• Published 13th Dec 2012
  • 1,629 Views, 47 Comments

Kickin' Flanks - Xtralife

You see them saving Equestria. You watch them learning about friendship. You might even worship one as your immortal royal sun goddess. You think they're ponies just like you. You're wrong. Dead wrong!

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10 - Absolute Deceit

There was an immediate drop in altitude from the balloon as it reached the exercise yard. Spike and the five mares, completely ignored by all the changelings fighting off prisoners or attempting to shoot down the balloon, watched open-mouthed as it sank. The fire from Twilight’s mane was dying off, leaving her hair blackened by soot. They gasped—suddenly the unicorn closed her eyes and tipped off the burners, falling inside the passenger basket.

“Twilight!” they shouted in unison.

The magical outer bubble fell right onto the top of the cage protecting the yard, which squeaked under the strain of the sudden load as it bowed inward. Shining Armor and Cadance looked over the edge, stood up on the lip of the basket, and aimed their horns. Beams of light shot through the purple shield and carved a wide swath in the chainlinks. The five ponies and the baby dragon scrambled backwards just as the balloon and its bubble dropped into the exercise yard mere hooflengths away. The shield flattened underneath to let the basket rest on the blacktop, and a gap fizzled away in the side of the bubble.

“Come on!” shouted Shining Armor. “We don’t have much time!”

Dash was first through the opening and she dove inside, followed close behind by Applejack, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity, who was carrying Spike on her back. Fluttershy’s jump into the basket was too short, thanks to her hoofcuffs, but she was pulled over the lip of the basket by Applejack and Rainbow Dash. The bubble closed up behind her and the mares squeezed in to what little space was left inside the hot air balloon. They were all forced to stand on their back legs to accommodate Twilight Sparkle, who was lying in the center, eyelids barely open and mane singed black at the tips. Spike lifted her head slightly and placed the two saddlebags underneath as a makeshift pillow.

Shining Armor nodded to Cadance and the glow around his horn receded. The bubble flickered for a moment and then changed colors to baby blue as the princess closed her eyes, taking full control of the shield. The burners roared to life with a quick jet of fire from the stallion and the balloon started to slowly rise off the ground. A few changelings took notice and fired off a few rounds, but the shield merely rippled where the pellets made impact. The majority of them were still embroiled in the fighting, which had reached a fever pitch below, leaving ponies and changelings alike sprawled on the pavement and trampled underhoof.

The stallion grunted and yanked on a dangling cord, making the burners spew out an even larger jet of fire. “We’re not… hnggg… we’re not rising fast enough!”

Turning her head and lifting it just barely, Twilight looked up with bleary eyes at him. “Let… let me help, brother…”

“Twilight, no! You have to rest now!” Spike was kneeling in front of the unicorn, holding her head in an embrace.

Applejack leaned over to nuzzle her. “He’s right, sugarcube. We can’t let anythin’ happen to you now!”

Cadance was concentrating on keeping the bubble intact, the bright glow around her horn pulsating and sparking. “I’m afraid the balloon wasn’t meant for this many passengers...” she said with distinct alarm. “We haven’t even cleared the hole in the fence yet!”

Fluttershy looked down at her chains. “I suppose I could get out and just fly… but I wouldn’t be able to stay airborne with these on.”

“You’re still in those? Darling, how did you even get hoofcuffed in the first place!?” Rarity pointed her horn down at the cuffs and attempted to cast a spell, but her horn just fizzled, and she screeched in frustration. “And this stupid thing’s not working right now!”

Rainbow Dash immediately wriggled her wings free, pulled herself up onto the edge of the basket, and jumped. With a couple of flaps, she was floating to the side of the balloon and between the shield. “Hey! Is this help—gaaah!”

With the removal of her weight the balloon had risen halfway to the hole. But its ascent had not gone unnoticed, as more changelings had extricated themselves from the battle and gathered around underneath, shotguns and rifles gripped tight in their jaws to take potshots. In a brief moment the shield had phased out of existence as Cadance struggled to keep it going, sweating with the strain. A shower of pellets grazed alongside Rainbow’s face, narrowly missed her eyes thanks to a quick wing tuck and roll, but the shiv dropped from her mouth as she screamed and it disappeared into the throng below. As the shield flickered on again, the pellets ripped into the fabric of the balloon. A gasp emanated from Spike and all the ponies in the basket, with the exception of Twilight, who barely was able to make a squeal.

Shining Armor quickly turned to Rarity and a purple arc of energy jumped from his horn to hers. A cone of blue light appeared around her horn, fractured as if it were a solid object, and shattered in large chips that dissolved into the air. The stallion whirled back and charged up his horn, turning the bubble shield purple. Cadance sighed with relief and gave him a quick nuzzle.

Gasping, Rarity tried casting another spell on Fluttershy’s chains. The cuffs were bathed in a blue aura before flashing white and transforming into satin ribbons, neatly but loosely tied around each of the pegasi’s hooves. The unicorn clapped her hooves ecstatically as she watched her friend slip easily from the cloth and jump out of the basket. Picking the ribbons from the floor with her magic, she scrutinized them for a moment, and floated them up to the holes in the balloon. Rarity whinnied with delight as the fabric stretched across the tears and melded directly into the balloon, effectively stopping any more hot air from escaping.

“Rainbow! Oh my goodness, are you okay?” Fluttershy said, flapping hard to reach the other pegasus.

Dash had a foreleg held tight against her cheek. She took a deep breath and pulled it away. “How bad is it?”

Fluttershy winced in sympathy. The gashes in Rainbow’s cheek weren’t deep, but they had bled profusely, and her coat was stained around the cuts.

“That bad, huh?” Dash clapped the hoof back again and clenched her jaw as she felt the sting.

“No, no, you’ll be fine—oh!” Fluttershy gasped. “We’re moving!”

With the removed weight of both Rainbow and Fluttershy, plus the mended rips in the balloon, it had resumed its upward trajectory. The pegasi flapped a little faster to rise with it. Below, even more changelings had gathered and were peppering the shield now with bolts of green magic, but it was holding fast. As the balloon and the passenger basket passed through the hole in the fencing, Dash couldn’t help but cheer, and the others joined in with gusto. Twilight was only able to smile weakly.

“I’ve heard of flying the coop, but this is ridiculous!” Pinkie shouted, leaning over the side.

Suddenly a black shape barreled into the side of the shield right next to Rarity, causing massive spidery cracks to form around the point of impact. The unicorn shrieked and hopped back a pace before daring to look. The thing was a changeling splayed out and flattened against the bubble, shaking its head as it gripped on for dear life, and its horn was shining bright. It was immediately joined by more and more of its kind, who were catapulting directly into the bubble and cracking their skulls against it.

“We can’t hold the shield anymore!” Shining Armor shouted through gritted teeth.

Dash tucked in her wings, dropping down to be level with the basket. She had removed her hoof from her jaw and the blood on her face had begun to dry. “Then we fight ‘em!”

“You’re crazy!” Applejack said, trotting over. “How the hay would we keep Twilight from comin’ to any harm?!”

More changelings collided violently into the shield. Twilight grimaced as they hit, and she rolled over to look at the baby dragon. “Spike… Spike, help me up, okay? I have to do something… I can do it again!”

Spike’s lower lip had been trembling, but suddenly he stopped, and thrust his claws into the bag to grab the watch, accidentally ripping out one of the pockets in the process. "Wait, Twilight! Maybe we can use this!"

"Spike, this… this…" Twilight gaped at the watch. “How did you—where did you—”

The unicorn’s horn cast a faint light as she took the timepiece from Spike and held it with her magic, even as he gasped and tried to protest. She rotated it around and examined the edge carefully. The outer bezel was lined on both sides with jutting crowns. Holding her breath and narrowing her eyes, Twilight started slowly pressing and turning them one at a time, which only made Spike blather more.

“Hush, Spike… I’ll be fine. I’m trying to concentrate.”

Fluttershy was now also floating level with the basket. “Twilight!” she exclaimed. “No, no, you really shouldn’t over-exert yourself!”

“Darling, she’s right! Here, let me help with, oh, whatever it is you’re doing.” Rarity had turned to Twilight and sparked up her horn, and the blue glow of her magical field was wrapping itself around the watch.

“…Stop…” Twilight said, breathing heavily between words, trying to push away Rarity’s magic. “…I want… I want to… do this…”

Even more changelings slammed into the shield all at once. The rifts now stretched across every square inch of the bubble. Cadance and Shining Armor were slumped over the side of the basket, breathing heavily with their eyelids squeezed tight. Suddenly as Twilight twisted two crowns on either side, a bright green light burst from the watch. Black cavity-riddled hooves punched through fissures in the shield, making the balloon shake and causing Twilight to lose her weak grip on the timepiece. It clattered against the edge of the basket, bounced off, and landed underneath Rarity as the light expanded into a circle on the floor. Squealing and scraping at the floor, Rarity was immediately drawn in and mostly disappeared from sight, but not before Applejack was able to leap over and snatch her tail by the teeth at the last second.

“I gotcha!” Applejack shouted through a mouthful of hair, pulling back.

All of a sudden, a loud, authoritative voice emanated from the circle of light. “Steve, your wristwatch has malfunctioned… again. Please report immediately for repairs.”

“Chrysalis!?” Twilight’s eyes shrunk to pinpricks. “Applejack, get her out of there, now!”

“Ah can’t!” the cowpony yelled. “She’s bein’ sucked—ack!”

Applejack lurched forward and her head sunk through the light. In a flash, Rainbow dropped inside the basket and yanked on her tail. Soon only Applejack’s bottom half of her body was visible as Dash resisted the pull of the opened portal. Twilight could only watch as Fluttershy followed suit to help, but she was dragged helplessly along on her stomach. As the pegasus kicked and squealed, the strength of the light’s force seemed to grow, and Twilight began to slide towards it. Both of the saddlebags whisked past her and flew inside. The unicorn howled as Fluttershy disappeared and flailed as the light loomed nearer, threatening to swallow her up too. Hearing her cry out, Spike, Cadance, and Shining Armor simultaneously piled on top of the unicorn. They were drawn in, a thrashing mass of hooves and claws.

The shield shattered like glass and every shard gave off sparks as they vanished into thin air. Changelings tore away the pieces haphazardly and focused their attention on the sole pony left inside the balloon, who was hurriedly scrambling onto the edge of the basket.

“Hey, wait for me!” Pinkie Pie jumped off the lip, curled up into a cannonball, and dropped straight into the light.

Dash tumbled out through the other side of the emerald portal and felt the force that had pulled her in dissipate. She saw for a fleeting moment the rest of the ponies, Spike with the watch in his claws, and two saddlebags spill from the light before it shrunk inwards to a dot and vanished. Before the pegasus could stop herself, she plunged into something viscous and hot, which stung at the gashes in her cheek and washed into her mouth as she screamed. Rainbow was only vaguely aware of the muted sounds of eight more bodies splashing.

Spitting out the liquid and gasping for air, Dash broke the surface and beat her wings until she was hovering just over it, a deep shade of green that bubbled like boiling water and with no bottom in sight. Doing so was surprisingly stiff and even painful for her in the joints. Applejack was swimming determinedly through it to the edge, where Rarity was already sitting on her haunches and sniffling as she wrung the curls of her mane out, and Pinkie Pie was helping Fluttershy climb ashore by pushing her up. Strangely, the party pony’s unkempt hair had managed to stay impeccably clean and frizzy in its trademark fashion. Cadance and Shining Armor were paddling slowly, looking haggard and worn as Twilight Sparkle flung her forelegs over their shoulders to keep afloat between them. Her eyes were gaunt, sunken, and wide open. Spike drifted behind, watching worriedly with his claws latched around the saddlebags and the watch strapped to his wrist.

Once Fluttershy had gotten out, Dash joined her in lifting Twilight from the liquid and onto solid ground, while Pinkie Pie and Applejack each lent a hoof to Cadance and Shining Armor, and Rarity abandoned squeezing the gunk from her tail to levitate Spike and give him a hug. With all ponies and one baby dragon accounted for, they lined up at the border of the strange lake and took in their surroundings.

The edges of the massive circular pool were roughly hewn into deep purple and white checkered and cracked tile. Craning their necks up they could see that they were indoors, and that a large hole had been knocked into the high ceiling to allow a continuous cascade of the liquid to flow like a gelatinous waterfall into the center of the pool, its base gurgling like a stomach. Where the fluid originated from beyond that point couldn’t be seen. The edges of the chamber were lined with white marble pillars, coated in the dried foreign substance, which had puddled on the floor and was draped in thick wide sheets from one to the next. Between the columns were thin stained glass windows, with pointed tips and formed into geometric shapes. But the sunlight that would have streamed through them was harshly subdued. Only little beams managed to make it through little holes in the stretches of sludge.

“What in Equestria is this place?” Spike asked softly. Even though he asked the question just barely above a whisper in volume, it managed to echo.

“Call me crazy, but… I reckon we’re in Canterlot,” Applejack replied.

Twilight shook her head. She was resting on her haunches and staring down at the floor. “This isn’t Canterlot anymore. Not to me.”

Shining Armor was watching the falls intently. “We can’t stay out in the open and in enemy territory any longer. We’re all tired and some of us are even hurt.” He looked back down at Twilight. “What do you want to do?”

The unicorn mare was focusing intently on the green lake. She sparked her horn up and tried to splash aside some of the liquid, but the magic fizzled away and she winced. “…We need to… hide…”

“Darling, I sincerely hope you don’t mean hiding in… in whatever that is,” Rarity commented, eyelid twitching. “We don’t even know where it’s been.”

Applejack turned around and dipped herself back into the mire. “I ain’t seein’ nowhere better to lay low.”

Rarity’s jaw dropped. “Oh come on—fine, you can bathe in that muck for all I care, but I won’t touch another drop if I can help it.”

Putting a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder, Rarity’s horn lit up and the liquid began to part aside, held in place by a small amount of her magic. It washed back slowly until a dry circle was formed a few ponylengths down into the pool’s bed. The glow of Twilight’s horn faded, but she didn’t acknowledge Rarity’s gesture, instead staring at the clean space she had made. It was also tiled like the floor they were on and the elevation was sloping downward.

One by one, the ponies lowered themselves in. Pinkie Pie was first down by jumping, but the look on her face of forced cheerfulness showed she was tired too. Dash attempted to lift her wings to simply glide down, but they refused to rise all the way, so she opted instead to climb. Applejack swam into the circle and splashed through the wall as Shining Armor dropped in with a grunt, Twilight laid out across his back. The alicorn had to encourage Fluttershy to come with her, and they were able to drift down slowly together. Spike was able to use his claws to dig into the wall when he climbed down. By the bottom, though, he was panting heavily.

Rarity took a few deliberate steps towards the center of the pool and her horn shone again. The edge of the barrier of sludge pushed forward, the rear end began closing in, and together the friends walked forwards. After a minute of staggering on hoof the liquid washed overhead, placing them inside a half-circle of air with the floor as the base, and a small hole at the top for air. Rarity gave one last flash of her horn, the fluid dried out into a solid wall, and she slumped to the floor.

“Well then, now that we’re all thoroughly exhausted,” Rarity observed, her mane partially uncurled now, “maybe we can have a moment of Celestia-forsaken reprieve.”

Applejack smeared away some of the liquid on a hoof, crouched down, and prepared to shake the rest of it off.

“One mere shiver,” Rarity hissed, “and I’ll crochet your mane and tail together.”

Applejack eyed her slantwise as she slowly rested back on her haunches instead. The other ponies were doing much of the same. Rainbow Dash had also joined her in the same fashion and was looking intently at Twilight. Meanwhile, Pinkie Pie had opted instead to lie down on her stomach and splay out her legs, watching Spike step over Fluttershy’s curled up hooves to also take a seat. The baby dragon plopped down next to Twilight, who was laid out on her side between Shining Armor and Cadance, sitting up and facing the rest of the friends.

Twilight’s eyes were closed. “We can’t stay here for long,” she muttered.

“No, Twilight.” Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “We’re gonna stay here as long as we have to. It’s about time we got some answers outta you.”

Shining Armor’s ears flattened back. “Rainbow Dash, I don’t think that’s fair of you to demand—”

“Oh, it’s not ‘fair’, you say? Excuse me, but we deserve to know what’s going on!” Rarity tapped a hoof repeatedly for emphasis. “Twilight conceals herself in her library for weeks, we entirely fail to attend the Grand Galloping Gala, and suddenly she’s thrown into prison while I’m attacked on a train and replaced by a changeling, which by the way, Equestria is just swamped with! And you’re talking about what’s ‘fair’?

Applejack and Pinkie looked over at Rarity and nodded with conviction at her statement. Fluttershy was less convinced, choosing to stare down at the tile instead.

“Excuse you, but Twilight’s in no state to be interrogated!” Cadance placed a hoof on her sister-in-law’s heaving chest protectively. “She’s too exhausted from… from… whatever she just did in the balloon!”

“I’m sure we can wait a while down here until Twilight feels better,” Fluttershy suggested. “She’ll tell us everything after a nice, relaxing rest, and there’s no reason why she wouldn’t.”

Spike sat forward a little. “You know, I can tell you guys anything you wanna know about.”

“Sugarcube, we know you can explain everything—hay, you and… and ‘Derpy’ told us a lot a while back in Manehattan. But what both of you said ‘bout Twilight not wanting us to be involved… well, it was mighty hard to hear. And it’s only right we get an explanation from her.”

“Besides, Twilight’s about to say something anyway,” Pinkie said off-hoofedly.

Everypony’s eyes shot to Pinkie Pie and then over to Twilight, who was pushing herself from the floor very slowly on both front hooves. She waved away their immediate protests, and finally sat up on her side, her tangled bangs hanging over her face. Her friends, brother, and sister-in-law quieted down and waited for her to speak.

“I’ll talk, girls. You’re right. I owe all of you an explanation.”

Twilight closed her eyes for a moment and inhaled deeply. “It was… well, it had to have been a couple of months ago, right after Applejack had told me about the upcoming farming convention and asked me to feed Winona,” she said, nodding to the cowpony before continuing, “that I noticed I was being followed. Every day there were more of them, in line when I was grocery shopping, sitting a row or two away at the theater… one of them watched me from behind a tree as I ate lunch at the Hay Burger. So, naturally, I wrote Princess Celestia for advice, or help, or just to do something.

“When Spike received a letter back from her, telling me to come to Canterlot right away, I didn’t think twice about it. I took the train there that evening. But not even halfway before we arrived, all the passengers in the car stood up, and that’s…” Twilight’s ears laid back. “…That’s when they changed. I don’t know how I managed to cast a teleportation spell out of there in time. It took me until midnight to walk back home.”

Soft sympathetic sounds rose from her five friends, while Spike, Cadance, and Shining Armor listened unobtrusively. Twilight waited and smiled softly, but as soon as they had quieted down, she continued again.

“But the instant I stepped hoof in Ponyville, I knew something was very wrong. There were too many ponies still awake and about in the streets. I’m just glad Spike didn’t torch my mane off when I snuck back inside; or when I shook him awake, for that matter.”

Spike nodded, passing her one of the saddlebags. “And she was talking so fast, I didn’t catch a word of it. But she finally slowed down and told me everything.”

“Sitting there in the dark with all the lights off,” the unicorn continued, digging a hoof inside the bag and feeling about, “I started wondering if it was just a coincidence that I was attacked after contacting Princess Celestia, and if somehow Chrysalis was involved. It was a thought I couldn’t ignore. So, we spent the rest of the night working on these.”

The unicorn pulled out one pair of the sunglasses and held them up to show her friends. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity all leaned in for a closer view. Rainbow Dash briefly glanced at Applejack from the corner of her eye, and quickly looked away when she saw the cowpony was doing the same thing. However, Shining Armor and Cadance were alternating between quizzically staring at Twilight, and then at each other to silently mouth words.

“I magically modified these old sunglasses to make them reveal changelings in disguise. When the sun rose in the morning, I made sure the coast was clear, and gave them a trial run out on the balcony. What I ended up seeing is… hard to explain, so I’ll just try to show you instead.”

The unicorn let a soft whimper pass as she lit up her horn and drew out a neon turquoise grid, suspended in front of her friends. Suddenly, five glowing shapes popped up across the lines in a row; a vertical purple rhombus, a pink butterfly, an orange apple, a red lightning bolt, and a blue balloon. Twilight attempted to float the pair of sunglasses towards the mares, face scrunched in concentration, but Rarity picked them out of her grasp with her own magic and smiled kindly, seeing the purple unicorn look a little more comfortable.

“Go ahead,” Twilight said. “Put them on.”

Rarity examined the sunglasses a little as Twilight took more sunglasses from the bag by hoof and slid them to Pinkie, Fluttershy, and Applejack. She hesitated, looking to Dash for a moment before passing her a pair. In unison, they all slid the sunglasses on over their muzzles. With the exceptions of the weathermare and cowpony (who silently nodded in understanding), the ponies gasped, looked over the frames, and then back through the sunglasses.

“Darling, I don’t think I understand,” Rarity asked at length. “Why does everything look black and white? Why does it say…?”

“’Obey,’” Twilight finished for her softly. “Every advertisement, sign, or billboard that I saw across Ponyville from the balcony looked just like that. There are other words, and some phrases, too. I wrote them all down. Some say ‘CONSUME,’ and I’ve seen ones that read ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE.’ And… well, there’s this one.”

The mares sat there for a moment and watched as Twilight gave the grid a tap with her horn. Applejack and Dash took their sunglasses off almost immediately, but the others were transfixed, staring at the grid with mouths open and eyes wide. After a few more seconds, they removed their sunglasses too.

“‘Love your Queen’,” they all murmured.

Twilight gazed at the glowing symbols. “For a moment, when I saw them, I thought something was wrong. I considered whether somehow I had messed up the spells, or if I was delirious from fatigue. But eventually a changeling wandered into view and I had to concede that what I was seeing was real, and... and… it could have meant anything!

The shining grid fizzled out as Twilight bit her lip, shut her eyes tight, and took a single slow breath, quivering lightly as she did so. “Th-this was a conspiracy!” she stammered out. “Widespread, absolute de-de-deceit, across all of Equestria! How long was this happening under our noses? Was I somehow the first to discover it? Or was there somepony else out there that stumbled across this… horror? And were they silenced in the middle of the night, taken and substituted with some chitin-winged fiend, to walk among us as wolves in sheep’s clothing?

“Everypony I cared about was suspect! Any mare, stallion, or Celestia forbid, a foal could be a hidden agent of the Queen! And if you girls weren’t changelings, there could’ve—no, there definitely was somepony that you saw every day that was! The ponies that had the greatest possibility of still being themselves were Shining Armor and Cadance, and even that was a slim, infinitesimal chance because I just had some kind of… gut instinct that they’d be harder to replace! And what if, even though they were prepared from being captured and from being mind-controlled before, they were still caught off guard?”

Twilight took a deep breath before she continued. “I was spending the rest of the day building a magic shield around the library, rendering it invisible, obscuring my presence with it, trying to keep my mind off of everything, when I remembered a… it was this silly little cipher I had come up with as a filly. I had cut a pair of disks out of paper and wrote letters along one and symbols along the other. At some point I just committed it to memory. Shining Armor used to tease me for writing my school notes in it, but he’d kept it for years. So I wrote him a letter about the time he taught me how to fly a kite, coded with what little I remembered, hoping he’d respond because if he could connect emotionally to me, then I’d know he hadn’t been taken away!

“And when he wrote back more old memories in the same way the next morning, with Cadance having even included an encrypted letter of her own, I felt a little more comfortable—just enough to tell them that I suspected foul play, not that I had proof or the means to see it! But they pressed me to tell them what I knew, and not just to them, but to all of you!”

“It was sheer, complete torment just to wait for a return letter, knowing if I was wrong, I’d be foalnapped immediately, and who knows if anypony would have found me or found out?” Twilight looked across the row of mares, wild-eyed and hyperventilating. “Or what if the Queen had decided to make me suffer by taking them away instead? I couldn’t go through that nightmare five more times! And if you weren’t changelings, that was an entirely separate set of dilemmas! What if even just one of you reacted immediately, choosing to throw caution to the wind and take some uncalculated risks?! I had to flat-out refuse to allow any of you to know!”

The unicorn stamped a hoof into the tile. “Don’t you see? I couldn’t bring myself to even check if any of you were still ponies! If I never saw you, I’d never have to face that possibility! I tried to tell myself that I was just being clever, th-th-that keeping all of you in the dark would perplex Chrysalis!

“But nothing I did to protect you girls mattered, because you all had to bucking care about me!” Twilight let her head drop between her forelegs and she shook weightily. “I couldn’t take it!” she cried, but her voice was muffled. “I didn’t have a Celestia-damn choice!”

The ponies and Spike sat there, hushed, watching Twilight heave and sniff. A couple of seconds passed, and the baby dragon slowly squeezed in closer to her. Fluttershy was next, crawling up to her, and Rarity followed behind too. Pinkie Pie scooted forwards and motioned to Applejack and Dash, who nodded to each other and stood up to walk over. Both Cadance and Shining Armor turned inward to lay their forelegs over the whimpering mare. Soon all the ponies were huddled together in one mass, with their heads bowed, eyes closed, and a hoof placed comfortingly on Twilight. They lay there for a while, breathing softly, until every inhalation was in time to her slowing trembles.

After she had finally stopped moving, they shuffled aside to allow the unicorn some breathing room. They were all still very compacted, but no longer flank to flank. Twilight lifted her head, sniffling and blinking a little, but she was still looking down at the tile.

“I understand if it’s… it’s not enough, but I’m s-s-so sorry.”

The unicorn looked up in time to see a wave of smiles sweep over everypony’s faces.

“Twilie,” Shining Armor said, ruffling his sister’s mane, “that’s enough for family.”

Twilight half-heartedly tried to stop him with a hoof, but just let it drop to the floor. “Don’t say that, big brother. I lied to you about the sunglasses. I should have trusted you from the start. And I should have sent you a letter too, Cadance.”

“Twilight, I understand it would have been a huge leap of faith for you to blindly share your concerns with me. We knew you wanted to talk to them so badly, too. It took a great deal of courage to take any action at all.” Cadance held Twilight’s hoof supportively.

“I wouldn’t have called it that,” Twilight muttered. “It wasn’t courageous, especially involving Spike like this, making him swear secrecy and not letting him talk to anypony.”

Spike snuggled in closer, eyes shut. “It’s really not a problem,” he said, yawning. “It’s kinda my job to get roped into your schemes. Besides, I figured they’d forgive you once they found out.”

“But… but I’ve treated you all so awfully!” Twilight exclaimed, looking to her friends. “I made you worry and you all missed the Gala!”

Applejack shook her head in disbelief. “Shucks Twilight, we don’t care anymore! Heck, if we had actually shown up to the shindig, I’ll bet you an apple to an orchard that there’d be more changelings there than we could shake a stick at!”

Twilight gaped incredulously. “You-you can’t be serious, Applejack! I wasn’t keeping anypony safe! I just couldn’t face my fears!”

“It’s never easy confronting them,” Fluttershy acknowledged. “It’s difficult for me to think sensibly when I have to do something I’m scared of. I’ve even been frozen in place with sheer terror.”

“Fluttershy, it doesn’t matter if you understand, I still put you all at risk!” Twilight’s pupils were contracted. “I know what happened at Manehattan Correctional!”

Pinkie Pie giggled. “Twilight, you’re making it sound like it’s your fault! It’s not like you went up to Chrysalis and said, ‘Excuse me, Ms. Queen-of-all-Scary-Bug-Things, I’d reeeeeeeeally appreciate it if you’d abduct all of my friends and throw them in jail!”

Twilight couldn’t help but snicker with her. “That—hehehe—that doesn’t change the fact you were all concerned about me, Pinkie. I don’t deserve your kindne—”

“Darling, please cease this at once, will you?” Rarity was in the process of magically combing through her mane. “You’re forgiven, and that’s that.”

“...I… I just don’t understand why,” Twilight said at length.

“We’re your friends, Twilight!” Dash shouted, completely exasperated. “We care about you and stuff, okay? So what if the past few days have been, like, a drag or whatever? You’re totally fine and you’re not hurt and…” She flopped over onto her back. “Aaaah, now you’re makin’ me get all sappy!”

Twilight smiled wide and wiped at her eyes. “Thank you. All of you are the best friends and family I could ever ask for.”

All at once, the whole group squeezed in again for an embrace, aww-ing and giggling. Twilight’s face was the picture of content, her eyes shut tight and her mouth in a wide beam. Even Spike was making small sighs of satisfaction. The laughs died down slowly, bit by bit, until it was replaced by a comfortable silence.

“So…” Spike drawled, squirming. “This lovey-dovey stuff is getting real thick, and I’m not up for sticking around here. What’s the plan?”

Dash let go of Twilight and nodded briskly. “Yeah Twilight, you’re the egghead here. What do we do next?”

Murmuring with assent, all the ponies slowly let go, shifted back a little, and looked to their informally selected de facto leader. Twilight sat quietly, lost in thought.

“Actually, I’m not too sure,” Twilight admitted after a moment. “Every now and then I’d wonder how I’d get inside Canterlot without being spotted. But I never thought it would actually happen, so I never considered what I’d do next. Now that we’re here, and everything’s changed so much... it might be too risky to stay.”

“But we hafta do something,” Applejack insisted. “There ain’t no way, nohow that we can mosey on outta here and turn a blind eye!”

“And there is no guarantee we’ll get a second chance, either,” Rarity added.

“No! No, absolutely not!” Twilight said firmly, shaking her head. “We just went over this! What if one of you—”

“Helps you save Equestria from a secret plot to control the nation?” Pinkie interjected. “Or saves your tail from Queen Chrysalis and her changeling swarm?”

“Twilight, we know it’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous, and quite possibly even… oh gosh, I don’t want to do this either.” Fluttershy hid behind her mane. “But you need our help.”

The unicorn turned to her brother and sister-in-law. “I suppose I can’t convince either of you, can I?” she asked reluctantly.

“Twilie, what did I just say about family?” Shining Armor leaned in to nuzzle her cheek.

Cadance nestled against Twilight’s other side. “There’s no way we’re leaving our sister behind.”

Twilight was silent for a few minutes. Her eyes were closed and she began rhythmically tapping a hoof in thought. A smile slowly crept across her face as the other ponies and Spike looked on. Suddenly the unicorn’s eyes snapped open.

“I’ve got an idea, and it’s so crazy it just might work!”

Bubbling and swirling, the green viscous liquid parted directly down the center, divided by Rarity, Princess Cadance, Shining Armor, and Twilight. Their magical fields swept the liquid aside and held it at bay, glowing and twinkling bright. Taking advantage of the fluids washing aside, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash flew up and out of the pool. Applejack and Pinkie, who were galloping right behind them, jumped to meet their outstretched hooves and were pulled up the ledge. The alicorn and unicorns moved at a slower pace, eyes closed and focused on keeping the substance from rushing over them all. Spike slung both saddlebags over his shoulders as he strode alongside them. One at a time they were also lifted up, and the parted fluid rolled back in bit by bit, until when Twilight was the last to be helped up. The gap filled and gurgled under her.

All of the ponies were now facing away from the lake. A thin and threadbare red carpet covered the wide gap from where they stood to a tall set of heavy wooden double doors, which tapered to a point at the top and was carved with ornate spirals and swirling patterns. In the great amount of space between them and the door were strewn toppled and broken furnishings; chairs and tables with legs missing, floor candelabras bent into convoluted angles, and a thoroughly splintered bookcase.

Spike set the saddlebags down and began rummaging through one. “Oh, I almost forgot this, AJ!” he said. With a little difficulty, he pulled out a brown cowpony hat and flung it to Applejack like a flying disc.

“My hat!” Applejack reared up, snatched it in her teeth, flipped it onto her head, and kicked her hooves elatedly. “This is like Hearth’s Warming Eve in Juuuly!”

“Is everypony ready?” Twilight asked firmly, looking across them all.

Underneath the lake, she had postulated that they were likely somewhere in the east wing of the castle. It was hard for her to tell with the changes the changelings had made, but she was fairly confident. She then further inferred that Chrysalis would likely have returned to the castle, considering that she would naturally want to protect her hive after she had broken free, but also the assets she suspected she had left: Princess Celestia, the Elements of Harmony, and what she called the subliminal signal system. In order for her idea to succeed, they would have to navigate the castle swiftly, locate every trump card in the changeling Queen’s hoof, and then combat the Queen herself, all in one shot.

All ponies present lifted their sunglasses up in response before tucking them away in their manes or behind their heads. After waiting for Spike to sink the emptied saddlebags into the green substance and clamber onto Fluttershy’s back, Twilight took the forefront of the group and coolly headed for the door. The carpet did little to mute their hooves as they walked, and they had to carefully watch their step to not tread on any of the scattered debris, with the exception of Dash who was hovering as usual. Behind them, the sound of the gushing sludge falls began to fade away, and was overlapped by their own hoofbeats and wingflaps.

“Hey Twilight,” the weatherpony suddenly said. “What’s the deal with Princess Luna? I’ve talked to Shining Armor, I’ve asked Spike, but nopony knows where she’s gone to!”

Rarity looked up to her and gasped. “Princess Luna’s gone?! Are there any clues? Has this been reported in the papers?”

“I’m sorry girls, but we have no idea,” Twilight admitted. “I kept a log the past two months of the sun and moon’s movements, and contrary to what I expected, their typical patterns were and are in effect. My best guess is that she is alive and being kept with Princess Celestia. If she’s not there… well, Chrysalis already has a lot to answer for.”

Twilight’s theory was that a signal was being transmitted across Equestria, and that its source could only be coming from Canterlot. Whatever was sending the signal would have to be destroyed. Secondly, she rationalized that if Chrysalis had imprisoned anypony that resisted or could be a threat, she had done the same with Princess Celestia. And lastly, all six Elements of Harmony were likely still in the castle and in their proper resting place. While Chrysalis had revealed she had knowledge of the Elements to Twilight, the unicorn wagered that if they weren’t involved in her plot, she didn’t know how they worked.

The group finally came to the door. Every curving etching into the wood had at some point been carved with accuracy and real craftsmareship, but dried green muck had stained the wood, caked into the carvings, and had coated the brass hinges. Twilight sparked up her horn and pulling both doors open before striding through, and stopped on the other side until all the ponies had crossed the threshold. Once they had all exited, she closed them again and continued onward.

Twilight looked about and nodded to herself. They were now in a hallway with tattered red textile banners hanging vertically on the walls. The carpet still ran over the tiles, bunched up in places, and the trail of wreckage followed it. Not far ahead was an archway opening to a staircase leading up, and another hall extended off to the right. The ceiling rose very high and disappeared into pitch black shadow. As they approached the intersection, close enough to see the slime dripping off the staircase’s banisters, Twilight suddenly turned around to look back.

“Fluttershy,” she said, addressing her directly, “Are you absolutely certain you want to do that? I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time when we’re done.”

The pegasus ruffled her feathers awkwardly and took a deep breath. “I really, really have to, Twilight. I don’t know if I could live with myself if I didn’t.”

“Just promise us you’ll be safe, okay?” Pinkie Pie’s eyes were wide and watery. “Cross my heart and hope to fly…”

“…Stick a cupcake in my eye—oof,” finished Fluttershy, right as Pinkie heavily swung a foreleg over her in a tight embrace.

Twilight had described how she and her friends would blaze a pathway straight through Canterlot Castle, intentionally raising Tartarus to attract as many changelings as possible. But she clarified that their main objective was to reach the last stop on the way: the throne room. Meanwhile, Shining Armor and Cadance would take a winding route through the castle, staying out of sight on the way to Canterlot’s cave system, and then return to the vault where the Elements of Harmony rested. If they were successful, Twilight had affirmed, everything they were in search of would be in those locations. What she hadn't been expecting was Fluttershy politely asking if she could go to the garden to visit the animals. Twilight only acquiesced when Spike offered to accompany her there.

“Well, we’re here.” Twilight said softly, stopping at the fork.

In unison, the group began to separate. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance walked over to the entrance to the side hallway. Twilight and the rest of her friends gathered next to the banisters. Rainbow slowly lowered herself down to the floor as they all lingered there silently, looking off down their different ways, or at each other.

“I suppose this is it,” Cadance said, rubbing a hoof awkwardly. “To be honest, I’m not looking forward to returning to these caves.”

Shining Armor sidled closer to his wife. “It’s going to be okay, honey. We can look forward to seeing Twilight again once this is over.”

Cadance nodded slowly. Together they both turned around and began walking down the diverging corridor. Twilight watched them go for a moment, biting her lip, looked to the stairs, and then back to her departing brother and sister-in-law.

“Wait! Cadance, wait!” the unicorn said, doing her best to keep her voice low as she took tentative steps their way.

Shining Armor stopped and turned, but Cadance trotted right back up to her. They looked at each other in the eye for a second and broke out into wide grins.

“Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake!” they sang softly, skipping in place and covering their eyes, touching hooves and wriggling their rears. “Clap your hooves and do a little shake!”

Impulsively, all the ponies rushed together to the center of the fork and packed together in for another quick cuddle. There were a few muffled giggles and soft squeals of approval before they slowly pulled apart one more time, waving animatedly to each other’s groups as they all stepped away from the junction and headed for their separate ways, unfolding their sunglasses and putting them on.

“Keep my sister safe, okay?” Shining Armor stated. “We’ll see you soon!”

Rainbow hopped slightly above the ground with an effortless flap of her wings. “Hey Applejack, betcha I can take down more changelings than you can!” she hissed, pointing at her.

“Is that a challenge, Dash? ‘Cause you’re on.” Applejack spat into her hoof and bumped it against Rainbow’s.

“Say Applejack,” Pinkie squeezed right between the two of them, “I totally had a changeling carbon copy in the clink, right? You’ve got to tell me about her!” she insisted, eyes popping out and back in again.

“Oh my goodness,” Fluttershy said, trotting a little to catch up with her friends. “This is… certainly a little exciting. Maybe it’s a little too exciting.”

“Excitement is my middle name, Fluttershy!” Spike whispered. “Spike Excitement… um… uh… sheesh, I actually don’t know what comes next.”

Their whispers trailed off as they quieted down and moved farther away, the distance separating them growing greater and greater. Soon, even the faintest hints of sound faded away, and the intersection was silent again. The ponies were now long gone, heading deep into Canterlot Castle, off to undertake Twilight’s gambit.

Above in the blackness, chitin wings rustled, and bright teal eyes snapped open.

Comments ( 2 )

The story's discontinued?! 😭


Is that picture an actual story?

Not that I am aware of. It is an old picture by the former artist Ichibangravity

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