• Published 6th May 2019
  • 3,077 Views, 268 Comments

Walk Where There Is No Path - theOwtcast

When everything you’ve ever known goes against everything you believe in, can leaving help you live with yourself?

  • ...

The Truth

“...and after a bit of convincing, Twilight finally allowed me to tag along with the guards searching for you,” Spike recounted the events of earlier today as we entered the Crystal Empire. “Boy, if she’d known I would actually find the changeling everypony was so worried about, she would have had a mad freakout fit for sure!”

“You haven’t told her yet?”

“Nah, I didn’t see her. I only told a few guards and they laughed at the idea of befriending you. And then Shining Armor showed up, and, well… he just killed any chance of further conversation on the matter. He was pretty adamant about not trusting your claims.”

“Do you really think this plan can get them to reconsider?”

“Hey, I told you already, they’ll like you once they get to know you!” He put a reassuring claw on my back. “And since they won’t give you a chance otherwise, the only way to get there is to start by showing them a face they’re comfortable with.”

“And when they finally find out I’m a changeling?”

“We’ll just have to give them long enough time before that.”

“How will we know it isn’t too soon?”

“I’m not sure,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think there are any by-the-book ways to be certain of that. We’ll just have to play it by the feeling.”

“That’s not very reassuring,” I remarked.

“I know, but that’s pretty much what Twilight does when she’s out of ideas, and it’s worked for her so far… How hard can it be?”

I just stared at the ground, saying nothing.

“What’s wrong?” Spike asked, realizing something more was on my mind, something other than our current plan that was troubling me.

“It’s just… I saw Twilight back in Canterlot, when she and a few other ponies were fighting the changeling army. I didn’t know who she was - who they were - at the time, but their unity was what inspired me to pursue friendship in the first place, even if it did take me over a year to realize I’d never find it in the hive. Don’t get me wrong - she is important to me - but I still remember her as somepony who would stop at nothing to defeat the changelings, and I don’t really dare to come near her even in disguise! And now, my first friend is none other than her personal assistant! You’ll tell her about me eventually - you’ll have to considering your position, even if you won’t want to - and I imagine she might be very conflicted about whether to listen to her own instincts or your experiences! What if she decides you’re lying, or suspects that I’m manipulating you? I mean, befriending a random pony or two is one thing, but this is the Princess of Equestria we’re talking about! Two of them, in fact, since Cadance is the main leader here, or three if we count Shining Armor as well... What if they imprison me without even bothering to give me a chance to prove myself?”

“Then they’ll have a furious dragon to deal with,” Spike persisted.

“Hey, is that you?” I pointed at a statue in the middle of a small square we were approaching.

“In the flesh! Pretty neat, huh?” Spike grinned, proceeding to show off in front of the statue. I snickered.

“Hey, Spike the Brave and Glorious is here! Think he’ll want to tell us a story?” a hushed voice sounded from another street.

We turned around and saw a few crystal ponies approaching. The streets had been mostly deserted so far, save for the occasional guards still patrolling the city who would nod or salute to Spike and then return to their business of looking for me. It had felt weird at first to face them openly like that, but Spike had been right about one thing at least: with him by my side, I found it much easier to supress my nervous tension in presence of such ample defensive forces than I would have if I were alone, and I’d stopped worrying more quickly than I’d expected! The arriving civilians were nevertheless a welcome change from the monotony of armor-clad faces. I didn’t know where they’d come from, but since most of the city’s populace was apparently hiding away in their homes like the warning scrolls had recommended, it wasn’t unlikely that some of them had gotten bored and resorted to looking through windows in attempt to amuse themselves, even if there shouldn’t have been much to see, or that they had to leave their homes for one reason or another. Finding food, maybe? I knew ponies normally ate several times a day, but was that a choice or a necessity? How long could they last without food if they had to?

“Please, Spike, tell us a story!” asked a crystal filly coming from another street.

“Haven’t you all had enough of my stories by now?” Spike asked, only half-seriously.

“Not at all! We love hearing about your heroics!” a crystal stallion joined in.

“Well…” Spike hesitated, casting a glance at me. I understood his unspoken question.

“I haven’t heard you tell them yet,” I encouraged him. On a new-friend-finding mission or not, I really did want to hear more about Spike’s life! What better way than to listen to stories about it with a bunch of ponies?

“Okay, since you insist…” Spike shrugged and climbed onto a nearby bench so everypony could see him. “One day, Princess Celestia summoned Twilight to Canterlot…”

“...and the enormous frozen cloud evaporated under my firebreath!” concluded another of Spike’s stories, much to the admiration of me and the crystal ponies... and a plentiful crowd of them had gathered during Spike’s narration. Whether or not anything had been exaggerated, it was clear that Spike had earned the crystal ponies’ respect well! I was beginning to feel hopeful again about his ability to help me find friends here! He may have failed initially, but that could have simply been a result of trying in the wrong place: the guards would have been trained to be suspicious about possible threats, and about proven threats especially. But if he’d tried the civilians first, maybe they would have listened to him and given me a chance! Then, when enough of them would come to realize I was sincere about my intentions, even the guards would have to stop and reconsider! Maybe Spike’s plan could work after all!

“Tell us another story!” a colt demanded.

“Yes, we want more!” a mare chimed in.

“Okay, how about this-”

“Spike! There you are!” an airborne voice interrupted Spike mid-sentence. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

The crowd retreated respectfully to make some free space on the ground for Princess Twilight Sparkle to land next to her personal assistant, and by extension, me.

She stood there in all her royal glory, surrounded by the air of humble confidence worthy of a great princess that she was, radiating the ever-so-strong aura of love that had drawn me to her a lifetime ago, the same love that had inspired me to embark on this journey for friendship that had ultimately led me here, into this oasis of love, where I would finally meet her, where I would stand face-to-face with my worshipped idol, the impersonation of everything I’d strived for and vowed to uphold! Her arrival had caught me unprepared, and though by every rule and standard I should have bowed and withdrawn gracefully like all the crystal ponies, for a long while - too long - I was only able to stare at her in awestruck trance that battled in me with paralyzing fear of her wrath if she were to see my real face!

For a moment or two, my conflicting emotions and torn thoughts nearly caused the undoing of my disguise; fortunately, just about enough of… something… remained to keep it intact.

“Oh, hey Twilight! I was just… um…” Unsure of what to tell her, Spike looked around, noticing me still standing there while the crowd had dissipated. “I was just enjoying the tour of the Empire with my friend!”

“It doesn’t look like you were doing a whole lot of touring,” Twilight looked at him sideways.

“Aw come on, I can’t help it if crystal ponies want to hear a story or two!” Spike protested.

“Ri-i-ight. Who is your friend?” She turned to me.

And here I’d thought I was unprepared before? The Princess addressing me directly had just raised the bar a mile higher!

“I… um… well… uh… oh dear!” I could barely utter an intelligible word! My eyes widened and I put a hoof over my mouth. Why had she had to turn to me so casually? Why couldn’t she have just ignored me and talked to Spike instead? Why had Spike had to draw her attention to me? One more thing and my self-control could crumble again!

“Right! May I introduce… erm…” Spike came to the rescue, looking around frantically for an inspiration to improvise a correction of an oversight in our plans that now threatened to derail the whole thing: we’d forgotten to think of a pony-appropriate name for me. “Crystal… hoof! My good friend Crystal Hoof!”

Well, it could have been worse, I figured.

“Pleased to meet you, Your Highness,” I finally got around to formulating a coherent sentence.

“I’m happy to see you two are enjoying yourselves, but this is no time for strolling around unshielded! You both know a changeling is running loose!”

“Hey, don’t worry, Twilight! The guards are all over the city! They’re more than capable of dealing with trouble!”

“I know they are! My brother wouldn’t have recruited incompetent idiots to guard the Empire! But still, I’d prefer to keep you close to me, where I can see with my own eyes that you’re safe. Tell you what - we can bring Crystal Hoof in too!”

Before either of us had the chance to protest or ask what she meant by that, a bright flash of magenta magic enveloped each of us, and suddenly we were standing in what I recognized as a hallway in the Crystal Castle. Through one door I could see the throne room, and in it, the Princess of Love standing next to her fully-armored husband, and an orange unicorn who levitated a basket that looked much like the one I’d glimpsed through a window on my first day here, the one the princess had taken her newborn foal from. A little further aside stood a familiar unicorn: the very same one I’d seen in a village an eternity ago, where she’d arrived accompanied by Princess Twilight, the same unicorn I’d thought of befriending but had never gotten a chance out of fear that the changeling hunters I’d seen afterwards would find me if I stayed there! Spike had mentioned that somepony named Starlight had arrived with Twilight and him to the Empire. Was that her name?

A dozen of guards standing in formation around the throne completed the ensemble.

I quickly examined myself. My disguise was still there, undamaged by the spell, but Spike noticed my apprehension.

“Never been teleported before, huh?” he asked, likely for Twilight’s benefit.

“No,” I replied. “Feels weird,” I added just in case Twilight was listening.

“Yeah, it does the first time, but you get used to it.”

“Come in,” Twilight ushered us into the throne room, then turned to Spike. “Starlight and I have been working on a protection spell for Flurry Heart. Do you think you can spare a moment to take notes?”

“Sure, I guess,” Spike said, then turned to me. “I hope you don’t mind?”

Before I could reply, Princess Cadance approached us.

“Oh, Spike, I’m so glad you’re alright! I’ve been worried sick about you! We all were!”

“Gee, I’m fine, really,” Spike reassured her. “I was just hanging out with my friend!”

“I don’t recall having seen you around,” she eyed me inquiringly.

I shrugged with a nervous grin.

“It’s a big city,” I tried the only excuse I could think of.

“You’re right. Well, any friend of Spike the Brave and Glorious is a friend of mine!” She accepted the excuse with a wide, friendly grin that once again tested the limits of my self-control.

“I’m honored,” I gave a respectful bow.

“Come,” she invited me. “Let me introduce you to my family.”

Oh no! Why couldn’t she have just offered me her friendship and left it at that?

“You already know Prince Shining Armor, I take it,” she introduced us.

“Crystal Hoof,” I stated my false name; it was too late to turn back now. All I could do was roll with it and hope for the best! Spike could later fill me in on any details I’d be expected to know that he may have neglected to mention so far.

“And this is Flurry Heart,” she motioned to the basket held in the orange unicorn’s aura.

I looked inside, and truly saw the young princess for the first time. She giggled and reached out to me like any innocent foal would at a sight of a friendly face. If only she knew the true face hidden under the benign façade; would she giggle still, or would she cry in terror like all the adult ponies who had ever seen that face? Was that fear learned through stories and experience, or was it ingrained deeply in the ponies’ core, ready to protect them from the danger even if they’d never personally known it before?

I wanted to know... and yet, at the same time, I hoped I’d never find out.

But as soon as I came to the little princess, as soon as I saw her beautiful face, I sensed the love of the whole Crystal Empire drawn to that same basket and the pony lying in it. Even if I hadn’t realized it before, it would have been clear now: she was the cause of all that love throughout the city, she was the focal point the love was aimed at! Citizens of the Crystal Empire loved their young heiress immeasurably! And that love, so welcome and beneficial to her, would be my undoing: the aura of love around her was so strong, so unbearably intense that all my efforts to control myself were in vain; all my willpower would never be enough to stand against this overwhelming sensation!

I couldn’t fight it anymore. My disguise failed, baring my true face for all to see.