Still don't understand how this freaking armor works. I mean, it clearly does, but the thaumic calculations it's doing are ridiculous. Obsidian Armor stifled a grumble before it could get out. A sound from him now would violate the contract, and it wasn't time for that yet. I mean, seriously. Might as well be “ten plus apple cart equals translucence” as far as I can understand it!
He put his back to the door and looked down the hall each way. The thugs guarding the last door were out of sight, and even in this shadow realm he could tell the place was dark. Without looking, he turned and cleared his mind as he walked into the wall.
The pain was always there. Each time he or any of his number violated the basic principles of the world—in this case, occupying space already filled—there was a searing, maddening price to pay. The only way through was to pay it no mind in your heart and keep going. Hope was not part of the equation. It wasn't a normal calculation like math or modern unicorn magic. It was accepting the reality you wanted as already true, in spite of the universe itself using pain and your own senses to say how crazy it all was.
In a way, it was delusion. Pure madness. Yet, there he was, on the other side of the wall without having to go through any door.
The inside was like a Roan luxury furniture store puked in it. Gaudy sofas, wallpaper, decorative columns, and the works all came together like a peacock’s feathers in a display of status.
Yet the stallion he was here to see didn't fit into that particular piece of the puzzle. His suit was immaculate and fitted to perfection, sure. It probably cost a small fortune. Yet, it was a professional look with no embellishments.
When Tailored Trade’s ear twitched, Obsidian froze and iced over his heart, detaching his mind from the room. The contract reinforced, he faded back into the shadow of the room.
Luna had taught him how theatricality was one of the Night Guard's tools. To show up at the right moment maintained the mystique of the unit, which, for example, made convincing others to cooperate that much easier.
In this realm of shadow, though, it was hard to listen to things. His sight was filled with smears of inky black paint that vanished in microseconds, only to be replaced by another streak in the next instant. It was if flames made of shadows were reaching for him at the corner of his vision, but couldn't quite become reality.
If he gave himself completely to the contract the armor demanded, would he ever exist again? Were the shadows the ponies that couldn't keep their minds their own? Luna refused to answer those questions, which was her prerogative, but that didn't make the knots in his liver any less severe.
The hour is late. Waiting for the right beat in the conversation may not be… prudent. With a breath, he lit his horn and cast a spell as he stepped out of the shadows. A shimmering indigo fog followed in his wake, half filling the room. The other half was filled with the startled stares of the ponies in the room save for Tailored Trade, who didn't so much as flinch.
The mare next to the boss stood up, hidden guns in her saddle popping out.
Tailored Trade kicked the mare's legs out from under her. “Don't be that foolish in my presence again. That's Obsidian Armor. No weapons we have here will penetrate his shields. Attack the Prince so recklessly and you'll deserve the flank tanning he gives you.”
“Ugh,” the mare groaned as she held her stomach in pain. “Sorry, boss.”
“Hmmm,” Obsidian mused. “Twilight was right. You're smarter than the typical mob boss. How have you not taken over the city yet?”
Tailored Trade smirked. “All things in their own time. But you didn't come here to compliment me. Nor did you come to rough me up like you did Paster, or you would have made a more… violent entrance. So, to what do I owe the attention of the Prince of the Lost?”
“I could say I'm here on behalf of your victims, but not tonight. Tonight, I'm here to deliver a warning. Twilight's making her move. You know about what. Keep. Your. Ponies. Out. They get involved and they'll either get hurt or cause confusion in our ranks, hurting somepony else.”
Trade nodded, clopped a hoof on the table, and pointed another pony to spread the word. The underling left with room with a wind of urgency at his back.
“Oof.” The mare climbed back to the table. “Just like that? What if it's a trap?”
Trade rolled his eyes. “If it was, they wouldn't send the Prince for that. Not when he could just as easily take us all down, like those pirates in San Palomino.”
Obsidian felt his chest puff out. “Good. You heard about that.
“Now, fun as this has been, I'm afraid I have something else to look into.”
Trade motioned to the door. “Please, don't let me keep you.”
With a few steps into the shadows, and a few whispers to his own heart, the black flames in his vision returned. Unseen, he left the room and the building. Good luck, sis. This one I can't help you with.
“All stations, report in.” Twilight pressed the radio to her ear, listening over the wind and the slight hum of the four magic circles in front of her. She had unfurled her map to match up with the city in front of her. The night sky paled under the influence of the city lights, its clouds illuminated in gold. Masses of pegasus-led emergency response teams surrounded her, hovering and waiting for her word. Dozens more waited underground in the tunnels of the city.
“Team Alpha One, ready.”
“This is Team Alpha Two, ready and waiting.”
“Team Alpha Three, ready…”
She marked each team off on her checklist as they reported in, eventually getting to over one hundred response teams. Police, fire, medical, and military ponies organized together to breach, clear, and rescue in every hiding spot the changelings had.
“There's no way the changelings don't know something is up.” Aurora added a dash of admonishment in her voice. “Your hazy thoughts just mean you know I'm right. How do you know this will work?”
I don't. But I think I've forced them into an inevitable checkmate. With most of my teams orbiting above, they can't move all their captives en masse without at least a few getting spotted. With more teams underground in the tunnels, odds are at least a few will get caught there. Plus, the police should have gotten the word out to fire a police flare if any of the homeless down there find changelings.
They can't move, and I'm about to spot them all. Plus, the individual teams don't know my full plan yet, so they shouldn't have had a chance to plan for what I'm about to do. Speaking of which…
“Team Omega, are you ready?”
Bloodmoon’s voice crackled in the radio. “And waiting. There's not much here but warehouses and dumped garbage, though. Not sure what you're expecting.”
“Neither am I, but I need you there in case it's something significant. As for everypony else, listen up, I'm only going to say this once before it's go time.
“Changelings have infiltrated the city in numbers greater than what we'd expect for a city this size. My investigation has confirmed that this is not normal, and is likely spurred by enemy action.
“However, I've found a way to turn that action against them and the changelings. In a few moments, I will detonate a series of high energy spells around the city. Do not look directly at the blasts, as they will be extremely bright. Outside of that, no major adverse effects are expected on citizens or buildings.
“Immediately following the explosions, the magic I've added will mix with changeling magic in an area, creating some short lived thaumic contamination. This contamination will be readily visible to your naked eye, and will mark the location of a changeling. Large concentrations of the miasma will signify that a mini hive is located there. Dimmer, smaller concentrations likely mean only one or two changelings. Police teams without medics, respond to those. All teams, react appropriately and save any ponies you find.
“Do not worry about the contamination. While energetic, it will not last long enough to cause any medical harm.
“Unlike ponies, the changelings should be temporarily incapacitated by the blasts, and even lose their disguises. This won't last long, though, so move swiftly. Once they recover, they will likely be compelled by the Hive to fight if cornered. Do not hesitate to use lethal force on one. They will not allow themselves to be taken alive! Keep your wits about you.”
Twilight licked the sweat off her upper lip, looking down at the four little magic circles in front of her. Well, let's not keep these bugs waiting. “Ready? Here we go.”
She smashed the first circle, and the sky lit up with a new, miniature, green-and-purple sun. The northwest circle sent a magic blast wave out in all directions, while a visible shockwave of air grew ahead of it.
Thunder boxed Twilight's ears and shook her chariot, though Cloud Burner dutifully stayed at attention through it all. Ponies below were likely confused and panicked, but the city itself had no obvious damage.
What it did have, though, were spots of green in the streets. A half dozen of them were bright enough to look like someone had splattered a swimming pool’s worth of glow-in-the-dark paint everywhere.
Gotcha! Somewhere in her heart, she wanted to smile, but her mind now had the final say, and would only allow concern and concentration. “Alpha teams one through six, disperse to the bright spots. Police-only Bravo teams one through twenty, go after the dim ones.”
“Alpha One, diving in.”
“This is Alpha Two, already on our way…”
The radio exploded with chatter as the teams gave running reports, and Twilight reached out to the second circle. Not going to give you time to get your bearings, Chrysalis! She smashed it, and light bloomed out in the North. This circle was farther away, so less loud where she was, but was centred in a largely residential area.
“Damn,” Twilight swore under her breath at the growing miasma. “Alpha teams seven through fifteen, you have your targets. Charlie teams, target the lone changelings. Watch for innocent ponies!”
A few dozen more teams dove towards the ground, spreading out through the city's north side. The radio, though, was getting more chatter from the Northwest.
“This is Alpha One! We've found a full-blown nest. Twenty changelings are down. A good number more of them flew for it, and we're chasing them. We're still counting how many ponies are in pods, but I'd guess at least fifty, maybe more if we find a second level.”
Twilight's stomach twisted into a knot. “Copy that. Start informing the hospitals that we're going to be bringing in mass casualties.”
“Which hospitals?” somepony slow on the uptake asked over the radio.
“All of them.” Twilight smashed the east circle, and the sky lit up once more. She blinked the spots out of her eyes, and watched for the miasma. “Alphas sixteen and seventeen, you're up. Delta teams, go for the individual changelings.”
“Twilight, this is Intelligentsia. I've been listening on the other channel. A large number of the fleeing changelings are heading in directions that will have them converge on one location: mine. We're ready for them, but that also means…”
“Something important really is there. Copy that.” Twilight took out a red pen and circled the spot. “Let me know when you engage. I'll arrive when I can. That area should be devoid of civilians this time of night. You are clear for weapons free.”
“Understood. Intelligentsia, out.”
Twilight cracked and shattered the remaining circle, setting off the last of the spells. The industrial southeast lit up, bathed in a light that left a strong green afterglow. Nests of green looked like pegasi had dropped swimming pools of paint from a hundred meters up.
“Well, crap.” A pit in her stomach stomach dropped. “Alphas eighteen, nineteen, and twenty, go for the nests. Epsilon, back then up. Ignore individual changelings that don't directly get in your way. November, change of plans. Go back up Alpha and Epsilon.”
“You sure?” the Night Guard voice asked.
Twilight pursed her lips.”No. No I am not. But I don't see any other options. You have your orders.”
“What about us?” Cloud Burner asked from his harness. “Feels like we should be down there.”
Twilight pulled in a breath, held it, and sighed. “It does, doesn't it? But I need to coordinate from here, and I'll need you here in case of surprises. For now, they're on their own.”
“This is Alpha Twelve, VIP located. She's in a pod, still alive.”
Twilight's ears twitched with her pounding heart. “Copy that! Take her out slowly, and keep her asleep. She's kinda strong and if she reacts violently on waking, you might get hurt.”
Yes! Found Vinyl! Chalk one up for the Ponyville Winter Wrap-Up All-Team Organizer! “Alpha lead, give me a status update on the first teams!”
“Alphas One, Two, and Four have successfully secured their hives and are in the process of rescuing ponies. The bugs put up a fight, but whatever you did really scrambled them. They didn't find their wings until it was already over. Three and Five found hives with lots of nooks and crannies to hide in. Will take time to fully clear.”
“Understood.” A dot of colour caught Twilight's eye, and she looked up towards where it was. She had to look around as the dot tried to hide from her, but it was there, followed by dozens of others. “Intelligentsia, heads up. They'll be in attack range in a few seconds.”
“Oh, I know. And we've got the party all ready. I even brought cupcakes.”
Always one step ahead, Twilight thought with a smile. “Moonspeed, Gen.”
Intelligentsia chugged the last of her soda and tossed the can aside. The little law-abider in her screamed about littering, but given that the whole place around her was made of litter, it hardly mattered. Technically the few decrepit buildings around her were warehouses, but the proximity of the landfill meant ponies often snuck in at night and dumped garbage all around to avoid paying for large-item-removal fees. And if you're already breaking that law, might as well clean out your cart while you were at it. The end result was a warehouse district covered in trash.
The faint buzzing of insect wings pricked at her ear, and she took a step back to be rump-to-rump with Cardinal Bloodmoon and Acolyte Sable Seer, the latter of whom was Obsidian Armor’s new right hoof.
The opening wave was in front of her, seventeen by her count. Memories of the hive swarming Canterlot pounded at her thoughts, only to be stabbed in the gut. No. I've been training for years. This time will be different.
Seven of the changelings clumped up next to each other, grabbing hold of each other and glowing green. Flames consumed them, leaving behind the smoldering, hulking, angry mass of a single, enormous changeling. The buzz from its new wings was more of a roar, and it shook the ground as it landed.
“Well now,” Bloodmoon said with a smirk. “That's different.”
“Shut it!” Intelligentsia pulled out her guan dao, and the blades clicked open. “I got the big one, you take the little ones!”
“Acknowledged.” Bloodmoon flapped his wings and disappeared into the night. A second later, one of the changelings had his head go missing.
My turn. Intelligentsia swung her guan dao as the monster changeling roared, sending a cutting wave of energy at its mouth.
The changeling bit down on it, breaking the spell into pieces.
Chitin armor profile seems the same as the others’, just thicker. She reached out with her magic, grabbing hold of every bit of trash around her. Everything from the can of soda she discarded earlier to a pair of old, full-size sofas was floating in her golden magic.
The giant changeling pawed at the ground and roared, then charged her at full speed.
Just what I needed. She launched the debris as a stream of trash chasing her quarry, some parts hitting head on, while others missed as the changeling dodged. The sofa hit true, only to be shrugged off by thick armor.
Intelligentsia ducked, narrowly missing a stream of green telekinetic force that would have put a new hole in her head. Her follow-up was a backflip, and she could feel the air rush as the changeling swept with its somewhat undersized legs right where she was standing.
“Interesting,” she said as she backflipped away several more times. “You're quicker than you look.” She pulled back with her guan dao, and with a twinkle of her horn, the world blurred. Space moved around her in the blink of an eye, and her blade thrust forward.
The changeling had tossed itself sideways by instinct, but not fast enough against a pony capable of Passage. Her weapon sliced into the side of the armor rather than a true hit with a thrust, but the edge still eagerly cut into the chitin. A two-inch-deep gash was left in its barrel, a scar and weak spot on her foe.
The changeling had lunged forward to get out of range of a second strike, but Intelligentsia was still smiling. She twisted the polearm around, and struck it again with the other blade as it fled. Her ears flinched from the screech it let out from the hit, and she turned to keep facing it as it moved.
The changeling also turned back around to face her, angry and wounded, and thus, all the more dangerous.
Intelligentsia held up her blade to show it the dripping green blood, even going so far as to sniff the acrid goo as it sparkled in the flashes of combat magic going off around her. “That chitin has a diminishing return as armor as it gets thicker. Interes—”
Her eyes went wide as she watched the first gash she put in her enemy seal up and vanish. “High-speed regeneration. Buck me with a telescope. Guess it's time to get serious.”
She grabbed hold of the mantle covering her body, and tossed it aside. Underneath was the brand new set of purple and gold armor now being issued to the Royal Guard. Adorned on her shoulders were the bars of a First Lieutenant, the highest rank a pony could achieve in the division without becoming a Captain candidate.
Even her legs were armoured, and every piece was imbued with enchantments specific to her tribe. Before her mantle had even touched the ground, the world around her blurred again, and she thrust down from above the changeling, aiming for the neck.
The changeling shimmered, dashing out of the way at the last millisecond, and her blade crashed into the ground with the force of a grand piano falling from a few hundred meters.
Intelligentsia leapt up into the air immediately after, watching as the changeling plowed through where she had just been. Trying to learn Passage, are we? Green beams of light shot past her, each bolt a probing from the changeling on the ground.
When the dust cleared a split second later, the beam had her dead to rights.
Intelligentsia struck down with her guan dao, cutting into the changeling’s beam of magic. The bright steel of the blade scattered the magic in several other directions, letting her twist her body out of the way. She landed on her hind hooves first, cracking the concrete under them and kicking up another cloud.
She spun her guan dao, and thrust it ahead and to the sky just as the changeling appeared in front of her. The blade pierced into a weak spot of the chitin, plunging into its body.
“Hrk…” was the only sound it made as she tossed it aside to be with the rest of the garbage.
“That was disappointing… Wait…”
The changeling stirred, coming back to its hooves while the hole in it closed up. A second later, it was roaring again.
Intelligentsia tilted her head. “Well, that's new. Did you move your heart?”
“Problem, Lieutenant?” The voice of Captain Dual Strike came over her radio. “Do I need to save you?”
The Captain’s here? “No, Sir. I've got it handled.”
“Then hurry it up and handle it. A new wave is coming.”
“Understood.” Intelligentsia stepped through Passage, thrusting ahead into the changeling's chest, only for it to dodge again. She let herself get carried by the momentum, then used Passage once more to turn herself around and attack. Over and over it dodged her death blows, if only narrowly.
Finally, she feinted with a strike, and instead pierced the ground and used the blade to fling dirt at its face. It shook it off with a supremely pissed look on its face, which only made Intelligentsia smile. She poured power into the polearm, spinning it like a blender, moving it left, right, and all manner of other directions around her to throw more dirt.
The changeling backed off, seemingly looking for a new angle of attack away from the literal mudslinging.
Intelligentsia stepped into Passage, dragging her blade along the ground to throw even more disgusting trash dirt, this time along with some discarded wrappers. She followed it up with more spinning, more flinging, and another Passage jump to keep the bug in range.
She repeated this twice more, only for the changeling to finally charge through her foal’s tactic and go for her throat. She could almost feel the teeth on her neck before whisking herself away through Passage, arriving at her destination to her right and still facing her enemy.
She resumed her strategy of throwing up rocks and carving up the landscape, fully aware the giant changeling wasn't going to be fazed at all by it anymore. If anything, it was now eager to rage through it, coming at her as soon as it had its bearings again.
She stepped away again, this time to her right again, and the cycle repeated once more with a move forward. On the last one, though, the changeling didn't chase her. Rather, it charged its horn, picking up all the rocks she'd thrown in the last moments and hurling them her way in a horizontal hail storm.
Intelligentsia charged her horn, too, but this time Passage would only see the rocks hit harder. Having studied and sparred with Captain Armor, though, meant Passage wasn't her only means of moving around. She ripped through spacetime, teleporting next to the changeling to deliver an uppercut. When she reappeared, though, the changeling wasn't there, only an overwhelming green light.
Thunder struck her ears, and some huge force drove into her back and sent her flying. Pain thudded in her spine as she hit the ground and tumbled, rolling in the dirt again and again. Her kick off the ground to move again was just in the nick of time, as the changeling pounced into the spot where she had been.
When it turned towards her, she was already standing and ready again. This obviously pissed the changeling off to no end as it roared louder than ever before.
“What are you so angry about?” She scoffed. “I'm a Lieutenant. Did you think I wouldn't have my personal shields up? Or that I wouldn't add extra protection to blind spots? Start taking me seriously.”
The changeling charged, and Intelligentsia jumped back in the direction she wanted to lead it. It lunged at her with its horn pointed forward, and when that missed, it did it again a tiny fraction of a second later. Each move it made missed by millimetres, each step forward countered with one step backward by Intelligentsia.
Eventually, Intelligentsia took an opening to swing at its horn with her guan dao, missing as narrowly as the changeling had missed her. But her heart had no disappointment, as that attack wasn't the point. Rather, it made the changeling flinch, giving her just enough time to plunge her weapon into the ground and channel magic into it as fast as her horn would allow.
The dirt under them lit up, and gold ropes snapped up to ensnare the changeling. It dodged the first, but that only led it right into the grasp of the second. The original plus five more sprang up, eventually pulling it to a specific spot to be bound by all seven.
“I had this battle won ages ago, you know.” Intelligentsia said with a smile. Seven magic circles grew underneath them, with one glowing at each of the spots she had stopped at to fling dirt at the changeling. Each jump of Passage between them was glowing, too, linking them all in a constellation. “I guess you just weren't able to connect the dots!”
Intelligentsia pushed more power into her weapon, completing the spell before pulling it out and teleporting out of the way. “Seven stars to carry you to judgement.” She straightened her glasses and watched her “Grand Chariot” spell come to life.
All seven circles grew and spewed out hot golden magic, each made of thousands of piercing beams of light. Eventually they grew enough to merge together into one thunderous spell before detonating. The blast wave lit up her shields, but being made of magic from the same source meant even such a devastating attack wouldn't faze it.
When the light faded, nothing of the giant changeling was left, save for the large amount of information collected and memorized in Intelligentsia’s mind.
Her ear twitched from the buzz of changeling wings overhead as Bloodmoon and Sable fought. Even hideously outnumbered, their fighting was an inspiration to the soldier in her.
Bloodmoon was in the air, leading a swarm on a chase between buildings. Wind was being stirred up by their flight, spreading garbage and a thick, foul odour over the area. Three different possibilities ran through Intelligentsia's mind, and none were good for the changelings.
Sable was having a rougher time of things. The changelings were using their flight as an advantage, living up to the name “swarm” by coming at her from all angles. Killing a member of Luna's Night Guard was not so simple, however.
Each draw of her bow spewed forth a torrent of magic arrows; as many as a hundred at a time. Any changelings caught in the hail were skewered a dozen times. When one tried to get behind her, though, the arrows that missed from before turned themselves around and hit the sneaky bugs at supersonic speed.
Intelligentsia turned her head towards where she figured Bloodmoon would be making his stand, and sure enough, he was rounding a corner back towards the main street. With one mighty flap of his wings, he lunged ahead between two buildings and put distance between himself and his chasers. In the next instant, he had all four hooves on the ground and was skidding backwards to face the swarm.
The chains sticking out of his shoulders flashed violet and shot into the ground as if they were reaching, clawing for something under the pavement.
As the swarm followed him between the buildings, hundreds of chains erupted from the walls, crisscrossing the entire space. Every single changeling following him was entangled in the trap, and now struggling to get out.
The darkest of clouds formed around Bloodmoon’s wings, rumbling with what sounded like distant thunder. Purple lightning from his pinions cracked the sky apart, catching the metal chains and running through them as if they were wires. Tens of strikes hit within seconds, turning everything caught in the chains into nothing but ash.
Wish I had more of my energy drink. Intelligentsia stepped into a formation with Bloodmoon on the ground, followed soon after by Sable Seer. A couple dozen changelings were left, but they were taking cover behind a variety of solid, sturdy objects.
“Well, shoot.” Intelligentsia smirked. “Now they went and started being annoying. Thoughts, guys?”
“Don't tell me you're having trouble with a few insects, Lieutenant.”
Intelligentsia groaned, her heart squeezing in her chest. “Captain?”
Lightning hit the ground nearby, and when the light faded, an armored Captain Dual Strike stood ready for battle. Each plate was an off-color gold, well worn but expertly maintained. The blue galea was bright and new, with some of the hairs having been gilded to denote his rank. Attached to his side was a cored rapier, thin and wicked sharp, with a gem in the hilt.
Bloodmoon raised an eyebrow. “There was no need for you to come, Captain. We have this well in hoof.”
The hostile smile on his face could eat through titanium. “And miss a chance to help dig Lady Sparkle out of this hole she made for herself? Not on your life, Cardinal.”
Intelligentsia felt her mane stand up on end at that. If he's trying to undermine a future princess— Wait! “Captain, behind you!”
The grin on his face never faltered as he whipped around and brought down his blade on the changeling sneaking up behind him with no hesitation, as if he knew where it was the entire time. As the blade made contact, there was a flash of darkness around them, making the surroundings hard to see, but it didn't touch either of their bodies.
The Captain followed the first strike an instant later with a solid thrust to its chest, accompanied by another burst of darkness. Another thrust followed, and then another, over and over, each with more darkness, until the changeling should have been reduced to a pile of mush.
However, when he stopped, light returned to the junk-filled yard, and there was a very much intact and extremely confused-looking changeling still alive and breathing.
Intelligentsia swallowed the lump in her throat. “The Dual Strike…”
The Captain swung his blade out and to the side, bringing darkness to the entire area. In that instant, gold light circled and cut through every single changeling left of the battlefield, with the one Dual Strike was fighting practically subsumed by the glow.
Then, it was over. Light came back once again, and all the changelings around them had been either slashed in twain or stabbed through the chest.
Intelligentsia pretended to be nonplussed, adjusting her glasses while she put away her guan dao. I've never seen it before. His signature move. The spell stores the damage his sword deals, doubles it, and delivers two strikes for every one he physically performs. The secondary hits are spread out to other enemies. He can literally take on an army by fighting just one opponent.
“Well, I suppose I can't complain about the help.” Intelligentsia was already writing the report in her head. “Thank you, Captain. We will now fulfill the Grand Mage’s orders and secure the scene, including underground. Will you be departing now?”
“Are you kidding?” Dual Strike looked back at her. “The changelings could have run away and hid if they wanted to. Instead, they came here. I intend to find out why.
“On me, Lieutenant. Let's go find out what's so interesting about this dump.”