“I asked you a question!” Chrysalis roared as she brought her hoof down upon the smaller changeling once more. The bug squeaked but otherwise remained defiant. The sovereign would clearly have nothing to do with this resistance. Her tail flicked. Her leg tensed, and she bashed away until a sound akin to a splintering drumstick sent a shiver along my spine. My ears pinned back after the percussive barrage, and my eyes quickly caught sight of the crack that formed on the nymph’s carapace. “Confirm it!”
We endured yet another agonized screech as the queen went about demanding further information. For some reason, my attention slid to Twilight Sparkle, whose body had been gripped by the shakes. “Enough,” she wailed, having gathered enough resolve to challenge the monarch. “I don’t know how you deal with your subjects, Chrysalis, but that is not how we deal with things here.”
Chrysalis snapped her head upward and glared at Twilight. “This ingrate has betrayed my rule and has forsaken our ancient law. You don’t maintain a hive by breaking the rules at whim!” A breath rapidly filled her lungs before an exasperated sigh rose above the diminished whimperings of the injured spy. “However, you have agreed to help us despite previous circumstances, so… I will comply with your request for now.”
“Thank you,” the Princess of Friendship answered before releasing a sigh of her own – this one of a far more relieved variety. “I believe we have enough information to handle the immediate situation. Captain Barrier, as stated, the guard business is up to you. Please proceed.”
“If I can’t use these, then stop me now.” The unicorn quickly snatched his own set of papers and utensils from the lab stash before beginning to ink his orders. He did not wait for my input, and in some senses, it was almost as if I were staring at some distant relative of my overeager research associate. “Las Pegasus Reserve to active sentry duty, and Las Pegasus 1st to combat alert.
“Unicorns with teleportation abilities can establish a parameter before the Badlands. Pegasi will pursue the target and either apprehend the suspect or pin it to the barricade. Wing, the command of the flight team will be up to you and Mosaic. Leaving these two alone with Princess Sparkle is not an option. Oath and all… And I’m pretty sure her brother would get really upset with me.”
“Because upsetting Prince Shining Armor is clearly a threat to all of Equestrian society,” I responded with a chortle before waving down the ruffled Twilight. “Mozy, let’s get flying; and Chrysalis, make sure the toddler behaves. You’re trusting me with your problem, and I’m trusting you with them.”
A mischievous smile contorted the features of the monarch’s muzzle while she returned my gaze. With a slight shift of her imposing frame, she reasserted her grasp on the mutinous underling and held the pose for display. Soon, an exaggerated tapping radiated from her mouth. She stood tall. Self-satisfaction dripped from her demeanor, and she appeared to merely bask in our little, silent moment until I uncovered the subtle ploy. She was clicking off the seconds with her tongue. Oh, that cheeky changeling… Time was a-wasting.
Mozy pushed a hurried pace as we made our way to the exit. Venting huffs emerged from her snout with every breath, and every now and again, she shot me a determined scowl that left me waiting for the inevitable. “I should have bagged the second one!” she finally unloaded. “Do you have any idea how hard it is going to be to track down a changeling on the run!?”
“I’m afraid I don’t, and neither of us was in Canterlot during the invasion fiasco. However, I can definitely foresee the problems. I’m sure the disguise has been swapped by now. We’ve also got to put some hope in the perimeter holding, so there’s no way of knowing if our dragnet will work. Nonetheless, you threw a wrench into the bug’s plan. We’ll just have to play the odds that you unsettled her enough to make for an easy spot.”
“I’m more worried about the local guard. They’re good, but we’re going to be the only ones in the air that have done anything close to this. The two of us are going to have to get them on the page quickly if…”
The line of LP1 ponies that had gathered outside of the physics building forced Mozy to yield to a sheepish smile. “You got here fast,” I called to the saluting fliers after popping a quick salute of my own. “I’d expect nothing less from a squad that’s had to put up with Barrier for a few months. Should have seen him as a drill instructor.”
How proud my former captain would have been to see the shivers that raked their coats and rattled their armor. It was almost tragic that seconds were critical. “We’re flying east until we hit your unicorn mates. Mosaic and I will take up the flanks of the column – half-klick spacing and altitude, one klick per minute. Target is a changeling, so relying on visuals is fairly hopeless. Keep watch for unusual behavior and movement as we get over the desert. If something looks out of place, then do anything to spread the news down the formation.”
“Just in case, the subject was last seen as a tan earth mare with a short cut maroon mane.” Mozy took a look up and down the row. “We appreciate that you’re here. Just keep in mind that we don’t know the combat abilities of this adversary. Do not engage alone. Colonel Wing and I have more experience, so get us first and remember strength in numbers. Since this is a pursuit, if we reach the barricade without a spot, we'll double back and check again.”
I nodded and glanced over the group myself. With the number that heeded the call, we’d have a 6.5 kilometer spread of coverage. It wasn’t ideal. If the changeling took a wide path out of the city, then there was a significant chance we’d miss her. There was also the issue that all of these guards were green. None of them had seen combat, and each pony peered at me with loyal, yet utterly jumpy expressions.
Almost all, that is. My sights set upon a rather slender stallion. Gunmetal strands clouded the visible bits of his snowy mane, which happened to sit atop a very theme-appropriate light blue coat. For an instant, I eyed the bat-like wings folded about his barrel. It appeared that Barrier had pulled more than just pegasi into the Las Pegasus unit, and normally, the unique feature would be a significant draw. However, in this case, my attention affixed itself to the stallion’s frosty stare. Unlike his companions–
“What are you staring at? Never seen a thestral before?” the stallion asked in a strained tone that had been edged by irritation.
A chuckle swelled in my lungs and muzzle before I unleashed it upon the troops. “I have, actually – and quite a few times at that. No need to get defensive, Mister…”
“Mister Esamir, believe it or not, I was staring at you for a completely different reason. Namely, your demeanor carries a drive that your fellow guards could use as an example. So why don’t we just terminate that other subject before shit needlessly gets started? Rolling out sounds like a much better idea.” Not waiting for a response, I pivoted towards the east on one of my hind hooves and started to hover. “I’m taking the left. Hold my reference; now let’s go.”
“Where are you?” I asked aloud while scanning the wasteland. It had been quite some time since I had flown out this way, and once again, the occasion was far from ideal. The stillness of the desert managed to antagonize my wavering pulse. Just like before, there was danger lurking in the sands and crawling amongst the scattered crags. Just like before, there was a struggle against the unknown. Intelligence was everything – not really – but the point was semi-valid. Intercepting the second changeling would keep the roguelings in the dark. It would keep the upper hoof firmly in Chrysi’s court.
We were already halfway to where I expected the unicorn blockade to have established its line. My brow furrowed as the pains of discouragement began to trail behind my wandering thoughts. They were soon replaced by the pains of a different beast. My nearest neighbor had broken her spot in the formation. She was closing rapidly, and her screaming finally reached my ears over the backdrop of the winds.
“Colonel! Esamir dropped down! We think he engaged the target!” The guard winced to the scowl that undoubtedly obliterated my composure. Mosaic’s orders had been crystal clear; do not engage without us! “He fell out about two klicks back…” I had already spun around and set my bearings. The damn kid with the drive had been in the center of the row…
“Fall into the center and get away from me,” I barked at the mare, giving her a little time before pitching my wings to shift into threshold augmented flight. The rush of rapid acceleration swiftly permeated my frame, and drag forces yanked at my coat until my manipulation of the rainboom barrier was complete. Even in the arid climate, stormy trails brewed in my wake throughout the maneuver, which lasted for only the eight seconds it took to cover the required distance.
Quick breaths fled my snout and my heart pounded fervently throughout my deceleration and descent. The cacophonies of cries and screams dragged my focus over what appeared to be a rock farm. Finally, I caught sight of an earth pony leaning over Esamir’s sprawled figure. Even from this altitude, I could spot the red that marred his coat. Mosaic’s orders had been given for a reason. They had been given so this would not happen.
“I’m coming, Mister!” The wail of a filly pierced the air right when I landed. She scrambled forward, carrying a wad of bandages that nearly eclipsed her dark brown body. The grey-toned mare that knelt beside Esamir turned to the youngster and beckoned her with a frantically waving foreleg.
I choked down the desire to shout and stifled the tremors that made my muscles burn. I wanted to deliver the bitch-out of a lifetime to the unconscious guard who lay motionless beneath the caring grip of another. His tarnished breastplate had been removed and set aside. It was thoroughly destroyed by several penetrating impacts, and his helmet appeared as if it had taken a blunt blow on top of all that.
A scream built in me, but it had nothing to do with the broken orders or shattered armor. The sight of blood speckled about the child’s fur displaced that rage and pushed me to Esamir’s flank. “What happened here?” I asked, drawing the attention of the mares – both of whom looked towards me with relieved expressions.
The bandages promptly made the journey into my hooves, and I began to wrap the gouges that had torn into the thestral’s barrel. “My daughter screamed and a pair of diamond dogs suddenly attacked her. I tried to reach her, but I couldn’t….” Water distorted the blue hues of her irides as tears began to flow. “He swept out of the sky and saved her…”
“I saw a changeling,” the filly added quietly before shifting a bit closer to her mother’s side. She paused for a moment to examine the rise and fall of Esamir’s chest. “Is he going to be okay? He… Umm...”
She fell silent as the others arrived. They all stood with the same quiver in their legs, wondering why their comrade had ignored the standing command and if he’d be alright. “Get him back to Las Pegasus. Mosaic and I will finish the sweep on our own.” A momentary pause held while I took my own time to listen to the stallion’s breathing. “He’ll be okay, but I’m sure that when he wakes up, he’ll be asking about how you are.”
“Umm… I’m fine. He… Umm… He did a really good job fighting the mean dogs. He made them run off despite getting hurt.”
Before stepping back, I gave the filly a gentle pat and spoke in the warmest voice I could muster. “And I'm happy that you are safe. The nice guards are going to take Mr. Esi back to Las Pegasus now. Is that okay? They’re his friends, so they’ll treat him really well.” She smiled at that, and I took the small victory as the perfect opportunity to withdraw to Mozy’s position.
The alabaster pegasus repeatedly raked the dirt with an errant hoof. “What now?” she asked in a raspy whisper that had been laced with aggression.
“We go to the unicorns and escort them,” I replied after setting my gaze towards the Macintosh Hills. “A pair of diamond dogs attacked Esamir, which means our changeling has an evacuation team – a diamond dog evacuation team easily capable of underground transport. The getaway will likely impact us in a bad way, and I’m sure that both of us are primed to go all out. However, no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves, tight underground places are no spots for pegasi.” It had been quite a while since I had said it in such a defeated tone. “We’re going home.”