"rrrrrrrrrr~!" Dawn cries out in frustration, her eyes following the tip of the pale yellow tail wiggling just out of reach. "Get! Back! Here!"
The prehensile tail ignores her demands however, bending and twisting to stay just beyond the grasp of the pouncing vampony filly as the coal-dust grey body of the thestral guard to whom it is attached turns in a slow circle. The others in the room watch the scene play out before them, Spike and the princesses following their antics amusedly while the remaining two guards stand next to Luna – the previously vomiting guard much closer to her side than the other though both watch the vamponies closely. Midnight meanwhile rests her head on the floor, following the movements of her sister and her playmate through eyes lidded by tiredness.
As the guard continues turning, Midnight's gaze shifts to rest on his cutie mark of a single, wavy, almost iridescent white line moving from the upper left of his flank to the lower right, idle curiosity distracting her until Dawn makes a final, desperate lunge.
"YESSS!!!" Dawn shouts triumphantly from between her teeth, grinning while the guard's tail wriggles helplessly in her jaws. Smiling mischievously, the guard begins to turn much more quickly, Dawn's eyes widening as she's dragged forward. Their speed rapidly increases, the centripetal force growing strong enough to lift her from the ground as the thestral whose tail she's biting spins faster and faster. On her fifth cycle their speed peaks and the guard changes the incline of her orbit, for a moment Dawn's side sliding along the floor with all the pressure of a feather before her altered path aims her 45 degrees from the library's floor.
Releasing her hold on his tail, Dawn snaps her wings open and easily regains control of her trajectory, the arc of her flight path taking her within reach of the library's mostly empty shelves. Her height slowly decreases as she circles overhead for one lap around the room, however half way through her second lap she suddenly angles her wings downward, dropping towards her older sister. Midnight tenses at the sight of Dawn's impending dive bomb, the impact pushing her several inches across the floor away from their platter and forcing a wet burp from her mouth. Panting, Dawn shifts onto her side and closes her eyes, snuggling into Midnight's barrel. With a sigh, Midnight licks her lips, extending a wing over Dawn and flapping it gently.
The guard looks at Midnight, smiling as he waggles his tail, "Want to take a turn?"
Midnight blinks, then gives him a flat stare, "I will maul you."
The guard coughs and takes a step back, "Right… uhh… never mind, then."
The telltale pop of teleportation sounds from the kitchen, a voice muffled by the thick curtains calling out, "Princess Celestia?"
"We're in here, lieutenant," Celestia responds loudly, turning to look at the curtains blockading the kitchen along with everybody else.
A shaft of light pierces into the shadowed room like a lance a second later, Spike, Twilight, and Luna squinting and averting their gaze while the bat ponies cover their eyes with their wings, Midnight lowering the one fanning Dawn to shield her as well. Much to their relief, Double Time quickly slips through the doorway, allowing the curtains to fall back into place.
Staring in the general direction of the princesses while his eyes adjust, Double Time salutes into the darkness, "Your Highnesses, the ponies you requested to be brought here are waiting outside."
"Thank you, lieutenant," Celestia replies with a nod. "Please send them in."
Double Time bows, "At once."
"You are aware that you can use the door," Luna comments dryly as light surrounds his horn in preparation for another teleportation.
"O-Oh, yes, of course. My apologies," Double Time says, the glow of magic fading from his horn as he instead carefully starts making his way towards the front door.
He freezes after taking only a few steps however, his proximity along with his still adapting vision now allowing him to make out the vamponies – along with the platter of uneaten meat and leftover bones next to them. Midnight turns her head, watching the unmoving guard impassively. Suddenly very much aware that all eyes in the room are on him, Double Time swallows and forces himself forward, his pace picking up noticeably once he passes Midnight and Dawn. Guided by past experience, everyone but Celestia looks away when he opens the door and slips outside.
Celestia sighs once the door slams shut, "Was that really necessary, Luna?"
Rather than respond, Luna merely smiles, finishing off her third waffle and dropping the last of the blueberries into her mouth.
Without warning the front door opens wide, bathing the room in the sunlight of early afternoon as an undisguised Cheerilee and Bon Bon enter alongside Big Mac and Lyra in the wake of two Royal Guards, one a pegasus and the other a unicorn.
Spike yelps in pain and falls backwards as the light scalds his retinas, defensively putting his scaled back between him and the door. The thestral guards flinch, each covering their eyes with their hooves and wings. Midnight follows suit, letting out a low growl as Dawn whimpers and pushes her head against Midnight's side to help block out the light.
"CLOSE THAT THRICE DAMNED DOOR!!!" Luna bellows, her voice booming through the library as she also uses her wings to thwart the light's onslaught while Twilight buries her head in a nearby pile of books.
Acting on instinct, the unicorn guard's horn instantly shines to life, slamming the door shut. A chorus of relieved groans and sighs follows his action, all but Celestia unshielding their eyes and looking around the room through green tinted vision.
"Um… Your Highness… " the unicorn guard ventures after standing completely still in the renewed darkness of the room for several seconds, "may I light my horn?"
"You may not," Celestia replies sharply.
Both guards flinch, their ears pinned to their head and eyes locked on the floor.
A knock brings the attention of everyone in the room back to the door, Rainbow Dash's voice making its way through the wood, "Hey, uh, can we come in now?"
"Twilight," Celestia says, glancing towards the kitchen, "perhaps you could bring your friends in a bit more discretely?"
Twilight nods, trotting over to the shrouded doorway and in three precise moves holding the curtains open with her magic, jumping through, then closing the gap behind her. Nevertheless, the brief moment of extra light is enough to allow the newcomers' still adapting eyes to clearly make out the leftovers of the vamponies' meal. The Royal Guards' worry for their future punishment mixes with confusion as they process the sight – horror replacing both once they realize what they're staring at, the shocked pair shooting bewildered looks at Celestia before the light from Twilight's departure vanishes. Big Mac reacts with similar though less obvious discomfort, shuffling his hooves uneasily and quickly looking away. Lyra and the changelings meanwhile glance unperturbed at the mostly cleared platter, their focus soon returning to the kitchen doorway.
A loud crack of displaced air follows a few seconds after the quiet pop of Twilight's initial teleportation, the kitchen curtain rippling before being once again pushed aside. Twilight and Fluttershy enter first, the two beginning to fill out the circle by sitting opposite the first group of six and to the left of the vamponies' platter, though making sure to keep a fair sized gap between it and them. Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack follow, each pausing at the sight of the vamponies' food just long enough to annoy the pony behind them with the exception of Applejack – her gaze locking onto her brother and Cheerilee as soon as she pushes through the curtains.
Once everypony has taken a seat in their now complete, though somewhat amorphous, circle, Celestia glances at her sister, "Given the nature of the discussion we will be having, I think it would be best if our guards left us for the time being."
"Agreed," Luna says with a nod, looking across the room at the only one of her guards not standing beside her. "Lunar Trail; you, Shadow Strike, and Night Glider will wait in the basement until we call for you."
Lunar Trail waits expectantly for his two compatriots, rolling his eyes and turning towards the basement tunnel as Shadow Strike and Night Glider uneasily follow him, the pair making sure to keep a good distance between themselves and a watchful Midnight.
"You two," Celestia says brusquely to her Royal Guards as Luna's thestrals leave, "go back outside; and please, don't throw open the door this time."
"O-Of course," the guards answer in unison, both hastily slipping out the front door.
As soon as the door gently clicks shut, a golden aura covers Celestia's horn and rapidly expands to form a thin, nearly transparent bubble around the gathered ponies. She meets Luna's eyes meet once the spell completes, each offering the other an encouraging smile.
However, before either can speak, Rainbow Dash nervously steps forward, "Hey, uh, Midnight, before we all start talking about all the other things we're here for, I just wanted to say thanks for helping out with Sombra last night. If you hadn't been there, I might've ended up dead. Or worse, apparently. So, you know, if you ever need a uh… a drink, or anything, feel free to drop by."
"Oh, uh, that's… I-sure," Midnight replies, the words stumbling out of her mouth. "You're welcome. And… uhm… thanks."
Her piece said, Rainbow returns to her place in the circle, glancing at the shocked expressions of those around her, "What? That's all I had to say."
Celestia clears her throat, drawing everypony's attention back to her, "I would also like to take the opportunity to apologize to you, Midnight, for what happened 1000 years ago. My fellow princesses and I will need some time to think about and discuss how to proceed from here, but rest assured that what occurred then will not reoccur now."
"Indeed," Luna agrees. "Accidental or not, it is a stain upon the history of Equestria, and one which we will do everything in our power to scrub clean."
"And, I mean, that sounds great and all," Midnight says hesitantly, her gaze moving from Rainbow to the Two Sisters. "But what does that mean, exactly?"
"It means that we will do whatever we can to make up for what happened," Celestia explains. "However… in order to be able to do so, we will need to know where to find any other vamponies who are living within the Everfree – or anywhere else, for that matter. Not only to make amends, but because, for better or worse, word of what has happened here with regard to your kind – as well as the changelings – will eventually spread outside of Ponyville regardless of any measures we may take to contain it, and we need to know which pony or ponies to speak with about the changes that knowledge will bring."
Celestia sighs tiredly, releasing the last of the air in her lungs and drawing a new breath, "That said, my sister has told me that you do not know the location of any vamponies aside from those living near Ponyville. Do you have any way at all to find or communicate with those living in other areas? I realize this is a lot to ask of you, especially given our history, and I wish there were more we could do to prove our good intentions, but I strongly believe that it would be better to get ahead of this rather than waiting for ponies to go searching for answers on their own."
Midnight blinks slowly, a lost look in her eyes as she digests Celestia's words, "I don't, but… I could ask around and see if anypony else does. Maybe a place to start looking or something, at least."
"I think I can help with that, actually," Bon Bon says, a cold pit forming in her stomach as the princesses turn to look at her along with everypony else in the room. "It's not really that hard, if uh… i-if you know what to look for."
"You are 'Bon Bon', correct?" Celestia asks, the slightest hint of suspicion in her voice. "Or is there another name you would rather go by?"
Bon Bon bows, a shiver traveling down her spine, "I-I would prefer Bon Bon, your highness."
"I see," Celestia replies, dismissing a questioning look from Luna with a nearly imperceptible shake of her head. "That name sounds oddly familiar for some reason; but regardless, please explain what you mean."
Lyra puts a foreleg around Bon Bon's shoulders and pulls her closer, Bon Bon sipping from the stream of protective emotions flowing from Lyra to steady herself, "W-Well, um… it all starts with the Everfree, really, in that despite how nonchalant a lot of ponies here in Ponyville are about living literally right next to it, its reputation for being scary and even deadly are very well earned. Most towns anywhere near the forest have walls with a contingent of guards and-or employ a branch of one of the monster hunter guilds to deal with the occasional creature that wanders out of the forest looking for a meal."
Bon Bon pauses, drawing a deep breath before continuing, "There are a few exceptions to this though. The towns that are closest to the Everfree Forest – like Ponyville, which is practically right on top of it – are safe to the point that here in Ponyville we've had fillies and colts wandering into the Everfree on a, quite frankly, disturbingly frequent basis who have nevertheless always come back out mostly unscathed. In fact, the worst that's happened recently is a few timberwolves showing up, along with ponies wandering into poison joke every once in a while. We even have a zebra, Zecora, living inside the forest full time, yet if she were to try to live too far in either direction she'd probably be dead in a month or less."
"Those are the towns that vamponies are by," Bon Bon finishes, swallowing and licking her dried lips. "That isn't all vamponies, I mean, but definitely most."
"So what you are saying, is that the vamponies have been protecting Ponyville as well as these other towns?" Luna asks, looking to Midnight for confirmation.
Midnight's eyes narrow slightly, "Um. Nooo… ?"
"I could be wrong," Bon Bon says quickly, "so correct me if I am, but it's probably less that they're actively guarding the town and more that they both drink pony blood and also eat a lot of the things that would otherwise like to eat ponies. So rather than trying to walk through miles of vampony territory, attack Ponyville, and then walk back through vampony territory covered in pony blood, other Everfree predators tend to just avoid Ponyville and those other towns altogether."
Midnight nods in agreement, "That makes more sense."
"Hold up just a moment now," Applejack objects. "If that's the case, then why do timberwolves still show up every once in a while?"
"They're plants," Midnight answers, shrugging. "You eat them."
Applejack frowns, "That doesn't-"
"Timberwolves aside," Luna interjects, sending Applejack a pointed look before returning her gaze to Midnight, "if that is truly all it takes to locate the other vamponies, then it makes this a great deal easier. I am assuming you and your sister will be returning home once the sun sets, and if it is alright, I would like to accompany you. We still don't know specifically which other towns are likely to be host to vampony populations, and while that will be figured out eventually, for now it would be best to gather the vamponies around Ponyville to inform them of what has happened. The sooner we can begin reaching out to them, the better."
"As long as we-" Midnight pauses, glancing down at her sister asleep and snuggled into her side. "As long as I get to go back to sleep before then."
"Fear not," Luna laughs. "Once we are done talking, my thestrals and I will be returning to our slumber as well."
Midnight lets out a massive yawn, "Awesome."
Celestia inclines her head, "Thank you for being so understanding, and for helping to keep Ponyville safe, intentionally or not. Now, regarding the changeling presence in Ponyville-"
"Forgive me for interrupting, Tia," Luna says apologetically, "but if you don't mind, there is something that came up last night while I was watching over the dream realm and which I would very much like to understand before we delve into the topic of changelings as a whole."
Celestia sighs, "Very well."
"My thanks," Luna replies, turning towards the changeling to Big Mac's left. "Your name is Cheerilee, I believe?"
Cheerilee bows deeply, "Y-Yes, your highness."
"Unless we are mistaken, I encountered you in a nightmare last night; however, almost immediately after I engaged the nightmare, you vanished. It was quite strange – we have never seen anypony disappear from the dreamscape in such a way," Luna states, watching Cheerilee curiously. "Do changelings have any abilities related to the realm of sleep?"
Cheerilee shakes her head, "No, we don't. It's kind of the opposite, actually; we don't dream at all. We have a link to all the others in our hive, and when we sleep that link is strengthened instead. Last night my connection was broken somehow though, and maybe that's how I ended up in a dream, but other than that I have no idea. I've never heard of anything like this happening before."
"Interesting… " Luna murmurs, glancing at the floor and tapping her chin thoughtfully. "Then perhaps your vanishing was simply your link reestablishing itself. I wonder if… hm. Regardless, I take it that also means this was the first dream you've ever had?"
Cheerilee shivers and leans into Big Mac, resting her head on the larger stallion's shoulder, "Y-Yeah."
Luna winces, "I see… you have our sympathies. Though I suppose that does explain why we have never found a changeling in the dreamscape before."
"I guess… " Cheerilee glances up at Big Mac before timidly looking back at Luna, "um… i-if you don't mind me asking, are dreams usually that horrible?"
Luna smiles reassuringly, "Neigh, most dreams are actually quite nice, though often confusing, and even most 'nightmares' are simply manifestations of one's own worries or insecurities. However, what you encountered was a true nightmare – a being which feeds on pain, hatred, and despair, and is made of the randomly recombined leftovers from the collapsed dreams of others after they wake. Fortunately such entities are quite rare; until last night, I had not been forced to deal with one since before I was banished."
"The fact that it targeted you is likely an indication of the anger, fear, and uncertainty of the rest of the town. It could just as easily have gone after Bon Bon or perhaps even Midnight or Dawn," Luna adds, sending an unamused look Pinkie's way. "Though the massive intake of sugar and caffeine following such a stressful series of events certainly did not help matters."
"Sorry," Pinkie Pie apologizes, ducking her head embarrassedly for a moment before raising both it and her right hoof high into the air. "I have a question of my own now though. If there are mean, evil dream creatures, does that mean there are nice ones too?"
Celestia lets out a derisive snort, "Of course not. They are all an insane mess of fractured memories and emotions driven solely by the need to make everypony else they encounter as broken as they are."
Pinkie's mane deflates at this, her shimmering eyes staring at the floor beneath her hooves.
Luna hesitates, then after the barest moment of internal deliberation takes a deep breath, "Err… that is not… actually the case. They are incredibly rare due to the random nature of their creation, but they do exist. I believe the modern term for them is an 'imaginary friend'."
Pinkie grins and squees, her mane poofing back into its regular curly form as she gleefully claps her hooves together. Luna watches bemusedly, though she feels the pressure of Celestia's angry gaze boring into the side of her skull.
Noting the lack of magic behind the stare, Luna allows herself a small sigh, Not exactly how I had hoped to broach the subject with her.
To be fair, we hadn't planned on telling her at all, Selena replies, a nervous undercurrent in her voice. Twilight's house hasn't lit on fire yet though, so that's a good sign, right? Definitely better than when you and her first met, at least.
Luna mentally rolls her eyes, That is hardly saying much.
"Um, Princess Luna?" Twilight queries, glancing between the distracted sisters, "I really don't mean to derail this further, but if you've never seen a changeling in a dream due to their link to the rest of their hive, why haven't you ever seen a vampony before?"
Luna blinks, Twilight's question pulling her from her internal dialogue, "What? Oh! My apologies, Twilight, my mind was elsewhere. In the vamponies' case, the Everfree Forest helped to hide them from us; the chaotic magic present there warps the dreamscape as much as, if not more than, it does the physical world, making navigating it quite treacherous. I also admittedly did not often attempt to look within the forest since, as far as I was aware, nopony had ever lived inside it – Zecora's relatively recent presence being the only exception we know of. Even now it would be quite difficult to find them despite knowing they are there, like trying to search through many miles of rough ocean or dense jungle, so visiting in the real world is still easier for the time being. Here at least I will have a guide."
"How wonderful," Celestia says stiffly, focusing her attention on the pair of undisguised changelings in the room. "Now; Cheerilee, Bon Bon; Luna and I have many questions to ask you, but there is one of particular importance that must be answered first and must be answered truthfully."
She meets Cheerilee's eyes, then Bon Bon's, "Were either of you involved with the army that attacked Canterlot in any way?"
"No," Bon Bon and Cheerilee reply in unison.
Luna raises an eyebrow, "You are both quite sure? It would be far more unfortunate if later we were to find out either one of you had been lying to us."
Celestia nods, "The invasion was already your kind's first impression on all of Equestria. Lying to us about it now will only make things worse."
"Neither of us had anything to do with Queen Chrysalis, her hive, or the invasion," Cheerilee states emphatically. "I didn't even know it had happened until I read about it in the Ponyville Express the next day, and Bon Bon hadn't heard anything until I told her."
"Our shells are the wrong color too," Bon Bon adds. "If we were part of Queen Chrysalis' hive, they'd be dark blue."
"If that is the case, then I take it you two are also from a second and third hive?" Luna asks, her eyes flicking between Cheerilee's dull yellow shell and Bon Bon's light brown one.
"We are," Cheerilee confirms.
"Even so, you are saying that you really don't know anything at all about what happened to this 'Queen Chrysalis' after she was ejected from Canterlot?" Celestia queries, "Or the rest of her army, for that matter."
Bon Bon shakes her head, "I heard all the other queens met to discuss a punishment, but I don't know what they ended up deciding."
"We are, quite literally, far removed from hive politics," Cheerilee adds.
Bon Bon nods, "And honestly it seemed like a topic left well enough alone. If it was something we needed to know, our queens would make sure someling came out to tell us."
"I see," Celestia replies, her tone level. "And how many changeling hives, and changeling queens, are there in Equestria?"
"There are nine," Cheerilee answers. "Hives and queens, I mean – you can't have one without the other. Though that includes Queen Chrysalis too, actually, so probably eight now."
"Eight queens… " Celestia says quietly, a frown settling across her muzzle, "that is… more than I was expecting. And with what Chrysalis alone was able to accomplish…"
Luna's brow furrows, "What do you mean there are eight now? If your queens met to discuss Chrysalis' punishment, then she must have survived her expulsion from Canterlot."
"Well, I mean, I didn't hear what Chrysalis' punishment was specifically, but… " Cheerilee shudders, Big Mac wrapping a foreleg around her shoulders, "but my queen was so angry when she found out what had happened… I've never felt her get so emotional about anything before. I could barely sleep for over a week, and the whole hive was on edge until she calmed down."
Bon Bon bobs her head once in agreement, "My queen reacted similarly. And if the others also reacted the same way… I can't imagine Queen Chrysalis was allowed to live."
"…That is a rather disquieting thought," Celestia says pensively, "though perhaps not unsurprising, given what she did. How long had she been… residing within Equestria, before she made her move?"
Bon Bon shrugs, "I'm not really sure about her specifically, but none of the nine are new queens, and in general we've been here a pretty long time. I do know we've been with you since at least a little bit earlier than the first Hearth's Warming Eve though, since the lead up to that was one of the worst periods in our history, and that none of the nine queens are old enough to have been around for that themselves. I've also heard that it's much more difficult for us to survive among non-pony races – something about ponies being especially magical in comparison – so I don't think there are any hives outside of Equestria, actually."
"Changelings were around pre-Unification?" Twilight asks, "That's well over a thousand years then, at least."
"At the very least," Celestia mutters to herself, staring unseeingly at the wall just over Bon Bon's head.
A chilly silence falls upon all gathered at her words, Bon Bon and Cheerilee both shivering and leaning into their special someponies.
Luna clears her throat, "Regarding these other queens, and their hives, do you know where in Equestria they are located?"
Bon Bon and Cheerilee shift uncomfortably, several seconds passing before Cheerilee speaks up, "We both know the location of our own hive, but it's not… um… that is to say… i-it's not really our place to be telling you or anypony else where it is. I don't even know where Bon Bon's hive is, and I wouldn't expect her to tell me if I asked."
"That is not an acceptable response," Celestia states sharply. "I don't care how long you've all kept yourselves hidden within Equestria, that absolutely cannot remain the case after everything that's happened."
"If for no other reason than we need to have some way to be able to communicate with your hives," Luna says hastily, ignoring a glare shot her way by Celestia. "And not just your hives either – we would need the names of other changelings from other hives as well."
"Uh… " Bon Bon glances between the Royal Sisters. "It's not really our place to be outing other changelings, either. Especially from other hives."
Celestia's jaw clenches, her eyes narrowing, "That is also not an acceptable response. You can't expect to be able to evade some of most important questions we have for you, especially since we need to be able to send discrete messages to all of the hives in order for anything particularly useful to ultimately come of this."
"I'm sorry," Bon Bon apologizes, "but Cheerilee and I were forced to reveal ourselves, and that's not something I'm going to make anyling else go through, nor am I going to betray the trust my queen placed in me by revealing things I know I'm not supposed to reveal. You could make an announcement just here in Ponyville asking any other changelings to reveal themselves though. Once they know Cheerilee and I are fine and that nothing will happen to them, they might be willing to come forward on their own."
"Bon Bon and I could also take your message back to our hives and then our queens could send it out to the other hives," Cheerilee suggests. "There aren't changelings from every single hive in Ponyville, so that would have to happen anyway, and that way no other changelings would have to be revealed."
Midnight lets out another huge yawn, sending Cheerilee and Bon Bon a flat, tired stare, "I really don't understand why you're making such a big deal out of this. There's only one other changeling in the entirety of Ponyville right now."
"You are able to locate changelings?" Luna asks Midnight curiously, "How?"
"They taste different," Midnight answers, an unpleasant expression crossing her face. "Kinda watery, and… eugh. There used to be a lot more too, but most of them left over the last couple years."
Luna's gaze intensifies at this, "How many are we talking about?"
Midnight looks up at the ceiling, her eyes flicking back and forth between two of the thestrals' hooks, "Seven… ty… ish… ? Somewhere around there, anyway."
"That you are able to determine this based on their blood tasting different would imply that you have drunk the blood of every pony in Ponyville," Celestia states, a hint of acid managing to leak into her voice. "Not to mention it would mean that changelings once made up approximately seven percent of Ponyville's population without anypony being any the wiser."
Midnight exhales sharply through her nose, but otherwise doesn't respond.
"I would also like to know if that is true," Luna prompts, raising an eyebrow.
Midnight lets out an annoyed sigh, "I haven't fed on everypony in Ponyville, but we all have our own preferences on who tastes best. Changelings are the exception to that – they always taste bad, so we share with each other who to avoid. Well, not quite always," Midnight corrects herself after a moment's thought. "There is one guy who likes the flavor, calls it an 'acquired taste'."
Cheerilee and Bon Bon share a nervous glance, Midnight rolling her eyes, "If it makes you feel any better, I think you changelings taste terrible."
"In any case," Celestia says, returning her attention to the changelings, "taste aside, do you both attest to there being only one other changeling in Ponyville right now?"
"We do," Bon Bon replies, Cheerilee nodding her own confirmation.
"Very well," Celestia continues. "Then I expect both of you to inform this other changeling of what has happened and that we would like to speak with them, and I also expect each of you to return to your hive and tell your queen the same. Is that understood?"
"It is, your highness," Bon Bon confirms.
Celestia glances between Cheerilee and Bon Bon, meeting their eyes, "Good. We will do our best in the mean time to try to prevent knowledge of what has happened here from leaking out to the rest of Equestria. However, this information cannot be contained indefinitely, so I expect you to do both of those things very soon and as quickly as you can. Is that also understood?"
Cheerilee and Bon Bon nod again.
"Wonderful." Celestia's gaze sharpens, "Additionally, I have had some long-standing questions regarding statements Chrysalis made during her attempted invasion, which I believe you will finally be able to provide some answers to. For example, she spoke of feeding on Shining Armor's love for Cadence and her intention to drain the love from every pony in Equestria in order to 'find food for her subjects'. Would I be correct in assuming then that all changelings feed on the love of non-changelings, as well as that both of you have routinely taken love from other ponies living in Ponyville?"
Bon Bon and Cheerilee hesitate, Bon Bon speaking up when Celestia raises an eyebrow, "That's not… um… inaccurate, and while love is the best, we do feed on more than just love. Joy, anger, or even fear or sadness are all emotions we can feed on too, but the extremes of those are poisonous to us, like obsession, hatred, or terror."
"It is interesting that you can consume negative feelings as well," Celestia comments. "But regardless, 'eating' mental energy – emotions – would by definition require the use of mind magic, correct?"
"Correct," Bon Bon replies, shuffling her hooves.
"And is this mind magic ever used to manipulate or strengthen a pony's emotions?" Celestia queries, "So that you can take more energy from them, for example, or so they are easier to feed on. Or perhaps even for more mundane goals, such as convincing somepony to take a particular course of action."
Luna shoots her sister a warning look, "Tia… "
Celestia ignores Luna, her focus on Bon Bon intensifying, "Answer, please."
"I… I mean, I can't really say that no changeling anywhere has ever done that," Bon Bon admits. "But I've never done that and I don't know of any changeling who's done that either. Any unnecessary use of magic is discouraged, since it could possibly be detected and lead to our discovery."
Celestia frowns, "Hm. I see. Well, would it also be correct to say that consuming emotions regularly is a matter of survival for you, in addition to food and water like regular ponies require?"
"I-I… uh, yes?" Bon Bon stammers.
Celestia's gaze hardens, "To summarize then – all changelings, yourselves included, are capable of using mind magic, and in fact consistently do so on the ponies around you in order to feed on them."
"Well… I suppose that's true, in a way… " Bon Bon says, squirming closer to Lyra under Celestia's piercing gaze. "But relatively few changelings ever leave the hive, or at most are never farther than a few miles from it, and those of us that do leave are given very strict training on how to feed and gather emotions without harming anypony. A-And also, I meant to say it before, but we don't even feed directly on other ponies, most of the time, since with there being so many more ponies than changelings the ambient emotions are usually enough."
"Quite like a buffet, it would seem," Celestia replies, the barest hint of ozone wafting through the room. "But regardless, it sounds like both of you have gone through this training then?"
"I-I, umm… " Bon Bon swallows loudly, "Y… Y-Yes."
Cheerilee nods mutely, Big Mac's mane obscuring part of her face.
Celestia's lip curls, "I see. And given that all who do will be living in disguise among non-changelings with a very high priority placed on not being discovered, I would assume this training is not simply an ethics course, and also includes other, more advanced, techniques. Using mind magic for offensive purposes, for instance."
"Tia," Luna interjects.
"It is a valid question," Celestia counters, sparing her sister a glance before staring down at Bon Bon. "Answer, please."
Bon Bon flinches, her ears splaying, "N-No, we're only taught how to use it for… f-for uh… for self-defense."
"Offense and defense are two sides of the same coin; one can easily be repurposed for use as the other," Celestia says, giving a short, dismissive exhalation. "Have either of you ever used mind magic to harm somepony?"
"No!" Bon Bon denies vehemently, shaking her head, "Never."
Cheerilee wilts as Princess Celestia's gaze lands on her, "Uh… w-well… "
Bon Bon gapes at her friend, "Cheerilee… ?"
"I-It was last night, a-after the n-nightmare," Cheerilee stammers, shrinking beneath the large foreleg wrapped protectively around her shoulders. "I was so scared, a-and I fed on Big Mac's love more than I should have. But it wasn't too much more, and he's almost completely fine now!"
Celestia looks down at Cheerilee coldly, a victorious glint in her eyes – the telltale dim flash of teleportation enveloping both her and Luna before she can speak.
Celestia blinks, her brief moment of surprise quickly replaced by anger as she faces the only other being she can see with her in Twilight's kitchen, "What is the meaning of this, Luna?"
Luna sighs tiredly, raising a foreleg to shield her eyes from the afternoon sun streaming in through the windows, "Celestia, what are you doing?"
"Discussing the changelings' use of mind magic," Celestia states, her eyes narrowing. "Or at least I was."
"Really? 'Discussing'?" Luna asks, giving Celestia a flat look. "It seems to us that 'interrogating' would be a more accurate description."
"Mind magic is extremely dangerous, and changelings are an entire species predicated on its use on unsuspecting ponies," Celestia replies tersely, returning Luna's look with a glare. "I need to know what they are capable of and how much of a threat they pose, especially given what one of their queens has already done – Cadence still has nightmares about it you know, and it took Shining Armor months before he really felt like himself again after what that parasite did to him."
Luna inclines her head slightly, "We are well aware of the difficulties they faced recovering from their ordeal, having provided them a great deal of help ourselves, but-"
"But nothing!" Celestia barks, her nostrils flared, "A Changeling Queen kidnapped and tormented Cadence, later kidnapped Twilight as well, warped Shining Armor's mind to the point he could barely think for himself, and assaulted me in the middle of a room full of their friends and family all in an attempt to conquer Equestria and turn it into her own feeding ground."
Luna stands a little taller, holding Celestia's gaze with her own, "Mind magic or not, and invasion or not, changelings as a whole have otherwise lived peacefully within Equestria for who knows how long, and they have all continued to do so even after our nation began demonizing them following Cadence and Shining Armor's wedding. Despite what one queen has done, it does not therefore mean that every changeling in Equestria is a threat, much less Cheerilee or Bon Bon."
"Living peacefully?" Celestia gives a short, mirthless laugh, "How can you say they are living peacefully when they openly admit to draining those around them every single day? Even with just two of them, one has already confessed to mentally scarring the pony she supposedly loves!"
"It was clearly an accident-"
"An accident!?" Celestia demands, now nearly shouting, "She assaulted him!"
"She was traumatized," Luna counters, her own voice rising in response. "She had never dreamed before in her life, and her first experience doing so was of a true nightmare. It would be as if she had never experienced pain before, and the first sensation she ever feels are her legs being chopped off. She was only trying to stem her own suffering."
Celestia snorts, "Excuses."
Luna licks her lips, jaw clenching, "Besides, the Apple stallion seems to be perfectly fine. Why would you simply assume any kind of permanent harm was done to him?"
Celestia throws up her hooves, "Because it's mind magic! It is inherently dangerous; one wrong push and you can turn a pony in a vegetable, or worse!"
"By that logic all magic is inherently dangerous, and yet you do not spend your days interrogating unicorns who have done nothing wrong besides using the gifts they were born with," Luna replies.
Celestia gives Luna an annoyed look, "That would be absurd, and you know it."
"Yes," Luna states crisply, "that was my point. Especially given the myriad things I know you've overlooked Twilight doing – that 'want it need it' incident alone would have landed other ponies in our barely used dungeon, even in this day and age."
"…And then there are the vamponies," Celestia continues as if Luna had not spoken. "I saw Midnight use Domination magic on Twilight back there, is that also alright?"
Luna shakes her head, "No, it is not, and we will have to make sure they understand not to use it on non-vamponies without warning like that, but even so it is simply a part of their species and their culture. They were obviously not intending to bring any harm to Twilight and from the looks of things were merely trying to play with her."
Celestia sneers, "As a predator would its prey."
"That is not what I meant, which you know full well," Luna replies, her stony expression belying the frustration in her tone.
Celestia grits her teeth, "How can you keep taking their side in this?! Can't you see how much of a threat they-"
The side of Luna's left hoof impacts her muzzle, Celestia staggering as the rattled gears in her mind jam and grind to a halt.
"I am 'taking their side', as you put it, because this conversation is reminding us more and more of what you once said of my own talent," Luna states, anger simmering beneath each word.
Celestia regains her balance after a few stumbling steps, staring at her sister as she raises a hoof to the faintly stinging welt now reddening her cheek, "Luna… I didn't mean… you know I haven't thought of you like that since… "
Celestia's words falter under her sister's withering glare, however eventually Luna closes her eyes and sighs, her anger gone once she reopens them, "We know you don't, however I do know how uncomfortable you are with mind magic, and I also know you've been dodging the issue for millennia by telling yourself that even though mind magic is bad you can trust me, or more recently that you can trust Cadence too, but that isn't going to work anymore. If we are going to be able to officially extend peace and friendship to the vamponies and to the changelings, you are going to need to accept that mind magic and its various facets have a role to play in Equestria beyond one or two Alicorn princesses – and in fact have had a role for a very long time now, even if we were not aware of it."
Sympathy enters Luna's voice, "Can you do that?"
Celestia shuffles her hooves, "I… yes. But-"
"And is that something you also want to do?" Luna asks softly, "Or would you rather they be our enemies? There can be no middle ground when they are dependent upon us for their own survival."
Celestia shakes her head, "Of course I don't want anypony to be our enemies, but they-"
Luna looks into her sister's eyes, "Tia."
Celestia stares back for the barest moment before taking a deep breath, her shoulders slumping as she glances at the floor, "…Sorry. It isn't just their mind magic that is bothering me, though. That Equestria plays host to eight or nine changeling queens along with their hives; the fact that there were once so many changelings in the town I sent Twilight to in order to make friends and bond with the Elements; what might happen to the Crystal Empire – Cadence and Shining Armor especially – if any of the remaining queens were to go after the Crystal Heart; not to mention how many changelings there must still be in all of our other cities and towns, or even Canterlot… there must be at least some, and yet nopony was reported missing after Chrysalis' army was blasted away-"
Celestia cuts herself off with a sigh, a small smile makes its way onto her lips, "But you are right that I let it get to me far more than it should have, and I was taking my fears out on those two. So, thank you for calling me out. I can only imagine what they would have ended up telling their queens if you had not, but 'Celestia had her guards create a make-shift dungeon and then imprisoned us there' would probably have come up. Even if they aren't our enemies though, despite my poor form in questioning them, their goals are also not necessarily our own."
"What are sisters for?" Luna asks rhetorically, returning Celestia's smile with one of her own. "And yes, we can agree to that much, certainly. The players may be different than we are used to, but at the end of the night this is just another set of political games you and I must make our moves in, after all. Are you ready to return to the others and wrap this up?"
Celestia points a hoof at Luna, "One last thing. Why haven't you ever told me about these 'nice dream entities' before?"
Luna flinches, her eyes widening and ears folding down as she shifts nervously from side to side, "…We had thought about it, and originally we had intended to tell you, but we were afraid of how you would react to such information so soon after our peace was first made, and after a while we stopped feeling like it was worth the risk of bringing it up at all. However, once Pinkie Pie asked the question, we did not wish to lie to everypony about it either, especially since your answer seemed to be causing her distress."
In the ensuing silence, Celestia tilts her head slightly, the light of understanding flickering to life in her eyes, "We?"
"I-I mean-" Luna catches herself, after a moment nodding shakily, "Yes. We."
"I… see… " Celestia says, after a moment letting out a quick exhalation. "Well then, when you and I are both back in Canterlot, you'll have to introduce us."
Luna stands stock still, "Truly? You wish to meet her?"
"Yes," Celestia replies, smiling warmly, "I would. And then-"
"TIS A JOYOUS DAY!" Luna declares, tackle-hugging Celestia to the floor.
"Luna… hugging… too tight… air… " Celestia gasps from beneath her sister.
"Sorry," Luna quickly apologizes, releasing her grip and taking a step back, her eyes sparkling like her mane.
Celestia coughs, "And then, both of you can explain everything you've been keeping from me about 'dream entities' and 'imaginary friends' in exchange for all those years I spent referring to myself in plural with that 'royal we' nonsense you were so insistent about."
"As you wish," Luna snickers. "We suppose it is only fair."
"Good," Celestia says with a nod. "Now I am ready to go back."
Spheres of light envelope the pair, dim versions of the sun and moon further illuminating a kitchen already lit by sunlight for several seconds before vanishing. With their absence, peaceful quiet falls once more, barely a sound to be heard.
Wincing at the noise, Spike peers out from within the shadows of the pantry, draconic pupils flicking warily over the now empty room. Finding nopony remaining to notice him, he slips himself an amethyst, the crunching of splintering stone muted by his cheeks and then silenced entirely as he closes the door to plunge both himself and his ill-gotten desserts into darkness once more.
Reappearing in the darker room, Celestia blinks rapidly while she waits for her eyes to adjust, her heart twinging once everypony else comes into focus – Cheerilee and Bon Bon watching her from the forelegs of their special someponies, the couples' fear palpable.
Clearing her throat, Celestia inclines her head, "Everypony; Cheerilee and Bon Bon especially; I would like to apologize for my behavior before Luna and I left. I allowed past prejudices as well as recent events to cloud my judgment, and I took it out on you two. However, I bear no ill-will towards either of you, and I hope that despite my earlier actions we can continue working together towards establishing a means of communication between the Equestrian government and your hives."
"So… we're not going to get banished or thrown in a dungeon or anything?" Cheerilee asks, peering out from behind Big Mac's mane.
Celestia shakes her head, "No, nothing will happen to either of you over what has been revealed here. However, with that said," she fixes Cheerilee with an expectant stare, "I would be very unhappy to hear of any recurrences."
"O-Of course!" Cheerilee nods rapidly, "It won't happen again, your Highness; I Pinkie Promise."
"Good." Celestia stands taller, "Now, in the meantime, I will be heading back to Canterlot to aid in the transportation and imprisonment of Sombra."
"When you arrive in Canterlot, could you also send an additional 25 Night Guard?" Luna requests, "While I have no doubts as to the skill of my own Lunar Guard, it would be very beneficial to have more round the clock coverage of Ponyville in case something else were to occur."
"Of course," Celestia replies with a nod before turning to the Element Bearers. "Twilight, I would like you and your friends to handle the situation here in Ponyville. I don't have any advice for what to tell everypony, since quite frankly I do not know what I would tell them myself; however, I trust you, as does Luna, and we will support you in whatever course of action you decide to take."
"Also, as an addendum to that," Luna states, pausing to make sure she has Pinkie's attention, "there is to be no more caffeine bingeing."
Pinkie frowns, "Aww… "
"Indeed," Celestia agrees, matching Pinkie's frown with one of her own. "In fact, let's make that official. I hereby decree that no resident of Ponyville is allowed to consume caffeine in any form for the next 48 hours."
Twilight fidgets, "Don't you think that's a little bit extreme, Princess Celestia?"
"No," Celestia replies, giving Twilight a flat look. "I really don't."
"In the meantime, I will be returning to bed," Luna says, glancing at her sleeping spot, "or in this case couch, I suppose, and leaving for the Everfree with Midnight and Dawn once the sun sets."
Celestia nods, popping the soundproof spell bubble surrounding them with a flick of her horn as she walks towards the door. Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack follow in her wake along with Bon Bon, Lyra, Big Mac, and Cheerilee, the group pausing in front of the door to look back at Twilight.
"Hey Twi, you coming?" Rainbow asks.
Twilight lets out an awkward laugh, "Actually, I was planning on taking a shower first."
"A wise decision," Rarity states, raising an eyebrow at the incredulous looks directed her way. "What? She does smell a bit sweaty."
"If everypony is ready," Celestia says, waiting for a moment before opening the front door.
The ponies leaving brace themselves against the onslaught of sunlight, all but Celestia squinting as they quickly exit and close the door behind them. Twilight sighs as soon as the door clicks shut, lowering her foreleg from her eyes and heading towards the stairs to the second floor.
Stopping at the foot of the steps, she turns towards the remaining ponies in her house, "Well, like I said, I'm going to take a shower. I don't know if I'll get to talk to either of you before you head into the Everfree Forest, but if not, good luck."
Luna smiles, "And to you, Twilight Sparkle."
"ymphifgr… " Midnight grumbles tiredly, not bothering to open her eyes.
As Twilight clops up the stairs to her shower, Luna stands and makes her way over to the tunnel leading to her host's basement. However, just before she reaches the tunnel's entrance, her three guards step into the room.
"We heard some ponies leaving, so we assumed your meeting with your sister and the others was over, your Highness," Shadow Strike states, bowing along with Lunar Trail and Night Glider. "Is there anything we need to know?"
"Indeed there is," Princess Luna replies. "Along with the two changelings you already saw when they entered undisguised, it has also come to light that a third changeling makes their home in Ponyville, though their identity has yet to be revealed. While that is not ideal, you are not to go searching for this third changeling at this time."
"Understood," Shadow Strike says with a nod.
"Good," Luna continues. "We have a reasonable degree of certainty that these three changelings are currently the only ones in Ponyville, so if more begin to turn up, that would be a concern. However, for the time being they are not to be considered a threat, and despite their current legal status technically being something of an unknown, they are to be treated as any other member of the town. Additionally, my sister will be sending 25 Night Guard here once she arrives in Canterlot. You three are to bring them up to speed on what has happened and instruct them to keep watch over the town during the night."
"Will any others be assigned to your protection besides ourselves?" Shadow Strike asks.
"No, and in fact you three will also be guarding Ponyville rather than myself," Luna replies, gesturing towards the pair of vamponies lying on the floor. "I will be heading into the Everfree Forest with Midnight and Dawn in order to try and reach out to the other vamponies living within."
Lunar Trail's eyes flick to Midnight, "Perhaps at least one of us should accompany you into the forest? I think I speak for all of us when I say it would put us much more at ease to know that one of your own Guard is protecting you, especially in such a place."
Luna raises an eyebrow, "By all accounts, the part of the Everfree Forest surrounding Ponyville is fairly safe, though we suppose it couldn't hurt. I take it you are volunteering?"
"I am, Princess," Lunar Trail confirms, his pricked ears giving a nervous twitch.
Luna exhales sharply, "I see. Very well, you may join us. Unless you have any objections, Midnight?"
Midnight's eyes open, blinking blearily at the Night Princess and her thestrals, "Just him. No others."
"It is settled then," Luna says, returning her gaze to her guards. "Are there any other questions?"
Night Glider glances at Midnight, "So… uh, if we were to encounter any of these other vamponies, what should we do?"
"For the time being, leave them alone. We currently have no other means in place for them to obtain what they need and I very much doubt that any intervention on our part would end at all pleasantly for either side – though given how well they have managed to stay hidden for most of our history, I think it is unlikely this will be an issue," Luna answers. "Anything else?"
The guards salute, "No, Princess."
Luna nods, "In that case, I will be going back to bed, as should you. My sister and her day guards will handle the situation until it is time for the moon to rise."
Dropping their salute, the thestrals jump into the air, hovering beneath the ceiling by their chosen hook just long enough to wrap their tail around it before allowing gravity to take over. Luna makes her way over to her couch as her thestrals wrap themselves in their wings, wedging herself between the cushions of the couch's seat and the ones making up the couch's back with a contented sigh.
Midnight meanwhile closes her eyes and attempts to finally reach the realm of sleep, however the hair on the back of her neck continues to stand on end, her instincts buzzing warningly at her about the unfamiliar creatures hanging above just loudly enough to keep her awake. After a few minutes she bares her fangs and lets out a low growl, Dawn also opening her eyes groggily as Midnight stands and turns towards the basement. Latching onto Midnight's tail with her mouth, Dawn slides along the cluttered library floor behind her big sister, silence once more descending on the library after they vanish into the tunnel save for the faint sound of Twilight's shower.