Her Royal Highness had thankfully opted to take a different disguise as we walked around the Las Pegasus campus. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked upon throwing her dark blue mane to the winds. “Even the Princess of Love would show a little green at the sight of this shimmering pink coat.” Her muzzle scrunched in a weak attempt to repress the giggle that inevitably followed.
“Is evoking the name of the princess whose wedding you exploited really the best idea?” I turned my head and caught the impish flicker that danced across her emerald iris.
“A marriage ceremony is one of the few times in an elder’s life when we have free reign to humiliate younger, more inexperienced individuals. I can assure you that I have collected suitable intel to compose a striking performance when you finally tie the knot.” She paused briefly to tap the bottom of her muzzle with her hoof. “Something about Batmare…”
Embarrassment set my brow twitching before a snort escaped my lungs. “You know, Chry- Excuse me! Aphrodite, I’ll happily invite you to my wedding to have your elderly fun – especially since you openly admitted that you’re an old nag.”
“Because I’ve never heard that one before…” Chrysalis scoffed. “We’ll need to work on your comebacks among ancients. But at least I have somepony to engage with in playful banter. You should have seen Captain Magic Barrier when he first came to the Hivelands to negotiate the post-invasion accord. It was like rolling the clock back a millennium. Thankfully, I had researched his wife, and that was sufficient to break the ice.”
“I am fairly certain that treaty also specified that you stay in the Badlands,” Barrier’s voice tugged our ears back – well, at least mine. “What are you doing here, and why are you harassing Wing?”
My assumption that Chrysalis remained unfazed proved correct the instant I saw her turn to face the scowling, protective stallion. “First, the Badlands is a name that holds no meaning to me, Captain. I am also here on a completely diplomatic pursuit, one that could facilitate a pre-emptive termination to any future hostilities. But as you decided to eagerly dig into our past in front of another, I will happily ask if you’ve lifted your wife’s namesake lately.”
Barrier grumbled audibly, and the scowl that had developed appeared to contort his expression even further. “Tail’s namesake is just fine. I am still waiting for a reason not to buck your ass back to the desert.”
Chrysalis gasped. “Why Barrier! It has been oh so long since you escorted me to dinner, and I hardly think your special somepony would appreciate the vulgar gesture. Now, please calm yourself. The only reason why you were even aware of my presence is because I made it happen. Not to mention, a couple of your princesses are already aware of this little soiree.
“Luna wanted it to be officially arranged, but that wouldn’t have been much fun at all. The poor dear spent a bit too much time on the moon…” The changeling queen pawed the walkway lightly. “That’s your hint that you should stop being such a stiff, too.”
I winced at that one, my inner voice wailing about the burn coming too soon, but the charcoal-coated stallion dropped his scowl and managed to shape a grin. “You are just as volatile as ever. Though given that Wing appears to be in sound condition and unperturbed, I shall simply stand in an observational role for now.”
“That’s his way of saying that he’s going to spy,” Chrysalis answered while flicking her hoof to enhance the word spy with air-quotes. “Anyway, as I was saying, my son’s brood views our repeated need to feast as a sign that our ancient laws need to be tossed aside. If we can de-weaponize your technology, particularly how you harness the magic that manifests between you and your special somepony, then I believe we can undermine his insurgency and mitigate the need to feast at all.”
The playful demeanor that had overtaken the guard departed as swiftly as it had arrived. Barrier’s brow descended, his lips tightened, and he crafted a stern countenance that made my serious stare pale in comparison. “You’re allowing her access to that?” he wailed incredulously. “That’s what’s going on here? We’re talking about the same stuff that made you endure my training just so Celestia and Luna would agree to your deal, right?”
“It’s not the same stuff,” I replied with a far quieter volume. “You know more than most what I’ve dealt with, Barrier, and you have to understand what this gives me. It’s like she said. They don’t need the weapons, but what they do need… I can help with that. It’s an opportunity to do some good – the right way.”
Barrier slipped a forehoof under his horn before a groan of reluctant sympathy dribbled from his throat. “I will get a confirmation from Luna that this unusual line of diplomacy garnered her approval. In the meantime, I will not interfere so long as Wing shows no signs that he is being manipulated into doing something that endangers himself or the State. Though, on another note, I am curious. Things were fine when I left the hive. Which son started an insurgency? What happened, and have you locked him up yet?”
“It was Duel,” Chrysalis responded while harshly whipping her tail. “I would have loved to let him experience the finer points of challenging my authority. Unfortunately, he already fled with his loyalists, which makes it even more imperative that toddler captains stay out of my way, especially those who can’t recognize diplomacy in action.”
“Enough,” Barrier retorted, “I’m not responsible for babysitting your son. In fact, that was your job, and it still is. Keep your quips to yourself. I have grown tired of them.”
I nodded. “Indeed, there’s no reason to angry Captain Barrier, Your Highness. In fact, it’s highly likely that I will need to enlist his assistance to make anything happen in the current political climate. I’m going to need to know more about this brood though. That could complicate things considerably. The dangers of my research are quite real, and the risks of improper proliferation are far from negligible.”
The changeling drew a long breath before releasing a marginally irritated sigh. “Duel is a shortsighted idiot. He challenged me after Canterlot, claiming that our rules were creating an undue burden on the hive. We debated the impacts of historical precedents, and I reminded him of the last child to break the taboo. Perhaps you remember it. It led to the fall of Griffonstone.
“Regardless, he managed to convince some of his brothers and sisters to repeat history. I understand where his feelings originate, but the only way to beat out the stupid is to mitigate the circumstances that have fostered those views.”
“Professor Wing!” Deev’s shout cut off the story. “Wing!” The blue stallion skidded to a halt in front of the three of us and huffed. Beads of sweat clung to his mane, which fell to the side in dampened, uncharacteristic clumps. “I need you to come to Ashen’s office. She was having another one of her…” He waved a foreleg. “…things. I thought she was doing better, but she just zoned out while flipping through her mail. I’ve never seen her like that before. She’s had a few breakdowns about what she did, but this seemed like something else entirely.”
I raised my hoof to silence the young researcher and glanced at the changeling queen. “Aph, if you don’t mind delaying your tale, I believe I have another pressing issue to deal with. I’ll be back shortly, Magic Barrier. If you wouldn’t mind keeping my guest company, I would appreciate it.”
The captain’s eye twitched midway through my final sentence, though at least he possessed the civility to wait until I was finished before uttering his retort. “Buck no,” he bit. “You’re not leaving me alone with your special guest. You’re not wandering into Ashen‘s office without me when there is a potential matter of concern either.”
Distrust radiated from Barrier, setting both Deev and the disguised Chrysalis into a state of recoil. “She’s not a bad pony,” the blue stallion mumbled, a maneuver that simply managed to draw more of Barrier’s ire.
“Yes, yes she is,” he snapped. “Her group nearly killed Wing. She launched a campaign of hatred across Equestria. She is far from a good pony.”
Factor stepped forward to confront the unicorn officer. Despite his role as an archaeology postdoc, Deev was not to be taken lightly in either the size or strength department. He stood just as tall as Barrier and had the muscle tone to boot. “She wouldn’t harm anypony anymore. She is redeeming herself.”
“Ha! She’s not bucking redeeming herself, Kid,” Barrier laughed, refusing to yield any ground. “Living with a punishment for one’s actions is not an act of redemption. Have you ever sent a foal to a timeout and called her sitting there redemption? Would you call a colt doing his homework the art of recovery? I don’t give a shit what you do on your own bits. If you trust Ashen Mystic, that’s good on you. I’ve got no say in how you spend your time. But if you come between my business of protecting one of Equestria’s greatest assets and me, then I will lay you the fuck out.”
I threw my foreleg between the two stallions after taking a step forward. “Boys, slow down. Deev, Barrier has a vested interest in my security. He was my DI. Luna knows he practically broke and rebuilt me along the way. It's a guard thing. They don't give that chip up easily, and I wouldn't expect him to do so.” Barrier’s chest puffed out at the perceived victory, which I took pride in quickly deflating. “As for your comments, Captain, I would call those things learning.
“I know the seriousness of the situation. I was there. You’re aware of the circumstances that led to the deal Ashen received. Yes, I agree that she has to overcome the consequences seeded by her past self. However, I also believe that she is capable of doing so. Since you won’t stay with Ms. Aphrodite, then we might as well end the needless bickering and all go see what is bothering Ashen.”
“Ashen,” Deev spoke as he stepped inside the office, “I found Professor Wing.” After a few seconds, he looked back at me with a concerned grimace that focused my attention on the elder mare. The pony had made no effort to acknowledge our arrival, and aside from the fluctuations in her figure from breathing, she stood perfectly still.
“Mystic, what’s going on?” Again, there was no response. “Ashen?” Nothing… The resulting groan that fled my muzzle drew the defensive Barrier to my flank, but my thoughts sat centered upon the task at hoof. I’ve never seen her this spooked. Deev said it started while she was checking her mail. Is that what has got her completely out of it? Is that the tell? Her eyes… They had not blinked. They had not moved. They had remained thoroughly transfixed on the clutter of envelopes dumped upon the floor. Now, which one?
The charcoal-colored unicorn at my side twitched while I performed my analysis. One of his hooves scraped the floor, measuring out the lull in the conversation with grating scratches that reflected his remerging agitation. “Hey, you called him here. Are you going to answer him, or are you just going to stand there?”
Aphrodite sprung into the room after it was blessed with several Barrier huffs. “Leave it to the stallions to lack the necessary scrutiny.” She pivoted on one of her legs, scooped a single letter from the pile, and set her sights upon Ashen. “It’s this one, is it not? The one with the two W’s?”
Clarity popped in my brain as though it were a wintered cabin that had just had its windows opened to a warm, refreshing breeze. The memories of all those reports regarding the EHVM incident surged forward, and Ashen’s fright suddenly made sense. “Wire Wise…”
The name snapped Mystic back to reality. Her senses rapidly took in the visitors before her, and the pace of her breath quickened considerably before a gentle pat from Deev appeared to reduce the unicorn’s worries.
“Isn’t that the name of your former intelligence operative?” Barrier questioned flatly. He stared coldly at the mare, who simply responded with a nod. “Wing, wasn’t he the one with ties to Conrad as well?”
“Yes, he was. The stallion is definitely a repeat offender.” I paused, taking a second to pluck the letter from the grasp of Chrysalis. “Ashen, thank you – for calling us here. Given the history, I think we should look at the contents of this envelope together. Are you okay with this?”
The mare had not even completed her agreeing answer before Barrier’s magic took hold of the correspondence. “No enchantments,” he continued in his cool, brusque military tenor. Having delivered the all-clear himself, the captain tore open the envelope with a rheostatic spell and lifted the note from its pouch.
Two distinct sections leapt from the page as I scanned the document. The bottom half of the script had been written in a completely foreign language that was undoubtedly meant for Ashen’s eyes only. The top part, however, was a personal memo written in Equestrian. While it addressed the mare personally, the wording had certainly been chosen with a larger audience in mind. He knew we would be watching…
Your slavers have done to you exactly what you predicted when standing before the followers of our great cause. Have they made you forget? Have they erased your memory like they did with me? They killed you. They turned you into nothing more than a husk of a unicorn that just so sadly happens to fester in the shadow of her once great self. Hate them for it, Ashen. The words they made you speak – the words the Crowns rammed into your throat – touched many in our ranks with a treacherous brand of poison. But fear not, for they did not touch all. We can save you. We can save poor Erzse and salvage the soul of Kinetic Haze. We can bring you back into the light and give you the love and strength that you genuinely need. Your captors have given you counterfeits. Do not believe them. They’ve stood beside you to merely feed empty promises that have eroded your message. When the time is right, we will save you. Mark the words. We will come...
A fresh wave of tears soaked Ashen’s muzzle as she absorbed every hate-drenched phrase. She choked back a hiccup as the violent stab at her identity sank in, and I knew that this was a terror that would be faced sooner or later.
Barrier coughed, obviously less swayed by the display of raw emotion that had contorted the mare’s visage. “What does the rest say?”
“I… I’m not sure. It’s definitely… a Neighlic style script, but I haven’t seen this specific language before.” Ashen hesitated a moment as though she expected a scolding from the captain. “However, Wire did leave a clue. His statement to mark the words – that’s not meant to reinforce his intent. It’s a tag that I should use my special talent to analyze his writing.”
“Please proceed,” I affirmed her conclusion and watched as her horn flared to life. Cerise tendrils mixed with the aura of Barrier’s light, prompting the unicorn stallion to rapidly retract his magical hold from the intimate contact.
After roughly a minute of probing the page, the glow faded and the note dropped to the ground. “The ink has a rather unique composition,” she informed the group. “It has a pigment that comes from a soil found only in the southeastern portion of the Badlands. This is likely more in your court, Mr. Factor. It’s likely that it’s a changeling writing style. If you could begin researching translation possibilities, it would be appreciated.”
My head gradually swiveled to face Chrysalis. Barrier’s reaction, the ongoing chatter between Ashen and Deev, and even the ambiance of the chamber itself fell away as I sought to extract some knowledge from the ruler. Visible wrinkles had formed around her eyes, and her mouth rested agape. I realized in that instant that we would not have to wait for Deev’s translation. She knew. And whatever it was – was far from good.
Calculated steps moved the changeling monarch from her position until she was close enough to press her muzzle to my ear, and three words emerged with an anxious strain that besmirched her typical confidence. “Your lab, now.”