"Applejack, Chryssy isn't so bad."
"Good and bad are a matter of perspective. Rarity told me."
"She also taught ya not ta be mean ta ponies."
"Chryssy not being mean, she's just doing what's natural to her."
"Being mean and cruel."
"She's just doing what she has to, to live. Timber wolves aren't mean and cruel if they eat a pony."
"Ever seen a cat play with a live mouse, Sweetie? Ever seen what a shrike does ta its prey?"
"Animals can't say no to their instincts."
"Equines have a choice. And just cause it's their instincts don't make it any smarter tah cuddle up tah a feral Timber Wolf."
"Silly pony, we're all animals, none of us can say no to our true nature, and we'll just be miserable if we try. Isn't that what cutie marks mean, after all?"
"A cutie mark is a mirror, it doesn't rule ya! It awakens when ya find what YOU want to do with yerself!"
"Oh Applejack, you're missing what Chryssy is doing FOR all of us."
"Doing FOR?! SHE'S A MONSTER!"
"You're just not looking at it right. Those cows and sheep on your farm...they can speak, they can think, but you take care of them, make them safe, even if you have to be harsh with them sometimes. Don't yo see? The changelings are farmers, we're their animals. They need us to live, and they'll keep us from getting in trouble, we'll be protected from the windigos forever. You work so hard for them, wouldn't it be selfish and mean if they threw all your help back in your face? If they wanted to hurt you for it? If the trees bit back for your taking their apples? You should be a good tree, a good animal. And accept all the hard work the farmers are doing for you."
"Be...a good tree...a good animal . . for the farmers."
Sweetie stroked AJ's mane. "Now just keep thinking those thoughts Appplejack, over and over, until you believe them, Chryssy's orders!"
Sweetie stroked the adult mare's side, ignoring the obvious distress in her posture. "There there Applejack, it's gotta be really hard being honest all the time, just relax, and let go."
"L-let g-go." Applejack shuttered.
"That's a good pony."
The entranced filly hopped up to Chrysalis and snuggled against her moth-eaten leg. "How'd I do?"
"Wonderful, Sweetie Belle, I couldn't have done better myself," praised the queen, putting a hoof to Applejack's chin. "I'm pretty sure if it'd been any pony else, you'd have broken her completely by now."
"She's always been a stubborn pony."
"Which will make it that much a bigger accomplishment when you finally shatter her resistance completely, my dear."
"YOUR MAJESTY!" A drenched changeling with teary eyes and a coughing fit flew into the great hall, nearly crashing as he landed. "Terrible news!"
"Inform me, Locust," The queen said in a voice of ice.
After conveying the 'terrible news' Locust expected to be made the object of his queen's fury. His Queen merely stood there.
Sweetie noticed one of the queen's back hoofs shaking.
"...It would seem fate is beyond determined to make sure I never reach the sun," Chrysalis whispered, sounding so dangerously calm. "But no matter...I will not give up, I will not give in, I will not bend, I will not break, I will not fold and kiss fate's hooves. I shall bring about the future I've chosen, not the future FATE has chosen!"
Sweetie Belle clapped enthusiastically at her words. Celestia felt a chill down her spine. Applejack merely stood with a sickly smile and her mane matted with sweat.
"...Locust...be a dear, my little changeling, and find out how the rune's engraving is coming along. Twilight Sparkle had us over half-done. I want to hear how her replacement is fairing. If she's having trouble, drag Kabuto from his preparations to help her."
"Y-yes, my queen!"
"And Shining, dear?"
"Huh?" The poor stallion spoke dimly.
"Spike's letters... let's put that shield of yours to another fine use and stop him from sending any more, dear."
"Uh-huh." The white unicorn responded, his eyes so saturated with Chrysalis' magic they nearly glowed. His horn shone, the calibration of the shield changed.
"Ah dang it!" I cursed after up barfing up my own mail. Dozens upon dozens of letters, to Ponyville and everywhere else, warning anyone and everyone what was really going on. I really regretted shoving it all in my mouth at once.
"Stupid anti-teleportation wards. As if my stomach wasn't already in knots..."
"It's alright, Spike," said the Princess, "It was a good idea, it just didn't work out."
"I should have thought of it sooner."
"Believe me Spike, it takes a while to get your senses in order after you're freed. Nopony blames you," Moon Dancer said.
Princess Cadence, I mean the REAL Princess Cadence, the one who foalsat Twilight, says the priest and servants who are supposed to be here were staffed at the wedding... meaning they know the truth. Meaning Queen Ugly isn't going to be letting them speak to anypony for a good while or they're hiding somewhere praying their Goddesses would save them. Cadence seemed determined to make SURE those prayers were answered.
I was so proud to see Princess Cadence like this, and I'm grateful to Blueblood for saving her, she meant a lot to me too ya know, this was the friendly mare Twilight and me knew, not that 'nice on the outside/nasty on the inside' witch.
Geeze. Discord liked his 'toys' broken, this lady likes them set up 'just right.' I don't know which is worse. Twilight said they were just different flavors of nasty.
"Discord turns everything you were upside-down but still let you keep your free will to a degree, Chrysalis turns your free will upside-down and forces you to use everything you still are against those you love...And both leave you feeling violated because they forced themselves into you."
Now I get how the girls' all felt, it wasn't like my greed attack, this was worse. Give me the chance, I'll burn that witch's ugly seaweed mane off!
Ah screw 'er! Twilight and me are back together with our friends and we're ourselves again! Time to be freakin' happy!
Twilight hugged me as hard as she could the moment I was through the door. I hugged her back.
"Thank EVERY Princess, Goddess, and God you're safe, Spike!" she said, tears running down her face, and mine too.
The Crusaders got a round of applause for saving me, even if the specifics hadn't been explained yet. They deserved it.
There were LOTS of ponies here! Lyra, Bon-Bon and Moth from Ponyville... Twinkle Shine, Minuette, and Lemon Hearts from school... What the heck were they doing here? Please tell me they're not new Elements. They're not? Good. They're here to help? Oooookay, well, if you say so. They're how Moon Dancer got saved? Oh!
"Twinkle Shine, Minuette, Lyra, Bon-Bon, Moth, I just want to say, thank you all for saving Moon Dancer." I did my most formal Canterlot bow. The mares all blushed.
"Okay, Moth, remember, explain it just like we rehearsed it," Bon-Bon told her twin.
Huh? Explain what?
Bon-Bon's under mind control! She just shielded the changeling from my fire breath!
Okay. One explanation later: I learn that Bon-Bon isn't under mind control, Moth just used her evil changeling magic to make Bon Bon remember things that never happened to make her like her like a sister. (Why are we trusting her again?)
Then it gets explained Moth's helped snapped me and Twilight out of it. Thanks to information she didn't feel was worth mentioning at the wedding.
I, of course, didn't like that answer. Regrettably, Bon-Bon got flambéed again when she shielded Moth from me.
"UGH! Not again!" Minuette exclaimed, getting out her medical supplies again.
I'm a dragon, we have a proud tradition of immolating our problems.
Besides, Moth owes everypony in Canterlot an apology (and everypony in Equestria if our luck runs out).
"Just give it a rest!" Bon-Bon growled. "My sister is SORRY for what she did!"
I wonder how Bon-Bon would have reacted if she'd found out the truth before all this . . Like if Fluttershy had 'gotten rid of' Fluttercruel before choosing to be her mommy.
"...So you're fine that she brainwashed you?"
"No, I'm NOT fine with that. But even if the memories she gave me from BEFORE she met me were fake, AFTER that is why she's my sister, Spike..."
Okay. After Fluttercruel, I can kinda respect that sentiment.
It's creepy, ya know, I had a dream where I DID go visit the Great Dragon Migration, it's only once a century after all, to try and see how OTHER dragons acted, and met a gang of dragon bullies. I'm happy Twilight woke me up early that morning and I didn't have to see the 'whole' dream. So yeah, when you put it that way, I guess I kinda know how Moth feels. None of the other dragons I've met personally were that nice. They'd think I'm weird like Moth says changelings do her. But I'm still proud of the dragon I am.
"Hey, where's Cobweb?" Moon Dancer asked.
"You're just noticing that now?" Pinkie Pie lampshaded.
"We are a large herd," Moon Dancer defended.
"Did she turn out to be a spy after all?" Fluttercruel asked.
"Dear, don't be rude." Fluttershy then said.
"I WAS going to ask, but we needed to introduce dear Spike to Moth," Rarity said.
"So, where is she?" Silver Tongue asked.
Lemon Hearts let out her pets, looking like she expected an ambush any second. The foals gathered near each other looking antsy.
"Who the heck is Cobweb?" I asked.
Twilight sighed, "Well if you must know-"
Blue smoke and fireworks in the center, revealing, "Behold! I! The One And Only Trixie has returned!"
Apple Bloom shouted, "Trixie was with Twilight and overpowered ya all an' brainwashed ya all an' now we're in a trap!"
"WHAT?!" Twilight blinked and waved her hooves, "WAIT-WAIT!"
- A few minutes later -
"I think we're setting a new world record for misunderstandings," Rainbow Dash said as she helped put out the last of my little fires.
"At this rate we'll finish off ourselves before the changelings get a chance," Minuette sighed putting a bandaid on the bruised Angry Baby Lemon. "I've spent more medical supplies on misunderstandings than on battle wounds!"
"If Applejack was here, she'd say this what ya get for keepin' secrets from yer friends," Apple Bloom said getting her bow back into place.
"Well, not ALL secrets are bad," Fluttershy whispered blushing, applying the ice pack for poor sweet beautiful Rarity's head.
"Next time we have something shocking to share with everypony, I'm writing pamphlets," Twilight said.
"I think fighting the changelings has left us all a little paranoid," Twinkle Shine admitted. "Nice left hook by the way Miss Belle."
"Thank you," Rarity said in a dignified fashion.
"You girls sure know how to clobber an adult mare three time your size," Lyra said as Moth and Bon-Bon applied iodine to the bites.
"It's all in our teamwork," Scootaloo said. "We DID take two Changelings out to save Spike."
Pinkie Pie finished hammering out the last of the dents out of Silver Ax's armor and hoofed it back to him.
"Trixie does..." Said the show mare who had started all this and had incredibly made through without a scratch. "I apologize for starting all this."
"Are you SURE you're not under mind control?" I asked upon Trixie admitting something was her own fault.
"For the last time, I'm sure," she groaned.
"To repeat." Minuette said in a restrained voice, "Trixie was disguised as Cobweb because the Changelings wanted her dead and she felt keeping the disguise was the only way to really help us. She helped Cadence save Twilight."
Pinkie said, "YEAH!! So Happy reunion time already!"
Rarity blinked. "...Trixie Midsummernight...Cobweb...Why didn't I catch that? I've seen that Shakespony play a dozen times."
"Well, I didn't know a Trixie before . . ." Lemon Hearts said, "So welcome to the team, again, Cobweb."
"So you're Trixie," Moon Dancer said. "Chrysalis talked about using you to open the door to the Elements Chamber...I guess she changed her mind once Twilight arrived in Canterlot."
Trixie shuddered. "Yes...though her new plan was 'do away with me.'"
"I'm happy none of that happened to you."
"As is Trixie. She's simply happy the guards must have assumed she'd left on the train..."
The two disguised Changeling brothers sat in wait to jump the Queen's target with daggers and eliminate her...but she hadn't showed.
"I...don't think she's coming," said Cricket, with a relieved tone almost.
"Maybe we missed her and she already left..." Monarch muttered. "Should we...you know, tell the Queen?"
"...I've actually been thinking about that, Monarch...do you ever wonder if we're the bad guys?"
"...Why would I?" the question wasn't angry or worried, it was...almost guilty.
"...Look around us here...this city. It's...it's not something an animal would build, it's just as intricate and well designed as our hive...And these cat...ponies...they're just living their lives, they just want to live peacefully...and we're about to attack them unprovoked...Today when I went out to do my job, the ponies my disguise was saying with told me 'be careful, with this 'mysterious threat business' you can't be too careful'...And I felt it, they meant that, to me, a complete stranger...I just can't help thinking...maybe we're the bad guys here..."
Monarch sighed. "...I was hoping I was only imagining things...Yeah, I've thought that too..."
"And now we're sitting here, waiting to murder a mare in cold blood we don't even know, for something she hasn't even had a chance to do yet...I...I didn't sign on to this mission to kill anyling...They never told us we'd have to kill somecreature..." They both knew they were admitting to being insane...but their hearts wouldn't let them do anything else.
"...Neither did I..."
"...So...what do we do? If we tell the Queen she didn't show, she'll have her tracked down and killed..."
The two siblings spent a moment thinking silently, conflicted emotions in their hearts. Both knowing doing something would make them outcasts to both sides...but knowing doing nothing would mean they'd always be 'the bad guys.'
Finally, without a word, the brothers took their daggers and cut up a stay cat they found, turning in the bloodied knifes to their superior, saying they'd thrown Trixie's body off the mountain as ordered...
"It was worth it, Monarch..." said Cricket, the two Changelings now sitting in a shelter in Canterlot with new disguises donned upon hearing the queen's rage at Trixie's return, and a few wedding guests they'd smuggled out of the castle in the chaos following their queen being exposed at the wedding. It hadn't surprised them, they'd fully expected their queen's wrath one day.
Monarch nodded. "...Yeah...it was...maybe we made more of a difference than we thought we would...I just hope the good guys win..."
"I wish we could have met under better circumstances Miss Midsummernight", said Silver's pop. "What I have heard of you are not...flattering, but, you've helped us so far, and that is enough for me."
"...It is a pleasure," Trixie managed to say politely, before turning to the bride-to-be. "Princess Cadence?"
"Trixie hasn't thought to ask before and, well, there isn't a truly a proper time TO ask this so, did you commission Trixie to perform at your wedding?"
Cadence looked at her sadly. "I'm sorry, Trixie."
"T-Trixie, sees," her ears wilted.
"However, I would be honored to have you perform as part of my wedding reception."
"Trixie doesn't want charity."
"If you came here to perform, then I wish you to perform. And besides that, you saved my life, and you saved Twilight. If anyone owes anyone here, it's me owing you. This is a royal commission, for after we save Shining and Equestria."
Trixie looked like she was struck by lightning then did her biggest most fancy theatrical bow, "The One and Only Trixie gracefully accepts your commission Your Highness."
"I'm just happy you're alright, Trxie," Fluttershy hugged her. "Just don't leave us worrying like that again, understand? I really am happy to know you're safe, and you're here to help."
"I'm aware of the need for digression darling, so I'll say thank you dear," Rarity said to Trixie.
"Trixie is happy to have you with me."
The fillies looked at each other, and approached Trixie.
"Mah sister doesn't like lyin' at all...but Ah'm not mah sister, so...that was a pretty good trick you pulled. Thanks fer helpin'."
Scootaloo looked unsure at Rainbow Dash who nodded. "Miss Trixie, I-, thanks for your help."
"Good performance," Silver Spoon said to our extra Element of Magic. Okay okay, Co-Element of Magic.
Me? I swallowed my pride, beat down my other feelings, and strode up to Trixie.
"Hey, Trixie. Thank you, for helping save Twilight like that, Cadence says you're the whole reason she could save Twilight."
She sure didn't expect that. And my friends didn't either. Geeze, they act like I hate Trixie's guts. Okay, I used to.
"You, you're welcome Spike. Twilight saved Trixie... Trixie is happy she was able to help her friends too."
"And I'm happy you did," I said, "Look...you're a true true friend. You came back and helped when you could have ditched us and saved your own hide, you risked your neck for Twilight, you risk your neck for us. So...seriously, thanks..." I put out my claw. "Friends?"
She looked confused at my gesture then reached out her hoof, "Friends." We shook.
And so I, The One and Only Trixie, had had her Magic Duel with Twilight Sparkle dreamed of by the Great And Powerful Trixie for half-reasons even she barely rationalized. That I had proven my way of magic could stand against hers, was the farthest from my mind, that I had saved my friend, was the closest. Defeating Twilight wouldn't have gotten me my life back, but having friends had.
"Spike," Rarity said, kneeling down next to me, "I'm sorry that I wasn't able to give more in freeing you. The fillies had to do it instead. I apologize Spike," she said sadly.
"Hey! What's wrong with us?" Scootaloo said. Fluttercruel looked to be thinking the same.
"Nothing dear, I'm grateful, I'm proud of you. But I'm the ADULT, it should have been my responsibility. You shouldn't have been in danger in the first place. I simply couldn't give enough," said the beautiful Element of Generosity.
Okay...time for 'mature Spike'. "Rarity...you were fighting up the tower, right? The Crusaders couldn't have saved me without you, and I AM grateful for that." I hugged her. "Thank you."
"And, I-I gave the Changelings your weaknesses remember... Thankfully I didn't think Fluttershy would let Fluttercruel cut loose," Twilight added.
"It's fine Twilight. You weren't yourself," Rarity said, then looked to me and returned the hug. "...You're welcome Spike...sometimes, it's hard to accept that an adult had to let foals help too."
Rarity looked to Twilight. Now only one was missing...but everypony who'd been there was present again...It was time to talk. "...Twilight... What happened when you tried to expose Chrysalis, I believe we all owe you an apolo-"
"NO! You don't!"
Everyone looked at Twilight with wide eyes. "Twilight..." Rainbow said, pinning her ears back. "We should've listened to you."
"No you shouldn't have! I was right Chrysalis was evil, but I was dead wrong in my reasoning WHY she was," Twilight looked down. "That thing she put in my brain kept citing 'Lesson Zero' as why I was right, but you know what? I was the one who didn't learn from 'Lesson Zero!'"
She looked down. "...If I'd been calm and collected instead of angry, then we could've figured her out. Chrysalis kept rubbing it in that Applejack's truth vision could have revealed her, but I never ONCE thought to just ASK Applejack to take a peek. If I'd thought of that instead of being so paranoid and clingy, we could've still time to stop her early. Or if I'd pointed out to Celestia how 'Cadence' acted towards Blueblood, the Princess might have known something was very wrong. I saw, but I didn't THINK...You were right to act how you did."
"...We were right to be mad," Rarity said. "We weren't right to leave you all alone. Celestia...I can understand. She NEEDED to be there for her family, but us? We're supposed to be there for each other when we're acting nothing of the sort. We've each made mistakes and you stood by us."
"And you've stood by my mistakes when I wasn't being rude and blind about it. You could have end brainwashed too."
Rarity frowned. "Three words, darling: me, your birthday. I was the definition of rude and blinded by the stars in my eyes. We've all been rude and blind, but you never left our sides. And maybe if we had been there for you like you had for us, the witch wouldn't have had the chance to get her claws in-"
"ENOUGH WHAT IFS!" Rainbow Dash interrupted. "I went nuts over them REMEMBER?! Look, I'm sorry I left you alone. We ALL are. Just accept our apology and we'll accept yours, and let's MOVE ON and stop these changelings!"
The pegasus trotted up to Twilight and hugged her, and folded her wings around her.
"Hey! I'm not good at touchy feely stuff so hurry up and reply before I think better of it."
Twilight returned the hug.
Rarity, Flutters, Trixie, and Pinkie joined in.
"I forgive you...And...I'm sorry I acted like a paranoid, green eyed monster... and for not listening to any of YOU... I was acting so self-righteous that I wouldn't have listened to me."
"We forgive you too." They all muzzled.
"And Spike, I don't want YOU feeling guilty. My brother is the strongest pony I know, and if he can't break free of Chrysalis' magic, then no pony on earth can. So I don't want you blaming yourself, understand?"
Spike meekly nodded, "Alright." He added himself to the group hug.
Cadence smiled, feeling her magic surge just being CLOSE to their bond. To her...Champions? That was the word that came to mind, looking at the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. It was a good word.
We filled each other in more on what had happened...It was weird being the big heroes for once instead of just the little foals causing trouble.
Dash gave me a hug. "See? I told you if you'd get the chance to save your friends."
I smiled. "Yeah...I did...thanks, Dash..."
"I had faith in you, Scoots."
That felt good.
"Does that mean I'll get to help...help save Sweetie Belle too?"
"I...know you'll be there for her if you needs you. After all, you've learned from the best right?"
I looked back at my flank. No Cutie Mark. But for once? I wasn't disappointed. I'd gotten something MORE important out of it: my friend back. Sometimes...I guess that's how it's gotta be.
Dash gave me a nuzzle, "And Scoots, I'm proud of you, your best came through, you helped your friend when he needed you most. And I'm happy you're safe too."
"Ah Dash, since when you do mushy stuff?"
She gave a chuckle. "Sometimes there's room for mushy stuff, squirt."
I thought of how we saved Spike, "Heh, yeah I guess." I nuzzled her back. If Sweetie Belle was here she'd love this stuff, and I knew we'd get her back...And it hit me. I didn't care...I don't mean about Sweetie, but...
"Uh Dash, if I don't care who saves Sweetie as long as she is, does that make me a lazy friend?"
Dash seemed surprised, then laughed. "No squirt! If you HAD to be the one to save Sweetie, you'd be selfish. You're true blue loyal."
"I...I don't really understand..."
"Okay, look at it this way," she said, trying to think. "If you feel like ya GOTTA be the one to save her, you might mess with somepony who'll help her the most. Then NOPONY might save her. That's selfish. When you're TRULY loyal, then what matters is the pony you care about, not whether or not you saved 'em. And you're true blue loyal."
I think my heart just took flight. "Ya mean it Dash?"
She rubbed my mane. "You know it!"
I hugged her all the more, I only wish my wings could hug her like hers hug me. "Thank you, Dash! Thank you!"
I looked at 'er, I saw the light shining through one of the windows, it made her look like she had a halo, she smiled at me.
"Yer welcome Scootaloo."
"Thanks...think someday, I'll be a hero like you?"
She smiled at me. "You're a hero now, Scoots. I think Spike would vouch for that."
And then my heart breached the atmosphere and became a star!...Dash is right, sometimes there is room for mushy stuff!
Heh heh...then there was Twilight and Cadence's reactions to how we saved Spike.
"Wait...you summoned an Elemental? Again?" Twilight asked, blinking.
Cadence blinked. "Again?"
"Hey! We did it on purpose this time as a distraction!...kinda..." Apple Bloom replied.
"This time?" the Princess asked, staring wide eyed.
"It's why they're normally banned from having matches!"
"We tried to summon the Fire Elemental this time, but it ended up being a Water Elemental," I explained.
Twilight's brain froze trying to process that. "How...why...fire...water..."
"We don't know how it happened either."
Cadence sighed. "That is the second craziest thing I've ever heard of a foal doing..."
"Second?!" Minuette asked in shock.
"The stunt I did with the love poison is first."
"You did that too?" I asked, blinking as I stared up at Cadence.
Twilight's eye twitched. "...Thank the Gods they're on our side."
Pinkie tapped Twilight's head like she was a broken game console. "Which ones?"
"ALL OF THEM!"
"Alright, Phase One was a complete success," Silver Tongue reported. "The question is what do we do next?"
Twilight had Spike produce a checklist. "First item," she looked to Trixie.
"Turn what the Changelings know of our weaknesses against them. Rainbow?" The azure unicorn looked to Rainbow.
Moth spat a bit of Changeling slime on Rainbow's wings, which she shredded before it could harden with a blade of pegasi magic around her wings. "Can't keep it up long, but it lasts long enough."
Cadence had picked it up from being around guard pegasi so much.
"Fluttercruel and I did a MST of every one of her 'dreams' that enrages me," the party pony reported.
"I won't even ask this time. Rarity?"
"In full 'Sisterhooves Social' mode," the unicorn replied, dead serious.
"I'll let Fluttercruel handle all fighting."
"And I'll let Mom use the stare if I think she can get away with it."
"I've gotten all my lectures to Queen Chrysalis out of my head," Twilight said, looking at a sizable pile of soapboxes.
"Make countermeasures for each of the weaknesses Twilight told the Changelings, check," Spike reported, marking it off the list.
"...You two are kinda scary when you're plotting together," said Rainbow Dash.
"We're two sides of a coin," Trixie said and she and Twilight smiled.
"Alright, so now we have a few objectives," said Twilight, looking out the window. "Rescue our remaining friends, wreck the booby traps that are set for Princess Luna, and defeat the Queen."
"Defeating the Queen won't be easy without a full set," said Trixie. "So that should be last."
"The traps are...well, Twilight-proof, so I can't disable them."
"But we've got more than just you," Trixie said. "We need Apple Bloom to save Applejack, so saving her will require her. Rarity or the Crusaders can save Sweetie Belle, and Twilight or Cadence can save Shining Armor. But we'd probably be best to deal with the booby traps first so if something happens to us, Luna can still save the day as a backup."
"...Alright, let's get to planning..."
"I cannot help you," said Fancy Pants simply.
"What? Why?" Filthy Rich asked.
"Let me ask you. Do you really think this is what Princess Celestia would want?"
"To save the kingdom? Yes!"
"I mean put innocent pony civilians in danger."
Fancy Pants hadn't instantly believed them. What sane pony would? But after hours of discussion and sleeping it off, in the morning he had finally conceded that the behavior of the guards and Princess Cadence had only grown stranger and stranger.
"You don't think everypony in danger now?" TLC asked.
"Right now, it seems the invaders are more interested in just controlling Equestria, rather than any sort of looting, pillaging, ethnic cleansing, or deflowering innocent mares. If they ARE emotion-eating shape-shifting aliens-"
"I never said they were aliens."
"Oh sorry, from a parallel universe-"
"I never said they were from a parallel universe, either."
"Who view ponies the same way that griffins view pigs, then isn't it safe to say then that they'd have nothing against looting, pillaging, ethnic cleansing, or deflowering innocent mares? Which they'd have not that much trouble in doing given their numbers and having gotten rid of Equestria's trained and armed normal defenders AND negated the immediate threat of all but the youngest of the Alicorns.
"Therefore, is it not safe to assume the only reason they have NOT done so, is because they do not want start a brawl with Equestria's normal population, and want the infrastructure intact.
"Tell me, Mr. Rich. If you bought, say, several stacks of hay, having paid a great deal of wealth and time on them, and those stacks of hay then suddenly got up on their own legs, and began causing chaos to your business and those around you, how long would you spend trying to contain or subdue the hay? And how soon would you decide to cut your losses and BURN the hay instead?"
"What a strange question." Filthy Rich noted. "What makes you ask it?"
"Your plan effectively calls for untrained civilians ponies to attack trained soldiers who won't even see them as people, only as a resource, who won't hesitate to use lethal force if it becomes obvious that this is not an uprising they'll be able to peacefully quell. I'm sorry, Mr. Rich. But you're asking for ponies to throw away their lives for nothing, when Princess Luna is likely already on her way back with reinforcement and likely the entire might of Equestria's Guard. It's much wiser to simply wait and let the professionals handle this."
"This is the way you feel too?" Filth Rich asked Fancy Pants' wife, Fleur-de-Lis.
"...I don't think we should do nothing. But Princess Celestia would NEVER WANT her ponies to put themselves in danger for her sake. We would shame her by doing so. Yet I don't think we should just sit on our hooves waiting for help, especially if their spiderweb is as far-spread and deeply entrenched as you claim. But inciting random riots just to give the invaders an excuse to let their vicious side out? I'm sorry. I cannot support such a thing."
Their maid Straight Lace meanwhile said nothing, she looked terrified. Like she was expecting royal guards to come crashing through their door any second and begin stealing everything of value, saying it was for The Princess then turning into giant cockroaches and eating their brains.
"So what do you suggest we do?" Filthy asked, feeling frustrated.
Golden Tiara merely sat next to Half-Light Dawn. Given what happened the last time she was a near a little filly, Golden did not feel comfortable with the filly being so close. Peewee was content to nest on Dawn's mane.
Fleur-de-Lis turned around. "The city is under lockdown, martial law has been declared and normal government functions have been suspended, both for the 'remainder of the emergency.' This state can't last forever, and they have to realize that. Meaning they have an endgame in mind. Probably involving the rune they're engraving into the city, otherwise, they wouldn't be so frantic to finish it. And there is no way to know if Princess Luna will arrive in time. They won't drop their farce until it's completely unsustainable, or fulfilled its purpose. We need to use that to our advantage."
TCL asked, "You can't be asking us to play by THEIR rules. That never ends well."
"And just knocking over the board means all bets are off, and the simple reality is that even with all the civilians in Canterlot we wouldn't WIN a straight-up violent confrontation. Unless you feel like sacrificing all of Canterlot just so they don't win."
"No. Resigning yourself to such a pyrrhic victory's just another way of giving up," Filthy Rich admitted.
"Exactly. So let's think, Mr. Rich: what can we do to hinder the invaders masquerading as our protectors, without giving them an excuse to treat us like expendable animals? And in such a way that, from their viewpoint, at least, sustaining their lie will still be more important than 'putting us in our place?' And won't set off their alarm bells? But still leave them at a disadvantage? And ultimately result in our victory, (or at least our survival?)"
Half Life Dawn raised her head. "We...We could free my sister."
They all looked to her. "What would that do?"
"...If we free my sister and find my other sister we can...return to how we were. And we could cause problems, and help the Element Bearers and Caddy stop the Queen."
"...She has a point...I don't know all the details, but Half Light Dawn and her sisters...aren't quite normal ponies. Filthy Rich explained. "They're good, though, for all their abnormality. They've helped a great deal back in Ponyville,"
"Be that as it may, that alone is not enough. What else could we do?"
"...Maybe there's another way to get the citizens to help out."
"While even with Gifted Unicorns an out-and-out armed revolution is too much... say we made the citizens feel...unease? Spread a LITTLE civil unrest? Enough that the invaders have to deal with it, spreading their forces thin and keeping them occupied? Especially among the construction crew for this rune? Make them RESIST but not REBEL? So it's still less costly to them to stay in character than drop their facade?"
"What's wrong?" Filthy Rich asked.
"...That rune...I feel it connecting with the leylines...with the mana streams..." the filly muttered, sounding like whatever she sensed terrified her.
"How do you know that?"
"It's...something me and my sisters got from momma...whatever this rune is doing, it's something big...really big...and really...wrong..."
"And you're sure of that?"
"As sure as you'd be sure your skinned knee is yours."
"...Fancy Pants, with all due respect, I trust this filly with all my heart, her family helped saved me once," Filthy informed. "If she says that rune is big trouble, she's not lying."
Fancy Pants looked at Dawn closely, examining her. "...Well, she doesn't seem to be faking how scared she is, and I see no reason not to assume the rune is major trouble, the question is, what do we do about it? That doesn't endanger half of Canterlot's population."
TLC gave it thought as well. "Ah!"
"Outright resistance might cause us trouble," said TLC. "But what about resistance disguised as simple equine error? Things that will be overlooked as being multiple ponies just taking orders wrong or being 'clumsy'? It's nothing a 'Guard' would be ABLE to punish an innocent civilian for. These creatures seem so fond of using psychology against others, they'll likely never expect it to be used against them. They'll never expect the 'cattle' to be THAT smart."
"...That is a plan I could potentially get behind. But the question is, how do we make sure it's too late by the time they figure it out?" Fancy Pants said.
Everypony looked to Dawn.
"If we free my sister, the three of us can...return to where we're supposed to be," the filly explained. "And from there, we can help Caddy, the Bearers, and cause lots and lots of trouble for the Changelings."
"...Given my experiences with them, Fancy, that's a safe bet."
Fancy Pant rubbing his chin. "My dear...can you free your sister if we get you there?"
"Yes...I think I can."
"...Mr. Rich. I can handle the populace, I've got years of experience," said the stallion. "Can you get this filly to her sister?"
"Yes, if I know where she is."
"...I can show you," Dawn replied.
"Alright..." Fancy Pants looked the group over, pausing to see how Golden Tiara protectively kept Dawn close to her.
When the group first arrived, Golden Tiara had asked Fancy Pants and his household every possible question about the state her daughter had been in when they had hosted her. How did she look, what did she say, what she felt, did she look healthy, her weight, the length of her hair, no detail was too small for knowing about the status of her foal. It hadn't been obsession, it was fear and worry, all in the name of the well-being of the filly she had given birth to.
"Screwball...please call me Screwball."
"Golden Tiara,...your daughter loves you very very much."
(Auto Record: Half-Light Noon): This spell is a recording of my thoughts and actions I've set up so you Alicorns and you shadows-who-watch can see how things are going. I never dreamed it would come to this. We were all so confident, mostly me, that nothing could go wrong. We should have figured out after what nearly happened to my brother Shining Armor that time wasn't a branching ocean for us anymore, it was an ocean in a storm. We should have taken more precautions after Princess Gaia was able to turn us into obedient happy little foals just like everypony else.-
"You can sense where she is?" Spitfire asked as we flew from tower to tower like thieves.
"Yes! We came from the same soul, so we should be able to sense each other as we get closer."
"But doesn't that mean she'll sense YOU?" Fleetfoot asked.
Oh right. Moonsent. "...Split up. You come with me; the rest of you come from another angle, hit her and hit her hard. She's tough, but if it came down to it, I think she'd prefer to die than let that monster use her like this."
"She's 'happy conclusions.' She's being twisted against that purpose. Bound to a witch's whim to make her write an unhappy conclusion. Trust me, for her that's gotta be as bad as Discord thinks getting turned to stone is for that jerk. We just need to get close enough to free her from the witch's spell."
"So we split in two and come at her from both sides?" TLC asked.
"I know 'er best, trust me, I may be little, but it'll work!" said their little profit.
TLC REALLY wished they had some royal guards with them, or maybe one of those Harmony Bearers. She had never felt so in over her head. But she already promised to stay by her patient. And Golden Tiara wasn't going to stop any time soon. She'd kept breaking out of the hospital, no matter how many times they had upgraded the security, and had broken into Canterlot and the Castle no problem.
In short: Mrs. Tiara what amounted to an experienced professional escape artist.
The best news was, Dawn was really the only one the 'Guards' were looking for among us. With a dress, a wig, some contacts and a little makeup from Straight Lace, she was pretty hard to tell from any other foal in Canterlot.
We were stopped once by some guards. I thought I was going to die right there, but when they saw Dawn was clearly not a baby dragon in disguise, they let us through. Dawn's pet firebird looked even more on edge than I did. Dawn looked happy that they were looking for one.
I've had a job surrounded by ponies who'd break my legs as soon as say hello and not understand the difference. Now it felt like all of Canterlot was turning into one big madhouse.
And then there was Mrs. Tiara. All her actions and behavior all screamed she had made a complete and total recovery. But how? Ponies didn't randomly became sane again. Sanity wasn't a light switch!
I actually insisted -- or I wasn't moving an inch -- that we 'test' Mrs. Tiara to make sure she wasn't a changeling. Blood sample. Mane cut. Trick questions about her life and the hospital. Anything I could think of. I still wasn't 100% sure, even after she scored 100% on everything. Maybe I won't be until the fighting's done. Let's hope Golden.
Like I said, our best advantage was us being beneath the guards' notice. After all, we're nopony. Why give us any mind?
"The rune is 75% complete, Your Majesty," reported Locust.
"And Princess Luna?"
"She and her Night Guard have been making steady progress towards us. She's picked up a number of random Guards that have crossed her path, but she's avoided all contact with bases along her route. Strangely, she still seems to have picked up supplies along the way somehow."
"Blast it," Chrysalis cursed, "I was hoping she'd stop to resupply or restock on troops at one of the bases."
Arranging that many potential ambushes hadn't been easy. At least the 'top secret' information that Princess Luna has been replaced by an impostor and/or possessed again was spreading among the guards outside Canterlot... Still, all those lovely ambushes, now they were for nothing.
"I hate waste." the changeling queen seethed.
'Who would have thought being so singleminded would actually HELP Luna?' Celestia thought.
"W-well, Your Majesty, it was still a reasonable precaution!"
"I suppose. Still, she must not be at full power. Or maybe she doesn't want to waste the mana or she simply doesn't realize she's racing against the clock or she would have teleported herself and her army right back to outside Canterlot's shield already. Still, better safe than sorry. The rune in Ponyville is already completed. But none of them can be activated beforehoof besides the Central one. Have the workforce redirect their energies into setting up an anti-teleportation wards in these locations around Canterlot's mountain...it won't stop Princess Luna from coming those ways the old-fashioned way, but at least we'll see her coming. I don't want to lose you, dear Shining, but the more effort Princess Luna or her troops put into breaking through the shield is less effort they'll have to fight us, and more time for the rune's completion. I expect you to keep that shield up until the rune is complete or until your final breath, unless plans change. Understand, dear?"
"Uh-huh," the stallion mechanically nodded.
"You are truly a monster, Chrysalis," Celestia said flatly.
"Monsters are just animals that ponies are scared of and refuse to understand," Sweetie Belle said to the princess, the smile never leaving her face.
"Does it fill you with pleasure to corrupt a child, Chrysalis?"
"'Corrupt?'" Chrysalis stroked Sweetie's mane not even LOOKING at the princess. "Psh. We're all thrown into this world with no instructions, no guide, never asked if we wanted to even be in this world. We're all 'corrupted' from what we started out to what our parents and teacher decide we should be. It's the nature of the beast."
"There's a special place in Pony Hell for ponies like you."
"Thanks. I'm glad I'm special."
"Are ya sure Ah can't make ya some treats, Sweetie?" Applejack offered.
Chrysalis again didn't even look at the pony, "Sorry, property, I can't be letting you out of my sight until I'm certain you've been completely broken in. I've simply shut off my dear Shining's self-determination. You are Sweetie Belle's work. The sooner your inner self crumbles into dust, the sooner I'll be happy with her, and the sooner she'll be happy."
"So, feeling completely submissive to mine and Chryssy's will yet, Applejack?" Sweetie Belle asked brightly.
"Oh," Sweetie said disappointed, "Okay, I guess I can wait."
"It's okay Sweetie, these things take time."
"Discord did it a lot faster and a lot more effective than ya Yer Majesty," AJ said matter of fact. "He made me practically brainwash mahself! Ah didn't even think of mahself as brainwashed. Ah was lying like a mattress and seeing truth as somethin' that ya should cherry pick for what YA want and didn't see a thing wrong with it! Ah can feel every rope, every shackle, every piano wire ya got around mah brain and heart right now! Discord made me fight mahself! Ah'm fightin' ya every inch of the way! The best ya can do at the pace he can is zombies! He created a WHOLE NEW PERSONALITY AND PERSON outta his own mumbo-jumbo and Fluttershy's worst feelin's with a freakin' touch! Compared ta him, yer an amateur!"
Chrysalis kicked Applejack in the jaw so hard, the palomino mare went flyin and skidded around the floor. Applejack got up to her hooves, feeling teeth loose.
"Never say that again, property. And get a medic in here," Chrysalis said irritably, "she's bleeding on my carpet."
Celestia took notice of the Queen's reaction, but said nothing. 'Stay strong, Applejack. You forced yourself to look into the Truth for longer than anyone I have ever known, force yourself to hold together with that same determination...'
"And that's why you shouldn't say not-nice things Applejack," said Sweetie Belle waving a hoof.
"The rune is to be completed before Princess Luna sets hoof in Canterlot again, make sure my foremare understands that."
"Yes, my queen!"
A pink filly with no reflection, no shadow, no magical aura, or any other trace of her presence sat outside one of the great hall's windows, watching the show, and frowned. 'Best help along Mr. Fancy Pant's scheme, or Papa and me are both sunk before Luna even gets here.' The filly bearing the star-of-eight on her flank vanished, leaving no trace she had left or that she had ever been there.
"Rune at 81% completion. And sadly, unlike you, Twilight Sparkle, I know how to write my instructions in laypony's terms," Half-Light Dusk sighed. She stood on top of a domed building, surrounded by floating parchments, quills, and illusionary diagrams. Lacking time to commission a new crystal ball for herself, the changelings had been flying back and forth to get updates from her, one carrier always flying to the queen, and one flying back from her.
It was slower going with Digger Wasp MIA or they'd be at 91% by now. Chrysalis wanted to know the instant the rune was ready for activation whether the others were ready or not.
There was nothing sneaky about her bodyguards. The changelings, disguised as royal guards o, stood on each corner of the roof the dome stood on, with another guard on each corner of each ledge of each floor all the way to ground level, and some in the basement just in case some ponies decided to dig their way in.
Ponies, along with changeling infiltrators who had failed their enlistment tests, were being equally worked like dogs. The guards made no distinction when they were so fearful of their Queen's anger if the rune was not finished sooner.
None could detect the pinkish faded shadow that slithered like a serpent along the walls and streets, and coiled along one of the ropes connecting the repurposed plow to the tiring Earth pony mare, which then broke with the slightly touch of chaos and the rope realizing it would wear out and unravel eventually, so might as well get it over with.
"What do you think you're doing?!" The nearby Guard snapped.
"I'm not doing anything!" The mare protested.
"You damaged this section! Now the moonsent thing needs to be paved and started over! You know how much time that takes?"
"A lot more if you're going to just complain about it!"
"I've gotta ask, you ponies have always been asking questions about others, what they want, what their hopes and dreams are, but what about YOU! What do you want?" Spitfire asked Noon as they continued to inch along, putting their lightning fast speed to good use avoiding guards.
"You've helped me so much filly," said Filthy Rich as they got near the construction sight of the last fifth of the rune, "I need to know, is there anything YOU want?"
"We aren't meant to think about that."
"It's not part of our job description to have desires. We just have a job to do." Noon said, think of where her slacking off had led. She should have been there with Dusk when the older mare had been interviewing Chrysalis.
"If anypony deserves to have wants, it's you!"
"Life isn't about what you deserve!"
"Don't say that!" Said Golden Tiara, "You're a little filly! You deserve to be happy!"
"There...are lots of little fillies who deserve to be happy but aren't." She had been playing when she should have been helping, now Dusk was in big trouble.
"Then I want YOU to have what you want all the more! Please! You work so hard for everypony, isn't there something you want?"
"I...I dunno, wait, I know, I think. I got it! I want ponies to be happy! I want them to see, to learn, to grow, to be curious, to ask questions, to see and know!"
"Maybe not! But you won't get anywhere until YOU KNOW where you're going, so come on, what do you want out of life?" Spitfire asked.
"I want ponies to not give up just because things get tough, I want them to see their dreams to the end, and I want the roads they take to the point in the right direction."
"That's what you want for others, what do you want for yourself?"
"Those are nice things, dear," Golden said, "But those are nice things for other ponies, isn't there something you want for you? I do."
Dawn was struck dumb by Golden's words. Peewee waved his wing in front of her to no effect. Golden was worried for the filly until she slowly answered, like the very concept of what she was saying was forming and coming together as she spoke it, "I . . I want friends! I want friends who are friends I made on my own, not just friends who were friends with Mama or our family, friends I earned and grew to know. I want friends."
Noon was silent for a time, until she finally spoke, sounding not intense of wild, but, wistful, "I guess...I want to go home."
"This world is nice and all, it's our responsibility to see it stays nice for now. But...we're just visitors. I want to go home, and see, hear, and smell things for myself, not just from what Mom gave to me, I want to experience all those things, not just remember them. And meet Mom's family, not just this world's version of them....I want to go home."
"HEH!" Spitfire said, "A better answer."
"That's a good answer, sweetie," Golden said. "Fillies need something to reach for, to want to be. A filly that doesn't think of herself is nice...not to mention rare, but please, remember that sometimes wanting something good for yourself is part of growing up too."
"So do you have a plan for how we get out after?" Spitfire said, "You said after you got your sister de-zombified, you'd all becomes 'guardian angels' again?"
"We're not angels."
"Sorry, 'demigods', 'aspects', 'spirits.' Didn't realize that was an insult."
"It isn't. Angels are either mortal who either earned their wings by their works or took a burden on themselves after death, or spirits created to serve as messengers between concepts of reality and mortals. It's a compliment I don't think I deserve right now."
"Touchy little nitpicker, ain't ya? Well, anyway, I'm guessing that's your ticket out from all the changelings around. But what about us?"
Noon couldn't answer. She folded her wings and lowered her head, looking away. "I...I haven't been able to think of anything. Dusk is the thinker, not me. Look, if you want to back out now, I won't blame you. Leave if you want to, no one will blame you."
"You already gave me the 'if you choose to do this there's no turning back speech' and I said I wouldn't, so let's keep moving! This is about Canterlot and Equestria, not us!" They flew close to the tall domed building.
"So...where do we go after you and your sister are united again?" TLC asked.
"I...I dunno," Dawn said sadly realizing she hadn't once thought about what would happen to her friends. They couldn't take them with them. Peewee wasn't supposed to be alive, so he wasn't tethered to things. They all were. "I'm really really really sorry...I'm Happy Beginnings, I'm...not good at thinking things through after that..."
The adults looked at each other, then at the filly, and at last at the tower.
Filthy Rich spoke, "Alright, dear, then let's focus on getting your sister back," they got close to the tall domed building. "And don't ask us to turn back. I owe you too much to do that."
(Half Light Dawn's notes: Is time in flux again? Is fate in flux? I know this story is supposed to have a happy ending. But is it going to be happy because we'll all be MADE to be happy slaves for the queen? No! That would never happen! Wait! I can feel it! Somepony else is here too!)
(Half Light Noon's notes: We weren't supposed to be part of the story. We weren't supposed to have roles. Our job was just to help nudge ponies along like mom did. To be the 'good Alicorn' on their shoulders. Now I've gotta to save my own sister from one of the villains. And this one ain't out to make the world happy and safe like Nightmare Whisper. Dang it. And I barely know half of what's going on. I'm just following my gut instinct and what little I do know. So this is what it's like for everypony else. Pretty sure we've gotten spoiled. Wait a tick', I know this feelin'!)
"So all we gotta do is get all back together."
"And undo Dusk's seal."
"We can help ponies by asking the right question."
"And that'll REALLY throw some wrenches in that pretty intricate scheme of Chrysalis'!"