Desperate Times

by Xepher

Revised Version

Desperate Times
By Xepher

"Three more?" Princess Celestia said, sighing. "That makes what... twelve this week?"

"Thirteen actually." Captain Armor corrected. "We haven't seen this many changelings in the city since the invasion."

"Are we any closer to figuring out what they're up to?"

"Not really. Most of the ones we caught couldn't even keep their disguises intact for more than a few minutes, so they didn't get far inside the gates. The only ones further into the city were all found near some of the entrances to the underground ruins."

"Any idea what they want with the old vaults?"

"Again, I'm not sure your highness. We're trying to interrogate them still."

"I take it they're resisting?"

"Not exactly. Several of them passed out not long after we caught them. The rest are somewhat responsive, but everything they say seems incoherent and disjointed. It's like they're dehydrated, or sick. If they were ponies, I'd say a couple were even verging on death. Water doesn't seem to help, nor does any food we've offered. I even had Cadance visit one and try offering love."

Celestia was surprised (and impressed) by that last part. "I know that must've been hard on you Shining."

"Never mind me your Highness, the point is that it didn't work, even though Cadance is the only pony I know that could even begin to offer that much love to a changeling. Now I don't know what to do, and I don't like prisoners dying in my cells."

"Nor do I Captain, nor do I. Please, continue to do what you can, and I trust you to let me know if anything changes. In the meantime, I'll see if there's anything else to be done."

"Yes Ma'am!" Shining saluted and left the throne room.

Alone now in the throne room, Princess Celestia pondered the situation. On the one hoof, the changelings were technically enemies of Canterlot and had declared war on her. During war, the Princess has to make tough choices and sometimes ponies get hurt. But the changelings had been been roundly beaten during the invasion attempt, and posed no real threat (as far as her intel from the Badlands informed her.) Sighing, she let herself slouch on the throne and stop being princess for a few minutes. As "just" Celestia, she felt sorry for them. She never liked to see anypony suffer; "enemy" or otherwise. This wasn't a war anymore, and she decided she could let herself be guided by kindness and generosity alone on this one.

She grabbed a scroll and quill.

As Princess of the Sun, Celestia's sleep schedule ran like clockwork. As such, being woken in the middle of the night was always disorienting, since she could sense the sun still far below the horizon. The sound of alarm bells really didn't help things either.

Thankfully, by the time she made it to the throne room, the alarm was already passed. The guard on duty informed her a lone changeling that had come flying directly at the castle, but had quickly been taken captive by the guards on one of the parapets.

As the guard finished speaking, Shining Armor burst into the room.

"Princess," he began, panting with exertion. "We've got her!"

"The changeling that flew in?" Celestia asked.

"Not just any changling your highness, it's Queen Chrysalis herself!"

"Ah, she must've received my letter."

Shining blinked slowly a couple of times while his mind processed that last sentence. "You invited her?" He asked, surprised.

"I wrote to her, asking for help with the sick captives we have. Of course I expected a letter or an announced visit. I wasn't expecting her to come crashing in on us in the middle of the night I assure you, or I would've let you know. Still though, she is here, so please escort her in immediately."

Captain Armor saluted. "Yes Ma'am!" His was not to question the Princess.

Minutes later, Chryssalis was "escorted" into the throne room. "Carried" would perhaps have been a better term though. The Queen of All Changelings did not look well. Of course, to a normal pony, a changeling looked pretty tattered and ragged in the best of circumstances, but the queen now looked far worse. One wing looked completely broken. Her normally shiny chitin was flaking and dull. Even the holes in her hooves seemed to be oozing something of a dark, sickly green.

As the guards supporting her reached the base of the throne, Chrysalis slumped to the floor with exhaustion. With concerted effort, she got her hooves back under her, but surprisingly left one knee on the ground, bowing to Celestia. "Please, your... Highnessss", she hissed, not liking the taste that subservient word left in her mouth. "I must beg you to help us."

Shining, for the second time in this very early day, could hardly believe the normally arrogant and vindictive Queen of the Changelings was actually bowing and begging. He was starting to think he'd had one too many corndogs last night, and this must all be some inverted nightmare.

"Of course I'll help," Celestia began, "That's what I offered in the letter. I had no idea you were... ill... as well though."

"Letter?" Chrysalis said, halfway to herself.

"Yes, I assumed you came here so we can help the sick changelings I mentioned when I wrote to you."

Chrysalis began to chuckle. After the last of the scouts had failed to return, she'd been left with only one option. "Desperate times..." she was familiar with, but to actually beg help from a pony? The thought was crazy, but it had to be done. So she'd spent the past three days struggling across the wastes of the Badlands and the dangers of the Everfree to get here, all the while steeling herself to plead for help from that perfect goody goody sun princess that had so soundly trounced her and her army. And when she finally arrives, half dead, swallows all her pride, and utters those horrid words... miss prissy pants had already offered help. Of course she had. Chrysalis had just missed it because she was busy fighting off manticores in the wastes instead of checking the post box at 1372 Secret Changeling Base, The Hollowed Out Volcano.

The changeling's laughter scaled appropriately to "maniacal" as the full irony of the situation resolved itself in her mind. Just as the guards were starting to get nervous and draw their weapons though, it ended in a fit of coughing and hacking, bringing the queen back onto her knees.

"Care to explain what's so funny?" Celestia asked.

"Very well," Chrysalis said, sighing dejectedly. "You're going to love this..."

"So here's the deal," Shining Armor began, "The Princess has ordered us to go into the ruined vaults beneath the city. Apparently the changelings left something down there during the invasion, and it's the only thing that's able to cure this disease they've all come down with."

"Sir," a stallion in the line of guards spoke up. "With all due respect, why in Celestia's Name would we want to help heal changelings?"

"Sergeant!" Shining yelled, stepping nose to nose with the disgruntled guardspony, "You are in the Royal Guard. Her Royal Highness, Princess Celestia, Keeper of the Sun, Ruler of Equestria has ordered us to do this. It doesn't matter what we want or don't want in the matter, is that understood?"

"Yes sir!" The guard said, saluting hard enough that his hoof put a slight dent in his helmet.

"That goes for the rest of you as well. We may not like it, but the Princess knows best. If any of you ever doubt that, I do not want to see your faces in this castle again. Understood?"

"Sir, yes sir!" The guards answered in unison, saluting. (One a little more carefully this time.)

"Then move out!"

After the room cleared, Shining sighed, realizing that he'd been more harsh than needed with that guardspony, and knew it was only because he felt pretty much the same way about the situation himself. He wanted to be as forgiving as the Princess; or his own wife for that matter. How she could not only forgive, but actually offer love to one of those creatures after all that they'd done to her, he may never understand. But that ability to forgive was what made Cadance (and Celestia for that matter) so amazing, and he'd dedicated his life to living up to their standards.

It took the guards only to late afternoon to find the relic. Of course, a two foot high crystal spire, glowing with blue inner magic shows up pretty easily in dark tunnels made mostly of brown and dusty stone. As such it was mostly just a matter of getting enough hooves on (or under) the ground, rather than a heroic effort by the Royal Guard. Still though, Shining was proud of his troops efficiency as he brought the relic to the throne room.

Celestia stepped down from the throne, setting aside a book she'd been reading. "Good work, Captain." She said, "Your guards found it much quicker than I was expecting." That wasn't precisely true, but she knew her Captain wasn't fully on board with helping the changelings, and helping him keep pride in his troops never hurt.

"Ah, yes, this is it." Chrysalis said, stumbling somewhat awkwardly off the couch and over to the table.

"Now that we've found it, perhaps you might explain what it does?" Princess Celestia didn't think this was any trick -- the changling queen was far too sickly for this to be a ruse -- but she'd taken the precaution of having the spire brought back by way of the university's magical studies department. The unicorns there had declared it safe, detecting no offensive magic, but couldn't say what the object actually did either.

"Yes, I suppose I must," Chrysalis said, "or this is all for naught."

"Chrysalis," Celestia pleased, "Do believe me. I wish you no further harm. I wish you had received my letter and read it yourself so you'd have more reason to trust my intentions, but suffice to say, I don't want to see anypony -- or any changeling -- suffer needlessly. The ones we captured are sick and dying, and I'd be trying to help them even if you hadn't come here. So please, tell us: Will this artifact do that?"

Chrysalis sighed. She hated giving away changeling secrets, but what good are secrets to a dead hive? "As you know, we feed on love, as you do on food. Without it, we get weak and die."

"Yes," Celestia said. "But Cadance tried giving love to some of the captured changelings and it didn't help."

"That's because we're not starving, we're sick. Our hive was infected with blight. While we naturally heal from injuries and some diseases (with enough love to feed on) this medicine spire not only speeds the process, but can also cure harsher illnesses like the blight. To work though, it needs..." Chrysalis gritted her teeth. She hated admitting such an embarrassing weakness to these wimpy ponies.

"It needs what?" Shining asked, impatient. A multitude of fears about the dark things which might power a changeling device were bouncing around in his head and he needed answers. "Tell us what this thing feeds on!"

"Argh! Fine!" The Queen shouted.. "It needs laughter, okay? We eat love, but for medicine we need laughter."

There was a moment of silence around the whole room, which was broken as Shining started snickering with a barely repressed laugh. The very idea itself was laughable. This was just another corndog fantasy and he was still home in bed. Either that, or this was the absolute dumbest takeover attempt the changelings had ever concocted. He couldn't help it, he burst out with a hearty -- and very unprofessional -- guffaw.

The spire's glow shifted from blue to blue-green, before emitting a spark that leaped to the tip of Chrysalis' horn. As it did so, it zigged and zagged down her body, suffusing into the more obviously injured areas. Her bent wing straightened out and some of the more ragged tears began to close themselves up. Likewise, the oozing on her hooves dried up slightly.

Shining's laughter stopped abruptly at the sight. "Wait, did I do that?"

Celestia just smiled and nodded. Looking at Chrysalis, she saw her flexing her previously injured wing, and -- most miraculous of all -- caught a tiny smile on her face as well, before it collapsed back to its standard scowl. She knew that when changelings fed on love, they tended to mellow out for a bit, as even they were not immune to the actual emotion. She suspected that laughter might be similarly infectious, and seeing Chrysalis smile, even slightly... well, that meant there was hope, and that was something to be truly happy about.

The Sun Princess let out the brightest, most sincere and heartfelt laugh.

"I don't know how to thank you Celestia..." Chrysalis said, still fighting the urge to smile. "I feel completely healthy again."

"I would do the same for anypony. Any being that I can help, I try to." The Princess assured her.

"Then what about the rest of my hive?" Chrysalis asked, with a note of genuine concern for her subjects. "The laughter of you and your guard cured me and the changelings here in Canterlot, but my entire hive will die in a matter of days. Where can we possibly find enough laughter to cure them all in time?"

The princess thought of her students and friends in Ponyville for the first time in what felt like weeks. She levitated another quill and scroll over from the desk, as well as the special balloon stamps she'd gotten as a gift. Smiling, she looked at Chrysalis and said, "I think I know just the pony."