• Published 15th Jul 2014
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Manehattan Madness - Ardashir



It's the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show! And for the first time ever Carousel Boutique wlll be there. Rarity and her models: Applejack and Fluttershy and a Changeling Queen searching for lost changelings -- who do NOT want to be found

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The Fourth Day: Once Again, the Horseapples Hit the Fan

Chapter 8
The Fourth Day:
Once Again, the Horseapples Hit the Fan

“Hurry, girls, hurry!”

Fluttershy hurried along with Applejack and Yellow Jacket, following Rarity as they hurried into their dressing room. Down the corridor leading to the staging area and runway she could hear the applause and murmured awe at whatever Finest Silk and her models were showing everypony. It was a low rumble like a hungry beast. Fluttershy gulped at the sound of it and trembled. The dress she wore showed off every shiver.

“Fluttershy, dear,”” Rarity said as she stood beside her friend, “are you alright?” As the pegasus opened her mouth, the unicorn quickly added, “Good, then hold still, dear! I have to fix this seam.” She produced a pincushion, studded with needles. As she drew one and started working on Fluttershy’s sunflower-yellow dress, Rarity bent close and said, “And we need to get through this as swiftly as we can. To help Yellow Jacket with her, ah, her family,” her needle thrust in the direction of the transformed Changeling Queen; Fluttershy wondered if her belly looked like it honestly did bulge slightly as Rarity finished with a whisper of, “And to get back to Ponyville.”

“I know,” Fluttershy said, her voice shaky. She needed to be brave for her friends, but still, so many ponies out there, and all of them would be staring at her. And after what they’d learned last night?

“We have a Queen in Manehattan. Where there is a Queen, there is a Hive.”

“Then if she does know about you, we need to assume she can track you here.”

“If she’s confident of winning, she’ll ‘go for us’…”

“If there is another Chrysalis…” Vespid’s voice broke in a chitter-snarl of rage, “you ponies may be facing a new Invasion.”

Then the last-minute plans, Fluttershy dismayed to learn they would go through with the last day of the show before leaving for Canterlot afterwards to get Vespid back to safety and alert Celestia. The Changeling Queen refused to even consider sending her eggs back and remaining behind. Fluttershy remembered her near-shriek at Rarity’s suggestion she send the eggs back as cargo. Fancy Pants had sent a pegasus courier to get word to the Sun Palace, bearing an account of everything they’d learned and signed by them all, including Vespid.

But even at her fastest she needs time to get some Guards together, even if they fly the whole way. And they probably wouldn’t, because even with magical help they’d be exhausted when they arrived. And the Princess needs them in case there is a hostile swarm and it turns nasty. Oh, dear.

“Fluttershy!” The pegasus eeped as Rarity tugged on her mane, drawing a comb through it for a last minute styling. “Do pay attention, dear, we’ll be on in a few moments. And there’s been a change in schedule; you’ll be going first this time.”

“Me? First?” Fluttershy gulped as her imagination went to work on what Dressage Hall would look like on this, the very last day of the Manehattan Spring Fashion Show.

Dressage Hall would be filled with ponies standing withers to withers, and half of them would have cameras. Lights flashing across the equine sea like witch-lanterns in swamps and bogs, luring ponies to their doom. The other half would be watching, staring as she posed before them. All of those eyes, looking and judging and condemning…

I can’t, I can’t, Rarity I’m so sorry but I can’t, there’s too many, and with everything that’s happened…

“Rarity! Please!” Fluttershy took a deep breath to say what she needed to say, she’d have to get it out in one rush, but Rarity, her friend Rarity, just shoved her towards the door.

“Fluttershy, this is not the time to be stubborn!” Fluttershy tried to speak, but Rarity’s horn glowed and she felt her mouth shut with an audible click. She saw Fleur and Applejack give Rarity hard looks. Even Yellow Jacket – who Fluttershy knew didn’t like her very much – looked a little disgusted as the unicorn said, “No time! Get going!”

“B-but, Rarity, I just can’t –”

The door slammed shut behind her.

What else could go wrong?

“FLOOTERSHY!”

“EEEK!”

# # #

“Vun side, peasants, commoners!” The ponies by the doors of Dressage Hall hurried to the sides as the long stretch carriage pulled to a stop. The blue mare inside waited for Mando and Ziggy, her stallion roadies, to form an equine stepladder for her. A crimson carpet rolled over their backs from the open carriage door, and she then walked down to the sidewalk.

“I, PHOTO FINISH, HAVE ARRIVED!”

Beside her a sleek golden griffin, fur and feathers still slightly mussed from what little sleep she’d gotten, disdained the stallions to flap down beside her. She was dressed in an outfit that resembled the classic royal attire of the griffin aeries of old, golden and crimson done in an almost barbaric fashion. She accidentally nudged Photo as they passed inside; the blue mare turned and glared at her.

“Sky Talon! What were you thinking, coming looking like that? Never mind!” Photo Finish snapped orders at her entourage. “Dumb-heads! Where are you?” Her usual crowd of attendants raced to her side, hooves clattering across the floorboards, and began primping and preening Sky Talon as Photo first gave orders to her own photographers and then said, “Ve have one last chance to make me, I mean mein House look good! All depends on you!” She leaned in close and added in a menacing tone, “So don’t make a mess of this, ja?”

“Of course not, milady,” Audra said, currently in Sky Talon’s form and calling on all her acting skill to maintain control. She wondered if she’d ever felt such self-obsession coming from a pony as she did whenever she was in Photo’s presence. That plus her real feelings for Sky Talon – old, washed up, useless to me now, get rid of her and find my next “deescovery” – left her filled with cold scorn. That and that awful Old Lippizaner accent. I did a better one my first time onstage! Bowing her head to the angry blue mare and making sure her talons stayed on the floor and out of Photo’s throat, she said, “Why, I simply live to ensure the reputation and glory of your House.” As you live to use everyling around you to recapture your glory days. Miserable nag!

She smiled gently as she imagined flying high above Manehattan with “I, Photo Finish” and letting her make one last big splash, right on the roof of Dressage Hall. Last night had been one of the most hectic in her life, even discounting that arrogant she-griffin and her fool demands. Getting dragged to what seemed like every currently “hot” club in Manehattan, Photo showing her off to everypony there like a filly with her new toy, and then rushing out the door to the next “Thing at the Place” as though there was some sort of a race on. Audra wondered what kept Sky Talon from trying out her talons on Photo long ago.

Should’ve killed Talon, not just stuffed her into that Hive adit. But she said ponies were waiting for her, would look for her if she disappeared, and she was right. And… She sniffed in amusement. I suppose I’ve been hanging around ponies for too long. I, I just can’t kill someling that easily. Except under Discord’s Curse.

Can I? She scowled at a new thought. And what about her after all this is done? She might talk…. She remembered the old griffin saying, from the Old Times when every aerie-lord styled himself “Great King” and set his retainers’ beaks and talons against all others: “Gold silences for a time; a torn-out throat silences forever.”

“Sky Talon! No need to look so intimidating!” Audra tried to pull back as Photo waved a hoof under her beak. “Zis is modeling, not some cheap theater!” She sniffed. “Like zat silly show for foals they are giving at the Hippodrome. Bad writing and worse acting. Actors!” She sniffed as though she’d stepped in manure.

“I agree completely,” Audra said in Sky Talon’s voice.

Definitely kill you later.

She looked along herself and winced; they were in the dressing room now, the mares of Photo’s entourage working on her. She didn’t remember being this heavily painted and primped and preened for stage roles. “Well, if we’re ready?”

Photo frowned but nodded. Mercifully remaining silent for once, she led Audra out the door and into the parade of models trudging to the line-up. Many of them glared at her before turning away. Audra felt their sour jealousy through her empathy, a not unfamiliar taste, and the exhaustion as well. Given that some of them were grabbing breakfast from feedbags over their muzzles, she guessed they’d gotten the same treatment as she did last night.

As she passed them, taking in their emotions, Audra stiffened and let out a low hiss of griffin anger. Photo shot her a look of warning.

“Just a twinge,” Audra responded, brushing past her “patron” as the attendants preened her wingfeathers and arranged her dress. “I’m fine.” She felt Photo’s curiosity, half drowned as it was under her usual self-absorption. Photo passed it off with a snort and hurried to get in front of her again.

Audra ignored her. She didn’t dare look but she did reach out with her empathic senses, wishing she had better smell in griffin form. She fought down a nervous growl as she caught something like that reek from last night, that Changeling Queen’s challenge that led to her knocking Sky Talon out and yanking some of her memories from her mind to better portray her, even if only briefly.

Be glad Queen-mother taught me that much before I left the Hive. There was a Changeling Queen around, and she must be after her. But why here? How could she possibly know she’d be here? Or did the Changeling Queen send Sky Talon to me in the first place in the hopes that…?

She took a deep breath. No, she, whoever she was, couldn’t know everything.

Could she?

“Now vat is wrong?” Photo stopped trotting, gave her a glare. Next to them was a door with some House symbol painted on it, a long elegant purple mane curl and two long-lashed eyes that seemed very familiar.

“Just nervous,” Audra snapped back. She smiled to think back on the plan she’d come up with. Go out there, do something totally revolting and obnoxious, so much so that Blue here fired her on the spot, and then get out. No one would care to see her again after that, she’d be like that pegasus model over a year ago...

Speaking of her! Audra stared in sudden surprise to see the door of that small House open and that very pegasus step out, dressed like a Princess at her coronation in gold and violet with sun and moon motifs – fitting for the last day’s theme of “Princess Promenade”. Behind her, two unicorns including THE Fleur De Lis prepared a palomino earth pony dressed like some rural apple or salt baroness from the deserts of the Far West. And behind them…

Photo snorted in sudden fury.

“First, Rarity?” The pegasus said back into the room, and something about it made Audra stiffen in sudden anger as the yellow and pink model said, “O-okay, if you want. But I really wish –“

“FLOOTERSHY!”

“EEEK!”

# # #

“EEEK!” The only thing stopping Fluttershy from sailing into the air in full retreat mode was the grip of Rarity’s magic on her. But nothing could stop her from wheeling around to find herself yellow to blue muzzle with Photo Finish and her herd. Including that she-griffin Sky Talon. The white-maned lead mare’s ears lowered and she snorted.

“So! You haff dared to return to the scene of yesterday’s disgrace! I, Photo Finish, am surprised you simply did not slink away into the dark as you did when you worked for me!” Fluttershy looked back for her friends, only to see a closed door marked with Rarity’s sigil. She backed up against it as Photo pressed closer, fury in her voice. Sky Talon stood back with the rest of Photo’s herd; was there something different about the way the she-griffin stood and moved?

The door opened behind her, and Applejack came out.

“Hay, ‘Shy – I mean, Fluttershy dear,” Applejack said, flipping into Manehattanese in mid-sentence, “Rarity and Fleur are still working on Yellow Jacket, and she’ll be joining – hay! I remember you, ya nag!” Applejack dropped her Orangejack accent and snorted right into Photo’s face. “Yer the one that drove poor ‘Shy half nuts the other day!”

The other earth pony snorted back in contempt and kept speaking to Fluttershy. The pegasus tried to back away, but sandwiched between the door and Applejack behind her and Photo and Sky Talon before her, she had nowhere to go.

“Look at Photo Finish vhen she is speaking to you!” Fluttershy gulped and did so. “Flootershy, you are a disgrace to models everywhere! Vy you cannot act like mein recent greatest discovery, the unicorn Yellow Jacket,” she pointed at the door, “or what I have found Sky Talon can do when properly motivated – vat?” She looked back at Sky Talon and snorted. The she-griffin looked at the door as though ready to pounce on whatever came through it. Photo bopped her beak. “Sky! You are a supermodel, a star, so act like vun!” Sky Talon stared daggers at her as Photo turned back to Fluttershy.

“Now hold on here,” Applejack began, but Photo ignored her. Fluttershy wanted, needed, to get away so badly from all this anger.

“Vere is my discovery, my flawless discovery?” Photo stalked before the door of Carousel Boutique’s dressing room like a dragon pursuing horde thieves. Her entourage backed away, Fluttershy echoing their fear as Photo neighed in fury. “Vat has become of Yellow Jacket? Dumb-heads, tell me where she is or I start firing you!” She wheeled on Fluttershy. The pegasus recoiled as Photo snapped, “YOU! You have something to do with this, you and that pathetic herd of hayseeds! I know Sky Talon vent looking for you last night, I vas so informed,” one of her assistants tried in vain to look innocent as Photo began backing Fluttershy against Applejack, “and she acted better after she came back from that silly foal’s play!” Sky Talon looked at Photo in disbelief. Fluttershy stood there trapped, wings quivering half-open, vision blurring from tears and shivering as Photo ranted on with, “Now I see, it was all a trick put together by you and her to try and make me forget about the golden prize I haff seen, all so you could help her retain my favor and get back in yourself, you, you backstabber…!”

“AAAAAAAA!”

With an equine wail, Fluttershy wheeled and shot back into the dressing room shoving Applejack before her, leaving behind her the sound of the door slamming and a few drifting yellow feathers settling to the ground. Photo sniffed and turned away, only to stop with a stunned whinny as the door banged and another pony neighed in anger behind her.

“YOU!” Rarity snorted.

Photo gulped.

# # #

Asterion stood in a sea of ponies shorter than his waist, looking up at the runway. The ebon minotaur snorted as he thought about what he had to do, tossing his heavy horns. Some of the nearby ponies looked up at him, either confused or dismayed at his presence. One finely-dressed stallion sniffed and wrinkled his nose in disgust at the reek that surrounded him. Asterion caught it and scowled at him with his best “Tirek” look.

“What?” He stepped closer and stared down at the pony, who suddenly looked like he wanted to be someplace else. Preferably somewhere far away from the snorting minotaur. “I paid my way in, I got a right ta be here, mikros ippos.” The pony either didn’t notice or care about the 'little horse' insult; he just left. In a hurry.

Asterion ignored him to stare up at the runway. That was where she was gonna appear, and where he’d grab her and make her talk, right here in public. That griffin Sky Talon.

Who’d griffnapped or worse, murdered, his co-star and friend Audra.

He’d been on her trail since seeing the two she-griffins enter Audra’s dressing room at the Hippodrome last night, and only one – Sky Talon – leave. Confused, he’d searched her room and then the rest of the theater in rising fear and fury, not finding a trace of her anywhere. His worry only increased when he went to check her suite at the Royal, using the key she’d trusted him with. No sign of her even having been in that night. And from there he’d trailed Sky Talon and that loudmouth blue mare as best he could, from the Rainboom Room to that converted warehouse with the bouncers. All through the night, downing cider after cider to blend in with the partying herd.

And this morning he’d come here, to the show. As soon as she appeared he was going to jump up there, grab her, and demand the truth. He’d wondered if he ought to get in touch with the Manehattan constabulary, but decided against it. No true descendant of Minos ever let others handle a personal problem that a minotaur could handle himself. So he’d grab her and hold her for the cops. He might spend a night or two in jail but if it freed Audra it would be worth every second.

So he stood, and glared, and waited.

# # #

“YOU!” Rarity snorted at Photo Finish. “What did you do to Fluttershy?”

Photo looked around as though hoping for help, but nopony, even her entourage, seemed willing to interfere. Some of them looked downright hopeful they’d see some mayhem. You’re on your own…

“I asked you a question,” Rarity said, ears down. “What. Did. You. Do. To my model – I mean my friend?” Behind her Rarity felt the presence of Fleur and Applejack, heard Fluttershy crying and the palomino’s hooves stepping behind her as backup. Fleur directed a glare at both her and Photo. Rarity wondered, what did I do wrong? Hhe turned and disappeared back into their dressing room.

“I? I did nothing!” Photo drew herself up and said in a very offended tone, “I just vant to know vat you and that little backstabber haff done mit mein latest discovery Yellow Jacket.” Rarity let her go, feeling vaguely disgusted as Photo said, “My precious, my discovery, my model, as great as Sky Talon and one day to be greater – oh, there you are!”

Rarity looked at the griffin model, looking better than ever provided she ignored the slight drooping of her wings and the poached-eggs look in her eyes. Her dress was both regal and barbaric, looted gold and spilled blood, a griffin barbarian for the “Princess Promenade”. She glanced at Rarity coldly before bestowing a sour smile on Photo Finish.

Photo reacted with all her usual good humor and gratitude.

“Dumb-head, I ought to strangle you! Vat were you acting up for? And on the last day of the show, too!” She gestured and her herd of attendants hurried to the griffin’s side. Rarity thought Photo eyed Sky Talon like a half-finished dress that looked like it needed to be completely taken apart and reworked. “Dumb-heads, come here and get to work! Hide ze effects of last night – I mean, reveal her true beauty to the waiting herd! You, fix that thread, and you, some makeup!” As the mares hurried to their tasks, Sky Talon looked like she wanted to claw somepony. “I said some makeup, not so much! Vere did you learn your craft, as a circus clown?”

“Ladies,” A winter-cold voice said behind both Rarity and Photo. Both mares looked to see Prim Hemline standing there, nostrils flared and one hoof scraping the floor. Beside the lanky grey mare, an assistant held the day’s call sheet. “Are either of you ready as yet to go out? Because if not, then I am going to send one of the other Houses out.” The nearest house models and assistants, those of Hoity Toity, perked up their ears at the news.

“I’m sorry,” Rarity said, as she backed towards the door of her dressing room. “But I, I have to get my chief model back, I’m sure it won’t be a minute...!” Prim Hemline scowled and Photo looked amused as she turned to leave. Rearing and wheeling, the marshmallow unicorn disappeared back through the door, stopping when she ran into Applejack.

“Yeesh, Rares!” The palomino snorted and shook her head, disarraying her coiffure. Rarity gasped and reached out with her magic to restore the mane she’d spent an hour on. She stopped when Applejack reached up and bopped her on the horn. The blonde mane fell free of Rarity’s grip as its owner whispered, “Didn’t ya see how scared ‘Shy was? Poor mare’s scared half outta her wits, and…” She whinnied as Rarity picked her up with her magic.

“No time!” Rarity pushed past her, ignoring Applejack’s uselessly flailing legs as she pushed the mare into the corridor. “Fluttershy will just have to bear it, just for one day more! Like you, or me, or Yellow Jacket!” Applejack’s kicks brought dust trickling down from the ceiling over her coat. She snorted when she saw the half-hidden smiles and heard the whickering laughs from the other models and their assistants on their way to the lineup. “This is my chance at the big time, Applejack! Fluttershy promised to help! If it was Sweet Apple Acres, wouldn’t you hold another pony to their word?”

Without waiting for an answer the unicorn walked back into her dressing room. Inside she could hear sobs and two voices comforting the weeper. One recognizably Fleur’s, and the other?

Wait, Yellow Jacket? Rarity shook her head in surprise. A changeling can comfort a pony? But be fair, dear, she may be a love-eating shapeshifting insect-like horror, but she can still…

Rarity’s jaw dropped. Applejack dropped with a whinny and rose to stare as well.

Before them both they saw Fluttershy, her mane and makeup a mess, weeping into the embrace of another butter-yellow pony with a flowing pink mane and tail. Unlike Fluttershy, she lacked wings and bore a cutie mark of three flowers instead of three butterflies. Older than Fluttershy, she wore Yellow Jacket’s court dress and tiara, which looked rather the worse for wear right now. Rarity vaguely remembered Fluttershy’s tales about her earth pony Aunt Posey who’d given her a safe refuge on the ground beneath Cloudsdale when she needed it, away from other pegasi. Aunt Posey whose death had forced Fluttershy’s hoof to move away from Cloudsdale to a little earth pony town near the Everfree.

Face buried in the other yellow pony’s mane, Fluttershy whimpered. Rarity could pick out words between the sobs:

“She do what she do

To make you more than you

No pony’s gonna care if what we share is true!

Lies are beautiful! Truth is not!

Come on filly! Shake that plot!

You’re what they all came to see!

A Picture Perfect Pony!

Why you ruin everything with questions?

Shut your mouth! And don’t forget to mention

How happy you are that they all came to see you!

Don’t you understand? Everypony wants to BE you!”

Fleur walked up, a small cup of tea held in the glow of her magic. The pegasus continued to cry.

“Here, dear,” she said, offering it to Fluttershy. “Drink it, it’ll help calm you.” She glared at Rarity. “You need a friend right now.”

Rarity gasped in shock, and snorted in anger. How DARE Fleur and Yellow Jacket think that she would mistreat her friend, her fellow Element Bearer, her best model…

My model. My “deescovery.” My precioussss….

Rarity stopped, her eyes going wide. She looked at her reflection in the mirror against the wall, the gray dust streaking her mane and coat, the bloodshot eyes, reminding her all too well of something she wanted to forget.

Discord. The garden maze. That stupid boulder and me turning on my friends like…

Oh. No.

“Fluttershy?” Rarity approached her friend. Fluttershy had exchanged weeping for gasping, but kept her head pressed against the yellow mare, a scared filly hiding behind her dam.

“Fluttershy, Applejack, Fleur,” Rarity looked at the palomino, who rubbed her flank and gave her an annoyed look, and then Fleur and the mare holding Fluttershy. Yellow Jacket looked back at her coldly. “Yellow Jacket, Queen Vespid, please, please allow me to apologize to you all. I’ve behaved terribly over the past few days…”

“You have.”

“Aunt Posey” looked down at Fluttershy. She cuddled the pegasus neck-to-neck, nibbling at her now-ragged mane. At Applejack’s look, she said, in a voice much like Fluttershy’s, “This form is the oldest one she trusts and loves that I could see in her mind. It seemed right to take it under the circumstances.” She looked at Rarity and added, “I am surprised she feels more dismay over failing you than anything else. But Chrysalis was right,” for once the name was no curse, “few beings love so deeply or well as the ponies of Equestria. Well, most of you.”

Rarity blushed at Yellow Jacket’s words but pressed on, stepping towards the butter-coated pair.

“And I want, no, make that need to tell you how sorry I am that I behaved so horribly.” She looked back over her shoulder at the door and the show beyond, wondered what it would have been like to return a winner. The coverage in Clothes Horse, the commissions and contracts. Maybe she still could?

She looked back at Fluttershy, who finally returned her gaze with her melting emerald eyes, her cheeks wet with tears. Rarity shook her head.

No. Not if this was what it did to her closest friend.

She stepped up to the pegasus, head down, mane dragging, her entire posture submissive and apologetic. “Fluttershy, dear, I… I’m sorry for what I did to you. This was wrong of me.” She looked down, ashamed. “Please forgive me. You’re my best friend and I don’t want you to hate me.”

She whinnied in sudden shock as Fluttershy embraced her, twining their necks.

“Oh, Rarity! I could never hate you, or anypony.” She motioned Applejack over and the palomino joined in the Pinkie-style group hug, laying her head against both of theirs as Fluttershy said, “It’s just – I can’t go back out there, I can’t, not with all those eyes looking at m-me and judging me…” She shivered, and Rarity hugged her close.

“You won’t have to, dear,” Rarity turned away with a small sigh. “I’ll simply tell Prim Hemline that you’re ill from overwork and can’t go on. Though, er, I do hope that my other two models might oblige?” She directed a pleading look at Applejack and “Aunt Posey”. The former rolled her eyes, and the latter snorted. “But as soon as they’re done we’ll be leaving, we need to get out anyway…”

“But, but Rarity! The show, all your hard work!”

“Fluttershy, dear!” Rarity looked back at her. “None of it is worth it if I do you any more harm.”

“Wait,” Applejack said, turning to Fleur. She was working to fix Applejack’s mane, and snorted at her to hold still. Applejack obeyed with ill grace as she said, “Can’t Miss De Lis here go on in place o’ Shy? Like a substitute player?”

“Most certainly not!” The words burst out of both mares at once. They looked at each other with small smiles before Rarity said, “All of a House’s models have to be announced at the beginning of a show. Some models may step out or be removed, but you can’t bring new ones in. And Fleur isn’t a model any more anyway.” She looked at her crate filled with dresses and saddles and sighed. All that work, all for nothing. Outside, Prim Hemline’s amplified voice echoed through the backstage labyrinth, calling for Photo’s models to go out. The last House, besides hers. “Besides, I have nothing that would flatter her properly. No, I’ll just have to look to next year and…” She stopped as Yellow Jacket, still in her Posey form, walked up to her.

“Rarity,” she began, only to stop as the mare held up a hoof. Politely.

“Please, Yellow Jacket,” she said. “It feels odd to be speaking to somepony who resembles a friend so much, especially after how we met.” She shook herself. “Maybe you could turn back to Yellow Jacket?” “Aunt Posey” sniffed and vanished in a blast of golden flame. Fleur snorted and rolled her eyes nervously as the Changeling Queen reappeared in her true form from last night, all ebon chitin and jagged hacksaw horn and golden mane and tail. She looked around at them before she walked over to Fluttershy. The pegasus looked at her in confusion as Rarity wondered herself what Vespid intended. Vespid said just four words.

“Fluttershy. Look at me.”

Fluttershy did. Golden light played along Vespid’s horn, turned into golden flame that consumed her, and in her place appeared a second Fluttershy. She turned and spoke to Rarity in a voice that combined Fluttershy’s softness and Vespid’s tone of command.

“Get me into her dress.” As the mares stared at her in confusion, she said, “You have helped me, I think I owe you this. Besides, having met Photo Finish,” she snorted contempt, “I can honestly say that I do NOT want that mare to win over either Fluttershy or you!” She spread her wings out to make it easier to clothe her. “So hurry up! After this, we’ve got to get going.” A shiver passed along her body, quivered her barrel. “My future nymphlings are getting eager, it seems.”

“Yes, yes! Thank you, Your Majesty.” Rarity said as she took up the dress and began arraying it on 'Vespidshy’s' body. Fleur and Applejack both began to help her while Fluttershy sank down against some cushions to watch and began breathing more easily. Hope sprang anew in Rarity as she said, “And I swear, we’ll do whatever we can to find that Changeling Queen you sensed last night. Maybe it can all still end well?”

“’Less she’s a thousand leagues away by now,” Applejack muttered. “What?” she said to the other mares. “Ah can hope, can’t Ah?”

# # #

“Sky Talon” stood in the staging area lineup, waiting for her cue to go onstage – or on the runway. Dissatisfied with Vidalia’s and Powder Rouge’s work, the loudmothed mare had taken over the last-minute grooming herself.

Audra sighed as she debated what to do with Sky Talon. Clamp her mind and implant false memories like all her one-night “lovers”, or just silence her permanently and stick the body someplace nice and lonely like the old Hive? None of her stage-door stallions had ever recovered their real memories of those nights, but they were clamped and implanted on-the-spot; Sky Talon had been building a memory trace since last night….

“Sky Talon! Ach, what is the matter with you?” Audra clamped her beak on a hiss as Photo drew a wire brush through her coat hard enough to yank out some of the fur. “You are all schtrubbly!” the mare neighed through the brush handle in her mouth. “Haff you forgotten how to even groom yourself?” Sky Talon twitched away, or tried to. She stopped with a yelp as Photo smacked her flank with the brush. “Must you fuss so?”

And maybe, just to give Sky Talon a reason to vanish, she’d try her talons out on this pestilential mare first!

“There, good,” Photo snapped as the door opened. “Ve haff a show, and other Houses to be humiliated by my genius once again, and I…”

And then a royally-dressed butter-yellow pegasus mare with a flowing pink mane and tail came out into the staging area to lock gazes with Audra.

“Just this one last time out there,” the pegasus near-whispered to the marshmallow-white unicorn mare with her. “Then we get out of here, and I…” Her eyes went wide with shock before narrowing with rage.

The empathic feed hit Audra like a wildfire, igniting instincts she’d half-forgotten until yesterday, the fury of Discord’s Curse.

Ponies whinnied in panic as the griffin and pegasus hurled themselves at each other, their cries changing in mid-neigh to the sound of enraged hornets.

[YOU!] Vespid snarled into Audra’s face. [I KNOW YOU NOW! ASSASSIN! HIVE KILLER! YOU WON’T TAKE MINE!]
[INTRUDER!] Audra shrieked, “Sky Talon’s” eye color shifting from yellow to blazing red. [USURPER! YOU WON’T TAKE MY HIVE!]

Rarity gaped in horror. Photo Finish displayed far better survival instincts, galloping for her life through the curtain and onto the runway, leaving a trail of shrieks behind her. Most of the other models and backstage attendants followed her, ears down and necks outstretched in full pony panic mode while the not-pony and not-griffin behind them shrieked at each other.

Snarling like roaring saws, magic flaring, not even bothering to shapeshift, the two Changelings hurled themselves at each other.

# # #

Outside the backstage entrance, Fancy Pants picked himself up from where he’d been knocked to the floor by half a dozen shrieking mares at full gallop. He’d avoided being trampled by the neighing stampede; his fallen monocle hadn’t been so fortunate.

Above him another well-dressed stampede led by a screaming Photo Finish flung itself off the end of the runway into the audience; Prim Hemline stood frozen behind her lectern with its magically-amplified megaphone, eyes wide and mouth open.

“Lord Fancy, sir!” He looked up to see Asta in coronet-blazoned livery; he’d had the Diamond Dog standing by with carriage and drayage van to get Yellow Jacket and the rest to Grand Central as swiftly as possible. Since he’d spotted that huge minotaur in the audience tossing his horns, he’d expected trouble.

“Sir, just what was that row all about?”

Before Fancy could answer, a pair of regally-dressed models crashed through the curtain onto the runway, wings spread. Fancy recognized Fluttershy – at least he thought he did. Her eyes blazed the wrong color – magic-surge yellow, not green – at the other one, a griffin barbarian queen he’d seen in Photo’s entourage. They were both screaming at each other – not in Equestrian, but with the sound of giant hornets’ nests.

The yellow pegasus exploded in golden fire, becoming the berserk Queen Vespid from the night before. A second later the griffin did the same, vanishing into crimson flame to reappear as an ebon and crimson Changeling Queen, a duplicate in all but coloration to the gold-on-black Vespid.

No, not a Queen, Fancy realized, the crimson-maned one doesn’t have that “crown” Yellow Jacket does. What did she say last night, something about “Changeling Princesses,” immature Queens? He snorted in shock. If the Crimson Princess was here to fight, or Yellow Jacket just thought she was, and they battled it out here?

“Wait!” He yelled at the top of his lungs, “Yellow Jacket! She’s not a queen, she’s a princess, and…”

Still in their finery, the two snarling Changeling Queens went at each other with shrieks of rage, fangs snapping, filling the air with crimson and golden thunder as attack spells went off, rearing and lashing with perforated forehooves.

Prim Hemline was first to react, taking a flying leap off the stage as her lectern exploded into kindling. The wide-eyed herd packing Dressage Hall backed away from the spectacle on the runway – all but the big minotaur who bellowed and pushed forward.

Fancy looked at the herd rearing and neighing, and hoped that somehow they’d filled Dressage Hall with the one herd of ponies in Equestria that had managed to miss every single movie, play, newspaper editorial, tabloid, bit novel, and pulp story about Monstrous Evil Changeling Invasions published since the Royal Wedding, and that nopony panicked and started the stampede.

They hadn’t.

With one single massive whinny of terror torn from a hundred throats, the herd wheeled to flee. Hundreds of ponies galloped for exit doors meant to handle a smaller number, shedding hats and accessories as they ran. Pegasi took wing and made for the upper-level windows, the ones in the lead smashing through the glass as they escaped; banners fell from the ceiling onto the floor-level stampede in their wake, the one with Rarity’s sigil tangling up the minotaur fighting against the current towards the stage. His bovine bellows sounded over the rest of the Discordian racket.

“I strongly suspect that is what the row was all about, Asta,” Fancy said, feeling some surprise at how steady his voice was. “I think my wife and her friends are going to be needing some help. I’ll handle that. You get those doors open and oh yes, do be a fellow and call the Constabulary.” He ran for the back, dodging as a spell blast struck nearby, leaving a smoking hole in the floor.

“I think they may be needed!”

# # #

“Girls!” Rarity charged back into the dressing room like Nightmare Moon, Discord, and Chrysalis were all on her tail. And gaining, from the inequine howls and roars echoing through the backstage labyrinth behind her.

Applejack and Fleur stood before Fluttershy, who looked as ready to run as Rarity did right then. The thunderous BOOM of a magic blast punctuated the echoing racket.

“Dangit, Rarity!” Applejack said as she tried pressing past her to get a look. “What the hay is goin’ on out there? Sounds like a bunch o’ dragons fighting!”

“Vespid,” Rarity gasped out, her mane and tail frazzled, her flanks heaving. “She found – the other – Changeling Queen! Backstage! In the big – staging area!” Their eyes widened in realization as she gasped, “They went berserk! They’re fighting – out in the Hall! Ponies are stampeding! We have to stop them!”

“You do that,” Fancy Pants said as he came into the room, looking the worse for wear. Fleur gasped and went to him, and they exchanged a brief nuzzle before he said, “I rather imagine, Miss Rarity, that you and your friends have the experience with battling monsters. Fleur and I will be opening those doors before any more ponies are injured. With your permission, Your Ladyship?”

“What? I, yes!” Rarity blinked. Her title was no longer some fancy toy to show off. It meant she had a duty to fulfill, and she drew herself up. “Fancy, you and Fleur help clear the Hall. Applejack, you help me stop Vespid and the other Changeling Queen before they level the place!” As though in emphasis, another explosion came from outside, along with a shriek of Changeling pain and the sound of a chandelier smashing against the floor.

Applejack said nothing, she just hurried past Rarity. Fancy and Fleur galloped out and headed for the side doors that lead into the outer hall. Rarity turned to follow Applejack, but stopped at a sound behind her.

“Rarity! Stop! I mean if you don’t mind.” Fluttershy fluttered up beside her, airborne for once. She shivered as another howl came from outside, but still said, “What about me? I can’t hide back here if you’re all out there!”

Rarity almost told her to stay before she saw the determination in her eyes. Fear too, yes, but more than that.

“Dear, if you want to help, fine, but I’m not sure what you can do against these two!” She raced out after Applejack, and felt no surprise to hear her friend’s wings beating the air as she followed.

# # #

Outside in the main hall, the battle raged. Vespid snarled and tried backing away to catch her breath, desperate to protect the eggs within her. Beneath the pheromone-driven fury that consumed her, a small rational part of her mind warned her to keep her distance and cast magic. Unfortunately it lay buried beneath Discord’s Curse, telling her to charge in on the rival to her throne and Hive and start tearing with fang and hoof.

She only dimly heard the ponies’ panic-stricken whinnies and neighs as they fled. Behind her the remnants of the chandelier that this assassin ripped down from the ceiling with her wild magic blast rested against the floor, where it’d barely missed her. Ichor trickled down her sides, from withers and chest and the best of her neck from the wounds she’d already taken. Wings buzzing, Vespid tried circling her enemy, hoping to charge in at an unexpected angle. But that crimson-and-ebon rival must have guessed her plan. She flew at Vespid, her own horn aglow and forelimbs shapeshifted into griffin’s talons.

Vespid waited until she got close, and then shot upwards to use her horn like a lance, thrusting down at the body past those talons. Audra folded her legs in and tried to drop and shoot past. Vespid lashed out with her hind legs and connected. Audra shrieked and bounced off the floor, knocked down by the kick. Vespid dropped, ready to rend with her fangs. They snapped on thin air as Audra scrambled out of reach, her claws scratching slivers out of the wood as she ran.

Once past it Audra rose into the air again, her eyes blazing with even more fury now. She jeered at Vespid. Vespid snarled. It’d been centuries since she’d fought the last Queen trying to take her Hive, on a Nightmare Night the ponies had kept records of, and she’d almost never fought since. She’d never thought she would need to. She wondered if she would die here cursing her overconfidence.

Audra’s horn flared and shards of glass from the fallen chandelier lashed Vespid’s sides. One especially large piece collided with the side of her head. Queen Vespid shrieked at the unexpected pain and dropped. She choked down the nausea she felt, fought to rise and defend herself, as the other Changeling dropped beside her.

[SO THIS IS WHAT I FEARED?] Audra’s chitter mixed with a griffin’s hiss as crimson lightning gathered along her zigzag horn, [CELESTIA’S PET QUEEN?] The crimson princess spat at her; the part of Vespid along for the ride thought it all rather theatrical.

[NO!]

Something yanked Audra away from her – a gigantic black minotaur, snatching her up in a bone-breaking grip.

“WHERE’S AUDRA! WHAT DID YOU DO TO HER?”

# # #

Audra couldn’t believe this. She just couldn’t. She’d been on the verge of ending all her fears of discovery, maybe forever.

And that lummox Asterion comes out of nowhere, grabs her by the neck in a wrestling move he’d never showed griffin-her, only told her about due to the danger of its being accidentally fatal, and roars at her.

“WHERE IS SHE, MONSTER?”

[IDIOT!] She fought the fury of Discord’s Curse enough to shriek at him. [I AM AUDRA! LET ME GO! I HAVE TO KILL THE INTRUDER!] She would have said more, but his wrestler’s grip squeezed even harder; she felt and heard her chitin crack, gagged on the ichor filling her throat.

He is actually trying to kill me!

“EITHER YOU TELL ME WHERE SHE IS,” Asterion bellowed, somehow squeezing even harder, “OR I’M GONNA TWIST YOUR HEAD OFF, YA LOVE-SUCKING BUG!”

Anger roared from him like a thunderstorm. Past him, Audra could see that hated yellow bug staggering back up on her hooves, and worse, other ponies galloping out from backstage radiating emotion. That fashionista from two nights ago with a palomino mare, Lord Fancy Pants with a pink-white unicorn mare from the Canterlot papers – and that pink-maned yellow pegasus from the theater loft last night? The last felt like she was torn between running for her life and a steely determination to help her friends no matter what. They loved each other, even loved Vespid as a friend, almost like how Asterion loved griffin-her…

Why did he ever have to see me like this?

So she instinctively snatched all the energy built up in her horn, forced it into a blasting spell, and hit Asterion with it at full force, breaking his grip.


He flew away from her like a great roaring hairy comet, right at the far wall.

And as he did, a blue-coated somepony rose and got into the way.

# # #

Photo Finish was not having a good week.

First that Fluttershy showed up and had everypony in the audience eating out of her hoof with that phony oh-I’m-so-shy routine without even trying. What did that mare have against her, anyway?

Then that new House she was with, that pathetic little outfit from Ponyville, was doing better than hers, an unforgiveable insult as well as a threat.

And just to top it all off, the new model she’d discovered AND that ungrateful and stubborn Sky Talon, both turned out to be Changeling Queens! And they started to tear apart Dressage Hall!

Now “I, Photo Finish,” huddled behind some of the seats as a battle straight out of Changeling Invasions! raged and roared only lengths away. Two rows down and four lengths across, a news or magazine photographer popped up and down behind the seatbacks, snapping pictures as fast as he could work his camera harness.

And the bugfight sounds were getting louder, perhaps it was time to stop hiding and leave instead?

“Universe,” she moaned as she rose to her hooves, “Photo is such a good pony. What did Photo ever do to deserve this? Does not Photo deserve a break for once?”

Photo got her answer as a flying Asterion crashed into her. He bellowed, Photo shrieked, and both pony and minotaur were embedded in the wall.

# # #

“Queen Vespid!” Fluttershy gasped as she reached the fallen Changeling Queen beside her friends. In the distance, a minotaur slid down the far wall while Fancy and Fleur raced from door to door lifting and shoving ponies through over the crush.

“Fluttershy?” A raspy voice said nearby. “You have to get away from here… Battle’s no place for some soft little pony like you…”

“I can’t,” Fluttershy said as looked down to see Vespid eying her and looking dazed. Red-tinged ichor trickled from several injuries, but none of them looked serious to Fluttershy’s trained eye. Vespid just turned to keep her swollen barrel away from the other Changeling. Fluttershy caught her shocked stare as she stood to shield Vespid from her attacker. “I won’t abandon my friends!”

“RUN!” Vespid snarled like a beehive speaking Equestrian. The crimson Changeling shook herself and growled like a timber wolf before turning to sneer at Fluttershy and Vespid. She began to stalk forward, moving like a hunting griffin. A hunting griffin that seemed familiar.

Fluttershy swallowed but held her ground, wings flaring. She opened her eyes and let the Stare blaze forth, just as it had to Vespid the night before.

The Crimson Queen jerked up short with a griffin’s hiss. Fluttershy gulped to find herself looking into those blood-red eyes, eyes that seemed familiar somehow. And the stance and pose…

“Better hurry, little pony. The predators have business to discuss…”

And Fluttershy suddenly understood Pinkie Pie’s “Pinkie Sense”. Awareness hit with such a shock that she dropped the Stare and stepped back.

The Changeling’s wings blurred as she got ready to attack, but she hesitated at the pony’s words.

“You’re that griff from last night…” Fluttershy’s voice carried only to the ears of the two Changelings before and behind her. “The other griff in the theater loft… You’re Audra von Adler!”

For a moment the two stood there like statues in the Sun Palace’s garden, then the Crimson Queen leaped at her and Vespid.

Only to stop with a shocked yelp as the glow of Rarity’s magic snatched at her tail and brought her up short. Applejack gave a whoop and leaped on Audra’s back, holding on for dear life as the Changeling snarled and plunged, dragging both Earth pony and unicorn along for the ride.

“My mane!” Rarity shrieked.

“Just hang on, Rares!” Applejack yelled back. She gripped the crimson Changeling by her mane, pinning her wings. “YEE-HAW! It’s better ’n a rodeo!”

[GET OFF ME, YOU FOOLS!] The crimson queen buzzed. [I JUST WANT TO KILL HER, NOT YOU! YET!] She began to buck like a bronco, leaping into the air on four stiff legs, her head down and snorting. The sound of terrified ponies faded as the last escaped the Hall; Fancy Pants and Fleur ran for the stage from two different directions; Fluttershy watched as Applejack just kept hold with an almost contemptuous ease.

“Ma little sis fights harder ‘n you do, lady!” Applejack jerked her muzzle back as the crimson Queen snapped at her with those wolfish fangs. Those jaws came together with an audible chopping noise, tearing away half of the dress she still had on. Rarity gasped in horror. Applejack yelled, “Rares, if ya got any special tricks, better use ‘em now!”

“Clear the road, darling!”

Two chairs levitated up from the audience in a purple glow, smashed against the Changeling’s neck and croup, cracking chitin.

“LET HER HAVE IT, RARES!” the palomino neighed from her bucking perch.

Then a third chair knocked Applejack off the Crimson Queen’s withers.

“AAAAAAA!”

Audra laugh-snarled in triumph just in time for the chandelier above her to come crashing down, hammering her into the floor. She vanished under the wreckage with a cut-off yelp.

Silence filled the hall, aside from the panting of tired ponies and Vespid’s pained breathing. Applejack staggered to her feet; the Changeling Queen swayed on perforated hooves. Another banner – this one with Photo Finish’s sigil – fluttered from ceiling to runway as dust settled and a slow trail of ichor trickled out from under the pile of splintered lumber and shattered chandelier.

Slowly, the three ponies and one Changeling Queen approached the pile.

“Oh, my,” Fluttershy said, finding herself unable to say much of anything else. She looked at her friend, whose panting slowly stopped as she began trying in vain to repair the damage done to her mane. “Rarity, I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Neither did Ah,” Applejack said, shaking her head in amazement. She tore the remains of her ruined dress from herself.

“Sorry ‘bout the dress.”

“I suppose it was seeing my hard work be ruined by that savage that did it,” Rarity said, shaking her head sadly. “Oh, and the threats to all of you, of course. I’m so sorry for everything that happened this weekend. I hope you two can forgive me.” Vespid coughed, not entirely intentionally. “Oh, and you as well, Your Majesty. Oh dear, I trust you’re not too badly injured?”

They watched as Vespid checked herself, craning her neck to look at her abdomen and legs, checking out the seeping cracks in her carapace, buzzing her wings.

“I will live,” she said, and as she did golden fire surrounded her to let her reappear as a not-quite-pristine Yellow Jacket. She sighed. “I do desire to return to my Hive, though. And this one?” She contemptuously kicked the pile of wood. “Is she dead?”

“I hope not, the poor frightened thing,” Fluttershy said. Her friends looked at her in confusion as she added, “She must have smelled Vespid at the Hippodrome last night. Remember how she reacted?” She pointed at Yellow Jacket, who managed a blush. “That’s why she replaced Sky Talon and came here in her form, to try and stop Vespid and get away later.”

Applejack scraped the pile with a forehoof. “This ain’t Sky Talon?”

“No,” Yellow Jacket said. “If she were, I would have scented her before this. We would have fought that first day in the lineup.”

“Huh,” Applejack said. Then, looking at Yellow Jacket, she said, “Hey, why aren’t ya going wild anymore? “Cause this here other Changeling Queen’s knocked out?”

“No,” the golden “unicorn” shook her head. “The rage spent itself in the fighting. And she’s not a Changeling Queen, but a Princess.” She looked around at the three ponies – five now that Fancy and Fleur approached what remained of the runway. “She bears no ‘crown’ in her true form. She can’t command Changelings, or assemble a Hive.”

“Well,” Rarity said with a sigh of relief. “At least we don’t have to worry about another Changeling Invasion.”

“If she ain’t Sky Talon, then where the hay’d she come from?”

“I think we saw her last night at the theater,” Fluttershy’s soft voice answered. “On the stage.” The pegasus raised one hoof at the pile. “That’s Audra von Adler.”

Unicorn and palomino gaped; Yellow Jacket just frowned and looked down.

“She came here to kill me?”

“No,” a pain-filled voice hissed from the wreckage pile. “I came here to make sure I could stay hidden. In Secrecy lies Safety...”

The ponies took a step back as the pile shifted and a perforated black hoof groped out, followed by a cracked and dripping Changeling Queen horn and attached head – a crimson-maned head without a crown, one red dragon eye swollen half-shut like Blueblood’s on the Day of Three Rarities. “I had a life… as Audra... twenty years Topside… the Second Filea… nopony ever suspected… then YOU –” Her chitinous lip curled back over her fangs as she glared at Yellow Jacket – “had to bring Discord’s Curse.”

Fluttershy stepped forward to examine her injuries; the crimson Changeling kept rambling to the two yellow mares before her. “You made me change in front of that fool griffin... I had to cover my trail… make sure she couldn’t talk…”

“You killed her.” Yellow Jacket said with a cold frown. Audra laughed, a weak ki-ki-ki-ki-ki.

“No, just knocked her out… took some of her memories….” she said to the stunned ponies. “Enough to be able to replace her… for a day or so... long enough to lay a trail so nopony could follow her back to me….” She shrugged, ichor dripping from cracks in her chitin. “I stashed her in the old basements… under the Hippodrome... I guess she’s still there, all tied up… unless she’s had a heart attack by now....” She gave a fanged grin. “Heh, for a big tough griffin she blubbered like a hatchling when I clamped her out…” She sank back with a hiss and lay still.

“Oh my goodness!” Fluttershy turned to Yellow Jacket. “She must still be there. The poor griffin! Yellow Jacket, you wandered around backstage the other night, can you find that basement?”

“I suppose so,” the golden “unicorn” said, curiosity filling her voice. She cocked her head at Fluttershy. “I’d have to transform into my true form to trail down the emotional resonance, though. But why?”

“Don’t you understand? Sky Talon is still down there, alone in the dark! We can’t leave her there!” She turned and began fluttering towards the doors, only to stop and shy back at a yell from above.

“HALT! Where do you think you’re going?”

The beat of pegasus wings and sound of clattering hooves made both ponies and Changeling look up. Ponies in the barding of Manehattan’s Finest poured into the Hall, unicorns and earth ponies through exit doors, pegasi through broken-out windows, filling the hall with badges and blue barding. Two pegasi dove on Fluttershy, seizing her in mid-air and bearing her down; a dozen more fanned out to check the hall from above, diving whenever they spotted a pony.

A half dozen surrounded Fancy and Fleur; another dozen trotted towards the broken runway, an even mix of massive earth ponies and unicorns with horns glowing and ready. One earth pony sported an officer’s helmet-crest; two of the unicorns held aloft familiar-looking brass lanterns, shining their eldritch green glow over everyypony within range. Yellow Jacket gulped at the sight.

Most of the constables leaped onto the stage; the unicorns without lanterns stayed behind, covering them with lowered horns. The crested officer caught sight of the motionless Audra; his eyes went wide and he neighed “CHANGELING!” The unicorns with the lanterns thrust them forward, while the others readied horns and weapons; two bore what looked like a steel mesh net.

“Officers,” Rarity took a step forward with the most winning smile she possessed. “Before any problems start let me assure you that…”

The lanterns’ light played over her and her friends, revealing three ponies and one battered and irate-looking Queen Vespid.

“IT’S ANOTHER ONE!”

Vespid snarled as sabatons crashed steel-on-wood and snorting unicorns lowered their heads, horns pointing at the Changeling Queen like glowing lances.

“No! No! No!” Rarity neighed, hurrying between Vespid and the approaching constables. “This is Queen Vespid! From Canterlot!”

The Manehattan cops snorted. She thought fast.

“You know – Princess Celestia’s Tame Changeling Queen?”

Vespid shot her a dirty look as the white unicorn continued, talking fast. “She’s here undercover on behalf of the Princess –“ Rarity stopped as the crested officer stepped forward, ears back and nostrils flared.

“And who are you, exactly?” His head down and eyes shaded by his blue helmet, he reminded her all too well of “Tirek’s” guards from the night before.

“Rarity Belle of Ponyville, Countess Lipizzan by order of Princess Celestia.” She forced a smile. “Bearer of an Element of Harmony?”

The officer snorted; two of the crestless ponies moved to back him up while most of the others secured Audra.

“We were in all the papers!” Rarity all but shrieked, pointing at her friends with a marshmallow forehoof; Applejack returned the cops’ surly looks while Fluttershy half-hid behind her mane in the grip of the two pegasus cops. “This is Applejack, Countess Appleoosa, and Fluttershy, Countess Caspian. They’re fellow Elements of Harmony! The Day of Discord! The Royal Wedding! They made movies about us!”

“Hay, I think I know her,” one of the blue-barded earth ponies said. Rarity smiled....

“Wasn’t she a serial killer in that horror thriller?”

Rarity’s right eye started twitching.

“Least he didn’t say ya were a wolf,” Applejack whispered to her.

Before Rarity could do anything stupid, Fancy and Fleur approached the runway, along with two Constabulary ponies with captain’s helmet crests. Across the hall, unicorn medics levitated a smashed-up Asterion onto a stretcher, detached a much smaller Photo Finish from the wall. More medics leaped onto the runway, headed for the wreckage pile where a unicorn clamped an anti-magic shackle on the Changeling’s horn while others shifted what was left of the chandelier.

“Ahem! Ensign! If you would, please?” The officer on the runway looked back at Fancy.

“I assume you know who I am?”

Rarity wondered if they would. Both Fancy and Fleur looked like they’d run a steeplechase and wiped out at every jump; the fashionista almost shuddered at all the sweat-stains and rips in their finery. Still, Fancy had one of their Captains with him…

“Yes, Lord Fancy, we do.” His eyes still darted between the Changeling Queen and his Captain.“We wuz told of a Changeling Attack, two Queens tearin’ up the Hall –“

“There were,” Fancy continued. “This one,” he pointed to Audra, “Is some sort of rogue queen, guilty of assault at the least. The other,” he indicated Vespid, who buzzed her wings, “is under the protection and bears the trust of the Sun Princess,” his voice went stern. “And is as worthy of respect.”

One Captain beside him nodded; the two pegasi released Fluttershy, who turned and made for the Bridleway exits. The cops on the runway turned to secure Audra.

“Come on!” Fluttershy yelled to the others as loud as she could. Which wasn’t all that loud. “If you won’t help me, then I’ll go alone!”

“Oh, buzz you, you wretchedly altruistic overgrown filly!” Hooves clopped across the debris-strewn floor as Yellow Jacket leaped from the runway and hurried after her, followed by the others.

“Wait for me!”

As they cleared the door, a voice bellowed at them from a stretcher being levitated out the next door, the smashed-up minotaur on it thrashing around at the sight of the six going past.

“MOOOOOOOO!”

A black-haired hand reached out for Applejack, caught her by the tail.

“AAAAAAAAA!”

The others stopped short; Asterion pulled the palomino to him as pony cops and medics tried to hold him down.

“Blondie…”

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