My life, I think, is surprisingly normal in spite of the circumstances. I go to school, have friends I adventure with, and have an embarrassing Family that I care for—that I love—nonetheless. Or at least, I tell myself that I think I love them, for what wouldn’t I do for Mother? I think, if it ever came to such a thing, I could bring myself to die for her, and isn’t that love? I’m not sure, but I like to think it is, even though I know thinking alone has never made anything true.
How do I know? Because of my friends, or who I call my friends, as I’m sure they would abandon me in an instant if they ever found out the truth about my Family—about me… I don’t think about that, though, even though I know thinking alone has never made anything true. I know that because my friends, my two friends, to be specific, have certainly dragged me into enough experiences to figure out a lot about Equestria.
Equestria… that “magical land of ponies” which is filled with so much love that it makes me feel empty. So much so that sometimes I think I really am empty—maybe even incapable—of love, but that surely can’t be true… Can it? No… that I know can’t be true, because even if my friends did find out about my Family and abandoned me I would still care for them, and that’s love, too, right? Even if they didn’t care about me in return; even if they wished for my death instead?
Still, I am glad that, for now, those questions don’t have to be answered; that, for now, my life is normal—a lie, but as I said, “in spite of the circumstances.” A lie, yes… and not just a lie to them, but, sometimes I fear, to myself as well. I try to tell myself that I care—that I love—but if that’s so, then why do I remain? Wouldn’t their lives be better without me? Without risking their finding out and wondering what had gone wrong; making them question their lives?
I’m not sure… I never am, and I don’t think I can ever be sure. Not of myself, anyway. I do know that I’m here for a reason, and that if I insisted I cannot continue, I could be replaced. Would the one who replaced me be better or worse? I don’t want to think ill of my Family, but I want to stay, so I tell myself, whenever I wonder about this, worse… I am the best for them… Mother wouldn’t have sent me unless she thought I could do this better than everyone else.
All the same, I doubt she chose me to care about who I would come to regard as true—and, I would like to say, “honest,” but who would I be kidding? Not myself—friends. Certainly, anyone can pretend to care, but can they pretend to love? I don’t know… I don’t pretend to even know what love is, but I hope what I feel is love, even as I wonder if it is possible for me to love. For my friends, I would wish nothing else for them but real love.
Why I care about giving them real love is hard to say. I know, at least, that they love me; I know that, if they ever found me out, they would go searching for the “real” Scootaloo—a pony who doesn’t actually exist. It’s a comforting sentiment in its own strange way… Well, perhaps not exactly comforting, but… No; it is comforting, for it is—and I know this—love, and while it is difficult to imagine the situation being reversed, I like to think I would do the same if in their place.
Then, at the same time, there is always the fear that their finding out the truth is inevitable, so even as I care for them, I try to distance myself from them for, as I tell myself, their sakes…
Such a feeble and fragile lie, so transparent even I cannot fool myself with it for a second. I may not know exactly what love is, but I do know what it’s not. I know that it sounds paradoxical and impossible that I can tell when something isn’t love, but can’t tell what is love… yet here I am, stealing energy from “Scootaloo’s” friends in the form of love that I wish I could reciprocate without resorting to a lie, yet that very same love would leave me in an instant if I should ever try!… THAT is a paradox!…
The paradox of my life. A paradox I must solve if I am to ever be able to relax…
So absorbed am I in such thoughts—though never enough to forget the personality of my disguise, for I am still a Changeling; faking, hiding my true thoughts, is all but engrained in my DNA—I almost don’t come back to myself in time to avoid what could have been a nasty crash with a trio of rabbits who had hopped into the middle of the road and stopped right in front of my speeding scooter. Fortunately, for both me and the rabbits, Sweetie Belle’s and Apple Bloom’s eyes were shut in anticipation, so the discrete adding of a few inches to my wingspan go unnoticed.
Unfortunately, Applejack, apparently chasing the rabbits, isn’t quite “pegasus” enough to avoid same with me, the other Cutie Mark Crusaders, my scooter, and the wagon, as her leaping for the rabbits only ends with all of us in a painful, certainly bruised heap (did the rabbits use us as a trap? clever things). I suppose I should also count myself lucky that all my time spent as a Cutie Mark Crusader has apparently strengthened my ability to remain transformed with ever harder knocks to my head—one of the few certain ways to identify a Changeling. Now there’s an idea… something definitely worth talking to Mother about tonight…
That’s for later, though. Right now, I need something else, or rather, somepony else: Somepony who can help me sort through my divided loyalties… without her knowing what she’s actually doing, of course. The easiest cover, naturally, would be to talk about her Cutie Mark—something I can only hope to reveal the best course of action for me. However, this has the side effect of Apple Bloom now asking her sister about how she got her Cutie Mark, which, I can hardly believe, Apple Bloom has never heard before.
Long story short, Applejack had earned her Cutie Mark by being honest with herself about how she felt. If anything, this only makes me feel worse. I had gotten myself into this whole dilemma by being honest with myself about how I feel towards Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom and everypony else whose love for Scootaloo feeds me!
If anything, lying and telling myself I can’t care about them because they’re my food would arguably leave me happier!
But now that the revelation has hit, I can’t go back… quite unlike Applejack, who afterwards goes right back to chasing the rabbits who had stolen some food from Sweet Apple Acres. However, I know I cannot stew in these unfortunate thoughts, so I urge the other two to get on with our “quest.”
This day, it seems, is simply not a good day for traveling, for some distance after our meeting with Applejack, Fluttershy all but falls out of the air to block our way. This time, I know I can’t risk her—a pegasus who would be able to spot such much more easily—seeing me alter my wings. Attempting to turn, however, turns out badly as a rock I notice too late catches on the wheel, launching the three of us to the ground before Fluttershy’s hooves.
More animals, this times ducks, are what Fluttershy had been trying to warn me about. Fluttershy. If it seems the Universe is to deny me the chance to talk with Rainbow Dash, I couldn’t ask for a better second choice. Convincing her to tell the story behind her Cutie Mark doesn’t take much effort, either, and my enthusiasm I only have to halfway fake.
By the end of it, however, as she performs a small musical number, I have to focus to keep from cringing and backing away in shame. Love everything? I can’t help but think there must be some terrible irony or other trick-of-the-Universe being played against me here. Surely, if Fluttershy knew what I was doing to the poor fillies sitting beside me, then what she had done to the cockatrice would look positively comforting compared to what she would do to me. She wouldn’t love me-… She couldn’t love me if she knew the truth.
If the Element of Kindness couldn’t love something, then what hope would it—would I!—have of even gleaning a little snack of pity from anypony else?
With Fluttershy finally finished, I can barely contain myself from running away right there. Still, the way I hop onto my scooter, ready to continue—finding myself in even more dire need for Rainbow Dash’s advice than before—does not raise suspicion. So distracted and distraught am I now that I barely register anything when I am stopped yet again by Rarity; not even really listening to her as I just grunt affirmatives and go with the flow.
I come back to myself just as Rarity seems intent on making us Cutie Mark Crusader Ponyquins. Jumping quickly back into Scootaloo’s personality, I sigh mentally in relief at how the other two seem not to have noticed for being distracted by their pony-worry of Cutie Marks. Upon hearing of our quest, the Element of Generosity decides to make our “chore” (really, it’s just standing there, frozen by not wanting to be pricked by a levitated pin) a bit more bearable with her story.
I can’t help but feel… disappointed… afterwards, however. Not that I had expected much from Rarity, but something about her story is distinctly strange. Not just the weird time screw-up, but… the ending. She wasn’t any more skilled with design or being any less Generous than she had been in the beginning, but instead she only received her Cutie Mark after receiving the praise she wanted?
There has to be something more to the story… something I’m missing. Ponies earn their Cutie Mark when they realize what their talent is; Rarity only got her Cutie Mark in clothing design after she got the praise she wanted. No; that’s not right. It’s not that she had been fishing for the compliment, but she had only accepted her own talent after it had been subjected to a test of standing up to her own standards… of standing up to another’s standards.
How she imagined that this would help us—or rather, those Cutie Mark Crusaders who are actually ponies—to earn their Cutie Marks, I haven’t the faintest idea. As for me, it steels my want to speak with Rainbow Dash to the point it becomes a need: a need for another to evaluate me…
Someone to judge me.
Given the recently developed pattern, I couldn’t help but be right when I guess that, after running into Twilight Sparkle, we would end up hearing her Cutie Mark story next. Somehow, her story ends up even worse than Rarity’s: so there was an explosion at just the right time to not only “unlock” her magical reserves and prevent her from failing her entrance exam, but got her noticed by the Princess and her got her her Cutie Mark as well? What kind of realization was that supposed to represent?
First… if I know anything about Twilight, it’s that she trusts Princess Celestia “unconditionally” (of course, it’s not truly unconditional… for example, I would hesitate to say that Twilight would still trust her if she wasn’t The Princess, at least not without something else to compensate; thus, conditions). If Celestia said exactly as Twilight just told—or close enough—then Twilight may had simply taken Celestia’s words closer than the Princess may have intended (or Celestia looks far too much into the future to be called a simple “chessmaster”), and took her words as evidence that magic is her Talent.
I don’t know how I should feel about that useless tale, either as myself or as Scootaloo.
Freed from Twilight’s “yesyesyes” trap by the staring crowd, I'm not surprised at all by Pinkie Pie’s appearance and insistence of telling us her story. I don’t waste any time thinking about it, thanks to Pinkie’s perfect example of the obviously unreliable narrator, but at least I think that her tale, even if untrue, does provide the best example for the other two Cutie Mark Crusaders on what an actual realization of one’s talent looks like.
Not that I expect either of them to understand, nor do I care… yet; I need Rainbow Dash before I can decide to care or not!
Of course, with only one Bearer of the Elements of Harmony left, I feel more anticipation than worry.
There she is, waiting for me.
The one who exemplifies loyalty.
That nature I must test myself on.
To choose loyalty to one, and abandon the other…
When her story is done all too soon, I can feel my mind falling apart—shards of broken pieces piling inside my head. The answer is right there; I know it is, but I don’t want it. I never wanted it. I don’t want to choose…
As I sit there, my Scootaloo persona running on autopilot, I notice something as the Elements gather into a hug:
Twilight’s Cutie Mark.
It can’t be a coincidence.
Even Celestia wouldn’t be able to change the form of a Cutie Mark.
A Cutie Mark of one large star surrounded by five smaller ones.
It finally becomes obvious to me as she sits surrounded by her five friends.
Her fellow Elements of Harmony.
They were fated to be the Elements of Harmony.
Just as I was fated to be born a Changeling.
There was, and is, nothing either of us could or can do about those facts.
The fact the Elements are Heroes.
And Changelings are the Enemies.
“Gimarazrasu Maraza, I have a… suggestion I think may interest you.” I hesitantly propose as I prostrate myself uzhkaalav before my Queen Chrysalis.
“It can wait, Amaa Ufazun. Now, rise, for I need you to listen closely to my new plan, and your new mission… if you feel up to it.” Queen Chrysalis smiles sadly down at me, the youngest Changeling in Equestria; I know she regrets—wishes there is some other way, but there isn’t… the Matabara had been weakened too severely by Shining Armor and Cadance’s spell.
Before I can ask—before can decide if I want to ask, already suspecting and fearing the answer—Queen Chrysalis goes on, “Going over your reports again, I and my advisers have finally agreed that impersonating Scootaloo’s friends—Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom—will provide enough love and tactical positioning to warrant the risk, and we’re going to need you to both help capture them, and train and advise the tagarsharuti.”
As much as I hate it, I know I have to make a decision, and I know what it has to be. “Baysamira, Gimarazrasu Maraza.”
Something—pity, I guess—takes over her eyes as she corrects me, “Baymatabira, Amaa Ufazun.”
She may say Baymatabira; that what I’m about to do is for the entire Family, and that is probably true, but the reason I do it is the one word I hear in my head as she gives me my instructions: Baygimariza.
It has been about a month now since the replacing of Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle with two of my sisters, who are just half a year younger than me. The thing had gone without so much a hitch or snag—a simple blow to the back of both their heads during one of our many Cutie Mark Crusading planning sessions in the treehouse, then a signal to where the tagarsharuti and garafxassharuti were hidden, waiting. The tagarsharuti took on the two fillies’ forms, and the garafxassharuti took the fillies away to the outpost in the Everfree Forest.
Since then, thanks to my teaching, the two aren’t suspected even by the fillies’ families… and I have wondered on occasion whether I would really be all that upset if they were found out. How disappointed would I actually be if I failed in my mission of helping them integrate into their roles?
How horrible of me to think of such a thing! For just as surely as my name is not Scootaloo, they—my sisters! Matabara!—would be killed! Executed! –and… likely more. Torture, in an attempt to get them to tell where the real Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle are being kept, but of course they would never tell. Not even kapasha are so foolish as to give ponies so much as a hint of a hint as to where Changelings live.
Kapasha have certainly been on my mind recently, and I’m sure they are on the other two’s as well, given the quickly arriving Equestrian holiday of Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day. A day for ponies to spend, in the day’s entirety, simply exuding love—in other words, a day for Changelings to feast and forget any animosities between ourselves for a little while. After all, when love is in such abundance, I know I, and most others, even Sagama, would prefer to feed rather than worry about traitors and deserters.
So, in an effort to distract ourselves from the incoming flux of love energies (and keep our mouths from watering), we jump onto the first project that comes to mind: a Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day present to the one who provides all three of us with love five days out of seven. I think, however, we might have overdone it; not that any Changeling would blame us—I can only imagine what shenanigans the more antsy are getting up to in ever more desperate attempts to distract themselves. To put it in so few words: Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day is big for Changelings.
However, even if no Changeling would blame us, I think both the door out of the treehouse and the door into the schoolhouse will have something to say about the size of our present. Of course the giant heart, while composed mostly of paper, ribbon, and glitter, is still somewhat welded into shape by the copious glue holding the monstrosity together. All three of us silently agree that we’re thankful none of us have to imponyate some “arts-and-craft-y” type (though usually when scouting out potential targets, any talent remotely related to the arts is an instant mark against a pony—even the most art-talented Changeling can’t copy a specific pony’s particular style perfectly). I suppose, though, that even if Apple Bloom has showed some proclivity to the visual arts, the participation in this project by the other two Cutie Mark Crusaders—or rather, Sweetie Belle and myself—would render that skill unnoticeable.
It takes a little bit of work—namely in the “bend it, but not so much as to totally ruin it” direction—but we get it into the classroom just fine without having to resort to even the tiniest, most subtle Changeling magic to help; something I think rightfully earns us the moment of self-congratulation we take. Celebration. Camaraderie. Family. I’m sorry, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, but as much as I value your friendship, I have higher priorities… I just wish I could have done this without hurting you.
Inside, I grimace at the useless apologies—No, they’re worse than useless, but exactly what they are, I don’t think there is a word for. What I’d done, and what I feel about it, I don’t think any Changeling has felt or even dreamed of before. To worry about one’s prey, or to even… maybe… love them back… It’s unimaginable!
I need to abandon these thoughts, as I have abandoned them.
I hope that Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day should prove to be the distraction—the reintegration into normal Changeling thought!—that I need, but in the back of my head, I already know it will fail to reach that expectation. I ignore that part of me, though, as I, a Changeling, should; I have to expect it to succeed in order to give it a chance. A self-fulfilling prophecy… I could really use one of those right now.
Right now, I need to focus. The three of us have purposefully placed ourselves at the front of the class, prime to watch our “peers” and take note of the… possible services they may render to us, Changelings, in the future. Our job is not only to gather the love that ponies seem to naturally have for their young, but to look for budding, extrafamilial relationships—our future food—as a farmer might look after fruit trees too young to yet give fruit. How freely ponies love and express their love, even when so young!
-except towards Changelings.
It’s almost like they want to be our prey.
-and I should be happy to help; I should want for these hypocrites and hoarders of love to be visited by my family and drained of that which they don’t need in order to survive like we do, but which they value as much as a Changeling does anyway! How can ponies and Changelings think so similarly, yet be so at odds? Of course: ponies believe we don’t think like they do, but still, I can’t… hate them, or wish harm upon them; I can barely justify helping my brothers and sisters turn them into food, and even I don’t know myself how I could… love them! -and if I don’t understand it, how can I hope to change it?
Maybe-… I hope I don’t need to understand it. Maybe all I need to do is understand and accept something else. Maybe having these two sisters here will help me relearn what I should have understood before coming here. Maybe that’s what Gimarazrasu Amaariz plan has been all along?—she knew I needed help before I knew it, and started preparing before I started having trouble with these thoughts. Even thought I don’t really know if that’s true, it reminds me of a most important fact I almost forgot: Gimarzrasu Maraza loves me. Everything she’s done and plans to do is all centered on helping me and Matabira.
All of her children. Everyone.
I calm down, and the worry I’ve been feeling coming from my sisters turns to relief, both just in time to receive a new shock: Cheerilee has no, as ponies put it, “special somepony.” All of that potential love, especially on Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day, being wasted?! It seems my wish for a distraction is granted only after I don’t need it any more. I think I’m starting to feel sick… but I need to push on.
Of course all three of us think the same thing at more-or-less the same time: Changeling matchmakers—it would make gathering love foal’s play! -and what better way to initiate our newest plan than with just what Gimarzrasu Maraza teaches and loves: singing. Singing is, after all, pretty much the only artistic thing most Changelings are good at consistently, but the one currently taking the place of Sweetie Belle is the best of our generation, if not the best currently living—after Gimarzrasu Miriza, of course!
However… a funeral? On Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day? Yet more waste, with all of that comforting going around the mourners—not quite as good as the love that blooms on the holiday, but more than the usual everyday. If only the “survivors,” as ponies call them, had rescheduled to a couple days away in either direction, the harvest could have been maximized. All the same, I spot a couple kapasha among the mourners—whether they themselves are actually mourning the loss of a pony’s life or not, I don’t know, and I don’t care. I’m not kapasha. I don’t think like them. Our needs outweigh the needs of our prey. What we do to ponies is necessary to our survival—the akaapish-way would never work on a scale large enough to feed us all!… I think…
Tubs of jelly? Love towards an inanimate object? Yet more waste. How could ponies waste love so frivolously?
Thankfully, I don’t have to think about it too long and lose my pazara in the middle of the street, for we spot what should have been obvious from the start: Big McIntosh. Apple Bloom’s—as “she” points out—big brother, and the stallion that should have come to my sister’s mind before I almost got sick thinking about that jelly-loving pony. -whom I’m determined to never think of again.
How could all of our work turn out for naught? How could two ponies without “special someponies” not want to love each other?! Is there something wrong—defective—with these two? No, that can’t be right, given how much love we, and particularly I, have gathered from Cheerilee for so long. Big McIntosh, however… has always been a bit on the odd side, preferring the company of trees even more than the apple-philiac Applejack. -but turning into an apple or apple tree is about as bad an idea as turning into a tub of jelly. I gag again as we slump away from our defeat; so much for our Changeling matchmakers idea…
-and on to becoming Changeling love potion brewers! If only Twilight Sparkle knew she had hoofed over a recipe for a love potion to a trio of Changelings! What would she think of herself? What would she think once Ponyville becomes the one place in Equestria where everypony, including herself, is in love no one or thing but a Changeling? Nothing, of course! She’d be too devoted to her Changeling to think about anything else, if the book is right about the power of this potion!
No more worries about being found out… No more needs to replace anypony…
The paradise Gimarzrasu Maraza promised before that unicorn set in motion the ruination of her perfect plan! I only hope Gimarzrasu Maraza will allow us to make Twilight Sparkle fall in love with her. Yes… Twilight Sparkle, forced to love the one who once imponyated her brother’s fiancé. Could a more fitting punishment for ruining years of work towards a future where Changelings lived without fear of starvation and helping her brother kill countless Matabura possibly exist?!
I still feel like I’m going to throw up, but I don’t think it’s because of jelly-baths any more…
The feeling only gets stronger when we discover just how strong the potion is, or rather, the poison. Again, in spite of the fact that there is no “hivemind” as ponies believe we have, I know exactly what the other two are thinking: if it’s a love poison, does that mean the love it produces can poison a Changeling, perhaps to the point of killing them? No need to find out—we know we need to solve this before we accidentally kill someone imponyating one or the other, even a kapish!
It may have been difficult, but my two sisters congratulate ourselves on solving the problem we had created. Now, after finishing our punishment and sitting in the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse, I still haven’t completely rid myself of my constant nausea. I groan, walking away and ignoring the other two’s scheming, as I think about what led to it: the use of the love poison.
I-… I am a poison. All Changelings are a poison on love, even the self-righteous kapish, with what we do to ponies. What I’ve done…
… What I can fix.
Before I realize it, I’m standing over the still—but breathing—bodies of my two sisters, knocked out cold… and knocked out of their disguises. I don’t remember what I’d done, or even remember deciding to do it. My breathing is… heavy, and I’m soon made aware of a dull pain along my stomach, where I must have been hit.
I cough and hack and heave, but my nausea has left me, as I realize only when I stand up straight and swallow loudly. I shake off the horrible implications and, knowing I can’t carry both of my sisters, drag them and hide them in a hidden compartment that Apple Bloom—the real Apple Bloom (clever nymph- that is, filly)—built, and that even Applejack doesn’t know about.
Then, I race for the Everfree Forest.
I’m not going to be responsible for ponies finding, torturing, and killing Matabara.
The run through the Everfree Forest to the maluynayu closest to Ponyville feels like it takes days. Even though I had hidden their unconscious bodies away, my sisters can still be found! What if they wake and climb out of that hidden compartment right in front of somepony looking for the Cutie Mark Crusaders!? The tears blur my vision so badly that many times I nearly run into something—what, I don’t know and don’t care.
The only thing I care about is not slowing down.
-not slowing down until I know my sisters are safe.
Matabara vusibuura uzidasa!
What had taken possession of me to betray Mahatbara—to turn me into some kind of kapish!? I already know; only one thing could be so powerful, but to acknowledge it- to think my love for Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle could in any way be more than my love for my own family-!…
I need to come up with some other reason before I reach the-…!
Too late. I bump into someone—Forge, one of the malaynayu guards. Of course they’d not only be watching out for ponies and other dangerous creatures, but for distressed Changelings, and someone would be sent out to meet said Changeling in case there was trouble: disguise-breaking, spy-revealing, operation-ruining trouble.
This definitely qualified. -but to tell the truth of why were they revealed…
… Do they really need to know?
“Imi? What are you doing here? -and like this?! Did something happen to Surrogate and Substitute?!”
I don’t even have time to make up a story! Besides, if Matabara are rescued in time—which I do want; I can’t imagine bearing the weight of them suffering at the unforgiving (towards Changelings) hooves of ponies because of my foolishness!—then they’ll, in all likelihood, be able to tell the truth, or at least enough of it for Forge to figure out the rest of what happened.
“I- I knocked them unconscious and hid them in the secret panel in the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse, and they need to be pulled out of there before they’re found by some pony!” I couldn’t speak the words fast enough. If only we had a hivemind like the ponies think we do, I would’ve been able to tell everyone what had happened immediately!… but then again, if we did have a hivemind, would I have enough individuality to do something like this in the first place?
Maybe I, and Matabara, would be better off if that were true—if I didn’t have any individuality…
“What!? Why did-?! Never mind. No time for questions. Just-… just go to your old basura and I’ll get back to you after this has been dealt with. -whatever this is…” Forge finishes to himself as he turns around to fly off to prepare for the rescue mission; I hear him mumble something about “…-another-…” or something like that, but I already have too much to think about, and even if I’d been curious, I’d daren’t call him back to ask, further delaying the rescue of Matabira.
I wish I can sigh in relief at the fact that something to save Matabira is being done now, but I can’t ignore my own position regarding this. As I make my way into and through the malaynayu cave, I avoid everyone’s eyes and feign deafness to their greetings and questions.
My old basara… just another hexagon drilled into the cave walls of the maaliynayu, but drilled with my own magic (as every Changeling drills their own basara wherever they are and whatever their age). Down in the cramped confines of this Everfree Forest cave network, the hexagon system isn’t quite as efficient here as it is back in open cave I call home, but the shape is comforting on an instinctual level—to be laying inside the deepest part of a slightly slanted downward tunnel, cuddled up with someone, and together looking out at a hexagonal slice of the cave beyond is to know peace… as a Changeling. I’ll just have to do without the cuddl-.
How could I let myself get sidetracked so easily!? Matabara is still out there, and their safety is still uncertain! Do I truly care so little that I can ignore how they might even now be being tortured to death by ponies because of me!? I gag and hack, the sickness I had felt before returning stronger than ever, twisting my insides, and finally I release my pazara with violent, painful jerks and spasms—quite unlike the natural and indescribably “pleasant” feeling that usually comes with releasing pazara.
Emotion Sickness. I should have recognized the signs before any of this could happen. I had so many chances to stop and so many hints that I should have stopped, but I pushed myself, and now… I’m here, sick to my stomach, while Matabara are, at best, laying unconscious in a cramped hidden compartment, and at worst already found and imprisoned by ponies.
Because. Of. Me.
How I wish I could trade places with them.
How ironic that I can’t.
I, like any Changeling, can take the place of any pony with enough study and time to prepare, but the one time I want to take another’s place, even though they aren’t ponies…
I yawn. I don’t want to sleep, but after the fiasco Hearts’ and Hooves’ Day had turned into and the subsequent run through the Everfree Forest, combined with the (how I hate to use such a word to describe anything about myself at the moment, but it’s true) content fullness the holiday had given my reserves of love energy… The last thing that crosses through my mind before I fall into complete darkness is that any punishment, even the most severe—horn removal and exile, leaving me out to either commit suicide or endure a slow death by starvation, both resulting in my body being left for animals to desecrate as they may—feels too insignificant, so that the thought it might actually happen to me doesn’t bother my drowsing mind for a second.
When I open my eyes, my mind registers “impending doom” before I can consciously process anything, never mind why this specific thought should come to me. As I blink, eventually realizing that in my sleep I’ve curled up and turned around to face away from the opening of my basira, and there’s a shadow thrown on the end wall there. -a head-shaped shadow with a long, twisted horn and crown…
I can’t stand quick enough, and I trip, landing painfully with my forelegs crossed under my barrel. Before I can even attempt to untangle myself, her magic encircles me, pulls me out of my basira, sets my legs straight (I fall limp, allowing this without resistance), and places me before Gimarazrasu Maraza and two warriors standing on either side of her. “Imitation… Imitation, what am I going to do with you? I knew you were struggling—I knew you would from being sent out at such a young age…—but this? -this!? I never imagined in my darkest nightmares that you would do something so reckless that would endangered the lives of your sisters! I hope you are happy to hear that they have been retrieved, safe and… unharmed beyond what you did to them…” Indeed, I let out a deep sigh and even manage a small smile, but it’s short-lived. “However, we have no one ready to take their place—or yours—so we now have no choice but to abandon what would have otherwise been an extremely strategic position against the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony… -and the blame for this falls solely on you.”
“Razawa ataa mu uminraa…” I half-bow, half lower my head in shame as I wait for my punishment to be decided.
“For anyone else, such a crime would warrant exile, at the least, but you… Amaa Ufazun…” I raise myself slowly, daring, and find Gimarazrasu Maraza turned slightly away from me. “You’ve provided valuable intel on the movements of important ponies, particularly the Bearers, and even managed to integrate your sisters into the roles of ponies you have been observing. All of this skill and ability, at such a young age-… A Changeling like you only comes along so rarely, but I cannot let this go unpunished, either—you know this…” I nod only when I notice that she’s looking out of the corner of her eye at me. “I hope you eventually learn that you cannot spare even sympathy, much less love, for ponies, so this is your punishment, effective immediately: I will remove your magic—even your ability to disguise yourself—and you shall be imprisoned with the ponies being held in this maaliynayu until I think you have learned your lesson.”
I nod again. “Man uminraa…” I repeat as I close my eyes to keep from being blinded by the light of Gimarazrasu Amaariz magic; in my mind, I feel something—my magic—being “contained” and hidden away from my mental sight.
“I hope you learn this as quickly as you learned other necessary skills, Amaa Ufazun.” The emphasis is so slight I can’t tell if I imagine it…
She allows her sorrow to touch her face for a moment before the two others step forward and I, knowing what they are there for, silently allow them to escort me.
I hope, too, that this will finally drill into me those lessons I would have learned if I had not been sent out so young. Treated like a pony: I recognize the idea behind this punishment is humiliation… -maybe that is what I need to at last leave behind my care for ponies? Gimarazrasu Maraza has never led us astray before! -not- never on purpose! She must think- know that this is my best chance, and if it does not work, it is only because I failed where she believed I could succeed.
I’ve already disappointed her once.
I won’t- can’t-! -again.
Further and further we go—without the accompaniment of Gimarazrasu Miriza; of course she would have other business—down to the single, solitary cell this small malaynayu houses, and there behind the translucent pazar-door that only Changelings can unlock lay the only ponies I expect to be there: Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.
They’re huddled into the corner farthest from the door, and at first I think they’re sleeping until the clicking of the pazar-locks prompt them both to raise their heads. The other warrior looks ready to throw me into the cell, his horn lighting up with green fire for a split second before he sees me already stepping forward.
The only two ponies I wish I could call friends shiver and grip each other tighter at my entrance.
Then the door behind me is closed and locked, and we’re left alone; there’s no need to guard the ponies, and without my magic, there’s no way I can operate the pazar-door… even if I want to; this is less than I deserve. The two Cutie Mark Crusaders pull into an even tighter ball at the closing and locking of the door, but I only turn away and lay down in the corner opposite them—for a moment I question why they would fear me so, as I’m of a similar age to them, which they should at least be able to infer from my size, if nothing else.
It’s not “me” they’re afraid of—it’s what I am…
Suddenly, I want to go back to sleep, but my body betrays me: My slumber last night had eliminated any feelings of tiredness, leaving me with the discomfort of being well-rested—forcing me to continue facing my fear-reflected, as Gimarazrasu Maraza planned, no doubt, by waiting until I awoke this morning…
One moment I feel like I should say something, the next I argue back to myself that the point of this exercise is that I ignore any remotely positive feelings I have towards ponies, and should resist (at the very least) initiating conversation with the two of them. Then I go back, wondering if I should work out my feelings aloud so that I might expose them for Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle to attack and hopefully destroy… but what if they don’t? What if, instead, they—as silly, curious pony-nymphs—work past their fear of what I am in a way no adult could be expected to? Perhaps the point then would be for me to deny their offering of friendship?… -but would I be able to? Then it would be better to be silent, but in a way that is only avoiding the point of this punishment. -if, indeed, that is the point…
I turn back around to face them, and in the split second while I’m turning my head, I see them flinch out of the corner of my eye; other than having lowered their heads, they remain as I had last seen them. Even as I then stare at them with my relatively blank Changeling eyes—so “nonsapient-looking” to ponies, I know—they visibly relax. The most cynical part of my mind tells me that this is only because they’re beginning to realize that I, too, am a prisoner, and not, I hope, that they’re pushing past their fears as I’d just predicted.
Apple Bloom’s words are more predictable than the ending of a romance novel. “Are you… a pris’ner, too?”
I only blink for a long moment; even put on the spot I can’t decide whether I should just act in such a way to convince them I can’t even understand speech (not that that would be hard to convince ponies of, usually) or answer.
What does Gimarazrasu Maraza want?! I need to make a decision!
… -or maybe the point is not what I do, but what I ultimately learn? It doesn’t matter what path I take, I only need to trust that Gimarazrasu Maraza would intervene if I do something wrong.
She doesn’t want me—any of her children—to fail!
I cringe at my own daring; every instinct and everything I had been taught—both!—is berating me, reminding me that I should never tell the truth to a pony, so I continue wondering, now thinking that I should change tactics again: going back to lying. What purpose would that serve now, though, after I have been exposed for what I am? -but they don’t know who I am yet…
Apple Bloom stands and takes a small step forward, partially above Sweetie Belle, and between her and me. Protective. Confident. Strong-willed. “Why?”
I huff and turn away before saying, “What does that matter to you… pony?” I have to force myself to say the last word and almost instantly gag, but I’ve had a lot of practice lately with keeping my emotions off of my face, yet I have to do something, so I only sigh instead.
After one long minute (or so), Apple Bloom finally takes her eyes off me to give Sweetie Belle a questioning look. “Well, uhmm-?”
“I failed them,” I blurt out, deciding that there’s no reason anymore not to be open and truthful; even if they don’t believe me, it’s not like they’ll ever get out of here, after all. Nothing I say has the slightest chance of leaving this chamber, so why not? “I failed the hive.” I continue saying to the wall, purposefully leaving myself completely unaware of what the two ponies think about this; I don’t want to risk anything anymore, though what exactly would be put at risk, I don’t know. Another reason to leave myself in the dark. “I ruined a perfectly good well of love, and hurt and endangered the lives of my sisters and, by extension, hurt everyone in the hive.” I hiss at myself when I feel tears slipping down my face. “This… is a forgiving punishment.”
“Ya hurt yer sisters!?… Why?!” How typical—almost predictable—that that would be the thing they latch onto. So… pony of her. It’s not the lives of two nymphs that are important to the hive-.
That’s not what I’ve been thinking this whole time. So far I’ve only been thinking about the lives I had directly endangered, not the damage I had caused to the hive as a whole.
That’s not what Gimarazrasu Maraza thinks, either. She cares about the hive, but she cares for the hive by caring for each and every one of her children individually!
Where had I gone wrong? How had I gone so astray?!
I think Apple Bloom, or maybe Sweetie Belle, had still been talking, because Sweetie Belle finally brings me back to the physical world with a cry of, “Hey!”
“Yes, my sisters. In my selfishness… and ignorance, I had put them in a position where they could have been discovered and-!” I shiver; I don’t want to think about that any more, and now I know they’re safe, I don’t feel like I have to. “Why? I cared more for my-… for the ponies I called- wished I could call ‘friends’ than my own family…” I may have only been half-aware of what I was doing as I did it, but it was still “me” that did it, and there’s always a reason for everything—there has to be—and that’s the only thing that makes sense.
Hopefully, by confronting and admitting it, I can change…
I wipe my eyes and, in time, turn around. I can see the conflict clear as glass on their faces, and almost smile. Those two are so much smarter than most ponies give them credit for; I know they’re asking themselves how they should feel: on one hoof, I’d betrayed my family, but on the other hoof, that very same family had been hurting ponies. The conflict is obvious.
-but the solution…
When the silence was finally broken by Sweetie Belle asking, “Who? Who were -…?” I could see Apple Bloom had her suspicions, from the look that she uses to interrupt the now-sheepish Sweetie Belle.
Again, why not? Why not tell everything? Do I care if they believe me, after all?
Yes. Of course I do, but there’s no going back to that life any more.
“You two. Just you two.” That surprised Apple Bloom—I guess she’d assumed when I said “sisters” that I was referring to three that had replaced them all—and Sweetie Belle merely tilted her head to the side and slightly forward, silently asking for more.
Maybe they’d realized, too, I had no reason to lie, though, from their perspective, by a different rationale and reason.
“I-…” This is it; I have no way of anticipating how they’d react—even at my most cynical I cannot completely argue away the possibility that it may not be so horrible… and even trying to be optimistic, neither can I say that violence is out of the question (They may be “just nymphs”, but I am the same relative age, and even if such weren’t so, I’m sure I wouldn’t stop them from trying, especially without my magic). “-was Scootaloo.”
How I want to say “am”, but… even in this strange sanctuary of truth, this “fact” would be too improbable for them to even consider legitimate.
-or perhaps I’m just deluding myself. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Sweetie Belle cringes, probably thinking about how many times she had touched (and been touched by) a disgusting, parasitic bug—even though she may not be as squeamish as her sister, no pony likes Changelings—while Apple Bloom simultaneously tilts her head in confusion and widens her eyes in realization. “So, the ‘friends’ you were just talkin’ about-…?”
I let out a few humorless chuckles which only serve to make the two cringe away. “Exactly, Apple Bloom…” I trail off into a sigh as I turn my eyes back to the ground. “Exactly…” Now what? What else can I say? Everything that had happened—my entire drive for everything I’d done—is because of that delusion: I’d lashed out all because of-
What use is it any more?
I’ve been wavering back and forth ever since I realized that I wanted the love of those two for myself instead of Scootaloo, and I still don’t see any resolution. I know what I should do as a Changeling—what I need to do because of the bile and outrage- murderous bile and outrage that rears up whenever a pony so much as thinks about the name of my kind. Then… there’s what I want to do—what my heart aches for… what I know I can’t live without: the impossible.
How can any Changeling stand a fate that should be restrained to nightmares?—to live for so long away from the hive, and therefore away from anyone who loves them- from anyone who would love them? Are they so base?! As animal as ponies paint us, deriving only simple pleasure from the mere act of eating and being full?!
No. No! Of course not! How could I think such a thing?! There’s the hive… Matabara… Gimarazrasu Maraza! So many wonderful reasons to live and endure that fate that is the heritage of our kind!… -reasons to sacrifice ourselves!…
Why isn’t that enough for me? How did I come to care more for my prey as much as—not more than!—Matabara?!
What use… is a broken Changeling?
It’s impossible; the only “resolution” is to give up.
With a groan halfway to a whine of pain, I let my legs collapse beneath me; one foreleg ends up sticking out with the joints at a painful angle, but I don’t have the will to move it. It doesn’t matter. What’s best for the hive is for me to die. I can’t-…! I’d been ruined by two ponies’ love to the point that-! No! I can’t blame them; they didn’t know, and even if they could have-… this was all me: I was broken before I had even hatched.
Doomed. Worse than worthless.
I think one—or maybe both—of them is saying something, but it doesn’t matter, either. Nothing matters. I can only hear the barest underwater-like murmur of any sound beyond my own sobbing, anyway; I would have held it in before, but now-… All my barriers have been broken along with myself, and yet I feel somewhat disconnected from the tears and howls of anguish. Disconnected from my body. Disconnected from every horrible, unchangeable thing that is me.
Subconsciously, I hear the echoes of a distant explosion make its way through the caves, but I only recognize this afterwards, when I feel myself being shaken and Apple Bloom, reluctant but scared, is asking me, “What was that? What was that?!” louder and louder. Averse, it slowly comes to me that the hooves on my side are a nymph’s, not a drone’s*. -and Apple Bloom’s voice is close… really close!
If I hadn’t been filled with so much apathy, I might’ve jumped in surprise and shocked the poor nymphs. -fillies. As it is, I’m only jolted so far: relative wakefulness. Apple Bloom, however, does jump. -away. I just sigh before answering. “It’s nothing to worry about. Just soldiers keeping themselves in practice. Explosions happen all the time.”
Something in the look the two share start tugging deep inside me at… something yet invisible under all the misery. “Uh, when you say ‘all the time’, how of’in are you talkin’ about?”
More and more tugging…
“Every day…” I say, for they’ve surely been down here long enough to notice, as though this should be obvious to them.
-but if it’s not. “Wait!” I cry out just as Apple Bloom opens her mouth. “Don’t tell me that this is the first time you heard one of those explosions?!”
“Another? He said ‘another’… did he really mean-?” One last tug, and “it” is free. “Oh… no.”
Apple Bloom leaps back with a cry of fright when I leap into the air and buzz to the door; I need to know if I’m right, but of course there’s no one there. There’s no need for guards for a cell like this… “Oru!? Oru!!!?” I shout until I’m left coughing, but an answer comes soon enough in the form of another explosion, closer this time. Definitely not normal for practice, if I have any doubt left. Still gasping from my coughing fit, I walk slowly back to where I had been laying. “You’re in luck…” I say to the wall. “It looks like we’re under attack. You’re… being rescued.”
Who knows how many Matabara those ponies are now slaying mercilessly? Ponies that I know I led here; directly or indirectly doesn’t matter… I might as well have killed them myself! The hive is better off without me! -but now it’s too late! Too late to save-… How many lives?! It doesn’t matter—one would be too many!
Now there really is nothing left for me to do but die—be killed…—the explosions closing in tell the whole story of why these ponies are here. Again, I collapse. I didn’t save two sisters after all, but instead killed an entire malaynayu. No, even more than that! All of the Hashara who use this place as a base of operations will suddenly find themselves without support, but they won’t know it! They’ll come here, expecting rest and comfort, but will only get the former and not in the way they’ll expect: their last rest, which they have no right to anticipate for many decades yet! -and everything will cascade down: everyone back home in Hasharstan will mourn, and our already dwindling resources will be stretched further from the loss of this malaynayu, perhaps even to the point that a few of the littlest nymphs may have to be culled because the stress they’d otherwise put on the food supplies would only cause everyone to suffer…!
-and on and on…
-and if no one mourned my death… Who ever mourned the death of a murderer and traitor? I deserve worse than to be forgotten; I deserve to be vilified in history and to be despised by generations of my own kind. I deserve every punishment and torture the ponies can throw at me and, if it’s possible, for their love of hurting me to somehow sustain my life so I know only pain until my body gives way only to old age!
A hoof knocking against the pazar-door brings me out of the contemplation of my future, and a voice, muffled but feminine, calls out, “If anypony’s in there, stand away from the door!” but the order is uncalled for as all three of us are already huddled into out respective corners—briefly I consider jumping out and letting myself get crushed like a bug by the door when it’s blasted open. However, before I can decide, a magical explosion knocks the door free from the surrounding rock with disappointing force—I wouldn’t have been killed by that anyway…
Only curiosity at who these saviors (of Apple Bloom’s and Sweetie Belle’s) are keeps me from falling completely limp in defeat, and instead I crane my neck to watch as the Bearers of the Elements themselves enter. Of course. two of them—a full one third—are sisters to the foalnapped, and… then there’s Rainbow Dash. Loyalty.
If I’m going to die, it might as well be by her hooves. She deserves to be the one to take my life—to destroy the very antithesis of her Element.
Only a quick angry glare (tinged with a pinch of confusion) in my direction is all the two older sisters spare before reuniting with their foalnapped family. Rainbow Dash frantically whips her head back and forth over the bare cell as if the third lost filly could somehow be hiding in plain sight—and how ironic that she is, yet Rainbow Dash will never- can never know—before leveling a discretely envious look at the now-hugging sisters, plus Pinkie Pie, who had used her unnaturally stretchy legs to pull the four together into one big group hug. I shiver from suppressing the want to jump onto Rainbow Dash and drag her into joining them; instead, I can only let my head fall to the ground with a sigh that shakes with all my regrets… and fear—for all that I know deserve it and worse—of my oncoming, now-visible death.
The inevitable question—from here I can now see everything that is going to happen—“Where’s Scootaloo?” Rainbow Dash is turned away from me, but I can picture her eyes darting between the two Crusaders as clearly as if I’m laying next to them.
Through the forest of pony legs, I see as I predict: the two fillies look straight at me—an answer better than any they could have voiced, and more accurate than they will ever suspect. The rest of them, all six pairs of eyes of the Bearers, follow. I know, unlike before, I now have no choice; the sanctuary had been destroyed along with the breaking-down of the door… no more truth—only what the ponies can believe will get me any mercy. “Scootaloo… is dead. I killed her.” Dully, I’m shocked (though I show no outward sign) at the emotionlessness of my voice… besides that, though, it is true, in a way. I killed the personality that Scootaloo had been (and only been) when I knocked Mahatbara unconscious.
Again, my vision of my greatly shortened future does not fail: Rainbow Dash visibly bristles as the meaning of those six simple words claw into her mind and heart; dimly, I’m aware that the others react as well, but my eyes and ears are now for Rainbow Dash only, just as it seems she’s also deaf and blind to the other Bearers. The dispassionate and unconcerned expression I level upon Rainbow Dash only further incenses her—I know that the effect would appear ten times worse to the ponies who already so hate my kind, but even if I could dredge up the effort to care what they think of me now, I don’t think I can cry any more. They’d probably think the crying was an act, anyway.
Everything is an act when one is a creature who’s natural abilities lie in deception.
Even though I expect it, when Rainbow Dash suddenly rushes forward I can’t stop from flinching, and this seals my fate. I hear a cry of, “Rainbow, wait!” in a voice I think is Twilight’s (I’m not exactly in the mind to be identifying voices), but it comes too late: Rainbow’s hoof just then strikes me. She would have struck my forehead, likely knocking me unconscious, but instead it connects with my horn at just the right point and angle, and a crack! that’s not entirely a sound, but also release of magic that makes Rainbow cry out in surprise and pain as she jumps back and tenderly puts her hoof into her mouth.
Green magical light that is not the normal fire-like appearance of Changeling magic streaks and curls out of the cracks that I know must have been inflicted on my horn. “Oh no-!” This time I know it has to be Twilight Sparkle that speaks, for only she would know what a cracked horn means. Twilight, or anypony, doesn’t get to say anything more. In a matter of milliseconds, the light intensifies until it brightens from green into white as the damaged and misaligned mana arteries strain before inevitably bursting with a massive explosion that leaves everypony crumpled against the walls.
Through my own daze and the whining in my ears that the explosion leaves behind, I hear, as if from a distance, my horn, now not just broken off, but shot off my forehead by the explosion, strike the ceiling and clatter, anticlimactically, to the cave floor.
That’s it. I know I’m dead, for a Changeling can’t live without a horn anymore than a pony can live without a mouth.
Still, I stare for some unknown time at that dagger of a horn, with its base now visibly crumbling, and I blink disbelievingly. I had known that I would have to die, but like this?
… To… starve?
With that thought, I’m knocked dizzy again by a pulse of angry pressure in the gapping, bleeding hole where my horn had fit. I think I cry out, or try, but I don’t hear myself and my face- no, my whole body feels numb, and another shock knocks my truly unconscious.
UNKNOWN TIME LATER:
When I wake, I’m sure for about half of a second that I must have dreamed all of that horror up, for I feel myself laying in a bed—a pony bed. Comfortable. Surely, if I had been taken prisoner, as I must have been if that had actually happened, then I would be laying on some lumpy cot with naught but a torn and moth-eaten sheet, if that? Perhaps instead I’ve been taken as a ransom, considered useless for interrogating for any information due to my age?
Good luck with that, ponies—the hive comes before any individual. If necessary, we can even abandon a queen and the females of the hive-…
Beeping. The realization that something is beeping intrudes and breaks my line of thought. Steady beeping. Soon, other sensations emerge. I feel a tightness that I’m sure must be bandages around my head—bandages, because I no longer feel the pain in the base of my horn, which means the remnants of my mana arteries (that had caused the painful pulses which knocked me out) must have been removed. -surgically.
Hospital. I’m-? I must be in a hospital; it’s the only thing that makes sense.
Slowly—wary of hurting myself, I turn my head, trying to determine from where a bright light is shining on my eyelids so that I can blink them open in relative shadow. As soon as I start to move my head, the sound of hoofsteps, starting very close, move away. No doubt a guard that had been left to watch me in spite of my weakened and hornless state—right now I’m about as dangerous and capable of escape as a square of wet paper.
“Miss Twilight Sparkle, the hornless one is waking.”
“The hornless one”? I can only suppose that by not simply referring to me as “Changeling” (with the appropriately disgusted tone), that there must be others here. Of course… those explosions… some Matabara would have been incapacitated, but alive, while others…
Murdered. -by me. The ones still alive are just waiting. Biding through the pain the ponies are surely inflicting on them, and I’m the one who led them to the maaliynayu…
“Hello?” Twilight calls me out of my self-pity. -for now. “If your well enough to answer, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Questions. Dangerous things to Changelings.
“Why-… -you-?” I cough out, and to my surprise a cup of water is pressed to my lips. Draining it, I try again. “Why are you talking to me and not…” I cast for any name more suitable for interrogation. “Captain Shining Armor? Princess Celestia? Princess Luna?”
By the way she’s looking down at me, I can tell she’s seriously contemplating ignoring my question and going on with her own. I suppose she figures the answer in harmless enough. “The Princesses are busy dealing with another infes-” She interrupts herself with a cough and makes an obvious effort to force her expression into something more neutral. Interesting. “-another hive that’s been found near Las Pegasus. My brother is also busy with… something else**, so Princess Celestia entrusted me to handle this.”
“Why did you correct yourself just th-.”
“I’m the one here to ask you questions, not the other way around,” She practically growls.
-and ponies call us beasts…
I turn away from her to the ceiling. “Okay. Ask.”
I can practically hear her muscles tense. “Where is… Scootaloo’s body?”
This… is no longer going along with what I expected. How could I answer such a question? “Eaten, probably. -by timberwolves. -or something… I’d guess.”
Twilight only looks shocked, horrified, and disgusted for about a second. “… You mean-…” a quick glance tells me she’s now narrowed her eyes at me. “You mean that her body was just left out in the open? Out where, as unlikely as it may be, Zecora or somepony else could just stumble upon her?” She shakes her head. “You… can’t stop lying, can you? Do you know what the other Changelings told me?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “That Scootaloo never existed. -not as a pony. Every one of them said the same thing, separately and without a chance to consult each other. You’re the only one saying something different…”
I can see the conclusion in her eyes, but I can’t believe it. -not yet. “-and you… believe them over me?”
She sighs and shakes her head. “I admit I don’t like the idea, but the fact that there is no variation in their answers… and all the ‘evidence’.” I narrow my eyes in confusion and she quickly explains. “After I was done with questioning all the other Changelings, along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders, I couldn’t help but start connecting everything with what I knew about Scootaloo, which I had to admit was next to nothing.” A pause and… a smile? perhaps if I still had my horn I’d be able to tell what kind of smile it is, but now… “So, I went for the paperwork, and I found out that, while Changelings are really thorough when making up unique disguises instead of replacing somepony, you can’t account for everything. While your address and parents looked like they should exist from the papers alone, and those papers by themselves wouldn’t arouse suspicion, an examination of the facts—in reality—quickly showed that ‘your house’ doesn’t exist.” She huffs and shakes her head, but continues to smile. “-and there’s… everything else! Of course, somehow, it all seems obvious only after the facts have already been revealed… Nopony suspects another to lie about their house or their parents, so I guess it simply never registered…” She gets look in her eyes that I know means she’s going to get lost in her thoughts unless she’s pulled back quickly.
I would have shaken my head if just the thought of doing so doesn’t make my head feel suddenly ten times heavier. “Why?” That catches her attention. “Why does any of that matter? Scootaloo doesn’t exist, and neither will I, soon enough. It seems like you wasted a lot of time and effort just to prove a bunch of captured Changelings were telling the truth about something that doesn’t affect anything.”
How I wish I had my horn! -not to feed, but to feel Twilight’s emotions. Talking with her—and probably any pony—without being able to feel even the greatest variations to her emotions is all too quickly growing disconcerting to an unbearable degree. “What do you mean that… you won’t exist?” I think I can at least tell she has some idea that what I mean is that something is horribly wrong with me. -in the medical sense, not the turned-into-a-kapish sense.
“Didn’t any of the other Changelings tell you?” I ask the ceiling, already knowing the answer. Do any of the survivors even know my horn had been broken? “A Changeling can’t feed on love without their horn. Without my horn, all that’s left is for me to wait to die of starvation.”
A gasp of horror. Does she actually pity me? I don’t- can’t know; even if I cared, it wouldn’t matter—even she can’t make a horn grow back. “Get one of the ones strong enough to walk. Bring her here.” Twilight gives a curt order to the guard, who leaves—presumably to follow this order—without question. Surely enough, Forge is soon led in, slumped in defeat; he shuffles, though he wears no chains, only a dampener on his horn, which I know must be killing him as slowly and effectively as a broken horn, if not as permanent.
When he finally stops in front of Twilight and looks up from the floor, he catches sight of me out of the corner of his eye and gasps as he turns his focus instead on me. “I-Imi!? What did they do to you?! Your-… your horn!” Twilight flinches and groans as if in pain, my words now proven to her, but this doesn’t distract Forge, who keeps his now watering eyes on me.
I can already tell by Twilight’s actions she isn’t about to order all the Changeling she’d captured to be dehorned, but by Forge’s shivering, I don’t think he’s reached the same conclusion yet. “I’m sorry, Forge. This is all my fault. Everything. I was only thinking about me, putting my feelings above the needs of the hive…”
Forge actually scoffs and allows a hint of a grin to show through. “So? That’s how all nymphs work, Imi. At your age, you’re not supposed to be thinking about the big picture yet.” Here, his grin turns into a grimace. “-and you shouldn’t have been forced to… but we didn’t have a lot of options, and Gimarazrasu Maraza believed in you… -never doubted your abilities for a second…”
At the reminder of my disappointment I can’t help but turn away. How can he just dismiss my mistakes? “How many… are dead?” I have to know, and perhaps this can serve to remind him of what exactly I’d done—how horribly and deeply I’d hurt the hive.
“‘Dead’?! What do you mean?”
Forge and Twilight speak at the same time—he answering my question with a tone that says he doesn’t understand why I’m asking, while she is shocked by… my tone? -or that I know such a word as “dead”? In my time as Scootaloo, I have learned that it’s not usual for ponies my age to know about such facts of life… so carefree and innocent, while Changelings have never known such comforts, meeting death often before we can even understand the word…
“Oh…” Forge’s eyes widen with a realization as he turns to Twilight, who looks sheepish from speaking at the same time as him. “I think she is referring to-… There are stories and warnings that we tell to little nymphs about ponies and other creatures—stories about how they’ll torture captured Changelings for information before brutally killing them and destroying their bodies without rites.” Twilight whimpers and fidgets as Forge tells her this, ending with a horrified hoof over her mouth that Forges nods to. “Yes. Most Changelings, as we grow older and more mature, as well as spend more time amongst ponies, learn that you would not do such things, but Imitate here-…” Forge shakes his head. “Well, that doesn’t matter any more, but-!” his eyes suddenly grow hard, “I’m still waiting for an answer on what happened to her horn.”
Twilight lowers her head, knowing that she, however little, participated in bringing about my now inevitable death—I decide I can’t let her answer. “It was an accident; my fault, if anything.” Forge whips his head around, disbelieving frown now directed at me. “It was when I told them Scootaloo died. Rainbow Dash… she rushed at me, and I... think she just meant to knock me out, or beat me up until somepony dragged her off of me… She broke my horn, but it was my fault she attacked me in the first place.”
Forge swallows and turns to Twilight, perhaps hoping for some contraction to be pointed out, but even if Twilight, as I know she might, wants to pull of the blame onto herself—after all, I all but know she’s thinking to herself that if only she had reacted a little bit faster and had grabbed onto Rainbow Dash with her magic before she could even touch me, she could have saved my life. All she does, though, is stare at me sadly, and I feel some kind of emotion brush against me. Even without my horn, which means now I can’t tell an emotion’s content or from whom it comes, I guess fairly well at what she says next; all I can know is that the emotion must be strong to even register.
“I-Imi?” Uncertainty… “I-… I guess… there’s nothing else to say?” I take in a deep breath and let it out as slowly as I can without coughing before shaking my head. “-but…” I brace myself. “the C- the other Cutie Mark Cru-.”
“-want to see you!”
“No!” I think it’s more the rising beeping of the heart monitor that gets her to back off more than my rise in volume; I need more than that to stop her from letting in Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle. “It’s bad enough, what they heard in the cell after you found me… I don’t want to hurt them even more. They’re going to want to ask me questions about when I’m going to get better. -if they actually understand and care about me.”
“Of course they do!” Twilight immediately jumps in when she senses I’m done. “Why else would they want to see you?!” I just shake my head until she lets out a defeated sigh. “What about Rain-?”
“No.” Now she’s starting to tear up; I fight the urge to look away. “If they care so badly, they can see me after I’m dead.” She flinches at the word. “I-… I just can’t stand to see them. It doesn’t matter. Changelings don’t say goodbye.”
“Imi…” Twilight pleads, but Forge puts a forehoof out to signal for her to stop.
“Can you turn over, or do you need help?” Forge moves up to me, and the guard that had stood passively this whole time must sense the intent in Forge’s movement and words, and shifts to catch Twilight’s eyes to silently ask for instructions—she, grimacing, only turns her back purposefully to the bed- to me, and gives a tiny shake of her head, at which the guard promptly leaves the room, understanding he’s no longer needed.
I, meanwhile, struggle to turn for a moment, but the entwining blankets defeat me; Forge helps without me having to voice my need for help, however. My head spins when the place my horn had been is pressed against the pillows even by nothing more than the weight of my head.
“Goodbye, Imi.” Forge whispers so quiet I don’t think even Twilight hears.
Then, I feel a sharp pressure against the back of my neck. The last thing I feel is the skin there giving way to what feels like a blade, then the pain leaves me like mist under the Sun.
That is how I died, but not how my story ends.
Though I had left it, my body still had one last thing to do…
One of the very first things a Changeling learns is “keep asking questions.” Any and every question that comes to mind, not just to keep from being asked too many questions about ourselves—which is always dangerous—but for the one weapon that Changelings alone are the masters of masters at wielding: information.
One never knows what question, asked at the right time, will lead to something important.
At that moment, however, as Forge and Twilight Sparkle stand alone with my body, there are no more questions—no more that can be answered adequately.
Except, perhaps, one.
The steady alarm of my flatline-ing heart monitor has attracted the attention of Nurse Redheart, who gasps and takes a step back as Forge, finally, pulls his horn out of the back of my neck and turns to the new arrival; to her credit, she only has to glance at Twilight to understand that, at the very least, this must have been arranged between the two of them. -somehow, for some reason.
“What-” the nurse hesitates for a fraction of a second, “-should we do with her?”
Twilight only blinks and looks up at Forge, silently inviting him to answer—she cares, but even her curiosity in seemingly all things could not even partially gloss over the tragedy of the situation that she (contrary to reality) feels responsible for.
Forge, not cleaning his horn of my blood (even as Redheart frowns at the sight and finds herself unable to look away), turns me onto my side, steps off my bed, and purposefully slides one hindhoof to drag the blanket off my body. “Twilight, is there any way we can get her body back to the mal- the outpost? -where you found us?” Twilight raises her eyebrow for half a second at the self-interrupted Hasharbanu word, but her sorrow washes over the emotion again quickly, and she finds herself unable to do anything but nod—she has to make up for what she’d done; this is the least of anything she could think of, so she tells herself.
“What about… pre-preparing her?” Twilight asks, pausing and stuttering, only able to continue after taking my blanket in her magic, ready to cover me again, but completely now, as ponies do to their dead, but Forge, suddenly frantic, stomps on the sheet to prevent this.
“Stop!” He cries, making Twilight jump and her magic to flicker—she allows it to fall away completely in the next moment. “Don’t ever cover a Changeling’s body,” Forge huffs, and realizing Twilight is probably going to ask for clarification, goes on, “It is a-… It is part of our beliefs—Changelings’—that, between the time of its body’s death and its release, the soul fears being enclosed or constrained in any way, even something as simple as being covered or wrapped in cloth. I’m sorry for scaring you; of course you wouldn’t know…” He lowers his head submissively: apologetic.
Twilight, with a forehoof to her jumping heart, almost-whispers, “Tha-That’s okay. -really!” she interjects when Forge opens his mouth again. “I shouldn’t have- I should have realized you pulled the blanket away for a reason…” Twilight shakes her head and sighs while lowering her hoof, and afterwards looks remarkably more put together—a façade, any Changeling could tell. “Anyway… yes, it won’t be a problem to get there, but… what about Rainbow Dash? -and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle?” She almost pleads.
“Them seeing her—nothing else!—is fine; however… are you sure about the Cutie Mark Crusaders seeing Imi like this? I’m not going to cover her up just for a couple of fillies eyes if you insist they be allowed the option to ‘say goodbye’, as you ponies say.” Forge finishes with a subtle derision that Twilight either doesn’t pick up on or chooses to ignore.
Twilight—finally—looks straight at my body, and I can only try to imagine what goes trough her mind until she repeats some of my words from earlier. “‘It’s bad enough, what they heard in the cell’… I-. You know I can’t decide… not something like this; I’m going to talk with Applejack and Rarity about it. They’ll decide.” Twilight then turns away, appearing intent on doing this right now—knowing Rainbow Dash and the other Cutie Mark Crusaders wanted to see me, it’s easy to imagine them already somewhere else in the hospital, waiting… probably thinking I’m still alive.
A moment of quiet.
“Alright.” Forge shrugs. “So, you should go tell them now?” A nod from Twilight. “I’ll go with you, in case you need any help explaining.” Another nod, now with the tiniest smile for thanks. “Nurse,” He turns to Redheart, “Watch over Imi, and make sure no one, even yourself, covers her body. -or touches her.” The nurse also nods, but more stiffly, in the manner of one who will gladly carry out the mission given.
“The guard!” Twilight rushes to the door, but the hallway outside is empty of any golden-armored ponies, and a grimace grows on her as she fruitlessly turns her head back and forth a number of times. When Forge steps up next to her, she sighs, “Well… let’s go,” she says over her shoulder, and looking forward again, whispers to herself, “No more putting it off…”
Still, it’s plain on her face that her heart and mind aches for a distraction, and she blurts out the first thing to come to mind. “About what Imi said about Changelings’ horns, can you still feed through the dampener?”
Forge shakes his head. “No.”
Twilight gasps. “I could remo-!”
-but Forge cuts her off. “Doesn’t matter. -unless you also allow me to disguise myself, there’s no love for me to have here, anyway.” He scoffs, dismissing the idea as a joke—something that Twilight would never allow—but Twilight watching him seriously out of the corner of her eyes makes he sober quickly. “Nng…? Twilight?”
Twilight shakes her head and looks forward again. “Sorry.”
Forge waits for her to elaborate, but nothing seems forthcoming as they turn into another hall. “For what?” he prompts.
“For-…” Twilight trails off as she slows to a stop; Forge has to step back to stay side-by-side with her. Turning to face him, she lights up her horn and removes the dampener and discretely slips it into the saddlebags of a guard standing at the end of the hall; to this, Forge can only gape. “For… us. -Ponies,” she clarifies when Forge abandons his surprise as confusion comes over him. “Everything that’s happened regarding Changelings has made me look more closely at certain things about ponies, you see… -things that I never thought about before; that I probably overlooked because of how ugly it is. We talk about harmony and friendship, but we’re not very… welcoming to anything that’s not ‘a fellow pony,’ are we?” She lowers he head to look sorrowfully at the floor. Of course the question is rhetorical, so Forge only continues standing and staring, unsure whether he should agree or contradict.
“You-” when Forge finally speaks, Twilight jerks her head up with such a tiny amount of hope only a Changeling would be able to tell. “You can’t be sorry for the rest of your race—that’s not how it works—and you, yourself, have nothing to be sorry for.”
“But I-.” Twilight is quick to say, but Forge is just as quick to interrupt.
“I said you can’t be sorry for how anypony else acts any more than I can apologize for Gi- my queen’s actions.” Forge turns away slightly, indicating he’s ready to continue towards where the others are waiting. “Even if I could, I wouldn’t, nor would any other Changeling,” he adds in an only slightly quieter tone that borders on threatening; Twilight takes a step back, then, to Forge’s surprise that Twilight doesn’t see, also turns to lead them on through the hospital’s halls.
-without another word.
“Rarity, Applejack, Rainbow Dash,” Twilight half-heartedly calls for their attention when she and Forge reach the meeting room that had been haphazardly repurposed to Twilight’s needs in dealing with the matter of attending to the injured Changelings; all five Bearers and the two remaining Cutie Mark Crusaders look up. “I… need to talk with you three. Everypony else, please step outside for a moment.”
The hitch in her voice doesn’t go unnoticed, and Fluttershy, instead of following her order, rushes to Twilight’s side; Pinkie merely stands up and wavers on her hooves uncertainly. Fluttershy, making small comforting noises, leads Twilight to the seat Fluttershy herself just vacated, and Forge steps in behind, walking in a way that suggests he wishes he could meld into the walls to avoid the stares he, and his un-dampened horn, receive. “Twi, did ya know this Changelin’ with you doesn’t have that magic block-?”
“Yes, I know,” Twilight quickly assures, but this doesn’t comfort the others; visibly pulling herself together, she notices and goes on, “I took it off him after learning that-” Twilights eyes go wide when she realizes what she had almost said, glancing at the two fillies now tilting their heads, waiting for her to continue, but she won’t—not in their company. -not yet, anyway. “Just trust me—first I need to speak with you three.” she waves a forehoof towards the three she had mentioned upon first entering. “-only you three.”
The others sense the seriousness in Twilight, even though she does not exhibit it in tone or words or even body language—known instead by something else that can be “felt” only by being intimately familiar with another. Fluttershy and Pinkie quickly herd the protesting fillies out, asking questions about me. I think they already have some inkling—unintentional troublemakers they may be, but not unintelligent. They had to have seen the blood still on Forge’s horn, and I don’t think it would take long for them to connect that fact with their theories on what Twilight had almost said…
“As I was about to say,” Twilight starts when she makes sure the door is shut well with no little ears pressed against a crack, “I took it off after learning that Changelings-…” she has to stop to let out a shaking sigh. “Changelings absorb love through their mana arteries; a dampener, or losing their horn… starves them—prevents them from being able to eat.” Twilight looks down and away, waiting—hoping—somepony will find their own way to that conclusion and voice it so she doesn’t have to.
“Twilight, you’re not saying-?” Rarity puts a forehoof over her gapping mouth. Applejack and Rainbow Dash turn to her as Rarity suddenly finds she can’t take her eyes off Forge’s horn. “That blood isn’t-?!”
“Scootaloo’s…” Applejack and Forge interrupt-answer at the same time; Forge continues quickly when Rainbow Dash looks ready to start throwing punches again—or at least yelling. “The only other option would have been to wait for her to die slowly from starvation while all the time being surrounded by ponies who love her… even after being discovered as a Changeling, and not needing a disguise… It would have been nothing but torture, for her instincts would be telling her to take that love in, but that would have been impossible. It likely would have driven her insane, as well, before the end.”
Rainbow Dash grimaces and takes to the air with apparent offensive intent, but her eyes show otherwise; she doesn’t want to believe Forge, but why else would a Changeling kill one of its own? I know how many ponies think of her because of her athleticism, but Rainbow Dash isn’t brainless. “You mean… I, when I hit her horn-”
“There was no way you could have known!” Twilight steps forward. “Even I didn’t know! Because of her lies, we all thought Scootaloo was dead!”
“-and then I murdered her!”
“RAINBOW! Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle might hear you!” Rainbow flinches at this, landing and drawing back a bit, but her eyes are still fierce behind the swimming tears.
Forge puts a hoof on Twilight’s withers then, silently asking to put his thoughts forth; she answers with a small smile and a few steps back.
“Rainbow Dash, if-... when a Changeling replaces a pony’s husband or wife, and they, as you might say, ‘lay down in bed together’, would you accuse that pony of cheating? No, of course.” Forge doesn’t give her time to answer. “That is the same thing that has happened here, only in reverse—you had no idea the Changeling you were attacking was actually the ‘pony’ you hold so close to your heart. You can’t be blamed, not even by yourself. -and if you try? Your friends will fight you every step of the way.” Forge tries to finish on as positive a note as possible on such a subject, even offering a smirk that makes Applejack smile, but Rainbow Dash only looks down.
“Easy for you to say, you emotionless bug,” she growls.
“Rainbow!” Twilight calls outs, but before she can reprimand, Rainbow Dash rounds on her.
“What, Twilight? What?! Look at it! It’s left her blood on its horn! It killed her before I- before I could-” Whatever Rainbow Dash had wanted, she can’t voice, but the way she falls to floor, bawling, leaves little question.
“R.D.!” Applejack cries out as she and Rarity rush forth, first with the intent to support her as they watch her fall, then when they reach her, they merely lay next to her, huddled close for comfort. Twilight, meanwhile, turns away, head down as if defeated, and looking up at Forge with apologetic sorrow.
“No, Rainbow Dash… is right,” Forge sighs and closes his eyes. “-or at least she might as well be, as far as ponies are concerned. As our nymphs grow, they are constantly warned against making any emotional attachments to anything that isn’t another Changeling, as at best it only leads to heartbreak and at worst-… Poor Imi… not only was she not given enough time to take in such warnings, but without her own siblings to develop deep bonds with, of course she would want to be close to something that could be called ‘friend’… The Hive failed her…”
“Wait.” Rainbow’s word comes as a shock, all three other ponies staring as she works her way out of the worst crying session they had seen the mostly-stoic pegasus fall into. “What was… that? -‘Imi’?” The way she asks, I’m sure she already has a good guess.
“A shortening of ‘Scootaloo’s’ real name, Imitation.” Forge lets his voice fall into cold emotionlessness, which makes Twilight stare in worry—Forge doesn’t show any recognition of this, even though he has to see her step around and duck her head into his field of view.
“… Imitation…” Rainbow whispers in between sniffles as she raises herself back to her hooves with some help from the other two. “Can I see… Imi?” She swallows as if fearful her request, for whatever reason, would be neighed.
“Yes, Rainbow, you can,” Twilight says with a hint of a sigh behind her words as she lets herself slump with relief.
“-see her,” Forge clarifies, “Nothing more.”
“Oh, yes.” Twilight suddenly stands straight, reminded of Forge’s request. “Yes… Scoota- Imi’s body is going to be handled according to Changeling customs, as directed by Forge. I’m guessing this includes… not touching the body? You mentioned that a few times now…”
Forge nods. “Touching her with anything except magic is forbidden, and even then it is better to do so only for the shortest amounts of time possible—oh, that reminds me: Transporting her with a stretcher would be preferable, if one can be arranged and spared?…”
“Of course,” Twilight is quick to answer with as cheerful a smile as could be expected in such a situation as this. “I already anticipated that, since the area has been warded against magic like teleportation anyway.”
“What are you going to do to her?” The quiver in Rainbow Dash’s voice is barely discernable.
“Normally, she would be taken to the Queen, who would perform the rites, but in cases where that’s impossible… like now, instead the body can be taken to an altar, where the living apologize for being unable to deliver the dead to the Queen before praying for a safe voyage to the afterlife and finally burning the body to release-”
“Burn! You’re going to burn her?!” Rainbow Dash growls jumping forward aggressively towards Forge.
“Yes, I will.” Forge returns the move, pushing her muzzle against Rainbow Dash’s as they both narrow their eyes. “Imi is a Changeling, and I’m going to make sure she is handled in the Changeling way; she will not be desecrated with your pony burials. If you want her rot under the earth, being slowly eaten by worms—her soul trapped and unguided!—you will have to kill me first.”
“Monsters! How can you even think of doing-!”
“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight inserts herself between the two, pushing them away from each other. “I know it’s different. -and difficult, but Forge is right. I know you care about Scootaloo, but she’s actually Imitation—a Changeling, and as such, she should be treated according to Changeling culture.”
“Culture…” Rainbow Dash grumbles lowly. “Like a bunch of dirty, foalnapping, lying bugs can have any culture.”
“Rainbow Dash…!” Twilight grumbles as she puts a forehoof to her temple, likely starting to get tired of reprimanding the pegasus.
“… Forget it, Miss Sparkle.” Forge slumps into himself slightly, looking down and away. “I know how most other species don’t think much of us Changelings. We spend so much time, after all, disguised as others, playing roles not our own-… After everything, how much personality can a Changeling have? -much less a collection of them have a culture?!… We don’t. -not really,” Forge is quick to add, suspecting—correctly—that Twilight had been about to contradict him. “What we cling on to is the barest skeleton of a culture, most of it stolen, but I- I’m not going to give a single bit of that skeleton up!” Forge turns his head back forward to glare past Twilight at Rainbow Dash. “I’ve never cared if a pony, or any other creature, believes that Changelings have culture, and I’m not going to start now.”
“No! I won’t forget it! -and you should care!” Twilight throws at Forge before instantly rounding on Rainbow Dash. “You still care about Scootaloo, even after finding out she’s never existed and she’s actually Imitation! Is she a ‘dirty, foalnapping, lying bug’?!” Rainbow Dash winces at the implied accusation. “If you’re going to respect her, you need to respect all of her, including her heritage.”
“Twi,” Applejack says as she steps forward, unable to remain silent any longer, judging by her grimace, “Heritage or no, culture or no, burnin’ a body is a desecration, not tha other way around.” she directs this to Forge with narrowed eyes before turning more kind ones to Twilight again, “There’s no question about it! A soul bein’ ‘trapped and unguided’; you really believe such a thing can happen, Twi? Buryin’ a body for their last rest is a kindness and show of respect; settin’ it on fire is tha exact opposite.”
“Not for Changelings!” Twilight tries to insist, but she begins wavering under the combined force of the two athletic friends; she’d never imagined there would ever be a time when the two put their wits together against her in a battle of words. “Do you two think… this Changeling would lie about Changeling late rites just to… -to what?! Hurt everypony who cares about Scootaloo!? Changelings are more clever than that! They could come up with a hundred more hurtful things just to say, never mind do! They all could have corroborated with Imitation, telling us ‘yes, Scootaloo is dead’ instead of assuring us that Scootaloo was actually Imi all along! -or maybe they were lying then, too, huh? In which case, why do you care what happens to Imi at all?!” Twilight stands with her legs locked, body shivering, and tears streaming, but she doesn’t blink them away, instead glaring through them at the shocked frozen Rainbow Dash and Applejack. “I was trying to be nice, asking if Imi could wait while I ask if you, Rainbow Dash, wanted to pay your last respects, and ask you two, Applejack and Rarity, if it was alright for your sisters to do same, because Changelings have a strict belief to never cover up the dead!”
This last point jostles Applejack out of her stupor, and she gags before starting to say, “Now, Twi, you have to know that ain’t right! Leavin’ a body out in-?!”
“NO! I am through being nice! I can see it’s futile to try to convince you to not disrespect Imi in her death, but Apple Bloom should be given the chance to make the right choice, instead of being bound by her sister’s ram-skulled ignorance and intolerance!” Twilight turns and begins stomping toward the door where the two fillies and two mares are surely worrying about all the yelling by now.
Applejack rushes around to block her. “Now hold up there, Twi! Apple Bloom is my family; I’m responsible for her growing up right, and I will not have her thinkin’ it’s okay to leave a body out in the open and burn it! These things don’t deserve the mercy we’ve-!”
“Applejack,” Twilight interrupts with deadly softness. “I said I’m done with being nice about this. The Princesses appointed me responsible for dealing with these Changelings, and any problems that arise concerning them, which includes this situation surrounding Imi’s death. I will follow these orders, even against your wishes if you force me to. Believe whatever you want, but I will not let you stop your sister from saying goodbye to her friend. Now. -get. -out. -of. -the. -way.”
For a moment, Applejack stands firm, looking ready to fight, if Twilight had had the chance to force her, but Rarity chooses that moment to finally speak up. “Applejack?” The farmer only flicks her eyes towards Rarity for a fraction to show she’s listening before returning her focus to Twilight. “Please, Applejack, move. I know what those Changelings want to do to Scootaloo isn’t… it’s different, but if you raised Apple Bloom right—and of course you have! I’m sure!—she’ll know what is and isn’t right, and you can always reinforce it to her afterwards, but for now, don’t let this ruin her only chance to say her last goodbye. All three of them were so close, Applejack; dare I say even closer than we’ve ever been, for as different as we are.” Rarity finishes her plea with careful emphasis that Applejack can’t help but notice.
It makes her grind her teeth, to think such a parallel could invalidate her position so effortlessly.
Turning her eyes on Rainbow Dash, asking her silently for some kind of help, nothing comes; instead, her friendly rival only gives her the very same eyes as Rarity: begging her to let Apple Bloom give Scootaloo her last goodbye. Twilight still stands coldly indifferent, waiting for her decision, but Applejack sees a tiny spark when she flicks her eyes to meet Twilights—a spark of something like hope for her understanding, rather than simply being stronghoofed into acquiescence. “Alright!… Alright. Just… whatever’s happening, don’t do anything to make Apple Bloom think anything about what those Changelings do is in any way okay.”
“Nopony is saying anything otherwise, Applejack.” Rarity’s smile flickers as, encouraged, she steps next to Applejack and puts a hoof to her withers. “Just remember this is for Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle… and for Imi, too; try to focus on that.”
“I will,” Applejack says, tone defeated, as she steps aside so Twilight doesn’t have to walk around her to the door. “I’ll try to do that, Rares. Thank you… for remindin’ me of what’s really important here.” Her voice is the one that wavers now as she initiates a hug with Rarity that she instantly pulls Applejack tighter into.
Apple Bloom is right there on the opposite side of the door, standing and looking up exactly where Twilight's head appears. “When can we see Scootaloo? -the Changeling that’s Scootaloo?” Her begging is not hopeful, but anxious; it puts Twilight on edge, making her start to fidget and wonder how she should go about this where just the second before she had felt so energized and confident. Instead of answering right away, she mumbles incomprehensibly for a long moment.
Finally. “You can see… her very soon, but your sisters and I need to explain a few things first.” Another pause. “Why don’t you come in and sit down?” She steps aside to let them in, but when Apple Bloom only lowers her head to stare at the floor, a strange chill rattles Twilight’s spine
The filly confirms her fears. “She’s… dead, isn’ she?” Of course Apple Bloom would know about death more than the average foal; it becomes obvious when one considers her lack of parents and how her sister values both honesty and, particularly, family—she wouldn’t lie about something so critical to her younger sister.
Sweetie Belle lifts a forehoof as if wishing to flee from this horrible statement—she doesn’t want to hear Twilight confirm it, because, even if only subconsciously, she knows she will; an almost imperceptible whimper leaves her as she fights with her urge to flee.
As much as Twilight didn’t like being confronted like this, it certainly streamlined the whole unpleasantry. Yes, of course; I am dead. What more is there to say? A million things, but nothing Twilight wants to say any more than she’d wanted to tell the fillies that I’m dead. Mutely, she nods, and even though Apple Bloom is still staring at the floor, Sweetie Belle’s sudden shuddering gasp is enough to start her tears flowing. Knowing.
As she watches her sister’s tears begin to drip onto the floor, all the last remaining traces of resistance fade from Applejack’s face. The soft tak made when Applejack takes a first step forward seems to break a spell, for in the next instant Apple Bloom whirls around and pulls Sweetie Belle into a hug; Applejack hesitates for a only a second before wrapping both fillies in her forehooves, Rarity joining them all lastly, and a glance communicates all they need to say. Differences: If such ponies as Applejack and Rarity could be friends, then differences cannot be as important as ponies usually paint them as—that they are not so much “overcome”, but ignored. So they’ll later write in a friendship lesson later.
Twilight hesitates at interrupting the scene, but Forge has no such qualms. “Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle…” He waits until Applejack and Rarity pull away and the two fillies look up at him, not without some fear. “Before we go to Imitation—Scootaloo, to you—you must know two things: One, her body will not be covered, so… if you don’t think you can deal seeing her as she is…” He pauses again, but no answer, at least in the negative, appears forthcoming. “Two, you cannot touch her, not even to hug or kiss her or to pat her head or anything, no matter how much you may want to. Do not even ask; such things are expressly forbidden by The Oldest Laws of Queen Taaxyir, and I know how you ponies are fond of such gestures, even to your dead, but for Imi you must restrain yourselves. Do you understand this?”
The two look somewhat awed—in a frightened way—at being addressed by a Changeling. After a long moment of simple gawking and nothing else, Forge makes to repeat himself, perhaps thinking the two had been too shocked to take in anything of what he had said, but that’s when Apple Bloom finally speaks. “Yes, I understand, Mister-… uh…” She looks around for some kind of prompt, and Twilight jolts at being reminded even she—first to be thoughtful of Changeling culture—never got his name.
“Forgery,” he answers the implied question. “-or just Forge.” He adds with a shrug, not expecting the fillies—or likely any of the ponies, except perhaps Twilight—to use this nickname.
“-Mister Forgery,” Apple Bloom finishes somewhat quickly.
“Yeah, we understand.” Sweetie Belle adds, speaking towards the floor.
Forge narrows his eyes almost imperceptibly against the two fillies—the feeling of the glare on the back of her neck causing Sweetie Belle to glance up—before relaxing, giving another shrug, and turning to Twilight. “I believe that is everything for now; I can give further instructions as they become necessary, so… a stretcher?”
“Right!” Twilight looks over the assembled ponies. “Uh, I’ll go grab one while you all head to Imi’s room to-… yeah, that’s what… I’ll do.” Leaving, she turns back from the doorway with a sudden, serious frown. “While I’m leaving you all with Forge, I’m trusting every one of you to not mistreat him. Right now he’s… an honorary priest-!-, and I expect every single one of you,” she takes a fraction of a pause to glance significantly at Applejack; something the Earth pony doesn’t miss. “-to treat him with every bit of the respect and courtesy that title deserves.” Casting her eyes around one last time to take in all the nodding heads (some tinier, slower, and/or more reluctant than others), Twilight steps out; it takes a long moment after the door closes behind her for anypony left to begin moving.
“Well, then,” Rarity’s words sends something akin to a petrification-cure spell through the room, “There is no sense… in waiting to-…” Rarity trails off, but everypony, knowing what she means, nods again and they all trickle out into the hall. “Ah, Mister Forgery, we do not know the way, so, if you would, please, lead on?” She gives him something too nervous to be a hopeful smile, but it’s an honest attempt—friendly, certainly; even if it wasn’t, Forge would have nodded and began back down the path he and Twilight had just taken.
When they reach the final hallway, the sounds of a yelled argument reach them; they all pause for a moment so as to focus on the words better. “-expect me to change my answer?! I gave my word! You would ask me to the trust that was put in me?!” Comes a mare’s voice.
“Nurse, I’ve said I don’t want to hurt you, but you’re wearing down my patience to a record low. We’ve explained to you that there are Changelings still injured from the raid that don’t have a bed, and certainly need it more than this corpse!” The aggravated sigh manages to carry all the way to the still frozen ponies—Forge takes it upon himself to rush forward. “Since it seems you are incapable of understanding this, we will, regrettably, have to-. What is-?” The higher ranked of two guards (neither being the one from before) interrupts himself upon hear the agitated buzzing of Forge’s wings accompanying his pounding hooves.
“Atmiiqii! Don’t!” Forge shouts upon finally reaching the left-open door; at this time the ponies recover themselves—the fillies being slightly faster—and soon enough join the odd sight Forge intruded upon: Nurse Redheart, standing with legs widespread over my body, the blanket, wrapped in an orange glow matching that surrounding one the of the guards’ horns, still firmly held under one hoof even as it’s jerking movement threaten to send her sprawling to the floor.
“Ah! You’re back with-! Where’s Twilight Sparkle?” Nurse Redheart relaxes, then tilts her head.
“She is fetching a stretcher with which to transport Imi with,” Forge answers while staring at the two guards. “She should be back within minutes, at worst, and then this bed will be free. Until then,” Forge lowers his tone, “I expect you all to treat Imi’s body with respect, which includes not covering her, nor touching her.” He ends with another buzz of his wings before finally stepping into the room so that the others can enter; upon seeing Forge’s support, the guards only have to glance at each other before deciding to make a swift, silent retreat.
Watching them, Nurse Redheart jumps from the bed only after Pinkie Pie kicks the door closed behind them; when she makes for the door and opens it to leave herself, Rarity holds out a hoof to her shoulder, but she shrugs it off quickly. “No, this is for all of you, who knew her best. Of course, I knew Scootaloo, but only ever as her nurse. I’ll do my best to make sure those two didn’t leave just to get some backup.” She lets out a few dry chuckles at the attempted humor, then, as swiftly as the guards before her, leaves.
“Scootaloo…” Rainbow Dash mutters as she turns around to face me and hovers over to me, her movement bobbing somewhat from the slower-than-usual flapping of her wings. “-‘knew Scootaloo.’” She mimics the nurse’s tone with an added bite of both sorrow and nastiness. “…-as if any of us every knew Scootaloo at all…” There is no mistaking that her tone isn’t directed at me (and though, by the expressions, I’m sure the other mares thought of things they could say to reassure Rainbow Dash this isn’t true, they recognize this isn’t the time for such things) by the way she hangs her head and puts out one shaking, needy foreleg over my body. Forge tenses, but Rainbow Dash restrains herself, and the hoof’s shivering gradually increases in time with the growing unsteadiness in her breathing until she finally decides to flutter to the side to land on the bed before me. “Why did you have to say that? -say that Scootaloo-? You-. Gah! Why?!” Rainbow sits back to place her forehooves over her face, rubbing at wet, itchy eyes. “… Why?…” Her last question is almost lost to her determinedly-not-crying-induced hiccupping.
How I wished I could answer her… thankfully, one does so in place. “Rainbow-…” Applejack announces her presence next to her on my bed, for Rainbow Dash had failed to notice her hoofsteps and light bounce caused by her jumping onto the bed next to her. “Rainbow,” she repeats as she places a hoof around the other mare’s back; Rainbow finally mumbles an incomprehensible jumble of sounds that Applejack takes to mean she’s listening. “-you got’ta know that we wouldn’t’a believed her if she told the truth, which… is sad enough-…” By her tone it’s obvious she’s not done speaking, but as her eyes fly back and forth between my body and Rainbow Dash’s still-hidden face, she chokes for a long moment. “-but-… -and then… nothing would’a changed, I’m sure. The outcome would’a been the same.” With that, she bows her head and tightens her grip on Rainbow Dash, finished.
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle seem to be running out of tears by then, and only look more distraught for it (or perhaps because of it—I, as their friend, wouldn’t rule it out), and after staring at the two mares now practically statues but for Rainbow Dash’s occasional, but much less pronounced, shiver, the two look up at Rarity. Kneeling, she whispers as lowly as possible, “Go ahead, just remember Mister Forgery’s rules.” Still, a small tug from Sweetie Belle around her sister’s leg prompts Rarity to follow behind the two as they approach my bed; Applejack puts her other forehoof around Apple Bloom as soon as she jumps up next to her, and Sweetie Belle wraps both her forehooves around Apple Blooms barrel, whereas Rarity can only prop herself up on the edge of the bed with her forehooves to nuzzle her sister—with two mares and two fillies, in addition to myself, the bed is a little too crowded for her to join without risk of somepony touching my body.
“Scootaloo-… Imitation,” Apple Bloom grimaces; I know she’s struggling to think of something to say—I imagine she thinks everypony expects her to say something. “… I- I’m gon’na miss you. Not just the you that was Scootaloo, but I’m gon’na miss that I never got to know Imi. I wish- I wish that ya never had to hide from us… an’ lie. I’m sure- I know that you would’a been just as good a friend as a Changelin’. It’s just not fair that ya had ta-… ta-…” Apple Bloom makes a few choking-like sounds with her eyes squeezed shut in apparent concentration, when she finally opens them, they’re narrowed dangerously. “-Just everythin’! Everythin’ wasn’t fair for you! Ya had a family that needed ya, but ya also had everypony that you cared about that you had to hurt to help yer fam’ly!…” Just as suddenly as it had come, her anger dissipates, leaving cooling sorrow. “I don’t know what I would’a done if I was you. I don’t know if what I would’a done was right, or if I would be able to figure out a way not ta jus’ survive, but be able to live with mah’self. Even though it wasn’t fair, though… I think ya did the right thing… an’ I’m sure ya know already, but I got’ta say it: I love you.”
“That... was beaut-…-tiful, Apple… Bloom.” Sweetie Belle sobs into Apple Bloom’s fur. Don’t mistake me: I’m grateful for every word Apple Bloom said, and I’ll cherish them forever… but “beautiful”? I’m not sure, but perhaps, in its own way, Apple Bloom’s last farewell to me can be so. “You got everything. I-… I don’t know… what to add… Imi… except that I agree… with everything.”
Afterwards, everyone falls into relative silence until Forge speaks up a few minutes after Sweetie Belle’s last words. “Well, if that is all, and even if it’s not, that injured Changeling is waiting for us to move.” Looking up and around, the mourning ponies find they hadn’t noticed Twilight return with the stretcher—partly because she had used her magic to carry the thing in instead of risk one of its wheels squeaking and interrupting Scootaloo, for it had been during her goodbye Twilight had entered.
“Alright…” Rainbow Dash says as she leads the way off the bed. Once all of them are off, Forge steps forward and gently, but swiftly, so as to hold my body for as short a time as possible, transfers me to the stretcher.
With that, Twilight asks everyone to huddle together as closely as possible around the stretcher so her teleportation spell is the least straining as it can be for teleporting such a large amount. Still, as she had explained, the teleport can only go so far due the wards the ponies had placed on the maaliynayu. All the same, on the morose walk the rest of the way there is no trouble—the pony guards placed at the entrance of the caves, as well as the ones standing or walking with researchers inside, don’t even flinch, even as Forge leads the way, except to glance at Twilight. I suppose the guards placed here have been made more familiar than the ones at the hospital with the fact Twilight is in charge.
Only when we finally reach the altar room itself does the single guard posted here scramble upon hearing the procession’s approach. “Ah! Ehr! Sparkle! -Miss Sparkle!” The guard at first salutes with the wrong hoof and hastens to correct himself. “What is-? Should I-?” The poor stallion can’t figure out what to say, for his eyes flick between Forge and my body.
“At ease,” Twilight says easily enough, using what she remembers from watching her brother at work. “We only require the use of this… temple-?-… for a short while.” Forge shakes his head, silently answering her questioning tone, but she doesn’t look back to confirm this terminology with him. “I… suppose you can either remain here, or step outside for a moment, but… so you know, what we’re here for is to conduct a Changeling’s final rites. -to… release and guide her soul?” This time Twilight looks back to see Forge nodding.
“Oh…” Is the guard has to say, and I wouldn’t blame him or any pony with being confused about what to do in such a situation—he seems to decide to default to continue following his orders and remain. Nodding to him, Twilight turns away to finally take in the room.
To pony’s eyes, I know it must seem unremarkable—too plain to be any kind of place of religious meaning, but this is just another part of our cultural differences. Where ponies gild their religious buildings, we Changelings believe that the only feature any altar room should have is The Protection of Queen Taaxyir—a rather simple cross-shaped symbol—so that the eyes cannot be distracted. There is not even seating or a vent to exchange air with the outside.
Taking me into his magic for the last time, Forge places my body before The Protection, positioned on my belly, with The Protection to my right side. Taking up position in front of me, Forge turns to the ponies as they assemble themselves, sitting, in a semicircle. “Stand,” Forge orders, then explains, “It is another way of how we Changelings show respect to the dead: stand before their body until nothing of it remains.
“Now… before I set Imitation on her last journey, is there anything else any of you wish to say to her?” Forge takes his time to look into the eyes of each one of the ponies, pausing longer on Rainbow Dash, Sweetie Belle, and Apple Bloom, but no one does anything besides look at each other, wondering if others might say something, but no one does. Everything that could be said already had been.
Except… With slow nods, they all agree to say their last words to me at the same time, as ponies do. “Goodbye… Imi.”
“… Bazhu, Imiitashyun,” Forge whispers, following their example, even though this is not of Changeling tradition. Then, he turns to me and lowers his head until the tip of his horn is millimeters from the tip of mine, and begins. “Amaa Usalul-”
“Tiimaqaa, Furjharii…” The guard interrupts, revealing herself, at least to Forge and me, to be Queen Chrysalis, for only a queen is allowed to use that inflection. Forge instantly scrambles away from me, from both surprise and from the rush to follow the power behind the order; the ponies merely turn around to stare in nonplussed shock. Before any questions can be asked, she continues as she steps around the ponies to take Forge’s original place before me. “There is no need for this… ‘soldier’s rite on the battlefield’; I am here for her.”
Again, before the ponies can raise any question, she wraps herself in the green flames of Changeling Magic to pull away her guard disguise. She only spares a glance out of the corner of an eye at the now-open-mouthed ponies before disregarding them. As she lowers her head to the same position Forge had just been in, he swiftly takes his place in the semicircle. “Amaa Ufazun,” she begins, and the rest… -it is lengthy blessing that I don’t know how to translate, and repeating it would be… Well, confusing.
However, having already received a shock, the ponies have recovered by the end of My Queen’s blessing, but even expecting it, they can’t help but jump when a spark jumps from Queen Chrysalis’s horn to mine, and in another flash of green flames, my body is simply disintegrated, or more accurately, transformed into oxygen—no smoke or ashes. “Breathe in, deeply, and hold as long as you can,” Forge quickly instructs in a half-whisper, wanting to be quiet out of respect, but also wanting to make sure none of them miss the order, before he does so himself; Queen Chrysalis does likewise.
After releasing her breath, Twilight instantly begins, “Queen Chrysa-”
“I suppose now is when you tell me I’m going to pay for what I did?” She interrupts using the breath she had been holding, at the same time turn her head to face Twilight while keeping her head down in the same position with the consequence of leveling it on her.
Applejack instantly jumps forward, with a somewhat reluctant Rainbow Dash narrowing still-sorrowful eyes on My Queen stepping in behind Applejack. “O’ course! Where you expecting anything else?”
“No!” Twilight is quick to step to the side, partially in between Queen Chrysalis and her friends, and looking at Applejack as she answers, then turning back to My Queen to say, “I just want to-… want-…” Twilight lowers head head, but looks down instead of forward.
“I’m sorry,” My Queen hisses, not sounding it at all. “What was that last bit?” Using Twilight’s distraction, she steps to the side so as to be better prepared to flee.
“I…” Twilight finally looks up, and the determination on her face makes My Queen actually step back and pull her horn up in surprise. “I just want to ask you a few questions. -if that’s okay?” Still, her voice is hesitant; she must expect her request to be denied , and not without reason. Changelings don’t like answering questions; we’re taught from our earliest years to do anything to avoid being asked any kind of question.
Despite all of this, or perhaps because of everything that had happened, My Queen instead allows herself to relax. “Go on…”