Twilight and her friends scan the dark, empty buildings on either side of the road as they pass them, Ponyville's apparent desertion all the more unnerving after the night's events. Fluttershy shivers and walks faster, her imagination conjuring ghostly images of the living dead staring at them with vacant yet hungry eyes. Crippled earth ponies and broken unicorns watch from within the shadows left by the full moon while battered pegasi prowl the roofs, saliva dripping from their hanging maws and all waiting for the opportune moment to pounce. Her hoof hits an unexpected object in front of her and she trips, squeaking all the way down until the ground cuts her off.
Twilight stops to turn and look at her, rubbing the hind leg Fluttershy had stepped on, "Err… Fluttershy? Are you okay?"
"I've been better," Fluttershy admits, determinedly keeping her eyes focused straight ahead as she gingerly gets to her hooves. "Sorry."
Twilight shakes her head, remorse flashing across her face for an instant, "It's fine."
"Everypony alright?" Applejack asks.
Fluttershy nods, "I just let my imagination get the best of me, that's all."
"Well, try to hold it together just a little longer," Applejack says encouragingly. "We're almost there."
Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash trot ahead of the other half of their group as soon as they round the final corner, Ponyville's town square coming into view at last.
"Hey Applebloom, ya here?" Applejack calls out.
Rarity scans the quieting crowd as they approach, "Has anypony seen Sweetie Belle?"
Rainbow cups her hooves, "Scootalooo~, where aaarrre youu~?"
"We're over here!"
Turning around, the two groups of three see Sweetie Belle waving at them from several houses down, Scootaloo and Applebloom beside her.
Applejack narrows her eyes suspiciously at Applebloom as the fillies walk up to them, "Y'all left way before we did, so how'd we beat you here? What've you been up to now?"
"Well, we couldn't just leave our vampony hunting gear lying around town, so we dropped all of that stuff plus my scooter off at Rarity's," Scootaloo explains.
"Yeah," Sweetie Belle continues, "and we thought maybe we could get a treat from Sugarcube Corner since everypony is awake now and especially after Dawn said she hadn't ever had any before, but by the time we got there the Cakes were already gone, so we came here."
Applejack gives them a flat look, "So it sounds ta me like you only did what we told you to do once you couldn't think of anythin' else to do instead."
The fillies fidget, eyes roaming while they attempt to rationalize their actions.
"I mean, you had already caught the bad guy, so it's not like we were in danger anymore," Scootaloo reasons.
"And besides, we shouldn't just leave our stuff lying around; it would be very inconsiderate to everypony else who would have to walk by it," Sweetie Belle points out.
"And honestly, Ah thought we kinda deserved a treat after everythin' we've been through tonight," Applebloom adds. "Also, Dawn has never had a donut-"
Applebloom nods, "Ah know, right? How could we not try to fix that?"
"Anyway, speaking of Dawn, where is she?" Twilight interjects, preemptively cutting off Applejack's imminent scolding, "Did she head back to the Everfree Forest?"
Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Applebloom blink in unison, glancing first at each other then at their surroundings only to find no trace of their vampony friend.
Applebloom frowns, "Huh, that's odd. She was just here with us a minute ago."
"Hey Dawn!" Scootaloo shouts, "Where'd you go?"
"I'm up here… " a small voice replies from a nearby tree.
Squinting towards the source of the voice, Scootaloo sees no sign of Dawn – until a tiny movement draws her attention to a dim, filly-sized silhouette hiding amongst the upper branches, "Well come on down! Nopony here bites. Well, except you, but it wouldn't make any sense for you to bite yourself so it's fine!"
Scootaloo sighs, "Yes, I'm sure."
After a moment's hesitation, Dawn walks down the side of the tree, doing her best to stay hidden behind its trunk upon reaching the ground. Taking another moment to gather her courage, she holds her breath and peeks around the tree at the crowd only a short distance from her cover. Tens of ponies stare back at her, a few whispering and pointing as nearly a thousand more jostle behind them.
"Great! Now that yer down here, we can start introducin' you. Everypony else is already here too, so we can begin with all our classmates for when you show up at school and then the Cakes of course since we need to get you one of their desserts and-" Applebloom pauses as Dawn's head whips back behind the trunk, her ears pinned to her skull and pupils like needles as she flattens herself against the tree, "What's wrong?"
"T-There's s-so many ponies w-w-watching," Dawn pants. Closing her eyes, she attempts to disappear into the tree's shadow, the bottom half of her body vanishing before her magic sputters and fails. Trembling, she stares at her hooves in horror, random parts of her body fading in and out of sight while stray wisps of magic seemingly bend the air around her.
A pair of hooves suddenly draw her into a hug, Dawn stiffening as feathery wings complete the unexpected embrace – all at once her world reduced to shadow, warmth, and quiet.
"Shhh… shhh… it's okay… you're okay… " Fluttershy whispers softly, gently stroking Dawn's mane.
After a few minutes her shivering stops and she pushes away from Fluttershy, leaving two small wet spots on the pegasus' chest, "I'm… um… I'm good now."
Looking up, Dawn starts at the sight of eight other ponies forming a half-circle around her side of the trunk.
"We're sorry," Scootaloo apologizes. "With all the things we've done to try and get our cutie marks, we end up at the center of attention so much that we didn't think about how you would feel to be put in the same situation."
"Do you… always end up with tons of ponies staring at you after trying to get your cutie marks?" Dawn asks apprehensively, rubbing the last of the excess water from her redder than normal eyes.
"Ummm… " Sweetie Belle stares at the sky, tapping her chin while she mentally runs through their many adventures, "not usually."
"Not as often as we get covered in tree sap," Scootaloo adds, shrugging when Dawn gives her a strange look. "What? It happens more often than you'd think."
"We'll try not to do any a' that stuff when you're around though," Applebloom says. "The starin', Ah mean. No promises on the tree sap."
Dawn sniffles and swallows, a weak smile spreading across her face, "T-Thanks. I think I'll, uh, stay here for now though."
Her ears twitch and stand taller at the sound of approaching hoofsteps as soon as the words leave her mouth, the rest of the group looking towards the now entirely silent crowd.
Applejack smiles, "Heya Granny, Big Mac, Cheerilee."
"Applejack," Cheerilee replies, returning the smile, "I'm glad you're alright. We woke up to you yelling about a murderer and then you ran out as soon as we came downstairs."
A hint of embarrassment creeps onto Applejack's face, "Yeah, sorry about that; Ah was in a bit of a rush. Didn't even realize you were over, actually." She raises an eyebrow at her brother, diverting her gaze for an instant to flit over the elderly pony leaning into his side, "Ah don't suppose the fact that Applebloom and Ah were out and Granny sleeps like a half-deaf rock had anythin' to do with that, would it?"
Big Mac shakes his head, "Jus' watchin' the moon, Applejack. We fell asleep in each others hooves."
He leans over to nuzzle the closer of Cheerilee's ears, forcing a snoring Granny Smith to stand upright sandwiched between them. Cheerilee's ear flicks at his touch and she blushes, "More in your hooves than in mine, but in any case, we're glad you're all safe."
She sends an amused but pointed look at the Cutie Mark Crusaders, "You three especially; I half expected one of your crusades to be mixed up in this somehow. Anyway, I take it you've made a new-"
Cheerilee stands stock still, staring at the vampony filly, "Dawn?!"
"Y-Yeah uh… hi, Cheerilee," Dawn replies, giving her a nervous wave.
Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo glance at each other, then at Dawn.
"Hold on a minute," Sweetie Belle says suspiciously. "You didn't know Zecora's name even though you live in the Everfree with her and you didn't know Twilight's even though she's a princess. So how do you and Miss Cheerilee know each other?"
Dawn's eyes widen, meeting Cheerilee's while she stalls for time, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh… "
"I-I, uh, stumbled on her feeding a few ni – I mean years – uh a year ago," Cheerilee offers, tripping over her own words as logic struggles to keep up with her mouth.
"Y-Yeah," Dawn confirms.
"That," Applejack says, looking at the two flatly, "is one of the worst lies Ah've ever heard."
Big Mac frowns down at Cheerilee, "Eeyup."
Twilight's eyes glaze over, Cheerilee's stuttering response fading into the background as a million half-baked thoughts ricochet off the walls of her increasingly frazzled brain.
She closes her eyes, drawing a deep breath.
Allowing her lungs to slowly empty, she opens the borders of her mind, letting all other thoughts fly off into the infinite void of non-existence.
Start over. Okay, now, what do I know?
Fact 0: Nopony previously knew about living vamponies aside from, apparently, Zecora. And thanks to Princess Celestia, what little 'lore' that survived, if it can even be called that, is wildly inaccurate at best and only covers Sombra's undead anyway.
Fact 1: Cheerilee knows about Dawn, and based both on their reaction to and cooperation with each other, they are on friendly terms.
Implication: Friendship requires trust, trust takes time, therefore this relationship is not new.
Fact 2: As evidenced by her lie, Cheerilee did not 'stumble on' their existence accidentally.
Implication: If she did not find them accidentally, then she had to have prior knowledge of them which originated from an outside source.
Further Implication: Fact 0 states that no known lore of Everfree vamponies exists, therefore Cheerilee's knowledge couldn't have come from a written source. Also, had her knowledge somehow come from such a source, she could have simply stated that rather than lying. So there must be others who also know of vamponies.
Conclusion: Fatal conflict exists between known data. Either Fact 0 is incorrect and there are multiple ponies who know about vamponies which, aside from the laughable likelihood of Cheerilee being part of some sort of cabal of vampony sympathizers, simply circles back around to how they would have known about them thereby solving nothing. She herself can't be a vampony in disguise either, since she is quite obviously a pony and vamponies aren't shapeshifters like the Changelings-
Twilight's eyes snap open, not wanting to consider the possibility – yet unable to deny the powerful explanation it provides.
Two species, both of which feed on ponies, both of which are skilled at hiding… it wouldn't be so unusual for them to know of each other…
She resists the urge to stare at Cheerilee, forcing herself to remain impassive.
Well then, let's put that theory to the test.
Continuing to maintain a neutral expression, Twilight dredges up the worst memories of her brother's wedding, focusing all her feelings of suspicion, anger, and betrayal at her suspect.
For a moment, nothing happens. Then suddenly Cheerilee's pupils shrink to pinpricks, her head jerking to look at Twilight.
Twilight ceases her painful recall, allowing a less than pleasant grin to make its way onto her face.
Cheerilee only manages to back up a few steps, Granny Smith slumping sideways to the ground in her place, "Twilight, wait a-"
A wide purple beam engulfs her body, cutting her off. After a second, the beam fades – a dazed changeling with a dull yellow shell dropping to the grass in Cheerilee's stead. Her unperforated, membranous mane collects limply on the ground around her head while her tail rests behind her like a leaf, both matching her shell's color. Twilight's horn pulses again and a magic barrier engulfs the fallen changeling, lifting her a few feet into the air. Still dazed, the changeling attempts to stand – falling several times as her hooves slide along the perfectly smooth and sharply curved walls of the small sphere until she manages to press her head to its ceiling, using the added friction to stabilize her stance.
Twilight glares at the trapped changeling, "Alright, where's the real Cheerilee?"
"I am the real Cheerilee!" the changeling protests, delicately shifting two hooves at a time in order to turn to face Twilight.
"Right, and I'm your queen," Twilight replies with a snort. "Now either tell us-"
A hoof lands gently on her shoulder, drawing her attention to the large stallion standing next to her, "Ah'd like ta speak with her, Princess Twilight, if that's alright."
Sympathy quickly overwhelms a fleeting moment of irritation and she nods, "Of course, go right ahead."
Big Mac shakes his head, "Ah mean face to face, not with her in some magical ball."
Twilight gives him a hard stare, searching his eyes for any sign of the changeling influence she had noticed on her brother. Finding nothing, she drops her barrier to the ground, the sudden motion causing the captured changeling to topple once more.
"Alright," Twilight says as the barrier disappears, moving several steps away to keep both of them easily within her view, "but if either one of you try anything, I'm blasting both of you."
The changeling stands, starting to stretch her holeless wings before snapping them to her shell when Twilight's horn glows dangerously. The faintly hopeful expression on her face becomes pained as she turns to Big Mac, the weight of his suspicion forcing her back to the ground.
Several seconds of silence pass between the two, Big Mac finally speaking up, "Where's the real Cheerilee?"
"I-I am the real-" the changeling stammers, her yellow, pupilless eyes blinking rapidly to hold back tears.
"Ah see," Big Mac interrupts, his stony expression unchanging. "So then this whole time you've been lyin' ta me, and usin' mah love for those lies as a convenient source a' food, like some kinda parasite? Is that it? Is that all Ah am to you? Dinner?"
"NO!" she shakes her head, sincerity interweaving with desperation, "I mean, sort of, I mean… I-I'm not… "
"Well?" Big Mac takes a heavy step forward, eyes narrowing, "We don't have all night. What do you mean?"
"I… I mean… " the changeling gulps loudly, searching the grass stretching between them for any hint to help explain, "I mean, I am a changeling, I did eat some of your love, but I'm not a parasite and I never lied about anything! My favorite color really is green, I really do enjoy walking through the orchard at dusk and watching the night sky with you and I think your singing is amazing and… " she meets his eyes again, her own glistening, "and I love you. Not just as food, but as a pony, as… as… "
She trails off as Big Mac steps forward again, stopping inches from where she lays to tower above her like an icy mountain, the chill winds of his anger washing over her. The changeling shivers and covers her eyes with a whimper, waiting for the blows to start landing. Instead after a moment all she feels is a light touch under her chin, lifting her head from the ground. Before she can react to the unexpected sensation, another follows, a familiar pair of lips meeting her own. Her eyes shoot open at this, her tongue automatically flicking forward in search of a familiar taste. For an instant it finds nothing but emptiness, then she moans, deepening the kiss as delicious warmth floods her senses.
After a time, Big Mac breaks the kiss to turn to Twilight, leaving Cheerilee to dazedly stare up at him, "It's her, Princess."
His words pull Cheerilee out of her trance. Tears spilling from her eyes at last, she attempts to glomp the larger pony, burying her head in his mane as she tightly wraps all four of her hooves around his barrel.
Big Mac staggers backwards under the loving assault, a calm smile on his face.
"You do realize that nothing she said actually proves anything, right?" Twilight points out, breaking the couple out of their moment, "She could have just as easily gotten all of that information from brainwashing the real Cheerilee, or even just from stalking you both for a while."
"Ah know, Ah wasn't interested in any a' that." He rolls a shoulder, nudging the mare on his back, "There's a thing she's always done with her tongue when we kiss that Ah like. That's what Ah was lookin' for."
His mane emits an embarrassed chirp at his words, Cheerilee's translucent wings rising several inches from her body, "Y-You do? I thought you didn't even notice – you never said anything before."
"Well Ah thought you might get embarrassed about it," Big Mac replies nonchalantly.
Cheerilee withdraws from his mane to smack one of his ears, "You thought I'd get embarrassed, so now you tell the entire town?!"
Big Mac chuckles, "Ah had ta prove to everypony that yer you and hadn't ponynapped the real Cheerilee, didn't Ah? Speakin' a' which… "
He turns to face the rest of the town, his lips bending into a frown, "ANYPONY THAT'S GOT A PROBLEM WITH CHEERILEE, HAD BETTER BE PREPARED TA GO THROUGH ME!"
His booming declaration reverberates across the town square, faint echoes bouncing off the surrounding buildings. The crowd, meanwhile, remains almost entirely still, nopony daring to take him up on his offer, though many fearful stares and angry glares nevertheless meet his own roaming gaze.
Twilight stares exhaustedly at the defiant stallion and the changeling still gripping him, her head and shoulders slumping as she turns to face the crowd as well.
I should have just blasted them.
Letting out a regretful sigh, she forces herself to stand taller, "Alright, are there any other changelings here?"
A murmur ripples through the gathered ponies, furtive and not-so-furtive glances cast in all directions.
Twilight languidly raises her head to the night sky, Please nopony answer, please nopony answer, please-
However, despite her heartfelt requests, a loud whisper carries over the background hum.
"Hey Bon Bon, I think the Princess is asking for you!"
The ponies surrounding the pair immediately pull away, clearing a path between them and their princess. Lyra happily trots forward through the gap with Bon Bon following just behind her, the latter nervously glancing at their friends and neighbors standing to either side.
Coming to a halt just inside the empty circle surrounding Twilight, Big Mac, and their assorted friends and family, Lyra waves, "Hi Twilight."
"S – oh, uh, hi, Lyra," Twilight replies, sparing a moment for the cheerful, minty green unicorn. "So anyway, you're also a changeling, Bon Bon?"
Bon Bon nods.
Twilight sighs deeply once more, "I see. Could you please take your natural form then?"
Bon Bon hesitates, but after an encouraging nudge from Lyra acquiesces, a flash of green flame washing over her to reveal a changeling with eyes the color of dry sand, her mane, tail, and shell identical to her eyes in color though similar to Cheerilee in form.
"Thank you." Twilight turns to Lyra, "And you knew she was a changeling?"
"Yep!" Lyra hugs her favorite mare, wrapping her hooves just above Bon Bon's wing joints, "She told me everything after I got back from the wedding since she felt really bad about the whole brainwashing-invading-ponynapping thing. And I kinda freaked out a bit after that, but then I realized that the fact that she risked everything revealing herself to me just goes to show how much she values our friendship."
"Oh for the love of – just call her your marefriend already!" Golden Harvest calls out from the front of the crowd.
Lyra rolls her eyes, "Well yeah, what kind of friendship did you think I meant? I mean we share a house, hay, we sleep together for pony's sake. Just normal friendly friends don't do those sorts of things with each other." She grins, "At least, I sure hope they don't do the things we do."
A green tint appears on Bon Bon's face, her wings snapping open while Golden Harvest facehoofs.
Spoiled Rich takes the opportunity to step forward, dragging Filthy Rich and Diamond Tiara along with her, "Well I for one don't understand why we're even listening to them. They're disgusting bugs that attacked Equestria after having spent their entire lives parasitizing and lying to everypony around them and that one," she points at Bon Bon, "just admitted to brainwashing somepony!"
"Hey, we never attacked anypony," Bon Bon protests, "and I would never brainwash Lyra!"
"It's true, I'm totally not brainwashed anymore," Lyra agrees.
Applejack rolls her eyes, "A'course you wouldn't know if you were brainwashed, that kinda defeats the whole point of brainwashin' ya. That bein' said," she sends a stern look Spoiled's way, "there's no reason we can't be civil until we know fer sure."
Deigning not to reply to the apple farmer, Spoiled's lip curls derisively.
"Also I'm pretty sure I didn't imagine a swarm of flaming bugacorns falling from the sky," Pinkie adds. She taps her chin, "Though I was surprised they didn't trigger my Pinkie sense."
Rarity shivers, "And who could forget that awful queen ponynapping Princess Cadence, defeating Princess Celestia, and outright mind controlling Twilight's brother! Those aren't the kinds of things one can simply claim didn't happen, you know."
The entire town collectively jumps into the air at the cannon-like detonation, its shock wave rattling the windows of nearby buildings and bouncing increasingly weak echoes across the town square.
"Wonderful," Twilight says as those closest to her recover, an overly wide smile stretching her lips. "Now that I have your attention again, perhaps you can clarify something for me. You apparently said that you felt bad about what happened, Bon Bon, but if you really did feel bad about it then why did it happen? Do you really expect me to believe that you didn't know your queen was going to lead a full scale invasion of Canterlot?"
"Chrysalis is not my queen!" Bon Bon spits out venomously, the loud noise having barely phased her.
"So you're some kind of renegade?" Rainbow asks, still rubbing her ears. "That's pretty cool."
Bon Bon glares at Rainbow Dash, "No! I'm not some selfish deserter and it wouldn't be 'cool' even if I was!"
"Look, this ain't complicated," Applejack interjects. "The 'Queen of the Changelings' invaded Canterlot, so either yer loyal to her or yer not."
"That's-" Bon Bon hesitates, looking over to meet Cheerilee's eyes.
Cheerilee hesitates as well, then sighs, "That's because the queen who invaded Canterlot, Queen Chrysalis, isn't the Queen of the Changelings – she's a Queen of the Changelings."
A strong breeze makes its way through the town square in the ensuing silence, loudly rustling the leaves of the trees and bushes as everypony stares at Cheerilee – some with fear, many with uncertainty, and all others with the utter calm which comes from accepting that they no longer have any idea what's going on.
Twilight's eyes spasm while Cheerilee's words bounce around her brain, her mane rapidly turning into a chaotic mess as it responds to the random pulses of magic coming from her sparking horn – sparks that soon become short arcs of purple energy.
Barely managing to pull herself together with the last pieces of her rational mind, Twilight giggles, bringing her magic back under control and smoothing her mane, "Nope. Nope, nope, nope!"
She points a hoof at Cheerilee, "You will not tell me that until tomorrow."
Applejack eyes her friend warily, "Um… Twilight, Ah'm not tryin' ta nitpick or anythin', but… how can she not tell you somethin' that she's already told you?"
Twilight's neck ticks to the side, her gaze not moving from Cheerilee, "You will not tell me that until tomorrow. Right?"
Cheerilee nods rapidly.
Twilight claps her hooves together, "Wonderful! And if you haven't told me yet, that means it's Future Twilight's problem!"
Without warning she teleports to the platform encircling the railing of the second floor of the town hall, a mote of light drifting from her horn to her throat.
"So! I'm sure everypony is wondering why I called you out here tonight. The first reason, and the reason you were all woken up in the middle of the night, is that there was a potential MURDERER on the loose. As it turns out, this pony was in fact KING SOMBRA and-" she giggles, raising a hoof to quiet the townsponies, "and everything is completely fine. Sombra was captured, nopony was permanently hurt, and he's being guarded by Princess Luna, so there is absolutely no reason to panic. And, while everypony's already here, I might as well address the vampony rumors: they are true! Vamponies exist and have apparently been living in the Everfree nearby Ponyville for a long time now. One of them even saved Derpy from Sombra and aided in capturing him, so, you know, they're good ponies and stuff. And lastly, as you may have noticed, Cheerilee and Bon Bon are changelings and, from the sound of things, they did not replace anypony thereby making them the same ponies you've all known for years."
Twilight licks her dried lips and takes another breath, "Now, I know that's quite a bit to take in and I myself am half a hoof away from LOSING MY MIND, but! So far they all seem to be relatively harmless. To ponies, at least. Anyway! The point is, I'm here, Princess Luna is here, I would imagine Princess Celestia will be returning soon as well, and who knows, Princess Cadence may very well come riding in on the Crystal Express in a couple days, so please hold off on judging them until we are able to learn more. I think I speak for all of us when I say we wouldn't want another Zecora incident, now would we?"
"Honestly, getting all worked up over somepony having stripes," she leans back, a second bout of giggling nearly growing into all out laughter until she suddenly cuts herself off. "Oh, also, Cheeriling, Bon Bon, please go to your homes and stay there until I or another princess asks for you. If you're not there when we come to get you, we'll simply assume that you've been lying this whole time and all changelings will be declared enemies of Equestria which, as a Princess of Equestria, I will be able to actually do this time around."
Her eyes roll across the night sky, trying to chase down any stray thoughts, "Nope, that's it, I'm done. Have a good night and pleasant dreams everypony!"
With a wave, Twilight vanishes from the town hall.
Pinkie Pie vaults the railing to take her place after a few seconds, megaphone in hoof, "Okay everypony, I don't know about the rest of you but there is no way I'm going back to sleep after everything that's happened. The solution, I think, is obvious: let's have an I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what's-going-on-but-if-I-went-back-to-bed-now-I'd-probably-have-nightmares-anyway party!"
The crowd murmurs noncommittally.
Pinkie jumps off the second floor, landing in a bush, "Vinyl and Octavia will be providing the music~"
Standing near the edge of the crowd closest to the town hall, Octavia raises a hoof to her chest, "We are?"
Vinyl lays a foreleg across Octavia's shoulders, pumping her other foreleg.
Octavia facehoofs, "Vinyl, when – why? Just, why?"
Vinyl gestures with her hooves, ears flicking rapidly.
"Yes I know we were already awake and playing anyway," Octavia replies, "but you're supposed to ask the people you volunteer for things."
Vinyl pauses for a split second, then quickly makes a few more gestures.
Octavia rolls her eyes, "Before you volunteer them, Vinyl."
Vinyl tilts her head to the side.
Octavia sighs, "No, no, I'll do it…"
Vinyl grins, embracing Octavia in a hug.
The crowd's murmuring meanwhile grows louder, a few groans joining in.
Undeterred, Pinkie hops away towards Sugarcube Corner, "There'll be lots of sugar and free~ coffee~"