Blueblood walked alone into the trap.
The path from Ponyville to Zecora's hut had been gradually worn into undergrowth as more and more ponies braved the edges of the Everfree to seek her cures and potions. It wound its way through the dense woodland, circumventing a patch of Poison Joke by a wide berth, and somepony--likely Zecora herself--had even put up colorful little markers of an odd, tribal design at regular intervals. It was easy to find one's way, even at night, and Blueblood had little fear of getting lost.
Which was a pity, really, because getting lost might have made it harder for Queen Chrysalis to abduct him.
Truth be told, though, he almost looked forward to a confrontation with the changeling queen. Twilight's Ancestral Memory spell had opened up a lot of questions, and he was curious to learn the answers. What bargain had his mother made? Why did Chrysalis want him to become a monster? What purpose of hers was he supposed to serve? And that brief vision he'd had, as he'd come out of the spell, like some sort of ritual... had that happened? Had she been there? And why, if his destiny had involved the rise of Nightmare Moon, was it only now that Chrysalis seemed so intent on him?
Life was a lot simpler before... well... before he decided to try and become something more than an arrogant, antisocial, worthless layabout, he supposed.
He wondered briefly if he could ever go back to that life, if given the choice. To undo all the suffering he'd inadvertently caused, but to also lose the friends he'd made. He honestly didn't know if he could. Was that a mark of selfishness? Was it more moral to abandon everything he'd learned over the last couple of months and return to being a genuinely bad pony, thereby bringing back all the lives lost due to his actions, or to continue living with the things he'd learned, at the cost of their lives? Well, if he considered the words of the philosopher Wind Stuart Mill...
Something disturbed a tree ahead of him; several startled birds flew away, chirping in alarm. Blueblood stopped and stared at it. "If this is an attempt at an ambush, I don't know why you'd bother. The most combat-oriented spell I know is for lighting campfires."
Green eyes opened in the tree's upper branches, followed by a low, clicking buzz. More sets of glowing orbs appeared throughout the forest canopy, accompanied by more strange noises as the changelings apparently communicated with eachother. Blueblood sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yes, there's a lot of you. I'm sufficiently terrified. Could we get on with this?"
With a low giggle, a large yet emaciated figure dropped from the trees and into the middle of the road before him. Burning green eyes and a pair of glistening fangs appeared in the darkness, framed by threads of thin, membranous hair. "So impatient. Are you really that eager to die, little prince?"
"No, but you're not going to kill me." He glanced at the other changelings, still buzzing and clicking in the trees. "What happened to speaking to me 'alone'?"
Chrysalis rolled her eyes and giggled again. "My drones are just extensions of my will, in a way. It's not as if I need to keep secrets from them. Besides, you didn't come alone, either."
"True. You know, to be sporting, I should probably give you the chance to run."
"No, I don't think so. You see, I don't particularly care who you brought with you. Everything's already going according to our plans."
Blueblood quirked an eyebrow. "Our plans? I thought your drones were mostly mindless."
The changeling queen let out another mad little laugh. "I wasn't talking about them, dear boy. You have no idea what's going on. That isn't your fault; you couldn't know. If only your idiot mother had been more careful, though, you could be riding the coming wave of change rather than being crushed beneath it."
"What in Celestia's name are you talking about?"
"Funny you should mention her." The changeling queen glanced up, towards the forest from which Blueblood had come. "Are you listening, Celestia? How about your sister, or that little harlot of yours?" Nopony answered, but she smiled and continued. "Cadance, wasn't it? So sweet. Did your beloved husband ever tell you of the things we did together? Oh, yes, he thought I was you, but... I introduced him to a world of pleasures he couldn't have dreamed before. Has he asked you to do any of them, yet? I recall him being particularly fond of the way I'd... "
Blueblood cleared his throat. "I really don't want to hear about Shining Idiot's sexual quirks, if you don't mind."
"Aww, poor pony," Chrysalis cooed with mocking sympathy. "Don't like hearing about how he mounts your dear, beloved sister? How he thrusts himself into her every night, wishing in the darkest part of his soul that it was still me?"
The prince closed his eyes, rubbed a hoof over his face, and sighed. "I don't, in fact. And I doubt Twilight does, either, assuming she's even here."
"She's not," the queen said with a shrug. "She was never going to be. Why would I exchange her for you? She's far too valuable a hostage."
"I thought as much. So why did you even want to speak to me? I was hoping you'd explain why you were attacking my friends and leaving letters marked 'TRAITOR.'"
"Partly because you betrayed your heritage, partly because it was funny, but mostly because it was an object lesson about your place in this world. Those around you will always suffer. Get used to it." She shrugged. "But really, it was all just to get everypony's attention while we advanced our plans."
"This has all just been some elaborate distraction?"
"Oh, no, it was a bit of an experiment, too. But, that's beside the point. You're here because I wanted to give you a chance to learn about your past, little prince. Your mother's untimely death, coupled with Celestia's interference, prevented you from ever learning what your true purpose in this world was. I can tell you."
"So tell me."
She giggled. "It's not that easy. You have to come with me, willingly."
Blueblood glanced skeptically over his shoulder. "You do understand that three alicorn princesses are here, right?"
"She does." Both the prince and the queen looked up. Celestia descended from the sky, landing softly on the road behind Blueblood. Above and behind her, Luna and Cadance hovered in the night sky, silhouetted against the rising moon.
"Ah, about time," Chrysalis smirked. "I thought for sure that little Cadance would come running the moment I mentioned her luscious husband."
Celestia ignored her. "Blueblood, by beloved nephew. Listen to me. Whatever so-called 'destiny' Chrysalis and her allies may have had in store for you, you don't have to embrace it. You can live a free life." She smiled sadly. "I know things have never been easy for you, Blueblood. I know you've always struggled to find your place in the world. But I know there's good in you. I've seen it tonight, when you chose to risk your life to help us save Twilight Sparkle."
Blueblood rolled his eyes. "Really, Auntie, as if I was going to listen to the giant, evil bug."
They both turned back to Chrysalis as she broke into another giggling fit. "But he still doesn't know, does he? You never told him. And if he never learns, he'll go through life always wondering why those around him suffer, why everything he loves will eventually wither away or turn against him."
"What are you... ?"
"Don't listen to her," Celestia said firmly.
"Really, Celestia. It's no wonder you lost your connection to the Elements of Harmony, with all the lies you tell."
The princess winced visibly at that. She opened her mouth to fire back a retort, but stopped short. She stared at Blueblood for a long moment, and then bowed her head.
"I'm sorry, Blueblood," she said with a heavy sigh. "I have kept things from you. I didn't... I wanted you to still have hope. Without hope... "
"Auntie, what are you talking about?"
Chrysalis giggled. "Ooh, can I tell him?"
"When you were very small," Celestia continued, "you were... cursed."
"Or blessed, depending on your perspective."
"Your mother was involved in a cult awaiting Nightmare Moon's inevitable return. You were to be shaped into a worthy consort for her. When your father discovered this, he was so enraged that he murdered her, but died himself in the process."
"I know all of this, Auntie," said Blueblood. "Twilight's spell showed me."
She nodded. "I had had... suspicions, vague ones, about your mother. When I met you for the first time, I searched you for any sign of the cult's taint. And... " She gulped. "I found something."
"Not just something," Chrysalis interjected gleefully. "One of the most creative uses of black magic I've ever seen."
"You were... you were made into a vessel of disharmony. Of... suffering. You were cursed so that those around you would grow to hate you, to despise you, no matter how much you cared for them. And... you would feed upon that hatred, much as the wendigos that consumed the ancient pony lands did. Eventually... "
"Eventually, you would become the most powerful source of evil Equestria had ever seen!" Chrysalis crowed delightedly. "The perfect consort for Nightmare Moon! And then, of course, you would grant feeding rights to my beloved children. You would rule the world, while my swarm would grow fat and strong as we drained the love from Equestria... it would have been glorious!"
Celestia glared at her until she fell into quiet, amused titters. "I couldn't remove the spell, but... I could reduce its effects and stop you from feeding on the disharmony you caused. Unfortunately, the curse was so tightly woven into the fabric of your soul, it continued manifesting in the way you saw yourself and others. Or, perhaps it was just the trauma of seeing your parents' deaths. I did everything I could, but... "
Blueblood stared at her. His mind reeled. His entire life flashed before his eyes, the perspective skewed as he incorporated this new information into every interaction he'd ever had and every action he'd ever taken. His entire life, he'd believed himself a worthless wreck. He'd thought something inside of him was broken. And he was right. All those years wondering what was wrong with him, wondering why he couldn't make friends, why everypony shunned him and spat on him and cast him aside...
And Celestia knew.
She'd known all along. She'd known what was wrong with him. She'd known what was inside him. And instead of telling him, instead of helping him to understand that it wasn't his fault, that he wasn't broken, that sompony had hurt him and there was nothing she could do to fix it, she'd just let him wander through life, empty and hollow and so very, agonizingly alone, blaming himself for everything that went wrong in his life.
"Why?" It was the only word he could squeeze through the constriction in his throat.
"Blueblood... " she said softly, tears in her eyes. "I'm so sorry. I thought that if I told you, that you'd give up hope. That you'd decide that you could never be loved, never be happy, and just... "
"What? Kill myself?" He laughed, though it sounded harsh and sharp in his ears. "Yes, that worked out so well, didn't it, Auntie? Good thing I didn't wander into the Everfree Forest to do exactly that!"
She lowered her head, tears streaming freely down her cheeks. "I'm not infallible, Blueblood. I made the decision I thought best. I didn't want to hurt you."
"I spent my entire life wondering what it was that made me so unlovable. I believed I was the lowest form of life on the planet. And you knew, Auntie. I told you. How many times did I bury my face in your neck and tell you how miserable I was, how you were the only pony who loved me, how you were the only pony I loved?"
"I never had hope, Auntie," he continued softly. "I was convinced that I was worthless, that Equestria would be better off without me. And, hey! Turns out, I was right. But at least if you'd told me... if I'd have known... perhaps I would have fought it. Perhaps I would have worked to overcome the curse. But you lied to me, Auntie. And you never gave me the chance to be a better pony."
He turned to Chrysalis. "Is that all you wanted to tell me?"
She grinned. "Just one more thing, little prince. I can remove her magic."
Blueblood and Celestia looked up in surprise. "What?"
"I can undo the spell that keeps you from attaining your true power."
The prince stared at her... and then laughed. "You're an idiot. I don't want to be a monster, whether I've been lied to or not."
"Don't you?" The changeling's smirk widened. "Tell me, little prince, aren't you happier now than you've ever been? In Ponyville, I mean? With your new friends, and your pretty little mares?"
He frowned. "Yes. So?"
"So? Think how much you've grown, how much you've changed, in just two short months. And do you know why? Because you embraced your destiny, little prince, if only for awhile."
She giggled. "For a few, glorious weeks, you spread violence, suffering, and hatred throughout the world. Oh, perhaps you fought against it, in your way, but you nevertheless were responsible for it. And the experience changed you. Matured you. Made you into a better pony than you ever could have been."
Blueblood shook his head. "That's insane."
"It's not. Ask anypony, little prince. There is no greater satisfaction than pursuing your special talent."
The prince stared at her. With everything else he'd learned tonight, Chrysalis' claim hardly seemed unreasonable.
"Come with me," she urged. "Come with me, of your own free will. Celestia won't stop you. She respects the idea of 'choice' too much. Come with me, and I will help you to finally find your true destiny."
Blueblood remained silent for a long moment. Then, looking straight into the changeling's eyes, he scowled. "Go to hell."
A blazing corona of energy encircled Chryssalis. She screamed and tore it apart with a blast of emerald flame. Before she could recover, Luna was there, hammering her down with a wall of pure darkness. Cadance came in next, her rose-hued mane dancing like flames around her head. Her horn glowed sapphire, and a prism of energy appeared around the fallen queen. She screamed again and unleashed another blast of magic that sent cracks spiderwebbing across the shield.
Above, the trees came to life as scores of changelings erupted into the sky. They were met by a ferocious battlecry from Rainbow Dash and a handful of pegasi guards, who smashed into their front ranks and sent them tumbling from the sky. Shining Armor, along with the rest of the Bearers and his guards, came charging down the path towards the fray, their shouts of challenge ringing through the forest.
Two changelings landed before Blueblood, reaching towards him with sickle-like legs. He snarled and hurled one away with his telekinesis, then spun and bucked the other as hard as he could. Though he'd never been in a real fight before, survival instincts and his large frame turned the blow into a lethal strike that crushed the creature's chitinous skull and launched it into the undergrowth.
Half a dozen more landed around him. Blueblood lashed out at the nearest, but immediately realized he was outmatched as the thing ducked under the amateurish attack and slashed him across the snout. Two others pressed in from the opposite side, harassing his flanks and forcing him leap forward, over the heads of the changelings in front of him, into temporary safety.
He bucked behind him, feeling a satisfying crunch as he felled another of the creatures, but any celebration was short-lived as another group landed to encircle him completely. Jagged limbs rose above him as the changelings cackled in their strange, clicking voices.
A dome of magenta force appeared around Blueblood just as the blows began to rain down. The changelings recoiled in surprise, to find a group of ponies, led by Shining Armor, thundering towards them. The knight ran down one of the surprised monsters and impaled the next with his horn, tossing his head to launch it into another group of its comrades. Behind him, Big Macintosh's massive hooves crushed the head of another one, and the same legs that could drag a house when need be obliterated the two unfortunate creatures behind him.
One brave changeling buzzed into the air and launched himself down at the big stallion. An old, dented warhammer caught the thing in the chest and launched it away. Cheerilee, screaming a berserker war cry that sounded rather reminiscent of Rover James Dio around her weapon's shaft, launched herself into the fray next to her coltfriend, smashing with wild enthusiasm and sending the creatures scurrying away in terror.
The dome around Blueblood disappeared, and he wasted no time in using his magic to rip a branch off a nearby tree. He struck the nearest changeling, launching it away, but frowned; the limb was a bit too flexible to be an effective weapon. Well, he thought, concentrating on his single combat-oriented spell, there is no problem so intractable that it cannot be resolved through sufficient application of fire.
The branch erupted into flame. Cheering madly, Blueblood launched himself back into the fight, laying about with gusto. Few of his swings actually hit anything, but the sight of the burning branch and the enraged warrior ponies was enough to break the changelings' morale; they began to fall back, taking to the sky or running for the bushes.
Behind them, Chrysalis shrieked. The earth shook as a massive blast of emerald energy shattered the spells containing her; the three princesses all rocked back on their hooves from the force of the detonation. There was a moment's pause in the battle as smoke billowed from the crater where the changeling queen had lay just moments before. Then, with a hornet-like buzzing of wings, she rocketed out of the smoke, moving faster than any flyer Blueblood had ever seen.
"I got her!" somepony cried. There was a burst of rainbow-hued energy as a pegasus exploded forward in pursuit.
"Rainbow Dash, wait!" called Princess Celestia, but too late. The bellicose brawler was already streaking towards the fleeing Chrysalis, leaving a multicolored trail in her wake. In seconds, she'd caught up with the fleeing changeling. There was a sudden, blinding green flash, and a moment later, the motionless silhouette of a pegasus began to drop out of the sky.
"Dashie!" Pinkie Pie cried from behind her confetti-shooting cannon.
Before the pegasus could disappear into the treeline, she was enveloped in a cloud of dark energy. Luna returned a moment later, the unconscious and slightly charred Rainbow Dash at her side. "She shall survive, my friends," she said softly. "Though I fear she shall suffer a most discomforting headache."
Celestia nodded. "Thank you, Luna. And well fought, everypony."
"Princess Celestia!" Rarity protested. Blueblood noted that she seemed to be wearing some sort of highly conservative silk gown. Rather odd apparel for a battle. "You cannot mean to let Chrysalis escape! What about Twilight?"
"She was never here, my little pony," the princess said sadly. "And I doubt that she is actually in Chrysalis' custody. I fear there is more at work here than you know."
She turned to the gathered ponies. "Thank you, all of you, for bravely facing our enemies tonight. I know that not all of you are trained soldiers, but you all showed a warrior's courage and valor. However, I suspect that this latest round of hardships has just begun. Chrysalis is weakened, but her allies, if they indeed exist, remain unidentified. I will need you, all of you, to be ready to once again stand in defense of your homes and your loved ones."
"That's exactly what I'm going to do."
All eyes turned to Shining Armor. His ragged tunic was cut in a few places, revealing the thin suit of chainmail beneath, and he was bleeding from a cut over his right eye, but he glared at Princess Celestia with resolve. "I'm going after Chrysalis, Your Highness. I'm going to hunt her down, I'm going to find out where Twilight is, and I'm going to end that monster's reign of terror forever."
Cadance floated down beside him, a concerned expression on her face. "Shining... "
He looked up at her. "Come with me, Cadance. After what she did to you... to us... "
Celestia stepped forward, looking down at them with a neutral expression. "It's your choice, Cadance. I won't command you to stay, but... I think we'll need your power here, before the end."
She chewed her lip nervously, clearly wrestling with the decision. Finally, she sighed and gave an apologetic look to Celestia. "I'm going."
"I'm goin', too," announced Applejack. She grinned sheepishly at Armor and Cadance. "Er, if you'll have me."
"Applejack," Rarity said reproachfully. "We can't separate the Elements of Harmony like that!"
"They're already separated, sugarcube. Without Twi, we're just the Bearers of the Fancy Necklaces. 'Sides, I reckon we owe Chrysalis a lick or two, too."
"I'm goin', too," Rainbow Dash said groggily, still floating on Luna's cloud of energy. "Jus'... lemme get my head straight."
"Ooh, are we gonna be an adventuring party?" Pinkie asked eagerly. "Can I be the bard? I love playing bards. I'm kind of a natural at it, too! Wanna hear the song I just wrote about our fight?"
"No!" shouted two dozen ponies at once.
"Aww," Pinkie said, crestfallen.
"C'mon with, Rarity," urged Applejack. "Ain't like they're done rebuildin' yer shop, yet. Might as well have a li'l adventure in the meantime."
"Um... no. I think you're all insane, and I'll have no part of this. If Princess Celestia thinks there are bigger concerns than Chrysalis, then I am inclined to trust her judgement."
"Yeah, her judgement's been extremely sound lately," Blueblood grumbled. He realized a moment too late that the whole group had heard him, and he scowled.
"My little ponies," Celestia said, her voice rising in volume to address them all. "I realize that this has been a difficult night." She cast Blueblood a pained look. "Before anypony makes any rash decisions, I would advise us all to return to Ponyville to rest and recuperate. I think we each need to put a great deal of thought into our next course of action."
"Indeed," Luna agreed. "Additionally, thou shouldst also consider that, perhaps, thine immortal ruler might have a stronger grasp on the bigger picture than thee."
"Luna," Celestia scolded.
"What? 'Tis true."
She sighed and turned back to the others. "Please, my subjects. Return to your homes, at least for tonight."
With a bit of grumbling, the assembled ponies began to disperse, falling into their usual groups. The guards led the way out, with Cheerilee, Macintosh, and--to Blueblood's utter lack of surprise--the Cutie Mark Crusaders, clad in makeshift armor apparently made from whatever they found in somepony's kitchen, following behind. Cheerilee cast a glance back at Blueblood, but he shook his head, remaining where he was.
"We'll lose Chrysalis' trail," Shining Armor hissed, in quiet argument with his wife.
"Shining, have you even slept since you got here?" Cadance whispered back. "You're a mess. And your tracking spell doesn't work through the air anyway. Don't be stupid."
He muttered something impolite, but acceded. "Fine. But first light tomorrow... "
The other ponies began to filter away, by hoof or by wing, until finally only Celestia and Blueblood stood in the clearing. They stood there silently, not looking at eachother, the tension growing thick and uncomfortable.
"I don't know if I can forgive you, Auntie," Blueblood finally said.
"I... I still love you. You raised me. I couldn't stop loving you if I wanted to. But... dammit, you hurt me. You lied to me for all those years, told me that there was nothing wrong with me, that... that things would get better, eventually. That things always did."
"They did, though, didn't they?"
He snorted. "Sure. Once I 'embraced my destiny.' "
Celestia shook her head. "Don't listen to Chrysalis, Blueblood. You didn't 'embrace' your destiny. You overcame it. You saw the fate that she intended for you, and you rejected it. I know... I know things have still happened. And I'm sorry about your friends, I truly am. But you've grown. You've become a better... no, a good pony. I always knew you had light in you." She sighed. "I just wish I'd trusted that it would find its way to the surface."
Blueblood raised his head. Celestia met his gaze, and held it. A long moment passed, and then he went to her and wrapped his hooves around her. He felt warm tears splash against his coat as she nuzzled against him, stroking his back with her hoof. They stood that way for awhile, sharing eachother's pain and comfort.
"Are you going with Shining Armor?" she asked quietly.
"No. I've had enough of him for awhile."
Celestia snorted a laugh, and he grinned into her neck. "You never have liked him, have you?"
"He's not good enough for Cadance."
"She seems to think he is."
"Eh, young mares always fall for the jerks."
Celestia laughed again and pulled away from the hug, looking into Blueblood's eyes. "But why, really?"
He frowned. "Because I think you're right. I want Twilight back, too, but... there's more to this. I... That Ancestral Memory spell I mentioned? When we were coming out of it, I... heard some sort of ritual. The one where they cursed me, I suppose. And they mentioned Nightmare Moon... and 'that which she serves.' "
She nodded. "The Devourer."
Blueblood blinked. "The what?"
"There are many evil things in this world, my nephew. Luna and I have always done what we can to protect our people from them. Some of them operate alone, like Discord and Tyranny. Others are open to working with allies, like Chrysalis. But some... some have ambitions beyond the scope of any lesser evil. And chief among them is the creature we call the Devourer."
"What is it? And why doesn't anypony know about it?"
"Luna and I decided long ago to keep knowledge of Equestria's greatest enemies secret. It's... a questionable policy, I know, but it's served us well... mostly. Sometimes, of course, some foolhardy pony will accidentally release one of them... "
She smiled. "But he shouldn't blame himself for it, since he had no real way of knowing."
"So... you've just hidden all record of this 'Devourer?'"
"As much as we can, yes. He's only surfaced once, thousands of years ago, and we barely drove him back. We're even careful not to use his real name, out of fear it might weaken the bindings we placed on him. But... Luna called on him, in her desperation and anger. That was how she was corrupted."
Blueblood nodded in dawning realization. "And if Chrysalis was part of the cult dedicated to Nightmare Moon's return... "
"She might know of the Devourer's existence," Celestia agreed.
"We need to find out who else was involved in my mother's cult."
"Yes. I've tried, but... following her death, the members of the group went into hiding. Despite my efforts, I've never been able to learn more."
"Can you cast Starswirl's Ancestral Memory spell?"
"Undoubtedly, but... it would require full concentration to perform, even for me. And even at night, there are a great many spells around Equestria that I need to continually maintain."
"So, we need Twilight."
She nodded. "Yes. But I'm afraid Shining Armor's course of action is far too reckless. Even if he finds Chrysalis before she's able to feed again and can then fight through her swarm, there's no guarantee that she'll reveal Twilight Sparkle's location, or even know it in the first place."
Blueblood sighed and rubbed a tired hoof over his eyes. "Then he needs somepony with an ounce of intelligence, doesn't he."
"There are other ways we might find Twilight Sparkle. You don't need to put yourself in needless danger."
"Yes, I do," he grumbled darkly. "By all means, if you can find Twilight some other way, do it. I'm sure Rarity and Fluttershy will help, as will Macintosh and Cheerilee."
"The... earth ponies? The large, red one, and the madmare with the hammer?"
Blueblood grinned. "That's them. They're the among best and bravest ponies I know. And once Cloud Kicker's out of the hospital, I'm sure she'll want to help, too. But I... I promised I'd be there when we rescued Twilight. And even if it's stupid, even if it's reckless, I intend to keep that promise."
Celestia smiled sadly. She lowered her head and kissed her adopted son on the forehead. "I'm proud of you, Blueblood."
He looked up at her. Despite his lingering anger at her, despite how badly she'd hurt him... she had always been there for him. Whatever mistakes she'd made, she'd always loved him. And dammit, he loved her, too.
He lay his forehead against hers and smiled. "Thank you, Mom."