• Published 2nd Sep 2012
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Harmony Theory - Sharaloth



Rainbow Dash awakens in a strange land and must discover why, and how to return home.

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Chapter 6: Lies and Camouflage

Taking the maxim of 'testing to destruction' to heart was, perhaps, not my best idea. Yet, after witnessing their shattering at the hooves of Nightmare Moon and subsequent reconstitution, I was filled with an absolute certainty that the physical Elements were themselves indestructible. The very idea was absurd ... and, perhaps foolishly, I set out to prove it wrong.

The results were decidedly mixed. I could smash the Element of Magic with a hammer and have it bend and break 1, yet I asked a blacksmith to see if it could be re-forged he found it utterly beyond him to alter it in any way. After a series of experiments I found that it wasn't the physical force that had an effect, but the will of the Element bearers that determined whether the Elements could be damaged or not. If a bearer wanted them damaged, they were, but if the bearer was not a direct cause of the damage they remained unbreakable by any force brought to bear.

Most interestingly, or perhaps disturbingly, the Elements have been 'broken' several times by powerful villainous forces. Each time they have regenerated, often in response to a re-affirmation of the friendship and principles of bearers who wield them, but the fact that they were broken at all suggests a relationship between the Elements and the enemies they are used against. Or perhaps that my conclusion was wrong, and it is not the bearers that decide when the Elements can be damaged, but the Elements themselves.

1 Please note that the regenerative capacity of the Elements is detailed later in this section, but was well established at the time I carried out this particular experiment.

-From the second section of Harmony Theory by Twilight Sparkle, including footnote

Chapter 6: Lies and Camouflage

Lieutenant Hard Boiled strained, sweat breaking out over his face as he stared at the weights set before him. They were set on a black table that looked stark against the pale beige walls of the clinic, and that alone was distracting enough to threaten his concentration, but he forced through it. The copper glow of his magic covered one of the weights, and it wobbled, rattling against the table. He pushed, pulling out all the energy he could, but felt his reserves drying up fast. Finally he gave up, letting the glow of magic fade from around his horn and taking a couple deep breaths. The air in the doctor's office was stifling in its sterility, it always felt like he had to struggle for breath. He figured it was from all the hospitals he had stayed in as a foal.

"You've been letting your exercises slide," Doctor Booth noted, his tone disapproving.

HB gave the other unicorn an apologetic look. "Sorry, Doc. I've been caught up in work is all."

Dr. Booth sighed. "You can't neglect your exercises, Mr. Boiled. Your horn may seem strong now, but we can't rule out the possibility of a relapse. A possibility which becomes more likely if you don't keep your telekinesis strong."

"I'm doing two and a half kilos," HB said. "That's pretty good. Most unicorn cops I work with can barely lift two."

"Most of the ponies you work with don't have your condition." The doctor wrote something onto his notepad. "You were capable of three point four kilograms seven years ago. You've lost nearly a full kilogram of telekinetic lift since then. Your neglect of your basic exercises and your overuse of your Talent-specific magic will cause you problems. You know that. Have the headaches been getting worse?"

HB wanted to lie, to say that he was fine. But it would go against everything he was, so he didn't. "Yeah," he admitted. "More frequent, too. Can't sleep with my horn touching the pillow. Working around that's been giving me back problems, and that's been making the headaches worse."

"How about when you're using magic? Are the headaches worse then?" HB nodded. "Is that why you've been putting this checkup off?"

"You're going to tell me to quit using my magic and focus on telekinesis," HB scoffed. "Of course I've been putting this off. I've got a job to do, and I need my magic to do it right."

"There are plenty of earth pony and pegasus detectives," the doctor pointed out.

"None of them are as good as me."

"Isn't that a little arrogant?"

"Look at the arrest records, Doc. I'm ahead by kilometers," HB said. "Look, I know I've been letting it slide, and it's hurting me. How long before it's critical?"

"I can't say," the doctor said.

"I know when you're lying, Doc," HB reminded him.

"Fine," the doctor relented. "Even at this rate of decay, there's no guarantee of a relapse. At most the chances are going to be forty percent. But if you kept up your telekinesis that forty percent would drop to nothing. With average daily use of your telekinetic powers, and assuming the amount of magic use you've reported is accurate, you've got a decade before it should get serious."

"A decade? Sounds like a good buffer."

The doctor shook his head and put down his notepad. "A decade before it gets serious, I said. By serious, I mean you'd have to be hospitalized. The headaches will become more frequent and more powerful. They'll be full-blown migraines in a couple years, if they aren't already. The sensitivity issue will become worse as well, eventually it will get to the point where any contact at all with your horn will be agony. That includes air. A light breeze is going to feel like sandpaper on your brain. Is that something you're looking forward to?"

HB winced. "No."

"Then you'd better start doing your exercises," the doctor said.

"Right. Any way I could do something that takes less time each day?"

Doctor Booth rolled his eyes. "You're not going to lower your use of magic, so no. But there are things you can do that will help. Use your telekinesis whenever possible. Open every door with it, pick up every book or glass or plate. When you write, write with telekinesis, not mouth-writing. Try to carry little things with you wherever you go. So long as you exercise your telekinesis throughout the day, you should find the exercises easier, and therefore quicker, to do."

"Sounds fine," HB said. "You got anything for the headaches?"

The doctor gave him a steady look, disapproval etched in the lines of his face. "You can't just take a pill and ignore this."

"I'm not looking to," HB said. "I'll start doing the exercises again. I promise, okay? I just need something to dull the headaches when they happen."

The doctor wasn't happy about it, but he relented. A promise from Lieutenant Hard Boiled was as good as gold, and he knew it. "The prescription I'm giving you is a strong one. Take them when you know you'll be using a lot of magic, it should reduce the pain to manageable levels. I'm also giving you another prescription for sleeping medication, take it and it should de-sensitize your horn enough for you to get a good night's sleep. Do not 'forget' to take it. A good night's rest is as essential as the exercises in keeping your health up."

HB sighed, but nodded, taking the two forms the doctor floated over to him. After that he left the clinic, heading for the pharmacy a little ways down the street. As he was walking he caught sight of Barry coming towards him, a full satchel thumping at his side. The earth pony Detective was working the tunnel-murder case with him, and HB had given him the unenviable task of digging up all the background on the area and the mysterious blue mare that he could find. The excited skip to his trot meant that he had found something.

"Lieutenant!" Barry said, coming up next to him. "I've got something."

"No, really?" HB grumbled, walking to the pharmacy.

"Yeah, really," Barry said without irony. "It was kinda deep in the records, but I think you're gonna want to see this."

"I'm sure I will," HB said. "I've got to grab some stuff here. Why don't you get us a seat at the coffee joint, we can talk about it over lunch."

"Sure thing!" Barry said, then cantered off to do just that.

HB shook his head at the other pony's enthusiasm, then went in and ordered his drugs. The pharmacist said it would take an hour to get it all ready, which suited HB just fine. An hour for lunch then he could start popping those anti-headache pills. He never understood why they couldn't just toss it all in a bottle right then and there, but his Talent was Finding Truth, not Bottling Pills, so he couldn't really complain.

When he got into the coffee shop Barry had already taken a little booth by a window, two steaming cups of overpriced caffeine sitting in front of him. It was a little cramped as HB slid himself in opposite his fellow detective, but the smell of the coffee overrode the discomfort of the seat.

"Damn, Barry, is this the good stuff?" HB asked, lifting the cup telekinetically and sipping. It wasn't done how he usually liked it. Which was black and burnt and hot enough to wake him up from a poor night's sleep, but even he could still tell it was expensive.

"Yes, sir," Barry said. "Got a taste for it while I was at walking the beat, never got used to the coffee at the office."

"How much of your paycheck do you go through a week for this stuff?"

"I got a discount card," Barry grinned.

"Tell me what you've found," HB said.

Barry reached into his satchel and pulled out a photo. "Take a look." It was a picture of another picture, a painting of a blue pegasus mare with a rainbow mane and a distinctive Glyph. It was a fanciful scene, with the pegasus zooming out of some sort of rainbow explosion with one of the mythical cloud cities in the background.

HB whistled as he pulled the picture towards him. "Nice job. So she's done some modeling. Not as curvy as they usually like, but she's definitely got the colors for it. Did you get the name of the artist? We should question him or her as soon as possible."

"I did, but, and you're not going to believe this, that's a Reinbrandt original," Barry said, clearly excited.

HB gave Barry a flat look. "I'm not big in the artist scene, Barry. I don't know that pony."

"You know his work," Barry insisted. "We've got a mural based on his 'Night Watch' back at HQ."

"That's been there for longer than I have," HB mused.

"The painting's been around for longer than you've been alive," Barry said. "So's this one. It's a four-hundred year old painting that's hanging in the Library of the Senate right now."

"Four hundred years?"

"Yeah, I got some history on it. Apparently it's based on old pre-Schism legends. I dug a little more and I found this," he pulled out a colorful book that had multicolored pegasus on its cover, which was titled 'The Loyalty of Rainbows'.

"This is a foal's book," HB pointed out.

"Yeah, but it's a retelling of the story that Reinbrandt used to make that painting. It's just a fairy tale to us, but there's a lot of serious scholarship on this one. I hit the college archives and found sketches and descriptions of this same mare. Colors, size, Glyph, all of it matched."

"And you think, what? That this story-book character has somehow come to life and murdered a pony?" HB asked, frowning at the items Barry had laid in front of him.

"No, not really," Barry said, leaning in and lowering his voice. "No one could do what she did, right? Had to be some sort of magic giving her a boost. Well, if they're going to do that they might as well also change her appearance, right? Make her impossible to identify."

HB nodded, similarly keeping his voice low. "That's a good point. Illusions don’t usually hold up under direct contact, though. She got hit enough that any illusion spell should have failed."

"What if it wasn't illusion?" Barry pointed out. "What if it was just an elaborate dye job? You can even cover up Glyphs if you're careful about it. I've seen crooks do that before."

"I have too," HB mused, his estimation of Barry's abilities going up a notch. "That just leaves us at square one, though."

"I don't think so," Barry said. "I had to dig to find out all of this. You wouldn't know this specific image from the story book, and unless you know what you're looking for the college archives are kind of a mess. I think that someone else was reading the same stories I was. I think they were doing something in that tunnel that got James Bay killed, then they panicked when those two officers showed up and since whoever she is was already blue, they just slapped on a mane-dye spell and a Glyph cover, then charged her up and sent her out."

"You're assuming she was already blue because of the feathers," HB said.

Barry nodded. "Forensics said they aren't dyed, I checked. Hoof prints in the blood match the bruises on Officer Forrest, too."

HB had already known that, and he nodded. "Did you pull a list of who's been looking at those archives? Maybe been in to see that Reinbrandt?"

"I did," Barry said. "No way to tell with the Reinbrandt, it's on public display, but the archives log everything. I pulled the names, and while I didn't find anybody researching our mystery mare, I did get one that struck a bell," he reached into the satchel again and pulled out a list of names and dates, and a building permit. "This is the names I got, everyone who's been researching pre-Schism legends in the past year. This other thing is a permit application to do construction on the grounds where we found the tunnel."

HB recognized the permit application, it had been one of the clues that had pointed him towards Cash's digging. "James Bay," he said, seeing where Barry had highlighted the names. "The victim."

"There's more," Barry said, nearly bouncing in his seat from excitement. "Take a look, this'll blow your socks off," he pulled out a map and laid it over the files and photos. It was a copy of something ancient, the kind of map you'd see in an adventure movie about searching for lost treasure or some hidden tomb. He recognized some of the geography as being the area around Orion City.

"What am I looking for?" he asked.

"Here," Barry said, poking a hoof at the map. There were a mess of squiggles and strange shapes that looked like clouds about the area. "This is a map from just after the Schism, maybe fifty years. James Bay had several copies made. This, right here, is where a cloud-city supposedly fell out of the sky."

"A cloud-city? More mythology?" HB asked, sipping from his overpriced coffee.

"Yeah, but listen, there's evidence that these things actually existed, pre-Schism. While I was looking into this I ran into some research that says some of the clouds they used for these cities weren't exactly normal. They were more solid, even for ponies like you or me. Solid enough to put stuff on them. When they fell they actually had an impact, and they stuck around for a long while afterwards."

"And this is where they were digging," HB said.

"That's right," Barry replied, though it hadn't been a question. "I talked with some of the pre-Schism historians over at the college and they said even the solid clouds would fall apart into water vapor eventually."

"But the stuff you put on them wouldn't," HB reasoned. "The pedestal at the end of the tunnel. They were after whatever was on it. You think it was from this cloud city."

"When I got this map from the college I asked them if anyone else had copies made. This isn't exactly a hot item, so I got a definite answer," Barry said, grinning as he laid out his findings.

"James Bay," HB said.

"Yes sir," Barry confirmed. "His dig permit was denied, but I guess he wanted whatever was in there too much, and went ahead anyways. You can't do something like that on your own so he had to have accomplices, and I'd bet whatever they found down there was important. Important enough to kill for."

"A pre-Schism relic," HB reasoned.

"Something that the classic pegasi honored," Barry added.

"Any idea on what that something is?" HB asked, then took a few more gulps of coffee, deciding that he didn't like the expensive stuff as much as he thought he would.

Barry shook his head, settling back in his seat. "No clue. I was hoping you'd have some ideas."

"Not yet," HB said. "But this gives us a good place to start. Now we have to start asking questions about anybody putting unknown pre-Schism antiquities up on the market. We've got to be discreet, though, and careful. If it was important enough to kill for once, they might do so again."

"I've got a few contacts that might be able to help," Barry said.

HB gave him a wry smile. "You wouldn't have made it to the SIU if you didn't. This is good work, Barry. I'm impressed. You got this done well, and faster than I could have."

"Thank you sir," Barry grinned. He shuffled all the papers back into his satchel. "Lieutenant, do you mind if I ask a personal question?"

HB shrugged. "You can ask, doesn't mean I'll answer."

Barry gave a placating nod of acceptance. "Okay, I'm just wondering about that clinic you were in. It's a horn-doctor, right? Is there something wrong?"

HB snorted. "Depends on who you ask," he said.

"It's okay, you don't have to talk about it," Barry said, looking a little disappointed nonetheless.

HB had known Barry for a couple years now, and while he had been competent enough, he had always been too eager for HB's tastes. Because of that he'd avoided working with the earth pony until now. But this wasn't a secret, and if they were going to work together on this case Barry deserved to know his partner a little better. "I have a condition," he said. Barry's ears perked up and he focused intently on the older detective. "It's something I was born with. About one in twenty unicorns are, but I had it worse than most. When I was born my horn was soft. Like wet clay soft. Magic made it worse. All unicorn foals get these magic surges, bursts of power. You can do a lot of crazy stuff as a foal that you just can't as an adult, once you find your Talent. It's all uncontrolled, and dangerous if your parents aren't careful. Well, for me those surges practically melted my horn."

"Luna's night," Barry swore. "How did you make it through that?"

"Good doctors, mostly," HB said, frowning as he remembered the long years of hard work it had taken to get healthy. "I had to wear this horn-brace. It was awful, like having a helmet on all the time. The condition made my horn very sensitive, too. Even moving my head too fast made it hurt, and the brace was always there, always irritating it even more." He shook his head and let out a sigh. "Fortunately the treatment for this condition is pretty easy. You just have to build up your telekinesis. The stronger your telekinesis, the better able it is to hold your horn together, without you even having to try. I learned early how to pick things up with my mind, and I practiced until I was able to do more than most of the adult unicorns around me. Still, it took years before I could get that brace off."

"And you were back there for a check-up?" Barry asked, leaning across the table in his eagerness to hear more.

"Yeah," HB said, shrugging. "The condition doesn't ever go away. My horn's as strong as any other unicorn's, but it'll start going soft again if I don't keep my telekinesis strong. There's more too it than that, of course. The magic that my Talent gives me still weakens my horn when I use it. I get these headaches, especially when I use magic, and my horn aches sometimes. If I overdo it, it gets sensitive again. It's just something I've lived with my whole life. I go to the doctor's to make sure I'm not getting closer to a relapse. That'd put me on medical leave for a year, maybe more."

"Wow. I hope you don't have to do that!"

HB chuckled. "Not likely to happen, if I'm careful enough about it." He drained his coffee. "How about you? Any tragic pasts or medical conditions I should know about?"

"Oh, yeah! There's lots about me you don't know!" Barry said, then tapped a hoof on his chin as he thought about it. "Umm. I, uh. Okay, so I don't think I've got any medical conditions or anything. And my past isn't really tragic."

HB shook his head. "Didn't think so. Alright, chat time is over. Take this stuff back to the office, get on your contacts. I want to know the market for a pre-schism pegasus artefact by tomorrow."

"What are you going to do?" Barry asked, getting up.

HB thought about the map Barry had shown him. His horn was aching at that, his magic pushing at him to look deeper. He needed to get his Max Cash files, he had a hunch about this one. "First, I'm going to get my pain pills. After that? I'm going to do a little archaeology."

***

Rainbow Dash crouched in the bushes, poking with the intense interest of the supremely bored at a slug that was making its slimy way across the ground. Star Fall was a little ways off, looking over a notebook and munching on some grass, as she had been since Astrid had taken off two hours earlier. Dash had wanted to keep going, or to at least stretch her wings, but both of her companions had been adamant that she stay grounded and hidden for now.

Their caution had something to do with the encounter in the Everstorm, the stallion who had turned into some kind of insect-pony thing. Star had called him a Changeling, a term Dash vaguely remembered from school. The Changeling had tried something, she knew that, but Astrid and Star Fall had been uncharacteristically silent on it or what it meant. Even when she'd asked, they'd told her that they would explain it later. That was frustrating already, and being kept on the ground when she knew her wings were well enough to let her fly was even worse. She couldn't even ask to read Star Fall's probably-boring books, since while she had learned to speak Solar pretty quickly she still hadn’t learned to read it.

When she spotted the wide shape of Astrid circling overhead she shot up, excited to finally have something to do. "You're back!" She called out as the Griffin settled in for a landing near where the two pegasi were hiding.

"Finally," Star Fall said, closing her notebook. "How long does it take to get some clothes and food?" The white pegasus had been ravenously hungry after crossing the Everstorm, devouring leaves and grass and flowers wherever they were edible like a pony-shaped vacuum cleaner. She'd slowed down in her eating, but she was still eyeing the bags the Griffin carried covetously.

"Have an apple, Fall," Astrid said in reply, tossing a large red fruit at the pegasus, who caught it and began messily devouring it. The Griffin turned her eyes to Dash. "You gonna snark at me too?"

Dash shook her head. "No, I just want to get going! I hate being stuck on the ground like this. I want to fly, Astrid. I need to fly."

Astrid rolled her eyes. "Hold your hooves, okay? We need to get you disguised first," she pulled out a couple bottles of mane and coat dye and passed them to Rainbow Dash. "The pond back there should be good to put this in. If you need help, ask."

"What?" Dash frowned at the bottles. "Why would I dye my mane?"

"And coat," Astrid said. "That Changeling was staring right at you the whole time. He was looking for you."

"Why would he be doing that?" Dash asked. "And what was going on there? You guys haven't told me anything!"

"That's 'cause we don't know what we should be telling you, how much you need to know," Astrid said, throwing another apple to Star Fall before she could interject. "It's serious stuff, Dash. Changelings are the Republic's special forces. Spies, secret police, shock troops, and assassins. If the Republic sent a Changeling after you, right into the Everstorm, then you are in real danger from them."

"I think I need to know if there's an assassin after me," Dash protested.

"That's why I'm telling you," Astrid said. "Fall and I, we can keep a low profile over here, but you? You're kinda unique, Dash. We need to make it as hard as possible for that Changeling to find you again."

"You think he survived?"

Astrid shrugged. "No money in betting that he didn't. Now go dye yourself while I stuff the black hole over here until she's nice again."

Dash looked down at the bottles, then up at Astrid. "Do I really have to?"

"Yes," Astrid said, uncompromising. "Just do it. Once you're done we can fly for a bit to dry you off."

Dash almost balked. It was a crime to cover up her wonderful mane, but the thought of finally getting to fly after being bed and ground-bound for a week cracked her resolve. She grabbed the bottles of dye and stomped off to the pool Astrid had mentioned. Thirty minutes and one horribly discolored pool later and she stalked back into the clearing they had set up in.

"Nobody laugh," she said, glaring at the both of them. Astrid was re-packing her bags while Star Fall poured a canteen of water over her head. Yellow bled from her mane, leaving it bright crimson and ruining the fiery effect.

Astrid took one look at Dash and frowned. "It wasn't supposed to be that color," she said, then snickered. "You mixed them in the water, didn't you? How the hell did you get it that shade?"

"I think it looks good," Star Fall said. "It has a nice balance, and it's nowhere near as striking as your natural colors."

Dash kicked at the dirt, cringing at how pink her legs were. "Yeah, well. I don't like it," she pulled a lock of mane out to stare at it. The hair had become a solid blueish purple that almost completely hid the natural bands of color. "It's just… wrong, you know?"

"You look pretty," Star Fall said. "Stop agonizing over it. You can wash it out after we've seen the Professor. It's only temporary."

"Yeah, I know that, but… well, my mane. It really put the 'rainbow' in Rainbow Dash. Now I'm just 'Dash'."

"Not really," Astrid said. "We'll be using a cover name. Until we get the okay, you're now Firefly."

"Firefly? Seriously? I don't even get to keep 'Dash'?" Astrid shook her head, and Dash growled her frustration up to the sky. "Why Firefly?"

"It's the fourth most common name for a pegasus mare," Astrid said. "Easy to forget."

"So not only do I not get to keep my own colors or my own name, but I have to share a name with, like, a hundred other ponies? Rrrgh! I hate not standing out!"

"That's the point, Dash," Star Fall said, walking over to the newly-pink pegasus and laying a comforting hoof on her shoulder. "You can't stand out. Not with a Changeling after you. He won't stand out. You won't even know it's him until he's got you. So you've got to make it as hard as possible for him to find you."

"He won't give up," Astrid warned. "Changelings aren’t like ponies or Griffins. They don't think or act like we do. Compassion, friendship, love. They don't feel these things, they feed on them, use them to power magic that gets inside your head. They hook themselves in, make you trust them, even fall in love with them, but they don't feel anything for anyone. They're psychopaths. Real, dangerous psychopaths, and they're working for the enemy. All they care about is their mission, and since this one wants you he will not give up until he has you."

"So I've gotta hide forever?" Dash asked, nearly shouting in her anger at the very idea.

Astrid shook her head. "No, just 'till we can get the Professor to get a look at you. Fall's certain she'll want to keep you around, and that means protection. Changeling's are tough, but Griffins? We're tougher, and trained to resist their mind-magic. After that you can flap your multi-colored tail at them all you want."

Dash sighed. "Fine. You said we could do some flying now, right? I really need to work out some anger."

"In a moment, put this on first," Astrid pointed to a pair of dresses lying on the grass.

"What? No way!"

"Your Glyph's still a problem, Dash," Astrid insisted. "We need to hide it or the dye job will mean nothing."

"You take my mane, my name, and now you want my cutie mark? Buck you, bird-brain!" Dash said, lapsing into Old Equestrian in her frustration.

"What'd she say to me?" Astrid asked Star Fall.

"She said she's unhappy, but will accept the wisdom of your decision," Star Fall said. "Dash. Please. Only for short while."

Rainbow Dash's face screwed up in anger, but then she deflated. "Fine. Wreck everything awesome about being me. So long as I get to fly," she walked over to the dresses. "Why are there two?"

"One's for me," Star Fall said. "Most ponies in the Kingdom don't go completely naked unless they're dirt poor or Royalty, and it'll cover up my own Glyph."

"And Astrid?"

"I'm a Griffin," Astrid said, holding up her talons. "Clothes only get in the way."

"Oookay," Dash said, shaking that image off and turning back to the dress. "Hey, we might have a problem here."

"What is it now?" Astrid asked, rolling her eyes.

"Well, I'm kinda dripping with pink and blue dye. These dresses are white. Won't that, uh, you know, tip the bad-guys off to the disguise?"

Astrid smacked herself in the head. "Stupid! Of course that will fuck up the disguise! Celestia burn it all! Goddess fucking damn it!"

"I don't know some of those words," Dash said. "But I'll take that as a 'yes'."

"We'll have to wait for you to dry off," Astrid steamed, stalking back and forth as she muttered more profanity under her breath.

"No. No way. I gotta fly, guys. I am not waiting another hour!" Dash said, flaring her wings.

"No choice, pinkette," Astrid said. "We can't have you spotted."

"I'm not waiting," Dash said.

"You're going to, whether you like it or not," Astrid snarled.

"Wanna bet?" Dash growled back, crouching in preparation for a leap into the air.

"Don't make me stop you," Astrid said, her own wings opening as her feathers bristled.

"Like you could," Dash sneered.

"Both of you stop it!" Star Fall shouted, catching their attention. "Dash can't wear the dress, and we can't let her be seen, but we do have to get moving. There's a solution here. We'll just go high-altitude. Above the cloud-layer. That will get us through the Shield Wall mountains. After that it's only a day's flight to the capitol."

"High altitude?" Astrid said, reluctant to agree to that plan. "Are you sure you can do that, Fall?"

Star Fall nodded. "I've recovered enough, I think. If I can't, we'll just land for the night. How about you, Dash? Do you think you're up to going that high?"

Dash looked into the sky, at the clouds that were gently wafting by in their hideously un-managed way. She waved a hoof derisively. "That high? Hah! Easy-peasy one-two-threesy. I could do it in my sleep."

"You might have to do it while unconscious," Astrid muttered, but nodded. "Then that's what we'll do."

They gathered up the remaining items, Astrid stuffing Dash's dress back in her bag while Star Fall donned hers. Both Astrid and Star Fall donned clear goggles, but when they offered a pair to Dash she declined. There was no debris far away from the ground, and thus no need for them. Within five minutes the three of them were in the air, climbing up to the scudding clouds.

Rainbow Dash felt the wind in her wings like liquid pleasure streaming across her body. That first flight she'd had when she had woken up in the future had been amazing, and this one was no different. Except this time she knew that she'd been grounded for a week, had experienced every painful, not-awesome minute of it. Sure she had made friends and learned a new language, but it would have been so much better to do those things and still fly. She couldn't resist the urge to show off a bit, zooming ahead and doing loops around her two companions, who were watching her aerial agility with awe.

She still wasn't happy with having to hide herself, and wearing a dress was going to suck massively. She was just glad Rarity wasn't here, those plain white dresses would never have survived the fashionista's attentions. They were girly enough already. None of that really mattered, though, not so long as she had the freedom of the skies. She whooped in joy and practiced a few of her easier stunts. Her wings were healed, but it would take some work to get them back to full strength after a week on the ground.

Eventually Dash dropped back to fly with Astrid and Star Fall, keeping an easy pace with them as they broke the cloud layer and headed north. Most of the geography was still alien to Dash, even though she knew that the eye of the Everstorm was Ponyville and could use that to orient herself by. Still, she recognized the mountain where Canterlot had stood, or rather what was left of it. It looked like most of the impressively tall peak had fallen off in the intervening years, leaving a wider but shorter mountain. She could see the half-buried remnants of Canterlot, though. Just a few broken spires were all that remained of the thousand-year capitol of Equestria.

"Hey Dash!" Star Fall called over, breaking her out of her reverie.

"Yeah, Star, what's up?" Dash replied, gliding up next to the white pegasus.

"I want to see you Cloudwalk," Star Fall said, pointing at the cloud they had just begun passing over.

Dash snorted. "Sure, I guess," she said, then dove for the cloud. She landed on its puffy surface and folded her wings, showing them that she really was standing on it.

Star Fall and Astrid exchanged some words that Dash didn't catch, but then Star Fall descended. A look of intense concentration crossed her face and she alighted next to Dash, her hooves finding purchase on the cloudstuff. Astrid circled above them, watching carefully. "This is incredible," Star Fall said.

"What's incredible?" Dash asked.

"You."

"Well, yeah, but what specifically?"

"Those tricks you were doing earlier. This right now. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't believe it."

"Uh, Star. You're standing on the cloud just fine too," Dash said, pawing at the cloud to emphasize the point. "I know I'm cool and all, but when I come from this is stuff any pegasus can do."

"Not anymore," Star Fall said, smiling. "I have to concentrate to stay on the cloud, and I can only do that much because of my Talent, you do it without even thinking about it. Are you even cold?"

Dash frowned at that. "Uh, no? Pegasi don't get cold unless it's like twenty below."

"Nowadays they do. Light bones, fast pulse rates, low body-fat. We lose heat quick, especially when airborne."

"And we're up at high altitudes," Dash said, understanding coming to her. "That's why Astrid was worried. It's cold up here, and you're using your magic to keep up with us, aren't you? So you can't focus on keeping yourself warm."

Star Fall nodded. "This isn't so bad. I wouldn't be able to do it in winter at all."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Dash asked. "I could cut a windstream, or I could pull together a cloud chariot and pull you along. You'd just have to focus on staying on the cloud then."

"A pegasus pulling around a cloud would kinda draw attention, Dash," Star Fall pointed out. "A windstream would be nice, though."

"You got it," Dash smirked. "Take it easy, though, alright? Fly at your pace, focus on staying warm. I know I've got a thing for speed, but I'm okay with slowing down." She paused for a moment, thinking about that statement before adding: "If, you know, it's for a friend."

Star Fall smiled. "Thanks, Dash. You're my friend too," and together they soared back into the sky.

***

Calumn woke up in a bed. It wasn't a terribly comfortable bed, but it was something he wasn't expecting. He pushed his way out from under the covers, feeling all his joints protesting. He was still in the form of an earth pony filly, and so had the bladder to match and seriously needed a restroom. Finding what he needed, he did his business before taking stock of his surroundings. This was a hotel room of some sort. Two beds, none too clean linens, a stained and burnt couch and a pair of chairs next to a scarred old table. Sunlight streamed in through the curtained window, and a clock on the wall said it was well past noon.

Calumn cast his mind back to the journey through the Everstorm. He'd nearly died, and Blaze had saved him. After he had passed out, the green pony must have brought him here. Calumn spotted his saddlebags at the foot of one of the beds, open and rummaged through. That meant Blaze knew Calumn never had the money he had promised. The way Blaze had talked about it in Stormrider's, getting paid was of supreme importance to guides, so he didn't know how Blaze would react to this discovery. The fact that he was alone in this hotel room could mean any number of things.

He closed his eyes and tried to gauge his condition. He felt hurt, but not badly. His reserves of power weren't even a quarter full, but he was well out of danger. The memory of Blaze forcing him to look at the picture, to take the form of someone he loved, brought Calumn up short. He owed Blaze more than just the money promised him. He owed him his life.

He was pondering that when the door opened and the pony in question walked in, grinning as he saw Calumn up. "Hey, buddy!" Blaze said. "Hungry?" he held up a greasy bag from a fast-food place Calumn vaguely recognized from his long-ago sunland infiltration training.

"I am," Calumn said, his voice coming out like you would expect a ten-year-old filly to sound.

"This stuff is really a treat," Blaze said, putting the bag on the scratched table and pulling out wrapped foods that smelled of cheese and hay. "It's adapted from Griffin cuisine, so it looks kinda gross and meaty, but it's actually this pressed plant stuff. They call it, get this, a 'veggie-burger'," Blaze set off into giggles at that, then he adopted a thoughtful expression. "Do Changelings eat veggie-burgers?"

"Changelings eat meat and plants," Calumn said, hopping up on one of the chairs. "I'm mostly vegetarian. I only need to eat meat once a month or so. Less if I have a steady source of emotion to draw on."

"Nifty," Blaze said, pushing over one of the paper-wrapped burgers. "Eat up!" He crunched into his own burger, greasy juices running down his chin. "Mmm! Can't beat sunland food for taste! Though, honestly, I'm gonna have to take over the bathroom in, like, two hours. Also, I think I can hear my arteries hardening. 'Blaze!' They scream. 'Why have you forsaken us?'. And to that I'm all like, 'well, do you taste this stuff? Seriously, it's awesome!' And they're all like 'okay you have a point'," Blaze said, his voice going high and distant when he was talking for his arteries.

Calumn laughed, and the sound was pure and melodious and certainly not him. He stopped cold as he felt a wash of love flow into him from Blaze. He stared at the pony before shaking his head. "No," he said. "This is wrong."

"But it tastes sooo good!" Blaze said, smiling around his burger.

Calumn shook his head. "Not that. This," he gestured at his body. "This is what's wrong. You know I'm not her."

"Well, yeah," Blaze said. "I mean, I watched you turn into her. That made it pretty clear."

"But you still," Calumn paused, searching for a way to explain it. "You love her. And you're sending that love for her to me."

"Well of course I love her, and why shouldn't you be able to share some of that?"

"Because I'm not her!" Calumn said, banging a hoof on the table.

"Does that have to matter?" Blaze asked.

"Yes," Calumn said. "Who is she to you?"

Blaze stilled, putting down the burger. He looked Calumn in the eyes, his face hard and serious for once. "Strongheart, being an Everstorm guide is a job that attracts a certain kind of person. Some of us have pasts that we don't like to talk about. Some of us have dead little sisters that we would do anything, anything to see again. Even once. Even if it was fake and we knew it."

Calumn's eyes fell. He had expected something like that, but had hoped it wasn't true. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Yeah, it sucks for them," Blaze said, perking up. "Not me though. My sister's alive and well and living in Orion city."

Calumn blinked at him. "What?"

"Holly? The pony whose little-filly body you're wearing?" Blaze said, pointing a hoof at Calumn to indicate his borrowed form. "She's my sister. She's a total laugh-riot, too. Does these comedy circuits through the Republics, brings the house down every time, let me tell you."

"And she's not dead?" Calumn asked.

"Nope," Blaze said, smiling.

"So you're not using me to spend some time with a long-lost family member?"

"What? No, why would you think that?" Blaze asked, taking another bite of his burger.

Calumn shook his head. "Okay, fine, then why are you directing your love at me?"

"Because I love my sister, doofus," Blaze said, giggling. "And since you look like her, the love gets spread around. Like jam. Or butter. Or cream cheese."

"How?" Calumn demanded. "You can't just ... pick who your love goes to when you know that person isn't the one you love! It just doesn't work that way!"

"Oh!" Blaze said, then mumbled something through his mouth full of burger before swallowing and starting again. "That's what you're talking about! Okay. Now I get it. Remember back in the Storm when we were hearing voices and I said there was a trick to ignoring them?" Calumn nodded. "Well, it's the same thing, only in reverse. The trick is learning not to care about anybody. To convince yourself that you don't love somebody that you really love. It's not that hard to reverse it and convince yourself that you love somebody you really don't. Not an easy thing to do, sure, but if you're going to be a guide, then it's a survival skill."

Calumn sat back, amazed. "You can really do that? Just decide to love someone."

"Well, it's not all that easy," Blaze said. "That's why I got you to look like Holly. I really do love her, and so long as you look like her I can switch it on and off. See? Love, no love, love, no love."

Calumn swayed as he was hit with a wave of love that suddenly cut off, then renewed, then cut off again. He nearly fell off the chair from the conflicting sensations. "Stop!" he cried out, holding himself steady on the table.

Blaze started giggling again. "Okay, you are just too cute."

"Alright. That is amazing," Calumn said. "But I still don't feel comfortable with it. I'm going back to Strongheart." He blazed green and expanded to the familiar dimensions of the pony he had worn for two years.

"Awww," Blaze pouted. "But I liked seeing my sister like she was ten again. She was a lot nicer to me back then."

"How old is she now?" Calumn asked, finally taking a bite of the burger and finding that he was starving. It really did taste amazing.

"Twenty two," Blaze said. "She doesn't like to hang out with me anymore. Didn't like that I became a guide. I still catch her show whenever I can, though. Hey, do people really do that?"

"What?"

"Use Changelings to spend time with dead family?"

Calumn nodded, swallowing another bite of burger before he responded. "It's the only way we're allowed to feed," he said. "Someone loses a family member, usually someone who was in the army, and a Changeling comes and pretends to be the dead person. The family gives the Changeling love, and they give them their son or daughter back, for a while. We don't do it with husbands or wives, though. Too many problems."

"Wow," Blaze said, thinking about it. "Do the families know?"

Calumn shrugged. "They do. We put them under a bit of magic. We don't make them forget, just push the knowledge down until it's time for us to go."

"You heard your mother," Blaze said. Calumn blinked at him, confused. "In the Everstorm. You heard your mother, you even called out to her. That's not your Changeling mom, is it?"

Calumn shook his head. "We don't really have mothers. Not anymore. We had queens, once. Up until the Schism, when the Gray Mare murdered the last one. Now we can create hives, hatch new Changelings like me, but it's hard, and it requires some of us to die for it. We don't really have parents, and hive-mates are the closest thing to family any of us have, until we're placed with some grieving couple. What I heard was the mother of the pony whose body I had taken. Strongheart. His mother is a wonderful mare. She's so kind, and loving and absolutely devoted to her son."

"How long have you been him?" Blaze asked, putting down what was left of his burger.

"Two years," Calumn said. "Long enough to grow attached. To start to forget she isn't mine."

"You love her back," Calumn nodded again. "Wow, buddy, that's awesome," Blaze grinned. "You hear all sorts of stories about Changelings, but wow! I never expected that!"

"It's not normal," Calumn admitted. "It's hard to form close relationships when your entire life is supposed to be lies and camouflage. Strongheart's mother, well, she got under my skin."

"I know how it is," Blaze said, nodding sagely even though Calumn knew the pony had no way of actually knowing. "Hey, do you want me to keep calling you Strongheart? If that's the pony you're disguised as that's cool, but what if you change shape again? Do I just use the name of whoever you're pretending to be?"

"In public," Calumn said. "But between us? My real name is Calumn."

"Calumn," Blaze repeated. "Nifty! My name's Trail Blazer, but you can call me Blaze. Nice to meet you, Calumn!"

"Nice to meet you, Blaze," Calumn said, then remembered the saddlebags. "Sorry about not having enough to pay you," he said, blushing a bit.

"No problem," Blaze said. "I've got an idea about that."

"Oh? I'm all ears."

"Really? I mean, I've seen you in black-bug-looking shape and you didn't look like you were all ears."

"I... I meant that as a figure of speech."

"How do you figure speech?" Blaze asked, blinking at the Changeling.

Calumn shook his head. He was almost certain that Blaze was just trying to be funny, but he played it so straight that Calumn couldn't help but take it seriously. "No, I meant that I'm listening to your idea."

"Oh! Right. Well, you owe me, right? And I don't just mean money, but in like a personal sense," Calumn reluctantly nodded. "Okay, so I want to come along."

Calumn took a moment to process that, then gave up. "You want to what?"

"Come along! On this spy-venture thing you have going on!"

"That's... really not a good idea," Calumn said. "This is a dangerous mission. You're not a Republic agent, but if you're caught with me there won't be any mercy for you. That and I'm a trained infiltrator, and you, well, you aren't."

"But I am a guide whose Talent is always being on the right path," Blaze said. "I figured out you're looking for one of those three we saw in the Storm, otherwise you wouldn't have revealed yourself, right?" Calumn was forced to nod again. "I can help you find them. Come on, buddy. I know the sunside, I spend half my time here by default! I've travelled the cities, I know the lingo, the places to be, the places not to be, the places that you shouldn't be but you're going to be anyways because they have the best burritos. I know how to keep you from sticking out like a horn at an earth pony convention. You need me."

Calumn shook his head. "Blaze, it's just too dangerous."

Blaze snickered. "Calumn, did you hear what you just said? I cross the Everstorm for a living. You really want to compare job-danger-levels?"

Calumn opened his mouth to reply, then shut it. "You have a good point," he admitted. "But facing the Everstorm isn't the same thing as sneaking and lying your way through the Solar Kingdom with a Changeling at your side."

"Come on, worst case scenario I can provide a distraction so you can escape!"

"You'd get tried for espionage, hung as a spy!" Calumn protested.

"Who'd get tried?" Blaze said, looking at him with wide-eyed mock innocence. "I'm a nutty Storm-guide who got mind-controlled by a Changeling, I had no idea that handsome devil was making me do stuff for him and feeding from me the entire time. The shock! The horror! Come on, they'd never be able to convict me of anything."

Calumn sighed. "You're not going to give up on this, are you?"

"Nope. And as a final nail in it, I can give you the love you're going to need. Free of guilt and free of having to insinuate yourself into someone else's life. Come on," Blaze grinned, spreading his forelegs wide. "What is not to like about this?"

Calumn hung his head in defeat. "Okay, Blaze. You can come with me."

"Yes!" Blaze said, punching the air with a hoof.

"On one condition." Blaze paused in his celebration, looking expectantly at Calumn. "You don't send me love like that again. Not unless it's absolutely necessary. It just... it feels wrong. Like I'm lying to you, using you. I don't want to use you, Blaze. I think you might be my first real friend. Ever."

Blaze's smile was softer this time. "You got it, buddy. I've had other friends, but you, me, here? Now? This one's going to be special. I can just tell."

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