• Published 24th Nov 2019
  • 1,368 Views, 51 Comments

Freeport Venture: Metamorphosis - Chengar Qordath

After Kukri Doo returns from Northmarch, she struggles to cope with the memories of everything that happened to here there.

  • ...

Chapter 2

Nothing really interesting happened for the next couple days, unless the rain counted. Apparently there was some big storm sweeping through the islands. The out-islands were probably getting the worst of it, since it was only clipping the edges of the city. For us, all it meant was a whole lot of rain.

Freeport was pretty used to dealing with big storms since we didn’t have a full-fledged weather corps like Equestria. Freeport’s weather service didn’t have the numbers or infrastructure of the Equestrians, and even if we did, it wouldn’t be practical to stop the megastorms from forming over open water hundreds or thousands of miles away from the islands. All they could really do is help make sure the storms didn’t wreck anything too valuable.

This one spent most of its time in its room. This one probably should’ve spent the time catching up on sleep, but sleeping meant dreaming. Instead it just dozed a lot. That was a lot safer. Not that interesting, but else was there to do? The Shimmer-mare was still back in Equestria. Besides, with it raining almost constantly, there wasn’t much incentive to go out and do anything. With how often the rains came, Freeport hardly shut down just because of a little water, but nobody was in a hurry to go outside if they didn’t have to.

Unfortunately, this one’s parents weren’t feeling especially reasonable. They wanted to meet up with some friends and weren’t about to let some weather stop them. Worse, they seemed to think that this one would want to come along.

Mom called up from downstairs. “Kukri, are you ready to go?”

This one sighed as it slowly pulled itself out of bed. It could swear that sometimes its parents went out of their way to cause this one trouble and inconvenience. Had they always been this annoying? It trotted to the bottom of the stairs, then let out a second, louder sigh for their benefit. “This one still doesn’t know why it has to come.”

Mom and Dad traded another one of those looks that seemed to happen whenever this one opened its mouth. Then Dad answered. “We don't want to leave you home alone.”

This one rolled its eyes. “This one can stay home on its own, it’s not a little grub anymore. It can even make its own lunch and dinner if you stay out late.” Shimmer-mare had insisted on teaching this one how to cook along with its pyromancy training. Supposedly that was good for teaching one fine control with heat, though this one privately suspected she also did it to save herself the trouble of making a lot of meals. “Besides, the job Kunai’s out doing is still in the city. If you’re that worried, you can always have her stop by for a bit.”

Mom refused to see reason. “We'd like you to come. You’ve been cooped up in your room for days, it’ll do you good to get outside for a bit.”

“Yes, this one can enjoy the sun and the great outdoors.” This one pointedly looked out the window and the rain pouring down outside.

Dad shrugged. “Yes, it’s been raining. To be honest, your mother and this one have been getting a little bit of cabin fever, and it would have to imagine you are too. If nothing else, you must be getting bored of hanging out in your room and reading over your old books and practicing magic. A change of pace will do you good.”

Then Mom went in for the kill. “Of course, if you want to stay home you could always get a start on making up all that schoolwork you missed. Even if a dragon burned your homework, they still want you to be caught up with the rest of your class.”

This one let out a long-suffering sigh at the utter unfairness of the world, and the many indignities its parents forced it to endure. Why couldn’t they just leave this one alone like it wanted? “Fiiiiiine.”

Mom chuckled and wrapped a wing around this one. “I promise, it won’t be that bad. Who knows, maybe if you try hard enough to have some fun you’ll actually end up enjoying yourself. It has to be better than sitting up in your room all day.”

Dad smiled at this one. “If nothing else, it will be nice to get out of the house for a bit. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“An evil dragon could swoop down from the sky and burn the entire city to the ground before murdering all who resisted and mutating the rest into horrible monsters that are a crime against nature and sanity,” this one answered. “Although if that happened, it's not like staying home would keep us safe anyway.”

Neither of its parents knew quite what to say to that. This one felt an odd sort of thrill at finally getting both of them to shut up. They thought they knew everything, but they hadn’t been in Northmarch. They had no idea.

Mom cleared her throat and took a seat on the living room sofa, waving for this one to join her. “Yes ... well ... did you want to talk about what happened in Northmarch? We’re always here if you need us to listen.” She took a deep breath. “We can tell it’s bothering you. Please just talk to us about what’s wrong.”

This one rolled its eyes. Again with this. “This one is fine.” Maybe if this one kept repeating the obvious truth they’d eventually listen to it.

Mom and Dad traded another one of those looks. This one was getting really sick of that—like they thought something was wrong with this one. That it had come back from the North as some sad little broken thing. This one. Was. Fine.

This one headed for the door. “Weren’t we leaving?”

Dad sighed. “Make sure to put on your raincoat. It's still raining outside.”

“Yeah, sure.” This one grabbed its raincoat and tossed it on.

Mom looked this one over like it was a little grub that couldn’t dress itself. Then she let out a loud sniff and frowned at this one. “When was the last time you took a shower, Kukri?”

This one shrugged. “Yesterday.” Or maybe it had been the day before. Or maybe further back. This one was pretty sure it had at least had one since getting back to Freeport. It wasn’t like that kind of thing mattered when this one was just staying in its room all day.

Mom sighed. “Doesn’t smell like yesterday. If we weren’t going to be late...”

This one rolled its eyes. “If this one’s smell is so offensive, you could always leave it behind instead of dragging it out to something it doesn’t even want to go to. Or it could just go out in the rain and leave its raincoat behind.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Mom grumbled. She headed into her room, and came back a moment later with a bottle of perfume. Much to this one’s annoyance she sprayed it a few times, then sniffed it again. “Not perfect, but it’ll do.”

This one sniffed itself and groaned. “This one doesn’t want to smell like limes!”

Mom answered it with a flat look. “Trust me, it’s a massive improvement on how you smelled before. If it bothers you that much, you can take a nice long shower to get rid of it once we get back home.”

“Seriously?” This one groaned and tried to bundle itself up to contain the smell. “Ugh, let’s just get this over with already. Who are we supposed to be meeting up with anyway?”

Dad finally hopped back into the conversation. “This one is meeting up with a couple booksellers it has a long-running business arrangement with. Your mother is taking advantage of the opportunity to reconnect with a couple old friends from the Free Companions as long as we’re in the area. This one thought a larger group and festive atmosphere would make negotiations a bit more relaxed.” He grinned at me. “Which is also why you’re coming along.”

So this one was just a prop for his business negotiations? Wonderful. It sighed once more. “Well if this one has to come...”

Dad chuckled and gave this one a pat on the back. “It won’t be that bad, this one promises.”

“Fine.” This one trudged out into the rain, swapping into its usual disguise as it did so. The one everyone always said looked like this one was trying to pretend it was the Shimmer-mare’s little sister. Though really, after everything she’d been through she could probably use some family time. Too bad this one was stuck back in Freeport. Sure, she had the White Pony, but this one could do things the White Pony couldn’t.

Oh well. There was nothing this one could do, except just keep existing in Freeport. What was even the point of that? The only thing it had left to hope for was that the rain would at least wash away some of the stinky lime perfume Mom doused this one with. It followed along behind Mom and Dad, letting them lead the way to wherever it was we were supposed to be going.

Freeport’s streets were still pretty busy despite all the rain. Things still needed to get done even if the weather wasn’t pleasant. Instead of the usual hubbub of people walking all over and chatting with one another, it was all small clusters taking cover under awnings and umbrellas as they quickly headed for their destinations. The streets might be just as busy as they were when the weather was decent, but it they weren’t anywhere near as alive. Everyone was just existing, doing what they needed to do to survive one more miserable day.

This one’s parents led it to one of the nicer-looking taverns near the waterfront. This one had always liked going to the waterfront back when it was young. It was Freeport’s ... family-friendly entertainment district, though plenty of sailors fresh into port still liked coming here too. Contrary to their reputation, not every sailor immediately went to whatever dive bar that had the cheap booze and cheaper companionship. Some of them wanted a high-quality meal in clean surroundings, or cheap and delicious but very unhealthy street food. After the food the waterfront had plenty of carnival games, plays and sports matches at the amphitheater, rides, and even a full-sized roller coaster.

The tavern itself looked entirely too festive, done up in bright green and red for Hearthswarming. It was technically an Equestrian holiday, but plenty of places in Freeport observed it ... especially when there were ducats to be made by doing so. After its recent experiences with winter weather, this one could certainly understand why the Equestrians put so much emphasis on a holiday that involved being far away from the cold.

This one had to wonder why its parents were meeting up with friends and business partners here. It didn’t look like the kind of place some of Mom’s old mercenary friends would want to go to, or a suitable place for a business meeting. It was just too ... festive.

Mom looked around the room and going by her smile she must’ve spot whoever she was looking for. “Regal, Penumbra, there you are!” She trotted over to a unicorn and a zunicorn who looked a bit too nicely dressed for a place where the main menu items were hayburgers and fish and chips. Then again, the Free Companions had a reputation for being fancy dressers.

However, the far more interesting thing to this one was that they had a daughter who seemed to be about the same age as it. A unicorn like her father, with a light blue coat and a short-cut purple mane. She didn’t have a big fancy hat, but the raincoat she was in the middle of taking off was a deep shade of purple and looked like someone spent far too many ducats on it. The body underneath that coat looked slim, but with the long-limbed awkwardness of teenagerhood. As she put up the coat, this one noticed it included a sword belt with an intricately decorated scabbard.

This one’s eyes instinctively went to the weapon. A smallsword: Mom always said they were better fashion accessories than weapons. Then again, it could still do plenty of damage if she stabbed this one with it. Not that it had any reason to suspect she would, but this one hadn’t been expecting to have our inn blown up by the Glimmer-mare. Or for Blackfyre to burn down an entire city while this one was in it. Or for...

This one relaxed a bit as she stepped away from the weapon, but what it wasn’t expecting was for her to approach this one. She politely extended her hoof. “Sunny Flare. It’s a pleasure.”

This one took the hoof. “Uh, Kukri. Kukri Doo. Likewise.”

This one could swear that it saw its parents watching the two of us, but when it looked over at them to confirm they seemed to be busy talking to Sunny’s parents. Nothing too interesting, just the usual small-talk and catching up. Before anything too interesting could happen, Dad looked over in the direction of the door and waved. Must be Dad’s friends.

This one looked over and spotted a pegasus and hippogryph coming up to the table. More importantly, it spotted their daughter: a pegasus with a messy blue mane and a tan coat. She looked like she was right around the same age as this one, even if she was still a bit on the short side compared to itself and Sunny. Once could be a coincidence, but twice ... “Mom, Dad, can this one talk to you for a moment?”

The three of us stepped out of earshot, and Dad sighed. “Kukri, remember to watch your ‘this ones’. There’s no reason to give away that you’re a Free Mind.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, what is it?”

This one sat down and crossed its forelegs over its chest. “You both meet old friends this one hasn’t seen before, and they both just happen to have daughters the same age as this one? This one doesn’t believe in coincidences like that.”

Mom sighed and shook her head. “Kukri, aside from Sunset how many friends do you have right now? Your teachers say you don’t socialize with anyone, and you dropped out of any extracurricular activities so you could spend all your spare time at Sunset’s tower. Not that I’m complaining about you being passionate about learning magic, but don’t you think you ought to have at least a couple friends your own age?”

This one tried to come up with a good answer. “Um ... but that's not ... did you set this one up on a play-date?! This one’s not a grub, it can make its own friends!”

“You can,” Mom agreed, “but you haven’t been. We’re just trying to give you a helpful little nudge in the right direction. It has to be better than spending all day locked up in your room.”

Dad nodded. “Having friends is important for a gru—changeling your age. Or any age, really. This one doesn’t think it’s healthy to spend all day with the Shimmer-mare to the point of not spending any time elsewhere.”

This one groaned and rolled its eyes. What was even the point of having friends? The Shimmer-mare was way more interesting than kids, and she needed this one. What would this one even talk to other kids about? They’d probably still be going on about school and boys and whatever it was they had to deal with. Was this one supposed to talk about its lessons with the Shimmer-mare, or maybe it could tell them about all the monsters in Northmarch, or when it got hunted by the Primal Changeling. Maybe we could have a nice talk about how this one still had nightmares about that, and needed a night light for months after ... and how it started using one again after Northmarch.

Mom cleared her throat. “What's wrong with making friends?”

This one wanted to explain it to them, but it knew they wouldn’t listen. They never listened to this one before, why would they start now? It sighed and accepted its defeat. “Nothing, just... Fine, this one’ll try.” It never said it would try very hard.

Dad gave this one some ducats. “This one thinks you'll like them. Give them a chance. Besides, you’ve got money and the whole waterfront to play around with. Go and enjoy yourselves for a bit. This one thinks the three of you will be fine without adult supervision.”

This one took the money and quickly counted it out. Fifty ducats was ... this one could probably do something fun with that. And if the parents were leaving it alone maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. This one could always just ditch the other two if they bothered it.

This one walked over to the two of them, trying to figure out the best way to break the ice. It really didn’t want to hang out with two strangers just because its parents thought it needed to socialize more, but the two of them were probably in the same boat as this one. Besides, the Shimmer-mare always said this one should be nice to others: you never know when a little kindness might pay off, or you might regret being rude to someone years later. “So ... um, apparently our parents think we should hang out together while they’re catching up.”

Sunny shrugged. “That’s pretty much what they told me. No harm in doing a little networking, and once Dad starts going on about his old stories he won’t stop for hours. Not that his stories about things like the time he negotiated directly with the Westmarch ruling council are bad, but I’ve heard them so many times...”

The pegasus grinned. “Besides, we’ve got ducats to burn and the entire waterfront to work with. We’d have to be trying to not have a good time.” She turned to this one. “Oh right, introductions. It’d be weird to just call each other ‘hey you’ the whole time. Indigo Zap.” She offered her hoof.

“Kukri Doo.” Judging by the hoofshake that followed, Indigo was the type who liked to turn hoofshakes into a contest of strength. That, or attempting to dislocate this one’s shoulder was her idea of an enthusiastic and friendly hello. Probably the latter, judging by her smile. This one wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

Both of them seemed to be looking at this one expectantly, so it broke the silence. “This one—” It immediately cut itself of, trying to remember Dad’s advice. “Er, I think my parents set this up. It’s a bit too much of a coincidence otherwise.”

Sunny shrugged. “Pretty sure all of our parents were in it together. Though honestly, there are worse ways to spend the afternoon than hanging out at the waterfront. As long as neither of you are weirdos or something, it just makes sense to stick together.” She tapped her sword belt. “I can take care of myself, and I know the condottieri keep the waterfront pretty safe, but I can look out for you two and there’s strength in numbers.”

Indigo snorted. “Yeah, you got a fancy little sword, but I can take care of myself just fine.”

“I never said you couldn’t,” Sunny answered levelly. “But Kukri and I are both from military families. Training and experience go a long way.” She turned to this one. “If you don’t mind me asking, where does your family rank within the clan?”

“Um...” It took this one a while to remember. We didn’t really get mixed up in clan politics, but we were certainly full-fledged members of the clan with all the usual centuries-long pedigree. Not to mention that if what Mom and Dad had said the other day was true, we were moving a bit up the ranks due to this one being the Shimmer-mare’s apprentice. Not that this one had ever really paid much attention to that kind of thing. “Kind of middle-ranked, I guess?”

Sunny cocked her head to the side. “Huh. Interesting.” This one couldn’t tell what her opinion about that was, but it suspected she’d wanted this one to be from the clan elite. “My family’s served in the Free Companions since before we helped Torch overthrow the Necrocrats. My father is the chief contract negotiator for the entire organization. Naturally I’ll be following his hoofsteps, though if I have anything to say about it, I’ll be climbing a bit higher. Where do you plan on going in your clan?”

This one shrugged. “Um, this one hasn’t really been training to join the clan’s military branch.” It quickly realized its mistake and tried to fix its pronouns. “I’m Sunset Shimmer’s apprentice, so I’ve mostly been learning magic from her.”

“Oh.” Judging by the way Sunny’s eyes lit up, something must have fallen into place for her. Evidently she agreed with this one’s parents that being the Shimmer-mare’s apprentice was good for the family’s status in the clan. While this one didn’t really like to think of things that way, it probably did get a bit of reflected glory from the Shimmer-mare. The more impressive her accomplishments, the more it meant for this one to be her apprentice. Once everyone found out she killed one of the biggest and evilest dragons in the world...

A cold breeze must’ve come in through an open door or something, because this one shivered. Strange. After the bitter cold of Northmarch, this one never would’ve thought it anything in Freeport could chill it.

Indigo snorted and nudged both of us. “Yeah, yeah, you got your big famous families while my parents just sell books. Then again, I don't need to brag about how cool my teacher or my great-some-odd-uncle's brother's cousin's former roommate is. I just get to be amazing all on my own.”

“Right.” Gave her a skeptical once-over. “So what do you do that makes you so amazing?”

Indigo blinked and stumbled over her next words. “Well I ... I mean, I ... well, what do you do? We’re kids, none of us have done anything all that cool. You’ve probably never used that sword of yours for anything but practice.” She turned to me. “And, well, being an apprentice wizard sounds neat, but you probably haven’t learned any of the big crazy spells yet. Gotta work your way up to that.”

She had a point. This one hadn’t used all its magical training to accomplish anything of note in Northmarch. Not to mention what it had seen the Shimmer-mare and the White Pony do showed just how far this one still had to go before it could get anywhere close to them. Maybe if this one had been a better student, the Shimmer-mare wouldn’t have been...

Indigo nudged this one’s shoulder. “Whoa, relax. I was just teasing, no need to start looking like your dog died or something.” She rubbed the back of her neck and smiled nervously. “I mean, I’m sure you can still do way more magic than I can. I’d love to learn magic, but I’ve heard it’s pretty much impossible if you aren’t born with one of these.” She tapped this one’s horn.

“You certainly can’t use traditional unicorn magic,” this one agreed, thinking back to the Shimmer-mare’s lessons. “But since you’re a pegasus, you could always try weather magic or work in another tradition like Zebrican shamanism or Northmarch runecasting. Unicorns have a huge advantage over the other pony breeds, but not an outright monopoly.”

“Makes sense.” Indigo looked this one over. “So ... what’s the coolest spell you’ve learned?” When this one didn’t immediately answer her, she nudged it. “C’mon, what’s the point of being an apprentice magus if you can’t show off any awesome magical powers.”

“We should probably go outside,” this one pointed out. “I don’t think they’d appreciate me showing off in the middle of a crowded restaurant.”

“Good point,” Sunny agreed. “Especially if someone’s going to ask me to show off my sword skills next. It’s a bit of a faux pas to draw a blade on private property without the owner’s permission. Well, as long as there’s not an actual fight going on. Not that swinging a sword around in the streets is a great idea either, but as long as we don’t make anyone think I’m about to stab them it should be fine.”

The three of us headed out into the streets. There were a couple bystanders near the restaurant staying out of the rain, but once we walked a bit we found a slightly damaged awning nobody was taking cover under. This one set itself up near one of the holes where some rain was coming through, then closed its eyes and concentrated. After a couple seconds it could tell it’s tongue was sticking out the side of its mouth, but since the Shimmer-mare and Heartstrings-mare weren’t here to complain, this one didn’t care. Sunny and Indigo didn’t seem to either, or at least neither of them said anything.

After several seconds, this one could feel the spell coming together. It still couldn’t do the spell anywhere near as fast as Shimmer-mare did, not to mention it couldn’t hold a candle to the raw power she could throw out, but it was still replicating one of her signature spells. A small ball of fire slowly came together in this one’s right hoof while the other pulled in some of that rainwater to freeze into a ball of solid ice.

This one opened its eyes, and saw that the other two were watching its display. Sunny spoke up first. “Huh, not bad at all.”

“‘Not bad’?” Indigo nudged her. “I may not have a horn on my head, but I’ve read plenty. She’s pulling off two seperate evocation spells at the same time! Doing more than one spell at a time is something a lot of full-fledged magi struggle with.”

This one couldn’t help smirking a little. “Isn’t it? This one does have a good teacher.” Though Indigo was wrong about this one actually casting two different spells: one of the tricks the Shimmer-mare taught this one was how to move heat around with a single spell to get both fire and ice. But why tell them that? It was a lot more fun if they believed this one was actually doing something way harder.

Sunny snorted. “Okay, that is pretty impressive. It also took her so long to pull off that I could’ve stabbed her a dozen times in a real fight.” She tapped her sword belt. “Fancy magic tricks are nice and all, but General Platinum always tells me that most of the time honest steel is a lot easier to use and a lot more reliable in a fight.”

Indigo chuckled. “Sounds like someone’s jealous. So are we going to stand here and jabber about who’s got a bigger horn or are we going to go do something fun? I dunno about you two, but I don’t want to spend all afternoon standing around when I’ve got fifty ducats to spend on whatever the feather I want to!”

This one shrugged. “Sounds good. Where do we start?”

Sunny offered the first suggestion. “How about getting something to eat? I was expecting to get a late lunch with my parents, but we all know how that worked out.” She waved towards several food stands and carts a little ways down the pier. “Plenty of places to choose from.”

Indigo ginned and pumped a hoof in the air. “Now you’re talking my language!”

The three of us headed over to the food stands. This one was a bit surprised so many of them were still open with the weather, though come to think of it if they couldn’t do business every day it rained they’d be closed half the year. Most of the stands had extra-large awnings, both to protect the food and cooking equipment and to draw in anyone trying to get away from the weather. Just as this one had suspected would be the case, as soon as we stepped into shelter the owner barked at us. “You wanna stay dry, buy something!”

“You could give us a minute to look over the menu first,” Sunny shot back primly.

“Fine,” the grumpy-looking zebra grunted. “But don’t take forever.”

“No wonder his tip jar is empty,” Indigo muttered.

This one quickly scanned the menu, but nothing looked all that enticing. Then a particularly savory and incredibly tempting smell drifted in on the wind. There was nothing else that smelled quite like a deep fryer in the middle of making incredibly delicious and equally unhealthy food. This one promptly turned around and walked out, ignoring the zebra’s offended shout as it departed without buying anything.

Indigo and Sunny promptly joined. “Even if his cooking was amazing, I wouldn’t want it after that appalling lack of manners.”

“Not to mention his place stank,” Indigo chimed in. “No idea what it was, but it was like some of his food went bad and he tried to cover up the smell with lots of lime juice.”

This one suddenly felt rather self-conscious about its body odor, and the perfume Mom had dumped all over it. “Uh, yes. This one is sure that’s what it was. Anyway, this place looks a lot better, let’s check it out!”

This one spotted what it wanted pretty quickly, but gave the others a moment to decide. Sunny frowned at the menu. “Hmm, what should I go with? Sweet or salty?”

Indigo didn’t have any hesitation. “Sugary, I can get salty any time.” She snorted. “No pun intended.” She paused for a moment, then frowned and shook her head. “Not that I do, ‘cause I don't need to, it’s a ... eh, never mind. Don’t you hate when metaphors get away from you?”

“I try not to worry about that kind of thing.” This one put in its order. “One shrimp kebab with peppers, please.”

“Those do look pretty good,” Indigo agreed. “But not as good as the funnel cakes. Come on, everyone knows funnel cakes are life.”

“I thought everyone knew they go straight to your hips,” Sunny shot back. She tried to frown, but couldn’t quite pull it off. “Then again ... it’s been forever since I had one, and half the point of all the exercise I’ve been doing is so I can treat myself every once in a while without ruining my figure. Though I am getting some actual food to go with it.” She stepped up to make her order. “Fish and chips, plus a funnel cake please.”

Indigo sighed. “Yeah, if I just get funnel cake with nothing to go with it I’d probably go into sugar overload mode.” She stepped up to the vendor. “Funnel cake, and half a dozen samosas. Not picky about which type, so just gimme a little bit of everything.”

This one shrugged. “I’ll take a funnel cake too. No sense being left out.”

Sunny chuckled. “At this point if you don’t get one, you’d probably end up staring forlornly at ours once you finished your shrimp.”

“This one would not,” it grumbled. Despite its best efforts to sound sure of that answer, it didn’t even believe its own words. “But ... yes, there’s no harm in getting one for myself.”

With all our orders in, we found some reasonably dry benches and settled in to wait for our food. If nothing else, the fact that it was all being fried up fresh for us was a good sign. It certainly smelled wonderfully delicious and unhealthy.

We all got glasses of water while we waited. Judging by what Sunny said next, she was clearly trying to get this one to do a spit-take. “You know, you don't need to cover up that you're a changeling if you don't want to.”

This one groaned and buried its face in its hooves. “This one was that bad at it, huh?”

Indigo didn’t spare this one’s feelings. “You kinda flubbed it out of the gate, yeah. You were dropping ‘this ones’ all over the place, but I was gonna be nice and pretend it didn't happen since that's apparently a changeling thing.”

Sunny grinned and gave this one a reassuring pat on the back. “For what it’s worth, you're not the first changeling I've met. We’ve got a lot of Free Minds in the Free Companions. Plus Dad told me your family are Free Minds, so I had a pretty unfair advantage.”

They were probably trying to comfort this one, but it wasn’t working. “This one should still be better at disguises.”

The conversation died out for a bit as the food arrived. This one wasted no time sinking its fangs into the shrimp. They were every bit as delicious as this one hoped they would be: the batter was crispy and perfectly spiced, while the shrimp within were wonderfully tender. Not to mention eating them meant this one didn’t have to address any awkward questions.

Sunny restarted the conversation after she’d finished off one of her pieces of fish. “Isn't your changeling parent teaching you how to disguise yourself? Seems like a really important part of your education.”

This one sighed. “Dad tries, but ... you know, parents.” This one felt a bit bad about blaming Dad for its poor disguise skills. He’d been the main one teaching this one, but the Heartstrings-mare and Puzzle has tried to help this one as well. It was hard not to think that this one was just bad at disguising itself.

Sunny shrugged and ate some of her chips. “Well I’m not a changeling, so it’s probably not my place to tell you how to be a better changeling. Just try to avoid dropping ‘this ones’ when you’re in disguise.”

“Seems kind of dumb to have a verbal tic that tells everyone you’re a changeling,” Indigo chimed in. “Wouldn’t it make more sense if you just talked normally all the time?”

“It would if staying hidden was the only thing we cared about,” this one conceded. “But hiding from the Old Mind is too much like letting her win. We’re Free Minds, and part of being free is not living in fear. We can conceal ourselves if we wish to, but we never have to.”

Sunny and Indigo stared at this one for several seconds before Sunny broke the silence. “I guess that makes sense. I always thought it was just a weird cultural quirk.”

“Yeah, not the weirdest thing I’ve heard about,” Indigo agreed. “So do we wanna keep comparing cultures, or are we gonna go out and have some fun?” She shoved the last of her samosas into her mouth to quickly finish it off.

Sunny did the same with her fish. “Sounds good to me. The food was nice, but we’ve still got a couple hours to kill and plenty of ducats left to spend.”

“Yeah, this one would certainly like to do more.” The three of us got up and started walking along the waterfront, trying to keep out of the rain as much as possible. Thankfully there was plenty of cover, though it meant walking right by all the various games and entertainment booths. It might have been irritating if we didn’t want to do any of that sort of thing, but when we were looking for one to play it worked out pretty well.

Eventually this one found a game that looked like it should make for a good time: a wall full of inflated balloons, with a sign proudly proclaiming that anyone who popped three of them would get a prize. This one stepped up to the stand and paid for three darts of each of us. “Hooves only,” the carnie warned us. “If your horns so much as twinkle, you forfeit your prize with no refunds! Got it ladies?”

“Well there’s a rule that doesn’t matter for me.” Indigo grinned and picked up her darts, carefully balancing each of them in her hooves. “Not that I’d need the help.”

This one was tempted to point out that while the horn lighting up was generally a sign of spellcasting there were plenty of ways to hide it. Then again, most magi with the skills to do that probably wouldn’t bother to apply their talents to ripping off carnival games. Especially when all the various stuffed animals and other prizes probably cost less than what the carnie charged them for their darts.

Indigo looked at the various prizes, then her eyes lit up. “Oooh, nice, a Daring Do pith helmet! It’s practically mine already!” She tossed her first dart and somehow managed to make it land perfectly in between four balloons without popping any of them. Indigo’s face fell, but a moment later shook her head. “Got some dust in my eye. No worries, I can make up for it. Just gotta get two of them in one throw. Besides, this makes is more exciting.”

“It’s tricky, but this one believes in you,” it said.

“Thanks, Kooks.” Indigo tossed her second dart before this one could comment on the less than flattering nickname it had evidently acquired. The throw looked promising at first, but once again it missed popping any balloons.

Indigo muttered something under her breath, her wings flicking in irritation. “Never mind, there's a three-for-one right there in that corner. Just you watch, I got this.”

She did not.

Sunny smirked at her. “Looks like you could stand to improve your aim.”

“Horseapples,” Indigo grunted. “My aim’s fine. I’d bet you the carnie gave us blunt darts, or ones with bent flights or something.”

“I most certainly did not,” the carnie grumbled as he retrieved Indigo’s darts. “Besides...” His wing flicked up to one of the smaller signs adorning his booth, advising patrons to check their darts and report any flaws or damage at once.

“I think someone’s just a bit of a sore loser.” Sunny tossed hers next. She popped one balloon with each of her first two tosses, then just to show off got two with her last one. “See? It’s not that hard when you actually aim.”

Indigo rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah...” She sighed. “I bet it’s not a real officially licensed helmet anyway. Probably one of those cheap knock-offs from Gryphonia that calls itself ‘Sense of Daring Exploration Alliance’ or something.”

Sunny shot her smug smile as she claimed her prize, a massive stuffed bear. “To be fair, I have practice at this type of thing.”

“Being in a military family goes a long way,” this one agreed. This one threw its first two darts and hit the targets without any trouble, but ... well for some reason this one compared the sound of a popping balloon to the sound it heard when the Shimmer-mare put out one of the Glimmer-mare’s eyes. The last dart went wild and wound up making the carnie flinch when it hit the wooden planks of the waterfront a bit too close to his hooves.

Sunny cleared her throat. “Two out of three is still pretty good.”

Indigo snorted. “She really whiffed the last one though. So much for all that clanpony training.”

This one rolled its eyes. “Still got two more than you managed.” Tempting as it was to tease her a bit more, it was probably smarter to give her a chance to salve her pride. “So what game do you want to do next, Indigo?”

Indigo perked back up. “Oooh, we’ve gotta do the good old hammer strength test! You can’t blunt a hammer, and I know I’ve got that in me.” She headed over to it, making a show of flexing her forelegs as she did so. She smirked over her shoulder at Sunny. “Think you can beat this, Laser-Eye?”

Sunny frowned at her. “Definitely.”

Indigo passed some ducats to the hippogryph running the game to cover the three of us. “Big talk. Why don’t you step up and prove it?”

Sunny rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, I’m the one guilty of running her mouth and making claims I can’t back up.” She stepped up and grabbed the hammer, taking a few practice swings before she brought it down. Considering the strength test was meant for full-grown adults, and strong ones at that, she did pretty well sending it over halfway up.

This one stepped up next, and managed to do about as well as she did. Indigo chuckled and shook her head. “Not bad, you two, but let a pro show you how it's done.” She took the hammer and twirled it through a couple of practice swings, then slammed it down onto the lever. The puck immediately shot all the way up to the top, letting out a sharp chime when it hit the bell. Indigo smirked and took a bow. “Thank you, thank you, I’m here all night.”

Sunny tried not to look too annoyed, but from the way her jaw clenched, this one could tell she was miffed. “Not bad...”

This one’s praise was more genuine. “Impressive. How did you do that?”

Indigo handed back the hammer, then walked over to us and wrapped her wings around each of us. From the way she whispered her next words, she clearly seemed to think she was letting us in on a big secret. “Calling the game a strength test is kind of a lie, because beating it’s not really about how much muscle you have. Muscle helps, but it’s way more about hitting the lever just right to transfer maximum force. If you’re accurate enough, you can pretty much just let gravity do all the actual hard work.” She chuckled to herself. “S’why so many big guys mess it up. They just wail away at it as hard as they can without worrying about precision.”

“This one thought it was because a lot of those games are rigged,” it pointed out.

“Not the ones at the waterfront,” Sunny answered. “The local gaming commission takes their professional standards very seriously. One rigged game can ruin the reputation of the entire waterfront, and none of the other businesses want that.” She smirked. “Besides, if they were going to rig it, they’d rig it against Indigo. She was the one with the most to prove who’d keep paying out for a chance to finally win.”

Indigo snorted and rolled her eyes. “And here I was giving you guys pointers on how to get better at the game. You’re welcome.” She trotted back to get her prize, and came back with a very crude foam replica of Chainbreaker. “Hey look, now we both have swords!”

Sunny rolled her eyes. “That’s a toy.”

“No, really?” Indigo poked Sunny’s bear with the foam sword. “Besides, what you’ve got is pretty much just an oversized sewing needle.”

“This one’s mother always said that smallswords made far better fashion accessories than actual weapons,” it agreed. “Though really, isn’t a foam sword just a bit silly?”

Indigo scoffed. “I thought the whole point of this was to be kinda silly and have some fun. I didn’t come out to the waterfront to be all grim and serious.” She gave a few swings of the foam sword. “So, Sunny, who’s the best wielder of Chainbreaker?”

“Torch, obviously,” Sunny answered without a moment’s hesitation. “After all, the Free Companions helped him free the slaves. Not to mention he played a part in getting General Platinum’s sword Dawnfire.”

“Of course it comes back to the Free Companions.” Indigo took a few more swings with her toy sword. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, Torch is cool and all, but I’ve always like Ushabti more. He actually got to run things after he kicked the zebras out.”

Sunny frowned at her. “First off, I’m one-eigth zebra.”

Indigo winced. “Oh right. Um ... can we pretend I said he kicked out the evil imperialist zebras who wanted to annex Freeport and take away our freedom while still being nice and welcoming to all the ones who weren’t bad guys?”

“Better,” Sunny conceded. “I’ve got no love for the Empire. After all, my great-grandmother left because of all the political backstabbing. Moving on, did you forget about how the Necrocrats turned out?”

“Of course not,” Indigo answered. “But it’s not like the Council’s perfect these days, and I don’t see you blaming Torch for that. Just because the whole system he set up went bad after he was dead for a hundred years doesn’t negate everything he did. Nobody can predict what’ll happen that far in the future.”

“It doesn’t take a genius to see that messing around with necromancy is going to end badly,” Sunny countered. “I mean, just look at the historical trends. Everyone who tried to find a good use for dark magic wound up coming to a bad end. Even if Ushabti didn’t turn evil from using necromancy, he should’ve realized it would turn everyone else evil.”

“Actually, dark magic doesn’t work that way,” this one cut in. “It’s not like using one morally questionable spell suddenly flips some kind of mental switch that turns someone from good to evil. It’s more about power, and the kind of people who would want to use those spells in the first place. Warlocks who go around casting torture and mind control spells only do that kind of thing because they think it’s okay to do things like that. The magic didn’t turn them evil, they were just always jerks.”

“See?” Indigo slapped this one of the back with a wing. “The apprentice magus agrees with me. There was nothing wrong with Ushabti.”

“Oh really?” Sunny regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “I think you misunderstood her. Ushabti set up a regime of necromancers. Even if he had a strong personal moral code, he had to know what sort of people take an interest in that sort of magic.”

“Ugh.” Indigo turned back to face this one. “Okay, we obviously need a tie-breaker here. Who’s the best pony to ever have Chainbreaker?”

This one wasn’t eager to pick sides. Fortunately, it had an easy way to stay neutral. Especially since it was also a completely honest answer. “The Shimmer-mare.”

A second after this one said that, it realized probably shouldn’t have. Puzzle told this one to not say anything about Chainbreaker. The Council was still trying to keep the fact that the sword had gotten stolen under wraps.

Indigo and Sunny stared at this one with wide eyes, their mouths hanging half-open. After several seconds, Sunny finally broke the silence. “No. Way! Those crazy rumors from Northmarch are actually true?! She’s got Chainbreaker?!”

“What about the rest of the stories?!” Indigo cut in. “Did she really fight a huge mutated warlock monster? What about the massive dragon? I heard Blackfyre finally came out of hiding and burned Coldharbor to the ground, but then Magus Shimmer cut off his tail and sent him running for the hills!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Sunny scoffed. “No offense, Kukri, I know she’s your teacher. It’s just ... no normal pony could beat a monster like Blackfyre. The stories about how she lost an eye and has to wear a huge set of armor just to keep herself alive sound way more realistic.”

Indigo shook her head, then turned back to this one. “Um, why are we even arguing about it when her apprentice is right here? C’mon, give us the inside scoop, Kooks.”

Sunny cut in before this one could say anything. “She probably knows more than most of the crazy rumors, but it’s not like she was there. No way Magus Shimmer would drag a kid into a warzone like Northmarch.”

“Well, she didn’t know!” this one snapped at her. “It was supposed to just be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Argentium the Runescaled. Nobody knew there were going to be warlocks, mutants, and the most horrible evil dragon in the world! Nobody knew that the Glimmer-mare would show up and destroy our inn, or that Blackfyre would burn the whole city to the ground while we were inside it!”

Indigo’s jaw dropped again. “Whoa ... you were there?!”

“Yes,” this one grunted.

Indigo grinned like a kid in a candy store. “That. Is. Awesome!” She grabbed this one’s shoulders. “You got to have your own epic adventure, like something out of Daring Do or Shadow Spade! You have to tell us everything!”

“With all the crazy rumors flying around, I am rather curious to find out what really happened,” Sunny agreed.

This one grunted and did what it could to change the subject. “There’s plenty of official reports that could tell you more than this one could. So what game should we play next?”

Indigo scoffed and stepped closer to this one that it cared for. “Who wants to read a boring official report when we've got you right here and you were there for the whole thing?”

She wasn't there, this one told itself. It repeated those words like a mantra, just to keep her smug, feathering nose intact.

No, that wasn't fair, she just—she just wanted to know. She didn't know better, like this one hadn't when it asked Mom if she'd ever killed anyone.

Endless night...

Sunny stepped in on the other side, all but pinning this one in. “Come on, don't hold out on us. We want to hear everything.”

“Yeah, well, this one doesn’t want to talk about it!” it snapped. So what if they didn't like its tone? Maybe if they could take a hint...

Indigo blinked and took half a step back. “Whoa, chill, Kooks. We just wanna hear all about the amazing adventure you went on. I’m actually kinda jealous.”

Sunny nodded along. “I know I’d love the chance to do something like that. It’s so frustrating being stuck at home all the time, and only getting to use this toy sword for practice.” She tapped a hoof on the hilt of her smallsword. “You’re so lucky to get a chance to go out and do the real thing.”

This one felt something inside itself snap, and it rounded on her. “Lucky? Lucky?! Oh, yeah, you only have a toy sword to only poke at a stuffed dummy? Oh boo-feathering-hoo, princess! Even if—even if—that tin-soldier prawn fork your precious Free Pretenders call a sword was worth a damn in a fight, you wouldn't have the first clue what ‘the real thing’ actually means! You think your cutsey little drills and your thrusts and your parries mean anything against a monster the size of a mountain?! Or maybe his pet warlock that could turn you into paste before you finished drawing your play-toy?”

Sunny stared at this one in shock as it continued. “Or maybe—maybe, even if you survive all of that, you poke the bad guy and make him run away until next time. Oh, you don’t have the first idea of what comes after that. There’s no stupid victory theme while everyone hoof-bumps and plans a big party. There’s just...” This one stared down at the ground as the memories crashed in on it. “Noise. The wind blowing, fires spreading in the rubble, survivors moaning inside the rubble because they’re too hurt to say ‘Help me’, and instead of all the injuries the hero got saving the day being quickly patched up and forgotten, she’s been permanently crippled for the rest of her life and has to give up her dreams just to survive. Then you finally get to come home and ... and ... and then some idiot asks you what it’s like when ... when ... there’s..."

This one shook its head, trying to drive the memories away. “And then you get sent home, ‘cause that's where you need to go. ‘Cause it’ll be better.” This one chuckled to itself, feeling the laugh push a bit too deep and the smile a bit too wide. “It’ll be better when you get home. What a load.”

Indigo swallowed and took a hesitant step towards this one. “Um ... wow. Sounds like a lot happened. Are ... are you okay?”

This one waved a hoof and laughed her off. This one was fine. It was fine, really. It was fine, like the Shimmer-mare. Stuff happened, we laugh it off, it’s all fine in the end. Laugh it off, laugh it off, we had our happy ending and everything was fine.

She was fine. Laugh it off. This one was fine.

We were fine.

It was fine.

Coldharbor was fine. All the refugees were fine. This one’s fine. Everything’s fine.

It’s not fine.

It’s fine. It’s not fine.

It’s fine.

It’s not fine, it’s not fine, it’s not fine, it’s not fine... oh Endless Night, this one was freaking out in front of them, but...

Damn it.

Indigo quickly wrapped a wing around this one to hide its face, and Sunny hustled us into one of the service walkways between all the games and food stands. Then Indigo gave this one a pat on the back, while Sunny awkwardly stood off to the side. “Um ... there there? We’re here for you, Kooks.”

This one did its best not to cry. It wasn't a grub anymore, dammit, it wasn't going to cry! Even if it wanted to just latch on and hug Indigo like the last life vest in a hurricane, it’d just met her, but damn it all... This one glanced at them from the corners of its eyes, but it managed not to cry and started to catch its breath.

Then it started to cry. Stupid grub.

A second later both of them hugged this one. It was weird how nice it felt when this one had only just met them.

After a while, Indigo cleared her throat. “So, um, I know it’s not exactly the same sort of thing, but I kinda get it. I mean, I was really sick as a kid. I got better, but for a long time I had to spend months out of every year in bed. That was why I read through all the adventure stories I could get my hooves on. It was a chance to imagine being somewhere else. Now that I’m finally better, I can't wait to get out there and do all the stuff I read about. But...” She sighed and ran a hoof through her messy blue mane. “Guess I should've known that the stories I read as a kid left out all the bad parts.”

“Yeah.” This one felt like it should say something profound about being careful what she wished for, but it just ... couldn't. It just wanted to go back home and go to bed. Instead, this one blurted out, “‘Happily ever after’ is just a bunch of horseapples.”

Sunny frowned and shook her head. “No it's not.” She grimaced, but didn't stop talking. “Okay, so maybe life’s more complicated than that, but still ... what’s the point of not trying to get a happy ending to our story?”

Indigo nodded along. “Good point. I mean, there were times when I figured I’d just be sick forever, but look at me now!” She slapped a hoof against her chest. “Reminds me of one of my favorite lines in one of my books. ‘Ponies need to believe in things that aren’t true—that doing the right thing always pays off, justice will always prevail, and harmony will be restored. Because unless we believe in those things, we’ll never be able to make them be true.’”

This one grunted and just hugged her. Maybe she was right. This one ... wasn’t fine. But maybe someday it could be fine. It was a nice idea, to think that things could be better just because we wanted them to be. But ... well it wasn’t like this one could just completely forget about everything that happened just because it was in the past.

But ... well maybe this one didn’t need to let the past decide what today would be.

Author's Note:

As always, thanks to my pre-reading and editing team for all their hard work. Also, I would like to thank all my dedicated Patreon supporters. You guys are awesome.

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