“You’re here seeking an ally?” My question emerged sounding less like a genuine inquiry and a lot more like a sarcastic, disbelieving charge. A tension sat in the back of my neck as I stared down the leader of Equestria’s bug-like menace, and I was certain that had I been able to check, I would have found my coat standing on end.
She waved off my tone with her foreleg. “Common feelings, Professor; you’re radiating common feelings. Distrust, anger, fear – they are bleeding from you as you speak, and I have felt them all before. The distrust you hold for me is unsurprising. It’s fueled by the passion you carry for protecting your special somepony, and it just might be unparalleled in all of Equestria. Your anger and fear, though, require a rather unusual palate. They’re bittersweet, utterly unfocused flavors in search of a needed direction.”
“An enemy of the state just appeared in my office while impersonating my fiancée. I think that establishes my direction pretty well enough,” I retorted with a harsh whisper before raising my volume to its normal level. “I didn’t ask for your analysis of my emotions either. Those things are my business and my business alone. So quit the crap and tell me why you’re here.”
“Ugh, you ponies are always so dramatic with your declarations. It’s none of my business. Ohh, you’ll never get away with this. We’ll stop you…” Mockery might as well have condensed from her breath as she rolled her wrist. “You’re dodging my statement. Your common emotions have such an uncommon root, and you’re willingly ignoring it. Your anger and fear are being torn asunder, and you’re using my presence as a crutch to bury yourself. It’s quite fascinating really. And by the way, emotions are always my business. It’s kind of my thing, so, because your instability is hindering my negotiating process, why don’t we try this again by stirring that supposedly academic mind of yours?
“Do you know how many times I’ve been told that I would never get away with something? Do you know how many times I’ve gotten exactly what I was after? The cliché is simply ridiculous. I always get away with it, little one. I always get what I’m after.”
“Are you out of your mind!?” I abruptly snapped my muzzle shut to the turning cog that panged my thoughts. The changelings had been utterly defeated in Canterlot. Shining Armor’s love-backed barrier dispelled the invasion with complete success. Chrysalis had been crushed, so was her statement a ploy? Could she just really be that delusional? Or was it something else?
“Then suddenly, the anger washes away, and his fear gets drowned by the thrill of the quest. That’s spot on with what your student said before I entered, wasn’t it? You’re a stallion simply in need of another fight in the dark. Go on then. Find yourself. Ask me the question that yearns to jump from the tip of your tongue.”
I nervously tapped my hoof against the floorboards as the words arranged themselves in my head. The mere notion that I had the chance to even ask would have spiked Trigger with envious satisfaction. In truth, he had considered it already. The whole debacle never made any sense – unless of course… “You lost the invasion on purpose, didn’t you?”
Muffled squeals of delight poured around her shushing hoof. “Somepony finally understands. Of course we failed on purpose. The typical love of ponies is decent, but there’s always a cost with our usual tactics. Insertion carries the weights of tragedy and deceit, and eventually the consequences win the war of attrition. We’re always left with a pressing need to complete what is unfinished – to feast until we are full. Nothing satisfies the chirping gullets of drones more than the joyful celebration of a victory. Stir some trouble, razzle the masses, and then let the heroine of the hour save the day.
“We take a bit of a beating in the process, but chitin is strong and the harvest more than makes up for the pain of the scuffle. However, that only works for so long. Invasions are a once-in-a-generation affair. It’s as you said; after one attack, I’m an enemy of the state. Repeated engagements would risk having the hives hunted down. Yet one raid isn’t enough, and the population is outgrowing what it can gather without crossing lines that cannot be uncrossed. So what exactly is a queen to do?”
I watched as she held her breath for several seconds. It was as if she was just waiting for me to actually answer – waiting for me to fill in the blanks with my own suite of responses. Her statements certainly prodded the academic in me. They pushed me to dig deeper, to scour the sea of possibilities that brought the changeling to my chamber, and to ascertain the unknown afflictions that plagued her kind. She was earning my sympathy, and she had almost pulled me away from the only question that mattered. What the hell did she do with Ambrosia?
Dull aches spread throughout my clenched jaw, the muscles in my legs tensed, and my wings flared to the wildfire inquiry that I had set blazing about my skull. “Utterly hopeless,” Chrysalis commented after her eyelids crafted a harshly cut scowl. “You’re coping poorly, and it makes for a terrible emotional platter. I already told you that I didn’t do anything to your precious pony, but I guess I can’t expect even a scientist to get it all upfront.
“I only took her visage to gauge… your sensitivity – I guess is what you’d call it – and to get a sample of Equestria’s newest commodity, of course. You should really be proud. The taste was exceptional, a noteworthy achievement considering the minimal quantity that I was allowed to experience. But that’s not the point. The point is that your original assessment was effectively correct. Her train left on time, and no ‘ling will dare touch her unless it’s a fool seeking an abrupt end. Please tell me that’s enough for you to connect the dots. Monologuing when one is not playing a villainous role is rather boring, and I’d hate to resort to insults at your intelligence.”
She’s safe. I almost whispered the statement aloud as I leaned back against the closed door. Relief washed over my frame like the cool breeze off the ocean in Manehattan – like home. In that instant, I had decided to believe the monarch. I had set my distrust aside and hoped that she was telling the truth. I just did not believe that she had a reason to lie. “Wait, did you just call my love a commodity?”
Her wings buzzed as she cantered around the desk and plopped upon my chair. “You were a busy pony several months ago. Manehattan sent vibes that even a drone could pick up from afar. The terror, the hate, and the light – all wrapped up in one single event – but Canterlot was something truly special. It grabbed my interest the moment the subtle strands of lavender and cinnamon seduced my senses. The yield was far greater than what I’d expect from a pair of ponies, and my research began. It didn’t take long to make the trace. Spying and reconnaissance are the staple benefits of being a changeling, though the griffon idiot assisted immeasurably.” Her fangs appeared behind a broadening smile. “I’m here to bargain for your services. How would you like to save a race… and make those necessary scuffles a thing of the past?”
On the other side of the Las Pegasus campus, Ashen Mystic stood beside her office window. The History Department had been housed in a much older building compared to those of the STEM fields. Of course, the rose-colored unicorn mare had absolutely no problem with such a location. She found comfort in the antique panes and the weathered stone bricks, for history was the one language best spoken to the reforming archaeologist.
“What am I doing here?” she mumbled as she scanned over the university grounds. “I should be looking after Kinetic. No! I should be locked away with Erzsevine…” Her vermillion eyes watered while the clouds of maternal worry fogged her head. Her chest burned to the ghostly stabs that turned her sanity to tatters. Part of her had been robbed by that creature of reverie. Part of her had been taken, and she did not know if what remained was the core or the shell. “I have to take the punishment.” The tears fell freely. “I have to atone for the lives I ruined… but… was that me even me?”
“Whoa,” a masculine voice pulled Mystic’s snout towards the doorway, “you haven’t had a bad day in a while, Ashen.”
She stared in silence as a large navy-blue earth pony waved to the guard standing in the hall. He crossed the threshold with a smile – as he had always done since being assigned as her research associate – and it did nothing but irritate the elder mare. She struggled to maintain her composure – to not allow her expression to contort beneath the onslaught of that toothy grin.
Deev Factor had been nothing but nice to her. In fact, the stallion seemed to have no limits when it came to kindness and sympathy. They were two more facets of his personality that pushed her closer to the brink of self-loathing madness. She cringed to the overwhelming torrents of memories – those packets drenched in the hatred towards other races – and she shook in their terrifying wakes whenever she dared to compare her thoughts against his actions.
The brown-eyed pony gradually approached the quaking Ashen Mystic. He brushed back a lock of midnight blue mane and drew in a deep breath. “Heheh,” he continued calmly, “you know I don’t like it when cute mares cry.”
She choked back a laugh as another wave of tears streaked through the fur on her muzzle. “You know how much I hate your dumb quips. You should save the smiles and attitude for those more… stable.”
Deev sighed after shifting beneath the canvas saddlebag draped upon his back. “You can’t undo what was done, but you shouldn’t lose sight of what’s already been accomplished.”
He fell silent once Ashen winced and snapped her head to the side. With a swift motion, the mare turned her flank upon the colt and battled through her sniffles. “It doesn’t matter what’s been accomplished, not right now. I’ll never be able to look out at that classroom… I’ll never be able to look without seeing their faces – the ones that I killed! The ones that I ruined! How can these foals stand to look at me?” She shoved a forehoof into her grey mane and panted. “Why did I even do it!? The reasons were taken from me! Why did I have all that hate? What can I even do about it now?”
The towering stallion took another couple steps towards the crumbling, crying Mystic. He lifted his foreleg and hesitantly held it above her withers before allowing it to delicately drop upon her coat. “There are things that not even the princesses understand. Things happen, and time moves on. I don’t know why you had all that hate, but the only hate you have now is the grief you give yourself – and the grief you give me.” He chuckled at the little witticism. “The report Wing shared when I arrived made it clear that a third party manipulated your judgment.”
“I still had control!” she spat sobbingly. “I still… did what I did. It doesn’t matter if somepony led me astray – or if a griffon was involved. It doesn’t matter if the underlying seeds of my anger were plucked from me by that thing. I still acted! I still was the monster!”
“There aren’t any monsters in this room now though, and I should know. You’re trying. I can tell how hard you’re trying, and your students see it too. Behind all the tears and uncertainty is a pretty big light. I’ve told you that before, and I’m happy to tell you it again.”
She twitched to Factor’s cadence, but her breathing had at least settled somewhat. In the pit of her mind, a fraught voice still yearned for her to deny his statements, yet something about his gentlecolt tones held the internal anxiety at bay. “I guess I should try to get ready for office hours, huh? Did you pick up my mail as usual?”
“Heh, we are getting pretty close to finals, so that’s probably a good idea.” Deev lifted his leg from its perch upon Ashen’s back and set it meandering about the saddlebag. “And, I sure did.” He retrieved a stack of envelopes from the trusted sack and promptly completed the delivery. “Anything for the cute mares.”
“Don’t push your luck, stallion. Your ability to calm me is infuriating.” She turned and dragged a leg across her muzzle to wipe away the staining trickles. A small smile was left in their steads, and the sight made Deev’s frame bounce with bit of joy. “Thank you,” Ashen continued, scooping the mail up before commencing the routine flip-through. “Garbage, garbage, gar.”
She froze, the smile on her face vanishing as quickly as it had appeared. The warming pep that had surged through the stallion’s body evaporated as worry gripped his beating heart. Ashen was trembling again, and her eyes appeared wider than he had ever seen them. “Ashen, what’s wrong? What is it?”
“Go get Wing,” she blurted fearfully before she let the pile fall from her hoof. “Go get him and bring him here. Please. Please do it now.” Her stare never drifted the upper-left corner of that envelope. It clung to the spot where she found two letters scribbled in place of a return address. W.W.