Adagio looked down at the dresses Suri had laid out for her. A nice outfit was a necessity since it was both a public event and she’d be meeting the queen later. But an ensemble that was too fancy would make her seem out of touch with her subjects and that wouldn’t do either. With those facts in mind, Suri had picked out three possibilities for Adagio to decide between. While she might not have always voiced it, she did appreciate Suri’s knowledge of all things clothing related. Especially Heartland’s fashion trends.
After many minutes of back and forth mental debate, Adagio settled on the single layer pale green affair, whose skirt fell halfway down the leg. Singing softly to herself, she bunched up her mane in a ponytail and secured it in place with one of her jeweled mane bands. This one was one of her particular favorites, with a line of small amethysts studded across its top.
Looking at herself in the mirror, she took a deep, calming breath. “Time to make sure this town will adore me.”
She walked downstairs, where Suri, Will and most of her guards were waiting. She looked them over for a moment before smiling. “Okay everypony. It’s a festival. I have to hob-knob and make nice. You just have to relax and enjoy yourselves today.”
“Are you sure m’lady?” Suri asked. “I could help-”
“Suri. We’ll have plenty of work to worry about tomorrow. For today, relax. I can handle talking to the Queen.”
Suri bowed. “Of course m’lady.”
Satisfied, Adagio lead the way into Ponyville.
- - - -
Ponyville’s town hall had been constructed in the dead center of the settlement, so that the acting mayor could be approached by anypony from any district with minimal difficulty. The largest and most open of Ponyville’s town squares had been built around it. Perhaps because of that size or perhaps because of its proximity to the town hall, some of Ponyville’s nicest shops were located here, as were the theater and library.
But the feature of the area that Adagio always had the fondest memories of were the trees. The square was paved with cobblestones, but canny town planners had left gaps at regular intervals. Then they had planted trees in those gaps, creating little islands of shade for ponies to lounge under if there was room. It was a clever way to give the townsfolk a taste of nature in the safety of Ponyville’s walls.
Not that there was much room to find today. Between the long tables of refreshments, the flow of cooks coming in and out of town hall, the spots that had been claimed by entertainers, the game booths and all the townsfolk enjoying the festivities, moving around would be a tight squeeze.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to stick with you?” Will asked.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Adagio answered. “I’m not expecting assassins to strike here.” She eyed her bodyguard for a moment before smirking playfully. “Besides, you left your axe at the manor.”
“Iron Will doesn’t need an axe!” he declared, flexing both arms.
Suri rolled her eyes. “Just don’t start running wild in there or anything.”
Will rolled his eyes back at Suri, but a serious stare returned to his face in the next moment. “I will also point out that most of the ponies in this town still don’t like you.”
“Something I will have to change with some mingling,” Adagio said. She had worked the plan out in her head the night before. “Hiding behind my guards will just make me look more like the crazy baroness, lording it over her ponies.”
“We still have to protect you.”
Adagio considered that. “Spread out and keep an eye on things then. You know...guard casual.”
The look on Will’s face made that statement completely worth it. Laughing to herself Adagio’s spirits rose as she began to pick her way through the crowds. Smiling ponies were a good sign. A very good sign indeed! Her entourage quickly peeled off to seek their own amusements, so she set to her task of mingling with her subjects.
“Good morning! How are you enjoying the festival so far?” she asked a group that was lounging under one of the shady trees.
For the barest of moments, their expressions were natural and smiles genuine. But as they realized who had addressed them, the overly wide, grimace like grins sprang back into place.
“Oh, yes m’lady! We’re enjoying it immensely!” one of them answered before taking a big bite of one of those “foldie” creations of Sonata’s. His movements were so stiff from fear that he seemed more marionette than pony.
Frowning, Adagio moved onwards, beginning to become more aware of the changing mood of the crowd as she passed through. There was a distinct dip in the festivities whenever she drew near, replaced with its artificial mockery. It did a poor job of concealing the fear, anxiety and- in some cases at least- anger that her subjects were feeling over her very presence. As the effect continued, Adagio found herself wondering if there had been laws about enjoying oneself too much at festivities.
She could feel her anger beginning to rise again as she wandered towards one of the food booths in an absentminded haze. Her conversation with Starlight seemed to have no effect, which made her all the more angry. While she had been stuck running around, double checking everything for the festival, Starlight had done nothing to inform the townsfolk that Adagio was going to repeal those hated laws. With their fears unallayed they had grown like weeds in the prepared soil that was Fancy Pants' smear job against her reputation.
“Oh, she’ll pay for this,” Adagio hissed to herself. “I’ll make her life a living nightmare! None of those laws get repealed! And I’ll pass a whole new set, restricting all of her precious magic studies, undoing any reforms of hers! Then we’ll see who’s laughing!”
“Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Adagio froze. For the briefest moment she wondered if she'd gotten carried away in her own internal ranting and had actually begun laughing like the kind of megalomaniacal character one reads about in foal's tales, but no. This laughter carried the distinct tone of somepony else, somepony who was mocking her, and there was only one pony in this accursed town who would dare be so brashly arrogant.
Slowly she turned, fuming in her own barely restrained ire, towards the source of the insufferable laughter. Starlight Glimmer was casually leaning against one of the shade trees, smiling like a cat that had swallowed a canary. A fresh red apple and knife bobbed in her magic aura.
“You!” Adagio snarled.
“Me?” Starlight answered, as if feigning ignorance of her own part in turning all of Ponyville against Adagio. The mayor slowly cut into her apple, neatly slicing out a hunk as she talked. “Why, I'm just enjoying the festivities, that's all. Quite the lucky coincidence you should pass by though, I wanted to talk to you about an important matter.”
The conniving harlot, Adagio wasn't about to believe for a second that their meeting here was any kind of accident. “You backstabbing little- Why would I want to talk to you?”
“Because, it’s a matter of policy.”
Policy? It was a response unexpected enough that Adagio pushed her anger aside to focus on Starlight. If she was going to try something, Adagio needed to focus. “...What do you want Mayor Glimmer?”
“It’s about your indentured servant… well, really that entire accursed institution, but let's start with more immediate problems.”
“Whatever it is you're trying to insinuate, just get to the point already.”
“Let your servant go.”
Adagio narrowed her eyes, striding close to the uppity unicorn. “Why?”
“Aside from the fact she deserves to be a free mare, entitled to make her own decisions?” Starlight asked, continuing when Adagio nodded. “It would be an act of good faith and the start of what I feel is the next step for the province.”
“...You want me to abolish indentured servitude?”
“Yes. I do,” she said bluntly as she cut another slice of apple with her knife. “It is a barbaric practice!”
“Go to Tartarus!” Adagio snapped back, jabbing a hoof into Starlight’s chest. “Suri approached me! She practically begged me to buy out her bond because, to her, it was the better option!”
“And here we go again, that constant claim of ‘helping’ the less fortunate you supposed nobles like to prattle on about!” Starlight grinned, her voice almost dripping with sarcasm. “As if I’ve never heard that one before!”
“Oh, please! Don’t pretend to be so naive mayor Glimmer. It is a give and take relationship. Once her debt is paid, Suri is free to do whatever she wants. And as I took on her not inconsiderable debts, she owes me that money.”
“I’m glad you brought that up!” Popping her apple slice into her mouth, Starlight extended her magic aura and reached into a saddlebag at her hooves. Three bulging pouches levitated into view, each one stuffed almost to bursting. Starlight gave them a collective shake, letting the metal within clink against each other before dumping the whole lot at Adagio’s hooves.
“Consider that a down payment. I can easily cover the rest, as soon as you tell me what that amount is.”
Adagio faltered for a moment, her anger forgotten as she did a rough estimate of the amount of coins contained within the bag. Assuming gold over silver and that each bag looked around half a cubic foot, there were maybe fifteen thousand bits in those bags. And Starlight had just tossed it on the ground like a bunch of loose rocks she had found on the side of the road. How did a mayor have that much money?
“You aren’t spending tax money-”
“I. I said that I would cover the rest,” Starlight huffed. “My family is quite well off, thank you very much.”
Adagio viciously smirked at that. “So, spending your money to assuage a guilty- noble- conscious are we?”
“No. But even if I was, if it covers your servant's debts, do you really care?”
Starlight....might have had a point there. Not that it made Adagio any less furious.
“No,” she said simply. She scooped up the bags and shoved the lot of them into Starlight’s chest.
Now it was Starlight’s turn to be on the back hoof. She fumbled with the bags, knife and apple tumbling from her grip while she gaped and sputtered.
“Wait...what? ...I just offered to completely cover your servant’s debts! You’d both be completely free and clear!” She stomped her hoof, the cool demeanor of earlier rapidly crumbling. “You could let her go!”
“Let me make something clear,” Adagio said, advancing on Starlight. She jabbed the mayor hard in the chest. “I will not be blackmailed into doing anything. For better or worse Suri is mine. She will be released when she has worked off her debt to me or when I decide to release her and not a minute before. And how dare you even insinuate that I mistreat her!”
A twitch ran through Starlight’s right eye as she put on a strained smile. “Okay. Let’s assume that you are completely honest and ethical with your treatment of Suri. What about all the other nobles that aren’t? Don’t those ponies deserve to see release someday?”
Adagio grimaced. It was a hard point to refute, because she knew that there were those who abused the system, that would exploit any loopholes they could find to hold a servant indefinitely in their debt. That didn't mean it was as simple as Starlight made it out to be either though, and that was flaw Adagio could take advantage of.
“I’m surprised, Starlight. Didn’t realize you were pro-debtor’s prisons.”
“I’m nothing of the sort!” Starlight exclaimed. “Those places are even worse! They would have to go as well.”
“Ha!" Adagio couldn't help but beam with smug satisfaction now that Starlight had backed herself into a corner, "That's the problem with you political idealist types, because what other alternative is there? It's unfortunate, but sometimes ponies just get in over their heads, run up debts beyond anything they could ever hope to pay off on their own. Sure it might be nice if we lived in a perfect world where things like that didn't happen, but this is the real world with real consequences, and anypony who was actually as smart as you pretend to be should be able to see that."
Starlight glared back at her, the veins in her neck practically twitching in anger.
“Oh dear,” Adagio smiled. “Did I hit a sore spot?”
“QUIET!” Starlight roared.
The nearby section of the crowd that had been listening to the conversation recoiled from Starlight and her outburst. It was a reaction that Adagio enjoyed immensely. Let the townsfolk see that their mayor wasn't perfect.
“Seems like I did.”
Starlight’s lip twisted into a sneer. “You nobles disgust me! Is there a single decent one among you? Or are you all a bunch of petty tyrants?”
Adagio’s smile grew all the more mocking. “What a delightful little piece of rhetoric! Some pony clearly went to university!” But her smile quickly dropped back to an angry glare. “But we don’t live in a lecture hall. We live in the real world. And this is how The Heartlands work.”
“It’s not how it should work!”
“If things were the way they were supposed to be, we wouldn’t even be having this festival today,” Adagio said. Despite herself, there was a little less venom in those words. The collapse of Equestria remained a painful truth.
Starlight seemed ready to begin yelling again. But then she sighed and shot Adagio a glare. “This matter isn’t over.” She turned on her hooves and stormed off into the crowd.
Sighing to herself, Adagio did the same, heading the opposite direction. She couldn’t worry about Starlight right now. Queen Chrysalis would be arriving soon. As she moved through the crowd again, a chill wind tousled her mane. Glancing up, Adagio cursed under her breath at the few dark clouds on the horizon. Of course the Weather Patrol was slacking off too. Like she needed anything else going wrong today.
- - - -
“Wake up!” came a panicked shout.
Aria Blaze did just that. Thrashing limbs and wings in a half panic, she rolled out of her narrow bunk and landed on something soft. Soft and moving.
“Gah! Aria! Get off of me!” one of her co-workers shrieked.
A chorus of groans and grumbles filled the weather station’s barracks as bone tired pegasi tried to shake the sleep from their bodies. Aria shook her head a few times to do the same before looking to see who had ruined what little sleep she had been getting. Her whole body was aching from last night’s work. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had tangled with a thunderstorm that stubborn.
Cloud Kicker was in the doorway, eyes wide and mane disheveled. “There’s a second storm front moving in over the Everfree!”
That knocked the haze right out of Aria’s mind. “Wait, what? We had the skies clear!”
“It must have been an eye of calm or something!” she shouted. Rushing about the room, she began to push ponies towards the door. “This one’s massive! We gotta move!”
Aria groaned, stretching her wings as she stumbled after them. She hadn’t even had a chance to get out of her piecemeal falconing armor last night. The ruffle of small wings caught her ear as Deathclaw left his perch next to her bunk and settled onto the leather pad she wore on her back.
“So much for seeing the queen when she arrives,” Aria muttered as she stepped out onto the tower’s landing balcony. She stretched her wings a few more times, opening and closing them slowly to work the kinks out. Then, with a deep breath, she and her hawk took to the skies and joined the rising cloud of pegasi.
- - - -
The Ponyville crowds fell silent as a trumpet blare rang out across the central square. It had come from town hall, everypony turning to face it. A few of the cooks that had been carrying a fresh round of food out- Sonata Dusk among them- froze, looking about in confusion.
Adagio watched from her position near the stairs. She had a feeling she knew what was coming.
A small glowing sphere of light appeared on the deck of town hall. It rapidly grew, the other ponies standing on it shifting aside to give it room. In the next moment, the light bubble popped into a shower of sparkling, star like glitter. The crowd oohed and aahed at the display, only to break into cheering as the pristine white form of Queen Chrysalis appeared where the bubble had been a moment before.
“Hello my little ponies!” she called, smiling with all the warmth of the sun. “A happy day of remembrance to you all!” She paused allowing a round of applause to pass as she looked out at the buildings that hemmed in the square. “Ponyville has certainly grown since the last time I visited! Those walls are beginning to look a bit like an overly tight bodice!”
Most of the crowd chuckled at that joke, though Adagio caught a few farmer looking types scratching their heads out of the corner of her eye.
“Now, I must confess to being a little naughty,” Chrysalis continued with a cheeky grin. “I’ve been walking amongst you disguised as a normal pony, observing the festival. What I’ve seen; the happiness, the bonds of friendship and family, the love that’s in the air…. They all warm my heart. And as such I would like to congratulate those responsible for making it such a success.”
Adagio blinked, a sense of unease settling over her. If Queen Chrysalis had heard all of that, then she might have heard her disagreement with Starlight. If she had, then Adagio imagined she would be in for a very involved chewing out.
Chrysalis turned to Sonata and the other caterers, bowing her head. “The food has been exquisite. My compliments to all the fine chefs.”
Sonata was beaming.
“I would also like to extend my gratitude to the Weather Patrol for keeping an oncoming thunderstorm confined to the Everfree. It is a difficult task and one that deserves our appreciation.”
Adagio joined this round of applause, glancing skyward as she did. There was the hint of a few dark clouds in the direction of the Everfree, but she was sure Aria and company could handle it.
“Finally, I would like to congratulate the pony that arranged most of this festival. Mayor Starlight Glimmer!”
She pointed to a section of the crowd. It parted slightly, Starlight quickly trotting forward and climbing the stairs to stand next to Chrysalis. The applause and cheering were thunderous as Starlight waved to her townsfolk. After a moment or two of cheering Chrysalis raised a wing for silence.
“Thank you for your kind words your majesty,” Starlight said, bowing to her monarch. Adagio snorted. She certainly hadn't been shown any such deference. Starlight continued. “It's been a pleasure to work with so many fine townsfolk to achieve this celebration!”
Chrysalis nodded to Starlight before facing the crowd again. “As is tradition, I will be here to listen to any requests or petitions for the rest of today. The Rural Court is officially open. Let the celebration recommence!”
With that, she bowed to the crowd once more, turned and vanished into town hall.
Adagio blinked. She had just been snubbed. They hadn't even acknowledged she was here, let alone the assistance she had provided. Starlight, that little-
A plain white earth pony mare was suddenly at her side, her green mane done up in a tight bun. While the voice was familiar it took Adagio a moment to reconcile it with the very plain appearance of its owner.
“Walk with me. We have things to discuss.”
Adagio nodded. Thunder rumbled in the distance, echoing the sense of dread that had settled over her.
- - - -
The sight of the new storm made Aria’s heart skip a beat.
It was massive, billowing up and out so that it loomed over them like a mountain. The clouds were so thick and dark that they were almost black, churning with an angry energy and copious amounts of lightning. The flashes were coming so fast and frequent that the display was beginning to hurt her eyes.
“How are we supposed to take on that?” Sunny Skies yelled, her voice barely audible over the howling winds.
It was a good question, Aria thought. There was something distinctly strange about the storm. As strong as it was and as powerful as the winds that buffeted her body and tossed her mane about were, it should be effecting Ponyville already. But it was almost like something was holding it back.
“We have to find a way!” Night Glider shouted back. “Ponyville will get torn apart by this thing!”
Aria shook her head. “Come on! The more we stand around talking, the closer it gets!” She looked towards her hawk, who was flapping hard to maintain his position in the growing winds. “Find a safe place Deathclaw. Can’t follow me here.”
Deathclaw looked back with that imperius bird of prey stare and screeched an objection.
“Nope,” Aria glared back. “Find a tree.”
Deathclaw screeched again but dove towards the Everfree treeline. Aria made a note of which towering tree her pet had picked, before surging forward, the rest of her squad right behind. They approached the edge of the storm in a loose line formation, spread out slightly from each other. About two body lengths between each pony, give or take a few inches.
It was an old tactic, dreamed up by weather ponies during Equestria’s golden age for breaking up large thunderstorms. The intent was that a group of pegasi hitting the edge of a storm in a dispersed manner would break it into smaller chunks more effectively than diving into the middle in an arrow like stab. Aria braced herself, extended her hooves and prepared to burst through the clouds like she had a hundred times before. She took a final breath in the moment before the impact and….
Her hooves sunk into the cloud. The moisture refused to break up, almost stretching at the impact of her and her fellows. Before Aria could even blink, the storm surged forward. Her world descended into chaos, darkness and violent motion. She frantically beat her wings, struggling against the hurricane force winds that bore her along like a leaf in the breeze.
She wasn’t even sure which way she was being dragged. Up, down, left or right. It was impossible to tell. Rain soaked her to the bone, its chill even worming its way through her pegasi cold resistance. Hail battered and raked at her, certainly causing its share of bruises. Every so often, she caught a glimpse of another pony being shook about the same way she was. Aria was suddenly yanked a different direction, sharply enough to make her stomach do somersaults.
Then, with a final, head spinning jerk of motion, Aria burst through a bank of cloud and landed on another with a thud. Groaning, she shakily managed to stand. She looked around, surprised to see the rest of her squad stumbling back to their hooves.
“Is everypony okay?” Cloud Kicker asked.
“Oh, yeah, I’m great! We just got captured by a storm, but we’re all good!” Aria growled, shaking her whole body to dry off at least a little.
“We don’t need sarcasm right now!” Clear Skies shouted back.
“I’ll be as sarcastic as I want! What are we supposed to do about a storm that does...this!”
“We stick together!” Night Glider said, stomping a hoof for emphasis. “We punch right through the wall and get reinforcements from Ponyville.”
That wasn’t a bad idea. Ponyville had plenty of pegasi that weren’t actually part of the weather patrol. If they had enough bodies helping out-
“...Scorpan’s twisted tail…”
That comment had come from Adagio's guard. For some reason, she was looking upwards at the ‘roof’ of the cloud pocket they had landed in. Aria raised an eyebrow, followed her gaze and gasped.
A castle hung above their heads.
Made from clouds, it merged seamlessly with the arched dome a hundred feet above their heads. Its inverted construction made it resemble an entire cave floating through the sky. Lightning coursed through its base and into the storm around it, pulsing like a heartbeat of some torpid giant.
The chilly grip of dread clawed at Aria as she roamed her gaze over the castle and its environs. Its walls and the ceiling of the storm pocket were shaped to be jagged and rough, providing a hundred nooks, crannies and perches. For a moment, they seemed empty in the gloom of the chamber and the flickering light of the lightning flashes. But then the shadows they cast began to move. They rose and coiled through the air before diving with a cacophony of shrieking and cawing.
Aria’s eyes went wide as the blob of shadow grew more distinct. They were crows. Giant crows, each the size of pony. Lightning danced along their flight feathers, while their eyes glowed with a solid blue light. Swooping low, most circled overhead, falling into an eerie silence, while peering down at them like morsels ready to be snapped up. A few actually landed, forming into a circle around the group.
Most of her fellow weather ponies shrieked in fear and recoiled, pressing together into a tight ball. Aria grit her teeth and sunk into a defensive stance. Head down, wings flared to make herself look bigger and pawing the “ground” with a hoof. But none of the storm like crows seemed bothered with the display.
“What do they want?” Cloudy Skies shouted.
“I don’t know!” Sunny Skies shouted back.
“Everypony stay calm!” Cloud Kicker said. Her voice was shaking, but Aria could tell that she was doing her best to not lose control.
“We can’t stay here,” Night Glider said. “If we try and punch straight through the floor….”
A thundercrack tore through the air, eliciting a fresh round of shrieks from most of the group. Aria just gulped for another shape had lept from the castle. It was a multicolored blur, arcing through the air like a rainbow.
Aria backed towards her fellow weather patrol members, all of her experience with storm busting feeling all the more useless as stories her mother had told her for years sprang to mind. “Oh no. No, no.”
The cloud they were on violently rolled as the new figure landed hard before them. She was a large pony, easily the size of Queen Chrysalis with powerful wings splayed wide in the pegasus gesture of a challenge and a long sharp horn that poked past a shock of rust red mane.
An alicorn. Aria was staring at an alicorn.
Her build was lean, but strong looking. Muscles coiled under a blue coat so dark that it was almost gray. Other colors were present in her mane and tail as well. Orange and yellow and green and the rest of the rainbow were represented but in muted, dark shades.
She also seemed ready for war. A bronze breastplate was affixed firmly to her chest, while matching leg armor extended from knees to pasterns. A billowing red cape in the style of an ancient general lay between her wings. A cloth bag was tied around her neck, that almost seemed to be beating in rhythm with the lightning above.
But it was her expression that made Aria want to turn tail and run. For the alicorn was smiling in a manner that was meant to be reassuring, but in reality looked anything but. It didn’t really reach her eyes, which were crackling, glowing pools of yellow. They made the warm smile seem artificial. More something a bad friend would give when they were about to try and borrow some money.
The alicorn regarded them in silence for a moment before speaking. “Well, you all look like you’ve seen a bunch of windegos. You should probably take a deep breath or two before you pass out.”
“Chroma,” Aria said, barely above a whisper. The legends that surrounded her were many and impressive. One of the generals of Equestria’s legions, mother and best friend to her soldiers, rider of the rainbow bridges, the pony who single hoofidly carved out Equestria’s northern border against the griffin hordes.
Chroma’s ears twitched, the alicorn having apparently heard her anyway. The reaction was immediate. Turning on Aria she stomped a hoof with all the strength of a thunderclap, a large section of the floor vanishing under the Alicorn powered strike. But the smile never left her muzzle.
“That’s...not my name, okay? I mean, I know that I haven’t really been….” She idly twirled a hoof for a moment, searching for a word. “Well, let’s say ‘active’ for a while. But Chroma? That’s not my name.” She laughed. It was a clipped, manic thing, but then she was right back to talking. “It’s Rainbow Dash. Consul Rainbow Dash. And don’t you forget- Come on! Why are you cowering?”
Most of the weather patrol looked ready to pass out from sheer fright. Aria couldn't blame them as she was on the verge of doing the same. But Cloud Kicker managed to stammer out an answer. “B-because we’re just stunned by your g-glory!”
It was blatant sucking up but to Aria’s surprise, it seemed to work. Chroma puffed out her chest and threw her head back. “Well...that is understandable. I was the most amazing of Equestria’s consules! I can see how normal ponies would be stunned by my presence.”
Despite the severity of the situation Aria’s fear was momentarily derailed. The legends of Chroma that had been passed down through the ages spoke of her temperament as well as her deeds. The moods described were mostly of a boundless rage and a paranoia that made her lash out at everypony around her. Somehow, all of them had managed to leave out the existence of such an ego.
Chroma beamed as she looked them over. “Enough of that though! All of us? We need to talk about these ‘Heartlands’ of yours.”
“W-what about them?” someone asked.
“Uhh. They aren’t supposed to be here? Aren’t you taught anything about history these days? Your current ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ rebelled against the senate. This kingdom of yours- while adorable- isn’t legitimate.”
Aria was hardly a scholar but that seemed like a pointless technicality, even to her.
“But I’m here to change all that! It’s time for Equestria to reunite! For the lost consuls to be found and freed, the Deceivers to be cast down and this land to taste freedom once more! I offer you all the chance to fly with me and be the first to join my citizen legion!”
“The Deceivers?” Night Glider asked. “You mean Queen Chrysalis and King Sombra?”
Chroma twitched. It was a full body affair, that ran down her side and to the end of her tail. Really, it was more of a flinch away from the word.
“Okay. She’s...not a queen. She’s a lying, backstabbing, diseased guttersnipe of a creature! She is not even remotely worthy of your respect- And why are you cowering again!”
“We-we’re sorry!” Night Glider stammered. “We didn’t mean to make you angry.”
“Angry? Angry! I am telling you how much of a liar your ruler is! Who said anything about anger? DO I LOOK ANGRY?”
Those words were a thunderclap, so loud that Aria went deaf. Chroma didn’t seem to notice, instead deciding to continue her rant. As her hearing slowly returned, Aria could begin to make out bits and pieces of what she was saying again.
“...ponies...understand this. Now...prepare...my army and I,” she declared, waving a hoof at the ravens that surrounded them. “We shall remove the false queen and drag Equestria to greatness again!”
Aria wasn’t a deep thinker by nature. Like the blaze portion of her name hinted at, she was quick to react, usually trusting her gut that she was about to do the right thing. In that moment, she realized that somepony had to try and warn Ponyville. The hole in the clouds was still where Chroma had made it, waiting wide and open. There was really only one option.
Aria dove for it.
Ignoring the surprised shouts and angry caws, she flew as fast as she could. Aria whipped back through the maze of clouds, not even thinking as she blazed around corners, dove through clouds of vapor and pushed her wing muscles to the absolute limit. She couldn’t hear if Chroma was behind her or not and she didn’t dare look. She just needed to find her way out of this storm….
There! A flash of green under her hooves. Folding her wings back, she dropped like a stone through the gap and was soaring over the Everfree. Now just to grab Deathclaw out of his tree-
“You have spirit, I’ll give you that.”
Aria yelped as she found her forward movement halted, her body engulfed by a crackling net of lightning blue magic. She beat her wings helplessly against the arcane grip, only to be spun about and dragged forward to face Chroma.
“You’re a good flyer. Not many ponies would be able to keep their composure through my storm. And that spirit you showed would have served you well in my forces,” she said, a hint of sadness in her voice. Then she sighed, her expression hardening. “But if you are not with Equestria, you are a traitor to it. And there can only be one fate for a traitor.”
Chroma flicked her head. It was a casual gesture, almost like some pony throwing away a piece of rubbish. But Aria’s stomach heaved as she was sent cartwheeling through the air. She flared her wings, gritting her teeth as they strained against the force of her momentum, but managed to right herself.
Not waiting to see what would come next, she shot forward, trying desperately to escape this legend come to life. The tinkling chime of magic reached her ears though and she spared the barest of glances back towards Chroma.
The mad alicorn gave a mighty flap of her wings, whipping them forward so hard that they clapped together for a moment. Two screaming vortexes of wind roared forth, shooting right for Aria. She dove to avoid but Chroma’s magic moved with an unerring accuracy. The tunnels of wind crashed into Aria and she felt her right wing snap. Immediately, she once more found herself being tossed about by forces beyond her control.
She plummeted towards the Everfree, driven by storm and gravity, her broken wing flapping feebly against both. In the next moment she smashed through the canopy and a large tree limb, screaming as her left leg seared with pain.
Only the mighty trunk of the tree stopped her movement. She slammed into it with a bone jarring impact, the remaining wind from Chroma’s spell the only thing holding her there. Aria’s head swam. It was hard to focus. She had to...had to…. Unable to fight against magic and injury Aria Blaze, mercifully, passed out.
She dropped the rest of the way to the forest floor.
- - - -
Somehow the crowd seemed oblivious to Adagio and Chrysalis as they walked. They absentmindedly parted around them without looking, remained locked in their conversations, or focused on the games of chance they were playing.
Adagio suspected that magic was involved. It would fit with the queen’s reputation (and her own experiences) for always appearing at just the right moment to catch ponies in compromising situations. The fact that Chrysalis could divide herself into multiple ponies had come as a surprise though.
“Adagio...what is it that you really want from your position?” Chrysalis asked after about a minute of walking.
“My apologies your majesty. I don’t entirely take your meaning.”
Chrysalis frowned. “You are a frustrating contradiction of a pony. You treat your servants better than most nobles, yet you hang onto them like property. Not afraid to work hard when it's required, yet also quite comfortable with extortion and picking fights with your supposed peers.”
Adagio felt a chill run up her spine. “So you saw-”
“Your argument with Starlight Glimmer, yes,” Chrysalis sighed. “Adagio, do you do this on purpose? Tell me, were you going to put her in the stockade if she didn’t back down?”
Chrysalis’ glare was intense and a lesser pony might have quailed under such an assault. But Adagio steeled her nerve and met her queen’s gaze.
“I will point out that she was hardly acting any better. Bullying me into supporting her pet crusade against a perfectly legal enterprize? That’s in poor taste. Even for a mayor, unfamiliar with noble rules and decorum.”
“While I will have conversation with her about that later, I am not a believer in the concept of two wrongs somehow making a right, or stooping to the level of your opponent.”
“...There’d be ponies in Canterlot surprised to hear that.”
“There are ponies in Canterlot that would be surprised to hear a great many deal of things,” Chrysalis said, her tail flicking with irritation. “And I was hoping that you weren’t on your way to becoming another one of them.”
“With the deepest of respects your majesty, you do me a disservice. I am not some manner of monster.”
“No...you’re not,” Chrysalis sighed, squeezing her eyes closed. Her expression was contemplative and Adagio found herself wondering what exactly her queen was remembering. But then she shook her head. “Monster or mare, it truthfully matters not. Humble beginnings are no shield against falling to ego. Your parents-”
“Would you stop bringing up my parents?” Adagio snapped. The sudden burst of intensity had surprised her. And judging by Chrysalis’ shocked expression, it had surprised her just as much. But, to Tartarus with it, she was on a roll. “As much as you love to sing their praises, I don’t remember the crown being there when they needed it the most! What I remember was being spirited away to here by Will, only to find out later that they were...gone.”
Queen Chrysalis dipped her head. “I am…sorry you feel that way Adagio. Sombra and I always regretted not being able to do more.”
“Do more? Don’t you mean anything? I was stuck under Fancy Pants’ hoof! He almost finished my house off! What good are all these grand ideals you go on about when ponies who don’t care about them prey on whoever they like? Why shouldn’t I be just like them? Why don’t you and Sombra do anything about them?”
Whatever her answer to that question was, Adagio didn’t have the chance to find out. In the next breath, a mighty thunderclap split the sky and a solid wall of black clouds rolled in overhead. The rain came right on its hooves. It poured down in buckets, washtubs...whole cisterns worth, that immediately soaked both pony and dress to the bone. Adagio had never seen so much rain!
Her first instinct, as she brushed the waterlogged curtain that was her mane out of her eyes, was to blame the weather patrol. This was exactly what she had been afraid of! But then a second boom issued forth from the dark mass and something colorful streaked across the sky in an arc.
There was a flash and a series of loud pops, followed by the surprised shouts of ponies. Then came a horrible crash and the splintering of wood. Something slashed her cheek, drawing a thin red line of pain. A shock wave slammed into her a moment later, blasting Adagio to the ground. Queen Chrysalis screamed, her second body unraveling into the raw ether of magic in a brilliant flash of emerald light.
Gritting her teeth through the pain throbbing on her face and in her chest, Adagio stumbled back to her hooves with great effort. Her dress already felt like it weighed an extra ten pounds from all the water saturating it.
Looking around, she could see that the organized chaos of the festival had given way to the true chaos of a frenzied riot. The crowd was surging away from the pile of wreckage that was town hall in a desperate attempt to reach the four streets that lead out of the square. Sonata Dusk and the rest of the chefs lay a few feet away from where town hall had been and were slowly getting up, seemingly unhurt by the explosion. Will and her guards were rushing towards her, but their progress was being hampered by the crowds, while Starlight Glimmer stood at the foot of the stairs in a state of shock.
All of that had just barely finished registering in Adagio’s mind when she made out dark shapes swooping through the rain. Pegasi with crossbows- it took Adagio a moment to realize that they were the Everfree Rangers- and large lightning bound crows began to take up positions all around the square, both landing on roofs and blocking the roads out. The crowd now surged back from the new arrivals, falling into a helpless milling about, until….
“SILENCE!” a voice roared over the driving rain.
Adagio felt that. The words had been spoken with such force that they shook all the way to her core. A wave of blue magic casually tossed aside the heaps of shattered wood to reveal the speaker. An alicorn. One that Adagio had seen on dozens of paintings and tapestries.
Chroma had Queen Chrysalis pinned under her forehooves as she cast her gaze about with a baleful glare. “So this is what the might of Equestria has become? Foals cowering at a little rain?”
Adagio was frozen in place. Chroma radiated power and menace. What could she possibly do against such a being? Starlight seemed just as paralyzed. Sonata was trying to crawl away, her whole body shaking like a leaf.
“Chroma?” Chrysalis breathed, clearly straining under the other alicorn’s grip. “How? You were banished by the elements.”
Chroma’s head snapped down to regard Chrysalis more closely. “Yeah...that’s what I let you think. I mean, after you and the other backstabbers banished Fluttershy, I was the last one. Couldn’t take you all on myself.”
Chrysalis winced. “Should have known. You did go down too easy in the Badlands…. But the war….”
“Had drained a lot of ponies' will to fight. I know.” Chroma said, her tone oddly conversational. “The ability of a nation to wage war is dependant on the will of its populace to prosecute said war. I wrote that, remember?”
“Rainbow Dash wrote that as a warning! A warning against the temptation of striking at civilians in war! You unleashed a flood upon the citizens of Andalusia!”
“They were harboring spies!”
- - - -
Lightning Dust couldn’t believe what was happening.
A legend from the past had just dropped from the sky, destroyed part of Ponyville and was now holding her queen hostage. All of that would have been bad enough but what pushed the situation into true disaster was the fact her fellow Everfree Rangers had turned traitor.
Crouched down behind the counter of her game booth, Lightning had line of sight on the alicorn, just past Baroness Dazzle. And thanks to the nature of her game booth, she just might be able to do something if her former comrades wouldn’t.
She had set up a shooting gallery, so that those Ponyville’s non-rangers could try their hooves at pegging “monsters”. And while the bolts were blunt training dummies and the monsters were just paper drawings, she had brought her own weapon and case. Just to show off a little bit.
“Lucky me,” she muttered, ducking out of sight and pulling both out from under the counter.
Working quickly, she grabbed her metal pull lever and yanked the drawstring into position. As annoying as the storm was, at least it provided a little assistance in masking the clank of the mechanism.
She didn’t know why Spitfire had turned against The Heartlands, but a thousand different possibilities, each as horrific as the last ran through her mind. Was she being controlled by magic? Had Chroma replaced her somehow? Or had she become a traitor completely of her own will? That last possibility made Lightning shudder. The Everfree Rangers had been a part of The Heartlands since it’s founding. They couldn’t be doing this without being forced...could they? She shook her head, ignoring that dark thought for a moment. Chroma first. Ranger’s later.
Sliding a bolt into place, Lightning popped up again. Chroma was still fixated on Queen Chrysalis it seemed. The Queen was talking, but at her distance and with the roar of the storm, she couldn’t make out the words.
“Come on, come on…,” she muttered, lining the alicorn up in her sights. Her head was low at the moment while she hissed something at Chrysalis. All she needed was the right opening….
- - - -
“Chroma, enough!” Chrysalis winced. “You’re sick. You’re very sick! Let Sombra and I help you-”
“No. I am not sick! You are the deceiver, the liar. I see the real you.”
Adagio had no idea what Chroma was going on about. Logically, she knew that her duty as a noble required her to do something when The Heartlands were threatened. But…could her spell songs really do anything against an alicorn?
“I will rebuild Equestria and I will rescue my compatriots from where you banished them!” Chroma continued to rant and rave. “It took me forever without Twilight, but I finally found the power that Scorpan talked about.”
She pointed to something around her neck. Adagio followed the gesture and gasped at what she saw. It was a cloth bag that beat like some kind of heart. Chrysalis looked just as disturbed by the item.
“You...you didn’t!” she shouted.
“Just...shut up!” Chroma shouted back. “As a consul of Equestria, I pass judgement on you and your crimes! You shall suffer the fate you inflicted upon your former comrades. Banished for ages, until you are nothing more but a shadow and a memory to the restored Equestria!”
Adagio watched helplessly as twisted dark magic flowed out of the bag at Chroma’s neck, rising to meet her horn’s own aura. The combined wave of arcane force washed over Chrysalis yanking her skyward. She fought back, thrashing and grappling at the dark magic with her own. But the efforts seemed futile. Whatever was in the bag just overwhelmed her own spellcasting before smothering Chrysalis’s form. The Queen of The Heartlands cried out once and vanished in an burst of dark light.
The pound of the rain mixed with the excited cheers of the Rangers. One of the immortal rulers of The Heartlands had just been bested before their eyes. Chroma turned to face the crowd of stunned ponies, spreading her wings wide in a triumphant display.
“Why is everypony looking so scared? Bow to your liberator!”
The gathered ponies shuffled in place, many looking at each other and asking the same silent question. Now what?
“I said bow!”
Whoever bowed first, Adagio couldn’t see. But they were quickly followed by others, scattered at first but quickly flowing into a ripple as pony after pony dropped into a low headed bow. Even her own guards followed suit, save for Will who was staring at those he worked with in disbelief. Which left her and Will as the only pair left standing in the square. Chroma’s glowing eyes fell upon her and Adagio could feel the hairs on her coat standing on end.
But whatever punishment Chroma might have dealt out for Adagio’s “insolence” was interrupted as she felt something woosh right past her ear. A loud ping echoed through the air as a crossbow bolt ricocheted off the side of Chroma’s head. The broken pieces clattered to the ground and several things happened at once.
“Assassin!” Chroma bellowed.
A massive bolt of lightning jumped from the tip of her horn, blazing straight for Adagio. Starlight reacted instinctively, diving to the side as the lightning streaked past her. Sonata screamed throwing her hooves over her head as she hugged the ground. Adagio tried to run, her legs feeling like they were buried in knee deep mud. There was nothing she could do. She was going to die!
At the last moment, a hulking grey form jumped in front of her. Adagio’s eyes went wide.
Then her world was agony. Her screams mixed with Will’s as the lightning seared their bodies, flowing through the water that soaked them so thoroughly. Everything was pain.
With a final shriek, she passed out.