What Didn't Happen: After
Chapter V – Arrival
Mystery sat at the table closest to the shop’s front window, leaning in and peering through the small gap in the blinds that she was holding open with her wingtip. The sound of Queen Chrysalis and her friends chatting and laughing about something in the room behind her caused her ears to flick backwards for but a second as she otherwise stayed completely focused on watching each passer-by outside. She noticed one approaching, a cream colored earth pony mare with a curly two-tone pink and blue mane and tail. She squinted her eyes, almost as if glaring at the mare, as she watched her come to a stop at the street corner just outside and glance about. After standing at the corner for a moment, the mare turned and started walking away down the cross street.
It was then that Mystery was startled by something she saw just out of the corner of her eye. She quickly jerked her head to the side as she flinched away from the window.
Rainbow Dash nearly jumped back a step herself at Mystery’s sudden movement. “Whoa!” she said as she quickly acted to keep the small plate holding a piece of chocolate cake she had been balancing upon one of her wings from topping off into the floor. “Heh, sorry. Wasn’t trying to sneak up on you.” When Mystery only quietly stared back, Rainbow let out a nervous chuckle before extending her wing toward her and asking, “Want some cake?”
Mystery’s eyes darted back and forth between Rainbow and the chocolate cake she was offering. “Uh, thank you,” she quietly said before turning her attention back to the window and peering out through the blinds again.
“No problem,” Rainbow said. She let the plate slide off her wing onto the table. “You know, I asked Chryssy if she was making you sit in the corner by yourself or something.”
“I’m doing my job,” Mystery simply said, keeping her attention on the ponies walking by outside.
“Right, she said you’d probably say something like that.” Rainbow quietly stood there for a few seconds, watching as Mystery kept her attention toward the window and the chocolate cake went ignored. “Anyway, just saying you can come join us if you want.”
Mystery glanced to Rainbow just long enough to show a small smile before turning back to the window. “Thanks, but I really should keep watch here.”
“What are you watching?” Rainbow asked as she craned her neck to the side to try and see through the small gap in the blinds.
Mystery was quiet for a few seconds before she simply said, “Others.”
“Oh... kay...,” Rainbow said, cocking an eyebrow.
Mystery slowly blinked her eyes and glanced back toward Rainbow. “I’m watching for infiltrators.”
“Infiltrators?” Rainbow seemed genuinely interested as she waited to hear more.
Mystery returned to peeking out from between the blinds. Her eyes shifted back and forth quickly, but she didn’t see the mare that she had been watching for yet. “There may be other changelings from another hive already here.”
“Really?” Rainbow trotted around the table to the other side of the window. She also pulled the blinds back just enough to peer out through them, glancing from side to side in a near perfect imitation. “So, like disguised ones?” she asked in a hushed voice.
Mystery nodded slightly.
The two of them silently peered out through the blinds side by side for a moment, until Rainbow scrunched up her muzzle after realizing that she had no idea what she was looking for. “Uh... how can you even find them?”
Mystery stayed quiet for a bit longer, and then glanced over just long enough to say, “I used to be one, so I know what to look for.”
“Oh, cool.” Rainbow turned her attention back to the window for a few seconds longer before she looked back and asked, “Used to be?”
Mystery let out a light sigh. “Not much use for an infiltrator in Sanctuary.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess there wouldn’t be.” For a moment, it seemed like the conversation had died out, which would have been fine as far as Mystery was concerned. She was used to working alone, and in silence. However, Rainbow wasn’t quite finished yet. “So you joined up with the guard instead, eh?” She stepped back from the window and slid into an empty chair on her side of the table. “Makes sense. You know, I’m actually thinking of trying out for the Wonderbolt reserves next year. I know it isn’t exactly the same thing, but I doubt they let just anyone in. You must be pretty good.”
“I had some previous experience,” Mystery said before glancing over her shoulder across the table. “I spent some of my time as an infiltrator in Equestria’s royal guard.”
“Oh sweet. Instant promotion,” Rainbow said with a confident grin.
Mystery let out a short, half-hearted laugh before sadly shaking her head. “No, I’m only a cadet.”
The grin on Rainbow’s face immediately disappeared. “What? How long were you in the royal guard?”
A weak smile tugged at the corners of Mystery’s mouth as she glanced back out the window. “About five years,” she quietly said.
“And they made you a cadet!?” Rainbow nearly shouted. Her outburst grabbed Mystery’s attention and stopped the buzz of conversation happening in the back of the room for a moment. Rainbow folded her forelegs over her chest and said, “That’s totally unfair,” followed up with a frustrated huff.
Mystery dismissively waved her hoof. “I’m lucky to even be a member.” When she saw the shocked look on Rainbow’s face, she added, “I tried quite a few other things out first, but nothing was working out. Applying for the Sentinels was sort of a desperate last resort, since I thought for sure they would reject me.”
Rainbow let out a frustrated sounding snort, and if Mystery wasn’t mistaken, it seemed that she might have even been grinding her teeth in anger. “I must be missing something here. I mean, you have all that experience and they’d just reject you? Why?”
Mystery’s eyes blink-blinked as she tried to make heads or tails of Rainbow’s reaction, or why she even seemed to care so much. She shrugged her shoulders as she simply explained, “Because I’m not a soldier. I’m an infiltrator.”
Rainbow rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Yeah but, that’s just what you do. That isn’t what you are. Anypony can change what they do.”
“I... do agree with you, but not everyone in Sanctuary would.” Mystery glanced off toward the window, lifting her wing to prop up one of the slats in the blinds. She silently peered outside for a time before letting out a light sigh. “It’s just that, before Sanctuary, things were quite a bit different for those of us born in the hive. We were born as something, and expected to use our talents toward whatever that something was. I was an infiltrator, and it was all I was ever meant to be.” Mystery glanced back across the table to Rainbow and showed a slight smile. “Sanctuary changed all of that. We got a new home and something else that we’d never had before. Our queen gave us a choice. We could live however we wanted.”
Rainbow cocked her head slightly to the side as she asked, “And that’s a good thing, right?”
“Sure, mostly,” Mystery said as she shrugged her shoulders. “Most found something to do that they were already good at. Old habits are sort of hard to break. My best talent was my ability to change my looks into pretty much whatever I wanted. Not much use for that now.”
“Wait, you serious?” Rainbow asked as she sat up a bit taller in her chair. “You can make yourself look like anything?”
“Well, no, not anything,” Mystery said with a dismissive gesture. She fidgeted with her forehooves a bit before raising one about head height and saying, “Most any living thing that’s about my size.”
Rainbow’s eyebrows raised a bit. She nodded and said, “Alright, that’s pretty cool.”
“To be honest, it’s a little weird,” Mystery said, laying her ears back and scratching at the back of her neck with a hoof. She noticed the quizzical look Rainbow was giving her and said, “Most changelings don’t shift into things other than equines.”
“Heh, their loss. Being able to spy on somepony as a bush must be pretty sweet,” Rainbow said jokingly.
Mystery let out a light chuckle at that. “I actually did that once,” she admitted, which Rainbow responded to with a silent gasp as she mouthed the words ‘no way’. Mystery smiled and nodded, but the smile soon faded. “It isn’t normal,” she said through a sigh. “Changelings usually need to see someone to make themselves look like them. A few can do it from memory, mostly the infiltrators, but the more different the thing is from themselves, the more difficult it gets to mimic it. Most stick to equines because they’re really easy. It’s the same body shape and about the same size.” Mystery held one of her wings out in front of herself, looking it over. “I don’t have that problem. I can just... imagine how I want to look, make up something or someone I’ve never even seen before.” She ran one of her hooves over the feathers on her wing, allowing herself to become lost in her own thoughts. Her pegasus form was likely just as unique as any other’s, since it was created from nothing more than her imagination. There were others from Sanctuary that had taken up the practice of choosing an equine form to mimic in the last few years, but most were simply doing so in response to their queen’s evident preference to do so. Mystery had preferred her favorite equine form over her natural looks years before Sanctuary existed, and had always felt more like herself while wearing it.
Mystery was finally drawn back from her thoughts when Rainbow spoke up. “Okay. That’s really cool. I can see how that’d make you pretty awesome at the infiltrator thing.”
A faint smile appeared on Mystery’s muzzle for a fleeting moment. “It made me different.” Mystery lifted one of the blind slats again to peer out through the window, and her eyes narrowed considerably upon noticing the cream colored mare walking down the street once again. “Changelings don’t like different,” Mystery mumbled as she leaned in closer to the window. Just before Rainbow could respond to her comment, she glanced back and quickly asked, “Do you know who that is?” as she pointed a hoof tip toward the mare outside.
“Um,” Rainbow said as she squinted her eyes and peered out through the blinds. She wrinkled her muzzle and turned her head back to call out over her shoulder. “Hey, Pinkie.” Pinkie quickly bounded over toward them in a few quick hops, landing just beside Rainbow. “What’s her name again?” Rainbow asked as she pointed to the mare outside.
Pinkie peeked through the blinds, blinking her eyes a few times. “Uh, that’s Bon Bon.”
“Do you know much about her?” Mystery asked.
“Sure! She runs the other sweet’s shop here in Ponyville. We talk all the time.”
Rainbow let out a quick snerk and said, “You talk with everypony all the time.” Pinkie didn’t seem to deny it, nodding her head quickly with a little giggle.
“Does she usually do circles around town?” Mystery asked.
Pinkie suddenly stopped, her face contorting with confusion. She craned her neck forward to peer out through the blinds again as she said, “Huh?”
The three of them all stood at the window now, nearly shoulder to shoulder as they all watched. “This is the fifth time she’s come around and stopped at that corner since we got here,” Mystery explained.
“That’s... kinda weird,” Pinkie said quietly, her ears drooping back a bit.
“And in a few seconds, she’ll start walking off that way,” Mystery said as she gestured to the cross street leading away from the shop. The three of them all silently waited and watched the mare standing on the street corner outside. She seemed to only be casually looking about, mostly minding her own business. Finally, she glanced around herself to her left and right, almost as if making sure no one was watching her, and then started walking away down the street.
“Whoa,” Rainbow quietly said.
Mystery drew in a long breath before letting out a long, closed mouth sigh. She turned away from the window, walking back into the room followed closely by Pinkie and Rainbow. The others in the room noticed them approaching and went silent. They stopped near the group, forming a small standing circle, and Mystery bowed her head slightly from where she stood across the group from her queen. “Your Grace, I have something to report.”
All eyes turned toward Chrysalis and waited for her response. She quietly cleared her throat and set the empty plate she had been holding in her magic on a table off to her side. “Mystery,” she calmly said, waiting for her bodyguard glance up to her before she continued. “You really don’t need to be so formal here,” she said with a slight shake of her head and a small smile on her muzzle.
“Uh,” was the only thing that Mystery could manage to say in response. Her eyes darted back and forth when she noticed a few quiet chuckles coming from the rest of the group. She had not often found herself among such light-hearted surroundings and still found the thought of addressing her queen in any other way than using her formal title as unacceptable. She raised her head, quietly clearing her throat as she tried to regain her composure. “I think I’ve spotted another changeling patrolling outside the shop.”
The increase in intensity from her queen’s gaze was slight, but still easily noticed by Mystery, as was the shift in tone of her voice when Chrysalis asked, “Just the one so far?” It was as if her presence suddenly commanded all attention to be upon her. Mystery straightened her stance and quickly nodded once in response. “Doesn’t mean there isn’t more,” Chrysalis said as she thoughtfully glanced off to the side. She only held the thoughtful gaze for a few seconds before noticing the rest of her friends still hovering close by, all looking to her for an explanation. “Well, I suppose I should explain our reason for being here then. I wish I could say I was solely here for the visit, but the truth is nearly the opposite. Equestria... maybe even our entire world, could be in danger.”
Fluttershy lowered her head, cowering slightly where she was standing just to Chrysalis’s right as she quietly said, “That sounds very serious.”
Chrysalis gently laid a hoof on Fluttershy’s shoulder, which seemed to calm her a bit. “You know I wouldn’t involve any of you in something dangerous unless I had no other choice,” she said as she glanced around to rest of the group.
“I take that to mean that we’re the only one’s for the job then,” Applejack said. She looked across the group, her eyes catching Rainbow and Rarity’s glances as they both nodded back to her in agreement.
“Asking you all for your help is only one reason why I am here,” Chrysalis said as she continued. “The other is to retrieve the Elements.”
Rainbow took a single step forward, cocking her head to the side as she asked, “Wait, the ones we gave back to the tree?”
“Yes, the same,” Chrysalis said with a quick nod. “We may need their power for what’s to come.”
“Well then, I don’t suppose we should be dilly-dallying around here,” Applejack said, and she wasn’t the only one in the room who appeared eager to help.
Chrysalis quickly held up a hoof as she shook her head. “Mystery and I will take care of the retrieval. I simply need the rest of you to be prepared to join me if it becomes necessary to use them.”
“Hold up now,” Applejack quickly said. She tilted her head forward slightly and flicked the front brim of her hat with a hoof. “You think we’re just gonna sit around here while you head into the Everfree?”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?” Rainbow added in a huff as she sat back and crossed her forehooves over her chest.
“Please,” Chrysalis quickly said, sitting back and holding her hooves up in a calming gesture. “I’d rather not expose any of you to any more risk than is necessary.”
“Chrys, dear,” Rarity said as she took a few steps forward to stand nearly in front of her. She turned aside so she could look to both Chrysalis and Mystery in turn as she said, “I’m sure both you and Mystery are very capable mares, but would it not be safer for all of us to go together as a group?”
“Have to say I’m with Rares on that one,” Applejack said with a quick nod.
“Got my vote,” Rainbow said, raising a hoof.
“Field trip!” Pinkie chirped with a quick hop.
Fluttershy cringed slightly when the rest of the group turned their gaze toward her. She drew the tip of of her hooves about nervously in a circle on the floor as she mumbled, “Well, of course there is safety in numbers.”
“Numbers is exactly the problem right now,” Mystery said, drawing a few confused glances from the others. “We know at least one infiltrator is keeping an eye out for us. There’s likely more. Anything that doesn’t look normal will get their attention, and all of us deciding to take a trip together into the not-so-safe forest on the edge of town isn’t normal.”
All of the mares around the group fell silent for a moment, most of them appearing to ponder the problem that had presented itself. The woods were dangerous enough on their own without being followed by hostile changelings.
“So, we don’t go as a group,” Rainbow offered with a quick shrug of her shoulders. The rest of the mares looked to her with mostly curious glances before she explained further. “We all leave here and go home, then later we each sneak off to the woods and meet up there. Simple.”
Mystery quickly considered the plan, and while it was a simple solution to their group drawing attention, one other problem had been overlooked. “That might work for the rest of you since you live here,” Mystery said as she walked over and stood next to Chrysalis. “We don’t, and we’re bound to be followed wherever we go as soon as we’re noticed walking around town.”
“Don’t go as you!” Pinkie’s voice called out from just behind them, surprising them both. Both of them flinched slightly when Pinkie sprung up between them and hooked a foreleg over each of their shoulders. Mystery hadn’t even noticed how the bouncy mare had managed to sneak up on them, and she was sure that Pinkie had been standing across the group from them only seconds earlier.
However, Pinkie did have a point. They were changelings, and hiding in plain sight was the one thing that Mystery had always been very good at.
Once the sun had set and the last lights of dusk had disappeared beyond the horizon, the last two visitors that had spent the day at Sugarcube Corner stepped outside. They both turned to look back to the door when Pinkie poked her head out.
“Rainbow, Fluttershy, thanks so much for coming over today!” she said, a bit more loudly than was absolutely necessary.
“Uh, right,” Rainbow said a bit awkwardly in response. The yellow pegasus to her side remained quiet when she glanced to her, almost looking as if she were concentrating really hard on something. “Anyway, we better get going.”
“You two fly safe,” Pinkie chirped, then she put a hoof up next to her mouth as she quickly whispered, “See you at the place,” before quickly pulling the shop door closed.
Rainbow glanced over to Fluttershy. “Ready?” she asked. She furrowed her brow slightly when Fluttershy didn’t look at her and only silently nodded. “Alright, I’ll lead the way.”
Rainbow took off into the night sky with Fluttershy following not to far behind her. Tonight, the sky was mostly cloudy, something that had been arranged for them by a certain weather pony earlier in the day. They flew up and through the low hanging clouds, coming out just above them, and started flying in the direction of the forest. Rainbow glanced to her side more than once along the way, making sure that Fluttershy was still there with her. She had thought something might not be right before they had taken flight, and now that she could see Fluttershy more clearly under the moonlight, she was sure of it. Her chest was heaving in and out as if the act of flying was the hardest thing she had ever done, and her fur was glistening with sweat from the exertion.
“We’re almost there,” Rainbow said when she caught a quick glimpse of the ground below through a break in the clouds. They flew straight for a minute longer before Rainbow dove downward through the cloud-line, coming out just above the canopy of the Everfree Forest. Fluttershy broke through the clouds only a second behind her. Even if anyone had been watching for them tonight, they likely wouldn’t have noticed the two shadows that fell out of the clouds and dove down into a clearing near the edge of the Everfree.
Rainbow landed first and quickly turned herself around to look back. When Fluttershy came down only a second behind her, she tripped over her front hooves, almost falling face first to the ground. Luckily, Rainbow was there to catch her.
“Are you alright?” Rainbow asked, her voice heavy with worry.
“I-I... need to...,” Fluttershy began to say, but she could barely speak through the deep gasping breaths she was drawing in. Her eyes then flashed a bright green just before a ripple of green flames ran over her body, revealing her to actually be Chrysalis. She let out a loud, relieved sounding gasp after she had managed to return to her unicorn form. Rainbow continued to hold her steady as she worked to calm her heavy breathing. “It’s alright. I’ll be fine,” Chrysalis said between the heavy breaths.
Rainbow cautiously let Chrysalis go, stepping back a couple steps. She closed her eyes for but a second and a ring of green fire flickered over her from her hooves to the top of her head, revealing her to actually be Mystery as she returned to her pegasus form. For the first time since they had arrived she was actually not wearing her guard armor, though she hadn’t forgone all of her gear, opting to hide a few things just under her wings. “You don’t look like you’ll be fine,” she said, stepping forward and offering a forehoof for her queen to steady herself by.
“I will be,” Chrysalis said, trying as hard as she could to sound reassuring. It was true that she already appeared to be doing much better than she had been only a moment ago. “I’m not sure what you’ve heard, but I’m sure you likely have heard some of the rumors.” She took in one more deep breath and let it all back out before turning herself to face Mystery. “Yes, I have been losing touch with some of my abilities. The honest truth is that I have no real explanation for it, though I do have my suspicions. I began to notice changes after I used the Elements a few years ago.”
Mystery’s ears flattened back as she asked, “Should you be exposing yourself to them again?”
Chrysalis chuckled quietly. “I created them, and while I’ve changed much since that time, nothing changes the fact that I know them better than anyone.” She gently pushed Mystery’s hoof back before standing tall on all fours. She put on a confident smile and said, “I’ll be fine. I have to be.”
Mystery’s ears flinched toward the sound of what could only be described as someone fumbling and complaining through the woods nearby. It was punctuated with a quiet ‘ouch’ before Rarity and Applejack both walked out into the clearing.
“Third time already,” Rarity grumbled as she shook one of her forehooves.
Applejack clucked her tongue and said, “Well, if you’d pick your hooves up when you walk, you wouldn’t be stubbin’ them.”
Mystery took a couple steps to put herself between the two new arrivals and her queen as she quickly reached a hoof under her right wing. Her hoof found one of the hidden pouches there, and she quickly fished out a necklace with a red glowing crystal attached. “Hey, catch,” she said as she tossed the necklace toward Applejack.
Applejack easily reached up and caught the necklace on her hoof. She and Rarity both squinted at it as the glow died out and the crystal went dormant. “What’s this thing?” she asked with a shrug of her shoulders.
“That tells me if you’re a changeling or not,” Mystery said as she walked up to them. She held her hoof out and said, “Looks like you’re not.”
“Well I could’a told you that,” Applejack grumbled as she returned the necklace its owner, causing it to glow red again.
“Just making sure,” Mystery said as she sat back on her haunches and clasped both of her forehooves over the necklace to douse the light.
“You kept it,” Chrysalis said, gesturing to the glowing necklace in Mystery’s hooves. “Your identification crystal. I thought most of my changelings would have gotten rid of the things after it wasn’t required to wear them any longer.”
“I thought it might be useful to find other changelings since we can’t use the other way right now.” Mystery quickly turned her head to another side of the clearing, her ears standing up and turning forward. There were some more rustling noises approaching.
Pinkie’s poofy pink mane could just barely be made out among the shadows as she bounced up every few seconds to get a glance in over the thick brush and shrubs. “Oh, oh!” she called out mid bounce when she spotted them in the clearing. When she bounced up again she pointed a forehoof forward. “Found them!” A few more bounces and Pinkie broke through the brush to land just at the edge of the clearing, and only a second later both Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy stepped out just behind her.
Mystery tossed her necklace toward Pinkie as she called out, “Catch.” The necklace sailed across the clearing and managed to get caught on the curls at the end of Pinkie’s bangs. Her eyes crossed and widened a bit as she admired the glowing red gem dangling in front of her face, and the two pegasi standing on either side of her both leaned in a bit closer as they curiously looked over the glowing gem as well. However, it soon faded.
“Aw, it went out,” Pinkie said, sticking her bottom lip out in a pout.
“That’s good, it means none of you are changelings,” Mystery said as she walked up and gathered the necklace from Pinkie’s mane.
“We’re not?” Pinkie quickly asked. Mystery paused for a second, raising a single eyebrow before slowly shaking her head and putting her necklace away. “Well, at least now we know for sure now,” Pinkie said as she glanced between Rainbow and Fluttershy.
Mystery cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. “None of you were followed, right?” she asked as she glanced around at the gathered group.
“Uh, don’t think so,” Rainbow said as she glanced over her shoulder. The rest of the group stayed silent other than a few shoulder shrugs and head shakes here and there.
Mystery sighed. “Well, I guess that’s the best answer we can hope for. If you were, there isn’t going to be much that can be done about it now.” She looked to Chrysalis, nodding her head once to indicate that they were as ready as they were going to be.
“Very well. I’m sure none of us want to be here any longer than is necessary, so let's get moving.” The group gathered together to leave the clearing and took a trail that led deeper into the woods. They stayed huddled fairly close to each other, mostly walking in pairs through the trail as they all kept their ears and eyes turned toward their surroundings. The next couple hours would likely involve a lot of boring walking through the woods, if they were lucky.
The massive silhouette of the Everfree Hive dominated the cliff side just beyond the tree line up ahead. The hive had remained abandoned for over three years, left behind by the changelings that had once called it home in favor of settling in Sanctuary. There was no telling what other creatures may have taken up residence since then. Luckily, the group wouldn’t have to venture into the hive and risk finding out just who or what now called it home. Their destination was just beneath them, down a set of solid stone stairs that led to the cave beneath the ancient ruins of Everfree where the Tree of Harmony rest.
Most of the group had stayed quietly huddled down in the brush nearby while Chrysalis and Mystery had ventured ahead to the cliff side. Rainbow peaked her head up just high enough to see over the brush, squinting her eyes in the darkness so she could just make out where Chrysalis and Mystery were huddled down near the edge of the cliff. “How long are they going to stay over there?” she said with a huff as she ducked her head back down.
“Long as it takes, I reckon,” Applejack said.
Rainbow snorted at the unsatisfactory answer, and then asked, “What do you think they’re talking about anyway?”
“I bet it’s changeling stuff,” Pinkie said with a quick nod.
Rainbow rolled her eyes.
“Iduno, but whatever it is, they have been talkin’ it over for a while.” Applejack sat up a bit taller and squinted her eyes as she tried to peer through the darkness. “Maybe they sensed somethin’ bein’ off,” she said quietly.
At that moment, Chrysalis and Mystery both crept away from the edge of the cliff back toward the tree line. Once safely under cover, they both stood and made their way swiftly back to the group.
“So, what’s going on?” Rainbow asked them just as they returned.
“They’ve been here before us,” Mystery said with a slight growl in her voice.
Fluttershy shrank back slightly as she asked, “They?”
“Other changelings. I’m sure they’ve been here recently,” Mystery said. She glared off over her shoulder back toward the hive.
“And unfortunately, the stairs leading down the cliff side would be the perfect location to get ambushed,” Chrysalis added with a heavy sigh.
Rainbow let out an irritated sounding snort as she clacked her forehooves together. “Let ‘em try it.”
Chrysalis laid a forehoof on Rainbow’s shoulder. “I admire your courage, but we have no idea how many there may be.” She then looked toward Mystery, furrowing her brow slightly as she said, “Though, we do have a way of finding out.”
Mystery nodded her head once, confidently saying, “It’ll work.”
Chrysalis closed her eyes for a few seconds, furrowing her brow deeply before she glanced to Mystery again and said, “Just make sure you escape safely.”
“Whoa, what are we about to do here?” Applejack asked as she looked back and forth between them.
“All of you need to stay very close to me,” Chrysalis said, looking around the group. “If I run, you stay beside me. When I stop, you stop as well and stay as close to me as you possibly can.” When she saw the others glancing to each other with unsure looks on their faces, she asked, “You do trust me, don’t you?”
Rarity quickly spoke up, saying, “Of course we do,” as she took a few steps forward. She turned to glance back at the others as she said, “I’m sure we all just want to know the details of what you two have planned so we can help.”
“Mystery is going to find out exactly how many other changelings are nearby,” Chrysalis said, glancing to her bodyguard at her side for but a moment. “As soon as she does this, any changeling that’s anywhere near this forest will know exactly where she is, and they’ll know that she knows where they are. They could be close, and if we are that unlucky we’ll have to hide ourselves.” Chrysalis drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. “But, I suppose it is a better option than walking blindly into what could be a trap.”
“It’ll work,” Mystery said again. She sat up a bit straighter when her queen looked her way.
Chrysalis quietly regarded her bodyguard. There was no doubt that Mystery had the confidence necessary to attempt the plan, but it would still be a risk regardless. She stood and took a few steps to put herself directly in front of Mystery. “I meant what I said,” she said very clearly. “If worse comes to worse, you escape. No heroics.” Chrysalis narrowed her eyes just slightly as she added, “That’s an order.”
Mystery quickly crossed her right foreleg over her chest and bowed her head as she said, “Yes, my queen.”
Chrysalis quietly looked down upon her bodyguard for a short moment afterward, and then finally nodded her head once as she said, “Then do it.”
Hive mind magic was a basic ability exhibited by all changelings, one which came even more naturally than the ability to mimic other forms. One could call it a sixth sense, allowing memories of events to pass from one mind to another, and in effect allowing any one changeling to see what others nearby see, both past and present.
While maintaining such a connection with a hive mind was not required of the Sanctuary changelings any longer, most still kept a tenuous link to those nearby simply out of habit. Such a shallow connection would be perceived as little more than background noise, something easily ignored but its presence would be missed if it were to suddenly vanish.
However, a group of changelings focusing their attention on communicating with one another through a hive mind link was another matter altogether. One of the beneficial side effects of linking through a hive mind was that a changeling could gain a sense of where the sources physically were. Using this ability to her advantage, Mystery would be able to find out exactly where any other changelings might be, with the one caveat being that they could sense her presence just as easily. It was the primary reason why both her and Chrysalis had foregone any linking on their trip thus far, to avoid the risk of any other changelings detecting them.
Mystery drew in a deep breath and let it back out slowly, focusing on clearing her mind. She stared blankly forward as her eyes began to glow with a green light and her mind reached out to form the link. After a few seconds, her eyes began to rapidly dart back and forth as the memories of others flowed back to her mind. And after only a few seconds more, her eyes widened as she drew in a sudden gasp. “Run!” she yelled as she scrambled to her hooves and galloped into the woods. The rest of the group wasted no time following her.
“How many?” Chrysalis called out over the sounds of their hooffalls thundering through the brush.
“Fourteen! Most of them are right behind us.” Mystery’s glowing eyes flicked to the side as she said, “There’s three coming in from—” Her ears flattened back as she drew in a hissing gasp through her clenched teeth. “Incoming! Left side!” she yelled.
A flash of amber colored light preceded the sound of wood splintering in the trees to their left. Chrysalis quickly cast a spell, aiming a directional shield to the group’s left just as an arc of magical energy burst through the trees. The power impacted her shield, most of it deflecting over the group and tearing into the trees around them. Thanks to the shield, the group kept galloping into the woods unscathed.
“A caster?” Chrysalis asked, sounding a bit surprised. If there was one thing that most changelings were not known for, it was casting offensive magic, at least for the natural born changelings. Typically, only those who were once spell casters before becoming a changeling had such abilities.
“I-It came from all three of them,” Mystery said.
“All of them!?” Chrysalis asked. She cast a quick glance over her left shoulder and then back to her bodyguard. She could see the doubt in Mystery’s eyes as she desperately tried to search the link for an answer to what she had sensed. “That can’t be possible,” Chrysalis growled. A single hybrid among the group, maybe, but multiple working together, and group casting spells?
“Another! Behind us!” Mystery called out.
Chrysalis quickly side stepped the path they were on and slid sideways to a stop. The rest of her friends following her did so as well, and just as the bright amber light once again flashed in the woods behind them, Chrysalis brought up another shield, this one a dome covering them all. The blast tore through a thick tree, turning it into a hailstorm of wooden splinters, and impacted the path that they had just been running down. The blast kicked up a thick haze of dust in the air and also filled it with the sounds of falling sand and debris.
Only seconds later, the sounds of more hoofsteps thundering through the woods filled the air, and many dark figures quickly galloped by the charred hole in the ground in pursuit of their target.
A moment passed, and the dust mostly settled as the sounds of the pursuing changelings faded off into the distance. Chrysalis finally dropped the domed veil that had shielded and shrouded the group from view.
“W-where’s Mystery?” Applejack asked as she quickly glanced around the area.
“Leading them off, let’s go,” Chrysalis said as she began to trot back down the path.
“Hold on,” Applejack said, causing Chrysalis to stop and look back to her. “We can’t just leave her—”
“I said, let’s go,” Chrysalis said, cutting Applejack off with her sharp tone and a stern look, one that caused the rest of her friends to look back at her with concern. She had grown accustomed to her commands being followed without question over the centuries that she had led a race of very obedient followers. However, she very quickly remembered that she was among friends that were choosing to help her, not obedient soldiers. She lowered and quickly shook her head. “Forgive me. I shouldn’t take such a tone with my friends.”
“It’s alright,” Applejack finally said. “I get it. You have a plan and you need us to listen. I’m just worried about Mystery facin’ all those other changelings on her own.”
Chrysalis glanced up with a smile. “Mystery knows what she’s doing,” she said as she glanced off into the woods. “If there is any changeling among my hive that can give them the slip, it would be her. We need to trust her.” She glanced back to her friends shortly before she looked off over her shoulder back in the direction they had come from. “We need to use the time she’s brought us to get to the Elements before they realize that they’ve been led away. Let’s hurry.”
Together, Chrysalis and her friends took off at a gallop back through the woods.
Mystery stole a glance over her shoulder when Chrysalis and her friends veered off the path and saw them vanish beneath a shield only seconds before another amber blast of energy tore through the nearby trees. The blast struck the path behind her and kicked up a cloud of dust and debris. She had to fight down the natural instinct to stop and protect her queen, and instead pressed herself to continue running as hard as she could through the woods.
She could still sense all fourteen changelings pursuing her through the woods, which meant they had taken the bait. Now all she had to do was continue to lead them as far away as she possibly could without revealing that she was the only one they were chasing. This meant no flying, as they would very quickly figure out the rest weren’t with her if she took to the skies. She strained to keep a read on their thoughts though the hive mind link as she ducked under low hanging branches so she could keep just ahead of them.
Suddenly, she sensed one ahead of her. Another? No, still fourteen. The number of changelings she sensed hadn’t changed. Her mind tried to make sense of it but couldn’t. If it had been a teleport, she would have been able to sense the spell casting like she had with the others. It really was like one of the changelings was behind her one moment, and then instantly in front of her the next.
She quickly veered off the path to avoid the changeling ahead of her, taking a much more difficult path through the brush. As she forged forward through the woods, she sensed it again. Another one simply vanished from one location only to instantly appear ahead of her.
Are they trading links with others? Can they really be that perfect at it? Mystery shook her head at the stray thoughts, knowing that they were probably betraying her confusion to her pursuers. She changed direction again and once again sensed one of her pursuers instantly appearing ahead of her. She was beginning to run out of options, and the rest of the pack was very quickly closing in behind her.
Instead of changing direction again, Mystery charged directly at the changeling she sensed ahead of her. She spread her wings and sprung forward, sailing just beneath the tree limbs. She reached beneath her left wing and drew out what appeared to be a metal cylinder. The cylinder glowed and emitted a metallic sliding sound as it extended out to a full length pike just before Mystery landed at her destination. She thrusted the pike at the changeling in front of her... only to find that it wasn’t there.
Mystery frantically tried to sense where the changeling had gone but found it was nowhere near her. Instead, she suddenly realized that she was surrounded on all sides, and could sense magical spells being cast from all around her. She scrambled to dodge the first strike, rolling to the ground to avoid a bolt of magic that came at her from the left. She immediately propelled herself upward when another two blasts came in from her right and struck the ground beneath her. She couldn’t delay the changelings any longer. They had somehow out maneuvered her, leaving her only with the option of escaping upward. With a couple swift flaps of her wings, she propelled herself through the canopy and into the cloudy night sky.
Mystery’s eyes snapped to her side when she once again sensed a sudden change in one of the changeling’s locations. There, she found a solid black silhouette with glowing blue eyes hovering in the sky, nearly within touching distance of her. And unless she was going crazy, she was sure she had heard it laugh at her with an almost child-like giggle. She struck out at the shadow with her pike in a wide arc, and it seemed to vanish just as her weapon touched it.
Mystery lurched forward as a blast of magic hit her in the back. She cried out as the searing pain from the offensive spell shot through her. She started to tumble back down to the forest, falling head over hooves. There was no escape now, only one final chance to hide.
Just as Mystery was about to hit the upper limbs of the canopy, she severed her link with the hive mind. A bright flash of green light lit the branches of the tree just as she passed through the leaves.
The changelings closed in around the base of the tree seconds later. They all looked up into the branches of the tree in union, and then down at the forest floor around the tree’s trunk. One of the changelings trotted up to Mystery’s gear, which was laying on the ground only a short distance away from where her pike had fallen and embedded itself in the ground. The changeling kicked the pack over with with a forehoof, and then all at once the entire group of changelings turned and began to gallop off into the woods.
The sounds of their hooves trailed off into the distance as the group of changelings left. The pack still laid there upon the forest floor, forgotten. A single drop of a greenish fluid rolled off the leaves of a nearby shrub and landed on the pack... and then another, and another.
Chrysalis reached the bottom of the stone stairway and then sprinted into the cave. Once inside, she gradually slowed her stride until she came to a stop as she glanced up to the crystal branches of the Tree of Harmony. She glanced to her sides when the rest of her friends cantered up on either side of her. “We have to move quickly,” she said as she cantered up to the tree’s trunk.
Rainbow Dash flew up to the red tinted Element held by one of the branches. She reached out to the gemstone, but hesitated just before she actually touched it. The stone appeared completely encased in the branch’s crystal bark. “How do we get them back out?” she asked as she turned to glide back down to the ground.
“Maybe we just ask?” Fluttershy offered.
Rainbow landed right next to her, cocking one eyebrow.
“Actually, that’s exactly what we do,” Chrysalis said. She looked up into the branches of the tree from where she stood at its base. “I know we returned them to you only a few short years ago, but we need to borrow their power again.” She reached one forehoof up and gently placed it against the tree’s trunk, and then closed her eyes and slowly lowered her head until the tip of her horn touched the trunk as she quietly whispered, “Please.”
A quick shimmer of light ran through the tree’s roots, climbing up through the trunk and out to the the very tips of the branches. The silence was broken by the sound of stone grinding against stone, and then the six Elements shimmered as they were all released from the tree’s grasp. Each of the Elements brightened until they appeared like an orb of pure colored light and then flew to their chosen bearer. Each of the Elements that reached Chrysalis's friends formed a necklace around their neck, and the final Element, Magic, formed a golden tiara to set within before coming to rest upon her head.
Applejack lifted Honesty up with her hoof as she glanced down to the Element, then glanced over to Chrysalis as she said, “That was pretty simple. Time to hightail it outta here?”
“Indeed, let’s—” Her ears flicked to the side when she heard the sounds of hoofsteps, and she quickly looked to the cave’s entrance to see over a dozen dark figures galloping down the steps and toward the cave. Her ears fell back as she gritted her teeth. The cave had only one entry way and didn’t go any further beyond the tree. They were trapped.
As the dark silhouettes approached the cave, the illumination from the tree allowed Chrysalis to get a better look at their true appearance. She was shocked to find that not only did all of these changelings appear to be hybrids, but that they also all appeared exactly the same, each of them having the same amber colored eyes, mane, and tail. However, she only had a few seconds to ponder over this oddity before amber colored magic began to arc between their horns and gather in a mass before them. “Get behind me!” Chrysalis shouted as she sprinted forward just ahead of her friends. Her horn flashed with bright green light as she quickly cast a forward shield between herself and the attackers, only seconds before the bright ball of amber light was released.
The impact from the of the blast shattered her shield and sent Chrysalis flying backwards, and the resulting shockwave shook bits of crystal loose from the cavern walls. Chrysalis landed roughly on her side and rolled across the ground a few times before finally sliding to a stop.
“Chrys!” Fluttershy called out in a near shriek. She and the rest of the group sprinted forward to where Chrysalis laid unmoving on the ground just before them. She was the first to reach Chrysalis, and she hesitated for a few seconds before gently placing her forehooves on Chrysalis’s side. Chrysalis stirred at the touch, flinching and tucking her forelegs against her chest as she drew in a hissing breath through her clenched teeth. “Oh, she’s hurt,” Fluttershy said, her voice heavy with worry.
“We gotta do something,” Rainbow said, frantically pointing at the group of changelings that were now slowly closing in on them. Her eyes darted about quickly as she tried to think of a way to stop the attackers, and she happened to absentmindedly place a hoof upon her Element. She quickly glanced down to it, then to the rest of the group as she said, “Hey! We can use the Elements!”
Applejack glanced between Rainbow and Chrysalis, and upon seeing how Chrysalis was struggling just to lift her head up off the floor, she shook her head and said, “We can’t without Chrys!”
Rainbow grit her teeth together as she looked back to the changelings that had them cornered. Amber sparks were once again starting to arc between their horns. Another attack was coming any second. Rainbow’s ears flattened back as hackles stood up along her back. Her wings flared out at her sides as she took a low stance to the ground and growled, “We need to do something!” She began to lean forward, prepared to charge directly at the changelings.
Pinkie drew in a loud gasp before yelling, “Lightning strike!” Her voice echoed in the cave, and caused Rainbow to skid to a stop after only sprinting a few steps forward. Her shout even seemed to catch the changelings off guard as they momentarily stopped as well, all of them glancing to her with confused looks.
Rainbow glanced back over her shoulder with a bewildered look of her own. She shook her head as she gestured with a hoof toward the ceiling and plainly said, “We’re in a cave.”
Pinkie scrambled to her hooves and sprinted to the side before circling back toward Rainbow. She shouted, “Get... back!” as she leapt at Rainbow and tackled her. Together, they slid off to the side of the cave.
And not even a second later, a flash of lightning lit the cave to the deafening sound of a clap of thunder, striking the spot where Rainbow had been standing.
Everyone now saw the lavender alicorn sitting at the center of a charred mark where the lightning had struck. Twilight still trembled and leaned against her staff for support as the excessive power of the time travel spell dissipated in small arcs off of her body. She finally drew in a deep but shaking breath and lifted her head as she opened her eyes.
She was met with the stunned gaze of more than a dozen changelings. For a moment, they only silently stared back at one another, but then the many identical faces staring back at her all contorted in anger all at once. The amber colored sparks of energy quickly arced between their horns once again, amassing as another orb of energy right before them. They let the spell go, hurtling the orb of power directly at the alicorn, but she quickly stood and brought her staff before her, channeling her magic through it to cast a wall to wall shield between herself and the changelings. The orb impacted and diffused across the shield, sending ripples across it like a rock would when thrown into a pond.
“Princess Twilight!?” Twilight quickly looked to the side when she heard Pinkie’s voice, and there she found both Rainbow and Pinkie. They both seemed frozen in an awkward pose with Rainbow pinned beneath Pinkie while she had a hoof pressed against the side of Pinkie’s face, both of them gawking back at Twilight as if they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. “Wow,” Pinkie finally said, breaking the awkward silence. “You’ve got really good timing.”
“Pinkie...,” Twilight said in a whispery voice. She quickly glanced back behind her, and saw the rest of the group huddled together closer to the Tree of Harmony. Another blast hit her shield, and she quickly snapped her attention back forward to the attackers. “Who are they?” she said as she scowled at the changelings. She already had a very good idea of what she had just interrupted, and her horn sparked as she readied herself to cast another spell.
Pinkie managed to untangle herself from Rainbow and trotted up next to Twilight. “Uh, we don’t really know but... we didn’t invite them.” She stuck her tongue out at the changelings when they cast another spell that was repelled by the shield. “Meanies.”
Twilight clasped Dusk in her magic, holding the staff right before her eyes. “That’s all I needed to know,” she said as she concentrated on channeling more magical power into the staff. As she did so, the tip of the crystal began to glow with a bright white point of light. Small static arcs of power started to skitter about in the air around the point as the spell’s power built.
By this point, Chrysalis had managed to mostly recover from the hit she had suffered earlier. She had silently laid there and watched in amazement as Twilight single hoofedly defended them from the combined power of over a dozen spell casters. She quickly jerked a hoof back when she felt a twinge of pain, holding it against her chest. She glanced down at her hoof and saw the white static arcing over her hoof, leaving it feeling numb. She realized then exactly what spell Twilight was preparing. “W-wait!” she tried to call out, but it was just a second too late.
Twilight’s spell released in a spherical burst, quickly expanding outward from Dusk. The white sphere of light quickly passed over everything in its path as it expanded outwards. Twilight’s ears flinched back when she heard the shrill scream coming from behind her. She quickly spun around and found Chrysalis there among the rest of the group, writhing about on the cave floor and screaming in agony as the spell’s magic coursed over her body in tendrils of pure white energy. Twilight quickly cast a second spell, sending a pulse of power out from her horn that caught up with and cancelled first, stopping the spell just short of reaching the group of changelings outside the shield. Chrysalis let out a strained gasp as the magic was dispelled and collapsed over onto her side.
“Oh, nonono.” Twilight rushed to Chrysalis’s side, laying down beside her as she gently tried to lift Chrysalis’s head in her hooves. Chrysalis struggled against falling unconscious, her eyes rolling back and refusing to stay open. The spell that Twilight had used wasn’t designed to harm, but she had tuned it to fend off the group outside the shield. Chrysalis had been hit with a far stronger dose of magic than Twilight would have intentionally used on a single changeling, and at a very close range. “What was I thinking!? Of course you’d be here with them.”
Twilight cringed when another blast struck her shield. She glared out of the corner of her eye at the group of changelings that were still attempting break through her shield. Her shielding magic was some of the strongest shielding magic known in her time, but even her magic could be torn down by a large enough group given enough time. As she considered her options, she noticed for the first time that she was breathing heavily, and she could feel sweat dampening her fur. What ever she did next, she would need to make it count, as she was already starting to feel exhaustion creeping in. She looked back to the others; old friends that she hadn’t seen in centuries. They were worried, scared, some even terrified. She had to do something to save them.
Twilight gently laid Chrysalis back down, then stood and turned herself to face Rainbow Dash. “Dash, I need you to get her away from here so I can cast my spell.” Twilight gently laid one hoof on Rainbow’s shoulder. “Can you do that?” she quietly asked.
“Yeah, sure,” Rainbow said. She quickly trotted over to Chrysalis’s side, laying down next to her and gesturing to Applejack to come help. Chrysalis quietly complained with a groan as she was lifted and laid upon Rainbow’s back. “How far?” Rainbow asked, glancing up to Twilight.
“Well above the canopy away from here,” Twilight said. She grasped Dusk in her magic and turned herself back toward the shield. “Don’t return until the light fades.”
Rainbow slowly stood and spread her wings. She tapped a hoof against one of Chrysalis’s dangling forelegs as she said, “Come on, Chrys. Hang on tight.” Chrysalis groaned and managed to cross her forehooves over Rainbow’s chest. “Guess that’ll have to do,” Rainbow said as she crouched lower to the ground to ready herself for takeoff. She watched the group of changelings closely, waiting for her opening. They let loose with another spell blast, and the second it connected with Twilight’s shield, Rainbow sprinted forward. Just as she was within a few steps of the shield, she lept into the air and passed through the shield, quickly zipping just over the heads of the changelings and out of the cave. They all began to turn to follow.
“Hey!” Twilight yelled, causing the group of changelings to stop and look back to her. The shield between her and the changelings dissolved as she stopped the power flow supporting it, and instead devoted all of her power toward charging a new spell. Twilight’s mane took on an ethereal quality, the raw power she was channeling causing it to hover around her head as her eyes took on a magenta glow. “Your fight is with me,” she said as she leveled Dusk directly at the changelings.
Rainbow broke through the canopy, quickly climbing into the night sky over the Everfree Forest. She could feel the hold that Chrysalis had around her neck gradually slipping until it finally reached the point that she couldn’t hang on any longer. Rainbow acted quickly, twisting about and grabbing her around the barrel to keep her from falling.
“I gotcha,” Rainbow said in a strained voice. “Come on, Chrys. Stay with me,” she said as she flapped her wings to keep them both at a hover over the forest.
Then the night sky suddenly lit up brighter than day. The sudden flash of blinding light caused Rainbow to yelp as she squeezed her eyes closed and turned away. She shook her head and blinked her squinted eyes rapidly as the bright light slowly faded away. “Dang,” she quietly said as she looked up at the last flickering remnants of a column of light trailing up into the sky. The clouds had parted in a circle over the location where Twilight’s spell had been cast.
Chrysalis’s head lolled to the side as her body went completely limp in Rainbow’s gasp. Rainbow quickly tightened her grip before she angled herself to start gliding back down to the forest. “Hang in there, Chrys. You’ll be okay,” she said as she sailed back down to the ruins below them. “You gotta be.”