Today’s story will sneak into your favorites.
Without a Hive
[Romance] [Dark] [Adventure] [Sad] • 180,748 words
Young Nictis had one dream: to serve his hive by becoming an Infiltrator, the most vital and vaunted role a changeling could aspire to. To hide in plain sight among the other species, blending in, while gathering the vital emotional energies that fueled his people. Few were deemed worthy of the dangerous job. He was one of the few nymphs selected for training, in the hopes that one of them would develop the skills needed to be entrusted with such a treacherous task.
But when a training expedition ends in tragedy, Nictis finds himself thrust into the role not to serve his hive and people, but to preserve his own life. Separated from the hive, alone, he must put what little training he has to the test. He must blend in with the hive’s greatest source of food, and its most dangerous enemy: the ponies of Equestria.
FROM THE CURATORS: Let’s face it — our fandom loves changelings, and authors have done so much with them that changeling stories have to clear a high bar to stand out from the pack. So when Present Perfect said in his nomination that “Without a Hive is one of the best season-two fics I have ever read, and might just be the best changeling story on top of that,” we had to see for ourselves what the fuss was about. “I wish I’d read this years ago,” FanOfMostEverything quickly said. “This may be the gold standard for old-school ‘changeling in Equestria’ fics, made all the more notable by forgoing the usual ‘crashed somewhere after the invasion’ plot device.” And Horizon was equally effusive. “Perhaps I am — for Glitterbug-like reasons of academic interest, and CLEARLY none other — predisposed to a good changeling story, but this was consistently gripping,” he said. “It covers all of the tropes we expect a changeling redemption fic to have, but with exemplary nuance. The tension of being trained as a sociopathic predator who feeds on positive emotions, while also feeling those positive emotions, drips from every word here.”
That was only one of several compliments on which we all quickly agreed. “Central to this piece is its fantastic characters,” Present Perfect said, with Horizon adding: “This works as well as it does because every individual we ever meet is vibrant and sympathetic.” FanOfMostEverything praised the development of the protagonist: “Watching Nictis grow in spite of himself is wonderful — the changes coming subtly enough that he doesn’t notice until it hits him all at once in the worst possible way — to say nothing of all the other emotional arcs he goes through.” And all of us had a hard time picking favorites from the colorful supporting cast. “The ponies Nictis befriends have lives of their own,” Present Perfect said. “Nowhere is that more apparent than in a late chapter, when our hero meets two ponies named Violet and Grace. They exist on the page for a few scenes only, yet after a short introduction, one gets a deep and abiding sense of who they are.”
It was in the collision between those ponies and the central changeling that the story shined brightest. “What made me smile above all else were the several times during the first half or so of the story — usually in scenes where Nictis was interacting with Big Shot — when the author took a step back to remind the reader that the cute and clever character we’d been rooting for was in fact quite literally a monster,” AugieDog said. “It made for a great contrast with Nictis’ wanderings in the last few chapters when the character’s monsterhood is unmistakably slipping away.” And that left a lasting impression, several of us such said — such as Horizon: “I was legitimately upset when the story ended. I had an almost physical need to see how things shook out with Spark. Fortunately, there’s a sequel!”
Read on for our author interview, in which Phoenix_Dragon discusses esquire numbers, book commitments, and corporate weddings.
Give us the standard biography.
Hoo boy. I’m pretty much a lifetime nerd that’s always been more fascinated with the stories going on in my head than whatever was going on around me. I found creative outlets for it pretty early on, whether making little doodles or coming up with rambling stories I told to my parents. Later on I discovered roleplaying games, and started making more complex worlds to play in. Before long, I started writing down a few of the better stories that came into my head. Most of those stories never got finished, but they were still fun to write. Most were also pretty bad, but a few decades of practice helped with that.
Then, around when I started getting really into ponies, I started getting the strong urge to write complete stories, and to put a lot of effort into polishing them, and that brought me to where I am now.
Outside of writing, I’m also going back to college to get a degree in computer science, because I’m the kind of nerd that loves programming, math, and logic. There may be a reason I like Twilight Sparkle so much.
I also have a wonderful partner of almost twenty years, who fell just as hard for ponies as I have. He’s been amazingly patient and helpful in going over my silly ponywords and offering advice and critique. He’s also very encouraging. In particular, he’s encouraging me to write more stories for him to read.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Way back some twenty years ago, I was making a character for Shadowrun, and needed a name. I’d also just seen Demolition Man for the first time, and I really liked the bad guy, so I named my character after him. I only found out years later that his name was Fenix, not Phoenix, but that’s probably for the best.
Of course, good luck getting “Phoenix” as a name anywhere online. I’ve got a great love for dragons, so I usually go by Phoenix_Dragon (or some variation) in most places. Then someone else started going around with that name, so I often have to append a number on the end of that. (As for what number, ask William S Preston, Esq., and “Ted” Theodore Logan; and yes, that’s the real reason.)
Who’s your favorite pony?
Twilight Sparkle is best pony. I certainly feel some familiarity with her earlier social awkwardness, as well as her nerdiness and love of science and understanding. Her outlook on the world, and the occasional snarkiness in the face of other characters’ nonsense, did a lot to draw me into the show. Second place is a close race between Rainbow Dash, Luna, and Applejack.
Alternately, Chrysalis is best (worst) pony, because she can be all the ponies.
What’s your favorite episode?
There are so many good ones to choose from … but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the changelings. I’d have to go with A Canterlot Wedding. That episode went from the rather eye-rolling premise of a royal wedding and a brand-new alicorn, which all seemed to exist only due to corporate mandates, into a mystery with one of the most effective and menacing to-be-continued moments, a completely unexpected reveal, and probably the most gleefully malicious evil villain with the most interesting horde of minions.
I went into the episode expecting one thing, and it played with that. I expected to dislike the new alicorn because she was shoehorned in there, and ended up disliking her because she was a total … um, not-nice pony. When Twilight tearfully apologized, I was so caught up in the usual cycle of “mistake, make-up, friendship” from previous episodes that I was completely blindsided by not-Cadance’s evil vengeance. (Not to mention Twilight getting sucked down what looked like a portal to hell!) I never could have expected the hyped royal wedding turning into a sudden invasion by shapeshifting bug-ponies. Heck, when real-Cadance showed up, I was totally into it. All my ire had been perfectly shifted over to Chrysalis’ not-Cadance.
Add in my love for changelings, and it seems the obvious pick.
What do you get from the show?
That’s a hard one. The simple answer is that I get enjoyment from it, but that’s not a very satisfying explanation.
There’s a lot that I like about the show. The characters are very distinct and much more clear in their personality than quite a lot of other shows. It’s a unique fantasy setting with all sorts of strange but consistent rules. There’s a wide variety of different creatures, many of which live together. It’s unique.
But I think most importantly, to me, it’s a setting that is in many ways idyllic without being overly naive about it. It wasn’t until John de Lancie compared his time on this show with his time on Star Trek: The Next Generation that I really drew the parallel; it’s got the same kind of optimism that I liked in that show’s setting (in fact, I think MLP:FiM might even do it better). There are lots of utopic settings out there that are peaceful and utopic because there are no real threats, where nothing can go wrong, but Equestria isn’t like that. There’s lots of danger out there, from random monsters to nation and world-ending threats. Despite all those dangers, these ponies embrace friendship because they know they’re better off together. They have this ideal, and they’re willing to strive for it even in the face of adversity.
I’ll admit, I normally like “grimmer and darker” versions of stories, but it’s not because of the grimness or darkness. It’s because those stories often take a setting and then put more thought into it, and I like stories that put more thought into things. Equestria feels like a setting where they put that extra thought in, and came up with a more optimistic setting out of it. There’s an intelligence and cleverness that I really enjoy.
At least, that’s my view of it. I might be over-analyzing the show a bit.
What do you want from life?
To crush my enem—wait, no.
Honestly, I’m pretty simple. I think the best thing is to strive to live a good life. Find enjoyment in the world. Have fun. If you can help others to have fun, even better.
If we’ve only got a few decades to live, I think we should do our best to make sure we can all live those as fully as possible. That means not just living to enjoy life, but to help others enjoy life as well. It’s complicated and difficult, and people are all going to like and dislike different things, but I think it’s a goal worth striving for.
Why do you write?
Because I’ve got an overactive imagination that comes up with hundreds of different stories, and sometimes they grab the wheel and hold my mind hostage until I write them out.
To tie into the previous question: I write because I enjoy it. It’s a fun hobby, and there’s a certain sense of accomplishment to see this huge, long, intricate puzzle finally all fall into place.
If I can put those stories out there, and bring a bit of enjoyment to other people, all the better.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Read all the words. Write all the words. Find some subject you enjoy and write. Keep at it. If you’ve new at it, you’re probably going to have lots of mistakes, but that doesn’t matter. If you don’t write because you’re worried you’ll make a mistake, you’ll never write. Make those mistakes. Make more mistakes. See what you’ve done before and how you can improve. Read other author’s works, and see how they do things. See how they handled a situation, especially if it’s a situation you feel weak at.
Get feedback, and listen to it. Figure out what you’re good at and where you could use improvement. Write more. Even if the story you wrote is filled with errors, logical inconsistencies, bad characterization, and more plot holes than actual plot, it’s not worthless if you’ve learned anything from it.
And if at all possible, write what you enjoy. If you enjoy the act of writing, of seeing a fun story in your head manifest in words, you’re on a good path. I’m sure there are many other views on this, and many other lines of advice, but most of the people here are writing as a hobby, and it really helps if the hobby is something you enjoy.
What inspired “Without a Hive”?
That would go back to the first story I wrote here, “Fragments”, which in turn was inspired by… well, a combination of a dream I had (Where I was of course a pegasus but really an alicorn but really a changeling…), and a touch of hubris after reading a changeling-meets-mane-six story (“I can do a better changeling story than this!”). Pretty bad as far as inspirations go, but after hacking away at the extraneous nonsense, I ended up with a seed of an idea that rapidly grew into a whole story. I was even in the middle of writing some other non-pony story, but this new one kicked it to the curb and demanded to be written, and so I did.
When I had finished “Fragments”, I immediately started thinking of what happens next, and getting an idea for that story — what would eventually become “A New Way”. There was a character introduced at the end of “Fragments”, another changeling, who I knew was going to be very important for the next story. Naturally, if he was going to be a significant character, he needed more detail.
Nictis’ story almost became a few paragraphs at the beginning of that story, but the more I thought of it, the more fascinated I became with the idea of stepping through his past and seeing just how he ended up at Sky’s door. There was so much potential there, both for his own journey, and for showing what changelings were like. The story was ostensibly about him learning about Equestria as an outsider, but it also gave me a fun way of showing his own culture by way of contrast. It was a good setup for the last of the three stories, and just plain fun to write.
Which of the side characters was your favorite to write?
I’d put Spark Wheel as a main character, so he’s out of the running. I’d also give Cotton Candy an honorable mention.
But I’d have to go with Big Shot. Bigs was a really polarizing character, being the main antagonist for the first part of the story and… something more complicated in the later parts. I like him because of his character development and how complicated it makes him and his situation. He’s even a bit of a mirror to Nictis. Bigs was a bully as a kid, while Nictis was a straight-up sociopathic monster. When they cross paths later on, they had both changed. Bigs disliked many aspects of his past, and while he was far from perfect, he was moving on. Nictis had gained more sympathy for ponies and was well on his way to being a nicer person. Both still distrusted the other.
If anything, I think Bigs had matured more. I love that the responses to him varied so widely.
Would you have written this story any differently if it had come out after the hive’s canonical redemption?
Oof. I’m not sure the story would get written at all after that. The entire basis of those three stories was of hidden changelings going against their teachings and traditions to live in an alien society with a better way of life. After their redemption, a lot of the existential fear goes away. When the hive was effectively the enemy of Equestria, it was easy to worry about being imprisoned or banished or imprisoned in the place you’re banished to. If you don’t know ponies, you might even imagine harsher penalties, like death. That’s without even going into the possibility of being captured and providing a lead that could lead to the destruction of their hive. That pretty much all goes away when the hive is theoretically Equestria’s ally.
But there’s probably some stories that could be told along similar lines. I could see an even more slice-of-life story of a reformed changeling or group of changelings moving to Equestria, trying to develop friendships, and possibly facing some of the lingering fear from the previously hostile situation. And I’m sure Chrysalis will try to step in and do something suitably horrible in an attempt either at vengeance or to reclaim her hive. There’s certainly stories that could be told, but I don’t think they’d have much resemblance to the stories I wrote.
So, short answer: Oh yeah. Very different.
Did sticking to third-person limited with Nictis’ lack of knowledge introduce any challenges to your writing?
Yes and no.
There’s certainly the challenge of presenting relevant information without getting into information Nictis wouldn’t have, and there were times where I had to describe things that would be familiar to the reader (from having seen the show) in ways that Nictis, being unfamiliar with them, would perceive them. There were so many “silly pony things” that Nictis just didn’t understand that still had to be described, especially since those descriptions doubled as a mirror to show his own background and understanding. And then there were the times where Nictis’ limited understanding of ponies and the world leads to conclusions that are just outright wrong. It certainly adds some complications.
But at the same time… pretty much all of my storytelling for my entire life has been either third-person limited or first person. I’ve also been the primary GM for roleplaying for more than twenty years, which has given me a lot of practice at running multiple viewpoints with different mentalities, as well as compartmentalizing information. So while it’s got some complications, it’s something I’m familiar with, and even find rather fun. It’s almost like a puzzle, but with minds and information. Plus, I like having the world seen through the lens of one of the characters.
If anything, I’m weaker at third-person omniscient for lack of experience with it. That led to a bit of a struggle when I started “A New Way”, until I settled on the rotating third-person limited with a single viewpoint character in each scene.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Changelings make pronouns difficult. Having a character that rapidly swaps between “he” and “she” can be a real challenge to write (and probably to read, too).
Finally… well, I’m very tempted to not write this, because saying it makes it feel like it’s an official declaration that I have to do, but maybe I could use the extra push. For the next and last Bronycon, there’s a push to make a fanfiction book store. The organizers are looking to run a booth and have authors send in printings of their works to sell at the con. Thanks to a particular fan prodding my lethargic and procrastinating flank, I’m starting on the work to get “Without a Hive” printed up and sent in for the event. It feels strangely significant and daunting, but I have to admit, I do get a kick out of the idea of having a physical, printed copy of my stories. I like to entertain the idea of one day writing a story that gets properly published, and this kind of feels like a small step along the way. A cool, physical memento of a hobby I’ve enjoyed so much.