• Published 3rd May 2012
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The Powers of Harmony - CyborgSamurai



The Mane Six develop the powers of the Elements of Harmony and must use them to stop a new villain.

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Chapter 28: Kindred Spirits

Chapter 28:

Kindred Spirits

The Next Day-

“WAUGH!”

Applejack screamed as she made the mistake of looking down again. The ocean waves below were cold, hard, and menacing, and there was nothing but a pair of alien appendages holding her up in the air. She flailed about and fruitlessly grabbed at nothing, and the stability of her flight was lost. She flapped her wings desperately and tried to steady herself, but she only succeeded in turning herself upside down and plummeting into a nosedive. Applejack twisted her body to try and pull up, but that only made her start spinning in a corkscrew, and she fell like a stone towards the ocean. With a final, frustrated scream, she disappeared beneath the waves with a mighty splash.

Norric and Granny chuckled as they observed Applejack’s latest attempt at flight from the sandbar they’d landed on a day and a half ago. The early morning sun shone brightly down on them from a cloudless sky, and the air was warm and humid. The previous day had been uncomfortably muggy, and today was promising to be much of the same. They’d stayed in the Tempest Bay all day yesterday in order to give Applejack a chance to learn how to fly and decide what to do, and while they’d made progress on the latter, the former still needed some work.

“Normally you gotta pay for this kind of entertainment.” Norric sat in the shallows with a fine layer of water droplets clinging to his coat and mane. His legs and tail were submerged, and he closed his eyes and raised his chin as he was sprayed by Applejack’s splash.

“Doesn’t look like she’s gettin’ any better, does it?” Granny was behind him, lying down on the sandbar and wearing Applejack’s Stetson to shield herself from both the sun and the water. “Might just hafta hope nopony in Gallopfrey thinks it’s odd that she wants to stay on the ground.”

After they’d gotten over the shock of Norric telling them that the Element of Honesty was slowly turning Applejack into an alicorn, they’d decided the best thing to do was head a few miles west to the town of Gallopfrey. Norric had explained that he and the other Echoes had visited their respective hometowns a few years ago to see what’d become of them, and while Gallopfrey hadn’t existed in Capricorn’s time, it was close to where he’d grown up, so Norric decided to check it out. Once there, the three of them could see about how to get to Dragon Turtle Lake, which Ophiuchus had told Norric about the previous night in a dream.

“I already told you that’s not what’s gonna draw attention to us.” Norric turned to face Granny, and his eyes drifted down to the blood-red hoofaxe hanging at her side. “The issue’s gonna be that thing.”

Granny didn’t need to follow his gaze to see what was he was both looking at, and referring to. “I’m not lettin’ Aconitum outta my sight. If they don’t let me in, fine. I’ll just wait outside of town while you and Jackie see whether we’re goin’ by land or sea.”

Norric had discovered that Gallopfrey was primarily a pegasus fishing town, but it was also a launching point for those planning to launch safaris and expeditions into the Great Southern Rainforest. It was common for transport ships to be coming and going through, but the Rainforest was an extremely dangerous place, and so the individuals going in were always well-armed, and unsavory to boot. Several fights had broken out in between rival parties in the past, and the resulting chaos had caused property damage to the town, multiple injuries to civilians, and even a few deaths. The Gildesdale government quickly hired extra muscle to keep the peace, and as an added precaution, they also had all visitors turn in their weapons at the town gate.

“And what if we wind up having to spend the night?’ Norric asked. “You gonna be okay out by yourself here in the wilderness?”

Granny rolled her eyes. “I already got three grandchildren worryin’ I’m gonna keel over dead at any second. I don’t need a magical clone doin’ it, too.”

Norric blushed. “I didn’t mean—”

“Damn it!”

Applejack surfaced with a gasp and a curse. She struck the water with a hoof, then began swimming back to the cliff she’d been jumping off of for another try.

“Bring it in, Jackie!” Granny then met Norric’s eyes with a softer tone. “That came out a bit harsher than I intended, but the point still stands. Pioneers tend to know a thing or two about roughin’ it, and like I told ya yesterday, this axe o’mine ain’t just for show. There aren’t many things that can sneak up on me when I payin’ attention, and there are even fewer things Aconitum can’t cut. Don’t matter to me if we’re close the Rainforest or not, I’ve killed before, and I’ll kill again if I have to.”

Norric’s expression suddenly became pained. He blinked several times, then lowered his eyes to the water as he traced his hoof in a circle.

Granny sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “Aw, honey, I’m sorry. I wasn’t even thinkin’ about Strauss. I told ya what kinda shape he was in when I got to him, though. Would ya rather I—”

Norric laughed bitterly. “It’s not that. Truth be told, I’m more upset over Elo and Grovi’s passing than his. I know what you did was an act of mercy, and I think I speak for the rest of the Order when I say, thank you for ending his suffering.”

Granny let out her breath in a sigh of relief. It’s one thing to tell yourself that taking a life, or the equivalent thereof, is the best thing you could’ve done in a situation, but it’s quite another to have somepony else agree with you.

“So what’re you gettin’ all teary-eyed over?” Granny asked.

“Something a little more complicated.” Norric raised a hoof to gauge the water’s depth. “You see, the members of the Order of the Zodiac never had a lot in common. Sure, they all knew maybe one or two others before the War, but by and large, they were just a group of strangers under a fancy label. Libra, their leader, knew they needed to be united in order to face the Astral Guard, and so in the early days of the War, he gave a speech to bring them all together.”

“Musta been one heckuva speech if it’s makin’ ya break down,” Granny observed.

Norric snorted. “I’d do both Libra and Blair a disservice in trying to repeat it. The gist, though, was that while the Order may not know, or even like each other, they all had more in common than they realized. They all hated watching their city get destroyed. They all mourned the pointless loss of life. They all hated what’d happened to their comrades in Luna’s army. None of them wanted to die, and they all wanted to the war to end as soon as possible. Those things were all certainly true, but even with that, there was also one other thing they had in common, which rose above everything else.”

Granny raised an eyebrow. “And that’d be?”

Norric watched the thin rivulets of water drip off his arm. “They all wanted to protect future generations from war. There’s nothing honorable about standing knee-deep in an ocean of blood while listening to the wails of the wounded, damned, and dying. It’s not fun to watch the light leave somepony’s eyes, or fight for your life against heartless monsters that want to rip you to shreds. Going to sleep every night wondering if it’s your last isn’t exciting, it’s terrifying, and shouldn’t be confused for anything else. Libra knew the Order knew would be remembered for their deeds, and their actions would be romanticized over time, but it was the reason why they fought, not the fighting itself that he felt was deserving of recognition. Innocence is like life—once it’s lost, it can never be recovered, and Libra showed the Order that the preservation of that innocence was something they needed to defend at all costs. The pursuit of that idea, that goal, that dream, was what gave all of them the strength to persevere time and time again, and it was also what united them... as brothers.”

Norric pointed his drenched hoof at Granny. “Only a pony who’s seen war would say something like, ‘I’ve killed before and I’ll kill again,’ without batting an eyelash, and I’m sad because it makes me realize how silly that dream really was. I heard Tendoncutter say something once: ‘The day I take on an apprentice will be both the greatest and worst day of my life, for only a spirit who’s suffered as I have is worthy to learn the secrets of my art.’ I see what he meant now, because while you and I may be kindred spirits, I never wanted to meet a pony in this era whose hooves were as stained as mine. I may not be Capricorn, but hearing you say things like that still makes me feel like I failed to protect you.”

Norric bowed his head. “And for that, I’m sorry.”

Granny bit her lip. She’d known what Norric was for almost two weeks now, but it was still hard to believe this klutzy, awkward troublemaker of a stallion was a war veteran. However, in that moment, as Norric stared at her with the same tired, hollowed-out eyes she saw every time she looked in the mirror, she’d no trouble seeing him for what he was.

“Kindred spirits, eh?”

Granny looked out over the bay, and an old memory began to play before her eyes.

Granny stared at the fresh corpses of a pack of timber wolves as she stood in a grove in the Everfree Forest. In her hoof was Aconitum, dripping with amber-colored blood and glowing faintly in the fading light of the evening. There weren’t many left now. It’d taken her the entire day to track this lot down, but she estimated that if she was able to kill one pack every few days, she should be able to wipe them all out before she had to stop. The remaining survivors were getting clever; they made false trails, covered their tracks, and travelled in smaller groups, but she always found them. She still heard their howls in the dead of night, and as long as a single one of them still breathed, she’d

There was a rustling to Granny’s right. She raised Acontium to throw, but its aura suddenly turned a ruddy gold. Her eyes widened, and she lowered the axe in time to see her beloved Penny emerge from the brush. His blonde coat was matted with sweat and dirt, his vibrant red mane was tousled and covered in leaves, and a hoofaxe identical to Aconitum in all but color hung at his side. He stopped as he saw Granny amidst the scene of death, but he betrayed no shock or surprise. Instead, he spoke in a voice as earnest as the day he’d proposed to her.

“...can’t keep doing this, love...”

Granny turned her back to him and hung her head. “...them or us... won’t start a family that’ll grow up in fear...”

Penny went to her and put a hoof on her shoulder. “...not worth the risk... other way than genocide...”

“...beasts born of murder and pain...” Granny noted that Penny’s hoof was dirty. She nuzzled it anyway. “...my mess... gotta fix it...”

Penny walked around to face her and gently lifted her chin. “...blaming yourself... let you stoop to their level...”

Granny looked into those beautiful, emerald eyes, the eyes that lived on in two of her grandchildren. “...on a timeline... taken so much from me... let ‘em take anythin’ more...”

“...won’t...” Penny took a step closer. “...nothing to prove... avenged your family tenfold... enough to start the farm...”

Granny closed her eyes. “...takes is one... steal our child... kill ‘em all...”

Penny put a hoof on Granny’s flat stomach. “...Princess Celestia... send troops... have to do this...”

“...late for that...” Granny touched her forehead to his. “...many ponies’ve died... banished for sure... Celestia herself before I lose you...”

Penny stroked her mane. “...understand... next generation... go through what we did...”

“...hide this...” Granny nuzzled Penny’s neck, taking in the smell of his mane, the softness of his coat. “...can’t let them know... our burden... free...”

Penny pulled Granny closer into an embrace. “...not alone... always be there...”

“...love you so much...” Granny’s lips met Penny’s, and they kissed deeply in the stillness of the grove. Their embrace became tighter, and she felt his tongue probing, eagerly requesting entrance. She tilted her head and opened her mouth...

Granny sighed. She looked over at Applejack, who was still out of earshot as she shook herself off in the shallows.

“If it’s any consolation, I tried to do the same thing. I prolly tried just as hard as ya’ll, but it don’t look like the peace I fought for’s gonna last. I guess the only thing we can do now is make sure Jackie’s prepared for what’s waitin’ for her, so that she stands a chance at walkin’ away from all this.”

Norric nodded. “It’s better to be a predator, than prey.”

As its eastern neighbor, Gildesdale’s climate was largely similar to Equestria’s, but their geographies became vastly different only after a few dozen miles beyond their borders. Gildesdale’s hills leveled off, its forests gave way to vast, untamed prairies and endless blue skies, the wildlife turned savage, and the natives became hardened and proud. The roads and settlements of Gildesdale were few, the largest being the capital of Thatchholm to the north. The southern border was even less populated, due to the Great Southern Rainforest on the southwest, and the inhospitable Changeling Wastes on the other side of Eternity’s Crossing. Going even farther east eventually brought one to the shifting sands of Dromardia, where the shattered fragments of the Dromedary Empire fought endlessly over the sacred Nabaari Peninsula, and beyond that was the Marelantic Ocean, in which tens of thousands of islands made up the Equintorial Belt before finally ending at the ancient, mystical kingdom of Antelese.

The Necklace of Laughter glittered around Applejack’s neck as she trailed behind Norric and Granny, keeping her wings spread out to dry as she walked. The town of Gallopfrey had just come into view, and with her improved vision, she could make out its features before either of the others. The town was medium in size and circular in shape, with a twenty-foot wooden wall encompassing its borders that ended in menacing, spiked points. A stone path led south out of the city and into a well-kept harbor, where ships ranging from rowboats to galleons were docked. The few buildings Applejack could see over the wall were also made of wood, and above the city were sets of fluffy clouds in which pegasi flew back and forth. A set of gates guarded by a quartet of earth ponies dressed in brown leather armor stood before them, with a line of creatures waiting for admittance. The Great Southern Rainforest filled the rest of Applejack’s vision as swath of green, brown, and silver that filled the north and western horizon.

“Why’d the grass turn red all of a sudden?” Applejack had noted the change a hundred yards back, but hadn’t said anything as she’d been checking to see if her Geomancy was still working. It was, and she could tell the grass was still healthy despite its odd coloration. The cause of it, however, eluded her.

“Geyser fumes from the Changeling Wastes,” Norric explained. “It mixes with the clouds there, then travels over Eternity’s Crossing into Gildesdale. The Gallopfrey pegasi try to move the clouds out into the rainforest before anything comes down, but they don’t always make it in time.”

“Was wonderin’ why all the trees on the edge had silver leaves.” Granny squinted to get a better look at the Rainforest. “That can’t be healthy for the animals there, but it’s prolly better than the rain hitting the town. The water still seems alright in there, though, so I suppose it ain’t that bad.”

Applejack closed her eyes to see if she could sense the water Granny was referring to, and sure enough, a faint pull in her hooves told her of a stream just inside the Rainforest’s borders that was safe to drink. She hadn’t caught it at first, but then again, Granny always had been a better Geomancer due to Pinkie’s grandmother teaching her petriculture.

“Silver-leafed trees and bright red grass?” Applejack whistled. “Boy howdy, almost seems like we’re on an alien world, don’t it?”

“It can still be pretty in its own way,” Norric said. “The sunsets over the bay set the entire sky ablaze, and on nights when the wind is still, the ocean and sky meet to form a two-mooned, starry abyss.”

Granny chuckled. “Do you always say fancy things like that? Or is bein’ around a couple-a mares bringin’ out your poetic side?”

A slow smile crept up on Norric’s lips. “Thou thinkest that was poetic? Milady, I shall show thee poetic.

“Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

“So long as I can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Both Granny and Applejack had stopped to stare after the second stanza, and Norric had closed his eyes so he wouldn’t burst out laughing. He further hammed it up by putting a hoof to his chest and syncing up his voice to the rise and fall of the poem, and he finished with a flourishing bow that allowed him to open his eyes without losing his composure.

“Did you,” Applejack managed, “just quote Shakesmare... by heart?”

Norric finally cracked. He howled with laughter and reveled in their expressions as he pounded the ground.

Granny shook her head. “Of all the things I ever expected to hear come outta your mouth, that was definitely among the last.”

Norric waved a dismissive hoof. “Oh, come now, ‘tis no great feat to recite words that another has penned! To be both skilled with words and a blade was one of the many duties of a knight, and while this era’s speech often makes my tongue flounder, the old ways have wooed me many a suitress.”

Applejack’s eyes flickered to Norric’s flank. “And what happens when those suitresses find out you don’t have all your... equipment?”

Norric’s laughter abruptly died away as his ears reddened. “I, uh... wouldn’t know. I never let it get that far.”

Applejack grinned evilly as the words echoed in her ears. “You realize who you’re talkin’ to, right?”

Norric paled, and stammered a few times before breaking into a brisk trot.

“Time is short!” he exclaimed. “We must press on before the day expires!”

Now it was Applejack and Granny’s turn to laugh. They watched Norric run ahead towards Gallopfrey, and they followed after him at a slower, more leisurely pace.

“Almost a shame he ain’t a real stallion, isn’t it?” Granny whispered.

“I dunno.” Applejack examined Norric’s retreating form with an appraising eye. “He’s cute, but he’s a little on the short side.”

“More like you’re a little on the tall side.” Granny poked Applejack in the chest for emphasis. “I swear, between you and Mac I’m gonna wind up havin’ giants for great-grandchildren.”

Applejack’s ears drooped at the mention of her brother. “You’re sure he and Applebloom are alright?”

“You said you saw him turn all white and glowy like we did,” Granny replied calmly. “And I told you I saw one o’them light pillars shootin’ outta the cellar where Applebloom was hidin’. Princess Luna prolly zapped ‘em off somewhere safe, and once this is over, we’ll ask her where they are... along with demandin’ compensation for the damages to the farm, and the revenue we’ve now lost from missin’ the harvest.”

Applejack groaned. That last one was what stung the most.

Norric was holding a place in line for them when they got the gates. They got in beside him, and Applejack’s eyes wandered as they waited for admittance into Gallopfrey. The majority of the line was comprised of earth ponies and pegasi, but a few other races were in attendance, such as zebras, gryphons, rhenoceren, deer, and most strange of all, an oddly-clothed diamond dog.

The diamond dog was wearing a long duster and a green hooded garment, along a pair of thick bracers and an ornate staff that hung on his back. He was standing at the front of the line and squatting to be eye-level with one of the guards, holding the guard’s hoof in his paw like he was about to propose.

The guard didn’t seem to mind the contact, and was speaking to the diamond dog in a low voice that Applejack couldn’t hear. The diamond dog must’ve been whispering, too, because she couldn’t catch anything he was saying, either. They continued like this for a few minutes, but then, the diamond dog got to his feet without a word, brushed himself off, and waved the guards farewell. He then walked to a large, six-wheeled wagon parked a short ways away.

“Wonder what that was about?” Granny watched the diamond dog hitch himself up to the wagon.

The wagon rumbled forward with ease under the diamond dog’s strength, and went off towards the Great Southern Rainforest. As it did, Applejack saw that a piece of metal had been attached to the wagon's rear, emblazoned with the cryptic word: ‘SW4G’.

Applejack shrugged. “Got me.”

It took twenty minutes to get to the front of the line, as almost everypony had either a question for the guards or a weapon to turn in. When it was their turn, the guards asked them the typical questions of who they were and where they were from, to which Norric gave generic responses. They’d decided that while they could probably get help from the Gildsedale government if they told them what was going on, drawing attention to themselves risked attracting the eyes of Cetus and Eclipse. It was best to see if they could arrange for transport on their own for now, and if they couldn’t, then they’d go to the authorities.

A second guard waved to get Granny’s attention and pointed at Aconitum.

“Weapons aren’t allowed inside the city walls. You can leave it here with us, and pick it up when you leave.”

“Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen.” Granny turned to Norric and Applejack. “I think I’ll check out the harbor. Maybe there’s a ship goin’ west or somethin’ we can barter passage on.”

Applejack nodded. “Be careful.”

Granny left the line and followed the wall south to the docks. Applejack watched her leave, then turned back to address the guard.

“We’re lookin’ to join a caravan that’s headin’ through the Rainforest. Where’d be the best place to ask about that?”

“Pilgrim’s Pairings,” the guard replied. “Follow the street till you see a dark green building on your right, and ask for Pilgrim. She’ll let you know if there are any openings. Also, you might want to check the inns. Southern Comforts is the closest; it’s just past the gate here on your left.”

Applejack thanked the guard, then followed Norric into Gallopfrey proper. The main street was wide and made of stone, with several ponies walking and flying about on errands and tasks. Wooden buildings ranging from decrepit to newly-built were on either side, and the one to their left displayed a swinging sign that read ‘Southern Comforts.’ The main street continued on for several hundred yards before breaking into a crossroads with a flagpole in the center, where the Gildsedale flag waved proudly at the very top.

Applejack sniffed several times as an odd, enticing scent wafted past her nose. “What the hay is that smell?”

Norric sniffed as well, and immediately wrinkled his nose. “Fish. The pegasi catch it fresh, and then sell it in the marketplace here in the afternoon. They must’ve just come in with a catch.”

Applejack did a double-take. “You gotta be pullin’ my leg! No way any kinda fish smells that good!”

Norric grimaced. “I suppose it would smell good to you now, but it still stinks to me. Tell you what, why don’t you go see for yourself? Go check out the marketplace on your way to that Pilgrim place, and I’ll look around in the inns. We can meet up later.”

Applejack licked her lips. “Sounds good to me.”

Norric went inside the Southern Comforts Inn while Applejack made her way down the road. She noticed less earth ponies and more pegasi as she walked, which may or may not have had to do with the briny smell getting stronger. She followed her nose to the crossroads, and then turned right to behold the marketplace. Multiple stands were already set up, and dozens of fisherstallions flew about as they stocked their stands with tuna. Vegetable stands were set up as well, and pegasi hovered in line as they impatiently waited for the market to open.

Applejack’s mouth watered as she inhaled deeply and took in the heavenly scent. A small part of her was still unnerved at the idea of eating meat, but it wouldn’t be her first time doing so. She’d tried some a few times while hanging out with Rainbow and Fluttershy, and while the texture was certainly weird, it wasn’t all that bad. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any money to barter with, so she reluctantly continued on to Pilgrim’s Pairings.

The Southern Comforts Inn was much the same as Norric recalled—a dim, round room with scattered tables and creaky chairs, a dusty, unlit hearth in the far corner, and a bar where a gray earth pony stallion absentmindedly wiped off the counter. The walls were lined with pictures of the sea and the rainforest, and a ceiling fan slowly rotated from above. Norric had stayed here when he’d visited a few years ago, and he remembered that the beer had been excellent. True, it was a bit early for drinking, but a pint along with lunch wasn’t going to do any harm, and if they really were going into the rainforest, Celestia only knew when he’d get to relax again like this.

However, Norric’s appetite disappeared into a hole that formed in his stomach, for when he took a look around the inn, he realized that something was very, very wrong.

Firstly, the place was eerily quiet, despite being every table being occupied with three to five ponies. The only sounds Norric heard came from the occasional squeak of a chair or the clink of a glass, and everypony was staring off into space with the same unfocused eyes. Everypony had drinks, but none of them had any food despite that it was almost lunchtime, and they swayed back and forth with dopey grins on their faces. The only pony who’d even taken notice of Norric’s arrival was the bartender, who stared at him with narrowed, shifty eyes.

Norric suspected he knew what was going on, but he couldn’t do anything without knowing more first. He kept a straight face and walked to the counter, then sat at a stool and waited for the bartender to come over.

“First time to Gallopfrey?” the bartender asked.

“Second.” Norric looked over at the other ponies sitting at the bar. Their eyes were all half-lidded, and their mouths were hanging open. “Was here a few years ago on my way to visit family. Didn’t have so many drunkards in here the last time, though.”

The bartender hung his rag on his shoulder. “They’re celebrating the good harvest the pegasi have had this year. With all the fish they’ve caught, we’ll have enough money to expand the town and hire more guards.”

The lie was so obvious it was almost painful, but Norric played along. “Is that so? Well then, I’d hate to be left out on the festivities! I think I’ll have whatever everypony else seems to be enjoying so much!”

The bartender grinned. “Sure thing.”

Norric patiently waited while the bartender went over and poured a glass of frothy beer from the other side of the counter. He turned his back to Norric for a second, then slid the beer over. Norric caught it, held it up to the light, and examined the alcohol’s color and thickness.

“Looks like a good batch,” he commented.

The bartender winked. “First one’s on the house.”

“Indeed!” Norric raised his mug in a toast. “To success!”

He pretended to take a swig, but kept his lips tightly closed and took a deep whiff of the beer instead. Sure enough, Norric caught the oversweet, heady scent he’d been dreading, and an ancient memory of Capricorn’s suddenly swept him back in time.

“What is that, Father?”

Capricorn sat along with his six brothers and sisters around the breakfast table, curiously examining the three-inch long, white pointed object their father had just placed in front of them.

“The fang of a changeling.” Their father gave the fang to Capricorn. “I found it yesterday while scavenging. Learn its scent well, but take heed not to cut thyself.”

Capricorn gingerly sniffed the fang, then blinked as he looked back up at his father.

“It is sweet!” Capricorn said. “Almost like candy!”

Their father shook his head. “Do not be tempted. That is the smell of phora, a powerful toxin changelings carry in their bodies. A single scratch will put thee in a stupor for several hours.”

Capricorn jerked the fang away from his nose, then passed it off to Seeker as their father continued.

“Changelings are mindless, soulless beasts that can take the form of any creature that they see. They take the place of the pony they have copied, and feed off the love of family and friends to survive. They have been known to take over entire towns by doing this.”

Seeker spoke up. “But Father, didst thou not say that the Sun Goddess made a pact with the changelings long ago?”

“Peccatum Pactum, their father replied. “The changelings do not to leave their lands in exchange for receiving our most malicious criminals, but a day may come when their accursed Queen desires more than our society’s refuse. I would have all of thee know what to watch for rather than spend the rest of thy lives in some foul pod, so pay attention if thou wishest to avoid such a fate. Changelings are weaker than ponies, and so prefer to work through stealth, but have been known to organize and fight in large groups. For instance, one of their favorite tactics is to put phora in one’s food and drink.”

“Wait,” Capricorn said. “If phora only comes from their fangs, how do they get it... into...”

Their father made a face. “How dost thou think?”

All seven children stuck out their tongues.

“Ewwwwww!”

Norric lowered his glass and wiped the foam from his mouth, not bothering to hide his disgust anymore.

“You know, I may be a bit behind the times, but I’m pretty sure it’s still rude to spit in other ponies’ drinks.”

Norric splashed the bartender in the face with the poisoned beer. He recoiled in surprise, and Norric took the opportunity to smash the empty glass over the counter, then slice the side of the bartender’s cheek.

The bartender was too preoccupied with the beer to realize he’d been cut, but this didn’t surprise Norric, as the fluid that started to weep out from his wound was a sickly, yellowish substance.

Norric jumped on top of the counter as he stared the bartender down.

“I see you... Changeling.”

The bartender hissed and burst into green flame. A second later, the imposter was a jet black creature covered in a chitinous shell with bug-like wings, sky blue eyes, and sharp, pearl fangs. It lunged at Norric, but he stepped to the side, stuck out his hoof, and caught the changeling's neck in a clothesline. Norric then slammed it into the counter, and bashed the side of its head with a vicious strike, which caused the creature to go limp.

“So much for relaxing.” Norric looked up and shouted at the comatose patrons. “Anypony who can still walk... should...”

Norric suddenly realized not all the patrons were comatose anymore. Several stallions had gotten up from their seats, and with several more flashes of green flame, over a dozen changelings slowly advanced on him, their dripping fangs gleaming wickedly in the dim light. The remaining ponies were so far gone they couldn’t even speak, and most of them had slumped over unconscious in their seats.

Norric facehooved. “Worst. Bar. Ever.”

There was a piercing scream. Norric looked over the changelings, and saw a young zebra at the entrance. Her eyes bulged as she took in the terrifying scene.

“C-C-Changelings!”

The changelings turned as one and advanced on her instead.

“RUN!” Norric yelled. He leapt off the counter, picked up a barstool, and smashed it over the head of the nearest changeling with a loud crunch. He then turned and bucked another square in the chest, which was enough to get the remaining changeling’s attention back on him.

The zebra turned and fled out the door, shrieking as loud as she could. Three of the changelings pursued her, but the rest stayed to deal with Norric. He cracked his neck as they charged him.

“Once more, into the fray.”

“Ah, hello?” Applejack asked. “Anypony home?”

Pilgrim’s Pairings was exactly as the guard described—a dark-green two-story building on the other side of town with flimsy brown shutters. The main floor of the building reminded Applejack of Twilight’s library, except it was square in shape and didn’t have a loft. Rows of bookshelves stretched up to the concave ceiling that broke only for the occasional hexagonal window, and the floor was lined with soft, cushy black carpet. In the back right of the room was a closed door, from which Applejack could hear the sounds of somepony moving about.

“Coming!” The back door opened, and out stepped a middle-aged pegasus mare with a black coat, orange eyes, and a vibrant green mane. Her cutie mark was a trio of interlocking hexagons, and she smiled warmly as she saw Applejack at the entrance.

“Why, hello there!” the pegasus said. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before. You new in town?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Applejack tipped her hat. “My name’s Applejack, and I was told you’re the mare to see about joining a caravan headin’ to Equestria.”

“Applejack?” the pegasus’ eyes flickered to the Necklace of Laughter, but Applejack didn’t take notice. “That’s an Apple Clan name if I ever heard one! I didn’t know they had any pegasi among their ranks.”

Applejack wasn’t sure what caught her more off guard, that a random pony in Gildesdale had heard of her family, or that she’d just been called a pegasus. It hadn’t really crossed her mind that that’s what ponies would see her as, and the realization sent a shiver up her spine.

“Oh, um... yeah.” Applejack wiggled her wings. “I’m a pegasus. I, uh... kick clouds... and stuff.”

The mare gave her an odd look. “Well, yes, I suppose that’s what many of us do. I myself excuse myself from such strenuous activities these days, but to each their own. Oh! I didn’t tell you my name, did I? I’m Pilgrim, cartographer extraordinaire and owner of this establishment.”

“Nice to meet ya,” Applejack said. “And yeah, I’m from the Apple Clan. I take it you been to Equestria before?”

Pilgrim tittered. “There and beyond, dear. I was something of a wanderer in my youth, and I traveled all around the world in search of something I never quite found. I returned here to pick up my family’s business after they passed away, and I’ve been here ever since. But enough about little old me. You said something about looking to join a caravan?”

“If there are any headin’ out.” Applejack looked around at the books. “I’d fly there myself, but I’m travelin with two uh, e-earth ponies... and I don’t wanna leave ‘em behind.”

“Traveling with the landbound is always such a hindrance.” Pilgrim scratched her chin. “I’m afraid you’re out of luck at the moment. There are only two parties in town heading into the rainforest, and both of them are only going to hunt.”

Applejack sucked on her teeth as she thought for a moment. “Might just hafta go through ourselves, then. Got any maps I can look at?”

Pilgrim grinned. “I might have one or two.” She gestured to the shelf immediately to Applejack’s right, which was filled with maps of not only the Rainforest, but the Zhevra Flatlands, Gildesdale, Equestria, Tarandus, Drakkenridge, and most interesting of all... the Changeling Wastes.

Applejack did a double take. “Who in the world was crazy enough to map out that place?!” She pulled out the map and started to open it up.

“Ah!” Pilgrim snatched the map away and put it under her wing. “How did that get in there?! I’m so sorry, but that’s not for sale. It must’ve accidentally got put in with the others when I was shelving yesterday!”

Applejack eyed the wing where the map was stowed. “Can ya at least show it to me? I’ve always been curious about what the place looks like.”

“Well...” Pilgrim rubbed the back of her neck. “I normally don’t show this to others, but then again, I’d be quite the hypocrite if I denied the curiosity of another pony! I suppose a look couldn’t hurt. I mean, it’s not like you’re actually going—”

Pilgrim was interrupted by several screams from outside. Both she and Applejack jumped, and turned as one to the open door.

“What in the world was that?!” Pilgrim said.

“Dunno, but I doubt it’s anythin’ good!” Applejack ran out the door.

“Wait!” Pilgrim called after her, but it was too late. She ran over to one of the windows to see Applejack run down the street and out of sight.

“Quite the spirit in that one.” Pilgrim saw several ponies running into buildings, closing doors and shutting windows. She was confused at first, but then, she heard a familiar buzzing and hissing sound from the center of town.

Pilgrim paled. “No... Chryssy, you didn’t....”

The streets were in chaos as Applejack ran back towards Southern Comforts. Ponies were running everywhere, some of them in a state of panic, others with a predatory look in their eyes. Doors were being slammed shut all around her, but she paid no heed to any of it as she continued on. An earth pony staggered out into the street right in front of her, and she only barely managed to avoid running into him.

“Hey!” Applejack caught the stallion and put a hoof on his shoulder. “Watch where you’re goin’! I almost—”

The stallion’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he collapsed in Applejack’s arms. She caught him, and saw that he was bleeding profusely from a set of puncture holes on the side of his neck.

Applejack gulped. “That ain’t good...”

A pegasus swooped down from the sky, completely ignored Applejack, and snatched the fallen stallion out of her arms. It started to carry him away, but before it could, a lasso shot out from behind and caught one of his back legs.

The pegasus looked back and saw Applejack, who held the end of the rope in her mouth as her emerald eyes shone with brilliant light.

“I don’t think so, bug-boy.”

Applejack yanked on the rope, and the changeling was slammed to the ground with a loud thump. She then ran up and backhoofed him, which sent him flying across the street and crashing into one of the buildings.

“I said I was curious about what the Changelin’ Wastes looked like!” Applejack yelled to nopony in particular. “I never said I wanted to meet the natives!”

Applejack could now see that there were several dozen changelings in the street thanks to her Truthsense. They were divebombing and biting anypony they could, and several ponies had already fallen unconscious in the streets. She wanted to get to Norric and Granny, but she also knew she couldn’t just leave these ponies alone. She had power, and while she’d originally thought she’d only need to use it to only protect her family and friends, she now realized she couldn’t just ignore everypony else.

“First the Rust Beetles and now this.” Applejack rolled her eyes. “If this keeps up, I’m gonna hafta invest in a giant-sized flyswatter.”

The ground rumbled underneath Applejack’s hooves as she spread her wings and took aim at the nearest changeling. She didn’t really want to take to the air, but she couldn’t get at them from the ground. She still couldn’t sustain flight for very long, but that wasn’t an issue for what she intended.

Applejack’s shoulders and flight muscles tingled as she tapped into her Strength power.

“Hope this works!”

Applejack flapped her wings as hard as she could. She shot forth like an orange missile and collided with her target with a crunch, which shattered his fragile body like he was made of glass. She shoved him away, watched him fall to the ground, then turned around for another go. She centered on a changeling in the center of town chasing after a foal, and she rocketed toward it with blazing speed.

Unfortunately, Applejack misjudged her aim. She soared past the changeling and crashed straight through the wall of the building, then the living room, a bedroom, and then finally, out through the other wall and into an alleyway.

Applejack was unharmed, but she was considerably frustrated by her miss. She kicked a piece of rubble as she shook herself off.

“Horseapples! That shouldn’t have happened—”

She suddenly stopped and smirked as her eyes pulsed with the power of the Element of Honesty.

“Actually, yeah... that didn’t happen.

A swirling, opaque dome formed around Applejack, and she heard a loud click as time itself came to a grinding halt. She felt herself being carried backwards back through the building, and watched as the walls repaired themselves in front of her. She went past the changeling she’d intended to hit, then back to when she’d turned around in the air. The entire chain of events had taken thirteen seconds, and while Applejack felt like she could’ve gone back a little more, her mind was starting to feel strained from the effort.

Applejack released the dome and let time resume. “Let’s try that again.”

She flew forward, but this time, she landed on the ground ten feet behind the changeling, folded her wings, and jumped to deliver a brutal shoulder ram. The changeling screeched and sailed down the street, smashing into two others as it did.

The attack was enough for the other changelings to take notice of Applejack. They quickly organized themselves to counterattack, and the air was filled with hisses, snarls and chitters as twenty changelings surrounded her in a circle, ten on the ground and ten in the air.

Applejack adjusted her hat, spat to the side, and addressed the changelings in a quiet voice that rumbled like a rockslide.

“Ya’ll sure you wanna tussle with this?”

The changelings pounced in response. Applejack raised her hooves and struck the ground as hard as she could, which caused a shockwave that cracked the ground and knocked half the changelings off their hooves. The ones in the air paid no heed and continued, and Applejack was simultaneously assaulted by several pairs of fangs and hooves. None of the attacks were successful, though, as the changeling’s fangs couldn’t pierce her skin, and their bucks bounced off her like she was made of concrete.

Applejack snickered as she weathered the blows. “Well, ain’t that somethin’?” She bucked a changeling behind her with a sickening splurch. “Almost feels like you’re ticklin’ me! Come on boys, I thought ya’ll meant business! Don’t hold back on me just ‘cause I’m a girl!”

A changeling screeched and swung at her head. Applejack blocked the strike, grabbed its hoof, then swung it around in an arc. The changeling slammed into its brethren and knocked them away like bowling pins, and Applejack continued to swing her impromptu weapon like a flail to take out five more. A new changeling jumped onto her back and pinned her wings to her sides, and while Appleajck spun around to try and get it off, she couldn't shake it loose.

“Wanna play like that, eh?” Applejack dropped her changeling ‘flail’ and bent her legs. “Let’s see if you can handle this!”

Applejack jumped into the air as high as she could. She sailed up over the rooftops of Gallopfrey and high into the sky, just shy of fifty feet. The changeling realized what she was intending and tried to get away, but Applejack opened her wings, turned herself around, and wrapped the creature around in a bear hug.

“Where you goin’, sugarcube?!” Applejack smiled evilly. “I ain’t done with you yet!”

They started to fall, and Applejack let out a mighty whoop as she rolled around so that she was on top.

“YEE-HAW! RIDE ‘EM, CHANGELING!”

The changeling made a gurgling noise, and spat directly into Applejack’s open mouth. She gagged and flew away in surprise, leaving the changeling to slam into the ground while she landed roughly on a nearby rooftop. She fell to her knees and desperately tried to purge herself of the contaminant, but to no avail.

“Low-down, dirty, rotten trick...” Applejack furiously wiped at her mouth as she glared at the small crater where the changeling had landed. “Spit in my mouth, will ya?! I’d buck you into next week if you weren’t already—”

There was the sound of shattering of glass to her left, followed by a faint blast of heat. Applejack looked down the street and saw Norric, appearing to her as an eyeless, semi-transparent ghost with a golden ball in his chest. He was covered in scratches and scrapes, and he walked down the street with a torch in his mouth and several bottles with soaked rags stuck in them. In front him was a changeling that was on fire, and a second one now ran at him from the right. Norric turned, pulled out a bottle, lit the rag on fire, and hurled it at the changeling with all his might.

The bottle struck true. It shattered on the changeling’s head, then burst into a blazing fireball. The changeling shrieked and rolled on the ground, but it didn’t suffer long, for then Norric calmly walked over to it and stomped on its throat in a quick, clean strike. The changeling went still, and Norric continued to walk forward as if he’d done nothing more exciting than cross the street.

Applejack cringed. She spread her wings and glided down to him, but took care to be in plain sight.

“Hey!”

Norric saw her and quickly closed the distance. His bottles sloshed loudly as he checked her over for any signs of injury.

“You alright?”

Applejack made a guttural noise of disgust. “One of the little varmints spat in my mouth. You said I’m immune to poison or somethin’, right?”

“That’s what Blair told me,” Norric said. “Trust me, if the phora was affecting you, you wouldn’t be able to walk, much less fly.”

Applejack eyed the bottles at Norric’s sides. “I take it you had some fun at the bar. How are you tellin’ which ones are—”

The changelings from before returned, but this time with reinforcements. Applejack and Norric moved back to back as the swarm surrounded them, and they suddenly found themselves facing down two dozen snarling foes.

Norric readied a new bottle. “Fight now, talk later.”

“Pleasure to meet you, fellow Equestrian! I’m Captain Flashing Steel of the H.M.S. Dawnchaser. My first mate Zamuri tells me that you’re trying to get to Dragon Turtle Lake.”

Granny stood at the far edge of a pier beside a massive, triple-masted galleon several hundred feet long. Flashing Steel was a green earth pony with a metal plate welded onto the left side of his face and a mechanical left eye. He wore a black captain’s coat that concealed his cutie mark, and a thin sheathed katana that rested at his side. Zamuri was a scrawny blue pegasus with a long, unkempt mane, and his cutie mark was an axe cutting through a block of wood.

“Edith Smith, Matriarch of the Apple Clan.” Granny nodded back towards Gallopfrey. “There’s three of us in total. We don’t got any money, but we’re all willing to pull our weight, and once we get back to Equestria, I’ll give ya a twenty percent discount on apples for life.”

Flashing Steel chuckled. “You’re definitely a businessmare, at least. I know of the Apple family, Ms. Smith, and I’ll be happy to take you up on the deal, but the Dawnchaser’s too big to travel up the Sirimto River. We can take you as far as Lyora, but then—”

Flashing Steel’s left eye suddenly whistled, and rotated on its own to focus on Aconitum.

“Oho, what do we have here?” Flashing Steel’s eye made several loud, clicking sounds. “Ghost-Touch... Keen... some kind of Bane... Wounding... Returning... Dancing...”

Flashing Steel let out an incredulous laugh and met Granny’s eyes.

“...and last, but certainly not least, Vorpal. Impressive amount of enchantments you’ve got on that axe, there. Made of Lunairium, I’m guessing?”

Granny was undeterred. “O’course. Ain’t any other metal that can handle that much magic in it.”

Flashing Steel cast a sidelong glance to Zamuri, then coughed and scratched his nose. “And why exactly does an apple farmer need a weapon like that?”

Granny was about to reply, but just then, a series of crashes and screams came from the direction of Gallopfrey. The three of them turned, and Granny felt a chill as she saw smoke rising from within the town.

“Jackie...”

A trio of ponies galloped down the dock towards them. Their expressions were feral, and Granny noted with alarm that they weren’t slowing down.

“Might wanna tell your crewmembers to slow down, there!”

Flashing Steel’s left eye turned red and let out several shrill beeps.

“This is turning into an interesting day.” Flashing Steel calmly turned to Granny. “Edith, was it? Would you kindly eviscerate those ponies running at us? They’re changelings in disguise.”

Granny didn’t hesitate. She pulled out Aconitum, took aim, and flung it with practiced ease. The axe turned into a silent, whirling disc of death, and she commanded it to fly out over the water in a wide arc. The ponies took no heed to Aconitum, but Granny wanted one last test to be sure. With utmost precision, she nicked each one of the ponies’ legs in a single pass, and saw a yellow, ooze-like substance seep out from each of their wounds.

“Ah, hayseed.”

Granny made three dismissive swipes with her hoof, and three loud thumps reverberated through the dock. Aconitum then plunged into the water, cleaned itself off, and sped back to hover just behind of Granny as she ran back towards Gallopfrey.

Zamuri cleared his throat as he watched Granny leave. “Orders, Captain?”

Flashing Steel eyed the beheaded corpses of the changelings, then turned back towards the Dawnchaser. “Prepare to set sail for Equestria.”

Zamuri blinked. “We’re not going to help the Gildsedans?”

“No need,” Flashing Steel replied. “That mare could kill a small army with that axe. We need to warn Princess Celestia that the Changelings have broken the Peccatum Pactum so she can send reinforcements.”

Zamuri saluted. “Aye-aye, sir.”

“On the left, running towards us!”

Norric threw a flaming bottle at a unicorn dashing down the street beside them. The bottle broke, and the changeling shrieked and dropped its disguise. It ran around in a panic for a few seconds, then fell on the ground in a smoldering heap.

Many of the residents had now taken up arms and were helping Applejack and Norric to fight off the changelings, but the problem was many of them were still in disguise. Applejack could see them and was now directing the attacks of two-dozen odd ponies, but she had to be descriptive because she couldn’t see what the disguises looked like.

Applejack pointed. “Two of ‘em are chasing a pegasus flyin’ around the flagpole!”

Three pegasi and a gryphon took off. The changelings saw them coming and tried to scatter, but the pegasus they were chasing used the opportunity to circle around and tackle one of them to the ground. The rest of them chased after the other changeling, and they dispatched it a short time later.

Applejack looked around. They were surrounded by charred and crushed corpses, but she’d no idea how much of a dent they’d made in their numbers. The streets were now thinning out, but that very well could just have been a sign that the battle had moved elsewhere.

“One’s runnin’ towards the marketplace!” Applejack said. The changeling rounded the corner, and three earth ponies gave chase. She turned to Norric as they left. “You alerted the guards, right?”

“I tried to.” Norric was taking the brief reprieve to take stock of how many bottles he had left. “I yelled to the ones that were standing at the gate, but two of them were changelings and bit the others before I could stop them. It’s common for them to take the place of the authorities when they’re planning an invasion, so I wouldn’t count much on reinforcements.”

“Dandy.” Applejack looked around for more changelings, but the streets were now clear. “Though it don’t look like they’re comin’ for us anymore. Maybe we should—”

One of the earth ponies who’d ran down to the marketplace returned. He was shivering as he skidded to a halt in front of Applejack and Norric.

“There’s a huge changeling down there almost as big as a house!” the earth pony said with wild eyes. “It can spew out phora like a dragon can breathe flame! The changelings are all taking the drugged townsponies there!”

Applejack and Norric exchanged a glance, then ran off together towards the marketplace. They rounded the corner, and where Applejack had earlier seen the pegasi fish market, there were now fifty changelings hovering around and carrying sedated ponies into a nearby building. In the far-corner was a changeling fifteen feet tall with diaphanous wings, a thick, ebony shell, a long, jagged horn, and a set of fin-like spines that went from head to tail. The creature saw them, and it let loose a deep, screech-like roar in challenge. The smaller changelings then turned as one and flew to intercept.

“I’m almost out of bottles,” Norric said to Applejack as they ran. “You deal with the little ones while I keep the big guy busy, then we’ll take him out together!”

“Got it,” Applejack said.

“STOP!”

Instantly, the smaller changelings came to a halt, landed, and touched their heads to the ground. Applejack and Norric obeyed the command more out of surprise than anything else, but they regained themselves and looked to the source of the voice.

A tall, regal changeling stood on top of the building to Applejack and Norric’s left. Her horn was curved like a scythe, her mane and tail were bright green, and her eyes were the color of a harvest moon. She was wearing an ebony tiara set with a hexagonal gem, and most shocking of all, she had a cutie mark of three interlocking hexagons.

Applejack’s lips parted. “Pil... grim?”

Pilgrim’s expression was steely as she kept her gaze fixed on the giant changeling. “What’s the meaning of this, Veraxi?!”

The giant changeling did a double take at the name. He didn’t bow, but he stared hard at Pilgrim, or more accurately, the tiara she was wearing on her head. He narrowed his eyes and made a chittering sound.

“What do you mean, ‘where’d I get that,’ you idiot?!” Pilgrim spread her delicate wings and flew down to the street. “Stop asking moronic questions and answer me! Does Chrysalis truly intend to break the Peccatum Pactum?!”

A realization came to Applejack. She stopped drawing from the Element of Honesty, and her Truthsense faded away. Norric turned back into a normal stallion next to her, and sure enough, Pilgrim reverted back to the pegasus form she’d seen before.

“What in the world is she doing?” Norric muttered to Applejack.

“She’s one of them,” Applejack whispered back. “At least, I think she is. There’s something different about her.”

Veraxi didn’t respond. He waited until Pilgrim approached, then bent his head down and sniffed her. He backed away a second later, and threw back his head in a cruel laugh.

Pilgrim gritted her teeth. “End this. Chrysalis has never kept her desire for conquest a secret, but her ambitions will bring about nothing but ruin! Return to Pandemonium, and tell her—”

Veraxi apparently wasn’t in the mood to talk. He raised a hoof, struck Pilgrim in the side, and she went sailing several feet before skidding to the ground, unconscious. Veraxi then roared at the smaller changelings, and they got back to their hooves with a chorus of menacing snarls.

“Time-out’s over!” Norric lit two of his five remaining bottles and threw them to clear a path. “Stick to the plan!”

“Alright!”

Applejack searched the marketplace for some kind of weapon. The fish stands that’d been set up earlier were still around, and most of them were still intact. She smirked, ran to one, bent down, and lifted it up over her shoulders with ease. She then hurled it as hard as she could at the disoriented changelings, and the twelve-foot wooden stand smacked into seven of them before crashing into splinters.

“Yoo-hoo!” Applejack stamped her hooves on the ground again, and the stone street cracked under the force. “Over here, ya overgrown roaches!”

The smaller changelings split off, and Norric was left in the clear. Veraxi saw him coming, took a deep, ominous breath, and spewed forth a wide stream of sweet-smelling phora. Norric rolled to the side to avoid it, but he dropped his torch in his haste. It clattered to the ground, and was extinguished by the sticky toxin.

Norric cursed. He was already bleeding from several scrapes, and he’d be out like a light if any phora got in his wounds. He was at a major disadvantage here, but it was easier to dodge the attacks of one enemy than several, so all he needed to do was buy time until Applejack took care of the smaller changelings.

Veraxi raised his hoof to stomp Norric flat. Norric feinted to the right and avoided the strike, then searched for a weakness to exploit. He didn’t have a lot of experience with changelings, save for what Capricorn’s father had said. Veraxi’s eyes or spine seemed like the best bet, but he couldn’t get at them unless he lowered his head. Norric thought he might be able to manage it if he could get on top on his head somehow, but he’d need a distraction for that.

Norric moaned and dodged another swing. “Where’s Tastar when you need him?!”

Meanwhile, the smaller changelings had realized they couldn’t hurt Applejack, so they’d spread out to avoid getting hit by any more flying fish carts. They were staying just out of her reach and resorting to hit and run attacks, which was making her increasingly frustrated. Applejack knew she could take to the air after them, but they were more agile than she was, and she wasn’t about to abandon Norric to go careening all over Gallopfrey.

“Get down here so I can clean your clocks!” Applejack threw her lasso and caught a changeling around the waist, but a second one snuck up and yanked her tail. She whirled to face the pest, but it’d already flown away, and the changeling she’d lassoed wriggled free. She pulled back the rope for another try, but the changelings scattered and distanced themselves before she could.

An idea came to Applejack. Her Rejection of Fate was supposed to allow her to go back in time, right? Maybe she could use it to stop, or slow down time, as well! She understood that her influence was limited to her immediate surroundings, but if she could catch any of the changelings in the dome...

Applejack grinned as her eyes flared dangerously.

“Don’t wanna stay still, huh?! Fine! I’ll make you—”

A dark red axe whizzed over Applejack’s head. It bisected the changeling she’d tried to lasso, then continued on to slaughter four more in the same fashion. Bright yellow blood fell like rain, and Applejack turned to see Granny, who’d soundlessly appeared at her side as she directed Aconitum’s path with dark, cold eyes.

Applejack felt a chill. “Granny...”

“I’ll get the small fry.” Granny’s coat, mane and tail were speckled with yellow splotches, but otherwise looked unharmed. “Go and help Norric.”

Applejack bit her lip, but did what she was told. She ran past the harassing changelings and went to Norric, who was darting back and forth as he continued to avoid Veraxi’s attacks. Two changelings chased after her, but Granny twisted her hoof, and Aconitum accelerated to twice its speed. The axe sliced through them like they were made of paper, and their remains thudded loudly to the ground.

“Come to Granny, boys.” Aconitum sped back and orbited around her like a spinning satellite of death. “My axe is thirsty.”

Norric waited until Veraxi brought his hoof down again, then bucked him as hard as he could. Unfortunately, his hooves bounced off Veraxi’s hard, armored shell, and his only reward was a jolt of pain up both his legs. Norric then tried to back away, but Veraxi shoved him to the ground, and held him down as he took another deep breath.

“Not good.” Norric shut his eyes...

...and then opened them to find himself sitting on Applejack’s back, hovering twenty feet in the air directly above Veraxi.

“What the...” Norric watched Veraxi release a spew of phora at nothing in particular. “Did you just...”

Applejack swiveled her neck and winked at him.

“Eeyup.”

Veraxi stopped his attack when he discovered that Norric had mysteriously disappeared. He looked underneath himself, then all around, but didn’t think to look up.

“Hey, Norric?” Applejack whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Remember... when you said... you always liked tryin’... to find new ways... to do things?”

“Uh...” Norric noticed that Applejack was panting hard and shaking slightly. “What are you going to do?”

Applejack closed her eyes and focused on her Element. Honesty was the truth. Honesty was pure, and unfaltering. To be honest meant to hold fast to one’s morals in the face of doubt, and not give in to lies and deception. Applejack was the rock that others could turn to for support. She was a pony of integrity and virtue, and could always be trusted to do what was right. She was an example to be followed, and when she passed on, her morals would be carried on by the next generation. It was true that farming was a simple life, but it was that simplicity that gave her such clarity, for it allowed her to appreciate what truly mattered, and that was something she wouldn’t give up for the world.

Applejack opened her eyes, which now shone brighter than ever with dazzling emerald light. Newfound strength coursed through her limbs, and she flashed Norric a confident smile.

“Watch this.”

Click.

Time stopped once more under the power of Rejection of Fate. The swirling opaque dome formed around Applejack, and she folded her wings and dove down at Veraxi. She’d found she could indeed hold time in place, but only for a very short time, and she’d tested her limits when she’d moved Norric out of Veraxi’s line of fire. She needed to be quick about this, but she also didn’t want to overdo it, as she’d rather not have a repeat of what’d happened with Eclipse.

Applejack landed on Veraxi’s back. She raised her backhooves, took aim, and bucked him right in the back of his head. She felt his shell cave, and heard his spine break with an audible snap! She made sure Norric hadn’t fallen off from the strike, then took back to the air and released her hold on time.

The effect was instant. Veraxi didn’t roar, cry out, or make any kind of noise. His last breath left his lungs with an eerie rattle, and he fell to the ground with a loud thud. The remaining changelings went wild and fled upon the death of their leader, but Granny ensured that they didn’t get far. A slaughter ensued, and less minute later, the invasion of Gallopfrey came to an end.

Applejack fell to her knees as soon as she touched the ground. Norric jumped off her back and tried to help her up, but she held up a hoof and shook her head.

“I’m alright,” she gasped. “I just need... a minute is all.”

Norric patted her shoulder and sat down beside her. “I’d say you’ve earned it. That was nice trick, by the way.”

Applejack started to laugh, but a sharp pain in her head stopped her short. “I’m just glad... it worked. Don’t think... I’ll be tryin’ it again... anytime soon, though.”

“Damn right, you ain’t.”

Granny was walking over to them from the other side of the marketplace. “You’d be a sittin’ duck right now if there were more changelings around. That ability may be powerful, but ya need to be mindful about usin’ it from now on.”

Applejack was quiet for a moment and concentrated on regaining her breath. She looked over at the remains of Veraxi, then the corpse-strewn marketplace, and suddenly, the realization of what she’d done hit her like a punch to the gut. Veraxi had been another living, thinking being, and she’d killed him without even a second thought. It’d been so easy, too... she’d just pretended his head was one of the apple trees back home. And as for the smaller changelings, they may have been mindless, but that didn’t erase the memories of their shells breaking under her hooves, their blood spraying her coat, or their cries of pain as Norric burned them alive—

Applejack vomited all over the cobblestones.

“Gah!” Norric recoiled and jumped away. Granny, however, did the opposite. She sprinted over to Applejack and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“It’s okay, Jackie, it’s okay!”

Applejack’s eyes unfocused as the panic began to set in.

“I... I...”

Granny shook her, hard. “Listen ‘ere, young lady! We all just done terrible things, but it was necessary in order to survive! These critters woulda taken you, me, Norric, and everypony else in this town prisoner if we hadn’t stopped ‘em, and we all woulda spent the rest of our lives hangin’ in a pod! Would you have wanted that?! Would you have been fine with never seein’ Mac, Applebloom, or any of your friends ever again?!”

Applejack hadn’t been prepared for this. She hadn’t known that the true horror of battle came after it was over, and she was only barely hanging on now that it was all setting in. She probably would’ve already lost it had Granny not been there.

Granny pulled Applejack to her hooves and away from the stain on the ground. “Remember how it felt when we lost Jonny, Cinny, and Penny? This is just like that, except it’s a heckuva lot easier to get over. Ya don’t gotta do it now, but ya gotta accept what you’ve done, or it’ll just rot ya from the inside out. Understand?”

Applejack’s breathing evened out as Granny’s words struck all the right chords. She realized that the pain did indeed feel similar, albeit nowhere near as bad, and if she could get over a loss like that, she could get over this, too. She could do this. She could accept what’d happened, and move on. It would be hard, but she had Granny and Norric to help her, and she in turn would help them.

“I’m gonna go check out that building they were taking all the townsponies into,” Norric said. “I’ll bet that’s where they were putting everypony in pods.”

Applejack wiped off her mouth as Norric walked away. “How’d you find us?”

Granny turned and saw that a small crowd of ponies were now heading towards them from the main street. “The changelings attacked the harbor, and I saw the two of ya by the flagpole as I was runnin’ into town. You both ran off before I could get in earshot, though, so I just followed after ya.”

Applejack laughed weakly. “Prolly didn’t have time to find a ship then, I’m guessing.”

“I think we got bigger things to worry about at the moment,” Granny said. “Like why exactly these changelings attacked Gallopfrey in the first place.”

Applejack pursed her lips, then looked over at Pilgrim, who was sprawled unconscious on the ground a dozen feet away.

“I think I know somepony who can answer that.”

Norric’s investigation of the building revealed a secret passage that led to a hastily-made, underground cavern. The captured ponies were being held inside, suspended within fleshy, phora-filled pods that hung from the walls and ceiling. It was discovered that nearly all of the town’s officials and guards had been captured either before, or during the battle, and so the rescue efforts were slow and disorganized. Meanwhile, nopony besides Applejack and Norric had seen Pilgrim talk with Veraxi, and so there wasn’t any objection when they asked if they could take her back to her shop.

Applejack, Granny, and Norric now stood in the back room of Pilgrim’s Pairings, which was a messy office filled with scattered papers, broken quills, pictures of far-off locales, and various cartography tools. They’d tied Pilgrim to a chair, and were now going through her things as they waited for her to wake up.

“Found anything?” Norric was leaning on the door and holding an ice pack on his head.

“Nothin’ that screams ‘traitor.’” Granny opened the drawer of the desk to find several spare inkwells, three compasses, and a sextant. “Save for that tiara thing, anyway.”

Applejack was holding the item in question as she stared at Pilgrim. “The big guy seemed really surprised that she had this. I wonder if—”

Pilgrim stirred. The three of them stopped what they were doing, and turned their attention to her as she slowly opened her eyes.

“Ugh.” Pilgrim tried to raise a hoof to her head, but was stopped by the ropes. She pulled a little harder, and upon realizing that she was bound, she wriggled, squirmed, and looked around wildly.

“Where am I?! What—”

Pilgrim cut herself off as her eyes fell on Applejack, who was spinning the ebony tiara around her hoof.

“Oh, Tartarus.” Pilgrim hung her head and stopped fighting. “This looks bad, doesn’t it?”

“More like ‘confusing.’” Norric adjusted his ice pack. “Are you with them, or not? It looked like you were trying get that big guy to leave.”

“That’s because I was.” Pilgrim’s eyes were dim as she stared at the tiara. “And no, I’m not ‘with them.’ What happened, by the way? Did you kill Veraxi?”

“I did.” Applejack adjusted her Stetson. “The invasion’s over, and the captured townsponies are bein’ freed as we speak.”

Pilgrim nodded gravely. “Keep an eye on them. Phora is extremely addictive, and they’ll start to experience severe withdrawal symptoms in a day or two. Rescued captives have been known to voluntarily seek out new hives to try and get more of it.”

The three of them exchanged a worried glance, then Granny voiced the question they were all thinking.

“You gonna drop that disguise, or not?”

Pilgrim smiled sadly. “This isn’t a disguise. It’s true that I’ve two forms, but I haven’t used the other in a long, long time. I haven’t even shapeshifted in over a decade.”

Applejack sat on her haunches. “You might wanna explain yourself, then.”

Pilgrim hesitated. “It’s a long story.”

“We got time.”

Pilgrim looked between the three of them, then down at the ropes binding her. She shrugged, then spoke in a tired, resigned tone.

“There once was a pony named Pilgrim, a pegasus mare from the town of Gallopfrey on the southern border of Gildsedale. She always was an adventurous soul, and was never satisfied with living in a simple fishing town. Her parents tried to talk some sense into her, to be happy with a peaceful, easygoing life, but she claimed that she was meant for greater things. When she came of age, she declared she was going to go off to see the world, and started her journey by traveling northwest through the Great Southern Rainforest. Unfortunately, fate had other plans, for as she flew over the expanse, she was shot down by a tribe of diamond dogs, and was taken as a slave.”

Pilgrim sighed. “At the same time, there were also three changeling Princesses, born to the wise and powerful Queen Silverwing. The eldest was named Cocoon, the middle was called Chrysalis, and the youngest was known as Pupa. The three sisters loved each other as much as changelings can, but they were also fiercely competitive, for they all had different plans for the future of the Changeling race, and only one of them could become the new Queen.”

Pilgrim’s gaze fell onto the tiara. “One day, Queen Silverwing called the three sisters together to assign them a test. They were each given a small contingent of Drones: genderless, mindless husks that have no ability to think on their own, and then sent into Great Southern Rainforest to interact with three separate tribes of diamond dogs. Their task was to extract soylent, and whomever’s methods yielded the most would be declared the victor.”

Applejack stared blankly at Pilgrim. “Soylent?”

“Changeling Royals are empaths,” Pilgrim explained. “We can sense the emotions of those around us, and if those emotions are directed towards us, we can convert them into an edible substance which we then distribute to our children through a psychic link. Soylent is extremely hazardous to other races, but it’s the only form of sustenance changelings are able to consume, and without it, we starve.”

“What were these ‘methods,’ then?” Norric asked.

Pilgrim used her shoulder to scratch the side of her face. “Cocoon believed in the old ways; that is to say, to honor the Peccatum Pactum, and continue the changelings ancient duty of guarding the sacred site of Pandemonium. She was to use fear and intimidation to convince the diamond dogs into giving her ‘tribute.’ Chrysalis believed in imperialism, and thought that the changeling’s purpose was to conquer the other races. Her task was to use infiltration, capture, and replacement to subdue the diamond dogs. Lastly, Pupa wanted the changelings to be able to live and interact with the other races, and not be confined to some desolate corner of the world like a race of lepers. She wanted to try and befriend the diamond dogs, and see if they’d be receptive to such a proposal.”

Applejack felt a sour taste in her mouth. “It didn't go well, did it?”

Pilgrim’s expression was somber. “Chrysalis was the most successful. Not only did her conquest result in slaves that would produce soylent for years to come, she also learned valuable tactical knowledge on infiltration and stealth. Cocoon’s methods were successful as well, but they yielded very little soylent. Pupa’s attempt was disastrous. Not only was she met with revulsion and hostility, but all of her Drones were killed, and she was captured and taken as a prisoner.”

Granny clicked her teeth as she put two and two together. “Which was how Pupa and Pilgrim met, I’m guessin’?”

Pilgrim nodded. “They quickly became fast friends. Pupa was distraught that she’d failed the test, but Pilgrim didn’t think that she’d failed at all. After all, if the two of them could get along just fine, why couldn’t the rest of the changelings? Perhaps there was hope for Pupa’s ideals, after all. Meanwhile, though, Cocoon and Chrysalis had discovered that Pupa was missing, and upon finding that she’d been captured by the diamond dogs, they attacked them in a rage. Chrysalis used her empowered magic to hold off the bulk of the tribe while Cocoon tried to save Pupa, but the dogs were clever, and collapsed the tunnels on them. Chrysalis managed to get to safety in time, but Cocoon, Pilgrim and Pupa were mortally wounded by the falling rocks.”

“And that, Jackie,” Granny suddenly cut in, “is why I always told ya never to go into a diamond dog den. Damn mutts fight dirty when they’re cornered.”

Applejack kept her attention on Pilgrim. “What happened then?”

Pilgrim closed her eyes. “Pupa passed out, but Cocoon and Pilgrim managed to stay conscious after the rocks settled. Pilgrim was frantic over Pupa, even though she was dying herself, and it was this selflessness that deeply touched Cocoon. She asked Pilgrim what she’d be willing to do to save Pupa. She immediately responded with ‘anything.’ And so, with the last of her strength, Cocoon used the soylent she’d gathered to merge Pilgrim’s body, mind, and lifeforce together with Pupa’s.”

Applejack made a choked noise. “She did what?!”

“How is that even possible?” Norric said. "I thought it was impossible to combine the lifeforce of two separate creatures!”

Pilgrim snorted. “Nothing’s impossible. Some things are just more difficult to accomplish than others. Lifeforce can be merged so long as both parties are completely willing for said merger to occur. The process fails if there’s even the slightest bit of resistance from either side, whether conscious, or unconscious, but neither Pilgrim nor Pupa put up a fight. They willingly allowed Cocoon to be combine them into a new entity, and when all was said and done, the end result... was me.”

Pilgrim’s voice became distant. “I awoke sometime later next to the corpse of Cocoon. Chrysalis was gone, the diamond dogs were either dead or escaped, and I was all alone. I found my way out of the tunnels, but then I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t return to the Wastes, and I didn’t want to return to Gallopfrey, either. Pilgrim had wanted to see the world, and Pupa wanted to build a peaceful future for the changelings, so I decided to follow Pilgrim’s original wish and see if I could change how the rest of the world saw my kind. I spent the next two and a half decades traveling from one part of the globe to the other, but then, word reached me that Pilgrim’s parents were dying. I returned to Gallopfrey to be with them until they passed, and then decided to take a break from wandering to try my hoof at the family business.

“I swear I had nothing to do with the invasion,” Pilgrim said earnestly. “I know Mother would never do anything like this, which means she must’ve finally passed away, and Chrysalis has been crowned the new Queen. She’s always desired conquest, and I’ll bet she’s probably already invaded the other southern border towns as the first step of her plans. She’ll take over Gildsedale, then spread out into the other countries one by one, and she’ll become more powerful and be able to produce more eggs the more captives she takes. Chrysalis has no idea how powerful Celestia is, though, and once she finds out that the Peccatum Pactum has been broken, she might very well wipe out our entire race! I want changelings and ponies to live together in harmony, not be at war with each other! I know you don’t have any reason to believe me, but—”

“I believe you.”

Norric and Granny both turned to Applejack, who was smiling at Pilgrim with faintly glowing eyes.

“She’s tellin’ the truth, then?” Granny said.

“Mmm-hmm.” Applejack walked behind Pilgrim and began to untie her ropes. “Sorry about the rough treatment, err... your Highness. We just had to make sure what was goin’ on with you.”

Pilgrim’s reaction was strange. She suddenly jerked in her seat, then took a deep, shuddering breath.

“P-Please don’t call me...” her voice was almost a moan. “By the Wardens, what is that?”

Applejack paused. “What’s what?”

“That power... w-within you.” Pilgrim licked her lips. “I sensed it earlier in the m-marketplace, too... the e-emotions you’re u-using to fuel it... they’re delicious.

Applejack backed away. “Hold on. You know about my Element?!”

Pilgrim’s eyes snapped open. “W-What? I don’t—”

Something dawned on her, and her eyes drifted down to Applejack’s necklace.

“No. You can’t mean...”

“May as well tell her,” Granny said tiredly. “It’s just gonna lead to more questions if we don’t.”

Applejack exhaled out her nose. “Yeah, that’s prolly best. Could you uh, stop... feeding off me, though? It’s creepy.”

"Not my fault,” Pilgrim huffed. “If somepony was blasting you in the face with the tastiest thing you can imagine, would you not open your mouth?”

Applejack decided not to comment. She quelled her Element, untied Pilgrim, then gave her back the tiara.

“Okay,” Applejack said. “You know about the Elements of Harmony, right?”

“Somewhat.” Pilgrim decided to stay in the chair. “I heard from one of the caravans that a group of mares took them up, and used them to purify the fallen Princess of the Night. One of them had a picture of the celebration, and I remember seeing a pink mare in it wearing that necklace of yours.”

Applejack leaned on the desk and took a deep breath. “Well...”

It took a good twenty minutes to get Pilgrim up to speed on who Applejack was, what she could do, what’d happened in Equestria, how they’d came to be here, and where they were trying to go. Pilgrim interrupted a few times with a question or a clarification, but otherwise remained silent throughout it all. Her face was pinched tight with tension, and she groaned and rubbed her eyes as Applejack finished.

“Chryssy, you idiot! Why’d you have to do this now, of all times?! Doing it at any time would be bad, but on top of all this?! I just, you—ugh!”

“That pretty well sums up how we feel,” Granny said wryly. “So the question is, what’re we gonna do about it?”

Pilgrim ran a hoof down her face. “I can fix this, I just need to talk to Chryssy. She’s always been stubborn, but if I sit down with her, I know I can convince her to call off the invasion.”

“You sure about that?” Norric glanced at the bruise blossoming on Pilgrim’s side. “That big guy sure didn’t seem to like you very much.”

Pilgrim laughed bitterly. “Changelings recognize each other by scent. Veraxi thought I was an imposter because I don’t fully smell like a changeling anymore. Besides, Behemoths aren’t exactly known for their intelligence. Trust me, if Chryssy knew that he’d struck me, she would’ve commanded him to dive headfirst into a pit of spikes.”

“Fair enough,” Applejack said. “Where’s your sister at?”

“Pandemonium,” Pilgrim answered. “Greatest and most ancient of the Changeling Hives, home to the holy shrine of The Shaper. It’s in the very center of the Wastes.”

Granny made a low whistle. “That ain’t gonna be easy to get to. How long ya think it’ll take?”

“Depends,” Pilgrim said. “The Scouts are probably under orders to attack anypony who isn’t a changeling on sight. If they listen to me, I can get to Pandemonium in a few days. If not, it’ll take a few weeks. I don’t know how the changelings are going to receive me, though, and if things get rough, I might need some help to get through.”

“Help?” Applejack scrunched her eyebrows. “What kind of help?”

Pilgrim rolled her tiara back and forth between her hooves. Her eyes shifted back and forth for a few seconds, and then, she placed the tiara atop her head, and was consumed in green flame. The three of them backed away in surprise, and Pilgrim stood before them in her changeling form. She was tall and slender, reminiscent of Celestia, but where other changelings had menacing eyes and angular faces, Pilgrim’s eyes were soft and kind, and her face was rounded like a pony’s. She took a step back to give herself room, then dipped her head and bowed low before Applejack.

“It seems that I owe you my life, Bearer of Honesty. I’ve lived these past twenty-five years as Pilgrim, but now it seems I must take on the role of Pupa. I hereby re-claim my form, rights, and title as Princess, and as my first act, I propose an alliance between Ponies and Changelings in order combat the threat of Cetus. My resources and authority are little at the moment, but if you agree to escort me to Pandemonium, I will muster the full might of my race, and together, we will restore balance and harmony to the world.”

“A-An alliance?” Applejack rubbed her forehoof. “Hoo boy... I-I don’t think I can make those kinda decisions.”

“No, but I can.”

They all turned to Norric, who stood up straight and saluted Pilgrim. “Sergeant Major Norric of Her Majesty’s Royal Guard, Demolitionist and Knight of the Order of the Zodiac. On behalf of the Equestrian government, I hereby accept your offer of an alliance, and look forward to working with you in the future.”

Granny and Applejack stared dumbly at him, but Pilgrim didn’t miss a beat. She turned and extended a hoof, and he shook it without pause.

“Let this be the beginning of a new age for the changelings. No longer will we be forced to hide away and feared because of our nature! I know that my race can co-exist with others, we just need to be given the chance!”

Applejack shook her head. “I keep forgetting...”

Norric snickered. “I told you the old ways come in handy when dealing with the ladies.”

They all laughed, and Pilgrim stepped back to address all three of them.

“It’s settled, then. We’ll need to gather supplies to travel the Wastes, but we should be able to leave by tomorrow morning.”

“How’re we gonna get over Eternity’s Crossing?” Granny asked.

“My parents left me a boat we can use,” Pilgrim said. “It’ll get across the channel without any problem. The challenge will come in the Wastes themselves, as the land is filled with rocky, inhospitable crags and geysers that spew poisonous fumes. There’s very little food and water there, so we’ll need to pack as much as we can. If all goes well, we should be able to reach Pandemonium in a few days, and then I can arrange for the three of you to be flown to Dragon Turtle Lake.”

“Sounds like we’ve got some work to do, then.” Norric turned and headed for the door. “I’ll see about gathering food.”

“I’ll take care of smaller supplies and tools we might need.” Granny got to her hooves and followed after him. “Jackie can get the water.”

“Very good,” Pilgrim said. “I’ll gather what maps I have around here, and see about plotting a course.”

Applejack hadn’t moved yet. She watched as Norric and Granny left, then raised a hoof to get Pilgrim’s attention.

Pilgrim stopped. “Hmm?”

Applejack chewed on her lip. “Before we get started, I was wonderin’ if you could help me with something.”

“What is it?”

Applejack blushed and pawed at the ground. “Could you, ah... show me how to preen? I’ve only had these wings for a day, and they’re already itchin’ something fierce. I’m not too good at flyin’ yet, either.”

Pilgrim blinked, then looked down at Applejack wings. Her feathers were all ruffled and out of place, and spots of dirt and grime were caught underneath them.

Pilgrim giggled. She reverted to her pegasus form, closed the door to the office so they had some privacy, and motioned for Applejack to lay down.

“I think I can help with that.”