• 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 26: United We Stand

The journey south lasted a good two nights. Upon arrival in Canterlot's Canterbury West terminus, a detachment of the Royal Guard escorted the raiding party to the Cannon Street station further south, where they boarded another long-distance express, the Celestial Flyer. This would take them to the city of El Pinto, the most southerly part of the Equestrian railway network; from there, they would have to hike across the mountains in order to reach the Badlands.

It was late in the afternoon when the Flyer reached the end of the line. As it drifted through the El Pinto suburbs, Twilight gathered the group for a final pep talk before they set off.

“Right,” she announced, “now as soon as we arrive, we're gonna have to move fast – even a second's delay could reduce our chance of success. Thorax and Pharynx, you'll need to disguise yourselves so as not to arouse suspicion; but Hornette, as long as you stick with me, you should be fine. Once we're out of the city, it should be a clear run all the way to the Badlands. We will need to stop and set up camp for the night, but I calculate we should reach the border by around noon. Any questions?”

After a lengthy pause, Thorax spoke up; “I don't think so, Twilight. We're all set and raring to go.” He gazed grimly out of the carriage window. “We'll teach that phony queen Chrysalis to rob us of our freedom.”

“Either that or we'll get our heads blown off,” muttered Pharynx anxiously.

Rainbow Dash groaned with exasperation. “You're not still obsessing over the risk of failure, are you?!” she chided.

“I've got a right to worry,” insisted Pharynx firmly. “Her detractors didn't call her Chrysalis the Ruthless for nothing – I've seen how far she's willing to go to quash the opposition, and if she's not above killing someone for allying with you ponies...I'd have at least felt a little more comfortable if our platoon had come with us,” he finished uneasily.

“They'd only make us more conspicuous,” Twilight pointed out wisely. “The fewer of us there are, the better our chances. Besides, you said yourself that none of them had been trained to fight before they were Brainwashed – why do you think they volunteered themselves as our hostages?”

Pharynx shook his head, unconvinced. “Chrysalis won't buy that. She only formed the Covert Retrieval Forces to prevent us starting any coups with outside help. As far as she's concerned, any changeling hostages are pretty much expendable.”

Thorax gazed disapprovingly at his older brother. “You surprise me, Pharynx,” he said sternly. “I thought you wanted to try and make up for all this!”

“For selling you out to Chrysalis, yes,” objected Pharynx defensively, “but this? This is a huge risk we're taking, Thorax! You know that, I know that, Hornette knows that – and yet you insist on risking all our lives and those of a few ponies, just to try and avenge your resistance group!”

“Do you honestly think this is about the resistance? That I was only doing it for them?” Thorax shook his head defiantly. “No, brother, this is far more than just an act of retaliation – this is for all of us – for the whole world. We've let Chrysalis' reign of terror go on for far too long; but now we have the power, and more importantly the alliances, to help us fight back!” he continued, raising his voice. “And fight back we shall – for honour – for freedom – for our father – for the late Queen Nymphia – for all changelings everywhere!”

“Amen to that, Thorax,” said Applejack emphatically, and the others murmured their agreement.

Impressed by the determination in Thorax's motivational speech, the almighty gusto of a general encouraging his troops before a battle, Pharynx gazed out at the distant mountains, thinking of all the lives that had been taken over and even ended by Chrysalis' reign. He thought of all the unfortunate changelings he had sold out to her, and the horror he felt at her betrayal – and finally, he thought of that gentle, innocent, warm-hearted young soul named Hornette, the very creature who, despite nearly losing her life to him, was willing to help him atone for his mistakes. “You know what, Thorax,” he murmured with a brave smile, “you're right. We must risk it, if only to secure Hornette's future.”

Thorax smiled back. “There's the strong-willed brother I know and love!” he cajoled. “You're right too; it is gonna be dangerous – but we're not gonna let that stop us! We'll either die free changelings...or die trying!” By now, the train was just coming to a halt at the platform. “Ready, Pharynx?”

The older changeling nodded gamely. “Let's do this!”

With a flash of purple, the two brothers took on their pony forms as Crystal Hoof and Electro Diesel; and as soon as the train had stopped, the whole group galloped away out of the station, through the city and on towards the wilderness that lay ahead.

Given how late it was, the group managed to cover a good distance before the sun went down, and soon stopped to set up camp on a small plateau, more than halfway up the mountains. To keep the weight down on their backs, Twilight had cast a shrinking spell on their camping equipment and rations; but even then, Locomotion, who was more used to shovelling coal than running long distances, was so puffed out that he could hardly stand, so Thorax volunteered to pitch up his tent for him.

Despite his newfound resolve, Pharynx still hadn't fully recovered from his head trauma, and was feeling dizzy by the time he and Thorax had set up their own tent. Thorax realised this, and sent his brother to bed while he took the first watch; but secretly, he had ulterior motives. Hornette and Locomotion, he noticed, still weren't on speaking terms as yet, and he was really starting to worry about them – not least because of where Locomotion was sitting at that moment.

Inside her own tent, Hornette tossed and turned restlessly. She still hadn't found the courage to talk to Locomotion – not because she was frightened of him, but more of the remorse he was feeling, and how it was affecting him. That she had been partly responsible made her all the more distressed for him, and part of her even felt angry with herself for being so blind the whole time. She thought back to her earlier struggles, right up to the day she escaped the Badlands; and then she thought of Locomotion, equally troubled, but by far more personal issues. There was nothing else for it, she thought gravely – if they were to patch things over, she had to go and talk to him...

Outside, Thorax was scanning the rugged mountains slopes for any signs of trouble. So far, to his relief, there was no-one else around – no-one who could pose a threat, at any rate. The only sounds to be heard were distant crickets chirping in the darkness; and there wasn't a single cloud to block out the starry, moonlit sky. It was peaceful and calm...until a soft rustling sound caught his attention.

Thorax looked back over his shoulder. “Who's there?” he asked cautiously.

“It's only me.” Hornette slipped quietly out of her tent, her mane slightly ruffled.

“Hornette?” Thorax raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing still up? You should be asleep.”

“I can't sleep,” murmured Hornette gloomily. “I'm still feeling bad about Loco and his aunt.” She looked around, almost half-heartedly. “Is he still awake?”

“Well...yes, as a matter of fact. He's been sitting over on that ledge for quite some time, just staring up at the sky.” Thorax's brow furrowed with concern as he leaned down to whisper into her ear. “I think you'd better go see if he's okay.”

Hornette didn't need to be told twice. With little more than a thoughtful nod, she quietly walked over and sat herself down next to the red-furred stallion. Straight away, she could just about make out the bruising where he had been banging the back of his head, and wanted to fling her arms around his barrel to try and comfort him; but she didn't dare in case she startled him. Only after a minute or so did Locomotion finally acknowledge her presence with a soft “hey.”

The young changeling gave an equally soft half-smile in response. “Can't sleep either, huh?”

Locomotion shook his head unhappily, and went back to staring into space. Silence reigned once again as both sides tried to think what else to say.

Eventually, Hornette decided simply to follow her gut reaction; “Loco,” she whispered in a faintly pleading tone, “please don't hurt yourself.”

“I wasn't gonna jump,” murmured Locomotion, his tone as sincere as it was glum. “I just needed some time alone...to think...” He gazed over the precipice with an inaudible sigh; but true to his word, he didn't move.

“About what?” ventured Hornette after a while.

Locomotion sighed again. “About how foolish I was,” he replied, tears welling up in his eyes. “I scarred you for life just by losing control of myself – all because of a supposed 'psychopath' I didn't realise was under mind control the whole time.”

Hornette frowned sympathetically, blinking away a few tears of her own. It was one thing to see Locomotion in distress after a nightmare; but seeing him with a broken self-esteem, and after all the effort he had put into helping to mend hers, was so depressing in its own right that it made her sick to the stomach with sorrow. “Loco...you're a great many things, but foolish isn't one of them,” she soothed. “Truth be told, I've had time to think about it myself...and I realise now how naïve I've been.”

That finally got Locomotion's full attention. He gazed in confusion, the fur below his eyes matted from the moisture.

“I used to believe that violence and aggression could only be born out of pure malice; but Thorax and Applejack have helped me realise that it can arise from fear as well,” continued Hornette. “When I saw you lash out at Diesel, all I could see was blind rage. What I should've seen was that you were scared – haunted by your own past – by what could've become of me if you hadn't reacted the way you did.” She scuffed an awkward hoof against the ground. “The only thing I don't understand...is why you never told me about her.”

Locomotion grimaced mournfully. “You had your own burdens to worry about, Hornette. I just didn't want you brooding over mine as well.”

“Loco...you've done a great deal for me already,” said Hornette, discretely trying to massage away the pain in her heart. “You went out of your way to help me integrate into society...to make me feel wanted...appreciated...loved.” She paused for a second to regain her composure. “I just don't feel right that it should be at your own expense. I've shared my troubles with you; it's only right that you share yours.”

“But why are you being so forgiving?” objected Locomotion. “Whatever my motives, I still beaned Pharynx half to death – I don't deserve any sympathy for that.”

“Not even for saving my life for...what, the second time?”

Locomotion paused. “No...I suppose you've got a point.”

“And you'd never want to hurt me, would you?”

“Aw, grief no!” exclaimed Locomotion, visibly mortified. “I could never forgive myself if I did.”

“But if someone else was about to murder me in cold blood, heaven forbid...would you have done the same again?” The young changeling gazed searchingly into his eyes. “Be honest with yourself, Loco – you would have, wouldn't you?”

“I...well...” Locomotion pondered for what felt like an age before nodding in rueful agreement. “...I guess I would – but I'd still feel like a monster for it.”

“Did you choose to be a monster?”

“No, Hornette – anything but.”

“Then you don't need to feel like one,” comforted Hornette. “As a wise pony once said,” and specifically the one sitting next to me, she thought wryly, “'you are who you choose to be.'”

Locomotion let loose another shaky sigh. “I didn't choose to be scared, though – and yet somehow I am,” he wept, tears streaming down his face again as he poured his heart out to her. “I'm scared of losing myself a second time...of losing my life...but most of all, I'm scared of losing you, Hornette. When you ran off after being framed...I felt like I could never be happy ever again – heck, I even chewed Uncle Steamer out for not standing up for you! That's how torn apart I was.” After a brief pause, he continued in a soft, caring tone, “I wasn't lying with what I said of you back then. You mean a great deal to me – more than my work on the railway, more than all the steam engines of the world – even more than life itself. I don't know how I could live without you.” Overcome with emotion, he buried his face in his front hooves and sobbed feverishly.

Hornette was so touched and yet so heartbroken that she nearly let out a quiet sob herself. She could never have imagined that Locomotion, that calm and understanding young knight in shining red armour who had so loyally stood up for her, could be so fraught and vulnerable, with or without autism. And yet, after all the effort he had gone through to bring her out of her shell, he seemed to have forgotten his own philosophy and become the little lost colt in the middle of a forest, unable to find his way home, and yearning for the comfort of his mother's embrace. It was almost as if she were looking back on her early days in Ponyville through his eyes, at the timid recluse she had been before meeting him. Now, she realised sombrely, she knew how he must have felt seeing her the way he was now.

What really struck a chord with her, however, was his reasoning for being so scared, and how much she truly meant to him. It wasn't quite an admission of love, but she could still feel and even taste it in his words; a sweet and tender aroma that had long been denied to her...but not by Locomotion – never. Part of her had feared that he didn't actually feel that way, even after his accidental confession back in Ponyville; but after hearing the sincerity in his voice, and seeing it in his body language, there was no denying it any longer. The only question was...did she dare tell him yet? Should she go ahead and profess her feelings now – or should she wait a while? Somehow, she felt it would be best to wait, lest it weigh even more heavily on his mind and distract him from their dangerous mission. Instead, she gently nuzzled the side of his head in a bid to comfort him. “You know,” she murmured with a soft, shaky smile, “I'm scared too – for all the same reasons and many more.”

Locomotion lowered his front hooves and turned to gaze at her again, revealing the streaks where his tears had matted the fur below his eyes.

“I'm scared for all the others...I'm scared for what could happen to Equestria if we fail...I'm scared of what happens if I'm not allowed to live in Ponyville anymore...and I'm scared for what the future holds for me in general,” Hornette explained further. “But the strange thing is...for the first time in my life, I'm actually okay with it – because I have you lot to help me through it...and especially you.” She gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek. “So let's be scared together.”

Only then, at long last, was she rewarded with the one sight she could never get enough of – the sight of Locomotion, visibly touched by her words, smiling that fond, warm smile she had grown to love as much as the red-furred unicorn himself. He was still afraid, still a little upset with himself, but the look in his eyes was one of hope, love and gratitude. “Thank you,” he whispered, shedding tears again; though this time from happiness rather than sorrow as he drew her into a hug.

Not too far away, Thorax brushed away a small tear of his own as he looked on. He couldn't hear very well what the two young lovers were saying, but their body language said it all; the rift between them had begun to settle, and fear and guilt had finally given way to an understanding truce. It gave him a deep sense of hope, seeing them so close – hope that Nymphia's vision, with their help, might yet come to pass.

For a while, nothing more was said as the red-furred stallion and his changeling gazed up at the moonlit sky. Eventually, Hornette gently broke the silence; “What was your aunt like?” she ventured.

“She was rather like you,” remembered Locomotion wistfully. “Kind, thoughtful, pacifist...just a really nice pony all round. I reckon she'd have loved to meet you, had she not been reassigned to the great mission hall in the sky.”

“Even if she knew I was a changeling?”

Locomotion chuckled softly in spite of himself. “Even that wouldn't have put her off. Live and let live – that was Aunt Carnation Petal's way...” He sighed longingly and gazed up at the stars again, “...just like my Dad's late grandfather, Staunch Quaker. He was a pacifist in his own right – a conscientious objector. He'd been called up for military service when the Great Griffin War broke out, but refused to have any part in it because, to use Dad's words, he saw himself as a worker first and an Equestrian subject second; and the last thing he wanted was to kill someone who considered themselves a worker first and a Griffonian subject second.”

Hornette smiled wryly. “I should certainly hope not.”

“Princess Celestia respected that,” went on Locomotion, “but the militia didn't – they had no time for peace-loving 'citizens of the world' like him. Even when they tried drafting him into the Medical Corps, he flat-out rejected that role because he wasn't allowed to treat enemy soldiers; so they locked him away in a cold, damp cell in a prison camp, with only his uniform for company. He never wore it though,” he observed gravely. “If he did, that would've made him a soldier and therefore eligible for a firing squad. As matters stood, they were eventually forced to discharge him as unfit for service after he contracted a chest infection.”

“That was really brave of him,” whispered Hornette admiringly, “standing up to all those barbaric military ponies like that. I just hope he was okay in the end.”

Locomotion smiled again, a hint of smugness creeping into his expression. “He recovered in a Manehattan hospital, and went back to working in the cannery where he had previously been employed. Got more than a few white feathers for his supposed 'cowardice'...”

Hornette cocked her head, puzzled. “Why white feathers?”

“It was the army's way of shaming ponies who refused to fight for their country,” explained Locomotion. “But it was Great Granddad who got the last laugh, 'cause what they hadn't appreciated was that it had already been in use as a pacifist symbol for many centuries, not just here in Equestria, but in Griffonia as well. Probably explains why Princess Celestia detested its use as a bullying tactic – although the fact that she's made partly of white feathers might have had something to do with it too!”

“Again, I don't blame her. She must have had a lot to say to those insensitive army ponies.”

“Yeah – but she was really honoured by what Great Granddad did to spite them,” smirked Locomotion.

“What did he do?” asked Hornette, interested.

“Well, he knew about their traditional use far better than his commanding officers, and so he made those feathers into a sculpture of Celestia holding the international peace sign. This is what it looks like,” and with his right hoof, Locomotion traced a pattern that Hornette could only describe as a circle with a crow's foot inside it. “In return, and as a further token of retribution to those pig-headed patriots, she awarded him the Celestial Peace Medal after the war ended.” He stared into space again, his expression turning solemn and thoughtful. “I never got the chance to meet him myself, but he's been a role model to me ever since Dad first told me about him. Some nights, I look up at that sky and...I just imagine him looking down on me, willing me to follow his example...to help realise his vision of world peace...” His face fell as he thought of his assault on Pharynx, and what his great grandfather might have had to say about it.

“Could we, with what we're doing?” asked Hornette softly.

Locomotion gazed over his shoulder in the general direction of the Badlands – and then back into Hornette's eyes with a look of fond, gentle resolve. “Maybe we can.”

“Then I reckon your aunt and great grandfather would be very proud of you.” Hornette nuzzled him once again as tiredness finally began to overtake them; but instead of returning to their tents, both pony and changeling settled down right there and then, and soon fell asleep in each other's embrace. They didn't even stir as Thorax magically picked them up and carried them both back to Locomotion's tent, as unwilling to separate them as he was to let any other changeling threaten them. With the two teenagers safely tucked away, he returned to his post and kept watch until Twilight came out to relieve him.

When morning came, the seven ponies and their changeling comrades packed up their camping equipment as quickly as they could, and set off again with renewed vigour. It was hard going, but after another two hours, they made it to the summit and paused for breath before picking their way down the other side.

Panting heavily, Locomotion wiped the sweat from his brow. “All this climbing...sure wears a guy out,” he gasped, setting himself down on a nearby rock. “I dunno...how Surfie does it.”

“Good thing Twilight thought to shrink our rations,” agreed Hornette, reaching into his saddlebag and pulling out a tiny bottle of water, which expanded back to its original half-litre size as soon as it came out. “Means we can fit more into our bags without overloading ourselves. Here, have a drink,” and she passed the bottle over to him.

“Thanks,” murmured Locomotion as he took hold of it with his right hoof. Having unscrewed the lid, he raised it to his lips and gratefully gulped down its contents until it was empty. “That's just what I needed.”

“Yes, and goodness knows we all might, given the state of our homeland,” mused Pharynx, who had been gazing across the landscape ahead of them from a nearby promontory.

Locomotion, his breathing steady again, looked up at him. “How bad?” he asked, returning his empty bottle to his saddlebag.

“Come see for yourself.”

With a solemn nod, Locomotion tentatively stood up and walked over to the ridge, Hornette following closely. From there, he could see the whole nation spread out before him – and sure enough, it was a far cry indeed from the lush, fertile hills and valleys of Equestria. Most of it was little more than dry, barren desert wasteland, with here and there a dead tree whose water source had long since dried up. The sky was a dirty, murky yellow in colour, and the only real signs of life to be found were the few changeling hives dotted around the area, the biggest of which stood out like a giant black anthill. The red-furred stallion could only stare in dismay as he pictured a land of struggling, teary changelings going about their harsh, bleak existence with no clear sign of salvation...

Thorax quietly approached him. “Terrible, isn't it?” he asked softly.

“Yeah,” whispered Locomotion breathlessly. “I can see now why they call it the Badlands – it's like a graveyard out there.”

Hornette sighed inaudibly and gazed ruefully down the mountains. “To think I abandoned all my friends to this...” she mourned.

“It's a good thing ya did.” The four of them looked back to see Applejack and Twilight sidling up to them. “Ya wouldn't 'ave been able to set 'em free otherwise,” the farm mare continued, patting Hornette's shoulder. “An' ya won't 'ave ta go it alone – we'll be with ya all the way.”

“And especially me,” Locomotion reminded her resolutely.

The young changeling smiled warmly. “Thank you,” she murmured. “That means so much to me.” But deep down, as she, Locomotion and Thorax gazed out into the wilderness once more, they knew in their hearts that things could only get more dangerous the further they went...

Author's Note:

Staunch Quaker is based on my real-life great grandfather, a conscientious objector during the First World War. No doubt he too got more than a few white feathers, but his defiant sense of justice left a lasting impression on me, and I would therefore like to dedicate this chapter to his memory.

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