The Growing Years

This story is a sequel to A Different Perspective
Both the House of Path and Herd Path enjoy strong growth in the years following their establishment. Like all such things though, they both have their highlights and lowlights. These are vignettes in the lives of the children of Twilight, Path, Free, & Roseclaw, from foals to young adults.
This is a series of stand-alone stories of events that occur after the events of A Different Perspective, which I strongly recommend that you read first.
My collaborator, AlaskaIsCold, has written some of these and I mostly just edited them.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/296939/the-growing-years

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19. The Fall

THE NEED

It had started slowly at first – the need to know! Nobody understood it, not even when Epiphany tried to explain it to others. Her mind was a mini-nexus, capable of being the next hub in the new Chrome Hive, and she craved to make full use of it. To this end, she had pursued many avenues of inquiry, often with the assistance of Techbird, but all with the same goal – knowledge!

Pif had been working on her latest experiment, delving into the nature of the hives and how their limited-range communication worked. For months she had been devising various theories with Techbird, and hours upon hours were spent in their lab. The prototype device had ended up being nearly half the size of the large room, and merely describing what it was could easily take several pages if it was publicized. Basically though, it was an arcano-harmonic resonator, able to mimic a new kind of wave that Techbird had been exploring. More testing was needed though; a lot more testing. It looked like the she was going to be putting in long nights from here on out.

# # #

Chrysalis was going about her business and generally feeling the condition of the hive as she worked. She had the Saddle Arabian royal family under her hoof, but it needed her attention occasionally to ensure it stayed that way. Her hive got to enjoy the tribute it received from them, and she was happy with the satisfaction level of her drones, a far cry from the nearly mindless hordes that she had previously raised.

So what was distracting her right now? From the fringe of her hive network, Chrysalis could feel… something. Given the distance that Saddle Arabia was from Griffonia, it was much too far to get anything but an impression of feelings.

The queen narrowed her eyes as she contemplated from her throne room. “What is happening over there that pricks on my consciousness so?” In the end, what else could she do but dispatch agents to investigate the cause?

# # #

Today was the day; Pif knew it! She just had to tune it… come on… almost there… got it! Her eyes went wide as the device seemed to resonate with her mini-network, and it suddenly expanded hugely, strengthening all of the links until she could hear the minds of some of her hive’s furthest members. She clearly sensed one reading a book on old Crystal Kingdom history in Canterlot before the system’s power breaker tripped, and the network lost all of its artificial intensity. What she didn’t realize was that her mini-network wasn’t the only one affected.

# # #

Back in the Blue Hive, far away from the western world, Chrysalis was meeting with her Griffonian agents, and one had a smile of satisfaction on his muzzle. He told Chrysalis how Pif was currently working on an experiment, toying with the nature of the hive network, as well as trying to boost transmission strength. The strange sensations that Chrysalis had felt were the result of those experiments. It was apparently a black project, so finding out about it had been extremely difficult, and the agent had been justifiably proud of his success.

Just then the old queen felt it, but just for a brief moment. If it had been anybody else, or if she had been distracted, she would have missed it, but there was a flicker and for a brief moment one of her furthest drones on her network dimmed and faded out of existence, only to appear again stronger than usual before reducing back to normal. Chrysalis smiled as she realized the implications of those experiments. Communications was a powerful tool, and in her hooves, it could advance her plans immensely.

The next breakthrough came a week later when, for some reason, she actually heard the thoughts of one of her agents on the House Path team. From the fog of distance, the one drone lit up like a star, causing confusion from the rest of the much closer hive. It only lasted for a few seconds, but the words Chrysalis heard were: “…the nymph is starting her…”

So many questions unanswered! Chrysalis was concerned. What was her granddaughter doing? How was she making this happen? If Epiphany was experimenting with Chrome Changelings, how was it that Chrysalis' Blue agent's connection was suddenly amplified enough for her to hear its thoughts briefly?

A few days later, one of her drones on the fringe of the network started dimming and brightening, never fading away but never becoming as bright as before. A few days after that, one of her 'lings from the House Path mole taskforce ran into her throne room.

“My Queen! I bring news about your granddaughter!”

The infiltrator seemed to be extremely well fed, far more than was normal for one of her new breed of soldier-harvesters. This aroused Chrysalis’ suspicions. “Well? Don't keep me waiting!”

“Her experiments! She’s been uncovering the underlying properties of how a hive-link and the network works, and we believe she’s made a breakthrough! She somehow found out about us, perhaps through those same experiments, but she didn’t out us or hurt us… well, not intentionally.”

Chrysalis frowned. “You are supposedly my best infiltrators, and yet ‘somehow’ you were discovered and used. This information that you bring had better be very useful, or else I might have to replace you... permanently!” she said with a hiss. Then she smiled benevolently. “So, my granddaughter has apparently achieved something thought impossible. Tell me more.”

The drone looked up at Chrysalis, locking eyes with her, somewhat afraid. “She told me to say, ‘Hello, GramGram. I see you.’ ” The drone’s eyes went wide as green magic flames started climbing up his legs, beginning a transformation, and its position on the hive network lit up light a blinding star. Several other changelings had lit up as well, each further from the hive than the next, strung out along a line that led towards the griffon kingdom. It looked like a link of five changelings, each burning up love energy at a prodigious rate. The drone in front of her was gradually starting to transform, but it was taking longer than normal and was burning a lot more love than it should.

Chrysalis smiled broadly. She had already suspected that her agent might not be fully hers anymore, and it seemed her suspicions were about to be vindicated. “Hello, Granddaughter.”

The drone fully shifted into Pif’s hybrid form which occasionally blurred a bit as she grinned up at Chrysalis. It looked like she was talking, maybe to one of the drones in the link. “Maximum communication duration... 91 seconds. Signal variance... within expectations.” Her grin widened. “I would say something witty, but this is the first time this has fully worked. Are you wondering how I was able to do this?” The form blurred and reformed.

“Of course, dear child. You have done something very new, and potentially very helpful to my plans. Which begs the question – why are you showing it to me?”

The form shifted and shimmered a few times. “Because I wanted to see you, GramGram.” She started to walk around the larger queen as she smiled. “I also wanted to let you know what I’ve been up to.”

There was a lot more activity on the hive network, far more than there should be, the entire network was confused and chaos was starting to erupt.

“As your agent probably has told you by now, I have been looking into the nature of the hive network, figuring out how it works at its most basic level, trying to find out why communication diminishes with distance and whether it could be amplified... questions like these!”

“And you obviously made a breakthrough.” Chrysalis smiled slyly. “Perhaps something that I can glean from my agent once you're done with him.”

Pif started to chuckle. “Oh, he’s just the end point, but I’ll tell you what I’m doing anyway, GramGram. I’ve amplified your drone’s communication signal while I’m using your other agents as relays to him so I can gain access via the remaining drone that I still have here in my laboratory. They are still yours – I won’t steal from you, Gramgram. I’m just borrowing them. I figure it’s only fair, right?” Pif’s grin started to get wider. “After all, you have been spying on me, so it’s reasonable that I return the favor. You might get things from this drone, but right now I’m copying everything that’s on your hive network from the point you rebuilt it onward.”

The reason for the chaos and the nearly maxed-out network activity was explained as Pif’s grin darkened. “I know where you are. I know the numbers you command. I know your strengths and your weak points. I know your plans. I know it all! However, it’s not enough, Gramgram. I need to know more, and now that I know this works with a similar network, I need to see if I can do this with the others. I will know everything!” The form flickered again as Pif reached up and gave Chrysalis a hug. “But I won’t do anything to harm you with what I know. You’re my GramGram!”

Chrysalis stiffened at Pif's boast. Suddenly it all made sense. Her agent was now the relay that not only let Pif communicate with her, but to also draw upon the hive-mind while Pif distracted her with the chat. At first she was furious at the invasion, but then she suddenly broke into loud laughter. “Well done, Epiphany. I knew that you would achieve great things, but even I had no idea that you would do something like this. You are indeed the granddaughter I deserve. Contact me again when you wish to ally yourself with me to advance your plans.”

Pif smiled as her form flickered again. “Poke into this one's mind for your Hearth’s Warming gift once the network has stabilized. Only five seconds left. See you later, GramGram.” Pif’s form suddenly burned off and the drone collapsed to the ground, panting like it had just run a marathon. Chrysalis watched the link break apart, and the drones that made the link up were very dim after having burned up so much love to maintain the connection. None of her drones had been destroyed, nor removed from her control, so it appeared that Pif could ‘ride’ on the network but could not grab and take the members of it.

The drone looked up at her weakly. “My Queen... what happened?”

Chrysalis frowned at the drone. “What happened? You compromised my entire hive and gave away all its secrets. There is only one reason why I won't kill you right now.”

The drone looked shocked and horrified. It tried to speak, but terror locked him up. Eventually he managed to squeak, “Why?”

“Because you still have something I want!” Chrysalis' force of will knocked the drone to its knees, and its mind opens up to her.

The drone started to scream as his mind was forcefully stripped of its memories. It looked like there was one especially strong memory. He was looking at a chalkboard with Pif talking to one of her supervisor drones. “Now if we had a reliable source of pure sand of this type, we could use this process to create a new kind of glass. Without getting too technical, it’s a multifaceted lattice that allows love to be stored in a solid form with a density several times greater than that of even the most advanced amorphous love gels.” She tapped the board a few times. “I need that sand! Go and figure out where I can find it!”

All of the formulas and tables were on the board, and the supervisor rubbed his head with concern. “That’s going to take a lot of sand, and a lot of energy to fuse it; how would we get so much without raising flags with Free and Iridia?”

“I’m not sure yet. Just find me a source and I’ll worry about it later.”

Chrysalis chuckled. If there was anything that Saddle Arabia had in abundance, it was many varieties of sand. “Thank you, Granddaughter,” she murmured to herself.

When she had finished securing every last bit of the drone's knowledge, she released it, and it collapsed to the floor in a groaning heap. “Thank you for you services, but they will no longer be required.” She then powered up her horn and blasted it to ashes. “And you shall not be of service to my granddaughter ever again either.” She turned to an attendant. “Recall all my other spies. They are going to be ‘retired’ also.”

As the attendant hastened to do Chrysalis’ bidding, she smiled to herself. “My dear Epiphany, you aren't the only queen to withhold critical information from the hive-mind.” She then burst out into maniacal laughter that went on for far too long.

# # #

THE DISAGREEMENT

Free passed a tray of cookies to Path as they enjoyed their favorite drinks. “By the way, Pif's up to twelve drones now.” He might not like being a queen, but he was not a fool either.

Path looked over at Free as he set his newspaper down. “She’s not being the very stealthy about it, is she? I mean a blocked-off section of the hive mind – I imagine it would have been the equivalent of me putting a tape line in the bedroom.”

Free chuckled. “She's good, but not experienced at subterfuge yet.”

Path rolled his eyes. “Can you figure out what the twelve are up to? I don’t imagine they would be spies, but I am rather curious.”

Free grinned knowingly. “When I have thousands of eyes everywhere that are all connected to me, I don't need to assign any one drone to watch. They all do, and what they don't see directly, can be deduced. Anyway, it looks like she's trying to accumulate knowledge and manipulate that to build a power base that's separate from the Hive and the House, so when she takes over, she can leverage it to her advantage. However, as far as I can see, she's doing it in a way that doesn't hurt others, so I'm just watching for now to see how it plays out.”

Path raised an eyebrow “Why is that? I mean when she’s old enough, you’re just going to pass the hive to her anyway… Oh... she wants to get a power base that Princess Iridia doesn’t know about.” He brought his hoof to his chin and thought for a few moments. “You know she has been talking about technology and the like – maybe she’s planning a massive innovation boom once she’s in control, and she doesn’t want the Green Hive to steal her thunder”?

Free nodded. “Sounds very likely. She's very pragmatic, and strong in her beliefs that she has the right answers. She wouldn't want any others distorting her plans. Iridia would try to make her see a more traditional point of view, so she side-steps that possibility. However, she's trying to do the same with us, and she needs some balancing viewpoints, otherwise she could eventually become a tyrant. A benevolent one, perhaps, but still a tyrant.”

“Well, when you think about it, it kind of makes sense right? I mean she seems to take more after Techbird and Warfist than us. I try to guide her, but she doesn’t need me to help her with languages; she just takes it off the hive network and bam – she knows more languages than me. She gets frustrated with you because she can feel that you don’t want to be queen; Luna is busy with Destined, while Twilight and Rose are always busy with Lucida.” He sighed. “We need to spend time with her to get her to even out a bit. At the rate she’s going, all she’s going to see is numbers and figures. Less of a Queen and more of an administrator, you know?”

“Exactly. I think she's going to be a little bit shocked when I don't hand over the Hive to her.” Free smirked when he saw Path's expression. “Don't look at me like that! I might not like being the queen of the hive, but despite what Pif might think otherwise, I'm not going to drop it into her lap until I'm sure she's ready. As you pointed out, she's obsessed with Techbird, and the other kids have their favorites also. I propose we switch things about. Pif will have to spend time with Luna and you, and the others will have to switch around also. I don't expect them to be converted to other ways of thinking, but hopefully they’ll find some balance to theirs.”

Path chuckled a bit. “I’m worried though; if she’s already calculating that Iridia might be an issue, I don’t know how much she’s factored you and me into things. She might not take it well if she doesn't get control of the hive when she turns eighteen. It might cause the entire thing to blow up in our faces.” He folded the newspaper and shook his head. “I don’t see Pif enjoying time with Luna and myself.”

“I never promised Pif the hive at any age. I've only ever said that I wanted her to have it when she was ready. She's the one who has been assuming that she'd get it when she came of age. Anyway, liking the switch-around is not an obligation of her education. Some things we all need to learn the hard way. We sure did, remember? Luna especially, and that's why I reckon she's the best one to get Pif to understand that she has to be able to see things from different perspectives. Until then, Pif could be as big a problem as Nightmare Moon in her own way. I dunno - I'm not omniscient. I do worry a lot though.”

“There is another thing I noticed, Free. Are you keeping track of all of your tunnelers? Normally they are all below ground extending the hive, but I saw two of them wandering to the eastern part of Ponyville a few days ago. Are you building something over there?”

Free narrowed his eyes as he looked at Path and smirked. “What do you think I'm up to?”

Path rolled his eyes. “I don’t think it’s you. I’m thinking that maybe Pif is trying to set something up, and she’s banking on the fact that you can’t zoom in on every drone you have unless something big happens. The twelve she has might be functioning as decoys.”

Free looked thoughtful. “Hmm... She's right that I can't be checking on all my drones all the time, but I do have supervisor drones for that purpose. I can have them look into that discreetly.”

Path shrugged. “I was figuring we could just go for a walk and check it out ourselves.”

Free pondered that suggestion. “It might be a bit suspicious if she sees both of us there.” Magic fire flared and Free was replaced by a teenage earth pony mare. “But if you're showing around a new student perhaps?”

Path looked Free over. “Yeah, that could work. I could be showing you the local sights since it was near the library?”

“Lead on, Teacher!” Free said in a cute filly voice.

Path rolled his eyes slightly as he walked out of the main hall and into the outdoors. He walked alongside the filly as they crossed through the quad. As they passed by a group of ponies, Path said, “So as you can see, Star Flower, the grounds that we have allocated for agri-science are among the biggest in Equestria. Since this branch is in an area where there are primarily herbivores, we catered our programs primarily toward them. Likewise if you decide to transfer to our main campus in Griffonia, you would have the option to take animal husbandry or hunting classes, non-sapient species of course.” Path kept walking with her toward one side of the campus, the side that wasn’t very developed yet.

Free trotted around looking about like an eager schoolfilly. “Ooh! I love it! But what's that new structure going up over there? More classrooms?”

Path chuckled a bit as he started to walk over to the structure with the filly. Free saw a burrower changeling go inside and shut the door. However it failed to latch properly and the door creaked open again. “Hmm. Well, as you can see, this is one of our maintenance rooms. There are times when we need to set these up...” Path trailed off as he opened the door and waited for Free to come in with him.

Free hesitated, knowing that if she got too close, the burrowers would detect that she's a changeling too. “Is it safe to go on a work site? They might not like us going in there.” She hoped that Path got the hint.

Path nodded. “Ah, you’re correct. Well, let me just tell you that usually what’s going on in there is that they are just working on the grounds and what-not.” He closed the door and started to walk back toward the castle.

However, Free did not follow. She closed her eyes to concentrate on the hive-mind and detect how many changelings were nearby, and what type. She could tell that there were about thirty burrowers and three supervisor drones directly below them. Exactly how far below them was still an unknown. However, as she pinged the hive-mind, she could feel the state of Pif’s signature change, from focused to extremely agitated. She broke off and hastened after Path who remained unaware that any of this was going on, and continued giving a fake speech about the campus' agri-science program. They walked back into the main room where they started, only to find a very angry Pif waiting for them.

Free came to an abrupt halt as she saw Pif too late, and she knew the jig was up. She changed back to his normal griffon self and asked, “Something bothering you, Daughter?”

Pif was in her normal earth pony form, ears folded back against her head. “There was a 91.8 percent chance you would have just accepted the twelve that we both knew I sectioned off from the hive, and would leave it at that. Why won’t you let me have any privacy to work? This is important!” She stomped her front hooves on the ground in frustration.

Free shrugged. “An 8.2% chance of non-acceptance is a serious risk. It's not that you want to keep things from me that bothers me, because all teenagers do that. It's part of growing up, even if you're a changeling, or maybe especially if you're a changeling queen brought up in a herd. No, it's because you're running a double blind that made your actions suspicious. That's not mere teen angst but deliberate subterfuge. At this point, I suggest you start being more honest with us, or we might just get genuinely annoyed instead of merely concerned.”

Pif was a teen, and to make matters worse, she was a teen changeling queen, which meant her emotions started to reel out of control as she paced around, shifting forms every few seconds as she spoke, half to herself and half to Free. “You want me to be honest? Fine I’ll be honest! He won’t like what you have to say. He doesn’t have to!” She looked at Free. “Do you know how many things can go wrong at any given time and wreck everything? I’ve been doing the math – so much math! Do you know that if the percentage of changeling and pony birth rates vary by more than a few percent, it becomes an unsustainable situation?” She shifted into her griffon form which looked a lot like Techbird but a slightly different coloration. “In order for society to continue, there has to be rules. I made four rules to guide my research. One – Harmony triumphs over all! Two – the Lunar and Solar Diarchy must never fall! Three – the Crystal Kingdom must always remain strong and independent of all other countries! Four – the Nightmare must never be allowed to take another host!” She shifted again to her changeling form. “Do you know how hard it is to calculate everything that might lead to one of those rules being broken!”

Path cringed. “She’s having a Twilight-style freak out.”

Free just sighed. “So you like absolute rules? I have one - absolutes fail absolutely.” He walked over to Pif, wrapped a wing around her, and exerted a calming force that he hadn't had to use in a long while. “Let's have a look at those rules, shall we? Number one - Harmony is a balance, not an absolute. You must always work at keeping a balance, and be prepared to shift your stance. Number two - Both Celestia and Luna disagree with you, and they have vastly more experience than all of us put together. They are Aspects of Harmony, and know that the ultimate good of the world might be something other than the diarchy, even if it's the best thing right now. Number three - the Crystal Kingdom is the guardian of the Heart, not its keeper. If it sets itself apart from other countries, it might risk alienating them. A strong alliance might be the better solution. Number four - well, you really should check with Twilight about that one. Your mother probably knows best that even the worst can possibly be saved. The Nightmare is imbalanced, which is why Harmony can abolish it, but perhaps if it finds balance, it too can be a force for good. How can you be sure if you don't try?”

Pif was able to calm down a little as she was influenced by that soothing force, but she was still agitated and fretting. “I... I… know, but the balance needs to be maintained. There are ways to ensure that Harmony is maintained no matter what. If Celestia and Luna fall, then who would raise the moon and the sun? The resulting climate shift from their positions being frozen would be unsustainable.” She was starting to panic again. “The Nightmare is the single largest cause of disharmony short of Discord pre-reformation. Nightmare cannot be destroyed.” She started to squirm. “I need more data! I need more input! If I have enough information, I can think of every scenario!”

Path had watched and listened with concern. Now he approached and put a hoof on Epiphany’s shoulder. “Pif, not even the gods can think of every scenario, and we're not gods. Worse still, you're trying to do everything by yourself, and that's not Harmony, so your premise is fundamentally flawed. Look at our herd - our family consists of ponies, griffons, changelings, a dragon, and even one of the divine Aspects. We've been pretty happy together because we respect and work with each other, not all trying to do our own thing. I suspect that you have some excellent ideas to improve everyone's lives, but darling, you can't and shouldn't try to do it by yourself. You like quoting odds? I predict a 100% chance of failure through any number of means if you don't work with everyone else and use their interests and talents to best effect.”

Pif kept squirming but she was slowly becoming calmer. “Mmm... I should make you link to my network... copy the info you managed to get from the Green Hive... then do the same to Luna and Celestia. With centuries of information, I would be able to figure out everything. Dads – I need to know everything. It’s… it’s just a drive that I have.” She was suddenly distracted by a new thought, and started muttering to herself, “Oh, but Discord is older than both of them. What would happen if I was able to connect him to the network. I would get a complete understanding of Chaos Theory.”

Free rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and permanently corrupt the hive-mind. Hon – Discord is not evil, which is why he can be trusted to teach Chaos Theory to the House students. However, he is the Aspect of Chaos, and adding him to the hive-mind would make it an extension of him, not the other way around. Again, it would cause unbalance. Your thirst for knowledge will always have a price, and the greater the knowledge, the greater the price. However, I think you need to learn that lesson firsthand before you can comprehend the consequences of your actions, so I've decided that you will start taking new lessons. I'll let your little side project continue, but without your presence, and Techbird is off-limits for the moment. Instead, you're going to spend some time with Luna. I'll make arrangements with her to take you on sabbatical.”

Pif was alarmed, but that calming aura was too much for her to resist. “I... but I don’t want to. She’s always busy with Destined and teaching him how to dream-walk. I just want to work with Techbird to make the world better!” She slumped against Free and yawned, becoming so calm she was starting to doze off. “Mmnhhh... Only way to move forward is to gather all the information from the past and move beyond it.”

Free slowly eased off the calming aura. “Pif – we already know to learn from the past. What we need to do is to learn from the present. And I think it's about time you learned in a different way. I also think that Destined needs to broaden his viewpoint too, so I think we'll have him concentrate on other studies for a while, which should free up Luna.” He watched as she drifted off to sleep. “Tell Luna I'd like to talk to her when she visits your dreams.”

# # #

THE MISTAKE

Despite her initial reluctance, Pif discovered that working with Luna had opened up new avenues of inquiry, and the alicorn was a font of information. The next few weeks saw her feverishly working on a revised grand scheme that she envisioned for the future of Equestria and its relationship with the Hives. The day came when she was ready to present the results with the House, and requested an audience with the Council of Queens.

Normally when it was time for the quarterly queen and princess meeting, they had to drag Free to the meeting. There had been times that Twilight even had to snap teleport him when he wasn’t paying attention. Therefore all of the queens and two of the princesses were surprised and not a little consternated when Free not only showed up willingly, but also did so in his Queen Gossamer changeling form, accompanied by Path and Pif who was also in her changeling form. While the queen and princess were hard to read due to their changeling nature, Path on the other hoof, was like reading a book. He was worried, and stressed, while Gossamer looked neutral. Pif, however, seemed to be happy and was carrying several charts and an easel.

Gossamer took her place in the already assembled room as they looked at the young princess with curiosity. Pif walked to the front and center of the room, and she started setting up her little easel with a whole stack of title boards. The first one read: ‘Creating and Maintaining a Dynamic Equilibrium between Ponies and Changelings: A Mathematical Approach.

A few of them looked over at Path and Free with questioning looks. The former just sighed and said, “Just… please let our daughter do her presentation. She says it won’t take very long. Then we can continue with the other business.”

Pif cleared her throat to get their attention and smiled proudly. “Your Highnesses, I am delighted to be able to present my blueprint for a better future for the Hives and for all of Equestria….”

# # #

Five hours later, Pif stormed out of the meeting room, with Luna following close behind. Pif was angry – veryangry. She had put so much work into her analysis! It had taken weeks to get it all just right and for the math to be sound! Then they had simply dismissed her! As they walked away from the meeting room, she very irritatingly buzzed her wings as she ranted on the unfairness of it all. She stopped stomping and started pacing with frantic determination as she often tended to do, displaying a trait she had gained from Twilight – the need to be right, the need to complete a project. She was torn between retreating to her room and sulking, and going back and making the queens listen.

“They had the nerve to kick me out! I mean, yeah, they asked me to leave and I did on my own, but I didn’t wantto! My parents just nodded for me to go! How fair is that?! It’s not fair at all, Auntie! It’s just not fair!” Pif circled around Luna as she talked, orbiting the patient alicorn as she grumbled and fumed. “I DO GOOD WORK!” she howled at a Royal Guard who had done nothing other than just pass by. “Why won’t they just tell me it’s good? The formulas are correct; the math is sound; I’m right and I am objectively correct! Dianthia is just mad that I told her she had to reduce egg production by ten percent over the next fifty years!” At this point she was half talking to herself and only half talking to Luna, starting to lose herself to her thoughts.

Luna let the young queen run down until she could get a sentence out uninterrupted. “My dear Epiphany, dost thou truly think that everyone at the meeting has failed to comprehend thy data? Between them, they have centuries of experience and can tell the truth of thy words. So must there not be another reason for their recalcitrance?” Luna hoped that she could get Pif to think the problem through by herself rather than having it explained to her.

Pif’s pacing continued though, as did her ranting. “I know you understand it, and I know Mama Twilight understands it! I don’t think Dads do though, and I don’t think that half of the queens do. I know that Celestia does because she was around when the math was invented.” She again buzzed her wings in annoyance. “I NEED MORE INFORMATION!” She huffed. “I could make it more accurate and more persuasive if I had more information! I had my personal network read everything in every library that House Path has access to except for the books in the restricted wing of the Canterlot archives! Dads and Mom keep blocking me whenever I try to file a petition to access that!” She looked at Luna earnestly. “If I had more information I could be more precise!”

Luna sighed. “Pif, thou dost do some of the finest research in Equestria, and an objective view of data is extremely important for accurate conclusions, but thou art overlooking a significant factor. Thou art dealing with people, and people can never be quantified nor accurately predicted. Thou art striking at the very heart of who and what they are. House Path was founded upon the concept of learning to live in harmony with others by understanding their perspectives. This is something that thy parents understand quite well, which is why they support the queens who not only understand this, but also rely on it to manage their hives. Thou, on the other hoof, see them only as statistics.”

Pif huffed again but started to calm down a bit. “Data is everything, Luna. I just... it’s hard to explain. Nobody gets it when I talk to them. Papa Free doesn’t even get it, and he’s at the hub of the main hive network. Speaking about that, he’s so mad at me already as it is. I took citizens for myself so that I could have them research libraries I couldn’t get to, and I used a lot of love on my projects... a very large amount. As you already know, he screamed at me when I tore through nearly fifteen percent of the hive’s love reserves for just one experiment, then I can’t even tell him the results of it.” She sighed. “Everything follows rules. Even you follow rules. Once I know and fully understand those rules and I know all factors, I can run simulations in my head. Between me and the ones that are under me, I can solve some really important things!” Her ears drooped. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to understand the House rules. Blue has his squad. Lucida is practically the leader. Destined and the others have their own thing too.”

Luna pondered how she could get Pif to comprehend where she has gone wrong. She tried another tack. “Speaking of rules, let us talk about the scientific method of which thou art so fond. Let us say that an experiment has been set up with the same conditions for ten experimenters. They all run the experiment and all achieve the same result. However, while nine of them agree on a conclusion, one has a completely different one. What does the scientific method say about that? The likely correct conclusion is the one held by the nine, not the one. Epiphany, right now, thou art that one. Either the nine are completely wrong, or thou art ignoring an important factor. And no, if they all know what that factor doth be, then it is not hidden in some obscure hidden library book. So what can that factor be?”

Pif stopped and looked at Luna for a long moment, lost in thought. “Then my models must be wrong, all of them.” Her eyes started to water. “Wait! My theories have been tested and they worked. I have done the impossible and reaped the richest tactical reward because of it!” She started to pace again. “The formulas I use are sound; they have been used for years. The variables? Is it the variables I’m not accounting for?” She kept pacing. “Data! I need more data to understand this. The formula is starting to fail. I need to back it up somehow!” Pif was starting to hyperventilate, but before it got out of hand she closed her eyes and started to whisper out the digits of pi. After the thirtieth digit she opened her eyes and looked at Luna with a smile. “Sorry, I almost started panicking again.”

Luna facehoofed - she had been so close. Oh well, time to try another approach. “Thy formula was tested for a number of months, was it not? Yet thou dost propose a plan that would encompass two centuries. Statistical errors alone would invalidate it after such a period. Believe me, I have seen grand plans fail in far less time, and this was with the wholehearted support of the majority of ponies. The factor that thou art ignoring, and is the cause of failure for the vast majority of grandiose schemes, is that thou art dealing with people, not numbers. People make decisions based on other factors besides what might be optimum by thy reckoning, but yield results that bring them greater happiness. Stop thinking of them as data and start thinking of them as passionate beings, and thou might see where the difference of opinions may arise.”

Pif stopped as she turned and looked to Luna. “Experience! That’s what I’m missing – the pony experience! Well ponies, griffons, and dragons too. If I knew how they ticked, how they worked or at least had some credible sources on the topic, I could create a formula based on them. I could modify my own simulation, and then I could increase the accuracy by a few orders of magnitude! But where could I get such experience? I don’t have the time to wait centuries and acquire it normally.”

Luna snorted in amusement. “I believe that you just annoyed a vast reservoir of that experience.”

Pif just looked at Luna for a moment, her expression changing as her eyes went wide, and her irises turned a very faint blue/silver. It was similar to Free's when he did magic, but her horn wasn’t sparking, and no magic was happening. She wasn’t actually casting anything, but this wasn’t a look that Luna had seen on Pif before.

“A vast reservoir... of cultural knowledge.” She licked her lips and took a step toward Luna. “Oh... I need to know this... I really need to.” She took a step closer and started to whisper. “I’m going to be a bad princess.”

Luna frowned in concern at this odd reaction. She failed to understand Pif's latest change of direction, and asked, “Hast thou not understood what I have been telling you? Tis not data you need, but understanding of people of all races.”

Pif’s grin became wider and wider. “Understanding... understanding that only a person that has experienced centuries could possibly have.” She pounced on the unsuspecting Luna with her fangs extended. She wasn’t very strong – she didn’t need to be. She was banking on the element of surprise, and she whispered in Luna’s ear even as she sank her fangs into her neck, “I need information, Luna. If I don’t keep getting more, the itching won’t go away. I try to explain it but nobody understands.” Pif began the process of linking Luna to her own network. However, with a mind that old and that large, she had to pull an astounding drain on the side network. That would be noticed by Free, and thus the timer had started. Apart from the blatant drain on the network to make the temporary connection, the energy needed to keep Luna connected might not be able to be sustained for too long, so she had to hurry.

 

 

Luna barely had a moment to realize what Pif intended to do, and she tried to yell a warning. “NO! WAIT...!” Abruptly her perception changed as she found herself in a vast repository of knowledge, with seemingly endless shelves of books. As an experienced dream-walker, she recognized the virtual world that she has been sent to, and she gasped in dismay. “Oh, Pif, what hast thou done? Thou hast no idea what horrors you have unleashed.” Luna strained to break the connection while in the back of her mind she recalled a thousand years of Nightmare Moon in confinement, left to her anger, fear and utter loneliness.

The entire virtual library shook and shuddered violently as it strained under the weight of her connection. Luna watched as several empty book cases shakily appeared and book after book started to fill them. Each of them had little moons on the lower part of the spine.

A few changelings appeared in the virtual world in a state of panic.

“Luna? How are you in here?” one asked.

“No! No! No!” another cried. “This is bad! This is so bad! Stay with her. I need to notify the others as to what is going on!”

The first changeling went to Luna and had her sit down while the second one disappeared.

“We thought she had this under control after Techbird!” It looked worriedly at the books being created. Almost all of them matched Luna’s blue pelt with a crescent moon. However, Luna could see one jet black book with a darker full moon on the spine. The drone started running around trying to keep things organized, and Luna could feel the strain on her mind lessening as the changeling worked, but the world soon started shuddering again.

Luna grabbed the changeling by the shoulders in a painful grip. “If thou dost know a way to get through to Epiphany, thou must make her stop! The consequences might be dire if she does not. I am trying my hardest to withhold the dark knowledge, but this is something over which I have little power. Save thy princess, because I may not be able to!”

Four more changelings appeared and they all got to work. For a while it looked like they were able to keep the world stable, and the shaking went down by a sizable amount. However, books were still appearing on shelves, and for every ten normal books, another jet black book appeared in a random area. The latest one appeared on a nearby desk, and it looked like it melted into the surface partially. A black tar starting to leak onto the pristine surface.

A few moments later, there was a flash as Pif appeared in the virtual world, slamming into one of the old shelves and falling to the ground as books rained down on her. She pushed her head out of the pile with a groan. “It’s too much! How can anyone... have this much? I can’t… it’s too much information too quickly!” She looked at Luna, or perhaps past her. Luna could tell when somebody was being pushed hard – far too hard in fact. “I’m stuck! Feedback loop.... too much information… can’t disconnect! Mommy! Help me!”

As she spoke, she changed to changeling language which Luna was shocked to find that she now understood. Actually Luna was learning and understanding things she had no idea about previously, and she realized that the flow of information was not strictly one-way anymore. It did not seem to help her make sense of the chaos though, and it was getting worse again. The only constant in this virtual universe was a distressed child, and she embraced her. “Pif! Listen to me! You cannot keep this up and survive. Your connection must be broken. I cannot do it myself.”

However, nothing she said seemed to have any effect. There was little that she could do except hope that one of Pif's minions alerted Free in time. Or was there? Another memory was forced to the surface, and she grasped it in desperation. “Tantabus - help me!”

The pitch blackness that was overtaking everything suddenly started to coalesce, and the chaos eased up. Soon the Tantabus was reformed, but it was different from when Luna used to torment herself for her failings. Now it was the embodiment of forgiveness of that failure, and hopefully it could contain the darkness for a while.

Luna’s concept of time in the network was skewing things. The Tantabus was moving a lot faster than she expected it to. The mass was reaching out and grabbing the jet black books as they formed, at least partially resolving the issue of the dark information. However, more changelings were appearing, their horns glowing as they tried to stabilize the network. Luna was worried to see strange cracks forming in the false reality. Pif was now curled up helplessly around Luna, crying.

“Auntie... Auntie, I’m wrong... I’m so wrong! Mommy! I need her to help me!”

Luna felt a memory starting to be pushed onto her. It was a signal that Pif was losing all control of the network and she couldn’t even control who received what information.

Luna murmured reassurances to Pif, hoping against hope to calm her down and regain some control, but the growing confusion showed it was not working. She started to lose track of what was happening as more or her memories were dragged to the surface. Suddenly she realized that she didn't recognize what was flashing through her mind. It seemed completely foreign to her. How could that be? She never forgot anything, so how could she not know what this... no these... There was another scene she could not recall experiencing. What in the name of the Moon was happening?

Luna’s entire world changed as she now looked through the eyes of a small changeling, maybe one of the new chrome harvesters that Free bred? In the center of the room there was Pif. She was looking more militant than usual as she poked the chalkboard with a stick several times.

“Everything adds up! The lack of a corpse, and the issue with Cogs a while back. The mad queen must still be alive but hiding! I need ideas as to how we can draw her out!” A changeling to the left commented. “Maybe if you leave enough love gel, she would come out of the woodwork to get it?”

A second changeling spoke up. “Maybe if you fake Luna or Celestia falling ill, she would try to take over again?”

Pif kept shaking her head as the suggestions came one after another.

“Why don’t you give the impression that there is friction between you and the House? She would see it as a chance to get you on her side.”

Pif stopped and looked at the changeling next to Luna. “Theta, you’re a genius!”

As they talked, details of the memory started to fade. Luna was stunned. She realized that she must have experienced a random memory of that changeling that had been stored in the hive-mind. But that meant that there was no longer any control, no filters, no privacy. What would happen if more memories started to leak over? That one seemed so real because it had been real once. It just wasn't her memory! Only it was hers now - she would not forget it any more than she did her genuine experiences. This was bad. If it continued, she could get lost in the memories and lose her sense of self. She was not a changeling that was adapted to being connected to a hive-mind.

Luna suddenly snapped back into the library scene. Things were getting much worse, and this time there were four changelings yelling.

“The network is beginning to collapse! Security be damned – contact the Queen and her consorts to get in here. We don’t have the power for this!” The Tantabus was working overtime. When it had started, it was just working on taking the dark memories back, but now it was also working to help keep things held together. If all connections failed at once, it would be a disaster. Pif was wailing out in pain now. Luna desperately tried to think of a solution. Perhaps her dream-walking…. Before she could complete that thought, she felt herself getting pulled into a different memory.

This time Luna was sitting in a Ponyville cafe. By the sound of the thoughts in her head, she could tell that she experiencing the memories of Pif herself, and she was sipping tea. She relived the events of her clandestine conversation with Chrysalis, and when Pif hugged the disguised changeling queen, Luna felt a covert tracking spell being cast. As the mad queen walked off, she could tell that the spell had stuck. Luna now realized that she knew how to find Chrysalis... if she ever managed to get out of this situation with her mind intact. She was briefly sidetracked though as she experienced Pif's feelings for her grandmother as if they were her own. The dichotomy of the experience made her dizzy, but she recovered again as the memory ended. She gasped and tried to steady her thoughts... what had she been thinking? Oh, yes! Dream-walking. Perhaps this situation was akin to that, and she could approach this like a nightmare? But it needed concentration to slip into the dream-realm, and she didn't know if she could achieve it in this chaos. In fact it was still getting worse! She had to try though.

Luna did not get the chance. Abruptly she found herself being thrown into a cold pond and she gasped at the shock. She knew this memory, but from the opposite perspective. She saw herself standing at the edge of the pool, frowning in annoyance. This was a moment from her disastrous first attempt at foalsitting!

When Luna’s perception was wrenched back to the virtual library, she found it to have degenerated into utter chaos. Whole pieces were missing, and both the changelings and the Tantabus were losing the battle against the collapse. Suddenly, two large plumes of white fire emerged in the center of the library. It was Free and Path, and neither of them looked happy. Path's great inner calm and stability when transmitted across the network stopped further deterioration as Free started to direct the changelings. It looked like they were coming in, grabbing a handful of books then teleporting back out to the main network.

Free declared with great finality, “This mini-network is closed for business!”

Luna called out to Free, “Thou cannot close the network while our minds are linked to it! We could be lost permanently! Thou must find our bodies and disconnect Epiphany from me naturally!”

Path walked over to Luna and the still-crying Pif. “We are in the process of doing that. Right now both of you are in your tower chambers. Iridia is getting ready to disconnect both of you once we have shut down this side-network correctly. I am... disappointed in what has happened.”

While Path talked with Luna, Free was instructing the drones to take various books from shelves. “Don’t take any books that have a crescent or gibbous moon on the spine!” It looked like he was making sure not to copy any of Luna's memories to the network. “You did not ask to be connected, and we will not take memories not given freely,” Free reassured Luna. As the shelves were emptied, they disappeared and the library shrunk. Pif, however, was still shaking, half crying, and half screaming as she clutched her head.

Luna looked at her distressed niece. “Right now is not the time for recriminations. What of Pif? We can clear the hive-mind, but what of her psyche? She may yet suffer from what she has witnessed of my memories.”

Free shook his head. “She is going to be fine because of what we are going to be doing, but I imagine she will need you once she realizes what we did. She won’t talk to us after that. Attacking you was the final straw though, and we have to use tough love or else we might lose her to the urge.” Luna noticed that all the changeling assistants were disappearing, and even the Tantabus had withdrawn back into her. All that finally remained was the floor in a white void.

Path sighed as he walked up to them. “Everything that we needed to transfer over has been completed. Are you ready to close the network and initiate the disconnect?”

Free nodded as he looked back to Luna. “I hope you aren’t too mad at her.”

Luna shook her head sadly. “I have been too worried for her to be angry... yet.”

Luna felt the ground behind her disappear and her vision went dark. When she opened her eyes again, she found herself staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. Path and Free looked down at her with a smile.

“So how was it like being in a hive-mind?” Path asked with a chuckle. “Was it as disorienting for you as it was for me the first time?”

Luna noticed Iridia slip out the door to leave the family by themselves. Twilight was curled around Pif who was whimpering and fretting, her eyes still closed and her legs kicking out weakly in random patterns.

“M-mommy,” Pif whimpered before she opened her eyes. She looked around frantically. “Why is it so quiet?”

Luna shook her head as she reoriented herself. “It was a terrible mistake, but a learning experience. Did you know that Pif has a tracking spell on Chrysalis? Anyway, perhaps there might be merit in attempting something a lot more controlled, but I don't think I will partake until it is perfected. This could have been a real tragedy. A mortal mind cannot easily cope with an immortal's memories, especially the less savory of mine.”

Path sighed. “This is what I was initially worried about; your memory is vast, exceeding the current capacity of the network. When she pulled you into her smaller and weaker network, it crumbled under the pressure of your mind.”

Free said, “Did you say that she knows where the mad queen is?”

Twilight was just watching the pair in shock. Pif slowly lifted her head up from where it had rested on Twilight’s arm and she spoke quietly. “It... it’s so much more than that. Everyone underestimates me.” She mumbled more in half coherent speech, and Luna distinctly heard her say something about ‘Tactical Sabotage’, ‘Lost Civilization’, and the ‘Total War Protocol’.

Twilight crooned and nuzzled Pif, making sure she was okay before the punishment hammer was dropped.

Luna shook her head sadly as she went over to Pif. “Young one, no amount of information nor intelligence can replace experience. We do not underestimate thee – it is thou who underestimates us. We have done our best to protect thee from thine ignorance, but today thou hast learned a bitter lesson. Let us hope that there will be no serious repercussions. I can say that I have been shaken by the experience, so how much worse must it have been for thee? Speak to me when thou art ready, but for now, it is thy parents that thou must pay heed to.” Luna then addressed Free, Path and Twilight. “We must talk later. Epiphany's fate is yours to decide right now. I might be her Auntie, but I am not in a position to pass judgement right now.”

Pif weakly grabbed Luna and pulled her into her growing cuddle pile. It was when they touched that Luna realized that Pif was shaking as if she was in a blizzard. She continued to weep from time to time as she started to recover. Free moved over to the left and Path to the right. Luna could practically feel the love radiating from them... Wait! Since when could she feel emotions?

Free noticed Luna’s reactions and said, “There might be some lingering effects from your prolonged visit to the network. Anyway, Pif has already been punished by us. We all but severed her connection to the hive. She’s only connected to me now, and she cannot ping the rest of the hive-mind for any information or communication. Giving her too much free rein too quickly caused this to happen, so now she has to earn it all back slowly.”

Path looked over to Luna and started to speak in changeling, which the night alicorn could now understand as easily as Equish. “We were planning on mixing the kids up a bit more. We were wondering if it was okay if Pif continued to stay here with you for a while. Destined needs to learn under Techbird for a lot longer too.” Path chuckled softly and a little sadly. “It seems that the kids are taking a bit too much after their mentors.”

Luna grimaced wryly. “Well, I do not think that she will attempt to mind-link with me again, and perhaps I would be an appropriate teacher as I know better than most the perils of the path she has been taking.” She sighed. “Perhaps we have all been remiss in allowing the children so much freedom in their education. We have been guilty of not broadening it and tempering it with our own experience. I will take Pif as thou dost suggest.”

Path nodded. “I wanted them to make their own paths, and in doing that I may have actually stunted their growth. I can’t help but feel like I’ve failed, but I might be able to fix things. I will have Pif’s stuff sent here while she recovers. Canterlot might do her some good.”

Free however looked a little more frustrated than Path did but he was keeping it to himself.

Twilight finally spoke up. “At least my little girl will be okay. Is she shaking because of the shock of the experience?”

Free replied, “Partially, but also because she’s trying to recover from being disconnected.”

Twilight nodded in understanding. “I remember how Whirring Cogs described that. I never thought our daughter would ever have to endure that.”

Free and Path wholeheartedly agreed.

# # #

A few days later, a Blue drone from the Canterlot team ran up to Chrysalis, interrupting what she was doing. “My queen, my queen! I have priority ten news! It’s about your granddaughter!” the changeling said as it tried to catch its breath as it looked up to her.

That grabbed Chrysalis' attention immediately. “Speak! Has something happened to Epiphany?”

“She went to Canterlot, and after the queens’ meeting she ambushed Luna and forced her to connect to her hive network!”

Chrysalis realized the implications of this fact. The network would either collapse under such a huge influx of information, or Pif would now have thousands of years of forgotten knowledge at her beck and call. “So, did my granddaughter survive the experience?” she asked with concern.

“We aren’t sure. All of our spies are on it, but right now the only thing we know is that they were moved to Luna’s room. Queen Gossamer was frantic, Twilight Sparkle panicky, and Lord Path was quite distraught as they followed them in. Both Princess Epiphany and Luna were limp and non-responsive when we saw them disappear into the room.”

“FOOL! What kind of useless information is that? You have told me nothing of value. I do not suffer failure gladly!”

It took two more days before Chrysalis was given another update. From further away on the network, barely within range of speech, she heard one of the drones report.

“She’s alive, but her mini-network is gone. From what I can hear, Gossamer destroyed it herself. The princess is in the process of recovering in Luna's tower.”

Chrysalis was relieved, but also frustrated and concerned. She had wanted to see her granddaughter again, but this made it difficult. “Find out if she revealed any information about us. If so, I may have to move up our plans.”

# # #

THE FALLOUT

Because Pif had lacked the foresight to corner Luna in the privacy of her tower but rather jumped her right in the open as soon as the urge had struck, she ended up causing the largest public relations disaster since the first changeling attack. Anti-changeling nobles used the incident to push their agendas and have sanctions levied against Epiphany. Free and Path fought against those sanctions, but they had to abstain in the voting due to their biased point of view. Luna’s speeches to appeal to their reason were dismissed and only fed rumors that the princess was ‘changed’ by the incident.

The sanctions that were levied on her were banning her from shape-shifting, strictly limiting her ability to interact with Free’s hive mind, and even limiting her opportunities to take in love. She now had to supplement her diet with emo-gel. They even tried to ban Pif from interacting with Luna, but the alicorn princess had vetoed that in no uncertain terms.

Nobody in the House Path herd was happy about this, but Celestia managed to talk them down from doing something rash, and convinced them that the outrage would fade away once the nobles found something else to focus on.

The negative PR came from both sides – the anti-changeling nobles who jumped on the chance to defame the emerging hive, as well as the other hives who were angry that Pif’s actions had set them back a considerable amount.

Nothing is sourer than the taste of resentment, anger, and hate. Luna began to see the red flags as Pif began to hole herself up in the Lunar tower, barely even coming out to eat. At least while she was recovering, she had gone with Luna to her nightly courts, but now she just hid away anytime Luna tried to talk to her about it. One night, Luna was able to convince her to go out to the theater with her, but this proved to be a mistake. During the intermission, the spotlight was shone on Luna as the main actor, a thestral, dedicated the play to her. However, when everyone saw Luna, they also saw Pif, and the resulting wave of disgust, pity, anger, and hate was too much for her. She passed out before she was able to get out of the theater.

That had been a few weeks ago. The young changeling had been rarely seen since, although she still kept up her private lessons with Luna. Every now and then though, she did slink out to one of the few late night places where she wasn’t judged.

# # #

The latest clash between Pif and Blueblood had made things even worse for her. The very few times that she left the sanctuary of her room left her vulnerable to any number of unwanted contacts, and the insufferable and self-righteous noble was all too often found wandering the castle. This time he had been in the company of sycophants who had only egged him on while he mocked and berated the helpless changeling yet again. It took both an emotional and a physical toll on Pif, and late that night had slipped out of the castle grounds to go to the one place that she was still treated decently by the proprietor.

Chrysalis’ agents had to be very careful not to be identified by the other changelings, so they set themselves up inconspicuously to watch strategic places rather than actually hang about the palace. Despite the watch out for Blue Changelings, these agents were unsurpassed at subterfuge and eluded detection. Thus it was that that night about one in the morning, they detected emotional spikes of resentment, anger, and even hatred in a few cases, all leading toward Donut Joe’s. Eventually one of the more forward-positioned drones made the announcement that the princess was wearing what looked like a hoodie to try and cover herself up, and she had taken a seat in one of the booths in Donut Joe's.

A short time later, Chrysalis pushed open the door of Donut Joe's, hearing the bell jingling as it announced her arrival. She was hit by a cloud of foul-tasting hate and contempt, but she wasn’t the target of it. She was in disguise, of course, but while she had taken unicorn form once more, she was wearing a more subtle guise this time due to the heightened distrust of changelings at the moment, and she had a friendly green coat and yellow mane. There were a few thestrals and a pegasus couple who were the source of negative emotions, and she spotted Pif in the booth at the back, trying to be inconspicuous in her hoodie but obviously not succeeding too well, judging by the distrustful glares cast her way. Rather than approach Pif immediately, she walked up to the counter first and ordered a hot chocolate and four chocolate eclairs from the only pony who was radiating any sympathy – Joe himself. When she had her food and drink, she took the tray and wandered over towards Pif. “Pardon me, but it looks like you could use some company. Mind if I join you, dear?” she asked without disguising her voice.

Pif looked up briefly with a dull flicker of recognition and shrugged.

Chrysalis smiled and said, “I'll take that as permission to sit with you.” She did so and took a sip of her drink and then a bite from an eclair while studying the brooding child. “So, do you want to get things off your chest? I've got plenty of time on my hooves.”

Pif laid her head on the table and let out a heavy sigh. “I... I don’t even understand what happened. I went to the queens and demonstrated the way to logically and rationally run their hives to peak efficiency, and then I told Celestia and Twilight that they needed to encourage copulation to match pace with the Green and Red Queens’ promiscuity, and then it somehow got warped into me trying to manipulate an entire city-state. Of course the thing with Luna didn’t help.” She let out a whine and bumped her head on the table. “I couldn’t help it! I just… I just needed to know what was in her head! It was like Celestia and cake – I couldn’t resist.”

“I understand. It's always difficult for others to realize that we deserve to be respected and obeyed. Why else have we had to work in secret so that we can achieve your goals? Your only failure was to forget that part of your heritage and work behind the scenes. As for Luna... I must admit that you blundered there. No, don't object! I'm not saying that you didn't deserve to know what she knows, but you should have realized that it would be too much for you to cope with. If you had just called me to help, then we would both have been better off.”

Pif looked up at Chrysalis with her dull eyes as she smiled weakly. “I knew that it was going to be difficult. Once I realized what I was doing, I set up several buffer steps between her consciousness and my mini network, but she tore through them like tissue paper. I had to focus everything I had on not losing myself to her memories; I was nearly lost to infinity. It took me almost a week to recover enough to be anything more than a shaking, whimpering mass.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “What I could have known... But that was then and this is now. Dad ripped my mini-network apart after pillaging all the information on it. Then he all but tossed me from the Chrome Hive network. I can’t even call upon any 'ling, not even my best assistants!” She groaned. “Oh, gods! The nobles had a field day with it, and it didn’t help when I tried to punch Blueblood in the nose.”

Chrysalis tried to conceal a snicker as she recalled that narcissistic buffoon whose self-love had tasted so curdled. “Did you at least give him a nosebleed? Anyway, while your network was stripped, surely you recall some information in your own head? They can't take that from you. Even a little bit of Luna's knowledge could be a big advantage.”

Pif stuck out her long tongue out and snatched an éclair. “The real important stuff that I didn’t want anyone else to know, I put in my vault. It wasn’t out on the network since I always considered the fact that Dad would do something to the network if it became too big. The downside was, as far as I can figure, that’s why I was taken out by Luna's mind; it was a direct connection.”

“Hmmm... so you have a lot of information but no means to use it, and now you are suffering under great restrictions; I would say that it's time for you to change your course of action. Obviously I was right when I previously urged you to join me. We both have so much in common except for your naive ideas about how ponies would accept your ideas. Now we can try things my way, and I assure you that you can have the resources of my hive... or should I say our hive... at your disposal.”

Pif regarded Chrysalis for a few moments, and the older queen could tell that she was trying to read her. “I don’t know, Gramgram. I mean... while the only thing I can taste around here is hatred, disdain, and disappointment, Luna still helps me, which is amazing since she’s the one I attacked. I have the information and you are right – I can’t use it. I’m not even allowed to take my earth pony form due to the sanctions on me, although they haven’t expelled me from Canterlot….”

It looked like Pif was on the fence about the idea, which was a massive improvement over the last time Chrysalis had asked the question. She pushed a little more. “What use is having Luna's support when nopony else will respect your efforts? You cannot thrive in this environment, and I certainly would not impose such a horrendous punishment as banning you from doing what comes naturally. You are a Princess, and the opinions of lesser beings should matter little to you. Come with me and be yourself, and receive the respect that you deserve!”

Pif sighed reluctantly and gave her Gramgram a very slight smile. “I have a few conditions.”

Chrysalis raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Conditions? I open my heart and my hive to you, and you ask for conditions?” She smirked. “Very well, let me hear them.”

The young changeling started to look a little more happy and accepting of the idea with her grandmother’s willingness to listen. “Could you please stop with the lesser beings talk? And can I have a say? I’m not asking that I get the final say; I just want to be able to give my opinion.”

Chrysalis smiled indulgently. “As you wish, I will not call them that any more. As for having a say, my dear granddaughter, I have never wanted anything but your input! I have waited a long time and hoped that you could share this with me. We will be in this together!”

Pif’s ears folded back slightly. She was still a bit wary, but the queen could tell that she made up her mind as she muttered, “At least I’ll be where I’m not hated.” She stood up. “I’m going to head back. I need to gather a few things first. Once I have them, I'll head out of the castle. I figure you’ll be alerted to where I am.”

“That won't be a problem,” Chrysalis said with a satisfied smile. “You won't regret this. And Pif, you have made your grandmother very happy tonight.”

Pif nodded, got up out of the booth, and left the shop to fly back to the Lunar Tower in the main castle.

Chrysalis watched her leave and then took her time finishing her drink and eclairs before leaving the shop, ignoring the hostile stares of the couple of customers who had seen her conversing with Pif. After all, they were still just lesser beings.

# # #

As Luna walked up to her tower suite, she heard the clip clop of somebody moving about the top floor, which meant it had to be Epiphany. Luna peered curiously into her room and observed the activity of her niece. She saw her packing things into a saddle-pack, several personal items, a family photo and a Return Crystal. The latter was an extremely sophisticated magical creation of Luna’s that she had gifted to her herd members to enable them to travel instantly to their Griffonian home no matter where in Equus they were.

“What art thou doing, child?” she asked with concern.

Pif froze, then slowly turned towards Luna. The look on her face was guilt, pure and simple. “I... I was just going to go out to Donut Joe's again. I figured I would bring a few things to sketch with... since... nobody ever talks to me... or acknowledges me... They just sneer... and stare....” Pif was also a terrible liar.

Luna raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Dost thou need a photograph and school medals too?” She walked over and put a reassuring arm over Pif's shoulders. “I know that thy punishments seem harsh, but this too shall pass. Remember that mine lasted a thousand years. I know that to a child such as thee, thy punishment seems as bad, but things are not as bad as they seem right now.”

Pif started to whimper slightly as she leaned against Luna. “I know that yours lasted a thousand years, but you can’t compare our situations; they are apples and oranges. Luna – except for you, all I can feel and taste is everyone’s mistrust and anger, even hatred towards me.”

“And what dost thou suppose that the first changelings to show themselves freely after the invasion had to endure? And they had done naught wrong! Respect and trust has to be earned, and thou didst ruin all of thine. Thou must work hard to restore it, and it will not be a quick recovery. It might not have been so bad if thou had been more circumspect and everypony had not learned that thou did 'attack' a princess. Thou dost pride thyself on thy logic, but thine emotions doth rule thee as much as other ponies. This is the lesson that thou must learn before things get better.”

Pif leaned in and hugged Luna tightly. “I can taste the disappointment, even from Moms and Dads, but I never tasted that from you. You were worried or sad or concerned, but never mad.” She broke the hug as she started to cry, sniffling slightly. “I... I’ll just be a few hours at Donut Joe’s... that’s all.” Her ears were flat against her head.

Luna knew that she was lying again, and her shaky hooves, also told Luna that she was begging her not to be called out on it. The Alicorn of the Moon nodded understandingly. “Think hard upon what I've said, and always remember that we love thee, no matter what doth occur.”

Pif smiled gratefully at Luna. “You can always talk to me if I fall asleep... at Donut Joe’s.” She took a few steps back and pulled on her saddle-pack, and then jumped out the way she came in – through the window. She flew slowly and lazily toward the south, figuring that she had already been spotted, and Chrysalis would be joining her in due time.

Luna watched her go a little sadly. She hoped that she had made the right decision to let her niece leave, but it was something that she knew the young changeling needed to do to put her mistakes behind her and start afresh. “Good luck fly with thee, dear child. May thy new path take thee to happier places, and make no new stumbles getting there,” she said softly.

Pif was not happy though. She felt like she was being ripped apart as she headed toward the outer suburbs of the city. She gave a heavy sigh. She couldn’t go back now, even though she was already having second thoughts. As she moved lower to the ground, she shifted form, turning into a dark grey thestral. She didn’t really know many thestrals, so she took the form of a feminized Leatherwing. She touched down on the ground, looking around. “Well... one more thing left to do, I guess.”

Chrysalis got the word over the hive-mind that Epiphany had left the tower. Then came the follow-up message that she had changed to thestral form. Chrysalis nodded in approval and switched to thestral form also; it would look more natural for them to meet that way. She headed off to rendezvous with her grandchild.

It was only a few minutes before Pif saw a slightly taller thestral coming her way. Realizing that it was a changeling, she smiled slightly. “Hi, again.”

Chrysalis smiled widely. “Shall we go, Pif? We have a long journey ahead of us, both physically and metaphorically.”

“Yeah, let’s go. There’s one more thing I have to do first though.” She searched in her mind for the last connection she had to the Chrome Hive-mind. She felt the nature of the connection for a long moment, appreciating it one last time before she severed it. In its place, Pif started to build a mental wall around her mind using both her own ability and a few tricks she remembered from Luna. She thought to herself, ‘If I am to endure the quiet, I will make my home a fortress.’ The entire process took a few minutes, and Chrysalis could probably tell something was going on as she cut her Chrome Hive connection and fortified herself against others, but it had to be done. However, her disconnection was neither covert nor subtle, and Free would know instantly. “That.... hurt.” She gathered her strength and looked over to her grandmother. “Let’s go.”

Chrysalis nodded and gave her a reassuring hug. “Yes, let's go home.”

Pif smiled a little more and she took off with Chrysalis to her new destiny, whatever it was.

# # #

Back in the castle, Luna’s talkie-trottie was ringing insistently. Anticipating what it would be, she answered it reluctantly. “Luna speaking.”

What happened?” Rose’s voice practically blasted from the phone. In the background, Luna could hear Free wailing, and then a few seconds later Path joined in on the borderline hysterical crying. “We were about to have herd time, and all of a sudden Free began freaking out.”

Luna sighed sadly. “Roseclaw, Epiphany has chosen to leave Canterlot. I know not for sure, but I believe that she has turned her back on us for now. I suspect that Free doth suffer because she has severed her connection to him.”

Rose was silent for a moment. “I see. Is there any way you can keep tabs on her while she’s away? It might not be a permanent thing. Maybe she’s waiting till the heat dies down? But now that I know what is going on, we can try to console Free, and once he calms down, so will Path.”

“I can always find her in her dreams, but I cannot make her tell me anything that she doth not wish to tell me. However, at worst, I can assure you of her continued good health.”

Rose sighed. “Please try your best. Let us know anything as soon as you can.”

“I assure thee, I wish nothing less.”

# # #

Some nights later when Luna located Pif’s dreamscape, she found it highly guarded. Granted it was easy for her to get in since all of the wards and walls were of her design, and Pif most likely had set it up that way. She found Pif’s dream-self sitting in the House Path gardens, looking pensive. Without a word, she lied down besides the introspective child and nuzzled her.

Pif let out a surprised gasp and nuzzled Luna back with a soft sigh. “I miss you, Auntie.”

“We all miss thee too, Pif.” She looked around at the dreamscape. “And it would appear that thou might be a little homesick. It is still thy home and always will be, dost thou know?”

Pif nodded slowly. “I just can’t go back yet.”

Luna could feel something trying its best to leak into the dreamscape, but those wards were holding fast. Nothing would or could get past them.

“I think I can do some good where I am, even if the person I’m trying to help doesn’t realize it yet.”

“That person – it is Chrysalis, correct? I admire thine intentions, but I must remind thee of the consequences of thy previous good intentions.”

Pif nodded slightly. “Which is why I’m also gathering intel.” She leaned against Luna. “Just... don’t tell them where I am or what I’m doing, promise?”

“Nay, child, I have already promised that I would keep an eye on thee. They worry so much for thy welfare. However, it was no difficult task for them to determine where thou didst go, and with whom. The exact details I cannot glean though, so I will not be able to tell them more than they already know unless thou dost tell me.”

Pif hugged Luna tightly. “Best auntie ever.”

Luna smiled lovingly and hugged her back. “Just remember though, Epiphany, I will continue to urge thee to come home whenever we meet. I, too, greatly miss my niece.”

# # # # #

Author's Note:

Has Pif truly defected, or was this another terrible mistake? Tune in next episode to find out!

Art by Foxenawolf.

   
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