The Changeling queen sat upon her throne, her eyes closed in a meditative stance. Around her, three changeling princesses bowed to their mother.
“Do you feel it, my daughters?” the Queen asked softly. “The world is changing.”
“Darkness is creeping back into the North,” the eldest replied.
“Rumors grow of a shadow,” the second said.
“Whispers of a nameless fear,” the third added.
The queen’s eyes opened. “The time is at hand.” She turned to the middle daughter. “Scorpia; inform your son that we can wait no longer. We must confer with the Howlite Howler.”
Scorpia rose with a bow. “It will be done, my mother and queen,” she declared, flitting away on her beetle-like wings.
Queen Vespa watched her daughter leave, a slow smile spreading across her snout. Lintra, the eldest, tilted her head at her mother’s grin.
“What is it?” the eldest princess asked.
Queen Vespa’s grin did not fade. “For so long,” she mused with a chuckle. “Ponies have shaped our fortunes. Yet now the time comes for diamond dogs to take the role of heroes.”
Shiva knew she was being an idiot. As she watched the lights from her magic dance across the walls, she knew everything that had just happened last night – heck, the last several nights - was probably wrong on a tactical level. Yet, each time, cautious thought and worry had fled her mind. And only now, as Shiva lay twined in Luke’s arms, did the worried thoughts and concerns decide to re-emerge.
“You alright?” Luke asked, feeling the tension in her muscles.
“Just… wondering where we go from here,” Shiva replied.
Luke chuckled. “We lead Outer Haven,” he replied. “With the gems we’ve been finding, magic can be implanted into spears and drills. We could sweep this entire region for diamonds in less than a few years.”
“And if something else crops up?” Shiva asked. “The ponies. The changelings. Rogue Diamond Dogs." Her ears flattened. "That weird gathering of magic in the north?”
Luke smiled, cupping her head in his hands. “We’ll take them as they come,” he replied. “We built this life for ourselves. No one’s taking it away from us.”
His words had an effect; Shiva felt the worries and fears leaving her mind. And even for a moment, Shiva was able to go back to that relief she had felt earlier that night. When she could just set aside her worries, and be alive for a little bit.
“Alpha? Alpha Shiva!” Skippy yelped, skidding to a halt outside their den. “Alpha, you… OH!”
“You mind?” Luke asked, as the diamond dog backed up, turning his head away.
“Sorry, just...” Skippy gulped, his face turning red as he tried to conceal his grin. “Someone needs to see you.”
Shiva rolled her eyes. “Can’t they see us later?” she asked, briefly worried that she sounded petulant.
Skippy chuckled. “Unfortunately, no,” he said.
Shiva leaned her head back against Luke’s chest with a sigh. “Can you at least… give us a moment.”
Skippy shrugged and backed out. Luke grumbled.
“Whoever’s bothering us at this hour,” Luke joked. “I almost hope they’re hostile.”
Shiva chuckled, pulling herself off her lover and tossing him his armor. “Be careful what you wish for,” she said, reaching for her own armor; a bright white diamond plated thing studded with blood red rubies and silvery pearls.
Little did she know how soon her words would come to fruition.
“So,” Shiva said, adjusting her armor as Skippy led them into the snow. “Who seeks an audience with Outer Haven?”
“Someone… unique,” Skippy replied.
“Whoever they are,” Luke grumbled. “Let em know we’re more than willing to rip em apart if they’re hostile.”
“Luke,” Shiva chastised. “We don’t even know these guys. Let’s try for a polite first impression... then go for the threats if the polite front doesn't work.”
“That would be... preferable,” Skippy admitted.
Eventually, the group reached a section of snow and ice; perfect for meeting. With a nod from Shiva, Luke and his Iron Paws moved into a defensive position. Skippy crossed over the clearing, glancing around.
“Hm,” Shiva said, keeping herself carefully close to her Spear Dogs. “So much for being 'eager to see us?'”
“They're just being cautious,” Skippy replied, turning back to her. “Alpha, before we go any further… you know the changelings weren’t all controlled by Chrysalis, right? There are other Hives out there.”
Shiva’s ears flattened. Her eyes narrowed, darting to the rocks behind Skippy. She sighed, and waved her claw, causing the Iron Paws to brandish their weapons.
“Alright,” she barked into the snowy wasteland. “Come on out.”
“No, look, Shiva,” Skippy started to say. “They’re not…”
“I know,” Shiva assured him. She turned back to the clearing and spoke again in a gentler voice. “Please. Come on out.”
For a moment, there was nothing. Then, the rocks burst into green fire.
The changelings that appeared, however, weren’t sickly like Chrysalis’. They were fuller, and lacked the holes in their legs. Green frills arced down their backs, and their eyes shined brightly like flashlights. The largest of them had bottle blue pupils like Chrysalis, and a frill that resembled a mane tied back in a bun. But unlike her evil counterpart, this changeling's eyes sparkled with a kind light.
“Alpha Shiva,” she said, bowing her head. “I am Princess Scorpia of Vespin Hive. It’s an honor to finally meet you.”
Shiva blinked, surprised at the politeness, before inclining her head as well. “Pleasure’s all mine,” she replied. “Though… I gotta ask: you’re not going to try and make us go after the ponies again, right?”
Scorpia rolled her eyes with a grin.
“Shiva…” Skippy hissed.
“Hey, I gotta be sure,” Shiva said.
“I promise, Shiva,” Scorpia replied. “We’re not dragging you into any fights.” She glanced at Skippy. “In fact… we’ve been trying to protect you for a lot longer than you know.”
“What?” Shiva asked. But then her eyes turned to Skippy. Her ears flattened. “No way.”
Skippy shrugged sheepishly.
“Wait, what?” Luke demanded. “Are you saying…?”
“No way,” Shiva repeated. “I’d have smelled dishonesty on you! I’d have smelled it!”
“That’s kinda the thing,” Skippy replied. “I wasn’t lying when I told you who I was.”
“But… if you’re…” Shiva stammered.
“I’m still Skippy,” he replied. “I still love books; I still love military tactics. The only thing that really changes is whether I look like this…” Green fire burst around him, and in seconds, he looked like one of the changelings before them, though there was a clear family resemblance between him and Scorpia. “Or this.”
Shiva shook her head, still disbelieving. “But… you said Chrysalis didn't... There are other hives, right? Chrysalis wasn't…?”
“Chrysalis was a tyrannical fool,” Princess Scorpia assured her. “And the world is better off without her. Changelings need love from others, yes. But kidnapping other animals and force them into cocoons. All that’ll draw out is fear, and that’s not nearly as effective as love.”
Shiva glanced at Skippy. “So… how were you doing it then?” she asked.
Skippy and Scorpia exchanged a glance, but after a moment’s thought, Scorpia nodded.
“We strengthen communities,” Skippy explained. “Help each other grow stronger. Then, we draw from the love everyone generates for each other, and take small caches back for our hives. Never enough to hurt; just enough to keep ourselves alive.” He shrugged sadly. "Shiva, I truly wish I could've been honest with you from the start. I do. But, with Chrysalis planning to use you, I feared going to you as I was would've only brewed suspicion."
Shiva pursed her lips, but did not protest. The truth was, she could easily understand his reasonings. And despite the shock and different appearance, she could still smell the same kind aura that he had the day they had met. It was hard to stay angry at someone that still felt so... genuine.
Scorpia nodded solemnly. "And right now, we do not have the luxury of mistrusting each other." Her face grew serious and solemn. "Something’s brewing on the horizon. Something bad."
Shiva's gaze crept to the North, where an ominous blizzard sparked with strange magic.
"Right," she admitted. "Whatever is brewing up north can't be good for anyone."
"Even if you didn’t know it," Scorpia said. "You’ve helped us a great deal. And we want to return the favor: to try and help keep your pack safe.”
Shiva’s tail wagged, and she chuckled softly. She turned back to Luke.
“You see this, guys?” she asked. “If Chrysalis had approached us like this, she’d be ruling Equestria right now.”
Scorpia shuddered at that. “Please, don’t joke about that,” she asked. “Princess Celestia nearly sent out a raid against our hives the first time Chrysalis fought her. It was thanks to my grandmother that Celestia chose to spare us. And Chrysalis attacking a second time…”
“Doesn’t put your group in a good light,” Shiva guessed. “Right.” She shook off a small scattering of snow that was dusting her armor. “So, do you have any idea what this threat on the horizon is?”
Scorpia nodded. “We’ve heard stories; legends of an empire of crystal."
"Crystal?" Luke asked eagerly.
"That sounds cool!" Duke, one of the Iron Paws, said.
"Ruled by a master of dark magic.”
The Diamond Dogs' faces fell. "Slightly less cool," Duke admitted.
“They say that the empire was banished into the snow by the alicorns," Skippy said. "The dark lord flung into an abyss of ice.”
“But not even alicorn magic can last forever,” Scorpia said. “And if the dark lord rises, your pack will likely be his first target.”
Shiva’s eyes narrowed, and she shot the gathering of magic a challenging glare.
“Then show us where this ‘dark lord’ is coming back,” she said. “And when he shows his face, we’ll make sure he stays dead this time.” She lifted her claw. “Together?”
Scorpia nodded and clasped her hoof to Shiva’s claw. “Together,” she promised.