• Published 5th Apr 2019
  • 7,778 Views, 324 Comments

A Tempestuous, Pharyngeal Engagement - Raugos



Tempest Shadow and Pharynx have a disagreement. It's love at first fight.

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Chapter 1

“Your drill sergeant is an idiot.”

Changeling and pony guards alike froze as Tempest Shadow’s comment rang throughout the training yard of Canterlot’s keep.

“Uh… what do you mean?” asked Thorax. He leaned over the platform’s railings to get a better look at the company of changeling soldiers assembled before them, then frowned and continued, “They don’t smell, do they? We all made sure to wash up before coming here.”

Tempest snorted and gestured at the changelings with a foreleg. “Sorry to say, Your Highness, but your troops have no formation to speak of. They fidget, they daydream, I’m very sure that the whole lot of them have never used a spear or sword in their life, and their armour looks like roof shingles held together with wishful thinking. Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing to watch.”

She flicked her eyes over to the adjacent company of Royal Guards and added in an undertone to Twilight, “Not that ours are much better, but give me another month and I might get them at least on par with the Storm King’s infantry.”

“Oh, I see…” said Thorax.

He then threw a nervous glance at Pharynx, whom Twilight fully expected to go on a rampage, if Starlight’s account of his personality was anything to go by.

Nothing of the sort happened, though. Instead, Pharynx simply gave Tempest a sidelong glance, albeit an intense one that reminded Twilight of a predator sizing up its prey just before an ambush.

Twilight resisted the urge to bite her lip in public. She had to defuse the situation quickly, before it could turn into yet another diplomatic incident that could damage their alliance with Thorax’s reformed hive. Princess Celestia and Luna had seen fit to leave the task of overseeing the rehearsal and pre-rehearsal in her hooves, and she could not, would not, betray the trust that they had placed in her!

She carefully sidled forward and paced, making a show of inspecting the troops before inserting herself between Pharynx and Tempest. “Maybe we should give them another day to rest before conducting this joint military exercise.”

Tempest raised an eyebrow. “This is just the rehearsal for that. Which is also the rehearsal for the parade…”

“Point still stands!” she said, hoping nopony had heard her voice crack. “It’s not like the fireworks have an expiry date or anything, right? They can wait!”

Tempest snorted. “If a flight from the Badlands has affected them this badly, I shudder to imagine what they’re like on the battlefield.”

Placing a hoof on the railing, she bent her hind legs and gracefully flipped right over it, somersaulting once in the air before landing squarely on all four hooves with an impact that echoed throughout the training yard. Thorax and Pharynx flitted after her with buzzing wings, and Twilight scrambled after them just in time to see Tempest sighing as she righted a changeling’s grip on his spear, guiding his foreleg until the tarnished tip pointed straight up.

“It’s no excuse for their non-existent weapons proficiency, either. The one in charge of training them needs to have their teeth kicked in,” Tempest muttered.

A hush had settled upon the training yard, chilling Twilight in spite of the warm afternoon sun. The birds and insects had stopped singing. She could almost feel every ear turned towards their exchange, eagerly waiting for more damning words.

“Hey, why don’t you come over here and say that to my face,” growled Pharynx.

And there it is…

Twilight felt her muzzle contorting into her trademark stiff grin and brought every ounce of willpower she had to school it back to a neutral expression.

One toppled domino wasn’t the end, not yet. She could still fix this!

Tempest whirled around to face him. “Oh, so you’re the drill sergeant.”

Twilight attempted to hold her back with a foreleg, but Tempest moved with all the inexorable momentum of an iceberg, and just about as much warmth. She had to release her or risk toppling over in front of everypony, and she could only watch with a sinking emptiness in her belly as Tempest sauntered over to Pharynx and appraised him from horns to hooves with a critical gaze.

Despite the precarious situation, Twilight couldn’t help making a comparison when they were standing so close together.

Of all the changelings present, Pharynx most closely resembled their old forms in terms of colour scheme and demeanour. When he wasn’t standing around brooding in silence, he had a tendency to prowl around his brother like an agitated guard dog, just waiting for an excuse to use his fangs. And all three of his serrated horns only added to the effect.

Tempest was actually a little taller than him, though. Or she certainly would’ve been if she still had an intact horn. Still, the jagged nub on her head lent her a similarly intimidating look when paired with her scars. And her dark armour, now with some lighter purple trimmings and a facsimile of Twilight’s cutie mark embossed over the effaced insignia of the Storm King, was reminiscent of a changeling’s carapace. She certainly could carry herself with the same imperious air as Queen Chrysalis when she felt like it.

“To be honest, I’m a little surprised,” said Tempest in a bored, low tone, with half-lidded eyes. “You look like someone with a spine, so it’s quite disappointing that so few of your soldiers have taken after you. Just how long have you been training them?”

Pharynx narrowed his eyes. “Six months of pony style formations. Years if you count swarming tactics.”

“Ah. Still disappointing.”

Thorax winced.

Twilight chuckled nervously and waved to get their attention. “Okay everypony, maybe we should all just take a deep breath and—”

Pharynx cut her off with a sharp buzz of his wings. “I’ve got to say, I’m a little surprised as well.”

Tempest cocked an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yeah. I was expecting you to take that back the moment you realised that you’d just badmouthed the king’s brother.” Pharynx gave his underlings a pointed look and turned back to Tempest with a grin. “But it looks like you’ve got some shell, too. Didn’t think I’d see that in a pony.”

Twilight felt lightheaded. She kept switching her attention back and forth between Tempest’s and Pharynx’s faces, silently praying for the steely glints in their eyes to peter out, but to no avail. She could practically see the bolt of lightning crackling between them.

Bad. Very bad!

The corners of Tempest’s mouth curled up just a little. “You sound like you have more to say. Go on, let it out.”

Twilight glanced around in search of backup, but Shining Armour had conveniently vanished, and she couldn’t decide whether to feel miffed or impressed that he’d chosen that specific moment to take Flurry Heart around for a stroll.

Then again, he’d probably anticipated the coming explosion and done the smart thing by taking her niece far, far away from ground zero…

She also regretted having given Spike a break only fifteen minutes ago. He was probably showing Grubber around the place and chatting up a storm with him about one comic or another, which was really unfortunate when she could’ve used him to send a quick message to Princess Celestia for help if things really got out of hoof.

A scraping noise drew her attention back to Tempest, and she felt more butterflies in her belly when she saw Thorax struggling to hold Pharynx in place with a foreleg hooked around his chest. Pharynx barely noticed the additional weight, and he dragged Thorax along the ground like an outmatched dog-owner as he marched closer to Tempest, until they were practically muzzle to muzzle.

His eyes flicked up – at least, Twilight thought they did; it was a little hard to tell with their eyes – to Tempest’s stub of a horn for a fraction of a second before he locked eyes with her once more. He then smirked and said, “I guess I could say more, but what’s your point?”

Several members of the Royal Guard gasped. So did Twilight.

Oh dear.

Tempest’s right eye twitched, but she otherwise remained stock still as she scowled at Pharynx, as if seeing him in a new light.

Twilight edged a little closer. “Tempest?”

All she got was a sidelong glance and a curt “Yes, boss?”

“I’m sure Pharynx didn’t mean it that way.”

Pharynx’s smirk widened. “Don’t worry, princess. She’s a sharp one; she knows exactly what I meant.”

Tempest’s jaw stiffened.

“Pharynx!” Thorax snapped.

“What?” He turned to look at his scandalised brother, then sniggered. “Was that too blunt?”

A thick vein pulsed on Tempest’s neck. She opened her mouth, no doubt to deliver some scathing remark that would escalate tensions until it devolved into an unsalvageable catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions.

But not on Twilight’s watch!

She feigned a cough, which unfortunately came out more as a squeak, but it still sufficed to belay Tempest’s volley of incendiary words whilst Twilight stepped forward to reassert some semblance of control on the conversation.

“I think we can all agree that there are differences in the way ponies and changelings do things, and that one may not necessarily be better than the other,” she said evenly, using a little magic to project her voice so that everyone could hear. A quick sweep of her gaze to make sure that they all were paying attention, and she finished it off with a smile. “We’re all here to learn from each other, anyway, so there’s really no need to get too competitive. It reminds me of this lesson that I learnt from my friends Applejack and Rainb—”

“Great idea!” Pharynx cried.

“Huh?” Twilight blinked and stared at him. “What?”

“Pharynx…” Thorax tugged on his brother’s tail with a hoof and groaned with exasperation and petulance in equal parts. “Come on, don’t be like this. Oh, I knew I should’ve insisted that you attend the last hug session before we left! You’re always a little cranky when—”

“Relax, little bro.” Pharynx yanked his tail away and patted Thorax on the forehead. “You just let your big brother defend the Hive’s honour and go read a book or something.”

“I’m a foot taller than you…” Thorax mumbled.

Pharynx ignored him and gave Twilight a toothy grin. “I think it’s a great idea. Since we’re here to learn fighting techniques from each other, and there’s no better way to learn than to do it…”

Twilight raised a hoof. “Now, wait a minute. That’s not what I—”

“I agree,” said Tempest. She no longer had that vein popping out on her neck, but Twilight got the distinct impression that her blood was still simmering beneath her coat—it was hard to tell with her colour. A grim smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she added to Twilight, “I would very much like to see how their ‘soldiers’ hold up against our own.”

“Oh, so you’re not worried at all?” Pharynx inclined his head towards the Royal Guards and chuckled. “We’ve already beaten them twice. You sure you want to make that three?”

“No!” Twilight stomped a hoof and leapt forward to interpose with her wings. “No fighting between our soldiers!”

She then froze upon realising that she’d drawn all attention to herself once more. Tempest and Pharynx looked a little taken aback, and judging from the way some of their subordinates had their ears laid back flat, she might’ve used a teensy bit of the Royal Canterlot Voice by accident.

“Sorry!” Twilight giggled nervously and fluttered her wings to shake off the jitters. She then cleared her throat and beamed stiffly at everyone. “Princess Celestia always said that it’s poor practice for leaders to criticise one another in front of their subordinates. They also shouldn’t use them to settle personal issues. It’s not good for morale and sets a bad example. We can do better than that, can’t we?”

Pharynx frowned at her for a couple of seconds.

“Listen to her,” Thorax pleaded. “Remember, we’re here to become better friends!”

Eventually, Tempest broke the silence. “Fine, I see her point. We shouldn’t make them fight for us like that.”

Pharynx met her eyes, and his frown melted away a second later. “You know what? You read my mind!”

Phew. Close one… Twilight’s facial muscles almost hurt with relief when she allowed them to relax. “I’m glad that we're all—”

“You. Me. In the ring. Now,” growled Tempest.

Pharynx nodded. “Rules?”

“Anything goes, and we keep going until someone says uncle.”

“Anything? You sure about that?” Pharynx sniggered. “You’ve never actually fought a changeling before, have you?”

Tempest shrugged. “I’ve faced celestial bears and survived. I think I can handle a colourful short stack like you.”

Pharynx simply grinned and licked his fangs in response.

Twilight felt an eye twitch. Several strands of her hair sprang out of line and curled into a frazzled mess as she sputtered, “What? But, but I—”

“Clear the field! Move your flanks to the perimeter and get comfortable!” Tempest bellowed as she spun around to face her troops and swept a foreleg out in a wide arc. She then trotted into the centre of the training yard and spared a glance at Pharynx before adding, “Come to think of it, somepony go get a paramedic on standby. Our guest will need one very soon.”

Meanwhile, Pharynx had dismissed his soldiers to the edges of the training yard with a series of sharp clicks and chirps, sounding very much like an oversized grasshopper to Twilight’s ears. Not that she would ever voice that opinion. He then switched back to Equine and hollered, “All right, watch and learn, grubs! This is how warriors do business!”

When a few buzzing cheers rose up amidst the murmurs from the company of changelings, Pharynx snorted and turned his back to them. Although apparently not the kind of support he had been hoping for, he still marched forward to face Tempest in the middle of the training yard with plenty of confidence in his firm steps.

They stopped with roughly ten metres of space between them.

Tempest rolled her shoulders and hopped lightly in place, rapidly shifting her weight from one leg to another as she tested the balance and flexibility of her armour. When one of the guards approached her and offered his spear, she waved him off without a word.

Pharynx simply cricked his joints and waited.

Twilight shared a helpless look with Thorax. “You got any ideas?”

“No, not unless you want to physically separate them,” he said with a shake of his head. “What about the other princesses?”

Twilight spared a glance back up the platform, hoping to find her big brother back in place.

No such luck.

Come to think of it, where is Cadance?

She couldn’t remember anything in the schedule that required her personal attention, so where was she?

Twilight hadn’t really asked if Cadance still harboured any ill will towards changelings since Thorax had befriended them, but maybe she’d made an exception for the one changeling who’d taken after Queen Chrysalis when it came to his opinions on pony customs… Heck, the same could probably be said about the pony who’d endangered her child and handed their capital on a silver platter to a crazed warlord.

Twilight briefly considered teleporting to summon Princess Celestia or Luna, but she then reminded herself that they were scheduled to meet with the dignitaries from Zebrica, Canida and Thestralia for tea. Interrupting them to settle a spat between Equestria’s and the Hive’s top military personnel would surely reflect very poorly on everyone involved. And on top of that, calling them this early was practically an admission of defeat on Twilight’s part, and failure was not an option for the Princess of Friendship.

Inspiration would strike. She’d find a way to stop it before it really got out of hoof.

Right?

“You’d better clear out too, boss,” said Tempest as she and Pharynx began circling in the middle of the training yard. “Unless you want to play referee.”

Oh, who am I kidding? This joint military exercise is doomed. This whole parade is going up in smoke. They’re going to send me back to Magic Kindergarten! Again. Forever!

Twilight deflated as she joined Thorax by the sidelines.

A gentle breeze stirred up loose leaves on the ground, but it did little to cool her with the sun glaring down critically—very much like her mentor would once word got out of the impending disaster. Beads of sweat slid down her temples and soaked into her coat.

Tempest and Pharynx circled closer and closer like a pair of sharks, until the space between them had shrunken to barely more than a couple of metres at most.

That was when Pharynx bellowed and charged like a bull.

Tempest easily sidestepped and hooked a foreleg around his neck just as he went past her, and then swept one of her hind legs out to trip him whilst she spun around, gradually bending her legs and lowering her centre of gravity until she had pivoted a full three hundred and sixty degrees with him in a headlock. She then released Pharynx and sent him skidding and scraping across the dirt on his chin and barrel, leaving a shallow furrow in his wake.

“Easy as pie,” said Tempest as she straightened up.

Well, that was fast…

Some of the changeling soldiers gasped and murmured amongst themselves.

Growling, Pharynx flipped back onto all fours and advanced on Tempest once more. This time, he approached her like a brawler rather than a charging beast. He feigned once to the right, then to the left, before spinning around to buck her in the face.

Tempest evaded both of his hind hooves with practiced grace. When he followed up with a rapid series of kicks, swipes and punches, she somehow managed to block, deflect or otherwise redirect all of them with little more than a few grunts.

Twilight could see Pharynx’s face contort with growing frustration whilst he hammered away at her seemingly impenetrable guard. His attacks grew more powerful and reckless with each subsequent strike, until Tempest finally ducked under a particularly vicious buck and delivered a swift punch to his midriff.

Pharynx tottered on three legs and clutched his midriff with a pained grimace whilst Tempest repositioned herself abreast of him. She then delivered a heavy chop onto his back and practically pancaked him onto the ground with three limbs splayed out and one trapped beneath his belly. His eyes scrunched shut.

“Pharynx!” Thorax cried.

Tempest prowled around him like a cat and drawled, “Come on, didn’t we just agree that anything goes in this engagement? Where’s the fancy changeling powers I’ve heard so much about?”

Pharynx peeled one eye open to glare at her, then spat out a chipped tooth. “You asked for it.”

He disappeared in a flash, engulfed in a ball of green fire which expanded so rapidly that Tempest’s pupils shrank to pinpricks for a split second before she retreated with a backflip. When the flames faded away, a black-and-purple, hulking beast that resembled a cross between a hornet and a scorpion greeted her with a screeching roar. Each of its five purple eyes glowed with bloodlust, and each razor-sharp point on its claw-like pedipalps glinted as it leapt into the air.

Tempest uttered an expletive and darted away when Pharynx pounced on her like a praying mantis. His claws punched holes into the ground where she’d stood, and he continued raining a barrage of crushing blows as he advanced on her like some macabre harvesting machine. Tempest zigzagged like a rabbit whilst the guards alternated between shouts of worry and sighs of relief as each strike narrowly missed her.

She soon ran out of space as she approached the edge of the yard, but instead of turning to run along the side as everyone expected, Tempest stopped dead in her tracks and executed a particularly vigorous backflip that launched her in a clean arc right over Pharynx. He skidded to a halt and reared up to swipe at her, but his clumsy attempt only caught air.

Just before reaching the apex of her arc, Tempest stuck out a foreleg and slammed it into Pharynx’s neck with a meaty thud. That was enough to overbalance him, and he toppled over backwards with a screech whilst Tempest kept a vice-like grip around his neck.

He slammed onto his back with a crunch, and since he was top-heavy and had a fairly rounded back, the excess momentum pitched up his rear end so that he nearly completed a full roll. And Tempest, having landed on all fours next to his head, simply reached up, grabbed his hind-most pair of legs and heaved with a furious roar.

Twilight watched, slack-jawed as Pharynx was swung upward and then slammed down onto his back a second time.

Stars above, where does she keep all those muscles?

Silence reigned in the training yard for a couple of seconds whilst a ring of dust billowed out from the point of impact. A couple of Pharynx’s legs twitched feebly and curled inward as he lay on his back, very much resembling a dead spider.

Then, a cheer rose up from the Royal Guards as the changelings cried out in dismay. Twilight turned and saw Thorax covering his eyes with both forelegs.

Tempest dusted herself off as she sauntered over to Pharynx’s head and said, “The bigger they are…”

Pharynx vanished with a burst of green fire. A black, holey limb then reached out with blinding speed from the dissipating cloud of flames and swept Tempest’s legs out from under her.

She landed on her side with a startled grunt and barely had enough time to blink before Pharynx bit down on her tail, swung her up into the air and slammed her into the ground on the opposite side. Her armour produced a metallic crunch when she struck the ground in the belly-flop position, and her breath came out in a fit of wheezes and coughs.

“The harder they fall,” Pharynx finished with a grin as he loomed over his foe, having fully reverted to the old changeling form, complete with black chitin, dark-purple eyes, blood-red spinal crest and holes everywhere on his limbs.

“Whoo-hoo! Go Pharynx!” cried one of his subordinates.

Twilight stared at him. He wasn’t that much bigger than the average unreformed changeling – from what she could remember anyway – and yet he’d somehow thrown Tempest’s full, armoured weight around like a ragdoll. Wincing, she self-consciously rubbed her biceps and made a mental note to speak to Rainbow Dash about that.

Is everypony seriously capable of performing these feats of strength except me? I really need to work out more…

A collective outcry from the soldiers drew her attention back to the yard, and Twilight saw Tempest back on all fours, mouth set to a thin, grim line as she jabbed, swiped and kicked at Pharynx with merciless efficiency. He couldn’t block or evade every single one of them, and he lost ground at an alarming rate in his attempt to get some breathing room, apparently too off-balance to even leap into the air and fly away. Any retaliatory strike he made, Tempest easily blocked, deflected or otherwise allowed her armour to absorb whilst she kept up the barrage.

Then, Pharynx stumbled, and Tempest capitalised on it immediately by putting on a burst of speed and ramming her shoulder into him.

He flailed for a split second in a vain attempt to recover his balance before landing on his rump. He then scooted backwards to avoid getting drop-kicked in his nether region, and just when Tempest loomed over him with a hoof raised to strike, he transformed into a sky-blue unicorn filly.

“Wait!” squealed the little unicorn as she pouted at Tempest with enormous puppy-eyes.

Tempest punched her right in the muzzle and sent her flying.

Oh no! Twilight started forward, then halted just before crossing the line into the yard. She gingerly folded her wings and reminded herself that Tempest hadn’t actually struck a child. Not a real one, at any rate. Even a hardened mare like her wouldn’t ever dream of it. Right?

The filly crashed to the ground and ate dirt. Then, after taking a few seconds to haul herself back onto her hooves and massage her bleeding muzzle, she glared at Tempest and growled in a squeaky voice, “Wow. I’m amazed that didn’t even stop you for a second.”

Tempest shrugged. “I hate kids.”

Twilight blinked. Note to self: keep Flurry Heart far, far away from her.

Filly Pharynx blinked a couple of times. “Huh. Me too. Should’ve guessed.”

They both charged at one another.

But this time, Tempest didn’t have quite the same edge over her opponent, for whilst she still had him on the defensive, Filly Pharynx was nimbler than her. Instead of defending against her attacks, he ducked, wove, scurried and rolled around her like a pegasus foal on a sugar high.

He also managed to land hits here and there, mostly anywhere from her hocks to her pasterns. None of them looked particularly injurious, but they still had enough force to make her stagger and stumble whilst she fought to keep track of the filly running circles around her. He nearly managed to trip her once, but had to break away from the tipping blow in order to avoid a crackling bolt of energy from her broken horn.

Tempest growled irritably when Pharynx ducked under her guard, rolled right under her barrel and smacked her armoured flank on the other side with a mischievous grin. He then blew a raspberry at her and darted away before she could grab him, giggling like a brat all the while.

Before long, their dance had taken them more or less back to the middle of the yard. And by then, the company of changelings practically buzzed with enthusiastic cheering, matched by a chorus of booing from the Royal Guards.

“Hah! Missed!” cried Pharynx after dodging another crackling bolt. “What’s the matter, are you blind as well as pointless?”

Tempest gritted her teeth as a shower of sparks spurted from her horn. “No. You are.”

“Oh? What are you—hmm?” Pharynx looked down and frowned when the ground beneath his hooves glittered with blue and teal sparkles. He then chuckled and said, “Mare, you’re going to need something a lot brighter if you want to—”

A sparse cloud of sand and dirt erupted from the ground, right into his face.

“Aargh!” Pharynx stumbled as he fought to keep his balance and rub his eyes at the same time. Blinking profusely, he hissed in her general direction and muttered, “Stupid little—oww!can’t see a thing!”

“Open up your eyes.” Tempest slapped him away with a powerful backhoof to the cheek.

He crashed and tumbled to a raspy halt a few metres away. The changelings fell silent.

Tempest marched towards him, grimacing as residual sparks danced on the jagged stump of her horn.

Twilight winced in sympathy. Even for somepony who had gotten used to a harsh life, casting that much magic with a broken horn couldn’t be very pleasant at all. He really must’ve gotten under her coat to make her resort to that.

Pharynx, still in his filly form, groaned as he sat up on his haunches and shook his head. He had his back to Tempest, and showed no awareness of her approach as he rubbed his eyes with a hoof.

She raised her right hoof to strike but hesitated, perhaps giving him a moment to surrender, before bringing it down to pummel the back of his head.

Her attack never landed. Pharynx intercepted it with a foreleg, which he’d transformed into a giant crab’s pincer, and he did it all without even looking. Then, he turned his head a full one hundred and eighty degrees to give her a ghastly, clownish grin, with pinprick pupils and nearly every tooth on display.

Tempest’s recoiled with her ears laid back, but since Pharynx’s pincer had a vicelike grip on her foreleg, she ended up tugging him along when she leapt backwards. When she stopped, his excess momentum swung him up, over her head and onto her back, where he clung onto her armour like a giant cockroach. He then transformed back into his dark changeling form – save for the pincer, which he kept tightly clamped on her foreleg – and used her own hoof to repeatedly punch her in the muzzle.

“Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?” he cried gleefully with each hit.

“Somepony—nngh!—has to,” she growled in between punches.

Tempest whipped her head back and reverse-headbutted Pharynx. He reeled from the blow, and she continued bashing her head against his repeatedly until he lost his grip on her foreleg. She then bucked and tossed in an attempt to throw him off her back, but he stubbornly clung to her like barnacle despite being a little off balance.

Snorting, Tempest rolled onto her back to grind him into the dirt. But then green flames engulfed him just before they hit the ground, and he burst into a growing mass of flesh that coalesced into massive cords of muscle that Tempest practically bounced off of when they landed.

Realising the danger, Tempest tried to scramble back up and leap away. But the mass of slippery scales and muscle coiled around her body and held her in place, which left her sitting on her rump with her forelegs pinned to her sides and her hind legs sticking out from beneath. The coils slid along one another with dull rasps, tightening their embrace until her armour creaked in protest.

Pharynx’s serpentine head then reared up and flicked a forked tongue in her face. “Hey, you ponies like hugs, right?”

Tempest grunted and heaved, but aside from a little flexing her and there, Pharynx’s coils didn’t give way. In fact, they only tightened when she had to exhale, leaving her even less room to draw her next breath. She wheezed as she fought for air, and more metallic groans came from her armour as the seconds ticked by.

Twilight squinted. Something wasn’t quite right.

Not that having the life squeezed out of Tempest by a changeling turned python could be considered right under any circumstance, but something definitely was off about the scene playing out before her: Tempest Shadow had gone bright red in the face, which was saying a lot for somepony with her colour. On the other hoof, it was also not unexpected, considering how Pharynx was squeezing more and more blood into her head.

Then, Twilight finally realised what was wrong with the picture; Tempest’s pupils had dilated instead of constricting like one would expect.

“H-harder…” Tempest moaned as she screwed her eyes shut. Teal sparks fizzed and sputtered out of her horn.

Is she—oh… Oh my. Twilight nearly planted her face into the ground when her brain short-circuited. Then, she felt her face heating up with the fires of a thousand bad fanfics.

“That’s right. Go to sleep, little pony,” Pharynx hissed.

“You’ll… have to try… harder than that,” Tempest grunted in between gasps. “Night-night.”

“Wha—”

A brilliant, blue corona radiated from her horn and engulfed Pharynx shortly before blue lightning arced from her horn to his body. Pharynx stiffened at first, then shuddered and twitched as they traversed the full length of his coils with loud crackles and pops whilst Tempest sustained the raw discharge of energy with gritted teeth.

Twilight flattened her ears as the electrical hum grew in volume, and she clenched her jaw when it turned into a discordant buzz that made her teeth itch.

Then, Pharynx’s serpentine form snapped like an overstressed rubber band.

At least, that was the impression Twilight had of the phenomenon. One second he was there squeezing his prey, and in the next, she saw his dark changeling form catapulted away from Tempest, trailing tongues of green fire, smoke and the stink of ozone.

With a gasp of relief, Tempest lurched up onto all fours and tottered around for a couple of seconds before she finally recovered her balance. She then shook her head and panted heavily, gradually recovering her focus, until she finally fixed her baleful gaze upon Pharynx, who leered back and coughed up a puff of smoke.

Neither made a move to close the distance between them. Instead, they backed away to get more room to recover.

Good. They’re tired.

Twilight opened her mouth to declare it a well-earned draw, but paused when she heard a chorus of cheers rising from the Royal Guards and changeling warriors.

“Tem-pest, Tem-pest, Tem-pest!”

“Pha-rynx, Pha-rynx, Pha-rynx!”

Ponies stomped their hooves and changelings buzzed their wings as they chanted the name of their champion. They’d long since dispersed from their uniform lines and formed two broad semicircles on either side of the training yard. Bits exchanged hooves as their owners wagered on the outcome of the match. Twilight also had no idea how some of them had gotten their hooves on iced drinks and folding chairs, but there they were…

Tempest looked like she was about to yell at her subordinates for getting rowdy, but then she cantered in a horizontal arc towards her supporters with a grin on her muzzle and waved her fore hoof up and up in the air to whip them into a frenzy, like in one of those filthy boxing rings Twilight had seen in Klugetown. Their cheers swelled into a roar, and the ground shook with their thunderous applause.

Pharynx was doing pretty much the same on his side of the training yard. However, Twilight noticed that he looked physically healthier with each passing moment. His chitin had taken on a decidedly lustrous sheen, and he strutted around with enthusiastic vigour previously absent from his posturing.

Wait a minute. Changelings feed on positive emotions. So that means…

There should be a rule against this, right? There’s no way this can be a fair side effect for changelings participating in competitions with an audience nearby. Emotional support makes changelings stronger—literally! I need to bring this up to the Board of Equestria Games before the next season—”

A roar brought Twilight’s mind crashing back into reality.

Blinking, she saw Tempest and Pharynx engaged in another round of ferocious hoof-to-hoof combat.

Tempest, bruised and bleeding from several cuts on her legs and cheek, grinned like a wolf as she bucked, dodged, blocked and punched with reckless abandon. Each strike was stylish and needlessly energetic, meant to impress her audience as much as it hurt her opponent. Twilight had never seen her that delighted before, except maybe that one time during the Storm King’s invasion.

Pharynx, on the other hoof, burned through his newfound source of energy at a breakneck pace, swapping forms in rapid succession. Whether insect, mammal, reptile, bird or some gross amalgamation of all four, he bucked, clawed, jabbed and whipped her with every appendage imaginable as he scurried, tromped and flitted around, never sticking with one shape for long so that Tempest couldn’t effectively adjust her fighting technique.

“Twilight, what happened?”

Twilight yelped and spun around to find Spike and Grubber scampering towards her as quickly as their short legs allowed.

“My brother had a disagreement with Tempest,” said Thorax. He still looked like he would’ve liked nothing better than to cover his eyes and pretend everything was all right.

“Oh.” Spike blinked. “That’s not good.”

“Bug boy must’ve triggered her with a horn joke or something,” said Grubber. He then winced when Tempest elbow-dropped Pharynx in the belly and added, “It’s the fastest way to make her go Full Metal Bitch on you.”

Twilight rounded on the little hedgehog. “What?”

Grubber smirked. “It’s her street name. Used it when she fought for money in the pits.”

“How’re we going to stop them?” Spike asked.

“Do we have to?” Grubber produced a bucket of popcorn and stuffed a handful into his mouth. “I haven’t seen her this happy in forever. Want some?”

Twilight considered batting aside his offering, then thought better of it when Pharynx transformed into a manatee and belly-flopped right on top of Tempest with a blubbery smack. Sighing in resignation, she pinched a clump of popcorn with magic and popped it into her mouth.

“I’m going to need therapy after this,” she muttered whilst she chewed.

Spike groaned sympathetically. “So are they, I think. Ooh, that’s gotta hurt.”

Twilight stole a glance at the spires of Canterlot Palace in the distance and sighed again. “I give up. I think it’s time to let Celestia know—”

A metallic clang cut off the rest of her words, and she turned back to see Tempest tossing aside a metal folding chair with an indentation on its seat shaped exactly like a changeling’s head, complete with a curved, kettle-like spout where its horn had pierced it. Almost immediately after that, a somewhat woozy Pharynx then swung a mallet like a golf club and sent Tempest flying.

Where’d they even get those?

She got her answer a second later when a baseball bat sailed from the throng of guards and clattered onto the ground next to Tempest. The changelings responded by tossing Pharynx a volleyball covered in what looked spikes fashioned from changeling resin.

Okay, that’s it.

She didn’t care if she made an interspecies incident anymore. This had clearly progressed far beyond a reasonable duel, and the soldiers were also getting dragged into it. If she didn’t stop it immediately, it was sure to get everypony in big trouble once her fellow princesses got wind of it.

And then it’s off to Magic Kindergarten with all of us…

“Enough!” she cried.

Changelings and ponies alike froze at the sound of her voice, save for the two combatants in the middle of the training yard. Twilight took a moment to muster her courage, then marched forward with a shield spell charging up on her horn. If they would not listen, she’d just have to isolate them in their own bubbles until she could talk some sense into them.

“Hey, stop!”

Pharynx and Tempest didn’t acknowledge her. They had practically wrestled themselves into a tangled mess of limbs, growling curses at each other as they rolled on the ground. And the closer Twilight got, the queasier she felt when she saw that they were both covered in long, crisscrossing strands of green goo, most of which seemed to be oozing from Pharynx’s leg holes.

“Is this how changelings soil themselves, or are you just happy to see me?” asked Tempest when she peeled a foreleg away from the ground, leaving tufts of hair on the sticky smear.

Pharynx deflected her punch and twisted her foreleg. “No, it’s how we give naughty grubs a time-out. Or would you prefer a spanking?”

“Hah!” Tempest elbowed him in the muzzle to free her foreleg, then body-slammed him to the ground and pressed a hoof to his cheek. “Impress me and I might even let you try it!”

Wait, what are they talking about now? Twilight’s steps faltered, and she had to slow down to fan herself with a wing. Is… is it getting hot out here?

Pharynx snaked out a long, fleshy, blue tongue from his mouth and wrapped it around Tempest’s foreleg, slathering her fetlock with thick, glistening drool. When she recoiled with a disgusted snort, he reared up, caught her in a bear-like hug and heaved her over his head. She just barely managed to squirm and twist in order to avoid landing on her skull; her armour crunched into the ground on impact, after which she clapped both hooves into his temples when he loomed over her. She then took advantage of his disorientation by tackling him to the ground.

And so they wrestled on, further entangling and gumming themselves up.

By the time Twilight had had sidled close enough to precisely and reliably separate them with magic, she was treated to the rather undignified sight of Tempest caught in a chokehold, with her face squashed against Pharynx’s armpit.

Twilight sighed. “Okay, I didn’t want to do this, but everypony’s getting a time ou—”

Blue sparks flashed on Tempest’s nub of a horn, and Pharynx immediately released her with an uncharacteristically high-pitched yip. She fell back onto her haunches, then got yanked back into hugging range by the veritable web of elastic resin that had practically glued them together.

Tempest blinked a couple of times whilst Pharynx stared at her. She then raised an eyebrow, and her face slowly, ponderously twisted into a deliciously evil grin as she crawled closer to him, dribbling more blue sparks from her horn.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me. This is just perfect,” she purred.

“Get back. I’m warning you!” Wide-eyed, Pharynx scooted backwards on his rump and kicked at her. All in vain, since the sticky resin prevented him from getting very far.

Tempest lunged.

Twilight gasped as Pharynx’s agonised scream rang out through the training yard. No! How could she impale him—wait…

“Aaugh! No-no—stop! Get off me! Hah! Ha-ha! Grubbing pony—nooo-aah-hah-ha!” cried Pharynx as he flailed and flopped around like a landed fish.

He also punched and kicked his adversary, but between his furiously impotent laugher and the resin arresting any momentum he could bring to bear, his attacks merely bounced off her armour. Meanwhile, Tempest simply continued pressing her horn nub into his armpit, twisting and wiggling around like a boar snuffling through the ground in search of a meal whilst continuously discharging sparks.

“Coochy-coo, motherbugger.”

“Hah-ha-aargh! This isn’t—hah! No, I will not be—ha-ha-hah-herk!”

Twilight could only watch the display with her mouth hanging open. When she turned to look at Thorax, she found him stuck somewhere between cringing and exploding, covering his muzzle with a hoof whilst he trembled with barely suppressed mirth. At the same time, his wide eyes and flattened ears betrayed a significant degree of apprehension, probably at the wrath that Pharynx was going to visit upon anyone who dared to comment on this apparent flaw in his defences.

The rest of the stunned guards and changelings also looked torn between laughter and disbelief.

As if this day couldn’t get any weirder…

Twilight’s ears swivelled towards a loud buzz, right before something smashed into her chest and drove her breath out as a wheeze. The ground fled as the impact launched her into the air, and Spike’s cry of alarm rapidly dwindled to a faint murmur. On instinct, she flared her wings and flapped haphazardly, only to send the world into a dizzying spin.

Thick, warm and sweaty goo clung to her coat. She glimpsed parts of Tempest and Pharynx in rapid succession—a purple leg here, a bit of red fin there, pink hair everywhere. They didn’t even acknowledge the fact that they’d absorbed an innocent bystander into their sticky mass; they only had eyes for each other as they continued wrestling and butting heads in mid-air.

Colourful shapes whizzed by with blinding speed in her peripheral vision. Twilight could hear and almost feel Pharynx’s wings buzzing erratically as they corkscrewed into the sky, and she had to initiate several hasty teleports in order to avoid crashing muzzle-first into a wall or building.

Still, she could only do so much.

The world slowed to a crawl as they smashed through some wooden shutters, ripped past a thick curtain and then plonked rump-first onto a heavy coffee table, smack in the middle of Princess Celestia, Princess Luna and a group of dignitaries. Twilight’s eyes met her mentor’s for a split second, just long enough for them to widen with surprise as a slice of cake smacked into her muzzle, before their momentum carried her away and out the next window. The sticky resin brought the tablecloth and confectionaries along.

They then plummeted for what felt like a good ten seconds with the wind whistling in her ears before smashing their way through a roof and landing on a cushion of splinters, cardboard and powder. Muffins, doughnuts and scones rolled off into the shadows.

Twilight coughed and spat out a wad of cupcake as she peeled herself away from Tempest and Pharynx, blinking against the brilliant shaft of sunlight that pierced the roof. Clouds of dust wafted in the air, along with a mildly pungent scent that she couldn’t quite place.

“Well, I hope you two are happy, because we are so, so getting sent back to Magic Kindergarten,” she moaned. “Is this really how our best soldiers are supposed to behave?”

“S/he started it!” Tempest and Pharynx said in unison.

Snorting, Twilight then conjured a bit of light to get her bearings, and was greeted by stacks of crates all around her. Most were nailed shut, but a few had been pried open, and a couple of large barrels standing in the corner didn’t even have covers at all. She shook her head to clear away the dancing stars and frowned as she stared at the colourful rods, tubes and cones poking out of the crates and barrels. Some of those also lay squashed beneath the combined weight of their bodies, spilling their powdery contents all over the floor.

Her blood froze.

“Everypony, don’t move a muscle,” she whispered.

Naturally, Tempest and Pharynx chose that moment to butt heads and emit more blue sparks and green flames, which immediately gave birth to orange-yellow flares on every fuse and pinch of black powder they came into contact with.

“Of course,” Twilight deadpanned. She didn’t even see the point in trying anymore.

The warehouse exploded.