Korrick coughed as his old lungs were crunched by the impact. He bounced off the stone floor of his cell roughly. The guards closed the door quickly, though he made no move to stand or stop them.
He would not fight it. They were simply holding him, and if his years had taught him anything, it was that truth and patience were partners. In the end they would come to know their mistakes, and so he did not cry out in anger, did not scream about how unfair this was. He had tried to warn them how wrong they were once already, but they were in no hurry to listen.
A mocking laugh behind him drew his attention. He was not alone in his cell.
"Show yourself!" he growled, lighting his horn to reveal the area.
"Now now, no need to be so hostile," came the reply in a voice he dreaded hearing again, accompanied by the face of tyranny.
"Chrysalis?" he asked quietly. She did not look anything like she once had; though magic had long since altered her form, she was the queen no more. Her body was frail and sickly thin. It was built to contain and consume much more magical energy than it would ever see again, leaving her deprived of magic. That, coupled with the terrible treatment prisoners received, had made her weaker than ever, barely recognizable from the once proud monarch.
But it was her.
"Indeed. Nice to see that your old age has not yet eaten your brain alive," she said scathingly. "Now then, what brings you here? Judging by the way the guards handled you, I imagine you didn't come just to say hello."
"There is a 'coup starting against the new king. He is a good friend, and for my closeness I am being punished. By removing me, they weaken him. You cannot tell me you are unfamiliar with such things," he said with a grumble.
"Oh, I had heard that the people do so love dear, sweet Aurus," she spat. "Too bad he's on a mission into hell, the poor, poor boy. Of course you're right, the 'coup doesn't surprise me. After all, you tried to tamper with the nature of our kind," she pointed out with an ironic laugh. "And all you managed to change was where you'll be spending your evenings. In a cage, for tyrants. How the mighty have fallen."
Korrick did his best to contain his anger. Old and weak as he was physically, he still had the love of his wife and his true friends coursing through his veins, and he could crush her like an ant if he so desired. After all, she was in no state to fight him. He suppressed that urge, for it went against everything he was now working to create; it could only lead to destruction of his own ideals, so he took he mocking with a grain of salt.
"But you know, even if I hadn't suspected a 'coup from the beginning, you'd be surprised the things you hear in these dark halls," she said suddenly, snapping him out of his reflection on whether or not to beat the snot out of her.
"What do you mean?" he asked, suddenly interested.
"Well, the guards have very boring jobs. The best part about our people is that the detested are harmless and weak, so there's very little... resistance from criminals like me," she said carefully. "Not much fun for them if they're looking for reactions from prisoners. And let's be honest, these aren't like your snap-to, yes-sir guards over at the council hall. This is the bottom of the barrel for changeling society, the meanest of the bunch," she said, rubbing her snout with a hoof idly.
"To pass the time, they spread the latest gossip around. They think that nobody is listening; or perhaps that nobody who could do anything about it is. But there's not much to do here for me either, and so I've made a habit of eavesdropping when I can," she said, her smirk going sinister in the dark, her green eyes flaring mischievously.
Korrick was more interested than ever. Could she possibly have news darker than the simple tidings of a 'coup? Perhaps she could know who was behind it!
"Tell me what you have heard," he said sternly, and a bit too excitedly.
"Oh, do I have something you want?" she asked, sneering at him. "Yes, after your role in my current state, I'm ever so likely to hand that over to you." Her sarcasm was again trying the limits of Korrick's patience, especially with his mind aching for news that might turn all of this around.
"If it means that much to you, then you will have to trade me something," she hissed, her tone conniving and deadly clever. "Ever since I heard the hunt was on for you, I've been waiting for this moment. And I think I've just the deal for you."
Korrick was reluctant. She was deadly and dangerous; even in a weak body, a strong mind could work wonders. He didn't trust her as far as he could throw her. Still, the thought dawned on him that he could probably throw her a very long distance, things as they were. Times were desperate, the people were in danger, and he needed all the help he could get.
"Very well. What is it you want from me?" he asked carefully.
"I want you to help me leave this place. You still have your magic, and I have the information you desire. Surely my freedom is of less concern to you than the freedom of the people? A small price to pay." Her fanged smile in the dark made him even more nervous still.
But she had a point. Asking her freedom was a very minor thing when held against the possible destruction of their nation at the hands of another tyrant. One more daring and prepared than others who had come before him, whoever he was. One who would lead them to greater ruin.
He wrestled with it, for his core refused to allow this creature to leave this place. He had put her here, it was his work that had at last locked her away. But he too needed to be free to help his king, his people.
"Fine," he growled, clearly not happy with the arrangement, but agreeing to it nonetheless. "I will help you escape. I need to leave here as well. But before we get ahead of ourselves, I need to know that you have information that will serve me enough to risk it. I am not asking for much, but prove to me that your words can be trusted."
She laughed to herself. "Excellent! Escaping is no small feat, I assure you. If it's a demonstration you want, I'll tell you this much. I know the name of the person backing the 'coup. They're doing an excellent job of staying out of the spotlight, from what the guards say. The only reason you're here is because they are behind him. And they know of his plans. Once we are free, you shall have the name... until then, I will disclose this to you."
Korrick bent his ear to her hungry whisper, a dark laugh close on the trail of her words.
"Assassins have already found your dear friend Aurus."
"Today?" Aurus asked, his knees shaking at the idea. "Can't it wait a few days?"
"No, it can't. The longer you sit on it, the worse it's going to get," Twilight shot back, pushing him out the door to the library.
Aurus braced his hooves on either side of the door, refusing to go. "But don't you think I should get to know the people here better first?" he asked, his voice all but begging. It was clear by his tone that what he really meant to ask was 'don't you think we can cancel this thing'.
"No, I don't. And you're going to Canterlot whether you like it or not! The princess invited you, so this is your one shot at showing the whole city what you're really like," she grunted, pushing him harder.
"The whole city?" he asked nervously, his eyes widening and legs going weak at the thought. As a result, Twilight finally forced him out the door, his momentum rolling him end over end a few yards into the street.
When he sat up he was face to face with Rainbow Dash.
"Nice landing. The old 'pushed out the door' gag. That's something I'd expect from Fluttershy, not you," she chided, smirking and helping him to his feet.
The others were there as well, and it became immediately apparent that it was not just he and Twilight making this trip. "Thanks Rainbow. Now let me guess... you're all coming with, aren't you?" he asked, as if that was a terrible idea and he didn't much care for it.
Rarity turned her nose up at his reluctance. "Well certainly. After all, you can't very well expect to impress anypony on your own. It takes a certain flair that you just don't have without us," she said snootily. But her smile afterwards and her wink showed that she only half meant it.
"Yeah, not t' mention it'll be awful hard introducin' yerself around the streets with just Twi. I know she's mighty popular in Canterlot an' all, but there's strength in numbers, partner," Applejack said, smiling at him.
Of all the ponies, he could feel the strongest friendship coming from her. After their little one on one the other day, things seemed to have really settled her mind about him, and for that he was grateful. To be honest, she was the most frightening. That and her brother. Aurus had never seen a stallion that size.
"Well, if the gang's all here," Twilight started, letting that statement hang. The girls all started making their way in the direction of the train station, abuzz with conversation about this latest trip to Canterlot. This was certainly a unique circumstance, and everyone seemed thoroughly excited.
Twilight started making her way as well, until she noticed that Aurus wasn't following her. She turned back to see him trying to sneak back in the direction of Everfree, creeping low to the ground and moving as quietly as he could.
"Ugh... Applejack?" Twilight called ahead, rolling her eyes.
The orange mare looked back and grinned to herself, pulling a coil of rope from under her hat. "I thought somethin' like this might happen," she chuckled. Twilight continued on her way as Applejack went after Aurus, and laughed to herself once she heard him start yelling.
"Applejack stop! I'm not getting on that train! No, leave me alone! No! No!"
The girls ahead all stopped and had to repress laughter as Applejack came ahead at full speed, dragging a lassoed Aurus behind her. He did his best to dig his hooves in, but AJ was simply moving too fast, and in the end he just toppled over backwards as she dragged him into the train, scrabbling his hooves all over the road for something to halt her undeniable pull.
The other girls filtered in behind him, all laughing openly now as the train door shut, sealing his doom.
"You're too dramatic," Rarity said with a small laugh.
All the other mares just stared at her like she had said something incredibly stupid, eyebrows cocked with frowns on their faces.
"Relatively speaking, of course," Rarity clarified with a sheepish smile.
"It's not just the Canterlot trip," Aurus explained, huddled as tightly as he could be in the corner of their train booth.
"Well what else is there?" Twilight asked, clearly confused.
"Let's just say I'm... deathly afraid of trains," he explained quietly, refusing to look out any of the windows.
Rainbow Dash laughed. "And here I thought you were tough. What are you scared of a train ride for?"
Aurus sighed. "Think about it. I'm in a metal box, going who knows how fast-"
"Seventy miles per hour," Twilight cut him off suddenly. Everyone looked at her strangely, and so she clammed up.
"In a metal box, going seventy miles per hour, with two little metal rails keeping it from tipping over and smashing into a tree or something. One of the few things that could literally squash me like a bug," he finished with a shudder, closing his eyes.
Twilight felt a twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry, Aurus. I had no idea you had a phobia of train travel."
Aurus closed his eyes tightly as something rushed way too quickly past the window, threatening to break what little calm he had left. "Look, there's no way around it now, so it's better if we just... don't talk about it," he said quietly, through gritted teeth.
The girls all looked at each other in concern. This was very unlike him; clearly this fear ran deeper than they thought. Twilight wasn't the only one feeling guilty now. AJ nodded to her friends as she made her way to Aurus, giving them the sign that she would take care of it.
"Hey," she coaxed, getting him to open his eyes a crack. "Come on, partner. You can't spend the whole afternoon in that corner."
"Watch me," he grumbled, snapping his eye shut again.
"Don't be that way, Aurus. Look, I'm sorry I dragged ya into this. Literally. But if ya don't pay it no mind, ya might lose track of the fact that yer on a train. Come on then, there's a breakfast car me an' the girls were gonna go see about."
Aurus reluctantly opened his eyes again, looking into hers. Those beautiful, green orbs were only full of sincerity and concern, and he hadn't the strength to turn her offer down. Anything to help him forget and clear his mind was a good start.
Applejack helped him to his hooves once she could see the resolve building in his determined face. "That's better. Now then, what do changelings eat, anyways?" she asked, leading the way behind her friends.
Aurus puzzled over that, ignoring as best he could the click-clack of the train wheels. "To be honest, when they're as hungry as I am; anything," he said with a weak laugh. In all fairness, he wasn't sure if the gnawing feeling in his stomach was still fear, or if it was actually hunger.
Applejack laughed, helping to lighten his mood further. "Well shoot, I guess that makes ya an easy one to buy for back home. Your folks cook much?" she asked, realizing that the small-talk was all that was keeping him sane as they passed by window after window, and even between cars. She laughed again as his outer eye snapped shut on reflex to block out the wind.
At last they arrived at the meal car. The food arrayed smelled wonderful, with doughnuts and fruit piled high on trays. His presence startled a few ponies, but he paid them no mind as they gawked at him. His world was consumed with breakfast. "I can just take anything, then?" he asked, all but drooling, a drop even dripping off his fangs.
Twilight chuckled. "Sure, but don't overdo it. Other ponies still need to eat too."
Aurus smiled, making his way towards the table. He stopped short though and stumbled back as something small and black slammed into the table just ahead of him, sticking out from the side of it. He pulled it out with magic, looking at the object curiously. Applejack wandered closer, since she had seen him almost trip over his own four hooves.
"What's the matter, Aurus? Somethin' wrong?" she asked, trying to get a look at what he was holding.
He was shaking now, his eyes wide as he dropped the toxic dart, recognizing it for what it was. Had he gone another step, it surely would have hit him; their people used these to hunt for a wide variety of creatures back home. Though the venom was not usually fatal, large enough amounts could kill anything over the course of a few painful minutes. And the darts were built to go through the tough shells of scorpions in the canyons. He had no doubt it would have punched through his own.
On instinct he pushed Applejack hard, using all of his changeling strength to get her clear as another dart whizzed in, barely missing her and himself as the dart passed clean through one of the larger holes in his legs. The direction it had come from had put her between Aurus and the shooter. Looking around, his changeling eyes quickly spotted the disguised enemy, leaning around the corner of the next car in line. Realizing he had been spotted at last, the assassin made a break for it.
Aurus pursued, though his mind begged him to run away. Who was this? Why was another changeling trying to kill him? What in all the possible hells beyond was going on? He wanted answers!
"Hey, what's yer problem?" Applejack hollered, but he paid it no mind. Twilight, seeing the seriousness and fear on his face, took off after him, Rainbow Dash in tow. Rarity and the others went to help Applejack back to her hooves before following as well.
What Twilight saw next startled her. Aurus stood facing an undisguised changeling in an empty storage car, the cargo door to the side thrown wide open.
She couldn't understand what Aurus said; his words were strange and otherworldly, full of hisses and clicks. The other changeling simply hissed at him and then jumped out the open car door, buzzing away as the rush of wind swept him up.
Aurus slumped, his legs giving out as the adrenaline left him. The six friends from Ponyville rushed to his side, confused and worried.
"Aurus, what happened?" Twilight asked, her voice thick with concern.
"That changeling... tried to kill me," he said, his eyes wide and his breathing hard.
The six ponies all looked at each other with dread and horror. An assassination? How could they have known Aurus would be on this train? Twilight thought all of this and more as her mind raced.
"So, when you pushed Applejack out of the way...?" Rainbow asked, looking at him curiously.
He only had the strength to nod, no words.
"He saved my life," Applejack said, the realization coming to her as a shocking revelation.
"Twilight, what's happening?" Fluttershy asked, her eyes wide and voice tight with fear.
The purple unicorn sighed as she locked eyes with Aurus, the two of them coming to the same conclusion. She could feel it in his gaze.
"Girls... it seems somepony in T'rahk Enox isn't very fond of Aurus' mission of peace."
Aurus had bigger problems than his phobia of train travel as he helped the girls search the rest of the train for changelings. He had clarified with Twilight that changelings could, in fact, easily identify one another even when disguised. And so he and the girls were combing car by car, looking for others.
After an hour or so, sweeping through every car several times, they had found nothing. It had simply been that lone assassin.
Aurus had to sit down, finally overcome by his disbelief. "I just don't understand." He hung his head as he tried to think.
Twilight came closer, sitting with him while the other girls talked amongst themselves. None louder than Applejack, who was swearing up and down that she would clobber the next changeling she saw. Not counting Aurus, of course.
"Aurus, are you okay?" she asked quietly, not wanting to disturb him if he needed time alone.
"I'm fine. The darts never hit me, or even scratched me. But just listen to them," he said sadly, gesturing with a head shake toward the girls, who were all irate and ready to pounce on the next changeling they saw. "That changeling did something far worse that hitting me with that dart."
Twilight's eyes went sad as she realized what he was referring to. "All of your hard work," she said quietly, putting a hoof on his shoulder comfortingly. "Don't worry, it's not what you think. You're our friend, and someone out there is trying to hurt you. If it had happened to me, and some pony had been the assassin, they'd be just as angry with ponies, too. It will blow over soon," she said calmly, confidently.
Aurus had to trust that. "I hope so. Applejack was right earlier, you know. When she said I can't do this without you; all of you. If any of you leave this train with evil thoughts about my people, then my mission is going to be impossible," he finished quietly, closing his eyes. It was obvious that the discussion was over.
Twilight sighed. She knew he was right, that if even one of her friends decided all over again that changelings in general were bad, the other four would follow. She herself had too much faith in Aurus and his mission to doubt him, but she had to be sure her friends were willing to go the miles they would have to to trust in his mission like she did. With a bit of purposeful anger fueling her steps, she made her way over to her friends.
"Girls, stop," she said firmly, drawing all of their attention. Rainbow opened her mouth, her face dropping into a scowl as she prepared a long and hardly thought out tear-down of changeling kind. Twilight's icy scowl cut her off hard though, and so she shut her mouth.
"I know how we all feel about Aurus, and it's terrible to think he's in danger. But he has a mission to prove to us that his people aren't all evil. I know he's the only one we've seen, and this assassin isn't helping things. But I for one believe in him, and he needs all of you to do the same, or he'll never be able to free his people from this kind of stereotype. He said it himself that he can't do it without us. All of us," she said sternly, stomping her hoof to quell any arguments.
"I know he needs us, Twi. And after what he's done for me, it's the least I can do. But t' be honest, he's the only one of 'em who's supposed t' be here, ain't he? After all, he did come alone," Applejack said, smiling to her friend in a way that begged her not to worry.
"Twi, all we meant by it's that any changeling who's out here besides Aurus probably doesn't mean well for him. He probably don't want t' admit that himself, but it's the truth," she finished firmly.
Fluttershy spoke up next, much to everyone's surprise. "I agree. Aurus is gentle and kind, and I know there are others like him. But the ones who are sneaking around after him aren't like him at all," she finished, her voice losing magnitude as it always did at the end of a statement of her personal opinion.
Twilight nodded, satisfied that her friends didn't hate changelings. They still believed in Aurus' mission. "Thanks, girls. It means a lot to him."
"After what he did for Applejack? Darling, we'd do anything for him. Only a complete gentlecolt would do something like that," Rarity said as if it were completely obvious.
Aurus could hear every word from where he was sitting, but more importantly he could feel the love coming from that group of friends. True friends, no longer on the fence about him at all. His exhaustion vanished along with his confusion as the magic flowed into him, threatening to boil over. He went through a quick exercise he had found did wonders for keeping himself from feeling as if he were about explode; moving the magic around inside himself. He imagined that the magic was a bowl of sand, piled high in the middle. All he had to do was shake it, move it around, to flatten the peak and make all the sand fit comfortably inside.
He stood once he was sure it was under his control, and made his way to his friends. "Sorry about that, girls. I wasn't feeling well, so I needed to sit down for a minute," he said lamely, rubbing the back of his neck with a hoof.
Rainbow Dash just laughed good naturedly. "Dude, you almost got killed, and all you needed to do was sit down for a minute? I take everything back about the whole train phobia thing, you're tough as nails," she said, punching him in the shoulder.
"Thanks. Actually, I need to talk to you guys about something regarding our trip into the city. See, if there're assassins looking for me, I'm worried about my friends and family back home. I don't think they'd kill any of them, but they're in danger all the same. I'm afraid for what might be happening back in T'rahk Enox," he said gravely.
"Whatever do you mean?" Rarity asked, edging closer to hear better.
"Well, the people love me... Even though I'm a new king, the entire nation knows what my goals are and why I'm here. They want to change, and my people are tired of being alone. I can feel it everywhere I go, their love and warm wishes pushing me on to do this and fix things with your people. But there are always bound to be those who like things as they are, or have their own ideas. It doesn't surprise me that somebody else might want the throne," he said, scowling at the thought.
"But since I am well loved, they can't take it from me while I'm away on this mission. The people would revolt and never allow it. The only way to claim it from me would be for news of my death to reach the people, and steal the throne in their grief and disorder. That's why whoever it is tried to kill me. To make sure I never make it home," he said quietly.
He'd been thinking about it all day. Admittedly, he knew very little about politics, but he knew enough that where public opinion was concerned, he was the rightful king. And public opinion was everything in power struggles for his people. He was unstoppable as long as the people loved him.
"Oh my. That's terrible," Fluttershy said quietly, fearfully.
"It could be worse," Aurus said with a comforting smile. "At least this way I'm the only one in any real danger. They could be holding my friends or family hostage instead to try and get to me. But that's not happening yet, so for the time being they're safe. If the assassins continue to fail, however, then they'll resort to that eventually," he said, pacing around and trying to puzzle things out.
He stopped suddenly as an idea hit him, smiling wickedly, his fangs only adding to the mischief in his smirk. The girls all shifted uncomfortably; all except Twilight, who could really appreciate the creative genius in his expression for what it was.
"Girls, I think I have a plan."
Twilight was instantly intrigued. "Let's hear it," she replied, her tone alight with mischievous glee.
"I'm going to disguise myself to get through the city. It won't fool any changelings who are looking for me, but until now I've been walking around like I am now. If it causes a commotion in the city..." he trailed off, knowing Twilight would pick up on it.
"It would draw who knows how many assassins the city might be hiding," she said, thinking it was a clever idea. "But if you were disguised..." she trailed off then, realizing that at last they had both come to the same conclusion, had the same plan.
"We could be looking for them, while they're looking for us, without causing a stir. It will put my plans for meeting everyone on hold for a bit, but once we find one of the assassins, we can catch one. They'll be able to tell me for what I am, but they won't strike in the open again. The dinner car was isolated enough to risk it, but in the city they'll be more careful. Knowing that..." he said, turning the floor over to Twilight.
"We can basically set the stage for the attack ourselves, by making you vulnerable on purpose!" Twilight finished with glee, pounding one hoof into the other as the point drove home for the other five friends.
"And when you've found one?" Rarity asked excitedly, feeling the tension building between Aurus and Twilight almost tangibly.
"Isn't it obvious?" Twilight asked, confused that nopony else was following this train of thought.
"No, it ain't," Applejack said flatly.
"Simply put; if we know who and where he is..." Aurus started with a smirk.
"Then when he comes for Aurus, we'll come for him," Twilight finished.
"You look simply wonderful!" Rarity swooned, giving Aurus the once-over. "Easily the handsomest stallion I've ever seen, and that's saying something."
"I gotta admit, you do like mighty good in that getup," Applejack added, a slight blush on her cheeks.
"You know, I could get used to this," Rainbow said with a smirk.
"Girls, stop it," Twilight glowered.
Aurus just laughed to himself. Most days changelings just copied a target, as it was easier and required less creativity and energy. But Aurus couldn't risk walking the streets with the possibility of running into the very pony he had copied and causing a ruckus. So he had opted for the longer, more difficult option.
He was now in the shape of a tall, silver-coated pegasus. His mane was short and slightly spiky in a rough modification of Rainbow's mane, his tail long and giving the appearance of being wind-tossed in an attractive sort of way. He'd opted for a black mane and tail with a streak of dark blue down the middle, much like the pinkish stripe in Twilight's hair, which it was modeled after. For the cutie mark he had decided on a simple white cloud with a beam of light-blue light punching through it. His eyes were the same color as the ray of light, and so he felt it was fitting.
He had no idea what ponies found attractive in their males, but clearly it was very different from what changeling females looked for.
"So, why a pegasus and not a unicorn? Wouldn't it be easier to disguise your wings?" Twilight asked, confused.
"Well, yes..." Aurus said, shuffling uncomfortably and projecting an embarrassed blush onto his disguise. "But let's be honest, I'm more likely to fly than I am to do magic."
Twilight blushed too, forgetting that he wasn't very confident in his arcane abilities. "Right, sorry. Well, we've talked to everyone on the train, and they all know not to tell anyone about the disguise you're wearing, not even the guards. I'm surprised they agreed to it, honestly."
"Hey, me too. But let's not question it. You told them to spread the word that there was a changeling on the train though, right?" he asked.
That part of their plan was key. It would not only let the assassins know he was in town, but it would also have the guards out on patrol, increasing their chances of picking the time and place of the attack and not having one sprung on them ahead of schedule.
"Of course. The whole city will be talking about it by noon. I hate to think what kind of worry this will put on Princess Celestia or my brother, but we can explain it to them later," Twilight said quickly. "Now then, everyone else knows their parts, right?"
Twilight and Aurus had decided that Rarity and Fluttershy should be the ones to actually accompany him through the city on his search. The other four would follow in two groups of two, watching Aurus for signals if he spotted a changeling. It was important that the assassins not know who all was with him.
Fluttershy was too timid to be part of an 'apprehension' group like the others, and Rarity was the best actor out of all of them, so she would help keep Aurus inconspicuous amongst ponies in town.
Rainbow and Pinkie Pie formed the first group that were in charge of identifying and then capturing the assassin. The other group was Twilight and Applejack, and the hope was that it would be those two who caught the would-be killer.
With nods from all five other ponies, the group of seven made their way off the train in shifts. This plan needed to be, and would be, handled perfectly.
"Oh, let's go in that one next!" Rarity purred, pulling Aurus along to another shop.
He honestly couldn't tell if she was acting and trying to help scout for changelings, or if she was just shopping.
Still, he laughed and kept up the act. "Alright, alright. You girls sure aren't cheap dates," he chuckled. His voice was layered over to be deep and interesting, with most of the inflections upbeat and light-hearted. Many other mares they had wandered past had been looking at his two friends with looks of undisguised jealousy as they dragged him around town.
So far there had been no sign of any changelings, but word was already spreading fast that a changeling had been on the train in from Ponyville. Guards were thick on every corner, some even poking through alleyways.
'None in here' he signaled silently, lifting his left wing and working it in gentle circles as if trying to work a kink out of it. This was apparently very common for pegasi to do at any given time, according to Rainbow.
Twilight and AJ outside took note of it out the corner of their eyes, keeping their faces constant as they carried on a casual conversation on the corner.
It went on like this for several blocks, until at last Twilight saw the signal that Aurus had found one. He fanned his wings out wide, and then draped one over both Fluttershy and Rarity. Had he draped a wing over just Rarity, it would have meant that the other changeling hadn't noticed him yet. Hugging Fluttershy meant that he had been seen as well. A twitch of his tail to the left signaled the changeling was at ground level on the left side of the street.
They'd been practicing for a while on the train.
Keeping up the act, Rarity giggled like a schoolfilly and pressed in close to Aurus while he smiled and said a few sweet nothings to both girls. Fluttershy looked absolutely embarrassed, flushing bright red as Aurus pressed her close, too. The trio made their openly overt way down the street, everypony looking after them. Males were full of jealousy that he had two beautiful girls under his wings, and females were angry that they weren't one of them.
That made spotting the changeling easy enough. He looked after them with eyes narrowed in a way that was not jealous, but malicious. He was a dark green earth pony with a conveniently missing cutie mark. That meant he had to follow on hoof, or risk trying to change form inside the city, which was on high alert for changelings.
Aurus looked over his shoulder and received the 'got him' signal from Twilight, an overly fast nod to Applejack as they kept on their little chat. Those two would tail the changeling comfortably, never losing track of him.
Satisfied, Aurus turned down a side street until he came to a place where he could see Rainbow Dash. Since she was a pegasus also, he had been told that approaching her openly wouldn't draw any kind of unwanted attention, and so he simply walked up to her and Pinkie.
"Hey Rainbow! Long time no see," he said idly, smiling at her and not removing his wings from either of the girls next to him, indicating to her that they'd found their target.
"Heya Cloudhopper!" she called back, smiling widely. "I didn't know you were in town. What's the occasion?"
"Oh you know, just figured it wouldn't be a bad place to bring the girls. We're going to grab lunch soon, actually. Care to join us?" he asked, the meaning of that statement painfully obvious. It was like a bad spy film, and he had to try hard not to chuckle to himself.
"Sure, why not? Pinkie and I were getting hungry anyways. Just a few things we need to finish up before hoof. How about we meet at Joe's?" she asked, as if it was their usual place.
"Sure thing. See you there!" he replied, bumping hooves with her and then turning to leave. Joe's was an inner-city eatery that Rainbow had frequented before, with numerous alleyways behind it that would suit their purpose. He started making his way north, looking for the sign. Rainbow would fly off to arrange things with Twilight, and soon their plan would come to fruition. He found the store and waited outside, making small-talk with Fluttershy and Rarity until he got the last signal he was waiting for.
A whistle somewhere from Applejack was all he needed to hear. "Alright girls, why don't you head inside? There's something I need to take care of quick," he said politely, pulling his wings back to himself and ushering the two on ahead.
"Don't be too long, now!" Rarity called with a wink, practically dragging Fluttershy, who was still blushing wildly.
Aurus couldn't contain a chuckle as he looked at his yellow friend. Clearly she wasn't much for the acting scene. Looking both ways quickly, as if he didn't want to be seen by anyone, he stepped into an alleyway, hoping that Twilight and the others were in position.
He was only a few steps in before he heard hoofsteps behind him, and he felt the nervous twinge of possible failure eating at him. Ending up dead was not part of the plan, and so he prayed everything would go well. He froze in his tracks as a vile chuckle came behind him, the assassin walking a few steps into the alley to avoid being seen from the street.
"King Aurus, I presume," came the unaltered changeling voice behind him, speaking his own tongue.
"An assassin, I would wager," he returned snidely, turning to face the disguised changeling. With his outer eyelids closed, he could tell that it was the same disguise he had been wearing earlier.
"Oh no, you've caught me," the assassin shot back with scathing sarcasm. "Now then, nothing personal... Just business," he said idly, pulling a blow-tube to his mouth after loading a dart.
Aurus didn't blink as the dart left the tube, whistling through the air in a straight line for his chest. 'Figures he would be a better shot than the last one' he thought grumblingly, hoping Twilight knew what she was doing.
The dart stopped in mid air a few feet ahead of him, bathed in pinkish-purple light.
"What in all the possible hells...?" the assassin asked, reeling back as the dart just stopped. "I thought you weren't good with magic!"
"He's not. I am," Twilight said, stepping into the alleyway behind Aurus, her horn glowing as the dart hung suspended.
"Damn!" the assassin swore, dropping his disguise and buzzing his wings hard to fly away. A blue blur with a rainbow trail hit him from above before he had even gotten three feet off the ground, crushing him into the cobblestones.
"And where do you think you're going?" Rainbow asked, stomping her hooves on him for added effect as he struggled.
Another face filled the assassin's unfortunate field of vision as somepony wearing a hat bore down on him. The last thing he saw was her whirling around and smirking before two hooves slammed him hard.
"Nothin' personal. Jus' business."
The assassin woke up tied to a chair in the back of Joe's place. The doughnut maker had agreed to Rainbow and Twilight's request on a few conditions. First, he only housed paying customers, and so the changeling assassin now had a doughnut skewered on his horn. Two, he didn't want any trouble with the guards, so they had to keep it down. And three, they had to clear out through the alley when they were done, the same way they had come in.
He looked into the smugly smiling, doughnut eating faces of four ponies, arrayed in front of him.
Through the gap between one set of two and the other, a fellow changeling, taller and different from the norm, stepped out of the shadows of the storage closet. His eyes were narrowed dangerously, his fangs showing long thanks to his victorious smirk.
"Kind of you to join us... Assassin," he hissed in his own tongue. He was using a tone that even his own people would find sinister, but it set his pony friends on edge as he used it. He felt bad for that, but he couldn't diminish the effect he needed to have on this changeling.
The assassin spat at him, but the spittle never reached him. "Accursed, fake king! You're nothing like the changelings who came before you! Weak and stupid, with designs of peace where war is needed," he hissed back, rocking in his chair.
Aurus hit him hard, knowing that it would hurt but do no real damage to the changeling. His friends all held back their gasps as best they could.
They'd had a discussion where Aurus had stated in no uncertain terms that they would not like what he was about to do. In preparation for it, Twilight had cast a spell that would mask the volume of his exchange with the assassin.
"The changelings they sent after me are trained killers, I'm sure. They won't agree to my demands easily. I'm going to have to use force, and I'm asking you all to look the other way. Please understand that I don't want to do this anymore than any of you want to see it done," he had said sadly.
The sadness was gone, replaced by fake rage and ire. "Weak? Stupid? I have more power than you can fathom in my body. And I have you, trained killer, trapped and helpless in front of me. Not so stupid now as you might think, am I?" he roared in his language, tipping the chair over backwards on purpose. The changeling landed roughly, hitting his head hard, but again doing no real harm.
"Now then, who am I?" he growled at the changeling, lying back down on the floor. He towered over him, in every kind of position to trample him flat if he so chose. And the changeling's shell would never survive that magic-fueled bombardment.
"False king!" The changeling said sternly, though his tone sounded less sure, his voice strained with pain.
Aurus stomped on the floor next to his head in fury, bending low and screaming in the changeling's face. "Who am I?"
"King Aurus!" the changeling wailed, realizing that he had just nearly had his head crushed. The cement floor of the closet next to him showed cracks from Aurus' hoof.
"That's what I thought. Now then, traitor... What should I do with you?" he asked, smirking as Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy pushed the chair up from behind the assassin. They had been put behind the changeling, because Pinkie couldn't keep a straight face, and Fluttershy couldn't look fierce like the other four.
Aurus clicked his tongue as the changeling's now-fearful eyes followed Rainbow Dash, who hoofed over his own blow tube, giving it to Aurus. He slid it into one of the holes in his right hoof, the traditional way of wielding the weapon. It could be carried and used at any time that way, even while walking.
"No, your majesty, please!" he said in terror. Of all the ways to die, the poison in that dart was the worst. It practically melted your insides, felt like fire turning you inside out until the very moment it claimed you. Inside those darts rested agony incarnate.
"Begging?" he asked with a dark laugh. "How unprofessional. Tell me, traitor... Why should I let you live?" he asked, as Twilight dutifully inserted a dart into the tube with her magic. "You have ten seconds."
"I... I..." the assassin stammered, his eyes looking between the ponies for help as he struggled for something to save his life. They all turned up their noses in an act of anger and disgust, looking away from him.
"Ten... Nine... Eight..." Aurus counted idly, lifting the blow tube to his mouth, but not putting it to his lips. He took careful aim at the changeling's chest.
"Please, your majesty, have mercy!" the changeling pleaded, his eyes brimming with tears of fear. Aurus' heart stung badly at that, but he didn't allow it to affect him in this critical time. He alleviated the pain and guilt by reminding himself that he would never fire the dart, and that even if he did, the poison had all been removed anyways.
"Five... four... three..." he counted calmly.
"I can help you stay alive!" the assassin cried fiercely. "I'll do anything! Please, your grace!"
Aurus smirked smugly, lowering the blow tube a few inches and shooting the dart. He watched with a twinge of guilt as the changeling flinched badly. The dart bit harmlessly into the wooden chair, between his legs.
"There there, my faithful servant. I think perhaps you are right; there is something you can help me with," he said with a wicked grin.
The assassin gulped, shaking from his imagined near-death experience. All he could do was nod, for fear that his words would turn to whimpers.
"How would you like to be the one to tell your masters I am dead?"