Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Breaking Binds

Earthen Pride, newly minted Duke of San Palomino, grumbled and drank the last of his iced coffee. Something wasn't sitting quite right in his stomach. Even if he wasn't used to the cold drinks that were, for obvious reasons, extremely popular in the desert, he knew it wasn't the beverage. Nor was it the gentle rocking of the brand-new chariot he was riding in for the first time.

He flipped to the last page of the stack of paperwork in his hooves. It, like all of the rest, had “CLASSIFIED — VIOLET” stamped on it near the top. Word by word he chewed through it, finally getting through the back end of the summarizing conclusion.

“This pony is thorough.” Earthen Pride rumbled. “Even for a Crown Prosecutor. Makes one wonder how long they'd been building a case like this… and how Badlands managed to avoid getting caught up in it for so long. This is going to send a lot of ponies to jail, probably for the rest of their lives.”

“Unless they repent and tell all to the Sovereign,” the smoke-voiced mare sitting across from him purred. “I applaud such thoroughness. Powerful ponies are octopi. They get their tentacles on everything, and can slip away through the tiniest of openings.”

The duke grunted, lifting his gaze from the paper only briefly. “And am I a cephalopod?”

A wisp of smoke stirred under the mare's dark hood, the barest hint of what was under it. All that could really be seen from the outside was the dark purple lipstick she wore. “A young one, perhaps. The questions that remain are to what ends would you use such abilities, and whether you can out-compete your opponents.”

“Well, that last one is why I brought you here.”

Those purple lips twisted a little. “I have been ordered by the Sovereign to aid you. It is by her generosity that I am here.”

He laughed inwardly, keeping all but a smile at bay. “No, Moondust, she sent you because aiding me in this is in her best interest. Bonus for me that her best interests and mine currently run parallel. Perhaps her generosity was a factor, but it is folly to rely on it from anypony. Generous or not, you would be here.”

The brief moment of silence that passed wasn't quite as satisfying as he'd hoped. Like pudding, it was sweet, but left nothing in one's stomach. The mare's refusal to continue the conversation left his appetite searching for something more.

Mercifully, the chariot bumped as it came in for a landing on the rough, rocky desert floor that was San Palomino. He glanced out the window for a moment, squinting to make out the scene. Through the wavy air, he saw a long fence, likely electrified, surrounding a vast area. Only a few buildings were present, and only the one directly connected to a railroad was of any substantial size.

The duke punched the chariot's latch open a full second before it came to a complete stop, ignoring the newfangled seatbelt light they put in. It was his very first outward, public action as Duke of San Palomino, and of utmost importance.

Had he delayed, he'd be a city fop unable to handle the harsh environment of the desert. Had he waited for the driver to open the door, he'd only be an aristocrat here to lord over them. Instead, he burst out of the chariot and broke into a full stride towards the mine. He wasn't here to sit on his flank, be pampered, or even merely push policy.

He was here to set things right.

Before he was even halfway to the gate, six gryphons were descending in front of him. He kept his stride, letting the big leader of them get in his way. As the lead gryphon opened his mouth, the duke pulled out a scroll and shoved it his beak.

“Open the gate and let me in, or I'll shove these warrants so far down your throat you'll be crapping confetti.”

A few of the others reached for their weapons, which was Earthen Pride’s cue to blink. Not figuratively in this case, but quite literally. A white-purple light flashed brighter than the sun for an instant, sending all of the birds reeling back to rub their sensitive, telescopic eyes.

“Do not raise your weapons in the presence of a servant of her Sovereign Highness!” Moondust boomed, horn alight and hood back. She had a white mane with a single purple stripe down the center, and her breath was a living, ethereal smoke. One couldn't see her mouth when she yelled. “Should you do that again in front of me or your new duke, I shall leave you naught but ash.”

Duke Pride resumed his stride, shoving over the lead gryphon to keep moving straight.

Another twelve chariots, all new, landed behind them and a small swarm of armed, uniformed ponies filed out. Many were pegasi, and all had formal military training. Their uniforms had “DEPUTY” stenciled in blue on their backs, and their sunglasses were the same as the ones the Wonderbolts used. By the time the duke reached the chained-up gate, they had surrounded all of the mine’s guards and confiscated their weapons.

Duke Pride eyed the heavy, enchanted padlock on the gate. He lifted it to look at the keyhole, and the subtle orange twinkle inside. “If I cut this, it'll probably explode or something. Definitely not legal.” He clicked his tongue, and one of the uniformed ponies stepped forward, a giant bolt-cutter in his magic.

One snip later, and the chain itself was cut. The lock fell, still locked and intact, and another uniform pony scooped it into a bag marked “EVIDENCE.”

Moondust tsked and wrote notes on a clipboard. “Chaining an exit shut. Using an illegal spell on the lock. That's two charges and we aren't even through the entrance yet.”

“Not to mention the main event.” Duke Pride shoved open the doors and strode into the mine’s land. “Moondust, go set up your spell.”

“Of course. I shall be ready in a few moments.”

The area was relatively standard for a frontier mine, but the tents, buildings, and even paths had seen better days. Odds are good those ‘better days’ weren't all that long ago. Nothing survives this desert without maintenance.

The ponies nearest him looked on with a hushed silence, while those father away whispered theories as to who this new stallion was. Only a portion were wearing proper safety equipment, though above the mine that wasn't as much a concern. What was a concern was the cracked helmet on one, and the missing headlight on another.

The largest gathering of ponies was closer to the mine, all crowded around a tank attached to a giant chariot. The miners were exchanging slips of paper for rations of water. Judging by the crowd size, this can't be all of the workers.

“Your Grace!” one of the deputies called out, drawing the eyes of dozens to the only pony in the area with a fifteen-thousand-bit suit.

The duke's eyes, though, locked on to the officer, and then the pony next to him. He released a low grumble and waved them over.

The pony following the deputy was short and lanky, and had a burgundy coat and freckles one could only barely make out through the dirt.

“Sir,” the deputy said, bowing. “I believe I've found an underaged miner.”

“I can see that, deputy.” He looked the colt in the eyes. “How old are you, son?”

“Old enough,” the colt huffed.

The duke raised an eyebrow, and the colt’s legs started to shake.

“Fourteen,” he finally said.

The duke leaned down to the teenager, gazing into his eyes. “I'm not angry at you. You were trying to survive. There is no shame in that. Tell me who the boss is, and I'll get you someplace safe to work and study. Deal?”

He put his ears back. “If I do, they might come after—”

“If they do, they’ll never live to regret it. Now, who is it?”

The colt leaned over, and nodded in the direction of a greyish-blue stallion with a whistle and a clipboard.

“That's a good lad.” The duke rubbed the poor thing’s head to mess up his mane a little for his “punishment” for breaking the law. “Deputy, take him to the chariots, get him some cold water and a snack. And get the new Sheriff over here.”

As he watched them go, his ear twitched at the approaching clops of the pointed-out stallion. The duke took a few steps forward to block the supervisor’s way, and stood tall to remind the bastard of his station. Not that it was difficult, as Earthen Pride was a couple hooves taller than most ponies.

“You don't look like you belong here,” the supervisor said with gravel in his voice. “What's your business?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing.” The duke turned to face him head on. “I recently went over a list of all the extraction facilities in the duchy, and examined their paperwork. Imagine my surprise when I discovered some were operating without registering a business license with the Crown or the Duchy — including this one.”

“Above my pay grade.” The stallion rubbed his tongue on his teeth, like he was searching for something caught between two of them. “You should go take that up with the bosses.”

The duke raised an eyebrow. “You're rather missing the point. This place is unregistered, which is unlawful. No taxes have been filed for it, but my conversations with RGIS seem to indicate that this mine has been operating for well over a year.

“So here's what's going to happen. You're going to get your miners — all of them — up here to line up for interviews with my deputies. Immediately. Then, you're going to turn over all of your documents to the Sheriff.”

The stallion folded his forelegs. “And why would I do that? You don't seem understand how things work in San Palomino. If you want to shake us down, then fine, but you go after the ponies with the actual bits.”

“Ahem,” a mare coughed, stepping up to the two stallions. She had a light brown coat, a red mane, a wide brimmed hat, and a shiny new star on her chest. “Youse gotta have some kinda screw loose, pal. Ain't youse heard the news?”

“News? The heck you talking about?” said the foreman.

“I rather doubt an unregistered mine gets newspapers,” Duke Pride grumbled.

Sheriff Babs Seed spat on the ground. “Th’ old Duke got his sorry butt locked up. Dis here is the new Duke of San Palomino, and he ain't on the take. I wouldn'ta signed up with him if he was. And youse should’ve bowed your head first thing after coming up to him.”

The stallion’s eyes went wide, then he cringed while clamping his temples with his forehooves. “You have got to be kidding me… Why didn't they send a message?”

The duke straightened his shirt. “Sheriff, I think it's time we broke into the office and had a look at things..”

“Wait!” The stallion held up his forehooves. “I can't stop you, so I'll open it up. But—”

Babs spat again.”If youse try to tell me ‘I was only following orders,’ I'm going to lock you up with nothing but stale bread to eat, coward.”

“No!” He yelled, then sighed. “You don't understand. I'm one of the miners. All the foremen are. I started work just a bit ago, and my straw got called almost right away. See, we just take turns every few weeks. It's the gryphons that tell us to ‘make sure things are dealt with.’ We don't get a lot of specific instructions, just occasional shipments of bits, food, and water.”

“Shipments from who?” The duke looked at the large building to his right, which had a small rail depot attached. “Do they have their own locomotives?”

“Nah, it's just United Pony Shipments. They come by every few days, drop a shipment off, and leave with some ore.”

Babs scratched her head. “That ought to be traceable. Sorta. It's the biggest private freight company, full stop. So I betcha they got records.”

The duke grunted in agreement. “And deniability. They've no way to scrutinize every transaction for issues like this. There's not going to be any proof that they knew this wasn't on the level — and indeed there's an excellent chance that they didn't. But it's a lead.

“Sheriff, you are directed to seize this mine and everything in it. All security personnel are to be held and interviewed to see what they know, and charged with unlawful detention for that stunt with the lock on the gates. All workers are likewise to be interviewed and statements taken before being released.

“This entire place is evidence, and a crime scene. Only deputies and Royal Police with business here are allowed access.”

“You can't!” The stallion ran to get in between them. “You're killing us! It may not be much, but at least we have enough to get food here!”

The duke raised an eyebrow. “I'm killing you? My staff has analyzed the intelligence available here and found some trends that suggest otherwise. Follow me.”

He led them just outside of the mine's fenced area, where Moondust was meditating. A complex magic circle had formed on the ground under her, purple in colour and featuring a crescent moon. Her horn was shining with a light that made the duke happy he invested in a new pair of sunglasses.

The duke held up a foreleg for the others to stay back. “Moondust, you may complete your spell at any time.”

“Understood.” Moondust stood and rose her staff to the sky before slamming it halfway into the ground. “Those who have departed on their final journey, show us your hoof prints!”

A wave of purple splashed out from the circle, changing the tint of the dirt for kilometres around the spell. As it spread, points of light erupted out from the ground, swirling and burning in a specific region near the mine. The points grew to form poles several meters tall, and the tops of those blossomed into flowers in the shape of crescent moons.

At the end of the spell, there were at least a hundred spectral flowers wafting in the breeze, if not far more. The duke couldn't really tell from his angle.

“A mass grave.” Sheriff Seed seared. “A motherbucking mass grave. Somepony needs to hang for this.”

“Indeed.” Moondust wobbled to her hooves. “The spell wouldn't work for one or two. Dozens, at a minimum, must be buried here for it to function at all. But with this many? ‘Twas trivial. Mr. Goals was telling the truth.”

The foreman pony looked like he was ready to soil himself. “I didn't know…” He squeaked. “You have to believe me!”

“This one is impudent, and culpable.” Hephaestus grew warm, summoning power into the two horseshoes on Earthen Pride's forelegs. “Shall we deal with him now?”

No. To fulfill our promise, we must do this lawfully. The duke eyed the foreman, drilling his gaze into the pony's skull. “I don't have to believe anything anypony says. I'll let the evidence decide. For now, as you're the one in charge, you're under arrest and the mine is seized. We'll see if any company comes forward to claim it and responsibility for the failures here. If not, I'll have it sold to the highest bidder to help fund the new Duchy government. Sheriff, if you would?”

Babs Seed slapped hobbles on him in one smooth, lightning fast action. They immediately glowed with a seal blocking the strength he would have had as an earth pony.

The foreman's eyes turned into pinpricks leaking out nothing but despair and disbelief.

Sheriff Seed gave him a light smack to get him walking, and read off the standard rights as they walked. “You are under arrest by order of the Duchy. The Crown grants you the absolute right to remain silent and refuse to self-incriminate. Everything you henceforth say and do can and will be used against you in a court of law.

“The Crown grants you the absolute right of access to an attorney to serve in your defense. If you are impoverished, one will be provided to you free of charge. Likewise, if you are not fluent in Equish Common, the Crown grants you the absolute right to have an interpreter present, free of charge, at all legal proceedings.

“Do you understand these rights as I've read them to you?”

If the foreman said anything, the duke didn't hear it. His attention turned to the mine he'd just put under control of the Crown.

“Deputy!” He flagged down one of his new officers, who flapped his wings and glided over.

“Yes, sir?” he asked.

“In the trunk of my chariot is a stack of papers. They're job application forms for the San Palomino Department of Infrastructure. As you interview ponies, those who aren't culpable for major crimes should be given an application. Help them fill them out if they need it.”

The deputy took off his blue cap and scratched his head. “This place was a black site, and you want to give the workers here jobs?”

The duke slowly made for his chariot while the deputy followed. “I've little doubt that most of them were simply trying to earn a living out here. Even if an individual has a… checkered past, let's say, I won't hold it against them for low-level work.

“Quite frankly, if I were to be so strict, I'd never be able to get positions filled. This is San Palomino, after all. And one needn't be a saint to lift a hammer. I'll save the tough scrutiny for the executive positions.”

The deputy nodded. “I understand, sir. I'll see that the miners get applications and transport to Sierra Maredre. Will there be anything else?”

The duke’s lips curled up into a smile. “Yes, I think it's time I took a trip to Los Caballos. The stuffed shirts that own these mines need to be shown their proper place.”

Twilight finished her list of everything in the hidden lab just as the rest of the crew arrived to haul it all away. While they were being vetted by a stone-faced Cloud Burner at the entrance, her plan was forming. She was about to start organizing an orderly, well-documented extraction of the evidence when somepony raised the question that she was totally not just trying to avoid.

“What do we do with the changelings?” one of the engineers asked.

She sighed and massaged her temples. “I don't know yet. I adjusted their restraints and took out the spikes and IVs, and I applied some first aid. They shouldn't be in as much pain now, so hopefully we won't get more of them rushing in.

“But, it could be all for nothing if I destroy the magic circles blocking their connection to the hive. For all I know they'll self-destruct as soon as I they get Chrysalis back in their heads.”

The combat engineer blinked. “Um, ‘self-destruct’? Like, commit suicide? We could just keep them restrained.”

“Won't stop them from having their queen force them to blow themselves up like a balloon and explode. I've seen it happen, and it isn't pretty. Chrysalis is an absolute sicko.”

The engineer, who was covered in grey dust, somehow turned five shades whiter. “Celestia! You've gotta be kidding.”

“No, I'm not. Let's get everything else out first, and I'll…ask Celestia for advice.” Twilight took out another sheet to write a note to her teacher, slowly wandering over to the entrance as she wrote.

“Okay, everypony!” she said as she finished her writing and turned back to the list. “Here's what's going to happen. There's a half dozen Royal Police wagons up there, ready to haul this stuff out. I need you all to bag one piece of evidence, get in line, and show me what you have and your IDs, one at a time. I'll log it as we go. When you drop it off in the wagon, they'll log it in there, and you'll come back here for another round. We keep going until the room is clear. Ready? Okay, begin!”

Over the first ten ponies that came up, her ear was twitching once per few seconds. If wasn't a physical touch, but a heavy looming presence that tickled her left eardrum.

“Wait a moment, ponies. Cloud?”

“Hmmm?” Cloud looked around like he was trying to figure out what he did wrong. “You… don't want me to stand guard?”

Twilight pulled out a sheet of paper and scribbled a note on it. “No. Take this, go to a telegraph station, and send it to Canterlot so Celestia gets it. Nopony else sees it, clear?”

He stuffed it in his saddlebag and snapped off a salute. “Understood, Lady Sparkle. I shall return momentarily.” Dust spiralled through the air in his wake.

Gonna have to get him to be a bit less formal. But that is later. Right now, I have a list to finish. “Next!”

The process went smoothly from there, Twilight categorizing and organizing every last scrap of evidence they could find. It was a small mountain of stuff that, when put together, would hopefully reveal the truth of what happened here. However, there was one gaping hole in the truth the objects revealed.

We still don't know who worked here, Twilight thought as she chewed on her pen.

It's still a victory that we put a stop to it. And the magic circles here could give us insights into magic that could screw with the changelings.”

Yes, but that research is tainted. With blood. Literally, in this case. The ethics behind it are… dubious at best. Even if using it saves lives, it feels like saying the ends justify the means. If there's anything Celestia has taught me, it's that thinking such things can lead one down a very dark path.

Twilight felt Aurora start to respond, but both went silent at the warm light blooming from outside. The dust in the air danced in pools of light, and they both knew who had arrived.

“Princess!” Twilight called out through the entrance. “Over here!”

Sure enough, Princess Celestia stepped into view, her hooves barely making a sound on the tunnel floor. “My apologies for the light show, Twilight. It is dark down here, and there are wards that do not like my magic. I am… pushing back, for lack of a better term.”

The soldiers in the room dropped into a bow, save for Cloud Burner, who was following behind the Princess.

Twilight smiled, her insides settling into the warm feeling Celestia was projecting. “As you were, everypony. In fact, drop your evidence bags and file out for a while.” She waited for them to leave before shooting a glance at Cloud Burner and adding to Celestia, “I see you found my new hire, too.”

“Indeed, we bumped into each other at the entrance. He was gracious enough to show me the way.”

Cloud Burner bowed his head slightly. “It was nothing, Your Highness. I am still bound to you, after all. Your will is expressed through my actions.”

Princess Celestia responded to him with a warm smile. “Not for long, I should expect. Though that's for later. Right now, I need to see…”

The Princess poked her head into the chamber and looked around, eyeing the machines, wards, and naturally, the changelings.

“Summerlands preserve us,” she whispered. “If I ever find out who did this, I'll need to let Luna deal with them. I don't think I'd be able to control the flames.”

Twilight grumbled. “This is a perversion of science. If I ever find them they'll have my flames to deal with.”

“Come,” Celestia said. “We need to talk in private.”

Twilight followed her out of the immediate area, still in the tunnels but away from the wards.

When they were far enough, Celestia lit her horn, swallowing them both in the light of teleportation. When it faded, they were on a cloud far above a rolling plain.

“Cloud meeting.” Twilight swallowed. “How bad did I screw up?”

The Princess seemed to choke back a laugh. “You mean not telling me what you were doing in Manehatten?”

Twilight put back her ears, and closed her eyes to hold back the tears.

“Luna talked to me about what you told her. It didn't take long to piece together what you were trying to do. I'm not angry, so dry your eyes. Quite frankly, I'm impressed.”

Twilight blinked. “Huh?”

Celestia leaned over and scooped her into her wing. “I didn't expect you to set off on your own so quickly.”

Twilight blinked again. “What?”

“It’s only normal for an alicorn to want to be somewhat independent. It… may be one of the reasons Luna and I are so often adversarial. Or it could just be because we’re sisters; it’s hard to tell. Either way, I am happy you took the initiative, even if I am saddened by the fact that you did not choose to include me.

“Going forward, I shall give you more latitude in where you go and what mission you wish to take. But that’s the future.

“Right now, I am most concerned about the changelings we found. It would be obscene to keep them as they are now. Which leaves us, really, with only two choices. Execution, or setting them free.”

A high-altitude gust sent ice up Twilight’s spine, cutting right through her coat. “Are those really our only options? I don’t especially care for either—especially since they are basically one and the same.

“They were tortured, Celestia. Changelings or no, that isn’t something I can condone, and as they are, they aren’t a threat. How can I justify killing them at this point?”

Celestia pulled in a breath and let it out slow. “I understand your concerns, which is why we are here. This is something that deserves serious consideration, which is why I’m going to get the rest of us.

Twilight opened her mouth, only to have her mentor vanish in a flash of light. Rest of us? Doesn’t she just mean Luna? I hate it when she’s cryptic like that. She sat down on the cloud, taking in the dry, cold air and listening to the empty wind rush around her.

The sky above her was clear as crystal, and the world below was wild and untamed. Wherever they were, it hadn’t been touched by civilization. There were no city lights, no roads or rails. There weren’t even any pegasus cloud homes one could often see at the edge of civilization. The fields below were a forest of prairie grasses with little spots of trees growing where water pooled up.

She brushed her mane from her face, while thoughts drifted back to the lab she found. The fate of those five changelings, tortured and experimented on, was now directly in her hooves.

The light returned, and Celestia had returned with Luna in tow, along with three others: Princess Cadence, Prince Blueblood, and Shining Armor.

“Haven’t had this happen in a while, Auntie.” Blueblood wiped sweat off an unusually pale brow. “What happened that requires all of the royal family to be whisked away?”

The Princess silently looked to Twilight, waiting through a pregnant pause.

“Oh! Right, I should…” Twilight gulped. “What happened was that I found a secret lab under Manehatten. A lab that the changelings were desperate to reach. After we put a stop to their attack, I investigated it, and found five changelings captured and bound in a twisted version of a science lab. They've been tortured, experimented on, and had their blood harvested. The only reason they’re still alive is due to a series of magic circles made from that blood that’s probably cutting them off from the hive.

“We’ve already removed everything from the lab, save for the changelings and the equipment binding them there. Given the intricacies of the wards and spells there, it’s likely that moving them at all will re-establish their link to the hive. I found out firsthoof that Chrysalis would sooner order a changeling to self-destruct than allow it to be captured. The moment we move them, we’re going to have an enormous mess instead of actionable intelligence sources.

“So, we have a choice to discuss. Do we let them go, or execute them?”

Obsidian almost growled. “What’s to discuss? Execute them. They aren’t individuals. They are an extension of Chrysalis’ will. If we let them go, they’re either going to get killed by the hive anyway, or they’ll come back at us and foalnap other ponies.”

Celestia drooped into a sigh. “It is not something I normally support, but, in this case I agree. Execution is the best option to protect our ponies.”

Cadence’s jaw dropped. “Auntie!”

“I’m sorry, Cadence.” Celestia stared off into the distance. “It’s the most logical path. If they return, they will just add to the Hive’s assets. It will mean more ponies will be hurt. If they are to be killed by the Hive, then we can gift them a painless death, unlike their ‘self-destruction’ method.”

The cloud underneath Princess Luna shimmered, foretelling the cold that came from the air around her. “I could not disagree more. Influenced by the hive or not, they have lives, Sister. Lives we should respect enough to see that what has been done to them by ponies is wrong.”

“I had a feeling you would say that, Luna.” Celestia slumped to the cloud surface. “But even if what other ponies did was wrong, would we not be abandoning our station to let them go and allow them to harm others? That is what will happen if they live.”

“Our station is more than protecting our ponies physically.” Luna placed a hoof on her chest. “Our actions speak for and guide civilization itself. Tia, thou art a beacon. One far brighter than myself. Executing these changelings will inevitably nudge the course of the country. Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but nudge the country it will. Doubly so since we can't keep this a secret. The changelings will know, and will be fine leaking it if the Hive feels it to be in their interest.”

Prince Blueblood took a step forward. “I don't normally say this, but I side with Princess Luna on this manner.”

Celestia huffed from her nose. “Do you now, nephew?” she asked, placing special emphasis on the familial title.

Luna stuck out her tongue at her. “He's my nephew, too, Tia.”

“What I mean is,” Blueblood interjected, “that we do have to view the moral angle here.”

“You mean letting these things go hurt other ponies?” Obsidian said through clenched teeth.

Blueblood blurted out a scoff so large he nearly choked on it. “Take off your purity badge, hypocrite.”

A flame lit in Obsidian’s eyes, and Cadence stepped between the stallions, though she saved her stare for Blueblood. “Cousin, explain yourself.”

“Gladly. We use a cost-benefit analysis every single day as rulers. How many died in San Palomino on our watch while the nobility scarfed its vast resources down their collective, gross gullets? Hmmm? Thousands, certainly.

“The justification? Our economy desperately needed those resources. Without them, shortages would have inevitably led to mass instability years ago, and more could have died. So for the sake of speed, we opened the frontier to anypony who wanted to make a few bits. Uncontrolled anarchy took hold, and look what happened.”

Blueblood broke into a laugh, though a tear had streaked down his face. “And now, when we have to chance to spare a few lives, you worry about what they'll do to us? Changelings? Five are a drop in a bucket, a burp in a tornado. If we kill them, Chrysalis will see four times that many eggs hatch in moments.”

Obsidian put down his ears and narrowed his eyes. “And she'll have to spend resources on those eggs.”

“Bull plockey.” Blueblood wiped his face with a cloth. “Raising a foal, er, larva in a hive mind has to be the easiest damn thing ever. And RGIS knows they need very little physical resources to survive. Love is that powerful, and we have billions of ponies in our nation, in cities so large that walls have become too unwieldy to use centuries ago.

“So I say let them go. Kill them when they try something and our police or our Grand Mage inevitably find them. I’d rather take such a negligible risk in the face of losing our soul.”

Obsidian huffed, but otherwise said nothing.

“So then,” Celestia said after a pregnant pause. “Three to two. But the pony most involved has yet to vote. Twilight, your thoughts?”

Twilight gulped. “I, uh…” A chill ran down her. All too suddenly, she was that nervous little filly she remembered, blanket over her head, curled up by a radiator. Lost in her own room, not knowing what to do about something until she asked the pony she trusted most for advice.

Only this time, her soul was rejecting what advice had already been given. Instead, she saw the face of Moon Petal. A silly, happy member of Luna's Night Guard, serving the Crown even when the so-called natural order would normally never even consider it.

“I can't…” She squeaked.

“Hmmm?” Celestia tilted her head just a tad, and aimed an ear at her.

Twilight closed her eyes, pulled in air, held it, and counted. We have to listen to her… One, two. But she's wrong this time. Three, four. She's always been there for us. Five, six. Helped to guide us. Seven, eight. But this time… Nine, ten.

This time, she's wrong. Twilight let out the breath, slowly, pushing out all the air, along with the fear.

“You're wrong, Princess.” Twilight looked her mentor in her shocked eyes. “I won't execute someone utterly at my mercy. Doubly since they don't have full control of their own actions.

“I've no trouble killing a changeling in battle. That's a situation where I must defend myself. But this isn't battle. They're restrained, cut off from the hive, tortured, and barely alive as it is. If the hive decides to kill them anyway, fine, I've zero control over that.

“But I do have control over my own actions, and I absolutely refuse to execute them or endorse their deaths. Period.”

Celestia watched her for an age, the others silent and walled off from the emotional aura around the two. Her wing lifted an inch off her body, frozen stiff even within her warm ethereal mane. “What would you have me do, then?”

Twilight stood up, almost brandishing the pride in her chest, and pretended she had wings to spread. “I wouldn’t have you do anything. I’ll do it. I started this investigation; this is my mess. I’m going to clean it up.”

Celestia stood up, and took a step towards her. “Very well, Lady Sparkle. Our course, and the consequences, are now on your shoulders.”

Twilight nodded. “Just as it should be.”

An entire cadre of ponies were following behind Twilight through the tunnels under Manehatten. All the evidence in the secret laboratory had already been removed, save for the changelings and the measures taken to bind them to that room. Since they couldn’t be moved without connecting them to the hive, the Grand Mage had to take her plan to them.

The combat engineers and investigators made way for them, and one by one they filed into the room. Her, followed by four surgeons and a dozen nurses, all pushing in medical supplies.

Twilight put her cart in the corner, and then stepped into the middle of the ring of captives. “I’m sure you know who I am. The ponies who did this to you were not acting under the authority of the Crown. At this point, I very much doubt you care, but I had to make this clear. The battle we fought earlier did not need to happen. Had the hive talked to us, let us know you were here, undergoing such torture, I would have immediately intervened.”

The changelings just hissed at her, squirming on their beds and in their restraints. Even without pupils, hate radiated from their eyes.

“But that was then. I’m here now, to deal with the situation at hoof. The Crown has decided to give you a choice. We will not execute you, nor keep you captive. Should you choose, we shall escort you out of this demonic lab and teleport you to the edge of the wastes. You will rejoin the hive, and no doubt meet whatever fate — good or bad — that Chrysalis has in store for you. I should mention that one changeling I nearly captured earlier on in my mission was forced to self-destruct. It wasn’t pretty.

“So, we’re offering you an alternative. If you so desire, you can join us instead.”

That only brought forth more hissing, and two even attempted to spit at her, though both fell well short.

“If you decide to join us, our doctors will safely remove your horn. You will lose the ability to shapeshift. You will lose the ability to use unicorn-style magic. And you will lose your connection to the hivemind. However, you will also gain independence from it. We will shelter you. You will be given a means to disguise yourself, sustenance for your unique appetite, and an open place in pony society.”

One of the changelings spoke in an alien tongue, a screeching that scraped against Twilight’s eardrums. The specifics weren’t important; the profane insult in the message got through clear enough.

I don’t know why I thought this would work, Twilight grumbled to herself. But, at least I’m giving them the choice. “Well, I know what one of you thinks. The rest of you? Stay silent if you want to rejoin the hive. If you want to come with us, speak up now. It’s your last chance.”

The changelings did their best to turn up their noses in unison, though strapped down as they were, their success was limited. They all stared up at the ceiling, pretending to ignore her.

Twilight’s guts twisted into a knot. Figures. “All right then. If that’s your choice, I will respect it. For your safety, were going to try to move you into the tunnel with the blood circles intact, and —”

“I’ll join you.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at the changeling to her left, and her breath froze. “What did you say?”

The changeling shivered under the furious gaze of the others, rattling her metal pod. “I’m scared of her. Of Chrysalis. I know what she’s done. What she’s made me do. I don’t know if they have those memories right now, but I do. Even before that, I’ve always been afraid of her. Of her power. Of her stare.”

Green tears streaked on her face, the straps holding her creaking as she tried to curl up into a ball. “And when I get scared, she frightens me even more. On purpose, I mean. And the others approve when she does. I can feel it. I don’t want to feel that anymore.”

The others hissed at the frightened drone, screeching and spitting at her, wings buzzing against the bindings. The scared one tried to flinch, lowering her head as much as she could and squeezing shut her eyes.

“Enough!” Twilight lit her horn, throwing up barriers in front of the four angry changelings. One after another, walls of purple cut her and the frightened one off from the others. She walked towards the scared one, each step a quiet hush to the outside world. “Are you sure about this? Once done, this is absolutely permanent. No going back, no matter what.”

The changeling nodded. “I’m more scared of her than I am of you or the ponies that did this to us. You don’t understand what it’s like to be in the hive, when you’re terrified and everyone knows it and looks down on you for it. You can feel their disappointment. Right in your heart.”

Twilight gave her a smile that she hoped washed away the fear in a tide of warmth. “What is your name?”

The changeling sniffed. “I… don’t have one. Drones don’t have names.”

Twilight waved over the doctors, and the anesthesiologist immediately put an air mask on the patient. Nurses cleansed the floor around them and unpacked equipment, setting up a makeshift operating room in moments.

The Grand Mage leaned in next to the changeling’s ears. “Take in a deep breath and think of one. When you wake up, you’ll forever be beyond Chrysalis’ reach.”