Cultural Artifacts

by Dan_s Comments

37) Intellectuals Remember the Opera

Cultural Artifacts - Intellectuals Remember the Opera
Dan's Comments
DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 72

        The city stirred, the first light of dawn appearing on the horizon. Not that any pony raised their head to look at the signal of another day of toil. The soldiers also looked down, the better to see the faintest sign of rebellion or treachery from their charges. The fanfare of dozens of Trumpets and Fancy Horns drew every eye to the lone figure standing on the hill. The pony's armor blazed with reflected dawn light, the ordinary citizens charged to their work stations or back into their homes, afraid of being punished at seeing such a display of defiance. The army of King Sombra spilled out into the streets to gawk at this mysterious newcomer who seemed to be challenging them by presence and fanfare.

        Most laughed and nudged their squad-mates as if to say 'right, dealing with this sucker will be fun.' The laughter intensified as the pony trotted down the slope, joined by a few friends, and musical accompaniment.

        Some of the older sergeants realized, that slope had never been given traps or entanglements, it being too hard to climb up, no one had considered someone would come down.

        The Big Guy watched through the telescope as the troops' expression changed from amusement, to a niggling concern, as the line of trotting ponies got wider, two by two, by two, by two, and so on. Some took on a grim expression, realizing they were facing a serious challenge, but others stayed transfixed as the line widened, ever more, seemingly without stopping.

        Officers of ever-increasing rank had arrived, marked by ever more gold braid and baroque stylings. They began looking intently at the steadily widening line.

        The tempo picked up, the first line broke into a gallop and the second line came over the crest at a gallop. And the officers instantly get it, the Big Guy thought, 'It's that moment of dawning comprehension I live for.'

        "Exit stage rear," the Big Guy said of the fleeing officer corps, the troopers immediately caught on, and they started fleeing too. The citizenry just looked around in utter confusion. They saw ponies, and not what was panicking the soldiers, so they watched: peering from windows or looking from where they were ready to start the day's work. "Rossini, it was for a good cause, can you ever forgive me?"

        Fluttershy let out a cry, like Rossini was getting his revenge for again losing the finale of the William Tell Overture to a story with horses. The Big Guy looked away from the chaos in town at the stricken pegasus. He'd seen out of the corner of his eye that she'd been 'dancing' since the music started, like a duck on a hot stove, now she looked to be in real distress.

        She looked at the Big Guy apologetically.

        "Are you all right?" he asked.

        "No." She whimpered again and bowed her head. "Excuse me," she said, and charged off after the advancing line.

        The Big Guy chuckled, then looked at the others bouncing up and down in his truck. "Oh good grief." He covered his face with his hand.

        Selene laughed, "Dinky and I will mind the cameras."

        "And I'll bring the orchestra," Discord said as the entire Royal Philharmonic and others floated atop a cloud behind him.

        The conductor turned and 'directed' him towards the truck.

        "Always be ready when your plan succeeds beyond your wildest expectations," the Big Guy muttered as he jogged towards the truck. "Hang on, and get the shovels out," he told the three, now four passengers as Derpy joined them. He took off down the slope, accelerating to 60 on the flat terrain, then slowing to 40 as he headed across the suspiciously glassy-looking streets. Once on the other side, very suspiciously, the orchestra's tempo picked up and he raced after what he perceived was the most likely path of the fleeing general staff. Hitting 90 when he spotted their dust cloud.

        Glorious Sunrise was in his element, his head through the rear window of the cab. A nudge or point told the Big Guy which way. He had 'coursed' enough enemies, he knew the path generals who were cowards would take. The alien also had a good idea where the foe would run at bay. He hadn't understood why the Big Guy had made such a drastic reduction in speed through the city, when the pursuit was all and must be maintained at all costs.

        Once they were out of the city, he got his answer as the machine accelerated. The gauge presumably measuring the vehicle's speed climbed to its limits. The vehicle was not as fast as a flying pony or griffon, but what they pursued only fled on hooves.

        The orchestra managed to outdistance them through the city, now they overtook them as they raced over the ground. The Big Guy's confident driving drove them onward, the orchestra struggling to keep up. The general staff appeared in the distance, and the distance was closing rapidly. The generals and their sycophants, rather than scattering, remained in a tight clump as all four of the truck-riders collected the long-handled shovels and rakes.

        Glorious Sunrise would have preferred to use the edge of the shovel, but he suspected the force wanted these miscreants alive. The back-swing also reduced the force, but the ranking general of Sombra's armies went into an uncontrolled tumble from a dead run. The Griffon Empire has been heard from, he thought briefly of the ramifications of what was essentially a declaration of war against Sombra's forces. He clouted a major between the ears while he pondered the morality of dragging his nation into a 'terrible conflict.'

        On either side of the truck, shovels and rakes rose and fell in the hooves and mouths of Applejack, Pinkie Pie and Derpy, harvesting the officers. The truck turned to block off some, but the ride generally stayed smooth and straight-ahead. One officer finally broke away from the pack, the conductor leaned down and hit her with his podium without missing a beat.

        The vehicle slowed to a stop so they could load the captives.

        "For Equestria and the Griffon Empire," Pinkie growled at the battered troops.

        Sapphire had watched Fluttershy join the charge, as if she couldn't help herself. Then Sapphire couldn't help herself. It's as if the inspiration just hammered into my brain, she thought of the plan that had sprung full formed into her mind and she directed it to the troops. Hundreds of Changelings became Fluttershy. They outraced the fleeing army of Sombra, and with Fluttershy forward, but back of the main line, formed a line ahead of them, giving them all Fluttershy's STARE.

        The army wheeled about, only to see another wall of Fluttershies, all Staring! Fluttershy had been with the first line, but not with the second. The Changelings' Stares were much weaker, but the army was dissolving, becoming a panicked mob. They saw the main line approaching and wheeled about a full 180 degrees and raced for the only apparent opening, only to have yet another line of Fluttershies close that and Stare.

        The mob raced around in a tightening spiral and the Changeling formation closed in. Every time they approached the cordon that had closed around them, the 'Flutterlings' gave a massed Stare, like a volley of crossbows that sent the force turning and fleeing. They didn't close in too much, letting the ponies run in circles as they exhausted themselves. As the soldiers dropped, the Big Guy arrived with an overly laden truck, and dropped off the officer corps into the square of 'Flutterlings'. Whatever will to resist that the army had, dissolved as their battered officers were delivered into the same trap.

        Without leadership or hope of escape, they threw themselves to the ground. Discovering something that they had discarded with Sombra's ascension to the throne: mercy. Despite the fury of all those around them, and the soldiers' clear expectation they would be put to the sword one and all, the changelings and their pony allies simply maintained the cordon. The exhausted troopers and officers would be allowed to marinate in the realization they were vastly outnumbered and living on gifted time. Many of the enemy had magic to rival Sombra's. King Sombra was no where to be seen. And they weren't facing Celestia, who had gone after Sombra directly. The troops clearly knew that without the army, the citizens were free to choose which side they were on.

        Grass Light's binoculars would have been on the ground with his jaw had the strap not kept them around his neck. The brigands' rout had been nearly this complete, but those weren't trained and disciplined troops, and it had been accomplished by a handful.

        "How many?" he asked as he tried to get his own officers and cadre back under control.

        "At least 20 thousand," his intelligence officer said, "I lost count."

        Grass Light actually smiled at that. "That's the first good news I've heard. That's their weak-point. The size of that army."

        "I'd like to see how that's a weak-point," his tactical officer said.

        "Where's the supply train for an army that size?" Grass Light asked, "What's a town that size going to feed an army that size? Gratitude?" He chuckled and the rest of his officers chuckled as well. "That army is going to have to disperse to forage, or it's going to have to have a massive supply train. We find that and hit it, we've got them."

        He looked at his troops. "But I do think that our 'friend' sold us a bill of goods. And I think we'd better renegotiate. Get them a little more active and coordinated in our responses. Find out what they really want, and what they'll get out of it."

        He led the troops out without the few patrolling pegasi seeing them. None of the Changelings disguised as pegasi spotted then, but two alicorns did, and remembered them.

        "Now we have to impress them," Discord told them, "I kinda spread the idea that the citizens outnumbered the remaining soldiers at least 50 to 1." He grinned at that, then looked concerned. "Ponyness ensued."

        Vladimir face hoofed. "Okay, make yourselves presentable, and form up, marching cadence please."

        The troopers assumed their formation. The changelings remained in a tight square around the prisoners. Fluttershy rejoined the others who'd accompanied the Big Guy on his run across the fields of the Empire.

        Vladimir approached. "Will you have any trouble with them?" He nodded towards the assembled army of Sombra.

        "No, you go and be the hero, we 'necessary evils' will follow along behind."

        Discord transformed into full Scottish regalia, Tartan jacket, kilt hose and kilt, white shirt and bow tie, black buckle brogues, silver-mounted sporran, jeweled sgian dubh and a Highland bonnet with badge (the Sacred Chao), of course including a Great Highlands bagpipe. "Look, I'm regimental!" he announced.

        "Ponies don't usually wear clothes," the Big Guy commented. He looked at the orchestra, still sitting on the cloud that had a rope leading to the rear bumper of his truck. "Normally I wouldn't ask, but can you quickly teach them a song?"

        "Sure, they'll all instantly know it," Discord said and cracked his knuckles, then caught the conductor's gaze. "With your permission of course."

        The conductor nodded as did most of the musicians. A moment later, they shook themselves and absolutely grinned at each other, then at the prisoners. The Army of Sombra cowered in terror of the Canterlot Philharmonic.

        The citizens had dragged the few Sombran soldiers and officials from their offices. A few had decided to resist, and the rage and terror that had so characterized Sombra's reign exploded. None of them knew for certain why everypony was sure Sombra was gone to never return, but they all knew, and they all acted.

        The beatings were directed at the soldiers and official. Most who'd simply surrendered were under guard. Will o' Wisp moved back and looked at crowds who were 'insisting' that the last vestiges of the Sombra authority surrender unconditionally.

        The sound, no the music, drew more and more of the crowds away from the, in some cases, unconscious soldiers. The crowds seemed to realize their condition, and what they'd been doing. They wiped the blood off their noses, lips, and ears. It was clearly music, a jaunty marching tune, but none of them could place the instrument. It sounded like a cello or a bassoon, it was agreed, but nopony was sure.

        The formation was led by the strangest creature they'd ever seen, playing what looked like a bag and a collection of flutes, with a bass drum atop his head. Behind him was something they'd not seen in a long time. The formation marched in unison, and was composed of unicorns, thestrals, earth ponies, pegasi, and at the lead was a splendid, white unicorn.

        Ponies came out of their houses, they stared at what were clearly soldiers, but felt more like a festival. The jaunty tune and the strange musician weren't the only parts. The troops were as serious as Sombra's forces, but they carried themselves with a feeling of joy. Just marching under the sun.

        The Crystal Ponies looked at each other, and wondered. The force that had swept the army from the city had looked like this, but the music had been orchestral, and it had been more warlike. More and more ponies assembled on the main roadway the army was marching down. They looked at each other with concern, but the seemingly ridiculous figure at the front, marching in perfect cadence made it clear this was a force to be respected, not feared. They wouldn't be as serious for seriousness' sake as their oppressors had been.

        The pony walking behind the unicorn leader raised and blew a whistle, directing changes. The musician continued playing the drum, a drumstick clutched in his horn beat the drum softly. The troopers came to a stop, marking time.

        "Halt," the leader ordered, turned smartly and approached Will o' Wisp. The pony quailed slightly, until the unicorn saluted.

        "Colonel Vladimir, North Border Fusiliers," he said, holding the salute, "We thought you could use the help."

        Will o' Wisp returned the salute crudely. "Glad to have you with us. But I'm afraid that there's more trouble than you know."

        "Sombra has fallen, sir," Colonel Vladimir said, "And he had you separated from the rest of Equestria for over a millennium. There's a lot that you don't know"

        "What about the rest of the Army of Sombra?" Will o' Wisp asked.

        Colonel Vladimir turned smartly, and gestured. The troops that were approaching were definitely more menacing. The tight formation, like a phalanx inside out, held the former Sombran soldiers within four walls of spears. The orchestra that floated along behind played a menacing air that chilled the marrow.

        "The music is for the former army, not for the citizens of the Crystal Republic," Colonel Vladimir said.

        "Crystal Empire," Will o' Wisp said almost automatically and grimaced at the reflexive response.

        "We shall see," Colonel Vladimir said and smiled.

        The citizenry glared at the soldiers within the formation, their former oppressors. Despite having been objects of terror a little over an hour ago.

        The white cart that seemed to be towing the orchestra cloud had a collection of the strangest creatures most of them had seen. Griffons they had heard about, the earth ponies were obvious, the trio of wings and horns ponies were a point of amazement. The creature seemingly controlling the vehicle was nearly as weird as the musician who'd led the formation. Most of the Crystal Ponies simply took it in stride and cheered the newcomers.

        Rainbow sat in the corner of her cell. She had heard the commotion, but then nothing. The armored soldiers who entered looked more menacing that she had expected. The eyes of the leader bored into Rainbow's.

        "Beep," Applejack said as she touched Rainbow's nose, "Gotcha Sugarcube."

        "AJ!" Rainbow shouted, then covered her muzzle with both hooves. She whispered, "Hurry up and get me out of here, before the real guards show up."

        "The real guards are here," an armored unicorn arrived and positively glared at Rainbow. The pegasus remembered the threat to clip her wings, and the discussion that it should be done at the root. "This is the pegasus?" he asked, and glared at Rainbow.

        "Yes, sir."

        "Why do you want him?"

        "Hey! I'm a mare!" Rainbow said as she pressed against the bars.

        "She's our friend," Pinkie said as she took off her helmet and shook her mane loose.

        "Hmm, 50 bits."

        "Fifty?" Rainbow said, "I'm worth a lot more than fifty!"

        "I can't afford more than fifty," the unicorn handed the bits over to Applejack, "So take her and go."

        "Wait, you're paying her?" Rainbow asked.

        "To take you off my hands, I certainly would," he said, before smirking and starting to laugh along with the others.

        "Huh?" Rainbow asked, but didn't hesitate to leave the cell when the door opened, "What the hay is going on?"

        I wish Armor was with me, Cadence thought as she flew towards the aerie, But the idea of my pulling the air chariot had him too nervous. She pouted. I only crashed it once, badly.

        She landed and was immediately surrounded by guards. She produced the travel documents and bonafides that Glorious Sunrise had generated for her.

        "Princess Cadence of Equestria," she announced remembering that griffons expected strength and forthrightness, "I am here to see the prisoners."

        The guard accepted the papers, scanned them, then nodded to her and walked off. She took that as an order to follow. The prison was not a high security one, it was mainly to keep troublemakers from afflicting the rest of the population. The 'cell' of the chief prisoner looked more like an art gallery than a place of confinement. 'Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage', Cadence remembered the Big Guy's quote, I thought he was telling me why Celestia was 'chained' to the throne, but this is the other side, this person cannot be chained by walls and bars.

        The griffon within was graying, but looked hale and hearty. He was flying around a device that Cadence couldn't even fathom the purpose of. The guard cleared his throat, and the griffon took notice.

        The prisoner fluttered over and looked at Cadence. "Alicorn, a good disguise, other than the proportions, she looks just like one. But I was asking for a live model, I presumed it would be a griffon."

        "She's here to arrange your transfer," the guard said.

        "Transfer, why?" the prisoner seemed authentically confused.

        "What do you know about the Crystal Empire?" Cadence asked.

        "How much time do you have?" the prisoner asked.

        "Let's say ten minutes," Cadence said.

        For the next ten minutes, she received a rundown of the history of the Crystal Empire, from the time the ponies arrived on the continent, to the rise of the 'Old Kings', their usurpation by Sombra in a popular uprising against growing Equestrian influence, and then Sombra's abrupt decent into madness. "He was trying to make himself into an alicorn you see. Why he didn't get help from the Pony Sisters is unknown, or perhaps they refused him. All that would be in the archives, he was a meticulous records and correspondence keeper. Somehow it didn't work, and he went mad. Then the Pony Sisters dealt with him. There are rumors of ways of reversing the spell he cast, but he'd have to either cooperate or be killed." The prisoner glanced around. "That was ten minutes I believe."

        Cadence glanced at her watch and realized it was almost exactly ten minutes. Stunned she said, "I have heard the spell has been broken, and there are teams of inventors, teachers and visionaries who are being assembled to bring the Crystal Ponies into the modern era."

        "Me?" the griffon prisoner asked as he pointed to himself.

        Cadence nodded, and watched the griffon pace within the cell, having a argument with himself, each 'position' of the argument was using a different language. 'For' was in Fancy, 'against' seemed to be in modern griffon, and at least six more positions in Zebrafrican, ancient Equestria, and other languages Cadence couldn't even guess at.

        Finally the display of omniglotness ended and the griffon stood and stared up at the ceiling. "Is it my duty to the griffon people?" he asked.

        "I would think so, Old Father," the guard said using the odd, royal honorific, "Let them see we aren't 'the bloodthirsty monsters' of old," the guard said, repeating part of the history the prisoner had related.

        The prisoner nodded. "Comes In Peace, at your service," the prisoner extended a clawed arm through the bars.

        Cadence took it and carefully shook it. She looked at some of the devices and recognized them from Armor's lessons. "He who desires peace must prepare for war?" she asked.

        The griffon winked at her.

        Dinky and Selene walked the corridors of Sombra's former palace. The troops were cleaning and sanitizing the place. One unfortunate Changeling had found a door that was still giving him nightmares, even though he was wide awake. The rest of the tower was being carefully explored.

        "Dinky," Selene asked as she stood up at a window sill and looked down over the town, "Something's bothering me."

        "What?" Dinky asked as she stood beside her and looked up the tower, rather than at the town.

        "Have you seen any kids?" Selene asked, "Not just babies, but as old as us, or a bit older?"

        Dinky put her head down on the window sill and thought. "Nope, nope, nope . . . No," she said as she recalled, "Not through the telescopes either." She looked at Selene. "You don't suppose Sombra -?"

        The Big Guy was standing with Vladimir on a balcony, both were looking upward. "It's the only place we haven't searched," he said to the unicorn.

        "Send a few pegasi up there?" Vladimir said.

        "I think we'd better move the changelings out to a safe distance," he said, then rubbed his eyes and looked at his partner in 'conquest', "When we first met them, a lot of them had those holes in them. Now, there's a dozen or so who don't have any holes at all."

        Both noticed the changeling guard surreptitiously checking themselves out.

        "I hadn't really noticed," Vladimir said, "Change in diet?"'

        The Big Guy nodded. "So if this is the source of love in Equestria, we don't want them dangerously overfed. We had that problem with the prisoners at the camps. We gave them the food we'd been eating and it made them sick. We had to start with rice gruel and work our way up, they were so starved. I'm just glad we didn't have to do that here. It was heart breaking feeding those poor souls such thin slop, and going off to eggs and sausage for breakfast yourself."

        Vladimir nodded. Derpy arrived and looked up at the tower. "I can fly up there, or fly you up there, whenever you're ready."

        "I think we need to hold off for a while, and honestly, I'd rather climb up it with you as a spotter," the Big Guy said, "I bet that Sombra had a surprise for pegasi, but wasn't prepared for alien monkeys."

        "DADDY! DADDY! DADDY! DADDY! DADDY!" came the unison cry as two fillies raced onto the balcony and practically tackled the Big Guy.

        "What's wrong?" he asked as he knelt down to hug the two sobbing fillies. The explanations spilled out, overlapping and indecipherable.

        Finally, Dinky calmed down enough to exclaim, "There aren't any kids here!"

        "What did Sombra do to them?" Selene asked in an equally panicky tone.

        Derpy, the Big Guy and Vladimir exchanged horrified looks.

        Celestia watched the sun progress across the sky. She had little to do otherwise. The next nearly solved case would be brought before her and Woona. As Woona had raised the Moon last night, and lowered it this morning, so too was she becoming an accepted part of the Day Court. Although she only handled the personal petitions, dealing with the nobles' jockeying for power she left to Celestia. Everyone has accepted her, Celestia thought, Far more readily that they accepted 'Recluse Luna', who hid in her room for the first few weeks.

        She missed her sister, but more, she missed the feeling of being the center of everything, having to solve everyponys' problems. The case load was less now that the new system was in place. Some had 'wasted her time' bringing frivolous cases, just to be in her presence, to talk to her. Now I am separated, they no longer plead their cases to me, I only approve, she thought, Do I miss that? I always grumbled to myself about it, but what about now that it is gone. Why do I lament its passing?

        She looked at Woona who stood equal to her in physical stature, an affectation since Woona was a shapeshifter like Luna. She could be taller or shorter at her whim, and I suspect she's just a hair shorter, but that too is something that rankles and shouldn't. I have been given what I claimed I wanted, my sister as helpmate, and a reduction of the relentless drudgery of the court. Why do I feel I've lost some grand battle? You got your fervent wish, now quit complaining about the fallout.

        She smiled at the group approaching, and saw their concerned expressions. When Woona turned, Celestia realized they weren't being concerned about her. "Discord."

        He stood beside her wearing a T-shirt reading 'Spock beats Lizard, Orchestra beats Army' with a pony hoof beside each noun. "I was going to wait my turn," he said, as his shirt became 'I won the Crystal Empire, and this shirt was the only interesting thing I got', "Besides, this is a sort of an 'over lunch briefing'."

        "Lunch will be in 25 minutes," the chamberlain said, "Should I arrange another place setting?"

        "No," Discord said, "I'd never go somewhere I was invited."

        Everyone rolled their eyes at that.

        "But your philharmonic is back, and there's lots of changes you should know about," Discord said and vanished.

        "Arrange the place setting," Celestia said, "If he doesn't show up we can send others to find out."

        The chamberlain nodded, and Celestia turned her attention to the suppliant.

        The Mane 6 were at Sugarcube Corners, and Twilight's breathing exercises were getting a workout. Spike was taking notes, and a curious crowd had surrounded them.

        "So after we marched all those meanies back to the camp where they'd been holding the prisoners, we went to look for Rainbow Dash," Pinkie said, then gave a frightened Dash a sly smile, "She was locked up and just as brave as I expected her to be."

        For some reason Dash wasn't up to boasting about that.

        Pinkie continued, "So they started going over the castle and finding all of mean ole Sombra's traps."

        "And disarming them," Fluttershy added, she seemed a lot more accepting of the battle than she otherwise should have been.

        It must have been as bloodless as Pinkie described, Twilight thought, and considered the fact the Crystal Empire was not in Celestia and Cadence's hooves, but Blueblood and the Big Guy's. She took a deep breath, held it and released it. Calm.

        "Then they started searching for the Crystal Heart, but it's a big castle and the trap removers have to go first," Pinkie said, "Then Discord sent us and the orchestra home."

        "So that's - what all the running around was about," Dash said, "Why didn't you break me out? You might have needed my help."

        Fluttershy frowned at that. "Almost nopony got hurt and none seriously," she said, "We won with practically no fighting."

        Rainbow peered around Applejack at the angry Fluttershy. "I didn't mean anything."

        Fluttershy relented.

        What's gotten into her? Twilight wondered, She's always been brave, as long as she didn't get a chance to think about it, but this is different.

        "Don't fret Rarity, Twi," Applejack said, then looked at Rainbow, "You can fret all ya want."

        Rainbow snorted.

        "Them changelings got it inta their heads that Fluttershy's Stare would help them win without layin' a hoof on Sombra's army. They were beaten, no question of that. But the changelings respected her enough to use her ways." Applejack's gaze swept the crowd around them. "Unlike some folks 'round here."

        Several of the ponies slunk away.

        Applejack stared at Rainbow. "She's proud that she got the 'Ponyville Monster' to try the ways we ponies always say we'll solve problems." Applejack shrugged. "Not the way we live up to them. And she's rightly proud a' how well it all worked."

        Fluttershy was bowing her head and blushing at Applejack's explanation/praise.

        "I was swinging a shovel too," Pinkie said and patted Applejack on the shoulder.

        "Shovels?" Twilight asked.

        "Sure, we were chasing down those baddies, and we hit them with shovels that were in the Big Guy's wagon," Pinkie said, and stared at Twilight, "I'm sure I told you that."

        "You told her, but mosta us won't finish hearin' that story for a couple hours," Applejack said and snickered.

        Pinkie blushed. "It was so exciting, I kinda rushed telling it, didn't I?"

        Applejack and Fluttershy nodded.

        "Don't worry," Spike said, "I got it all down. But now I think I need to soak this quill in ice, along with my hand."

        "Care to send it off to Celestia?" Twilight asked.

        "No, we need to make a copy so we can have it here," Spike said, "This is an eyewitness account of history. It belongs in several libraries. I may even compile a book about it."

        Twilight took a deep breath, held it, then let it out.

        Derpy and Luna had practically cocooned their daughters in their wings as the conference got underway. Neither Selene nor Dinky seemed particularity happy about the treatment.

        Sapphire spoke first. "We sent teams out to scour the land, infiltrators with a long history of sensing parental love." She paused to await the outcry. Vladimir gestured for her to hurry up. "They couldn't find one that wasn't directed at an adult child. The only fillies and colts in the Republic are those two, and the nymphs back aboard the battleship."

        "That seems to confirm what we were thinking," Vladimir said, "And we can find no energies that would end children, or prevent pregnancies."

        Lyra and Bonbon relaxed audibly at that revelation.

        "Likely causes, from less to more grim, first, the time spell prevented pregnancies, and all the children under its influence grew into adults. Second, the regime of Sombra was so oppressive that any pregnancies miscarried or were reabsorbed. I don't know enough about pony gynecology to suggest which is more likely. Third, the soldiers we have incarcerated put any children to death through abuse and overwork. A lot of the adults are in shaky condition from the abuse they suffered. There are three more, the next is not for children's ears, and the next two I doubt even Nightmare would enjoy hearing. Suffice it to say, I doubt whatever it is, is still active or contagious to any newcomers. We will keep an eye on it," he said and pointed at Lyra and Bonbon, "Report any problems immediately."

        The pair nodded, but everyone relaxed at that. Dinky nuzzled her mother, Selene beeped Luna. Both mothers hugged their fillies.

        "I think if Selene and Dinky can handle getting stared at, they should be seen by the populace," the Big Guy suggested, "You two, and any nymphs who can travel, would be proof positive that the reign of Sombra and his regime are over."

        "If you and mom come with," Dinky said, "I've had Timberwolves stare at me, and not look so hungry."

        "Par for the course," the Big Guy said, "Second, since we've embarrassed the ponies, now the changelings get one. Your rather, let's call it porous nature seems to be going away. Why? Is this a good thing? Can we continue it?"

        "Stealing love by trickery resulted in our leprous appearance. Let's not beat around the bush, the Canterlot elite called us the Swiss Cheese Locusts when they thought none of us were around. Which was all the time an unmorphed changeling in Royal Guards' armor was standing right behind them with a spear." Sapphire shook her head.

        "Just remember, Celestia keeps them all there so the rest of the nation can enjoy their absence," Vladimir said. That got a snort or a chuckle from everyone.

        "Getting the undiluted form, even just the gratitude of the populace, has been more than enough to keep us going. Maybe too much," Sapphire said.

        "Say again?" the Big Guy asked.

        "We've had to send large numbers of the troops out to the hinterlands to prevent 'over eating' that manifests as intoxication," Sapphire said, "All those troops can be recalled at a moment's notice, but we have to rotate troops through the city, most can handle no more than two days. Trained infiltrators are both better and worse, we're evaluating them on a case by case basis. But while the army is apparently depleted, the entire force can be recalled in under two minutes."

        "Good," Vladimir said, "Next, the big thorn in our side, not the Crystal Heart, we'll find it, but Cadence and her plans to bring all the crazy inventors, social misfits, et. al. here as part of her bid to fit in. How are we going to house them? How are we going to feed them? Unlike the Changelings, they can't survive on the gratitude of the populace."

        "We have a large supply of protein we could feed the griffons," Tom suggested.

        "I think I speak for everyone when I say 'eww'," the Big Guy commented.

        "They're of no use to us alive," Tom reminded them.

        "Too bad we disproved all those 'Changelings eat people' rumors," Vladimir said.

        "We'd have to change into themselves, that's the only person they love," Sapphire said.

        "Don't count on that," Vladimir said, "That's what everyone thought about me, and I was as motivated to keep up the act as they are."

        "You really do hate her," the Big Guy said, "Don't you."

        Vladimir looked at Luna and said, "Yes I do. We were all toys to keep her occupied until Luna returned." He looked back to the Big Guy. "Now that Woona has replaced Luna, we go back to being time occupiers/wasters until Luna comes back."

        "You don't know her as you think," Luna said.

        "Nor do you. You knew her, I know her. After a thousand years, whomever she was and why she did what she did has become immaterial. Habit has replaced justification, and tedium has replaced salvation. Things now are 'because we've always done it this way', the original reason is neither discussed nor considered, by anyone."

        "She cares for her ponies," Luna said, an edge in her voice.

        "I never said she didn't. As Applejack cares for her cattle and sheep. Just because we can talk and think, don't assume that we are more than assets, pieces to the endless games, or occasional moments or joy or revelation, or pain when we remind her of you."

        "Luna," the Big Guy said, "She's your sister. To them, she's been absolute monarch, sole object of worship since before their great-grandparents' time. You two have very different perspectives on how the exact same act will be perceived. What you see as friendly, sisterly teasing, is a serious dressing down by the local god to everyone else. More importantly, those around you take it differently. You're her equal and in direct line of succession. To the nobles, it would be a threat to their being third, or now fourth in line."

        Vladimir's eyebrows were raised. "How did you pick up all that in only a few weeks as Celestia?"

        The Big Guy and Luna were stunned.

        Vladimir smiled. "Your acting isn't that good," he said, "Others may have seen it as one of her whimsical periods, I knew it was you from the decisiveness with which you dealt with all the little problems. You put solution first, then feelings, and precedent dead last. She would -" Vladimir glanced at Luna. "Would deliberate on feelings and precedent, then pick the solution from that. Your solutions ended the problems, hers punted them down the road until the complainers died off and the next generation would fixate on something else. It wasn't too hard to guess you two had switched places. But from Luna's expression, it wasn't as voluntary on your part and desperation on hers that I assumed it had been."

        "It - I can neither confirm, nor deny your supposition," the Big Guy said and glanced at Luna.

        "Ask Celestia," Luna said.

        Vladimir grinned. "And now you see the basis of my dislike. We fear the Changelings for usurping someone's life, home and family, but because Celestia did it, even you cannot condemn it," Vladimir said, and had the good sense to drop the subject.

        "That still leaves feeding them," Electric Cookie said, "We've also been looking at the food stores, and they're low. I don't know what the problem was, but they have a large store they'd been delving into. There's plenty of good land further north."

        "There's something else farther north as well," the Big Guy said, "And if Sombra's spell could only work if ponies stayed away, that would have contracted the usable land."

        "The same problem remains," Tom pointed out, "We can't put it back to sleep and we don't know the range at which pony activity would wake it up."

        "That just means we have to defeat it sooner, rather than later," the Big Guy said, "We also need to find the Heart to extend the arable land along the East-West axis, it's too cold for most crops now."

        "But first, we buck up the civilians," Green Grass said, "They've been relieved the entire army didn't stay, but they still need to be reassured we aren't Sombra's Army II."

        "They have a festival that recharges the Heart. We should get the planning of that underway," Selene said, "The library has info on it, but the librarian was weird, she didn't know about books on the Heart itself."

        "You found them, of course," the Big Guy said.

        Selene looked at Dinky. "Of course we found them, and read them, and cataloged where they were." She looked at Vladimir. "I think you should 'officially' start researching, while Electric Cookie and the staff start interviewing ponies about it. That makes it look like you're really serious. I mean the festival, as well as the Heart."

        "You are your father's daughter," Derpy said, and nuzzled Dinky, "And you too."

        " 'Steely-Eyed Missile Mares' not you are, yet," the Big Guy intoned strangely.

        Shining Armor was used to logistics, it was his primary job in the Guard once he became its captain. 'Get there first with the most' was an axiom he was well acquainted with. But once you were there, you had to keep the guards in beans, bolts and blood. The last being either medical supplies or coffee/tea, depending who you asked. So arranging enough food, bedding and other supplies for 'Cadence's Army' to operate dependently for three months had taken quite a bit of doing. Getting the rail cars to transport it had been harder. Dragooning the Flim-Flam brothers' network to not only load the supplies, but their workshops, libraries, and their families, had been suspiciously easy. That they'd also arrived with twenty of their own rail cars, and the biggest locomotive Shining had ever seen, and he began wondering what the downside was, then he found out. The siding in the Royal Guard's small railyard was bustling with activity, and many guards-ponies, -lings, and others watched, and occasionally prevented shouting matches from becoming fights.

        As least the respect of the Guard still holds, he thought and glanced at the stopwatch, Or they're here to watch this all come unglued.

        "Time!" called the world's largest Breezy (more like the world's smallest, adult dragon).

        "Three minutes, twelve seconds," he said, "Sorry, the brothers' containers still hold the record."

        Then Shining got the other downside, a hideously catchy tune about shipping containers of freight to improve the ease of loading and unloading. The six containers lashed down to the special flatcars did make sense. If you had a powerhouse unicorn to move them, or a dragon to lift them on and off the railcars.

        "So, pal o'mine," Flim asked, "What do you say?"

        "It's an idea ahead of its time," Shining offered, "You'd need a massive crane at anyplace you'd want to unload the whole container."

        The two brothers wandered off to discuss a cheap and easy lifting device. Shining left them to it, the locomotive drew his attention. The Diamond Dog who'd built it was checking it out after its run. "This is going to take a lot of fuel and water," he told the inventor.

        "Nope, electricity drives it, and her," she opened the fire doors and Armor staggered back from the heat. "Say hello to Mister Armor."

        "Hello, Mister Armor, I'm pleased to make your acquaintance." The child's voice came from the firebox, and in the inferno, Armor could just make out two blue eyes peering at him.

        "You used a child?" Armor gasped.

        "Not 'used'," the Diamond Dog said, "Persuaded. She can help others, rather than being treated as a freak. All she wanted was to help people, and get some friends. She can and has. Don't blame Diamond Dogs for pony experiments."

        Armor felt sick inside. The progress we've made, Armor thought and steeled himself. He gestured for the inventor to open the fire doors.

        "I apologize if I hurt your feelings," Armor said, "I was taken unexpectedly. I hope we can be friends."

        "I'd like that, but are you part of Mister Flim and Mister Flam's group?" the firebox denizen asked.

        "No, but I've got some experience with fillies who don't fit in," Armor admitted, "I think you'll be finding a fair number of people you can be friends with."

        "Good," she said, "Are we ready to go?"

        "Checks to do," the inventor said.

        "I told you I feel fine," came a very childlike whining.

        "We do the checks," the inventor said, "Besides, you can prove how strong you are if we run into problems."

        "Okay," she sounded mollified.

        Armor climbed out of the cab and looked at Discord. "I'm having a very bad day if you don't even get my weird meter trembling," he told the draconequus.

        "I just heard from Tom, and Celly, something Celestia needs to hear, and so do you," Discord said.

        "Twilight's probably given her a letter from the ponies who were there," Armor said as he trotted after Discord, he stared at the ground some two stories beneath him, shrugged and continued to follow Discord.

        "There were things that weren't discussed before them," Discord replied, "Things that need to be discussed before Celestia."

        Discord walked 'downstairs' and Armor followed, relieved to be on solid, visible ground again.

        The sun was setting on a very exciting day. Dinky was sound asleep on Derpy's back, the little filly had been very brave with all the Crystal Ponies looking at her like a dog at a steak. Derpy had kept up her facade of shopping for food, while a triple dozen disguised guards had stayed out of sight, but not out of range in case someone did something foolish.

        Mother and daughter were exhausted.

        "Tomorrow will be better," the Big Guy said and hugged Derpy.

        "Yeah," she said, "I still haven't found the post office though. Something weird about that, even the military has a post office."

        "Yes, but maybe they just used runners. This place isn't that big," he said.

        "It'll need a post office going forward. One for intracity, a mail run to Equestria. Canterlot is close, but Vanhoover has a better substation, so that would be the link. Then there's parcel post, that'll need a train, but the rail lines lead to Canterlot, so a Vanhoover line will have to be laid, or go to Canterlot then Vanhoover." She sighed. "I'm not cut out for all this planning, even for something I know all about."

        "You've got people to help," the Big Guy assured her, "And I'll admit, I hadn't even considered the post office. If we're getting Cadence's people, we'll need one."

        Derpy smiled at him and snuggled against him, glad she could help.

        Discord showed the images of the ponies who'd been spying on the battle, with Grass Light obviously their leader. Sir Eagle Bell, and the senior guards were there along with Celestia, Shining Armor and Woona. "Now I don't care how they escaped Equestrian custody. Frankly, if they become a problem to the Crystal Republic, the Big Guy will mop them up. But you Equestrians are going to have to figure out how a couple hundred troublemakers, who were supposed to be under your securest lock-and-key, suddenly find themselves together and wandering the countryside of a foreign land."

        "I don't know how they could have escaped," Celestia said.

        "Somepony put your name and hoofprint on a forged order," Eagle Bell said.

        "Point of order, if it has her name and hoofprint, it's not forged," Discord said, and smiled, "It's legitimate. Now do you have another hoofstamp somewhere? Say when she's too busy?" Discord frowned. "The other question is who else can they let out without even informing the capital of the release?"

        "I think I preferred the chocolate milk rain," Shining Armor said, "Because I know who their target is." Shining looked at Discord. "And so do you, you're just being coy about it."

        "You're so wrong. I think Celestia knows their real target," Discord said and grinned at the Diarchs, "Just imaging that lot getting their hooves on the Crystal Heart. Whatever you may think of the Big Guy and Colonel Vladimir, their entourages will definitely give the Crystal Heart the right spin of love and friendship, blaugh. But these characters?" Discord giggled. "Well, that would be fun for me. For the rest of you, not so much. And don't assume you can ride to the rescue again. Look what happened last time."

        Celestia frowned at that, glaring at Discord.

        "All I'm saying is, do you actually believe in friendship, or do you not? In a few days, the best people you once had, will be all together in position to kick these ponies' butts clear back to Tartarus," Discord said, "But can you keep them there? Or will you let your despised underlings actually solve a problem?"

        "I cannot countenance murder," Celestia said.

        "I'm sure Sombra will be overjoyed to hear that," Discord said, "If Luna hadn't mashed him to pulp in Chapter 5, or was it 6? Besides, it isn't your country, the Crystal Republic is an independent nation with its own laws and customs. You're going to just have to hope that these people do the right thing and surrender, or flee back into your custody. The Crystal Republic won't accept your advice, and if the Undiminished Sun charges in to fix everything, I think their suppressed memory of Sombra and his reign, and defeat, will come rushing back, and you'll be installing Governor Cadenza over an abattoir. That will certainly cause the Crystal Heart to send out an interesting message to all and sunderee. Then it'll just be you, me, a few alicorns and probably the Big Guy. Nothing else will survive. Except the Schmooze."

        Celestia and Woona paled at that prospect.

        "Well." Discord cracked his knuckles. "I've got a tea party to attend, and then, maybe see if Applejack or Pinkie Pie can help. Ta."

        Armor watched the draconequus disappear. "So, now that I know we're walking into a trap, we can be ready for it."

        "You aren't still going to go through with your trip," Celestia asked, "Are you?"

        "Of course," Armor said, "If Discord knows, then Vladimir knows, and he hates Grass Light more than nearly anypony else. He'll have an interesting trap laid for them, but if we aren't on schedule to be the bait, we'll have to face Grass Light at a time and place of his choosing. I just need to know where the most likely ambush spots are."

        Woona nodded, but Celestia just looked aghast.

        Tom and the Changeling Empress met with the Big Guy in the Empress' rooms. "I thought we needed to discuss a few things, away from the ponies and their derivatives," Tom said.

        The Big Guy nodded.

        "You said there were three other fates of the Empire's children. What are they?" Tom asked.

        "The fourth is, Sombra consumed them all in the spell he used to put the Schmooze and the Empire to sleep," the Big Guy said, "Reason enough not to mention that in front of two, frightened mothers, and two mothers-to-be."

        Tom and the Empress nodded.

        "Fifth, he ate them to fuel himself, physically or metaphysically," the Big Guy said.

        "Their flesh, or their souls, or both," the Empress said, and shuddered, "I'm not sure which is worse."

        "Sixth, and last," the Big Guy said, "He sacrificed them to the Schmooze, blood sacrifices or living sacrifices, I don't know."

        "Thank you," Tom said, "I'm glad I don't dream, or Luna would have her work cut out for her."

        "Let's just say that if he'd been a human, there'd be a couple more victimizations I could consider, but there are limits even to the most evil creatures here," the Big Guy said.

        "As if we didn't have enough to worry about," the Empress said.

        "One day at a time," the Big Guy suggested.
Day 73

        Just before sunrise, Colonel Vladimir had the Changeling Army lined up, leading away from the field where Sombra's former army stood imprisoned. "Just keep heading that way, until you meet the railhead, then just keep walking," Vladimir told them.

        "What if we don't?" the former general of the army asked.

        "Then we'll grind you up for fertilizer," Vladimir said, "You might find that Celestia will show you mercy, but that's up to her. We want you gone."

        The General looked at his former officers, and smiled as he led the troops out of the encampment. Quite noticeable formations of Changelings shadowed their withdrawal on the ground and in the air, but didn't menace them.

        "You do realize they'll run into Grass Light's forces along the rail line," Vladimir whispered to the Big Guy who'd come up behind him.

        "True," the Big Guy admitted, "They'll either fight, or make common cause, either way when we swat them all, we'll be done with them."

        "What happens if they encounter Armor and Cadence's force first?" Vladimir said.

        "A little bird told me they'd be delayed a day, which should put everything in a high tension when it all comes unglued," the Big Guy replied.

        "Why do I have the feeling that Discord is arranging all of this for his own amusement?" Vladimir asked.

        "Because he is," the Big Guy said, "Just because he's on our side doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy seeing us sweat. The hard-won victory is the most enjoyable."

        "That should let us search for the Heart without having to worry about them. However they encounter Grass Light's force, it should take them out of play for at least a day," Vladimir said, "We can check out the Constitution and get it ready for the fight when Cadence comes through."

        "The holes?"

        "Getting slightly worse. I think I know why they abandoned it," Vladimir said, "But it seems to ignore anything less than full power. But there's still a steady decay." He chuckled. "Almost the opposite of our Changeling friends."

        "Use it or lose it, I guess," the Big Guy said, "But that still leaves Molybdenum Blossom and the plant dragons out there. And the question of who do they think is their enemy. Because that will dictate who they move against first."

        Vladimir nodded.

        Celestia had raised the sun, and was headed to breakfast. Woona was there, as she had been for several days. Celestia's fellow alicorn had taken the habit of taking long naps 'at lunch' or midday and midnight, which allowed her to be awake for most of the day court and most of the Night Court. I envy her energy, Celestia thought, And her zeal in tackling all these problems I'd frankly forgotten about.

        Fifty-seven departments had been abolished and the ponies there had been rolled into other departments. Sir Eagle Bell's call of chronic understaffing was being addressed in a way he wasn't entirely pleased with. Many of the eliminated departments had been staffed with deadwood, rather than disciplining or firing those ponies. Now the deadwood was back on his plate and he could either shape them up, or ship them out and get new.

        Celestia grinned at that. Someone else is finding out that what they wished for is not actually what they wanted, Celestia thought as she picked at her breakfast, And Discord got me again. Some crackers, a simple salad, or just some soup would be more appealing than a work of art for every meal. If I ate the centerpiece instead, would anyone speak up? she considered the tureen full of fresh flowers that dominated the center of the table. They at least weren't covered with a sickly-sweet, thick cream sauce.

        "The festival is over, time to return to reality," Woona said. And noticed Celestia staring at the absolutely plain oatmeal in Woona's bowl. "Oh, a 'silent protest' over my departmental cuts. I praised the cooking staff and thanked them profusely for it, rather than the awful stuff they make you eat. I think half the chefs fainted."

        "I shouldn't laugh at that," Celestia said, but had to smile.

        "No, you shouldn't, you should once or twice a week show up at a guard garrison and eat what they eat. You'd get your simple fare, the guards would have concrete proof you cared about their usual complaint: bad food, and it would let you voice your contempt for the overwhelming rococo baroqueness of absolutely everything everyone sets before you," Woona said, "How do you think cowardly Vladimir Blueblood kept the loyalty of battle-hardened professionals? He slipped out to the most desolate posts and sampled the food, the sleeping conditions, and the state of repair of the posts, came back and whined incessantly until they were fixed. The army bureaucrats would practically vent their bowels on seeing him coming, because rather than just reports, he'd actually eaten the food, slept in the bunks, walked the rickety ladders, etc. You've let them neuter you, keeping you in this fish bowl until you have no idea what's going on beyond these walls. Scrying and reading reports aren't the same as hooves on the ground."

        "I know where I'd like to be," Celestia admitted, "But they'd never trust me, and if I snuck in as a vagabond, they'd trust me even less."

        "I was thinking south, rather than north. The dice are no longer in your hooves there. You either trust your sister, or you don't. You either trust the ponies with them, or you don't. And if you don't, then what Vladimir asked about you and the magic of friendship is true, you don't know it or believe in it."

        "Who has been my friend, in all these long years?" Celestia asked.

        "Wrong question. Who have - you - tried to be friends with, in all these long years?" Woona said, "If your ponies can befriend an utterly alien creature, if even their enmity still turns on what is best for him, which is still a kind of friendship, then what is holding you back? That crown, your exalted status, your irreplaceablity in all things, your unfamiliarity with customs outside this picture puzzle you call a palace, or your own fear at being hurt?"

        "Mostly yes, you haven't made friends, only to watch them fade away," Celestia said.

        "You have phoenixi, dragons, and a dozen other races who fade only over millennia. Most are able to form friendships, and most loyally keep them. 'Dragon-Friend' is a title of honor in every land but Equestria, where it is unknown." Woona sighed. "I also released my greatest friend in the world, because she needed to be free. She is 'mine' because she will come back to me. Can you not say the same?"

        Celestia sighed. "I can say, I'm not sure. Maybe everything you said is true. But after being hurt so many times, I've just given up. When the smiling face all too often hides a dagger or a scheme, what am I to do? Even if one is my friend, there is the overwhelming temptation to use that friendship to their advantage. How do I counter that?"

        "The same way anyone of power does. By the masks they wear. Father, husband, worker, Captain of the Bowling Team. All have differing powers and all are kept as separate as possible. I sit on the Board of the Royal Astronomy Association. Luna wisely put in that she, and thus I, cannot be president, treasurer, or sergeant at arms. So she's the clerk, she takes the minutes and cannot vote on any motions. Now I do. And she liked it that way. So do I," Woona said, "How many boards do you officially sit on, and how many have made you the chair of the board so you are too tied up in administration to actually enjoy participating? My sister was a good painter and a superb singer. When was the last time you put brush to canvas, or pen to blank sheet music?"

        "That I actually let somepony else look at? Centuries," Celestia asked.

        "Then you have your answer, take some time to do something you enjoy. In discussions with the Big Guy, one of the Emperors of his world actually published scholarly books about Marine Biology. They were politely treated, but the critics still pointed out some flaws. If you want to be judged on your merits, supply the paintings under a pseudonym, to a gallery outside of Canterlot."

        Celestia had an idea.

        Marching Cadence didn't hate 'the other Alicorn' as some ponies did. She understood the 'Cadence Mania' that had gripped her hometown on the announcement of the arrival of the young alicorn. What she resented with a passion was the assumption that she, or any of the dozens of [blank]-Cadences were related to the alicorn. She was a soldier, she did her job, worked her way to the top and like her commander kept her eyes open for opportunities.

        Which made the military insanity unfolding before her all the more infuriating. The huge pack of uniformed vagabonds was marching along, sections stopping to tear up the railroad tracks, then cantering to catch up with the rest of the mob. She'd sent word to her commander, but hadn't heard back.

        We don't have anywhere near the pony-power to take on that force, she thought, then came to a decision.

        "Sergeant, I'm about to do something incredibly stupid, because just sitting here watching this pack of cannon fodder get away is even more incredibly stupid."

        "I'm sending Vapid Ox along. No arguments, please, sir," the sergeant said, "Besides, you can repeatedly order him away, and he'll 'creatively obey'. Some nopony will expect him to crash you a way out, if and when you need it."

        "Agreed," Marching Cadence said, and headed over to the hulking trooper.

        Vladimir was beginning to have just a sliver of sympathy for Celestia, but just a sliver. "Why can't they do these things without me, the Big Guy, Celly, Luna or the Empress to 'bless' them?" he muttered as he cantered towards The National Gallery. "Closing that place was the only thing Sombra did I wholly endorse."

        So I'm an art snob, he thought as the building which looked like something out of a Canterlot architect's fever dream, But half of the daubings in there wouldn't grace a kindergarten refrigerator, the rest of the avante garde 'art' pieces that are completely stupid. A cube of plain cement is not art, no matter how 'arty' the pony who sculpted it was. Heck, Sombra's pieces are the pick of the litter . . . I wonder if that was the point?

        Entering the gallery, the little Crystal Pony with the brush and chisel cutie mark bustled up to him. Only a fast hoof beneath the chin prevented the bow. "What have we said about bowing?" Vladimir asked.

        The pony relented and gave a sharp salute. Ignoring the giggling of his staff, Vladimir returned it. Half-a-loaf is better than none, he thought.

        "This pony has brought some pieces to grace our gallery, all the way from Canterlot!" the curator whispered.

        Vladimir's experience with Changelings let him see through the disguise of the large, green Earth Pony wearing a filthy painter's smock and a rather sad beret. He stared at 'him' just long enough to let 'him' know that the disguise had been thoroughly pierced, and Vladimir didn't think the imposture was the least bit amusing. I'm not her, I left to get away from her 'close to the throne is better' thinking. I will not let 'who' get in the way of true merit, he chastened himself and headed towards the portfolio held by the two assistant curators. He glanced back and realized the nervousness was not feigned. He shrugged to himself and went to peruse the offering.

        The landscapes were adequate for a gallery, the portraits were quite striking, catching the inner pony. He briefly looked in vain for one of him. So rather than stomp on them, she painted them and hid the portraits away, typical passive-aggressive Celestia, he thought.

        "It's the freshly painted signatures," the curator whispered, pointing to the 'Sunny Days' that appeared on each painting, "Otherwise I would have accepted them on the spot."

        "Family business," Vladimir said equally quietly, "Paintings go back a couple hundred years, and someone simply decided to give them a wider viewing and their own name. They aren't stolen or forgeries, but . . . " He puffed himself up and went to pure Blueblood-mode. "A true noble doesn't daub with paints." He deflated. "Someone figured out a way around it." Vladimir looked around. "But I would hang them approximately together, let the family hang out together."

        The curator and both assistant curators rolled their eyes. "That joke was old when the city was founded," the curator said, actually heartening Vladimir that the 'peasants' could still snark with the 'royals'.

        "I figured you hadn't heard it," he said, "If they warrant it, purchase or rent them, and give them a good home."

        The curator nodded, and turned back to 'Sunny Days'. Vladimir also nodded and headed out of the gallery.

        "Who does she think she was kidding?" asked one of the several, identical guards, disguised Changelings except the commander.

        "Games, it's all games. And it's the end of the world if you win or lose," Vladimir said, "The only winning move is not to play."

        The nymphs were restless. The least leprous changelings were touring the city, trying to find out as much as they could about the city proper, the citizens, and the curse that lingered over them as possible. The miasma of emotions directed at the children was much more palpable for the changelings than it had been for Dinky and Selene. But neither wanted to venture out again.

        "What of the weather service?" one of the disguised queens asked.

        "There isn't one," the Crystal Pony replied.

        That got the changelings buzzing.

        "So you didn't contract out with Equestria, you simply allowed the weather to occur naturally, and caught the excess in these runoff basins?" the Changeling asked.

        "Yes, we weren't eager to trust pegasi, or unicorns after the Troubles. We didn't hate them, but we weren't going to be beholden to them again."

        That was quietly filed away, through the Empress to the other queens. There was a lot of data stacking up and it was leaning to a simple conclusion: the only 'simple' answer was the Crystal Heart.

        "The only simple answer is the Crystal Heart," Sapphire told the Big Guy, who was letting Selene and Dinky study with him in the main library, "And by the looks of it, it is only simple in comparison."

        "Yes, I suspect that all real data was either destroyed or hidden in the castle. Maybe I should take a chance on that door, it can't be worse than what I've already been through." He held up a hand. "Forgetting your grandchildrens' names and what they did two months ago is about as horrible as it gets. Almost getting blown up is a mercy to feeling yourself slip away, piece by piece."

        "I can't recommend it," Sapphire said, "The Empress' most loyal companion tried it, she hasn't quit sobbing despite the assurances of the real Empress. It's a very nasty spell. Even Tom and Discord won't chance it."

        "Then it's climb Mount Sombra then." He slid a collection of books over towards Sapphire. "The ritual to activate it is pretty explicitly laid out. The festival described is a typical county fair type thing. That should be easier to set up once Cadence's Army gets here, we can even use it as part of the welcoming ceremony."

        "Good, then can you try to talk sense into Celly?" Sapphire asked.

        "Tried, failed, at least she took Lyra with her," the Big Guy said.

        "Why is that crazy unicorn immune to that thing, when no pony or -ling can stand against it?" Sapphire asked.

        "You just answered your own question," the Big Guy said.

        Lyra grabbed Celly's tail in her teeth and pulled the petrified alicorn out of eye contact with the Schmooze. Celly had verified it hadn't moved, then fell utterly silent. Lyra dragged her out of the 'viewing crevice and back onto the flat ice beyond. The new wall loomed behind them.

        "I - it - brrr!" Celly said as she curled up into a ball.

        Lyra crawled into the crevice, looked at the thing, how utterly tacky it looked. I've seen scarier things in Bonbon's pots. Some of them I was sure would try to eat us, if they weren't too sticky to move. She crawled back out and went to comfort the alicorn.

        Tear Twirler didn't know how they'd found the simulacrum, but Grass Light's presence wasn't welcome. Especially since the simulacrum they'd found had been working on a different project and wasn't the one they'd met before.

        "I think that a little truth, and some renegotiation is in order," Grass Light said as he sat across from her in the diner's booth. Several of his bullymares were scattered about, boxing Tear Twirler in.

        "You didn't like the deal?" Tear Twirler asked.

        "You didn't mention several thousand troops," Grass Light said.

        Tear Twirler was briefly glad she had to sent responses to the simulacrum, as it retained a blank expression as the real one reeled at the revelation. "They cannot maintain such an army in the field," she managed as she got the real hers emotions under control. The simulacrum took on a cunning air. "We did not assume you would rush headlong into such a trap. Were we in error?"

        "Nope," Grass Light said, "But I think we need to know a bit more about your reserves, and your goals. We've already found out about the six, plant dragons that were assisting some of the Changeling Queens, and that four lifted off and headed our way. So, if it's Cadence you want. I suggest we coordinate our forces. If we draw off that army, to protect Cadence, then we can walk in and get the city while they're out."

        "That would leave our forces facing the full wrath of that army instead of yours. How is that a benefit?" Tear Twirler asked.

        "Because I know how fast an army like that can deploy. We attack at 100% holding nothing back, and then when the enemy gets near, we've either accomplished what we need, or we are bugging out. It's as simple as that. My estimate is that it'll take 42 minutes from the time they send their alert until a significant portion of that army arrives. So we say 35 minutes full-scale attack and then withdraw, no matter if we're winning or losing, we withdraw. Simple."

        "I shall consider it. I will contact you with our details, including the likely method of them alerting they're not quite allies," Tear Twirler said, and watched them withdraw.

        And you think you'll leave us in the lurch while you go for the prize, Tear Twirler thought, Little realizing you seizing the prize, is the prize. In a cavern far from the meeting point Tear Twirler laughed and went to report another success.

        Discord giggled and moved another piece into place. Only he, Tom and the gameboard existed 'here'. "OOOOOO! This is so much FUN!" he squealed and looked at Tom, "Why can't we do this with our friends too?"

        "Because they are our friends, and our friends get to be free to do things that amaze even us," Tom replied, "Would you have come up with the 'Celestia Gallery'?"

        "Well, after a bit of thought I would have," Discord said, then wilted a bit under Tom's unrelenting stare, "Okay, probably not, she was an awful painter when I first met her. I thought she'd finally given up."

        "And you know what's going to happen tomorrow. Isn't it going to be more fun letting our friends be themselves to thwart it, rather than dance to our tune? We play the piper so they will strike our friends' greatest strength, toughing and tempering it. We don't orchestrate everything."

        "I guess you're right," Discord said quietly, then brightened, "Oh! I've got one more piece! I need to get them ready. 'There's not a word yet, for old friends who just met'," Discord sang as he vanished.

        Tom materialized a Discord-shaped piece and moved it to a critical place on the board. "Oh dear, I lied, we do manipulate our friends. How forgetful of me." Tom laughed. Then he moved himself elsewhen and stared at the next board, which had most of the same pieces, and one extra, the Schmooze. The menace in his tone would have shocked his friends, "Soon."

        Luna was beginning to sympathize with Celestia, the idea that anything required one of the 'lords' to deal with, instead of the regular folk was beginning to wear.

        "Watch in awe as the Great and Powerful Trixie performs the most spectacular feats of magic ever witnessed by pony eyes!" was shouted and fireworks exploded over the crowds' heads.

        Luna face-hoofed. Beating my head against a wall will send the wrong signals, she thought, Although . . .

        Luna leapt over the crowd and landed on the stage across from Trixie. "HA! I'll have you know, I once shot an elephant in my pajamas!"

        The crowd oohed and aahed. Trixie's brief look of concern vanished as she recognized the bit. "I'd be more impressed by the one who put it in your pajamas," Trixie replied. The crowd laughed.

        The Sphinx ambled out and watched the pair.

        "I created a rock so heavy I myself couldn't lift it!" Luna exclaimed.

        More oohs and aahs.

        "Can't rocs fly on their own?" the Sphinx asked and flapped her wings for emphasis.

        More of the crowd laughed.

        Luna sneered at the crowd. "I can do the cup and ball trick!"

        Trixie glared at Luna. "Prove it."

        "HA!" Luna announced, producing one white ball held in her hoof. "One!"

        She produced a second ball, red this time, also touching her hoof. "Two!"

        The crowd oohed and aahed.

        "Three!" A blue ball beside the other two on Luna's hoof.

        Luna produced a cup and threw the balls inside it. "Four!"

        The crowd gasped.

        Luna covered the cup with her hoof and shook it. And vanished in a cloud of smoke. As the smoke faded, a triumphant duck sat where Luna had stood. "Quack!"

        "That's amazing," Trixie said, "You win."

        "Now change back," the Sphinx said.

        Luna glared at the Sphinx, and left in a cloud of furious quacking.

        "Why would you want to learn that trick any way?" the Sphinx asked Trixie.

        "It's the cup and ball trick!" Trixie said, "Every performer wants to learn that trick as the highlight of their career!"

        "Right, before they change into a duck!" the Sphinx replied.

        "No, Mergatroid the Insegrevious turned into a turkey," Trixie replied.

        "Mergatroid already was a turkey, he just stopped being pony-shaped," the Sphinx replied, all to the joyous laughter of the growing crowd.

        Luna returned to her normal form, and noted one of the Changeling guards approaching her. "Send a message to Trixie that there's a command performance, whenever dinner is scheduled tonight. I never knew an actor to turn down a free meal."

        The changeling nodded and returned to the crowd.

        Celestia watched the moon rise, she'd already lowered the sun on a thoroughly confusing day. Only one part of confusion was missing, until she turned around. "Discord," she hissed and glared at the draconequus, "Here to gloat?"

        "I only gloat when I've won. I was helping a friend," he said quietly, "I told you that the Crystal Republic wouldn't know you from Adam."

        "Who's Adam?" Celestia asked.


        Celestia face-hoofed. "What do you want?"

        Discord sighed. "I want to be your friend. We were friends once, long ago."

        Celestia felt nauseous. "I was young and foolish."

        "And what are you now?" Discord said, ignoring the implied insult. "I'll tell you what, pathologically lonely. Why do you punish yourself like this?" Discord asked angrily, "Could you have done better? You bet. But you did well enough. The Big Guy wasn't there at the beginning. I was, both of us were young and foolish. The ones who have all these changes had been steeped in byzantine politics for their whole lives, of course they have ideas that'll work. But look at what you achieved. Your ponies encountered a completely alien creature, and the vast majority offered the hoof of friendship. That's a remarkable achievement, that many of your ponies actually live that value, instead of mouthing platitudes about it. Making friends beat me, and Nightmare. Making friends let Twilight and her coterie beat me, and Nightmare. Celestia, there's no shame after betrayal following betrayal by so many, that you couldn't open your heart again to one more."

        Celestia tried to denounce the notion, or insult Discord, but the words simply wouldn't come. Despite his gentle tone, he was hitting a spot she thought she'd hidden away. It hurt. It hurt as badly as when she'd banished Luna.

        Discord peered at her. "Celestia, I'm your friend, even if you can't be mine. That doesn't mean I am completely different from what and who I was, but I am trying to make what I am helpful, so I can make more friends. As a friend, I'm telling you, there's no shame in admitting after so long and so much pain and perfidy, you plain forgot how."

        The pain was too great. Celestia collapsed and sobbed in agony.

        Discord didn't react with triumph at reducing Celestia to a teary mess. He looked like he'd cut off a limb to save a life, and still wasn't happy at the exchange. He sat down beside her, tenderly laid a clawed hand on her shoulder and told her she was a good pony, a brave pony, a selfless pony, and other compliments.

        Woona drew back from the door and silently closed it. Then she grinned. Her part of the plan was working perfectly. She nearly giggled at the idea of Discord of all people teaching Celestia how to make friends again.

        Trixie gave a formal flourish as she greeted the 'assembled lords' of the Crystal Republic. Will o' Wisp, Ham n' Cheese the chief cook of the work camp, Lotsa Books the chief librarian, Brush and Chisel the chief curator of The National Gallery, and their immediate families had been 'dragooned' into an informal dinner, briefing and working meeting.

        The fare was simple, solid pony food with a few egg dishes to give the Big Guy and the Sphinx some of the protein they needed. The native Crystal Ponies slowly loosened up as Trixie traded good-natured jibes and no one cut her down in cold-blood.

        "So what did you have to tell us that caused you to trek here in such uncertain times?" Vladimir said.

        "First, I wanted to see if I could pull the wagon like an air chariot," the Sphinx said, "Aside from the whimpering in back, it was like any other air chariot."

        Trixie frowned at that. "It was merely concerning, I was not whimpering."

        "So the flight over was actually safer than going along the ground. We did notice someone tore up the railroad tracks and then we found out where they were all hiding."

        Trixie produced a map and they marked a place between two bridges. "Perfect ambush country. They won't be able to go forward or reverse." She glanced at the Crystal Ponies. "I have quite a bit of experience dodging bandits, I'm no hero, I'd run away."

        "That's a good scout's job," he murmured, then Vladimir had a topographic map of the area handed to him by Discord.

        "I want to listen in," Discord said, "So I can tell Shindig Amour exactly where the blade will fall. He may be Sprinkle's brother, but he's more like you and the Big Guy at heart." He glanced around. "Where's Nightmare and her amore?"

        Vladimir rolled his eyes and set the map on the table. "That's here. If they aren't watching this area, we can position the Constitution here, wait for the attack, and drop several thousand Changelings on them."

        "While you're doing that," the Big Guy said, "I'll be climbing Mount Sombra, right to the throne room. I'd bet bits to bagels that's where the Crystal Heart is."

        "I'll be spotting for you," Derpy said.

        "And me," Selene said and frowned at Luna, "I doubt mom will let me take part in the Constitution's mission."

        "What's the Constitution?" Will o' Wisp asked.

        "An ancient battleship," Luna replied, "It's sort of wearing out, but this is important enough to risk it. Selene, you are right. What about Celly?"

        "She's curled up in a cocoon. Looking at the Schmooze really took it out of her," Lyra said, "I think she's out of commission for a while."

        "Let her rest," the Big Guy said, "We've got enough resources to hit those troublemakers, and do a little mountaineering."

        "Okay, so what's the story with the locals treating you like gods," Trixie asked, "I thought that's why you left Equestia."

        "You don't need to follow me, you don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for your selves! You're all individuals! You're all different!" the Big Guy said.

        "We have to think for your selves! We're all individuals! Yes, we are all different!" Dinky, the Sphinx and Discord said in a zompony-like tone.

        Will o' Wisp and the others squirmed at that portrayal.

        "Psst. Your line is 'we aren't like that!'" Trixie stage-whispered to the stallion, "With passion, you, your friends and family have been insulted."

        Will o' Wisp looked at Trixie, and the expectant faces. "You ponies are all insane," he muttered.

        "Oh good ad lib!" Discord said and began applauding, joined in by most of the others. He looked around. "Who's got the next line?"

        "What did you say about my mother?" the Big Guy said flatly, "I don't think it fits."

        Discord shrugged.

        "What about the festival?" Luna asked.

        "It's one of the things I'm here for," Trixie replied and grinned.

        Luna face-hoofed, then looked at the Crystal Ponies.

        "Preparations are going ahead," Ham n' Cheese said, "We have many ponies eager to celebrate our sav - " he looked at the displeasure of the others and hastily changed to, "Our salvation and chance to be our own rulers." He waited for the approval, or denunciation.

        Discord held up a card that said 'India 8.6'. Vladimir had one in front of him 'Jamaica 8.2'. The Big Guy's card said 'Canada 8.7', and Luna's said 'East Germany 3.2'. "Ooo, hard marks from the East German judge," Discord said.

        "Is he always this irrational?" Brush and Chisel asked.

        "He is one of the most rational and -" the Big Guy said.

        "I have never been so insulted in my life!" Discord announced, "I don't have to stay here and be insulted!"

        "Enjoy your visit with Celestia," the Equestrians said in unison. Discord vanished in a huff. Then he reached though space, grabbed his huff and took it with him.

        Dinky turned to the Crystal Ponies. "Where do you normally go to be insulted?" Dinky said, "We just skipped that part."

        Will o' Wisp just stared at them, but a few of the Crystal Ponies couldn't hide their snickering.

        Discord reappeared outside of Sweet Apple Acres, and smelled that the pie he'd 'commissioned was cooling on a window sill. He knocked on the door and Applejack didn't seem altogether happy to see him.

        "Is Celestia's pie ready?" he asked, and held out the flask he'd promised in return.

        "Yes," Applejack said as she stared at the hip restorer for Granny, she neither liked nor trusted Discord, but the deal was simply too good, "You ain't gonna throw it at her, are ya?"

        "I'm more likely to end up wearing it than she," Discord said and pressed the flask into Applejack's hoof, "Nothing special, just the old family recipEEEEE!" Discord squawked, and turned his head to face Granny, who'd just given him such a pinch.

        "Tryinta woo her with a pie, good choice young fella," Granny said, "Gettin' her frisky, good choice too."

        "You are such a dirty, old mare," Discord said, "I like you."

        Granny walked inside and over to the pie. Discord followed. "Jist good old family love and the best ingredients. Nothin' fancy," Granny said.

        "But it's fer Celestia, Granny," Applejack protested.

        " 'Nothin' fancy' is exactly what she wants," Discord said and collected the pie, "It's what you can't have that is most valuable. That tonic would be useless to Applebloom, or to Carrot Top, but to you and Granny, worth its weight in Zap Apple jam orders. It's seeing what someone desperately needs that shows you care. And it's seeing another enjoy the present you got them that marks your transition to being an adult. Ta."

        Discord reappeared in Celestia's chamber and looked at her disheveled mane as she lay asleep on her bed. He set down the pie, a large, shallow bowl, and a container of vanilla ice cream in an ice and salt bath. He briefly considered pulling the covers over her more fully or just leaving a personal note, but decided against it. The note he left simply said 'You deserve it, enjoy.'