• Published 27th Aug 2012
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Canterlot Cantata - Ringcaat



What could have happened if key events in "A Canterlot Wedding" had gone slightly differen

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Movement 3: Crushing a Changeling

(Da capo.)

Interior: Wedding hall. Just before the dawn of Cadence and Shining Armor's wedding day.

Twilight grinned sheepishly at her brother, but he struck back at her with anger.

“You want to know why my eyes went all―?!” He thrust his head forward and rattled them. “Because ever since I started having to perform my protection spell, I've been getting terrible migraines. Cadence hasn't been casting spells on me; she's been using her magic... to heal me!” He pointed at his own head, grimacing. Twilight gasped―could it really all have been nothing but migraines?

“And she decided to replace her bridesmaids,” Shining Armor continued, “because she found out the only reason they wanted to be in the wedding was so they could meet Canterlot royalty! And if she hasn't been on her best behavior with her friends―” Here he stamped his forehoof and Twilight winced. “―it's because with me being so busy, she's had to make all the decisions about the wedding!!”

Realizing in a flush just how wrong she'd been, Twilight slipped automatically into obeisance. “I... I was just trying to―”

“She's completely stressed out because it's really important to her that our big day be perfect!” A double stomp this time, and Twilight's brother shoved his face into hers. “Something that obviously wasn't important...to you.”

Suddenly, it was Shining Armor's turn to wince. Hopeful for a moment that she might yet be able to help, Twilight reached out, but her brother recovered his wits and rebuffed her. “Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and comfort my bride.” He walked past Twilight toward the door. “And you can forget about being my best mare!” he shot back. “In fact, if I were you? I wouldn't show up to the wedding at all.”

With that, Shining Armor left, leaving Twilight hunched in remorse. Applejack broke the stunned silence: “Come on, y'all. Let's go check on the princess.”

Twilight stood with urgency, but her friends hustled past her wearing hostile expressions. Pinkie even had the nerve to bounce, as if rubbing in the fact that this wedding would be a happy occasion no what matter what Twilight might do or think. Even Spike ran after with the ringbearer's pillow, probably conflicted but caring more at that moment about Cadence's feelings than Twilight's, which were careening between astonishment and shame.

Princess Celestia was the last to leave. She interrupted Twilight's half-formed plea with the tersest words Twilight had ever heard her speak: “You have a lot to think about.” Twilight gaped in horror as the princess quit the hall with her guards, leaving her completely alone.

The need to reflect washed over Twilight, as it had in troubled times throughout her life. A lot to think about? That was an understatement. “Maybe I was being overprotective,” she lamented, struggling to make sense of her horrible situation as she collapsed on the stairs. “I could have gained a sister! But instead...I just lost a brother.”

The true darkness of what had happened enveloped Twilight as she realized just what this meant. It wasn't just a wedding derailed or her reputation stained. It was a literally lifelong relationship she'd ruined. Twilight sprawled over the stairs, crying, and sang:

He was my Big Brother Best Friend...Forever!
And now we'll never do anything...together.

She pictured herself as a filly, dismayed and alone without her only sibling. But her wallowing was broken by hoofsteps.

Not alone after all. Twilight felt a consoling hoof against her mane and looked up tearfully to see...

Cadence's smiling face.

The strength it would take for someone innocent to forgive a barrage of accusations like what Twilight had leveled... so soon... that was unthinkable. But Cadence was a princess, after all. And princesses were strong!

Twilight welled over with emotion. “I'm sorry!” she cried.

Cadence's face was benevolent, her amethyst eyes, above all... accepting. “It's all right, Twilight,” she said softly. “I forgive you.”

And Twilight knew it was true. There was hope in the darkest pits, and Cadence was a true princess.

*

MOVEMENT 3: Crushing a Changeling

Animando.

Twilight gazed into the smiling face of Princess Mi Amore―no. Princess Cadence. She closed her eyes and tears streaked down her cheeks, plopping onto the red carpet. “But... but I was so unfair to you just now! I... I did what I keep telling myself not to do, and... jumped to all kinds of conclusions!”

“Whereas I... haven't been myself lately,” replied Cadence. Her voice was soft and understanding and almost... almost the Cadence Twilight remembered from her fillyhood. “I know you only meant the best for your brother. Once I had a few moments to calm down, I realized... well, that I hadn't really given you any reason to trust me. Had I?”

Twilight opened her eyes. Cadence was like an angel sent to purge her of wickedness. She felt herself stirring with hope. “Well... no, not really. But that doesn't excuse what I did. I'm so sorry, Cadence!”

Again the hoof stroked her mane, and Twilight found herself flashing back to the day so long ago when she'd skinned her cannon, and Cadence had bandaged and consoled her. The old Cadence was still there after all, just buried under wedding stress―how could she have doubted it?

“Twilight... I don't blame you for being cruel. I mean, I was unkind to your friends. I realize that now. And I was unkind to you, wasn't I? I didn't greet you the way I should have. What was that chant, again? Sunshine, sunshine, something or other?”

Twilight felt like sunshine was flooding back into her. “Ladybugs awake,” she said, still looking up into those magical eyes. “Clap your hooves... and do a little shake!”

“Yes, of course!” echoed Cadence, her voice full of joy. “Ladybugs awake! Oh, Twilight. It's been so long... at first I didn't even recognize you. Will you forgive me?”

Twilight's forelegs were already clutching the princess's neck. “I forgive you,” she promised. There were more tears to follow.

\\ o/` \\

The wedding went off without a hitch. It was a slightly somber affair, true. DJ P0N-3 didn't get to spin. The newlyweds took the dance floor briefly to an air for piano and violin, and Twilight thought the moment was breathtaking. But then they retired to a private suite while the night was still young. Pinkie Pie led those guests she could corral in a series of foal's board games, and Applejack cut the cake, but for the most part, things centered on Canterlot elites like Hoity-Toity and Fancypants whether they liked it or not, just as Canterlot events always did. Twilight had no trouble remembering why she'd never enjoyed parties as a filly.

Luna joined the party as evening fell, but she hadn't really missed anything. Rarity and Applejack's sisters, along with their friend Scootaloo, had come out with Rarity's parents to serve as flower fillies, and they found childish ways of entertaining themselves. The happy couple emerged some hours later and went straight for their honeymoon carriage, loitering just long enough for Cadence to throw the bridal bouquet, which was claimed by Rarity. Otherwise, Twilight spent the reception keeping largely to herself. Her parents were glad to see her, of course, but even they couldn't extract her true feelings.

“You don't seem as happy as I'd expect,” observed her mother. “Is something wrong?”

Twilight smiled ruefully. “I'm not being a very good best mare, huh?” She sighed, wondering how to put it. “I guess I just had a little trouble accepting that Cadence is Mi Amore Cadenza now.”

“Ohhh. Did you have a tiff with her, Twilight?”

Twilight shrugged. “Something like that. But it's okay now.”

Her father spoke up. “You know, I think she's going to make your brother very happy. Which is something he's needed for a long time.”

“Is it?” Twilight was struck with extra guilt as she recalled how long it had been since she'd seen her brother before the previous afternoon―almost two years. She hadn't even made time to visit on her birthday, when she'd been in Canterlot. True, it had been an unplanned visit and a brief one, but she at least could have checked his schedule. And when she'd visited town only weeks ago for the National Dessert Competition, he hadn't even crossed her mind.

Twilight's father was nuzzling her. “You know Shiny takes his work very seriously. Any time he makes a mistake, even a small one, he imagines how it might have been worse. He beats himself up over it.”

“He needs a kind voice around,” contributed Twilight's mother.

“Maybe I should visit more often,” said Twilight, a little surprised. She wondered whether her mother had witnessed the side of Cadence she'd seen yesterday. Probably not―that had just been an aberration due to stress, hadn't it?

“Sweetie, that'd be wonderful,” said Twilight's mother, giving her a reacharound hug.

She knew it was something she'd have to do. Wonderful, though? That might be a stretch.

\\ o/` \\

Twilight woke up from confused dreams. It didn't help that she was still in the small guest cottage she'd been assigned, awaiting the morning train home. The stone walls and low ceiling disoriented her, even though her bedroom at home―her first home, not her arboreal Ponyville home―was much the same. How quickly one readjusts, Twilight reflected. After the initial shock, how easily the creature of habit trades one norm for another.

One enduring question remained from her dream, so she asked it of the only other creature present. “Spike.”

“Mmmp?” The dragon turned all the way over in his bed, an arm outflung. When Spike was happy, he slept like the baby he technically was, but in turbulent times he could sleep more noisily than anyone else Twilight knew.

“Spike. I know you're already five-sixths awake, so you can't complain if I wake you up the rest of the way.”

“Mmm?” Now he rolled onto his side and muttered something about fractions.

Twilight smiled wickedly. “You know, Spike, Rarity caught the bouquet at the wedding last night. You know what that means?”

Spike gasped suddenly. He lay silent on his back, muscles tensed, for some time before slowly bringing his arm up to his mouth. Deliberately and solemnly he began to suck his thumb. “Rari... Rari...”

Twilight couldn't take it anymore. “Spike, wake up!” She peeled back his blanket magically.

“Whuhuaa??” He shook and sat up. “What happened? Oh.” The unfamiliar cottage seemed to sober him just as it had Twilight. “It was a dream. What―what is it, Twilight?”

She was seriously tempted to ask what he'd been dreaming, but felt bad enough about waking him up. “Spike... with Shining Armor away on honeymoon, what's going to happen to the shield around the city? Won't it disappear?”

Spike lay thinking for a while, his face troubled and his blanket at his feet. Eventually he shrugged.

“But what about the threat against Canterlot?” Twilight persisted. “Isn't it still something to worry about?”

“I dunno, Twilight. Maybe the threat was just against the wedding, and now that the wedding's done, it's not a problem anymore.”

Huh. “That's possible... but it doesn't seem to fit. If the threat was just against my brother's wedding, why didn't he explain it that way?”

“No idea.” Spike pulled up his blanket and settled back, apparently not too disturbed by his dream to risk returning to it.

“Well, I'm going to ask Princess Celestia about it in the morning,” Twilight decided. “And if she needs my help, I may just offer to stick around.”

“Here in Canterlot?”

“That's right. If I do, you can stay with me or go home with the others. I wouldn't want to bore you.”

“Aw, Twilight. You don't bore me! I'll go where you go. Besides, I wouldn't mind a few more days in Canterlot. I've got some catching up to do!”

Twilight thought she saw a sliver of dragon tongue. “Would that catching up involve donuts, by any chance?”

Spike smiled sheepishly and rolled over, shutting his eyes. “Well, someone's gotta keep Donut Joe company.”

He wasn't the only one who appreciated company. “Good night, Number One Assistant. We'll see what Celestia says.”

She was answered only with a snore.

\\ o/` \\

It turned out that Twilight had stumbled onto a very good question. And Celestia's answer was less than encouraging.

“Yes, the threat persists. And yes, it's risky to let Shining Armor leave the city. But it's his honeymoon, Twilight. His honeymoon! You only get one. He and Princess Cadence begged for the time off, and... they were so earnest that I couldn't deny it.” The princess smiled.

“They're off to Sorraia, aren't they?” Sorraia was a small, humid region in western Equestria with a rich history. It was a sensible, if distant place for a princess and her groom to take their honeymoon.

“That's right. They wanted a week, but four days was all Luna and I were willing to spare. While Shining Armor is away, we will have to fortify his shield personally.”

This startled Twilight. “You're able to do that?”

“It isn't easy to work with the product of another's magic, but yes, we can do it.” Celestia looked a little mournful as she smiled and met Twilight's eyes. “Neither Luna nor myself will be getting much sleep over the next four days, I expect.”

“But―but your royal duties!”

“It's all right, Twilight. We've made sacrifices for our subjects before. The sun and moon will continue to rise and set, and all other business we can't delegate can easily wait four days. I care about the happiness of my cousin and the captain of my guard.”

Twilight nodded. “That's very noble of you, Princess. Would... would you like me and Spike to stick around? Just in case you need some help?”

Celestia's smile seemed involuntary and genuine. “Twilight! That would be delightful!”

Twilight chuckled uneasily. She'd been hoping to return to her library. Then again, it had gotten by completely untended for almost three years before she arrived in Ponyville, with only minor discrepancies between the inventory and ledger. It could handle a four day respite.

Knowing her student, Celestia gave her work as reminiscent of the library as possible. Twilight was assigned a nice little office full of filtered correspondence to the palace and asked to send it to the appropriate department. Scrolls and letters to the princesses were to be set aside. Twilight was given an audience with either Celestia or Luna every few hours during which she could ask their council on whether or how to respond.

She found that while the princesses were cordial enough during these times, they were invariably distracted and seldom made eye contact. Whereas Shining Armor had been able to maintain his dome by reinforcing it every hour or so, the princesses could only do so through nearly constant effort. When one was maintaining the shield, conducting lookout and speaking with Twilight at the same time, the other was usually off who-knew-where frantically conducting essential business. Twilight got the impression that sleep was very low on the priority list.

On the third day, Twilight was reassigned. Celestia's steward led her to the palace's upper spellcasting chamber, where she joined a team of mages from the Canterlot Academy in helping the princesses directly uphold the shield's integrity.

“I'm sorry to ask this of you,” said Princess Celestia, speaking to Twilight privately in a side room. “But the threat is greater now, and I'm simply under so much strain.” She looked it, too. “You're a very adaptable mage―even without formal training, I suspect you'll do better than many of the academics. And the spell was cast by your brother, after all. It should be relatively easy for you to grasp it on a gut level.”

Celestia wasn't speaking with her normal eloquence, and Twilight could see she had a headache. Even though she was worried for her own safety, Twilight couldn't say no. “If I can make things easier for you, Princess, I'll be glad to help. But please―can you tell me what's threatening the city?”

Celestia nodded as she looked far away, through walls. “An army, gathered in the mountains to the northeast.”

“An army? From where?”

“From the Tricky Lands. A host of changelings. Led by one of their queens.”

Twilight flipped through her mental index. Changelings were dangerous, yes, from what she recalled reading―especially the queens. But their greatest skill was impersonation. “Changelings? Could they... could they have spies in the city?”

“It is possible. But whenever we lift the spell at Canterlot's points of entry, we check everyone who enters for disguises. If there are changelings in the city, they must have been here before I had Shining Armor raise the shield, and that was seven weeks ago. So I suspect Canterlot is still free of changelings... for now.”

Twilight's mind started tumbling, but with no immediate fruits, she excused herself to learn the ropes. It turned out that Celestia was right―once she got the hang of strengthening the shield spell, she was good at it. It also turned out to be excruciatingly boring. The other mages accepted her once they saw she was capable, but they showed no signs of friendliness―not that there was much opportunity for chatting. Instead, Twilight spent hours at a time churning out reinforcement magic while staring out a window as she watched the shield shift gradually from her brother's pink to an oozing miasma of color. She could identify Luna's blue, Celestia's yellow, and her own magenta, along with streaks and pools of the magic from the unicorns working alongside her. It would have been hypnotic, if the labor hadn't been such a strain on her mind.

\\ o/` \\

Day four. Twilight's head was starting to ache. She could only imagine what Celestia was going through, but it wasn't terribly hard, given the way every word out of the princess's mouth sounded pained and almost every gesture of her head led to a wince and closed eyes. Luna wasn't much better―she'd begun humming quiet, half-recognizable tunes intermittently, and seemed to have trouble focusing. Twilight, however, was starting to feel the relief that comes at the end of a large assignment. Shining Armor and Mi Amore Cadenza were due back the following morning. Just sixteen hours left to go!

She returned from a brief consultation with the steward and reoriented herself toward the window. The dome seemed faint in places but reassuringly strong in others. There were eight unicorns in the room, all concentrating on keeping the spell up, and four more in reserve. Things were going to be all right again, and Twilight knew she could take pride for the rest of her life in assisting the princesses in their time of need. At least, that was what she kept telling herself to keep from collapsing with fatigue.

There were a surprising number of shifting black spots on the upper part of the dome, near the deep green part. Whose magic was black and shifting? Twilight glanced between her colleagues to figure out who was responsible for―

“Attack! We're being attacked!” yelled a diminutive stallion who'd proven overly nervous in the past.

“Oh cripes, cripes, you're right!” echoed a cream-colored mare. “Those blots on the upper dome, straight ahead!”

“Is it changelings?”

“It's changelings. It's the horde!!”

The exclamations just got more confusing from there. Twilight redoubled her efforts upon the part of the dome where the invaders were massing. Someone was sent to fetch Celestia, and someone else went to fetch Luna, assuming she was awake. A bunch of staffers Twilight didn't even remember seeing before flooded through the room in a panic. She and the academics had nothing better than to keep strengthening the dome, so they kept at it with extra focus.

After a while, the palace steward came by and instructed half the mages to relocate to a solarium with a full view of the dome so that they could focus on a second area being attacked on the opposite side. Twilight was one of these. She shuffled through the palace, following one pony after another, catching glimpses of a very groggy-looking Luna and, at one point, Spike, yelling her name. She could only spare a few seconds to assure him that she was where she needed to be and that the princesses were on the job.

She knew they could repel the attack. They'd made sure their intelligence on the size of the horde was current. And they wouldn't have let things get to the point where a full-out attack would succeed, would they? If necessary,they would have called in mages from the guilds or even off the streets, wouldn't they? Yet even so, the army was mobilized and stationed on the streets of Canterlot. Twilight could see them from the solarium. She could see the citizens, quaking and dashing and hiding in their homes, or raking the soldiers for answers she expected wouldn't satisfy them.

Bolts of magic appeared from outside the luminescent sphere. The princesses were launching a preemptive attack! Down skittered one changeable black blob after another. Whole groups of them leapt from their places on the dome in an attempt to smother Celestia and Luna, and for a moment it looked like they might succeed. The mages exchanged tense suggestions for what they might do; drop the shield and start fortifying the princesses the moment they had a clear shot? I know how to focus on them without line of sight, said someone. Never mind that, said someone else―we can drop the changelings where they stand.

But it wasn't necessary. The shield persevered. The changelings were hurled upward by smaller domes of yellow and blue light and crashed to the ground. Twilight could see them scattering, those that survived, and could see Celestia's glowing form, back arched, in the distance. The horde was driven off. Her judgment in the alicorns had been sound, if barely.

Ten minutes later, a swaying Princess Celestia rejoined them in the Solarium. She gave them a quick update: “We have scattered the changelings. They are regrouping and may be preparing for another attack come morning. I need to... I need to set the sun. I'm late. I need to set the sun and take a nap. Be vigilant.”

She then called Twilight out to the balcony with her. Princess Celestia leaned on her favorite student as she channeled her celestial magic and lowered the sun from the sky. It was amazing; Twilight could feel the force of warmth and love the princess used to perform her duty seeping into her, flank to flank. She did her best to bolster her mentor, who seemed liable to collapse at any moment.

Then the sun was gone and the moon was in sight. Celestia walked unsteadily into one of her private rooms and went straight for the bed, leaping and folding herself in with a single motion. By the time Twilight tucked her in, she was already slumbering.

Twilight returned to the Solarium until she was relieved at midnight. Her mind was a morass of recent feelings yet to be shaped into memories.

\\ o/` \\

Thank goodness for the restorative powers of sleep. And thank goodness for Shining Armor, who returned that morning, true to his schedule. He immediately gave the shield an infusion of pink, and was then led to the inner sanctum, where he met with Celestia and Luna. Twilight tried to grab a few minutes with him, but she wasn't able. She was already back on duty in the upper spellcasting chamber. Her impression of the newlyweds was that Cadence seemed refreshed and in high spirits, as one would expect after a honeymoon, but Shining Armor just seemed drained.

Twilight felt likewise. She was immensely relieved when, an hour later, the palace steward announced to the room of mages that their services had been immensely appreciated and would no longer be required. Shining Armor, the original caster of the spell, was back on the job.

Twilight mumbled some goodbyes to the group of unicorns she'd met two days before, though they hadn't had the chance to form many bonds. She stumbled out of the palace and to her guest cottage, where she found Spike already asleep. She joined him gladly.

\\ o/` \\

This time it was Spike who roused Twilight, and for better reason. “Wake up! Please wake up!”

She was already getting used to the low stone ceiling, and to panic. “What―what is it?”

“Changelings!!” Spike wailed. “Everywhere!”

“What? But we beat them!” protested Twilight. She peered out the window and saw that he wasn't mistaken. They were rampaging up and down the street, chasing ponies and invading homes. Hoof fights were plentiful, but more plentiful were groups of changelings standing over prone ponies, triumphantly sucking their emotional sustenance from them. The air was filled with shouting and crying.

It was unjust. Twilight had worked harder than ever in her life, barring a final exam or two. The princesses had exhausted themselves, too. How could the changelings still have ended up victorious, after―

The princesses had exhausted themselves.

It had been a trick, Twilight realized. Shining Armor had gone away and the changelings had attacked on the last day of his absence, the worst possible time from the princesses' point of view. Then... then, with Celestia and Luna ailing and slumbering, the spies already inside the city had struck. It all made sense.

But... but they weren't the only princesses in Canterlot, thank goodness. Was Cadence fighting back? Why wasn't she doing anything? She'd looked downright hale, when Twilight had seen her.

Oh. OH! Oh NO!

“Twilight?” asked Spike timidly, tugging on her shoulder. She looked up to see a squad of ferocious changelings bearing down on them. Twilight grabbed Spike, plopped him onto her back, and ran.

She had spells that could deal with these creatures, but not all of them at once. And Twilight didn't intend to get caught in the open. She sprinted down the street, eying the knots of swift black limbs and sharp teeth in hopes of finding a clear route. Her legs did their own thinking while Twilight reviewed her arsenal. Force field. No, it would keep her from attacking outward. Power blasts. Tiring, and only good for a few attackers at a time. Levitation attacks. Might work, if she had enough uniform objects, but not for long. Hair growth. Huh? Why would she even think that? Teleportation. Yes! That was her best bet.

“Twilight! That way!”

Twilight let Spike do her thinking now, veering to the right when he tugged her right ear. It was further from the palace, and Twilight didn't know whether that was good or bad. She heard a shrieking peal approaching from behind and decided to teleport. A row of shops sat ahead, too many for changelings to guess between. The desire to relocate swelled and burst in the way Twilight now found familiar, and she was abruptly surrounded by canvas. Pink canvas. And tables laid with glass and crystal. Prisms hanging from the ceiling. Frames and helices and balls of glass. Twilight hadn't known the pink tent she'd selected was a glass shop, but she wasn't surprised―Canterlot was famous for that particular industry.

“Whoa,” said Spike.

“It's okay,” Twilight told him. For now. So long as the proprietor didn't give them away and the changelings didn't decide to search every single tent in the row. As for the proprietor, she was out of sight, but Twilight saw a shadow just past a shelf. Mentally composing a plea for clemency, she stepped around the corner and found herself facing―

“Pinkie Pie?!”

She and Spike had said it at the same moment. Pinkie, who was wearing a gypsy turban marked with waves and stars, got up from her seat and gaped at Twilight over the table in amazement. But she didn't say a word.

“Pinkie? Are you...” Twilight waved a hoof in front of her friend. “Are you okay?”

In reply, Pinkie only leaned forward in exasperation and waved her forelegs. She pointed repeatedly at her mouth.

“Whoa,” said Spike. “You can't talk?”

Emphatic nodding.

Twilight's eyes grew wide. “I have to say, I never thought I'd see the day a magical spell could stop Pinkie Pie from talking! I'm impressed!” She was met with an impatient scowl. “...Im...im...pressed with the urgency of the situation!” she amended. “Um... let's see if I have anything that can help!”

Pinkie stood behind the cloth-draped counter looking skittish and nervous. At one point she almost seemed ready to spring over and pounce Twilight, but she twitched back when Twilight glared. “Calm down, Pinkie! All right... I know a fair number of restoration spells, but I don't know what's been done to you. I'll start with a general diagnostic. Hold still.”

But Pinkie did anything but hold still, waving her forelegs wildly and even jumping onto the table. Spike jerked back with a gasp, but Twilight cast her spell... and the result was nothing like what she expected.

“CHANGELING!” she yelled, letting loose with a blast of power and leaping behind a display rack. Spike cried out in fear.

Twilight cringed, awaiting a counterattack, but it turned out there was no duel to fight. Her preemptive beam had knocked the changeling out. It lay sprawled across the table, surrounded by toppled mobiles and half-slagged glass. Only now did Twilight think to ask herself what Pinkie Pie would have been doing keeping shop as a Canterlot merchant. This changeling had probably taken advantage of a recently vacated tent, drawn to it perhaps because it was pink, the same color as its victim...

“Pinkie Pie! The real Pinkie Pie! She must be here, in Canterlot!”

“Uggh,” said Spike, standing up and rubbing his head. “What happened?”

“That Pinkie was a fake Pinkie!”

“Really?” The dragon blinked twice. “Hah! I knew she was too quiet!” he declared with a snap of his fingers.

“But the changeling must have seen her in order to copy her! She must be nearby.”

“Can we find her?” asked Spike, climbing back on board.

Twilight crept toward the front flap of the tent, cautiously peeking out. There were changelings wreaking havoc here, albeit fewer than on the major streets. “I don't have a spell for locating particular ponies. I don't suppose you can taste her, can you?”

Spike extended his supple tongue and tasted the air with increasing fervor. His grip on Twilight tensed until he burst out suddenly with a yell: “Piinnnkie Piiiie!!”

Instantly, those changelings marauding nearby came scuttling toward them, screeching. “SPIKE!” cried Twilight. “What are you thinking?!” She dashed along the boulevard just long enough to spot a new safe haven, and teleported.

Souvenir shop. Chittering all around. Shivering ponies clinging to each other on the floor. Twilight sent a single blast into the approaching changelings, saw that it was insufficient, and teleported again.

Decorative archway. On top of it. Were they high enough? No, changelings had wings, darn it. Teleport again.

“Hi, Twilight!” She heard the voice just before the teleport engulfed her and she was in a geological museum. Changelings roosting on all the hanging exhibits. Teleport!

“Hi, Spike! Did you call for me? Because―”

How had Pinkie popped up just half a second before the spell took effect? Nut and seed store. Changelings at the windows, merchandise overturned. Teleport!

“―with so many mes running around, I can't tell whether―”

Notary's office. Rattling doors and windows. Teleport!

“―you're talking to me, or to some other me, since we haven't had time to work out―”

“Twi, stop teleporting!” shrieked Spike. They were in a bank, and the vault door―was that the vault door?―was opening―

“―nicknames for everyone!” concluded Pinkie Pie, emerging excitedly from the vault. “Oh! You stopped blinking away! Too bad, that was a fun game! Did I win?”

Twilight stood and caught her breath, observing that at last they were in a place with no changelings. “How―how did you―?”

“Pinkie!” interrupted Spike. “It is the real you, right?”

“Is what the real me?” The pink earth pony felt herself over, chest to knees. “This? Yep! This is the real me! Good job, Spike! I was wondering where I left that!”

Twilight didn't think a changeling could mimic that in a million years. “It's good to see you, Pinkie. Do you know what's happening?”

“ChHAaAAooOOSsS!!” roared Pinkie, rattling the bank's foundations. “That's what's happening!”

“Pinkie, please! We don't want more changelings rushing in here―I've already done six teleports and I'm almost out of power!”

“Okie-dokey-loki!” agreed Pinkie, dropping back to all fours. “But seriously Twilight, it's chaos! I was just about to eat lunch when the dome went down, and then a whole army of changelings skitter-scattered in, and then the dome went up again! And I offered to share my sandwiches but I guess they only eat love and not cucumber sandwiches, so I told them the cucumber sandwiches were made with love but that still wasn't good enough for them so I had to run! And they started copying the way I look and act and I just got so self-conscious I couldn't decide what to do, but then one of them leaped on me and I had to shake it off so I pretended I was that big muscle-pegasus with the tiny wings instead of me and I went all, “YYYYEEEEAAAAHHH!!” and ran away, and I guess they were confused about who I was because I got away, and then I heard you call my name, Spike, so I came to see what was up and―” She glanced back at the vault door. “...you know, this bank could really use more security.”

“How did you even get in there?”

I have no idea! That's my point! It's all a blur and thank goodness I found you two! Where did they all come from, Twilight?!”

Twilight did her best to explain her theory, even while she scoped out the bank for hidden threats. “...and then I realized why Princess Cadence acted the way she did before the wedding! It's because she wasn't really Cadence! I was right all along!”

“Except for when you weren't right,” Spike pointed out.

“Right, except for that part,” acknowledged Twilight.

Pinkie looked dubious. “You really think Cadence is behind this? Even after she said that nice thing about my reception games and she pretended to like the h'ors doeuvres and did the bare minimum amount of dancing and left her own wedding without talking to anyone?” Pinkie froze, shocked by her own words. “Huh! You're right! She is behind this!”

“Well I mean, are you sure?” asked Spike.

Twilight nodded solemnly. “It all fits, Spike. She was healthy and refreshed when she came back with my brother, but he looked more tired than ever! I'll bet she was draining his emotional energy while they were away. In fact, I bet they never even went to Sorraia! They probably just hid out somewhere in town―that's how she was able to avoid getting caught on re-entry!”

“And that's not all!” added Pinkie, who had somehow managed to produce her deerstalker hat and bubble pipe. “You weren't the only one who was suspicious of this wedding.” Her eyes went narrow and flitted from side to side.

“Really? What do you mean?” asked Twilight.

“I mean, where was the food?! Where was the fun?! Where were all the flowers, and the streamers, and that one green top hat I saw? And why was Cadence singing some creepy melody to herself on the morning of the wedding? I heard it through the window! It sounded like it was a duet, but who was she singing with, Twilight? Who was she singing with??

“Uh―I don't know, Pinkie! I'm sure a lot of ponies feel like singing for joy on their wedding day.”

“In a minor key, Twilight? Who sings for joy in a minor key?? It started in a major key but ended in its own relative minor and do you know what they call that, Twilight?!?” Pinkie's face was smack up against Twilight's. “A deceptive cadence!!

Twilight swallowed, backing up. “Assuming you didn't just make that up on the spot, it does seem like pretty compelling evidence.”

“So when the other girls went back to Ponyville, I decided to hang around! See if I could piece together the mystery of how what should have been a super-terrific splendifiwedding turned into an ordinary humdrum wedding!”

“I was wondering what you were still doing in Canterlot.”

Pinkie blew a stream of bubbles. “And do you know what I found, Twilight? Cakes!! All over the royal kitchens! Uneaten cakes they didn't even bother to bring out! We got only one cake when we could have had seven! And so I asked, why would they be setting aside all these perfectly edible cakes? And the combat baker in me answered: There's only one possible reason.” She leapt into a wide fighting stance, breath heaving. “They must be planning to assault us with cakes!!”

Twilight was momentarily speechless. “I don't care what kind of pastry-based martial arts you've studied, Pinkie! No one would ever use a wedding cake as a weapon. The very idea is utterly repugnant!” As soon as she spoke these words, Twilight found herself accosted by a wave of inexplicable irony... which she shrugged off, given the circumstances.

“Well, I knew something was fishy,” Pinkie continued with a fish-shaped burst of bubbles. “And now, so do you! So what do we do about it?!”

“With things this bad, there's only one thing that can save us,” said Twilight grimly.

“Ooh! I know! A bag of flour!”

“A bag... of flour?”

Pinkie strutted past along a counter, singing, “Nothing is beyond your power... when you use a bag of flour! Need a friend at any hour? Hang out with a bag of flour! Little babies acting sour? Give yourself a flour shower! Wish you had more cosmic power? Just ung―”
The floor was beginning to rumble. “Pinkie!” yelled Twilight. “I've warned you before... we have to be QUIET!!”

With that the ceiling shook, dappling loose plaster over everyone. “Hey!” objected Pinkie, tasting it. “This flour is defective! You'd need a lot more than a cup of this for my cupcake recipe, let me tell you...!”

Twilight seized Pinkie magically and pulled her out of the way as a murder of changelings―Twilight was fairly sure that was the proper collective noun―came tumbling down through the ceiling and crashed onto the counter. They reoriented themselves and focused on Twilight, eyes glowing.

“All right, I've got one more good teleport in me. Stay close!”

The changelings seemed to be homing in on Twilight in particular. Then, one after another, their bodies shimmered and were replaced with that of Twilight herself. Eight identical Twilight Sparkles scowled and prepared to leap―!

Bzzap! At the last moment, Twilight teleported herself, Pinkie and Spike as far as she could in the direction she knew they had to go―toward the Relic Wing of the palace where she knew the Elements of Harmony were kept.

It wasn't an easy jump. Twilight had been there before only a few times, and she was nearly out of juice and hauling an extra pony and a baby dragon besides. She concentrated as well as she could on the majestic stained glass windows she remembered, but somehow the three of them reappeared in a tiny little wooden structure filled with tools and sacks. Twilight's forehoof landed on the base of a hoe that sprang up to conk her in the face.

“Ow!”

Pinkie was sprawled over several sacks of grass seed. “What happened? Where are we, Twilight?”

Spike cracked open the door and peeked out. “We're in a tool shed! And there's the palace!”

Twilight set the hoe in place, though she could tell her magic was greatly diminished. “This shed must belong to Celestia's gardener. Are there any changelings out there, Spike?”

“Wow, are there ever.” He peered out further before retracting his head and shutting the door. “The garden's filled with changelings! And the courtyard, too! Lucky we ended up in here.”

“Well, I was concentrating on teleporting somewhere indoors. But maybe it's not so lucky. Now we're trapped!”

Pinkie was rummaging through the supplies at their disposal. “Iii found a wheeelbaarrow!!” she singsonged. “Maybe I can dress up in a big long fireproof robe that covers the wheelbarrow and pretend to be a bunch taller than I really am and Spike can set me on fire and we'll scare all those meanies off!”

“Uh, except we don't have a fireproof robe, Pinkie! But...” Twilight looked at Spike. “But you have given me an idea,” she continued grimly. “I don't have enough magic left to teleport again... but Spike does.”

“Huh?” said Spike. “I can't teleport!”

“You teleport things all the time! Mainly scrolls and letters, admittedly...”

“And only to Princess Celestia!”

“Which is where we want to go,” said Twilight. “If she's still alive at all, she's probably in the palace.” She squatted and narrowed her eyes. “You're going to have to mail me to the princess.”

Spike backed away and waved his hands. “Oh, nooo way. You're way too big, Twilight! It's not safe!”

Twilight gestured to the tiny space containing them. They could hear the chittering of changelings outside. “What choice do we have? I can't replenish my magic until I sleep, and it's only a matter of time before they find us here. And as for being too big... well.” She grimaced, knowing Spike wouldn't like this. “Maybe it's really a matter of you being too small.”

Spike blinked. Pinkie stared, and then started bouncing. She got it.

“What are you...” asked Spike, turning to Pinkie Pie.

She was holding several gardening implements in her pasterns. “Spikey! I heard it was only a hundred and eighteen days until your birthday! That's practically today! I got you this rake! And this hose! And this spiff garden weasel!”

Spike seemed to be blanching as much as you can through purple scales. “No! Pinkie, I thought we decided I'd never have another birthday!”

“Well then, let's call it your hatchday! Or we can have a party to celebrate how great a ringbearer you were! Or better yet, let's have a party to celebrate that time you saved Canterlot by mailing Twilight to Princess Celestia!”

Spike backed into a wall and fell, sitting, onto a barrel. “But that's now!”

It is?!” Pinkie leapt excitedly against the ceiling and bounced manically around the tiny shed. “Then this is the perfect time to hold a party for it! Spike, I got you these garden edgers! And these shears! Careful, not the tail! And here's a watering can I picked out just for you!

The more items Pinkie piled into Spike's arms, the more he seemed to shake. His tongue flicked out, and it was more forked than usual. “Pinkie, stop!”

“But she's absolutely right!” said Twilight. “Here! A sack of sunflower seeds, all for you! And a slightly used hoe. Happy Saving Canterlot Day, number one assistant!”

Spike's knees jerked, one at a time, and his legs stretched. Soon his feet had reached the floor and his growing tail had broken the lid of the barrel. “But... but how am I going to change back?!” he wailed, his voice already deepening.

“You managed it last time!” Twilight pointed out. “You'll work something out... and if you don't, I promise we will. But for now―would you like some garden wire? I have a whole spool of it, just for you!”

Spike took the spool of garden wire and turned it about in his long fingers. “Heh. Well, it is pretty cool garden wire. Think of all the stuff I could wrap in it!”

“That's the spirit!” exclaimed Pinkie, hurrying around the shed and loading everything she could into Spike's now sizable lap. “I don't know why anyone would use a machine to mow their lawn instead of just eating it, but here's a pushy-push lawn mower! And a wheelbarrow! And some rock salt! And some bug spray! And I don't even know what's in this tub, but I know it's just perfect for you! Because you're the bestest, Spike! You can take anything you want, and it'll be just fine, because who better to own things than Spike, the adorable, faithful, grabby-grabby ten-foot-tall dragon!?”

Spike's head pressed against the roof of the shed. He slid onto his knees, arms laden with more than they could carry, and looked around in a panic. “Twilight!” he boomed. “Now?”

“Just one more gift, Spike. You know all those changelings outside?” She gestured all around. “They're yours. Every one of them! I'm giving them to you because you're worth it!”

As Twilight stood there beaming, Spike's eyes went fiendish. Opening his monstrous mouth, he let fly a huge green spray of magical dragonfire... and Twilight felt herself dissolving, simultaneously chilly and seared. Before she could grapple with the implications, she was back, tumbling through the air! Ground struck, leaving Twilight momentarily winded.

It was a dungeon. A well-appointed dungeon, all browns and grays with accents of red. The walls and lintels were made of horn-cut stone, and the stone floor gleamed with polish.

Once Twilight had her breath back, she stood... and was startled but not surprised. Two large green ovaloid shapes―cocoons―hung from hooks in the dungeon ceiling. She paced around them in wonder as if they were museum pieces. Luna. Celestia. Preserved. Imprisoned. Reposed, yet aggressive. Luna had apparently been in the act of smashing a changeling down when... someone. The queen? ...had gotten her. Celestia's face was even more furious, but her pose was gentle.

Twilight could have stood there examining them for a good hour if she hadn't remembered her haste. Spike and Pinkie were in danger, as was everypony, and even she might find herself fighting off enemies at any moment. She examined the cocoons carefully to identify any traps laid on them. Nothing. Good. With a series of little magical tugs, she dropped both cocoons to the stone floor. So far, so good.

But breaking them proved impossible. Twilight tried wielding her magic like a knife, and then tried using her horn likewise, but she couldn't rend the changeling silk. She collapsed at last on Celestia's breast, enervated and desperate.

There was movement beneath her. Twilight opened her eyes wide and watched as Celestia's face shifted as if against tremendous constraints. The visible eye was wide open and stunned, but the eyelid struggled. The princess's lips moved, though they couldn't fully close or open. It was painful to witness, but Twilight watched every motion.

“Celestia,” she whispered. An eyelid twitched. “Does it hurt? Can you... is there anything you can do without pain?”

Twilight saw a tremor in the princess's jaw. She nodded. “Time for an old standby I've read about. All right, Princess. If you can, twitch your jaw once for yes and twice for no...”

\\ o/` \\

There was no help for it―Twilight had to sleep in order to regain her strength. So she would sleep here, in the darkest corner, after first rehanging the cocoons to avert suspicion. The changeling queen, whom Celestia confirmed had done this in the guise of Cadence, might return.

Twilight now faced the daunting task of finding slumber with so much uncertain. She'd half expected Pinkie Pie to follow after her, 'mailed' by Spike―the party pony's company would be relished now. But it was probably for the best. Spike would need someone to guide and take care of him, and if it couldn't be Rarity or Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie was the best choice. Unfortunately that left Twilight alone here, shivering in a pile of stale hay, seeking sleep.

But she wasn't alone. Luna had yet to show any signs of consciousness, but Celestia was there, even if she could only communicate through slight facial motions. Twilight was clever and Celestia was kind, and through diligent use of these traits Twilight was able to extract a bedtime story from the incapacitated sun princess. It was a simple tale, of course, and without nuance, but it put Twilight into a state of cogitation and reverie.

Celestia told Twilight how in the days before Equestria her ancestors had come to invent day and night, and to realize the necessity for a sun to control the rhythm of life on earth. She made no mention of the moon. That omission was enough to lead Twilight into dreamland, as she wondered whence the moon had come, and why, and how. As she slept, she imagined worlds governed by moonlight and starlight, where the only living things were fungi and nightplants, and where the light of a sun would cause havoc and doom. In her dream, Twilight fought to keep the sun at bay. She teamed up with a team of intergalactic travelers to shield these worlds with canopies made from space dust, and in the end even strove to destroy the nearest stars lest they destroy things far more delicate and beautiful. There was nothing about her dream that didn't feel strange and forbidden, yet Twilight found it difficult to wake when the time came.

Celestia was still cogent and trapped, and Twilight, though refreshed, still couldn't free her. So, following Celestia's silent directions, she popped open the dungeon door and followed a series of corridors, avoiding changelings through stealth when she had to, until she arrived at a small but potent treasure chamber. Through twitches and blinks, Celestia had told Twilight the spell to get inside. From this ancient chamber Twilight took an amulet that made her invisible, unsmellable, and undetectable to the likes of changeling magic. She took also a runestone marked with a symbol of the sun, laden with a stored reservoir of Celestia's magic. It was this, two hours of sneaking later, that Twilight used to unlock the door behind which lay the Elements of Harmony.

At no point did Twilight encounter the false Cadence, nor so many changelings that she couldn't hide from them. That was as it should be. She did want to know whether her brother was okay, but suspected that the changeling queen kept him locked up even more securely than the princesses. None of the familiar figures of the palace were anywhere to be found―it was a changeling-infested wasteland. Once, Twilight thought she'd spotted the palace steward, but based on the fact that he didn't speak and was cavorting with changelings, he was almost surely a changeling, too.

She slipped out a servant's entrance and looked around. The Elements of Harmony were in their case, which she carried in her mouth so that the amulet would hide them as well. There were still changelings in the courtyard, but now some of them were bloated and sleeping. The sound of crying came to Twilight from far away, but it appeared that in this vicinity, the fighting was done. Changelings had taken Canterlot and were living off the emotions of its denizens. She didn't know whether that would mean their death, and was afraid to find out.

Twilight spied the remains of the tool shed, now splintered, and decided to follow the giant footprints leading away. At times she had to take a roundabout route in order to avoid bumping into changelings, but her amulet kept her safely hidden. The footprints led to a strip of the city through which the greed-addled dragon had apparently stomped a swath flat. Had he also trampled any innocents in the way? She couldn't guess.

After an hour of tracking, Twilight arrived at the mountainous edge of the city, where the magical shield created by her brother still stood fast. Or rather, stood fast again. Somewhere in Pinkie's babbling, she'd mentioned the shield going down and returning, which meant that the false Cadence had a tight hold on her brother's powers. And Twilight could see that her brother's pink magic was once again the strongest influence by far in the shield. There were only small regions and streaks of other colors―a place where the pink was cut by translucent purple, a washed out patch of amber.

Well, they would have to escape somehow. It occurred to Twilight that some of her own magic was probably still integral to the shield, and while she couldn't simply retract it, she might find it easier to break through at such a spot. Twilight therefore located a stretch of border free of changelings and tested her strength against the dome. It held staunchly, even when she aimed for a patch more magenta than pink. And it was teleport-proof. This might be a serious issue, she realized.

Back to tracking, then. How long had she slept? Shouldn't it be evening by now? Oh. Oh. No, it shouldn't. With Celestia and Luna imprisoned and nearly comatose, it would never be evening, or night, again. Had the false Cadence thought of that? Maybe she was planning on subduing and controlling Celestia and Luna once everything else was under control. Twilight hoped so, because the queen was mad as well as evil if she thought the world could survive for long in constant sunshine.

The draconic footprints had only grown larger and larger over the course of Twilight's trek, but then, as she'd half hoped and half feared, they abruptly ended. There was architecture destroyed here, but no further sign of struggle. Had Spike managed to revert? If so, what had happened to him?

There were changelings here, but the horde was thin and indolent, as it was elsewhere. Twilight could smell ponies nearby, but none were in sight. Most likely they'd been made prisoners in their own homes, or each others' homes. Was everypony in Canterlot in a cocoon like those of the princesses?

Twilight passed by the broken remains of a counting shack in search of a sign of what had happened to her friends. She'd been watching the ground, but also keeping an eye on passing changelings in order to keep her distance, and now she took in a strange sight: A small crowd of Spikes, milling about and chortling in affected voices. Some were like the Spike she knew; others were Spike in his lanky, grabby form, but none were much bigger than the ordinary Spike. Twilight stifled a giggle―apparently the changelings had issues with size adjustments.

She crept around their periphery, passing by a waffle hut and, of all things, a jewelry store. The fact that neither of these were wrecked meant that Spike probably hadn't been this way as a monster... but had he been this way as a child?

Twilight knew that he and Pinkie were probably hiding (like anypony else not already captured by the horde), and that with her invisible, it would be hard for them to find each other. But she kept seeing changelings that looked like Spike, so she trailed them from street to street. Eventually a smattering of Pinkies showed up, stretching and posing and bouncing about silently. Twilight mused on how the changelings decided whom to copy, and whether Pinkie Pie was embraced as a especially challenging role. She suspected their true mindset would be alien to her.

Now, passing by a music store, Twilight happened to notice a large harp inside... with a blue balloon tied to it. The balloon was inflated with air, not helium, and sagged mournfully from its perch on the harp's neck... yet somehow, Twilight recognized it as unmistakably Pinkie's hoofwork. Excited, she slipped furtively into the store and closed the door. There were no changelings in sight.

Setting down her case, she faced up toward the loft and called cautiously: “Pinkie?”

A weight dropped her to the ground and rolled off in the moment after. “Twilight!” Pinkie pronked around Twilight in a circle, constantly facing her. “I'm so glad you're okay! Except you're invisible! And I can't smell you! Did you lose your, your, your appearance? And your scent? Those horrible changelings! At least they left your voice and the way it feels when I pounce on you! That's two senses out of five. Hold on, I'm gonna try tasting you.”

But as Pinkie darted in, Twilight took off her amulet and was visible again. Pinkie stopped short and gasped.

“That won't be necessary, Pinkie. I'm safe and sound! I have magic again, and even better...” She gestured to the case before them. “I've got the Elements of Harmony! Where's Spike? Is he okay?”

Pinkie leapt straight up and returned twenty seconds later with a sleepy-looking Spike in tow. “Oh, gosh, Twilight. Hi!”

Twilight rushed to hug her assistant dearly, followed by hugging Pinkie. “I forgot to be as worried about you two as I should have been,” she admitted. “I had my hooves full getting the Elements. But I'm really relieved you're both all right. How did you manage to change back, Spike?”

Normally the dragon would be proud to tell a story like this, but he'd apparently been sleeping. “Uh... well, I...”

Pinkie jumped in, punctuating her account liberally with impersonations and gestures. “First he broke the whole tool shed, BWACCK! and then he went stomping all over and I followed him, and the changelings attacked but they couldn't stop him, and he just threw them aside like, fweee! Fwheee! And he stomped down the streets punching holes in stores and taking everything like a big meaniepants only without pants, and all the while I was shouting, Spike! Spiiiike! Come back and get little again! But he was all SPIIIKE WAAANT and that was pretty much all he said! I was worried Queen Meanie the Sequel was gonna show up and attack him herself, so I asked myself, Pinkie? Yeees? I answered. Pinkie, how did Spike get little again before? Oh! I said. He was holding Rarity and she had a jewel on that he'd given her a week before and he remembered being generous to her and all the generosity juices, like, counteracted his greed gremlins, and he went back to normal! So then I started thinking of whether Spike had ever done something nice for me, and then I remembered that time we were out in Appleoosa and I sang that song for all the settlers and buffalos that went “You gotta shaaaaare” and “You gotta caaaaare” and he played the piano for me! And even though no one else liked the song, Spike cheered me up afterwards when he said that he liked it! So I looked around for a piano, but I guess that's not really a Canterlot instrument because I didn't see any! But then I saw that harp out there and I remembered that a piano has a secret harp inside, kind of like how a pea pod has secret peas inside it or those little chocolate crunchies Mrs. Cake makes have secret peanuts! So I figured it must be good enough, and I started playing the Share and Care song on the harp, and he picked up the harp because he wanted it but I guess eventually I got through to him because he started crying, and then he put down the harp and hugged me! Then he started sharing all his stuff with me, and I was so touched by that I started crying too, and the more stuff he gave away, the smaller and smaller he got! So then we hid in here and he fell asleep and I tucked him in and tied the balloon to the harp because I knew you'd see it and say, 'Hey! That must be where Pinkie Pie is!' And you did! and then Spike woke up and then I told you the whole story of what happened and then you told us your story and then we snuck out of the city together back to Ponyville so we could meet up with the others and then―oh, whoops! That part hasn't happened yet! Sorry!”

Twilight's ears twisted in consternation, but otherwise she was beaming. “Well done, you two! And you're right, Pinkie―we've got to get back to Ponyville. But there's a problem! My brother's shield spell is still up, and I don't know if I can break through!”

“Really? But he's your brother! You don't know all his tricks?”

“I know a smaller version of his spell, and that means I know how hard it is to break! But the princesses had me and a bunch of others reinforcing the dome while I was away, and some of our magic is still in there. I'm hoping to find a weak spot.”

“Any chance I could help?” asked Spike.

“With your fire? I don't think so. If you were still monstrous, you might be able to punch your way through... but if we go with physical force, we'll need a lot more than what we can muster.”

Spike smirked and flexed an arm, displaying a tiny bulge. “Oh, yeah?”

Twilight smirked back. “Sorry, Spike. But you're not a mighty dragon yet.”

“Maybe not, but I still might be able to help. Can you get us there without the changelings seeing us?”

That was an issue. “I only have one amulet, and I don't know any invisibility spells. Oh! So long as I was carrying the case, it was invisible. If you ride on my back, it should hide you too.”

“Swell,” said Spike, clambering on. Twilight tried the amulet, and sure enough, both unicorn and dragon were concealed.

“What about mee?” asked Pinkie. “Can I ride, too?”

Twilight gritted her teeth. “I don't think I can carry you both, Pinkie! Maybe... maybe if I levitate you just enough to make you lighter?”

“Worth a try!” Pinkie stood on one of her forehooves, looking as though she were already being levitated. Twilight exerted some magic and Pinkie nearly floated away, like a pony-shaped balloon tethered by one leg to the floor.

“Whee! We should do this more often, Twi! Okay, I'm getting on now.” Pinkie let herself sink slowly to the floor, crouched, and pounced. She tumbled slowly through the air and eventually reached out a front hoof to touch Twilight's rump. With a little work, she'd gained her balance. But...

“Am I invisible, Twilight? Can you see me?”

“Uh... I can still see you, yes! You seem to be half-invisible!”

Pinkie looked at her own leg, then back at her body. “I'm see-through!! This is so terrific! One step closer to being a living balloon!”

Twilight heard Spike slap his forehead. “If we can see you, Pinkie, so can the changelings!”

“He's right,” Twilight concurred. “The amulet must only partially work on things I'm only partially carrying. We need a better plan.”

Pinkie sprang into the air again and flipped five times before coming to a graceful landing. “I've got it! I'll pretend to be a changeling pretending to be me! How hard can it be?”

Twilight released Pinkie from her magic. “I guess that could work. If they realize you're faking, I could just teleport us all away.”

Pinkie found a reflective pair of cymbals and started posing. Before long, her repertoire of grimaces, silent melodramatic poses, and fake-looking tail swirls was complete. The trio headed out, and Spike directed them by tugging on Twilight's ear when he wanted to turn. Twilight wasn't sure how Pinkie knew which way they were going, but she managed somehow.

Sure enough, Pinkie pulled it off. She passed one set of changelings with her forelegs extended out in front as if stalking prey, and fooled another set by whirling up her tail and throwing her hooves out with an excited grin. A simple trot and smile got her down a street full of changelings disguised as locals, some of whom Twilight recognized. At last, they left the east side of town and were faced with descending rocky bluffs. The dome's variegated pinks filled the sky ahead.

“All right, Spike,” Twilight whispered. “Where are we headed?”

“Just around that hill over there,” he whispered back. “You said you needed something strong to help get through the shield. I figured we could use the bachelor I built!”

Twilight froze for a moment, one invisible hoof raised. “Excuse me?”

“I built a bachelor! I wanted it to be a surprise, but I guess there won't be any bachelor party now.”

“You... built a bachelor.”

“Well, what did you think I was doing that whole time you were in the palace? Princess Celestia put me in charge of the bachelor party, and there were all these guards in the streets without any orders! I just recruited a few of them to help.”

By now, Pinkie Pie had noticed them talking and was huddled with them. “But Spike, you can't just build a bachelor! A bachelor is made! Out of a colt!”

Spike sounded puzzled. “Out of a colt? That's horrible!”

Twilight decided to end the suspense and hurried past the hill. She was startled by the sheer size of what she saw, sitting unattended on the sparsely grassed plain. “Spike? You built this?!”

Spike hopped off, becoming visible, and crossed his arms with pride. “I oversaw it. I was the overseer! I told them things like, 'Make the swingy bit longer' or 'let's pull back the pouch so the sling opens sooner.' It took three days of hard work, but now we have our very own bachelor!”

Twilight gaped in admiration. “Spike, this is a trebuchet!

“Is... is that a compliment?”

“It's what this is called, Spike. I can't imagine how you got bachelors and trebuchets mixed up―they don't even start with the same letter! Though I suppose they do have several letters in common...”

“I'm more interested in how he was planning to build a party around it!” chimed Pinkie.

Spike looked stunned. “It's... it's not a bachelor?”

Twilight gave Spike a kiss on the top of his head. “It's perfect. We'll need to find some ammunition, and then we'll wheel it to a vulnerable spot in the shield.” Twilight felt like she was in her element... which was odd, given how far they were from a library. “Since we're relying on physical force, we'll want to look for green spots. There was a mage in our group whose specialty was magic resistance, but physical attacks were his weakness, and his magic was green.”

“Gotcha,” said Spike. “We look for green spots. But what if the changelings spot us?”

“We'd better go invisible again, and hurry! I don't want them spotting the trebuchet before we're ready. Pinkie, do you think you can find some good rocks for us to launch?”

“Do I think I can find some good rocks?” echoed Pinkie. She dashed to a small boulder and plowed it upright out of the ground. “I think I can... turn something up!” She giggled for a while, plopping onto her rump. “Get it? Turning rocks?” She laughed a little more. “Ahh, I guess you had to be there.”

“Be where?” asked Spike.

“My childhood! I even had an imaginary friend called Mr. Turn-Up, and he was a turnip! But anyway, yeah I can find some rocks for you! Just promise you won't throw them too hard.”

“But that's the whole point!” objected Twilight.

“The whole point is throwing them too hard? Well, you should have said so!” Pinkie went back to her work.

“Right,” said Twilight. “Spike, let's find a good place to break down this wall!”

But as soon as they passed a craggy spire at the end of Canterlot's mountainous eastern edge, Twilight and Spike were in for a surprise. On the sloping ground before them, outside the shield, ponies were gathered. There were Canterlot-style tents and a few hardier ones meant for the wilderness. A dozen ponies were gathered around what looked like a trove of treasure or perhaps an armory. Another score or so were gathered on blankets laid around an empty fire pit. With the sun eternally up, they might never have to light it. But what were they all doing there?

Some were watching the city. Twilight decided it couldn't hurt to show herself. She stood before a rock shielding herself from the sight of any changelings and removed her amulet.

The reaction was immediate. Two sentries, a pegasus and an earth pony, hurried over, first alarmed, then delighted. Twilight could barely hear their voices, but she thought she saw her name being mouthed. She didn't even know these ponies―how did they know her? Oh, of course―who in Canterlot didn't know Twilight after Celestia publicly recognized her for defeating Discord? She blushed, still unused to fame.

But it was more than her stardom that was exciting the sentries. They called to others, and those called to others in turn, and before a minute was out, none other than Rainbow Dash was hovering before the shield with an amazed grin. Fluttershy, Applejack and Rarity soon appeared as well.

“This is wonderful!” exclaimed Twilight. “You're all here!”

“You'd better better believe we are!” replied Rainbow, still hovering. Her voice was muffled but her words were clearly audible.

“Oh, Twilight, surely you couldn't imagine we'd stay at home for something like this!” said Rarity. “When rumors started to trickle in about an attack on Canterlot, the four of us met at the boutique. We discussed what to do for some time, but when the news became official, we knew we would simply have to trek out and see how we could help.”

“And as it turned out, our help wasn't too shabby,” added Applejack. “This here camp started with the ponies who were just outside the city when the shield popped back up. Some were skedaddlin' from the attack, and some were travelers, and then there was the trainload of passengers that couldn't get in.” She gestured back toward the horizon. “We ain't seen another train since then, so ah s'pose they shut down the line. Anyhow, we shared what we'd brought and got 'em going gathering weapons, food, water, an' firewood.” She glanced up at the sun. “Though at this rate, ah doubt we'll be needin' much firewood anytime soon.”

“It's getting hot,” murmured Fluttershy. “The sun should have set seven hours ago. The longer it stays up, the hotter the air will get, and the more uncomfortable all the plants and creatures will become.”

“Then let's do something about it,” decided Twilight. “Guess who was able to infiltrate the palace and obtain the Elements of Harmony!”

They were uncertain. “Uhh... was it Pinkie?” ventured Applejack.

Rainbow hovered doubtfully. “Do we get three guesses, or...”

“It was me!” snapped Twilight. “I got them!” She felt a tug from Spike on her ear. “...With a little help from Spike, that is, and Celestia, and, yes, Pinkie is with us too.” Again the silent dragon tugged. “What, Spike? Am I forgetting someone else?”

“Yes!” cried Spike, shifting around on Twilight's back. “Cadence!!

“What? I didn't get any help from Cadence, Spike! She's the villain, remem―” But then Twilight turned around and saw Cadence―no, Mi Amore Cad―no, the changeling queen, sailing nearer over the Canterlot rooftops. Her eyes were green and glowing.

“Cripes, you're right!” shouted Rainbow. “Is she headed this way?”

“Reckon so,” said Applejack. “But Twi, how are we gonna use the Elements with this shield in our faces?”

“We'll have to take it down! You have weapons, right? Are there any strong unicorns out there?”

“A few,” answered Rarity. “Adventurers brave and bold, or so they would have it. Most ponies, after hearing about our capital being attacked, feared for their safety.” She glanced back at the 'armory'. “But a few brave souls came to tender their aid.”

“Great.” Twilight put her amulet back on. “We have to scatter! She can't know I'm here. Try to find a green spot in the shield! And tell everypony it's time to take this thing down!”

Rainbow nodded and zoomed off. Twilight didn't wait to see what the others did. She dashed along the edge of the shield, keeping one eye out for a weak spot and one on false Cadence. “Keep me updated, Spike!”

“She looks really angry, Twilight! But she's not attacking. I think she's looking for something.”

Twilight's magical senses were on alert. She felt tendrils probing, some of which brushed her legs and chest. “It's me, Spike! She's looking for me. She took out my brother and the Princesses early on, and she knows I'm the next biggest threat!”

“What do we do!?” panicked the dragon.

Twilight didn't know. She had lots of choices and none of them seemed appealing. Then a thought struck her suddenly: she'd failed to see through the changeling queen because she hadn't trusted her instincts. Twilight chose to trust them now. She ducked behind a rock and removed the amulet. She then ran to the dome and banged against it.

“TWILIGHT, what are you doing?!” shouted Spike. “She sees us! She's coming!!”

But so were the ponies on the other side. Doubt was on their faces, but they were armed and ready for action, and some of them had horns. “Find Pinkie Pie and have her meet up with the others on your side of the dome, right here!” she screamed at them, winking. They cringed. “And if you find a green spot,” she added more quietly, “signal us!” As soon as they seemed to show comprehension, Twilight dashed away. She leapt into a trench, put on her amulet, and sped away in the opposite direction.

When she looked up, she was stunned by how close the false princess was. The changeling queen was angry all right, and driven, but she'd lost her quarry. Twilight conjured a light, invisible force field just in time to deflect the probing tendrils as they returned. It pushed them aside lightly enough that her location wasn't obvious, but she didn't doubt the changeling queen could still feel it.

Spike tugged her ear again. “How are they supposed to find Pinkie Pie when she's on our side of the dome?” he whispered.

“They can't. I was bluffing. If the evil queen heard me, she'll think Pinkie is out there, not in here!”

“Ohhh! Clever!”

But it wouldn't be so clever if the false Cadence followed Twilight straight to Pinkie and the trebuchet. She was running through trenches and valleys some distance from the shield now, but the tendrils were still coming and false Cadence was still aloft not far away. Hopefully the ponies on the other side would come up with some kind of distraction!

Suddenly, a tendril bounced too hard off Twilight's force field and the queen spun in mid-air, locking on. A beam of raw magic shot toward Twilight and fractured her field; Spike shrieked. Just then, an orange streak―no, red and yellow―shot through the intervening space. Twilight saw fire in her peripheral vision. She didn't dare glance back, but Spike leaned forward and murmured: “She's caught in a blaze in the sky! I think someone just saved our purple tails!”

“Philomena!” said Twilight, smiling. “Thank Celestia she's on our side. I think we may have time, now...”

There it was. The trebuchet, sheltered by a rock wall now, with Pinkie loading it. And... a half dozen changelings helping her? Twilight stopped short. “What's going on? Is that the real Pinkie?”

“Beats me,” whispered Spike. “Maybe they captured the bach―I mean trebuchet!”

But as they watched, Pinkie leapt emphatically once in place, smiled at the changelings, and waved to them, one hoof now on the trigger. They marched or flew off, some of them waving back to her.

Twilight was flabbergasted. Once they'd all gone, she ran up to the rock and slipped off the amulet. Pinkie just turned and smiled at her.

“Pinkie??”

“Yep! That's me. Are you the real Twilight and the real Spike? Ooh! And did you see my new friends?”

Twilight rubbed her head. “I did! You tricked them into helping you?”

“That's right! I did a bunch of evil hoof rubbing and cackling―” Pinkie demonstrated what she meant. “―and that was enough to convince them I was just getting ready to attack all those ponies out there in case they get through the shield!” She pointed, and Twilight saw that a few of the ponies outside Canterlot had spread this far up the mountain.

“That's wonderful, Pinkie! And I see you have some payloads stacked up.” Indeed, there was a pile of flattish boulders just the right size to be launched.

“Why do they call it a payload?” asked Pinkie, veering in fiercely and lifting Twilight by the forelegs. “Are we paying them back for taking our princesseses away?!”

“I suppose? We need to watch out for a signal, Pinkie, somewhere over to the left! Can we get this thing ready to―”

And there it was. Just past the edge of their shelter, Twilight saw a sizzling blue beam of magic strike the shield. The false Cadence, along with just about every changeling in the sky, immediately veered toward it. It was followed by a thicker beam of green. Then by a thin line Twilight guessed was a spear. The ponies outside were attacking the dome with everything they had.

“They must have found a weak point! Do you see it, Pinkie?”

Pinkie was already adjusting the swing arm and fine-tuning the sling release. “I see it! How does this look, Spike?”

Spike hopped off and helped her orient the siege engine. “Perfect! Let her fly!”

The stone went sailing toward the dome, clipped a changeling on the wing, and tumbled to the ground. “Drat!” swore Twilight.

“It's okay!” chimed Pinkie. “If at first you don't blow a hole in something, fling, fling again!” She loaded up for a second shot.

Twilight replaced her amulet and levitated a set of large stones. “I'm going in to finish this. You two keep shooting!”

“Good luck!” they called together. Twilight dashed directly for the spot where beams, sound waves and weapons continued to strike the shield. This meant running in the open, but she was invisible and the horde was distracted. Of course, the rocks she was carrying weren't invisible... at least not very. Still, her exact location was still a mystery.

But that didn't keep changelings from spotting her weapons and swarming toward her. She restored her force field, but her magic was running thin and they were getting persistent. They cried out to their neighbors and more flocked downward. Twilight swung some of her rocks at them, knocking them aside. One changeling sailed straight for her face, but an unexpected boulder threw it to the ground. Score one for the trebuchet!

Forming a phalanx with her rocks, Twilight managed to barrel through to within thirty yards of where the siege was taking place. She saw the changeling queen hovering before the attackers, releasing pulse after pulse of blinding light. It was the only weapon she had that would permeate the shield, Twilight realized. She hovered all her boulders further and ducked into a cranny, and thankfully the changelings followed the rocks. Now, one at a time, she slammed her rocks into the green stretch of dome she could now see amid the pink. It vibrated on impact―was it really weakening?

To Twilight's right, she saw Fluttershy passing by. Twilight leapt from the cranny and ran up to the shield. Following her instincts again, she sang a few notes of Fluttershy's favorite song. It was too quiet for the changelings to take notice, but Fluttershy heard her even through the dome. She flew back to Twilight and peered through hopefully.

“I'm right here, Fluttershy, just invisible! Fluttershy, get the others and tell them to come here!”

“Oh! But what about the other meeting place?”

“That was a bluff! Please, hurry!”

Fluttershy didn't need to be told again. She sped off, and Twilight continued to assail the green spot with rocks, over and over, reusing the ones that didn't shatter on impact. It was hard to keep this up from a distance, but she still had the runestone disk charged with Celestia's magic, and it was sustaining her. Pieces of green magic started to flake from the shield.

“FOOLS!” roared the changeling queen at the determined battalion outside. “If you burst this shield, I will destroy you all, and then erect another, purer shield! Shining Armor is under my complete control! Do you wish to be destroyed?!”

Yet the mages, fighters and heroes outside kept assailing the weak point. Twilight knew not all of them had come to defend Canterlot, of course. Some of them were only there because their train hadn't gone through or because they'd fled the city early on. But if they were still attacking at this point, they were heroes regardless in Twilight's book.

A wreath of flame encircled the green spot, now visibly cracked, and the pink parts surrounding it began to melt. Philomena had joined the siege. Twilight heard a boom to her right and found Rainbow smashing herself repeatedly into the barrier. Grimacing, Twilight continued to pummel it with her last surviving rocks.

Then, from behind, at tremendous speed, a boulder whizzed straight into the heart of the fiery wreath. There was a reverberation so loud it hurt Twilight's ears. A blue patch of sky finally shone through the pink shield, the green spot destroyed. Immediately, the false Cadence leapt forward, just as pegasi on the other side did the same. Her horn flared and sent beams barreling into them; the pegasi fell, one by one. Twilight didn't know whether they were dead, and she tried not to wonder. She turned to her right. Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity were there.

Twilight focused on the edge of the hole, far to her left but slowly spreading. Concentrating, she helped it spread. Cracks permeated the pink until, yard by yard, it crumbled. She saw Rainbow Dash, quick as a slingshot, whip around the leading edge too fast for the changeling queen to react. Now the cruel queen was outside the dome, wreaking vengeance everywhere. Ponies and equipment were hurled in every direction... until she turned and spotted Twilight. Her pink form fell away, leaving her a gaunt black thing, riddled with holes, thin and fanged and fierce. Her huge green eyes roiled with fury.

Fluttershy quaked and backed up against the shield. Twilight tore off her amulet and burst open the case with the Elements of Harmony. She donned her tiara and sped the necklaces around toward the crumbling edge, watching while the changeling queen flew closer. Behind her, Rainbow Dash returned with Pinkie, and Twilight thrust their Elements at them. There they were, three and three, still separated by a pink wall with destruction about to rain.

Applejack turned and bellowed “FOR EQUESTRIA!!” Her back hooves slammed into the already cracked shield, and that was enough. With a tumultuous tinkle it came tumbling down, pieces blowing everywhere. Twilight threw up her lightweight force field just in time to keep herself and her friends protected. The evil queen was distracted for a moment, and Twilight sped the remaining necklaces to Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy. They all came together without conscious thought and arrayed themselves as one.

“For Princess Cadence!!” shouted Twilight. Her heart was warmed beyond memory as magic seeped from and through her. A sextet of rainbows entwined and lifted them all, and as the queen of the changelings regained her bearings and released a thick green beam of force toward them, she and her beam were caught in the rainbow's might and dissolved. A column of white erupted from the ground toward the sky, with Twilight and her friends captive to it even as they fueled it.

Then they fell. The light scattered; the heat dispersed; the shield's remnants vanished. Twilight lay on the rocks with her friends, aching in at least three ways but smoothed by the presence of friendship in its primal form. She climbed slowly to her hooves and looked around.

The ponies were cheering. Without their queen, all the changelings were fleeing the city, speeding away in a panic. A few were caught by magical attacks before they could get away. The sun was rolling swiftly through the sky, hundreds of times more swiftly than Twilight had ever seen it. Fluttershy was hugging her, and now so were Pinkie Pie's stretchy legs. Twilight watched the sky alone.

There was Celestia, rising over everything, as majestic as she'd been the first time Twilight had ever seen her. The last few changelings fled the city and disappeared into the rapidly darkening sky. And there was Luna, coming from the other direction, stern. Twilight returned her friends' hug and stood before them. The princesses were headed their way.

But Luna turned aside. She went to a changeling, struggling on the ground in the magical hold of a blue unicorn stallion whose face was filled with controlled anger. “Thank you, subject,” said Luna. “I will take it from here.”

Celestia landed and stood by Twilight, offering her a nuzzle as together they watched Luna seize the changeling in her magical aura, constricting it by the neck. “~Tell me where Cadence is, and I will let you live,~” she bellowed in what was clearly the royal Canterlot voice.

The changeling squealed. It chittered with difficulty, waving its wings in a frenzy. Luna frowned.

“If Cadence is dead, how did her imposter hope to maintain her charade indefinitely?” asked Luna, her tone quieter but very serious. Twilight felt Celestia's wing against her back. Inwardly, she was chilled.

Again the changeling chittered and flailed.

“You are lying. Deliver me Cadence, and I will let you live,” commanded Luna. But the changeling only made a short noise, and then let itself hang limp.

Luna and Celestia exchanged a long look. Behind them, Twilight saw Shining Armor working his way through the bluffs. He was wearing the same clothes as when he'd left for his honeymoon, and looked half-dazed.

“Brother!”

“Sister,” he called wearily. “I don't know what's happened.” He raised his head with a surge of purpose. “I just know it wasn't Cadence. She tricked me. She was a changeling and she tricked me.” When he saw Celestia, his head fell again. “I'm sorry, Your Highness.”

Celestia stepped away from Twilight and over to Shining Armor. Twilight couldn't see her face, but she could see his looking into hers. His mouth was open, his eyes wide.

“Captain, you were taken in,” said Celestia, more seriously than warmly. “We all were. I don't blame you for anything that happened.”

He twitched. “But?”

“But your fiancée is missing. And she may be gone forever.”

He squinched his eyes shut and went down to his knees. “No.” Celestia knelt with him and gave him physical comfort. Luna, meanwhile, made her changeling disappear in a blast of indigo light.

“The changeling claims that Cadence is dead. It claims that its ruler, Queen Chrysalis, believed she could subsist on Captain Armor's love alone, and would therefore not need Cadence to feed on. I have transported it to the palace for further interrogation. Unfortunately, Chrysalis herself is gone. The Elements of Harmony destroyed her utterly.”

“What?” asked Rainbow. “But that's not what they did to Discord! Or... or to you.” She landed softly.

“Discord and I had other states to return to. He, to stone, and I...” She gestured to her royal self. “But the changeling queen reverted to her primal form just before the Elements claimed her, did she not? She left herself nothing else to become.”

Fluttershy sobbed suddenly. “She could have lived, couldn't she? She could have seen the light. And we killed her!”

“Whether the changeling queen could ever have turned to the side of good is doubtful,” said Celestia. “We might have interrogated her and perhaps used her as a bargaining chip. But I suspect her minion spoke the truth. I'm so sorry, Shining Armor. I believe Cadence is probably with us no longer.”

Twilight ran to her brother and held him. She felt other touches on her coat but ignored them. He wept, and it shook her. She absorbed his vibrations. She didn't know how long it lasted, but when she came to her senses, she was in bed, and it was morning.

\\ o/` \\

“Porridge, Twilight?” She was at the breakfast table. A long wooden table she remembered eating at during ceremonies in Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. The room had been full then, and now it was just Twilight and Rarity, and the sun lighting up the beautiful wood through six dozen windows.

“It's such a bright morning,” she whispered to herself.

“What's that? Oh. Yes, beautiful, isn't it? Princess Luna said that last night was the shortest night she's overseen for over eighteen hundred years. Can you imagine?” Rarity paused, waiting for Twilight to respond, or take porridge, or something. “Well, I can try to imagine what happened eighteen centuries ago, but it's only an exercise in whimsy, isn't it? I do hope the extra sun we got doesn't disrupt anything important. I was beginning to feel somewhat flushed, myself, but it doesn't show in my coat, does it?”

Twilight looked slowly at Rarity. “Where's my brother? Is he okay?”

The beautician's expression grew tender. “Your parents are with him, as is Spike. I have no doubt he'll recover.”

“He was really in love with Cadence, wasn't he? It wasn't... it wasn't the imposter the whole time, was it?”

The shock in Rarity's face revealed that she didn't know any better than Twilight did. Yet she only said, “I'm sure he loved her, Twilight. You don't imagine that despicable creature could have charmed and won him over on her own, do you?”

Twilight slowly drew the bowl of porridge over, not looking up. She added nuts and raisins and ate, trying to ignore the rays of sun all around, trying not to think of... to think of...

“I believed her,” she spat, disgusted with herself. “I believed my brother's explanations, and I believed the changeling queen. I fell for everything, and now my brother's... now he's...”

A stool slid against wood and Rarity seated herself next to Twilight. “Please don't cry, Twilight. It isn't your fault. None of us realized the true danger.”

“But I'm the one who knew something was wrong!!” wailed Twilight, looking up. The sunlight from six dozen windows was too dazzling for her. “I'm the one who used to know Cadence. The rest of you... just believed her, but I...”

“Twilight, please!”

“I saw right through her, and I... and I still did nothing.”

Twilight dipped her head and let Rarity hold her. She could smell her porridge, but her eyes were shut. Her brother frolicked in her mind; Cadence appeared and made him happy. The shadow that was black, slim-necked Chrysalis appeared, eyes innocent and wings spread. Little Twilight watched her crush Cadence with an eager hoof. Shining Armor fell under a spell; Twilight did nothing.

“Twilight,” said Rarity. “She was a wicked creature of deception! She could have fooled anypony. Please... eat your breakfast.”

Twilight took a bite. It felt good to eat, so she ate. Rarity stroked her hair for a while before reseating herself. Clouds tempered the sun, but no one else came; this part of the palace was silent.

There was orange juice, something Twilight couldn't get in Ponyville. Maybe she should learn how to conjure up oranges. She drank deeply and sat, staring at the cloudy skies.

“I do hope you'll forgive me,” said Rarity, watching alongside her. “But your brother is a very... dashing stallion. For someone so noble as him to suffer so greatly...”

Twilight turned her head toward Rarity, puzzled.

Rarity looked embarrassed. “Well, he shouldn't have to be alone, is all I mean,” she said dryly.

The gears in Twilight's head turned all too slowly. “Are... are you saying you fancy my brother?”

Rarity shrank in her seat. “I'm sorry, Twilight. It was too soon to bring it up. Please, forget I said anything.”

Twilight shook her head slowly. She sighed. Eventually, she spoke. “If you like him, Rarity, you should tell him. Get to know him. Maybe once you know him better than I do, you could be very happy together.”

Rarity's face was like a second sun at the edge of Twilight's vision. “Oh, Twilight, do you really think so? You don't object?”

Twilight shook her head and said, “You and he may well be perfect for each other.” But what she thought to herself was: Better the devil you know.

After all, Rarity had caught the bouquet.

\\ o/` \\

Seven weeks later, Cadence's body was found in the abandoned crystal mines beneath the palace. She had died of starvation. It was not easy for an alicorn princess to starve, said Luna, who had kept herself alive for a thousand years on the moon and ought to know. But Cadence had been young―as young as a mortal. She hadn't yet learned how to cope with privation. And on top of the lack of food and water, there had been another kind of privation―the lack of love. She had feared her fiancé would wed a monster, and she had been right. Who could fault a young princess for perishing under circumstances like that?

Her funeral had been held weeks before, and tens of thousands of ponies from all over Equestria had come. Twilight had spoken, though now she didn't remember her eulogy. It had felt like a festival of sadness, and now it was done, and there were no more memories left to honor. Princess Celestia, who had studied the body, said that Cadence had probably still been alive at the time.

Fine.

END OF MOVEMENT 3

-

Coda:

Spike makes a suggestion.
Luna deigns to listen.
Chrysalis is caring.
Maybe these were missing!

Twilight stalls a stallion.
Twilight wends a wedding.
Twilight crushes changelings;
Where is all this heading?

Spike, Woona, Chrysalis.
Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.
Mighta wound up worsa.
Mighta gone more gooda.

Just ask Lady Rarity
As she pursues her plan:
Can we change our destinies?
Sure! We! Can!

+/-
-/+

Author's Note:

So ends the Canterlot Cantata. I'm really curious what your thoughts are. :-)

I wrote this because I found that I adored the season finale, but that it seemed to me it could have taken a lot of different turns. Even a two-parter doesn't have space for the fertile branching that written fiction allows for. This doesn't even exhaust the possibilities that occurred to me. When Cadence hears Chrysalis taunting her in the crystal caverns, there's a sudden gleam in her eye--what if that were a signal that she was really still an imposter, using Twilight further by making her think she was the genuine Cadence? What if she really were Cadence, but Twilight simply couldn't be convinced? See what I mean? Complexity lies in the freshness of the unknown.

If you liked this, please check out my other stories: Apple Whine and The Combinatorics Project. I'll be posting the appendix to the latter before long.

Comments ( 46 )

:fluttercry: That last chapter was sad.... I have to say I liked the first solution the best.

Ah no more i was hoping for more ow well it was cool while it lasted

That... Was sad. Great story though.

Both one and two worked for me. Three...not so much.

Very well-written. A couple misspellings, but a great work nonetheless.
You have my +1 & fav.

The wedding went off without a hitch.

magnetinspirado.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/beaker-oh-shit.jpeg
Can't wait to read the rest! :pinkiehappy:

I liked the references, and I want to know what Twilight's dream was an allusion to, please.

Jwhiz #8 · Feb 1st, 2013 · · 13 ·

Oh boy, is this one of those "correction" fics where fanfic writers act like they can write better than the staff?

You know, randomly deciding to kill people unnecessarily really is one of the most common cartoon (and action movie) villain flaws. Interesting to see things play out with a less insane Chrysalis (because making Twilight disappear immediately after she accuses you of being an imposter is actually the opposite of covering it up).

Very good in fact better then good this was amazing so because of that I shall now go forth to check out your other work...

Good use of the scent concept.

Though I wonder why no one tried a tracking spell on the real Cadence...

Wow that was kind of a dark ending. I think I liked the previous ones better.

You wrote The Combinatorics Project? Wow. I read this whole thing and didn't even notice. Those are two very different stories, and both are well-worth loving (and their places in the featured box).
You were very astute in noticing a lot of things, which is also something I noted with The Combinatorics Project (and in hindsight, is what connects them as being by the same author.) I loved your little lines about how Pinkie should have been paying royalties for singing happy birthday (which I was actually thinking as I read it) and Twilight's little feelings about things she had done in the alternate universes of other chapters. It's wonderful that these thoughts blend in seamlessly with your writing. I think I may need to check out all your other works :raritywink:

I hated this last chapter! I'm sorry, but... I love Cadance. :pinkiesad2: :pinkiesad2: :pinkiesad2: :pinkiesad2: :pinkiesad2:

And I love Cading, so... Yeah. First chapter was best chapter.

“Maybe I can dress up in a big long fireproof robe that covers the wheelbarrow and pretend to be a bunch taller than I really am and Spike can set me on fire and we'll scare all those meanies off!”

Is this supposed to be Princess Bride?

It's a shame this story is finished, I'd have liked to see a part in which Twilight and Chrysalis come to this:

4.bp.blogspot.com/-rUMQUNhjMaU/URVQulzJ1FI/AAAAAAABSzA/abQWVsXEBxA/s1600/mylittlepony4dfBIG.jpg

Wait wait wait wait...they just presumed Cadance dead without even looking? They had a funeral while she was still alive? If they knew Alicorns could withstand a lot, they should have not jumped to conclusions like that. I pin Cadance's death on those morons through their negligence in that case.

Good story!

As cruel as I may sound like (and I hate to be cruel), some part of me was hoping to see a version where there were no changelings, the Cadence was real and Twilight just badly messed up. It would have been equally cruel as the last part. What would have Twilight done? Maybe she would have just walked away, out of shame, and never returned. Everyone would eventually forgive her, but they could not find her. The cruelty would have been immense: broken friendships, Sharmor and Cadence both blaming themselves for losing Twilight, maybe their marriage would have ended up in a divorce. Celestia going insane when her locator spells fail. No more Elements of Harmony, so other enemies would have taken over Equestria. And so on.

Using greed-growth to upsize Spike and let him teleport Twilight to Celestia? Brilliant.

I also like how your changelings are silent like the ones in canon were.

I remember in one of the interviews the writers saying that the original idea for the wedding didn't involve Changelings, and instead was about Twilight mistrusting Cadence, who was indeed the original one suffering under the stress of the wedding.

Anyway, I think that you exhausted all the (reasonable) changes that could happen due to choices of the characters. It was a fun exploration of the alternatives, thanks for writing it!

2262280
Yes, the original was going stale so I had to get more, here you go. :twilightsmile:

1481340 I guess now you see where the Sad tag comes in! I agree that Twilight and her friends made amends in the episode, but I think showing Cadence with each of them was more about showing how the real Cadence is a good sport and a load of fun, which is a very refreshing relief at that point.

I do think you have a good point in that Twilight could easily have been wrong about Princess Cadence, as someone else pointed out she was in the episode's original story. Although some signs, like the evil grin, are harder to write off than others. I don't think the spell she cast on Shining Armor has a -perfect- explanation, as Movement 2 gets into. :raritywink:

Anyway, writing a version in which Cadence was genuine from the start might have been tempting, except that these chapters are single-point-of-departure stories, meaning I'd made up my mind not to alter what happened before the story diverges from actuality. Before reading on, can you identify the one exception I allowed myself to that rule? :rainbowhuh:

Answer: It's what Spike believes the word 'bachelor' to mean. :moustache:

1614117 Fair point! I think I tend to enjoy stories without as much conflict as the norm, or at least I have more tolerance for lack of conflict than others. Sometimes I find it enjoyable to reason things out carefully step by step. There was a Lion King fanfic wherein that happens that I especially liked.

1614132 Interesting point about Celestia holding back. True, she may have been, but I feel like a strong Celestia would have been able to win regardless. When you've been around the block a few thousand times, you learn tricks for avoiding collateral damage, or so I assume. In any case, I'm not saying the episode proved that Celestia is weaker than we thought--that's just the interpretation I chose to go with in this story.

As for how Chrysalis was taken down by the power of the same pony she defeated originally, I think the key is that the love between her and Shining Armor was much more powerful than Cadence's magic on its own. :twistnerd:

1615455 Hehe, yeah, yeah. Celestia never said she was easy to work with--everypony just assumes she is. :trollestia: I like your concept that Chrysalis was just imitating a catty Cadence, though her good nature at the end of the episode seems to counterindicate that.

1615764 You were hoping for Twilight not to end up embarrassed and humiliated--I wonder if the actual ending was even worse for you! :facehoof: Good catch on the use of Chryaslis's name; I fixed that. I didn't actually read the other fics you mentioned until you mentioned them, but fortunately my path ended up being sufficiently different, I think.

1618487 Comparing magical aura colors? That. Is. A. Good. Point. :rainbowderp: I guess it's the same reason only Pinkie noticed being grayed out in The Return of Harmony. :pinkiehappy:

1618784 Agreed, that would be an interesting story, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone's written it! As noted above, though, I was avoiding changes that altered the story's background.

1630161 All good points! And thanks! :twilightblush:

1704539 Uh oh. If Movement 2 hit you in the feels, I shudder at what Movement 3 may have done! :applejackconfused:

1715756 I'm glad you liked the Twi/Spike conversation in Movement 2! I really enjoyed writing that part. And yes, I'm assuming that Shining Armor isn't actually being enchanted by Queen Chrysalis's healing spell--it's just that she drains love from him at the same time, and he's already topsy-turvy for her.

1968920 I can understand your feeling that way. I mean, Movement 2 kind of was a take-that kind of deal. I love FiM, but I love to make fun of its shortcomings too. :pinkiehappy:

2056645 I notice this comment got two thumbs up. Good to know at least three people appreciated the sad ending! I wasn't sure how I'd end the second or third chapters until I got to their respective ends, but once I'd written them I knew I'd made the right decision. I can't exactly explain why the story had to end sadly, but somehow I know that aesthetically the whole composition fits together better this way. :coolphoto:+:raritystarry:+:rainbowkiss: = pretentousface

2056745 Twilight's dream actually wasn't an allusion to anything, although I may have been vaguely thinking of Lauren Faust's Galaxy Girls concept when I wrote it.

2057333 The same reason they didn't track Shining Armor in Movement 1--no one had thought Cadence was in danger, so they didn't bother placing a trace on her before she was abducted.

2061628 If it's worth anything... I love her too! :duck:

2063127 Eeeeyup! Pinkie is the max reference. :pinkiesmile:

2108335 Celestia imagines that Chrysalis had spirited Cadence away somewhere outside the city--she has no way of knowing she's right under Canterlot Palace. That said, she and Luna do continue searching even after the funeral. I'm now imagining that Luna even suggests to Celestia that they could tear up the palace floor and look in the old crystal caves, but that Celestia tears up and says that it's extremely unlikely they'd find her there, and that she might well already be dead. Since the mood is much more somber than in Movement 1, they narrowly decide not to further damage morale by wrecking the palace. When they eventually discover Cadence's body, Celestia feels absolutely terrible about this decision, and spends the next hundred years in emotional exile, never letting herself get too close to anyone as a twisted repentance for her failure.

Does that make you feel better? :scootangel:

2111620 Wow. You've got the spirit of the thing, I must admit! But as noted above, I decided not to make any changes that had to occur before the divergences in the story. However, Soge says the original episode concept began as you describe. I wonder how embarrassed Twilight would have been if they'd gone that route.

2270739 Fascinating! There's a good moral there too, if not exactly a thrilling adventure.

I'm glad you liked my story! But I think there are reasonable alternatives I didn't touch. One I was tempted to explore takes off in the crystal caves after Twilight verifies Cadence's identity. Chrysalis laughs evilly, and a spark appears in Cadence's eye. When I first saw the episode, I feared that even this bedraggled Cadence was still somehow a fake, meant to boondoggle Twilight even further. But what could the purpose of that have been? To drain Twilight's love as well, perhaps? It would have been fun to plot out. :trixieshiftleft:

Looks like I used a poor choice of words. The tracking/trace I'm referring to is not a "homing beacon" spell that would be placed before hand. The tracking/trace spell would be cast once the pony in question goes missing, and it would search for the pony's individual magic signature (all ponies have magic, remember that) so it would work a bit like a radar. Unless Cadence was in a place that was magically sealed off, she would have a very strong return since she's the third most powerful alicorn in Equestria.

And how difficult would it be to trace an alicorn, given that there are only 3 in Equestria at that time?

2424286 Yes, thank you! Though I imagine that things really go to hell in her country during that century of emotional exile, as a distant ruler can be interpreted as one that doesn't care.

2424705 It's certainly reasonable to hypothesize the existence of such spells. One story I loved assumed that Celestia and Luna can find the location of any pony anywhere through the use of their cutie mark--so those who wish to hide must remove them. :raritydespair: However, for this story, I chose to assume Celestia and Luna were relatively weak and don't have any spells that can locate particular ponies. They could probably have found Cadence except that her magic had been drained from her. Why did I do it this way? More suspense!

2425188 Sure--have it your way! :trollestia:

Rather interesting. :twilightsmile:

Best one yet, due in large part to the length, and the fact that it ended on a down note. And really, that's what life is: a series of down endings.

I especially liked everything from Spike growing up to the defeat of Chrysalis. I thought it was a very well orchestrated. Their victory felt genuine and well earned. The dialogue when Twilight and Pinkie are tempting Spike, and the explanation of how Pinkie turned him back, are very touching.

Oh, Cadance... that hurts deep down. Not to mention what exceptionally bad news it is for the Crystal Empire.

I agree about how interesting all the dozens upon dozens of ways that storyline could have gone are. But that's what fanfiction is for! :V Thanks for writing this story. The endings made me cringe and be thankful for the canon outcome, if nothing else, but it was awesome finding this story for the first time and have my mind opened to the possibilities.

Also I really liked the way you formatted the story with the chapter titles, poems and sneak peeks.

You write a really good Pinkie Pie.

Cadence's fate here was saddening, but that's understandable; this was far from an optimum scenario for the whole wedding. I did enjoy the bachelor-trebuchet misunderstanding, and the idea of Rarity starting to make moves on Shining Armor, as disturbing as it is in some ways, is very fitting. She's got a thing for white unicorn stallions with royal connections, apparently! :duck:

No matter what choice I choose...Chrysalis always lose....

3642621
Don't feel to bad My Queen loses a lot as well
Crysalis is just destined it seems for failure

Well, everything was really great, but the ending, after Chrysalis was hit with the elements, really felt very rushed.
Everything speed up from that point, while I adored your pinkie pie, it almost felt like the ending was written by a completely different, and lazy, person.

I mean the elements destroying something? Like killing? The elements of Harmony? Banishment and 'Stoning' is one thing, but complete deletion?

Naaah.

I also chuckled that Luna said she kept herself alive on the moon. Alicorns are much more resilient then all the races, meaning they don't starve this fast, and besides that, Luna was banished in the moon, as in sealed within it, despite everyones believes having build a city on it and all that crap.
It was a very similar condition as with Discord, really. I doubt the elements of harmony, who represent all the good in friendship, would mercilessly kill a sapient creature. The changeling, while different to ponies, are not some kind of demonic entity. Just another species.

And none to surprisingly, Rarity already declares her interest in shining with the body of Cadance not even being that cold.

The ship sailed of at the wrong port, on the wrong time.

6169616 :trollestia: I hope you don't imagine they let me watch!

Have you thought about doing some other mlp "What If..?" stories? I rather enjoyed this one and would love to see you do some more like this.

6558589 I can't say I've had other ideas for how characters could affect plots by behaving different, but sometimes an episode makes me think--what if they went off in this direction, instead? Today, for example, I wondered what a friendship emergency starring Twilight and Rainbow would look like, since we don't see this pair together much.

Do any ideas come to mind for you? :unsuresweetie:

6565537

Here's a few what if's I have been thinking about lately. Feel free to use any for a story if you like. =)

Mlp what if’s

Friendship is Magic:
What if Twilight chose to delay research on the tale of the two sisters to attend Moon Dancer’s party?
What if Celestia had told Twilight the truth about Nightmare Moon?
What if Rainbow Dash had joined the Shadowbolts?

Boast Busters:
What if Twilight had chosen to challenge Trixie?
What if Pinkie Pie had challenge Trixie?
What if Snips and Snails had angered an Ursa Major?

Griffon the Brush off:
What if Rainbow had sided with Gilda?
What if Gilda had not left?

Sonic Rainboom:
What if Rainbow had confronted Rarity?
What if Rainbow was not fast enough?

The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000:
What if Flim and Flam had not sacrificed the quality of their product?
What if the Apple family had refused Flim and Flam’s challenge?

Canterlot Wedding:
What if Chrysalis posed as Cadance in the caves?
What if Twilight was replaced by a changeling?
What if the love spell failed?

Wow! It's refreshing to see so many different what-ifs for this episode that don't focus on bashing the other Manes and Celestia for not believing Twilight. And you still manage to wring some great feels out of it.

And Rariarmor is a guilty pleasure of mine, so that was neat.:trollestia: (Seriously, I would never want anything to come between Shining and Cadance, but if something unfortunate happened to the Princess... well, it seems a perfect fit.)

All the musical phrasing here really makes me wonder what this would sound like as an actual orchestral piece! Good work!

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