Chapter 43: Bonds
“We'll rest for an hour, and then we'll be moving on.” The small group of ponies dropped in exhaustion. Lustrous Revolt surveyed the area carefully. She had been driving the reflections with an hour break for every twelve hours of walking. It was a grueling pace, but they had to catch up to the Elements of Harmony. They had lost Pinkamina, which in itself was bad, but if lost track the ponies from Reality, they'd lose everything they had worked for. Lustrous was getting desperate. All of her tactics had proven fruitless. Imprisonment and intimidation had done nothing to make the others submissive, but she could not be stopped. She might have to change her tactics, but she'd find a way.
Temperament retrieved some flint and steel from her bag, and began to build a fire, striking the tools together, sparks flying into the tinder she had brought with her.
“No, we don't want to draw attention from ourselves.”
Temperament looked up. “I'm all for no-fuss, but are we really to rest in the snow without a fire?”
Jackie, who was leaning against a tree, nodded grimly. “You think we're the only ones out here? The only ones trying to hunt down the most powerful magic to enter this world in decades?”
Shuddercry hefted her war-hammer. “Yeah, but we're also one of the best fighting groups. I say let them come. It's good experience.”
“No point in experience if we die.”
“Just what are we expecting to see?”
Lustrous Revolt stepped into the middle of the discussion. “Could be anything. There are enough natural threats around without any intelligent ones.”
Temperament put her tinder and her fire-starters back into their box. “Fine.” She hunkered down into her heavy plate armor, trying to maintain what warmth she could.
Spectral Slash melted out of the shadows, startling Jackie, who had instinctively drawn her tommy gun. “You're lucky I didn't fill you with lead just then.”
“You say luck as if it was based on chance.”
“Keep it up and you'll get the bullets anyways.”
“Save them for the enemy.”
Spectral Slash fluttered over to Lustrous Revolt. “We're about three hours behind them, as long as there isn't another group of six ponies and a dragon. Thank heavens the snow isn't falling hard.”
“Yes, but that could change at any minute. That's why we need to catch up as soon as possible.”
Spectral Slash nodded grimly. “With any luck, they'll have stopped for the night, and shouldn't wake up for a couple more hours. We might even catch them before the sun rises.”
“Good. Let the others know.”
Slash nodded softly, the disappeared quickly. A few moments later, Jackie yelped and cursed Slash once again.
Lustrous Revolt sat down. She let a brief sigh of relief escape. As hard as she pushed the others, she was pushing herself even further. She hadn't slept in three days, and had only managed to stay sane through brief meditation stints.
She got to work organizing her thoughts. They had to act quickly, when they caught up to their doubles. But even now, Lustrous was beginning to doubt her plan. Pinkamina had never fully explained how to merge personalities. And if they managed to figure out the exact method, could they really overthrow the ponies from Reality? Pinkamina had fallen so easily. Admittedly, she was the Element of Despair, which didn't exactly cultivate willpower, but if it had happened once, it just might happen again. Who else might be a weak link?
Temperament was likely the kindest out of all of them, as her name might imply, but she was vicious on the battlefield. She knew her place and she stood strong by it. Jackie did as she was told without much complaint. Shuddercry... hah. As if there was a chance the timid Reality pony could stand against Shuddercry's sheer personality. But what of Spectral Slash?
She was quiet. Reserved. A drunkard. Always hidden behind the physical and metaphorical mask of hers. She was unparalleled in her field, but maybe she was hiding something behind all that bravado. Lustrous made a mental note to watch her, before turning her thoughts to herself.
Of course she wouldn't be overpowered by Twilight Sparkle. But something made her question if she was answering too quickly. Twilight had outsmarted her once and escaped her grasp. And, as much as Lustrous hated to admit, Twilight had the support of her friends. Surely the fleeing ponies were not as strong as their battle-hardened trackers, but they could rely on the false strength created by their bonds of, dare she think it, friendship. In the Forgotten Realm, the best you could hope for was respect. Or fear.
Not that Lustrous hadn't tried to make friends. She physically jerked at the pain of the memories. No, she was better off standing alone at the top, than surrounded by others at the bottom. It set her apart, made her more worthwhile in comparison. Being the very best made her life worth living.
If she were any less, she wasn't certain she could carry on.
A rustling bush at the edge of the clearing broke her out of her trance. She jumped into a defensive position. Curses! She had been so caught up in her thoughts she hadn't remembered to put up a proximity ward before resting!
With a cry of fury, Lustrous leaped into the bushes, tackling a pony-like figure.
“Bwuh-” she stammered. No, they had left long ago. What were they doing back now?
The changeling shrieked ferociously underneath her. Reigning in her emotions, Lustrous Revolt decapitated it with a psionic blast. The shriek must have alerted its companions. If there was something she had learned as a child, it was that changelings never traveled alone.
She darted back over the bush, her travel companions at full alert, looking to her for an explanation.
“Run! Changeling ambush!”
She darted past them as they registered what she had said. The group took off at a gallop, Lustrous quickly triangulating their position.
“We'll make a break for the Abbey! They're our only hope at holding the changelings off, if it's anything larger than a scouting patrol.”
The others nodded in reply. They tore up the nearest hill to get their bearings and to see if they were being followed.
They huddled together, five pairs of eyes scanning furiously. “Over there!” exclaimed Spectral Slash. The others looked to where she was pointing. In the dim moonlight, they could see dozens– no, hundreds of dark shapes spilling out of the forest.
They began running again, with no need for a verbal cue. The odds were enough.
“Do you think we can out-pace them?” called Jackie over the moving air.
“Not forever. HOO!” Temperament huffed at the bitterly cold air. “It's a good thing I've been practicing running in my armor.”
“We only need to make it to the abbey.” Lustrous Revolt snapped.
“What of our quarry?”
“We'll find them after we've taken care of ourselves. The abbey is close enough to where they seemed to be headed.”
A dark, chilling laugh echoed out from behind them. Lustrous risked a glance backwards. Flying above the swarm was the queen of the swarm. “Chrysalis.” Lustrous Revolt looked away, not allowing anyone to see the fear in her eyes. “This is their main force, my companions. If we get caught, they'll likely just keep feasting on us every time we revive. Not exactly how I wanted to spend the rest of the winter.”
A few of the front-runners managed to catch up. They dove for the fleeing ponies, teeth bared, soulless eyes intent on their prey. Temperament shouted a battlecry, drawing her longsword telekinetically. Without slowing at all, she dispatched the first two changelings with ease, their corpses tumbling as they fell, dyeing the snow a putrid green. The last changeling managed to dodge the swinging blade, and attempted to latch onto the blacksmith. Temperament turned at the last moment, catching the changeling's teeth with her shoulder guard. The force was enough to put it out of commission, but she had lost valuable time. The main pack drawing ever nearer, she sheathed her sword once more, sprinting to catch up with the others.
“Oh, wonderful.” Shuddercry grumbled. “A hill. You mud ponies will have a bit of trouble clearing this, won't you? Sadly, the things chasing us have wings.”
Spectral Slash looked around, thinking quickly. She jumped into the air, and seemed to disappear.
“You better not be abandoning us... Betrayal.”
There wasn't an answer.
They ran up the side of the hill as quickly as possible, but it became clear that they had made a wrong turn. The changelings were getting too close. Lustrous came to a decision. “We'll fight them off here, using the hill as cover. If there's a break in the fighting, we'll run once again.”
Temperament drew her sword once again, as Jackie brought her tommy gun about face. She withdrew her extra barrel-clips, reading them for a quick reload. Shuddercry hefted her war-hammer, and Lustrous Revolt's horn flared up, illuminating the small, defiant group.
The charging changelings slowed as they neared the base of the hill, not sure how to proceed. They stood, fidgeting, before ten of the more brave individuals stepped forward. Shuddercry met them at the front of the formation. They leaped forward, and with a yell, Shuddercry swung the hammer. The two changelings were tossed aside with a sickening crunch. The moment the swing was finished, she brought it forward for another one. Three more of the changelings fell to the attack.
The remaining five tried to take advantage of the opening. Temperament had none of that. She stepped forward and slashed in a wide arc, severing several legs, and forcing the unwounded to back up or face her wrath. They hissed in anger. The rest of the changeling force swelled forward to aid their brethren. As the crowd advanced, Jackie stepped between the two melee fighters, blasting her tommy gun into the changeling ranks. Some of the changelings instinctively took to the air, dashing forwards in the hopes to take her down before more damage could be done. Each aerial challenger was struck down with cold, precise blasts from Lustrous Revolt.
The changelings began circling around the clustered group. Lustrous and Jackie found themselves turning nigh-constantly to intercept would-be flankers.
“Augh!” Shuddercry fell into the snow, sending a puff of powder into the air as she lifted her hammer to defend herself from the struggling changeling. Two more immediately leaped on her, seeing their opportunity. Shuddercry's glowing eyes flickered, as the strain was becoming too much. Her brow knitted up in consternation as she realized that if she did lose control of her levitation spell, her hammer would only add to the weight keeping her pinned.
“Uh, somebody help?”
Her voice made the others turn to look in surprise. Shuddercry had never asked for help in her life. She had always demanded it. Jackie ran over, barreling into the grappling insect-ponies, firing a few shots into each for good measure. She held out a hoof of support. Shuddercry, after a moment's hesitation, grasped it, pulling herself up. “Uh... thanks. I guess.”
Jackie tipped her hat, then quickly sidestepped as Shuddercry swung her hammer towards her. “Wha-”
Jackie turned to see the explosion of goop that had almost managed to bite her neck.
“Now we're even.” Shuddercry turned away once again.
The fight became a blur. Every now and then a changeling would get through and draw blood, then get dispatched. But despite their efficiency, there were simply too many. Eventually they'd tire and succumb. Lustrous Revolt cursed herself once again. She was the one who had led them into this mess, and thus it was her fault. The many deaths ahead of her wouldn't be penance enough for making such a childish mistake. That's what she got for listening to her feelings.
Then, as if on command, the changelings stepped back. The ponies were still huddled together, on an island of clear snow in a sea of fallen bodies. They took advantage of the lull to recover, but their heavy breathing was cut short by what they saw. Chrysalis herself had stepped forward. “It's been a while. Did you miss me?”
“Chrysalis,” Lustrous spat, “what are you doing back here? I thought you had left these lands for good.”
“Not quite. Reality wasn't as defenseless as I thought, so I had to return here.”
“You made it into Reality?!” Lustrous Revolt was incredulous. “How'd you manage? You're just like any of us, bound by the rules of the reflections.”
“That's where you're mistaken. My changeling armies are the empty husks of a forgotten age. None of them have been split, nor did they need to. They're the result of contracts gone wrong, made before the Rift. They are neither light nor dark. I, on the other hoof, am a bit of a special case. By sacrificing my body for greater power, I took on their traits while maintaining my irresistible personality. I'm cursed to live a half-life, but it's served its purpose.”
“And what purpose is that?”
“Why, to make myself supreme ruler over all of existence, of course.”
“You haven't managed that just yet.”
“No, but I'm in the right position to take over when everything ends up going south for the weaklings currently in charge.”
“You're still a slave to the rules of the game, just like any of us. There's always somebody wiser, always somebody stronger.”
“Oh? Like who?”
“The Metaspectre, for example.”
Chrysalis hissed. “Don't you dare speak that name around me. He's a cheater and a scoundrel.”
“Oh, so you're in good company. I think you're just mad somebody outsmarted you. Don't know why you would be. It's a daily occurrence.”
“Why you impudent– minions! Attack! The first one to kill gets their choice of the blood!”
The crowd surged forward. The ponies readied their weapons, ready to go out in a blaze of glory. But just before the first changelings got in range, they halted suddenly. They turned and looked at Chrysalis, who was stammering and very flustered.
“H-hold! Don't attack yet!”
Lustrous Revolt strained her eyes. In the darkness, she could just make out a pony straddling Chrysalis' neck, blade at the ready.
“Now then, 'your highness', I think you'll be taking a little trip with me.” said Spectral Slash, stressing the point by tracing the blade up and down Chrysalis' exposed throat.
“O-oh? A-am I? Just where are we going?”
Chrysalis tensed up. “I hate that place. So full of love and yet impossible to get a single sip.”
“Maybe if you hadn't attacked them the first time, they would have given it to you freely.”
“If I come with you, my changelings will follow. They cannot abandon their queen for long.”
“I think we're willing to deal with the consequences. Step towards my friends.”
“Friends? I didn't think you had it in you.”
“Shut up and walk.”
Chrysalis stepped forward carefully, her changelings parting as she walked through. She drew up to the other reflections, who eyed her coldly. Her eyes burned with hatred.
“Now, tell your mindless drones to stay as far back as they can.”
“Do as she says. But the moment they let down their guard, you're to attack.”
“Don't expect me to be too compliant.”
“I guess we shouldn't have hoped for much more.”
The battle-weary ponies finally ascended the rest of the hill, hundreds of eyes following their every movement. They cleared the top and began running.
“Now, Chrysalis, you will be my ride all the way there.”
“You can't be serious. You'll cut me if I go any faster!”
“Trust me, I'm good with my knives. I don't want to lose my only bargaining chip.”
“Hmm. I suppose.” Chrysalis began trotting.
“If you think-”
She cried out in pain as she felt a knife enter her side. It was deep enough to hurt, but not enough to cripple. It felt hot, like touching a frying pan. Sadly, she didn't have the luxury of pulling her metaphorical hoof away.
“I said run.”
Chrysalis muttered angrily, but complied, storing the pain as fuel for her hatred. When she got back at them, it wouldn't be pretty.”
After they had been running for five minutes or so over the open fields, they could see the changeling army begin to follow. Lustrous Revolt fell back until she was running side by side with Spectral Slash, or rather, Chrysalis.
“Good thinking back there. You really came through.”
“Just doing my job. No hard feelings Chrysalis?”
“I am going to literally kill you a thousand times.” Chrysalis huffed.
At the back of the Changeling army, two groups split off into different directions. As they ran, the green flames of their transformations lit up the snow for a just brief moment. If any of the reflections had been watching, they would have seen a patrol of griffons running back to report to their superiors, and another group of battle-hardened ponies storming off to the nearest town to warn the townsfolk of the army just outside their doorstep.
Chrysalis smiled coyly. “Did I tell you guys how much I dislike you yet?”
“Oh. Just making sure.”