• Published 24th Dec 2014
  • 2,081 Views, 109 Comments

Hearth Swarming Eve - horizon

When a changeling army arrives amid preparations for the Hearth's Warming pageant, it's up to Rarity to match wits with Queen Chrysalis and save the holiday.

  • ...

The Play's The Thing

"This is our three tribes' fault," Applejack said listlessly. "Now the blizzard's destroyin' this land."

Twilight leapt from her chair and flung her forehooves wide. "Cut!"

The rest of us groaned and slumped down from our frozen poses as Twilight exhaled through clenched teeth, her wings ruffling out. "Applejack, you know that's not how it goes! You skipped the whole middle part! 'We three tribes, we brought this blizzard to our home by fighting and not trusting each other.' Can you please focus?"

"Yeah, you're right," Applejack said, staring at the auditorium door. "Sorry."

"Do I have to remind you how important this pageant is?" Twilight started pacing in tight circles. I stifled a sigh as we braced ourselves for the lecture again. "Everything has to be perfect —"

"I know. I —"

"— since it's the first pageant I'm officially sponsoring as a princess —"

"We know, Twilight," Rainbow Dash muttered, glancing out the window herself.

"and every single line will reflect on me personally —"

Applejack's ears flattened. "I said I'm sorry —"

"— not to mention it's Hearth's Warming Eve, and the pageant is tomorrow —"

"Twilight!" I said sharply, moving up to Applejack's side and touching a supportive hoof to her withers.

The alicorn blinked and refocused. "What?"

"Com-port-ment," I said, tilting my head just so and raising an eyebrow worthy of Celestia herself.

Guilt flashed through Twilight's eyes, and her expression immediately softened. She brought a hoof to her chest, then exhaled, extending her leg. When she continued, her voice was soft and controlled. "I'm sorry, Applejack. You didn't deserve that. I think the stress has been getting to me."

"S'alright," AJ mumbled.

"I'm glad I have Rarity to help me keep acting like a princess," Twilight said, glancing straight into my eyes for a moment, "but even more than that, I need to remember to act like a friend. So … what's wrong? You've been distracted all night."

Applejack sighed and looked at the door again. "I got a different blizzard on my mind, Twi. I oughta be out with Big Mac coverin' the zap-apples. With all the crazy weather outta the Everfree lately and Dash stretched thin managing the Hearth's Warming snow, if an unscheduled storm adds anything to tonight's three inches, it could kill half the orchard."

"Hey now," Dash said, stepping forward with her own wings ruffling up. "I'm not gonna let anything happen to Sweet Apple Acres, okay? We talked about this."

"I'm not sayin' you are, but —"

"But nothing," Dash snapped. "You totally are. I can do my job, alright?"

"It's not you I don't trust," Applejack said. "It's that dang-blasted Everfree. You've gone above the call of duty and stopped five wildstorms outta six —"

"And I will stop number seven!"


We all staggered back, ears twitching, as Twilight's royal voice interrupted all conversation, thoughts, and heartbeats in the room. As her royal duties increased, she had picked up how to augment her voice with her natural alicorn magic — but as most of the town could testify, she still needed quite a bit of work on volume control.

Twilight coughed, and her lips formed the words, "Errr, sorry."

"Um," Fluttershy said as our hearing slowly recovered. "Does anypony hear that?"

I squinted and turned my head back and forth. Indeed, a siren-like wail was becoming audible in the distance. "One of the Flower Sisters, I should imagine," I muttered. "Standing under the edge of a rooftop as Twilight's voice was unleashed."

Twilight frowned. "No, the pitch is too low."

Applejack flicked her ears several times, then tilted her head. "Come ta think of it, that sounds like …"

Mayor Mare burst through the auditorium door, red-faced and out of breath. Her eyes quickly locked in on ours, and she inhaled and shouted:


We galloped through the falling snow toward Town Square, where the Hearth's Warming Eve street fair was in full swing. Strings of colored lights limned the square, giving off a cheerful glow completely at odds with the chaos underneath. Screaming ponies were scrambling for cover underneath market stalls and around corners; dashing inside the few open buildings; and pounding on the doors of the others. Every few seconds a pony would point up in the sky and shriek, and the crowd near them would shift, looking over their shoulders and abandoning their cover for a heedless stampede away from the new threat.

A few of the Royal Guards that had been assigned to Twilight's new castle were hovering above the crowd, ineffectually shouting orders. The rest had pulled out their spears and were hovering at rooftop height, pointing their weapons out into the darkness in apparently random directions. I glanced up as we approached the square, but my eyes were adjusting slowly to the snow-shrouded night and it was hard to pick anything out. At least, I noted with relief, there didn't seem to be any black figures on the ground.

That relief was short-lived as Rainbow Dash shot ahead of us in a broad arc around the square and returned with eyes wide. "Oh, thunderheads, they're everywhere up there."

"I think they're herdin' ponies into the square!" Applejack shouted as we skidded to a halt at the edge of the chaos.

"What's the plan, Twilight?" I asked.

"First, protect everypony," Her horn flared to life with the brilliance of a star. "Cover me!"

The spell she was charging threw the square into sharp relief, turning the snow around us into a patchwork of zebra-stripe shadows as the five of us leapt into position surrounding her. I glanced up past Dash's flapping wings. Everywhere I looked, there were hints of motion amid the swirling snow and flashes of reflected light from cold green eyes. The chill of the night seemed to reach inside and grip me as I crouched, readying a spell of my own to unleash at the first changeling to charge.

Ominously, none did.

Twilight's spell resolved with a firecracker bang, covering Town Square and its scores of ponies with a large lavender bubble. "Next," she said as a cheer came up from the crowd, "we do … something … about all of them."

"Such as what?" I asked, my hornbolt still charged as my eyes flicked from hovering target to hovering target.

"I'm still figuring that out."

"Rainbow power ready!" Dash said, landing at Twilight's side and hoofing the snow.

"Wait," Fluttershy said, taking a step backward and bumping flanks with Twilight. "They're not attacking."

"It might be a trap. Looks like they're waitin' for something," Applejack said through the lasso in her teeth, pushing the brim of her hat down.

Pinkie Pie gasped, and her eyes narrowed. "Like Queen Meanie," she said, pointing.

We all turned as a familiar black figure floated out of the sky toward us, gossamer wings outstretched, a smug grin on her muzzle. Dash stepped forward, teeth bared. Twilight stopped her with an outstretched leg.

"Chrysalis," Twilight said in a voice colder than the snow underhoof.

The queen landed. "Good evening, Twilight Sparkle," she purred. "I must say, the wings suit you."

"Don't even start. I'll never forgive you for what you did to Shining Armor and Cadance, but I will give you a better chance than you deserve. If you leave right now and never come back, I won't blast you where you stand."

"Leave?" Chrysalis' eyes went wide, and her fangs gleamed as her grin widened into a smirk. "Why, I'd be happy to, my dear little Element of Magic. Of course, the moment I'm too far away to control them — or, I should note, if anything were to happen to me — you might discover that a hiveful of hungry, mindless drones can do … unpleasant things to all the defenseless ponies outside your shield. I do hope that your growth spurt came along with the ability to be everywhere in town at once?"

"Why, you …" Applejack growled, teeth clenching down even harder on her rope.

Twilight's lips curled back in a snarl. "What. Do. You. Want."

The smile fell away from Chrysalis' muzzle as she stepped forward, looming over Twilight. "Believe it or not," she hissed, "the same thing you do. For me to leave this accursed land of ponies behind like a bad dream. Ever since your spoiled brat of a brother's little stunt killed every changeling in Canterlot —" Chrysalis bared her fangs, then leaned in, wingtips quivering — "and sent me limping half-broken back to my hive, I've been planning an invasion of Minotaurial Guinea. However, with my best infiltrators dead and my remaining drones hungry, I haven't got a chance. So you —" she bumped noses with Twilight, who to her credit, didn't flinch — "are going to fix what you broke when you uncovered my wedding plans."

"That's not going to happen," Twilight said flatly.

Chrysalis backed away and shrugged. "Suit yourself. Really, it's all for the best — you'll be able to build something much nicer in the ruins here."

I winced. This was going nowhere good, and we needed time to find a way out of the mess. "Twilight," I murmured, but she cut me off with a glance and a nod — apparently coming to the same conclusion.

"And what, exactly, did you expect to get out of this?" Twilight said, straightening up and speaking in clipped, level tones. "Are you blackmailing us for tribute? Because if our choice is between offering you ponies to feed on, and having ponies fed on when the town's attacked, we're going to choose the option that lets us take you down with us."

Chrysalis' muzzle spread back into its predatory smile. "Ah, now you're asking reasonable questions. There are other ways ponykind can support me than emotions. Military intelligence. Gold. Formal diplomatic recognition of my new empire. This doesn't have to end with anypony getting hurt."

"You make a good point. I think," Twilight said with deliberate slowness, "maybe we should sit down and talk this out."

I hid a wince. Smart as Twilight was, she had no poker face at all. She might as well have held out a sign saying "We're stalling."

Chrysalis shrugged easily. "That works for me." She put a hole-ridden hoof to her muzzle, as if entertaining an afterthought. "Of course, since it's getting late and the negotiations might drag on overnight, you won't mind quartering my changelings until we're done, will you? About two per house should do it."

"What?!" Applejack exploded. "Ain't no way we're gonna let 'em right into our houses where they can attack us while we're sleepin'!"

Twilight stomped, hoof crunching into the snow. "She's right. That's ridiculous."

"It's only ridiculous if you were planning on negotiating in bad faith," Chrysalis snapped. "Don't insult my intelligence by pretending not to understand the concept of an insurance policy."

I held up a hoof, mind racing. Changelings holding the entire town hostage was a setback, for certain, but buying time was too crucial. "Wait, girls. As distateful as it is to say, she is correct; we can rule out a sneak attack. She had ample opportunity to do just that before we arrived, and yet, here we are."

"Thank you," Chrysalis said. "Listen to your marshmallow."

"Of course, lodging might be more efficient if — what did you call me?!"

As I sputtered, Twilight shook her head firmly. "No deal — I see your plan. You're asking me to give every changeling here free access to a target to imitate, so you can replace the whole town before anypony realizes something's wrong."

Chrysalis rolled her eyes. "Then impose your own conditions. That's how negotiation is supposed to work, if you weren't aware. I'll even give you this one for free: All the drones will stay in their true form, and they're confined to a single room of the house, so you can enter any home at a glance and see whether I'm keeping my end of the deal. At least one pony stays in each house, too, but they can be anywhere within it."

"That doesn't stop what Twilight mentioned about replacing the town," Dash said.

"Oh, please. As if you're not going to inform your precious royal sisters what's going on here the instant my back is turned. If I did that, I'd have your entire army swarming down on me within a day. I can't fool Equestria any more — that's why I want to leave." She pointed a hoof at Twilight. "Speaking of which, another condition. No outside troop movements, and no other princesses. I have no delusions that I can stop you from telling Sunflanks and Moon Moon about this, but make clear to them that if they keep me from leaving, I'll take the town down with me."

Twilight frowned. "If you're making new conditions, then I get to add one. None of your drones will feed while you're in Ponyville. Period."

Chrysalis blinked. "Hm."

I made a strangled little noise at Twilight. That was a great idea in theory, but far too dangerous. Even if Chrysalis accepted, that would put our solution on a timetable as her drones began to starve. Twilight glanced back at me, and I did my best to shake my head discreetly. Twilight raised an eyebrow and frowned. I looked at her intently. She shook her head and turned back to Chrysalis.

"I've got to give you credit, I actually had to think about that one," Chrysalis said. "I accept — mostly because of how entertaining the look on Marshmallow's face was. Let's send everyone back to their houses and go to your home to talk this out."

"I think Twilight needs to speak with her friends first," I said levelly.

"Fine, whatever," Chrysalis said, turning around and staring into the sky at her army. They began to descend. "I'll go wait for you. … Where is this library of yours, anyway?"

"Behind the times, much? Tirek blew it up," Dash said.

Chrysalis froze. It was only for a fraction of a second, but my practiced eye caught it. Even when dealing with shapeshifters, some signals were unmistakable.

She covered it up with a snort and a toss of her head. "Then you know how I felt after the wedding. What sort of book fort is Canterlot's biggest nerd living in now?"

"Very funny," Twilight said flatly. "I'm in the Friendship Palace."

Chrysalis paused for another moment, and I found myself wishing that I knew enough to decipher whatever tells she was displaying. "That's a deal-breaker," she said. "No negotiating inside palaces. I learned enough as Cadance to know all the magical traps and spyholes they're constructed with. We can hold our talks in the new library."

"We don't have one. There's been no time to reconstruct our catalogue of the destroyed books, much less order replacements."

Chrysalis' pointedly deliberate eye-roll told me that she had regained enough control to keep me from reading any more signals off of her body language. "Alright. Then we talk in Marshmallow's house."

"Listen," Twilight said, "you can't just order us around like —"

"Actually," I cut in, "that sounds like a marvelous idea. I am certain you will find Carousel Boutique's accommodations suitably luxurious for one of your station." I studied a hoof-edge briefly. "Of course, it would be inappropriate for myself and my family to remain there and disrupt delicate negotiations. We shall find other lodging for the duration."

Chrysalis turned to stare into my eyes. I stared back, giving her my best bland I-know-something-you-don't-know smile.

"Deal," she said, smiling back just as insincerely. "I'll see you all soon."

"What was that about, Rarity?" Twilight asked as the six of us rejoined Spike in the Friendship Palace and huddled in an out-of-the-way drawing room. "You're okay with her taking over Carousel Boutique?"

"Twilight, darling," I said, reclining in the chaise longue I had insisted upon when I was helping her order the furnishings, "you are the most brilliant pony I know in the fields of both friendship and magic, but I have studied more about the nobility than any pony outside Canterlot. The intrigues of the upper classes are all about layers within layers, pretenses within pretenses, and so it is too with changelings."

"That doesn't answer my question."

I curled one side of my mouth up in an enigmatic smile.

"Hang on, Rare," Applejack interrupted. "Are you implyin' she's not actually here because she's taking over the minotaurs? 'Cause I don't know changelings, but I know honesty, and that story's fishier than the back half of a seapony."

Twilight frowned. "That's true. Even if she gets all the concessions she wants, we know her next target, and can warn them and foil her plans. It makes no sense."

"Seriously? It's obvious," Dash said. "We're the invasion. After wiping out her army at the wedding she's smarting for revenge."

"Or maybe," Fluttershy said faintly, "she's really really sorry about what she did, but she doesn't know enough about ponies to know how to apologize."

"What if she's trying to learn about us?" Spike said. "Don't negotiations usually take, like, forever? That means an awful lot of time to observe ponies."

"I bet this whole shebang's a distraction," Applejack said. "She's actually strikin' somewhere else and needs us pinned down here."

"Maybe all of those are true," Pinkie Pie said with a spooky waver in her voice.

"Fortunately," I said, studying a hoof, "the truth is far simpler than that."

Six heads swiveled toward me. "Oh?" Twilight asked.

"Changelings are consummate liars, and we cannot take her at her word on anything she says; but even the best can slip and expose themselves if taken by surprise. Did you notice, Twilight, her mistake in referring to you as the 'Element of Magic', even though the Elements of Harmony were reunited with the Tree? Clearly, she has been unable to stay informed of current events. And when you mentioned the destruction of the library …" I gave the others a significant look. "She could not wholly cover up her shock. Furthermore, she pressed for information on a new library which does not exist."

"Yer sayin' she's here to read?" Applejack asked, one eyebrow raised. "No offense, Rare, but that's silly. She could swindle her way into most any library in the world."

"Ut-ut!" I say. "But also look at her immediate reaction after being informed of her mistake. She requested to stay in the home of moi. By offering a logical assessment of her initial actions, I proved myself another pony likely to be well-educated — and she arranged to wait for us not in the place where I would be, as I explicitly denied I would be in residence, but in the place where my books would be."

The room was silent as the others digested that.

"That does kinda make sense," Twilight said. "But why is she here to read?"

"That is, indeed, the question."

Dash shook her head with a snort. "I'm not buying it. This is way too much trouble to check out a library book."

Recognition flitted across Applejack's muzzle. She blinked several times.

"Hold up," she said. "The wildstorms. If the hive's in the Everfree, she's at ground zero."

"That's right!" Twilight said. "If there's some new threat moving into the area that she doesn't know how to defend herself from …" She gasped. "Windigoes."

Fluttershy scuffed a hoof on the ground and looked away. "Everypony has been awfully tense lately."

"Like they're magnifying our normal holiday stress," I said, and glanced at Applejack. "Six storms, you say?"

"So far."

"Then we need to deal with that, like, yesterday," Dash said, her mouth flat with determination. "Or we're gonna have bigger problems than changelings in town."

"Alright, girls," Twilight said. She stood up, spreading her wings and lifting a hoof in imitation of Celestia. "We've got a lot of problems to tackle all at once, but we can do this. First of all, our password is 'Jewelbox,' and the response is 'Plundervine.' Every time we split up and get back together, make sure you exchange those, and don't let anypony overhear you. That way, we can be sure that we're really us. I did learn a spell after the wedding to break changelings' alteration enchantments, but that's no help if you can't trust me to cast it properly."

"Commendably clever," I said.

Twilight smiled for a moment, then looked around intensely. "Dash, I need you to scout the Everfree and find those windigoes."

She saluted. "I can have my best weather team ready in 15 minutes."

"Applejack, go home and cover your orchard."

"Thanks, Twi," Applejack said with obvious relief.

"Fluttershy, you should make sure all of your animals are prepared for the cold."

"They'll be fine — they know to come inside when the storms get too bad."

Twilight thought for a moment. "Then you should help Applejack. I bet she can use every hoof she can get, tonight."


"Pinkie Pie, you go around from house to house and make sure that Chrysalis is keeping her word and that everypony's safe and calm."

She broke into a wide grin. "I'm gonna have so many parties to throw tonight!"

"Spike, I need you to update Princess Celestia with the whole story, then stick with me so you can take notes."

"Got it." He grabbed a quill and scroll and was soon hard at work.

"And Rarity, you stick with me, too. Chrysalis …" She took a deep breath. "Will expect me to negotiate. I need you there."

My eyes flew open. "Surely you don't mean to make an honest effort at diplomacy?"

"No. The point is to stall her. But we also need to figure out what her plan is and how to stop it, and I can't do that if I have to focus on the talks."

I tapped a hoof to my chin, considering. As the broad strokes of a plan began to form and mesh, a smile slowly spread across my muzzle.

"In that case, Twilight," I said, "you may count on me."

Author's Note:

Chapter 2 will post on Dec. 24. Chapter 3 will post on Dec. 25, at which time the story will be marked Complete.

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