• Published 16th Jun 2020
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The Power of Two - Locomotion

A young changeling runs away from home, only to be attacked by timberwolves in the Everfree Forest. Fortunately, Locomotion is on hoof to save her - but little do they know that she has a spy on her tail...

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Chapter 23: Everfree Showdown

Dusk was slowly descending over the Everfree Forest, creating a fittingly bleak and scary atmosphere. The screeching of bats and cicadas and the distant howling of wolves only added to its unsettling nature; but even more unnerving might have been the sight of a changeling skulking in the midst of the forest...crying?

Hornette lay prone under the shelter of a large oak tree, her face buried in her front legs, her entire body trembling and convulsing as she sobbed feverishly. She couldn't believe this was happening to her, not after all she had done to prove her worth – surely there had been some kind of mistake. She could never bring herself to do something so cruel, even with the best will in the world; and yet almost the whole population of Ponyville seemed to be against her now. And all this for a crime she didn't commit...that she wouldn't commit...

“Where did I go wrong?” she mourned. “What did I do to deserve all this?” She sniffled loudly, trying in vain to wipe away her tears. “I just wanted...somewhere to call home...somewhere I could be safe, accepted...loved...”

That last word stung her heart with all the ferocity of an angry swordfish. Her mind drifted back to Locomotion...to that outburst in which he had confessed his feelings for her...so perhaps he had incriminated her beyond redemption, but was it really his fault? It was Diesel who had egged him on, made him speak out of turn...Locomotion was just trying to defend her like he always had, and not just out of pity either.

He loved me...

Or did he? As a changeling, there was every reason to imagine she might have been sucking that love out of him without realising it; but then again, having barely ever tasted love, the chances of her not recognising if she was feeding on it were very slim. Either way, she couldn't escape the cruel truth – she was no longer welcome in Ponyville, and no matter what he might think of her now, she would never get to see him again.

“Who am I fooling?” she wept despairingly. “I'll never find that Promised Land. I'm gonna be all alone for the rest of my life.” Choking back yet another sob, she briefly gazed back in the general direction of Ponyville before burying her face in her hooves again. “I don't want to be alone...”

But with no-one around to answer her subtle plea for company, the only reply she got was almost total silence. It was almost as if she were the only living organism for miles around, a lone creature lost in a dark, gloomy void...

“Poor Hornette – I'm sorry you couldn't make ends meet with those foolish ponies.”

Hornette's blood ran cold. “That voice...” Slowly, tremulously, she picked herself up and turned towards the source – only to freeze over in shock and disbelief. It wasn't the sly black Pegasus standing before her, but a purple-eyed changeling stallion with dark blue wings, a maroon tail and a pair of long, jagged fangs poking out of his mouth. His face bore an expression of mock sympathy, but with enough of a malevolent glint in his eyes for Hornette to realise he was anything but friendly.

“Such a shame they could never bring themselves to accept you,” he continued pityingly, “and after all the effort you went through to bring them round to your way of thinking. But you really should give up that fantasy of yours and accept the truth. There is no 'Promised Land'; just a time, a place and a duty. The time is now; the duty is to your people; the place – is the Changeling Empire.” He held out a hoof to her. “Come with us, CH001FD14726198305, and we will help you reconnect with your friends – your real friends.”

But his persuasive stance only scared Hornette even more. She remained stock still for what felt like an age, her breathing shallow and her frame trembling with intimidation – until... “No,” she stammered, trying to stay defiant. “I'm never going back to that life ever again!”

The other changeling's mask of reverence gave way to an angry scowl. “You will if you know what's good for you!” he threatened.

“I already know what's good for me,” insisted Hornette. “I'd rather take my chances than suffer under some power-hungry potentate.”

“Very well then,” sneered the changeling. “If that's the way you want it, you leave us no choice.”

Us? Hornette's eyes darted left and right with fear. Sure enough, eighteen other changelings were starting to emerge from all sides, many of them stalking towards her from behind the trees while some hovered directly above. They glowered menacingly at her as they closed in, poising themselves like hungry lions about to attack their prey. Her defiance turned to sheer terror at the full gravity of her situation as she felt her back press against the tree trunk – these other changeling had her surrounded, and unless someone stopped them... “Help! Help!” she wailed frantically, no longer caring who heard her or how they felt about her.

The lead changeling grabbed hold of her, his left hoof pressed firmly over her mouth. “Yell all you want, Crawler!!” he gloated. “No-one can save you now, even if they wanted to!”

“Wanna bet?!”

The leader turned towards the source of the voice, confused – but before he could react, he was hit squarely in the face by a broken branch, causing him to let go of Hornette as he staggered backwards in pain and shock. Hornette scrambled to her hooves just in time to see the same branch knock some of the other changelings aside. There, right on the other side of the clearing, was none other than...

“Loco!!” she cried, and bolted straight towards him, flinging her arms around his shoulders and sobbing heavily into his fur. “Oh, Loco, am I ever glad to see you!”

Locomotion, still trembling from his adrenaline rush, ran a gentle hoof through her mane, trying to soothe her. “I'm sorry, Hornette,” he apologised tremulously. “I've gone and messed everything up...somehow.” He looked back at the other changelings, his earlier fear and anger steadily building up again. A few seconds too late, and they could have slaughtered her – but not if he could help it.

By now, their leader had all but recovered his senses, and smirked maliciously at Locomotion. “Well, well, well,” he said greasily, his voice heavy with sarcasm, “so our valiant hero has turned up to save the day!”

“You bet I have, buster!” snarled Locomotion, breaking free from Hornette's embrace and standing tall and protective of her. “Now get away from my changeling, or you'll be sorry!”

“I suggest you step aside, foolish pony,” warned the leader as his comrades gathered around him. “Justice must be served, and this Crawler must be...”

“Don't you dare call Hornette a 'crawler', you creep!” thundered Locomotion, enraged. “And no, I am not letting you murder her in cold blood! You've hurt her enough by framing her – ELECTRO DIESEL!!!”

The changeling froze in disbelief. How did this pony know he and the black Pegasus were one and the same?! Surely this was just a lucky guess...wasn't it? But as he struggled to formulate a reply, it suddenly struck him – his red tail, the tone of his voice...even the colour of his carapace... “You're better than I thought, Locomotion!” he spat, his eyes narrowing again. “But you're too late – this changeling is to be eliminated, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

“Don't count on it, Diesel!” growled Locomotion, wishing he felt as brave as he sounded. “You want Hornette, you're gonna have to kill me too!”

Hornette bit her lip anxiously. Was Locomotion really about to sacrifice himself for her safety?

“That's if you can get through us first!!” Almost before Hornette or Locomotion realised what was happening, who should touch down in front of them but Twilight Sparkle. She was flanked by Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash, whilst Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Applejack brought up the rear down on the ground.

“The game's up, Electra Diseasel or whatever yo' name is!” barked Applejack, scraping a front hoof against the ground.

“Yeah, put 'em up, Diesel! We've got you licked!!” snapped Rainbow Dash, flaring her wings as she landed next to the two teenagers.

“I for one may be more of a lover than a fighter, but lay one hoof on Hornette, and I'll gladly thrash you to a jelly!!” bellowed Rarity, her horn glowing ominously as she prepared for battle.

“You hurt our friend, we'll put you to an end!” added Fluttershy, echoing a phrase that Iron Will had taught her with a powerful anger that belied her usually timid nature.

“I've got ten thousand coconuts at my disposal – don't make me use them!” threatened Pinkie Pie, her eyes bulging with unspoken rage.

Locomotion was so stunned by their sudden entrance that he nearly let his guard down. “But...I thought you were away on a friendship mission...” he stammered.

“Half-right, Loco,” affirmed Twilight. “Lucky for you it relates to Hornette.”

Diesel, equally taken aback, sneered in disgust at the lavender alicorn. “Oh, yippee,” he said rudely, “so you've called in the cavalry. What, have you Elements of Harmony come to say goodbye to your precious Crawler?!”

“Nothin' doin'!” retorted Applejack fiercely. “Hornette's one of us now, an' no other changeling's gonna bump her off on our watch!” She sidled up to Locomotion and whispered into his ear; “Y'all take Hornette back to the castle, fast as ya can – we'll hold these goons off fo' ya!”

But the other changelings weren't about to be caught out that easily. Before Locomotion or Hornette could even think of doing as they were told, some of them had already sneaked behind the two teenagers and cut off their escape. Only now, as they turned to run away, did they realise that fact.

“You're not going anywhere until we have our Crawler!” growled Diesel. “No pathetic little pony is going to stop us changelings from carrying out our orders!”

Twilight's eyes narrowed. “Alright then, Diesel,” she snarled, “you leave us no choice! Girls – let's get them!” and she leaped into the air, firing multiple bolts of magic at their attackers. Diesel barked out a word of command, and the remainder of his group lunged into action. Almost instantly, the air of unnerving stillness in the Everfree Forest turned to a hubbub of thumping, shouting and repeated magical explosions as a fearsome battle broke out between the two sides.

With Hornette and her defenders outnumbered by more than two to one, it seemed the belligerent changelings already had the upper hoof; but their strength in numbers turned out to be little match for the physical strength and agility of the Bearers of Harmony, and they were soon fighting for their own lives instead. Twilight and Rainbow Dash swooped up and down, left and right, punching and zapping any changelings who dared to get too close to Hornette, while Rarity and Applejack easily fended off any ground attacks with their impeccable martial arts skills. Even Fluttershy managed to take one or two out through seemingly evasive manoeuvres, luring them towards her, and then leaping out of their way at the last minute while the attackers crashed into each other and the trees.

But Fluttershy's tactics were nowhere near as surprising as Pinkie Pie's. She ducked and dodged among the changelings with all the dexterity of a parkour artist, occasionally pausing to return their attacks with a kick, a punch or a coconut. All the while, she chanted a tune so genial and carefree that it belied her furious glower and violent body language;

“I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts...” Punch! Kick!

“...Ready to defend me where I go...” Screw kick! Fling! Karate chop! Somersault!

“...Big ones, small ones, right on top of your HEAD!!!” Whack!

“That's what you get

For stalking Hornette

And trying to knock her dead!”

The changeling assailants were so baffled by her behaviour that they didn't know what to think. “Hey!” one of them burst out in anguish. “That mare's playing with us!”

“Oh, I'm not playing...I'M FIGHTING!!!” The changeling barely had time to look over his shoulder before Pinkie Pie, who had somehow magically appeared right behind him, slammed a coconut hard against the back of his head, knocking him out in an instant. The pink mare grinned menacingly as she pointed at the offending fruit; “And that's what ya get for touching that!!” she growled, and sprang after another changeling like a grasshopper.

As the six mares fought back, Locomotion was doing his best to keep the would-be executioners at bay. Every time one of them came too close, he would either fire an energy bolt or fling a loose tree branch at them with his magic; but with so many on the prowl, he and Hornette were unable to slip away before yet another caught them out.

“Fine party, this,” muttered Pinkie Pie grimly as she somersaulted past them and landed a powerful kick on a particularly fierce-looking changeling.

“Yeah, just a shame nopony's enjoying it,” agreed Locomotion, looking up at the sky. As he did so, he noticed another changeling trying to sneak up on Rainbow Dash, who was practically wrestling with one of his comrades. Even though she wasn't his favourite pony right now, the red-furred stallion couldn't let her take a hit just for trying to protect his beloved Hornette. “Dash, bandit on your tail!!” he yelled.

“Gotcha!” Rainbow Dash spun around in mid-air and gave the insectoid a swift uppercut, sending him crashing into the branches of the tree immediately below him. The other changeling tried to grab her, but Rainbow Dash was too quick, and bucked him hard in the chest – straight towards Twilight, who was almost knocked out of the air herself as the changeling collided with her.

Quickly regaining control of herself, Twilight began to take aim with her horn; but before she could even think of striking back, she suddenly noticed something familiar about this changeling. His ears, wings and tail were longer and fuller than those of his companions, and his eyes were a distinct turquoise in colour. Time seemed to slow down as the realisation dawned on her... “...Thorax?” she gasped.

The changeling hissed aggressively at her, his horn glowing ominously. He didn't seem to recognise her.

“Thorax, wait!” shouted Twilight, hastily dodging the sudden burst of magic. “It's me, Twilight Sparkle! I'm your friend – your ally...”

But her words fell on deaf ears. Thorax only hissed again, and continued his relentless barrage as Twilight tried desperately to reason with him to no avail.

Down on the ground, Locomotion saw what was going on, but didn't stop to wonder why the lavender alicorn wasn't fighting back; he had more important things to worry about. Through his peripheral vision, he spotted what had to be the umpteenth changeling thus far charging towards him and Hornette. Reaching out with his magic, he grabbed hold of a low-hanging branch, pulled it back as far as he dared, and released it straight into the face of their pursuer. The unfortunate insectoid shrieked in agony, clutching his eye as he staggered into a nearby bush.

Locomotion smirked grimly, his horn still glowing. “Try that on for size, you murderer!” he shouted; but quickly remembered himself when he heard a transfixed Hornette whispering his name as if in dismay, and turned to face her. “Hornette,” he urged quietly, “listen to me very carefully. I want you to run – run like the clappers, and don't stop till you get to the castle. I'll stay here and help hold back Diesel and his goons.”

“What?! But Loco...”

“Don't argue!” ordered Locomotion, raising his voice again. “Get out of here! Save yourself!”

“No, I won't leave you!” insisted Hornette frantically.

“Hornette, for ponies' sake...” But before Locomotion could finish, Hornette suddenly screamed in pain as she was struck by a stray bolt of magic, which drove her sideways for a few yards. With a horrified shriek of his own, the red-furred teenager galloped over to her. “Hornette!” he cried, his stomach churning with fear and his heart pounding out of control as he nudged her desperately. “Hornette, are you okay?! Please don't be dead! Get up, Hornette, please!”

Hornette's right arm twitched, and she let out a weak groan as she struggled to regain her senses. Locomotion looked up, silently praying for a miracle, but was instead greeted by the sight of Diesel hurtling towards her like a lion towards an antelope, his eyes livid with malice. For a split second, the red-furred stallion felt helpless – any moment now, the very changeling who had stolen his heart was about to be ripped to shreds before his very eyes, and there was nothing he could do about it...

But as that crippling thought registered in his mind, he was gripped by a blazing, venomous fury like nothing he had felt before. His vision went as red as his fur, and his teeth became so firmly gritted that he thought his jaw would break. “RIGHT!!!” he hollered at the top of his voice. “NO MORE MR NICE PONY!!!!!” Screaming and whinnying with rage, he lunged straight towards Diesel and began pummelling him with all his might. Diesel tried to fight back, but Locomotion's anger seemed to double his strength, and he easily managed to overwhelm the struggling changeling. With an almighty kick, he sent him flying across the clearing until his head struck the tree behind him.

By then, Hornette had managed to summon her strength and begun to push herself upright. Rubbing her scorched shoulder, she looked around anxiously, wondering why she was still alive – and that was when she saw Diesel lying in a heap at the base of the tree, and Locomotion stomping towards him. Before she could even begin to make sense of what was going on, the red-furred teen grabbed him by the neck and pinned him firmly against the trunk so that they were face to face.

“Alright, you,” growled Locomotion fiercely, “I wanna hear you apologise for trying to kill Hornette!”

Diesel scowled weakly, but Hornette could already tell how afraid he was becoming. “I...regret...nothing!” he groaned defiantly.

“Oh yeah?! Well, you're gonna regret THIS!!” and before Diesel could react, Locomotion punched him hard in the stomach.

Hornette gasped in horror, throwing both her front hooves over her mouth as the enraged stallion began thrashing Diesel's face with such force that the back of his head was thrust repeatedly into the tree trunk. If there was one thing she couldn't stand, it was extreme, unnecessary violence; and the sight of Locomotion, her very avatar of gentle compassion and unconditional kindness, attacking a helpless creature so brutally...even her worst nightmares about being captured (nightmares that had very nearly come true a few moments ago) couldn't compare with this harrowing display of ferocity.

What made it even worse was that Diesel, far from the sly, vindictive schemer she had previously seen in him, now had his hooves in front of his bloodstained face, feverishly trying to fend off Locomotion's relentless onslaught. If the red-furred teen hadn't been holding him upright against the tree, he would already be cowering before him and sobbing in sheer terror. “MERCY! MERCY!!” he bleated.

But Locomotion was taking no prisoners, and pressed his face firmly into Diesel's. “ARE YOU SORRY?!?!” he screamed.

“No...never...” wailed Diesel, his ears ringing from the shouting and his head throbbing with agony.

YOU WILL BE!!!!” Locomotion's merciless assault began again, even as Diesel cried out for his comrades to save him.

Hornette looked up towards Twilight, her breath caught in her throat, but was just as horrified to see her fighting for her life against a changeling she recognised all too well...a changeling who, just like Locomotion, had represented all the benign qualities she had been clinging onto all her life. Now she could see that, despite his best efforts to hang onto those qualities himself, he too had been reduced to a fearsome savage, intent on her and Twilight's destruction.

At last, the young insectoid couldn't take any more. With a concerted effort, she sprang to her hooves and yelled out at the top of her lungs, “STO-O-OP!!!!”

Inexplicably, no sooner had she belted out that one word than everyone else did indeed stop, as if frozen in time. Locomotion had only just pulled his arm back for his umpteenth strike when he felt his frame lock up completely, and could do nothing more than glare at his victim – but as he did so, something even more extraordinary began to happen. Diesel's body began to glow, dimly at first, and then brighter and brighter as Hornette continued her verbal barrage.

“Why are you all doing this to each other?!” she ranted, her eyes practically flooding. “You ponies are supposed to be striving for friendship and harmony, my kind for love and respect – and all we're getting is pain, bloodshed and tears! You're destroying each other just to try and achieve your aims! Why can't you understand that this is wrong?!” Only then, as she looked up at Twilight and her assailant, did she realise that her horn was glowing intensely, with the same aura surrounding both her defenders and her attackers. Her anguish turned to bafflement as she let go of whatever spell she was casting, and even more so when she saw what had just happened to the other changelings.

Twilight, equally baffled and taken completely unawares by the sudden cessation of Hornette's freezing magic, almost fell out of the sky; but only just managed to save herself and the changeling who had been attacking her. Now, as she looked around, she could see that they were no longer all the same colour and shape – some now had solid wings and legs, some had lost their fangs, a few had gained more reptilian eyes, and almost all had become a vast spectrum of brilliant, psychedelic hues. Even the one who had just tried to strike her down had transformed into a tall, green, deer-like creature with deep reddish purple eyes and a pair of orange antlers that resembled beetle pincers.

The changeling groaned dizzily, trying to regain his bearings as Twilight gaped in confusion, unable to make sense of what was going on. As his vision cleared, he noticed her hovering in front of him, and his eyes widened with a strange mix of shock and relief. “Twilight!” he exclaimed. “Aw, thank mercy it's you! How did you manage to break the spell?”

“Eh?! What spell? What are you talking about?!” spluttered Twilight, now completely unnerved.

“But...you know!” objected the changeling frantically. “You must know! Who else could have changed us back to normal?!”

“Wait, hang on a second – what do you mean, 'back to normal'?! You're not making any sense!”

“It wasn't even the real me attacking you! I was under...” But before the changeling could finish speaking, his ears pricked up to a weak groan of agony from nearby. “PHARYNX!! BROTHER!!!” he shrieked, and bolted towards the source of the noise before Twilight could reply.

Only now, as Diesel's body stopped glowing, was Locomotion's anger starting to fade. Staring at the wretched insectoid, all he could feel was a tremendous sense of shock as he noted how different this changeling had just become – the holes in his legs had vanished, his carapace had faded from black to a dark bluish grey, and a small pair of red antlers had sprouted from the top of his head. The only remaining evidence of his past form were the multiple cuts, grazes and bruises on his person, along with the pained, semi-conscious glaze over his eyes. Still trembling, Locomotion staggered backwards and collapsed onto his rump, clutching his temples in sullen horror and unspoken guilt.

The tall green changeling trotted over and nudged Diesel anxiously. “Pharynx! Are you alright?” he asked desperately.

Pharynx?!” repeated Locomotion, unable to restrain himself he was so taken aback. “Wha...what the flabberwocky's going on?!? What's this all about?!”

The grey changeling who had erstwhile been calling himself Electro Diesel gazed up at his brother, barely able to recognise him. “Th...Thor...” he groaned deliriously, “...help me...”

“Pharynx, what happened?!” cried the green one. “Who did this to you?!” Getting no reply from his badly beaten sibling, he turned and grabbed Locomotion by his shoulders; “Little pony,” he asked anxiously, “how did my brother get this way?”

But Locomotion didn't reply either. Between the guilt of having lost control of himself so dangerously and the fear he now felt for how the green changeling would react if he found out that it was his doing, he was too afraid to own up.

“Please, speak to me!” pleaded the changeling. “Who was it that...AAHHH!!” Without warning, a flash of blue swept past Locomotion, taking his interrogator with it. When he gathered his awareness, he found the changeling lying on his back with Rainbow Dash pinning him down, one hoof held securely over his throat.

“Don't even try it, changeling!!” she snarled. “You and your goons have done enough for one day!”

“Wait!” protested the changeling, struggling for breath. “There must be some mistake! I don't mean any harm – I just wanted...”

“Shut up, creep! You're gonna pay for this as soon...”

“LEAVE HIM ALONE!!!” A pale green aura suddenly enveloped Rainbow Dash and flung her aside, allowing the changeling to stand up again and catch his breath. Puzzled, he looked towards whoever had just yelled at the belligerent blue Pegasus – just as a young changeling mare came galloping towards him. “Thorax!” she cried, flinging her arms around his neck and hugging him feverishly. “Oh, Thorax, I thought I'd never see you again!”

The larger changeling blinked in amazement. “'305?! What are you doing here?!” he gasped.

But Hornette didn't get to answer before Rainbow Dash, still in a daze, interrupted; “Hornette, are you crazy?!” she burst out incredulously as she scrambled to her hooves. “This guy just tried to kill you!”

“No, Rainbow Dash!” argued Hornette plaintively. “Thorax would never hurt me! He's been a confidante to me ever since I first met him – he'd rather be slain himself than see me dead!”

“But...how do you know he doesn't...”

“Alright, you lot, calm down!” Twilight came into land between them. “Now let's just back up the hay cart and start from the top – who are you?” she asked, addressing the larger of the two changelings.

“Well...who else?” he answered plainly. “It's me, Thorax – the real Thorax. This is my natural form, not the Desert Scarab breed you saw me as when I first came to the Crystal Empire.”

Rainbow Dash raised a wary eyebrow. “Yeah? And how do we know you're telling the truth?!”

“I'll do anything to prove it – anything you want!”

Twilight paused. “Well then, maybe you can tell me the very first thing you said to Spike?”

The changeling looked perplexed. “Is that all? You don't even want to probe my mind or anything?”

“Just answer the question,” ordered Twilight calmly.

“Alright...” The changeling paused for a brief second as he recalled that fateful moment. “...yeah, I remember now. After saving him from that chasm, I told him, 'The ice is pretty slippery. I wouldn't want you to get hurt because of me'.”

To his relief, Twilight turned back to Rainbow Dash with a look of satisfaction and said, “That's Thorax alright.”

“WHAT?! But...how is that him?!” spluttered Rainbow Dash. “You said he was black with blue eyes! Without the memory scan...”

“Don't need it,” interrupted Twilight plainly. “Only two changelings know who Spike is; Hornette is one of them, and Thorax practically owes him for our friendship!”

The changeling cocked his head, visibly perplexed at the mention of “Hornette” – and then looked down at his foalhood friend in sudden realisation. “They actually...named you?” he asked.

“Yes, they did...well...he did, anyway,” murmured Hornette, awkwardly indicating towards a noticeably abashed Locomotion.

“As for this guy...Pharynx or whatever you call him...” continued Twilight, stepping grimly around the two changelings and making for the grey one still lying in a heap where Locomotion had left him.

“Don't hurt him, Twilight, please!” begged Thorax.

“I'm not going to hurt him, Thorax,” Twilight assured him, already setting her horn aglow and enveloping Pharynx's head with her aura. “I'm just going to pick his brains, that's all.”

Pharynx flinched in horror, trying to shuffle away. “No...wait!” he groaned desperately. “You must not touch my brain!”

But Twilight refused to take no for an answer. No matter how hard Pharynx struggled, he was too weak to resist, and perhaps it was lucky for him that he blacked out after a few seconds. Hornette, Thorax and Locomotion looked on anxiously, praying that his injuries weren't fatal – until, after what seemed like an age, Twilight's aura suddenly cut out. Her eyes widened, almost popping out of her skull she was so flabbergasted, and her jaw quivered like a landed fish. “I...I don't believe it!” she gasped. “I can't detect any intent to malice at all, past or present!”

“You what?!” exclaimed Rainbow Dash, stunned.

Locomotion blanched, fearing the worst. “Oh, D-rat, it's not brain damage, is it?!”

“No, Loco, nothing of the sort – nothing that won't heal, anyway!” blustered Twilight. “It's just...his brain patterns don't match his earlier actions! It's like some kind of divine force has been making him act against his will!”

“Eh?! But how?! That guy was bent on Hornette's destruction – he tried to slay her right before my eyes!”

“Oh no...” All eyes turned to Thorax, whose mouth was now slightly agape with damning realisation. “...it must have been the Brainwashing that made him do that.”

“What brainwashing?” asked Locomotion, furrowing his brow.

Thorax paused, his gaze shifting from the red-furred unicorn to the bewildered expressions of the six mares now gathered around him, Twilight included. Clearly he had been wrong to assume they knew what had overcome him and his comrades. “I think we'd better have a good long talk about this,” he suggested gravely. “I can see I have a lot of explaining to do.”

“He's right, Twi,” put in Applejack. “Them other changelings are gonna need some serious medical attention anyways.”
Twilight nodded in agreement. “Alright,” she conceded, “then let's head back to my castle. Once you're all fixed up, you can tell us the whole story.”

“Thanks, Twilight.” Thorax levitated his unconscious brother onto his back, and he and Twilight led the whole group, pony and changeling alike, towards the safety of the Castle of Friendship. Relieved that their struggle was over (or so he thought), Locomotion reached out to Hornette, inviting her into a gentle hug to try and reassure her; but his dismay was quickly reignited when she shied away with a timid sidelong glance, almost as if he had smacked her around the ears for no reason.

Locomotion felt his blood run cold. His breath caught in his throat, and everything around him seemed to plunge into silence. Somehow, he thought with deep dread, his quest for her love was about to get very painful very quickly...

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