My name was Razorbeam, and I am retired.
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"No! Please, my lord!" came a feeble cry from the other side of the door, muffled by Twilight's spell. The words were in changeling, of course, but their desperation was clear enough for the five ponies standing with him. Despite the sincere terror in that outcry, his friends all laughed. He joined them, though he had no idea what was going on in there.
"Are you sure it's okay to leave him in there alone with Pinkie Pie?" he asked Twilight, tossing his once-more disguised head in the direction of the storeroom door.
"Oh, he'll be fine. She's just talking his ear off. I'll admit it's torture sometimes, but for the most part it's harmless," she said with a laugh as they heard Pinkie's voice going on and on between breaks in the changeling's wails.
Aurus laughed more wholeheartedly now, coming to understand the 'torture' for what it really was; just Pinkie, being Pinkie. "Alright then, I suppose it can't hurt. I had no idea you girls could be so devious," he added with a chuckle, giving Twilight a friendly nudge.
"Well Rainbow's always been a bit of a ruffian. It was her idea in the first place to use Pinkie as ammunition. The first time we ever had to do that was when Applejack wouldn't cooperate with us after running away from home," Rarity said with a little smirk Applejack's direction. The earth pony flushed bright red, realizing now just how foolish and melodramatic she had been during that whole ordeal.
"T' be fair, I wasn't in the best of places in my own head at the time," Applejack admitted, allowing the honesty to take some of the embarrassment with it. Going with the truth helped her feel a mote of control again.
Another cry from behind them had Aurus shaking his head and smiling sadly to himself. "Well, he apparently has no idea it's harmless. Maybe he's had enough?" he asked, turning back as if to head back inside.
"You know, it's your own fault for calling Pinkie the 'Grand Torture Master' before you left," Rainbow Dash said with a chuckle as she recalled that little exchange.
Aurus laughed too. "Well, I couldn't resist. Besides, we can't go light on him. Now then, I'll send Pinkie out. Why don't you girls go ahead and wait outside? It won't be too long."
The girls all nodded and headed for the door, while Aurus headed for the closet, to put an end to the changeling's screams. A hoof met his before he could turn the handle though, and so he stopped, looking back. Applejack was still there, looking at him with an expression somewhere between disappointment and concern.
"Oh, Applejack. Something wrong?" he asked, giving her a comforting smile.
"Before ya go back in there, I want t' talk t' ya... Alone," she clarified, shuffling uncomfortably even as she said it.
Aurus turned around, realizing that this wasn't just a passing nervousness. Something was really troubling his friend, and he couldn't bear to see her like that. Even in all the short time he had known her, he had come to respect Applejack, perhaps more than any of the other six friends he now had in this faraway place.
He gave her a slightly less enthusiastic smile, allowing her to see that he was concerned, too. "Of course. You can talk to me about anything, Applejack. We're alone now, so why not tell me what's on your mind?"
She shuffled again, not quite looking him in the eye for a few seconds while she gathered her thoughts. At last she sighed, as if she had simply decided that winging it was her best bet. Aurus was happy for that; speaking from the heart always made more sense.
"I've known ya long enough by now t' think I know what's goin' on. I know he's a bad apple, Aurus. But I jus' don't feel right with how you were treatin' him. I don't like seein' you that way. It ain't the Aurus I'm used to. And it was frightenin', t' be honest. My heart almost always knows best, but I need t' hear it from yer own mouth. I need to know ya did what ya did because ya had to... Not because it's how ya are," she said sadly, hanging her head and not looking at him.
He could tell that she believed, wanted to believe at least, that he was completely good. That everything had been an act; but she had her doubts, and she felt horrible for having them, even though her heart told her that Aurus was still the way she had always known him to be; kind and loyal.
"Applejack, I would never hurt him like that unless I had to. He's a killer, and I have no respect for what he does... But I'm not. He's still one of my people, and I love them all. I can't reason with him, though. He's here on a job, and the only thing that will keep him true to my cause for now is to convince him that I'm stronger than he is. And as far as he's concerned, evil and strong happen to be along the same lines," he said with a sigh.
On an impulse, he put a hoof under her chin and lifted her eyes back up to his. He smiled warmly to her, trying to say without words that everything was fine, and nothing had changed. "I don't like it any more than you do. It makes me sick thinking that I have to go in there and pretend to be something I'm not. In hindsight, maybe that makes me a terrible changeling," he said with a little laugh. It warmed his heart to see it bring a small, unstoppable smile to her lips as well.
"But it makes ya a good friend," she said, smiling more fully now. She made no move to push his hoof away from her face at all. She simply stayed, smiling at him for a time as she worked her resolve back up. "Please jus' say ya'll be careful... Ya already went out of yer way once for me and almost got yerself killed because of it. I don't want t' see anything bad happen t' ya, Aurus," she said quietly, looking into his eyes unblinkingly.
His world was a combination of shock and confusion. He was young, to be sure, and had yet to experience much of what it meant to be a changeling. Or even to be alive. He had felt hundreds of emotions; hate, friendship, approval. Love, from his family.
He had never felt what was coming from Applejack as he looked into her wonderful emerald eyes. It filled his being like nothing before. It didn't pack in, or try to burst from him, but instead the magic felt as though it were flowing through him. As if it already knew where to go; straight to his heart. It was pure and strong, the most powerful thing he had ever felt in his eighteen short years of life.
The flow halted almost completely suddenly, slowing to a trickle. Applejack blushed fiercely, pulling away from him gently, but quickly. She wouldn't look at him for a moment, staring straight at her front right hoof, which was pawing slow circles on the shop floor.
Aurus wasn't sure what to make of it. It was new, sudden, and unexpected. It had felt right to him, whatever it was; but judging from the look on Applejack's face as she looked away, she wasn't so sure that it was a good thing to feel. He didn't want to dwell on it, or question her about it. She looked as if she was confused enough as it was, and he didn't even know where to begin. Instead, he decided they could both use some normalcy, something to bring them back to reality.
"Don't worry, Applejack. I won't get myself into anything I can't handle. I promise," he said with one final smile at her. "Thank you. For checking on me, I mean. I couldn't ask for a better friend," he finished calmly, his voice full of sincerity. "Now go on ahead... I'll be out shortly."
Applejack seemed to calm down a bit at that, though he could still feel the trickle of mystery emotion coming from her. "Don't mention it... I'll be waitin' outside," she said politely, giving him a weak half-smile before heading outside.
As soon as the door shut behind her, he could feel the flow speed up. It was as if whatever it was was affected by how close she got to him. As if she was nervous.
Letting it go, Aurus remembered his duty as the changeling hollered from the room behind him. With a sigh, he made his way inside.
"What was that about?" Rainbow Dash asked, a look of utter confusion on her face as Applejack walked out late.
Applejack sighed. She hated this part of her personality. The part that made her a ridiculously terrible liar. In the end, she decided it would just be simpler to give away only part of the truth. She hadn't exactly come to terms with the other part herself.
"I decided I should check on Aurus. Make sure he was okay. It weren't easy for somepony like him t' act that way," she explained idly, glad to see that it didn't violate any truth-telling personal codes.
"Yeah, I bet he had a rough time of it. He's a pretty easy-going guy," she admitted, accepting that.
"Well, he is okay, right?" Fluttershy asked, full of typical concern.
"He don't feel right about it, but he's fine. He knows he did what he had t', t' make sure things go smooth. Still, I'd like to know what he said t' that assassin while we were in there," she said, rubbing her head. "I ain't got a single clue what he's on about."
Twilight nodded her agreement, quirking an eyebrow. "I'm honestly surprised he didn't tell us what he had planned to do once we caught an assassin. Maybe he doesn't have it all figured out himself?" she mused. "Or maybe things with the capture mission just took priority, and so he just hasn't gotten to telling us yet?"
While Twilight puzzled on and on about the possibilities, and Rainbow Dash waylaid the now-outside Pinkie Pie, Applejack made her way over to Rarity.
"Hey, uh, Rarity?" she started, doing her best to fight back the blush coming to her cheeks. "Can I, uh, talk t' ya for a minute?"
The purple-maned pony just smiled like she hadn't a care or clue in the world. "Well of course, Applejack," she said, waiting patiently for her orange friend to start.
"Well, I meant more... private like. I don't think the other girls would be much help," she said, twiddling one front hoof over the other and not making eye contact.
Rarity looked at Applejack mischievously. There were very, very few things the farm pony would need to speak to anypony about, particularly Rarity. "So it's that kind of help, is it?" she asked smugly. As far as she was concerned, it was high time Applejack came to her with something of this nature.
"What d' ya mean, 'that kind'?" Applejack asked, following Rarity around the corner into a more isolated part of the alleyway.
"Dating help, obviously," Rarity said, tossing her fabulous mane about. "I mean, what other private discussion could you possibly need to have with me?"
Applejack sighed, blushing and unable to lie her way out of it. She really wished Rarity hadn't discovered it so soon, or been so blunt about it. "It ain't the datin' I'm so worried about," Applejack admitted sheepishly. "It's more a problem of tellin' the fella. I'm not even sure how my own feelin's are lined up, t' be fair."
"Darling, that's the best time to tell him!" Rarity said, giddy with excitement. "If you wait too long, some other mare will just beat you to the punch. And half the fun of it is getting to know him better and really watch those feelings grow. It's absolutely natural to be worried and nervous when you're unsure, but you can't let these opportunities wander away," she said, waving a hoof and scrunching up her face as if that idea were simply terrible.
"Well, like I said... I dunno, it seems awful sudden. I haven't seen much of him," she half-lied. It was true for the most part; Aurus hadn't been around much on the whole.
"Now you listen here, Applejack; it's not how many times you've seen him, but how much you like seeing him that matters. Now then, I don't mean to pry, but I can't help myself. Who is this mystery stallion of yours?" she asked, her eyes alight with interest as she bit her lower lip in anticipation.
Applejack went weak in the legs as she realized it was lie or die of embarrassment. And lying just wasn't in her nature. Defeated, she sighed and blushed mightily as she tried her best to muster the strength to say it.
"What would ya say if I told ya I had... a bit of a crush on Aurus?" she asked quietly, wincing hard before she could even get a glimpse of Rarity's reaction.
After several seconds of holding her eyes shut and not hearing a sound from Rarity, Applejack opened her eyes a bit.
Rarity was sitting there looking like she was in the process of being hit by a train, her eyes wide and her mouth open in undisguised surprise. She just sat there, not making eye contact with anything in particular, and Applejack wasn't even sure she was breathing. At last she sucked in a deep breath and tipped over backwards.
"That's what I was afraid ya'd say..."
"Now then, I suppose you're convinced that I'm not a good enemy to have," Aurus said idly to the assassin, as if it should have been obvious all along.
The assassin nodded readily, his eyes still wide with terror. "I should never have said such things about you, your grace. You truly are terrible to behold."
Aurus laughed, though he disliked being called terrible. "If you make me to be so, yes, though I do not prefer to be. Now then, my servant... It's time I told you my plans," he said with a smirk in the gloom. He no longer needed to act so vile in front of him; he had already proven that he could be pushed to act darkly. Further illustrations were not needed. Instead of pretending to be evil, what was needed from here on out was simple determination and resolve, a strength of purpose in his tone.
The assassin seemed intrigued. "Your plans for peace? Everyone has heard those, your eminence."
"Not those plans, my friend. Perhaps you misunderstand the purposes of war and peace," Aurus said, picking up a light bulb from a shelf. "Allow me to illustrate for you. See this glass ball? Think of it like a people. The ponies for instance," Aurus said, setting it on the ground in front of himself.
"This is what war does to a people." Aurus stomped on the light bulb, crushing it to dust. He lifted his hoof, and bade the assassin to inspect it. "Look there. Tell me, what do you see that can be salvaged from that?"
"Nothing, my lord," the assassin replied dutifully, though his expression was puzzled.
"Not nothing," Aurus clarified. He swept aside the fragments, and pointed at the floor. "I can still have the floor it was on. The glass ball no longer sits on it. And now it is mine," he said pointedly, setting his hoof on it.
The assassin nodded. This was often the case; wars could be fought to gain control of a territory, to expand their nation.
"That is only one purpose of war, of course. Imagine I had only smashed half of the glass ball. It could still be used for something, but it would not have its full effect," he clarified, pulling out another light bulb from the shelf.
"Now then, picture this glass ball instead. Again, as a people. This is what peace is capable of," he said quietly, using his magic to make the bulb glow. It flared brightly, lighting the entire closet front to back.
The assassin winced from the sudden burst of light. "And what is peace for then? To sting my eyes?" he hissed, snapping his outer lenses shut.
"Calm yourself," Aurus hissed back, floating the lit bulb higher. "Instead of looking at it, look around it. Tell me, is there anything you cannot see clearly, now that peace has reached this people?" he asked smoothly, slyly.
The assassin looked about, his face shifting from confusion to awe as he grasped the metaphor at last. "There is nothing I cannot see, my lord. The entire room is well-lit," he replied sheepishly.
"And what could you see, using the smashed glass ball?" Aurus asked.
"Nothing, my king. I was blind to this darkness," the assassin replied dutifully.
"You are still blind, my friend," Aurus said sadly. "Even now you are only seeing the very simplest of what peace has to offer. It illuminates us, guides us, makes us whole. Only I can see what peace truly is. It is why I am strong, and you are weak," he said pointedly, his eyes narrowing to help drive the point home. "War does not prove a king's strength. Even victory in battle is worthless if it serves our people no purpose but more farmland. Peace is true power."
"It will bring us happiness, will win us love. And through love, we will be stronger than we have ever been. And instead of using that power to crush those who come to adore us in bloody war, why not sow more peace? Why not be even more powerful and wiser still? To crush those that might love you is to weaken yourself to the point of crawling like a worm," Aurus finished his profound speech with a look of disgust at the assassin. "A killer like yourself is already weak by comparison to those who know true love. Tell me, weak one... Have you a mote of love in your life strong enough to untie those ropes holding you there?"
The assassin looked at Aurus as if he had been slapped. Sense! So much sense! How could this young changeling, his king, see things so clearly? How could his words alone paint such a wondrous picture of their people's power and strength? Was it true? Could Aurus truly see clearly because he alone knew peace as it was meant to be?
More importantly, he saw the truth of the assassin's own heart. Never had he loved; he had always been alone. Those that knew him paid him, or worked with him. These would quickly leave him for dead, if their plotting went south. In defiance he tried his best to light his horn and untie the knot at his back, but several attempts left him breathing hard and trapped still.
Aurus looked at him with a look of true compassion now, and pain. "You see, dear servant. Your life of war has left you little. For all your clever tricks and experience, you have no power. Here you are, trapped by the changeling you've come to kill, and unable to do the simplest of tasks to free yourself. Because of the path you have chosen."
The changeling tried to muster some retaliation, some excuse or rebuttal, but nothing came; he felt only despair as he heard the tale of his simple, sad life read back to him in only a few short sentences. He hung his head in defeat, tears coming to his eyes as he realized then and there his ultimate failure as a changeling.
"I am sorry, my lord..." the changeling sobbed, unable to keep the sadness from coming to him. Tears filled his eyes, though he tried his best to fight them, but they came on the wings of his despair, his failure, and his regret. "I am sorry..."
The next thing he felt were the bonds around him loosening, and then falling away as his king stood in front of him, smiling calmly. "I forgive you, my friend," he said warmly, his tone full of compassion. "I can be strong for you, I can play terrible and powerful, but that's not the way I choose to be. I choose instead to show you how to be strong yourself, and to illustrate the values of peace. It's better to be calm and kind than to be angry and vile."
The changeling assassin could feel it flowing into him. The approval of his king, the empathy and compassion as he continued to cry for his failed life. "Please, my lord... Tell me what I should do. Teach me to be strong. I don't wish to be weak and alone anymore."
Aurus smiled warmly. "I'm not your lord anymore. I am simply Aurus, and I am your friend. As long as you honor my friendship and never falter in peace, you will never be alone again. The darkness is ready to let you go," he said warmly as the changeling before him continued his flow of tears. "Are you ready to leave it for the light I can offer you?"
The changeling sniffed, his tears turning from those of sadness and bitter regret to ones of joyous rebirth. "I would follow you out of any darkness my lo-... Aurus," he replied, his lungs shaking his words with their uncertain exhalations, but his words held a tone of determination, and Aurus could feel true respect coming from the assassin. This was no act.
This rebirth was real and whole.
"Then what do you call yourself?" he asked politely.
"I go by Malik," he replied warmly. It was clear that he was not used to introducing himself.
"Come with me, friend Malik," Aurus said, opening the door to the storage closet that had been this creature's hell zone for the last two hours. "There is much that you need to hear, before you are ready to serve me. I will be the one to give you your most vital mission."
Malik smiled warmly, a changed changeling through and through as he walked out that portal. He did not run or try to flee in any way, but simply waited for Aurus as he followed, closing the closet door behind him.
Together they made their way into the alley, where Aurus' other friends waited.
Twilight and the others balked at the sight of the re-disguised ex-assassin. Aurus smiled a pained smile as he watched the inevitable unfold.
Applejack snorted and pawed the ground, ready to charge him. Rainbow was much more prepared, it seemed, for she was already in the air and spiraling their way. "Stand back, Aurus!" she growled, rocketing off.
She came to a sudden halt as her tail was swept up in a glowing purple cloud, dragging her to a stop. Twilight walked up to the sky-blue pegasus, shaking her head. "Rainbow, calm down. Look, he came out with Aurus, so there's got to be a good reason he's not all tied up anymore. Right?" she asked hopefully, looking Aurus' way.
"Thanks Twilight," Aurus replied with a nervous laugh. "Yes, he's with me. He's pledged loyalty to my cause for peace... I know it's hard to believe, but he's a changeling. Changing is what we do best."
Applejack gave up her threatening posture, though she wouldn't have minded clobbering the would-be killer another time or two. "Ya sure he's alright?" she asked skeptically, eying him with concern.
"Sure as I can be. I know that none of you can feel his emotions the way I can. Trust me when I say that his change of heart is real. I'd be able to tell if he were faking this," Aurus replied, giving his friends puppy-dog eyes as they continued to lay their doubts about Malik on the table.
They had a rough time fighting that expression of pure, innocent pleading. With a sigh, they all let it go, Rainbow falling to the ground as Twilight's spell gave out. Ignoring Rainbow's protests, Twilight made her way forward to talk to Aurus.
"Alright then, what's the plan? The girls and I are a little concerned," she said with a worried look. "Please tell me you have some kind of idea?"
Aurus just smiled and nodded. "Don't worry, I think I know what to do. At the very least I'm sure how to handle the assassins. Now then, girls; this is Malik. I know he's got a lot to answer for, but he's playing for the right team now. Malik, this is Twilight..." Aurus continued through the list of his female friends, pointing at each in turn and raising his voice so that the other five friends would come forward to meet their new ally.
"I really wish we were meeting under better circumstances," Malik said quietly, his voice hushed with fear and worry. He seemed particularly on edge any time his gaze came across Pinkie Pie.
"Don't we all?" Aurus asked ironically. "Unfortunately, this is just the way things are."
"Nice to meet you, Malik. I hope Aurus' trust is well placed; you've got a long ways to go before you've earned ours," Twilight said politely. She was simply stating the facts to him, not threatening him. She turned back to Aurus after the pleasantries had been taken care of. "So... plan?" she asked, her tone full of urgency.
"Plan. I want you to escort Malik to the castle; we need to meet up with Celestia and let her know what's happened. Unfortunately, he can't travel anywhere near me. If the other assassins see him with me, everything I've come up with will go down the drain. I need you to take him around the city, and make sure he's being watched when you take him to the castle. The other girls and I will get there before you. I need him to be seen following me inside," Aurus said seriously.
Twilight nodded, still unsure what was going on. "I can do that, but I want to know what you have planned. It's not helping us being left in the dark, Aurus," she said worriedly. "You know you don't have to do everything on your own."
Aurus just smiled at her in apology. "I know, and I'm sorry; but with assassins still lurking in the city, I don't feel safe talking here. I'll explain everything once we're inside. The princess needs to hear it all, too."
Twilight and the others all nodded, accepting that. "Let's hurry then," she said, gesturing to Malik. "He's unarmed, right?" she asked, giving him a scowl.
"Of course. He's fine, like I said," Aurus said quickly, urging her on before she made the rest of the girls or Malik any more nervous than they already were. He practically pushed them out of the alleyway.
Once the pair were on their way, he and the other girls made their way out onto the streets, Aurus once more in the guise of Cloudhopper the pegasus.
It had gone well enough. Aurus knew he had been seen entering the castle himself, and Malik clarified that he had been seen following him in. No assassins would question Twilight's presence. She had served her use as Malik's tool for entering the castle, and they would only see it as a testament to his cunning.
All as he had wanted. Aurus and the others had gone straight to Celestia. She and her sister had decided it would be safest to meet in the library, where few guards would bother them. While Celestia had assured Aurus that he would be safe from them in her company, he had erred on the side of caution. For the time being, it was best to go unseen.
The library was dark, the thick velvet shades drawn tight. Dusty books lined every shelf, and those shelves climbed to the ceiling nearly twenty feet high. Ladders on wheels slid along tracks in the shelving to reach the desired tomes. The carpet was thick, though stiff; as though it had somehow become brittle over the ages of inactivity. This corner of the library was almost never used for anything besides storage for old tomes that had long since served their purpose, or been replaced with newer editions.
Their gathering was complete at last, with one additional member Aurus didn't know. He had been told that Celestia had a sister, though he had never seen her. She was resplendent, a trait that seemed to run in the family. She had a dark blue coat, like the sky of midnight, with her mane and tail full of flecks of brilliant light. As if she wore the stars themselves for jewelry.
"Before we get ahead of ourselves... Luna, this is Aurus. The changeling I've been telling you about," Celestia said to her sister, gesturing to the changeling king in front of her. "Though he doesn't quite look the way I described him to you anymore."
It was true. In the short time he had spent in Ponyville, the budding friendship had fed him a slow but steady increase in magical power. He had changed significantly now. He had molted a total of three times, and was nearly as tall as Luna was. His wings were wider and the membrane was thick. His blue hair had grown longer, obscuring his horn in the front, which was twisted and pocked with stylishly placed holes. To any changeling woman he would have been the most handsome creature in the world, with his deep green eyes, tall stature, and long fangs.
"I have heard much about you," she replied, her eyes full of eager interest as she gazed at him. "I am Luna, princess of the night. I did not know that changelings could have such a hunger for peace and friendship, or that they could grow so large. Are all of your people this way?" she asked pleasantly.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, your grace," Aurus replied smoothly, smiling at her. "Unfortunately there are still those who would rather cause problems for peacemakers like myself... Which is why I'm here meeting you in secret right now." Luna shuffled as he made that rather obvious point. It was clear from the flow of undisguised, warm curiosity coming from her that she had gotten caught up in her interest in him.
"Well then, Aurus... What is it you wish to talk about?" Celestia asked, breaking the awkward moment hanging in the air.
He cleared his throat, clearly preparing for a lengthy tale. "I'm sure you've heard the news that there was a changeling on the train in from Ponyville. You were expecting me, of course, but you had other guests from my homeland in your city long before I was here, it seems." A nod from Malik confirmed his words. "Assassins have made attempts on my life; once on the train, and once in your city. We were prepared the second time, and captured the would-be killer. He's here with us, in fact," he said with a small, nervous laugh.
"I am Malik, your majesties," he said, bowing his head and looking fearful. "It's true that I tried to take Aurus' life, as was my charge; but I failed, and he has taught me a better path of life. Though I have not walked far on it, I am on it all the same. I am an assassin no more," he said solemnly, smiling at the two pony princesses pleadingly.
Celestia smiled back, her expression full of understanding. "It seems Aurus has that effect on his people. A good ruler knows how to guide the hearts of his subjects. If Aurus says that you are changed for the better, then I trust his judgment."
Aurus smiled at her, pleased to hear she was not worried of Malik. After a pause, he decided to continue. "Malik says that there are seven other changelings scouring the city for me. On our way here I was careful to be seen entering the castle. Malik was careful to be seen following."
"This is dire news," Luna said darkly. "Why are they hunting you? Are you not their king?" It was clear to Aurus from that question alone that he had much to explain. Power struggles simply didn't occur among ponykind the way they did among changelings.
"There is a power in my homeland that wishes to see my mission for peace fail. Likely they want the power of the throne themselves, and with me so far removed it should be a simple enough task. Fortunately, the people love me dearly. I can feel it everywhere I go; their hopes and warm wishes rest with me. Even at this distance, my power is secure. For changelings, whoever is loved most dearly by the people is the most powerful. The one who is fit to rule. Suffice it to say that as long as they love me, the throne will be impossible to steal," Aurus said calmly, though his pacing belied his anxiety as he performed small circuits back and forth.
"But I've undertaken a mission into what my people consider enemy territory. Alone. It wouldn't surprise anyone to hear that I'd been killed; they know very little about the nature of your people. If the changelings were to receive news of my death, the usurpers would be in a fine position to steal the attention of our grieving nation, and secure their own power," he said, halting and stomping a hoof as he scowled in anger.
"That is why, though it will cost me my throne... I want news of my death to reach the nation," he said quietly.
The ponies all reacted about as he had expected, looking at one another in shock and confusion.
"Why would you do such a thing?" Luna asked, her tone full of angry confusion. "You will be giving the usurpers exactly what they desire. They will secure their power if you do not fight them!"
"Because I have my family and my friends to worry about," he said with a sad smile. "They haven't harmed them yet; I can feel it, but unless I am reported dead, they will soon be used as bait to lure me out, where the assassins can slay me," he finished, looking to Malik for clarity.
"It's true. We received orders only a day ago claiming that if we had not captured or killed you in three days time, that your family would become involved."
Luna scowled. "How disgusting. These changelings would stop at nothing for power?"
Aurus shook his head and sighed. "I'm afraid not. And the only way to keep them from doing something terrible is to let them have their way... for a time. It's why I was careful to be seen being followed by Malik. He has agreed to relay news of my death to the other assassins. Since he has been seen tailing me into the castle, they will not question him if he returns without my body. All I would need is for your own guards to spread the word that they found me dead in the castle as well. The assassins will hear this, if they are observant, and it will help Malik with his task."
Celestia nodded, thinking that plan made perfect sense. "I can make that happen, but why not return home, and put a stop to this? If you are so well loved, couldn't you rally the people and drive the rebels out?"
Malik shook his head. "Aurus is not powerful enough to do so on his own. The changeling backing the 'coup is called Gerd, and he is a member of the High Council. Killing Aurus was to be the last step in his plan... In short, that means it is already too late. He might be able to keep Gerd from coming into power, but not without causing chaos in the process. Many innocent changelings would die as a result. They have already removed Aurus' friends from power. Korrick, the high councilor himself, is being watched as a possible traitor against Aurus. Though it is an obvious lie to us, the people don't realize the truth. Gerd is clever, and turned the people and the council against Korrick, without ever damaging Aurus' good name; no small feat, I assure you."
The news that Korrick was imprisoned hit Aurus hard. "That makes things more difficult. The council is powerful; they're responsible for electing the next king. Without removing Korrick, they would never have a chance at putting a tyrant like Gerd into power. He's too strong willed and righteous to allow such a thing. No, returning now would only cause problems," Aurus said firmly.
"I will return to free my people from this tyranny. I have to, but I can't leave; my mission here is still for peace. Let the usurper get comfortable on the throne; he won't sit in it long," he said with fiery determination. "When the time comes and I'm ready, I will return and free them from his tyranny."
"But how?" Twilight asked cautiously. "I thought you said the king gets his power from his people? If they think you're dead, how will you have enough power to stop Gerd?"
Aurus sighed. "It requires a bit of faith. Their grief and desire for me to live will keep me strong, for a time. But as they get used to the idea that I am gone, their love for me will fade, and I will be weak. I believe that when I return, alive and well to the surprise of Gerd and his followers, the people will unite behind me again, giving me the strength I need to cast him aside. I have to rely on their true desire for peace. In the end, it's all that will give me the strength to save them," he said nervously. "I know I'm casting a lot into the wind here, but I don't have much choice."
"But I certainly can't do it alone... That's why I need to stay. I can't spend the time I need to, to convince your people to help me. Still, I need your help all the same," he said, turning to Luna and Celestia. "I need allies."
Celestia and Luna looked at each other sadly. What he was asking for simply wasn't possible. The ponies would never unite behind him after what his people had done. Not without years of goodwill to clear out the bad blood between them.
"I am sorry, Aurus," Celestia said quietly. "But our military won't help you. There's simply too much left to fix for them to march with you."
Aurus smiled to her calmly, as if he had known that all along. "I'm not asking you for soldiers, Celestia. I'm asking you for help."
The two sisters looked at each other again in confusion. "What do you mean?" Luna asked, quirking and eyebrow at him.
"All my life I had heard stories about your people. How the unicorns were powerful mages, capable of great magic. In school, we learned that your nation was ruled by two of the world's most powerful magical creatures; a force to be reckoned with. In the history of all my people's research, they have never come across anything as magically skilled as the two of you," he said plainly. It wasn't flattery or anything of the sort; it was the honest truth.
"The changeling ruler is supposed to be a powerful mage; the most powerful our kind can achieve. But I know next to nothing about magic. And if I hope to free my people, that has to change. What I need from the two of you is to teach me the art of magic," he said, his smirk confident and ready.
All the ponies and Malik gasped at that. None of them had expected that his plan would be so complicated, though few knew how truly difficult what he was asking for would be. Twilight and the sisters alone shared the real shock.
"Aurus, unicorn magic and changeling magic are very different... There's no telling how long it could take to learn!" Twilight said, full of concern. "It may be too late by the time you're ready."
"I have to agree... There's no way to know how many months, or even years it could take," Luna said direly, her face a mask of seriousness. "It will not be easy. Are you sure this is the road you wish to take?"
Aurus nodded. "I have to do anything I can to help them. With my people behind me, there isn't a changeling in all T'rahk Enox that could stop me... If only I knew how to control my power. I could drive Gerd out and save them from his dark plan."
"How long are you willing to wait before you act?" Celestia asked, her face all concern. Her eyes roved his face for answers, but all she could see in his eyes was determination.
"To save my people? As long as it takes."