• Published 11th Mar 2019
  • 980 Views, 80 Comments

The Pegasus who Kicked the Changelings' Hive - A M Shark

After being injured during the events of "The Ponies who Played with Fire" a now-captive Discord is facing trial for murder, while Fluttershy and her small band of allies are in a desperate struggle both to clear his name and avoid their own capture.

  • ...

Chapter 2. Jeremiah 9:4

Chapter 2

"Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan. For every one of them is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer."—Jeremiah 9:4

Almost immediately Fluttershy spotted what she was sure was a flaw in Skywishes's statement. "But what if some changelings followed the two of us when you first took me to the TreeHAB? What if they've been following you all these years the same way they've been following the rest of us?"

Skywishes grimaced. "I admit that's a possibility ... but after what just happened here, I think it's unlikely. If they knew where the TreeHAB is, why didn't they just break into it while I was away and wait to ambush me when I got back, the same way they just tried to do with you here? Why try to capture me while I was still traveling through the forest?"

"I guess you have a point..." Fluttershy started to concede, then trailed off as another issue occurred to her. "But what about Highflyer and Screwjob?" Should they wait for the wrestlers to return, or try to get to the TreeHAB before any changelings returned? And that was not even taking into account the fact that one or both of the wrestlers might already have been caught, captured, or maybe even killed. She turned to the young unicorn next to her. "Dinky, have you seen any sign of either of them?"

Dinky lifted her ragged head. "No, I haven't seen any—"

Spike interrupted her by suddenly clearing his throat. "Looks like that might be about to change. At least where one of them is concerned." He pointed down at a valley near the cottage, and the four ponies looked in this direction to see a lumpy gray-green shape moving furtively across it. As the shape drew nearer, Fluttershy saw that it seemed to be a stained dirty blanket. And peeking cautiously out from under the blanket were at least two ponies: one with a cowpony hat and a blonde mane, and one with a jetty black mane, an equally black circle beard, and bandages over his left eye.

But how can we be sure that's really them? Fluttershy wondered.

When he had first left the cottage, Screwjob had started off strong but after several yards his head began to throb and his vision began to swim. He stumbled and halted, head down, eyes squeezed shut.

Not now, Jobs. Not now, he mentally urged himself, fighting to stay conscious through the pain. If he had still been back at the cottage, he would have yielded without a struggle, trusting in the other ponies to wake him if anything important should happen. But now he was well aware that that wasn't an option.

Come on, Jobs, a small voice in the back of his mind suddenly scoffed. It almost sounded like Highflyer. You've always prided yourself on having the hardest head in Equestria. You've knocked yaks out with it for crying out loud! And now you're going to let a little bump on the noggin stop you?! Ha, if High could see you now, he'd never let you live it down.

And with that thought, Screwjob forced his head up, mentally slipping into the wrestling persona that had served him as effectively as any physical suit of armor on many occasions. Now was not the time to think like the stallion who was suffering a pounding headache and was eaten up with worry about his friends' safety ... but as the stallion the rest of Equestria saw in the ring. The one who would use any dirty trick, and bend or break any rule he could to hang onto his wrestling title and keep his opponents beaten down. Especially his archrival: that uppity little flightless midget.

I'll wipe the smirk off High's mask before he can even get it in place! Screwjob's wrestling persona declared as he pushed himself back up onto all fours. He weaved unsteadily, but lifted his aching head.

Come on, his wrestling persona thought defiantly as he peered around him, trying to catch sight of any of the faint shimmers that would indicate semitransparent changelings. Come on, I'm right here. Come and get me. While at the same time, the real stallion underneath all that bravado was mentally pleading, Please if you're out there, don't notice me. I'm really not shopping around for a fight.

He could make out no shimmers, but kept himself braced for a possible attack as he started moving forward again. His head was still aching and his limbs trembled, but he managed to put a bit of his signature swagger back into his step, soldiering through the pain as if he were working a wrestling match.

But the willing spirit could only overrule the weakened flesh for so long. By the time Screwjob had reached the edge of Sweet Apple Acres' orchard, the pounding in his head had become merciless. He sat down, and rested his forehead against the nearest tree, his exposed eye squeezed shut. Just lying down and trying to go to sleep would feel so good right now...

A loud thump suddenly snapped him back into alertness. Shaking the wooziness out of his head, he squinted his one visible eye in the direction the noise seemed to have come from. Peeking around the tree, he felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth at the sight of Applejack kicking a nearby tree. She didn't seem to have noticed him, probably thanks to the green cloak Fluttershy had lent him.

Rein it in, Jobs, he warned himself. You don't know for sure that that's her. At least not yet. Ducking back behind the tree, he pulled off the cloak and unfastened the saddlebags from around his middle. There was too much risk of both him getting tangled in the cloak and the jar of apple peelings breaking if he followed his current course of action. He stretched his rolled-up tights back down into place over his long legs, then licked his front hooves and floofed up his forelock, feeling a tad smug that his chosen mane-style didn't require too much maintenance to look good. Well, the show must go on, he thought as he mentally slipped back into his wrestling persona once again. A heel's gotta do what a heel's gotta do.

Though there weren't many apples left in the orchard, Applejack had gone out to collect what remained of them in hopes that the physical labor would help take her mind off the recent death of her grandmother, and the murders of two of her closest friends. But as she kicked a tree trunk and heard the apples landing in the baskets she had set out, her thoughts drifted unbidden back to that day she had told her friends about her grandmother's death, of Pinkie's attempts to briefly cheer them up by claiming she would put the "fun" in funeral. But never had Applejack imagined that—

These thoughts were interrupted as her hat was suddenly snatched from her head.

"Ha ha! I gotcher hat! I gotcher hat! I gotcher hat!" crowed a horribly familiar male voice. She had heard it before on only two occasions, but there was no mistaking that clipped nasal twang that managed to be both so different and so annoyingly similar to her own beloved family's country accents.

She whirled around to see the voice's owner dancing about on his hind legs, gleefully tossing her hat from one front hoof to the other.

This was too much! She charged him, determined to get her hat back. But just before she reached him, the prancing stallion sidestepped her and, tossing the hat away, dropped his forelegs down around her neck. This pulled her up short, forcing her to rear onto her hind legs. The two ponies overbalanced and fell over backward with Applejack on top of Screwjob. The back of her head collided with his face, and she felt a rush of vindictive pleasure when he howled with pain. She rolled away from him, and back onto her hooves, ready to stomp a hole in his gut for good measure ... when she noticed the bandages covering his left eye. A bit of the fight went out of her at the thought of facing an injured opponent ... until she remembered who she was dealing with, and the way he'd used his "hurt" hind legs as an excuse to hang all over her.

"I swear," she snarled, pulling her hoof back in preparation for him pulling any funny business. "If you're fakin' it with those bandages—"

"Oh, don't I wish I was!" he replied, sitting up and rubbing at his face. "And as much as I'd love to continue our sparring, I need to know where Gummy is! Stat!"

Applejack briefly wondered how he knew Gummy had even been at the farm, but was too annoyed to dwell on it. "Like it's any of your business," she muttered as she retrieved her hat.

"Apps! The gator!"

As she jammed the hat back on her head, she whirled around to face him, incensed by that stupid nickname he had saddled her with. "Big Mac took him to the Pie Family Rock Farm!"

"What?! When?!"

Applejack had just opened her mouth, intending to give him a withering response, when she heard her brother's voice behind her.

"AJ, this guy bothering you?"

"Yes!" Applejack spun around to see her brother walking toward them. He didn't seem to have Gummy with him anymore so his trip to take the gator to the rock farm must have been a success—

Suddenly a spandex-clad blur shot past Applejack and toward her brother. Screwjob skidded to a stop right in front of Big Mac, reared up on his hind legs, and seized the yoke around the big stallion's neck in his front hooves, as if trying to yank it off. Startled, Big Mac tried to pull away, but Screwjob dug in his heels and hung on, still pulling furiously at the yoke. Then he suddenly let go and flung his forelegs around Big Mac's neck in a sideways hug. His head came down behind Big Mac's and the red stallion suddenly let out a yell of pain as he scrambled backward in a circle, trying to get away from Screwjob. As the two stallions turned, Applejack's jaw dropped in shocked outrage. The crazy wrestler had his teeth sunk deep into the back of her brother's yoke, and judging by the way Big Mac was yelling and struggling, Screwjob must have been biting down on a fold of skin as well!

Using his teeth and forelegs, Screwjob lifted Big Mac onto his hind legs before sweeping one of his own back legs behind them. As Big Mac's legs were knocked out from under him, Screwjob unlatched his teeth from the back of the yoke and shoved the bigger stallion down onto the ground. Big Mac landed sprawled on his back and before he could recover, Screwjob swiftly stepped around behind him, and trapped his head and front legs in a full nelson.

For several seconds both the Apple siblings seemed too stunned by Screwjob's actions to react. Until Big Mac tried to sit up and Screwjob jerked him about in a jackknifing movement, keeping him down.

Big Mac tried to get free of Screwjob's hold several more times only to be met with the same result each time. Glaring up at the wrestler, he growled under his breath, "When I get out of this—"

"Fat chance, you farm-boy phony," Screwjob panted. "I know every submission hold ever invented, I can do this all day."

Big Mac looked to his sister. "A little help?"

"Gladly!" Applejack gritted through clenched teeth as she raced toward the two stallions. All her reluctance to strike the injured wrestler was now outweighed by the fury she felt at his actions. "You're gonna get it now, buster! You come barging onto my farm, you pester me, you mess with my brother, you—!"

"Apps, this isn't your brother!"

A blow to the face could not have stunned Applejack more effectively than Screwjob's words. "What are you talking about?! Of course he is!"

"No! He isn't! He's a disguised changeling!"

"Don't listen to him, Applejack!" Big Mac shouted. "That head injury has scrambled his brains!"

"You can't scramble what's not there, pal," Screwjob muttered down at Big Mac before looking back up, all joking seemingly gone from his tone. "Apps, I swear on my Aunt Moonshine this isn't your brother!" Then he added almost as a quick afterthought, "And I love that woman with my life, so I don't swear by her lightly."

"Applejack, you can't honestly believe this guy!"

Applejack didn't reply to either of them. She was rooted to the spot, her eyes darting wildly back and forth between the two stallions. Who should she side with? The sweet brother she had known and loved all her life? Or the pesky wrestler she had learned to detest in the few moments she had been in his presence? Big Mac knew and respected her desire for honesty, while Screwjob had already proven he would fib to get what he wanted. It should have been an obvious choice, but...

But what if this time the wrestler ... was telling the truth? She knew nothing of this Aunt Moonshine he had mentioned, so swearing on "that woman" as he had called her meant nothing to Applejack, but still ... what if he ... was right?

Her eyes flicked back down to Big Mac, all pleasure at seeing him now replaced with uncertainty. She knew better than most ponies what changelings were capable of when it came to disguising themselves as loved ones, and this encounter was bringing back unpleasant memories of returning home ten years ago only to be met with a brother who wasn't...

Her gaze flicked up to her not-so-secret (and completely unwanted) admirer. Why, oh why did it have to be a choice between trusting her brother and trusting ... him?!

"Why should I believe you?!" she demanded of Screwjob, if only to use him as a target for her current frustration. "For all I know you're a disguised changeling!"

"Apps, you despise me. If I was a changeling trying to lure you into a trap, and had the option of looking like any pony I wanted to, don't you think I'd disguise myself as somepony you like and would trust without question, as opposed to somepony you can't stand?"

Applejack snorted. "That's the dumbest—!" But then she caught herself midsentence as his words fully sank in. "That's ..." That's ... actually a good point.

"You want more proof you can trust me? Come see this!" Screwjob began backing toward a tree, dragging the still-captive and still-struggling Big Mac with him. "See that saddlebag?" He pointed at the saddlebag with one back hoof and Big Mac suddenly jerked him off the remaining hoof, throwing him forward in a type of overhead throw. For an instant, it seemed like Big Mac would get free, but when Screwjob's lower body slammed against the ground, he kicked both back legs out, lifting himself back into the air, and got both back hooves planted underneath him. Now he was standing in a bent-over-backward position with Big Mac's head under his back, and his front legs still trapping those of the other stallion.

"Apps, Fluttershy told me to give you what's in that saddlebag, and tell you 'It's happening again!' She said you'd know what that meant!" Screwjob shouted all in one breath before being forced to put all his attention on keeping his opponent imprisoned. He felt Big Mac struggling to rise behind him, and locked his forelegs tight together, keeping Big Mac's forelegs pinned behind the angry, growling red stallion in the process. The leaning backward position was far from comfortable or ideal, but Screwjob didn't dare try to shift out of it lest he give the other stallion a chance to escape. That is until he felt sharp teeth in his back right between his shoulders. He squalled and arched his back in an attempt to get away from the biting teeth...

When he suddenly felt them tear free, raking his back in the process. Losing both his footing and his hold on Big Mac's forelegs, Screwjob landed hard on his back, but promptly swiveled his hips to get his feet underneath him. Rolling onto his stomach, he looked up in time to see Applejack walloping Big Mac with a half-full apple basket. As the big stallion went down, Applejack tossed the basket off to the side, snatched up Fluttershy's loaner cloak, and wrapped it around her brother's head, blinding him.

"Apps!" Screwjob cheered. "Just what I was hoping for! Help from a damsel, heh-heh, in distress!"

"Oh, shut up!" she snapped, thrusting her still-struggling brother toward him. "And hang onto this faker while I get my rope!"

"Don't bother, I got this!" said Screwjob, wrapping Big Mac in a one-legged embrace, and tugging the cloak away. There was a quick glimpse of Big Mac's snarling face before Screwjob snapped his head forward like an attacking snake. His forehead slammed into Big Mac's face with a noise like boulders smashing together. The red stallion went limp and dropped to the ground, while the brown one staggered back, clutching his head and yowling in pain. "Oh, my head! Oh, hurt!"

Applejack ignored his noise as she stared down at the now-unconscious creature that she was finally sure was most definitely not her brother. Not with those bloodstained fang-like teeth no pony had ever had.

The next several minutes passed in a blur for Applejack as she retrieved her rope and hogtied the unconscious changeling still disguised as her brother. As she dragged the now-bound changeling toward the barn, her mind was churning with questions. What exactly did Fluttershy mean by it was happening again? What had happened to her brother and Gummy? Why was Screwjob here? Her gaze flicked quickly to the wrestler who had ceased his howling and was now trailing closely after her, albeit with a woozy stagger to his steps at times. The cloak and saddlebags had been thrown over his back, and he was still massaging his forehead with one front hoof. While she could think of many ponies whose company she'd prefer over his, she knew that beggars couldn't be choosers, and like it or not, it looked like he was her only current source of information.

Once the bound changeling was locked up in the barn, the two ponies hurried to the farmhouse. As soon as they were inside, Applejack locked up behind them.

"Alright," she said, turning to face Screwjob. "What's—?"

"You got a mirror?" he asked. In the time it had taken her to lock the doors, he had shed the cloak and saddlebags, and stripped off his sleeveless black shirt. Now he was turning around and around in a circle, apparently trying to see the bite wound on his back.

"Hold still, I'll take care of that bite," Applejack said impatiently, as she retrieved a sponge, antiseptic, and bandages.

"I want to see the wound," Screwjob demanded. At which point Applejack noticed a hoof mirror on a nearby table and, snatching it up, thrust it at him. He held it behind him while looking over his right shoulder at it with his one visible eye. He didn't have much time to look before Applejack slapped the antiseptic-soaked sponge over the wound.

"Well, at least he got me down between the shoulders," said Screwjob, his voice conversational though he winced as the antiseptic stung. "If it had been higher, he might have ruined this scar right here," he gestured to a scar near the base of his neck that was mostly hidden by his mane, "and that would have been a shame because I like this scar. It's a great conversation starter."

Before she could stop them, Applejack's eyes automatically moved to the allegedly great conversation starter. "That one?"

The wrestler actually had quite a collection of scars on his head, neck, and shoulders, but the one he'd singled out didn't look particularly unusual or impressive.

Screwjob grinned at her disbelieving tone. "Would you believe it won me a free manecut?"

"You don't say," Applejack deadpanned, trying and not quite succeeding in hiding her now-peaked curiosity.

"I did just say. It happened when I was in Manehattan. There I was in the chair, all ready to pay for the manecut as per usual, when about halfway through things the stylist—what was her name, Seed-something—accidentally stabbed me in the neck right where that scar is now. She felt so bad about it, she decided not to charge me for the manecut."

Applejack suddenly had a sneaking suspicion she might know who that mane-stylist was. However, she just huffed dismissively while continuing to clean the wound. "Look, as lovely as the idea of you being stabbed in the neck sounds, we've got more important things to talk about. Like why are you here? What's going on with Fluttershy? How'd you know that was a disguised changeling? And what happened to your eye?"

"Hmm, it'd probably be best if I started at the beginning. We want to get the cart before the wagon and all that."

She frowned at his phrasing. "You mean 'get the pony before the wagon.'"

He shrugged, then winced as it pulled at the wound between his shoulders. "Yeah, that too." And while Applejack bandaged the wound on his back, Screwjob proceeded to relate how the day before he and Highflyer had wound up paying Derpy and her daughters a visit, only for Highflyer to end up in a tussle with another masked pony that looked identical to him in every way. He described how Highflyer had attempted to unmask the other pony, and had succeeded ... but not quite in the way he had intended.

"High got the other High pinned down, and tried to tear off his mask. Except he couldn't do it because that mask was part of the changeling's skin, shell, whatever. So now if you ever run into Highflyer and you're not sure it's him, go for his mask. If you can't tear it off, you've got a disguised changeling, and if you can tear it off, you've got a ticked-off Highflyer. Win-win. I was applying the same principle when I swiped your hat."

She cocked an eyebrow. "In other words, you consider ticking me off a win?"

He faltered at that. "Uh, well ... How about we just go with you're cute when you're angry?" That thought seemed to perk him up and he grinned at her over his shoulder, wiggling his exposed eyebrow suggestively. "And if you ever want to make sure it's really me, just try stripping me and see if I object."

She sighed in exasperation. "Do you ever give it a rest?"

"Hey, just trying to mix business with pleasure."

"Well, right now we need more business and less pleasure! So what's the deal with your bandaged eye?"

"The eye is fine. I think. But the eyebrow above it got busted yesterday. Fluttershy stitched it up though—Uh oh." He had just taken that moment to glance into the hoof mirror he had set down, and noticed for the first time that blood was seeping through the bandages over his eye.

Applejack sighed. "Come here. Let me see it."

Screwjob obliged and she peeled the bandages off his eye.

"Ugh," she grimaced. "Looks like your stitches busted when you head-butted that changeling."

"Yeah, once it's stitched up, I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to squirt like that."

"Fortunately for you, I just happen to have some needles nearby," said Applejack, picking up a needle book, and jerking several long blonde hairs out of her tail.

Screwjob arched his intact eyebrow and Oooh-ed suggestively.

Applejack rolled her eyes. "Don't get any ideas, stud. I'm only using my hair so I'll be able to see the stitches. I'd just as soon pull out your tail hairs—"

"Then by all means yank away," said Screwjob, turning enough to swish his long tail—which despite recent events had managed to maintain a surprising amount of its usual luxuriance—invitingly in her direction.

"—but it would just blend in with your eyebrow," Applejack continued, ignoring his interruption as she planted a front hoof against his spandex-clad hindquarters and shoved him away. "Now hold still. This will hurt you more than me." She wound up taking probably more pleasure than she should have in stabbing Screwjob with the needle. That was until she finished and was knotting off the last stitch.

"I am never taking these stitches out," Screwjob declared as Applejack broke off the trailing ends of the blonde hair.

She snorted. "Well, if you want a permanent reminder of how stupid that head-butting move was..."

"It was not!" Screwjob was indignant.

She gave him a disdainful look, and he resignedly raised his hooves.

"O-kay, so I'm blessed with a head like concrete and in the heat of the moment I forgot that concrete was currently a bit cracked. But it still wasn't a dumb idea! Normally I can knock a yak out cold with a well-aimed skull-bash and walk away none the worse for wear."

"Rrrright," Applejack drawled sarcastically.

"It's true! I've done it! Just hunt down any yak you can find, ask them about the Screwy Pony and they'll confirm it. Then again ... given our current situation, any of those yaks might actually be disguised changelings..."

As Applejack covered his left eyebrow, and by extension his eye, with fresh bandages, Screwjob continued relaying the events that had brought him there: the battle at Ghastly Gorge, Derpy's sacrifice (which he admittedly hadn't seen firsthoof), the escape back to Fluttershy's cottage, Skywishes's reappearance, the info Fluttershy had gotten via Discord (not to mention the draconequus's innocence), and the little group's subsequent plan to alert the rest of Fluttershy's friends to the truth.

"So here I am to collect you, your brother, and the gator," Screwjob concluded, pulling on his black shirt now that Applejack had finished bandaging his wounds. As his head popped through the neck-hole, his expression was grim. "But it looks like I only got here in time to find one out of three."

"Argh! I hate this!" Applejack snapped suddenly. "I can't believe I'm in this situation where I can't trust anypony again!"

At this Screwjob suddenly seemed to perk up. "Hey, look on the bright side. This time you've got me."

She whirled on him. How dare he be so flippant?! "That's no bright side!"

"Sure it is. I'm the one guy the changelings can't use against you. What are they gonna do? Pose as me to try and feed off your love? Ha, no!" Then his expression abruptly sobered. "No," he murmured as if to himself, his tone suddenly wistful. "No, you don't love me. Anyone with a brain in their head can see that."

Once again Applejack was caught off-guard by his reasoning. Could her abhorrence of this stallion actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the current situation? Make him much less likely to be used against her? While it was true she didn't feel any kind of affection towards him—certainly not love!—and definitely never would, she did feel her dislike of him lessen a minute fraction, to be replaced with a modicum of respect for his thought process. Plus, there was the fact that he finally seemed to have taken a hint and was backing off... "Well, I'm glad you finally realized and accepted that."

He jerked, apparently startled by her words. "Realized, sure. Accepted? Absolutely not!"

"But you just said—"

Suddenly that familiar grin she loathed split his face. "I said anyone with a brain in their head, which by definition excludes me. Plus, I wouldn't be the heel that I am if I let a little thing like being pony non-grata dissuade me."

Applejack gaped at him, and as his words sunk in, that modicum of respect leaked away. She glared at him. "So you're just gonna keep pushing and hounding me until I go out with you, is that it?!"

He shrugged. "Yeah, pretty much."

"You are unbelievable," she muttered exasperatedly.

"I know."

She let out a low growl. "Oh, if you weren't injured..."

"You'd sock me? Go ahead. It never stops High from slugging me."

Applejack was sorely tempted to sucker punch him, but the eager glint in his visible eye warned her that if she put a hoof near him, it might not make a return trip. At least not without his permission. Still it was tempting—

Whether she would have given into that temptation would never be known because at that exact moment the room was filled with a harsh blaring alarm that spooked both ponies. They almost collided with each other as they flinched and suddenly found themselves huddled back-to-back as they looked about wildly, trying to trace the noise to its source. At some point in the confusion, they each caught a glimpse of the heart-shaped charms on the undersides of their hooves, and noticed that the charms were flashing wildly. As the alarm continued to scream, both ponies instinctively tried to wrestle the charms from their respective hooves, and hurled them at the far wall. Both charms struck the wall and clattered to the floor where they continued to flash, and the alarm continued to blare. Then just as suddenly as it had started, the alarm went silent and the charms stopped flashing.

The two ponies were silent for several long seconds, bracing themselves for the alarm to start again before Screwjob finally spoke up.

"Apps, I think somepony might have found Discord."

Applejack nodded shakily before suddenly moving forward and pulling out a large dirty-looking blanket from a pile of rags in a corner.

Screwjob squinted his visible eye at it. "What's that for?"

"Camouflage until we can get to Fluttershy's. This blanket could be mistaken for a rock if we hunker down under it."

"Hmm, cozy."

"Don't start that again, mister! You keep your hooves to yourself!"

"Can I lean on you if I start feeling woozy?"

"Only if you keep your hooves to yourself."

He grinned. "Anything you say, Apps."

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. He had agreed to that condition far too easily. "And keep your lips to yourself too!"

"Rats," he muttered, but his tone was good-natured. "You catch on quick."

"Come on," she said, gesturing for him to join her under the blanket. "And while we're heading there, don't you dare start nodding off, or I'll leave you behind."

"You won't do that, Apps," said Screwjob as he joined her under the blanket. Much to her annoyance, he didn't sound the least bit fazed by her threat. "You're far too much of a noble hero to abandon even a heel like me." He shot her a sly sidelong glance. "It's one of the reasons I like you."

Applejack just rolled her eyes at this. Unfortunately the arrogant airhead's assessment of her character was spot-on.

When the train pulled to a stop at the Crystal Empire's station, and its passengers disembarked, none of them thought to check underneath it. Thus, none of them saw the green fabric bundle that seemed to be snagged on the underside of one car. For several moments the bundle was motionless. Then it began to flex about, uttering low moans as it strained. Suddenly Highflyer's masked head emerged from one end of it with a section of the fabric clenched in his teeth. He spat the fabric out, and the green cloak unfurled both from around his body and the thick bar that all four of his legs were wrapped around. The tiny stallion tried to let go of the bar but his limbs seemed to have locked up after being in that position the entire train ride.

Where's Fluttershy when you need her? he mentally bemoaned. He could really use another one of those massages now.

Well, there was only one other option. He drew in several deep breaths to ready himself. Alright. One. Two. Three! He put all his strength into wrenching his limbs off the bar and it sent the expected spasms of pain racing up all four of his legs. It hurt so bad it tore a scream from his mouth a moment before he fell the short distance to the train tracks. He groaned, fighting to hold back a second scream as he turned slowly onto his side, and the circulation returned painfully to his cramped limbs. It wouldn't do to suddenly get caught after he had managed to make it this far.

That day Rarity and Apple Bloom had decided to take a break from Amberlocks' Orchards business by going to the market to see some of the Empire's crystal sheep. Apple Bloom was in a pen with the sheep themselves while Rarity was in the nearby booth, examining some displays of yarn made from crystal sheep wool.

Suddenly a throat cleared behind her. "Eh-hem, Rarity."

Startled into dropping the skeins of yarn, she turned to see a small pony (who judging by their size, must have been quite young) wrapped in a much-too-big green cloak with the hood pulled so far over their head that she could see nothing of their face.

"Yes?" Rarity asked, frowning at the cloak. Did I design that? The stitching and fabric certainly looked familiar but there was no way she would ever have given a pony such an ill-fitting—

She was jerked out of this train of thought when the pony in front of her suddenly reached out with a front leg wrapped in the cloak, seized one of her forelegs and tugged her forward with surprising strength for such a small pony.

"Come with me," the pony whispered, and though Rarity couldn't be completely sure, she thought the low raspy voice sounded closer to male than female.

"Let go! You don't have to pull so hard!"

At the sound of Rarity's angry voice, Apple Bloom looked up from the crystal lamb she was petting, to see a tiny cloak-wrapped pony striding up to the sheep pen with Rarity in tow. The tiny pony flipped the latch on the pen's gate up, released Rarity, and zipped around behind her. She let out a shocked exclamation as the cloaked pony butted its head against her hindquarters, causing her to stumble into the pen. She whirled around, but the tiny pony had already slammed the gate behind her.

"Go pet one of those sheep," the pony ordered, and judging by its voice, Apple Bloom figured it was a colt under that cloak.

Rarity gave him a half-angry, half-baffled look. "Whatever for?!"

The colt leapt up onto the top of the fence. "If you value any of your friends' lives, pet one of those sheep!" he snapped with surprising ferocity. "I won't explain another thing until you do!"

"Oh, very well!" Still looking annoyed, Rarity marched over to the nearest sheep and gave it several quick gentle pats on its wooly head. The sheep gave her an unimpressed look, which Rarity ignored as she glared back at the colt. "There. Are you satisfied?"

"Yeah," came the quick reply from under the hood.

"Well, then explain yourself!"

"Not here," said the colt. "Both you," he gestured to her and Apple Bloom with a cloak-covered foreleg. "Come with me."

"Hey, hold on a—" Apple Bloom started to say, not caring for his bossy attitude, only to be interrupted by him.

"Come! On!" He crouched as if intending to jump down from the fence, when Rarity's pale blue magic suddenly surrounded him, halting him.

"No!" She was clearly fed up with his pushing her around. "You said you would explain after I petted the sheep. Now explain!"

"Not! Here! And let go of me!"

"Not until you explain yourself, and your completely uncalled-for rude behavior!" said Rarity as she tried to lift him off the fence only to have him tighten his grip on it. While this was going on, Apple Bloom had snuck up to where the colt was perched on the fence, and suddenly lunged upward, snatching off his hood. Just who did this colt think he was, to come here and start ordering them arou—?

Apple Bloom felt a jolt of surprise when she saw that underneath that hood, the colt was wearing a mask; a crimson one that covered his entire head and was decorated with stylized black-and-blue falcons on the cheeks and forehead.

However the mask didn't seem to prevent Rarity from recognizing him. Just the opposite in fact.

"Highflyer?!" she exclaimed incredulously.

The masked pony looked heavenward, and let out a resigned sigh. "Yeah, it's me."

Apple Bloom suddenly remembered Applejack telling her about meeting the tiny wrestler Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo had been seeing, and writing to for the past year. This must be him.

Rarity's grip on him loosened slightly. "Highflyer, what on earth are—?"

In response Highflyer grabbed the edge of his mask where it stretched across his snout, and pulled it away from his face. Looking down, he shook his head vigorously and something suddenly slipped out from under the mask to plop on the ground.

"Eww, what's that?" said Apple Bloom, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

"Apple peelings," said Highflyer, releasing the edge of his mask, and wincing as it snapped back into place. "Fluttershy put them in a jar and told me that once I found the two of you, and made sure you weren't disguised changelings, I was supposed to give you the jar of peelings and tell you it was happening again. I lost the jar in a fight with some changelings at Scootaloo's house—" This drew gasps from both mares. "—but managed to stash the apple peelings in my mask. I didn't understand what Fluttershy was talking about but she said you would."

Both mares had paled at the mention of changelings.

"Um, Highflyer," said Rarity, sounding like she was trying to compose herself. "I think you'd better explain what's been going on since I last saw you."

Behind the mask, his eyes narrowed as if in pain. "I, uh ... don't suppose you've heard about ... about ... Ray, then?"

It took Apple Bloom a second to remember Ray was a nickname and who its owner was. "Rainbow Dash? Is she all right?"

"No," Highflyer sighed, his hindquarters slumping down onto the fence rail. He proceeded to give the two mares a quick account of what had happened since that terrible night when they had stumbled on Pinkie's remains at Sugarcube Corner, and how it had led up to the current situation. "I got to Scootaloo's place, but there were already a couple of changelings there with her, posing as Ray's parents. I held them off while Loo escaped with Tank, then I hitched a ride on the underside of a train here to find you two."

"Oh my," breathed Rarity, still trying to take in all he had told them. "Rainbow and Pinkie murdered, and Discord framed for it to keep us from seeing the real enemies..."

"Then what are we waiting for?!" said Apple Bloom, leaping to her feet, her expression furious. "We have to get back to Ponyville! If those lousy changelings think they can get away with this after what they did to my family last year, they—!"

"Uh, we might have a slight problem there," Highflyer cut in. "I'm not sure how we'll get the two of you on the train unnoticed. I was small enough to fit into the undercarriage, but I'm not sure either of you would."

But a slight smile suddenly crept across Rarity's lips. "I know a way we can get there without using the train."

"When'd you learn to work a hoofcar?" Highflyer asked as the trio sped along the tracks. He was sitting at the front of said car with his cloak blowing out behind him, and his front hooves hooked over the edge, surveying their passing surroundings while Rarity and Apple Bloom worked the car handles. He had initially wanted to help rather than let the girls do all the work, but Rarity had tactfully pointed out that since she and Apple Bloom were pretty close in size, they could pump the handles up and down at the same pace, whereas Highflyer's much smaller size and shorter reach would make things uneven and likely slow them down. So he had been regulated to lookout duty. The section of track they were now on had a steady gentle slope that allowed the girls to take it easy aside from occasional nudges of the breaks.

"I never would have if it weren't for Pinkie Pie," Rarity murmured. At her sober tone, Highflyer turned to see her expression, but her back was to him. Before he could question her further, the air was filled with a harsh blaring alarm, startling all three ponies.

"What's making that noise?!" Apple Bloom shouted over the alarm.

"I don't know!" Highflyer shouted back, trying to pinpoint where the sound was coming from, but that wasn't easy when it seemed to stay all around them even as they zoomed forward. Suddenly he felt a tug on his cloak that nearly yanked him backward. Thinking the cloak had gotten snagged on something, he quickly unclasped it from around his throat and looked back at it. The cloak was now flapping in the air behind the car, but it wasn't snagged on anything. It was encased in horribly familiar turquoise light!

Then Highflyer felt an equally horrible familiar tug on his body and tightened his grip on the cart's edge as the force holding him tried to lift him away. Looking up, he spotted three patches of turquoise magic in the cloudy sky above, illuminating the almost-invisible creatures up there.

"Hang on, girls! We've got changelings above us!" he shouted over the continuing scream of the still-unidentified alarm. Both mares tightened their grips on the car's handles and not a moment too soon because they were suddenly seized by the same magic as he.

"Oh no, you don't!" Rarity snarled as her horn lit, its blue aura only a few shades lighter than the turquoise changeling magic encasing them. The glow swiftly intensified, then burst out in a wave across all of them, dispelling the competing magic that had been trying to pull them away. All three ponies dropped back onto the still-swiftly-moving hoofcar, slipping and stumbling in the process but managing to stay on.

"Thank you, Twilight," Rarity murmured.

Alas, the changelings were not so easily dissuaded. Dropping out of the cloud cover, they spread out behind the speeding hoofcar. And they didn't appear to be having any problems keeping pace with it.

"I hate bugs," Rarity growled, levitating dozens of rocks from the sides of the track and sending them in a spray back at the changelings. Most of these missiles were dodged, though two of the changelings did have to briefly put up shields to protect themselves.

"What'll we do now?" asked Apple Bloom as she worked the car's main lever while Rarity continued to ineffectually pepper their pursuers.

"I think we just need to hang on a little longer, girls," Highflyer said as he turned back towards the front of the car, squinting against the wind. "If we can keep them off us until we reach town, we might be able to find help there." Or we might just end up in the middle of an even bigger pack of them, he added in his thoughts, but they could only cross that bridge when they came to it. Which considering he could now see Ponyville's outline in the distance would likely be sooner rather than later.

Probably realizing the same thing, their pursuers put on a burst of speed, closing the distance and trying their magic again at close quarters. Highflyer could hear Rarity's hysterical shrieking and the crackle of magic as she fought off the changeling that was coming for her, but that prevented her from using her magic to try and protect the rest of them. The turquoise glow wrapped around him and Apple Bloom as the other two changelings tried to pry them off the car once more.

There was really nothing for the two of them to do but hold on and hope they could resist the pull of the changelings' magic long enough. Apple Bloom was both an earth pony and a farm one with a lifetime of hard work behind her, and thus was able to put up a good fight of her own; while Highflyer, despite his small stature, had a surprising amount of strength as well, as evidenced by his ability to hang onto the train's undercarriage all the way to the Crystal Empire.

A sizzling bolt of blue magic shot over him, close enough to his neck that it would have taken off a good section of his mane if he'd still had one, and towards the changeling on his side of the car. A quick glance showed the one that had been going for Apple Bloom also veering off through the air, likely having dodged a similar attack. While Rarity might not be the most skillful unicorn he'd ever seen when it came to spell-slinging in a fight, there was something to be said for random, frenzied casting when it came to keeping opponents off-guard.

Suddenly the magical pull on his body stopped, and he noticed that one of the changelings had dropped down to fly next to the car. Its eyes were fastened on him, and as it drew nearer, he felt a deep and very unpony-like growl come rumbling out of his throat. The changeling hadn't been able to pry him loose from the car with magical force, so now it was probably going to try using some physical force as well. Come on and try it, you lousy, see-through

The changeling put on a second burst of speed that put it in front of the car and at that moment Highflyer acted. He lifted his little body up in a sort of handstand before suddenly swinging his lower body around to drive both back hooves into the oncoming changeling's face. Unfortunately since the car was still moving forward, Highflyer's attack had the effect of spitting into the wind, and the changeling knocked into him. They tumbled across the car's platform, the changeling trying to hang onto Highflyer while he tried to knock it away. They went tumbling off the end of the car, but then Highflyer felt something snag his vest. Looking back, he saw Apple Bloom clinging to his vest with one hoof, trying to drag him back onto the car while at the same time fighting the changelings' efforts to pull her from the car as well. The changeling Highflyer had been fighting was now hanging onto one of his hind legs and beating its wings to pull him from Apple Bloom's grasp. But the tiny wrestler still had one leg free and began using it with a vengeance, pounding and gouging away wildly at the changeling's head. Fearing his vest might tear, Highflyer grasped Apple Bloom's foreleg with one hoof, while he pulled the braided tail extensions from where he'd wound them around his middle. Swinging the extensions like a whip he laid them across the changeling's back, hoping to disrupt its flying attempts.

Suddenly the changeling's grip on him seemed to go limp and it released him, causing Apple Bloom to yank him toward her. She quickly altered his course to place him on the platform next to her, right beside the column supporting the car's handles. Highflyer instinctively whipped the extensions around the column and grabbed their free end to help hold him in place.

"Thanks, kid."

"No prob—" Apple Bloom's reply was suddenly cut off as a changeling plowed into her with enough force that she lost her grip on the car's handle.

"Apple Bloom!" Rarity shrieked as the young mare went flying off the car. Then a second changeling landed on Rarity, ramming her into the side of the column opposite Highflyer and clearly winding her.

The masked wrestler cast a quick glance behind him. He could see no sign of the changeling he had fought with (and hopefully knocked out), but he did see Apple Bloom on the ground beside the tracks, kicking out viciously at the changeling above her. Then the car turned, following a bend in the tracks and Apple Bloom and her opponent were both hidden from view behind the town's buildings. In the back of his mind, Highflyer realized they had reached Ponyville and would likely pass it if they kept going. He was too far away to help Apple Bloom at the moment, but he could help Rarity.

Letting go of the extensions, he stretched his forelegs out around either side of the column, seized the changeling's head and yanked it forward, slamming it against the column.

"Grab onto something and hold tight, Rarity!" he ordered as he vaulted over the car's central column to land on the front of the car next to the dazed changeling. Grabbing the changeling from behind, he gave the car's brake a sharp kick, causing it to engage. The sudden deceleration caused the changeling and the pegasus to catapult off the car as it came to a screeching halt.

They plowed into the ground with Highflyer on top, pummeling his opponent with clenched hooves. Fury had filled the tiny stallion, making him oblivious to anything but driving his hooves again and again and again into the changeling below him. He was just drawing his right hoof back for another blow when he felt someone seize it, holding him back. With a fierce snarl, he swung around, lashing out at this new enemy with his free hoof ... only to find himself aiming at Rarity!

For a brief horrible moment he feared his clenched hoof would slam into her jaw, but she had used her magic to grab him and thus was still several inches out of range.

"That's enough, darling!" he heard her shouting. "You've done enough! That changeling won't be getting up anytime soon."

As if in a haze, he turned to look back down at the unconscious changeling beneath him. It was only then that he realized just how quiet everything now was. At some point when he was throttling this changeling, that blaring alarm had finally stopped.

Rarity had also noticed their newfound silence and was puzzling over it when Highflyer finally raised his eyes to meet hers. There was a glazed look in his eyes, and when she released his hoof, he scrambled away from her, his gaze still pinned on her. Almost as if he were ... afraid of her? "Highflyer...?"

He promptly squeezed his eyes shut and shook himself. When he looked back at her his eyes were suddenly clear again. "Are you alright?"

She nodded. "Yes, but Apple Bloom—"

She didn't even need to finish the sentence before they were both racing back to the hoofcar.

As Rarity and Highflyer worked the hoofcar back in the direction they had come from, her point about their size difference slowing things down proved to be true, but they didn't have any other options. They reached the Ponyville station at roughly the spot Apple Bloom had landed but there was no sign of the earth pony or the changelings. Had she escaped? Had they taken her?

"Rarity!" an out-of-breath voice behind them shouted, and they turned to see Apple Bloom run out from behind a building. She looked quite battered and bruised, and was lugging the tail extensions that had blown off the car when Highflyer had let go of them. "Oh, thank goodness you made it back here," she panted as she ran toward them.

Rarity breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the young mare, but before she could move forward, Highflyer thrust a hoof against her chest, halting her.

"Wait!" He moved in front of Rarity, facing Apple Bloom. "What were you doing when I told Rarity to prove it was really her?" He felt the unicorn behind him tense, but he kept his gaze pinned on the earth pony.

Apple Bloom halted, blinking at him. "Sorry?"

"In the Crystal Empire. What were you doing when I told Rarity to prove it was really her?"

She hesitated for several seconds, clearly fumbling for an answer, and when one didn't come, he lunged at her.

"What have you done with the real Apple Bloom?!"

Her eyes widened and she leapt backward into the air. Floating there, she burst into blue-green flames, revealing a semitransparent changeling in her place. Skidding around, Highflyer lunged at her again, but his injuries were taking a toll on him and his movements were clumsier than usual. Then the changeling used its magic to throw the extensions around his neck and twisted them tight, choking him.

"Okay, so you saw through my disguise, but I can still finish you off!" the changeling sneered behind him. He thrashed about in midair as the extensions dug into his thick little neck. He scrabbled his hooves against his throat, but the extensions had already been drawn too tight for him to get his hooves under them.

Suddenly a large trunk came flying through the air to crash into the changeling. The blow sent Highflyer flipping up into the air and the extensions fell from his neck.

"Take that, you ruffian!" he heard Rarity shriek below him. Dazed, he caught a brief glimpse of the changeling being flattened against a wall by a trunk surrounded with pale blue light. When the trunk pulled back from the wall, the changeling collapsed twitching to the ground. That same magic quickly enveloped him, and with a loud "Whoomp!" Highflyer landed on top of the trunk. The world continued to spin as he sucked in wheezy breath after wheezy breath.

"Hang onto that trunk, Highflyer!" Rarity ordered. "We've got to get you to the cottage."

Still in a daze, he obeyed and as the trunk moved forward, he blinked down at it, realizing vaguely: This is my trunk of stuff she's floating ... He'd forgotten about leaving it sitting on the platform the day before, thinking he'd be back for it in only a few hours at most.

Now as he clung to it, trying to get his breath back, he could only hope and pray that Apple Bloom was somewhere ahead of them, also on her way to the cottage.

Fluttershy watched as the two ponies under the blanket continued to sneak closer to the cottage, hoping for some clue that would prove whether or not they were what they appeared to be. Suddenly both ponies turned away from the cottage in the direction of town and hunkered down.

Fluttershy looked up in that direction and whispered, "Everypony, look."

Racing toward the cottage was a familiar-looking white unicorn. Her normally well-groomed violet mane was looking frazzled, and she was using her magic to float a large travel trunk in front of her. Clinging to the top of that trunk was a tiny, equally familiar-looking brown pegasus. He was still wearing the blue vest Fluttershy had lent him, but the cloak, saddlebags, and tail extensions she had also lent him were now gone and he was wearing his mask again. Was that really Rarity and Highflyer?

As the two got closer to the cottage, Might-be-Screwjob suddenly shot out from under the blanket and raced toward them, letting out a long drawn-out, "Hiiiiii!"

He tackled Might-be-Highflyer off the trunk and they went tumbling across the ground.

"Senberg," Might-be-Screwjob finished as he came up. He was trying to wrestle the smaller pony into a submission hold, but Might-be-Highflyer seemed to anticipate his movements and quickly countered them.

"Fal! Con!" the masked stallion snapped out, savagely slamming a hoof into the other stallion's chest on the "Con!"

Screwjob released him and fell backwards. "Apps, it's really him!"

"You sure?"

Screwjob winced as he rubbed his chest. "Yep. No one but the genuine article hits that hard. Of course the fact that he knew the code word helped too."

The two wrestlers were quickly joined by Applejack, who came out from under the blanket, and Rarity who lowered the trunk she was still floating to the ground.

Applejack frowned at her friend. "Rarity, where's Apple Bloom?"

"She's not here?" Rarity asked, sounding equally troubled as she looked around them.

It was at this point that the five observers above them decided to make their presence known. Skywishes went first, taking off with Fluttershy on her back. The movement caught the attention of the four ponies on the ground and they whirled into defensive positions, Rarity's horn sizzling to life, as Skywishes dropped down to hover a few feet off the ground several yards from them.

"Cardinal," she called out to them, keeping her front hooves raised at chest level as if in surrender. "Cardinal," she repeated, pulling the helmet off to reveal her pink-and-purple streaked mane. "And that's Wasp," she added as Fluttershy jumped down from her back.

Applejack, Rarity, Highflyer, and Screwjob all relaxed only to tense again when Twilight emerged from the cottage's leafy roof with Dinky on her back, and Spike sitting behind her, helping hold the unicorn in place.

"It's okay, they're with us," said Fluttershy and the four newcomers relaxed once again. She had noticed earlier that both wrestlers seemed to have brought back only one of the charges they'd been sent to retrieve, but there wasn't time to question that now. "We can't stay here long. Some changelings were waiting to ambush us when we first got here. We managed to escape and hide from them, but they could get back here at any time. They're going to be watching all the places we usually go, so our only hope is to hide out at Skywishes's TreeHAB."

While Fluttershy was explaining this, Skywishes had been surveying the group with a critical eye. "Looks like most of us are going to have to cover ourselves with mud."

"What?!" Rarity looked at her in alarm. "Why?"

"Camouflage," said Skywishes, nonplussed. "We don't have enough camouflage clothing to go around, so covering ourselves with mud is the only option. Otherwise all these brightly colored coats and clothes will make us impossible to miss in the Everfree. I've also got to muddy up this armor so it doesn't catch any light."

Rarity let out a half-sigh, half-moan. "This is going to ruin my mane."

Applejack glared at her. "How can you worry about that at a time like this?!"

"Oh, hush!" Rarity snapped. "I realize how dire things are! I can live with mud in my mane, but I don't have to like it!"

At that moment Highflyer snatched attention away from the two mares by snapping open the latches on his trunk.

"What are you doing?" several of the other ponies asked as he flipped open the lid, jumped up on the trunk's edge, and stuck the front half of his body down inside it. His only response was a rip of Velcro as he pulled the mask from his head before digging even deeper into the trunk, causing several pants, shirts, and masks to tumble out in the process. There were muffled mutters of "Where is it, where is it," from inside the trunk, before there was a triumphant "Ah!" and he removed the blue vest, dropping it into the trunk as well. He jumped backward off the trunk's edge and landed on his hind legs. He was now wearing a mask in drab shades of black, brown, and green identical to Skywishes's camouflage, and holding what looked like a similarly-colored army vest.

Skywishes raised both eyebrows at this. "You just happened to have a camouflage-patterned mask in there?"

"I have a mask for every occasion," said Highflyer as he donned the army vest, carefully adjusting its wing-slits over his splinted wings. "Though I can't always get a hold of the ones I need at the time."

"He really does," Screwjob acknowledged, his muzzle twisted in a sardonic smirk.

Meanwhile Rarity had used her magic to pick up one of the masks that had fallen to the ground and was experimentally stretching it with a speculative look on her face. "Highflyer...?"


"If you don't object, could the rest of us maybe ... borrow some of your masks?"

Highflyer paused in adjusting his vest. "You mean like wear them?"

Rarity nodded.

"Well, spandex does stretch..." Highflyer mused aloud. "But why would you want to? I mean this," he gestured to his current outfit, "is probably the drabbest thing I currently have, so it's not like you can use my clothes for camouflage."

"Actually I was thinking we could tuck our manes inside the masks so we wouldn't have to get them muddy. Like a swim cap. And that way we probably wouldn't need to get mud all over our faces either."

"I don't know," said Highflyer with visible reluctance as he picked up several of the scattered masks. "These things were custom-made. They weren't cheap—"

Screwjob snorted. "Please, you've got hundreds more back home. You're not gonna miss six measly masks."

"Jobs, counting you, there's seven other ponies here besides me."

"No way! Count me out! I'm not putting on anything you've had your sweaty head stuck in all day!"

"You're aware I wash my masks, aren't you?" Highflyer said dryly.

"See!" Screwjob pointed out. "Not a problem letting them get a little dirty then."

"Actually," said Skywishes, looking up from the armor she was now daubing with mud, "with those brown coats and black hair of yours, the two of you could probably get by without any camouflage if you didn't insist on wearing stuff like those gaudy tights." The look she was giving them was almost envious.

"Thank. Goodness." Screwjob breathed emphatically. Then he scowled at Skywishes. "And my tights are not gaudy. They're eye-catching."

Applejack rolled her eyes, muttering, "Yeah, just what we need right now. To be eye-catching."

The little equine had no idea how long she lay where she had landed. After the chaotic terror she had just escaped from, her new dark surroundings seemed so peaceful. When trapped in that force-field she had often imagined that if she were free she would be racing all over the place, trying to take in as much about her surroundings as possible. But now all she found herself wanting to do was relish her newfound solitude. She breathed in and out through the cavity that served as her nostrils, savoring the musty smell of her new environment. While it might not have been the most pleasant scent on earth, it was a scent and after living so long unable to smell anything, the little equine found anything fascinating. Just these little movements, like being able to close her eyes, or actually sleep...

But then her eyes snapped open as she heard footsteps and an odd swishing noise. Had her captors come to take her back?! No! No, they would never take her back! She scrambled up to find a place to hide. She pressed herself against the base of a tree, her orange eyes wide as she tried to spot any incoming attack.

Then about ten yards from her, she saw several creatures. They looked a bit like the ponies she had seen all those years ago, but they all seemed to be a brownish color that blended in with their surroundings. She watched them move forward, a bulky one seemed to be the leader. This leader suddenly looked her way, and the little equine pressed herself against the tree, willing herself not to be noticed.

Skywishes peered around her, watching for any sign of an attack. She thought she caught a flicker of movement to her left, and snapped her head around in that direction. She squinted at the darkness, her ears flicking about trying to catch any noises, but there was nothing. Finally she turned and continued on her journey. She cast a quick glance back at the mud-caked procession behind her. After Screwjob's very vocal revulsion at wearing any of Highflyer's gear, the masked stallion's reluctance to lend it to the other ponies seemed to vanish. Now with the exception of Screwjob, and herself (her mud-smeared helmet did a more than adequate job of covering her entire mane), all the ponies were using mud-coated masks as a combination of camouflage and mane-protection. They had also divvied up the remaining camouflage clothing amongst themselves and were now covered in varying combinations of both that and mud. Screwjob had even dunked his eye-catching tights thoroughly in the mud.

Having reached their destination, Skywishes gestured for them to stop and flew up into the treetops out of their sight. A few minutes later, a large hot air balloon basket descended with her inside it, working a pulley-system. Everyone loaded into the basket, and Skywishes worked the pulley to get them up to their destination.

"Wow, so this is the TreeHAB," Twilight murmured as they climbed out of the basket and took in their new surroundings: the structure that had been Skywishes's consuming obsession for the past decade. Fluttershy thought she saw a brief smile flash across Skywishes's face before it quickly went back to business.

"Come on," Skywishes said briskly. "We can clean up in the greenhouse. We might as well put all this mud to use while we've got it."

"Oh, thank goodness," said Rarity, stripping off the mask she was using and fanning her face. "Phew, it gets hot under that mask." She gave Highflyer an impressed look. "How do you put up with it?"

"Shaving your head works wonders on the ventilation."

"Alright," said Twilight once everyone had had a chance to get cleaned up. "I think we all need to hear what's been happening and then let Princess Celestia know about it. Spike, take a letter."

Obediently, the little dragon pulled out a scroll and quill.

"Where do we start...?" Twilight mused and Fluttershy raised a hoof. Twilight nodded to her, and Fluttershy turned to the young unicorn now lying on a bundle of clean camouflage Skywishes had offered as a makeshift cushion.

"Dinky, why were you outside when we got to the cottage?"

Dinky rolled as best she could onto her stomach, and lifted her head. Despite being carried on the journey to the TreeHAB, she still looked pale and exhausted. "I tried to sleep when you guys left. I really did, but I couldn't. I just felt like too much of a target in that bed." She turned to Highflyer. "You saw how badly I was handling that knife. A changeling would have taken it away and used it on me before I could even get it out. So I hacked my mane off to make myself a decoy."

"How so?" asked Fluttershy.

Dinky turned back to her. "I arranged some of the couch cushions under the blankets like a body, and used that loaf of bread Mache Max threw at us as the head. I cut off as much of my mane as I could and glued it to the bread using that honey Max tossed at us as well. Then I dragged myself outside to hide down under that overhang. I was hoping that way I could hear if anypony came to the cottage, but they wouldn't see me. Those changelings that attacked you must have flown to the cottage door because I didn't see them arrive, but they asked for you in Spike and Twilight's voices before going inside."

"What about Loo—um, Scootaloo?" Highflyer quickly corrected himself. "Did you see or hear her?"

Dinky shook her head sadly. "No. I tried to watch and listen for any sign of her, but she never showed up."

Highflyer bowed his head, and the other ponies exchanged uneasy glances, realizing this must mean Scootaloo and Tank had been intercepted before they could reach the cottage. Were they even alive anymore?

The rest of the ponies told their stories ("So that's what all that noise was coming from," Highflyer muttered, looking down at the charm attached to his hoof.), and Spike dutifully wrote them down. It was late at night by the time all the past days' events had been pieced together. Once Spike had inked the last word, Twilight looked over the account, and satisfied with it, jotted down a brief introduction and closing before signing her name.

Skywishes eyed the scroll doubtfully as Twilight rolled it up. "But how can you be sure that letter will get to the real princess?"

Spike smirked at this. "No sweat," he told her as Twilight handed him the scroll. "All my messages go straight to Princess Celestia and only Princess Celestia no matter where she is." He flamed on the scroll and it vanished.

"Good," said Twilight. "Now we just have to—"

Suddenly a scroll flashed into existence in front of them.

Twilight frowned. "That was quick." She took the scroll, unrolled it, and looked down at its contents. Her eyes widened. "Wait a minute! Spike, this is the same scroll you just sent!"

"What?!" He snatched it from her, stared at it as well, then rolled it back up and flamed on it a second time. Only for it to reappear in front of them again mere seconds later. He tried a third and fourth time only to be met with the same results.

"What's going on? Why isn't it getting sent?" Twilight stared at him in alarm.

"I don't know. M-maybe I need to be by a window." That had never been an issue before, but willing to try anything, Spike snatched up the scroll, ran to the nearest window, opened it, and flamed on the scroll again, directing the flames out the window. The scroll vanished in the fire ... only to reappear in front of Twilight. The tiny dragon looked back at his boss, realization dawning on both their faces.

"Twilight," Spike's voice sounded strained with shock. "I don't think my messages are going to Princess Celestia anymore ... They're going to you!"

This news was met with stunned silence as its implications sunk in. Fluttershy suddenly remembered Celestia touching Spike on the chest with her horn and performing some sort of spell on him before asking him to deliver a scroll. It had seemed to work the same as it always did. It had gone straight to Celestia ... and landed on the head of the much smaller alicorn standing right next to her.

Then one pony finally spoke up.

"Well, that's it then," said Skywishes. "It's over. We're cooked."


"Cooked," she repeated. "Thoroughly charred and burnt-to-a-crisp cooked. No other way to look at it. We've got changelings out there hunting for us. We have ponies getting snatched left and right. We have no way to contact the Princesses. We are nine bodies in a TreeHAB only equipped to support one for a month. With winter on the way, the animals in the Everfree are a lot more ravenous, so if we go out there we risk getting eaten. If none of them get us, the changelings might. Even if we can be sure we're dealing with a genuine pony, they might unknowingly give the changelings our whereabouts. If by some miracle, none of that stuff happens, we'll just run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. We're cooked."

Author's Note:

*Shakes head at Skywishes* Well, aren't you just a little bundle of optimism and joy?

As always a huge thank you to Nightwalker for his suggestions and editing on this super-long sucker. Especially for his rewriting and vast improvement on my original hoofcar scene.