• Published 5th Sep 2018
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The Golden Age of Apocalypse - Book I - BlueBastard

A Berylverse Story - The ponies investigate an ancient prophecy tied to Sombra's plan to destroy Equestria, all the while Sunset prepares for her coronation. But not all is as it seems when the mystery begins to imply a far darker truth of the past.

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Chapter 12 - What Lies Hidden

Golden Age of Apocalypse

Chapter 12: What Lies Hidden

The next morning, the Super-Electric swiftly swung down, casting its shadow over the town of Nightshade. Despite the massive cannons at the ready, 600 or so pegasus and batpony guards poured out from the vessel—the unicorn guards teleporting to the ground simultaneously, transporting the earth and crystal ponies with them—and Lt. Skyracer leading the head. This one bearing a butter yellow coat with a three-color mane of black, red, and white coloration.

“Don’t forget to tip your driver!” called out Capt. Easychord from the deck.

Skyracer paid no heed, his mind focused at the task at hand. Only when his contingent got to the town center, they found...a bunch of townsponies locked up in shiny crystal cages.

“Finally, some backup shows up at long last!” exclaimed an exasperated Raspberry as she emerged from the heavily damaged hotel. The rest of her group and one pony Skyracer didn’t recognize followed suit. “Nice of you to join up, Skyracer! At least you’re not an asshole like the other one!”

“Other Skyracer?” asked Skyracer, confused. “There’s no other pony in the service with my name as far as I know, and where’s Sgts. Lightfighter and Daffodil? And didn’t the Princess put Lt. Dash in charge of all of this? What the hell is going on?”

“The whole town is some kinda weird, screwed up plot,” answered Razz. “They’ve been conspiring to cover up what they’ve done with the survivors from the wreck of the Arno, then...apparently turned into monsters to try and kill us. I honestly have no clue what was going on. And as for our good sergeants, they’re missing along with all our other guards—probably kidnapped and thrown in with the missing passengers.”

“Wait, that’s what you said happened to Thorn and Thistle...but I was on that ship so why am I not bound and gagged and thrown into a closet or something with the rest of them?” asked Coco.

“Because they haven’t had the chance, darling,” answered Rarity.

“And speakin’ of Thorn and Thistle, I gotta wonder if maybe they ended up with the rest of the missin’ passengers,” Applejack said. Beside her, Sandalwood and Rainbow Dash nodded.

The three of them had reconvened with Razz shortly after she had dealt with Lockbox, all of them bruised and battered. After the initial shock at seeing Razz in her human from, they had informed her that they had all taken a nasty fall and had been knocked out for several minutes. When they had come to, Thorn and Thistle were gone, along with Amaretto and the rest of the cursed ponies.

“Well with any luck, we’ll know for sure soon one way or the other,” Rarity said, sparing a glance around at the various imprisoned monsters, now in the forms of normal ponies. Sandalwood’s cousin Amaretto was among them, looking quietly ashamed. “Though despite getting to the bottom of this werewolf nonsense, we’re no closer to figuring out the reason we came here in the first place.”

“That would be, uh, my bad,” sheepishly admitted a new voice, and as all turned to view the speaker, it was revealed to be an ashamed looking Twin Peaks, who let out a weary sigh. “I suppose there’s nothing for it, now. Cat’s already out of the bag.”

“Ah, yes, Mr. Peaks, if that even is your real name,” drolled Razz, “I think there are things we need to discuss—and I would strongly suggest you start talking now while you aren’t behind bars!”

“Behind bars?” Peaks yelped.

“That is quite the option,” Rarity added.

“And when you’re done with him,” shouted Lockbox from her cage off to the side, “I need to have a little personal talk with him, too!”

Equestria was a land full of natural wonders, for even when the ruling powers of the whole country could command the sun and moon as mere playthings, and ponies took charge of the rotation of the seasons, it only made the species as a collective whole understand the significance of how the land’s greatest treasures were formed without a guiding hoof ever more pronounced.

For Raspberry Beryl and friends—Applejack, Sandalwood, Rainbow, Rarity, and Skyracer—they were awestruck by the hidden wonder that lay beneath the town of Nightshade. A gigantic bowl was carved out in the ground, a quarter-mile beneath the town itself, but from one of the wide passages that had been carved out on the sides that overlooked the underground clearing, it was like a whole different town had been designed with naturally occurring walls, doorways, and no rooftops. Almost like a foal’s attempt to build a town from blocks and forgot to give any buildings proper protection from the rain—not like an underground town would need that.

“The Brightstone Caverns are quite magnificent, aren’t they?” asked Lockbox with some pride. “None of what you see needs artificial lighting, the intensity of the naturally occurring brightstone, or to use the proper scientific term, aetherium deposits give off enough light that it’s no different than if you were standing outside on a sunny day!”

“Certainly must be nice having an entire, naturally formed base to have lying around,” commented Sandalwood, noting that in addition to the almost two-hundred beds contained in what looked like a well-stocked hospital area—where it had been revealed the entire crew and passenger count of the Seabiscuit Arno had been since Razz’s group had first stepped foot into the town—there were a number of guardsponies patrolling around. They were also able to confirm that Thorn and Thistle were among the other rescued passengers, having been brought there the other night by a member of the town militia.

Razz looked for sergeants Lightfighter and Daffodil among the armored ponies but couldn’t find them, nor could she spot the other Skyracer. She did, however, spot one familiar face in the crowd: the batpony Cpt. Stormbreaker moved around with a purpose, barking orders to her subordinates. Razz had forgotten this is where the old CO of Ponyville’s Guard contingent had been reassigned, and made a mental note to catch up with her later when they both had more time.

“Yeah, the truth is? You’re looking at the main portion of the initial guard company sent to assist,” replied Twin Peaks, returning Razz’s attention to the conversation. “There’s a passage directly linking the topside building to an entrance just behind that rock outcropping over there.“

“Seems mighty convenient such a place exists so close to where the Arno went down,” remarked Applejack.

“Well, this place is set up to be kind of a stronghold anyway, back before the time the Griffin kingdom fell into fiefdoms and civil war,” Peaks explained. “As I understand it, it dates back to King Gilman the Tyrant and his constant attempts to invade Equestria. Celestia herself used the ocean to create this sea cave and stationed a legion of her forces here before Gilman was deposed by his daughter, Princess Gillian, who declared herself queen and sued for peace. Eventually, the guard left and the town inherited this place.”

“I’d think a town full of werewolves, zombies, and vampires would pose enough of a problem that nopony would come invade,” observed Rainbow. “Seriously, we still haven’t gotten an answer for that.”

“We’re getting to that part, so don’t be so hasty,” Lockbox pointed out. “The asshole and I––”

“You, you mean,” Peaks argued. “I told you I wanted no part of any of this, especially since my job is on the line.”

“Oh, shut up,” Lockbox grunted. “Anyway, I just figured it would be better to start off with showing you all the caverns and that all the ponies who supposedly vanished—both from the Arno and the guard contingent—were always accounted for.”

“So, what exactly did happen?” asked Sandalwood, suspicious. “Sure, I’ll take your word that the guards swooped in and saved everypony, taking them down here through their garrison’s secret batcave entrance or whatever. But if I recall, shouldn’t the guard also have both found Coco freezing to death as well as the backup black box in that icebox, too?”

Just then, Peaks’ secretary appeared and whispered something to her boss, before promptly departing with a giggle after he gently swatted her with his tail. “Lockbox and I aren’t the ponies who would know what to answer for those questions, but those who would are waiting for us at lunch—if you all are willing to allow me, on behalf of the town of Nightshade, to offer it as a small part of the massive apology you fine mares deserve for the shenanigans we put you through unfairly.”

“No thanks,” Lockbox said. “I don’t want to be there when your wife murders you for cheating on her with your secretary.”

“Lock, you need to be there,” Razz said. “For starters, it will smooth things out between your forces and mine. Secondly, you and I still need to have a decent sit-down about a lot of things directly concerning you.”

“I still don’t want to be there,” the mare grumbled.

“I can either make it a request or a requirement,” Razz pointed out. “Your call.”

“Are, ah, the others going to be joining us?” ventured Rarity, though everypony knew who she was specifically asking about.

“To that, I can only hope,” sadly answered Lockbox.

“A letter, you say?” asked the guardspony, his monotone devoid of any emotion. Chainmail was approaching the end of his shift, all he had to do was get through the interrogation with this jittery little pony. He had already performed the changeling detection spell on her personally (as did a couple of the other guards just for safety), but that was no reason not to be thorough.

“Y-yes, signed by Princess Celestia and Princess Sparkle!” affirmed Coco eagerly, if not with a bit of a scared stutter.

“And do you happen to have this letter with you, Miss Pommel?”

“Um, no, it’s with my things…back on the ship.”

“Is there any way to confirm you actually were a passenger on the ship, beyond your name being on the manifest?”

“I, uh, had a conversation with somepony about my work on Bridleway before I was called to the capital.”

“Called because of the letter?”


Chainmail groaned. Why do I get stuck with the shitty interrogations?

A few minutes later, Chainmail found himself wishing for another interrogation like it. It was certainly better than the dark alternative that presented itself as he stepped out of the interrogation room.

“Sergeant!” The familiar voice of his CO, Cpt. Stormbreaker caused him to instinctually stiffen his posture and Chainmail snapped off a smart salute. “Ma’am?” Chainmail said.

Stormbreaker stepped toward him at a pace much quicker than her usual slow, almost laid back speed, and right away Chainmail knew something was up. “Tell your squad to meet back by the entrance double-time. We need to secure the town ASAP!”

“Ma’am!” Chainmail nodded and immediately set about his task. Stormbreaker went with him, evidently headed the same way.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out something bad had happened. “It’s those two ponies detained by the town militia during the chaos the other night. Thorn and Thistle I believe were the names they gave us,” Stormbreaker explained. “I just scanned them with the changeling detection spell. The results came back positive.”

“Well shit…” Chainmail swore.

Stormbreaker’s grim look lingered. “That’s not even the worst part.”

“So, you’re saying that not only are Thorn and Thistle changelings, but they’ve escaped custody?” exclaimed Rarity.

All around could be heard collective gasps. The lunch spread was admittedly very generous and so far had actually been quite enjoyable up until Lt. Skyracer entered with the news.

“That’s right, we’ve dispatched troops to search and secure the town, but so far haven’t turned up anything,” Skyracer said. “All things considered, we’re lucky we caught them before they could do any damage.”

“How did they even escape? Were your ponies asleep on the job or something?” Rainbow asked somewhat harshly.

“They were in the custody of the town militia at the time,” Skyracer answered with a calm patience that established him as leagues better than the other officer with his name. “The working theory is that some of the militia were actually changelings, or at the very least working with them. Cpt. Stormbreaker reports that a few of their ponies have gone missing at the same time as Thorn and Thistle. She’s questioning their own CO as we speak.”

“Well ain’t that a fine howdy-do,” Applejack said with a scowl.

“Is Coco at least faring well?” Rarity asked.

Skyracer nodded. “She had just finished with questioning when news of the changelings’ escape broke. Aside from being a little—well, very—rattled, she’s just fine.” He then turned towards the door and made a quick gesture with his head, and the little mare in question was led into the room by another stone-faced Guard.

“She’s requested to stay close to you, Archmagus Beryl.”

“Me?” Razz asked.

Coco tried to smile away the anxiety plain on her face. “I’d just… feel safer around you, Miss Beryl. After seeing your performance last night….”

Frankly, Razz was surprised that anypony would feel safer around her after both seeing her true from and her human one. She decided to simply take it as a compliment.

Skyracer then removed his helmet and tucked it away at his side. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll join you for lunch. Not only am I starving, but it occurred to me that none of you have had a proper briefing on the situation with the SAR in the first place.”

With that, Skyracer took a seat and started by explaining that the guards had used detection spells to find anypony on the ship—a job made easier by way of a good portion of the ship having been crushed upon impact and, fortunately, nopony having been in that part of the ship at the time. But what Rarity got from that answer is that the guards had only used their detection spells, which for a yet-to-be-determined reason had not picked up Coco, and so she’d been left on the ship. The same applied for why the guards had not found the second black box in the freezer—despite the door at the time having been open—after finding the first box was busted.

“I’m sorry, Lady Rarity, but protocol had to be followed,” explained Skyracer. When asked how much he knew about the mysterious goings on in the town, he went on to explain that all the other guards had been led to the caverns the previous day, but by the time they were actually let in on the town’s secret defensive measures, communication had broken down so much due to the various group separations that they’d only just caught up to the insanity by the time Razz had detained Lockbox.

“As I feared, due to airship travel commercialization being so new, word about new protocols related to it still hadn’t reached here, so Stormbreaker acted as per standard regulations and moved to ensure that all survivors were safe. Somehow, the captain had only said there was one black box—though he also had a bad head wound from the crash so he can’t be entirely held at fault for that—so no attempt to locate the second box was made. Since those regulations were put in place directly by Princess Cadance, they have to be followed through to the letter.”

“But that doesn’t answer why ponies were left to die on their own by the guards!”

“I’m sure as hell going to mention that in my report,” Rainbow interjected. “It’s dereliction of duty and while I can play fast and loose with rules and regulations, we’re talking about lives here!”

Rarity narrowed her eyes. “What about the ‘revised count’ if I may ask?”

“Revised count?”

“Yeah. Sgt. Daffodil, her two batpony underlings, and that other Lt. Skyracer you were talking about are missing,” the Skyracer they knew said.

“What do you mean, ‘missing’?” asked Razz.

“Missing. Granted, I’m not quite as familiar with the dictionary as Princess Twilight is, but I can give a reasonable definition, if you want,” Skyracer replied in a dry tone.

“I know what ‘missing’ means, Lieutenant,” Razz deadpanned. “What I want to know is whether they’re ‘abducted by changelings’ missing, or ‘working with changelings’ missing.”

Rainbow looked at her counterpart. “Either way, we won’t know for sure until we find them. They’re under my command, and I don’t want to lose them. And if they are working with changelings, I want answers! Got any ideas of where we should start?”.

“Probably the changeling hive in the middle of the forest,” Peaks said, and everypony stared at him. “What, you didn’t know about that? I thought the Guard patrols would have found it by now.”

Lockbox reached over and grabbed Peaks by his lapels. “And when were you going to tell the town about this potential threat, stupid?” she seethed.

“After they take their little bundle of ‘I pretend to be a batpony’, back home to wherever the hell changelings come from, that’s when,” Peaks responded. “My job is to protect this town, not everypony in it.”

“Translation: ‘my job is to protect my plot from looking bad’, right?” Rainbow snarled. “Don’t think anypony didn’t know you were hiding. So,” she said, looking at Rarity and Applejack, “how much authority as Bearers do you think we have?”

“Y’ mean like the kind that strips bad mayors of their authority?” Applejack asked.

Peaks’ eyes went wide with shock. “YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” he hollered.

“Do what? Act on behalf of Princess Twilight to remove a poorly-performing public official whose actions, by his own admission no less, have jeopardized a member of the town?” Rarity asked, “Why darling, I’d think Twilight would be cross with us if we didn’t.”

“What? You can’t do this! This is mutiny! I’ll tell the princesses––”

“We speak for the Princesses,” Rainbow told him coldly. “I am a naval officer and a Bearer. Applejack and Rarity are Bearers as well. Razz is Archmagus.”

“Plus, we are all members of Princess Twilight’s court,” Rarity added. “We often do not wield political power, but if duty calls for us to use it? Use it we must.”

Razz looked at Lockbox. “Anypony you recommend as a new mayor?”

The look on the unicorn’s face was thoughtful. “Maybe Tinpan Alley. She’s the piano player for the hotel bar, but she’s got a lot of experience in running a town. From what she says, her father was the mayor of Berryville, but that after she left home, she’s been a travelling musician. So I’m guessing she knows her stuff.”

Razz looked at the three Bearers. “Ladies, would you care to make a decision?”

Peaks looked at the trio as if he was going to banish them to the moon just from the force of his glare.

“Let’s make this quick, okay?” Rainbow said testily. “We’ve got some ponies to save. All in favor of stripping Twin Pines––”

“That’s ‘Peaks’, you idiot! At least get my name right!” he growled.

“How rude—no respect for a lady making a singular mistake,” Rarity tutted. “Well, I know where I’m casting my vote.”

“Yeah, Ah can tell he’s been lyin’ to us pretty much from th’ first moment we got here,” Applejack added. “Besides, the town could use somepony a little more understanding in charge.”

“Well, you already know how I’m going to vote,” Rainbow said, “so let’s make it official.” She turned to a crystal stallion standing there. “Pvt. Shard, would you be so kind as to go get Miss Alley?” The guardstallion saluted and walked off in search of his quarry. The pegasus then turned back to Peaks. “And now, what do we do with you, Mr. Ex-Mayor?”

“You can’t do this!” he shouted. “I’ll protest to Celestia herself!”

“For what? You deliberately withheld information from an official investigation authorized by the Court of Friendship. And seeing as how the town’s entire population attacked us, we have the right to declare martial law and that gives us all the authority to remove you from office if we deem it necessary,” Rarity explained. “Raspberry, dear, if I write a letter to the Crown, can you ensure that dear Heliodor gets it to Spike? He can take care of the rest.”

“Absolutely,” Razz replied. “And since he’s going to probably be a screaming nuisance, Skyracer, would you take this clown and put him under arrest?”

“On it,” he told her. “Now c’mon, you don’t want to piss off the nice mares and have one of them turn you into black crystal or douse you with a rainbow laser, right?”

“Wait!” Peaks cried out. “I can tell you where they are!”

“And why would we choose to believe you?” a new voice said. Standing next to Pvt. Shard was a silver-coated earth mare, her mane and tail a vibrant honey brown and red, framing baby blue eyes. “So far you’ve lied about everything in order to hinder these ponies, now you admit to being party to kidnapping, too? No wonder your wife seems blissfully ignorant you’re cheating on her.”

“And you are?” Rarity asked.

“Tinpan Alley, at your service,” she said with a curtsey, addressing Razz and the Bearers. “I just received the news and you have my thanks, your graces. I assure you that you’ll have all the cooperation you need from the town government. Unlike my predecessor, I care about my ponies more than my cushy desk chair.”

“Well, we shall leave this to you, good lady mayor,” Rarity replied. “Unfortunately, we have to find some of our missing ponies—turns out they may have been captured by the changelings in the area.”

“Well, fortunately for you, Mr. Peaks here is going to lead you to the hive of his own accord,” Alley said with a smile.

“And why would I do that?” Peaks grunted.

“Well, as per the provincial municipal code, I am required to take a look at the town’s ledger and finances as incoming mayor. Furthermore, due to my predecessor being removed for cause, I am required to do a full investigation in the event that there has been any, shall we say, ‘cooking of the books’?” Alley’s smile became a massive grin. “Did I mention my sister’s a forensic accountant for the Crown? I’m sure she’d be more than happy to help me do a deep investigation of the town’s finances.”

Peaks sighed. “Fine, fine, you all think you’re so smarter than me––”

“‘So much smarter’, dear, not ‘so smarter’. You may wish to work on your Equish,” Rarity corrected.

“Whatever,” grunted the deposed ex-mayor.

Soon enough, Skyracer and a group of his soldiers were making their way through the dense forest, led by an indignant Twin Peaks. They were joined by Raspberry, Heliodor, Amber Shine (who was now finally sober, though nursing a killer headache), and two other ponies whose presence was fairly conspicuous. One of them was Coco, who wanted to come along namely because she felt safest around Razz (the fact she wasn’t clinging to Rarity instead gave the fashionista a mix of emotional responses), while the other…

“So, uh, remind me again why you have me along?” asked Lockbox. Considering what transpired a few hours prior, she was quite surprised when Raspberry elected to bring her along. Especially wearing her full battle barding. “I mean, you seem really trusting despite the fact I’d attempted to brutally murder you and all. Sorry about that, by the way.”

“While we’re still going to have a nice long discussion about that, it’s clear you were only trying to protect the town and our mutual versatile friend. Naturally, I still don’t trust you. That being said, I distrust Twin Peaks even more and if anypony will keep him in line through sheer presence, that pony is you.”

“Good point—I don’t recall if I told you already, but Peaks there was the one who convinced me you were really a ‘witch hunter’ trying to capture me.”

“A witch hunter?” scoffed Razz, “I’d say I’ve been more the witch hunted given who, or rather what, I am.” Raspberry then raised a hoof to her chin in thought. “Although, considering my position as Archmagus of Dark Magic, going on a witch hunt for illegal dark magic users is practically in my job description. Suffice to say, that private discussion we’ll be having is going to be very, very long.”

If you ever get to have that discussion,” remarked Amber. “This walk is taking forever!”

“Pvt. Shine, you’ll be doing laps back and forth between the town and our endpoint if you continue to complain,” chided Skyracer who then turned to Peaks. “But she does have a point, just where exactly are we headed? The map you showed this route on implied it was only an hour’s walk away.”

Twin Peaks grunted, “Just a bit farther—had to hide the troublesome lot well after all.”

“Hmmm...maybe I should have stayed back in town…” mumbled Coco, prompting Skyracer to sigh in exasperation.

“Okay, this isn’t working,” he stated, “so we’re going to head back to town, drop Coco off, and check that damn map because I’m pretty sure we’re lost.”

“If we’re lost then how are we going to get back to town?” asked Twin Peaks, slightly alarmed.

“I can teleport us, duh,” said Razz matter-of-factly, taking down her disguise spell in order to prep a large cast radius. Twin Peaks, not ever having seen Razz’s true form before, promptly screamed in fright, and suddenly a group of changelings sprung from hiding slightly farther up the path. With her disguise down, Razz had her full magic pool available and instinctively summoned up dark crystal where the changelings stood, entrapping their hooves.

But then a second wave showed up from behind the group, slightly larger in numbers this time, and quickly overwhelmed the Equestrians. However, what the rescue crew lacked in numbers they made up with in combat prowess and within a chaotic five minutes had incapacitated their attackers.

“Answers, now,” demanded Skyracer, who had taken no time to figure out Peaks had been in league with the Changelings. Razz, by complete accident, had made Peaks scream as if in trouble, thus botching the obvious ambush of Changelings and costing them the element of surprise. But by the same token, Twin Peaks could have been leading them on a wild goose chase and into a trap, not actually knowing where Skyracer’s comrades in arms were. “Because you can either be smart for once and tell me where the batponies are, or I hand you over to her.”

Peaks fully expected “her” to be Razz...but from the sheer terror when he realized Skyracer’s hoof was pointing to Lockbox—who looked only too eager to introduce her chains to the ex-mayor after so long—he would have much prefered the scarier looking one with the pissed off bird ornament. Either way, the truly scary part was he simply had nothing to use as bargaining chips.

“I...I don’t know!” he blubbered. “All I know is they’re at the hive or something, that’s all I was told!”

“You spineless, sell-out rat!” screamed Lockbox. “You hate on Versatile all the time and yet you willingly let the actual scum-sucker bugs take ponies prisoner to feed on their emotions?! I shouldn’t be so surprised: you’re so two-faced the only thing separating you from an actual changeling is biology!”

“And color,” remarked Amber, who was the first to notice something was off with their would be assailants. “Aren’t changelings teal, not purple?”

“And where’s Coco?” realized Razz. As the group looked around worriedly, they discovered the junior fashionista was missing.

“And great, the one bargaining chip I had left is gone, too,” grumbled Peaks. “All this trouble over one damn pony.”

The words seemed to suck all of the oxygen out of the air, as every set of eyes slowly landed on the duplicitous stallion.

“Wait, are you saying this entire shitshow was the Changelings taking down an airship to get at one pony?” Razz stated in disbelief. Her features turned to those of focus as the pieces suddenly fit together. “But that explains how Coco ended up in a freezer, not by accident but by design. Somepony or something scared her in there to kill her!”

Internally, Razz was worried about something else. What in the world do the changelings want with Coco?

“And that’s where those two changelings named Thorn and Thistle come into play,” Skyracer said, causing Razz to table her thoughts for the moment. They could figure out the bigger picture later. “Given Mr. Mayor here ‘threw them in jail’ and has been working with said changelings all along, we can probably guess what he really did with them.”

“Well, what’s our next move, Lieutenant?” asked Amber. “We’re an hour from town, we’ve got a civilian taken hostage or possibly already killed, and no closer to finding our—”

Heliodor suddenly screeched loudly, leaping off Razz’s horn and landing on the ground, gesturing to something with a wing. It was a spot of green blood on a small outcropping of dark crystal Razz had summoned in the confusion. He then hopped over a few meters to where another patch of green blood was.

“And that is why Heelee takes offense when ponies unwisely call him bird brain derisively,” boasted Razz, quickly running over to rub her pet’s head affectionately. “We now have a trail to the hive. No doubt whatever the Changelings want, it involves impersonating Coco, possibly the batponies too—and no doubt the other ‘Skyracer’ is anything but a guardspony.”

“We need to head back to town and plan an assault,” immediately ordered Skyracer.

“Yeah, like you’ll ever be able to save them after all this ti-URK!” chided Twin Peaks, who didn’t finish his sentence before Lockbox immediately trotted over and punched him square in the jaw, shutting him up.

“If anybody wants to tell me that is some kind of crime against equinanity like dark magic use is, then read me the riot act after we save our friends!” said Lockbox. Of course, nopony really had issue with shutting up the traitor, so nothing was said.

“Alright, Lockbox and Amber, you’re with me,” ordered Razz. “Skyracer, you take Peaks and the rest of your contingent back to town and do whatever it is you said you’re gonna do.”

“But Archmagus, that’s suicide!” exclaimed Skyracer, “As is my sworn duty-”

“Your duty is to protect the ponies of Equestria, which I need you to do in case we’re dealing with a far larger and more aggressive infestation of Changelings than I suspect we are. As Amber pointed out, these aren’t colored like the ones who serve Chrysalis, so it could be a rival hive trying to grow out of sight of the main swarm.” She then grinned as she tapped her leg brace, adding “And suicide? Please, killing me is easy—keeping me dead is what nopony has figured out yet.”

“I certainly hope they succeed,” Peaks muttered under his breath, then braced for another hit.

She ignored him and continued. “However, after this ambush, chances are they’re gonna try and move the hive, expecting a heavy counterattack—they’d be long gone by the time your forces were marshaled and led back to where we are two hours from now. They won’t expect a much smaller group with magic unlike anything they could possibly have encountered before, not to mention we don’t need to exterminate the hive, just get the hostages out alive. And honestly? It’s not like the incident in Castle Everfree with that undead werewolf bitch who gave me my leg’s parting gift.”

“Wait, undead ponies and werewolves are actually a thing?!” gasped a shocked Lockbox. “I mean, yeah, sure, the whole ‘town of monsters’ thing was me using a dark magic physical glamorie spell, but...those legends about shapeshifting wolf ponies and shit are true?!”

“I’ll explain on the way, but we all need to move if we’re going to make this work!”

“I knew I should have stayed with Miss Rarity!” cried Coco, who only thought her situation at present was improved from being locked in a freezer by the relative air temperature not slowly killing her. But being bound in slime with a bunch of bug faces staring at her certainly was not pleasant.

“I thought I ordered you two dolts to kill her!” came a cruel voice from somewhere within the hive.

“We tried to—accidental hypothermia by being locked in a freezer was totally going to leave no trace, but then those other ponies showed up!” came a voice vaguely like Thistle.

“And then the whole town suddenly turned into monsters!” added Thorn. “Frankly, we should consider ourselves lucky she was stupid enough to leave the safety of the town.”

“Yes…” intoned what must have been the queen. “But she’s still alive!”

“We couldn’t kill her on the spot! Your whole plan is ruined if they know she’s dead!” Thorn argued back.

“Plus, she may be of worth now,” suggested Thistle. “She’s spent some time around that one unicorn with the fancy hair, who is quite a powerful asset to the Equestrians. Anything she knows that could help mitigate a magic user of her caliber would be lost if we don’t get it out of her while still alive.”

“Hmmm…” observed the queen. “I suppose that is true—guess there is a reason I keep you morons around after all. Though you should get that wound looked at—it’s starting to bleed.”

“Huh? Oh, shit—one of the guards must have nicked me when we were grabbing Coco.”

Coco missed the tail end of the conversation as she dreaded just what exactly the changelings wanted from her. One thought immediately came to mind but she realized it might only make these bugs angry. Something definitely seemed off about them, beyond the obvious. They certainly weren’t the usual coloration expected of Changelings—that in and of itself troublesome. If something as simple as color wasn’t the same, what else did these Changelings have different from the usual fodder?

One such example was their queen, who by then was now walking up to where Coco was being held prisoner. She looked like a purple-hued Chrysalis, sans crown but with a semi-polished bronze torc as a substitute and a short-cut mane, to boot.

“Well, aren’t you a lucky mare?” the tall figure said. “You are in the presence of Queen Mandible, a rare honor for any mere pony—usually we suck you sentient feedbags dry of emotion before tossing your unconscious bodies to the side. But you, Miss Coco, you’re special. And I’m sure you know why.”

“I...was recommended for a position as Bridleway designer by one of the Elements of Harmony?” was the first thing Coco could respond with.

For Mandible, the sound of her train of thought screeching to a halt was almost audible, her wide eyes exposing the shock at such a completely unexpected response. “W-what? No, of course not, what makes you think I’m interested in crap like that?”

“Because I overheard you talking with your minions about it?”

The queen gave Coco a flat look. “Surely, you’re joking. No, I know you’re just screwing with me now—there’s a bitch far more important to you than that stupid unicorn obsessed with clothes!”

Coco was seriously confused now. What other ponies did she know who were more important in any way than Miss Rarity, Element of Generosity and part of Princess Twilight’s inner court? “Uh...Suri Polomare?”

The sound of Mandible facehoofing echoed through the entire hive. “All this work,” she grumbled, “just to hit a wall of incomprehensible obliviousness. Buck my life.”

Author's Note:

We finally have a GAOA TV tropes page, so if you weren't already aware of it - go forth and fill it up!

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