• Published 24th Dec 2014
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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.

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All The World's A Stage

Noteworthy's door creaked open. He peeked around the edge at me. His eyes shot open.

"M-miss Rarity," he said. "Sh-shouldn't you be out saving Ponyville?"

I gave him a sweet smile. "I assure you that everything is under control. However —" I heaved a dramatic sigh — "I find that these unique circumstances have left me and my family temporarily dispossessed. Might I beg a neighborly favor …?" I trailed off, tilting my head at Sweetie Belle by my side.

He processed that for a moment, then opened his door. "S-sure, you're welcome here. S-scootaloo will be happy to see Sweetie —" he lowered his voice — "b-but if you're looking to keep her away from the b-bugs, you won't have much luck here."

I glanced past him to the living room, where two hulking black figures were sitting with their back to the fire, staring at us in uncomfortable silence. They were still wearing their armor, which gleamed in the reflected light. One of them noticed my gaze and looked away with poorly feigned nonchalance.

"We're all in this together, darling," I said brightly. "I merely want Sweetie to have an element of familiarity for the holiday while I'm occupied with the resolution of this inconvenience." I walked Sweetie inside, floating her snow-covered sleepover kit in after her, and gave her a hug. She made a beeline toward the stairs and around the corner to Scootaloo's room.

That accomplished, I gave the two soldiers a cheery wave. "Happy Hearth's Warming Eve, dears." The only response that got was a brief shift of their muzzles in my direction, their blank eyes fixing me for a moment before they straightened their backs and returned their gazes to the walls.

"C-creepy, isn't it?" Noteworthy murmured. "That's all they've d-done since they got here."

I slowly nodded. I had expected as much; stronger measures would be called for.

"It is," I said. "But don't allow it to bother you; the situation is well under control."

"If you s-say so."

"I do." I smiled as I walked back outside. "I shall return later. Do pass on my best wishes to Cloud Kicker when she returns from patrol, mmmm?"

"W-will do. You take c-care of yourself."

I gave him a precise curtsey — an inclined head and a small bend of the knees. "I always do."


Next was Carousel Boutique, where Twilight and Chrysalis were sitting at a table by my crackling fireplace. Spike was fidgeting in a chair to one side. Twilight appeared to be arranging several stacks of scrolls alphabetically. Chrysalis was leaning back in her chair, idly sipping at a glass of Marelot she had undoubtedly liberated from my cabinet.

Twilight leapt to her hooves at my arrival. "Rarity! Thank goodness. Now we can get started."

"In a moment. A word in private, please, Twilight?"

"Uh, sure."

We walked upstairs to my bedroom, closed the door, and exchanged passwords. "Start without me," I said. "I have some errands to run."

Twilight's eyes shot wide. "What?! But you agreed that you would —"

"— figure out how to stop her," I interrupted firmly. "Which I will — but I'm afraid she is sufficiently skillful that I will accomplish very little while sitting across the table from her. Trust me, Twilight, when I say that you would accomplish even less. You are unquestionably the smartest pony in Equestria, but discerning her goals is a question of cunning, not intelligence. Simply stall the negotiations, as we already discussed."

"But …" Twilight's mouth opened and closed helplessly. "You said you would do that!"

"You mentioned two tasks requiring our attention," I said, opening one of my dresser drawers and taking out my makeup kit. I floated items out one by one, examining them. "I gave an ambiguous yet honest answer, and all else was assumption. To be blunt, Twilight, if you could be caught so off guard by such a simple evasion, what hope do you have of understanding a being whose entire existence is based upon lies?"

"I …" Twilight's ears drooped, and she took a long breath. "You're right. She'd outclass me. I've learned a lot about friendship since I got here, but I'm only now starting to realize how little I know about people."

I paused my work to set my makeup kit down and give her a firm hug. "Do not mistake me. It speaks well of you that you trust so wholeheartedly. I will never betray that trust, and I am proud to call you friend … but we are very different ponies, you and I. Right now, Ponyville needs me to match wits with Chrysalis in a fashion which — I pray to the stars — you might never understand."

"Fair enough." A smile passed across Twilight's face like the flicker of a candle, just as quickly extinguished. "I've still got to go down there and stall her, though."

"You'll be fine, darling. I would not be leaving if I felt that you were incapable of that task." Several tubes of lipstick, a compact, a selection of eye-pencils, and a pocket mirror went into my saddlebags. With some reluctance, I put the rest back away to clear enough room for a dog-eared paperback book. "Remember, her true purpose here is to read; stalling benefits her as well."

Twilight tensed up. "How can you say that? Her home's under attack, and these talks are keeping her from dealing with it! The longer it takes, the more upset she'll get!"

I held up a hoof. "Again, Twilight: Be wary of assumptions. Had she no reason to delay, she simply would have invaded the library to steal what she needed. It should become clearer what else she's after as we proceed." I took a dusky indigo overcoat from my closet and tugged it on.

"That … sounds logical." Twilight started pacing. "It's illogical for her not to care about the things she should care about, but when you put it that way, it kind of makes sense." She sighed. "How am I going to get us the time we need?"

I smiled. "Stalling a negotiation is so simple that it takes the most experienced diplomats to do anything but. Merely quibble over everything. Meet every one of her conditions with one of your own. Begin from impossible positions and allow yourself to be argued down to the merely unreasonable. I recommend beginning with an offer to recognize her new empire if she turns herself in to Equestria for prosecution of her war crimes."

Twilight's eyes grew to the size of dinner plates. "But," she sputtered, "that's ridiculous! She'd never go for that!"

"Exactly. If you only offered suggestions you thought she would accept, it wouldn't be much of a negotiation, now, would it?" I floated several scarves off the closet shelf, held them up against my overcoat one by one, and picked a fetching aquamarine number, wrapping it around my neck and carefully folding the others back up.

"Rarity, she's got changelings in every house in Ponyville! I can't make a suggestion like that — she'll think I'm arguing in bad faith!"

"And if she attacks with them, she loses all hope of achieving her objectives." I turned to squarely face Twilight, who was on the edge of hyperventilation, and put both forehooves on her shoulders. "Trust me, Twilight. She will propose something equally unacceptable, and you will find some bizarrely insignificant point — such as the name of her empire's new currency — upon which there might be room to compromise, and from there you will slowly circle toward a plan. Any time you feel yourself getting dangerously close to consensus, merely bring up a deal-breaker which has not been previously discussed, and the process will begin anew. Repeat until it is sufficiently late that she accepts your proposal to begin with a clear head in the morning."

Twilight took several deep breaths, visibly swallowed, and nodded at me. "Okay. Okay … I can do that. But what about you? How are you going to find out her motives if you're not even here to listen to her?"

"Trust me," I said, running a brush through my mane and then putting on a snow hat that matched my overcoat, with a tilted white stripe and a few small amethysts accenting the brim. "I shall be performing my duties."

"Okay," she said uncertainly, but allowed me to lead her back downstairs.

I quietly let myself out into the silent flurries of snow as the princess and the queen began to argue. Once the door clicked shut behind me, I pulled out the pocket mirror and brought it up to my face, tilting it slightly and smiling at the reflection on its surface. Perfect.

After all, there were some secrets that it was best for a lady to keep … even from her friends.


"Good evening," I sang as Big Macintosh threw a tarp over a tree. Fluttershy caught it in midair and pulled it over a tree and down the far side, and Applejack and Apple Bloom ran around the tarp, pulling the corners taut and staking them to the ground. "How goes the orchard preservation?"

"Rarity?" Applejack said, pausing for a moment to squint at me. "What're you doing here?"

"I recalled Twilight noting you could use the assistance," I said. "After all, many hooves make light work."

We leaned in and exchanged passwords. Applejack nodded. "Well," she said, "I can't say it ain't welcome, as long as you're able to get your other work done."

I smiled. I'd carefully ensured there were no figures in the sky or on the ground following me out to Sweet Apple Acres; as far as Chrysalis was concerned, Twilight's brightest agent had focused her cunning on a task more urgent than their negotiations, and would be gone for several hours with no more clue to her whereabouts than a thin sheen of sweat upon her return. The very best move was one that allowed you to accomplish an objective while driving your opponent to distraction with an unrelated feint. "I believe I can."

We covered trees for several hours, until Applejack stepped back for a break. "So what'd you learn from the bug, anyhow?"

"Oh," I said, "absolutely nothing."

Her eyebrows shot up. "What?"

"Nothing yet, I should say." I shook some snow off my overcoat. "I am — if I might be allowed to speak for a moment without clouding my words in false modesty — a clever pony, but I am not a fraction as clever as the ruler of a race whose existence depends upon deception. Our triumph shall come via the tactical application of our strengths against the most vulnerable points of her intelligence networks, and the creative use of assets she could not possibly anticipate."

Applejack took off her hat long enough to tap it against a tree, sending a shower of snow down from its brim. "So you're playin' super-spy. Got it. Just let me know if I can help."

"I assure you," I said, "I will."

She cracked open a thermos and passed it around, and the five of us sipped some hot cider.

"Sure wish Dash was back with news," Applejack said. "It's gettin' awful late."

I checked my pocket watch. She was right — I'd let time slip away from me. "Indeed," I said. "Well past Apple Bloom's bedtime, I would wager."

"It is, at that, but I ain't complaining."

"Actually," I said, "that reminds me. I ought to be getting back to Cloud Kicker's to check on Sweetie."

Apple Bloom's eyes, tired as they were, lit up. "There's a sleepover at Scootaloo's?"

Applejack frowned. "Not with the bugs in everypony's house, there ain't."

"Awwwww! But it's Hearth's Warming Eve! Ain't the whole point of that the three tribes gettin' together?"

"Actually," I said, "I'm planning to sleep there myself. I'd be happy to keep an eye on Apple Bloom as well … and it might be good for them, with everything else going on, to be with their best friends for the holiday."

Apple Bloom wheeled on her big sister, eyes wide and lower lip quivering. "Pleeeeeease?"

"Oh, alright," Applejack sighed. "Thanks for all your help, Rare."

"I assure you it's no problem." I put a hoof around Apple Bloom's shoulder. "We've all got to do our part."


After checking in on Twilight — who had managed to sidetrack their debate entirely into a rousing argument over the economics of Minotaurial Guinea's export base, until both had agreed to sleep on it and calm down — I settled in on Cloud Kicker's couch with a thick blanket and the copy of Withering Heights that I'd taken from my room. I glanced over at the two changelings as I settled in to read. Neither appeared to have moved from their post by the fireplace. A fresh log had been added to the fire, and it snapped and crackled quietly in the background, giving the room a warm red glow.

"Aren't you going to bed?" I asked. "I'm certain you've had a long day."

They glanced at each other. One covered his mouth with a leg and coughed.

I checked my pocket mirror, nudging the curls of my mane slightly sideways before sitting up straighter and giving them a shyly coquettish smile. "Your queen went to sleep ten minutes ago, you know," I confided. "I was over at Carousel Boutique when they finished their negotiations for the night."

The two changelings exchanged glances again, their expressions indecipherable. One leaned in. The second shook its head almost imperceptibly. The first looked back away in a quick motion, and they both returned to staring at fixed points on the far wall.

Interesting, I thought. "What I mean to say is, I'd have thought that her slumber would have made you fall asleep as well."

They exchanged glances yet again. The second one eyed me suspiciously.

It was time for a calculated risk. "We know from the royal wedding that Chrysalis has mental control over you," I said. "We saw the swarm's coordinated attack. But at the same time, individual drones were taking surprising amounts of initiative when confronted with unusual situations. It seems to me that you can make your own decisions independent of the queen … which implies that you can think for yourself, and that you feel your own pain and discomfort."

No answer, of course.

I made a show of setting down my book. "It's well past bedtime, and the cold tonight is bitter indeed. Please, come take the blankets, and I'll go sleep upstairs with the foals. Nopony has to know."

The first changeling shifted its weight, bringing its hooves underneath it. The second made a sharp clicking noise. The first snapped back to attention, and froze in position.

Got you, I thought, hiding my grin with a dramatic sigh. "Suit yourself. Come wake me up if you change your mind." I rolled over, listening to the fire, and gradually sank into sleep.


Hearth's Warming morning dawned cold and sullen; at least snow was no longer falling. The changelings, at some point, had fallen asleep right where they'd stood, sprawled out by the fireplace. When I awoke, the two of them were huddled up by the embers, still clad in their armor.

The bang of the front door jolted them awake, and they scrambled upright. Cloud Kicker plodded in, eyes dark with exhaustion, and trudged upstairs without a word.

That meant Dash was also back, so I slid out from under the covers and slipped on my overcoat. After a brief touch-up, I returned to the Friendship Palace.

"Not a one," Dash said, rubbing the bags under her eyes, after the seven of us had regathered in the drawing room. "Not a single windigo. We flew overflight on the whole freakin' forest before seeing the wildstorm sweep in. We spent the rest of the night bucking it apart — and if there were any windigoes around, I guarantee you that would've brought 'em right to us. I hate to say it, Twilight, but this is plain ol' stupid Everfree weather."

"Great!" Twilight shouted, not pausing in her frantic pacing. "And now we're back to square one!"

"Com-port-ment," I sang, tilting my head reproachfully at Twilight, and she gritted her teeth and forced herself to stand still. "What's bothering you, darling?"

"Only that Princess Celestia wrote back and said she suspected Chrysalis was testing me! Testing! What if I fail? Now that there's no windigoes involved I don't even know how to pass this one!"

"Part of that is to see how you hold up under pressure," I said, "so I can guarantee you that the situation will not be improved by undue worry."

"How can you call this undue? This is very, very due! Ponyville's been invaded by changelings, today's supposed to be our Hearth's Warming pageant, and now I've got a test to take!"

Applejack put a hoof around Twilight's withers. "She's right, sugarcube. Chrysalis is makin' a mistake, tryin' to test the Princess of Friendship. You've got all your friends right by your side, and we ain't gonna let you down."

Twilight let out a slow breath, pushing her hoof away from her chest, then inhaled and did it again. "You're right," she finally said. "I'm sorry … I … thanks."

"Does this mean we were wrong about the library?" Fluttershy asked as we pulled back away from the ensuing group hug.

"I don't think so," Twilight said, clearly grateful for an intellectual distraction. "Just about what she was here to research."

"Or maybe," Pinkie Pie said, tilting forward the deerstalker hat she hadn't been wearing a few moments earlier, "what one of the changelings was here to research."

Twilight sat bolt upright. "What do you mean? Her drones are mindless extensions of herself. She made that abundantly clear in our negotiations, when I tried to start an argument about their citizenship."

"Did she now," I murmured.

"I thought so too at first," Pinkie said, "but when I was going around throwing all the Unexpected Hearth's Warming Guest parties, I asked Queen Meanie how it felt to be invited to a dozenteen parties in a row, and the changeling just gave me this confused look! So I asked every single changeling in town if they were Chrysalis, and none of them said yes." She tapped her chin. "Not even Queen Chrysalis. Remember, Twilight? She just looked confused and asked what sort of stupid question that was."

Did she now, I thought. "The changelings didn't act mindless last night, either," I added. "It appears she may not be telling you the truth about them, Twilight."

"Gee," Dash said, "isn't that a surprise."

"If the drones ain't linked to her," Applejack said, "maybe we can use that. Take 'em down house by house and get everypony safe."

Twilight paced across the room — in slow, measured steps, this time — and shook her head. "We can't afford to take the chance of attacking and being wrong. Wait until we can be sure."

"I agree," I said. "In the meantime, discretion is crucial. The more she knows of what we know, the easier it becomes for her to anticipate and counter us."

Twilight nodded, turning to me. "Then what's our immediate plan?"

"Stall her until lunchtime. Rainbow Dash needs sleep, and I need to check in on my little research project."


When I returned to Cloud Kicker's, none of the Crusaders would look at me.

"I'm sorry, Rarity," Sweetie Belle mumbled, shuffling her hooves. "We really didn't mean to burn a hole in your overcoat."

"We were just tryin' ta get the fire started back up —"

"— and we figured we could bring a burning log back from the Town Square bonfire —"

"— and I got one of mom's stew pots to hold it, but it was too hot —"

"Girls, girls," I interrupted, patting them on the heads. "No harm done. You never did get that fire restarted, did you? Take the rest of the coat and finish that up — I'd hate to think its sacrifice was in vain."

Sweetie Belle's head snapped up. She locked eyes with me, leveled a hoof, and inhaled sharply.

"And if you accuse me of being a changeling, I'll just have to tell everypony what happened that summer when our family went camping at Canter Springs."

Sweetie's face instantly reddened. "You wouldn't."

"Not when there's important work to do. Hop to it!"

I settled back in on the couch with my novel as the three of them scrambled off to take advantage of their reprieve. Sweetie Belle was right — it was quite unlike me to take such a desecration of fashion so calmly — but sometimes a plan requires sacrifices.

As the house fell into silence — Cloud Kicker was sleeping the sleep of the departed, and Noteworthy's job keeping the roads clear meant that his schedule yielded to storms rather than holidays — I pulled out my pocket mirror and eyeliner, slipped around the corner to the kitchen, and took a few moments to touch up my eyelashes. As I returned, I took a discreet sideways glance at the changelings. They were wide-eyed and shivering, and I couldn't quite tell if it was from the chill of the room or the close brush with the force of nature known as the Cutie Mark Crusaders.

So it was, when the trio dashed back in the door to get the fire relit — setting off the fire alarm and the ceiling sprinklers in the process, and drenching everything in the room that wasn't under my personal barrier — that I merely flipped a page and continued reading. "I'm sorry!" Sweetie wailed, tears gathering in her eyes beneath her sopping mane, lower jaw trembling.

"Ut!" I snapped, holding up a hoof. "Don't distract me, Sweetie, this is the good part."

"Sorry!"

Scootaloo poked at the drenched ashes and sighed. "Well, that didn't work."

"You know, girls," Apple Bloom said, wringing out her bow, "maybe we oughta get some help."

"Read-ing," I sang, with the cheerful tone of a snake shaking its tail. Sweetie Belle took an involuntary step backward.

"Well, we can't ask mom, she's asleep," Scootaloo said in a hushed tone that similarly brooked no argument.

The three of them turned as one toward the wet, shivering guards at the fireplace.

"'Scuse me," Apple Bloom said to Changeling Number Two. "You wanna help us light the fire?"

It glanced around wildly and leapt to its hooves. Without a word, it bolted outside, leaving the front door swinging on its hinges.

I stifled a smile. Ponies 1, invaders 0.

The Crusaders turned to Changeling Number One. "What about you?"

"Um," it started, in an oddly light voice for its bulky, ferocious form. "I really shouldn't. She might get mad."

Ponies 2, invaders 0. I flipped a page.

"But if we don't get the fire —" Scootaloo said as I lit my horn. A fresh log floated into the fireplace and burst into flames. "… Never mind."

The four of them huddled up next to the flames, wringing out their manes and brushing down their chitin, respectively. "What now?" Sweetie Belle said.

"Well, we've still gotta get our Cutie Marks," Apple Bloom said. "We've tried everything that anypony could think of …"

"Any pony," Scootaloo said, buzzing her wings in sudden excitement, sending a spray of new water around the room. "Hey, have you got any ideas for Cutie Marks?"

"What's a Cutie Mark?"

"You know. What's on your flank to tell you what you're most awesome at." Scootaloo peered around the side of the changeling, trying to pry its armor off and look underneath. "What's yours?"

It — the voice was high, but ambiguously so, not enough for me to place it as feminine — yelped and spun around. "I … uh … I don't think I have one."

"Really? But my sister says you can turn into ponies," Apple Bloom said. "What's your Cutie Mark then?"

"I … I dunno."

"That's silly. Everypony gets one as they grow up," Sweetie Belle said. "How could you not know your Cutie Mark?"

"Uh … maybe I'm not old enough yet?"

My ears perked up. I deliberately kept my eyes on the book.

"How old are you?" Scootaloo asked.

"Twelve."

I dropped my book in shock.

Fortunately, the noise was lost amid the Crusaders' voices exploding like a box of fireworks left too close to the burning log. "Oooh, awesome!" "Me too!" "You should totally join our club!" "You could be the first non-pony member!" "We could try all sorts of things to get our Marks together!" "Do you think we could get Cutie Marks in shapeshifting?" "Show us how! Show us!"

"I —"

"What's your name?" "I'm Sweetie Belle! That's Apple Bloom." "And I'm Scootaloo!"

"I, uh, Whisper Song —"

"That's a cool name! Have you ever tried singing?" "We wrote a song for our talent show once!" "Do you want us to teach it to you? You could totally get a Cutie Mark that way!" "Ooh, and we could be Cutie Mark Crusader Vocal Coaches!" "Holy moley, Scootaloo! That's brilliant! We've never tried teaching for our Marks before!"

"I, uh," the changeling stammered in an oddly subdued voice — then glanced up at the clock, and its eyes widened. "Oh, wing rot — it's 10:00. I'm sorry. I have to go, or I'm gonna be late."

"Late for what?" Sweetie asked as the changeling backed toward the door, whirled, and galloped away. I leapt up from the couch — oh, no, you don't — but when I got to the door, I froze.

The streets were full of changelings trotting toward the center of Ponyville.


I galloped as fast as my hooves would take me toward the chaos, fearing the worst. Even before I rounded the corner to Town Square, I could hear Roseluck's high-pitched shrieking, which resolved into words as I closed in: "— looked just like me, and was feeding on Daisy, and now they're going to eat us all!"

Two groups were clustered at opposite ends of the square. One was multicolored, with Roseluck shrieking in a miserable-looking Twilight Sparkle's face and a number of Royal Guards trying to hold back a crowd whose muttering was turning ugly. The other was almost entirely black, with another Roseluck cowering at the hooves of Queen Chrysalis and hundreds of chitinous soldiers in silent, ragged formation.

"Please," Twilight begged. "Just calm down. We're going to deal with this."

Chrysalis loudly cleared her throat and spread her wings. The changelings stood at attention. The pony Roseluck fainted. The square went dead silent.

"No, Twilight Sparkle," Chrysalis said with a voice as icy as the winter air. "I am going to deal with this. The swarm had quite explicit orders." She raised her voice to a shout. "I will repeat them for the benefit of the ponies, and for the stupid! I don't give a flying fewmet how hungry you are, there is to be no feeding until my negotiations are over!" She picked up the false Roseluck in her horngrip; the startled changeling flailed its legs as the light of Chrysalis' field intensified. "And if you think you can cross me on this —"

There was a sickening crack, followed by pandemonium.

As Chrysalis' field winked out, the false Roseluck hit the ground, emitting an ear-piercing shriek and holding one leg to its chest. Screaming ponies bolted, shoving and galloping in an undirected stampede away from Chrysalis. The changelings also broke ranks, scrambling away in undiluted panic and diving into cover. "You. Will. Stay!" Chrysalis screamed at them, her muzzle bleaching into a sickly gray. They froze up one by one, slowly turning around and watching her with wide eyes. The ones who had been unable to hide slunk back into formation on trembling hooves.

"Thank you," Chrysalis said, taking three swaying steps toward them and lurching to a stop with legs braced oddly wide. "You see, I don't think you understand how upset I am right now. Do you know how difficult it is to negotiate with someone who doesn't believe you'll keep your word?"

The question hung in the air, unanswered except for the broken wails of the false Roseluck and a soft sobbing from behind a pile of boxes near the changeling army. The soldiers in formation glanced at each other, many with quivering muzzles and tears brimming in their eyes.

"You don't?" Chrysalis said. "Then perhaps you should watch this time and learn." She turned back toward the injured changeling, her horn sputtering to ominous green life, and stepped forward —

— then stopped in her tracks, staring down at a yellow-and-pink figure in her way.

"No," Fluttershy said.

"Get out of —"

"No."

They locked eyes for just long enough for Chrysalis to flinch.

She stumbled backward a step, hornglow dissipating, then swiveled her head over to Twilight, her muzzle curling into a scowl. "This is not the time for games, Princess. Recall your drone."

"Fluttershy is not a puppet for me to control," Twilight said, stepping past the false Roseluck to stand next to our friend. "And neither are your changelings."

I mentally facehoofed. So much for discretion.

"They think for themselves," Twilight projected, loud enough for the changelings to hear. "They feel pain. They make their own decisions. So while you're in pony lands, you will treat them like we treat ponies — with respect." Twilight crouched into a battle stance, one hoof raised, wings flared out, as the others silently arrayed themselves at her side.

I joined them, my stomach twisting itself into knots. So much preparation wasted! So much destruction to come! Yet I couldn't afford not to back Twilight up. The only idea worse than picking a fight would have been for us to pick it halfheartedly.

"You dare?" Chrysalis said, bracing into a crouch of her own.

Twilight didn't flinch. "If you have a problem with that," she continued with a soft, Celestial finality, "you're going to have to go through us."

Chrysalis stared at us for a few tense moments — as the gray of her muzzle spread through her face, and her mane began to sag — then stood back up and gave her best imitation of an equine snort. "You are serious! Well! If it's come down to ridiculous ultimatums, then you will bring me 20,000 bits worth of large gemstones, five charged glamour amulets, and the name of Minotaurial Guinea's Minister of the Treasury. You have one hour, or I swear to you, I will wipe this town off the map." She wheeled around, stalked off into Carousel Boutique on visibly trembling legs, and slammed the door so hard it rattled windows around the square.

I stood there, stunned, as Twilight and Fluttershy shared a glance. Fluttershy nodded in silent thanks, then whirled around and galloped to the injured changeling's side. Twilight let out a long breath, her wings drooping and her legs beginning to shiver. Applejack stepped in to curl her neck comfortingly around Twilight's, and she was quickly joined by Pinkie Pie glomming her forelegs around them both. Dash hovered up above us, glaring at the shivering changelings as they shuffled awkwardly backward and dispersed to Ponyville's various houses.

Something was wrong.

Chrysalis was using a façade of feigned desperation to justify her bluster and threats, but there was no masking the genuine desperation at the root of her arrival. She would only have one chance to achieve her goals in Ponyville, and she was carefully stage-managing every public encounter to accomplish those goals. How, then, had Twilight gotten away with wrecking such a carefully prepared display? With Chrysalis' plans unable to proceed, she should have had no other choice but to attack! My mind raced through the facts …

… and suddenly, in one sickening moment, the pieces fell into place.

Underneath my warm overcoat, I felt a chill lance through my veins and grip my heart. I whirled and galloped away. "Rarity?" Twilight called from behind me as I rounded a corner and poured on the speed.

My eyes darted around the street, fixing on the dark and empty auditorium where we'd been practicing the now-forgotten pageant. Privacy — I needed privacy. My horn was already alight as I bounded up the steps, flinging the door open and slamming it behind me. I hurtled up onto the stage, skidding to a halt just shy of the curtains, and darted around the scenery stands on stage right, trotting into the backstage hallway and shouldering into a random dressing room. I fumbled my pocket mirror out of my saddlebags as my lungs burned, pried it open, and set it down on the countertop with trembling hooves. I closed my eyes, feeling tears gather, and tried to still my raging thoughts enough to focus my magic.

For a few moments, there was no noise in the room but my ragged breathing. I opened my eyes again.

In the mirror, a changeling sobbed brokenly.

By the time I heard Twilight's muffled voice calling my name from the stage, I knew what I had to do.

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