When everything you’ve ever known goes against everything you believe in, can leaving help you live with yourself?
Thorax has always been a black sheep among his kind. But only during the Canterlot invasion did he realize how wonderful it would be to have a friend he’d always wanted. Meeting no understanding among the changelings and finding every next day harder to bear, he decides to leave the hive… for better or worse.
Takes place some time after The Canterlot Wedding and before The Times They Are A Changeling.
“This day has been just perfect - the kind of day of which I’ve dreamed since long ago…” a victorious chant was carried on the wind as I hovered over the besieged city, unable to take my mind off a scene I’d observed just minutes before. Our attack had gone smoothly and well according to plans: as our Queen weakened the unsuspecting leader of the enemy’s defenses, my peers and I worked tirelessly to destroy the powerful shield holding us at bay. Then, once the shield collapsed leaving the city exposed for our taking, we rushed in like a tornado, a fearsome swarm bent on wreaking havoc at every step and stopping at nothing until every last soul on our path was defeated.
That is, my peers were so hungry for victory that they’d stop at nothing until they achieved it. I wasn’t so sure. I’d joined the invasion reluctantly, out of sense of obligation to follow the orders I’d been given rather than my own desire, and I did very little to assist my brethren in achieving their goal. I just hung around, pretending to try to be useful, all the while wondering why we were doing this, and wishing there could be a better way to gain what we needed - one that didn’t involve deception, violence, and hatred.
And just then, amidst the raging chaos, I saw six ponies: a seemingly unlikely group of two unicorns, two pegasi, and two earth ponies, running through the street - an action not surprising in itself, considering all that was going on around them, but something about them caught my interest. It took me little time to realize they were running not from danger, but toward it, not shying away from combat as they pressed on through hordes upon hordes of my peers trying to stop them, all the way to one of the royal towers - the Vault Tower if my memory of the briefing we’d received before the invasion served me properly. I did my best not to root for them too obviously lest I draw the wrath of my peers, and for a moment, it looked like whatever they were trying to do would work! I hadn’t remembered an ambush had been planned there to ward off attempts to reach a powerful artifact believed to be capable of defeating us momentarily until a minute later, when, to my horror, my six ponies were brought out of the tower under close guard of some of the ambushing soldiers and taken to the Ceremonial Hall, where the Queen had set up, and left there at her mercy.
I hadn’t known who these six ponies were, nor why they were so important that the Queen herself would be the one to deal with them, but I knew from the first moment why they’d mesmerized me: it was their friendship, their unity, and their spirit - one of wanting to do good, to help those in need, regardless of danger to themselves even, a desire to undo the pain and suffering brought onto the city and restore love and peace. Every bit of them had screamed that desire every step of the way, and even getting captured hadn’t quenched that fire; it was burning brighter and brighter every passing moment, ready to leap at the slightest chance to turn the tables back in their favor and not stop until their city was safe again! More amazingly than all else, I could see no malice in them, only concern and hope.
It was fascinating!
All my life I’d wanted to have someone like that: someone who would love me, care about my hopes and fears, accept me for who I was without judging me or trying to change me, someone I could call a friend. But even those closest to me had always shunned me and considered me failure! There was a norm among our kind for what we should be like, and anyone who didn’t fit in that box was ostracized and treated as an inferior. That was what had happened with me, and as much as I’d tried to hold on to my dream of having a friend, that dream had eventually been crushed, leaving my heart an empty shell, going through life mechanically like a mindless zombie. I hadn’t realized just how badly it hurt until now!
But was my dream crushed at all?
Suddenly, I felt a new hope budding in me. I’d never had friends, but obviously someone else did, so it had to be possible! I just had to try harder, or find a different strategy… it had to work!
Lost in thought, I hadn’t noticed that one of the ponies from the group of six had managed to sneak to one of the captured princesses and free her while the Queen was too distracted by savoring her soldiers’ overwhelming success and basking in her impending victory to pay attention to what was going on behind her. Now this princess was in my sight, having approached her husband-to-be, the leader of our enemy’s defenses, weakened and dazed by the Queen’s magic. She hugged him and shed a tear - a love-filled tear that brought him out of his trance upon making contact with his skin. He joined his beloved and tried to protect her from our Queen, who finally noticed something happening. It was in vain, though; he was too weak to do anything, and the Queen gloated over his predicament.
I was sorry for him. I was sorry for all the ponies. If only I could do something to help them! If only there was something I could attempt without the rest of the Queen’s troops turning on me and stopping me before I had the time to make a difference! But there were too many of them; what could I hope to achieve?
But not all hope had been lost for the ponies, for the princess had plenty of strength left, and with the power of their love combined, they were able to cast a powerful protection spell together, sending out a shockwave that purged all the changelings from Canterlot, launching us far into the distance in all directions, where we were left scattered and hurt and unable to strike them again for a long while.
We deserved it.
The Queen deserved it for instilling hatred in us, and my peers deserved it for not questioning her.
The Queen deserved it for leading an invasion into an innocent city, and my peers deserved it for obeying her.
And, whether or not I wanted to admit it, I deserved it for not trying hard enough to oppose the rotten system… regardless of consequences to myself.
The defeat had taken quite a toll on us. It took days - weeks even - for everyling to get their bearings and return to the hive, most of us injured; some hadn’t returned at all. Their bodies had been found by others returning to the hive and destroyed on the spot to keep ponies from finding them and using them to learn more about us. A few were still missing; presumably their bodies were found by ponies anyway, or maybe by wild animals. No use bringing the dead home; changelings didn’t practice funeral rituals.
But the dead were forgotten, and the injured healed over time, even when starved like we’d always been. The anger and shame over our failure was a different story. It took quite a while to dull down, but even now its bitter taste was lingering, crushing our confidence and fueling the hatred.
Something good did come out of it, if only in my eyes alone: it sparked a new hope for a better life in me, one where my lifelong dream could finally be fulfilled, and a new determination to see it through. Upon returning to the hive - delayed by a couple of weeks, first by having been knocked unconscious for several days, and then a few more days of going the wrong way before my sense of direction reasserted itself - I wasted no time in trying to find a changeling who would be willing to give a chance to my offer of friendship. I put all my spirit into it, far more than ever while I’d been younger before the drills and combat training had numbed my mind, but needless to say, my efforts got me nowhere but the bottom of the hierarchy.
I had known from the start that achieving my goal wasn’t going to be easy, but over time it had started to seem downright impossible, and while I still wasn’t ready to give up hope, my disappointment and frustration grew with every passing day, up to the point where I would occasionally get an impulse to just give it up and leave and try my luck somewhere else. But changelings weren’t exactly well liked anywhere, and anyway, Chrysalis’ soldiers would in all likelihood track me down and drag me back to the hive to get punished before I even got to the nearest village! So, having no idea where I might go and not wanting to deceive my potential new friends about what I was by disguising myself as one of their kind, I reluctantly stayed.
One fateful day I was sweeping the hive hallways as had been my duty for a while, when suddenly a heap of cold water landed on my head, followed by the bucket that must have contained it. Startled and shivering, I looked around me, only to find two changelings glaring at me with mischievous grins.
“What was that for?” I exclaimed.
“See, told you he wouldn’t even hiss,” one told the other.
“I wonder what else he doesn’t hiss to,” smirked the other in reply.
“Let’s find out!” agreed the first one.
“But what have I ever done to you? Please leave me alone!”
I started to back away.
“Don’t you two have readiness drills to work on?” spoke a familiar voice behind them.
“We’re already done, Sir,” the changelings snapped to attention.
“Then do them again,” my brother shot back.
The pair hesitated a moment too long.
In a flash of green magic, First Commander Pharynx transformed into a ferocious spider-like beast ten times our size, lunging at his two subordinates before they had a chance to realize what was happening, and launching them both across the hallway into a wall with a single strike of a tentacle.
“Are you deaf?” the spider roared.
The plumes of dust left in their wake and the echo of galloping hooves suggested otherwise.
With the troublemakers gone, Pharynx restored his form and turned to me.
“A word with you,” he gestured me to follow.
I set my broom aside and trotted along as Pharynx led the way through one passage after another until we arrived to our sleeping burrow. He motioned me to enter, then joined me after making sure we hadn’t been followed.
“What is wrong with you?” he started.
“What do you mean?” I was pretty sure I knew where this was going.
“You know all too well what I mean! You don’t even try to defend yourself from bullies any more, and how long did it take me to get you to even stop apologizing to them? Who in their right mind tries to be polite to someone who attacked them? It took me forever to get you to realize that looking for friends was a futile pursuit for a changeling and turn you into a marginally passable fighter, and just when I finally began to think we’re making enough progress to give you a worthy assignment so you can start being useful to the hive, you throw it all away again! Do you have any idea how much persuading it took to convince Chrysalis to let me include you in the Canterlot invasion force? I was hoping the problem was that all the training drills were too hypothetical to you and that real action is what you needed to awaken your bloodthirst and get you on the right path, but no! My sweet little brother had to goof around and get distracted by a friendly encounter between some pathetic ponies and relapse into stupidity!”
“Pharynx, I told you-”
“I know what you told me! Look, I get it that your first encounter with a different nation can leave you confused, but the invasion happened well over a year ago! Get a hold of yourself, Thorax! You’ve had plenty of time already to snap out of it and resume combat training, yet you keep refusing to act like a changeling and insisting on this fool’s errand! You’ll never get out of janitor duty like this, let alone gain respect and stop being picked on! Why do you think Chrysalis is so eager to punish you for every smallest mistake that she might ignore if it were any other changeling? In fact, the only reason she’s even letting you live after all you’ve done is because you’re my brother!”
“Don’t interrupt me! I know what you’ll say, that I don’t have to do this, but I can’t stand idly by while my brother disgraces both of us by rejecting everything that changelings have ever been! Do you think anyone in the hive will ever trust you again if you keep goofing around like this much longer? And while you’ve sunk so low that you don’t feel like there’s anything left to lose, do you really expect Chrysalis to keep trusting me much longer after I’ve failed to snap you out of it by now? Who do you think will protect you if I lose my rank?”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say.
“Well prove it then, and do it quick, because I’m running out of ideas how to keep convincing Chrysalis to give you one more chance,” Pharynx replied. “I’m not one to give up easily, but you’re really starting to seem like a lost cause.”
With that, he marched out and left me to my own thoughts.
I could understand Pharynx’s frustration. Being the oldest brother, he’d always felt responsible for his younger siblings, even more after our brother Mandible had died of starvation and our sisters Venom and Costa had gotten killed on duty. All three of them had been decent fighters, and there were times when I believed that Pharynx wondered how the youngest and meekest one of his siblings had managed to survive when the other three hadn’t. I wouldn’t blame him if he sometimes wished I had died in place of any of them, but still he never gave up sticking up for me whenever I needed help, which, considering my pacifist nature, was pretty much all the time. I'd always been grateful for that, even if his attitude was getting on my nerves.
Though he’d never admit it, I bet that he had to make sacrifices for keeping me safe - for example, the fact that Chrysalis had never assigned him a mate to produce eggs with. Unlike most other species, changelings didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not they want children, who they want them with, and having them as and when they choose. We had to earn it through distinguished service and loyalty to the hive, and only the most worthy changelings got to produce offspring - but only as ordered by the Queen. The only reason I could think of why Pharynx had never earned that privilege while many lesser changelings had was because he had such a lousy brother. I was pretty sure that part of his frustration stemmed from that, and while I wished there was a way I could help him, somehow I never believed anything I might do - even pretending to become like other changelings - would have made any difference. Besides, I wasn’t ready to give up my principles!
As much as I would have preferred to stay in my burrow, I knew I’d get punished if I didn’t fulfill my duties for the day, so I grabbed a towel to dry myself of the water that was still dripping from me, and returned to where I’d left the broom. I’d forgotten there was a puddle there too now - blast those two bullies, I wished I could make them clean up the mess they’d made! But it didn’t work like that in the hive, and I was still the one expected to clean the puddle. I went to get a rag, and just as I was on my way back to where I’d left off, I was approached by a hatchery guard.
“Are you Thorax?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Chrysalis sent me to find you. There’s a mess in the hatchery that needs to get cleaned up.”
“Uh, sure, I’ll be there in a few minutes, just after I-”
“I think she meant now,” he interrupted me.
I swallowed a lump in my throat, looking at him worriedly. Chrysalis enjoyed punishing me, but she rarely made specific demands regarding what I should clean and when. Why would she? I was assigned to low-security areas - nowhere near the throne room, hatchery, or any other parts of the hive she may be found in - so why did she want me specifically? It couldn’t have been anything I’d done there; I hadn’t been in the hatchery for years, and anything I might have done wrong would have been discovered and dealt with long ago!
“Are you coming already?” The guard was getting impatient.
I nodded and we got underway.
Upon arriving in the hatchery, I was relieved to find that Chrysalis had left. There was no concern about the possibility of her being in disguise. She never did that in the hive, not even to catch her subjects off guard so she could punish them for… well, anything really. I wasn’t in trouble this time after all, otherwise she would have been here, I was sure of it! In all my life she’d never missed a chance to watch me - or anyling else - suffer for our mistakes!
The guard led me to a pile of broken eggs. Such a sight was normally no big deal here, but there was something odd about this one. I came closer and realized the eggs hadn’t hatched - they’d been smashed.
“What happened here?” I asked with growing concern.
“What does it look like? Chrysalis smashed them, is what happened,” the guard replied.
I couldn’t believe it! Why would she destroy something created at her own demand?
“To punish their mother,” the guard informed me matter-of-factly.
“I don’t understand!” I really didn’t!
“Coxa was sent to infiltrate Trottingham and got discovered before even getting close to the city, and if that wasn’t enough, she revealed identities of two other infiltrators in exchange for reduced sentence! Can you believe it? She can’t really expect spending less time in a pony prison will do her any good when she returns to the hive! And she will return - Chrysalis will make sure of it! Our soldiers are already on the way there to keep an eye on her until she gets out. Even better if they figure out how to bypass the containment spells and bring her back sooner.”
The destroyed eggs were starting to make more sense now. But the hatchery guards were normally the ones expected to clean it. Why did Chrysalis want me to do it now?
The guard must have noticed my puzzlement.
“Not sure why this is suddenly your job? Chrysalis thought you might not, so she told me to tell you that maybe seeing the smashed eggs would teach you a lesson.”
Of course. Keep disobeying me, and this will be you.
“Right… I’d better start cleaning,” I said despondently, and the guard returned to his post.
The rest of the day passed with routine work. After finishing the unhappy task in the hatchery, I returned to my normal duties, which I was able to complete in time despite the delay, and without any more complications. But I couldn’t get my mind off the broken eggs.
Shortly after curfew, I returned to my burrow, the image of the eggs still fresh in my mind. I knew it would keep me awake well into the night, possibly even until morning!
How could anyone be so cruel? How much hatred must there be in their hearts to even think of such a thing? How much anger to act upon it? How much delusion in their minds to see nothing wrong with it? I could understand wanting to punish someone for breaking the law and disobeying orders, but those eggs were innocent! Why did they have to pay the price for their mother’s mistake? The changelings that would have hatched from them might have grown to become valuable members of the hive by Chrysalis’ standards! Now they would never have the chance! And despite my misgivings about what their lives would probably have turned out to be like, their destruction pained me deeply!
I couldn’t help but cry.
I was still sobbing when Pharynx returned from his shift. He just rolled his eyes at me and curled up to sleep. I was grateful he hadn’t said anything. He must have thought I was still under impressions from the incident earlier today, or maybe from his ranting that had followed! Of course, it could just as well be that he’d known about the eggs and decided to not go into the matter.
As I watched him sleep, a heavy realization started to sink in: I couldn’t stay here anymore! I could no longer stand remaining in a society where hatred was the foundation of all things and kindness was given no chance to grow! I could spill my guts trying to spread friendship here and it would all be in vain! It didn’t even matter that I’d get punished for leaving - that was bound to happen sooner or later even if I stayed! Better to die as I was than to lose myself while still living!
I’m sorry, Pharynx. You did your best with me and I’m grateful. But it just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully, one day, you’ll understand.
And, whatever happens, know this: I’ve always cared about you.
Casting him one last farewell glance, I took a deep breath and walked away.
The night was quiet and the hallways deserted, the changelings sleeping in their burrows as I crept along. This was normal for a sleeping area after curfew. On some nights, a guard on duty would patrol randomly through low-security parts of the hive such as sleeping quarters, but if there was one in this particular area tonight, he wasn’t close enough to be heard. I expected little trouble for the time being.
The upcoming area was potentially more problematic. I’d have to pass through a series of larger corridors which were routinely patrolled every night. There shouldn’t be too many guards, though, so I was pretty sure I’d be able to avoid them. If I was lucky, dodging them might not even take too long! It was a big hive, but I knew that I shouldn’t rush it and risk getting noticed; the night was still young, and if all else failed, I could always try to hide somewhere or put on a disguise and keep going the next night. A gamble, yes, but unless they realized I was still in the hive, it might throw off their estimate of how far I might have gotten, which may work in my favor when they went looking for me.
Of course, there was also a possibility they’d consider that option. I wasn’t very eager to try it, anyway!
My luck served me well all the way through the first three large corridors and a vertical shaft. There were only two patrol groups that I came close to encountering, but fortunately, I was able to conceal myself both times. The first time there was an empty recess I could crawl into, and the second time I transformed into a rock. They didn’t seem to notice anything suspicious.
Not daring to risk taking another large corridor in a row, I slipped through a newly-formed opening in a wall into a smaller hallway, similar to those in my sleeping complex. I figured this must be another one of them. This one, however, was patrolled tonight. I panicked upon seeing a shadow of a guard approaching around the corner and rushed into a sleeping burrow closest to me without thinking. I could have easily woken up anyling in there, and my escape would have ended before it had even begun! Miraculously, the burrow was empty. I assumed it must belong to one of the guards currently on duty.
Safely hidden for the time being, I used this chance to catch a breath and gather my thoughts.
I came to realize that, although considered for a while on a theoretical basis, my final decision to leave had been so sudden that I hadn’t even made up my mind where I should go once I was out of here! Thanks to snippets of conversation with Pharynx in which he would sometimes express his dissatisfaction with certain weaknesses in the hive’s defenses, I had a fairly good idea of what I should do to exploit these weaknesses. But what next? As far as I knew, changelings routinely learned only about ponies, them being the preferred targets for feeding on and their towns being the most common infiltration locations, and I’d never been sent anywhere other than Canterlot, so most of what I knew about the non-pony world outside the hive were rare rumors overheard from conversations between changelings who had been on a mission to such a place and had thus needed additional training before deployment. Not that I wasn’t interested to learn more - I'd just never gotten a chance.
One of the things I’d managed to piece together from various sources over time was the basic layout of the world and which lands lay in which rough direction in relation to the Changeling Kingdom. That seemed like as good a start as any, assuming I’d gotten it right. Equestria was up north, I knew that much from my own experience; but knowing what we’d done recently in Canterlot, and what we were still doing covertly in many other pony towns, I seriously doubted I’d be welcome anywhere in that land, as vast as it may be. East was an ocean, and beyond it were the Dragon Lands and Griffonstone, and a number of smaller lands - but how big was the ocean? I had no idea, but I may have heard someling mention that they were lucky to have found a boat to take a break on while crossing it or else they’d have dropped with exhaustion and drowned. Maybe that changeling had been exhausted since the start of their journey and would have made it on their own just fine otherwise, but was I willing to take that chance? Not really! Besides, I didn’t know enough about the lands there to be sure it was worth the risk! West was no better than the east, only the ocean there was apparently so huge that no changeling had ever been able to get to the other end, so west was definitely out of the question! Finally, south was mostly deserted, save for a few villages roving with crooks and thieves, and a little further, a rumor of an island that used to be home to a majestic species, now long abandoned. I had no desire to hang out with criminals - there was plenty of such a mindset right here - and though the island with majestic creatures sounded appealing, there was no point in going to an abandoned place. As much as I was generally okay with solitude as such, I couldn’t escape my physiology that depended on love gained from others; I couldn’t expect to have a better life if I starved to death like Mandible had!
So where did that leave me? I didn’t like it, but it seemed like Equestria was my best, if not only, chance. For all I knew, it might not turn out to be such a bad thing! When we’d started the invasion of Canterlot, I’d heard Chrysalis say there was more love in Equestria than anywhere else she’d been, and that had to mean a lot considering she’d been our leader ever since changelings first came into existence! If what she’d said was true, maybe I would find a pony willing to give me a chance for friendship, and if I couldn’t find even one such pony in Equestria, what were the chances of finding a friend in a less love-filled land?
Feeling a burst of confidence, I left the burrow I’d been hiding in and moved on. The guard wasn’t around anymore, either. I was just about to enter another large corridor when the gate leading to it disappeared right before me. A new gate formed immediately, but that one led into an armory, one of the high-security areas crawling with guards day and night.
With the hive’s tendency to shift and change its structure randomly, there was no promise that doubling back would take me to a safer area, and the last one I’d been in was guarded anyway, so it hardly qualified as safe enough! Just because I’d managed to avoid that guard once didn’t mean I’d have a chance to do it again, and a passage to the corridor I’d been trying to get to might not open when and where I needed it!
Realizing I could hear hoofsteps from both directions, I almost started to hyperventilate in panic, but managed to compose myself and start thinking rationally. Disguising myself would be the best option in the circumstances, but what as? Another rock came to mind, but I dismissed the idea, considering there was no way to predict how long I’d have to stay there until it was safe to keep going unnoticed; it could easily be days! That left me another option - a potentially risky one, but I was hoping I’d be able to pull it off.
A burst of my bluish magic gave me slightly different changeling’s features than my own and a guard’s helmet. Ironically, I would now have a much better chance of remaining undetected in a high-security area than in a low-security one: while the lone guard patrolling the sleeping area would get immediately suspicious of another guard patrolling the same area, the ones assigned to the armory would expect other guards and hardly give me a second glance… assuming I didn’t accidentally do something to give myself away.
I slipped through the gate just barely without getting noticed by any of the real guards and did my best to mimic the pace and posture of someling who belonged there and knew what he was doing. It seemed to be convincing enough, but even after what must have been a full hour, I still couldn’t find an exit to a different area! Actually, there was one, but two guards were close by, and I couldn’t get through without drawing attention to myself. They were gone the second time I passed there, but so was the exit. These shifting passages were really starting to get on my nerves - it almost felt as if they were deliberately hindering my progress!
I had plenty of chance to grab a weapon and take it with me, maybe even use it on the guards. If I had a different mentality, I might have been tempted to take one, if only for defensive purposes, but in any case that would have been a bad idea. No other guards I’d seen were carrying weapons so it would have been suspicious unless I could produce a credible excuse for why I was carrying it around; I wasn’t going to stick around forever, and the further away from the armory I got, the harder it would be to explain carrying a weapon regardless of a disguise I might wear. Good thing I’d never even cared for weapons!
Eventually a gate to another area opened while no guards were around, and I was able to move on. Finally! The hallways and corridors further ahead turned out to be mostly empty, and to my relief, I managed to avoid the few guards without a problem.
I climbed the vertical shafts a fair distance up from the level of my sleeping burrow, and if I kept climbing further, I would soon reach the entrance to Chrysalis’ castle and the top of the hive where the throne room was located. I had neither intention nor need to go there; the castle had no exits to the outside, all entrances including the ventilation shafts were heavily guarded, and being let in required an ever-changing clearance password that I didn’t know.
Instead, I was to take a route through any of the side-tunnels on this level that led outside. It may sound easy enough, except that there were guards patrolling the tunnels and a swarm of airborne sentries circling the hive approximately at this level, being on lookout for any creature moving across the barren wasteland that surrounded the hive. These were all high-security officers, always up to date on anyling with clearance to leave the hive.
There were only two changelings alive who could pass by them unannounced.
Only one of them wouldn’t raise suspicion if appearing at this hour.
But even he couldn’t go too far away from the hive without prior authorization.
Luckily, though changelings were routinely trained to notice non-changeling intruders, and though they might in some circumstances figure out that a changeling was posing as another creature or even as an inanimate object, few guards ever thought to suspect that a changeling might be disguised as another changeling.
And the airborne sentries guarding the hive perimeter rarely remembered to look up.
This was why someling who would in this morning’s reports be described as First Commander Pharynx was able to avoid everyling’s suspicion by claiming to be there for an unannounced inspection and subsequently gradually flying up above all the airborne sentries, thus avoiding detection as he escaped the hive.
I wanted to make sure I was at a high enough altitude to appear as a mere speck in the distance before proceeding, just in case any of the sentries did realize that their supposed commander’s inspection was taking too long. The air was getting thinner up here, so it took some time and effort. When I was satisfied with where I was, I dropped the Pharynx disguise and proceeded north… to Equestria… to what I hoped would be a better life.
Soon I noticed the flickers of dawn start to appear on the horizon. The hive would be in an uproar any minute now! I’d better hurry!
Several days after my escape from the hive, I was still making my way through the seemingly endless jungle just north of changeling territory. It was a slow and tedious journey through dense vegetation and without landmarks or milestones to gauge my progress by. My luck was still holding, and so far there were no signs of any changelings trying to hunt me down. Not daring to push it too far, I tried to walk as silently as I could and avoided flying as much as possible lest I get noticed, and slept as little as possible in order to make more time available for continuing to move forward. Sooner or later I would find a place to settle down - or at least I hoped so - but for now, the more distance I could put between myself and the hive, the better, if only for my own sense of safety. At least the wild animals I encountered from time to time didn’t seem very interested in me! I’d thought of transforming into one of them for safety, but in my paranoid state of mind, I began to overthink things. I only knew so much about any of the wild animals I’d seen. What if I failed to mimic their normal behavior correctly? Would it alert the real animals? Would any changelings on lookout for me notice the animals’ weird behavior and realize something was off, such as a runaway changeling sneaking around? How long would it take them to track down the source of the commotion? What would they do to make me show my real face? What wouldn’t they do to make me show my real face?
Yep, definitely overthinking things. I needed a break, bad.
But was I overthinking? What if-
Calm down, Thorax. You’ll never get anywhere like this! If there were any changelings around here, you’d have known it by now!
I was beginning to grasp the state of mind Coxa must have been in when she decided to cooperate with her captors in Trottingham and betray those two infiltrators. And I wasn’t even captured… yet. If I was having it this badly now, I didn’t want to think how I might act… how I might feel if I did get captured!
It took quite some more walking forward and looking back until I finally reached the end of the jungle, but when I did, I almost wished I hadn’t. In front of me was another wasteland, not unlike the one surrounding the hive, stretching as far as I could see. At first my heart skipped a beat, believing for a moment I’d turned around at some point without noticing, but the realization that I couldn’t see the hive anywhere in the wasteland brought a wave of relief. If I had walked in a circle, I would have seen the hive in front of me now; such a colossal structure would be impossible to miss! Upon closer inspection, there were other clues this wasn’t the same wasteland as the one around the hive: there were more rocks and boulders, the dead trees were slightly different, and the ground was of a different color.
My relief of not having mistakenly returned to the hive was soon replaced by a new worry: where to hide now? Surely Chrysalis wouldn’t have given up trying to find me so soon! In the jungle there was plenty of natural cover I could use, but in this bare terrain I’d be visible from miles away! I could pretend to be a rock in a pinch - maybe - but I couldn’t cross the entire wasteland looking like a rock! Going as an animal would be better, but I didn’t even know if anything lived here. I could end up being as obvious as a walking rock if I opted for a wrong animal!
Reluctantly, I decided to proceed undisguised for the time being. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but eventually managed to convince myself that this was what I’d escaped the hive for in the first place: finding a friend who would like me for who I really was, not who I was pretending to be. I’d probably still have to use a disguise to make the first step without risk of getting attacked and captured on sight, but if I wanted to find someone who would ultimately want to be friends with a changeling, I should start being comfortable with being a changeling openly among non-changelings!
So here I was, stepping out of my comfort zone, an undisguised changeling out in the open for all the world to see. Well, maybe not quite that last part, because there wasn’t anyone around to see me.
Or maybe I’d spoken too soon.
Not far into the wasteland, I passed by a larger rock and got face-to-face with a peculiar creature unlike any I was familiar with: about my size, with a brown coat, mane in a slightly lighter shade of brown, and wearing a feathered headband. I froze.
“I haven’t seen you around here before,” she said. She seemed friendly enough.
“Yeah, I’ve kind of just arrived,” I shrugged, trying to hide my nervousness.
Why wasn’t she afraid of me? Had she ever seen a changeling? Had she heard of us? It didn’t seem like she had! But how was that possible, living so close to the hive, relatively speaking? Maybe this was my chance to make a good first impression on someone uncorrupted by preconceptions! Could I really be that lucky?
“You seem tired. Would you like to come with me to my village? You can rest there, or grab something to eat if you’re hungry,” she offered.
“Would I! Thank you so much… um, what’s your name?”
“Little Strongheart. Yours?”
“I’m Thorax. Pleased to meet you,” I grinned widely. This was going well!
“The pleasure is mine, Thorax. This way,” she pointed her hoof.
“Is it far?”
“No, not really, we’ll be there in a few minutes. Um… I hope I’m not being rude, but what are you? I’ve never seen anyone like you before.”
“I’m a changeling.”
“Changeling… changeling…” she mused. “The word is vaguely familiar, but I can’t seem to remember where I heard it. Oh well, maybe someone in the village will know!”
“Maybe,” I replied. Hopefully not, but I wasn’t convinced. Maybe accepting her invitation wasn’t such a good idea! Oh well, too late to change my mind now! I’d just have to hope they’d go easy on me.
“And what are you? I’ve never seen anyone like you before either.”
“I’m a buffalo.”
I tried to remember if I’d ever heard anything being said about buffalo, but nothing came to mind. I didn’t have time to ask or say anything else before we arrived in the village.
“Dad, look, I met someone in the desert!” Little Strongheart called to one of the villagers... and just as she did, everything around us seemed to stop.
All eyes were fixed on me.
It was beyond doubt that although Little Strongheart wasn’t familiar with changelings, everyone else was.
“Little Strongheart, dear, what have you done?” whispered the buffalo with more feathers in his headband than anyone else. He must have been the village’s leader or whatever they were called!
“Well, I met him in the desert, and he was tired and hungry… so I thought... “ Little Strongheart was starting to catch on that something wasn’t right.
“He’s a changeling,” warned her father. “I didn’t want to trouble you with stories about them at such a young age, but changelings are dangerous creatures that will trick you into believing they’re friendly and then drain you of your love! You must never come near them! You’ve been lucky to have never seen them invade, but I have, and so did my father, and his father before him, and his father before him, and his father before him, and his father before him, and his father before him, and his father before him…”
I tilted my head in confusion. Was the guy rambling, or had there actually been such a streak of unfortunate fathers?
“I think I get the idea,” Little Strongheart interrupted and looked at me uneasily. “So what should we do?”
“We can’t allow him to stay here. He must go, now!”
“But I’m not invading, or trying to harm you, or stealing your love!” I tried to explain. “I’m just looking to find a friend! I know it’s hard to believe me after your previous experiences with my kind, but I’m not like them! Can’t you give me a chance?”
Little Strongheart’s father gestured to the nearest few buffalo to come closer.
“Even if you did come alone, changeling, I don’t want to make a mistake of trusting you”, he spoke to me. “Knowing what your kind did to us in the past, I will not allow you to remain here! Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll have to find it elsewhere! These villagers will escort you to the edge of buffalo territory. Do not return, or I promise you, you will face consequences!”
I nodded and went away; their minds were apparently made up, and I’d get nowhere trying to convince them otherwise. I might even anger them to the point where they’d decide to proceed with those consequences immediately! The summoned buffalo followed, and Little Strongheart and her father stayed behind. Little Strongheart’s face was distorted in a grimace, her eyes avoiding mine, but her father’s face was frowning unforgivingly.
It was nearly evening by the time we reached the border. There was an apple orchard, and we stopped in the middle of it. It seemed strange to have stopped in the middle rather than on either end, but they gave no explanation, and I didn’t think to ask for one. Then they pointed out a few landmarks by which I would recognize a line I shouldn’t cross, and having made sure I’d committed them to memory, they turned around and left me in the orchard.
Despite getting banished from their land, the encounter had gone much more smoothly and peacefully than anything I’d ever witnessed in the hive! This was why my spirits were only slightly deflated by this failure to make friends with the buffalo. In the hive, I would have already been dead for the same kind of transgression, but the buffalo had almost seemed like they would apologize for sending me away! It was unbelievable!
And, for some reason, I didn’t feel quite as hungry as usual. I was far from sated, but at least my hunger seemed bearable now. Had I eaten some of their love without realizing? And how?
Maybe, if all else failed, I could return here and set up a home just outside the buffalo territory. In all likelihood they wouldn’t be very happy to see me return, but if I stayed just outside of their territory, they probably wouldn’t be able to chase me off from there, and over time they might even realize that I’d spoken the truth when I told them I had no foul intentions and lift my banishment! It would be the last resort, especially with the hive being so much closer to here than to many other places I could get to, but for now, I was going to keep looking. I had only started, after all; this couldn’t be the only chance I’d ever get of finding friends! Who knows what lies ahead?
I had barely walked a dozen steps when I heard a cheerful conversation approaching. I darted up the nearest tree to avoid getting noticed, and not a moment too soon! A mare and stallion, both carrying saddlebags filled to the brim with apples, were strolling leisurely under my branch, discussing their plans for tomorrow.
Ponies. I must be in Equestria!
Realizing my hasty ascent had disturbed the tree enough for a few leaves to fall off, I quickly disguised myself as an earth pony, thinking it would be least suspicious.
A leaf fell onto the stallion’s face, and he recoiled and looked up.
“Who are you? What are you doing in my tree?” he asked, startled.
“Um… I can explain…” I wasn’t so sure; no credible excuse came to mind.
“Are you stealing my apples?!”
“No - no I’m not! I’m just… um… well…”
“Get down here, thief!”
The stallion dropped the saddlebag off his back and bucked the tree I was on. A number of apples fell off.
I lost my balance and started to fall, but managed to grab the branch with my forelegs and remained dangling. I silently cursed my unfortunate choice of disguise; wings would have been very useful now!
After a few more failed attempts to buck me down and a bigger pile of apples on the ground, the stallion decided it was time to try a different approach, and went at my tail, which was unfortunately long enough for him to reach easily. I made a mental note to give myself a shorter tail next time, assuming there was a next time.
He was strong and pulled me off the branch quite easily, and I landed with a painful thud.
“Get the sheriff!” he yelled at his companion, who wasted no time in galloping away.
Before I could react, the stallion threw himself at me and started hitting me with the same vigour as any group of changelings that had ever beat me up before - only this time, Pharynx wasn’t around to stop him. I made a pathetic attempt of defending myself, but in the end all I managed to do was curl myself in a ball and wait until he had enough.
He did in what seemed like forever, and while hurting all over, I was relieved that he hadn’t knocked me out. It was impossible for an unconscious changeling to maintain a disguise, and if that had happened, my already bad situation would have become about a million times worse!
I was just pulling myself together when the mare arrived with a stern-looking stallion in tow. The sheriff, I presumed.
“Now what do we have here, Braeburn?” he asked the stallion, glancing at me inquiringly.
“I caught this crook stealing my apples!” Braeburn explained.
“Is that so?” the sheriff then turned his full attention to me, raising an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t stealing anything, Sir! I just happened to be here!” I tried to explain.
“What business did you have climbing branches, then, if you were ‘just passing through?’” Braeburn wasn’t having it. “Where did you come from, anyway? And how did you even climb that tree?”
I said nothing; I hadn’t had a chance to think of an explanation in all the ruckus.
“Well, the situation seems clear,” the sheriff agreed. “I’m going to have to lock you up. What’s your name?”
Not knowing what to tell him, I remained silent again.
“Not very talkative all of a sudden, are we? Maybe a night in the jail cell will loosen your tongue,” the sheriff frowned, reaching for something on his belt. “Forehooves!” he commanded.
I had no choice but to comply.
The sheriff cuffed me and turned back to Braeburn.
“You should come with us to the station. I’ll need a written statement before I can give this guy over to the court.”
“Sure, sheriff! Whatever needs to be done,” Braeburn agreed and took his saddlebag.
“I’ll stay here and collect these apples,” said the mare. “Unless you need a statement from me too, sheriff?”
“It's fine, ma’am,” he answered. “I will need that statement, but it’s not urgent, and anyway it’s getting late. I can find you tomorrow.”
So we went.
The sheriff’s station turned out to be on the other end of the village, and though it was getting dark, a lot of ponies, maybe even the entire village, were still out in the street. They got quite a show of me being taken to jail, or at least that was how it felt from my perspective. Disguised or not, it saddened me to think I wouldn’t be making any friends here - not in the foreseeable future, anyway.
The station was rather small, but probably an appropriate size for a village. Its jail consisted of only one cell, and it was empty and didn’t seem to be reinforced with any spells. That was the first bit of good news I’d gotten in this place: it should be easy to get out unless I picked a wrong moment! The sheriff locked me up and assigned a lone guard to keep an eye on me, then left with Braeburn, presumably to get that statement.
I sat on the cold floor in silence, pretending to regret what I’d allegedly done and consider my options, while actually biding my time until an opportunity for an escape presented itself. It took about an hour or two; the guard took his job seriously at first, but eventually got bored of staring at me and gradually dozed off. Believing he was guarding an earth pony, he probably didn’t see how I might manage to slip past him, and in case of an actual earth pony, he would have been right. This time, however, he was going to get in trouble. I didn’t like doing it to him, but I wasn’t about to risk being sent to prison - my true face was bound to be discovered there if not sooner, and then I’d be in real trouble, both from ponies and from Chrysalis if she found out I was there, which she undoubtedly would!
Turning into a mouse made it easy for me to slip through the bars and a crack in the main door, and then out into the street. A few ponies were still around, so either my preferred method of leaving would have to wait, or I’d have to move away to where they couldn’t see me. With no way to be sure how long I’d be stuck waiting, and not wanting to risk the guard waking up while I was still here even if I was disguised, only one option remained. At least it was dark enough for a mouse to run around unnoticed!
I only got a little bit away from the station when light and music drew my attention to one of the cottages. The door was wide open, and through it, I could easily see a number of ponies sitting inside and chatting cheerfully over some drinks. I was about to move on when I noticed two buffalo sitting at a table with three ponies, enjoying a conversation. The buffalo weren’t any of the ones that had led me here, but still it was an important discovery: they were friends with ponies, and it may have been safe to assume the ponies shared ownership of that orchard with the buffalo! Had the buffalo deliberately led me there hoping I’d get captured by the ponies? Had their politeness been just a bluff to lower my guard and get me to trust them long enough to be lured into a trap? Had they used this strategy before to capture other changelings? I couldn’t return to live here if I failed to find a friend in the rest of Equestria after all!
I hurried to the last cottage in town and hid behind it. After taking a good look around me to make sure no one would see what was about to happen, I transformed into a pegasus and flew away.
The night was warm and tranquil, hardly even a breeze in the air. The stars twinkled like jewels, and the full moon shone brightly on the land below me. No living thing disturbed the calming silence, not even the soft rustle of my diguised wings. Were I not so burdened by the recent events, I would have enjoyed this moment.
Flying alone over the sleeping scenery, I couldn’t help but reflect on today’s experiences. In just one day there had been good times and bad times, hopes and worries, chances and troubles. At a first glance there was not much to be satisfied with, but I felt like something useful may have come out of it after all.
I hadn’t made a friend, but I had come in contact with non-changelings, and although the encounters ultimately hadn’t gone the way I would have wanted, I took great comfort in the realization that ponies and buffalo were much more civilized than changelings, even when dealing with intruders, and even if they may jump to conclusions. Actually, were they jumping to conclusions at all? Or had I simply failed to state my intentions clearly enough? I didn’t think so, but with so little experience with them, I didn’t want to entirely rule out that possibility.
The one thing that raised my hopes of finding a friend more than anything so far was my encounter with Little Strongheart. Even if the reputation of my kind had been unknown to her, she should have been frightened by my sharp fangs and disgusted by the holes in my legs, but she hadn’t been! She’d seemed to genuinely care about my well-being when she should have backed away! Even when her father had told her about the sins of my kind, she hadn’t seemed to believe I was personally capable of committing such atrocities! If only I’d had a chance to talk to her later! Maybe - hopefully - I would find someone like her again!
As for Braeburn and his friend, I could understand why they’d thought I was a thief. I didn’t blame him for what he’d done to me; the punches had almost stopped hurting by now. I didn’t blame the sheriff, either; he’d just been doing his job. It was my fault, really. I should have chosen a different disguise, or thought of a credible explanation of my actions sooner, or just plain found a different hiding spot from the start!
I made a decision: if I ever got accepted into pony society, I would find Braeburn and the sheriff and apologize to them for causing that mess. If they still wanted to send me to prison after hearing me out, I wouldn’t resist.
The buffalo were another matter. They’d made it clear enough from the start that they didn’t like changelings; that much I had no big problem accepting. What I might have a problem with was that I couldn’t be sure exactly how honest they’d really been. Leaving me in the middle of the orchard had seemed odd from the start, and I wished I’d asked for an explanation right away! Now I could only guess whether they’d been simply getting rid of me in the easiest way possible or delivering me to the ponies in the hope someone else would exact punishment on me, maybe a kind of punishment they had no guts to resort to themselves. Or had the group that had accompanied me out of their territory decided on a whim where to take me? They hadn’t said a word to each other throughout the trip! Had they communicated their intentions some other way? Had one of them, the oldest or the highest-ranking among them perhaps, chosen a destination or direction randomly and the others had simply followed? Or was the orchard their default location for disposing of unwanted visitors? It was possible, considering their leader hadn’t specified a location where they were to take me; he wouldn’t have had to if that was the case! And what about the buffalo I’d spied in the pony village after escaping from jail? What had their business been? They may have come there simply to enjoy themselves and chat with friends, unaware that a changeling had visited their village, but even such a normally benign scenario could have an outcome undesirable for me: the buffalo would sooner or later mention the changeling visitor to their pony friends, and the ponies would then go on high alert and possibly spread the word to other cities and villages, which would make my quest considerably harder and more dangerous! Whether or not they came to suspect that the runaway apple thief had been in any way related to the changeling from the buffalo village wouldn’t really matter anymore; the alleged apple theft would be an insignificant matter compared to charges of invading an enemy territory or whatever else the ponies might come up with! Even if I would get forgiven for, well, simply existing in Equestria - which was extremely unlikely - I feared such grave charges would prevent me from ever earning enough trust from ponies to succeed in befriending them!
I forced a halt on that train of thought before my paranoia could invent any even more frightening scenarios. For all I knew, the orchard may have simply been the closest location outside of their territory! If that was the case, it would have been logical to take me there if they were trying to get me away as quickly as possible, with or without ulterior motives. Either way, I wouldn’t consider returning to live near them if I failed to find friends elsewhere; without knowing for sure whether or not I could trust them, I didn't want to take any further risks.
By the time I finally managed to get the buffalo out of my head and calm myself a little, I was flying over another village in the wasteland. Should I try looking for friends here, or should I move on?
I descended to take a closer look at the village. It wasn’t too different from the previous one, where I’d gotten arrested. It was roughly the same size, with about the same number of houses, built in a similar style as the ones in the other village. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought I was still in the same village! There was even an orchard near one end of it, too, only this one grew cherries.
Pondering the matter for a while, I decided to move on. The images of my experiences in Braeburn’s village were still too fresh, and considering my current state of mind, I didn’t want to risk those images surfacing in front of ponies in the form of suspicious behavior. I could put on a different disguise, sure, and no one would know that I was the pony who’d escaped from the neighboring village’s jail tonight; but if the two villages were keeping in touch about these matters, finding out about a fugitive from there and seeing an unfamiliar face here the very next day might raise some questions, for example whether I might be a friend or an accomplice of that fugitive, and I’d be in trouble again. Better not risk it!
I left the village without even landing in a street, and proceeded in roughly the same direction I’d been flying in before having noticed the village. Eventually I became aware of a change in scenery below me. Rocks and dust were replaced by grass and trees, and the dryness of the air gave way to the scent of flowers. This was the type of Equestrian scenery I was familiar with: the same kind as that of the fields and mountains surrounding Canterlot. Before the invasion, we’d been instructed to conceal ourselves there by pretending to be rabbits and squirrels and songbirds while waiting for the signal to proceed with the mission. I decided to assume the same kind of wildlife would be found here; this would solve my problem of picking a suitable disguise to blend in with the surroundings.
I didn’t see any towns or villages in the immediate area, so the disguise wouldn’t be necessary right away, and I dropped my current one. Besides, I was getting tired. I decided to take a break and continue tomorrow.
I landed in a copse a little away from a road. According to what I’d been told about ponies, they didn’t have a habit of sleeping in the open like this, therefore I should be safe enough from unwanted attention here. I found a bush large enough to accomodate me, crawled under it, curled up and fell asleep.
I was woken up by a rustle of leaves and soft whispering. When I opened my eyes, I needed a moment to process what I was seeing.
Two faces were staring at me intently. They were yellowish unicorn stallions with red manes streaked white under matching hats, and peculiar green eyes - almost identical, except one of them was wearing a moustache. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but then I realized they were real.
What was going on? Was I in trouble again? Had I accidentally transformed in my sleep into something less scary? I glanced at my forelegs. Nope, still myself! So why were these two staring at me like that? Didn’t they know what I was? After Canterlot, I expected that every last pony would be made aware of us - at least that was what Chrysalis would have done if the hive had been invaded. Surely the pony princesses couldn’t have been so careless to fail to warn their subjects about such threats! Or did these two simply live so far away from civilization that they’d somehow managed to miss the whole thing?
The two faces shared a meaningful glance, then turned to me, grinning.
“Good morning,” said one.
“Um… good morning?” I replied cautiously.
“Do come out of there, don’t be afraid!” said the other.
“We’re your friends!” continued the first.
I hesitated. They were eager... a little too eager. My instincts told me to be careful.
“You’re not going to stay in that bush forever, are you?” One of them offered a hoof. “It’s a gorgeous day! Would be a shame to miss it!”
They had a point about one thing: I couldn’t stay in the bush; in danger or not, there wasn’t much I could do from here. Better to get out and give myself some maneuvering space! Maybe it would be easier to figure out what I was up against once I was out, too.
“Who are you?” I asked, having taken their advice and now standing in the open.
“We’re two brothers traveling across Equestria, looking for new friends and new opportunities!” answered one.
“His name is Flim, and I’m Flam!” said the other.
“We were passing through and decided to stop here and look for some firewood!”
“And then we found you!”
“Isn’t it wonderful? A new friend waiting around every corner!”
“And in every bush, brother!”
“Will you join us, our changeling friend?”
“You don’t have to hide in bushes! Come with us, and you’ll have all the love you need!”
So they did know about changelings. Could they really mean what they had said? It sounded too good to be true!
“Really? You’re not fooling with me, are you?” I couldn’t shake off the whisper in the back of my mind, telling me something was off about them.
“Of course we mean it!” insisted Flam.
“You must be fed up with having to hunt ponies for food - excuse the pun - and we’d like to help!” reassured Flim.
“Just like that?” I wasn’t convinced.
“Of course! Isn’t that what friendship is all about?” asked Flam.
“I suppose so, but - whoa!”
Suddenly I was dangling upside-down in a net, held above ground by Flim’s magic.
“Gotcha! You fool!” gloated Flim.
Right again - I was a fool. I shouldn’t have allowed them to distract me with conversation while one of them prepared to catch me! Even a rookie soldier would have known to avoid that!
“Excellent catch, brother! Now, what to do with him?”
“I bet he’s worth loads of money! Hmmm… Aha! Let’s sell him to a circus!”
“I have a better idea! Let’s sell him to the Royal Guard!”
“The circus would have plenty of ideas what to use him for! They’d pay us well!”
Now that they were distracted by arguing, I decided to make the best of the chance that presented itself. The net was too dense to get out of even by transforming into a small creature, but it looked like I might be able to chew through it. My fangs were pretty sharp - I hadn’t used them in a long while so I couldn’t be sure, but they seemed like a good enough tool to help me free myself from this. I got to work.
“Or start our own circus with him as the main attraction!” the arguing continued. “That way we can keep earning money on him indefinitely!”
“Not if all the customers run away in terror!”
“Run away? Please! Have you seen him? He wouldn’t scare a fly!”
Either the net was weaker than I’d expected, or my fangs were sharper than I remembered them. Just a little more…
“But the Guard would pay us a million bits! You heard Celestia-”
“The Guard would pat you on the shoulder and say, ‘good work, mister!’ They’d laugh in your face when you ask for payment!”
“And how do you propose we get him to agree to perform- hey, he’s gone!”
“What?!” cried Flim.
“He tore a hole in the net! Didn’t we have a stronger one?” Flam was furious.
“I don’t- wait, he’s that bird, isn’t he? Get him!”
Okay, they’d seen through my disguise, but I wasn’t ready to give it up yet. I was fleeing further into the copse, and in this form, I may be able to lose them in the trees, or at the very least, they might confuse me for another bird.
They were pretty good at following me - no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake them off! I flew as fast as I could, and they were still gaining on me! I flew higher up, over the foliage, hoping they couldn’t see me through the branches, but not only the foliage turned out to not be dense enough to hide me from them, it also didn’t stop them from trying to blast me down with their magic! I returned to a lower altitude immediately; no need to attract the attention of any other ponies that might be in the area, especially if they had wings! Two ponies chasing me was plenty enough, thank you very much!
Instead, I modified my disguise to match my feather coloration to that of the branches and leaves, which I’d been stupid to have neglected to do right away; maybe becoming less discernible in the surroundings could help me! It worked. I managed to put a little more distance between myself and the brothers while they struggled to maintain visual contact and coordinate when one would lose sight of me. They weren’t giving up, though. They were getting out of breath, but that didn’t lessen their determination to get me!
Soon I was approaching a clearing. Faced with the decision whether to stay here or try to make it across, I opted for the latter. I was counting on the unobstructed path to help me get further away from them and the darker forest on the other side to provide me with a better place to hide until they decided it was pointless and gave up.
They went after me with all their remaining strength, Flim still not giving up running after me, even after we were both across the clearing and in the new forest, but Flam stopped at the edge. I glanced back, wondering what had happened.
“Are you crazy, Flim? Come back here!” he called for his brother.
“But the changeling-”
“Forget the changeling! The Everfree Forest is just too dangerous! Remember what happened to us when we tried to go through! It’s not worth it!”
Flam’s concern for his brother sounded genuine, but I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just another trick to lure me out. If the forest really was that dangerous to them, it probably would be for me too, but the alternative was to go back and try to deal with the unicorn brothers - an option no more appealing than the potential dangers that might lay ahead.
They may or may not have been laying a trap for me, but I was never going to find out.
It was dark under the dense canopy, and the eerie silence was broken every so often by one creepy noise or another carried on the cold breeze that sent shivers down my carapace. The damp, musty smell filled my nostrils, and I couldn’t help feeling a thousand eyes staring at me from the shadows.
Whether or not any real danger loomed near me, it was clear why Flam had been so reluctant to set hoof in this place. But supposing the two brothers had indeed met trouble here, what might it have been? Something only interested in ponies, or something less picky about whose day it would ruin? Was there a chance that I, being a changeling, might actually be safer than them from any of these unknown abominations? But how would I know? Would I even recognize a dangerous creature as such? Despite my limited knowledge of rare creatures of the wild, I knew appearances weren't always a trustworthy way to tell whether or not getting away was advisable. My own kind was a prime example of such fallacity, after all!
I had dropped my disguise some time after getting out of sight and earshot of the trickster unicorns. Now I was walking slowly through the forest, careful and vigilant for any sign of trouble, hoping to find none.
And yet, for some peculiar reason, part of me wished for something to happen. Ever since I’d gotten here I felt uneasy, my mind dancing like a rock on the edge of a cliff, still holding on but just waiting to get blown off into the abyss by the slightest of winds. My muscles were tense, constantly awaiting some fillip, some trigger to send me running like mad... but nothing came. The suspense was unbearable! If only something would happen... something to show me that the danger I sensed was real… that I wasn’t losing my mind!
Maybe that was just how the forest affected those who enter.
I walked on, the dreadful feeling of impending disaster still clenching my heart. And then, after what seemed like an eternity, a voice spoke behind me, clear as the sun shining on the skies above each day:
“Well, if it isn’t Thorax the traitor!”
With a growing dread, I turned around... and faced three changeling soldiers in full battle gear. How had I failed to notice them? Where had they been? Were they what my instincts had been warning me about all along?
“Oh, hey guys. Nice day, huh?” I gave a sheepish smile.
What was I trying to accomplish? No amount of rambling or idle chit-chat was going to save me from them!
“It’s nice for us… not so much for you,” one of them mocked me.
“You do realize Chrysalis isn’t very happy with you right now, don’t you?” smirked another.
“You didn’t really think we wouldn’t find you? That you could just walk away and go wherever you wanted and the hive would just shrug it off like betraying the Queen is no big deal?” hissed the third one.
I started to back off. They responded by moving forward and slightly to either side of me in order to surround me in a circle.
“I hope you’ve had fun, because it will be your last,” said the middle soldier grimly, pointing a spear at me.
The other two bared their fangs in enjoyment, grinning in expectation of victory and the praise the successful mission would bring them.
Then we heard growling from my right.
We all froze momentarily in place, looking for the source of the menacing sound.
And sure enough, two large, roaring timberwolves came out of the darkness, fixing their hungry eyes on us and rushing to catch their prey.
An image of Venom flashed before my eyes. According to reports, she’d met her fate at the jaws of one of these beasts. Was I about to join my sister?
The three changelings lost interest in me and turned to the timberwolves, rushing at them with bared fangs and spears at the ready.
I attempted a retreat while they were distracted.
One timberwolf clashed with two of the soldiers, who fought back with all their cunning and might, joined by the third in a second; but the other timberwolf missed his target, skidded on the damp ground beneath his paws, his flank colliding with me and sending me tumbling through the bushes and into a nearby ravine.
I lay there immobile, momentarily disoriented, my shoulder hurting from the fall. I expected the timberwolf to come running down the slope after me and finish me off, but there was no sign of him... not in the ravine, anyway. He must have forgotten about me in the heat of battle with my undestined captors, assuming he’d taken notice of me at all! And from the sound of it, it was quite a battle. Growling and hissing and battle cries went on seemingly forever!
Until, finally, there were startled yelps.
And then... silence.
I waited a few minutes to give the timberwolves time to go away. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to worry about the three changelings anymore. Their fate saddened me - somewhat to my surprise, considering what they were about to do - but this was neither time nor place for reflecting on the outcome of our encounter; the timberwolves might still be hungry! I had to get away! I was limping with pain, but didn’t dare to fly, lest the timberwolves hear the buzz of my wings.
I should have waited a little longer.
One timberwolf had gone, but the other was still there. He noticed me climb out of the ravine and swung a paw at me. I backed away, but he still managed to leave a nasty scratch on my side. There was no point in lingering; with the more immediate threat to deal with, I decided to ignore the possible risk of more groups of changelings in the area for the time being, buzzed my wings and flew high up, above the trees, where the timberwolf couldn’t reach me.
Eventually the excitement wore off, and the pain and exhaustion started to get to me. I decided to land and get some rest in a part of the forest where I could see no timberwolves close by. There was no way to be sure I wouldn’t run into something just as dangerous, if not more, but hopefully, this time, I would be left alone.
Several hours of aimless wandering later, the new part of the forest seemed to take pity on me: no hungry beasts disturbed me while I sat in the shadows, catching my breath and thinking about what had happened. My shoulder still throbbed - all that walking couldn't have helped it get much better - but at least the gash on my side had stopped bleeding. I wanted to be mad at the timberwolves for injuring me, but on the other hoof, I couldn’t really; the injuries were a small price to pay for saving me from something much, much worse.
Fearing I might find out the hard way what else lived in this forest, I decided to get going before another beast mistook me for lunch; but as soon as I got off the ground, a sharp pain stabbed through my side, and upon landing again, I realized the movement of my wing had opened the gash and caused it to bleed again. I couldn’t fly like that! Testing my shoulder, I determined walking would still be possible with care, but I better be careful not to run into trouble again - galloping was out of question for now!
It was slow progress, but at least it felt better than sitting on my haunches and hoping nothing would come get me. Having plenty of time to think, I came to realize that although the feelings of uneasiness and dread that had tormented me so much were still present, they had diminished significantly since my close encounter with the changelings and timberwolves. Was it possible I’d somehow predicted what would happen? Had I sensed the attackers before they’d had the chance to show themselves? If I’d listened to the whispers in the back of my mind, could I have avoided this mess?
Then I noticed movement in the bushes ahead of me. I couldn’t see what was there, so I lay on the ground to make myself harder to notice in the underbrush without risking the flash of shapeshifting magic in case whatever was out there happened to be facing my direction, freezing in place until I could determine whether or not it was safe to proceed.
A cloaked figure came out of the bushes, facing away from me. It was equine in size and posture, and though I couldn’t see its face, I did notice a lock of black-and-white mane protruding upright from under its hood. The figure picked a plant from the ground and put it in a saddlebag.
Just a pony collecting herbs, I concluded with relief and got up. If I stayed quiet, I could follow without being seen. The pony must know the way out of the forest, I told myself - this was my best bet for getting out quickly.
Everything was going fine until a twig cracked under my hoof.
“Oh dear! What is that sound I hear?” the figure started to turn.
I quickly transformed into a pony.
“Oh! You startled me good! Few a pony comes to this wood,” the figure now turned completely and removed its hood. A smiling face, striped black and white, looked back at me.
“I’m lost,” I tried to explain. “I’ve never seen anypony with stripes such as yours,” I added curiously.
“I’m a zebra from a faraway place, but I have lived here for great many days! To ponies of Ponyville I’m a close friend, and helping hooves to each other we often lend!”
She did seem genuinely friendly, unlike the two unicorns I’d met earlier!
“You have a nasty wound, I see,” her smile turned to concern. She was bound to notice sooner or later; even a disguise could only do so much to hide fresh injuries. “Pray tell, how did that come to be?”
“Timberwolves,” I said, hoping I wouldn’t have to go into detail.
“Then your luck is keeping well in check,” she marveled. “Most who meet timberwolves do not come back!”
I nodded gravely.
“Come with me! I have just the thing to heal that wound in a blink!”
“Oh… I wouldn’t want to trouble you…” I hesitated. Goodness knows I needed a healer, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with letting myself get treated by a stranger of an unfamiliar species. What if she noticed something was wrong? If she really was friends with ponies, she could easily know about changelings!
“Don’t be shy - you’ll be alright,” she assured me.
I weighed my options. I could refuse and try my luck in the forest - a strategy which had nearly cost me my life so far, and injured like I was, my chances of escaping any future encounters were much lower. Or I could accept and get the help I needed. Sure, there was a risk of getting discovered in the process, but maybe she would be reasonable and willing to give me a chance to prove my good intentions! Even if that wouldn’t happen, did I really have that much to lose, considering the alternative? Besides, I reminded myself, finding a friend was the very reason why I’d escaped and gotten into all this mess in the first place!
“Okay, I’ll come with you,” I accepted her offer.
She led me through the forest to a hollowed-out tree decorated with masks and sculptures like I’d never seen before. I couldn’t help but stare in amazement.
“What are these?” I asked.
“They are mementoes of my old home,” she explained, pointing at two masks. “This one speaks ‘hello’, and this, ‘welcome’.”
“You are very kind. Now do come in, if you don’t mind?”
Inside were shelves with countless pots and bottles, more decorations I assumed were from the zebra’s homeland, and a large cauldron that dominated the center of the room.
“This won’t take long. Please, make yourself at home,” she said.
I sat on a stool near a small table. The zebra went searching through the shelves, humming a calming tune as she did so - quite enjoyable, in fact. After a minute or two, she returned with a small jar.
“There - rub this ointment on that gash, and watch it disappear in a flash!” She removed the lid.
I studied the greenish substance precariously. Could this really help me?
Only one way to know.
I took some of the ointment on my hoof and rubbed it into the wound as instructed. Just a split second later it turned out the zebra was telling the truth! The wound was healing rapidly before my eyes, and in less than a minute, it was completely gone as if it had never existed!
But before I could thank her, I felt something else happening - the peculiar tingling sensation I’d felt in the wound as the ointment worked its magic was now getting stronger and washing all over my body. My eyes widened in horror as I realized what was about to happen - and I was powerless to stop it!
My disguise collapsed, revealing my true form.
“Oh no - what a tale of woe! I brought a changeling beast to my home!” the zebra recoiled in terror.
“Please, don’t be afraid! I don’t want to harm you!” I tried to calm her, but to no avail.
“No! Lies and deception are your way - if I let you, you’ll destroy me any day!”
“No - please believe me - I’m not like that!”
It was useless. Whatever I tried seemed to only frighten her more!
“Please, just get out of here,” she begged, “and I’ll tell nothing of you being near!”
I wanted to believe her, but could I?
“Worry not, my words are always true!” she was beside herself with fear by now - curled up on the floor and trembling. “Now, leave me and go, I beg of you!”
“I’m so sorry to have frightened you,” I apologized sadly and left.
She may or may not have been telling the truth when she said she wouldn’t warn anypony about me, but I simply couldn’t stay there and perpetuate her fear. I just wanted her to calm down, even if it meant her pony friends would learn about my presence. I’d have to worry more about my safety anyway now that Chrysalis’ forces were around, looking for me!
As night was falling, I came upon ruins of what might have long ago been an ancient castle, now overgrown with the forest’s vegetation. Having no better place to go, I picked a relatively well-preserved room, made sure I knew where to flee if something were to happen during the night, and curled up to sleep between piles of scattered books lying on the ground.
The next day, I walked out of the ruins and into a bright and sunny morning. Although still present, my anxiety had died down even more during the night, and I was feeling better. Even that shoulder had stopped hurting!
Wondering about yesterday’s side-effects of the zebra’s ointment, I tried to shapeshift and found it marginally harder than usual to form a particular disguise, but not so hard to doubt my ability to turn into something else if the need arose. Maintaining the disguise didn’t seem to be a problem, either, so I decided I was good to go.
It turned out I’d been closer to the edge of the forest than I’d expected - only a half-hour’s walk by a rough estimate. I wasn’t going to miss that place at all!
Ahead of me lay a nice-looking town bathed in sunshine. This must be the Ponyville the zebra had mentioned, I thought to myself. I wanted to see it up close; I had a good feeling about it. But first things first: no use marching in there looking like myself and causing a mass panic! A songbird should be more welcome, even if it didn’t actually sing.
I spread my new feathered wings and flew into the town. It was mostly rustic houses with trees and parks in between, but one feature stood out: a large, crystally, tree-shaped castle shimmering in the light. A castle worthy of a princess, I thought, awestruck. But didn’t all three princesses of Equestria live in Canterlot? The briefing for the invasion had said so! So, either something had changed in the meantime, or our information had been wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised about either!
Getting closer, I noticed a group of ponies approaching the castle on hoof, and almost dropped my disguise in astonishment upon realizing I’d seen them before, in what seemed like another life now. They were the same ponies I’d observed during the invasion of Canterlot, the same ones whose courage had fascinated me so immensely, the same ones whose spirit had awakened my long-lost dream of finding a friend! And there was so much love coming from them, I could barely contain my exaltation!
But hadn’t there been a sixth pony with them before - a purple unicorn, one that had freed princess Mi Amore Cadenza? Why wasn’t she around now? Had something happened to her? My thrill was quickly turning to worry.
And then the castle’s door opened, and my purple unicorn stepped out and waved cheerfully to her friends, inviting them inside.
But was I seeing it right? The purple unicorn had wings now! If I understood pony hierarchy correctly, she’d become a princess in the meantime! This was her castle! I shed tears of pride at the thought. I didn’t know anything about her, not even her name, but I felt in my heart that she deserved every bit of her royal status!
I sat on a branch of a nearby tree, taking a moment to relish this new realization. It warmed my heart to know that despite all the evil and darkness in the world, good souls prevailed and got rewarded for their efforts to make the world a better place. I knew that, no matter where my journey took me, no matter what happened to me, this knowledge would always be my pillar of hope, my guiding star, my shining light in the darkness of despair.
My reverie was interrupted by a loud crash so suddenly, I almost dropped out of my tree in apprehension. I looked around for the source of the noise and saw a large hole in one of the walls of the castle’s upper segment, a pink blur that might have been one of the six ponies rushing away as if her life depended on it, and the other five peeking through the new hole in only a slight puzzlement, as if they were used to this kind of behavior, however crazy that idea was. Surely the pink pony can’t be doing this kind of things all the time, can she?
I kept watching as the princess used her magic to collect the fragments of the wall off the ground below and fix them back together. Soon the damage was repaired as if nothing had happened, and I could no longer see the five ponies inside. Not expecting anything interesting to happen here any time soon, I left my branch and flew away to see if I could find the runaway pink pony. I was eager to try to figure out what kind of thing had caused her to run straight through a wall!
I crossed the town from one end to the other twice, but there was no sign of my pony. Instead, I came across another of the six: a yellow pegasus. Most ponies in town had barely even looked at me all day, so I expected nothing more from her, but her face lit up with joy upon seeing me, and with a few flaps of her wings, she was right in my face, despite my panicked attempts to stay out of her reach.
“Awww.... aren’t you simply the cutest little birdie?” she cooed at me. “Have I seen you around yet? I don’t think I have! Welcome to Ponyville, my little friend! I hope you’ll find yourself a nice home here!”
And then she proceeded to nuzzle me. The pure, sweet, innocent love she radiated was a blessing for my starving body! I could stay there forever!
No - I couldn’t stay there forever! I couldn’t stay there one more second! This was so wrong, feeding off of her like that! I’d made a promise to myself I wouldn’t take one bit of love gained through lies and deception, only the love given freely by someone who knew and understood what I was and accepted me as such! And what was I doing now? Feasting on the love of an unsuspecting pony like all the others of my kind, the same ones I’d abandoned because I couldn’t stand their need to steal love! I had to stop - I had to get away from here before I betrayed everything I’d stood up for!
I broke off from her and took to the air again, leaving the pegasus confused and a little saddened by my sudden departure. I was sad too for having to leave her, but it was for the best. Knowing that she’d fought the other changelings in Canterlot, I didn’t think there was even a slightest chance she might be interested in letting me become her friend; and even if she herself did let me, would her other friends be so willing to give me such a chance? I didn’t dare to try and find out!
I had flown off in a random direction, wanting only to get away from the kind pegasus, not particularly caring where I’d end up, but pretty soon I arrived at the town’s train station. I sat on the roof to plan what to do next.
A train was just arriving. Presumably it would stop at the station while ponies got off and others boarded it, and then it would move on to its next stop and eventually the final destination. It would be easy to board it and see where it would take me, and knowing now who lived in this town, I dared not stay. I didn’t have any money for a ticket, but if I chose my disguise wisely, that might not be a problem.
I looked the station over from my vantage point on the roof. Though there weren’t many ponies around, I didn’t see much cover I could use to change my disguise, either. And what would I turn into, anyway? A pony would work, sure, but boarding the train required a ticket, which I could theoretically create as part of my hoof, but there was a problem: I had no idea what a train ticket looked like. And even if I did know, what would I do with it once I got on the train? I couldn't just keep my hoof looking like that; it would likely draw attention, and so would trying to transform away the alleged ticket. I didn't even know whether or not I’d be expected to present the ticket again at a later time during the ride! No loose tickets were lying around, either, but something told me I couldn’t use them even if I found one. The ponies probably had a way of telling if a particular ticket had been used before; otherwise, why bother buying a ticket at all? Why not just use the one bought for a previous occasion?
Maybe I could remain a bird and just fly in and get out at whatever other station I fancied? Surely a bird wouldn’t be expected to buy a ticket! It was worth a try.
Approaching the train was easy enough: there were other birds on the platform, and nopony seemed to notice any of them, including me by extension. I went to slip past the conductor, but just as I entered the train car, he turned and went after me, lighting his horn.
Oh no! Did he see through my disguise? What should I do?
“Come now, little birdie”, he said with a smile, taking me in his magic. “You wouldn’t like it very much in there. Better stay at home”, he added, putting me down gently on the platform before returning to his duty.
Well, so much for that.
Looking around again in search for another option, I noticed a large pile of bags and suitcases not far from the rearmost train car. A pony was just leaving her suitcase at the pile, and after that, I watched her approach the conductor, present her ticket, have a corner of it clipped off, and enter the train.
Good thing I hadn’t tried to pull a trick with a fake ticket, I thought. Blood running from a clipped piece of paper would have definitely alerted the conductor of something strange happening, even if he didn’t realize he was dealing with a changeling in disguise!
Recognizing an opportunity, I moved toward the pile of luggage. More ponies had gathered up now, so whatever I was going to do, I had to do it carefully. Fortunately, it still seemed nopony was paying any attention to the birds.
I found a spot where I could squeeze between two suitcases into the middle of the pile. Satisfied to find there was just enough space, I transformed into a small case, hoping the rest of the pile was large enough to hide the flame-like burst of my magic.
A few minutes passed by, and I could detect no signs that my transformation had been noticed. Unless everypony had managed to remain calm and silent and to send for help without giving themselves away, I was safe. But something Flam had said to Flim while they’d been arguing what to do with me whispered in the back of my mind, something about Celestia and what she’d told ponies in regard to the changelings. I couldn’t remember what it was, or whether it was actually said or merely implied. What if she’d been instructing ponies how to proceed if they notice a changeling conceal himself? What if she’d ordered them to hold back from showing they’d noticed, lest they alarm the changeling before he or she can be captured? What if a trap was being set up right now? I had taken a terrible risk! Couldn’t I have opted to leave town some other way?
If I still had teeth in this form, their chattering would give me away right now!
Eventually I felt the entire pile of luggage, myself included, get lifted into the air and deposited on a slightly different surface. I hoped I could take that as a good sign, that I hadn’t been noticed, and that the luggage had simply been moved onto the train as per routine. Either way, there was no going back now!
Soon I felt the vibrations and rattling that suggested the train was on the move, which helped me relax a bit. I wondered where we were going. I wanted to drop my disguise and take a look around, but with no way to know whether or not somepony would see me, I decided to suppress my curiosity.
It turned out to be a good decision. The train had stopped a few times, and each time a bag would get taken out of the cargo space and another put in. With the changes in the train’s movement clearly discernible by the way it shook and rattled, it wasn’t especially hard to keep track of when it was arriving to a station and getting ready to move on again, so it should have been possible to know when to put on a disguise and when to drop it so I could enjoy the ride, but maybe in all the excitement of a new experience I would have missed my cue to become a piece of luggage again. I didn’t need that much excitement! Despite all, the train ride was a refreshing and welcome change.
Eventually I felt the entire heap of luggage lifted into the air again and placed onto what seemed to be another platform. We must have reached the final station!
Still being in the middle of the pile made it easy for me to transform into a bird again without anypony noticing - assuming they really hadn’t noticed. I squeezed out of the pile and flew to the nearest abandoned alley. There, I gave myself a new disguise, just in case somepony had been keeping track. A bird had entered the alley, but a pegasus walked out.
The town was large and bustling with activity. I assumed there were too many ponies here to know each other by name, very much like how no changeling, maybe not even Chrysalis, knew every other changeling back in the hive. Once I blended into the crowd, an unfamiliar face shouldn’t raise any eyebrows here!
I decided to take a moment to enjoy the sights of this new place. I strolled through the streets, admiring the stone buildings and the flawlessly-maintained parks. Most of all, I was delighted by all the happy faces of the ponies who lived there, and by the sweet love I sensed from them. It didn’t look like they’d been alerted about any threats recently! Maybe I was just overly paranoid, and once I had the chance to calm down and get to mingling with them, maybe some of them would become my friend and agree to share some of that love!
But despite all the happiness and light all around, an uneasy feeling was starting to grow in me.
And I was beginning to think this place seemed somehow familiar.
Once I turned around another corner and got to an observatory with an astonishing view of a palace that was the town’s central feature, fear overwhelmed me when I realized my uneasiness hadn’t been unfounded, because I’d been right about the place looking oddly familiar.
Fighting the urge to start hyperventilating in panic in front of a crowd, I turned around, pretending to marvel at the architecture, while actually looking anxiously for a place - any kind of place - where I could hide, assess the risks, plan my next move, possibly adapt my disguise if I reached the conclusion the current one was too risky… or better yet, invent a way to turn back time and prevent myself from ever boarding that train!
Or should I simply fly out of the city while I have the chance? I approached the ledge and looked around for a while. Every now and then I would see a pegasus flying about, but none of them were straying too far from the city. Was there a legal limit of how far one was allowed to fly away? There hadn’t seemed to be the first time I’d been here, but then again, the ponies had been too busy running and hiding from us to test their luck by trying to outfly us out of the city. Maybe the invasion had resulted in new security measures, such as flying restrictions? I didn't want to find out the hard way!
Preferring to err on the side of caution, I returned to my previous idea of thinking things through in a safe place. Momentarily I was out of luck: no such places were anywhere in sight. I decided the next best thing would be to continue walking, and sooner or later I was bound to find what I was looking for.
I must have traversed half the city, and still failed to find a good hiding place. There always seemed to be somepony around, mostly on ground level, but on the few occasions I did find an empty back-alley, I’d notice a pegasus or two flying above the area. Even if they were going too fast to notice much of what might be happening in a random alley beneath them, I didn’t dare to risk it. I was just going to have to invent a strategy while walking around, or even outright improvise on the move! It wasn’t nearly my favorite approach, but for infiltrators, that was often the only thing they could do, and somehow, it seemed to work most of the time. I’d never been an infiltrator so I couldn’t rely on experience, and I’d only ever received the most basic training in infiltration, so that wasn’t very likely to help, either; but every infiltrator had to begin somewhere, and if they could manage, maybe I could too! Either way, there didn’t seem to be much choice. If I made it through, next time I’d know better than to board a train unless I knew exactly where it was going and what I could expect when I got there!
Thinking about trains, I started to wonder if I could board another one to get out of here. There was no sure way of knowing the strategy I’d used before would work again, but maybe I could at least figure out which train was going where and base my planning on that. I was pretty sure I’d seen a list titled ‘Departures’ and another titled ‘Arrivals’ before I’d left the station. The names of cities may not mean too much, but if I could find a map… At the very least, I knew of one place which to avoid.
I made it to the station without problems and found the schedule of departures. While I studied it - or better said, pretended to study it, because nothing seemed familiar - a unicorn carrying a foal in a saddlebag approached to take a look at the schedule too. I moved over to the side to give her some space, but, due to feeling uncomfortable standing that close to an unfamiliar pony, I did so clumsily, and a feather of my disguised wing tickled the foal’s nose.
The foal sneezed, unleashing a burst of magic at me in the process. Its mother noticed this and turned to me, starting to apologize with a smile on behalf of her foal, but by then the foal’s magic had done something I’d have never expected from it, evoking a dreadful memory of a similar situation from less than a day ago.
How many more things in the pony world was I going to find that were magicked against me?
The mare’s jaw dropped upon seeing my face.
If anypony had still been unaware of what had happened, her deafening scream now alerted them of the changeling standing exposed before their very eyes.
For a moment, time seemed to stop.
Then, as the revelation began to sink in, all Tartarus broke loose.
More ponies started screaming and running away, some of them colliding into others, and a few even straight across the train tracks, right in front of the incoming train. Thank goodness it was able to come to a halt before anypony got hurt! I would have never forgiven myself otherwise, even if it wouldn’t have been my fault!
My relief was short-lived due to Royal Guards storming onto the platform, seemingly unsure at first about what had caused the sudden mass panic, but it took only a second until one of them had me in his sight.
“Get him!” commanded the guard.
Galloping like the wind, I tried to lose them in the streets, changing directions at every corner, taking to the air whenever I thought it would give me an advantage. A battle horn sounded in the distance, undoubtedly alerting the city of the changeling threat! More and more guards were joining in the pursuit by the minute! I couldn’t be sure, but for the briefest of moments, I may have even seen Princess Celestia among the city’s defense forces!
There was barely any time for shapeshifting in order to confuse them; not that there was a point, considering how insanely outnumbered I was, guards coming at me from every possible direction! There was no time to feel fear - there were that many of them to dodge!
If anyone were to ask me later how I’d managed to dodge capture and get out of the city’s limits with so many guards on my tail, I wouldn’t know what to tell them, but somehow or other, I had. I noticed a bridge over a cliff and flew under it, working on pure instinct by now. There, momentarily out of sight, I transformed into a rock in a last-ditch effort to shake them off.
The pegasi were there first, only seconds after my transformation spell was completed, but not soon enough to see what had become of me after getting under the bridge. They only knew I couldn’t have gone anywhere from that point unseen. If I were on the opposite end of the city, I might have had the advantage of hiding in the mountainside river I remembered was there from my previous visit, but there was no river on this side! Guarding the area was going to be an easy task for them!
I should have turned into a mouse and dug a hole in the ground to hide in, maybe even a tunnel to a safer area! Well, too late for that now.
The first of the unicorn guards reached the bridge a minute later. Even if they hadn’t seen where I’d gone to, the pegasi swarming the bridge would have been enough of a hint. Some of them got under the bridge, blasting their magic at the rocks and plants, having realized by now I must have disguised myself.
The foal’s magic had been unpleasant at best. The guards’ magic was downright painful, but this time I was ready. My disguise held. Or maybe it was a different kind of spell altogether? It was hard to tell with so little experience with pony magic!
Having gotten no reaction from any of the rocks and brambles, more unicorns joined in basting their magic. With two guards going at me, it took all my willpower and self-control to keep myself from dropping the disguise and screaming for mercy.
I had been just barely able to resist the magic of two guards at once, but when the third joined in, I had no strength left to fight them any more.
Hurting and dizzy, I dropped my disguise.
Around me I saw an army of ponies spinning wildly, and then everything turning almost upside-down and the mountain whizzed past at an unbelievable speed, together with the majestic city built on its slope.
Pain in every part of my body brought me back to reality. I needed a minute to remember what might have caused it. Disjointed images came to mind: a mountain… then a bridge… some rocks… a city… pony soldiers…
I opened my eyes and sprang to my hooves with a jolt, only to be knocked down again by the stab of intensified pain. The world was still spinning, but after another minute I was starting to regain my focus.
Looking myself over, I found more injuries than I cared to count. It would have been easier to list the parts of my body that hadn’t been broken or bruised, assuming I could find any! Then again, considering what had happened to me, it was a miracle my injuries weren’t far worse.
But where was I, and how long had I been out? Surely I would have been captured and locked away by now! But if that was the case, why was I lying on grass? I’d heard plenty of rumors about pony prisons, and had my share of assumptions about details the rumors hadn’t covered… but grass growing on the prison floor? Something didn’t add up.
Finally I regained more strength, enough to take a look at my surroundings. It turned out I was at the base of a mountain. A forest spanned the entire horizon one one side of it, and on another, there were endless fields with cottages here and there. In the middle, between the two, was a picturesque little town with a familiar crystally tree-like structure near one edge.
I was still at the base of Mount Canterlot! I hadn’t been captured! But, had the guards assumed I couldn’t have survived the fall and just left me here, or had it been only a few moments since my fall, too short a time for them to come looking for me?
One look up solved that mystery.
I could easily see the ledge where Canterlot sat. Just to the side of it, a few tiny specks were circling in the air, too small at this distance to identify with certainty, but I was sure I knew what they were.
They would come down soon enough, and I didn’t want to be around by the time they were close enough to notice me... assuming they hadn’t already, of course. Even changelings were familiar with binoculars, and for all I knew, the unicorns might have developed an equivalent in the form of a magic spell. Whether or not they were aware of my condition, it was time to leave, or at the very least, to hide in the nearby vegetation. Shapeshifting wasn’t an option; they’d notice the flash of my magic even from their altitude, leaving them no doubt I was still alive and telling them a bigger search-and-capture party might be advisable!
Going to Ponyville or into the fields was out of question, too; even if I could expect to get help there, there was nothing I could use as cover along the way! The Everfree Forest was even less appealing after what had happened the day before, and the bare mountainside could be searched easily enough. That left only one option: to circle the mountain base and go east. From my last time here, I faintly remembered seeing a forest there too - a normal, predictable one, that is.
I got back on my hooves carefully. Walking hurt, but at least I could walk, or limp to be more accurate. It would have to do; my wings were useless, both of them bent at an unnatural angle in a few places. At least the guards seemed to be taking their time, probably inspecting the cliff as they descended.
I had just reached a group of trees growing halfway to the actual forest when I was tackled by a dark creature.
“Got you now, traitor!” it hissed.
I couldn’t believe it - another changeling?! But where had he come from? And if he’d been sent to hunt me down, where was his battle gear… and what about the rest of his group?
We started wrestling. I resisted as best as I could with my limited - and rather rusty - skill, expecting him to defeat me any second… except it wasn’t happening. For the first time in my life, I was able to keep up with my opponent for longer than half a second, despite the pain I was feeling! Then I noticed why: he was injured too.
“What happened to you?” I asked, attempting to hold him still.
“Did that fall knock your brain out of your head?” he grunted, pulling himself out of my hold. “Timberwolves may have saved you the first time, but there aren’t any around now!”
So one of the soldiers had survived the timberwolf attack somehow. He must have come here at some point afterwards hoping to recover, or to join with another group, or to inform the hive about my last known location as soon as he got the chance, which I hoped he hadn’t yet!
Pondering his predicament distracted me enough to give him a chance to turn me belly-down and pin me to the ground. I thrashed wildly, but couldn’t get him off my back! He proceeded with an immobilizing hold. It worked well, except for one little detail he’d neglected, or maybe assumed I wouldn’t have the nerve or presence of mind to take advantage of.
His foreleg was now within my fangs’ reach.
I bit down on it instinctively, unleashing the paralyzing venom into his bloodstream. He froze for a moment - out of surprise, I assumed, because although I’d never bitten anyone before and couldn’t be sure, I didn’t think the venom could have worked that quickly. Then I felt his fangs touch my neck, but before he could bite, my venom seemed to have gotten to him, and he toppled over and fell on the ground, motionless.
In any other circumstances I might have waited around for him to recover, attempted to help him even, but not today.
The pegasi guards had gotten close in the meantime, and having noticed them through the foliage, I hid quickly in a nearby bush. Soon enough they landed at the side of the now-unconscious changeling soldier.
“So there he is,” said one.
“How did he get so far here?” asked another.
“Maybe he regained consciousness for a while and fainted again after getting a little away from where he’d fallen,” suggested the third.
“Never mind that! We should take him to Celestia, quick,” urged the fourth.
The others agreed.
I had taken the chance to transform into a bunny while they were distracted with their find, just in case they decided to go looking for any more changelings, but it had been unnecessary. They simply picked him up and flew away. I wondered if, and how soon, they would realize the changeling they’d captured wasn’t the one they’d chased through Canterlot. Whether or not they decided to send another search party, either after realizing they’d gotten the wrong changeling or simply as a precaution, I had no desire to remain here any longer! As soon as I was fairly sure they were too far away to see me, I dropped my disguise and got underway.
It was slow going with all my injuries; just getting to the other side of the mountain took me two whole days when normally it would have taken a single afternoon at most. I didn’t want to stop there, though - I was still too close to Canterlot - so I kept going despite the growing pain and exhaustion, willing myself to persist despite the growing hopelessness. At least I didn’t run into ponies; this was uninhabited territory, save for an occasional harmless wild animal.
After what must have been a week of desperate struggle, I came to realize I’d been making less and less progress every day, and I couldn’t go on much longer; my strength was running out. At this point, my only hope would be to enclose myself in a healing cocoon for as long as it took to recover. It wasn’t without disadvantages, though: I’d be left vulnerable and at the mercy of any pony, changeling, or wild animal that happened to find me, and healing required a lot of energy which I would have no means of replenishing while cocooned. Hopefully I would manage to find a good enough shelter to conceal myself; I didn’t want to break out of the cocoon only to find myself in a pony prison or in Chrysalis’ dungeons! As for energy needs… well, I was used to being hungry. With any luck, the love I’d gained… stolen… from the pegasus in Ponyville would be enough to last me through the healing process!
After the best part of a day spent searching, I found an abandoned cave on the slopes of a nearby hill. This would have to do! I blocked off the entrance as best and as quickly as I could in my condition and proceeded to build the cocoon. When it was done, I got in and closed it, wishing myself luck in remaining undisturbed until I was ready to come out. Maybe, just maybe, the Royal Guards and changeling hunters would forget about me by then.
I found myself standing in a puddle of green goo, surrounded by fragments of the translucent-green shell that had contained it. I didn’t remember my cocoon bursting open and dropping me on the ground, but that was what must have happened. I had no memory of getting on my hooves, either, nor an idea of how long I’d been standing there.
Maybe I was just too groggy from the long sleep.
I looked around. The cave was much as I’d left it - as far as I could tell, because I hadn’t bothered to remember every nook and bump - except for the greenish glow emanating from the liquid at my hooves. This was hardly unexpected; changeling slime would display this effect upon contact with a living being trapped inside a cocoon. The glow used to fascinate me when I was a nymph. Pharynx had killed that fascination by informing me that the glow was powered by the love and life force of the creature inside the cocoon, and that the slime acted as a conduit for the love we fed on - useful for draining the residual love from the unconscious victims inside. It even worked with small animals such as rats and snakes; though not enough to feed on, their love would suffice for lighting up the dark corridors of the hive.
My stomach would turn every time I’d see one of those gruesome lanterns. Even trying to free the creatures inside wouldn’t help, and I’d tried; but every time, I’d find the poor animal was too far gone to make use of its regained freedom, and I would get punished soon after. The guards hadn’t even had to investigate the so-called vandalism after the first couple of times; they’d learned quickly that only one changeling would think of doing that! It had only ever been a matter of finding me and forcing me to catch another animal to replace the lantern. It hadn’t taken them long to realize this had hurt more than any beating they could have administered, not that they’d ever neglected to follow up with the beating in the end anyway!
Eventually I’d stopped bothering. What was the point if only more animals would suffer as the result?
I shook myself out of my reverie. The pain and sorrow for the poor creatures was just as strong now as it had been then, but there was nothing I could do. No point in lingering on memories.
I approached the pile of rocks blocking the entrance to the cave. It had taken me hours to build that barrier, but now it was practically falling apart on its own wherever I touched it. I had been injured pretty bad then, but I really thought I’d built it a little sturdier!
It only took moments to get through and out of the cave. I expected to see the forest, and there were some trees… but the area they were growing in couldn’t possibly be what it was!
I closed my eyes shut and opened them again after a moment. The sight hadn’t gone away: I was back in the hive, in one of the larger caverns apparently, and the trees were growing inside it! Some of them even had cocoons hanging from the branches!
The sight was so surreal I couldn’t think. Had the hunters found my cocoon and taken me to the hive while I was still inside it? But where in the hive? No trees were growing anywhere in it! Except there were trees here! How was this possible? It almost felt like I was at two places at once! But how?
A sudden realization of a presence interrupted my puzzlement. I turned, only to find myself facing a group of changeling soldiers surrounding me. When had they arrived? I hadn’t heard the sounds of their hooves or wings! How had I known they were here in the first place before having seen them? Not that I expected an explanation, but seriously, they were that good at sneaking up on others? All of them?
They attacked before I could even attempt to retreat or open my mouth to say something. I’d never been much of a fighter, but I doubted that even with Pharynx’s skill I could stand against them! It took them only a second to knock me down, but they didn’t stop there; they kept punching and kicking me even after my injuries were worse than those caused by my fall from Mount Canterlot!
There was little doubt remaining: they were there to kill me, and were going to enjoy every moment of it!
The fast-approaching steps of something large enough to shake the ground hardly even made them slow down and glance away.
Then, suddenly, the beating stopped as a magnificent beast headbutted them away as it galloped in.
Still dazed from the beating, I blinked a few times with my one not-yet-fully-swollen eye while I tried to make sense of what was in front of me. The creature was almost a bear, but not quite: it was probably twice as large as the timberwolves I’d dealt with in the Everfree Forest, and entirely translucent, with glowing spots on its coat, and when it turned its head, I caught a glimpse of a large star on its forehead. It approached the pile of my attackers and stomped the one that was still moving. Then, after a few moments of waiting as if to make sure none of them would suddenly spring to life, it turned to me.
Okay, now I was going to die.
But instead of repeating the process on me, the sort-of-bear let out a frustrated sigh… and burst into a green flame.
The face that the flame had retreated into was the last thing I’d expected.
“Seriously? I still have to keep saving you?” Pharynx exclaimed.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, barely able to lift my head to face him.
“What does it look like?” he snapped back. “Now shut up or we’ll both be in trouble!”
Before I could ask what he meant, he stooped down and sank his fangs in me.
A wave of prickling heat washed over me as his venom spread through my body. Soon enough I was getting increasingly dizzy. I’d thought I’d known dizziness from all the beatings and magic-blasting I’d experienced in my lifetime, but none of that came even close to what I was feeling now! I wasn’t even sure where my parts were anymore, or which parts I had in the first place!
An indeterminate amount of time later, ground seemed to open under me and I realized I was falling. I tried to will my wings to move and keep me afloat, but they wouldn’t listen. My whole body refused to cooperate whenever I tried to move something or turn around! I could only see the darkness around me and hear the heavy silence.
Eventually I fell into a seemingly endless pool of changeling slime. It wasn’t sudden like splashing into a lake - more like walking into a cloud of mist. And just as gradually, the darkness cleared slightly, just enough to reveal dozens - hundreds even - of small animals suspended in the slime much like I was: rats, frogs, spiders, parasprites, small birds, a few baby bunnies and jackalopes, maybe even a cockatrice or two.
I winced at the sight of my surroundings. Had all those creatures fallen into a trap? Were they being collected to produce lanterns from? But I’d never heard of lanterns being mass-produced like that! Who could produce this much slime anyway?
Were we being turned into one colossal lamp?
Just as that thought had entered my mind, I noticed a cloaked figure approach almost directly in front of me.
Maybe this blob of slime wasn’t that big after all?
The figure came closer still. By the time it stopped moving, I could just barely make out a face striped black and white under the hood, and hear a faint hum of a tune it was singing.
I recognized it immediately.
The zebra reached under her cloak and produced a familiar jar. Then, as she poured out its contents on her hoof, her eyes lit up with a green glow. She blew into the stuff in her hoof and let out a maniacal laugh I’d known only from someone else.
The slime around me dissipated as the zebra’s powder made contact with it. Some of the powder reached me, too, and brought the same tingling sensation that another of her concoctions had produced in me eons ago.
I should have known the temptation to use her potions in newfound ways to expose the enemy would be too great to resist despite her promise to keep our encounter a secret! She must have found a way to convert the ointment to a form that would be easier to use on suspicious characters than having to trick them into applying it onto themselves in order to reveal their true nature!
The slime cleared completely within seconds, but everything else remained as it was; even the creatures were still frozen in mid-air as if nothing had happened.
The zebra removed her cloak and tossed it aside, where it disappeared. As she did so, I realized I was looking at the face of none other than my Queen.
She wasn’t disguised, nor had I seen her transform; yet she was there, revealed in all her imposing ruthlessness, a menacing glint still in her eyes, her lips curled in a smirk of anticipation of sweet revenge for my betrayal.
Around me, the animals were one by one turning into changelings - just like that, no transformation flashes involved. They snapped out of their suspended state and surrounded me.
When they were all there, a blob of slime appeared out of nowhere and fixed me to the unseen ground beneath my hooves.
Chrysalis spoke out, but her words didn’t reach me. I could hear the sound of her severe voice with ease, but the meaning escaped me. She may as well have spoken in a foreign language! And yet, I didn’t need to hear the particulars of her speech; I knew all too well what she was saying.
The day of my final punishment had arrived.
Out of nowhere, Chrysalis produced a mighty sword. Its sharp blade reflected the growing bloodlust in her eyes as she delivered the final words of her speech.
I wanted to speak up, but words failed me. And what was I going to say to her, anyway? Her mind was already made up! It had been made up from the moment she’d learned about my betrayal, and nothing in the world would sway that conviction and make her reconsider my fate!
I looked around hopelessly. The changelings surrounding me had changed in the meantime, once again in that mysterious way without out usual transformation magic. They were no longer ordinary drones; each and every one of them had taken the likeness of our eternal Queen.
In a flash, I realized they were not a multitude of drones looking like Chrysalis; they all were Chrysalis, each and every one of them.
I knew then I could have never hoped to escape her. No matter where I’d gone or what I’d tried, she was always going to reach me!
The first Chrysalis raised the sword held in her magic. The others stepped aside to let her come closer to me. Then, after a good long vengeful look at me, she drove the sword in my chest.
I let out a gasp and collapsed to the ground. The other Chrysalises seemed to feast their pleasure at the sight of my dying moments. The first one pulled the blade out of me and let me bleed for a while.
I closed my eyes. It was over.
Except it wasn’t; another stab made me open my eyes again in surprise. Over me, hooves on the sword’s handle, pressing the blade deeper into my flesh, stood Pharynx.
I snapped my eyes open, gasping for breath.
Around me was a blob of slime again, this one contained in the irregular walls of a cocoon I was suspended in upside-down. It was hard to tell what lay beyond, but I thought I could just barely make out the walls of a cave. I tried to move, but only ended up colliding with the cocoon walls. They felt real to the touch.
They felt real to the touch!
I hadn’t been captured and executed! It had all been a dream!
If I were outside, nothing would have kept me from hopping and prancing excitedly right now! Chrysalis hadn’t killed me after all! I still had the chance to continue my journey!
Deciding to let go the echoes of the past that had been tormenting me for the moment, I closed my eyes again to allow my healing cocoon to complete its purpose before I moved on. I didn’t know what awaited me, except that it likely wouldn’t be any easier than what I’d been through so far; but that was all in the future. I could always start fearing and worrying again if I had to!
But for now, I would allow myself to rest peacefully.
I broke out of my cocoon immensely hungry, much hungrier than I’d ever been. I was however, relieved to find that my cave indeed hadn’t been disturbed. Digging myself out would help break the stiffness of my joints that was the expected consequence of being cocooned for an extended period of time. It would also help me get warmed up; the cave seemed colder than when I’d first found it.
I walked out into the moonlit scenery and took a good long look around. Nighttime explained the relative coolness, but as far as I could see, the forest didn’t seem too different from when I’d seen it last, unless I counted that terrible nightmare. It felt like I’d been away for months, but there were no visual cues to suggest either way - not at night, at least. Maybe daylight would bring some new information on that.
I got a little further out, treading carefully to keep silent. Nothing jumped me - another piece of good news. That alone was far from enough to relax and count on smooth sailing from this point onward, but much like I’d thought had been the case at a certain point in that dream, if anypony or anyling had wanted to capture or ambush me, they would have had plenty of opportunity to do that by now, even after I’d gotten out of the cave. I would still have to find out - probably the hard way - whether or not they were still searching for me, but right now, I was apparently safe.
I took a moment to examine myself more thoroughly. My wounds had healed and the pain had gone. My wings had straightened themselves out, too. I gave them a test buzz, then took to the air, satisfied they were functional again. I’d have to be more careful from now on; I’d had enough injuries for a lifetime, and unless I found a way to replenish my love reserves, I wouldn’t be able to last through another period of cocooned healing.
Then again, having vowed to refrain from taking love unless offered freely, if I did replenish my love reserves, that would mean I’d succeeded in finding a friend, and maybe then I wouldn’t have to run and hide any longer... unless, of course, that friend would be the only one willing to accept me. And what then? Should I remain with that one friend, hidden from the world and hoping to see the day when I wouldn’t have to fear for my life if I dared to show my face to anyone else, possibly limiting my friend’s options in life as well, or would it be better to go away and look elsewhere at the risk of never finding another friend? The former may be too selfish, but the latter didn’t seem like a much better choice, either. I hoped I would be able to make the right decision as and when it became necessary!
I spent the whole night flying, but at the break of dawn I was still nowhere near the end of the forest. There weren’t any settlements within the forest, either. Now that there was more light, it seemed to me that the trees were a shade greener than before I’d cocooned myself, but I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t just imagining it due to trying too hard to notice anything that might give me a clue about how long I’d been away from the world. Not that it mattered much, except for estimating how likely I’d be to run into any more search parties; but then again, the sight of my undisguised face would trigger another wave of panic among ponies regardless of how long it had been since the last time they’d seen a changeling, and Chrysalis would punish me equally regardless of how soon I got tracked down, so other than to calm or fuel my anxiety, it was really all the same either way. I would likely find out sooner or later, so why bother guessing if it had no bearing on what I might do? I’d only start overthinking things again, and I didn’t need any more paranoia!
Eventually I realized I was getting too tired to keep flying. Desperately hungry or not, it wouldn’t do any good if I collapsed from exhaustion in the middle of nowhere. I found an abandoned burrow, curled up in it, and slept through the rest of the day.
I woke up in the late afternoon and proceeded with my flight to new horizons. It was mostly uneventful, except for having finally gotten out of the forest some time into the night. I flew over fields and rivers, seeing a small village or two close by, and a larger city in the distance. I wanted to try the city; more ponies meant more chances to meet a future friend, and in the meantime, easier blending into the crowd. I was undisguised for the moment, but at night in a sparsely-populated area, this didn’t present any difficulties. I could always put on an appropriate disguise upon arriving to whatever destination I picked.
I was just approaching the city when thick clouds obscured the night sky, taking away the light that the moon had been casting on the land. It would help conceal an undisguised changeling such as myself, but then again, any attempt to shapeshift in need would be clearly visible throughout the city to anyone who might be awake at this hour.
A road sign at the city limits was barely readable with so little light, but I managed to make out the words: Welcome to Manehattan! The name was familiar to me from conversations I’d overheard in the hive, but I couldn’t remember any mentions of trouble there recently, as far as the word ‘recently’ was still applicable. I would try to keep that track record, assuming it hadn’t been broken during my absence.
A rainstorm broke out shortly thereafter, forcing me to find any shelter I could. The nearest one was under a bridge - this one not on a cliffside like the one near Canterlot where I’d almost been captured, but over a stream I came across while searching the streets of Manehattan, so I expected to have an additional escape route this time.
I wasn’t going anywhere in this rain, and I was getting tired, so this seemed like a good chance for a nap.
I was woken up by something licking my face eagerly, causing me to jump in apprehension and confusion. I looked around, ready to flee at the slightest sign of trouble.
In front of me stood a dog, eagerly wagging his tail.
I willed myself to calm down. I’d never been this near a dog before, and wasn’t sure how to proceed. I did, however, know a few basics about them. Ponies liked to keep them as pets. Some were friendly and sociable; others were more… cautious about strangers, which made them good guardians. I assumed that would include a lot of growling and biting. Face-licking and tail-wagging would then likely be more characteristic of the friendly type of dog. I decided to try interacting with him.
“Hello, doggie,” I said softly.
The dog came a little closer and opened his mouth, letting a wet tongue drop out. It almost looked like he was smiling.
“Do you live here?”
He barked once in reply.
“Do you need anything from me? I’m not sure I have anything to give you.”
He came closer and licked my snout. Just once this time, but I felt a little bit of love offered with it.
“Oh… um, I’m going to take that as a ‘Hello, nice to meet you’... you did mean that, didn’t you?”
He nudged me lightly with his paw and laid on his back, exposing his belly.
“What does that mean?” I asked, carefully touching his belly. “Are you hungry?”
I didn’t get a proper reply, but his tongue dropped out again. Did that mean he was enjoying my touch? It seemed so! When I moved my hoof away, he looked at me sadly, almost as if I’d offended him.
“Oh, you like that?”
I rubbed his belly again. He seemed much happier now. Eventually he got up, put his paws on my shoulders and proceeded to lick my face frantically. He nearly knocked me over!
“Okay, okay - stop it!” I laughed, barely able to breathe. Not that I could object much; the dog was giving me more love this time around! I didn’t want to drain him of it, but so far it hadn’t gone far enough to be harmful to him, and I was still in my own form, so arguably the dog knew he wasn’t dealing with a pony. Whether or not he understood what a changeling was... that was another matter. I was going to allow this to go on just a little bit longer, and then I’d try to stop him if possible, lest my feeding on him cause him any damage.
“Porthos! Porthos, where are you? Come out, Porthos!” A filly’s voice from nearby interrupted my train of thought.
I rushed to hide behind a pile of rocks low enough to let me peek over the top and keep track of what was happening. The filly was looking for her dog - quite possibly the same one I’d been playing with!
The dog remained in place, looking at me, then at where the filly’s voice was coming from, than back at me, than back at the direction of the filly’s voice. He didn’t seem to be able to make up his mind about who he wanted to be with.
“Porthos, where did- oh, there you are!” The filly came further under the bridge, far enough to reach her dog. “Come, let’s go!”
“Pawprint? Did you find him?” a stallion’s voice sounded from a little away.
“I did, Daddy! He’s right here!” she answered. Then, to Porthos, “Come, boy!”
But Porthos remained in place.
Go on, Porthos, get back to your filly and forget about me, I begged him silently.
But apparently he hadn't had enough of me. He turned toward me and took a few steps forward.
“Porthos, what is it? You found something?” Pawprint was getting interested too. She came further down, and I had to lie down completely or she’d see me! I hadn’t wanted to shapeshift before lest I scare Porthos, and now it was too late; Pawprint was bound to see my magic and scream for help!
Then Porthos went into a barking fit.
“What’s going on here?” Pawprint’s father seemed to have come down too, judging by the closeness of his voice.
My muscles tensed in preparation for the inevitable.
The stallion’s head peeked over my pile of rocks.
I jumped out as if on fire, rushing to get out faster than either of them could take a good look at me.
“A changeling!” he yelled, running close to his daughter and embracing her to keep her safe. “Get away from her, you-”
I didn’t need to hear the end of his threat, even if it hadn’t been lost in the screams of everypony around who were startled by my sudden appearance. I was sure I could fill in the gap with anything a changeling had ever been yelled at by a pony and it would have been close enough.
The response to my presence was somewhat milder than in Canterlot, although chaos and panic still reigned. The city seemed to have a smaller defense force than Canterlot; only a few guards were chasing me this time. Or what were they called here? Police officers? They even had uniforms rather than body armor like the Royal Guard. It seemed odd that every city or village would have a different organization to defend them, but for all I knew, that approach may have proven to have advantages in the past. Either way, this was not a good time to ponder on it.
Compared to the Royal Guard, fewer officers were pegasi, so I was able to dodge them by flying pretty easily at first. They caught on soon enough and regrouped accordingly. Even a few civilian pegasi worked up the courage to join in pursuit or cut off my escape routes.
The chase was over eventually, but this time in my favor after I’d spotted a sewer line I could get to. A burst of my magic turned me into a rat small enough to pass through the grate. By the time the ponies would have managed to bypass that obstacle, I was long gone.
The sewer brought me to a waste processing and water purification facility on the outskirts of the city - at least that was what an inscription on the main entrance said. A number of unicorns were there, working their magic on the water, too busy to notice a rat sneaking around; then again, maybe they simply didn’t care. I couldn’t have been the only rat that had ever washed up in that place!
Safely out of the facility and the ponies’ sight, I changed my disguise to mimic a unicorn similar to those I’d just seen. If anypony got dangerously curious, I didn’t think they’d care to stick around very long if I told them I’d been sent home due to not feeling well. Next stop: find a lake or river and wash myself of the filth I’d collected.
With that out of the way, it was time to find another town with potential new friends. I didn’t dare to go back to Manehattan. The city would still be on full alert and I didn’t want to test the effectiveness of any increased security measures! Different organization or not, the police officers might have picked up some changeling-revealing tricks from the Royal Guard or any other appropriate source, assuming they hadn’t already had some of their own; either way, it would’ve been prudent of the princesses to encourage if not command such an exchange between defense organizations in light of recent events. It was evening by now, so once again I dared to fly without a disguise, not worrying I might get noticed... but just to be safe, I wouldn’t go to the nearest large city I could see up ahead; they would have had plenty of time to hear the news about the changeling sighting by now. There had to be more cities or villages further north! I was getting hungrier again; the love gained from Porthos hadn’t lasted as long as I’d hoped it might, so I wouldn’t have the luxury of being too picky with choosing a new place to try to make friends in, even at the risk of getting spotted.
Close to dawn I took a few hours’ nap in a hole in the ground at the edge of a wasteland, and after that, I kept going until I reached a gorge with a small village at the bottom. There were just a dozen of cottages, arranged neatly in two parallel rows and aligned perfectly against one another. On one end there was a sapling planted among what appeared to be ruins of another cottage. I wondered what had happened to it. Maybe I could ask one of the local ponies! I could only see a dozen of them moving about; in a village this small, any of them would likely know about anything that had ever happened here! Perhaps there was an interesting story about the ruins and the sapling?
On the slight downside, it would be impossible to keep a low profile in such a tiny village; I could pass off as a pony, but I’d still need to have a good explanation of why I’d come there lest somepony get suspicious of my intentions. I was still trying to think of one when two ponies came into view, approaching the village from further down the gorge. One of them was a purplish unicorn with a troubled frown on her face. The other I’d seen twice before: the purple alicorn, the newest princess of Equestria. She said something to the unicorn. I was too far away to hear it, but it seemed to have helped relieve the unicorn’s concerns… if only for a short time.
Soon the ponies from the village took notice of the two visitors and trotted to meet them. The princess held back, and the unicorn approached the villagers, saying something and lowering her head as if expecting punishment.
They hugged her.
I didn’t know what had happened with the unicorn and the villagers before, but it seemed to have a happy ending; the unicorn shed tears in which I saw a reflection of a great burden lifted from her heart. I was pretty sure the princess had had something to do with helping them. Once again, the warmth of pride filled my heart... so much that, for a moment, I was able to forget my growing hunger!
It would be wrong of me to intrude on such a touching reunion. I could wait a day or two and visit at a more appropriate time! Hopefully the unicorn would still be there. I wanted so badly to learn her story and share her burden! Maybe, if I was lucky, she would be willing to share mine! In the meantime, i would need a place to stay where I wouldn’t disturb the villagers, and where they wouldn’t run into me.
I set out to search the surrounding hills and eventually found an entrance into a cave that seemed like it would suit my needs... but when I got close, I heard voices from inside. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I transformed into a bird I hoped was inconspicuous enough and got closer.
Peeking around a corner, I saw a large cavern, mostly empty. On the far end was an impossibly large shelf made of stone, only damaged in several places, and empty. I had a vague feeling that it might have been important in the past, but there was no way to tell what it might have been used for. Around it were small piles of rocks, possibly fragments of the imposing shelf.
Near one of the piles, behind the remnants of a stone table set in front of the shelf, stood three changelings engaged in a discussion. It must have been their voices I’d heard! They didn’t seem to notice me - or at least they didn’t care about a random bird - so I came a little closer… as close as I dared.
“...supposed to go south and rendezvous with three other teams of hunters at Foal Mountain. We’ll get new orders there,” said one of them.
“Do we know where exactly at Foal Mountain? Seems too big a place to just randomly wander around,” asked another.
“There’s a landmark she described. I’ll lead the way,” answered the first.
“Any hints on what kind of mission it is?” the third wanted to know.
“All I know is we need time to prepare ourselves and we’re getting some backup at a later date. Apparently it’s something big, or she wouldn’t have been so bloodthirsty-thrilled about it.”
My heart jumped into my throat. Was he referring to Chrysalis? Was she here? Was it me she’d come for - and how had she known where I was? I fought the urge to scream.
“That’s not very helpful,” replied the third hunter dryly.
“Well it’s all I know, so deal with it,” hissed the first.
“What about Thorax?” asked the second hunter after a moment.
“What about him?”
“Aren’t we supposed to catch him? Or did another team find him and you forgot to tell us?”
“Nah, still no trace of him. Chrysalis figures there’s no way all the hunting teams would have failed to find that incompetent excuse for a drone in seven months if there was anything to find. Stupid traitor probably got eaten or something and we’re running around like lunatics,” snorted the leader. “He’s a low priority from now on. The hunter teams are being recalled, except for the ones involved in this new mission, but if any of us do run into Thorax after all this time, we’re by all means expected to complete our original mission and drag him back to the hive.”
Seven months?! I hadn’t expected it to happen overnight, but I had no idea cocoon healing could take that long! That was almost twice what I’d expected! No wonder I was so hungry! Though, it seemed to have helped me avoid capture, so I shouldn’t complain.
“Any news about that thing in Canterlot we never heard the ending of?” the third hunter wondered. “You know, that changeling who had his cover blown in public and got chased and fell off a cliff?”
The leader nodded.
“That was Rascal. Apparently his team was attacked by timberwolves and only he survived. Beats me how he ended up in Canterlot of all places! He wasn’t talking last time when anyling was able to track him down, and now he’s in a secure section of pony prison as far as we know, so doubtful we’ll get anything more from him any time soon.”
I let out a silent sigh of relief upon hearing that, though I couldn’t figure out why Rascal hadn’t told anyone about me. Maybe if he hadn’t had the chance to tell the changelings before getting relocated… or maybe my venom had some unexpected properties. Could it be? I wouldn't put it past myself to have paid no atention when the venom’s properties and effects had been taught in detail, assuming I’d even been present for the occasion, so it made sense I hadn’t known about them. Also, for all the bullying I’d experienced in the hive throughout the years, I’d somehow never been bitten so I couldn’t tell from personal experience... but if changeling venom was indeed capable of erasing one’s most recent memories, how could I be sure that I hadn’t?
The group had nothing more to say to each other, so they dispersed around the cave, each minding their own business. I hurried to leave before they thought of posting one of them to guard the entrance. I would learn nothing more from overhearing their conversation, and visiting the nearby village had stopped being an option as soon as I’d set my eyes upon the changelings anyway.
Keeping my disguise on, I spread my wings and took to the air. If the hunters were due to go south, further north was where I was going to be.
Night fell just as I reached the end of the wasteland and entered a forest. I would have to find shelter soon. A hollow tree provided a suitable one. Only upon entering the safety of its interior did I dare to remove my disguise. Even if the team of changeling hunters hadn’t noticed me, there was no telling what other threats may have been out there... for example, another group of changelings disguised as elements of scenery, keeping watch over the three undisguised ones. I’d used a similar trick to escape the hive; it would be a sad irony to get defeated by failing to see through another’s.
Sleep didn’t come lightly that night. Despite my best efforts to remain still and silent and get some much-needed rest, I kept tossing and turning most of the night, only half asleep and jerking awake at every tiniest crack or rustle. Dawn had already shone through the cracks of my hollow by the time my troubled mind gave way to exhaustion.
I spent the entire day in the hollow of my tree. The changeling hunters would have probably left for their new mission by now, but I didn’t want to run into them if they had any unfinished business to deal with, whether or not it was related to me. It didn’t matter; staying in one place gave me the peace and quiet I needed to think about recent revelations. Cancelling the hunt for me seemed straightforward enough: if it really had been seven months, it made little sense to keep looking for something, or someone, that had vanished without a trace. I still couldn’t believe I really hadn’t left a trace for them to find! Surely they could have found out about me from the buffalo, or those unicorn twins, or the zebra! Even if they’d had no sure way of knowing it had been me - which was unlikely considering I’d made the mistake of introducing myself to Little Strongheart with my own name, let alone the fact that few changelings ever dared to even consider turning their back on the hive and leaving like I had - following rumors would have given them at least a suspicion, a rough estimate of where to start looking! Had they even bothered to ask? An experienced infiltrator would have known which disguise to use to avoid suspicion among non-changelings and which questions to ask to get honest answers! Would I have stood a chance against hunters if they’d been using the skills of an infiltrator in such a way, either one deployed with a particular team or one already in place at a particular location? I seriously doubted it: I’d been sighted too many times; someone was bound to mention something to them assuming the teams hadn’t already been around to witness the occasions! It would appear the hunters had been searching for me only visually, avoiding all contact outside a team and counting on a random chance of running into me. But that didn’t make any sense! Chrysalis was far too experienced to ignore, or fail to notice, that flaw in the hunters’ strategy!
Maybe it hadn’t been Chrysalis who had planned and approved that strategy.
I came to realize that could also explain why I’d spent so much time in a cocoon. What if part of that nightmare hadn’t been a dream? Could it have really happened? Could someone have been looking after me all along, saving me from trouble once again when I’d had no way of saving myself, then putting me back in my cocoon to heal the injuries I’d received in the process? Being cocooned twice in quick succession could have easily lasted seven months, and if I’d indeed been under the effect of a substance that could mess with my most recent memories like I’d started to suspect was the case with changeling venom, it made sense I wouldn’t remember the short interlude in which something might have happened to require another period of cocooned healing, or that the memories of such an event could be strange and twisted. Though it would have been such a relief to know I could count on someone to help me out, such a possibility seemed to fantastic, too unreal to consider!
Of course, I could have been wrong on all accounts: maybe they’d discovered me already and were trying to confuse me or lull me into a false sense of security so they could lure me into a trap. But did they even need a trap? Even if that crazy theory was correct, they could have dealt with my protector and taken me while I’d still been in the cocoon or immediately after I’d gotten out! They could have also dealt with my supposed protector later if they hadn’t realized in time that there had been one, and I would’ve been in no condition to resist them on my own, especially if I’d had to do it twice! I found it hard to believe they wouldn’t have noticed something had been off sooner or later! So why complicate things? Were they simply having fun torturing me like that? Or was this terrible uncertainty part of my punishment for running away? If that was the case, did I still stand a chance of getting myself out of it?
Realizing I’d gone too far into overanalyzing the matter, I forced myself to move onto something else. Freaking out over all kinds of elaborate deception scenarios, real or imagined, would get me nowhere!
The new mission they were being sent on presented another puzzle. Even the team leader didn’t know the particulars, but it seemed like something big was coming up. But what? I didn’t have much personal experience in going on missions, but from what I’d picked up from Pharynx and other changelings, I could assume that few missions involved such level of secrecy to keep even those involved in the dark until the last possible moment. The invasion of Canterlot had been widely advertised throughout the hive since the first stages of preparation - even the larvae must have known about it - and that one had been considered one of the most important battles in changeling history! What could possibly be so important to enforce such secrecy all of a sudden? Was it simply a consequence of my escape, an increased security measure in case any other changelings tried to leave, a precaution against them revealing tactical information to the enemy? Or was something really incredibly, insanely huge about to go down - something of even bigger importance than the Canterlot invasion? And what? Another invasion was the most obvious possibility, until I remembered that only a dozen of changelings were to be involved, assuming all the teams were the same size. What could a dozen changelings accomplish when thousands had failed last time? Okay, they were supposed to get backup, but there couldn’t be that many drones involved as backup, or the plan would be widely known from the start; there'd have been little point in hiding anything.
So, what was going on? The most obvious way to find out would be to simply follow them in disguise... but as much as I was dying to find out, it was simply too big a risk.
As much as I didn’t like it, I would most likely have to wait for them to set in motion whatever it was they were planning. Hopefully, I may be able to throw a wrench in their plan in time to stop or slow them down before they could do too much damage! I had already failed to help their victims once. For the life of me, I wasn’t going to let it happen again if I could help it!
Another sleepless night awaited me in my lonely hollow as I fought to ease the qualm and worry left in the wake of my pondering. The howling wind and pouring rain only intensified the ominous dread. My shivering would have been shaking the whole tree if the storm wasn’t doing that already!
An eternity later, dawn finally broke through the clouds, and the relentless rain finally began to die down. It may yet be a beautiful day, I realized! I’d considered staying hidden for one more day in case the changelings were still around, but the shining sun encouraged me to reconsider. They were in all likelihood long gone by now, and my emotional storm seemed like only a shadow in the past, gone like the night’s rainstorm. Besides, I wasn’t getting any less hungry. It was about time to continue my search for a friend!
I slipped out of the hollow and into the open. I’d had to turn into a mouse to pass through the crack. For a while I just stood there, taking in the beautiful trees and the droplets of water shimmering in the light. I took deep, slow breaths as I listened to the soothing choir of birds.
It did wonders to calm my troubled soul.
With a renewed spirit, I decided I wouldn’t let paranoia overtake me today. Maybe there was something in this forest, waiting for me to let my guard down so it could strike me; but maybe there wasn’t, and for once, I was feeling too good to give in to fearing it.
I dropped my disguise. If an ambush was waiting for me, I was ready to face it.
Feeling encouraged, I started walking through the forest, taking my time to enjoy the nature. For a long time I’d wanted to do such a thing: to set aside all worries, take some time to relax, and simply live in the moment, not having to care what the future would bring.
Eventually the forest thinned out and I got a glimpse of the sky. It was peculiar, but I didn’t think much of it; I merely took it for remnants of the storm. Only after I exited the forest completely did I get the full view of the marvel in front of me.
A lovely village splayed across a plateau at the side of a mountain, the houses scattered about, and a large open area between them. White clouds hovered peacefully in the sky above with rainbows bridging the gaps between some of them. But the one thing that took my breath away, a sight unlike anything I could have ever dreamed of, were shimmering rainbow-colored waterfalls pouring from the clouds onto the plateau and the surrounding hills, forming rivers which then became more waterfalls on the edges of cliffs and slopes of the hills, merging gradually into a river that flowed peacefully in the meadow below.
It was glorious!
I stopped in place, my eyes widening in awe at the sight. The sheer beauty of this place was unmatched by anything I’d ever imagined in my wildest fantasies! Such a magnificent place… and yet so tranquil, so soothing that I couldn’t help but envy the ponies who lived in this paradise! If I could call this place my home, I’d never want to leave, not even for a minute!
I must have been so awestruck that I started walking again without realizing it; not only was I unable to take my eyes off this wonder, I felt the irresistible urge to come closer, to lose myself in the divine scene and, if only for a moment, become one with it!
Soon I was almost in the village... but in my trance, I’d forgotten that I hadn’t put on a disguise.
A furious racket brought me hard back to reality.
I’d been so utterly transfixed by the rainbow waterfalls that I’d failed to consciously take notice of the ponies moving about the village, minding their business like they probably did every day. They had absolutely no difficulty noticing me, though, and if I’d never asked myself whether or not they might accept me as their friend, an answer soon arrived in the form of hostile shouts and any hard object at hoof thrown at me furiously.
I didn’t waste time trying to talk to them; they seemed to have an endless supply of rocks and frying pans and an even bigger supply of rage! I tried retreating back in the direction I’d come from, but got cut off by another group of ponies that may as well have materialized out of nowhere. Flying was a tricky task with all the stuff being thrown about, but soon enough it was my only option. It worked at first - curiously, there didn’t seem to be any pegasi in the village that could chase me through the air, at least not at the moment - but soon enough they made a collective decision to show me just how good their throwing skill was!
I just barely managed to dodge most of the objects, and those that made contact with me weren’t quite enough to knock me down, even if one or two did come dangerously close. They were, however, hindering my speed and coordination significantly!
Eventually one unicorn decided to unleash a blast of magic at me. It may have knocked me out cold if his aim had been a little better, but partly thanks to all the projectiles I was trying to dodge, he merely clipped my wing, taking me out of the sky anyway.
I fell onto one of the bridges over a rainbow-colored stream. My first impulse was to curse my luck for not having fallen into the water, where I may have been able to hide from them until the uproar died down, but that wasn’t going to help. I still had to get out of there! By now, the ponies seemed to have run out of things to throw and were rushing at me!
I tried my wing and winced in pain. It would be fine pretty soon, but not if I couldn’t get out of there! Before I had the chance to get up on my hooves, the unicorn unleashed another blast of his magic, this time hitting the bridge and blowing it up in a million pieces.
Having seen what was coming, I’d thrown myself aside as best as I could from the half-sprawled position I’d landed in, narrowly avoiding what would have been a very unpleasant experience, judging from how the bridge had fared. A cloud of dust filled the air at the spot I’d occupied a second ago, hiding the angry mob from my sight.
In a flash, I realized this was my chance: if I couldn’t see them, they shouldn’t be able to see me! The unicorn had tried to incapacitate me but inadvertently ended up giving me a way out!
The cloud of dust was large and thick enough to obscure the burst of my magic as I transformed into a splinter of wood, allowing myself to fall into the stream with the rest of the debris. The noise of angry voices was soon replaced by that of the waterfall, but for a brief moment there was silence. Though I couldn’t see the ponies anymore, I believed they were gathering at the destroyed bridge, upset by the damage and wondering what might have become of me.
I was saddened by having to flee from such a beautiful village, but if anything, it just went to show that beauty meant nothing if there were no kindness and good intentions to match. After all, I didn’t really need beautiful landscape to be happy! Love and acceptance would have meant so much more any day!
The pile of broken planks floated slowly and steadily on the river’s surface, undisturbed by any living creature that might have seen it. An occasional deer or rabbit would stop for a moment and stare at the unusual sight, but for the most part, the floating debris was ignored. A pony may have taken a closer look, but none were around to take interest.
I washed up ashore in a forest, hours upon hours away from the picturesque village, at a spot where the river made a slight turn and no creature was around to witness a piece of wood suddenly acting strange when it separated from the others and burst into a blue flame upon reaching dry land, creating a black menacing-looking monster that then walked gingerly into the forest.
I looked around. The forest was dense, quiet, and darker than the last few I’d been in. The trees were different, too: pine and spruce were the predominant kind while oak and ash had prevailed elsewhere, and the ground was covered in needles. I turned back and, though the river was partly obscured by the underbrush, it seemed to have lost its rainbow colors this far away from the waterfalls. I wondered when that might have happened. Maybe soon after leaving the village, around the first waterfalls, or maybe later, when it merged with another river, an ordinary one? My disguised eyes had been turned upward, where they could watch the surroundings better so I would know whether or not it was safe to shapeshift at any given moment, leaving me unable to see the water I’d floated on. Not that it mattered much; it would have merely satisfied my curiosity about the unusual village and its surroundings.
Night was falling soon, and though I didn’t know what possible dangers might loom in this particular forest, the fear of hidden changelings waiting for me in the shadows had left me at some point. I had no palpable reason to think so, but I believed the hunters hadn’t followed me here nor posted sentries to keep an eye on this particular forest. If I was wrong, I’d know soon enough... but so far, I seemed to have nothing to worry about. Not when enemies were concerned, anyway. I still had to find a place to sleep, which wouldn’t be very hard if my experience with forests so far could be applied here; but my hunger screamed more urgently with every passing minute! If I didn’t befriend anypony soon, I feared my journey would end soon in a very tragic and anticlimactic way!
I came across what appeared to be an abandoned mining shaft. It would be a good enough place to spend the night in, but I wouldn’t go too far inside; I might get lost, and trying to find a way out in pitch dark wasn’t the kind of adventure I needed right now! The entrance was boarded up, so most likely I wouldn’t be disturbed by anypony. I didn’t mind sharing the shaft with any wild animals small enough to enter. As for any larger and potentially dangerous animals, even if this wasn’t the only entrance and such an animal was occupying the shaft, I could still get to safety by turning into something small enough to pass between the planks nailed to the gate.
First thing tomorrow, I would go looking for a city or village and try to befriend somepony; but now, I was too tired to go anywhere. I found an especially dark corner and curled up to sleep.
The following dawn found me already on my hooves, walking through the forest to continue my search. I would have flown up above the trees to get a better idea of where to go, but after having tried several times and colliding face-first with a branch every time, I decided it was too dark to keep trying to fly through the canopy; I could end up hurting myself again! Though I’d collided with a number of tree trunks in the dark afterwards, sticking to the ground at least eliminated the risk of falling damage. Now that I could see better what I was flying into, I was able to proceed with my original idea of air travel.
It took most of the day to fly to where I could get a glimpse of a city on the horizon beyond the forest, and by the time I got close, it was already evening again. The ponies would be returning to their homes for the night soon. I wanted to kick myself for having given up precious time last night so I could sleep - time mostly wasted as my growing hunger hadn’t let me more than doze off for a few minutes at a time before I’d given it up after several hours and left the mining shaft. I hadn’t even been so tired that I couldn’t have skipped sleep! If only I’d kept going before darkness had enveloped the forest, I wouldn’t have wasted the time first trying to sleep and then flying blindly into branches and trying to get my bearings every time I’d fallen! If I’d reached the city just a few hours earlier, I might have met somepony by now - a pony I might have at least made acquaintance with enough to have any love they shared with me last me through the night until I got to befriend them more closely and share more of that love to quench or ease my desperate hunger! Now I would have to rely on my depleted reserves for yet another night!
I struggled to keep despair from overwhelming me. I’d come this far; I wasn’t going to give up now! I’d found a way out of one trouble after another; I could do it again! Just because I was getting weak and desperate didn’t mean I couldn’t last just a little bit longer! I might get discovered and run away again, but I felt like I was so close to my goal; I couldn’t give up, even if I only got to share a little bit of love! After all I’d been through, I had to be able to figure out how to make it work this time - I just had to! Everything I’d learned about ponies, every effort I’d made, every friendship I’d nearly forged before having to flee for safety... it couldn’t have all been for nothing!
It was night when I finally crossed the city limits. By now I was so distraught with hunger that I barely remembered to disguise myself. I wasn’t even sure what kind of disguise it was this time: maybe a bird, maybe a pegasus, maybe something entirely different, maybe even a random mashup of creatures such as didn’t even exist as a real being. Either way, it had wings, and I flew over the deserted streets, telling myself it was to try to get a feel for the town and figure out the best places to start looking for a friend in the morning... but all I could think of was my overwhelming hunger.
Eventually I saw a lone figure strolling down an empty street: a young mare, enjoying the peace and beauty of the night.
And then, in a flash of failure, my desperation pushed me into the darkness. The walls of honor and integrity I’d worked so hard to build and maintain had finally collapsed. All my principles, all my vows and promises, all my self-control - everything was thrown in the wind. I even gave up trying to maintain my disguise.
Before I knew it, I was standing over the mare’s unconscious body, gorging myself on her love.
With my hunger somewhat eased by the poor mare’s love, my common sense was restored, bringing the shock of the realization of my unforgivable act.
What have I done?!
On any other day, I would have stayed by the mare’s side and tried to help her regain her strength... but now, I failed at even that! An overwhelming wave of guilt, shame, and fear took control of my every action. Despite knowing better - despite wanting better - I flew away faster than I’d ever flown, not even bothering to disguise myself.
Part of me wanted to get out of there before anypony could see me.
But another part of me wanted to be seen... to be captured and punished in whatever way the ponies saw fit, no matter how cruel and painful. After what I’d done, I deserved no better!
If only I could get that part of me to take control of my actions.
Days later, I was still hiding away in a gorge I’d found after escaping the town where I’d violated the innocent mare. The initial fear had worn off to an extent, but my feeling of guilt was as strong as in that first moment, if not growing stronger.
How could I have been so weak, so selfish? Had my principles of friendship and love-sharing meant nothing to me? How could I have thrown them all away? The hunger was no excuse, no matter how unbearable! That mare had done me nothing wrong... she deserved better than what I’d given her! I could have tried… I should have tried to befriend her or at least to make a conversation! Maybe that would have been enough to share just a tiniest bit of love, just enough to last me till morning! And even if it wouldn’t have been enough, what right had I had to just walk up to her and take what I’d needed by force? Absolutely no right - not in a million years, no matter how badly I’d needed it! I’d always loathed my kind’s practice of stealing love, even before I’d realized there might be a better way to feed ourselves; after all, that had been one of the main reasons why I’d fled the hive in the first place, one of the reasons why I was now here, why I’d undertaken this journey, why I’d endured all the risks and setbacks... and what had I ended up doing? I’d betrayed it all! I may have succeeded - I may have proven to my kind and the rest of the world what there could be another way, that changelings didn’t have to resort to stealing love and waging war with other creatures, that we could all live together in peace and unity - but instead, I’d thrown it all away in a moment of weakness!
I despised myself. I was no better than those I’d run away from!
I’d been going through the same circle of remorse and self-accusations over and over and over again ever since I’d set hoof in the gorge. I’d barely slept, I’d given up looking for friendly ponies… all I could do was pace around and beat myself up over the atrocity I’d committed, or sit in the shadows and relive the terrible moments… take myself back in my mind to the sight of the mare’s immobile form beneath my hooves, her empty eyes as I’d drained the love out of her.
In the not-so-painfully-hopeless moments, I wondered what had become of the mare. Would she recover... could she recover? I’d stopped myself from draining her further the moment my deranged mind had snapped back into focus, but had I stopped in time? Would she be restored to her old self one day, or was she destined to remain a shadow of what she’d once been, an empty shell at the mercy of my fallen restraints?
There was no way to know. I’d fled blindly, without bothering to consider my path or direction; even if I thought I could still do anything to help her, I wouldn’t know where to go looking for her! I couldn’t even ease my worry by maybe, hopefully, learning that she was going to be fine!
On the other hoof, she might not be fine... she might not be fine ever again... and the thought of such a possibility would invariably trigger another wave of guilt and self-accusations.
I wanted punishment. I wanted it desperately - I deserved punishment! My whole being demanded to be punished! With no pony around to give me one and no other alternatives I could think of, I eventually started to consider exacting that punishment on myself.
Some time into planning how to best accomplish that task, a sudden realization struck me: proceeding with whatever I was about to do would do nothing to solve the situation. It wouldn’t undo the past, I understood that too well; but if I were to return to my original quest for friendship, I might eventually succeed in what I’d set out to do and prove what I’d set out to prove! I could still fulfill my dream of achieving harmony with my former enemies, if only just a few of them! It would still be worth it to at least prove it possible! To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one who had ever thought to try such a thing, and with me gone, would there ever be another like me, changeling or otherwise, who would care to end this mad, wretched way of life and bring forth friendship? The stakes were too high to risk counting on the off-chance of such an individual existing again in the foreseeable future, and unless friendship among changelings and between changelings and non-changelings was made possible, incidents like these would keep happening, and I couldn’t allow that... I just couldn’t! With that goal achieved, I could then admit my failures, confess the sins I’d committed on the path there! The ponies would then have the opportunity to act upon my confessions as they saw fit! If they decided to punish me - and I had no doubt they would - I was going to accept that punishment. It was the least I could do in the circumstances! Hopefully, my success would at least partially compensate for the horrors I’d committed, and my confession wouldn’t undo all the efforts I’d put in getting ponies to trust and befriend a changeling and undermine every chance of such a thing happening again in the future!
But could I trust myself not to make the same mistake again?
I would, of course, make every effort to keep myself from betraying my principles the second time and stay on the right path, and take every precaution possible... but, in the end, only time would tell.
It took several more days of building up the courage to leave the gorge and get back to looking for friendly cities... and when I finally did leave, it was not because I felt ready, but rather because my hunger was starting to grow stronger again. After everything that had happened, I wanted to meet a few ponies and share some love with them before I ended up so desperate that I’d risk losing control over myself again!
It took me the rest of the day and all night to fly to a city; this time I didn’t want to waste time on sleeping or elaborate planning and preparations. The city was a large one, sitting on the coast of an ocean I assumed was the one that no changeling had ever been able to cross. The center of the city was full of large buildings, similar to the ones I’d seen in Manehattan and its neighbors, albeit not quite as tall; still, the sight was suggestive of an abundance of ponies I could try to befriend... and plenty of ponies to turn on me if I ended up doing something wrong. I’d have to be careful! Not that I hadn’t been making an effort all along, but so far it had always gone south, and at least some of these outcomes may have been different if I’d planned my strategies a little better! My last encounter with ponies had been the worst and the most discouraging of all, even if it hadn’t ended in mass panic and a city-wide chase! All the others could have been attributed to lousy planning or bad luck, but this last one had been an outright violation of every value I’d vowed to honor, an unforgivable transgression! Whether or not I got caught in the act, I couldn’t let it happen again!
The peripheral parts of the city consisted of smaller buildings and houses interspersed with vegetation: parks, gardens, playgrounds, even an orchard or two near the edges of the city, where it met with the surrounding fields and forests. This would be a good place to land and disguise myself! I would pretend to be a pony traveller; I believed it would be a good excuse to approach random ponies and start a conversation. Such a strategy may have worked in Canterlot if I hadn’t freaked out and become so eager to get out of there, or in Manehattan if I hadn’t been seen in my own form first, or in that village if I hadn’t opted out of visiting after having seen the changeling hunters in a nearby cave.
Or in that last city, if I hadn’t given in to my urges. Thinking about it gave me more flashbacks and a disgusting feeling in my throat.
I forced myself to put that dreadful incident out of my mind. If I wanted to succeed this time, I shouldn’t allow myself to get overwhelmed by remorse again; it would only distract me from the task I’d given myself!
The forest was devoid of ponies who might have witnessed my landing and immediate transformation into a nondescript pegasus. Despite not looking for trouble, I wanted to retain as much maneuverability and as many escape options as possible in case trouble did arise, even if it wouldn’t be related to me and discovery or suspicion of my true nature, hence the wings. I also didn’t want to stand out in a crowd for much the same reason; I'd had quite enough complications recently! A traveller might be expected to carry luggage, but I was reluctant to create a mock-saddlebag as part of my disguise, lest I blow my own cover if I had to take it off in front of ponies at any point. Better to claim I’d left my bags somewhere!
The path from the forest to the city led me next to a pear orchard. With no ponies on the road to meet and talk to, I had plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. I found the sight of trees quite soothing for my worried soul. Maybe they would ease my inner turmoil and help me reach a friendly and untroubled state of mind by the time I ran into ponies!
I was about halfway to the city when I noticed a lone figure sitting beneath one of the pear trees. He was an elderly earth pony, holding a small yellow flower in his hooves, looking at it dejectedly. Deep sorrow reflected in the tears that filled his eyes.
Treading gingerly, I approached the orchard’s fence. I didn’t want to startle the stallion, but he was so impossibly sad; I couldn’t just leave him there without at least trying to cheer him up!
“What’s wrong?” I asked softly, unsure if he’d even noticed my presence.
“Just thinking about my daughter,” he said and turned to me slowly. “Twenty-five years ago today, I disowned her because she married somepony I didn’t approve of, somepony whose family I was on bad terms with. I even left town and moved here just because I couldn’t stand them! I broke all contact with her... I was so angry… now I just wonder if I could have acted differently,” he trailed off with a sigh.
“She doesn’t forgive you?”
“It’s not that… I think she wanted to reconcile - she’d sent so many letters, but I never read any of them, I just shoved every one of them into a drawer - but the letters stopped coming years ago, and soon after that, I heard a rumor from my old town that she’d died… if it’s true, then it’s too late to ask her forgiveness.”
I flew over the fence and sat next to him.
“Maybe it was just a rumor or a misunderstanding… maybe she isn’t dead after all. You can try writing to your old town or going back for her,” I suggested.
“I don’t think it’s that easy.” He shook his head. “Our two families were in a long-lasting feud; I most likely wouldn’t be welcome there.”
“But you said that was a long time ago! How do you know they’re still mad at you?”
“Because I know them. They can be as stubborn as mules!”
“But you haven’t seen them in twenty-five years! That’s a long time to hold a grudge, and a long enough time for a lot to happen. Maybe they are willing to reconcile by now!”
“Then why didn’t they write or come looking for me?”
“Maybe they thought you weren’t interested!”
“Or maybe my daughter isn’t dead like the rumors say... maybe she simply gave up!”
“But it’s plain as day that you miss her immensely! Why don’t you at least try despite the bad reaction you may or may not get?”
The stallion didn’t answer for a while, and I was starting to think he wouldn’t. When he finally did, a long sigh revealed decades of regret and what-ifs and self-doubt.
“Because, despite my anger, I guess I never stopped fearing the rumors might be correct.”
I nodded, understanding.
We sat in silence for a while.
“Have you ever lost somepony?” It was his turn to ask me something.
“Two sisters and a brother,” I admitted after a pause.
“Sweet Celestia… I’m so sorry!”
“It’s alright. It was a long time ago… I’ve learned to live with it.”
“Were you close?”
“Not especially, but it still hurt to lose them. I have one more brother, though... too bad we don’t really see eye to eye either.”
“I know that feeling. How do you cope?”
“Actually, I left home because I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Sounds like you have some reconciling to do yourself.”
If only you knew, I thought.
“Maybe I will one day, but not yet. I guess I’m letting him cool down after our last dispute,” I tried modifying the truth into what I hoped would be a believable situation in the context of a pony. I didn’t really think I’d ever see Pharynx again… assuming I could avoid getting captured by any remaining hunters and dragged back to the hive.
The stallion nodded. Another period of silence came.
“Do you really think they’d forgive me?” he asked eventually.
“Yes,” I reassured him. “I think they would.”
“And what if they don’t?”
“Then at least you’ll know. You’ll finally find out about your daughter.”
“Even if I find out that she’s dead? How would that make things easier?”
“It will hurt, but I’m pretty sure the uncertainty is hurting you more. Knowing will at least give you some closure… a chance to finally grieve.”
He just stared at his flower again, saying nothing.
“Who knows?” I continued. “Maybe you’ll find a bit of good news in all of it. Maybe you’ll find out that you have grandchildren who want to meet you. Wouldn’t it be worth it to get to know them?”
“I suppose so,” he agreed.
“Then what are you waiting for?”
“I’m still not sure what to expect. How do I just drop in after all this time and expect everything to go smoothly?”
“You said you never read your daughter’s letters,” I said after a moment. “Do you still have them?”
“I think so.”
“Then start by reading them! Take your time and read them all, no matter how long it takes, no matter how hard and painful it might be! Your daughter would have probably told you everything in them. They’ll prepare you if anything will!”
“Thanks. I think I’ll do that.”
“These were her favorite,” he offered me the flower in his hooves. “I won’t hold you up any longer, but I want you to know how much your reassurance means to me!”
“Oh, I can’t possibly take it - you should keep it!” I didn’t want to part him with his flower.
“Don’t worry! I have plenty of them growing around!” He winked, pointing to the clusters of the same flower scattered about the orchard.
“Thank you,” I said, accepting the flower. “I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for!”
“Thanks to you, I’m starting to believe I might,” he nodded and left, presumably to look for the letters.
I watched him go. He was such a nice pony, and so relatable; I was pretty sure we might have become friends over time! I wanted to tag along and get to know him better, but by doing so, I’d be intruding on a very personal moment. Instead, I decided to let him go look for his daughter or whatever legacy she might have left behind. I hoped for a happy ending for him and all the others involved in his story!
I looked at the flower now in my hooves. Whether or not the elderly stallion realized it, he’d given me some love along with that flower. I sipped a little bit that had come with his gratitude; it should be enough to ease my hunger for the day. The rest, the immense love for his daughter poured into this one flower, would remain untouched. It wasn’t mine to take, and I was going to leave it untouched no matter what!
Putting the flower in my mane, I spread my wings and flew over the fence again, returning to the road to the city.
I spent the rest of that day and most of the following two roaming the streets, still no closer to finding a friend than I’d been before arriving here. I’d met plenty of ponies and interacted with them, but none seemed very interested in getting to know me better. At best, they’d stick around for a polite conversation before hurrying off to whatever duties or plans they might have had; at worst, they’d shoo me off or snap at me for having interrupted them in something or other... but as frustrating as it was, it never came even close to the mocking and bullying I’d endured in the hive, and none of them had seen through my disguise. For that, at least, I could be grateful.
At some point I started wondering why I was having such a hard time befriending anypony. It may have been simply that they were too busy, but what if something else was the problem? Was I being too dull, was I too uninteresting for them? Was I offensive? Was I not convincing enough... was there something off about me even if they couldn’t specify what? Was I about to have my cover blown again?
Or did they sense a malignant streak in me, one I wasn’t aware of displaying at the moment, but nevertheless one that must have existed; how else would I explain the dark side that had erupted not long ago in a moonlit alley of another city to wreak havoc with an innocent pony?
Was my cursed heritage about to show its face again, despite all my efforts to contain it?
Stuck in a loop of reassuring myself about my ability to adhere to my principles and reproaching myself for having failed the said principles in the past, I sought a secluded place where I could sort out my dilemma and calm my doubts without fear of being discovered. I found it on the near-outskirts of the city, in a deserted building that may have once been a warehouse or a factory. Now it was just a large, dilapidated structure filled with towering piles of all kinds of odds and ends. It would be easy to lose myself here!
I found an especially quiet corner and took the flower out of my mane. On the first day, upon noticing it was starting to wilt, I’d taken a moment while strolling through a park to discreetly build a small cocoon around its stem and fill it with water from a nearby fountain. Nopony had seen me do it - I was sure I’d know if they had - and I’d been concealing the cocoon in my mane ever since. Every once in a while, when nopony was around, I would take the flower in my hooves and observe it, sometimes to admire it, sometimes to check if it needed more water, sometimes to reflect on the pony who’d given it to me. Now, dejected and alone, I wanted it to guide me; it had become a symbol of everything I’d strived for, a reminder of everything good in me I was hoping to preserve, a sustenance of hope for a better future. Every time I’d look at it, I would calm down and my fears would slowly diminish, as if the flower were enchanted to ease the storm that troubled my heart and mind. For that, and for the profound love contained in it, I would keep it alive and safe as long as possible! I couldn’t imagine a more valuable possession!
I’d lost track of time while immersed in my flower; I stopped paying attention to reality while entranced with my thoughts, but a strange sensation slowly brought me out of it. I’d gradually become aware of an aura of love radiating from somewhere. At first I thought it was the flower, but eventually I was focused enough again to realize that, while the flower still contained its ample share of love, this new aura was coming from a separate source... but what that source was, I couldn’t determine. It couldn’t have been anything nearby, I was sure of that!
Curiosity prevailed over caution. I put the flower back in my mane, found an exit from the building, and spread my wings to track down this new source of love… whatever it was. Distance didn’t matter. I would let the powerful aura lead me to wherever I needed to go!
Days later, I was still flying, drawn by the mysterious aura of love. It had taken me further north, over the fields and railroads, over the hills and forests, into a snow-covered mountain range, into an area I’d learned nothing about back in the hive, not even a rumor to give me an idea of what to expect. I’d hardly stopped at all - only a couple of times to rest when I’d found a suitable shelter - but the journey was slow. I’d had no problems leaving the city, but over time, the weather had become harsh and uncooperative. The frigid winds slowed my progress and gusts had threatened to throw me off course at times, but I persisted. My flower must have been having it worse, but it meant a great deal to be able to hold on to it, and I was doing everything in my power to keep it safe!
With nothing else that demanded my immediate attention, I debated long and hard with myself whether or not to remain disguised. I would feel much better looking like myself; disguises still made me uncomfortable and doubtful of my sincerity in regard to the goal of my quest. However, a disguise would likely be an advantage when I finally arrived at my destination, but now knowing where or what it was, I couldn’t predict that that would indeed be the case. What if whatever lay out there didn’t like ponies? Would I find out before it was too late? Would they hurt me? Or would they simply send me back where I’d come from? The irony didn’t escape me: I’d started out with the same kind of concerns about the possibility of being recognized as a changeling! Actually, I still had those concerns; there was no telling whether or not a changeling would fare any better here than anywhere else! I’d just have to wait and see! For now, I would keep my disguise on; though no one was around to see me at the moment, there was no way to know when that might change, and besides, ponies were said to be better accepted than changelings in any land I knew about, so looking like one might help avoid instant hostility.
The aura had over time become much stronger than when I’d felt it first, and not just owing to the closer proximity of the source, I was sure of that; it had actually grown in strength exponentially! I had a vague feeling I was getting close, but still couldn’t see where it was coming from. A violent storm loomed on the horizon, and though I hoped I wouldn’t have to go through it, something told me my destination lay in the heart of the ominous clouds.
What could be so powerful to survive in such dire conditions? What could possibly thrive in this frozen wasteland? Thrive it certainly did; how else would it generate so much love to be sensed from so many miles away? What creatures were so magnificent to harbor all that love? I’d thought I’d known love, but this… this was on a whole new level! Nowhere in Equestria had I found such immeasurable love; even in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have hoped it possible! And yet it was here, all too real, stronger than any love I’d ever witnessed! Up until now, the newest princess of Equestria and her friends had possessed the strongest, purest love I could imagine, but even they couldn’t measure up to the strength and volume of this new love! It was hard to imagine that such an abundance of love might be denied to anyone… even to a changeling like me!
As wonderful as such a possibility was, part of me didn’t want to count on it. I couldn’t blame it; even the friendliest ponies I’d encountered had turned hostile upon discovering my true nature! What promise did I have that it wouldn’t happen again here? Even my six ponies had fought the changelings fiercely and passionately during the Canterlot invasion in spite of their unbridled love! Even the Princess of Love herself had suppressed her desire to spread love momentarily so she could purge us from the city! Whatever these creatures were, how did I know they wouldn’t abandon their love at the sight of me too? What if their hate was as strong as their love, if not stronger?
And where were the other changelings? Surely they would have sensed love of this magnitude too, at least the infiltrators in Equestria if not the drones currently in the hive! It might as well have been enough to feed the entire hive for months, years even; no way would they ignore such a plentiful source of food! Maybe they just hadn’t had enough time to come? I had started out much closer than the rest of them, after all. Unless… unless the new mission of those groups of hunters I’d overheard was to steal this love and carry it to the hive? It seemed impractical, but if Chrysalis had figured out a way for drones to channel stolen love long-distance, that would eliminate the need for a large-scale invasion: only a few changelings would be required, and a small group would be safer from discovery than a large one. I’d better watch out for them!
The thundering snowstorm had grown in both size and strength - it was now on the verge of becoming a tornado - and before I knew it, I was on the very edge of it! I tried retreating to a safe distance, but couldn’t - the storm wouldn’t let me. Whether I liked it or not, I was going in!
I reached into my mane and took the flower out. In this weather, I would surely lose it if it stayed there! I clutched it firmly onto my chest.
The storm was more chaotic than I’d imagined! It tumbled me all over; I could no longer control my trajectory, not even to attempt an emergency landing! I would have to wait for it to subside before trying to proceed any further! Hopefully I wouldn't get injured before then!
For a split second, I noticed ground below me... or rather, to the side of me. Patches of green grass poked through piles of snow, crystal-like formations were scattered about, and between them, a stretch of smooth, polished road ran and intersected with another.
I must be in another city!
A solid object, carried on the wind much like I was, collided with me, launching me deeper into the storm. It hadn’t knocked me out, but it had stunned me enough to revert me to my natural form. No one was around to see it - even if there was, I doubted they’d care much in this weather - but I lost the grip on my flower and it was carried away from me.
I was stuck between two layers of wind currents, stable enough to remain in place for the moment, but still unable to move. I tried to catch the flower, but it was already out of my reach. All I could do was watch it get tossed about and eventually land onto a road.
Something happened over the next few seconds, but try as I might, I couldn’t come up with an explanation for it. The love from my flower poured out and was absorbed into the road below, which lit up, first around the flower, and then the light began to spread further out along the road, and at the same time, I could swear I caught a glimpse of a giant snowflake on the ground, shining faintly through the thick wall of clouds. Then, strange vibrations shook the air, almost as if an avalanche was approaching… followed by a bright light coming from the center of the snowflake now clearly visible through the clouds.
A rippling stream of rainbow rays reaching for the sky was the last thing I saw before the shockwave launched me into the distance and rendered me unconscious.
I woke up in a dell between some hills, sprawled on a bed of grass under the clear blue sky. It took me a confused moment to realize what had happened. I remembered flying through a storm… losing my flower… a flash of light…
Then I noticed rippling streams of light across the sky, emerging from somewhere beyond the hills. I remembered now: whatever had happened in that storm must have involved powerful magic, and that magic must have cleared the clouds! I just wished it had been a little gentler with clearing me out! I was hurting, but not nearly as much as the last few times I’d gotten blasted this intensely; I was going to be fine.
I got up to survey my surroundings. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought I was much further south, maybe somewhere around Ponyville; so beautiful was the nature, so green the grass, so many flowers and butterflies… It was hard to believe that such a lovely oasis could exist in the midst of snow and cold! If I couldn’t see snow-covered mountain peaks all around the horizon, I would have suspected I’d been thrown hundreds of miles away!
I climbed one of the hills. Once at the peak, I could see more hills spread about, and beyond them, a monumental spire stood tall, its crystal form shimmering in the sunlight no longer obstructed by the storm clouds. From it, the stream of rainbow ripples shot up into the sky, dispersing in all directions at a certain altitude. I had no idea what its purpose might be, but the sight was so peaceful, so comforting, that I had no doubt it was for a good cause! I felt I could get lost in the dance of the soothing whirls and ripples!
When I finally looked down, an unexpected but welcome sight brought joy to me: my flower was there! It must have been blown off by the wind just like me! Its cocoon had split open in the process, but it was still holding on to the stem, even retaining a little bit of water that had been inside; the love once inside the flower was now gone, having poured out into a crystal road, but the flower was still alive! I let out a sigh of relief; I’d thought I’d lost it in the storm! I picked it up, wanting to convince myself that I wasn’t hallucinating, that the flower was indeed real, and as I did, the tiny cocoon opened a little further, and I noticed something else I hadn’t expected: roots had formed from the cocooned end of the stem! I hadn’t thought such a thing was possible; but then again, changelings didn’t have a habit of cocooning plants, so it was likely that such an effect had never been observed before... but if cocoons could heal changelings, would it be that hard to believe they could heal other living things as well?
This new revelation opened another possibility: rather than carrying the flower around and trying to keep it alive for one more day, I could plant it and let it grow into a bigger plant, one that could live out its normal lifespan!
I got to work immediately. The peak of this hill seemed like as good a place as any. I was pretty sure I’d be able to find it easily for as long as I stayed around. I’d never planted anything before, but I had seen a few ponies do it on my travels, and it wasn’t hard: all I had to do was dig a small hole, put the flower in it, and cover the roots with the ground I’d dug out. The ponies would often water their young plants at this point, so I spilled the remainder of the water from the cocoon near the stem, just in case this little bit of it would make a difference. Lastly, I wished it good luck in its new life.
It was now time to proceed into whatever city lay up ahead. I flew up to get past the hills more quickly, but keeping at a low altitude, near the safety of the hilltops that could conceal me if need be. Soon enough, I emerged beyond the last of the hills. A vast meadow lay ahead, with a large city in the middle, one built entirely of crystals. The spire I’d seen stood in the center, and though I couldn’t see it quite clearly from my current position, the roads seemed to spread from it in all directions. Near the edge of the city was a railroad, and a train was just leaving the station, a train very much in appearance like the one I’d secretly boarded in Ponyville. Taking a closer look at the city itself, I could just barely make out the colorful shapes of the inhabitants of this breathtaking city: shapes all too familiar, both welcome and dreaded at the same time.
Though I didn’t expect them to notice me right away, I hurried to hide behind the nearest hill. There, I assumed the form of a bird. After the recent burst of magic in the city, I didn’t want to risk being the only pony around who had no idea what had happened! Posing as an animal would let me go wherever I wanted without it being suspicious and listen in on conversations to get an idea of what was going on. As much as I disliked that approach, there were times when it was unavoidable in order to remain unexposed, and this was one such time.
In the city at last, flying over the streets, I saw the familiar shape more clearly: the main roads did indeed spread in all directions from the central spire, interconnected here and there with side-roads that, together with the larger roads, formed a snowflake-shaped network I’d seen shine through the raging storm. The streets were all made of smooth crystal just like the houses and the spire.
Where had they gotten so many crystals?
I sat on a branch of a tree to observe the ponies up close. They resembled earth ponies at first glance - so far, I couldn’t see any unicorns or pegasi in this part of the city - but upon closer inspection, I noticed some peculiar differences: their manes and tails were braided and adorned with jewels and ribbons, their coats were smooth and shiny, almost as if it were made of glass, and their eyes reflected the sunlight in a most unusual way, more like a cut diamond than an eye of a living being. Did it have anything to do with the outburst of magic I’d witnessed? It was hard to imagine such magic with no unicorns about - unless the changelings’ knowledge of pony magic was seriously flawed - but I could think of no other explanation. Indeed, where had all the magic come from?
I started to pay attention to conversations, moving from one part of the city to another in an attempt to find as many ponies talking about the relevant matters as I could. I was mostly out of luck - the ponies tended to talk about everyday things like in most other places I’d been to - but I did catch an odd reference or two about something called ’crystalling’. Was that what had happened to the ponies? They did look live living sculptures of crystal, in a way! But what was the meaning of it? Was it simply a ritual in honor of something, or did it have a practical purpose? Nopony I’d come across had said anything that would shed some light into the matter, but maybe I could figure it out eventually!
Before I’d entered the city, I was still sensing the aura of love radiating from it, still showing no signs of weakening; but now that I was inside and moving about, I was beginning to notice the finer details of the pattern of that aura. It was emanating from the ponies themselves, which was hardly surprising in any way other than the sheer strength of it. What I’d felt earlier was actually the collective aura of all the ponies here: every individual aura joined together in one powerful burning beacon of love! But the love wasn’t simply radiating from each individual pony; it was aimed somewhere, all the love in town was streaming toward that giant spire in the center!
I wouldn’t learn anything more from exploring the streets, I realized. It was time to investigate the central spire!
I flew closer to the spire’s base. I could see it clearly now: rather than a single large one, four smaller bases supported each corner of the spire, each with a door leading to the interior. All the major roads that formed the axes of the snowflake pattern converged at this point, forming a circular clearing at which the spire stood. On one side I noticed a group of pegasi guards dismounting a podium. These guards were similar to the ones in Canterlot, the only major difference being the colors of their coats and armor. I would try not to attract their attention!
Under the spire, directly in the middle, suspended between two vertical spikes, an immaculate blue crystal in the shape of a heart levitated in the air, glowing in the same soft colors as the ripples in the sky. It was channeling some of the aura of love contained in the streets below and shooting it up into the sky in the form of the rainbow ripples I’d seen earlier, but most of the love was aimed elsewhere, somewhere inside the spire itself!
Growing even more puzzled, I flew up. The heart-shaped crystal seemed like a powerful artifact, but if it was getting only a fraction of the love that existed here, what in the world could be drawing all the rest of it? Even more, whatever it was seemed to generate love as well as absorb it... or at least there was another immense source of love so close I couldn’t tell them apart!
Curiouser and curiouser. What was going on?
Soon I could see openings in the spire’s surface. I approached one and looked inside. The interior was just as majestic as the city - crystally walls and floors adorned with rugs and paintings and sculptures - and through another opening, I saw furniture and a pony cleaning the floor. Through the next one, I saw a kitchen and several ponies cooking, and through another, a few more guards being addressed by a superior officer.
This was a castle! But who was the leader that lived in it?
Exploring further, I got a glimpse of more parts of the castle: another hallway, a dining room, the throne room, more hallways, and a few bedrooms. Most were empty. I was about to give up and come back later when I finally came across an occupied bedroom. This one was a little more elaborate in decoration than the others, and two ponies were inside, standing close to each other, their backs turned to me: a white unicorn stallion and a pink alicorn. I’d never need a second look to know who they were!
For all I knew, all the love from the city could have suddenly vanished; despite my still-growing hunger, I stopped caring to notice!
The unicorn commander - uh, captain - kissed his beloved and left the room. She then reached into a basket that had been concealed from my view by the captain’s presence and took out something wrapped in a blanket. Humming blissfully, she sat on the nearby bed with it. The blanket moved and giggled, sending me into a fit of horror as the cause of such an immense outburst of love throughout the city was finally revealed to me, the explanation for such a peculiar aura fell in place, and the implications sank in.
Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, the current ruler of this city, had become a mother!
Just barely containing the intense wave of panic that threatened to collapse my disguise and expose me to the whole city, I fled back to the relative safety of the surrounding hills, hoping against hope that I might somehow figure out a way to deal with this unforeseen complication. I didn’t think there was a way through it, not one that would spare me from one terrible fate or another, anyway. Ponies were known to us as very protective of their offspring, and if I made a wrong move, I wouldn’t be the first changeling to have such a mistake become their last one. My own sister Costa could attest to that!
Still, I would at least try to make the best of my situation; I’d come too far to just give up, and this was the last place I could think of to try to make friends in! There may be some other part of Equestria I hadn’t been to, but how long would it take me to get there, and how could I be sure I’d find what I needed there if I’d failed so far? Could I even get out of the frozen wasteland with such treacherous weather waiting for me? It seemed unlikely! I’d just barely survived going through it once, and that was while I still had some leftovers of the elderly pony’s love! The journey here and the storm had exhausted even that! I was once again desperately hungry; but this time, I was determined to be a better changeling and resist the overwhelming urge to take any of the love that permeated the whole area, even if it was so plentiful that nopony would know the difference! I would stick to my earlier decision: unless somepony offered me some of that love freely, I wasn’t going to touch it. Failing to uphold that vow once had been more than enough!
Safely away from the city, I finally sat down on the ground to catch my breath. My mind was still a raging chaos, but things were finally falling into place. I understood now how this city had been able to produce such a massive aura of love! If this was the realm of the Princess of Love, then it made perfect sense her subjects would have more love in them than average ponies! All of the alicorn princesses were well loved and respected, which would be even more obvious here, among such love-filled ponies! Also, ponies in general cared a great deal about foals; from what I’d been taught in the hive and later witnessed during my time in Equestria, it was extremely hard to find one who didn’t love them. Add to the fact that this was a royal foal living in a place with disproportionately ample capacity for love, one could not expect the forming of anything else than such a glorious, beaming love-filled oasis!
I still didn’t quite understand how the heart-shaped crystal at the base of the castle fit into all of this. The most obvious explanation I could think of was that the crystal was a tool intended to announce the birth of a future leader and establish a celebratory environment - and the visual cues were certainly suggestive of such a purpose - but even if that was part of it, I couldn’t help but feel like there had to be more to it than that! The crystal seemed like an artifact of great power; I found it unlikely it would be used in mundane tasks such as royal announcements, even if the announcement was the birth of a royal baby!
But all this could wait for another time. I had to make a more important decision: to leave or to stay?
On the face of it, leaving was the sensible option. The Princess had been an admirable opponent for the changelings that had invaded Canterlot, and she only had herself and her stallion to defend at the time. Now, with a foal in the picture, she would stop at nothing to protect it! Under no circumstances would she allow even one changeling to exist anywhere close to the city! If she were to find out about me… I didn’t dare to imagine how it might end!
But where would I go? I’d already exhausted most, if not all, options in Equestria! I’d remained undetected in a few cities, but not everywhere, and by now, news of a changeling sighting in any of these places would have spread to the surrounding cities and villages. They would all likely be on heightened alert for intruders, so I wouldn’t be as safe there as I’d been the first time! Even if I were familiar with every possible changeling-detection technique and spell that undoubtedly existed, would I be able to consistently avoid them? And for how long?
Besides, would I even get anywhere? I’d barely reached this city already, and now I was exhausted and weakened by the storm that I’d had to fight! If the weather cooperated, I might reach a pony settlement in the warmer area, but what then? I’d be so utterly exhausted by then that my only hope of survival would be to assault and violate another pony, and that was absolutely out of question! If I got into another storm, however, I didn’t think I’d make it out. Taking the train didn’t seem like a very attractive option, either, considering how the last such experience had gone.
With a heavy heart, I came to realize I only had one option: unless something changed significantly to ensure my safe departure, I was staying here, whether I liked it or not. How much the decision to stay was influenced by the proximity of a limitless source of love and a hope to, maybe, one day be granted permission to share some of that love, I didn’t know, but now that the decision was made, for some odd reason, it felt like the right one, despite all the difficulties I was bound to face.
I got up and started walking. Now that I was staying here, I would need some kind of shelter. Bad weather may return, or it may not; if it did, I wasn’t going to sit it out in the open! But more importantly, I needed a place to hide from the ponies: a place where I could be myself without fear, where I could plan my approach undisturbed, a place I could retreat to if trouble arose. A home of sorts, no matter how gloomy!
I found such a place after several days of meticulously searching the outskirts of the city: an underground cave a few minutes of flying away from where the grass-covered meadow gave way to snow. It was unexpectedly warm inside despite the icy interior; not that I complained! Many crystals similar to some of the ones used as building blocks and decorations for the ponies’ homes glowed magically, their soft light reflecting off the icy surfaces and creating an unique, dreamlike ambient. Also, it wasn’t too close to the city, so I expected to have plenty of peace from uninvited guests; but not too far away either, so I’d always be able to visit. There were a number of spacious caverns, too, so I expected to discover plenty of hiding places within them in case somepony were to drop by.
So that was that: I’d reached my destination, and now I’d have to make the best of it! I still wasn’t quite sure how to proceed in regard to befriending ponies, especially with the alicorn princess and her foal to consider and evade, but I’d have all the time in the world to think of something!
Well, at least as much time as my near-depleted love reserves could spare me.
One thing did bring a smile on my face amidst all the worries, though: I could visit my flower on the hill and watch it grow and flourish.
The next day I awoke somewhat refreshed; for the first time in ages I had a place where I could feel safe, and it meant more than I’d realized! It wasn’t too different from the hive, and a sense of familiarity must have helped; but it wasn’t too similar, either, which helped against feelings of anxiety and tension. One thing it couldn’t provide, however, was food, and I was still no closer to finding a way to befriend the local ponies without risking the Princess’ wrath if she found out about me.
For a while I just sat there, thinking. I wanted to figure out what to do, but eventually came to realize my mind was elsewhere: I was revisiting the memories of my journey, just random incidents unrelated to anything in particular, none of which could help me solve my current problem. I tried to focus, but to no avail. Eventually I gave up and decided to go for a walk around the hills; maybe that would help me clear my head!
The day was once again beautiful and warm, and for a moment I wondered if maybe I should try leaving now while the weather was suitable. But then, the weather had been even better when I’d first sensed the love coming from here, and it had gotten really bad quickly! Who was to say this time would be any different? What was even in control of the weather here? Was anything? Until I knew more, it would be safer to stay put! Maybe it would turn out fine after all; maybe I was just fretting over nothing! After all, I hadn’t really tried anything yet; how would I know if something could work until I attempted it?
I didn’t have a particular destination in mind, but my stroll took me back to my flower. I must have been subconsciously drawn to it; it was the only familiar thing in this unusual land, the only thing I knew for certain wouldn’t turn against me! It was greatly comforting to have such a thing, even if it wasn’t going to actively help me in any way!
I sat beside the flower and let myself get lost in its beauty, its calming serenity. I let it carry me into a happier moment, a moment in which I’d shared a connection with a pony, a connection that might have grown into a friendship if we hadn’t parted ways. I wondered how he was doing. Had he found his daughter’s letters? Had he read them? Had they given him the answers, the reassurance he needed? Had he settled the dispute he’d mentioned, made peace with the other ponies? I hoped so! If I ever saw him again, I would ask.
I brought myself out of my reverie after what I hoped was not too long a time. Even though I was alone, that might not be the case forever, and I would have to return to my cave before anypony noticed me! Not having expected company, not having planned to wander far, and having assumed I would be left alone this far from the city in the short amount of time I’d intended to spend in the open, I hadn’t disguised myself before going out. There would be little point in it now; my cave was pretty close.
For a second I thought I’d noticed slight movement in the corner of my eye, but when I looked in that direction, nothing was there. I shrugged it off, thinking it may have been a trick of the light or a breeze playing with the grass, and kept going.
I spent the rest of the day pacing restlessly, still unable to think of a good approach for befriending the ponies. A few ideas did come to mind, such as pretending to be a traveller pony, but for that to work, I’d have to know more about the city than I did! I knew absolutely nothing, not even the name of the city! If I could do something about it, maybe the idea about a traveller pony would work after all! Finding out a few things may not be too hard, though. I’d already learned the rough outline of the city by flying about as a bird the day before. If I could take a closer look at it, it might give me some answers, but no matter the disguise I chose for the task, it would be better to have as few witnesses around as possible, lest they notice the possibly strange behaviour of a pony or animal.
The solution was obvious: I’d have to visit during the night.
It was a long wait till nightfall, and I spent it trying to take a nap before the excursion, expecting it could take a while and wanting to prevent any bad decisions that might arise as a side-effect of tiredness, but sleep wouldn’t come. I was too nervous about possible complications to fully relax. For possibly the first time ever, I wished I’d received infiltrators’ training! Knowing a few worst-case scenario tricks would mean a great deal, if only just to boost my confidence! As it was, I would have to rely on whatever improvisation I could muster!
From what I’d seen so far, birds seemed to get away with a lot of behavior that might be suspicious in a pony. A little later into the night, it was time to see if Little Bird Thorax would get treated the same!
The flight into the city was uneventful. Once there, I found the streets deserted - devoid of civilian ponies at least. There was, however, a surprising number of guards posted everywhere, mostly in pairs or groups of three. I hadn’t realized the city had so many of them: in one street alone there were more guards than I’d seen during the entire day on my first fly-through! An uneasy feeling washed over me, but I tried to suppress it; maybe such an ample presence of defense forces was normal here during the night, or maybe it was just temporarily increased security due to the recent birth of the Princess’ foal.
I flew on, seeing more guards everywhere. With so many of them, I didn’t expect to be able to explore the town like I’d planned to! Maybe I would get lucky, but so far it looked like I’d have to try some other time!
Eventually I realized that not all guards were standing in place or rotating between stationary posts; a few of them were patrolling the city, and some of the patrolling guards were carrying saddlebags. I hadn’t been paying attention to them at first, but something about them kept stirring in the back of my mind, so I decided to follow one pair of them. It turned out they were delivering scrolls to every house in the city. That was weird if everything so far hadn’t been; even I knew mail delivery was an occupation completely unrelated to guard duty in pony society! So if the guards were doing it, it had to be important! I had to find out what was going on! But how?
An opportunity presented itself a few streets down the line: the guard tossed a scroll through a slit in the door like he’d done with every house before, but this house had an open window, and the nearby stationary guards were looking the other way. I flew in through the window, and after making sure all the ponies inside were asleep, without dropping my disguise, I proceeded to unwrap the scroll as quietly as possible. It was a tricky task with only a small beak to do it with, but eventually I succeeded.
Another wave of panic rose in me as I read the text:
Warning - Danger in the Crystal Empire
-to all the Crystal Ponies-
Earlier today, a changeling was spotted in the hills surrounding the Crystal Empire. The intentions and current whereabouts of this changeling are as of yet unknown, as is the likelihood of more changelings being in the area. Steps are being taken to track down and capture any and all of these creatures.
Changelings are evil beings capable of assuming the form of any pony, creature, animal, or inanimate object. In their natural form, they appear as pony-sized insectoids of dark carapaces, translucent wings, sharp fangs, and hole-riddled legs. They feed by consuming love from other creatures, a process that weakens their victims, rendering them incapacitated, and in some cases, permanently damaged; fatal outcomes have been known to occur as well, even as the result of a single feeding. They act by impersonating ponies to gain trust, or in swarms by invading whole cities. They are a known enemy of Equestria.
Citizens of the Crystal Empire are advised to remain calm, maintain groups at all times, and avoid leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary until this crisis is resolved. If you suspect a friend or a family member has been replaced by a changeling, you can try to confirm your suspicions by having a conversation with them about something only your real friend or family member would know, but do so with caution lest such conversations provoke the changeling to attack you.
Any and all sightings of a changeling are to be reported to the Royal Guard and/or the Crystal Castle.
In order to prevent the changeling(s) from realizing they’d been noticed for as long as possible, no public notices shall be posted anywhere in the city, and all the scrolls have been magicked to self-destruct by sunset.
Princess Cadance Prince Shining Armor
For a minute, I just stared at the scroll, dumbfounded, then read it again, hoping I’d misunderstood something. As if my situation wasn’t complicated enough…
I must have been right about having seen somepony move in the hills today! If only I’d cared to investigate… but then again, even if I had, what would I have done? Attacked the pony to keep them from informing the others? Tried to convince them to ignore me? I sneered at the thought; the former I wouldn’t have done no matter what, and the latter would never have worked! Really the only thing I could have done was to disguise myself before going out in the open, or to not leave the cave at all! Either way, I’d been stupid and careless, and it was too late now!
I wrapped the scroll back the way I’d found it and snuck out of the house. The guards’ attention was still elsewhere, and no other guards seemed to take notice of a lone bird in the middle of the night.
I headed back to my cave. I had some serious thinking to do!
On the way back, I actively paid attention to the guards and tried to notice any traps or protective spells that may already be in place. I didn’t think they’d have had time to establish an elaborate defensive perimeter yet, but one could never be too cautious, as even the best plans could fail or backfire! My luck had served me for a miraculously long time; I wasn’t going to test it any further! For now, I would just focus on reaching my cave. No point in planning the next steps if I got captured before I had the chance to do anything!
I saw no guards beyond the city limits, and the cave seemed to have been undisturbed. Only after I reached the deeper areas of it did I dare to drop my disguise. Doing so didn’t trigger a legion of guards to leap at me out of the shadows, so it was safe to assume they hadn’t discovered my hiding place yet. Were they even aware of the cave’s existence? I would expect any creature to be familiar with the surroundings of their territory unless they were completely new to an area! Even if these ponies had only recently built their city, I wouldn’t count on them not knowing what was around it, especially with the similarity of the crystals in the cave to the ones used in their architecture! Sooner or later, somepony was bound to wonder where I might be hiding, and somepony else might then remember this cave! Then they would come looking! Would I stand a chance of remaining undetected? Would I notice them in time to go somewhere else? Would I get caught escaping? And where would I even go?
It occured to me that if there was one cave around here, there might be more. Theoretically, it would be a good idea to find any of them, and to find them quick, before the guards got around to searching the outskirts of the Crystal Empire. But could I find any in time? And even if I could, would I be any safer in another cave than in this one? If the ponies knew about one cave, they would likely know about the others, so it would only be a matter of time before they searched every one! And if they didn’t know about the caves, I was sure their search would be thorough enough to correct that!
Could I mask the cave entrance, or block it off? Maybe, but I had little more than snow to work with; it might be obvious that the snow had been tampered with, or the snow might thaw eventually and expose the entrance again. Besides, if the ponies knew where the entrance was, finding it suddenly buried would probably alert them of my possible location! No lesser matter was the fact that if I did block the entrance, I’d be unable to get out quickly if I had to for any reason!
Once again I started to reconsider leaving. Even though I’d given up on that option before, fearing I wouldn’t be strong enough to make the journey, it was quickly becoming the most attractive solution to this new problem! I’d be turning away from the biggest feast a changeling could possibly imagine, sure, but what good of that feast if I’d never get the chance to taste it? I’d have to satisfy myself with crumbs from now on, but even that would be better than anything I’d ever had in the hive! I was in no position to get picky!
I’d already disguised myself as a bird again and nearly exited the cave to act on this latest decision when another idea struck me: what guarantee did I have that the guards hadn’t blocked off all possible exits from the area by now? That would have been a clever strategy: they’d cut off my escape routes and make sure I stayed around for as long as it took the other groups to search the area inside the perimeter. As long as the former remained vigilant about everything going in or out, it would only be a matter of time before the latter tracked me down! They didn’t even necessarily need guards to watch the barrier; there was a unicorn here who I knew for certain could produce a shield spell powerful enough to keep me contained! The same spell had sustained days of continuous attempts by the entire swarm of changeling soldiers to break it the first time I’d seen it; I’d never be able to do the same alone! I couldn’t see the barrier at the moment, but that didn’t have to mean it wasn’t there, or that it wouldn’t be there sooner than I could get out of its reach!
The possibility of such a trap frightened me: if they had done that, and I had no doubt they had or were just about to, I was bound to become their prisoner soon! That alone was bad enough, but even worse was the fear, no matter how irrational, that Chrysalis might learn about my whereabouts this way. Somehow she always found out about things, and her wrath was far-reaching and never-ending, and much, much worse than any punishment ponies might come up with!
Reluctantly, I decided to stay. I would have to push my luck again after all, but if I could hope to successfully evade the guards long enough, they might eventually get careless and miss an opportunity to apprehend me! There was no promise it would work, though, but as crazy as it may sound, that was probably my only chance.
In the meantime, I wasn’t just going to sit around and wait for them to come get me. I would explore my cave thoroughly; it was quite large, and maybe I would discover some good places to crawl into and hide, or better yet, concealed passages to other areas the ponies may not know about, even better if such passages were too small for ponies to squeeze through. Maybe I would also discover another exit, or a connecting tunnel leading to another cave!
Of course, it was time to consider the possibility of a bad outcome - either of the two most likely. If I got captured, I would do everything in my power to prove my good intentions. My best may still not be enough, but at least I would have tried!
If chance allowed, I would still visit the city from time to time and try to find a pony to befriend. With everything that had happened, I doubted I’d be successful, but I still held on to the last sliver of hope that all my efforts wouldn’t have been in vain. I was getting hungrier by the minute, but still able to resist my darkest urges for now. I didn’t know how long I could keep it up, but the more desperate I became, the more my determination grew to keep up my oath and abstain from consuming the unshared love, even if it would save my life!
And if the worst came to worst? I knew that, this time, my integrity would remain untainted: I would rather bury myself alive than break that promise!
As the days and weeks passed with no sign of a possible end of the high-alert state, I was starting to fear that that was what I would have to do.
I’d lost track of time since retreating into my lonely cave upon realization I’d been noticed. It had to have been weeks, maybe even months, of hiding away in the uneasy silence that was broken every so often by the echoes of marching hooves and commanding voices, undoubtedly the Royal Guards hunting for me and any other changelings they feared were hiding somewhere in the icy outskirts of the Crystal Empire. For almost as long as I’d been here, their voices and hoofsteps were muffled by the snow I’d piled up to block the passage leading from the main chamber of the cave into a deeper one where I’d taken refuge. I’d hoped that the snow would hide this extension of the cave from any guards that might decide to take a look inside, and so far, judging by the closeness of their sounds, it had done just that on more than one occasion!
But another, arguably more desperate, reason for blocking the entrance - or exit, to be more accurate - had been my hunger, having intensified to the point where the urge to run out and start feeding on ponies would torment me even more and more often than ever before! I was still managing to keep it in check somehow, but only just barely, so barely that eventually I resorted to piling up all the loose rocks I could find onto the already-blocked-off exit as well, and some time later, digging up most of the luminescent crystals and adding them to the pile, just to make it harder for myself to get out should I finally lose control. Maybe such a barricade would be enough to stop me if I lost control over myself eventually, or maybe it wouldn't; at the very least, I hoped it would slow me down on my way out of this quarantine, and if I was lucky, that might buy me some time to pull myself together again and bring myself to stay away from ponies... until the next episode of madness. How many would there be? I didn’t want to know!
The aura of love had diminished slightly since that fateful night, possibly due to all the fear the warning notices must have awakened in the crystal ponies, but though it was still fairly strong, so far I’d managed to leave it alone despite it tempting to throw all my ideals in the wind and leave me to once again succumb to the darkest instincts I’d suppressed for so long; and as time was passing, I slowly began to realize that, if I would allow myself even a tiniest sip of that love, even for the sole purpose of self-preservation, all my inhibitions would break down again and no force in the world would stop me from breaking out of my self-imposed prison and unleashing horror on the helpless crystal ponies!
I didn’t know which of the two fates I feared more: getting captured, or proving to the crystal ponies that they were right to want to capture me.
But even as I was still actively putting every desperate effort into maintaining control over myself, as of recently I could feel that control slipping away: I would randomly flick my forked tongue out and hiss in preparation to commence feeding, only to pull myself back together at the last moment! There didn’t seem to be any specific trigger for this behavior: sometimes I would hiss at the surrounding boulders and stalagmites, sometimes at my own reflection in the icy walls, sometimes even at thin air. If I’d noticed a pattern to it, I would have attempted to avoid whatever happened to be near me when I hissed just in case that was causing me to lose control, but there seemed to be no pattern at all, not unless my attempts to focus on behaving myself were the very things that would push me over the edge!
I hated myself for it. Oh, how much I hated myself for it!
Even worse was the fact that my stomach had started growling a presumed day or two ago. In all my life, that had never happened before, no matter how hungry I’d been! At first I was merely concerned that a guard might get close at the wrong moment and hear me; but as time went on and the growling intensified and became more frequent, I remembered I’d witnessed such a phenomenon before, a long time ago: my brother Mandible’s stomach had growled the last time I’d seen him alive, just hours before he’d succumbed to starvation. I’d heard of other changelings having suffered the same fate over the years, but had never actually witnessed it except for that one time! Was this my body’s desperate cry for help, a final warning my time was running out? In a way, it would be a blessing: I would finally be able to stop running, I could stop fearing retribution from both ponies and changelings; I would never feel hungry again!
I would regret only one thing: my quest for friendship would fail; my one lifelong wish would never be fulfilled.
Did it matter? To the rest of the world as it was now, probably not. It would continue going about regardless, unaware of one sad and troubled life that had faded away to nothingness, unaffected by its futile struggle. But to me, even one minute spent with a friend would have meant the whole world; even one second with a friend would have been worth any price I’d have to pay!
Recently, I often found myself standing at the edge of a deep crevice in the cavern’s floor, staring into the dark and seemingly bottomless abyss, feeling my physical stance mirror the emotional and psychological state I’d driven myself to. The abyss was calling to me, beckoning to embrace the way out it would provide, reminding me that all my suffering could end quickly if only I would allow it. So far I had resisted... but I wasn’t sure how much longer I’d be able to keep it up!
I feared the moment was fast approaching when I no longer could.
I was lying near the edge of the crevice, shivering violently in the struggle to rein in my tortured mind that threatened to break under the pressure of my unimaginable hunger, when I heard a faint noise coming from a tunnel I’d discovered way back when I’d resorted to seeking refuge in the deeper chamber of my cave. It sloped upward, approaching the surface, but ultimately was a dead end, or so I’d thought at the time. Was I starting to hallucinate?
Not a moment later, the same noise sounded again, followed by a barely noticeable stream of light coming in, and a distinct startled scream, getting louder and closer.
A pony had fallen in!
I jumped on my hooves in apprehension. Was I about to be discovered after all? What should I do? Could I convince the pony that I meant no harm? Or would I make things even worse - for either or both of us?
Snowballs and chunks of rock came sliding in before I could do anything, even run for cover. Instinctively, I turned into a stalagmite right where I stood. Even if I could think of a different disguise that would be credible in this environment, there would be no time to adjust it. I was going to have to make do with the current one and hope my failing self-control wouldn’t give me away!
The terrified pony finally tumbled in, hidden momentarily by the mist of snow, still screaming as he went, and as luck would have it, I stood right in the way, too close to expect the pony to come to a halt before hitting me, even if it weren’t for the slippery ice. He would inevitably collide with me! I braced myself.
The impact stopped the pony, but it also threw me sideways, and, in my weakened state, knocked my disguise clean out of me in the process. The pony and I both needed a moment to compose ourselves, and we got up at about the same moment.
I realized then that my unexpected visitor was not a pony, but a little dragon - a purple one with a row of green spines along his head and back, and apparently wingless.
Unfortunately, he too recognized me immediately for what I was.
“Changeling!” he gasped, taking a step back… a step too near the crevice.
“Look out!” I tried to warn him, but a moment too late. He’d already stepped into nothing and was lost to my sight, once again screaming!
I threw myself head-first into the crevice right after him. Whether I’d acted willingly or instinctively, I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter: if I’d occupied any other spot in the cave, the dragon wouldn’t have collided with me, and though he would have tumbled a little further into the cave before coming to a halt, he might not have fallen into the crevice! It was my fault he’d fallen in! I had to save him - I’d never forgive myself if I failed!
Thankfully, I managed to reach the dragon before he hit the bottom. I grabbed his tail with my mouth, careful to avoid sinking my venomous fangs into him, and buzzed my wings to slow down his fall until we were hovering steadily in place.
“Wha… what the-” was all he managed to utter upon realizing he was no longer falling, casting me a puzzled glance.
I carried him out of the crevice, back onto solid ground of the cavern he’d tumbled into, landing between him and the crevice in case he decided to run again.
“That was unexpected,” he said to himself as I put him down.
“Are you alright?” I could finally ask.
“You… saved me?” He was incredulous.
“It’s okay. I know you don’t want to be friends,” I said dejectedly, turning to go away so I wouldn’t frighten him anymore.
“Wait… I don’t understand! Aren’t changelings evil?” he persisted.
I turned back. Was he actually… willing to give me a chance? Was this the moment I’d been waiting for all along? Did I dare to hope something might come out of this? I would try, of course! I would do my best to make friends with this dragon! It may still not be enough, but this was probably the best chance I would get to fulfill my dream, if not the last one I would live to see; I wasn’t going to waste it!
“Well… I guess you could say that most changelings are, but I’ve always been different. All I’ve ever wanted is a friend, ever since I can remember! But like you said, changelings are evil and violent, and none of them ever cared about sharing a friendship! And I tried - believe me, I tried my best to get them to realize that friendship might be a good thing! You can probably guess how it went. It wasn’t until the invasion of Canterlot that I-”
“You were there?!” the dragon recoiled.
“Yes, but it wasn’t by choice! I was deployed there, and had to follow orders! I never attacked a single pony throughout the battle! I just hovered around, avoiding all contact! I know you’ll blame me for not stopping the other changelings, and I understand completely! I blame myself for not having done that, but at the time I didn’t know I had that choice… well, maybe I did, but I’d have gotten punished for making it, so…”
“Okay, that makes sense, but what does the invasion have to do with anything?”
“The invasion was when I first got a glimpse of a society other than the one I’d grown up in, and the first time I got to witness friendship! It was so wonderful, way better than anything I could have ever dreamed of! I couldn’t just steal it and feed on its love like the rest of the invading changelings did! I wanted to share it!”
“I’m guessing you didn’t get the chance.”
“You’re guessing right. But later, back in the hive, I tried. I did my best, tried harder than ever before, but the other drones were as obstinate as ever, if not more, and I was getting in trouble all the time! Eventually I realized that it was pointless and that I couldn’t live with them anymore. I escaped the hive and set out looking for friendship, but wherever I went, I got chased away. It’s happening here too - I don’t think they’ve stopped looking for me yet.”
“Why don’t you go somewhere else, then?”
“There’s so much love in the Crystal Empire right now - that’s what drew me here - and part of me is still hoping to get permission to share some of that love. I’m not sure I have any reason to hold on to that hope, but by now I’m starving and too weak to make the journey out, even if I could get past the guards and any security measures and traps they must have set up for me, and being so close and yet so far from all this love is driving me crazy!”
“If there’s that much love here like you say, couldn’t you just feed on it without draining a pony?”
A mention of that possibility triggered a hiss that startled the dragon, so much that he might have fallen into the crevice again if I wasn’t standing in the way.
“Sorry - sorry! I’m just so hungry I can hardly control myself!” I apologized. “To answer your question, yes, I could, but I’d sworn to myself I wouldn’t take any love at all unless it was shared with me freely. Taking the excess love from the whole city wouldn’t be any better than stealing it directly from ponies! If I had a friend, maybe the love we shared could sustain me, but I refuse to take unshared love even if it would save my life, and from what I’ve seen so far, the crystal ponies don’t want to be friends with me!”
The dragon pondered this for a moment.
“What if I told you there was someone they respect and admire so much, he could convince them to give it a try?” he finally suggested.
“If only that were true,” I sighed.
“It is - I mean, I am! I’m Spike the Brave and Glorious!”
The name meant nothing to me, and I tilted my head in confusion.
“Come on, I’m sure you’ve heard of me! I saved the Crystal Empire twice!”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t even know Crystal Empire existed until I got here,” I explained. “Anyway, I’m Thorax. I can’t believe you want to help me!” I meant it.
“What’s so hard to believe? Hasn’t anypony ever been nice to you?”
Another hiss came. Spike recoiled at it again, but at least it didn’t look like he was about to flee anymore.
“Sorry! No, everypony who ever saw my real face either ran away in terror or tried to capture or kill me. By now I’ve given up hope of ever finding a friend!”
“Well, you have one now, and I’m pretty sure I can get the whole Crystal Empire to be your friend in no time!”
I lost control momentarily and hissed again; Spike barely winced this time.
“But… maybe I should talk to them before bringing you along, okay?”
I nodded half eagerly, half cautiously.
“Well then… hold tight, I’ll be right back!”, he waved to me as he turned back to the tunnel he’d fallen through and began climbing.
“Bye”, I waved back.
I stood there frozen in place long after Spike had left. The encounter with the dragon seemed too good to be true! He seemed honest about his intentions, but did he really have that much power and influence? Could he really sway the crystal ponies in my favor? Even if he couldn’t, it warmed my heart immensely to know I may have finally found the friend I’d been looking for all along! I just wished it hadn’t had to happen at the risk of his life!
A while later, I realized the cave was unusually silent. Soon I figured out why: my stomach had stopped growling!
A couple of hours had passed since Spike left. At first I was hopeful about his plan; he’d seemed so confident he’d be successful! But as time passed and he wasn’t returning, I started to wonder if it really would be as easy as he’d made it sound. Changelings had been invading towns and stealing love for centuries - millennia, even - which was more than enough time to earn a nasty reputation and ingrain fear in ponies! It was hard to believe that fears so deeply rooted in everyone could be overcome in a single afternoon! Even if they agreed to give me a chance to prove myself that quickly, how long would it take until they got past their doubts completely and started to trust me? Would they ever truly, honestly call me a friend?
I was pacing nervously when I finally noticed Spike descending the tunnel. A spark of hope flickered in me for a moment, only to be extinguished by his sullen posture.
“Well, how did it go?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Not exactly the way I thought it would,” he sighed.
I waited for him to elaborate, but he just stood there, avoiding eye contact.
“Aren’t you going to tell me?” I tried giving him a nudge.
“Oh, well… um…” he hesitated.
“Tell me,” I insisted.
“They wouldn’t hear of it,” he finally confirmed my doubts after a pause. “First they laughed, thinking I was tryin to make a joke, but then they realized I wasn’t and lashed out at me as if I were crazy. I’m so sorry!”
“It’s alright, I understand,” I reassured him. “I’ve been there more times than I care to count! I didn’t really think it would go very differently, anyway.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I still had to try.”
“And I appreciate it, I really do! No one’s ever been so kind to me!”
“And a whole lot of good it does if I’m the only one who can claim that!”
We just stood in silence for a moment, unsure what to say to each other to brighten the mood. I could tell that he genuinely wanted to help me but didn’t know how, and it was eating his heart out. In turn, I wanted him to stop feeling so bad about it; I’d honestly have been surprised if the ponies had accepted me so quickly, even at a word of someone as famous and influential as Spike claimed to be! But if he really was that influential, it only made sense he wouldn’t take this failure lightly, and it would probably take time for him to accept it.
“Remember a few hours ago when I asked if anypony has ever been nice to you?” he suddenly asked.
“Yeah. What about it?”
“You said nopony who ever saw your true face was. But what about ponies who didn’t see your true face? The ones who saw you in disguise?”
“Well, they were nice enough, I guess… most of the time, anyway. But keep in mind that most of them only saw me in passing, without actually interacting with me.”
“And those who did interact with you, they treated you fine, right?”
“Yes... except for one incident when a pony thought I was stealing his apples and I failed to convince him otherwise, but it only makes sense he wouldn’t have been friendly in that situation... but the others were okay, I can’t complain about that.”
“And that gives me an idea!” His face brightened.
I motioned him to continue.
“The crystal ponies - and ponies in general - may have a problem befriending a changeling, but they have always been fine with befriending other ponies,” he explained. “And the ponies elsewhere obviously had no problem with you being around as long as they thought you were one of them. If you tried it again here and got them to like you for who you are, I bet they’d think twice before blindly chasing you off for being what you are once you reveal yourself to them!”
“I don’t know, Spike,” I hesitated. “I don’t like lying to them, and anyway, such a strategy has always backfired in the past. How do I know it would work now?”
“Honestly, you can’t predict it. But this time you have a friend by your side who can at least try to help you if things go wrong. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“It does,” I agreed. “But I’m still nervous.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take it slow. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to!”
“Right. Wait, which disguise should I use?”
“I don’t know… Which one makes you most comfortable?”
“Well, so far I’ve preferred to go as a pegasus so I could fly away if there’s trouble. But I didn’t see any pegasi here that aren’t members of the Royal Guard. So, a crystal pony might blend in a little easier, maybe?”
“Crystal pony it is, then.”
A burst of my magic made it so. We were ready to get going, at least physically. I still had my doubts about the likelihood that this would work, and as much as I tried to relax, these doubts still kept me on edge a little. I hoped such a mental state wouldn’t give me away before it was time to reveal myself. But like Spike had said, this time I had a friend to back me up, and that was more than I could have ever claimed before!
Things were starting to look up, after all.
“By the way, you weren’t really stealing those apples, were you?” Spike turned to me once we were out of the tunnel.
“What - no, of course not!” I protested. “Why would I do such a thing?!”
“Hey, I’m just teasing you, okay?” he winked at me.
“So Chrysalis isn’t your mother?” Spike asked after I told him a little about my life in the hive as we walked to the Crystal Empire.
“No, I don’t even think she laid a single egg in her entire life,” I added. “She’s probably been too busy commanding others to care for creating her own offspring... but, honestly, I sometimes wonder if she might have avoided it deliberately, thinking it would become a weakness.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“She may be worried that one or more of her children would try to overthrow her at some point. Or - this may sound crazy - but maybe she’s afraid she might start to care about someone... that she might start to love her children... and then she’d risk her subjects deciding to feed on her if she were to produce enough love and they were to become desperate enough - and she likes to keep us desperate for food! There’s enough changelings in the hive to drain her in less than a second, even if only a fraction of them got brave enough to try!”
“She sounds more evil than I imagined!”
“Believe me, she is. She used me as an outlet for her wrath more times than- hey, come look at this, Spike!” I suddenly brightened upon arriving to a familiar spot.
“It’s a flower,” he said flatly.
“A pony gave me that flower shortly before I came here. He was reminiscing about his daughter he’d abandoned years ago, a daughter he was starting to miss immensely, and I talked to him and encouraged him to go look for her. So when I came here, I planted the flower so it wouldn’t wilt and die.”
“Well, it seems to be flourishing nicely,” he smiled.
“I know, right?” I couldn’t hide my joy. “I was unable to come take care of it while the guards were searching for me. I was so worried something might have happened to it, and it’s such a relief to see it’s doing fine! It’s grown so much since I saw it last!”
“In that case, I’ll take it as a sign of good fortune that we’ll succeed in finding you some new friends,” Spike winked.
“...and after a bit of convincing, Twilight finally allowed me to tag along with the guards searching for you,” Spike recounted the events of earlier today as we entered the Crystal Empire. “Boy, if she’d known I would actually find the changeling everypony was so worried about, she would have had a mad freakout fit for sure!”
“You haven’t told her yet?”
“Nah, I didn’t see her. I only told a few guards and they laughed at the idea of befriending you. And then Shining Armor showed up, and, well… he just killed any chance of further conversation on the matter. He was pretty adamant about not trusting your claims.”
“Do you really think this plan can get them to reconsider?”
“Hey, I told you already, they’ll like you once they get to know you!” He put a reassuring claw on my back. “And since they won’t give you a chance otherwise, the only way to get there is to start by showing them a face they’re comfortable with.”
“And when they finally find out I’m a changeling?”
“We’ll just have to give them long enough time before that.”
“How will we know it isn’t too soon?”
“I’m not sure,” he said after a moment. “I don’t think there are any by-the-book ways to be certain of that. We’ll just have to play it by the feeling.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” I remarked.
“I know, but that’s pretty much what Twilight does when she’s out of ideas, and it’s worked for her so far… How hard can it be?”
I just stared at the ground, saying nothing.
“What’s wrong?” Spike asked, realizing something more was on my mind, something other than our current plan that was troubling me.
“It’s just… I saw Twilight back in Canterlot, when she and a few other ponies were fighting the changeling army. I didn’t know who she was - who they were - at the time, but their unity was what inspired me to pursue friendship in the first place, even if it did take me over a year to realize I’d never find it in the hive. Don’t get me wrong - she is important to me - but I still remember her as somepony who would stop at nothing to defeat the changelings, and I don’t really dare to come near her even in disguise! And now, my first friend is none other than her personal assistant! You’ll tell her about me eventually - you’ll have to considering your position, even if you won’t want to - and I imagine she might be very conflicted about whether to listen to her own instincts or your experiences! What if she decides you’re lying, or suspects that I’m manipulating you? I mean, befriending a random pony or two is one thing, but this is the Princess of Equestria we’re talking about! Two of them, in fact, since Cadance is the main leader here, or three if we count Shining Armor as well... What if they imprison me without even bothering to give me a chance to prove myself?”
“Then they’ll have a furious dragon to deal with,” Spike persisted.
“Hey, is that you?” I pointed at a statue in the middle of a small square we were approaching.
“In the flesh! Pretty neat, huh?” Spike grinned, proceeding to show off in front of the statue. I snickered.
“Hey, Spike the Brave and Glorious is here! Think he’ll want to tell us a story?” a hushed voice sounded from another street.
We turned around and saw a few crystal ponies approaching. The streets had been mostly deserted so far, save for the occasional guards still patrolling the city who would nod or salute to Spike and then return to their business of looking for me. It had felt weird at first to face them openly like that, but Spike had been right about one thing at least: with him by my side, I found it much easier to supress my nervous tension in presence of such ample defensive forces than I would have if I were alone, and I’d stopped worrying more quickly than I’d expected! The arriving civilians were nevertheless a welcome change from the monotony of armor-clad faces. I didn’t know where they’d come from, but since most of the city’s populace was apparently hiding away in their homes like the warning scrolls had recommended, it wasn’t unlikely that some of them had gotten bored and resorted to looking through windows in attempt to amuse themselves, even if there shouldn’t have been much to see, or that they had to leave their homes for one reason or another. Finding food, maybe? I knew ponies normally ate several times a day, but was that a choice or a necessity? How long could they last without food if they had to?
“Please, Spike, tell us a story!” asked a crystal filly coming from another street.
“Haven’t you all had enough of my stories by now?” Spike asked, only half-seriously.
“Not at all! We love hearing about your heroics!” a crystal stallion joined in.
“Well…” Spike hesitated, casting a glance at me. I understood his unspoken question.
“I haven’t heard you tell them yet,” I encouraged him. On a new-friend-finding mission or not, I really did want to hear more about Spike’s life! What better way than to listen to stories about it with a bunch of ponies?
“Okay, since you insist…” Spike shrugged and climbed onto a nearby bench so everypony could see him. “One day, Princess Celestia summoned Twilight to Canterlot…”
“...and the enormous frozen cloud evaporated under my firebreath!” concluded another of Spike’s stories, much to the admiration of me and the crystal ponies... and a plentiful crowd of them had gathered during Spike’s narration. Whether or not anything had been exaggerated, it was clear that Spike had earned the crystal ponies’ respect well! I was beginning to feel hopeful again about his ability to help me find friends here! He may have failed initially, but that could have simply been a result of trying in the wrong place: the guards would have been trained to be suspicious about possible threats, and about proven threats especially. But if he’d tried the civilians first, maybe they would have listened to him and given me a chance! Then, when enough of them would come to realize I was sincere about my intentions, even the guards would have to stop and reconsider! Maybe Spike’s plan could work after all!
“Tell us another story!” a colt demanded.
“Yes, we want more!” a mare chimed in.
“Okay, how about this-”
“Spike! There you are!” an airborne voice interrupted Spike mid-sentence. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
The crowd retreated respectfully to make some free space on the ground for Princess Twilight Sparkle to land next to her personal assistant, and by extension, me.
She stood there in all her royal glory, surrounded by the air of humble confidence worthy of a great princess that she was, radiating the ever-so-strong aura of love that had drawn me to her a lifetime ago, the same love that had inspired me to embark on this journey for friendship that had ultimately led me here, into this oasis of love, where I would finally meet her, where I would stand face-to-face with my worshipped idol, the impersonation of everything I’d strived for and vowed to uphold! Her arrival had caught me unprepared, and though by every rule and standard I should have bowed and withdrawn gracefully like all the crystal ponies, for a long while - too long - I was only able to stare at her in awestruck trance that battled in me with paralyzing fear of her wrath if she were to see my real face!
For a moment or two, my conflicting emotions and torn thoughts nearly caused the undoing of my disguise; fortunately, just about enough of… something… remained to keep it intact.
“Oh, hey Twilight! I was just… um…” Unsure of what to tell her, Spike looked around, noticing me still standing there while the crowd had dissipated. “I was just enjoying the tour of the Empire with my friend!”
“It doesn’t look like you were doing a whole lot of touring,” Twilight looked at him sideways.
“Aw come on, I can’t help it if crystal ponies want to hear a story or two!” Spike protested.
“Ri-i-ight. Who is your friend?” She turned to me.
And here I’d thought I was unprepared before? The Princess addressing me directly had just raised the bar a mile higher!
“I… um… well… uh… oh dear!” I could barely utter an intelligible word! My eyes widened and I put a hoof over my mouth. Why had she had to turn to me so casually? Why couldn’t she have just ignored me and talked to Spike instead? Why had Spike had to draw her attention to me? One more thing and my self-control could crumble again!
“Right! May I introduce… erm…” Spike came to the rescue, looking around frantically for an inspiration to improvise a correction of an oversight in our plans that now threatened to derail the whole thing: we’d forgotten to think of a pony-appropriate name for me. “Crystal… hoof! My good friend Crystal Hoof!”
Well, it could have been worse, I figured.
“Pleased to meet you, Your Highness,” I finally got around to formulating a coherent sentence.
“I’m happy to see you two are enjoying yourselves, but this is no time for strolling around unshielded! You both know a changeling is running loose!”
“Hey, don’t worry, Twilight! The guards are all over the city! They’re more than capable of dealing with trouble!”
“I know they are! My brother wouldn’t have recruited incompetent idiots to guard the Empire! But still, I’d prefer to keep you close to me, where I can see with my own eyes that you’re safe. Tell you what - we can bring Crystal Hoof in too!”
Before either of us had the chance to protest or ask what she meant by that, a bright flash of magenta magic enveloped each of us, and suddenly we were standing in what I recognized as a hallway in the Crystal Castle. Through one door I could see the throne room, and in it, the Princess of Love standing next to her fully-armored husband, and an orange unicorn who levitated a basket that looked much like the one I’d glimpsed through a window on my first day here, the one the princess had taken her newborn foal from. A little further aside stood a familiar unicorn: the very same one I’d seen in a village an eternity ago, where she’d arrived accompanied by Princess Twilight, the same unicorn I’d thought of befriending but had never gotten a chance out of fear that the changeling hunters I’d seen afterwards would find me if I stayed there! Spike had mentioned that somepony named Starlight had arrived with Twilight and him to the Empire. Was that her name?
A dozen of guards standing in formation around the throne completed the ensemble.
I quickly examined myself. My disguise was still there, undamaged by the spell, but Spike noticed my apprehension.
“Never been teleported before, huh?” he asked, likely for Twilight’s benefit.
“No,” I replied. “Feels weird,” I added just in case Twilight was listening.
“Yeah, it does the first time, but you get used to it.”
“Come in,” Twilight ushered us into the throne room, then turned to Spike. “Starlight and I have been working on a protection spell for Flurry Heart. Do you think you can spare a moment to take notes?”
“Sure, I guess,” Spike said, then turned to me. “I hope you don’t mind?”
Before I could reply, Princess Cadance approached us.
“Oh, Spike, I’m so glad you’re alright! I’ve been worried sick about you! We all were!”
“Gee, I’m fine, really,” Spike reassured her. “I was just hanging out with my friend!”
“I don’t recall having seen you around,” she eyed me inquiringly.
I shrugged with a nervous grin.
“It’s a big city,” I tried the only excuse I could think of.
“You’re right. Well, any friend of Spike the Brave and Glorious is a friend of mine!” She accepted the excuse with a wide, friendly grin that once again tested the limits of my self-control.
“I’m honored,” I gave a respectful bow.
“Come,” she invited me. “Let me introduce you to my family.”
Oh no! Why couldn’t she have just offered me her friendship and left it at that?
“You already know Prince Shining Armor, I take it,” she introduced us.
“Crystal Hoof,” I stated my false name; it was too late to turn back now. All I could do was roll with it and hope for the best! Spike could later fill me in on any details I’d be expected to know that he may have neglected to mention so far.
“And this is Flurry Heart,” she motioned to the basket held in the orange unicorn’s aura.
I looked inside, and truly saw the young princess for the first time. She giggled and reached out to me like any innocent foal would at a sight of a friendly face. If only she knew the true face hidden under the benign façade; would she giggle still, or would she cry in terror like all the adult ponies who had ever seen that face? Was that fear learned through stories and experience, or was it ingrained deeply in the ponies’ core, ready to protect them from the danger even if they’d never personally known it before?
I wanted to know... and yet, at the same time, I hoped I’d never find out.
But as soon as I came to the little princess, as soon as I saw her beautiful face, I sensed the love of the whole Crystal Empire drawn to that same basket and the pony lying in it. Even if I hadn’t realized it before, it would have been clear now: she was the cause of all that love throughout the city, she was the focal point the love was aimed at! Citizens of the Crystal Empire loved their young heiress immeasurably! And that love, so welcome and beneficial to her, would be my undoing: the aura of love around her was so strong, so unbearably intense that all my efforts to control myself were in vain; all my willpower would never be enough to stand against this overwhelming sensation!
I couldn’t fight it anymore. My disguise failed, baring my true face for all to see.
The throne room was instantly filled with deafening sounds of startled and terrified gasps and screams, but it seemed to me that no amount of noise could drown my uncontrollable hissing. I tried to pull myself back together and explain it all to them, but all I could do was utter unintelligible noises in between hisses, noises that were meant as apologies for scaring them and pleas for understanding. I wanted to tell them everything: I wanted to tell them about the hunger that had tormented me ever since I could remember, about the desire for friendship that couldn’t be fulfilled, the dangers I’d faced and the hardships I’d endured on my quest for sharing love; I wanted to tell them about the joy I’d felt upon meeting Spike, the hope his kindness had sparked in me... None of it seemed to matter, though; the initial chaos had died down after a mere few seconds that may as well have been eternity in which I was failing to stop my chances of forgiveness from diminishing to zero, and all that remained was blind rage and deep hatred.
The three leaders and two unicorns closed ranks around little Flurry Heart, blocking her from my view and keeping her out of my reach. The Royal Guards prepared for battle, forming a circle around me and pointing their spears at me, one of them calling out to the guards in the hallway to storm in and provide backup. I could say anything I wanted and not one of them would care; to them I was a dangerous enemy, nothing but despicable scum that needed to be crushed and wiped out of existence! Even if I had managed to suppress my savage hissing by now, nothing I might have done would have helped me!
Only Spike remained close to me. I could see in his wide-open eyes that he hadn’t anticipated any of the events that had transpired; I could almost hear his mind trying frantically to think of a way to defuse the situation that was, in all likelihood, way beyond defusing. Having failed to come up with anything, he just yelled at them to stop and calm down. He must have known it wouldn’t help any, but he was clutching at straws by now. I would have been, too, if I could find any straws to clutch to!
“Spike, get away from the changeling!” Twilight commanded, levitating him away from me and placing him at her side.
“No?” countered Shining Armor, pointing at me as I was still too busy with pathetic attempts to stop hissing to do anything else, including help Spike explain to them that I wasn’t a threat. “Does that look like a friendly gesture to you?”
“Spike, this thing isn’t your friend,” the other unicorn interrupted him. “He replaced your friend, probably hoping to get closer to Flurry Heart that way!”
“Really, Spike, think about it! Changelings don’t make friends; why would this one be any different?”
His gaze wandered around the room, from one pony to another, still looking for a way to end this. Finally, he fixed his sad eyes on me. Had he realized he was out of ideas what to tell them? Was he begging me to say something? But what could I say that wouldn’t be immediately dismissed as another attempt at trickery, even if I had succeeded in regaining control over myself? What could I do that wouldn’t bury me any deeper in this pile of trouble?
Should I surrender myself to them? Agree to be thrown in the dungeons? Give up my one friend for the sake of calming the rest of the crowd? Was that the only thing that could convince them of my friendly intentions? Would it be enough?
It would have to be; try as I might, I could think of nothing else.
Forgive me, Spike...
But before I had a chance to say or do anything, Spike hung his head and, with just one short sentence, threw away all the effort he’d put in helping me find a friend, denied all the trust he’d shown me.
“I don’t know.”
In three short words, my whole world collapsed; in just one second, my last vestige of hope for a life in which I could proudly call someone a friend flickered out and died at the mercy of the one individual who had done so much to keep it alive! His betrayal hurt more than all the punches and injuries I’d ever received put together, more than starvation in its most dire moments!
I barely recognized shapes around me distorted by the burning tears that filled my eyes; I cared little to try to make sense of the commands shouted to the guards surrounding me. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing, but somehow I still managed to get past the guards and leave the castle. I may have run, or flown, or both; I may or may not have disguised myself on my way out and away. I didn’t care what happened to me or where I ended up going; I was operating solely on instinct now.
Nothing mattered anymore.
My escape felt like a disjointed sequence of dreams and hallucinations: everything seemed both familiar and new, both close at reach and incredibly far, both promising and hopeless, both safe and dangerous. I didn’t care to make any sense of it. I didn’t care about anything. For all intents and purposes, my life had ended in that throne room, at the sound of those three words that still echoed in my head… that would likely continue echoing in my head for the rest of eternity!
I hadn’t realized I’d landed until frigid air pierced my lungs that gasped for it in flustered, rattling breaths. Finally forcing myself to take in my surroundings, I realized I was back in my cave again, near the edge of the ominous crevice, right where I’d first met the friend who had hence betrayed me so bitterly.
I had no strength left in me, no will to keep going, not even to get away from this place that had once brought safety and sparked hope but now caused nothing but anguish and pain.
Finally spent, I let out a long, desperate shriek of a lunatic and collapsed into a wave of tears.
The storm of emotions raged in me violently, driving out enough tears to fill an ocean. It was like a wildfire, spreading unstoppably further into every corner of my being, bent on destroying every remnant of everything I held dear in life. I had no strength or will left to battle it; I just let it ravage my soul. I’d lost everything already; whatever little remained didn’t seem to be worth salvaging any longer!
Eventually the wretched tempest in me died down, leaving a painful emptiness, a dark and hopeless void that swore to never be filled again. The river of tears reduced to a trickle, and though nothing in the world would heal the gaping wound in my heart, I begged the tears to never dry out.
I was still lying disheartened on the icy ground, resigning to the devastation of my lifelong hope, when I heard steps approaching down the tunnel. I knew immediately who they belonged to, without having to hear him call my name. I didn’t want to see him, or talk to him; I didn’t want to have anything to do with him after what he’d done! I couldn’t even bring myself to walk up to him and yell at him to go away!
I transformed into a rock, expecting he would give up eventually and leave on his own if he failed to find me.
“I’m sorry, Thorax! I should have stood up for you!” Spike was persistent. “Where did you go, anyway? At least let me explain myself! Please? C’mon, Thorax, I know you’re in here!”
By now he was standing right next to me, facing the crevice. On an impulse, I let my disguise drop, revealing my tear-filled eyes and face distorted by pain and resentment.
“Leave me alone!” I snapped at him and let out a threatening hiss, this time deliberately.
He recoiled and slipped on ice, falling at the very edge of the crevice.
“I’m so sorry for betraying you, Thorax! I lost my head... please forgive me!” he begged.
“Why should I? You promised to help me; I can’t believe I trusted you! Were you planning this all along? To act friendly long enough for me to drop my guard and then deliver me to the ponies?”
“No, of course not! Please understand! Haven’t you ever caved under pressure of expectations of others?”
He did have a point, but I was too furious, too disappointed in him to care.
“You made a promise!” I got in his face.
“I know, and you have every right to- ah!” In his attempt to back away from me a little, he moved too far and fell into the crevice... but still held on to the edge with one claw. “A little help?” he pleaded.
“And just why would I help you? I’m an ‘evil changeling who doesn’t care about friendship!’”
But even as I said that, as much as I wanted to mean it in my obstinate fury, I felt something break in me. The walls of vindictive hatred I’d tried to build to contain my shattered heart were crumbling down as if they’d never existed!
Who was I fooling? I could never hurt my friend or let harm come to him, no matter how sorely he may have hurt me!
“Because you are my friend,” Spike echoed my dawning realization. “I just wish I’d been one to you.”
As if on cue, the chunk of stone he’d held on to broke off, and he was falling again.
Throwing away all the doubts and rancour still lingering in my mind, I rushed after him again, refusing to let the abyss claim the life of the only friend I’d ever had.
He’d been right about something at least, whether he’d realized it or not: I too was guilty of failing to keep a promise made to myself in the past. A pony from a town in northern Equestria could attest to that, assuming she was still alive after what I’d done to her! It would be wrong of me to judge Spike for faltering in the same way, especially because the consequences of his actions were far less serious than mine might have been!
He grabbed onto my outstretched hole-riddled hoof and I pulled him back out. This time, I carried him further away from the crevice; I wasn’t going to let him fall in the third time!
“It’s okay, I know it’s hard to trust an enemy, even when a friend says it’s fine,” I reassured him. “And I understand it’s even harder to give up all the love and respect of an empire to stand with a hated outcast.”
“Well, watch me do it,” he declared with determination.
“Oh, Spike… I couldn’t ask that of you! Go back and forget about me! I’m not worth it!”
“You’re wrong about that, Thorax: you are worth it! And I’m going to make them see it no matter what you say!”
“But they could turn on you too! What if you end up banished or imprisoned?”
“Thorax, I’ve made up my mind! I failed as your friend once and I’m not letting it happen again! If I have to suffer banishment or worse for befriending you, so be it! Now, either come with me or wait here. It’s your choice. But I’m doing this with or without you!”
With tears filling my eyes again, I wrapped him in a long, heartfelt hug.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Don’t mention it,” he smiled back. “Now, to get you there safely.”
The city was in a state of a panicked chaos. Guards were running about in groups, peering behind every corner, under every bush and object, shouting commands to find the changeling and replies he wasn’t here, there, or anywhere else they looked. The few crystal ponies who happened to be out in the streets would retreat immediately upon coming close to any search party or risk getting trampled in more ways than one.
The Crystal Castle was in no less of an uproar. The guards were checking every bit of it too, seemingly even more so than the streets, but with no success either. That was to be expected and they must have known it; the changeling they were hunting for had no reason to still linger about and had left the castle long ago, but they had to try to find him regardless!
Nopony paid any attention to Spike as he walked on through this fiendless warzone, through the streets of the Crystal Empire into the castle at its center, and then up the stairs and down the hallways, all the way to the doors leading to the throne room. Nopony cared to ask him about the little yellow flower he carried gently in the grasp of his claw.
Once at the gate of the throne room, he waited a moment for a group of guards to move away, then set the flower down on the floor.
“Okay, coast is clear,” he whispered.
A burst of blue flame enveloped the flower, and a moment later, revealed a changeling that had been hiding in plain sight.
“Ready?” Spike asked.
“I don’t think I ever will be,” I confessed, “but let’s do it before I change my mind.”
Voices sounded from within the throne room. Somepony asked if all this was really necessary, only to be told that if there was one changeling here, there may as well be a whole army. Twilight, however, expressed concern the situation was getting out of control despite their best intentions.
“I understand, but I can’t risk them hurting Flurry Heart or any of my subjects,” Princess Cadance sighed as Spike and I stepped through the gate. “I just don't know what else we could do!”
Everypony’s reaction was much the same as the last time I’d been here: a collective worried gasp, followed by surrounding Flurry Heart’s basket to protect her; only this time, the guards formed a cordon in front of the throne, with the royalty behind their backs, and Spike and me at the sharp end of their spears. Just one word from their commander, and they would come crashing down on us! We wouldn’t stand a chance against them, and it would all be over before it began!
In addition, Princess Twilight erected a shield around the group at the throne.
I wanted to run; I wanted to fly far away from here, as far as my hooves and wings could take me, and find a dark hole in the ground to bury myself in and never come back! But Spike stood his ground, facing bravely the impending battle we had no real chance of winning… so I forced myself to do the same. He was doing this for me, and I wasn’t going to abandon him now!
“Spike, what are you doing? Get away from that thing!” Shining Armor stepped through the hole in Twilight’s shield she’d created for him, broke through the cordon of guards and tried to grab Spike to carry him to the other side of the room, where he’d be protected by the cordon and Twilight’s magic, currently only in the form of the shield, but possibly with additional spells any of them might cast as soon as everypony and dragon got safely away from me.
“No! He’s not a thing!” Spike pushed Shining Armor away and came closer to me. “His name is Thorax, and he’s my friend!”
The ponies gasped again; the guards tensed their muscles in preparation to strike, and Shining Armor’s scowl intensified. He wasn’t going to let it go so easily!
“You can’t seriously think this… this monster can be friendly?!” he demanded.
“I don’t think he is! I know he is! He saved my life twice today! And he never did anything to harm any of you!”
“Look, I don’t know what he’s been telling you, but it’s all a bunch of lies! He’s been planning this all along - getting you to trust him so you’d present him as his friend and give him a chance to attack when we least expect it!”
“And do what, exactly?”
“Feed on our love, of course! That’s all they ever do! We can’t let him harm Flurry Heart!”
“Cadance,” Spike now turned to the Princess. “You have the ability to sense love around you, right?”
“Yes,” she replied hesitantly. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“How much love is there in the Crystal Empire now?”
“About the same as ever since Flurry Heart was born. Why?”
“And that would be… a little, a lot, somewhere in between?”
“A lot. I haven’t sensed so much love anywhere in Equestria for as long as I can remember! But I told you that already when you arrived today! What’s your point?”
“My point is that Thorax was starving when I found him.”
“If he told you that-” Shining Armor interjected.
“He didn’t tell me... well, not before I’d figured it out on my own, anyway. I could hear his stomach growling as we talked, and a few times he even hissed in preparation to feed, but stopped himself every time! Only then he admitted his hunger!”
“Well of course he was hungry if he couldn’t get to anypony!” The Prince wasn’t convinced.
“He didn’t have to get to anypony! Like Cadance said, there’s so much love around here, plenty enough for him to sate himself many times over without having to drain ponies directly! Changelings can do that; he said so himself! And yet, in all that overflowing feast, I found him dying of starvation! How do you explain that?”
Nopony offered an answer. They just stood there, staring at the ground, then at Spike, then at each other, then at the ground again. Starlight leaned in to Twilight and whispered something to her. After a moment’s pause, Twilight whispered something back.
“Because he didn’t want to steal that love!” Spike finally stated. “He could have easily remained hidden and lived off the overflow of love from the city and you’d never know it! But he refused to take any love that wasn’t offered to him freely because his conscience wouldn’t let him! He knew and felt in his heart it was wrong, and he actively and continuously restrained his urge to feed, even when it would have saved his life! Does that sound like an evil, monstrous thing to do?”
“But you saw him hiss at Flurry Heart-” Shining Armor was persistent.
“That was a reflex!” I joined in; it was about time I started explaining myself. “I was still hungry but keeping my instincts reined in until then, but when I came close to her… there was so much love around her, I got overwhelmed and lost control over myself! But I never took any of her love, I swear!”
“Likely story!” Shining Armor got in my face.
“Have you ever seen a changeling drain love from a pony?” Spike asked him.
Shining turned to him, puzzlement written all over his face.
“I have, back in Canterlot,” Cadance answered instead. “You were under Chrysalis’ spell and unaware of everything going on around you, dear, but I stood close enough to the window to see what was going on outside. Some of the changelings were feeding on the ponies in the streets.” She shuddered at the memory.
“Did you see Thorax do anything like that here, earlier today?” Spike encouraged her to continue.
“Well, he did hiss a lot… but I didn’t see the tendrils of love energy drained from Flurry, no,” she admitted, averting her eyes.
“Did you, Twilight? Starlight?”
They shook their heads.
“Did anypony else, guards included?”
No reply from anypony; just lowered gazes of a guard or two.
“If your intentions really are as good as you claim, then why didn’t you reveal yourself to us immediately when you first came here?” Shining Armor broke the silence. “Why go through all this trouble of hiding and pretending?”
“I was afraid,” I admitted. “Afraid I’d get thrown in prison, or tortured or killed just for being a changeling… afraid of Chrysalis finding out where I was and having me dragged back to the hive to get punished… afraid of throwing away every possible chance to make friends with anyone… All I ever wanted was to have a friend, but that was never going to happen in the hive! That’s why I escaped from there and risked everything!”
“So why not just give him a chance?” Spike added. “We’ve forgiven Luna when she strayed into darkness; we’ve accepted Discord as a friend even though he’d done nothing to deserve it; we’ve even embraced Starlight as Twilight’s student despite her messing with the timeline to avenge herself by keeping Twilight from ever meeting her friends in the past and creating a number of horrible alternate futures in the process! And Thorax hasn’t even done anything wrong; on the contrary, he’s trying to prove himself worthy of friendship! If we could look past the sins of others we call our friends today, why is it so hard to do the same for a changeling?”
“If that’s the case, why didn’t you say so when he allegedly lost control over himself and dropped his disguise?” Shining asked him. “If I remember correctly, you said you didn’t know why this changeling would be any different from all the others!”
“I chickened out,” he sighed. “Everypony here calls me brave and glorious, and that’s such a flattering title… but seeing you all so riled up against Thorax, I got scared I might lose that admiration and have you turn on me if I continued to claim something no pony wanted to believe! I realized my mistake immediately, but by then it was too late; Thorax had already fled and you all got down to chasing him, and I would have tried to explain it then but nopony was paying any attention to me anymore! So when I couldn’t get you to listen, I went looking for Thorax to at least apologize. It wasn’t easy for him, naturally, but he did, and I realized if he could give me another chance after what I’d done, you all should give him a chance as well... and I’m going to see that you do, no matter what it takes to convince you! That admiration and the ‘brave and glorious’ title I mentioned earlier? I don’t deserve it anymore; I forfeited it the second I betrayed my friend here!”
A long, heavy silence filled the room as the ponies considered these arguments. The guards still held their ground, together with Shining Armor. Princess Twilight was lost in thought, heavy decisions clouding her eyes as she weighed the risks and possible outcomes of taking one path versus another... at least I hoped that was going on in her head. Little Flurry Heart was peacefully asleep in her basket, unaware of the grave severity of the concerns that burdened her kingdom’s soul. The others’ faces were unreadable.
What were they going to do? Would they accept my explanations, or would they dismiss them as merely another attempt at trickery and deception? Would they believe Spike’s reasoning, or would they take them for nothing more than delusional misconceptions of a gullible dragon whose mind had been led astray by a cunning manipulator? Shining Armor wasn’t going to accept it, I was sure of that! But what about the others? Starlight’s gaze had softened a little, possibly at the mention of her own wrongdoing. Was she beginning to consider giving me a chance? And if so, would she do that because she was starting to believe Spike… or out of sense of obligation after the same chance had been given to her? I hoped it was the former; she of all ponies should understand my position if what Spike had said was true! Still, of all the ponies I was facing, I put the most faith in Twilight. She seemed to have been the first to really think about Spike’s claims… could she overcome her animosity toward the changelings? And even if she did, would her support be enough to sway the others? Or would she too be dismissed?
I cringed at the thought.
And what about Spike? It was bad enough that they didn’t like me; what if they came to believe he’d gone to the dark side? What if they punished him as well as me?
I was on the verge of panic. No... no matter what happened to me, I wouldn’t let them harm Spike!
Finally, the echoing clip-clop of Princess Twilight’s hooves broke the ominous silence. Treading with determination and grace, she’d dissolved her magical shield and broken through the cordon of guards, and was now approaching my friend.
Moment of truth, Thorax. I took a deep breath in a futile attempt to calm my wildly-thumping heart, and braced myself for the shattering news I was sure were coming.
“Spike, I’m so proud of you,” she said, much to the surprise of everyone in the room, me included.
“Of course! You may have faltered momentarily, but you came through in the end and did what every true friend does: you showed us all that everyone deserves a chance, and that no one should be judged and punished for the faults of others! I’m sorry I didn’t see it sooner!”
“Better late than never,” Spike winked at her.
“You can’t honestly believe that, Twily!” Shining Armor protested. “Have you forgotten Canterlot? These abominations are evil, they-”
“I remember Canterlot perfectly, Shining,” she interrupted him. “I remember Chrysalis and her bloodlust; I remember her subjects’ rage and the destruction they caused. But what I see here is a lone, desperate changeling, one who has left his kind despite the punishment he would face for doing so; and judging by what happened in Canterlot, the said punishment would be more horrible than anything we can imagine, let alone decide to exact upon him! So why risk it all unless he really is telling the truth?”
“He could be a scout deployed to the Crystal Empire who needed an excuse for being here upon getting discovered!”
“How long has he been here?”
“Ever since Flurry was born, at least as far as we know. Why-”
“That would be plenty of time for him to either get pulled out of here for getting noticed, or to inform the rest of the hive about the abundance of love here. And since he clearly wasn’t recalled, where are all these hungry changelings?”
He just stared at her.
“Where are they, Shining Armor? Your troops have searched the Empire and its outskirts halfway to Vanhoover many times over and never found a trace of them, and there’s enough love here to easily attract the whole hive! They can’t all be disguised, or you’d notice! So I ask again: where are they?”
“Maybe they just haven’t had enough time to arrive,” he offered, suddenly not sounding so sure of himself anymore.
“And until they do, one good changeling looking to make friends sounds much more likely than some elaborate scheme to throw us off guard for which you can’t even offer a hypothetical outline that makes sense!”
Shining Armor struggled to come up with an answer to that, but could think of nothing to defend his position.
Princess Twilight then turned to me.
“Your name is Thorax, right?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“As the Princess of Friendship, I want to apologize for all the trouble we’ve caused you. I should have known better than to judge you based on my own misconceptions and prejudice that stemmed from the unfortunate experience with the same individuals you came here to escape from! You’ve taught me today that a new friend can come from anywhere, and I wouldn’t deserve the trust and respect of my subjects if I tried to deny there are things even I still have to learn about friendship! That being said, I’d be honored to accept your friendship, if you’re willing to give it,” she offered a wide, sincere smile and an outstretched hoof.
“Thank you,” was all I could say through tears of joy and relief streaming down my face as I took her hoof in mine. Spike had been right all along! And I had been right for believing in Princess Twilight, even when she hadn’t given me a reason to until now!
“As the Crown Princess of the Crystal Empire, I offer you my friendship and sincere apologies for having distrusted you,” Princess Cadance declared coming down from her throne, followed by the two unicorns who had stood next to her. “If you are willing, you may take up residence here, and I will announce to my subjects that you have been accepted as a citizen of the Empire with all rights and obligations that come with it, as well as encourage them to look past their fears and start treating you as an equal.”
“That would be wonderful!” I accepted her offer. “I can’t wait to experience the friendship that I’m sure crystal ponies are more than capable of offering! I’ll be a loyal subject to you - you won’t be disappointed, I promise!”
“I still don’t trust you entirely,” Shining Armor interjected. “I can live with Cadance granting you citizenship if that’s what she wants, but I’ll be keeping an eye on you regardless! Also, now that you’re here and apparently staying, there are things I want to discuss with you.”
“Of course,” I agreed.
“See, told you everything would work out,” Spike nudged me.
I wrapped him in a hug like I’d never get the chance again. Except, I would get another chance; I’d get plenty of chances in the future! He’d done so much for me, there was no way I could ever repay that debt for as long as I live!
Instead, I would erect a monument in my heart to him and his unrelenting persistence to help a friend in need.
Thanks to Spike, I was never going to endure fear and starvation again.
Thanks to Spike, my lifelong hope had finally become reality.
I didn’t know what might eventually happen to me, or where life might take me, but I knew one thing: no matter what happened, I would be grateful for everything he’d done for me; I would cherish this day, always and forever.
The Princesses had been true to their word. Despite the crystal ponies’ initial fear and hesitation, they were gradually overcoming their doubts and gathering up the courage to approach me. Though there were still some residual difficulties to overcome in that regard, being able to take a walk through the streets of the Crystal Empire with an undisguised face, unaccompanied by guards - and only a month or two after the ordeal in the throne room - was a relief like no changeling had known before! The only thing that could possibly measure up to it would be if Chrysalis herself were to decide against punishing me for leaving the hive! Even Shining Armor was starting to put his preconceptions aside, although we’d had some friction along the way, for example, his returning doubts about my reasons for being here once I’d informed him about the changeling hunters’ conversation I’d overheard in what I’d eventually learned was Starlight’s cave. He’d intensified patrols after that and would have put me in custody had Cadance not interfered, but since no changelings had been found, and with no proof that the hunters’ new mission had indeed been intended against the Empire, he’d decided to cancel full alert and call off the search parties but keep the guards at a slightly higher-than-normal level of readiness just in case.
The day after my acceptance, Princess Twilight had invited her friends to visit the Empire to meet me. I had finally gotten to properly meet the ponies who had inspired my quest! They had been cautious and doubtful at first, but it hadn’t taken them long to accept me as a friend. Applejack and I had both been amazed to realize I’d met her cousin on my first day in Equestria, and Fluttershy had been especially thrilled to learn she’d held me in her hooves once! All of them had since remained true to their reputation of prime examples of friendship. We were exchanging letters regularly: me telling them how I was adjusting to life in Equestria, how many wonderful new things I’d discovered that I’d had no idea existed while still living in the hive, how I had taken up painting in my free time, and they keeping me informed about their efforts to battle the stigma I was facing and suggesting new things I should try. Before the group had left for home, they’d promised that, as soon as they were satisfied the ponies of Ponyville could be trusted not to run from me, I would be invited to visit them in turn, freely undisguised throughout my stay. I’d been so excited to hear that, I’d nearly broken a nearby sculpture leaping of joy!
In the meantime, Applejack had arranged me a meeting with Braeburn and the sheriff. I’d arrived there in disguise and accompanied by a Royal Guard - it wouldn’t have been safe yet for me to travel to the other end of Equestria otherwise - and there, we’d explained the apple-stealing fiasco together like I’d wanted to ever since it had happened. Braeburn and Sheriff Silverstar had nearly jumped out of their skins upon seeing me drop the disguise, but Applejack and the guard had succeeded in calming them down and getting them to listen, and eventually they’d agreed to drop the theft charges. I’d even gotten a moment to reconcile with Little Strongheart, and though she’d assured me that she’d never believed I could be as evil as her father had described me, Chief Thunderhooves still wouldn’t lift the banishment. Thankfully, by now, it had become a minor issue.
Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor, however, had been upset upon my admittance I’d stolen love from a pony during my journey, and rightfully so. I’d expressed my readiness to be punished for the gruesome act - I’d pretty much begged to be punished, actually - but upon much deliberation on their part, as well as some disagreements, they had come to understand I could hardly have done otherwise in the circumstances. Shining Armor had actually thrown me in prison immediately upon my confession, but Cadance had gotten me out by the next day, apparently having spent that time trying to convince her husband that I’d already felt bad enough about it to have done every precaution I could think of against such a thing happening again, and that the time I’d spent starving myself in the frozen cave had been enough of a punishment. With her help, I’d tracked down the poor mare I’d drained; to my great relief, Soothing Dusk had only been harmed slightly by the ordeal and would recover fully over time! I’d visited her in her home in Whinnyapolis; she’d deserved at least an apology! At first she’d refused to let me come anywhere near her - quite understandably - but Princess Cadance had managed to convince her to reconsider and at least let me explain myself. She’d agreed reluctantly, likely just to satisfy the Princess, but hadn’t seemed eager to forgive me anytime soon. I couldn’t blame her, but at least seeing that I hadn’t left her permanently damaged had lifted an immense burden off my heart!
As for the elderly pony from Vanhoover, I’d tried to find him in his orchard to tell him his flower was flourishing nicely, but he hadn’t been there. A pony passing by had told me he’d gone away for a change of scenery. She’d been unable to tell me when to expect him back. I‘d said it was alright; I could always try again! Vanhoover was only a few hours’ ride by train, anyway, and the experience was much more enjoyable now that I was receiving an allowance from the Princess and could buy a ticket to sit with the ponies rather than hide in cargo space!
Cadance and Sunburst had greatly enjoyed my story of how I’d come to care so deeply about one little flower on the outskirts of the Empire. I’d told them about it when they’d started wondering what I was doing on a hill a little outside the city every day. The next day, they’d offered to uproot the flower and replant it somewhere closer, where I could always keep an eye on it. Though tempted by the offer, I’d been reluctant to remove it from the place I’d felt it belonged. A chance remark I’d overheard a florist make to a customer a few days later as I’d been passing by while taking Flurry Heart to a walk had caught my attention and I’d stopped by to inquire about the details, and the florist had suggested a compromise that had sorted out my dilemma: the flower had grown enough by now to allow me to take part of it without danger of losing the plant entirely... and just in case, I’d reapplied the cocoon trick that had worked before on the leaf I’d taken as the florist had instructed me.
So now it was my duty and pleasure to care for two buttercup flowers: one left at its original site on the hill outside the city, and one growing in a flowerpot placed next to Spike’s statue within the city. Visiting the former gave me time to reflect on the path that had led me to where I finally was, and watering the latter brought me near the ponies who were now learning to look past the fear and hatred and becoming my friends.
It had also inspired me to consider my future.
Looking back, I found it hard to believe that I was the first changeling to ever consider the benefits of friendship... or the last. Chrysalis would likely have done everything in her power to get rid of any such drones in the past and bury all knowledge of their existence; to her, friendship was a dangerous idea she couldn’t afford her subjects to harbor! I’d been lucky to escape the same fate! Even if she killed me now, the memory of me would live on in the hearts and minds of ponies - about that there was nothing she could do!
And I’d made a decision that I wouldn’t allow myself to remain the only one.
It had been impossible before to convince other changelings to give friendship a try; but now, with friends by my side and no more hunger to haunt me every step, I might have found the proof I needed to at least shake their convictions loose enough to consider that there might be a better way to live. I didn’t know yet how to start on that, and even when I succeeded in figuring it out and got past the fear of Chrysalis’ retribution, it was bound to be a slow process. I was sure ponies and changelings could one day grow past their differences and learn to live in unity, but it was going to take years in the most optimistic scenario, decades even; most likely, it wouldn’t even happen during my lifetime! But I was determined to solidify the first step: to leave a legacy that would ultimately pave the road to friendship between races that had known nothing but hate!
Ponies had taught me about their belief in destiny: how everyone finds a cause they were meant to work for… how everypony has their own personal mission to find. And even though I wasn’t a pony, I knew as sure as I’d ever known anything, that even without a real cutie mark on our undisguised flanks to seal it, changelings too could choose to have a worthwhile destiny!