• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,755 Views, 145 Comments

Darkened Shores - Silver Flare

An adventure that takes the Mane 6 around the world to face the what destroyed the alicorn homeland.

  • ...

04: The Hive

There wasn’t much light beneath the canopy of pine trees. The friends seemed to trot through a sea of lengthening shadows as the afternoon sun began moving toward the nearby mountain peaks. The air was crisp without being too cold, and it smelled of pine and fresh loam. Twilight figured the trees must have been ancient because they stretched majestically into the sky. She wished they’d been hiking this forest under different circumstances. Without her concern for Princess Celestia and the danger they were all in, she would have appreciated its beauty. The forest seemed timeless, as though they walked between the pillars of some ancient and forgotten temple. As it was Twilight Sparkle was tense and alert, trying to watch every direction at once. Every startled woodland creature and rustle in the branches made her twitch and jump. It didn’t help that the carpet of branches, pine needles and other plant detritus made Pinkie Pie spring even higher than normal.

“Wheeeeeee!” Pinkie Pie leapt into the air. “It’s just like my trampoline back home, except it’s everywhere! C’mon, you have to try this!”

Twilight whirled on her. “For the last time!” She whispered fiercely. “Shush! There could be changelings all through these woods. Or worse! So for the love of Celestia, be quiet!”

“Oops! Sorry.” Pinkie Pie whispered back. “I forgot. . . You still have to try this, though!” Pinkie Pie sproinged into the air quietly a few times, and then attempted a front-flip. She turned tail-over-mane and overshot, landing on her face. Her packs spilled open. Everyone stopped to glare at her. She looked around sheepishly. Applejack helped her scoop supplies off the forest floor and put them back in her packs. Pinkie Pie was humming under her breath by the time they finished. Everyone else had continued on. Applejack grabbed Pinkie by the mane and drew her eye-to-eye with her. Applejack’s eyes went wide and serious before contracting to angry slits. Pinkie Pie cowered a bit. Applejack popped a hoof up in between them, and then slowly put it to her lips, glaring all the while. Then she turned and trotted off to catch up with her friends. Pinkie Pie gulped, then followed.

They wended their way through the massive pines, skirted a rather large lake, and then followed what might have been an animal trail, heading a little more north than east. When the sun hit the horizon and began to set, Twilight called for a stop. Rarity and Fluttershy dropped their packs and tried to catch their breath a bit. Twilight spoke quietly. “Dash, I want you to fly straight up and scout around a bit. Let us know if you see anything.”

“Sure Twilight.” Rainbow Dash unslung her packs and tossed them aside. Then she flew up and shouldered through some branches, disappearing from sight. She reappeared almost immediately. “Um, what am I looking for exactly?” She asked quietly.

“Anything out of the ordinary.” Twilight answered. “Buildings, any large clearings, umm. . . smoke. . . oh wait!” Twilight began rummaging madly through her packs. “Don’t go yet!” Rainbow Dash flew back down, pine needles stuck through her mane and tail. Twilight withdrew more parchment, ink and a quill, giving them to Spike. “Here, write this. ‘We’ve got eyes in the sky. Let us know where you are, if you can.’ And send it.”

Spike scribbled quickly in the last of the fading light, rolled the parchment up and blew a bit of green dragonfire down its length. The parchment blew into dust and vanished from sight. Twilight nodded to Rainbow Dash, who nodded back and shot into the sky like an arrow, showering her companions with pine needles and pine cones.

As shadows thickened, Twilight began to have trouble seeing her friends. Spike spoke into the darkness. “Hey Twilight? What is this?” He didn’t sound alarmed. Twilight squinted, and made out the outline of a vague shape he was holding up.

“Oh, that’s called a pine cone.” Twilight said softly. “They grow on coniferous trees like these, and when the time is right they open and release seeds. It’s how they reproduce.”

Spike nodded. “Oh, ok. Cool. I just don’t think I’ve ever seen one before.”

Twilight smiled. Applejack stepped closer and spoke up. “Um, Twi’? Should we maybe set up camp here?”

“No.” Twilight’s voice was resolute. I’m not leaving Princess Celestia alone in these woods tonight. Not if there’s a chance she needs us.” Applejack acquiesced with her silence. The companions waited together beneath the spread branches of the majestic pines. Fortunately, they didn’t have long to wait.

“Um,” Pinkie Pie said to nobody in specific. “My knee feels pinchy.”

As the sun began setting behind the nearby mountains, Princess Celestia crept silently through the woods. Silently may be a bit of an overstatement, but she certainly made less noise than a chipmunk or a mouse. Centuries of practice made it second nature. She also crept almost invisibly through the forest, having long ago mastered a light-bending spell invented by Starswirl the Bearded. She’d even improved it. When she held still she knew she’d be invisible to any kind of sight. Even moving, she appeared as a strange blurring, a subtle smudging of the forest floor. Scanning the ground carefully, she found another faint hoofprint and changed her course slightly, following the changelings back to their lair. Most of them would have flown through the forest, knowing they couldn’t be spotted from the sky and leaving no trace of their passing on the forest floor. They hadn’t used any kind of traceable magic, but that meant that at least two of them had to have carried the heavy case containing the Elements of Harmony the hard way. They never seemed to suspect that Celestia could read tracks the earth pony way. As she ghosted through the trees, her one concern was that she might alert the changelings to her presence. If warned, they might try to move the Elements someplace else, and that was unacceptable.

Celestia froze in place as still as any statue, and faded into invisibility. She kept her breathing slow and measured, and scanned the forest using only her eyes. A few moments later, a darker shadow crept out of the shadow of a tree. Its black carapace glistened in the fading light. It scanned the ground as it scuttled through the dirt and undergrowth smoothly, without hurry. Excellent. Celestia thought. A patrol. The hive can’t be far. The changeling scout crawled closer, rustling pine needles and dirt underhoof. It swung wide, angling right past Celestia’s position. It drew close enough for Celestia to clearly see its blue, pupil-less, soulless eyes even in the gathering gloom. She calmly drew a deep breath and held it, and she mentally prepared a spell to use in case the creature discovered her. The changeling stopped suddenly, snuffling at the ground. Then it chittered to itself, lifting its head into the air and sniffing around slowly. It was close enough to smell now; a sharp, oily and unpleasant scent that stung the nostrils. Another moment, Celestia thought to herself. She prepared to drop her veil.

More chittering and scuttling from a short distance away and another changeling crept into view, then another. Soon there were four of them about twenty feet away making hushed but urgent noises in their insectile language. The changeling near Celestia chittered back, again sounding hushed and urgent. Then it flowed away across the forest floor towards the other four. Celestia allowed herself to breathe out very slowly, and she smiled to herself. They were making every attempt to be quiet, it was clear they were trying to hide from pursuit. She relaxed her will and let the spell she’d prepared go. If they remained unaware that she’d tracked them this far, she still had a chance. All she had to do was reach the entrance to their hive unnoticed, and then she could hopefully find the Elements of Harmony and get them to Twilight Sparkle and her friends. Celesta was a little alarmed at how much stronger the changelings had grown over the past fifty years. Chrysalis had overwhelmed her with sheer force during their last altercation, an outcome the Princess would never have expected. Maybe while she was here, she could find a clue as to what had changed.

The insectile argument stopped abruptly as five oily-black heads turned to look at a point above Celestia’s field of vision. Their gazes dropped towards her just before a small cloud of smoke drifted into view and coalesced with a soft *pop* becoming a scroll of parchment which promptly bounced off of Celestia’s invisible nose, fell and rolled to a stop against her hoof. The Princess had a brief moment to reflect upon the state of events, and she used that moment to berate herself for not considering this eventuality.

As one, the changelings hissed in challenge. Celestia dropped her glamour and clamped a bubble around the cluster of changelings, hoping to keep them from calling for help. The four enraged creatures sheathed themselves in sickly green power and began flinging themselves at the makeshift shield, trying to bash their way out. Four of them? Celestia cursed herself for being a fool and flung herself after the fifth. She caught a glimpse of a black form flitting between the trees as she took to the wing. The changeling saw her giving chase, and began a high-pitched cry intended to alert the hive. It vanished over a small rise and through a break in the trees. Celestia angled for more height, and burst upwards into a moderate clearing covered in bare dirt and green, sticky-looking secretions. In the center of the treeless hollow rose a mound of dirt and rock and solidified green slime punctured by a hole no larger than a small pony. She’d found the hive. Now she simply had to ensure they didn’t relocate the Elements.

But all around her, the alarm call was taken up and repeated by a multitude of throats. The forest echoed with alien threats. Black shapes floated into the air all around Celestia as the last of the sunset faded into twilight. Changelings began boiling out of the hive entrance. Celestia took a deep breath before her entire form burst into radiant, blinding light.

In growing darkness, Twilight began to feel a gnawing dread that made her insides churn. What if she’d put Celestia in some sort of danger? Or did Pinky Pie’s pinchy knee mean danger for them? Of course she shouldn’t have sent that scroll. What a terrible idea. Her breathing sped up. All of her fears were confirmed the moment she heard the high-pitched, ululating screams rising out of the forest to the north. Then a bright light blazed into existence from the same direction, like a sunrise in miniature, casting stark shadows dappled with bright white across the six companions. Twilight had caused this, and she knew it. Dash burst back through the branches shouting “Let’s go! Let’s go!” What have I done? Twilight wondered as they grabbed their bags and began running toward the source of the light. Rarity lit her horn to help everyone keep their footing, and Twilight did the same. When Spike started lagging behind, she lifted him onto her back.

Twilight ran frantically despite the extra weight. Her guilt was only outpaced by her rising panic. Celestia was in danger, and they were moving too slow. “Dash! Fly ahead and see what you can do to help the Princess!”

“I’m on it!” Rainbow dash flashed out of sight through the trees, leaving a brief and faint rainbow-colored streak in the air. By hoof she’s fast. Twilight thought. I just hope she’s fast enough. The strange alarm had stopped, but now they could hear the occasional sound of combat. The electric sounds of magical strikes, the deep thud of impact, and a steady drone from dozens, maybe hundreds of buzzing insect wings. And the source of the light grew brighter and brighter. After several agonizingly eternal minutes, the companions burst from the tree cover and staggered gasping into a clearing.

It was chaos. Black shapes buzzed angrily in every direction, many of them sheathed in green auras of power. High above the clearing shone a small sun in the shape of Princess Celestia. She was too bright to look at directly, and just glancing at her left afterimages smudged across Twilight’s vision. Any changeling that got too close to the Princess was swept up in an invisible whirlwind and flung around in uncontrolled downward spirals. The lucky ones were flung free after a time, the rest were sucked downward towards a solid impact with the ground. A pile of stunned black bodies had piled up on the ground beneath her.

Twilight shielded her eyes with a hoof and she glanced above Celestia, and she saw that some of the changelings had managed to fly above the strength of the swirling winds and plunged directly at Celestia’s back. They looked like sickly green comets. Twilight knew it would only take one to break Celestia’s concentration over her spell, or maybe break her wing and ground her. It was a good bet that the changelings knew that too. However, she was incredibly hard to look directly at, and she never seemed to be where they thought she was. She slipped aside from the fast ones and blasted the cautious into her personal cyclone. Twilight took a moment to study her mentor, watching the way she gently tucked one wing and rolled out from underneath an angled attacker, righted herself and blasted two hovering changelings with small, precise bolts of yellow. Just a nudge of power, but enough to knock them into the winds that surrounded them. She was pacing herself. Another dove for her wing with fangs gleaming, and Celestia spun gracefully into a quarter-turn and planted one shining hind hoof into the creature’s forehead. Twilight thought that maybe its horn had cracked at the impact.

She was so absorbed in the battle that she failed to recognize their own danger until Fluttershy cried out a warning and backed into Twilight’s side. On impulse, Twilight placed a simple shield around her friends as she glanced around, blinking rapidly. Several changelings had noticed them, and had flung themselves in their direction. The first impact was staggering. The changeling flew horn-first into the shield inches from Fluttershy’s face. The shield cracked, and Twilight winced in pain, but the shield held and the changeling dropped stunned to the ground. As did the second. And the third and fourth. Twilight was surprised by their strength, she really thought her shield would hold better than this. Three more changelings lined up to charge together, and Twilight realized what she’d done. She’d trapped her friends in a convenient little fishbowl. They couldn’t scatter or fight, and the shield certainly wouldn’t hold through much more abuse. At her sides, Applejack and Rarity crouched, ready to fling themselves at the charging creatures when they broke through. Twilight glanced around for a way out, and she glimpsed a flash of cerulean blue crouched in the shadow of a strange mound of dirt in the center of the clearing. Twilight’s heart leapt with joy, and as the changelings dove towards them she teleported her friends forward. A flash of purple and three changelings plowed furrows into the ground, kicking up clods of slightly scorched dirt.

Everypony staggered or fell as the ground beneath their hooves abruptly changed. Twilight swayed on her feet. She’d clearly expended more magic than she should have that day. As gifted as Twilight was, she was only a unicorn after all. Shifting those train cars had left her more drained than she thought. And while teleporting herself a modest distance had become downright easy, it grew sharply more difficult to teleport multiple ponies. She heaved in a shaky breath and hoped she wouldn’t have to do that again tonight. Why didn’t I get any sleep last night? She thought to herself. What was I thinking?

They’d appeared right next to the dirt and slime structure where Rainbow Dash had been hiding, trying to look inconspicuous. “Celestia wants us to get inside!” Rainbow Dash shouted over the din as she tapped the mound of dirt next to her. “She’s drawn most of the changelings out of the hive! Now she wants us to get in there and find the Elements!”

Twilight nodded sharply. “Okay. Everypony in the entrance, now!” As a group, the friends circled the strange mound to the lit side, where a green-tinged maw yawned open in the dirt. The effect was fairly genuinely grotesque. Diving head-first into a changeling nest had not been anywhere on Twilight’s to-do list that morning, and she marveled at how much had changed in just a day. Twilight shook her head. They couldn’t afford to hesitate, but her friends were all looking to her to decide what to do next. “Um, Dash and AJ, head in first. Guard our backs; we’ll be right behind you. Everypony else follow them and help if you can. Rarity, stay with me.”

Rarity placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder and nodded. “What shall I do, Twilight?”

Twilight didn’t bother with a shield this time. As a pair of changelings flew towards them, she simply aimed her horn at each of them in turn, and blasted them clean out of the clearing. “Just stop them from reaching us. If you try and hold them, I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Just like holding up a heavy shopping bag. Easy.” Rarity looked around, and spotted a changeling crawling over the top of the mound. It spotted her and hissed. Rarity squeaked in surprise, and then hoisted it into the air surrounded by the blue aura of her magic. The changeling kicked against the empty air and buzzed its wings, but Rarity held on grimly. She floated it in front of Twilight, where it stopped moving long enough for its eyes to go very wide before Twilight blasted it into the atmosphere.

“Just like that! Keep them coming! We need to give Celestia a chance to join us!” Twilight blasted another that got too close.

Rarity nodded and grabbed another one. “Just like holding up a heavy, kicking, struggling, fanged and angry shopping bag. No problem.” She said anxiously.

“We’re in!” Pinkie Pie’s voice sounded a bit distant in Twilight’s ears, partly because of the buzzing of the changeling wings, and partly because of all the magic she’d been flinging around today. She felt a bit dizzy, and a throbbing headache was starting just below her temples. She couldn’t keep this up forever. Another black and oily face dove snarling at her, only to be caught in a swath of blue and slowed to a standstill. Twilight hopped to one side, and blasted the changeling straight at Celestia’s radiant form. It was the first thing she could think of to get the Princess’s attention. She hoped it would work, because her next idea involved magically amplifying her voice, and she wasn’t exactly sure how well that would turn out.

She didn’t need to worry. Celestia’s whirlwind contracted a bit, and then exploded outward, flinging changelings in all directions. The resulting silence was deafening, and the darkness left after she dropped her blinding spell was thick and black. Twilight had turned and motioned Rarity towards the hive, but now neither one of them could see. Twilight rubbed her eyes, and when she opened them, Celestia stood before her, adjusting her wings and breathing hard. Her horn was glowing softly and gently, a mere speck compared to her previous performance. Twilight’s eyes ran with tears. Of course this was a reaction to the sudden change in the light, and in no way reflected how happy Twilight was to see that the Princess was unharmed, despite Twilight’s bad judgment calls. She threw her arms around Celestia as Rarity did the same from the other direction.

Celestia sounded very tired. “We must hurry. Please, go in first. I’ll be right behind you.” Twilight nodded and, ears ringing, scampered over to the hive entrance. It smelled like changeling, only ten times worse. Like piles of moldy grains that had set in the sun for a couple of days. Rarity took one whiff and turned away, gasping for cleaner air. She rolled her eyes, held her breath and dove in. Twilight was right behind her. The opening led downwards at a slant, twisting a bit to the right in a tunnel barely tall enough for her to stand upright. Celestia squeezed in behind her, practically crawling. The sides and floor of the tunnel were sluiced with that hard green resin the changelings seemed able to make. Twilight wondered if that stuff was the source of the smell. Interestingly, it seemed very slick when dry, and it made the footing treacherous. She watched her step. Maybe changeling hooves had no problem with it.

The tunnel ended in a small open space, like a cavern. There were three other exits, all of them heading downward. Spike was holding a flashlight and shining it around, and Twilight felt a moment of smug satisfaction. The time she spent agonizing over what to pack was well spent, it would seem. Soon all eight of them stood together, and Celestia turned back and faced the way they came in, bowing her head in concentration. She touched the tip of her horn to the floor of the entrance tunnel, and slowly drew it in a circle, up one side, and down the other. When she hit the center of the floor again, a barrier popped into place looking like a yellow soap bubble. Celestia stood back and considered her handiwork.

“Um, Princess?” Twilight spoke up. “I don’t think a shield will hold for long. These changelings are stronger than I remember.”

Celestia took a moment to speak. “Yes, these creatures have fed recently, and fed well.” She turned to Twilight and her friends, a small smile on her face. “So it’s a good thing this isn’t a normal shield.”

Twilight trotted over to examine it. “Oh, it’s a reflective shield!”

“So, what does that mean?” Pinkie Pie asked.

Twilight’s eyes shone in the soft light of magic. “It turns force back on itself, physical or magical. If a changeling gets a running start at this shield, it’ll bounce back up the tunnel like a pinball.”

Pinkie Pie gasped in wonder. “Oh, that’s so cool! The pranking opportunities alone. . .”

Twilight sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Celestia laughed. “This barrier will not hold forever.” Celestia said as she paced to the opposite tunnel. “But it should hold long enough for our purposes. Follow me.” With that, she turned and squeezed into the next tunnel, taking her light with her. Everyone fell in behind.

Applejack called to Celestia from behind Twilight. “Hey, Princess, how is it you know where we’re headed?”

Celestia called over her shoulder without slowing down. “Because I’ve done this before.” Everyone gasped. Even Twilight wasn’t expecting that answer. Celestia continued. “Every couple hundred years or so, the changelings cross our borders and cause some kind of trouble. I’ve had occasion to be in maybe thirty hives before this one, and they’ve all been exactly the same. It’s strange, really, that a race of creatures that can be so variable in their appearance seems so inflexible in their behavior. They always seem to fall for the same old tricks.”

Twilight asked. “Like drawing them out into the open before coming in yourself?”

“Exactly.” Celestia answered. “Although I wasn’t expecting it to work quite as well as it did. Keep your eyes open.” They emerged into a single chamber that had one other exit. Though the chamber was oddly shaped for some purpose, Twilight couldn’t tell for the life of her what that purpose might have been. They continued on into the next tunnel, crowding in close yet again.

“Princess?” Twilight spoke again. “The changelings. They’re connected to your story, aren’t they? The Darkness we’re going across the ocean to find.”

Celestia stopped walking, and everyone else crowded in to hear her answer. She said. “Yes. They were alicorns once. They are most of what is left of my kind. Varkur has somehow stripped them of their identities, of their personalities. Leeched them of all color. They exist now only as a scourge, they feed and reproduce, and aspire to little else. And they care little enough for whom they hurt or what they consume. Yet I still find it difficult to hurt them in return. A part of me still remembers that, long long ago, they were my kin.” Celestia turned a gaze filled with determination on Twilight. “But do not let this fact stay your hoof Twilight Sparkle. When you face them, they will not hesitate to do you harm. Remember this.” Celestia continued on. Everyone else followed quietly.

The next chamber was vast, the low ceiling a claustrophobic contrast to how far away the walls were. “It’s shaped like a giant pancake! That’s weird.” Pinkie Pie observed. “Hey, is anypony else getting hungry?”

“How could you even think of eating right now?” Fluttershy answered. “This place is so dangerous. . .”

Spike shone the flashlight briefly in Fluttershy’s face. “It has been awhile since we’ve eaten, you know.” He added softly.

Rarity shook her head. “Ugh, the smell alone down here is enough to keep me from eating for a week. What I wouldn’t give for a long soak in a tub right now.”

While the ponies behind them continued to talk quietly, Applejack paced up next to Twilight, ducking a bit so as not to scrape her hat against the ceiling. She nudged Twilight’s side to get her attention, and then she silently mouthed some words at her. I don’t like this. She said. It feels like a trap.

Rainbow Dash appeared at Twilight’s other side, and she nodded towards Princess Celestia moving ahead of them and mouthed, Changeling?

Twilight thought about it. She did lose sight of the Princess after her spell had finished. In fact, she couldn’t have seen much of anything then. If the Princess had been hurt, or more likely had flown away to draw off pursuit, then this Celestia would have to be a fake. It would very neatly explain why the hive seemed so completely empty, and why none of the changelings outside the hive had changed form during the fight. Maybe they didn’t want form-revealing spells being tossed about, so that they could pull a trick like this. It was perfect, really. Lead the companions deep into the hive, and then lock them all away. Then they’d be free to impersonate them all in the world above. Twilight imagined a fake Twilight returning to Ponyville, feeding off of the energy and life of her friends. She was horrified. Before Twilight knew that she’d stopped walking, she found she’d curled herself into a ball on the floor, covered her eyes with her hooves and was gasping huge, panicky breaths. Everypony had gathered around, worried looks on their faces. Celestia reappeared, a look of genuine concern on her face.

“Twilight Sparkle, are you alright?” The soft light of Celestia’s horn was reassuring, but it cast stark shadows across her features, making her seem alien against the slimy-looking green and grey of the low ceiling. Twilight thought furiously. If she pounced and cast a revealing spell on Celestia, she might just reveal a changeling. The companions could handle that, even in such close quarters. But if she revealed Queen Chrysalis, or another such leader of changelings, they’d all be doomed. Twilight had watched as Chrysalis defeated Celestia in single combat, and she had won so quickly. . . Twilight had no wish to rush into that fight. She had to be clever. Very, very, very clever. She’d already come close to giving away their suspicions. She constructed a lie to cover for her collapse.

“I’m okay.” Twilight picked herself up off the ground. “I was just feeling a little claustrophobic, that’s all.” She glanced around sheepishly and, she hoped, convincingly. Then she felt a bit of inspiration. Maybe she could turn her mistake into an opportunity. “Your Highness? Maybe if I focus on something else, I won’t feel so panicky.” Celestia tilted her head questioningly. Twilight continued. “Do you mind if I try a tracking spell on the Elements? I think it’ll help me keep going, give me something else to think about.” Twilight cringed inwardly. It didn’t sound like that smooth of a lie. Surely a changeling would see right through that.

Celestia didn’t hesitate to respond. “Not at all, my student. Feel free. I only ask that you hurry, if you can.” Celestia gestured the way they’d been heading, and then settled on her haunches to wait.

Twilight nodded, and then she closed her eyes. She focused on holding an image of the Elements of Harmony. Specifically hers, the ‘big crown-thingy’. She tried imagining it in every detail; the gold sweep of its contours, the blue gems inset along its length, the purple gem set above the rest in the shape of a star. It was forged while channeling magics she could barely understand at the time, but it was singularly hers. It belonged to her, or represented a portion of her. She wasn’t sure which. But she held the image in her mind as well as she could as she gathered her will and her magic for the spell. Her headache jumped up a notch, but she corralled the pain into a little box in her mind and shut it away. Sure, she was over-extending now, but she could always pay for it later. She let the magic build, and when she figured it was strong enough, she released the energy in a burst, and she sagged in relief.

Immediately she fell over forward and was dragged several pony-lengths away from her friends before she braced her hooves under herself and stopped moving. Sticks rocks and stars, that was too much! Twilight thought to herself. I just wanted a little nudge! Most tracking spells just gave a little tugging sensation, a subtle pull on the horn to tell you which way to go. Twilight felt as though gravity itself had shifted. She’d clearly gone way overboard with the force required. She felt herself turning pink. Or at least a lighter shade of purple. This was kind of embarrassing. Everyone caught up and gathered around her.

“Well,” Applejack drawled, “At least we know we’re headed the right way, wouldn’t you say?” Pinkie Pie laughed a bit, stifling it in her hooves. Spike just rolled his eyes and smiled. “C’mon everypony,” Applejack continued, “Let’s all follow the air hockey puck.” With that she gently nudged Twilight’s flank. Twilight’s hooves promptly slid out from under her and she began sliding along the floor of the cavern on her stomach. She deliberately spun a bit while sliding so that she could turn and face Applejack; the better to glare at her with her forelegs primly crossed. However, when her butt hit a rough patch and she tumbled mane over tail, she decided she’d better watch where she was going.

Sliding through the poorly-lit darkness, Twilight had to keep a careful eye out for bits of rock and uneven patches, especially after one such rock caught her painfully in the armpit. Despite the fact that Rarity, Spike, and the supposed Princess were fighting off the darkness on all sides, Twilight still felt like she had scant seconds of warning to put out a hoof or angle herself to the side. The floor was more or less level, but Twilight felt strongly that it was tilted away from her. It was a strangely disconcerting sensation. Added to that, the patches of solid green would make her slide faster, and she’d have to angle toward bare patches of dirt to slow back down again. Factoring in the smell of the place, she was just glad she didn’t get physically ill.

Pinkie Pie was positively prancing with stifled giggles, and Spike was little better. Entirely out of breath, Pinkie Pie could barely speak, which was usually a good thing. However, this did not prevent her from trying. Gasps of “Have you ever seen. . .?” “Oh, for pony’s sake. . .!” and “My sides hurt. . .!” were mixed in with so much laughter that it seemed hard not to join in. Everyone wound up laughing a bit, even Celestia. Well, everyone laughed except for Rarity, who just looked thoughtful. For the curious, Rarity was contemplating the day she got her cutie mark, remembering the frustration she felt making the outfits they’d needed for the play her school was putting on. And she was wondering just how plausible it was that, being so young at the time, she could have cast a similar spell accidentally. She decided, Plausible enough. And set the matter aside.

They finally reached the far side of the chamber where walls and another small tunnel opening appeared in the gloom. Twilight caught herself and stopped sliding, glancing around with an appeal in her eyes. She clearly did not want to go sliding down uncontrollably into the unknown without friends at her side. Applejack glanced down the new tunnel nervously and then turned to Twilight and nodded. Twilight called out softly, “Spike, would you and Applejack mind going first?” She didn’t like the thought of Celestia being behind them, but she recognized that the only safe way to get her friends out of this mess was to reach the Elements of Harmony before the Princess did. If it turned out she was a grave threat, they could at least defend themselves. Spike gulped audibly, but he nodded. He walked up to Applejack, who had crouched to let him get on her back. He clambered up onto her back and used one foreclaw to hold on to her straw-colored ponytail while he shone his flashlight ahead with the other. Once they started down, Twilight nodded to Pinkie Pie, and then let herself slide in. Pinkie Pie followed.

Now that the floor actually was tilted away from her, Twilight had to work extra hard to keep from sliding out of control. She spread all her hooves out and leaned back against the pull of her spell. After just a couple of minutes she could tell that they were getting close. The pull on her horn was getting noticeably stronger. She was seriously considering breaking the spell off when she hit a huge patch of oily, green resin and her hooves flew out from underneath her. Like a purple cannonball, she shot toward Applejack and Spike. She only managed a small squeak of warning before she swept Applejack’s legs out from under her and sent the three of them flying down the tunnel. Spike lost his hold on the flashlight and it tumbled behind them, sending them all sliding into darkness. Twilight stilled her panic, stilled her thoughts, closed her eyes, and with a mental twist she broke her spell. Fortunately, that let them slow down a little bit before they ran out of tunnel and they all piled into a wall. The impact knocked the breath out of her, and for a bit Twilight just lay there stunned.

Far above them, up the sloping tunnel, Spike’s flashlight spun slowly as it slid after them, revealing in brief and eerie flashes a distant Pinkie Pie racing after them. Twilight called up a bit of light and revealed a disheveled Applejack underneath her, smooshed between her and the end of the tunnel. Spike lay next to them, sprawled across what looked to be a threshold or a doorway. The room beyond stretched into darkness. Twilight extricated herself from Applejack’s tail and stood up on shaky legs. She figured she could sleep for a week. She also figured that this room must be their destination. She reached down to help Applejack up. “Are you okay?”

“Ugh. I’m thinkin’ so.” Applejack staggered to her hooves and looked around blearily. She stretched out each leg in turn, checking for injuries. She scooped her hat back onto her head. “Remind me ta pick up some postcards from the gift shop while we’re here. This place is ab-so-lutely mah new vacation spot.”

“Everypony okay down there?” Pinkie Pie called out as she trotted up. However, since she’d picked up Spike’s flashlight in her mouth on the way down, it sounded more like, “Erryony oghey own air?” Twilight and Applejack both nodded. Rarity caught up next, asking the same question, followed by Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. Celestia filled the tunnel behind them. Spike still lay across the threshold of the room before them, and in the tiredest voice he could manage, he said, “This. Vacation. Sucks.”

“C’mon Spike,” Fluttershy reassured the little dragon. “We’re almost there.”

Without looking up or moving at all, he reached out toward Pinkie Pie, who promptly dropped the flashlight into his outstretched claw. He sighed and, making it look like an enormous effort, swung the flashlight and pointed it into the room before them.

It was a small room, just seven or eight pony-lengths across, and it was cluttered with things. Mostly junk at first glance. There were a few piles of bits, some scuffed or dirty gemstones thrown about, and a few miscellaneous odds and ends. There were knickknacks, a bar of soap, a few piles of clothing, stuff like that. Twilight thought that maybe these were the leftovers. When a changeling leaves its double-life after it has fed, it must do something with the stuff it brings back. This looked for all the world like the saddest junk closet Twilight had ever seen. Twilight, for the first time, contemplated what happened to ponies who were impersonated. Maybe they were held prisoner somewhere. Maybe they were killed. Twilight’s heart sank.

Spike’s flashlight fell across an ornately carved, bejeweled and slightly muddy chest against one wall. “Is that it?” He asked uncertainly.

Celestia sighed, although whether in relief or in exasperation it was hard to tell. “Yes, that’s the chest of Elements. And it’s in the same place they always throw valuables. Honestly, they never change.” Twilight Sparkle knew there was no way she’d be able to open that chest on her own. The way it was locked and warded, she doubted anypony but Celestia herself could undo the magical bindings on it. Glimpsing that chest, Twilight felt as though a small weight had been lifted off of her shoulders. She didn’t need to prove that this was the real Celestia. They were about to find out, for better or worse.

Celestia entered the junk room, striding purposefully despite the low ceiling. Twilight nodded to Rainbow Dash and Applejack, who flanked her as she followed Celestia in. Twilight quietly shrugged out of her packs and set them to the side. Behind them, everyone else crowded forward to see what would happen. Celestia stood one pace away from the chest and examined it critically before she bowed her head and closed her eyes. Just before she moved to open it, she turned to look behind her. Twilight, Applejack and Rainbow Dash all relaxed from crouches and tried to look natural. It didn’t work. Twilight in particular looked like she was just caught with her hoof in the cookie jar. Celestia smiled sadly. “I see. Twilight Sparkle, would you care to verify my identity?” Twilight didn’t speak or move. “Very well. Then perhaps this will be identification enough.” She turned back to the case, slipped her horn into the lock, and after a pair of breaths and a soft glow, the case unlatched, swinging open. When she stepped back, the Elements of Harmony were visible in the soft light from her horn.

Twilight Sparkle sighed in relief, and then she threw herself against the Princess in a pony hug. Cheering and congratulations arose from behind her. Twilight finally allowed herself to relax a little. Things could only get better from here. All they had to do was leave, right? Looking at her dear friends through a blur of exhaustion, she noticed one of them acting strange. Spike was staring at Rainbow Dash’s tail, and he had a faraway look in his eyes. That seemed kind of weird, but she didn’t get the chance to ask if he was alright. Because that’s when the entryway snapped closed with a deafening boom, leaving nothing but a blank stone wall covered in icky green resin. The cheering stopped abruptly. Into the silence, Celestia said, “That’s new.”

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