The hall was dimly lit much like the rest of the castle. Two chatting changelings walked by, giving a simple hello as they passed. Sunset didn’t answer them, keeping her eyes straight ahead. She was heading where Twilight had told her to go, though the directions she was given were useless in the dark. This was the side of the castle she had rarely been to, close to the dungeons of Canterlot. The entire castle was a dungeon now, holding as much of Equestria as it could. Still, the old dungeons held those deemed by Chrysalis to be the worst playthings, ponies truly despised by the changeling queen.
After waddling around in the darkness, she eventually came across the stone staircase that led down to the dungeons. The stairs were lit so bright that it almost blinded Sunset when she opened the solid door. The dark grey stone did not absorb the light like it should have, making the trip down all too happy for Sunset’s liking. Every step moistened the bottom of her hooves like morning dew on grass, almost causing her to slip at one point before she caught herself on the stone wall. She dared not use magic to teleport down, Twilight had given her specific instructions not to do so.
When she reached the bottom she found a changeling guard sitting in a chair, rocking with his back legs kicked up on a cracked ash desk. His face was covered in crumbs from the loaf of bread he was snacking on, a magazine in his other hoof. When he finally noticed Sunset, he brushed away the crumbs and said, “What? What’s the matter?” She did not answer, she could not answer; not yet anyway. “It’s the food ain’t it? What, you never seen us eat anything other than love?” He kicked his legs back to the floor, rolling the chair forward and standing on all four legs. “Not speaking, huh? You best be glad my shifts over, I don’t need your frass.” With the loaf in his mouth, he trotted past Sunset, glaring as he went up the steps.
The rest of the dungeon was now silent aside for the snaps of flames. Torches lined every wall, and yet it was still cold down here in the depths. “They keep the torches lit so that the ponies inside can see where they are,” Twilight had explained. “It’s a grim reminder that they’re not even worth feeding upon.” Sunset wondered who she might find down the hall of cells. From the entry to the dungeons, cells lined against one wall, while the other held the scones for torches. The only thing anypony would see from the inside was grey stone and shadows. Bleak, was the first word that came to her mind.
She didn’t have time to waste thinking about the ponies or the cells, though. A quick rummage through the cracked desk revealed a set of keys. Some were grey like the stone around her while a couple others were gold and silver. The magazine that the changeling had been reading still sat on the desk, a happy family with a white picket fence on the cover. “New homes, new life,” the tagline read, along with, “Visit for a week, bring the kids – Vanhoover.” There was no more Vanhoover, not in the metaphysical sense. Equestria was quiet, there was no more life in the world other than what had escaped the changelings.
Sunset took the magazine along with the keys, propping her head into view of the first cell. The big black iron bars held strong, caging in the emptiness. The second cell was occupied, a stallion of white fur and yellow hair. He shuddered at the view of Sunset, holding his forelegs to cover his face. Sunset tossed the magazine at him and he winced. When she said nothing, he lowered his guard for a moment, examining the cover. Afterwards, he began to read and she almost let herself smile, but moved on before she allowed herself the gratification. She wasn’t here to release any of the prisoners, not yet at least. She needed the Elements of Harmony, and being here was only step one. There was much she needed to do before time was up.
Most of the other cells remained empty, with a few containing ponies she did not recognize. She stopped at one that held a grey shadow cowering against a corner. Sunset almost spoke to her, calling to her, wanting to speak her name. “Zecora,” she needed to say it, to speak it, but couldn’t. She did not know who was listening, and if a changeling had heard her voice then the ruse would be over. No matter how much she wanted to apologize, or to let the zebra know everything was going to be alright, she couldn’t do it. She doesn’t deserve this. It’s all my fault she’s even here. The cell was larger than the rooms Rarity and Twilight had for their sleeping quarters, but the cell’s bed looked to be made of metal with cardboard sheets. A bucket in the opposite corner of Zecora was the only other thing in the cell. Soon, Zecora. Soon the world will be free.
The rest of the dungeon held ponies who had been here far longer as per the size of their manes or beards. They looked healthy for the most part, the loaf of bread had been proof enough that the changelings did not let them starve. No, these were ponies who wronged Chrysalis. They’ll survive until her contempt for them is gone. But it wasn’t until the final three cells that Sunset realized the ponies locked here weren’t just for Chrysalis’s wrath. The first she came across held a yellow pegasus with pink mane, the second held an earth pony with blonde hair, and the third was the pink on pink party mare. Sunset stopped at Applejack’s cell, her mouth gaping like a fish.
Applejack lifted her golden head up from her horrid bed, glancing at the shadow that loomed behind the black iron bars. “What are you looking at?” she said in a gruff voice.
Sunset didn’t know how to respond, not that she had the option to do so. The three in the pods are a misdirection; a trap. They’re changelings, she realized. These are the real Elements. With the three of the bearers here, that made her job easier and harder. When she stopped at Pinkie Pie’s cell, the party mare tossed her cardboard at the bars, but they were so light that they didn’t even reach. Pinkie reached for the bucket next, but Sunset quickly slipped away before she could throw it. Pinkie’s cell was the last cell, but it was not the last thing at the end of the dungeon’s long hall. A door with bars of metal like the cells sat locked with another door of the same type on the other side.
The keys jingled, echoing loudly down the hall like a symphony of bells. She attempted each key, banging on the metal of the open-barred door. She could see what was beyond the second door, and that was where she needed to be. Had she been able to use magic she would not even have needed the keys. “No magic,” Twilight had told her. “It’ll ruin everything.” She had gone over the reasoning twice just to make sure Sunset understood. Still, Sunset had a hard time believing Twilight’s magical prowess, especially after the pessimistic Twilight of the last world. She’s a princess for a reason.
The gold key clicked the lock and she pushed open the heavy door, leaving it open as she went to the next. Another set of searching and she found it was the silver key that unlocked this second door. The room she had worked so hard to get to was much smaller than she expected, no larger than three cells put together. Regardless, this was the armory just as Twilight had said. A vast plethora of helmets, spears, shields, and armor, all coated in black and dark blue, just like the changelings preferred. Some were dark green and some were brown, but they all resembled the same style.
Sunset donned a helmet with the darkest shading possible, matching it with a plate of chest armor. It was too large for her body, rubbing against her spine like an axe on a grinder. Of course, she preferred it to the pain of being trapped in a pod. With the armor on, she took a spear as well. The black tip was shaped like an arrowhead, though Sunset noted the resemblance to a changeling’s horn. It was a weapon that she didn’t plan to use other than to complete the ensemble. With her outfit organized, the first piece of the plan was finished.
After locking the door with the silver key, she tossed it as hard as she could through the bars and into the pile of helmets, losing it with a clang and a ding. She did the same with the golden key, though it only hit the wall at the far end. They could probably just teleport in and get it, but I doubt they’re smart enough, Sunset assumed. Pinkie had seen her toss the golden key, her pink muzzle protruding from between the black iron bars. She didn’t say anything as Sunset passed, only staring with a bewildered expression. I’ll be back for you three, she promised herself, shoving the rest of the keys into a slot on the underside of her armor.
They didn’t say anything, none of the ponies did. It wasn’t until she reached the first few cells before someone beckoned her. “Why did you give me this… this filth?” the white stallion complained, reaching out with the magazine and almost clonking Sunset upside the head. “Vanhoover is nothing as spectacular as foretold by lies within this. It claims it has a better beach than Fillydelphia and more attractions than Las Pegasus! The gall of such lies! I want the writer brought to the dungeons and placed in the cell next to mine just so I may berate him or her!” He clapped his hooves, leaving the magazine on the stone floor outside his cell.
“Grunt, making friends with the prisoners?” a voice echoed within the prison, startling Sunset so much that her helmet slinked forward, covering her eyes. When she pushed the lip up, she came face to face with a changeling her size. His big blue eyes were softer than the others, and his left fang was chipped. “You picked the wrong pony to befriend. Blueblood got placed here day one for calling the Queen ugly.” The changeling let out a laugh so violent that it shook Sunset’s helmet forward again. “Can you imagine the look on the queen’s face when this greasy-haired buffoon said that? Wish I had been there, that’s for sure!”
A nervous smile was Sunset’s response. “Greasy!?” the white stallion spat like venom. “My hair is the exact opposite of greasy! It’s filled with luxurious fragrances that make it smooth to the very touch and wavy without any wind!” Brushing a blue hoof amongst his locks, the stallion’s hair fell flat against his forehead.
While the changeling jibbed the prisoner, Sunset attempted to skulk against the wall and head for the exit. Her efforts were in vain as the changeling called out, “Leaving already? I’ve never seen you down here before.” Sunset stopped in her tracks, turning to face the changeling as he crossed to meet her. “Do something to make the upstairs mad? Or maybe you’re one of the newbies? I had heard the queen went up to the Hatchery, but I had assumed it was to look for those escaped prisoners.” He shrugged. “If you’re replacing Raptorial then all the better. I’m tired of his crumbs on the chair.”
When he turned his back to her she became quick as a gnat, taking her spear and armor up the stony stairs and fleeing into the darkness. She trotted as fast as her legs would take her, reaching another hall that linked to the throne room. It was not the throne she was looking for, but it helped in figuring out where she was. She continued till she was outside. There were easier ways to get to where she was going, but that meant she would have to speak. With no one around, she let out a cough. It sounded the same as always. Not yet, she decided.
A gorgeous full moon has lit up the world around her as she stepped out of the castle. It had been so long since she had breathed the fresh air of the world without being trapped behind a curtain. The coolness filled her lungs better than it ever had, tingling her hooves to the point that she felt lightheaded. As she trotted in the grass of the courtyard, passing changelings who ignored her, she found herself in the castle gardens. The full moon lit her path past a fountain that no longer flowed. It held stagnant water, not entirely clean to drink, but she needed the taste. She drank enough to keep a camel full for a year, and when the ripples of the water stopped she almost scared herself. The big blue eyes, disfigured horn, and pointy fangs, it was a startling sight for a pony who had never been a changeling.
“It’ll only last a few hours, possibly not longer than until the sun breaks,” Twilight had told her after casting the spell, transforming her looks to that of a changeling. “The voice will come later, it’ll sound like them. And you can’t cast magic, the disguise will vanish if you do. I learned that the hard way, but nobody was around to see it, thankfully.” It had been a surprise when Twilight had told her she could transform herself into a changeling. “Working in the Hatchery teaches you all about how a changeling works.” When Sunset asked if she could have learned it, Twilight had laughed and said, “Sure, if you’re willing to spend a year training first. Or in my case, years.”
Sunset wasn’t the unicorn she had been when she was younger, and her time in the human world had made her rusty, but she certainly wasn’t a novice either. Still, arguing with Twilight would have wasted time, Sunset knew. That’s time I can use to get the Elements of Harmony, she thought as she wiped her mouth dry with the back of her black hoof. Though the light of the moon aided in her navigation, she still found herself lost within the foliage. The maze had been completely rotted in some parts, however, the rotting bushes and leaves seemed to be an artistic choice. A statue of Chrysalis had been carved between the decayed foliage, thorny vines sprouting around the base of the sculpture. Hopefully, the real Chrysalis will soon be the same, she begrudged, wanting to lift the stone with her magic and shatter the queen’s smug face.
The gardens led out onto a brick way. To the right sat one of the many entrances to the castle, to the left stood an open gate tied to the steel fence that surrounded the perimeter. Her destination was the castle, but two changelings watched over the entrance. I’m just a patrolling guard heading back into the castle. Nothing more. Twilight had said the armor was meant to show authority, and that she could walk freely if she wore it. This would be the test of those words. As she drew closer to the castle, both changelings stared at her with disinterested looks. She thought she was in the clear as she reached up for the thick gold handle, but the other side suddenly pushed open. Five changelings all in armor poured out into the night’s air, shoving Sunset back onto the brick pathway. Before she could figure out what was happening another seven came rushing out, dragging her hooves away from the castle and towards the open gate. Her spear flew from her grasp, landing in the grass near the fence.
The changelings were chanting, chattering, and hooting. They shoved Sunset down the steps away from the castle, her helmet falling forward, covering her eyes. She tilted her head back to see, only to have a changeling yell in her ear, “Gettin’ some grub from the grubs! It’s Settlers night!” His breath caused her eyes to water.
Sunset didn’t know what he had meant, and she certainly didn’t like hearing about it. The spell Twilight performed wouldn’t hold forever, and the moon was ripe in the sky. Dawn would be upon her faster than she would have liked, but she had no choice but to wade into the city and hope to break away. The streets of Canterlot were silent aside from the crowd of guards. The changelings needed sleep too, and food.
Much of the city had changed. Cobblestone streets had gone into disrepair, walls were cracked and scorched, and the shop signs had been altered to fit the changeling vernacular. One read “feeding center”, which some of the guards left off to visit. When she tried to break away and ‘follow’, she was stopped and forced into a two story building. Her muzzle wrinkled at the violent smell, striking against her nose with the odor of old socks kept in a gym bag over summer break. It hurt to breathe, though the changelings that had brought her paid it no mind. They pushed her onto a bench between other changelings who had been sitting when they entered. Neither of the changelings she sat next to paid her any mind; they were too focused on the boards in front of them.
“Settlers!” the guards she had entered with screamed as they sat down at their own tables. A board was suddenly tossed in front of her and a changeling sat down on the opposing side. The smirk he gave was terrifying. “New brood? Never seen you here,” the changeling said, his eyes just like any other changeling. His fangs weren’t protruded like others, though, and his horn was more chipped than she had seen from most of his kind. “Hope you know how to play, otherwise you just sat down at the wrong table.”
There were many mysteries Sunset didn’t understand of this world. Why was she here? Why had it changed so much? What had Princess Twilight and this Starlight Glimmer done to change so much? But a mystery was solved on this night. The mystery of what the changelings did for fun. “Since you’re new, I get to be the Settlers!” the opposing changeling said to her, placing down his black circles on the white squares. “Settlers!” a rowdy group yelled from the corner.
Sunset couldn’t figure out why they called the game Settlers. The black pieces were meant to represent changelings, while the red pieces were the enemy. It’s just checkers, though. The rules seem the same. When she realized what the game truly was, she knew she would win. But if I stay and play I’ll be forced to shorten my time disguised, she bemused as the opposing changeling moved his first piece.
A game was a game, and the changelings weren’t the smartest species in Equestria. Sunset assumed that was because of Chrysalis’s awful leadership, but regardless, she crushed the opposing changeling with a defense that forced him to attack, striking up three princesses before she even lost a piece. When the opposing changeling finally crowned his first piece, shouting “Queen me”, Sunset cleared another four of his pieces. Princesses and queens were the same, they could move in any direction, though she never remembered there being any mention of a queen in the original game. It’d be alicorn me, instead of princess or queen. Though princess and alicorn are basically the same.
It was at that moment she realized that the changelings were basically a demented race of alicorns. She almost let her guard down to feel sorry for them, but the changeling took one of her pieces. It was his mistake though, as she defeated her opponent swiftly and strongly. The changeling wretched back, groaning in his defeat and slamming his head against the table. “Settlers win!” the changelings yelled, and then Sunset understood. Both the changelings and ponies are settlers. One settled the land, another settled the settlers. It was oddly poetic, and disgusting. The changeling opponent begged for a rematch, but Sunset shook her head and stood up.
But the changelings wouldn’t let her leave that easily. The dark room full of Settlers players had seen her play, and any winner got the chance to feed on a prized pony, but only after they’d won against the champ. If I had just lost I would’ve gotten to leave. She made it her prerogative to lose against the supposed champ, regardless of who it was. Unfortunately, the changelings really weren’t letting her leave that easily. The champ was so bad that he lost three pieces within the first six moves. I didn’t even know you could do that.
It was her mistake, however. Once Sunset claimed her decisive and overwhelming victory, the spoils of war came flooding in. Supple ponies who were critically acclaimed were the prizes. A choice between a mare unicorn, a stallion unicorn, and a pegasus mare. Sunset wanted none, but if she did not choose she knew she would be under suspicion. With an indecisive pick, she chose the female unicorn who stepped forward dutifully. The dark bags beneath her deep green eyes told Sunset that this was a far worse job than Rarity’s. Still, when the unicorn closed her eyes, Sunset did her best to fake feeding.
She quickly shut her mouth and licked her lips, rubbing her stomach as if she had drained a gallon’s worth of love. The unicorn noticed, however, and so did the two remaining prizes. But the witless changelings remained unobservant, and that mattered far more than what the ponies thought. When one of the prizes went to speak, Sunset circled and snapped her blue, flimsy tail at them, heading for the door. That’s when the unobservant changelings became observant. One without armor blocked her path, then the shadows moved and another had stood next to him.
“I’ve never seen you before, though it’s rare you castle snobs come down to the terrace,” the unarmored changeling said, standing a few inches taller than Sunset. “There’s no way you could beat our champ Thorax that easily. What do you do, play Settlers all day? Meanwhile, we do all the real work!”
Sunset didn’t know what to say, but she didn’t have to. “You want to stand next to a door all day like some unicorn, be my guest and take my place!” A changeling with armor same as Sunset’s bulled over the room with his voice. Suddenly, four changelings clad in dark armor stood next to her, glaring at the unarmored. “We don’t even get to leave the city like you nincompoops!”
“Nincompoops!? Why I oughta!” lisped one of the unarmored changelings.
Before she realized what was going on, Sunset stood in the middle of an all-out brawl. She quickly ducked beneath one of the tables, crawling atop scattered checker board pieces. The table she was under was soon hoisted into the air, flying against a wall. The prizes had disappeared and helmets were flying off. When she saw her moment, Sunset rushed out of the establishment, though the fighting had poured out onto the street as well. The shutters on one of the windows exploded, an armored changeling appearing in the shrapnel of splinters and dust.
Non-combatants began to appear in the windows of their own homes, turning on lights and watching the commotion. The changelings are at each other’s throats, Sunset saw. How is it that this army took over Equestria? She didn’t stay to wonder for long. The street to the castle was swarming with castle guards and citizens who were joining the scrap. I’ll have to go around. Taking the long way, she passed by shops that had been repurposed where changelings and ponies alike were drawn to the sounds of fighting. The ponies stopped to stare as she passed, but the changelings ignored their own.
In the moonlight, with the newly donned colors of Canterlot, the world looked black and white. Even the color of the ponies were starting to fade to grey. She could not focus on where she was heading, but then she realized how much Canterlot had changed. The direction she had been heading was toward the main gate of the castle, but she had somehow ended up further down into the city. She found herself peering off the edge, the ground miles below. The trees looked black as they swayed in unison, the waterfalls seemed like melted silver, and even the fires of the outposts below were eerily white. When she looked up she saw how far the moon had sunk, and knew her time was running out. There were a few clouds that had not been there previously, but they did not interrupt the moonlit night.
She had no other choice but to head straight for the castle, regardless of where the roads went. There was a wooden cart that sat next to a dumpy shop which she used to clamber onto a roof. Trotting across the blackened shingles, she made her way from roof to roof. Each jump she made she thought would be her last, and several times she had to stop to fix her helmet. The closer she got to the castle the more she could see the fighting erupting beneath her. In alleys, they fought, on the streets, and sometimes she would see them float in the air, entangled in each other’s grasp. I wish this disguise would let me fly, she bemused before continuing.
The gates had been closed on all sides, though it didn’t really matter since it only prevented ponies like her from entering. Of course, there was no pony like Sunset Shimmer. When she reached the final building, she found that the raised ground that held Canterlot Castle was level with her roof. The fence that surrounded the castle had bars just far enough apart to jump through. And so she did, tumbling into the grass on the other side. Her helmet had jostled loose, but she was quick to find it.
The brawl that she started had consumed the city. But the castle grounds had seen none of it.
As she came back to the maze within the gardens, she checked the fountain once more, verifying she still looked like a changeling. After that, she made her way back to the door of the castle where she found that the guards had disappeared. They had gone to the gate to stare out upon the destruction, which was no fur off her nose. Releasing all the pods within the castle would be an interesting idea, she noted, but would prove fruitless without the Elements of Harmony.
In the darkness of the castle, everything was quiet. Sunset could hear her own breathing, the distant commotion of the town had been silenced by the thick marble walls. There were no changelings blocking her path to any of the halls or rooms. The kitchen was empty, the throne room desolate. It was the perfect time to free Princess Celestia and Princess Cadance. She wanted to help them, to save them, but she knew she couldn’t. Not if she wanted the Elements of Harmony. But Celestia might be able to tell me where the Elements are, she disagreed with herself. It wasn’t until a blip of light caught her eye that she settled her mind. Her disguise would be forfeit soon enough if Twilight was right.
It took her no time to reach the hall of Celestia’s chambers. It had changed, though only to accommodate the changeling queen’s tastes. At the end of this hall was a door guarded by two changelings who stared at her with malcontent. When she came closer, the one on the right commanded, “State your business.”
Sweat beat down Sunset’s brow as she gulped back her anxiety. “There’s fighting within the city,” she stated, her voice crackly, but was deep and stilted like a changeling’s. It was hard to speak with fangs. When the two guards did not seem to care about the fighting, she added, “Apparently there’s a, uh, blue pegasus that they caught – and they uh, wanted to claim the prize for themselves.”
The two guards looked at each other, and then the left said, “Well, I don’t want to be the one to tell the majesty.” He tapped the other guard with the brunt of his spear. “You do it.”
“Me!?” the right guard scoffed and shook his head so hard his helmet turned. “No way! Let the grub do it. They’re the one that came all this way.” The left guard seemed to be excited by that prospect, and both opened the set of doors for Sunset.
She gave a sigh of relief as the doors closed behind her. Even when one of the changelings yelled “Chump”, she did not mind. She stood in an antechamber, black banners on the walls, with a set of bright purple doors at the end. The crack between them showed little, and so Sunset opened one with a cautious tug.
With room enough to fit her head, she glanced a quick glimpse of the room. It was a small living space, Princess Celestia preferred practicality over luxury, and Queen Chrysalis didn’t seem to mind. It did not look quite like what Sunset remembered. The fireplace near the doors had always been there but the bed sat opposite the doors, and all the walls held carved shelves meant to store books or knickknacks that the princess adored. There was also a skylight above, which was letting in the first rays of color from the morning sun.
But there were no books. Instead, chests and boxes lined the walls beneath the shelves with all sorts of random objects. Even the fireplace held toys and half-broken junk upon its hearth. It’s going to take a while to sort through this place, Sunset presumed. As she stepped closer to the bed, beneath the light that poured from the window above, she saw something stir beneath the pink sheets. Queen Chrysalis. The green locks of hair covered the changeling queen’s face, her head pressed firmly against a feathered pillow. It was odd to see such an evil creature look so peaceful in her slumber. Sunset almost felt bad, but that’s when she saw another pair of eyes staring at her.
Behind the headboard and between a wooden chest sat a dark green pod. Inside, a pair of blue hollow eyes stared from beyond the glass. White fur held the skinny stallion, his cheek bones as prominent as his ribs, and his hair looked so matted that it matched Chrysalis’s flat bangs. Had it not been for the blue mane that accompanied the white fur, Sunset would have never been able to tell that it was Shining Armor who sat detained within the cocoon.
Her heart sunk for him, but he did not seem to want her pity. His eyes darted from staring at her to staring at the bed. He did it several times in rapid succession, and that’s when Sunset realized she was supposed to follow his gaze.
When she turned her head, she almost leapt from her disguise. Two green eyes sat poking from the sheet, staring up at her with a full set of fangs just waiting to pounce.