The Advent of Applejack

by Mister Friendly

Chapter 7: Desperation

Twilight was having one of those days, the kind that she had only once in a while. It was the kind of day that typically ended with a magnificent mushroom cloud and a large degree of collateral damage – something she’d learned from personal experience, actually. It was the proverbial end of her rope, reached only when plan after plan had fallen through – from the grand to the mundane. That, unfortunately, fit the description of how her day had been going to the tee, and it was starting to make her very cranky indeed.

First, the Summer Sun Celebration was interrupted by a catastrophe – again – and second, Twilight found herself caught in the middle of some plot that likely held the very fate of Equestria in the balance – again. At this point, such events happened so often one would think she would build up a tolerance for whenever they arrived.

At present, however, Twilight found herself confronted by something admittedly less common that was, admittedly, throwing her for a loop. It didn’t come in the form of some ancient artifact or imposing monster, either. Oh no, it came in the shape of a small, sapphire-maned changeling hardly bigger than a filly shuffling along slightly ahead of her – where she could keep an eye on its every move at the very least.

A changeling queen… of all the possibilities she could’ve encountered, that had not been high on her list. Somewhere near the bottom line on her darkest, most macabre of scenarios, perhaps, but nowhere near the top end of her more optimistic list. When she thought of queens, they were easily broken up into two groups; Applejack, the somewhat awkward but kind-hearted and open queen, and… well, everyone else; cold-hearted, calculating and sinister in the extreme. Sure the definition couldn’t exactly be called scientific classification, but considering how the average drone reacts at the mere mention of a name like Chrysalis, She didn’t feel entirely off target.

Yet here was Agave – clearly not Applejack, but also not fitting the ‘everyone else’ category, either. For one thing, she was listening to orders, and another, she wasn’t cackling like a complete lunatic. Like every queen Twilight had encountered before her, her appearance was shocking, and left her brain scrambling for answers – more so than it already had been, after having already been subjected to an illusory airship and an equally fake monster larva.

Frankly speaking it hadn’t quite sunk in yet, which was perhaps a good thing; the truth of Twilight’s situation left her feeling blindsided and disoriented, leaving the whole situation feel no more real than a particularly vivid daydream. But given a few more minutes, that could very swiftly – and very roughly – change, and then she could probably kiss any further mental computing power goodbye for the next few hours while she proceeded to have a full on mental breakdown.

It was for that very reason that they were hastening through the deserted streets, one goal in mind; to find Applejack before Twilight truly lost her marbles. Granted, Twilight didn’t tell either of her two companions the last part to the plan – she thought it prudent to leave that particular detail out – but thankfully, neither of them seemed to be in much of a position – or disposition – to ask too many questions.

Agave did have one query, however. She kept glancing over her shoulder at her apprehensively, as if needing to build up the necessary courage to coax her voice past her lips. Finally, after several minutes of floundering, she finally forced out a squeaking sound, which quickly turned to actual words. “U-u-um… Miss Twilight Sparkle, Ma’am…”

Twilight sighed, her demeanor softening despite herself. When she looked back on today, making a filly so scared she could barely talk to her wouldn’t be high on her highlights for the day.

“You don’t have to be so formal, Agave,” she said, automatically offering a benign smile. “Twilight’s fine. Is something wrong?”

Agave swallowed, now trying to rearrange her carefully planned out dialogue to fit with Twilight’s question. “Um, I was just wondering where we were going, that’s all. It feels like we’ve been out here for a really, really long time.”

Twilight frowned at her, looking a little confused. “But it’s only been a couple of minutes.”

“I know!” said Agave so emphatically that it took Twilight by surprise. It didn’t take her long to realize her outburst, however, and after a momentary pause she was one more shrinking submissively into herself. “Er… sorry.”

Twilight inspected Agave quietly. Perhaps, she realized, she was not the only one feeling a tad impatient at the moment. In Twilight’s case, it was for the multitude of questions threatening to break down her mental faculties like a wrecking ball, but for Agave, it was her immediate future that was hanging in the balance.

Twilight was trying very hard to remain neutral in her case, at least until she learned more, but… it was proving very hard to not at least sympathize with the poor thing. Either she was a stellar actress well beyond her years… or she had a better heart than Twilight was giving her credit for.

Yes, being unbiased was proving very hard at the moment.

“Applejack can’t be far,” Twilight said, returning her gaze to the path ahead. “The district isn’t very big. I’m sure we’ll run into each other… sooner or later.”

Admittedly, it wasn’t the best plan, she knew that. But for one thing, she didn’t feel comfortable leaving herself so vulnerable to present company while she concentrated on the necessary spells. She may be bordering on sympathetic, but she wasn’t in any way close to being complacent.

And regardless, if she knew Applejack, she wouldn’t be sitting still in a situation like this, which would make pinning her down a very arduous task. Especially if she was looking for Rainbow…

Rainbow… I hope you’re alright… Just hold tight; we’ll find you, I promise…

Twilight didn’t realize how engrossed in her thoughts she’d become until another voice spoke up, cutting through the silent, wooded pathway.

“Not to be that pony, but is wandering aimlessly through the district the best use for our time?”

Cassava had been dutifully remaining silent up until that point, and even then, he looked simply like a changeling out for a leisurely stroll around town. He might as well have just inquired about where they were intending to eat brunch, or some other benign triviality.

He’d even hummed in an undertone a few loose strings of a song only he knew, and likely one he’d invented on the spot for how inconsistent it was. Even so, for the longest time, it’d been the only sound to be heard besides shuffling hooves across gravel and grass, so it was not like his presence had gone unnoticed.

The only thing that ruined the whole non-threatening image of was the totally conspicuous body lying strewn across his back like some comatose duffle bag. All in all, Cassava seemed a little too accustomed to carrying bodies for Twilight’s taste.

He was only giving Twilight his eye patch and an annoyingly benign smile to look at when he kept his head turned to one side, which made him unexpectedly hard to read. He might’ve even appeared harmless, if it wasn’t for the body slung across his back, but Twilight knew that he was anything but, or at least she suspected it. She couldn’t quite put her hoof on it, but there was something… disconcerting about him that kept the little hairs on the back of her neck on edge and her eyes never far from his form and acutely aware of every move he made. She didn’t run the risk of sympathizing with him, at least.

On his back, the changeling assailant hadn’t… well, he was twitching, but he had yet to accomplish more than a few involuntary spasms and a weak gurgling in the back of his throat. Apparently getting hit by a speeding, fully stocked vendor cart had done a lot more damage than Twilight would’ve bet on, and that was saying something. Even so, the glassy emerald cases around his hind and forehooves proved that nopony – Cassava least of all – wanted to take chances with the dangerous drone.

“We’re not wandering aimlessly,” Twilight countered huffily, “We’re trying to find the central square.”

Cassava cocked his head slightly to one side, but he couldn’t have been looking in her direction; not unless he had something under his eye patch with x-ray vision.

“I cannot help but notice you say ‘trying’,” he commented.

If Twilight hadn’t been testy before, she was now. Dealing with sass was not something she was in the mood to do, and Cassava was giving her the impression that he was positively overflowing with it.

“Look, I don’t know the district’s layout, okay?” she shot. “But how hard can it be to find, really? At the very least we have to run into a familiar face sooner or later.”

“And when we do find somepony, potra,” Cassava went on, his voice disconcertingly conversational considering the thing lying lengthwise across his back that was steadily leaving a trail of spittle drips in the dirt behind him.

“Twilight,” she corrected immediately – and rather sharply. She did not like being called words in languages she did not understand, not since the Griffon Ambassador incident…

“Same thing – What is your plan? Are we under arrest?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” Twilight replied coolly, eyeing the back of Cassava’s head warily. She still didn’t have much to go off of just by what she was looking at, but she didn’t want to give Cassava the pleasure of bothering her because of it. “That all depends on what you two have to tell us. Obviously if the Changeling Court wants Agave dealt with it must be important. But I also have a hunch that queens don’t think – nor plan – in straight lines, so I’m not ruling anything out just yet.”

“You seem to know much about us,” Cassava remarked, sounding a little impressed.

Twilight shrugged. “I do my homework.”

Cassava nodded, turning back. Twilight noticed, at the same time, Agave glance towards him, giving him a questioning look.

“Hmm… I hope so, potra –”


“—Same thing – because we are about to walk straight into a rather big changeling swarm with an unmasked – and unknown – youngling queen and her unmarked bodyguard, immediately after a humongous attack on their home, I might add. So, as I say… I hope you know what you are doing.”

“Come on, it won’t be that bad,” Twilight rebuffed, rolling her eyes. “It’s best that we get it out in the open as soon as possible. Honesty is the best policy, you know, something Applejack will appreciate. And if Applejack appreciates it, I bet the changelings that follow her will, too.”

“Yes, because having the time to explain beforehoof has never been a good idea.”

That comment won Cassava a dirty look from behind. “Okay, One, I don’t even know how I’d start the conversation when I can’t even explain it to myself. Two, I thought we talked about being on our best behaviors,” Twilight shot.

The cyclopean drone could at least take the hint. He made a motion of locking his grinning lips with one hoof and said no more.

Twilight huffed, glowering. The last thing she needed right now was to have any more monkey wrenches thrown into her plans, and having Cassava throw doubts into her every move was not helping her organize her thoughts. There was only so much she could take in one day. “Look, all we have to do is find Applejack, let Agave explain whatever it is she has to explain, and then we’ll figure something out. As long as everyone is off at the Guard Post with everypony else, the chances of us running into the whole hive anytime soon seems pretty unlikely.”

Cassava didn’t reply. However, after a pause, Twilight noticed Agave’s head peek up, once again turning towards her one-eyed bodyguard with a look of deep worry. “She… doesn’t hear it, does she?” Agave whispered nervously.

Cassava merely shook his head silently.

Twilight’s lip started to curl at that. “Hear wha—”

Just before she could finish her question, something started tickling at her ears. Her comment forgotten, Twilight lifted her head curiously… only for all of the color to drain from her face.

It was precisely then that she realized that it wasn’t as quiet as it’d been a few moments ago. No – the air was alive with a new sound; the sound of very loud, very widespread humming. And in this part of Equestria, there was only one thing – or, to be more precise, a lot of somethings – that made that kind of noise.

“Agave,” Twilight squeaked.

“Y-yes, Twilight?” Agave squeaked back.

“Change of plan.”


The sky over the changeling district was darkening. But it was no storm that descended upon the treetops; it was a living mass of innumerable jet black bodies sailing through the air in a massive, writhing cloud that cast a shadow over the whole of Ponyville.

Hundreds upon hundreds of changelings swarmed en masse, reacting as if they’d heard some unseen signal they’d all been waiting for. Their wings produced a mind-numbing, droning cacophony that reached everypony for miles around, drawing every pair of eyes up skyward towards the black shadow blotting out the sun as it moved and undulated like a living thing in itself.

Nearly a block away from the district, Fluttershy looked up as the dark shadow fell over the street, worry darkening her face further. Even Rarity, who'd been bordering between hysterics and catatonia over her catastrophic state, looked up through bleary eyes. "Where are they all going, I wonder?" she asked, achieving an almost speculative tone of voice. Fluttershy, however, only bit her lip.

Even further into the thatched-roof village, Pinkie Pie looked around, pausing mid-bounce – literally – to look up. "Huh, that's strange," Pinkie noted, scratching her chin in mid-air. "I wonder where they're going."

But nopony got to see it for long. As quickly as the swarm materialized, it began to move. It soared across the sky with terrifying swiftness, only stopping again to churn and swirl restlessly above a mostly empty, tree-filled part of town.

Such a spectacle could only mean one thing. Applejack’s hive had returned, and judging its restlessness, it was not in a particularly good mood.


Roseluck hung back amid the swirling throngs of drones, her eyes sweeping across the lumpy tree tops over the district as if her eyes could penetrate to the streets and houses below. While innumerable changelings dove through the trees into nearly everything below, she remained behind, though with a small degree of reluctance. But she could do something more useful than rushing blindly forward, something she was much better at.

Five drones remained with her, just as watchful, as the swarm merged into the foliage, blanketing the district from above.

Privately, Roseluck was struck by the spectacle she was bearing witness to. Carnation’s hive had never been anywhere near the size of what she was now seeing, at least from what she remembered, and had never felt the need to execute such a conspicuous maneuver at any point in time. For a race that valued secrecy and discretion, forming a gigantic airborne swarm was kind of counterintuitive. If such a measure was to be taken, it had to be taken for a very good reason, and at the moment, Roseluck and her fellow drones had a very good reason.

“Do we know the situation?” Roseluck ask crisply.

One of the drones beside her shook his head. “Nothing new to report,” he replied. “No new developments. As far as we know, members of the Inner Sect are still sweeping the district for any further threats. Rainbow Dash is still missing, and the whereabouts of Agave and the assailant – and any possible accomplices – is unknown. Princess Twilight Sparkle is also still within the district, and it is likely that the rest of her friends are present as well.”

“And Applejack?” Roseluck inquired critically, getting to the heart of her query.

“Likely to be accompanied by Inner Sect members as well,” another responded. “If she hasn’t been escorted from the district by now.”

Roseluck knew how unlikely that was to happen, especially if Rainbow was still nowhere to be found. In a perfect world, Applejack would be safe and clear, giving Roseluck less she had to worry about. But in a perfect world, such a catastrophic event wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

“The Royal Guard has locked down all major transportation and is stationed around all of Ponyville’s exits,” continued on the first drone, bringing Rose back to reality. “It seems Steel Shod had already put squads on standby just in case something did happen today. As of right now, the district is quarantined, as per Guard protocol, but they will likely begin pushing inward to locate their princess if she is not located soon.”

Roseluck nodded. Well, well… It’s nice to finally have a pony’s dislike for us work in our favor for once.

However, she couldn’t help but feel uncertainty tugging at the back of her mind. Trusting the Guard to be able to contain the threat to the changeling district was optimistic, but not entirely realistic. An attack of this magnitude would have been planned out in excruciating detail, especially if changelings were involved; thinking that there would be escape routes Steel Shod and his men could never hope to foil would not be as farfetched as Roseluck wished it might be.

Even though they’d mustered as fast as they could, Roseluck was already feeling one too many steps behind. They’d been prepared, but not for something of this scale, which was likely the whole point, she bitterly noted. Changelings were nothing if not unpredictable.

Again, dark thoughts waded through the back of her mind, filling her heart with unease. She tried not to consider them – not yet, there was simply too much to do. But that didn’t stop her.

How could the Court get resources across the border for an attack like this…? Were we just being too hopeful that the princesses’ measures could keep them in check?

For some reason, she felt tired. Exhausted even, and in ways she didn’t like. But she had to keep her priorities straight; first, she had more pressing matters to deal with. Then she could think about what came next, once present issues had been dealt with. It was the only way to keep from getting bogged down and overwhelmed by the situation. She’d just have to take it one step at a time.

“Our first priority should be regrouping with Applejack and ensuring her safety,” Roseluck said. “Second, sweeping the district for the location of Rainbow Dash, wherever that may be. Third, tracking down Agave, Princess Twilight Sparkle, and anyone or anypony still unaccounted for in the district and getting them someplace safe. We will leave the tracking of threats to the Spymaster’s men.”

It was that last part that caused several of the drones to look back and forth between each other, looking nervous. Several of them then proceeded to hold a non-verbal conversation involving a lot of head-jerking in her direction, hoof gesturing, and ending with four pushing the fifth towards Rose, each of them giving the unlucky ‘volunteer’ a meaningful look and pointing at her back.

Roseluck tried to pretend like she hadn’t noticed any of this taking place, as she was finding herself at a distinct lack of patience for some of her comrades’ shenanigans. Still, she waited patiently until the chosen patsy worked up the courage to use his big-boy words.

“U-um, Miss Roseluck… We were wondering when, you know... we should inform the Spymaster about what happened here.”

Roseluck fought back her grimace, her expression becoming heavy. They had found the one topic Rose herself wanted to think about the least. If things kept up, she was going to start sprouting grey hairs right then and there.

“There’s no need to worry about him,” she said, her voice subduing noticeably. Over the din produced by the agitated swarm, only those closest to her would’ve made out her voice at all. “Knowing him, he’s already better appraised of the situation than we are. Let’s concern ourselves over what we can do right now, mainly ensuring Applejack’s safety and finding Rainbow Dash.”

The drones nodded, happy with that course of action – all except for one, who hesitated visibly. “Of course, but… I feel I must ask,” he said apprehensively. “Realistically… what are our chances of finding Applejack’s friend anytime soon?”

Roseluck fought back the urge to bite her lip. Truth be told, she’d been thinking about that the whole way to the Guard Post and back. If changelings had abducted her, the chances of actually finding Rainbow – let alone when they would find her – were dwindling by the second. And with a bargaining chip like her at the Court’s disposal…

Rose’s chest squeezed painfully. It really was a grim prospect, but at that moment, Rainbow Dash could’ve been literally anywhere.

Like, for example, screeching to a halt in midair right in front of her.

“Oh hey Rose, there you are!” Rainbow cried once she’d steadied herself, noticeably out of breath. “I’ve been looking all over –” she shook her head once, dismissing whatever she’d been about to say, “I mean, have you seen Applejack? Do you know where she is? I need to talk to her real bad.”

Meanwhile, Roseluck and every drone in her general vicinity who’d been under the impression that they’d been midway through a rescue mission, just stared back, completely at a loss for words.

Yet, there she was; Rainbow Dash, still just as blue, still just as rainbow-maned, still wearing the dark, umbral armor of a changeling across her chest and head. Even with her unusual wardrobe, there was absolutely no mistaking her, even if the masses of changelings seemed to think they were doing just that.

If she hadn’t been in such a rush, Rainbow may have even noticed how half the swarm cloud in front of her ground to a complete and screeching halt, a galaxy of blue eyes turning to stare at her like they’d never even seen a pegasus before.

Rainbow glanced between those closest to her, her expression becoming somewhat confused. “You know… Applejack? About this tall, changes shape, has a neat accent… really likes apples?”

Nothing. A hundred pairs of eyes just stared back uncomprehendingly. One of the closest drones was even reaching out towards Rainbow’s face, as if expecting her hoof to simply pass through the apparition.

By then, not even Rainbow could ignore the rather slack-jawed response she was getting. She was used to awe – somepony so awe-inspiring had to be, after all – but this was something else, something not nearly as gratifying.

Now feeling kind of awkward, and for reasons she didn’t really get, she said, “Yeah, so… if you see her, let me know, okay? It’s really, really important. Well… later. I’m gonna go find Twilight and… see if maybe she knows.”

And with that, she turned and glided down through a gap between an oak and rowan into the shaded streets below, throwing one last baffled glance at the stunned swarm before disappearing once again.

“… Miss Roseluck?”

“… Yes, Weevil?”

“I… would like to… uh… to report a new development.”


Twilight Sparkle looked up towards the dappled treetops overhead, trying not to panic all the while. Trying being the operative word.

Agave the stormy gray pegasus trembled in her shadow, looking scared out of her mind, her eyes fixed on the flickering shadows filtering down through the tree branches overhead. As when Twilight had found her, she seemed to be attempting to hide underneath the nearest source of cover – in this case, Twilight herself, but to little success.

Twilight, however, was too preoccupied to notice. she couldn’t see the changelings, not yet… but she could hear them. They were in front – they were behind; they were all around and everywhere in between, buzzing through the sky like some all-encompassing swarm of bees. And yet, she’d yet to see a single one as more than just a flickering shadow over the canopy.

So, all things considered, she was panicking.

In her mind, she’d already processed the information. Here she stood, standing next to an unmarked changeling without an identification pass, and a fledgling queen of all things, immediately after an attack on the center of the changeling’s home. And now there were a lot of agitated drones swarming all around her, looking for answers. She half expected them to drop on top of their heads in a hissing, snarling mass of anger, or at the very least a told-you-so from Cassava, though he was still keeping his silence. Though, even that could’ve just been to spite her.

Think, Twilight, think, she commanded herself, throwing her brain into overdrive. You have to explain things, and quick. You can make this work; you just have to reason with a whole bunch of really upset changelings. What’s the worst that could – no, no don’t finish that thought. Um…

Twilight nodded to herself, an idea striking her. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. While Cassava and Agave were unknown quantities to the changeling swarm, she herself wasn’t. They knew her, even without her recent rise to power inflating her reputation somewhat. If she could get them to stop and listen – even briefly – she had a chance to explain things, and possibly prevent another scene.

She could make this work; she knew she could. These were all good changelings at heart – as strange a concept as that might be for some. They were agitated now, but they weren’t unreasonable; she knew that much for sure. Drones like Bumblebee, Roseluck… yes, she wasn’t doomed yet. All she needed was a chance to prove herself.

“Okay,” Twilight said, still looking up towards the verdant ceiling and flinching every time something blotted out the light between the gaps in the branches and leafs. “I’ve got a plan. Cassava, just stay quiet and let me do the talking, okay?”


The second time she received no answer, Twilight was certain that Cassava was still cheekily giving her the silent treatment just to make a point. So, her temper flaring to its breaking point, she whipped around… to confront empty air.

All she found where the one-eyed drone had been was one restrained, unconscious changeling saboteur/assassin lying in the grass, looking more than a little comatose… and no one-eyed drone to accompany it.

Her panic redoubling, Twilight pulled perhaps the quickest three-sixty of her life, whirling around in a desperate bid to find any trace of the cyclopean changeling. It wasn’t so much a fear of losing him that frightened her as it was the prospect of having him unaccounted for, free to be located and captured by less-understanding drones. Why she cared, she did not entirely know; she wasn’t even sure she could trust him.

But no matter where she looked, there was not even the faintest trace of him left; not even a faint glimmer of magic or a brief blur of movement. He was simply gone, the ease of which he’d pulled his vanishing act more than a little disconcerting to the already disconcerted princess.

How did he… when did he…?

As she spun around, her gaze inevitably fell upon the only other one present – a terrified, quivering pegasus that was looking straight at her with very big eyes; the kind of look oblivious ponies did not tend to have.

“Where did he go?” Twilight demanded, rounding on the scared filly; difficult to do, since Agave was practically underneath her by that point. Twilight had to take a full step to one side just to look her face-to-face.

Agave was running out of room to shrink down to; she was already crouched so low that she was virtually lying in the dirt. “I-I-I don’t know!” she cried, shielding her face behind her wings. “I can’t tell him what to do; I’m only a youngling! I don’t even have my crown yet!”

“But you’re a queen,” Twilight pointed out. “Why wouldn’t he –”

“I swear I don’t know where he went,” Agave persisted, looking helpless. “M-maybe he thought separating would make things easier to explain?”

Twilight had to admit that she may have a point. With Agave in her present state, she would be the least difficult to cover for. Cassava, on the other hoof, would’ve been conspicuous even when shapeshifted, considering the distinct lack of an identification badge.

Still, the thought of a drone acting without a queen’s permission… no, something else must’ve been going on. An unseen signal, some preplanned contingency – something.

Unfortunately, Twilight didn’t have the one thing she needed to make sense of it all; time. Rustling leafs overhead reminded her of that, but when she looked up, she didn’t find the cause.

She had no choice but to think fast; this little matter would have to wait, no matter how many warning bells it set off in her head.

Twilight had to think – and think fast. The sounds of changelings were getting closer. About the only good side to this most recent development was the fact that Cassava had left behind their captive, and had taken himself out of the equation.

In that, their situation was perhaps better off than before. Now all she had to worry about was whether the changelings were as irate as she imagined them to be or not.

“Agave,” Twilight said quickly, gaining the filly queen’s attention instantly. “Just let me do the talking, okay? And don’t go anywhere, either. Got it?”

“Understood,” Agave squeaked in a small voice.

Twilight nodded and looked around. It was fortunate that she did, because right as she turned her head, she caught the first definitive sign of changeling activity.

A ways down the gently curving street from her, a black blur went shooting from one side of the street to the other, disappearing behind a wooden house… only for a little black head to reappear a second later with an audible squeak loud enough to be heard some distance away, luminescent blue eyes peering in Twilight’s direction.

Twilight’s breath caught. She braced as the changeling suddenly started sprinting towards her, fully expecting to be met with aggressive hisses and snarls.

She wasn’t, however, anticipating whimpers.

“Princess Twilight! Princess Twilight!” the drone cried, charging full tilt at her with a look of sheer panic on her face. “Oh my goodness, oh my – have you seen Queen Applejack? Do you know where she is?”


All across the changeling district, and even into parts of Ponyville proper, similar scenes were taking place.

Halfway between the district and a hot, cleansing shower, Rarity and Fluttershy suddenly found themselves surrounded on all sides by a group of distressed changelings who’d spotted them from high in the sky, recognized them, and descended on them like swooping falcons with a singular goal in mind.

Five blocks away, just on the rim of the market, Pinkie Pie was pulled up short out of her fastest, most bouncy of strides when a swarm of changelings started buzzing all around her, forcing her to a halt to answer their demands.

And they all had the same demand, regardless who they asked. Nothing else mattered to them – a singular, driving force had taken hold of them all, tunneling their vision on only one solitary goal; to find their queen. To find Applejack at all costs.


Twilight, for her part, was stunned. This was in no way the wary, territorial creature she’d envisioned she’d encounter, hissing and spitting and bristling like feral dogs defending their turf; no, this drone sprinting towards her seemed to have more in common with an abandoned filly looking for her mother. She was scrambling, nearly falling over herself in her haste, looking so desperate one would think her life was in jeopardy.

Twilight was so taken aback that she didn’t respond right away, and in that time, the drone had caught up to her.

The fretful changeling barely glanced at Agave and flat out didn’t even notice the very conspicuous drone lying in a crumpled heap on Twilight’s other side; she had eyes only for the lavender princess and whatever knowledge she might possess.

“I’ve searched all over the place,” the drone whined, wringing her hooves while glancing about restlessly, as if expecting to find the object of her searching at any moment. But the more she looked around and apparently found nothing of interest, the further she was pushed into hysterics, her voice hitching up higher and higher by the second. “I just can’t find her! Do you know where she is? Is she alright? Please tell me she’s alright!”

Finally, Twilight rediscovered her voice, soon enough to get out a strangled “I’m sure she’s –” before another outburst made her flinch.

Another drone, likely drawn by the first’s crying, was streaking through the air towards group, moving like greased lightning from a bough overhead. He, however, was only a harbinger for what was about to come.

It was as if the first drone’s appearance had triggered some kind of an alarm, because all of a sudden, they were everywhere. Changeling after changeling burst through bushes and thickets, out of treetops, even out of a window or two as they crawled through the houses in question. They buzzed through the air, galloped across the ground, sometimes alternating freely between the two in an effort to speed up, depending on whichever struck their fancy. They all first looked around, zeroed in on Twilight, and then flung themselves forward with alarming agility.

In no time at all, the street was packed, all avenues of escape blocked off. The silence had been dispelled spectacularly by the sheer volume of buzzing wings, scrabbling hooves, and many, many voices, all vying for Twilight’s attention.

“Where is she?”

“Do you know where Queen Applejack is?”

“I can’t find her anywhere! It feels like forever since I saw her last!”

“We shouldn’t have left her behind! What if we can’t find her again? What are we going to do?!”

“Is she sick? She’s not hurt, is she?! Please, Princess Sparkle, show us where she is!”

“Yes, you must know where she is! Please, show us where she is!”

“Show us, please!”

In a way, Twilight found herself in the situation she’d been dreading; completely surrounded by changelings seeking answers, boxed in on all sides by a crush of drones that steadily pushed closer and closer together, unable to get a single syllable in edgewise to diffuse the situation. This, however, was something else entirely, and yet just as bad.

By then, she was at the center of the mob, her personal space bubble dwindling in size with each passing second, to the point of drones almost physically grabbing hold of her. One nearly did just that in his quest for Applejack’s whereabouts, forcing Twilight to press one gilded hoof against his chest just to keep him at arm’s length.

“Wai—hey, hang on! One at a time!” Twilight tried to holler, but it was no use. The masses were simply too worked up up to heed what she had to say. Even if she shouted at the top of her lungs that she’d take them all where they wanted to go, a good part of her felt sure the living typhoon of noise wouldn’t hear a word she said.

So, drastic times called for drastic measures.

Fueled by a fair amount of adrenaline after almost getting grabbed again, Twilight’s horn erupted with light, sparking and fizzing with the sheer volume of magic trying to be forced out of her horn so quickly. Then, with a blinding flash, a nova of purple light exploded over the crowded street… and everything went still.

Twilight opened her eyes, panting, sweat beading on her forehead and a grating ringing in her ears, to find herself surrounded on all sides by a mob of motionless, petrified black statues, all frozen in whatever pose they’d been in before Twilight’s spell hit, usually with their mouths open, a hoof or two raised.

Even the changelings hovering in the air found themselves inexplicably locked in place, wings hanging motionless in all manner of positions midway through their usually rapid flapping cycle. All were unable to so much as bat an eyelash. Each and every one of them was enveloped in a sheath of dancing violet light, the same kind that pulsed around Twilight’s horn.

With her ears still ringing from the verbal onslaught, Twilight steadied herself with a deep breath, then raised her head, bearing no small amount of annoyance.

“Everyone, settle down!” she shouted exasperatedly. “I can’t help if you guys don’t give me a chance!”

No one responded, though it couldn’t be held against them given their current state. They couldn’t even arrange their faces to look apologetic nor could they get their vocal cords to work in any capacity, so powerful was Twilight’s stasis spell. For so many, she had to make it as powerful as possible or else there’d be gaps in her coverage beyond her control. For powerful spells, the more general the better, especially if one needed to cast it in a hurry. They all could hear her, see her, and comprehend her, and weren’t in danger of dropping dead because their internal organs came to a halt, but in every other regard, it was as if time itself had come to a complete standstill around each changeling.

“First of all,” Twilight went on, reigning herself in, “I don’t know where Applejack is precisely, but I do know that she is not hurt or sick, or anything of the sort! Those cloaked changelings are still with her, so everyone needs to please calm down. She’s safe.”

Twilight took another deep, steadying breath, which felt even better than the last.
She was on the verge of sitting down when she felt her undercarriage bump against something huddling beneath her. It was then that she remembered Agave.

As requested, she was letting Twilight do all the talking, but that could’ve simply been because she was too scared to budge an inch. Her eyes were huge, her legs and wings pinned so close to her chest it looked like she was hugging herself.

Not far off, Twilight found the unconscious captive – now playing doormat to two motionless changelings who simply didn’t seem to care that they were stepping on another living being. Twilight thought about addressing that… but then pretended she hadn’t noticed and turned away.

“If I had to guess,” Twilight went on, addressing the mob again, “I’d say Applejack is still trying to find our friend, Rainbow Dash, who could be anywhere around here. When we find her, I’ll be more than happy to help you all find Applejack.”

With her spell cast, Twilight was expecting to speak without interruption. That, however, didn’t happen, as a squeaky voice spoke up from directly beneath her. “R-Rainbow’s missing?” Agave echoed.

Twilight hesitated, then nodded. “We don’t know where she is. That’s why I’m hoping we can get some information out of our friend over there” – she gestured blandly in the direction of the changeling captive without really looking – “will have some things to tell us. That is, of course, if you don’t.”

For some reason, though, Agave didn’t panic. She didn’t even seem to hear most of what Twilight said. No, she’d instead became rather motionless – and very, very pale.

The gears in her mind were turning in overdrive, to the point where she seemed totally oblivious to her surroundings. When she spoke, it wasn’t to anypony in particular, and seemed to be more like a thought that had leaked off the tip of her tongue into a quiet, quivering whisper “… Mother…”

Twilight blinked, her temperamental outburst stalling. “What?”

All of a sudden, Agave was looking up at her, a look on her face so scared that it took even Twilight aback. Up until that point, it was like she’d only been nervous or anxious. Now, those changeling queen eyes shown with a fear so intense, so panic-inducing, they practically screamed bloody murder at Twilight.

“Twilight, we have to hurry!” she cried, suddenly taking hold of one of her forelegs. “I-I don’t understand what’s going on – s-she must’ve followed me and – I-I don’t know! But if she has Rainbow, then the Court will have her soon, too! And if the Court gets ahold of her, there’s no telling what they will do to her to get back at Applejack! There might still be time, but if they get her out of Ponyville, we may never see her agai—!”


And for the second time in under five minutes, the street went dead quiet. This time, it wasn’t because of a spell, but instead a shock so profound it stopped even terrified Agave in her tracks mid-rant.

Twilight and Agave looked at each other, neither one quite believing what they’d heard, until they turned their heads in unison, eyes just as big, to find a rainbow-maned abductee standing just a few feet away, still dressed in a changeling’s armor, looking between them both with uncertainty.

“Are… are you two about done freaking out?” Rainbow asked, gesturing with a hoof between the two. “I kinda don’t have all day.”

Twilight and Agave just gawked in sheer, mind-numbing disbelief. So great was Twilight’s shock that her horn flickered, then extinguished, dropping a small horde of changelings onto the ground in the process as her mind stalled in totality.



“… How long have you been standing there?”

Rainbow thought about it for a moment, pawing her chin. “Mmm… not long. Just got here actually, but you two looked pretty into... whatever you guys were talking about. I was going to ask you a question, but you seemed kinda in the middle of doing a Rarity, so…”

“And… and you didn’t think to say something earlier?”

To that, Rainbow looked slightly affronted. “I was trying, but the two of you weren’t giving me a chance! And I thought the Apples were bad when they got going. By the way, if you're ever over for dinner, never bring up pears. Like, seriously. All. Night. Oh and speaking of whom…”

To Agave’s uncomfortable surprise, she suddenly found herself the subject of Rainbow’s undivided attention. She was already a nervous wreck, and seeing the intensity in the pegasus’ eyes didn’t help in the least.

“We need to get you to Applejack,” Rainbow said, her voice unexpectedly serious. “Like, right now.”

While Twilight gave her friend an even more confused look than before, Agave quirked her head to one side, looking befuddled herself. “We… do?” she echoed, sounding as nonplussed as she looked.

Rainbow nodded, worrying Agave still further. “Yeah. Don’t you have some pretty important things to tell Applejack before anything else happens?”

Agave’s expression flickered, as did Twilight’s. “Rainbow, how did you know…?” the alicorn asked, but was forced to trail off.

Because all at once, the entire changeling mob sprang back to life in a flash of speed.

With a rallying cry of high-pitched squeaks and squeals unlike anything the two ponies had ever heard before, every single changeling lunged – not at Agave or Twilight, but straight at Rainbow.

As fast as Rainbow’s reflexes were, they weren’t anywhere near quick enough to get her out of the way of the first six close range, buzzing missiles, which proceeded to tackled her right off her hooves and knock her to the ground in a pile of tangled limbs, all the while producing the same high pitched note that was too high for a pony too ever make themselves.

And it wasn't the drones closest to her that decided to inexplicably jump on top of Rainbow as if trying to hold her down while squeaking and squealing excitedly. Oh no, there were a lot more who joined in.

While the gathering of some eighty changelings continued to dog-pile en masse on top of a hollering, thoroughly unamused Rainbow, one more drone turned toward a stunned Twilight, an excited and awfully expectant gleam in his eye.

“Princess Sparkle,” he barked eagerly, all the while ignoring changelings cannon-balling into the pile behind him, “we have acquired the rainbow one. May we now be shown where Queen Applejack is?”

Two things could have happened then. Either Twilight continued to try to process the inexplicable events that had taken place one after the other right in front of her, which would likely result in her head violently exploding, or her overloaded mind simply would give up, toss in the towel, and cease to question it, all in the interest of self-preservation.

Luckily, it was the second option that came to be.

Twilight sighed, long and beleaguered, and turned around. “Yeah, sure. Let’s go.”


The central square of the changeling district was a mess.

Decorations had been scattered in every direction as if tossed about by a savage whirlwind. Streamers, ornaments, multicolored bits of confetti, and even a few uprooted lamp posts; debris large and small sprinkled bushes and flowerbeds and everything in between, leaving them lying strewn as if by the grim consequence of some devastating war.

Long planks of wood stuck up out of the ground like stretched out headstones at a ransacked cemetery, gouging the earth where they’d been buried into it.

What’d once been a big lacy “Summer Sun Celebration” banner had been draped unceremoniously in several different shredded white tatters from several high boughs, hanging like motionless ghosts in the stillness.

A pile of twisted wreckage lay heaped where the royal’s balcony had once stood, burn marks scarring the wood telling the tale of quite the magical blast indeed despite what the witnesses had seen themselves.

And unlike the rest of the district, hardly anything was green. Branches overhead were covered in cracked and peeling bark, leaves looking just as diseased. Cascades of brittle, yellow leaves drifted through the air like bits of ashes from a dead fire, more a scene from autumn than the height of summer.

Once lush grass had withered and shriveled, as if exposed to an unearthly heat that’d stricken the life out of each blade. Flowerbeds lay desiccated and ruined, sporting far more brown and yellow than the vibrant kaleidoscope they’d once held, like a once-grand painting covered in dirt and filth.

All had turned a very sickly shade of yellowish brown, and an unpleasant smell clung to the air like smog, like a compost heap left to rot under the summer sun.

This was the first thing Applejack noticed when she came jogging into the square, huffing and puffing – and now with a wrinkled nose as well. As she looked around, her eyes bore witness to the chilling cost inflicted by the dark artifact that had generated the illusory Sylphid.

She’d been running so much in the past few minutes that her neatly braided amber mane had become frazzled, loose ends poking out in every direction. Applejack had half considered just unraveling the dang thing and been done with it, but in order to do that, she would’ve had to stop, and she couldn’t afford to waste time.

Her chest burned and her holey hooves ached, yet she was ignorant to it. Her amber eyes only lightly grazed over her surroundings, giving everything only enough scrutiny to notice the distinct lack of blue, and the rainbow that should’ve come with it. Her eyes paused here and there – on a strip of blue bunting, an azure hat that sat forgotten and dirty in a bush, a periwinkle scarf that lay in the dirt where the sun could find it. None were anything like what she wanted to see, and each false alert only served to agitate her further.

Dagnabit, Dash… where did ya get yerself off to? Applejack grumbled internally, eyes turning this way and that, looking for the faintest clue. A bit of blue-painted wood, the remains of an indigo flowerbed mixed with a few recognizable spotted red tiger lilies and yellow tulips… Ya wouldn’ta made it that easy for them. Ya couldn’t have…

Dark thoughts whipped through her head like persistent, biting gnats. They had been for so many long minutes already, and they served to do nothing but stress her further.

If ya got hurt…

Applejack shook her head rather violently, as if trying to physically throw the vile thoughts from it. She would not – could not – entertain them even for a moment. Rainbow was better than that; it was one of the things Applejack valued most in her. Her capabilities to fend for herself were never questionable, even if sometimes her motives were. She would look after herself. She would be fine.

But then where was she?

The changeling ground her fangs together, both in frustration and something she was determined to not see as panic. Impatience sounded better.

She’d been up and down every street in the district, but it hadn’t taken her long to feel like nothing more useful than a headless ant running about, helter-skelter, without purpose. She’d exerted herself as much as she physically could, running, climbing, knocking open doors, whatever she had to in order to check every possible hiding place scattered about the district, and there were many. She was working herself to the bone, and for the first time in her life, she had absolutely nothing to show for it. Not a solitary feather or hair… nothing.

These were changelings she was dealing with; not being found was their specialty. And if they didn’t want her to find Rainbow…

No! That ain’t gonna be how it goes!

Applejack struggled to rein herself in – to force the tumult raging inside of her to settle into something she could at least put to work. She’d never felt so frustrated or so impatient before in her life, and while the minority part of her brain struggled in vain to keep reminding her how her temper wouldn’t help her think, the majority opinion wasn’t in any mood to listen.

Ah’ll find Rainbow. There ain’t no way she coulda gotten far! Ah’ll make sure she’s safe, and there ain’t nothin’ that’ll stop me from doin’ just that. Then Ah’ll make sure whoever did this gets what’s comin’ ta—ow!

Applejack flinched with a hiss, jerking her hoof back up after only just putting it down on what seemed to be the hardest, most jutting rock that’d ever arisen to torment Equestria’s inhabitants.

It only lasted a split second, long enough to make Applejack jolt in surprise, but just as quickly, her shock changed to an even uglier shade of annoyance.

There was that aching pressure again, cutting her right down to the bone all the way up her elbow. It’d only lasted a moment, but for that moment, it felt like her foreleg was trapped in an unbreakable, crushing vice, like a boot two sizes too small. It hadn’t been that high before, something she noted before she could check herself.

Applejack shrugged it off with a few quick shakes of her hoof and a scowl on her face. She wasn’t going to dawdle about just because of some growing pains, no matter how much worse they were getting.

But as she looked down, eyeing her hoof like it’d slighted her, Applejack’s eyes came across something else that drew her attention like a magnet.

It turned out the thing she’d stepped on wasn’t a jutting, pointed rock at all. In fact, it was completely flat, save for the indented shape of a hoof. But even so, the postcard seemed to glare back at her, the serene beach and cheery “Wish you were here!” across the top completely at odds with the cold bite it instilled in Applejack’s chest.

Wish you were here…

Applejack had to look away – anywhere else, really. The cold chill running down her spine was doing wonders for tempering her anger, but it was replacing that void with an even greater sense of burning, restless impatience. That had not been the distraction she’d needed, and now she found herself searching for another.

The moment she looked back up, however, she couldn’t help but notice the pair of glowing eyes pointed in her direction from under a dark, rugged hood, and she quickly remembered that she wasn’t alone.

“Are you alright, Your Highness?” the owner of those eyes asked. Cloak was standing only slightly ahead of her, but obviously the sound of Applejack’s sharp intake of breath had been enough to draw his attention, enough so to give him cause to glance behind him.

Behind Applejack, Antlion had similarly halted in order to take stock of Applejack, though he didn’t need to hear her gasp when he had a clear view of the way she’d flinched mid-step. It only momentarily distracted him away from scanning a conjoining lane for possible threats, however, not nearly long enough to speak up for himself. Not that he’d done much speaking to begin with.

“Fine,” Applejack responded, her voice coming out a little shorter than she meant it to. “And it’s just Applejack. Ya don’t gotta call me ‘Yer Highness’ all the gosh darn time.”

Cloak started to say something, but in the end thought better of it and merely nodded before turning back around.

Of course, the moment she got finished saying it, Applejack started to feel guilty about her choice of words.

“…Sorry,” Applejack sighed. “Ah didn’t mean ta snap at ya like that. Ah’m just… a little high strung after everythin’ that’s happened.”

“Think nothing of it,” Cloak dismissed without a second thought. “My feelings are not that easily hurt.”

The shrouded changeling glanced to one side – just far enough to see Applejack around the utmost corner of his hood. “I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new, but Rainbow Dash is as tough a pony as they come. Not to mention, by now the Guard would’ve locked down the town if they had any sense about them, so we shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

Applejack frowned a little at that, but turned to continue scanning her surroundings. She didn’t like how easy she was to read, but for the moment, she was willing to let it slide. No need to get hung up on every little annoyance, or else she’d be blowing her top already. Instead, she chose to let the big annoyance get under her skin. “There ain’t no doubt about that happenin’ if Steel Shod’s leadin’ ‘em,” she grumbled. “ The princess gave him an order, but knowin’ him, he’s been waitin’ for somethin’ like this ta happen all day.”

It may have been a surprisingly cynical thing to say, especially by Applejack’s standards, but it was the truth, no doubt about it, especially after the scene from yesterday. Once she was settled down she knew she wouldn’t be so quick to snap at others’ faults, but for the moment, she was perfectly willing to vent at somepony, even if they only slightly deserved it, if only to make herself feel even a little better. It didn’t work.

It could’ve been easy to pick up on Applejack’s foul mood, and maybe even the undercurrent that caused it, because when Cloak spoke up again, his choice of tone was upbeat and optimistic.

“Then the only thing we need to concern ourselves with is finding Miss Dash,” Cloak stated in conclusion. “At the rate we’re moving, I’m sure she’ll turn up sooner or later. We just need to keep a lookout for any signs of her.”

He made it sound so simple, like they’d just round a corner and there’d she be…

“Then wouldn’t we be better off if we split up?” Applejack proposed yet again it felt like. “We’d cover a heck of a lot more ground and sky.” But even as she said it, she knew what the answer would be; the same one it’d been since setting off with her unnecessary escort.

While Cloak gave her a somewhat apologetic look, Antlion raised his gravelly voice for the first time since the incident with the Sylphid, saving his subordinate from having to formulate an answer.

“With all due respect, Your Highness,” he started gruffly, “the enemy has already made one attempt on your life. Our duty, first and foremost, is to protect you from harm, and leaving you unguarded would defeat that purpose, no matter the reason. I am deeply sorry, but we have some directives that not even a queen can contradict.”

Applejack turned, intent on snapping at Antlion this time, and without reservation, only for Cloak to cut across her. “Don’t mind him, Applejack,” he said quickly. “As the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

The third of Applejack’s companying changeling spoke up then – after a barely restrain snort of derision. “And if Antlion was any more of an old dog, he’d bark.”

Dagger strode along on Applejack’s other side, a blatantly bored look on her face. She was looking around, but it only seemed to be because she was required to. Now that the excitement had died down, she wasn’t bothering to hide her disinterest from anypony.


Applejack blinked, not quite understanding Antlion’s barely muttered comment. On the other hoof, she saw Dagger’s reaction to that single word – a flinch, barely repressed even behind her apparent boredom.

She glanced towards Cloak, and noticed him looking around more diligently than ever before, so much so that he just so happened to avoid looking in Applejack’s direction altogether.

So, Applejack turned to the only other changeling around and threw a questioning look towards the ever-grim-faced Antlion. It was like ‘happy’ was an emotion he’d simply never experienced, or possibly couldn’t comprehend.

He noticed Applejack’s unspoken question, and obliged her an explanation dutifully. “Even an old dog knows how to teach pups discipline,” he grunted. “That is the only reason the Spymaster saw fit to gift me these two wild children. Please, pay their disrespectful dispositions no mind; once our duties here are over, I will deal with them in the most appropriate manner.”

Both Cloak and Dagger visibly flinched, despite their best efforts to keep it as low profile as possible. However, Applejack had taken too much notice of something else the gruff changeling had said to spare them more than a glance.

There was that name again; Spymaster. For many, many long minutes it’d been trying to weasel its way into the front of her mind, only kept in check by her more urgent mission of finding Rainbow. But the name hadn’t gone away, nor diminished in importance. It was there, constant and nagging, and bearing with it no small degree of uneasiness.

She hadn’t wanted to consider it; didn’t have time to in her pursuit of Rainbow’s captors. But now that it had been spoken…

Antlion could tell that something was bothering Applejack. He maintained eye contact with her, patient and waiting. He waited in humble silence until Applejack found the words she wanted to say.

“Antlion,” she started, frowning to herself, “Who is the Spymaster?”

Antlion’s response wasn’t immediate. Applejack couldn’t tell if he didn’t want to respond – or couldn’t – or if he was trying to find the right words for his response. None of those options were particularly encouraging.

“He,” Antlion said at last, “is just as dedicated to your cause as you are.”

Applejack raised her eyebrow. That wasn’t much of an answer, though it was a relief to know something to attribute to this mysterious name besides just the name itself. Still, the fact remained that it was hardly an answer at all.

Antlion could see that his barebones response had been far from satisfactory, because after only a brief pause he followed suit with another comment; this time, one with a slightly more empathetic note to it.

“I apologize, Your Highness –”


“… but I cannot answer all of your questions right now, not while we are so exposed to… potential eavesdroppers. Until we find a more secure location, it will have to wait.”

For a moment, Applejack thought that this was just another passive-aggressive attempt to get her to give up her search for Rainbow. Maybe not in so many words, per se, but the outcome would be the same, and her entourage had attempted this strategy on numerous occasions already, to the point where Applejack was starting to regret every time she opened her mouth, for fear of how her words could be twisted against her.

“Then it’s just gonna have ta wait,” she grumbled, turning away. The burning question of the identity of the Spymaster was a pressing one, but not even half as urgent as making sure Rainbow was safe. She could suffer having to put it off for a little while longer, or indefinitely; however long it took to get Rainbow back.

Antlion didn’t push the matter. He merely nodded, like he’d done before, as if Applejack’s answer had been a perfectly reasonable, and then returned his scrutiny to the many nearby nooks and crannies.

Applejack knew it wholly unreasonable. It was stubborn and bullheaded, but she could see no other course of action. She simply had to keep pushing forward; the only true defeat would be if she gave up trying to win.

Just hang on, sugarcube. Ah’m comin’, Ah prom…

She hesitated, not quite finishing her thought before something caught her attention. Applejack paused, cocking her head slightly to listen.

At first she couldn’t have been sure; it was too inconsistent, even in the quiet air, fainter than a rustling leaf or errant breeze. But the longer she stood there, the more she started to make out a peculiar sound; a rumbling almost, but not quite. There was something else mingled with it; a sound she knew she should recognize. It sounded almost like rain’s inconsistent pitter-patter, or…

Or like the sound of countless hooves stampeding in her direction.

Right as Applejack realized what it was, the origin of that sound came into view as a hundred changelings rounded the nearest corner at full speed, didn’t break stride, and continued barreling straight towards her. In fact, when the multitudes of eyes saw her standing frozen in the middle of the square, they began sprinting still faster.

It was as if the entire district’s population had materialized out of thin air, sprinting or buzzing straight at her, full tilt. The moment she was spotted, a cry went out, one that quickly got lost as it was echoed again and again amid the swarm further back down the masses, beyond eyesight but not nearly far enough to move out of earshot.

“Applejack! There she is! We found her! Applejack!”

The changeling queen in question could only stand perfectly still in shock, looking like a deer caught in the headlights of some careening freight train. She’d never before seen the masses of changelings so frantic, not in her life; their was panic so palpable it set her on edge. Had something else happened? Was the attack not over yet at all? A whirlwind of dark possibilities raced through Applejack’s head, curling her heart with dread.

So great was their haste that some actually stumbled, or even tumbled completely end over end only to pop back up and keep running without losing a fraction of their momentum.

Applejack thought that maybe some horrible beast was chasing after them, and was just starting to brace to confront this newest threat.

She soon learned, however, that it wasn’t something at the back of the pack that she had to worry about. She found that out when the fastest among them reached her, threw all social conventions right out the window, and promptly tackled her to the ground in an overjoyed heap. Understandably, Applejack was at something of a loss after that.

Drones didn’t make a habit of tackling her. Or hugging her for all their worth. Or touching her at all. And yet, that was exactly what they were doing; at least six of them had latched onto whatever part of her they could get ahold of and showed no signs of letting go, as if fearing she'd disappear if they did. Even changelings who couldn’t physically touch her still piled on, as if contact with someone that was touching her was just as good.

Changelings had ahold of her midriff, her left leg, around her shoulders and even her face – and for some reason that initially escaped the dumbfounded queen, they were only squeezing tighter.

“Applejack! We’ve been looking everywhere for you! We were so worried that something might’ve happened while we were gone.”

“We’re sorry we left you behind, we’re so sorry! We shouldn’t have left you here by yourself!”

“We promise we won’t ever let it happen again! Please forgive us!”

At least two more were hastily examining every inch of her they could, as if looking for so much as a single out of place hair. “Are you injured anywhere?” they kept asking urgently, appraising eyes scanning whatever their hooves could not touch. “Does anything hurt at all?”

Applejack’s mouth just flapped open and closed soundlessly, as useless as a fish out of water. Most of the voices she recognized, even in her overloaded state; familiar shop owners, recurring passersby, voices she’d heard so many times in her life that she could put them to faces, even if their names escaped her.

But there were also some she didn’t recognize as readily, voices that – up until a few months ago – had never set foot on Equestria soil. They were the ones whose behavior stunned her the most, because they had been the most reserved of the lot.

And they just kept coming in droves, social manners forgotten in totality, crushed under the weight of their fading anxiety and bursting relief. All Antlion, Cloak and Dagger did was take a few steps back to give the masses more room, Antlion glaring disapprovingly while his subordinates did their best to stifle laughter. None of them so much as raised a hoof to save Applejack from her own swarm, for fear of how many pointy little teeth they’d get in return.

This of course left Applejack to deal with her predicament herself. It took her considerably longer than it should’ve to first realize that, no, there was not some fresh terror bearing down on them, and that, yes, these were in fact changelings giving her a massive group hug. If she’d been told earlier in the day that she’d be a part of such a thing with the usually reserved and mild-mannered drones, she probably would’ve laughed in that pony’s face.

Finally, after one of the longest, most confusing time periods of Applejack’s life, the changelings started to relinquish their grips on her and give her some room.

Some of them showed signs of having their brains catching up to their actions, coloring their beaming faces with glimpses of mortification and embarrassment, sometimes both in the same expression. The most embarrassed of the lot quickly faded into the black and speckled blue gathering.

Some of the cheering and glee died down as everyone turned their attention to Applejack, now for a new reason; to see if they’d gone too far.

One of the drones responsible for bowling the young queen over in the first place gave Applejack a helping hoof back upright. Another proffered her crown, which had been left almost a foot away where she’d been standing previously, then both quickly backed away once she’d regained her balance.

However, the adrenaline and shock was so high in Applejack’s system that her mood was anything but irate. A series of huffs escaped her lips as she straightened her crown atop her head; or, perhaps, they were chuckles, giddy from a racing pulse but tempered by self-control.

“Landsakes,” she coughed, wiping herself down with a hoof. “Ah’m glad ta see all y’all, too.”

“We’re sorry for the delay, Applejack,” one of the drones chimed up, and Applejack couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the return of that familiar tenner of respect and humility that circumvented the previous mood. And there she was, hoping to herself maybe she’d finally cracked their reverence of her. “We had to make sure everypony was safe at the Guard Post first, but all of us came back as soon as we could.”

Somewhere behind her, Applejack heard someone whistle. “Well you certainly made good time,” Cloak remarked. “I would’ve bet bits it’d take you longer to get back.”

“You did bet bits,” Dagger corrected him from his right, and promptly held a hoof out towards him expectantly.

Applejack sighed, looking around. “Everyone… y’all didn’t have ta get so wound up over me.”

“I don’t think she knows how drones work,” Cloak commented quietly.

“It’s kind of in our job description,” Dagger agreed. “Not even in the fine print.”

“Quiet, you two.”

“Sorry boss.”

One of the drone’s – the one that’d been wrapped firmly around Applejack’s shoulders and was now shuffling and avoiding eye contact because of that – spoke up as if she hadn’t heard the cloaked changelings’ commentary. “We… just wanted to make sure you were safe. I apologize if we were a little…” she glanced around, trying to find the right word.

“Overzealous,” someone else offered from the crowd. This made the first to speak start nodding in agreement. “Y-yes. Overzealous.”

Applejack shook her head – more out of disbelief than actual confirmation. “Oh nonsense. Sure y’all caught me by surprise, but there ain’t nothin’ wrong with expressin’ yerselves.”

Applejack said it, but she had a good feeling that it wasn’t going to stick. It usually didn’t, and she’d been at it for a while now. Still, it gave her a slight glimmer of hope for a future where she wasn’t put on such a high pedestal, where she didn’t deserve to be. And the way the day had been going, even the faintest glimmer of hope felt like food to a starving pony; delicious, no matter how small or unimpressive it was.

“We’re still sorry,” mumbled one of the drones; an airborne one, who’d taken to wringing his hooves in the absence of anything more meaningful to do. “It felt like we searched everywhere for you. When we didn’t find you right away…” he hesitated, a strangely queasy look crossing his face. When he spoke again, it was even quieter, as if just admitting it was an uncomfortable process. “I… really like it here. I don’t want to have to go anywhere else.”

Changelings all around murmured in agreement, their voices never rising to become more than a background whisper; indistinct, yet filling Applejack’s ears.

There was only a brief pause, however, before another drone interjected, obviously forcing a perky demeanor to counterbalance to sudden shift in the atmosphere. “B-But we found you, and now everything’s going to be just fine!”

Again, the crowd agreed – louder this time, more upbeat to keep the depressing gloom away.

But as soon as the changeling said it, Applejack felt something else. There they went again, heaping so much expectation on top of her, looking at her with those awestruck eyes anticipating miracles…

After everything that’d happened that day, the weight of the world coming to rest upon her shoulders – and pressing down particularly on the top of her head – felt so much more unpleasant than it had ever before, and that was saying something. It made her feel almost nauseous, like the stress of it all was eating a hole through her stomach even as they spoke. Again and again the thought hit her; she didn’t deserve it. She didn’t…


Applejack stiffened, then looked up. The changelings in front of her had all adopted a similar look of concern, their eyes scrutinizing her face. “Is… is everything okay?”

Mentally she kicked herself, then forced herself to smile for the drones’ sakes. Today really was turning into a lousy day…

“Just… got a lot on my mind right now,” she admitted. It wasn’t a lie, just not the whole truth, either.

And the drone, dutiful as ever, perked her head up, an inquisitive look on her face like a puppy who’d just spotted something new and interesting. “Is there any way we can help?” she asked.

All around her, the drones had adopted similar looks, their eyes now turned to Applejack for a new reason. There was an expectant, eager energy coursing through the amassed swarm. The stillness in the air seemed to supercharge. Drones stood stock still, eyes unblinking, repressing the fluttering of their wings as best they could as if fearing the sound could drown out anything that might be said. It was such a shift in behavior that for a moment Applejack just looked around, taken aback yet again.

They just stood there, listening… waiting…

Applejack’s first instinct was to dismiss the offer of help. Getting them involved in her problems seemed unnecessary and burdensome. Were there only a couple of drones giving her that look, she might very well have done that.

But there were hundreds of eyes now looking at her, all with the same look copied countless times over. The sheer amount of them was proving very hard to dismiss.

But even more compelling was the little voice in the back of her head. Rainbow…

Applejack swallowed her pride without another thought and straightened up. “Actually, there is somethin’.”

The changelings stood up a little straighter, ears perked, their undivided attention planted squarely on Applejack.

“Ah need y’all ta help me find –”


That voice – that single, raspy voice – struck Applejack’s ear like a lightning bolt. She froze in place perfectly, mouth still open to say one word further, which never came to be.

The only thing that moved was her neck, which swiveled her head to one side, eyes wide and unblinking.

And there, just over the turning heads of a parting swarm of drones, at the very opposite end of the square and the mouth of the main thoroughfare, were five familiar faces amongst a river of black bodies and glowing blue eyes; a column of still more changelings, seemingly just as vast as the one that surrounded Applejack, if not more so.

Twilight was there; Applejack saw the glint off her crown and golden horseshoes out of the corner of her eye. So was Pinkie and Fluttershy, and even Rarity, despite her appearance still being a disaster, and a grey, blue-maned pegasus filly for some reason.

She registered this, yes, but only in the periphery. Her eyes, instead, had fallen on something else – something with the exact right shade of blue, and the exact right mane of rainbow hues. Immediately she knew this was no false alarm.

Rainbow was flying towards her, having fought her way free of her captors in the mob behind her, speeding as fast and as urgently as she could straight towards the amber-maned changeling standing amidst a crowd of black figures.

In her mind, Aconita’s words boiled and frothed, nearly driving her into a frenzy. She had to get to Applejack; had to make it these last few feet. Then, she could make everything right.

What Rainbow didn’t notice, however, was Applejack’s gaze zeroing in on her, her thin pupils thinning even further to surgically small slits.

The pegasus was distracted when she felt something tingle across her skin and fur, like she’d just flown through an ionized pocket of air soon to become a thunderstorm. All of a sudden, Rainbow realized that she was picking up speed. She was traveling way faster than she meant to, careening so fast straight at Applejack that several drones dove out of the way with a chorus of squeals.

Rainbow only realized how out of control she was when she went to brake, to absolutely no avail. She continued sailing straight at Applejack, as if drawn in by a powerful magnet she could not resist, shooting forward like a loosed cannonball.

She yelped, hooves pedaling wildly and uselessly through the air. Applejack crouched, ignorant of her friend’s distress, squirmed like a cat, and pounced.

Only then did Rainbow come to a stop.

Once her eyes stopped spinning from the impact, Rainbow looked up, blinking furiously, to find a changeling queen standing over her, staring unblinkingly at her.

“Ah have been lookin’ everywhere for ya!” Applejack said.

Rainbow’s mouth flapped uselessly. She was lying on the ground on her back, legs curled up defensively against her stomach, with no recollection of how she’d ended up there. But with Applejack standing over her, practically capturing her in place, she had other things to worry about.

“A-A-Applejack, did you just –”


To everyone and everypony’s surprise – Rainbow most of all – Applejack suddenly raised one hoof, and in a black blur, hit Rainbow across the nose, making her yelp.

That,” Applejack shouted angrily, “is for makin’ me worry so much!”

“Hey, cut it –”


“And that is fer gettin’ yerself caught in the first place!”

“Like I could help tha—”


“And that’s fer just turnin’ up like nothin’ happened!”

“Why are you even mad about – ow!”

“And that’s also fer makin’ me worry, ya good-for-nothin’… ornery… ornery… nag!”

Even while covering her face defensively with her hooves against Applejack's flailing hooves, Rainbow still found the presence of mind to glance between her forelegs to give Applejack a one-eyed look. “Okay, that was just uncalled for.”

Applejack was unfazed. She glared down at Rainbow so hard that even the brash pegasus quailed into silence. “Do ya have any idea what Ah’ve been through lookin’ for ya?”

Unexpectedly, Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Says the pony who wasn’t foalna—sorry, shutting up now!” she squeaked under the look of unamused fury on Applejack’s face.

The rest of her friends had galloped up by then, but didn’t dare step one hoof into the arena. Even the drones had backed up to give their queen the space she needed.

“A-Applejack,” gasped Twilight, but she ignored her. She even tuned out the fresh murmuring that’d arisen amongst the crowd. Applejack’s attention was squarely fix on Rainbow, with no intentions of being moved anywhere else.

“Look, I’m sorry if I scared you,” Rainbow said in a brave attempt at diplomacy.

Applejack blinked, then suddenly she recoiled glancing away. “Wha – Ah wasn’t scared. Just worried. Big difference, sugarcube.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes, but said nothing further, even if she really wanted to. Of all the ways she’d envisioned this reunion going, she hadn’t expected she’d start it by getting clobbered.

Suddenly, she heard Applejack gasp, and one of her forelegs was pulled straight out. Right away she saw what Applejack’s gaze had fixed onto; a raw ring around her ankle, where her weight had cause the manacle to bite into the skin, leaving an angry red, swollen mark visible even through her fur.

“What happened to ya?” Applejack asked critically, staring hard – so hard the intensity might’ve set Rainbow’s fur on fire at any given moment.

“Ow – hey, watch it, that smarts,” Rainbow complained, trying to jerk free, and then immediately added, “it’s nothing, so let me go already!”

For some reason, the last part of what Rainbow said caught Applejack’s attention. Let her go? But… but Ah ain’t touchin’…

Her hooves were down on the ground – she could feel them with absolute certainty. Squared and tensed, yes, but nowhere near Rainbow. So, why…?

And then she saw it. Rainbow’s foreleg, from her hoof all the way up to her elbow, glowed with an eerie but bright green glow. And for some reason, something was tingling around her forehead.


The moment she realized it, her horn went out like a light. Rainbow’s hoof flopped down to the ground, no longer suspended by Applejack’s telekinetic grip.

Magic… but how…?

Applejack was painfully aware of Rainbow staring unblinkingly at her, but she could only stare at the hoof. How had she done that? And how had she, without her noticing? Confusion rippled through her head, disorganizing her thoughts still further.

How had she done that?

But for Rainbow, she stared at Applejack with a whole new knot cinching tight in her chest.

… How has her magic been behaving…?

The rest of their friends watched in stunned silence – the same one they’d been struck into since watching Rainbow get yanked through the air by a green light.

Applejack was at a loss for words. She tried, but all that got out was something akin to a panting sound, barely formulated words puttering out before they could fully coalesce. Something was wrong… something was terribly wrong. She didn’t know what – she couldn’t put her hoof on it. But she knew, without a shadow of a doubt; something was wrong, deep inside of her.

Rainbow could see the panic and confusion welling up in Applejack’s eyes as she tried to process what she’d just done, and something else Rainbow couldn’t understand. Her performance been harmless – even mundane by a unicorn’s standards. But the look on Applejack’s face told Rainbow that this was something else – something that cut her much, much deeper, and had profoundly disturbed her.

I will ask you again, little pegasus… How much do you know about being a changeling…?

Rainbow opened her mouth to say something – something important. She just didn’t know what something important might be. Her mission was at the forefront of her mind again, as if manifested by Applejack’s confusion.

“Applejack,” she started to say.

The amber-maned changeling stiffened as if she’d shouted at her. Her uncertain – and even slightly fearful – eyes flicked back towards Rainbow. “W-what? A-Ah didn’t mean… Ah didn’t…”

“Easy there, cowgirl,” Rainbow tried to pacify. She touched Applejack’s leathery foreleg, but the contact seemed to startle her even more.

Applejack flinched back, backpedalling as if she’d been shocked. “A-Ah’m sorry… Ah didn’t mean to…” she grunted.

“Applejack?” spoke up Twilight, her voice ringing with concern. She'd straightened up, her eyes fixed on Applejack, as if she'd picked up something in the air.

But Applejack didn’t seem to hear her. She was touching her forehead with a hoof, as if only then realizing she had a horn there. Her eyes just stared into the ground, wide and unblinking, pupils constricted so tightly they almost vanished completely into her inner iris. She continued backing up, unseeing, unblinking, as if dazed.

Panic burst inside Rainbow chest then. Something was wrong.

“Ah didn’t mean ta do it,” Applejack was mumbling, her buzzing voice so low it was almost impossible for Rainbow to catch it. “Ah didn’t… it wasn’t… Ah… Ah didn’t mean to… didn’t… didn’t mean…. Didn’t mean…”

And with an earsplitting crack, her horn fractured right down the middle.

Fire the color of acid gushed forth, spurting out in incredible volumes for the size of the opening it forced itself through. The crack glowed green-hot, outlining the jagged shape that split all the way to the base of her sharp horn and spider-webbed an inch or two in a fan shape across her forehead.

“Didn’t… mean… to,” Applejack breathed one last time, before her eyes rolled up into the roof of her skull, and she collapsed like a puppet being cut from its cords.