• Published 27th Feb 2015
  • 489 Views, 39 Comments

Dark Sun - ScreamingDoom



Twilight must delve into Celestia's past to save the future of Equestria.

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9 Mysteries

"Where in Celestia's rainbow mane is Thunderlane?" asked Rainbow Dash, exasperation coloring her tone.

Cloud Kicker shrugged, looking at once annoyed and sheepish. "Donno, boss," she responded, "He and seven other members of the weather team he was with have just disappeared. They were here for the emergency mustering, but during the storm management itself they all just... disappeared. The only reason we noticed now was because we have the storm in hoof. I swear, if that stallion is going AWOL again..."

Rainbow Dash frowned and let out a sigh, "I hope not. I'll do more than just hit him with a fine this time if he had." Her frown deepened, "But even if he flew out on emergency weather duty, I can't imagine all the others would, either. Especially all at the same time."

Cloud Kicker nodded in agreement. "Yeah," she said before hesitating briefly, "The winds were really strong, boss. We constantly had trouble with pegasi spinning out, even with unicorn telekinesis support. It could be that they were blown somewhere and wounded too badly to get back into the air." Cloud Kicker frowned in thought, "It's unlikely, though. Their unit was assigned to the airspace directly over Twilight's castle. Considering that's where the Princess set up the emergency weather control headquarters, you would think somepony would've noticed them being blown away before now."

The thought caused Dash's brow to furrow. "Think we can spare a few wings to search around the outskirts of Ponyville? Y'know, just to be sure?"

"With Princess Luna and the Nightwatch bat-ponies helping, I think we can," Cloud Kicker replied with a wry smile, "They're not weather ponies, but the worst of it seems under control at least."

Rainbow Dash grunted in affirmation. "It might be best to keep our regulars and reservists on what remains of the storm and get the Nightwatch to look for wounded," she mused, "I'll go ask Princess Luna. Search and rescue is probably better for Nightwatch anyway. In the meantime, you and Blossomforth keep working on the storm."

Cloud Kicker saluted smartly then turned to fly off. Rainbow Dash watched her go through the grey clouds, her course a little drunken as she was buffeted by the winds. Thankfully, the rain and heavy storm clouds had mostly been taken care of by this point, but the wind still really was a problem. The heavy overcast skies still made command and control difficult, though the list Twilight had Spike deliver of unicorns and useful spells to help definitely made things better. Even still, it had been touch-and-go with little headway against the storm being made until the Princess of the Night had showed up with badly needed support.

Flying down to Twilight's castle, Dash felt the strong winds for herself. She was no slouch when it came to flying -- in fact, she was one of the best in all of Equestria -- but even she felt a little more wobbliness in her flight at the gales buffeting her. With a less-than-dignified landing on one of the crystalline verandas that poked from the jutting spires of the castle, Dash trotted inside.

Even with the castle being the hub of activity for combating the storm, the whole place was surprisingly empty. In all honesty, Rainbow Dash hadn't really explored much of Twilight's castle; she was mostly familiar with the relatively small areas that her friend and Spike occupied, plus the throne room. Princess Luna had set up the emergency weather headquarters in one of the mid-level rooms -- Dash had to admit, it was a smart idea to do so. She preferred to actually be out directly working with the weather team, but in a situation as dire as this one requiring not only pegasi, but also coordination with unicorns and earth-ponies, having a central hub where everypony could report to and organize really helped.

The room that Princess Luna had commandeered for the task was probably one of the largest rooms in the castle and also mostly unused. Dash didn't know what its normal function would be -- maybe a store room or some kind of ballroom or something? -- but it served the role that the Princess had ordained it well. Even now, the area was buzzing with activity as the leaders of various weather squads would be reporting their tasks to unicorns who would relay messages back and forth among them or sometimes to earth-pony runners out into the field. A much quieter section, split off from the larger part of the room by privacy dividers (donated by Rarity), held a table with food and drink as well as cots for those squads on rest cycles. By far the strangest thing in the room was a large machine that beeped and whirled with multi-colored lights -- a brown earth-pony with an hourglass cutie mark stood nearby, making constant arcane adjustments to the machine. What it did, Dash could only guess, but Princess Luna had thought it useful, so here it was.

In the center of the room was a large round map of Ponyville, not unlike the Cutie Map from the throne room. Dash didn't have any idea where Princess Luna had found that, but it definitely helped in organizing where to put weather resources to best fight the storm. The Princess of the Night herself was hunched over the large map, her face a study in concentration, one of her Nightwatch sitting stoically at her side. Every so often a unicorn or earth-pony runner would walk up to the Princess, speak quietly to her, and her horn would glow as the map magically adjusted itself to the new information.

"Princess Luna," Rainbow Dash saluted the diarch as she stood in front of her and wasted no time in addressing the issue at hoof, "I wonder if you could provide a few of the Nightwatch for a search and rescue operation?"

Luna looked from from the map and blinked at the blue rainbow-maned pegasus. "Search and rescue?" she asked, concern in her voice, "Is somepony injured?"

"Eight pegasi are missing," Dash explained, "Pretty much a whole weather squad. Considering how bad the wind is out there, they might've gotten blown off course and crashed somewhere outside Ponville. If they're too hurt to make it back, then they're probably pretty badly hurt."

Luna nodded curtly and turned towards a member of her Nightwatch at her side, "Commander, see to it immediately." She paused then looked over at Rainbow Dash with a questioning expression, "Where was the last location these ponies were seen?"

"They were assigned to the airspace above the castle, Your Highness."

Luna blinked at that information. "How odd," she mused, "One would think the castle would be one of the least likely for such a thing to go unnoticed."

"Heh, yeah," Rainbow Dash said sheepishly, rubbing one hoof against her leg, "I thought the same thing. I mean, it's possible that they all decided to just fly off somewhere, but that seems much more unlikely. One or two, sure, but the whole squad?"

"Mmn, curiouser and curiouser," Luna murmured before looking to the bat-pony to her side again, "Start your search in the immediate environs surrounding the castle and expand from there." The kestrel guard saluted then immediately walked off, only to be replaced by another a few moments later.

Rainbow Dash was about to leave and head back out into the thick of the weather management before Luna spoke up again, "What ponies are missing?"

Dash stopped and turned back around, frowning faintly as she ran through her mental list of all the ponies assigned to the sector in question. "Thunderlane -- though he is kinda reluctant to do weather work at the best of times, so he might just be shirking as usual. There's also Open Skies, Raindrops, Sunshower, Cloud Chaser, Sunny Smiles, and Clear Skies."

"Clear Skies?" a voice said from nearby; it was Spike, wearing a small apron with a heart on the front and pushing along a silver trolley filled with food and drinks towards the refreshment area, "I think I saw her and couple of other ponies heading downstairs."

"Downstairs?" Luna asked, frowning, "You mean underneath the castle proper? Why were they there?"

Spike shrugged, "Beat's me. The only thing down there is some storage; most of the rooms are empty and too small to be of much use other than as closets. I figured they might've been looking for chairs or something for the break room. I tried calling to them, but they didn't hear me." He rubbed a claw along his forearm absently, "I would've gone after them, but I was busy bringing stuff for the break room myself." He blinked once. "You don't think they got lost down there or something?"

"The entire squad all at once? Unlikely," Luna frowned again, "Something is amiss here. This requires investigation." She looked towards Spike as she stood up from her seated position, "Could you lead us there, young dragon?" Her eyes flickered to Rainbow Dash, "And would you accompany us, Rainbow Dash?"

Spike was about to respond when Dash interrupted in mild confusion, "Me, Princess? I really should get back to managing the teams outside."

A hint of mild amusement spread over Luna's features, "Oh, I think the battle against inclement weather can survive a few minutes without either your or my overwatch. Besides which, out of all of Twilight Sparkle's friends, I confess that I feel as if I know you the least. Your valor this day in fighting against the storm has reminded me that I should most definitely rectify that impression. A few minutes may not be much, but it is a start."

Rainbow Dash couldn't really say anything against that, so just nodded her affirmation.

"I can definitely show you where they were, Princess Luna," Spike piped up, answering the question previously asked, "It's at least a little different from restocking the refreshment table."

Luna turned towards the bat-pony at her side, "Inform your commander of our departure then find us below." The kestrel saluted and disappeared a moment later.

Luna nodded and motioned to the door, "Let us be off, then."

***

The sound of hooves and dragon claws echoed on the hard crystal-stone floors in the empty catacombs of the castle. Unlike the ground and upper floors, this part of the castle was much less well lit; the glowing crystals in the walls that provided the main light source for the castle proper were fewer and dimmer here, and gave off a more reddish hue. While not low enough to provide a hazard to navigation, the overall effect was one of a much more somber mood.

"This part of the castle creeps me out a bit," Spike admitted as the trio walked, "I mean, I know there's nothing to be scared of, but still. I wish Twilight would find a way to get the crystals to brighten up a bit."

"I suspect these areas would've been meant for dungeons in days past," Luna replied as she turned her head slightly to inspect one of the crystalline doors, "The doors look to be reinforced, compared with those above us."

Rainbow Dash looked askance at Luna, "Dungeons? Twilight wouldn't use dungeons."

"I suppose Twilight should've informed the Tree of Harmony of her wishes before it was constructed, then," Luna replied with a hint of amusement in her voice, "The design was likely meant for somepony much more... versed in the ways of regal command."

Rainbow Dash let out a short chuckle, "I guess that's why it's so big, too?"

"Likely," Luna stated with a nod, "The design was meant for a full Princess. While Twilight Sparkle has earned her title, she did not -- and does not -- have the full range of pomp and circumstance that should surround her station."

Spike frowned slightly. "Who made the design, then?"

Luna blinked, looking towards the young dragon, "What do you mean?"

"Well, you said that the design of the castle was made for a Princess and has dungeons and other stuff meant for someone who understands the whole rigmarole of Princessness, right?" Spike asked, looking over at the dark alicorn, "Well, then... who designed it? I mean, it couldn't have been the Tree of Harmony itself, otherwise it would've made a castle more suited for Twilight, right? So that means someone else made the design and the Tree just built it. I wonder who it was."

Luna peered owlishly at Spike, "I see your long association with Twilight Sparkle has trained you to ask very interesting questions, young dragon."

"Sorry," Spike replied sheepishly.

The dark Princess smiled and shook her head, "Do not be sorry, Spike. 'Tis a great thing to be so curious and to ask those questions. Too often in life one seeks answers when it is the right questions that lead to wisdom."

"Who cares who designed the thing," Dash stated, waving a hoof around, "The place is awesome. That's all that matters."

Luna looked towards Rainbow Dash, frowning, and was about to say something when Spike spoke.

"Okay, here it is," he said motioning to a door, somewhat wider than the others at the end of a long corridor, "It's the biggest room we found down here, so we've been using it to store stuff that doesn't get used often. I really can't think of any other reason why anypony would be down here, so it seems the best place to look for a clue." Luna nodded and bid Spike to open it.

The inside of the room was more brightly lit than the dark corridors beneath the castle, the crystals on the walls returning to the more warm light and higher illumination of the upper floors. Boxes of various types and description lie in neatly organized piles set about the room, providing makeshift corridors throughout the room.

"Hello?" Spike called out into the room, "Anypony here?" Only silence greeted them. "Huh. Guess they're not here."

"Let us investigate to make sure," Luna said, peering at the piles of crates and boxes piled up, "Visibility in this place is poor."

"That's no problem," Dash said confidently, flapping her wings and taking to the air, "I'll give us a heads... up... view..." Her voice began to fade as she blatantly stared with slack-jawed surprise at something further into the room. Luna immediately took flight and settled beside the rainbow pegaus near the ceiling, staring off in the direction. Her brows knitted and her jaw set.

"What? What is it? What do you see?" Spike asked, frowning and beginning to walk through the boxes towards the direction both winged ponies were staring.

"Hold, Spike!" Luna said, gesturing to the dragon with a hoof, "We must away from this place immediately and return with reinforcements."

"Huh?" Spike asked, confusion reigning on his features, "Why?"

Luna continued to stare gravely at the spot in the storeroom. "We are beset by Changelings."

***

Flanked by a coterie of Nightwatch kestrels and backed up by several unicorn and earth-ponies, Luna marched back down the corridor to the storeroom. Stopping in front of the door, several of her guards took up position on either side, sending silent signals to each other via hoof, ear, and wing movements. In a sudden burst of speed, they burst open the door and flanked either side of the interior, two more flying up and taking an overwatch position on top of a collection of boxes. After a brief scan, one of the kestrels turned and nodded gravely to Luna, who in turn stepped inside with the unicorn and earth-ponies following.

The group quickly made their way over to the corner of the storeroom, the two kestrels atop the boxes shifting to others ahead of Luna's attachment. Soon, their objective came into view: eight perpendicular green pods, the semi-translucent membrane that composed them revealing their contents as ponies. Tough, fibrous excretions kept the pods secure to the floor and to the ceiling, the sickly green goo dripping occasionally to the cold crystalline stone floor. Several of the ponies in attendance grimaced in disgust at the scene.

A white earth-pony with a pillbox cap and a red cross cutie mark trotted carefully up to one of the pods and examined it closely. Gingerly, she set a hoof on the surface and probed the membrane.

"I think they're still alive," Nurse Redheart said with a note of relief in her voice, "They're definitely unconscious."

"Can they be extracted safely?" Luna asked.

"I think so," a brown pony wearing a collar and a tie with an hourglass cutie mark said, walking forward and examining another of the pods, "Since the whole Royal Wedding incident, I've taken a bit of a passing interest in the scientific study of these creatures. There is surprisingly little prior literature on them."

Luna nodded again and stepped back, motioning with a hoof for one of the unicorns to step forward. "We best try with one first. Nurse, be ready to help if anything happens." Her eyes flickered to the unicorn, "Cut him down."

The lavender, pinkish maned unicorn nodded before her horn glowed. A pinpoint line of magic burst from her horn and sliced at the tough membrane, precisely cutting a half-moon incision below the pony contents. Slowly, the grey-coated pegasus began to ooze out of the pod, sliding to the floor with a nauseating squelch. Nurse Redheart quickly raced forward and began to examine the blue-maned pony before rolling him on his side and giving a sharp smack to his back. With a wheezing cough, the pegasus hacked up some more of the greenish ooze and gasped for breath. After a few moments, his eyes fluttered open and he looked around his surroundings wildly before focusing on the good Nurse.

"Why am I sticky and looking at a pretty mare?" he asked, "Did I miss something fun?"

"He's fine," Nurse Redheart stated with a grunt, taking a few steps back and disdainfully shaking some ooze off her hoof.

"You are Thunderlane, correct?" Luna asked, stepping forward and looming over the pegasus who was trying to roll onto his hooves with limited success. Thunderlane stopped his exertions and peered up at Luna, blinking once as his ears flattened against his skull. "Um, y-yes?" he asked, voice breaking slightly.

"Be a peace," Luna said gently, raising a hoof but not touching his slick body, "You are with friends. Time is of the essence, however. I must know: how did you end up down here?"

Thunderlane blinked several times, his brow furrowing in concentration. He absently rubbed his temple with one glistening hoof, a line of the green goop coating him dripping down to splat wetly on the ground beside him. "Um... I don't know," he replied after a moments consideration, "Clear Skies said she needed my help with something. I was on break, so I wasn't too happy, but she said I could have an extended break if I helped so..." The stallion shrugged, "I went with her. She led me into some kind of storeroom and... that's all I remember. The next thing I know I woke up here." He looked down at himself with disgust, "Covered in... what in the hay is this stuff?"

Doc stepped forward, a strange elongated device in the brown pony's mouth. A few deft tongue movements later the device let out a high-pitched whirling noise as the scientist drew it over Thunderlane's form (who looked at once alarmed and annoyed with the invasion of his personal space). "Well, that is most odd," Doc said, frowning as he examined a display on the device, "This pony wasn't fed on by a changeling."

Luna turned to the brown earth-pony, "Explain."

"When a changeling feeds on another being's emotions, they leave a sort of... mental fingerprint," Doc said, "A sort of calling card that can be detected by certain imbalances in neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin. Thunderlane here doesn't have any such imbalances in his brain." Doc frowned faintly, turning his attention to the now empty pod that Thunderlane had oozed out of, "Usually, changelings use pods like these to secure prisoners so they can feed more easily and often. Constructing these things takes quite a bit out of a changeling, so going through the effort to construct one and not feeding even once is highly irregular."

"The mystery deepens," Luna mused unhappily. She turned to the rest of the ponies gathered, "Extract and revive the others. Take statements from them then report your findings to me." She looked towards the four kestrel guards, "Maintain security here. When these ponies have completed their task, escort them to central control." Luna frowned deeply to herself and moved for the exit.

Thunderlane looked around at the various ponies as they began their somewhat unpleasant work. "Can somepony at least get me a towel?"

***

"...They all said basically the same thing," a small off-white unicorn reported, holding up a shelf of papers, "One of the other ponies in their group asked them for help, brought them down to the storeroom, then cocooned them. None of them appears to have been fed on, either."

Luna considered the papers thoughtfully for a long moment. "I do not like this," she murmured, "Enemies acting outside their patterns is rarely a good sign. Why would they take prisoners of a specific group of pegasi, do nothing with them, then vanish?"

"If they had wanted to infiltrate Ponyville for some reason, it is a strange way to go about it," mused Doc thoughtfully, rubbing his chin with a hoof. After a few more moments of consideration, he spoke again, more slowly. "Everything about this seems to indicate they were pressed for time. Taking only those pegasi that could potentially interrupt them, not stopping to feed until whatever task they were trying to accomplish was complete, then leaving quickly."

Luna considered the explanation, "It does fit the evidence, it would seem. But what could they be after? Presumably, they wanted something that had either the castle or its environs as an important aspect."

"Maybe they were trying to interrupt our weather work against the storm?" offered up the unicorn who had freed the pegasus prisoners.

Luna shook her head, "Had they wished that, then infiltrating the support staff would make more sense. Without the earth-pony runners or unicorns for messaging, combating the storm would be much more difficult. Even taking out the weather teams themselves would be a better use of their time and abilities, especially in those outlining sectors which the storm was its most fierce."

"Maybe Twilight would have some idea?" Spike piped up, "I could send a message to her to ask? Or go to her directly?"

Luna hesitated then shook her head quickly, "Twilight Sparkle is engaged in some critical research at the moment. I do not wish to disturb her unless absolutely necessary."

Spike deflated somewhat, looking down at the weather map of Ponyville; at least the storm was mostly dealt with at this point, with only a few sectors still having any appreciable problems, "Oh, okay. I was just... y'know, kinda hoping I could go see her. It's been almost a full day and if she's researching something, she really needs her number one assistant to help. If only to remind her to eat and drink."

Luna smiled and shook her head, "I am sure she knows of and appreciates the sentiment, young dragon, but she really needs to remain undisturbed if possible. We must puzzle out this mystery ourselves."

Spike unhappily nodded.

Quiet settled over the impromptu meeting before suddenly being disturbed by a kestrel coming up beside Luna and saluting smartly. Luna gave a nod and a wave of her hoof and the bat-pony spoke, "We have a visitor wishing to speak to you, Princess. She says she has urgent news of your sister."

Luna's brows arched and she nodded eagerly, "Please, lieutenant, bid her over."

The kestrel saluted again then motioned to a subordinate nearby, who in turn nodded and stepped out of the way for a cloaked figure to approach. Using a hoof to push away the hood of the cloak to reveal the countenance of a zebra.

"Zecora!" Spike exclaimed with a happy wave of his claw.

The zebra smiled and inclined her head respectfully towards the young dragon. "Greetings to you, my young friend. I am glad to see the storm has not caused you to bend." She turned her attention back to the Princess of the Night, "The storm prevented me from seeing you before now. I hope my delay has not led to something most foul."

Luna's face was blank for a moment as she stared Zecora before offering a smile. "Ah! Yes, of course! Twilight's zebra friend. Forgive me, it took a moment to fully place context with the name."

Much to Luna's surprise (and a little worry that she had offended the striped equine), Zecora's response was to sigh heavily and lower her head. "Then it is as I feared. The Luna who came to me was not who she appeared."

Luna blinked several times, canting her head to one side curiously.

"You and your sister did seek me at night," Zecora explained, "In the Everfree Forest, then took flight." She fixed the dark alicorn with a grim stare, "They took with them an artifact most keen, the Alicorn Amulet it was to have been."

Luna's eyes widened and she slammed her hooves down on the map table in alarm. "The Alicorn Amulet! My sister had told me that Twilight Sparkle had recovered it, but told me not where it lie. She entrusted it to you, then, Zecora?"

Zecora gave a nod. "In Canterlot's vault it might be safe, but also too much of a plum should a thief come by to strafe." The zebra frowned faintly. "The Amulet was secured with powerful magics unknown. Only your sister should've been able to retrieve it alone."

Luna frowned deeply, settling back in her seat, a troubled expression on her brow. "I did not enter the Everfree with my sister anytime recently, so with evidence of changelings here, we can be almost certain that she was one. The identity of the other in the guise of my sister is... more troubling. If it required the casting of magics to retrieve, then I don't think a changeling of any stripe would have the physical ability to replicate that."

"For a changeling to imitate an alicorn is very difficult as far as I've been able to determine," the Doc spoke up thoughtfully, "I'd even say that, reasonably, only a Swarm Queen could do it without the deception being obvious."

Luna's brow furrowed deeply in thought and was silent for some moments. Suddenly, her eyes widened. "If my doppleganger and whatever was in the guise of my sister were after the Alicorn Amulet, perhaps they were looking it for it here as well? Once the amulet was found, they had no reason to continue searching and left, lest they be discovered and the amulet recovered before they could secure it."

The Doc paused thoughtfully, "Plausible." He looked towards Zecora shrewdly, "When did you say they came looking for his amulet? Was it before or after the storm?"

"Before the storm, I do recall," Zecora stated with a definitive nod, "The rain had barely begun to fall."

The brown earth-pony frowned and shook his head, "Then your hypothesis doesn't hold, unfortunately, Princess Luna. The ponies in question were taken sometime during the storm. If they already had the amulet before the storm was in full swing, then there wouldn't be any reason for them to look for it in the castle. How detailed the changeling Hive Mind communications can be is a matter of some speculation, but they are at least good enough that a Queen could immediately tell her drones to retreat to their hive, if nothing more specific. So it wasn't a lag in communication that would explain it." The Doc paused briefly then continued, "Though the idea that they were looking for something specific is not a bad one."

"They were near a storeroom," Luna spoke slowly, "And they kept returning to that destination. It might've just been a convenient, out of the way area to store their snatched pegasi, but it still bears investigating." She turned to Spike and smiled, "Barring Twilight, you would seem to be the most knowledgeable with regards as to the contents of the storeroom in this castle. If you would, Spike, could you check over its contents and see if anything is disturbed or missing?"

Spike let out a leaden sigh, "That will take a few hours at least, Princess. But yes, I could do it."

Luna smiled again at the young dragon, "It would be most helpful, if only to eliminate another possibility as to the strange motive of these changelings." Her eyes flickered to the kestrel beside her, "Assign a security detail to him, at least two of your ponies. While it seems the changeling interlopers have absconded, it would not due to be ambushed by relying on that assumption." After a moment's thought she nodded, "I will also issue a decree that until we can determine that there is no more changeling threat in Ponyville, everypony is to only travel in groups of no less than three." Spike let out another much-put-upon sigh and began to head towards the exit, a couple of bat-ponies falling in line behind him. "In the meantime," Luna continued, "Let us deal with the remains of this storm."

***

Chrysalis hated the cold. She hated being away from her swarm for this long. And she hated her traveling companions. Regardless of her new abilities, Celestia had proven via Tirek that betrayal held a heavy price. Chrysalis hated not being in control.

As she and the alicorn flew over the snow-covered ground, Tirek in the telekinetic tow of Celestia's harsh white magic (Chrysalis did get some mild amusement at the somewhat ridiculous scene of the brute being carried around like a hoofbag), Chrysalis shifted her thoughts to her current status.

Certainly, the demonstration provided by Tirek was eye-opening. In all honesty, Chrysalis wasn't certain that Celestia could visit such immeasurable pain on her as well, but it seemed a reasonable guess. And one she wasn't keen on testing. A far more interesting question was the statement Celestia had made that none who had her corrupted Elements could harm any of the others -- excepting herself of course. Celestia could be lying about that, and Chrysalis was more than willing to test it; not on Celestia herself, but another corrupted Element bearer. The problem was if she did so, they would undoubtedly report it to Celestia and the Changeling Queen was loathe to give the alicorn any information that might result in her own punishment.

Still, they were traveling to gather another of these bearers. Perhaps whoever that might be would be a willing (or at least, unwilling to tell Celestia) test subject.

Another open question that Chrysalis was pondering was how much information those Elements gave to their master. For a brief, horrifying time Chrysalis wondered if Celestia could read their minds in the same way as she could now read the thoughts of her own brood; during the mostly silent flight to the north, Chrysalis had cautiously tested that with more and more vicious and vile thoughts about what she'd like to do to the alicorn. Celestia had not responded to the increasingly hateful thoughts, so either she could not read the minds of her empowered subordinates or she was just that good at keeping a poker face. If nothing else, it was cathartic.

For the moment, Chrysalis would assume that Celestia could not read her thoughts. If she could then any betrayal was doomed in the first place; without evidence that she could, Chrysalis would assume the opposite. To do otherwise would be to resign herself to kowtowing to this horned witch.

Chrysalis looked down at the snow passing beneath the trio and thought forlornly of her swarm. Chrysalis suspected that Celestia was purposefully keeping her away from them; the Queen was not needed for either retrieving Tirek or whoever they were now heading towards. Although, that in and of itself was interesting information. It may be true that Chrysalis could not harm Celestia or any of the others in their assembling group, but maybe the same was not true of her swarm. Chrysalis smiled inwardly at the thought -- if true, it was quite the chink in Celestia's armor and something that could be exploited to great effect at the proper time. It was another thing worth testing.

A tingling in her brain signaled a message from her hive. Reluctantly, she flew up beside Celestia. "The item you wished for me to procure is secured."

Celestia smiled thinly, "Excellent. We are behind schedule, but not by much." After a pause she looked sidelong at Chrysalis, "How goes the pony battle against the storm?"

"It is contained and weakening," Chrysalis reported, "It is likely the entire storm will be gone from all Equestria by early tomorrow."

Celestia nodded, "It has served its purpose."

Chrysalis regarded the white alicorn for a moment more in silence. There was something that was bothering her and curiosity (as well the desire for more information -- more information was always better) got the better of her. "Celestia," she began curiously, "Why did you mind-control those guards in Canterlot?"

Though she quickly concealed it, Chrysalis was a keen observer by nature; she saw the brief look of confusion on the alicorn's features and the faint tremor in her wings at the question.

A long moment passed before Celestia spoke again. "Of what do you speak?"

"There were four of the Royal Guard mind controlled and set outside Princess Luna's quarters on orders that no one see her," Chrysalis replied, "My agents in the capital reported that they are undergoing treatment and claim that Celestia gave them the order. Since I was not there and I know of no other Changeling Queen operating close to Canterlot, the only one I could think of who might be able to do such a task was you."

Another long moment passed. "It wasn't me," Celestia said slowly, her gaze turning fully towards the changeling, "And I thought that would've been obvious. I wanted Luna with her sister at the Tree of Harmony. Capturing them both would've helped in my plans." The alicorn snorted, "It was likely my counterpart, seeking to prevent Luna from being disturbed before she could face me." Celestia frowned deeply, brow furrowing, "Though mind control? That is... uncommonly willful for her."

Chrysalis absorbed the new information readily. It didn't have any direct use yet, but perhaps in the future. Instead, she cocked her head to one side curiously, "Oh?"

"That Celestia," the white counterpart remarked with disdain, "Has rarely ever done what is necessary. She uses her much-vaunted morality as a shield to hide her cowardice. She considers mind control beneath her." Celestia's eyes narrowed, "Many lives would've been saved in the past if she was more flexible."

"You seek to save lives?" Chrysalis asked, honestly curious.

"I seek to make a better future for all Equestria," Celestia stated with determination, "I will save those I can, but I will not shirk from doing what needs to be done. If some need to be sacrificed so that all may be saved, then so be it. I would not grind my hooves together in worry and wail at the unfairness of the universe while all creation burned. I would do what needs to be done to save it."

Chrysalis regarded Celestia curiously for a moment more before slowly dropping back behind her, once more in silence.

Then she resumed imagining the most painful and humiliating tortures for her Princess.

***

"The Crystal Mirror is missing?" Luna asked, peering down at the young dragon.

"Yup," Spike reported, looking through the scroll in his claws, "As is the magic book that activates it. I checked the library as soon as I completed the inventory and discovered the mirror missing."

Luna frowned thoughtfully, "So it would seem that the changeling thieves had stolen a magic mirror and the means to activate it."

"Yeah, but why?" Spike asked in confusion, scratching his head, "I mean, the only thing the mirror can do is go to that crazy alternate world that Sunset lives in now, right? Why would anypony want that?"

"Perhaps the changelings plan to invade that world, if Equestria proves too resistant," Luna mused, looking towards the Doc for confirmation.

The Doc thought for a moment then shook his head, "Maybe, but unlikely. Changeling emotional feeding relies on their innate magic, and from what Twilight has told me about that world --" the brown earth-pony smiled slightly and shrugged, "-- I have some experience with alternate realities and she sought my insight -- anyway, from what Twilight said, that world was very magic-poor. In fact, the only magic in it is what leaks in from Equestria itself. There's unlikely to be enough magic there to allow them to feed, at least without some kind of help."

"Help like the Alicorn Amulet?" Spike offered helpfully, "Would that allow them to do feed?"

The Doc hesitated, running a hoof through his messy mane. "Maybe," he allowed, "I confess that my expertise is in science, not magic. Twilight herself might be a better source to ask about the magical bits. That said, the Alicorn Amulet is only one artifact, yes? An invasion of one is hardly much of an invasion."

Spike thought again, tapping his chin with a claw, "Could it be adjusted to affect an entire swarm at once? The amulet, I mean?"

"Perhaps," Luna mused, "Its construction is... difficult and maddeningly complex. It would require a very complete understanding of the magic matrix involved. There are very few ponies who have such knowledge, and even intense study of the artifact would take years if not decades to uncover the full complexity of it."

"Would Princess Celestia be one of the ponies who have that knowledge?" the Doc asked pointedly, but gently.

Luna stared at the brown earth-pony with a look of shock and horror that quickly turned to anger. "My sister would never ally with such fiends! How dare you even suggest it!"

The brown earth-pony's ear flickered under the withering gaze of the dark Princess of the Night, but he held her gaze. "You didn't answer my question," he said, his voice still gentle.

Luna glowered at the much smaller pony for a moment more before breaking into a weary, worried frown. "Yes, she is one," the alicorn replied quietly, "But so am I."

"Anypony else?"

Luna hesitated before bowing her head dejectedly, "None that still live." She paused then added, "That I know of, at least. I could be mistaken and perhaps somepony else did discover its mysteries." Her voice sounded unconvincing even to her own ears.

The Doc frowned deeply, stroking his chin with a hoof before sighing. "Princess Luna, I'm not saying that Princess Celestia has allied with changelings of her own free will. There might be an element of mind control here -- changelings are experts in that sort of thing, after all. We don't know how well an alicorn can fight off mental compulsion like that." He held up a hoof to forestall any protest, "And it may be the case that your sister is not involved beyond being a prisoner. But. We should at least consider the possibility that Princess Celestia truly is involved with this whole matter, at least until we can eliminate that possibility entirely."

Luna scowled faintly before taking a breath and schooling her features. "You are right, of course," she finally intoned, though there was an emptiness in her voice, "We shouldn't eliminate any possibilities that evidence supports." She fixed the brown pony with a piercing gaze, "Though I will not have it said that my sister is a traitor without absolute proof. Is that understood?"

The Doc nodded once, "Perfectly, Princess." He sighed again, and rubbed his forehead with a hoof, "Honestly, we are lacking a lot of information here. We don't know much about changelings, or even about alicorns." He fixed Luna with another stare, "I truly feel we need Twilight's expertise on this. If anyone might be able to come up with a working hypothesis as to how changelings might be able to mind control an alicorn, it is her. We need magical help in this, Princess, and unless you're fully versed in magical theory in the thousand years before your return, Twilight Sparkle is the one most likely to help."

Luna paused then sighed, nodding, "Very well. I will return to Canterlot and ask for aid in this matter."

"I could send a message?" Spike piped up from nearby, "Let her know you're coming at least. I mean, I know talking about magic stuff is kind of awkward to do over scroll, but..."

The dark alicorn considered the dragon for a moment before smiling as she stood, motioning to her back, "Perhaps you would like to accompany me, Spike? If we require Twilight's magical knowledge and expertise, then surely she will require her assistant?"

Spike's face lit up with joy and he clambered atop Luna's back. "Sounds great!"

Luna looked over her shoulder at the dragon and smiled before turning back to the Doc, "I will leave half of my coterie of Nightwatch here to aid in whatever remains of the storm and its clean up. Please extend my apologies to Rainbow Dash for leaving so abruptly and my personal congratulations to all the ponies of Ponyville. Everyone had acquitted themselves admirably during this crisis."

With one more nod, the Princess of the Night headed towards the door.

Author's Note:

Hello, Dear Reader! Let's talk about pacing.

Pacing is something I am very much cognisant of when writing. I have seen too many potentially good stories (both professional and fan) damaged or ruined by poor pacing.

If the author goes too fast with events in the story, then the conclusion can be disappointing. Having the story stumble awkwardly to an event in the author's haste to to get there is really off-putting and can seriously impact the work.

On the other hand, going too slow is just exasperating for the audience. The story becomes a slog and, understandably, a lot of people just give up rather than stick with it. Again, the entertainment of the story is negatively impacted.

As a whole, I try to err on the side of slow pacing rather than fast. In my mind, it's far better for a story to get a bit annoying and rambling around the point rather than race to a conclusion that feels unearned and disappointing. Regardless, though, one should always strive for the right pacing so that it neither feels too fast or too slow.

So I am curious, Dear Reader, how you think of the pacing of this story thus far? Is it too slow? Too fast? Just right? Naturally, I am trying to keep it going at a good clip without bogging it down (I cut out a few scenes from The Sundering chapter and just included a bit of exposition instead as it was quite long and I was worried a bit too heavy). I think I'm doing a pretty good job, but it would be nice to hear your thoughts on it, Dear Reader.

Thanks again for reading!