• Published 1st Jan 2022
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The Light Within Us - theOwtcast



Be careful what you wish for; you might get exponentially more. Someone really should have warned Thorax what he was getting himself into by wanting friendship so badly.

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Northern Heart

Upon returning to the hive, the first thing we saw was Pharynx yelling at a group of unreformed drones, holding them at spearpoint.

“What’s going on here?!” I asked.

“They were about to desert the hive!”

“Why?”

Why?!” one of them retorted. “Because what you’re doing is unbearable, that’s why!”

“Yeah, Chrysalis was much better!” another added. “Who put an incompetent fool like you in charge? We want the Queen back!”

“Bet she would come back if someling gets the incompetent fool out of the way!” snarled the third.

The rest of the group took it as their cue to a hissing pounce; Grim and Spiracle each tackled one out of the way and Pharynx stabbed one in the shoulder, but the others were all over me before I could scream at Pharynx. I wasn’t harmed, though; they were pulled off of me the next second and the oversized spider tossed them into the distance, then reverted to his usual form and bit the ones Grim and Spiracle were wrestling with.

“What have you done?!” I exclaimed, galloping to the stabbed drone.

“What? He was gonna kill you,” Pharynx shot back as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

“That doesn’t justify stabbing him! Spiracle!”

“On it!” He joined us and gave the drone a quick check-up. “It’s okay, he’ll live. But I better take him to the infirmary just in case.”

I nodded, and he and Grim picked the drone up and flew him away.

“Pharynx?” I couldn’t let this slide and he had to have known it!

“Oh, cut the drama already,” he snorted. “I wasn’t aiming for a vital area!”

“That’s not an excuse! You know I don’t condone that kind of behavior! Where did you even get the spear? I thought Psycho threw them out!”

“Psycho can’t throw out what he can’t find.”

I facehoofed. “Pharynx, you know I said no weapons…”

“Then how do you expect me to keep renegades in check? Or to defend the hive from outside forces?”

“Can’t you at least try to convince them?”

“You think they listen to words?”

“Have you tried?”

“I don’t have to! If they cared about words, they’d have joined the rainbow-colored clown force already!”

“You can’t know that for sure! And they’re not clowns!”

He sneered. “Prove it!”

“This isn’t some kind of competition, Pharynx!”

“You’re just saying that because you know I would have won!”

“What- No, I- just- Ugh, why are you doing this?!”

“Doing what? Disciplining insubordinate grubs for you?”

“I told you already, you can’t do that!”

“Even if it’s the only thing that works?”

I groaned. “Look, this conversation isn’t getting anywhere, and as much as I hate the idea of punishing you, I can’t ignore what you just did.”

“So you’re gonna, what, make me paint flowers because you know I hate it?”

“That’s not a punishment,” I said flatly. “I’d prefer something you’re more likely to see as a tangible way to benefit the hive.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“You think you could ask Proboscis to put you on one of the cleaning teams?” I asked.

“You want me to be a janitor?! I should have known you’d try to get back at me for that sooner or later!”

“No, that’s not what-”

“How long am I supposed to disgrace myself by parading around with a broom?”

“Uh, I don’t know… maybe a month or two?”

He grunted and turned away from me.

“It’s not that bad once you get used to it!”

“I don’t want to get used to it!”

“Please, Pharynx? At least try…”

“Ugh, you should have blasted me with one of those torture spells!” he shot back as he took to the air, and I was left to stand alone among the shrubs and saplings that still hadn’t fully recovered from my brother’s recent act of vandalism.

I didn’t like having to do this to Pharynx, but I couldn’t pretend nothing had happened! He could have done something else to keep that drone away from me if he’d wanted! It didn’t have to be a spear into the shoulder! What if Spiracle couldn’t help the guy? If he were to end up crippled, I could easily be expected to punish Pharynx more severely! But I didn’t want to punish him at all! Why couldn’t he have kept it at reasonable levels?

I let out a frustrated sigh and decided to check the infirmary. Spiracle would probably know a little more about his patient’s condition by now! Maybe he could ease my worries about the whole thing?

But before I could get moving, a drone came from the north and landed in front of me.

“Courier Scarab reporting in,” he said. “Crystal Empire assignment completed successfully. Princess Cadance sends her reply.”

He gave me a scroll and flew away.

My heart skipped a beat at the mention of my former overlady and I felt a deep nostalgia for the days I’d spent under her rule. She would know what to do in my situation! She had, after all, dealt with a similar problem about halfway through my tenure in the Crystal Empire! Could I ask her for advice on what to do and how not to feel bad about it?

I opened the scroll.

Office of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, HRH/Office of Prince-Captain Shining Armor, HRH
Crystal Castle
10110 Crystal Empire
To: King Thorax, HRH, of the Changelings
Re: Declaration of Peace

Dear Thorax,

We’re delighted to see you taking your new responsibilities seriously! Your hopes have come true, and like a true leader, you’re wasting no time in turning your vision into reality, just like we always knew you would! We couldn’t be prouder if you were our own son! We just know your reign will be as happy and prosperous as you deserve!

That being said, allow us to help you achieve that goal by upholding our end of the friendship you started between the changelings and the Crystal Empire. We’re ready and willing to sign a peace treaty and to formally forge an alliance with your kingdom at the soonest convenience. Visit us in the Crystal Empire whenever you want, Thorax, and bring as many changelings as you want. The doors of our castle will always be open for you, and the many friends you made here can’t wait to congratulate you in person!

Hoping to see you soon,
Cadance
Shining Armor

I couldn’t believe it! They wanted me there already, and we were about to forge an alliance! My efforts hadn’t been in vain; the Changeling Kingdom was about to be blessed with another alliance with the ponies! I couldn’t wait to get there!

But first, I had to find a couple of drones to tag along with me. I wondered if I could get a few more to come too, but I wasn’t sure at this point if any would be interested. Oh, and before I left, I still had to pay a visit to the infirmary, check on Pharynx, and get up to speed on what had been going on in my absence. Hopefully nothing too bad had happened, and just as hopefully, it would stay that way!


“Thorax? Is that really you? I can’t believe it!”

“It’s good to see you too, Paladin!”

“Wow! Princess Cadance and Shining weren’t kidding when they said you looked like a polar opposite of your old self!” He snickered, then quickly composed himself, resumed his formal stance and expression, and bowed. “I mean, you honor us by your presence, Your Majesty!”

I facehoofed and started to groan, but it turned into a chuckle. “Oh, cut it out, Paladin! That’s not my thing and you know it!”

“Hey, you can’t blame a Royal Guard for adhering to protocol,” he shrugged. “Seriously, buddy, it’s good to see you!”

“It’s good to be back,” I sighed, looking around me at the outskirts of the Crystal Empire and the city’s outer limit. “It feels like I’m back in another lifetime! Who would have guessed what would happen after I ran off that night…”

“Your life really turned upside-down, didn’t it?”

“Upside-down and inside-out is an understatement! But at least I don’t have to worry about Chrysalis hunting me down anymore, and I got my biggest wish, so I shouldn’t complain, right?”

“Right you are! So, who are your friends?”

“Blade and Feisty. They kind of have some unfinished business here.” I nodded to them, and they turned into a pair of earth ponies and trotted off. “Turns out there was more than one changeling here until recently.”

His eyes went wide. “Them…? I could have sworn I- uh, Thorax, are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Relax, I know what they’re doing and why. We discussed it on the way here and I wouldn’t have given the okay if I had a problem with it.”

“Well, if you’re vouching for them not to cause trouble, I guess I can trust you.”

“So, where are Cadance and Shining? They kind of invited me here…”

“I know. Word spread fast about your peace declaration. As far as I figured out, they didn’t want to impose a schedule on you so they didn’t know exactly when you’d arrive, but they were pretty sure you would, though I don’t think they realized it would happen so soon. But they are looking forward to seeing you again, and we’ve been instructed to take you to the castle if you show up unannounced.”

“Oh. Okay then, let’s go there! Uh, was I supposed to tell them when I’d be coming?”

“Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure they would have said so.”

We got moving.

“So what’s new in the Crystal Empire?”

“Oh, same old, mostly. Cadance and Shining’s impostors didn’t get to do much damage in the few days they spent here, but you already know that much, don’t you?”

“They didn’t go into detail, but yeah, that’s the impression I got. They must have been too busy looking for me.”

“They knew you were here?!”

“Yeah, Blade and Feisty reported it.”

“So how come didn’t Chrysalis come for you?”

I told him about Pharynx’s assignment and the trap set up for him.

“I can’t believe I almost met the guy! Too bad he was cooped up in his offi- uh, in Shining’s office, pretty much from dawn to dusk every day… Anyway, did he pass the test?”

“The trap failed. I was away before he got to run into me. I got the impression that he’d have been executed along with me otherwise.”

“Good thing you beat Chrysalis to it!”

“Yeah…” Except that I wouldn’t have beaten her if it weren’t for trying to save Pharynx…

“Anyway,” Paladin continued, “Flurry’s growing nicely! I hear she won’t be needing diapers for much longer! On the downside, she’s getting more creative with decorating the walls with her breakfast and she keeps surprising everypony with figuring out all kinds of spells on her own without needing a book to learn them!”

“That must be her aunt’s influence!”

“You bet! Hey, I wonder if she’ll recognize you now!”

“If she doesn’t, I can always shapeshift into something more familiar to her.” I demonstrated the trick. Everypony nearby noticed right away and swarmed me.

“It’s Thorax! Welcome back!”

“We heard about your heroics!”

“What’s it like to lead a kingdom?”

“Three cheers for Thorax!”

“Tell us how you did it! Please?”

I tried to answer some of the questions, but more kept coming faster than I could keep track, and the resulting cacophony was beginning to push me into a fit of panic. The multitude of ponies still gathering up around me wasn’t helping any, and before long, half the city must have arrived and the ones nearest to me managed to knock me over! Paladin had tried to keep them in order, but he got lost in the crowd pretty soon too, and probably didn’t know anymore where to conjure up a shield to save me from the hordes.

“Alright, everypony, that’s enough!” a regal voice said from above. “I know you can’t wait to see Thorax, but how about giving him some breathing space?”

That helped, and the crowd settled down and curbed their enthusiasm.

“Thanks, Princess,” I said, getting up and reverting to my own form… my new own form.

“Don’t mention it,” she said, landing next to me. “Welcome back! I know it hasn’t been that long, but we’ve missed you!”

“I’ve missed you too! I’ve missed the whole Crystal Empire!”

Shining appeared in the crowd and trotted closer.

“Welcome, Thorax,” he said with a warm smile. “You caught us by surprise there. Good thing Sentinel saw you while flying by and came to tell us!”

“So that’s how you got here so quickly!”

“That, and the fact that we weren’t doing anything else at the moment,” Cadance said. “Would you like to come to the castle now?”

“Sure!”

We got underway.

“Your room is waiting for you, just like you left it, except that the bed is made. How long are you staying?”

“I’m not sure… It’s great to be here again, but I don’t want to be away from the hive for too long at this point…”

“Well, it’s almost sundown, so you’re staying at least until tomorrow, and we’ll be glad to have you for longer if you can spare some time!”

“Thank you! We’ll negotiate the peace treaty tomorrow, then?”

“Of course,” Cadance agreed. “Auntie Celestia told me about the particulars of the Canterlot treaty. We were thinking of going with something similar ourselves unless you have any objections.”

“No, I like the way that one’s arranged.”

“Then I’ll have Gleaming Quill prepare a draft and we’ll go over it after breakfast. That should leave you more time to hang out with your friends later than if we were starting from scratch.”

“I can see them?!” This was getting better by the minute!

“Why not?” Shining asked. “You’re not expecting us to make you sit in boring meetings the whole time and to not even give you a moment to say hi to your friends, are you?”

“Well… I kind of assumed the meetings would have a recess or two in which I’d get to see them, or that I’d arrange a quick get-together after I’m done with official duties before I have to leave…”

“None of that,” Cadance scolded. “Your friends are what gave you the strength to grow as a person and to defeat Chrysalis, they can’t wait to see you again, and I know you want the same! We’ll make sure you have plenty of time to catch up!”

“Thanks, but I’ll keep it within polite limits. As much as I’d like to stay here indefinitely, I shouldn’t overstay my welcome, and the situation in the hive is… well… let’s just say I don’t trust it to not get out of control…”

“If we finish the treaty-related discussions by lunchtime,” Shining mused, “that should leave you the whole afternoon for leisure. Gleaming will need a couple of hours to go over any changes we make to the draft and create a final version for us to sign anyway. What better way to spend the waiting time than in the company of your friends?”

“Sounds good! I can’t wait!”

We were in the castle itself by then and I almost collided with a flying ball of giggling, pink fluff.

“Hey, Flurry!” I cooed. “Guess who’s back!”

She gave me a puzzled look and babbled something incoherent. I switched to a form she was familiar with, and got a warm, squealing hug in return.

“I tried to prepare her for what you look like now, but she was more interested in building a plushie pyramid,” said a voice behind me.

“I think she’s too young for classes, Sunburst,” I said with a smirk. “Are you doing it because you miss tutoring me?”

He blushed and chuckled. “Well, you were an interesting student…”

“Sunburst,” Cadance interjected, “would you like to escort Thorax to his room? We’ll take Flurry now.”

We agreed; the filly protested a little, but in the end, her mother was preferred over her foalsitters. The royals trotted off in the direction of the dining room, and Sunburst and I went our own path. I reverted to my new form shortly.

“You know, it’ll take a while to get used to you looking like that,” he said.

“I got pretty well used to it myself, though that could just be because I’m normally used to not being stuck in the same form all the time. The royal title is what I’m really struggling with.”

“I used to be uncomfortable with the ‘crystaller’ title,” he said. “I guess it’s just that big-sounding titles need some time to sink in. I’m okay now… but a king is on a whole different level than a crystaller, I guess… it’ll probably take longer for you…”

“I’ve noticed,” I sighed. “Anyway, how are you holding up after that whole thing?”

“Pretty good, actually… almost as if nothing happened… I guess they didn’t get around to feeding on me.”

“You were held in Chrysalis’ chandelier thing. I don’t know the exact rule of conduct for her throne room other than bowing until my face is almost buried into the ground and begging for mercy, but something tells me that chandelier was more of a trophy collection than a food cluster. Not that I mind you being pretty much intact!”

He yawned. “Sorry about that, Flurry’s been very lively and I have some new books that I’ve been reading-”

Now I yawned too.

“Looks like I’m more tired than I thought,” I said. “Maybe it’s best we turn in early.”

“Sure. Big day tomorrow, right? You think we’ll get a moment to just hang out?” Yawn.

“Cadance and Shining just discussed it with me. We think we’ll be done by lunch, and then I’ll be- yawn -free for the rest of the day.”

“See you in the afternoon, then!”

“Uh-huh. Good night, Sunburst!”

I opened the door of my room and went inside. Everything in it seemed smaller than I remembered, and it took me a tired moment to realize that the furniture was alright and that it was me who had changed. All of my paintings were there, smiling at me from the walls in all their colorful glory, and I smiled back at them, wondering whether to take some of them to the hive or to leave them all here to welcome me the next time I visited. Exhaustion soon pushed that dilemma out of my mind, and the bed became the focal point of my attention. I got in; it was a little small for my full size, but I could still fit in well enough if I curled up. The antlers could be tricky, but I figured I’d probably notice if they started destroying things whenever I stirred in my sleep. Hopefully my assumption was right, as I was asleep before I got around to thinking of a backup plan.


When I woke up in the morning, I was somewhat disoriented and confused by seeing the familiar crystal walls and pony furniture bathed in bright light. This was my room in Princess Cadance’s castle… I was in the Crystal Empire… Had it all been a dream? Had I never fled this sanctuary in search of help only to get involved in a mission to save the world? Had the world never needed saving? Had I never become the king of my kind? Here, as I lay in my bed thinking, it all seemed surreal; as realistic as it may have felt, could it have been but a figment of my imagination, a glimpse of what could have been had Chrysalis found a way to reach here? Could I still be living a peaceful life, unburdened by the crown I’d neither wanted nor asked for?

Then I realized my hooves were green.

A closer look at the mirror-like crystal walls revealed a hint of a reflection of my new face. Maybe I’d simply shapeshifted into this in the middle of the night! It didn’t have to mean anything!

Except it did mean everything; an attempt to undo my disguise produced no result… unless I was still dreaming?

Knock it off, Thorax! You know too well it can’t be that easy, and it won’t just suddenly pop you into an alternate timeline no matter how you’re feeling about this one!

Okay, enough crazy theories and wild assumptions. I had some… uh, negotiating?… yes, I had a peace treaty to negotiate today!

I got out of bed and strolled to the dining room. It felt weird to walk down these halls and stairways again after all this time… okay, it hadn’t been that long from an objective standpoint, but it still felt like another lifetime, or a dream of another lifetime. The soothing familiarity of my surroundings warmed my heart; this was where I’d first found a loving home, where I’d made and cultivated my first friendships, where I’d learned so much about the world, where I’d found hobbies and responsibilities, where I’d healed the wounds of the past and refused to let that past haunt me into the future. This was where I’d grown as a person more than ever before; this was where my life had found its purpose!

I’d been happy here, truly happy for the first time in my life. It was thanks to the ponies who lived here and thanks to their friends and relatives that I’d found that happiness, and for that, I would always be grateful! Their love had made me what I was today, and I would never, ever forget that!

Alas, a pang of sadness cast a shadow on my heart as a realization crept in: though I’d shared their love and friendship, though I’d made a mark of this land, though I’d called it home once, it wasn’t home anymore. Welcome as I may be among them, I belonged elsewhere now.

But it was with the well-being of that elsewhere in my mind that I’d come here, and time had come to negotiate a treaty that would ensure that goal. Even better, it would be one step closer to the unity of my two homes and strengthening the bonds of friendship!

I opened the dining room door.

...and nearly collided with Berry as she was pushing a trolley full of dirty plates.

“Oops, sorry!” I exclaimed.

“No, I’m sor- hey, you’re Thorax, aren’t you? They said you were back! I can’t believe it!” She looked me over and chortled. “Wow, you look like… like, uh…”

“Like that half-eaten salad?” I suggested, pointing at the contents of her trolley.

She burst out laughing. “Yeah, totally! I didn’t want to sound offensive, but sweet Celestia, I didn’t expect you to be that colorful! Not that nopony told me, it’s just… you know, gotta see it to believe it?”

“I know, right? It took me a moment to believe it, too!”

“It took all of us a moment,” said a voice behind me. I turned around.

“Oh, Princess, I didn’t see you there!” I fumbled. “Have you been waiting for me?”

“No, we’ve just set up the conference room and I went to see if you were awake yet. What were you doing in the dining room?”

“Oh… uh… I… I’m not sure… I guess I thought you’d be there? I kind of assumed it was breakfast time…”

“You’re right, it is breakfast time, but we hurried it up a little for your sake. You still don’t eat pony food, do you?”

“No. Would it have been easier for you if I did?”

“It’s all the same to us, and if you’re more comfortable with an entirely love-based diet, we have no problem with it.”

“Okay…” Had she forgotten that changelings had no use for physical food, or was that only a figure of speech? I didn’t want to press the issue; it would have probably been rude to get so nitpicky on such trivial matters!

Either way, the conversation on that trivial matter ended, and Cadance invited me to follow her. I was led down a couple of hallways into a room of a size and design not unlike that of the dining room, only there was a podium with a whiteboard on one end, and the central table was equipped with inkwells and stacks of parchment for every seat. Shining was already there, as was the pony I recognized as Princess Cadance’s aide.

I hadn’t realized I was standing frozen in place until Cadance prodded me.

“Thorax? Are you alright?”

“Huh- Oh, sorry… Um, I’m… not yet used to this thing…”

“Don’t worry,” Shining said. “You’ve done this before and everything went fine! Just have a seat and let’s go over the draft. If you have any questions or need a break, just tell us. Okay?”

“Yeah, uh, sure…”

I sat next to them and Gleaming Quill began reading out the draft. She was obviously in her element, and I felt bad whenever my nerves got the best of me and her outstanding performance had to be halted to allow Cadance and Shining to calm me down. What was wrong with me? I’d handled the Canterlot negotiations much better! This was pretty much just agreeing to do one thing after another the same way as in the Canterlot treaty, so why was I losing myself over and over again in fits of panic?

Eventually the last point was addressed and agreed on, Gleaming left the room, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thorax, you know we meant it when we said you could take a break whenever you needed one, don’t you?” Cadance asked.

“Yes,” I sighed. “Only, I don’t think a break would have helped…”

“Twily didn’t say anything about you being so nervous in Canterlot,” Shining interjected. “In fact, she made it sound like you’d handled things perfectly!”

“I can’t explain it,” I told him. “Spike was there so seeing a friendly face must have helped, but you’re my friends too so it can’t be as simple as that… Maybe it’s because I know you so well that I’m too worried about letting you down and blowing the whole thing? Though it can also be that I had Urtica with me then, but now she’s got changeling pox and had to cocoon herself… and I do rely on her an awful lot… or maybe I’m just thinking about stuff back in the hive that I still have to sort out?” I was on the verge of hyperventilating.

“Why don’t you join us for lunch? You don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to, but I’m guessing a relaxed conversation would do you good.”

I accepted their offer and we went back to the dining room. Once there, they motioned me to enter first; the door was closed so I pushed it open and-

“Surprise!” a group of ponies exclaimed, throwing balloons and confetti into the air. Sunburst was there, and Berry, and the three Royal Guards that had watched me in my early days here, and little Flurry Heart of course. Lunch was on the table behind them - a generous serving as far as I could see - and a ‘Welcome Back, Thorax!’ banner hung on the far wall, decorated with glitter and rainbow-colored flowers.

“Whoa… you did all this for me?!” I said, tearing up a little.

“Well, duh!” Trusty said. “What else were we supposed to do? Yell and grumble?”

“You mean, like you did when he started living here?” Sentinel quipped.

“Hey! I’ve changed and you know it!”

“We know,” I said, “and I’m honored that you threw a party for me.”

Sunburst tilted his head. “You don’t sound too happy.”

I fumbled.

Cadance stepped up. “Thorax has let it slip that things aren’t going as well for him as he’d hoped.”

“Why don’t you tell us about it?” Berry suggested.

We sat down at the table, the ponies helped themselves to food, and as they began to eat, I caught Cadance’s expectant eyes glancing questions at me in between spoonfuls she fed to Flurry. I knew what she meant. I was going to tell them all, but that had been before coming to lunch and seeing the whole setup; they’d worked so hard on this party and their spirits were so high, I didn’t have the heart to throw a wrench in it all by whining about my incompetence as a leader! Surely it could wait until another time!

“Well, what’s been troubling you?” Shining asked eventually.

The tone of his voice almost made me give in; gone was the hatred he’d once harbored towards my kind, gone were the sadistic malice and the hurtful words, and his aura suggested genuine concern. How could I not accept the helping hoof he was offering? I could unburden my soul and he - they - would give me the help I needed, just like they’d done in the not-so-distant past!

But this was a party, albeit one called simply ‘lunch’, and parties were supposed to be happy, carefree, just like the auras of my friends suggested they were feeling. They were, unlike Cadance and Shining, unaware of how much I struggled to keep myself together; they probably thought I was there to celebrate our reunion and nothing more! I had no doubt they’d help me if I asked, but would it be right of me to kill the mood they’d established?

“Nothing,” I lied. “Just the, uh… minor… issues… with royal duties, um… routine stuff, you know? No need to bother you all with that!”

Judging by their blank stares, tilted heads, and raised eyebrows, they were all but convinced, even Flurry. Hardly a surprise, really; I’d never been a good liar, even in the old days when a lie may have saved me from a beating. Unfortunately, the side-effect of this lie was the deflation of the high spirits I’d hoped to preserve, but it felt incredibly awkward to change my story now!

“You know you can tell us,” Sunburst said.

“Oh come on, there’s nothing to tell!” I insisted.

“You sure about that?” Paladin.

“Uh, sure… like I said, nothing I couldn’t handle…”

“Thorax,” Cadance tried, “you do understand we’re trying to help you?”

“Yeah!” Berry interjected. “If Princess here says so, you can count on us!”

“So he couldn’t if the Princess hadn’t said so?” Trusty retorted.

“You know that’s not what I meant!”

“Guys, I appreciate you wanting to help, but-”

“You didn’t say so!”

“Nevermind semantics! Thorax needs help with something-”

“What do you mean, ‘nevermind’? How are we supposed to know what she meant if-”

“That’s not important right now!”

“Then what is?!”

“Guys-” It was useless. They were too busy arguing to pay attention to whether or not I was trying to say something. I slumped onto the table and only Cadance seemed to notice. She opened her mouth, but a knock on the door interrupted her as well as everypony’s arguing, and I sat upright again.

“Come in,” Cadance spoke.

A Royal Guard I’d seen in passing from time to time, but had never been introduced to, opened the door and ushered in Blade and Feisty, now in their own forms. Flurry found them interesting enough to fly out of Cadance’s embrace and do a few laps around the two drones before settling down on Feisty’s back, only to be levitated back to her mother.

“You said to bring our guests here, Princess,” he said to her, gave a slight bow, and withdrew from the room.

“You’re finished?” I asked the drones. “How did it go?” Please start talking with enough detail to distract the ponies from the previous discussion!

“Couldn’t be better!” Feisty said. “Thanks for bringing us!”

“I don’t follow,” Paladin muttered.

Sentinel shoved him. “Shush! Somepony would have briefed you had it been any of your business!”

“It’s not a secret,” I interjected. “Guys, why don’t you sit down and tell us everything?”

They did, albeit a bit hesitant. I gave them an encouraging nod.

“You, uh…” Blade started. “You guys may or may not be aware that Thorax wasn’t the only changeling living in the Crystal Empire recently.”

With the exception of Paladin, they weren’t; they gasped, and Trusty and Sentinel sprang to their hooves.

“Thorax?” Shining spoke, his aura turning cold. “Did you know about that?”

“Not until I claimed the throne and Psycho filled me in. If I had known, do you really think I would have dared to come here, let alone show my true face in public?”

He relaxed. “Fair enough. Go on.”

“Like Thorax said,” Feisty continued, “he wasn’t authorized to know about us. We know that because Chrysalis told us when we reported him having been noticed. We didn’t know at the time who was seen and thought it must have been one of us as we didn’t expect another drone in the area, but she put two and two together.”

“The warning scrolls,” Cadance mused. “We should have changeling-proofed them!”

Shining’s face went sour. “So Chrysalis knew all along Thorax was here? Why didn’t she come get him?”

“She was going to,” I said. “In fact, she almost did. My brother was on the team that replaced you two and Flurry. Chrysalis expected him to run into me sooner or later, only, he didn’t know that. She was doubting his loyalty to her and this was supposed to tell her whose side he was really on, but I ran off for help before he got the chance to see me.”

Cadance and Berry shuddered.

“I’m glad you guys got rid of her,” Sunburst said. “Not that I wasn’t before hearing this, heheh…”

“Anyway,” Blade said. “A good part of our assignment over the last few months was to monitor Thorax’s movement, but we were around for much longer. Remember Firm Stitch and Cornucopia?”

“You replaced them?!” Sentinel exclaimed. “When?”

“Not exactly. They never really existed; it was us all along.”

“But… but that means you were here since before the Crystal Empire disappeared!” Berry said. “Can it be?”

“No, we were deployed here as soon as Chrysalis learned of its return. The infiltrators who were here a thousand years ago managed to get out while Sombra was busy enslaving the crystal ponies. We thought of borrowing their aliases, but after all this time, not even Chrysalis remembered how the Crystal Heart affected changelings and whether or not the earlier teams had had to take extra steps to avoid getting their cover blown during Crystal Fairs, and Urtica couldn’t find any scrolls in the hive’s archive that would help us figure it out, so we decided to play it safe and not be crystal ponies this time.”

“Needless to say,” Feisty added, “we don’t have a mother in Manehattan whose birthday coincides with the Crystal Faire. That was just an excuse for why we couldn’t be at the Faire every year. Same thing with that uncle who got sick right before the crystalling. We also aren’t really siblings.”

“Okay… good to know…” Shining said. “Any more surprises I should know about?”

“We were the only two infiltrators, if that’s what you mean, though there probably would have been more eventually in a city of this size, but deploying everyling at once would have drawn too much attention, and the prey hunters rarely went here because it’s so remote and most ponies’ disappearances would have gotten noticed.”

“So, why exactly are you here now?” Trusty inquired.

“We wanted to apologize to our bosses and to the ponies we called friends for disguise credibility but who were actually… um… source of information…”

“For a moment there I thought you were going to say ‘food source’,” Paladin quipped.

“No, we fed on the collective aura of the whole city, and it was the best meal we could imagine until Thorax came along! Can you imagine that shared love from just one individual is better than love stolen from a whole city?! We’d never have believed it a couple of months ago, but there it is!”

“So these are your actual forms now?” Sentinel asked. “Not a disguise for our comfort?”

“Nope, we’re reformed.”

“We also went to the cave where Thorax was hiding,” Blade said. “The last invasion team used it as a hideout and left their gear there in a hurry. Thorax thought you might be interested to have it.”

Feisty went out of the room and returned with a bag.

“There are some weapons, not that different from your own, but this will be more interesting.” She pulled out four scarab-like contraptions.

“What are they?”

“It’s a communicator,” I said. “You align them to make corners of an imaginary square, the heads facing diagonally outwards, and they establish a connection with another set by your choice. They also glow if a hail went unanswered. Chrysalis used them to issue orders to deployed teams and receive reports from them. I gave a set to Princesses Celestia and Luna and another to Princess Twilight to use in emergencies.”

“Thanks, this will come in useful!” Cadance said.

The ponies were almost done eating by now, and in the silence that followed as they were finishing their desserts, I was beginning to relax a little. This had gone well! They’d forgotten about me having problems!

“What were we discussing before the two changelings showed up?” Sunburst suddenly broke the silence.

...or maybe I’d spoken too soon.

“Oh, nothing important,” I said hurriedly. “Oh, look at the time! It was wonderful seeing you again, but I’m afraid we have to leave now. Royal duty calls!”

I was almost pushing Blade and Feisty out the door the next second.

“Wait!” Cadance said. “You haven’t signed the treaty yet! Let me see if Gleaming has finished writing up the final version!”

Oh, right! I’d almost fled without completing the main reason I was here! Fortunately, Gleaming was just trotting by with the treaty, and I wasted no time in scribbling my name where it was supposed to go, then bidding a hurried farewell to my confused hosts and clearing out at the speed that would have made my old, fugitive self jealous. Blade and Feisty struggled to keep up.

Our timing was accidentally perfect; a train was just about to head south, and our return tickets were ready and waiting in Blade’s saddlebag. Actually, where had he gotten that saddlebag? He hadn’t arrived with one… and come to think about it, it looked awfully familiar…

“There we go,” he said as we settled down in our seats in the train car. “Thorax, I believe I owe you something.”

He gave me the saddlebag. I still wasn’t sure what he meant until I realized it wasn’t empty. I pulled out a rolled-up stack of papers and nearly dropped them in surprise upon seeing what they were.

“How did you-”

“We asked for Cadance’s permission last evening and went to your room before lunch.”

“There’s more,” Feisty said. “Open the other compartment.”

I did, and once again, couldn’t believe my eyes! They hadn’t just grabbed my paintings; they’d also taken my flower!