My Little Changeling: Love is Life

by Zephyrus Scary

Chapter 1: Episode 1: Queen of the Heart

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My Little Changeling: Love is Life

Zephyrus Scary

Episode 1:

Queen of the Heart

Long ago, when the World was young and the Sun and Moon naught but the Goddesses’ wombs guided carefully by the magic of All, the World was at peace. Predator and Prey, Pretender and Pony, lived together and protected each other, understanding the balance of Life, and from such understanding sprung Love.

Then, the Windigos came into being, teaching Prey the terrible knowledge of Fear and Hatred, which smothered Love, that which gave Life to the Changelings. Though all hives and their Queens fought valiantly and preached the ways that had been since The Beginning, they were too late. All Prey were consumed by Fear and Hatred for their Predators, and the Pretenders found themselves hunted by Ponies.

The only two Changeling Queens, Queen Chrysalis and Queen Husk, left alive after the warring that followed, led their dwindled hives on a journey to find a place yet untouched by the Windigos. It seemed a fruitless endeavor, and just before they came across the Deers, who were not as strongly affected by the Windigos, most believed they would starve. With no Predators to defend themselves against, the Windigos turned the three Pony tribes on each other.

A tentative peace was forged between Changeling and Deer, but it was not long before the Changelings would find themselves a new worry. The fabled Fires of Friendship had been forged when the three Pony tribes found Love between themselves again. The Queens, feeling the shockwave of Love flow over the World, balked and shivered. It had been believed by All that the Fires of Friendship could only come into being with the help of Changelings, but this had not been so.

The now-fearful Queens took this as a mixed omen: Love would once again be plentiful amongst Ponies, but that the Fires had come to Life without them could mean nothing else but that the Changelings would never be welcome by Prey again. If this was not enough, the Fires went up into the Sky to birth the Goddesses, which descended upon the World in the form, not of Changelings, as the stories had always told and which All believed, but of Ponies, representing the three tribes in one with Horn, Wing, and Muscle.

Despairing and alarmed, the Queens taught their hives to no longer help the World with their unequaled power of transformation, but to fool it: to get Love the only way they could, now that All in the World believed the Changelings to be naught but liars of the evilest sort, editing and guiding ancient stories to make themselves look important when for all time they had been mere parasites.

Queen Chrysalis and her hive were most adept at adjusting to this new life, but Queen Husk could not let go of a Hatred that had taken root inside her. Building a massive army, she swore to change the World instead of her hive, using strange magic to make herself and her hive feed off of Fear and Hatred instead of Love.

Though the Windigos had been driven from the World, the knowledge they left behind lingered, giving much power to Queen Husk and her hive, but before even one battle could be fought, Queen Chrysalis confronted her and used the Elements of Unity to lock Queen Husk’s body inside of her Heart.

Without their Queen, the Changelings altered to feed off of Fear and Hatred vanished, but not Forever. Readers of The Stars since before the coming of the Windigos have always told of an event to take place far in the future: A Queen of Fear and Hatred would be reborn as a twin to an unloved Goddess, and an army lost to time would then gather around their Queen.*

“‘Reborn as a twin to an unloved Goddess’?” A Changeling worker** resting beside an underground pool repeats from the book laying before her, tapping her chin in thought. “‘An unloved Goddess’…” She repeats once more, zeroing in on the part of the sentence tickling her memory. “Not only that, but if I’m reading this correctly-” she says as she taps at the curious sentence “-a Goddess that is going to be reborn so Queen Husk can be reborn alongside her as a twin. I’m certain I’ve read something about this before concerning-… concerning… ponies!” she cries out in realization, buzzing her forewings with excitement and worry, lifting herself away from the pool, grabbing the book in her green magic, and flying towards a particular tower of Buzzington Castle, the fortification standing guard over the city of Buzzington, capital of Melipoland, the Changeling underground (in both senses of the word) empire.

The city she flies over is composed mostly of huge slabs of expertly carved shiny black stone, which is complimented by the translucent green wax (which is not really “wax” at all, but a very versatile substance) the Changelings’ own bodies produce and which makes for a astoundingly sturdy construction material once infused with a hardening spell. Buzzington Castle is similar, but only more impressive with its more intricate designs that still take away nothing of its fortifications. The entire giant underground chamber which is Buzzington is illuminated by bulbs of wax enchanted to give off a soft green-tinted light that is not uniform, but shimmers in a multitude of shades like a field of grass on a breezy, sunny day. Everything in the city and castle is hexagonal: doors, windows, and buildings: columns with six walls. With Changelings being as they are, all with a set of hymenopter wings***, there is no need for such things as roads, and while it might seem as if roofs would also be unneeded underground, they are indeed still used, primarily to keep out water dripping from the cave ceiling.

During her flight, the female Changeling with the book of ancient stories is greeted by many, but to none does she respond—this has been so for most of her life, but the others do not give up, and it is easy to see why, for she is none other than Twisted Spare, Spellworker prodigy studying under Queen Chrysalis herself, and at this moment not so much ignoring the greetings as usual, but simply ignorant of them.

Landing on the balcony of her home-away-from-home in one of the castle’s towers, Twisted calls out, “Gaze? Gaze?! Wherever you are, you better get off your lazy tail, because I have research to do, and I need your help!” She huffs as she steps inside and looks up to the vast bookshelves, knowing very well that “wherever” means “probably in bed, not likely to get up at a moment’s notice”.

Surprisingly, the sound of clawed steps comes almost instantly, preceding a cockatrice wearing a green cloth over his eyes arriving through the only doorway; The cloth, while it appears quite opaque from the outside, does not actually block Gaze’s vision, only the inherent magic of his eyes. “Just so you know, I wasn’t sleeping. I was writing a Happy Hatchday card for Silver Wings and trying to think of what to get her for a present. Do you think she’d like a shrinking Celestia doll?” He considers, referring to the popular gift given around the time of the Change Carnival. The doll, enchanted to shrink as the seasons turn to autumn and winter, is meant to represent the waning power of the Pony Princess as the days get shorter, just as the Change Carnival, thrown on the summer solstice, is a celebration of the beginning of same.

Still looking over the bookshelves, and therefore turned away from Gaze, Twisted Spare feels safe in performing a quick roll of her eyes at the mention of someling’s Hatchday, but at the mention of Princess Celestia, she whirls around on him. “Ugh, just forget about that for a moment and focus! I need to cross reference some information to make sure the world is not going to end!”

Gaze jolts. “The world is going to end!?” -but he calms down fairly quickly. “Wait. You’re not talking about that book Queen Chrysalis sent you, are you? You know what ‘mythology’ means… right?” He asks earnestly and not at all acting condescending or superior—with the cloth and beak making it very difficult to read any kind of expression on his face, he was taught—just as every Changeling nymph is taught—to convey his feelings honestly to others of the hive, which for Gaze especially means through his voice.

“Of course, but this isn’t just a myth!” Twisted asserts as she begins to simply methodically pull down all the books in a row, using her magic to quickly locate and scan each book’s table of contents. “If it was just in this book, I’d agree with you, but I’m certain I’ve read something similar to this, and what is science if not the collating and comparing of data? I just need to find that one supporting passage I know exists somewhere in this tower… Hmm… This looks promising! ‘Chapter Two: The Mare in the Moon’; one of the Goddesses was birthed from the Moon in that myth, after all! ‘The Mare in the Moon’ seems like a kind of odd title… but it was given to Her by ponies, and everyone knows how crazy they are!”

“In a myth.” Gaze insists, ignoring Twisted’s tangent and continuing to do nothing helpful as he instead folds his wings and huffs in a scornful way.

Twisted Spare rolls her eyes and decides that, as she’s actually on to something, merely goes on with her research. “Let’s see what we have.” She flips the book closed to look at the cover “The Elements of Harmony: A Reference Guide. ‘Harmony’? That’s strange; the other story called them the Elements of Unity… -but more strange is this!” Surprising Gaze, Twisted whips around and shoves the spine of the book against his beak. “No wonder I can never find a book I want; this was in ‘E’ when this little sticker clearly reads ‘D’!”

Gaze merely stares at the sticker on the spine for a moment before scratching at the side of his head with one of his clawed feet. “Uh, yeah. I thought that was a misprint because the title begins ‘The Elements’. ‘E’.” He shrugs.

“Guh!” Twisted throws her head up in frustration. “That is not how the Queen’s Library Classification works! ‘D’ is world history; ‘E’ is Changeling, and only Changeling history! How many times have I told you this: If you’d bother to learn the system, we wouldn’t have to reorganize the books every weekend!” Gaze opens his beak to retaliate, but a chitinous, holed leg blocks anything him might have said. “Never mind that for now, though; we have more important things on our minds!” she announces as she flips the book open to begin quickly looking over the chapter on The Mare in the Moon.

“‘We’?” Gaze dares to ask.

“Yes, ‘we’.” Twisted affirms, not turning away from her reading. “While I look for clues in here, I need you to find me everything we have on the Elements of Unity.” Almost as soon as the words finish leaving her mouth is a book slammed down next to her: The Elements of Unity: a Reference Guide “Let me guess…” Twisted looks up to see Gaze pointing behind himself with a wing at the ‘E’ shelf, where an empty spot very close to where she had found the book on the Elements of Harmony. “Well, at least one of us has your ‘system’ memorized.” Twisted rolls her eyes once again, but a slow, familial smile rises up in its wake. “Which is what makes ‘one of us’ such an amazing assistant.” Unexpectedly, she pulls him in for a quick hug.

“Aw, Twis…” Gaze blushes, rocking side to side in awkward embarrassment, sure that the only thing saving him from dying from hyperthermia is that noling else is there to witness their moment that transcends their supposed student-assistant relationship. Such a reaction is strange among Changelings, who are open and largely unabashed in displaying their emotions; frequently Twisted had speculated that this may have to do with Gaze being a cockatrice, for Gaze had been raised like a Changeling as much as possible, but as so little is known about Gaze’s kind, the speculation is only what it is.

Releasing him, Twisted waves towards the door. “I think I have all I need for now, so go ahead and get back to that Hatchday card for… whomever. I’ll call if I need you to write to the Queen.”

Practically skipping, Gaze rushes for the door, then turns when he reaches it. “It’s for Silver Wings: the drone who sits next to you in non-animal transformation theory class—who sits next to you on purpose.” Before Twisted can react, Gaze zooms away as soon as he finishes, his giggling fading away until the distant slamming of a door marks its disappearance.

He needn’t have bothered, for Twisted doesn’t not even roll her eyes. Another un-Changeling part of him, she muses, as Silver Wings, whose name she’s now able to put to a set of legs*(4), had made the purpose of his advances quite clear, as Changelings do, but remained undaunted in the face of Twisted’s just-as-clear rebuff. Now, left to the quiet, in her own thoughts, Twisted turns to reading aloud to herself, as she does. It’s not long before she cries out, “Ah! This part looks promising: ‘-the younger sister became resentful. The ponies relished and played in the day her elder sister brought forth, but shunned and slept through her beautiful night.’ So, the unloved Goddess is…-” Coming up blank, Twisted looks quickly over the story, and almost instantly raises her brow in confusion. “-Nightmare Moon!? No wonder the ponies didn’t love-! Wait ‘-the bitterness in the young one’s heart had transformed her-’ Transformed her. Trans-…-formed.”

Gulping involuntarily, eyes widening, Twisted steps back from the very inanimate, quite-incapable-of-hurting-anyling book, wings buzzing from a surge of fear that makes the room feel ten degrees warmer than it had been seconds ago. “No. That doesn’t necessarily mean what I think it means. No.” Twisted tries to calm herself in a progressively higher voice as she takes more and more steps from the book. “No. It doesn’t mean that the Goddesses are Changelings after all. It certainly doesn’t mean they took on the form of ponies—forms that they’ve never left—which resulted in the shunning of Changeling-kind and the war and everything that-” NO! Twisted brings both her forelegs to slam painfully against her own forehead.

Gasping, frozen, Twisted waits to hear the approach of quiet clawed steps again, but as the room remains silent, she comes to realize her “shout” had only been in her mind; some part is grateful that Gaze isn’t coming, but the larger part of her wants to call out and be comforted. No. If that is… right, he doesn’t have to know. It wouldn’t be fair to him. He doesn’t need such a big worry under his wings*(5). “Besides, if it is true, and I could somehow figure out a way to make sure and fix it, right now there’s a more pressing matter: Chrysalis.” Giving herself a resolute nod, Twisted once again steps up to the book that had rendered such a horrible possibility.

Reading on, now silently, from where she had stopped, she pulls back once again soon. “That can’t be right: ‘-banished her permanently in the moon’?” She repeats out loud as if doing so would reveal something different that what the words tell her. “That just can’t be. The unloved Goddess is prophesized to return, not be permanently locked back inside the Moon.” Sighing, nearly ready to admit defeat, Twisted looks up, now at the book shelves, as a word she had just said tickles her memories: prophesized.

Deciding she’ll only call Gaze if she really can’t find the book herself, She reluctantly steps up to the section that should be devoted to Changeling literature: PR. The relatively small section makes it easy to notice the one marked in reference to prophesies: BF. Predictably, its title is Predictions and Prophesies, and, somewhat of a surprise to Twisted, it’s a pony-written book. The index renders many references to the Elements of Harmony, none to either Nightmare Moon or the Elements of Unity, and only one reference to The Mare in the Moon. The entry is short, making it easy for Twisted to zero in on the relevant sentence. “Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape, and she will bring about nighttime eternal.”

Twisted looks up at the ceiling, biting her lip, not out of worry for the last part, as she, like most Changelings, live underground when not hunting, so she couldn’t care less about the movements of the Sun and Moon, but out of worry for the part about the thousandth year. “How long ago did the defeat of Nightmare Moon happen? None of these books mention it, and I don’t know where else I could go from here, except…-” Tapping her cheek reservedly, she turns to last book, The Elements of Unity: a Reference Guide. Since none of these pony books mention anything about the Elements of Unity, it doesn’t seem like this one will be useful after all, but I guess I don’t really have anywhere else to turn.

Grimacing skeptically at the book as she approaches it, Twisted opens the tome to the index. “Nightmare Moon? Nothing. Mare in the Moon? Nothing. Queen Husk?” The only passage referenced points to a section that does nothing more than retell the story Twisted had first read. “Ugh! What is the difference any-!? ‘The difference’? Let’s see… ‘Elements of Harmony’? Yes! This might lead somewhere after all! ‘The Elements of Harmony, as near as can be told, appear to be a copy of the Elements of Unity, made by ponies for use by ponies. They have been used many times in the distant past by the Goddesses against foes with powers strong enough to threaten the Goddesses themselves. Mysteriously, they seem to have disappeared after the Goddess of the Sun used them against the Goddess of the Moon, after the latter had been tainted by some unknown evil force. Considered widely by ponies as nothing more than a ponytale, facts are few and far between, but by comparing the most reliable accounts against other historical events, it has been determined this final use of the Elements of Harmony occurred approximately nine hundred fifty years ago, give or take a few deca-’ Nine hundred fifty years!?” Twisted bursts out “No no no no no no no no…” Twisted begs as she flips to the front of the book to examine it’s copyright information: 1974 AFF*(6)—exactly forty years ago and well within the presented ±20 years range.

“The longest day is the Solstice, which is on the day the Change Carnival is held, which is tomorrow, and this could be the year Queen Husk reemerges from Queen Chrysalis’s heart… which does not sound good no matter what that actually entails.” Shaking her head to gather her thoughts into something more ordered, she calls out once more. “Ga- Gaze! Gaze! I need you to send a letter!”

Twisted doesn’t have to wait long for Gaze to arrive, pulling out a scroll and quill (of his own feather) from somewhere inside his plumage. Cockatrice feathers: an mystery wrapped in an enigma enclosed in unstudied magic. Maybe. Who knows what’s under the “unstudied magic” part, really? “Ready!” He says, putting quill to parchment.

“My Queen and Mentor,” Twisted narrates, “In studying the book you sent me along with research elsewhere, I have discovered that we, and especially you, are in imminent danger! The unloved Goddess referred to in the ‘myth’ of Queen Husk is in fact the Goddess Nightmare Moon, who was sealed away and is prophesized to return after a thousand years have passed. These thousand years are coming soon to a close, so I send this to you so preparations in battling Husk and protecting you can be sent into motion immediately. Your faithful student, Twisted Spare.”

Looking uncertain, Gaze writes all this down any, hoping that the Queen—wise as she is—will see that Twisted needs to be talked down and comforted. “‘-faithful… student… Twisted Spare.’ Got it.” Gaze announces, slipping the quill back into his plumage before rolling up the scroll, fitting a wooden seal on a black ribbon to secure it, and finally lifting up his wing to push up a corner of the cloth covering his eyes to create the slightest hole in its defense. At the sight of the seal, a specially designed enchantment cast by Queen Chrysalis herself on the cockatrice activated, allowing his petrifying magic, normally limited to living things, to turn the scroll to stone, which instantly crumbles to dust to be whisked away by a breeze summoned by the very same, single spell.

“There.” Twisted sighs with some relief, if very reserved relief. “I’ve done what I can do for now. All that’s left is to wait for Chrysalis’s instructions. After all, as her personal student, there’s no way she wouldn’t take me seriously.”

- - - -

“I can’t believe she didn’t take my well-researched warning seriously!” Twisted Spare grumbles for about the twenty-fifth time since receiving the Queen’s less-than-satisfactory “answer”. Concentrating on stopping her buzzing forewings (signaling to all how annoyed she is), she lifts the blue elytra “hindwings” on her back to retrieve the Queen’s response kept safe there. Unrolling the scroll, she makes sure to keep it firm in her magic so as not to lose the paper in the slipstream of their carriage’s passing.

“‘My dear student Twisted Spare,’” She begins to read in a mocking voice, not for the first time and not caring that the words she is mocking are her mentor’s and Queen’s. “‘You know how much I trust in your attentiveness and ability, but those old, dusty books are only worth so much time! There is so much more to a young Changeling’s life than knowledge, so I am sending you to supervise the Change Carnival’s preparations in the location I’ll be personally visiting this year: Fangville. Most importantly, however, before the Carnival begins, you are to make some friends.’” Twisted finishes with a gag while sticking her tongue out.

“Fangville?” Gaze asks from beside her, clasping onto his veil with both wings as hard as he can, fearful of what Queen Chrysalis would do if he turned the two pulling the carriage to stone, even if accidentally.

Twisted Spare, not blaming Gaze’s question, for even she had never heard of the place, has to consult the message before confirming. “Yes, Fangville. The only thing I was able to learn while waiting for you to finish packing was that it is a completely unremarkable hamlet except for its direct connection to the ‘supposedly cursed’ Petualoose Mines.”

The sudden onset of confusion almost makes Gaze release his grip. “Cursed mines? I thought curses don’t exist. That’s what you told me after-” Recalling the embarrassing nightmare and glancing toward the two pulling them along, Gaze clamps his beak shut.

“Exactly.” Twisted affirms with not a little pride in her assistant’s knowledge.

Gaze taps the side of his head with one feather before asking, “-but… these Fangville Changelings believe curses exist…?” He half-asks, to which Twisted nods. “-and they believe those, uh, perla- petal-… those mines are cursed?” Twisted hums an affirmative. “-and they still live there? Right next to the mines they think are cursed?”

“Uh-huh.” Twisted rolls her eyes. “As if believing in curses isn’t crazy enough, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the entirety of Fangville is actually all ponies disguised as Changelings, because only ponies would be so insane!”

Grumbling incomprehensibly, Twisted slips the message back under her elytra; a moment of quiet comes over the carriage excepting the sound of wheels against the floor of the caves and the sound of the guards’ swift steps. Eventually, Gaze dares to ask, just as the cave widens and the first buildings of Fangville can be seen, “This isn’t going to be a good day, is it?”

Even if Twisted was about to bother the question with the obvious answer, the two pulling them stop. The Changeling and cockatrice step off the carriage so the two can return to Buzzington. “Well, at least I’ll be able to continue my research into Queen Husk, since Chrysalis was kind enough to arrange for us to stay in the library; we’ll go there right after we finish with this checklist she provided.”

“Huh?” Gaze pauses to tilt his head for a moment before rushing to catch up to Twisted, “-but-… but what about the Queen’s directions to make some-”

“Gaze,” Twisted interrupts, “There are more important things to deal with right now! I’m sure the Queen will understand if I make friends after making sure Queen Husk isn’t going to burst out of her thorax tomorrow! Is making some friends going to stop that from happening? No, research is!”

“Aw… come on, Twis! Shouldn’t you at least try talking to one Changeling and try to make friends?” Gaze begs, not wishing to see her get in trouble for putting off any mission given to her, no matter how trivial. “That worker looks pretty friendly!” He insists, waving a wing towards a Changeling with a carefree smile behind her fangs and a happy, hummed tune in her throat, currently contemplating a cluster of glowing mushrooms in someling’s window box.

“Rrrruhh-fff-fine.” Twisted relents, heading towards the Changeling that had by then became uninterested in the mushrooms and was skipping along towards the duo. “Erm, hello?” Twisted attempts to gain the Changeling’s attention with such obvious and painful awkwardness that Gaze winces, suddenly thankful he’s standing slightly behind Twisted where the other worker can’t see him. “My name is Twisted Spare, and I-”

Her self-introduction is interrupted by the other Changeling jumping high and gasping in the most ridiculously over-the-top surprise, seemly taking in so much air that Gaze suspects she should have at least slightly inflated. Without a word, the worker brings her forewings to life and buzzes off over Twisted’s head so fast that by the time Twisted thinks of turning around, there’s absolutely no sign of where she had gone.

Opening up her elytra once more, Twisted says with her muzzle pointed to the cave ceiling, “Just like I said: ‘crazy’. Pony-level crazy. I can’t wait until this year’s Carnival is done with so we can get back to the civilized Buzzington, so what’s first?”

- - - -

“Uh, Twis… are you sure this is the right place?” Gaze’s voice shivers from fear at the land they’re standing before. Not only is the ceiling so cracked that it seems the tiniest disturbance in the air should cause a cave-in, letting in a flood of sunlight, but the cave floor, normally hard rock (which is, in fact, all Gaze had known his entire life until that moment), is here soft soil, like from the surface, and positively covered in a dizzying array of plants of all colors and shapes, many of which look distinctly poisonous and may very well cause death at the touch. The only remotely normal thing about the place is the giant stalagmite (at least three floors high) that had been hollowed into a home, as evidenced by the hexagonal door and occasional window.

“This is where that relatively-normal drone pointed us…” Twisted answers somewhat uncertainly, also not liking the look of those plants, and not willing to fly over them incase it’s their pollen that turns out to be poisonous. “First on the agenda is checking up on the Medkeeper to make sure there’s enough lavage leaf to make traditional lavage drinks for everyling, including all the tourists. Since this is where Queen Chrysalis is going to be for the Carnival, there are going to be a lot of Changelings coming here, and since this is such a small town, I think we’re going to be needing a little importing…”

“Did someling say ‘importing’?” Comes a voice so suddenly that the two jump and they only realize where the voice came from when a shadow in the sunlight shifts. Looking up, they finally spot a worker squeezing herself through one of the wider cracks in the ceiling, which makes Twisted’s eyes bulge with worry that the inevitable cave-in will squish the worker with no means of escape. However, nothing of the sort happens, and Twisted breathes a sigh of relief when the worker pops out of the hole and hovers down before them. “Noling is gon’na be importing any lavage leaf as long as anyling in Fangville has anything to say, because they’ll all say the same: Proxwell’s Herbs is the best there is!” She rears up proudly for a moment before letting herself fall. “Name’s Proxyhack, but mostlings just call me P.H., which you’re welcome to do! I’m Fangville’s one an’ only Medkeeper, because noling ever complains about my work!”

“Uh-huh.” Twisted’s tone is not without some doubt, and not only because the size of Fangville itself calls for, at most, two Medkeepers, but it seems Proxyhack is either ignorant or ignoring it. “Well, I’m Twisted Spare, and I’m here with my assistant, Gaze; we’ve come from Buzzington to check on the preparations for the Carnival to make sure they’re suitable for the Queen’s visit.”

“Oh, my! A real Buzzingtonian!” the Medkeeper leaps back in surprise, looking Twisted up and down a few times before calming, looking disappointed. “Ah, well, huh… You’re not really lookin’ as different as I was expecting.” Instantly, Twisted’s brow shoots up with indignation at these strange words. “Erk! Sorry!” Proxyhack bows her head. “Sorry! Sometimes my mouth just rattles off the strangest things! I really should’ve learned by now not to give it so much freedom, like everyling’s telling me! Eh-heh heh… heh.” Ashamed, the Medkeeper scratches at the fin on the back of her neck and shuffles her elytra together, making them click softly a few times.

Now lowering her brow in exasperation, Twisted turns to Gaze with a look that unmistakably says, See? I told you: Crazy. To which Gaze looks down with a sigh of admitting defeat while scratching at the ground with his bird-like feet. “Ah… Okay, that’s… what it is. I’m in a bit of a hurry, so if you could just show me your stores of lavage leaf, we’ll be on our way, and you can get back to…-” Not knowing much about Medkeeping, or farming at all, Twisted opts to simply wave a foreleg up at the ceiling to refer to whatever Proxyhack had been doing.

“Right this way!” Proxyhack instantly perks up, excited to show off her work. “Mind those blue flowers there; poison joke isn’t ‘harmful’, and it is easy to cure, but its ‘jokes’ can be mighty embarrassing! Just looking at ’em always reminds me of the time someling- Well, I probably shouldn’t say!” She ends with a chuckle as she leads them around the stalagmite house to even larger fields of farmland behind it, with large swathes currently taken up by the oddly shaped lavage leaf plants: clusters of green spheres poking up out of the soil, filled with fluid. Stepping forward between Twisted and the lavage leaf fields, Proxyhack gestures grandly. “Well, what d’ya think? Impressive, ain’t it?”

“Uh, yes, but…” The word has Proxyhack lowering her leg slowly and raising one side of her brow, expectant of what could possibly be “but” about the impressiveness of Proxwell’s Herbs. “I was expecting… the lavage leaf to already be harvested. How do you expect to have all of this ready by tomorrow?!”

“‘Already harvested’?” the Medkeeper lowers he brows, unimpressed and slightly insulted. “Ya don’t ‘harvest’ lavage leaf. Waitin’ ’til the very last possible moment to collect the leaves is the only way to do it, since the drink inside is very fragile, you see.” Then she puts on a smirk. “As f’r collecting it all in time?… Come on down, everyling!” She calls up to the cracked ceiling. “The Queen’s sent somelings to check up on us!

Almost instantly comes the sound of many somethings scrapping against rock, and much of the sunlight is blocked out, then it’s not long before a veritable swarm comes squeezing out of the cracks, walking upside down on the cave ceiling or flying off a little ways before settling into a hover. “This is only some of the Proxy family, the largest Medkeeper family in the entirety of Melipoland, and they’ve answered the call to make sure everyling will have the best lavage leaf drinks they’ve ever had this Change Carnival!” Proxyhack announces, jumping up to hover before the swarm, striking a prideful pose before flying backwards to wrap a leg about one of the Changelings. “We was just up on the surface having a little family get-together. This is Prox Stem.” Then she introduces the rest, pointing at each, though the gesture is largely rendered unhelpful by how clustered they are. “Hale Proxy, Prox Page, Petal Proxy, Proxy Sage, Salve Prox…” At this point, Twisted gives up trying to keep track of all the names, and turns to wondering why she’d bothered to begin with, since she’ll like as not never see any of these Changelings again. “… -and finally my little sister, Proxy Germ, my big brother, Proxy Trunk, and our matriarch, Grand Prox.” PH finishes, the first two being as hidden as everyling else in the crowd, but the last gesture is towards a Changeling the two from Buzzington had missed, dozing in a rocking chair, her chitin grayed from age.

“Oka-aaay, well, the lavage leaf situation looks taken care of. Gaze?” Twisted says as she turns around, ready to leave the herb farm behind.

“Lavage leaves: check!” Gaze marks off a box on the list Chrysalis had provided.

“You’re leavin’ already?” Comes the higher voice of a young worker nymph, buzzing down out of the swarm, wobbling; Twisted can see instantly that her wings couldn’t have grown in more than a month ago, and guess this to be Proxy Germ. “Don’t ya wan’na try some first?” The nymph almost begs.

Involuntarily, Twisted’s elytra click and scrape together, expressing annoyance, which makes the nymph rub her own elytra together anxiously, which instantly makes Twisted frown and lower her head with guilt. “Erm, well, we-… I would like to, but we-”

“Come on, Twis!” Gaze implores spreading his wings. “It’s not like we’re in that big of a hurry; we can afford a little break!” Before going on, he leans forward conspiratorially, but doesn’t actually lower his voice. “-and we’re not just here for the Carnival, either, remember?” He taps the scroll unnecessarily.

“Ugh… Fine.” Twisted relents, making it as clear as she can in her tone that she’d rather not, but such doesn’t deter the Proxy Family from cheering and clicking their elytra in excited applause.

- - - -

“Urf… Who knew there was such a huge variety in lavage leaf recipes?” Twisted moans as her slightly inflated stomach, groans and sloshes painfully with every step. “We certainly wasted enough time.” Even without managing to get much heat into her voice, the glower she directs at Gaze has him appropriately cowed.

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry! I’m just saying I didn’t know they would want you to try everything.” Looking around for a change of topic, Gaze notes how Twisted has lead them into what could only be a tunnel that has been apparently abandoned for one reason or another. “Hey, were are we going now?”

“To check up on the caves leading into Fangville from other cities.” Twisted answers, glad for something to focus on to take her mind off her gut. “In preparation for the Carnival, these tunnels are being widened in order to allow more traffic. Since Fangville is so small, not many of those attending are- or rather, can stay in town; tomorrow, this tunnel, and a couple others, are going to be completely swarmed.”

“Oh,” is all Gaze has to say about that, scraping his claws idly against the floor, which, after a moment, catches Twisted’s attention, and she leans down to more closely inspect the floor.

“Hmph!” Twisted huffs with distain as she slides her tarsus*(7) across the undeniably uneven surface. “I may not know much about Cavekeeping, but this is beyond pitiful! Look! Someling could trip on this lip here, which would be especially dangerous with all the expected traffic tomorrow! Where in Tartarus are the Cavekeepers that are supposed to be working on this?!”

As if in answer, a voice crying in alarm comes instantly. “Look out!” Before Twisted can even register from which direction the voice is coming from, a great weight—a boulder—slams into Twisted’s side. Before even any pain from the impact can be registered, Twisted feels a powerful rising inside her and all—or almost all—of the lavage leaf drinks she had ingested comes spewing out. At least all of the liquid made itself useful and sacrificed itself to cushion the blow, is the first thing Twisted thinks upon realizing that she’d finally stopped rolling across the ground.

The next thing Twisted thinks is that she’s never to forgive the worker responsible no matter how many times she apologizes. “I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry!” The worker that had been carrying the boulder at such irresponsible speeds apologizes without pausing for breath as she releases her hold on the rock and buzzes down to land at Twisted’s side. “I didn’t think anyling was going to be here, what with all the construction warning signs and- What are you doing here?” The worker asks, glancing curiously up at the cockatrice rushing up to them, carefully avoiding the long splatters of sick.

“Twisted! Twisted! Twis! Are you all right?!” He puffs out as he comes alongside her; looking up in the direction from which he’d come, Twisted’s eyes widen slightly at the distance the boulder had launched her. Just how fast was that Cavekeeper going? -with a boulder that big?! Her eyes widen a little further as she reconsiders chewing the obviously very physically fit worker crouched beside her, the Cavekeeper’s wings creating a whining buzz of worry.

“I’m fine, Gaze. Fine,” Twisted repeats more quietly, more to herself as she turns to examine the side that had taken the blow, and she subsequently taps at the scrapes and dents in her chitin. “Great. Just great. I haven’t had to shed in a long time—a personal record—but now I’ll definitely have to.” Twisted, however, keeps no record of how long it had been since her last shedding, considering that at least she can indirectly guilt the one responsible even if she daren’t do so more confrontationally. “As for what I’m doing here, we were sent here to check up the expansion projects, and the other tunnels better not look like this, or I’m going to have to get some extra help called down here, which will probably not be very good for your future.” Twisted finishes with a smirk and growl, but she’s abruptly stopped by the completely unfazed worker.

“Ha!” The worker directs the derisively forced laugh at the ceiling. “If you’d just bothered to ask around, you’d know that everyling in Fangville knows I, Repeat Design, am the fastest Cavekeeper in the world!” She was pretty fast, even carrying that boulder, but that doesn’t mean anything about her spellwork! Pulling herself onto all fours with Gaze’s wing for help, Twisted brushes off some dust in a display of unconcern. “If you doubt me…” Repeat instantly takes note of Twisted’s posturing. “-then what do you want to bet?”

An evil grin spreads up from Twisted’s fangs, but Repeat continues to look her in the eyes, confident. “Very well. If you can flatten this tunnel’s floor in… ten seconds or less, I won’t entertain the thought of telling your supervisors of your negligence,” Twisted poses, believing she’s set an impossible standard.

Repeat, however, doesn’t lose face; instead, she clicks her elytra and waves her head around in the manner of a bull showing off its horns, crowing, “You’re on!” Firing up her horn, Repeat’s magic sets the entire cave alight as if a fluorescent paint had been spilled down the entire tunnel. Instantly, Twisted begins to count in her head, but a rumbling as Repeat’s spell begins to work sends her nearly tumbling to the ground again, and in her panic to jump and hover, Twisted loses her count. Not that such matters, for only a few seconds later does the rumbling stop and Repeat Design’s magic fade away, unveiling a flawlessly smooth floor, with the streaks of vomit gone for good measure. At the sight, Twisted drops to the ground just as her jaw drops open, and she only reawakens when Repeat next speaks.

“So? How did I do? How many seconds?” Repeat asks, buzzing her wings, eager to know for sure how quickly she had finished.

Shaking her head to regain herself, Twisted admits hesitantly, “I… don’t know. I got distracted when the rumbling from the spell started, and lost my count.”

Obviously fighting back a smirk of amusement, Repeat turns to the chuckling Gaze. “What about you, little guy? Did you keep count?”

Gaze makes a “ha-rumph” sound at the term “little guy”, and seriously considers lying and saying that Repeat had taken longer than ten seconds, but his next thought is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for the worker potentially losing her job from losing Twisted’s bet (which she had, in fact, won, but noling knows that), so he admits in turn, “I wasn’t keeping track; I thought Twisted would be able to keep track.”

Groaning from frustration, Repeat slaps a foretarsus to her forehead.

“Just forget about it,” Repeat and Twisted say at the same time, making the former giggle, which prompts Twisted to follow hesitantly before saying, “You’re work was… definitely quick enough. -and quality, too!” she adds, gesturing vaguely to the floor.

“Hey, thanks!” Repeat surprises the Buzzingtonian with a friendly slap to the back of her neck, which presses her fin so it remains slightly crooked even when the other pulls her leg back to herself. “Well, if that’s all, I’m gon’na get back to training!” The Cavekeeper give a salute before returning to her boulder, lifting it with only little apparent strain.

“Training for-?” Twisted begins to ask, but already the worker has zoomed away beyond hearing, and soon beyond sight. Huffing, then shrugging, Twisted turns back to town, not noticing the big, knowing smile at the corners of Gaze’s beak.

“Cave widening: check!” He announces happily. Making a friend: … maybe-check.

- - - -

“Next up: checking on the preparations for The Exodus play,” Twisted rereads from the list, looking up at the expanse of open cave before them. “Usually it’s held in the biggest open space a town has, and this is the only place big enough, period, so…” Looking back and forth, Twisted eventually points towards what looks like a hastily erected, temporary building. “That looks promising,” she notes, leading the way.

Indeed, as the two come up to the building, they hear a worker’s sudden shout. “No no no! Tsep, how many times am I going to have to tell you? The helmet is not supposed to be that far forward on the forehead!”

“How many times have I told you that I’m not that skilled at transformation! I can’t change the shape of my forehead that much! Why can’t I switch roles with someling else?!” returns a drone’s voice

“There’s no time!” the worker shoots back. “Noling could learn your lines and the choreography of the battle scene in less than a day! You’re just go-!”

“Maybe you should’ve considered that before, on the very first day, when I told you I was having trouble transforming into this form you gave me!” Now having arrived at the door, the worker and cockatrice look at each other, each frowning with uncertainty about whether they should knock and interrupt, or not and wait.

“Well, I-!… Excuse me for having a little faith that you could learn!”

A ringing silence takes over, and just as Twisted lifts her foretarsus to knock, Tsep speaks again, his voice much more soft now. “I’m sorry, Forgery. I guess- No, I didn’t apply myself as much as I could have. I’m sorry my poor work will reflect badly on you.” A long sigh from Tsep follows his apology.

Forgery answers with her own sigh. “It’s alright, dear. I’m sure you’ve learned your lesson, and we’re not out of options yet!” Her last statement is declared with fierce determination. “It is a bit extreme, though. As a Changemaker, I must have the skill to work on another’s transformation inside their own magic. It is quite invasive, however, and-”

“I’ll do it!” Tsep cries out with relief and determination. “I mean: I’ll let you do it…” he corrects with a short, embarrassed buzz accompanying a similar chuckle.

This is too much for Twisted—excited by the idea of witnessing a Changemaker perform this rare and powerful spell, she cannot stop herself from forgoing knocking and simply opening the door to enter without invitation (although technically, as she’s doing work for the Queen, she is free to enter any place related to her task, it is still rude). When her mind catches up to her body, she’s quick to apologize, slipping into a corner, head lowered; Gaze slinks in after her, rolling his eyes behind his cloth. “Er, sorry! Just… go ahead. I can speak with whoever’s in charge after.”

“That would be me.” Forgery puts a tarsus to her chest in a proud pose for only a moment. “We can speak as soon as I finish helping Tsep with his transformation.” She says, gesturing to the drone beside her currently transformed into a pegasus and wearing a non-functional replication of what the pegasi had worn in battle millennia ago; on the other side of the room, a swarm of Changelings, some transformed into caricatures of various ponies, some not, stand or sit patiently with curious stares at the Buzzingtonians.

Twisted, not entirely trusting her voice, only nods eagerly for her to go ahead; Forgery raises a brow at Twisted’s excited grin, but easily and quickly shrugs it off and turns back to Tsep. Removing the drone’s helmet, she sets her horn on his forehead, just where the base of his horn would be if he hadn’t been transformed at the moment, and sets her horn alight, preparing her magic—even at this development, characteristic of all spellcasting, Twisted can’t keep an excited whine from escaping her throat.

Soon, Tsep exclaims, “Oh! Woah-!” but is careful not to move. Upon his second cry of surprise, a burst of green fire flashes over his body, not rising up from the floor, as is usual of Changeling transformation, but from the point where Forgery’s horn touches Tsep. Wow! That looked just like the book said it would, but seeing in the first-person? Wow! At first, nothing appears to have happened, but when Tsep replaces the helm on his head, his muzzle lights up with a smile. “Ah! It fits! Thank you! Thank you, Forgery! You’re amazing, truly!”

“It was nothing, really, but thank you.” She also begins to smile when he gives her a swift hug before stepping back into the mass of actors and actresses. “Alright, everyling! Break time!” She announces to the swarm, stepping aside for the rush for the only door; they are not left completely alone, however, as a few, including Tsep, choose to remain and socialize inside. Stepping up to the corner where Twisted and Gaze had retreated, she asks, “Care to tell me why our last-minute rehearsals are being interrupted?”

Twisted’s painful smile slides down slightly at the less-than-kindly phrased question, and she easily decides to open with a compliment. “That was an amazing spell! The execution was flawless! -and trust me, I should know, studying Spellworking under the Queen herself.” Similarly, she easily decides that throwing a little of her own weight around couldn’t hurt, if not lubricate this encounter.

“Oh? I wouldn’t say ‘flawless’, but thank you. Anyway… you study under the Queen, you say? Please forgive me if my skepticism is misplaced, but I was not aware of Queen Chrysalis having any students…” Forgery trails off, prompting Twisted for an explanation.

“I-” Out of the corner of her eye, Twisted notes Tsep glancing curiously out of the corner of his own, making her pause, but she easily shrugs it off. “I have proof right here.” Twisted opens her elytra and presents the letter to Forgery for her perusal. Only after the Changemaker’s quickly stifles her laughter does Twisted remember how personal the beginning of the letter is, but she calms her twitching wings with the idea that such close language could only cement the idea of her being close to Queen Chrysalis.

“I, ah… believe that settles that,” Forgery says, fighting a too-wide smile as she returns the letter. “So, you’re here to check up on the play?” These words certainly bring her down. “I’m sorry you had to see… such an embarrassing display just then. I assure you that, beyond that little problem, we are ready.” Now Forgery grins more unsteadily, wondering if she’ll be believed.

Tsep comes to the rescue. “Oh, yes! Terribly, terribly sorry about that. It… seems I made you look bad, anyway, Forgery…” He sighs resignedly, lowering his head and kicking morosely at the floor. “-but besides that, I do know my lines and choreography, along with everyling else!” He suddenly recalls, through his personal sorrows, why he had injected himself into the conversation to begin with.

“M-hm,” Twisted hums thoughtfully, with only the barest ting of doubtfulness in Tsep’s claim. “While I would prefer to see at least part of one scene to make sure, I’m in rather of a hurry.”

At this, Forgery’s face screws up with confusion. “-but there’s only one more item on that list,” She reminds, waving a tarsus toward Twisted’s elytra. “Besides the direction to make-”

“I know,” Twisted growls through her teeth, her interruption making Tsep glance around at everyling (even the drones and workers behind him), confused and hoping for some explanation. “There are other things I need to do, though. Such important things that the Queen wouldn’t dare put it down in a letter where someling else could read it,” she asserts without technically lying.

“Oh… Well, very well, then. I hope you have the time to come to our performance, though! The Queen’s visit has gotten everyling so excited, we’re doing ten times better than any year I’ve ever seen!” Forgery gushes excitedly, buzzing her wings, and Tsep buzzes along with her in agreement.

“I’ll… try,” Twisted answers not very convincingly, turning to leave, but before she can take one step, Forgery gasps in horror and shoot out a foreleg to stop her; her and Tsep’s wings freeze instantly.

“Oh, my! What happened here?!” Forgery whimpers sympathetically, pointing but not daring to touch the dents and scrapes in Twisted’s chitin.

“Oh. That.” Twisted grumbles. “While checking on the cave expansions, I was pounced on by a flying boulder being carried by-… What was her name again? All I’m coming up with is ‘R.D.’ for some reas-”

“Repeat Design?” Tsep offers.

“Yes, her.” Twisted nods in thanks, but is put off when the next thing she knows, Tsep and Forgery are rolling their eyes while the corners of their mouths twitch in a knowing way. Wishing to only forget this and go on her way already, Twisted opts not to ask and merely turns away yet again to head for the door.

“Wait!” Forgery’s foreleg shoots out again in turn. “I may not be able to fix that, but with my Changemaker’s skills, I can still help.” Hitting the right button in one go, Twisted perks up instantly, curious about how the spell feels when one is being transformed.

“Uh, sure!” Twisted tries to keep her composure, but if she can judge by Forgery’s smile, she’s at least not fooling her. “I just hold still, right?” She asks as Forgery steps into position, and the Changemaker nods before closing her eyes in concentration and touching her horn to the base of Twisted’s.

Soon, a completely foreign presence makes itself known, wrapping around her horn like a snake; as soon as it covers her horn completely, her sense of her own magic becomes strange, both muffled and enhanced at the same time, similar to hearing one’s own voice while one’s ears are covered. Unexpectedly, the presence squeezes, cause a bit of her magic to spray out, yet invisible, which Forgery takes hold of and uses to ignite Twisted’s transformation ability.

As soon as the presence leaves her horn, Twisted turns back to look at her injury, but jumps upon finding it completely covered by her elytra, which has been increased to a ridiculous size. “Ta-da!” Forgery presents dramatically. “I’ve heard that the elongated elytra fashion is making a comeback—you’ll be on the cutting edge! … Erm, at least after your new chitin blackens after you shed that injury.”

Trying to open her elytra, Twisted quickly finds out that their increased size comes with a similarly increased weight. Curtly, she thanks Forgery, “… Thank you,” before leaving as swiftly as her new elytra allows.

“Hope to see you soon!” Forgery calls from the door.

“Yeah! I, uhm… hope you give me a chance to prove myself!” Tsep calls after.

“Alright, everyling, let’s get back to work!” Forgery calls, and soon the rush back inside leaves Twisted and Gaze alone in the field.

Green fire lights up Twisted’s frame, restoring her elytra to normal so she can retrieve the letter underneath. “The Exodus: check.” She marks the page with a little magically created ink. Catching Gaze’s confused tilt of the head and his glance to her elytra, she cuts off his impending question. “Well, I didn’t want to just undo her hard work right in front of her! I may be a ‘bookhippo’, but I’m not a social paraplegic!”

Chuckling, Gaze points out, “Only you would call it ‘being a social paraplegic’, Twis,” to which Twisted merely rolls her eyes, slightly amused.

- - - -

“Well… this is not a little creepy,” Gaze murmurs, glancing back at the winding tunnel from which they had emerged. “I really thought that worker was playing some kind of weird and-slash-or mean trick when she told us to enter the cave leading to the Petualoose Mines and take the first right fork.” Facing forward again, he takes in the house that seems impossibly built, for it has absolutely no visible wax supporting the stone walls, but not only this is odd, for the construction does not appear to have even a proper roof.

“I told you there’s absolutely no reason to worry about the Petualoose Mines, so if anything, I’m sure the Ponytender will be the most rational and normal Changeling we’ve yet met in this crazy town.” Confidently, Twisted marches up to the-… “Erm… Where’s the door?” she asks herself as she makes her way around the hexagonal home, finding not even a single window.

“Uhm, there… is no door,” comes a worker’s voice so quiet that Twisted would have thought it the voice of her own mind if it hadn’t such an obviously different timbre and a hesitance that certainly doesn’t characterize herself. Taking a moment to calculate the direction of the voice, Twisted looks up to see a pair of Changeling eyes peeking over the edge of the wall; upon making eye contact, the other flinches, pulling back so that only her horn and the tiniest sliver of her eyes can be seen.

“Oooo-kay,” Twisted bites her lips from annoyance, and is careful not to look down at Gaze where he is surely giving her a “‘not crazy,’ huh?”-look (which, indeed, he is). “Why not?” she asks the obvious.

“To… discourage anyling from… talking to me,” The worker continues in an even more quiet, and now muffled, voice; Twisted silently thanks her Changeling antennae*(8) for being so sensitive—if she had been anything else (say, just for instance, a pony (probably a unicorn)), she likely would not have been able to hear the worker.

Sighing, the aggravation of the day starting to wear at the last of her patience, Twisted gets to business, wishing to simply get out and get to the library already. “Well, I’m sorry to bother you from…” she pauses, inviting the worker to fill in the blank, but she doesn’t, even after an entire minute of waiting. “… Well, whatever. I only need you to show me the ponies you’re tending, and your stores of love. We’ve been sent by the Queen to make sure everything is ready for the Carnival.”

“Oh… okay,” the worker barely whispers before creeping up and over the wall, opting to climb down the wall rather than fly. “Th-this way.” She points down yet another cave before heading off through it, but very slowly, crouched, and to the side, as if expecting Twisted (who obviously doesn’t know the way) to take the lead.

“So, what’s your name?” Gaze asks conversationally as he hops onto Twisted’s back, off of which he is instantly flipped by Twisted flicking open her elytra—she had told him countless times she’s no workpony and how it hurt to have him sit up there for even just a short amount of time, but the habit he had started in his chickhood remains (when he was light enough that he barely registered), though he no longer gets upset with Twisted for all the bruises he’s earned.

“Pho-… Photoshape,” the Ponytender whispers just as they arrive at the chamber inside of which she conducts her tending. The ceiling is high, but from long artificial stalactites hang about two dozen translucent green cocoons that almost touch the floor, inside of which are ponies, all suspended in permanently liquid Changeling wax (infused with the nutrients their bodies need) with their tail-ends up and in magically induced sleeps; the overall effect in the room is not too unlike that of an inverted forest.

Stepping up to the closest cocoon, which contains a unicorn mare of some description (the green of the wax prevents her colors from being distinguished easily), Twisted taps the plastic-like shell, sending ripples that causes the pony to begin to move ever so slowly—tumbling as if in slow motion into the opposite side of the cocoon, which bounces her back again; She doesn’t even twitch, and the wide smile on her muzzle doesn’t slip in the slightest. Tapping harder, then even harder again produces the same results: nothing. “Your sleep-inducing spell seems to be very stable…” Twisted comments as she does the same to a random selection of other cocoons. “Now, let’s see your dream spells.”

Touching the first cocoon she had tapped with the rounded front of her horn, Twisted slips easily into the very first spell Changelings learn: dream feeding. With only a blink, Twisted finds herself standing at the bottom of a grassy slope; even though she can rationalize it’s not real, Twisted still sticks her tongue out in disgust at the sensation of the rippling grass tickling her legs. The surface… Why do ponies like the surface world so much? What could they possibly see in it?

Looking up at the top of the hill, Twisted notes the topic of this dream. A romantic picnic: standard, easy… boring, though I probably shouldn’t count that against her, since I’m sure her workload has been multiplied many times over to make sure there’s enough to love to go around during the Carnival.

Deciding to take a little snack, Twisted climbs the hill, imposing her will on the dream, an ability courtesy of her Changeling powers, so that her swift replacement of the Earth pony mare will appear seamless to the unicorn dreamer. Nothing of note happens, and after about three minutes, Twisted deactivates her dream feeding spell.

Immediately after Twisted pulls her horn away, her previous thoughts on Photoshape’s work is confirmed by the Ponytender herself. “I’m sorry if the dream isn’t very good. I usually have a lot of time to give each pony and make their dreams extra special.” Here she pauses and smiles in a way Twisted had never seen before on a Ponytender’s face when talking about their work, so it takes some time for her to recognize it for what it is: motherly. “-but last week the number of ponies I have to tend nearly tripled, so I don’t get to spend as much time on dream design as I’d like… Sorry.” Photoshape lowers her head further, nearly touching the ground with her chin and not daring to look into Twisted’s eyes.

“It’s fine,” Twisted assures in a monotone—official-sounding; it doesn’t comfort Photoshape. “Really. I’m sure noling is going to notice, especially since they’ll all be busy having fun with actual Carnival activities.” Still Photoshape does not move from her submissive position, but she does whimper. That’s something, at least… “Just… show me your stores, and then we’ll be done here, and you can get back to… dream designing or whatever.”

“O-…-kay.” Photoshape raises herself up to her previous, neck-forming-a-line-with-her-back posture so that she’ll be able to walk, then leads them towards an alcove in the opposite side of the cavern. After an immediate, tight turn to the left and another turn to the right, they come into a room about the size and shape of a walk-in closet, with the walls almost completely hidden by stacks of barrels.

Freezing at the entrance upon seeing this, Twisted’s jaw hangs slack as Photoshape crawls a few paces into the room before realizing the other had stopped. Her turning back around and tilting her head curiously kickstarts Twisted’s brain. “Are all of these full of… concentrated love?” she asks dubiously, tapping one of the barrels closest to her, producing a low, liquid dthummm.

“Oh? Yes. At least I think so. I mean, I think they should be.” Wondering, she in turn taps a few of barrels in the back of the room, and all produce the very same sound, causing Twisted to lose control of her facial muscles once again.

That- This is- “And all of this,” she gestures to the barrels around them, “came from less than a third of the ponies that we just saw out there?” she asks, now gesturing behind herself towards the room containing the cocooned ponies.

“Not… all of it. A little came from the new ponies, since I had to change out their wax yesterday.” Photoshape nods at this, but Twisted is shaking her head.

“Wait. Wait wait wait. Are you sure? I’ve read that ponies need their wax changed, on average, only once a month, and you’ve only had those ponies for a week!”

“Oh, yes, that was in my training, but it’s the levels of love in the wax that determines when a pony’s wax needs to be collected and changed, and all the ponies I’ve taken care of usually need it about every nine days…” turning to look at the ground, she trails off and kicks at a pebble. “It was very puzzling at first, but I’ve just accepted it and decided that I must just be very unlucky, because-…” Her last few words become constricted by a quickly tightening throat, and Twisted takes a step back in shock upon seeing a few tears splash onto the rock from her hidden face, which she suddenly reveals, looking up and cry, “-because I’m not that bad of a Ponytender, am I, Miss Hiveinspector?”

“Wha-?!” I can’t handle this right now! Biting her lip as if such could help her think more quickly, Twisted settles on the first idea that ignored Photoshape’s distress. “You have it all wrong: I’m not a Hiveinspector! I just… I’m a Spellworker that the Queen has sent to make sure that everything is going to be ready for the Carnival! Really, this is no inspection, just a… uhm… inventory check!” Twisted declares with sudden inspiration, “-and this is definitely enough!” Watching with a nervous smile as Photoshape’s tears begin to dry and her breathing returns to normal, Twisted eventually announces. “Well… I have other things I need to get to, so… I believe we’re done here. Gaze?”

Slipping his wing under Twisted’s right elytrum, making her shiver from the invasive sensation, he pulls out the scroll and marks the last checkbox. “Love stores: check.” Gaze looks up from the paper at Photoshape uncertainly as Twisted makes a quick leave, wondering if he might do anything. She had gone pretty bad for a minute there, but now… A quick hug before jogging after Twisted couldn’t hurt.

It certainly doesn’t.

- - - -

Finally! The library.” Twisted lets out a great huff as if she had been running miles to reach this place. “Now we can get to our real mission.”

“-but Twis, your real mission is to make friends…” Gaze tries to insist, but his tone gives away his defeat.

“Gaze, how many times do I have to tell you? Poor Queen Chrysalis is obviously suffering from stress; she doesn’t know what’s best!” She fights back, herself just as strongly convicted as the first time Gaze had tried to get her to follow that final order. “Right now, I am not here to make friends!” She says as she pushes the door open into a pitch black room. “What happened to the li-”

Suddenly the wax bulbs light up, revealing a room so packed with Changelings, many are forced to stand on the walls and ceiling. “Surprise!” They cry simultaneously, making Twisted jump back, narrowly missing slamming Gaze with her buttocks.

“Gwah?!” She cries in response. As she stands, processing, Gaze squeezes past her and grins at the assembly, all too happy that, just as he had lost hope, someling arranged this so Twisted would be all but forced to befriend at least one Changeling before the end of the day.

Before Twisted can recover, a worker extracts herself from the throng and zooms up, asking excitedly, “What was that you were just saying about making friends? Wait! Let me guess!” She pulls back, sitting down and pushing her forelegs out as if to physically stop something from passing her by, then she looks down at the floor, striking an exaggerated “Thinker” pose for a moment. Just as Twisted considers interrupting, the worker springs back onto all fours. “It must have been something like, ‘I’m new to Fangville so I don’t know anyling here! I wish there was an easier way to make friends,’ right? Right? Am I right?” She asks, bouncing, before answering herself with a cheerful, dismissive wave. “Of course I’m right, and that’s why I’m here!”

Before Twisted can figure out how to respond to this, Gaze raises his wing in a pose of epiphany. “Hey, you’re that first worker we met just after we had arrived in Fangville!” Twisted frowns slightly at Gaze’s words—she would hardly call what had happened as “meeting” this worker. “The one that gasped and flew off when Twisted tried to introduce herself!” Gaze goes on, snickering.

“Yeppie-deppie!” The worker unnecessarily confirms, continuing her bouncing for a moment before turning serious on a dime. “I saw you two arriving, and since I know everyling in Fangville, I knew you two were new to Fangville, since I don’t know you and I know everyling in Fangville! Then when you tried talking to me, I realized that since you were new, you must not have any friends in Fangville, so I decided to throw this party to make it easier for you make friends so you would stopping being lonely faster!” With that said, the worker returns to her cheerful demeanor, bouncing idly.

Once again needing to pause to sort through the rapidfire thoughts, Twisted eventually asks, “How… did you know we were staying at the library?”

“I asked those drones that took you here in that carriage! That’s why I had to fly off: to catch them!”

“Huh…” is all Twisted has to say about this; for some reason she had had the impression that the answer should have been more incomprehensible. “Why didn’t you just ask me instead of leaving me in the dust like that?”

“Easy-peasy, silly: because then this party wouldn’t have been a surprise party!” The worker answers, throwing out her forelegs to indicate the party at large. “Oo! Silly me, how could I have forgotten! My name’s Picture Perfect, and I welcome every new-ling to Fangville!”

“Wait.” Twisted hold up a leg, and Picture freezes mid bounce at the “order”. There’s only one job I can think of… “Swar-… Miss Swarmincorporator?!” As Picture thaws to nod and continue on, Twisted freezes in turn. There’s no way Chrysalis knows about this. The most insane of all Changelings in Fangville holding such an important position is just-… I don’t want to think about it! “Well… erk… Thank you, Swarmincorporator, but I’m not staying.”

“You can just call me Piccy! Everyling does, even though I’m not picky, but they’re not calling me ‘picky’, they’re calling me ‘Piccy’! Oh! Anyway, are you sure you’re not staying?” Piccy stops bouncing to stare as closely into Twisted’s eyes as possible without their noses touching.

Trying to pull back, but only finding the crazy worker following her, Twisted answers, “What… do you mean? I’m only here for the Carnival.”

Sitting back into the “Thinker” pose, Piccy asks herself, “What do I mean? Ummmm… I’m not sure!” Piccy answers, unconcerned; Twisted slaps a foretarsus to her forehead in frustration. Piccy then whips out a tray from behind her back. On it is an arrangement of mushroom-like things that Twisted assumes are some kind of pony food. “Here! Try one of these!”

Twisted sniffs the closest one before asking, “What are… ‘these’, and why do you have them? -and why should I… try one?” Twisted sticks out her tongue, faintly disgusted. “I’m not a pony.” She easily drops the “why throw me a party” line of questioning.

“They’re called ‘cupcakes’! I found ’em in a pony book called a ‘cookbook’. It took a long time to figure out what ‘baking’ and ‘wheat’ and some other things are, then to figure out what a ‘stove’ is, then to get a stove, then to finally learn how to work it, but everything would have been worth it even for only one cupcake! Try one!” she insists, pushing the tray closer to Twisted. “These ones are made with some love-infused wax I got from Photo, and some grain P.H. grew for me!”

Scrutinizing the “cupcakes”, Twisted watches with interest as one is taken in someling’s magic and levitated up to the ceiling, where a worker with crossed eyes munches happily, not minding the crumbs she’s dropping on everyling below her—not that such actually matters, as the crumbs easily slide off of their chitin, as it wouldn’t have if they were, for example, ponies, and had manes and fur. Shrugging, Twisted takes one and bites into it.

Then, the world goes white, and her hearing all but disappears, leaving only the sound of her heart’s beating. Slowly, everything comes back into focus, first a widely grinning Piccy, then a worried Gaze waving his wing, trying to get Twisted’s attention, then the rest of the room. “This… is-… This is-” impossible to describe! Noting Piccy eagerly awaiting an answer, Twisted opts to simply devour the rest of the cupcake. That should suffice!

Indeed, it seems to, as the Swarmincorporator cheers, jumping into the air and throwing her foretarsi out wildly, which prompts the entire swarm—even those further in the room, not knowing what had happened—to cheer in a wave. Well, she definitely is accepted by everyling as Fangville’s Swarmincorporator. Twisted mentally shrugs off her earlier conviction to report this potential issue to Queen Chrysalis. After all, how long has Fangville been here with Swarmincorporator Picture Perfect without complaint from the swarm itself? “Thank you for that, uhm, cupcake, Swarmincorp- I mean, Piccy, but I really have to- What are you doing?” Twisted interrupts herself to ask with more than a little concern upon noticing Piccy pouring what appears to be some kind of brownish-red sap out of a bottle labeled with a flame onto one of the cupcakes—the flame looking like some kind of warning of danger.

Completely unconcernedly (causing Twisted to yelp with alarm), Piccy stuffs the entire cupcake into her mouth, only responding after swallowing. “It’s called ‘hot sause’; ponies use it to make things spicy! Wan’na try one?” she asks, dousing another cupcake and proffering it on the flat of a foretarsus.

“Spicy? You mean… like… salt?” Twisted asks as she scrutinizes this new confection, referring to the only pony food “spice” that she knows of; a cursory sniff would have revealed this is very much not “like salt” at all, if Twisted had known what salt smells like. Still, a strange whisper in the back of her mind tells her to pull away, which she does while shaking her head. “Maybe another time… Piccy, but right now I want everyling out of here; I still have work to do, and I want to get at least some sleep in case-! Erk!” I can’t just say it! “Uh… -in case something unexpected… happens.”

“Aw…” Piccy lowers her head and her antennae*(8) droop. “-but everyling is already here, not just to welcome you, but for the pre-Carnival party, too!” Piccy informs, referring to the tradition of staying up on the night before the Change Carnival, though usually by throwing small, family-only parties.

“The… pre-Carnval party? Is it that late?!” Twisted flies up and whips her head around frantically, but through the swarm, she can’t see even any evidence of any clock.

“Depends on what you mean by ‘late’!” answers a drone standing on the ceiling with the cross-eyed worker, “The Sun was set one hour, three minutes, forty-nine seconds ago!”

“Wha-?! Oh…” Twisted sighs as she hovers back down to the floor before Piccy, still in that same hunched down, ashamed position. “Alright… I guess you can stay-”

“HOORAY!” Piccy instantly perks up, once again prompting the entire room to cheer with her.

“-butI am going to get some sleep, so I want quiet, okay?” Twisted clicks her elytra to indicate she won’t take no as an answer.

“Okay,” Piccy whispers so softly Twisted only barely can hear it over the general din of the party. “Everyling!” she sudden calls out, achieving quiet attention instantly, “Twisted Spare wants to sleep, so everyling party quietly! Okay! That’s all!” The swarm returns to its merry-making, but with much less noise.

Wow… Twisted can’t help but be a little impressed, but a few minutes later she finds she can’t help but toss and turn in her bed. Despite the lessened decibels, the occasional laughs and thumps interrupt her attempts to fall asleep, and in between times, thoughts of Queen Husk’s return keep her from getting comfortable again easily.

Eventually, the sound of approaching steps, marked unique and familiar by claws, pulls Twisted out of what she knows is her last attempt at falling asleep. Sure enough, a wing is placed against her back and gently rocks her. “Twis… Twis, wake up, Queen Chrysalis is getting ready to announce the beginning of the Carnival!”

- - - -

Congregating before the town hall, the enlarged swarm of Fangville shuffles in wait on the ground, on the ceiling, and hovering. Then, the fanfare which prompts the last round of cheers of the day as Queen Chrysalis steps grandly, slowly from behind a curtain.

Waving for quiet, she only speaks when the last elytra is stilled. “Swarm of Fangville! I am-” Suddenly stumbling back, she brings a tarsus up to her thorax, swallowing before trying to continue, her voice much less powerful. “I… am-”

As most begin to murmur in confused worry, splitting apart to let a few of the Proxy family, including Proxyhack, to rush forward to aid their Queen, Twisted brings a tarsus up to her mouth, capable of doing nothing more than whisper a horrified, “Oh, no,” to herself. “Wait.” Her eyes widen as she takes in what’s happening. “Wait! Proxyhack, stop! Everyling get away!” For not even a second does the swarm turn to look at her with even more confusion than before, for in the next second, a chuckle can be heard coming from Queen Chrysalis.

“I… am… YOUR NEW QUEEN!” Chrysalis- rather, Chrysalis’s body, stands straight and firm again. A heart-shaped ring of green fire lights up on her thorax, prompting everyling to back up, gasping in shock as a black something begins to emerge from inside the heart. A sudden column of green fire engulfing Chrysalis’s entire body prompts them to back up even further, but still none yet flee.

When the fire dies, it leaves in its place a Queen, but a Queen that is not Chrysalis. Her fins have gone from long, straight, and seaweed-blue to shorter, wavy, and autumn-yellow. Her eyes and elytra are no longer green-to-blue, but brown-to-orange. These eyes lidded, she looks over the congregation as they stare back, tensed. “What?” She stomps, causing a deep, powerful rumble through the cave housing Fangville. “Do you not know who I am? Has my dear, loving sister stricken me from history!? Does noling know me?!”

Shivering, Twisted forces herself forward. “I do!” The swarm turns to her, creating a path to the stage on which Husk stands; Twisted is only able to make herself speak again once she stands between the Queen and the swarm. “I know who you are… Queen Husk!”

At the name, all muttering stops, then, without warning, everyling begins to scream, scrambling for some kind of safety from this mad Queen they had, just minutes ago, believed only to exist in fairytales. At this, Queen Husk throws her head back, laughing.

“You can hide, my soon-to-be hive! You can flee to the ends of Earth, but I will find you, and you all will help me destroy the Goddesses, whether you do so of your own accord or not!”

Author's Notes:

* Some credit for this mythology goes to TheRedBrony and notMurphy for a discussion on headcanon we had that helped me make this backstory much better than it would have been.

** As a parallel to “mares” and “stallions”, Changelings call themselves “workers” and “drones” based on sex. Though this has roots in the classification of eusocial insects, when referring to Changelings these words designate sex and only sex—that means “not implying or referring to reproductive ability or role, nor position or function in the hive”. The use of “-ling” is also a parallel to “-pony”, and can (just like the latter) refer to non-Changelings.

*** As research has proven unsuccessful in finding a more technical, specific term for “insect wing”, I decided to take the initiative, using an order of insects, hymenoptera, literally meaning “membrane wings”, and turning it into a term for such wings. One might note the similarity to the term “helicopter blades”, which also ends with “-pter” by no coincidence.

*(4) Changelings tell each other apart by the distinct set of holes each has in their legs (just as in “Love Mine” and “For Mother”).

*(5) “Under one’s wings” is the Changeling analogue to “on one’s shoulders/back”, originating from a method Changelings use to carry messages: under their elytra (a term referring to the hardened forewings of beetles and similar insects, but here refer to Changeling hard hindwings). Transforming into a pony, even a pegasus, while doing this effectively traps the paper inside the Changeling’s body with no means of detection or removal. Similarly reasoned, “under wing” is an analogue to “in hand/hoof”.

*(6) After the Fires of Friendship

*(7) The tarsus (pl. tarsi) is the final segment of an Arthropoda leg, and here refers to the end of a Changeling leg the same way “hoof” refers to the end of a pony leg. Note that, similar to “worker” and “drone”, these words have been amended for Changeling use, and do not actually mean anything about the form of a Changeling leg, which is, indeed, much like a pony leg.

*(8) Once again, simply a borrowing that refers to Changeling ears, which function like ears, but are shaped like—and referred to as—antennae.


The Petualoose Mines were named parallel to the Everfree Forest: “forever” plus “free” into “perpetual” plus “loose”.

Originally, Tsep was just a placeholder name, but I became too fond of it.

The term “bookhippo” is used because I didn’t really think Changelings would use a term that refers to an invertebrate and is used mostly to insult, but would go the opposite route. Bonus that “Hippopotamus” contains the Greek root for “horse”, even though the hippo is not Equus or even Equidae (though I suppose in the Equestria Universe it is possible that they are related based on this name alone, because… it’s Equestria, otherwise known by the Greek as “Hippostria”).

The cover is to convey the parallelism of the story only; it is not mean to be an accurate depiction of Twisted & co. They look exactly like all the other Changelings looked like during the attack on Canterlot.

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