by Smudge Proof
proofed by Gustav von Aschenbach
It could no longer hear the chittering of the others in its head; instead, there was confusion and turmoil; alien tasting thoughts that made no sense flooded its mind in place of the calming buzz of the others. There was chaos in the hive now. Something had gone terribly wrong. It tried to think with the others, but its thoughts felt like they were rocks thrown into a dark, still and bottomless pond with no shores; there were no ripples from the others, no echo, nothing; just a yawning, terrifying emptiness that its thoughts went into, where all the other foreign thoughts it was now feeling went into and came from. Just the process of thinking felt wasteful to it now. One of the alien thoughts wedged itself in its mind, as if it found a hole in its mind it could fit into. Its legs began carrying it somewhere. It dropped the pupae it was carrying in its maw on the floor. It walked out of the hatchery, through the maturation chambers, its pale blue pupil-less eyes not focused on anything that was located in the alcove. It ignored the hungry and frightened high-pitched pleas of the developing changelings. The younglings did not comprehend even the blind panic of the others, not developed enough to be able to properly hear the voice of the hive. On basic survival instinct, most of them took the shape of rocks or crystals, trying to hide and blend in. Some too weak or young did not succeed, resulting in odd forms that resembled badly carved statues that were half alive. Occasionally, when their limited strength was exhausted, a hatchling would change back into its base form, panting and half-fainted with exhaustion, trying desperately to change back again. Our changeling had no idea where it was going; the four legs seemed to have a life of their own, carrying it through the upheaval. It could not think; it could not dare to think, because every thought reminded it that it was all alone now in a turmoil of chaos. There were fellow changelings everywhere, some confused, some panicking, and some just standing still in a spot, not reacting to anything happening. Not one of them seemed to be able to function normally now. A changeling tried walking through a solid wall repeatedly, its head banging against the hard surface, again and again… its exoskeleton was slowly giving away, cracking and ripping, its head covered in the green coppery circulation fluid of its body, making its vision hazy. Our changeling kept going, in its mind confused, alien thoughts flickering and flying by. They all felt foreign, and it let them pass by without trying to observe any of them, not daring to try to observe any of them.
Its mind did not register when it walked out of the hive, its decentralized brain did not note when it wandered through the wastelands and wilderness for days without stopping, the voice of the turmoil fading slowly as the distance grew. There was an inexplicable force driving it forward straight as a ruler’s line, and only when meeting an insurmountable obstruction did it change its route, only to return to its course as soon as possible. It did not possess wings, and it walked thorough thorn fields and rock-ridden badlands without stopping, the chitin-laden exoskeleton tarnishing on its hooves and wherever spikes and thorns rubbed against its body.
After what was perhaps a few days later, it slowed down and stopped. It felt weak, and only now something that could be called conscious thought was appearing in its head. It was dark at night now, in the middle of a forest; Princess Luna’s full Moon was covered by a shroud of clouds. It was standing in a small clearing, not moving. As if in clue, the clouds opened up, letting the pale moonlight illuminate where it was standing, and the entire opening in the midst of the wilderness as if it was a stage against the rows of pitch black trees. The woods were dead silent, as if it was watching the start of a performance with breath held back. The clearing was overgrown with plants and tall grass, but there was an odd place, a few meters in diameter where barely anything would grow, except for a small apple tree. It walked closer, observing the young plant. It looked sick, the branches crooked, half of them dry, the yellow leaves falling as it was autumn. Yet, it was defiantly bearing a single, perfect red apple. Its leg bumped into something hard. It looked down, and found that it was a rusty band of steel, half-buried in the soil, bits of decayed wood sticking to it. Looking around, it could see three more of the metallic objects. Cart wheels. A couple of paces away, there was a pile of stones. It sat down next to it, staring into the blaze of a long-gone flame. It opened its mouth, trying to speak, but only hissing air escaped and odd, scraping sounds mixed with gurgles. It shifted its tongue, changing the shape and structure of its larynx and mouth. It tried again.
“We… have a beautiful …night, don’t we?” it asked, the dark forest swallowing his stuttering words. The voice was raspy and had an odd tone to it at the start, but it was that of a young male pony. It waited. About half a minute later, there was a reply.
“Only… because you… are here with …me” said a feminine voice with equal trouble of pronunciation. It raised its head. There was a dark form sitting across the once-been fireplace. With difficulty, one part of its mind recognized a fellow caretaker from the maturation chambers by its scent, but it felt as it has known the other one long before it could remember anything. Our changeling then chuckled.
“What can ah say to that? You look just as…beautiful as the day ah met you” it said to the glittering ebony creature across. It got up and walked around the pile, as if the blazing orange fire was still burning in it, but the only light was that of the cold, silvery Moon now. It sat right next to the other one.
“A real gentlecolt and a charmer… handsome at that too, just like the day we met at the country fair” the one with the feminine voice replied.
“What struck my attention the most were your eyes…” the other one continued, turning its head to our changeling. For a split second, they paused, there was no movement, then cold green flames enveloped our changeling’s eye, and by the time they were gone, a pair of pale orange-and-red pony eyes stared back at it.
“Applebloom has got your eyes…” the feminine one continued, placing its hooves on the knee of the other. “Do you think we will really make it back in time? We promised we would be back for Applejack’s birthday... she was so upset that we were going away again” Rosy Eyes smiled reassuringly, the plates on its body clicking as it moved its head, laying its forehead against the other one’s, the two spiky horns bouncing slightly against the other’s forehead.
“I promised we would be back and I never broke a promise, did I? They don’t call me ‘Honest Apple’ for nothing. Don’t worry, dear, we will be back ahead of time with the seeds, saplings and the presents we bought…” It went to hug the other one, but then it paused, raised its head quickly, ears perking. The forest was still completely silent.
“Did you hear that?” it asked, and suddenly, it fell on his back, as if it was pounced by an invisible creature, and they screamed in terror. Then they both went quiet at once, freezing and panting, and they looked around as if they were blind all through their lives, and were able to see for the first time. The performance was over now. Rosy Eyes turned its head and looked at the dark, shiny creature across it with its pony eyes. It felt that a floodgate in its head was opened, and the presence that was wedged in the cracks of its mind flooded it with memories.
“Wild Flower?” Rosy asked.
“Apple Core?” the feminine one replied, and despite its exhaustion and weakness, green flames enveloped its body, and took the form of a large and strong earth pony stallion with pale orange-red eyes.
“No, I am Apple Core…” it said, and took the shape the other one was wearing, the two identical looking changelings staring back at each other as if their mirror images came to life.
“You… YOU are… Wild Flower” it said with emphasis on the words, getting on its legs.
The feminine one changed slowly, the transformation taking much longer this time, but finally, it took the shape of an earth pony mare. Rosy Eyes walked closer, and stood in silence for minutes, examining the other, then it raised its own hooves, looking at them, turning them around in front of its head.
“My goodness, what have we become?” Rosy asked with a raspy voice, its voice breaking up, and it hugged the other one with shaking hooves in the form of Wild Flower, breaking down in crying. Wild Flower’s shape hugged the other reluctantly, then slowly it joined Rosy in crying, breaking down too.
“What…have…we… become?” Rosy kept repeating, as if it was a mantra against evil, hugging the other one strongly as if its life depended on it. Occasionally, green flames would flicker across either of them, being unable to keep up a constant shape due to exhaustion and mental anguish, but they would force themselves back into shape, too terrified of how they looked beneath the veil of magic.
When they were too exhausted to keep awake, they slept together for the rest of the night in changeling form, cuddling together for warmth and protection in the chilly autumn night, too weak to assume even a simple disguising shape like a rock for protection. In the late afternoon they woke starved and with aching muscles and limbs, raided a beehive they found nearby, smashing it open with their hollow hooves and gulping down honey, bee wax, larva and bees alike, their coat offering protection against the sting of the maddened drones that lost their home. Then, they set off in the direction for Ponyville.
by Smudge Proof
proofread by heidi
“I think I have found the reason why you are still getting headaches when you are being…” Twilight paused for a few seconds out of a sense of modesty, “… intimate with each other.” she finished, blushing slightly.
The three of them were sitting in a spacious chamber in Canterlot Castle, the walls of the room were basking in a lazy sunset haze. The number of furniture and decorative items was rather scarce in the space provided by the room’s dimensions, containing little more than the basic necessities and a few items of ornamentation on the walls, practically spartan by the capital’s standards. This was done on Cadence’s insistence. She had grown to feel at unease in tight closed spaces.
“Please… we have come to you for help, Twily. No need for false modesty here.” Shining Armor replied, and smiled at his little sister. Cadence nodded encouragingly, sipping a cup of tea, her eyes on the purple mare. The doctors were all flummoxed by the occurrence of the headaches. They did not seem to be connected to physical performance at all, only to Armor’s mental state. Ponies tended to practice a wide range of non-sexual intimacy as a sign of tightly knit love and affection, and only a small number of these required physical vigor. Sexual intercourse was a tool reserved only for procreation ever since the ancestors of all ponies cast off their animal passions in the sands of the desert wastelands. And, of course, there was only one culprit left after ruling out all physical reasons.
“I have done extensive research in the ancient records located in the royal archives. It was hard to find what I was looking for, and I had to translate the encrypted old-hoof writing of Star Swirl the Bearded, but I managed to decrypt his records by cross-referencing them with…” she said with a bit of pride in her voice, then noticed she was wandering off-topic and collected her focus. She coughed a little and resumed.
“…and it is as I have feared. The phenomenon is connected to what the changeling queen has done to you, brother.” the purple unicorn said. Cadence’s ears perked up, and she withdrew the cup from her lips. “When she… indoctrinated you, it is my understanding that she must have gradually used a mental link to gain influence over you. However, Changelings possess a mental link only as a species, and even that appears to be limited to low-level common subconscious connection. We have a very limited understanding on that, but that is beside the point for now. Since she lacked distance telepathy, she has gradually implanted a splinter from her own mind in Armor’s brain to take control, and when the link was torn by Cadence’s love,” she explained, looking at the pink alicorn, who seemed to be soaking up her words betraying no emotions, “it must have stuck in there.”
“You mean that sick monstrosity is still in my husband’s head, controlling him? That’s… impossible!” she protested, shaking her head, her tone slightly upset at the proposal of such a thing. Twilight raised her limbs in protest, and Armor laid his hoof on the princess’s own.
“Am I still a threat to Equestrian security?” The stallion with the armor as a cutie mark asked with obvious concern in his tone.
“No, no, of course not, to all of your questions. Please allow me to finish” Twilight said defensively, as if accused. “What I am saying is that there must be a part of her consciousness buried in my brother’s mind. It is unable to extort any control or do anything, much less spy on us for the changelings, but it still reacts to the presence of what feeds her kind…”
“…The most powerful thing in the world.” Armor finished solemnly.
“I want that thing removed.” Cadence stated coldly “There must be a way, right, Twilight?” Twilight nodded quietly.
“Yes, there is a spell for that purpose that I have found in the archives. It is practically harmless and there’s no risk involved, but it means that first I have to access whatever is left of her in the inside and bring it out…”
“And then, we can cut it out when we have caught it.” Cadence insisted, not allowing Twilight to finish. Armor flashed his wife another odd look.
“Please understand, she will have to answer to me honestly on any questions! Think of what we could learn of their kind! She could be able to tell us about the way her species lives, their culture, everything! From what I understand, not a single hive ever encountered before had so many warrior drones in them! According to the observations collected by Star Swirl, they are also leaner than they used to be and they didn’t have those cavities in their legs…” she listed, trying to appeal to Cadence’s sensibilities.
“The location of their hive.” Armor said. “We could get the location of their hive… and their numbers.” he repeated, his mind already setting in motion, eyes looking at the far wall, chalking up rudimentary plans and estimates in his mind based on whatever little information he possessed already. Scout parties had been sent out immediately after the attack in every direction, trying to locate the hive, to no avail. They knew they were very good at hiding. Despite all of this, he was still intently listening to everything going on in the room. Equestria did not have a standing army, only the Royal Guard and as such, Shining Armor was the highest ranking officer. He answered only to the royal sisters Celestia and Luna, the ultimate commanders-in-chief. Cadence finally agreed.
“What do we have to expect? Will she be able to try to harm him, or us?” she investigated.
“No, she will only have access to the senses of my brother’s body and his speech. I warn you though, it will probably be an unsettling experience. Would you like to wait outside while I do it?” She asked, taking note of the princess’ unease regarding the procedure. Cadence looked offended for a split second, then sighed and shook her head slowly.
“If you can do it for your big brother, how would it look like if I didn’t do it for my own husband?” she asked, smirking a little, then reaching over the table and holding Twilight’s hooves gently. “Please. I can take it. I am a strong pony,” she finished with a warm, affectionate smile.
“One more thing. I cannot tell how much of her is left there. It will not necessarily be like her. It might not be anything that would form a coherent personality. We might not even be able to get her to give coherent answers, much less to talk.” She paused, thinking for a way to explain. “Think of it as a photograph taken at one particular time in your life. It could be you being sad, happy, or doing something you would never do again do. It might be crisp, or completely blurred, but it will only show one side of you. It is an ember of a fire once burned, and if I blow on it too hard, it will go out, and she will be gone. For that reason, I will need to stay focused while I am doing this; we might not get a second chance. Time is also a factor; she might degrade over time, so we have to act as soon as possible.”
With that, and the couple’s agreement, Twilight began her preparations. The guards outside the room were told not to let anypony in while the interrogation was being done. Armor sat in a chair, Twilight in front of him, Cadence at her side. Twilight did the incantation, her horn glowing faintly. The white of Shining Armor’s eyes slowly turned to a pale, glowing green, and although he did not move a muscle, his stance somehow still slowly became that of a stiff, life-sized wooden doll. He blinked once, parting his lips.
“Clever pony,” he stated, the voice that of the changeling queen. The overall effect, combined with his wooden stance and unmoving, slightly glowing green eyes was unsettling.
“What is your name?” asked Twilight, probing to see if she dug deep enough, attempting to figure out whether what she found was salvageable, while also trying to keep the delicate glow of her essence going. Her horn kept glowing faintly as she concentrated.
“You would call me Queen Chrysalis in your tongue,” she said obediently.
“How does it feel to be a puppet, puppeteer?” Cadence asked coldly, betraying no emotions. There was no answer, no acknowledgement of her presence from the entity. Cadence turned to Twilight. “You told me she would have to answer every question.”
“Only those of mine. Remember, I am the one controlling her,” Twilight replied, not turning her head, eyes fixed on her brother’s head. A bead of sweat formed on her forehead, the room slowly getting darker as Celestia’s sun ducked behind the far horizon, the only two glowing objects being Twilight’s purple horn buzzing with red-tinted delicate magic and the white of Shining Armor’s eyes that were now a translucent green.
“You are inconsequential, Cadence, and your kind overrates free will,” Chrysalis spat the words at her, her tone arrogant and mocking. “What do you still want to draw from my lips?” Cadence hissed at her question.
“Your lips? Inconsequential? How dare you?” she asked, constraining herself only by reminding herself of the fact that it was her beloved husband’s body in front of her, and not that of the gangly black alicorn that banished her to the crystal mines down below.
“They were my lips so much more than they will be ever yours. Is that not why you chose to marry Armor? So that he can be a piece of meat you can claim ownership over, and you would have no fear of sharing him with others? It is a practice rooted in selfishness and mistrust. We Changelings have neither for each other.”
“So now you think you are better than us, parasite?” Cadence asked another question now that she seemed to have gained her attention. Twilight wiped her forehead. She could not find ample time to ask her own questions with the verbal duel going on between the two royals without fearing that she would lose concentration.
“I am yet to see a fox apologize to a rabbit that it consumes, it simply needs to feed its hunger.”
“So you take us for rabbits then, just food to consume. And yet you think you are above us.”
“Yet, the fox cannot blame the rabbits if they eventually dig a deep hole, lay it full of spikes and lure the fox into it. You assume too much. We are not killers. We do not waste lives. I could have killed you, just as I could have killed Twilight Sparkle or Princess Celestia when I had the opportunity. We are no murderers. We make no waste. You would all have been excellent additions to our little family, your powers and your memories.” Cadence did not reply to that, and Twilight finally found ample time to speak up again, without fear of losing Chrysalis.
“You were nothing like we have seen before compared to earlier records. More aggressive. You had more warriors and they looked different than those of olden times. Explain.” Chrysalis made the borrowed lips smile.
“Imagine a small hive of changelings, weak and sick, hiding in a damp hole dug in the earth by rabbits and foxes, cuddling to each other in fear of their lives as bits of the ceiling came down on their head in the complete darkness because there is an entire brave battalion of daring pony warriors marching right over their heads, valiantly searching for a few measly changelings who stole sugar from a nearby outpost in desperation. There are two great forces in this universe, and those two are fear and hunger. They had abundance of both, and they were desperate enough to dare to dream.” She paused, taking a deep breath “I was the chrysalis of the dream they dreamed! It was an evolutionary response, pony. You keep pushing us, and eventually, we will push back when you have chased us to the frontiers of the world, always expanding as if you owned every damned corner of the planet,” she said valiantly, soaking up in the inertia of her own narrative, “The hunger times would end forever, and we would be no longer be hunted by our prey! No more pupae would be reprocessed, no more hatchlings born too sick even to live to grow up! There would be no more starve-holes in our legs! Every all-mother I sought out agreed to my vision, joining us, and soon, I was in control of the largest hive ever conceived.” The Changeling tongue used the same word for marking both the female parent and the whole; you could not say one without saying the other. This translated somewhat clumsily to the Common Language she spoke. Armor’s eyes glowed brightly, Chrysalis shouting the words with zealous passion, as if she was addressing a mass of her own kind. “It was so magnificent. I was so magnificent… I would sing sweet lullabies to the hatchlings about the promised land as I laid down to sleep.” she added with a sense of irrecoverable loss in her voice.
“Arrogance was your undoing.” Cadence stated.
“Yes. Yes it was,” the queen replied, as if she was saying no more than “Yes, of course the sky is blue.” “I came so close… plans within plans within plans,” The changeling language used a short, elegant suffix to mark ‘triple containment in the same sort.’ “I made a threat on Canterlot, delivering the message in the form of Cadence for credibility, requiring Shining Armor to constantly use his protection magic. I took Cadence’s place, and used my magic to gain influence over him, explaining his headaches with his mental strain. Then the elements of harmony showed up. I had to dispose just one of them to render them useless once and for all, so I deliberately let Twilight Sparkle’s suspicions raise. After she accused me, all her friends, her brother and her mentor turned against her, and that’s when she let down her guard. I could dispose of her till the wedding without suspicion. I was quite cunning, you have to admit.”
“And you still failed” Cadence gloated. Chrysalis nodded.
“I was defective, but I have paid the ultimate price.”
“What do you mean?” Twilight asked, wiping her forehead, her magic glowing unevenly for a few seconds before stabilizing.
“We have not the luxury to cater for the useless or the weak, pony. Every last changeling understands that. Even if I survived that fall, I have outlived my usefulness, and I have failed my purpose. If I was still alive, I was willingly reprocessed and replaced… if I died…” she paused, not finishing the sentence.
“What happened if you died?” Twilight asked, her horn glowing brighter as she turned up her grasp on her. She was resisting now.
“The hive would be reduced to a complete chaos, the head cut off so abruptly. Running such a large hive needed a lot more organization than usual. The mental link broken like that, it must be complete mayhem, all the voices clashing without organization… it took a lot of effort to get my plan accepted. I dare not imagine what happened to my changelings then… to the hatchlings…” she said, breaking up.
“Ask it where the hive is. We might not have a better chance to strike at them,” Cadence ordered Twilight.
“Where is the hive?” Twilight asked. Chrysalis smirked back at her.
“I will not tell.” she said.
“Where… is… the… hive?” Twilight asked again with more insistence, sweat rolling down her forehead, her cheeks flushed red, cranking up her magic again.
“I will not say that.” Chrysalis replied, smirking and arrogant. Twilight was losing control.
“The… hive… tell me!” she yelled, crackles erupting from her horn.
“Never, pony. I will never tell you that what you seek.” she gloated, and started to laugh mockingly. Twilight’s horn felt like as if it was on fire now; one more try… she raised her magic’s level again. Just a little bit more… suddenly, there was a flash, Shining Armor’s eyes stopped glowing, and his upper body fell forward on the chair he was sitting on. He body stopped halfway down, then he grabbed his head and rubbed his hoof on his scalp slowly. The ember no longer glowed.
“Uh… I… I think I need to lay down now, Twily…” he said with his normal voice. Twilight and Cadence both jumped up to help him lay down in the bedroom, although the purple unicorn’s legs were failing themselves.
“Don’t worry, it’s just exhaustion… two minds in the same skull.” Twilight said to the both of them. “You will sleep it off and he will be fine as ever,” she said, and they walked out of the room, letting the stallion sleep off the mental exhaustion in solitude. They closed the door quietly, and Twilight leaned against it for support as it was closed, her forehead resting against it.
“She is gone,” she said quietly.
“It is gone, Twilight” Cadence reprised Twilight’s last sentence, offering her childhood friend a warm hug “It is all right now, it is gone…” she said, soothing her as if she was still a small filly frightened of the thundercracks roaring above her head.
“That was the only thing left of her, and I extinguished it!” Twilight confessed, wrapping her hooves around Cadence’s neck “I… I have killed whatever was left of her... I should have been more careful.” Cadence rubbed her hoof across Twilight’s back, patting it reassuringly.
“It was the leftover of a liar, a cheat, and a pretender infesting a mind it did not belong to. Never forget that, Twilight. There was a reason she did not tell you where the hive is.”
“What reason? Why did not you tell me sooner?” Twilight asked, trotting backwards half a step, looking up at the tall alicorn’s eyes.
“It did not know, Twilight.” Twilight blinked nonplussed.
“Must have been some sort of born-with changeling caution that she did not plant that information in his head, despite her arrogance…” Twilight mustered for a second “Why did not you tell me if you knew? I would have been more careful… I had so many questions!” she protested, not believing what she heard.
“Like it said, she outlived her usefulness, even to us. It did not know what we needed to know, but at least we have knowledge that they are probably weak and vulnerable for now. It could not be allowed to plague your brother any more. We have to double our search efforts. And never forget that it was never more than a pretender. Let it be a lesson: she used you to make you banish her, Twilight” with that, Cadence walked off to inform Luna, one final pat on Twilight’s shoulder.
As Twilight stood there on the gloomy room, she couldn’t help but feel that she had been indeed used.