Maybe ten minutes later, the front door of the house swung open, much more loudly than when it had closed not long ago, and Rainbow Dash stepped back inside with a firm look on her face. She cleared her throat quite loudly and let her wings fan out somewhat. “Okay, time to get up everypony! We’ve got work to do!” she announced loudly, the disturbance drawing disgruntled and sleepy sounds from all of the ponies that she had just woken up.
Applejack sat up and glared daggers at Rainbow, though she didn’t object beyond that, slowly picking herself up off of the sleeping bag. Pinkie Pie was already standing up and stretching, quietly complaining about how stiff her neck was. “Yeesh. Floors are not good for sleep, huh?”
“You’re preaching to the choir, darling,” Rarity let out an indignant huff as she sluggishly rose from her rest as well, blinking away her sleep. “But I suppose it can’t be helped.”
Thorax’ eyes opened wide the moment Rainbow had spoken, and he seemed to be wide awake already, while Wind Whisper, still curled under his wing, groaned defiantly and pushed herself closer up to his chest.
Fluttershy, for her part, didn’t really react beyond slowly sitting up and letting out a cute little yawn.
In the back of the room, Starlight visibly tensed before sighing and getting up.
Lastly were Twilight and Spike, the former looking groggy but quickly coming to her senses, while Spike just kept snoring. Rainbow smiled slightly at the baby dragon, a little charmed by his stubbornness, before looking back to the rest of the room at large. “Take five minutes and wake yourselves up. After that, we need to figure out what our plan is.”
Thorax frowned and looked down at Wind Whisper, who was still determinedly refusing to open her eyes. He then looked back to Rainbow Dash. Their gazes met for a second before Rainbow glanced at Wind apologetically. Thorax spoke up quietly, his own gaze shifting down to Wind. “We should talk in a different room. The kids still need some rest.”
“Not… a kid…” Wind Whisper mumbled drowsily, half-heartedly thumping a hoof against Thorax’s chest, making him chuckle.
“You’re my little sister, kid. That’s close enough.” He rebuked light heartedly, reaching down to nuzzle the filly atop the head, though anypony paying attention would not have missed how he cringed as he said those words.
“Point taken,” Rainbow conceded the point while glancing over at Spike, who was still passed out under the blankets, which Twilight was now carefully tucking around him with her magic. Rainbow lifted her eyes from the baby dragon to the Unicorn above him, who was currently looking down at Spike with a solemn look on her face.
“Let the kids rest.”
“Alright, let’s go over what we know,” Twilight started once everypony had gathered in a room that looked like it had once been a dining room, maybe another ten minutes after they had woken up. They were all sitting on their haunches in the middle of the room, forming a loose circle with Twilight standing in the center of the assembly. Her posture was tall and she had a firm and authoritative look on her face. She looked around to make sure everyone was listening, then got started. “While we were hiding out at the Castle of the Two Sisters, Princess Luna was able to get in touch with me via a dream, urging us to come here. She said that the magic of the Crystal Empire could help us drive back the Changelings that invaded Canterlot,” she shifted slightly to look at Thorax, making him squirm just a little in guilt, but she quickly moved on with her recap. “The problem is that we have no idea what that magic even is, how to find it, or how to use it.”
“And that’s not even mentioning just how reluctant the locals are to talk to us,” Rainbow chimed in, her forelegs crossed and a small, frustrated scowl on her muzzle. “And they all look kinda depressed, now that I think about it.”
“Depressed and paranoid. It makes sense,” Twilight noted. “After all, from their point of view, they were living under the rule of a tyrant who treated them like slaves, and then, in a flash of light, that tyrant has disappeared with a bunch of strangers waltzing into their town asking for help. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know I’d at least be skeptical about the situation.”
Rainbow’s brow furrowed at that, and she put a hoof to her chin as she went into thought.
“So,” Starlight picked up, lifting a hoof to get Twilight’s attention. “We need to find a way to earn the trust of these Crystal Ponies, then.”
“Ah would reckon a good way to do that would be provin’ that we ain’t lyin’ bout them bein’ gone for a thousand years,” Applejack suggested, adjusting her stetson on her head. “We’d need some evidence, though.”
“We’d also need to prove we aren’t their enemy,” Fluttershy spoke up, gently brushing a hoof down her mane to straighten out a few stray hairs. “I mean, even the bad guys can tell the truth, sometimes,” as she said this, she grimaced when the stray hairs proved remarkably stubborn.
Luckily, Rarity was on the case. She leaned over with her horn lighting up, gently flattening out the irksome hairs. Fluttershy nodded gratefully, and Rarity smiled in response before clearing her throat and chiming in. “We could try to do both, couldn’t we? For proof about their absence, we could try showing them that history book we got from the Castle of the Two Sisters.” She suggested, looking at Twilight curiously. “It was written some time after the Empire vanished, was it not? Perhaps if we find out who’s in charge, we can show it to them as proof, and maybe a gift or something of that nature to show that we’re friendly?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Twilight nodded her head and smiled slightly, though that smile was quickly lost in favor of a disgruntled frown. “The problem there is figuring out who’s in charge. The ponies here don’t know or trust us, and so they probably won’t point us to the leader or even let us in to see them.”
Starlight’s brow furrowed in thought as a notion occurred to her. “And that’s assuming they even have a leader right now. From what we know, they were ruled by King Sombra before he made the Empire disappear, right? Well, a king is a single supreme ruler. If that’s the case, their throne is empty and they’re without a leader.”
“So we’d have to prove it to the whole Empire at once instead...” Rainbow grumbled, sliding a hoof over her face in exasperation. “Ugh… how are we gonna do that? This place is pretty enormous,” when she removed her hoof from her face, she noticed that everypony was looking at her thoughtful. Taken aback by the sudden attention, Rainbow set her hoof down and narrowed her eyes. “...What? Do I have something on my face?”
“Rainbow, You’re a Princess. Can’t you try and use your status to get their attention?” Rarity tried questioningly, fidgeting with her front hooves.
“Wh-what?!” Rainbow gawked at her like a deer in a train’s headlight. She took a moment, clamped her jaw shut and shook her head. “I mean… I could, but I don’t think that they would just believe me when I say ‘Hey, I’m Princess Rainbow Dash.’ My status won’t help us here right now, not to mention I don’t like flaunting it around like that…” she sighed and shook her head.
“Oh…” Rarity shrunk back a little and sighed.
“It’s okay, Rainbow. We understand,” Fluttershy assured the pegasus with a gentle smile. “We can think of something else.”
“As long as we’re on the topic of Rainbow bein’ a Princess, though,” Applejack chose that moment to cut in again. “Do we have a way of gettin’ in touch with the rest of Equestria? They’ve been havin’ to trudge along without a single Princess for guidance for over a week. Ah reckon the whole country is goin’ to go into chaos if they go like that for much longer.”
Rainbow lifted her head and then looked at Twilight. “Maybe…” she muttered in a quiet voice, an idea beginning to form somewhere in the back of her head.
Twilight shifted a little anxiously on her hooves from the hard stare she was receiving. “Uh… Well, what’s your idea?” she asked after a few seconds of awkward silence.
Rainbow’s face twisted a little before she spoke. “Okay, so, you know how Spike has that Dragonfire messaging thing? He can belch out letters and send them to other ponies?”
Twilight’s eyes lit up in realization the moment Rainbow finished speaking. Her eyes shimmered with a certain giddiness while she clapped her forehooves together. “Right! Spike could be our line of communication with his Dragonfire!”
“Yeah. So, here’s what I’m thinking; If you can write up copies of that spell, we can send those copies to the mayors of each of Equestria’s largest cities, starting with Manehattan and working our way down. Once they have copies of the spell, they can make use of the spell and we can keep in touch with them. Then we can make sure Equestria is preparing for the changeling swarm and keep things organized and functional,” Rainbow explained before her eyes took on a somewhat pleading look. “But, ah, that’s gonna be hard on Spike’s stomach, I bet.”
“I’m sure he can handle it,” Fluttershy gave her vote of confidence with a small smile. She then shrunk a little. “Um, I mean, if he wants to, that is.”
“I’ll ask him what he thinks when he wakes up,” Rarity suggested simply.
“Works for me,” Rainbow nodded before looking back at Twilight. “Anyways, let’s get back on track here, eh?”
“Right,” Twilight agreed and cleared her throat. “Before we can start looking for the magic of the Empire and figuring out how to use it against the changelings, we need to earn the trust of these ponies and get them up to speed. I actually have an idea for the first part, at least,” she explained before turning to Rainbow again. “In the book, it says that the Empire is able to project the feelings of its population far and wide. I’m sure Equestria could use a Morale boost, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that you are one of the most amazing ponies to watch when it comes to aerial performances. If you can put on a good show for the ponies here, it might at least let them know that we’re not an enemy, and boost their morale and, by extension, the morale of everypony back home.”
Rainbow smirked happily with an eager and cocky glint in her eyes, her wings already twitching with excitement at her sides. “Heh, now you’re talkin’ my language. I could fly into the sky in the center of the city, put on a totally awesome show and end it off with a Sonic Rainboom. That would draw attention from everypony in the city, and they’d be dazzled by it.”
“That would be so cool!” Pinkie chimed in, bouncing across the circle to smirk into Rainbow’s face, making the pegasus in question lean back a little. “Oh, I could set up an enormous, super-duper exciting outdoor party under where you’ll be flying! That would help ease everypony’s stressed nerves!”
“Good idea, Pinkie!” Twilight agreed, and everypony else seemed okay with the idea. Rainbow used a forehoof to gently push Pinkie out of her personal space. Pinkie got the hint and bounced back to her original space, though she remained standing. Twilight rolled her eyes at that before speaking again. “Can anypony else bring something to this little surprise party? Anything and everything to help ease tensions and prove that we’re not the bad guys would go a long way.”
“Huh… well, while Pinkie and RD are preparing the party, ah think ah could go and gather up some berries that I saw hangin’ around the edges of town. Fluttershy, think you could help me with that?” Applejack suggested with a hoof on her chin and looking at Fluttershy.
Fluttershy smiled gently and nodded. “Oh, yes. I can help you with that.”
Applejack smiled warmly, pat Fluttershy on the shoulder than looked back at Twilight. “It ain’t apples, but ah reckon ah can make some good juice out of ‘em if I can get somethin’ to smoosh ‘em in. A big barrel or sturdy basket, maybe, plus a strainer or somethin’ similar.”
Rarity lifted a hoof a little too eagerly. “I can try to find something you can use, and Spike can come with me. We can also look for some stray gems along the way. I’m sure Spikey-Wikey is hungry after a week without eating any gems. Pony food only does so much for him, I think.”
“If he’s up for it, sure,” Twilight agreed with a nod. “I think I’ll stick with Rainbow; I can make sure everything is organized and going smoothly,” she then shifted and looked at Starlight. “What about you, Starlight? Is there anything you can add to this?”
Starlight shrunk back from the sudden attention but nodded. “Uh… well, uh…” she looked at Rainbow Dash hesitantly and visibly gulped. The entire room went quiet, and a subtle tension began to grow in the air.
The two of them hadn’t spoken to one another since the group had left the Castle of the Two Sisters; not directly, at least. They had always kept a noticeable distance, only ever getting close when they needed to for one reason or another. Starlight licked her lips and steeled herself. “I-I can try to put on some magic lights for Rainbow’s flying. Maybe it’d help broadcast what’s happening to the empire at large, and add some extra, uh, ‘wow factor’ to the performance?” she suggested shakily, not taking all of the attention very well. “But that’s just one idea! If there’s something I’d be better suited for, just let me know!”
“I…” Rainbow paused and looked at the floor, taking a deep breath and forcing down the burning sensation in the back of her head, doing her best to drown out that voice that kept whispering into her ear.
Make her pay.
Rainbow looked up again and noticed everypony looking at her. She took one more deep breath to calm herself, set her jaw and nodded. “I think that’s fine, Starlight. Just try not to make the light’s distracting for me, okay? I don’t exactly feel like dealing with another broken wing thanks to you,” she said, venom dripping from her words. She instantly cringed and looked away, her shoulders hunching up as she realized what she had just said. “I… ugh, sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“Rainbow…” Fluttershy muttered weakly, her voice laced with concern while her forehooves fidgeted nervously over her chest with her ears pinned back against her head.
Starlight, too, shrunk back, looking anywhere but at Rainbow. “...Yeah.”
A tense silence filled the room for several moments. Thorax cleared his throat, making everypony jump. “Woah!” Applejack yelped, then chuckled slightly. “Heh, wow Squall. Ah almost’ forgot you were here. Ya were as quiet as a fly on the wall.”
Thorax frowned at Applejack, then shook his head. “Uh-huh. I think I’ll stick to the edges of the city and keep an eye on the area outside. We don’t want any Changeling scouts or infiltrator’s slipping in, and I’m sure they’ve got some looking for us right now.”
Rainbow hesitated slightly, then nodded. “Alright. Let us know if you see anything suspicious, okay?”
Thorax nodded. “Right,” he said before standing and turning for the exit. “I’ll go get started right now. Uh…” he paused and looked back at them sheepishly. “...Could one of you keep an eye on Wind Whisper while I’m out there?”
“I can,” Fluttershy volunteered with a gentle smile.
“Don’t forget that yer helping’ me gather berries,” Applejack pointed out before smiling up at Thorax. “We’ll both look after her.”
“Alright. Thanks, you two,” Thorax smiled and gave a friendly nod, then bowed to Rainbow before turning and taking his leave. For a moment, everypony was quiet. Then Rainbow stood up.
“Alright, we’ve got our plan! Let’s get to work!” she put a hoof out before her and smiled in anticipation to the gathering of her friends. Twilight wasted no time in putting her hoof on Rainbow’s, the rest of them, sans Starlight, swiftly joining in. They all looked back at Starlight expectantly, making her fidget in place. After a moment, she inched forward and gently set her hoof on top of the rest.
“Alright! Let’s throw party!” Pinkie Pie declared cheerfully before the group lifted their hooves into the air and gave a loud, unanimous cheer.
Well, save for Starlight, who just kind of stood there awkwardly.