Life, Love, and Death in the House of Path

The House of Path has grown to be an enormous influence in Equestria, Griffonia, and other nations, and has gained many unusual members. But with such a varied membership, comes some unusual circumstances. Free Agent stunned the hives with his deviant mutant nature, but can a normal changeling queen learn to love? When an alicorn's dearest friends die, how does she cope? What are the new generation like? How does a pony needs to learn how to deal with a destiny that he never expected? What lofty goals do they set for themselves?
These are highlights in the lives of the various House Path members, and all the love, fear, and hope that comes with such a family of beings. And maybe a little bit of sex in between.
This series follows after "Quantum Gallop" and is episodic, and the chapters might not be added in sequential order.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/369649/life-love-and-death-in-the-house-of-path

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3. Crystal's Wanderings - Part 1

Whooooooooooot! Whoooooooooooot!

The sound of the train’s steam whistle shook the waiting unicorn from her reverie. She watched as the Crystal Kingdom Express pulled into the station, knowing that her moment had finally arrived. She patiently waited as the passengers disgorged, most of them tourists heading for the hotels or Glimmer World, the kingdom’s foremost attraction. The train was not scheduled to depart for its return trip for another twenty minutes, during which time it would be loaded up with fuel and water for the steam engine. There was talk of replacing the locomotives with something newer and cleaner, but she had to admit that she liked the classic engines. She had been dreaming of listening to its whistle blowing as she left her home of so many years, and it would not have been the same if they had changed it.

Station staff worked to replenish various items for the outward bound journey – food for the dining car, fresh linen for the sleeping compartments, and various other necessities for a journey that took most of a day to complete. The station master and the train conductor finally allowed passengers to board, and Crystal picked up her luggage in the green glow of her magic.

With a dramatic sigh, she softly said, “And so my new life begins, stepping alone into a journey of self-discovery.”

“What am I? Chopped spinach?” came the voice of the pegasus standing beside her.

Crystal turned to him with a pout. “Hush, you! I was trying to be dramatic. Besides, it’s not as if I asked you to come along with me.”

The burnt-orange-coated stallion with red & white-striped mane just grinned back. “No, you didn’t, but I noticed that you stopped arguing with your parents who wanted to send a minder with you after you found out that it was me that they had nominated.”

“Yeah, I thought Dad and Mom were trying to stick me with one of their stuffy Royal Guards, not my former House Path training partner.”

“I got a bit of a surprise too, you know? I was told that I had to play bodyguard for this sexy-looking unicorn without being informed that it was you.”

“It’s not as if I need a bodyguard – I’m stronger than you and have magic also.” She paused and then added, “So you like my new looks?”

The pegasus gave Crystal another good look-over and smiled appreciatively. Her coat was light blue, while mane and tail were subtle shades of medium-blue with eyes to match. She sported a cutie mark of three hearts in red, yellow, and green, but the most outstanding feature was her tall and lean build. “Like I said, very pretty and sexy. However, if you’re trying to be inconspicuous, you fail big time.”

 

 

Crystal chuckled. “I’m trying to be incognito, not inconspicuous. I modelled the shape on Queen Polistae’s pony alter ego which seems to be well appreciated. By the way, Thumper, my name is going to be Crystal Blue in this form, not Princess Crystal Path. Please don’t forget that.”

“No problem, Your Highness,” Thumper replied with a smirk.

“Oh, ha ha! Very funny. Don’t do it again,” Crystal said as they mounted the steps of the First Class carriage. She might have been stepping out into a new adventure, but at least she could do it in comfort. She checked her ticket for the compartment number and moved down to the doorway marked with it. She opened the door, levitated her bags inside, and looked around. Typical of a train, it was very compactly laid out with a nicely upholstered divan, luggage rack, fold-away table, and a fold-down double bed. She put the bags in the luggage rack and said to Thumper, “This is more than enough for me. Where’s your compartment?”

Thumper stared at his ticket in disbelief. “I think there’s been a mistake.” He held it up to show her.

Crystal saw the compartment number and blinked in surprise. It was the same as hers.

“Do you think they know?” Thumper asked.

# # #

House Path training was the same for all warrior-scholars, no matter their rank. When Crystal went on her first field trip with her training squad at the age of sixteen, she was randomly assigned a partner – an orange pegasus stallion named Cloud Thumper.

The field trainer bellowed at them, “From now on, you do everything together with your assigned training partner. You march together, you fight together, you eat together, you bathe together, you read together, you sleep together. If one of you screws up, you both screw up. If you’re given a task, you both work at that task equally until it’s done. You’re going to work your partnership until you know how each other thinks. Then when you really understand the meaning of cooperation, we’ll move on to the hard stuff.”

Crystal had to believe that the squad’s trainer had a sense of humor, considering what he threw at them over the next few weeks. If not, she dreaded to find out what he considered to be ‘hard’. She wasn’t about to let her parents down with anything less than one hundred percent effort though, and she did have one advantage. If there was anything that changelings could do well, that was cooperate. Thumper might not have been a changeling, but he came from a military background which helped. They soon mastered their teamwork and moved up the nominal rankings of the squad. Both were very happy with their working relationship and were good friends, but that was all they were besides fellow students. Then came another field exercise about a year later.

Crystal and Thumper settled down for the night after a hard day of training, thankful to be able to rest at last. Except that Crystal couldn’t rest. She was tired, but something was stirring her up – an unfamiliar desire, but one she soon recognized. She was horny, and getting hornier by the moment.

Nobody knew for sure when this was due to start, but they did know that it was inevitable. Free Agent had gotten a reputation for being quite the ladies’ stallion starting from his late teens, stemming from his innate need to breed. Crystal was a queen changeling too, and one of their main purposes was to build hives and breed drones. Crystal had no intention of doing either at this time, but that meant nothing to her body. It was ready for sex, and was making sure she knew it. She groaned in frustration.

“What’s wrong, Cryssy?” came Thumper’s tired voice.

Of course he was going to be concerned. If nothing else, their training in cooperation made them very aware of each other’s needs. However, this was not what their trainers had in mind. “Nothing. Go to sleep.”

Thumper propped himself up on one leg and stared at her in the dim light. “That has to be the worst lie I’ve heard you say all year. Now, what’s really bothering you?”

Crystal considered prevaricating, even as her hoof unconsciously reached for her nether region. “Nothing that you can do anything about.”

Thumper sighed. “Crystal – I’m your partner. You can tell me.”

“I’m horny – okay? My body is demanding sex! Happy now?”

“Oh. Umm… yeah. I can… help?”

Crystal stared at him. “Thumper, I don’t think you can help with this.”

“I disagree. We’re supposed to help with our partner’s needs. I want to do this.”

“What if my parents find out? You know how protective Dad is.”

“I won’t say anything, and I know you won’t. All that matters is what you want.”

A surge of hormones made Crystal groan again. “I’m not sure what I want, but I do know what I need. Are you sure you want to have sex with a changeling? I can become a crystal pony for you…?”

“You’re not just my partner, but my closest friend. Do you think it bothers me that you’re a changeling? Plenty of ponies have changeling partners nowadays anyway.”

Even if his words were not persuasive, his delicious emotions of friendship and concern were just making her decision easier. She shuddered with anticipation and leaned over to kiss him. “Ever done this before?” she asked softly.

“When have I had the time for a marefriend?” he asked, kissing her back.

She pushed him onto his back. “Me neither. Just let me do this, okay?”

He smiled. “Okay, Cryssy.”

She eyed his sheath, and his penis was already halfway showing. She leaned down and licked it, and it rapidly engorged to its fullest. It might not have been as big as an earth pony’s, but right then it looked perfect to her. She straddled his form and saw his face filled with anticipation. She grinned and lifted his cock in her magic to push against her labia. Shivering in pleasure at the mere touch, she felt her sex oozing its fluids over the tip of his penis. She pushed back and it slid into her, making her groan again with delight. It felt right. It felt more thanright. She started rocking back and forth, making it thrust in and out, and the pleasure just kept building. Her eyes squeezed shut as her arousal built to a peak, and then she orgasmed. Jolts of pure pleasure rocked her and left her gasping. When they eased up, she started humping him again. This time was just as pleasurable, but with a difference. She felt Thumper’s penis throb, and the stallion moaned in ecstasy. She felt her vagina fill with a spreading warmth, and she came again also.

Crystal just laid on Thumper’s barrel for a long moment, enjoying the afterglow while consuming the pleasure that flooded off him. After a while, she finally asked, “Want to do that again?”

“Practice makes perfect, as our instructors keep telling us.”

“Never ignore the instructors’ wisdom,” Crystal replied before kissing him thoroughly.

They had sex for another half hour before Crystal was fully satiated. They then made themselves comfortable on their mats in preparation for some sleep at last. Before they did though, Crystal had a question to ask.

“So – that was your first time?”

“Yep.”

“It won’t be your last.”

Thumper grinned. “Awesome.”

# # #

The duo had sex at every opportunity after that. Experimenting and a sense of adventurousness added spice to their nights and skill to their efforts. After returning from the field trip, Crystal arranged clandestine meetings for the purpose of maintaining their sexual relationship while keeping her parents ignorant of her activities. She did not like to deceive them, but her father was famously over-protective sometimes, and her mother would not keep a secret from him. Life had been pretty good up until she had made the decision to leave the Crystal Kingdom to seek her place in life. She had not been happy when she had been told by her parents that they would be sending a minder with her. That had changed drastically when she had learned that the minder was Cloud Thumper.

Crystal stared at the ticket a moment longer before she looked up at Thumper. “Mom made the travel arrangements. She doesn’t make that kind of mistake.”

“How’d she find out about us?”

“Mom’s the Alicorn of Love, remember?”

Thumper looked at Crystal intently. “You think she’s trying to tell us something?”

“But we’re not lovers,” she protested. “We’re just friends with benefits, right?”

“Yeah, but your Mom doesn’t usually make those kind of mistakes either.”

“This time she has. Not that I mind.”

“Yeah, me neither. At least I won’t have to sneak between compartments.”

Crystal snorted. “You wouldn’t need to sneak anyway. You’re travelling with Crystal Blue, remember? Not Princess Crystal Path.”

Thumper pouted. “Pity – I would have liked to bang a princess.”

Crystal bit him on the ear.

# # #

This was hardly the first time that Crystal had made the journey from the Crystal Kingdom to Equestria. However, when the train passed from the green fields and into the eternal snow that surrounded the kingdom, it had a different feel about it. This was no mere visit to her aunts, or a vacation. It was not even a field trip for her House training. She had just made the first step toward finding where she fitted in this world. It was kind of scary. She sat in the compartment and just stared at the snowy landscape for hours until Thumper dragged her away to the dining car for dinner.

With nightfall, she could not see the snow anymore, and oddly that cheered her up. They chatted with the other passengers for a long while, many of whom were making the trip for the first time, and they talked about what they hoped to see and enjoy. Crystal told them of her journey of self-discovery, and she received a lot of genuine support from them.

They had drinks at the bar as a nightcap, and after a few drinks, Crystal gave Thumper a nudge. “See the earth pony mare at the end of the bar? She has the hots for you.”

“Hmm? She’s cute, but I’ve got a date with a unicorn tonight.”

“Aww! I’ve always wanted to be your wingmare though! I can tell her how much of a stud you are in the sack, if you like?”

“Crys! I don’t even know the mare!”

“That’s why you should start off with some of your best qualities. Get her intrigued and reel her in.”

Thumper sighed. “I think you’ve had one too many drinks. Come on – let’s head back to our compartment.”

Crystal giggled but complied. When she and Thumper finally retired for the night, she was brimming with the energy of all the positive emotion that she had consumed that evening. She made sure that she used a lot of it enthusiastically when she had sex with Thumper that night.

When Crystal woke the next morning, she lay in bed watching the scenery pass by. Gone was the wintry scenery, replaced by the verdant woodlands of the southern Unicorn Ranges. They had apparently slept through the stop at the junction with the Vanhoover line where the train took on more fuel and water before continuing. The forest soon opened up to the fields that lay west of Canterlot before Thumper also woke and declared that he was hungry. They both made a quick trip to the bathroom first before heading to the dining car for breakfast. After they were replete, they went back to the compartment and lounged on the bed while Crystal groomed Thumper’s coat for him. Then he insisted on doing the same for her.

“You so rarely stay in pony form that I don’t ever get the chance to do this for you. You can’t groom chitin, after all. Besides, if you’re going to stay in unicorn form, you’ll have to keep up appearances.”

Crystal didn’t point out that all she had to do was exert her transformation power to get a perfectly groomed coat once more. She knew that he enjoyed being groomed though, and she quickly understood why when he started on her.

When they were done, they watched the scenery once more. They saw Mount Canterhorn loom up and Canterlot Castle was soon distinguishable. It was nearly time to get ready to get off the train.

With a cheery toot of its whistle and ringing of its bell, the locomotive pulled into Mount Canterhorn Junction Station, located at the base of the mountain for which it was named. While Canterlot was located on the mountain itself, it was another hour’s journey for it to wind its way up through the switchbacks and tunnels to reach the city and castle. Crystal could have flown up there in a fraction of the time if she had been in winged form. However, she was not headed to Canterlot, so they needed to change trains to head off to Ponyville. Because Canterlot was so central to the nation of Equestria, Canterhorn Station served as a hub for the many lines going to various destinations, such as Manehattan, Baltimare, Appleloosa, and Las Pegasus.

The Dodge City line was the one that they needed, but it was three platforms over. Crystal and Thumper hastened over there with their luggage, but they might as well have taken their time because their train was running late. Nevertheless they were soon enough on their way to Ponyville. It was only a two hour trip, so they did not need a compartment, and they spent the journey looking at the landscape from normal seating. The train pulled into Ponyville station at 10:15am, and Crystal alighted and eagerly set off for Princess Twilight’s castle, with Thumper struggling to keep up with her long-legged gait.

After all these years, Twilight’s castle still did not have any overt Guards protecting it. It was a symbol of the friendship that the resident alicorn espoused that it was always open and welcoming to all. Of course if a real enemy was to try something, they would have had to deal with a whole hive full of soldier drones who would have responded instantly to the threat. It was one of the perks of being married to the hive’s Queen, and with changelings, you never could be sure if you were being watched.

Crystal knew that she had been seen and identified before she got halfway to the castle. Her disguise was not able to fool Princess Epiphany’s surveillance network for a moment, but then again it was not intended to do so. It did mean though that her arrival would not be a complete surprise. Sure enough, a grinning griffon stood at the doors of Twilight’s castle, waiting to greet them. Crystal dropped her luggage to trot up to Free Agent and give him a hug.

“Great to see you, Crystal. I like the new look.”

“Thanks, Uncle Free. Better get used to it because I’m sticking with it for a long while.”

“Oh? Has it anything to do with the surprise visit?”

“It has a lot to do with it, actually. I presume Auntie Twilight is here too? I’d like to talk with you about it over lunch.”

“Sure. Path and Roseclaw are here also.”

“Even better; I can tell you all at once.”

Free looked at the pegasus who was patiently waiting for the two to finish talking. “Who’s this?” he asked with a smile.

Crystal replied, “This is Cloud Thumper, a warrior-scholar of the Crystal Kingdom branch of House Path. My parents sent him along with me as a minder.”

Free cocked an eyebrow at her. “Just a minder?”

Crystal giggled. “He’s also my best friend.”

Free grinned at Thumper. “Any best friend of Crystal is welcome in our home. Come on in and make yourself comfy. Your usual room is cleaned and ready for you, Cryssy.”

“What about Thumper?”

“What? Isn’t one room enough for the two of you?”

“Uncle Free! That wouldn’t be proper.”

Free smirked. “Don’t blame me if Thumper is leaking his emotions all over the place. He particularly likes your flank, I notice.”

“UNCLE FREE!”

Free just laughed and headed inside.

Crystal glared at Thumper who just shrugged and smiled innocently. “He’s right – you do have a gorgeous flank.”

Crystal rolled her eyes, grabbed her bags in her magic, and headed after the griffon.

They dumped their luggage in Crystal’s room, and Thumper looked around it.

“Nice. Fit for a princess, I’d say.”

“There’s no such thing as a second class suite in this castle. All guests are treated like royalty.”

“I’m going to get spoiled if this is what it’s going to be like for your entire trip.”

Crystal grinned. “Don’t get too used to it. If what I have in mind goes through, we might have to deal with far less appealing accommodations.”

“I’ll enjoy it while it lasts then.” He paused before he began again. “I noticed that you call Lord Free your uncle, but that isn’t really true, is it?”

Crystal’s mood soured a little. “I’m aware of the biological relationship, but that has nothing to do with the real me. He’s married to Twilight Sparkle, sister to my foster father, so that makes him my uncle, okay?”

“Got it. Won’t bring it up again.”

Crystal nodded, satisfied with his promise. Thumper was one of the very few who knew her true origin, and she intended to keep it that way. As far as everypony was concerned, Chrysalis had been destroyed in the battle against the Nightmare many years ago, and in a very real sense, it was completely true. Crystal was not Chrysalis and she swore she would never be that evil person, but when she had first learned the truth about herself, it had nearly devastated her.

# # #

“Crystal, could you come and have a private talk with your mother and me?” Shining Armor asked.

“Sure, Dad. Has it got anything to do with my cute-ceañera tomorrow?” She might be a changeling that did not magically gain a cutie mark, but that only meant that she got to choose one of her own design that she used her changeling ability to apply.

“Not really, but it is something that we had promised ourselves that we would tell you when you turned fifteen if circumstances didn’t force us to tell you any sooner. We didn’t want to spoil your big day though, so we want to talk to you about it tonight instead.”

“Sounds serious, Dad,” Crystal said as she followed him into his study where she found her mother waiting for them.

Shining Armor closed the heavy oaken door that blocked almost all sound, and Cadance’s horn flared briefly to establish a privacy spell. Then she came over and hugged Crystal, with Shining Armor joining them moments later. Some private parts of the castle were always shielded from the influence of the Crystal Heart specifically so that the changeling could grow up feeding on her parents’ love rather than from the magic artefact, and right now Crystal drank in the love that they were freely giving her. Despite that though, she was a little uneasy because she could also taste their concern.

“I love you too, Mom and Dad, but will you please tell me what’s going on?”

Cadance sighed and said, “Truth can really hurt, and we wanted to reassure you that our feelings for you are as strong as ever, and what we are about to tell you changes nothing. In fact we would rather never tell you, but the truth has a nasty habit of accidentally getting out, and usually at the worst possible time. That’s why we committed to telling you this now.”

“You’re creeping me out, Mom. Please tell me what’s bothering you two.”

“It has to do with how you were adopted,” Shining replied. “You remember how we found you?”

“Sure! I was an unbonded princess nymph from Queen Chrysalis’ hive that you found after the defeat of the Nightmare in Zebrica. Mom said she wanted to raise me, so you two adopted me into your family and House Path, hence my name Crystal Path.”

“That was the truth, but not all of it,” Shining said. “Very few people know the entire story of the Nightmare’s defeat because of the enormous power being thrown around in that battle. Only the main participants witnessed it, and a few others told of it. As you learned in school, the new Element Bearers used Harmony to destroy Nightmare Chrysalis, but that isn’t completely accurate. They exorcised the Avatar of Destruction from Queen Chrysalis, which left her without the power to fight us anymore. Chrysalis was not destroyed because Harmony does not kill; it brings balance. Harmony chose to do something different with her, and perhaps through Prince Destined’s special talent, the changeling queen was regressed in age until she was no more than a nymph.”

Crystal went rigid with shock. “No,” she said in barely whisper. “Please don’t tell me…”

Cadance gave Crystal another hug. “Yes, Crystal, that nymph was the one we adopted.”

“No, no, no, nooooooooo! I can’t be Chrysalis! I can’t have done all those horrible things!” Tears began streaming from her eyes.

Shining sternly said, “You are not Chrysalis. Your mother sensed that right from the beginning, although I’m ashamed to have to admit that I didn’t. You proved me wrong though, and you grew up to be a beautiful and loving child. Chrysalis did die that day, but her rebirth gave us a wonderful daughter.”

“But how can I ignore what I did in the past now that I know?” Crystal wailed.

“Because Crystal Path is not Queen Chrysalis,” Cadance replied. “You have nothing in common with her except your physical body. As your father said, Chrysalis ceased to exist that day, and a new person was born. Under no circumstances can you be held responsible for her actions.”

“That… that’s easy for you to say, Mom. You’re my foster parents and have to say things like that.”

“We say it because it’s true. And you want to know something else? Half the people coming to your birthday celebration know the truth also, and it doesn’t matter to them either. Your Uncle Long Path wanted to kill that nymph that day, but even he soon accepted that he was wrong. Tell me what your changeling senses have told you about him.”

“He always likes to see how I’ve progressed. He has always helped me with my House Path lessons. He really cares for me.”

“Correct, but Lord Path was killed in battle with Queen Chrysalis, and barely revived but at the expense of all his magic. His daughter lost her wings in the fight with Nightmare Chrysalis, and many of his family and his students suffered. Many of the House Path warriors died in battle both here and in Zebrica. Of all ponies, he hated Chrysalis the most. But he doesn’t hate you. He is proud of what you have become, and he expects that you will do great things for House Path in the future. He believes in Crystal Path, almost as much as we, your parents, do.”

“You really mean that? It really doesn’t matter to him or you?”

“It doesn’t matter to anyone in the know. Your Uncle Free despised his mother, but he loves you.”

Crystal was stunned. “Uncle Free is actually… my child?”

“Queen Gossamer is your biological daughter. Free Agent is your uncle. He hated being related to Chrysalis, but there has always been that bond between you. He was a huge help to us while you were growing up, even sending us one of his nursery drones to assist us. So if those two aren’t enough to persuade you that you’re not Chrysalis, I’m not sure what will.”

Shining added, “Other than the fact that people from all over Equus have come here to celebrate your birthday.”

Crystal sniffled and wiped the tears from her face. “You’re right – I’m not Chrysalis. I would never do anything to hurt you or them. I am my own person!”

“You are indeed, my daughter,” Shining said fervently. He and Cadance gave Crystal another love-filled hug.

When they parted, Crystal asked, “Do you want me to keep this a secret?”

Shining replied, “While we strongly recommend that you do keep it a secret, it’s up to you now to decide if you wish to tell anyone. We will never do so.”

Crystal nodded. “I’d like to go to my room now. I have a lot to think about.”

“Are you going to be okay, Crystal?” Cadance asked.

She gave them her most reassuring smile. “I promise that if I have any problems, I will come and talk with you, but I think I’m going to be fine. I just need to get my head around this a bit better.”

# # #

She had slept on it, and by the morning she had virtually accepted that Chrysalis was in the past and would not play any part in who she was now. Crystal truly enjoyed the celebration of her rebirth knowing that the attendees all cared for her, and that restored her confidence in herself. She never told anyone her secret until recently when she and Thumper had been particularly intimate. As best friends, they shared everything, and eventually she had decided that he deserved to know. He had taken it well, more curious than anything else. Having never experienced any of the conflicts with Chrysalis, it was just an intriguing footnote in history to him. She had banged him extra well that night for vindicating her trust.

“We had better head down or Uncle Free will really be convinced that we’re having sex.”

“But we are having sex,” Thumper pointed out.

“Yeah, but I don’t want anyone else to know that yet!”

“I think your mother knows, and I’m pretty sure Lord Free is certain we are. How much longer do you think you can keep up the pretense?”

“As long as it matters,” Crystal answered vaguely before heading out of the room.

Thumper shrugged and followed.

# # #

Free had informed Twilight that Crystal was there, and she stopped what she was doing to greet her. Because Path and Roseclaw were away from the castle at that moment, she agreed to wait until they came back for lunch to talk about what had brought Crystal to Ponyville. That left the changeling and her companion some time to kill, and Crystal decided to wander around Ponyville and reacquaint herself with some people. Thumper had never had an excuse to be there, so he was quite curious about the domain of an Equestrian Princess.

“So is this Princess Twilight’s holiday retreat or something?”

Crystal gave him a flat stare. “What on Equestria are you talking about?”

“Look, I know that this is where her castle is and all, but this is a rural township; shouldn’t the Princess be set up in a city somewhere?”

Crystal snorted derisively. “This town represents Auntie Twilight better than any city. Its inhabitants are among the friendliest in the nation. It’s also the home of all six original Element Bearers.” She stepped inside Sugarcube Corner and waved to the earth pony behind the counter. “Hi, Pinkie!”

“Hi, Crystal and stallion who’s totally not your coltfriend,” Pinkie replied brightly. “What can I get you?”

“Just some treats to take back for my aunts and uncles, please.”

“I know just the thing!” In a moment, the mare had packed a couple of bags of baked goods for her.

After Crystal paid for the baked goods and exited the shop, Thumper said, “Okay – so how did she know that it was you? Did you let her know in advance?”

Crystal grinned. “Nope.”

“And what was that about me?”

“Pinkie Pie is the one who knows.”

“But how?

“Because she’s Pinkie. Ask anyone and you’ll get the same answer.”

“Aren’t you worried that she’ll blab then?”

“Nope.”

“How can you know that?”

“Auntie Pinkie would never do that to me.”

Thumper fumed for a moment before he gave her a flat stare. “You took us in there just to get back at me for being disparaging about Ponyville.”

“Well, I did want the treats, but yeah. Now you’ve begun your initiation into the weirdly wonderful domain of my Aunt Twilight.”

“It’s just begun?

Crystal’s grin just grew larger.

“Oh, horsefeathers!”

# # #

Crystal took Thumper on a quick visit to the public section of the Chrome Hive. While the pegasus was barely noticed, Crystal kept getting surprised looks from the undisguised drones until they were apparently updated over the hive network. Thumper was fascinated by the structure of the hive and the organization of the drones. Crystal explained how the hive worked together with the Ponyville citizens for their mutual prosperity, and promised to take him into the restricted areas one day when they had more time to spare. She wasn’t surprised when a random drone suddenly turned and spoke to her.

“My Queen wishes me to inform you that Lord Path and Lady Roseclaw have returned to the castle, and lunch will be served in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” Crystal replied before turning back to Thumper. “Come on – I don’t want to be late.”

Thumper broke into a trot to follow Crystal. “You can’t possibly be hungry – this town must be oozing positive emotion for you to eat.”

“It sure does, but I still wouldn’t mind a daisy sandwich anyway. But that’s not why I’m in a hurry; I’m eager to explain my reason to visit.”

It took them only about ten minutes to make it back to the castle, leaving her plenty of time to properly exchange greetings with Path and Roseclaw. Pif joined them too, taking a break from her research in her workshop in the hive at the insistence of her attentive wife, Citrine. Then Crystal introduced Thumper to them.

The pegasus had been nervous enough about meeting Princess Twilight earlier, but he was overwhelmed to be welcomed so enthusiastically by Lord Long Path, the founder of House Path, that he stuttered almost incoherently.

Path put a reassuring foreleg around the young stallion and said, “Think of this like an Informal Friday. I know you have them in the Crystal Kingdom because I’ve attended some there.”

“Um… yeah. I’ve seen you there.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“A-heh. Bad case of hero-worship?”

Path chuckled. “I’m just a pony, Thumper. Without Free, Roseclaw, and Twilight, there would not have been a House Path. It’s the sum of us that makes us great, and you’re a part of that too. Think of us as one big family, and as my niece’s best friend, I’d say that you certainly belong here.”

“Thanks, Lord Path.”

“Just Path – this is lunch, not a ceremony.”

The castle staff started rolling in the trays of food and drink, and Path ushered Thumper to the table, seating him beside himself as Crystal grinned and seated herself next to her friend.

Path said, “Just so you know, no business talk during meals. So, tell us about yourself and how you became Crystal’s best friend.”

Thumper was still nervous enough that he was slow to start off, but with a bit of prompting, he warmed up to the subject. Path let him off the hook long enough for the stallion to actually eat something while Crystal took up the conversation, updating them on how things were going in the Crystal Kingdom.

The meal was completed and they were all enjoying tea or coffee to finish up before Path allowed Crystal to bring up the reason for her visit.

“This isn’t just a family visit, as you might have guessed. A few weeks ago, I made the decision that I needed to leave the Crystal Kingdom and find my own place in the world. As I said to Dad, as much as I loved growing up there, I don’t really have a future there. However, I really don’t know yet what I really want to do with my life. Starting a hive of my own will be inevitable, I know, but until then, I feel the need to go out and discover what I can do, and what I can be. Then I learned that you are intending to begin a new expedition to continue your work on exploring new cultures, and I want to join you.”

 

Twilight said, “You do realize that we tend to go into dangerous unknown territory?”

“Of course, but not only am I a pretty powerful queen changeling, but I’m also House Path trained as a warrior-scholar. All I lack is some real experience, and that I can only get if I can go on things like one of your expeditions.”

Roseclaw asked, “Do your parents know what you intend to do?”

“Yes, I told them all my plans. The rest is up to you. Will you let me join you?”

Path grinned. “Frankly we’d love to have you with us. That’s the true spirit of House Path – to want to explore and learn.”

Pif said, “Moms and Dads have been bugging me to go with them too, but I’m in the middle of something that I don’t want to drop for a few months. Maybe they’ll be satisfied with you along.”

Citrine pouted. “Aw! I wanted to go!”

“We’ve been on the last six expeditions, love – I’d like to sit this one out for a change. You can go with them if you really want to.”

“And leave my snuggle-bug? Not a chance!”

Citrine gave Pif a big hug, and Crystal tasted the crystal pony’s love radiating off her. She grinned, knowing full well that they were never apart for long.

Free said, “It’s okay, Citrine – you’ve done a fine job of keeping Pif from getting too buried in her work all these years. We’ll let her get away with it this time.”

Citrine grinned. “At least I won’t miss the Ciderfest this year. Me and Applejack have a big blowout planned.”

Path chuckled. “Sorry we’re going to miss that. Let us know how it went when we get back.”

“I will – it’ll be awesome!”

Path turned back to Crystal. “I’m glad that you came today. We will be having a guest for dinner who will be assisting us for this expedition. She’s a well-known explorer who made the first inroads into the Amarezon, and she will be discussing our plans with us after the meal. We’ll introduce you then.”

“Who is this explorer?”

“You’ve probably heard of her. Her name’s Daring Do.”

Crystal’s eyes opened wide. “The Daring Do? She’s a legend! I remember how awed I was when I first learned that A.K. Yearling’s books were actually novelizations of Daring Do’s real-life exploits. I can’t wait to meet her!”

Twilight giggled. “I think you’re in for a few more surprises when you do.”

Crystal looked at her suspiciously, sensing that the alicorn was hiding something from her. “What do you mean by that, Auntie Twilight?”

“You’ll see,” was all Twilight would say.

“So let’s discuss some of the things that you might need to know for the expedition,” Path said.

Pif said, “I’ll be getting back to my project then.”

“And I’m due back at the pub for my afternoon shift,” Citrine added.

“What about you, Thumper?” Roseclaw asked. “Did you want to hang around for this business talk?”

Thumper gave the griffoness a flat stare. “I thought it was understood – where Crystal goes, I go.”

Roseclaw smirked. “Good. That’s what I wanted to hear.”

Thumper wondered exactly what she meant by that.

# # #

After a couple of hours of discussions, Path indicated that they would need to get back to other business. Thumper expressed the desire to stretch his wings, and Crystal took pegasus form to join him. When they were gone, Path turned to Free.

“Am I wrong, or does Thumper have strong feelings for Crystal?”

Free smirked. “You’re not wrong – Thumper is in love with Chryssy, but she doesn’t realize it.”

“So that’s obviously why Cadance informed us about Crystal’s plans. She sent Thumper to travel with Crystal, hoping that her daughter discovers his love as well as her purpose in life, and she’s gambling on us being able to help her.”

“Yeah, but it’s a little trickier for queen changelings than drones. When a pony falls in love with a harvester, it overloads the drone’s ability to consume love, so they can feel and express the same back. Queens can store a huge amount of love energy though, so she’s never been pushed past that point. Intellectually she knows that she cares for him a lot, and there’s certainly the love of friendship in her, but she has that blind spot towards romantic personal love.”

You didn’t have that problem,” Twilight pointed out.

Free shrugged. “I’ve always been different, and the same goes for Pif and Hype. In fact I think anyone with my mutant gene might be the same. My whole hive has become something that Equestria has never seen before. But just because Crystal is biologically my mother doesn’t mean that she’s the same though.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to remember that our niece was once someone else,” Roseclaw said. “But we must always keep it in mind when discussing her. I have a good feeling about Thumper though. If he persists, and I believe he will, I think Crystal will eventually fall in love with him.”

Path sighed. “I hope you’re right, Rose. But we do know a lot more about changelings than we did decades ago, and it isn’t too encouraging. Queen Carpacia likes and respects me, and she believes that I have been an excellent father for Fifi and has indicated that she would seek me out to sire another princess if necessary. She has even bluntly told me that she would enjoy non-procreational sex with me. However, at no time has she ever expressed any true love for me. In fact my enquiries have never indicated that any queen of any hive has ever had anything more than a strong fondness for their partners, with the possible exception of the Yellows, but the way they care for everybody kind of blurs that line. I have my fears for Crystal.”

“She loves her parents,” the griffoness pointed out.

“She’s bonded to Cadance,” Path rebutted.

“She didn’t bond to Shining Armor, but she loves him too. And her sister.”

“I think that’s due to Cadance’s love talent. If I were to guess, I think she somehow shared that bond. Also, familial love is still not the same as being in love. However, I still agree that it indicates the possibility that Crystal can learn to love another. I hope she does, not just for her sake, but for Thumper’s too.”

# # #

Crystal took Thumper on an aerial tour of Ponyville, and then headed over toward the nearby apple orchards. They spotted Big Macintosh ploughing a field, and several ponies working the orchards or tending the other crops. Nestled among the trees was a nice homestead with a rather simple treehouse adjacent to it. As they circled nearby, a voice came from above them.

“Hi there, strangers! Would you be looking for the Cutie Mark Crusaders?”

Turning their attention upwards, they spotted an orange pegasus mare with pinkish-purple mane and tail.

Crystal smiled and said, “Hi, Scootaloo. Just visiting, actually.”

“Do I know you?” the mare asked with friendly puzzlement.

“Let’s land and I’ll introduce us.”

The three alighted in front of the homestead, and Scootaloo folded the magitek wing extensions that enabled her to fly despite her handicap.

Crystal looked around for witnesses with both her eyes and changeling senses before transforming into her natural body.

Scootaloo’s eyes widened in recognition. “Princess Crystal! I didn’t know you were visiting.” She came forward to give her a hug.

“I’m travelling anonymously, Scoots. I’d appreciate it if you kept it hush-hush.”

“Sure thing, Cryssy. Who’s your friend?”

“This is Cloud Thumper, my minder and best friend. Thumper, this is Scootaloo, one of the founders of the Cutie Mark Crusaders.”

“Honored to meet you, Scootaloo,” Thumper said as he hoof-bumped the mare.

“Bloom is working the orchards today, but Sweetie is home between concerts. Wanna come in and say hello?”

“Sure thing. I was hoping to see you anyway,” Crystal replied.

“Why? Got a problem for the CMC?” Scootaloo asked eagerly.

Crystal grinned. “Maybe.”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders Guild had spread throughout Equestria, and into a few other nations by now. Although not all their clients had cutie marks to find or properly understand, the CMC’s services were quite sought after. Scootaloo was a little excited about the prospect of having a changeling queen as a client.

“I’m mostly looking for your opinion on my course of action.”

“We can do that,” Scootaloo replied as she entered the house. They were met by a pony with a medium-blue coat and dark-yellow mane, but with the addition of a chrome changeling horn and wings. “Hey, Mimic, can you find Sweetie? We have CMC business.”

“Of course. She’s in her studio working on her next song. I’ll fetch her.”

Thumper stared at the changeling pony. “May I ask about him?” he said, inclining his head in the direction that the odd stallion had taken.

“Sure! Mimic’s our herd stallion.”

“How did that come about?”

“He was the first chrome changeling harvester to come to us to see if we could discover a special purpose in life for him. It was a kind of experimental thing because House Path was curious to know how far our talents could extend. We thought it was worth finding out, and we gave it our best shot. We spent a lot of time trying out all our techniques, but didn’t really come up with a positive result. However, we ended up spending a lot of time socializing with him, and we got to look forward to it more each day. After a couple of weeks, we realized something – we were enjoying the socializing more than our job, and so was he.”

Scootaloo made herself comfortable in a chair, indicating that the others should do so also. “Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and I had grown up together and pretty much decided to stay that way, so we built this house next to our old clubhouse, and it serves as CMC headquarters. But between CMC stuff and our other jobs, we never got around to dating much. Mimic was always fun to be around, and he really appreciated each of our talents, and it finally occurred to us that we were more than just socializing. When we did, we asked him out on a proper date with the three of us. One thing led to another, and we eventually formally asked him to be our herd stallion. He agreed, and we’ve been a happy foursome ever since.”

“So you actually did discover his special purpose after all,” Thumper declared.

Scootaloo grinned. “Yep! His purpose was to bring us together as a family, ain’t that right, Mimic?” she asked as the changeling returned with Sweetie Belle.

“As you said, hon,” Mimic said, giving her a kiss.

Sweetie came over to give Crystal a hug. “Hi, Crystal. Long time, no see. How have you been?”

“I’ve been very well, Sweetie, but I’ve reached a turning point in my life. I thought I might pay a visit to you and ask for your CMC opinion of what I’m planning to do.”

Sweetie Belle smiled. “Well, that’s considerate of you, although I have to point out that we’ve not been that successful with changelings up until now.”

“But Crystal’s a changeling queen,” Scootaloo pointed out. “I think that would make a difference.”

“Good point, Scoots. So – what have you got to tell us?”

Crystal described her decision to leave the Crystal Kingdom and ask to join the House Path expedition.

Sweetie nodded thoughtfully. “That sounds a lot like one of our approaches to discovering what your special talent is. I think you’ve made a good choice. If nothing else, you should gain a lot of experience and open up other possibilities.”

Scootaloo added, “That’s right. And if you still have problems, see us when you come back and we’ll try some other techniques.”

“I’ll do that. I’m glad to know that you think I’m doing the right thing though. Despite committing to this course, it’s a little bit scary.”

“It wouldn’t be life if there weren’t challenges, Chryssy. I think you’re going to….” She was interrupted by a wailing sound coming from a nearby room.

“I’ve got that!” Mimic declared, heading off towards the sound. Moment later, he returned with a foal cradled between his wings. “He’s hungry.”

“Bloom should be back soon to feed him,” Scootaloo said.

“Who’s this?” Crystal asked curiously. “I hadn’t heard that you were expecting another foal.”

“This is Apple Slice,” Sweetie said proudly. “Apple Bloom felt the urge to be a mother again, so Mimic got a semen donation from an earth pony stud service to sire a foal with her. He was born six weeks ago. Mimic’s a great foal-carer because he can always tell exactly what’s wrong with the colt.”

Scootaloo said, “One cry sounds just like another to me. I’m glad that Mimic’s talents extend towards more than in the bedroom.” She gave him a broad wink.

He grinned back. “I like being a father. This is my third foal, but I’m hoping for a few more, actually.”

“Nope!” Scootaloo said firmly. “Still not interested. I’m happy just to be a co-parent.”

Sweetie said, “I’ll probably have another one next, but I’m not in a hurry. Maybe when this foal has grown a little bit.”

“Are the other foals here?” Thumper asked.

“It’s the middle of a weekday, and they’re at school,” Sweetie pointed out.

“Oh, yeah. I should have realized. So – fillies or colts?”

Scootaloo answered, “Both fillies. We’re happy that Bloom had a colt this time.”

“Things have come a long way since the time when changelings siring a foal with a mare was known as the ‘Loving Deceit’,” Thumper commented.

“Yeah, no,” Scootaloo replied. “We don’t use that term anymore, at least not here in Ponyville. With so many changelings in open relationships with ponies, it’s well known how we mares can have foals with them. Twilight says she’s close to figuring out a compatibility spell, but the sticking point is how harvester drones are infertile.”

Mimic said, “Princess Twilight says she got some encouragement when Watchful Eyes evolved into a fertile Princess after becoming an Avatar of Harmony, but the catch is that she’s not a drone anymore. She’s a queen, and although she has yet to start a hive, she will eventually. She plans to do so in Griffonstone where she lives with her husband, but there isn’t a hive there already to cause problems. If all drones became queens when they became fertile, that could be a major headache. There’s only so much room for more changeling hives, let alone all the drones that would come from them. So far we have a very comfortable balance.”

“Yes, that’s a problem that I’ll face one of these years,” Crystal said. “That’s one thing that I hope to learn how to cope with in my travels. However, it’s likely I won’t have to worry about it until decades in the future.”

“Oh? How does your coltfriend feel about that?” Mimic asked, inclining his head towards Thumper.

“He’s my best friend, not my coltfriend,” Crystal retorted.

Mimic was a little taken aback. “Oh. Okay.” He looked at Thumper who laid back his ears and raised one hoof in a helpless shrug when Crystal was not looking.

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