• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar

Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

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The Second Worst Being in this Story

If you look back at the cover I have commissioned for this tome of mine, and you're clever about putting silhouettes with names, you'll realize that all but one of the figures so depicted have been introduced in our story thus far. But now, here at the close of our first act, as we see all the pieces on the board of what Equestria's nobleponies might call 'the great game', we can at last introduce our final player.

The better part of a week after the confrontation in the schoolhouse, miles beyond what was then Equestria's southern border, in a barren badland devoid of all life, one can find a gray palace riddled with holes, jutting out of the dead earth like the abominable hybrid of the Crystal Spire and a wasp nest. Dozens of stories tall, and descending into the earth with tunnels even I cannot claim to have walked, it is a blight not just on the surrounding land, but the entire world.

This accursed place was (and is) the original changeling hive, and at its apex, in a chamber consuming its tallest notch-ridden spire, Infiltration Commandant Husk stood before a black throne, broad and pocked and brittle like a mockery of a lotus petal.

"Then, my queen, I ordered that Metamorphosis apply her magic to cleanse the wizard's memory, and extract the rogue drone."

Atop the throne, a foreleg that seemed for its structure like as much chitin-coated cheese rose to stroke the chin of an unusually tapered muzzle. "And where are this infiltrator and the drone now, Husk?"

"I… do not know, my queen. I would not have expected them to be far behind me."

The queen closed her eyes and nodded… and then a slight smile built on the edge of her muzzle. "You are unusually brave, even for a changeling of your station, Husk."

"Thank you, my queen."

The greater changeling nodded. "Most changelings would not dare to lie to my face so boldly."

Immediate worry flashed over Husk—once more wearing his insectoid form instead of the far preferable visage of your writer. "Queen Chrysalis, I—"

"Silence, Husk," she interrupted. And here, in case some reader is familiar with that former name, I should briefly stop.

Changelings, you must understand, are like Celestia and Luna and the other so-called gods, and also like lobsters and certain tortoises, hydras, etc. While some members of this group (Celestia et al) are often mistakenly called 'immortal', (unlike yours truly) they are merely what one might call 'ageless', or if one is feeling scientific, 'negligibly senescent'. That is to say, changelings—and lobsters and Luna and whatnot—can absolutely die from, for example, disease or a carefully wielded knife or even a pair of scissors applied tactically to the neck; however, they do not age, and thus aging will never lead to a fatal failure in health by itself.

Thus, the Chrysalis I describe here is—at least at the time of writing—still the queen of the changelings; the name 'Chrysalis' is not some inherited title used to present a false continuity of rule or something similarly ridiculous. Chrysalis is 'immortal' not because she has a godlike power like Celestia, nor is she actually immortal like certain examples of especially handsome unicorn; she merely has the biological advantage of a changeling combined with a particular knack for being exceptionally difficult to kill, despite my best efforts.

That being said, the average lifespan of a changeling as a shape-changing predator in a cruel and punishing hive-society like that which Chrysalis rules has more in common with the philosopher Hobnail's Leviathan (that is, that they are nasty, brutish, and short) than with yours truly. So (barring Chrysalis herself) I doubt there is even a single changeling who was alive at the time this story took place who still draws breath at the time of its writing.

For any readers who have had the good fortune not to meet the bug queen herself, Chrysalis rather resembles a parody of Celestia: standing on even longer legs, and with an even longer horn, Chrysalis nevertheless lacks any of Celestia's more favorable ability to occupy such a body; she tends to move with jittering motions and to be at rest with her joints at frankly uncomfortable angles. Her mane, rather than radiating elegance and magical power, is a sort of mucusy green mop, or perhaps a fair portion of kelp she glued onto her neck centuries ago and has never quite found the time to replace. Chrysalis also shared the holes in her legs and tail and most other extremities common to her species, as well as the changeling curiosity of having a completely smooth horn. (If you have suffered the misfortune of meeting her, note only that this is not a mistake in my writing).

In that moment long ago, Chrysalis seemed completely enamored with the glee of being the figure in power in her 'play court'. A particular look of sadistic euphoria overtook her features as she glanced to one of the many tunnels leading into the throne chamber. "Metamorphosis, please come forward."

"What?" Husk snapped, his worry turning to rage. "Infiltrator, you're back? Why didn't you report to me—"

"I directed her not to, Husk," Chrysalis interrupted the lesser changeling's rage. "I had some concerns about the report of the incident in Everfree City, and I wanted to get a second opinion. Metamorphosis, would you mind repeating for the court the orders that Husk gave you as he departed?"

Metamorphosis (now also clad in the form of a black bug-pony, such that even all these years later I couldn't actually tell the difference between the two at a glance) was noticeably less happy to be standing before Chrysalis (and the rest of the changeling 'court') than her superior; with a hunched down posture that rather reminded me of Blizzard, she said "I… was ordered to kill the wizard."

"Interesting," said Chrysalis, drawing out each syllable to make it linger as long as possible. "And Husk, I suppose I should check: were you aware of my orders regarding taking pony lives?"

Husk nodded hesitantly. "Y-yes, my queen."

"Hmm. Would you care to repeat them for the court? I would like to know if there was some sort of mis-communication in the hive."

Despite lacking an apple of the throat, Husk nevertheless visibly swallowed in nervousness. "O-of course, my queen. Your orders are not to kill ponies under any circumstances."

"Hmm. Good," said Chrysalis nodding. "Good. I'm glad we don't have a problem with communication. Now, since you did have my orders, Commandant Husk, I do have to ask: was there some part of them you didn't understand? Were those words confusing to your little mind?"

"N-No, my queen."

"Good, good. I like to think any drone that rises to an infiltration commandant would be reasonably intelligent. Though, that does raise another question, doesn't it?"

"I… suppose so, my queen."

"Would you like to tell the court what you suppose the next question is, Husk?"

Despite his exoskeleton blocking most view of an 'apple of the throat', it was painfully apparent that Husk swallowed nervously. "Why would I give an order to kill a pony against your commands?"

Chrysalis gave a small applause. "Well done, Husk! Well done; I'm very proud of you. Truly, I didn't think I had it in you." The applause ended abruptly as Chrysalis lunged forward out of her throne, skittering across the floor with unnatural speed to finally rise up to her full, abominable height over the nervous drone, who shrunk back until he was fully laying on his belly on the throne room floor. "Do you have any justification for why you would give such an order?"

"Y-yes, my queen."

"Oh!" Here, Chrysalis again shifted her entire mood, once more dropping into that amused, grinning tyrant that she had been mere moments before. "Oh, you do! Well, that's very good." With a buzzing of her gossamer wings, Chrysalis flitted back to her throne and reclined once more. "Well, Husk? Let's hear it."

Husk swallowed again. "Well… My queen, some years ago, before I was a commandant, I was assigned as a builder drone for the new hive at Vesalopolis."

Chrysalis' brow rose, but the changeling queen said nothing, allowing the lesser parasite to continue.

"Um… I—I was there when the unicorn attacked."

"Hmm…" Chrysalis nodded. "That's very interesting. But, knowing what I know about the lifespans of ponies, and my reports on the unicorn colt, I am quite confident he was not that pony. Given he is not, what, fifty years old? Sixty?"

"No, my queen. That pony was this one." In a burst of green flame, Husk the changeling disappeared, and in his place appeared the young thirty-something Wintershimmer I had witnessed in the schoolhouse.

"And this means something to me because…?"

"This pony is called Winters—something. It's a strange name even for a pony." Then, in another burst of green fire, Wintershimmer vanished and the general aesthetic of the room was improved several notches as 'I' appeared. "This is the pony in question, Mortal Coil."

Chrysalis snorted, and then failed to restrain a chortle. "Mortal Coil? Really?"

"Apparently his parents didn't like him very much, my queen," said Metamorphosis nervously. "But yes, that is his name."

After the moment of mirth died, Chrysalis steepled her hooves and nodded. "So Husk, you inferred by their matching attire that this—snrk—this 'Mortal Coil' was in some way related to the unicorn who destroyed the young hive?"

"His student, regardless of what other ties they might have shared," Husk replied in my voice. "And given the magic he exhibited in our brief conflict, I believe he represents a similar threat. He was also the 'guardian' of the rogue drone, so he likely knows a great deal about us. Knowing those facts, and because he confronted us knowing what we were, I made the decision that he was a great enough risk that it was worth defying your rule."

"Hmm…" Chrysalis nodded slowly. "You have built a sturdy argument, Husk."

Husk's face brightened considerably.

"It is a shame the ground you built it on is unstable."

Husk winced. "My queen?"

"Do you honestly think we couldn't have killed or replaced whatever unicorn wiped out the little hive? Ponies sleep, Husk. They bathe, and eat and drink and get ill, and perhaps most of all, they trust. Any single pony is trivial to deal with, by any number of methods."

"But if that unicorn goes on the offensive—"

"Then what will he do? Come here, where his magic won't work? Join Luna's hounds hunting us in the streets? Think, Husk. Luna already knows we exist. Celestia already knows. What difference does one child in a special jacket make compared to that?" Chrysalis sighed. "Is this really so hard to grasp? As long as we don't kill them in the streets, we remain a nuisance instead of a threat. That means the hive stays fed, and we stay alive."

A tiny bit of iron snuck its way into Husk's voice, some indignation at those words. "And is that what we're going to be forever? A nuisance that gets squashed underhoof if we get caught?"

When Chrysalis moved, there was no chance for any being present to comment on how jerky or insectile or unnatural she was, because she moved faster than the eye could follow. In one moment, she was reclining on her black throne. The next, her hoof bashed down into Husk's brow, slamming the smaller changeling down so hard that both the exoskeletal chitin on his crown and his chin bore cracks. When he tried to push himself up, he found his queen standing on his head.

"No, please, Commandant; don't feel the need to get up," the queen snarled. "The sentence for your disobedience is death, but right now I think the whole hive can learn a valuable lesson from what you just said. I've had a plan for a very long time, Husk, of how to change what we do with the ponies. How we could make them serve us, instead of hiding and… how did you put it? Ah, right—getting squashed underhoof." As she said those words, Chrysalis ground her hoof onto the other changeling's head, and his chitin cracked further from the force. "The problem, the reason I've had to be so patient, was that the ponies weren't together, and Celestia and Luna were in hiding. And until that changed, I couldn't solve our problems. Now, finally, our time is here, and you have the audacity to complain to me about some colt wearing a jacket you don't like? You're worried about somepony that small when Celestia is finally almost in my grasp?"

Between and through groans, Husk managed to beg out "I'm sorry, my queen."

"As you should be," she answered coldly. "Don't worry, Husk; I'm not going to kill you. Since the problem here is that you lack perspective on what 'forever' means, I think I'll help you understand how long I've been waiting for this moment. You can spend it in a cocoon. Awake."

"A-as my queen commands."

"I wonder if you will be as obedient in six thousand years." Changelings watching the court unfurl gasped in a chorus. "Let me give you this order: cultivate a hatred of Celestia in your time alone, and remember you brought this on yourself. If you come out insubordinate, I won't hesitate to reinstate your original sentence."

"My queen…" Across the throne room, Metamorphosis timidly raised a hoof, much as a foal in her school class might.

"You're very brave," Chrysalis noted, with a slight grin but absolutely no genuine humor in the barren desert of her tone of voice, as her eyes swiveled to the other changeling. "Yes?"

"Um… If your point is to hurt Celestia, Coil is her apprentice. Perhaps killing him would help that?"

Chrysalis cocked a brow. "You're arguing in his defense?"

"Y-yes, my queen."

"Even though his lie might have meant I blamed you for the outright disaster of our operations in Everfree City?"

"He is my commandant, my queen."

"Your loyalty is admirable," Chrysalis observed with a nod, and her expression softened. Then, rather quickly, she frowned—not in disappointment, but thought. "Celestia took an apprentice?"

A brief dip of her chin was all the motion Metamorphosis gave as she spoke, now rather petrified under the queen's gaze. "Yes, my queen. All of us infiltrators in Commandant Husk's swarm were told about the rogue drone, and his retrieval became top priority. By luck, in one of my aliases in the pony court, I overheard Celestia asking about schools for foals, and she mentioned the student was unusual. I replaced the schoolteacher on that hunch, and it paid off. But that's also how Coil came to me; Celestia sent him because she wanted him to learn how to read."

"An illiterate wizard?" Chrysalis stared for a solid three seconds, blinking twice, as her brain struggled to parse the thought, before finally shaking her head and giving up. "Celestia hasn't taken an apprentice in millenia…" Then, slowly nodding like an approving parent, the insect tyrant donned a slight smile. "Alright, infiltrator; let it never be said I'm not a forgiving queen. Husk, you are stripped of command; you'll operate as an infiltrator under my direct command for the time being. But before I give you orders, I'm afraid we need to address you, Metamorphosis…"

"Of course, my queen," Metamorphosis bowed her head. "Thank you."

"You failed to retrieve the rogue drone, and abandoned him to capture by the ponies."

Metamorphosis swallowed. "He was already with them, my queen. I admit I failed in my task, but—"

"I've already been generous at your request to Husk, haven't I?" Chrysalis clicked her forked tongue against the roof of her mouth thrice, before she continued. "Though I admit there are extenuating circumstances, I can't afford to be seen as too soft. The punishment for causing a fellow changeling to be taken alive by a host species is banishment, and that will be your fate."

"My queen!" gasped Husk.

"Oh, you shut up, Husk; you were trying to throw her under the wagon by lying to my face anyway." Chrysalis rolled her eyes before once more settling them on Metamorphosis. "As I was saying: Metamorphosis, you are banished from the changeling hive. No other changeling is to give you quarter or provide you with the hive's love, under pain of banishment as well. This punishment is only to be lifted if you redeem yourself with an exceptional service to the hive." Black lips grinned. "Normally, banishment is a slow death, but because you've been so helpful even in this failure, let me offer you some advice. Most ponies don't know about changelings, and if you were to reveal our existence to them, I would send a senior infiltrator to have you silenced. However, you know of a pony who already knows about our existence, so revealing yourself to him wouldn't be in violation of our laws. Not only that, but this pony already has a pattern of offering shelter—and I assume even love, given the rogue drone hasn't starved—to changelings in need. He's even faced down Luna's hunters on your behalf… and if they smell our magic around him, what will they expect but the rogue drone? Since you aren't going to get any help from us, I'd say your only reliable chance of survival is to throw yourself on his mercy. And who knows; if you lay low long enough, and you get close enough, there may come a time when the rest of my plan is in motion when the hive might reach out with an idea on how you could earn your redemption. Do I make myself perfectly vague?" Chrysalis chuckled at her own joke.

"O-of course, my queen."

"Then—I do love getting to say this—get out of my sight, and never return!"

Chrysalis waited some time as Metamorphosis ran out of the chamber, enjoying the drama of the exclamation and the moment, before at last raising a hoof frog-up (well, insofar as changelings have 'frogs' to their hooves; really, they just end in a flat, chitinous plate at the bottom of the leg) and waiting for just a moment. Before long, a single onyx beetle, seemingly lacking eyes or horns or legs, and consisting solely of a shell and wings, descended on her hoof. There, it opened its shell, and its green wings began to glow—soon, they formed the border of a magical image, like a mirror. That image, at first a plain green, fractured like a badly broken mirror (or the multi-faceted eye of a fly), and then revealed the faces of dozens of changelings, and a similar number of ponies (or, one might reasonably infer, disguised changelings).

"My favored children; commandants and harvesters, royal guards and hive architects; the time has come to put a new plan into action. Harvesting in Everfree City is now forbidden; ongoing harvests may complete their current crop, but then you are to transition to targeting secondary populations. Commandant Antenna, you and your soldier drones are to monitor the coming and going of Luna's hunters when they leave Everfree City, and to warn the relevant harvesting teams to reduce activity; harvest quotas will be adjusted in those events, so your teams don't need to be afraid of punishment if Luna starts sniffing around. Commandant Molt, I want you to find me a discreet location nearer Everfree City where I can personally direct replacements in the city. Mandible, the main hive is yours during my absence; just keep it running, and await my orders. In the next two weeks, once I'm settled, I want all senior infiltrators and commandants to report to me personally. Once you're assigned a role, unless I order you otherwise, you are to operate in complete silence; you will not fulfill multiple roles, you will not harvest beyond what you need to maintain your role, and you will not draw attention. Are there any issues with these orders?"

"My queen," said one changeling, "Using our best swarms for replacement isn't sustainable; our love reserves will run dry in a few years at most—"

"I doubt our moment will take that long to arrive," interrupted Chrysalis. "But if it does, we will adjust. Your concern is noted, Honeycomb, and appreciated. But trust in your queen."

"Of course, my queen."

"Anychangeling else?" Chrysalis waited several seconds, and then nodded. "You have your orders. Soon, we will never want for love again."

When the beetle closed its wings and flitted away, Chrysalis found Husk standing before her, head bowed (doing a great job of showing off the cracks in his chitin that he hadn't yet shapeshifted to heal). "You said you had new orders for me, My Queen?"

"Hmm? Ah, yes; I have a particular role for you to play, Husk. But I shall introduce it once we are relocated."

Husk nodded, and then stood somewhat conspicuously, not meeting the queen's gaze, until at last the leader of the changelings let out a groan. "You're obviously wanting to ask something, Husk; spit it out."

"My queen, forgive my impertinence; you said you've been putting this plan together for a very long time." Nervously swallowing, he added "A very long time. Can I ask what the next step is? What is all this infiltration and redirection for?"

Chrysalis chuckled. "You certainly can. But I can't tell you."

"I'm sorry I do not warrant that trust."

"Hmm? Oh, no; I can't tell you because I don't know. The plan doesn't have steps, the way you're thinking of. Remember, Husk, we are changelings, not… well, for example, not the unicorn wizard you fear so much. Our greatest advantage is that we can wait invisibly for the perfect moment. And then, in the right place, at the right time, we strike. This new 'Equestria' is powerful, and unsteady, and full of chaos. The worst thing we could ever do is set ourselves to some specific plan of how we want them to make themselves vulnerable. No, no, our plan is to wait and watch and use whatever openings they give us, gently prod when and where we can to make the situation even worse for them, and keep our eyes peeled for the right moment to strike."

"And Celestia and Luna? Won't they stabilize Equestria?"

"You think the sisters are a stabilizing force?" Chrysalis barked out the harshest, and perhaps most genuine, laugh that I have yet recorded. "No, they simply haven't found a conflict that exposes their unique brand of chaos. And that, Husk, is where your special role may yet come in."

Sunset's Hoofnotes:

I always assumed Queen Chrysalis was a changeling queen… but if she's that old, is she the only changeling queen?

I don't think this chapter matters to what's going on right now, unlike all the stuff Starlight said, but now I really want to ask one of Twilight's changeling friends about how changelings 'work'.

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