Do Changelings Dream of Herding Sheep?

by JohnPerry

Chapter 1: Do Changelings Dream of Herding Sheep?

Do Changelings Dream of Herding Sheep?

Written by John Perry
Proofread by RTStephens and ToixStory
Cover art by KairaAnix

The stillness of the stark desert scenery of southern Equestria was interrupted by the thunderous chugging of a train that sped through. It raced down the tracks, picking up a cloud of dust and tumbleweeds in its wake. The plains surrounding the train were dry and dusty, comprised mostly of dirt, boulders and the occasional scrub clinging to the sandy ground. The sky above was cloudless and a deep blue, and the sun beat down relentlessly on the harsh landscape. Inside one of the train’s carriages, a mustard-colored pegasus mare sat in one of the passenger compartments, her head bobbing from side to side in rhythm to the swaying motion of the train carriage. She was laying with her back against one of the compartment’s cushioned benches, her forehooves crossed over the olive green vest she wore.

She peered out from under the rim of her pith helmet at the other occupant of the compartment, a white unicorn stallion. But where the mare looked relaxed, the stallion was sitting stiffly upright. A frown seemed to have been permanently etched onto his face, as his expression hadn’t changed since the mare had first laid eyes on him in Canterlot. He had removed his gold-colored helmet, which was lying beside him on his seat, but he still wore the golden armor of the Royal Guard upon his chest and back. He was stoic, radiating an aura of authority, the very image of the ideal Canterlot guard. With each motion of the train, he would attempt to keep himself from swaying with it, trying to remain as stationary as possible. The mare smirked at how ridiculous he looked.

Daring Do removed her helmet and gave her monochromatic mane a quick toss. “You know, I’m impressed at your restraint,” she remarked. “Usually, ponies get really excited when they meet their favorite book character.”

The guard pony, who went by the name Equites Augusta, stared back coldly. “I don’t read children’s books.”

“Ouch,” Daring replied, placing a hoof over her heart and feigning a hurt look. “You wound me, dear knight. So, did you want to tell me more about these changelings we’re following?”

“Well, I suspect that you were in Canterlot during the attack?” Equites asked.

“Hmmm... nope.” The guard raised an eyebrow at Daring’s response. “What?” she added in a defensive tone. “It’s not like I knew something exciting would happen! I’ve got better things to do than celebrate the fact that two rich ponies got hitched.”

Equites gave a heavy sigh before launching into his explanation. “When Captain Shining Armor cast his shield spell, it flung most of the changelings to the far reaches of Equestria. However, a few were merely pushed against the cliffs facing Canterlot. Of these, there were three who were too injured to escape, having broken their wings. After the wedding, we found these changelings and took them into custody. We had intended to interrogate them, but they managed to escape by impersonating the guards.”

“Naturally,” Daring scoffed.

“Our reports indicate that they used their disguise to board a train heading south yesterday,” the guard went on. “We have reason to believe that they are heading back to their hive.”

“And you want me to help you track them so that we can find the hive,” the mare surmised.

“Indeed. The safety of Equestria may depend on this mission.”

Daring gave the stallion a cocky grin. “Well, it may not be a dungeon, but it still has ‘adventure’ written all over it.”

Dodge Junction in five minutes!” the voice of the conductor rang down the hall outside the compartment.

“This is our stop,” Equites said, rising to his hooves and placing his helmet back on. “The changelings are said to have departed here and left on hoof.”

The mare grabbed her own helmet and shoved it over her mane. “Lead the way, brave knight.”

The arrival of a royal guard in the tiny settlement of Dodge Junction didn’t cause as much of a stir as Daring had been expecting, but that was due to the fact that the townsfolk were under the impression that they had been visited by three royal guards just the day before. However, the locals proved very friendly, helpfully pointing out the trail the ‘guards’ had taken out of town.

Soon they were following the same trail south, their saddlebags bulging with supplies for the trek. They climbed out of the hot, sandy plains surrounding Dodge Junction, traveling into the foothills of the badlands and entering a network of canyons, hills and steep buttes. As they approached the mouth of a narrow canyon, the tracks they were following abruptly changed from those of a pony to those of the spiny, irregularly-shaped hooves of a changeling.

Daring Do knelt down next to a set of these new tracks. She inspected them closely, gently placing a hoof over them. “Hmmm, they look fresh,” she commented. The pegasus sniffed the air. “Definitely fresh. Less than a day old, I’d say. Plus, they had something to eat beforehand.”

“Remarkable,” Equites said. “You were able to tell that just from their hoofprint?”

“Actually, I was able to tell that from the scat you just stepped in,” Daring replied, pointing at the stallion’s gold-colored horseshoes.

Ugh!” the guard cried, leaping away from the fecal remnants of what had once been a creature’s love energy. “Great, and I just had these polished,” he grumbled, trying to scrape the dry, green detritus off his shoes and onto a nearby boulder. Daring chuckled and proceeded into the canyon.

The walls of the canyon towered over the two ponies, casting a long shadow over them as they traveled along the sandy wash at the base of the canyon. Spires of rock stuck out precariously from the rocky slopes, reaching towards the heavens and looking like they might tip over at any moment.

Equites stopped in his tracks and took a deep breath, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a hoof. He rubbed his eyes, which were unused to these brutal settings. He was accustomed to the cheerful colors of Canterlot: the purple, white and gold of its buildings, the deep greens and light blues of the surrounding landscape and the many hues of the city’s residents. The rocks were a bright, rusty orange while the sky was a deep blue, a contrast so vivid it hurt his eyes to look at for long. The harsh glare of the sun served only to bring every factor of this stark image into detail.

“Hmph. Figures that changelings would come to an accursed land like this,” the stallion grumbled.

“What are you talking about?” Daring exclaimed, spreading her wings and soaring up into the air. Equites paused, realizing this was the first time he had ever seen her fly. He couldn’t recall the last time he had seen a pegasus remain on the ground for so long. “It’s beautiful! Look at these colors!” the pegasus said, gesturing to the surrounding cliffs. Her cheerful voice echoed off the canyon’s walls.

“Beautiful?” Equites replied incredulously as he began trotting forward again. “It’s dry and dusty. Everything is either dirt or rock and there’s nothing growing here.”

Daring shook her head. “Your loss, knight. I think it’s gorgeous.” She flew a short distance ahead, towards a sharp bend in the canyon, only to stop in mid-air when she caught sight of what lay beyond. Her eyes brightened and her smile grew as she fluttered down to the ground. “Ooooh, that’s interesting.”

“What is it?” the guard asked, galloping forward to catch up with her. He rounded the corner only to stop in his tracks. Before them, the canyon widened considerably and one side had been carved away to form a bowl-shaped feature, like a huge amphitheater. But what was unique was that within this amphitheater was a multitude of short spires of rock, each colored red or pink and of fairly uniform height. They were countless in number, filling the amphitheater and giving Equites the distinct impression of standing amongst an audience of giants.

“Neat, huh?” Daring remarked, strolling past a pair of spires at the foot of the amphitheater. “Most geologists call these herds, given how these rocks usually form in groups. Although I prefer the name the buffalo give them: sitting bulls.”


“Mmm-hmm. All the buffalo tribes tell legends about rocks like these. They vary a little, but most of them go something like this.” Daring cleared her throat. “‘Long ago, there was a powerful chief who was revered amongst his tribe. So revered was he that they would follow his every command to the letter. The chief saw this and became proud, because he knew his tribe would do whatever he told them to. One day, while traveling across the desert, the chief became very tired and sat down upon the ground, for he was old and ill. But so proud was he that he did not want his tribe to believe him weak. So he ordered them to sit with him, and no one disobeyed his command.

“‘That night, the old chief died from his illness, but he hid it from the others, so they did not know. They sat, and they sat, and they sat still. None of them dared rise to their hooves, for none of their fellows did. Their bodies began to stiffen as they remained in place, never stampeding, but all of them were too afraid to be the first to stand. And so they continued to sit and never stampeded, until finally...’” Daring paused, sweeping her hoof towards the rocks. “‘They all turned to stone! And there they remain, frozen in place because of their foolishness.’”

Equites frowned, looking around at the rocks. “But they don’t look like buffalo to me.”

Daring sighed and gave the guard an annoyed look. “You’re not supposed to take it literally; it’s just a story. A morality tale about thinking for yourself and not just blindly following orders.” She glanced down at the armor Equites was wearing. “Yeesh, but look at who I’m talking to.”

The day wore on as the sun slowly made its way across the sky. Daring and Equites continued to follow the trail of the changelings, which meandered through one canyon after another, along ridges and slippery trails that wound up steep slopes. Each time they crossed over a ridge, they were treated to a sweeping view of the maze of canyons that surrounded them. In the distance, tan-colored hills gave way to tall mountains which glowed pink in the light of the setting sun.

Every now and then, Daring would sit down and pull a map and compass out of her saddlebag and mark their present location. As the day came to an end she began doing this more frequently, double-checking her work and looking around at the mountain peaks that served as her landmarks.

“Huh,” she grunted as she frowned down at the map, chewing on the quill that she held between her teeth. “This is odd.”

“What?” Equites asked, glancing over her shoulder at the map.

Daring snatched the quill out of her teeth with a hoof and pointed it at the map. “For the most part, the changelings have been taking a pretty consistently southern route.” She ran her quill along the marked line and the stallion saw that, while it was full of twists and turns owing to the landscape, it did follow a clear southerly direction. “But about a mile ago, they abruptly turned west and they haven’t changed direction since.”

“That is odd indeed,” Equites remarked. “Are you sure you’re reading the map correctly?”

Daring gave the guard a cold glare, causing him to remember the compass rose cutie mark that adorned the mare’s flank. “Right, sorry,” he hurriedly added. “Well, perhaps they got lost? After all, it is a rather confusing landscape.”

“Maybe...” the mare muttered. She packed away the map and compass and they continued on, intent on making the most of the remaining daylight.

They proceeded to follow the trail along the bottom of another canyon and up another ridge. They climbed over the top, squinting their eyes against the rays of the setting sun directly in front of them. When they looked down at what lay before them, the two ponies stopped in their tracks, gaping at what they saw.

“Well, that explains why the changelings switched direction,” Equites remarked.

Below them was a small town made up of a group of simple houses clustered around a central square, sitting in a narrow valley wedged between steep cliffs on either side. Unlike the dry and barren desert surrounding it, the valley floor was covered with grasses and alfalfa. An orchard of fruit trees took up all the available room on one side of the town. From above, Daring and Equites could make out the forms of earth ponies leaving the orchard and trotting down the town’s single street.

“But... but...” Daring stammered before whipping out her map and unfolding it in a flash. “But there’s no town marked on the map! We’re miles away from the nearest settlement!”

“Well, clearly we’re not,” Equites pointed out, gesturing towards the town. “Are you sure you’re reading that map correctly?”

“Yes I’m sure!” Daring snapped. “I don’t understand it!”

“I think you’re losing sight of what’s important here,” the guard said. “If the changelings came to this town, they could be hiding here. Which would put the locals in grave danger, I fear.”

The pegasus folded away her map and scanned the ground for tracks. She spotted a set leading down the slope in front of them, directly towards the town. “Well, they were here, all right. I suppose it’s fortunate we found this town when we did. We can spend the night here.” She spread her wings and fluttered slowly down into the valley, leaving Equites to cautiously make his way down the hill.

The two ponies trotted side-by-side as they approached the town. The houses were all of simple construction, with walls made up of logs with dried mud plastered between them and topped with a short roof made of wood shingles. Daring and Equites passed by a small paddock built with a simple log fence, where a flock of sheep were quietly grazing on alfalfa. A few of them glanced up at the newcomers and Daring gave them a friendly wave, which they silently returned before going back to their grazing.

It didn’t take long for Daring and Equites to get the attention of one of the local ponies. As they passed by the first set of houses, a friendly voice called from the porch of the nearest dwelling.

“Well, hello there!” The two ponies turned to see a peach-colored mare who was grinning broadly at them. She had a light pink mane and tail that were braided and wore a bonnet upon her head. On her flank was a cutie mark of a paintbrush. As Daring registered this, the mare turned around to face her home. “Pluck, come out here! We’ve got visitors!” she cried.

A young chestnut-colored stallion emerged out of the house. He was short but appeared strong, with a blond mane and a cutie mark of a banjo. His face lit up when he laid eyes on the two newcomers. The two of them hopped off the porch and eagerly welcomed Daring and Equites. By this point, nearly everypony in town who was outside had spotted the visitors, and a few were poking their heads out their doors to see what all the fuss was about.

“Pleased to meet you.” The brown stallion shook Daring’s hoof. “The name’s Pluck, and this is my wife Peachy Keen,” he added, draping a hoof over the mare’s shoulders. “Pardon our excitement, but it’s not often we get newcomers!” They both gave Daring a smile so warm and genuine the pegasus couldn’t help but return it.

“Charmed,” the mare replied, tipping her pith helmet in their direction. “Name’s Daring Do, and my statuesque partner here is Equites Augusta.” The guard huffed at the mare’s less than flattering description. Daring glanced around at the ponies who were coming out to greet them. Many of them were wearing headgear, wide-brimmed hats for the stallions and bonnets for the mares, and all were earth ponies with earthy colors for coats. Some wore plain work vests held together with simple clips. Daring surmised that they were all settlers, living here to farm the land.

“That’s some mighty fine armor you got there, sir,” Pluck commented, looking at Equites. “Though I dare say it doesn’t look too comfortable for traveling.”

Equites looked affronted. “I’ll have you know that I am a guard in the service of Her Royal Highnesses of Equestria! My armor is the badge of the sacred commitment I have made to their service!”

Pluck’s face paled. “A royal guard? Well then, a thousand pardons, good sir!” he hastily added, bowing his head low.

“Hold on,” Peachy Keen said, giving Equites a curious look. “Did you say ‘Her Royal Highnesses?’”

“Yes,” the guard answered.

“As in, more than one?”

“That is correct.”

Peachy Keen and Pluck exchanged a confused look. The other townsfolk surrounding them listened in, mumbling quietly amongst themselves. “Who else is there besides Princess Celestia?” Peachy asked.

“Princess Luna, of course!” Daring exclaimed, chuckling. An awkward silence fell amongst all the ponies present. “You...have heard about Princess Luna’s return, right?” she added in an hesitant tone.

“Err...I don’t think so,” Pluck said. “Who’s this Luna, then?”

Princess Luna is the sister of Princess Celestia,” Equites explained. “Formerly Nightmare Moon, but cleansed of her evil spirit by the Elements of Harmony. She now rules beside her sister, responsible for raising and lowering the moon at night.”

“Oh. Well, that’s good,” Peachy Keen said in an undertone. Her face brightened. “Are you here to spread word of this joyful news, then?”

“Err, no,” Daring replied. “Princess Luna returned almost two years ago. We’re tracking a group of changelings who we believe came through here recently.”

“Changelings?” a voice in the crowd exclaimed. Daring and Equites turned to see an older, bearded stallion standing in the middle of the crowd. He had a dark grey coat with a cutie mark of a wagon wheel and wore a wide-brimmed straw hat. “Good word, my pappy spoke of such things. You mean to say they’re real?”

“Indeed,” the guard answered. “And you are?”

The old stallion removed his hat. “Name’s Bandwagon. I’m the unofficial leader in this ‘ere town of Mountain Meadow. Now what’s this about changelings?”

Equites trotted over to speak with the elder stallion while Daring hung back to continue chatting with Peachy Keen. “I have to admit, I didn’t even know there was a town here,” the pegasus said. “It wasn’t marked on my map.”

“Well, we only settled a few years ago,” Peachy Keen replied. “But we’ve managed to do quite well for ourselves.” She paused, then gave the pegasus a friendly smile. “If you would like to spend the night, you’re both more than welcome to stay with us. We have some spare bedding.”

Daring thanked the pair, who led her into the center of town. Peachy Keen got a curious look on her face. “I must ask,” she said, glancing at Equites, “if your friend there is a royal guard, then did you both travel all the way from Canterlot?”

Daring nodded, and to her surprise both Peachy Keen and Pluck gasped. “Goodness, you must be exhausted!” the stallion exclaimed. “That’s a month’s journey!”

“A month?” Daring laughed. “Nah! Well, if you hoof it, I suppose. We just took the train to Dodge Junction.”

The expressions on the two earth ponies’ faces were blank. “Err... Dodge Junction?” Pluck inquired, sounding utterly bewildered.

“You know, the town to the north of here?” Daring asked. “About a day’s walk? Sits on the train line?”

“What’s a ‘train?’” Peachy Keen replied. “You mean a wagon train?”

The pegasus’ jaw dropped. “You...you know, a train? Big steam engine on rails that pulls a bunch of carriages?”

The two earth ponies glanced at each other and shrugged. “I’ve never heard of such things,” Peachy Keen said.

“Something’s off here,” Daring Do muttered. She and Equites were sitting outside beneath a clear night sky. The stars twinkled overhead while the flickering light of a candle illuminated the house behind them. Inside, Peachy Keen and Pluck busied about making supper.

“You mean the fact that three changelings have escaped and are possibly living amongst these unwary, innocent civilians?” Equites suggested. He was frowning down at a piece of parchment, using his magic to scribble something upon it.

“Not that, it’s this town,” the mare replied. “Can’t you see it? All the locals here are dressed really old-fashioned. And none of them know about Princess Luna or any of the other settlements nearby.”

“Well, news travels slowly in these lands,” the guard remarked.

Daring jabbed a hoof towards the house behind them. “Those ponies in there didn’t know what a train was!” she whispered. “A train! How can this town only be a few years old and yet they don’t know what a train is?!”

“I’m not sure I have an answer for that,” Equites replied before he suddenly started. “Wait, maybe they’re the changelings in disguise!”

The pegasus sighed. “Look, I don’t want to give changelings too much credit, but I think they know what a train is. Besides, the whole point of wearing a disguise is to blend in and not draw any suspicion. Peachy and Pluck were totally sincere. They had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” Equites said. With a quick bit of magic, he levitated his parchment into the air, rolled it into a tight scroll and caused it to vanish with a flash. A sparkling trail of smoke unraveled into the sky and streaked away.

“What was that?” Daring asked, watching the glittering cloud of smoke vanish over a nearby hill.

“Daily report to Captain Shining Armor,” he answered. “I just informed him that we are still tracking the changelings, but we may have found their location.”

“You have a direct link to Canterlot?!” the pegasus exclaimed. “Great! Here, I want you to send a note.” She opened her bag and fished out a quill and a slip of paper.

Equites frowned at her. “This is for military chain of command only. I can’t be sending frivolous messages to Canterlot.”

“This isn’t frivolous! I just need to ask my friend to do some research for me. It’ll be real quick, I promise!”

“Absolutely not,” the guard said firmly.

“Please? Just one!” Daring pleaded.

No.” Equites turned around and began stomping back towards the house, but Daring wasn’t finished yet.

“If you don’t do this, then I won’t help you find these changelings,” the pegasus said. Equites froze in his tracks, turning his head around to stare at her in disbelief.

“You can’t be serious! With all due respect, this mission is far more important than your research!”

“I am dead serious.” Daring began to hover in the air, flapping her wings while she crossed her forehooves over her chest. She leveled a fierce glare at the guard. “If you won’t help me in this, you can find somepony else. Either do this one simple thing, or get another tracker.”

Equites stared at her before finally groaning and putting a hoof to his forehead. “I can’t believe...fine, fine! I’ll send your accursed note.”

Daring gave him a cheeky smile. “Thanks, sweet knight.” The stallion glared daggers at her while she scribbled out a short note:

To Pencil Pusher, Research Assistant at Canterlot University:

I need you to do some research for me. Go into the Canterlot archives and find anything you can on a town in the Badlands called Mountain Meadow. And I do mean anything. Send back whatever you come up with.

Daring Do

P.S. She was absolutely insistent on sending this. I swear it won’t happen again. - Equites A.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a simple bowl of oats. Equites ate hurriedly and left to speak with Bandwagon while Pluck headed out to begin his day’s work in the orchard. Daring Do lingered behind, chatting amicably with Peachy Keen. As the earth pony washed the dishes, the pegasus took a moment to admire the paintings hanging on the house’s walls, the only decorative elements the two ponies owned.

“I recognize this place,” Daring commented, pointing at a painting of several flat-topped red peaks that jutted out of an otherwise barren plain. Peachy came over to look at it herself. “Did you travel through there on your way here?”

“Mmm-hmm,” the earth pony said with a nod. “That’s not one of my better ones. You can tell from the strokes that I did it rather quickly.”

“I think it’s lovely. Oh, but look at this one!” she added, turning to a depiction of a peach tree in spring bloom, with the dark limbs and branches contrasting sharply with the bright pink blossoms that covered the tree. “Look at that detail!” She leaned in close to admire the small, careful strokes applied to each flower. “How long did it take you to make this one?”

Peachy opened her mouth, but then paused when she couldn’t think of an answer. She put a hoof on her chin and frowned. “You know, it’s strange, but... I can’t remember.”

She raised her head and looked at the painting for a long moment, then turned to face her other paintings. “It’s so odd...” she muttered, more to herself than to Daring.


Peachy seemed to consider her words before speaking. “I know with every fiber of my being that I made these paintings. I know it. But when I look at them, I almost can’t bring myself to believe that I really painted them. It’s almost like looking at somepony else’s work. Do you ever have thoughts like that?”

“Well...” Daring scratched the back of her head. “I guess when I think back to when I was a filly, I’m always amazed at how stupid that dumb kid is. How the hay could she be the same pony as me?” She chuckled, bringing a smile to Peachy’s face.

“Found anything yet?” Equites called up to Daring. The pegasus was hovering high above him, looking down at one of the cliffs that faced the town. Behind the guard stood the lush trees of the town’s orchard.

“Nothing!” she hollered back. “I’m telling you, there’s no tracks up here! There’s nothing leading out of town.” She adjusted her pith helmet as she set down on a ledge, looking down at the stallion. “So either they suddenly got smart about covering their tracks...”

“Or they’re here in the village,” Equites finished in a grim tone. “Bandwagon went around to every pony in town this morning. None of them reported seeing anypony — or anything — enter or leave recently.”

“How many ponies live in town?” Daring asked.

“Exactly thirty.”

“So that’s thirty ponies, living in...” The pegasus paused to look over at the town and do a quick roof count. “Eleven houses. Well, in such a tight-knit little village, it shouldn’t be too hard to find them.”

Daring spread her wings and leapt off the cliff edge, dropping like a stone before catching a breeze and soaring gracefully earthward. She gave her wings a few quick flaps before landing gently on the ground. It was at that moment that Peachy Keen emerged from behind a tree, carrying a basket of peaches and a bundle of cloth over her back.

“Afternoon,” she greeted them with a cheerful smile. “How’s the search going?”

Daring shrugged. “Could be better.” Her eyes suddenly lit up. “Actually, you can help us! Do you know of anyplace near town that would be a great place for something to hide? Someplace dark, like a cave, maybe?”

Peachy Keen put a hoof on her chin and gave a thoughtful hum. “Now that you mention it, there’s an old mine just up the valley.” She pointed a hoof towards where the valley gently sloped upward before curving around a ridge. “Bandwagon would know exactly where it is.”

“Perfect!” Daring exclaimed, clapping her forehooves together. “Come on, knight!” she added to Equites before speeding back towards town.

“I have a name, you know!” the stallion yelled as he galloped after her. Peachy giggled and turned away to continue her work. She trotted back into the orchard, looking for more fruit suitable for harvesting.

The bright orange of ripe peaches invited her to a nearby tree and she set her basket down on the ground beside the trunk. She then took the bundle of cloth and stretched it out so it formed a small canvas over her midsection, held in place by a set of short wooden sticks attached to her saddle. With apples, their firm skins prevented them from sustaining much damage when they fell from a tree, but peaches required a softer landing so they didn’t splatter on impact. She gave the tree trunk a firm buck, causing several peaches to drop from the tree and land neatly on her cloth before she rolled them into her basket.

Peachy looked up to see another ripe peach still clinging to its branch. She gave the tree another buck, but it refused to fall. The mare tried again, but it refused to budge.

“Come down, little peach,” she cooed, bucking the tree again. However, the peach stubbornly remained in place. The mare sighed as she looked up at it.

“I wouldn’t mind having wings like that pegasus,” she muttered. “Then I could just fly up there and pick you off the tree!” She closed her eyes and smiled, amused at the thought. Peachy Keen, a pegasus! Flying high through the air, sailing past clouds, flapping her wings and looking down at all the canyons and hills...

She felt an itching on her back. Suddenly her saddle fell off, with the wooden sticks landing on the ground with a sharp clatter and the cloth draping itself limply over her body. Peachy gave her saddle a confused frown before shrugging. She grabbed a fold of the cloth with her teeth and pulled it off herself, revealing two wings protruding from her sides.

Peachy froze, petrified at the sight. They looked just like pegasus wings, extended straight up into the air with feathers the color of her fur. They even twitched, and with a start the pony realized that she had felt it. She looked just like a pegasus now, only these wings were completely alien to her. She didn’t even know what muscles controlled these things. They were simply there, a piece of her that did not belong.

The mare began to shake uncontrollably as panic overtook her. “P-P-PLUCK!” she screeched. “PLUCK!!!”

“What’s wrong, dearest?” Pluck’s voice called through the trees. He came galloping to her aid. “Are you hur—” He stopped in his tracks when he caught sight of his wife. Peachy was almost on her knees, shaking from head to hoof as her lip quivered and her eyes welled with tears. She looked up at him pleadingly as he stared back, jaw dropped and eyes wide.

“Bandwagon wasn’t kidding, this mine is old,” Daring Do remarked. She and Equites stood before a tunnel that was carved into a hillside, which overlooked a sparsely vegetated part of the valley away from town. The walls were black and dusty, held up by rotting wooden beams that looked ready to collapse at any moment.

“This looks dangerous,” Equites said apprehensively, following Daring with great reluctance.

“Yep!” the pegasus chirped, eagerly pulling a lantern out of her saddlebag and trotting confidently into the mine. After a moment she paused and turned around. “Oh wait, you meant that as a bad thing, didn’t you?”

The guard gave Daring a concerned look. “You’re a disturbing one.”

“Just follow along, brave knight.” She lit her lantern, holding the handle between her teeth before walking into the depths of the tunnel. Equites remained in place for a moment before groaning and following behind her, lighting his horn to illuminate his path.

The tunnel was narrow, only wide enough for one pony to walk in front of the other. The wooden beams that held up the walls creaked ominously as they walked past, causing Equites to look up warily. “What are we even doing here?”

“Doesn’t this seem like the perfect place for changelings to hide?” Daring replied. “It’s dark, it’s dank and it’s abandoned. It’s perfect for them.”

“It’s also exceedingly dangerous,” the guard pointed out. “How do you know we won’t get trapped in here?”

“Oh, relax,” the pegasus scoffed. “I’ve explored hundreds of dark tunnel—” A sharp crack filled the air and Daring froze, every muscle tensed as she braced herself for what was coming. She yelped as she slipped, her hooves feeling nothing but empty air as the ground suddenly gave way beneath her with a booming crash. By the time the pegasus finally realized what was happening, the boulders beneath her had fallen away to reveal a narrow chasm, swallowing the boulders into its shadowy depths and threatening to take the pegasus with them. Her lantern fell from her grasp as she quickly opened her wings, but it was so dark she wasn’t able to see the wall of the chasm before she flew into it. She reeled back, tumbling into the abyss and unable to tell up from down as she rolled against a ledge and landed painfully on the ground.

She coughed out some dust and groaned painfully before rising to her hooves. There were a few fresh scrapes on her legs, but it was nothing she hadn’t experienced countless times before. “Uggh... idiot,” she cursed at herself, looking up to see the faint glimmer of Equites’ light above. The one saving grace was that it had been a short fall.

“Daring!” Equites called out. “Are you alright?!”

“Yeah,” the pegasus groaned. “Just dandy.” She felt her helmet lying beside her and placed it back on before looking around. She spotted her lantern sitting a short distance away, miraculously intact and with the flame inside still burning. Daring trotted over to it and picked up the handle with her mouth again, raising her head to illuminate the cave.

She promptly found herself face-to-face with a pony’s skull.

The pegasus yelped, dropping the lantern and leaping backwards, scampering away from the sight while keeping her eyes glued to it. After a heart-stopping moment, she realized there was no danger and slowly moved closer, picking up her lantern and lifting it to get a better look.

Hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the cave was a large cocoon, sickly green in color and transparent. But what made it different from the descriptions of changeling cocoons she had read was that this one was dry and withered, barely even a husk and containing no liquid. The fibers that held it together looked thin and delicate, ready to break apart at the faintest touch. Hanging upside-down inside were the skeletal remains of a pony, decomposed beyond recognition. Its empty eye sockets stared at Daring, the ghastly reminder of what had once been a face.

The pegasus looked around the cave. There were other cocoons hanging from the ceiling, many of them in even worse condition than the first, resembling dry, twisted twigs hanging limply over the ground. Bones littered the floor, all of them recognizably those of ponies. There were the remains of at least a dozen skeletons in here, and likely more.

“Equites?” Daring shouted. “You’d better get down here.”

Daring Do and Equites walked side-by-side back towards Mountain Meadow. The sun had begun to set, casting long shadows over the landscape. The two ponies had their heads hung low, trotting slowly.

“What do we tell the villagers?” Daring asked in an undertone.

Equites was silent, but it wasn’t the stoic silence the pegasus had come to expect from the guard. She looked up at him, seeing that his eyes were distant. Daring recalled how his face had paled and his eyes had widened with terror when he joined her in that cave. He hadn’t spoken a word since he had laid eyes on the changeling nest. The mare was starting to fear that she had broken him.

“I don’t know,” he finally responded, not turning to look at Daring. “I don’t know what to tell them. All I know is that we need to find these changelings before they kill again.”

“It doesn’t make any sense though...” Daring mused. “Changelings don’t kill their prey, they preserve it. They have to, in order to feed on its love.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Equites said shortly. “All that matters is finding these changelings.”

The town came into sight, sitting in the shadow of the cliffs as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Between the two ponies and the buildings of town was a single mare tending to a flock of sheep. When she spotted Daring and Equites, she quickly galloped towards them.

“Oh, thank goodness you’ve returned! Something awful has occurred,” the shepherd explained, pointing towards the town.

“What happened?” Equites demanded, suddenly snapping to attention and focused on the pony standing before him.

“It’s...I’m not sure what it is,” she mumbled. “Something’s happened to Peachy Keen.”

Daring and Equites glanced at each other before racing into town. Immediately, they spotted a large group of ponies gathered outside Peachy Keen and Pluck’s home, staring inside through the open front door and whispering amongst themselves. As Daring and Equites arrived they stood aside to let them pass. The two quickly galloped up onto the porch.

“What happened here?” Equites demanded as he and Daring stepped across the threshold and into the house. Both froze when they glanced at the ponies gathered around the bed and spotted Peachy Keen laying on her front, being tended to by Pluck and a stallion they suspected was a doctor, given his cutie mark of a glass bottle of medicine. The doctor was examining the mare’s new set of wings, which were extended fully. On the other side of the room, Bandwagon watched on apprehensively.

“Peachy?” Daring said, drawing the attention of everypony in the room. She took a step forward. “Are those... wings?”

Peachy sniffed and buried her head in her forehooves. The doctor gestured for Daring to come closer. “It’s good that you’ve returned,” he said. “I must confess, pegasus care is not a speciality of mine. I need you to examine these wings and tell me if there is anything wrong with them.”

“You mean besides the fact that they shouldn’t even be there?!” Pluck yelped. The doctor raised a hoof to silence him, and the chestnut stallion reluctantly obeyed.

Daring walked up to the bed. “Well, I can’t say I don’t have a lot of experience bandaging up wings.” She approached and gently placed a hoof on the tip of Peachy’s left wing. The second she made contact, Peachy winced and her wing pulled away involuntarily. Normally that would have been a good sign, as it meant she had feeling in her wings, but Daring wasn’t sure if that qualified as ‘good’ news in this case.

She carefully ran her hoof along each of the primary and secondary feathers, making sure none were missing or bent the wrong direction. Then she slowly folded the elbow and wrist, tucking the wing in place against Peachy’s side. Daring then repeated the process for the other wing.

“Well, I don’t know how to put this,” Daring began, “but they seem fine to me. They seem like ordinary, perfectly healthy pegasus wings.”

Ordinary?!” Pluck cried. “You call this ordinary? This is my wife you’re referring to!”

“Calm down, Pluck,” Bandwagon said, his expression stern. “I understand your anger, but you do your wife no service by yellin’.”

The young stallion cringed and his ears folded back against his head. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled.

Daring leaned down beside Peachy Keen. “Do you know how this happened?” Peachy, still with her head buried beneath her forehooves, sniffled and shook her head.

Suddenly, everypony heard a piercing scream coming from outside. Equites and Bandwagon whirled around and dashed out the door as Daring bolted to her hooves and followed them, with the doctor close behind. They emerged outside to see that the crowd of townsfolk had moved, now gathered in front of another house.

“Stand aside!” Equites ordered as he and Bandwagon approached. The crowd dutifully obeyed his command and Daring saw that they had gathered around the form of the shepherd huddled on the ground, with her forehooves placed firmly over the lower half of her face.

“What is it, dear?” Bandwagon asked. The shepherd didn’t move, instead giving stifled cries as tears leaked down her face.

Daring knelt down on her knees, placing a comforting hoof on the young mare’s foreleg. “Can you speak?” The shepherd seemed to think it over for a moment before shaking her head.

“Come on, it’s alright,” the pegasus said, giving the shepherd a reassuring smile. “Let me see.” She gently tugged on one of the mare’s forelegs, and she reluctantly allowed Daring to pull her forehooves away from her face.

Everypony in the crowd flinched and backed away in alarm, with many letting out gasps or cries of horror. Even Daring involuntarily pulled away her hoof very quickly. Sticking out of the young mare’s mouth were a pair of gleaming curved fangs, both pearly white and wickedly sharp. She had no teeth and a narrow, forked tongue. The shepherd quickly placed her forehooves over her mouth again and squeezed her eyes shut, letting out a choked sob.

“What is this?” Bandwagon demanded, giving the mare a fearful look. “First pegasus wings and now fangs? What sort of curse has befallen our village?”

“Perhaps it is some sort of illness?” Equites suggested, sounding relatively calm even if he did look alarmed. “An infection, perhaps?” he added, turning to the doctor.

“I don’t know of any such illness as this,” the doctor answered warily. “But if it is an infection, she should be kept away from the others.”

Daring Do knelt closer to the shepherd. “C-come on.” She removed her hat and holding it over the mare’s face. “Let’s get you inside.” Daring gently pulled the young mare to her hooves and led her inside while the townsfolk kept their distance.

“Do you think she’ll be alright?” Pluck asked Daring. “Peachy, I mean,” he added quickly.

They were both sitting on the porch of the stallion’s house, looking out at the darkness of night and listening to the chirp of crickets fill the night air. Beside them, Equites was scribbling a message on a piece of paper. Daring sighed and rested a hoof on her chin as she stared out at the horizon. “I wish I could say, Pluck.”

The young stallion nodded solemnly. “I suppose it doesn’t hurt to have wings. Even if she has to live the rest of her life this way, she’s still my wife. And I will love her just the same.”

Daring smiled and turned towards Pluck, patting him on the shoulder. He gave her a small smile in return.

“I just don’t know what I would do if she was unhappy,” Pluck went on. “She’s all I care about. Everything else in my life is... dull. I can’t find joy in farming. I look at my banjo and though I know I can play it, no tune comes to me. Food tastes bland, colors look drab... Peachy is the only thing that gives my life any meaning.”

He lapsed into silence for a moment before rising to his hooves. “Well, I should retire for the evening. Have a good night,” he offered before stepping inside. Equites finished his message and rolled up the parchment into a scroll, tapping it with his horn before it vanished in a puff of magic, just as the one last night had.

“Did you tell them about this... whatever it is?” Daring asked, watching the sparkling cloud fly up into the night sky.

Equites hesitated. “No, I didn’t. I admit it is very strange, but I’m not fully convinced it is connected to the changelings we are chasing. And if it’s unrelated to the mission, I do not intend to report it to Captain Shining Armor. And don’t you think of making me send anything,” he added quickly. “You already used up your one message for non-mission purposes.”

Daring sighed and turned back to staring out into the darkness. “I’m not even sure what I would write. We don’t have the first clue as to what we’re dealing with here.”

Equites’ horn suddenly began to glow brightly. As the pegasus turned to look and see what the unicorn was doing, there was a bright flash in front of the guard’s horn and a bundle of papers and books tied together with string appeared in mid-air, dropping to the ground before him.

“What’s this?” he muttered, undoing the string with his magic.

“Aha!” Daring cried, snatching the book sitting on top of the bundle. “This is the research I asked for last night! Now to find out more about this town.” She retied the bundle together before grabbing the string with her teeth and carrying it towards the house.

“Don’t you think we have more important things to worry about?” Equites asked in an incredulous tone.

Daring stopped at the doorway and glanced back at him. “Yes,” she answered. “But I’m Daring Do. I don’t spend my time worrying.” With that, she marched inside, leaving a bemused Equites outside.

“Daring, wake up!” The voice of Equites pulled the pegasus out of the fog of sleep. She awoke with a start, looking down to see her research notes and books scattered across the table. A candle in the center of the table had burned down until only a small stub of wax remained. The guard’s hoof was resting on her shoulder.

“Did you spend all night going through this?” Equites asked in disbelief.

Daring glanced out the window. A faint glimmer of light could be seen on the eastern horizon, but it was still dark enough to firmly be considered ‘night.’ “Well, not quite all night.”

“Something’s going on with the townsfolk,” the guard muttered. “They’re all awake but staying inside their houses.”

Daring stood up and looked out the window. Indeed, all but one of the other houses were illuminated, and she could tell from the shadows of ponies moving in front of the windows that they were awake. “That can wait a moment,” she said hurriedly. “You need to see what I’ve found.”

The pegasus snatched up a book and flipped it to a page before jabbing a hoof at it. “Here, read that!”

Equites bent over and read the page. “‘Mountain Meadow, established by nine families and several accompanying ponies led by a Mr. Bandwagon. Settled in limited but good farming land, ideal for growing fruit trees and alfalfa.’ Okay, so what?”

“Look at the date!” Daring ordered. Equites glanced down the page before his eyebrows shot up into his forehead.

“But that’s impossible,” he muttered, staring down at the writing. “That’s—”

Almost three hundred years ago! But there’s more,” Daring added in a whisper, snatching a collection of papers and riffling through them quickly, showing certain pages to Equites. “Four years after Mountain Meadow was settled, a group of explorers passed through, hoping to stop here. But they never found Mountain Meadow. For the next several years, ponies wandered all over these hills, searching for the town but never finding it. Not even a trace. This town just vanished off the face of Equestria! So they struck it from the maps and there’s been no record of it since!

“Don’t you see?!” she exclaimed. “This is why all the locals are really old-fashioned! This town hasn’t existed for centuries! It’s from a different time!”

A pregnant pause followed her words, as Equites gave Daring a troubled look. “Do you mean to tell me that these ponies are... ghosts? That we are in a literal ghost town?”

“I don’t know what this is,” the pegasus answered. “But history is full of legends of towns, cities, even entire civilizations that vanished without a trace, brought on by some terrible curse or whatnot.” She gave Equites a shrug. “Maybe this one simply returned.”

The two ponies heard a creak from behind them and spun around to see Pluck and Peachy Keen standing in the doorway to the bedroom. They all stared apprehensively at each other.

“We heard what you said,” Pluck explained, looking sheepish.

“What do you mean this village vanished?” Peachy Keen asked. “We’ve been here as long as I can remember.”

Daring opened her mouth to respond, but stopped when she heard angry shouts and murmuring coming from outside. The four ponies turned toward the sound, glancing uneasily at each other before Daring led them out of the house and onto the street.

Everypony in the village was outside, marching towards the house of Pluck and Peachy Keen. Many of them were carrying torches in their mouths, while others gripped shovels, clubs or axes. All of them looked furious, the light of their torches casting strange shadows over their fierce expressions.

“There they are!” somepony in the crowd hollered, pointing at Daring and Equites. The pegasus gulped as she watched the oncoming crowd.

“You two!” bellowed the voice of Bandwagon, who was leading the group. “You will come with us peacefully, or stand accused for your crimes!”

“What crimes?” Equites shouted back.

“Four more of our number have been inflicted by this curse!” the old stallion answered. Now that Daring looked, she could see a pair of scaly wings, a lion’s paw and a set of sheep’s horns among the crowd of earth ponies. “Including me,” Bandwagon added, bringing his torch closer to his face, where they saw that his eyes had turned yellow with a round, black pupil, like that of a eagle’s. “We were fine in this village for years! Nopony ‘ere suffered from this curse until you arrived!”

“This is preposterous!” Equites yelled. “We have done nothing to harm you!”

“I bet it’s the unicorn!” somepony in the crowd shouted. “He’s put a curse on us all!”

How dare you!” the guard bellowed, his face flushed with anger. “I am a Royal Guard in the service of Princesses Celestia and Luna of Equestria! I only come here to find the changelings that—”

“Bah, listen to his feeble lies!” Bandwagon hollered. “‘Princess Luna!’ ‘Changelings!’ Absurdities, I say!”

“Please, there’s something terribly wrong here!” Daring pleaded. “Tell me, what year is it? Or rather, what year do you think is it?”

“Cease this trickery!” the old stallion replied. “You take us for fools, asking us such silly questions?”

“I-I think you’re all making a mistake,” Pluck interjected, taking a step towards Daring and Equites.

“Stay away from them, Pluck!” Bandwagon shouted. “Think of your wife! She was the first to lay eyes on them, and then the first to be cursed! Then Pasture met them right before she grew fangs! See reason, stallion!”

Pluck swallowed and gave Daring and Equites a fearful look. He took a couple of steps away from them, looking at them apprehensively.

“This is ridiculous!” Daring cried. “We didn’t do anything!”

“Enough stalling!” another voice in the crowd yelled. The mob gave a roar of approval and charged towards the two outsiders.

Equites leaped in front of Daring, his horn glowing brightly and his expression livid. “Stay back!” he ordered, waving his horn at the oncoming townsfolk. They didn’t come closer, but they began to surround the two ponies, gripping their weapons tightly. To the pegasus, Equites muttered, “Fly. Get away from here as fast as you can.”

“You can’t ask me to leave you here!” Daring exclaimed in a horrified tone.

“I’m not asking you to, I’m ordering you to.” Equites gritted his teeth, staring down each of the ponies before him. “Flee while you still have the chance!”

“You can’t fight all of us,” Bandwagon proclaimed. “Either come peacefully or admit your crimes and lift this curse!”

“Hold it.” The crowd stopped at the sound of a calm, carrying voice. Daring and Equites turned to see three sheep standing in the street behind them, coldly regarding the crowd.

“What is this?” Bandwagon muttered. “What are you doing out of your paddock?”

The sheep began walking towards the crowd. As they did so, they suddenly vanished in a flash of green light, their woolen hides replaced by black, chitinous exoskeletons. Sharp fangs extended from their mouths, holes dotted their legs, and a curved horn emerged from each of their heads. Their solid blue eyes shone brightly in the darkness of the night. The stumps of what had been a pair of transparent blue wings protruded from each of their backs. The crowd gasped in horror as Equites leaned over to whisper in Daring’s ear, “It’s them!

“What are you?” Bandwagon gasped, clearly aghast.

The middle changeling flashed green again, transforming into a white-coated unicorn. “We — and I include nearly all of us here in saying this,” he said, “are changelings.”

“By Celestia’s sun,” the old stallion muttered in horror. “They do exist!”

Be gone, beast!” shouted a stallion in the crowd, who was standing nearest to the creatures. He charged at the middle changeling, brandishing his club, but before he could make contact the other two changelings leapt upon him, with one sinking its teeth into the back of the stallion’s neck.

The crowd watched in horror as the stallion screamed in agony, desperately trying to fling the changeling off. Then with a flash of green light, the stallion’s skin was replaced by black chitin, his form quickly becoming exactly that of the changelings upon him. He collapsed to the ground, breathing frantically and with a frightened expression on his face.

Several ponies in the crowd screamed. “What have they done?!” one mare shouted.

“They’ve turned him into one of them!” another pony in the crowd yelled. More screams followed this announcement.

“He is one of us.” The crowd went silent at the sound of the still-disguised changeling’s voice. “You all are! Save for these two interlopers,” he added, gesturing dismissively at Daring and Equites. The changeling trotted towards the crowd, who pulled away in fear. He walked up to Bandwagon, whose knees were shaking and eyes were wide with terror.

“You called this a curse,” the changeling remarked, running a hoof over the old stallion’s strange eyes. He flinched, trembling at the creature’s touch. “This isn’t a curse, nor is it a disease. It is simply the pangs and inexperience of youth.”

The changeling gave Bandwagon a small smile. “Shut your eyes,” he said in a soothing tone. “Look upon me, not with your eyes, but in your mind. Relieve your sense of self.”

Bandwagon shook with fear, but dutifully closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. There was a bright green flash emanating from the old stallion. When it passed, a changeling stood in his place.

The crowd gasped as Bandwagon opened his eyes and looked down at his body. He let out a piercing shriek and collapsed on the ground, throwing his forehooves over his head and wailing, “No, no, no! This isn’t me! This isn’t me!” Another flash of green light and he transformed back into the old stallion. He lay on the ground, sobbing.

“Why do you cling to this false image?” the changeling asked, kneeling down beside Bandwagon. He gave the old stallion a warm smile. “Do not be afraid. Embrace your true form.”

The changeling stood up and looked around at the crowd. “I don’t know what has happened here, but you have all forgotten your true forms. You disguised yourself as ponies but forgot your lives as changelings. Only we knew. We came to this town because we sensed the presence of others like us. But when we arrived, we found you lost, confused... unaware of what you truly are.

“These so-called ailments of yours,” he went on, “are not the result of a curse. They are you rediscovering your true selves! Relearning the greatest gift of all: adaptation.”

The changeling stood before the crowd, a broad grin upon his face. “We can teach you how to find your true potential once again! Come, join us and return to our hive! Throw away these pitiful lives of simple ponies and become who you were born to be!”

The crowd was silent. No one dared moved. Even the sound of crickets chirping had vanished. The only sound that reached their ears was the flicker of the torches and the stifled sobs of Bandwagon, who remained on the ground. A slight breeze blew in from the east as the horizon began to alight with the glow of the coming sun. Every single eye in the crowd was focused on the changeling as they considered his offer.


Everyone turned at the sound of Pluck’s quivering voice. He stood in front of the changeling, shaking with nervousness but looking determined.

“What did you say?” the changeling asked in a menacing tone.

“I s-said no.” Pluck took a step towards the changeling, planting his hooves firmly on the ground and giving the changeling an even stare. “This is my home. This is the only life I know. My wife is all I live for. And I can’t let you take that away.”

“Don’t be a fool!” the changeling snarled. “Your ‘wife’ is a changeling just as you are.”

“I still love her,” Pluck said, his tone becoming firmer with each word.

“You merely think you love her! It is nothing more than an illusion you adopted when you first came to this village! You are not experiencing love, you are merely satiating yourself with a false emotion—”

Lies!” Pluck bellowed, marching towards the changeling until he stood right in front of him. “You can’t tell me my feelings are not my own!”

Don’t be a fool, child!” the changeling roared, raising a forehoof and delivering Pluck a blow across the face. The young stallion was slammed to the ground, where he lay groaning and with a long, bleeding cut across his cheek. The crowd gasped while Peachy Keen grabbed a club from a stunned villager. She gave a strangled cry and leapt forward, swinging the weapon at the back of the changeling’s head. A sickening crack rang through the air as the club exploded into splinters and the changeling promptly lost his disguise, his body crumpling to the dusty ground.

Pandemonium broke out as a terrible, vicious anger took hold of the crowd and they quickly turned on the other two changelings. With a flash of green light, the two took the form of tall, powerful stallions and stood their ground, lashing out at any villager that came close. But their new forms proved little help as the townsfolk swarmed them, the changelings’ strength and height no match for the sheer numbers they faced. The townsfolk closed in, forcing the changelings to the ground. Their terrified screeches were soon drowned out by the beating of shovels, clubs and the trampling of dozens of hooves.

The lead changeling staggered to his hooves, shoving Peachy Keen away before lunging for the wall of the nearest house. He grabbed onto the side of the building and scuttled towards the roof, but didn’t get far. Peachy leapt at him again, her wings flaring open as she flung herself into the air and grabbed hold of the changeling. She fell back to earth, taking the changeling down with her. They tumbled through the air before the changeling landed atop Peachy, pinning her to the hard ground. He clambered to his hooves and stood above her, letting out a snarl and rearing up to stomp her into submission. He didn't notice the villager swinging her axe at his back until it was too late.

The blade pierced his exoskeleton with a sharp crack that was quickly drowned out by a hideous wet squelch. The blow sent the changeling to the ground for the last time. Green fluid leaked from his wound as the color drained from his eyes. The light of the rising sun was reflected in his dulled eyes before the form of a pony stepped in front of him, raising his own instrument. Townsfolk surrounded the body of the changeling, beating the life from it.

Finally, it stopped. A heavy silence fell over the assembled crowd as the light of the sun reached them. They remained in place, looking down at the mangled bodies of the changelings as the destruction they had wrought was revealed to them in the light of day. The villagers looked up at each other, seeing cold, solid blue eyes that were quickly replaced by the soft irises and distinct colors of pony eyes.

“We’ve committed a terrible deed here,” Bandwagon muttered. He and Equites stood side-by-side, looking down at three unmarked stones resting upon three freshly buried plots of soil sitting at the base of a cliff. The afternoon sun beat down on them as a calm breeze rustled the grasses nearby.

“And to think I enabled this,” the old stallion went on, his expression distant. “I’m not worthy of being called a pony. None of us are. Perhaps before, we could have fooled ourselves into believing we were among Celestia’s chosen. Live a happy lie and simply choose to ignore those more... unsavory elements of ourselves. But now...” He gestured at the graves. “How can we call ourselves ponies now?”

“If you hadn’t stopped them,” Equites reasoned, “I’m sure they would have labeled you traitors to their queen. They would have returned for you, and in force.”

“But with one blow we gave away our lives as ponies and changelings. Yes, we shall never join these vicious creatures that prey on emotion, but Celestia does not know murderers among her subjects.”

“Then what are you?”

“I don’t know,” Bandwagon admitted. “I suppose that is for us to figure out on our own.” He turned away from the graves and began trotting back towards town, with Equites following behind.

“So what happens now?” the guard inquired.

Bandwagon didn’t immediately answer. “We go on,” he said simply. “We thrive, just as we always have, but now armed with this new knowledge. Each of us will have to come to terms with what we are, but... it is better to know that we are truly beasts, even if we don’t want to embrace it. Our future is uncertain, but it is the only course ahead that makes sense.”

They silently trotted back into the town, where they found Daring Do standing in front of one of the houses, staring at it with her head cocked to one side.

“Excuse me, Bandwagon,” she began, “but something’s bothering me. Last night when you were awake, every house was illuminated except this one. I don’t think I’ve seen anypony enter or leave. Do you know who lives here?”

Bandwagon blinked, staring at the house as if he was seeing it for the first time. “Why... I don’t believe I do. How did I never think to consider it?”

Daring walked up to the front door and tried the knob. The door wouldn’t budge. She braced her body against it, slamming her shoulder against the wood. When that failed, she planted her forehooves on the ground and bucked the door in, causing it to burst open with a crash and a cloud of dust.

The pegasus stepped inside, finding herself in a small house that was filled with magical objects. Spell books, potion ingredients and star charts littered every surface of the cramped room. In the middle of the floor was a pile of ash sitting in front of a small wooden desk. Sitting on the desk were several complex charts and a small leather-bound book that was lying open.

Daring trotted across the room and flipped the book over, glancing at the cover. “‘Journal of Nebula Gleam,’” she read aloud. “This was a unicorn’s house.”

She flipped to the last written page and began reading. “‘They’ve taken over everypony in the village and now they’re banging on my door. They don’t dare show their true forms, for fear that there may be somepony remaining in the town who they have not yet consumed. But my spells tell me their fear is unfounded. I am the last one.

‘In my research in Canterlot, I came across accounts of a terrible, dark spell that caused an entire city to vanish. A wicked, evil thing it is, but the theory is sound and it is now my last hope. It will likely destroy this town, but if it means I can save Equestria from these monstrosities, so be it.

‘They are breaking down my shield. Celestia have mercy on my soul.’” Daring looked up from the page.

“But he didn’t destroy the changelings,” Equites remarked. “He merely sent them into the future, and the town with them.”

“He did more than that,” Daring pointed out. “Somehow, the spell erased the memories of the townsfolk. All their memories vanished, except what they learned in order to take the forms they were wearing at the moment the spell was cast.” She glanced over at Bandwagon, who looked down at the ground. “The changelings planned their attack carefully. They would have learned as much as possible about their victims in order to convincingly impersonate them.”

Daring knelt down beside the pile of ash on the floor. “Little did Nebula Gleam know that his fellow villagers were very much alive, sitting in a nearby cave and waiting for their love to be harvested.” She began sifting gently through the pile of ash. “When he cast the spell and flung the changelings into the future, he sentenced his fellow villagers to death.”

She pulled out the charred remainder of a horn from the pile of ash and looked at it grimly. “And in the end, the spell consumed him.”

A heavy silence followed her words as Equites placed a hoof over his mouth, looking sickened at the sight of the charred horn in Daring’s hoof, while Bandwagon awkwardly rubbed one of his forelegs with the other, avoiding either pony’s gaze.

Daring Do and Equites gave their final farewells to Pluck and Peachy Keen, who was once again wingless. They stood on their porch, giving the pegasus and the unicorn a wave and a cheerful smile. The two ponies returned the wave before they both turned around and trotted out of town, leaving it behind for the last time.

“So what are you going to tell your bosses back in Canterlot?” Daring asked.

“Nothing,” Equites answered. “The changelings we were following collapsed in the desert and died from exhaustion. That explanation will suffice.” He gave the pegasus a small smile. “And I expect you to keep to that story.”

“You’re not going to tell them anything about this town?” Daring inquired, raising an eyebrow.

“No,” the guard replied. “I don’t think anything needs to be said. These pon... villagers need to figure out their own destiny. I think they need time before they’re ready for the outside world, don’t you?”

Daring thought it over for a moment before nodding. “I suppose that’s for the best. Do you think they’ll be alright?” she asked in a concerned tone.

“I don’t know. But I know that whatever choice they make, it will not be as changelings. Faceless monsters who only wear the masks of others in order to fulfill the wishes of an evil queen? No, these villagers have committed to their own identities.”

Daring mused over what he said. “I guess it only makes sense. Can you imagine what it means to lose the only identity you know? Once you have something that makes you unique, how can you let that go? Just think, the opportunity to rise above the herd and stand out, to lead by one’s own example rather than to blindly follow...”

She glanced over at the paddock as they walked past it, where the town’s flock of sheep were absentmindedly grazing. Daring Do smirked as she looked at them. “I suppose even changelings dream of herding sheep.”

Return to Story Description


Login with