in more senses than the good one. So let’s put it on the back burner, and leave it there until it catches on fire and dies in Tartarus.”

“I agree with One. Guess I’m getting sick too,” Eight speaks out, “A brothel is means to an end, a poor changeling’s simplest way to get low quality food. Basic survival. To achieve a better end, we might need to use better means. Plus, I’d rather not share my personal stress reliever with anyone,” she pats my barrel. Then to my horror she sticks the tip of her tongue out at One, “Well, I might be flexible in very special cases...”

“Four?” I ask for everyone’s opinion ”Nine?”

“I mean,” the small infiltrator shifts to hug One’s foreleg and find a better place to lie on three other changelings, “it would be an experience, and I made out with miss Cheerilee in Ponyville several times and we both enjoyed it. I’m not exactly against it, but the way you described it scares me.”

“Yeeeeah,” Ten stretches his legs, “Four, there’s a world of difference between an innately sweet mare who just happens to love underage or young colts, and basically only wants to make them happy in more ways that her job allows while benefiting in the process, and stallion who’s unhappy with his life and wants to empty his balls into a willing… or unwilling… receptacle. In the worst cases, the clients can get violent because they think they can get more than they paid for. I have seen changelings who got choked to death with a pillow, and you know what the worst part was?”

Four whimpers. Ten gives her a sad glance.

“When she lost her disguise, none of the ponies cared about what happened, because she was a changeling.”

“...that’s horrible...” Four looks about to cry. Not a good thing to see this early into the day.

“That’s why I said we’d need more changelings to keep an eye on things.”

”There are only three usable rooms on the top floor, one of which is an office. Majority of the ground floor is taken by the connected rooms for the guided haunted house tour. Plus, there’s only one cellar downstairs which is rather small.”

When I finally realize what Nine’s message means, I come to the conclusion that Nine is actually much smarter than he shows. We can’t use the house as is for the brothel even if we wanted to. Our money could be enough, I’ll have to check later with Ten, to repair the windows and doors, but I seriously doubt it will suffice for any big rebuilding.

“Hmmm,” One hums after a moment of silence, “There IS a way we could combine what we’re good at, meaning feasting on ponies, and eliminate most of the risks associated with a brothel. How about a dance stage, like a nightclub or cabaret?”

“Hey, that’s a great idea!” Four looks immensely pleased with that idea.

“Really?” Ten raises an eyebrow, “I thought I scared you enough with the idea of drunk ponies touching you.”

“You did, but this is different!” objects Four, “It’s dancing in disguises, pretty or sexy! I don’t know if I would be any good at it, but miss Eight is coordinated enough to do anything. Miss One is great at singing, and I know you can play the piano really well, Ten. Nine could be the bouncer, sexy one too so that mares can have someone’s flank to slap, and I could, I dunno, bring ponies drinks and stuff. It’s not like being alone in a room with someone nasty. And if we find someone really worth it, miss One could take them into the broom closet and have fun or something.”

“I know you’re all into it,” Eight clears her throat, “and while teaching someone as unstable on all fours as Four to pole dance could potentially be hilarious, it doesn’t change the main problem which Nine identified. We don’t have enough space without a complete rebuilding of both floors. On top of that, and it makes sense for a warrior to notice it first,” she can’t help herself to take a jab at the infiltrators, “but logistics, everyone, logistics! Food, drinks, that all belongs to a nightclub. We’ll need contacts, suppliers… and a completely different set of rooms that we have now. Well spotted, Nine.”

”Thank you, miss Eight.”

Everyone looks a little crestfallen after that rather good idea got shot down.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t work up to it, right?” I try to lighten the mood, “We just need something simpler first to get the money for repairs and rebuilding… and possibly few more changelings. Please don’t look at me as if I was a ripe piece of love ready for taking, One.”

Love isn’t piece-able, but you get the drift.

”If rebuilding is such a problem, why not use the current premises?” asks Nine ”A haunted house suits our nature pretty well. It wouldn’t be the best for feeding, but if we scared enough ponies and gained renown we could draw in a good number of clients. Possibly enough to pay rent plus some extra to eventually be able to afford the reconstruction. Boss in his real body could help too, because everyone will think it’s just the disguise. On top of that, ponies we’ve met before might realize what the preview miss Eight talked about was for.”

Yep, Nine’s definitely waaay smarter than he looks.

“Great idea. We’ll need to sit down, plan the route, and come up with more ideas than just a house of changelings. We could make it more hive-like. As interesting as pony architecture is, a good black and green hole is home.”

“It’s a good way to practice transformations, definitely, but as Nine said, it lacks the potential to gain love, or at least reasonable amount of it,” One adds her opinion, “There is a way to gain both money and love, and possibly still use this base as home. The risk is quite high, though. We could start an escort service. It’s basically prostitution but without the ending up dead in a ditch part.”

“How is that different from the brothel?” I ask when Eight and Four exchange confused looks, and One taps her hoof against the floor.

“A lot. Escort service isn’t just about sex, it’s about company, and it’s way more expensive, which helps filter out the bad clients. Basically, you have a list of ponies and their preferences, and the clients choose who they’d want to accompany them either to a dinner or some event. If things go well, the client is satisfied, and the escort agreeable, they bang in the end, or do whatever afterwards. They pay either way. Consider it a training for Four or anyone else really in adaptation to new situations and places, and experimenting with fake personality profiles.”

“It really doesn’t filter out the bad guys as much as you’d think,” Ten looks uncertain about the idea, “It’s easy to pretend to be a reasonable guy and after you’re alone you… stop pretending. Trust me, I fed from a lot of escorts like that when I was among the nobility, and being played with by a changeling is drastically better than what some real bigwigs did to the mares,” he shudders, “Let’s not risk that.”

An idea comes to mind. Why change everything when we already have some experience with what we want to do?

“Guys, since we’ve got some rooms, why don’t we do what we did in the castle? Sexy dungeon adventure. It could be for, let’s say, groups of three to five ponies, they’d have to overcome some challenges, and if they succeeded they would fight evil Eight who would knock them out, then chain them up in the cellar, and have her way with them. In the end, she could mess with their memories. They would be chained and under venom down there, so they wouldn’t be any threat to anyone feeding from them. We could switch the bosses and bad ends depending on what disguise who would want to try.”

“Yes and no,” One clicks her teeth, “On one hole, we know it works, and it makes ponies want to come again. On the other… space, space, space. Granted, we could start small, but...” huge smile suddenly spreads on her face, “Guys, the main problem isn’t space as such, but that the space is full of useless small rooms. How about we hollow out the entire house, and turn it into the hive? We can dig tunnels underground that no one would notice, and we could make it into the sexy adventure like King wants. Imagine it,” she makes a half circle with her hoof around her, “A group of ponies captured by changelings, the very few who can fight their way out of a cocoon must survive and get out to warn others about the incoming invasion!”

“That way they’ll think we’re just exploiting recent history, and not that we’re changelings for real...” Eight starts smiling as well, “And we could use the losers one by one for love by using some unfulfilled fantasy of theirs. We’ll get love, space, renown, and home that looks like home while still saving on materials and money for repairs. We’ll have mortar and goo aplenty.”

”We can dig new escape routes only we will know. There will be no building plans other than our mental map, so no chance of paladins or anyone entering from anywhere other than the main building,” Nine adds his opinion.

“And when the attraction is closed, we’ll be the cleaning staff and owners,” Four frowns, “But the boss will have to keep hiding anyway.”

“Not necessarily,” Ten speaks up, “if anyone spots him, we can always say he’s wearing the promotional changeling costume, or that he’s going to the changing room to take it off. We’re going to need furniture, and some strong hooves to start breaking the walls and making goo and mortar mix. One, do you have any knowledge on hive building?”

“All of it, but you and Eight should think of a proper layout-”

Everyone turn their heads at One, jaws agape. She facehoofs.

“-not because you can do better, idiots. I’ll be busy. You can do well enough.”

“Hey, and in the evenings we can make a nightclub out of the place!” Four claps her hooves together, “Ten can play the piano, miss One can sing, and miss Eight can dance.”

“Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves,” One cools her down, “We don’t have the money to pay rent. It’s up to Ten to find out when we’re due, and then we have to do the most with what little we have. I’d like to avoid robbing other places if I can.”

This has turned out surprisingly well. There will of course be problems on the way, but we’ve got the main idea down. All that remains is...

“Everyone, tasks for now. Ten, is there a way to find out when, how much, and to whom we owe money?”

“I can go to the town hall and ask around. That’s no problem.”

“Nine, Eight, identify structural weaknesses of this house, decide what and in which order we can break, explore the surrounding streets, and plan where we’ll be making new rooms underground.”

“I wish we had a drone for that...” Eight sighs, “My tremor sense isn’t the best. Hey, flower pot, you’re basically just a huge ass drone playing soldiers, right?”

”In comparison to you, yes,” Nine answers calmly, ”My tremor sense is reasonable.”

“Perfect, I’ll be down there in a second,” Eight kisses me and trots off. Ten leaves a moment later after carefully putting Celestia’s plush into the corner.

One nods at Four.

“Four, you’re a smart cookie, and good at getting love where no other changeling would find some. You’ll have to go out.”

“What about you, One?” I ask, “That’s something you should do yourself.”

She shakes her head.

“I… I’ll need you to leave me alone for some time. I have a job for you too, King. I’m going to bundle some of my cash flow and business knowledge and share it with you. If possible, try to find something in the ledgers in the main office what might helps us dig some money out somewhere.”

“Thanks, One, but you know what I said about your secrets.”

She closes her eyes, and bites her lower lip.

“This time it’s necessary. You’ll understand when I explain later.”

The seriousness of her voice shuts me up. Her tears yesterday weren’t fake. I believe her.

BELIEVING A CHANGELING THIS CLOSE TO BEING A QUEEN? FOOLISH DRONE! HER TIME IS COMING, AND SHE KNOWS HOW IMPORTANT PROPER RULER IS.

I. Believe. Her.

DO YOU BELIEVE HER ENOUGH TO TRUST OTHERS’ LIVES TO HER?



Yes, I do.

Hive mind’s voices fade, leaving only a grueling headache. Again.

After rubbing my temples, I stand up. A new sharp spike of pain and some really weird formulas and expressions in my head signals One’s business knowledge arriving.

“Now, if you don’t mind,” One gently bites my ear, and licks the tiny speck of blood off, “I need to find a quiet room. Don’t disturb me unless it actually is an immediate life or death situation.”

“You’re going to play changeling queen after ordering everyone around, right?” I wink at her, grinning.

“Something like that, King.”

I’m left with Four, and as she stretches as well, I notice something possibly important but definitely weird.

“Four, where are your holes?”

“I thought miss Eight already taught you the basics, boss,” she snickers.

“Being around One IS rubbing off on you. On the other hole, Eight isn’t much better.”

“Heheh. Sorry. boss,” she raises each leg one by one, “Dunno, I guess they must have filled up recently. I know I still had some back in the castle.”

Hmm, to my mind’s eye she does look like a little, glowing, love-filled sun. It’s similar to how Three used to be, and he pretty much didn’t need feeding in the end. I know it has something to do with love resonating between the members of our group, but so far the only really big examples are Three and Four. Eight is fuller around me without any feeding, and One doesn’t seem to be losing too much energy either. Come to think of it, Nine and Ten are the only changelings whose love levels aren’t too stable… just like it should be, actually. Self-sufficient changelings are unheard of, and yet In my short life I’ve seen two.

Oh well, this isn’t a problem I can solve on my own. The thing is… it’s not a problem at all, and I definitely wouldn’t want to solve it if it was anyway.

With a shrug, I send Four off, find my way into the main office, and sigh when I look at the shelves full of thick ledgers.

“Okay, when reading, you start from the top left and go right,” I pick the first book, which proves to be full of numbers mostly, “I’m bored already.”

***

After hours of reading and trying to find any inconsistencies according to One’s knowledge, I have to stop due to the dull, pounding headache that’s been growing ever since I was left alone. At this point, it feels as if someone was slowly and carefully hammering a spike through my skull.

I need a break. I need a place that feels like home, maybe that will help.

Like a zombie, I plod through the house, avoiding windows, Eight, and Nine. They’ve got enough work on their hooves already. Driven by pure instinct, I end up in the cellar, which unlike before hosts a crumbled section of a wall revealing some previously hidden hinges and a door. It’s cold, it’s dark, and all it’s missing is some bioluminescent goo to feel like the good old hive.

And an asshole high rank yelling at me, that would complete the picture. Let’s not get too nostalgic here, it wasn’t good by any measure.

Curious about the new room that must be the result of Eight and Nine’s exploration, I open the door with the lock already kicked off.

“Huh...” my curiosity helps me forget the pain for a moment. The room has just enough space for me to walk between two long metal shelves on the sides hosting things I can barely recognize or understand the value of. Without One’s link available, I can’t really ask for an explanation, and everyone else is either busy, doesn’t know enough, or the headache doesn’t let me focus enough to link up with them. The ones that actually know about the world are out there, doing their job. Shocking, I know.

Small pony figurines are on one shelf, princesses and supposedly other royals or important public figures. I chuckle to myself when I lean closer on a faint suspicion, and notice a spot without dust in the front line of various tiny Celestias. Eight or Nine must have taken one recently to give to Ten later. Kinda warms my heart, to be honest.

So, possibly tourist souvenirs? Why would this place need those? I would at least expect hidden weapons in case of what we did happened, but no, only pony souvenirs of varying sizes, small chests with gems made of colored glass, and some weird eggs. Something for griffons perhaps?

I levitate one of the painted eggs up. It’s sort of heavy, but that might be the headache talking. I shake it in case there’s life inside or something. After all, I know all about how carrying eggs feels, albeit changeling ones.

“Ow!” I wince, as another pulse of pain disrupts my telekinesis and makes me drop it. The egg breaks into a heap of shards and white powder, “Ah, damn it!”

I poke the small pile with my hoof, and then lick it. The powder doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had in my mouth before, so I sniff it. It tingles a little. Itching powder maybe? I put my nose into the pile and sniff it again.

“Whoah!” I feel as if lightning crackled through my entire body, in a good way. Suddenly, it’s as if my headache got pushed back, and I can at least walk without slumping. After I snort the whole content of the egg, I feel great, SO LIGHT! EVERYTHING IS AMAZING, IS THERE MORE? I’VE NEVER HAD SO MUCH ENERGY BEFORE.

WITHOUT A SECOND THOUGHT, I BREAK THE TOP OF ANOTHER EGG, AND BEAM WHEN I SEE MORE OF THE WHITE POWDER INSIDE. THIS IS GOING TO HELP A TON! THE WORLD BLURS WHEN I RUSH BACK UPSTAIRS TO THE OFFICE, AND START READING THE LEDGERS AGAIN. HAHAAAAA, NOT EVEN THE SILLY NUMBERS CAN STOP ME NOW! I CAN DO ANYTHING.

WHAT?! WHERE DID ALL THE POWDER GO? I’VE ONLY GONE THROUGH THIRTEEN OF THE LEDGERS…

...as I stand up, I realize the blurring hasn’t stopped, that it’s afternoon already, the office lamp is burning my eyes, I’m shaking, my breathing is unnaturally shallow, and my heart is jackhammering like an earthpony worker nearing the deadline.

“...what the?” comes out of my now parched throat.

YOU LET YOUR GUARD DOWN, WORM, AND NOW YOU’RE FINALLY OURS!

“..whuh..?” drool drips from my open mouth. Why are there black spots at the edge of my vision, and why are the voices yelling all the time?

YOUR BODY, YOUR MIND, AND YOUR CHANGELINGS!

I clutch my head, which has the unexpected side effect of me crashing on the floor. I feel as if a saw is splitting my skull open.

The hive mind.

YOU, AND ALL THOSE WHO HELPED YOU WILL SUFFER. WE WILL USE THEM TO REGAIN OUR POWER, REBUILD A TRUE HIVE, AND WE’LL KEEP YOU AROUND TO WATCH! WATCH AS YOUR EIGHT BECOMES A TRUE SLAVE, WATCH AS THE LAZY TRAITORS WHO SHOULD BE REBUILDING OUR EMPIRE ALREADY SERVE THEIR PURPOSE, AND WATCH AS WE CRUSH YOUR LITTLE CRIPPLED REJECT FOUR AND USE HER BODY MASS TO MAKE REAL CHANGELINGS! THEN YOU WILL REGRET EVER OPPOSING US, WORM!

Everything hurts, everything is dark…

WHAT? WHAT DID YOU DO WITH YOUR BODY? WHY IS NOTHING WORKING HERE? WHAT DID YOU DO, WORM?!

***

I wake up feeling as if my eyelids and tongue were made of sandpaper. The headache is gone, though.

“Uhh, why am I on the floor?” I scratch my head, getting back on all fours.

“My question exactly,” comments One, not stopping to poke my side, “And where did you get this assload of cocaine?”

“Coc-what?” I follow her pointing foreleg to the white powder scattered all over the desk.

“Nevermind that,” she shakes her head, now looking directly into my eyes, “Huh, so it works on us in our normal form too? Neat!”

“I… I don’t know what’s going on. My head hurt, I remember going to the cellar to feel like back in the hive… then I found a room full of toys and eggs, I broke one on accident, and it was full of this powder that made the headache go away and helped me go though the books faster.”

“No kidding, that reading should have lasted you a week, not a day.”

“Then I… my head hurt again...” I try to recall what happened, “Hive mind said something… but I felt really sick for some reason,” clutching my head, I try to make sense of the pain, blurs, and incoherent yelling that may or may not have been mine.

I find my muzzle pressed against One’s chest chitin.

“Now now, that’s not important, my King,” I feel calm spread through me from touching the cool surface, “What is important is that you obey me and only me now, alright?”

For some reason, I feel like everything is okay. The link between me and One grows stronger than ever before, and I feel her powerful presence inside my head.

“Follow me, and on the way you can ask Ten to stay outside tonight and try to look for someone who would buy some cocaine.”

“Yes, One,” I stand up, and follow the mare, eyes firmly locked on her tail swishing from side to side. She’s doing something to my head…

...spinning webs.

“Silly King, I’m not a spider, I’m a changeling,” she digs through my recent memories while I follow her through the house, eyes barely open. I don’t need them, though, I see all I need from hers.

Through me, she contacts Ten:

”Hey, Ten. When you’re done with the bureaucracy go check some nightclubs or any other place where you can get rid off few kilos of cocaine. Oh, and you can stay outside as long as you want. Nine and Eight will be busy rebuilding anyway.”

”Will do, King,”

One chuckles to herself. One would say evilly, but do I trust her after all. Why wouldn’t I?

”Four, same goes for you,” she uses me to speak again, ”Stay outside with Ten. He might be dealing with some shady characters and could need help.”

Alright, boss.

We end up in the upstairs room that One previously locked herself in. Changeling goo is staining the walls, forming symbols, circles, triangles, weird squiggles that mean nothing to me.

“Now, if I called Eight through you she’d know something isn’t as it should be, which is why you’re going to do it yourself. Right, hmmm, King?” she leads me into the middle of several concentric circles on the floor.

I just do what she wants me to do. It must be important, otherwise she wouldn’t want me to do it. It would be easier if I didn’t feel so… slow. Both in the head and body.

“Shhh, it’s okay,” she makes me sit down, “That’s just my venom and control coursing through you. You like being led, don’t you? Deep down you know you are a drone, and that thinking is better left to the high ranks.”

“Mhm...” I mumble, my eyes closing on their own.

”Eight, come over here, will you?”

”I’ll be right there,” is her immediate answer, “I could use a break anyway.”

“Perfect,” chuckles One, “Now to get you ready,” she levitates a glass of something green and honey-like, “Drink.”

My forelegs move without my input as I grab the hovering glass and down the contents. Sweet, minty, so heavy that everything starts spinning.

“So glad I’m… sitting down… heheh,” I give her empty glass back, “What was it?”

“My goo. It will make your mind easier to work with, and allow me to use all your love reserves as if they were mine.”

“Playing queen, One?” I chuckle.

“I’m not playing, my King of Hearts, that’s who I am in everything but official rank,” she licks my face, “Just like you know you are just a drone in the wrong body.”

“I guess you’re right...” I breathe out, she hugs me again, and I calm down, “Shhh, you just need someone to help you think, someone who knows how things should be. Now we just have to prepare Eight.”

The door clicks open, and Eight enters.

“What’s going on?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Order her to walk into the circle,” commands One.

“King?” Eight takes a step backwards.

“Come to me, Eight,” I say.

“...king?” I feel her straining against my words, “One, what did you do?!”

”Come here, Eight.”

She breathes out, having no chance to resist, and sits down by my side.

“Perfect,” One’s expression turns serious. Her horn flares, golden glow bathing the room and making shadows dance. The green circles and runes light up in response, and green web crawls across the walls of the room until it imprisons us completely.

My links to everyone other than Eight and One cut off completely. They’re not weak or anything, it’s as if I’ve never had any connection to any other changelings. From Eight’s growl, I assume it’s the same for her.

One walks to us, and sits down as well.

“I need you two to trust me. You, King, I’ve prepared already. You’re mine. Eight, it’s your turn.”

“You used him to lure me here… you used my love a trust, One,” Eight scowls, “And now you’ve cut everyone else off.”

One nods.

“When Luna used the isolation spell back in the castle to cut you off and interrogate you, it gave me an idea. It took me all this time to dig through your memories using the King’s link. I had to keep what I was doing completely secret, because I couldn’t afford you two trying to stop me. King has been suffering headaches since our fight with the alicorns. I know you know. What you don’t know is that those were attempts of the hive mind to push through. You know their last threats, right? That they’ll take over his body and mind, and use him as their avatar here in the real world. If he broke, they’d be able to use your bastardized link to obtain the best changeling warrior alive for their needs. I had to act unpredictable, I had to make sure you weren’t certain whether or not I would betray you and take over in which case they would try to negotiate with me,” she smiles, booping my nose, and her voice grows warmer, “Sometimes you made me looking evil really difficult, my one true King.”

“He tried to hide the headaches from me,” Eight nods, “Idiot.”

“Sorry,” I mumble.

“This,” One makes a circle with her foreleg to encompass the entire room, “is what I came up with. I can’t simply use such complex magic through my horn like Luna can, I’m not a trained spellcaster, but this will work. And… I took too long. The hive memories broke through and took control of the King. Due to absolutely unbelievable stroke of luck, the King found a hidden stash of cocaine and overdosed on it so the body they took was just shutting down,” she snickers, “I had to put King’s mind through the wringer a little to stabilize him before they tried something again, and make him my… doll.”

“So you want to keep him here, cut off from us, so that the hive mind can’t reach us through them?” Eight furrows her brows.

“Honey, if I want to drag him off to the cellar and show him that what you did to him last time was just a drop in the sea of pleasure and insane debauchery I can offer, then there needs to be a him for me to take. No, I don’t want to keep him locked here. The reason for the two of us being inside the magical barrier, is not so that the hive mind can’t attack us, it is so that they have nowhere to run from us,” One bares her fangs, “Get ready, Eight, because if you wanted a way to measure if you’re worth your rank, there will never be a better one than this. It’s up to us to finally take the fight to them,” One’s horn flashes again, and our links grow so strong they form visible threads between our horns, “And no matter what happens, don’t forget who the true enemy has been from the beginning.”

Everything goes pitch black as we’re suddenly else-and possibly not-where.

I take a long, deep draft of the cool air I can remember from the hive. I can think clearly, the headache is completely gone, and not even the weird effects of the cocaine thing remain. I finally feel like myself. Unfortunately, I can’t see anything, as if I was standing in a sea of ink.

A sea of ink that can boil at any moment under my legs and devour me like it did to Three.

The memory makes me bare my fangs. This is the landscape of the hive mind, the seat of what little power they still have. The old rulers are in here somewhere, and judging by their egos, they won’t be hiding for long.

Links? Two lines appear in the air, each one leading in a different direction. I can’t recognize which is which, and neither can I look from One or Eight’s eyes. What to do? What to do? I don’t think straight up walking through this not-place will serve any point.

“A fake king without subordinates and knowledge. What use are you?” sneers an amused voice followed by a changeling queen I’ve never seen before. She looks similar to Chrysalis, queen-tier changelings usually do I suppose, but she’s bulkier, her back plate is blood red just like her eyes, mane, and tail which looks like a scorpion stinger. Her fangs protruding from her mouth are long and thin, and she has claws on each of her forelegs.

A warrior Queen if I can hazard a guess. What does it mean?

Paralytic poison, no complex magic, chitin impenetrable via non-magical weapons, can likely tear me in half with her forelegs. The true amount of love they can in reality have at the moment won’t mean anything. This is their world, where they are as powerful as they were in their prime.

I blink as the new knowledge floods my mind.

“I don’t see any changelings working for you either,” I raise my voice. My bravado fails completely as she advances, making me back off.

“Yet...” she smiles, stretching every clearly defined muscle of her body, “Your Eight will be the perfect specimen to mother my new body. Unlike the other memories here, I want more than just a power fantasy. I want power reality.”

“Which queen are you, anyway?” I ask, trying to stall until help arrives. I don’t dare think that no one might be coming. Oh great, now I thought that.

Crap.

“Third queen Bloodlust,” she proudly taps her chitin, “These days I admit the name is rather cheap, but it shows how we felt about ponies at the time. We can make rivers run red again, though.”

She pounces at me. I dart to the side.

He claws leave grooves in the darkness where she lands, but I lose balance when her tail hits me straight up.

“This… THIS is what millennia of change and adaptation produced?” she laughs, watching me get back up.

“Not really, this is what you made from a drone because you queens made us fight the entire world and led us to near extinction,” I back off again. The bad thing is that she as a warrior pretty much knows how I can move, is faster…

...and likely smarter, to be frank.

“Several mistakes along the timeline, true,” she shrugs, “but now that there is no real ruler, we can finally start over!”

She lunges, I instinctively jump backwards...

...only to back off into… her?

Colors light my vision.

I blink, finding myself on my side, head lying in a pool of blood.

“Ugh...” pushing myself up makes my stomach revolve. Alright, alright, fighting is out of question.

“Eight, EIGHT, eip-?” I call out.

Once again, she suddenly stands in front of me, and her tail wraps around my neck, picking me up. As stated before, this isn’t too dangerous for changelings in comparison to ponies, but I feel my chitin crack under the pressure of her grip.

“So, ladies, who wants a turn first?” she asks no one in particular.

At least that’s what I think at first, before eleven more shapes come out of the living darkness. A grey queen very similar to One with green acidic veins running through her chitin drags her needle teeth along my chitin which melts with their faintest touch, leaving deep scars burned into it.

“Holy holes, lady, brush your teeth sometimes!” I wiggle in Bloodlust’s grasp.

“I am queen Shroud,” she hisses, “the second ruler, and you will address me with proper respect, at least for the few seconds before we dissolve your mind.”

“Hey, hey, HEY!” an irritated and thank all the holes familiar voice makes Shroud close her mouth, “I will be the one eating our King, and there are much better parts than his chitin, grandma!” One unceremoniously shoves some blue queen so hard she lands on the floor. The only thing stopping the gasping others from ripping One apart must be sheer shock that someone would dare do that.

The grip around my neck loosens up, and I drop on the ‘floor’ along with…

… the severed half of Bloodlust’s tail spraying blood all over me.

“Ewww…” I shake it off.

To my horror, Bloodlust simply raises an eyebrow, levitates the chunk back to her, and reconnects it with the rest. Her amused smile remains when her red eyes meet dark green ones of Eight.

“I will polish any blemish on his chitin with your entrails, you undead monstrosity,” growls Eight, “Sorry for the delay, King, One and I had… words.”

“Yeah, she apparently doesn’t shut up unless she’s got a cock in her mouth,” retorts One, “Specifically yours, King. I’ll have to do something about your shapeshifting so that you can grow one more and I don’t feel left out,” she rubs her chin, “Eeeh, three more just to be on the safe side.”

“You insolent-” the blue queen jumps up, stomping the ground so hard I can feel the shockwaves. Another warrior it seems.

“Oh shut up, relic of the past that should stay buried,” One rolls her eyes, “Queen Mandible, number eight, died by being killed by rebels led by her daughter Venom,” she nods to a green queen nearby, “good old number nine who invaded the dragon lands. You know, for a pile of charred dragon shit you look lively.”

Both queens hiss, and Mandible’s wide swing misses One by a hair while she’s avoiding acidic spray coming from Venom’s mouth. Half a second later, Mandible finds her eyeball and brain skewered by a chitin spike quickly sliding back into One’s foreleg. The queen’s corpse crumbles on the floor and disappears.

“My dear walking corpses,” One happily claps her hooves together, “You’ve been a thorn in our side for far too long, and-”

*Crunch!*

One flies off after a crushing blow by Mandible.

“You talk too much, little infiltrator. Let’s see how you fare when I rip your tongue out of your throat.”

One jumps on all fours, chipper as ever.

“Now how did you survive- no, you didn’t!” she grins, “There’s three of us in the isolation zone, which means three copies of all of you. You heard that, muscle for brains? You gotta kill each of them three times!”

Eight cracks her neck.

“Finally. Ever since Luna I thought I was getting rusty.”

“The only rust you’ll-”

Another gasp runs through the crowd when charging Bloodlust faces Eight’s punching hoof, answering the age old question about what happens when changeling head meets a cargo train at full speed.

I‘ve never seen someone’s skull being rammed into their ribcage through the neckhole before. Neat, in a horrifying way.

“Every enemy you defeated while brimming with love.” hisses Eight, flicking her fetlock to get rid of Bloodlust’s brain matter, “Every fight you fought at full power. I had to do all that with nothing, Queens. You can’t even begin to imagine how powerful we really are now that our true King brought us back from the brink of starvation.”

Casually, One spits a glob of goo into Venom’s opening mouth about to send a fresh spray of acid One’s way. The green queen gurgles and paws at her neck as it melts from the inside until eventually Venom’s head drops on the floor and the rest of her collapses into a liquifying heap.

“Exactly. You’re forgetting one important thing,” One’s jovial tone suddenly grows cold, “We’ve been tempered by your failures! We survived hunger your hatred and greed brought upon us, we had to fight with no love to spare, we had to hide when the rest of the world united to destroy us, we had to defend what little we had left when they won, all that while starving and crippled. We are evolution, as you said, we are perfection. We are revenge, but not against Celestia. We should thank her for making us way more than the pussies we used to be. We are revenge against YOU. You drained the hive’s love to stay alive even when millions of changelings over the ages died of starvation. We would have never gotten to this situation if we didn’t have to support YOUR fat asses.”

“WE ARE KNOWLEDGE, WE ARE THE PAST! YOUR DEAD DRONES AND PATHETIC WORTHLESS DISPOSABLE CHANGELINGS MEAN NOTHING COMPARED TO US!”

“And we are-” One’s monologue is cut short by Bloodlust’s carcass hitting second Venom so hard it breaks the green queen’s neck, both corpses rolling away on the floor.

“-the future!” Eight winks at One, her forelegs covered in gore.

“Oh fuck off, I was having an epic speech!” yells One.

“Oh sorryyyyy,” Eight fakes a pout, “I must have missed that while twisting Bloodlust’s head off three times already. Speaking of which, who’s next? Hey, landwhale, Mandible or whatever,” Eight spanks her butt, “This is what I call properly thick, you overgrown dung beetle.”

The hive memories howl as one, rage filling the air like a physical force. One and Eight, laughing like maniacs, rise to protect me against millenia of hive experience.

I know saying that is cheap, but all Tartarus breaks loose.

***

My ears pop, and suddenly I’m elsewhere, and I can’t see anyone.

“Divide and conquer, eh?” I mutter, “Should I be afraid?”

“Oh you definitely should,” says a buzzing voice behind me.

I know this one.

Barely stopping myself from instinctively bowing, I turn around, and bite my lip as I confirm my worst nightmare. No, not the one where all my holes grow eyeballs and teeth and then I try to eat everyone.

The worse one.

Chrysalis chuckles to herself as if she could see through me, which she probably can.

Alright, alright, don’t panic. One and Eight are strong, and I believe in them. All I need to do is last long enough before they come for me. There’s no way I can fight someone with centuries of experience, not me with my… second month.

“Correct,” Chrysalis laughs, “At least you know that. However, as much as it might shock you, I’m not here to fight. As easy as it would be to crush you under normal circumstances, I doubt I could manage to do so in time.”

“What?” I furrow my brows, still backing off. This stinks of a trap.

“A trap maybe. For you? No,” her horn flashes, and I’m suddenly looking through her eyes, “I know how to control this ‘place’, you don’t. If you’re going to die by someone’s hoof today, it won’t be mine.”

As little as I trust her, I don’t have much choice.

“That’s a good drone,” I hear, and focus on the scene in front of me.

Two identical pairs of slit, dark green eyes look at each other. One set is vastly older, sad about the horrors she had seen throughout her life, but brimming with self-confidence and pride about being able to deal with more. The other pair is younger, full of fire, and the bared fangs of the muzzle underneath promise there will be no mercy.

Chrysalis stands her ground, taller than Eight slowly circling around her.

“I admit I made a mistake not recognizing your… fervor sooner,” Chrysalis doesn’t let her eyes wander from Eight, “Under me, you could have easily been One. Aaah… the invasion would have been a complete success if I hadn’t surrounded myself with incompetents,” she shakes her head, “I could have given you training, knowledge, everything. If only I hadn’t been so foolish.”

That takes Eight off guard, making her stop for a moment. I want to call out not to trust Chrysalis, but I can’t.

“That’s not for you to decide, drone,” says the Chrysalis inside my head, or in the head of which I am. This place is weird.

“Me, One?” asks Eight.

“Look at yourself,” she waves her hoof, making the darkness shift and reveal the piles of broken limbs and gore, the remnants of changeling queens Eight defeated, “See how powerful you really are.”

No, not defeated, massacred.

“I am a warrior, Chrysalis, and I fight for my King. You are in the way.”

“A King who would waste your talents on rank Eight, who would allow current One to blind you to your true potential, who wouldn’t want you to grow further-ugh?!”

Chrysalis squints at the claws suddenly stopping her from opening her muzzle.

“Trying to tempt a simple slave, Chrysalis?” Eight’s other foreleg grows claws as well, grabs Chrysalis’ horn, and twists, grinning at the muffled scream. Then she drops the queen on the ground.

“Slave… you can be so much more,” Chrysalis groans, crawling away from Eight, “You could easily be the next q-” she gasps when Eight’s now re-hoofed foreleg pushes her head against the floor.

“I know it must eat a power hungry bug like you inside, mother,” Eight kicks Chrysalis’ chest, making her body flail from the force while still pinning her head in one spot, “but I am exactly who and what I want to be.”

*Crunch!*

Turning away from Chrysalis’ crushed skull, Eight whistles to herself, “Been waiting a while to do that, really. Now, where are the other two? My family therapy session isn’t over yet.”

The scene shifts away from Eight, and I once more feel Chrysalis’ words.

“That girl’s got some issues. To be honest, I had no idea she knew who her mother was.”

“Does it matter?” I ask, facing the teal queen seemingly lost in thought, “I’m pretty sure I come from one of your eggs too.”

“Ugh,” she sticks her tongue out, “Don’t remind me.”

I roll my eyes.

“What I mean by that is that we had like two pony broodmothers before the invasion, so you used whatever changeling who could survive it. You’re the mother of a lot of changelings.”

Chrysalis facehoofs.

“You don’t know even this. You see, mass breeding is good and all, but when a queen wants a proper offspring, she grabs the best gene source she can find, and bears the egg herself. Eight was my last attempt, some fifty years back. After few not entirely successful infiltration attempts, ponies increased security measures all over southern Equestria, and our hunger got worse. So, to protect my hive just in case something happened to me, I tried creating a new potential queen. Unfortunately, Eight was straight up born as a warrior during time when we desperately needed infiltrators, and her mental… deficiency completely ruled her out as a leader. I’m glad it didn’t stop her, now that I’ve seen what and who she’s growing into.”

“You know,” I realize there’s something I’ve been curious about for a while, “Why hasn’t there been any changeling kings since Wistful?”

“Anger, mostly,” Chrysalis answers openly, much to my surprise, “At first we- they wanted to bury everything which led us to becoming changelings, which meant Wistful’s… weakness, male leadership, any possible cooperation with ponies. The first queens were ruthless, brutal… and lacked any sort of charm, to be completely honest. It took a lot of beating to hammer the slab of steel we used to be into the sharp weapon we are now,” her expression brightens up, and with a flash of her horn I’m once again watching a scene which isn’t us, “Now shut up, here goes my second test. My weak daughter aside, this is the true judgement about you.”

One, whistling innocently, looks straight at whatever invisible and incorporeal form Chrysalis and I are occupying, and grins. From the darkness steps out the third Chrysalis, her dominant gaze locked at One whose grin freezes and immediately shatters.

“Ch-Chrysalis?” she takes a step back.

“Well well well, my once faithful One has become a traitor to the hive,” buzzes Chrysalis, “You look surprised, as if you didn’t think I would be here.”

“I-”

“And don’t forget for a second that I am your queen, not the drone you could barely keep from ruining everything.”

One’s shoulders sag.

“I didn’t think you would be here. I expected only the dead queens. In fact, considering that I survived the explosion and the fall, it didn’t occur me for a second that you wouldn’t.”

“What did or did not happen in the real world doesn’t matter right now, One,” Chrysalis walks over, and the green glow of her telekinesis grabs One’s chin and makes her look up into Chrysalis’ eyes, “I copied my mind into the hive mind during the flight. We jumped from changeling to barely living changeling in order to find a host that wouldn’t be in direct danger until we ended up following the trail of almost starved corpses back into the hive. The body we chose is here, and it’s up to you to help your queen rise again, One. You can gain the honors and rewards you deserve, something the twerp you’re working with now cannot begin to provide you.”

“I...”

“Hesitant, One?” Chrysalis presses her, “I know what he’s been depriving you of, something he can’t give you no matter what, and the one thing you truly want deep down - my body.”

One’s breathing quickens.

“Ch-Chrysalis, you must know the best that if the real Chrysalis is alive, then all this would cause would be a new war between hives. We can’t afford that.”

“We can work together in these trying times, even with my real self, and at least I’d finally have someone intelligent to talk to. However, is the risk of failed cooperation worth the possibility of Chrysalis not surviving the fall? Would you sacrifice the only chance of this hive returning to its greatness?”

To my surprise, the darkness echoes with One’s sudden slightly hysterical laughter which makes Chrysalis back off.

“Greatness? GREATNESS?!” she wipes a string of spittle from her mouth, “Oh honey, Chrysalis IS alive. What happened in Riverside is exactly her modus operandi - rough, hasty, not thought through, and in short completely braindead. I honestly feel ashamed she called herself infiltrator like myself. If she wasn’t THE perfect lay, I would have left the hive centuries ago.”

”Ouch!” mutters the Chrysalis inside my head, ”And here was I thinking tempting her to destroy you in my favor would be easier than Eight. Well, I guess my plan failed again. Maybe there is something to what One just said.”

One continues after winking in my direction again. Does she know we’re watching?

”That would mean she knows at least as much about the nature and inner workings of the hive mind as we do, which is strange considering she’s never been a queen.”

“Oh, and don’t tell Four I know about her chat with the paladin, she might get scared of me knowing her head can as well be mine. I can’t have that-ghh?!” she looks down at the spike coming from Chrysalis’ hoof lodged in her throat. With a flick of her fetlock and a burst of green light, the spike shifts into a blade and slashes One’s neck and skull in half.

“Impressive, impressive,” One appears again, lounging on Chrysalis’ back. she looks at her sliced body, “Ewww...”

Both Chrysalis’ gasp.

“How?”
”How?”

“You think you’re the only ones who have three lives here?” One smirks, “Granted, doing this on the first try wasn’t easy, but I was curious if I could do that, and where’s the fun in not risking one’s life, right?”

I wonder for a moment why Chrysalis hasn’t attacked again, and then I realize she can’t. One is holding Chrysalis completely paralyzed.

“...how?” Chrysalis groans again.

One slides off, and slaps Chrysalis’ flank.

“I’m Just. That. Good,” she laughs, “Now, I’d love to keep you around for my own fun. I wish I could give you a real body to play with, or three, and some limited thinking to use your equipment properly, but I can’t have you or any other queen trying to eat my King. it’s time to finish the spring cleaning this place needed for millennia. Open your mouth, Chryssie.”

The paralyzed queen obeys as One leans in for a kiss. I hear slurping, goo drips from both muzzles, and soon Chrysalis begins spasming despite the holding effect. Her body boils from the neck down, her chitin cracks and hisses as acid makes her eventually deflate like a balloon. Only then One breaks the kiss of death, and drops the head on the floor.

I return to my own version of Chrysalis who shudders.

“Well, it looks like I failed,” she doesn’t look angry or disappointed, rather the opposite, “After ages of powerful rulers, smartest infiltrator queens, best mental controllers and intrigue spinners. Warrior queens, great heroes, army commanders, unstoppable slayers. Maybe now it’s time for a drone king, someone who knows the value of hard work and knows how to stick together when all the powerful world around is against him and his subordinates. Oh well, before the two find us, I’d like to give you a small tip - if you ever find my good living self, don’t try to talk to her.”

“What do you mean?”

“She wouldn’t have seen the loyalty, the borderline fanaticism you inspire in your changelings. It’s in your nature to care, it’s in my nature to command and control. She wouldn’t understand, I know I wouldn’t before seeing your journey up until now. Your existence would be a sign of personal failure to her, and while One and Eight could protect you from a direct attack or an assassination attempt, Chrysalis wouldn’t stop scheming. A life under constant threat to you and your loved ones isn’t a happy life. I know that far too well.”

I hated her, all this time I hated her. It was warranted, all of it, but watching her hive mind memory now I think she could have changed, she was just beaten down by life thrown at her by those before her, weighed down by ancient memories not admitting they were dead.

“Thank you for the advice, my queen,” I bow.

“See? Now that’s the respect I deserve,” she chuckles, “Anyway, my time is running short, and I can definitely feel pain in this body, so I’d like you to kill me. Seeing what the two wanted to do to me sort of put things in perspective. I know you can’t shapeshift, but let me show you how to focus love a bit,” she puts her horn to mine, and several ideas flash through it. A second later, a burning emerald blade of pure love grows from my fetlock, “Now come on, make it quick. One and Eight will be here soon, so let’s make you look a little more badass.”

“What? I-” she falls over and drags me onto herself.

“It needs a bit more focus to be sharper, but the burning effect is pretty neat- LET ME GO, WORM, OR I WILL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT AND FIST YOU WITH IT!”

*Whoosh!*

Chrysalis’ still grinning head splits cleanly from her neck, leaving me sitting on her barrel. A second later her body dissipates into nothing.

I look behind me, and make the love blade disappear.

Two completely jaw-dropped changelings are staring at me, eyes bulging.

“Wh-wh-wh-wh-?”
“Ughhhh….?”

“I missed you two too,” I stand up, smiling at them.

They bow. They both actually bow.

“So, what now?” I force myself not to laugh, “Are we done? I don’t feel any different.”

“We killed everyone,” One shakes her head, “Well, almost everyone. There’s one ‘place’ I was hiding from you, one last changeling ruler.”

Darkness shifts, Eight assumes a combat stance, and we appear in front of a solitary slumped figure. A quiet and definitely male voice asks:

“Oh? Did you finally make some friends, One?” he chuckles, “Heh heh, or maybe even more?”

Eight and I look at One who blushes.

“This… this is my King, and she’s his-”

“-lover and a part of him,” the changeling finishes One’s sentence without hesitation, “which bothers you. Not much, but it does. You want to be like her, but you’re still not sure, still not ready. Competition is good, One, jealousy isn’t.”

He looks up, and I’m faced with pink eyes, pony eyes on a changeling, eyes which are ancient even when compared to Chrysalis. I’m not completely stupid, and from the changeling’s lack of horn, the two antennae on his head, and a set of bright gossamer wings feeling as if they light up the surrounding darkness, I realize this must be Wistful.

Unlike the others, I don’t feel any animosity from him.

One sighs, giving Wistful a pout.

“I guess it’s a bit more difficult to hide things from you than from them.”

“I am an empath, little one. It’s my nature. What brings you here today? More stories? More knowledge?”

“We’re here to kill you,” One completely breaks the warm atmosphere.

Or so I think until Wistful quietly laughs to himself.

“So it’s finally time, is it? What about the others?”

“Dead. We made sure of it. You are the last memory left.”

“The final link to the hive’s past,” he sighs, looking at his hole-less forelegs, “I would almost say it would be a pity. Almost,” he ends up in a growl, but when he speaks up again, his voice is calm and friendly, “However, will you grant this old changeling his final wish?”

“What do you-” starts One.

“Yes,” I say.

“Heh heh heh, a careful one, isn’t she?” Wistful winks at me, “She would make an excellent queen… a century or two ago,” he rubs his chin as if remembering something, “Right, right, my wish. It’s very simple. I want you to listen, all of you. You are wrapped in sadness and hatred, and I must admit that unlike other memories here I haven’t been following your journey too closely, but I know enough. Celestia is not the villain they made her out to be.”

“What?!” One raises her voice.
“Hmm?” Eight just her eyebrow.
“The hive mind- I mean you- I mean they showed me what happened, they told me what it led to,” I stutter out.

“They showed you what they needed you to see. They didn’t lie, they just picked the bits that suited their goal - either making you angry and afraid enough to continue their warmongering. The part with taking your body over was just desperate, to be honest. As if those idiots could ever work together on something, heh,” Wistful takes a deep breath, “They showed you how Celestia transformed us using my link to my subjects, they showed you the war we were made to stop. What they didn’t show you was what happened afterwards. Sit down, and close your eyes.”

As we do, foreign images and feelings begin flowing through me in tune with Wistful’s words.

“The war was over. Griffons retreated back behind the ocean. Equestria was in shambles, but the Griffon Empire ended up far worse. The use of further tactical spell strikes within Equestria was unnecessary after our involvement, and all unicorn forces focused their magic on targets in the Empire, nuking entire city states with far more power than the initial strike in the Badlands. To this day, those places are just lifeless ashen deserts, while we managed to bring new life into our home. Unfortunately, the war efforts of rulers after me ruined what we began rebuilding. You see, with Equestria destroyed, terrified, and poor it was my decision to move to the Badlands. We had love for each other, we didn’t need normal food, and in a sense that was our birthplace. Many of us served as relief throughout Equestria, both mental by giving those who lost their loved ones a chance to say final goodbyes, share that last kiss, or simply play pretend for a while. It wasn’t Celestia’s fault this changed, she’s been trying to protect us all that time, but unfortunately she knew politics better than we ever did. Other nations deemed the spell strikes a war crime, pushing for Celestia to step down. Power hungry nobles worked against her as well. She wasn’t in a position where she could afford more enemies or a civil war on top of everything. We became the scapegoats, the monsters in the dark, the stories they spread, just one of the enemy’s tools. Not that it stopped us. We helped around like before, only disguised. The right ponies knew. Unfortunately, ponies don’t live long, but propaganda and power struggles do. Celestia had enough trouble with stabilizing the country, and the eventual younger generations were susceptible to stories about those they didn’t know much about. The queens after me blamed Celestia for not letting us return to the light, me for starting our battle, and they grew bitter. We empaths took the fear and disgust we now invoked hard, we couldn’t handle feeling those emotions everywhere, and they infected us. Ironically, if we were as emotionally cold and distant as we grew to be today, we could have stayed true to our purpose without succumbing to the hate others felt for us. Life is full of its little jokes, I suppose. Anyway, we could be here forever, reliving ancient history, but what really matters is learning from it, looking towards tomorrow, but living now. Please give Celestia a chance. I refuse to believe she changed so much that what her paladins did was done purely on her orders. She often made bad decisions, everyone does, but never straight up evil ones, even against her enemies. She’s got this strange tendency of trying to make friends with whomever she can, plus a plot that could make a statue turn its head,” he chuckles, shaking his head, “I lost track again. That’s how you know you are too old to stay. I guess it’s time to leave then. It warms my heart that I’ve lived, or un-lived, long enough to meet someone not completely mired in my kind’s hateful history,” he yawns, laying down on the floor, “I can finally… take… a nap...”

His eyes close, and the boiling darkness underneath takes him.

I blink.

I look at the green runic circles holding the isolation spell together. Then at the walls of the small room One chose for this.

It’s so quiet.

Too quiet.

I start shaking. I’ve never felt this alone. No voice, no outer knowledge, there’s nothing. I don’t know anything, I can’t hear anyone.

I whimper. It’s cold, so cold. I hug my barrel to keep some warmth and knowledge inside me. I know nothing, I am nothing, I’m alone.

Eight hugs me. I can’t feel it. I can see her, but is she really there? She’s speaking, but I can’t hear anything. Why isn’t there anything in my head? WHY AM I SO EMPTY?!

One grabs my shoulders and pushes me on my back.

“It’ll be okay.”

I can hear her, I can feel the buzzing undertone of her voice resonate within my head. There’s more than just me.

“It’ll be okay.”

Her words echo through my skull, through my links, and wash away the panic. I’m not alone inside my head. There’s not just me. We understand each other. I feel some disappointment from Eight, but mostly she’s happy that I’m gradually feeling better, even though she was powerless to do anything and One had to help.

“It’ll be okay.”

When the flow of emotions, tidbits of knowledge, and current mood of others into myself is restored, Eight hugs me again, pushing One away.

“Come on, Eight, don’t be like that,” I resist, only a little, though, grab One by her foreleg, and pull her into a group hug, “You said you had to act cold not to alert the hive memories. How about now?”

To my shock, she grabs Eight’s head and kisses her with a devilish twinkle in her eyes.

“We’ll start with a little show, King, and then I will make you both scream my name!”

“What, you mean like ‘Oh, screw you, One!’?. I’m sure we’ve had that moment far too many times already,” quips the still somewhat rattled Eight, immediately re-rattled by One’s fresh peck on the lips.

“Hey-” another one.

“Stop-” and one more.

“I’ll ki-” this time One pushes Eight on the floor as well.

“Hmmm?” One hums, adding one final kiss for good measure.

Eight scowls.

“Fine, she means it this time,” she tosses One off of herself, “Now go transform yourself into Celestia and play with Ten or something.”

Chuckling, One helps Eight on all fours, and both of them stumble. After I push myself up, they catch me before I crumble back on the floor.

“Whoah?”

We’re all STARVING.

With a rub of her hoof, One breaks the closest magic circle, and all my links light up, filling me with relief. No one’s talking, though.

Mystery gets resolved when the second I open the door I’m tossed back by a small black and grey projectile hurled my way. With the help of my two live crutches, I manage to stay on all fours, but the four legs clamped around my neck and chest speak more than anything Four could say via the link.

Three days, I feel Ten’s words, I was starting to get worried.

With an exhausted smile, I pat Four’s head pressed hard against my chitin.

“We’re back, everyone, and we’re free.”

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