• Published 21st Oct 2012
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A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing - Dee Pad



Can a changeling truly renounce his identity and find happiness amongst those he was taught to hate?

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Chapter 9: A Change of Perspective

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Dee Pad
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Chapter 9: A Change of Perspective

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The beaming, white pegasus touched down onto the grass just outside of her home, humming a carefree tune. She was happy, cheerful, jovial, and any other synonym she could come up with to describe her optimism, for she had a special somepony with which to share her life with. Even the dreary overcast that she and the weather team had just prepared wasn’t going to keep her down.

Now that her work was done, Winter was looking forward to spending the rest of the day with her new bunkmate. Unfortunately, he wasn’t due to get home from work for another half an hour and right now patience was not something she possessed. She speculated thirty minutes of pacing back and forth through the house, waiting for her partner to return and provide her with a loving embrace.

Her cheeks flushed at the mere thought of it. She was in love. A treasure that she had been seeking for years and she had finally found it wrapped in a soft, pearl coat and deep blue mane. Kind, generous, caring, loving. The stallion she had always dreamed of. And tonight there would be a storm, just like the night of their first kiss. It was so romantic. But she only had thirty minutes. She needed to prepare something to set the scene.

Winter placed her hoof on the doorknob and turned, but the door did something it should not have. It opened.

That’s weird. I could have sworn I locked the door when I left.

Winter sniffed the air. She could detect a faint smell coming from somewhere nearby. Following the scent, she found her nose stopping next to the deadbolt on the door. Touching it cautiously, she discovered that it was warm, but that shouldn’t have been. The clouds blanketing the sky had been preventing the sun from shining its warming rays upon the metal lock for the past couple of hours, and even if it could, certainly not to the extent of producing this smoky odor.

She began to get worried. These were signs of magical lockpicking. The heat and odor were a result of magical residue left in and on the mechanism.

Somepony had broken into her home. Their home.

She should have contacted help, find somepony nearby who could alert the authorities, but her worry carried her inside. She wanted to know if the thief had made off with anything valuable or important. She was starting to regret her decision to not have magic-proof locks installed.

The house was dark. Although it was late afternoon, no sunlight was available to illuminate the building. She was afraid to turn on any lights in the house for fear that the trespasser might still be here and it would alert them to her presence. She told herself that, at the first sign of danger, she would hightail it out of there and get help. She only needed to confirm that somepony had broken in and that she and Shade didn’t just simply neglect to lock the door before leaving that morning.

Winter tread lightly through the living room towards the staircase. If anypony were still here, they would most likely be on the second floor; there was nothing of value in the kitchen or living room.

Her ears swiveled frantically, attempting to pick up even the most minute of noises. A creak of the floorboards caused her to jump in surprise. Her eyes bolted around the room, her head spinning from side to side rapidly trying to locate the source of the sound. She stood perfectly still for several moments before she finally decided to move once more. Putting pressure on her front hoof caused the same creak to echo throughout the building once again. Winter sighed with relief and mild embarrassment, glad that nopony had seen that display of fear. But could the burglar have heard that as well?

Her nerves couldn’t handle any more of this terror. Confirming their presence wasn’t worth the risk right now, she needed to get help whether they were here or not.

The frightened pegasus turned back around towards the door but stopped dead in her tracks. The door was closed now. Hadn’t she left it open? Winter was terrified. Somepony else was in her home and her life may be in danger. She wanted to make a mad dash for the door, jump out a nearby window, anything to get her out of here quicker. But she couldn’t move. She was frozen in fear. The trespasser was nearby. She couldn’t see or hear them, but she knew they were there. But where?

Her ears perked up. A sound from behind her sent a chill up her spine. She turned her head around quickly to identify the source. Winter’s pupils shrank in horror at the creature that was now standing behind her. Legs riddled with holes, horn curved and sharp, wings like an insect’s. And it bore its short, pointed fangs as it spoke to her.

“I’m sorry.”

The last thing she saw was the creature’s bright, pink eyes and a blinding flash.

----- ----- -----

A tear-stained pillow was all the comfort Winter could find. The soft, cotton pillowcase hugged her moist cheeks like a mother consoling her child. But it wasn’t enough to mend her grievous, emotional wound.

She had been trapped in that cave by that...creature for three days. While she had been there, time was not a concept she could firmly grasp, it may just as well have been an eternity. She thought she was going die, but she clung to life on the thought that her beloved would save her.

And he did...

The thought elicited another wave of tears and heavy sobbing. Even though she had gone three days without food or water, she could not bring herself to worry about her hunger, her thirst, or her health, only the irreparable rend in her heart.

How could she have been so blind? The evidence had been there the whole time: his luminous, green aura, how he showed up out of nowhere with no plans or preparations, and his less-than-basic understanding of everyday life, not to mention his illiteracy. How could she be so stupid? The pieces were all laid out before her, but she couldn’t fit them together, she had to wait until she was in too deep before she found out the ugly truth.

Shade was a changeling.

She was in love with a changeling.

No. She was in love with Shade. That changeling was an imposter. Shade was still out there somewhere, trapped, alone...right?

Winter buried her face deeper into the pillow as if to suffocate herself and escape from this wretched pain. Who was she kidding? If that changeling was an imposter, then the real Shade must’ve been long dead by now, his corpse rotting away in some dank cave like she had been in.

With each word that passed through her mind her sobs became more labored and her pillow more damp. Why was she torturing herself like this? Was she really so desperate to deny the fact that she had been in love with a changeling, in love with a monster, that she would rather believe that her loved one was dead?

He had said that he was a changeling the whole time, that there never was a pony named Shade. Was that true or was he trying to deceive her to cover his mistake? Were all of her memories with him a fabrication implanted into her mind while she was brainwashed?

Winter’s thoughts were disturbed by a pain in her chest. However, it was not the pain of her broken heart. Something sharp prodded at her barrel. She made an effort with what little energy she had left to lift herself up from her pillow. The offending object came into view, dangling from her neck.

My necklace...

The necklace Shade had given her just a few days ago. The necklace that he spent all his money to buy just for her. A symbol of his love for her. The piece that she had never let go of during her harrowing imprisonment.

Winter’s tears stopped flowing. She sniffled and wiped her moist eyes on the back of her hoof. She remembered what he said to her in the cave, how every memory she had of him, was of the real him. Even if he was a changeling, his feelings for her were real. That’s what he said. She had seen it in his eyes; his deep, emerald eyes. She could feel the emotion in his words and she could see the stallion that she loved staring back at her. His body may have changed, but his eyes were undeniably Shade’s.

She lifted the diamond necklace with her hoof, examining it’s bizarre, asymmetrical design.

“How two things that have no business being together can live in perfect harmony.”

The true meaning of his words finally dawned on her. He had worked so hard. Gotten a job, learned to read, made some friends. Shade had put his all into being a normal member of pony society.

He was telling the truth. It really was him. She really was in love with a changeling.

W-What have I done?

The fact that Shade had not returned since the previous night when she had discovered his secret must have meant that he had left. If he really did love her as he said he did, then he was probably just as heartbroken as she was. She had yelled at him, called him a liar, called him a...monster. She had made a horrible mistake.

I have to find him. I need to be absolutely sure...

Winter dried her remaining tears, a new sense of determination overwhelming her. She hopped from her bed and made her preparations. With her new-found zeal, she wolfed down whatever food she could find in the house; she was going to need all the energy she could get. A quick grooming, a brief check in her atlas and she was ready.

She was going to the Changeling Kingdom.

***** ***** *****

“Nothing,” the sleep-deprived, violet unicorn sighed.

Twilight snapped the thick book shut and brushed it to the side with all of the other useless tomes. She must have scanned hundreds of books by now, but the information she sought still eluded her. She had checked every page of every textbook, novel, magazine and newspaper she had pulled out so far, but none of these were of any help to her. She had lost hours of sleep, her mane was a mess and she felt like her eyelids weighed a ton.

Twilight looked over the steadily-emptying bookshelves. Even with the progress she was making--or lack thereof--she had still only managed to get through half of the library’s archive. There seemed like there were more books here than she had originally counted. Perhaps she had bitten off a little more than she could chew.

All of these books and not a single word mentioning changelings. Maybe Princess Celestia will have something in the Royal Archives. Actually, come to think of it, the princess was the one who kept the changelings exiled to the Golden Glade. Maybe she can help me.

“Twi? What’re you doin’ with all o’ them books, sugarcube?”

Twilight turned her head to greet her two visitors. Applejack and Rarity stood in her doorway, gawking at the tremendous pile of leather and paper that had been accumulated in the library’s foyer.

Twilight sighed. “Just doing some research. Or I would be if I could find anything I’m looking for.”

“Darling, have you been up all night?” Rarity asked, noticing the studious mare’s current state of dishevelment. She received a lazy nod. “Twilight, dear, you need rest. You shouldn’t push yourself so hard.”

“But I need to be prepared in case Chrysalis decides to attack again,” Twilight protested.

“It’s been a month, Twi. If ol’ ‘Chryssy’ were up ta somethin’, dontcha think she woulda done it by now?”

“How are we supposed to know when she’ll come back? She might be lulling us into a false sense of security.”

“Why in Equestria are you so worried about this all of sudden anyway?” Rarity asked curiously.

“I was talking to Shade the other day and the topic of changelings came up. I guess it just made me want to double my efforts.” She sighed again. “But so far they’ve proved fruitless.”

“Well, I, for one, think you should get some well deserved beauty sleep,” Rarity suggested. “And later, you need to stop by my boutique so I can do something about those dreadful bags. You’re not going to attract any stallions looking like you were mauled by a manticore.”

Twilight grunted in disapproval, but didn’t deny that she needed a thorough grooming right now. And some shuteye was starting to sound pretty good.

“Speakin’ o’ Shade, where is he?” Applejack asked, looking around the library. “Ah haven’t seen him in a few days.”

“Oh, did you not hear, darling?” Rarity chimed in. She leaned closer to Applejack’s ear and whispered as if it were a piece of juicy gossip. “Shade’s moved in with Winter.”

“Really?” She received a pair of affirming nods. “Well, shoot, that musta taken some pretty smooth talkin’, huh?” she chuckled.

“Actually, it was quite romantic.” Rarity stared off into space as she imagined the scenario playing out in her mind. “He bestowed unto her the gift of an absolutely exquisite diamond necklace--the materials for which he acquired from me,” she added, making sure everypony knew the part that she played. “And then he confessed his love for her. Oh, the only thing that could have made it even more romantic was if he were to propose.”

Applejack raised an eyebrow as she examined Rarity’s gleaming eyes that were gazing at nothing in particular. She couldn’t help but wonder if Rarity wished to have been in Winter’s horseshoes.

“Huh.”

Rarity snapped out of her daydream and she and Applejack looked towards Twilight who was tapping her chin in thought.

“Somethin’ wrong, sugarcube?”

“It’s just odd,” she started. “Shade should have been here by now for his lessons. It’s strange, normally he’s pretty punctual.”

“Maybe he just stayed late at work?” Applejack hypothesized. “Get in some extra hours. He’s working fer two ponies now after all.”

“Maybe...”

The sound of beating wings were detected by the three mares as a fourth pony landed at the open door and let herself in. She folded in her cyan wings and sauntered over to the trio already present.

“Hey, guys. Whoa.” Rainbow Dash stopped in her tracks and looked up in awe at the enormous mound of books. “Been, uh, doin’ some reading?”

“Yup, and y’all are welcome to join,” Applejack joked.

Rainbow inched back slightly. “Hey, if it involves Daring Do, I’m all for it, but this looks like egghead stuff to me. Count me out.”

“Rainbow,” Twilight addressed her pegasus friend. “You haven’t seen Shade today have you?”

“Me? No, not today. But, actually, that sorta brings me to why I came here. You guys are closer to Shade than me, right?”

“Ah wouldn’t say Ah’m close to him, but sure.”

“What about it?” Twilight asked, tilting her head.

“Has he said anything about Winter lately?” Rainbow’s eyes moved between her friends, waiting for them to answer.

“He talks about Winter all the time, dear. You’ll have to be more specific.”

“Like, today.”

“None of us have seen Shade at all today,” Twilight clarified. “Why?” The three mare’s curiosities were peaking.

“Well, Winter didn’t show up for work this morning, so I figured she probably slept in...again. So I went to her place and found her crying.”

“Crying?” Concern suddenly flowed from Rarity’s voice. “Whatever for?”

“I dunno. She mumbled something about Shade and after that I couldn’t pick out anything she said. I went to the café to ask him about it, but Horte said he didn’t show up to work either.”

A silence fell over the library. Rarity was the first to voice everypony’s concerns.

“Oh my. You don’t think...they had a fight, do you?”

“Judging by how much she was crying, I’d say it was more than just a fight,” Rainbow Dash guessed.

“Dagnabit!”

The three other mares looked to the lone earth pony, startled by her sudden outburst.

“What’s wrong, Applejack?” Twilight asked.

“Don’t you get it? He musta done somethin’ to her. Why else would she bawlin’ like that?”

“Done something?” Rarity repeated. “Like what? What could he have done?”

“I dunno, but it musta been somethin’ rotten ta make her cry like that.” Applejack furrowed her brow. “He musta...like, cheated on her or somethin’. Took advantage of her maybe. Whatever it is, it ain’t good. Shoot!” Applejack stomped a hoof. “Ah knew it! Ah knew from the very beginnin’ that somethin’ was off about that pony, Ah could feel it in mah gut. Even Winona didn’t trust him. Dangit! Ah can’t believe Ah actually started trustin’ him too. He played us all fer fools!”

“Now, now, Applejack, let’s not jump to conclusions,” Rarity attempted to calm the fuming earth pony. “Surely there’s a logical explanation for this.”

“Course there is: he’s a two-timin’ scumbag! That’s all there is to it. He got what he wanted and now he’s skipped town.”

“We don’t know that,” Twilight interjected. “We need all the facts before we make any baseless accusations. We should talk to Winter.”

“About that,” Rainbow Dash said. “When I found out he wasn’t at the café, I went back to her place to ask where he was.”

“And?” The three grounded mare’s looked at her expectantly.

“She’s gone.”

***** ***** *****

If it weren’t for the cool breeze blowing through the skies over Equestria, Winter would have landed long ago. The refreshing wind was enough to keep her airborne for at least a little longer than she would normally go, but now her wings struggled to keep her aloft. With each furious beat she felt a twinge of pain course through her feathered appendages. Sweat poured down her face and she was beginning to pant rather heavily.

She was accustomed to flying for extended periods of time, but at her current pace, her wings had a hard time just keeping her above ground level, let alone at the speed she was flying and for a few hours to boot. It was only her sheer determination that kept her going.

The ground was looking especially inviting right now. She wouldn’t even want to settle for a cloud to rest on. She wanted to get out of the sky, plant her hooves firmly on the ground and drop herself into the soft caresses of the blowing grass.

The sun was even starting to set, the celestial orb resting halfway over the horizon. She had heard that this was the most difficult part of setting the sun. Apparently, Princess Celestia had to use more force than normal in order to coax the sun into its slumber and allow the moon to take watch over Equestria and its sleeping inhabitants until morning. Was it a difficult process, she wondered, or was it a trivial task for an almighty alicorn?

Pondering the question was doing little to alleviate the throbbing pain in her wings as she had hoped. That was it, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She needed to land.

As soon as the thought registered in her brain, her wings fell limp and she began to plummet from the sky. Panicked, she strenuously spread them once more, flapping as hard as she could manage to prevent herself from getting a little too personal with the ground she coveted. Thankfully, she managed to pull it off, but the landing was not as soft as she would have liked.

When she was mere feet from the surface, she felt a piercing pain shoot through her left wing; she couldn’t flap it anymore. She fell the rest of the way, hitting the ground with a resounding thud.

“Ow...”

Winter was in pain, but her injuries didn’t seem too serious. No broken bones at least. She knew how that felt. Pretty much every pegasus sustained at least one broken bone in their life, whether it was the result of a mistake made while learning how to fly or simply getting sloppy when attempting to show off feats of aerial prowess. Right now though, her injury was somewhat less severe, but equally debilitating. Her left wing was sprained, she had pushed it too hard. The appendage hung limply against her side. She couldn’t even fold it against herself without having to endure immense pain. There was no way she was getting back into the air. Winter cursed the cruel irony. She was grounded now, whether she liked it or not.

Everything else seemed to be in check. No cuts, no other sprains or pulled muscles, maybe a bruise here and there from that rough landing, but she could soldier on. And soldier on she did. Even if she was exhausted, her legs were still in perfect order. She could walk for another couple of hours if need be, which was going to have to be the case.

The muscles in her legs may not have been strained, but the energy she had spent flying this far was enough to impede her progress. As much as she didn’t want to, she really needed to rest.

To her relief, the sound of a babbling brook caught her ears. With what little energy she had left, she made a mad dash for the source of the sound. Soon, a peaceful stream came into view. A smile found its way onto her face for the first time in days. It was a small bit of comfort given her situation, but one she’ll gratefully receive. She greedily lapped the fresh, clear water into her mouth. No sediment buildup, no mud, no garbage. Just crisp, clean water. She sat back on her haunches to allow herself a break as she rehydrated herself.

She stared at her reflection in the stream. It seemed to be staring back at her with a look of uncertainty.

What am I doing? This is crazy. I can’t just waltz into that place all by myself. It’s full of changelings, they’ll tear me to pieces.

Then why am I going? If it’s so dangerous, why don’t I just go home?

Because, I need to find him. I need to hear him say it. I need to be absolutely sure about this, that the past month wasn’t just one, big lie.

I need to see Shade...

Her energy restored, due in part to the water as well as her reassurance to herself, she rose to her hooves and continued her trek.

Honestly, she was starting to doubt whether or not she was headed in the right direction. Her atlas had told her that the Golden Glade was located due west of Canterlot. Why it would be so close to Equestria’s capital was beyond her. Maybe it was so Princess Celestia could keep tabs on the changeling’s activities, but if that were the case then the whole invasion during the royal wedding probably wouldn’t have happened. Nevertheless, she had been traveling for hours but still saw no sign of the forbidden landscape. Was she headed in the wrong direction?

Winter began an arduous climb up a steep hill. She was starting to think that she spent too much time flying; her legs weren’t as strong as she would have liked. After almost slipping on the moist grass, she finally managed to crest the monumental slope. And the sight before her caused her jaw to slack in awe.

On the horizon, just a few miles away, was a sight like she had never seen. Ahead of her, the vibrant fields of Equestria suddenly stopped cold, being replaced instead by dried, golden blades. It was as if spring and autumn had collided, but neither would give way for the other. The brown and red trees that dotted the far-off landscape drew her eyes like a masterful painting. It was a land frozen in a perpetual autumn. And it was beautiful.

Is that the Golden Glade?

Winter silently contemplated the juxtaposition of this gorgeous locale being home to creatures as vile as the changelings.

No. They weren’t vile. At least, not all of them. That’s what she hoped and what she was going there to find out.

The closer she got, the more pensive she became. Shade might have been different, but the other changelings were still ravenous beasts, from what she had heard anyway. To go in haphazardly would be like a chicken walking into a fox den. But she had no other choice. She had come this far, she wasn’t going to back out now.

Winter stood at the precipice of the Golden Glade, eyeing the trees beyond cautiously, watching for any signs of movement. When she saw none, she took her first step. The amber blades of grass cracked under her hoof, making more noise than she would have liked. This wouldn’t be a problem if she could fly. She was just going to have to be extra careful.

The forest that she was now entering wasn’t really too thick. The slowly darkening sky was still slightly visible through the canopy. It certainly wasn’t as disorienting as the Everfree Forest and she took solace in that. But she was curious about the distinct lack of local inhabitants. From what she had heard, the changeling colony was made up of thousands. How is it she hasn’t seen any yet?

Winter stopped and remained still momentarily to listen to her surroundings. Although she had stopped walking, the sound of dried grass crunching under somepony’s hooves could still be heard. It was shortly accompanied by two distant voices.

Winter’s heart began to race. They were coming and she was just standing out in the open. If they found her, she was as good as dead. Her head shot around, looking for anything she could use to hide herself. All she could see was a nearby bush, not very big, but enough to hide a full grown mare such as herself. She quickly dove behind the bush, wincing as her injured wing batted loosely against the twigs. She hunkered down and peered through the leaves as the pair of voices got closer.

“Are you really gonna eat that thing?”

Two changelings came into view. Winter sighed with both relief and disappointment when she didn’t recognize either of them as Shade. Both were rather nondescript looking, bearing the usual physical traits of a changeling: jet black skin, a curved horn, legs filled with holes, sharp, pointed fangs, and insect-like wings. One of them was carrying an apple with his magic. A particularly unsavory looking apple.

“Why not? Food is food,” the other changeling retorted. “Gotta get what I can.”

“That thing’s gonna make you sick. Leave it for some other poor sucker.”

“And pass up a perfectly good meal? What are you, crazy?”

“That’s nowhere near ‘perfectly good,' and you’re the crazy one for wanting to eat it.”

“You’re just jealous because I found it first.”

“Right, jealous. Because I totally want to vomit my guts up tonight.”

“You’re overreacting. It’s not that bad.”

“Really?” The disapproving changeling took the apple from his companion and preceded to point out the plethora of brown patches all over its skin. There were a lot. “This thing is practically all brown now. One might even mistake it for animal droppings at this point.”

“Alright, maybe you’re right,” the stubborn changeling finally admitted. “But I at least want that feeling of having something in my stomach before I hurl. I haven’t eaten in two days.”

Do the changelings really have it this bad out here? Do they really have to starve themselves just to get one meal every couple of days? Shade lived like this?

“Fine, see if I care. Personally, I’d rather go another day than spend the whole night throwing up, but if you want to torture yourself, go right ahead.”

The hungry changeling eyed the fruit begrudgingly.

“Eh, ya know what? I can hold out a little longer.”

He tossed the apple to the side. It landed directly in the bush Winter had been hiding in, but thankfully, it barely missed her.

“Glad you came to your senses, although watching your guts spill out all over the grass would have been worth a good laugh.”

“There’ll be plenty of food when Queen Chrysalis puts her new plan into action anyway.”

Chrysalis?

“Are you still on about that? I told you that she was just buying herself time. There is no plan.”

“Oh, so you’re Queen Chrysalis’s confidant now? How do you know, smart guy?”

“Because she hasn’t said anything, duh.”

“Maybe it’s top secret.”

“We spent every waking day since we hatched training for “The Grand Takeover”--which was years, mind you--and you think she wouldn’t tell us about her new plan so we could prepare?”

“Well, uh-”

“Face it, dude, Chrysalis isn’t the leader she was cracked up to be. She may have been good at giving rally speeches and whatnot, but when it came time to actually put her plan into action, she failed miserably. You’re gonna have to come to terms with it: we need a new leader.”

“What!?” the loyal changeling balked. He glanced around to see if any other changelings were nearby that could have heard them. “Are you nuts?!” he whispered. “Even suggesting such a thing is enough for you to be accused of treason!”

The other changeling stared blandly. “So? Someone’s gotta say it if it’s gonna happen.”

“What, are you suggesting that you could be our leader?” the bewildered changeling said sarcastically.

“Of course not. Even I know I’m not good enough to be a leader. But I do know that we need someone better than Chrysalis. That is, unless she can redeem herself.”

“And she will. I guarantee it.”

“Really? Care to place a wager on it?”

“A...wager?”

“Yeah. If Chrysalis doesn’t come out with a new plan in the next month, you have to split all of the food you find with me, fifty/fifty.”

“Alright, you’re on! Queen Chrysalis won’t let us down.”

“We’ll see.”

Winter pulled her head back from the bush

Things seem to be pretty tense around here since the invasion. I had no idea the changelings lived such hard lives. No wonder they’re so hostile; they’re just desperate for food.

The thought that Shade had to go through all this torment for his entire life was painful for her. She could see why he sought a better life in Ponyville. He was happy there. She was starting to realize that the lies he had told about his life in Las Pegasus weren’t entirely inaccurate.

“Well, what do we have here?”

A voice from behind Winter startled her. A changeling had somehow snuck up on her and now stood over her as she crouched on the ground, smiling with his pointed fangs. Winter scrambled to get away from him, leaping recklessly from her hiding place.

“Huh?”

“What the-”

Her panic caught the attention of the two changelings she had been eavesdropping on. A pair of devilish grins creased their fanged lips.

“A pony? Here?

“Hey, looks like you might get your meal after all.”

“Hey, back off!” the changeling that had surprised Winter shouted at the others. “I found her, she’s mine!”

“Don’t be so greedy. There’s plenty to go around. How often do we get a chance to eat a live pony?”

E-Eat?!

The third changeling thought it over. “Fine, but I get first dibs, got it?”

The two others nodded in agreement before all three began to set upon their prey.

Winter cowered within the triangle formation they had set up. She tried to flee, hopping into the air. She only managed to get a few inches before the pain in her wing caused her to fall right back down. Flying was out of the question and if she tried to run, they would no doubt catch up to her with ease by using their own wings. All she could do was whimper and hope for some miracle to occur.

“Look, she’s scared stiff,” the third changeling chuckled darkly.

“Maybe you should have killed her before she noticed you. A frightened victim’s meat is tougher than one killed before they know what hit ‘em.”

“What are you, some kind of brainiac? Who cares!? It’s a free meal. Takeout delivered straight to our door.”

The trio advanced on her slowly. Fear welled up inside her. She was about to become a feast for three hungry changelings. Winter’s vision started to blur and her mind became unfocused. The voices of her three attackers became muffled and incomprehensible.

Then, there was darkness.

***** ***** *****

Winter’s head throbbed with pain. Did she pass out or was she struck by something? She could feel her heartbeat in her skull. Either way, it hurt.

Her eyes slowly opened, or she thought they did. Had she gone blind? No, the blurry image of her white hoof lay in front of her. Winter blinked repeatedly to try and refocus her vision, not that it was going to do any good; the place was pitch black. Where was she?

She slid her visible hoof across the ground. It was hard and coarse. She lay on a dirty, stone floor. A cavern.

No, no...

Tears began to well up in her eyes.

Not again.

The circumstances were nearly identical: She had been set upon by changelings, rendered unconscious and awoke in a cave. The whole ordeal caused her heart-wrenching memory of the previous night to swarm her mind.

But maybe that was all a dream. Perhaps after she had been knocked out by that female changeling--this "Chamella"--she had merely dreamt what happened afterwards. Shade coming to her rescue, yelling at the other changeling and accidentally revealing himself. Maybe none of that actually happened. It was all a horrible dream. Shade wasn’t a changeling.

But what if he was? What if her dream was some sort of premonition of things to come. She didn’t want to go through that pain again, the pain she felt and the pain she caused him. This time she would set things right. When Shade slipped up and let his secret out, she would accept it. She would look straight into his eyes and hold him close. It didn’t matter to her anymore that he was a changeling, she loved him.

Winter made to stand up. She was weak and still disoriented from her unconscious state and stumbled sideways before losing her balance completely and falling over. A sharp pain tore through her side. Righting herself up, she looked to the source of the pain. Her left wing hung loosely, drooping with her feathers splayed out over the cold, rock floor.

She still retained her injury, the one she received during her "dream." Winter’s hopes had been crushed. She had planned on making things right this time, but it wasn’t a dream. She was in the Changeling Kingdom, captured and imprisoned. But why? Didn’t those three want to eat her? Why was she still alive?

Winter finally managed to secure her footing and stood upright. She needed to escape. She winced as her head throbbed once more. With each painful pulsation of her skull her vision blurred slightly. She was going to need to regain her senses before attempting an escape, especially if she were to be pursued by more changelings.

She took a couple of apprehensive steps. She might as well find an escape route while she recovered. Winter staggered towards where she hoped there was a wall. If she could find a wall, she could trace the perimeter of the room and no doubt find an exit eventually.

“Oof!”

Winter stumbled over something, causing her to collapse to the hard, stone floor and send sharp pains through the small bruises on her chest. The object that had tripped her clattered against the ground and rolled to her side. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like a rock.

Still trying to focus her vision, she stared at the dark outline of the offending object. Moving closer, she prodded it with her hoof. It didn’t feel like a rock either.

Her eyes finally began to adjust to the darkness. A small, white object became visible to her.

Winter shuffled back in horror. A bone. She had tripped over a bone. What was a bone doing here? But it wasn’t just one bone. She looked around the room as far as her limited eyesight would allow. Many bones were strewn all over the place. Ribs, legs, spines...skulls.

Skulls. The revolting truth made itself blatantly apparent. These weren’t the bones of small birds or rodents, these were pony bones. She fought back the urge to vomit. The horror of it all was making her sick to her stomach. Her mind fabricated the stench of decaying flesh, causing her to gag on her breath. How long had they been here? What did this to them? Whatever it was, she seemed destined to share the same fate and end up among the plethora of skeletal remains within this cavern. Unless she could escape.

Winter scrambled to find a way out. She ran in one, nonspecific direction until she collided with a solid wall. After regaining her bearings, she began to trace the wall. She walked for several minutes, but found nothing. She was certain that she had just walked a full lap around the chamber when the bone that she had tripped over came into view again. She sighed in resignation. There was no way out. But there had to be, how else did she get in here? There must have been an entrance that was accessible via flight. A lot of good that did her with a crippled wing.

She trotted back to the center of the room and sat in silence. This was it. She was going to die here. A pony skull on the floor nearby seemed to stare at her, taunting her as if to request her to join them here for eternity. She couldn’t look at it. Just knowing it was there made a lump form in her throat. Was this some kind of cruel torture before the changelings finally decided to make a meal of her?

Her eyes drifted back to the skull. Its shape was somewhat more defined now, clearer, as if something were illuminating it. It seemed to be coated in a very faint, green glow. The glow could be seen on the floor as well. Was the floor glowing? Winter lifted her hoof. The glow remained on top of her leg despite the supposed source being below her. The light must have been coming from...

...above...

Winter’s pupils shrunk to the size of pin pricks, an overwhelming sense of fear and dread overtaking her. Lining every single inch of the ceiling were glowing, green egg sacs. The ceiling was absolutely covered with them and inside each and every one, Winter could make out the small shapes of changeling larvae. It was no mystery how all of these bones wound up here. These ponies were the victims of a changeling feeding frenzy. If Winter wasn’t sick before, she definitely was now.

The disgusting cocoons were filled with a viscous, green fluid which was giving off the eerie glow. Winter could see some of the well-developed infants stirring in their artificial wombs. They must have been close to hatching. That’s why she was here. She was meant to be the first meal for the latest batch of newborns. If that were the case, then she could only imagine the grisly scene that would unfold, being torn limb from limb and devoured by ravenous changeling spawn, picking her bones clean of flesh and blood.

Something fell to the ground. She picked up the sound of a small splat from nearby. A dollop of glowing, green goo had dripped to the floor and landed next to her, followed by another, and another. Then, a crack. A steady cracking sound resonated throughout the cavern and was soon accompanied by more and more.

They were hatching.

Winter was panicked. She was frozen in fear with nowhere to run, left to be dinner for these disgusting beasts.

The changeling spawn slowly began opening their soulless, bright blue eyes and began to crawl out of their cocoons. Sickening fluid splattered the floor as their pods were torn open. The larvae clung to the now empty sacs momentarily, flittering their tiny wings to dry them.

The deafening sound of buzzing changelings reverberated through the cavern. Winter made an effort to slowly back away, hoping that they wouldn’t see her.

A loud and abrupt snapping noise echoed through the cavern. Winter froze. Her rear hoof had come down on a small bone, breaking it in two. The room became disturbingly quiet. Hundreds of luminous, blue eyes were now suddenly on her. One changeling let go of its pod and fell a short distance before catching itself with its furiously beating wings. The rest followed suit. The constant drone of their wings physically hurt Winter’s ears.

Without warning, the larvae suddenly made a beeline straight for her, baring their sharp, tiny fangs. Winter braced herself for the excruciating pain of flesh being torn from bone, shutting her eyes tight. She could only hope her death came swiftly.

But the sound she heard was not that of teeth penetrating skin, but a soft thump. The odd noise made Winter open her eyes. The larvae were less than a meter away from her, but they kept their distance. Between herself and the swarm was a green barrier, preventing the spawn from getting to her. Several of the infants tried futilely to break through, bouncing off of it harmlessly. A few of them fell to the ground, having injured their frail, newborn bodies.

“Winter!”

Winter’s head spun around at the sound of the familiar voice. There, standing in an open tunnel just a few feet from the ground, his horn aglow with green magic, was a white-coated, blue-maned unicorn, the one she had come here searching for.

“Shade!”

Winter was elated. Never in her life had she been so happy to see him.

Another changeling rammed the barrier, causing a fine crack to appear.

“Hurry! My barrier can’t hold up much longer! Run!”

Heeding his words, Winter sprinted to his location. Having left the field of magical energy, the changeling swarm gave chase. Shade did his best to keep the barrier around the pegasus as she ran, barely saving her from a few infants that had gotten a little too close for comfort, but adding more cracks to the magical surface. Winter stopped just below the entrance Shade stood in. It was just above her head, she had missed it during her pass around the room.

“Here, grab on!” Shade extended a hoof down to her.

Winter chanced a glance behind her only to see the swarm of larvae mere inches away. Shade’s horn glowed furiously, expanding the shield over the both of them. The constant barrage of tackles caused the cracks to expand, creating a web of damage along its surface. She hurriedly reached up and grabbed his hoof, kicking her hind legs against the wall in a clumsy attempt to scale it. The unicorn pulled her up with all his might, but there was no time to rest.

With one final impact, the barrier shattered.

The pair began their escape, an army of hungry changelings on their tails. They ran through corridor after twisted corridor, Winter following Shade’s lead all the while. The further they got, the quieter the buzzing of wings became. Either they were losing them or they were steadily giving up.

Finally, a light came into view. The two ran outside and didn’t stop. The warm rays of the morning sun acted as a beacon of hope for Winter. She turned to look at the pony--no, the changeling next to her and smiled. She was so happy to see him again.

They were out and they were safe. Winter relished the feeling of fresh, dew-covered grass under her hooves. Both of them were exhausted. They sat down to catch their breath. Shade was the first to speak.

“Winter, what are doing h-”

She was cut off as the pegasus suddenly flung herself at him, wrapping her hooves around him and crying tears of joy and relief.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sooooooo sorry!” Winter bawled into his coat.

“Hey, take it easy there,” Shade said, smiling.

Winter pulled herself away from him, sniffing and wiping the tears from her eyes. “Can you ever forgive me?”

“For what?” Shade asked, confused. “I think I should be the one apologizing to you.”

“But you already did. I didn’t mean those things I said to you back in the Everfree Forest. I was just...shocked. I didn’t know how else to react.”

Shade lowered his gaze. “That’s exactly why I didn’t want anypony to find out. I knew that’s how they would react.”

“And I understand.”

Shade looked at her in disbelief. “You...do?”

“Yes.” She gave him a warm smile. “I don’t care that you’re a changeling, Shade. I remember all the things we did together and when you tried to remind me of those things, I could see the sincerity in your eyes. But...” Winter’s smile faded. “I came here because...I still have doubts. So, I need to hear you say it.”

“Say what?”

“I want you to look me straight in the eye and tell me that you love me.”

Shade placed his hooves on her shoulders. Their gazes met one another. She found it hard not to become entranced by his deep, emerald eyes.

“Winter. I love you. I always have and I always will.”

She felt her heart skip a beat. She could feel his emotion rolling over her body like a tidal wave. Winter leaned in and hugged him again.

“I love you too,” she sniffed. “I’m sorry I ever doubted you.”

Winter stared at her lover. Even if the face she was looking at wasn’t his real face, it was still the one she fell in love with. His soft smile and caring gaze told her for certain.

“I thought about what you said, Shade. About how two things that have no right being together can exist in perfect harmony.”

Winter reached a hoof to clasp the diamond around her neck. But all she felt was fur. She looked down to see that nothing was there.

“My necklace!”

“Your necklace?”

“The necklace you gave me! It’s gone!” Winter panicked, looking around frantically. “I-It must’ve fallen off at some point. When I fell after spraining my wing or when those changelings knocked me out or when I was running from the swarm...” She looked up at Shade with deep sadness in her eyes. “I-I lost it. I’m so sorry. That necklace was a symbol of our love and our relationship. How could I be so careless?!”

“Hey!” Shade grabbed her and halted her sobbing. “Nevermind that. It was just a piece of jewelry. Your life is more valuable than that. You’re safe, that’s all that matters.”

Winter sniffed. “You’re right. I still feel bad though.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Shade stood up, reaching his hoof out to prompt Winter to do the same. “Come on, let’s go home.”

She smiled at him, took his hoof and began the trek back home, walking beside him the whole time. As they walked, Winter looked at her partner curiously.

“Shade, how did you know I was in the Golden Glade?”

Shade stared blankly at her. “The what?”

“The Golden Glade. You know, where the changelings live.”

“Is that what ponies call it? We just call it the Changeling Kingdom.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, how did you know?”

“Simple really. I heard a couple of changelings talking about a pony that showed up there and I only knew one pony who would be stupid enough to come all the way out here.”

“Hey!” Winter playfully jabbed him in the shoulder.

“Anyway, they were going to eat it, but they were caught by one of Chrysalis’s guards.”

“Caught? Are you not allowed to eat ponies?” She wished she hadn’t made that question sound like it was directed at him.

“No, we are, but it was about time for some of the larvae to hatch, so there needed to be food readily available for the newborns. They’re pretty scary little things, even for us. They act purely on instinct, having no real free will or sentience until they mature. All they think about is food. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“If you ask me, I was in the wrong place at the right time. Otherwise, those three changelings would have eaten me and you wouldn’t have been able to save me.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he chuckled. “I’m just glad I found the right nursery. Even changelings can get lost in those caves sometimes.”

“I suppose Lady Luck was with me today then,” the pegasus laughed. Her smile vanished and she looked at him again with morbid curiosity. “Shade?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you show me?”

Shade tilted his head. “Show you what?”

“The real you. Your changeling form. I want to see it.”

Shade turned and faced forward, his expression adamant. “I can’t.”

“You can’t? Is something wrong with your magic?”

“Well, it’s not that I can’t, it’s that I won’t.”

She looked disappointed. “Why not?”

“Winter, the whole reason I left the Changeling Kingdom was because I was tired of what the changelings were and what they did. I don’t want to be associated with them anymore. I want to be around ponies, I want to live with ponies, I want to be a pony.” He looked at her with soft eyes. “I want to be with a pony. I know it’s asking a lot, but I’d like you to forget that I’m a changeling. That’s not who I am anymore.”

Winter stared at the grass. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you felt so strongly about it.”

Shade raised a sudden concern. “You didn’t...tell anypony, did you?”

She shook her head. “I was too grief-stricken and inconsolable to talk to anypony. Nopony even knows where I am right now.”

Shade breathed a sigh of relief. “Good.”

“I won’t tell anypony if you really don’t want me to. Your secret is safe with me.” She smiled sincerely at him.

“Thanks. I appreciate that. Maybe I’ll tell them someday, just not right now. I saw how you reacted. I can only imagine how the others would take it.”

“They won’t find out until you’re rea--ow!” Winter placed a hoof on her head and bent over in pain.

“Are you okay?” Shade asked, helping her keep her balance.

Winter slowly regained her composure. “Y-Yeah, my head hurts is all. I think those changelings must have knocked me out. But now that I think about, my wing’s not so good either.”

“We should get you home fast. You might have a concussion.” Shade bent down on his knees. “Here.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to carry you back. I don’t want you collapsing on the way home.”

Winter was hesitant at first, but knew that if she ended up passing out she would only become a burden to Shade. Reluctantly, she climbed onto his back. Once she was secured, Shade set off for Ponyville.

The pegasus took comfort in his care and concern for her well being. She snuggled into the back of his neck, letting his short, blue mane act as a pillow for her throbbing head.

“Shade?”

He turned to look at her with a warm smile. "Yeah?".

“Thanks for saving me.”

***** ***** *****

Ponyville. Winter was so glad to be home with Shade by her side. She had feared that she would have to return without him because of the emotional turmoil they had both gone through or even not return at all. Winter didn’t talk much on the way back. She was exhausted, injured and just happy to be with him again. She didn’t need to say anything.

When they got into town, Winter hopped off of Shade’s back, confident that she could make the rest of the trip herself. Of course, Shade protested, but she insisted until he gave in. Her wing was still limp and her head still throbbed. They were going to have to make another stop before they went home and Shade made sure to remind her every now and then no matter how much she said she was fine.

The pair of ponies noticed another pair headed their way; one with a very distinct, rainbow mane and the other with her signature stetson.

“Winter, there you are!” Rainbow Dash called out as she galloped to her co-worker. “I’ve been looking all over for-” The cyan pegasus finally took notice of the white unicorn. A scowl appeared on her face. “Oh, you’re back,” she said blandly.

Shade felt insulted by her tone. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t play dumb wi’t us, city slicker,” Applejack joined in “We know ya did somethin’ ta Winter. Somethin’ rotten. Now spill. Whaddya do to her?”

Winter pushed herself between the three ponies. “Wait a minute here, girls, calm down!”

“Don’t try and stick up for this slime ball. Whatever he did to make you cry like that, we’re gonna make sure he pays for it.” Rainbow Dash stomped her hoof and took a step forward.

“Look, it’s no big deal,” Winter explained. “Yes, something happened, but it’s behind us now. Everything’s resolved.”

We’ll be that judges o’ that.” Applejack tipped her hat forward. “What happened with you two?”

“Listen, no offense, but it’s not really any of your business, okay?” Winter turned to Shade. She could see a hint of worry on his face. “Shade apologized, I forgave him and everything’s fine.”

Applejack and Rainbow Dash looked at each, sharing glances of skepticism. The earth pony turned to Shade. “Fine. Jus’ make sure it don’t happen again, comprende? Ah got mah eye on you, buster.”

“Hold up.” Rainbow Dash stepped to Winter’s side. “What’s wrong with your wing?”

“Oh, I sprained it.” Winter tried to lift her wing, but found it still hurt to do so.

“Oh, I get it.” The cyan pegasus shot an angry glare at Shade. “This is what you did, huh!? She wouldn’t give in to your...’demands,’ so you had to get violent.”

“Are you insane?” Shade shot back. “Do you really think I would do something so despicable?”

“Honest, Rainbow, I hurt it when I was flying. Shade had nothing to do with--ow!”

“Wha’s wrong?” Applejack asked the pained pegasus.

“Ugh, my head hurts a little too. I must’ve hit it when I...uh...fell after spraining my wing.” Of course she had to lie. She couldn’t tell them what actually happened or they would find out about Shade’s secret. She wasn’t about to break her promise already.

“Speaking of which, we need to get going,” Shade interrupted. “Winter needs to get to the hospital. So if you would kindly step aside.”

The two disgruntled mares made a path for Shade and Winter begrudgingly. Right now they were more concerned about Winter’s health than trying to interrogate Shade.

“Shade.”

The unicorn turned to the farm pony.

“Don’t you dare hurt her again--physically or emotionally--or ya’ll’ll have me ta deal wit'.”

Shade set his sight back onto his path, trying not to pay any attention to Applejack’s threat. Once they were out of earshot, Winter spoke up.

“I’m sorry, Shade,” she said, lowering her head.

Shade cast a sideways glance. “For what?”

“They’re both suspicious now. They know something’s up. If they find out then it’ll be all my fault because Rainbow Dash saw me crying.”

“I don’t think we need to worry. As long as I keep up appearances and go about my daily life like normal, then there won’t be anything for them to suspect, right?”

Winter could see the steadfast look in his eyes. “You seem pretty confident about this.”

“I’ve made it a whole month, no reason I can’t keep going.” He gave her a reassuring smile which she happily returned, her worries alleviated.

***** ***** *****

Their trip to the hospital resulted in some perplexing information. On the one hoof, Winter was right; her wing was indeed sprained. The doctor wrapped her injured appendage and hung it in a sling, recommending--much to her dismay, but she knew it was coming--that she remain grounded for a few days. Pegasi never liked to be stripped of their flight, it was like taking away their freedom. They’d almost rather be thrown in an enclosed room for an extended period of time. At least then they would be able to stretch their wings. On the other hoof, however, was the news about her headaches. The doctor informed her that, while she did have a bump on her head, it was nothing serious. It shouldn’t have been bad enough to cause recurring headaches though. He recommended that she get some rest and, if the headaches persisted in the morning, make an appointment at the hospital for further diagnostics.

Even if she was a little worse for wear, Winter was just happy to be back home. She had spent the whole day traveling to the Golden Glade, being ambushed by changelings, getting chased by a swarm of hungry infants, walking--not flying--home and using her last few hours of daylight in the hospital. She was ready to pack it in.

At least things could finally get back to normal, even if she now lived with the knowledge that her boyfriend was a changeling. The thought actually made her want to laugh. She was dating a changeling. It wasn’t really a big deal since Shade wanted to be as pony-like as possible, but it was still bizarre in a funny way. And a little exotic. Sure, there were ponies out there who had been fooled or were being fooled by changelings, but she may have been the first pony to ever legitimately date one. That will certainly be a newsworthy story when Shade finally decides to let his secret out.

Shade pulled back the sheets on the bed, allowing Winter to hop up and make herself comfortable. She was a little giddy to know that, in her injured state, Shade may have to wait on her horn and hoof, not to mention getting a few days off from work. Maybe she was getting a little too enthusiastic. A sprained wing wasn’t really going to affect anything in her life other than her job, but she knew how caring Shade was and knew he’d want to do anything possible to ensure her comfort.

Winter rolled onto her right side. It disheartened her to know that she wouldn’t be able to snuggle with Shade from this side. The left side of the bed was where she usually slept with Shade on the right, but tonight, and for the next few days, she’ll have to sleep turned away from him. They could switch sides, but cuddling was probably not a good idea anyway. All Shade would have to do is wrap his hoof around her to squeeze her hurt wing, jostling her from a deep and pleasant slumber with a jolt of sharp pain. Separation was something she was going to have to tolerate. It would make the activity all the more enjoyable when the bandages finally came off. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say.

“You get cozy, Winter, I’ll be there in a sec.”

Winter nodded in acknowledgement. “Don’t take too long,” she smiled coyly.

Shade disappeared into the bathroom. The sound of running water reminded Winter of the rain she loved so much, though she may never think of it quite the same way again. It was during a storm that Chamella had shown up and attacked her. Would she try it again? No, not likely. Despite the fact that she was able to imprison Winter rather effortlessly, Chamella seemed like a rather meek changeling; she cowered when Shade had yelled at her. Some of the things he had said to her stuck in Winter’s mind. Did Shade really consider her to be like family? Did changelings have families? If his story about life in Las Pegasus that he made up was anywhere close to the truth, then the answer was probably no. Now she felt bad. The one good relationship that Shade had had as a changeling was now in complete ruin. Of course she had brought it on herself, but it was still sad. Winter could only imagine what Chamella was going through.

The sound of the tap water running began to fade from her ears. Winter’s eyelids started to fall and she let out a long yawn. After everything she had been through today, staying awake was proving to be a trial she couldn’t endure, especially considering that she had gotten hardly any sleep the previous night due to her crying.

Shade exited the bathroom to see a peacefully dozing pegasus huddled up under the bedsheets, snoring quietly. He took a moment to examine himself in the nearby mirror on Winter’s vanity, looking over his mane and brushing off his pristine, white coat. Winter moaned almost inaudibly and pulled the covers closer to herself. Shade watched her through her reflection in the mirror as she wriggled under the blankets.

She was completely oblivious. Shade chuckled inwardly to himself, a malicious grin forming on his lips.

“Sleep tight, my little love bug.

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