In Ponyville, Carrot Top’s Basement---
A burst of distortion magic cut the air of a moderately sized basement. Out of said disturbance trotted the head of Chrysalis’s vanguard, Shade. He observed the scarcely furnished room, as only a few cushions were placed for seats. It was otherwise a large cool store room with hundreds of carrots, and a few other garden vegetables stacked along numerous shelves.
The changeling’s eye lids drooped rather low, and he struggled to keep them up and alert. At least it didn’t take too much effort to portal here, it was relatively easy for him to zero in on his vanguards, regardless of how far away they were, one of the perks of being the “head”. It also made it easy for him to monitor his scouts even in distant countries. The furthest at the moment was the Mino Mountains, but he hadn’t had reason to personally venture there for some years.
He shook his head of distracted thoughts and sent a mental message to the owner of the residence he was in, and to the other vanguard stationed nearby. He felt them acknowledge his call, and the mental retort was a brief emotional recognition.
A moment later Shade heard the clop of hooves patter down some stairs, and soon a grumpy earth pony mare reached the basement. She blinked her tired green eyes slowly as she stared at Shade. Her orange mane and tail, as well as her yellow coat were rather scuffled from being in bed, and she made indiscernible grumbles as she sulked over to one of the cushions.
“What needs attention at this hour?”
“The queen told me of the events that took place here recently, and how it they demand attention. I’m not going to put her order on hold. Now, Reaper, I would like some details about the last day or two.”
“Well, shouldn’t we wait for Sweet Fang to get here?”
“I suppose, but Sweet Fang? I thought it was Splotchy that occupied the alias of Bon Bon.”
“Some changelings are reputable enough to deserve secondary names… It’s been a while since you’ve been here, hasn’t it Shade?”
“Ponyville doesn’t sound like it’s exciting in the right kind of ways.”
“What, frequent freakish events not to your liking?”
“Hardly… But I won’t judge, love is love where you can get it, though I prefer somewhat stable situations. To your credit I’m surprised you’ve lasted as long as you have here.”
“It’s only the Bon Bon alias that changes out changelings all the time. Between the vanguards in Cloudsdale, Canterlot, and I, before the invasion, we bet Sweet Fang wouldn’t last more than two months. That’s the average any changeling has that’s taken that guise.”
“What a cynical view. How’d she pick up the name Sweet Fang anyway?”
“When she acts like the candy store she runs is more for her than foals…”
Carrot Top, or Reaper’s pony disguise, waved her hoof in a whimsy manner while she rolled her eyes. Shade just grunted, too tired to even chuckle. The head vanguard’s lack of enthusiasm made Reaper’s sour face intensify.
Both of them were interrupted from further conversation as a loud clatter emanated from the stairs.
“Ooo, Ow! Ouch!”
A pony tumbled head over hooves down the stairs, and finished with a painful crash. The cream colored earth pony was a disheveled mess amongst her blue-pink mane and tail. A confident and singular hoof was raised from the victim of the stairs.
“I’m ok, just give a moment.”
She panted heavily several times before she picked herself up and dusted off. Both Carrot and Shade watched wearily as Bon Bon waddled over to an unoccupied cushion and plopped herself down.
“So, -huff- what’s the mission?”
“Did you run here?”
“Why yes I did –huff- head vanguard!”
“Did you wake any pony up?”
“Eh, my roommate is a heavy –huff- sleeper.”
“Alright, I suppose we can get down to business then.”
“Yes Shade, I would like to know why we’re huddled in my basement in the middle of the night…”
“Please don’t be irritable with me Reaper, I want this over with as soon as you do.”
“Fine, to business then.”
Shade and Carrot cringed from the loud way Bon Bon shouted her agreement. So what followed was a quick rehash of what occurred over the last few days. The element mares made their appearances in two different sets. One day Rainbow, Fluttershy, and Rarity had snuck into town, Carrot had barely noticed them. Then a short while later a very disoriented Twilight, Pinkie, and Applejack were plopped into the main square with a flash of red magic.
Carrot angrily recounted how she had tried to report the incident many times, but Shade himself had been “inattentive”. In any case, the pony Trixie showed up, and proved herself a real terror to the town. She first tossed Twilight over to the edge of the Everfree before she put up the magic barrier, and kept every pony stuck in.
Thankfully the queen arrived the next day and cleaned things up, but in the process the element mares were lost. Rainbow Dash had flown off with the amulet that was the source of the problem, and four of the element mares had discretely snuck away. None of them had been seen around Ponyville since. Carrot was the one that answered most of the questions posed by Shade.
“So even Twilight never showed back up in town? Even to try and find her friends?”
“Nope, the librarian hasn’t made her way back here, unless she went for the open road, there’s only one place she would be staying right now.”
“And where’s that?”
“With a zebra, Zecora, she lives in the Everfree and would offer a helping hoof to Twilight.”
“Do we have any evidence that she went that way?”
“Yes Sweet Fang?”
“Hey! It’s Splotchy.”
“I saw Twilight on the edge of the Everfree, she was walking alongside Zecora earlier today, after all the hustle happened.”
“Did they head anywhere in particular?”
“They were going to Sweet Apple Acres, but then I saw them a little later after that, and they went back to the Everfree, just Zecora and Twilight again. Didn’t see any of the others go back with them. I don’t know what they were looking for at the farm, but I don’t think they found it.”
“So do you think they would still be at Zecora’s place?”
“Quite possibly, I saw them just earlier today.”
“Then we’ll look there first. I would like both of you to come with me for now.”
Shade’s request caused an excited squeal from Bon Bon and she knocked her front hooves together enthusiastically. An exasperated sigh came from Carrot Top and she drooped her head, ears, and shoulders. The head vanguard looked about both changelings’ opposite reactions neutrally. Bon Bon bubbled over first.
“So I’m finally going to be an action spy, instead of just a nosy one!”
“Possibly, but I would prefer minimal activity Splotchy.”
“And if we don’t find anything useful at the Zebra’s hut?”
“Then I won’t need any further help from you Reaper. Both of you can go back to your stations if we don’t find anything.”
“Good, I would prefer not to be nodding off at business hours.”
“Don’t be a stink Reaper. It’s not like our jobs gives up the opportunity to get much excitement.”
Carrot turned to Bon Bon with an incredulous snarl.
“Is that why you stuff yourself with candy all the time? Besides, this crazy town produces enough mayhem without our businesses requiring us to have more of it!”
“Hey! Maybe you wouldn’t be such a stiff if you actually had an active business. Perhaps you’ll have a chance now, since Applejack is a fugitive…”
“Calm down you two, let’s just go.”
Shade cut them off, but the two disguised changelings exchanged heated gazes before they both turned to their leader, and waited for further instruction. He sighed before he continued.
“You can both drop your disguises. It probably wouldn’t help to be seen alongside me, and I want you both ready for a scuffle, in case one happens.”
Carrot twitched her ears nervously.
“W-we don’t plan on actually getting in a scuffle with Twilight Sparkle do we? I mean I saw her toss out an ursa minor with my own eyes!”
Bon Bon bounced excitedly when she heard the word “scuffle” from Shade, but the hesitation that came from Carrot caused her enthusiasm to pause, and her lips slowly formed an “O”. Shade noted their unease, and was calm as he worked to assuage their sudden nervousness.
“Don’t worry, I won’t put either of you in her line of fire, though I would like your assistance in taking some precautions. If she is with that Zebra, I don’t want her to simply escape. I’ll take the lead, and I’ll give you additional instructions. Easy as getting love from a baby.”
They both reacted well to that offer, and there were no further qualms about going forward. A green glow came from Shade’s horn as he readied another portal. Both Carrot and Bon Bon dropped their disguises and assumed their natural forms, that of Reaper and Splotchy.
Reaper was a tall and slender vanguard, and had an impressively long celery-green mane and hair on her tail. It was impressive for a vanguard that made regular trips to the Badlands at least. Shade wrinkled his snout, and remembered she had actually been one of the first changelings he had given a scrub to. It was good to she recovered quickly.
On the other side was Splotchy, who was unusually plump for a chitinous equine. Changelings could build up a fatty layer if they ate lots of physical food, though it was a rare to see. What was funny was the pony disguise didn’t gain any weight, but stayed normal, while the changeling still took the consequences for excessive eating. Also the spots she sported were a little different. They were more like the large irregular splotches a cow would have.
When the portal was ready all three changelings took casual steps into it.
At the Edge of the Everfree Forest---
Shade, Reaper, and Splotchy emerged close to the tree line, and when they had comfortably oriented their facing the head vanguard turned to his two associates.
“Would one of you like to lead the way?”
Splotchy volunteered by going forward and leading the walk. For the most part all stayed quiet after that. Shade made it clear they would do it mentally from now on, since their approach needed to be quiet and stealthy.
Shortly before they arrived at the Zebra’s hut, Reaper felt inclined to ask for more directions.
How do you want to approach this exactly?
They all stopped when they saw the faint glow coming from the hut carved out of a dank tree. Shade looked at their destination appreciatively before he replied.
Do either of you visit Zecora somewhat regularly?
Oh, oh, I’ve stopped by her place lots! She’s found a really interesting sap in this forest, I use it all the time in one of my syrups.
Hmm, so here’s the plan, both of you stay outside the hut and form an anti-teleportation field around the house. I’ll take the Bon Bon disguise and do the approach. Whatever happens, don’t drop that field.
Understood head vanguard!
With that the two lesser vanguard positioned themselves nearby the tree, and ignited their horns to cast the field. It was late into the night, and the faint green sheen would be almost unnoticeable.
A slow ring of magic wrapped around Shade’s form as he changed from grey and chitinous to creamy and furred. His purple ringed eyes changed to blue, and gained large defined pupils. What remained the same between his guise and his original form was an exhausted expression. Bags still hung heavy under his eyes, somewhat worse now with highly elastic pony skin.
He approached the door and gave it a knock. It was a constant battle to keep his eye lids open, and he only just held on. Thankfully he didn’t have to wait long before the door was answered.
“Oh, hello Bon Bon, why are you out so late? Soon it will be dawn dawn.”
The friendly zebra was the one at the door, and Shade snorted softly, dawn dawn? Really? Last time he checked zebras didn’t speak in such silly phrases, then again this was a zebra that lived in a dangerous forest next to a pony town. She was probably just an eccentric.
As he looked beyond Zecora and into the hut, Shade could see Twilight at a table, where she wrote notes and scanned over pieces of parchment, apparently very absorbed in what she was doing. The disguised Shade spent a little too long in his blank stare of observation, and the Zebra cocked her eye brow in concern.
“Are you alright? Perhaps you should come in and settle for the night.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine, but how are you doing Zecora, Twilight?”
The way his voice came out made both of Zecora’s eye brows shoot up. The purple unicorn who sat at the table stopped dead in her notes, ears flicked towards the unusual voice, and soon she turned to face the new visitor.
The surprised expressions from the zebra and unicorn made him raise his own eye brows in question.
He just realized he spoke in his natural voice, his natural male changeling voice. Something that didn’t really fit the cream colored mare he was cloaked as. Curse his exhaustion, and the slip it caused! In an immediate effort to try and cover himself he started to cough violently.
“-COUGH-cough-. Excuse me, -cough- but do you have –cough- some medicine?”
“It’s ok Bon Bon, it seems like every other time we speak you have a new song song.”
“Actually Zecora, I don’t think you should let him in…”
Twilight was up from the table now and started to march towards the door, horn ignited. It would appear that Shade’s immediate fear was correct, and she recognized his voice from that little trip to the Badlands. In a defensively play he dropped to the ground and raised his hooves in surrender.
“Alright alright, you got me Twilight, no need to get angry.”
He gave the biggest grin his exhausted disguise could, but that did little to dissuade the agitated unicorn. She grabbed him in her purple aura and slammed him against the floor, and he grunted in discomfort. The disguise of Bon Bon was released and the natural form of Shade lay there on the ground. Twilight pushed him out of the hut, and followed till she was outside as well. Shade strained out more words.
“Please I just want to talk.”
“How many others did you bring with you?”
Twilight adopted the aggressive tone of an interrogator and pressed down hard on Shade with her magic, which pressed the breath out of him. In frustration, he gritted his teeth, and looked up into her violent eyes with his own. In reflexive reaction to his pressured predicament his horn ignited.
A bright flash of green magic and a high pitched screech left Twilight momentarily dazed. Her vision blurred and she saw large twinkling stars everywhere, even her ability to hear was blocked out by an obnoxious ring. The disorientation wore off quickly, and when she looked for the changeling she had pinned, he was no longer there.
“I said I wanted to talk.”
The voice came from behind and she whirled about to face it. Even as she did so, the head vanguard already prepared a blob of magic neutralizing slime, and slapped it onto her horn. The librarian unicorn was not as nimble, or deft as the veteran vanguard, and she didn’t manage to dodge. So the smack of goo successfully hit it’s target.
The dark green stuff drooled down a bit, and got mixed in with her mane and scalp. She scrunched her muzzle in disgust. It felt like some pony had just sneezed an over sized snot wallop on her head, except it was some changeling.
She put a hoof up to her head to try and wipe it off, but that only resulted in her hoof being stuck to her head. In vain she struggled to separate the two, and managed to stretch the slime a little, but it whip-lashed against the tension, which resulted in the painful collision of Twilight’s hoof to her skull.
“Hehe, it’s stuck there, I suggest you calm down now.”
The purple unicorn stopped what she was doing to glare up at the head vanguard, who chuckled at her hopeless struggle. A snarl crept over her snout, and she jumped at him, and with her free front hoof, punched him in the mouth.
Ultimately Twilight tumbled and fell after the stunt, three legs were not good for balance after all, but the result caused her to smirk. Shade reeled backward, and lifted a hoof over his mouth. He emitted a muffled groan of pain.
“Gaw! Twilight, gee, Applejack wasn’t so hard to talk with!”
“There’s nothing to do but talk when you’re under Chrysalis’s sadistic hooves!”
“She’s only… a little sadistic. Ow!”
A loud crack echoed over the top of Shade’s head and he dropped to the ground. Twilight blinked in surprise, until she recognized that Zecora stood nearby, a stick of bamboo held carefully between her hooves. When the zebra saw the changeling was sufficiently stunned, she offered a hoof to help Twilight up.
“It does appear that we should get out of here.”
“I’m afraid you’re right Zecora, I couldn’t plan where to go fast enough...”
A large round body sailed down out of a tree, to the surprise of every pony, zebra, and changeling. It landed on Zecora, and promptly flattened her. Twilight jumped back surprised. An exasperated growl came from another nearby tree, and Shade, who was on the ground, looked up while he cradled a welt on his head.
“Got the zebra head vanguard!”
Splotchy sat triumphantly on top of the squashed zebra, who struggled against the wide girth on top of her. A shocked Twilight backed up, as a debate erupted in her expression. Should she try to run, or help her pinned friend? Well, that wasn’t really much of a question for an element mare.
She prepared to make a jump strike at the overly plump changeling, but was caught by a green magical aura, even as she jumped. Another changeling strode casually from her hidden position, a pleasant grin on her features. Her celery colored eyes reflected eerily in the dark of the night.
“I know you told us to stay on the side Shade, but there goes Sweet Fang anyway, and honestly it looks like you needed the help. Have you slacked on your spar sessions lately?”
“Just overly exhausted, now let’s get ready to go.”
“Alright, should I carry Twilight along with us?”
Shade put a hoof under his chin and turned studiously towards the unicorn, who looked rather defeated now.
“Why were you three too much for us? My friends and I fought dozens of you up in Canterlot…”
Splotchy raised an eye brow curiously, it only took one fat vanguard to body slam a zebra out of the picture. Shade answered the apparent enigma.
“You must have fought drones then, they weren’t meant for fighting at all. I bet they even tried to fight you with your form, no?”
“Wha- well, yes…”
“Uh, huh, changelings don’t fight nearly as well when they’re in pony disguises. Let alone drones. Now I have a question for you Twilight, would you like to walk with us? Or be carried the whole way?”
The purple unicorn turned away with pursed lips, and grumbled to herself.
“What was that?”
Shade blinked once at her volume, before he approached and separated her hoof from her head with a slice of magic. Twilight flexed the joints of that leg immediately afterward, happy that it was free. Shade nodded towards Reaper, who put the unicorn back on the ground.
“What do you want to do with Zecora head vanguard?”
Splotchy inquired, the zebra she sat on had turned blue in the face. Shade noticed the striped equine’s perilous predicament and shoved the heavy changeling off.
“Get off first of all, we’re not here to kill any pony.”
A loud gasp erupted out of Zecora and color slowly came back to her face, she clasped her head between her hooves and moaned. Her eyes rolled slowly around in their sockets, and she appeared to be in a total daze.
“Oh my head, am I dead?”
“No, let’s just get you back in your home, and you can stay there.”
Shade grabbed the zebra with his aura, and levitated the near asphyxiated Zecora into her house, and onto her bed. He closed the door behind her, and turned back towards the path they had come on.
“Let’s go then.”
“Can we just portal back?”
Reaper already worked the magic to make one appear, and the air started to distort with emerald radiance. Shade raised a hoof to stop her.
“No, not if Twilight is to have her magic restrained. Slime doesn’t go through the portals very well.”
“Well, there’s a new project for you Reaper.”
“Now come on Twilight, we got a bit of a walk.”
The head vanguard turned to leave, and so did his two fellows. With a resigned sigh, the purple unicorn followed them with a very sulky trot. She hung her head low, folded her ears back, and had no swish in her tail. Her hooves dragged unenthusiastically over the dirt.
It wasn’t very long into the walk back to Ponyville before Shade turned over to her. Reaper and Splotchy were a small ways ahead of them, and the only noise was the ambient creepiness of the Everfree, and a weak buzz.
The sad face on Twilight made it apparent she wasn’t up for simply talking about business, and Shade couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her. He’d spent far too long being empathetic to ponies, then again, he had spent most of his life as one.
“If it would help you feel any better, your other friends are still free. I can confirm that we don’t have them.”
That did seem to perk up her up a little, and her ears rose up again.
“Really? Does that mean you don’t know where they are either?”
“At the moment, your friend Rainbow Dash took to the skies, and we have no idea where the rest of them are.”
“They aren’t at Sweet Apple Acres, none of the apple family was. Everything was just abandoned over there, I would have thought one of them should have been there.”
“They’re smart if they won’t stay in the same place, especially after the fiasco that happened here. The queen’s attention has been brought here, and she would be happy to have any information that would lead to getting the six of you back.”
“What did happen? I only saw the ridiculous fireworks… Did Trixie fight some pony else?”
Their walk had gone outside of the Everfree forest at this point, and they made their way into the fields outside of Ponyville. There was a low ambient buzz in the background, which was low enough none of them paid much attention to it.
“Yep, the queen herself was down here. It was a short affair apparently, and the amulet that unicorn had is now in Rainbow Dash’s hooves. She snatched it when King sombra and the queen fought over it.”
“King Sombra? You changelings have a king too? And he fights with your queen?”
“No, we don’t have a king, at the moment. King Sombra was ruler of the Crystal Empire.”
“It was all new to me last week too, it’s a place in the far north. Apparently it was hidden away for the last thousand years. It does something like reflect love over Equestria as long as the ponies there have it. Right now they look to my queen as a savior.”
“What! There are ponies that look at Chrysalis as a savior? Did she show them her natural face?”
“Her changeling form is what they know her by.”
“How did she convince them she’s good for any pony, did she mind control them all?”
“No, she saved them from Sombra.”
Twilight kept quiet for a while longer, as if her brain simply did not compute. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but stopped herself before any words actually came out. This action was repeated several times as the unicorn tried to formulate which question was most relevant.
Her string of thoughts was interrupted when she tripped over something. It was soft and squishy, and caused her to tumble over into the dirt. The object she tripped on groaned in pain.
“ooooo, teh gwee nnn prrwer…”
It was an incoherent and weak mumble, and the dark form on the ground struggled to move. The darkness of night made it almost impossible to decipher to Twilight. The changeling next to her had much better night vision. After Shade looked analytically at the blackened figure he was able to distinguish it as a pony, a very charcoaled one.
He carefully picked up the burnt pony in his magic, and dusted her off. The natural color of her coat was hidden by the singed marks all over everywhere. Whatever style she had kept her mane and tail was hopelessly destroyed, and much shorter than what it was before. At least she still had some hair for a mane and tail.
“T-that must be Trixie! I didn’t think she survived that blast.”
Reaper held a rather disturbed expression, and pointed a nervous hoof at the mare held in Shade’s magic.
Twilight looked at the pony in the changeling’s aura with new eyes, and she grimaced. Meanwhile the ambient buzz in the background had grown steadily louder and louder. This caught the attention of Splotchy, who looked back towards the forest. It was subtle, but she noticed hundreds of reflective eyes as they darted between the trees.
“Hey uh, Reaper, head vanguard.”
None of them gave her attention as they were still focused on the miserable condition of the pony held by Shade. The background buzz evolved into a rumble, and the reflective eyes had left the forest.
The pudgy changeling shouted, and got every changeling and pony to look at her. She pointed at the army of reflective eyes that approached them. The buzz drowned out whatever could be said now anyway.
All of them opened their eyes wide as they noticed what advanced on their position. Changelings, hundreds upon hundreds of changelings. Some of them flew, many of them stampeded on their hooves. Something was off about them though. This swarm was cut into even thirds of sentinels, drones, and vanguards.
When Shade looked closely he actually recognized one of the vanguards.
Each vanguard he looked at was “Splicer”. This only served to confuse him greatly. All the drones and sentinels looked identical to each other too. Something was very off indeed.
The massive swarm was almost upon them and it didn’t slow down. Reaper shoved them all forward and they fled from the stampede of chitin and insect wings.