Destination Unknown

by Pale Horse

Chapter 1: Destination Unknown

Ponies are food.

She ignored the whisper, as she was accustomed to doing, and instead chose to focus her attention outside the window. It was snowing.

She had never ridden on a train before. She'd never done a lot of things. Couldn't find the time, it seemed. Under better circumstances, it might have been exciting, a new experience to be shared with her Beloved.

But circumstances were not better. She was running again. No more time. Never enough time.

She watched the snow-covered telephone lines whip past their car as it moved. She wondered how far north they'd come. They must be up in Caneighda by now, probably somewhere near Neighagra Falls. She'd heard that Caneighdians were nice, and although she'd never met any, she didn't doubt it in the least; they were ponies, after all. Caneighda was supposed to be cold, though, especially in the winter.

She shivered where she sat, despite the coat she wore. She didn't like the cold.

Most changelings didn't.

Ponies are food.

She believed that, once. That was a long time ago, back when she'd first been sent out on her own. Before she arrived in Canterlot. Before she found music.

Before she found her.

She didn't remember much about those days. To be honest, she didn't really like to think about them. There was no nostalgia, no longing for childhood, no assortment of amusing anecdotes to be shared with polite company. Most of her recollections of her time alone blurred together into a nondescript mass, vague and undefined. The only memories that she could clearly recall were of running, being cold, and being hungry.

Oh, yes. More than anything else, she definitely remembered being hungry.

The sensation gnawed at her as surely as if she had a hole in her stomach. She would have eaten rocks if it would make the feeling go away. Maybe she had; she couldn't be certain if the belly full of dirt was only her ravenous imagination, or another hazy memory, half-forgotten.

It was no wonder, really. All of her attempts at hunting had failed. She didn't know what to look for, what lures to craft, what disguises to take. Everything had only ended in more running. By the time she found her way to Canterlot, she was exhausted, starving, and possibly delirious.

Delirium, at least, would have explained her first attempt at camouflage. If nothing else, she could be proud that she'd had the presence of mind to avoid disguising herself as an alicorn. The choice of a unicorn over pegasus or earth pony had been largely a practical matter—she didn't want to have to avoid using her magic, and in her weakened state, she wasn't certain she'd be able to fly straight, anyway—but the rest was purely arbitrary, the warped product of hunger and fatigue. A mere hatchling would have been able to make a more convincing effort.

A white coat because she couldn't think of anything better. A blue mane because she enjoyed looking at the sky, which couldn't be seen from within the Hive. Red eyes simply because she liked the color. It never occurred to her that ponies didn't actually have them.

(The glasses she picked up later helped with that; living underground did not endear one's eyes to sunlight.)

She supposed she could change her form now, if she wished. She had long since recovered her strength. Perhaps something less conspicuous. Violet eyes. A darker coat. A mane of... well, any other color. But she found it to be comfortable now, like an old saddle, broken in and well-worn. They said that your first shape always stayed with you. Maybe that was true.

She shook her head. This was not the time to be making radical changes. That could wait until later, once she and her Beloved were safe. Consistency was what they both needed now. It had taken her long enough to get used to the idea of she, after all, but that was still better than it.

If the sheer absurdity of her appearance hadn't given her away, then her lack of a cutie mark should have. To be without one at her apparent age would have been highly unusual. It was a miracle that nopony ever found her out.

Or maybe nopony really cared. Canterlot was that kind of city, the great melting pot of Equestria. Everypony was a freak in their own way. You couldn't throw a stone without hitting somepony who was a colt-cuddler, or liked to dress in clothes, or had a gryphon fetish, or some other damn thing. The guards on the street had no doubt seen stranger things in their time than a red-eyed, blue-haired blank flank stumbling over her own hooves and mumbling to herself. They probably thought she was a drunkard, and let her be.

Drunk. Heh. That didn't happen until later, after she wandered into the nightclub. She was lucky that the bouncer at the door didn't stop her. Evidently, she looked like she belonged there. The ravers certainly thought so; she hadn't been in the building five minutes before she had glow rings around her neck and another mare's lips against her own.

Ponies gave their love away. She was older now, wiser, with a fuller understanding of the world and the creatures in it, but back then, she could scarcely believe it. In the Hive, love was something to be bought, bartered, and bargained for. Love was both currency and commodity, rationed and regulated, given as reward, and withheld as punishment.

In Canterlot, love was free. The very concept was alien to her. It could be found everywhere, from the clubs and public parks to the bedrooms and back alleys, as if the entire city were aglow with it. Every pony she met greeted her with a smile on their face, love oozing from every pore.

Hello, friend, how are you? Is there anything I can help you with today? Oh, I'm just about to get some lunch! Would you like to join me? The cafe on the corner has the finest selection of flowers in the city, and their hay fries are divine...

Every word of every breath an 'I love you' in miniature, from one pony to another. One more week in the wilderness, and she would have died from lack of it. Now she was drowning in it.

Ponies are food.

And so she'd fed. She'd fed like a glutton, fed until she was fit to burst, gorging herself upon the love and generosity foisted upon her by ponykind. She drank in their warmth and affection like sweet wine, drank it until she passed out, drunk on love.

She woke up on the floor of the club in the early hours of the morning, the manager nudging her side like a wary filly prodding an animal's corpse. A few other hungover ponies were staggering to their hooves, and a young colt—who had probably managed to sneak his way in—was busy retching in the corner.

Closin' time, he'd said. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

She'd quickly righted herself, made some clumsy apology, and hurried out into the dawn, silently thanking the Queen that she'd somehow managed to keep her shape. She'd never felt so full. Never felt so alive.

She stayed in Canterlot after that. It was the perfect hunting ground—or mooching ground, in her case—and she saw no need to go anywhere else. It was the capital of Equestria, the pinnacle of pony civilization, with the greatest population, and—logically—the greatest amount of love. She would be able to feed to her heart's content.

But there was more than just the love. There was something else.

As the capital, Canterlot was the heart of Equestrian society and culture. Art, literature, and music all flourished there. Creative souls from across the continent made pilgrimages to the city, immersing themselves in its picturesque scenery and its countless voices, searching for inspiration. Artists went there to paint images of majestic Canterlot Castle, its ramparts shining in the light of the divine sun. Poets went there to pen sonnets to the princess, dreaming of murmuring sweet nothings into a royal ear.

She had gone there to find something to eat. But that night at the club, she had also found music.

She enjoyed dubstep, although she had difficulty explaining why. To those who didn't care for it, it was nothing more than a chaotic, meaningless mess of noise, one sound piled on top of another. A humming, droning buzz that filled the ears, like a thousand overlapping voices filling your head all at once.

It reminded her of home. She knew then that music would be her chosen area of expertise, and crafted a cutie mark to match. It soothed her, a source of comfort for a stranger in a strange land. The other musicians she'd spoken with all described their craft in terms of its flexibility. It gave them freedom, they'd said. Freedom to create, to experiment, to do something that nopony had ever done before.

She had lived a life devoid of freedom, and so she found the concept very appealing.

There was no music in the Hive. Nor was there art, nor literature. There was no creativity, no individuality. Changelings did not sing. They did not dance. They did not write poetry or paint portraits. They most certainly did not sway and grind against each other beneath the black light, moving to an ancient rhythm that they had long forgotten, a primal fire rekindled by the bass, and the beat, burning in their blood, and in their hearts.

But ponies did. Oh, gods, ponies did.

That was how they'd met, after all. Not at a rave—although the mental image of her Beloved wielding a pair of glowsticks brought a smile to her lips—but at the Canterlot Opera House. She'd been exploring the genres then, trying a little of everything, like sampling from a buffet to find out what best suited her palate. Classic rock she liked; new rock she didn't. Rap she loved; country she hated. Pop made her flanks sway, but the blues only depressed her.

As for opera, well... her Beloved liked it, so she supposed it couldn't be all bad.

It was her Beloved who had approached her after the performance. She never did find out why. Simple curiosity, maybe. She must have stood out in the crowd that night, especially among the bunch of stuffed shirts that usually frequented the venue. Electric blue hair and purple sunglasses didn't exactly mesh well with tuxedos and bow ties.

(So much for camouflage.)

Excuse me, the gray mare had said. Unfailingly polite, as always. I haven't seen you around here before.

Do you like opera? I'm a fan of Pavatrotti, although I understand that some ponies prefer Domanego. To each their own, I suppose.

Have you been in Canterlot long?

Oh, really!

Allow me to welcome you, then. It's a fine city. They say there's something for everypony here, and I imagine they're right.

I couldn't help but notice your cutie mark. Do you have a special interest in music?

I play the cello, myself.

What should I call you?

Vinyl Scratch? What an interesting name!

Oh, do forgive me. I'm afraid I've been terribly rude.

My name is...

(Hello, friend, how are you?)

She didn't remember all the details of their courtship... a fact that now, with the clarity of hindsight, she deeply regretted. She was concerned that perhaps stuffing herself swollen with love (like a fat, bloated tick) in the wake of her long famine might have adversely affected her memory. She had never heard of a changeling overdosing on love.

But then, she had never met anypony quite like her Beloved, either.

At the time, she had regarded her Beloved as just another mare. Just another meal. But as the days passed, she came to realize that her Beloved was special. Unique. The cellist radiated kindness, as all ponies did, but she was reserved, even stoic with her emotions, and guarded her heart closely. She could be smiling one moment, then cold and distant the next.

Had her Beloved been hurt? Spurned by a thoughtless suitor, perhaps? She did not know. But she came to view her companion as a challenge to be met, a puzzle to be solved.

Days to weeks.

She recalled the ordinary experiences best, memorable in their mundanity. The days spent trotting through the royal gardens, stealing a forbidden nibble upon Celestia's roses—and, every so often, upon each other—before dashing out, laughing themselves breathless and hoping that the guards had not seen them. The evenings spent in Canterlot's theaters, and art galleries, and music halls, relishing the sights, the sounds, and each other's company. The nights spent late, burning candles until the dawn, discussing the genius of Neightoven, the taste of fresh roses, and whether either of them could actually see the Mare in the Moon.

(Do you think she could hear us, Beloved? Did she ever wonder, as we did? Did she look up through the bars of her celestial prison at the shining marble in her sky and ask, “Is anypony listening?”)

She had never seen the Moon before she left home, nor the stars that were her children. In the Hive, the ground was the sky, and ponies trod upon it. More than once, in her youth—against the fretting protests of her brood mother—she had flown up and touched it.

On a hilltop in Canterlot, with her Beloved at her side, she reached a hoof toward the stars, scarlet eyes wide, and marveled.

Weeks to months.

She couldn't remember their first night together. Couldn't remember bridging the divide between love and lover. That, at least, she could blame on the wine. One too many candles burnt, a little too much music, a lot too much drink. Stumbling toward bed, laughing, joking, falling, touching, nuzzling, allowing instinct to take over. Ancient rhythms, primal fires, moving to the beat, burning in the blood.

She had never made love before. She had only stolen it.

She could, however, clearly remember how she felt afterward, afterglow, laying together in the dark, panting, gasping, ragged breathing and trembling whispers a sweet music all their own.

She felt sick. It was the first time that she ever felt like the parasite she was. A pony had offered her love—real love, real tenderness, a thousand times more potent and more precious than the junk food she had been subsisting upon—and she had choked upon it.

Should a predator feel remorse for its prey? Does the spider romance the fly? Do either of them shed any tears?

She waited until her Beloved's breathing calmed, settled by sleep, and then sat up on the edge of the bed, trying—hoping—not to throw up.

(Could she vomit love, she wondered? If so, what would it look like? Would she make a rainbow?)

Months to years.

“Special somepony.”

It was a term for colts and fillies, used to describe something they could not yet comprehend. She herself had only begun to really understand it, after feasting upon it—or a poor substitute for it—for as long as she could remember. Only recently had she learned what it meant to be truly nourished. To be healthy.

To be loved.

But she'd also learned that love could be tempered by fear. It had been a long, long time since she last knew fear. Before her Beloved, before Canterlot, so long ago that it might as well have been another life. And maybe it was; who could tell? The life she called her own was a mere illusion, a deception of smoke and mirrors fit for a great and powerful stage magician. 'Vinyl Scratch' didn't exist; she never had. She was a fable, a fantasy, a creature of myth no more real than the Headless Horse or human beings.

Ponies loved. Changelings lied. That was the way of things. She lied with every word she spoke, every breath she took.

But she would lie no longer.

Her Beloved had been amused, at first. Surely this was just another game to be played between them, another ruse to lure her between their sheets.

Oooh, a secret? her Beloved had teased. What is it, Vinyl? No, no, wait, don't tell me. You actually hate electronic music, and you've been harboring a hidden love for the violin all this time? Or have you 'lost' your sunglasses in the bedroom again, and need me to help you find them?

She dropped the veil, and her Beloved's laughter died upon her lips.

Not a pony. Never a pony, this big black thing with frayed wings, a crooked horn, fangs, holes, wrong, wrong, all wrong.

Her Beloved's eyes widened.


She silently prayed. Prayed to Celestia, to Luna, to gods whose names she did not know.

Not her too. Please, oh please, anypony else, but not her.


Oh, she had been afraid, so very afraid. If love was sweet and filling, then fear was bitter and poisonous. It made her legs shake where she stood, fighting against the overpowering urge to run, run away before this pony lashed out at her, as had so many before. The screaming would start at any moment, she was sure of it.

Monster! Demon! Abomination! Don't let it get away! Chase it, burn it, kill it kill it KILL IT

The hearts of ponies overflowed with love, but there was still plenty of room within them for fear.

She had taken only a single, cringing step backward before her Beloved rushed forward and embraced her, embraced her so tightly that she had no hope of escaping, even if she wished to.

They spent the night crying in each other's arms. She had never tasted such strong, pure, rich love in her entire life.

But then she realized that for the first time, she wasn't hungry anymore.

Ponies are food.

Not again. Never again.

She looked down at her Beloved. The gray mare leaned against her while she slept, the collar of her jacket rustling quietly as she drew near. The seats in the train car were cramped, with barely enough room for one, and although the chair across from them was vacant, still her Beloved remained close.

She could not complain.

How many years had passed since she first stumbled into Canterlot, a wretched insect dying of thirst? How long had it been since ponies had saved her life? Since her Beloved had saved her soul?

She didn't know. In truth, she didn't care.

She wondered what her Beloved dreamed about. About her, maybe? That was arrogance. But even so, she wondered.

Changelings did not have dreams. At least, she didn't think they did; if she'd ever had one, then like so much else, she could not remember it. She wasn't sure what a bug would dream about, anyway. But then, who was to say that she wasn't dreaming now?

She had found happiness. Found peace. Found somepony who loved and accepted her—the real her. If that wasn't a dream come true, then what was?

And then she woke up, and had to start running again. If only she'd had more time...

No more time. Never enough time.

The aborted attack upon Canterlot had left the Swarm scattered and broken. The invading horde had been scoured from the city after their failed siege. Surely nopony would notice that a single changeling had been left behind.

Nopony except the Queen, of course. Her Highness would undoubtedly be curious as to how one of Her drones had managed to resist being expelled from the city when even She herself could not. Sooner or later, She would come looking for Her wayward offspring... and She would not come alone.

She tipped her head back, lifting her face to the ceiling of the train car, and focused her gaze upon a flickering fluorescent light fixture.

She could still hear them.

Chattering. Chittering. Whispering ceaselessly from somewhere within the dark corners of her mind. Their voices were faint, and often indistinct, like an echo heard within a grand cavern. Commanding, demanding... tempting, the devil on her shoulder to the angel in her arms. She didn't think they knew where she was, but she couldn't be certain. The only thing she was sure of was that they were getting closer—getting louder—with every passing day.

She closed her crimson eyes. She really wished they would shut up. And her Beloved wondered why the music she listened to was always so loud...

Her Beloved had urged her to seek help from the castle, but she would not hear of it. The ponies of Canterlot might have had a great deal of love to give, but after the invasion, they would have little to spare for even a repentant leech. As for Celestia, she had banished her own sister to the Moon over some familial squabble; there was no telling what sort of divine vengeance the princess would exact upon a lovesucking vermin like her.

And so they ran.

She did not know why. Why she had escaped the tidal wave of magic that washed Canterlot clean of infestation. Why she hadn't been sent hurtling over the horizon along with the rest of her brethren. Why she had been able to keep her shape. Why she had been spared.

Why she no longer needed to feed.

But she could always guess.

If her Beloved had taught her anything—and she had taught her many things—it was that ponies did not share their love because they had to.

They loved because they wanted to. Maybe that made all the difference.

It was a lesson that her own kind would do well to learn.

Ponies are food, whispered the voice in her head.

She is not food, she growled in reply. She is mine.

“Mmm?” her Beloved groggily murmured. “What was that, Vinyl?”

She gave a start. She hadn't realized that she had spoken out loud.

“Sorry, Tavi,” she said, slipping an arm around her Beloved's shoulders. “Just talking to myself, like usual.”

“Dull conversation, I'll wager,” her Beloved mused. Her companion nestled closer to her, resting her head upon her shoulder. “Are we there yet?”

She looked out the window again. She could see the icy peaks of the mountains in the distance. “Not yet,” she said. “A few more hours, I think.”


They sat in silence, for a time, watching the trees drift by outside. The train rumbled and rattled upon the tracks, the pulse of the machine thrumming beneath them.

“You're worried,” her Beloved said.

“Yeah.” She hated the taste of fear. It was sour upon her tongue.

“Don't be. Everything will be all right. You'll see.”

She turned to look at her Beloved. “How do you know?”

Her Beloved shrugged. “Because we're together,” she said with a smile. Such a beautiful smile, one that graced her lips far too seldom, a beam of sunlight breaking through clouds of gray. "That's all that matters."

She smiled in return. “You were always the smart one,” she said.

“I know,” her Beloved yawned in reply.

They brushed muzzle to muzzle—I love you without words—and said no more.

They were headed north, toward the mountains. Toward the Empire.

She wasn't sure what either of them expected to find there, or what would be waiting for them when they arrived. Asylum? Sanctuary?


The rulers of the crystal kingdom had no more fondness for changelings than the ponies of Canterlot. But if there was any mercy in the world—and she believed there was—then perhaps the Princess of Love would take pity upon them, if anypony would, weary travelers seeking refuge from the cold.

Changelings didn't like the cold.

But in the arms of her Beloved, Vinyl Scratch knew only warmth, and the light, lingering taste of hope.

Outside their car, in the chill winter air, the snow continued to fall.

Author's Notes:

Directly influenced by this lovely animation created by RubleGun, Raddjuret, and Patrick Poe.

If you liked the story, be sure to check out the dramatic reading by Illya Leonov!

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