• 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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An Unexpected Houseguest

Lest anypony think I've gone mad, the game 'Croquet' and the food 'Croquette' were once pronounced (and spelled) the same; hence my transliteration of Castle's question at the tail end of the preceding chapter. But as Gale and the suitors (at least, those present at the party) gathered together for a rousing game, I had to raise a hoof. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to step away. Wizard business. But do help yourself to the yard; Cherry can show you the way."

Gale wore her concern on her face when she stopped with a wooden mallet in her magic. "Wizard business? Do you need me to help you kill some monster or something?"

"No, nothing like that. Just…" I trailed off with a shake of my head. "I promise if I come up with that kind of problem, I'll invite you."

Castle winced, looking between us. "You'd put Her Majesty in danger?"

I couldn't help but chuckle in reply. "Why don't you tell them all about Wintershimmer, Gale?" Then, with a nod, I took leave of my best friend and my ostensible peers.

This time, however, our story must follow me as I depart—or rather, an earlier me departing at a different moment.

You may recall from two chapters ago that I had passed Gale's company off from one of my bodies to another when Vow interrupted us, after her story about why she took offense at my bet with Castle over his eligibility as a suitor (and my nobility).

While Gale walked away, Vow led me through a side door off the main grand foyer and into what was ostensibly the 'servants hall' of the Mausoleum, where chambers like the laundry and the kitchens could be found. At the end of the hall, or at least very near where it turned a harsh corner, there was a servant's door, and through its colored glass window I could see the silhouette of who I guessed was an adult mare.

"What is it, Vow?"

"Professor," he snapped harshly, though notably dropping his falsified accent. "Sir," he added after a moment's delay. "You never know who'll walk through the wrong door looking for the little fillies' room."

"You're still mad at me about the bet?" I observed.

"Livid," he answered flatly. "But that's neither here nor there. The mare said she needed you to protect her."


Vow shrugged.

"Did she say from what? Some monster?"

The sound of a snort emerged from Vow's lack of nostrils—not an impudent huff, but a note of subdued amusement. "The worst monster of all. Luna."

I shot the wooden stallion an off-glance. "Are you just being snarky, or—?"

"It's a story for another day. When we're much more confident the house is secure against prying ears. For now, you only need to know that whoever she is, she knows about Luna's… creatures."

"Her undead?"

"They're undead?!" Vow gasped. "I…. when I heard you threatened to fight her in the street, I thought that was about ego, not an ethics issue."

"I'm not sure there's a difference with her," I answered.

"They're terrifyingly powerful; it only took two of them to fell one of my nightmares. Do you know the spell to animate—"

"No," was both my answer, and my stern chastisement. That thought finished, I grabbed hold of the door with my hoof and pulled it open.

The sight of the mare on the other side quite figuratively punched me square in the face. The elegant unicorn with a chalkboard green coat and matching chalk white mane looked at me (under the sharp form of her well defined brow) not with disapproval or authority that I had known, but desperation.


For those who do not recall the mare by appearance, this was Mrs. Aspirations. Or, I had to assume by the fact that she had come into me in desperation, the changeling Metamorphosis wearing the face of the schoolteacher.

I lit my horn, and at that sign of danger, I noted in my peripheral that Vow took a hesitant half step backwards.

"What are you doing here?" I wasn't outright hostile in my tone, but it was hard not to let a tone of hard feelings slip in.

Metamorphosis winced, and despite being in the private alleyway at the side of my home's grounds with a solid hedge at her back and only a narrow gravel walkway leading in either direction, she stopped to nervously look up and down the path before she spoke. "I need your help. I've been exiled from the Hive. I'm willing to work for you, or use my magic or whatever it takes, but if I can't stay here, they're going to kill me."

I raised a brow and (rather insensitively) asked "The Hive: Is that some sort of city or government, or—"

"Can I come in?" she pleaded. "I think one of the hunters has my scent. I promise I'll explain more inside."

"Master Coil, is something wrong?" asked Vow. "Is she dangerous?"

"Oh, absolutely," I explained, eyes locked on her instead of turning to my companion. Then I stepped out of the way and extended a foreleg to direct her into the hallway. "But so that everypony—every being—has mutual understanding, I'm much more dangerous. Let's step into…" Looking around for a suitably unbusy room nearby, I finally muttered "I guess the laundry is private."

"I…" The hesitation in Vow's voice was obvious, but he concluded with "Of course, Master Coil."

The laundry was a rather barren room, if we're being quite honest. While the house's linens and my wardrobe had been upgraded for the party, there was still at the end of the day really only one set of everything, and due to the party ongoing in the other parts of the house, nearly all said fabric was in use. As a result, when the three of us were gathered with walls and doors separating us from Luna's eyes and ears, I made myself comfortable by overturning a washbasin, giving me a sitting position an extra bit above Metamorphosis' head (even though I was already taller than Aspirations).

"First, can I ask you to drop the disguise? I had a chance to meet the real Mrs. Aspirations, and I'd rather not play the mental game of getting you two confused."

In a burst of green flame, the changeling infiltrator I had seen whilst rescuing Graargh reappeared before us.

Vow didn't fully jump (he had seen Graargh change shape before), but he did take up a hesitant pose in reaction. "You're like the bear cub?"

"I am a changeling," she answered with a nod. "He is too, though unless Morty explained it to him, I doubt he understands it. You're a piece of wood?"

"A golem," I lied with a nod. "Professor Oak. Professor, this is… I'm sorry, I forget your real name."

"Metamorphosis," she reintroduced herself. "You wanted to know about the Hive? It's a… I guess a city isn't a terrible comparison. It's a huge set of tunnels and mostly underground chambers south of here. It's where the Queen lives."

"Ah, you're bees," said Vow.

Metamorphosis shot him a terse glare, only emphasized by her strange, mono-green eyes.

"I'm going to put a pin in asking about your 'queen'..." After a moment, I winced. "Oh, sorry."


"Lepidoptery idiom… you know what, never mind." Vow narrowly suppressed a laugh, and I pressed on before she could ask me what 'lepidoptery' meant, judging by the further confusion on her face. "Why were you exiled? Because of what happened at the school?"

Metamorphosis gave a small nod. "Two of our most important rules are to never let a pony know about our existence, and to kill a pony. We replace you for a time to harvest… er, that is, to gather—"

"Love," I interrupted. "Or maybe emotions in general? Celestia wasn't completely sure about the others, but I did sit down with her and Graargh to figure out how I could best take care of him. So I don't know much about your society or your rules, but on a basic level, I do know you're empathovores." When Metamorphosis raised a brow, I shrugged. "Meaning you derive sustenance from feelings, like some kinds of spirits. Empatha—feelings, or pegasus magic that comes from feelings. Vore—to eat."

"Ah," Metamorphosis nodded. "That's mostly right. But the point is, when Commandant Husk ordered me to kill you, the Queen didn't agree with his justification for breaking our most important rule. When we're short-term replacing ponies for food, Luna's hunters might try to catch us and eat us—" Metamorphosis paused for emphasis, and then seemed surprised that we weren't.

"We know they're undead," I answered. "And all true undead are cannibalistic."

(Lest anypony be curious here about Vow: a true undead refers to an undead created using a corpse and a soul from the same being. There are shortcuts you can use in magic to make dramatically more powerful, more intelligent, and more effective servants creating true undead than the equivalent one produces with a golem body like Vow—and the magic is frankly much easier to perform, so historically it predates my more sophisticated style—but the cost is that, unless the creature is fed the flesh of the living, the benefits to its performance degrade rapidly. This is where the modern image of the shambling, rotting, decrepit zombie* that pervades more modern conceptions of necromancy comes from—especially now that, following Nightmare Moon's usage of undead armies, a stigma on the practice means I'm largely the last Equestrian practitioner of the pale arts.)

"They're undead?" Metamorphosis asked (to which I shot Vow a knowing glance and he let out another muffled snort of humor in reply). "We thought they were just ponies she had transformed or something."

"Well, from a certain point of view…" Metamorphosis didn't find that comment especially funny, so I dropped the thought. "To jump ahead: your 'Queen' thinks that if you were common knowledge, or you killed ponies, you'd have more problems than just the Night Guard hunting you."

The changeling gave a short dip of her chin. "So Husk was… punished, and I was banished—which is basically a death sentence, without the support of the infiltration network to help us avoid the, uh, 'Night Guard'. But since you're willing to protect Graargh, and you let me go instead of letting them eat me, I…" She sheepishly looked down to her hole-riddled forehooves. "I didn't know where else to go. I'm willing to work, or even use my magic for you. But I need your help. I don't think there's anywhere else I can go that's safe."

"I see." I nodded. "You can stay the night here, at least. In the morning, I'll bring Celestia here—" that made Metamorphosis frown and shrink back on herself, but I pressed forward regardless "—and assuming nothing new comes from her knowledge of changelings, we have more than enough space to host you as long as you need to."

"What?" Vow asked. "Master Coil, isn't that a little too trusting?" When I flashed a disapproving glance his way, he provided a justification that I suspect from his tone and pseudo-expression was entirely for Metamorphosis benefit. "What if the Night Guard discovers she's here and breaks in? You're already not on Luna's good side."

"They won't," Metamorphosis explained. When we both looked to her in confusion, we saw a mare in obvious relief, if still in a hint of limbo. "When changelings use our magic, it leaves behind a scent. We use it to communicate, but the Night Guard can also smell it. So if one of our infiltrators harvests or changes form too often in the same place… well, that's how we get caught. But your house smells completely like our magic already because—"

"That's why you wanted Graargh!" I interrupted with the momentum of a 'eureka'. "He hid your magic."

"To a point… but also the other way around, vice-versa. You—and Hurricane—dragging the grub around caused the Night Guard to stumble onto the trail of two of our infiltrators by random bad luck."

"You haven't replaced somepony like him, have you?" asked Vow.

Metamorphosis shrugged. "Only the Commandants know who each infiltrator is replacing; that way if Luna catches one of us and reads our minds, she still can't expose an entire cell. But if you want me to put your mind at ease, Professor, it's way too high risk to replace somepony like Hurricane or Typhoon or Star Swirl and risk the infiltrator getting killed or captured. There's plenty of young lovers and happy old couples and parents we can replace for a few weeks to harvest without risking getting struck by lightning or turned into a cat." (That was accompanied by a sly glance my way.) "We aren't interested in overthrowing your government or waging war. We're just trying to survive."

(Lest the reader forget the extent to which Metamorphosis was lying to me: while she was and would continue to prove cunning enough to know Chrysalis had something big planned, the elder parasite herself had removed the former infiltrator from her court prior to anything resembling an explanation. Which is to say the above was, from her perspective, largely true. Ish.)

"Professor, are any of the guest bedrooms made up?"

Vow nodded. "I took the liberty of preparing two extra rooms in case you decided to enjoy the company of more than one of our guests this evening." Then, tersely, he added "I would have much preferred that to gambling."

I rolled my eyes. "Go back and attend to the party then. I'll take things from here."

"Of course, sir," Vow replied. "The three rooms closest to the stairs on the third floor should all work for her." With that, the wooden stallion slipped out of the room. As he did, I closed my eyes for a few seconds—a long enough pause that when I opened them again, Metamorphosis was looking at me with her head cocked.

"You alright?"

"Fine, why? Oh! You mean the pause? I was talking to my other selves."

"I… there's more of you?"

"Three at the moment," I replied. "One of them will be along shortly, and then this body needs to go find Celestia. I apologize for keeping you in here for the moment, but you've come at a bit of a busy time; I'm hosting a housewarming party. I—actually, are you hungry?" Just a moment after asking that, I winced. "Sorry; that was probably rude."

"Another leopard-whatever saying I'm missing?"

"No," I replied. "While I'm willing to let you live here at least for the time being, I hope it isn't a stretch to understand that I don't love you. And since that's what you eat…"

I trailed off because Metamorphosis began laughing. When it continued long enough that I donned a frown, she did her best to wave off my concerns with a translucent insectoid wing. "You didn't say anything wrong, Morty—is it still okay to call you Morty?" I nodded. "We do eat conventional food as well. We wouldn't be very good at blending into the population if we couldn't eat pony food. Love gives us magic. But our bodies do use some of that magic up just living, so we will still starve to death without it." Concluding the last of the small chuckles that pervaded those comments, she smiled (drawing quite a bit of attention to a pair of what struck me as not especially insect-like fangs). "I would love something to eat, if you're offering. I'll need some love too, if you're comfortable with… well, will you humor me? This may be awkward."

"If you're suggesting we sleep together, I hardly know you."

Metamorphosis chuckled. "If you're offering, I wouldn't mind. That's not really a concern for changelings. But that isn't what I meant right now. You're hot for the Queen, right?"

"I don't know if 'hot for' is the terminology I'd use, but—" Metamorphosis was engulfed in green flame, and then before me stood a perfect physical recreation of Gale. I emphasize a perfect physical recreation because to my eye, it was already obvious Metamorphosis wasn't Gale just at a glance from the way that she carried herself and from her manestyle and so forth. This 'Gale' was devoid of any fancy dress or royal outfit, but she still wore her mane and tail styled and arranged as though she were going to court—whereas I knew the real mare to adopt either state, but to never ever straddle the fence between Gale and Queen Platinum III.

I elected not to comment on this failure, though, and instead watched as 'Gale' opened her mouth and inhaled—and then proceeded to gag and wince and wrinkle her muzzle until at last she burst into flames and resumed her natural insect form. "What is that? You said you were eighteen?"

"Thereabouts…" I answered in confusion. "Is something wrong?"

Metamorphosis opened her fanged mouth to answer, and then closed it abruptly and closed her own eyes in thought—and judging by the way she turned her head and shrunk her shoulders, no small measure of hesitation as well. Finally, though, she spoke up. "She's your first love, isn't she?" After a nod, she sighed. "There's no gentle way to say this, but… Love is like wine. I mean, it doesn't actually taste like wine; different kinds of love are salty or sweet or savory in their own way. But like wine, love gets better with development."

"Oh, you mean it tastes bad because I've only known Gale for a few months?"

"Partly," Metamorphosis answered, trying desperately not to make direct eye contact. "It also depends on the pony the love is coming from, and… Look, I'll just be honest, and I'm sorry and I promise I'm not trying to insult you, but there were schoolyard crushes in the classroom that had more depth than how you view the Queen."

Despite the changeling's many placative offerings, I couldn't help but feel more than a bit offended. "Are you suggesting I'm shallow, and I'm only after her body?"

"No, no! Hive no, nothing like that. Honestly, I wish. Just plain lust isn't healthy for us in the long term, but it tastes a lot better than a first crush from somepony who's never been in a healthy relationship before."

"I—what? Gale and I are great—"

"I'm sure you're very good friends," Metamorphosis answered. "But the flavor doesn't lie, Morty. I'm sorry. I, um… maybe I can help?"

"You know what? Let's just get you to your bedroom. Turn into me."


I rolled my eyes. "There's already three of me wandering around, nopony's gonna question a secret fourth one. Follow me."

* The term 'zombie' stems from a benevolent practice in zebra medical alchemy that was misused when it made the jump to southeastern Equestria at Platinum's Landing. When the term is used correctly, a 'zombie' refers to a still living, alchemically hypnotized or mind-controlled being, not an undead at all. But because of the visual and behavioral similarity of their unfocused, disjointed movement with 'the hungry dead' (that is, those not recently fed with the flesh of the living), the two ideas became conflated. Rather than convey this level of nuance, however, I know that many modern textbooks and instructional treatises claim that zombies simply 'do not exist'. Which, while wrong, at least avoids the lack of nuance in terminology.

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