Reciprocity: A Metro 2033 and MLP Crossover

by MrSing

First published

A crossover between Metro 2033 and MLP:FIM.

Yuri is living his life in a secluded part of the Moscow metro. That is, until tragedy strikes a neighboring station and Yuri and his friends are forced to undertake a journey through the dangerous metro system.
In Equestria a lone changeling scout is starving in a cold forest and is getting desperate to find a new source of love to help her hive survive.
Friendship can be formed out of necessity. Morals can be bent in the name of survival.

(Proofread by Kalash93)

Chapter 1: A Fire in the Dark

A Fire in the Dark

I looked into the tunnel that was in front of me. A few gas lights and a campfire provided some light, but after a few meters the darkness became impenetrable. All I could see was the barricade I was leaning on, and a few of the cans that were suspended with ropes from the ceiling. They acted as primitive alarm bells to warn us for whatever might try to approach us. Of course, there was also the ever-present railroad that ran through almost every major tunnel in the Moscow metro.

“And Yuri, have you seen any four meter tall monsters yet? I could use some exercise,” joked Sasha, one of my fellow guards and friend, behind me.

Sasha was warming himself by the campfire, looking bored out of his mind. He was almost twenty-one years old. I could barely see his short blond hair coming out from under his helmet as he looked at me with his friendly blue eyes.

As I turned to face him, I saw him using the box that was filled with improvised pipe bombs and spare ammo as a sort of footstool. I’d question the safety of setting it right next to the fire, but he probably knew what he was doing. Probably.

“Don’t even joke about that, you idiot,” Sergei said, scolding my friend. “Our station’s northern tunnel is one of the safest in the entire metro system and you should be thankful for it.”

Sergei was thirty years old, making him ten years my senior. He was a tall man with dark hair and light brown eyes. His age made him something of a veteran, and the most experienced guard out of the three of us.

“Safe? More like boring,” Sasha complained while moving closer to the campfire. ”All we ever see is those stupid rats. If I don’t do anything soon, I’m going to freeze to death.”

As if on cue, two large rats ran over the wooden barricade, nimbly avoiding the razor wire and sharpened steel rods that were set up in front of it.

Sergei simply frowned at Sasha and then looked at me, with a curious expression on his face. “Hey Yuri, why are you here anyway? Not that I don’t appreciate someone else beside this moron helping to stand guard, but weren’t you supposed to take care of the new piglets this month?”

I froze. I could feel my face turn red in shame. The almost tangible darkness of the tunnel behind me suddenly seemed a lot more inviting, maybe I could run away and get eaten by a mutant. Anything was preferable to retelling that story.

Sasha looked away from the fire so fast that his helmet almost fell off. “You haven’t heard?” he asked with a grin on his face. His eyes seemed to light up with joy.

“What are you talking about?” the veteran questioned, looking a bit confused.

“Can’t we talk about something else?” I quickly said, hoping that my pleading tone would be enough to make Sasha reconsider.

My friend turned his attention to me again. “Sorry Yuri, but this story is too good not to tell. Besides, do you want him to hear it from someone else? At least with me you’ll know that I won’t exaggerate the embarrassing parts.” He thought for a moment. “Even though I don’t know how someone would be able to do that in this case.”

Somehow his apology didn’t comfort me in the least, maybe it was the fact that he was laughing halfway through it.

“Well Sergei, you know how we traded with the station north from here for some new pigs?” Sasha asked while pointing in the direction of the tunnel behind me.

“How could I not know,” the man answered. “They traded one of my flamethrowers while our ‘great and wise’ leader kept preaching about how this would be ‘one more step to independence’ for our station, and how it would ‘strengthen the bonds’ with our northern friends.” His voice was laced with bitterness while he gestured at the hole in the barricade where the weapon used to stand.

Sergei turned his gaze to the one remaining flamethrower that was set up on the barricade. “I wonder how independent our station will be when we are killed by bandits in our sleep, or when the other stations decide to annex us.” His expression was worried.

His word rang true. One of the reasons our station was safe and autonomous was because of these fearsome weapons. We were lucky enough that some pre-war general had decided to store several of them, for reasons long since lost in time, in our station. The fact that our station was relatively small, with a population of about two hundred people, and far away from the large and aggressive metro factions also helped.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” Sasha replied. “Besides, do you want to hear the story or not?”

Sergei nodded for him to continue while he walked over to the campfire.

“Well, our pall here was assigned to take care of the pigs this month,” Sasha carried on. “When he was tending to them the piglets rushed him, knocking him over, and the mother escaped. He had to chase her around the station for two hours, knocking over everything and everyone. You should have seen it!” He was smiling at the memory of me making a fool óut of myself.

“I’ve never seen granny Yana shout so hard at someone before. I thought she was going to explode!” The blond man laughed. “Anyway, when he finally caught the sow she had eaten four meals worth of mushrooms in the farm. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a pig that was so happy. Alex was, of course, furious when he found out.”

I winced when I recalled how the station leader had lectured me about how we should preserve our scarce resources while I was standing in the small farm with a pig in my arms. It was almost as bad as the fact that I would have to go hungry for two days to compensate for the lost food.

“Anyway, Alex sent Yuri here for a month to learn some responsibility and to punish him by giving him the most boring job in the station,” Sasha concluded with a sigh. He watched as a lone rat from the tunnel ran over the improvised blockade.

The small smirk that had appeared on Sergei’s face vanished. “So my guard post is punishment now, is it?” His face darkened. “I toil everyday to keep this place safe, and this is how they think about my work?” The veteran muttered some angry words under his breath as he went back to the barricade.

After this the conversation fell silent, and I returned to the campfire. I sat down across Sasha, scowling at him. “I’m glad that my misfortune is such a great source of amusement for you.”

“Oh, come on Yuri,” he said. “Cheer up, it wasn’t that bad. I’m sure that our ‘glorious’ leader will forgive you soon.”

I proceeded to not cheer up one bit.

My friend stared at me in concern, until he suddenly started to smile. “I know how to make that frown disappear.” He grabbed his backpack and reached into it, producing a large dark green bottle.

“There is nothing that a shot of mushroom vodka can’t cure. It may taste like hell, but it’ll keep you warm and happy.” Sasha pulled out three small glasses, getting ready to pour some drinks for us.

“Hey! No drinking on the job, you moron!” Sergei was livid when he heard what the blond man said, and paced back to the fire.

“But I brought enough for everyone, boss,” my friend protested weakly. He stood up and held out a glass meant for the veteran.

The man wasn’t persuaded, and slapped the glass out of Sasha’s hand. “No, and that is final!”

Sasha sat down on his box again with a sigh. The mood was now as unpleasant as the cold tunnel we sat in, and we all just stared at the dark walls, waiting until we would be relieved by the next guard. I saw a rat sniffing at the air while sitting atop one of the barrels filled with propane for the flamethrower.

“Okay,” I said, “this is getting out of hand. Where are all these pests coming from? This is the fourth one we’ve seen today.”

Sasha chuckled. “Maybe they’re off to vote for the new president of the metro, and are using our home as a polling station.”

Sergei, quick as lightening, pulled out one of the knives attached to his sleeve and threw it at the rat. The poor beast was dead in an instant. Sasha applauded and cheered at the veteran’s display of sleight of hand.

“We should start killing them,” Sergei said as he walked to the dead beast to recollect his knife. “We wouldn’t want infections to spread to our station. They can be more deadly than any mutant.”

“I think we-” I was interrupted by the rattling sound of several of the alarm cans being walked against.

We all immediately stood up, pulled out our assault rifles, and aimed at the darkness of the tunnel.

“Sasha, get the light. Yuri, get ready to sound the alarm,” Sergei whispered at us as he carefully walked toward the barrier, scanning the dark in front of him for any signs of movement.

“Halt! Step slowly into the light and state who you are!” The veteran bellowed to whomever -or whatever- was in the darkness. “No sudden movements or we will shoot!”

I could feel a knot forming in my stomach as I ran to the alarm bell, trying to stay in cover as much as possible. 'What is going on? Isn’t this tunnel only connected to the northern station? What could get past them?' I thought anxiously.

After a few seconds Sasha finally got the small searchlight to work and shone a beam of light in the tunnel. It pierced through the darkness, revealing a large group of people. There were men, women, and children dressed in worn out clothes. The light revealed pots and pans, food, spare clothes, tools, and a few miscellaneous items. It seemed like they were holding everything they owned in their small backpacks. What worried me was that a few of them were also carrying weapons.

The people seemed to be exhausted and on edge. They used their hands to protect their eyes from the brightness of Sasha’s searchlight.

“What?” Was all that Sergei managed to say. Some of the people let out soft cheers or started to cry.

“Sergei! Don’t shoot! It’s me, Stepan!” A man worked his way through the crowd, gently pushing people aside. The man was short, his hair had started to turn grey, and he had a large scar on his face that went over his left eye. It was painfully obvious that he was blind in the milky white eye.

A look of recognition appeared on the veteran’s face as he lowered his gun a bit. “What… what is going on Stepan? Why are all these people here?” he said with a tense voice that was in sharp contrast with how sure he usually sounded.

“The Northern station is gone. We are all that is left.” The man said with a mournful look on his face as he gestured to the survivors behind him.

My heart sank. There had lived about three hundred people in that station. There were no more than fifty people standing in the tunnel. “How could their station have fallen without any warning? What could have done this?” I contemplated, not being able to comprehend what I was being told.

Like he had read my mind the scarred man gave the answer. “We were overrun by the rats. I have never seen so many of them.” His tone was not haunted, like I had expected. He sounded more tired than anything else.

“They just appeared out of one of the unexplored tunnels and kept coming. The station was overrun in a matter of minutes,” Stepan continued. “We grabbed what we could, and ran through the tunnel to your station. A few of the guards stayed behind to ward them of with the new flamethrower for as long as possible.” The man looked at the ground in what I think was respect as he talked about the sacrifice these men had made.

Sasha spoke up as he dimmed the search light a bit. “Wait, you mean that…”

“Yes,” the man replied. “They should be here any moment now. You might have seen a few of them already.” I turned my gaze to the rat that Sergei had killed. It suddenly seemed a lot less harmless and looked more like an omen.

Sergei started pacing back and forth for a moment, thinking about what to do I presumed. “Okay, okay. I’ve got an idea. Yuri, come help me remove the razor wire. Sasha, go fetch the blueprints of the tunnel.”

We both let out a short “understood” and went to our tasks without question or complaint.

Sergei and I made our way over the blockade and together we lifted one of the heavy wooden blocks that were attached to the ends of the razor wire. We moved the block to the other side of the tunnel, dragging the razor wire out of the way along with it.

Sergei reached into one of the front pockets of his armor and pulled out a pair of protective sunglasses. “I want you to man the flamethrower while Sasha and I prepare the tunnel,” he said while handing them over to me. “Wear these so you won’t go blind.”

He must have seen my horrified expression, because he put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Just use short bursts as much as possible and try to keep calm. You don’t have to kill them all, just ward them off until Sasha and I are done.”

I nodded, trying to look brave, but I could feel my hands shake as I took the glasses from his hands.

The veteran turned toward the crowd and shouted: “Okay people, move it! We’re going to get you to safety.”

I could hear a few people thank us, but most of them just stared at the ground as they walked past the razor wire. I couldn’t imagine what these people had gone through. Walking for two kilometers through that dark oppressive tunnel after losing everything they knew.

As the people were making their way over the wooden barricade I saw Sergei writing something on a document in his hands. He called out for Stepan, who was overlooking the crowd to make sure that no one would be left behind in the tunnel.

The man approached us and Sergei handed over the document. “This will allow you in the station, just in case that you need it.” The unspoken words hang heavily in the air. If things went wrong and we died the document would serve as proof that they hadn’t killed us to get past the barricade.

The scarred man accepted the papers and shook Sergei’s hand. “Thanks friend, I owe you.” He then looked at me, seeing the fear in my eyes. ”Don’t worry kid, Sergei knows what he’s doing.” He winked with his blind eye. The macabre gesture caught me off guard and I recoiled a bit. He just let out a hearty laugh and walked after the crowd of people who had now all crossed the barricade.

“What’s up with that guy?” I asked Sergei, confused by the man’s sudden lighthearted behavior. What kind of man laughs so carefree after he’s lost everything? Sergei just shrugged as we put the razor wire back in place.

As we walked back to the campfire Sergei shouted. “Sasha! Have you found those blue prints yet!?” My friend held up a couple of large scrolls with complex drawings describing the layout and architecture of the tunnel on them.

I made my way to the large mounted flamethrower, took a deep breath of the cold metro air, and started preparing the weapon for the horde that would soon be here. As I worked I heard Sasha moving a few of the barrels filled with propane. Sergei was following him, placing a couple of pipe bombs when Sasha had moved a barrel to the wall of the tunnel. Occasionally they went back to consult the blueprints and I could hear them talking in hushed voices. Their differences were said aside for the moment as they worked together.

I peered over the flamethrower, seeing how the searchlight illuminated the train track. Dust particles were floating in its light. As I awaited the rats my mind started to wander. Ghost stories were always told around the campfires about how some station had mysteriously disappeared. All the inhabitants dead or the station abandoned without any explanation. But those stories were always about far away places on the other side of the metro system. Would my home become nothing more than a story to amuse or warn other people? I shook my head to get rid of the dark thoughts. "Thinking like that isn’t healthy." I said to myself. I needed to concentrate.

After a few tense minutes had passed I heard them approaching. A cacophony of claws scratching the ground and eerie squeaks filled the tunnel. I put on the sunglasses, my shaking hands making me fumble for a bit. I glanced back at my fellow guards. “They’re coming!” I shouted, failing to keep the fear out of my voice.

Sergei let out a curse. “Stall them Yuri, we need just a little bit longer.” He and Sasha redoubled their efforts.

I turned my attention to the tunnel again. I first thought that the sunglasses were distorting my vision. The floor seemed to move like a wave. Then the “wave” got in the reach of the searchlight and I realised that rats were almost literally flooding the tunnel. In a fit of panic I squeezed the trigger too early. I felt hot air hitting my face as a jet of fire escaped from the nozzle. The rats were out of range, but the ones in front of the horde recoiled in surprise and fear. Perhaps they remembered the flames from the Northern station. It didn’t matter if their primitive brains now told them to run away. The pressure of their brothers and sisters behind them forced them to move onward.

This time I waited longer until I squeezed the trigger. The roaring fire hit the wave, horrible squeaks and an overpowering stench filled my senses. The death of their friends didn’t seem to matter to the rats in the tunnel, driven by some kind of mindless instinct they braved the fire and kept on coming towards the barrier.

The narrow tunnel worked to my advantage. I only had to sway the weapon a bit to the right and left to create a wall of fire. The rats were actually starting to retreat a bit. My hopes were rising and I would have smiled if it weren’t for that horrible stench and heat. I felt like I could beat the horde there and then. Of course the flamethrower chose that moment to stop working.

The horde sensed the opportunity and started to advance again. It felt like my insides had turned into ice. “Don’t do this to me.” I pleaded, smacking the weapon. “Come on, work!” I shouted. It took three attempts until a burst of fire escaped from the flamethrower again. A dozen half burned rats made it through the barrier before I was able to ward of the swarm again.

Something was definitely wrong with the flamethrower; it only gave of irregular jets of fire and I had to squeeze the trigger constantly. I screamed in frustration as I helplessly watched how the horde slowly came closer and closer to me. They would soon overwhelm me and there was nothing I could do about it.

I almost jumped up in surprise when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Sasha was standing behind me. “We’re done Yuri! Let’s go!” He shouted over the noise.

I abandoned the broken flamethrower and took of the glasses. We began to run in the direction of our station as fast as we could while the now unhindered rats started to climb over the barrier. The steel spikes and razor wire were barely affecting their progress. I looked around me. “Where’s Sergei?”

“I’m here.” I heard behind me. Sergei began running next to us. “I had to light the fuse.” He said, breathing heavily from the exertion. “We have about twenty seconds left.”

I began running even faster, becoming careless. I almost tripped over the railroad, but Sasha grabbed my arm and prevented me from falling over. I wanted to thank him when the world behind me exploded.

I was thrown to the ground by the force of the expanding air. Countless warnings that experienced metro inhabitants had given me about tunnel explosions ran through my mind. “Don’t hold your breath. The pressure will turn your lungs to mush. Fall to the ground and cover your ears if you can. Don’t stand near explosions. It’s bad for your health.”

The noise was so terribly loud that I couldn’t even think for a moment. In my daze I could see the tunnel starting to fill with a wave of dust. A few rats had been thrown in front of me by the force of the explosion. They were lying motionless on the track.

I tried to get up, but my legs gave out under me. I started to cough as the dust and smoke filled my lungs. I took a moment to regain my senses. A constant high pitched noise was all I could hear.

I finally managed to get up. Standing unsteadily on my legs I began to search for my friends. I turned on my flashlight and saw Sasha coughing while he supported himself with his arms against the tunnel wall. He must have noticed my light, because he gave me a thumbs up.

I looked to my left and saw that Sergei was already standing. He stared at the dust cloud, probably checking if any rats were still coming through. I doubted that the tunnel hadn’t properly collapsed, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

He saw me looking and gestured in the direction of our station. I nodded and walked to Sasha, tapping him the shoulder and pointing in the same direction as Sergei had.

As we started to begin the four hundred meter journey back home. We walked in silence and not just because we all had been, hopefully, temporarily deafened by the blast. Another piece of the metro was out of our reach and mankind was pushed just a bit closer to the edge. But our home station had survived, if barely and at great cost, and that was everything we could hope for in this world.

A small rabbit was sitting in the snow below me, sniffing the air. I couldn’t believe my luck when I noticed it despite its camouflaging white fur. I hadn’t eaten in three… four days? It didn’t matter. Soon my belly would be full and I could continue my mission.

I dropped from the air, using my wings to accelerate my descent. My horn began glowing with a bright green light as I prepared the protective spell that would allow me to smash myself harmlessly in the ground and kill the rabbit.

Unfortunately the rabbit glanced at the sky at that precise moment. My magic made me stand out like a sore thumb against the cold blue sky. The small mammal immediately began to sprint back to its burrow.

I tried to steer myself to where the rabbit would go underground when I suddenly felled a jab of pain in my horn. My magic started to give out and my protective cocoon disappeared. In my panic I opened my tattered wings, trying to slow my now uncontrolled fall as much as possible.

I landed in a gigantic heap of snow. The cold white pile broke my fall, preventing me from seriously hurting myself.

I dug my way out of the freezing cold. Grinding my teeth and hitting the snow with my dark front legs in frustration. The rabbit had long since escaped back into its safe and warm home. I dared not to scream in anger, fearing that I might attract a predator that had awoken from its winter sleep.

That rabbit could have been mine. Should have been mine. I lowered my head as I gently touched my smoking horn. "If only I wasn’t so weak.” I morosely thought to myself. “How can I serve my Queen and Hive if I’m dead?”

My thoughts went back to the tragedy that had happened a few months ago. At first everything had gone according to plan. Our Queen had bravely infiltrated the main Hive of the enemy on her own. She had risked life and limb for us.

We had been impatiently waiting outside of the magic purple cocoon that the ponies had created to shield themselves from us. We knew that our Queen would soon give the signal for us to start breaking through and feed on the ponies’ rich love.

Then something happened, I’m still not sure what, and our Queen was forced to reveal herself right in front of the immensely powerful Sun Queen. I remembered that terrible moment as we felt our Mother’s panic through the hive mind. Our anticipating grins had vanished and I could hear fearful screams for our Queen’s safety all around me. Some of my Sisters started to ram the shield in vain with their bodies in a desperate attempt to get to our Queen.

We felt our Mother straining against the Sun Queen’s power. The magic duel seemed to be nothing more than a way to buy some more time until we lost. Then we felt our Queen’s surprise. The enemy’s magic was strong, but her own magic seemed endless. She had fed so much on her thrall’s love that she could challenge even the Raiser of the Sun herself. I felt the feeling of triumph spreading through our collective consciousness as we felt the Sun Queen fall, we were so proud of our Mother. Nothing could beat us.

We now broke through the shield with ease and flooded the enemy Hive. The pitiful resistance of the ponies’ soldiers was broken under our aerial attacks. We rammed our bodies in the ground near them and when they were dazed from the shock we packed them into our green cocoons and started feeding on their love. We grew stronger with every defeated enemy.

Only a few small groups of ponies were giving us serious trouble, but after a couple of fierce fights they were all overwhelmed by our numbers. I had just caught one of the winged guards when I looked up and saw our Queen overlooking us from a balcony with joy in her eyes. My heart filled with warmth for our Mother. We had made her happy and proud. It was the best moment of my life.

The moment couldn’t last though. A blinding white and purple light appeared behind our Queen and I could feel how confusion began to spread through our hive mind like ripples in a lake.

I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I was suddenly thrown through the air and could see forests and mountains below me as I flew uncontrollably fast. I must have managed to use my magic to protect myself from the fall though, since I wasn’t hurt in any physical way.

I looked up from the small crater I had made, not recognizing where I was. There were trees and small plants everywhere. I could see the clouded sky through the foliage behind me where I had left a trail of destruction in my fall.

I quickly tapped into our shared consciousness, hoping to discover what had happened and what I should do. I felt growing confusion and a few cries of pain in our hive mind. It seemed that not everyone had been as lucky with their landing as I had been. We cried out for our Queen. Was she still safe and alive? What had happened?

I felt relieve as her majestic voice filled my mind. She commanded all of my Sisters to come back to our Hive and take the wounded with us if they were in our close vicinity. All of us except for the scouts, we had a task of tremendous importance. We had to find a new source of love. The ponies were out of the question, seeing how they would suspect us among them now. But we had to find a reliable and large source as fast as possible or the Hive would perish.

I couldn’t believe it. How had we been beaten so fast and so completely? We had gone from winning to utter defeat in a matter of seconds. But there was no time to ask questions or mourn our loss. The Queen had given me my orders and I would do my utmost best to fulfill them.

That had been a few months ago. At first I had been hopeful. Food was easy to find in the forest. I could ask our shared mind what berries and fruits were edible and there was more than enough wild life I could hunt. The small creatures almost never saw me coming through the thick foliage as I rammed myself on or near them and quickly plunged my fangs into them.

I could hear promising reports from my fellow scouts as they started to infiltrate a few Griffon and Minotaur communities. They quickly adapted to their surroundings and managed to feed of the love of the unsuspecting creatures, bringing it back to the Hive to power the rest of my Sisters. The only problem was that it just wasn’t enough. We could barely hunt for the entire Hive with the little power they had harvested.

We couldn’t afford to send out more of us to the communities, the sudden increase of population would surely be noticed and we would be found out. Besides, we needed almost everyone in the Hive to take care of the wounded. Quite a few of them had broken the chitin armor of their limbs when they had fallen and the healing process was very slow. Especially without the so much needed healing spells that we lacked the power for.

As the weeks passed I could feel my hope being replaced by doubt and despair. The weather was growing colder and fruit became scarce. The small creatures I was hunting began to become aware of my presence in the forest and started to scan the air more often. The fact that the trees were starting to lose their leaves made my black armor even more noticeable against the grey and blue sky.

My own energy was fading, too. It had been so long since I had fed on the love of another that my magic began to give out. It became unreliable and I could feel myself becoming more tired every day. I still hadn’t encountered a single spark of love in this Queen forsaken forest.

My own troubles were reflected by the Hive itself. Food became scarcer and my Sisters couldn’t risk bringing the harvested love back to the Hive without freezing during the long trips they had to make.

I shook my head. There was no time for thinking about the past. I still had a mission to fulfill. No matter how hopeless things were, I still had to do my best. I couldn’t fail my mission. I didn’t dare to think about what failure would mean for us.

I took off to the sky. My wings buzzing as I scanned the ground below me with hunger in my eyes. Maybe I could find some berries or nuts that a squirrel had forgotten to recollect. Maybe I could find something that would save my Hive.

I couldn’t give up hope.

Chapter 2: Fear and Hunger

Fear and Hunger

My home was in chaos. It felt like everyone in the station had gathered in the small cramped marketplace. The stalls that sold ammo and food had been set aside against the walls to make more room in the market. Still, people had to stand shoulder to shoulder and there was barely room to move.

The gaslights and electric light bulbs that hung from the ceiling and walls were barely giving of enough light to see the worry and confusion on the faces of the people I had known for my entire life. The sound of almost two hundred voices talking over each other bounced of the grimy cement walls, making any attempt to understand what was said futile.

I looked up at the platform where our leader was standing. The lamp next to him threw shadows on his face as he stood behind a simple wooden lectern, overlooking the arguing crowd with a tense expression.

An annoyed looking guard dressed in armor and with a shotgun in his hands was standing on the rusty ladder that lead to the platform. He was there more for symbolic purposes than anything else. No one would even think about attacking our leader, he was something of a hero to our station.

Alex had been a maintenance man in the metro before mankind was forced to live underground in the biggest fallout shelter in the world. His knowledge of the complex metro system had proven to be invaluable in those first months of panic and he was personally responsible for saving more than half of the inhabitants of the station. The people had respected his efforts and skill, the choice to make him our leader had seemed natural.

To this day he still wore his old maintenance uniform like a badge of honor, even though it wasn’t much more than a bunch of threads held together by duct tape and optimism.

Our leader finally had enough of the noise. I saw him raise an old worn down megaphone in front of him. I quickly covered my ears. My poor eardrums had already endured enough and I wasn’t planning on losing my hearing. The people around me were too busy arguing among themselves to see the danger that was coming.

“QUIET!” He bellowed. The people shrank back from the force of his electronically amplified shout.
I saw Alex putting the megaphone down, apparently satisfied by the people’s stunned silence.

“Now, I know that you all are shocked by what happened at the Northern station.” He said in a more reasonable volume. “So let me first assure you that the northern tunnel has been collapsed. We are in no danger of the rats.” He looked at where Sergei, Sasha, and I were standing. “My compliments to our guards by the way.”

A few cheers rose from the crowd and I could feel hands slapping my back in praise. I felt awkward and undeserving of their compliments. What had happened in the tunnels had terrified me. Besides, it had been Sasha and Sergei who had done all the real work while I had almost doomed us.

I hadn’t heeded Sergei’s advice about using short bursts and had just held down the trigger constantly. This had caused the flamethrower to overheat and malfunction. I had felt terrible when Sergei had explained this to me after I complained about the broken weapon.

The veteran didn’t blame me though. He said that I had been under a lot of stress and that it was an understandable beginner’s mistake. His forgiving words did little to take away my shame about my incompetence.

Unlike me, Sasha seemed to revel in the attention of the crowd. He was laughing and shaking hands. I think I even saw him pose for a moment. Sergei just stood stoically and gave a simple nod when someone praised him.

After a few seconds Alex raised his hands in a hushing gesture and the crowd calmed down. “Okay, okay, that’s enough celebrating,” he continued. “I am sure that you all are aware of the more pressing problem we have.” I could see several people nodding; the mood instantly became somber. “Our northern guests,” he said.

I felt a pang of sympathy for the Northerners. They were standing outside of our station while several of our guards were watching over them. There had been a charged moment when my station had asked them to surrender their weapons. After a few minutes of heated discussion among themselves they had grudgingly relented and handed over their guns. They knew that they had no other choice and now they had to sit and wait while we decided their fate. I didn’t envy them one bit.

A man in the crowed spoke up. “Our mushroom farms barely produce enough for us as it is! There’s no way we can keep them here, we’ll starve!” I recognized him as one of the farmers I had worked with before I was sent to the northern tunnel.

“Where are they going to sleep and live?” A woman, who I believed to be one of our weapon smiths, asked behind me. “We don’t have any room and I’m not going to give up my house and sleep in the tunnels!”

“So we’ll lose a little living space, who cares?” One of the shop owners shouted. “The Northerners have been nothing but good trade partners and now you’re willing to turn your back on them when they need our help? I’ll gladly suffer through some hunger cramps if we can save them!”

After these words the discussion quickly got out of control. People were screaming accusations at each other calling the people who were for helping the Northerners shortsighted fools and those against were called cold and uncaring.

I was thankful for the more compassionate people, but the words of the other made me feel torn. We were horribly underprepared to take care of so many people and showing kindness might mean the end of all of us. What help would we be if we all starved together? Still, didn’t we have a responsibility to help these people as best as we could?

My thoughts were interrupted as I saw Alex grabbing his megaphone again. I tried to cover my ears, but I was too slow. “SILENCE!” He shouted at full force, his voice echoed against the walls. I cringed and grabbed my head in my hands as my ears started to ring.

“Now, as I was trying to say,” Alex said in an irritated tone as he looked at the dazed crowed. “I have come to a decision. We are obligated to give these people refuge. We must not forget our humanity, especially in these unforgiving times we have to remember who we are.”

“Humanity!?” A tall and bearded man in the back scoffed. “Is that what I’m going to have to tell my children when they are asking why we won’t be eating tomorrow or why they can’t sleep in their beds?” The man pointed an accusing finger at Alex. “Forget your humanity!”

Alex looked calmly at the man. “Oh, is that so Dmitri? Should I just have forgotten my humanity when I led you and your family to this station? Not knowing if you would be able to pull your weight and help us survive? Should I just have taken the easy way out and sent you back to the tunnels to die?”

The man stared at the ground. I could barely hear him grumble his reply. “It’s not the same.”

“No it isn’t,” Alex admitted with a sigh. “It’s true that we can’t keep these people here forever, we just don’t have the resources. I do have a plan however.” Alex slowly ran his eyes over the crowd, seemingly looking at every face for a short moment

“We will send out a few of our own on a diplomatic mission.” He said with determination in his voice. “The Southern station has been trying to expand its boundaries and build larger farms. They approached me some time ago, asking if I could send them some people. I had to refuse at first, but now it seems that we have people to spare.”

“I’m not going to lie,” Alex continued his speech. “Until we can come to an agreement with the Southern station, times will be hard, but I urge you to remember that we are all these people have left.” He looked at Sasha, Sergei and me again. “Oh! Before I forget, can the guards of the Northern tunnel meet me at the depot as soon as possible? That is all.” Alex turned off the lamp that was standing next to him, indicating that the station meeting was over.

I could see the people at the edge of the crowd slowly walking out of the market place and into the hallways of our station. They had hushed conversations as they walked back to their jobs or homes. As we waited till there was enough room for the three of us to leave I asked the obvious question. “What do you guys think Alex wants from us?”

“Maybe he wants to give us a medal for our heroism.” Sasha said in a giddy voice. “Oh! Even better, maybe we’ll get a free lunch!”

“Did you even listen?” Sergei berated my friend. “Tough times are coming. You’ll be lucky if you see a meal twice a day from now on.”

“Come on guys, I think we can finally leave.” I quickly said as I pointed to the hallway that would lead us to the depot, trying to stop their argument before it could really start.

The two men agreed and we started to make our way through the tinned out crowd. I saw a few of the stall owners setting up their shops and I could see the routine of the station slowly starting up again.

As we walked in the cramped hallway we had to frequently duck to avoid random wooden beams and squeeze ourselves against the houses that were set up against the walls when we passed other people. The houses were made of sandbags, tires, rusted metal sheets, and wooden planks. Anything we could get our hands on was used.

I could see people laying down cardboard beds and pieces of cloth on the mud filled floor for the Northerners to sleep on. “Things are going to be claustrophobic for a while.” I thought to myself.

After a few minutes of making our way through the busy halls I could finally see the door that had a small wooden sign with “Depot” written on it by someone with terrible handwriting.

As I opened the door I expected to see Viktor, the small man with incredibly thick glasses that took care of the depot, and maybe a few of the guards that were here sometimes to maintain their weapons. Instead of this I saw that there was only one man standing in the room, Alex.

Our leader had his back turned to us as he was rummaging through the many wooden boxes that were said up against one of the walls. A few words written with a black marker indicated what was in each of them.

“Ah. You guys are here, please take a seat.” He gestured to the chairs and worktables that were set up near the small firing range.

I looked at my friends in confusion. Sergei answered my unspoken question with a small shrug. He took a seat and shoved away the many guns parts and bits of ammo that were cluttering the table in front of him. Sasha and I followed his example and sat down next to him

“Aha! I knew it was still here!” Alex exclaimed behind me as he picked up a small box that had several warnings and skull and crossbones symbols printed on it. He walked to our table and carefully set down the wooden box in front of us.

Our leader paced to the door and quickly closed it. “You are probably wondering what’s going on.” He walked to our table and put his hands on the rough surface. “I’m afraid that I haven’t been completely honest with everyone.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Sergei asked. Alex looked at him. His expression was tired, like all the worries of the world were pressing on his shoulders.

“I didn’t decide to help the Northerners just out of the goodness of my heart” He stared at one of the bullets that was lying on top of the table. “You might remember that the Northerners were one of our biggest trade partners, we depended on them to supply new air and water filters and food. Now that they are gone…” He sighed. ”Well, I think you can imagine what this means for our station.” He looked all of us in the eyes for a moment.

I felt my heart sink as he stared at me. I hadn’t even considered how important the Northerners had been for us.

“If the Southern station is able to expand they’ll maybe have enough to support us too.” Alex continued, looking back at the table. “We need to establish a better trading agreement with them and these fifty people that are sitting outside of our station are probably the only way that we’ll be able to do that.”

“Excuse me, sir, but why are you telling this to us?” Sasha said, uncharacteristically serious.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” Sergei spoke up. “Who do you think he’s going to send to the Southerners?”

I could feel a clump of ice forming in my stomach as I realized what the veteran had just implied. Alex nodded, confirming Sergei’s suspicions. “Yes. Now that the northern tunnel is gone you guys are free to undertake this mission. Also, you have all proven yourselves to be more than capable to handle emergencies.” I avoided Alex’s eyes as I thought about my blunder with the flamethrower.

“But why do just the three of us have to go?” Sasha asked. “Wouldn’t it be easier and safer to bring all the Northerners with us? No mutant would think about attacking a group that big.”

Alex looked up; a sad smile was on his face. “You don’t know the mutants very well, do you? Besides, don’t you remember the chaos when fifty people appeared unannounced at our station? You might not have noticed it, but if the Northerners hadn’t been wise enough to hand over their weapons we might have had a war on our hands.” He shook his head. “No, we have to take things slow and give the Southerners time to prepare. Besides, it’s not just going to be the three of you.”

“Indeed.” I almost jumped up in fright as I heard an unexpected voice right behind me. I turned around and saw Stepan watching us with his one good eye.

“H… How did you get in here?” I asked nervously. I had been sure that there hadn’t been anyone in the room besides us. I glanced at the door. It was still locked and seemed untouched.

“That’s not important, pup.” He replied. I felt a scowl forming on my face as a he used the unwanted nickname. “What is important is that I’m going to be your guide in the tunnels.”

Alex looked up, seemingly unsurprised at the man’s ability to appear out of thin air. “Yes, a man like Stepan should prove to be very useful on your journey.” He picked up the wooden box that had been sitting on the table. “Now before you gear up and go to the Southern tunnel I want you to see this.”

He opened the box very carefully. I peered inside and saw a grey cylinder lying on a red cushion. Alex opened the cylinder, revealing a thick layer of foam and a beautiful bottle. It had an intricate design that made it look like it was made out of crystals, somehow the soft light of the candles in the room was mirrored in the bottle and it seemed like the clear liquid inside contained a thousand small stars.

“Looks expensive.” Sasha said with awe in his voice. Even Sergei seemed a bit impressed.

“Oh, believe me, it is.” Alex put the bottle back in the cylinder and closed the grey container again. “This is actual pre-war vodka and good quality at that. Nothing like that mushroom juice we drink these days. Even before the war this particular bottle was worth more than a normal man earned in a year.” He held out the cylinder to me. “Take good care of it. The Southern station leader loves this kind of stuff. It will make the negotiations go over more smoothly.”

“Me?” I asked, disbelieve creeping in my voice.

“Yes Yuri, you.” Alex suddenly laughed as he saw my anxious expression. “Don’t be so nervous. I wouldn’t let you carry this if I thought that you couldn’t handle it. Besides, I’ve never seen someone so skilled at capturing a rampaging pig. If you can catch and hold a grown sow then I’m sure that you are more than capable of carrying a bottle.” I felt my face turn red at the embarrassing memory once again. It seemed like I would never be able to live that incident down.

“Well, I suggest that you take what you need. I expect you to be on your way in an hour. Good luck and be safe, we’re all counting on you guys.” Alex walked out of the depot and was about to close the door behind him when he suddenly stopped and turned around. “Before I forget, there’s also a present waiting for you at the Southern tunnel as a sort of ‘thank you’ for doing such an excellent job.”

Stepan started to follow Alex out of the door. “I already have what I need lying at the tunnel.” He called back to us. “Sergei, I trust that you’ll make sure that the pups get everything that’s necessary?”

I glanced angrily at his back as he walked away. I really started to dislike the strange man. Something about his behavior just sat wrong with me even though he hadn’t really done anything too deserve my irritation. Sasha and Sergei didn’t seem to mind him though, as they started gathering the needed supplies from the many boxes.

It took about half an hour till we were ready. “Okay, check one more time if you have everything we need,” Sergei said. I put my backpack on the ground before me and checked its contents.

Inside were a couple of bags that contained dried mushrooms that could sustain me for three days if it was necessary. To the right side was a large canteen that held two liters of water and to the left there was an old yellow Geiger counter. At the very bottom lay the grey cylinder that contained the bottle. I had wrapped it in an old towel to make extra sure that it wouldn’t be damaged.

I closed the backpack and started to check what I had on me. My gasmask hang on my left hip. It was old, but still functional. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it, seeing how it was mostly there in case we had to go to the surface. The air up there was filled with poisonous gasses and radioactive dust particles that would ruin your lungs in less than a minute. I pushed the thoughts out of my mind. If everything went even remotely right we would never have to go up there.

Next to the gasmask hang a universal charger that I could use to power the batteries of my flashlight. It was a simple device with a hand crank and a dynamo, but I was sure that it would be vital in our travels through the complete darkness of the tunnels.

On my right hip hang a holster with a simple revolver in it. On my back I had a double barreled shot gun and a metro made assault rifle that was cobbled together from at least three different guns. Carrying all these weapons felt like overkill, but Sergei assured me that I would wish that I could have carried more if even half of the stories about what lurked in the metro were true.

My final weapon was a trench knife that was kept in a sheath on my left shoulder. I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it. I had no idea how to use it in a fight, except for the obvious stabbing and slashing parts, but I doubted that I would stand a chance against anything if I had to resort to using it.

I had ammo for my weapons in the various pouches that were on my armor and in one of them I had a cheap plastic lighter. Under my armor I had several layers of old clothes to protect me against the biting cold of the tunnels.

“I think that I have everything.” I said as I slipped my shoulders between the straps of my backpack.

“Urgh. This stuff weighs a ton.” Sasha complained as he struggled with his equipment.

“That’s good, maybe you’ll get some muscles to compensate for your brain.” Sergei said with a smirk on his face.

My friend gasped in mock shock. “I can’t believe my ears. Did you just make an actual joke?”

The veterans face quickly turned back to its usual serious expression as he muttered his reply. “… maybe.”

“Hah! Stick around with me and I’ll teach you a thing or two about humor.” Sasha said as he swung an arm around the man’s shoulders.

Sergei pushed my friend’s arm away. “Forgive me if I withhold my enthusiasm.” He said as he rolled his eyes.

Despite my nerves about our mission I couldn’t help but smile at their antics. “So, are we going to the tunnels or do we need anything else?” I asked them.

“I should probably first say goodbye to my parents,” Sasha replied. “My dear old mother would be heartbroken if she couldn’t give me an hour long speech about everything I need to watch out for. ‘Sashenka, watch out for mutants. Sashenka, don’t go up to the surface. Sashenka, wear clean underwear every day.’” Sasha said in an atrocious impression of his mother’s voice.

“Yeah, I need to ask granny Yana is she can take care of my little brother for a while.” Sergei said as he started to walk out of the door. “You can go ahead to the tunnel entrance if you like. We’ll see you in twenty minutes.”

“Ha! Tell that to my mother.” Sasha snorted as he followed Sergei out of the depot.

I didn’t have anyone in particular to say goodbye to, but that didn’t bother me. A lot of people in the metro had lost their entire family, so we banded together. When I was young everyone in the station had raised me, like so many other children. The farmers had taught me how to work, the guards had told me stories around the campfires and showed me how to fire guns, and the others had always given me a place to sleep or food to eat. The entire station felt like an extended family to me and I doubted that I could say goodbye to everyone in twenty minutes.

I sat down and started to build little forts out of the spare gun parts and ammo on the table to pass the time. After about fifteen minutes I finished my master piece, a fort that came up to my knees. Viktor had quite the surprise waiting for him when he would be back. I laughed softly as I walked out of the depot.

As I made my way through the halls of the station I heard the familiar noises of people working, repairing things, bartering at the shops or just chatting and laughing together. We had to be successful on this mission. I couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to these people, they were my life and if I had to go through the tunnels to save them, I would. No matter how dangerous it would be.

I finally saw the entrance of the ominous tunnel as the cramped hallways opened up into the larger station room. I jumped from the station platform on the rail tracks and walked to the handcar we would be using to travel. I saw that the rest of my companions had already arrived.

The three of them were sitting on the track with cups of mushroom soup in their hands. I could see little clouds of steam rising up from the meals. As I sat down next to them Sasha handed one of the cups over to me. “Hey look Yuri, free lunch from Alex!” He could barely contain his laughter as Sergei scowled at him.

I gratefully accepted the cup and started to drink. The warmth of the soup spread through my body, driving out the cold of the tunnel we sat in. I looked at the handcar as I drank. It was a not much more than a wooden platform on wheels with some metal plates as armor on the sides. There was barely enough place for four people to sit. In the middle of the car were two steel arms in a sort of seesaw set up that could be used to propel the pump trolley along the tracks. It was nothing fancy, but I was relieved that we wouldn’t have to walk.

When we had finished our meal Stepan and Sergei went up to the barricades to remove the blockades with the other guards. Sasha and I sat on the handcar and would move it when the track was finally open.

“Can you believe it?” My friend asked me with excitement in his voice. “We’re finally going to get out of this boring station and see the tunnels!”

I didn’t share my friend’s enthusiasm. “I don’t know Sasha, the tunnels are incredibly dangerous. Who knows what lurks out there.” I replied to him with an unsure look on my face.

“That’s exactly my point!” Sasha pointed past the barricade. “Who knows what is out there! What new things we’ll see. We’re going to an entirely different station. Aren’t you at least a little bit curious about what’s out there?” My friend asked as he looked at me with an excited smile on his face.

I was about to answer him when I heard Sergei yelling at us. “They way is clear! Get that thing moving!” Sasha and I stood up and started to push and pull the metal arms to move the car. We slowly rolled past the sandbags and flamethrowers that were set up at the barricade.

Once we were past the blockade I pulled the handbrake to stop the car and let Stepan and Sergei get on. One of the guards walked up to us as his colleagues started to rebuild the blockade behind us. I recognized him as a man that was called Boris.

“Be careful out there guys. Don’t go off the track and if you see anything move that isn’t human, shoot it.” The man advised us. He suddenly looked at me. “Also, Yuri, I have to warn you about something.” I watched him with interest, wondering what he had to say to me specifically. “The piglets in the metro are ten times as viscous as the ones in our station.”

I could hear the guards at the blockade laughing as they heard what Boris said. For some mysterious reason I didn’t think that the joke was that funny.

“Thanks.” I grumbled, not meaning it one bit. “Let’s get out of here guys.” Sasha and I started to work the levers again and the handcar started to slowly pick up speed as we got further away from my home.

I could see the old rusty pipes and burned out electricity cables on the sides of the tunnel. They seemed to stretch out into infinity as they followed the walls into the gaping darkness ahead of us.

As the tunnel started to curve to the right I looked behind me. I could slowly see the station behind me being blocked more and more by the wall. And eventually I couldn’t see it anymore as we were swallowed up by the darkness.

Our journey had begun.

”Come on… you’re almost there…” I thought to myself as I saw the small rabbit moving closer to me.

”Just a bit more to the right… come on…” I had been waiting for hours under a blanket of snow, completely hidden except for my light blue eyes. I was freezing, but it would be worth it if I could finally get that stupid furball.

”Yes… just a little bit more.” The unsuspecting mammal was almost close enough. Soon I would finally be able to eat. Just the thought of food was almost enough to make me drool.

Then my stomach betrayed me. It started to rumble loudly and painfully. The rabbit’s ears shot up and it looked straight into my eyes.

I burst out from under my cold blanket, making snow fly everywhere. The rabbit was too shocked to move as I grabbed it as quickly as I could with my almost frozen limbs.

The rabbit let out a terrible scream, much louder than I had thought possible for such a small creature. I quickly plunged my fangs into its exposed neck and jerked my head back, breaking the rabbit’s neck and killing it instantly.

I was in a state of bliss as I started to frantically eat the warm meal. I was almost crying in relief, I had been so hungry that it had physically hurt. I was so absorbed in my meal that I almost forgot the world around me.

I froze when I heard a bush next to me rustle. Something was watching me. I grabbed the half eaten rabbit in my mouth and slowly walked backwards as I could see the bush starting to shake more violently.

Then a goat poked its head out from behind the shrub. I sighed in relief. What was a goat even doing in this forest? It was miles away from civilization, as I had discovered after many months of searching for any sign of sentient creatures.

I froze as I saw a lion head popping up next to the goat. I could feel fear filling my mind as I realized what was happening. A lion and a goat standing so close together without fighting could only mean one thing. As the creature walked out of the bush my fears were confirmed.

The chimera let out a mighty roar. The lion heads looked at me with hunger in its eyes as I could see its entire body and the part where the goat head sprouted from the chimera’s body. Ribs were visible under its fur. The snake head that was the “tail” of the body hissed at me in malevolent anticipation. Its forked tongue slipped out between its poisonous fangs.

I ran.

Biting hard on the rabbit’s fur I made sure that it wouldn’t fall out of my mouth as I dodged trees and rocks. I tried not to slip on the icy surface of the stones that lay sporadically on the ground.

Behind me I could hear the mighty paws of the chimera running on the snow. I heard the sound of its loud breaths coming closer and closer. The three headed beast was catching up to me!

I spread open my wings, flapping them in a desperate attempt to escape the monster. It was no use though. They were much too cold and stiff from lying under the snow for so long. Even if that hadn’t been the case I doubted that I would have been able to take off. I was just too weakened by days of not eating and I had long since run out of the power I needed to use my flight magic.

I made a few sharp turns through a part of the forests where the thick trees stood very close to each other and hid behind one of the ancient wooden giants. Trying to breathe as quietly as possible as my heart pounded in my chest.

I could hear the creature stop. It had apparently lost my trail. I felt a spark of hope. Maybe I would be able to get out of this mess after all.

I peeked out from the side of the tree and saw the creature standing a few meters away. Growling and sniffing at the trees and bushes. One of the bushes started to shake and the goat head instantly reared back and spat a ball of fire at the shrub. As the plant caught fire a bird flew away, whistling in panic as it escaped the flames unharmed.

The chimera roared and continued its search for me. The beast suddenly stopped as the snake head started to frantically taste the air with its tongue and hissed in my direction, trying to get the attention of the other heads.

I quickly hid behind the tree again. “How did it smell me?” I thought as I started to panic. I looked at the dead mammal in my mouth. Blood was staining its fur and I saw red droplets dripping on the snow in front of me.

As I stared at the creature the pieces connected in my head. The rabbit’s scream had attracted the chimera in the first place and now its blood was revealing where I was. The cursed animal seemed to mock me with its dead eyes.

”Fine, you win, but I’m not leaving empty hooved.” I thought in anger. I spat out the creature and picked it up with my right front leg. I was grinding my teeth in frustration as I threw my precious meal as far away from me as I could. It landed on the ground with a thud and the chimera immediately jumped on it and started to devour the small rabbit.

I ran to the bush that had been set on fire and quickly picked up one of the burning branches that had fallen on the ground. I took care to keep the burning end as far away from my face as possible and looked back at the terrible creature.

The snake head was hissing furiously as it tried to point out my escape to the rest of its body, but the lion head was too preoccupied with the small rabbit. The goat head just stared at the ground, perhaps searching for a few of the precious plucks of grass that could still be found.

I turned around and ran away. The rabbit would not keep the chimera busy forever and it would certainly not sate its appetite. I did not want to be around when it was done.

I ran for what felt like hours, my legs were burning and my breathing became ragged. I knew that it was probably my weakened state that made my crazed dash seem that long. The small branch in my mouth hadn’t burned up, so I couldn’t have been running for more than a dozen minutes.

I slowed down until I was walking and started to look for a place to sleep. I had to find shelter before the night fell. While my improvised torch gave of a welcome warmth and enough light to see by at night, I knew that it would just make me stand out to any nocturnal predators in the dark forest.

I wandered until I saw a small alcove in one of the large rocks that were spread across the forest. It would have to do for the night.

I stuck the burning branch with its unlit end in the snow, making it stand upright. I went in the forest and started to look for any dry twigs and branches that I could use to make a small campfire.

It took me a while to find something I could use. Most of the wood was to wet from lying in the snow, but I was lucky enough to find a toppled over dead tree whose branches were dry enough to be used as firewood.

As I went in the small alcove I used the still burning twig to start a small campfire. I lay down on the hard ground as light and heat began the chase away the cold and dark atmosphere of the alcove.

I felt tired and wanted to do nothing more than sleep, but I first had to make contact with my Sisters again to let them know that I was still alive and searching.

I shut my eyes and started to concentrate on making contact with the shared consciousness. It was getting more difficult every day to make contact as I started to become weaker and weaker. I hoped that the Hive was still alright, but I had to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to reporting another day of failure.

As I tried to make contact I slowly came to a horrible realization. I couldn’t feel any minds. No matter how hard I tried I didn’t feel the familiar and comforting feeling of thousands of voices filling my being.

I started to panic in my little hideout. My breathing became fast and my heart started to pound in my chest. ”What had happened? Is the Hive still alright? Are my Sisters and Queen even still alive?” I started to feel lightheaded until an idea pushed its way to the front of my mind.

I was completely out of magic. That was the only explanation that made sense. If the Hive had been attacked my Sisters would at least have send out a mental warning to the scouts to come back and defend the Queen. The process of making contact with my Sisters required very little magic, but it still needed it.

”Yes, that has to be it.” I thought to myself as I tried to calm my heart. ”They are still alright, you just need to find some love to power up again and everything will be fine.”

Then I realized the horrible truth. I was all alone. For the first time in my life I wasn’t able to get in contact with the rest of my Sisters. I was all alone in this cursed forest. Days away from my Hive and Queen.

Even though my stomach was half full and I had a bit of warmth for the first time in ages I couldn’t enjoy it. I sat in my hideout staring at the fire and I suddenly wasn’t able to sleep despite my tiredness.

I was up all night as I watched the fire slowly die in my alcove.


Chapter 3: Dreams


The tunnel was dark.

Only a few patches of sickly green light came from the fluorescent fungus that grew on the walls. Water droplets periodically fell from broken pipes in small puddles that had formed beneath them. Our flashlights barely pierced through the oppressive darkness, casting a dim light on our surroundings.

They revealed the same cracked grey walls, fuse boxes, train tracks, and the occasional door that led to small maintenance stations. Only the tunnels that met up with ours, or branched off into the unknown depths of the metro, spruced up the monotonous sight we had been seeing for the past few minutes.

At least, I thought we had been in the tunnels for a couple of minutes. There was no real way to measure time in this place. We could have been here for hours or merely seconds. Time simply seemed to lose all meaning as Sasha and I worked the levers of our handcar. The creaking sound of our work was the only noise that echoed in the silence.

I was relieved that everything had been going alright so far, but I also felt strangely disappointed. Since I was a little boy people had been telling me stories about this place. About the bandits, mutants, and other dangers that roamed the metro. This place had taken on mythical proportions in my mind. To find out that the trip was so safe felt like an anti-climax.

My friend spoke up and voiced my unspoken thoughts. “This is not what I had in mind when I heard that we would be going in the tunnels.” His face was red from the effort it took to make the hand car move.

“Be glad,” Sergei said as he scanned the dark behind us. The magazine of his metro-made assault rifle stuck awkwardly out of the side of the weapon as he swayed it slowly to the left and right; watching out for any possible dangers. “Don’t tell me you really want to fight of a horde of mutants.”

“Well, it would at least be a change of pace from this boring tunnel we’ve been in for the past few hours.” My friend replied as he looked up from his lever and shone his flashlight on the twentieth fuse box we had seen.

The veteran scoffed. “You do realize that you really are a moron, don’t you?” Sergei answered my friend as he looked over his shoulder and frowned at him.

“Come on, man. Where is your sense of adventure?” Sasha said as he let go of the lever. He used both of his arms to gesture wildly at the tunnel as he spoke. “These are the tunnels of the metro. All the danger and excitement is here! Evil bandits, hidden treasures, Nazis and Reds that are fighting, new and strange stations to see, it’s all here!”

“Sasha! A little help, please,” I said in a strained tone as I suddenly had to work twice as hard to keep the car moving.

My friend gave me an apologetic grin as he started to assist me again. “Still, you know what I mean. We might even meet a ranger or a stalker! Can you imagine that?” His voice was filled with awe as he stared at the wall to his side, lost in daydreams about these legendary figures of the metro.

I could hear Stepan letting out a short laugh. He had his back turned against us as he watched the front of the car for obstacles and dangers. “Imagine that indeed,” he said.

“Is there something we are missing?” I said with more irritation in my voice than I had intended. The scarred man didn’t seem to notice or mind though, as he just kept staring at the tunnel in front of him.

“You two pups have no idea about what it’s like out here.” He sat motionless as he talked, never letting his eye wander from the tracks. “You sit safe behind your flamethrowers in your luxurious homes as the rest of the metro is bleeding out, day by bay.” His voice was calm and tired, like he had had this conversation a thousand times before, and had never convinced a single soul. “You pups only care about the rest of the metro if you’re in danger or if you can profit. Ignoring everything, but your own needs. I don’t blame you though. The other stations would do the same if they could.”

“We do care!” The loudness of my response surprised me a bit. Sasha quickly looked at me with concern in his eyes at my unexpectedly abrupt reply. I could feel my cheeks flushing red as I continued with a more restrained voice. “We are out here, risking our lives for your people. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?”

I could see Stepan’s back rising and falling as he let out a deep sigh. “Pup, you’re only out here because Alex asked you to come. And Alex only sent you out because he needs us.” He spoke like he was explaining some painfully obvious truth to a not particularly bright child. “I’m not ungrateful for his help, but I do know that we are nothing more than a bargaining chip to him. He’s an old and clever metro fox, helping people, but being bright enough to gain something from it.”

He was wrong. I could feel in the deepest corners of my heart that the man was wrong, but I was unable to find the words that could express my conviction. I looked back at the veteran behind me. “Sergei, help me out,” I implored.

The veteran looked over his shoulder and straight into my eyes as he answered me. “He’s right Yuri, that’s just the way it is.” He turned his eyes away from me and back to the darkness behind us. “We just can’t afford to care about others these days.” He spoke in a hushed tone as he continued. “The best we can do is protecting our own while we don’t hurt others.”

I turned away from the man’s cold words and looked at my friend in front of me. “Sasha, tell him he’s wrong!” I pleaded. Sasha’s shoulders were slumped as he avoided my gaze and focused on pulling and pushing the lever.

“Well… you’re wrong!” I shouted at Stepan’s back. I was barely able to keep my creeping doubts out of my voice. The man didn’t even flinch.

“Oh really, pup?” I heard him ask as he leaned back a little. “If you care so much, then I’m sure that you can answer a simple question.” He paused for a moment. “What is my station’s name?”

His question felt like a punch to the gut. I had heard it somewhere; I had to have heard it somewhere. I frantically searched my memories for any mention of their real name, but my mind came up blank. They had always been the Northerners for me and everyone else in my station. We never talked about other stations. Isolated as we were because of our lack of special trading materials and untouched by the wars because of our flamethrowers. I couldn’t answer the man.

“That’s what I thought,” Stepan said in a completely unsurprised voice. “Don’t worry too much about it, pup. It’s not like it matters anymore, we are just another story for the metro now.”

I was quiet for a moment. I didn’t know what to say and just focused on propelling the car for a minute as we sat in complete silence once again. It seemed that Sasha and Sergei were just glad that the uncomfortable conversation was finally over. Then finally, a question came to my mind. “Will you tell me about your station?”

I could see Stepan tense up. “I already told you, pup, it doesn’t matter anymore.” He said in a gruff voice as he tried to end our little chat. “We are already gone. You don’t have to pretend to care.”

“I do care,” I insisted. For some reason I needed to know more about the Northerners. Three hundred people shouldn’t be forgotten just like that.

I could see Stepan slowly turning his head to face me as he kept his weapon pointed at the darkness in front of us. He first looked at me with contempt in his still living eye, but when he had studied my face for a second, I could see his expression soften. “You really want to know, don’t you?” He sounded a bit surprised as he let out a soft and empty laugh. “Hah! That kind of thinking is going to get you killed. But if you really want to know.” He continued that mirthless chuckle as he turned his focus back at the tunnel. “My station was called-“ He abruptly turned around, I could see panic on his face. “Stop!” he shouted as he flung himself at our handbrake.

Sparks lit up the track and a horribly loud screeching noise filled the tunnel. The car started to shake violently and almost toppled over until we were abruptly slammed against something. I could feel my stomach turn as I fell out of the car and landed hard on the floor. My helmet was probably the only thing that prevented my skull from being cracked open on the hard ground.

I lay there, stunned, on my back for a moment, trying to regain my bearings. I could hear Sergei somewhere behind me saying something. It took me a moment before I finally understood that he was asking if everyone was alright.

I rolled to my side to see the car and to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling of my weapons and backpack poking my spine. I could feel a wave of dizziness flooding over me as I finally managed to open my eyes. The pump trolley was still upright, but a few of the tires were off the track and the front was smashed against a wall of rocks. I could see Stepan helping up Sasha in the car as Sergei was walking over to me.

The veteran crouched down next to me and shone his flashlight into my eyes. “Yuri, do you know where you are?” He opened my eyelids with his hand as I tried to close them against the painfully bright light.

“In… in the tunnels,” I answered as I tried my best to get away from that terrible light. I pushed Sergei’s hands away as I sat up, feeling nauseous to my core. I could feel a small headache coming on.

“Can you stand?” I tried to get up, but felt myself stumble. Sergei quickly supported me with his arm as he put me back on my feet.

I stood there for a moment as I waited until the dizziness finally wore off. I looked at Sergei as I slowly nodded my head, afraid that I would worsen the headache if I did it too fast.

Sergei shone the flashlight into my face once again, but this time I was able to keep my eyes open. “You should be fine.” Sergei patted me on the back as he went to the car to check on the others.

The bottle!’ I could feel fear flooding my mind as I almost ripped the backpack from my back and gently laid it on the ground. I reached into it and pushed away the flattened mushroom bags. I soon found the towel wrapped cylinder, and opened it to check the gift inside of it.

I sighed in relief as the stress left my body, the bottle was still in perfect condition. I carefully put it back in its place and started to walk to where my companions were standing.

I could see Stepan pushing and pulling on some of the rocks that were filling up the tunnel in front of us. “That’s some rotten luck,” he said with irritation in his voice as he stopped testing the fallen pieces of ceiling. “It’s going to take at least four days to clean up this mess.”

“I don’t think that we can afford four extra days,” Sergei said as he was shining his flashlight into the face of my friend. Sasha just kept insisting that it was unnecessary and that he was fine.

“Well then,” Stepan spoke as he pulled out a large piece of paper from his backpack. “I guess it’s a good thing that I’m here.”

I curiously walked over to the scarred man and peeked over his shoulder at the large paper. I recognized the web-like pattern of the Moscow metro, but the map was different from any I had seen before. Countless strange little symbols and unintelligible notes were drawn all over the map. I even saw that there were some hand drawn lines that indicated hidden routes.

It seemed like the man looked at me with his dead eye for a moment before he closed the map. “That’s not for your eyes, pup.” He put the map back in his backpack and turned to face all of us. I could feel my anger starting to build up as he called me that stupid nickname again; my now pounding headache wasn’t doing wonders for my mood either.

“We’re going to need to backtrack a few meters.” He gestured at the tunnel we came from. ”We’ll use one of the old maintenance tunnels to get around.” He started to walk away from the crashed car as he continued to talk, his footsteps echoed in the tunnel. “It’ll take a few extra hours, but it should be safe enough.”

The three of us just followed our guide in this desolate place. It seemed that we didn’t have much choice.

We had to walk for several minutes through the cold metro, revisiting the sights we had seen before. That is, until Stepan signaled with his hand for us to stop. I looked at the wall and saw a large ominous looking blast door. The red paint had been peeling of the door for years now, and I could see the thick steel underneath it. A small yellow light was above it, blinking on and off. To the sides of the door there where two large, rusted valves.

I could feel my headache grow as I stared at the ancient seal. For some reason it was hard to concentrate on the rectangular object. Had this door been here before? I didn’t remember seeing the massive and foreboding steel wall. Had I just forgotten or not noticed it? How could I have?

“Okay people, this tunnel is filled with gas, so put on your masks.” Stepan was already busy with tying the straps of his mask as he said this. His voice sounded muffled and strange through the filters.

I pulled the mask from my hip and checked the large visor. I was grateful that it apparently hadn’t cracked when I fell of the car. ‘Thanks for small mercies.’ I thought to myself as I strapped on the mask. The object hugging my face felt claustrophobic, but also strangely comfortable as it kept away some of the cold of the tunnel.

“Okay, Sasha, you take the left valve. Yuri, you take the other one.” Sergei commanded as he and Stepan pointed their guns at the door.

I nodded to the veteran and my friend as I walked to the rusted wheel on the right. As I touched the valve I could feel a strange sensation flowing through my gloves. It felt like the wheel was giving of cold and strange pulses of energy that made the hairs in my neck stand up.

I looked at my friend, but from the grin on his face I could deduce that he didn’t feel the same thing I did. “Hey Yuri, let’s make it a race! The one who stalls the other the least gets a pre-war cartridge.” I could only smile weakly as I heard Sergei giving of a groan of frustration at the playful behavior of my friend.

I started to turn the wheel. I had to strain my muscles to move the wheel. Every time I was able to rotate the valve I could feel the hostile sensation that came from it growing.

“Haha! I’m winning.” I could hear Sasha exclaim as he had to wait once again till I caught up to him. “Don’t make it too easy for me, Yuri!”

The ancient door slowly rose. I could hear metallic groans of protest as we disturbed the seal for what was probably the first time in years. Small white wisps of mist poured out from under the opened entrance.

When the door was half open I had to release the valve and I almost fell on my back, gasping for air. It felt like the wheel had burned me through my gloves with an intense hate.

Sasha stopped turning the wheel as he looked over to me. “Yuri, are you okay?” His muffled voice did little to hide his surprise.

“Yeah.” The small lie was voiced with ease. What else could I say? That a simple valve had scared me? “I’m okay, just a bit tired from everything.” I produced a shining military cartridge out of one off the pouches in my armor and I held it out to my friend. “I guess that you win.”

Sasha didn’t make an attempt to accept the cartridge. “Nah, you keep it.” I heard a forced chuckle coming from under my friends mask. “The taste of victory was enough for me. Just take it a bit easy okay? We wouldn’t want you falling over dead.”

Sergei walked to the metallic door and ducked under it, carefully scanning the area behind it with his gun and flashlight. “Okay, I think we can go through,” he said as he made his way out of the tunnel.

Sasha went in next. As I tried to follow him I could feel Stepan’s hand on my shoulder, holding me back. I turned around to ask him what was wrong, but he just stared at me with frowned eyebrows and a strange look in his eye, like he was searching for something.

Eventually he let me go. “Well, what are you waiting for pup? We haven’t gotten all day.” He let out another one of his empty laughs. I just tried to ignore my growing irritation at the man’s strange behavior.

As I ducked under the door I could see the hallway it had obscured. I felt awestruck as I saw what was in front of me. In a word, it was beautiful.

There were flowers growing all over the walls and floor. The small luminescent black plants gave of a stunning blue color, like I had never seen before. This light and that of our flashlights illuminated the poisonous gas and made it seems like we were walking through a river of mist. It was like we had stepped in the night sky of another world.

One of the plants next to me closed as I moved to it. As I studied the black leaves it slowly opened up again, almost like it was shy. “This… is amazing,” I managed to say.

Sasha was playing with the flowers, slowly standing next to them and then moving quickly to “scare” them into closing again. I could hear a muffled laugh coming from under his mask. Sergei was looking straight ahead at the other side of the tunnel. His weapon aimed at the mist.

“Yes, it’s quite something, isn’t it, pup?” I could hear Stepan saying as he made his way in the hall. “Don’t let its beauty fool you though. This place has claimed stalkers that were more experienced than me.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” I could see Sasha moving his hands wildly to emphasize his words, closing several flowers in the process. “You are a stalker?” My friend pointed at Stepan.

“Why do you think that Alex let him travel with us?” Sergei said as he was still watching the mist.

I could feel the pieces connect in my mind. It explained so much about the man, his strange behavior, his incredibly detailed map, the trust Alex had put into his abilities.

The scarred man chuckled under his mask. “Sergei, my friend, you’re removing my mysterious aura,” he said in mock anger at the veteran. “Soon the pups will believe that I’m just another man that lives and breathes like a normal person.”

“This is so awesome!” My friend was almost jumping in excitement. “So, have you ever been to the surface?” Sasha asked in a giddy voice as he looked at the scarred man with a spark in his eyes.

“I was born on the surface, pup, just like Sergei.” Stepan began to walk, the gas swirled around him as he made his way past the veteran.

“Oh, come on, you know what I mean.” My friend quickly followed behind the man. “Have you been there after the war?” He gestured upwards as he asked the question.

“Well, I wouldn’t be much of a stalker if I never went up to the surface, would I be?” Stepan answered as shone his light through the mist. “So, yes, I have been up there quite a few times. It’s been a year since the last time, though.”

“Why’s that?” Sasha enquired.

Stepan let out a barely inaudible laugh. “Pup, have you even seen my face?” He gestured at his blind eye. “About a year ago I got into a fight with a mutant who thought I’d make a nice meal. He pounced me when I wasn’t looking, and clawed at my face before I was able to put a bullet in his cursed head.” He stopped for a moment and threw a stone in the mist. I didn’t hear it land, but Stepan apparently did, as he continued to walk after a few seconds. “I was lucky enough to have a spare gasmask on me at that moment, or else I wouldn’t even be here.”

“I decided that I should quit before my luck ran out. Losing half of your vision isn’t really helpful when you already need eyes in the back of your head.” The man’s voice wasn’t bitter, but calm, like he had accepted his misfortune long ago.

“Anyway,” the old stalker continued. “I had made enough money from the stuff I found on the surface to settle down and life a comfortable life.” The man sighed as he threw another rock in the mist. “That is, until those rats ate the whole station, but that’s just life in the metro.”

“So, what’s it like in the other stations? Are there really-“ I couldn’t hear my friends next question as my headache intensified and a ringing began to fill my ears. I pressed my hands to the sides of my head as I almost fell from the sudden pain.

“Guys… stop for a moment… I…” I looked up. Only Stepan was still standing in the tunnel, watching the mist in front of him. “What?” I managed to say. The stalker picked up a stone and threw it to the side. I followed it with my eyes, and to my surprise I realized that the stone didn’t bounce of the wall. There was no wall anymore. Only the plants remained, seemingly floating like little torches in space.

“What is going on?” I asked him as my confusion grew. “What happened to my friends?”

“That’s not the right question.” Stepan still didn’t face me as he slowly started to walk again. “But it’s interesting that you consider the wellbeing of your friends so much.” He threw another stone in the emptiness surrounding us. “You depend a lot on them, don’t you? But you don’t need to worry about them. They’re safer than we are at the moment.”

“What are you talking about? Where are we!?” I was almost screaming at the man. Breathing became hard in the mask. No matter how much air I gasped, it never seemed to be enough.

“Now you’re asking the right questions.” The man stopped for a moment as he gestured for me to follow him. “You’re seeing the tunnel as it really is, it must have taken an interest into you.” I reached out with my hand to one of the lights as it floated away. “Don’t walk from the path,” Stepan quickly reprimanded me, seemingly knowing what I was doing without looking at me. “Many good men died trying to catch those cursed lures.” Stepan paused for a moment and crouched down; searching for more stones on the cement bridge we were walking on.

“You know, when the bombs fell, we lost so much more than just the surface.” His tone was morose, like he was mourning a long lost friend. “Some say that the bombs were so powerful that they tore a hole in reality itself.” The stalker watched as another stone was sacrificed to the abyss surrounding us. “Others say that God himself looked away in disgust and shame as our species committed suicide, and without his guard the world is slowly unraveling.” Another joyless laugh escaped his mask. “It doesn’t really matter who’s right anyway. Humanity is on its way out. We’re just ancient relics now, slowly dwindling away in these hellish holes our ancestors dug. Soon places like this will only be the worries of mutants and rats as the death rattles of our species finally subside.”

“How can you say those things?” My voice was slightly trembling. The stress of everything was getting to me. “We can still retake the surface. We can fight of the mutants and wait till the poison and radiation is gone.” I stomped the hard ground in frustration. “We can make the world like in the stories of old, but not if we just sit on the ground as we despair! Are you really willing to stop fighting for that because of this stupid tunnel? What is wrong with you!?” I was wheezing through my mask, my little tirade had cost me more precious air as my mask continued to slowly suffocate me.

“You’re still so young and your station is so sheltered. You haven’t seen the other stations fighting, friends stabbing each other in the back in the name of survival. That’s all people are to each other in times of need. Things we can use to get extra ammo, food, and spare gasmasks.” The man’s shoulders were slumped as he stared at the ground. One of the stars flew in between us, trying to lure us from the safety of our path. “You’ll wake up to the truth soon enough, that is, if the metro doesn’t get you before that.”

“We’re here!” I was startled as I suddenly heard Sergei’s voice behind me. The hallway had returned to its normal state, taking my headache and breathing troubles with it. Sasha was still animatedly talking with the old stalker, hanging on every word of adventure he spoke. I shook my head in confusion. Had I been daydreaming? How hard had I hit my head?

I just stood in the toxic mist as my friends used the valves to open the old blast door that obstructed our exit. Its beauty was now lost on me.

I walked back into the tunnels without comment or question. There would be time later to think about the mysteries of the metro. For now, I had to focus on my mission. I would not sit down and give up.

I had made it!

Before me the familiar shape of the Hive became visible. Its dark spires reaching out to the heavens. A monument to the power of my Queen and to the hard work of my Sisters.

My wings started to flap faster in my excitement as a grin started to form on my face. Finally, I was home! I would hear the voices of my Sisters again and could rest until I was ready to continue my mission.

I flew forward, avoiding the trees and vines as I sped to the clearance where my Hive stood. I saw the sunshine reflected on the lake next to my home.

I felt confused as I watched the crystal clear water. Why where none of my Sisters drinking from it? Why was no one flying in and out of the many flight holes? Did we have so many wounded that there simply wasn’t any time anymore to go out of the Hive?

My heart started to beat faster as my anxiety grew. Where was everyone?

I chose one of the bigger entrances as I made my way inside. There were no guards to check or greet me, which only added to my growing concern.

I softly landed in the dark grey tunnel, feeling the soft wood and mud that was strengthened with worker saliva, under my legs. Only a few green lights embedded in the walls where there to greet me.

“Sisters?” I called out in the tunnel. My voice was hoarse from disuse. “I’ve returned.” It felt strange to actually talk to my Sisters. Using the hive mind was so much more efficient. Ideas simply flowed from one mind to the other, with no room for misinterpretation. Using my voice almost felt disrespectful, like I was talking to a mere thrall.

“Hello!?” I yelled as I slowly made my way deeper into the Hive. I was walking without a purpose or goal. I just hoped that I would find a Sister that could tell me what was going on.

The tunnel opened up to one of the large rooms that connected several places in the Hive. I flew up to the ceiling, past the many bridges, tunnels, and empty cocoons. Looking left and right as I went further and further up. I couldn’t see anyone, not a single soul.

I landed on one of the large bridges that spanned the gap between two tunnels. I sat down as I grinded my teeth nervously. The Hive was abandoned.

I started to run, faster and faster, as I shouted for anyone to talk to me, hoping that by some cruel twist of fate I had just miraculously missed all my Sisters as I had started my journey into the Hive. I ran, not caring if I slipped and fell or roughly brushed the walls. I ran until I my legs gave out from exhaustion.

As I lay on the ground I watched the room I was in. It was decorated with carefully crafted murals, telling the tale of my Hive’s history. In the middle of the room I could see a large dark object. It was a large seat that was decorated with green glowing orbs and symbols.

My Queen’s throne was empty. The Hive had left me alone. They had gone without saying a word to me.

I was useless, no orders to follow, no Queen to protect, no Sisters to work with. I closed my eyes and felt the world around me disappear.

My eyes opened and I was greeted with the grey stone of the alcove I had been sleeping in. I sighed as I felt myself returning to the slightly less horrible situation that was reality and not dreams.

I walked out of my temporary shelter and felt the fresh snow crunching under my hole filled legs. If there had been one good thing about the dream, it was that I could fly in it and didn’t have to freeze my legs of on the snow covered ground.

As I started my normal routine of searching for paw prints and sniffing the air for prey, I felt my thoughts, once again, wandering back to the day of our defeat. There was little else to think about these days.

The more I thought about it, the more certain I became. The magical wall that had overwhelmed my Sisters and Queen had been made of something I should have recognized immediately. The source of all our power, love, had been turned against us.

I stomped the snow in front of me as I clenched my jaw in frustration. Instead of using elegance and plotting, the ponies had pushed us out with brute force. Those idiotic squandering creatures! I couldn’t fathom how much power they had wasted on that magic.

It was like they were insulting us. Like they were saying: “Look at us, we have so much love that we can waste mountains of it without ever missing it.” I spat on the ground in disgust.

We could have used that love to create innumerable spells. We would have had enough power to catch prey for decades to come. We could have build dozens of Hives. We could have conquered countries! And all those little ponies did, was sit on their love. Those stupid creatures just used it for their idiotic friendships and marriages.

What a waste! I felt my loathing grow as I thought about those creatures. They didn’t even deserve their love! It belonged to us. The most those ponies should hope for was that they would be good thralls, giving their love to us for a greater cause. But no, they just sat on their treasure, like an old dragon guarding its gold. Perhaps they were simply too cowardly or stupid to use its real potential.

‘Help us Sister’ I stood still. I had heard something. I looked around, but only the cold snow, trees, bushes, and blue sky greeted me.

’We’re starving. We’re dying.’ I jumped up. There it was again. The noise was nearly inaudible, but it sounded like whispers. I quickly jumped in a circle, hoping to see what kind of creature was tormenting me with its games.

’The Queen is dead, all is lost.’ I felt a sense of dread creeping over me as I listened more intently. It wasn’t a sound around me. It was a sound inside of my head. It was a cacophony of desperate whispers that were tickling the back of my mind.

The voices felt alien and strange, nothing like the clear and comforting thoughts that our shared consciousnesses usually sent out. ’Come back. You’re useless. You failed. Help us. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but the whispers felt cold and accusing.

I concentrated on making contact with the Hive again, but my mind just found that horrible feeling of emptiness again. How could I hear my Sisters, but not be able to contact them? What was going on?

What was I even doing out in this forest. I had been here for months and there was nothing here! My Hive needed me and I was out here playing with the wildlife and catching rabbits. Egoistically stuffing my face with the little food there was, while the rest of my Hive was starving.

I stomped the ground again, but this time in determination. This forest was a dead end. There was absolutely nothing to be gained from staying in this cursed place for even one more second. Enough time had been wasted. It was time to return home.

‘You’ll never make it. Our blood is on your hooves.’ I screeched loudly to stop the insistent voices. I quickly put my legs to my mouth. Hoping that no predators, or Queen forbid, that chimera, had heard me.

I had to get out of this forest. If not for my Hive and Queen, than for me. This place was eating away at my mind and I started to feel the threads of my spirit starting to unravel more with each passing day. I had to get out of here.

There was just one problem. I had no idea where I was, my sense of direction was completely lost. All of the trees looked the same, how could one ever find her way out of a place like this? I couldn’t fly up to take a look around and asking my Sisters for help was impossible.

I shook my head. It didn’t matter. If I just walked in a straight line I would eventually get out of this place, and perhaps recognize the landscape, or even steal a map from some unsuspecting traveler.

I would get out of this place and survive, for Hive and Queen. I would fight my way out of here if necessary. I would survive, no matter the costs.

Author's Notes:

Chapter 4: A Little Moth

A Little Moth

“Hey, Sergei, are we there yet?” Sasha’s voice was the only thing that disturbed the silence as we walked through the tunnel. Our footsteps and the noises of our equipment all seemed to be swallowed up by the walls, like they were protecting the peace they had kept for decades.

“No,” answered the veteran with a weary voice, not even bothering to check his map or look ahead in the tunnel.

“How about now?” my friend kept insisting. I could understand why Sasha wanted to keep talking. Normally hearing nothing was reassuring. If there is no sound, than it means that there is nothing there to threaten you, but for some reason this silence felt oppressive. Like it was creeping into our minds and slowly silencing our thoughts too.

“No,” was Sergei’s response once again.

“Is that the only thing you can say?” my friend asked in a joking manner. I felt slightly jealous at my friend’s ability to just shrug of the crushing darkness and silence of the tunnel.

“No, shut up.” The veteran gave my friend a warning glance as he responded.

Sasha sighed as he finally got the hint that Sergei was in no mood for games. He stared at the ground for a few seconds before he suddenly looked up at the stalker who walked next to Sergei. “Stepan, can I ask you a question?” Sasha addressed the man with a sort of awe as he talked to him. After all, it wasn’t everyday that you got to talk to a real stalker.

These men were almost legends to most people, and considered to be insane by the rest. Many of them went up to the surface to bring back the supplies that the metro needed to function. Wood, petrol, replacement parts, ammo, anything that could be of use, they brought it down from the abandoned city. They were rumored to be armed to the teeth and wrapped in protective anti-radiation suits. They were like astronauts in their suits, exploring the new and strange world that used to be ours. And still, out of the hundreds that dared to go up, only a dozen ever made it back with these supplies that were the lifeblood of the metro.

I started to doubt these stories as I looked at the man. Sure, he was strange and capable, but he seemed more like a tired and cynical old man. It was hard to imagine him as one of the legendary heroes of the metro.

“That depends on the question, pup.” The man answered as he was walking in front of us.

“What… uhm… what happened.” I looked up in surprise at the nervous tone of my friend. “You know, when… when the bombs fell.” Sergei let out a disapproving grunt and turned his attention to the tunnel behind us, removing himself from the conversation.

My curiosity was peaked and I started to walk next to them. I had wondered the same thing many times, but the older people in my station always avoided the question when I asked them. They got angry, and told me to mind my own business, or they fell into a depressed silence before they started to recall memories of how beautiful the world used to be. It was sort of a taboo to talk about it in my station, but Stepan was a strange man from a different place.

The stalker kept on walking in silence for a long time. I was about to repeat Sasha’s question, thinking that maybe he hadn’t heard it, but the man let out a small chuckle before I got the chance. “When you ask a question you go for the throat, don’t you?”

Sasha rubbed the back of his head as he laughed. “I guess I do,” he replied.

“I’m not surprised that you don’t know,” the stalker continued as he reached out with his hand and touched on of the many pipes that were attached to the walls. “Many people would like to forget those days ever happened.” He was silent for a moment again and looked up at the ceiling, his flashlight followed his gaze and revealed a spider web of cracks in the ancient stone.

“I don’t know much about how or why it happened. I was just a simple fabric worker, maintaining the machines in a textile factory. I had no interest in the petty politics of the world.” Stepan let out another laugh. “I hated that job. My boss was a jerk, always complaining that I should come in earlier and work harder. He must have threatened to fire me a hundred times, but he never did.”

Stepan stopped for a moment as he brought his ears next to the pipe and started to listen intently. Confused, we also stopped. I wanted to ask what the problem was, but I was captivated by his story. I didn’t dare to interrupt him and maybe squander my and Sasha’s only chance to hear this tale. And, more than I wanted to admit to myself, I didn’t want us to stop talking. In the darkness and silence of the tunnel, it felt like nothing else existed. Like the universe had ended and this tunnel was all that was left. No matter how much I tried to convince myself with rational arguments, I couldn’t stop the insane idea creeping into my head that we also would stop existing if we stopped talking.

“That job did save my life, though,” the man continued as he softly knocked on the pipe a few times with his knuckles. “I was about to enter the metro in the early morning to take the train to my job, when suddenly the sirens went off.” The stalkers expression darkened as he brought his ear to the pipe that hung above the one he had tested earlier. “At first the people just stood there, confused. We thought that maybe a test was going on, or that a mistake had been made.”

He led out a tired sigh and was silent for a few seconds. His voice sounded steady and emotionless as he recalled the story, but I got the feeling that he was hesitating for a different reason than to catch his breath. “That is, until we saw the missiles being fired from our city. People started to scream and panic, pushing each other over as they headed for the entrance of the metro. If I hadn’t been so close to it already, I doubt that I would have made it through that crowd.” He knocked on the pipe again, louder this time.

“There were some soldiers standing next to the door, armed with their automatic guns and cold expressions on their faces. They were screaming for us to enter the metro as their commander was looking at his watch, calmly counting down. I was just approaching the great escalators that lead to the underground station, they were still working in those days, when I heard the commander speak up.”

Stepan looked down at the ground, for a moment he had forgotten the pipe he was apparently so greatly interested in. I hung on his every word and forgot the place we were in as he told the story. I felt a chill running down my spine as he continued the horrible tale.

“I first heard a few shots being fired behind me; I can only hope that it was at the skies. The screaming stopped for a moment and I could hear the commander giving the order to close the doors. We all just kept walking down those escalators, keeping our thoughts to ourselves as we pretended that nothing was happening behind our backs.”

“And then we started to hear the sounds.” I felt my heart jump up in my chest as the man banged his gloved hand against the pipe. The unexpectedly loud noise somehow echoed in the tunnel that previously had muffled all our sounds.

“With every bomb that fell, the ground shook more violently.” Stepan hit the pipe again, even louder this time. I could see the dust that had been gathering on the ancient pipe fall of in ghostly clouds.”We were all holding our breaths as the screams outside grew louder and more desperate and the explosion came closer and closer.”

The old stalker hit the pipe one more time. “After a minute of this, an explosion almost knocked us all over and all the lights went out. And all we could hear was silence outside.” Stepan laid his ear against the pipe and was once again silent.

After a few seconds he stood up, and I could see him look at the tunnel behind us as he squinted his eyes. “What happened after that is a story for another time, because now we must run for our lives.”

I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as I ran as fast as I could. The wooden railroad ties under my feet became a blur as I sprinted through the tunnel.

A monstrous scream came from behind me. The deep growling noises of the things that were following us echoed all around the tunnel.

With every howl they let out I could feel my fear growing. Panic and ancient instincts were pushing away any thoughts that I had, my mind felt like a broken radio that could only give of static noises. Acting on one of these instincts, or maybe out of simple morbid curiosity, I glanced behind me.

As soon as I saw them I regretted it. Their broad shoulders were covered in sickly patches of brown fur and their bodies were riddled with scars. Their claws and freakishly long teeth were reflected in the weak light. Drool was dripping out of their jaws as they leaped at us on four legs with their mouths wide open, howling and panting in excitement. But the worst of all were their eyes. They were blind with no spark of intelligence or thought, only an insane hunger filled them. They were gaining on us with frightening speed, and there were dozens of them.

I felt a scream escape my mouth as I looked ahead again. My fear gave me unexpected strength as I started to run even faster.

The sound of a shot was accompanied by a flash of light beside me. I looked to my left and saw that Sergei was firing his revolver blindly behind him. “Shoot them! Shoot them!” he screamed in voice that was filled with anger and fear.

The tunnel was soon filled with ear deafening explosions of noise as we all followed his example. Every shot I fired sent a pulse of pain through my wrist as I held my revolver behind me in an unnatural position. I was probably hitting nothing more than the walls and ground, but I didn’t care. All I wanted was for these creatures to leave us alone. Images of us being eaten alive filled my head and chilled my heart.

Soon, too soon, I could hear my gun clicking as the cylinder opened on an empty chamber. Still running, I opened one of the many pouches of my armor and fished out a few bullets. As I desperately tried to reload the weapon I felt the bullets slipping out of my hands and falling on the endless tracks under my feet. I let out a curse as I kept on running, still holding the now useless gun in my hands.

“To the left!” I heard Stepan shout. “We’re almost there!” I hadn’t even noticed it in my panic, but our tunnel was about to intersect with a much larger one. As soon as we went around the corner I could see marble archways revealing a large room. A station!

We quickly clambered on the platform and ran over the yellow and white tiles. “There, to the doors,” Stepan pointed at a hallway that led out of the station. I could hear the howls behind me growing louder as the mutants felt in their primitive brains that we were getting away.

I could feel broken glass cracking under my boots as I ran past one of the giant chandeliers that had fallen on the platform. My lungs were burning as I dashed towards the hallway, seeing that my companions had already gotten there. Stepan wasted no time as he closed the door the moment I was through.

“Yuri! Sergei! Don’t let them get in!” The stalker commanded us as he started to frantically rummage through the debris that lay everywhere in the white hallway. “Sasha, help me find something to block that thing!”

Before the stalker was even done talking, I had thrown myself against the door and desperately tried to find some grip with my boots on the tiles. Only a second later I already felt something huge colliding with the metal gates. The unrelenting force of the demons behind the door made me slide forward for a bit, allowing one of the beast to reach through the opening with its long arm.

The demon started to swing wildly with its limb and I could feel his three dagger-like claws bouncing of my armor as I looked away, hoping that my helmet would protect my head. Suddenly the creature let out a yelp of pain and retracted its arm back behind the metal gates. A metallic scent filled the air and I saw a dark liquid sprayed over the floor. Sergei threw his knife, coated in blood, on the floor.

Sergei and I wasted no time as we pushed ourselves against the doors, closing them shut once again. The creatures continued to ram the doors with their bodies and I could slowly feel them pushing me forward, centimeter for centimeter. “Hurry up! We can’t hold them much longer!” I shouted.

“I’ve got it!” Sasha exclaimed as he ran to us. I stepped to the left making room for my friend as he pushed himself against the middle of the door and began to fiddle with the door handles. After a few moments he stepped away from the door. “Okay, that should hold it,” he said while he breathed heavily from the chase.

I stepped away from the door, seeing that Sasha had jammed an iron bar between the handles. “Don’t relax yet,” Stepan said while aiming his assault rifle at the entrance. I ran next to him and grabbed the shotgun from my back, pointing it at the door while my hands shook from the adrenaline and exhaustion.

No one dared to speak as we stood side by side, all watching the door with our fingers on the trigger. I could see the door shake as the howls grew more frustrated. I don’t know how long we stood there, cringing every time as the beasts slammed themselves against the metal gate. I had no illusions about our chances. If they brook through they would overwhelm us in seconds. Four armed man we’re no match for two dozen mutants.

After what felt like ages, I heard the sounds of claws scratching on the tiles behind the gate. Their frustrated howls grew fainter as they left the station.

The sudden feeling of safety seemed unreal. I could almost convince myself that I hadn’t just been almost ripped apart by those nightmares that stalked the surface. A feeling of relief and gratitude filled me and I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. I looked at my friend and a grin started to form on his face too.

Sergei looked at us with an annoyed expression on his face and spat on the ground. “You guys think that that was funny? We almost died!” He turned to face Stepan, shaking with rage. “And what were you doing?” He poked the stalker on the chest with an accusing finger. “Banging on those pipes!? I thought that you knew enough about the tunnels not to start making noise like you’re ringing a dinner bell!”

Stepan frowned as he looked at the door that had saved us, ignoring Sergei’s accusations. The wrinkles around his eyes betrayed his age and concern. “Those aren’t supposed to be here, something is wrong.”

Sergei threw his hands in the air. “Okay, fine, be like that!” The veteran brought his hand to his face and sighed deeply, visibly calming down. “Let’s just get going again.”

Despite Sergei’s prodding, the old man kept staring at the door. Slowly, my laughter died down. There was something in the words of the stalker, something in the look in his dead eye that sent a chill down my spine.

Finally, the man looked around him, at the small hallway we were standing in. “Let’s go, Moscow is waiting for us.”

The hallways were a true piece of art. Diligent workers and artists had crafted the most beautiful ornaments on the walls, and every twist and turn of the hall revealed more beauty. Stylized drawings of fantastic animals I had never even heard about were painted in black and white on the tiles of the walls, and miniature humans were sculpted in the marble on the ceiling. The artists had captured their essence so skillfully that I half expected them to start gossiping among themselves about the strange visitors that had entered their hallway. The years of neglect had done almost nothing to tarnish the beauty of this place. It was a testimony to the greatness of the old world.

I regretted it, but I couldn’t find it in me to give these works of art the appreciation they deserved. Stepan’s words had left me with a confusing, almost overwhelming mix of emotions, and I found it hard to concentrate on the world around me. My imagination ran wild with terrifying visions of dark shadows with teeth and claws that stalked the surface, but I could also feel excitement building up in my chest. I had heard so many stories about the city all my life, and now I would finally it see with my very own eyes.

Sergei hadn’t taken the news as well as I had and was vividly discussing with Stepan, claiming that it was too dangerous and that Sasha and I were too inexperienced. The stalker couldn’t be persuaded however; he simply took out his map and showed the veteran that now that the way had been cut off, there just wasn’t any other choice. We just had to deal with the cards we had been given, he claimed.

Sasha, on the other hand, was all but jumping up and down in excitement. The prospect of treasure and adventure on the surface had apparently made him completely forget that we had been running for our lives a few minutes ago.

“Yuri, can you believe it? The surface, we are actually going up there!” He grinned broadly as he looked at me with an excited gleam in his eyes. “No one back home is going to believe this!”

I wanted to answer my friend, but I suddenly felt a wave of cold air washing over me as the hallway filled with a putrid smell. I coughed violently and could only barely hear Stepan shouting: “Quick, gas masks!”

I held my breath as I grabbed my own mask, feeling my lungs burning for clean air. I struggled as I tried to subdue the couching fits that shocked my body, not wanting to breathe in more of the deadly gas. Finally, I inhaled a deep breath of filtered and safe air, and allowed myself to cough out the poison in my lungs.

Stepan pulled out his assault rifle and almost ran around the corner, leaving us behind to reluctantly follow him into what could only be trouble.

As I glanced around the corner, I saw Stepan standing next to a bunch of rags that he prodded with the end of his gun, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. I instead looked at the ancient blast doors that guarded the metro from the outside world. Their original red color was barely visible under the rust that had accumulated on the seal that protected mankind from the surface. What I saw chilled my heart more than the immense cold that made my breaths visible in the air. I could see the escalators that reached to the surface behind the doors, someone had left them open.

I couldn’t believe it. Who could have done this? It was basically a dead sentence to everyone in the metro. I could almost smell the vile poison and radioactive dust that was leaking into tunnels again, slowly choking the metro. And the mutants! What kind of creatures had walked past those doors into the station? How many of those deadly horrors had spilled into the tunnels?

My thoughts went back to my home. Fear gripped my heart as images of mutants overwhelming my station filled my head. I closed my eyes as I tried to calm myself. There was nothing I could do. I had my mission and I would fulfill it, no matter how wrong it felt not to rush home to help defend. ’Just… just don’t think about it. They can handle themselves.’

I walked over to Stepan, curious as to why he had taken such a great interest in a bunch of rags. I reared back in shock as the stalker turned pile of cloth around, revealing the ashen face of a corpse.
As Stepan finished patting the corpse down he slipped a few rounds of ammo in his pockets.

He looked around and smiled as he saw the horror in my eyes. “What’s the matter? Never seen a corpse before, pup?”

He stood up and walked past the opened hatch, dragging a corpse that had been hidden behind the doors back in the station. He wasted no time as he started to check the carcass for any worldly possessions.

“What happened here? Why did they do this?” Sasha spoke up. His voice was hoarse and muffled.

Stepan crouched as he picked up a bag of mushrooms, holding the rotten meal in the beam of his flashlight. “There’s your answer, pup.” He smiled with no joy in his eyes. “Hunger killed these men.”
He threw the spoiled meal away. “I’ve seen it a million times before. Pups fancy themselves to be stalkers and go to the surface, spending all their bullets on armor and guns. Then they find that the surface is a bit too hostile, the treasures buried too deep, and their stomachs start aching. And along comes another man, fresh from the tunnels and packed with food.” He gestured at the corpses in the tunnel. “Well, you can see how this ended for the both of them.” He sighed as he started to walk to the escalators. “It’s too bad that they didn’t have the decency to close the door on their way out.”

“Wait.” I stood by the bodies as my companions started to follow Stepan out of the tunnels. “Shouldn’t we… well… bury them?” I tried to look Sasha in the eyes, hoping that he would understand, but he avoided looking at the corpses and instead focused on the escalators. He looked desperate to get away from this scene as fast as possible.

Sergei turned to face me. “Yuri, there simply isn’t time for that,” he said in sympathetic tone of voice. “The living need our help more than the dead. Let these tunnels be their tomb.” I wanted to protest, but I couldn’t find the energy. Besides, Sergei was right, the sooner this was all over, the better.

I glanced one final time at the frozen bodies, wondering if I would be the last person that ever saw them. If they would be here for all of eternity, amidst the great works of art.

I pressed the large plastic button that would close the hatch as I slipped between the doors. The soft hiss of the hydraulics accompanied us as we walked up the broken down escalators, while an icy wind cut through the many layers of clothes under my armor. I could hear a loud clang as the doors closed behind us, sealing the metro from the poison of the world.

I had heard so many stories about the surface, but I doubted that even the most talented poet could ever hope to capture the openness of the sky with human words. There was a thick sheet of clouds covering the city, but in some places they would drift apart for the briefest of moments, and I could see stars.

I felt like I could finally let out a breath that I had unknowingly been holding my entire life. The infinity I could see behind those clouds scared me, but also enticed me. There were no paths here, no limits.

I must have stood there for at least a minute, gawking at the sky, before I could feel Sergei’s hand shaking my shoulder. “Enough sightseeing, we have to go,” he said. His eyes were filled with melancholy as he looked at the frozen apartments across the street. “It’s not safe here, not anymore.”

I wanted to ask Sergei if he had seen this place when it was still filled with life and sunlight, but that look in his eyes stopped me. He seemed so sad, as he surveyed the necropolis with his gun. How old had he been when he had last seen people laughing here without a care? I didn’t have the heart to ask him.

Sasha was even more awed than me, if that was possible. Only Stepan’s harsh warning about monsters that plucked careless people from the streets seemed to be able to bring my friend back to reality. Of course, this was at the price of him pestering the stalker constantly with questions about the mutants that wandered on the surface.

We carefully walked the streets under Stepan’s guidance, navigating between the hundreds of cars that were hastily parked in front of the metro and clogged up the streets. With pain in my heart I tried to ignore the occasional half-eaten corpses as we made our way across the dead city.

I knew that I should have been more vigilant, but I couldn’t help but let my mind and eyes wander as we walked slowly over the frozen streets. The ticking of my Geiger counter sounded like a macabre clock, which slowly counted down the days of our lives that we lost, as we cooked in the radiation.

The word across the metro was that we would have to wait fifty years until the radiation would start to drop. Most people clutched that number to their chest as a beacon of hope, if we only could hold out for so long, things would get better. But as I looked around me, I could not see a single living tree or plant. What kind of world would we set foot in if we could hold out so long, if we could drive back the mutants, if we could survive the poison, if our minds could finally understand what phenomena like those in the star filled tunnel were?

My former bravado with which I had claimed that we could retake the surface again, seemed foolish and naïve now. But what else could we do? Give up and wallow in our sorrow?

I was forced out of my thoughts as something incredibly strong collided with me. My feet slipped on the frozen stone beneath me and I fell. Wildly swinging my gun in front of me, I was ready to shoot down whatever monster had attacked me.

I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks as I saw that the horrible mutant that had attack me was, in fact, a lantern pole that I had walked into head first. I decided that the most hostile environment known to man was, perhaps, not the best place to start contemplating the faith of humanity.

Careful not to slip again, I used the deceitful lantern to get back on my feet. “I’m okay guys,” I said as I looked around for my companions.

There was no one in the street.

“Guys?” I glanced behind me, thinking that I perhaps had passed them while I was lost in my thoughts. There was nothing but snow covered cars and the stained walls of apartments to greet me.

I felt the familiar waves of panic building in my stomach as I nervously glanced around me, hoping against hope that I had somehow failed to notice where my friends were.

“Is anyone there!?” I cried out against the sharp wind that carried my words away along with my warmth. My shout was answered by several blood curdling howls in the distance.

As fast as I could I began to maneuver between the vehicles and frozen puddles, barely keeping my balance on the frictionless ground. The hairs in my neck began to stand up as I heard the metallic groan of a car as something heavy landed on it. The howl that I had heard earlier was repeated a dozen times stronger behind me.

I didn’t dare to look behind me as I darted across the streets, making twists and turns as I went around corners in random directions.

The sound of breaking glass came from right next to me as a mass of teeth, claws, and wings landed on a car, crushing it like a plastic cup. I threw myself on the ground, right in time to see a claw flying through the air where my head had been a second ago.

I rolled on my back to face what would surely be my death. And, in a strange moment of clarity, I looked at the creature and it reminded me of a gigantic bat. Instead of getting ready to plunge its teeth in my neck, the demon looked in the distance, and a cloud of fog escaped from its monstrous jaws. Its blind, milky eyes focused on me for a second before it led out a paralyzing shout and flew away with a few mighty strokes of its gigantic leather wings.

I lay there for a moment, shaking in fear on the ground, as I was unable to process what had just happened.

Then I felt a pressure building up in my head. The overpowering smell of ozone filled the air as a blue light flooded the street behind me. The building headache clouded my vision as I tried to get up. My boots, once again, were unable to find any grip on the frozen stone.

I slowly felt myself being sucked toward the source of the blue light. The hairs on the back of my neck slowly started to rise as a strange tingling sensation spread across my spine. I looked behind me as I was frantically searching for anything I could get a grip on.

There was a large blue sphere, seemingly existing out of pure light, slowly drifting toward me. Sparks of energy hit the stone walls of the grey apartments and left behind black scorch marks as the icicles that hung from the roofs exploded in clouds of vapor.

My headache and fear started to overpower my mind as I felt myself slowly being dragged to that horrible tear in reality. In some primal part of my mind I knew that if I touched that sphere, I would instantly stop existing. I would be destroyed so completely that even my people back home would start to doubt that I had ever existed.

Vaguely in the distance I could hear voices calling out my name. I glanced behind me and saw three silhouettes standing a thousand miles away. They seemed worried, and were trying to reach out to me, but they were too far away. I felt a wave of calmness spreading over my body as my stress started to slowly dissolve. My head felt like it was filled with cotton and thinking became difficult

I looked up to the sky, hoping to see the stars one more time before my death, but the clouds were in the way. Somehow it didn’t matter that much anymore.

Finally, I could feel the sphere engulfing my body. I closed my eyes, accepting my fate. At least it didn’t hurt.

Chapter 5: A Walk in the Park

A Walk in the Park.

Front left leg, right hind leg, front right leg, left hind leg, and then the endless cycle repeated itself again. There was nothing in the world except for the stars in the sky, the eternal snow, and an endless supply of trees and rocks that had the sole purpose of getting in my way.

I had long since stopped caring about the burning in my legs or the cold that made my hooves numb. The movement of my legs felt no less natural or less compulsory than breathing. The irrational notion that I could never stop with walking, because I had simply forgotten how to rest my legs after so long entered my mind.

You’re going to die here. I bit down hard on my cheek, feeling the other wounds on the inside of my mouth flare up once again. The pain did its job and scared away the voices for a moment, but I knew that they would be back again, lingering on the verges of my consciousness, stalking my thoughts like wolves until they found the right moment to strike again.

“Just get to the Hive, just get there. It will be alright, just get there.” The mantra left my mouth as little more than a hoarse mumbling, but it helped keep my mind of the hunger and despair, and focused on walking. If I just kept moving I would be out of here before I knew it, back home where I could talk to my real Sisters. Not these hateful imitations that invaded my thoughts like a disease.

Look up, a surprise is waiting for you. I sighed deeply. The pain was becoming less effective. Before, it had kept my mind safe for minutes, but now it only worked for a mere few seconds.

I followed the hateful order for reasons I didn’t really understand. They just reminded me so much of my Sisters, and I felt a familiar, almost instinctual need to do as I was told. It frightened me that I felt a hint of loyalty to these imitations, loyalty that should only be reserved for the Queen.

There was, after all, comfort in being told what to do by your betters. Normally I could embrace it as I did what was best for my Hive, but these voices were destructive and useless. Still, I looked up.

I wish I hadn’t

My old alcove was there to greet me. The air still smelled of the camp fire that had burned in it, and with hollow eyes I could see the prints that I had left in the snow when I left this place so long ago.

My tired legs collapsed under me as I buried my face in the cold white blanket. I let out a muffled scream as the voices in my head laughed and taunted me. This forest would be my grave and I would never see my Sisters or Queen again.

I felt the shame burning in my stomach as I lay there, unable to stand up again. I just wanted to go home, was that really too much to ask for?

I was finally able to stop my embarrassing episode as I heard a noise that I could only describe as… different. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. I could feel it with my being as much as I could hear it with my ears. A strange cracking sound filled the world and the air chilled for a fraction of a moment.

But what was more important than that was the wonderful aura that filled the air. Like a fire in the night I could see the energy flowing from close by. I frantically shook the snow from my nose and out of the holes in my legs as I stood up, a hesitant hope filling my heart.

Everything was forgotten as I sped to the source of the energy. Even the voices stopped their cruel whispering for a moment. There was a prey in the forest.

Death had a way of giving you a new perspective on life. My thoughts drifted off as I lay there, huddled up, waiting for… well, for anything to happen.

Now that I looked back on my past I felt a sense of regret. The cynical and weary stalker had been right. I had been content to live my own life in my station as the rest of the world rotted.

I had been working day after day in blissful ignorance, cutting and cleaning mushrooms as I talked with friends, tending the farm as music from the market echoed through the halls, drinking and eating with familiar people in the evening as we told each other horror stories around the fire, and of course, standing guard with my friend Sasha as he joked away the oppressive feeling of the darkness.

As I turned over I shivered. I hadn’t really believed in an afterlife or purgatory, but I had at least expected that if such places were real there would be no ice cold water seeping through my clothes. The universe apparently felt that it wasn’t necessary to take my hopes and expectations into consideration.

My thoughts went on as I finally found a relatively comfortable position. In all of my life I had never really thought that much about other stations. They were just far of places that we traded with and where sometimes terrible things happened. It had seemed so distant and irrelevant in my home. There was nothing I could do about it after all, I told myself.

That opened door in the abandoned station had shattered that illusion. That door could have killed all of us as it let in the surface, and all it took from us was one push of a button to close it again.
Worst of all, that door had been left open because of the hunger and despair of men from those very distant stations. Their troubles suddenly seemed a lot closer to my home.

Just like the people from the Northern station that had to rely on us, we were connected like a web of interdependent stations. We were all subconsciously counting on every station to protect each other from the horrors of the world. Every time if one of us fell, it could mean the end of mankind. I wish I had realized it sooner so that I could have done… something. Anything, to help the others.

Things were always clearer in hindsight. I sighed and for a moment wondered how I was still even breathing in this purgatory.

My mind vaguely registered the howling of the wind around me. I grunted in irritation as I turned on my side. If this was truly the afterlife, then it was disappointingly similar to the place I had just left.

I heard a strange buzzing noise and felt something prodding my arm. I yelped as my heart jumped up in fear. I quickly opened my eyes and grabbed my assault rifle, ready in case something was under the misconception that I was its dinner.

A shadow, obscured by the snow and dirt on my mask, fled away. Maybe I would have been able to catch the thing disappearing out of the corner of my eye as I quickly swiped my visor clean, but what I saw made me freeze.

There was no cloud in the sky and a blanket of stars greeted me, infinite and beautiful. A part of me wanted to just sit there, looking up as I for the first time in my live saw the true meaning of space. A larger part of me wanted to look away however. The sight made me slightly dizzy, even more than the clouded sky that I had been looking at mere minutes before. Besides, the sharp light that came from the moon that hung in the sky like some cosmic mercury lamp hurt my eyes.

A rustling sound came from beside me. My eyes followed a trail of small and circular footprints, no bigger than a clenched fist, made up a trail of hastily kicked over snow.

A pair of large blue eyes floating above a razor sharp smile greeted me as I finally saw the small creature that had fled to the cover of a surprisingly green bush. If it was hiding from me, then it did a poor job.

I slowly began to rise as the snow fell of my armor, dropping on the ground with soft thuds. With frantic eyes I scanned my environment, never leaving the creature out of sight for longer than a second. A strange species of slender trees filled the environment. They were not gnarly like the few dead ones I had seen toppled over in the city. They looked alive and healthy, even with their leaves missing it seemed like they were just waiting for the chance to bloom again.

Where was I? Had that anomaly in reality somehow carried me to one of the parks in the city? There were no drag marks in the snow around me, like I had just come into existence in this place. I briefly wondered if I should call out for my companions, but I didn’t want to provoke that creature that was staring so intensely at me.

The rules of the surface were different than those of the tunnels and I didn’t know what moves would make me end up dead or would get me out of here. Even so, making my position known to everything that lurked up here seemed like one of the poorer choices.

Step for step I carefully walked away from the being. I only dared to look in quick glances behind me as I avoided the threes and rocks in my path. For every move I made, the creature mimicked me by slowly and carefully making its way towards me. It kept a respectful distance, for now, as it stuck to the shadows and behind the trees, but I could feel that it wouldn’t last. The small obscured mutant was probably patiently waiting until I messed up and it could plunge it fangs in my throat.

A soft click broke the silence of this place as I flicked off the safety of my assault rifle.

My heart was beating in excitement and I couldn’t help but feel a grin slowly forming on my face. I could feel the energy in this creature even as I hid behind the bushes. It was there and just ripe for the picking.

The being vaguely reminded me of a diamond dog, or a young minotaur. Energy sources that my kind was most familiar with. It let out audible choking breaths as small clouds rose from behind its strange mask. Or maybe it was really its face? It was hard to tell from the quick up-close glance I had gotten.

Following the creature would be easy even if it was blatant that it was aware of my presence. The moon gave of just enough light to make its strange mix of dark clothes and small metal plates stand out in the white snow. And, even for a biped, it was incredibly slow. Though the large saddlebag and numerous bulky objects it wore on its back might have had something to do with that.

I ducked behind a rock as the creature peered at me from behind one of these wooden and metal devices that it held in its trembling hands. There was no need to provoke my target too much. It would lead me to the rest of its kind eventually.

I waited a few moments before I looked out from behind my hiding spot again. The creature had run away as soon as it thought that it could lose me. I let out a soft laugh, prey could be so predictable.

I sniffed the air as I could easily smell the energy trail the creature had left behind. It was almost more obvious than the large prints it had left in the snow as it ran. I jumped over the rock and began to follow it with a joy in my heart that I had forgotten I could feel.

A roar echoed throughout the forest, followed by a muffled scream of terror and a dozen incredibly loud explosions.

My smile died on my face as I sped forwards, hitting branches and tripping over roots as I hastily ran toward the source of the screams.

My worst fears were confirmed. Something had found my prey, something familiar.

That cursed chimera was licking its paws as blood stained the snow beneath its legs. It looked with a confused, but hungry look on its face at my prey, who was hitting the strange bulky device in its hands as it let out an incomprehensible string of words.

I felt my ears droop and my heart sink as I saw the goat head rearing back. ‘No!’ The word rang through my head. This couldn’t be allowed. After all this time in this Tartarus maze I couldn’t let my Hive’s last chance just go up in flames.

My body reacted all on its own as my legs started to move. I sped up as my hooves struck the frozen ground with more strength after every step. A scream escaped from my mouth and the chimera looked at me in surprise.

I slammed into the monsters side with what was left of my strength. Hot warm blood blinded me as it spilled from where I had struck the creature with my horn.

I shrunk back with closed eyes as I waited for the chimera to strike me back. I wished that I could have had some significant last thoughts, or at least have sent on last message to my Sisters. But all that filled my head was fear as I waited for that fatal blow.

Instead, all that I got was more blood spatters on my face as ear deafening sounds filled the air again. The mighty and terrible chimera just slumped over.

Dead, just like that.

I looked at the source of the noise as I rubbed the blood from my eyes. The creature held one of the smaller metal devices with wooden handles in its gloves as smoke rose from its cylindrical end. The dots connected in my head as I realized that this creature had just killed the horror of the forest. And now I had its full attention as it looked at me from behind that expressionless mask.

I stared in disbelief at the monster that had attacked me. What manner of radiation had melted three creatures together into that abomination? As nightmarish as it was, it fortunately went down when shot four times in the head. But still, that thing would probably haunt my dreams for years to come.

My hands trembled from the adrenaline as I pointed my gun at the shivering small black mutant that was lying next to the grotesque corpse. Aiming down the sights of my revolver I prepared myself to end this whole mess so that I could finally get on my way again. The creature was terribly wounded anyway. Holes riddled it legs and I was frankly amazed that it had been able to charge the bigger mutant with those wounds.

Then it opened its eyes. They were large, almost comically so, and in those eyes I saw not the blind rage of a mutant. There was intelligence in there, and it seemed to understand the danger it was in from the revolver that I aimed at it.

Doubt filled my mind and I slightly lowered my gun. Why had this mutant not just waited until I had been killed by the bigger mutant? Surely it would have known that it wouldn’t stand a chance against a creature three times its size. It made no sense at all.

The creature let out a soft buzzing noise as it stood up and looked me straight into the eyes. A thought made its way into my mind. Maybe it was born out of the shock of my near death experience, or from the fact that I was all alone in an unknown part of the city. But with a strange certainty I knew that the creature must have been watching over me, helping me even. Pointing my gun to the ground I allowed the creature to make the next move in this bizarre game.

The creature wiped the fresh blood from its face and stained the snow with small red droplets. It walked on steady legs, seemingly ignoring the holes in them. To my amazement, the creature extended one of its limbs to me as it looked me in the eyes with a sheepish grin. On a hunch, I crouched down and grabbed the ice cold leg, careful not to touch one of the wounds, and shook it gingerly.

This seemed to please the creature as another smile formed on its face. The dagger like teeth did little to calm me down, but the look in those large blue eyes seemed strangely genuine. The creature seemed rejuvenated as it shook my hand, its dull hard skin even started to shine a bit.

My gun almost dropped out of my hand as the creature began to speak. Of course I didn’t understand one bit of the strange songlike language, but it was undoubtedly talking. It looked at me expectantly, waiting for a reply I suppose. “I… I’m sorry. I don’t understand you.” I felt incredibly awkward as those words left my mouth. I was actually talking to a mutant.

I wondered what Stepan and Sergei would have had to say about this creature. In all the stories of the metro this kind of mutant had never even been imagined. Sasha would probably have gotten a heart attack out of excitement from seeing a creature as strange as this.

Maybe my mask had broken and I was just hallucinating as I breathed in the gasses of the surface. Still, this creature felt real, and it hadn’t attacked me. What had the radiation and bombs done to create a sentient creature with intelligence and its own language in just twenty years? Darwin would have been rolling in his grave if it hadn’t been vaporized by the nuclear bombs.

The creature spouted more words at me, every sentence seemed to be in a slightly different accent, but none of them seemed familiar. I could only shake my head as the creature became more frustrated with each word that I couldn’t respond to. The mutant finally stomped the ground with one of its legs and let out a sigh.

The creature prodded my chest two times with its leg and then pointed at the ground in front of me. Did it- did it just order me to stay here? The mutant kept a careful watch over me as it walked to the monstrous corpse that was lying in a growing puddle of blood.

I could feel the satisfying rip of flesh as warm blood dripped down my jaws. I felt fantastic! Four months ago I would have scoffed at the energy I had stolen from the small bit of trust that the creature had given me, but now it felt more precious than all the love in Equestria.

I strained as I ripped out a particularly large piece of meat from the lion part and I took some pleasure in stomping on the snake head that had caused me so much trouble before. Protests, muffled by the food in my mouth, rang out as I saw the creature standing up again. It just held out its hand in a pacifying gesture as it walked to the device that it had dropped in the fight with the chimera. With mild interest I watched it taking the deadly chunk of metal and wood apart and fidget with the small parts on the inside.

It was unexpected that the creature couldn’t understand me. I had tried Equestrian, Taurus, Griffon, Diamond Dog, and even a bit of Dragon, but the creature just replied in its gruff language and with shrugs of confusion. Its species must have been completely isolated, but maybe that could work to my Hive’s advantage. If they didn’t knew about us, than they would have no way to prevent us from infiltrating them. It was perfect.

My attention shifted from my meal to the creature once again as it let out a frustrated groan. I couldn’t quite see it in the dim shine of the moonlight, but it seemed to be turning a mangled piece of metal around in its hands. A small cloud escaped from its mask as it let out a harsh sounding sound and threw away the object of its irritation. With surprising dexterity, even for a creature with hands, the being started to push back the dozen of pieces it had pulled from its device. Like by magic the metal and wood had taken on its previous shape again.

The creature stood up again and started to walk away from me. I let out a muffled cry as I quickly swallowed down a large chunk of flesh. The biped looked behind him and gave me a small wave before he continued to march on again.

Quickly I took one more bite and jumped over the dead monster to follow the more important prey again. The masked creature looked at me as it said another foreign word, shrugged, and walked alongside me. I threw one last mournful glance at the corpse of the chimera. It was a shame to waste so much food, but this wasn’t the time to be selfish.

I looked at the creature as it sometimes stared at me for a moment or said a word to me. It felt wrong to walk next to a prey while being myself. Like I had just been caught by a thrall’s family member and I would have to flee soon. I repressed the urge to disguise myself, it wasn’t like I had enough magic to do that anyway, and it would probably only make the invasion of this creature’s species more difficult if it knew of that particular ability.

I jumped a bit in joy as I followed the biped’s lead. I couldn’t wait until I was finally out of this forest.

I looked up at the sky again for the dozenth time since I had started to wander in this place with my mutated companion. The moon had already moved halfway past the sky and was about to slowly sink into the horizon.

The initial wonder and dizziness the stars had caused me had started to slowly fade as there seemed to always be another hundred trees behind the ones I had passed. Behind the endless fence of wooden giants and rocks I still couldn’t see buildings, paths, or any sign of the city.

There was no tunnel, train track, ceiling, or map, and I was free to choose wherever I wanted to go. I had never been more lost or in want of a clear direction.

Desperately trying to suppress the thought that the anomaly had transported me further out of Moscow than I had thought, I turned my attention to the creature next to me. Anything was better than thinking about how my breaths slowly became more labored, and how empty the pouches that had once contained my spare filters felt.

The creature was grinding its teeth and swishing its tail violently as it trotted through the snow. The frowning stares that the mutant was throwing at me with an increasing frequency were enough to make my hand move slightly to my revolver again. Maybe this was a good time to break the ice and distract my unusual companion from any murderous thoughts it might have.

“Hey you.” The creature immediately stopped its frantic scanning of the woods as it stared at me with an intense questioning gaze. I felt silly for talking to something that obviously couldn’t understand me, and I almost wanted to stop and brush of the conversation as an accident. The almost human irritation in those blue eyes made that impossible. I needed to know how smart this mutant precisely was. And to be fair, I wouldn’t mind something to talk to in this empty place.

“My name is Yuri.” I pointed at my chest as I slowly repeated my name again. The creature almost looked bemused as it stretched out its wafer thin, tattered wings. How would it even fly with those? I had to repeat myself five times before the creature made an attempt.

“Yuri,” it said as it rolled its eyes. I was so stunned that for a moment I forgot to walk and stood still, staring at the mutant. It had said my name in a perfect imitation of my voice. The creature actually laughed as it looked at me and gave a small nod in the direction of the trees ahead of us.

I shook my head in confusion as I walked ahead and the mutant followed me again. For my own sanity I decided to not think too hard about what had just happened. But still, I felt compelled to ask the obvious follow-up question.

“Your name?” I questioned the small mutant as I pointed at it.

My companion scoffed as it let out a melodious string of words with an annoyed undertone. Seeing the confusion on my face the creature rolled its eyes again and simply shook its head.

It didn’t have one? I mentally chastised myself as I used the word “it” again. This creature was obviously intelligent, it would be wrong to call him an “it”. But still, he should at least have a name if we were going to travel together. My companion seemed to insist on that as he followed me no matter how many senseless turns I made.

I kicked up some snow as I struggled to take a deep breath again. The mutant had been following me, like he was watching over me. I put my fist into my open hand with a small gasp as an idea formed in my head. “Dozor! That’s a good name for you.”

I pointed to the creature again as I repeated the name slowly. “Dozor. How do you like that name?” The creature looked to the side as he sighed and somehow managed to shrug while on four legs. Unless he would come up with a better name, it would have to do as a sign of his approval.

A sigh escaped from my mask as we walked on in silence again.

In a small way I was actually glad that it was me that had gotten lost. Sergei and Stepan would be more than capable in negotiating with the Southern station, and I would never wish it on Sasha to get lost on the surface. It was all my own stupid fault after all. What kind of idiot just wanders around the surface without keeping his fellow travelers in sight?

I kicked a rock away in frustration, watching it as it disappeared in a heap of snow. Still, even as the odds of me returning home got smaller with every breath I took, there was a small hope inside me that I would see the entrance of a metro station behind the next tree.

Why was it getting so bright outside?

The voices insistent whispers were clouding my mind again. Taunting and laughing as they tried to confuse me. It didn’t matter now; soon everything would be all right again. I followed my prey closely as we made our way forward, to wherever it was leading us.

Or, Yuri, as it seemed to call itself.

I found myself smiling at the foolish sentiment of this Yuri. I wasn’t even in disguise and still this creature had found it necessary to give me a name. I laughed softly as I looked at the prints the biped made in the snow. It was just another one of those senseless non-changeling things, I guessed.

Names were mostly irrelevant for us when we weren’t hunting. You were who, or what, the Hive needed you to be. Your job was your name and if you were imitating a prey’s loved one, then their name would become yours for as long as it was necessary. On my many hunts it had always amazed me how different my prey was in that regard.

Still, I found a strange joy in repeating the name over and over in my head. Dozor actually sounded kind of good, even if it was weird to have a name for myself. It must have been the boredom from following this creature as it seemed to make twists and turns that lead to nowhere in this place.

My ears turned to the biped as it let out another choking cough and leaned against a tree, catching its breath. Maybe it was ill? It would explain why it was breathing so loudly. I nudged the creature softly to get it moving again. If it thought that it could just sit down and die, then it was sadly mistaken. I had not risked my life for nothing, it would just have to grin and bear it like I had to these last months.

As it stumbled forward again, the sun finally began to rise. A small sigh of content escaped from my mouth as I stretched my wings out. The sun did only a little to drive away the intense cold, but it was better than nothing. At least the more dangerous predators stayed in their homes at day.

My eyes trailed off to the numerous devices that hung from my prey’s saddlebags. I hadn’t sensed any magic in our fight with the chimera. Still, this fragile creature had mowed the horror down with almost no help. It must have build in some powerful enchantment in these strange weapons. It was tempting to reach out and steal one of them for the Hive to study, but it was probably better not to get on the bad side of this creature. I still needed its help after all.

I heard a loud crash behind me as an ice cold blanket robbed me from my sight. Spitting out the frozen water in my mouth I screeched and shook the snow from myself. I was prepared to give the clumsy creature a dead stare that it would never forget, but concern filled me as I heard its muffled words and saw how it was shielding its face with one arm.

Like it was blind, it stood up again after its crash with the tree. It swung its free arm around as it tried to get a grip on anything. More concerning however, were its increasingly loud and hysteric breaths.

My teeth buried itself in my cheeks as a frown formed on my face. That mask was obviously choking it, why didn’t it take it off? As the creature fell over and started to claw at its throat, I made a decision.

I plunged forward and bit down on the mask, being careful not to puncture it. An awful and unnatural taste filled my mouth, much worse than dirt or tree bark. A few strong punches landed in my side, and what could be nothing else than curse words escaped from the creature. Ignoring its protests, I yanked the choking thing from Yuri’s face.

A raspy gasp filled the air as the creatures chest began to rise heavily. Between numerous coughs, the crumpled up creature rolled to its side, away from the sunlight.

I recoiled in disgust as I saw its face. Most of its hair had fallen out, revealing the sickly pale and almost grey skin under it. Only a short bit of messy blonde hair was sticking out from under its helmet, and its cheeks were fallen in, like those of creatures that knew extreme hunger.

The creature slowly rose again as it took in deep and greedy breaths. It’s small and sunken eyes were still closed, as it started to wildly slash around itself with a knife that it had somehow conjured up. ‘No need to thank me or anything.’ Ignoring the sour thought, I waited for a bit until the biped finally calmed down.

“Yuri,” I called out to it in my best comforting voice. The biped immediately turned its knife to me, as it started to breath nervously again. “Yuri”, I almost pleaded to the creature, hoping that my voice would somehow help the situation. Resolving to violence would only make things worse I feared, this was the time for false reassurance.

After a few minutes of this standoff, the biped finally sheathed its knife again, and stretched its shaking hand out.

I softly bit down on its sleeve as I started to lead the creature around, hearing it mutter some words that were probably apologies. At least, it sent down another small and welcome wave of trust.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s okay,” I said through a mouthful of clothing that tasted like sweat, dirt, and things I didn’t even wanted to know of what they were.

Of course, nothing was okay. If my prey was trusting on me to lead it out of this place, than I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry.

If only the Queen was here, she would surely know what to do.

I almost hit myself in the head as I realized how stupid I had been. I had magic again! I could just contact my Sisters and take this creature to my Queen. She would certainly be able get the information we needed from this creature.

A smile formed on my face as I started to focus my mind. Slowly the voices of my Sisters, my real Sister, filled my head again. Finally I would know how to get out of my place, and more importantly, I could bring hope to my Hive again.

I laughed as I pulled the clumsy biped forward again, soon we would be home.

Chapter 6: Hope is Blind

Hope is Blind.

With a small sigh of relief I plopped down in the snow, stretching out before I rested my head on my front legs and watched the tall creature sit down on a rock.

The sky was graced with another clear and star-filled night that cast a comfortably dim light on our surroundings. Normally, this would mean another rest that would chill me to my very core, but my strange companion proved to possess a few interesting skills over the days that we had been travelling together.

I watched with interest as it dug up a few sticks from its saddlebag that it had gathered during our long walks. I was still amazed by how it managed to make the wet wood burn in a fire that didn’t choke us with thick smoke. The creature began the complex ritual it preformed every night as it selected small branches on the basis of some criteria that were only comprehensible to itself and started to strip off the wet bark from the larger pieces of wood.

As I watched the motion of its hands that betrayed years of experience, I was again struck by the paradoxical nature of the being. Most of the time it seemed ignorant like a grub, unseeingly bumbling around during the daytime. The nocturnal creature had put a foolish amount of trust in me as it literally followed me blindly as I dragged it by its sleeve.

But at the same time it showed a healthy amount of paranoia. Even now it was continuously watching the large natural stone pillars around us with those beady and tired eyes. Always vigilant for predators, with one of its weapons within arm’s reach.

I let out a small cheery sound as it finally managed to make a tiny flame with the spark from its lighter. The tall being nodded its head with a small smile as it heard my celebration. If it insisted on believing that I had given it a compliment, it was free to do so, but I was just glad that I wouldn’t freeze to death tonight.

Moving closer to the center of our little bubble of comfort and light, I made sure not to light the creature’s “gift” on fire. Partially because, even though it was only a gift in the loosest sense of the word, it was the very first thing that was given to me; not to some loved one I was disguised as, something that I would have to discard as soon as I was found out, but something that was given to the actual me. Something I could keep for myself and the Hive. But mostly, I kept it away from the fire because I was wearing it at the moment.

The first night we had started our journey, after the creature had finally regained its vision and could be trusted not to blindly wander off, I had been having trouble sleeping again on the cold ground. Maybe it was out of a sense of pity, or maybe the being simply was annoyed by the clattering of my teeth, but it had reached under its armor and produced a couple of wrapped up items that, at a point very long ago, could have been described as clothes.

The things were barely more than a bunch of grey threads that were held together by hope and dirt. Years of sweat and bloodstains had seeped into them until they emitted a smell that could only be described as nose-meltingly foul. Still, it kept out the worst of the cold and stopped my shivering. Beggars couldn’t be choosers.

My eyes had begun to wander off to the tooth-like stone structures that surrounded us. The ancient pillars were only a better sight than the forest by virtue of being decidedly something else than that cursed place. I had no idea what manner of natural or magical phenomena had created this landscape, nor did I care. All I knew from the instructions that my Sisters had burned into my mind, was that this place was the start of the last stage of my journey home. That alone made the landscape the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life, with the exception of the Hive, of course.

“Dozor.” My ears perked up as the creature called my new name with its gruff, tired voice. Though we were a long way from communicating meaningfully with each other, the routine that had slowly built up between us already told me that it was time for “dinner”.

As many times before, the tall being provided a few of the small, sickly, white things that could only be called mushrooms by the most optimistic of creatures. Even though they tasted like they had been grown on a strict diet of rubber and mud, they did their job in soothing the aches of my stomach. They kept me going and they were free, so who was I to complain? Though, as I half gulped down half gagged on the last of the dull-tasting fungi, I wondered if my prey was sharing them out of kindness, or if it wanted to share the misery of its meal.

The creature muttered a few words, sounding concerned as it turned the small brown bag inside out. The look in those small eyes with dark circles under them was almost as empty as the bag itself.

No more mushrooms, I guessed. The horror.

The biped threw away the brown cloth and dug deep into its saddlebag once again. Carefully, like handling an ancient relic, it took out the grey cylinder in which it kept its most prized possession: a bottle of a beautiful and strange design at which the creature would stare endlessly, like it held all the answers in the world.

I had no idea how the glassblower had managed to shape the glass in such a way that it captured the light of the stars and fire and mirrored them into a hypnotizing display of light, but it would not be an unfit gift for Mother. Sadly, although the creature had literally entrusted its very life to me, it would not allow me near the bottle. No matter how slowly or harmlessly I tried to approach it, the being would always stuff it away as soon as it noticed me getting close.

It wasn’t really worth the effort, so after the first night I quickly accepted it as another one of the creature’s quirks. Soon, despite the creature’s best efforts, it started to slowly nod off as it stared into the bottle.

I found my eyelids growing heavy as I laid my head down on my cloth-wrapped legs. Not to sleep, of course, but to rest. Sleep was a luxury that would have to wait until I was home. Besides, the steady supply of trust that I carefully siphoned from it should have been more than enough to keep me awake. And even if it wasn’t, it was still my responsibility to watch over the prey. It was ours and I couldn’t afford it to let it be eaten in the night. I yawned as I rested my eyes for a moment, enjoying the warmth of the fire.

I let out a surprised yell as I felt something grip my front leg. I opened my eyes, ready to bite whatever predator had gotten me as I rested. But, as I looked up, I gazed not into the eyes of certain death, but into the small brown eyes of Yuri.

He nudged me again and slowly helped me onto my legs. A trail of smoke was coming from the embers that remained of the fire. My eyes quickly gazed past the helmet of the prey. I felt my heart drop as I saw that the moon had traveled across the sky already, and was almost starting to sink into the horizon.

With a frustrated grunt and drooping ears I quickly trotted in front of the biped. I glared at the ugly face of that idiot as I ran past it. How could it have left me sleeping for so long? Soon it would be day and because of its weakness we would again be slowed to a crawl. Well, if it was counting on another break any time soon, it was out of luck!

As we traveled in silence under the slowly brightening sky, I felt my anger being replaced with excitement. The stone forest slowly started to give way to an actual one as I saw more trees and familiar plants replacing the lifeless monoliths surrounding us. The few stone structures we still encountered were more frequently overrun by the vines that were so characteristic of my homeland. It was as if the forest was just as eager to expand its reach as its inhabitants.

In my excitement, I subconsciously began to hop while spreading my wings open. Apparently my prey found this to be amusing, as it began to chuckle at my display. Strangely, I didn’t mind the laughter and I felt a sly smile growing on my face.

Perhaps it was wasteful and selfish of me, but my wings were itching to be used again. I had been earthbound for far too long. I boldly stole more energy from the creature than I had dared before and enjoyed the feeling of power returning to my horn and spreading to my wings.

With a final hop, I launched myself into the air and flew up to the snow covered branches as the biped reeled back. After a somersault I hovered next to the creature so that I was on eye level with it. I couldn’t help but laugh at the look of surprise on its face. No matter how alien the creature was, it seemed that some expressions were universal.

However, as I heard the sound of buzzing wings and small soft thuds of landings, I realized that in my excitement, I had missed a group of creatures approaching us. As I focused on the dark shapes, ready to face a fierce fight, I was greeted by a most welcome sight.

Three guards, all wearing dark blue armor that protected their chests and backs, had landed in front of us. The one in the middle was wearing a helmet that the other two lacked, marking her as a commander. All three of them looked as powerful and as unmovable as the earth. They had that aura of calm certainty and resolve that was only gained by years of serving in the Queen's military

Despite the initially serious and professional look of the guards, the commander quickly took of her helmet as she gave me a warm smile and flew up to face me. ‘Sister, It is good to have you back, ’ she said into my mind. As she looked more closely at me she let out a snort. ’I see that you’re disguising yourself as dirty laundry. Smart, the enemy will never see it coming.’

’Oh, this, an awkward smile formed on my face as I looked down at my rags. They were a… a gift, you could say. I gestured back at the biped that was anxiously looking at our wordless communication.

The commander flew past me and in front of the creature that reeled back a bit at the unexpected invasion of its personal space. Putting a hoof on her chin, the veteran gave the biped a critical stare.

’My, my, you bring back the strangest things to the Hive, scout. Well, I hope that the quality of its love is better than its gifts.’ She glanced back at the two other guards. Quickly responding to the mental order they had been given, they flanked the creature on both sides. Putting her helmet back on, the commander ordered me to fly next to her as she led the way.

As we silently marched on in the slowly brightening forest, I cast a few glances at the biped. Though the sun was slowly starting to rise, the creature could still walk mostly unattended. More concerning was the hand that it held on the L-shaped object that had killed the chimera. Still, it was calm for now, and I really had more pressing things to think about. ’So,’ I asked the commander. How are things back in the Hive? Have the other scouts found anything at all?’

For the smallest of moments, the confident smile under her helmet faltered. No. You’re the first one that returned with any news at all. She looked at me with a neutral expression on her face. We’re still getting by, for now, but a new race of thralls would be very welcome at this point.’ She grimaced as she looked in the distance. Not waking up to the moaning that comes from the healing chamber would do all of us good. Our Brothers and Sisters are doing their very best, but there is only so much they can do for the wounded without spells.

’What?’ I stared in disbelief at the commander. ’Are you serious? We had to call on our Brothers? Are things that desperate?’

’I know, I know, it’s been thirteen years since that was necessary, but that was way before your time.’ The commander twitched with her tail in frustration as she continued to talk. ’We just can’t afford to keep anyone in reserve, and even with their help, it’s a madhouse in there. Everyone is working outside of their original purpose in these times.’I must have looked absolutely miserable, because my companion immediately tried to cheer me up with a pat on the back. ’Don’t worry too much, Sister. I’m sure that the Queen will sort this out in no time as soon as she has had a little “chat” with your thrall.’

I wanted to ask more, but I was stopped by a sight I had dreamed about for months. Unlike in my nightmares, the place was still full of life. Groups of armored changelings flew in and out of the black towers, carrying dead prey or the precious few fruits and nuts that were still available. Crunching noises filled the air as I saw my fellow Sisters breaking the ice of the nearby lake and dragging large chunks back inside.

The biped whispered a few words in a shaking voice as it saw the dark spires of our labors reaching into the sky. With a small grin and flair of the theatrical, the commander held up a leg to gesture at our home. “Well then, here it is. The great Hive,” her voice was solemn as she spoke in an old Taurus dialect. She laughed as the creature took a few steps back. “Do enjoy your stay.”

The structure was dark and foreboding. Like an evil lair out of fairy tales.

It was hard to imagine that such a thing could be built by a new species in only twenty years. An entire city that could almost rival the human ingenuity of the old days, but there it was.

I suppose that it was actually no stranger than how the world outside of the metro was. Many elders had told of how sweet the air used to be and had complained about the dusty filtered air we were forced to breathe in the metro, but they could have never described the feeling of your lungs being filled with clean, cold air. Even after days of traveling I still relished every unstrained breath in this strange new world. And the snow tasted so pure and clean. Not a trace of the ash or poison that filled Moscow could be found in it.

Incredibly, my Geiger counter indicated safe levels of radiation. I first thought that the thing was broken, but every now and then a stray particle would hit it and make it crackle with life. It was, I-I don’t know. It was unreal. Simply unreal.

The planet was supposed to be a nuclear cinder, but it was so clean here. Even the clouds and dust of the nuclear winter were absent.

It filled me with a sense of hope. Maybe only the major cities of the world had been hit by the devastating weapons of war, while the rural world was spared. Maybe we didn’t have to stay in the metro, hiding away from the surface like rats. Maybe we just needed to move away from the city that slowly sucked the life out of us. Maybe we could carve out a future in this place like these mutants had.

With a small poke from Dozor’s hole-filled leg, which amazingly enough seemed to be a trait of his species, I was brought back to reality. Entering this place seemed like a terrible idea, but did I really have a choice? Soon the intense light of the sun would blind me into helplessness again. Besides, even if I was able to get away, where would I go?

Dozor’s look of impatience was enough to convince me. He had helped me so far; he deserved a bit more trust.

I nodded to my companion and his friends who would be identical to him if it weren’t for the armor they were wearing. With steps that sounded more confident than I was, I followed my new guides into the unknown darkness of their home.

Flicking on my flashlight drew a few surprised looks from the apparent leader of our little group and the two mutants that refused to leave my sides, but it was nothing compared to what I felt. Tunnels and bridges stretched everywhere haphazardly, opening into the large chamber we were standing in and leading to who knows where. Large green spheres gave off a sickly green light all on their own. In an impressive stand against the laws of physics, they were floating in the air without any suspension.

Small groups of the mutants marched or flew by as they carried supplies. Other groups were chewing up a strange black mud and spewing it down in places where cracks had started to appear. As we descended deeper and deeper into those dark tunnels, we kept drawing their attention. Uncountable pairs of bright eyes stared at me with an unreadable intent hidden behind those blue orbs.

But the most disturbing part was that this went on in complete and utter silence. Except for the buzzing of wings and stomping of legs, no creature spoke. They just looked up, as if they heard voices and did their tasks in complete harmony with one another. It was more than a bit eerie.

Well, I suppose that it wasn’t complete silence. If I listened closely, then I could hear a faintly melodic moaning and screaming in the air. It was hard to tell if it was a song or the sound of suffering echoing in the chamber, but as it grew louder, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

This was not a place intended for humans.

The only reason I kept on walking was the gentle, but continuous pushing of the small mutants that flanked me. Subconsciously my hand had started to rest on the assault rifle slung around my back. A grimace formed on my face as I thought about escaping from this place. Even if every cartridge I had killed one of the mutants, there would still be thousands left. There was no choice but to walk through this seemingly endless tunnel to whatever fate they had in store for me.

As we went deeper into this system of tunnels that turned and twisted, we came across several large chambers. Quick glances inside revealed large walls with hexagonal tubes, a quarter of which were filled with more sleeping mutants. Another chamber showed eggs resting under a ceiling filled with the green spheres that gave of a soft, welcome warmth. The mutants that were fussing over the white ovals stopped as soon as they saw me and kept a watchful eye on me until I had passed the room.

And all the while, that horrible song grew in strength. Even my companions seemed to be affected by it, as they kept their heads low and stared at the ground. Almost as bad as that sound, was the smell that started to fill the tunnel. Rot, pain and fear hung in the air as we started to pass the chamber from which it all came.

Against my better judgment, I peeked inside. The sight of broken, festering limbs, cracked eyes, and torn wings assaulted my vision. Diligent mutants were helping their kin as they flew back and forth between the most pitiful creatures I had ever seen in my life. They slowly gently lowered the most painful looking wounds into iced water and washed the infected limbs, but that seemed to be the limit of their medical knowledge.

My guards didn’t allow for a long look though, as they more quickly than before started pushing me away from the heartbreaking sight. They only slowed down after that putrid smell became less overwhelming and the moaning was little more than a soft background noise. I couldn’t blame them for not wanting to stay there long.

Finally, after what had felt like hours of walking, the tunnel opened up into a large room. There were no more side passages or intersecting tunnels or side chambers, making it clear that this was our end destination. With a pounding heart and shaking hands I walked into the place where my fate would be decided.

More of those strange green orbs illuminated the underground room which had a surprisingly tall ceiling. The light of the floating spheres revealed that the black walls were filled with strange, glowing, drawings. Another, smaller, paler, white variant of the mutants flew around the chamber alongside with the regular and armored mutants. These smaller mutants gently pressed their horns against the walls as they erased and drew fantastic images that told of impossible things

I saw fields filled with flowers, grass, and sand. The lines formed great cities of an architecture I had never heard of before, castles made of crystals, caves filled with dog like creatures, tall towers in the clouds with large birds flying between them, villages with tent-like houses and trotting horses.

What I didn’t see was a world covered in ice, or broken down cities, or Moscow.

Or humans.

Before I could think about the implications, I was mercifully distracted by movement in the middle of the chamber. A large and gangly shape flew up and with a thud landed right in front of me. Large, disturbingly human eyes looked at me with a hungry intensity.

Surprised and startled, I started to quickly take a few step backs, but the creature kept advancing toward me with its fangs exposed in a dangerous smile. In my clumsy retreat I felt my legs cross each other, followed by the ground meeting my back. Desperate to get away from that much too human gaze, I crawled away on my back, not daring to break our eye contact for one second.

My breathing stopped for a moment as I felt the hard wall pressing against me and blocking my clumsy escape.

I hadn’t realized it in my panic, but the creature had been talking to me for some time now. It was a speaking in a tone that commanded respect, that expected obedience, and strangely sounded very feminine. Her voice also seemed to have a strange effect, like it echoed in itself. But what was more important than that, was the she seemed to be demanding answers from me. And judging from the increasing amount of teeth she showed me, her patience was wearing thin.

“I-I’m sorry, I c-can’t understand you!” My stuttering words seemed to anger the creature as she started to lean over me with a suspicious look in her eyes. For no visible reason the creature suddenly looked over to Dozor, who was making complex gestures as he wordlessly explained something.

I had no idea how, but apparently Dozor had gotten some kind of message over to the hole-riddled mutant that was standing over me. With a small nod at my companion, she started to lean closer over me until her long, blue hair almost lay on my chest.

“What are you-“ My question was interrupted as a sickly green glow started to engulf the large, jagged horn that sprouted from her head. As she slowly moved her horn until its tip touched my forehead, a scratching sensation formed in the back of my head.

The feeling was indescribable. The closest that I can come to describing it is a burning fungus was slowly growing in my brain. Exploring every corner of my mind until it engulfed my very being, lighting every part of me up in a firework of agony.

I couldn’t even scream or move as my mind slowly started to shut down in some futile attempt to spare me from what was happening to it. The world faded to black as the ground rushed forward to meet my face.

With a gasp I filled my lunges as consciousness flooded my mind. Like a guard that had hit the bottle too hard, I slowly hoisted myself into a sitting position as I held my throbbing head in my hands. Slowly I opened my eyes and blinked rapidly as the green light pierced my eyes.

I must not have been out for long, as the mutants were standing in a half circle around me, looking at each other with unreadable expressions. With slow and shaking hands I reached for the shotgun on my back. Two shots would clear a path, and then I would run. Just run.

’That won’t be necessary, Yuri.’

Startled, I looked up at the gangly mutant that had spoken the first word I could understand in days. “What was that? What did you do to me?” I wanted to scream my accusations at the creature, but my pounding headache made my words little more than whispers.

The mutant nudged her head at me and instantly Dozor flew toward me to help me get back up on my feet again. ’It was all a tragic misunderstanding, I assure you. Had I known that you mind was so… different, I would have been more careful from the start.’ She made a razor sharp grin as she flew back to her ominous throne. ’You’re very lucky, Yuri. Had I been less experienced in the ways of mind magic, your entire being might have been simply swept away.’

’Magic?’ “How are you speaking Russian? And how do you know my name?” Cautiously, I put my hand back on the shotgun.

The mutant failed to hide a melodic giggle behind one of her front legs as she looked at me with an amused sparkle in her eyes. ’You believe that I’m speaking? How precious.’ With a look of pride and affection that I had not thought to be possible to find on a mutant’s face, the creature gazed at Dozor, who puffed his chest with pride under the moment of attention. ’And as for knowing your name, you’ll have to thank her. My scout has proven herself to be quite the hero these last few days.’

I held my hands up in surprise. “Wait, you mean that Dozor isn’t a male?” It was ridiculous to wonder about such a small thing compared to what was happening. But it was the only subject my pained mind could focus on that wasn’t part of the complete mess that was surrounding me.

Though Dozor, understandably, was none too pleased to hear me question her gender. Her face that just a moment ago had beamed with happiness and something that was the equivalent of a mutant’s blush, was now forming a sour expression that would have been the envy of even the most bitter and old men in the metro. ’Thanks, Yuri, you really know how to make a changeling feel special.’

Whatever that thing had done to me, must have shaken me up worse than I had thought, since I didn’t even see Dozor’s mouth move as she spoke to me.

The large mutant squinted her eyes as the smile died on her face. ‘I will not be called a ”thing” in my own Hive!’ She held a leg to her chest as she flew up. ‘If you insist on calling us names, like you did with my scout, you shall refer to me as Chrysalis, Queen of the changelings.’

The blur of confusion that lay over my mind was swept away as the terrifying truth became clear.

The queen stopped her rather dramatic display as she landed in front of me again. ‘Yes, we are talking via the collective mind.’ She tilted her head. ‘You should feel honored, really, not many creatures get this opportunity. Or are capable of receiving this gift. Your mind is a most peculiar thing.’ She smiled. ‘No magical, mental, or natural barriers, and oh so very fragile. It’s really the only reason I could connect you to us in the first place.’

This was too much to take in. I just needed to focus on something else. Holding my head in my hands, I tried my very best not to let my panic get the better of me. “Look, I’m just really lost and I need to get home as soon as possible. Could you please help me do that?”

The gangly mutant nodded with an eager smile for me to follow her as she flew back to her throne. ‘Believe me, Yuri, if I knew where your home was, I would be more than happy to help you out.’ The queen stared at a few of the pale white changelings, calling them forth with a mental command. ‘But you can help me help you, I’m sure. Just point out on the map where your species lives, and we’ll get you back there in no time at all.’

The two hovering creatures closed their eyes as a weak light engulfed their horns. White lines started to appear in the air and formed a large intricate map, not like the ones that described the metro, but a world map like the ones that could be found in old Atlases.

But it was strange; there were eight large pieces of land divided by water, and for some reason gigantic clouds were drawn on the map too, as if they were countries of their own.

“No no no,” I managed to whisper. “This isn’t right at all.” Of course the world would have changed after what had happened. That was to be expected. But even the incredible force of a nuclear bomb would have done little to change the landmasses.

Dozor let out a small huff as she flew up in front of me, uncomfortably close to my face. ‘You can bet your Hive on it that these are the most accurate maps in all of Equestria,’ the changeling said with an indignant tone. ‘Our lives depend on it.’

“You don’t understand,” I said as I pushed her out of my breathing room. “The… uhm… what are they called again?” I went through my still scattered thoughts as I tried to recall a term that had no use in my world. “The continents are all wrong!”

The changeling with the helmet and armor walked through the chart, causing a few ripples in the image. ‘My Queen, we can argue maps all day, but maybe it is wiser to simply ask him how he got here and go from there?’

And so I told them of my journey. Of the rats that flooded the tunnels, the threat of starvation, the running through the tunnels with my companions, the sad sight of the dead city, and finally, my encounter with the anomaly.

Their confused and frowning faces told me more than words could. They had no idea what I was talking about. I sat down on the dark floor and took my head in my hands as the creatures exchanged stares, probably wondering if I was crazy. There was no sense in denying that something was very wrong in the world, more so then usual.

‘So,’ the queen drew my attention as she finally spoke up. ‘The last thing you remember is being consumed by this “anomaly”?’ She continued after she saw me slowly nod. ‘Intriguing. I have heard about wild magic forming spells on its own from the other Hives, but nothing on the scale of a teleportation spell. And especially not near a sentient race.’ She stared right at me with those frighteningly near human eyes. ‘I suspect that you’ve been transported very, very, far.’

Sighing, I looked back at the large changeling. “Sorry, I’m sure that what you are saying is really important, but can you just tell me how to get home again? I’m worried for my friends and I really need to help my station. I don’t know how much more time we have left.”

The queen pressed the ends of her front legs together in another one of those surprisingly human gestures as she spoke. ‘Ah yes, your people. You have a very noble mission, Yuri. It is always important to help your kin. At any cost.’ She gave a sad smile as she looked around at the creatures in the room for a moment. ‘And, as you probably saw when my guards led you here, my subjects are suffering too.’

“Yes,” I awkwardly replied. “I’m sorry to see more pain.”

She dismissed my sympathy with a wave of her front leg. ‘Don’t insult us with your pity. We can bear our wounds just fine. ’ A wide smile replaced the frown on her face. ‘But the way I see it, we are two species in need of resources. And I think that we both can, ’ she paused for a moment as she inspected me, ‘help each other. ’

“What do you mean?” As bizarre as the situation was, I couldn’t help but be curious. Mutants and humans helping each other? It sounded good, somehow. Not finding another beast or station that wanted to tear us to shreds, but an actual helping hand. Still, I found myself forced speak the uncomfortable truth. “We don’t really have a lot to offer. Except for our flamethrowers and mushroom farm, we have nothing of real value.”

The changeling leader stared at me with a bemused expression as I started to empty my pockets and showed my measly belongings. “I guess that we have a lot of ammo and some guns. Not the best quality, but we could trade, if you wanted to.”

I shrank back as the queen started to laugh loudly, making the sound echo throughout the chamber. ‘As tempting as the offer of old lead and wood is, I was thinking about something more nourishing.’ The smile died on her face as she saw my blank expression. ‘Love, Yuri, we feed on love. It’s the source of our power. But you don’t need to worry. We know when to stop feeding before it becomes damaging. And we have much to offer in return.’

Now it was my turn to laugh, although more nervously. “What? I-I don’t understand.”

The gangly mutant sighed deeply as she rolled her eyes. ‘Perhaps a demonstration is in order?’ She gestured at a very surprised looking Dozor, who nervously fluttered her wings as she approached me again.

‘You trust my scout, don’t you?’ Chrysalis smiled as she looked at the little changeling dressed in old rags. ‘After all, you let her drag you around half the country. Focus on that trust, Yuri, and you’ll see.’

Though it was a confusing request, it wasn’t particularly hard. Just looking at the alien face of my guide filled me with a sense of gratitude that was similar to what I had felt for any guard in my station. I felt that slightest hint of a tingle as Dozor’s horn began to glow with a bright green light.

As Dozor gritted her teeth and seemed to be lost in intense concentration, the light from her horn was transferred to me. My stomach lurched as an intense sensation of wrongness overcame me, I was slowly floating up to the ceiling. The shock made it impossible for me to even protest. Somehow, these creatures had managed to tame the unknowable power of the anomalies

‘You see, Yuri?’ the queen spoke up again. ‘And this is just from a small bit of trust. Imagine what we could do if your entire station were here. Imagine if your entire race was here.’ She had a fire in her eyes as she spoke her words with a growing volume. ‘We could heal our wounded! We could feed both our kinds! We could rise to unknown heights, together!’ She flew up to me as she continued her speech. ‘Your race is broken and starving. I’m offering you to come live with us. And all you need to do is simply feed our power.’ To my eternal gratitude I was slowly descending to the safety of the ground again. Chrysalis offered me a leg as she finished talking. ‘What do you say, human? Shall we be allies?’

There was complete silence in the chamber as the question floated in the air, well, except for the exhausted breathing of Dozor. Of all the things that I had expected to find in this place, allies were the last on the list, but could I really say no? Alex his warning still haunted my thoughts, even as I walked the alien landscape. Without help, my home would die.

And now, out of nowhere, I had found salvation. Not just for me, my home, or its refugees, but for the entire human race. If only Sasha and Sergei, or even that bitter stalker, could see this. With these creatures, we would be safe from the rips in reality. In this place, the air wouldn’t kill us, and in the safety of these tunnels, we could finally live as humans again.

With a smile I shook the mutant’s leg. “It’s a deal.”

The queen nodded her approval with a spark of happiness in her eyes. ‘Excellent. I knew you would see the wisdom of my words.’ She nodded for two of the smaller guards to escort me. ‘Now, Yuri, you go rest and eat. Tomorrow we shall discuss how we can get your species here in the first place.’ She laughed as she saw the concerned expression on my face. ‘Don’t worry, I already have a plan that should be,’ she paused for a moment as she gave a devious smile. ‘Perfect. Now let me have a little talk with my scout and the commander, and we shall get started first thing in the morning.’

And with that, I was off to one of the resting chambers I had seen earlier. As I walked through the tunnels, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t noticed how much they resembled the tunnels of the metro. Yes, I thought to myself, this would be our new home. Finally, everything would be alright.

Author's Notes:

I want to thank kalash93 for helping me with pre-reading and giving a few very helpful suggestions. This chapter would be quite different if it weren't for him. So, thanks buddy.

Chapter 7: Just Like Home

Just Like Home

There was nothing quite like the feeling of green goop on your tongue. The taste of the meal that was lovingly prepared by the nursing drones back in the Hive was one of the few things that always managed to cheer me up, even in this desolate tundra I found myself in. And as I felt the last bit of my meal slitter its way down to my stomach, I couldn’t help but let out a content sigh.

Though the nostalgic taste did little to ward of the cold wind that swept through the holes in my legs, I was still infinitely thankful for it. The memories of my home were one of the few distractions in this place that consisted of nothing more than the star filled sky and a horizon. Well, that and my prey of course. Who was staring at its meal once again like it was a pool of acid.

“Why is it glowing again?” the human said as it held the goop at a respectful distance.

I stopped myself from telling it to just voice its questions in its mind, having long since grown tired of the futile request and the annoying flood of questions that always followed. If my prey wanted to pretend that we were having a “normal” conversation, I was more than willing to entertain its delusions.

’it’s glowing because it’s filled with nutrients and love. Now eat before it freezes to your plate,’ I responded as neutral as I could, barely holding the mirth out of my voice. After all, the creature’s caution when it came to the green stew might have been partly been my fault after I explained to it in great detail how the nursing drones made the meal, including sound effects. But I was never one to lie when the truth was far more amusing.

The look my prey gave me made it more than clear that it wasn’t satisfied with my answer, but hunger can be a strong motivator. So after an eternity of carefully poking and testing the viscosity of the goop, the creature finally ate some. The sour look on its face that followed told me all I needed to know, but I still asked the obvious question.

’So, how does it taste?’

“Like a sneeze died in my mouth.” Came the answer from between coughs and gagging noises.

I tried to look as sympathetic as possible as it fought to keep the food in its mouth, but there is only so much you can do to hide your amusement when there is a giant grin on your face. And eventually I felt a few giggles break through my façade. A mortal sin for a changeling under normal circumstances, but around this human it didn’t matter.

And instead of angry reprimands and hurt words, I could hear a deep and rumbling laugh coming from my prey. It was so strange, being able to drop the act around others and not having to fear condemnation. But I supposed that it was par for the course to have weird things happen when you were having dinner with what was basically an alien.

After the human had finally managed to finish the meal and keep it down I once again lead the way. The mental map that one of my Brothers had provided was carved in my mind, showing our current destination as clear as the full moon in the sky. Luckily for us the small town was a lot closer than that luminous rock.

And of course it was not five heartbeats later until I felt that familiar nagging tingle of a foreign mind filled with questions focusing its attention on me. The creature had the uncanny skill of always being able to find new things to talk about. But in this empty landscape talking was our only way to pass the time, so I played along.

“Can I ask you something Dozor?” the biped said as I flew up higher to scout the way ahead for potential obstacles.

’Nothing is stopping you,’ I responded as I scanned the tundra. I felt the ghost of a smile creeping on my face as I saw a few specks of light in the distance. My Brothers’ information had been accurate, as expected.

“Are you a princess?”

A question like that was probably the only thing that could have broken my focus and make me look down.’What?’ I replied as I stared into its eyes, searching for any trace of mocking on its face.

“You always keep calling your queen mother,” the human replied as it followed my flying patterns closely. “And I thought that maybe it was like in the fairytales of old.”

’Well, I am sorry to disappoint, but no. I’m just a lowly scout. Always have been and always will be.’I focused back on small village again. Something was off about the way that the lights were shining, but I could not quite see why my instincts told me I should be careful. ’We are all Queen Chrysalis’ children. And if you are born to be a scout, a drone, or a Brother, then that is your fate. No matter if you’re born first or last. Every creature in this world has its own path from birth. Trying to stray from that or wishing that things would be different is useless.’

The human was quiet for a short while after I said that. “So, everything that happens is because of who we are? It’s all just fate and we can’t change it?”

There was something in my prey’s thoughts made me look down. ’It’s only- Watch out!’ But my warning came too late. The human was already toppled over in the snow. As I descended I berated myself harshly. What kind of scout can’t even keep her escortee safe?

My heart skipped a beat as I saw the pile of red snow the human was struggling with. The biped rolled away from the pile and got up on its knees as it spat out red drops on the virgin snow. At first I thought that it was hurt, but on closer inspection it was obvious that the blood did not belong to my prey, it was from the other human buried in the snow.

I stared at the still living creature behind me as it feverishly was trying to clean its hands and clothes in the snow. ’Was this a friend of yours?’

“Jesus, Dozor! Give me a minute here!” the human snapped back as it got out a piece of cloth and, with shaking hands, cleaned the last stains of blood from its face.

I stared at the creature in silence with wide eyes. The venom in its voice was not that of the creature that I had led around for days like a meek and blind sheep, it was from the creature that had helped me kill a chimera with practiced ease. Not a prey, but a predator. Or maybe it was simply the rage of a cornered rat.

Either way, as soon as it had shown me its fangs, they disappeared under a quick apology. Silently, the human stood next to me to inspect what was left of its fallen comrade.

’It looks different from you,’ I said as I turned over the corpse with a bit of magic. What was left of the armor had a different color and shape and looked, for lack of a better term, more professional. Despite the brutal injuries, its face was still intact. Glassy eyes looked up into eternity with horror and its mouth was opened in a silent scream.

The human murmured something under its breath as it removed a sort of red, white, and black armband with a 'C' on it from the fallen human. “We’re all equal in our graves, despite what we’ve done.” I raised an eyebrow , but remained silent as my prey covered the corpse’s face with the red stained piece of cloth. Human burial rites were not of my concern, as long as it didn’t take too long.

“Let’s go, Dozor,” the biped said as it nodded to our destination. “I’m sick of this place.”

But as soon as I wanted to take off to the sky again, the ground started to shake violently. We stared at each other for a fraction of a second. “Run!” That was all the motivation that I needed as we both sprinted for our lives.

Not a moment later the ground behind us exploded and covered us with a fine spray of snow. I only dared to quickly glance behind me, and I immediately regretted it. Something was coming out of the ground. Something large, filled with teeth and eyes. Something that should not exist in this world.

With renewed determination I fled as fast as I could, flying up and away as soon as I had enough momentum in a vain attempt to convince myself that that would help against… this thing. ’We’re almost there, keep going! We can make it,’ I lied as I felt the horror behind us rapidly crawling closer.

But before I could feel the hot breath of death on my neck, the human stopped in its tracks and turned as fast as lightning, firing its weapon. The flurry of explosions and fire that came from the nozzle of the creature’s gun was nothing compared to the cry that followed. It was a deep roar that quickly changed into a painfully high pitched scream of agony, accompanied with wet sounding disgusting pops.

The trembling stopped and the monster lay there, as baffled as a manticore that was knocked down by a mouse. The biped stood still as fear for death and disbelief at the success of its plan were struggling for dominance in its emotions.

’Get moving!’ I yelled as I dragged it along its sleeve again. ’We don’t want to be here when it comes to its senses!’

Fear and otherworldly cries guided us quickly to the village, which looked like, well, like it was built right next to the territory of a huge monster. Wooden beams and furniture were lit up against the flickering flames that slowly consumed the broken remains of the houses. If I looked closely I could still see some patches of the light colors that ponies liked to paint their Hives with on the blackened walls. I coughed as the oppressive smoke entered my lungs. But most disturbingly of all was what was once the middle of the town. The earth looked like a miniature earthquake had happened and it seemed that the town hall was missing it’s right half, like an angry demon had taken a bite out of it.

“This is it?” the human said as it made its way over the muddy ground that was saturated with ashes. “Imagine that. An entire village survives the war, only to be destroyed by the senseless rage of a mutant two decades later.” It sighed as it picked up a crudely sewn pegasus doll with buttons for eyes. “There are no words.” The biped wiped the worst of the black mud from the doll, revealing the bright colors and a sewn on smile that were hidden under the filth.

I stomped the ground as I spat on one of the burning houses. ’I think that we have bigger problems than some pony Hive burning down! Didn’t you see that thing out there!?’ The human just stared at me blankly as it stuffed the doll in its backpack, like giant abominations were the most normal thing in the world. I groaned as I hid my eyes behind a hoof. ’Fine, fine,’ I conceded. ’We’ll just have to find some way to get out of here, preferably not in the stomach of some Tartarus spawn.’

“Maybe there’s something in there that could help us?” The human pointed at one of the few buildings that were left standing. From the wooden arches and large painted windows it was obvious that it was not a home, but some kind of shop or post office.

’Well, it can’t hurt to check it out.’ I followed the biped up the small staircase as the wooden planks groaned in protest under its weight. I leaned forward to open the door, only to have the human shove its hand in front of my face. ’Hey! What-‘ I tried to protest as I pushed the hand away, but the creature shut me up with a quick hush.

“Do you hear that?” I was sorely tempted to bite its hand just to get back at it, but as we went quiet, I could hear a faint noise coming from inside the building. The human cursed quietly as it leaned in to listen at the door. “Somebody is in there.”

Pulling out the double cylinder weapon that it called a shotgun, the human started to open the door.

’Wait, wait!’ This time it was my turn to stop our progress. ’I’ll need a disguise first. If it’s a pony, well, let’s just say that our species aren’t on the best of terms.’ The human nodded as it started to search for something in its backpack, but I shook my head. ’I’ve got something better.’ I said with a grin.

Closing my eyes, I started the familiar process of picking out a disguise. Somepony from far away would do, and I had plenty of memories from that faithful day in Canterlot. And, as easy as breathing, I found a suitable disguise. Stealing some of the trust from the biped I started visualizing myself as that pony, and as the green flames of magic spread over my body, I became her.

Looking down I saw a pristine white coat where once dark chitin was, and a lock of hair entered my field of vision. I frowned as I blew the purple annoyance out of my face and looked up at my prey. ’So, how does it look?’ I laughed as my question was met with the most sincere look of confusion that I’d ever seen. ’I’ll take that as a ‘looks good’.’

“Any more surprises that I should know about? Can you shoot lasers from that horn?” The prey pointed at my head. I grinned as I promised that that was everything. “I’ll never get used to that,” the creature muttered as it opened the door slowly, shining its flashlight inside.

The beam of light circled around the room, revealing large yellow boards with dates, times, and places neatly set in a schedule. A clock hung over the boards, still working and ticking like it was an ordinary day. In three of the corners were gigantic piles of luggage, some opened with personal possessions and clothes spilling out of them, and in the one remaining corner sat a tiny, shaking pile. It was a filly, with a dark mane and a plain gray coat, not even old enough to bear her cutie mark yet. And she was crying.

“A baby?” the human carefully walked toward it and crouched down in front of the terrified thing, most likely scaring it to death. The small pile of misery was probably so afraid that it couldn’t even talk anymore, as it looked up to the biped with those typical blue puppy eyes. “Don’t be afraid, we’re not going to hurt you.” I rolled my eyes as apparently the humans parental instincts went into overdrive at the sight of that weak little earth pony.

’Stop pestering her, Yuri.’ I pondered how hard it was to convey annoyance, even telepathically, when you were being completely ignored. ’She can’t even understand you. And we’ve got important things to do, remember?’

“We can’t leave her here with that thing outside, she’s all alone!” the human glared as it berated me. “Besides, look at how adorable she is.” As soon as the biped reached out to pick her up, the little thing found her voice back and let out a shriek that was most decidedly not ‘adorable’.

’Now look what you’ve done!’

With a loud crash the door on the other side of the room was kicked open by two powerful hoofs. Before the splinters from the broken door even hit the ground a comet of yellow and blue rushed in faster than anything that I’d ever had seen, and with no time to react at all the human was tackled to the ground. Hooves rained down on the toppled over biped as it screamed in surprise.

Stomping my hoof on the ground I encased the attacker in an aura of green magic and with a swing of my head I slammed her into the wall. Not wasting any time I charged the mare as she fell in the luggage and scrambled her hoofs over the suitcases to get up again. Jumping over the junk, ready to pounce her, my world exploded in a white light of pain as a stray hoof hit me with a sharp crack in the head.

“I’ll get you for that,” I hissed between clenched jaws. Shaking my head to get rid of the black spots in my vision I reared up on my back legs. One good hit and our problem would be taken care of.

A sharp shot rang through the building, echoing painfully loud in the enclosed space. “Stop fighting!” Dust and a ray of moonlight fell down from the ceiling through the newly created hole. “Can’t you see she’s terrified?”

With hoofs still raised I looked down at our would-be attacker. Wild blue eyes, like that of a cornered animal, with contracted pupils looked back up at me, pleading. The dark circles under her eyes and the messy mane told me all I needed to know. My prey was right; this was no threat, just a desperate mare. With a sigh I gently let my hooves down and turned away to let her rush to the filly.

As the mare hugged the little thing and buried her under a wave of apologies I gently touched the painfully throbbing left side of my face. You could say what you wanted about earth ponies, but they were strong. I almost jumped up in surprise as I felt a hand on my shoulder. The human was crouching next to me as it examined my face with a strange look on its face. “Hey, are you okay? You took quite the beating back there.”

Pushing away its hand I huffed. ’It takes more than that to keep a changeling down. Don’t let this soft disguise fool you.’ I prodded my hoof accusingly against his chest as I looked into its eyes. ’I could have taken her on easily, you know.’

A small smile formed on the human’s face. ”I don’t doubt that.” The human stood up again as it started to lead us to the two strangers in the corner. ”Thank you for having my back, Dozor.”

I looked away from the biped as I replied, hiding the involuntary grin of pride on my face. ’Yeah, yeah, we’ll throw a party in my honor later. For now, let’s find out what in Mother’s name is going on around here.’ The grown mare was eying us suspiciously as she held the filly in a protective hug, shielding the little thing with her body until only a dark pluck of her mane could be seen.

“Y-you’re al-alive!” The yellow pony was breathing uncontrollably, almost to the point of hyperventilation, as she struggled to get the words out. “I-I heard n-noises outs-outside, are y-you with the g-guards?” My prey started to walk to the terrified earth pony while it spoke softly in its gruff language, maybe to calm her down, but whatever its intention was was lost in the reaction of the mare. “Get th-that thing away from my daughter!” She practically exploded as she snapped at the biped.

The human might not have understood her words, but the message came through loud and clear. With its arms slightly raised it mumbled an apology as it slowly walked backwards. ’Go search through those suitcases for something useful while I talk to her. Another fight would be such a tragedy, wouldn’t it be?’ I thought that last bit with maybe a bit too much sarcasm, but it didn’t seem to care. With slumped shoulders and eyes staring down it went to its task, rummaging through the abandoned stuff.

With her mouth reduced to a thin line the mare kept stealing glances at the human, as if it would gobble them up if she let it escape her sight for too long. With a cough I stole her attention away for a moment. “Do you mind stopping suffocating your daughter for a minute and talk about that warzone outside?”

“Y-yes, of course.” The mother loosened the grasp on her daughter and sat her on the ground with a warning to stay close. As the little thing hid behind the mare she occasionally glanced at me and the human in shy curiosity. “I’m s-sorry for kicking you, Miss…”

’Oh crud.’ The yellow pony let the question hang in the air while I ransacked my brain under the calm pretense of a smile. “Uh Diamond Dust,” I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind as I thought of ‘my’ cutie mark. I never quite got how ponies were able to sometimes name their spawn after their marks when those only appeared later, but then again, the whole concept of names always struck me as odd.

“I-I’m Steam Trail and this is my daughter: Silver Spring,” she moved away to reveal the tiny mare behind her that gave me a nervous wave before hiding behind her mother’s back again. I smiled back like I cared. “It’s good to finally s-see a friendly face again. It- it’s been…” the mare trailed of as she looked at the floor. I found it very hard not to gnash my teeth as the mare apparently found it appropriate to exchange pleasantries in a town that was on fire. “Oh I-I’m sorry, you want to know what happened, of course. I uhm I set the buildings on fire.” She must have caught the look of surprise that managed to slip by my mask, because she hastily started to blubber out an explanation. “I had to! Y-you see, first this cursed winter started and the few pegasi in our village started to, you know, t-talk. They said it was wrong, it shouldn’t be like this. The s-sky didn’t listen as well, and the snow just k-kept appearing, even if the sun shone. S-so they flew off to Cloudsdale, to talk about the weather, you know? But they d-didn’t come back.” The mare pawed the hard floorboards. “And then t-the earth started to feel different. Colder, wilder, like it d-didn’t want to connect with us anymore.” She gave the floor a small stomp. “And then our mayor wanted to hold a big speech to tell, I d-don’t know, to tell us to stay positive? I didn’t go, because I had to work in the train station and watch Spring. If I hadn’t than I would be…” She stared out the window, avoiding my gaze as she started to shake lightly. With a strained voice she continued. “T-the ground started to rumble and I-I heard the screams from ponies and those things. It w-was so incredibly loud, like the w-world was ending. A-after a f-f-few minutes th-the n-noises stopped and w-when I fin-finally looked outside-” The mare stopped as she hid her face behind her hoofs, small sobs escaped from her as she laid down on the ground.

“Mommy, please don’t cry.” The grey filly spoke softly as she hugged her mother’s neck. The grown mare reciprocated the gesture before she continued. Under normal circumstances I would have been overjoyed to leach from this display of love, feeling it on my face like the comforting sunrays. But there was one thing in the mare’s speech that chilled my blood and gave me that unpleasant nagging tingle in my stomach. Things, she had said. Plural.

“Sorry honey, mommy is just a bit tired.” The mare took a few breaths as she calmed herself down a bit more. “While they were… eating I saw one of the homes catching fire. Maybe the shaking had caused a candle to fall over or something like that, I don’t know. But the monsters didn’t like it. They started screeching like crazy and burrowed underground as fast as they could, taking the remains with them. So when the coast was clear I just started to burn as many houses as I could. Anypony would have done the same, right?”

As she looked up at me, waiting for some sign of conformation that never came, I became lost in my thoughts. We had to get out of here; those houses wouldn’t burn forever, but how? A dozen scenarios flew through my mind, but each one was discarded as soon as it came up. Flying, running, hiding, fighting, all of them would end up with at least one of us eventually being devoured by the horrors that hid beneath the earth. I felt that nagging feeling growing in my heart as the situation truly seemed hopeless, until I remembered one thing the yellow mare had said. “This is a station?”

Leaving Dozor and the small mutant family behind, I took a closer look at the building we were in. As I trailed my hand across one of the boards on the wall a single thought ran through my mind. ’It’s a station’. Times and destinations were written in a strange language that seemed more like elegant scribbles than coherent words. Still, the baggage, the clock, and just the general feeling of the place made it obvious. No matter how different it was, it was a station, like my home.

But how could anyone live here? It was too small and exposed, not to mention right on the surface. That eroding feeling of doubt crept up in my mind again. How far was I away from Moscow? Was I even still in the same continent? Why was everything so alien!?

I shook my head to get rid of those thoughts, like they were just pesky spiders that I could ignore. Supplies, I had to find supplies. Kneeling down on the surprisingly clean wooden floor I opened up one of the cheerfully colored bags that filled up the corners. With a small ‘click’ I flipped open the bronze locks to reveal any hidden treasures inside.

And treasure there was. Clothes, brand new clean clothes. I picked up what looked like a bright blue vest, it was way too small for me, but it was of finer make and cleaner than, well, anything that I’d ever seen. Carefully laying it to the side I dug further in the suitcase. I almost gasped as I saw a toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste, I didn’t even think that any of it still existed. It must have been the suitcase of some wealthy specialty merchant; no one else would carry around, or be able to afford this, any other way. And on the bottom was the greatest treasure of all. Five books! More than I’d ever held in my life before. It was in that strange gibberish language again, but the paper was clean and the illustrations were beautiful, grassy fields, quaint little villages, and beautiful blue skies. If I took these back home I would be rich, I- My thoughts were interrupted as I heard that yellow mutant behind me sob in a disturbingly human way. She was crying.

What was I doing? Riffling through people’s possessions like a heartless bandit while someone’s life had just been destroyed. It was all just stuff, nothing that could help me or my people, nothing that I needed to survive. With a burning red face I put everything back in the suitcase and closed it again.

Not really sure what to do with myself I just sat there until I saw Dozor suddenly perk up from the corner of my eye. ”Come on, human, we’re getting out of here!” She said something in that song like language of her to the other small horse. With a nod the yellow thing stood up and guided us to the door on the other side of the station as her daughter rode on her back.

With a small push of her hoofs the wooden door opened, letting in a wave of cool night air and revealing a sight that I should have expected, but which still took me by surprise. There stood a train. It was nothing like the sleek and silver ones that laid on the old track of the metro, stripped for parts like skeletons of great beasts. No, it was an old model with a great iron steam pipe on top, kind of like an old grandfather train. Happy and light colors brightened up the wooden parts of the train as moonlight was reflected from the great metal wheels and front of the locomotive. There was only a single car attached to it, filled to the brim with little black stones.

“I don’t know how to drive this, Dozor,” I said as I laid a hand on the old fossil of a vehicle. “I know I said that I live in a metro, but I haven’t seen a working train in years.”

’Not you, stupid,’ she said as she gave me a small slap against my sides. ’Her,’ she pointed at the little yellow horse that was putting on a blue and white striped hat as she hopped inside the vehicle. ’She’s been driving this thing all her life. So she’s our ticket out of here, now get in!’

I hoisted myself into the locomotive, ducking as I entered through the small door. As I stepped in I had to hold up a hand against the intense heat that came from the front. There was a large stove like machine standing there with countless valves, unreadable gauges, and pipes leading everywhere. And inside of it raged a fire to power it all. Our mutant train driver was the next one to enter the train with her daughter, she took an as wide as possible path around me and eyed me suspiciously all the way to the stove. Almost spitting out a few words she pointed at me and the corner that was the farthest away from her. I didn’t need to wait for Dozor’s translation to know that she wanted me to stay there for the rest of the ride. With a sigh I sat myself down on the largest pile of coals that I’d ever seen. Mutants living in our old villages, somehow managing to operate human trains, and being afraid of us like we were the invaders to their little world. Still, I couldn’t find in my heart to get angry with her. I knew what it was like to be afraid.

Somehow the blue and yellow horse managed to take a shovel in her mouth and actually managed to feed the fire some more coals with relative ease. An impressive feat for a creature without hands. But before I could ponder more on this she was already pulling levers and various cables that hung from the ceiling. And with an almost imperceptible shove the train started moving, building in noise and speed as we went on.

We all waited there in the awkward silence and oppressive heat as the locomotive sped across the tracks. The young grey horse just kept staring at me with those wide blue eyes like I was one of those misfortunate people with a second head, she shied away behind a pile of coal when I gave her a small wave and a smile.

Wrapping my arms around my knees I stared at the ground, watching the dark charcoal stains on the metal and wood as the rhythmic noise of the wheels on tracks brought me closer to sleep like some mechanical lullaby. Slowly I felt myself nod off as the temporary oblivion of unconsciousness tried to calm down my confused mind for a few hours. I was so tired of it all.

A terrible scream rang out in the night, overwhelming the noise of the fire and steel and turning my insides into ice. Dozor was the first one to break the momentary paralyses that followed in the car, her horn glowed green as she unfurled my backpack and floated out the assault rifle. With furrowed eyebrows and cold blue eyes she pushed the weapon in my chest and nodded to the coal cart. ’Let’s check it out.’ Apparently not caring about her disguise she climbed up the cart, grime and charcoal staining her white coat and rags. Feeling cold sweat pouring down my back I followed her example, looking back one last time as the mother started shoveling like crazy and the daughter did her best to help her with a shovel that was way too big for her. It would have been cute if we weren’t fearing for our lives.

Popping my head over the car I was almost smacked down again by the force of the wind. With some quick reflexes and a bit of help from Dozor I stood on the dangerously shaking car. Wildly looking around for the source of the sound all I managed to get was smoke in my eyes and a blurry vision of the burning town we’d just escaped. ’There.‘ Dozor was standing perfectly still as she pointed somewhere in the distance, not unlike a blood dog that had just picked up a trail.

Crouching down next to Dozor I scanned the darkness. “I can’t see anything.”

With a grunt and a stomp that crushed one of the coals beneath her hoofs Dozor’s horn started to glow. Feeling a small tingle in the back of my head I suddenly knew where to look. Trying not to think too hard about what just had happened I nodded at Dozor.

There were three of them. One I could recognize as our ‘old friend’ from earlier as it kept a few of its many eyes closed, with red and yellow fluids leaking between the thick armored eyelids. The two others of its kind were in front of it, crawling towards us at a terrifying speed. I could feel my heart pounding in my ears as they undeniably gained on us, roaring and screeching like a gruesome pack of wolves.

’Get ready.’ The weapon in my hand felt like it weight a million tons as I waited for the beasts to come within range. Dozor yelled something behind us at our temporary companions; her apparent command was rewarded with a slight increase in speed and sparks flying from the rails beneath us. I felt my stomach turn as the wagon began to shake even harder, rattling my teeth. But the giants just doubled their efforts, slowly coming closer and closer until I could distinguish every individual eye and tooth.

Now, more than ever, I wished I wasn’t alone. If I closed my eyes I could almost see my friends. Sergei with a hand on my shoulder as he said that everything would be alright if I followed my training and stayed calm, Sasha as he made a stupid joke to break the tension, laughing at a world that lashed out at us in every way, and even Stepan, the cold and hard man, that stared in the face of oblivion with tranquility. But all I had was Yuri, scared and clumsy Yuri, outmatched and misplaced. I suddenly felt a hoof shaking my shoulder. ”Hey, stop feeling sorry for yourself and pay attention. Unless they really dislike the taste of pity, they aren’t going to spare us. I tightened my hands around my gun. That was Dozor alright. As practical and comforting as a steel nail. But at that moment I couldn’t be more thankful for her, compliments weren’t going to save us, only violence and unthinking resolve would give us a chance.

Soon, way too soon, they were within range, taking one last deep breath I aimed my gun up and squeezed the trigger. I was quickly rewarded with a cry of pain ringing out in the night and the left most mutant quickly burrowing underground again. Losing an eye or two made it decide that we weren’t worth the effort. But unfortunately the monsters had some semblance of intelligence buried in their primitive minds, as they started to swerve left and right, making it that much harder to hit them. My heart beat like it was a machinegun of its own as adrenaline surged through my veins, making my hands shake even more. Fight or flee instincts tried to override my conscious thoughts as I tried to make the next shot. I fired and missed, three bullets harmlessly flying away in the darkness as the great worms got closer. Cursing under my breath I aimed again. And missed again, the bullets ricocheting of the mutant’s armor, doing nothing more than making it flinch.

Dozor wasn’t helping, as she hissed besides me with her ears flat on her head at the nightmares that were coming for us. Her eyes glowed green and blue as her fangs had grown back in some vain attempt to intimidate that thing. Taking a second to calm myself I aimed again, carefully leading the target. This time I was rewarded with another shriek as the already wounded giant followed its cowardly friend’s example and also burrowed itself to safety.

’One more. Don’t screw up, you can’t afford to screw up this time.’ Bringing that last horror in my sights I squeezed the trigger again. Nothing happened; all that came from the gun was the loudest click that I’d ever heard. Empty. The most terrible of all words.

Feeling all the blood rushing from my face I turned to my companion. “I’m out!”

’What? Just keep shooting!’

“I can’t!” I shouted over the noise. “My gun is empty, it won’t work anymore!”

She let out a scream between grinding teeth as she turned to me with a glowing horn. Suddenly I felt like a giant hand dragged me over the coal and floated me down to hard wooden floor of the front part of the train, my ill fitting helmet falling over my eyes. Dazed I wrestled with the straps as I threw the blinding head protection away. Looking up I saw a purple mane and blue eyes filled with purpose looking over the edge of the coal cart. ’Detach the cart, now!’

Shaking my head slowly I stared back. “Get down here! You’re going to kill yourself!”

’I have a plan, but I need you to trust me, Yuri.’

“I-“ My protests were overwhelmed by another roar from our pursuer. It was so close that its foul breath filled the cart like a wave. “Okay, okay, just… be careful.” With a swift kick I removed the safety mechanism from the steel pin that connected the two parts. Grabbing the handle on the pin I started pulling with all my strength, the metal almost cutting my hand even through my gloves. Just when it felt like my arms were going to be dislodged the pin flew free, making me almost fall between the carts before I regained my balance.

The cart was loose, slowly drifting away from us with its sole passenger. My hand covered my mouth, hiding my expression subconsciously. The giant mutant had almost reached the cart and opened its maw, drool flying out to the sides as it got ready to snuff out another life. And then there was a single point of green fire on top of the cart, like it was dozed in kerosene the flames spread until there was only a gigantic inferno left.

Screeching and thrashing like mad the monster turned away, toppling over the ball of fire in its struggle to get underground again. A small spark escaped from the wreckage as the flames went out in an instant and coals spilled on the snow. Searching the tracks like mad for any sign of my companion I narrowed my eyes at the green spark that was heading to us. There.

Wasting no time I grabbed of the side of the train on leaned out as far as I could. “Grab my hand!” I shouted as loud as I could over the roar of the wind. My heart skipped a few beats as I saw my dark guide again, she had burned away her disguise, revealing her translucent wings that fought for every centimeter that brought her closer to us again. After what seemed like an eternity I finally grabbed her outstretched hoof and dragged her into the carriage and into a tight embrace. “That was insane! You’re insane!”

It took several wheezing breaths before my tiny savior was even able to answer me. Somehow managing a smile as she gasped for more air she looked up to me with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. ’It worked, didn’t it? She snorted as she looked back at the mess left behind by the monster ’Stupid creature, all that power and a simple trick makes it run like a scared dog.’ Freeing herself from my embrace she hopped onto a small stack of coals. ’Remember that, Yuri, lies will bring you everything you want on a silver platter.’ Suddenly the changeling bit her lip as she avoided my gaze, like she was a child that had been caught stealing food by her parents. ’Anyway, let’s rest for now, I’m exhausted.’ As if to emphasize her point she lay down on the coals, using her hoofs as an improvised pillow. Anyplace could be a bed if you were tired enough, I guessed.

Looking back outside I could only just see the ever shrinking shape of the sacrificed carriage. Though we were safe for the moment, a sense of dread crept up inside my mind. We had fended of the monsters, barely, but they were still there, chewing their way through the earth, building their own metro. My mind went back to my own home, how come we had never heard of these creatures? Did they not exist where we lived, or were they simply intimidated by our own tunnels, fearing that they had been made by some powerful rival? Would they one day just burst into our home and take us all by surprise? Putting back up my helmet I did my best to dismiss those thoughts. They were just one of the many threats to my people’s survival, just another notch on our list of enemies that we knew about. If they weren’t a direct problem they could wait, we had enough problems to deal with already.

Watching the flat landscape making place for rolling hills I felt my mind unwind. We had survived another day and I was that closer to fulfilling my mission. Maybe someday soon we could leave this dark nightmare behind and just live like people again.

A sound behind me killed the smile that was growing on my face. I couldn’t understand it, but the hate that coated that word was undeniable. Turning around I saw my guide and the yellow coated horse staring at each other, both searching for the smallest hint of provocation to start a fight. Of course, it was always the same way, wasn’t it?

Author's Notes:

First of all, remember when I joked about the new chapter being up in 10 weeks? Yeah... I'm extremely sorry for taking so long to post something new and there is really no excuse. I hope to publish the next chapter sooner. Sorry for being the worst author.
Second, I'd like to thank kalash93 for pre-reading and giving me general advice with this fic. Thanks buddy.

Chapter 8: One-Way Track

One-Way Track

“Changeling.” The word was spat out like a curse, maybe it was. My ears fell flat against my head as I crouched down, trying to lock eyes with the yellow mare. But her face was obscured by shadows and the backlight of the engine flames.

It was a familiar scene, with a familiar fear. I had lived through it a dozen times, and like always, every instinct screamed for me to flee. The adrenaline that surged through my body made my legs and wings shiver ever so slightly. But this time there would be no frantic chase, no flying away to a dark and forgotten corner of the world until it was safe enough to go home.

I was sure that I could take her in a fight, but a broken body couldn’t drive a train. And getting stuck out here would cost time, time that neither Yuri nor I had. I needed to be clever, not quick and strong.

“Yes, I am.” I felt no small relieve when I managed to keep my voice steady. Acting without the comfort of a disguise was… unsettling, but not impossible. I straightened my back as I looked where I guessed that her eyes were. “You’re welcome.”

The train driver started to sputter in disbelief, the very notion that she would ever have to be grateful to a changeling was probably too foreign to have ever entered her mind.

“She’s right, mom!” The young filly sprung up behind her mother with stars struck eyes under a puff of her dark mane. “They scared away the monsters! Didja see it mom!?” I smiled warmly at the young pony, either the euphoria of still being alive was clouding her judgment, or she was simply too young to understand our respective roles in the world. Either way, she was playing into my plans perfectly.

“You always said that changelings were mean cowards, but she saved us instead of the guards.” The tiny pony rushed past her mother until she was close enough to do a small bow in front of me. “Thank you, Miss Diamond Dust.”

“Silver Spring, don’t-” I interrupted the mother’s speech by giving her daughter a small pat on the head. Terror was spreading through her body as she followed my hoof like it was a saw blade that barely missed her daughter. There was her weakness, obvious in hindsight. My smile turned genuine as I realized that I had won. She loved her daughter, and would betray everything she stood for to protect her.

“You shouldn’t forget my partner back there,” I pointed a hoof at the human, who had visibly relaxed when he saw that there would be no more fighting. Not of the physical kind anyway. “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

The filly gulped as she looked at the biped. “But he’s so big and scary,” she wrinkled her nose as she looked at the human. “And he smells, ugh.”

I let out a genuine laugh at that, seeing the train driver shrink in fear of her daughter. I had pushed her nerves enough; it was time to move in for the final blow. “Oh, I know, honey. But he’s just been too busy saving little ponies like you and your mother to take a bath.” She smiled in adoration as I bopped her nose. “So be a good little girl and go thank him while your mother and I have a little chat.”

As the filly walked to the surprised human to bury it under a million questions I turned around. With a small leap that was assisted by my wings I was next to the yellow mare, before she could recoil or scream I wrapped a foreleg around her and embraced her just a bit too tight for comfort. She shuddered as the hard chitin touched her mane.

“Be quiet.” I hissed into her ears, making sure that she could see my fangs being reflected by the fire.

“Please, she’s all that I have left,” the mare begged with a broken voice. I tightened my embrace more, making her squeak in pain for a second.

“Are you deaf? I told you to be quiet. Can you follow that simple order?” I slowly loosened my grip as she nodded. “That’s great. Now let me make a few things clear. Do you remember what happened back at the station? When the ‘big and scary’ guy put a neat little hole in the station ceiling?” The mare shuddered again as I leaned closer and put my other foreleg right in front of her face. “If you don’t do what I say, your precious little spawn will look a lot more like me.” I deliberately and slowly moved my foreleg so that she could get a good close look at the mud and old blood that was stuck in the holes in my leg. “Now, look into my eyes and say that you understand me.”

“I u-understand.” She blurted the words out as her eyes stopped avoiding mine. Her pupils were barely more than pinpricks and her eyes were glistening with unshed tears.

“Good, now show me how to drive this train and everything will be alright.”

“Y-you… I can’t j-just show you how to- It takes months to learn how to became a train driver!”

“Well, then it’s a good thing that I only need to drive it for a few kilometers instead of the rest of my life, isn’t it?” I uncoiled myself from her as I gave her a little push towards the controls. “Spare me the exact details of refueling water and safety regulations and just tell me how to drive. I’m sure that you’ll figure out what I need to know, I hope for your daughter’s sake that you’ll do.” I glanced over at the little filly that was wrestling with my prey for its backpack.

I gave the yellow mare a few seconds to calm down enough to stop shaking. Right before she started her explanation I interrupted her one last time. “Oh, and one more thing. I don’t want to hear any rumors about a changeling and a strange creature walking around in Equestria. If I hear them I will know that they came from you, and you’ll be sorry. And don’t you think for a second that if the guards grab me and put me in a dungeon that it will be over for you. My Sisters know I’m out here, and if I suddenly disappear, they will know that it was because of you. If that happens, we’ll hunt you. That sympathetic teacher? That adorable foal from across the street? That brave and valiant guard? One of them will be a changeling, and they will drag you and your child away into the night. Just thought that you should know that.”

The mare stood still for a few moments, looking at the ground with closed eyes. Eventually she started explaining what every lever, gauge and rope did. Her somber voice quietly droned on, only to be interrupted by me when I wanted to know more about something or had to ask her to repeat herself over the sounds of the train.

I looked back at the human and the gray filly for a moment. They were having a “conversation” that mostly consisted of the small creature staring intensely at the few possession that human had spread out in front of him, while the tall creature spoke in whispered tones. More likely talking to itself than to its audience. Sometimes it’s almost hypnotic voice would erupt in a shared laughter with the young mare.

I should have been angry. Did it not know what was at stake? Did it not care for the future of my Sisters and Brothers? Or its own race for that matter? But I knew that it cared, almost as much as I did. Some nights it was all that we talked about.

It- no, he- was so similar sometimes, that it almost frightened me. Still, he was different. How did he, so far away from his Hive that the distance could not be measured, still smile to beings that he couldn’t even talk to? It was foolish, dangerous even.

I focused my attention back on the train driver. It didn’t matter, he would learn, and I would be there to guide him.

I sighed deeply as I removed my hand from the revolver, letting the tension seep out of my body along with my held in breath. Dozor and the yellow horse had looked like they were going to rip out each other’s throats. She had said that changelings and these mutated horses weren’t on the best of terms, but even the fascists and the Reds were downright friendly towards one another compared to those two.

Somehow though, the small grey horse had managed to defuse the entire situation with a few words and a smile. I didn’t want to think about what would have happened if another warning shot had proven to be ineffective.

Walking back to some soft looking planks I sat down, thinking that I would look one final time through my inventory before I could drift away to dreamland. The miniature diplomat had other plans for me, however.

Popping up from behind the backpack she planted her hoofs on the front flap and began talking in her musical language to me. Looking with all the serious conviction that only a small child could muster she repeated herself when no answer came from me, the barrage of words leaving her mouth like bullets from a machinegun.

She was… asking questions? I wanted to ask Dozor to help me out, but she was apparently buddying up with her former enemy.

“Sorry, I don’t speak your language.” It was strange how one of the most self defeating sentences was also the only one that always got the message across. The child scowled as this new dilemma presented itself to her.

She repeated her little barrage of questions again, only this time slower and more deliberate. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry that both humans and, apparently, other species always thought that that would somehow work.

The child however was more practical than I had anticipated. She had decided that if I couldn’t speak her language I also couldn’t rat her out.

Before I could act she stuck her head in the backpack and began rummaging around my only worldly possessions, hoping to find who knows what in it. “Hey! Stop that you brat!” She didn’t stop at all, she only responded in a singsong way. Somehow, deep in my heart, I knew that she was using my own words against me. ’I can’t understand you.’

Finally taking action I grabbed the backpack and lifted it up in the air. The little horse screamed in surprise as she fell out, barely preventing falling on the hard wooden floor by clinging to a back strap.

I moved the backpack with her still hanging from it, bringing her face close to what I hoped was a very intimidating scowl. All she could give me was a sheepish grin. “I swear, if anything is broken or missing I’ll-“ The backpack tilted just a tiny bit over, unleashing a small rain of handgun ammo on the grey mutant’s poor head.

We stood there, well, one of us sort off hung, in shocked silence as a dozen or so bullets rolled around the train. They rang like little bells in the rocky rhythm of the vehicles movement as we just stared at each other. The fragile moment seemed to last a small eternity as time stretched on, both of us not willing to break it.

The small mutant suddenly brought her hoof to her head, scratching wildly until another three bullets fell out of her mane. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t prevent a small laugh from escaping. The tiny culprit started to giggle too, probably glad that I wasn’t going to eat her whole.

“Yeah, you’re still going to clean that up.” I picked up one of the bullets from the small horse’s mane and placed it back in the bag, pointing at her until she got the idea. Her giggling quickly went quiet as her smiling turned into a grumpy pout.

“You only have yourself to blame.” Opening up the back pack I started to pick out the few items that were still in there. The horse’s eyes grew in size as she eyed the strange devices that I laid out on the floor.

I didn’t really understand why I started to talk about them. It was probably more for my sake than hers, but I liked to imagine that she somehow got the general gist of my story. I went through the various items: the Geiger counter, my mask, the universal charger. Every one of them must have looked like strange alien treasures to the mutant, artifacts from a long forgotten time. I remembered doing the same thing when I saw a Stalker’s armor for the first time.

But they could only hold the attention of a small child for so long before she got restless again. She motioned to the bag again, seeing that there was still more inside. Looking again for something interesting, I smiled as I saw the strange doll that I had found, it looked similar to the mutant in front of me, but it had wings. Maybe it was their variation of an angel? I scoffed, ’First they make towns, and now they have religions and culture. Tomorrow they’ll have guns and factories, and the day after that they’ll blow up the world themselves. All grown up, just like us.’

I frowned as I gave the excited child the doll, the mutant squeaked as she hugged the small thing. I chided myself for my thoughts, that was neither fair towards these creatures, nor my own people.

I cringed as I took out one last item: the bloodied arm band with the dark “C” on it. That man, I had almost already forgotten about him. But what was a Nazi even doing way out here? And why had he been alone? Even though the monsters that had chased us had been fierce, if they had encountered a platoon of those fascists there would have been more traces of a fight.

The more I looked at that hateful symbol, the more my heart started to feel like it was being encased in ice. The uncomfortable truth of that arm band stared me right in the face. If I was going to get everyone in the metro here, would that include them? And what about the Reds, could I just leave those behind? Would I even get to make that choice?

I closed my eyes as I crumpled up the arm band, tossing it back in my back pack. ’Everything will be different once we get here. No more Reds, no more Nazis, no more Hansa.’ I sat down on the ground, staring at the dead trees that rushed past the train. ’Yeah, I’ll just walk into their station and say “Hey, give up all your power and follow me, I know a way to a magical land where we all can sit in a circle and sing songs together under the sun”. I would just get laughed at if I was lucky.’

I sighed at the bitter thought, but really, what choice did I have? I couldn’t turn down this chance; I just had to believe that it would somehow work out. No matter how much that arm band told me that things would be no different.

A prodding against my knee made me look up, the small horse was smiling at me as she waited for me to continue talking, or just showing her more shiny gadgets. I felt a hundred years as I looked into those young eyes.

“That’s enough for today,” I said as I turned around and lay down on the floor. The small mutant kept poking my shoulder for a few minutes, growing more frustrated with how I suddenly ignored her, but I just kept quiet, I was too tired to deal with the world.

Eventually she just murmured something angry and started to pick up bullets again, spitting them out in my bag. Finally I closed my eyes and felt myself slowly drifting off under the lullaby of train tracks and the roaring fire.

The sound of boots on concrete echoed throughout the tunnel. I had been running through a sea of darkness for days now, sprinting towards where I needed to be. The only thing was that I couldn’t quite recall where I was, or where I was going. All I knew was that it was very important that I got there. And that I was in a hurry.

“Yuri! Over here!” I immediately stopped in my tracks, nearly falling over my own feet.

“Sasha! Is that you?” The tiredness that had plagued me for so long that it almost seemed second nature melted away in excitement as I turned to the voice of my friend.

And there he was, standing in the small circle of light of his flashlight. He looked like he had been through hell, a bloodied face, ripped clothes, a broken nose and arm, and bruises that had all the colors of the rainbow.

“My friend!” His face broke into a smile as he ran towards me with seemingly no care for his injuries. “Where have you been? You should have been here days ago!” His voice was trembling as he hugged me with surprising strength. I cringed as I heard a nasty cracking sound coming from his arm.

“Watch out!” I carefully tried to pry my friend’s hands from me, but it was like I had been caught in a vise. That sickening sound of bones twisting and muscles tearing was heard again and I could feel his arms tightening around my waist to the point that it started to hurt. “Hey, stop it!”

“They’re all down here, Yuri, all of them. Some don’t even know.” Sasha started to sob woefully as he choked to life out of me. “You have to help me! I’ve been punished enough. Please just get me out of here, I can’t take it anymore!” I felt his hot tears soak through my shirt as he spouted the gibberish of a madman.

I started to struggle harder in a futile attempt to free myself, but I might as well have tried to punch through a wall. My lungs started to burn for another gulp of the dirty metro air, but I could only gasp for a second before Sasha held me tighter and tighter.

The world shrank down to a dot as I felt something in my back shift with a crunch. I couldn’t think anymore, my whole world was reduced to a small dot of light.

Suddenly I fell to the ground. I greedily inhaled the damp air, not caring for the jolts of pain it sent through my back and chest. I crawled away to a wall of the tunnel as I waited for the world to stop spinning.

It took me maybe a moment, or maybe an hour before I realized that Sasha was struggling with another shape. Pressing myself up against the wall I managed to slowly stumble my away from the scene. Taking another painful moment to catch my breath, I stared anxiously at what had happened behind me.

At first I didn’t recognize that half chewed up form of Sergei. That strong man’s face had been broken, cracked open like an egg. But the worst part was his eyes. He seemed to somehow sense that I was staring at him, for he immediately shot a glance back. Those were not the calm and collected eyes of the veteran; these were eyes that belonged to a man that had been broken over and over again.

“Yuri,” the thing that was once Sergei spoke in a grunt as he smacked Sasha’s head against the floor. “She’s lying!” He punched that wretched thing once again, but to little effect, as my former friend didn’t even falter for a moment in his own attempts to crawl towards me. “But you have to follow her,” Sergei continued. “We have to get out of the metro, at any cost!” The man drew his knife, the blade shining like silver lightning in the tunnel as it struck my friend in the back.

The mortal wound seemed to finally snap Sasha back to reality as those terribly empty eyes, devoid of any laughter, focused on me. “Don’t leave me here, Yuri!” My legs started to shake as I took a step backwards. “You have to help me!”

To my eternal shame, I turned my back, leaning against the wall as I dragged myself away from that scene. “I-I’m sorry,” I muttered under my breath as I finally started to run. The screams for help rang out in the tunnel, not fading in strength no matter how fast I ran. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I started to scream it like a mantra, louder and louder, trying to drone out that horrible noise behind me.

To my shock I saw more figures appearing in the weak beam of my flashlight. Like an underground forest of bones and starved flesh, each body a horrible tree. There were so many. I could never fight my way past them.

My heart sank as they started to shuffle towards me, slow, but as unstoppable as a wave. “No! Leave me alone!” My eyes darted left and right, desperate to find something, anything, that could let me escape. There! I saw a crack in the tunnel!

Babbling a few apologies I blindly pushed my way past a few of the mindless husks. I dove towards the tear in the tunnel, cramming myself in the tight space with all the fervor of a man with death right behind him.

With all my strength I pushed forward. My feet were slipping on the ground, my fingers were scraping against the rough wall of the broken cement, but I had to push onward. I didn’t care how my poor chest started to hurt in its futile efforts to expand in the tight space, I needed to get out of there. I almost stopped for a moment as I felt blood dripping into my eye, had I scraped my head open against the wall? It didn’t matter, I did my best to blink away the tears and dirt from my eye, I couldn’t have rubbed the blood out if I tried, the space was simply too small to move my arms in any angle.

Then it happened. What I had feared. I was stuck. No matter how I wringed my body or how I struggled, I couldn’t move an inch anymore. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for those things behind me. Their starved bodies slipped easily between the opening in the wall. I could already feel their arms tugging at me.

I gasped as I saw movement on the other side of the wall. “Hey! Is anyone out there? Help!” A small light erupted on the other side, but its color was not of any flashlight that I knew. “You there! You’ve got to help me!”

A dark shape came closer to the crack, but the light was positioned in such an awkward way that I could only see the outline of my potential rescuer.

“Dozor? Is that you?” The mutant seemed larger in every way somehow. A larger horn, larger wings, and generally taller. She even felt larger, she had an aura of strength that seemed too powerful to belong to any one creature.

“HeyI Dozor! Help me out! Please!” I felt a rush of warm breath on my outstretched hand as the shape came closer. I saw a dark hoof being carefully stretched out for a second, but it stopped before it was even halfway there. “Hey! I’m not joking! Stop messing around and help me!”

I screamed as a withered hand grabbed my head and pulled it back, scraping open my cheek against the wall. For a second, I couldn’t believe my ears, the sound of wings flying away filled the small crevice. “Don’t leave! Get back here!”

Opening my eyes I saw the shape up high, looking like a rising star before it stared back one more time as it abandoned me. I couldn’t even scream as I was pulled back into the tunnel.

With a groan I opened my eyes, slowly sitting up. I grunted as I stretched my pained back. Sleeping on a bed of coals turned out to be a bad idea, who knew?

’Morning,’ Dozor said without looking at me, her black hoofs flying over the dozen handles, slightly adjusting them and watching the gauges as their arrows bounced from right to left. ’Now that you’re finally up, how about you make yourself useful and start shoveling some coal?’

“Sure.” I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I tried to calm down. My heart was beating like it was trying to jump out of my chest. What had I even dreamed about? The remnants of the nightmare were already evaporating from my memories like water on a hotplate.

It took me a while to realize how eerily quiet it was on the train. Scanning the small train I noticed two faces were missing. “Where are the others?”

’The ponies? I threw them out.’

“What!?” Dozor just shrugged her shoulders as she kept staring at the train controls, doing a remarkable good job at avoiding my gaze.

’It had to happen at some point. Rather sooner than later.’

My body turned cold as I looked again around the floor, hoping against hope to find the two hidden behind some coal pile as some sort of sick joke. They were nowhere to be found, of course. “How could you do that!?” I sputtered. “Who knows what’s out there!”

’Look, Yuri, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but ponies and changelings are enemies.’
Still refusing to look at me, she just stood there, calmly talking like she was discussing mushroom prices. ’Besides, you know how the driver treated you. She had her mind made up the first second she saw you. A monster, just like me. If we had taken her to Canterlot along with us, we would have been arrested and thrown in some old dungeon before we could even say a word. It’s better this way.’

“You abandoned an innocent mother and a child to the freezing cold and all the demons of this place and you try to say that it was for the best!?” I couldn’t keep my voice from shaking, honestly, I felt like throwing up.

’Oh come on, it’s not like I didn’t stop the train before I got rid of them. Besides, we passed plenty of villages on the way here while you were snoring. They’ll be fine.’

I started walking on unsteady legs towards my guide. “You don’t know that. You can’t know that.” Standing next to her I loudly smashed my fist against the steam engine. “We’re going back for them, right now.”

Finally Dozor’s eyes met mine. The crystal blue orbs settled on me as she scoffed. ’Did you forget why you are here? To save your people, right? ’

I nodded, not liking where this was going.

’If we go on some sort of wild-goose chase to find ponies that think we’re monsters, that probably don’t want to be found by us, that will get us arrested as soon as they have the chance. Do you really think that you will still have time or even the opportunity to help your people?’ Dozor turned back to the controls, grinding her teeth for a moment. ’I’m willing to do a whole lot more than inconveniencing a family to help my people, if you want to succeed in your mission, you’d be wise to do the same.’

She might as well have punched me in the gut. Everyone in my home station was counting on me, everyone in the metro was counting on me. Whether they realized it or not. What were the lives of two compared to those thousands of others? I couldn’t risk it, I didn’t dare to. Dozor was probably right in fact. Those two would walk to one of their towns and be alright. The thoughts left a bitter taste in my mouth as I turned away from the changeling and sat down next to my backpack. Is this what heroes did? The question was actually simpler: was this what a decent human being did? I buried my head in my hands as the dark thoughts plagued my mind like bats in a tunnel.

Dozor must have sensed something was wrong, or she simply knew enough about me to understand what was going on. ’You don’t have to like it.’
Even through the haze of guilt I could hear that her voice was softer than it usually was. Like she actually dared to feel sorry for what she did. ’We… are forced to do a lot of things to live in this world. Bad things, things that we don’t really want to do.’
She paused for a second as her hoofs wrestled with the controls again. ’But you’re never forced to like what you do, Yuri. Try not to beat yourself up too much. ’

I didn’t even bother to respond to that. Rumbling in my backpack I finally found that familiar metal cylinder again. Carefully screwing it open I watched the pristine bottle within, with the small universe of light that it made from the reflection of the engine fire. Instead of comfort it only made me home sick. I couldn’t bear looking at it longer than a few seconds.

Quickly putting it back to where it belonged I noticed that the small horse had kept her promise, every bullet was cleaned of the floor and jingling on the bottom of the pack. But I also noticed something missing, the doll. And just like that the image of a small grey horse with a small yellow mother struggling through the snow in a forest filled with hungry eyes filled my head. What was this place turning me into?

“Shit”, I muttered as I put the backpack down. What more could I do?

Chapter 9: Mud and Chocolate

Mud and Chocolate

One of the gauges slowly climbed to the red zone. I watched its inevitable rise as it passed from the safe green zone to the cautious orange. My hoof shot out to the jungle of ropes that hung from the ceiling and grabbed the one that Steam Trails had pointed out to me. With a simple tug, the steam pipe on top of the train expelled large clouds of water vapor and the gauge dwindled down to the green zone again.

I shot a glance at Yuri. He was still busy sulking in a corner. Scrunching up my muzzle I focused on a map stuck on the wall. The network of lines formed a confusing scribble of curves and loops that almost drove me insane. These ponies were so inefficient. It was a small miracle they managed to find their way out of bed in the morning.

We were on what the map called “The Golden Line”, the one that lead straight to our destination without any rail changes, thankfully. My Brothers had been right once again as was to be expected.

’Canterlot.’ I shuddered as I thought back to that place, if I never saw it again it would have been too soon. But Mother had personally asked me to do this, there wasn’t any other way.

I frowned as my eyes followed the path on the map we had followed. Leaving the controls for a second I grabbed one of the many coals that littered the ground. I looked at Yuri again, but he was still in his own world. Against my will I felt a frustrated scoff leave my snout. Turning to the map I inconspicuously tracked the dark rock over it, obscuring our track.

Nobody needed to know that there were no stations behind us.

My teeth ground against one another again and I could feel a nasty jaw cramp building up, but I didn’t care much. ’Why hadn’t she just listened to me? I would have let them go free. I really would have.’ It felt like someone had torn out my stomach and stitched up the hole, leaving a painful emptiness behind. ’That idiot.’

As soon as Steam Trail’s face popped up in my mind, the emptiness was quickly replaced with warm, pain-dulling anger. The best I could think of her was that she had stayed true to the role of being a mother, no matter how imbecilic her actions had been. But that was only begrudging respect, with an emphasis on begrudging.

I was, quite literally, shaken from my thoughts as the small carriage jumped up along with my heart for a fraction of a second, making me yelp in surprise. ’Stupid train tracks,’ I thought as I felt my face grow warm with embarrassment.

Well, I didn’t have to worry about her again. Maybe she would make it, maybe not. It was none of my concern. “The heart of a changeling must be small,” Mother always said. I tried to live by those words; there wasn’t really any other way to get by in this world.

It seemed that my prey had also stopped his sulking. Without saying a word it stood up, grabbed the shovel and went to work, shoveling coals in a soft and steady rhythm as the fire in the mechanical heart of the train grew again.

I stared at him for a few seconds, unsure of what to do -- what to say. I felt a strange need to tell him what had happened -- to explain my reasons again. I bit my lip as I turned my attention to the forest of levers that was the control panel. It wasn’t a changeling’s role to explain and reveal.

If he knew the truth of what had happened, it would just complicate things. It would make me look weak. My ears fell flat against my head as I looked down on the floor.

Of course, the human chose that moment to look at me. Quickly straightening my back and ears, I pretended to be absorbed with driving the train, playing the act of unmoved and strong guide with enough fervor that I almost felt real confidence again.

“Dozor, can I ask you something about what happened?” I blinked in surprise as the man spoke. I didn’t really know what I had expected to hear from him. Curses, accusations, maybe a questioning of my mental status, but not that question, not in that worn out voice and not so soon.

’What is it?’

“Was it-" the man let out a frustrated sigh. “Can you look at me when I’m talking to you, just this once?”

Slowly and with great reluctance, like I was about to stick my hoof in lava, I turned my head towards Yuri. Two small and intense brown eyes greeted me from his thin face. “Was it really-“ the human stopped himself once again as he laid a warm hand on my shoulder. “Was it necessary? Just tell me that there was no other way.”

’I already told you, it’s for the best.’

The man shook his head. “That’s not what I asked.”

I hesitated for a moment, how had I gotten myself trapped like this? That kind hand and that earnest voice were worse than the most ruthless interrogation. ’It was necessary,’ the lie rolled of my tongue with practiced ease as I met his eyes unwaveringly.

How could I possibly tell him that I just couldn’t have prevented it? In the end, lying just was easier and safer, like it always was. It’s better to be disliked than to be seen as incompetent.

He stared at me for a long time after that. Searching for something that could not be found. “Okay.” And just like that, he went back to work, no more questions asked. Maybe he just wanted to believe me?

I stood in a daze as I watched the busy hands of my prey moving the shovel around again. The pressure of his hand still weighed on my shoulder like a phantom pain, and those honest eyes still lingered on my face. I muttered an excuse about being too far into dangerous territory as I wrapped myself in the Diamond Dust disguise. I couldn’t bear walking in my own skin for then.

After that, silence reigned. We only spoke when it was necessary, and even then, only in short sentences. Fortunately the lack of words was not hostile or oppressive like in the forest, where the isolation that it bred seemed like a physical force that was constantly and relentlessly pushing me down. This one was almost soothing, like the pressure that had built up was slowly dissipating away.

Was this how other species solved their conflicts? Strange. I hadn’t ever given it any thought. No wonder they fought and squabbled so much among each other. Sometimes it was hard to even comprehend that there was a thinking mind behind every creature that I stole love from. I couldn’t imagine how it was for creatures like Yuri.

Still, this seemed to work. It probably was more comfortable for the human as well, and I needed to be on his good side. And if I was honest with myself, he was the only company and food that I had. Though he could be annoying and naïve, it was better than being completely alone, especially now that I was too close to those damnable ponies to risk talking with the Hive. No doubt, sensitive ears and minds were vigilantly keeping watch since the failed attack.

Lost in my thoughts I wandered aimlessly across the floor. I needed something to clear my mind. I hung my head out in the window, hoping that the fresh air that played with my tattered ears would sweep away the cobwebs in my head. Suddenly, there was an immense flare of light in the sky, like the sun had appeared to knock the moon out of the sky. I tried to look at it, but the flash seared my eyes, leaving blue-white dots in my vision.

Before I even could blink the stars out of my eyes, a blast of hot air and sound slammed into the train, like the crack of a great tree being snapped in half by an angry giant. The explosion raged and rumbled so fiercely that my teeth clattered together like pebbles.

Yuri rushed so rapidly to the window that I almost thought that he’d crash into it. Peaking out of the window he feverishly scanned the snow-covered landscape. “What’s going on? What was –was that a bomb!?” Another flash of light appeared, followed by that overwhelming noise storming across the land.

’No, look up there!’ I banged my white hoof against the window at the dazzling display of light and violence. In the darkness of the night sky I saw shapes -- black silhouettes against the intense white of the lightning.

Wings, hoofs, feathers and claws were all visible for a fraction of a second as lightning bolts shot across the open heavens. As the train rode closer, I could hear things being shouted in Equestrian across the air, barely getting over the horrific growling and shrieking of the nightmare given flesh in their midst. ’What in the world is that?’

“A demon,” Yuri whispered next to me as he pressed his face against the cold window.

The pegasi were darting in front of the giant monster as they avoided swipes of claws and snapping teeth, like sparrows attacking the mythical bird, roc. Armor-clad hoofs struck at clouds, kicking lightning at the demon, but the beast was as nimble as it was terrible. Effortlessly it turned, ducked, and dodged in midair, never being close to the searing hot spears of death that were thrown at it.

A shrill yell crossed the star-filled sky as one of the pegasi flew too close. With its mighty claw, the demon tore through the pony’s armor like it was wet paper. Understandably, the pony reacted by falling down to the ground faster than a sack of bricks.

The demon roared in triumph, forgetting for a moment to move. That was all the time that its opponents needed. One well-placed bolt sped towards the ground, taking a detour through the nightmarish creature’s head. Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, the beast fell down, swerving right and left as the wind guided it. With a mighty crash it hit the ground, throwing up a fountain of snow.

As the train sped past them, we saw the pegasi split up in two groups, the larger one headed to the demon as the smaller one dashed to their fallen comrade.

The ponies quickly went to work on the large carcass, fastening knots and attaching hooks wherever they deemed fit. With a single command, they all rose in a perfectly coordinated effort, lifting the corpse up and flying off out of our field of vision.

“They did it. I can’t believe they did it!” The human looked at me, his small eyes wide and excited. “They took down a demon! Just like that! I didn’t even know those monsters could die!” Yuri paused as he watched them for as long as possible, his grin slowly being replaced by a confused scowl. “Why are they taking it?”

I mulled the questions over in my head for a moment.’Maybe they want to use the corpse as a warning for others of its kind not to come close?‘ I heavily shook my head as I dismissed the thought. ’No, ponies don’t have the guts to do that sort of stuff. And it would stink.‘ Putting my disguised hoof against my chin, I ran by all motivations that I could think of in my mind. I almost slapped myself as I finally thought of the most obvious solutions. ’It’s food, of course.‘ With a bright smile I looked at Yuri, who stared at me like I had just declared my undying love for snorting pudding. ’What? Oh, right, they’re stupid herbivores.‘

“Even if they weren’t, there’s no way anyone could eat a mutant.” He pressed his face against the window again as he stared at the second team that was still standing around the small snow heap. “I don’t care how clean the land is here; mutants are always filled with enough radiation to make your insides cook.”

Before I could ask what he was talking about he pointed out the window. “Hey, look. They finally found their friend.” Before I could look outside, I saw the man’s careful smile die on his face. His already sickly pale skin turned almost a white as that of one of my larval Sisters. “Oh.” The small sound he made was barely more than a breath.

It made the fate of the pegasi more than obvious, looking outside was just a formality to find out what had happened. There was the body, the neck standing at a strange angle as her colleagues lifted it out of the snow.

’ What, you’ve never seen a dead body before?‘

“Of course I have.” Yuri coughed as his eyes were still glued to the scenario that was playing out in the snowy hills. “I just,” He brought a hand to his mouth in some vain attempt to hide his feelings. “I never saw anyone die before, not like this anyway.”

I walked back to the control panel, not even sparing another glance outside as I started checking the gauges and pulling levers. ’At least it wasn’t anyone we cared about.‘

The human’s voice exploded in the confined room. “Shut up!”

I blinked in surprise at the indignation in his voice. ’Well, it’s true, isn’t it?‘ I waved away the burning look I could feel on the back of my head. ’Every second, creatures die out there, alone, afraid, in pain. You don’t expect me to cry for any of those, do you?‘ A small tingling sensation made its way up into my stomach as the train started to steadily rise with the landscape. The trees outside gave way for rocks covered in moss and open prairie yielded to steep mountains. The human didn’t notice nor didn’t care for the rather spectacular landscape change as he struggled to come up with a reply.

I beat him to the punch, however. ’You know what would happen if someone told those ponies outside of the dozen or so changelings that died this year? Or if I died?‘ I let the question hang in the air for a second, not expecting an answer. ’They wouldn’t cheer or hold a party, but they wouldn’t cry either. They would be relieved, just like a lot of other creatures in the world.’ Involuntarily, my teeth ground against each other. ’So excuse me if I find it hard to care.‘

The blood rose to my cheeks as my bile throwing was finished. I hadn’t meant to say anything like it, but once I started, I simply couldn’t stop. Why couldn’t I just be more agreeable instead of lecturing the human like he was some young changeling? Had my time in the forest dulled my social skills that much?

“Bullshit!” he practically shouted, stomping his foot on the ground with so much force that the wooden planks creaked. “That kind of thinking killed the world and now it’s killing the metro.” He opened up his backpack and started to frantically search in it. “You remember that corpse we found outside the village?” I nodded, quite honestly, I was fascinated by his sudden change in temperament. “He was a part of a group of people that kill others when they don’t find them ‘Russian’ enough”. He said "Russian" while he bent two fingers on each hand like rabbit ears. “There are other groups in the metro that will kill you if you don’t join them, that will let you die right in front of them if you don’t have the bullets that will make your life worthwhile to them.” He pulled out the red, white, and black piece of cloth. “People like that tell themselves the world is doomed anyway. This or that person is a hopeless cause – that it’s easier or better to kill them than to help them. I don’t have anything in this world, why am I supposed to care for others?” He put his free hand to his chest as he paused, calming down a bit. “I don’t want to be like that, Dozor. I can’t be like that.” He panted and his shoulders heaved. I stared in his watery eyes.

He walked up to me with the armband crumpled up in his fist. Slowly he crouched down in front of me and placed his hand once again on my shoulder. “Dozor, you are a difficult person, sometimes even unpleasant.” I frowned, tensing up. “But you know what? I’ll care if something happens to you. I’ll care if your siblings and mother are hurt. You deserve to exist just as much as I do. No matter how much of an ass you are.” Saying nothing more he threw the piece of cotton in the fire.

I laughed, but less bitterly than I had expected as we both watched the flames licking the armband. ’That’s sweet, but you really don’t know what you are talking about.‘ He only didn’t loath me because he didn’t know changelings like everyone else did, and I was helping him. Those were the facts, clear as day. Still, it was nice to know that he was dedicated enough to his goal to still tolerate me, despite everything that had happened.

We stood there for a few seconds. With a small cough I broke up what I supposed was a “moment”. ’Why don’t you go look through the window for a second? You never been on a mountain before, have you?‘ The look on his face was quite priceless as he turned back to look outside, dropping his backpack in the process. A smile formed on my face, one that wasn’t necessary, but couldn’t be stopped even if I wanted it.

It was breathtaking, simply breathtaking. I saw the world like no one else had seen it in twenty years. I saw the tundra, the forest, and the rising mountains. It felt like I could see the whole world from there. I did my best to blink away the sudden bout of dizziness as I grabbed onto the window sill until my knuckles turned white. Even the sudden vertigo couldn’t persuade me to look away from this, humanity’s second chance.

Even only in the reflected moonlight the snow was nearly blinding. I knew that people had died down there, that monsters roamed the forest and the sky above it, but for this moment it all seemed so clean and peaceful that it almost hurt to look at. Like virgin snow.

For a second, I was thrown back as the world was plunged into a near absolute darkness. Feeling the familiar pressure build in my ears I swallowed. A tunnel -- it almost felt nostalgic. “It’s beautiful.”

I looked back at Dozor, who was standing near the crackling fire, the flames colored her purple mane and white coat a dark orange shade. Her alien face was all business as she drove, meticulously checking and re-checking everything for the slightest problem.

She was so bitter, just like Stepan, that old stalker. The harshness of the outside world seemed to have a habit of seeping into the characters of those who lived in it.

“I can’t believe that this track is still intact.” It was more of a miracle, actually. The older people in my station always told me that cities and infrastructures had been the first things to go in the war. The metro would have been bombed into oblivion if the rightful paranoia of others hadn’t made it so that it was constructed under a near impenetrable layer of rock and earth.

’Why wouldn’t it be?‘ Dozor was still looking outside towards the light at the end of the tunnel that was approaching us. ’As far as my Sisters know this track has been here for around five hundred years.‘ She snorted in what I could only guess was amusement. ’Ponies may be wasteful and inefficient, but they sure know how to keep their trains running on time.‘

“Five hundred years?”

’Yes, as far as we can tell the Raiser of the Sun settled around here a thousand years or so. The train tracks were built later to accommodate her earth ponies and unicorns.‘

Under the wave of unknown terms that Dozor threw at me, those few words stood out. “Five hundred years...” Like a shout in an empty pit those words bounced around in my head, slamming left and right against the walls of my mind until they made their way out again.

The tunnel ended, throwing our little train out in the open and in the dim light of the night. And there, at the end of the track, stood our destination, no longer obscured by mountains or darkness.

A large waterfall streamed down the mountain, resting upon a plateau in the mountainside in a lake. The beauty of that scene faded into obscurity compared to what was in the lake, however. White marble towers reached to the clouds, adorned with gold and purple spirals, mosaics of flowers and other intricate designs. It was like a fairytale version of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which had once stood proud in the center of Moscow.

In the night sky, I could see a few of the creatures, Dozor had called them pegasi, move with lanterns in their mouths, almost like they were competing with the stars in the sky to see who could make a more enchanting display as they moved from and to the city in their patrols.

It was a city. A true city.

Something that didn’t belong in my world. Something that didn’t exist in my world.

My strength left my legs as I fell down hard on my knees. The pain didn’t even register in my brain. I could vaguely feel Dozor ask me something as she pulled on my shoulder, but it all seemed so unimportant at that moment as the city burned its way in my mind. It was like my body didn’t exist anymore, like I was watching the life of another man named Yuri, while I was nothing more than an incorporeal observer that didn’t have any stakes in what happened.

When I was a little boy I had once seen a man end up in the hospital because he had been wounded by a horde of mutants that had tried to break through our lines. Now, there was nothing special about that, but the poor soldier had had his eyes gouged out before he was able to put the abomination down. With all the morbid curiosity of a little boy I had snuck into the hospital. The man was easy to find as his muffled screams echoed in the cramped hallways of our home.

As I had seen him lying on the piece of cardboard that passed for a hospital bed, shaking feverishly in a pool of his own sweat, I could hear him whisper the same things over and over. “It’s dark as death in here. Can’t they be bothered to place some candles near me? Can’t believe the doctor says those things, they should take away his license! If they would just take this damned blindfold they could see that it’s just a couple of black eyes, nothing serious.” He kept mumbling like that to himself even as the blood seeped through the white bandage around his head. I had never really understood how someone could deny something as obvious as that. As I saw that city, that pearl in the mountain, it suddenly wasn’t that difficult anymore.

Just like that man knew, I had known it, too. Maybe I had known the moment I saw Dozor, or her hive, or that burned down town. But I had known; I just hadn’t wanted to believe it.

I wasn’t near Moscow because Moscow had never existed in this world, this alien world.

A sharp pain suddenly broke through the storm of my thoughts. ’Yuri! Wake up!‘ I yelped as I quickly pulled my hand out of Dozor’s mouth. Carefully inspecting my gloves I could see a few small holes in the leather, some droplets of blood came pouring out.

“T-thanks.” I clutched my hands to my chest. They wouldn’t stop shaking.

’What in Mother’s name was that all about?‘

“Nothing! Nothing.” I stammered. “I just,” pausing I breathed in deeply as I tried to find the words that I needed, “realized something.”

To my surprise the changeling gave a knowing nod. ’Ah, so you’ve finally admitted it to yourself? I was wondering if you’d find the strength to see it.‘ She held up one of her snow-white legs. ’Don’t worry, it changes nothing.‘ She finished her gesture by pointing at the castle. ’The creatures in there are very skilled in magic. Skilled enough to solve even our problems.‘

I didn’t ask any more questions. I should have, any rational person should have, but I didn’t. I guess that I simply didn’t dare to ask questions. Being this close to salvation for mankind was like a dream too good to be true, and if I asked the wrong questions, tried to work out the logic and details, it would all turn to ashes in my hands.

I huffed as I pulled myself up again and looked outside, seeing it for the first time as the alien landscape that it was. How sad was it that the air on another planet was more breathable than the one where I was born? How strange that I could drink the water and eat the food without dying on the spot? But Dozor was right, this changed nothing. If we could live here, it was better to leave behind our homes that were destroyed. We had no more place on that planet; we had been replaced by new life, like we had replaced the dinosaurs.

I tried not to think about it too hard as we entered the station.

Well, “entering” might have been too gracious a term for what Dozor was accomplishing with our poor train.

The train tracks groaned, the wheels buckled, and the engine strained as we stopped and rushed forward in seemingly random intervals. I got a very nice close up of the very few horses outside that stared at us like we were a parade in honor of incompetence when my head smacked into the window. “Dozor!” Several of the multi colored creatures outside held their hoofs against their ears with anguished expressions as the train scraped against the tracks once again. In the clean and cheerfully painted houses lights went on, revealing several horses that probably cursed us for disturbing a good night’s sleep.

’Don’t scream, Yuri, you’re going to draw attention to us.‘ My guide’s brow was swimming in sweat as she pulled, pushed, and kicked against levers. ’Stopping a train is a very delicate process.‘ We slammed forward once again, only to stop as we both fell down on the floor.

’Nearly there!‘ Dozor pointed at the building at the end of the tracks. It was large, with at least three train tracks converging inside it. Two large clocks adorned either side of the beige walls of the building while spooked birds flew away from the purple roof. Through the semicircular windows that made up the largest part of the walls I could see a group of very anxious mutants staring at us, one of them wearing a blue uniform with a small cap that it was currently munching on with a furious expression on its face.

Heralded by the sound of twisting metal and the smell of burnt rubber, we forcefully bumped up against the buffer stop, finally ending our ride. ’Ha! A perfect stop, you see?‘ Dozor leaned proudly against the control panel as I tried to keep what little contents my stomach had inside.

A lever popped up and our train promptly crashed into the station’s back wall.

’Well, we stopped, that is the important part, really,‘ the changeling said as I could only see three of her legs come from under a coal pile.

I decided not to answer that as I checked myself for broken bones. A sudden pounding on the train’s door followed by an angry sounding rant made us look back. Dozor produced a small hail of coals as she popped her head free from the pile.

The white-coated unicorn with a blond mane and darkened eyes busted through the door, spitting out the small conductor cap. It moved like a rampant fire, pointing at the controls, screaming right in Dozor’s face, throwing water over the engine fire while giving a tirade and growling as it pointed at me. My guide put a hoof under her chin as she nodded thoughtfully before looking at me. ’She’s angry.‘

’Gee, thanks for the translation, Dozor.’

I just cleaned the dust off my armor as I tried to keep my voice as level as possible. “I don’t know what you find funny about this, but they’re probably going to make us shoveling crap for the rest of our lives to pay off this mess.” I threw up my hands, making the miniature conductor back off in confusion at my strange language. “Do you have the money to pay for this? I don’t! How are we supposed to finish our mission now?” I practically screamed at the changeling.

’We cheat, of course.‘ Haughtily throwing her purple mane aside with a flick of her head she sang something to the furious unicorn. Like magic, all the anger left the blonde horse’s eyes and she quickly put on her crumpled cap as best as she could while giving a courteous bow. Laughing softly behind a hoof Dozor’s horn lit-up light green as she pulled out a notebook and a quill from the conductor’s uniform. With a confident smile like she was doing the unicorn a favor, she wrote something down. Gleefully the white horse held the piece of paper in her mouth as she began to guide us with the utmost respect outside of the wrecked train, all smiles and politely ignoring my strange appearance.

With a commanding shout, she easily dispersed the small crowd that had gathered around the crashed train. Some flew away, others ran, but a few stayed close, peeking out from behind pillars as they curiously eyed us. With a last heartfelt bow that made her mane fall down in the snow the conductor dropped us off in the streets.

“What did you do to her?” I clasped my hands together in an attempt to chase away the cold that immediately seeped in my bones again. Even Dozor readjusted her makeshift clothes to protect against the biting wind that was funneled through the streets. The clean streets, with clean houses, and clean shops. Everything coated in pure snow and a bright glow of lanterns. A city that was asleep, safe, not dead.

She gave a winning smile as she gestured for us to walk while we conversed. ’You, Yuri, are an official diplomat here to discuss very important political business. And as a diplomat you are more than capable of covering for any damage done, materially or otherwise.‘

“I am?”

’It’s what that piece of paper says. Besides, it’s technically partially true.‘ She shrugged. ’Of course, you aren’t from the spotted belly Diamond Dog tribe far out in the north, but what would a regular pony know about that? Most of them couldn’t even name the difference between a Minotaur and an Ophiotaurus.‘ She laughed with contempt.

I decided to just nod and pretend like that made sense. I never had been good with local animal names, on account of them all being extinct and me being on a different planet apparently. “What’s the plan now, anyway? We can’t just barge into their leader’s home and ask for help, I suppose.”

’Trust me, I’ve got it all planned out.‘ Her eyes lit up as she looked to our right at a small and inconspicuous shop. She gently shoved her hoof in my stomach to signal for me to stop. ’And here we are, just in time.‘ She shook off the small layer of snow that had accumulated on her back, apparently not being too concerned about covering me with half of it. ’I was getting sick of being snowed on.‘ I could relate to that as I wiped my clothes clean, returning the favor to her.

She banged her hoof on the wooden door, impatient, loud, and… giddy? That was the first time that I had seen her genuinely smiling in ages. And not the kind of smile that she gave rabbits and squirrels before she leapt on them and broke their necks.

In any other place this shop would have been a fit home for a rich man, but in this city it seemed that remarkable things became unremarkable, and miracles were mundane. Here it was nothing more than a building like the many others that surrounded it.

The shutters were closed, making it so a thick wooden plate with little hearth shapes on it greeted me instead of a shopping window. The walls were a dull shade of pink, and the only real reason that I knew it was a shop was by the signpost that was placed on the wall. Of course it was written in a gibberish language that I couldn’t understand, but it gave off that “come-spend-money-here-vibe” like the merchant stalls back home.

Dozor barely managed to jump out of the way as the door swung open and slammed hard into the wall. The soft light of a levitating candle revealed a pair of large, green, and more than a bit peeved eyes. They belonged to a small dark grey unicorn with a slender frame and an immaculately kept, clean-cut mane. She moved like she owned twice the personal space of a normal man, making wide sweeping gestures as she apparently chewed my comrade out for the rude awakening. Her voice booming and grand, even while speaking at a normal volume. Watching her must have been somewhat like an opera singer, or maybe it was more akin to watching a loud drunkard.

’Well now. That’s no way to greet your Sister, is it?‘

The small unicorn froze mid-gesture, suddenly stopping her loud barrage of accusations for a moment. An enormous smile bloomed on her face as she sprang forward, clinging around Dozor’s neck. ’My dearest Sister!‘ A shared laughter ran through the streets as the slender horse nearly lifted my partner up in a tight embrace. ’It’s so great to see you again. You’ve grown up so much since I saw you last time!‘ Finally releasing the changeling the shop owner grabbed one of her legs and nearly dragged my comrade in. ’Come in! Come in! I can’t let my dear Sister stand out in the cold -- what would Mother think?‘

I stood outside, rather flabbergasted by the tornado of a creature that had just dragged my guide into its lair. The unicorn poked her head outside the doorframe soon enough though, looking less than pleased with me. Spouting some impatient sounding words she nodded her head towards her shop. ’That’s an invitation, I suppose.’

Books. Shelves, cases, piles on the ground, and chests filled to the brim with books of all sizes and shapes filled the little room that I walked into. The smell of burning candles and old pages assaulted me as I gasped. There were so many of them, so much knowledge in one place, it was overwhelming.

It was rumored that Polis, the last station in the metro where humans still lived like humans, would pay fantastic amounts of money for the few brave stalkers that pillaged the surface for books. Here in this small innocuous shop, they were carelessly displayed like it was nothing. And of course it was, what worth did these things have when the knowledge was still well alive? They were nothing that couldn’t easily be replaced, rewritten.

Before I could gawk anymore, I was quickly pushed through a small door to the side. A surprisingly large room basked in candlelight was revealed to me as I made my less than elegant entrance. Dozor was already there, eyeing the fourth creature in the room like she was ready for a fight. The creature in question was one of those winged horses and it looked almost identical to its roommate, except it was significantly smaller and currently poring over a book nearly bigger than it was. It didn’t even seem to notice us as it sat reading on the large wooden table that stood between the only two beds in the room. The last remaining part of the room was taken up by an old fashioned stove that wouldn’t have been misplaced in my home with a large stack of chopped wood next to it and a small but functional kitchen.

’Brother!‘ The dark grey unicorn swept past me as she placed her two front legs on the table with a bang, but it was to no avail as the horse kept reading calmly and endured the mental shouting like it was nothing more than a mosquito. ’Get your snout out of those tomes! Our little Sister has come to visit!‘ His eyes and ears shot up as a small but collected smile formed on his face.

’A Sister? Truly?‘ His eyes soon fell on Dozor, who quite frankly looked like she had been punched in the gut. ’Ah, yes, one of the scouts. It’s been too long.‘ The pegasus carefully marked the page he had been on as he closed the book and walked over to my guide to embrace her in a warm hug.

After a moment of staring cluelessly with her ears flat against her head Dozor eventually returned the hug. ’What’s a Brother doing away from the Hive?‘

The “Brother” released Dozor and walked back to the kitchen. ’I know, I know. It’s heresy,‘ he said as he opened one of the cupboards, retrieving four ceramic mugs. ’But I’m here on Mother’s request. Exceptional times ask for exceptional measures. Desperate times call for desperate measures, she said.‘ He tried to hide a smile as he poured a dark brown liquid into the mugs and placed them on the hot stove. ’Personally, I find it quite exciting.‘

Dozor seemed unconvinced as she pawed the floor nervously. ’This is wrong. You should have stayed in the Hive.‘ She frowned as she watched at the dark grey unicorn. ’Right, Sister? We have our jobs and the Brothers have their jobs. That’s how it works, right?‘

Before the unicorn could answer the Brother fluttered down in front of me. Studying me like I was a guinea pig on a dissection table. ’Yes. Yes. Normally I would agree with you, but I hardly could say no to mother, could I?‘ Dozor didn’t answer. ’Besides, it seems like I’m not the only one breaking conventions these days.‘ He flew up, staring me straight in the eyes. ’You, you can “hear” me, correct?‘ I nodded.

The slender unicorn almost exploded as she grabbed her brother midflight and nearly head butted him. ’Wait, what! It can hear the Hive mind!? That’s impossible!‘

The pegasus flinched for a second as he stepped back, taking a moment to comb his mane back into shape with his hoof. ’Calm yourself, Sister. You really should pay more attention to matters around you. No wonder I win nearly every evening at cards.‘

With a huff and a suddenly straightening of her back the unicorn’s expression changed from one of complete disbelief to hurt pride. ’You know darn well that you only win poker night because you are better at cheating than I am.‘ Stomping her hoof on the table she seemed to remember herself. ’Baby Sister, how is this possible!?‘

Even poor Dozor seemed a bit overwhelmed by the brash horse. ’I’ll explain.‘ She closed her eyes as a weak green light started to shine from her horn. The other two changelings closed their eyes for a second as their horns, even the previously invisible one on the head of the pegasus, started to glow too.

’Ah, I see.‘ The brother rubbed his chin with his hoof as he gave me that strange look again. ’A completely new species. And alien at that. And such a strange mind. No barriers, no walls. Extraordinary. Your species is probably the only one that can be part of the Hive mind, besides us. ‘ He barely contained a smile as he was lost in thought. ’Yes, I can understand why the Queen did this now. A very bold plan indeed. This is a chance we can’t let go by.‘

The quiet horse’s meaningful pondering was quickly disturbed as his sister jumped nearly to the ceiling. ’Brother! Did you hear!? We have an ally!‘ She happily started to hop and trot in circles around me as she continued her mental barrage. ’An ally! An actual ally! Our best ally yet!‘ She continued undisturbed, even as her brother quietly reminded her that I was apparently the first and only ally that changelings ever had. ’Do your people have a lot of love? How many of you are there? Are you bad at playing cards? You seem like you don’t know how to play cards. Do you want to play cards for bits?‘

“I… uhm… Dozor, are other changelings usually like, well, this?”

Dozor blushed as she scratched her head. ’No. Changelings just start to get a little… eccentric when they haven’t been in the Hive for a long time.‘

Clearing his throat a little louder than was absolutely necessary the brother walked to the table, and levitated the four mugs with his invisible horn. ’Sister, please, stop badgering the human. The chocolate milk is ready.‘ He let his gaze wander the room for a bit, stopping to look every one of us in the eyes for a moment. ’We have things to discuss,‘ he said ominously as he took a small sip of chocolate milk and burned his tongue.

“So,” I said as I sat down and held the warm cup in my hand, enjoying the warmth spreading in my hands. I took a small whiff of the suspicious brown liquid inside. “What’s ‘chocolate’, or ‘milk’ for that matter?’

’Oh, you really want to know?‘ The pegasus’ eyes lit up while he was waving cool air on his tongue. ’Well, it all goes back to the 1680s when a science goat by the name of Hans Clone went to the far away tropical island Hamaica where he-‘

’Brother! Now is not the time for history lessons!‘ the dark grey unicorn said as she chugged the chocolate milk down like there was no tomorrow.

’Ah, yes, of course. I apologize.‘ He preened his feathers for a moment before he continued. ’As you can probably imagine, getting an audience with Celestia or Luna, those are the leaders of this country, can take up to a few weeks. Sometimes even months. Especially now that the pegasi are going crazy because of all the strange weather we’ve been having.‘

’Yeah, we should be halfway through spring by now! My bet is that the pegasi are simply too lazy to do their jobs this year!‘ the unicorn smacked her empty cup down on the table as she wiped her mouth clean.

’Indeed, Sister. Fortune would have it though that our little bookshop has been getting some royal attention as of late.‘

A fine spray of burning hot chocolate milk erupted from Dozor as she nearly dropped her cup. ’The Raiser of the Sun and Moon know about you!?‘

The shopkeeper burst out laughing. ’Yeah! We originally planned to let me infiltrate as royalty and used this shop as a starting point when one day, WHAM.‘ She hit the abused table once more. ’In walked Celestia and Luna! They said that they “tired of being around all those posh ponies” and wanted “to stay in touch with the common pony”.‘ It was almost scary how well the apparent infiltrator could manipulate the tone of her thoughts. If I hadn’t seen her I could have sworn that someone else had joined our mental conversation. ’They’ve been coming around here weekly, mostly picking out trashy science fiction novels and such.‘

The studious pony spoke up once more. ’Indeed, they’ve become quite attached to my Sister’s charming personality.‘ The shopkeeper blushed as she waved away the compliments she got from her brother and Dozor, claiming that it was just her job. ’But what’s more important is that they’ve made us promise to not say a word about it. I imagine that they don’t want to lose their favorite bookshop, or let the public know the “low-class” books they’ve been reading.‘

My guide sprung up at that. ’So we’ve got leverage. A weak spot that we can exploit.‘

’Very sharp, my young scout. I’ll write up a letter to request an audience with them and our infiltrator will deliver it tomorrow. In the meantime you two can rest up here and prepare. Agreed?‘

“And this will help my people get here?” I said while I was still inspecting my cup. It smelled strange, really sweet, like rotten mushrooms, only without the rancid after smell. I was actually kind of nervous about it, especially after that green goo that Dozor had fed me, but not drinking it would be rude. And turning down a free drink was just unthinkable.

’Yes!‘ The shopkeeper slammed the table with her front hooves again, making the cups jump. ’Your people will be here and we can help each other as allies. We’ll rebuild and be strong and wealthy once again.‘ She grabbed her empty mug and raised in the air with her magic. ’A toast! To allies and a better tomorrow!‘

’I’ll toast to that, Sister.‘ The studious unicorn’s cup joined the other, clinking like bells.

Even Dozor was not far behind with her own mug. ’Hear! Hear!‘

Smiling despite myself I joined in, bumping each mug. “A better tomorrow!”

With that, I took a large gulp of the chocolate milk, feeling warmth and sweetness spreading through my entire body, leaving me in a blissful daze. It tasted like ambrosia -- better than any vodka, tea, or mushroom soup that I’d ever had. It tasted as sweet as the future seemed in that moment. It could have only been better if I had Sasha or Sergei to join in, but my new comrades would do.

Chapter 10: Compassion and the Newborn Jackal

Compassion and the Newborn Jackal

Sweat was pouring into my eyes, my throat was dry and my hands were shaking, but I was focused. This was it, the moment I had been waiting for. I grinned, my opponent was oblivious as I reached out for my secret weapon. Just a few more seconds and her defense would crumble. She was smiling that damnable smile. Did she know? I swept the sweat from my brow, taking extra care not to reveal my move.

She blinked her eyes. Now! Now was the time to strike! I grabbed my ace in the hole and raised it up high before bringing it down, displaying the card like it was god’s judgment. “Haha! Eat my two of Diamonds and suffer!”

The gray unicorn guffawed as she levitated a card in front of me. ’Only if you take my joker and stuff it. That’s seven cards for you, human. You lost.‘ She spread her front legs in the smuggest manner that I ever had the displeasure of seeing. ’Time to pay up.‘

Grumbling I took her into my arms. “You cheated, I just know it!” I almost heard her purring as she was absorbing the amount of affection that somehow quantified to one lost card game.

Dozor snickered behind the disguise of a perfectly manicured white hoof. ’Of course she did, but can you prove it?‘

“You’re not even denying it?” I shoved away the clingy horse, but she just plopped down on one of the luxurious pillows stashed around the grand waiting chamber. She burped as she enjoyed her ill-gotten gains. “Pizdabol, that’s a good name for you.”

Dozor scoffed. ’You might as well call her “changeling” if you’re going to be generic.‘ My guide ended her pacing before one of the large stained glass paintings that decorated the walls. It was made quite masterfully, almost rivaling some of the faded art in the metro stations, though the scene depicted on it was confusing. The glass was all pink, with two ponies floating in the air, bending so that they formed a stylized heart. How strange that a completely alien race used the same symbols as humans. Maybe the power and elegance of it transcended any culture?

I felt a stab through my own heart as I realized how long ago I had seen that symbol of love and kindness. These days it was all military banners and clear signposts to show where everything was and belonged in a station, and what you could and couldn’t do. Efficient, minimalistic, and heartless. It made me itch to take up a crayon and draw and the drab walls of my home that was so far away.

’Disgusting!‘ Dozor tapped the glass so hard that I was almost afraid that she would break it. The loud scraping of one of the armed guard’s throat near the doors made her stop, however. ’”The power of love.” Do they even listen to themselves when they spout their childish nonsense?‘

“What’s wrong, Dozor?” I threw the pack of cards into Pizdabol’s smug face as I looked at Dozor, along with the six other guards that were standing near the two doors that stretched all the way to the ceiling.

’Don’t mind my Sister, human.‘ The grey pegasus looked up from one of the magazines that had been lying around. The large smiles with incredibly white teeth on the front of the cheap cover easily overshadowed the small one that was one his own face. ’This place just holds some unpleasant memories for us.‘ He hid his face behind the magazine again, reading as always. ’She hides the jokers under the pillow.‘

The infiltrator gasped, ’Betrayed by my own chitin and blood!‘ She clutched her chest as she rolled from the pillow in mock agony; the guards didn’t even look up, having quickly learned to ignore Pizdabol’s theatrics.

“Thanks, Uchenik.” I gave my temporary personal hero a curt nod as I wrestled the unicorn’s cards out of her cheating hoofs.

’So it’s my turn for the nicknames?‘ The pegasus shrugged. ’Well, it’s as fitting as any, I suppose.‘

’What’s keeping them so long?‘ Dozor kicked the air before she continued pacing. ’They drag us out of the book shop in the middle of the night, put us into this stupid waiting chamber and just tell us to wait. Is it a sport here to waste others their time?‘

An unfortunate guard fell victim to a barrage of questions from my guide; that she punctuated with a condescending tap against the guard’s armor after every word.

The guard however kept up a wall of professional indifference as she pushed away my guide’s hoofs. The batpony sang something and pointed at the cushions, despite the protests of Dozor, it was all she got out of her. After stomping the ground in indignation Dozor turned around and collapsed on the cushion, burying her face in the soft fabric. ’Useless ponies.‘

Pizdabol leaned back as held the pack of cards in her mouth. ’Ah, cheer up, baby Sister. Come play some cards and relax.‘ She levitated three stacks of five cards on the ground. ’It’s out of our hoofs, so let’s enjoy ourselves for now.‘ Dozor just grunted and sat still. ’Suit yourself.‘

That’s when the door opened. The dark head of a batpony peered through opening between the massive doors. Dirty yellow eyes under a steel helmet peered into the waiting room, eventually resting on the strange four guests inside. A light singsong voice escaped the guard’s mouth as she pointed at us. I didn’t need a translation to know that it was time.

The reading, the grumbling, the chatting, everything stopped. The thin facade of normality broke as excitement and dread bubbled to the surface. Jumping up like a coiled spring I walked through the door, hearing the clopping of hoofs on shining tiles behind me. Uchenik and Pizdabol said something, probably wishing me and Dozor good luck as they stayed behind, but I wasn’t really listening.

The doors seemed like they grew twice as big with every step I took towards them, until they loomed impossibly high above me. I felt like running a hundred kilometers, but my arms were almost too tired to even lift my backpack. A thousand ideas and thoughts swarmed in my head and a tingle spread through my entire body. The enormity of the moment loomed over me, like a boot that was about to step on a spider.

I almost didn’t notice the batpony patting me down until she flew up to me with my trench knife between her teeth. She pointed to a strongbox and murmured something to me. ’They’ll give it back after we’re done.‘ Dozor’s voice faintly spoke through the static in my head. They didn’t even take my shotgun or revolver, unknown weapons in this world. I decided not to correct that misunderstanding. Nodding absentmindedly I stepped through the doors.

The room was magnificent and spacious, just like every room and hall in the castle. In the waiting room alone twenty people could have lived comfortably, in this one sixty people could live with ease. On both sides of the room stood several white pillars with gigantic stained glass artwork in between them. Visions of victory, of overcoming desperate situations with magic, teamwork, and love; an idealist’s dream was pictured on nearly every surface. Several more of the batpony guards stood in the room. Staring ahead of them in disciplined neutrality with their hoofs on a spear, ready for anything that could happen. A large red carpet emblazoned with gold threads on the side went from the door all the way to the other side of the room, running up the stairs of the small platform that stood there.

Elevated above the rest of the room stood two ponies. Even with all the splendor, art, and guards in the room, I knew that they were the most important thing here. Power has a certain aura.

They were like ying and yang, day and night, dark and light. Two queens attending the church that had been built in their honor. Celestia and Luna. And once again, I felt very small as they laid their eyes on me.

I small tug on my arm snapped me out of my staring contest with the two rulers, for what else could they be? Dozor was drawing my attention to the fact that she was bowing deep before the royal ponies. Dropping on my knees and making my forehead kiss the ground seemed safer than upsetting those two, even as silly as it was.

’Remember, Yuri, I’ll translate for you. Just do what I do and we should be fine.‘

The dark pony that was like the night raised a hoof clad in dark blue metal, apparently satisfied with our display of etiquettes.

’Grovel in the dirt before them and they call you welcome. Mother, they make me sick.‘ Dozor kept a perfect smile and polite demeanor as she introduced us. Finally I could hear my own name, the word sounding heavy and foreign among the poetic words. Settling on a curt and nervous nod I kept quiet.

Speaking in a rough and deep voice, my guide sounded like she was attempting to cough up a fully working steam engine. ’Don’t laugh, that was your own language,‘ she said as she saw my dumfounded expression. Did I really sound like that? ’They say that they are very curious about you, and want to know what you are.‘

“Can’t you just tell them that I’m a human?”

Dozor stomped the ground as she flicked her tail in front of my knees. ’Just play your role, Yuri. Damnation! Are all humans such bad actors?‘ My guide turned around as quick as lightning with a smile as one of the leaders coughed.

“So, what? I just tell them that I’m an alien from a world that was destroyed in a nuclear war? That I’m one of the few thousands of my species that lives in an underground bunker? That I got here by some anomaly and I’ve no idea how or why? And if they could please help us out and move us to their magical land, thank you very much?”

Dozor shrugged as she turned around and started to translate.

I pressed my hand against my forehead and started to think about how I could make myself sink in the ground. But, to be fair, the bold truth could be the best approach in the face of absurdity.

Polite smiles turned to sad ones as Dozor finished. The tall white one replied and my guide’s breathe stopped and she nearly jumped back, one leg hanging in the air in a half-finished step. ’They – They say that they knew. They’ve been waiting for you.‘ My guide quickly composed herself, pretending to translate once again, but the barrage of mental curses she let out told a different story. ’This is bad! This is really bad! How did they know!?‘

“Maybe—Maybe there were other humans here before me?” I felt a spark of excitement in my heart. To see another human again, something familiar. “Come on! Ask her if she saw someone like me!” I prodded Dozor, and despite her scowling she complied.

The dark one stared right at me, her smile gone and the music had left her voice. She shook her head slowly as she answered with closed eyes. The both of them looked so very, very sad.

’The raiser of the Moon says that you’re the fifth human that they know of.‘ Dozor pawed the ground as she looked away in the distance. ’But you’re the first living one they’ve met. The rest was either dead on arrival or shortly after.‘ My guide shook her head as she sighed hard. ’That still doesn’t explain how they know so much!‘

’Dead?’ It made sense, in a way. I had in no way forgotten my own entrance in this world. Had it not been for Dozor’s help I would’ve been eaten alive myself, or choked on my gasmask. Those poor people, they never stood a chance. “Can you just ask them how they knew? And if they can help us?”

’Y-yeah—Sure.‘ Came the flustered answer from my guide. But before she could begin to speak, the dark pony leaned forward, whispering something as she looked Dozor directly in her shocked face.

Dozor reacted like she had been thrown into a tub of freezing water. A long shiver traveled all the way from her neck to her tail. With a flash of green light she revealed her true self. Black knees bend and tattered wings lay splayed out on the ground as the changeling kneeled down. Slowly she turned around to face me, her eyes large and lifeless. ’Oh, Yuri. You poor idiot.‘

Not even thinking about the absolute futility of my actions, I quickly stepped in front of Dozor as I tried to hide her form from the dozen or so guards that had drawn their weapons. “Are you insane!? Why did you do that?” I grabbed her by her legs as I shook her.

’Because it has been explained in your dreams.‘ The voice entered my head like a dark and calm river, nothing like the excited buzzing voices of the changelings. I look over my shoulder at the dark pony. I saw her, not in a nervous daze like before, I saw her. And I recognized her. It hadn’t been a large changeling in my dreams before, it had been her.

With a nod she confirmed the unspoken accusation. ’We apologize for entering your mind, human. But when one as strange as yours entered our kingdom, we were compelled to investigate it. And it is a good thing we did.‘ Her face crumpled in a mask of disgust as she turned to look at Dozor. ’This changeling had you wrapped around her hoof, did she not?‘ With a small gesture of the great white pony the guards closed in on my guide with their spears like an iron maiden.

’Queen Chrysalis knows no shame, manipulating an innocent one such as this creature,‘ the white one spoke up. Though her words were damning, all she gave Dozor was a disapproving stare.

That wasn’t right! I squeezed my hands into fists so hard that I could hear the leather of my gloves creak. This isn’t right! How dared they talk like that about the changeling that stood guard over me while I slept? That guided me here in the first place? That watched over me and had saved my life thrice? “You can-“

I was interrupted by a laugh behind me. A loud and unhinged laugh that made the rulers look past me in disgust.

’Turns out you stupid ponies aren’t as blind as I hoped. You caught me.‘ My guide shrugged like it was nothing. ’I admit it, we planned to take this idiot here and use him as bait to capture all humans. We knew you and your bleeding hearts couldn’t resist helping a poor little race on the brink of death. At least, as long as you didn’t know changelings were involved.‘ All my limbs went numb as I watched the cruel smile on Dozor’s face grow. ’Imagine that, thousands of little juicy morsels with magic just ripe for the picking, but you all had to ruin it, didn’t you?‘ Dozor stomped on the ground loud enough to make the noise echo in the silent room.

’It was all so perfect. We even convinced those two shopkeepers to give us a house and get an audience with the dark Luna and the bright Celestia,‘ Dozor put her hoofs in a begging gesture as she turned back into her old disguise. ’Oh, won’t you help out two poor travelers in need? It’s so cold outside.‘ She sneered as she turned back to normal. ’You all just can’t see tricks and lies, even if they stare you right in the face.‘ My guide glared at me.

My stomach felt like it was being tied in a knot as the slow realization formed in my head. What did Dozor always do when there was trouble? And what else had Dozor done then to look out for me, despite what it cost her?

I understood. And I understood what was being expected of me. Saying nothing I walked up to her, the guards didn’t even stop me as they were focused solely on the “real danger” in the room. As my open palm connected with the side of Dozor’s face a heartbreaking slap sounded across the room.

“Traitor.” I managed to spit the word out before my dry throat seized shut. Traitor indeed.

Dozor managed to sneak in a nod of acknowledgement as she rubbed her cheek.

’That is enough, human!‘ I fell down on my knees as the white ones voice swept through my mind like a light beam through a tunnel. My mind went dim for a moment as it recoiled against that immense shout. Finally coming back to my senses I saw the dark one, Luna, looking up with a strange expression at the other ruler’s perfectly poised face.

’This is not a place of violence, human, I expect you to respect that as long as you are here.‘ Slowly I used my two hands to hoist myself up again. It took a long time before I felt I wouldn’t fall over again. I nodded, not daring to look her in the eyes again. I would have done anything to never experience that again.

The dark one coughed, with wings tightly clamped against her sides she looked at me with soft eyes. ’On the subject of your request,‘ she coughed once again before she continued. ’We are very sorry, but we are not able to help you.‘

My breathing stopped. No no no no. This couldn’t happen, not after everything I had done. Abandoning my friends, leaving behind that poor family, hitting Dozor? All for a “we can’t help”? Bile built up in the back of my throat. My skin felt like it didn’t fit anymore as ice cold sweat trickled down my burning neck.

Behind me I could hear Dozor scoff. ’So, you think he’s tainted by me and you won’t help him anymore?‘ She continued speaking even after a soldier put a spear dangerously close near her neck. ’So typical of ponies. Something doesn’t fit in your tiny world of harmony and you just banish it if you can. Oh, you’re all so helpful when it comes to your own, but if something doesn’t share your way of thinking they can go to Tartarus for all that you care.‘ She pushed away the spear, hissing at the guards. ’You’re all weak.‘

’Take her away.‘ With a gesture of one of the white one’s hoofs the guards set into motion, shoving my guide out of the chamber. My heart felt heavy and unmoving, every beat hurting like it was an unnatural movement.

Dozor’s protests finally died down in the distance. It was not until a few, tense minutes later the normalcy was restored. It was just myself, the princesses, and the guards in that royal chamber. I felt powerless and awkwardly overwhelmed, like a filthy rat that was caught in the light of an approaching train.

’We are truly sorry, but allowing your people to cross into this world would-‘

’It would kill our world, human,‘ Celestia said. ’As it is now, your world is slowly “seeping” into ours, for lack of a better word. It’s interfering with our magic, and the cold of your winter is affecting our weather. Not to mention those—things,‘ she shuddered, ’that manage to enter our world.‘ She paused for a moment, maybe to let the words sink in, or maybe for dramatic effect. I couldn’t care less. ’Now, we could send you back, safely, to your own world, but if we did so for every human our world could be defiled too much to ever recover again.‘

Luna interrupted her, ’Or you can stay here, far away from the troubles of your world.‘

Celestia stared at her sister for a moment. ’Yes. That is an option.‘

“I-I can’t.” There wasn’t enough air in the room. No matter how deep I breathed in, my lungs never filled. “You have to help us!” I swung my arms wildly as I spoke. They felt strange, clumsy and numb. “My people are dying back home. You don’t know what it’s like back there, on the edges of the metro. People are eating each other there, selling their own children for a mushroom. We need help!”

Celestia spoke again, determined with her compassionate face as unmoving as white marble. ’I am sorry, human, but we can not risk the life of every single creature on this planet. Not even for a thousand humans.‘

“You don’t understand! That place isn’t only killing humans; it’s killing our humanity.” I felt the edges of my vision closing in. The air was too thick, my throat was cramping up, but the words didn’t stop. “I—I lived my whole life in my station, trying not to look at the world around me. Do you know what that’s like? Knowing that your world was once great, but that you’ll never get to see how it was? That every moment of every day humanity dies a bit more? All our art, all our great discoveries, the wars with billions of people dying, mothers and fathers that loved and raised their children. Everything, all the suffering, the hate, all the brilliance, all the love, and compassion. Everything will be forgotten and gone when humans disappear from the world. All that will be left is a cold, empty rock, and we might as well have not existed at all.”

For the first time Celestia’s mask was broken by a twinge of sorrow. ’Letting your people here could do the same to us, human. I am sorry, I really am, but the risk is too great.‘ She stomped a golden clad hoof on the ground, a visible effort chasing away the emotion in her face. ’We cannot help.‘

The air was too thick. My eyes shot between Luna and Celestia, but no leeway could be found. My breaths were fast and hungry, forcing air into my lungs painfully fast, but still it wasn’t enough. “You heartless bitches! Go to hell!” I couldn’t hear their response, the blood rushing in my ears drowned out everything. I had to get out! I couldn’t stay here.

I ran. With strength I didn’t knew I possessed I shoved open the doors. No one stopped me.

The waiting room was empty, not a trace of Uchenik and Pizdabol could be found. Mentally cursing to myself I stumbled out of the room. Hallways and doors blended into one another as I fled far away from that damned room. I pushed and shoved my way past anything or anyone that stood in front of me and wasn’t fast enough to dodge me. It didn’t matter. I had to get away.

I went on like that for maybe an hour, or perhaps a few minutes. I had lost all sense of the world until I finally fell over a bench and my face hit the hard wood. Was I outside? When did that happen? I tried to pull myself up, but my arms didn’t work right anymore. The best I could do was crawl on the bench and sit myself down. My heart was beating too fast. Was I having a heart attack?

’Oh god, I’m going to die on this bench.’ I coughed until my throat hurt, but I still didn’t get enough air. The world didn’t exist anymore, all that was left was that bench with me trying to breathe in the vacuum that was left while my heart exploded in my chest. ’Why won’t someone help!?’

Cupping my head in my hands I sat there for an eternity, coughing and shaking, until my head cleared slowly. I was empty, the fear had eroded everything. Now I was nothing more than a shell, like a spent cartridge case.

When my hands finally stopped trembling I reached for my bag. Rummaging in it I quickly found what I was looking for, the metal cylinder. With a few turns the top came of easily enough, I heard it bounce of a wall as I threw it over my shoulder.

There inside still lay the bottle, beautiful as ever. The bottle that no other human would ever see again. The bottle that was supposed to help my station that was probably long dead by now. A piece of glass with alcohol in it. It’s importance forgotten, it’s purpose in the world erased.

I unscrewed the cap and drank. The liquor went down smoothly, leaving a pleasant burn in the back of my throat. I stood up and looked around me. Trees covered in snow and an icy lake greeted me. Behind me was a wall that probably belonged to the palace. Perfect.

I took a few steps and stretched my arm back. With a grunt of effort I brought my arm forward and released the bottle.

I waited and waited, but the sound of glass breaking never came. Looking up I saw the bottle suspended in midair by a blue aura. I looked to my left and saw the dark horse looking at me with her horn bearing a matching aura. With a heavy sigh I sat down on the bench once again, grabbing the bottle as Luna floated it over towards me.

I didn’t talk. All I wanted was to sleep and… I really didn’t know what else I wanted. Wake up? Die?

’Human, I,‘ she paused for a second as she hoofed the ground. ’I understand if you do not want to see me ever again, but we have to talk.‘ I motioned for her to sit next to me, while I held my head in my hand. I didn’t even open my eyes. I was so incredibly tired I couldn’t find it in myself to get angry. Or to feel thankfulness for the small mercy that she didn’t call me by my name.

I heard the bench creak and felt the wood shift as she set down next to me. ’I want you to have this.‘ She held out a thin book in front of me. Beneath her magical aura I could see its original faded brown shade and a couple of golden symbols on the cover. When I didn’t make any attempt to take it from her grasp she shoved it between my arms.

Taking the book in my hands I opened it. Maybe if I did what she asked she would leave me alone. Paging through the book I could see many words and letters that meant nothing to me. A few of the pages contained diagrams and drawings of doorways and strange creatures. All in all, this book was only useful to me as kindling. Closing it with a sigh I looked at Luna. “What is this?”

’This, human, is your salvation‘ She telekinetically moved the book again, opening it on a drawing of a golden sphere resting on a simple square altar. ’This might be the most valuable guide book in this entire world, though no academic or adventurer would recognize it.’ She grinned as she tapped the open page with her hoof. ’This book was already old and forgotten when I was but a filly, but the knowledge that it holds is timeless. What you see here is one of the many ancient and immensely powerful artifacts that exist. It also shows you the only safe way to get them.’ She flipped the pages at random, showing more and more of these strange “artifacts”. ’They say that if you are worthy and pure of heart, this book can make any wish come true.’

Maybe it was my despair or maybe it was the sincerity in her voice, but my heart skipped a beat. “You mean that this could get my people here? Why are you showing me this now?” I slammed my fist into the bench, Luna didn’t even flinch. “Why didn’t you help me back there!?”

The dark pony hung her head as she spoke with closed eyes. ’My sister would not have approved. We discussed this for days and both agreed on that course of action.‘ She stared out at moon reflected in the frozen lake. ’At least, that is what I told myself.‘ Luna paused for a second. ’We lied.‘


’Our worlds have been connected since the beginning of time. That is probably the reason you can even breathe here and eat our food. Your world cannot possibly poison ours. In fact, our world has probably worse effects on yours. Magic and anything bigger than an atom wouldn’t flow between our worlds, well at least up until twenty years ago.

I shook my head. “Then why? Why do you want to keep us out so badly?”

Luna coughed in her hoof as she looked away. ’Your species is terrifying, human. You killed your entire world. It is not that hard to reason that you are evil, or insane.‘

“I was two years old when it happened! I never had a say in it. No one had!” I stood up, shaking my clenched fist at her. “There are thousands of people in the metro that had nothing to do with the war. Do you want me to go up to some toddler and tell him ‘Sorry your parents are dead, but hey, they probably deserved it’? Or even better, tell those people that are living shit lives and have to do horrible things just to keep alive that it is their own fault that some assholes blew up their future?” I clenched my teeth so hard that I could hear a faint ringing in my ears. “Those people aren’t evil, they’re desperate.” Scoffing I looked to the side, disgusted with the world. “Our leaders gutted our future, and now two other rulers give us the final blow. We never had a say in our lives, but what would a queen know about being at the mercy of others?”

She sat still, not answering me for the longest time. Breathing out slowly she looked up, her wings fluttering softly as she spook. ’That was not the only reason. Please do not judge my sister too harshly. Despite what the changeling said, Celestia believes in second chances, maybe more than anypony else on this world. Believe me, it breaks her heart to do this, but there is another more important reason for why she does not want humans here.‘ Luna slumped over, refusing to look at me. ’Magic has a very--‘ She stopped speaking. ’Bringing humans over here would have side effects. It is not only for our own sake that she wants to keep you out.‘ She stood up from the bench and started pacing through the snow. I didn’t follow her.

’But I am starting to doubt that it matters. Maybe it is better for humans to have a good life over here before the magic…‘ She shook her head, making her star filled mane look like a living galaxy. ’I can spare part of my royal guard to help you in finding these artifacts, along with six of my most trusted and capable subjects. You should have little trouble finding them that way.‘

“So, you’ll help me?” Suddenly I found myself on my feet again, shedding my tiredness like a heavy blanket. “This book really can lead me to these wish granters?”

’Indeed. My sister will not be pleased, but I am sure she will understand. I hope.‘

“And, what about Dozor?”

Luna held her head high in the air, her nose wrinkled in disgust as she answered. ’Dozor? You mean that changeling? We’ll keep her in the dungeon. Where she belongs.‘ She looked back at me, a smile playing on her face. ’Don’t worry about her, human. She can not hurt you from there and we made sure that she can not contact her queen again.‘

“Could I visit her? One last time?” My question was met by a baffled expression. “I want to know why she did it.” I saw understanding growing on the ruler’s face.

’It is not that complex, she’s a changeling. She did it all for herself. But if you really want to, you can visit her in two hours. I’ll send for a guard to escort you.‘ As she walked away she stopped for a moment, throwing up a small amount of snow as she turned around ’Oh, and do not forget this. You nearly left it behind.‘

With a small flash of blue light my trench knife appeared before me. I grabbed it out of the sky, feeling its comforting weight in my hands as I twisted it around. No. I held the book and knife close to my chest as I followed her. I would never forget this.

The room was dark and small, something I supposed was the standard requirement for dungeons. The only light came from two torches mounted on the walls, but it was so dim that they might as well not have bothered with them. Further “livening up” my cell were a bed made of straw and a wooden bucket that reeked of unmentionable things.

All in all it was one of the better prisons I had seen. It did very little to improve my mood though. Shared memories of changelings that had spent torturous years alone in dungeons filled my head. I bit down on a piece of straw, rolling it around in my mouth and grinding it between my teeth.

If I listened hard enough and held my breath I could faintly hear the conversations my two guards held beyond the heavy thick door of my cell. But I didn’t feel like listening to the inane and undisciplined talk of two bored guards.

’Damnation.’ A shiver crept along my spine. We had needed that victory, and what now? There had been so much pain in the Hive last time. Broken wings, eyes, chitin, and spirits. Would my Sisters just die a painful death while the rest of the Hive starved? What would Mother have us do?

What would happen to the humans?

I replaced the straw with one of my sleeves. It tasted like dirt, sweat, and comfort.

My Brother and Sister were still out there, and so was my human. I just had to believe that they would succeed, somehow.

I stood up, giving the steel bars a small push. They didn’t budge one bit, of course. It didn’t matter; I would get out of here. Even if I had to chew my way through the wall. I had escaped that horrible forest, this pony-made cell didn’t stand a chance.

And if I didn’t, I would be alone for the rest of my life. Never hear Mother’s voice. Go slowly insane again. I swallowed hard. If that was needed to save the Hive, it would just have to be that way.

A sudden knock on the door and the shouts of a guard shook me from my thoughts. “Changeling! You have a visitor!” The door slammed open as one guard came forward with a sword between her teeth. “Face the wall and lie down with your legs crossed!” She was remarkably articulate for somepony who was only one misstep away from an impromptu lesson in sword swallowing.

I studied her for a moment. Leathery wings popped up from under her dark metal armor, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Two yellow cat-like eyes stared hard at me from the dark fur of her face, like she was trying to beat me down with her gaze alone. “Crying River, shock her if she tries anything funny.”

“Yes ma’am!” Another pony stepped out from the shadow of the batpony. This one was white except for the countless freckles on her face. The smell of ozone penetrated my snout as the unicorn’s horn sparked blue, lighting up the room with small flashes. Six other almost identical guards quickly followed, scanning the room before finally resting their ice cold eyes on me.

I scoffed as I turned around and laid down in that awkward position. “You need eight of Equestria’s finest to handle a lone scout? I can see why bravery isn’t one of your precious Elements of Harmony.”

“What?” Crying River’s shrill voice assaulted my ears. “I ought to zap you right good for that, bugface!” I smiled at the cold hard walls. Temper, I could use that.

The clip-clopping of hoofs on stone made my ears twitch around, my visitor sounded small. The soft ruffling of feathers told me that they were likely a pegasus. Probably five steps away from the bars, too far away to grab. “What do you want, pony? Did you come here to laugh at the prisoner?”

“Show some respect!” I heard an electric charge building up and braced myself for the shock, but it never came. Instead I heard a hoof smack something sounding particularly thick and hollow, followed by a harsh rebuke from the batpony.

A new voice joined the conversation with a giggle, but it sounded more nervous than merry. “It’s okay, Night Guard, she was just standing up for me.” She paused for a moment. “But I’m sure that I’ll be okay with eight guards.” She sounded exasperated, and three steps away from the bars. “The name was Dozor, right?”

“Call me changeling or scout.”

“But-“ I heard her take a step back, feathers shaking in confusion along with her. “I’m sure that the princesses told me-“

“Changeling or scout,” I interrupted her. I could practically hear the guards in the room frowning. “Or maybe parasite, if you’re being honest. But I’m not your Dozor; that’s not my role.”

“I… see? Well, it doesn’t really matter. I was more interested in talking about this… human that you manipulated for so long,” she was now two steps away from my cell. Almost.

I yawned and stretched my legs as far as possible in this position, getting ready to pounce on her. I just had to distract her a bit more. “What’s so special about him? He’s just another source of love, like any other creature.”

My interrogator gasped. “Don’t be surprised, princess,” Crying River spoke up with disgust in her voice. “You can’t expect anything else from these changelings. All they can do is eat and hate.”

She spat on the ground and hurled another insult at me, but I had stopped listening. She had said princess. The bringer of the Sun and Moon obviously weren’t in the cell. I risked a glance behind me, and my heart grew cold.

There stood Twilight Sparkle, the one who had ruined it all. The one that was responsible for a thousand crippled Sisters. The one that had ruined our future and humiliated my Queen. And they had made her an alicorn for the trouble.

She was only one step away from the bars. A shiver went down my tail, but that wretched alicorn didn’t even notice. I had to force myself not to jump up and grab her, not just yet. The moment was almost right.

“Of course, River. I should know that better than anypony, really” the alicorn continued. “I’ll have you know that humans are very interesting, changeling.” Something of enthusiasm returned to her voice. “They don’t only prove that there are many more worlds that exist parallel to our own than we thought before, I could write five books about that subject alone.” The alicorn actually squeaked as she clopped her fore hoofs together in a scientific fervor. I slowly started to move, as fluid as a shadow I unfolded my wings, ready to make dash to the bars. “But their interaction with magic is unheard of… and quite tragic.”

I halted. “What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?”

“Well, you see, their universe has always had insignificant levels of magic, so their species evolved without ever having to adapt to or use it.” She was in full lecture mode now, a professor that grasped at any opportunity to talk about their subject. She would never see me coming, and the guards couldn’t see me well in the faint light, but I didn’t attack.

“Stop talking nonsense. I fed of him plenty of times.”

She scrunched her snout at that, but her enthusiasm at having a listening ear won over her disdain. “And that is the strange thing. You see, magic is attracted to emotions and thoughts. So when our worlds started to interact with each other, magic flowed to theirs. All the humans there are acting somewhat as magical ‘sponges’. They attract magic, but they almost never are able to use it. They are the only known living and intelligent beings that can function without magic and still attract it. A complete anomaly. Of course, the side effects are—“

I leapt, landing right in front of her. “What did you say!?”

The princess scrambled back to safety as the guards sprung into action. Sweeping spears, swords and charging horns filled the small room. Still I rattled the metal bars with my hoofs while I pressed my face against the cold metal.

“You are a liar!” Nothing that had magic could miss it. “Shut up!” That was the way world worked. There was no other option.

“Get out!” My voice broke, sounding weird and high pitched, but I kept screaming.

We never had a choice. A parasite has no choice.

“Get out and never come back!”

The world exploded in light. Suddenly I was on the ground, my legs and wings twitching in painful spasms. A burning stench filled the air and copper filled my mouth. Vaguely I could hear low distorted voices talking outside of my door. It was something about getting Twilight Sparkle out of the cell and somepony calling me a mad dog.

A second later the cell was empty again, and I was all alone with only my sore body and a head full of horrible thoughts to keep me company.

Eventually I was able to stand up again and shake off the weird feeling of being stunned. But no matter how tough my body was, my mind lagged behind. I stumbled to the bed and lay down. Feeling the pricking sensation of straw in my leg holes and the strong aroma filling my senses. I closed my eyes.

“We shouldn’t do this. Didn’t you see her a few hours ago?” My eyes cracked open instantly as Crying’s muffled voice wormed its way through the door. “She’s crazy, she just attacked her out of nowhere.” Another voice said something, sounding impatient, but I couldn’t make the words out.

“Orders are orders,” Night Guard answered. “Unless you want to take it up with Luna.”

She grunted at that. “Fine. You three, standard spell inhibitor procedure rules in this cell. Only lightning spells are any good. So if you want any protection wards cast them before you enter. Got that? The tall one too? Good.”

Dust fell off the door as someone on the other side pounded on it. “Wakey wakey, Bugface! You’ve got another visitor. Aren’t you the popular one?”

Night Guard and Crying River entered first, careful with weapons and magic at the ready. Three white pegasi in golden armor followed.

I gasped as I saw the last one entering. Yuri, my human.

My heart pounded in my ears. How dared he to still be here? He should have left with my siblings hours ago! Didn’t he care about his own kind, or my Hive? What could he possibly want from me? I didn’t have a chance to ask him anything, however. Crying River wasn’t joking about that magical inhibitor. I stomped the ground. Why was he wasting our time like this?

Yuri simply walked forward and pulled something from one of his many pockets. A small piece of paper was in his hand as he approached the bars.

“Hey! Hey, stop that!” Crying put a hoof against Yuri’s leg as she grabbed the letter from his grasp. “Don’t get to close to this one, she’s mad. And no secret messages to the prisoner. You’ll have to let me read it first.” The unicorn’s eyes narrowed as they flew over the paper. “I don’t recognize this language. Is this Griffon?” Holding up the letter in her mouth she showed it around. “Can anypony read this?”

“Yeah.” One of the pegasi guards spoke up. “It says. ‘Get ready. Four versus three’.”

The next moment the cell was lit up with green light, leaving an Infiltrator, a Brother, and three guards. With a hiss the two pounced on Night Guard and the unfortunate white pegasus. Crying River already opened her mouth to call for help, but she was interrupted as a kick from my human’s powerful legs threw her against the bars, right into my reach. Without thinking I jumped forward, set my fangs into her neck and breathed her magic in. A green vapor escaped from the unicorn as I drank her essence deeply and completely.

With a sigh I let River go. She slid down to the ground, eyes glazed over and mumbling quietly. The other two guards suffered a similar faith as my Brother and Sister were finished with them.

That’s when the headache started.

Magic acted on emotions, if it wasn’t given freely in the way of love or affection, if it was forcefully taken, it reacted. And it reacted in the worst of ways. The pain in my horn jolted to my stomach as it rejected my body, and my body in turn rejected the magic. Gagging I ran to the corner and heaved. With a disgusting splash I vomited out a heap of green goo. Squirming I spat out the last few drops of the noxious stuff, hoping to somewhat get rid of the taste. My siblings outside had suffered similar fates.

“Ugh, I hate it when that happens,” my Sister said as she shook herself like a wet dog.

“I wasn’t even built to do that.” My Brother looked even more pale than usual as he sat down between the almost catatonic guards.

“What are you all doing here!?” I couldn’t hold myself back any longer as I spoke up. “Why are you back here? I was caught! You should have left me and moved on!” My throat felt strangely tight.

My Sister let out a boisterous laugh. “I know. I know. But this big lug wouldn’t leave without you.” She pointed at Yuri, who was checking on the fallen guards. “And, well. We didn’t need a lot of convincing, really. To Tartarus with protocol if it means leaving our baby Sister behind!”

My Brother stood next to my Sister, swapping a leg around her shoulder as he smiled through his sickness. “Indeed. Indeed. We are family, after all. Who else will care for us? Now let’s find the key to get you out of this dungeon.”

I couldn’t speak, my heart felt too big for my chest. I choked something back as I watched the three of them work.

“Curses! This one doesn’t have anything. No key or nothing! Not even a wallet!” The infiltrator dropped the batpony on the ground. “How about yours?” My Brother just shook his head. Yuri looked up too, shrugging.

I pawed the ground. “I- I might have an idea.”

The Infiltrator peeked out of the door as she spoke. “Well, you’d better be quick about it, Sis. If we don’t do something soon, we’re going to get caught.”

“Yuri.” I beckoned him with my hoof. He looked confused, but he walked straight up to me without hesitation, and kneeled down as he held my hoof. He looked different. More tired and sick than usual, but he still looked on to me with kindness from his gaunt face. “I’m not sure if this will work, but I need you to trust me.” I grabbed his hand with both of my hoofs. Of course he didn’t understand me, but I already felt his warmth spreading through my legs. I leaned in close and whispered in his ear. Safe in the knowledge that neither he nor my siblings could understand my words. “Thank you.”

I opened my jaw and rested my fangs on his neck. He flinched slightly, but he stayed in place. Once again, I inhaled someone’s essence. I felt his energy fill my veins and my horn. Strength spread through my body like blood. I closed my eyes and focused on my horn. Immediately I felt a wall of resistance as my magic sizzled out uselessly. I needed more.

“Woah. Hey, baby Sister. What are you doing? Magic won’t work here, dearie.”

I ignored her and breathed Yuri deep in, taking more and more. It was more than I had ever taken before-- more than was safe for any creature of this world. And I pressed hard against the wall again.

“Sister, stop, you’ll kill it!”

But Yuri still stood without even straining. He should have been unconscious long ago, in a coma even, with the obscene amount of magic that I stole. But the human was not from this world. Its rules didn’t apply to him. I pressed harder with more strength than I ever had before. The wall broke. There was no sudden light, nor an explosion of sound. The field was just gone. My shocked siblings remained.

“Dear Mother,” the infiltrator stared at the human like the alien it was. “That was awesome!” She jumped up, cheering as she patted Yuri on the back and sang my praise. I exchanged a glance with my Brother, who now looked sick with something different than a stomach ache. We nodded at each other, a silent acknowledgement that we both understood the truth of what this meant. We would inform our Sister later.

“Indeed. Indeed. That was quite… something. But we still need to get her out of here. Infiltrator, if you would be so kind?” My Brother looked away, with his ears flat on his head as he pretended to keep a watch on the door.

“Sure, dear Brother. Not a problem!” She pranced over to the lock and pushed Yuri away somewhat unceremoniously as she put her horn against the lock. “Their anti-magic fields sure are neat.” A soft click came from the lock and the door swung open as the infiltrator did a mock bow. “But those ponies don’t know the first thing about making sturdy locks.”

Without wasting any more time or words, we bound the guards, stole their appearances, and made our way out of the cell. As we nervously walked the halls of the palace I looked at our small party of four. Despite what had happened in the cell, I couldn’t help but smile. They had come back for me, even when it wasn’t necessary. Even when it was dangerous, my Brother, my Sister, and Yuri had all come back for me.

I stopped as a something between a sob and a nervous laugh escaped me as we finally made our way out of the palace and were somewhat safely on the path out of the city. Quickly, I shoved a hoof over my snout to muffle anything else as a wave of relief washed over me. My eyes went misty as I felt the warmth of my Sister nuzzling my neck; my family understood, of course. I bit down hard on my hoof to keep another sob down, and I was even somewhat successful. No tears left my eyes that day.

I had been weak, but the Hive had saved me, and Yuri had too. I would never forget this.

Chapter 11: The ones who lost something

The ones who lost something

Laughter echoed throughout the cave and my mind. It was a strange, like my soul was being tickled, but I was in no mood to smile.

’I can’t believe you called them bitches!‘ Pizdabol lay on her back as she held her sides, shaking with laughter. ’Oh! That- That’s a thing of beauty.‘ She swept away a few tears as she struggled to properly breathe again. ’Brother, memorize that. Future generations have a right to know.‘

Uchenik halfheartedly waved in acknowledgement with his hoof as he murmured something that sounded like a ‘Yeah, yeah’, before he turned back to the tome Luna had given me. We had not gotten much more of a reaction out of him ever since I had handed over the ancient book.

Pizdabol rolled her eyes as she smirked at me, but I didn’t play along. With a sigh I set myself closer to the fire and hugged myself for warmth. It was a special kind of cold today, and even the massive stone walls of the cave seemed to give no respite against the wind outside.

The infiltrator spat on the ground as she let out an annoyed grunt. ’I’ve seen funerals that are more lighthearted than you. What are you all sour about?‘ She put a hoof under her chin as she sat down to ponder. ’Is it because you’re bald? I would be sad if I was bald like you too. But I’m sure that you’re not that hideous for your kind.‘

“I have hair on my head, just like you! If I’m bald, we’re all bald!” I threw my hands up in frustration as I spoke. These were the first conversations mankind ever had with alien life forms. I contemplated that some facts should probably be lost to history.

’Yeah, but we manage to pull it off. Changelings are kinda great like that.‘ She gave me a grin like she actually believed that would cheer anyone up, but it fled from her face as I shot her a tired glance. ’You’re no fun, you know that?‘

’She’s right, you could stand to be a little happier.‘ I blinked in surprise as Dozor raised her head from the ground. She had been so quiet I thought she had simply fallen asleep next to me. ’I know we didn’t get what we came for, but we made the best of a bad situation. We got that book that Brother is deciphering, we strengthened our group with two others, and-‘ she paused as she looked at me with a soft expression that clashed with her features. ’You all got me out of the dungeon too. So in the end, we lost nothing and we gained a lot. That’s something to be cheerful about.‘

’Yeah, we even shook off all the guards. Those idiot ponies will never be able to track us in this weather. Serves them right for not ending the winter when they should’ve.‘ Pizdabol spoke up, grinning at her sister.

Dozor shifted herself closer to the fire. ’I doubt it. The Raiser of The Moon knows where we are going, even if we don’t know it yet, so they’ll probably wait for us there. Why would they waste time and resources looking for us, if they can simply wait on us and set up a trap? It’s what I would do.‘

Pizdabol simply scoffed as she waved my guide’s concerns away. ’Ah, we’ll burn that bridge when we get there, right?‘

“Uh- sure.” I stared back at the flames. We sat in silence for a moment as our shadows danced to the whims of the fire. “You know, I’ve been thinking.”

’That’s a bad habit.‘ Pizdabol said from behind a smirk. I ignored her.

“I’ve been thinking about why they didn’t want to help us.” An almost tangible dread fell upon us. “I mean, the blue one, Luna or whatever, wanted to help me. But I think that was more out of pity, not because she believed it was the right thing to do.” Dozor snorted at the word ‘pity’, but I was too caught up in my thoughts to follow up on it.

“My station didn’t turn away people when they asked for help, even if we couldn’t really afford to help them. And these ponies, they have everything and more, and they were ready to just turn us away. Why?” I gestured hopeless over the fire at that last question. “They didn’t seem like bad… creatures.” I poked the fire with a fresh branch, making sparks fly on the hot currents of the flames. “They said they were terrified of us. That we are evil and insane. It’s fools talk, of course, but-“

’So what?‘ Dozor interrupted me. I stared at her blankly as she stood up. ’They think you are a danger to them. So what? Why should you care?‘ She put her hoof on my chest to stop me from responding. ’And don’t try and tell me that you don’t care, you’re a terrible liar. I’ll let you in on a little secret, Yuri.‘ She spoke softer, her voice barely coming over the popping of the campfire. ’Every living thing has the same right to exist, Yuri, and that is no right at all. You only keep what you can keep from others, that includes your life. They tried to trick you into believing that your existence is a bad thing, like they have any authority to judge you.‘ She threw her wings up in a strange gesture, like she was shrugging. ’Let no one ever tell you being alive is an evil thing Yuri. We exist for as long as we can keep ourselves alive, and that is all there is to it. There’s no rights or wrongs attached to that.‘

My guide turned away from me after that, hiding whatever expression she had. We listened in silence at the sound of Uchenik carefully turning ancient pages with his magic for a while.

“I’m sorry that I hit you.”

Dozor looked up in surprise, before something that was almost a smile played on her face. ’Don’t be sorry, it was the smart thing to do.‘

“But it wasn’t right.”

The changeling scoffed as she tossed her scarf back. ’It was the practical thing to do. The mission was compromised and I was the most expendable part of our group.‘ I felt something tightening in my stomach as an angry huff escaped me. ’Don’t be like that, Yuri. It’s… how do I explain it? It’s sort of like this.’ Dozor suddenly flew up right in front of me, shooting out her hoof in a mock punch. ’See? You raised up your arms to protect your face. No one likes breaking their limbs, but if your head is hit it’s all over. It’s instinct.‘ She set herself down next to me again as I sheepishly lowered my arms.

I shivered, only partially from the cold. The orange light we bathed in didn’t feel as warm as it used to feel back home. “Luna offered to help me in secret. Not just the book, but real help, with guards and guides.” I didn’t know why I had kept that part to myself before. Maybe because everything had been so chaotic and it had slipped my mind, or maybe because I didn’t want the knowledge to weigh down on their conscience. But now I felt like I had to make a point. Maybe it was petty, or maybe it was necessary. Either way, it was out there now.

Pizdabol stopped nodding to sleep over the fire and even Uchenik put his book down a centimeter or two. ’So, you were given a better chance, but you didn’t betray us. Why?‘ My friend looked genuinely confused. Not happy or mistrustful, like I had expected.

“Because it wouldn’t have been right. I promised to care about you guys, remember? And a human’s word is everything to them.” I smiled like I had made some irrefutable point against Dozor, but it was only a front. I had been so wrong about many things the last couple of weeks, but I didn’t know if I could bear being wrong on this one.

’Well, that’s a stupid reason.‘ Dozor said cruelly. Her words assaulted me like a foul stench. With a locked jaw and cramped fists I looked in her eyes. What could I say to break through that wall of apathy?

The buzzing sound of Uchenik taking off into the air broke our stare down. ’Did anyone hear that? Anyone?‘ The small white changeling scanned the cave as he jealously held the book to his chest.

I peered deep into the dark that was our shelter. A shudder ran down my spine as my imagination whispered of the horrors that could lurk there. Every pop of the fire was the skittering of feet and every flickering shadow was something terrible slipping back out of sight.

’You’ve been reading that dusty old book for too long, dear Brother.‘ Pizdabol chuckled as she stood up. ’There’s nothing down there, and if there was, the cold would have finished it off long ago.‘ The changeling shook as she held her tattered wings close to her body. ’This place is as cold as death. ‘

’Then you won’t mind taking a look down there for us? No? It would calm my nerves greatly. Indeed.‘ The Brother’s red eyes flew back and forth as he silenced his wings and set himself down once again. ’Take the scout with you, so you won’t get lost. Agreed?‘

Dozor’s head shot up as she was mentioned, her ears flickered from her brother to her sister as they talked, but she said nothing.

’Ah, rattails.‘ The infiltrator threw her wings up as she turned around to face the unknown depths. ’Why do I always get volunteered to explore the caves?‘

’As far as I understand, this is the first time you’ve ever been in a cave.‘ the white changeling replied as he continued to peer into the tunnel.

’Yeah, that means that one hundred percent of the times I’ve been in caves I’ve also been volunteered to explore them. It’s simple logic.‘ The slowly growing smirk on Pizdabol’s face was crushed by Uchenik’s look of utter annoyance. ’Ah, whatever.‘ The infiltrator shrugged. ’Come on, dear, let’s see if we can find our guys’ their sense of humor while we’re at it.‘ She trotted away from the fire as she beckoned my friend.

“Wait, shouldn’t I come with or something?” I was already half standing as I spoke, willing my knees to carry me again. I was stopped by the shaking of the infiltrator’s head.

’Nah, you stay here with Brother and keep him safe. Don’t worry, the two of us can handle ourselves just fine.’ She winked at me and gave the standard razor sharp changeling smile. My eyes shot to Dozor and she nodded in agreement.

’Don’t worry, Yuri,‘ Dozor spoke with a meekness that did not fit her. ’We’ll be right back.‘ She walked over to her sister who gave her a pat on the back before leading the way.

The two horns of the sisters ignited a pale green light as they marched away from the fire. I stared at them as the illuminated the grey rocks around them in a circle of light and I was overcome by a strange sensation of déjà vu. All the scene missed was a barrier of razor wire, sharpened steel rods, and an eternal railroad. It was strange, how the guard post had once frightened me an eternity ago, but now I felt an intense longing to be back even in the dangerous tunnels of the metro. This world rejected me, and the unnatural symmetry that this cave held with my station only served to drive the point more painfully home.

I let out a long sigh as I massaged the back of my neck with my cold gloves. Maybe Pizdabol had been right, I had been far too morose lately. When was the last time I had told a good joke? Sasha would probably say never, but what did he know? I looked at the small white changeling as he quietly studied the dusty tome once again. “So, read any good books lately?” I gave him a sheepish smile as he blinked in confusion and I realized that Sasha knew a lot more than I gave him credit for.

’Excuse me? Did you say something?‘ Uchenik spoke almost nervously as he stared at me.

“No, no! It was probably the wind.” I chuckled stiffly as it dawned on me that Dozor was right too, I was a terrible liar. I was blessed that I had friends that knew me so much better than I knew myself, probably.

’Okay? The wind?‘ Uchenik’s wings shuddered as he looked in the tunnel where his siblings had disappeared into. ’Well, anyway, it seems we are on the right track. If my translations are correct, yes?‘ My eyes widened as I leaned closer and nodded for him to continue. ’It’s a very old Dragon dialect, but we are in luck, seeing as one of my old duties was remembering ancient history, not? We are perhaps a two day journey away from the location we seek.‘ His eager grin faded as his ears fell flat on his head. ’I fear the good news ends there though. It says here the journey is extremely perilous, unless we are to use-‘ the changelings paused for a moment. ’The journey is very perilous, very dangerous, unless we had the ponies’ assistance. Which we don’t.‘ Uchenik stared me straight in the eyes with a strange intensity. ’We are very likely to perish.‘

“Oh.” I sank down as I subconsciously started chewing on my thumb, the leather of the glove left a bitter taste. “So, what do we do?”

’What do we do?‘ Uchenik repeated me as he set the book down. ’I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You sit there and listen while I tell you a story. Yes?‘

I arched an eyebrow, but didn’t stop him.

’Our scout was right, no creature on this planet has a right to exist. Instead, we have something much more important, yes? A purpose.‘ The small changeling held a hoof against his chest while he continued. ’I know why my heart beats, and I have known since the moment I was born.‘

“And, what is that purpose?” I spurred him on.

’Once every few decades all the Hives across the world sent out a part of their population. About a hundred Sisters, a young Queen, and a couple of Brothers, like me. The Queen and her siblings set down a good place for a Hive and start building, while the Brothers move on to another new Hive. We mate with the Queen there after we pass on all of our knowledge to them.‘

“Ugh, I really didn’t need to know that.” Flustered I looked away from Uchenik. “What does that have to do with anything?”

The changeling became very quiet as he looked to the ceiling. ’Mating is lethal for us, human. We live on a day or two and then die, understood?‘ He somehow managed to smile warmly after telling me this. ’I actually would have been dead a month ago, if it hadn’t been for the current circumstances.’

“I’m- I’m sorry,” I mumbled out.

’There is no need for that,‘ Uchenik said as he wistfully stared into the fire. ’All things must perish one day, yes? Our minds fear death because it can keep us from fulfilling our purpose in life and our bodies fear dead because of instinct. So, if we have fulfilled our purpose, our minds do not need to fear dying, no? The only fear that is left is an irrational instinct, and we can resist that.‘ The changeling laughed. ’Life always runs out. Isn’t it better to try to do something great with it than to pathetically cling onto it?‘

Uchenik’s words were either those of a very wise man, or a fanatic. Like so many things in the world, I simply did not know which one it was. One thing was now clear, however.

’So, human, why does your heart beat? For the sake of existing, or for something more? What are you willing to live for?‘ The changeling grinned slyly, already seeing the answer in my eyes.

“I want to go,” I said while the foreboding feeling that I had just damned myself made its way into my thoughts. However, something else also wrestled for my attention: a question. What for? What made our lives even worth living?

Every day was filled with farm work, guard duty, and a quick glance at the tunnels from which death could pour every moment in so many forms. And what awaited us at the end of the day? A hot meal, a story, a laugh around the fire, and a few hours of sleep before it all started over again. And we were the lucky ones. Was that a purpose? Or did we just hang onto life, too stubborn to accept our time had passed?

Maybe Uchenik was right. Maybe our purpose had died in nuclear fire long ago. We had lost so much it was incomprehensible to the new world. The parts of us that could conceive it had died on that faithful day long ago or had slipped quietly out of life some time after.

Dozor had said that we didn’t have to justify living to anyone, but did that include ourselves?

I knew I would do anything to save my people, to do otherwise was unthinkable. But was it for a careful constructed reason or was it merely a senseless instinct?

I took a deep breath of the smoky air, feeling it tingle in the back of my throat like it did back home. While Uchenik read his book full of answers, I only found more questions around our campfire.

What a mess.

The soft clip clopping of our hoofs was the only sound as rocks were slipping in and out of the soft green glow from our horns. The light transformed my Sister into a mix of shadows and green tints as she quietly walked next to me.

Nothing else was down here, no wild beasts, no falling rocks, nothing that could have made the sound our Brother had heard. Of course, it had all just been a feint.

I looked straight ahead at the stones and rock formations, in vain trying to avoid conversation with the Infiltrator. I caught myself chewing on my shawl and quickly spit the disgusting thing back out. A small part of me was amazed at how spacious this cave system was; our light barely made the ceiling visible.

Finally and inevitably, she spoke up. ’My dearest little Sister, Brother and I are,‘ she paused somewhat awkwardly, ’worried about you and the thrall.‘

’I see.‘

My Sister laughed with her normal ease. ’You sound like you’re being interrogated, baby Sister. We’re not angry or anything, you can ease up.‘ She looked expectantly at me, but try as I might, I couldn’t find it in me to relax. ’Ah, suit yourself,‘ she shrugged unfazed and continued. ’Now, it is obvious that you did a good job with the prey. It depends very much on you and even seems to like you. Very impressive without a disguise.‘ She smiled at me, and for a moment I did feel a bit better. ’But the way you two argue is dangerous. You’re too open with the human, too honest. You know better than to actually talk with prey. Just feed it lies and tell it what it wants to hear, no matter how stupid it is.‘

’I know, I know,‘ I muttered. I wish that had been the end of it, but I felt a follow up burning in my stomach. Disagreeing with the Hive on something this trivial and obvious made me feel sick, but lying to them about my true thoughts was unthinkable. ’It,‘ I searched for the right words, ’It feels wrong this time, somehow. When other prey talk to me about their woes it does nothing to me, but now I can hear his troubles in my mind and I can feel his worries, like he was any other changeling. Mother, it’s like I’m betraying a Sibling.‘ I felt stupid, burning with shame at my childish feelings. But nothing other than the truth could be between changelings. ’I hate thinking like this.’

My Sister fell silent as the idea that I had just done something irreversible plagued me. ’You we’re alone for a very long time in that forest, weren’t you? Tell you what, we’ll get you a long deserved vacation back home when this is all over.‘ I thought I saw pity in her eyes. A faint taste of bile rose in my throat as I bit my cheeks.

’Hello, hello. Sisters, how is your “mission” going?‘

’Brother!‘ I welcomed his distraction gratefully as I hopped over some rocks. ’Everything seems fine here.‘

’The Scout and I had our little talk.‘ The Infiltrator chimed in as she smiled warmly at me. ’How’s it going on your end? Need some reinforcements to stop the prey from brooding you to death? I think I can spare some, these stones aren’t putting up much of a fight.‘ She flew lazily into the air for a moment to illuminate the rocks and cracks a bit better.

’Unnecessary. I managed to get it out of its depression with a small amount of manipulation. This prey is quite malleable, yes?‘

’You gave it a pep talk?‘ The Infiltrator almost cackled, her light even went brighter in her amusement. ’You of all changelings? I would give my left wing to see that!‘

’Maybe you would even learn something for once, yes?‘ Brother replied, but I barely heard it. With the new light and my mind no longer occupied by my previous anxiety, I noticed some oddities in the terrain.

’Come on Brother, put away your fangs. Or else I’ll be sad and you’ll need to give me one of your world famous pep talks. Right, Sister?‘ She glanced over at me, but I was completely absorbed in studying my surroundings. We weren’t the first ones that had been here.

With a focused eye, suddenly it seemed impossible that I had missed the signs before. Those kicked over stones there! That vaguely stained patch of ground! The oh so subtle smell of something alive that had seeped into these stones.

’Something wrong, Scout?‘ My Sister hovered over me as I sniffed the cave floor.

’This cave is someone’s home,‘ I replied as I ran the smell through my memories. ’I don’t know who or what though,‘ I said as my mind turned up empty.

’Return immediately. We’ll break up the camp here and prepare to leave, agreed?‘ My Brother tried to hide it, but I could feel his nervousness flow through our mental link.

’Leave?‘ my Sister practically shouted. ’And go out in the cold again so we can freeze to death? No way! Not unless it’s absolutely necessary.‘ She landed next to me and put her front leg around my neck, nearly blinding me with the light from her horn. ’You’re the scout, Sis. What do you say?‘

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the cave’s odors. ’The scent is not fresh, but it’s not one of an animal just passing by. It’s definitely marked as territory.‘ I opened my eyes and pointed my hoof at a particular spot on the ground. ’Do you see the smoothness of the rocks over there? Something has walked here many times, but there are no new traces. Nothing has passed here for at least a month.‘

’See, it’s perfectly safe here. No need to flee.‘ the Infiltrator flew up again to return to the camp.

’I didn’t say that,‘ I interrupted her gloating, causing her to stop in mid-flight. ’Maybe, whatever is living here is hibernating. And with this abnormal winter, there is no telling when it might wake up.‘

’It would be extremely territorial, and most likely starved for food‘ Brother helpfully added. ’Very dangerous, very.‘

’And we would make a well balanced breakfast, right?‘ the Infiltrator grumbled as she saw me nodding. ’But maybe it simply left months ago and we’d be idiots walking out in the freezing cold afraid of ghosts.‘ I nodded again. ’Well, my dearest Scout, I leave it up to you. You’re the expert.‘ I almost felt giddy as Brother agreed too. For the first time in a year my piece fell perfectly into place again in the world.

I suggested the two of us would go ahead, signaling Brother and Yuri in case of an emergency. We also devised a few back up plans, in case of emergency. Most of them consisted of everyone running out of the cave in case something went wrong. Obvious, but it paid to have something to hang onto in case of a panic.

’So, little Sister, what do you suspect we could find down here?‘ She scratched her ear subconsciously as she looked around.

’Bears, probably.‘ I cringed as I stepped into something soft. ’Bats, definitely.‘


’It could be a nest of Manticores too, if we’re unlucky.‘ I said as I scraped my hoof across the ground, shaking off unmentionable things.

’Manticores? I see.‘ She started chittering with her wings as she looked around.

’Don’t make that noise, we don’t want to upset any dragons if they live here.‘ I inspected the underside of my hoof with a grimace. How I wished for an underground stream! ’Or serpents for that matter.‘

With an audible snap she hugged her wings close to her sides. ’But there’s probably nothing here, right?‘

’Probably.‘ I shrugged. ’Maybe.‘

’Maybe,‘ the Infiltrator echoed as she let out a distraught giggle.

’I’m sure about the bats though.‘

’Great to know.‘

’Sisters,‘ I sensed Brother’s words enter our minds. ’Is there anything to report as of yet? The prey keeps pestering me with questions about you, yes? It is being most annoying.‘

’Oh, nothing special, only hordes of manticores, bears, dragons, and snakes.‘ My Sister glanced at me. ’And bats.‘

’I see, I see. Scout, are there any non-fictional things to report, yes?‘ he answered dryly. I could almost hear him roll his eyes.

’No, there’s nothing but old tracks in here.‘ In fact, the only remarkable feature of the cave was that it seemed to be a single very spaciously hall with no side paths. Just a single tunnel. ’Few animals would live so deep inside a cave, even during hibernation. We should have encountered a nest long ago.‘ I shuddered as we illuminated a broken off stalactite and several faint, but gigantic claw marks high upon the wall. ’Something went really wrong down here.‘ I flew up past my companion to inspect the broken off stone. ’The edges here are worn down, whatever happened here was long ago.‘

’What do you think it was?‘ Sister said quietly as she traced the marks on the wall with her hoof; they were easily twice as thick as her leg.

’A fight, maybe? I don’t see signs of anything else though. It’s like it just went berserk.‘

’There are marks over there, yes?‘ Brother said as he looked through my eyes. ’You are able to identify the creature now, yes?‘ Of course I could, I already had.

’An ursa major.‘ We hovered quietly in the air for a few moments.

’We’re leaving.‘ Brother said.

’Yeah, that sounds about right.‘ The Infiltrator agreed as she turned to fly back to our camp.

’No! Wait!‘ I was almost as surprised at myself as the others were. ’We don’t know if the ursa is still alive or even here. If we go outside we could freeze to death. ‘ It was true, dead by ice or by claw was still dead in the end, but I knew it wasn’t the honest reason I wanted to keep going. I wanted to keep exploring, I desperately wanted to study more tracks and guide my Sister and Brother. I wanted them to look, not with pity, but with the trust and pride that was a real Scout’s share.

’Surely there is another option, is there not?‘ my Brother said as she studied the dark rocks for more clues. ’We could return and keep guard against the ursa one by one. If we hear it coming we flee, agreed?‘

’You think we can outrun a hungry ursa major?‘ Sister guffawed as she leaned against the wall with the marks. ’No way, and we can’t fly in this weather either.‘ She smiled at me again. ’Baby Sister is right. Either we risk all of us freezing outside to dead or we risk expending a Scout and an Infiltrator. If it kills and eats us you and the prey can still return to the Hive and get new escorts.‘

It took a long time for Brother to answer, the seconds ticking away as water dropped from the ceiling. ’You are correct, yes. I submit.‘ I felt a pang in my chest for indirectly causing the distress I felt in his voice, but I had spoken the truth. No matter my agenda. ’For Mother’s sake, be careful.‘

The Infiltrator chuckled. ’We love you too.‘ Both of us made our way over the fallen rock as we headed deeper into the ursa’s lair once again.

We walked in silence, carefully sneaking around the damp rocks. Deeper in the cave the damage was even worse. Several large cracks adorned the ancient walls and barely any of the dripstones were left standing. I thought I was climbing a toppled over one until it turned out to be one of the ursa’s massive claws that had, fortunately for us, long ago broken off from its owner. Still there were absolutely no signs of another creature and the damage, massive as it was, could all be led back to the single ursa. It was a maddening enigma for any scout, but I caught myself smiling as I tried figuring out the possible scenarios that could have happened. It was like stretching my legs after being tied up for months.

’Hey, I found something!‘ I looked to my Sister as she stood next to a large, pristine white block. ’And over there, there’s more-‘ She cut herself off as a terrible understanding grew within us. She had pointed to a series of large interconnected archways that were almost half as high as the tunnel. At the end of them we stared into the hollow eyes of a gigantic skull. The ursa major was dead, and we were standing in its grave.

The Infiltrator cursed as she flew away from the slain giant. ’Well, this is a good thing, right?‘ she said as she hovered at a respectful distance. ’It’s dead and we are safe.‘ She shook just a little bit as she spoke. ’Do you—do you know what happened?‘

Quite frankly I was completely baffled, but I kept silent as I flew around the skeleton, studying for any signs of trauma like cracks or chipped off parts. The bones were in a bizarrely good condition however. It definitely hadn’t been a predator. Not even a sign of scavengers gnawing on the remains was there. It was almost like all the ursa’s soft bits had simple evaporated. ’Maybe it was some kind of magic parasite,‘ I offered unsurely. ’An ursa is almost completely made from magic, and it almost looks like everything but the bones has been sucked dry.‘ It was an unlikely explanation and Sister probably knew. It would have taken hundreds of parasites a month to eat away this much, and they would have surely left some signs.

’Well, I’ll report to Brother,‘ Sister said as she concentrated. ’But even with that monster dead, I don’t know if we should stay. These kind of things don’t happen for no reason and it-‘

The world was plunged into darkness as a wave of fatigue fell over me. Panic overwhelmed me as I found that I no longer had the strength to fly. Letting out a shriek of surprise I fell and hit the ground hard and painfully. I felt like a poisoned blade had been struck into my guts as I pulled myself up on shaking legs in the complete darkness. ’Wha- what happened?‘ I managed to slur out like a drunken wretch. My call went unanswered however and with a deep horror my mind pieced together the puzzle. I had been stripped from my magic again. In one fell swoop I was reduced back into that worthless state I had been in the forest. Shamefully I felt tears pricking in my eyes.

I wiped them away quickly, thankful that the darkness hid them. My ears perked up as I heard a soft moaning not too far from me. With a coldness growing in my heart I realized that the same fate had befallen my Sister. It felt like I was walking through molasses as I stumbled towards the confused moaning with my tattered wings dragging over the ground.

At that moment I felt something. My heartbeat rose and my legs started shaking as an ancient instinct told me of danger. It was the feeling all creatures had had since the first day something had killed something else for food. The feeling of a predator watching you as it waited for its moment to strike. Short and hurried breaths filled my lungs as I twisted my ears to the slightest sounds. Nothing was there, but I could feel the sensation intensify right next to where the Infiltrator had fallen down. Something was deeply wrong with this place and we had to get out as soon as possible.

Very slowly I crept forward to where my Sister lay; thankfully she seemed too overwhelmed to notice whatever may have been standing so close to her. Finally I had reached her as the full brunt of the dread hit me. Strangely, I felt my fears turn into a deep fatigue and depression as I stared at the darkness. The cave almost seemed solemn in a way now, like it was a quiet temple build to mourn some great loss. I cleared my head from the fabricated emotions. Something was messing with my mind.

Slowly I lowered my head to my semiconscious Sister. “Don’t move. I’m getting you out of here.” I didn’t know if she could understand me, but the panicked breathing seemed to slow down a bit. Gingerly I bit down on the mane in her neck and began to drag her far away from the corpse.

I wanted to feel relief as I slowly made my way from it, but as I stared at that dark spot where I knew it had to be all I could feel were my nerves flaring up. The sensation didn’t follow me, but now I was convinced that it was deliberately caused by something. Something that had killed the ursa, but now decided to ignore us. If it could kill one of those it would have no problem murdering us in an instant. So why did it let us go? I felt shivers down my spine and a sickness in my stomach as I forced my tired limbs to drag my Sister to safety.

The Infiltrator seemed to have taken it even worse than I did. She was as weak as a hatchling and only managed to feebly kick the air now and then when I accidentally dragged her across a rough stone. As soon as I felt we were far away enough from the emptiness I stopped for a second to catch my breath. Not wasting more than a minute I managed to awkwardly sling my Sister on my back. I would not have her suffer the indignity of being dragged around like a bag any more than I could help it.

I wanted to simply run away after that moment, but even walking without carrying someone would have been an ordeal. Besides, I did not dare to take my eyes from that one spot in the darkness. With a carefulness born from exhaustion I walked backwards, away from the carcass. With some embarrassment I noticed I was barring my teeth at the thing. Quickly hiding that sign of desperation I took another few steps, managing to navigate my way between the toppled over dripstones without losing my footing.

After putting several meters and a good helping of rocks between us I finally felt confident that whatever it was would not follow us. That was fine with me; I was in no hurry to ever meet it again. I tried to look over at Sister as her head leaned against mine, but in this darkness I could not even see my own snout. That awful feeling of being diminished filled me again. I was as physically close to her as I could possibly be, but she might as well have been on the other side of the planet. It was an awful thing to be so isolated from each other.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I dragged us through the dark. I bit down on my cheeks. “We should have left as soon as we knew an ursa was here, but I just wanted to,” I stopped as blood rushed to my face. This was so awkward. It was so much easier to apologize if the other could feel your emotions and intentions. “I wanted to belong in the world again, wanted you all to not be ashamed of me.” The words came out all wrong. They were nothing but poor excuses. Language was such a crude tool to communicate. How could I show her why I had wanted to go on? How could I understand for myself why I had pushed on when I couldn’t see myself through her? No wonder other creatures fought and killed their own. This isolation was a cruel madness.

I heard my Sister mumble something incoherent. Had she even heard me? Was she even conscious? It was too dark to tell.

Several long minutes I had trudged away from the corpse now, occasionally taking small breaks without daring to let my Sister leave my back. I cursed myself a few times as I almost nodded off. Luckily, the pain of biting my tongue was enough for now to keep me going, but with every step my legs shook more and my eyes became heavier. I would just have to tough it out until I reached the exit.

My ears perked up as the sound of boots hitting the floor traveled down the tunnel. Looking up from the ground I could see a combination of green and white light making its way towards me. A sigh escaped me. No one ever kept to the plan, but I couldn’t help but smile.

Using whatever strength I had left I stood up a bit taller and shouted out. Soon Yuri responded in his rough language and a too bright beam of light fell on me, making my eyes water and see stars. I tried to shield my face with my leg, but nearly lost my footing. I let out a cry of protest as I barely managed to keep the Infiltrator on my back and the light left my face.

The sleek form of Brother landed next to me, he seemed to be unable to keep his wings from chittering as he studied us with wide red eyes. “Why aren’t you talking to me?” His voice had a slight tremble as he spoke. “I thought you two had died.” His voice broke halfway through. I stared at the floor, away from his wet eyes.

“We were ambushed.” I meekly replied. “There’s something terrible down there, I don’t know what. It killed the ursa and drained us. You were right, we have to leave.”

Brother stared at Yuri for a moment. Giving a nod, the man lifted my Sister from my back. “Thank yo- HEY!” I shouted in surprise as he grabbed me too and started to run. I wanted to resist his patronizing grip, but all my struggles stopped as I felt something radiating from him. I clutched at his jury rigged armor as I tasted a wonderful love born from concern flow towards me. Greedily I drank and relaxed my sore and tired muscles as I felt warmth and comfort fill my chest.

As soon as I felt like myself again I pushed myself free from his hold. He let me go without much protest as he breathed loudly from his exertions. I flew into the air on his other side, where the slender white figure of my Brother was hovering next to the motionless form in Yuri’s other arm.

A short gasp escaped from me as I put my hooves toward my mouth. She looked truly pitiful and I hated myself for thinking that. Her tongue hung out of her mouth and drool dripped down on the floor. She rocked slightly up and down in concert with Yuri’s movements with her head lolling obscenely along like she had no neck. Her hair was still messy from when I had dragged her. She looked half dead. I felt something twist around very tightly in my stomach as I stared at her.

’Is she-‘ I started.

’She’s alive,‘ Brother hastily interrupted me. ’She’s definitely still alive, for now.‘ He shuddered as he continued. ’But if she doesn’t wake up soon and feed, she’ll perish.‘ Hovering next to Yuri he gently patted the unconscious changeling’s head. ’I- I don’t know what to do. I never studied first aid.‘ Another more violent shiver overcame him. ’I don’t know what to do. I’ve been trying to wake her, but I don’t know what to do.‘ Those words were like a dagger to my heart. My dear Sister would die, because I had had too much pride. Because I had endangered us for my own sake.

It took me a moment to realize that Yuri was slowing down and gradually came to a hold. He flashed his light behind him, quickly surveying the cave before he doubled over to catch his breath. “We’re safe, right?” he managed between heaving breathing as he wiped the sweat from his face.

’Maybe. Yeah. I think so,‘ I answered. My thoughts came slow through the maelstrom going on in my head.

With some surprise I saw Yuri quickly taking of his chest armor and helmet, making a sort of makeshift bed and pillow from it and the several layers of shirts he had on him. Disgustingly I could now see the muscles and bones shift under his pale skin with every movement. Very carefully, almost fatherly, he placed my sister on the pile.

’Do you have a plan, yes?‘ Brother spoke as he landed next to the two. His ears lay flat on his head as he watched Yuri with intent. The man silenced him with a gesture.

“Hey! Pizdabol! Can you hear me! Hey!” He forcefully rubbed her face as he spoke. We waited with bated breath, but no response came from the unconscious changeling. Shining his flashlight in her eyes he repeated his questions, but still nothing happened. He hesitated for a moment as he finished up with her right eye. The man cursed as he slipped his hand into one of his pockets. He fished out a small white tube of some sort which he promptly broke in his hands. Holding out the remains under her snout had an almost instant effect. With a sharp inhale of air life rushed back into her abused body.

A choked sound managed to escape me as I felt my muscles relax. With a wave of relief I saw my Sister’s horn glow as she hungrily embraced the human to feed on his emotions. With a laugh Yuri returned the embrace. “To be honest, I’m not sure if that should have worked.”

With a somewhat undignified squeal I embraced the human from his side. ’You did it! You saved her. Thank you so much!‘

’You used ammonia? Clever. Very inventive! Good work!‘ Brother had flown up behind the human and patted him on the back with a broad smile.

Yuri tried to brush of the compliments, saying it was just lucky that it turned out well, but I could see the smile growing on his face. And, despite that everything was far from okay, the cave seemed just a little less cold and dark.

’ Oh, hey guys,‘ the infiltrator spoke up. She was slurring her words somewhat as she looked around in a daze. ’I must have zoned out for a moment or something.‘ A sheepish smile formed on her face. ’Are we having a group hug?‘ Her smile soured a bit. ’And… the human is shirtless. This isn’t one of those weird hugs, right?‘

As we hastily, and to her relief, explained that it wasn’t like that, she got a weird look on her face. Her horn started to shine brighter as she twisted her head around, looking everywhere. Slowly she brought up her hoof to the right side of her face. ’Guys, something- I think something is wrong.‘ She stared ahead, shaking a bit. ’My right eye. I can’t see with it.‘

I saw it now, in the brighter light. The beautiful crystal blue eye had become a murky shade of grey. It stared into nothingness as it failed to focus on anything.

It was the eye of a corpse.

Chapter 12: Mice Who Bite Cats

Mice who bite cats

“How’s this?” I held up three fingers in front of the grey eye.

’Uh, I’m not really sure.‘

Holding the flashlight behind my hand I directed it at her face, a pillar of light cut briefly through the star filled sky. “How about now?”

’I think I see some shadows.‘ She was silent for a moment. ’You’re not flipping me the bird? Right? Don’t think I won’t get what it means.‘ A razor sharp grin spread on her face as she opened her good eye.

Despite myself I let out a short laugh. Her grin grew into a smile. “Well, let’s get you ready again.” I got out a freshly cleaned piece of cloth as I spoke. I knotted it behind her head so it fell over her face somewhat like an eye patch. My hope was that rest would allow her eye to heal somewhat, but I knew little of such things.

With a confident look the changeling struck a heroic pose, showing off the bandage in all its makeshift glory. ’Do I still look dashing, master healer?‘

“Knock it off, you goof.”

’ Ah, I shouldn’t expect a creature like you to get what style is. Luckily I’m an expert by trade.‘ She admired herself in the ice of the frozen river we were resting next to. ’Chicks dig eye patches, you know?‘ She flew up in the air and started hovering next to me as we made our way back to our two friends. ’It’s actually pretty disturbing how much ponies and the like think being half blind is attractive. But hey, silver lining and all that.‘ She shrugged.

“You’re pretty upbeat about all this.” I sat down by the fire and gave a quick nod to Dozor and Uchenik, but they seemed to be lost in some kind of serious conversation in a strange language no human knew. It stumped me for a moment to physically hear their actual voices again, but my friend gave me no time to think about it any further.

’Ah, well, glad to still be alive, you know? It’s either laughing or crying. So I have a lot of laughing to do.‘ She smacked me in the back with a roaring laugh as she magically lifted up one of the squirrel-like things we had been cooking over the fire, courtesy of Dozor’s hunting. Digging in she continued, ’Besides, it’s not like I’m blind or anything.‘

“So it really doesn’t bother you?”

She shot up an eye away from her meal. ’Are you trying to make me feel bad?‘

“No, I just used to,” I gestured somewhat awkwardly as I tried to find my words. “Accidents happen often, and I know of a lot of people that have lost an eye or a limb.” I took one of the cups next to the fire and peered in it. Satisfied that the snow had melted enough to drink, I took a sip. “They changed. Some for the worse, few for the better. Most ended up as beggars.” I enjoyed the fresh water, free from dirt and staleness. I almost felt cleaner as it made its way down. “When you have something of yourself taken away. That does something to you.”

’Not to me.‘ The changeling crunched one of her meal’s bones casually between her teeth and started to suck the marrow out. ’You see the Ratatoskr I’m eating right now? This little critter was alive a day ago. Now it’s my meal. You think it saw it coming?‘ She spit out the empty bone and snapped open a fresh one. ’One day you’re on top of the world, and the next you are in the dumps. With no rhyme or reason needed. Life just happens and it’s always changing.‘ She winked at me as a green flame brightened up the camp. In her place was now a dog-like creature with her eyepatch. ’Like us, one day we’re a dog, the next we are a pony.‘ Indeed she burned brightly into one of them. Taking up one of the rodents for myself I took a greedy bite as I listened. The dry meat vaguely reminded me of a rat’s.

’Did you ever believe you would end up on a different planet? Did your people ever believe they would blow up their world?‘ I looked away, that was a low blow. ’Life is just a wild river, we can’t predict it, only ride it out.‘ Again she snapped a fresh bone before turning back into herself. ’Just enjoy it all while you can. Roll with the punches and all that.‘

“Rolling with the punches hasn’t really worked out for my people.” I threw her one of the bones, she caught it deftly out of the air. “It would mean death to us, right now. We have to be out there and do something. Like the four of us are doing now.” I wiped the grease off my hands with some snow. “We’re going out there and save every human and changeling we can. No matter what life thinks about it.”

’I told you to enjoy yourself, kiddo.’ She made a placating gesture while she crushed another bone. ‘Besides, it’s not like I said the universe is out to get you. It just doesn’t care if you win or lose. You might as well try to take all you can, and if it doesn’t happen. Well, that’s just how it is.’ She stared at the small embers dancing into the sky as she talked. ’We are just small things working around stronger and mindless forces as best as we can. Sometimes you do everything right and you still lose. That’s just life.‘ She entangled her hooves and rested her head on them. ’It makes no sense, so doesn’t it make sense to at least try to have a good time?’

“Maybe” I relented. Pizdabol’s view did not leave a lot of room for hope, but judging from what I knew of her, hope would just seem like another amusing concept. I gave the rest of my meal to my friend. I had always hated the taste of rats anyway.

’Now, how about some card games?’ The little changeling clapped her hoofs together excitedly as a green glow produced a pack of cards. ’You’ve got an itching for a rematch, right? If you do well enough I might even teach you a few nifty cheats.‘ She winked at me as the cards shuffled themselves in midair.

“You know, usually the first rule of cheating is not to mention you’re doing it.” I murmured as I took four of them.

’Ah, so we’ve got a fellow expert on lying in our midst.‘ She laughed as she threw her first card down, a joker. ’But now the question remains, can you catch me doing it?‘

It was an entire different game like this. She never once betrayed a trick, but I watched with different eyes now. Small changes, like how the deck sometimes had moved just a tiny bit, or how cards seemed to pop up when she needed them the most. Things you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking out for them. Still, after several games that went extraordinarily poorly, I had never once actually caught her.

It was challenging.

“So, what happened in the cave?” I asked as I threw down a two. “I asked Dozor, but she brushed me off.”

’I uh, I don’t really remember. One moment we were talking and then BOOM!‘ she threw out her wings in demonstration. ’Out like a light. Next thing I know I woke up.‘ She put down a joker in retaliation.

Grumbling I picked up seven cards. Each one more worthless than the last. After a moment I decided to lay down my last two of spades, more out of spite than any strategic insight. With the way things were going, getting her to pick up cards for once would be a personal victory. My standards for such things dropped amazingly fast in the face of constant defeat.

’Well, there was one thing. Now that I think about it. I felt like something was standing over me. Or inside of me.‘ Her ears fell flat on her head as she focused on some point in front of me. ’Yeah, I do remember feeling something. It was a sad, pathetic feeling. It burrowed inside of my body and thoughts. A misery so deep it felt like I was choking on it.‘

She held up her wings in a shrug as her ears perked up in tandem. ’It sucked. Kinda like your card playing skills!‘ With a grin she threw up another joker.

“Hey! You already played a joker twice! They are out of the game.”

’Did I, though?‘ She smiled an insufferable smirk as I turned over the deck of played cards. There were no jokers to be found. Pizdabol left no traces of her trickery. ’It’s okay, human. You must have thought of the ninth game that I won or maybe it was the fifteenth?‘ She put a hoof against her chin as she pretended to be lost in thought. ’I honestly can’t remember myself. All these sweet, sweet victories start to blend together after a while.‘

We put down a few more cards, but it was just a formality, within three rounds she laid down her last card and the game was over for me. Grumbling some obscenities under my breath I started to reshuffle the deck. I had quickly learned that Pizdabol couldn’t be trusted with that. At least we weren’t playing for bullets or anything, another lesson I had picked up fast after a few games.

“So, do you guys have a lot of stuff like that cave thing in this world?” I flicked the changeling her cards.

’Eh, I wouldn’t know about that. You should ask my Brother.‘ She said as she arranged her hand.

“Not Dozor?” My face fell as I saw the pathetic excuse of cards I had.

’You should leave that drone to herself sometimes.’ the infiltrator jokingly berated me. ’Spend some time with me and little Brother for a change. We’re your friends too, right?‘ She almost looked like an excited puppy as she stared up to me. All she missed was a wagging tail. She laid down another joker.

“Man, fuck your jokers!” She just laughed as I threw my cards down and fumed.

’Oh, I would call you a sore loser, but honestly I’m impressed.‘ With an acrobatic jump she landed next to me and gave me a pat on the back. ’Thirty lost games and only now you’ve called it quits, that takes a really thick skull. I can appreciate a good thick skull, I’m a conmisseur of sorts.‘

’Connoisseur. It’s connoisseur,‘ Uchenik interrupted. ’Honestly, Sister, how you can manage to mispronounce words telepathically is beyond me, yes?‘

The infiltrator gave her brother a dirty look. ’Anyway!’ she huffed. ’Before my very most dearest special best Brother decided to rudely interrupt me.‘ Uchenik was already ignoring her in favor for his conversation with Dozor, whom was laughing behind her hoof. ’Never let anyone take that away from you. It will serve you well in this life.‘

“My skull?”

’Cherish it.‘ She laid a hoof on my shoulder in what she probably imagined was a meaningful gesture. ’Now, pick some cards and I’ll learn you something neat.‘

I complied and picked a few cards at random, holding them so that she couldn’t see them.

The infiltrator looked at me for a second. ’An ace, a king, a jack, and a joker. Not the worst hand. Not the best one either, mind you.’ She flashed me a smile as she saw the confusion on my face.

“Okay, now I have no idea how you did that. Did you mark them or something?” I looked the cards over from the back. But they were just normal, everyday cards.

’Ah, human, think of the worst most unfair cheats you can imagine and you’ll figure it out. I know you have it in you.‘ She looked at me in what was probably the most serious way she could muster. However, she didn’t manage to get much further than “slightly amused”.

I thought about it for a second. The cards weren’t marked, so she had definitely seen them. There was however nothing but the sky and snow behind me, and Dozor and Uchenik couldn’t see my cards either. So, how could she see my hand? Slowly it dawned on me. I sighed deeply as I laid down the cards. “You were watching through my eyes, right?”

With a flourish she bowed. ’Class dismissed.‘ I could swear she actually looked a bit proud. ’You know, not many creatures would have thought of that. They are too innocent, or not cunning enough.‘ She slapped my back again. ’But you. You have the heart of a liar, that’s something you can’t learn. Something you are born with. Humans will make for fine allies with those skills. Or at least good card players.‘ She let out a roaring laugh that her joke in no way deserved, making Uchenik try to shush her. She only laughed harder.

’You know what, human?’ she said when she had finally calmed down. ‘It’s nice talking to you. Real nice. It’s… freeing. Maybe even a little too freeing.‘ She shot out her weird serpentine tongue. ’Oops. I might have said too much. Again. You’re way too good at this.’ I honestly didn’t get her, but she only seemed to be more amused by that. ’You do really remind me of the small grubs, sometimes.’

“I’m not a kid.” She laughed and nodded.

’Sure. Sure kiddo. But one thing first.‘ With a leap she was flying next to my shoulder, before I could react she had put her front leg around my neck, pulling me close to her face. I could see myself reflected in her good eye. ’Human, we’re friends, right?‘ I nodded. ’Well, I wanted to talk to you about our scout.‘ She whispered as she leaned in even closer. The smell of her meal was heavy on her breath.

’You see, our dear scout went through a really rough time. And she’s pretty delicate right now.‘ I looked over towards Dozor as she was right in the middle of a meal. She tore one of the squirrels in half with her teeth. ’I know you’re good friends and all, and that’s great, but,‘ she leaned in even closer.

Too close for comfort.

I wanted to back up, but a pressure started building in my head. Her words constricted around me, around my thoughts. A dull pain build around every place where her words tried to engrave themselves on my soul. ’S h e r e a l l y n e e d s h e r f a m i l y r i g h t n o w.‘ The world dissolved around me. All that there was left was a faint green glow right in front of me. ’S o y o u s h o u l d r e a l l y l e a v e h e r a l o n e . With an agonizing pop the world returned.

After a few moments I realized I had been just staring ahead of me. Pizdabol looked at me with a strange expression, almost frustrated. Had she asked me something? “Oh, sorry, I must have tuned out for a moment.” I laughed, but a dull pain shot through my head. “Urgh, I think the cold is getting to me,” I said as I pressed my hands against my head. “What were we talking about again?”

She flashed a smile. ’Nothing important, human.’ She mock punched me. ’Sometimes I just get a little… upset when others don’t listen to me. Don’t pain your brain over it.‘

We both laughed it off and sat at the fire. I leaned back for a moment and saw the stars stretch to infinity. They spiraled endlessly as precious specks of beauty in the void. Briefly I wondered if my own sun was among them.

No, that wasn’t right. The sun hadn’t been ours for a long time. Waves of nostalgia, home sickness, and beauty clashed into me. Mixing with my receding headache into a strange feeling. The sensation wasn’t exactly pleasant, but it felt essential.

Uchenik called out to us. He and Dozor had finished their talk and it was time for us to go. He explained that our first destination wasn’t very far from here and we intended to reach it before morning hit.

With the campfire buried, my weapons cleaned, and a few other businesses arranged we followed the white changeling’s directions.

A few thin clouds flew by, looking like finger smudges on the surface of the moon. The snow crunched beneath us in a steady pattern as we trudged along. Small dots of light betrayed the eyes of woodland critters as they observed us passing through their territory, waiting anxiously for these strange intruders to leave.

As I walked past trees, inhaled fresh air, and saw the stars break through the ceiling of leafs once again, I felt the strange feeling from before settle. It was something that had been wrong in my life for so long that I had simply gotten used to it, but now it finally settled like it should have.

I now understood the old generation more. Why they looked at the tunnel that protected them from the poison of the surface with hate and despair in their eyes. Those feelings had been there my entire life inside me, but I had never been able to place it. They were so common I had accepted them as a part of who I was, a deformity from birth. Here on the outside I finally understood it. Mankind was meant to be free. To explore the sky, climb mountains, to descend to the depths of the ocean, to walk on the moon. We were not meant to be constricted by the safety of tunnels. Our sky had been stolen, and every look at the concrete ceiling caused some internal friction of the spirit.

Outside here, where I could walk and stand wherever I desired I felt a great peace descend upon me. A human needed more than food and water to survive.

In a few steps we went from a thick forest to some sort of grassland, the progression too sudden to be natural. Observing the landscape before us as best as I could I saw a valley lying between hills, with one of them being noticeably larger. It looked like something some might have called a mountain, but everything seemed huge outside to me. At the summit of this mountain dots of lights were scattered and dark rectangular shapes of houses could be seen. I looked at Dozor and she nodded. We had found our destination.

With three flashes of green my companions had donned their disguises. Three cuddly beige dogs that stood on their hind legs stared at me with yellow eyes. With some difficulty I fought the urge to pet them. “Looks good?” I offered, but they did not care for my opinion and wandered past me.

As we made our way to the settlement I could make it out in greater detail. The town was indeed hugging the mountain and was surround by a semi-circular wall that closed it off from attacks where the mountain did not protect. The wall itself was not all that impressive, only half again my size and illuminated at regular intervals by torches.

’So this was this place’s secret, yes?‘ Uchenik spoke, he took the questioning look on my face as an invitation to continue. ’This settlement serves as a small military outpost for the Minotaurs. Now that’s nothing strange, correct?‘ I nodded, some of the larger stations’ communities liked to use their neighbors as a buffer zone against attack too. ’Well, there has been peace between ponies and Minotaurs for centuries and never once did this outpost shrink or grow in size. In fact,‘ he clasped his paws together. ’This station has never fallen outside of Minotaur control. Ever. Even when this land and its surroundings were occupied by enemy forces.‘ Uchenik smiled as he saw my raised eyebrows. ’In fact, this “military outpost” has never once send a single soldier out to fight, no? They just sit here, and do nothing but run courses, train, and man the walls. We Brothers have wondered long why this would be.‘

“They must be guarding something.” I slammed my fist into my open hand as it clicked in my head.

’Correct. That was our assumption too,‘ Uchenik answered.

’But that’s not all,‘ Dozor chimed in. ’if they are guarding something, than why would no one take the outpost from them, even in war?‘

’All the races around here are in cahoots with each other,‘ Pizdabol raised her paws in a conspiratorial gesture as she winked.

Dozor stared hard at the town’s wall. ’Or they are guarding something dangerous. Something that supersedes war and diplomacy.‘

“Like the wish granter?” I put my hands in my pockets as we continued to approach the wall. I could finally make out a thick wooden door we were heading towards. “I would think everyone would be fighting for a thing like that. Who wouldn’t want their wishes to be granted?”

’What if someone wished their enemies away,‘ Dozor offered. A chill ran down my spine at that thought. To suddenly stop existing because someone else commanded it. That sounded all too familiar.

’Ah, the other races are being huge cowards like usual,‘ Pizdabol laughed. She put on a deep voice as she made exaggerated gestures. ’Power corrupts my dear citizens. Just let us hide the answer to all our problems inside this mountain, someone might get hurt.‘ She let out another giggle. ’I bet they’re letting the Minotaurs guard it on the honor system. Adorable, really.’

’Well, whatever may be the case, we’ll get what we require.‘ Uchenik waved one arm in the air as he called out to the wall. After a few moments I could see a hulking figure climb on the wall. Its fur had a blueish hue and bizarrely enough its head resembled that of a bull. At least, as far as I could remember from pictures in books. It called out in a surprisingly clear and professional tone, clashing with its beastly appearance.

With no time wasted, Pizdabol stepped forward and struck up what seemed to be a friendly conversation with the sentry. The guard’s bored expression quickly became more animated as they talked. I could empathize with him, having stood many long hours as a guard in the tunnels myself. I knew how mind numbing it could be. There were always intense moments of fear and paranoia at who or what could be out there, but for the most part it consisted of endless hours of fighting against boredom.

I was, however, surprised when the guard disappeared from view and the door started to open. “Did she just talk our way into a military base?” I whispered to Dozor.

’Barely,‘ she said as we shuffled inside. When we pasted the gates I could see what she meant. We entered a small stone area with blank and windowless walls. On the other side was a small but sturdy looking door that was guarded by two mountains of creatures. They eyed us calmly, but I could see their hands on their spears and towering shields. This was not so much a waiting room as a death trap for those unwise enough to provoke the guards.

A polite cough turned my attention to the right. One of the creatures stood behind a simple desk with his hands clasped behind his back. This one far less intimidating and wearing an outfit that reminded me of a clerk. The Minotaur could have almost passed for a tall human, if it wasn’t for its more bizarre features.

Uchenik walked in front of his desks and pushed some of the administrative papers that were neatly stacked onto the floor, to the annoyance of the creature behind the desk. With the utmost care he put down the guide. The thin clerk glanced briefly at the ancient tome and glanced up at the changeling with an incredulous smirk. With a chuckle he said something to the guards, who bumped each other’s shoulders as they cracked a pair of smiles. Somehow I felt we weren’t being taken seriously.

Uchenik lightly tapped the guide with his paw as he spoke with what even I understood to be barely hidden contempt. With a shrug the clerk nonchalantly opened the book, slamming the cover carelessly on the table. Uchenik visibly cringed as the dull thud was heard. As the Minotaur looked inside I had the rare pleasure of seeing an alien’s face going from smug to ashen in a few seconds.

With slumped shoulders and avoiding the Brother’s eyes he took a pair of immaculate gloves from a drawer and started to leaf through the book with almost reverent care. Whatever the clerk was looking for, he apparently found it.

He bent down and leafed through the papers that Uchenik had dumped on the ground and put one on the desk. Producing a quill and bottle of ink he handed over the feather and pointed at some empty spots on the document. We signed the document without further ado. The clerk did look confused for a second at the clearly foreign letters I had used to sign my name, but for whatever reason he decided it wasn’t a problem.

With a quick order from the minotaur the two guards stepped away from the door in unison, clearing the way. And just like that, we were in.

Breathing the cool night air in I stretched in my new disguise. I had always harbored a particular dislike for Diamond Dogs before the ponies seized the distinguishing honor of being my number one most hated prey. They had dog hands unfit for anything but digging the earth for precious gems. A useless commodity for anyone but dragons. And dragons weren’t the type to exchange anything but a healthy dose of fire for their food. What a waste of a species.

At least the base we were in was designed more sensible. Thick stone walls embraced us to stop ground charges, hiding two rows of archers and ballista to create a wall of arrows against the flying sort. Rows upon rows of neatly placed wooden barracks surrounded us on all sides, separated only by the occasional training ground. Everything was systematic, clear, and placed with a purpose. There was no useless fat weighing this place down. And like any good military base there were plenty of patrols and lights to expose any infiltrators and saboteurs hiding in the shadows.

Well, except for us of course.

I wondered for a moment how infiltration would work in Yuri’s world. He had told me they had steel gates closing them of from attacks from the outside. The tunnels connecting the stations were few and an even smaller number was traversable. All leading to closed knitted communities where people were rarely alone or out of sight of others. I tried to imagine approaching such a defended tunnel. Seeing the large barricades with armored humans hiding behind terrible weapons that could spew death into the narrow tunnels.

Strategies came floating up from the maelstrom of my mind. Crashing and breaking on defenses, or seeping away in their clever mazes. Without the trust we were building up with our prey; feeding off them would be a task even the most skilled of deceivers and infiltrators would reconsider.

Looking at my slack jawed human staring at the minotaurs and buildings around us I couldn’t help but feel that my prey would do so much better than what I saw around me.

The hairs in my neck rose in revulsion as I felt one of our two minotaur escorts rest his hand on my shoulder. Only my experience made me manage to turn my disgusted expression into a sheepish smile. “Yes? What is it?”

“Sergeant Muddock wants to see all visitors.” He pointed us to a small wooden house, almost a shed, not too far from us. “He’s over there.”

“You too, calf,” the other guard said as he patted Yuri on his helmet. At least until the human swatted the offending hand away, much to the minotaur’s amusement.

“What’s with these creatures?” If the guards were surprised at the human’s foreign language, they didn’t show it.

’Well, now that I’ve put some thought into it, you do seem to share some shallow characteristics with a young minotaur,‘ Brother theorized. ’It would not be implausible that you are evoking some paternal instincts, yes?‘

“Great, that’s just great.” Yuri buried his hands deep into his pockets as he slummed his shoulders. “Typical.”

’Aw, don’t be sour,‘ the Infiltrator offered. ’Being cute isn’t all that bad.‘ She smirked as Yuri cringed. Taking advantage of the tallness her disguise granted her she swung an arm around the human and nuzzled his cheeks. ’Why, I bet they could just eat you up, cutie pie.‘

My Sister’s poor attempts at holding back her laughter completely failed as the human wrestled himself free with amazing speed while giving her more than a few choice words.

’At least it’s better than being respected or loathed,‘ I found myself saying as we reached the door. ’That’s when others have their guard up around you. But if you’re dismissed. Well, ‘ I stopped for a moment to shake of the snow. ’You won’t believe how open some let themselves be. Remember to take advantage of that, Yuri.‘

One of our “friends” hit the oaken doors three times. A muffled: “It’s open,” followed the knocking and we entered.

The interior of the house did little to dissuade me from thinking we had indeed entered a shed instead of an office. The place was littered with shovels, brooms, and other assorted tools in every corner. The light of the moon, supported by a candle, illuminated the sparse furniture that could be found. Dominating the room was a large desk that had mess of several papers, maps, and writing equipment on it. Dark inkblots were liberally sprinkled over the desk and its contents. Behind the desk I could just make out a simple bed with thick furs. A small unlit furnace with a kettle on it stood to the side.

“Hm. You dogs never heard of sleeping?” From the mess of papers emerged, what I presumed to be, sergeant Muddock. He had the build of a minotaur who once had been very strong, but old age and desk work had worn him down. Grey had seeped into his once blueish fur and his well-kept short beard. He watched over us all with eyes that had not suffered under the strain of time, but had only grown fiercer. More or less a typical career soldier, I concluded.

As the guard explained our situation Muddock appraised us with those eyes in the way that military officers often did with things they didn’t like. When he rested his gaze on Yuri however, something made him stop. With a sudden hand gesture the guard shut up mid-sentence.

“You are one of them, those outsiders,” the minotaur stated. Yuri stared ahead for a moment before he noticed that suddenly all eyes were on him. With a sheepish smile he shrugged.

I sighed as I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t built to be a translator, but it looked like I had to step up to a foreign role once again. It was probably in our favor that minotaurs weren’t known for their great telepaths who could listen in on us. The human looked gratefully at me as I enlightened him on the situation.

“So, you’ve seen others like me? Are they still here? What station did they come from? Could I talk to them?” Yuri was basically jumping as he unleashed the wave of questions. A grunt escaped me as he prattled on and on. Still, I prepared to do the best I could. A changeling should always do their job to the best of their abilities after all.

It turned out I shouldn’t have bothered. After only the first question the minotaur leaned back, granting us a view of the window behind him. Three wooden poles stood in a row, each adorned with a helmet much like Yuri’s and some miscellaneous items at the bottom.

“Not much left to be buried though. They were burned to a crisp when they appeared. DOA.” The beast sniffed his nose. “They reeked something fierce. The bulls couldn’t stomach meat for two days." He patted one of the administrative pillars that littered his desk. “Security was a nightmare for weeks. We’re still busy filing away the reports.”

The human stared at the graves outside as his smile died on his face. He only stole a glance at the sergeant before he continued staring in the distance. “I don’t know how this happened, sir. I swear it.” Yuri almost whispered the words as he seemed pinned to the ground.

“Did I ask you something, calf?” the sergeant stood up and towered over his desk. “One look at you and I can tell you barely know how to keep your nose clean.” He swept his hand in our direction as he dropped himself back into his chair. “Unlike your friends who look like they could piss on your leg and make you think they did you a favor.”

I didn’t translate that last part. As a matter of fact, I was getting sick playing the part of the translator. With three quick strides I was at the desk. I slammed my paws down on the wood and endured the stare that followed as I looked up at the old soldier. “We didn’t walk across half the country in the freezing cold to have you insult us, Sergeant.”

“If only.” The minotaur leaned forward until he was inches away from my face. His putrid breath assaulted my senses as he continued to speak. “You are here because you have more guts than brains and somehow managed to stumble upon something that doesn’t belong to you. You want to go inside the cave and march straight into your grave because stories of treasure and power have rotten your brains.” He leaned back, but never broke eye contact. “Do you think you’re the first ones that ever stumbled to my desk? This week even?”

“We have a right to-“

“Rights?” The sergeant let out a harsh laugh. “You’re a genuine comedian, lady. This is my fort. I have soldiers under me. Loyal soldiers. You have no rights but the ones I feel like giving you! And I’m not in a giving mood. Funny how that works.” The bull stood up once again and signaled the guards behind us. “Give them a room for the night and a meal. Post two guards at the door and throw this rabble out in the morning.” His stare tried to pin me down, but I had endured worse in my time. “If you all really want to die so much, go outside and lie in the snow. It would save us a whole lot of paperwork.”

“Listen here you old bull!” The choked cough I heard coming from my Sister behind me did little to quench the fire in my stomach as I pounded the desk again. “I don’t care if you have to cut down every tree in your backyard to get the paper to let us through. We are going in that cave!”

A mocking smile spread on Muddock’s face. “Oh, is this the part where you make meaningless threats so I can just throw you out? It must be my birthday already!” He readied himself to stand up.

I crossed my arms. “Hardly.” The soldier stopped as he looked at me vaguely bemused. “I propose a bull’s honorable agreement. You haven’t gone senile enough to forget what honor is, right?” I smiled ever so sweetly as the sergeant narrowed his eyes.

“A duel? With you runts against my soldiers?” He scoffed. “Okay, okay. We’ll officially kick your ass according to tradition if it means that much to you. We’ll even give you little certificates.” Muddock scratched his beard as he contemplated it for a few seconds. “All right. Till first blood, both parties get to choose their own weapons. That good enough for you, pipsqueak?” I slowly nodded. “I’ll give you all five minutes to do your hair and polish your nails. The bulls will escort you to the place. Shake on it.” I spat on my paw and extended it, Muddock did the same. One gross handshake later it was official.

The sergeant let himself fall back into his chair as he started to rummage around in a drawer. “Now get out of my office! I have more,” he sighed as he held his head in his hands. “I have more paperwork to do,” we heard him say as we were pushed outside in the cold again.

’You uh, sure have a way with words, baby Sister,‘ the Infiltrator said as she swung an arm around me. ’Not what I would have done, but if something crazy works it wasn’t that crazy in the first place, right?‘

’It didn’t work Sister,‘ Brother chimed in sourly. ’In case you forgot, we still have to actually win a fight against a trained minotaur warrior, yes? And I feel that the fact that were are not trained in combat, two meters tall, or bulging with muscles might hamper us somewhat.‘

’Oh, little Brother, you worry too much,‘ the changeling shook her head as she shared a conspiratory smile with me. ’We’ll win how we always win.‘

’We got this,‘ I said brightly as I winked at him.

After a light walk during which I explained Yuri our situation we encountered something that could be given the name “arena”, if one would feel charitable enough to do so. A large rough shape of a rectangle was dug about twice Yuri’s height in the ground, spanning a length and width were two barracks could have neatly fit in. The sight of shovels and tired, sweaty soldiers next to it led me to believe this was merely a training exercise or punishment that had been jury rigged into something useful.

It also seemed the soldiers were desperate for some entertainment as our guards loudly exclaimed why there were strangers in the camp. A chorus of voices and excited whispers rose into the air as dozens of minotaurs climbed from the hole and threw aside their tools. Rows of eyes were appraising us, a few of the more bold ones pointed at us, apparently gauging our chances for success. I could see the glimmer of golden bits in the pale moonlight as they changed eager hands.

We were granted a front row view of the pit as the guards held off the majority of the soldiers around us. As time passed whispers grew into excited shouts and the air almost got that electric charge it has before a storm. The minotaurs got into an almost frenzy-like state as more and more curious soldiers got out of the barracks to feed the rows that were growing around the arena. A few who’d had the foresight to bring candles and oil lamps were given places closer to the edge, casting everything in a yellowish light.

A commanding shout cut through the air, and as if by magic the crowd calmed greatly. Muddock had arrived and had brought with him a piece of mountain that had been reborn as a minotuar. The giant stood nearly three times my disguise’s height with muscles I would have trouble to get my arms around. He stared straight ahead, expressionless, almost bored.

The sergeant must have been more annoyed with us than I had thought.

I felt Yuri’s nervous hand squeezing down hard on my shoulder. “You’re going to fight that thing?” he said as his eyes darted wild between all of the strange creatures. He moved almost mechanically and his other hand seemed glued to his gun.

’Better, I’m going to win against that thing,‘ I replied with a grin. Whirls of concern were already pouring from the human and I accepted them gladly. Sleep and tiredness were washed away by the waves of energy coming from the human. My heart pounded like a hammer against my chest and my whole body was screaming and itching for a fight. I shook myself as I jumped down on the arena under the howling of the crowd.

“Listen, and listen well,” I shouted in their crude language. “My name is Dozor! Remember that name when I beat your champion into the dust!” The soldiers exploded into jeers and vile gestures were thrown my way. I took it in with a smile, some part of me even wished I could openly challenge them as myself. So their even louder shouts would shut up when I proved the strength of the Hive. It was intoxicating.

“All right, all right, showboat!” Muddock spoke as he silenced the crowd again. “Pick your poison.” The giant behind him took of a backpack he was carrying, revealing dozens of shields and weapons of all types. The casualness with which he had carried that weight did not fail to evoke some concern in me.

“I spit on your weapons.” I looked the champion straight into his hard eyes. For the first time he looked at me. A flicker of something broke through his stoic gaze.

“A showboat and stupid. And here I was hoping that you-“ the sergeant stopped as the giant put a hand on his shoulder.

“No weapons,” his voice was raspy and quiet, like he didn’t use it all that much. He nodded at me.

I suppressed a smile. He had taken the bait, with a sword or a spear he would’ve won for sure. Now I stood half a chance.

Muddock shrugged in resignation before he slapped the soldier on his back. “Go get ‘em, Bongard.” With a large thud the giant landed in the pit. “All right calves; don’t aim for the eyes or the soft bits. Duel is over at first blood of forfeiting.” The sergeant laughed. “And don’t forget to have fun!”

I filled my lungs with the cold night air as I stared at my opponent. He had the calmness of someone who was used to fighting and could keep his cool. There was really only one way I could win, he was expecting to fight a Diamond Dog, and so I would have to surprise him. I let the energy I had leached from Yuri build inside my chest and let it fly into my limbs. I felt strong enough to lift a mountain.

He had raised his hands slightly, looking to get ready to grab me was we slowly started to circle each other. With every step I poured more and more in my hind legs. Every time I touched the ground I could almost feel a spark flying.

He set a step in my direction. I dashed forward, faster than any Dog could, like only a changeling would. The world slowed down and shrunk to a pinprick as I jumped up, and aimed my horn at his torso.

Something rather peculiar happened next. I tasted dirt in my mouth and the world had gone dark. Dazed I blinked my eyes as sand poured into them. I pulled my head from the wall and shook myself in a daze. ’Jump left! Now!‘ The words of my Sister cut through the confusion and I dashed away. I felt something brush right by my side as I stumbled back as fast as I could.

Slowly the sounds of the crowd filled my ears again as my wits came back. Where I had just stood was now a pillar of blue-grey fur embedded in the wall. Slowly the minotaur retracted his arm and turned to me.

My blood turned to ice as I realized what had happened. He had blocked me and flung me against the wall. I quickly patted my face and held my paws before me. No blood. I sighed in relief.

A grunt of pain entered my ears like music as I focused on my opponent again. Triumph coursed through me as I saw his right arm dangling besides him, bent at strange and painful angles. The bone had not penetrated the skin, however, and no blood had been drawn.

“Never seen a Dog that fast,” the giant spoke with an impressive even tone, but his heavy breathing betrayed him. “What tribe are you from?”

’He’s stalling for time, Sister! Press the attack!‘ Following Brother’s advice I dashed forward and jumped to his right. As he spun around to face me his broken arm flung wildly around, causing another grunt of pain to fly through the air. For just a fraction of a second the minotaur’s good arm moved to hold the broken one, before he could suppress the reflex.

That moment of defenselessness was enough. I launched myself at him and sunk my teeth deep into his left arm. Sweet blood and victory poured into my mouth and I was smiling even as the giant threw me roughly to the ground.

With the warm blood still dripping from me I let out a laugh. Throwing up my arms I basked in the jeers of the crowd. As I turned around I saw my Siblings and Yuri jump down in the pit. I let out a small yelp as the human picked me up for a hug, but I quickly returned it.

“I can’t believe you beat that thing! That was amazing!”

’Well, what did you expect?‘ Sister nudged Yuri. ’Changelings are just great like that.‘

’We got lucky,‘ Brother sourly interjected over the jeers of the crowd. ’But it was a good fight, yes?‘

“Well, well,” we suddenly heard the Sergeant speaking behind us. “It looks like you vagabonds might actually be up to snuff. Bit of an anticlimactic fight though.” He walked to the dirt wall next to us and started cleaning his bloodied hands with sand. Apparently he had taken some part in lifting out my former opponent from the pit for medical attention. Most of the disgruntled soldiers at the edge of the pit were walking away. The fun was over and duty or sleep called. Only a few stayed to eavesdrop none too subtly.

“I’ll walk you through what you’ll need for your little cave expedition tomorrow evening. Day or night doesn’t matter much in that place and I have a gut feeling that you three will want to go as soon as you’re rested, right?”

“Four,” I replied as Yuri set me down. A tingling feeling at the back of my neck told me the old bull wasn’t quite done with us.

“No, no,” Murdock smiled. “You can call me a lot of things, and most bulls have done so with good reason, but I’m not a calf murderer. He pointed at my human, “That calf wouldn’t last an hour in there and I won’t have it.” Yuri looked at me in confusion, but I ignored him for the moment.

’Well, do we really need him?‘ Sister piped up. She was careful to exclude the human from our chat. ’He’ll slow us down anyway. He isn’t a changeling like us,‘ she gave him a meaningful look. ’Maybe we’d all be better of leaving him behind.‘

’We can’t go without the human!‘ I blurted out.

’Well, why not?‘ My Sister left me scrambling for an answer. I looked at Yuri who was staring at us a bit dumbfounded.

’I see your point, Infiltrator. He’ll be a burden in those caverns, yes?‘ I felt my stomach tightening as I avoided staring at my Siblings. ’But carrying a sword or water is also a burden, right? The prey is a powerful energy source which will be essential in completing our mission, agreed? Leaving it behind would be unwise.‘ I felt a wave of relief washing over me as I heard those words. Relief soon turned into disturbance however. This had bothered me too much for my own comfort.

My Sister seemed to mull it over for a second before she simply shrugged. ’Alright, dear Brother.‘ She flashed a bright smile at the both of us.

“Are you weirdos done staring at each other?” The Sergeant interrupted us. “You’re freaking me out. Anyway, don’t worry about your little friend.” He pointed at Yuri, who for his part finally seemed to get something was wrong. “We’ll set up a nice little crèche, read him stories before bed time, maybe make him peel potatoes so he can earn his keep. He’ll love it.”

“Yeah, we can’t do that,” the infiltrator answered, leaning against the dirt wall. “You see, this creature here is in fact our bodyguard. The very best fighter bits could buy.” The sergeant stared blankly at my Sister, the human, and then back at my Sister.

’Yuri, do something to impress this stubborn old fool,‘ I snapped at the human.

’Huh?‘ he thought eloquently. ’You want me to do a handstand or something?‘ Yuri scratched his head.

“You see, the reason we didn’t send our bodyguard in to guard our bodies during the match was,” Sister paused as she sized up Yuri. “Well, he’s just so damn deadly. He can’t hold back. It’s terrifying, really.”

“Is she high?” the minotaur looked at Brother. “It is illegal to be high in this fort.” Brother shrugged as he shot a glance in our direction.

With a sigh I ran my paws down my face as I approached my human. Tightly grabbing his shoulder I managed to force a smile. ’Just shoot something and look mean. If you feel extra merciful, you can just shoot me.‘

Without further ado Yuri took out what I understood to be his revolver. Nonchalantly he pointed it at the closest pit wall and for a second the world exploded in light and sound. I shielded my face as dirt flew everywhere. The few minotaurs that were left stepped back in trepidation, but they were too well trained to panic.

The sergeant stood there with an unreadable expression as part of the wall started to collapse in on itself. Somewhere in the distance an alarm went off.

“Am I correct in assuming this was a sufficient demonstration of our guard’s combat prowess?” Brother smiled politely as he wiped some earth of his fur. “We are all allowed access into the cave now, yes?”

“Sure, sure, do whatever you want,” the Sergeant looked somewhat flabbergasted as he spoke. “Don’t let me stop you from using your magical calf mercenary. It’s not like I’ve devoted my entire life to protect the world from this place.” With the help of some minotaurs that were brave enough to peek over the edge of the pit the old bull got out. “Why don’t you come over to my office and take my salary while you’re at it?”

The crescent moon stood behind the Sergeant as he gazed at us, obscuring his features into a dark silhouette. “One of the guards will escort you to a bed and in the morrow to the cave. Stock up on supplies if you must, but you will leave at sundown. Pray to whatever gods you worship that you’ll die fighting.” The bull turned around and briskly walked away. “And someone shut down that damn alarm!”

Chapter 13: I Met You at a Sinister Hour

I Met You at a Sinister Hour

I let out a content murmur as I turned over, finding myself brushing against the mane of another changeling. Nestling up against them I relaxed and found my mind wandering back to days long past, when I was but a nymph.

I remembered the warmth and softness as I lay next to my Sisters and the Nurses sang their songs into our minds. I could still recall the days that Mother came by and smiled at us. The love and safety enveloping me like a warm bath as she picked me up and appraised me.

I weakly opened my eyes, finding myself facing the back of Yuri’s head. Skittering away and quietly jumping from the bed on the wooden floor I felt the comfort of my dream evaporating as I remembered where I was and why.

Through the window I could see the last bit of the sun peeking over the fort’s wall, illuminating the bare contents of the room. Against the wall facing the sunset stood a small table with a single drawer that contained nothing worth taking. To the right of that was a plain wall that only had a small painting of a far off coastal city that was hung there in a misguided attempt at livening up the place. The remaining walls contained a wooden door and the bed I had just jumped off respectively. It seemed these soldiers abhorred extravagance. A trait I could only nod approvingly at.

The room was tainted in a faint green light as I poured my focus and magic into my horn. On que, my Sister and Brother who had draped themselves over Yuri’s legs and stomach opened their eyes silently and stared at me.

My Sister rubbed the sleep from her face as she let out a theatrical, but silent, yawn. ’Ah, good evening you two.‘ She leaped out of the bed with so much grace that the blanket beneath her did not even wrinkle. ’Say what you want, the prey makes for an excellent pillow.‘

Brother’s eyes peaked over Yuri’s legs as he blinked drowsily. ’Indeed, indeed. Speaking of, I think it’s high time we finalize our planning.‘ His mind was already spinning at full force as his body was just starting to catch up.

’Ugh, you and your details,‘ Sister let out a sigh as she walked to the window and stared at a few early stars.’Don’t our Warriors say that a plan is the first thing that dies in the action?‘ She turned to me and grinned. ’Baby Sister and I are changelings of action! Champion slayers!‘ She threw a few exaggerated punches at me which I deflected with a grin. ’No plan survives us! We think on our hooves. You just give us the general idea and we’ll get it done.‘

’Well, the general idea has changed. So if you’d stop mucking about and listen, I’d appreciate it. Agreed?‘

Sister actually paused at that. She sat down on the ground as she stared at Brother. ’Wait, really? Why? The plan was good, right?‘ She looked at me, but I shook my head.

’It was good, I started But that was until the dungeon.‘ I shuddered thinking back at being trapped alone in that forsaken place. Luckily, Brother bailed me out.

’Until we escaped from Canterlot’s dungeons.‘

’You’re afraid the Princesses will ambush us? I wouldn’t worry too much about it, really.‘ Sister stretched her legs. ’We’ve seen neither hide nor hair from them. They probably figured we would die in the snow. Which we almost did, mind you.‘

I shook my head. ’It’s not about them. It’s about the human.‘

Brother pointed his hoof at the Infiltrator. ’Do you have an inclination of how much power you need to overwhelm a magical nullification spell? Especially one made by the Princesses themselves, yes?‘

’A lot?‘

’A lot times thousand.‘

Sister’s eyes flew wide open. ’That is a lot!‘

I patted Yuri’s head. ’And it all came from one prey. And he isn’t even worse for the wear.‘

’Indeed, indeed. By my, admittedly, rough estimations a mere ten of these thralls could easily sustain our Hive for the duration of their lifespans.‘ Brother put his front hooves together as he sat down. ’Theoretically we could survive, even thrive, without needing to hunt for meat or search for fruit.‘ He buried his head in his hooves as he sighed. ’The consequences would unimaginable, not?‘

’Brother, Sister, you keep saying there are problems, but all I hear are good things.‘ The Infiltrator offered us a smile. ’I mean, am I crazy or are these humans the best thing ever?‘

There was a slight pause as the quietness of the night filled the room. ’Why are you alive, infiltrator?‘ Brother stared at her with his red eyes.

’Well, uh-‘ She scratched her head. ’To infiltrate prey strongholds and find or create weaknesses for the Hive to exploit. It’s pretty clear cut, really.‘

’And why, yes, do you do this?‘

’Ah, come on Brother,‘ the infiltrator hissed irritated, ’you’re smarter than me. You know it is so the Hive can have magic and food. Stop playing dumb!‘

I put a wing on my Sister’s back. ’It’s important.‘ She sighed and relented, bidding the changeling to continue.

’So, tell me, Sister, what use are you when we don’t need love for our magic?‘

The Infiltrator’s ears drooped as her face turned blank. ’I, uhm, I would-‘ She fell silent.

’And what of the others, yes?‘ He pointed his hoof at me. ’Our scouts, warriors, hunters? Purposeless!‘ He grimaced as he unfurled his wings. ’It’s quite something. To have no purpose. To have no meaning in life but counting down the days until you die.‘

My Sister looked painfully overwhelmed as she sat down. ’Well,‘ she said, ’we could still steal love to keep ourselves, you know, busy.‘

I shook my head in denial as Brothers muttered his answer. ’No, no, no. You can’t just pretend to have a purpose, agreed? Furthermore, remember that every time we invade or steal we take a tremendous risk. Look at what happened with the ponies, yes? Could you send out a Sister to gather love or hunt with the risk of her dying? Can we invade for nothing when it can lead to losing a war? To entertain ourselves? We only do what we do because we must.‘ He flew up over the human. ’With these creatures, that need does not exist. Without a need, there is no purpose.‘

Brother towered over the human, looking down at his peaceful sleeping face. ’Our race has a purpose on this world. When a species’ numbers grows too large, when their magic spells or tools get so strong they might get out of control, when tyrants and gods rise, we are there. We are right there to suck the life out of them and set them back to zero. To take all their power for our own. And when we are done, we leave. We disappear into legend and let them to rebuild themselves so we can do it all again later.‘ The changeling unfurled his wings as he jumped from the bed again. ’We parasites keep them from killing themselves, yes?‘ He put his front leg over his heart. ’But we do it for ourselves. Not for them! Only for ourselves. I'd rather have the prey destroy themselves a thousand times than hurt one sister in helping them. If it were not for the fact that we need them.’

The sun disappeared behind the fort’s walls and the light fled the room. It was as dark as it could get. ’Why don’t we just kill it?‘ Sister asked, her voice was calm. Like she was talking about the weather. She bared her teeth as he looked at him. ’It would be easy.‘

’Kill him and you might as well slit the throat of the Hive. We need him,‘ I answered. ’Maybe there is a middle way?‘ I suggested. Brother and Sister’s ears perked up as they looked at me with curiosity. ’How about we get just a few humans and use them to heal us? You know, just enough to get back on our hoofs?‘ I swirled my hoof in the air. ’Not enough to keep the Hive going, but as more of a,‘ I fluttered my wings as I searched for the word. ’A backup?‘

’That-‘ Brother paused as he ran the numbers in his head. ’That might be acceptable. Yes, yes, a compromise.’ He looked at the resting human ’But the prey won’t like it.‘

’Well, than it is a good thing we can just take from it what we want,‘ Sister concluded with a smile. Her wings buzzed excitedly.

Warmth spread through my cold body as I looked at the pride on their faces.

I flinched as I heard a loud creak coming from the bed. Yuri sat up and greeted us with a smile and a “morning”. It always surprised me how easy Yuri woke up. He just opened his eyes and he was ready to go. It was efficient, just like how changelings were.

He stepped out of the bed and stared at me, before he approached me and kneeled down. For a moment I was afraid that he had somehow heard us, but that was obviously impossible.

’What?‘ I said curtly.

“Your shawl isn’t on right. Just let me-“ He moved his hands to my side to adjust the cloth, but I recoiled backwards out of his reach.

’I know how to wear a shawl!‘ I snarled at him as I magically tightened the fabric around my neck.

“Okay, okay.” Yuri held his hands out in a placating gesture. “Someone isn’t a morning person.”

’It’s evening.‘ Brother piped up as he started to make the bed.

“Just an expression,” Yuri murmured as he began to methodically clean his weapons on the table, even the rifle that he had claimed was now useless without “ammo”.

As I watched him work with the heady oils, sticks, and rags, I felt strange. I was angry, and had let it slip again. But why? I didn’t understand. I wished I was as simple as the weapons Yuri was working on. Every part had a clear purpose, was in balance with each other. It was a strange device to me, but I could see that everything about it made sense. There were no hidden parts that moved in cryptic ways for enigmatic reasons. It was pure, in a way.

My Sister and Brother could help me. I only had to ask them to read my mind. To hold a mirror to me to reveal the inner workings and mechanisms that drove me. I looked at my Brother who was meticulously removing wrinkles from the sheets and my Sister whose one eye was enraptured with the ritual of Yuri’s cleaning. I raised my head high and breathed in the oils. I was going to ask them.

“Okay, I’m going to ask them. How about you, Dozor?” Yuri was staring at me expectantly while he stuffed everything into his backpack.

Blinking my eyes rapidly I met his gaze. ’Pardon?‘

“What we’ll get for breakfast. Or dinner, I guess. Food. What we’ll get for food.” He pointed at my Siblings. “Uchenik’s taking some bread and butter and Pizdabol,” he looked uncomfortable for a moment and turned his head to Sister. She merely nodded with a greedy smile. “She wants raw eggs. For some reason.”

’Don’t care. I’ll have whatever is convenient.‘

Yuri gave me a bemused expression and warned me that he couldn’t be blamed if it turned out to be gross. I solemnly accepted the responsibility for the quality of my meal.

As the door closed behind him with a small creak I turned my eyes toward the window again. The sky was really beautiful this time of night. The heavens seemed to twinkle like the bottle Yuri carried with him. A beautiful tapestry that seemed chaotic at first, but the more you looked at it, the more you could see the hidden patterns. With a small delight I found that a certain cluster looked like a changeling after a few minutes, and another resembled Mother’s horn.

It was strange how one could see patterns like that if one tried hard enough. Was I truly uncovering them or were they merely a trick of the mind?

Closing my eyes a long sigh escaped from my mouth as a realization dawned. We had just sent down the only one in our group who couldn’t speak any Equestrian language to order breakfast.

With a flash of green I donned my disguise again. After a quick explanation I was out of the door and rapidly began to descend the stairs before the human could mess something up. Passing a number of doors and paintings of poor taste I suddenly slowed down. My ears turned and twitched until I was sure; singing was coming from somewhere.

Breaking out into a jog I reached a pair of large oaken doors that led to the cafeteria we had been shown yesterday. With an ear pressed against the wood I listened intently.

There was definitely singing going on in there. A choir of rough voices rose up and down in a strange melody I had never heard before. And was that-

A large hand rested on my shoulder, engulfing it entirely. Letting out a less than dignified yelp I sprang up and turned around, shaking it off me. Bongard, the mountain I had fought with, looked me straight in the eyes. His broken arm was encased in some sort of plaster and resting in a sling that hung from his neck. His other bandaged arm was still near me, hovering over my shoulder. He looked like he could crush me easily.

Thoughts sparked through my head like bolts of lightning as I looked at the brute. With a flash of magic he could be blinded, then I would have to try for the broken arm. My heart beat like crazy, we would be compromised and would have to push our way into the cave. Biting on my cheek I concentrated on the spell. The moment he tried to strike would leave him most vulnerable.

“You need to pull it open,” he said.

“What?” The tension left my body in such a rush I had to lean against the door so my legs would not give out.

“The door. You can’t push it open.” He let his arm rest near his side again as he stood up. Dear Mother, I had not even noticed he was leaning down at first. Without the rush of magic in my veins he seemed even taller.

“Oh, of course.” I gave him my broadest smile as my paws blindly scrambled to find the door handle behind me. “Well, off I go.” Sweat was starting to form on my brow as the damned handle managed to escape my frantic search.

Finally the handle was in my grip, but as I prepared to leave, the bull spoke. “You used magic yesterday.”

I halted and closed my eyes. Like a fool I had let my emotions get the best of me. My fear had made me suspicious and now that brute was trying to corner me. I wasn’t some scared little bunny, I was a changeling! I opened my eyes. Time to act like one. “What of it?”

“I fought your kind before. Not many of them used it. The ones that did, didn’t use the sort you did.”

“Most Diamond Dogs wouldn’t have been able to beat you,” I faked a smirk. “I’m just better.”

“It’s a good thing.” He ignored my jab. Not much of an ego to work with. That could be a problem.

“Winning worked out pretty good for me, yeah.”

“Changing your style, I mean.” He gestured to his broken arm. “I wasn’t ready for something new like that, so you beat me. A good fighter is like water, always changing their style to suit the fight. Staying the same when the fight asks for something new is bad. It makes you lose.”

Great, somehow I looked like someone you could spout your personal philosophies at. “I’m busy. If you’ve got something to say, say it instead of wasting my time.”

“I wanted to thank you for the lesson.”

I thought about it for a moment. “So, did you get me something as a gift or payment?”


“Just your thanks?”

“Yes.” The giant showed no remorse for his thoughtlessness.

“Great.” I smiled. “I appreciate it. No, really, I do.” I pointed a claw at the door. “But now I really have to go. So, bye.” With a quick pull and a jump I was through the door and slammed it behind me. Leaning backwards against the wood I let out a sigh. Mother, what a weirdo. Was he on to me? We couldn’t leave soon enough.

As I was calming myself I became aware of the smell of cheap liquor assaulting my senses along with another barrage of the sounds that passed for singing in this place. I was standing in a bar, because of course there was a bar on the military base. Little else could be expected from the Minotaurs.

And in the middle of it all stood Yuri, sans breakfast, poorly imitating the already slurred songs of our hosts. As he spotted me he freed himself from the inebriated choir. "Dozor! This place is great!” He smiled as he lifted me up with surprising ease.

I didn’t return his enthusiasm. ’What in Tartarus do you think you’re doing?‘

He set me down somewhat awkwardly and brushed the dust from my shoulders. “Well, you know,” he started, “I came down here and tried to order by drawing some pictures. The guys thought it was funny, they ordered some drinks and there you go. I didn’t even need to pay.” He didn’t have the decency of looking very ashamed of himself.

’The guys?‘ I raised my paws in frustration, ’The guys! Do you hear yourself? These creatures are not our friends, Yuri. Forget about breakfast, we need to get ready and leave.‘

The human looked at me before he quickly glanced behind him at the Minotaurs who merrily spilled their ale over the ground. As he turned back he put his hands together in a strange gesture. “Come on, Dozor, just one more song. I promised them.”

’Well, I suppose one song wouldn’t-‘ A huge grin grew on his face as he grabbed me by the shoulders.

“Thanks Dozor, you’re the best!” I found it hard to suppress a smile as I felt the wave of childlike giddiness radiating from him. “Do you want to join in? Singing is good for the soul.”

’Don’t push it, human. Go have your fun.‘ I paused for a moment. ’And be quick about it.‘

He gave me a mock salute and a “yes ma’am”. I couldn’t help but give him an incredulous smile; not quite believing that my human would fit in so well with the soldiers who were welcoming him back into their fold with open arms. After managing to shush the majority of the drunkards he began.

It was some romantic song about falling in love with a dark eyed female. It surprised me how gloomy the spirit of words was, next to its optimism, about suffering and fire beneath darkness. About a desperate desire to be brought to a land where there was no suffering or violence. How love had ruined the singer and plunged them into despair and ecstasy. I had never heard anyone singing about love like that. Marrying bitter sadness and happiness like that. Themes that were never meant to be next to each other were combined almost naturally.

The refrain was simple however, mostly “nanana-ing” after the tune of the song. Few bothered to stop as Yuri initiated the next lyrics of the song. It was a tide of false voices swelling and receding with the mood of the bar. Even though there was little harmony, and the voices were obviously never meant for singing, I could see a certain raw beauty in it. The voices found an entire new way to sing that I had never known.

Carried by the melody my thoughts drifted back into the past. To the great gatherings that were held yearly in better times. Songs in the Hive were harmonious. With the clearest voices and the most pure tunes being used. I remembered the rush of losing myself into the thousands of voices singing as one. We sang in praise of our Mother for her care, and for our Brothers and Sisters their work. And for our Father and the great sacrifice he had made for all of us. We sang rarely for anything else.

Strangely enough I found myself taking a liking to this song, despite its poor execution. It felt somewhat like coming home.

My eyes fell on Yuri again, as he balanced waving his arms around like a mad conductor, keeping his beer in his glass, and singing the next part of the song. We had contemplated killing him a few minutes ago. He wouldn’t be here if we had just done it. He would be lying dead and cold in his bed, never speaking again. The thought disturbed me for some reason. He was just cattle, it shouldn’t have been any difference to me if he never danced again, or talked about his home and his hopes and dreams for it. If he never called me by that silly nickname “Dozor” or ever gave anyone a scarf like mine again. A lump grew in my throat as I imagined it all. I shouldn’t care.

I plucked the words from his head and joined in. The pure tone of my voice mixing in with the raw emotions in his. The tide of voices receded for a moment as if to make room for mine. Minotaurs fell silent to search where the new voice was coming from. And for a moment only our two voices were mixed. Then the flood of other voices came roaring back in.

I knew the other races sang too, often about the most banal of things. I had sometimes even joined in on them when my disguise required it, but I couldn’t remember a time my stomach bubbled with excitement like now. It had none of the solemn and respectful loving nature of changeling songs or the compulsory need to keep up appearances for other races. It felt free and wild.

Far too quickly the song ended, though the soldiers managed to drag it out quite a bit longer then intended. Yuri approached me with a pleasantly surprised expression, but fortunately he decided not to make a big deal about it. ’Let’s go,‘ I ordered.

We picked up my Siblings sans breakfast, telling them we would leave. Sister complained a bit about my perceived paranoia, but after Brother stoically agreed we prepared to make our departure.

Standing next to the exit was a Minotaur of average build. He was staring blankly into the hallway until we entered his view. Pushing himself away from the wall he made a beeline towards our group. I felt my heart get stuck in my throat as he approached us. What did he want from us? Had we been detected? I cursed myself as I bit down hard on my cheeks. That giant Minotaur had seen right through me and now we were done for!

I almost jumped up as I felt the disguised paw of my Sister resting reassuringly on my shoulder. With a chipper smile she broke away from us to meet the creature head on. “Evening. Murdock must have sent you.” She held out a paw, which he shook as he confirmed her suspicions.

My ears drooped as I relaxed. Of course, Murdock had put a Minotaur out for us as a guard, or more likely as a watchdog, so we wouldn’t cause any trouble. He had even said as much. I took a moment to reorient myself as Sister started to butter up the guard with small talk.

Walking out the cold bit me as snow flew into my eyes. With a shiver I tightened the shawl around my neck. My poor Sister and Brother just had to suffer the cold without even the meager protection I had, but they did our Hive proud by not complaining, so I held my composure too.

“Nice fight yesterday,” the guard said as he broke free from the Infiltrator for a little. I gave him a noncommittal nod. “A lot of bulls didn’t think you would last ten second, but I had faith all along. I know a fighter when I see one.” He gave me a wink as he pulled out a pouch, fat with coins. “Made a pretty penny of it too.”

“How nice,” I muttered.

“You know, I made another bet.”

“What sort of bet, yes?” Brother spoke up.

“Can we get in on that?” the Infiltrator said as she jealously eyed the guard’s money.

“Ah, but you already are.” The guard chuckled as he led us around a corner to a rather large building. A supply store, judging by the neatly written sign in front of it. “I have two big ones riding on at least half of you getting out alive.”

It amazed me that my face could fall even more than it already had. “Wow. That sure is generous of you.” I looked the supply store over as we had finally endured enough of the bitter cold to reach it. It was ordinary. Indistinguishable from any other building save for the sign in front. It was a wise decision. If an enemy did invade the fort the buildings anonymity would somewhat protect it.

“My apologies, I didn’t mean to offend.” He held the door open, letting large tendrils of snow ride into the building on the wind. From inside came an angry shout to close the door as we hurried inside.

Shelves lined with non-perishables, canned goods, and dried spices rose up to meet me. Several pieces of dried and smoked meat adorned the ceiling. Behind a glass counter displaying several pieces of hard bread stood a Minotaur whose small stature seemed to be wholly overcompensated by the anger on his face.

I immediately took back anything nice I had said about the building. It seemed that the Minotaurs had taken the “store” part of “supply store” far too literal. With only a single Minotaur watching and a plethora of blind spots provided by the shelves, this place was just begging to be robbed. Now that I looked even better, there seemed to be price tags on the food stuffs. What kind of backwards base was this?

The human seemed to be somewhat dazed by the smells and the sights, as he stared with wide eyes at the variety of foods. I nudged him with my elbow, which brought him back to his senses.

“Good evening, Zuy,” our escort greeted the Minotaur behind the desk.

“Good evening? Fuck off with your good evening!” The one named Zuy leaned over the counter, which was quite a feat since it nearly reached his chin.

The guard held up his hands mockingly as he rolled his eyes. “I’m so sorry for being polite, Zuy.”

The bull nearly exploded. “Polite? Polite!” he shrieked. ”You son of a bitch! You think I don’t have eyes in my head? I can see that rabble behind you being dragged into my store again. You think I’m made of food or something?”

“Well, you can technically be eaten. So that would be a correct assumption, yes?” Brother piped up from out of sight behind one of the shelfs he was browsing.

“Who said that? Who the fuck opened their trash hole in my store? Was it you, you skinny dog shit? Say that again!” Our escort had to hold back the store owner from flying over the counter.

“Calm down, bull. The sergeant wants us to act our rank to outsiders,” he calmly reprimanded the shop owner.

“Oh!” He threw up his hands. “Oh! Sergeant Murdock wants me to act my rank, huh? Well, that would be a lot easier if it hadn’t been a month since the last time we got fresh supplies from the capital and if my last batch of chickens hadn’t frozen yesterday.” He pointed at a small pile of chicken meat presented on a plate in the counter. It had a small sign with ‘In memory of Daisy¬. 5 bits per 100 gram’ on it.

“And you!” he poked our guard in the chest. “You keep bringing in groups of these dumb fucks that want to go die in that damned cave and use our food to get there! How am I supposed to keep this base supplied when I get no new food and the food we do have goes to assholes?”

Our guard chuckled awkwardly as he patted the owner on his shoulder. “Come on. It’s tradition to give anyone that goes down the cave a last meal. Have a heart.”

“Eat shit, because you sure aren’t getting any of my food.” He ducked behind the counter and pulled out a small basket of eggs. “See these? They are the last eggs in the entire damn area. May as well be the last eggs in the entire world considering this damn winter never seems to end. Do you honestly expect me to give one of these to some-“

The supply store fell silent as the owner’s eyes slowly fell on my Sister with deadly gravitas. My Sister that had nabbed one of the eggs. She blinked as everyone focused on her.

“What?” she said as she prepared to break the egg above her mouth.

“Don’t you do it. Don’t even think about doing it!” The owner’s face was turning purple as he tried to destroy my Sister by staring at her. “You bitch, I can see you thinking about it. Stop it!” Our escort was covering his eyes in desperation as he made pleas to some god to protect my Sister.

“I’m not skipping dinner,” she said as she cracked the egg open, letting the yolk run into her mouth. I nearly felt Yuri throwing up in his mouth.

“You unbelievable shit! You better uneat that egg right now or I’ll fuck you up!”

Sister thought it over for a minute as she swirled the egg around in her mouth for a moment. She simply shrugged and spit the contents messily back into the shell. With a smile she reached it out to the shop owner. Yeah, the human was definitely considering throwing up now.

The next few moments were kind of hazy, at least until I noticed the human falling face down next to me in a pile of snow. Closing my eyes and slowly opening them, I saw my Sister’s disguised legs poking out from the snow in front of me.

Brother, who had had the good senses of leaving the shop beforehand to escape Zuy’s rage, helped me up. Shaking the snow off of me I helped my Brother free our Infiltrator. Our escort came out of the shop, shaking his head as he pulled the human to his feet. The door slammed shut with a loud bang behind him.

“That could have gone better, no?” Brother said as he dusted of our Infiltrator, who was trying to regain her balance.

“I’ll say,” our escort sighed. “I had bet it would have taken ten minutes before he would throw us out. What a senseless loss of bits.”

“You’ve got a problem,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I can win it back easily.”

Brother put a hand in front of my mouth to stop me from retorting. “Perhaps it would be best if we simply went about our mission, indeed? It would seem little can be gained from staying here.” He pointed at the mountain looming over the fort. “Besides, we have supplies of our own.”

“Well,” the guard thought for a minute before rubbing his hands together to drive out the cold. “I suppose that’s okay.” He turned and gestured for us to follow.

As we approached the mountain buildings quite suddenly cut off, along with the light of the lanterns. Only two sources of light lay in front of us across the field of snow we traversed. Even the light of the stars on the moon were blocked out by the giant natural wall that towered above us. No guards or defenses were pointed towards the mountain, making the shift between camp and wasteland unexpectedly sudden.

A tapping on my shoulder made me face my Brother. With a smile he handed me a can of, well, canned peaches. My face flushed with embarrassment as my tail started to wag in joy. Biting off the top of the can and spitting it out I started to gobble up the sweet goodness and drink the thick syrup. It was not as good as changeling goop, but it came very close.

The human looked somewhat bemused at his meal as I felt waves of nostalgia coming from him. With his trench knife he had opened his own can of mushrooms.

’You know,‘ I started, ’You could have made less of a show of your distraction.‘ I looked at price tag on the can. Mother’s love! Twenty bits? Stealing from that greedy jerk was almost a public service.

Sister laughed between gulps of cold tomato soup. ’Sure, but Brother is a real novice when it comes to stealing. I trained him a little in Canterlot, but he’s quite hopeless. He needed that advantage.‘ She winked at me. ’Besides, everyone loves a good show, right?‘

’I don’t know about that,‘ Brother spoke up. ’I think I have some talent for stealing, it was quite exciting, yes? Indeed, who knows, with some training I might become proficient enough so you no longer need to publicly embarrass yourself. Though I doubt that would temper your behavior, no?‘ He smiled deviously at our infiltrator.

’Sure you’ll be a good thief one day with practice, my dear Brother. And Diamond Dogs can fly if they have a song in their heart and just believe.‘ She said in a singsong voice while she did a pretty good impression of a wide eyed puppy. ’Don’t worry, Brother, I’ll always be there to embarrass myself for you when you need it.‘ She saluted him with a stone face. ’It’s my sworn duty and pride.‘ She broke out in a grin and stuck out her tongue as Brother rolled his eyes.

The human stopped devouring his the mushrooms for a moment. “Wait, you guys mean this is stolen?” he managed to complain with a full mouth.

’Quick on the uptake as always, Yuri.‘ I sighed as I threw the now empty can in the snowy wastes. ’Did you really think we had lugged all that food with us and didn’t tell you? What do you want to do about it? Go back and pay that jerk with money we don’t have for food that we need that he should have given for free in the first place? Look at you, you haven’t even stopped eating.‘

Yuri looked somewhat indignantly as he put another handful of mushrooms in his mouth. “Well, the can is open now. No sense in wasting the food.”

’Well, don’t whine about it then.‘

Finally we had reached the entry of the cave. Two large brassieres filled with blue flames that gave of no heat, nor responded to the vicious wind and snow, stood on either side of the entrance. An arc was cut out of the dark natural stone. It was a simple thing, with no markings or ornate designs.

“There it is.” Our escort stopped a few meters away from the entrance. “Tell the boss that I said hi. And good luck to you. Remember, I have some coin counting on you.”

“You’re not coming with?” Sister asked.

“There’s not enough riches in the world to bribe me to get in there.” He gave us a quick salute before he turned around and walked back towards the barracks, hugging himself for warmth. His shape quickly disappeared in the falling snow.

’Watch the first step, yes? The book claims it can be strange.‘ Brother warned me as I went past the threshold. When my paws hit the ground, I understood what he meant. The rock beneath me felt like it was subtly shifted a few degrees, though it was even with the one outside. Disoriented, I nearly walked into the wall left of me before catching myself.

My Sister and even my prepared Brother suffered the same fate. Though the former was more vocal about it. Strangely enough, my human did not seem phased.

Yuri looked around while a strange mix of emotions radiated of him. “This place feels strange. More solid.” The human stood a bit taller and seemed more at rest as he stroked the walls with his gloves.

“There you lot are.” Murdock stepped around a corner with a lantern illuminating his stern face. “Well, what are you waiting for?” He gestured impatiently to follow him as he stepped out of sight again.

The tunnel opened into a large chamber. From four chains on the ceiling hang more of the strange blue flames that gave off no smoke, nor seemed to need any fuel. Every part of the walls was covered by giant stone plates on which many, many names were written in the runes of the Taurus. A few of them had been struck through deliberately, but most remained untouched.

Next to Murdock, holding a ladder that reached the ceiling, stood a stocky bull with stone working tools in his hands and a dust mask covering his face. He gave us a nod and went up the ladder until he reached a bare spot on the stone tablets and started to hack away.

“He’s been getting a lot of practice lately,” Murdock said with a halfhearted smile. “He’ll be done in no time.”

“What’s he doing?” Yuri whispered to me as with ever clang the Minotaur disrupted the silence of the cave.

I translated the question, being somewhat curious as to the reason myself.

Murdock stood up straight as he clasped his hands behind his back. “It’s customary for us to record the names of all who traveled down into the cave. As a sort of way to remember them. A monument to their stupidity.” He pointed to one of the destroyed names, surrounded by many untouched ones. “When you get out of the cave, you get to strike yours through.”

I let my eyes wander over the many stones, until I saw a particularly big and new one. With many names, all untouched. ’Brother, Sister, over there. Those names.‘ I directed their sight with some anxiety.

’Indeed. I see them, yes.‘ Brother answered. ’It was to be expected, I fear.‘He shrugged. ’Nothing we can do about it now, no?‘

I bit my cheek as I studied the rest of the chamber, finding nothing else of importance. The awkward silence punctuated by the strikes of the chisel on stone seemed to stretch out into hours, until the sergeant spoke up. He had been staring at a certain spot on the wall for a while now. “You know, my son used to be a soldier here a long time ago, before I transferred here.” The sergeant followed one of the unstricken names with his finger. “All I ever wanted to do was protect others, but so many are just too damn stubborn. They go their own way, even if it kills them.” He gave me a sad half-smile. “I can’t work up the energy to get angry about it anymore and I stopped crying years ago. What’s the point anyway?” The sounds stopped. The sergeant sighed as he righted his shoulders, the sternness creeped back into his face.

With that, the stoneworker descended his ladder, gave us a salute, and wandered out the way from which we had come. Our fake names now adorned a spot among the many others. Only Yuri’s real name was on there, not in the runes of the Taurus’, but in those of the humans. They looked as much out of place as the human did.

I reflected on how much of a waste this tradition was. Names! How could you remember anyone by a mere name? Even putting down their ranks or jobs would have been better. At least it would have told us something about the creatures. These words were nothing more than a meaningless sea of letters, telling nothing about who had gone down here before us or what they’d been like.

If a changeling wanted to alert another specific one, all they needed to do was think of them. If they wanted to talk about them, everyone just knew who you meant. No need to share finite names or having to give overly long introductions.

Names never seemed more than yet another barrier the other species had set up between themselves. How limited the rest of the world was in being forced to use a few words to identify themselves with. I almost felt sad for them.

Though I did have to admit that I had grown somewhat fond of “Dozor”. Not only because it had been given to me outside of any disguise, but also because it was appropriate and descriptive. Dozor was how the human saw me. But ultimately the name would be meaningless for anyone else outside of our little group.

“So, here it is.” I was shaken out of my thoughts as the sergeant spoke. On the other end of the chamber, hidden out of sight by mere virtue of looking completely unremarkable, was a wooden door.

Eight oaken planks with two across and a black iron doorknob was all there was to it. There was not even a lock on it. “That’s it?” Sister asked.

“That’s it,” the sergeant echoed.

“Do not be fooled, yes? The real defenses of this place lie beyond it, indeed?” Brother said as he tapped on the cover of his ancient book.

“I can see at least one of you did their homework.” Murdock gave Bother a nod. “This old thing is mainly here to keep out the wind. We wouldn’t want the monsters to catch a cold now, do we?” He stepped in front of the door and grasped the handle. “But all jokes aside. Very few things ever make it out of this cave.” As he opened the door everything seemed to grow slightly heavier, like some kind of tainted air was seeping out beyond the threshold. Sounds seemed to travel just a bit more sluggish and all light felt a tad more dimmed.

“It’s quite something, right?” The minotaur did not look back as he spoke. “You can still turn around, if you want. There’s no shame in it.” We did not answer, nor did we need to discuss it with each other. Instead we grouped together and did some quick last checks of our equipment and supplies. The bull took that as enough of an answer. With a stone face he stepped aside and let us pass into the oppressive dark.

As the last one through, I spared a glance behind me. The sergeant seemed especially old now as he was framed as a frail sillhoutte in the blue light of the chamber. For a moment it seemed like he was going to speak, but he merely nodded at me. The door closed and we were engulfed.

After a mere moment three flashes of green lit up the cave, followed by the soft green glow of as many horns. Quickly thereafter a weak beam of manmade light joined them. Three changelings and one human stood inside the cave, and we briefly studied our surroundings.

The darkness behind the gate almost seemed like a solid mass pushing against the light of our horns. The air was strangely oppressive, making every breath take just a noticeable measure of effort. We could not rest in this cave, everything we did had to be done with intent. Yuri stood still, exuding anxiousness. His face, tinted pale green in our light, jerked side to side as he saw shadows springing in and out of existence.

As Sister led the way, followed by Brother with his snout buried in the book, Yuri and I lagged behind for a moment. ’Are you still good to go?‘ I asked.

“Yeah!” Yuri responded a bit too quick and loud. “Yeah,” he repeated somewhat calmer. “It’s just,” he gestured wildly with his arms, “I can’t believe we’ve made it this far already. I mean, we’re almost there.”


Yuri grinned with some visible effort. “I guess I’m a bit nervous. I haven’t seen my station for far too long. You understand. I can’t wait to see my friends again too. I can’t wait to introduce you to them all. You’ll love them, I’m sure of it.” His smile grew smaller. “Everything probably worked out all right while I was gone.”

The human stood like a lost nymph, with the beam of his light pointed towards the ground. With a smile I approached him and gestured for him to put forth his arm. I bit down on his sleeve to guide him. And he followed.

Chapter 14: A Brother to Changelings

A Brother to Changelings

The cave was quiet. No sounds could be heard except for the buzzing of our wings and the plodding of heavy boots on rock. Even these sounds seemed muffled however, as if they were absorbed by the dark.

’You all know the way, correct?‘ Brother’s red eyes were barely visible in the green light. Sister and I both send out a thought of acknowledgment. For insurance, he had shared the route and dangers with my Sister and me, in case we got split up. Or in case something worse happened that I did not want to imagine.

Yuri threw out a beam of light ahead of us in the tunnel, but it dispersed before it could illuminate anything but dust particles in the air. “Always nice to be included, guys,” he scoffed.

’Sorry, buddy,‘ Sister gave the human a pat on the back as she flew past him. ’We wouldn’t want to risk blowing out your brain with our unfathomably complex ideas.‘ She poorly imitated explosion noises as she threw up her hoofs around Yuri’s head.

Yuri waved her away. “You could have just told me. Or written it down on a napkin. No need for magic.”

Sister hovered in place for a moment as she put her hoof to her chin. ’Huh, now there is a good idea. Oh well.‘

’Don’t worry, Yuri,‘ I said as I looked around for any signs of traps and other dangers. ’We’ll stick to you like shadows.‘ Involuntarily my body recoiled for a fraction of a second as the human rested his gloved hand behind my horn. ’I’m not a pet,‘ I growled.

The human laughed, making it all the more difficult not to bite him. “You have to watch your shadow closest in the dark, that’s where it disappears.”

’Well, well. As long as we are on the subject of disappearing,‘ Brother started, his white ears popping out behind the book he held in front of him. ’It would be wise to disguise ourselves once again, agreed? If we regard what is coming up.‘

With a flash once again there appeared three diamond dogs in our places. In the absence of our light the dark rushed in to nearly overwhelm us. If it had not been for the light that Yuri held that bravely stood its ground.

The darkness seemed to stick to our skin and push down on us. With some shame I felt my heart beat faster as the world seemed to be reduced to a mere line. There was nothing outside of the four of us, the light, and the ground we walked on. Even the smells of the rocks and minerals seemed to fade away. As if by instinct we all huddled closely together.

“It’s-” The human swallowed as he led his light across the walls and floor. “It’s a lot darker than I thought.” He spoke in soft tones, and we thought hushed answers back. We were all captured in some bizarre awe for the lack of light.

’Yeah,‘ Sister said as her ears drooped.

’Indeed, indeed, but it would be worse if she saw our lights.‘ Brother said from some unseen part in the dark behind me. ’It would be a dead giveaway, as they say. Though your light should be fine.‘


I fluttered my wings as I shuddered. ’The fort is not the only defense and the Minotaurs are not the only guards.‘

’She was brought here when she was small. So she could defend this place from intruders‘ Sister continued. ’When she still could walk through these tunnels.‘

I closed my eyes a bit as a wave of warm air rolled over us. We were getting closer.

’But she grew and grew, until eventually she could only dream about leaving here. And as she grew in size, her bitterness grew too, when she realized her fate.‘ Sister’s blue eye twinkled in the dark as she stared ahead. The warm waves grew hotter and now came in regular intervals. ’She despises the world and everything that lives in it. Her only joy and sport left is cruelty. She would kill all who enter, if she didn’t depend on the bulls in the fort.‘ The cave slowly starting opening up into a larger chamber. As we approached it a distant light coming from around a bend in the cave chased away the dark around us. ’She respects their rules in exchange for food and such.‘

’Quite the perfect guardian,‘ I remarked. ’But while it was clever to bring her here, it is never wise to be hated by others you depend on. Especially by the likes of her.‘ It figured that one of the few times the other races used their brains, they made such a fundamental mistake.

“What kind of creature are we talking about here?” Yuri asked as we could almost see into the chamber. A large blue flame was hanging from above, beating back the dark. And under the flame lay a truly monstrous shape that became less obscured by the cave wall the closer we got.

First the tail came into view. Adorned with blue scales that had no shine to them, it erratically swept across the floor in restless patterns. Yuri stopped at the sight of it, his hand on his gun and his face growing pale, but I spurred him on. Even as he whispered frantic swears.

Next came the legs, as tall and broad as a Minotaur with black claws the size and sharpness of swords. Its body followed, standing several times higher than the human. The rising and the falling of its chest in accordance with the now almost painfully hot air that swept across the cave. Small, deteriorated wings hung like rags from the creature’s sides, infested with fat worms and leeches.

There, finally, we could see her long neck and head, tucked against her foreleg. Yellowed teeth rose up like daggers from the lower yaw that ended in a stump snout. Above its pointed ear on the left side of the creature’s head was a horn that curled in on itself, but the corresponding one on the other side was missing. The creatures eyes were closed, but moving rapidly under armored eyelids.

’A dragon.‘ I said, unable to keep my eyes of the shape.

The eye opened. The vertical slit pupil moved about behind a somewhat milky white haze. Yuri’s light struck it and the lid closed, followed by an angry rumbling and a wave of heat escaping from the dragon’s throat.

It rose up high, stopping only just before its head touched the ceiling. Its eyes fell on us and a grin spread on the creature’s maw. Small whisps of blue fire and puffs of smoke escaped from between the rows of teeth as it eyed us like a cat would at mice.

I noticed the telltale smell of charred coals. Sparing a glance at the floor I saw we were standing in a cone of soot. I swallowed nervously as the beast looked us over with hate in its eyes. A perfect guardian indeed.

“Dragon! Gaurdian of the wish granter and the cave that holds it! Stand down!” Brother’s voice thundered throughout the cave as he spoke in an ancient dragon dialect. He held up the flimsy book in his paws like a shield. “Our presence here is allowed in accordance with contracts made in times past. We hold the book, given freely by us by the leaders of the ponies. We demand you let us through.” He stood calmly, not a trace of fear on his disguised face. Chastising myself, I stood prouder and taller too.

The dragon stopped. Its gigantic head lowered down to the tome, displacing enough air to kick up clouds of soot. It studied the pages as my heart finally slowed down.

A rumbling escaped from the beast’s troath. “It’s been quite some time since I heard anyone speaking my language, small one.” Her voice was incredibly ancient, but even time could not take the strength out of the timbre of a dragon. “And even longer still since anyone pulled up those pages. But you are correct, the contracts made in those times grant safe passage to the races that signed it.”

A laugh escaped from Yuri as he smiled at me. He had apparently read enough from the situation to know the danger had passed. I smiled back as he patted me on the back.

“But,” the air turned to ice as the dragon opened its monstrous maw, “your kind did not.” Its hazy eyes flashed red with magic. A flash of green answered it and a feeling of extreme discomfort engulfed me and my siblings as we forcibly returned to our normal forms. A detection spell! “Changelings, the blight of the lands! Did you honestly think you could fool me? It will be a pleasure to kill you.”

Her terrible gaze turned towards the human as she prepared to spew her fire. “What’s this creature? Neither dog, pony, nor minotaur. Neither fish nor fowl, though foul in smell,” it laughed. Mother, it was making jokes before killing us.

“Whatever it is, it certainly did not sign anything. But it will burn just as-“ The dragon’s eyes blinked again. Suddenly its head shot back, colliding with the back of the cave and cracking the stone, but it did not care. “What have you brought into my domain?” It demanded as it took a step away. “What foolish scheme is this? Has your race finally gone mad?” The dragon’s breath came out in short bursts. “You will die for this!”

The dragon raised its clawed hand high, preparing to bring it down on my head. I grith my teeth and prepared to dash away when suddenly I felt Yuri colliding with my side, pushing me out of harm’s way. I prepared to be carelessly tossed against the wall by the shockwave, or to be crushed anyway, but the pain never came. Not even the sound of the impact that surely would have shook the cave.

I peered up, past Yuri, and saw the paw hanging in the air. So close it filled my entire vision. The palm was open while the claws were mere inches away from us. It slowly formed a fist above our heads and harmlessly retracted away.

Flabbergasted I shook Yuri from me. The dragon stared at us with absolute hate in its ugly eyes, but there was something else in there too. Disgust? Sickness? Fear! The beast was afraid. Afraid of the human.

“What’s- what’s going on?” Yuri said as he looked up.

I pushed the human away as I took to the air. ’Give me your knife,’ I replied

Yuri glanced at me for a moment with blank eyes, not wanting to spend any longer looking away from the dragon that pressed itself against the wall, as far away from us as possible.

‘Just do it!’ I hissed.

Soon the trench knife was in my magic’s grasp as the dragon carefully circled around us. Like a cat around mice. Boulders rolled away from under its feet like they were mere gravel.

“Dragon!” It stopped. “One more step and I’ll kill this thrall.” I pointed the knife vaguely in the direction of Yuri as the dragon’s language rolled awkwardly from my tongue.

“You wouldn’t dare!” The dragon roared in a terrifying display of power, but it stayed in place. Obediently.

“Let us through.”

“Turn back from where you came! Leave!”

I inched the blade very slowly closer towards the human, whose attention was wholy dedicated to the beast. “Let us through.”

The dragon let out a last deafening roar, but stepped aside, revealing the tunnel it had been hiding. With haste our group passed her as I kept the knife close to my human. We broke out in a mad sprint as soon as we passed the looming giant.

“May that wretched thing die in a place you call home, changeling.” I heard it call out. Its voice rolling over us as it was carried by a wave of heat. Its milky eyes were on us for a long while, before another bend in the tunnel carried us out of its line of sight.

In a near frenzy we ran in the cave, boots pounding on rock, wings beating away air and our lungs burning as we rushed through a maze of tunnels. Combining Brother’s knowledge and my own sense of directions I managed to prevent us from getting lost in the mad dash.

It was Brother falling from the air that finally made us stop. He stood woozily on his hoofs as he started dry heaving in his exhaustion. ’Need rest,‘ the thought was weak and unfocused as Brother lied down. ’Sorry.‘

Sister hopped over to him, seeming a bit lost on what to do she settled on holding a hoof on his back as moral support. ’We could all use a break,‘ she said as she stared back at the way we had come from.

I sat down next to the human to keep an eye on him as the Infiltrator doted over Brother. Yuri had taken off his helmet and was wiping the sweat from his face as he recuperated. He stared at me with tired eyes as I adjusted my shawl.

“I can’t believe I saw a dragon,” he said with a sheepish grin, looking very much like a giddy child for a moment. He ran a hand through his gross oily hair as he laughed. “Everyone is going to think I’m crazy when I get back home.”

’I can’t believe I managed to bluff us past her,‘ I stretched my legs. ’Don’t forget to tell your psych ward about my heroics.‘

“Oh yeah,” Yuri joked as he put on his helmet again. “I’ll get right on that. Can’t forget my giant alien insect friend who talks to me in my head. They’ll love that.”

We shared a laugh and fell silent for a moment. Brother already seemed to do a bit better, though his legs were still shaking under his own weight. Sister seemed happy to support him though.

“Did they do it on purpose?” the human began. “The dragon, I mean. Did they get her stuck in here on purpose?”

I shrugged. ’Maybe they tricked a young dragon into defending this place without realizing the consequences. Or maybe she simply grew to loath her choice in time. Who could really say? It was such a long time ago she might have forgotten the truth herself.‘

“Poor thing,” the human said wistfully.

’Poor? Might I remind you that it tried to kill us?‘ Mother this creature was clueless. Always when I started to think it might be competent it would go ahead and say something idiotic like that. ’You misplace your sympathies, as usual,‘ I scoffed.

Yuri stood up, the tiredness ebbing away from him. “I’m not saying that it was harmless or that we could help it. I just understand why it is the way it is. It’s been forced to live in this horrible place for almost all its life. Underground and in the dark, with no way out.” He gestured at the dark, barely held at bay by our own light. “No wonder it’s bitter and lashes out at everything. What else could she be? You, of everyone, I’d expected to understand. Or did you forget how you felt in that forest?”

I let out a indignant gasp ’That was different. I’m nothing like her.‘

“Yes, it was different. You still had hope. And you got out.” I bit down on my cheek in anger, but held my tongue. I tried to imagine it, being stuck in this dreariness, not for hours or days, but for centuries. One day waking up and knowing that this place would be the last thing you saw before you died, and the only thing you’d see in all the days leading up to that last one. My stomach knotted up thinking about it. It was strange to imagine the fate of others. Their lives and cares always seemed so washed out and colorless compared to changelings. Yuri had a way of putting himself into the hide of other creatures though, as many other non-changelings had, I supposed. But feeling what he felt about others made them seem uncomfortably more concrete.

I shuddered as I shut down that way of thinking with a resolute shaking of my head. I sauntered over to my siblings to check up on Brother. He had one hoof hanging over the Infiltrator’s back as she supported him and was still breathing somewhat erratically.

Sister glanced up at me and give a nervous smile. ’He’s okay, just a bit winded‘

’What happened back there?‘ Brother’s red eyes bored into me with such intensity that it made me freeze up in mid-step. It wasn’t that there was anger in his eyes, but instead a sort of concern that deeply troubled me.

With one hoof hanging awkwardly in the air I nervously clamped my wings to my sides. ’I don’t know, it was afraid of the human.‘ I stared at the ground, as far as I could see it, like a foal that had been caught.

Sister scoffed. ’A dragon. Afraid of that.‘ She pointed at Yuri who was shining his light in the tunnels ahead.

’He did take down a chimera, and whatever those things were on the train.‘ I said.

’A dragon is a whole different order than those things. It was practically pissing itself.‘ Sister said as she carefully let Brother stand on his own hoofs again. She looked at the human. ’We’re moving again,‘ she included him for a short moment to send the message. Yuri made a gesture with his hand and nodded, apparently ready to keep going

’It wasn’t afraid of the human. It was afraid of hurting it.‘ I took point and flew a short distance from the rest.

’What? Why?‘ Brother piped up as he jumped over a sizeable hole in the ground. Being too tired to fly he seemed to prefer walking.

’I don’t know, it just was.‘

’I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.‘ Sister flew next to me. ’The prey is bad. We should ditch it.‘ She stared behind her at the unsuspecting human, who was shining his light down another small tunnel that opened up into ours.

A cold shiver ran down my back as she spoke. ’We need him!‘ I flinched back at how aggressive I had answered, but the Infiltrator ignored my rudeness, still staring at the human.

’No, we don’t! We’ll just use the wish granter for ourselves.‘ She threw her hooves in the air. ’Mother, that’s what we should have done in the first place.‘

’She’s right, yes? The human is no good. We’re playing with something we don’t understand.‘ Brother said.

’We- The caves are dangerous. We’ll need his energy to make it.‘ I answered. My logic was sound. The human was strange and disturbing in his own way, but we could not let fear deprive us from his help.

’Listen to yourself, baby Sister. You’re sitting here, making excuses for that thing. The thrall isn’t a friend.‘ The human was walking around some of the other holes in the ground, like he was looking for something in them.

’He isn’t! When we’ll get to the wish granter we’ll get a few humans and whatever else we’ll need and that will be it. The humans are a valuable resource and it would be a waste to not use them, even if we use the wish granter.‘ My heart beat faster as I argued with my Siblings. I did not like it. An argument between changelings was never good and I loathed being the one too stubborn to give in. Especially with the both of them against me. But my point was sound. Without the human we would endanger ourselves even more.

’Indeed. And would you object if this thrall wouldn’t be amongst the humans we’ll bring back, yes?‘

’I- I can- Of course not! It would just be inefficient. I invested a lot of time in enthralling this prey. It would be a waste, but that’s all. One human is just as good as the other.‘ I felt sick to my core, but somehow I could not give up. It would be bad if we gave up on the humans. I knew that much to be true.

Brother and Sister exchanged a quick glance. ’Baby Sister, we’re your family. You need to open up to us. We are worried. We think you might be unwell.‘

’I’m fine. I’m not even tired.‘ I tried to brush of their concerns. The last thing we needed was them worrying about me in this place.

’We did not mean your body, indeed.‘

’You were alone for a very long time. Even we had trouble, but at least we had each other, the Hive and a roof above our heads. You were in a cold and dark forest, all alone. Cut off. That’s too much,‘ Sister stroked my mane as she spoke. Nervousness bubbled up in my stomach. Perhaps they were right. I had felt so strange since I had met Yuri. The world seemed less clear and I felt awful and angry so often. I remembered being happy before the forest. Even when I was alone and exploring the world, the Hive was always there as a soothing embrace and I always felt at home. My eyes grew watery. I did not like who I was becoming.

’Maybe Mother made a mistake,‘ Brother’s thought came out with some pain. ’We shouldn’t have led the human into the Hivemind, especially when you were already so close to it, yes?‘

I looked around for a second. Yuri had fallen behind a bit, he was completely obscured by the dark, except for his light that shone down a hole in the ceiling. I tried to work up some energy to chew him out for wasting our time, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. Instead I landed on the ground to wait for him to catch up. ’Maybe- maybe you are right,‘ I admitted while trying to smile at the two changelings. It should have felt like a relief to admit it, but instead I felt hollowed out and worn, like a dead changelings husk.

Sister practically glowed as smiled at me. ’Oh, Baby Sister, I knew you’d come around!‘ She made a twirl in the air before landing next to me. ’But don’t you worry. We’ll get through this.‘

The human stepped into our light, his face deadly pale and shivering as if he were ill. But it was the expression he bore that made us quiet and drove an icy needle in our hearts. His face was completely blank and his eyes seemed hollow, like a creature that realized it was standing in some kind of trap and there was no way out. He held a shaking finger to his lips and squatted down.

’We’re surrounded.‘ It was strange to hear Yuri only use the Hivemind, I had gotten used to the undertone of his strange language whenever he spoke. It now had the eerie effect of making him sound even more like a changeling. Far more pressing than how he said it, however, was what he said.

’It’s a Lurker’s nest,‘ he continued. We pricked up our ears, twitching them in the direction of wherever there might be sound. ’I’ve heard of them from visiting merchants. Nasty creatures.‘

He shone a light on one of the many holes that littered the tunnels all around us. ’They burrow holes for homes, and for ambushes. A single one isn’t much of a danger when you’re armed, but when they are in packs-‘ He trailed off. ’Who knows how many there are.‘ He got out his shotgun, holding the unwieldy thing to his shoulder. He lay a hand on my back and pointed at the network of tunnels ahead. Nodding, I carefully led us further.

We stayed on the ground, afraid of giving ourselves away with the buzzing of our wings. Yuri covered our backs, while Brother and Sister held a close eye on any holes we passed. My heart was beating so loudly I could hear it in my ears. And all the while we passed more of the burrowed tunnels. The nest must have been gigantic.

I heard a rustling left off us. Claws on rock. Immediately I held still, even as Brother bumped into my back. With a hoof I pointed towards the hole. ’There.‘

We moved next to it, Yuri and I to the left, Sister and Brother to the right, and glued our backs to the wall. Yuri put his weapon on the ground as he took out the trench knife, the jagged blade gleaming in the green light as a shaking hand held it ready.

My tail twitched subconsciously as the sounds grew louder. Paws were furiously scratching the ground as the creature got closer to the opening. I bit down hard on my cheek as a head emerged. Much like Yuri’s, it had no fur and its wrinkled pink skin was bare. The eyes were milky white points that stared blindly ahead. Worst of all was its mouth. The skin around it seemed to be missing, like a horribly overgrown harelip. It revealed a set of needle-like teeth as it sniffed at the air.

It finally emerged completely and to my surprise, it stood up. A large, naked tail swept across the floor as it held its front paws like a dog begging for a treat. It was so bizarre I almost laughed.

It sniffed the air again, this time inhaling deeper. I cursed to myself, it had our scent. It would only be a moment before it would detect us. Shifting my weight and flowing magic to my legs, I readied myself. The creature sniffed once more, before letting out a low growl.

I had to strike now. Quickly. Quietly.

In a rush of movement, Yuri grabbed the creature, forcing its maw shut between his hand and his chest. He lifted up the monster with one hand as it scratched the air in front of it wildly. With an almost graceful move he slid the knife across the Lurker’s exposed neck. Blood came pouring out in a warm and violent flow as the creature slid from the human’s grasp. It looked at us in confusion and fear, trying to scream, but failing as its vocal cords were cut beyond repair. Weakly it tried to crawl away before collapsing.

“It’s uh-” Yuri coughed awkwardly as I stared at him. “It’s not that different from slaughtering a pig, really.”

A loud shriek pierced the air before I could respond. Startled I jumped up, seeing one of the ugly creatures popping out of the ground from a hole behind us. Yuri let out a curse before grabbing his shotgun and firing, but the creature had already ducked back into safety.

Faintly all around us I could hear similar shouts echo in the tunnels and a rustling sound that grew stronger by the second coming from all around us. “C-circle! Form a circle!” Yuri cried out as eyes gleamed in the dark all around.

He fired, lighting up ten or so shapes in the cave. An agonized cry rang out before the creatures hid away again, one of the shadows slumped over and lay still in the distance. Spent shells fell on the ground as he reloaded the weapon.

’Quick!‘ Brother shouted as green fire engulfed him. In his place now stood an imitation of one of the horrid creatures. Catching on to his idea Sister followed suit. ’Go! Go!‘

My Siblings ran into the dark. Pushing past surprised Lurkers that snarled at them. Looking back at Yuri, who shot a Lurker that tried to rush him from behind, I froze. They were abandoning the human. Cutting our losses.

My thoughts felt slow and heavy as I looked back to my disappearing Siblings and my human. My horn was charged up and ready to disguise myself at any moment. They were right, I thought as I let green fire wash over me. Letting out a deafening roar I jumped next to Yuri in the disguise of a brown bear. I had really lost my mind after all.

The Lurkers skittered around nervously as they assessed the new threat. I could see around a dozen of them in front of us, shrieking as they stepped over the corpses of their fallen brethren, but new ones rushed from and away into the holes constantly, making the count difficult.

The cave lit up again as Yuri fired behind me. Slowly we started to move back, roaring and shooting whenever the creatures tried to rush us. “Where are the others?” Yuri asked as he kicked a corpse at the pack. I could see them ripping apart the flesh and bones with ease while dragging chunks down into the holes.

’We got split up,‘ I said. ’They must be somewhere ahead.‘ I took solace in the fact that they would likely get past this all unharmed while we served as a distraction.

“There!” the human shouted. “Is that them?”

My blood grew cold as I looked back. There in the dark I could see Sister in the guise of a timber wolf and brother as a giant monstrous spider. ’What are you still doing here?‘ I asked exasperated as I swatted at the air in front of a Lurker that got too close.

’They sniffed us out,‘ Sister said as she rammed one of the monsters that stood between us. The creature hit the wall with a horrible crunching sound and crawled away. ’Why didn’t you follow us?‘ She said as she dragged Brother towards our little group.

’Later! Later!‘ Brother shouted as he scared away one of the things with a hiss. ’We have to leave this terrible place. We have to leave!‘

As we slowly advanced through the infested tunnels the monsters kept coming closer and closer towards us. Poking and prodding for weaknesses. They were testing our defenses, and with no way to back up our bluff, they found them lacking. Smashing into them with magic would leave us surrounded by the pack, and there was only so much Yuri could do.

With a shriek, one of the Lurkers jumped from an unseen hole in the ceiling right on Brother’s back. In horror I saw it bite down on his disguise. Green fire lit up the cave and Brother collapsed under the weight, his disguise gone. The Lurker pulled his head back, and with a sound that teared right through my heart, a piece of Brother’s back came loose. White noise filled our Hive mind as Brother’s small body lay splayed out on the ground, his red eyes twitching left and right.

The monsters swooped down on Brother and in only a moment they dragged him into the holes. Yuri shot his fire and death over towards them, but it was already too late. They, and Brother, were gone.

I think Yuri or Sister shouted something, maybe they were quiet and it was me. I didn’t know.

I felt strange inside as I looked at the hideous faces of the Lurkers in front of me. I thought I knew anger and hate. It always burned warm inside of me whenever I needed it, but this was different. It was cold, still, and pushed away everything until a single desire came into focus. They had to die. All of them.

Shedding my disguise I flew up to Yuri and opened my maw around his neck. I did not ask for him to trust me or to concentrate on me and I realized that I never had to. Magic always flowed free from him without a chance of rejection. A strange creature, an alien prey, I thought as I focused everything in my horn. Power build up like I had only felt before when I broke the spell in the prison, and I went even further, until stars swirled before my eyes and cracks of pain came from my skull. The cave grew subtly lighter and lighter as my horn burned a bright white.

Dozens of them came pouring out of their burrows and were advancing on us ever closer. I flew up until the ceiling touched me and looked down. They somewhat reminded me of rabbits from up here, looking up stupidly, never understanding what was coming.

Flapping my tattered wings one last time, I released the spell. I dove, the magic accelerating my speed to deadly levels, even within the confines of the cave. In an instant I was upon the first Lurker and felt his ribs and spine giving away easily under my hooves. Not stopping there I turned my dive into a sprint and tore through the cave. Three bodies flew like rag dolls in my path, breaking under me or against the stone until my momentum ran out.

The air was forced out of me as something heavy smacked into my side. Gasping, I managed to stay upright and turn to the Lurker that had hit me. Before it had a chance to pounce on me I let out a flash of light as bright as the sun in its face. Dazed and shrieking it fell to the ground as tears poured from its beady eyes.

Jumping forward a claw from behind just barely grazed my hind leg, bouncing of the carapace. Picking up the blinded monster I rammed it into the cave wall and jumped off its body to hit the other Lurker that had nearly crippled me. Getting the creature in the gut with my horn it shrieked as its warm blood ran down the side of my face. A paw hit me in my side, leaving burning scratches as the wounded creature kicked me away and fled down a hole.

A barrage of six shots flew past me, filling the cave with deafening sounds. Looking up next to me I saw Yuri had struck down four of the monsters that had nearly rushed me. My Sister had followed my example and was rampaging through her end of the tunnel, tearing at flesh and breaking bones wherever she could.

I jumped up again and let out another blinding wave of light before crashing down on a confused Lurker. Pain shot through my ear as the creatures blind claws scored a lucky hit and ripped it open, but it had left itself exposed and plunging my head down I bit its throat, crushing the windpipe and ripping out veins. Its struggle was over almost instantaneously as it bled out on the rocks.

Looking up from the fresh kill I could see the Lurkers stare at me with a strange hesitation. Their eagerness to rush me was gone and they shot looks at each other as much as at me, hoping for one of the courageous or the fools among them to make the first move and create an opening for the others. But all the brave and stupid were dead on the ground or dying.

Spitting out blood I screeched at them and charged. Their courage broke and with panicked shrieks they fled back, deep into their nests to weather the storm. I jumped next to the last slow and unlucky Lurker and rammed him into the wall, using its body to cushion my own impact and break my momentum.

Feeling the lasts breaths leave its wretched body I stomped onto its head with reckless abandon until I felt a crack. Letting out another screech I kicked the body twice again before I finally relented.

The three of us stood in silence for a moment, ears twitching left and right as Yuri’s light danced on the walls in erratic patterns. Heavy breaths escaped me, breaths so deep and hurried they hurt my lungs and made stars appear on the edges of my sight.

It stayed quiet. The rush of the fight escaped my body and left me with buckling knees. The cuts on my leg and ear made themselves known again as throbbing waves of fire, but I found it very easy to push them to the back of my mind.

My Sister turned around and looked me in the face for a moment, before turning again in confusion. Her eye-patch had been ripped off in the fight, revealing her milky eye and an upcoming bruise. ’Brother?‘, she called. It stayed quiet as I stared at the floor, trying very hard not to look at the spot where my Brother had been attacked. Trying very hard not to see if some blood glistened in the light or some left over part of him casted a shadow in that place.

“He’s-“ Yuri spoke up, his voice sounding hoarse and quiet. “They’ll be back. We are in their nest and they’ll keep coming back until we leave.” He looked very small as he rattled out his words. “He was-“ The human stopped himself as he coughed. “When it’s safe we’ll-” The words trailed off as my Sister flew up. With a loud thud she slammed him against the wall.

I looked on in a daze, not immediately understanding what I saw. ’Grief him? A Brother!‘ Sister shouted as she planted he hoofs against the human’s shoulders. ’We grief Sisters, Mothers and Fathers. Not Brothers, never Brothers!‘ She violently shook the human with her magic like he was a lifeless doll. ’Do you have any idea what he was? My Brother? Do you have any clue what he meant to all of us?‘

’Sister, you’re hurting him‘ She looked up surprised. As if she had forgotten I was there. Yuri’s gloved fist shot out, hitting her in the side. She screeched as she was thrown back on the ground. She sank through her front knees as she labored to breathe.

I shouted at Yuri, but he merely held up a hand in my direction, while his other rested on his gun. “This isn’t helping, Pizdabol! I know we’re all stressed, but we shouldn’t fight with each other. Uchenik wouldn’t have wanted-“

’That wasn’t his name! He wasn’t your Uchenik. I’m not your Pizdabol and she is not your Dozor! The Infiltrator cried out. He was my Brother. He was going to die, I always knew that. Mother, he was supposed to die months ago.‘ She sniffed as tears formed trails in the muck on her face. ’But- but that was alright, you know? Because he was going to be a Father. I’d lose him, but there’d be hundred of new changelings, who would all remember him like I remember my Father. Hundreds of them that all carried a little bit of him in them.‘ She sobbed, hiding her face behind a hoof. ’But now he’s gone and there is nothing left.‘

It was quiet for a moment as my Sister shivered in Yuri’s light. The human and I both searched for words or things to do, but we came up short. I hated this, I wanted to do something. Side with my Sister or remind her of the human’s importance, but I couldn’t find my voice. I was a pathetic shaking mess that sat in the corner. It was the Infiltrator who pulled herself together first. She wiped away the tears and snot on her face and stared at Yuri. ’This is all because of you,‘ she bared her teeth at him.

“That’s not true!” Yuri stood straighter as he held out his arms. “Uchenik wanted to go with us. He convinced me too-“

’We are here because of you!‘ Sister cried out as she took a few steps towards him. The human shrank back until he was against the wall. ’If you hadn’t shown up with your stupid problems none of this would have happened.‘ The infiltrator snarled at Yuri as her horn grew brighter.

’Sister, please calm down.‘ I gingerly reached out to her. For a moment I could see her stare at me with a fragility I had never seen before. That look almost hurt more than what had happened today.

She quickly snapped back towards the human, anger burning in her eyes again. ’You’re like some kind of mind poison. Brother and I spoke about it. About how easy it was to talk to you, how careful we had to be not to let anything slip. Do you know that I almost started to like you a few times?‘ She pointed towards me. ’You nearly got my little Sister too, when she was vulnerable and alone.‘ I stared at the hoof.

’We should have never let you into the Hivemind. Hearing a prey muddles everything up.‘ She trotted closer towards Yuri, who was unholstering his gun. ’I’ll fix that.‘ She stared at the gun, but the human didn’t have to heart to raise it towards her. ’Your fragile mind can’t even follow commands, except for one.‘ A green light flowed like a river from her horn towards the human’s head. Her eyes flashed green as she spoke a single word. ’Break.‘

The gun fell on the ground as the human stood dumbfounded. Slowly he reached his hands up to his head and pressed them against it. In the green glow I could see his face contorting in pained expressions, but he did not make a sound.

He fell on his knees, still silent, and started to curl up against the wall.

Weak. I was weak. I couldn’t move to help either one of them. I couldn’t help the Hive, Mother, my Brother, my Sister or Yuri. I was something small that scurried around in the dark, something pitiable.

I tried to tear my gaze away from the scene, but I found myself as helpless as he was. His eyes darted around in panic, like Brother’s had just before the end.

Oh Mother, I was about to lose Yuri too. Never talking to him again, never sharing a meal or borrowing his love. Never arguing with him because he was wrong about everything and just too stubborn too admit it.

’No.‘ I croacked out. Sister flicked her ears toward me for a second before focusing on my human again. ’Stop!‘ Before I knew what was happening, I was charging forward. My hoofs pounded on the cold rock as my wings hugged my side tightly. With a cry I tackled my Sister, toppling her over. The stream of light snapped off from her horn and Yuri collapsed at the wall.

My hoofs shot over my mouth as I realized what I had done. ’Sister,‘ I cried out. ’I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry.’

I dashed to her side as I talked. Carefully I hoisted her up on her hoofs again. My carapace turned to ice as I saw the look in her eyes. Not anger, but hurt. ’Oh Sister.‘

It was strange for two changelings not to get along, even rarer for them to not care for each other. Even amongst cousins who were related by the faintest family bonds. For a changeling to attack another. We tried to forget those moments as best as we could as a species.

Sister stared at me for a moment with a dumbfounded look and I wished one of the monsters would drag me down into their nest. With care she slowly reached and ran her hoof through my mane. My knees shook as I tried to desperately press down the storm of emotions raging through my stomach.

’It’s alright Sister. I’m the one who should apologise.‘ Her eyes wandered toward the barely visible outline of the human who lay unconscious on the floor. ’That thing,‘ she spat out the word, ’Did this. It’s unnatural for a prey to get this close to us. To see us as we are. To talk in our minds as our Brothers and Sisters. No wonder it makes us act strange.‘ She said the last word like I had merely done something eccentric. Something that could be laughed about later when all was said and done.

’This is why we can never get too close to the prey. A changeling’s heart should be small,‘ she recited Mother’s words. ’We have to kill it,’ she said with cold anger. It was hard for me to admit there was a bit of fear as well in her thoughts.

’I can’t,‘ I pleaded with her. Feeling awful for disagreeing with her so shortly after what I had done, but I simply could not do it.

’I understand,‘ she smiled gently. ’It’s been too long since you’ve opened your mind to another. You’ve drifted apart from us. That is why you are feeling confused and lonely.‘ I stared at the ground again. ’Open your mind to me and I shall do the same. See through my eyes as I watch through yours and your doubts will disappear.‘

I almost nodded eagerly. We should have done this back in the fort, if I had not been too craven.

But. But there was that shred of lingering doubt that made me pull back. ’Sister,‘ I fidgeted with my hoofs. ’Maybe we shouldn’t.‘

She remained silent. Waiting for whatever possible reason I could have to follow. ’What if I,‘ biting down on my cheek I looked up, forcing myself to meet my Sister’s eyes. ’What if I accidentally make you see things my way instead of how they should be?‘

All expression bled from her face. ’You love him. Like he is a changeling.‘ It was not a question. I nodded. She stared at me for a long time, as if she wanted to ask me if I was sure. If I knew what it meant. I think she could see in my eyes that I understood.

’I’m so sorry,‘ she embraced me, hugging me tightly. Her horn started to glow more intensely as she powered up a spell. The spell.

I didn’t need to wonder what she was doing. I had damned myself by speaking the truth, but there were no lies between changelings.

Seeing a prey as if they were a changeling was sick. And sickness could not be allowed to spread. That was why I stood unresponsive even as she held me. That is why I did not run away even if my legs buckeled and my heart pounded in my chest. If others started to think like me, how could we hunt? How could we lie to and cheat those that we saw as family? The prey would never accept parasites living among them. Friendship wasn’t an option and affection that could not be answered only complicated our surivival. Returning to the Hive as I was now would put everyone that I loved at risk.

Something warm fell on my neck, but it slided off of my caraprace. My Sister’s mane tickled my nose, she still carried the smell of old books and Brother. Finally I returned her hug.

A spark flew from my Sister’s horn, another followed quickly. She leaned forward and for an agonizing second she held back before going on. Our horns crossed.

The world seemed to slip away for a second. Sounds grew dimmer, the green of my Sister’s horn dulled and even the complete darkness in the cave went from black to a dark shade of grey. It felt like the sensations of the world bled away like water flowed from a bottle that had been broken. My skin felt stuffy, like there was another extra layer between me and the world. My Sister’s mane no longer smelled like anything at all.

I was cut from the Hivemind.

“Baby Sister,” she spoke in the language of the Minotaurs. She stepped back and held my face in her hoofs. Her wounded and healthy eye seemed to have the same colour now. “You can get past this. You’re so young and so strong. Please don’t give up.” She tried to look for something in my face, but whatever it was, she could not find it. Her fragile smile broke as she let me go.

“I’m going to sneak past the dragon and return to the Hive. If- When you get better, please come back. ” She glared at Yuri. “Don’t let it take my Brother and my baby Sister.”

She took another step back until she was nothing but a green glow in the dark. “We love you, Sister. Don’t forget about us.”

She was gone.

I stood in the cave. I wanted to scream, cry, or curse, but all I did was pick up the book Brother had dropped and stand in silence, counting Yuri’s breaths until he woke up again.

Chapter 15: Dirge of the Dead

Dirge of the Dead

With a groan I turned over. Nausea ebbed and flowed through me in a rhythm with the waves of dull pain that shot through my head.

At first I was quick to blame a hangover, like from that time Sasha had shared a bottle of mushroom vodka with me. He kept boasting about how he had haggled the price down to ten bullets, up until the first sip of that awful brew. An evening of quiet suffering followed as we could not waste the bottle, followed by a worse morning.

The headache started to clear up unexpectedly soon however. In a few seconds it was reduced to a mere throbbing, dissolving into nothing but a bad memory another moment later. I opened my eyes to the dark. Confusion set in for a minute before everything came rushing back.

I was still here.

Climbing to my feet I frantically looked around. Nothingness greeted me back. I cursed as I grabbed my flashlight. Those lurkers, or worse, could be around me right now and I’d never know. With the flick of a switch a light started to weakly push away the dark. The beam grew stronger with every squeeze I gave the universal charger.

The light swirled left and right over rocks, holes, and corpses, but nothing moved. With a gasp I nearly dropped it as it shone over a shape standing next to me. Resting my head in my hand I calmed down. Blue eyes stared at me.

Of course Dozor would not leave my side. It was getting hard to remember a time she wasn’t near me.

She looked twice ran over though. Her ears drooped and one of them seemed to be ripped down the middle. Her wings hung so low they touched the ground, while dim eyes stood out above the shawl the rest of her face hid in. Not to mention the scratches on her sides that burned an angry red. The only part of her that didn’t look worn down was how she held the dusty old book with one leg tight to her side.

For a long awkward moment she didn’t say anything, but merely stared right through me.

“Dozor, are you okay? Why are you standing in the dark?” A knife of guilt stabbed my heart as her empty eyes looked away. Of course she wasn’t okay. She had just lost her brother.

She quickly looked back at me as her eyes widened. Her ears perked up and she stepped forward. She touched my leg with her hoof, as if to check if it were real. ’I can hear you.‘

“Of course,” I smiled at her. “Is that strange?” The changeling jumped back and her horn lighted up, but she gave no answer.

“Where’s Pizdabol?” I shone the light around, but only the corpses of nightmares were revealed. It was hard to think back. After Uchenick had died, everything seemed to be covered in a viscous dark fluid. Memories came slow and disorted, but something came bubbling to the surface eventually.

“She and I,” my hands went to the side of my helmet as I tried to focus. “There was a fight.” Dozor watched the tunnel. “She did something to me inside my head? I think she did it once before, too.” It was quiet for a moment. “You helped me.”

’She’s gone. We need to go,‘ Dozor ordered quick and gruff as she studied the inside of one of the holes.

I wanted to ask more, but Dozor was right. It was too dangerous to stand here for long. Still, there was something that needed to be done. “One thing, it will be quick.” Dozor nodded.

I opened my backpack. It was no problem to find the cylinder with how light the pack had gotten. Unscrewing it, I saw the bottle. Even in the darkness of this place it was still a beautiful spectacle of white and green lights swirling around. I was glad I hadn’t succeeded in breaking it so long ago.

Pulling out the stop I carefully poured a bit of the priceless liquid on the stones below. Dozor had creeped up next to me and stared at the wet rocks. ’What are you doing?‘

“It’s for Uchenik,” I said as the bottle went back in the cylinder. “Some people pour one out when a friend-” the words got caught in my throat. “Well, you know.”

’He is dead. He doesn’t need to drink anymore.‘ That was Dozor alright, but it wasn’t my place to tell her how to grief.

“Well, then it’s for us.” I kneeled down and rested a hand on Dozor’s mane. “Because we miss him and there is nothing else we can do but throw drinks on the floor.”

’It’s a waste,‘ Dozor looked like she wanted to say more, but she held back and gave me a tiny smile. ’Still, I appreciate it.‘ She turned around and escaped my hand. ’We need to go.‘

“Lead on,” I said as I followed.

It was a nerve wracking walk. Sounds and shadows seemed to be coming from every hole in the tunnels and we moved as quickly as our caution allowed. We had to squeeze past giant boulders that had fallen into our path and through crevices in parts of the walls that had collapsed. Dried husks of rodents, lurkers, and a few creatures with too many legs, wings, and eyes littered the halls. I didn’t even recognize what the poor things had been before the radiation and poison had mangled them.

Dozor called it good fortune. The maze was littered with traps and the invasive fauna had set most of them off. I silently looked at just what we shared these tunnels with and tried to put it out of my mind.

’Through here,‘ Dozor said as she ducked through a hole. It was easy for a small thing like her to say that. I took a deep breath and got onto my stomach. While crawling behind the changeling I was thankful for the braces on my knees and elbows.

Suddenly I felt myself colliding with a mess of black legs. “Hey!” I shouted out as I stared up and a black tail tickled my face. The changeling stepped to the side and I entered the chamber she had blocked.

It was a graveyard. Bones rose up to greet me in piles as high as my waist. There must have been hundreds of corpses in the chamber, picked clean of any meat and discarded. Skulls of dogs, those cow things, and even a few horses grinned at us like they shared a macabre joke.

’What is this?‘ Dozor gaped at her surroundings in disbelief before she shook herself out of it.

“I’ve heard of it,” I spoke as I walked; making my way between the skeletons I shone my light, searching for any creatures that might lie in ambush. “In the metro there are rumors about a station that has been turned into a place like this. They say the lurkers and nosalis have a common feeding ground where they dump everything they catch. They drag people from every branch of the metro to it over incredible distances. I’d hoped I’d never see it.”

It was a small mercy I could find no human skulls or a small white changeling anywhere.

Something soft being squeezed under my boots made me stop in my tracks. Shining my light down two button eyes looked back up at me. It was a doll. One of those flying horses. Kneeling down I took a closer look.

It was lying next to a skeleton. A very tiny skeleton of a horse, with one hoof outstretched towards the doll as if it was trying to grasp it. ’Coincidence,’ I thought as darkness crept into my vision. ’Only coincidence.’ The remains of a larger pony lay next to it. A few pieces of a blue mane and a yellow coat still clung to the bones.

My breaths came in violent short bursts, but the air in the chamber was bad. There wasn’t enough air. My gloved hand shot before my mouth as I stared at the accusing eyes of the doll. ’No! No! No!’ it echoed in my mind over and over.

A hoof landed on my shoulder as the insect-like head of the changeling slided next to mine. ’Did you find anything?‘ I slapped the hoof away and sprang up, nearly toppeling the alien over.

“You threw them out!” I shouted, not caring where we were or if it made sense. Blood was pounding in my ears as my hands curled into fists. “You said there were villages they could go to!”

Dozor stared at me with open and confused eyes, before she saw the doll and the corpses. I saw a growing understanding in her face before she closed her eyes and a sigh escaped from deep within her.

’So, they didn’t make it.‘ She righted herself and stared at Steam Trail’s remains. Steam Trail, who had been alive a few days before and who had saved us along with her daughter Silver Spring. ’That’s the destination of fools who don’t listen to reason.‘

“They are dead! Because of us!” I stumbled backwards and collided with the bones behind me. They fell and clattered on the ground near my feet. They poked in my back like accusing fingers. “Don’t you feel anything at all?”

Dozor turned away. ’Right now it doesn’t matter what I feel. All that matters is that my people and your people need us. So I suggest you pull yourself together and keep marching. We’ll have plenty of time later for feelings.‘

“Your people!” I laughed, but there was nothing funny about it. “Only your people matter and the rest of the world can just die, right? Humans could just die too for all you care if we couldn’t help you, right? It doesn’t matter to you, after all.”

’Well, you weren’t quick to go after them either!‘ she hissed at me with a rage that had been bubbling under her defeated exterior. ’All I needed to do was mention your people and you left them out in the cold. To die! And you begrudge me for doing the same! They were idiots and deserved their fate! Why don’t you pour out another drink for them, eh? Just dump that whole bottle in this graveyard for every fool! Or don’t they matter to you?‘

I stared her in the face and felt sick at the sight. “If that’s how it is then why don’t you just go back home with your sister?”

It was like the flame inside her had been doused. Her face twisted from rage to calm to something else. ’Wait, wait. Yuri, I’m sorry.‘ Her voice sounded strained as if she were barely holding other words back. ’I didn’t mean it.‘

“I know you, Dozor. You’re a good liar, but you can’t lie to me anymore. You meant every word.” My light trailed across the ceiling and I could see hatefull eyes staring from holes that littered the cave. They quickly dove away for the moment, but soon they would find their courage again. “I remember now what happened with your sister. What she said, what she did. She called me ‘prey’ and talked about ‘not letting things slip’.” I shone into Dozor’s face and she held up her mangled looking leg to hide from the light. “This was never about helping me, was it?”

’You don’t understand,‘ she said as she now turned away. ’I don’t understand anymore.‘ She shook her head and stomped the ground. ’Nevermind, you won’t listen anyway.‘

Biting back any other words I took a deep breath. “What tunnel do we need to take?” I demanded.

’That one,‘ she answered to my surprise. ’What for?‘ she asked unsure.

“I’m going to walk ahead and you’re going to follow behind me. Don’t make a sound or make me look at you.”

’That’s dangerous! I’m the Scout, I should go ahead. Don’t be an idiot!‘

Without a word I pushed past her. Storming off into the tunnel, Dozor’s agitated buzzing grew more silent, but her voice sounded like she was still next to me. ’Don’t run off,‘ she pleaded. ’I’ll- I’ll explain it all. Please just listen.’

I walked on without looking back, letting her words bounce off me. She got the hint and followed me in silence.

The truth cut deep and anger burned like an ember inside my stomach. A maelstrom of confused and painful thoughts raged through me. How could I have been so blind again? I had just trusted them without any reason. It was no wonder they had betrayed me.

And the mother and the child, I had abandoned them because I had believed Dozor, because I had wanted to believe her and that they would have been safe. But maybe I had known that they were in terrible danger out there and I had just ignored it for my own convenience.

And Pizdabol and Uchenik, I wanted to hate them, loath them for their betrayel. But seeing that small, shy changeling that calmly accepted his place in the world with dignity being torn apart before he could fullfil his life’s purpose still hurt. And Pizdabol’s jokes and boundless cheer. How she played cards with me and taught me how to cheat. It had all just been an act, but I missed it.

I got angrier at those feelings than anything else.

Dozor was right. I was an idiot that wished an obvious façade was real. Like the lie we told ourselves about taking back the surface, about how we would never wage a war like that ever again. We said those things as our filters ran out and we slit each other’s throats. In a giant bunker we hid away from the world we hollowly said we would claim again. It seemed very clear to me now that being a human was nothing more than building lies upon lies. Grimly making a palace of deception until the truth came along and toppled it over in a single strike.

Yet, I did not stop marching. I was stubbornly walking towards another obvious lie. A wish granter, it was almost funny. Like a child I’d just accepted that something like that was even possible. There was nothing left for me anyway. I’d travel on even knowing that it was a lie and let the truth cut me again. It was in my nature as a human, after all. I was just as hopeless to stop myself as the changelings were.

The tunnel’s ground slowly flattened out as the Lurker’s holes disappeared. Finally we were exiting the nest to the relative safety outside of it. The ceiling and walls became more rounded and bore the marks of hands shaping them. We were definitely entering an artificial part of the cave now. The thought eased my nerves somewhat. Surely it meant we were close to the end, whatever that might be.

With a curse I nearly toppled over as my boot got caught on something. Shining the light down I was surprised to find something metallic reflecting in the dark. My heart jumped in my throat as I, unbelieving, touched what had tripped me.

It was a railroad, going all the way ahead of me into a metro tunnel. “Dozor, look here!” I shouted excitedly, forgetting my anger for a moment.

No response came.

“Dozor?” I turned around. A collapsed tunnel was not ten steps behind me. Blinking rapidly I stumbled backwards. My mind worked slow as I steadied myself. It felt like the ground had suddenly shifted underneath me, leaving me in a strange place.

“Hello?” I cried out. No response came. There was nothing else to it, but to press on. Dimming my light I shuffled forwards, closely to the wall and ducking into every alcove that I could find. I crept trough the tunnel for what felt like hours, encountering nothing but cobwebs and rats.

Finally in the distance I saw the bright glow of a fire, a sign of civilization and hopefully people. My heart beat faster as I thought about seeing other humans again. It couldn’t have been longer than a few weeks, but I would have given anything to hear someone speak Russian again.

As I dashed behind a dilapidated electricity box a sense of unease flared up. There was an outpost ahead, but no guards. I waited for a moment, trying to hear if anyone was talking, but nothing came except for the sounds of a campfire.

I leaned out from behind the box and unease turned into worry. The guard station was wrecked. The barbwire had been broken and remains of cloth stained red hang on the cruel wire. The walls were riddled with bullets and the spotlight had been broken, littering the ground with glass. A body rested against the wall.

“Hey,” I whispered. “Are you alright?” No response came. Waiting for a moment I weighed my options. Something had happened. Something that had overcome the at least three armed men that were standard procedure for a guard post. Something that could still be out there. On the other hand, the person lying against the wall could be hurt and be in need of help.

Taking out the shotgun I kept low to the ground and made my way to the body. Halfway to the man I stopped. He was lying in a pool of blood. So much blood that there was no doubt about wether he was still alive.

Something walked past me. I screamed as I dashed back. Tripping over my own feet I fell painfully on my back. The tunnel exploded in light and sound as my gun went off and lead impacted with whatever had surprised me.

The tunnel went cold, colder than it had ever been on the surface. A shadow was standing in front of me, unhurt by the shot that had gone straight through it. I was dazed, static and ringing noises filled my ears as all the hairs on my neck stood up. The shadow ignored me and stumbled towards the body of the man on the ground.

Wordlessly I looked on as the shadow suddenly trashed like my shot had connected to it after a delay. The form fell down and crawled towards the body until it lay perfectly inside it.

Not daring to move I stared at the body. A minute later the shadow walked by again and the scene played out in the exact same way. The third time I saw the shadow walking towards the body again I ran. Carelessly I rushed over the cross-ties and jumped the broken barrier. Not looking back I ran and I ran. I would have kept running through those tunnels until my legs gave out under me, if it was not for what I saw next.

At the end of the tunnel was my station and it lay in ruins. The marketplace was overturned with mushrooms, jackets and firewood spilled out on the ground. The tents that were our homes were on fire or ripped open and the air was filled with a noxious smell that reeked of smoke and rot. There were bodies on the floor. I recognized most of them.

I was too late! Maybe it had been the Northerners who had attacked us out of desperation or perhaps the mutants that had slipped in through the opened door had overrun the station. It didn’t really matter what had happened, I hadn’t been there to help or to at least die with them.

I was all alone in the world now, all because I had just been too late.

“Hello?” I cried out. No reply came. “Hello!” I screamed at the ruins, but still no one answered. Sobs shook my body as I buried my head in my hands. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled. I sank down to the ground as the tears came. I tried to choke them down but they came anyway. I didn’t deserve to feel sorry, it had all been my fault, but this was stronger than me. Like water from a river through a collapsed tunnel, I could do nothing but wait until the flood was over.

I don’t know how long it took, but finally I got a handle on myself again. To my shame I felt refreshed. Wiping the tears and the snot from my face I dusted myself off and stood up again. Shadows surrounded me.

“S-stay away!” I grabbed my revolver. I looked around me like a trapped animal, but everywhere those faceless shadows stood. There was no escape. “Leave me alone! I will shoot!” One of them moved towards me. I snapped the gun toward it with a speed I didn’t know I had. “No!”

The shadow reached out its hand towards me. Shaking like a leaf I stared at the thing in confusion. With a growing dread I realized something about it was familiar. The revolver fell to the ground. “Sergei?” Slowly I reached for the hand; I hesitated as I looked at the shadows again. Maybe that one was Sasha, and the other Alex. I grabbed the hand.

A scream escaped me as cold agony spread out from where I touched the shadow. I wanted to let go, but my hand was holding on with a death grip. More of the shadow walked towards me and lay their hands on me, every single touch feeling like a branding iron. Faintness overcame me as I fell towards the ground once again, my vision turning grey and blurry. They were dragging me down and in horror I felt the floor give out under me, like it was only wet cement. They dragged me down deeper and deeper until the floor closed up above me, leaving me in complete darkness. With another scream I felt something dark and cold slip into my lungs and stomach, spreading out like molten metal. The last thing I felt before unconsciousness claimed me was still more hands holding onto me.

Air rushed into my lungs with a violent gasp. I trashed around trying to break free from those awful cold hands, but nothing held me. Scrambling for my flashlight I only calmed down when a beam struck out against the dark. I was still in the cave.

I held a hand against my face as I started to giggle. It was only a vision, an illusion. Some trick of the mind caused by this sick place. It had to be that. I laughed harder, before I punched myself in the leg until the feeling subsided. I wasn’t going to lose control again. Do people feel it when they are going mad? Or maybe it just sneaks up on them with tiny ignorable symptoms until it’s too late to do anything about it, like a cancer. I pressed on as I couldn’t quite shake those thoughts.

“Dozor?” I called out, but she was nowhere to be found. Maybe she had gotten ahead of me. It wasn’t too strange to think she would have missed me in this darkness. “Dozor!”

A faint purple light was coming around the edge of the tunnel. I shut off the flashlight and edged around the corner. There were several dozen horses standing in a purple bubble of some kind. Swords and spears were held in their mouths or floating in the grasp of their strange powers. Clad in golden armor they stood guard in rows. Their rulers stood behind them, Luna, Celestia and a smaller purple one along with a few other who didn’t seem to fit in.

They all glanced around nervously at the walls and the holes from where the Lurkers could come at any moment. Their focus was not just on the tunnels however, but also on the small dark changeling one of them was barking questions against. Dozor was being held in some kind of magical glow and gave soft replies with downcast eyes.

I cursed to myself. This was what the changelings had warned against. The ponies had set up a trap right in the lion’s den. Did they hate us so much they would risk their very lives to stop us? There was some hope, however. If they were here, that had to mean we were extremely close to the wish granter and that they believed it to be real; real enough at least to come here to stop us. I just had to get past them, somehow.

Sighing quietly I closed my eyes and prepared myself. I stood up and walked straight to them. “I am here.” I declared, making no attempt to hide. All eyes turned towards me.

Celestia looked at me coolly and put a hoof on her sister’s back. ’So you are.‘ With a golden clad hoof she gestured towards the bubble they were standing in. ’Step forward. We can talk freely inside here, where it is safe.‘

I did so, clenching my teeth as a tingling feeling passed over me while I crossed the barrier. ’That is better now, is it not?‘ I just stared at her. Her expression grew harder as she spoke. ’I’m very disappointed in you, Yuri. You abused my sister’s trust and-‘

“Trust” I took a step forward. “You lied to me! You didn’t want humans here because you are scared of us. You think we are all evil and insane, but you’re perfectly fine sacrificing some innocents for your own safety, right? How does that make you better than us?” The ponies raised their weapons nervously in my direction, but with a gesture Celestia calmed them.

’And you harmed some of my guards who were only doing their duty when you broke out this changeling,‘ she nodded towards Dozor, who was trying to avoid my eyes.

“I’m- I’m sorry about the guards,” I crossed my arms as I looked of to the side.

’That is a good start, Yuri. They may even forgive you when you will apologise to them in person back in Canterlot.‘ She still looked sternly, like she was talking to a child who had been caught stealing food.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” I took another step closer. “You lied to me. I’m going to take us out of the metro. We’re not going to waste away and die in the dark, no matter what you think about it.”

’She lied to protect you!‘ Luna stared at me with sad eyes as she stomped the ground. ’I did too. The truth is just too awful, but I believe you deserve to know. Seeing as you went this far for your people.‘

I scoffed. “Oh! So now I get the truth. I don’t think there’s a single thing anyone has said to me since I arrived that hasn’t been a lie.” Dozor cringed under those words as I glared at her. I took another step forward. A pony pressed a spear against my abdomen, but there was no force behind it. I swatted it out of the way to the surprise of the guard. “Let me through.” The guards started to advance to block my way, more spears and swords were raised towards me, but I could see it was for show. They didn’t need to fight me, there was no way I could force my way past them, but I had to. My hand went towards my revolver. Could I really do it? Kill someone just because they were in my way? My throat went dry and my hands turned cold. I had to get past them.

’Excuse me, mister Yuri. Can you understand me?‘ The voice did not sound regal at all, like those of the other two rulers. It was more like the voice a young woman might have. The smaller one with wings and a horn had an intense look on her face as she stared at me. As I nodded she broke out in a warm smile and clapped her hoofs together. ’Oh! It worked, how wonderful!‘ One of the horses that wasn’t wearing armor, an orange one with a blonde mane, said something in their strange language. The one that had talked to me blushed as she fidgeted her hoofs together. ’Oh, right. Hello! I’m Twilight and you are Yuri, but you knew that last part already, of course.‘ She grinned sheepishly at me before coughing in her hoof. She took a deep breath and her expression became sober. ’Princess Luna told you that our two worlds are connected, right?‘ I nodded. ’She also spoke with you about how in the last twenty years this connection somehow deepened. We are not sure why, but it must have involved a massive amount of energy to do so. We have been experiencing a very hard to control winter, probably from your planet, and am I right if I assume that you have also been experiencing strange magical manifestations?‘

“We call them anomalies. They are strange things, mostly violent. One of them brought me here.”

’Did you ever wonder why?‘

I blinked. “Does it need a reason? They are just random things that happen. Like floods or disease.”

’Magic is different from those. It is attracted to emotions and sapience, both things that humans have. You are always filled with magic, as the changelings abused.‘ I stared at my hands. I didn’t feel any different than I had before I had come to this place. ’But to use magic you need to have a desire, or an intent to do something and you need a way to channel it. Humans don’t have a way to channel magic, making you more like magical sponges.‘

“Is this going somewhere?”

Celestia spoke up. ’Do you know what happens when something dies in this world?‘ I grabbed my revolver tighter, not liking where this was going. ’The magic that every creature here uses for living slowly runs out as the body’s strength fades. As the creature dies their magic dissipates back into the world again. This does not happen with humans.‘ She somehow commanded her soldiers to stand aside and slowly walked towards me. ’Twilight said that humans can not channel magic, but this is not the whole story. When a human’s desire is strong enough or when enough humans desire the same thing, magic will shape itself.‘

The one called Twilight chimed in. ’Something like that has never been observed in our world. But the spells that are formed aren’t guided. They are ugly, inefficient and twisted. They are horrible things with strange and unpredictable results.‘

Luna continued. ’These anomalies are those spells. Your people’s desire to escape, to find a better place to live, is likely what caused the anomaly that transported you here to form. You are lucky the trip didn’t kill you. It has done so to many of your kind.‘

“Is- Is that why you don’t want us here?” I held my head in my hands. “Couldn’t you just control that? Dispell them or whatever?”

’Humans do not die in the same way as we do,‘ Celestia gave me a sad smile. ’Dying is terrifying. Every cell in the body calls out for more time, just a little more time. The desire to survive is very strong. So strong that it can keep a human’s essence locked to the world. When a human dies they become a magical black hole. The fear and pain they feel in that last moment of their life repeats itself over and over and the strength of those emotions sucks the magic out of everything around them. They become ghosts, forced to exist in agony forever. If a creature from this world would encounter one of them, they would surely die. Can you now understand us, Yuri? Why we did not want to tell this? Why we can’t allow your people into our world? Can you see?‘ She held out her hoof. ’Please just come with us, Yuri. We can’t let you pass. Just come with us and I promise you’ll be cared for and when the time comes, we will do our best to help you.‘

My whole body was shaking as I held my head between my hands. That couldn’t be true, it just couldn’t be. But what had Uchenik encountered in that cave that had cost her an eye? What of those shadows in my station? No! That was only an illusion. It was an illusion! I took out my revolver and aimed right between those sympathetic eyes. “How stupid do you think I am?” I screamed at her. “Get out of my way!”

’I know that weapon,’ she said without any fear. Fire one shot and we will subdue you immediately. Besides, you are not a murderer. You don’t have the eyes of one. Just let it go.‘

“Let go? Do you think I can afford to let go?” My voice sounded strange to my own ears, like that of a wild animal. “Do you have any idea of what happens if I fail? We are dying. Do you know how vast our future was? We went to space, we stopped diseases, we made miracles happen. And now in a few decades it will be like we had never existed. Now please let me through.”

I lowered the gun, seeking for leeway in some of the horses before me, but they formed an impenetrable font. “And you,” I turned to Luna. “Why did you even bother with all this? I thought you wanted to help me?”

She stared at the ground. ’I was hoping that you’d become friends with the ponies I’d send with you. And they would ease you into all of this. It would have been less painful for you.‘

And I would be easier to manipulate, of course. Yet another lie. There was no way past them. I couldn’t convince them, plea with them or force my way past. My eyes fell on Dozor and her eyes finally met mine. Lie and the world will be handed to you on a silver platter, she had said.

“You must have a lot of magic, right?” Celestia looked confused. I turned the gun towards my throat and her face turned ashen. “If a human were to die here in pain, you would all be left without magic.” I looked at the purple shield around us. Lurkers were staring with hunger in their eyes from their burrows. “Did you know those creatures out there eat humans? The smell of gunpowder and the sound of shots attract them. It’s how they hunt us.”

’You can not do this!‘ Luna said. ’We will all die. No one will win. This is mad!‘

I forced a laugh. “Humans blew up their own planet. To you we were already insane.” I stepped forward and Celestia took a step back. “Do you all feel it? Can you feel your future slipping away, because someone else is making a choice for you? Can you feel all your hopes and plans teetering on the edge? That’s how it is for us, every day.” All other horses looked too shocked to say anything. “Now let me through.” Slowly I walked through their ranks as they stepped aside, pressing themselves to the edges of the bubble. “And let Dozor go.”

The small changeling ran to my side as they released her from whatever magic they had used to hold her. ’Thank you,‘ she quietly said.

“Just show me where to go.” With a quick nod she grabbed my free arm and slowly guided me backwards. The horses followed our every move with a quiet dread. As we passed the barrier I knew we had to move fast. The moment was ours, but soon they would think off some way to stop us, so we had to be away before that happened. “Is it far?” I asked Dozor.

’Just a few meters.‘

My heart beat faster. Despite everything I felt excitement bubbling up in my stomach. Whatever my journey had been leading up to, this would be it. “We need to make a run for it.” Dozor jumped up and flew into the air as I turned and dashed. Behind me I could hear shouting as dozens of hoofs stamped on the ground. Screeches came from everywhere and I could see Lurkers jumping down from the edges of my vision. Everything exploded into chaos behind us as the metro and this world clashed together with metal, teeth, magic and claws.

Dozor flew into a tunnel through an archway. Strange inscriptions were engraved into it in a language I didn’t recognize. She landed and gestured for me to hurry. I could almost feel the lurkers behind me breathing down my neck. Running faster than I ever had I passed under the arch. Dozor’s horn lit up and as I looked behind me I could see the creatures ramming into some kind of invisible field.

’We can take it easy now,‘ Dozor said as she looked at the mutants. ’That there is the single most powerful barrier in the entire world. It will take them weeks to get past this.‘

“Why didn’t they just wait behind this thing then?”

’Because at this moment anyone who is of any importance knows the two of us have breached the chamber to the Wish Granter.‘ She pointed at the archway. ’If they had done this it would have been seen as an act of war for everyone. But nobody but the ponies know Changelings or Humans exist, so let them chew on that one for a while.‘

With a flash of light the Lurkers were thrown to the side. The horses rushed toward the archway and set up a defensive position. I saw the rulers rushing up to the field. They stared at us with wide eyes as their mouths moved like they were yelling at us, but the shield blocked all sounds. Their horns started to glow as lightbeams shot from the tips and bounced harmlessly off the field.

I turned from them and walked deeper into the tunnel. A few moments later Dozor followed.

Chapter 16: Dozor


The ponies were throwing everything they had at the field. Panic twisted their faces as they unleashed spell after spell. The Raisers of the Sun and the Moon were throwing powers around that would have turned me to ash, but all they did was smash impotently against the barrier mere centimeters from my face. The mare that had destroyed my Queen’s plans and had caused us so much suffering was frantically flipping through the pages of the ancient book that had guided us here. That they had stolen it was of no consequence. It had served its purpose. It had brought us here, to the big moment of triumph for the changelings. Our enemies were defeated and salvation was near. The long awaited retribution for the bitter defeat they had dealt us was finally coming.

I turned away from the display, without taunting or gloating and galloped to catch up to the human, my human, the only one who I could still talk to. I wondered how. My Sister had completely cut me off from the Hive, but not him. Like always, magic worked strangely around this alien.

My wings fluttered as I pondered the warning of the ponies, about how humans couldn’t be allowed to live here, or to be more precise, die here. It could have all been a lie, of course. Unlike the rest of the ponies their leaders could be very cunning, but I had seen it in their actions and in their words. They were afraid. The ones who had the power to strike my Mother down in our moment of strength, the ones who controlled night and day, had been afraid, as afraid as the dragon had been. They looked at the man that walked in front of me and all they could see was the death of our world. There had to be another explanation. There simply had to be, but no matter how I tried to fit one I found none. Perhaps I should ask the Hive what to do.

Nearly stumbling I stood still. For a moment it hit me how much I had lost. It actually physically hurt deep down in my stomach. Frantically I buried those thoughts as well as I could. It was a pain that was too great to acknowledge. I didn’t want to know what would happen to me if I really thought about it.

Chewing on my cheek I stalked behind Yuri through the tunnel. Tiles were slowly replacing the rocks. Faded murals started to pop up on the walls here and there with scenes etched into them that were so fantastical they had to be legends. Neither of us cared and we wandered past them without comment. The silence that hung between us was awful, too much like my time in the forest. Would I start to hear voices again? I’d almost welcome them, anything was better than living in this silence.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” My human had stopped walking. I stared at the back of his legs, suddenly wishing it was quiet again.

’I thought you didn’t want to talk anymore.‘

“I don’t get you, Dozor. I just can’t wrap my head around you.”

’Is this really the time for this?‘

He walked to the side and leaned against a mural, staring down at me. “Do you honestly think we’ll see each other again after this?”

My ears fell flat against my head. ’No.‘ It hurt to think about, like it hurt to think about being cut off. To my surprise I felt a passion flare up inside me. What was I doing acting like a beaten dog? I was a changeling and proud of it. I had made mistakes, more than I cared to admit, but I was not some weak creature that would be crushed under them. Here was my chance to do something right and I would grasp it like a true changeling would. Straightening my posture I countered his stare. ’I want to show you something, Yuri.‘

“And why would I want to see what you have to show?”

’You were the one that wanted to talk. Why are you always so difficult!‘ I stomped my hoof on the floor. Didn’t he realize how hard this was for me?

“You don’t understand me, Dozor.” He walked closer and kneeled down in front of me. “I’m giving you a chance here, because I owe you. You helped me when your sister attacked me and that is what I don’t get. You betrayed me, but also betrayed your own family for me. It makes no sense. And-“ He looked to the side, “I like you. I really thought we were friends and some stupid part of me wants to go back to that. So this is your chance, Dozor. But I want more than an apology. I want the truth and it better be something good or we are done.” There was a fierceness in his eyes that had long been hidden under his demureness. I had seen glimpses of it sometimes, but now it was finally out in full force. He really was more like a changeling now.

’There is a way to make you understand.‘

“Why do you want me to understand? What are you getting out of this?” He did not say it unkind.

I swallowed. Every instinct told me to lie against this strange creature, but then again, he wasn’t a stranger at all, was he? You’re all that I have left and I- I don’t know. Since I met you the world seems so different. Things used to be good before you showed up. I used to be good or at least I thought I was. And you took that all away from me, without even knowing it. I hated you for that.’ I traced my hoof along the ground as my face grew hot. ’But now I think you were right. Everyone that wasn’t a changeling seemed like less than dirt to me, until I saw your mind. Day in and out you were the evidence that we were wrong. You aren’t dirt, none of you are. We changelings are good at lying, but the truth is a powerful thing. I can’t bear to go back to the lying and stealing. Even if a changeling has to do that to survive.‘ I hid in my shawl. ’I’m so ashamed of what I’ve done, Yuri, but what I feel doesn’t matter much. It can never all be made right again, but I wanted to at least give you some closure. And- and if you don’t want that from me, that’s fine. I’ll accept it if you never want to see me again and hate me, I deserve that. But if you want to-‘

“Okay,” the human cut through my stammering. “Okay, you can show me.”

With the shawl I wiped something from my face. ’Thank you.’

The human held up his hand. “This isn’t me forgiving you, Dozor. I’m just giving you a chance.”

’I know. Thank you.‘ Shivers ran through me. ’Sit down.‘ The human did so and I leaned close into his face. ’Take my head in your hands, like this.‘ I placed a hoof against the sides of his helmet, the cold metal feeling like carapace. I hissed as he brushed against my torn ear, but I went on. His gloves felt weird and soft. ’And now you’ll just have to trust me.‘

My horn lit up with a soft glow against the ancient walls. This was a point of no return. It would be so much worse than hitting a Sister. If I did this, there would really never be a way back into the Hive. If any changeling ever found out, I would be more than a pariah. I would become a bogeyman we warned our nymphs about for generations to come. I looked into Yuri’s eyes, my friend’s eyes. A last thought went out to my Sisters and Brothers. A last thought for my loving Mother and my brave Father that I had never really known. ’Look through my eyes as I look through yours.‘ Carefully I pressed my horn forward until it touched his helmet. ’See me as I see you.‘

A stream of thoughts invaded me. They swirled together with mine as memories bubbled to the surface. Rats flooding a tunnel. My Sister cutting me from the Hive. A bottle full of stars. Brother reading a book. My home. Betrayal. Regret.

It was confusing, more than it had ever been before. The human had been solitary for all his life and it made his thoughts more rigid than I had anticipated, maybe brittle was a better term. They were nothing like the malleable thoughts of changelings that wrapped and bend around each other, but more like a glass fortress that was built to stand alone and that would also break under the slightest pressure.

For a moment panic spread through me. Yuri’s mind was so fragile it seemed impossible to meld together with him. Soon however I saw a last and unexpected gift from my family: the entrance that Mother had made to introduce the Human to the Hive. She had never meant it to serve this purpose, but still I thanked her with a warm thought and entered.

Focusing magic through my horn I stemmed the tide of random thoughts that streamed between us. There was something the human deserved to see. The memory floated to the front.

My prey was fast asleep on a pile of coals. Smears of sooth blackened the wooden planks I was standing on. The roar of the fire from the great steam engine nearly overpowered the rattling of the train on the old railroad, but only nearly. The air smacked of smoke and the heat was intense enough to hurt through my thick carapace. With a resounding metal clang I shut the iron door to the engine fire.

Steam Trail was holding her daughter in a tight embrace as far away from the human and me as she could be, hidden in the shadows that the fire cast. She seemed absorbed with muttering words to her oblivious foal. I scoffed and turned around, looking at the levers and various gauges that commanded the train. She would be useful for when we arrived in Canterlot. I had to build up trust with the thrall and she could help, if I carefully controlled her. After that-

A plank creaked behind me.

As I turned my head I felt something heavy and blunt crash into my skull. White light exploded behind my eyes and I stumbled for a second. Turning around I saw the vague image of a pony holding a shovel between her teeth, raising it like it was a club. “What’s the big idea, mare?” I slurred my words despite my best efforts as I fought down vomit. The pain had started sharp, but now felt like it was rolling through my head like thunder after lightning. “I hunt for a living by crashing into things, was that supposed to hurt?” I didn’t mention we protected ourselves with magic when we did so. I needed to intimidate her. Another hit of that shovel could knock me out or worse.

Sweat was dripping from the ponies’ brow as the shovel trembled in her grasp. Her foal was shaking like a leaf and all the color had drained from her face. With a clatter the shovel dropped on the floor.

“Good”, I said while keeping the relief out of my voice. “Now go back and sit in your corner.”

“N-no,” the mare said. “W-we’re getting away from you and that thing.” Before I could respond she grabbed her daughter and rushed towards the door. She opened it and cold wind and snow invaded the train. The sound of the wind rushing into the train was overwhelming and I stumbled again on my hoofs. My stomach felt like it was trying to force its way out of my throat and I could barely stand. The human merely stirred in his sleep, he must have been pushed to the point of exhaustion before.

I tried to walk to her, but it felt as if the ground shifted in four directions under me. “You’ll die out there, you fool. Are you that blind?” The mother stood her ground.

“You’re going to kill us or worse. You won’t hurt my daughter!” She took another step towards the open door. The wind blew her mane violently around as she stared me down. “The snow will break our fall.” She said it like she believed it or maybe she just wanted to convince her foal.

“If you don’t speak to anyone about us I’ll let you go when we are in Canterlot. That was the deal.”

The mother let out a bitter laugh. “Changelings are all liars. You won’t get us.” She took another step with her daughter in a tight embrace and jumped. She was gone in an instant.

I shook away the pain and confusion and ran to the door. The icy wind smashed into my head as I looked behind us, but I could see nothing but snow and trees. “Idiot! Damned idiot!” Anger spread through me like fire, burning away the last of my disorientation. I slammed the door shut and walked back towards the control panel, cursing to myself all the way. I would have let them go. I really would have. There was no benefit to me hurting them, why couldn’t she have seen that?

I sighed. It was my fault, of course. I had pressed her too hard. I had made her hate me instead of merely fear me. I had messed everything up. I stomped the floor with a curse.

My prey was still sleeping, not having noticed a thing. How was I going to explain this? He couldn’t know the truth. A mere pony had overpowered me and the whole situation had spun out of my control in seconds, like I was a bumbling amateur. If he knew, he would think I was weak and useless. I would not be pitied!

Even if he would hate me for this, at least he would not think I was incompetent. I was a changeling. No one would look at me with pity!

I walked towards the coals again, drawing trails in the dirt with my tail as I moved the black rocks towards the oven. I had to lie, think of something, but that would all work out fine. Steam Trails had been right. I was a very good liar.

I powered my horn down and carefully removed it from Yuri’s helmet. Opening my eyes, for a moment I saw myself through his eyes. I looked terrible with scratches over my side and a torn ear, just a small thing that was hiding in a worn out shawl. There was nothing proud or strong in what I saw.

Blinking again I regained my own sight and looked at Yuri.

“You didn’t throw them out.”

’I might as well have, with how I treated them. She would have never jumped if it hadn’t been for me, but it wasn’t my intent.’ It was a strange thing to look back on what you’d done and realize how wrong it was. It was like I had watched a stranger, but I knew that it had been all me. That made it so much worse. ’When you asked me in that boneyard if it made me feel anything, it didn’t at first. I only felt angry at her and ashamed that I had let her slip by. Looking back on it now though, with what I know now.‘ I felt my throat tighten. ’Do you know that it wasn’t even the worst thing I have ever done to someone else? It doesn’t even register on the list of things I’ve done. If you knew you’d-‘ I took a moment to breathe. ’It seems wrong to feel like this now. I did so many terrible things it seems like I don’t deserve to regret it. I have to set it right though. I don’t know if I can, but I have to. That is why I- I did what I did to my Sister. I can’t be like that anymore.‘

Yuri had an unreadable expression on his face as he looked down on me. “Why didn’t you tell me about all this?”

I bit my cheek as I avoided his eyes. ’Changelings can’t be seen as incompetent. What damn use is a Scout that can’t scout or a changeling that can’t steal love anyway? You throw away a tool that is broken. It’s worse than death to be useless, to have a purpose that you can’t fulfill.‘ I forced out a harsh laugh. ’That must sound really stupid to you, right? Maybe it is. I had to show you that though, to clear up the lie. Changelings don’t lie to each other, even if it’s painful, and you’re the closest thing I have to one now.‘

“I-” the human faltered, “I didn’t know they cut you off from your hive. I didn’t know it worked that way.” He seemed to struggle with himself before he stood up. “So, what now?”

’Now we look out for each other.‘ I walked to him and extended my hoof. ’Because we need to stick together, right?‘ I tried my best to smile.

The human stared at me and I felt my heart sink as time went on. Of course he didn’t want me around. I had lied to him from day one. Who had ever heard of someone depending on a changeling? It was ridiculous, nothing more than a desperate fancy.

“Right”, he said as he took my hoof. “But no more lies. I haven’t forgiven you, but I understand. That doesn’t make it right, but I understand.”

My throat felt tight as we stood there. I didn’t deserve this, I really didn’t, but I would earn it. I promised that to myself right there. With a nod to him we went on.

We walked through the hall, further and further as the murals became more elaborate and less touched by time. The Wish Granter must have been preserving them somehow. It seemed like a waste of a wish to do so, but I didn’t feel like judging.

Excitement came with every step. I could almost smell the magic in the air here, like when lightning had struck. Tingles creeped along my wings as the energy in this place grew. The hall abruptly ended and a simple wooden door stood in front of us.

I put my hoof on the wood. It felt cold and ancient. No one had been here in thousands of years, but it was all still in a good condition. I pushed and it swung open smoothly, like the hinges had been fed oil yesterday. Before us stood a simple square altar that was carved out of white marble inside a small chamber. On it floated a golden sphere that was about as big as my head, just like in the book. It seemed to me it looked far too plain for what it was, outside of the materials it was made from.

I set a hoof inside. My hearth jumped in my throat as warm light started to radiate from the ceiling. A fresh breeze blew through the closed off chamber as the smell of grass filled the air. The calm sound of waves on a beach rolled through the chamber. ’That’s… unexpected.‘

“It doesn’t hurt my eyes.” Yuri said in wonder as he walked in. “The light is fine, like my eyes are used to it.” He took of his helmet to reveal his dirty blond hair. Breathing in deeply he stood silently for a while, taking it all in. “So that’s what it is like.”

’It must be an illusion of some sort.‘ I sniffed the air. Someone must have put great care in it, but why? An oasis like this in these horrible tunnels was welcome though, maybe that had been enough reason to wish for it?

Yuri wrung his hands together as he looked at the altar. Before I could protest his rashness he took a step forward and placed his hand on the Wish Granter. “It’s there. It’s real.” He spoke with such relief that I forgot to admonish him for his reckless move. The human’s head shot up as he looked around nervously. “Who said that?”

’Who said what?‘

“Oh. I see. Do you mean me?” Yuri looked at the golden orb with understanding growing on his face. He nodded while he ignored me. “Yes. I’ll tell her.” With a smile he turned towards me. “Dozor put your hoof on it.”

My wings shivered as I looked at the orb. It sounded like a trap, but the book had mentioned none of this. Then again, the human had put so much trust in me. If I really wanted to change, maybe it was time for me to take a plunge for once. Hesitantly I shuffled forward until the Wish Granter was just within reach. Slowly I extended my hoof as my whole body was ready to bolt at the first sign of foul play. After a deep breath I touched the golden surface.

’Hello, vessel.‘ The voice was calm and without any cadence. No emotion whatsoever radiated from this strange presence. It was like it wasn’t even alive.

’What is this?‘ I stared at the non-creature that the orb was in morbid fascination.

“It’s the wish granter.” Yuri smiled. “It says that its makers had to give it some way to communicate and think. Many creatures that made wishes weren’t articulate or smart enough to figure out how to make the right wishes. Though the orb says it isn’t alive, just intelligent.” He paused for a second. “I don’t really know how that works.”

’Why does it call us “vessels”?‘ I asked.

’You are vessels,‘ the strange voice answered. ’Magic flows through everything and gathers in empty vessels, like water flowing downstream. In turn vessels transform magic, give it a shape and a purpose. That is the reason vessels exist.‘

I balked at that. ’I am a Scout. That’s my purpose! I don’t exist to give others purpose, I only serve Mother.‘

’The vessel does not desire to make a wish then?‘

Sheepishly I looked down. ’I do,‘ I admitted. Even before that, I realized how hollow my words were. I was barely a Scout anymore and how could I ever serve Mother again? Still, I didn’t like it. Purpose and loyalty was not something to just lightly throw around or switch.

What was I talking about? It had all been a lie. The hate I had felt for our prey had been one. It had been my life. It had shaped me and who I was, even my very thoughts. When I looked to my past, now all I saw was shame and regret. The future was nothing but a vast emptiness. Lies had always flowed with ease, giving me safety and control. But now the truth had come along, sweeping across the webs I had weaved like a raging fire, leaving nothing in its wake, not my beliefs nor my goals. My family had been lost to me and worse yet I could no longer know who I was now. Who was the changeling under all the lies? I could not recognize her or understand her, if she was even there.

“You don’t have to be that person anymore, Dozor.” It was strange. I felt my face scrunching up as a sharp retort burned on my tongue, but all of a sudden, I realized he was right. I wasn’t a Scout anymore. And if I didn’t recognize myself, who was I to make assumptions about what I was like? What purpose was there left for someone like me? Only one sprung to my mind right now.

’I’m ready to make a wish.‘ I had already waited far too long for this. I could ponder all this later. The Wish Granter awaited me silently. ’I wish for my Hive to be restored. Heal the wounds of my Sisters and Brothers and replenish their magical and food reserves.‘ I felt a little flustered, but I wanted one more thing from that wish, something not necessary and a bit selfish, but just this once I had to indulge myself. ’Can you show it happening to me?‘

’Certainly,‘ the orb glowed once. A tear opened in front of us, like a curtain that had been cut open. Through it we could see the Hive, such as it was. My Sisters no longer were working in the tunnels and cracks littered the halls as dust gathered in the corners. The orbs of light we used were either turned off or flickered with futile attempts to shine light. All of the changelings were now in the medical chambers with the injured, whose wounds had started to fester or were only half healed because there simply wasn’t enough magic to do more than a patch-up job. The ones who did their best to administrate care did not look much better than their patients. Their carapace was a sickly grey and their eyes had lost all shine, even Mother, who rushed from changeling to changeling to help, looked half starved.

The orb glowed once more. A green wave of magic washed over the Hive. My Siblings hissed in surprise as they jumped left and right and against each other in the confusion. I saw the wounded light up as their injuries closed. Legs, eyes and wings mended wherever the healing light touched. They stood again on certain legs and slowly but surely I could see smiles break out in the crowd. My Siblings jumped up and flew through the air as their magic was restored.

Mother looked up and gave a tired smile as a Sister that had been badly wounded jumped up and hugged her as soon as she was healed. For a moment I entertained the idea that she could see me, that she would tell me how proud she was of me. A little sound escaped from my throat. No, now was not the time for selfish crying. I would cherish this forever, without sadness. Whatever happened to me in the future did not matter now. This was worth it all.

I could have looked at them all day, but I was not only here for me. ’That’s enough,‘ I said and the tear closed up again. I turned to Yuri, who was staring at the orb in deep thought. He blinked as he noticed me. ’Your turn.‘

He waved his hand dismissively. “That’s okay, I can wait. I need some- Do you have another wish?” I cocked my head to the side. “It’s okay, really!” He made a poor attempt at a smile before returning to his thoughts while he bit his thumb through his glove.

I fidgeted with my hoofs. Why was he wasting time now? Did he not see his people needed him as soon as possible? Well, I supposed a few more seconds wouldn’t really matter. We now had the power to make everything right, after all. Besides, Yuri was right, there was one more very important wish I had to make. There was someone I desperately wanted to see. One who had to share in our victory. ’Can you bring back my Brother?‘

The Wish Granter glowed. ’No.‘

’What- what do you mean no? What kind of Wish Granter are you?‘ My wings fluttered in erratic shocks. ’You have to bring him back.‘

’The vessel’s Brother died. The wish granter can not change the past. It is permanent. The wish granter could make an exact copy of the vessel. With the same memories, body, and personality, but the original vessel would still be dead. Though some vessels would argue that this does not matter, copied vessels do not always agree. Especially since they remember the original dying.‘ The calmness of the voice really started to grate on me.

’Useless piece of trash!‘ I stood ready to strike, but stopped myself. Yuri still needed it. I let out a curse as I stomped the ground. I nearly had made it all right again. But nearly was just another word for ‘not at all’. Just like getting something that was “nearly” Brother was as bad as not getting Brother back at all. Changelings were interchangeable when it came to our jobs and positions, but we weren’t just copies of each other. I could never insult Brother like that, to treat him like he was just a tool and not something more. And what of his copy? Who brought someone in the world knowing they would have to die a few months later? It was unacceptable.

I stopped my brooding as I felt a hand land softly on my mane. My friend was crouched beside me. “You did everything you could.” For once I did not swat him away.

’And it just wasn’t good enough,‘ I spat the words out.

He pulled me a bit closer. “I didn’t know him all that well, but I think he would have been proud that you made it.” I said nothing, but after a while I nodded.

I gently shook the human’s hand off. ’There’s no sense in wasting any more time. Go make your wish.’

The human sighed and stood up. “I’m ready.” The orb hovered in silent anticipation. “Can I see my station?”

’Certainly,‘ the artifact said. Another tear slowly opened. I had to admit I was somewhat curious. I had seen the station in his memories and heard about it in our talks, but minds and words were not always reliable. With a jump I was in the air and hovering next to the human.

Tall and thin figures huddled about, sleeping on cold stonework in the dark or beneath ragged tents. There were too many of them for the precious little space they had, that was something I could see plainly. Humans stepping over humans, bumping into each other and sucking in air that must have been poor in oxygen, judging from the dull eyes and people holding their heads.

It must have been a rotten existence for anyone but a changeling.

It was a bizarre sight. I didn’t believe many had ever seen an alien world. The strangest thing was, the more I looked at it, the more familiar it seemed. If I ignored the strange, lanky bodies, it was somewhat like looking at a Hive. If I closed my eyes I could almost see myself walking down there, among them.

Yuri let out a sharp breath. “I’m not too late.” He shivered as he spoke again. “It’s not too late, but-” He stared through the rift for a moment longer, observing a few men and women exchanging bullets for what might have been food and clothes as they spoke their strange words. It seemed to give him some comfort to hear his own language again, even if they were said in such an abysmal marketplace. He looked at me for a moment before speaking. “It’s not supposed to still be this crowded. Something must have-” he swallowed. “Wish granter, show me my friends.”

Another tear opened up and it revealed a world of ice and ash. Winds were violently blowing up snow against ruined gigantic square buildings. One of them had half collapsed in on itself and spread over a dark road that was blocked by rusted heaps of metal. “Cars”, I plucked the word from Yuri’s mind, but he himself didn’t really understand what it meant. I felt my breath quickening as I looked at the carcass of a city that had once surpassed whatever this world held.

My friend let out a shout as he looked closer at the broken road. Something was scurrying excitedly down near the metal husks. Sickly creatures with grey patches of rough fur and long, emaciated forms clawed at each other as they fought for the slumped over rags in their middle. The creatures’ faces were dumpy and round, with a mouth that spread across it like an axe wound. Much like a wound, there was blood pouring out from their maws. I recognized the clumps they were eating from. I had seen them in my own human’s mind before: Sasha, Sergei and Stepan. ’That’s enough.’ I glanced over to Yuri as the tears closed.

“I- It’s just like- they couldn’t- they-“ His hands tightened into shaking fists as he closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and opened them again, the seemed empty. “I was expecting it, but seeing it is a different thing.” He tried to smile at me, but it was a losing battle.

To my own surprise I hugged him. It was an awkward maneuver, he was much broader than my Sisters and Brothers and my legs did not bend in the right places, but somehow I managed. After a moment he answered with a hug of his own. We didn’t say anything. We both knew that no words could help.

After a while the human let me go and I returned to the ground. “It’s okay. I’m okay.” He wiped his face. “It’s okay.” He straightened himself and turned to the Wish Granter again, “I need some answers.”


“Was it true, what they said? About what happens when humans die?” He stood defiantly, like he dared the Wish Granter to talk, but I could sense the nervousness oozing from him. “What would happen if the remaining humans came here?”

’It was correct,‘ the orb glowed once again. ’If human vessels were to come to this world, they would be unstoppable. No other vessels would be able to oppose them. Every human vessel that died would make the place of dead uninhabitable for anyone else. Their territory would stretch as far as they desired and would be theirs forever until the end of this world. But when they die the vessels will not pass on and be stuck in a magical feedback loop that would last far past the end of this world. Just as they are now locked in the vessel’s original world. Noted side effect: human vessels would concentrate magic upon their dead in such a way that all vessels that are reliant on magic would be extinct within an estimated three hundred years if two thousands humans were to arrive today. It is more likely however that the vessels of this world would try to exterminate the human vessels as soon as they arrive in this world. Their armies are not in place and they will likely fail. Estimates are the native vessels will be broken and defeated in 2 years if they try this tactic.‘

“I see,” was my friend’s quiet answer. “What if- what if I wished for our own world to be healed? If I wished for the poison, radiation, monsters and dust clouds to simply go away? Could we have at least that?”

’Possible. Side note: there is currently a buffer of several billion dead human vessels. To overcome this buffer such an amount of magic needs to be subtracted from this world that all magic reliant vessels would perish instantly.‘ The voice answered in its cold way.

“So we’re doomed either way.” Silence answered him. “But- but we could live here. If I wished it. Everyone back home is going to die if I don’t. Everyone. I only have to wish it.“ For one moment I felt a wave of dark emotions emanating from the human. For the first instance in our time together he was tempted to make the practical choice. It was like catching a glimpse into mirror of how I used to be. It made my chitin crawl.

The ponies said love was a healing force, a force of good that would bring harmony to the world. I had been guided by love for my family when I stole, ruined lives and did worse. Now the human was considering killing this world, because he loved his own people too much to let them die. It struck me that it was fitting that we fed on that emotion. Something that was disguising itself as something good, when it could turn into such a cruel and wretched thing in a moment.

I stared at Yuri’s slumped shoulders with unease. I had to help him. I had to do something, but what could be done? How I wished I still had access to the Hive. Then I could ask thousands to think alongside me. I shook my head. It was useless to think about that now. There had to be some way, I just had to be clever, like a changeling. My ears shot up. Perhaps there was one way.

’Wish Granter,‘ I started. ’Could changelings steal the magic from these “ghosts”?‘ Yuri looked at me incredulously. ’To put them to rest,‘ I added.

’Theoretically,‘ the Wish Granter said.

’What’s that supposed to mean? Can we or can’t we do it?‘

’It can theoretically be done. To clarify: imagine magic is like heat. Heat flows to places that are relatively colder. Vessels are special in that they can extract “heat” from the environment in higher concentrations than the background “temperature” and keep it from flowing away, but only to a certain degree. If something extremely “cold” were to be placed next to it, the vessel would lose its “heat”. In essence, this is how both changeling vessels and dead human vessels extract magic from other vessels. Dead human vessels are “colder” than anything in the world. Even changeling vessels can’t extract magic from them. However, it is possible to alter changeling vessels in such a way that they can become even “colder” and steal the magic from the dead vessel until it is dispersed. The problem is that there is always background magic, which would flow in fast rates towards these two “cold” vessels. The human vessel would be impossible to deplete in practice.‘

I blinked as I tried to process it all. How could we have this much power and still be unable to do anything? But what there was something the Wish Granter had said that would make it possible. ’What if there was no more background magic?‘

’With no background magic a sufficiently altered changeling vessel could disperse a dead human vessel in an average of five minutes.‘

My friend eyed me nervously. “What is this, Dozor?”

I hushed him. ’Let me think for a moment. Is it possible to close this connection between our worlds, so that no more magic flowed between them?‘

’Certainly,‘ came the unfeeling answer again. ’When cut off from this side, there would be no need to overcome the magical buffer of the other world’.

’And is it possible to alter a changeling in such a way that she could use magic to purify an environment?‘

The orb hovered in silence for a moment. ’If enough dead vessels are dispersed it is possible to purify an area of a certain size. Estimation: completely restoring the human vessel’s home city to a habitable state would cost one hundred and fourteen years of continuous work for a single changeling vessel. With further modifications, the changeling vessel could sustain itself for the necessary time span.‘

“Dozor, you don’t need to do this.” My human had evidently picked up on the plan that was forming in my head. He was, once again, being too soft.

’I have nothing left here. I’m no longer a Scout, my family has cast me out and I have no purpose or role in this world. If I stay here, I’ll be nothing and die so slowly over the years I’ll not even notice when the end comes.‘ I avoided my friend’s face as I stared intently at the golden sphere. ’And I have to make things right. Do you know how many have suffered because of me?‘ I shrugged my wings. ’Because I don’t. I lost count of that long ago. No. I never even counted them, because it all didn’t matter to me.‘

“My world isn’t your responsibility.” The human was becoming red in the face again, as he was want to do when he started arguing. “It’s not your fault. You don’t have to become some- some kind of slave to punish yourself.” He gestured at the entrance we had come from. “If you must make amends, do it here.”

’I want to do this! I have to do it!‘ I stomped the ground, but he did not relent.

“You’re forgiven, okay?” The human blurted out and I stopped. “I forgive you for it all. Now please, please don’t do this.” When no reply came he pushed on. “You have to understand. We are done for. It’s over for us. We’re not even going to make it for a hundred years anymore.” He grew quiet and stared at the tiles. “Don’t throw yourself away for a lost cause. Go and live in this world. Try to find some happiness or forgiveness here.”

A sad smile formed on my face. ’Forgiven? Yuri, you know you can’t lie to me.‘ The warmth of the fake sun caressed my face and for the first time in ages I felt a deep sense of purpose and peace descend on me. ’I always admired my Mother. To bring so much happiness to your children. To see them grow up to be strong and healthy. Her life is sacrifice, but one made with no regrets.‘ I unfurled my wings as I let the warmth of this place soak into me. ’If I no longer have a purpose, I think I should chose a new one. I think I’d like to be a Mother. At least of sorts.‘ Yuri was silent, watching me with great intent as his lips formed a thin line. ’Us lost causes have to stick together, you know. And I’m afraid you sold me on mankind a long time ago, human.’

I looked into the golden sphere once again. The face it reflected was distorted, looking like another changeling entirely. A changeling that would not live like a ghoul feeding on others and stalking in the shadows. One that could look in the eyes of others without shame or hiding herself. Her name was Dozor.

“Are you-“

’I am sure.’

The human rubbed his neck as he looked to the side. “My world is unkind. Not just the poison and ice on the surface, but some of the people as well. Not all of them will understand or care. It will be a dangerous life.”

’I suppose I’d need a guide of some kind, if that’s the case.’ I gave him a coy smile as I took to the air and hovered at eye level.

“I suppose you do.” He stuck out his hand. “Together?”

’Together’ I nodded as I stuck out my own hoof.

Unexpectedly he enveloped my hoof with both of his hands. For a second it looked like he was going to say something, but he thought better of it. After a gentle squeeze he let go and ruffled my mane.

’Hey!’ I shouted, trying to pretend to be annoyed, but we both couldn’t stop smiling.

For one moment I wondered what the ponies would think when they finally got past the shield and happened upon this room. And when they would finally discovered after weeks or years that no humans would ever again be found in their lands and that they had been saved. Would they think we had failed somehow? Would they believe some strange kind of mercy had been granted to them by these strange creatures from another world? Those creatures that had seemed foolish to the point of self-destruction, those creatures who had worked together with parasites that shared so many of their qualities. What would their history books say of this encounter, if anything at all?

Maybe they would deem it better to simply forget about the whole ordeal, to forget mankind and all its paradoxical motives and movements. To not think about the changelings who had haunted them for so long. I would not condemn them for it. Still, some part of me hoped they would look back on this, every now and again, and think of us.

Maybe it would one day make the difference. I had no idea how, but maybe one day there would be more changelings like me. On that day, perhaps the ponies would remember. A seed of doubt that had been planted in their minds that said maybe it didn’t have to be like it was now.

I straightened myself. That wasn’t for me to know anymore.

Smiling to Yuri again, I nodded. There we stood, next to each other, as we turned and addressed the Wish Granter for our final wishes.

It was time to go home.

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