Basic Training: Hunter
[Linked Book Entry]
Hmmm, an interesting turn of events... and an another failure of course.
I reached the changeling hive near the castle of two sisters with no problems since the road is fairly frequently used by visitors these days. I wasn't expecting any of that but is looks like the peace treaty worked well enough, too well maybe. The changeling tourist welcoming squad was having difficult time accommodating all ponies set on visiting the old city and seeing the pre-Luna's banishment architecture and none of them actually had any idea what they were doing. I think the tourists didn't mind though. Seeing changelings as normal beings rather than ruthless predators can only help Chrysalis in her dealings with ponies.
Speaking of Chrysalis...
She recognized me. Even despite having a completely new body she didn't hesitate for a second when I entered the ancient city and went straight for me. It was the mark of the hive friend that somehow remained through my repeated deaths that gave me off. We didn't have much time to talk the last time we met but the tour of the city accompanied by the explanations of the changeling queen was calming. She was actually very, maybe a bit too much, interested in Guiding Light but I think there won't be any trouble, at least from my daughter's side. Guiding and the single digit amount of her Nightmares just don't pose a threat to Chrysalis in any way and Guiding herself has no intentions of taking Chrysalis' hive over.
I'm glad that the state of changeling population has stabilized. They are still hungry but none of them are dying from starvation and Chrysalis is happy. Almost as happy as the time we killed a hydra together and travelled through the Everfree for two weeks without her having to think about the state of her race.
Back to business. Happy memories won't give me anything, not anymore.
Scream's statue is still there but I wasn't able to contact her. I made it to her dream dimension all right but nopony was there. Bones, yes. Expensive decorations, yes. Golden alicorn, no. I would assume she's somewhere with Void but the place looked as if nopony was there in ages. The time in pocket dimensions flies differently but it seems Scream will be unreachable for help for some time.
When I returned I tried asking Chrysalis for help but she's not good at complex magic as well so while she can confuse the mind she can't untangle two souls mashed together by a lot of coincidences.
I'll have to think of some other way or somepony else who can help. It doesn't help that Sombra's laughing at my efforts.
Is it even possible for me to succeed?
I'm not sure what Choking's real rank is but everyone calls her commander or some other nickname she approves of so I'm not pressing the issue.
It's after evening practice and I'm getting ready to fly home since I can't feel my paws. Considering how exhausted most of the others look I might be the lucky one.
"I think ya missed the invitation since ya don't live in the recruit barracks but I've organized a little get-together for ya newbies to mix with the veterans. Everypony is invited."
"Great! What time?"
"Starts at eight, don't be late!"
"A sexy batpony and a poet?" I tease Choking, feeling she deserves it for the way she leads her lessons. I mean there's blatant sexual harrassment and then there's her who thinks the entire group is some sort of harem getting in shape for her.
"Yep. An evening with a bunch of fit stallions and I get to pick whoever I want, maybe even a griffon? Who wouldn't be happy?"
"I thought you and Heavy were an item."
"I wish. Sweet Luna how I wish that was possible but Heavy's purely into stallions so no dice. As far as I know he's available," she winks at me conspiratorially, "and so am I."
"And you prefer?"
"Anything that can move all night."
I wonder why I bothered asking.
"Can I bring someone?"
"Sure! The more the merrier. Care to give me a sneak peek?"
"I just wanted to ask Mistake. It would be nice to know someone there and he could use a little break."
I'm not sure he'll accept but he needs cheering up. After he returned from his little trip he felt distant and gloomier than usual. I wish I understood the journal entries a little more but they seem to speak of things that happened long time ago.
"He's coming. I asked him yesterday."
"Oh? Good. Should I wear anything?"
She circles around me and whistles approvingly.
"As far as I'm concerned I think ya'd just be hiding the good stuff. Unfortunately, the thing is being held in one of the castle ballrooms I borrowed from princess Celestia who requires at least some sort of formal attire. Most recruits are just coming in the uniforms they got."
Oh, right. All recruits got a suit for special occasions such as the necessity of one of them helping out during official meetings due to the low amount of members of the Guard. Funnily enough, I got mine last Friday since it took a while to make.
"Mhm. Thanks for inviting me and see you at eight."
"No problem. Have fun!" she spreads her strange wings and flies straight to one of the open windows on the higher floors of the castle. I must admit her phoenix wing flapping in the air makes her look like a firefly against the dark sky.
Well, no time to dawdle. I have to get myself suited up.
There's noone in my apartment but I see Mistake's uniform still lying folded up on the dresser. He doesn't arrive during me showering and grabbing a small snack but I know there's no reason to rush. The thing starts at eight but the real action always comes way later. Still, making a good impression might be worth some points.
Clean, smelling fresher than mountain air, and wearing an amazingly well-fitting gold-decorated suit I lock the apartment door and set on the way back to the castle. This way have no reason to rush and I can look around the place before the fun begins.
Wiping my boots and washing my hands, I slip into the ballroom right as the bell rings.
Choking wasn't kidding when she said she borrowed the ballroom from princess Celestia. While there isn't a bustle of servants completely killing the mood there still is an open bar and tables on the sides of the room with food of all sorts and few ponies sitting around, ready to serve anyone. No meat though, life sucks.
Aside from the servants there's few couples of guards I don't know and two changelings huddling together in the corner. I was wondering at first about their names but it came out neither of them actually had a real one. Changelings just know each other by their characteristics and can feel mind differences between them in the hive. Unfortunately, ponies can't casually read minds and the normal changeling got the name Shaky thanks to his nervousness whenever he was talking to someone. The female Nightmare changeling's name is Three and I don't think I've heard anyone use it because there wasn't a reason to. Drill sargeants usually yell at the ones unsuccessful in their exercises and she didn't fail in her duty a single time.
"Hello, guys. Why so early?" I wave at them and approach.
"Well, erm, commander Choking said this started at eight and nopony is here. Are we at a different party or something? I thought-"
Three puts a hoof on his back and he stops.
"There's a pony saying that goes 'The hero always arrives fashionably late' and that's true for the club scene as well. Don't worry, they will come," I calm Shaky down.
"I'm just so nervous. I've heard princess Celestia herself might attend and what would she think about a changeling so close to her?"
"About a future Royal Guard so close to her," Three corrects him.
"Exactly," I support her, "She'll be proud the two of you are the first changelings officially in the Guard and that you're doing so well."
"My ears are burning," says a calm, motherly voice from behind us.
The white alicorn is standing there, complete with the sun cutie mark and rainbow colored, flowing mane.
"Your Highness!" the three of us choke in unison.
"At ease. Miss Darkness organizes this event every year and I always enjoy meeting somepony other than the nobles I deal with every day. I've heard that few more exotic high-profile guests are scheduled to come though."
"Oh?" I'm the only one able to speak. Possibly not because I'm the only one not having to look straight at the princess' neck. She's taller even than a griffon but she completely overshadows the changeling couple.
"Queen Chrysalis will be coming and queen Guiding Light as well. I tried to get my sister to attend as well but she's still afraid of meeting young Guiding after last time."
This time I have trouble believing the latest journal entry. Is Mistake the father of a changeling queen? Moreso, he's a father?! As far as I know he's like four years older than me so either there's something strange about changeling aging process or I'm missing some details here.
"Excuse me, your H- princess," I scratch my head nervously, "I think my stomach needs disaster relief. Pony food tastes good but isn't too filling to a griffon."
"Bon appetit, young griffon," Celestia smiles and tries to strike a conversation with Shaky who seems to be suffering a heart attack and a stroke at the same time.
The guests begin streaming in as I chew some sort of chocolate ice cream treat. Sweets are pretty good as an energy source when there's no meat around but one can't overdo it. Experimenting with various coctail snacks, I watch the ballroom entrance for familiar faces.
A visage that strikes terror to me despite never seeing that being before enters, followed by a changeling very resembling Three. Griffons are taught to dread and despise changelings from early age as the deadliest enemy of the entire race and the image of a changeling queen is something we have burned in our minds. I suppose that must be Guiding Light. Funnily enough, her reaction to the slowly growing crowd of guests watching her is more similar to Shaky's than to a being of supposedly infinite power. She's also much smaller than I thought she would be.
The first familiar pony arrives by herself, astonishingly. Choking, wearing a red night gown, grins as she looks around the room, presumably searching for prey.
"Holy hellfire," I mumble when I see a pair coming through the door few minutes later.
Mistake enters the room wearing a tight, black, satin jacket decorated with silver inlay on its long sleeves and a pair of pants made in the same style. I must admit that while it makes him look older it fits him perfectly. Who's way more interesting though is the blindingly white pegasus walking by his side. Gorgeous doesn't even begin to fit the bill. She's wearing a see-through green corset and a matching skirt but those seem like obstacles to her real accessories which are gems all over her body set in a pattern that makes my gaze naturally flow from her green eyes to her wide hips accentuated by the corset. Honestly, I feel dirty just by looking but I guess that's the point.
The killing blow comes when princess Celestia welcomes the pegasus personally and bows before her.
My shock turns to disappointment when I see Heavy Hoof, who stops and takes a deep breath before facing the other guests, accompanied by a grey batpony stallion who looks calmly at the crowd and just rubs his muzzle against Heavy's neck when he sees him being uncomfortable. That makes Heavy blush even more and the purple-maned batpony grins and takes the first step down the short stairs leading to the room.
Too bad, I hoped Heavy was single and that idea disappeared with the batpony's first show of affection.
Oh well, time to mingle.
"Heya, buddy!" I tap Mistake on the shoulder, "Cool outfit. Who's the gorgeous lady?"
Normally, such interruption would be annoying as heck but his companion seems to be deep in conversation with princess Celestia.
"An old friend," Mistake smiles and brushes an invisible speck of dust from his shoulder.
"Just friend? Mind if I work my charm on her then?" I look knowingly at him.
I certainly wasn't expecting him to start laughing and immediately stick a hoof into his mouth.
"No problem whatsoever," his devilish grin sort of undermines my courage but I decide to show him.
How could an antisocial guy like him land somepony like her I'll never understand but if he's cool with it then I'm willing to pick up the thrown glove.
Summoning the entirety of my swag, I walk to the princess and the pegasus.
"Mind if I borrow your beautiful guest, your Highness? I promise I'll return her unharmed and pleased by my company."
Okay, now even princess Celestia is openly laughing at me with the pegasus looking at me surprisedly.
"Will you accept the invitation, your Majesty?" princess Celestia stops the last snicker and looks at the pegasus.
The pegasus smiles widely and I notice for the first time a set of fangs no pony should have.
"I didn't know you catered to our kind, Celestia, but I'm not hungry yet. Maybe after I finish the important business at hoof-"
Small green flames flicker all over the pegasus and I take a step back. Instead of the white beauty there stands a black being as tall as Celestia but one with fly-like wings and teal mane.
Now THAT is the image of a true changeling queen I know and that makes my legs shake.
"-I would hate to disappoint your guests though. Feel free to find me after the party," her eyes flash, "Cromach, and I'll make sure you get a reward you'll never forget."
"Gnnngh," I can only stare into the emerald eyes, awaiting her to devour me right here and now.
Princess Celestia's giggle chases away the chill running through my every vein and Chrysalis disguises herself again and strides away, eyes locked on Guiding Light.
Mistake, I will do something horrible to you for this! I'm talking chilli-flavored itching powder on the toilet paper grade terrible.
I notice him eating food in the corner but I can't just go back to admit defeat.
Changing my approach, I decide to snoop around Heavy Hoof.
"Hello, sargeant," I look at his companion, "Bringing fresh meat for commander Darkness? Just kidding! Is this hansome pony your friend?"
To my surprise, the batpony looks questioningly at Heavy who nods slightly after a moment of thought.
"A griffon?" the batpony measures me sternly but warmly.
"Cromach, one of the fresh recruits," Heavy introduces me, "He used to be a Griffon Imperial Legion soldier but now he does pushups whenever I tell him."
The batpony closes his eyes and sighs deeply.
"Cromach... that name brings memories," he suddenly stands at attention and salutes me crisply, "Tio Cross, changeling special services. You have inherited a powerful, yet unlucky, name."
"You... remember?" I try to understand.
"I was there when Cromach and his phoenix friend were betrayed by the city council he was supposed to protect from us. If it means anything to you, we gave him a proper warrior's burial. A hero like him deserved it, I haven't fought anypony so close to my skill since then."
The... changeling must be at least two centuries old. What is he doing with Heavy?
"I... just got the name, that's all," I smile, unsure of Cross' reaction, "Nevermind that, how did the two of you got together?"
This time Cross grins nervously, scratches his chin and looks once again at Heavy.
"My last coltfriend, Sharp Biscuit, was princess Luna's bodyguard who got killed during the last invasion. This," he nudges Cross, "dirtbag and his buddies hunted me and my unit during a mission and he tried to feed from me by turning into Sharp-"
"And I got my ass handed to me by this young colt-"
"Oh shush," Heavy waves his hoof, "I attacked him and got stomped into the ground. Later, for some reason, he kept trying to apologize to me for staining Sharp's image and I eventually stopped throwing rocks at him and we're sort of trying things out carefully. Remember our Saturday practice, Cromach? Darky said I was the best at fighting but this guy can tie my legs in a knot without really trying."
"Not anymore. Now I actually have to stop reading a book while I do so," Cross grins.
I recall something else.
"You said you were a close third when it comes to skill, sargeant."
Cross raises an eyebrow as well.
"I think the drill sargeant who taught me not to be ashamed of being a colt cuddler and who introduced me to Sharp would make even Cross here sweat," says Heavy.
Now I grin sadly. Another piece of the puzzle falls in place. Now I know who 'Sharp' whom Mistake's journal mentioned was.
"Sorry to bring out the heavy, heh, stuff, sargeant," I apologize, "Have a nice evening, guys!"
"Good luck on your life journey, Cromach," Cross bows, "I'm sure you'll make your namesake proud."
Nature calls. Perhaps I shouldn't have drunk so much stuff but the coctails here are freaking delicious.
The bathroom door opens while I'm washing my hands and an unremarkable brown unicorn enters. When he doesn't move from the door I look into the large mirror reflecting the entrance and immediately spin away when I spot a dart gun aimed at me.
My limbs go numb in less than ten seconds and only a groan escapes my mouth when I try to call for help.
"Third time's the charm, as they say," the unicorn chuckles.
I'm barely able to shake my head to fight off the coming haze.
"Oh. Where are my manners?" his horn glows and he turns into an earthpony I know and dread, "It's so useful disguising myself as a mudpony. Everypony underestimates you."
I try to scramble myself from the floor but all I manage is planting my face into the tiles.
"Hmmm... perhaps I overdid the dosage," he muses, "Ah well, time to get my reward."