My Life As An Interdimensional Insect

by XenoPony

First published

A new world, a new place. A bunch of pastel coloured talking horses, and turns out I'm some kind of strange insect monster responsible for almost the ending the world. This is shaping up to be a hell of a new life.

Today I did not wake up in a place I recognize. Not that I can remember how I got here. Where even is here? A castle of crystals in a magical world of pastel-colored talking horses. It's like a dream, only I'm also a wearied, mutant bug monster.

What in the world is a changeling? Oh, and what is that about a war we're apparently responsible for? This looks like it's shaping up to be a hell of a new day, at least, if I don't get squashed like a bug before it can even start.

Featured: 2/5/19

Edited and pre-read by: Emtu and Indigo_Celeste

Thanks to all the pre-readers that helped reorganize the first few chapters:
TheOneWithoutAName, TheClassyLeviathan and Mind Jack

Cover art by: KlaraPL

Updates for this story on Wednesdays


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"We're always told in life it's not about what we are or what we do, but about the choices we make. Right, wrong, even to go up or down... Side to side? But sometimes, we all should just accept that it's better to go wherever life takes us."


The shadow of night hung over the thick jungle as pale moonlight cast a pillar down between the towering trees and jagged cliffs. Curtains of thorny vines and long tapestries of damp moss hung in droves from the ridge above, accompanied by the gushing waterfalls and wispy mist that lingered between the vertical stone jaws.

Every now and again the fluttering of bat wings or the darting movements of the nocturnal insects upon which they prayed would send the gloomy haze into a swirl. Like a game of cat and mouse, life and death played out above, the loser devoured or left to plummet to the dark gloom far below, landing with a distant splash. Yet upon this particular moonlit night, the constant sanctity of the isolated chasm had been broken. For the first time in a millennium.

Hoofsteps staggered down a set of winding stairs, the holes in the dark limbs almost as numerous as the breaches rent in the ruined structures around them. For so long now those hooves had been walking, hard chitin ground away to pale green flesh as one fell before the other. Tattered, diaphanous wings twitched and green bruises shimmered in the moonlight as a swampy mane and tail dragged in the dust. From below the hanging strands peered a pair of sharp green eyes, glowing as if to mock the bioluminescent fauna of the jungle above with their wickedness.

Finally, one gnarled forehoof struck something that was not just another in the endless line of stairs, dust and crystalline, shardroaches scattering in its wake. The broken creature looked up from under her hanging mane, licking one cracked fang. Ahead was a stone bridge, a fusion of natural rock and crafted stone dotted by stalagmites and flanked by odd statues. Hunched, quadrupedal forms, clawed limbs clutching at their rocky pedestals as fanged mouths trailed solidified sediment like petrified drool. Stoic sentinels, they stood guard, eyeless gazes seeming to follow the crippled creature as she staggered between them.

Part of her hoped the guards at the entrance hadn't been right. Though if the temple gargoyles really had been alive as they'd said, then this might all be over by now. The fact that the zebras outside had been so easy to fool did not bode well for those chances, however. Living statues were exactly the talk of naive foals, and equines tricked so easily were no different. The lack of motion from the stone sealed watchers suggested that maybe some things were just legend, and yet the very thing the broken creature had come here for had to be real.

There were no other options, years in exile, so many failed attempts at reclaiming her rightful place and taking revenge. So many times had those insufferable ponies stolen what she longed for most. To crush them all under her hooves, take what they loved most and make them suffer as they'd made her suffer. Just the thought was enough to prompt a low hiss from the mare as she finally reached the far side of the ruined bridge.

The ledge upon which the winding path had finally deposited her spanned outwards on either side, forming a jagged, rounded platform. A ghostly howl, echoing between the towering cliffs as it rustled through the long dead branches of the only things to ever have grown in the desolated gorge. Dust fled in miniature whirlwinds, carrying with them leaves unlucky enough to drift down from the vibrant jungle above.

Before the creature stood a rounded table, faded, purple crystal growing from the stone like a wicked weed rejected by the earth. Even the ground around it looked faded. Fine dust trails flowing around equine skeletons, most left reaching away from the crystalline structure. The table itself was cracked, split into six jagged chunks, one of which was missing.

Dead vines and shriveled ferns had once clung to a meek existence upon its smooth surface. Yet even at the slightest breeze, many simply disintegrated to join the dust built up across the ledge. One glance at the shattered table, catching sight of scorpions and centipedes as they scurried away from the light of her eyes, the dark creature looked past and to the wall beyond.

The rear of the ledge met with the rough rocky of the cliff, more decrepit vines and pale mosses drooping from the rugged stone. More bones too, scattered as if dismembered, savaged by some long dead beast. Without heed for the morbid signs, the creature took a step towards the wall, the gangly spire atop her head igniting with a green glow to part the sheet of dead vegetation that concealed the cliff's true face from her glowing sight. The creature grinned, a long, forked tongue slipping between her fangs as green light washed over the cliff face.

With detail rivaled not even by the most ornate royal hives she'd ever ordered, the wall was etched by a vast sprawl of carvings, symbols, and patterns. No pony within the last millennia could have had a hope of translating the thousands upon thousands of hieroglyphics. Yet the meaningless scribble that surrounded the edge of the inscription like orbital rings were none of the current reader's concern.

In the center of the carvings, surrounded on all sides like the planets did the almighty sun, was an etched ring of flames. Within, eight points marked equidistant around it like the spokes of a wheel, was a slitted, amethyst eye. From around it arched eight spider-like legs, molded from the same purple crystal, each one marked perfect to the tips of each of the eight points around the sunken orbit. Even the light of the moon turned foul as, with the curtain of vines removed, it was forced to shine upon the wall. The creature narrowed her eyes, her grin spreading like one of the deadly infections she'd had to be mindful of in the foreign land. For the first time in what felt like years her wings buzzed and she laughed.

"So, it is real." She pressed a hoof to the wall, light moss and lichen slipping from the sleek stone. "At last I will have my revenge, and this time no pony will stop me."

The mare cackled wickedly, her shrill, reverberating laugh echoing through the dead canyon as the distant wind blew again. The new pair of eyes that set upon the dark creature with a hoof against the inscribed wall went unnoticed for several seconds. Before, finally, at the sound of one hoofstep in the dust, the glowing green eyes were torn away and snapped back.

"I assure you, what you have there is quite real," sounded a muffled voice as the sharp green spheres fixed upon a hooded figure standing by the table. "It's been an awfully long time, hasn't it, Queen Chrysalis."

At that name, the broken creature's eyes narrowed, last unbroken fang flaring as she glared at the mysterious stranger. "That name no longer has any meaning to me, all it is associated with is the countless defeats of a weakling," she snapped.
"Then would you prefer just Queen, your Majesty?" The figure gave a bow, not even a glimpse of their face flashing as they placed one striped forehoof forwards. "Your reputation certainly proceeds you."

Chrysalis' muzzle wrinkled, her one unbroken fang glinting in the moonlight as she dropped back to all fours and stalked towards the figure.

"I've killed for less mockery, so give me one good reason not to slice that head from your shoulders," she warned, forcing herself to full height and looming over the hooded equine. "Well!"

The pony under the hood hadn’t yet answered before the former queen's strength failed her and with a weak shudder, she crumpled in on herself. Slouching at first before utterly falling to her knees.

"I've done far worse than kill for far less, I assure you," the figure responded in the clear voice of a mare, before lifting back her hood to reveal she was indeed a snowy white zebra, face marred by dark stripes and scars. "On your knees without even a threat, how far you have fallen, my queen."

The zebra turned, smirking while, just as she'd expected, the changeling's anger spiked. Chrysalis surged forward, hissing as she moved to bite down on her tormentor's neck. The blow struck nothing but thin air, then solid rock as the former queen slammed face-first into the floor, scattering dust and bones. She was still far from done, however, at least in her mind. Rage stoked a fire that her weakened body could no longer support and she was on her face again before she could even stagger to her quivering hooves.

"You have my sympathies, my queen, truly. Had I still the ability to feel," the zebra assured, peering down her muzzle at the crumpled queen. "But I lost that restraint a long time ago."

"W–who are you... I'm not your queen, I–I'd know if you were... were a changeling," Chrysalis forced, wincing as she clutched her chest and slipped back into the dust.

"It doesn't matter who I am, what matters is that I found you here." It was the zebra's turn to grin as her eyes flashed purple. "Little insect caught in the spider's web."

Chrysalis glared at the mare, straining her neck enough to come eye to muzzle with the pale coated equine.

"If you intend to kill me then do it, don't waste my time with talk." She gritted her fang, and was on the floor again before she could speak another word.

If this was going to be her end then she would make it an end to be remembered.

"You don't need me to kill you, my queen. You were dying the moment you stepped in here. No pony leaves," the zebra stated, brushing a forehoof through Chrysalis's mangy twig and leaf filled mane. "Such a shame to waste the last true changeling. You did fail to realize that, even as you are, you're still one of a kind."

"A paltry sentiment," Chrysalis coughed, a dryness in her chest that was from more than just exhaustion as the mare continued to stroke her mane. "I was the most powerful queen my kind has ever known. Then, betrayal, revenge."

"To the point at which you are here now, no care for name or station." The zebra sat down, eyes fixed with the broken queen's as Chrysalis managed to shift her head. "You're hardly worth the life you were given."

The changeling sneered up at her tormentor. "Says one who squats around in a chasm all of her years, I should have known the myths were too good to be true," she wheezed, words lost to another fit of coughing.

"You should never trust legends, warped and tainted by opinion they always are," the mare retorted, glancing at the wall of hieroglyphics behind her.

When she looked back, her eyes were glazed purple and shimmering like stars.

"I know what it is you seek, and I will tell you that which I have told all others. To seek one of its kind out, is to seek only oblivion," she elaborated, then smiled as if her words were no more than a pleasant warning.

"I have been living oblivion since the day I lost everything, death would be better... If not, then revenge!" Chrysalis forced every ounce of her strength into those words before once again succumbing to a fit of wretches and coughing.

The zebra mare blinked, eyes slit for a split second as she pressed a hoof to her chin.

"The last changeling, you believe?" she asked, seemingly talking to nopony in particular. "What an interesting prospect."

Chrysalis glanced up at her, moisture seeping from her clouding eyes as if the air were leaching her dry. "W–what... are you?" she forced, the question drawing the zebra out of her thoughts.

"I'm who you came here for, am I not?" she asked, tone almost cheerful as she smiled.

"No... You were supposed to be perfect, you're barely more than a filly," Chrysalis responded, pressing one quivering hoof to her eyes as she started to growl in pain.

"I ask again, am I not?" the zebra pressed as Chrysalis’ whole body began to shrivel, blistering wings turning to dust like everything in the lifeless crevice around her. "Am I not?"

"You're a monster, that's what you are. Just get this over with!" Chrysalis screamed, dry strings of ooze peeling from her eyes as she pulled her hooves away. "My life is not yours to waste!"

Years of pain, regret and an insatiable lust for revenge finally granted her strength enough to peer right into the zebra's shimmering purple eyes as the striped mare cocked her head and smiled.

"Such a disappointing end this would be for the mighty queen," she reasoned as the former queen clutched her shriveled gut and fought not to double over. Dust trailed from the changeling on the wind as the zebra finally added. "How about a question instead?"

"W–what?" Chrysalis gasped, finally falling back into the dust she was swiftly becoming a part of.

"What would you do to get what you want, how far would you go?" she asked as if it were the most simple question in the world.

Throat dry as a desert, body cracking like a river bed in summer, the queen screamed. "Anything and everything, you witch!" The striped mare's grin grew, the purple glint to her eyes spreading.

"Good, good." She pressed a hoof to Chrysalis' chest and the broken queen sucked in a sharp breath. "That's all I needed to hear, my queen."

Chapter 1: Six Thrones and a Changeling

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Darkness. Darkness and a rhythmic beeping were all that drifted to my senses. The world was a void. Not simply the blankness one found themselves in behind closed eyes, but endless oblivion and nothing more. Where there had been sensation, weak and frail as it had been, now there was nothing. Disembodiment, was this how it felt? Like being submerged in an impossible blackness?

There was no up or down, no left or right. I could not even tell if my eyes were open or closed or whether I even had eyes at all. Naught but that steady beep, getting slower and slower, more distant with every reverberating chime. Ten, nine, eight. It came from nowhere, not that looking around was something I could even register. When your whole world is nothing, how do you even tell you're moving?

Part of me wondered if this was what it was like to die. Yet for that, surely there would have to be memories of a life to pass on from? There were a few things lingering in my consciousness, about the only thing that was apparently left of me. A light, a bright light had been the last thing I'd seen, I think. Voices too, yet they had faded long ago, at least I suspected.

Seven, six, five, four. What was time when the world was nothing?

I recalled instincts, a body. There was the knowledge to breathe and blink without continually thinking to do so. Like a ghost, there was the distant sensation of a beating heart, four limbs, and flashes of sight. All things that seemed utterly impossible now, as though to believe they were real was the most foolish thing in the world.

A flickering in the endless canvas of darkness and my thoughts were working again, spawning from a brain that was no longer in existence. Maybe this was exactly what it was like to die? The memories of a past life fading so rapidly that within seconds you're someone completely new. Ready to pass on, go towards the light. That was one thing that did stick in my mind, failing to drift away on the ethereal current along with everything else. That beeping was the last thing to fade. Three, two, one... zero.

You'll know in the end? Like a leaf caught in a river, I was swept towards that light.

I was a moth to a flame, the silver glow so alluring, to resist it would have been impossible. If I'd have had the ability to, I may have reached out, yet who knew if it was inches or light-years away? A glimmer of purple flashed across the luminescent orb, and just like that, some semblance of reality was restored.

There was sensation, the touch of the world around me. Then reality tilted on its head. A new sound replaced the beeps. An audible shimmering, and with it, the darkness rippled like inky water. Like holes poked through a vast black sheet, more glinting specks of light were pierced into existence. The last thing to return was something I could still recall, gravity.

I was falling from the stars in an instant, screaming with a voice that did not exist and flailing limbs that were no better. If the blackness had been any different from that which I was trapped in, I'd have closed my eyes... if eyes were still what I could perceive this nightmare through. Yet no ground came rushing up to greet me. What did appear was a new light, vast and purple. There was no warm allure to it, not like the last one.

Maybe this really was death? Don't go towards the light was another thing that passed through my mind at that new revelation. That light pulling me down like a comet had different ideas, however. The darkness seemed to stretch around it. Like looking through a lens, the world appeared to have the consistency of thick treacle. I caught a glimpse of crystal walls, the flash of a golden arch. Then, finally, a hard surface rushed upwards from the amethyst glow.

Maybe not what it's like after death. Before you're born, perhaps? Whatever the case, life came rushing up to meet me like a brick wall. And one thing it did remind me of... Was pain.


A flash, and a hard thud. The first thing I remembered was the sensation of something solid under me and the coolness of air finally crawling its way into my lungs. My chest rising and falling came with it as did the sensation of limbs pressed against something smooth and cold. My senses came back to me, and for a moment, I could have sworn I was laying on ice. I gave a sniff, a very odd pair of nostrils flaring as I did so.

Head still spinning, and a pounding comparable to war drums thundering within, I finally cracked open an eye. My vision was no less distorted, and about the only thing I could make out was that, wherever I was, it did not look familiar. Most of it was a dark blue blur, washed in an almost shimmering like effect.

Maybe I'm right, and this really is ice?

The sensation of heat finally creeping back into my weary body suggested otherwise, however. It took me a moment to even register how it was to feel. After that timeless oblivion, taking in the world around me in such a physical way felt so alien for some reason. Sound found me next, the twinkling meeting my ears, and causing them to twitch. That motion of two very unusual appendages moving atop my skull alone was enough to spark a hint of recollections.

Ears that moved? Not how I remembered it. Yet the memory was distant, I could not place why it felt so wrong, there were just so many things amidst my wayward thoughts telling me that it was.

Moments later, and I was finally able to collect myself enough to move a limb. As far as I could feel, I had four. Yet when the instinct to wriggle the ends of each to feel the surface under me was met with nothing, I craned my neck to peer at them.

Aching muscles stiff and bones grinding like stones, I clenched my jaw, the very odd sensation of a longer mouth, tongue, and teeth adding to that of my disembodied limbs. Hands? Fingers? Claws? Words came to me in a series of brief whispers, and with them, the distant knowledge that once I may have possessed such things at the end of each limb. What I saw now as I squinted and my eyesight finally came into focus, was what appeared to be no more than a gnarled, black stump.

My breath caught in my throat, new muscles contracting in a neck that did not feel anything like I was used to. Dread welled up in me as recollections of afflictions that could rot flesh to naught but sickly black offal came to mind. Of all the things my mind could have dragged up to me, it had to be that. With it came more flashes, lights, pale walls, masked faces, and numbers.

I felt a face, my face, and a face that was just as wrong as everything else I was feeling, wrinkle as confusion seeped into my mind. Those ears that had sparked my concern folded back against my skull as the numbers in my mind counted down, steadily. Ten. Nine. Eyes going wide, a shudder ran through me, and before I knew it, I was sitting up. Vision settling into focus, I made out that what I once suspected to be ice, actually appeared to be dark blue crystal.

Turning my stiff neck, I allowed my gaze to pan across the rounded chamber, noting a series of six large thrones arrayed around the vast pedestal upon which I sat. One smaller throne sat beside the one directly ahead of me, and behind that was a tall, golden trimmed door. A purple starburst, a trio of apples, diamonds, blue and yellow balloons, pink butterflies and finally a cloud sparking a prismatic lightning bolt marked each of the thrones respectively.

Another breath left me, the bellows in my chest returning to full power, a strength I was not used to. Like a reverberating buzz, exhaling was just as strange as everything else, at least until I managed to get another good look at what had become of my forelimbs. Where there had once been fingers or claws, there was nothing but a smooth, black stump. The sensation of wriggling hands was like a ghost as I tried to will the motion into existence. My determination lasted all of a second before I finally gasped, looking down to what I could best describe as a kind of rotted hoof, along with a leg that looked just as degraded.

I lifted the limb opposite to find that it was exactly the same, then looked back. That was, of course, when I wished I hadn't. True to what I'd expected, and dreaded, my legs were just as mutilated as my arms, yet that seemed to be the last of my worries. The body I saw propped upright on the crystal table appeared to be vaguely equine, even canine? My brain's own observations came long before I could even place meaning to the words, memories running far ahead of my ability to keep up.

Gnarled hooves led up equally punctured legs to a dark body of hard carapace and small, tufted fur. A curved flank, tipped with a dark black tail, supported my meager weight, and most surprising of all were a pair of sleek, silvery wings protruding from my shoulders. Daring to run a hoof across my side I flinched at the sensation of a short, bristled coat poking back. The chitin below seemed perfectly smooth, and when I dared touch myself again, I pressed my hoof to a glistening smooth shell upon my back. A texture similar to marble, my touch forced my wings to instinctively twitch, startling me into jumping once again.

Could I fly with those or what? They’re like insect wings. I closed my eyes and took another breath, most of my consciousness trying to assure me that this could not be real.

Opening my eyes and looking back told me otherwise as my wings glinted in the light cast by a series of hanging gems from above. I rubbed a hoof along the smooth surface under me, the sensation of a flat limb tip against another flat surface sending a shudder through me as my mind’s descending count continued. Seven, six.

Looking up to where the light and shimmering sound emanated from, I made out what appeared to be an uprooted tree hanging from the ceiling. More confusion once again flooded into my mind, every new sight stoking the flames as my eyes closed again and I took another long, reverberating breath.

It wasn't real, it could not be real. I pressed a hoof to my smooth head, felt a pair of tattered ears twitch away and clenched my jaw.

Why does this feel so wrong? I asked myself, my brain finally coming online enough to conjure coherent thoughts. I don't know what I'm remembering to make this feel so wrong!

The force of my teeth grinding only revealed a more disturbing fact about my situation. I was pretty sure that teeth too large for my muzzle were not normal, and as I felt my long tongue lick around fangs I opened my eyes with a gasp. A reflexive forehoof was on the tip of my new muzzle in an instant, only to shudder away as I indeed felt sharp fangs. That shy motion was forgotten in one glance, however, as I caught a glimpse of what I really looked like in the table below me.

The creature looking back at me was like no animal I'd ever seen. Memories and images still lingered in my mind, dogs, cats, horses, even some things I was sure never actually existed, like dragons and manticores. I looked like the sick and twisted offspring of some kind of spider, fly, horse hybrid. Dark chitinous body, buzzing translucent wings and dark blue elytra were my most prominent features. Yet what had my eyes fixed as it peered back at me from the reflection, was a face I did not know. Two cloudy blue eyes stared in utter bewilderment, above them a pair of erect black ears, and what appeared to be a sort of curved horn jutting from my forehead. Below sat a squat muzzle with formidable fangs jutting from under each lip.

My mind offered two ultimatums, logic was in there somewhere. The flashes of numbers still in my head attested to that. Five, four. I was about the least illogical bug creature going, and so, of course, that was the last option I chose. I'd never have suspected I'd have heard myself scream, and I definitely would have not expected that scream to sound like a shrill, reverberating insect. But I kicked away from my reflection and scooted backward along the sleek crystal as fast as my new legs could shuffle me.

No, no. no, what is that... That's not me, I'm... I'm something else... My mind raced, desperately trying to drag up a memory that would reveal a past form, life or anything to prove I was not some kind of freak of nature. I can't look like that! I'm not just some ugly...

Panicked thoughts evaporated from my mind the moment I felt nothing but thin air under my new equine posterior. I hung in mid-air for what felt like a cartoonishly long moment, looking down just in time to see a crystalline floor surge up to meet me. There was a burst of blackness and an odd sense of déjà-vu as I was once again plastered muzzle first against something slick and cool. A low groan escaped my mouth, the sound once again doing nothing to settle my anxiety as I opened my eyes and rubbed a hoof across my face.

Urg, why couldn't pain have been something I forgot how to feel too? I peeled myself from the floor, looking up at the now monolithic table and thrones. Was this a land of giant insect horses or was I just really small?

If the giant horse theory proved inaccurate, then from my judgment, I'd have guessed I was no larger than a young child... Or foal, I guess? Nymph. Larva? More questions swirled into existence as I sat up and pressed my back to the jagged table supports. Once again I found myself looking at my forehooves. The shadow cast by the table did hide the sight a little, yet the urge to try and will whatever my old self was back into being was suppressed by ill memory. I hoped panic would bring more back for a fleeting moment, yet ultimately I sighed and slumped back.

Taking another deep breath I forced all of my will into collecting myself instead, pulling my wandering mind together and aligning my thoughts into one coherent vision. What was one to do in a situation like this? Get answers, I was pretty certain. Looking down at myself again, however, I had the nagging suspicion that if I found anyone that wasn't like me, I'd probably be swatted like a bug before actually being helped.

If only I could remember! I hissed internally, clasping both sides of my head with my forehooves, face contorting. Hey, at least this is starting to feel less weird now, right?

I slumped forward. At least some part of my mind was right. If this was the bottom then I could only go upwards, right? Three, two. The numbers were going towards zero, so why not try to go up for one?

I fortified that sentiment against my doubts, steeling myself against the horror that now, for some ungodly reason, I was some kind of strange bug horse in some odd, crystal world and I had no idea why or if there was even anything that had come before this curse.

That's the spirit! I cheered, staggering upward and planting all four hooves on the ground. I wobbled, legs like jelly, yet unhindered by the holes that marred them. Okay, I can do this, four legs, no problem.

Taking one step was like walking on some alien world for the first time, yet the motion at least brought a smile to my face. I could not imagine how creepy I must look, grinning with fangs as I'd seen in my reflection. Yet I was not about to be undone by something as simple as learning to walk, no matter how disgusting the urge to walk on all fours felt.

One hoof in front of the other, remember that's how it goes. One small step for me, and one giant leap for my confidence.

At least that's what I'd hoped it would be like. I had mental glimpses of crawling on all fours and this was nothing like that. Joints were in the wrong places and for the most part, it felt like I was walking on tiptoes. This was the universe's idea of a sick joke to be sure. Rob me of everything in my life. Memories, body, mobility.

I managed three steps before falling flat on my face, let out a shrill gasp as I was once again flat on the floor. Urg, this is not going to be as simple as I thought... I'm going to break a fang at this rate.

At least some part of that idea did not seem so bad. What was a monster without fangs? I'd at least be less of a freak if it turned out this odd insect body was not the norm around here. Narrowing my eyes once again, I stoked a new flare of determination. Rear legs kicking up, my butt was in the air first, ragged tail swaying. I glanced back, a smirk forming on my muzzle.

One half, now the other, you can do this. I unfolded my tangled foreleg and pushed upwards, head lifting as I swayed and staggered into the side of the crystal table. It's just walking, it should not be so hard.

Walking it seemed was the last of my concerns, however, as my newly dextrous ears perked. The sensation of the things like antenna atop my skull forced a wince, yet what the neatly sensitive sensors picked up on made my heart skip a beat and sent a chill from wing tip to wing tip. The large doors cracked open, the only sound to herald the voice that followed. I felt sensation drain from my body once again, right as the numbers ceased.

Two, one... zero.

Chapter 2: Last Bug to the Party

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"I'm telling you, Spike, it was coming from in here, I'm sure of it," said a recognizably feminine voice as it echoed through the cavernous chamber. "You don't just forget a scream like that."

I pressed my back to the table, sinking low into the shadow it cast and hoping beyond all hope that I was too small and dark coated for anything to see me. The lack of reverberating in that girl's voice suggested that she was at least a little different to whatever I was.

That or she's learned to speak differently, maybe an accent? Whatever the case, my ears still perked as I heard the sound of what I could only guess were hooves on smooth crystal.

Hooves? So she's equine then, kinda like me? I surmised, yet the sound of a far more rapid set of steps running up behind the former threw in doubts. That sounded more like claws tapping?

"Are you sure, Twilight? Just because, you know, anytime something weird and not friendship related happens in here, it's never good," sounded a second voice, this one distinctively male, yet seemingly younger.

"Don't worry about that, Spike. Besides, I doubt it would be anypony trying to scare us, so they could be hurt," retorted the first voice before she called out. "Hello, is anypony in here?"

'Anypony?' My muzzle wrinkled as I looked at a knobbly foreleg. A pony, like a small horse? Grr, why can't I remember where that's from? One thing was for sure, if what I recalled of ponies was true, then that was definitely not whatever I was.

"Hello, if you're there, I heard you scream. Please, if you're in trouble we can help." For a brief moment, I actually considered showing myself.

Then what she'd been calling hit me. She was calling for a pony, not a monster. Furthermore, if what the second voice accompanying her had suggested was right, then surely I could only be the kind of 'trouble' to which he was referring. I swallowed, muzzle clenched as the sound of hooves and claws began to come around the table. I looked at my own hooves and prayed that I could do something other than fall on my face when walking.

Scooting around the edge of the table was not too hard a task as the voices trotted around to the far side. Eventually, I found myself staring at the exit, golden trimmed door hanging slightly ajar as my huntress gave a groan.

"Looks like it's nothing, Twi. I can't see anything," suggested the male voice as the female sighed.

"No, I was sure I... what's this?" The feminine voice paused as if something caught her eye and there was a shimmering sound.

"Looks like a rock, Twilight. Oh, if this turns out to be gems can I have them?" asked the male voice.

"What, no! They could be important, see this rock has markings on it!" exclaimed the female.

"Erm, those just look like purple scribbles, Twilight." The two of them seemingly distracted, I fixed my eyes on my escape, then looked at each of my hooves.

Okay legs, don't fail me now. My mental orders issued with some semblance of hope they'd be heeded, I tentatively placed one quivering hoof forward and took a step. Just think, I fall, I get swatted, simple as that... So just don't fall. I assured myself, very carefully placing another hoof down.

The slow motion at least had the added bonus of muffling my steps as the clopping of my pursuer's hooves were far more audible as she seemingly started pacing up and down at the far side of the room.

"This is the third time in the last year! I could have sworn I heard something, Spike. Tell me I'm not going crazy," declared the female equine, swiftly receiving an unsure response from her companion.

"Erm, you're not crazy, Twilight," he offered, and my ears perked, my quivering steps paused as I dared glance back.

The most I could make out was what appeared to be a dark purple hair over the far edge of the table. What I could only guess was a lavender colored and far straighter version of my own horn stuck out from it.

So she’s not like me at all? I noted, taking another careful step.

My rear hoof tapped against my front, and my teeth clenched, eyes closed as I did my best to not stagger and fall.

All the more reason to get out of here now! I snapped, unable to forgo feeling like I was some sort of utterly useless infant.

I pushed myself, one hoof down, then another, then a back hoof, then the other. The motion was as religious as the countdown that had been in my head and the rhythmic beeping that had preceded it. Until finally, the grand voyage across the room came to a conclusion, and I wobbled as I tried not to collide face first with the door.

My hoof shot out to catch me before I fell, and before I knew it, I hit the floor as the door swung outwards with a loud creak. I winced, fangs flashing as I bit my bottom lip and my ears folded reflexively. I tilted back onto my rump, and it felt odd to have a tail curl around my butt to press close to my hooves. Having wings that pressed flat against my back just added to the strange sensation. It felt even more terrifying to catch another glimpse of my hideous face in the reflective floor as my head sank. And to make all of my matters just a little bit worse, a voice called out in alarm.

"What was that?" My head shot up, ears suddenly erect.

Like I'd been caught in a sudden bright light, my whole body went rigid. All save for my wings, which seemed content to twitch and buzz sporadically as if to fly off without me. Finally, I dared look over my shoulder. In that briefest of glimpses, I saw no sign of the pony I'd seen across the table, but I could still hear the clop of hooves against crystal. I felt like a rabbit in a fox's den, the unknown comparison sudden, and yet all too familiar to me. Not to let my brain get too far ahead, however, I swiftly followed up the resolution with exactly the right reaction.

I half shoved, half head-butted the door open again, sure that there was no hope of hiding my presence now as I bolted. I got about a meter before tumbling to the side and slamming into a crystal wall with a yelp. Safe to say, at that point, I knew how it felt to bend a wing as the diaphanous extension of my new body buckled, wedged between my side and the wall. I grimaced, face contorting as I bit back the curses that came surging to mind at the sudden flare of pain.

The sounds of hooves and claws on the other side of the door elevating in pace spurred my panicked brain right back into action, however. Using the wall as a support, I fumbled my way along with the grace of a crippled seal. My eyes darted around, spying a long corridor with several others branching off in all directions. There were towering windows above, what I could only assume was still sunlight streaming in to cast radiant pillars onto the maroon carpet and hanging wall tapestries.

I came to a stop only when the corridor reached an intersection. One hall across from me led down a regal looking set of stairs to a larger chamber below, while two others led off left and right. Part of me desired nothing but to dive across the open space to the stairs, hopefully there I'd at least find a way out of this crystalline death trap. If there was sunshine, then there must be something outside.

Seriously such a big deal about a simple walk? A voice in my head moaned as if I should somehow know exactly how to trot around on all fours when I was pretty sure I used to walk on just two legs. It's a lot harder than it looks.

I glanced left and right, yet before I could make any move an odd purple glow shimmered into existence behind me and I looked back to see the door to the room I'd left enveloped in a glistening, lavender colored aura. As if blown by a heavy gale, they were thrust open and in their wake trotted what I could only assume was a pony.

Memories of small equine creatures flashed through my mind, and she looked about as alike in nature to them as I did to her. Still far taller than me, her coat was lavender, similar to the aura that had opened the doors. Her mane and tail, as I'd seen before, were a darker shade of purple with lavender highlights, just like her coat. Her eyes too were the same shade, and far larger than they had any right to be in proportion to her head. She almost looked like some fluffy, grape flavored marshmallow.

Like me, she had both wings and a horn that glowed in tangent with that hue around the doors. Only she had feathers, not some hideous insectoid set of limbs protruding from her back. Her horn was definitely straighter than mine too, almost like an ice-cream cone, reversed and glued to her head. The last distinct feature was what appeared to be a purple starburst tattoo on her flank, exactly like the one on one of the thrones when I'd awakened.

The pony, mare I guess... Or was she a pegasus, unicorn? She looked at me and I looked at her, eyes meeting for a fleeting moment.

Her purple spheres went even wider, comparable to dinner plates. I only looked from her to the many of the many doors flanking each side of the corridor. One has to lead away, I had to escape!

"Hey, Twilight, wait up... I..." Next to the mare appeared what I could best describe as a purple scaled lizard.

Smaller then the winged pony, he was still a little larger than me. Only, he walked on two legs, and had a long row of green spines along his back and head. Urg, I never thought I could envy someone being bipedal!

He stopped, hunched over as he took several exasperated breaths. One glance up at her, and he followed her gaze right to me, at which point he appeared as stunned as his equine companion.

"Is that... Is that what I think it is?" he stammered, pointing a claw right at me.

"It... It can't be," the mare added in equally clear disbelief.

I took their stunned expressions as a clear sign that this was my time to leave and before either of them could recover I hobbled around the left corner and out of sight. I did not belong here, and now that felt more clear than ever.

"Hey, wait!" called the mare, but I was already battling too hard not to fall head over hooves as the sound of her running after me met my ears.

It's over, I'm finished. Dumped in some strange joke of a world to be swatted or eaten by crazy purple ponies! My mind raced, and for once I really wished it was not the only thing to be going so fast as my useless hooves dragged along the floor.

Once again, however, the universe seemed determined to make my inability to walk the least of my issues. From nowhere a mass of purple and gold appeared in my face and I slammed right into it. Like some stealthy assassin that had been awaiting her time to strike, another mare trotted out from the door that had assaulted me. In the blurred haze that was my vision, I could just about make out a light lilac coat and purple mane.

"Twilight, what's all the shouting about I..." A pair of cyan eyes fixed on me as the image of her came into focus.

Forehoof pressed to my pained muzzle, I took little note of the green ooze seeping from my bloody nostrils as I scurried back against the wall. My back hit cold crystal and my wings buzzed.

Could I fly out of here, was there any hope of that? I wondered as the lilac mare looked at me with an utterly baffled expression. Don't count on it, I'm pretty sure I've at least walked before, but I know I've never flown.

"Y–you... You're a..." the mare stammered, pointing a forehoof at me like she'd seen a ghost.

"Starlight, look out there's-!" The voice of my previous pursuer caught up seconds before she appeared beside the mare that had subdued me with the door. "A..." Her voice trailed off as she looked at me, along with her exhausted reptilian companion.

Out of options, my mind felt like it had completely regressed to that of a terrified child as I curled into a ball, ears flat, tail curled and wings folded. The looming pair looked at each other, then at me.

Finally, against all odds, one last sensation came to me and in a moment of pure terror, I found my voice. "P–please... Please don't squash me."

I felt like such an idiot, so out of place. Like a fly begging for its life while already stupid enough to wander into the spider's web. It was a complete shock then when both mares looked horrified by the prospect, recoiling at the idea with a gasp.

"I... Why would you ever think..." the first mare, Twilight as I was swiftly starting to recognize as my thoughts slowed and I accepted the inevitable, asked meekly.

"He... He's a changeling... A foal... Twilight, that's..." the second mare, Starlight as Twilight had identified, stated.

A foal, what? So they were not just giants? But how was I a foal? Was that even the right thing to call a bug a... Changeling? Despite all that had been coming back to me in the past few minutes, my brain offered nothing on that subject.

Finally, Twilight seemed to collect herself enough to answer, glancing at Starlight before looking at me like I was really not something she should be able to look at.

"Starlight, you know that's impossible," she began, words seeming to catch in her throat again before she finally announced. "Changelings have been extinct for years."

Chapter 3: Only One of a Kind

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"Ten, nine, eight..."

"Let her go... Changelings are extinct... Last of your kind... What would you do…? My Queen. Anything and everything."

"Each point of the star. Eight years on the summer solstice the veil will finally fall. Eight years."

"Three, two, one... Zero."

Present Day:

Eight Years Later:

"Changelings!" I awoke with a start, hooves flailing, wings buzzing and cover sent flying as I lurched up in the bed. "They're extinct... I'm..." My words died into a series of long breaths as the distant memory seeped back into my mind.

I pressed a dark hoof to my chest, breathing in and out slowly, just like Twilight taught me as I composed and collected my thoughts. A dream... Nightmare? No, like a memory played out as perfectly as the day I'd been there. I was no stranger to my mind wandering, yet never had it been so clear, like watching through the eyes of my past self as if they were windows. The past was there, like a nagging leech sapping my existence, a life that lay under my own, a shadow of what I was. Eight years ago I'd awoken in that chamber in Twilight's castle, I'd forgotten, grown up and left it behind. So right now why did it feel as fresh as the moment my face had hit the table?

Taking one last breath, I lay my forehooves down on either side of me, the soft mattress squashing under the pressure as I looked over the darkened room. A square outline of golden rays shone in from the edges of the curtain, notifying me that I'd fortunately not awoken in the dead of night with no way to return to sleep.

"Thank Celestia for small favors," I droned, my reverberating voice dry as my parched throat as I concentrated hard and summoned my magic.

With less strain than usual, the bright green aura lit up and enveloped the curtain. My brow wrinkled, jaw clenched as I repeated the motion I desired over and over in my head.

Lift and fold, just like Starlight taught you. The thoughts came far easier than the actual motion, and for a moment, I was about ready to give up. Hey, did you ever get anywhere before by giving up?

Allowing me some reprieve, the universe obliged, and just as I intended, my magical grip tightened around the target. Lifting the two fabric sheets apart I finally allowed the glow of Celestia's new dawn sun to wash in and bathe my crystalline bedchamber in radiant light. I let out a breath I'd been holding as I slumped back, tense muscles going slack as I did so.

I can hardly even open the curtains... Urgh, maybe my magic is developing wrong? I asked myself, tapping my horn with a forehoof. Then what if I do need that book?

'Unicorn Magic for Foals' read the cover of the neat purple book on my bedside table, the golden depiction of a unicorn filly with sparks igniting form her horn below. 'Find Your Spark' added the subtitle.

I shoved the book to the other side of the nightstand with a hoof, looking away with a huff as my ears folded back. I'll do it on my own, all of my friends can do it so why not me?

So what if I'm not a unicorn, I have a horn and wings! I mentally assured myself. And yet no pony really knows how a changeling is supposed to develop.

Well, isn't my mind just so supportive? I crossed my forelegs and huffed, stretching my shimmering wings.

Brow furrowing, I licked around my fangs, once again trying to summon my magic to throw my bed sheets off of my lower half. Not one for giving out miracles twice in one day, the universe ensured that my poor excuse for arcane arts went nowhere and I finally gave up with a snarl.

"Stupid magic, stupid bed sheets," I fumbled, half throwing, half kicking the pale covers off with my hind legs before rolling over and dropping onto all fours. "Still can't stop me from just using my hooves, can you?"

I half expected some kind of snide response from the aether. That would be just my luck. I was the last changeling in existence and also not the best at magic. Still, I'd gone the past eight years trying my magic as hard as I could, and I knew I'd never get anywhere by whining about it.

Ha, even extinction didn’t want you. When the inanimate sheets of fabric failed to produce any kind of retort akin to that, I smirked.

"Well, that only gives me more of a reason to be glad I'm not extinct," I stated triumphantly, throwing my head up with a snort and trotting over to the window.

Sure, I may have grown up in an unknown world with no idea where I came from or even if I'd come from anywhere. Yet I was glad that if every changeling had died in the war, I was still here to keep at least the Crystal Wing rebels' reputation intact.

"Celestia knows if good changelings died for this then I can't go around complaining about it," I said to myself, forehoof pressed to my chest as I peered out of the window.

Beyond the neatly crafted fusion of golden metal, ornate glass, and dark blue crystal, I could see the other spires of Twilight's castle. Purple and golden trims glowing in the dawn's light. Beyond sat the town of Ponyville itself, quaint thatch cottages, town hall and carousel boutique beyond the river in the distance. A marvel of earth pony tradition to be sure, the countryside settlement was like a diamond amidst the rolling green hills and lush forests.

Ponyville. I'd only lived here my whole life, eight years, even since I'd appeared without an explanation. There had been theories, sure. I was the last changeling in Equestria after the civil war that had seen the last of my kind wiped out almost a decade ago. Queen Scolopendra, daughter of the fallen Queen Chrysalis, leader of the tyrant hive, scourge of ponies and any traitor changeling that had sided with them.

I sighed, looking at my shimmering wings as I thought about that. An inexperienced and undisciplined leader that had taken control of the hive after her mother's death at the royal wedding. It only made sense that any changeling with half a brain would go against such a change, yet the fact they were all dead left a hole in my chest.

Thorax, Elytra, Ocellus. I'd never met any of them, but I recounted the names from the monument I'd seen in the Crystal Empire nonetheless.

Just think, if it were not for them turning their back on that monster you'd have been crushed like a bug once. I shook my head at that, the snide voice in my head was no stranger to me, one could not grow up feeling so displaced without a few issues. Yeah, well, lucky for me I am a changeling with half a brain!

Voices in my head, that I was used to. Yet when a new voice that sounded akin to the sudden sensation of being plunged into a pool of cold water slithered into my ear, all that thinking I was still a little crazy shot into overdrive.

"My, my, look at you. You have grown." I spun on all fours, moving on legs that had once felt alien to me with the swiftness of a natural born foal. "I love the wings too, it's a nice look."

For some reason, the information my twitching ears were feeding me felt familiar and yet most distant the then stars that twinkled in Luna's night.

"Wow, standing to attention like a true drone, you, are well bred." The hooded mare loomed out of the shadow like a ghost as she shot me a sly look. "It's impressive, really. Eight years... You grow up so fast."

I froze like a statue as the quadrupedal figure trotted forward. All I could see below her cowl were a pair of amethyst eyes and, a smile that seemed to glow.

"What... I..." Words caught in my throat, as if my mind knew exactly what to say even when my lips did not. "Do I know you...? I've seen some really odd things in my life and never before has it been anything like this."

There is a mare, an absolute stranger in my bedchamber, and the first thing I do is not to call out for anypony that may be close by? The hooded figure actually giggled at that, her voice becoming considerably softer, almost like a young filly, as she cocked her head and added.

"Oh, making light of the situation as if you have a choice. Is that still a sense of humor I see?" she asked, flicking off her hood to reveal that she was not a pony as I'd come to know them in the past few years.

This mare had stripes and a short mane and spoke with an odd accent that I recognized from the many books Twilight had given me to read over my life. Not to mention the multiple trips to Zecora when the princess who'd raised me thought I might be evil or have some freaky changeling infection. Even so, as composed as I tried to appear, I could not help but shiver under the glow of her eyes, my ears flattened and my wings folded tightly. They felt so familiar and yet so distant.

Why does it feel like that light in her eyes is calling me? I was never this much like a literal moth, right? I thought, even if I recalled that one time Rainbow Dash had compared me to one of the moth ponies from one of her Daring Do novels.

"I'm a zebra, I can read the look on your face," she offered, taking the memory right from my head. "I can also sense you're confused."

Oh, she knows I’m confused? How long did it take her to work out that a total stranger in my room would confuse me? I thought drily.

I looked to the door, the urge to call outgrowing, only to sink when I looked at her smiling face. The odd sense of charisma was unnatural, like I wanted to like her even if she felt wrong.

"I... I know that, I met a zebra, though that does not explain why you are in my room," I retorted, my mouth formulating words before I could really consider them.

She lifted a hoof and I was practically prancing on the spot like a giddy colt again at the urge to run and tell somepony that I'd woken from an odd dream only to have a stranger in my room. The zebra considered me with a hum, then looked at the back of her hoof.

"Eight years, it almost feels like yesterday," she mused and my attention perked.

Was it just me, or did the fact that I'd also been stuck here that exact amount of time and had just dreamed about it like a nightmare, sound far too convenient? I narrowed my eyes at the mare, putting on the best changeling mean face I could muster. Having grown up as a changeling as far from another of my kind as possible, it was pretty pathetic. The mare actually laughed and I felt the heat drain from my face as I paled and looked at the door again.

"Oh, you are adorable, and you grew up in such an ideal place. Far, far better than that other one, she's far too much trouble." My ears perked up at those words.

"Another one? Wait, you know another changeling?" No amount of fear in the world could have held back the longing. I had to meet another member of my race, but the odd mare just grinned.

"That does not matter, what does is that today is finally the day, I get to..." The sound of a knock at my bedchamber door stole my attention for just a second, her words cutting off.

I looked back and the zebra was gone. I jumped, wings flaring in alarm and buzzing like an agitated fly as I was forced to do a double take. Finding she was still gone my eyes darted around the room. Then the pressure on my mind lifted and for a second all I could remember was amethyst eyes under a hood. I pressed a hoof to my head and groaned, the sound of another knock dissipated the mental image of the stranger like my reflection in rough water.

"Yeah, who is it?" I asked my mind muddled, and without an answer from the other side, the door telekinetically opened to reveal the face of a familiar lilac mare.

Oh, because seeing magic used so casually does not get under my wings at all, I mentally huffed as I frowned. Is it right for an eight-year-old changeling to be so bad...? Sweetie Belle was ten when she learned to use magic?

"Oh, Digit, you're awake... Sorry, I just thought... Well, it sounded like you were talking to somepony." Starlight Glimmer stretched the words out until her voice turned shrill.

Talking to somepony, was I? I wracked my memory for answers, yet even as I tapped my forehoof against my head all I got was an odd image of amethyst eyes under a gloomy hood. Why does it feel like there is a dusty hole in my mind all of a sudden?

"Digit?" Starlight’s voice called me back to reality as she asked again, and I perked up suddenly.

Digit, my name, the epiphany of all I could remember before I ended up face first on the cutie map. A series of numbers, a countdown from ten down to zero. It was all that Twilight had been able to magically pull from my memories years ago when I'd finally stopped freaking out about magic enough to let her. Upon identifying the series of digits and one note from Spike that Digit was not a bad (if very un-changeling like name) and it had stuck.

Yeah, I may as well have just called myself improvise, I mentally grumbled, recalling my foalhood self bedridden for days with a broken wing, prodding at my odd, alien body like I was some science project. Still, better to carry the memory with me wherever I go, even if they are just numbers.

I only realized I was smiling awkwardly at one of the mares who'd raised me when Starlight cleared her throat. The spike of worry I picked up coming from her forced me to finally flounder out an answer.
"I'm fine, really... Just another dream... I think," I winced, before adding. "It was about the day I first woke up again."

Starlight's smile faltered a little, yet her reassuring expression was still there as she trotted over to me, magically shutting the door behind her. Now, Digit, don't let it get to you... You'll be good at magic someday.

"Haven’t heard you talk about that in a long time," she said as she pressed a forehoof to my head. "Like a fever dream or night terror."
I rolled my eyes, even as my ears folded back and my forelegs rubbed together anxiously. She was right, it had felt oddly specific to be a dream. Along with the yawning hole in my memory where those amethyst eyes that sent a shiver down my spine.

Nevertheless, Starlight's presence brought a new warmth with it, one far stronger than that cast by the sun though the window behind me. I had to admit, upon first hearing about it, it was not something I was proud of. I'd known from a very young age why emotions felt so tangible to me. Many were refreshing and the greatest, love, was even filling. Changelings mostly fed on love or similar positive emotions. Happiness, joy, and empathy were a few tasty ones to name a few. Yet others, like guilt, were disgusting to taste. Anger was hot, leaving a burning sensation in my chest and sadness was cold and empty.

That fact, combined with a mostly carnivorous diet on the side, was one of the major reasons my kind had been shunned by ponies. Yet with the outbreak of the war and the alliance of the Crystal Wings, we'd at least come to be a little more respected, shape-changing parasites or not.

Yeah, that was if you were able to shapeshift, my mind mused, but I slammed a door in the doubt’s face. Magic first, foal steps, brain.

I blinked slowly before looking at Starlight, feeling my own compassion for her filling my veins. Purely platonic love radiated off of her like a small star, she cared for me and I cared in return. My own emotions were like an internal engine in a way. Twilight's assumptions about that years ago had been right, at least. Even if my love had originally been born from fear that, without the ones I cared for, I'd be abandoned.

"I'm fine, Starlight, really... You know how it is, when is my head ever in the right place?" I responded, brushing her hoof off of my forehead. "What time is it anyway, I feel like I overslept?"

Starlight placed a hoof on my shoulder, smiling warmly as she giggled. "Oh, you did. How late were you and Twilight up rereading again last night?" she asked. At my infuriatingly obvious glowing green blush, the answer was pretty clear.

She rolled her eyes. "You're such a little brain bug... Though, I thought it was best to leave you in bed while we set up for the celebration tonight."

My head perked at that, ears tall as the ecstatic emotions coming off her at my giddy reaction that only reinforced my excitement.

"Wait, the summer sun celebration is today!" I darted over to the mirror in a flash, rubbing a hoof over my wings and marble blue carapace."Oh, how could I forget about this! How do I look?! Presentable?!"

There were yet more books and scrolls arrayed on the dresser, clearly not what it had originally been intended for. Among them were quills and pencils, scribbles as a result of my magical levitation practice and me just finding things in this new world fascinating. A silver length of thin chain that was hooked to a smooth black stone sat among them, faded purple markings etched into its surface. The only thing that had appeared with me that day eight years ago was that stone. Upon confirming it was magically safe, Twilight and the others had fashioned it into a necklace for my first birthday. (Well, anniversary of the day I appeared. Close enough.) Safe to say, I didn't go anywhere without it.

Most treasured of all however were the multitude of photos posted to the rim of the crystal mirror. Me in Manehattan with Twilight and her friends, disguised as a very timid looking blue colt, me in Sugarcube Corner years ago with the fillies that had tried and failed to get the first (non-improvised) changeling cutie mark. The few times I'd been my true self in public were there too. Looking very embarrassed when a group of curious foals inspected my glittering wings at school. A final picture of me, slumped. Looking very unsatisfied with the wings of the Crystal Empire's princess Flurry Heart flopped like a sheet over my head, forced me to chuckle.

Flurry Heart. Ironic that the princess whose empire and family the war had torn a gaping hole in had become my first and best friend. Being raised by Twilight and her friends practically made us cousins. Or at least how she'd put it back when we'd first met, no matter how hard the truth about her mother and my kind’s last queen had hit me back then.

"It's kinda hard to hate changelings when a Crystal Wing saved my life. You're not all bad, like Thorax!" Headstrong as always, some of her first words to me had been not so tarnished by my kind's reputation.

Growing up as the future ruler of an empire where my kind were so close to the infrastructure only a few years ago would do that, I supposed.

Even so, I was not the biggest fan of going around looking like a true changeling. As, to the uneducated pony, half of my race had indeed been evil, making martyrs out of princesses and almost draining the land of all love. She at least helped me sustain the pride I had in my Crystal Wings. If the princess that had lost the most still thought me worthy of their name then I'd stick to it. Even so, Twilight and Starlight’s magic often helped with the disguise when I struggled to maintain it myself. Cerulean Swirl, my ponysona, was who most ponies knew me as.

A form I'll shift into and maintain all on my own someday! I thought triumphantly, the idea of changing shapes not as sickening to me as it had been when I'd first learned I could do it.

Still peering in the mirror, I lifted a lip to inspect a pearly white fang, as Starlight giggled again. "You look like a changeling who only got a few hours sleep."

She trotted over and rubbed a hoof under one wary eye, even as I shook her off. "Still, if you want to come down for breakfast, I saved you some pancakes."

My head pivoted to her as I pranced on the spot like a giddy foal. The Summer Sun celebration, the one day of the year aside from Hearth's Warming that we were all together. All of the ponies that I'd met in this crazy rollercoaster of the past eight years. Call me a sucker for a happy atmosphere, it was delicious after all. I had no idea why or how I was here, I'd once been terrified by that prospect. Yet after this long, there was no way I'd give up that happiness for anything.

The fact that even some ponies I'd not seen in weeks may be in the castle right now had me wishing I'd woken up sooner. Maybe it was my body being far younger than my mind, but there was so much to say, catch up on, show off. Being the last of a kind did at least have the bonus of being completely unique. Judging by how her feelings tasted, Starlight found my beaming smile adorable regardless of fangs. I, on the other hoof, was so eager to start the day that I failed to notice the striped mare looming in the far corner of the room's reflection in the mirror, glowing eyes just peeking from under the brim of her hood as she grinned.

Chapter 4: Summer Sun Celebration

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Once, walking on four legs along regal halls decorated by long tapestries and magnificent purple carpets had been the most disorienting and terrifying thing in the world. Now it was all I knew, the distinct feeling I'd be unable to get anywhere on four legs had dissipated long ago. One hoof forward then another, the dream had been a reminder just how far I'd come and, coupled with the last of the pancakes I'd managed to eat before they were taken this morning, put even more of a bounce in my step.

Today was going to be the best Summer Sun celebration ever, I just knew it. It came as quite the shock then when my next hoof step did not fall onto a smooth crystal floor, but cold sand and dust.

One strange place to another, I looked up only to stagger to a rhythmic beeping in my ears and flashes of numbers in my vision. My head swam, body swaying as the whole corridor became a blur.

"So you really are extinct, how interesting. No, it's genius, why would one think to look for you where your kind has disappeared?" there came a voice I recognized, yet from where I knew it was hard to place.

I looked around, seeing flickers of purple light in my blurred vision, beating in time with that droning rhythm of the countdown. That set of numbers, ten down to zero, for some reason it felt colder every time it reset. It sent a shiver down my spine and right to the tips of my wings.

"She thought she could hide you from me, even if we had a deal? How foolish, I can sense it now, you're afraid, confused even after all this time." The voice continued and I tried my best to call out, yet my lips moved without a sound. "You hide your true fears well, too. You brave little soldier."

Then came a rush of air and I felt more dusty ground under me, a far cry from the flat palace hall. Reality blasted into me like a wall, forcing me to lurch as, like a swarm of crawling insects, dust coalesced into a single mass and the image to replace the castle halls came into being around me.

There were cliffs, pale moonlight, and hanging vines all beset by a cloud of thick fog. Yet where magnificent scenery once may have captivated me, I found myself unable to do anything other than stare down at myself. Dust coated my dark chitin like I'd been bathed in the stuff. My jaw trembled, fangs jittering as I sat down, tucked my forelegs under me and coiled my tail around them like some kind of pathetic shield.

"H–hello, whoever was talking just now. I feel like I remember you... It's just..." I pressed both forehooves to my temples as my reverberating voice called out. "Can you tell me what's going on... I was just home?"

"You'll remember what I choose you to remember!" There was a shifting in the darkness, spirals of fog forming as bats flitted away from the movement of something large. "It has been far too long since I've had any power over you... That is not your home."

I skidded right back across the floor, thick dust and cobwebs furrowing in my wake as I did so. That was when my back hit a wall and I was shunted forward by my own momentum. I fell into the dust with a huff, snorting a cloud of the stuff and really trying not to think about the dry taste in my mouth as I shot up and rubbed my tongue. Looking up I saw what appeared to be a crystal table, like the cutie map, only purple. Next to it I felt tiny again, like a foal. Just like the day I'd appeared. While my real self was still only a little larger than an eight-year-old colt, I knew that the cutie map should not loom over me in such an ominous way.

What is this, why does it feel familiar? Wasn't I just on my way to try and find Twilight and the others in the main hall? The thought made me feel dizzy, like the world I'd woken up in was the real dream.

"What do you mean, remember. I'd know if I'd been here before!" I called into the empty chasm, voice echoing from the sheer cliff sides.

"What I mean is that you know me... Or, I at least know you," mused that voice and I looked up into the fog to catch sight of a figure in the shroud just ahead of me.

I froze again, petrified as the quadrupedal form trotted forward under the cloak. A pair of amethyst eyes feeling so familiar it set my thoughts on fire trying to place where I'd seen them before.

"You, you were in my room before. But I..." I pressed a hoof to my head. "How did I forget that?" She looked playfully confused as she thought.

Then she giggled at that, her voice becoming considerably more ominously whimsical as she cocked her head and added.

"It's a simple trick, your memory can be molded like clay if I wish. I could have been with you your whole life and you'd have no idea." She flicked off her hood to reveal her striped face, young and seemly innocent aside from those eyes. "Time flows very differently for me, you must understand."

She towered over me, even if she only looked to be about the age of the fillies I'd grown up with. She motioned towards me with a hoof and I pressed back against the dark table, feeling a weight around my neck as the stone pendant I'd worn all my life appeared for her to inspect.

"Her one and only mistake, she did not keep this," the zebra mused as she rotated the thing in her hooves. "And now it's calling."

I resisted the urge to snarl as my instincts told me as I snatched it away and shuffled to the side. It took all I could not to be terrified of her and the cold, creeping way she made my chitin crawl.

"Oh, so there is some fight in you after all. Here I thought you'd grown up an adopted prince." Her grin came back as she tapped her chin with a forehoof. "Crystal Wings, good changelings? What an interesting reality."

"Stop it. Who are you and why do I feel like I know you?" I demanded, then looked around, clutching my stone pendant close as my heart sank. "Is this all a dream, am I dead?"

A world of pastel talking ponies, I was a strange bug monster and she was a small zebra in a cloak. It had been eight years, why did it feel like everything I knew about my life was catching up with me only to fall out from under my quivering hooves.

The mare chuckled gain. "No, you are very much alive. Saying otherwise would be doing myself a discredit."

She trotted over and sat across from me, and I flinched as she moved to rest a hoof on my shoulder.

"Like I told you once, you are a changeling, you're in a place called Equestria and you especially are in a place very beneficial to me," she elaborated, jabbing a hoof at my chest.

I looked between her hoof and her eyes, frowning. "I know that, but I never remember anypony like you telling me so. Twilight and Starlight told me about what I was."

"Hm, your mothers and some would believe." The spike of anger at her casual dismissal of them left a bad taste in my mouth as she turned and flicked her tail. "The one to champion the last of the changelings."

"Yes, nopony else ever cared enough about me..." I looked down at my hooves, was that really true, surely some of Twilight's friends, the princesses would have cared the same way?

How much of that is just the novelty that you're the last one of your kind? I thought, only to shake my head. What, why was I thinking like that, they are my friends, I care about them.

"Confused, do not worry. We meet and I would not belittle you." The zebra mare flicked a hoof. "Your mind was never meant to go through what you have. Still, to see how you have gone about suppressing it all this time is interesting."

"What are you talking about you... What do you know about me?" I had no idea how much force I put into that demand, but behind the facade of anger, I was terrified of any truth that would shatter the frail life I'd come to love.

"It's only a matter of time, little one. On the eighth year of the summer sun the veil will fall." She chuckled. "She really should have put more effort into hiding you."

I shakily got to my hooves. "Who, what? Just tell me or leave me alone!"

She turned and glared. "End the day and then I will tell you everything you want to know."


"Digit, hey Digit, Equestria to changeling, hello you in there?" A voice I knew, along with the blurred image of an orange face, purple mane and eyes shook me back to reality. "You looked really like you've seen a ghost."

I shook my head, one foreleg waving forward as things came into focus and I found myself looking around in a frantic daze.

"I... she, she was right there..." I stammered, yet just as soon as I knew what I'd seen the image was gone again.

I thought I heard laughter somewhere in the back of my mind as I sprung a forehoof forward, only for the mare before me to look even more confused. Scootaloo, one of the three closest friends I'd had growing up, and the pony that had been dead set on getting me a real cutie mark after her failed attempts with griffins and hippogriffs, looked at me strangely. I met her eyes, then shrank back against the wall, blushing. She was also been one of the fillies I'd had a dumb, foal-hood crush on too, even if she was also twice my age.

"Who are you talking to, and why are you in a broom closet?" asked the young mare as I finally got a grip on my surroundings to find I was indeed surrounded by mops and buckets.

"I... I..." I rubbed my forehooves together before dropping to all fours and darting out.

How had I ended up in here? How zoned out had I really been?

"I have no idea, I was just walking then..." I had to press a hoof to my head as I desperately tried to pry the truth from my mind's abyss.

When I failed to remember anything, no matter how much I knew there was something there in the blank space in my head, Scootaloo pressed a forehoof to her muzzle and giggled.

I frowned at her. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing, just, well, you kinda had a mop on your head when I looked in here, what were you doing?" she elaborated. and I hated how hot the literal green glow in my cheeks became.

"I was... Doing changeling things," I insisted and her humored look flattened as she deadpanned.

"Changeling things?" Okay, last of a kind, possibly descended of a hive of changelings rebels or not, that sounded dumb even to me.

"Okay, I have no idea, I just... Feel really worried," I admitted, yet with no further things to base my self-diagnosis on I simply offered an awkward smile.

Don't let it ruin the day, you can't remember it so it can't be that bad right? the part of my mind that just wanted to make the most of today reasoned.

"But what are you doing here anyway? I thought the celebration was tonight?" I asked and she rolled her eyes.

"Princess Twilight asked us all over to help set things up, so..." Before she could go on, however, we were interrupted.

"I need a mop, stat!" The door behind me was swung aside as a white-coated mare with curled purple mane enveloped in her magic. "Of course, you just had to go and spill that punch all over the new carpet, Pinkie Pie."

The prim, elegant voice grumbling to itself could only belong to one mare I knew, and sure enough, the moment we stepped aside and Rarity saw us, she smiled, mop seemingly momentarily forgotten.

"Scootaloo, Digit, how are you, dears? Might I say your mane and wings are looking positively lovely today," she commentated, driving Scootaloo to brush a strand of her mane from her eyes and me to glance back at my shimmering wings.

"Thanks, though I've not had a chance to properly clean them yet though," I stated proudly, reveling in the compliment to the one part of my body that was not too evil looking.

Scootaloo once again rolled her eyes. "Wonderbolt brand mane conditioner, Dash won't let me use anything else," she admitted, and Rarity chuckled as she started to rummage through the broom closet.

"Oh, I'm sure she won't have anything less now that she's captain... Now, where is that mop?" The unicorn mumbled more to herself then anypony else, before finally calling out. "Oh, Spike, dear, do you mind coming and helping me find..."

Like a purple missile, the dragon was at her side in a flash. Even on all fours he already stood almost a full head taller than the adult mare, with leathery wings that made even Twilight's look average. Behinds him trailed a younger mare, whose pale coat almost matched Rarity's, as did the style of her neatly crafted lavender and pink mane. Then again, what could one expect from sisters?

"Yes, Rarity, what are you looking for?" Spike asked as he peered over the fashionista with her head in the closet.

The two mumbled to each other, Rarity giving a yelp as a broom fell down and Spike looking very unsure at the situation. Scootaloo and I meanwhile became far more focused on Sweetie Belle as she came and sat next to us, the way she was looking at the adolescent dragon before her earning a nudge from Scootaloo.

"Did not expect to see you down here so soon, you did stay over again right?" The young unicorn looked at her pegasus friend with a stunned expression, then huffed.

"Not all romance has to be so..." Sweetie twirled a forehoof. "So raunchy, I think you've had enough crushes to know that, Scoots."

That comment made me bow my head as Scootaloo snorted, then laughed. "Well, to be fair if anypony was stuck in bed it was me, I only got up an hour ago... Freaky dreams."

"Digit, I'd be worried about you if you did not have freaky dreams," Scootaloo commented and I tapped a hoof at the floor awkwardly. "Pretty much everything you say going on in your head is crazy."

Okay, so what if my head was not always in the right place. Everypony has nightmares, right? Did it matter that kind felt more like memories? I thought as Sweetie Belle peered past Scootaloo and looked to me.

"You still get those?" She shuddered. "It's not like that time we all had a sleepover and you woke up screaming about purple spiders, is it?"

I blushed so hard I swore somepony could fry eggs on my face. "No... No, I'm pretty sure that was different."

"Yeah a buggo, scared of bugs, how ironic," Scootaloo added, nudging my side with a wing.

"Buggo, I thought you said you'd stop using that name?" I countered with a frown and she smirked.

"Well, that's what Flurry called you. Doesn't that make it a royal decree?" I hated my own stupid embarrassment, it tasted awful, not to mention the way my disgruntled muzzle wrinkled and cheeks puffed up.

"Well, technically spiders are arachnids... And he's an equine-arthropod so..." Sweetie Belle's witty brains were met with a flat look for Scootaloo.

"Yeah, well I'll have to tell her to stop too," I stated bluntly, even I was certain that would not happen in a million moons. "Even when she's not around she lives to tease me."

"Yeah, but that’s what best friends do." The smirk on Scootaloo's face was unbearable as she nudged me again and Sweetie Belle squeaked.

"Oooh, just think, then we'd only have to get you a coltfriend, Scoots, and we'd all be..." She was cut off by a glare from the pegasus and a very unsure look from me.

"Me and the princess, no way... She'd kill me if that ever happened," I joked as Scootaloo added.

"Yeah, and I can find a coltfriend no problem. Rainbow's married, I can just ask her." Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes, then a triumphant cheer caught our attention.

"Oh, thank you very much my big strong Spikey-Wikey," Rarity cooed to the blushing dragon as she finally retrieved a set of mops and a bucket.

The look on Sweetie Belle's face as the dragon struggled to respond was like nothing I'd ever seen. She darted forward, wrapped herself around his right foreleg and glared at her elder sister.

"Is that it, Rarity? We've still got streamers to hang up in the dining hall if you're done," she almost growled.

Rarity took a step back, waving a foreleg as she chuckled uncertainty.

"Oh, aren't you just the most adorable little thing." The smirk that spared on her face was far too knowing as she tapped her little sister on the muzzle with a forehoof then turned and trotted away.

"Ick, Sweetie Belle, I know you were always into that stuff and all... But by Celestia, remind me never to get on your bad side," Scootaloo commented, nudging me as I fought not to drift off into daydreams again.

"Yeah, totally doesn't taste awkward," I blurted suddenly, and almost everypony burst out laughing, at least until Spike commented.

"Hey, if you two are free, there's some books that need moving from the dining room table, Twilight was up reading with somepony again last night." I looked from face to face as they all peered at me knowingly.

"Would you believe me if I said that was Starlight, not me?" I may be a changeling, but I was not a very good liar.


"Your care for them is so great. I can see it in your very soul, like a fire that cannot be extinguished. What an interesting concept," mused that mysterious voice, and I looked to my left to see a flash of amethyst eyes.

I jumped back, only for the hallucination to fade and Scootaloo to look at me strangely with a stack of books perched on her back.

"By Celestia, and here I thought Fluttershy was afraid of her own shadow," the teenage pegasus commented as I shook my head.

"I have no idea what's with me today," I retorted, straightening the books on my back. "I really wish there was another changeling I could just ask... Maybe this is a changeling thing?"

Scootaloo then stretched each of his wings. "Well, trust me, growing up is hard... I did not think so until the past few years." She shuddered. "Puberty is rough."

My eyes went wide as I blushed and stammered. "Okay, too much information already!"

Trust her to be so blunt about things. I mentally huffed.

I didn't even know how I was aware of that concept at my age. It felt like just another thing I was remembering from a life that was lost, and even if it had taken me a few years to come to terms with this new body, thinking about how it may change was not really at the top of my mental list right now.

Scootaloo chuckled. "You say that, but you seriously are not excited for when you finally can manage to shapeshift properly? Think of the pranks we could pull."

"Keep this up and I'll be pranking you first," I shot back with a smirk.

We both chuckled I pushed open the library door. Seeing the inside of this room was like stepping into the castle all over again, and after feeling that sense of renewal in my dreams it was oddly nostalgic. The vast shelves stacked to the rafters with books filled the air with a parchment scent and the furniture was perfect, right down to the set of reading chairs and desks in the center.

"Haha, look at you, you're like a foal in a candy shop," Scootaloo teased, nudging my side. "At least you'll never have to shapeshift to look like an egghead."

"And how much did you have to read growing up?" I retorted and she winced.

"Okay, good point," she responded simply. "Urgh, books. Dash tries so hard to get me to read more than just Daring Do, the war made her such a hard flank some times."

Despite the reminder of some of my friends' roles in the war, I was laughing again, all too aware the sense of adventure and wonder in those books was what she craved even if she would not admit it. I could not deny that I was curious in that regard too if only to get out there and find out the truth of where I came from. The cold sensation that came over me dampened that feeling, however, as I saw a flash of purple eyes in my suddenly swaying vision.

I could still hear myself and Scootaloo as we chuckled together. Yet our laughter was soon drowned out by the looming shadow that appeared over us, flickering purple cast down as a distorted voice rumbled.

"Scootaloo, the nightmare bids you welcome." There was an odd sternness to that tone that would send a shiver through the heart of even the toughest pony. "And who is this supposed to be? We have never seen a creature such as this before."

Chapter 5: Flurry Heart

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As soon as I shrank back from the onset of amethyst eyes, the frail illusion cast by my mind faded and a pair of eyes glinting like steel fixed me with a glare that could melt diamonds instead. Then as soon as it began, the alicorn's imposing display was utterly destroyed by a single war cry.

"For Ponyville!" The young pegasus colt, clad in scribbled cardboard armor declared as he hovered up, tiny wings buzzing like a bee’s before he dove onto Flurry Heart's back. "Surrender, Nightmare Princesses!"

"Argh, no, what is this? Surprise attack, flee, flee!" Flurry Heart yelped, looking at us with pleading eyes as she motioned for us to run. "I cannot repel power of such magnitude!"

"Haha, just like in Starmares, now surrender, I got you!" The attacking colt declared as Flurry took him in her hooves and rolled over before dropping him on her chest.

"Argh, no you have bested me Stormfly, I give up!" the princess gasped, gazing up at the colt perched on her chest in utter defeat. "All my powers are no match, my armies have fallen."

She gestured to a bunch of shadowbolt figurines scattered to one side as the colt smirked and puffed up his chest proudly.

"Ha, see, I can beat a real royal guard if I want to," he declared, sitting on her like she was a fluffy throne.

"Haha, you sure can, little guy, you sure can," Flurry laughed before a set of light wing beats heralded the arrival of a very unsure looking butter yellow mare.

"Oh, Stormy, don't hurt her. Are you sure this is okay, Flurry?" Fluttershy asked as she tentatively hovered over the pair, biting at a forehoof. "He's not too rough?"

"Oh, it's no problem, Miss Fluttershy... He got me fair and square," she responded before smirking at the colt. "Though he forgot about my magic!"

Her horn flared and Fluttershy gave a shrill eep as the little colt was enveloped in a golden glow and levitated, thrashing, into her forelegs.

"What, no fair! You cheat, we said no magic!" Stormfly declared, trying to get at her again as Fluttershy held him back.

"Yeah, in the fight, and you already won... Even little heroes gotta do what the big ponies say," she responded, before looking at Fluttershy. "Am I okay for a quick break, Miss Fluttershy?"

The older pegasus blushed. "It's just Fluttershy, Princess," she giggled. "And no need to ask, I'm the one who should be kneeling at your hooves for foalsitting." She waved the idea away with a hoof.

"Arr, well I know what it's like to want to meet up with friends you've not seen in ages." Those devious eyes were on me again in seconds and before I knew it I was the victim of the nightmare's magic.

"Come here you little bug, I've been here for hours and you seriously did not even get out of bed?" she declared, ruffling my mane and nuzzling my side. "What were you doing?"

"Running from the nightmare!" I called out, books flying as I reached out and tried to pull away from her, yet when your best friend's an all-powerful alicorn, there is no running from hugs.

Scootaloo giggled and offered about as much help as the discarded Wonderbolts toys next to her. The comments she and Sweetie had made before were undoubtedly at the forefront of her mind. No help from anypony, I was faintly yanked around and sat before Flurry, her beaming face inches from mine.

"I mean look at you, you've grown!" she observed, plucking open one of my wings with her magic. "I don't think I've ever seen a changeling with wings so shiny!"

I folded the wing, the sensation of anypony, even the closest friends touching them making my chitin crawl.

"I've grown? Like you're one to talk about that kind of thing!" I jabbed a hoof at her fluffy chest, noting for once she'd neither her royal guard armor or royal regalia on. "You're almost as tall as most mares!"

She waved a forehoof with an indignant 'pfft' sound. "Yeah, I'm thirteen... Alicorn things, you know?"

She said that as if I should know exactly how the first and only pure born alicorn in Equestria should mature and at what rate. Safe to say, all that I knew was that she grew up a lot faster than everypony else, even changelings. Then again, having grown up around just as many rebel changelings as she did ponies in her youth, I hardly think she'd have noticed the difference.

"Yeah, well when I can work out how to turn into an alicorn, I'm sure you can tell me all about it," I countered with a smirk.

"Sure, but you'll always just be an adorable little buggo to me, though." She was the only pony in all of Equestria that could say that to me with a smirk like she was wearing and not make me feel like my face was on fire.

The look that Scootaloo had plastered all over her face as she stood next to us, however, was more embarrassing to think about.

No, I'm not some cute token changeling! I grumbled in my thoughts, while I took a step back from the teenage alicorn.

"I take after you, Fluffy Heart!" I countered and her face dropped and she started to stammer.

"Here, I think you'd make a great looking alicorn for a day, Digit," Fluttershy interjected with a giggle as Stormfly stopped thrashing.

"Oh, oh, is he the... The ch–changell... The changer?" The little colt asked and where once I may have wilted in fear, I shrank in humble embarrassment. "He must be so cool. Mommy said they were scary, but that they were not all so bad."

Fluttershy giggled. "Yes Stormy, that's him. And your mom would know all about him and changelings."

"Awww, no way, Stormfly look at you. I don't get up to Cloudsdale often enough nowadays, you've all grown up!" Scootaloo called to the colt, much to the young pony's proud satisfaction. "You here with your mom?"

"Not right now, Rainbow and Soarin left him with me while they were on the Wonderbolts show this weekend, though she's coming for the celebration soon," Fluttershy elaborated.

Scootaloo felt a little defeated that she couldn’t see her idol again right away, yet the fire of excitement I could taste coming off of her did not fade.

"Yeah, then I can tell mommy how I beat the nightmare!" Stormfly declared, ushering a chuckle form everypony, even the still very ruffled looking princess.

"Haha, you sure did. Kicked my tail to the moon," she laughed, scooting back over to me and wrapping a wing around my back. "So these wings are fluffy still, huh?"

"Oh, oh, she got him Fluttershy, I got to go help!" Stormfly declared valiantly as he wriggled free from Fluttershy’s grip and charged right at the alicorn that had me in a vicious wing hug.

Oh, yeah... This is home. Rough, tumble and locked in very fluffy wings. Scary voices in my head or not, this was my life and I'd have it no other way.


"I'm Flurry Heart, princess of the Crystal Empire... Auntie Twilight always told me to make friends and I... Well, I used to know a few ponies like you so... Wanna be friends?"

"So what if he's the last changeling in Equestria, I'm the only pony who was born an alicorn, right?"

The words of the princess were cast on a ghostly wind as my head swayed and a breeze passed by my twitching wings.

"Friends with a princess. My, my, talk about right place at the right time." The moment I lost my sense of reality the void wasted no time scooping me up into that irritatingly familiar place.

I fell to the dust, looking up to see the cliffs, moonlight and narrow ledge, as well as the striped mare, sitting on an odd perplexing table made from crystal with her rear legs crossed and one hoof swinging. She had that glow in her eyes again, yet her hood was down and ears erect as she regarded me with an oddly whimsical expression.

"Dare I say that even an elite infiltrator could not have gotten so close," she mused, then nodded to my wings. "Then again... Sparkly things always were alluring to the naive."

I folded my wings behind my back and frowned, memories of the zebra coming back now that I was free to look at her again.

"Don't talk about her like that, why do you even care about me so much?" I asked with a frown.

Jabbing a forehoof at her only saw me fall forward, and before I knew it, I was not in the dusty canyon anymore, but another memory I recognized.

"Hey, grumpy butt. Let me show you something," Flurry declared sternly, clad in regal royal guard armor as she marched me through the streets of the Crystal Empire.

Damn, alicorns were strong. I found myself thinking as if the thought had not been from years ago She's not a mare to be messed with for sure.

She was fast too. That or everypony got out of her way with a bow as she marched by. She offered the odd nod and smile to her subjects who looked curiously at the changeling bundled under her wing. The Crystal Empire was one of the few places I could look like myself and at least fit in. Sure, no changeling had been there for years, but that did not mean the occupation had been forgotten.

I watched, my mind stretched between the past and my hallucinated presence as Flurry finally deposited me in a large, open plaza before the magnificent palace. My butt hit the floor as she sat down next to me, gave me one firm look then thrust a hoof to the center of the plaza and the magnificent monument that lay before the palace doors.

The crystal was magnificent. A large plinth of jagged rock and gleaming minerals supported the stoic figure of a large, crystal alicorn. I'd only seen pictures of the alicorn of love, yet captured in crystal as she was Princess Cadence made even the vast place around her look bleak by comparison.

Mane crafted into the traditional crystal style like Flurry Heart's, she had her forelegs raised, wings spread wide and eyes closed as she bowed her head. The pink quartz from which she was crafted almost made it hard to not think I was seeing the real thing. The heart set into her armored breastplate mirrored perfectly the form of the Crystal Heart perpetuating the harmony of the land the evil queen had been after years ago.

To her right was an armored pony bearing a spear in the crux of his foreleg. To her left was a changeling. Thorax, reluctant leader of the Crystal wings during the war with gleaming armor on his back. Each flanked the princess like stoic sentinels, watching over the empire as they had done in life. Ponies looked up at the thing in awe, both the crystal ponies native to the empire and what I assumed were a great many tourists, posing for their cameras.

Flurry herself attracted some adoring looks from passersby as she gazed up at her mother with equal stoic conviction. I found it hard to look at her as she bathed in the glimmering brilliance from the bright sun hitting the crystal monument, fearing I may see tears in her eyes. Yet just like her father, her expression was as firm as the greatest of shield spells.

She took a long breath, seeming to inhale the loving atmosphere as I often did to lighten my mood. "I come here every day and it never gets old."

I forced words to my muzzle, but they were like rocks grinding my throat. "It's beautiful... She was..." My muzzle fumbled as I stammered. "I mean she is beautiful."

Smooth, Digit, so smooth. My mind groaned as she glanced at me with a small smile. Wow, next to the statue she really does look so much like her mother.

Despite herself, she let out a chuckle, forehoof pressed to her muzzle. "There's no need to be awkward about it. I'm a princess, so I have to put it in the past for the good of the Empire."

Putting it like that only made me feel all the more put off, I could tell it was hard for her to say that no matter how bubbly she could be. I chuckled nervously. If it were not for Thorax, I did not think I'd deserve to admire the monument

As always, the princess of the crystal empire regarded my awkwardly worried look. It had often been hard to not assume she thought I was only acting so defenseless because it was pretty clear she did not believe I should be. But the changelings she'd know had been warriors, they'd grown up right.

Before I could do anything more, there was a wing around my back and I was shoved forward towards the base of the statue. Flurry did not work like other ponies. There was no reassurance, no telling me I was not evil. There was only blunt and swift action.

"Hey, you need to see something," she stated, jabbing a wing tip at a golden plaque set into the statue's base. "What does this say?"

"Dedicated to Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, beloved goddess, ruler, wife, and mother," I read out, the last words catching in my throat again. "You don't need to hit it home so hard, you know?"

She was stunned for a brief moment before her eyes rolled and she moved her wing down to another plaque. The regal feather trailed past countless names of soldiers lost, in honor of the fallen in the last battle of the Crystal Empire.

Then Flurry's wingtip stopped and I had to squint to read what she indicated. "Thorax, the savior of the princess, lest we ever forget his name?"

I looked back at her to find her stern gaze firmly locked on me. "You know I'm not the changeling that saved your life, right?"

As if unable to resist, her firm expression was parted by a wry smile. "No, but don't I owe it to make sure the last of the ones who did is just as safe?"

"She pities you, how quaint." The memory faded and the zebra dropped onto all fours with an elegant grace that put the wicked, twisted form of the dead trees around her to shame. "Playing on their emotions, guilt, regret. Truly masterful."

"Living a happy life supported on the sacrifices of others... Using them like a true changeling does." She seemed to admire that as she added, "And so the countdown draws closer to zero."

I stared blindly into the distance, mouth working to form words that did not come as she turned away, cloak billowing teasingly in the wind as a sly grin crossed her face. It looked like everything was just a joke to her, yet in a world where I did not belong, her words were the only real answers I had, and those last ones piqued my interest.

"Wait, what do you mean? Are you going to tell me why there are numbers in my head or not?" I pressed, taking a step forward, only to feel suddenly overcome with weariness and take a step back.

The way she grinned made me feel like she'd anticipated the words perfectly. Not to mention, I'd no idea whether I could feel emotions in dreams, but she felt as about as emotional as a rock.

"Patience, I already told you you'd get all you want to know when the time comes," she mused, striding towards me.

I jumped away from her, my chitin crawling like I was covered in biting insects. The irony of that was not lost on me as I cringed and backed right up to the edge of the cliff.

"So you're holding the last eight years of my life to ransom, is that it? I... I don't feel like a changeling... I don't know what I feel like." I pressed a hoof to my chest, feeling a faint heartbeat that felt wrong all of a sudden.

"A body's age is fleeting and futile," the mare responded as she flicked a shriveled flower into dust with her braided tail, then moved over to the table and rubbed a hoof over the smooth amethyst.

"A soul, on the other hoof, is timeless. I'd have seriously hoped that the view you have of the world would have been broadened." I had about as much an idea as to what she was saying as I did to why I was even here.

"What did you say?" I asked, taking a step forward only for her to appear in my face again and the real coward to come right back out as I almost jumped out of my chitin.

"A bounty of information, for you, if you do what I say and right now our interests seem to be intertwined... So, run along and find out why that map really spat you out there." I opened my muzzle to question, yet she pressed a hoof to the tip of my muzzle.

It was the lightest touch, but curled up as I was and still feeling like I had four left hooves, it was more than enough to send me plummeting over the edge of the cliff, screaming as my little wings buzzed futilely.


"Best Summer Sun celebration ever!" Flurry Heart declared, oblivious to me as I swayed and fell against her wing.

My eyes darted about, wings buzzing as I instinctively wanted to fly, yet there was nothing and just as soon as she'd been strutting around my thoughts, the zebra mare faded from memory once again. All save her eyes that I saw silhouetted against the bright sunrise over the balcony edge and distant hills. The prismatic purple starburst that radiated off into the dawn sky added to the effect as a lavender streak lanced upwards across the sky.

"I can't believe she never showed me that, did you see?" Every effort I made to shake myself out of my stupor was put to shame as Flurry nudged me hard.

Then I collected myself just in time to realize that I'd zoned out to miss the display Twilight had been convinced to put on by her friends, something she'd not done since her first summer sun celebration as a princess years ago. I blinked, only then catching sight of the alicorn sat next to me on the balcony, beaming at me with wide eyes from under the royal guard helmet perched atop her head.

"I... I think I blinked?" I stated awkwardly and her expression went from ecstatic to laughter.

"Seriously, that's exactly what Rainbow told you not to do," she forced through her giggling as I crossed my forelegs and frowned.

"Well, maybe Twilight should have just done it without all the extra speed... stunts or whatever," I countered as true to what the group had planned at the part a pair of Wonderbolt pegasi flew up to draw a pattern around the expanding starburst with their flight trails.

There was a series of awe-filled sound sounds from below as Rainbow Dash and Soarin came to land on the stage erected before the palace doors and little Stormfly dove into his mother's forehooves, much to the dismay of a very flustered looking Fluttershy.

"Oh, so the one who was trying to turn into a lamp stand for hide-and-seek only a few hours ago is not talking about overdoing it?" Flurry asked, wiping a tear from her eye with a wingtip as she stopped laughing.

"What, and who dressed up in armor just to play pin the tail on the pony like it was a battlefield?" I countered and she shrugged, giggling again.

There was a whoosh behind us and the sound of hooves striking crystal as the arc of lavender magic cast across the sky came down and deposited Twilight on the balcony.

"Oh Celestia, remind me never to let Dash talk me into a flip like that again," Twilight panted as Flurry bounded over to her.

"You were great, auntie Twi!" she assured, hopping up and down before the mare she was only a little bit shorter than nowadays. "Though if it comes to my turn next year I bet I can do two flips."

"Oh, don't I know it... If Shining could teach you how to fly as well as he does with everything else..." Twilight rolled her eyes and Flurry blushed.

"Eh, you're pretty much better than me at everything... Especially in the fluffy department," I interjected, trotting over and offering a smirk that got me a bat on the side from a wing in return.

"I thought it was great too... Even if I may have zoned out a little there," I admitted and Twilight cocked her head, a spark of concern coming off of her.

"That's still an issue for you?" she asked, instantly looking a lot less excited before adding, "You sure you don't want me to use a memory spell again?"

"No, no, it's fine... I had enough of those when I was younger to last a lifetime," I admitted and she at least had the decency to smile, even if I knew part of her was guilty for having to put me through that in an effort to find the invisible truth.

"Well, I guess I better go and show up on the podium. Then I need to help Sunburst and Starlight in the library and then..." Twilight stretched as she once again lectured me on her mental list. "Then sleep, this was a long night," she finished with a sigh.

After the night of fun, games, and running around like we were all young fillies and colts again, even the talk of sleep made me weary and I yawned.

Right, time to go back to freaky dreams of my life. I shook my head at the thought. No, dreams can't hurt me, remember what Luna told you in that one nightmare about the purple bats?

"Looks like I'm not the only one who's worn out," Twilight observed with a giggle and Flurry looked at me like I'd betrayed her. "Can't all be tireless little alicorns, Flurry."

Flurry Heart's mood went from sour to flustered with one nuzzle from her auntie. "Okay, okay, fine I'll go get some sleep too... I..." The yawn that cut her off only proved our point as we giggled.

"Keep that up and I'll try and teleport us to our rooms again." That prospect shut me right up, even if the two princesses were still laughing. Teleportation was really not my thing, eight years with magic or not.


Fortunately for me, Flurry decided against teleportation, and after bidding her good night, I'd never been so glad to be walking back to my room. At least until I saw the figure of a cloaked mare dart across an intersection in the hall ahead. Right there and then I wished that alone was the last thing I saw, and still I went into a full-on gallop as that hole in my memory burned with curiosity.

Running on all fours was as natural to me now as it was anypony, calling out in my reverberating voice to the mysterious pony skulking about the castle. So when I rounded the corner to see Starlight coming out of my bedchamber with a pair of saddlebags on her sides, I froze and almost ended up flat on my face like the days I'd first arrived.

"Oh, there you are, Digit, I was looking all over for you," she perked up, even as her eyes seemed to be scouring the shadows around me, only to come to rest on the stone around my neck.

"You were... why? Twilight said you were with Sunburst?" I asked, moving toward her, only for her to take a step back.

"Oh, she did, I... Change of plans you know," she stammered and I paused a step away from her.

Who had I just seen run this way? Why was she in my bedchamber? Something felt odd, epically when the purple eyes flickered in my vision and I staggered. Eight years on the summer solstice... The moment that's just passed me by.

Starlight moved to catch me before I fell, then reached back into her saddlebags with her muzzle. Manufacturing another excuse as to why I was acting so distant, I looked up to thank her. It came as a big surprise then when the sharp silver thorns of the odd arcane ring she pulled from her bags wrapped around my horn and my head started to pound. The cold look in the eyes of the mare... That was not the Starlight I knew.

Chapter 6: The Eighth Year

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"Eight years, all too easy," Starlight stated as she shoved me back, the pain in my head growing with every effort I made to get the odd arcane device off of my horn. "Stupid magic. She'd come to me first and I could have found you in eight days... Seconds even."

"S–Starlight... W–what are you doing?" I forced, face contorting with pain as the ring tightened. "What is this thing?"

I really tried not to dwell on the fact that the first sensation of any real note from my horn was one of such intense pain as I fell back and tried to pull it off. It was like what little magic I did have in me was all trying to get out at once, only to be trapped and then forced back into my head like a drill. My muzzle wrinkled, teeth grinding as I closed my eyes tight and tried to come up with anything I could do. Starlight was in my face seconds later, looking down at the stone around my neck as she rotated it in her hoof and sighed.

"No power, what was I expecting?" she observed, then reached back into her saddlebags.

Agony or not, the almost identical rock she pulled out caught my attention like it was a glittering diamond worth a fortune. To me, seeing anything that even remotely hinted at the truth of my existence was worth its weight in gold. She did not even look at me as she pressed the stones together and the runes that had so long been faintly etched into its smooth surface lit up brightly. There was a cracking sound, and my whole body jumped at the electrical jolt as sparks of purple lighting arched between the two stones. The glow passed over both of us like a warm wave, and I looked at her just in time to see the maniacal smile on her face.

I'd known Starlight my whole life, she'd been a pony who'd raised me and I knew for a fact that no matter what I'd heard about her past, this was not the mare I'd known for eight years. So I did the only logical thing my mind told me to do upon confirming it was not a friend I was going to hurt. I grit my teeth and lurched forward, smacking her horn with mine and forcing a yelp of pain from both of us.

She fell back across the floor, sprawling as the magic between the stones fizzled out with a pop and a small blast of purple energy. The arcs of lighting spanned us both like a writhing spider web, singeing her mane and sparking out the device around my horn. The pain faded, and I swayed as the two halves of the ring fell off.

"S–Starlight... What are you doing, what's gotten into you?" I asked, yet as the mare shot to her hooves and growled at me, I did the next thing my mind ordered.

Running. Running was good on all fours, running on adrenaline was even better. It had been a long time since I'd ever had to run like this. Sure, Ponyville seemed like the center for almost every monster attack or crazy spell related catastrophe in Equestria, yet most of those blew over before I even had a chance to realize there was something wrong.

Oh, why does Twilight have to be so insistent on not having guards in Ponyville? I thought as my legs worked.

The odd dragon attack and diamond dog invasion aside, I'd like to think my life had been pretty peaceful. Nevertheless, as I'd been taught to run, use magic and even prompted to try and fly over the years, no motivator spurred change better than the threat of being attacked again.

What's gotten into her, why is she trying to attack me? I found my mind asking as I paused for breath and tried to go over what had just transpired. She looks like Starlight, sounds like her. But would she really ever do that?

Tales of my adopted mother's cultist past came to mind, the details were not entirely known to me, but from what I'd heard it was not pretty. I shook my head at the thought, the mare I knew was past that. She may have issues, she was less forgiving and more ambitious than Twilight, yet I knew that was something she'd never do again. One rub to the singed ring etched into my horn and a wince, however, and I had second thoughts.

No, it can't be her... I was adamant, I'd run to find the real Starlight to prove it. Running away to safety, just like a deceitful coward.

I looked at one wing pressed flat against my side and really tried not to think about how changeling like it was to run away and hide. Just about everything I did not want to be, and the opposite of what my crystal wings should stand for. At least in the idolized vision I had for the few of my kind who'd actually done the right thing.

"You put a remarkable level of faith in that idea," came a wispy voice from the corridors around me. "I've only ever seen a few places where your kind truly is good."

That last word was spat out like bile. Even so, the disembodied tone was recognizable and yet I could not place my hoof on from where. I found myself staring down at the stone around my neck seconds later, the runes etched into its surface glowing a faint purple after the sparks between the two rocks had arced. Trying to take it in a hoof, only to recoil at the sharp electrical shock, uttering a reverberating yelp as I tried jumping away.

She wanted this, but why? She's the one who gave it to me, made it? Twilight said it had no magic? I tried to reason to myself.

Regardless of the stigma, however, the facts were clear. Starlight or not, I was no match for a full grown mare who seemed to have saddlebags filled with traps designed to really hurt my head. I needed to get help and the closest room with an escape balcony was Flurry's, she could at least fly and use magic. I formulated the plan, coward or not. The thwack of a coil of faintly glowing iron thorns striking the wall only inches to my left spurred me into action faster than my wings could buzz.
"Give up, the time has come. What is forever for you is only seconds for me," sounded that ethereal voice as I heard hoof steps running behind me. "You can't hide from fate, and I assure you, you have such a great fate to come, indeed."

I shook off the voice in my head, its whole existence just seemed to revolve around showing up and taunting me, as if it simply enjoyed the cruelty. Answers were the last thing on my mind right now as I came to another stop, gasping for breath. Nostrils flaring and muzzle wide open, I slouched against the wall, lungs demanding far more air then I could manage to take in. It was at times like this that I wished my ability to turn into inconspicuous objects worked, yet with my head still pounding from the attack that was about the last thing I was capable of.

All that I could hear on the ghostly wind that seemed to blow through the crystal halls just to taunt me was the insistent rambling about eight years. That voice was like a foal promised a new gift, only to never shut up about it as the time drew near. The sounds of slow hoof steps creeping up behind me were less evasive, however, and heart racing or not, I forced myself forward and slammed against the first bedchamber door I came across. Then fell flat on the carpet, energy unnaturally sapped.

"What in the Empire..." The spear that was levitated towards the door by a golden aura as Flurry sat up in her bed would have been pressed right to my face had I been able to stand.

Woe to the pony who thought they could sneak up on a princess that had spent most of her foalhood years worrying about attacks from evil shapeshifters, and then been trained by one of the best soldiers in Equestrian history. Of course, the most I had to worry about was the discarded weapon clattering down beside my head as she released it from her magical grip with a gasp.

"Digit? What are you doing here?" Mane slightly frazzled as she shot up from her bed and trotted over, her look turned skeptical. "Why do you look like you've done ten laps around the crystal stadium?"

"I... I... No time to..." Making words when I could hardly provide my body with the air it needed was hard.

I had to stagger to my hooves, forehoof to my chest as I breathed in and out slowly before I collected myself enough to get the words out.

"S–Starlight... Or not Starlight, somepony is after me... We need to get down to the others," I stammered through my exertions.

She blinked at me and levitated her spear back to her side. "Starlight's after you?"

For a moment I was afraid she would not take me seriously as she snorted a small laugh and rolled her eyes. The stern look I shot her, coupled with a bitter frown, seemed to change her mind, however.

"Why in Equestria would Starlight be after you? Almost sounds like she's not the real..." Her words trailed off as her eyes went wide.

In the same instant, there was a clatter and a whoosh as one of the powerful magical suppressors whizzed through the air and coiled around her horn like lightning. Like how I'd felt only a few minutes ago, the effects were instantaneous, all-powerful alicorn or not.

Flurry's face contorted with pain as she recoiled and the weapons dropped from her subdued magical grip. The ring around her horn glowed a molten orange as the magical aura spread half way up her spire before stopping short as the arcane device constricted. I swayed, ears perking only seconds before I ducked my head and the second magical restrictor shot right over me. There was a grunt from the open doorway and without thought, I bucked it shut and flicked the lock before leaping on Flurry'.

"Aargh... W–what is this thing?" she forced, growling through the pain as she tried to scrape the thing off with a forehoof.

I reached for it, only to burn my hoof as the thing glowed red hot. "Stop using your magic, that's what it wants."

"You try saying that when it feels like it's trying to suck your brain out of your head!" she screamed as she closed her eyes and took a deep, haggard breath.

"Well, I had one on my horn about five minutes ago, so don't try to tell me how it feels!" I shot back in a panic.

Yeah, but my magic is irrelevant compared to hers, so can I really pretend to know how it feels to have that much power ripped from my mind? I banished the belittling thought as I reached for the thorny coil again.

The metal burned. But, wincing at the sting, I slid one forehoof up the length of her horn and flicked the thing off. It crumbled like dust on the floor as she let out a gasp and staggered onto her side.

"W–what in the Empire was that?" she asked, looking at the disintegrated pile of dust as I rubbed my burned hoof.

"No idea but we need to make sure she can't get us again," I insisted as she shook herself and levitated over her spear.

The exhaustion it had left in her was clear, yet nowhere near as effective as it had been on me as her face turned from worried princess to furious royal guard.

"Oh, I'll make sure whoever did that won't get another chance," she warned, and I looked worriedly between her and the balcony we could use to escape.

"Flurry, maybe now is not the best time to be the hero," I stammered, but she levitated the spear vertically before her face and planted its base on the floor at her forehooves.

"Why not, I love a challenge." The smirk on Starlight's face was heralded by her creeping through the solid door like a ghost, body outlined in green fire as she did so.

The look on Flurry's face as the green light lit up her eyes was instant, even to me it felt familiar. Yet I was far more focused on the point on the mare's body it seemed to flow from... A small emerald star sat on her chest, like the hanging charm of some invisible amulet. Before I could speculate any more, however, I was shoved back by Flurry's wing and planted behind her as she jabbed the spear at our mysterious attacker.

"You're not Starlight, who are you?" she demanded as I peered around her to meet the imposter's fixed gaze.

She didn't do anything more than prowl around the two of us like a hungry manticore stalking its prey. Flurry kept the sharp end of her weapon fixed on Starlight, only for me to catch a glimmer of green in the corner of my eye. It was small, unremarkable at first, until I swore I saw a hoof, then eyes. My mind playing tricks on me again, I was forced to double take only to see another Starlight looking back at me.

I opened my muzzle to call out just as the second mare reached into her bag and tossed another pair of magical suppression coils at us. I was getting good at ducking, I was also good at tugging Flurry's wing and pulling her down with me. Getting away from danger was my specialty it seemed, and I was taking her with me. Flurry yelped as the tossed projectile whizzed over us and struck the first Starlight imposter that the alicorn had been threatening. The image of the mare flickered out revealing a clear illusion spell and leaving the real one free to try and hit us again.

Not much for killing, so not an assassin. She wants to capture us or just get the stone? My mind evaluated as Flurry shot up and caught the coil aimed at her around the shaft of her spear.

It crackled and popped, fizzling into a fit of sparks that swiftly set the wooden length on fire. The princess winced, a shrill grunt escaping her as the heat blurred her magical grip and she tossed the weapon aside. The next set of projectiles that came out seemed to suggest that our attacker was running out of options. The swarm of spiked balls that exploded into a shower of tiny spiny shrapnel also put my assumptions of her trying to kill us to the test.

Okay, so maybe the stone is the really important thing here then?

"Look out!" It was all I heard the princess cry before the oncoming swarm of painful spikes was intercepted by a golden shield.

I looked over at Flurry to see a strained look on her face, the scar etched into her horn sparking as she fought to keep up the spell, then her face contorted further as she masterfully opened a small hole in the shield and blasted one lance of golden energy through it with her last bastion of magical strength. I knew there were not many ponies that could create a firing port in a shield like that, yet she had learned from the best.

Our attacker seemed to underestimate her in that regard too, throwing down a smoke screen before darting aside. I had to fight not to choke on the haze as the shield dropped and Flurry waved it away from us with her wing, before slumping and gasping for breath.

"I... I don't think I can do that again," she panted as she rubbed her horn.

I remained close to her side as the smoke cleared, yet even without my sight, I could sense that whoever was really after us was not so unscathed. Pain was not so much a taste, more like a scent in the air. I had no idea whether it was because my kind were really predators, but I could sense injury and smell the rush of emotions that came with adrenalin like a shark.

"Y–you got her, I think, she's...." Before I could finish there was a blast of fiery green magic overhead, clearing the smoke in spreading waves that formed a funnel right back to Starlight.

The image of the mare flickered like her illusion, yet this time it was as if there were something underneath as that green fire lapped across her body in fleeting waves. It was impossible, I knew that magic, even if I struggled to conjure it for myself. Yet what was below the disguise was not dark and fanged like me, but looked smooth and almost metallic. There were wings, but not insectile ones. I saw flashes of claws and tattered feathers, odd, lens-like green eyes and a scarred hide under cracks in metal barding. Then the illusion corrected itself seconds later and the image of Starlight was back looking very frustrated with us.

"Your fighting is impressive, I don't believe I've ever met you when you were so..." She twirled a hoof. "On point, shall we say."

Flurry snorted. "Met me? Believe me, I'd know if I'd met whatever you are hiding under there. You think I don't recognize a changeling charm?"

"Flurry, that should be impossible, the queen destroyed that magic right?" I interjected, recalling what Twilight had once told me about Scolopendra destroying her race and their magic along with them.

The fake Starlight smirked. "Such narrow-mindedness. Maybe for you, it is impossible, but I've been to far too many places where it is not ."

"We should find Twilight, now," I suggested, tugging at her wing as she glared daggers at the imposter.

"A lot of my friends, even my mother, died to stop that monster. I want to know where you got that," she growled, pushing me behind her like I was some weak foal.

"There's far more here than you know," Starlight said as she reached a hoof into her bag. "Though you should really listen to your friend there, at least that would be if you could escape."

Flurry glanced at me, then took a deep breath. I knew that look, I knew it meant she was about to do something reckless and I was not going to like it.

"I would not be so sure about that... I... You're not the first shapeshifter that's tried to kill me." There was a spark and a crackle from her scarred horn, her face scrunching as she groaned and forced all of her might into one spell.

I knew that look, I knew her, and I knew that if there was one thing she could do that I hated, it was what I thought she was about to do. The flash that came seconds later, along with the sensation of my whole body being awkwardly forced down a spiraling tube and pushed through the eye of a needle, was just that. The force of the floor slamming into me as I fell onto it face first was just a painful bonus as I groaned and rolled onto my back, carapace, and mane singed.

"Life on the line or not, teleporting still sucks," I grumbled, pressing a hoof to my muzzle as I sat up. "A warning next time would be nice."

She shook herself, ruffling her wings to put out some of the sparks that had ignited there and looked at her scorched black horn.

"I... I don't think I'll have to warn you anytime soon," she admitted as she reached up with a wing, only to wince as the pinions ran over the coiled scars on her horn. "Are you okay? What was that?"

Always on point, she was looking at me as if I had all the answers, and when I told her about everything I knew from the five minutes I'd known the fake Starlight, she frowned.

"Changeling magic like that should be impossible, she'd have to get it from a real changeling, and you'd tell me if you'd been giving it out, right?" My frown said it all as I huffed.

"Oh, sure, I just let Starlight pluck magic out of my head every day." I tapped my horn. "There's hardly any magic in me to start with."

She sat down, ruffled wings folded around her as she pressed a forehoof to her chin and seemed to become lost in thought. Meanwhile, I looked around, seeing nothing but darkened corridors around us.

"Hey, Flurry, where were you aiming for with that spell?" The lack of anypony around had me on edge as the princess perked up.

"I was trying to use the homing spell auntie Twilight gave me, though I just had a magical drill in my head so forgive me if I was a little off." I could not fault her there as I slumped.

"And you're okay, right?" I asked and despite an apprehensive glance at her horn she nodded, then paused and looked at me closely.

"Hey, is that supposed to do that?" She nodded to me, and I looked back in confusion before she rolled her eyes and jabbed a hoof at my chest. "Your little gem thing, silly."

The moment she touched the stone around my neck I felt the chain tug as the thing started to squirm, markings flashing. The panic it was going to choke me subsisted as I noticed that it seemed to be trying to edge away from me or at least in some direction to my right.

"What... No, but she did something to it, she had one just like it." I tapped the stone and like a dog on a leash, it started to tug hard, practically flying away from my neck and dragging me along. "F–Flurry, this really is not normal!"

"What, you're telling me?!" she exclaimed as I was dragged across the floor before finally standing and walking along with the stone's pull. "Take it off!"

She bit it and yanked it from off my neck, only for it to pull forward from her muzzle and rip from her teeth's grip as if levitating in a magical aura. Instinctively I reached out to catch it, only to once again be pulled along by my outstretched forehoof as it snagged in one of my gnarled holes.

"You know, some magic would be really useful right now," Flurry grumbled as she tried to hold me back, yet even with her unnatural strength, the stone continued to drag us along with it, at least until it came upon a door.

The pair of us fell back as the snagged chain slipped and the stone shot to the door, rattling against it as if suspended be some great magnet on the opposite side. Sprawled out over the princess's fluffy plumage, I lifted my head, only for her to groan and knock me off as she got to her hooves and shook herself. I took one look at the door the levitating stone was trying to burrow its way through, and a chill ran down my spine.

"You know what that room is right?" I asked and Flurry made her way over to the door and pressed a forehoof to it.

"Yeah, auntie Twi's map room... Don't tell me you're still scared of it?" she asked and I got up and shook myself off.

"No... I... Well, I have reasons to be at least." She rolled her eyes and pushed the door open allowing the stone to shoot through where it swiftly found a place to hover above the central table. "Reasons like this."

"Okay, I know weird stuff happens in this room, but I've never seen anything like that," Flurry commented as she started to make her way around the table, eyes fixed on the suspended stone as it started to rotate.

"Oh, I can very much tell that you haven't seen anything like this." My ears perked and her wings flared as we both turned to see Starlight standing in the open doorway.

I glanced between the imposter and the stone, my expression considerably less fierce than Flurry's as she lowered herself like a chimera ready to pounce.

"Wait... What is that, what did you do?" I asked, shuffling up beside my friend as the desire to know the truth overcame my self-preservation.

I've never been closer to the truth, there's got to be a chance? My heart and mind were racing as the fake Starlight took out her own stone and a spark of purple lightning arced between it and mine above the table.

"More than you know, changeling," she stated as the lightning around the floating stone started to crack and fizzle furiously.
I looked into that swirling mess of sparks and stars as it grew and grew like a storm on the horizon. I'd seen planets, meteor showers, even galaxies in Twilight's observatory in Canterlot and they all looked like they were made miniature in that expanding mass of purple that seemed to rip the very air itself into oblivion.

"Digit!" Flurry called, covering me with one wing as the storm started to grow and spit flames. "What did she just do...? We should not let them mess with Twilight's map!"

I forwent listening to Flurry's chastising as the rock began to glow and spin, faster and faster until there was a virtual whirling of purple light blasting from the table in a great cone. The whole chamber started to shake, the chimes hanging from above rattling as arcs of amethyst lighting lanced outwards to scorch the walls. If it had not been for Flurry I might have been blinded, yet as the last surge of magic erupted from it in a prismatic shock wave, we both ducked behind her wings.

The storm of magic disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. I saw the fake Starlight's eyes go wide as my stone clattered to the table, and it rolled to the forehooves of a tall, gaunt-looking creature, with long, gnarled legs, a slender body, tattered wings, and a swampy mane and tail. The figure took off a dark scarf and mask that had been covering her face and muzzle, glowing eyes scoured the room in a frenzy before coming to rest on us. The smile on her muzzle, one unbroken fang glinting, was too impossible to be true.

I'd never seen a changeling queen, I'd only seen images. Yet from what I'd learned my whole life, they were literally the evilest things imaginable.

Chapter 7: More Than You Know

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Never before had I felt so transfixed as when I was staring into the sharp green eyes of what I could only believe was death itself. I'd never seen another changeling before, let alone a queen outside of images of the orange winged Queen Scolopendra and her green carapace boasting mother Queen Chrysalis.

This aged and weary figure looked akin to neither as I knew them, she was broken and battered, with a glare that looked liked it had seen far more than eyes should. Yet looking at her, I felt overcome by a sudden rush of vigor, exhaustion seeping away as, for some reason, I felt a spark of power in my chest far more than simple adrenalin.

She looked back at us with the expression I imagined a patient predator would have when stalking its prey after countless days, right before the final strike. Emotionally, she was like a stone, I could pick up nothing and her face was just as stern a mask. Yet for a brief moment when I dared meet her eyes, it was almost like the wall slipped, chipped sand, loose bricks crumbling. Was that relief I saw, the look of somepony who's lifelong ambitions had just paid off? With all that I'd heard about the queens of my kind, from the monster that had invaded Canterlot, to her daughter that had driven my kind to extinction for her own selfish gaze, I could not help but sense something sinister behind that momentarily stunned gaze.

"You should not be here. I never thought that after all this time you would be so unwise!" It was the Starlight disguised stranger that ripped the queen's gaze off of me as they called out.

Flurry shoved me back as she staggered to her hooves. Without thought, I bolstered her side as her legs seemed to turn to jelly under her. The princesses' panicked emotions I could sense, she did not need to speak for me to know that what she'd just seen had sent everything she knew about her life and what she'd sacrificed into a spiral of doubts. Seeing the stunned look on the odd queen's face disappear threw my doubts into the air too. Now to was displaying more of the sly, hungry expression I'd expect from the ruler of an evil hive.

"I'd have thought you'd have known better than to leave your trail so obvious on this day above all others, assassin." The broken queen flicked a gnarled forehoof. "Churnabo really must get somepony else to do her dirty work."

The Starlight impostor's face contorted as she growled. "Then I guess I'll just have to get rid of you too, given you've offered up such a grand opportunity."

She reached into her bag, another swarm of the spiked orbs she'd used on us tossed towards the queen. Without even flinching she caught the projectiles in her magic, then grinned cruelly as she ignited each with green flame and tossed them back at Starlight. The things popped and crackled like firecrackers, bright flashes forcing me to wince as I nudged Flurry.

"Hey, are you okay... Come on, we need to find somepony to help, now." I kept my voice low as she shook her head, mumbling to herself like she'd seen a ghost.

"No, it's impossible, we defeated them." There was a bang as the queen repelled another set of traps, only for the fake Starlight to dodge and weave with far more precision than I was used to seeing from a pony.

One larger coil of wire found purchase around the queen's left foreleg and began to glow red hot. The grizzled mare's face contorted, broken fangs flaring as she snarled. She staggered, my stone necklace kicked away from her and to the floor as I smelled smoke, and what I was uncomfortably aware may be the flesh of one of my kind burning. Shaking off the dread, I shoved Flurry up hard, forcing myself up under her wing.

"Hey, snap out of it, Flurry! You always wanted action now come on!" It didn't feel right to play on how she always acted like that, I knew for sure that when she'd longed for action, bringing back a changeling queen was not what she had in mind.

The hiss like roar from the broken ruler in question sent a shiver down my spine as she ripped the molten band off of her legs with a fearsome tug of her teeth, face snarling like a savage dragon as she tossed it back at the imposter. Starlight leaped aside, only to become entrapped in a sickly green magical aura. The imposter's eyes bulged, cheeks puffed as the magic constricted and they were brought kicking and thrashing up to meet the queen's face as she rose back to full hight.

"You're little tricks have become quite impressive since the last time we met... But I'll be taking back everything you stole from me now, starting with this," she hissed, green fire blasting over the imposter's body to strip away whatever charmed disguise they were wearing.

What was finally uncovered was not what I was expecting, not changeling or pony. There were large feathered wings, dark blue and tattered like some kind of rotten crow. I saw talons with serrated metal extensions, the forelimbs of a sparsely feather covered body that merged awkwardly with a stitched suit of dark fabric and black metal. The head was covered too, sleek metal from a smooth brass mask complete with cloudy lens-like eyes and a ragged hole for a scared beaked to poke through.

I'd seen a griffin a few times. Scootaloo's friend Gabby, the other creature she'd been intent on getting a cutie mark for alongside me. I would have been tricked into thinking that was what this creature used to be, if not for the distinctly equine like rear beneath the barding behind the assassin's wings. They had rear hoof-claws and a tailed laced with barbs. Voice like a broken radio, the assassin gave a shriek of pain akin to static as the queen crushed them, ripping away a green charm that had been fastened around their neck.

"So long and you still overestimate yourself," The queen mused with a sly grin and a flick of her head as she tossed the amulet aside. "Looks like I'm the one who's going to be getting rid of–"

Her words were cut off as I felt a shudder beside me and caught a cry of furious pain as Flurry's broken horn sparked to fire a wayward beam of golden light at the queen. Without even turning around the changeling summoned a perfect shield to deflect the weak shot, severing one of the branches above us. She casually glanced back over her shoulder and tossed the metal assassin to the ground like a crumpled soup can. Her smirk did not disappear, and this time when she looked at me all I felt like doing was sinking into the floor and pretending I did not exist. At least until I glimpsed the necklace stone that had started all of this on the floor to my left.

"Princess Flurry Heart, I presume," the queen began, a forehoof pressed to her chest as she turned to face us properly. "I do not believe I've ever made your acquaintance."

"Yeah, well forgive me for saying it's not an honor... Who are you, you're kind's been extinct for years!" Flurry spat, wavering even as she tried to stare the changeling down.

"Hmmm, extinct... Now that is interesting." The queen tapped her chin with a forehoof. "I'm surprised you don't recognize me. I am Queen Chrysalis, your mother and father would be able to tell you all about me."

The way she licked her lips as Flurry staggered made my chitin crawl as I slowly crept away to snag the stone in a forehoof.

"M–my mother's dead... You're daughter killed her but... You died, this is impossible!" The look on Chrysalis' face at that was just as shocked as Flurry's for a moment, clearly, the revelations to them both were unexpected, yet the royal changeling was first to recover.

"A daughter? Interesting, not something I remember." She motioned dismissively with a forehoof as Flurry bristled. "But I assure you, you have no idea what's possible."

"You're lying, this is some changeling trick... What have you been planning all this time? Where did you come..." She paused and looked at me, the look in her eyes so cold it chilled me to the bone.

What did she think I was a part of this? I wasn't... How did I know that for sure, did I know what I was or why I was here? She appeared on that table with a stone like yours... Just like you. No, I'm not a monster, I care about them, I have the wings to prove it!

Chrysalis started to laugh. "Oh, all of five seconds and she already doubts you." She looked at me and I felt like I could disintegrate under those eyes once again.

"So long I have looked for you and here you are, gallivanting with ponies and princesses." she jabbed a hoof at me. "Impressive wings, it's been a long time since I've seen a traitor so glamorous."

I took the stone in a trembling hoof, proving that Flurry's faith in me all these years was not misplaced as I forced myself to stammer.

"Yeah well... I got this, so you leave us both alone or I'll... I'll..." I looked at the stone, part of me wanting to smash it, even as the part that long for the truth wanted nothing more than to somehow use it.

"You don't even know what that really is or how it works do you?" Chrysalis deadpanned, then chuckled. "Well, time for an education, little nymph."

The gnarled spire atop her head sparked to life with a vicious green glow, her grin back as she targeted a new spell right at me. I froze, fear gripping me like a vice as my wings wilted and my hooves dropped. What could she do to me with her magic, mind control like the last queen? Turn me against the ones I cared about? My heart hammered, yet the flash of magic I saw was not green, but purple. The queen gave an agitated hiss like growl as she was blasted back and off of the table, shattering Rarity's throne.

"Flurry!" The doors to the room had been flung wide open as Twilight darted over to her weary niece.

I fell to the floor, adrenalin and the newfound rush from the queen's presence coursing through me as I heard hooves gallop to my side too.

"Digit! Oh Celestia, are you okay?" The real Starlight was pretty obviously genuine as she pressed a hoof to the underside of my chin and lifted my eyes to meet hers. "What's going on?"

"I... I don't know, this disguised assassin just showed up then..." Words died in my throat as I trembled and Starlight's face contorted with confusion.

"I picked up your teleport jump, it was so off target we had to find you!" Twilight declared as she helped steady Flurry.

"Auntie... Twi, there's... She's back..." Flurry's words were cut off by a sharp hiss and a buzzing of wings as the queen hovered up from the dust of the broken throne.

"Twilight Sparkle, what a surprise," Chrysalis mused as the princess of friendship rounded on her.

The queen's eyes spared Twilight only the briefest of glimpses, however, their real focus as they narrowed, was Starlight.

"And, Starlight Glimmer. Oh, how I have longed to find somewhere where you're still alive. After all you did to me," the confusion from everypony was like an odd taste overcoming me.

"What, I never did anything to you... Who are you?" Starlight stammered as she shoved me back, stone still clenched between my forehooves.

Chrysalis rolled her eyes, repeating for them what she had told us, and once again the disbelieve was so strong it left a bad taste in my mouth.

"That's impossible, the blast from the wedding killed you... I saw your body," Twilight insisted, but the queen huffed.

"I'd have thought of all of the wretched little ponies I've met you'd be the one to question your reality, Twilight. Did Celestia give you those wings here just for display, hum? The world's bigger than you know." She waved a forehoof again, smirking.

"She gave me enough to deal with monsters like you," Twilight retorted stomping her hoof. "Now you're going to tell us how and why you're here right now."

Chrysalis laughed like she was dealing with a pouty foal. "Need I fight you again? Seriously, after the last twenty times we've crossed paths, it's getting tiresome."

Twilight growled, and I could sense her confusion battling logic. I just blocked out my own perplexing thoughts with purpose. I had about as much idea what the crazy queen was talking about as anypony else, but I did have the only thing I knew could possibly send her back to wherever the map had summoned her from.

I took the stone and crept around the table as Twilight nodded to Starlight. The two stepped forward without a word, and Chrysalis rolled her eyes as if any display of aggression was the most trivial thing in the world to her.

"Okay, if you insist let's just get this over with." The way she looked at Starlight as she flared her horn at least suggested she'd take a little enjoyment from a fight.

The two mares' initial blast spells were warded off by her shielding magic, while a return volley from the queen was blasted away by a set of counterspells. The room became a series of flashes, bangs, and explosions as I scampered my way under the magical fray and up onto the table, taking the stone and pressing it to the dormant map.

"Okay, how does this work, come on... send her back!" I tapped the stone against the map again and again but it did nothing.

"D–Digit, what are you doing... we need to... help," Flurry, still swaying like she'd had one too many ciders, coughed as she staggered to the table next to me.

I had to prop her up with a forehoof before she could fall face first into it, holding her there as I messed with the odd stone.

"I don't know... This thing brought them here, maybe it can send them back!" I declared to the best of my knowledge as another magical explosion sent Twilight somersaulting into the air and Starlight blasting back a beam of emerald magic.

Maybe they're not the only ones it can send back, what about you? My jaw clenched at the idea and I looked at Flurry.

My best friend, the one I'd grown up alongside. Do I really want to leave here to find a home that abandoned me?

"Look out!" The princesses' eyes went wide as she swept me aside with a wing seconds before the claws of the assassin cut into the table where I'd been standing.

Clearly far more elegant in whatever base form this was, the odd metallic fusion of flesh and feathers pivoted on the spot, bucking Flurry in the face with a rear hoof and sending her tumbling away from the table before rounding on me.

"You better be worth all of this trouble," the creature, now sounding distinctly male under the whirring and buzzing of his voice spat as he lunged at me.

I fell back, stone clattering to my right as I lifted my forehooves to cover my face. His serrated claws were mere inches from me as I closed my eyes, and without thought felt a sudden rush of power surge through my whole body. It was like the few times I'd been able to transform correctly, a fire in my chest that surged upward to my horn, burning at the tip of the curved spire before lancing free.

The bolt of green lightning I summoned caught the assassin completely off guard, scorching a charred hole in his mask and blackening the flesh beneath in a flurry of sparks and embers. Blasted off course, he rolled to the side, a claw pressed to the crack in his mask as I sat up and tapped a hoof to my horn.

Did I just... How... Wow, maybe utter peril is a really good motivator? A spell blast from above stole the moment of pride, however, sending me sprawling over the map as the shockwave shoved the assassin off of the table again.

The rock clattered down right in front of me as I opened my eyes, and taking it in a forehoof, I looked around. Starlight and Twilight's fight seemed to be going in the queen's favor despite the two to one odds. Where the two mares look to be tiring, Chrysalis effortlessly darted and deflected against their spells, before retaliating. She looked like a fighter who'd had countless years of training and practice, so much so it may have been every second of her life.

How long to queens live for, has she been fighting for millennia? I thought as to the right of the table Flurry sat up, forehoof rubbing a bloody nose.

I looked at each of them, then the rock hanging from a chain in my forehoof. What is the truth worth really, can I say I'm so unhappy without it?

"Everypony stop!" I called as loud as I could, hanging the rock where every one of them could see.

"Stop or I'll smash it!" I had no idea if that was even possible, but it got their attention regardless.

"Digit, get down from there, it's too dangerous!" Starlight called yet she was silenced by a bolt from Chrysalis' horn that forced her to dodge.

"I'm serious, I'll break the thing!" The way Chrysalis smirked at my threat made it pretty clear I had no idea what I was doing.

"Oh, you do have a habit of going right where I need you," she mused as she sparked up her horn and retrieved a rock of her own from under the black scarf around her neck. "Perfect little drone."

The purple runes on hers and mine flashed to life and the next moment went by so fast. The feeling that came over me was like an intense, icy chill as I saw the purple runes and heard the clatter of claws behind me. Fear drove me to duck as I saw the assassin's warped reflection in the rock's surface as he pounced. His momentum carried him right over me where he was wrapped in the green glow of the queen's magic as she levitated him up and tossed him at Twilight who was readying a counterspell. The two were knocked down into Starlight as she recovered from the queen's previous attack and scattered like bowling pins.

All of her opponents momentarily subdued by her masterful grace, there was a flash as the queen teleported. Her shadow appeared over me like a looming dread as the vortex that had summoned her here started to spin up and envelop us both. I tried to dart away, fear demanding I flee as my wings buzzed, yet her magic held me back as the swirling wall of purple light cut off my view of the map room. I called out for any of them, yet the feeling I'd played right into her hooves made that cold feeling in me grow even more.

"Digit!" Flurry's voice was the last thing I heard as a pair of wings blasted through the storm of amethyst magic, hooves wrapping around me as the queen hissed.

Then sound and sensation vanished as what felt like gravity in reverse sucked us upwards. Amidst the disorientating hurricane of magic, stars and a stretching sensation akin to clumsy teleportation, left me feeling sick. In the end, the force proved too much for my little, panic filled changeling brain, and my mind did the best it could to save me from madness. It sank me into the darkness of unconsciousness.


"You're rather impressive, I have to admit." That cursed voice was like an icy snake slithering down my neck as my ears perked. "I've waited for this day and that show did not disappoint."

I spun, hooves pivoting through dust as I found myself back on the moon-lit ledge. True to what I could now recall, the zebra mare was there, smiling at me. At least until her look became a little less enthusiastic and she waved a forehoof.

"Still, you could have at least played along a little more... Cooperatively," she huffed with a sigh.

I stomped a forehoof. "What is going on, enough with the games! You know what happened to me, don't you?" I demanded.

"Oh, but the games are so fun, I do love watching you squirm, so powerless, so insignificant." She pressed a forehoof to her chest, looking pained. "What is a being of such power supposed to do when condemned to never leave her cage, but mess with you, hum?"

She said that as if I should sympathize with the vile idea, eyes like that of a pleading filly. With her young looking age it was hard not to see her like that. Nevertheless, my eyes narrowed and my fangs bared.

"That's sick, if you're so powerful like you say, why use it to toy around?" I asked and she shrugged.

"Well, it's not like I don't have plans on the side." She grinned again." Like you, you're such a big part of my plan." Any effort I made not to let her cruel game get to me failed at that, her words making me sick with anxiety.

"Then again I said I'd give you answers when we met..." She tapped her chin with a forehoof. "But you just had to go with her didn't you," she sighed, looking very disappointed with me.

My attention perked. "Her? You mean the queen, you know about her?" It felt stupid to ask, this mare seemed to want me to think she knew everything.

Even so, the zebra nodded. "Worst deal I ever made, still trying to put all the pieces back together." She jabbed a forehoof at me again. "But when some of them tend to run around, it's hard."

I was what, some part in her plan. A deal? The look of confusion on my face must have been evident as the zebra smirked, stifling a snicker.

"Not liking what I'm saying? Awww, but I thought you wanted the truth?" She sneered. "That's right, you're a pawn, a piece on the board and I'm the chess master." She giggled like a school filly. "At least from the moment I put you into that body."

"You did what... I...?" I had a hoof pressed to my chest.

So it's true! This was not the real me. My thoughts were in knots. But if not, then where did I come from.

"Confused? Bet that tastes wonderful, right?" the zebra mocked, pressing a hoof to my muzzle. "Changelings always were such strange, fascinating creatures."

She shoved me back, a sensation akin to falling into a pool of freezing water striking me just as she added. "Then again, now I guess you can just ask your mother... I'll bet she's just dying to tell you how to be a real monster."

Chapter 8: Broken Queen

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"No, we had a deal... If you think I can be so easily manipulated then you are a fool."

"Times change, small plans make room for greater revelations. You speak far too highly of yourself... They'll be the perfect specimens"

"You really have no idea... I was the one who was supposed to be perfect, I brought you this, it was to be mine!"

"Nopony ever remembers the catalyst for greatness, only the one bold enough to cause the change... Now you see, you will be forgotten."

"Ten, nine..."


"Flurry!" I awoke with such a jump that my head almost slammed into the low ceiling of dark stone just inches above me.

Ghostly voices spun in my head, but the last word I could remember exploded from my throat as my mind blasted back to consciousness. "I... the map, she...."

I pressed a heavy forehoof to my heaving chest as I breathed in and out, air seeping past my fangs as my thoughts swam and my distorted vision awkwardly came into focus. I saw flashes of magic, a wall of swirling purple light, heard the roar of thunder and felt as if my whole body had been stretched like taffy. As soon as the initial rush faded and my blurred vision reassembled itself into a relatively clear view, a hole formed in my chest, a hole that felt like it had been momentarily filled by something powerful and new to me.

Then came more memories, metal talons inches from my face, the green eyes of Queen Chrysalis as she loomed over me, fanged muzzle wide with a triumphant grin. I saw Starlight and Twilight looking up at us, the Princess tossed aside as Starlight was pinned by magic. Then my name called out in an instantly recognizable voice as pale hooves reached out for me, wings beating to battle through the amethyst storm. Reality slammed into me like a wall, almost knocking me to the dusty floor as I recalled the sensation of teleporting and that of feathers folded around me.

"Flurry!" I called again, struggling across the rocky ground only for a set of glowing green chains and shackles binding my limbs to go taut and rattle, yanking me back.

I looked back and the arcane bonds felt like the least of my issues as I saw the unconscious form of the young alicorn under the same crevice I'd awoken in. She was bruised and her wings ruffled as her chest slowly rose and fell, she was chained up too, only with a very crude looking muzzle over her snout. I edged back over to her, my own chains chiming, yet before I could reach out the creeping sensation of sharp eyes fixed on me caused my chitin to crawl.

"She won't wake up, not yet." The low, reverberating tone was like ice down my spine, spreading to the tips of my wings as they anxiously buzzed at my sides.

I could almost hear the stiff muscles in my neck grind like stones as I turned around slowly and my quivering eyes came to rest on Queen Chrysalis looming just beyond a set of jagged cell bars. Her dark body and black scarf were almost indistinguishable from the gloom in the tunnel around her. If it weren't for those slitted eyes glowing like balefire orbs in the shadows, she'd have been almost invisible. Her gnarled body even mirrored the jagged cave around her perfectly.

"You would still be asleep too if I were to allow it. Yet I was never one to allow drones to sleep on the job," the queen mused as she materialized into a pillar of sickly yellow light like a ghost.

"Though I'm sure you'll come to respect and yearn for the effect a queen can have on her drones, Digit." She gagged that name like it was the most disgusting thing in the universe, and I shrank back with a rattle of chains.

"What... What have you done, where's Twilight and Starlight?" I stammered, and she flicked a hoof as I forced. "I... I'm not yours... I should not even look like this!" There was a memory of somepony telling me that this was not my true body, a new memory.

Chrysalis did not look impressed as she snorted. "I care not, probably having fun with Chunrabo's lackey back in their castle, while they futilely try to plan how to rescue you." Her tone was so casual, yet made my heart sink.

She grinned at that. "You'll find ponies are most predictable, no matter where they come from."

They are still in the castle? Left with that metal monster? A cold sensation in my mind caused me to be careful what I thought as I hoped the rest of my family was still alright. They'll come after us, neither of them would ever give up.

"Oh, is that disappointment I feel in you? Do not worry my little nymph, I'm sure you will come to appreciate what it is to be a real changeling under a real queen." She pressed a forehoof to the scarf around her chest and grinned.

"What, I... I don't care about anything you can offer me, I was perfectly happy knowing you were dead," I retorted, putting on my best mean face, which would have been better if I was not shivering more than a foal caught in a blizzard.

The queen snorted, rolling her eyes. "My sweet little nymph, I didn't mean to imply that you had a choice." She slipped right up to the bars, sneering at me as she pressed her muzzle through, and I gulped.

"Y-you... You..." I clenched my jaw, furrowed my brow and swallowed my fear, I was not dead, I could still think for myself, there had to be reasons. "What do you want with us, where are we?"

The cave around us was dark and dripping wet. The rocks were sharp and ragged, riddled with rugged holes and pits akin to my limbs and the queen's. The look seemed to be that of a changeling hive, based on what I knew from school, Twilight's books and the stories Rainbow Dash told from when she was fighting as an aerial combatant in the war. The brash pegasus had always been way more eager to talk about how she and her Wonderbolts awesomely cleared changeling hives then Twilight or Starlight ever had. Yet this place looked dead, not afflicted by the shape-changing magic I knew a real hive should have. The only break in the stillness here were dripping sounds, the cold wind and the rattling of my chains.

"You're somewhere where nopony will ever find you," Chrysalis responded, more matter-of-factly then threateningly. "Where I can keep you away from those ridiculous ponies and..."

She stopped herself and growled. She looked far less imposing for a brief moment and in the back of my mind I heard a sly giggle, a voice that I recognized. In the same instant, Chrysalis' eyes snappted to me, eyes meeting mine and once again making me wish I could just turn into a rock and disappear.

"You, what is in your head?" she demanded, taking a step back from the bars as I blinked at her. "Tell me, nymph! Your queen doesn't ask twice!”

I pressed a hoof to my forehead, and just like that it hit me. The memory of the young zebra mare, a forbidden ledge bathed in moonlight and a cracked table forged from amethyst crystal. I saw her hooded eyes flash in my vision, but above all else, I could remember her.

Stammering, I told the queen as much, even if it looked like she knew exactly what I was thinking.

"She's been in my head for as long as I can remember, but I could never remember when she wasn't actually there." She'd been the one to teach me about all of this, tell me that I was not a real changeling, tell me that this thing... This queen was my mother?

"The mother of your body, not whatever wretched soul she stuffed in there," the queen swiftly corrected my thoughts, before seeming to consider something to herself. "Hmm, so the downfall effect does nullify her spells... Her influence is weak..." she mumbled to herself as she lifted a forehoof to her chin.

"Wait... So you know what I am, where I came from?" No matter how scary she may be and how disgusted I was to have been spawned from her, the idea she may finally be able to tell me the truth lightened my heart.

Then she glanced back at me suddenly, making me jump back. "I'd have thought ponies of all creatures would have told you how rude it is to eavesdrop."

I shrank back towards Flurry, wishing that the sleeping mare would just wake up and tell me she was okay. I needed her back, I needed the truth. Yet as the queen had said, her breathing was the only evidence she was even still alive. That in mind, I fortified my resolve once more and turned back to Chrysalis.

"Okay... M–my queen, why has there been some striped filly messing with my head all my life and I can only now remember she exists?" I asked, trying to appeal to her better nature with a reluctant bow.

She scoffed at the gesture, offering a glare so hard I could only tremble under it as I peered up at her, my perfect attempts at a loyal drone apparantly pathetic. She stared at me for a long second, a multitude of complex thoughts seemingly swelling behind those dead, green eyes. Then she lifted her head and called out.

"Cygor, the cage, now!" She stomped a hoof to emphasize and just like that a creature shambled from the gloom.

Shorter than the queen, yet more thickly built, the bipedal canine had shaggy gray fur, a mangy tail, and battered to reveal pale scars and bald flesh. His back was hunched, his scabbed knuckles dragging as he slouched and shambled along. An under-bitten chin sat below a mouth of sharp, yellowed teeth, torn nostrils and ears. One yellow eye peered at us, the other covered by a black eye patch as he stopped beside the queen and bowed. I'd never seen a real diamond dog, yet all I knew told me that was definitely what this creature was. From the smell alone, I could clearly assume he matched most of Rarity's old stories.

"Yes, yes, my queen... Anything you would desire," he half cackled, half croaked to the larger changeling, and she grumbled, rolling her eyes.

"Unlock the cage, now," she jabbed a hoof at the bars and I was left wondering why she did not just use her magic to do it herself as the creature nodded and pulled out a set of keys.

The bars swung open with a shriek, and as he staggered towards us I was torn between getting as far away from his mangy claws as possible and making sure he got nowhere near Flurry while she was unable to defend herself. The way he awkwardly nodded at me, grinning ear to ear, however, made me pause... at least long enough for him to seize my chains and unlock the shackles.

"Good bug, such a nice looking good bug," he muttered, reaching out with a paw that I swiftly darted away from before bolting for the door.

I had to get away, find a way to get Flurry out and we could both go home. The queen was there glaring down at me before I could even make it halfway across the cell, her gaze alone like a brick wall for me to slam into as I felt pressure on my mind.

"Cygor, leave us!" she snapped at the dog that was regarding Flurry curiously.

When he failed to hear her the first time she snarled, and even I felt like hissing defensively at the sight of him so close to my friend. "Go now, or any gems will be forfeit!"

At the mention of gems, his head and tattered ears perked, and like a gray blur he scampered off in the direction she'd indicated with a forehoof. That just left me and her as she peered down her wrinkled muzzle at me. One fang flashed and I got the idea she thought of me as if I was some disgusting insect she'd scraped off of her hoof. I could not look back up at her, yet after a few seconds, she kicked the cell door closed behind me and suddenly turned, giving a hiss as she flicked her tail to indicate for me to follow.

"Follow, nymph," she ordered simply, voice not even raised as she marched off into the tunnels.

I hesitated for just a second, and one glance back from her was all I needed to know that she really would not ask again.


"By the moons, what a squalor. This is seriously the place she chose to hide?" Now that I knew who she was, the voice of the zebra mare taunting me felt a little less mysterious echoing through my brain.

Yet the more I could now clearly think about her, the more it felt like she was digging, leeching my thoughts for information as she'd done behind the enchantments for years. I recalled what she'd said about messing with me merely for the fun of it, no matter if she had plans on the side. Therefore, I did my best to block her out, yet one giggle from the mare and a glance at my reflection in a pillar of jagged black obsidian to my right, and I jumped away, almost plummeting into a deep chasm left of the narrow ledge we were traversing. Fragmented as it may look in the stone, I did not remember my reflection looking so much like an amethyst eyed, cackling zebra.

"Stop acting so cowardly, behave more like a real changeling," Chrysalis shot back at me from where she was trotting ahead.

I looked back at my reflection, seeing it as normal as it had been for the past eight years of my life. Finally daring to lock eyes with Chrysalis, I was getting far more desperate to demand she tell me what was going on. That demand became a little less threatening after about a second, however, as my voice became a whimper under her imposing stare.

"That is kinda hard when you won't tell me anything. Where am I really, what's going on?" I glanced off into the void of the pit beside me and gulped. "Can't we just go home?"

The queen let out a low growl as she trotted on with her head held low, and I had no choice but to follow or get left behind.

"You could go home and die at the claws of whatever assassin Churnabo sends next, the spell only shrouded you from her for eight years ." She seemed reluctant to elaborate. "Yet time can flow differently depending on one's location."

Yeah, because I feel so much safer here with her! My mind sneered back, only for her to fix me with a dangerous glare.

"Mind your thoughts, little nymph. If I wanted you dead then your brain would not be here to chastise me." She smirked and I wilted powerlessly as her reverberating voice rang out in my mind.

"Hmm, really not used to having a real queen, are you?" she asked over her shoulder as the pair of us left the ledge and began up a set of steps. "I don't even want to consider what those ponies... what Starlight Glimmer may have done to you."

I felt her thoughts start to burn like cinders at the mention of one of the mares who'd raised me as if Starlight had been the one to break her. Funny, last I saw she was kicking Starlight and Twilight's tail at the same...

I whacked my head with a forehoof and silenced my thoughts as she smirked back at me. "I'll forgive your ignorance this time. True, your Starlight Glimmer never wronged me, but revenge is sweet no matter the reality."

"My Starlight? B–but you say that as if there's more than just one?" I pressed as we reached the top of the stairs and came out into a large cylindrical chamber.

"So you do have a brain, I'm surprised with Twilight having such a hoof in your upbringing it took you so long," Chrysalis retorted as I took in the new space.

The roof was low, littered with stalactites and more gnawed holes. The floor too was hardly any better, nor were the walls, even if some of the holes seemed to lead out into a far larger and illuminated space like twisted windows. In the center of the room, below a point where the roof rose in a great shaft the slick, black rock rose up to form a table, very much akin to Twilight's map. Beyond, embedded into the wall like the two had been melted together long ago, was some kind of odd, metallic pyramid.

Small enough to fit in one's hooves, the thing was encased in a fine green glow that sparked and flickered on occasion. Just looking at it made me want to look away as if the mere sight of the green field were toxic. Chrysalis eyed the artifact like an age-old enemy as she prowled around the central table.

"Curious?" She thought at me as I stared at the small pyramid. "I would advise you to steer your thoughts away from curiosity, no changelings can break that field."

No matter how aware I was that she could read my mind, I could not help but wonder why she'd go to the length of shielding something and not simply use her magic like normal. Not once had I seen her horn even glow to lift something. The way she dismissively snorted at me made it pretty clear that there were some secrets I was not becoming privy to, so I instead focused on her previous words as she seemed to wish of me. The way she talked about more than one version of somepony made the table in the middle of the room look even more familiar.

"So... so, there's more than one map? " I raised a hoof to my muzzle, recalling the story Starlight had told me about how she may have almost ended multiple alternate universes.

Like a pony who could read my mind, Chrysalis simply smirked at my revelation. "Smart nymph, a step closer to the perfection I envisioned."

She moved over and brushed a hoof across the dusty stone table. "Where you come from is just one of many places where things happened differently. You were the last of your kind in your home, our race killed by a daughter I never had. Yet here you are with your true queen."

She directed a forehoof at me as I tried to come to terms with the fact that what Twilight and Starlight had proposed to be a theory their whole lives was true. Even as I thought that there could only be countless more versions of those mares who'd come to the exact same conclusion. What about me too, how many more Digits were there? What was it all worth, did this version of Chrysalis come from a world where she'd survived the wedding, only to be wronged by Starlight somehow? Were there really places where my kind was not wiped out, where I could see more of them? A place where the war never happened, where we were good? Where Flurry could see her mother again?

I shuddered. Or are those worlds were we won and wiped out ponies, like all of the dark war stories.

"You take the fact that most of existence is rather pointless well," Chrysalis growled as she crept around the table toward me. "It took me years to come to terms with it, figuring out how to use the truth to get my revenge."

"Y–your revenge? Why, what happened to you?" I asked, the idea that this was just one of many versions of her making her a little less threatening.

I mean, there's got to be a super, three-headed dragon Chrysalis out there if it's unlimited possibilities right? I would not like to see that. From the way her eyes narrowed and she growled at my idea, I got the feeling she did not appreciate the humorous sentiment.

"Where I come from the ones you would call family mutilated our perfect form, usurped my rule, and left me the last true changeling." The way she somehow put pressure on my thoughts again as she spoke made me shudder.

No, they'd never do that, they were my family... They... Limitless possibilities. I felt the blood drain from my cheeks and I looked at my shimmering wings like they were the only hope I had left as the queen loomed over me. Was there a reality where I was just another evil drone?

"It's not good, is it? Feeling so small all of a sudden. Your safe veil of ignorance has been broken, little nymph. Your island of belief that you are safe with the life you have has been flooded," she elaborated as she turned and trotted over to a large gash in the wall.

Like the rock had been slashed by a massive set of talons, the looming fissure allowed a view out onto whatever lay beyond the gloomy hive. Even so, I had to steady myself against the table as I thought about just how big things really were. Then an idea hit me, seemingly thrown from somewhere deep amidst my thoughts.

"Then why me? Why pick me if there are so many other versions of me out there?" I asked and she hissed, voice hard and low as she snarled back at me.

"Because you are one of a kind, unique. There are no others." That gave me pause as I finally staggered over to her and looked beyond the opening.

The vast chasm outside was like a whole other world. One could have fit Ponyville, Canterlot and even the rolling countryside in the huge space that stretched on far below. I saw black sand deserts, rivers of glowing green slime, and groves of pale crystals. The landscape was broken by monolithic stone pillars that rose up to support the equally vast stone sky far above. Each was like a mountain, odd ruins built like spider webs into their sides and illuminated only by sickly green beams that shone down through fissures in the ceiling.

Crumbling bridges spanned the impassible gaps above and below the ledge upon which we peered, and odd four-winged bat-like creatures swarmed around thundering torrents of falling water as junk seemed to materialize from nowhere and clatter down to the endless wasteland far below. It was how I imagined Tartarus, only far, far more vast and empty, and from the scraps of ships, castles, bones, and even whole cities below, it appeared to be a literal trash heap.

"W–what is this place?" I stammered, bracing myself against the side of the ledge as a bitter wind threatened to throw me into the open air.

"The Reach. It is safe, a place where Churnabo will never find us," the queen admitted, even if she regarded the dead environment with distaste too. "Full of so many secrets that I have never been able to reach."

I looked at her, my thoughts and expression pretty clearly displaying that I had no idea who or what she was talking about. The queen half sighed, half hissed at the knowledge she had to explain yet more details.

"Urg, Churnabo, a vile excuse for a zebra shaman... Her mastery over the magic needed to traverse reality is impressive, power one like her does not deserve." The way she stomped a forehoof in the ground and growled suggested she could put that power to far greater use should she have it.

I backed away slightly, a crackling voice in my head as I asked. "She... she's the one who has been in my head for all this time?"

"Yes and until the nullifying effect of this realm warped your mind, you have lived forgetting every time she spoke to you. To her it's all a game, yet for anypony else, she could spell the end of reality as they know it," she elaborated and I felt that pit in my chest grow even more.

"And that has what to do with me? Why am I the only... me?" It was the strangest question I'd ever asked and she grumbled something inaudible before finally responding.

"I know not her true plans, all I know is that keeping you here will prevent her from fulfilling them." Spite was clear on her face and in her tone no matter how good she was at hiding it from me, nor the fact I could not feel any of her emotions. "Not until I can find a way to take what she has and use it for myself!"

I could not help but feel invigorated by her rage as if I too felt her emotions second-hoof. It sickened me to my core, I'd been taken from my home and locked up in some dark world only because she had a grudge. What about Flurry, why had the queen made sure she stayed here too? Things did not completely add up.

So much for saving me from that assassin, she hardly cares if I'm alive. I thought, all too aware that the fact that I was the only Digit, may make me just as much a treasure as it did a target. That's if this is not a trick.

"Take care with those arrogant thoughts of yours. I assure you, were this a trick then I would not so readily explain," her thoughts buzzed in my mind. "Or you would simply be dead."

"What about Flurry, you don't need her, why not send her home?" I challenged, coming to terms with what was happening if only to spare my friend the suffering. "If I'm so important then I'll stay but..."

"You are home now, both of you, whether you like it or not. She should have thought twice about jumping into the portal if she did not wish to be stranded," the queen snapped, pulling out a stone from under her scarf and throwing it to my hooves. "The keys are dead, there is no escape. Now you're here and you will not move, sleep, eat or even think without me knowing!"

I looked down at the rock rolling to a stop before me, its runes just as dead as they'd been my whole life. We were all stuck, I'd robbed my friend of her life, abandoned the ponies that had cared for me and left them with some crazy assassin from a genocidal zebra. All for what? Because I could not just ignore my will to seek the truth and smash the stupid keystone when I'd had the chance.

"Changelings do not regret, remove that foul taste from your mind," Chrysalis groaned, yet I could not help but feel that the most regretful pony here was her.

I had no idea what she'd really done, but as far as I could see there was a lot of ponies now paying for those mistakes, me most of all. What was her revenge really worth wherever she came from? Was it worth a whole universe? She reached out a forehoof and swiped the stone away from me, hiding it back under her scarf before the sound of claws on stone caught her attention. Both of our heads turned and my ears perked as the one-eyed diamond dog came bounding in, panting hard.

"Mistress, she's awake, the pony," Cygor informed through his exertions and knowing he could only be talking about one pony I felt a small glimmer of hope.

Chrysalis extinguished that hope with one snide look as she hissed. "Of course, I'm not one to pass up what fate offers me. An alicorn princess has many uses... I trust you can make her cooperative."

I gulped, the brave facade I could hold onto gone as she mentally added. "I certainly hope you can, my little nymph, for both your sakes."

Chapter 9: Lesser of Two Evils

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"Get your filthy claws off of me!" Flurry growled from behind her muzzle, kicking and flapping her wings at the diamond dog taking it off before he scampered back towards Chrysalis.

"Go and check the lower levels, I have a feeling I'll be caught up here for some time," the queen instructed the canine, and with a nod he swiftly disappeared into the maze of tunnels, leaving Chrysalis to peer at me.

She shoved me forward, her firm hoof not as hard as I was expecting. It was as if she were being strangely gentle. Not like the monster I'd heard about, despite how cruel and blunt she'd been about our situation. Sure, she'd made it pretty clear she disliked me, her glower alone made sure of that. Yet I couldn't help but feel that there was something more to her motivations. If I was a danger to her, the universe or her plans, then why not just kill me? If she needed me to stop whatever this Churnabo had planned then why not just go right to where the zebra was hiding and stop her?

I knew I could not trust either of them, one had admitted she was just messing with me for the fun of it and the other was an infamous master of deception. Even so, if I did not know any better I'd assume that the queen may actually care what happened to me. Though whether that was the corrupted love of a mother or the love for the last of her pure kind, I could not say. Either way, the idea made my chitin crawl and my wings twitch nervously.

"Digit!" I had never before been so glad to hear somepony call my name and wrap me in a soft wing hug as the bars shrieked and slammed closed behind me with a loud, reverberating clatter. "Oh, by the empire, are you okay? Where were you, what did she do to you... I woke up and you were gone!"

Her panicked questions gushed like a waterfall as I nuzzled into her soft feathers, simply taking in the companionship for a long moment. The sensation of her emotion was a warm relief in the cold abyss of this new world, like a life-saving pyre on a frozen winter's night. Nevertheless, I could hear the queen groan in my mind, yet she did not interrupt. Her telepathic tone was certainly disapproving, maybe even a little jealous, yet even as I expected her to scold me for acting so un-changeling like, she remained begrudgingly silent.

"It's okay, Flurry, I'm okay... She didn't do anything to me," I assured, patting her wings, and as much as I'd like to admit that I was being forced to lie about what the queen had done, it was the truth.

Well, she did nothing aside from speaking in your head, an invasion of yourself and your privacy. My mind chimed even as I tried to cover my thoughts, lest the queen overhear.

Whether she had picked up on my mental debate or not, Chrysalis said nothing. She'd terrified me, put me in my place, tried to start building me to be a real drone. Yet other than that what had she really done other than try to keep me safe? Albeit in her own twisted way. Of course, trying to get a princess who'd grown up during a war with changelings to believe that unlikely story was like trying to get Twilight to believe that all the books in her vast library were useless.

"What, really?" Flurry looked at me like I was ill, even lifting my chin and feeling my brow with a wing tip.

Then she locked eyes with the queen lingering just beyond the bars. "That's a lie, I know what your kind does to your subjects, get out of his head!"

The queen snorted. "I never did any such thing to my hive, mind-control was always so crude. They followed and betrayed me willingly, thanks to ponies like you." She glared at that latter part, muzzle wrinkled in a sneer.

"That's not what I heard, stop lying!" Flurry demanded, surging towards the queen only for her chains to yank her back.

"My sweet princess. Where you come from I was apparently dead. You have no idea what you've heard about me," Chrysalis responded matter-of-factly, then looked at me. "He is the same changeling your incessant kind raised. I can work on his mannerisms once you help me with my problems."

Flurry looked at me, then, lifted a wing to shield me from the queen's gaze as she shot back. "I'd never help you with anything!"

"Aren't you just as predictable as ever," the queen mused, much to Flurry's steaming annoyance. "The fact is, you are going to help me otherwise you, him, me..." She uttered her own name in the collective very reluctantly. "We're all going to end up dead."

"Likely story, let me out of these shackles and you'll be the one who ends up dead," Flurry warned, and Chrysalis laughed, adding to my friend's rage.

I looked between them, truly considering what the queen had told me. If she was right and Churnabo posed such a threat to the world that Chrysalis herself would run and hide in what was the most forsaken backwater I'd ever seen, then maybe we should help her. The lesser of two evils or just the fact she was my queen? I looked myself over, my gnarled limbs to the tips of my sparkling wings. I wished I had other options, but so far Chrysalis had backed me right into a corner. She'd not killed me or possessed me, I had to give her the benefit of the doubt and if she was right we had everything to lose.

"F–Flurry, maybe we should do what she says... Just for now." Even suggesting that to the one I knew had lost everything in a war that a version of Chrysalis had a big hoof in starting made me sick to my stomach.

The look she gave me only made that sensation hit harder and as she weakly mouthed her disbelief, I could do nothing other than stutter.

"Look, she didn't kill us... I know we're stuck here but if we want to get home then..." I started to say, but one look at the queen and I was pretty sure getting home was a reward off of the table.

Even so, she did not look malicious, merely uncaring about the fact. Her face was still as her emerald eyes between us. I had no real idea what had gotten into me, maybe she really was controlling my mind and I just did not know. Churnabo had apparently been influencing me for years and I'd had no idea. Maybe I was just a coward for so devotedly accepting the only relatively safe option that had presented itself, or maybe following her was just instinct to a drone. No matter the case, I knew I'd do what I could to keep us safe. I just didn't think there was much I could really do.

"What did you do to him? He'd never agree with you if he could think straight!" Flurry snapped, bristling like a hissing cat as she glared at the queen.

I could feel the queen's patience running out as Flurry's conflicting emotions burned like Celestia's sun.

"I will tell you again, I have done nothing," the queen deadpanned, then began to pace up and down the outside of the cell. "I merely elaborated to him the situation in which we find ourselves, what is at stake. I know not what Churnabo will do, but she threatens reality as we know it and as long as we are here, we're safe from her."

"That's ridiculous, you've probably just been hiding in a cave for all these years. The only enemy you need to worry about is my family and they'll come for you!" The way she used the word 'my' instead of our, stung, but I tried not to let it show.

"I assure you, that we're far beyond the reach of those irritations," the queen spat and Flurry snorted, feathers ruffled.

"I’ll find out where in Equestria we are and tell them where you're hiding!" I did not have the heart to correct her, seeing what I'd seen of this place it really did not seem like part of Equestria.

"If you thought I'd hide in your pathetic kingdom, you're mistaken. I'd take you out of that cell and show you if you'd obey. Rage is a good motivator, yet it fails for negotiation, Princess," the queen stated. "Still, if you can listen maybe we can come to an agreement."

"Don't tell me how to be a ruler you monster, you can lie here, but I still know what you do to your subjects," Flurry growled, and the queen did not seem to have the effort to once again remind my friend that this was not her Queen Chrysalis, even if I was sure she was capable of just the same evil.

Seeming to move to the point with a dismissive flick of her forehoof, Chrysalis once again began to set our options on the table.

"I have in my possession an object of great significance. One that, were I to access its full capabilities, would prove most useful. " She looked at Flurry in particular, seeming very unhappy about something that eluded me.

"It is, however, a shame that I find myself unable to access this power due to a shield spell that no changeling could ever break." She informed us of her powerlessness like it was the bane of her very existence, as if to be outsmarted by another caster like that was killing her inside.

I dare not think of her ego least she hear me as Flurry snorted. "Well, it should stay that way. I see where this is going and if you think I'm opening anything for you then you're wrong."

"So predictable," Chrysalis smirked and flicked a forehoof, looking at me as she added. "Well, I do hope somepony can convince you otherwise if you ever want to keep him."

I felt my whole body turn colder than ice as I wilted. I'd given her the benefit of the doubt, believed that everything was at risk and she was still threatening me. But why? I was the last, the only one and she needed me somehow, even if I (and seemingly the queen herself) was not sure for what.

"You lay a hoof on him again and you'll regret it," Flurry warned, but the queen looked more humored then fazed as the alicorn’s still blackened horn crackled.

"You continue to prove your predictable nature, Princess," she commented, right before the scattering of claws behind her drove her to glance back.

"M–my queen, the claw-stalkers are burrowing in through the lower catacombs again... yes, yes!" Cygor muttered through a heavy fit of pants as he stopped beside the queen, gasping for breath.

The queen's muzzle wrinkled as she growled, lone fang flashing, then her attention snapped to us as her head turned with a sharp hiss.

"Ugh, stay here and watch them," she ordered the dog, then snapped at us. "You have until I'm done with this irritation to come to a decision. I do hope that you listen to your friends as much as you preach, pony!"

Her eyes passed from Flurry to me as the alicorn also glanced in my direction. "Your friendship with a changeling could save you a lot of trouble."


"You're adorably naive," the ghostly apparition of Churnabo said as she perched atop of a rock at the ledge side, rear legs swinging and a tune humming between her words. "Your knowledge of bigger things grows every moment, it's getting hard to keep secrets from you."

She said that like it was neither an advantage nor an inconvenience, simply a part of her game. In here she could bend and warp the rules as she saw fit, turn strengths into weaknesses, cheat at life. Now that I knew her, however, it was hard not to get mad.

"Now I can remember you, you can’t hide anything from me!" I challenged and she giggled, flicking a forehoof at her billowing cloak.

"That was more for your sake then mine, can you imagine how you'd have turned out if you actually knew I was in your head all that time?" I really tried not to see the benefit in her logic there as I frowned.

"That still does not make it right!" I spat and she hopped down before starting to prance around me, forcing me to take a step back.

"Oh, you really are adorable... I have such a thing for nobility in a stallion. If I was just a few millennia younger," she winked at me and that idea made me more uncomfortable than anything else she'd done.

It had taken me a while to become attracted to ponies as I'd used to feel the echoes of attraction to whatever came before. I'd had a crush on Scootaloo, maybe thought that way about Flurry at least once, the crusaders' obsession with me going out with the princess had come from somewhere, after all. But romance was so far from me I could only see it as food, and I hated that. This was just another way to mess with me, I knew that was all she wanted to do.

"What? No... Look, you know what the queen said, so you have anything to add or not?" I asked, pretty sure I wouldn’t believe a word that came out of her mouth, yet craving for anything else that may broaden my view of things.

She smiled giddily, like when a filly or colt had come into school with something really awesome to show off in the playground and could hardly contain the excitement throughout the boring day.

"Oh, right, big queen bug has had her say." She tapped a hoof to her chin. "Hmm, well first off, I did not expect you to be so accepting of the truth... Then again, you are from another world, so..." She turned with a flick of her tail, lifted a hoof to her muzzle, and glanced back at me with a smirk.

Part of me had to wonder whether Chrysalis was really telling me the truth about this mare. Little more than a filly, teasing me like a schoolyard crush, and yet she spoke as if she still had the deck fully stacked in her favor.

"Do you know why your queen ran away to hide in the space between spaces?" she asked, and at my stumped reaction, she snickered. "Oh, right she did not tell you... Yeah, the one place I can't really reach, you're literally nowhere, and all around everywhere at the same time. Confusing, right?"

She practically sang that last part as I shook my head and taking a note out of my queen's book, jumped right to the point.

"What do you mean, where am I from, what did you do to me... Enough with the games!" I stomped a forehoof, hissing at the grinning zebra.

"You see, if you'd have just come to me like you were supposed to, I'd have told you everything," she countered.

"Well forgive me if the welcome wagon you sent to pick me up was not so welcoming!" I retorted and she snorted with a roll of her eyes.

"Stratus? Ha, just another lost soul put to good use... You have my apologies, for I cannot leave this place unless in somepony's thoughts." She gestured to the chasm around us. "Cursed when I was but a filly. It's one with me, I with it. It feeds me, nurtures me... I never grow old and my power is never free."

She scuffed a hoof at the dust with a sigh, for once actually appearing like she was the downtrodden one in need of happiness. I trusted her about as much as I did a rock, and yet I crept closer, the cold sensation that often surrounded her gone as her seemingly fickle personality shifted into melancholy.

"You mean you're trapped here? Where even is here? This is not some crazy place like where the queen is?" I asked, noting that the jungle above was not something I'd seen growing in the abyss Chrysalis had shown me.

"It is the one place, in every reality, every time, that exists exactly the same with me locked inside... The one and only," she glanced up at me and I felt a shudder run along my spine.

"Just like me?" I asked, mouthing it more to myself then I did to her.

Was I like her, was this my destiny, to be locked away like a monster? I shook my head. No, they could be lies, she could just be playing mind games again.

"Of a sense, yes. You are unique because I made you that way," she told me, admiring a hoof-full of dust as if it were the most unique thing in the universe.

"Then why the games, why not just tell me the truth?" I asked and she giggled again, the tone just a little too sinister for my liking as she blew the dust away.

"Tell me, what would you do with what little free power you had if not mess with ponies while stuck in a crater for millennia?" There she had a point, boredom would surely drive her mad if she was not insane already, but cruelty was still not in my nature in the same way it seemed it was in hers.

Even so, how could this little striped filly be such a great danger to the universe like Chrysalis claimed, there had to be a reason. I needed the truth and it was pretty clear that neither of them were going to tell me unless I made them, and I could not do that while locked in Chrysalis' dungeon.

"You're ambitious, I know that look... What an odd soul to fit a changeling." she mused, teasing me with more lures of the truth.

I gave her a flat look and she fed the facts to me like I was some pleading puppy. "Then again, it's random, I did not pick where you came from."

She grinned and added, "She gave me a body, I needed a soul. Plucking a recently departed one from the multiverse is not hard, it just has to be one that died the exact right moment."

My ears perked even as I tried not to allow her working ideas to infect my logic too much. It's mind games, even if that's the truth, she'd never come straight out with it all.

"There's a reason you have flashes of something before, you know? Your fate now is merely a result of your passing at the right moment from a life that you can't recall." She grinned as my eyes narrowed.

"That's stupid, that's not how life works... I... I..." My words died, how did anypony really know how life worked? I'd had the idea of my very reality blown out of the water, now for life and death too?

"Oh, you have no idea... Still, you want more, you come to me, I won't ask so nicely for much longer," she cooed, creeping up and rubbing along my side.

I jumped away, her almost flirtatious new demeanor the worst mind trick of all as she turned back to me and giggled once more. "Well, won't that attitude prove interesting?"

She's utterly insane, it's the only reason she's acting so crazy! My mind desperately tried to reason.

"And even if I wanted to, how am I supposed to find you?" I asked, reasonably, and she lifted a forehoof to her muzzle.

"Interesting question. The reach is beyond the sight of any reality-bending magic, your queen hides there without the use of her magic so I can't pinpoint her location... Though..." She loomed over to me as if gliding across the dusty ledge.

"The thing she stole from me, the thing she wants your friend to break my spell on for her... Let's just say, if somepony wanted to get out of the void it would be very useful." From the way she looked at me, I knew she was perfectly aware that no matter what I now did I'd still be playing into at least one of the plans of the two mares deceiving me.

If whatever this thing Chrysalis had was so important to each of them then would it not be best to just destroy it like I'd failed to do the keystone in the castle? Would taking it back to the castle be the best plan, give it to Twilight to keep it safe?

Churnabo seemed to see the cogs grinding in my mind more than even Chrysalis could as she tapped my forehead.

"You'll make your choice, I know you will." She dropped back and from nowhere chains and padlocks materialized to bind her like iron snakes before she looked up at me with pleading eyes. "After all, we're just as trapped as each other, really."


"Digit, hey, Digit... You awake? I... I'm sorry for yelling." I awoke to the sensation of a hoof poking at my side and the nudge of feathered wings. "I just thought... Well, Scolopendra pulled the mind control thing on a few of my friends in the war so..."

"Flurry, I'm thinking as straight as I can, okay... I was just told that I'm from another universe," I muttered as I sat up, then fell against her side as I sniffed. "Though I kinda wish I was taking it better."

She peered down at me, blinked, and then wrapped me in a wing. Understandably, after the queen had left us with the choice of helping her or remaining locked away forever, I'd tried to push Flurry to do what we needed. She'd like me fighting Chrysalis' battle about as much as she liked the queen herself, and the argument that ensued had almost ripped my heart out.

Her anger and sadness alone had made me sick, like a bullet through the chest. If whatever bounds the queen had put on her had not suppressed her magic, I'd been afraid she may even try to blast what mind spells she thought might be in me out. Yet when I'd finally managed to explain the truth Chrysalis had told to her, and almost broken down in tears in the process, her understanding had at least bloomed into something more than a brick wall that rejected every compromise.

Nevertheless, sleeping on the idea had done nothing, now I was left with Churnabo's argument too. The zebra was trapped and how did I know that was not Chrysalis' doing? How did I know that the monster that had kidnapped me was not the real villain?

Well, one of them did send an assassin after you? My mind noted. Chrysals was the one to try and same me. But how much of a drive is desperation on for Chunabo to do what she thinks she needs to?

I nuzzled into Flurry's feathers as she went on apologizing about how she acted, even if she was still very adamant that she was not about to fulfill the queen's wishes.

"That's just it though... What if we do, then take it for ourselves?" I offered and she cocked her head.

"You mean steal from her?" she asked, then smirked. "Okay, I know I was harsh before but by the empire, what turned you into me?"

"You know I could never pull off your looks even if I could shapeshift," I retorted and she blushed as I stood up and sniffed.

Take it to Twilight, if Churnabo really is right and it can get us out of here, then what can she do to stop me from going back home? I could not fault the logic, even as anxiety demanded I do so.

I told Flurry my plan and she shook herself, chains rattling as she stood. "Okay, you want to do this our way then I'm game. I wanna get home too, but if she catches us..."

She looked up at her horn and I winced. There was another thing I hoped Churnabo wasn't lying about, even if I'd seen evidence to back it up.

"I think Chrysalis is too scared to use her magic here, you won't have to fight her like that," I assured and she looked at me suspiciously.

"Okay... And this thing she has, you know what it looks like?" she asked, and recalling the way the queen had looked at the oddly shielded pyramid structure in her map room, I had a fairly good idea.

Relaying that information to Flurry, I crept over to the bars. Getting out was the next thing to worry about and as I laid eyes on the sleeping diamond dog across the tunnel I had an idea.

"Hey, hey you!" I whispered as loud as I dared, stretching out my wing to catch what little light it could as it glimmered. "Hey... Look at this, shiny, shiny things!"

Kicking a stone through the bars into his cheek the canine shuddered. Then his twitching ears perked and his loud snoring cut off abruptly as his one yellow eye cracked open. He lifted up, looked at my shimmering wings with a hungry gleam in his eye, then snorted a laugh.

"Haha, dog know traitor wings when he see one... You good bug, but bad to queen, dog not get..." From the moment his words began, my heart sank, only for confusion to spark as his words were cut off by a loud thud to the head.

The dog fell forward with a groan, sprawled out unconscious on the cave floor with Chrysalis standing over him. In her single-fanged muzzle was a broken stalagmite, one she dropped the moment her wide eyes fixed on me. I shot right back toward a defensively positioned Flurry as the queen slowly walked to the bars. Only now I could taste her disbelief all of a sudden and it was impossibly strong. Why had she been hiding her emotions before and not now?

"Well, we made our choice, now let us out," Flurry said, even as I caught a hint of her uncertain improvisation.

"You really are real?" The queen said without care for Flurry's words as I looked back at her. "The one thing that was not a lie."

What in Equestria has gotten into her now? Are both her and Churnabo just two crazy old coots going at each other with the fate of the universe in hoof? Chrysalis really did look like she'd seen a ghost and in a green flash of change-fire, I knew why.

Her disguise gone, the dark purple drone with deep lavender carapace, purple eyes, and small fangs looked at me and I at her. Then my mind utterly stopped, gears grinding to a halt as I realized that, besides the queen, I was staring at the first real changeling I'd ever seen. Not to mention this one was a drone just like me.

Chapter 10: Cicada

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I'd grown up thinking I was the last of my kind. For all intents and purposes, where I'd come from, that was true. Changelings had been wiped out in a war. Rebellion and mind control had been factors, leaving pony-kind with a pang of guilt that made sure that when I'd appeared they'd safeguarded me and raised me to be better. Like the changelings that had betrayed the ruler of their hive before me, I had the shimmering wings to prove that.

When I'd discovered all of that was, in fact, just one way reality had diverged in an apparent multiverse of options and other scenarios, however, it was both fulfilling and left a hole in my chest at the same time. I was the only one of myself in that multitude of other possibilities according to the ones that had stolen my soul and put me here, from where they'd taken me I knew not. What I did know was that listening to either of them was a sure way to drive me insane. So when I was finally presented with another one of my kind, not an evil queen or zebra's illusion, it was hard not to see it as another trick or just another pointless possibility in infinity.

That was all up until the point the new, purple-tinted changeling gasped and charged towards me, wrapping me in the tightest hug I'd ever been exposed to. Given that I'd grown up best friends with an all-powerful alicorn princess with the strength of five ponies her age, that was certainly impressive.

"Oh, by the hive! You're real, you're real!" she sang over and over again, squeezing hard as I tapped her back and forced out.

"Can't... Can't breathe!" She drew back in a flash, holding my shoulders in her forehooves as she winced and blushed pale green.

"Oh, sorry... I... Well, surviving here kinda needs you to have a strong grip," she assured me as I gasped for breath, trying not to dwell on confusion and the shock of seeing another drone.

Then Flurry very bluntly intervened by shoving the lavender drone aside and snorting as she flared a wing between us.

"Okay, that's it. What trick is this, Chrysalis?" she spat, scuffing a forehoof at the floor as if to charge before adding mockingly. "I'll admit if you've fallen to this level to get us to listen, it's kinda adorable."

The lavender drone cocked her head and frowned as I shoved Flurry's wing out of my face and exclaimed. "Wait, how do you know she's the queen?"

I used the word 'queen' and the alicorn frowned back at me. "Look at her wings, Digit. One thing a changeling's disguise cannot imitate is the effect of friendship."

At that, I could not fault my friend's point. She'd been the one raised to spot these things, after all. One glance at my shimmering wings, then at the lavender drone, and I could not help but hope that this really was not another trick.

The drone huffed and rolled her eyes before buzzing her wings generously for us both to see.

"Oh, I do apologize, princess. Please, forgive me if there are very few ponies in this hive-forsaken place to make friends with," she shot matter-of-factly.

Flurry grunted, jabbing a forehoof at the insectoid mare and opening her muzzle before words seemed to die in her throat. Slipping past her wing, I crept towards the drone, still unsure as I marked her position in an effort to avoid any affectionate assault again. From the giddy excitement I could feel coming off of her, it was clear she was happy to see me, even if she did a good job of masking that on the outside. Still, unlike Chrysalis, I could feel her emotions. Unless this really was the queen just letting me feel her feelings as a ruse.

Could she do that? With what I'd learned today I really had to wonder what was possible anymore. Worlds and universes are so mixed up. She could really just be from somewhere else like Chrysalis?

And what does that do to prove she's not evil? She could be from a world where everypony you know is a bug? My mind reasoned, even as I concluded. Yeah, but if she is from another reality then she must have a keystone to get back!

"Okay then, prove you're not her and tell us who you are?" I asked, sitting down before her, even as Flurry mumbled that such a confession would do little to prove anything.

The drone looked between us, seeming unsure for a second before she pressed a forehoof to her chest and cleared her throat with a cough.

"My name is Cicada, I have lived in this squalor for most of my life..." Her way of giving such a bold speech reminded me of Twilight, even if she faltered just a little. "And no, I'm not the queen, but she is my adopted mother."

That made Flurry's eyes narrow and mine go wide as what Churnabo had told me forced me to come to a realization.

"Wait... wait, so you're my sister?" The question felt hasty, a surge of hope that I had some genuine and not crazy family in this world.

She shook her head and waved her forehooves like that was the last thing she wanted to be. I felt my hope plummet into an abyss as she swiftly assured me.

"What, no, no, no." She gave an awkward smile. "I'm not her real daughter, and you..." She paused to think. "You admit it then, you're him?"

Confusion blooming even more so, I cocked my head. "I'm who? I was told she was my mother, yeah." I admitted, shuddering.

"By a crazy zebra filly in a cloak, I'm guessing?" she asked, and I once again perked and nodded rapidly.

"So you are him... No, she's not our mother, just a template but..." She trailed off and looked around. "This is really not the place to talk or think about that, if she gets close she can hear everything we think."

"Erm, sorry to interrupt your little meetup, but what's going on?" Flurry interjected, clearing her throat. "Because we were just about to break out of here and you came to what? Stop us?" She eyed Cicada suspiciously.

"On the contrary, as soon as I discovered that Chrysalis had brought somepony back here after all these years I came to see for myself... And then break them out," the drone responded with a smirk and buzz of her wings.

"Wait, so you know the way out of here, how to get around?" I asked and she nodded before I added. "How about... Getting out of this place... Like, the going home kind of getting out?"

At that, she sighed and shook her head. "Nopony leaves the reach without a keystone and I'm pretty sure Chrysalis is the only one to have a stone that's charged."

So she did lie. My stone will still work, but hers must still be charged and able to teleport her. I thought as Flurry strode up to Cicada.

"I'll ask again, why should we trust you?" she pressed and the lavender drone looked between us.

"You two were just talking about Chrysalis' treasure, right?" she asked and I nodded as Flurry grunted and spat.

"Oh, eavesdropping. I so wanna trust you even more now." Cicada rolled her eyes at that and turned to the door.

"Well, if it means anything, you're right about it. The queen stole it, but can't break the spell." She looked at me in particular, as if she knew more than she was letting on about me.

"And what does it do, it can take us home, right?" I asked and she nodded.

"From what she told me it can do that and way more. It's why she wants it so much and why I've spent my whole life trying to steal it too." She looked at Flurry. "But I've never had an alicorn princess before."

I found myself looking at my feather-winged as she begrudgingly looked between me and Cicada. I put on my best, cute, baby, buggo cousin look and she growled as her eyes rolled. There were some ways I could make it hard for her to say no, same as she could for me.

"Okay, fine, we'll go break out this thing. Then we leave, this place is really giving me the creeps." She ruffled her feathers and fur anxiously as I nodded.

"Well, that's good," Cicada began as she trotted off swiftly and called back. "Because this place has been giving me the creeps for years now."


"You know, you guys may be all small and sneaky, but crawling through here is not so easy for me," Flurry grumbled as the three of us crawled our way through a narrow tunnel.

"Yeah, well at least you fit. Chrysalis can't get in here, I used to use it to hide from her all the time," Cicada retorted as she shoved a strand of hanging red vines out of her way.

"What do you mean, so you really grew up here, what was it like?" I questioned, before wincing. "Sorry if that... You know, brings up bad memories."

"I don't remember most of it, all I do is when Chrysalis was in my head. Her telepathic range is significantly less than natural here though. I liked to think she really cared about me in her own way, always telling me how to be safe, how to give our kinda new start. Once I even overheard her saying getting involved with Churanbo may have been a mistake, but I don't know," she elaborated.

I opened my mouth to respond as the tunnel opened up into a slightly larger chamber, walls covered in what appeared to be stone thorns. Before I could say anything Cicada lifted a foreleg to block my path, stopping Flurry coming up behind me in turn as there was a scattering of dust in one of the chamber's other tunnels.

"Don't make a sound, don't move a muscle," she warned suddenly as from the other tunnel stalked an odd, snake-like creature with short, clawed legs, long barbed tail, and razor-sharp fangs.

Covered in sleek, green scales, it had a series of red markings across its flanks and a trio of triangular mounted eyes on each side of its narrow skull. A forked tongue flicked in and out of its mouth as it perked up on its hind legs and looked about. I felt my heart in my throat at the sight of any creature that looked predatory. Carnivorous I may have been my whole life, but being raised by ponies did little for my instincts. Changelings were supposed to take on threats as a swarm, according to Twilight, not on our own. That was the time to run and hide as a rock or fern.

"W–what in Equestria is that?" I asked as Flurry peered over my shoulder, a more curious look in her eyes.

"Claw stalker, pretty much feed on all the dimensional trash that ends up here. Wait right where you are and don't move, they're not hard to deal with," Cicada said and both I and Flurry shot her a suspicious look as she stepped out before the sleek creature.

Its eyes fixed on her the second its head snapped to face her, the hiss escaping its throat as it did so making me jump. Flurry grabbed my shoulder, holding me still as she watched Cicada closely, and with a green flash, the drone was gone, replaced by a far larger version of the creature she was faced with.

By Celestia, she's so good at that! The effect was instantaneous, the Claw-stalker went from hissing to drooping, one growl from Cicada and it was scampering off whimpering.

"By the Empire, it's been years since I saw a transformation as good as that," Flurry observed admirably, and the idea that it had not been me to show off such a skill made my heart sink more so.

No, I'm not jealous... That tastes awful. Urg, why does it seem I'm the only changeling that's useless! My thoughts conflicted as Cicada reappeared before us and waved for us to follow with a foreleg.

"That was pretty impressive, I'm not going to lie," Flurry commented as she moved up towards Cicada in a now slightly taller passageway. "I saw a couple of rebel Change-guard back where I'm from, they could pretty much become anything."

"Thanks, I guess I learned from the best. Not that I'm proud of it," Cicada admitted, and Flurry frowned as I tasted a hint of sympathy.

"So she really is your mother? Or not? How's it work?" she asked, seeming to dig for a far more clear, in-depth answer.

She looked at me just like she did the changeling she had not known for years and I really dreaded what Cicada may tell her about us.

The lavender drone sighed. "No, I told you... She just raised me, she never told me the whole truth, but I got pieces. She made a deal with Churnabo, the two of them created... us, I guess." I looked at my reflection in a wall of dark obsidian, disgusted with myself as she spoke.

"Though our souls come from somewhere else. If I were to guess, I'd say it's hard to construct a body using magic, and impossible to make a soul." It was just like Churnabo said, but where did we come from, what was I before this?

"And what do you remember about... well, before?" I asked, rotating a forehoof in the air as I searched for the right words.

Flurry gave me an odd look. "You mean like what auntie Twi said she looked for in your memories?" she asked.

"I guess, though she never found anything, remember. Just numbers and blurred shadows," I admitted, looking to Cicada in hopes she'd have anything to add only to see she'd stopped mid-step.

"T–T...What did you..." she shook her head and snorted, wings buzzing. "Never mind, no I don't remember much. Stars, shouting, pink and purple... Magic, I think, somepony calling out about saving somepony and then... Cold, I think it was water."

Both I and Flurry exchanged glances as the lavender changeling seemed momentarily crippled by the memory.

"So, no countdown?" I asked, daring to push her for the truth even if it was pretty clear she did not want to think about it.

"Not that I can recall, no... Why, is that all you can remember?" she countered and I paused, really wracking my brain for anything more.

There was a beeping sound, those shadows looming over me seemed to move with purpose and urgency, then there was Churnabo in my head, meddling and telling me a mix of lies and the truth and outright teasing me. For what? Because she just finds it fun?

"Hey, you okay?" Flurry was at my side with a wing over my back as I apparently once again regressed into a still cocoon of thought. "He's never been good with this, nightmares his whole life. Maybe this is not the best place to talk about it."

She looked at Cicada, and I could sense that part of her was almost daring for the lavender drone to continue probing me for information. I'd been the one to ask, and here I was, the victim once again. I hated it, I hated my inability to understand!

Even so, Cicada nodded, squeezing through a narrow crack in the rock that the two of us were forced to scamper through behind her. The two times Flurry got stuck almost led to her blasting the whole cave apart until eventually the three of us came out into an open space. The dark rock table at its center and magical pillar across the cave were a dead giveaway as to where Cicada had led us as she glanced around warily.

"Okay, it's clear, follow me and do exactly what I say," Cicada instructed as she crept low across the chamber.

I did exactly what she told me as Flurry rolled her eyes and marched behind us. When she got close to the dark table in the center of the chamber, however, the princess paused.

"What is this, it looks so much like Twi's cutie map?" she asked, the question once again raising my own suspicions as we both looked at Cicada.

"It's what's called a hard point, a place where reality is weak enough to push through. I don't know what yours' back home will be, but structures like this are usually where keystones can open bridges. The baseline of the stone is a spell, the stone itself is a catalyst and the hardpoint is guidance for the spell matrix," she elaborated as if we should know.

Then her look fell flat. "Seriously, you two ended up in the reach and you have no idea how interdimensional magic works? The roots of the world, primal forces, nothing?" she exclaimed and I looked at Flurry as the princess shrugged.

"I only learned all this was possible a few hours ago, so forgive me if there was not a lot of time to study," she shot back with a grin that made Cicada huff.

"Should we know?" I interjected, stealing Cicada's scowling attention away from the princess. "The only ones I've seen with stones where the queen and whoever Chunabo sent after me. My stone has been dead for years."

"It would sure help, but I guess I'll have to roll with what I have," she huffed before trotting over to the odd bubble of green magic. "Plus, you'll be lucky if you see another keystone again, there's only seven of them in all exitance according to Chrysalis."

Great, and queen crazy has at least two! I mentally huffed, wondering just how powerful the thing I'd worn around my neck as a trinket for yeares actauly was.

Nevertheless, I followed Cicada, peering through the glimmering shield to see the strange, pyramid-like structure levitating perfectly in the center of the magical orb. Its dark, metallic surface was an intricate weave of smooth markings and etched symbols, most looking like waves, thorns and zebra glyphs. It seemed to hum and pulse a dark purple light, yet through the magical barrier, the glow was hard to make out.

"So what is it? What does it do and why's it so important?" I asked as Cicada moved to put a forehoof against the shield, only to pull away.

"Chrysalis called it the cartographer, a core matrix for interdimensional travel and its own hard point," she elaborated in awe. "If not for this shield she could have done so much with it."

From the blank, confused look on my face, I could tell the frustration I was picking up on directed towards me was probably justified. She's really lived her whole life for this? How many lives could that even be?

Cicada rolled her eyes, uttering a reverberating sigh before elaborating. "It's a map, you pick a point anywhere or when and you can go there, free of the limitations associated with keystones. You'd just need somepony who can read it."

"And you're one who can do that, right?" Flurry asked, stepping up to the cartographer. "Because it sounds like the ability to be anywhere at any time is one I wanna keep away from Chrysalis."

I could not disagree with her there, to think that the queen could go anywhere, even any-when at will was baffling. With that power, she could really do anything, but with it, we could also get back to Twilight, make sure the thing was safely locked away.

"No, I can't," Cicada admitted, and my hopes dropped along with Flurry's expression. "But I know how to activate it, we end up anywhere and at least it's not here, then we figure things out without Chrysalis breathing down our necks."

I looked at Flurry, very unsure as I considered what the lavender drone was telling me. Do I really trust her? I'd known her for an hour and here we were with what was probably one of the most powerful artifacts in the whole multiverse.

"You know she has a point. If we get somewhere we can figure this out, maybe we can find a way to get it back home where it will be safe," I suggested, feeling Flurry's inner conflict as she looked at me, face scrunched in thought.

"Think of it as not letting the queen get it because that would be really bad," Cicada enticed, and Flurry finally groaned.

"Okay, I'll do it!" she declared then shoved the two of us aside with her wings and lowered her horn to the shield.

"What, you don't want to know how to do it first?" Cicada asked hesitantly, and Flurry shot her a smug look.

"If there's one spell art I know, it's shielding. My father's a master and I learned from the best," she assured, igniting her horn and instantly her face contorted. "Arg, okay... Maybe it’s a little complex."

"The matrix is triple entangled, there's soul sorcery gone into that too, you have to un-weave it carefully because it will not break under force," Cicada told her as her horn began to fizzle and the shield rippled.

"Okay, okay, I got it... Untangle the shield," Flurry forced through gritted teeth as the orb began to part with a sharp scraping sound.

Oh Celestia, everything in a hundred miles is going to hear that! I mentally exclaimed, patting my friend's shoulder. Claw-stalkers or the queen, they're going to come running in here any moment!

"Come on, Flurry, you got this," I encouraged, patting her shoulder as her eyes closed, tears streaming across her cheeks as she grunted.

Cicada only looked at the breaking shield in wide-eyed exhilaration, her hope so overwhelming it made me feel lethargic. The magical sphere began to crack, pull apart and warp as if it were gasping for breath. Then what had started as a small fracture in the magical surface spiderwebbed into a series of vast cracks, shattering like glass with one final effort from Flurry Heart. The thing gave a spark and a pop, a flash of green lightning blasting the three of us back as the smell of singed fur filled the air. I really tried not to think of the wailing sounds or the ghostly faces I saw dissipating in the faint wisps of smoke coming off the broken shield.

"Flurry, Flurry!" I called, jumping to my aching hooves and darting over to my friend's side. "Are you okay? You did it, the shield is broken."

"I... I got it? Ha, though remind me to warm up next time," she croaked, opening one eye as she smirked up at me.

"There was no time for that, come on we need to go now..." Cicada began to say as she reached for the cartographer, only for an aura of golden magic to levitate it over to Flurry before the drone could get it.

"Oh no, you really think I'm so dumb," Flurry grunted as she got to her hooves and once again shoved me behind her wing as she accused. "I've seen this trick before, you knew I was never going to open it for you. So now is the point at which you turn back, Queen Chrysalis!"

I felt a cold jolt run down my spine and flare to the tips of my wings at the idea. That made sense. If she was sure we'd never open it for her willing, Chyrslais could have aways just tricked us. How could I have been so naive?

Peering round I saw Cicada blink once then snort. "What, are you serious? I told you that she won't use her magic here, she won't change!"

"Likely story from the master of manipulation. Well, if you won't stop me then I guess I'll just go ahead and use this," Flurry retorted, rotating the cartographer in her magic.

"No, be careful with that, one wrong move and you'll end up anypony knows where!" Cicada called, darting for the pyramid, only for Flurry to snatch it away.

"Hey, Flurry, maybe we should believe her. She... she doesn't feel like the queen," I spoke up.

"That's because she's probably just done something to you, Digit. I can't take the risk believing this is all as convenient as it feels," Flurry insisted.

"What, we argued about this. This is me, Flurry, I swear!" I pressed and her frown deepened as I felt her regret.

"I'm sorry, Digit, but I don't know anymore. All I do know is that, if this thing does what you say, I can trust it to anypony else." She shot Cicada a dangerous look.

"I'm not one of them. I've done way more for myself then Chrysalis ever did for me, she's a lunatic!" the drone declared with a stomp of her forehoof.

"Oh, my daughter, what lovely words after so long." The sly, reverberating voice shut us all up in an instant. "Good to see you're still as good at bickering as ever, but I assure you, I'm here to put an end to your doubts."

True to her words, any doubts in my mind that Cicada was a traitor or that she was the queen trying to manipulate us were put to rest as the real queen, forelegs freshly scarred with claw-stalker slashes, stepped out of a gloomy tunnel.

"Though I must thank you, now I have to go to no effort at all to finally get that foalish princess to get me what I want," Chrysalis purred as her sharp eyes fixed on the cartographer.

"Who are you calling foalish, witch? Get back!" Flurry declared, shoving me back towards the open ledge with a wing as she backpedaled and levitated the cartographer away from Chrysalis.

Cicada was at her side, glaring eyes fixed on the queen as she stalked towards us. Believe her now, Digit? You really do have so much faith in the goodness of your kind.

"I'm not your daughter, don't lie to yourself!" Cicada spat as I felt my rear hooves brush against the edge of the sheer cliff.

"Oh, that's not true, you and her, both mine." I heard the queen coo in my mind as before. "Do what's right for our race and give me that thing!"

"Oh, your words hurt me, Cicada. Now, why don't you be a loyal drone and give me what our kind needs!" she openly declared, jabbing her horn at us.

"Yeah, like that's going to happen!" Flurry insisted as Cicada stepped between her and the queen.

"You want it, then you'll have to get past me," she stated and the queen paused, her words in my head going silent as she stared right at the lavender drone. "Go on, do it, charge me, cook me, shove us off the edge! You want it, come kill me and get it. I know you're powerful enough!"

The queen looked like she was trembling as her muzzle wrinkled and her eyes narrowed, her one remaining fang bared as she growled.

"Get out of the way you insufferable little nymph!" she hissed, but Cicada remained unmoving.

"Once I would have done exactly as you asked, but not anymore!" Her wings buzzed as she lifted into the air and flipped back, snatching the cartographer from Flurry's magic.

"No, don't you dare!" Chrysalis screamed as Cicada landed on Flurry's back and prompted me to grab the shocked alicorn’s foreleg.

With a twist of her forehooves she jolted one half of the cartographer away from the other, the thing gave a flash and around us lit up a vast, glowing sphere of magical lines, symbols, and markings. It was like Luna's night sky captured in bright purple. Stars, galaxies, comets, even entire constellations drifting amidst ethereal cosmic clouds. Once again what I knew of the universe was put to shame by the sudden beauty. Then came a flash of green fire as the queen roared a blast of outrage, her horn finally igniting with green flame.

A golden shield was between us and the flames in a flash as Flurry seemed to react on instinct. Cicada was knocked back, the cartographer still in her grip as her other forehoof held onto Flurry's mane.

"Choose somewhere, one of the stars, anything just press it now!" she called down to me and the moment the instructions registered I looked around at the vast array of specks projected before me.

"What if I'm wrong and we end up somewhere that'll kill us?!" I shouted back reasonably, as the force of Chrysalis’ flames against the shield forced Flurry to stagger over the edge, sweeping the two of us with her.

"The thing has a certain wisdom to it, it won't, trust me!" Cicada called as time seemed to slow in our free fall.

I heard the queen roar above, felt the intense heat of the flames as gravity took hold and lurched my whole body upwards. My wings buzzed on instinct as my eyes fixed on the nearest point of amethyst light in the projection and without thought, one forehoof shot out to press it. The thing lit up, sending a pulse rippling through the array of constellations forming the sphere around us, then the whole thing flickered and sucked back into the cartographer. My view of the cliff face as I plummeted by was stolen by a bright purple flash as the queen howled one last, desperate plea.

Chapter 11: Home Away From Home

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“You told me I was the only one," I stated flatly to the zebra sitting at the dilapidated crystal table, one forehoof nudging aside a small counter in a game she seemed to be playing.

"No, I said you were the only you, not the only changeling," Churnabo corrected, shifting another counter before tapping her hoof on the table and making the game vanish with a magical pop.

"Because there is only one of you, and that makes you so important." She was at my side in a flash, shoulder, and flank rubbing against my own like an affectionate kitten before I jumped away with a yelp.

"S–stop it... I know what you said, she's not me. But you made her the same way," I retorted, brushing loose strands of her coat from my chitin.

"Oh, well haven't you considered the fact she might be lying? Your royal friend certainly didn't seem to trust her, and she was raised by Chrysalis after all." I opened my mouth to respond, jabbing a forehoof at her before the words died to nothing but a dry squeak in my throat.

"Your innocence is adorable, so naive, so hopeful," she cooed, twirling a forehoof in the air. "I can see how much you want Cicada to be real and genuine. I can see how loyal you are to your princess, you want to believe her too."

Words came to me no easier then they had seconds ago as I thought about that, gears rattling in my head as ideas conflicted with each other. She was right, I did want Cicada to be more than some plant by Chrysalis. I really wanted to believe she was like me, thrown into this mess of a life from Celestia knows where. Everything the lavender drone had said in the brief time I'd known her suggested that was the truth, she knew more about whatever plan we'd been born into then I did.

But Flurry was right too, Cicada was the daughter of a master manipulator, the fact that she'd openly admitted that alone was suspicious. The princess had grown up learning how to pick up on any aspect of deceit from our kind, how to counter it, how to manipulate us back. There had been far more changelings trying to kill her then protect her, she'd had to live like that. How could I call myself her friend if I did not listen to her? I tried to think back on anything either of them had said that would give me an idea of where I stood. But right now I just felt like the plaything of all four mares; Flurry, Cicada, Churnabo, and Chrysalis. I knew who I should trust, I knew who I wanted to trust.

All the while, Churnabo's senseless giggling permeated the cool air that lingered around her ghastly canyon home. I shook my head free of my thoughtful stupor and looked at the striped mare, a forehoof pressed to her chest as she gasped to reclaim her breath.

"It's funny to you, I know. You really are sick," I declared and in a snap, she recovered from her laughter as if there'd been no humor at all.

"Sick, bored, the two can go together very well if you think about it." She tapped a hoof on her chin. "But I have reasons, you have something I need and you're the only one I can talk to after Chrysalis locked me out of Cicada's head."

"And you think I'd trust you? You can go on and on about what I'm stuck with, but Flurry taught me enough about real manipulators to know one when I see one," I insisted, jabbing a forehoof at her, only to draw back at the chill she suddenly began to radiate.

"You really talk about that as if you have a choice." She was in my face before I could blink, darting across the ledge like striped lightning. "You see, I really like you... I might even play along for you if I can get you to see the big picture, think the right way."

I tried to back away from her, yet one look right into my timid eyes and she had my muscles seizing up like they'd turned to rock. Oh, please don't be part cockatrice too!

"If you even think I'd do anything for you... Like you even... You really are insane," I stammered back, and from the shrill laugh she gave in response, it was pretty clear 'insane' was an understatement.

"I'll take it as a compliment. But you, my little bug." She rubbed my cheek with a forehoof, sliding it down to my chest as I trembled, unable to move. "You just found what I've been after for so long, liberated it from the hooves of that backstabber and now have the power to go anywhere, but no knowledge of how to use it."

She smiled a deceptively warm, almost motherly smile. "I would very much appreciate it if you brought it to me, I'll even tell you how. Simply activate and align the three icons that look like stars with the peak of the pyramid, that's it."

"We're taking it home, back to Twilight, and then you'll never have it," I stammered, and she rolled her eyes.

"Always so noble, a glorious knight of good just being dragged around by his two far more useful friends." No matter what, that stung. "You'll come to your senses eventually, you'll long for what I know more and more. You just better hope I find you before Chrysalis does."

I swallowed hard, unable to rip my quivering eyes from her piercing stare. "You said it yourself, she'll never find us."

Churnabo half giggled, half snorted. "I did, but you don't trust me, remember... So, let's just hope, because I know for sure, mommy will be very, very angry with you two."


Muffled silence began to bubble and ripple with peculiar sounds as I felt a sharp intake of breath through my stuffy nostrils. The darkness unhinged as my eyes cracked open and where there had been a dark cave roof only seconds ago I now saw a bright blue, filled with blurred green and brown shapes. There was a sensation of hot and cold light over my chitin and that of the wind blowing lightly as leaves rustled and birds sang. I lifted my head and the moment I did so, I wished I could just stay laying down forever.

My temples throbbed, ears rang and vision swam as the world around me became a blurred mess once again. It was as if somepony were dancing on drums in my brain while others pranced around shouting at the top of their lungs. I pressed a forehoof to my forehead, then the back of my skull, checking for blood. I'd been foolish enough when I was younger to fall over and seriously hurt myself only once. Having the foresight to be safe from a life before my own will do that to you, I suppose. Yet as I rubbed just below my horn and around my mane, I came across nothing that would suggest I'd hit my head too hard.

So I took one deep breath, then another, cool air filling my lungs where the dank atmosphere of Chrysalis' hiding place had once polluted them. Finally, my sight became clear enough for me to make out the blurred brown pillars around me as tree trunks. Grass brushed at my hooves and haunches as I shifted, noting that there were a series of odd orbital patterns scorched into the low lying vegetation in a perfect pattern around me. Just like that, things came flooding back. The three of us in the cave with the cartographer, Chrysalis advancing and Cicada screaming for me to do something with the device we'd just stolen.

My eyes went wide, my ears perked and I felt around for my friends. When I found nothing but myself and the odd pyramid shape of the cartographer, I felt my heart begin to race. I had no idea where I was, or even when I was if what Cicada had told me about the device was right. It could just be another dream Churnabo had conjured or the entire thing just Chrysalis using mind control. I had no idea what to believe anymore and my overactive imagination did little to help. Nevertheless, I staggered to my hooves and shook myself off, looking around one last time before finally calling out.

"H–hello, Flurry, Cicada, is anypony there?" There was no response from the woods save for the leaves rustling in the wind and the singing of skylarks above.

I can't be stuck here alone, what kind of portal does that?! I thought to myself as I hefted the cartographer onto my back. Well, you don't really have any idea how it works, and you were the one to activate it. So who knows?

I shook my head, hoping that Cicada would not have intentionally separated us if she could avoid it. Or at least separate herself from the device she'd apparently been trying to get her hooves on for years. Of course, that's if I was right to trust her, unlike Churnabo said. Even so, when calling out again produced no further results, I was forced to start walking. Only a few steps later did I come to realize that I was starved of both food and water. A dry mouth and low grumble from my stomach was enough to tell me that my friends were not the only things I needed to find.

Funny, I did not feel hungry or thirsty when Chrysalis was around. I wondered, sickened by the implications of that. What, and you'd rather starve?

It wasn't long until I came upon a small stream at least, and lowering my head to the water, taking a sniff then a small taste, I deemed the clear liquid safe enough for consumption.

Lapping up water from a stream in the woods like some animal. Here I thought you'd at least become a civilized creature. My mind remarked, noting that I'd at least grown up unlike the animal I'd become.

Yeah, well I can argue that when I at least know what I was before, if anything. I shot back at my wandering thoughts. Maybe you should go ask Churnabo, you have the Cartographer and the code.

I lifted my head from the stream, fanged muzzle dripping as I paused, then slowly glanced back over my shoulder at the faintly glowing runes that marked the peak of the pyramid. I could make out the stars Churnabo had talked about, they were unaligned but there was no mistaking the symbols in the hodgepodge of other scribbles and glyphs that marred the Cartographer. I glanced back at my blurred reflection in the stream and my wings buzzed. What would I do to know the truth, how far would I go? Had Churnabo only intended to plant a seed of temptation with little care for my real wellbeing or contentment?

From the way she flirts with you, it's hard to say. My mind snickered and I shuddered. She's trying to get into my head, nothing more.

Before I could stand there and cringe too hard, however, my ears perked and picked up on a sound other than the natural melody of the forest.

"Rarity, did you really have to drag that thing all the way out here?" My head shot up along with my erect ears at the somewhat raspy voice, not to mention the name.

That sounds like Rainbow Dash! Also, 'Rarity', it can't be? I heard the sound of wing beats and hoof steps in the distance and instantly homed in on their location. Never let it be said that I'm not sometimes really glad for these equine senses.

"Pfft, yes, dear, one cannot come out here to relax without the proper lounging decor, you don't seriously expect me to lay in the dirt, do you?" came Rarity's unmistakably elegant voice and if I knew Rainbow Dash, I could only assume her eyes rolled at that.

Regardless, I started making my way through the undergrowth in the direction of the pair's voices as they began to grow faint, keeping pace with the sounds as the two argued about overdramatizing things and how Rarity could make Dash look beautiful if she'd just let her.

"No way, Rarity. I let you do my mane once, that was enough!" Dash snapped, the two seeming far more heated then I recalled as I finally saw a break in the trees.

It was just as the sun from the clearing graced my face that I heard another voice I knew explode into existence.

"Ooo, Dashie! You're here and Rarity too! Yay, finally the best sunfall picnic party ever can begin!" For a moment I was terrified it was my face Pinkie Pie was going to materialize inches in front of next as I saw the flash of pink fur dart between the trees.

There was a shocked gasp from Rarity and a chuckle from Dash as I finally poked through the vegetation to see the three of them. True to what my ears told me, the pale fashionista looked about ready to collapse, while Dash hovered right next to Pinkie Pie. It was then that I had to double-take, noticing that Pinkie was not suspended by some crazy Pinkie Pie absurdity as I knew, but by a pair of rapidly beating wings. I blinked as the pink mare darted around her friends like an oversized dragonfly, giggling all the while.

"Dianna, must you always insist on almost giving me a heart attack?" Rarity asked as she sat up and pressed a forehoof to her chest.

Pinkie Pie giggled. "Well, no it's not my intention... Though as long as you keep calling me by my middle name, Rarity." The pink mare hovered down and booped the alabaster unicorn on the muzzle as she frowned.

"Formality is key, dear," Rarity responded with a knowing look and once again I could almost hear Rainbow Dash's eyes roll like stones grinding in their sockets.

Pinkie Pie just continued to giggle. "Oh, you're silly so, Rarity." She flew up and wrapped a hoof around Dash's shoulders, pulling the prismatic pegasus into a hug and nuzzling her neck. "We're all just friends here, silly."

"Just friends, sure," Rainbow Dash added, playfully shoving Pinkie Pie away. "So you going to take us to the rest of the gang or what?"

"What do you think, silly?" Pinkie added, then winked at Rarity. "Oh, and don't worry, I'm sure AJ will come and help you with that, Rarity." She pointed a forehoof at a golden sofa with plush red cushions Rarity was dragging and instantly the unicorn blushed and began to stammer.

Both Rainbow and Pinkie erupted into a fit of giggling as Rarity shot them a death glare, yet the winged pair darted off before she could respond. I simply blinked, ears still tall as I listened to the trio move on.

"What in Equestria was that?" I muttered to myself, looking back at the device on my back once again.

Isn't it obvious, it's like they all said, this is not your home. My mind told me as I considered just what to do. Maybe there's a Twilight and a Starlight here, you could talk to them... At least if they don't hate changelings here.

"Miss Dash, Dianna, how dare you two leave a lady alone in the woods!" Rarity called after the pegasus duo as she marched off after them and I did my best to keep pace yet again.

The more I walked, the more things started to look familiar. A tree I swore I'd passed before, a brook with a layout of boulders that I felt like I'd once hopped across. Even the birds sounded like I knew them, only a little off.

"Hey gang, guess who I found!" Pinkie Pie called from beyond the tree line and once again I found a small spot to peek through the undergrowth, seeing a clearing with three benches that I knew I recognized.

I'd been here for picnics with Flurry and Twilight before, Starlight had tried to teach me foliage manipulation magic here too. Sitting there now were two ponies, however, and at first glance, they were almost unmistakably those I knew. Then came the second glance.

"Why, howdy there ya' two. Dash, Miss Rarity," said a large, orange pony with rugged cowpony hat and wooden collar.

I had to blink several times before it finally sunk in. For all intents and purposes, the pony looked exactly like Applejack, only last I knew she was a mare, not a stallion almost the size of her brother.

From the way Rarity stuttered and swooned at the sight of him, I guess there was more of a reason as to why she'd brought her infamous fainting couch. Yet my confusion was only just beginning. Fluttershy was the next to sit up and smile at the newcomers, her flowing pink mane filled with flowers hiding one green eye and just allowing a horn to poke through.

"Hello girls, glad you could join us. I made tea." The butter-yellow unicorn levitated over a tray of teacups, her soft voice still as I knew it at least.

"Oh, dear, I am famished, thank you so much," Rarity beamed, shooting Rainbow and Pinkie a disapproving look before awkwardly side-stepping Applejack and taking a seat beside Fluttershy.

"You're very welcome, Rarity," the kind unicorn said, before breaking up a piece of bread to feed to a dove she had perched on the tip of her horn.

"Hey, can I have some?" came a gruff, feminine voice, and each pony looked as a small, purple-feathered griffin poked out from a wicker picnic basket.

"Oh, of course you can, Ginny. You want green tea or mint?" Fluttershy asked, and the griffin shrugged.

"Ehh, I'd rather just have one of the scones." The mention of food made my stomach ache even more, yet with no clear sign that I would not be attacked, making a move to where they could see me was not on the top of my to-do list.

"Hey, Little G, how's it going!" Rainbow declared as she hovered down and hoof bumped the small griffin. "Those flying lessons coming along, I take it?"

"Well, duh, I can be the best flyer in all of Equestria! Though, are you sure you can't teach me? Sunny's kinda... Well, Sunny," Ginny responded, and for a moment Dash looked unsure.

"Aww, I wish I could, squirt. But weather duty is really kicking my flank."

"Miss Dash, language in front of the little ones!" Rarity snidely snapped, only for Dash to frown.

"The lady's right, Dash. Mind ya' mouth," Applejack added in support, and Rarity looked like she was about to melt like an overcooked marshmallow.

"Pfft, whatever. She'd have heard far worse if she'd been around more griffins," Dash responded, forcing Ginny to try and hide a wince. "But seriously, where's Sunny, I'll have a word with her for you, squirt."

"Well, she's back in the library, she said..." Before the little griffin could finish there was a swirling wind and a spark of magic between the group.

The small flare bloomed into a sphere of bright orange, before blasting outwards with enough force to knock each of them back.

"Oh, sorry I'm late everypony, I just had to finish clearing up before the celebration tomorrow and..." The bright orange mare with dark red and orange highlighted mane flashed into existence and started to stammer, only to trail off and wince. "Oh, by Luna, sorry! I was aiming for the edge of the park."

What I clearly made out was that the mare with the odd sun blaze cutie mark and cyan eyes was not Twilight. I had to double-take again, because if this was not Twilight, then who else in the world was an alicorn princess?

"Sunset, dear, quite the dramatic entrance," Rarity was the first to address the fiery mare, first dropping into a bow before smiling up at the alicorn. "Though rather fitting for the new princess role, I have to say."

The fiery princess, Sunset, I guessed, winced at the mare bowing before her, rubbing the back of her neck with a forehoof.

Funny, Twilight talked about a pony like that once. Something about a mirror... I could not get the loose thoughts together, even if there was a small hint of recognition.

"Well, you'd be surprised how much difference there is between alicorn and unicorn magic." Sunset gave a nervous chuckle. "But you really don't need to go along with all that formal stuff, it's still me."

"Nonsense, dear. Princess Luna gave you your station for a reason, you should be addressed with the proper respect," Rarity insisted, standing back up as Sunset manufactured an awkward smile.

"Wha ah think she's tryin' ta say Rares, is that we're all still tha same ponies here," Applejack added, earning a series of nods and some unsure murmers from the rest of them.

"Exactly, Applejack... Urg, by Luna, you have no idea how long I've been waiting for somepony to just come out and say that!" Sunset exclaimed, jabbing a hoof at the orange stallion.

"Meh, you're still the same old Sunny to me," Ginny admitted with a shrug as she pecked at one of the scones she'd retrieved from the basket.

Sunset giggled. "And that's why you're my number one little helper. Takes more than a crown to make you see differently." She nuzzled the little griffin and Ginny huffed.

"Okay, okay, I get it... No more lovey dove stuff." No matter how much of a grumpy look the griffin was putting on, I could feel her love from here.

It was an odd sensation, and only then that I noticed it. I'd grown up around Twilight and her friends, felt their feelings towards each other and here that was nowhere near as strong. It did not even satisfy my aching hunger, not to mention that I could see no trace of either of the ponies I needed most.

What is Twilight here, where is she? What about Starlight? I could not help but imagine the two mare's that had raised me as something else, griffins, earth ponies or even dragons. Just calm down and think. Starlight and Twilight would be good for sure, but right now you need Flurry and Cicada.

"Well, I for one think the wings are awesome. The rest of it kinda stinks. Kinda like Luna wants you to be the new Celestia or something," Rainbow Dash declared, earning a series of gasps.

"Miss Dash, what is the rule about that name!" Rarity scolded as the others muttered among themselves.

"What, just because we're not supposed to talk about it does not mean it's not real. Besides, it wasn't really Celestia that did all the bad stuff it was..."

"Okay, okay, Dash, please just stop. I've had enough without being compared to a power-hungry maniac," Sunset cut off, waving a forehoof at the cyan pegasus.

"Awww, don't be silly, Sunny. You don't seriously believe that anypony here believes your even capable of doing something like that?" Pinkie interrupted, flying down to give the alicorn a hug.

"She's right ya' know. Ya' may have sun in your name but that don't make ya' tha same," Applejack added, with a nod from Fluttershy.

I sat down in the cool shade of a tree, back pressed against the trunk. My head surged with possibilities, I'd seen my friends, they were so similar and yet so different. No matter what Chrysalis had told me it was still disorientating, like I'd been thrown into foaming rapids and spat out somewhere utterly alien. There was an odd reflection of the day I'd appeared on Twilight's table, so displaced and abnormal.

If there was no Twilight here, then who was there? No Starlight, then who was she here? There had to be alternative versions like Chrysalis had said, the only thing there could not be, if she was right, was another me or another Cicada. Was there another Flurry here, if there was then was Twilight still her aunt, what about her parents, was her mother still alive? The possibilities continued to spin no matter how I'd come to expect them.

Then one of the alternate ponies said something that caught my attention. "Of course, everything with Grogar's defeat and the whole Changeling negotiations. Urg, life's a pain right now."

That sounded like Sunset, what was that about Changeling negotiations? Did that mean I was safe here, could I go up and ask for help? Maybe this is a world where the war never happened, do they have a Chrysalis, a Scolopendra?

I stood up and brushed myself off, gingerly hiding the cartographer under one of my wings. Not quite the same as feathers, but the metal was dull enough to be almost hidden against my dark chitin.

I could really do with shapeshifting. I thought stubbornly, yet every attempt I made was met with a flicker and a puff of smoke from my horn. Magic's not quite the same when Chrysalis is not there to back it up, ironic.

The thought stung as I envied the moment I'd been able to summon a magical attack from my horn. Still, honesty was the next best policy, maybe if I went to them like this it would be a better first impression. That in mind I took a step forward and shoved one of the bushes aside. That was the moment I was tackled.

"Oh, by the hive, there you are! What in the great cocoon's name are you doing!" I'd never been so glad and so petrified at the same time as my heart pounded and I stared into Cicada's wide, lavender eyes.

"I... I... I woke up and I couldn't find you, then I found..." She pressed a forehoof to my mouth to silence me as she adopted the form of a grape purple mare with darker mane and green eyes, before poking the cartographer as if to confirm it was still real.

"Shush! If you'd listen to them you'd know why it's a bad idea for us to be here looking like ourselves," she told me, nodding to the clearing as Rarity spoke up.

"Oh, my dear, I can't even begin to imagine what yourself and Luna must go through talking with those fiends. I'm shocked the princess even considerers peace an option." I gulped, very glad the changeling had stopped me when she did.

Getting killed by my family because they think I'm a monster, literally my worst nightmare.

"Urg, the Jump may have thrown us a little off, but we're lucky we're close. Have you seen your alicorn friend?" she asked urgently, and I felt a shudder of panic jolt through me.

"Flurry? No, I thought she was with you?" Immediately my mind jumped to the conclusion that I'd sent my friend to some Celestia forsaken realm of sand and dust alone while we were stuck here.

"Damn it, no. If only I'd had more time to plot the coordinates," Cicada exclaimed, stomping a hoof and stepping off me. "It must have defaulted to here somehow."

"Wait, what? So where is she? We can find her, right?" I asked, jumping to my hooves and praying I'd not sent Flurry to some underwater dimension or another place devoid of life.

"She has to be here, we're just scattered around this universe's hard point, so she has to be close," she elaborated. "I can only find you so easily because we're both changelings. There's somewhat of a connection if you know how to feel it."

I had no idea how I felt about that latter part, but as I shook my head I didn't care. "Wait, you said a hard point was like Twilight's table right?"

"If that's what you call it where you're from then yeah I..." she trailed off. "Y–you mean the cutie map. How... How do I remember that?"

She pressed a forehoof to her head, swaying a little as I looked around. I could still hear the group of friends talking, so assuming we were as of yet undiscovered I spoke up.

"But if that is it then I know where it should be, right in the middle of Ponyville." She shook her head free of her stupor, then nodded.

Then I winced and added. "And then there's me... If they want to kill me I can't go around looking like this and well... I can't shapeshift." I hated the green glow and heat in my cheeks.

"You what? Seriously?" Cicada deadpanned as she marched over to me and pressed a hoof to my shoulder.

There was a green flash between us and just like that I had strands of dull blue mane hanging in my eyes and a pair of feathery wings. Then I looked back over myself and saw that I was no longer myself, I wasn't even male.

"W–what did you do... I... I... I'm a mare!" I exclaimed my voice now soft, almost like Fluttershy's. "I've only managed to shapeshift once, into an earth pony!"

"It's second-hoof changefire, beggars can't be choosers," Cicada told me simply, jabbing a forehoof at my shoulder. "You'll get all your... Assets back when we're done, but right now you're my best friend Digit the weather pony, okay?"

"I... I..." I looked back at my own tail, wiggling my rear and ruffling my wings. "Fine," I finally snorted through clenched teeth.

"Good because we're going to have to find your friend before..." Cicada was cut off as there was a magical buzz from the clearing, then a puff and a pop, followed by a gasp.

We looked at each other, then peered out into the clearing to see Sunset's horn was glowing as she levitated a scroll in her magic.

"By Luna," the orange mare muttered as each of her friends strained to peer in.

"Oh, oh, what is it, Sunny, something exciting?" Pinkie beamed, bobbing in the air like a pink balloon.

"We have to get back to town, now." Sunset looked up from the scroll. "My royal guard think they found another alicorn."

"Hey, who in the great egg's name are you two!?" Before I or seemingly Cicada could even process what Sunset had said, a gruff voice called out from behind us.

We both turned and only then did I realize that of all the ponies I'd seen peering in at Sunset's note, the little griffin Ginny had not been one of them.

Chapter 12: Unfamiliar Territory

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I stood in stunned silence for a moment, the narrowed eyes of little griffin like daggers. I was suddenly very glad that Cicada had managed to change me when she did, no matter what I felt about the disguise she'd trapped me in. Turns out that having her hide me as the pegasus mare was not the only thing I had to thank the far more experienced changeling for, however, as she cleared her throat and spoke up.

"Oh, hey there, little one." She trotted towards Ginny with a kind smile.

If I had not known any better, I'd have no doubt she was a real pony. "My name's Grape Vine, this is Digit."

She directed a forehoof at me, and I awkwardly waved back, murmuring. "Hey there."

Ginny's beak worked silently, her face contorted into a whole manner of unsure expressions as she looked between us. Meanwhile, Cicada, or more accurately, Grape Vine, maintained her perfect ruse.

"We're new weather ponies from Hoofington, just transferred and well... we kinda got lost." The way she lied, right down to her expression, gave me chills.

My instincts longed for me to be able to do that so well, while my morals were really not sure what to make of the deceit. Twilight never brought me up to be like that... no matter if it's natural for changelings.

"Really, I don't remember Dash saying anything about new weather ponies on the team," the griffin retorted, lifting a talon to her beak.

I felt my new coat begin to crawl, ears folding as my feathery wings ruffled nervously. She's going to figure us out, she's far too suspicious!

Yet as I panicked, Cicada was cool as ice, and on top of the situation like a master. Her stature shifted, her expression mimicking one of admiration as she smirked at the little griffin.

"Wow, in the know are you? Quite the observant one," she commented, and Ginny's downy chest puffed up as she responded.

"That's right, I'm Princess Sunset's number one little helper, and I know everything that goes on in Ponyville."

Grape Vine chuckled, a forehoof lightly pressed to her muzzle. "Oh, well in that case then I guess I'll have to tell you why we're really here."

Ginny perked as if she'd expected nothing less, meanwhile I stared at Cicada uncertainly. She's not seriously going to tell her why we're here, is she?

"It's a secret drop in weather inspection. No prompts, no forward information, just get in and review the situation as it is. So your friend wouldn't know," she finally announced, and I felt a breath of relief escape my throat.

"So it would be better if you make sure it stays that way for us, please," she added, but Ginny frowned.

"What, so I can't tell Dash? But she's super awesome, if she knows you're coming she could have them work really hard..." My companion raised a forehoof to cut the griffin off.

"That kinda ruins the whole idea of it being an honest review. Let's just see how awesome your friend is without even knowing she has to be, okay?" Ginny's face scrunched, but she huffed and nodded.

"Fine, I guess, but she won't let you down, I can tell you that for sure," she insisted, glancing back at the bushes between us and the clearing. "I guess you're going to want to know the way to town, huh?"

"It would be very helpful, yes," Cicada confirmed, glancing back at me with a wink. "Plus, directions to where we can get something to eat too, we're both pretty weary from the flight over here."

Ginny shrugged and looked between us once again as she added. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. You can't all be as good at flying as me and Dash."

I just want to be able to fly, full stop, don't care how fast or whether I can do dumb flips, I mentally huffed.

Meanwhile, Cicada giggled, forehoof still on her muzzle as Ginny added.

"You'll want Sugarpop Corner, it's in the middle of town. Come on, I'll show you." She turned and started to make her way back into the bushes.

Cicada glanced back at me, and as the tension left me, I could not help but say something. "You handled that well."

"Well, pretending is what we do," she offered with another wink as she moved after Ginny and prompted me to follow with a wing.

Before either the griffin, or any of us, could make our way out into the clearing, however, there was a heavy rustling in the bushes and a wall of orange fur emerged to block our path.

"By Luna, there ya' are, Ginny, Sunset was so worried 'bout ya' just then an..." Applejack materialized from the undergrowth like a giant, peering down at the far smaller griffin before noticing us.

The way I had to crane my neck to look up and try to not wilt away at the imposing sight of a pony so tall reminded me of the first time I'd met Celestia and Luna. Yet from the stunned look on Applejack's face, I could only assume the feeling of surprise was mutual.

"Oh, hello there. You must be Applejack, right?" Cicada suddenly introduced, and the large farm pony blinked.

"Ah... Sure am. But beggin' ya' pardon, miss, how do ya' know mah name?" Applejack rumbled and Cicada chuckled.

"Oh, what decent pony's not heard of your apple business before? I've heard all about your trade where I come from," she improvised.

"They're from Hoofington, AJ. Here to see Dash and the weather team, got lost in the forest," Ginny elaborated as she took a position next to the towering earth pony.

For his part, Applejack blushed, taking his hat off his head with a forehoof to wipe his brow.

"Well, shucks. Ah never did think word got that far 'bout me. The farm, sure, but it's not just me puttin' in the hard work. Got mah sisters too."

"Oh, don't be so modest. I know there's no I in team, sure, trust me I'm a weather pony, I understand. But a strong stallion like yourself has to take some credit." For a second it was hard not to see Cicada as Rarity as she practically swooned the stallion.

But he's a guy... Kinda one of your best friends, only a stallion and she's what, my sister... Or not? My head spun so much it hurt, and I had to fight not to gag.

"Hah, y'all are startin' ta sound like somepony ah know there," Applejack commented as Ginny mocked a gag beside her.

"Thanks fer the kind words though, miss. Ah'm guessin' y'all are after a way inta town? Ah know these woods can get pretty hard to navigate fer newcomers."

"Oh, that would be greatly appreciated, thank you," Cicada responded, before taking a step back and wrapping a wing over my back, pulling me into the most awkward hug I'd ever been exposed to.

Years of getting snagged by Flurry, and this is what makes me cringe the most? The thoughts boggled me as I manufactured a smile to keep in line with Cicada's act.

"You can call me Grape Vine by the way, and this is Digit. Pleased to meet you." I forced another awkward wave and Applejack nodded.

"They're hungry too, AJ. Wanna stop at Sugarpop Corner?" Ginny asked, bouncing on the spot as Applejack chuckled.

"We'll have to see, little one. Sunny and tha girls had ta rush back, ah stayed ta make sure ya didn't wander off." Ginny went from bouncing to slouching with a huff.

"I don't wander, I explore," she stated flatly, but Applejack's chuckle did not cease.

"Ya almost scare Sunset half ta death, now come on, we gotta get back ta town, somethin's come up."

"Oh my, really? I do hope it's nothing serious?" Cicada interrupted and Applejack shrugged.

"Nothin' that's goin' ta interfere with yer day, miss... Ah... ah mean, Grape Vine, ah'm sure," Applejack assured as he picked Ginny up onto his back and began to trot back to town.

Oh Celestia, even his hoof steps sound like a giant's! I thought to myself as Cicada nudged my wing, specifically where I was still hiding the cartographer.

"Keep it safe, keep it hidden. We'll get her back, just let me do the talking," she instructed.

I chuckled and added, "Are you kidding, after that, I'm going to just let you talk your way out of every situation." She just rolled her eyes and trotted on, with me close behind her.


Ponyville was where I'd lived all my life, where I grew up, where I'd made friends, attended school. This place was not my home. It was almost identical, but it was not the same, and that did not help my confused thoughts one bit. Just like in the forest, it was the little things. Yet here where things were so familiar before, the differences were far more noticeable. Ponies that I thought I recognized, only to look again and see stallions where there should have been mares, or green coats instead of red. Inkwells and Couches owned and run by Ms. Divan, Antique Boutique, Sugarpop Corner, they were all so off. Ponies I knew as foals were elderly, fillies and colts I'd gone to school with were either fully grown or younger then I recalled.

Even the emotion felt different, and while I did my best not to sap at the feelings of strangers, only prolonging my hunger, it was pretty clear that things were not so flamboyant here as they were back home.

Looking past the inhabitants, I noted that houses were blue or green instead of pink or cream, the clock tower almost looked backward, time ticking by in the opposite direction I was used to. Where I knew there should be a well, there was instead a statue of a rearing princess Luna, all of which was decorated with blue banners and streamers depicting a solar eclipse. 'Happy Sunfall Celebration' proclaimed a banner overhead as two stallions looked curiously at a smaller banner awkwardly reading 'Welcome Princess Lu...'

Sunfall Celebration? What in Equestria happened here to make things so different? I wondered, noting the fact I'd seen no reference to Celestia anywhere, only her younger sister.

It wasn't until I received a subtle nudge in the side from Cicada that I broke free of my perplexed stupor, however.

"Hey, watch it, these things are sensitive," I muttered, rustling my wing, and she rolled her eyes.

"You'll get used to it. Anyway, when you activated the cartographer, what were you thinking of?" she questioned.

I didn't need to think too hard to remember what had been going through my head in that intense moment atop the cliff.

"I was thinking of home, why?" I told her, and she seemed to consider that for a moment before responding.

"Figured, so Chrysalis was right when she considered that may have something to do with how it works," she said, more to herself than me it seemed.

I took one look around and raised an eyebrow. "Hardly, this place only looks like home on the surface," I told her.

"It has to pick from infinite realities, the thing may have blurred all of our thoughts between us. I know this is nothing like my home, so what do you think Flurry was thinking?" she inquired, but I shrugged.

"Probably how dumb I was acting, she doesn't trust you, she obviously doesn't trust Chrysalis," I told her.

"Well, yeah, obviously. Not like she tried to call me out as the queen twice," she responded, then tapped a forehoof to her chin. "Though if it says one thing, it may not be as hard for Chrysalis to track us down again as I thought."

At that, I almost landed face first in the dust as my legs turned to jelly. "W–what... She can find us again?"

"If she figures out that her theory was correct it could narrow down where we ended up. Plus, she used her magic so Chunrabo's gonna force her to make a move," she informed me and I wondered how desperate the queen had been to stop us to go that far.

"Just all the more reason to find your friend and get out of here," Cicada went on, and any semblance of calm I had from being in a place that at least kinda looked like home disintegrated.

Great, queen crazy can come after me even here. If I can't hide in a completely different universe then where can I hide? I considered just how far I could go to be safe, before recalling. Then again, wasn't I just hidden in another universe to begin with?

The idea of how I'd ended up in the version of Equestria in which I'd grown up boggled my mind, not to mention the phantom of an idea that I may have not even been a changeling before-hoof. I'd have to ask Cicada about it more when we were all safe, but if it was possible for the queen to find us before we could get home, finding Flurry was all I wanted.

"You two mumble a lot, you know that, right?" Ginny said, and I looked forward to see her resting lazily on Applejack's haunches, head slumped on a claw as she watched us.

Ugh, why does it feel like every time somepony here talks to me they're going to find out the truth! I internally cried, as Cicada once again answered the curious young griffin.

"Sorry, just not used to having an escort, we're kinda supposed to make our time here as unobtrusive as possible for the best results," she assured, beaming that happy, perfectly convincing smile once again.

The sweetness seemed to make Ginny gag, and even I could feel her sense of distaste for the whole idea. It was pretty clear she wanted to warn her apparent idol of the oncoming inspection, even if she had no idea was just a facade.

"Well, y'all won't have ta worry ta much 'bout drawin' too much attention anymore, here ya' are," Applejack swiftly chimed in as she stopped before what I recognized as Sugarcube Corner from my own universe.

Aside from the change in name, the establishment looked relatively similar, only with blue walls and doors, instead of the usual pink and cream.

"Ah take it y'all will be okay findin' yer way now, because me and the little one here gotta get ta Sunset's castle mighty quick," the larger earth pony added and the little griffin on his back huffed.

"Sure, let the secret weather ponies stay for a treat... Why am I always the one dragged to where all the boring stuff's going on?" she grumbled.

"Now, now, Ginny, ah'm sure Sunset will be happy ta bring ya back here when she's done with all her royal princess stuff," Applejack assured the young griffin as Cicada spoke up.

"Oh, thank you, you have no idea how helpful you've been." She offered the stallion a nod of appreciation, before addressing Ginny. "You too, I sure can't wait to see just how awesome this Rainbow Dash of yours is."

Ginny's chest puffed up once again as she boasted. "Like I said, she's the best, no way will you be disappointed!"

Meanwhile, Applejack let out a hearty chuckle. "Oh, ah'm sure. Y'all are welcome, the both of ya. Ah'd offer ya' a trip round to the farm when y'all are done with Rainbow, but... well, friendship duty n' all," the farm pony added.

"Oh, we'd never dream of getting in the way. But don't let us keep you, I'm sure whatever you have to deal with is very important," Cicada responded, vigorously shaking hooves with the orange stallion before Applejack uttered one last goodbye and trotted off with a very bored looking Ginny on his back.

Cicada drew back her foreleg as I spoke up. "Almost took your leg off with that shake, huh? Still kinda the Applejack I'm used to."

Yeah, because anything that makes this place feel even a little like home is better than wherever else we could have ended up. I thought as Cicada snorted at me.

"Well, mister know it all, if you know the way to this castle, now's the time," she asked, jabbing a forehoof at me.

"Sure I do, but what are we supposed to do, just break in and steal an alicorn from them?" I asked, but she gave me an odd look.

"We're changelings, infiltration is our thing. We still have the cartographer, provided it's charged again it should not be too hard to teleport out," she pointed out, and my muzzle wrinkled with uncertainty.

Lifting my wing I inspected the metallic pyramid nestled under my feathers, its runic marking starting to glow brighter. I once again tried to ignore the blatant code Churnabo had given me.

"And how long does that take? Because you can be the one to make sure this thing works the next time," I responded.

"A few hours, if what Chrysalis knew about it was right, so we sneak in, grab Flurry, and jump out again," she elaborated as if it'd be the most simple thing in the world.

"Yeah, well this time hopefully we'll end up in my real home, the sooner we get this thing to Twilight, the better," I retorted.

"I told you I'll get you both home, don't worry," she assured, before lifting a forehoof to her chin.

"We'll have to give it some time though, that griffin sees anything out of the ordinary near the castle she'll be suspicious," she went on.

"You're telling me, every time she looked my way it made my mane crawl," I told her, running a hoof through the hair between my ears. "Still not used to it being so fluffy."

At that, there was another growl from my stomach, and pressing a forehoof to it, I added. "Hunger's still the same no matter where I go, though. You said we needed food too?"

Cicada blinked at me, then raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, and we are where the food is? There's so much love and companionship here, how in the great hive's name are you hungry?" she grumbled, then looked to the food establishment we'd been left outside as I winced.

"What, you expect me to just drink emotions from them like some parasite?" The idea made the words taste foul in my mouth. "I don't even know their names."

"I expect you to know how to keep yourself alive. No pony would notice if you just take enough to make sure you don't starve. So you're doing it for what, decency?" she huffed, and the flare of irritation coming off of her was hard to ignore.

"Raised by ponies, remember? And for your information, yes, it's out of respect," I insisted, sitting down and crossing my forelegs. "I lived perfectly fine off of real food back home... Even if it was not what the others ate."

"Yeah, I can tell, no wonder all your changeling traits are stunted," she grumbled, then reached out and pressed a forehoof to my chest.

Given the last time she'd done such a thing I'd ended up in an utterly alien body, I flinched. "Just hold still, I can pass on some of the love I've stored if you're really so hung up on feeding naturally."

I glanced back at her eyes as a warm feeling emanated from her forehoof, instantly chasing away my hunger and seeming to drain her a little.

"Unless you're too righteous to accept help from your own kind too," she went on as she looked back.

Despite myself, years of hoping that I'd at least meet another changeling, let alone end up stuck with one, allowing me to set my nobility aside.

"Thanks," I muttered appreciatively.

"Yeah well, don't get used to it. I'll teach your dumb hide how to feed properly before I siphon you love all the time," she stated, withdrawing her hoof and turning away. "Okay, now to the matter at hoof."

I winced at her words. She really thinks I'm dumb?

I tried to shake it off as stress, yet I could not help but feel I was a disappointment.

If she really had waited all her life for me... Probably not what she was hoping for... Not that I really feel like anyone hoped for me.

I held the cartographer close under my wing as I struggled to shake the thoughts. At least I have this, getting this somewhere safe has to be worth something. I thought boldly, very aware of what could happen if I failed.


"I–I was sure there was a way in here. We used to use it all the time when we were foals!" I insisted as the pair of us stared at the blazing orange wall of crystal.

The realization that the castle I'd grown up in may be so different here had hit me far too late. So by the time we'd made our way to the monolithic icon of amber crystal and golden spires, I could have only hoped every entrance was in the same place as I remembered. Ultimately, only the main entrance doors seemed to be identical to my world, and I was left stammering as Cicada looked the castle wall up and down.

"Well, we can't just walk in the front door without those guards getting suspicious, so any other ideas?" she asked, walking over and tapping at the walls as if to crack it like a safe.

With the guards we'd seen stationed at the castle's main entrance, unlike back home, it was pretty clear that getting in was going to be difficult no matter what I came up with. Cicada had already shot down my idea of using the Cartographer to teleport inside. Stating that, when it had literally infinite possibilities to work with, it was hardly ever so accurate.

Come on, Digit, you've lived here for years... Or somewhere like here... Ugh. The idea still hurt my head as I tapped my skull with a forehoof. There's gotta be a way in, think of all the times you played hide and seek, all the little passageways Spike used, or the ones Rainbow used to prank Twilight.

Finally, something came to mind and my head perked along with my ears. Hmmm, I wonder, are they even going to be the same here?

I glanced around, double-checking for anypony that might catch us snooping around the castle before calling to Cicada.

"Hey, can you give me a boost up to one of the windows, I have an idea that might work?" She glanced back at me, opened a wing and rolled her eyes.

"I get time and I'm teaching you how to use your wings and magic if it kills me," she huffed as she marched back over and wrapped her forelegs under mine. "Did those ponies really teach you anything?"

"They taught me enough. It's not their fault I had a crazy zebra messing around with my thoughts my whole life," I reasoned as she beat her wings and slowly lifted me up.

The sensation of my hooves leaving the ground again was an odd one, and I had to fight not to let my mind go back to the memory of plummeting off the cliff before Chrysalis' fire toasted us. Before I knew it, I had to catch the cartographer in my forehooves as my own feathery wings tried to flap, much to Cicada's irritation as she snorted the things out of her face.

"Sure because all Churnabo wanted to do was stop you from flying and using spells, like she really has anything to worry about if you could," she responded as she set me down on a thin ledge before one of the tall windows.

I peered through the glass, seeing a crystal corridor lined with doors, identical to my home save for the fiery colored rock from which it was made, and the sunny cutie mark adorning the hanging tapestries.

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, looking back at my companion as I wobbled.

She hovered forward to steady me on the narrow ledge as my wings once again floundered instinctively.

"I mean Churnabo may as well be a god if she gets hold of the cartographer, so if you have a plan to get in here so we can leave, now's the time," she insisted, and I tapped the window frame.

"Okay, it looks like they're built the same, I just need something long and thin. Flurry and I always used a twig but... Ouch!" there was a sudden, sharp pain in my wing and I looked to see Cicada had plucked out one of my pinion feathers.

I pressed the soft limb to my side, glaring at the other disguised changeling. "Hey, how am I ever supposed to learn how to fly without those?"

"You're not really a pegasus bug-brain, you'll get them back when you transform again," she assured, before spitting the feather to me. "Now, you were going to get us in?"

Rubbing my stinging wing with a forehoof, I took the feather in my mouth and set to work slotting it between the two panels. Usually, something so precise would be Flurry's job with her magic, yet as I ran the feather up and down I finally felt it catch.

"Gotcha," I muttered around the thing in my mouth as I felt it bend, giving a little before there was a click and the latch beyond the glass slid open.

Despite myself, a little voice in my head cheered as I spat out the feather and rested a forehoof against the open panel. "There, open, not so useless after..."

The window swung open and I fell through before I could say another word. A shrill, all too mare-like shriek left my muzzle as I plummeted towards a set of armor, closing my eyes in panic. Forehooves over my face, the cartographer clattered to the floor as I clumsily flapped my wings. The feathery limbs caught the air, an odd, magical sensation similar to how I'd been levitated around as a foal forming under them. I suddenly felt light, and further from the floor. Seconds later, the sensation of my hooves on soft carpet allowed me to open my eyes. That was when I stumbled flat on my face in the worst landing imaginable.

D–did I just fly... Like really fly? I thought with a groan, pressing a forehoof to my snout as I glanced back at one of my outstretched wings.

"Digit, oh goodness are you..." Cicada was down at my side in a flash, resting a forehoof on my back before cutting herself off. "Y–you... You're okay, good."

Lifting my head and shaking off the little ponies dancing in my blurred vision, I scooped up the cartographer and looked at her. "I–I think I just flew."

"Yeah well, there's also the part about sticking the landing," she told me, a hint of a chuckle in her voice.

What's that... Pride, I think that's pride coming from her? I cocked my head in confusion, yet her eyes went wide and before I knew it I was yanked behind one of the armor stands.

"What is it... Did anypony see us?" I muttered, but she pressed a forehoof to my muzzle, ears standing tall.

I tried to peek around the suit of armor to see what had alarmed her, yet before I could, my ears also picked up on the sound of voices echoing down the halls.

"Seriously, how does nopony here recognize me? There are only five alicorns in existence for Celestia's sake!"

That's Flurry! My mind raced, yet as I attempted to get up and run to her, Cicada held me back, silently shaking her head.

"Damn it, what did I tell you about using that name?" responded the raspy voice of Rainbow Dash. "Why do I always get saddled with the best jobs, the day before the celebration too, for Luna's sake!"

There was a snort from whom I could only assume was Flurry before she responded. "Seriously, Rainbow, I'm all for a good prank, but this is seriously taking things too far!"

"Ha, if this is a prank then Pinkie's seriously outdone herself. Now, just stay quiet and I'm sure Sunset will sort everything out for you," the brash pegasus responded as the voices drew closer and the pair of them passed our hiding spot.

I peeked up as Rainbow passed first, a golden helmet atop her head, Flurry was next, golden band around her horn in addition to a pair of magical shackles around her forehooves and wings. There were two guards either side of her, each of them clad in midnight blue armor.

I had to look twice before realizing they were bat ponies. Lunar guards, here in Ponyville, what in Equestria goes on in this place?

None of the group noticed us as they passed and Cicada finally let me slump back out into the hall.

"How did they not recognize her? I thought there was no alternative version of you or me, but they have to have their own Flurry Heart?" I asked, waving a forehoof in the direction they'd vanished.

Cicada shrugged. "They will, but she could be different, maybe not even born yet," she told me.

"We gotta get after her before they do something stupid," I said, glancing up at one of the banners above, this one with a crescent moon and the sunburst cutie mark I'd seen on Sunset's flank.

Even if there's no Twilight here, where are the other two alicorn cutie marks? I wondered as I heard the sound of armored hoof steps again.

Cicada pulled me back into cover before I knew it, and with another green flash the pair of us became perfect imitations of the two guards I'd seen with Flurry. I took one look over myself and frowned to find I was still not my regular male self, yet Cicada was not about to give me time to complain.

“Put this on,” she ordered, shoving part of the armor from the stand into my forehooves before finding some for herself.

"Now, time to go, come on," the disguised thestral bundled me along before another set of guards rounded the corner behind us.

The next few minutes spent darting around the castle and peeking around corners while dodging guard patrols reminded me all too much of the time I'd first appeared in the castle years ago. Only this time I did not think they'd be so welcoming if they found us and the added weight of the armor made it even harder to stay hidden. Even so, the layout was mostly the same, and no matter how confusing the change in decoration made it, only a few accidental stumbles into broom closets later, we were standing across from the main chamber. I felt the cartographer buzz under my newly leathery wing, as if it were somehow calling to the map within the center of the castle.

Squinting, my nocturnal eyes could just about make out the table bearing the projected image of Equestria through a small crack in between the ajar doors. I could see ponies moving too and swore I caught sight of Applejack and Rarity, as well as Rainbow Dash hovering above. One nod from Cicada and the pair of us were creeping towards the door, voices reaching my perked ears as we drew up beside it.

"Of course, I know who you are, you're Sunset Shimmer," Flurry began, only to be cut off by a snort.

"Hey, that's Princess Sunset Shimmer to you!" Rainbow snapped, before the more reasonable voice of the fiery maned princess cut in.

"Rainbow what have I told you?" There was an awkward silence, followed by a weary sigh. "Well, seeing as you are aware of who I am, why is it again that you think we should recognize you?"

It was Flurry's turn to give an indignant snort. "Is this seriously a joke, where's Auntie Twilight, did she go through that mirror and have you stand-in for her or something?"

There was another silence, and through the ajar door I caught Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy exchanging confused glances.

"I'm sorry, I don't know about any pony called... Twilight, or this mirror? Care to elaborate?" Sunset asked.

"Twilight Sparkle, princess of friendship, my aunt, really? You were all her best friends, how do none of you remember her?" The perplexed tension was almost unbearable, and I sensed a crack in Flurry's voice.

Family is the last thing she has to lose? Oh, how can I let her think they all forgot about her? I cursed myself, chest aching as Cicada once again had to keep me from doing something stupid.

"I'm sorry, but that can't be true, I'm the Princess of Friendship, dictated by Luna herself," Sunset informed her as I pulled away from Cicada and moved to the door.

"Digit, get back here," she hissed through gritted fangs, but through the crack in the door, I now saw Flurry atop the table, standing before the very much larger and elevated throne of Sunset Shimmer.

"But... no, that's not right. What about Princess Celestia?" At Flurry's mention of the name, there were a series of gasps and mutters.

Rarity looked about to faint and Sunset winced. "W–we... we don't say that name here, please stop using it."

Flurry cocked her head. "Okay then, how about Princess Cadance of the Crystal Empire? She is... was my mother," my friend pressed and that gave every mare in the room pause.

Each of them looked up at Sunset, and the fiery mane mare blinked. "Queen Cadance... But... she doesn't have a... you can't..."

"Well, do you know her or not?" Flurry pressed, and Sunset seemed to take a deep breath before collecting herself.

"Yes, I've known her since I was a filly... But she's never had a foal, I can assure you," the orange princess declared.

I felt the feeling drain from most of my limbs as Flurry perked up. No, no, if that's true then...

"Y–you mean she's alive, Princess Cadance is alive?" the younger alicorn asked, and Sunset nodded as if such a thing were nothing of consequence.

All the while my thoughts came to one conclusion. Oh, this is really going to complicate matters.

Chapter 13: Changeling Instincts

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Sunset appeared to fidget in her throne uncomfortably at the idea one of her fellow princesses would be harmed, let alone dead. "Yes, she's alive and well, ruler of the prospering Crystal Empire and northern kingdoms, why would she be otherwise?"

The sense of unease that I could sense permeating the room like a heavy cloud shifted to more of a kind of spiny suspicion, all eyes were piercing Flurry far more closely in search for any cracks in her seeming obliviousness, as if expecting her to suddenly lash out and cackle some kind of evil plan to take over. Yet I could only assume my friend had some grasp on the situation, she'd made no effort to harm any of them, or suggest where she really came from. The whole thing really forced me to wonder what exactly was in this weird, twisted realty's past to cause these feelings of distrust.

No matter what she'd figured out about where we'd ended up, however, right now Flurry seemed lost for words as she glanced around, eyes passing from puzzled face to puzzled face as she ruffled her wings and fidgeted.

By Celestia, this is all my fault. How could I bring her here? I inwardly cursed, fully aware of the impact having both of her parents could have on my friend. It's all she's ever wanted, but this is not her world.

"Erm... No–no reason... It's just... well... where I come from..." Flurry stammered, confusion seeming to spread like wildfire among the alternative versions of our friends.

"What do you mean where you come from, where's that exactly," pressed Rainbow Dash as she hovered up from her own smaller throne.

"You gotta admit she's got a point, Sunny. Remember what the last alicorn to just randomly show up did?" Ginny was swift to back up her prismatic idol as she sat perched on the side of Sunset's throne.

"That's right, exactly a year ago on the Sunfall celebration, if I'm right." Rainbow pressed, hovering up toward the princess. "It's too big a coincidence that it's happened again this year, Sunset."

"Now, Dash, what did Sunset say 'bout gettin' all defensive, ah'm sure there's a reasonable explanation fer this," Applejack reasoned, and once again all eyes set upon the fiery maned princess, as the farm-pony went on. "This one ain't exactly threatening a solar war like the last one."

Sunset still looked unsure, biting her bottom lip as she glanced at each of her friends. "While I do understand how suspicious this is, I'm going to have to agree with Applejack," she declared, and Rainbow Dash huffed as the princess went on. "She's not made any hostile motions towards any of us, unlike last time."

"So, Flurry Heart was it?" she asked, getting up to stand on the small platform at the top of the stairs leading to her throne. "We can maybe drop some suspicion, but you'd have me do, what? Because your story is very hard to believe."

"Yes, Flurry Heart, that's me Sun– I mean, Princess Sunset," the younger alicorn responded. "And, if I may... If it's a possibility I... I would very much like to speak to the ruler of the Crystal Empire."

"Ya know, Sunny, if what she's saying has any merit to it, maybe Cadance can shed some light on the situation," Applejack suggested, and I saw Flurry's expression shift at the name.

"Quite so, darling. I think it's pretty clear at least so far that Flurry here does not mean any harm. Is it too unreasonable to set her up with a guarded room here in the castle and plan a trip to the Empire as soon as possible?" Rarity offered, as to her left Pinkie shot up and beamed.

"Ooooo, we can have a super-duper 'new alicorn in Equestria' party!" Safe to say, the alabaster unicorn beside the bouncing, pink pegasus almost leaped out of her skin.

It's at least good to see that no matter where I go, Pinkie is always Pinkie. I thought as Rarity collected herself with a huff.

"S–she's right... I–I'm sure she'll recognize me... Or at least notice me," Flurry perked up, and knowing what I did about the reality we were in, to see her so hopeful shattered my heart.

"Hmm, it would have to wait until after the Sunfall celebration and I'd have to ask Princess Luna about it," Sunset thought, tapping her chin with a forehoof.

"Seriously, Sunset. This could be a changeling infiltration attempt or something!" Rainbow exclaimed.

"Possibly, but a rather poor disguise to pick, don't you think, Miss Dash?" Rarity countered. "Don't you think any infiltrators would be better off as... Oh, I don't know, guards? Or at least somepony less conspicuous?"

At the fashionista's words, a sickening sense of irony poured over me. I glanced down at my furry gray legs, then over at Cicada who was also listening to the conversation intently.

"Okay, okay, you both have good points. We'll do it both ways," Sunset declared, spreading her wings to silence the rest of the room. "Flurry, you are to stay here in the castle, under guard, with both magical and flight restraints on at all times. If Luna approves, we'll see if Cadance can indeed tell us anything about you."

I didn't need to guess who that spark of hope I felt was coming from as Flurry bowed her head and stammered. "T–thank you, Princess."

Wow, I've never seen her so willing to be somepony's prisoner before. I observed before my thoughts added. Yeah, but no pony has given her the opportunity to see her mother again before, have they?

"That settles it then, see, we're gettin' good at this whole council of friendship stuff," Applejack proclaimed as a very unimpressed looking Rainbow hovered back down to take a seat beside him.

"I–I... Well, I think it could do with a little less shouting," Fluttershy chimed in, backed up by a nod from Rarity.

"So is that a yes or a no on the alicorn party?" Pinkie asked, lifting a forehoof like a foal asking a question for the first time in class.

"Maybe later, Pinkie," Sunset responded, stepping down towards Flurry before adding. "And you're welcome, just please, if there's anything more, telling us can only help."

To her credit, I was pretty sure Flurry had failed to mention me, Cicada or even the Queen. That lie seemed to be maintained as she shook her head and apologized to Sunset.

"I'll take your word for it," Sunset responded, before tapping a forehoof on the floor. "Rainbow, how about you make sure she gets to her room."

The prismatic pegasus gave a swift wing salute before darting to the alicorn's side. "Right this way, Flurry."

There was no resistance from my friend as she nodded to Sunset and started to follow after Rainbow Dash.

"Psst, Digit, move." It was only when I heard Cicada hiss at me through clenched fangs that I remembered exactly where I was standing.

I glanced her way to see she'd took up a guard position at the side of the door, and at the sound of approaching hoofsteps, I was swift to do the same. The doors swung open seconds later, and Rainbow stepped out. Flurry was right at her side, head held high and tall ears seeming alert. Her eyes passed over me, and for a moment I could have sworn she knew. Yet neither she nor Rainbow spared us any more than a fleeting glance as they passed by. At least until the beating of small feathered wings heralded Ginny swooping onto the pegasus's back.

"Hey, Squirt, thanks for the backup in there," Rainbow said, and the little griffin puffed up.

"Ha, it was nothing, Dash. You're right, this is really suspicious," she declared, her eyes fixed on Flurry.

It was only a second later that the curious little griffin saw us and cocked her head. "Funny, I don't remember Sunny having guards here."

Oh pony feathers, how long until she figures it out!? I could feel sweat forming on my brow as I waited for Cicada to say something, yet she remained as stoic as a statue.

"Can't be too careful with an alicorn in the castle, huh?" Rainbow added, before looking at Flurry. "No offense, you're just kinda unnerving."

It was pretty clear Flurry didn't quite know what to say as she muttered. "None taken... A lot of things around here are pretty unnerving if you ask me."

The griffin and the pegasus looked at one another, then shrugged before leading my friend off into the halls. Only after they were gone, and I was sure the others were still busy talking in the throne room, did I relax.

"T–that was too close," I declared as a long breath of relief escaped my mouth.

Cicada was still as calm and collected as ever as she peeked around, then moved over to me. "You better get used to it, it's..."

"Our thing, I know I know..." I responded as I calmed my breathing and composed myself. Before asking "So what do we do now?"

"We follow them and get your friend, plan's not changed," she assured, but I winced, very aware that Flurry may not be so eager to leave anymore.

"Maybe we..." I started to say, but Cicada was already marching after the others before I could finish. "Hey, wait!"

I called after her, stumbling as I struggled to catch up to her in the awkward armor. It wasn't until we reached the section where the corridor split that I finally laid a forehoof on her shoulder and said.

"How about you let me talk to her before we do anything, you have no idea what she's gonna think about what they just told her in there." My fellow 'night guard' turned to me, yet where I was expecting a disapproving scowl, her eyes widened again.

I cocked my head. "What..."

"Hey, what are you two doing here?" My ears fell flat to my mane as the voice of the guard behind me rumbled.

The hairs of my newly furry neck standing on end, I stiffly turned my head back to see the cat-like eyes of the armored thestral staring into what felt like my very soul. My mane crawled and my words died in a throat that felt like it was stuffed with cotton as I bit my bottom lip awkwardly.

"Erm... You know... Just guard stuff." For a changeling, I was literally the worst at improvisation in the whole multiverse.

"Just routine guard patrol, sir. The princess requested an upgrade in security whilst the new alicorn is present," Cicada intervened, shoving me aside just as my fangs started to dig painfully into my lips.

The guard's eyes snapped from me to her, narrowing. "Yes, I am aware. Yet I do not recall there being enough soldiers for another extra patrol?"

Oh, they're going to find out the truth and then what, lock us up and throw away the key? I wondered, wings ruffling Ugh, I have the most powerful artifact in existence here and it's useless?

"Wait, you did not hear? There were new orders from Princess Luna only minutes ago, when she was informed of the situation she had extra security teleported here," Cicada insisted and the guard raised a forehoof to his chin.

"Hmm, I was not informed that word got back to Canterlot yet," he responded. "Though reinforcements from the capital would be in line with protocol. Still, why are you here and not at a post?"

He fixed us both with a glare that could break steel, and it was pretty clear that he took his job very seriously. I did my best to stand up straight and presentable, mimicking Cicada as she responded.

"To tell you the truth, we're lost. We were teleported so suddenly and the aim may have been a little off," I could feel sweat under my mane as the guard's eyes passed between us and he huffed.

"Damn, horn head at the university sent you to the wrong rally point? Typical..." he grumbled, starting to pace around us. "Where exactly where you supposed to be heading?"

Damn it, even if he buys into her lie no way is he gonna let us just walk after Flurry, my thoughts noted as he passed by the back of us, seeming to eye every detail.

"To wherever we're needed, sir. Orders were to seek out the princess and see where she wanted us," Cicada went on as I awkwardly swept my tail between my hind legs.

I don't care what he's looking at, the less I have ponies looking at this stupid disguise like that, the better, I mentally huffed, as he passed around to my left side.

"That won't be necessary, soldier. I can take care of you in the meantime, we're not to disturb the princess unless absolutely..." I felt his wing jab at mine, right where I had the leathery limb folded over the cartographer.

Before I knew it, he flipped his wing up, unfolding mine like a frail piece of paper and letting the small pyramid clatter to the floor.

"And what is this?" he asked suspiciously as I moved a forehoof to catch it, only for him to effortlessly sweep mine aside with his and scooped up the cartographer.

I saw the smallest break of panic in Cicada's illusion, yet before the fake-thestral could even open her muzzle to salvage the situation panic forced me to stammer.

"I–It's a device for Princess Sunset, she's supposed to use it to test the alicorn for any chance that she may not be who she says she is." Gears I didn't even realize I had in my brain shook of dust and cobwebs as they rattled to life and I instinctively improvised on top of the lie Cicada had established.

"Princess Luna did not wish for any panic or suspicion so we were ordered to break off and get to the throne room as fast as we could, before anypony took notice," I blurted, glancing at Cicada, who nodded.

The bat pony guard looked between us, down at the artifact in his forehoof, and then back at me.

"You're serious?" he asked bluntly, and as I forced another stern nod, he sighed. "Damn bureau, Canterlot tells us nothing until after they've stuck their hooves in and messed everything up."

"Not to disagree with you, sir. But we're only the messengers, you have an issue with it, you'll have to take it up with them," Cicada stepped in, reinforcing the lie I'd spontaneously conjured. "That's if you don't want to be the one who has to explain why it didn't get to where it was needed."

What did I really just do, where did that idea come from? I wondered, realizing just how fast I'd gone from wanting to run to trying to talk my way out of danger. Is that changeling instinct or something?

The guard grumbled something about how poorly Canterlot treated security and that he'd have words before he offered the cartographer back to me.

"Just to keep the bureau off my tail, you get this to the princess as ordered," he declared as I took the thing and once again folded it under my wing.

"Thank you, sir," Cicada added, giving a salute with her wing that I swiftly mimicked

"No, it only takes one soldier to deliver a message. You can come with me and we'll see just what Canterlot had to say over the telegram," he instructed, jabbing a forehoof at her. "I'm sick and tired of how they keep us in the dark all the time."

I once again felt the blood drain from my face and my mane buzz with anxiety, yet Cicada maintained her act perfectly and nodded.

"As you order, sir. So long as Princess Sunset gets what she needs," she responded, before adding in a hushed voice. "Plus, I can't disagree with you about Canterlot and security."

The guard looked at her sternly, before waving a wing down the hall, indicating for her to follow him as he began to trot off.

"You make sure that thing gets where it's needed, I'll meet you with you later." I barely caught her wink as she marched off after the guard and I was left standing stunned in the hall before the bat pony leading my friend barked.

"Don't you have somewhere important to be, soldier?!"

Oh goddesses, it was like that one time training with Flurry again! My thoughts recalled, as I jumped and bolted like somepony had stuck my rump with a lance.


"Damn it, why do things have to be so backward?" I muttered under my breath as I slammed shut the door on another bathroom where I was sure there was a hallway in my world.

Here there were bedrooms where I thought there should be dining halls, stairs went up instead of down and I didn't even want to think about what the Twilight I knew would have to say about the library here. Though the small statue of Princess Luna in there, along with the multitude of books I'd seen on her while creeping through, lead me to believe that she was not quite the same as back home either.

And yet you made up a lie that she was the one who sent you here. My brain scolded, as in my wondering, I'd started putting things together.

It's pretty clear that in this world, Celestia is the one who did something awful. I noted as I passed another banner sporting Princess Luna's cutie mark alongside Sunset's. And I don't think Luna's been as benevolent when it comes to keeping ponies in line as her sister was back home.

I did not want to think too hard about what may have happened to a world that had possibly been ruled by Luna for a millennium instead of Celestia, yet from what I knew about the nightly alicorn, she did not seem to have the same approach to things as her sister.

She's the sword to Celestia's shield, Twilight told me once. I recalled as I darted down another hall to avoid a pair of bat-winged guards. And if we're found out here I don't want to imagine what'll happen.

I was so afraid that this version of Equestria was ruled far more harshly and that I may have accidentally sent Cicada to where she'd be captured, or worse, that I failed to pay full attention to where I was going. Therefore, rounding the corner to avoid one set of ponies lead me right into another, or more specifically a griffin. A griffin with far more suspicion than any guard.

"Hey, watch it!" Ginny declared as she jumped up to fly over me, balancing a silver tray laden with food in one foreclaw. "Silver Rose just cooked this up and if it gets dropped I doubt she'll whip up another."

I took a step back, before staggering and landing flat on my rump. Ugh, this body... Everything feels too weird as a mare! I almost feel light as a feather compared to when I have to lug around all my chitin.

"Oh... M-my apologies... I did not see you there," I stammered, trying desperately to imagine just what Cicada would say in this situation.

She flew down to the floor, placing the platter on her back and dusting herself off as she scowled at me.

"Yeah well..." she grumbled, and once again every moment her eyes were on me I felt my mane crawl. "Hey, aren't you guys supposed to have super senses or something, what gives?"

By Celestia, this griffin could perceive something even if it were completely invisible! My panicked mind worried as my ears folded back and I responded.

"W–well... Yeah, you know living in the dark and all." I tried not to rub my forelegs together nervously, desperately seeking out that improvising instinct that I'd tapped into with the guard.

"But things have just been so crazy lately, we just got sent over from Canterlot after reports that an alicorn appeared from nowhere," I added, hoping the lie I was going with would be enough for the young griffin.

She cocked her head. "Yeah well, I guess that makes sense, though why are you bumbling around like you have no idea where you're going?"

Damn, is it really that obvious? I thought before once again, an idea came to me. She's gotta know where they're keeping Flurry for sure!

"That's just it, Princess Sunset ordered me to guard the alicorn's chamber and I don't really know where it is or where I'm going," I admitted, and she smirked.

"It's more complex than the library was, I'll give you that. But it's not hard to find your way once you know the place. The prisoner's in the guest-chamber, down the corridor, take the second left, then a right, third door on the left. The one with the big Luna symbol on it."

She elaborated the directions as if she'd memorized them perfectly, motioning with a claw as she grinned.

"Though I'm with Dash, I think it would be much safer that she be transferred to the Canterlot dungeon, rather than getting Luna's cushy guest room." She mocked a gag. "We don't need another world-ending threat at the celebration tomorrow."

Okay, let's try and get her out before they go that far, I concluded as I glanced back over my shoulder and in the direction Ginny indicated. If what she's saying is right then here the guest room must be where Twilight's room is back home.

"O–okay, thanks for the directions," I responded, collecting myself and trying to act as stoically guard-like as possible. "I'll leave you to your duties, I'm sure you're quite busy."

Duties? Oh sure, because that sounds like exactly what she's tasked with, I thought awkwardly as Ginny blinked. She looks barely older than Spike!

"Actually, all I was asked to do was take this food to the prisoner, thought I'd save Dash the trouble," she began, then trailed off with a groan. "But I always get the boring jobs.

She doesn't want to be here, think, Digit, you can use this! I thought, digging up what changeling instincts I could.

"I–I could take it for you... I'm going that way anyway and... Well, I exist to serve such a devoted friend of the princess," I improvised.

Oh, because that drivel does not sound awkward and forced at all! my mind screamed. Okay, I'm not a very good changeling, I get it, brain!

She cocked her head again, beak scrunched with confusion as she regarded me. "Wow, you guys back in Canterlot really don't play around with all the fancy talk, do you?"

There was sweat under my mane again as I manufactured my best smile. Even so, Ginny continued. "Though it would give me a chance to talk some sense into Sunset, like Dash said. Ooo, she'd be so proud of me if I got Sunny to listen to her idea!"

She became a feathery blur, jumping up and down on the spot at the idea she could gain more of Rainbow's favor. Before I knew it, the platter was dumped on my back as she flew over and said, "You know what, yeah! Serve me or whatever it was you said. Just make sure it gets there, Dash is at the door, tell her Ginny sent you!" Her words gushed like a river torrent as she beat her wings and flew off down the hall, leaving me standing stunned.

"Erm... sure." The words left my mouth as a low mumble before I shook out of my stunned stupor and collected myself.

Okay, I've got my ticket in, now just gotta find my way there. The more sensible part of my brain elaborated, spurring me on as I recalled the directions Ginny had given me.

That, coupled with what I already knew of the castle from my world, led me right to the room. Nevertheless, rounding the final corner, I saw two guards on either side of the door. Furthermore, just as Ginny had indicated, Rainbow Dash was positioned at the front, golden helmet still atop her head. I took one brief peek then fell back out of sight and took a deep breath.

Okay, here goes nothing. I'm a changeling, pretending is what we do, just like Cicada said. Mental pep talk complete I steadied the platter on my back and stepped out.

The two bat-winged guards did not so much as spare me a glance as I trotted towards them. Rainbow on the other hoof, marked each of my steps with a subtle look, before finally stepping out to greet me.

"Food for the prisoner," I stated in the best, gruff voice I could, even if having the vocal cords of a mare threw off my attempt.

Dash glanced left and right, seeming momentarily confused, before asking. "I can see that, but where's Ginny?"

This is it, time to really test my kinds' merit!

"She handed it to me when we met in the hall. She said she had something important to say to Princess Sunset, so I was only too happy to oblige," I stated and Rainbow smirked.

"Handing out jobs to others, just like a griffin," she chuckled. "Still, if anypony's got a chance to talk some sense into Sunset it's her."

I gave a nod as the prismatic mare chuckled, then motioned to each of the guards beside her with her wings and added. "The prisoner's magic is restrained, so just go in and leave the food on the table. Call out if she tries anything."

Wow, she really does not trust alicorns? I noted. What in Equestria did Celestia do here to make them all so terrified?

"Yes, ma'am," I responded with a wing salute that Rainbow very much enjoyed, before moving past her and through the door the guards had opened in my path.

They slammed it shut behind me a moment later, and I glanced about. The room was almost identical to the one I knew from my world, save the change in coloration and the fact that every piece of furniture was on the opposite side from where it was supposed to be. The four-post bed was to my left, not right, and the table in the middle was slightly off-center. I trotted up to that first, shrugging off the platter of food.

"You look like you're about to run out of here crying," came the familiar voice of Flurry as my friend stepped up to me from where she'd apparently been gazing out of the window. "You really don't have to be so afraid, I'm not gonna hurt any of you."

She gave a dismissive flick of her forehoof, wings ruffling under their restraints as I glanced back at her and whispered. "Flurry, it's me, Digit."

She blinked, the reassuring demeanor she'd adopted dropped. "Digit? But you look like a bat pony... You're a mare!"

"Yes I'm very aware, and no, I don't know how to do it myself. Cicada was able to transform me," I elaborated, and Flurry glanced around as if a monster would jump out to grab her.

"Your little friend is still here then?" I was not so fond of the way she asked that, but shook it off as I responded.

"No, one of the guards took her, but she's disguised and can handle herself, she'll be fine. I came to save you." At that, it was apparently her turn to look confused.

"Yeah, well, I shouldn't have been locked up here in the first place. I woke up in the forest and five bat ponies were on me with spears in seconds, like I was going to burn the whole place down," she declared.

"And you just let them capture you?" I asked, cocking my head as I recalled all the times she'd been able to disarm whole groups of opponents.

Granted that was training, and they were not going hard on her. I noted. Those guards were always too afraid of Shining Armor.

"I only fight if I have to, not to mention I had no idea who they were. Do you really think they'd be so lenient as to put me in here and not a dungeon if I'd have done that?" she asked and I had to admit she'd considered the consequences better than I had.

"I figured after what you told me about what Chrysalis said, that this was not home. Then again, I also figured they'd just bring me to a version of auntie Twi and she might understand," Flurry went on.

So most of it was an act? Wow, I knew she was a quick thinker, but not that good. I thought.

"They're not the ponies you know, this whole place is just a parallel version of the world we come from. I don't know what happened here for sure, but they're super paranoid about anypony with wings and a horn," I added, noting the suppressor around her horn and the bands on her wings, even if they'd at least had the decency to take off her shackles.

"Really, you don't say," Flurry deadpanned as she turned and walked over to the window. "Still, if you can stay like that maybe... Well, they said they'd take me to see my mother."

I swallowed, a deep, guilty feeling that literally made me sick to my stomach welling up in me. It was hard not to gag on the taste as I scuffed a forehoof on the carpet.

Maybe we can wait, we can just leave at any time. I considered, before reason and a good bit of what Cicada had told me corrected my thoughts. No, this place is not our home, it's dangerous and the queen could find us at any moment, not to mention what they may do to Cicada if she's discovered.

"F–Flurry, they won't take you to see her," I stammered, words like sharp glass cutting up my throat. "Because whoever that mare is in charge of the crystal empire, it's not her."

Flurry turned, an unsure look on her face. "I know, it's just another version... But to see her again, try and talk to her, to hear her voice."

"And she won't recognize you, she'll be afraid of you like Sunset, and then what?" I pressed, but she shook her head.

"They're not afraid, just cautious. But I know my mother, she'll listen no matter what the circumstance," I bit my tongue, not sure how much logic was winning over sentiment in Flurry's head.

"W–we can't go, we have to find Cicada and leave this place before something really bad happens," I declared and she snorted.

"Like what, the queen already took us from home? How in Equestria are we supposed to get back there?" she asked, marching over to me.

For a moment it was hard not to wilt away at the sight of her. "We can still use this." I opened my wing to show her the cartographer. "We just have to make sure we do it right this time, Cicada can..."

"She can what, she already said she doesn't know how it really works, so how's she any help?" Flurry cut me off.

"She listened to all of the queen's theories. Chrysalis was obsessed with trying to get the thing to work for her," I admitted, yet that seemed to do nothing to lighten her mood.

"Oh, because I trust anything the queen says. You know this could all be one big trick, right? That's what they do, make you think one thing, when really you're playing right into their hooves," she declared, lifting one forehoof in emphasis.

"In that case, what's to say our whole life's not a lie then? What's the point in anything if it could just all be one big trick? You're overthinking it," I countered, and she rolled her eyes with a snort, stomping her forehoof down.

"Because I grew up being told nothing more than how to protect myself from an enemy that's invisible and still it did nothing to help me save my mother," she declared, and at the taste of her sorrow, coupled with tears in her eyes, I had never felt worse.

"And here I am, I could see her again, at least some version of her and there are changelings trying to stop me. Look what they've done to you." She jabbed a forehoof at me. "It's only been a few days and you're prancing around with some other mare's stolen identity."

Her words hit me like a brick wall, knocking me back as my legs turned to jelly. I shrank, my ears folded and I looked at each of my gray coated forehooves. They felt so much like my own while I was disguised, yet looking now, I almost felt mutilated.

"I... I... You know I'm not like them, I came to save you," I stammered, but she only closed her eyes and shuddered as she took a breath.

Family, is all she has left to lose, is she going to think she's losing you too? I wondered and without thought, I focused. She knew I'd do anything for her, right?

My face scrunched, thestral fangs gritting before I finally felt it. The sensation was not quite the same as when Cicada had done it in the woods, it was more staggered and left me utterly drained. Yet with a flickering green flash, I was able to turn back to the body my friend knew. Then fell flat on my face as exhaustion swiftly overtook me.

"Digit!" Flurry cried, and despite our disagreement, it did not seem she utterly disregarded my well being yet.

"What are you doing? You'll hurt yourself doing that, like last time," she exclaimed, before muttering about how she'd kill Cicada under her breath.

"You were right, that's not me," I muttered, even if the sentimental part of my mind was being utterly slaughtered by the logical side. "But we have to go."

"But you look like you... I... Urg, I'm so stupid, they'll lock you up for sure," she snapped, pressing a forehoof to her head.

"T–they won't, I think I can manage to change again, just give me a few moments," I assured, recalling what Cicada had done, and feeling the love she'd given me. "I just wanted you to see that it's still me, I'm not going to abandon you for any changeling."

She looked down at me with a small smile, even as I forced. "But we can't go to the Crystal Empire, I'm sorry."

"Hey, what's all the shouting in here for..." Lost in our argument, neither of us noticed the doors to the room swing open.

That was until Rainbow Dash called out, only for her words to die as she saw me. A changeling slumped in the arms of the suspicious alicorn she really wanted to lock up.

Oh, I don't care if they look exactly like my friends. I'm really starting to hate this place!