• Published 1st Jan 2022
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The Light Within Us - theOwtcast



Be careful what you wish for; you might get exponentially more. Someone really should have warned Thorax what he was getting himself into by wanting friendship so badly.

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Grief

“Good morning. May we speak to a relative of Ms Lilac Lush?”

“Who are you? Actually, what are you?”

“Oh, right. My name is Thorax, and I’m the new king of changelings-”

“How dare you come here knocking after what you monsters did to my mother?!”

“Please, sir, if you’ll let me explain-”

“I don’t wanna hear it! Go back to wherever you crawled out from and never show your face here again!”

“But sir-”

“Get lost!”


“Good morning. Mrs Silk Finesse, I presume?”

“Yes, what’s this about?”

“I’m here about your husband, Ma’am.”

“My husband is dead. Killed by changelings- wait, you’re one of them, aren’t you?”

“Uh, yes, I’m-”

“-an inconsiderate, bloodthirsty beast is what you are! You killed him and now you want to, what, talk like it’s no big deal?!”

“Ma’am, I’m very-”

“Are you here to kill me too?!”

“No, we-”

“Get out or I’m calling the Royal Guards!”

“Ma’am-”

OUT!


“What’s a changeling doin’ on my farm?!”

“Ms Sugar Plum? I’m here to-”

“You ain’t gettin’ any of our love, y’hear?! Killing little Juicy Plum wasn’t enough for you? Came back for more, now?!”

“I’m sorry-”

“You’ll be sorry alright when I stuff you in a jam press! I ought to stuff you in a jam press this instant for what you did and I don’t care if Celestia signed a million treaties with you! The next blood spilled here will be changeling blood, y’hear?!”


“My wife was everything to me and now she’s never coming back because of you! And you think an apology is gonna fix it?! Are you out of your mind?!”


“Forgive you for killing my sister? Yeah, I can forgive you. As soon as I rip your head off! Hey! Get back here!”


“You took my only son away from me! How can you ever expect me to forgive that?!”


“Can you raise the dead? Didn’t think so. Stop wasting my time or Celestia help me!”


“I may not have been as close to Aunt Raindrop as much as I should have been, but if you think it’ll make it easier to convince me to shrug it off and pretend nothing happened, you’re out of your mind! And don’t think I haven’t seen through that one’s disguise, geniuses! Just wait till Princess Twilight finds out you’ve been impersonating her again; bet she’ll think twice before agreeing to any alliances with irredeemable freaks!”


“It’s no use, Twilight,” I sighed as we were leaving yet another city with no success whatsoever in being heard. “I didn’t expect to be forgiven right away, but they don’t even want to let me apologize! That last one didn’t even believe you’re you!”

“I’m starting to see why you got so nervous about doing this after we started out. It was like you flipped a switch and I couldn’t figure out where all that previous enthusiasm and determination went! You knew, didn’t you?”

“That this would turn into a disaster? Not in the sense of predicting the future, but with our reputation, I’d be surprised if we’d gotten polite and considerate treatment. I mean, the mob would have ripped my delegates and me apart last week in Canterlot if Celestia hadn’t interfered, and they were prepared for our visit and assured there was nothing to be afraid of! These ponies all lost a family member; they have every reason to be furious!”

“I know, but that doesn’t justify yelling and death threats!”

“I’m sure they know it on a theoretical level, but consider what we’ve been doing to them for centuries. They probably think violence is the only language we know, and it wasn’t very far from the truth until recently, and the change was so abrupt that they haven’t yet realized it happened-”

“Are you defending them?!”

“No. I’m trying to figure out where the problem is so we can sort it out. Except that we’re the problem - my kind, I mean. If we hadn’t been insufferable pests, none of this would be necessary! All those ponies would still be alive if it weren’t for us!” I stopped walking and hung my head. “Oh, who am I fooling, Twilight? They’re never going to forgive us!”

“They will! You just need to, uh, give them more time, like you said! They’ll get there much sooner if they weren’t personally… affected… I’m not helping, am I?”

“Well, at least we pretty much agree on where the root of the problem is.”

She tapped her chin, humming.

“What if I went to talk to them instead of standing in the background?” she offered. “They should be more willing to listen to a pony! Or you could disguise yourself as a pony until you get them to trust you-”

“-and then shatter that trust the instant I reveal my true self,” I interjected. “That’s not gonna work. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but the only way the apology will make sense is if it comes from a changeling who isn’t pretending to be something else; everything other than that comes off as an act with possibly all kinds of intentions behind it. It would be best if the very drone who had abducted a particular pony were the one delivering the apology to that pony’s family, but I’m afraid Psycho has been unable to track down any of them. I’m not sure whether the prey hunters in question don’t remember their victims or don’t want to admit it was them for whatever reason, but there it is. Noling ever kept track of prey hunters’ victims.”

“So now you have to be the one apologizing even though you haven’t abducted a single pony all your life.”

“I would have gone either way. It was my idea in the first place, and I think my presence would have added weight to an apology given by a former prey hunter. I was going to leave it up to the prey hunters to decide if they wanted to go and wouldn’t have held it against them if they’d refused… but none of them were found…”

“They could still remember, or gather up the courage, or resolve whatever their reasons were to keep quiet about it.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

We walked on in silence. We’d been at this for a few days, travelling all over Equestria to visit the families of the deceased ponies, and we only had a little further to go, only a couple more families to visit. We’d met no understanding along the way, what little hope I’d had in the beginning was by now thoroughly crushed, and I didn’t think the remaining visits would go any differently. Still, I pressed on, intending to finish what I’d started, and grateful to Twilight for sticking around despite her own royal duties undoubtedly piling up in her absence. Her planning and organization skills had provided us with the most efficient route and her magic had saved us from out-of-control grieving relatives a couple of times, not to mention that she was a wonderful companion! I couldn’t have done this without her!

Eventually she slowed down for no obvious reason.

“Am I crazy,” she said, “or have those pigeons been following us for a while?”

I looked into the sky and, sure enough, two pigeons were flying about. Something struck me as odd about them so I flew up, expecting them to go away, but instead, they burst into flames that revealed Grim and Spiracle.

“Uh, hi Thorax,” they said, smiling awkwardly.

“What are you doing here?”

“Pharynx sent us,” Grim said.

“Of course he did,” I sighed. “Guess I should have known he wouldn’t listen when I told him I could handle this!”

“I’m sure he had the best intentions,” Spiracle said, and we landed.

“Did you guys volunteer again?”

“No, he just came up to us and told us what was up. No offense, but I would have declined this time. Ocellus just moved in with us and now she’ll be alone with Banshee until I come back.”

“What about Cicada and Nettle?”

“Still undecided. I was looking forward to getting to know Ocellus better, but… oh well, duty calls…”

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Twilight and I have been doing fine without your help, so if you want to return to the hive a little early, you have my permission.”

They exchanged a quick glance.

“About that…” Grim said hesitantly.

“Why am I getting the feeling I won’t like what you’re going to tell me?” I muttered.

“We kinda sorta got in a fight in Fillydelphia to cover your exit…”

“...and Meteor Shower wanted to report you so we maaay have become the nearest Royal Guards…”

“...and we maaay have lured the angry mob in Detrot away by looking like you two…”

“...and distracted that griffon in Salt Lick City by pretending you threw a couple of coins to him…”

“...and that roadblock we improvised at Plum Delicious Orchards worked better than expected…”

Twilight and I both stared at them wide-eyed, then at each other, and then we facehoofed in unison.

“...too much?” Grim whispered, casting a glance at Spiracle, who was starting to look like he’d swallowed a live frog.

“Oh boy…” Twilight muttered. “We might as well start apologizing all over again…”

“What were you thinking?!” I asked the two drones. “I thought we were past that stuff!”

“Sorry,” they said, hanging their heads. They looked like they meant it, too.

“I know you had the best intentions,” I continued, “but you can’t keep doing that! The ponies will never trust us if we stick to our old behavior!”

“Then, how do you want us to deal with that kind of situation?”

“Talk it out. Explain what’s going on sincerely and calmly, and don’t allow yourselves to get provoked into resorting to the old-style tricks. Can you do that?”

“Uh… we’ll try…”

“Thorax?” Twilight interjected. “That sounds good in theory, and great if it works, but it might not always work. I mean, look at how we fared, and we haven’t done anything hostile! It might be a good idea to have a backup plan.”

“Then try harder! There has to be a peaceful approach that could work!”

“Even if they’re being attacked and there’s no time to attempt civil discussions?”

“Well, I, uh… I suppose they could try to run and make a second attempt later, when things have cooled down a little… but we can’t keep acting like savages! That’ll never earn us a better reputation!”

“If you say so…” she said, not sounding convinced.

“Shall we keep going?” I asked after an awkward moment of silence. “All four of us, I mean. You two might as well stop pretending you’re not there.”

They nodded and we got underway.

“So you’ve been tailing me all along?” I asked.

“After Ponyville, yes,” Spiracle said. “We knew that was going to be your first stop, and you were discussing your approach with Twil- uh, Princess Twilight, long enough for us to catch up. Then you spent enough time hanging out with Spike to allow us to sneak into the castle, go over your schedule, and memorize it.”

“It wasn’t that long!”

“The schedule was easy,” Grim said. “Predictable, even. Princess Twilight, if you ever need to create a plan or schedule that an adversary could take advantage of, you might want to devise a way to encrypt it or at least hold back from arranging it so neatly that your every step can be traced before you even take it.”

Twilight’s eye twitched at the suggestion and she grinned awkwardly. “Duly noted!” she chirped, but the murkiness of her love aura made it unmistakably obvious that she dreaded the suggestion more than the risk of an adversary getting wise to her plans.

Don’t snap now, Twilight… we need you…

“At least it seems to have helped them catch up with us every time,” I said hurriedly before she could start losing it completely, and judging by her rate of breathing, she was dangerously close. “So it worked out fine in the end!”

She put a hoof to her chest, took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. Her aura normalized to an extent.

“You’re right,” she said. “No harm done, and I’ll know to pay attention to that from now on.”

We walked in silence some more.

“Okay, we have another griffon to visit,” Twilight said as a village came into view beyond a copse. “The last pony family on our list lives in that village, and coincidentally, the griffon lives on the outskirts of the same village, supposedly in a treehouse… uh… there, probably.” She pointed to a dead tree; the ‘treehouse’ sitting on its branches looked more like a cardboard box pulled out of a dumpster and placed onto a nest than like something that deserved to be considered a proper house, but if the griffon liked it that way, who was I to judge?

There were no stairs or ladders so we flew up, and I knocked on the door… at least I thought it was a door… Either way, it opened a crack, and a vulture head squeezed itself halfway out.

“What?” it croaked.

“Hello,” I answered. “Uh, we’d like to talk to Mr Garry if he’s available.”

“Got bits?”

I’d thought this kind of thing was a weird exaggeration when Urtica and Bandit had first told me about this griffish trait, but I’d begun to see how accurate it was after Mantis returned from Griffonstone and reported that, once the griffons had ripped the money bag apart while it was still in his mouth and nearly killed one another fighting for every last coin that had poured out of it, not a single one of them had cared to even tell him that they didn’t care about the declaration of peace I’d sent, and he’d had to make that deduction on his own. I’d wanted to scream at that moment, but now that Glenn from Salt Lick City had demanded bits before agreeing to talk to me, getting the same opening from Garry left me completely unfazed. I absent-mindedly passed him a few bits and the door opened a little more.

“What?” Garry repeated.

“We believe you had a brother named Greg who lived in Bitsburgh. Is that right?”

“What’s it to you?”

“You do know that he was abducted by changelings-”

“Yes, and he died in that hive of theirs or whatever it’s called. So?”

I cast a quick glance at Twilight and the two drones. This guy had lost a brother, and he was acting like nothing had happened! I couldn’t believe it!

“Uh, my name is Thorax,” I said to Garry after failing to get any kind of helpful reaction from my three companions, “and I’m the new changeling king. I-”

“Congratulations,” he said dryly. “You gonna tell me something that wasn’t in the newspapers?”

“Yes, I was getting to it. I, uh, I want to express my sincere condolences for your loss and, in the name of all changelings, I want to apologize for your brother’s death.”

“You want forgiveness, huh?” He stroked his beak. “Yeah, I think we can arrange something. How much are you offering?”

I stared at him blankly. “Uh… excuse me?”

“You know, bits?” He shook his claw and the coins I’d given him clinked softly.

Had I heard him right? “I’m sorry, you want… bits… in exchange for forgiveness?”

“Why so aghast? Greg was a useless lump of feathers his whole life. Why not get something good out of him at last?”

And just when I was beginning to think I knew what to expect of them… “I’m sorry, but you seem to have misunderstood. I came to you with a genuine apology and expected that forgiveness, if you were willing to give it, would come without conditions such as money-”

“Then this conversation is over.” He slammed the door so hard that some of the twigs got dislodged from the nest and it was a miracle that the wall hadn’t done the same.

I stared at the door for a few moments, then turned to the others.

“Seriously?! A price of forgiveness, literally?”

Grim shrugged. “That’s the way griffons are.”

“Then why didn’t Glenn ask for money? Why chase us with a broken bottle?”

“Parental instincts?” Twilight shrugged. “I mean, he did lose a daughter. That could make a difference even with someone who doesn’t care about anyone else.”

Grim nodded.

“But you guys still managed to distract him with a few bits?”

“Two one-hundred-bit coins, actually. It may not be much in the context, and I doubt any griffon would have settled for just that as the final price if you’d offered to pay for their deceased relatives, but all it had to do was distract him long enough to lose track of where you went, and it worked. Though I imagine he’s not going to be happy when he realizes he can’t find those bits…”

“He’s probably noticed already,” Twilight mused. “Remind me to check with the authorities if he’s reported them stolen. I’m going to have some interesting explaining to do if he has…”

“Oops,” Spiracle said. “Sorry, Princess!”

“It’s alright, you were improvising a way to protect your king. But just to avoid any further international incidents, may I ask that you think of something else next time?”

They smiled sheepishly.

“Alright then, next order of business: Arpeggio’s family. They’re the last ones. Ready to visit them?”

“They’ll probably yell at us too,” I groaned. “Let’s get it over with…”

Twilight checked her notes for the exact address and led us through the village to a medium-sized house that would have been nondescript if it weren’t for shuttered windows and a mournful melody echoing from inside, and a deeply bitter love aura matching the music. I knocked; the music stopped, and a little later, an elderly mare with weary, bloodshot eyes opened the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your music. You are Mrs Ballad Verse, I believe?”

She nodded. “You’re changelings… and Princess Twilight? Not a changeling in disguise?”

“That’s right. We-”

“Come inside.” She opened the door wider and stepped out of the way.

Caught off guard, I glanced at the others. This was a first… but I wasn’t going to squander the opportunity! I came in as invited, and my companions duly followed.

Ballad led us into the living room, withdrew the curtains to give us some light, and moved the violin she’d been playing so we could sit down. There was just about enough room for all of us if Grim and Spiracle squeezed in next to me on the couch. Twilight took a sofa, and there was another sofa left vacant for Ballad.

“Can I get you something?” she asked. “Tea, cookies?”

We politely refused.

She sat down on the empty sofa, saying nothing. I hesitated. After having been shouted at and threatened and thrown stuff at for several days, I’d been ready for a similar treatment here, but this politeness? I had no idea what to say! But I had to say something! I couldn’t just sit here all afternoon!

“I, uh… just to make sure we’re in the right place, you had a son named Arpeggio?”

“Yes. I’ve been told he died in your hive. If you’re here for the funeral, I’m afraid you’ve missed it.”

“Twilight told me. I would have come, but I didn’t expect any of the families would want a changeling at their loved ones’ funerals, many were overlapping, and the hive was in chaos following the change of leadership… and all that sounds like a bunch of excuses… Anyway, I came here to apologize.”

“For missing the funeral?”

“No, for- well, that too, I guess, but actually I want to apologize for your son’s death. My kind had no right to abduct and drain him no matter how hungry they were, and though I never touched him personally, I feel partially responsible too. If I’d acted sooner, Arpeggio and many others might still be alive!”

“I forgive you,” she said.

“I know nothing will- hold on, did you say… you forgive us?”

“I did. Is that not what you wanted?”

“Well, I was hoping for it, but we had eighty-three families to visit, you happen to be the last, and you’re the only one who hasn’t lashed out at us! By now I didn’t think you’d be any different from the others!”

She nodded and took a photo from the nearby table, slowly as if the slightest bit of carelessness would rip the world apart, and stared at it in silence as her love aura intensified with painful bitterness and cherishing light all intertwined in a severe harmony not unlike the one she’d poured into the strings of her violin just before our arrival.

“I wasn’t sure if I would forgive you,” she said eventually, stroking the photo frame with a gentle hoof, not taking her eyes off it. “For the longest time, I thought I wouldn’t. I loved Arpeggio dearly and his loss hurts so deeply that it would be an understatement to say that the sun could scorch the earth and all the life on it and I’d never notice, and there’s nothing that could heal the wound his death left on my heart. Can you imagine such pain?”

“I can sense it in your aura,” I said, unsure that the question wasn’t rhetorical, “but I’m guessing it’s infinitely worse for you.”

“Fair enough. When I was told-” Her voice cracked and her eyes filled with tears; she took a few deep breaths to steady herself. “When they told me, it was so unbearable that I fainted, and when I woke up again, I screamed and cried and kicked at everything within my reach and I wanted to find those bastards who took my son and I wanted to rip them apart for what they did to him… if you’d shown up that day, there’s no force in the world that would have stopped me from killing you. The funeral had to be postponed a few days until I regained some semblance of a composure, and even that took every spell and potion my doctor could think of. I wasn’t myself… I probably never will be. And I thought I’d never be within a hundred miles of a changeling and restrain myself from killing him, or at the very least, yelling my heart out at him until… I don’t know what anymore.” She sighed. “You’re probably wondering by now how we’re sitting here talking like old friends.”

“I’m guessing you realized your son’s death wasn’t the fault of every changeling?” Twilight said.

“Yes and no, Princess. Tell me, have you been looking for families of just the deceased ponies, or of the surviving ones as well?”

“Just the deceased ones,” Spiracle said. “We already apologized to the survivors upon releasing them, so there was no need to do it again, plus there’s an awful lot of them and it would take months at least.”

Ballad nodded as if she’d expected that answer. “Then you might not have realized that I also have a daughter, and she was taken shortly after Arpeggio. She went looking for him and didn’t come back. She took a friend, who went missing too, and my husband and I never knew what had happened until Nightingale came back and told us that she’d fallen prey to the changelings and that they released her with very profuse apologies. They looked and acted nothing like what we knew about the changelings, but somehow, she was sure they were genuinely sorry for what they’d done. She came home weak and miserable - she’s still in the hospital, actually, and won’t be coming home for another while - but despite what they did to her and the consequences she’s still enduring, she never stopped insisting that you guys have really changed, and neither did Primrose Bliss - that’s her friend, and she came back in even worse condition than my Nightingale.”

She offered us the photo and I took it in my magic.

“That’s them,” she said. “That’s my children.”

“I recognize Nightingale,” Grim said, looking at the photo. “I released her from her cocoon. I’m glad she made it back to her family.”

“May I?” Spiracle asked.

I passed him the photo.

“Hmm,” he mused. “It’s been a while, but I think Arpeggio might have been given to me for an inspection. All, uh… captured ponies… were getting routinely checked up because Chrysalis thought some of them might have sacrificed themselves to smuggle something harmful into the hive. The throne would have neutralized anything magic-based, but she didn’t want to risk missing anything non-magical if the ponies had somehow figured out that magic wouldn’t work. Nothing was ever found, but we had to do it anyway.”

Ballad’s face went sour, and Spiracle stiffened up when he realized how it must have sounded to her.

“Uh, we used magic for it!” he said hurriedly. “None of the prey cocoons ever got opened!”

“Ooookay… I’ll try not to hold a grudge against you for it… it was before you transformed, right?”

“Yes, of course! We’re not doing it anymore! I certainly never will!”

“Did your daughter know about Arpeggio?” Twilight said, breaking the awkward silence that had followed. “Upon being released, I mean.”

“They caught a glimpse of something that looked like dead bodies in a room they passed by, but I don’t think they realized one of them could be Arpeggio. I’m sure they would have said something if they had. But they must have been too weak to go looking for him, and they must have at least suspected, as neither looked surprised when…” She sighed. “If I know my daughter at all, she would have still hoped until then, as we all were, but even learning that her hopes had been futile didn’t change her attitude. She’s devastated, but she never once stopped believing that you guys have turned a new leaf, and couldn’t bring herself to be truly mad at you. So, you see, if my Nighty could find it in herself to forgive you, I decided I would try to do the same. I wasn’t sure if I truly could, but now that I’ve met you, I think she’s right. I still don’t know why I trust you to be genuinely sorry, but I do.” A tear rolled down her face and she hugged the photo that I’d just given back to her. “It won’t bring Arpeggio back, and it might not cure Nighty and Primrose, but if forgiving you is the first step towards making sure nopony else suffers the same fate, then it’s my duty to take it.”

“Thank you,” I said, wondering if it would be okay to hug her.

“No, thank you,” she replied. “I raised my children to be kind and honorable, and looking at Nighty, I believe I’ve succeeded. I see the same kindness in you, thanks to her. The world needs more of that and it warms my heart to see it blooming where I thought it could never exist. If others could see it too, there might be some hope for a better future, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I said, and was starting to believe it again. “I too like to think there’s hope for a better future.”

Author's Note:

By pure chance, this chapter is getting published a day before the 10th anniversary of my uncle's death. It was due to a heart attack so no one to blame for it (as opposed to what happened to the ponies in the chapter), but we didn't even know he was having health issues so it caught us all unprepared, and grandma and grandpa (his parents) were still alive at the time and took it especially hard, as you might imagine; grandpa talked about hanging himself and grandma died barely six months later.

The next chapter will be less gloomy, though :twilightsheepish: