“Third: Prevent harm from befalling others. These are our tenets,” Kuno said coolly, before dropping her hoof.
A rustle and buzz of wings affirmed her proclamation.
“These are the tenets of our existence,” Kuno said, waving her hoof for effect. “They are not laws, but they are our beliefs. They are the rules that will make us a place in the pony society, and keep us there. Take them, memorise them, make them part of yourself. They are your life now.”
A rustle of wings answered her.
“Before I step down as your Queen… we need to talk about individuality,” Kuno said carefully, looking from one face, to the next. “I know that Chrysalis beat your individuality out of you to make you all better soldiers, but that is no longer acceptable. When I cease being Queen, I will sever the hive link. You will be forced to be individuals. For now… you will need to find an identifier! This can be anything you can think of. Something individual and unique. Like my collar,” Kuno said, holding a hoof up to her new collar with a thin smile. “This is what makes me, me. You will find something similar, and bring it back here.”
One of the changelings stepped forwards.
“Yes, Speaker?” Kuno asked.
“Excuse me, Q—Kuno, but how are we to acquire an ‘identifier’?”
Kuno raised an eyebrow. “By offering services in exchange for the item you desire. I’m sure you can work something out. This is your first test, my little changelings. You are to find something you want, and offer a means to get it. Remember the three rules. You cannot harm anypony to get these items. This is a trade. Offer to paint their home, offer to do jobs, ask them if there is anything you can do for them. Find a way. Succeed! Show me that you can live with ponies! Show me that you can work for your food!”
The sound of a hundred changelings all straightening and saluting at once echoed over the courtyard, and Kuno gave a thin-lipped smile.
Her changelings stood in front of her, nearly every single one of them holding collars. Red collars. With bells.
“This… I… No!” Kuno said, stamping the ground with a hoof.
Warden was in the background, rolling back and forth on the grass in quiet, hysterical laughter.
“Ugh… look! You’re supposed to be doing this to be individuals, not to be just like me!” Kuno whined, stamping her hoof and beginning to pace back and forth. “How did you get your collars?”
“We traded!” chimed several of the changelings as one.
“I traded an hour at the orchard collecting fruit so that the pet store owner would get a free lesson on lassoing,” one changeling said.
“I painted the interior walls!”
“I painted the exterior walls!”
“I built a new wall as part of an extension to the side.”
“I had sex with him!”
Kuno blanched. “What?”
“I had sex with him,” the changeling repeatedly.
“I did, too.”
“And me!” another changeling interjected.
Kuno grimaced. “Well, at least you know the quickest way to a pony’s heart.”
“The sternum?” Speaker asked blankly.
Kuno giggled darkly. “You all take after your queen. Speaker, is that you?”
“It is me,” Speaker said, nodding once.
Kuno looked her over, raising an eyebrow. “What’s that on your ear?”
“This?” Speaker asked, turning her head to show the gold ankh on her ear. “This is some ‘hermlogriff’. It means ‘life’. I thought it was fitting, seeing as we’re starting a new life.”
“You see? This is individuality!” Kuno said, pointing with a hoof at the gold ankh. “And as a reward… you get to choose your name first.”
The changeling blinked, scratching at her ear nervously. “I… Uh… What should I call myself?”
“That’s for you to decide,” Kuno said simply.
The changeling frowned slightly at that, brow furrowing. “Uh… uhm… Chitin. I like Chitin.”
“Very well, you will be henceforth known as ‘Chitin’,” Kuno said, waving her hoof with finality. “Welcome to Equestria, Chitin.”
The newly-christened changeling nodded, her wings giving an anxious buss. “What… what do I do now?”
“Whatever you want to do,” Kuno said, trying to sound reassuring. “Your future is your own.”
The changeling nodded, and then moved away.
Kuno’s eyes narrowed on her crowd of changeling, picking out one that had acquired a brooch of some kind. “You, with the brooch,” she spied someone with a black collar with silver studs… close enough. “And you, with the collar. Step forwards.”
The two changelings stepped forwards, standing side-by-side. “What would you two like to be called?”
Kuno gave a soft groan, leaning heavily against the dining room table, resting her chin on it.
“Exhausted?” Warden asked sympathetically.
“It’s just so… draining…” Kuno rasped, her voice a little breathy and hoarse from overuse. “That took so long. Sweet Celestia at the end there when Conifer wanted to name himself ‘twig’, I swear, I just wanted to look him in the eyes, smile, and say ‘that’s a perfect name!’ and let him keep that name!”
Warden snickered faintly at that. “Well, they can always change their names at a later date, right?”
“I’m hoping some of them will,” Kuno said, sounding slightly worried. “Some of the names they chose are pretty… lame.”
“None of us got to choose our names,” Warden said with a faint sigh. “Me, for example.”
“I chose mine,” Kuno said, tapping her chest proudly.
“And you chose ‘agony’. How very fitting,” Warden said, expression blank.
Kuno’s eyes narrowed slowly. “I was an emo teen.”
“I can tell,” Warden chuckled, leaning over to kiss her nose. “So, since they all have names now. What next?”
“Gotta find them some jobs,” Kuno said with a heavy sigh. “Until we can get the Consortium on its hooves, so to speak, they’re going to need income to keep us all going. They’ll need beds, chairs, a communal bathing place to be built somewhere on the grounds, as well as an actual clan hall where ponies can come and go to hire the services of changelings.”
“We probably need to talk to them all sometime too, about personal space,” Warden said with a wise nod. “I’ve noticed they’re very… unaware on that front.”
“How do you mean?” Kuno asked blankly.
“I walked past a room this morning where a male changeling was… err… admiring himself in the mirror with the door wide open,” Warden said, pursing his lips.
“Were you jealous?” Kuno asked with a soft giggle.
Warden’s expression darkened. “I don’t think I can win a measuring contest with someone that can change their size at will.”
Kuno giggled again, giving a faint smile. “That is very true. I’ve noticed that myself, though…”
“The lack of personal space awareness?” Warden asked.
Kuno shook her head. “No, after being given names, they sort of… chose a gender.”
“That’s normal, right?” Warden asked, confused.
Kuno shrugged helplessly. “I guess? When I was cut off from my old hive, I knew I was female. I preferred to imitate female ponies. But… before that, when I was under the influence of the hivemind, I didn’t care one way or the other. I just… was. It didn’t matter to me if I was a male or female that I was imitating. Now, if I try to imitate a male, it’s just… weird.”
“You changelings are weird,” Warden said with a smile, kissing her nose again.
“I know,” Kuno admitted, wrinkling her nose slightly and then nosing past him to chew at his neck with a faint sigh. “There’s so much to do…”
“You asked for the job,” Warden said, resting his chin against her shoulder.
Kuno nodded, stroking a hoof over one of his wings, making it twitch slightly. “I know, I know. I had just hoped it was more rousing speeches and eating grapes from the hooves of my adoring changelings than the whole… work, thing.”
Warden rolled his eyes. “Yeah, sure. You know you love having all these changelings dependant on you.”
“Celestia help me, I do,” Kuno admitted with a slight smile. “It feels good to help them.”
Warden opened his mouth to respond, but a changeling cut him off.
“My Queen, we have a visitor,” the changeling cut across. “It’s Princess Celestia.”
Kuno stiffened slightly, eyes widening. “What does she want?”
“She didn’t say,” the changeling said with a shake of their head. “She is waiting in front.”
Kuno gave an apprehensive sigh, rising to her hooves. “A queen’s work is never over, I guess.”
Kuno tapped a hoof nervously against the floor, before cautiously opening the front door. Princess Celestia was waiting patiently just to the side of the entrance, flanked by a pair of royal guards.
“Good afternoon, Kuno. May I enter?” Celestia asked warmly.
Kuno nodded nervously. “Yes, yes, come in.” She stepped backwards, opening the door, leaving it wide for the princess and her guard to enter.
The three ponies stepped inside, and Celestia turned towards Kuno again. “I have begun organizing a… kinda of job fair, for your changelings.”
“A… job fair?” Kuno asked, blinking once.
“A job fair,” Celestia repeated, smiling. “I trust this is not a problem?”
“It’s no problem, but… I don’t understand,” Kuno admitted, scratching the side of her head with a hoof.
Celestia nodded knowingly. “It is merely a place and time when ponies will come and showcase their careers to your changelings. So that your changelings may choose a career path that appeals to them.”
Kuno blinked once, and then gave a sigh of relief. “You have no idea how much that will help!”
“I thought it might,” Celestia said with a slightly smug smile. “I have also contracted a woodworker and two seamstresses to work pro-bono on building beds for your changelings, as long as they can provide the ponypower.”
Kuno gave a low groan of delight. “That… that’s amazing!” she said, bouncing eagerly in place. “This will solve so many problems! When is it?!”
Celestia smiled at Kuno’s exuberance. “Tomorrow morning, if you like.”
Kuno clapped her hooves together. “Perfect! I was wracking my brain trying to think of a way to keep them from becoming despondent without anything to do!”
“I am glad that it works for you,” Celestia said with a smile and a slight bow. “Would your front lawn suffice for the fair?”
Kuno blinked once at that, wings giving an anxious buzz. “Well… I don’t see why not.”
“Very good,” Celestia responded, making a motion with a hoof. “I must return and make the arrangements. Sunrise tomorrow, acceptable?”
Kuno nodded. “That’s perfect!”
Celestia smiled and bowed politely. “Until tomorrow, Kuno.”
Kuno frowned down at her hooves, wings buzzing anxiously. “Can you talk me out of this?”
Warden shook his head firmly. “It was your idea, and I agree.”
“I know they need it gone for their mental well-being and to be individuals, but… it still feels weird,” Kuno admitted, frowning deeper and shuffling back and forth. “Can I just make this decision for them?”
“Yes, you can,” Warden said, waving a hoof firmly. “You are their queen. And if you don’t do this, they’re going to be needing a queen for the rest of their lives.”
“Fine, fine,” Kuno sulked. She scratched at the dirt for a long moment, inhaling deeply, and then slowly exhaling. “I still can’t believe I’m doing this… This goes against everything a changeling knows.”
“It’s time to step into the unknown then,” Warden said with a faint smile.
Kuno nodded. Her new, longer spire of a horn lit up with green magic, pulsing with energy. She tossed her head back, and a vibrant series of green ‘threads’ lit up in the air, before seeming to shatter.
“...That was it?” Warden asked blankly.
“That was it,” Kuno said forlornly. “The hivemind has been terminated.”
Kuno nervously stepped back and forth, while the bell in the square tolled over and over again, summoning her changelings to the square. It was much less orderly this time. There was much less cohesion to their movements, and instead of lining up perfectly, they just stood and lounged around the courtyard in a haphazard mass. There was no more military precision, but it seemed somehow… more intimate, a grouping of individuals, rather than a neat procession of units.
Kuno tapped the ground with her hoof. “Attention!”
The sudden silence was almost deafening. Kuno hadn’t even realised that the changelings had been conversing amongst themselves, just like ponies would, but without said hubbub in the background, the silence was quite loud.
Kuno looked towards Celestia, and the princess nodded.
Kuno cleared her throat. “Princess Celestia has organized a…” she paused a moment, chewing on her tongue. “A job fair. Out in the front of the estate, employers of various types have gathered so that you can query them and decide for yourselves what area of the workforce you would enjoy most.”
The changelings gave a confused buzz of whispers and exchanged words at that.
“You need not choose this morning, or today...” Kuno said quickly, trying to calm some of the anxiousness she felt rising from the crowd. “But it would be wise to weigh your options. The Consortium will go nowhere without funds, and we can only tolerate so many free agents. Just as with ponies, if you do not work, you cannot live in luxury.”
Kuno watched the crowd carefully, to see how it was all being taken in. She didn’t want to foist on them the realities of the world so quickly, but it was fast becoming unavoidable.
Celestia stepped forwards, and Kuno quickly stepped back, grateful for the reprieve.
“Equestria is committed to welcoming our new members to the fold. To that end, I have struck a… deal of sorts with the woodworkers and clothmakers of Canterlot. We have the raw materials, and now we just need volunteers to complete the work on a furnished bed piece for each and every changeling here.”
Kuno stepped forwards again. “We’re going to need twenty volunteers for wookworking, and ten more for the seammaking. You will be learning a trade, and proving that changelings can work alongside ponies. If you are willing to volunteer for the woodworking, please, come form a line at the front of the courtyard.”
Kuno could feel every beat of her heart as she waited for the changelings to respond.
Thankfully enough, the changeling formerly known as ‘Speaker’, now ‘Chitin’, was the first to take the initiate, moving to stand at the front of the courtyard. And very quickly in her wake came dozens more, forming a polite, but disorderly queue.
Kuno breathed a sigh of releif.
“I see we won’t be short of volunteers,” Celestia said with a warm smile. And Kuno was certain she heard a note of satisfaction in the princess’s tone.
Kuno gave a low groan, not even bothering sitting at the table and just dropping bodily onto the carpet and sprawling.
“Rough time?” Warden asked, looking down at his wife.
Kuno opened a single eye to peer up at him, upside-down. “Urgh.”
“It looks pretty busy out there,” Warden admitted with a faint smile. Out the window, the front lawn of the estate was awash with hundreds of ponies, all showing their careers, hoping to tempt a changeling to come and join them. “It seems to be going well, though.”
“I’m just glad the local ‘pleasure mares’ haven’t gotten in their mind to come over,” Kuno admitted with a long sigh.
“They know that changelings would put them out of business in the first week,” Warden said with a wise nod.
Kuno snuffed a giggle. “That they would.”
“How many have… you know, actually found a job?” Warden queried.
Kuno made a noncommittal sound. “At least a dozen have tentative positions in various places. The petshop owner was very eager to have a changeling working under him.”
“I can imagine,” Warden said dryly.
Kuno gave a long sigh. “I have to sit down and have ‘the talk’ with them. It’s like they’re teenages. A hundred crazy, love-starved teenagers who will screw anything that moves and push anything that doesn’t.”
“Sounds like you,” Warden teased.
Kuno’s eyes flashed angrily. “This is serious, Warden. If I don’t curb this behavior quickly, then that will be what changelings are known for.”
“There are worse things to be known for,” Warden said with a wise nod.
Kuno blanched. “Did you… did you really just say that?” she asked, staring up at him. “Are you one of my changelings come to subvert my wishes?”
“No, I’m me,” Warden said with a faint smile. “Just… you want changelings and ponies to be more friendly… there are worse ways to go about it.”
Kuno sighed, rubbing her face with a hoof. “Ponies are such prudes though. The stuffy upper crust ponies would cause problems if we dared to garner such a reputation.”
“They’d badmouth you all while secretly wanting some changeling booty themselves,” Warden said with a playful grin.
Kuno nodded. “But of course. It wouldn’t stop them from getting all self-righteous about it.”
“Well teach them to be discreet,” Warden corrected. “And teach them to use it for their own gains.”
“You’re telling me to teach them to use sex to attain their goals? That’s a dangerous path, Warden,” Kuno said bluntly.
Warden nodded, sitting down and beginning to brush at his wing with a hoof. “I know, but… you’re not going to be able to stop them, are you?”
“Not in a million years,” Kuno said with a shake of her head. “Changelings will do whatever they want to do.”
“Well, just make sure they’re not being taken advantage of… and teach them about love,” Warden said with a firm nod. “Fooling around is part of every teenagers life, or at least, it’s supposed to be. And… they’re acting a lot like teenagers.”
“They’re so naive,” Kuno groaned, pushing her face into her hooves. “They don’t understand the value of sex yet. They don’t understand the emotional bond it forms whether you want it to or not. Not to mention most ponies can’t differentiate between love and lust.”
“It’s going to cause a lot of problems,” Warden said with a wise nod. “But I think… I think that telling them that it’s a bad thing, or to keep in reserve for that ‘special somepony’, or whatever, will damage them more than help them. Especially since they’re all going to need love to live on…”
“You are absolutely correct,” Kuno said with a long sigh. “Even though it feels… kind of weird to even think of.”
“I had a decent amount of time to think it over,” Warden said. His expression turned sly, “Plus, I totally saw two of you making out this morning and that might have prodded me in one direction or another.”
Kuno blinked once. “You… saw two changelings kissing?”
“Well… yeah,” Warden admitted, rubbing a hoof through his mane. “And I just insinuated that I fantasized it was two of you. Naughty comeback? Nothing?”
“Bizarre,” Kuno reaffirmed. “That’s… never been done before. Not that I know of. It’s also dangerous.”
“Dangerous how?” Warden asked.
Kuno made a circular motion with a hoof. “It’s a closed system of love. There’s no new love being generated. It’s like… using one crystal to charge another crystal and then charging the first crystal with the second crystal, and then repeating that over and over again. There’s no extra energy going in to the system.”
“I just saw them making out, I didn’t say they were in love,” Warden said, giving a helpless flutter of his wings. “They might have just been practising.”
“No… the fact that they were even thinking of doing that together…” Kuno trailed off, frowning deeply. “There are… a lot of things I need to talk to my changelings about.”
“A whole lot,” Warden said with a weary smile. “You want a cup of tea?”
“With about twelve sugars in it, please,” Kuno said, raising a hoof in confirmation.
Warden nodded, heading for the door, banging his hoof against a chair on the way out and hissing in pain. “Stupid bucking chairs. Teach your changelings to push the chairs in when they’re done with them, too!”
Kuno waved a hoof noncommittally.
Warden returned to the kitchen with a pair of cups, one for him, and one for Kuno. He placed his cup on the table, and then sat Kuno’s down next to her on the floor. She still hadn’t moved. She was staring up at the ceiling, frowning thoughtfully.
“Something on your mind?” Warden asked.
Kuno opened her mouth to respond, but before she could, Swarm came wandering into the dining room, rubbing at her head firmly. “Mooom.”
“Yes dear?” Kuno asked, shifting into a half-seated position, supporting herself on a hoof.
“It’s too quiet,” Swarm said, rubbing a hoof anxiously through her mane. “I think I’m going deaf!”
“Quiet?” Kuno asked, perplexed, ears perking. “Whatever do you mean?”
“It’s too quiet!” Swarm huffed, stamping a hoof. “The silence is… really loud!”
Kuno gave a bewildered stare. “Well… we’ll schedule you a doctor’s appointment, okay?”
Swarm nodded emphatically. “Good!” she said, moving over to the cookie jar, taking off the top and fishing around inside for a cookie. She came up with a chocolate chip cookie, and then replaced the lid before leaving as abruptly as she had arrived.
“That happened,” Warden said, blinking once.
Kuno rounded on him, rising to her hooves and advancing on him.
Warden gave her a wary glance. “What are you doing?”
“This,” Kuno said, and punched him, hard, in the shoulder.
“Ow!” Warden said, recoiling, lifting a hoof to fend her off.
Kuno giggled, and hit him again, just as hard.
“Ow!” Warden hissed, teeth baring.
Kuno went to hit again, but Warden blocked it entirely this time, scowling. She lifted her hoof, moving for his other shoulder, and the moment he changed his stance, she hit him again, right over the same spot.
Warden recoiled, limping back a step and baring his teeth. “Always in the same bloody spot!” he growled, whining faintly. “Stop hitting me!”
“Why?” Kuno asked simply, hoof raised.
“Because it hu—” Warden paused, mouth open, stopping mid-word.
Kuno lowered her hoof, arching a brow with a smile that showed off each one of her fangs. “What now, Warden? It… what?”
“It… hurts…” Warden said, dumbfounded. He pinched his free hoof, eyes wide, wings giving a slow flex. “I can… I can feel things…”
“You stubbed your hoof on the way out of the room,” Kuno said smugly. “And when I thought back really hard, I remember that you yelped when one of my changelings touched you by accident the other night…”
“This is a problem,” Warden said, his expression turning grim. “The aurora must be stopping… it must not be working as well on me. I must be building a resistance to it… shocker there…”
“But you felt that,” Kuno said earnestly. “You’re not in pain, are you?”
Warden arched a brow, still holding his shoulder.
Kuno giggled, shaking her head. “Other than the shoulder. You’re not in pain?”
Warden gave a shrug. “Not any more than usual?”
Kuno’s eyes narrowed slowly, and a wide smile spread across her muzzle. “Me. You. The bath in the basement. Now.”
Warden’s eyes widened a little bit, and he looked back and forth. “Nopony is go—”
Kuno laid a hoof over his mouth, eyes narrowing. “Now. No arguments!”
Warden gave a tired groan, splaying out heavily against the edge of the tub. Kuno was sprawled over his front, a thoroughly satisfied, wet, shiny black lump of changeling flesh.
“I forgot how much I needed that,” Warden murmured, lifting a hoof to slowly stroke down one of her shiny wings.
Kuno gave a tired, breathy giggle, nodding earnestly against his neck. “I’ve been waiting so long for that!”
“And it didn’t even require any drugs!” Warden said with a faint laugh, curling around slightly to kiss her nose. “I really do need to see the doctors though… once I become more resistant to aurora… I’ll be back to being in constant pain… I’m already at three times the dosage a normal pony would need...”
Kuno gave a sad nod, nosing lightly into his neck. “I know, I know… But I wanted to enjoy at least one evening with my husband before you go back to being a sickly wreck.”
“Hey, you brought me back from the dead,” Warden reminded with a smile. “‘In sickness and in health’ is a real bitch, isn’t it?”
Kuno gave a nod, leaning up to kiss him warmly. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, though…”
Warden gave a happy sigh, squeezing his wife firmly. “I’m glad we got to spend some ‘quality’ time together, though.”
“Yes, it was good,” Kuno purred, lipping at his neck lightly. “So… when are you going to have the ‘talk’ with your daughter? About colts?”
“In about two decades,” Warden said instantly.
Kuno giggled faintly, nosing at his neck. “Good, at least I know it really is you in there. All that talk about allowing changelings to fool around with ponies… I was beginning to think you were an imposter.”
“Changelings fooling around with ponies is basically why we’re here,” Warden said with a sweeping motion of a hoof. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“And you had better not. I’ve had a lot of time to think up creative punishments,” Kuno purred, kissing him again.
Kuno grumbled something incoherent.
Warden stirred beside her, lifting his head. “What’s happening?”
A changeling, flanked by two royal guards, stood in their bedroom.
“What happened?” Kuno asked wearily, looking up towards the changeling and the royal guards. “What mess do I have to clean up now?”
One of the royal guards pursed his lips, and took a short step forwards. “I suggest you rouse your house, Miss Kuno. There’s been a murder on your estate.”
Kuno’s voice echoed dully from somewhere far away. A peculiar ringing in his ears was drowning out his wife’s voice.
“Warden?” Kuno asked anxiously, dancing on her hooves, biting her bottom lip. “Warden, talk to me.”
Warden took a step back from the body, feeling bile rising in his throat. “I-Im fine…” he mumbled, almost incoherent.
“Warden, you’re not fine,” Kuno insisted, wrapping her hooves around him and pulling him close against her.
Warden stared out from the protection of her hooves with one wide eye, gaze fixed on the lifeless body laying to the side of the path.
Splashes of red coated the grass and the flagstones, and Warden knew instinctively that they were from arterial spray. Some cold, detached part of his mind drank in all the grisly details. He could even see the severed carotid in the slashed throat. It was a neat cut, made by a knife of some kind.
A hundred changelings lurked in the background, standing on the hedges and peering around corners, watching the spectacle with bemused expressions, not quite sure how to react. The royal guard were already present, standing stiffly at attention, spears held loosely in hooves but most definitely ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“Warden, talk to me,” Kuno said urgently.
Warden shifted focus, wheeling dizzily in place for a moment before staring up at his wife. “I’m fine,” he repeated woodenly.
Kuno was frowning. She didn’t beleive him.
“I’m fine,” Warden repeated, blinking once. “I need to… need to breathe,” he explained, pushing away from her, ignoring the clinging hooves trying to tug him back. He staggered a few steps away behind a hedge and then threw up violently.
Kuno watched him, biting her bottom lip, and then turning back to the crowd that had gathered. There were even several ponies present that were neither part of the Consortium nor the royal guard. They had stayed the night after the party, likely ‘with’ changelings.
“Who did this?” Kuno asked flatly.
The soft hum of anxious conversation died out immediately.
“If any of you did this, step forwards now. Your Queen orders it,” Kuno said, stamping her hoof against the flagstone with a resounding crack.
None stepped forward.
“Did anyone see anything?” Kuno asked, sounding slightly more desperate now. “Someone must know something. There’s a hundred of you!”
“I cannot speak for all, but I was was… otherwise indisposed,” one of the changelings said, giving a significant glance towards a large stallion lurking in the back of the crowd.
Kuno gave a long sigh, rubbing her nose with a hoof. “One day. ONE DAY! One fucking day and somepony is murdered!” she hissed, pointing a hoof at the body. “This will not go unsolved! And if one of you are lying about this, I will personally strangle the life from you.”
A soft, anxious buzz of wings answered her.
“Miss Kuno, we’re going to have to lock down the estate. Nopony will be allowed in or out,” a senior guard explained. “There are too many possible murderers here.”
“Nobody is going anywhere,” Kuno growled, watching the crowd with narrowed eyes.
“We will establish a perimeter, and begin questioning suspects. You will be called upon to testify at some point. It’s standard procedure. You understand?” the senior guard asked carefully.
“Yes, I understand,” Kuno said, glancing towards the body. She bit her bottom lip again, her expression softening slightly, wings giving a slow buzz of agitation. “Who... who is going to tell her son? Her husband?”
“The guard will send someone,” the senior guardspony explained. “Was she a friend of the family?”
“Of a sorts…” Kuno said quietly, staring down at her hooves. She looked up after a few moments, rowning. “I can vouch for Warden’s whereabouts last night. And to that end… I want you to let him tell her family. I think he’ll want to tell them himself…”
“I’ll see what happens,” the guardspony said, pursing his lips. “It would be very much outside normal procedure.”
“Ask Celestia, if you have to,” Kuno said quietly, looking back over her shoulder. “I need to find my husband. Do not disturb me unless it is urgent.”
“Yes, Miss Kuno,” the gard said smartly, saluting.
“Warden?” Kuno asked gently, touching at one of his wings lightly.
Warden started at the touch to his wing, looking back over his shoulder with wide eyes. “I threw up.”
“I know,” Kuno said gently, frowning. “I can’t… pretend to know what you’re going through. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m fine,” Warden repeated stiffly.
“No, no you’re not,” Kuno stressed, her ears splaying back anxiously. “You keep saying that but anyone with a brain can see that you’re… off.”
“I’m fine. It’s just weird is all,” Warden said with a dismissive wave of a hoof. “Here one moment. Gone the next. Just like that.”
“Warden…” Kuno said gently, her wings buzzing.
“I died. But I came back. So it doesn’t really count,” Warden said with another motion of a hoof. “It’s all so weird.”
“Someone needs to tell her husband… and her son,” Kuno said quietly. “Warden, I want you to do it.”
“Oh hi, your mother is dead. Good day ol’ chap,” Warden said in a strangely high-pitched voice. “How do you even put that into words?”
“I don’t know,” Kuno admitted, frowning deeply, and then gently squeezing his side with a hoof. “But I can’t help you through this. I wouldn’t know how. So go. Tell them.”
“Your reasoning makes no sense but I don’t know enough to contradict you,” Warden admitted, rising to his hooves and scratching at an ear distractedly. “I’ll be back for breakfast.”
Without another word, Warden took several bounding steps forwards and launched shakily into the air, winging towards the far end of Canterlot.
Kuno frowned down at her hooves, scratching at the grass for a moment. “Chitin?”
The changeling lurking in the shadows started in surprise, but stepped forwards carefully. “Yes, my Q… Kuno?”
“Follow him. Make sure he comes back safe,” Kuno said softly.
“Yes, Kuno,” Chitin said, bowing quickly before turning on her hooves and launching after the pegasus.
Warden paused outside the front door of the building, hoof lifted to knock. There was already rustles of movement inside, as the two ponies got ready for the day ahead, not even knowing that in a matter of moments they would never be the same again.
“Is mom at the farm again?” Mint Green asked.
“She must be,” Stunning Facet responded.
Warden heard the clink of bowls being set up for breakfast, and the whistling of a kettle.
“She’s never here in the mornings,” Mint Green said, pouting.
“Well, she is helping to grow that plant,” Stunning Facet said, a smile in his voice. “But I’ll make sure she’s here for tomorrow’s breakfast, okay? We’ll have pancakes.”
“Pancakes are good,” Mint Green said noncommittally.
Warden’s hoof dropped, and he swallowed thickly, his vision blurring slightly.
They were talking about school now. Mundane, everyday things. They didn’t even know, couldn’t even suspect what had happened. They were completely normal, right up until the point Warden would walk in and ruin their morning and the rest of their mornings thereafter.
Warden swallowed thickly, lifting his hoof to knock again, feeling his entire body going slightly numb. It was more of a scrape than a knock, a slide of his hoof down the front of the door.
“Hello?” Stunning Facet called. “Someone there?”
Warden opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out.
After a few moments, the door opened, and Stunning Facet poked his head out.
“Oh, hey, Warden. What’s the problem? You’re not going to be keeping Green Hoof later than usual, are you?” he asked, utterly mundanely.
Warden stared up at him, his expression falling. He could just see Mint Green in the background, looking over curiously.
“Warden? What’s the matter?” Stunning Facet asked, his expression turning serious. “Warden?”
Warden shook his head, finding his tongue with some difficulty. “P-private.”
Stunning Facet frowned deeply. “Minty, wait there,” he said, stepping out the front door and closing it behind him. “Now. Spill it out.”
Warden stared up at him, his wings giving an agitated flick, hoof digging at the ground slowly. “Green Hoof… she…”
Warden tried to hold it together, biting his tongue for a moment. He could feel hot tears spilling down his cheeks as he placed a reassuring hoof on Stunning Facet’s shoulder. “S… s-she’s dead.”
Stunning Facet’s eyes widened slightly, and his expression fell. He stared at the ground for several long moments, his entire form seeming to droop and darken. “How?”
“Murdered,” Warden managed to rasp, shaking his head and then covering his face with a wing, trying to wipe away his tears. He was almost sobbing when he lowered his wing. “D-do you… do you want me to tell him?” He made a vague motion towards the house.
“N-no,” Stunning Facet said, his voice cracking slightly. “I’ll do it.”
With no further words, he rose to his hooves and returned inside, closing the door after himself.
Warden heard a muffled conversation from within, and then, with tones of disbelief. “So she’s not going to be here for pancakes tomorrow?”
Warden turned away, biting his tongue so hard he felt blood, before rising to his hooves and galloping away, leaving nothing behind but a trail of tears.
“Warden?” Kuno asked.
“I’m here,” Warden said, turning the spear over and over in his hooves, squeezing along the reassuring wooden shaft, staring at the now-covered body of Green Hoof. A white sheet had been placed over her body.
“You’re… you’re still acting strange,” Kuno said warily, ears pinning back. “Are you okay?”
“He doesn’t understand,” Warden said simply.
“Stunning Facet?” Kuno asked, confused.
Warden shook his head. “Mint Green. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t get it. He’s not old enough to understand that she’s never coming back. How do you even try to make a foal understand that his life will never be the same again?”
“You can’t,” Kuno said, shaking her head gently.
“Exactly,” Warden said, growling, twisting the spear again. “But whoever did this… for whatever stupid, pathetic reason. They took that foal’s life away. His life will never be the same again. And I’m going to kill them.”
“Warden?” Kuno asked warily. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m just a little bit absolutely blindingly angry,” Warden said airily. His hooves flexed on the shaft of the spear. “I’m going to strangle them. I’m going to remove their heart and make them watch me crush it with the butt of a spear. I’m going to do terrible, unspeakable things to them.”
“You don’t sound okay,” Kuno said anxiously, dancing from hoof to hoof.
“I’m not okay,” Warden said calmly. “And neither is Mint Green. Or Stunning Facet. They’re never going to be okay again. And Green Hoof sure as tartarus won’t ever be okay again. And whoever did this won’t be, either.” He hummed thoughtfully, testing the tip of the spear with his hoof.
“Warden… I think you need to put the spear down,” Kuno said gently.
Warden gave her a piercing, completely sober stare. “No. You’re going to find out who did this. Changeling, pony, I don’t care who did it. I don’t care if Celestia herself came down from the sky and did this. You find out who did this, and you tell me. And then I’m going to kill them.”
“Warden…” Kuno said, shaking her head. She stepped closer, and gently took the spear from him, laying it against the hedge and then gathering the pegasus into a warm hug. She squeezed around his middle, nuzzling into his neck soothingly.
Warden growled faintly, pushing against her, baring his teeth angrily and then just sagging against her weakly. “I’m going to kill them…” he sobbed raggedly. “I’m going to fucking kill them…”
Kuno shook her head, squeezing soothingly around her husband. “I’ll find out who did this. I promise.”
Kuno sighed, putting down her quill and then rubbing a hoof against her forehead slowly. Her wings were drooping almost as much as her eyes, and dusk was just starting to fall outside.
A ledger filled with the names of various changelings and their identifying marks sat in a state of progress in front of her. A thick sheaf of papers with hastily-scribbled and unordered information sat to the left of it, waiting for her attention. She was trying her very best to get everything sorted out before the investigator arrived, but there was just too much to do and not enough time.
“Miss Kuno?” a changeling with a small shield pendant around his neck spoke from the doorway.
“Yes?” Kuno asked wearily.
“The investigator is here,” the changeling said stiffly.
“Show him in,” Kuno said, heaving a tired smile.
The changeling guard nodded once, and then withdrew. There was a wait of a minute or two, and then the investigator stepped through the doorway.
Kuno looked him up and down once, taking in his appearance. Rather than a pony, he was a batpony, a little bit smaller than most stallions. A pair of dark circular glasses rested on the end of his nose, and his mane was done up in a spiky style reminiscent of the Wonderbolts. He looked like a businesspony had been caught at a punk concert and dressed up against his will.
“Good evening, I’m Kuno,” Kuno said, resting her chin on the edge of the desk.
“I am Spectre,” the batpony said with a slight incline of his head. He hefted a saddlepack with a hoof, arching an eyebrow. “You have the information I need?”
“Kind of,” Kuno said with a weak smile. “I’m still trying to get it all written down in a neat… format. But I haven’t had enough time to finish it,” she said, making a motion towards the ledger and the sheaf of papers.
“I see,” Spectre said, pushing his glasses up a little higher on his nose. “Where can I set up?”
“I’ve set aside this entire room for your use and made it off-limits to my changelings,” Kuno explained, making a motion with a hoof. “So just pick a spot.”
“Are you going to personally help me with the investigation?” Spectre asked dubiously.
Kuno shook her head, giving a sigh of relief. “No, no. Chitin will help you.”
“A changeling?” Spectre asked, his tone a little short.
Kuno frowned slightly. “Yes, a changeling. She has an alibi.”
“Your kind can have an alibi for anything with anypony,” Spectre stated bluntly.
Kuno rolled her eyes and gave a long-suffering sigh. “She was busy screwing a carpenter. You can’t have a changeling fake that kind of alibi.”
Spectre frowned deeply, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I will need to verify the story with this carpenter… and his immediate family.”
Another long sigh left the new Changeling Queen. “Very well, I understand. I asked her to be here. She shouldn’t be long. I will send for her…”
“Partner?” Spectre offered, arching an eyebrow.
“Partner,” Kuno said with a firm nod. “Every other word I thought of weren’t appropriate for polite conversation.”
“Very well, I will await… her?” Spectre said carefully.
“She identifies as female, yes,” Kuno assured, lifting herself tiredly to her hooves. “I am going to go collapse into bed. If you need help, just scream. Somepony will come running.”
“How utterly reassuring,” Spectre said dryly, while Kuno staggered past him towards the door.
Warden rolled over when he heard the door open, ears perking upwards slowly.
Kuno staggered towards the bed, collapsing onto it next to her husband.
Warden bounced a little bit with the weight of the Changeling Queen landing on the springs next to him, wings flaring in reflex. “What’s happening?” he asked, far more subdued than usual.
“Tired,” Kuno muttered, sprawling out flat on her stomach.
Warden nodded, crawling up underneath one of her large, translucent wings, nuzzling up against her side and nestling there warmly. “Are you relegating the investigation?”
“Chitin and Spectre...” Kuno muttered, trailing off with a mumbled something as she dozed off.
Warden nodded gently, stroking a hoof soothingly up and over her wings, kneading carefully between the base of them. “Just sleep, Kuno. I’ll make sure nobody bothers you.”
Kuno gave a noncommittal sound.
Kuno stirred faintly, giving a low groan. “Go away.”
“I can’t, Miss Kuno. You have a visitor,” the changeling insisted, slightly anxiously.
Kuno gave a soft whine. “Go awaaay…”
“Miss Kuno, she seemed impat—”
“I’ll just show myself in,” Celestia stated calmly from the doorway.
Kuno groaned, lifting her head, heavy eyelids barely opening. “I’m too tired for this bullshit.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to wake up,” Celestia retorted bluntly. “We must discuss the details of this murder and the consequences.”
“You already sent Spectre over,” Kuno argued, a whine obvious in her tone.
Celestia nodded gently. “That is for the investigation. This is about the ramifications of the event itself.”
“Can you come back later?” Kuno asked plaintively.
“Are you really going to blow off the Princess of Equestria?” Celestia asked delicately.
“I’m trying to!” Kuno whimpered, almost sounding like she wanted to cry. “Why can’t I just sleep?”
“A Queen’s duties are never done,” Celestia said calmly. “I will have some coffee brewed for us. Meet us in the conference room when you’re ready.”
Kuno whined faintly, waving a hoof in the air in hazy affirmation.
“You, where’s Warden?” Kuno asked, scowling.
“In the secondary conference room, bothering Chiting and Spectre,” the changeling said, stiffening to attention.
Kuno grumbled. “Go get him. Bring him to the conference room. Drag him in by the ear, preferably.”
Kuno pushed the double doors open, finding a veritable explosion of colour waiting for her. After the dark blues and blacks of the changelings, regular ponies were a riot of flamboyance.
Each element bearer was seated around the table, with Celestia at the head, all flanked by four royal guards.
Rainbow Dash and Rarity were quietly discussing something, eating from a plate of cookies. Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie were on the other side of Celestia, whispering among themselves, while Twilight Sparkle in her demi-alicorn status was seated next to Celestia, sitting at stiff attention, waiting.
“Please, sit down,” Celestia said, motioning towards an empty seat.
Kuno grumbled at that, drawing herself up onto the chair, very aware of all seen pairs of eyes on her.
“Brought extra security?” Kuno asked bluntly, placing her forehooves on the table.
“Bringing the bearers of the Elements of Harmony was… merely prudence,” Celestia said carefully. She turned to the ponies. “Would one of you please pour our guest a drink.”
Fluttershy and Rarity both recoiled at the suggestion, but Rainbow Dash puffed up her chest. She picked up a kettle from the middle of the table, carrying it over to Kuno and pouring a measure of coffee out into it.
Kuno arched an eyebrow slowly.
Rainbow Dash stared at her for a moment, before withdrawing quickly to the other side of the table again, setting down the kettle triumphantly.
“Now, we need to discuss your changelings,” Celestia stated carefully.
Kuo sighed, hanging her head. “What specifically about them?”
“I have to insist on your changelings being subjected to confinement to the estate until the investigation is over,” Celestia said candidly.
Kuno tilted her head to the side, confused. “I thought that was already a thing.”
“For the duration of the initial questioning and investigation,” Celestia explained.
“And you want to expand that period of confinement until... when?” Kuno asked, an edge entering her tone.
“Until the investigation is over,” Celestia said carefully.
“You mean, when the killer is caught?” Kuno asked dangerously.
Celestia nodded gently. “Yes.”
“That is so bucking vague!” Kuno growled, slamming her hooves on the table, making the cups and plates rattle. Fluttershy squeaked and hid behind her chair.
Kuno growled faintly. “So you want me to confine my changeling to the estate for an indeterminate amount of time dependent entirely on your investigation finding and catching a killer that we have no idea what species the killer even is?!”
Celestia frowned. “Well, when you say it like that…”
“You mean when I say it truthfully?!” Kuno almost snarled. “I became the Queen of this hive so that I could keep them from falling into the same traps of the past. If you imprison us here, then it’s exactly the same as it was before! Why don’t you just put up a sign up at the front gate and charge entry to see the changeling zoo?”
“That is hardly what I meant,” Celestia scoffed. “Your kind can change at will. Catching the killer will be impossible if they are allowed to escape the estate and move at will.”
“Oh, so you’re just assuming that it was a changeling?” Kuno asked, incensed.
Celestia arched an eyebrow slowly.
Kuno growled, her wings giving an irritated flutter, before laying back flat against her side. “Understandable, I guess.”
“If it was a changeling, and I believe it was, there will be no way to track them down should we find evidence,” Celestia said with a sigh and a shake of her head “And if the victim truly was your friend, you will want to find the killer most of all.”
“I do…” Kuno said quietly. “But I can’t… I can’t ruin the future of my entire race in an attempt to find one killer.”
“Are you saying we should ignore what happened?” Celestia asked candidly.
Kuno growled. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Then what do you mean?” Celestia pressed. “Because it sounds like you want to give a free pass to the killer.”
Kuno growled, slamming her hoof on the table again. “Would you subject every pony in Ponyville to house arrest because somepony got murdered?”
Celestia frowned. “Of course not. But ponies do not have the ability to turn into other ponies.”
“You can’t condemn my entire race based on what we can do!” Kuno growled, slamming the tale with a hoof again.
Everyone in the room froze as a voice came from the other side of the door.
“Ow ow ow ow OW! STOP!” Warden whimpered.
A changeling backed into the room, tugging Warden after him with a firm grip of teeth on the pegasus’ ear.
“The comedic relief is here!” Pinkie Pie squeaked enthusiastically.
Kuno turned, giving a long-suffering sigh. “I didn’t mean literally by his ear.”
The changeling paused, blinking once, and then relinquishing Warden’s ears, giving a sheepish smile. “Uh… Just following orders.”
“He just about ripped it off!” Warden protested, rubbing at his ear with a hoof and whining faintly.
Celestia arched an eyebrow.
Kuno sighed, turning back to the princess. “I cannot allow you to condemn my entire race for the actions of one or two. I will not allow this precedent to be set.”
Warden looked back and forth between Queen and Princess, and then his eyes wandered over to Applejack. He frowned for a moment.
Applejack looked back at him, a flash of recognition passing over her features.
They both pointedly looked elsewhere.
Celestia frowned deeply. “I see where you’re coming from, Kuno, but you must understand my position. Until the killer is caught, all changelings are suspect.”
Kuno sighed, hanging her head. “I know. I know that anything that goes wrong will be blamed on us. But if you want us to be equal to ponies, I can’t roll over and let you treat us like wild animals. We are individuals. The guilt of one individual does not transfer to the rest of us. Innocent until proven guilty is a tenet of your—of our—legal system. I will not allow you to violate the core tenet of our justice system the first time something goes wrong!”
‘Then what do you suggest?” Celestia asked bluntly. “Every changeling will be suspect until the killer is caught. And not by me, my guards, or the pony government, but by the general pony population.”
“I can keep my changelings confined as a whole until these tracking devices you requested are put in place,” Kuno said firmly.
“I trust that all of your changelings have chosen a suitable artifact?” Celestia asked.
Kuno nodded. “I made them all go and pick something. and I expect the registration and the enchantment of the devices to be expedited. No dawdling. No delays. Get it done.”
“Is there anything else?” Celestia asked blankly.
“Any changeling that can provide a solid alibi, as decided by unbiased committee, is free to come and go as they please once they have the tracking device,” Kuno stated firmly.
Celestia thought about that for a long moment, before nodding gracefully. “That is… acceptable.”
“And one of my changelings is going to be part of our investigation. Not just helping. Actively part of the investigation,” Kuno stated.
Celestia frowned deeply. “If they have an alibi… I do not see why that would be a problem.”
“Good, now if you’re done harassing us, this meeting is over,” Kuno said challengingly.
Celestia nodded, making a motion with a hoof. “Thank you, Kuno. This conversation has been… enlightening.”
“Good,” Kuno said, pushing away from the table and stalking through the door.
Warden cast a single glance back over his shoulder at the assembled ponies, before meekly following after his wife.
“Where were you this morning?” Kuno asked accusingly, as she dumped four teaspoons of coffee into a cup.
“I was with one of your changelings and that edgy batpony guy with the stupid name,” Warden said defensively.
“Why?” Kuno asked flatly, dumping tablespoons of sugar into the cup and then haphazardly adding boiling water.
“Because I have an interest in who the killer is? And that guy is the investigator,” Warden said with a shrug. “He leads me to the killer. I kill the killer.”
“You become the killer, and the circle of life is complete,” Kuno said dryly.
Warden frowned deeply. “Eye for an eye.”
“Leaves everyone blind?” Kuno asked smugly.
“Leaves everyone with limited depth perception,” Warden said grimly. “And leaves whoever killed Green Hoof with something sharp and pointy in their eye socket.”
“You’re serious about this?” Kuno asked quietly. “You’ll kill them?”
“I’ll kill them,” Warden said seriously. “And I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”
“What if it was me?” Kuno asked wryly.
“I would kill you and then kill myself, I guess,” Warden said with a shrug. “But you’d seduce me before I could even try.”
Kuno giggled darkly, leaning down to kiss his cheek. “I fear I’m becoming a bad influence on you.”
“Hey, I’m going to kill them, not torture and destroy them first,” Warden protested.
“So not too much of an influence, then?” Kuno asked sweetly.
“I’m seriously considering locking you in a room with them for an hour or two before I kill them,” Warden said blankly.
Kuno gave another smile, picking up her cup and taking a deep swig of the potent coffee. “You’d be violating the Geneva Convention for that.”
“They deserve it,” Warden said quietly.
“They do,” Kuno agreed. “But first, I have to go gather my changelings up and get them all sorted out so they can be registered.”
“A Queen’s work is never done,” Warden chimed.
“And her sleep is never undisturbed,” Kuno growled, downing the rest of her coffee and then turning on her hooves, stalking towards the courtyard.
“I’ll have you know, if you open that door, you’ll likely not leave with your head attached,” Warden said, not looking up from the magazine he had open between his forelegs. He was laying on a couch outside of the door to their private chambers.
Spectre paused, hoof lifted to knock on the door, before he lowered it, frowning slightly. He adjusted his glasses, sniffing once. “Why is that?”
“Kuno just spent the better part of two hours tending to the registration of the changelings. She’s barely slept the last few days. It’s taking its toll on her. Can I pass along a message?” Warden asked, closing the magazine.
“Tell her that I have cross-referenced alibis with various changelings, and those without any conflicting stories will be able to come and go from the compound as they please, provided they have their identifier on.”
“She’ll be happy to hear that,” Warden responded, resting his chin on crossed forehooves.
“You were close to her, yes?” Spectre asked simply.
Warden nodded, giving a soft sigh. “I had… have a child with her.”
“The foal does not live with you?”
Warden shook his head sadly.
“His only remaining parent?” Spectre pressed.
“He lives with his father-in-law… Stepfather? That’s probably the word I’m looking for. He thinks that he’s his real father,” Warden admitted, scratching at his forehoof with the opposite.
“Indeed. Would you say that the victim was a strong tether for your affections?” Spectre continued.
Warden’s gaze lifted, and he gave the batpony a long, hard stare. “Don’t even go there.”
“It is my job to assess all possible outcomes,” Spectre said calmly.
“Consider the outcome of me beating you senseless,” Warden said flatly.
“Are you prepared for the very real possibility that it was a changeling that did this?”
Warden nodded silently.
“And you understand that it might not be the first?” Spectre pressed.
“The possibility did not escape me,” Warden stated flatly, lifting his wing to reveal the hilt of a dagger tucked close against his side. “I’ve given it a lot of thought in the last few hours.”
Spectre nodded once. “I can only hope that Kuno is so reasonable.”
“I don’t know what she thinks. But I know that she will handle it if it comes down to it,” Warden stated bluntly. “She’ll handle it herself if need be.”
“I am sure that she will,” Spectre said with a respectful. “If you would please deliver my message to Queen Kuno, then that would please me. The list of changelings and ponies with alibis will be in the folder on the back of my door, when she awakens.”
Warden nodded stiffly.
Spectre turned, and then paused, looking back over his shoulder. “I know that it is none of my business, but… There are many craftsponies currently held as a captive audience at your estate. It would perhaps be more meaningful if the casket were to be fashioned specifically for her and not chosen from a magazine. Adieu.”
Warden stared after the batpony as he left, and then crossed his hooves. He closed his eyes and turned his head, so that soft tears wouldn’t land on the cover of the casket brochure.
“Why aren’t you at your appointment?” Kuno asked sternly, nudging Warden awake.
Warden gave a groggy sound, blinking slowly up at his wife. “I fell asleep.”
“I can see that,” Kuno said, picking up the cup of stale, cold coffee at Warden’s side and placing it on the table where it wouldn’t be knocked over. “You have an appointment with the doctor.”
“Appointment?” Warden asked blankly.
“Yes, your appointment,” Kuno said, nudging him firmly with a hoof. “I scheduled you one, during all that chaos.”
“For my things… because I can feel things again,” Warden said quietly, frowning to himself, looking down at his hooves. “How… how am I supposed to go talk to a doctor at a time like this?”
“It’s easy,” Kuno said, lifting a hoof to point towards the door. “Walk out that door, go down the drive, down the road, get to Canterlot, wait in a waiting room, get some tests done. I’d prefer you not be in crippling pain again.”
“I’m already going to be in crippling pain. The moment they take the aurora away I’m going to be a wreck,” Warden said, lips pursed. “I feel like I’m at a zone right now where the amount I’m taking is perfect to get rid of the pain but not enough to remove all sensations entirely.”
“And in a week or so when it stops being like that, you’re going to wish you went to the doctor right now,” Kuno said with a shake of her head. “Don’t make me use my royal commands to force you to the doctors.”
“But how can I?” Warden asked plaintively. “Green Hoof’s killer could be lurking around here right now.”
“And if we find out who did it, I promise we won’t kill them until you get back. You can’t help with the investigation. All you can do is get on with your regular life and schedule and let the experts do their things.”
Warden grumbled darkly.
Kuno tutted, whacking his nose lightly with a hoof. “No backtalking, mister. Now, to the doctors. I have to talk with the craftsmen about the extensions to the west wing.”
“How can you be so… normal?” Warden asked plaintively.
Kuno frowned deeply, and then shrugged her shoulders helplessly. “Changelings don’t grieve like ponies do. We’re just… different. I am sad that Green Hoof is gone, but my changeling nature tells me that influencing my day-to-life unduly with musings about her passage would be a disservice to her memory.”
“That’s so… practical,” Warden said quietly, staring down at his hooves. “Where’s the anger? The pain?”
“Green Hoof was a good friend, and I will tear her killer’s limbs from their body. And I will enjoy it, immensely,” Kuno said, her eyes flashing. “But expending emotion before that point will merely frustrate me. And I have so many more things to focus on.”
“I understand,” Warden said hollowly. “I wish I could compartmentalize so easily.”
Kuno frowned deeply at her husband’s tone, and then grabbed his chin with both hooves, lifting his nose to give him a gentle kiss. “Just try to do normal things. Even if everything feels different now. Give the investigator time to turn up some more evidence.”
“Fine, fine,” Warden said with a faint sigh, wrapping a single hoof around Kuno’s neck and giving her a firm kiss, resting his nose against her own. “Don’t be expecting any good news when I get back.”
“I never do,” Kuno said cheerfully. “Do tell the doctor that we already had a gravestone picked out and everything, when he gives you the bad news.”
“The one that says ‘here lies Warden: Finally’?” Warden asked bluntly.
Kuno nodded. “From your birthdate to ‘about bloody time’.”
“You don’t actually know what year I was born, do you?” Warden asked after a moment’s thought.
Kuno shook her head. “I don’t know my own, either. Now hush. Doctor. Go.”
Warden gave a long-suffering sigh. “Fine, fine. The edgy investigator batpony said that some changelings can come and go, so long as they’ve got their bits and bobs on. The ones that have alibis. He has a list somewhere.”
“I know,” Kuno said, waving a hoof. “I have been awake at least half an hour now. Now, you. Shoo. Go!”
Warden nodded, heaving himself to his hooves and stretching lazily. “Fine, fine. The west wing needs to have a private bathhouse of some kind. Or stalls. Or something. We can’t have visitors over with your changelings fornicating with ponies all over the damn place.”
“Forniating rooms, got it,” Kuno said with a bright smile, before pushing her husband bodily towards the door with her hooves. “Go!”
Warden was going to go crazy.
The sink in the corner was leaking, and a bucket had been placed underneath it to catch the water. And the steady drip, along with the ticking of the clock on the wall, was beginning to make him feel insane.
“Forty three,” the tired old nurse said, dinging her bell once.
Warden leapt to his hooves, and almost bolted from the waiting room and into the doctor’s office.
An older pony in a doctor’s coat and with a stethoscope around his neck turned to look at him as he entered.
Warden carefully sat himself in a seat, ruffling his wings self-consciously. “Hi doc.”
“Good day young colt,” the doctor said, chewing on a toothpick idly. “What seems to be the problem?” As he spoke, his horn lit, and a folder levitated its way over to his table, opening up to show Warden’s medical history.
The doctor’s face started to get more and more perturbed as he read further down.
“Aha. Yeah,” Warden said, rubbing at the back of his neck with a hoof. “I’ve been through the ringer a few times.”
“I’ll say,” the doctor said, frowning and perusing the file a little more closely. “What is this pertaining to?”
“Well, my uh… my acute magical poisoning?” Warden said, shifting uncomfortably. “I understand it’s excessively painful.”
“And you are being medicated with aurora. Is it losing its potency?” the doctor asked calmly.
Warden nodded. “I believe so. I can feel things again. No actual pain, but… things. I uhm… I,” he made a motion with his chin. “With my wife. I couldn’t do that if I was under aurora properly.”
“No, I suppose you could not,” the doctor said emotionlessly. “Yes, I do suppose the aurora is losing its effect. And yet you are already at the maximum allowed dosage. I assume your previous… ah, experiences with the drug,” the doctor said, squinting at the top of the report, “Have rendered it rather ineffective?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Warden said with a heavy.
“I am going to administer a rather primitive test,” the doctor said with a soft hum.
“Oh, and what would that b-”
Warden was cut off as the flyswatter swatted him right across the cheek with a very audible slap.
“...OW! Whatinthebuckwasthatfor?!” Warden cried, holding his cheek and squinting through one eye. “That hurt like hell!”
“The aurora is not affecting you at all,” the doctor said calmly, placing the flyswatter back on his desk.
“What?” Warden asked blankly, rubbing his cheek.
“Aurora works as a painkiller. It suppresses all sensations. Be they good, or bad. Your condition, acute magical poisoning, causes extreme pain within patients due to magical signals overwhelming your natural bodily signals. If you were to feel anything at all, it would be agony. The fact that you can differentiate pain at all tells me that the aurora, and the poisoning, is not the culprit here.”
“You got all that from whacking me over the face with a flyswatter?” Warden asked, growling under his breath.
“I admit, the flyswatter was not needed, but your reaction was quite priceless. In any case, we will need to run some tests,” the doctor said calmly. “The first of which will happen now. I also must take samples. Please enter the examination room and remove any vestments you may be wearing.”
“How very peculiar,” the doctor said calmly, staring at the black screen. “This is the third time this has happened.”
“Is something broken?” Warden asked with a long sigh, sitting awkwardly on an examination table with a lead bib draped over his midsection to somehow protect his future progeny from seeking rays of magic.
“Indeed. And it would appear to be you whom are broken,” the doctor responded.
Warden blinked once. “Okay, yes. I’m broken. But please be more specific. There’s a lot of broken things around me to be fixed.”
“Well, from what I can tell… you are no longer poisoned,” the doctor said calmly, stepping out from the little office where he had been developing the scans, and then making a motion towards Warden. “Please pick up the pillow.”
Warden arched an eyebrow, but did as told, picking up the pillow.
The doctor’s horn lit, and he frowned deeply, his expression turned thoughtful and then concentrated as he focused intensely. And then, he relaxed, and the glow at his horn faded. “It is as I surmised. Something is draining magic away from you.”
“Draining… magic away from me?” Warden asked blankly.
“There are devices that could do so. I believe your time in the royal guard would have exposed you to crystals that can be tuned to absorb magic.”
“Oh yeah, I’m glad I was unconscious when they dug the shards of those out of my ribs. But I’m not carrying one of those. And they only work on really powerful, offensive magic, anyway. If it worked on what I had, I would have been cured months ago.”
“Indeed,” the doctor said with a deep frown. “Whatever it is, is also absorbing the simple magic I was trying to use to lift the pillow from your hooves.”
Warden blinked once. “So I’m a magical battery now?”
“I do not know,” the doctor responded, his tone mildly alarmed. “And that bothers me. It is not often that I cannot pick an ailment. Tell me… did they get all pieces of the crystals?”
“They sure did,” Warden said with a wave of a hoof. “At least, they told me they did. Anyway, they were all overcharged and exploded. They couldn’t absorb any more magic.”
“No, no I guess not.” Frowning deeply, the doctor rubbed his chin with a hoof. “Have you come into contact with anything of a magical nature? Herbal remedies from sellers of ill-repute, such as powders, dust, or somesuch?”
“You think I took a unicorn-horn tonic?” Warden asked, aghast.
The doctor gave a helpless shrug. “It would not be unheard of.”
“No, no I haven’t,” Warden said firmly. “The only magical thing I come into contact with on a daily basis is my wife. Are you saying she might be doing this?”
The doctor waved a hoof. “Your wife is not here. She is not the source. Though… have you imbibed any of her… chitin?”
“You know she’s a changeling?” Warden asked with a tired smile.
“Everypony knows,” the doctor said bluntly. “Now, answer the question.”
“No, no I have not ‘imbibed’ any of her chitin. That would be a little bit weird,” Warden said, before frowning deeply and biting his bottom lip. “Hey doc… what would you expect it to feel like if I did eat some of her chitin by accident or something?”
“If it was absorbing magical energy, you would feel it as heat. And pain. Depending upon the location, and ultimately the proximity to major nerve clusters, it could be quite excruciating.”
“Can you… can you try to take the pillow from me?” Warden asked hesitantly.
The doctor’s horn lit up. “Certainly.”
Warden frowned even deeper. “Okay, stop.” ‘ The doctor’s magic faded, and he arched an eyebrow. “Is there something you wish to tell me?”
Warden bit his bottom lip, and lifted a hoof to trace the scar on his chest, just to the side of his foreleg. “I felt it… It tingled. Inside me.”
“You have found the source of the magical drain?” the doctor asked hopefully.
Warden nodded. “After the surgery… they told me they couldn’t get everything. Some of it was too close to my heart. They told me they’d have to wait for me to be healthier before they tried to extract it.”
“Extract what, exactly?”
Warden sighed faintly, rubbing the back of his neck. “A sliver of Chrysalis’ horn.”
“I… I cannot say,” the doctor said helplessly. “If it is truly a sliver of a changeling’s horn inside your chest that is causing this anomaly—and I have no reason to believe otherwise—then there are most certainly complications that could happen. Unfortunately, the same anomaly that is sucking magic from your surroundings is also causing any scans I attempt to produce nothing.”
“So… I’m dying?” Warden repeated with a long-suffering sigh.
The doctor gave him a long stare. “I cannot say. As I tried to explain. This is not a common occurrence.”
“But it’s cured my poisoning, at least?” Warden asked hopefully.
The doctor nodded warily. “That is what I assume, yes. I would like to run further tests, but we shall have to wait for the skin and blood tests to return before we can say anything with finality.”
Warden frowned, rubbing his hooves against each other nervously. “So, the complications. What would they be?”
“You have a piece of an incredibly powerful, incredibly evil creature stuck in your chest. And it sucking up magic,” the doctor said, deadpan. “For it to be gathering that much magic, it must be doing something. I cannot say what it is doing, even. Given the nature of changelings, it could be trying to change itself, inside you. This would result in your death, most likely. Considering that it was attained during a violent encounter, it might be that the sliver is trying to cast an offensive spell. This would almost certainly kill you, were it to complete.”
“There’s no way to know what it’s going to do?” Warden asked quietly.
The doctor shook his head. “I am afraid not. Were Chrysalis still alive, not even she would be able to say. There would be ways to trace the lines of magic the sliver is putting off… but as it is sucking up as much magic as it can, even those spells would become trapped within the web of absorption it is casting. Simply put, there is no way to know.”
“So I have a ticking clock in my chest just counting down the days until it explodes and I die?” Warden asked flatly.
The doctor shrugged. “In a sense… yes. But do we not all have said clock in our chest? We all die, Warden. Your condition just means you will die much more spectacularly.”
Warden arched an eyebrow slowly. “You’re not good with the bedside manner, are you?”
“I was quite awful at it, yes,” the doctor admitted, chewing on his toothpick thoughtfully. “I know that this is quite sudden, but you are going to have to stop taking the aurora. And you are exempt from all magical scans and spells. I understand that your manor is under lock and key of the royal guards following that unfortunate business a few days ago. And no doubt this is going to cause added levels of security to be placed upon you. But…” he trailed off with a helpless shrug of his shoulders. “Your lifetime is now, very likely, measured not in time, but in the amount of magic that sliver in your chest absorbs. You cannot, under any circumstances, allow a unicorn to scan you with magic. You cannot approach magical constructs. I would definitely not stand near your wife while she is changing, either.”
“Could it… could it be absorbing emotional energy since it’s from Chrysalis?” Warden asked suddenly.
The doctor frowned, scratching his chin. “I had not thought of that yet. Perhaps. But I will not ask you stay away from your loved ones. I think you will agree, a life without loved ones is a waste.”
Warden nodded stiffly. “I agree.”
“Very well. I must converse with my peers in the medical association to see about exploratory surgery to get that sliver out of your chest. I must also find some archaic method of locating said sliver without a magical scan. Until then, you are not permitted to be near magic.”
Warden nodded again, staring down at his hooves. “So… I’m cured but I’m dying?”
“That is the long and short of it, I’m afraid. But do not give up hope. We may be able to extract the sliver through regular surgery,” the doctor reassured. “There is hope, yet.”
Warden gave a soft laugh. “After all the bullshit I’ve been through, this isn’t even rocking the boat. How long before Chrysalis tries to kill me again?”
“There is no way to know until the sliver has absorbed enough energy to create its spell. With the amount of magical poisoning you received… Any simple spell would have been completed long ago. Indeed, the sliver might be just absorbing magic indefinitely. It has no real ‘purpose’ unless it is attached to Chrysalis.”
“Don’t get my hopes up,” Warden said hollowly. “Nothing good came from that bitch.”
“Then you understand it is paramount that you do not come into contact with magic. Of course, this is impossible to be one-hundred percent sure of, but minimizing exposure is your main goal at present.”
Warden nodded again. “Gotcha, doc. No magic. Ever.”
“I would be seriously careful near unicorns. Especially were you to… couple with one,” the doctor said carefully.
Warden perked a single ear. “My wife is a changeling.”
“Whom can become a unicorn,” the doctor said with a wave of his hoof. “Extrusion of a great deal of magical energy during copulation is not unheard of.”
“Oh, I get you now,” Warden said, blinking once. “I didn’t even consider that.”
“Any source of potential magic must be evaluated and avoided at all costs. If your wife has the same proclivities as a unicorn, then you must avoid that situation.”
Warden nodded, giving a long sigh. “She doesn’t do that, thankfully.”
“Very well. If you will wait here, I will send a nurse to get a writ from the royal palace, exempting you from security scans. I will also suggest you wear a magical monitoring device. It will determine how much magic you come into contact with on a regular basis. The idea is to keep the bar as low as possible.” As he spoke, the doctor rummaged around in a filing cabinet, coming up with a small necklace. “The central jewel here will gradually begin to glow as it detects magic. We use this for determining a young unicorn’s energy level. But it should suffice to alert you to background magic, should you come across any.”
“Thank you,” Warden said, taking the necklace, staring down at it. It was a simple white jewel set on a round piece of metal. Very simplistic.
“Now, please take a seat in the waiting room, we will have your paperwork in a few minutes.
“So… you’re dying?” Kuno asked, not even looking up from the architectural plans. An earth pony with a hard hat and a hammer for a cutie mark was also perusing the plans, making vague sketches on a piece of paper set next to them on the table.
“Pretty much,” Warden said with a shrug. “Got a piece of paper that exempts me from being scanned when I come in or out of the manor, though.”
“That’s nice,” Kuno said, finally looking up, rubbing one of her eyes with a hoof. “So what’s the problem this time?”
“Chrysalis left a piece of her horn in my chest,” Warden said simply.
Kuno blinked once, and then gave a long-suffering sigh. “Are we really still getting grief from her?”
“We really are,” Warden said with a wan smile.
“So the aurora isn’t wearing off?” Kuno queried hopefully.
“Actually, Chrysalis’ piece of whatever in my chest has cured me of that… the doctor thinks,” Warden explained, sidling up beside his wife and resting his wing against her own.
“No more pain?” Kuno asked hopefully.
“No more pain,” Warden said with a firm nod. “No more aurora, either.”
Kuno sucked in a breath. “I thought that wasn’t for another few months, at least.”
“I know, right?” Warden said with a strained smile. “I’m going to have to psyche myself up for getting off it.”
Kuno gave him a sideways stare. “Are you sure you can?”
“I’ve done it before,” Warden said simply.
“When you hoofcuffed yourself to the toilet?” Kuno asked seriously.
Warden nodded quietly. “Yeah. Then. Look, I’ve died before. I kicked that off pretty quickly. How hard will a second round of getting off aurora be?”
“I had to bring you back,” Kuno reminded flatly. “And it wasn’t pretty. And now you’ve only been saved from that medical condition by having a piece of an evil Queen’s horn buried in your chest.”
“My eulogy is going to be the stuff of legends,” Warden said proudly. “It will be as jaw dropping as when you spoke to my parents.”
“Don’t overestimate yourself,” Kuno said with a shake of her head, leaning in to kiss his cheek warmly, wrapping a hoof around his middle to pull him close. “I’m just worried about you.”
“I know you are,” Warden said, pushing up against her and leaning against her larger form. “I’ll manage… somehow. Swam will be allowed back at school in a few days, so I’ll have the room to myself to throw up and sweat in.”
“That is not reassuring,” Kuno said, frowning deeply.
“It’s a fact of withdrawal,” Warden said with a long sigh. “The doctor said he wanted to wean me off the aurora, but… He had no idea what dosages to go with. Nopony does because nopony has built up a resistance to it like I have.”
“Not even those ponies who Daggertail was supplying it to?” Kuno queried.
Warden shook his head. “They were about three-quarters along where I was to. I heard one of them in the hospital when I was recovering. There was a whole lot of screaming and begging.”
“You’re not going to be like that, are you?” Kuno asked hopefully.
Warden sighed faintly, leaning against her side and pushing his cheek up against her neck. “It’s not pretty. Last time… it was pretty bad. This time could be just as bad. But… I’ve got you. I’ve got an anchor, at least.”
“Are you calling me fat?” Kuno accused.
“I’m calling you an anchor. You’re really heavy and can keep entire ships from blowing away in storms. So no, not fat,” he poked her side with a hoof. “Just big-boned.”
“I’ll have you know, mister,” Kuno said, nudging him with her shoulder. “That the next time we’re alone…”
Warden perked an ear. “Mhmm?”
“And I’m on top,” Kuno continued, her tone becoming seductive, leaning down to whisper it into his ear.
“Mhmm?” Warden urged.
“And right as you’re at the precipice of pleasure, I’m going to transform into a minotaur and smother you with my biceps,” Kuno finished bluntly.
Warden gave her a long stare. “Is it tuesday already?”
Kuno growled, and nipped his ear, before wrapping a hoof around him and squeezing him tight. “I love you, you idiot.”
“And I love you too, you terrifying bug-creature,” Warden said, gently kissing her nose. “But ix-nay on the transformation, please. Apparently, my new internal jewelry could absorb energy from your transformations.”
“That’s… ugh. So it absorbs all magic?” Kuno asked, looking down at him seriously.
Warden nodded. “Doctor couldn’t even steal my pillow because it was too close to me.”
“So what is it doing inside you?” Kuno asked plaintively. “Why is it storing magic?”
“Who even knows? We don’t. The doctor doesn’t. Chrysalis wouldn’t even know, if she were alive. It could be offensive magic, in which case I die. It could be trying to transform inside my chest, since it came from a changeling. And if that’s the case, I’d also die,” Warden explained blankly.
“Why is everything trying to kill you, Warden?” Kuno asked bluntly. “Seriously. We can’t go a month without some new thing trying to take you out of the picture.”
“Gotta keep things interesting and fresh!” Warden said with an earnest nod. “You would get bored without having to protect me from some new malady every other month.”
“I find it amusing that you are my damsel in distress,” Kuno said, nuzzling her nose against his own warmly.
“And you must be my bug in shining armor,” Warden said with a sage nod.
“That can only happen if I’m male at the time,” Kuno said, deadpan.
Warden squinted at his wife suspiciously. “Are you making an allusion to archaic gender roles or were you making the single dirtiest joke ever?”
Kuno gave a slow, sly giggle. “You know me.”
“Cadance would be scandalized if she heard that,” Warden said, nudging Kuno’s shoulder with a derisive snort.
“Well, she is the princess of love. If half of the stories I hear are true, she’d want to watch,” Kuno said drolly.
Warden arched an eyebrow. “Hear a lot of strange stories from there, huh?”
“I’ve heard that their love life is… well… it’s as strange as ours!” Kuno said with a sly giggle.
Warden shook his head. “No love life is as strange as ours,” he rebuked, lightly stroking a hoof down the length of one of her shiny wings. “You’re not even a pony.”
“Not most of the time,” Kuno said significantly.
“Kuno, I think we’re scarring the builder for life,” Warden said plaintively, making a motion towards the earth pony who was still standing beside them. He was standing completely still, staring at the page in front of him. His ears were perked towards it, but they were almost completely pink, as were his cheeks.
Kuno giggled helplessly at that, lifting a hoof to her mouth. “And then we wonder why changelings have such a raunchy reputation!”
“That and the fact that they’ll fornicate with anything that moves, and if it doesn’t move, they’ll push it,” Warden said dryly.
“I’m going to have to have words with them about that, as a collective,” Kuno said, pursing her lips.
Warden gave a nod. “Helpful tips from the grand-master?”
Kuno glowered at him. “No, about any kind of subtlety. I’ve been hearing second-hoof rumours that Chitin was seen dragging two guards ponies into a garden shed and then was joined by a third! And she's my second in command!”
“So, what you’re saying is that, you have no problem with the three other ponies bit, but more that she was seen doing it?” Warden said.
“Well… yes!” Kuno said, flailing a hoof in his direction. “Wild orgies are all in good fun, but be discreet!”
“Your priorities are so screwed,” Warden said with a chuckle, draping a hoof around her neck and holding her close. “Thank you, though.”
“For what?” Kuno asked, giving him a stare.
“For… being normal with me. Helping me… be the same,” Warden said seriously. “Things are different now… but it feels good to be the same.”
“That makes absolutely no sense and it scares me a little bit that I know what you mean,” Kuno said, gently kissing his nose. “Now hush and help me pick out where to put the pleasure dungeon.”
The builder beside them gave an audible gulp, and they both laughed.
“They’re probably burning the place down already,” Kuno whined in a hushed tone.
“We’ve been gone half an hour, your changelings can survive without you,” Warden responded, lips pursed.
Their conversation attracted an angry glower from an elderly mare sitting in the front row of the seating. The seats had been laid out in front of a simple wooden casket bearing a picture of Green Hoof; and a large potted plant. Stunning Facet and Mint Green were sitting in the front row, right at the centre. Stunning Facet looked stoic and reserved, his expression stony and unyielding.
Poor little Mint Green just looked tired and exhausted. His eyes were rimmed with red, but no tears were present. He just looked drained.
Warden knew he had been crying for so long that he couldn’t cry any more.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” Kuno asked softly, leaning her cheek against his own gently.
Warden nodded carefully. “I want to hug him and tell him it’ll be alright. I just… I know how he feels. To cry until you can’t cry any more and you just want something to dull the pain for a little while…”
Kuno nudged him lightly. “I know. You have my sympathy.”
“Oh, thanks,” Warden said with a sarcastic roll of his eyes.
“I don’t know what else to tell you, Warden. It’s a… complicated situation,” Kuno admitted, frowning and licking her lips, casting her glance nervously about.
“Yeah… at least he has Stunning Facet to lean on,” Warden said glumly, staring down at his hooves for a moment, and then heaving a long sigh. “Would you stop being so nervous?”
“Ponies are staring and muttering,” Kuno said quietly.
“You’re an alicorn-sized bug-monster that lives by stealing love from your closest friends and family,” Warden said bluntly. “They have reason to stare.”
“I know you’re in withdrawal, Warden, but I want to slap you right now,” Kuno grumbled, pulling him tighter against her side and squeezing a little harder than necessary.
“There’s not many ponies here,” Warden observed.
“No, not really. Green Hoof wasn’t originally from these parts so I sup-” Kuno started, before being interrupted.
:”If you don’t mind,” the stony-faced mare in the front row scowled. “You are disrespecting the dead! Bad enough that you bring… that here.”
Warden’s eyes narrowed slowly.
Kuno lifted a hoof to stroke on his wings soothingly. “I’m very sorry,” Kuno said, turning her attention to the mare. “We meant no disrespect.”
“Don’t address me, monster. Without you, my niece would still be here,” the mare said, spitting on the ground with an exaggerated show of disrespect.
“You are disrespecting the memory of my wife,” Stunning Facet growled, turning in his seat, eyes narrowed dangerously. “They are here by my invitation.”
The mare went silent, but continued to glower.
“We should leave,” Kuno said softly. “We’re just causing issues.”
“I’m not here to please them,” Warden said bluntly. “I’m here to honour Green Hoof and pay my respects.”
Kuno pursed her lips, and her wings quivered with the repressed urge to buzz anxiously. “Very well, then.”
Warden carefully touched at the leaves of the sapling in the pot by Green Hoof’s casket, and frowned slightly.
“What are you thinking?” Stunning Facet asked from behind him.
Warden tilted his head slightly to the side. “I’m thinking that the pH level in this sapling is a little too high and it needs more water. Someone will have to tend to it after it’s… after it’s planted.”
Stunning Facet nodded glumly, and then fixed Warden with a stare. “I’m… glad you came. I don’t know any of these ponies.”
Hesitantly, Warden turned, and lifted a hoof to rest on the stallion’s shoulder, staring into his eyes. “I’m… I’m sorry for your loss.”
Nodding, Stunning Facet stepped closer and buried his face in Warden’s mane in a rough hug. “I know it hurts you too,” he murmured, pulling back slightly after a moment and just fixing Warden with a long, mournful look.
Warden realised that his mane was wet where Stunning Facet’s face had been.
“I… I need to look after Mint Green. But I… I appreciate you being here. I just wanted you to know,” Stunning Facet almost stammered. “M-Mint Green will be safe with me.”
Nodding, Warden pulling the stallion into another hug, supporting his trembling legs with his own firm stance, and nudged him lightly. “Are you composed yet?”
Stunning Facet nodded, clearing his throat and wiping his eyes with a hoof. “I can manage.”
Kuno stepped closer to the pair, turning to Stunning Facet. “If you ever need… I mean to say. I have an army of changelings at my disposal now. If you need… time with her again, it can be arranged.”
Warden hissed slightly and stepped on Kuno’s hoof, making her give a strangled yelp. “What?!”
“This is hardly the time!” Warden growled between clenched teeth, before turning back to Stunning Facet. “I’m sorry.”
Stunning Facet shook his head, and smiled blankly. “She’s just… trying to help, in her own way. She can’t help it if she doesn’t… If she doesn’t know that that is not right.”
Warden gave a soft chuckle. “You’re trying really hard not to outright say it was incredibly insensitive.”
Stunning Facet gave Warden a hollow stare that he didn’t think he’d ever forget. “You… you have to be careful to keep ponies your friends. You never know when they’ll be gone for good…”
Warden’s smile slid off his face.
“I forgot how awkward funerals are,” Warden muttered, staring at his hooves. “If I wasn’t so drained from the withdrawal I’d probably be as pathetic as all of the rest of these ponies.”
The small crowd that was watching the dirt being thrown on Green Hoof’s casket were all crying, except for Stunning Facet.
Warden had felt his heart breaking watching a tear-stained, stumbling Mint Green throw the first hoofful of dirt, and a pretty red flower, down the hole. Stunning Facet was trying hard to appear strong and stoic, but Warden noticed with every intake of air, his frame shuddered slightly.
“You’re not in mourning,” Kuno said quietly. “You’re sad, and angry. But you’re not in mourning.”
“Every time I look at Mint Green I want to find whoever killed her and…” Warden trailed off, staring down at his hooves. “Am I a bad pony?”
Kuno shook her head, leaning against him lightly. “You all deal with grief in different ways.”
Warden frowned slightly, and then nodded, scratching at the ground with a hoof. “I guess so. I feel like… like everything I’ve been through has made me numb to my own emotions.”
“That’s probably the withdrawal talking,” Kuno chided softly
Warden nodded glumly. “I guess you’re right.”
“Kuno, I need you to do me a favour,” Warden murmured.
“Take Mint Green away. Take him back to town. Get him some ice cream. Take him to a gaming parlour. Somewhere that’ll take his mind off things.”
Kuno peered at her husband sideways. “Is this entirely necessary?”
“It is,” Warden said stiffly, motioning towards the lingering forms of Mint Green and Stunning Facet. The rest of the mourners had left, leaving the funeral site nearly empty.
“Very well,” Kuno said, scrunching her nose. A flash of green consumed her, and in her place stood a very generic-looking mare. “Good enough?”
“Good enough,” Warden said grimly, as he stepped towards Stunning Facet and Mint Green.
“Warden,” Stunning Facet said, waving a hoof lamely. “It’s… it’s all done.”
“Mommy is gone…” Mint Green murmured. “S-she’s ‘at peace’”
Warden pointedly looked away from the foal, biting his tongue so hard he tasted blood.
“C’mon, Minty, let’s get you some ice cream. What’s your favorite flavour?” Kuno said warmly.
Mint Green’s ears perked up, and his expression lifted the tiniest amount. “I-I like strawberry… Mommy used to always save it for me. She liked the plain flavour.”
Stunning Facet stared at the foal, and Warden could see that he, too, was biting down on some part of his mouth.
Only when the two of them were out of earshot, heading back down the path towards Ponyville, did Warden turn to Stunning Facet.
“So what;’s this about?” Stunning Facet asked hollowly. “You here to talk to me about Mint Green?”
Warden frowned and shook his head, and then forcefully turned the stallion towards the now-planted sapling and pulled him towards it. “Sit with me.”
Stunning Facet sighed softly, but did as told, sitting beside Warden, almost close enough to reach out and touch the tree.
“I still remember what it’s like,” Warden said calmly, staring at the tree. “Sitting in front of the apple tree where my wife is buried.”
“Kuno?” Stunning Facet asked, confused.
Warden shook his head. “Swarm. My first wife. Colthood sweetheart and all. She died, before I even met Kuno. Kuno rescued me from that.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Stunning Facet tried to say.
“I’m over it,” Warden said flippantly.
Stunning Facet gave him a long stare. “No… you’re not.”
Warden paused at that, and then let out a long, defeated sigh. “You’re absolutely right. But this isn’t about me. It’s just... Related. Relatable.”
“We are awful at this whole talking thing, aren’t we?” Stunning Facet said with a heavy sigh.
Warden chuckled and nodded. “The worst.”
“I get what you’re trying to do, Warden. I know you’re trying to help. Even that you went through the same thing. It… helps to know that you’re here.”
“You’re taking it a lot better than I am. I was a wreck,” Warden said with a faint smile.
Stunning Facet nodded sadly. “Gotta… gotta keep it together for Mint Green.”
“He’s not here right n-”
“-People don’t eat the apples from the trees, do they?” Stunning Facet cut across him, staring at the sapling. “I mean, I know it’s an earth-pony tradition and all. But would eating the apple from one of these trees constitute, like, cannibalism?”
Warden frowned at that, but allowed Stunning Facet to change the subject. “I… I don’t know? Would Green Hoof think it was nice? Would she view it as a special thing?”\
Stunning Facet let out a laugh at that and shook his head. “Celestia no! Can you imagine? I can just see her standing in the doorway while I’ve got the apple, and she’d cross her hooves and do that cute little scrunch thing with her mouth and say: ‘Are you actually going to… to…’ “ He paused, choking on his words, ears flattening and eyes glimmering with withheld tears. “She… she’d…”
Warden shook his head slightly and wrapped a hoof around the stallion’s shoulders, pulling him against his side and laying a wing over him warmly. “You don’t have to be strong, Facet. You have friends. We… I’m here for you.”
Stunning Facet stared at the sapling, and his bottom lip quivered, before he dissolved into wracking sobs. “I-I just can’t believe she’s gone…”
Warden allowed a few silent tears of his own to fall, and squeezed the stallion soothingly. “Me either.”
Spectre rapped curtly on Kuno’s door with a hoof, while a chagrined-looking Chitin minced along behind him, wings drooping.
After a few moments, the door was opened, and Kuno peered out, arching a brow. “Yes?”
“I wish to speak with you and Warden. Privately.”
Kuno looked from Spectre, to Chitin, and then back again, giving a long sigh. “Did she do something?”
“Yes. But that is not why I am here,” Spectre said smoothly, while Chitin pursed her lips.
“Can it wait? At all?” Kuno asked shortly.
Spectre frowned, and then shook his head. “No. No it cannot. I have some… quite important questions that must be answered immediately.”
Kuno sighed, and then opened the door all the way. “Very well, come in then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you though.”
Spectre inclined his head in thanks and then stepped inside, and Chitin quietly followed him.
Closing the door after them, Kuno moved back over to the bed, where Warden was laying with his head resting on the edge of a wooden bucket. His cheeks were red, his wings were drooping, and he looked absolutely exhausted. His eyes were hazy and unfocused, rimmed with red, and he was shivering constantly.
“Rough night?” Spectre asked curtly.
“Rough night,” Kuno admitted, lifting a hoof to lightly stroke down her husbands wing.
Warden stirred slightly, and blinked once, his eyes focusing slightly as he regarded the two visitors. “Hi…” he murmured weakly, voice barely above a whisper.
“Warden is going through withdrawal pretty bad right now. So please… keep it short. Yes or no answers would be preferable,” Kuno urged.
Spectre nodded shortly, producing a cloth-wrapped package from under a wing and laying it on the bed in front of Kuno and Warden. “Very well. First I have to ask, to what measure are your changelings… trained?”
“They… they’re really not,” Kuno admitted, shrugging her shoulders helplessly. “As part of Chrysalis’ army, they were allowed rudimentary thought and memory. They were more like animals at that point. Like… maybe a beast of burden?”
“Or an earth pony,” Warden quipped weakly.
Kuno glowered at him.
“So, they had no… formal training in martial disciplines?” Spectre asked carefully.
“Like, combat?” Kuno asked, rubbing her chin again and then pondering. “No. Not at all. Some of the woodworkers know how to use a blade for whittling or detailing wood. But other than that, allowing my changelings to be trained in the arts of combat would probably send the wrong message.”
“Changelings most definitely follow the ‘make love, not war’ philosophy. Lit-”
“Warden if you finish that sentence, so help me Celestia…” Kuno growled.
Warden pursed his lips, but gave a weak chuckle.
“I know exactly what you mean,” Spectre said, deadpan, giving a significant glance towards Chitin.
Chitin splayed her ears.
“Either way,” Spectre said, picking up the cloth-wrapped package and letting it unroll. It unrolled neatly, unfurling to reveal an ornamental dagger in a sheath. Spectre picked it up, and then withdrew the blade. It was a simple blade, single-edged, with a distinctive hook at the tip on the backside of the knife. “Have any of you seen one of these on the premises?”
Warden cast a hazy stare at the dagger, Kuno tilted her head uncertainly and Chitin just looked at the dagger for a moment and then shook her head.
“Never,” Kuno said. “The only knives we have around here are for food preparation. Unless Daggertail left some ‘surprises’ around.”
“That is a possibility, though unlikely,” Spectre stated simply.
“I’ve seen one before,” Warden said quietly. “Not here. But when I was training for the Royal Guard. That’s a ceremonial batpony knife.”
“Very astute,” Spectre stated. “The hook on the end is for cutting prey out of our capture nets. Fisherponies sometimes use knives like ours, for cutting their fishing nets open if they get snagged or need to rescue a dolphin or some other animal who haphazardly wandered into it.”
“So why are you showing us this?” Warden asked, resting his chin on the edge of the bucket.
“To see if any of you have seen one on the premises, or…” Spectre trailed off, chewing on his lower lip with an oversized fang. “Or to know if any changelings would be trained in the ways of batpony martial combat.”
“Definitely not,” Kuno said, shaking her head. “If you ask me in a few years, I would say it could potentially happen, with a changeling who snuck into the batpony ranks. But it’s only been a few weeks. None of them had time to learn anything. Chitin?”
Chitin perked her ears up at the mention of her name, and she also shook her head. “No. Nothing. No changeling has been with the batponies. In any sense of the word!”
Spectre shot her a glower.
Warden lifted his head from the bucket, and gave Spectre a long stare, pursing his lips. “Is that the one that was used?” he asked flatly.
Kuno arched a brow at him, but Spectre shook his head. “This is just a ceremonial dagger. Purely for display. The one used was a proper version. Meant for defense or combat.”
“The one used…” Kuno said, staring from Spectre to Warden and then back again, putting it together. “You mean the murder weapon is… that?”
“This specific variation of dagger, but not this one specifically,” Spectre corrected, sliding the dagger back into its sheath, and then beginning to carefully wrap it once more. He fell silent as he deftly wrapped the dagger, lips pursed.
“You don’t think it was a changeling, do you?” Warden accused.
Spectre paused, carefully tucking the edge of the fabric underneath a wrap to secure it, and then gave a long sigh. “When you eliminate the impossible…” he said, trailing off. He adjusted his glasses, and then nodded once. “I do not believe it was a changeling that did this. Though I do not want this information to leave this room.”
“What, why?” Kuno spluttered. “My friend was murdered, you don’t get to just sit on this information!”
Spectre cast a dark glance towards Kuno. “I did not think I would have to ask the emotivore to temper her emotions.”
“I understand,” Warden said quietly, brushing a sweat lock of mane out of his eyes. “If it was a batpony who did it, and it was done with a guard knife…”
Kuno’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “There are no batponies on the guard that are assigned here.”
“So we need to go over statement and ask if any of your changelings saw a batpony. Discreetly.” Spectre slipped the cloth-wrapped dagger back under his wing. “If this news were to become public it would be a nightmare.”
“More of a nightmare than ponies thinking one of my changelings murdered a visitor to the grounds when in actually they evidently did not?” Kuno asked, a note of steel in her tone.
“Yes, in fact,” Spectre said smoothly. “Whoever did this clearly wanted to drive a wedge between changelings and ponies. Or at least, that is the only reason I can see for the… entirely random choice of target. Green Hoof was unremarkable, except that she was your friend. But should you publicly state that no changeling caused the murder, whoever set these events in motion would find it trivial to counter by saying that you are incompetent and shifting the blame. It would be better to find the killer and then announce what we know.”
Kuno scowled. “You have two weeks. That’s it. After that, my patience will no longer suffice.”
Warden lifted a shaking hook to rest on her wing. “Calm down you terrifying bugmonster.”
“Green Hoof was my friend, too,” Kuno snapped. “I will not just... Just…!”
Warden pet her wing gently. “All this time you’re spending around ponies, you’re starting to act irrationally like them!”
Kuno scowled again, and bit at the air a couple times in annoyance. “You’re right. You both are. We have to be patient. Spectre?”
“Yes, your majesty?” Spectre asked smoothly.
Kuno shuddered. “Just… just call me ‘Kuno’.”
“Very well, Kuno?”
“When you find them… you bring them to me first. I want to… question them,” Kuno stated flatly.
Spectre frowned, and then adjusted his glasses again. “I… I can promise nothing. Proper chain of custody would have me detain them in the castle dungeon. If they turned up… ‘damaged’ to the dungeon, it could hurt the position of unbiased investigation and harm your case.”
Kuuno frowned deeply, seeming to weigh the options. “Justice… or street justice…”
Warden gave a dark chuckle. “I know which one I would choose.”
Chitin looked back and forth between them. “I bet Celestia could be swayed to let you pick the punishment. Or conduct the sentence yourself. It’d be like having your mare and-”
“-Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” Kuno scowled, narrowing her eyes at the changeling. “It’s bad enough the things you lot get up to barely in private. I will not let you start talking like that as well.”
Chitin gave Kuno a long stare, and then smiled toothily. “Oh please, the things I hear you doing to Warden. You call us ‘rowdy’?”
Kuno’s eyes flashed, and she gave Chitin a dagger-like glance. “Discretion is the better part of valour. Especially for a changeling, Chitin. Should you really be discussing this in front of our batpony guest?”
Chitin rolled her eyes. “I already offered to let him join in and he turned me down. He’s asexual, I think.”
Spectre arched an eyebrow at that, and then turned to give Chitin a look. “I assure you, I am physically capable. I would like to think having the discipline to not chase the first thing that lifts its tail at you is an admirable trait in anypony. Clearly, not something you look for in a prospective partner.”
Chitin paused, looking at her hooves, and then to Kuno, and then Warden, and then specter. And then right back to Kuno. “Kuno… Is it… is it socially acceptable to slap him now?”
Kuno burst out laughing. “Not after you asked me, no. It’s gotta be in the heat of the moment!”
Frowning, Chitin looked down at her hooves again, and then quickly snapped up, aiming a blow at Spectre’s cheek.
Spectre slipped the motion smoothly, and was adjusting his glasses again before Chitin had overbalancing and stumbling forwards. “Especially not after you telegraph what you are going to do so long before,” he quipped.
Chitin scowled at the batpony, and then huffed, turning away from him.
Warden turned to stare at Kuno, and Kuno gave him a long stare in response. “A month?” she asked.
Warden shook his head. “Two minimum. Four tops.”
“I’ll take those odds,” Kuno said with a sly giggle.
Spectre and Chitin both stared at them, mystified.
Kuno frowned, chewing on the inside of her lip, her wings buzzing in annoyance, forehooves tightening on the railing of the balcony as she watched changelings and the very rare pony move below in the courtyard.
Warden sighed faintly, chin resting on the railing, trying to enjoy the cool breeze on the sweat that matted his mane. “Stop fretting.”
Kuno scowled and stamped a hoof, watching her changelings still. “I can’t!”
“You are fussing,” Warden said weakly, shifting to get more comfortable and almost knocking over the bucket that was there in case he got nauseous again. He lifted a shaking hoof to push his mane out of his eyes, and then gave a quiet sigh.
“It’s just so… frustrating!” Kuno growled, bouncing in place anxiously, her wings giving another irritated buzz. “I know none of them did it, but they’re still being punished for it while the culprit is running free and not being tortured horrifically in my chambers!”
Warden held up a hoof, his face seeming to turn a sickly shade of green. “Please, don’t put any images in my head.”
Kuno tutted, but relented.
“You’re such a queen,” Warden murmured with a weak chuckle.
Kuno rounded on him, her expression confused.
“Fretting and fussing over your subjects,” Warden said with a wise nod. “I know you don’t see yourself as a queen, but… you are one.”
“For now,” Kuno responded, pursing her lips. “I… I can’t turn away from them. But I long for the time when I could lay with you and eat cake and cotton candy.”
“I think that part of your life is over, Kuno,” Warden said grimly.
Kuno scowled, eyes narrowing. “You take that back.”
“Do you think you’ll ever be able to just lay there and relax without feeling like something is… wrong?” Warden asked bluntly.
Kuno frowned, and her wings buzzed again. “I intend to find out, at least.”
“So…” Warden asked, looking at his wife sideways for a long moment. “How long are you going to be like this for?”
“Big,” Warden corrected.
Kuno blinked once. “Big?” She paused, looking down at her hooves and then shuffling them awkwardly. “I don’t… know. It feels… right, right now.”
“I liked it when you were smaller than me,” Warden said wistuflly. “I’d like to spoon with you again as the big spoon sometime before…”
“Before what, Warden?” Kuno asked sharply.
“Before I ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’,” Warden responded gently.
Kuno rolled her eyes, “There’ll be plenty of time for that.”
“I’m not so sure,” Warden responded carefully. “I can feel it, you know. Every time a changeling transforms around me… it’s like… a tug. Like a harp string being plucked, and every time it happens it gets a little bit stronger… a little bit harder to ignore.”
Kuno grimaced, looking back at the courtyard, but not responding immediately. After a few more moments of silence, she spoke. “I can’t… lose this form. Not now. Not while my changelings need me. Not while they’re so vulnerable. They need me, Warden.”
“I know,” Warden responded gently, sighing and rubbing absently at his chest with a hoof. “I’m going to be… gone soon. I don’t want you to regret not showing me a little more attention towards the end.”
“Warden, stop,” Kuno said, holding up a hoof. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Warden gave her a grim look. “You can’t fix this with magic, Kuno. This isn’t some magical fantasy tale where you can just get the mighty Elements of Harmony to blast me and fix me.”
“If you believed it was that bad, you wouldn’t be so calm,” Kuno said dismissively.
Warden looked down at his hooves for a moment, and then back up at his wife. “Kuno. I’ve faced a lot of things these past years. From Sunshine and Daggertail, through to actually dying at the hooves of a crazy changeling Queen. I’m getting pretty good at facing down my fears. But I’m also understanding that it’s not so much a matter of being brave as being able to squash down your fear and get on with it any way.”
“So you’re dying and you’re a coward?” Kuno asked, arching an eyebrow.
Rolling his eyes, Warden scuffing the floor with a hoof nervously and then held his wife’s gaze. “I’ve never been more scared in my life,” he whispered softly. “I’m trying to hold it together for you. Because you’ve already got so much on your plate… but… I need you.”
Kuno frowned deeply, but stepped closer to her husband, hooking her hooves around him and pulling him into a reassuring hug. “I’m sorry, Warden, I shouldn’t be neglecting you.”
Warden nodded, squeezing his hooves around her almost desperately, burying his face in her mane.
Frowning deeply, Kuno stared down at him and she mechanically stroked his mane, her expression one of confusion. “I… I’ve been neglecting you so much,” she murmured, pulling his heavy head up so she could gently kiss him. She pulled back after a moment, that look of confusion still on her face. “I… I’m sorry, Warden. I should have noticed this a lot sooner.”
“You’ve been busy,” Warden said with a weak chuckle, hooves tugging at her insistently to pull her closer against him.
“The idea that I’m so busy that I wouldn’t notice this…” Kuno murmured, shaking her head in denial. “This is unacceptable. I promise you, I will be a better wife.”
Warden shook his head and pressed his face into her mane again. “You’re already perfect, Kuno. Even if you are a size too big.”
“No, Warden,” Kuno said, a little more urgency in her voice this time. “I didn’t sense this. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t-”
Warden lifted a hoof to gently place it on her muzzle, stopping her from speaking. “Kuno. I forgive you. For not comforting me earlier. The fact that you’ve been using your emotion-sensing abilities as a changeling to steer our relationship around is ammunition I keep in my quiver until our next argument.”
“We don’t argue,” Kuno stated flatly.
“Because you sense where I’m going and head me off! That’s cheating!” Warden accused.
“Are you pretending that the rewards aren’t worth the ‘cheating’?” Kuno asked, arching an eyebrow.
Warden paused at that, looking her up and down carefully. “You might need to convince me.”
Kuno looked him up and down in return, and then a sly smile spread across her muzzle. “Shall I get the stepladder?”
Warden opened his mouth to respond, and then paused, closing it and wrinkling his nose. “Maybe when the thought of that kind of thing doesn’t make me feel nauseous.”
Frowning, Kuno pushed the bucket towards him with a forehoof.
“I just need some more air,” Warden stated, turning back to lay his chin on the railing where he could take full advantage of the wind coming down off the mountain. Kuno tried to push up close, but he gently pressed her away with a warning of ‘too stuffy’.
“So…” Kuno said after a few moments. “You said you can… feel it?”
“Yes,” Warden responded, his throat suddenly dry. “Like a harp string… or… a spider’s web.”
Warden nodded. “It seems to react more harshly. When a unicorn lights something up near me, it’s like a buzz. A vibration. Like there’s a bee buzzing about under my sternum. But when a changeling transforms…” he trailed off, going still and silent. After a few seconds, he gasped and grasped his chest with a shudder. “There, I just felt it.”
“In the north tower?” Kuno asked knowingly.
Warden nodded. “You can feel it too?”
“Just the presence of magic. That little… yes. Like an invisible spider’s web being tugged. That is exactly what it feels like.”
“I feel that in my chest,” Warden murmured, swallowing thickly and seeming to turn more green. “I can… I can ignore it. Most of the time. But when it’s quiet and still… it makes my heart skip a beat.” Warden paused then, collecting himself. “It terrifies me.”
Kuno nodded gently, and then pressed close to him, lightly pressing her cheek against his own. “I… I’m here for you. Until the end of time.”
Warden nodded, hooking a hoof over her form. “That’s all I’ll ever need from you.”