• Published 10th Jun 2014
  • 22,396 Views, 1,481 Comments

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold - Dropbear

After being banished by Celestia for his misdeeds, the alien Emperor of the Crystal Empire is back... and out for revenge.

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The Plot Thickens

Luna looked up as the door to their prison opened, her two loyal guards also raising their heads from their mattresses on the floor. A single human walked in, armoured in a strange sort of white plate with a helmet attached to the waist. He possessed incredibly white skin and a black mane, a strange square device held in one hand. A guard walked in after and shut the door, the crystal pony mare standing to the left with her sword at the ready.

“I am quite capable of looking after myself,” the human told the guardmare, before moving over towards a wooden stool.

“I’m not here for your safety, sir,” the guard replied, remaining ramrod straight. Luna raised an eyebrow at this, the human didn’t look that threatening, at least when compared to the Emperor. Still, she had seen what their race was capable of, so she remained resolute to not underestimate him.

“Pfft, why would I harm such wonderful specimens?” the human questioned before sitting down awkwardly on the stool. His long legs were moved to the sides and he held his tablet down in the middle. “That reminds me, I still have to examine a crystal pony. Care to volunteer after your shift?”

The mare twitched, Luna noticing a mixture of confusion and embarrassment on her face. To be honest, she was unable to tell if the human was genuine or if he was using some form of strange innuendo.

“No, sir,” the guard answered, her voice remaining strong. “I have to… clean the barracks.”

“Another time then,” the human replied, before glancing down at the glowing square he held and looking back up at Luna. “Moving on, greetings Equestrian Princess and guards, I am Lead Researcher Elijah Von Barker and I wish to ask you all some questions.”

Hesitantly, Luna looked to her guards before replying. “Hello, Lead Researcher, I am Princess Luna.”

“A pleasure, Your Majesty,” Von Barker returned before gesturing with a hand towards the Sergeant and Corporal. “And you two are?”

“Sergeant Lumen.”

“Corporal Darkbane.”

The Lead Researcher’s eye twitched at Darkbane’s name, but he didn’t say anything and instead started tapping his fingers on his device. He did this for a number of minutes before Luna decided to hurry things along. Coughing politely into her hoof, her royal shoes having been removed from her, she drew his attention.

“May I ask what you are a Lead Researcher of and-“

“I’m asking the questions here!” the scientist yelled, causing her and the other ponies to all flinch. He seemed to recover, a hand brushing down his chest. “Sorry about that, since you asked I am a scholar of many sciences but I am currently focusing on the forces commonly referred to as ‘magic’, the ‘arcane’ and ‘occult’. Let’s forget about that for now and instead focus on the more important things.” He leaned forwards, his device at the ready. “What exactly are you, as in species?”

“I am an alicorn,” Luna answered, aiming to save her retainers the trouble of having to deal with the strange human. “My guards are Nocturnes; however they are commonly referred to as bat-ponies.”

“I can see why,” Von Barker commented with a nod. “They share many qualities with both species,” he peered intensely at Lumen. “And the fluffy bat ears in particular make them look very cute.”

His observation and opinion caused both Lumen and Darkbane to avert their eyes, a blush on both of their faces. Luna wondered just what method of interrogation this was supposed to be, was this complimenting of the prisoners some form of modern day information gathering? Von Barker left his seat, and before she could react he had placed his device on the bedside table and had begun to touch her wing with his hands.

“Lead Researcher,” Luna began, sending a look to halt her guards who were rushing to her defense. “Why are you touching me?”

“You have utterly beautiful wings,” he murmured, examining the feathers up close. She didn’t know what to think, let alone do. In her time, no-one would even dare to think about touching a Princess without permission.

“Um, sir?” the crystal guard asked from the doorway while Elijah continued to stroke the wing. “I don’t think that this is appropriate…”

“Nonsense,” Elijah replied. “It’s purely for science, and it’s only a wing.” He glanced over them, Luna trying to not show her unease at the unexpected pruning. “Besides, you equines don’t seem to be too concerned with modesty anyway.”

“Now just hold on!” Lumen announced, spreading his wings while standing up. Luna shook her head at him when both the human and crystal pony focused on him, the guardmare preparing to draw her sword. Her warning was ignored by the Sergeant, who continued to advance on the scientist. “You can’t treat the Princess like that, or insinuate things!” He reached out a hoof, poking Elijah in the stomach. The crystal guard began to move towards them, Luna about to interject to save the loyal Lumen from his own mistake.

She was beaten to it by Elijah, however.

Quick as a flash, the human’s left hand grasped Lumen’s foreleg and gripped tight. Lumen winced, before the scientist calmly pulled it away to the side. “Bad pony,” Elijah lectured, tapping Lumen on the snout and relaxing his grip on the foreleg. “You do not raise your voice or poke people. Bad.” Any further lecturing was cut off when Elijah noticed Lumen’s wings, his hand letting go of the foreleg.

Luna and Darkbane watched on as the armour covering the hand recessed into the main arm, leaving bare skin. It was with this hand that Elijah used to touch Lumen’s wing, the stallion going ridged while the fingers stroked the membrane.

“Amazing,” Elijah muttered to himself, not noticing the discomfort of all in the room. “It’s exactly the same as a bat’s, and realistically it shouldn’t be able to function as a means of lift for a pony this size.”

Seeing that Lumen was growing increasingly flustered, Luna tried to divert the scientist’s attention away from touching all of them. “Lead Researcher, you mentioned that you had questions to ask us?” The scientist reluctantly stopped his exploration of Lumen’s wing, much to the relief of all watching, before leaving them be to retrieve his glowing device. Lumen retreated to hide behind Darkbane, the Corporal looking at her superior with sympathy while Elijah resumed his tapping on the device.

“I suppose that questions are first on the list,” he shrugged, before leaning forward and fixing her with a sudden, piercing gaze. “Now Princess, first question: Red or Blue?”

Reflection watched James hesitantly try a slice of buttered bread, the dark-skinned human still wearing his armour but with his helmet attached at the side. It was a direct contrast to Nigel next to her, the Emperor eagerly consuming the bowl of red soup before him.
Sparkling Scroll and Captain Strategy were both glancing at Nigel every time he took a particularly noisy slurp of soup, their own eating far more subdued. She was happy to ignore it and just focus on her own cup of tea.

“Don’t be so hesitant,” Nigel told his fellow. “It’s just bread and soup, granted extremely good bread and soup.”

“Actually, I think it’s rather average,” Strategy spoke up, before awkwardly using the crook of his foreleg to lift up his spoon.

After another mouthful of soup, Nigel expanded on his opinion. “Well Strategy, after a month away living off a hellish landscape, I can safely say that any food would taste great to me.” Reflection flinched when a hand suddenly patted her on the back. “Come on Reflection, you should try some.”

“I’m fine,” she answered, taking another sip of her tea before briefly rubbing against his side. “Besides, I have access to more than enough energy.”

He chuckled in response, his hand rubbing her head before it left her alone. A cough gained their attention, all of the diners looking towards James who was sitting away from them at the end of the table.

“You’ve sent up some food to our guests?” he asked, Nigel waving a hand and nodding.

“Don’t worry about them, I asked the guards to give the Princess and her guards their dinner after Elijah was done with them.”

Reflection furrowed her brows at the reminder that Princess Luna herself was their prisoner, and she took another sip of tea in order to cover up her look of distain. Honestly, she felt like it was going to cause far more trouble than it was worth. Sure, they had possibly one of the most valuable hostages against Equestria, but she still had a feeling that it was going to end badly.

Even with a magic inhibitor that the blacksmiths had assured couldn’t be removed without the right tools; Luna still presented a major threat. Apart from the unpredictable reaction of Celestia that was due to come, something about Luna’s plan to switch places with the Element Bearers was off. Why did Nigel take the deal? After all, they had delivered their enemies’ most powerful weapon right back to them.

“Something still feels off,” she muttered to herself, however the others overheard her.

“What’s off?” Chalmers inquired, Reflection glancing up at him before looking back at her forehooves.

“The behavior of Equestria so far,” she answered, pondering the issue. “I mean, they should be charging at us with their armies, but we haven’t even seen a group of scouts. I just think that they’re planning something, and it worries me.”

An arm went around her side, and she smiled despite her worries. The hand attached to it began to gently rub her belly, the relaxing sensation calming her.

“Of course they’re planning something,” Nigel confirmed. “The thing is, we’re planning many things, and at the end of the day we hold many cards over them. We’ve got a VIP hostage, our soldiers are well equipped and experienced, the construction of the city walls is set to begin tomorrow and above all we’ve got some highly trained alien killers on our side,” he nodded at James, earning an eye roll. “We’ll be fine.”

“On that topic,” James cut in before she could reply. “Just what timeframe do we have for the walls?”

“A few weeks is what we’ve come up with, and that’s with almost the entire guard working on it,” Strategy answered, placing his spoon down in his empty bowl. “We’re looking at getting as many ponies and changelings from the civilian population to lend a hoof as well, with volunteers the work will go far more quickly.”

“Head Blacksmith Iron Greaves and his workshop have started constructing multiple devices to help us build it,” Sparkling added from her spot next to Strategy. Reflection found herself sneaking glances towards them, the two were sitting almost as close together as she was with Chalmers. “Already they two cranes made to help with heavy lifting, but we’ve come across another problem.”

“Go on,” Nigel urged, Sparking pausing before continuing.

“We’re running low on some crucial supplies, most pressingly strong rope, wood, and metal. With all of the commotion, we haven’t had a chance to even think about restarting mining operations and many ponies still feel apprehensive about mining.”

Reflection could understand that. From what she had heard, King Sombra had driven a lot of his subjects to their deaths in his quest to mine the crystal-rich caverns and mountains that surrounded the city. There was bound to still be a stigma, and adding to that there was the incident with the diamond dogs all those months ago.

It was then that she got a great idea.

“Why not use changelings?” she offered, finishing her tea and glancing around at the others. “We can use limited magic to help with the mining, we’re comfortable underground, we can see better in the dark than ponies, we can work for longer without food and water, and we don’t have any of the bad experiences that the crystal ponies do.”

“Your race mines?” James asked, Reflection nodding.

“Not really for materials, we can make most things out of biological matter, but when we need a hive and not a city it helps to be able to tunnel and dig. I can promise that changeling workers will perform well.”

“That may be so,” Nigel finally decided to step in. “But there is a problem with your idea.”

“What is it?” she asked with folded ears.

“Well, a lot of changelings already have jobs from what Sparkling has told me.” Reflection looked to the advisor at Nigel’s information, Sparkling nodding in confirmation.

“They do, and all of the changelings that I’ve spoken to are enjoying their lives as bakers, craftspeople, builders and other workers.”

“Indeed,” Nigel continued after Sparkling. “We’ve worked hard to ensure that they all find employment that they enjoy, and I’m proud to say that we’ve managed that both with me and without. I’d be a shame to suddenly assign them all to the mines and ruin that, all to satisfy a need for metal.”

Reflection cursed herself silently, how could she just forget that? Nigel obviously noticed, and the belly rub increased in intensity. “Now don’t be so down, it was a good idea and it would have worked if we had free workers. As the one in charge of changeling affairs, you should be proud that we don’t have enough free workers in order to run a mineshaft.”

This did cheer her up, and even though she hadn’t been as active a minister as she should be, it had all worked out well. The hundreds of changelings were getting along fine with the thousand crystal ponies, a win in anyone’s books.

“I guess you’re right,” she admitted, before sighing. “It still doesn’t solve our material issue though.”

“We’re working on it,” Nigel assured, before looking around the table. “For now, we can just spend this time to wind down after a hard day’s work. I now decree that we’re to no longer talk about work, but to instead just enjoy each other’s company.” This brought smiles to the faces of all, Nigel removing his hand from her stomach so he could rub both of his hands together with a grin.

“Now, with that out of the way,” he continued. “Who’s up for some dessert? I ordered us a very nice berry cheesecake from a baker in town so we could celebrate our capture of a Princess.”

Despite her worries about Princess Luna, Equestria’s reaction, the three changeling soldiers sent out of the country, her own future and now their lack of wood, metal and rope, she realised something. Here she was, eating in a castle dining room surrounded by friends and hopefully soon-to-be friends, with her amusing lover currently pressuring another human into eating a slice of cheesecake with veiled threats of bodily harm.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as she thought.

Emperor Augustus, Leader of the Griffon Nation, gazed at his throne room’s main doors with much interest. Seated on his marble throne, he observed as his heavily armoured guards escorted a single pegasus garbed in a simple cloak towards him. The pony was a light gray, with an equally dull mane. It appeared to be male, although admittedly his experience with ponies had only been with the Princesses of Equestria and their solely female diplomats.

The sound of hooves on the stone floor was a noticeable difference to the clack of griffon claws, and Augustus found it interesting to listen to. Adjusting his white toga and laurel, he peered down at the pony expectantly.

Luckily for the equine, it had the sense to bow before him and it lowered its head.

“Forgive us for the intrusion,” the lead guard apologised while removing his plumed helmet and bowing his head. “But this pony wishes an audience.”

“I see,” Augustus replied, examining the visitor. “He does not look like an Equestrian diplomat and he is remarkably underdressed. Tell me, Pegasus, why do you wish to speak to an Emperor?”

“I bear a message for you, Your Highness,” the pony answered while keeping his head lowered.

“Oh?” Augustus remarked with a raised eye. “How interesting, a message for me. To which master do you belong, I assume you’re another Equestrian attempt to fool me into compliance?” His tone sharpened towards the end, Augustus narrowing his eyes.

“I serve no Equestrian,” the messenger replied. “It’s actually quite the opposite.”

Augustus noticed that the pony now wore a small smile, and this intrigued him further. He motioned for the messenger to continued, the pegasus’ eyes following the claw before he answered.

“I serve Emperor Chalmers and the Crystal Empire. I bring you a message on his behalf.”

‘Now this is interesting,’ Augustus thought to himself, holding back a smirk at the information. ‘Are the rumors true, is that why Equestria has started pulling troops away from our border?’

“You say that you’re a representative of the Crystal Empire,” he pressed. “I don’t recall any news of Equestrians joining the city.”
Instead of answering, the pegasus took a single step back. Augustus’ wondering at the action was interrupted by a green flash, grey fur being replaced by black chitin. While his guards pointed their short-swords towards the changeling, Augustus merely leaned back in his throne and smiled.

“What better proof could I ask for?” he commented, his guards looking towards him for guidance. “Stand down, Centurion; I trust that our guest will behave himself.” He understood the reaction of his guards; after all, changelings weren’t welcome in the Griffon Empire.
The guards returned their weapons to their scabbards, the changeling not flinching at all.

“You have the air of a soldier,” Augustus observed, taking to time to get to know his visitor. It wasn’t often that he had the enjoyment of talking to other races in such cordial conditions. “You’ve served?”

“I have,” the changeling answered.

“In your former Queen’s army, in your current Empire’s forces, or in both?

“Just the Crystal Empire’s army, I joined a few weeks before the Elk attack. It was after a Diamond Dog raid, and I wanted to contribute.”

“You fought?”

“I did,” nodded the changeling.

“You killed?”

His visitor hesitated, before nodding again. “I did, three. It’s not something you easily forget.”

Augustus grinned, such talk was interesting indeed. “Your Empire has made many enemies, Equestria included.” His grin grew when he saw the changeling twitch at the word ‘Equestria’. “Yes, there’s a large amount of bad blood between your nations, I’ve heard about everything. I can assume that the reason for the panic on the part of the Equestrian’s is the return of your Emperor?”

This returned the smile to the changeling’s face. “It is, Emperor Chalmers is once again on the throne and the Equestrians are out of our country.” Nodding towards the saddlebag at his side, the changeling looked back up. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I wish to complete the mission assigned to me as quickly as possible. As I have stated, I am delivering a message on my Emperor’s behalf.”

“Go ahead,” Augustus allowed, slightly disappointed that he was unable to continue his conversation. This changeling was quite interesting, nothing like the scum that they had turned back to Equestria. Still, he could understand the soldier’s urge to complete the task that he had been given.

The changeling’s horn lit up and withdrew a single parchment scroll, the blue-ribbon bound message making its way out towards him. Augustus plucked it out of the air with a claw, using a talon to break the red seal. His eyes scanned over the words, and his smile increased.

“Does your Emperor really think that I’ll agree to this?” he inquired to the messenger. “He does understand what such action would look like to… certain parties?”

“I am not privy to the information contained in the message,” the messenger explained. “I am sure, however, that Emperor Chalmers knows full well what he is doing.”

Pondering the situation for a few moments, Augustus gently placed the parchment down on his throne’s armrest, before letting out a peal of laughter.

“Oh, I had always been meaning to meet your Emperor since he came to power, even more so once I received news of his apparent return from Tartarus. This message has only reinforced the desire.” Gesturing for a guard to attend him, Augustus turned his head and relayed his order. “Tell my wife to prepare for a diplomatic trip to the Crystal Empire, and ready an escort.” Turning back to the changeling, he sat back in his throne and tapped his talons together. “Changeling, I thank you for this news and release you back to your master. Tell your Emperor that I’ll be at your city at the agreed time and date.”

“Thank you,” the changeling replied, bowing once more before leaving with an escort of guards. Watching him leave, Augustus smiled to himself and picked up the letter for another read.

‘This Emperor Chalmers is insane,’ he thought to himself, his tired bones filling with energy at the thought of Equestria’s reaction.
’I love it.’

Private Shill waited nervously while the three Zebra Priestesses looked over the message she had been sent to deliver. She focused on keeping her anxiety under control, the ten spear-armed zebra guards having kept a close vigil on her since she had dropped her disguise. The way that they were able to wield the weapons with just the crock of their hooves was amazing, the desert warriors obviously possessing great dexterity.

“This message raises many concerns,” the Head Priestess stated, her fellows nodding from their gold and glass thrones. “For one, it risks alienation from Equestria for mingling with their known enemy. Two, I have received troublesome portents regarding your Emperor. Three-“

“He and his comrades stole one of our prized vessels!” the Priestess to the left interjected, the charms on her headdress jingling.

“That is correct,” the Head Priestess confirmed, giving the one who had interrupted a weighted gaze. “He and three others stole a ship and numerous crates of ceremonial wine from one of our harbors. In addition, they utterly terrified a small village. Why should we agree to a meeting, when all evidence points towards it ending badly?”

Shill winced, the Emperor had neglected to inform her of those details. Still, she had a duty and she had to carry it out.

“The Emperor was understandably under a lot of pressure at the time,” she tried to reason. “I’m certain that he only did what he did in order to return as quickly as possible to the Crystal Empire. If you attend, you can discuss reimbursement-“

“Monetary matters do not concern us,” the last Priestess informed. “The theft of our wine was far more insulting. Many rituals were ruined that day because of it, and no amount of gold or jewels can make up for it.”

“That is also correct,” the Head Priestess once again took over. “I’m sorry, but at the current time we cannot see the benefits of such a visit. We’ll look over your Emperor’s message and discuss, Changeling, but I doubt that our minds will change.” An apologetic look, only brief, was sent Shill’s way. “I’m afraid that you will return to him with failure, I stress that it was due to no fault of yours.”

“I understand,” Shill replied, bowing her head before beginning to back away. “Thank you for receiving me.”

They let her leave without guards, Shill’s head lowered while she made her way to the exit of the mud-brick palace. Zebra servants and guards looked at her curiously while she left, Shill ignoring them and instead worrying over the Emperor’s reaction to the news. She had failed, and from the looks of things the Zebras wanted nothing to do with the Crystal Empire.

“Great,” she muttered to herself, looking up once she exited from the palace’s main doors. The occupants of the bustling Zebra Capital went about their day, the morning sun still rising in the sky. Resisting the urge to maybe kill some of her concerns with a relaxing walk through the markets, Shill instead sighed before buzzing her wings.

The guards stationed beside the main doors glanced up but didn’t stop her, Shill taking off to deliver the news of failure.

Reflection and Nigel exited their bedroom, only to be met with two guards awaiting them outside.

“Hmm?” Nigel wordlessly inquired, Reflection tilting her head at the two soldiers while letting out a final yawn.

“Captain Strategy has ordered that your chambers are to be guarded during the night,” one of the guards, a mare, answered upon correctly interpreting the gestures.

“That isn’t needed,” Nigel informed. “I’m quite capable of guarding my own bedroom.”

“That isn’t in doubt, sir,” the guard answered. “It’s just with the imprisonment, the Captain has ordered for security to be doubled both within and without the castle.”

“Great,” he mumbled, rubbing his face with a hand. “Has the good Captain decided to post a guard on every stairwell as well?”

“Not yet,” the mare answered, before wincing. “He has however ordered that you be escorted around during your duties.” She glanced to Reflection, a nod being sent the changeling’s way. “You will receive an escort as well, Lady Reflection.”

“She shouldn’t need one,” Nigel quickly stated, placing a hand on Reflection’s head. “I highly doubt that we’ll spend enough time apart to be in any danger.”

“Actually,” Reflection spoke up, Nigel looking down to meet her gaze. “That may not be the case.”


“I’ll tell you about during breakfast,” she explained with a sideways glance towards the guards. He got that she wanted some privacy, so he merely nodded and let the issue drop. That still didn’t solve the issue of the tagalongs, and while he appreciated Strategy’s concern, the guards could be better used in other areas. However, telling them otherwise would directly contradict Strategy’s orders, and he was trying to make the Empire less reliant on his input.

“Okay, now for you two,” he turned his attention back to the guards. “What exactly do your orders entail?”

“Two guards are to be with you at all times during the day,” the stallion soldier replied. “Two are to also guard the Royal bedroom during the night, swapping with the next pair at sunrise.” He looked back towards the room. “You slept in, sir, so we arrived an hour before to swap with the night guard.”

“I’d hardly call that ‘sleeping in’,” Reflection pointed out, furrowing her brows. “Nigel, can you just let them get on with their jobs so I can get some tea?”

“I can see where your priorities are.”

“Hey, I’ve just woken up, don’t try and push responsibility on me.” She smirked at the last part, before moving her head out from under his hand. Momentarily confused, he left himself open. Grabbing his hand in her jaws, taking care to not accidently bite him, Reflection tugged and prompted him to resume walking.

Sending the two guards a shrug, he followed the rather impatient Reflection.

“I guess you two get to stay,” he told them, both of the soldiers sharing a grin at the pair’s antics before taking up position behind their charges.

The four passed more guards and servants on their trip down to the kitchens, morning greetings shared by all. They passed a team of four guards heading in the opposite direction, two balancing silver trays upon their backs. The smell of toast that wafted out from a tray reminded Chalmers of the hunger that he felt, and he quickened his pace in order to reach the kitchen sooner. It didn’t bother him that he seemed to eat more lately; he put it down to his time spent away.

One trip down a guarded stairwell later and they were at the kitchens. It was a surprise to see that the kitchen staff had appeared to have doubled in number, and from the looks of things the morning bustle was already well underway.

“Good Morning, Emperor!” the Head Chef greeted with a bow of his head. “A bit of a sleep-in today?”

“I guess we did,” he answered, giving an early morning wave to the ten cooking staff. “Your staff size seems to have grown, Larder.”

“A step taken to better suit the needs of the future, given the extra mouths to feed as well. I also heard of some possible events happening in the future from Advisor Sparkling Scroll, events that will require a large amount of food.”

“I see,” Nigel replied. “I take it that Advisor Sparkling was the one who authorised the staff increase?”

“That is correct sir, in fact she insisted on it. She’s already in the dining room waiting for you Emperor; we’ll have your breakfast ready for you shortly.”

Nigel hid his wince behind a smile, he hated being waited on. Unfortunately for him, the crystal ponies and changelings insisted on serving him like… well, an Emperor. He appreciated it, but he wasn’t used to such pandering.

“Thank you, Larder, but please don’t rush on my behalf.” A though occurred to him, and he glanced back towards the two silent guards behind him. “Say, have you two had breakfast yet?”

“No sir,” the mare answered. “But don’t worry, we’re perfectly fine to-“

“I’ll take that as a ‘we’re happy to join you for breakfast’, then.”

The guards were surprised at his interruption, but didn’t object while they followed into the dining room.

Sparkling Scroll looked up from her tea when their group approached, a smile spreading across her face when he sat down opposite her. Reflection chose the seat to his left, and she scooted it closer towards him.

“Morning,” Nigel greeted, cricking his neck and lazily reaching out an arm around Reflection. “How’s your day going so far?”

“Pretty good,” Sparkling answered, looking over towards a sheet of parchment beside her plate on the table. “Construction of the city wall has started, we’ve got plenty of stone on hoof and we can reopen some of the old quarries if needed later on. We’ve had another two changelings arrive from Equestria, both are tired and weak but they have news of the Equestrian public’s reaction to the retaking of the Empire.”

“I’ll speak to them,” Reflection offered, both Nigel and Sparkling glancing towards her. “Well,” she continued, fiddling with her front hooves. “I sort of thought that I better start doing a little bit more to help.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Nigel reassured. “You’ve helped in the Emperor’s emotional healing and… stress relief.”

His attempts were rewarded with a smile from her, however she shook her head. “That’s not enough though,” she replied, before her grin increased. “Even if I do enjoy the stress relief, as rare as it is.” The giggle from Sparkling starkly contrasted the awkward faces of the guards, Reflection ignoring the reactions. “What I mean is that I’m apparently the Minister for Changeling Affairs, but I don’t really do much of that. I was thinking of spending more time helping out around the city, instead of lounging around.”

“But I enjoy your lounging around, it’s usually on me,” he tried to joke, however this one didn’t go down so well with her. Giving up, he patted her on the back. “Fine then, I can hardly complain about you wanting to help everyone out now, can I?”

“It won’t be all the time, and I will always be there in the evenings. There’s no need to worry,” she rubbed her head against his arm. “I enjoy spending time with you, so I’ll try to keep schedule clear.”

“I’ve been reduced to a calendar entry,” he mock lamented, Reflection tapping the arm around her with a hoof.

“Oh, stop your complaining,” she lectured, flashing him smile before turning back towards Sparkling. “Anything else, Sparkling?”

“A few more things, Lady Reflection.”

Nigel smirked at Reflection’s wince, she had not taken to her new title well.

“Go on,” he requested, Sparkling nodding before returning to her list.

“According to Researcher Golden Ring, the growth crystals are working better than expected on the crops, we should expect a faster and larger yield before the month is out. On a similar note, the Head Blacksmith has reported that they are proceeding with the rebuilding of the military equipment at an increased pace,” Sparkling lifted her head up. “The Equestrian invasion and our efforts to halt it have led to a rise in military recruitment numbers, the guard is receiving new applicants every day.”

“That’ll keep Strategy busy,” Nigel remarked, resting his free arm on the table. “Is that all?”

“No, Agent James left a message for you,” Sparkling answered, a grin on her face. “He said for me to tell you that ‘you’ve gotten lazy and soft, you should be waking up at the crack of dawn’.”

“Delightful,” he chuckled in response, joined by Sparkling and Reflection. Any further discussion on the matter was put on hold when four servants emerged from the kitchen, bearing covered silver trays. Placing them on the table, the lids were lifted to reveal an assortment of toast, jams, other spreads, fruits, and a tea set with a still-steaming pot. It was less food than usual, but due to the city’s supply issues they weren’t going to complain.

“Well then,” Chalmers announced. “Let’s get to the most important part of our day, a good hearty breakfast.” With Reflection already using her magic to pour herself and him cups of tea, he turned to the two guards standing at the doorway. “That includes you two, get over here and join in.”

Luna shifted on her bed when the four guards entered the room, this time with trays rather than weapons.

“Breakfast is served,” one stallion remarked with a false snooty accent, grins shared amongst the other two crystal ponies and changeling. Luna was surprised at their behavior, it wasn’t overly malicious yet was still more than what the Equestrian Royal Guards would do. Admittedly, her own guards were a little more liberal with their behavior, but the crystal pony’s joking would be a big no-no for a Solar Guard and from what she had heard of the Crystal Empire's military she expected airtight discipline.

“Thank you,” she politely acknowledged. Apart from her initial meeting with the Emperor, she was yet to detect any of the real hostility that she had expected. So far, they had been treated fairly well for prisoners. Granted, having to share a bedroom and bathroom with two others was something foreign to her but it wasn’t that bad.

The tray tops were removed, revealing a simple spread of toast, some muffins, assorted jams and honeys as well as a large bowl of fruit and berries. On another tray was, much to her pleasant surprise, a pot of tea and cups with assorted ceramic containers. Overall, it was almost like she was not a prisoner but a guest.

“We’ll be back for the trays in an hour,” the same stallion informed, this time without the joking around. “Then, you’re in for another visit from the Lead Researcher.”

This news almost killed her appetite, Elijah Von Barker was not an easy being to tolerate. His total lack of awareness regarding personal space, his strange questions, all combined made her dread their next meeting.

The door to their room shut, the four guards locking it from the outside and leaving them in peace.

“Wow,” Sergeant Lumen announced, sitting down on a cushion before the trays. “This is actually better food than we get in the barracks.” He glanced towards the barred window, sunlight streaming in. “Although we usually don’t have it during the day.”

Luna had to agree there, having her sleep cycle reversed was a strange feeling. It had surprised her to discover that it wasn’t too drastic a change, although she regretted not being able to raise her moon. She had no access to a balcony to do it, but it was still rising and falling normally so Celestia must have taken over it again in her absence.

Thinking of her sister, Luna wondered how she was taking the news, and hoped that Celestia’s calm and collected nature would prevent her from making any more rash decisions.

“They even gave us fresh fruit!” Darkbane observed happily, Luna smiling while the Nocturne mare stuffed a melon slice into her mouth. A cough from Lumen later and Darkbane was looking at Luna ashamed. “I’m sorry, Princess, forgive me for my rude behavior.”

Wondering what had the guard so subdued, Luna realised that she was yet to have any food herself, and thus the young mare had broken a social politeness by eating before her. “It is no matter,” she reassured, using her magic to select one of the slices of toast. “We are in an unusual situation; some mistakes are bound to happen.

Darkbane cheered up, and picked up one of the provided plates with her wings. Lumen followed her example, and while the two were busy selecting their meals Luna glanced between both.

The pair had been coping well with the situation, and she was proud of them for keeping their cool. Even now the two were conversing happily while they ate, and it made her feel strangely joyful. It was a puzzle, she was imprisoned and yet felt more relaxed then anytime she could remember.

Selecting herself a piece of buttered toast, she wondered once again how Celestia would react to the news of her imprisonment.

“Discord is still remaining frozen, it seems like the Elements have once again managed to subdue him.”

Celestia nodded her head, not really listening to the guard’s report. The bags under her eyes showed her lack of sleep, and while that normally wouldn’t be a problem the stress of the last two days had taken their toll.

“Your Majesty?”

“Yes, I’m listening,” she sighed, before glancing down at the cooling teacup on her throne’s arm. “Is there any news of my sister?”

“No ma’am,” the stallion answered. “The Element Bearers and Noblemare Sparkle told us all that we know. With the current paranoia of the Crystal Empire, and their military readiness, we haven’t risked sending any scouting parties.”

“Keep it that way,” she ordered, before glancing towards the empty throne beside her.

‘Oh Luna, why did you go and make such a decision?’

In truth, she was secretly proud of what Luna had done. Her reckless gamble had paid off, and thanks to her the Elements had returned in time to vanquish Discord once more. There was still the problem of the Crystal Empire… criminal, for lack of a better word, running around with the Canterlot Treasury, but that was a low priority.

More worrying to her was pure aggressiveness that the Crystal Empire was displaying, she’d truly gone and kicked the hornet’s nest. If all of the reports were true, then the entire Empire, not just Emperor Chalmers, saw Equestria as a major enemy.

“And the orders concerning Princess Luna?” the guard asked, his wings giving a brief flutter. “We have a battalion ready to mobilise, and if we hit the Crystal Empire while they’re still rebuilding their military-“

“No Lieutenant,” she interrupted. “Any attack would be a foolish waste of lives, both on our side and theirs. I am working on a few bloodless solutions, I just need more time.”

“As you command, Your Highness,” the Lieutenant replied, bowing his head and beginning to back away towards the throne room doors. “Just know that we will be ready to follow any order, no matter the cost.”

“Thank you,” she told him. “That will be all.”

Watching while the guard saluted before trotting away, she sighed and glanced towards the heavy spell-tome resting on the table beside her throne. The bookmark that sat only a third of the way in hinted at her fruitless efforts so far.

‘Time,’ Celestia scoffed to herself. ‘That’s one thing I might not have enough of.’

Sergeant Glimmer tried hard not to stare at the sight beside her; instead she tried to focus on her bowl of fruit slices. The Private she was in charge of, Topaz, was currently staring at his ruler with confusion in his yellow eyes.

The Emperor currently had the Minister for Changeling Affairs in his lap, the changeling almost purring while she received a very energetic belly rub. Glimmer still couldn’t work out how the conversation had switched from the depleting stores of iron to the subject of a ‘personal changeling feeding’. It had all happened so fast.

“Oh, right there,” Lady Reflection stated, in a very unladylike tone. Glimmer tried not to think about what was happening, and was thankful that it was only a belly rub. She’d heard from the other guards about the two’s often public displays of intimacy, the topic a favored one in the mess hall. Glimmer had to give the Emperor and his chosen consort credit; they certainly knew how to turn heads and enjoy each other.

“You two are terrible,” Advisor Sparkling spoke up, having been watching the pair with amusement. “It’s almost like you’re not going to be seeing each other for years.”

“I’ll be gone a whole… half a day!” Lady Reflection complained, shifting on her spot so that the Emperor’s fingers covered more chitin.

Advisor Sparkling shook her head at her response, before switching her gaze towards the Emperor. “And you, what’s your excuse?”

“She’ll be away for half a day?” Emperor Chalmers tried with a shrug, taking a sip of tea with his free hand. “It’s only a belly rub, relax.”
He raised an eyebrow at Sparkling. “Or, are you jealous Sparkling? Remember that head rub that you enjoyed? This is twice as good apparently.”

“No,” Reflection murmured from his lap. “Mine, it’s mine.”

“No thank you,” Sparkling told him, gathering up her parchment and quills. “Apart from not wanting to steal Reflection’s massage, I also have to get back to work and prepare for the morning court.” She left her seat and tilted her head towards him. “Hint hint.”

“You vicious taskmaster,” Chalmers retorted, finishing his tea and using the now-free second hand to contribute to the belly rub he was giving. “Fine, give me five minutes to finish up with Reflection here and I’ll be straight out.”

“No, you better go now.” To the surprise of all, Lady Reflection rolled over onto her front before leaving his lap with her words. The Emperor was visually surprised, but any objection was cut off when the changeling nuzzled against his hand. “I’ve got to attend to my duties as well; I’ll see you at lunch though.”

“Very well,” the Emperor relented, leaning down to give her a quick peck on the forehead. “We’ll go out to grab something to eat.” Glimmer sat up straight in her seat when he turned his gaze to her, her bowl of fruit almost finished. “Sergeant, could you please escort Lady Reflection around the city?”

“I hate that title,” Reflection muttered, making her way towards the room’s exit.

“Of course sir,” Glimmer answered quickly, forgetting the remains of her breakfast to leave her seat and stand at attention. “I won’t fail you.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about you,” the ruler informed, receiving a mock glare from Reflection for the comment. With a final nod to the poor Private she was leaving to the mercy of the Emperor, she followed her charge out of the room and into one of the many corridors that dotted the castle.

They didn’t speak while they journeyed through the castle, Glimmer not too keen to start up a conversation. To be honest, not much was known about Lady Reflection, she wasn’t nearly as active in military affairs as the Emperor was. However, judging from the breakfast and all of the other times she had seen the human and changeling fawning over each other, the Emperor obviously cared a lot for her so playing nice was the best thing to do.

They left out the main doors, the eight guards watching over them saluting with their halberds. While her charge nodded politely at them, Glimmer shared knowing looks with her fellow soldiers. All of them gave her looks filled with sympathy, everyone able to guess the reaction of the Emperor if something happened to his changeling.

Pushing the thoughts of such things away, Glimmer instead focused on following Reflection down the east street. Steadily, the surrounds changed with higher density of changelings in this section. She knew from her patrols that this was where the majority of the Empire’s changelings resided, mostly because it contained most of the newer houses that had been built to cope with the population growth.

It was the weekend and everyone was looking like they were enjoying the time off, lounging around chatting on porches while children played in the streets. Glimmer tried to follow Reflection through it all, having to stop to allow a swarm of nymphs and foals run across the street. The children stopped briefly to examine her, her armour and sheathed sword earning a barrage of questions before the children once again rushed off in their play.

Reflection stopped and paused, Glimmer looking over to what had caught her attention. It was a small crystal house with a large front window, evidently one of the original dwellings in the city. The curtains were drawn back and they could see a changeling stallion and a crystal pony mare inside, both sitting at a table talking.

“Let’s go say hello,” Reflection suggested, Glimmer not having time to give her input before the Lady trotted up to the front door. Catching up just in time for Lady Reflection to knock on the door, she stood at the ready while the door opened inwards and the sapphire-coated mare looked out.

“Oh, Minister,” the mare realised, bowing her head out of respect before looking back up with her golden eyes. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

To Glimmer, Reflection looked slightly uncomfortable with the mare’s bowing. “I was just passing through and, forgive me, but I saw through your window that you’ve got a changeling in your house and I thought that I’d say hello.”

“That’s very nice,” the mare replied, giving a polite nod to Glimmer. “I’m Vibrant Opal, pleased to have you here, Ma’am.” While Reflection’s eye twitched, Vibrant glanced back into the house. “It isn’t my house though, it’s Muddle’s.”


“The changeling you saw,” Vibrant replied, smiling warmly. “We’ve been together almost since he arrived in the city. I decided to move in with him last week.”

Glimmer raised an eyebrow when Reflection tilted her head with interest. “Sorry if it’s a bit personal to ask this,” the Minister continued. “But you don’t mind the fact that he’s a changeling?”

“No,” Vibrant answered with a head shake, before smiling again. “I’m sure you can understand that species isn’t everything.”
“I guess so,” Reflection confirmed, a grin gracing her own features. “Well, I’ve got plenty to do, so I better leave you two in peace.” She turned to leave, Glimmer starting to step back before Vibrant opened the door a little more.

“Are you sure?” the pony asked. “I’m sure Muddle would love to talk with you, and we’ve just made a full pot of tea.”

Glimmer watched when Reflection paused, the changeling Minister still smiling. With a silent groan, she guessed at what the answer would be.

“I’d love to,” Lady Reflection answered, much to Glimmer’s disappointment. Vibrant opened the door fully and stepped to the side to allow them entry, Glimmer wondering just how long this distraction would last while she followed her charge into the home.

Nigel surveyed his courtroom, mostly empty aside from his guards and Sparkling Scroll. The rush had already come and gone, mostly requests for increased civil funding and thanks for returning to help the Empire. He’d even received a few ponies and changelings requesting an audience merely for the chance to have a conversation with him, the topics of what Tartarus was like and the future of the Crystal Empire often coming up. He didn’t mind talking to them, and he was confident that everyone walked away satisfied with the answers.

He drummed his fingers on his armrest, waiting for Morning Court to end. He had plenty to do, and there was no more citizens seeking his guidance or permission.

It was then that he found the solution.

‘I’ve got it,’ he thought with a grin, standing up from his throne and smoothing down his suit.

“Emperor?” Sparkling asked, glancing down at an hourglass by her side. “Court isn’t over for another hour.”

“Ah, but Sparkling you forget,” he replied, beginning to stroll towards the main doors. “I’m the Emperor, I do what I want.”

“Sir,” she groaned, before giving up on her attempts to halt him. Nigel smiled to himself when he heard the sound of shuffling stationary, a few moments later Sparkling appeared by his side with ink pots and quills hastily placed in a saddlebag, and a roll of parchment clutched in her mouth.

“This is boring, Sparkling,” he explained, waving a hand in front of him while he exited the throne room. Two guards followed them, the changeling and pony stallions watching their ruler with restrained interest. “I’m a man of action, not words. If there’s no-one left to see, why should I sit down idle?”

“Because you tend to make things worse,” she answered bluntly, after placing the parchment in her bag.

“True,” he admitted, nodding to the servants and guards in the entrance hall on his way to the main doors. “But I’m only going to go and have a look at what Strategy is doing, nothing too hands on.”

“Strategy?” Sparkling perked up, a bounce in her step. Nigel noticed her sudden burst of enthusiasm but decided to not comment. He knew that Sparkling had been hit hard by Chatter’s death and he’d heard that his Captain had been a huge help in improving her mood. He also knew that Strategy himself was still feeling guilt over the loss of their soldiers in the previous battle. A time would have to be arranged to talk to the two about it, he couldn’t allow any remaining sorrow, no matter how justified, to jeopordise their plans for the future.

“Indeed, I believe that he is visiting Iron in the armory in regards to some new weapons that Elijah… suggested.”

“Elijah?” Sparkling frowned, briefly nodding to the door guards while they left the palace with their escort in tow. “Isn’t he busy helping the unicorns with the gem enchanting, and interrogating the Equestrian Princess?”

With a snort, he let out a dry chuckle. “One thing you have to know about Elijah: once he has his sights set on something, he’s like a rabid dog chasing a squirrel.”


“A small rodent,” he explained before continuing. “Regardless, you’ll find that he will have spread his tendrils to many an area in his pursuit of science. Apparently he managed to track down and speak to Iron without my knowledge, which leads to the current problem.”

“I don’t like this talk about problems; we have far too much already.”

“You’re telling me,” he turned down the street heading into the military district, the civilians nearby sparse in number but they still waved. “But I think we’ll be able to solve most of them fairly well with our cunning plan.”

Sparkling merely nodded, her face locked in thought while they continued to walk. Their two guards remained silent, and it wasn’t long before they reached the armory doors. Strolling through the empty parade ground, the guards all busy with the wall construction, they entered the armory itself and descended down the stairs to the main workshop.

Nigel was surprised to be greeted with a surge of noise. A horde of ponies and changelings were fussing over half-built ballista, laboring over benches with magic carefully manipulating fine tools and the unlucky few operating the busy forges to the far side. He was pleased when none ceased their work to bow to him, all of the workers glancing towards him and his three companions before returning to their toil.

“Iron sure upped his staff numbers,” he commented loudly over the noise, counting at least twenty new faces. “He can barely fit all of this stuff in here.”

“He’s requested even more workers if they’re free,” Sparkling answered, glancing around at the hive of activity.

“Not very likely with that wall we need to build.”

“Ah, Emperor!” All four turned at Iron’s greeting, the Head Blacksmith weaving past two changelings carrying a sheet of metal on his way to meet them. “It’s such a pleasure to see you.”

“Well I heard the word that you’d been talking to Elijah,” Nigel began cheerily. “He didn’t happen to give you any ideas, did he?”
Iron’s wide grin crushed his hopes that the visit from Elijah had gone without major interference.

“Actually sir, he was incredibly helpful and exceedingly nice,” Iron swiftly turned around, facing back the way he had come. “In fact, he shared some advice that I found very intriguing. Come on, I’ve been working on a few things in my office.”

Sharing a look with Sparkling, Nigel hesitantly followed the upbeat blacksmith through the chaos of the workshop. Passing through a metal door that Iron shut behind them, the noise of the workshop cut off abruptly.

“Sound-proofing?” Nigel inquired, gazing around yet another cluttered workshop except this one was devoid of workers.

“I can’t stand to work with the noise of others,” Iron explained while trotting up to a work bench. “So I made the modifications a while ago, I included it in my budget report.”

“He did,” Sparkling remembered with a hoof rubbing her chin. “It wasn’t that expensive, from what I recall.”

“I installed it myself,” Iron explained before retrieving a device from a workbench. “Moving on sir, I have here a new device that will prove to be most beneficial to us in the future.”

“Oh?” In response, Iron trotted over and presented a small shield with a network of multicolored gems surrounding a large red one implanted in the middle of the front face. Taking the small metal shield in his hands, Nigel turned it over with an appraising eye.

“The losses we incurred during the Elk attack, while statistically small, highlighted a problem with our military.”

“There are more to wars than statistics,” Nigel reminded evenly while the two guards stared at the Blacksmith, Iron wincing before nodding.

“I know that, but I hope that this device will prevent any more deaths.” Iron’s mouth twitched into a small smile. “Well, deaths on our side at least. I don’t exactly make a living out of peaceful enterprises.”

“Back to the device,” Nigel reminded.

“Of course, now you may have noticed that it looks like a shield. That’s because it is a shield.”

“What a shame,” Nigel sighed, briefly closing his eyes and rubbing the lids before opening them again. “Here I was thinking it was some new kind of sword.”

Iron paused before continuing, Sparkling rolling her eyes at the conversation.

“If you’d be so kind as to attach it to one of your guards, then I can show you what I mean.”

Nigel glanced from the shield in his hands towards the pair of, now very nervous, guards. “It’s not going to…” he tapped the glowing red gem with a finger. “Blow up, is it?”

“No sir, I already told you that it’s a shield.”

“Relax Iron,” Nigel reassured, picking the changeling guard. “Congrats soldier, you have been chosen to test Iron’s new thingamawhatsit.”

“It’s already been tested,” Iron explained, watching Nigel try to place the shield on the changeling’s armoured back. “No sir, there’s a magnetic plate that will connect to the right side of the guard’s armour.”

Nigel checked and found that there was indeed a smooth square of metal on both shoulder plates. Attaching it so that the many gems were facing outwards, Nigel and the others stepped away from the changeling.

“Should I be worried?” the soldier inquired, glancing towards his Emperor.

“I don’t know,” Nigel shrugged. “Probably.”

“Great help,” Sparkling murmured from her spot behind him.

“Shush you.”

“Ahem,” Iron cleared his throat, gesturing towards the changeling. “Soldier, could you please press the blue gem with your hoof?”
Briefly processing the request, the soldier slowly did as ordered. He flinched when a hum sounded and a dull red glow shot out of the center gem.

Nigel watched while the magic formed a barrier in front of the changeling, about half a meter away from the soldier’s face. The changeling’s horn was just able to point out over the top, other than that it formed a fine defense.

“I don’t believe it,” Nigel muttered, staring at the energy barrier. “You haven’t even invented electricity, and yet you somehow made a personal energy shield.” He turned to the proud Iron, Sparkling’s jaw dropped in awe. “Iron, do you enjoy living on this world?”

“I… I do,” Iron answered, his pride faltering at the unusual question.

“Then don’t tell anyone from Research and Development about this,” Chalmers continued. “They’d just love to recruit you.”

“It was mostly the ideas that Elijah gave me that helped,” Iron admitted. “I can hardly take all of the credit-“

“Pfft,” Nigel dismissed, walking around the changeling to get a better look at the shield. “You’re more than capable, if you ever want a job I’ll put in a good word for you.”

He left out that his word might not be that well received.

“Still, back to the shield, how well will it work?”

“Unfortunately sir, it only works inside of the Empire.” At Nigel’s raised eyebrow, Iron continued. “The shield itself is powered by the ambient energies given off by the Heart, thanks to the love-storage gems we can harvest that and turn it towards military application. It’s an endless supply of energy as long as there are crystal ponies, and it’s proven to be an exceedingly efficient energy source.”

“You’ve weaponised love and happiness…”

“For defense,” Iron made sure to remind him. Nigel didn’t care.

He loved it.

“Brilliant,” he murmured, before returning to Iron’s side. “How will it preform in combat?”

“A soldier can use a halberd effectively without having to drop the shield,” Iron explained. “The colouring is unfortunate, but we tried to make it as dull as possible. We’re still experimenting with the new gems so it’s all foreign to us. Still, it allows a soldier to defend themselves while facing an enemy front on and the other feature makes it great against a charging opponent.”

“Other feature?”

Iron walked up to the shield and tapped on it with a hoof. “It reflects the kinetic force back instead of absorbing it. Thusly, a large foe such as an elk would be knocked helpless upon making contact. A particularly strong opponent could shatter it however, and then it’d be up to the soldier to do without it until it recharges. That will be incredibly rare though, it’d have to take a huge amount of force to-“

Nigel stopped listening, he was certain that he could break the shield. He slowly began to back up and prepared to attack it, readying his shoulder. Sparkling caught on to his plan and went to protest, however he had already begun to charge.

If Chalmers had been a smart man then he wouldn’t have listened to his ego and felt the urge to prove Iron wrong while impressing those watching.

As it was, smart he was not.

The changeling guard’s eyes widened when he noticed his ruler rushing towards him and his shield.

His pupils dilated when the Emperor rammed the energy barrier, only to be flung back into the opposite wall of the room with a crash.

Slowly, while the ponies rushed to their ruler’s aid, he silently turned off his shield and decided to guard the door.

He was so getting fired.

Glimmer breathed a sigh of relief when they finally trotted back out onto the street. What was supposed to have been a short talk over tea had turned into hours of long conversation, Lady Reflection and Vibrant Opal had become fast friends. Annoyingly, the topic had quickly veered away from matters of changeling life in the Empire and into the territory of the two’s romances.

Needless to say, it had been incredibly interesting. The only condolence was that the changeling named Muddle had also appeared as uncomfortable as she had been. At least now she was free.

“Well that was nice,” Reflection commented, turning for another house. “On to the next one.”

‘Oh no,’ Glimmer winced. ‘Please, anything but another conversation about the Emperor’s ‘magic’ fingers.’

Her prayers were answered in a way, a group of guards rushing down the street with four nurses and a doctor in tow. Glimmer recognised her Captain leading them, Strategy skidding to a halt when he spotted her and Reflection.

“Captain, what’s wrong?” Reflection asked with a furrowed brow, Strategy nodding for the guards and medical professionals to continue on before turning to answer.

“There’s been an accident in the Armory,” the Captain breathed out heavily. “It seems like the Emperor has been hit by an experimental weapon and-“

“Nigel’s hurt!?” Reflection interrupted, already starting to gallop after the guards in the distance. Glimmer had no choice but to follow, galloping behind the panicked changeling. She turned her head to her left at the sound of a second set of armoured hooves, the Captain running next to her.

“Is it bad?” she questioned over the clopping of their hooves, worried civilians watching them while they passed.

“I don’t know,” Strategy replied, his eyes filled with worry. “I was on my way to talk to the Head Blacksmith when I received the message from a worker.”

At this information she decided to stop talking and just focus on the situation. Turning her head back to the front, she prepared herself to have to possibly control Reflection if things got out of hoof.

It took them a scant three minutes to reach to armory, Glimmer slightly panting with the effort of galloping at full pelt in armour. Captain Strategy seemed completely unaffected, and they passed groups of guards and smithy workers to enter the depths of the armory complex.

Rushing down the stairs after Reflection, Glimmer quickly glanced around the large space they found themselves in. Workbenches and devices were scattered around, a mass of guards clustered around a metal door at the back. Following Reflection, Glimmer and Strategy headed to the door while guards parted to make a path. Entering the back room, Glimmer paused when she laid eyes on the sight.

The Emperor was slumped up against the wall, a number of cracks showing on the surface. The medical ponies from before were fussing over the unconscious human, the doctor running a hoof over the back of Chalmers’ head while the nurses awaited with bandages and tools. Slowly trotting towards them, Glimmer noticed a single changeling guard with a strange device attached to him cower while a very angry Captain Strategy approached him.

“Oh Nigel,” Reflection whispered before hurrying towards him. Glimmer stayed back and watched while the concerned guards made way for the changeling, Reflection sitting down to place a hoof on the Emperor’s chest.

“He’s lost a fair amount of blood from a wound to the back of the head,” the doctor informed, his hoof coming away with a thick slathering of gore. “Surprisingly, the injury appears to be healing with the blood clotting at an incredible rate, but I’m not familiar with his physiology so I can’t say for sure if that’s normal.”

“Why… why won’t he wake up?”

“He’s received a heavy blow to the head, Lady Reflection,” the doctor answered while gesturing towards the nurses. A blue mare passed him a roll of bandages, the doctor beginning to carefully wrap it around the Emperor’s head. “He likely has a concussion at the very least, so I want to keep him under observation with plenty of rest.” The doctor turned to the Captain when Strategy approached. “Captain, are any of the other humans on their way?”

“No,” Strategy replied, gazing down at the Emperor with a shake of his head. “We had no time to inform them, and I’ve just sent off the messengers.” Nodding, the doctor returned to his task of dressing the wound while Strategy made for the door.

“Captain,” Glimmer whispered while he passed, Strategy stopping to look at her. “What happened?”

“It seems like they were testing a new type of shield,” he replied with a tilt of his head towards the, now reassured, changeling guard. “The Emperor decided to test it himself… by running into it.”

“Ah,” Glimmer said before biting her lip, Strategy nodding with a knowing look before leaving the room with most of the guards in tow.

“Excuse me soldiers.” Glimmer focused back on the doctor, one of the nurses reassuring the sniffling Reflection that everything was going to be all right. “Could we please get some assistance with returning the Emperor to his chambers?”

Looking around, she saw that she was the highest ranking guard there. Taking charge, she pointed an armoured hoof towards Chalmers. “You heard him, everyone lend a hoof.”

“Here, use this,” the Head Blacksmith offered, retrieving a stretcher from behind a workbench.

Glimmer didn’t bother to question why he had such an item.

The medical staff gently moved the Emperor onto the stretcher while Reflection watched on with worry. The Head Blacksmith moved to the changeling guard and removed the round object from the sheepish soldier, the changeling quickly moving to assist with moving the injured leader. She made a note to ask him just what the Emperor had done, the private still appearing guilty.

“Sergeant,” a corporal requested, Lady Reflection still hovering around the Emperor. Sighing at what was about to come, Glimmer moved towards the minister who was sharing an embrace with the Emperor’s personal assistant.

“Excuse me,” she addressed, Reflection and Sparkling Scroll leaving their hug to look at her. “If you wish it, I’ll escort you both back to the palace so we can meet the Emperor there.”

“But what if he-“

“Reflection,” Advisor Scroll cut in, laying a hoof on the changeling’s shoulder. “He’ll be okay, let’s go back and let these ponies and changelings do their jobs.”

“Are you sure?” Reflection sniffled again, glancing back to the Emperor.

“I’m positive,” Sparkling told her, leading her towards the door.

Following the two, Glimmer was thankful that at least one of them was thinking clearly and that she didn’t have to handle the upset Lady on her own. Leaving the still-unresponsive Emperor behind, the three began to ascend the stairs with the palace as their destination.

“Urrg…” Nigel mumbled when he awoke, his head throbbing with a dull ache. He tried to open his eyes but quickly shut them again with a wince. The light hurt, so he had to rely on his other senses. He was lying on something soft, and from the size of it he guessed that it was his bed.

Strange, he didn’t remember going to sleep.

Trying to work out just exactly how he had gotten to bed, he searched his memory in vain. It was hazy, and the last thing he remembered was about heading towards the armory. He attempted to sit up but quickly forgot that plan when a spike of pain shot through his skull. Grimacing, he laid his head back onto the pillow while something shifted beside him.


“Yes,” he answered, Reflection’s voice in his ear causing his eye to twitch as another throb went through his head.

“You’re okay!” she announced happily, and he felt her hug him. Unfortunately she made the mistake of nuzzling his face.

“Ouch, back off,” he told her, Reflection’s grip on him releasing.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” she apologised, a weight settling down on his chest. “Does it still hurt?”

“It does. What happened?”

She sighed, and he detected a hint of anger from her. “From what I was told, you were looking at a new shield that Iron Greaves had made and you tested it by charging at it. It flung you back into the wall and the doctor said that you have a concussion.”

Oh, he remembered now.

“Ah,” he replied, his throbbing head now explained. “Did I win?”

Instead of the laughter that he expected, he instead received a snort from Reflection. “No, you could have been seriously hurt or worse! Not only did you hurt yourself and worry us all, the poor soldier that you charged at thought that he had killed you. What were you thinking?”

“I wanted to test the new shield.”

“… You’re an idiot.”

“Hey, at least we know that it works,” he groaned, rolling over onto his side to face her. His headache let up a little at the motion but he still kept his eyes closed just in case. “Speaking of which, tell Iron to make more.”

“Is that all you can think about right now?”

“I haven’t got much else to think about,” he grumbled, moving a hand to his forehead. “There goes my day.” Silence was his only reply, not even a complaint coming his way. “Reflection?”

“I’m not talking to you,” she told him.

‘Great, just what I need right now,’ he grimaced. She was obviously cross at him for some reason, and he tried to work it out. Thinking back over their conversation, he stumbled across the obvious. ’Oh,’ he thought, cursing his own stupidity. ‘That’s probably it.’

“Look, I’m sorry,” he apologised, removing the hand from his forehead and placing it on what felt like her back. “I know you’re worried about me, and I should have thought a bit more about that before joking around. It’s kind of-“

“I know,” she interrupted him with a sigh, but she shuffled closer. “I know that’s who you are, but sometimes I wish you were just a bit more serious.” He flinched when her hoof caressed his face, lights still flashing in his closed eyes. “Although, I know that will never happen.”

“Serious is boring,” he informed her, and at least this time she let out a small chuckle. “You’re lucky you’ve got me, and not James.”

“Don’t even joke about that!” she laughed, now back to her usual self. “He’s friendly, but he’s far too dull.”

“You’d be surprised,” Nigel told her, pulling her against him. He knew what department James worked for, and why Orthodox was always accusing the dour black man of ‘freaky mind powers’. Reflection hummed in response and settled down beside him. “Speaking of James, please tell me that he and Elijah don’t know about the… incident.”

“At the armory, after your accident, Strategy sent messengers to tell them both about it. James came in to see you about two hours ago, but all he said was that you’d ‘be fine, at least apart from the ego’ before he left to go back to the wall.” She let out another snort, although this time it wasn’t directed at him. “Apparently Elijah was more interested in talking to the Equestrian Princess again than seeing if you were okay.”

“That’s to be expected,” he informed. “Elijah’s always been rather focused on his own concerns.”

Another snort from Reflection. “Like you can talk.”

“Hey,” he defended. “I’d like to think that I focus on your concerns as well, you can’t say that you don’t get a few good meals out of me. I’m like a curry shop to you, satisfying but you regret it as soon as you finish, and you can’t stop eating it despite knowing what will happen.”

“I don’t get it.” The nuzzling restarted, Reflection taking care to be far gentler this time. “Although the food is really more of a bonus to me. I have to admit, you do tend to make things more interesting and I love that.”

“Yeesh, I get knocked on the head and we both turn into saps,” he chuckled, Reflection joining in while she continued to rest up against him.

“I like it,” she told him after a pause. “It’s not wrong to be a little soft sometimes.”

He guessed that he could give her that, and to be honest he hadn’t exactly been a picture of masculinity when around her. It was funny in a way, he’d gone from dating her in an attempt to make her happy, and had become unable to resist fawning over her whenever she was around.

‘Maybe I have gone a little soft,’ he realised while he rubbed her back and delighted in the way that it made her wings buzz. She let out a noise of enjoyment at the attention, and her grip on him increased.

He was okay with going soft, just this once.

“The Doctor said that you shouldn’t move around a lot,” she told him. “If you’re hungry, I can go and get you something.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he dismissed, relaxing onto the bed. “What’s the time?”

“The late afternoon, we’ve got four hours until dinner. Sparkling cancelled the court for the rest of the day.”

“Then I think a short nap will be in order, I need my strength for dinner after all.”

“At least you’ve got your priorities straight,” she teased, bringing a smile to his face. “I’m not against a nap though, so if it’s okay I’ll stay here.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he answered, before adjusting his head on the pillow and awaiting for slumber, Reflection curling up next to him and humming in agreement.

Private Shill winced when the door guard patted her on the back, the pony stallion not noticing her nervous look.

Despite her fellow soldiers’ greetings and cheers, she felt terrible. Little did they know that she was no cause for celebration, having failed her mission and her Empire. A shudder went down her back while she passed through the throne room doors; the Emperor’s reaction was surely going to be terrible.

Maybe he’d be happy with just throwing her out of the guard, hopefully without much fuss. At least then she could sulk away and just find a civilian job for the rest of her days, it’d sure beat being pulled up in front of the entire guard and publicly humiliated. Granted, she already felt bad enough already so that probably wouldn’t be needed on his part.

“Wonderful, all three of you made it back safe and sound!”

She looked up at the voice of her Emperor, the human dressed in a simple green bathrobe. Lady Reflection, the most respected changeling in the Empire, was beside his throne on a cushion and receiving a head rub. Both looked like they had just gotten out of bed, understandable considering that it was about an hour past midnight.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Shill advanced under the watchful eyes of the guards in the room.

Somehow, this was more nerve-wracking than facing the Zebras.

Saluting with a tremble, she looked her ruler in the eyes and awaited for his nod. “Emperor, I have returned from the Zebra Lands.”

“I can see that,” he smiled. “You’re the last to arrive, and the third to wake us in four hours.” Shill struggled to hide her wince, that was not good news for her. “So, Private,” Emperor Chalmers continued. “Make your report. We’ve unfortunately been unsuccessful with the Minotaurs, apparently I’m ‘lacking honor’ and am ‘fully deserving of all that Equestria has done’.” He smirked, waving his free hand in dismissal. “Anyway, we don’t need them, the Griffons are more than happy to meet with us about Equestria. It seems that we’re not the only ones that have an issue with ‘good-intentioned’ interference.”

‘Oh, so at least Buzz had some luck,’ she brooded, the news less welcome to her than it should have been.


Snapping back out of her thoughts, Shill realised that the Emperor and Lady were looking at her expectantly. Remembering what he had asked of her, she braced herself and began to tell him what had transpired.

“I was less than successful, sir,” she told him with a wince, something he picked up.

“Don’t be so nervous Private. Now, what happened?”

“The Zebras are led by a trio of High Priestesses; the majority of the tribes listen to their every word. The allowed me an audience and I delivered your message.” Shill winced again, despite the prior reassurance. “They informed me that you… that you stole a boat from one of their docks, a boat filled with ceremonial wine and other supplies for their religious rituals.”

“I don’t remember any…” the Emperor started, before his eyes narrowed. “Orthodox.”

“Him again?” Lady Reflection spoke up, Emperor Chalmers looking down at his consort and nodding.

“It’s always Orthodox,” he groaned before looking back towards her. “Private, sorry for the interruption, please continue.”

Gulping, Shill followed the command. “They said that due to the theft of their boat and items, many important ceremonies were cancelled. I suggested that you’d be willing to reimburse them, but they claimed that it cost far more than money could pay for. They told me that they’d discuss it further, but they have no interest in working against Equestria and they said to tell you that they had declined.”

She waited for a lecture, and she found herself bowing slightly before him. With her eyes towards the ground, she could hear the Emperor and Lady whisper between each other. It wasn’t a good sign, she wasn’t aware of the entirety of the Emperor’s plan but she knew that the news was likely a blow. The whispering cut off, and she flinched when the Emperor cleared his throat.

“So, you delivered your message and they declined, is that correct?”

“It is, Your Highness.”

“And you’re worried that you have disappointed me, correct?”

She hesitated before answering that one. “Yes, I am.”

“Don’t be,” he announced suddenly, Shill looking up to find two smiles being sent her way. “You’ve done everything I’ve asked for, and you took a great risk for your Empire. I’m proud, and you’ll make a fine soldier, Corporal Shill.”

‘Wait…’ she thought, her brain working through the confusion. ‘Did he just… promote me, even though I failed?’

“I’ll inform Agent James about your new rank, as well as the other new Corporal and the Sergeant, in the morning. I’m sorry to rush you out, but I’m sure that you’re looking forward to a good sleep as much as I am.” He stood up from his chair, Lady Reflection rising with him. “I’ll let you go for the night, and take tomorrow off as well.”

“Th- thank you sir,” she saluted, before turning around and making for the door. Her mind was half-confused, half-elated. She’d been promoted, but for what? Maybe Meta would have a better idea of what the Emperor was getting at, or maybe she did just need a decent night’s sleep. The throne room doors were opened for her, and she exited out into the waiting area.

“Wait, Corporal.”

Turning around, Shill found Lady Reflection following behind her.

“Ma’am?” she questioned, not used to really seeing the high-ranking changeling without the Emperor nearby.

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m proud as well,” the Lady told her with a smile. “I was going to back there, but, well, his head rubs can be pretty distracting sometimes.”

“Okay,” Shill didn’t really know what else to say about that. Evidently, she didn’t need to say much as Lady Reflection gave her a nod.

“Anyway, congratulations on the promotion, you’ve come far for just a drone.” That was true, Shill realising that she had made a lot of progress in her life. Giving the Lady a salute, she felt pride when Reflection tried to give one back. “I let you get back to the barracks, Nigel’s probably waiting for me.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Shill answered and began to turn, before halting. “And Ma’am? Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lady Reflection grinned, before trotting back into the throne room.

Resuming her own trotting, Shill felt herself relax.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as she had thought.

Things were going bad, very bad.

Orthodox sniffled inside of his armour, continuing to trudge through the snow. It was terrible what had happened, having to leave one behind. It rocked him to the core with guilt, and he had only just stopped sobbing with sadness.

One of his treasure sacks had broken, and he had been forced to bury most of its contents in the snow to pick up later. Now he had only one sack of treasure to bring back to the Empire, a terrible blow indeed!

Looking up to the moon in the sky, he paused his walking to shake a fist in the air.

“Why!?” he yelled out, glaring angrily towards the celestial body. “Such cruelty has been visited upon me!”

Resuming his walking after the venting, he continued to grumble about his horrid situation.

Truly, there was no-one as worse off as he was right now.

Clicks, commander of Her Majesties Royal Guard, cocked an ear towards the sky. He could have sworn that he had heard a voice on the wind, one filled with incredible pain and anguish. Shifting in his heavy chitin armour, he resumed his trek through the snow at the head of the four-hundred and sixty-three changelings.

Glancing back past his subordinates, the many drones and other soldiers that they had reunited after the defeat at Canterlot, he made sure that their cargo was still undisturbed.

Clicks winced when his eyes settled on his queen, the former ruler lying battered and broken on a stretcher carried by four guards. It had turned out that she wasn’t that strong of a flyer, and out of all of them she bore the worst injuries thanks to the unplanned exit from Canterlot.

The few nurses among them had done what they could, but even with some pilfered bandages things weren’t looking good for the queen. They had been moving from hiding place to hiding place for two months, taking what they could from towns under the cover of darkness while trying to find a place to rebuild.

Chrysalis had been unconscious for the majority of the time, leaving him to make all of the decisions. He had no idea of what to do, until he had heard word of a city filled with ponies and changelings living in harmony. The extraordinary rumor had been made even more impossible with the information that the city was ruled by an alien demon, the few ponies that scouts had overheard claimed that not even Tartarus could deal with evil the likes of it.

Returning his eyes to the front, Clicks continued to lead them on. They all needed food and energy, lots of it, and they were lucky to have gotten as far as they had. The Queen’s breathing had grown weaker, however, so whether they would make it in time was another question.

That was also relying on the rumor turning out correct, although Clicks couldn’t see any other hope for them at the moment.

With weary hooves they marched on, guided in the snow by the moon light with only their chitin and a few scraps of rags to shield them from the cold. Cresting a hill, Clicks surveyed the horizon with weary eyes.

His jaw dropped when he saw a huge city, shielded from the harsh snow by a glimmering dome. It was a magnificent sight, and the soldiers that were with him halted and joined his staring.

Clicks could taste a hint of positive emotion coming from the city, faintly carried on the wind. It wasn’t nearly enough to eat, but it was more than enough to spark hope and rekindle his resolve.

Maybe, just maybe, they had one chance left, a chance that he had no choice but to take.

Taking another step forward, Clicks’ eyes never left the city while he led his companions forward towards their only hope of salvation.

Author's Note:

Sorry for the late chapter, getting a new full-time job where I can't just sit around and do what I want for 90% of the time really cuts into my writing time. Damn priorities.

Anyway, Reflection is becoming more than 'just the Emperor's changeling' (even though that's only her own opinion and insecurity) and meets two familiar people.

Nigel manages to do more damage to himself than even Celestia has managed to so far, and all because of his own inflated ego. One wonders if Nigel is somehow related to European royalty.

Luna has experianced the full terror of a curious Elijah, an experiance sure to scar her for life. Her guards are likewise traumatised, and what exactly will happen when Darkbane comes face to face with a certain attacker again?

The three changeling soldiers have returned from their missions with differing degrees of success, coming away with promotions. Even though only one out of three races, the Griffons, have accepted Chalmers' invitation to a meeting he appears to be happy with the result.

Just what is he planning to do, and how effective will it be?

In addition, the Empire is about to recieve some unexpected visitors, ones who are great in number and will be likely to react to the discovery of the Empire with unpredictable results.

Oh, and Orthodox lost a sack. That happened.

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