• Published 20th Dec 2012
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Cultural Artifacts - Dan_s Comments

A little piece of Earth arrives in Equestria, a human and it's home. The citizens of Ponyville and Princess Luna struggle with this newcomer, as it struggles with them.

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32) Who's in Charge Again?

Cultural Artifacts - Who's in Charge Again?
Dan's Comments

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.

Day 58

Blueblood took in stride the friendly mockery of every face in the room, including Trixie's, being his. It was far less painful than the life he'd lived until just a few weeks ago. "The girl is safe, she's scanning for Discord and the others. She cares for her friends very deeply."

He saw the awe and the 'awww' on their faces as they heard. He usually only saw that directed at Celestia. A whole race who loves you unconditionally, Blueblood thought, I hope the young lady either never learns, or avoids the traps that ensnared Her Solar Highness.

"In the meantime, we all have work to do. Some of you must return to your hives, but everyone who can be spared can help Fragrance Rebirth."

She hated her birth name so much, she came up with that, Blueblood thought, 'The girl' could have picked a worse one.

"To fight Chrysalis?" one of the queens asked, "How? She's so powerful!"

Murmurs of agreement bubbled through the crowd. He could feel their well-orchestrated terror taking hold, Chrysalis has done a stunning job, but it has a fatal flaw..

"Against Fragrance Rebirth?" Blueblood asked in his most mocking tone, and he pointed to the ceiling of the dome, "Against that?" Every eye moved to the dark mass trapped in the ice at the 'roof of the world'. When he looked back at them, he saw confidence, and in some, calculation. Chrysalis had humbled their pride, now they could strike when she was already engaged, and they could strike as one.

"We will do this," Whirlwind said, "Not because Fragrance Rebirth would want it. Not for revenge against Chrysalis. But because it is the right thing to do."

Confidence among them grew with that. The newly minted queen looked to her mother, who gave a nod. Then the old changeling spoke, "You have all heard. We were created from destroyers to be helpers, to subsist on the gratitude and love of those we help. Now we have a chance to set that in stone, so few will remember when 'changeling' was a dark shadow in the night. So all will welcome us, see us as friends and allies. With one stroke, we will step out of the darkness and be who our mother wanted us to be, created us to be. Such a chance may never come again. My hive will strike alongside the Great Mother to protect her people, and those who will become our friends and allies."

The bubbling murmurs became more confident, and the tide of thought became 'what to do after we've won'. Blueblood would curb that before the actual battle, but for now they needed the boost in their morale.

"Does a changeling gain the knowledge of the copied?" he asked.

"Some can, but it disorients the source," the old queen said, "The link is often two-way, so the source will remember what the changeling did while they were them."

"Well, ponies have always said I was dizzy," Blueblood said.

Bush to bush, tree to tree, a lone, purple defender of all things pony kept towards her goal. Spike, following in Twilight's trail, sighed as she continued the most inept 'sneaking' he'd seen in his life. She'd awoken, and immediately started in on the rant that the boxes were going to get the Princess. Then Spike, some soothing tea, a decent breakfast and a favorite book had started their subtle work on the frazzled unicorn.

I had her calmed down too, Spike thought, Until she looked at the city and saw the shield was up. After that, nothing could dissuade her. He signed again as she watched Twilight creep up to the Apples' door, and knocked too softly for anypony to hear.

"Whacha -!" Applebloom began as she came around the corner of the house, then stopped on the stoop to stare up at Twilight hanging onto the ridgepole with all four hooves, "Doin'?"

"Applebloom, what in - " Applejack joined the group staring up at Twilight. "Are you feelin' all right Sugarcube?"

Twilight dropped, and landed less than spectacularly. "Have you seen Canterlot?" she asked, "Have you seen the shield surrounding the entire city? They would have only erected that shield in the most dire of dire emergencies. And I know who's attacking," Twilight assured Applejack, but her manic expression and disheveled mane and tail said otherwise.

"Sure Twi," Applejack said while making shooing motions towards Applebloom, "Why don't we get you a little cider and we can talk about it."

"No time, get Rainbow, I'll get the others and we'll meet at the train station," Twilight said as she trotted off.

"If'n we're in a hurry, what about the doors outside the Big Guy's house?" Applejack said, freezing Twilight in indecision.

"They were sealed up," Twilight said.

"But not the main door inside," Spike said, "Doesn't that lead to the caverns under the city?" He immediately regretted it.

"You're brilliant!" Twilight said, as her disheveled countenance eclipsed all else, "We'll mobilize all of Ponyville. A secret, assault group to rescue the Princesses! The Elements will go through first and the rest can follow once they're assembled and armed!"

"Armed?" Applejack and Spike asked, both shied away from Twilight and looked worriedly at each other.

"Yes," Twilight shouted as she galloped away, "The Big Guy's weapons and vehicles!"

"She's under a bit of stress," Spike explained.

"She's gone plumb loco," Applejack corrected, "How are we gonna use the Big Guy's weapons, none of us know how they work, and they're sure built fer a different shape than we got."

"I'd better go look after her," Spike said and ran after Twilight.

"Land sakes," Granny said as she opened the door, "Sounds like a war."

"Maybe Granny, maybe," Applejack replied.

Fluttershy heard the most frantic woodpecker coming from her front door. "I'm coming little friend!" she called as she galloped for the door.

"Twilight?" she asked with the door open. "Are you feeling all right?"

"No time, we have to save Princess Celestia!" Twilight insisted, and pulled her out of her house and down the trail.

"But who'll look after my animals?" Fluttershy asked as she floated within Twilight's magic.

"If we don't save Equestria there won't be anyone, or any animals, or any Equestria!" Twilight shouted as she galloped. She passed Spike, sending him spinning as she did.

"Who is threatening Equestria?" Fluttershy asked.

"Not here, they could be anywhere!" Twilight said as she ran.

Trixie looked around the huge warship, and felt small and insignificant. "Why didn't they ever launch this?" she asked and her question echoed through the cavernous engine room.

"They never could generate a big enough spark to get the engines going," Fragrance said.

Blueblood looked over at Fragrance's 'honor guard'. "I rather suspect that will not be a problem."

Trixie grabbed his chin and turned him to face her. "Tell me that you aren't thinking what I think you're thinking."

"I am not thinking what you are thinking I am thinking, to wit: fire up the engines and use this as a personnel carrier to carry an army of changelings to defeat Chrysalis and save Canterlot."

"Yes," Trixie admitted, "That was what I was thinking." Then she facehoofed. "You're thinking of doing something even crazier."

"From what Hotaru said, we can send a force through to the caverns under Canterlot. This warwagon has weapons emplacements and blisters where a pegasus can trap clouds to throw lightning," Blueblood said, "If we can get the engines running, we can add this hellion to the fight. With the Big Guy, Celly, Woona, Discord and Tom out of the picture, we are seriously short on firepower."

"The Diarchs will skin us alive for even having this thing," Trixie pointed out.

"That's why you're going in through the Big Guy's house and coming up from underneath," Blueblood said, "I'm banished from Canterlot. If I'm going to get vaporized, I might as well have committed a crime for it." Blueblood laughed. "I was rather more worried that you were concerned about the age of the systems."

"If the books are still here, then the preservation spell preserved the ship at the same moment," Trixie said, "So it's only a few months old?"

"Weeks," Fragrance said, "The city fell within weeks of the ship having the last equipment installed and tested."

"All the engine subsystems?" Trixie asked. Glanced around. "My father fixes locomotives, I know how complicated big machines are."

"I think s-s-so," Fragrance said, but her ears were tight against her head.

"This is insane," Trixie said.

"Does that mean you won't help?" Fragrance asked.

"The Great and Powerful Trixie arriving to save the Diarchs with an army at her back? Nopony would ever believe it. Oh course I'll help, but I just wanted everyone to know that we've all gone completely mad."

"Through insane and out the other side I'd reckon," Sapphire said.

"You don't suppose the Big Guy is like this all the time do you?" Blueblood asked.

Trixie and Sapphire considered, before nodding.

Luna was not a 'morning pony'. Morning for her meant staying up late. I strongly suspect this tiny sphere calling itself 'Tom' knows this, she thought. Cadence had seen her trotting along the castle's less traveled hallways, and had followed. Tom had said nothing about it. He simply led her to a small room well off the beaten path.

The light came on in the room, and revealed a very old and nearly regal changeling. Cadence gasped at the sight. The changeling glared at the junior princess, but gave Luna a more respectful look.

"She is a changeling," Luna said to Cadence, "An emotion-eating shape-shifter." Luna glared at the changeling. "Also something we told should never trouble us again."

"Considering that you have a foolish Changeling Queen already in your city and a force preparing to take your city from you," the changeling queen said, "We are here to offer our assistance, to you."

"Why would you do that?" Luna asked, overriding Cadence's gasp and growl.

"In Equus and Equestria, there's a growing feeling of hysteria," the queen sang, "Conditioned to respond to all the sounds, from the sealed away evil that still abounds."

Luna nodded and the queen continued, "Your dark threat said we will bury you. I don't subscribe to this point of view." The queen shook her head. "It'd be such an ignorant thing to do." She stared at Luna, and Cadence. "If the Changelings love their children too."

An image of the elements appeared above them.

"How can I save my little boy from the Diarchy's deadly toy?" the queen asked and stared at Luna, "There is no monopoly in common sense, on either side of this political fence."

The queen approached. Luna let her while Cadence drew back. "We share an ideology, regardless of our biology." She extended a hoof. "Believe me when I say to you, I hope the Ponies love their children too."

Luna extended a hoof and shook the queen's.

Luna's replied, "There is no historical precedent, that can convince the thrones' current resident." Luna nodded. "There's no such thing as a winnable war, it's the lie we can't believe anymore."

Luna sighed and bowed her head. "Princess Luna says we will protect you, I don't subscribe to this point of view."

She looked at the queen. "Believe me when I say to you, I hope our people love our children too."

She released the queen's hand. "We share an ideology, regardless of our biology." She smiled to the queen. "What might save us, me, and you, is if our people love their children too."

Applejack arrived with Rainbow Dash at the Carousel Boutique as Twilight explained the shield surrounding the city to her assembled friends. "Only my brother Shining Armor can generate a shield of that size. And it gives him terrible headaches if he keeps it up for very long. So if it's up, and it is staying up, there's a serious problem."

Spike stood off to one size, obviously aghast that suddenly Twilight was making perfect sense again.

Applejack shook Rainbow and got her awake again.

"How did you get up to her cloudhouse and get her?" Fluttershy asked.

Applejack closed her eyes and tried to block out the memory. "Don't ask. I jist hope the Crusaders didn't see."

Rarity cleared her throat. "So what are we to do? Dash to the palace and gather the Elements?"

"That's it. But as Spike pointed out, the backdoor of the Big Guy's house leads to a cavern under Canterlot. Even if the other doors in that corridor were neutralized, that should still work," Twilight said.

"Any idea what kind of threat we'll be facing?" Pinkie asked, and 'menaced' each pony, "Huge, magic-eating monsters? Fallen students of Celestia? A giant, planet-eating monster voiced by Orson Wells? An evil spell that swaps everyponies' cutie marks and leaves them miserable?"

Rainbow's hoof corked the further speculation by Pinkie Pie. "It's too early in the morning for that kind of insanity. After all, those are ridiculous."

"I, don't know for absolute certainty," Twilight said and looked far too guilty for that to be the whole truth, "But I do know that speed is of the essence. The faster we get to Celestia, the faster we can deal with this threat."

"Okay, fast I can go along with," Rainbow said, she nudged Twilight. "Aren't you afraid of leaving Ponyville to the tender care of all those . . . boxes?"

Rainbow laughed at Twilight's stricken expression.

"Let's go before Twilight thinks those evil boxes are going to come back," Rainbow said and kept laughing as she left.

"Not enough time to dress properly," Rarity lamented as she followed her friends to the door in the middle of the new park. The Writ of Banishment had been removed, framed, and replaced.

"Good riddance," Rainbow said, "I know some of you liked him, but he was creepy. Even the restaurant they set up to serve him is packing up and leaving town."

"I hadn't heard that," Pinkie admitted.

"Sure, the griffons will be leaving, so there's no reason for them to stay," Rainbow said.

Now Pinkie was looking as nervous as Twilight. "The griffons are leaving?"

"Sure, the Canterlot weather team heard they're gettin' recalled," Rainbow said and headed through the door, "Come on slowpokes!"

"Rainbow, there's still folks who live in there," Applejack said as Rainbow hovered before the door to the house proper.

"What happened to all the 'farmers are up at dawn' stuff?" Rainbow asked.

Applejack facehoofed.

"There is a certain politeness, and the possibility the door is locked?" Rarity pointed out.

Rainbow rolled her eyes and hammered on the door. The door swung open and Rainbow charged inside, with Twilight hot on her heels.

"I got sheep raised in a barn with better manners," Applejack grumbled as she followed the pair. She ignored Rarity's giggle and noted that Twilight was not mesmerized by the immense bookshelves like every other time she'd entered the home. She glanced at Rarity and the pair nodded.

They were through the house and on the patio outside, looking around the immense crystalline cave when Pinkie Pie spoke, "So what are we facing?"

The simple question threw Twilight as she obviously didn't want to answer.

"We need to know if we're going to get the weapons out of the house," Pinkie said, rubbing her hooves, "Maybe Applejack can drive that special cart. I can use the chainsaw."

"Absolutely not!" Applejack said.

"Oh," Pinkie said, "The cart scared you. But me and that chainsaw -!"

"NO!" all of them agreed.

"Well Twilight, what are we facing?" Rarity asked, "You wouldn't be so evasive if you didn't know."

Twilight sighed. "Uhm." She looked around at the surrounding, extremely neutral faces.

"I got up early for I don't know?" Rainbow asked, "Twilight, the boxes are not out to get you. The boxes are not out to get Princess Celestia. There's no hydra. The plant monster got scorched. Discord is scared of the Big Guy. Nightmare Moon is gone. Cerberus isn't out wandering so none of the monsters of Tartarus are loose. Even the Big Guy left town at Celestia's say so. What the flippin' hay could be wrong?"

In the silence that followed, Twilight heard something. A voice she almost recognized. She dashed off in that direction. Rainbow groaned.

"Maybe we should follow?" Fluttershy said. The others reluctantly agreed, remembering what happened last time, and the time before that.

Twilight stood before a wall of crystal, her horn glowing brightly. Before they could stop her, she unleashed a blast that shattered the crystals. Twilight seemed to become herself, and carefully stepped in.

"Who is it? Is this another trick?" the voice in the darkness asked.

"Cadence, it's me," Twilight said.

"You can't be," the voice slowly revealed to be Cadence said as she pulled back into the shadows that still lingered despite Twilight's and Rarity's horn glow.

Twilight grimaced, looked back at her friends and sighed. "Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake, clap your hooves," she said as she did a little dance.

"And do a little shake," Cadence and Twilight said together.

"It is you!" Cadence said as she dashed forward and hugged Twilight, "When they locked me up, they said no one would ever find me."

Twilight shot her friends a triumphant look. "It's okay. We'll tell Celestia, get the Elements and we'll take care of everything."

"That won't be easy. She has Shining Armor. If she has him, she has the Guard, and everyone thinks she's me," Cadence explained.

Twilight looked at Cadence. "She who?"

"Chrysalis, queen of the changelings, the one who kidnaped me," Cadence said as she looked around, "Changelings take the form of those you love, and feed off the love you have for that person. Who did you think I was talking about? That is how you knew to come here, right?"

"Uh, beg pardon," Applejack said as she pushed Fluttershy to sit next to Cadence. "Y'all just confer, we need ta do the same." Applejack dragged Twilight away.

"Uh, I'm sure Rarity wouldn't mind if I combed out your mane," Fluttershy offered.

"Certainly not," Rarity said as she hoofed over a comb and brush, "Looking good is a way of feeling well." Rarity headed over to where Applejack had Twilight.

"If'n them changelings are the love-suckin' shape-shifters, you know what that means, don't you?" Applejack asked.

"They shapeshifted into boxes just to make people think I was crazy!" Twilight said and ground her teeth in frustration.

Applejack looked to Rarity who shrugged. "Some help," she muttered, then added more loudly, "Yeah, whatever works fer ya Twi. Let's go get them!"

"Now we're talking!" Rainbow said and raced ahead.

Rarity patted Applejack's shoulder. "It's for the best, really."

Applejack sighed.

"Five thousand?" Celestia gasped. She looked around her 'day room' to grim Luna and shocked Cadence.

"If you count Chrysalis' hive, all the forces extorted from other hives, and the foolish who joined her," the changeling queen said.

"We accept your help," Celestia said, "And we thank you for offering it."

The changeling queen nodded.

"Wouldn't this Crystals have done something to keep you out of the fight?" Cadence asked.

"Chrysalis," the queen said, "She laid a curse on all the hives that defied her. Fortunately, we had a few good people who neutralized it, and we've been able to neutralize it for others."

"A tall biped?" Celestia asked and facehoofed when the queen nodded.

"Yes," the queen said, "He and his friends also freed our Great Mother."

She paused as the alicorns all stared at her.

"Did you ever wonder where the Windingos went?" the queen asked, "The Great Mother transformed them, into us. A being who can be any kind of pony, and who subsists on the gratitude of those helped. No more, 'three tribes' stranglehold. If the unicorns won't raise the sun, a team of changelings can do it. Weather control needed and the pegasi are demanding too high a price, the changelings can do it."

"We've grown in Harmony," Celestia said, "We don't need to circumvent each other's talents."

"True, but that's a thousand years later. The point it, that's what we were originally for. Chrysalis is betraying all that. For a thousand years, we've waited in the shadows, when we were supposed to be standing beside others. Once the Great Mother confirmed what had been heresy among us, we accepted and began to decide for ourselves to fend off the greatest disgrace our race could suffer."

"Disgrace?" Cadence asked angrily.

"Yes, disgrace. We might defeat this city if Chrysalis attacked it, we'd never hold it. If you are going to step out of the shadows, you don't paint a target on yourself when you do," the queen said, "Ignoring the other nations. What about Discord, Tirek, and all the other monsters in the Princess' statue garden. They'll overwhelm even a Changeling Queen, and they'll be far less polite about it than the Princesses would be."

The queen really has taken a disliking to Cadence, Celestia considered as she separated the pair who seemed one step from tearing each other apart.

"So what do you offer?" Celestia asked to be polite.

The queen glared at Cadence while she answered Celestia, "Once all our available forces are assembled, we should outnumber Chrysalis' forces by eight to one."

Cadence blanched and backed away from the changeling. "Forty thousand?!" she gasped, "How did you assemble a force like that?!"

"A very clever pony reminded me of your eventual title, Princess Cadence, empress: Queen of queens."

Cadence curled her lip at the queen, as if offended by the very reasonable solution.

"The other queens retain their rulership, and they administer their territories, I would be chairling of the board, first among equals," the queen answered Cadence's sneer with her own, "It's amazing how offering a carrot, instead of a stick works wonders. I would have thought you ponies were up on all this 'friendship' stuff."

"Do I have to separate you two?" Celestia asked, "Cadence what's gotten into you?"

"This thing is a perversion of all I stand for. Now you are trusting her word that she's aligned with us?"

"I never said I was serving the Diarchy, deary," the queen said, "I'm simply helping them deal with a pest they haven't reached over and swatted, and keeping my people from their back swing when they crush that hideously stupid coward, Chrysalis."

Lyra walked out of Ponyville Hospital, holding the door for Bonbon. When she locked eyes with Bonbon, she blushed. Bonbon blushed a moment later and looked away.

"Tomorrow," Bonbon said, and if anything, blushed more as she rubbed her belly.

"Tomorrow," Lyra agreed, "I can hardly believe it."

"Beg pardon," Big Mac said as he approached, and gestured for them to follow.

They glanced at him and trotted after.

"The horror! The horror!" a couple ponies lamented and fainted.

"Well, we're well rid of them," the mare standing on the rim of the fountain announced.

"Trixie?" Bonbon said on recognizing her, "What's going on?" As the crowd cleared slightly, she saw two more Trixies. "Wha?!"

"It's very simple," the trio of Trixie's said, "There is a species created originally as helpmate to ponies, that have been hijacked by an ambitious fool, and I should know ambitious fools when I hear one."

The crowd chuckled at that.

"But this ambitious fool threatens the Diarchy itself," the Trixies said, "And before you ask 'what can we do against something that will threaten Celestia?' They are not one target, but thousands, if we have thousands of our own, we can assist."

"How are we going to get thousands?" Scootaloo asked.

"Yeah? How?" Scootaloo asked, and nodded to Scootaloo.

"Yeah Trixie," a dozen Appleblooms asked, "Where do we get thousands?"

"I have a cunning plan," Trixie told them as the Ponyvillians realized there were handfuls of themselves scattered throughout the crowd.

"Nope," half the forty Big Macs said, only to be confronted by the other half, "Yep."

"I'm not asking you to charge like Lord Thunderbolt," Trixie said.

"Because we're not pegasi," another Trixie said.

Trixie glared at the other Trixie, while the third shook her head.

"As Trixie was saying," Trixie said, "If we arrive in size and force, there are many things we can do. Intimidate the enemy for one. If they see Canterlot and the Changelings standing together, there may be no battle at all."

"Best I've heard," Bonbon said, and looked at a dozen nodding Lyras. Fifteen Bonbons facehoofed.

The single-file of ponies walked across the narrow path cut in the side of the cavern along the edge of a deep crevasse. The three fliers stayed close to watch their friends. Pinkie leaned over until she had to windmill her legs to keep her balance. Rainbow shoved her back onto the path.

"Thanks," Pinkie told her.

"You must know Twilight pretty well to pull that off that 'Changelings into boxes' bit," Cadence said to Applejack as she fluttered along the line.

"I was wondering if a Changeling Celestia banished the Big Guy so he couldn't charge to the rescue," Applejack replied.

Derpy had been flying all night, with her daughter and her dearest friend on her back. I should be tired, she thought as flew through the early morning sky. The weight on her back, the air beneath her wings, and the trust and faith both her passengers couldn't have been made clearer if they'd written it on her flesh. But I just feel wonderful, she thought as the air seemed to buoy her up.

I thought the risk of overflying Equestria at high-altitude to give us an express route home was worth it, she thought, No pony would pay much attention to little me. Not like they pay me much attention anyway. But I've never felt like this, and I want to go on feeling like this. She risked a glance up at the figure draped over her neck and head hanging on gently. She smiled and sighed, feeling so happy she was nearly ready to cry.

The odd shield around the capital broke her good mood. She wobbled slightly to wake her passengers. She decided to head straight for the capital. The Big Guy can handle any problem, she thought and chuckled to herself.

"I'm sorry, I fell asleep," the Big Guy told her, a welcome change that he could be understood.

I still don't know if he's speaking Equestrian, or if I understand his language. I think it's the first, but it could be the second, she thought as she listened to the yawns of her passengers.

"I think there's trouble," Derpy said, "I've been briefed on that shield, but they aren't supposed to use it unless it's really a disaster."

"It's worth risking arrest," the Big Guy said, "They might know about Chrysalis' attack. We can add our information from a cell better than from a thousand miles away."

She smiled at his chuckle.

"What's that?" Dinky said and pointed at something Derpy couldn't make out.

"Young eyes," the Big Guy said as Derpy changed course to close the distance.

In a few moments she saw dots darting around themselves. She had only seen anything like that outside of the Big Guy's flying machine game as a pack of fighting birds. "That's not good," she said as she realized she was well above them, and the three of them were perhaps among the few beings on the planet who had actually studied and practiced air-to-air combat, even if only playing a game. "Dinky, keep a watch behind us." She felt the Big Guy and Dinky rearranging themselves.

"Boom and zoom, that's the tactic I taught you in the game, dive, dive past them, and once you're out of line, use the speed you've built up to climb again, then boom and zoom them."

"Got, it, 'boom and zoom', I like that," Derpy said.

She picked out a particular ball of swirling dots. She'd learned that the dive and climb, or 'boom and zoom' was better for the fliers that were heavier, rather than a swirling twisting fight. And with the load she was carrying, she was heavier than any pegasus alive. But I know I could out-fly them, she thought as she felt the strength of her wings, and felt she could use them better than she ever had before.

She recognized the figures who were attacking. Changelings, but these aren't white, they must be the other queen's, she looked at the frantically maneuvering blue dots, and realized, Those are the Wonderbolts, but they're outnumbered five to one.

"Can you use magic?" Dinky asked.

"I think I can," the Big Guy answered, "But I don't know how."

"Then get something you really trust to work, and focus your magic through it. It's how babies do it. They just want, and with their horn, the magic happens."

"Okay, you're the expert. I just expect this to do nothing, or something truly bizarre," the Big Guy said.

"As long as it works," Dinky said, "You can make it better after you study. Like mathematics."

"Here we go," Derpy said as they dove.

"More coming in from behind!" Dinky called.

"Let me try," the Big Guy said as he shifted.

She risked a look behind, and was glad she had. The huge, green glowing ball came out of the Big Guy's gun, she turned forward as it split into five smaller balls.

"It split into five!" Dinky shouted.

Then they were among changelings, Derpy striking out with hooves and wings, the Big Guy swung, and fired again into the masses of changelings that weren't engaging them or the Wonderbolts. The changelings scattered on seeing the huge, seeming fireball.

And then they were through. Derpy looked back to watch the effect. The Wonderbolts seemed to have reorganized. She watched the balls chasing down the largest masses of changelings, forcing them to break up. But she never saw any of the changelings hurt by the impacts.

"It seems to fall off with range," the Big Guy said as they pulled up and Derpy climbed for all she was worth. "They can eventually wait it out, by running away."

"That sounds fine to me," Derpy said as she climbed.

Blueblood was aware that things the sizes of building weren't supposed to shiver. "Is this necessary?" he asked as he held the railing in the bridge. Spreading himself to several dozen changelings was making him a little loopy. He kept thinking that the ship wanted to go back to sleep and was trying to shake off the irritating fleas prodding into full wakefulness.

Fragrance had also dragooned a team of changelings, and was down in the engine room. It had the advantage that with one of 'her' changelings on the bridge, and several of his in the engine room, they could effectively speak to each other.

"It's this or try to batter through the ice. We don't have time for that," the changeling-Fragrance said.

He looked around and didn't like the idea that technically the ice was all around and passing through them. Without the magical might of the assembly of changelings directed by her and Fragrance, they would be instantly trapped within the massive ice sheet that covered the city.

The sudden silence was more frightening than the constant noise. He looked around, his ears folding down tight to his head. "What's that?" he whispered his question. "It's sure loud." It was not a noise, but a feeling of sound. He shook his head.

It's silence, he thought, After so long yelling and shouting, and the noise of this machine, it's just the quiet.

"Set a course for Appleoosa," Blueblood said, and smirked as all the changelings winced at the quiet sound of his voice. "We'll have to pick up the regiment, and get them to Canterlot."

"What about all of us?" one of the unpaired changelings asked.

"I have to assume that your Queen's efforts have come to naught and be prepared to face Chrysalis' forces already in possession of the city. Better to have some known troops to vouch for all of you."

The changeling nodded as the 'paired' changelings manipulated the controls. "Course laid in, I think," the changeling said. "She only glimpsed the blueprints, and scanned some of the control manuals."

"Take us out," Blueblood said, "We'll learn as we go. Just take things nice and easy."

The sound of the ship flying through the air, rather than slipping between the atoms of the ice was a much smoother ride. Blueblood settled in the captain's chair and considered what he'd do when they entered Canterlot proper. He also wondered if the troops would follow this hair-brained scheme. I think I've figured out another reason Auntie is so worried about him. If he can convince a coward like me to do this, what else can he convince other ponies to do?

Derpy hammered the head of one changeling, smashed the wing of another, Dinky was shooting off spell blots, and the Big Guy fired off the 'torpedoes' as he called them that the changelings still hadn't figured out were probably harmless. But the changeling swarm that had ambushed the Wonderbolts was thinning out.

"That's Fleetfoot down," Dinky reported, "They aren't looking behind."

"I don't think they've been schooled in the Diktat Boelcke," the Big Guy said, "You and Dinky have."

Derpy pulled out of her dive and began her climb. The changelings, who'd been heavily reinforced during the fight, seemed unwilling to engage the lone pegasus, despite outnumbering her by fifty easily. "Canterlot?" she asked, circling to see that for whatever reason, the changelings were not harassing the fallen Wonderbolts, and all of them.

"Canterlot. Maybe they need time to come up with perfect disguises," the Big Guy said, "We'll have to add that to our list of warnings."

Derpy agreed and angled over to head towards Canterlot.

Luna marched between the Changeling Queen and Cadence. Celestia wondered what had gotten into Cadence that the entire idea of a second changeling army bothered her more than the single antithetical one did.

"We should begin planning for the defense of the city," Celestia said, "That is what we all want."

"I think you might want to disclude the changeling infiltrator from those discussions," the queen said, "After all, Chrysalis already has so many of your secrets, it's that right, Chrysalis?"

Celestia suddenly felt the pieces all fall together. "You?! Where is Cadence?"

"Where you'll never find her," Cadence said, "It's amazing, this fool dropping hints, clues, then anvils and you two never saw. Why didn't you simply out me when you first saw me?"

"I hoped they'd see, or that you would," the queen said, "The discomfiture of one minor noble will be far easier for the Diarchy to forgive than an attack on the entire city. While you've feasted on the love of Cadence from Armor, the Diarchs, heck, half the population of Equus, you are no match for the power that is coming for you. You can break off, or you will be broken. There is much you can do, but this is not the way. This never was our way, it was never supposed to be our way."

Cadence/Chrysalis glared at the old changeling queen again.

"There's the coast." Celly pointed a hoof.

Woona nodded as she flew in Celly's wake. They'd been trading off for about an hour as they crossed open ocean. "I still haven't quite figured out where we were."

"We never were explorers," Celly said.

"Maybe you weren't," Woona teased back, "Appleoosa is the furthest town south, we should angle for that, and take the railroad to Ponyville and then go through the house. Hopefully, the others will have reassembled. If they aren't there, we'll have a place to start."

Celly nodded. "Feet dry, twenty minutes."

Twilight exited the caverns. "Come on girls! We have to get the Elements, then we'll head to Celestia and deal with the bo - changelings!" the purple unicorn galloped down the street.

Her friends rolled their eyes and charged after her.

"You'd better accompany us. If we lose sight of you, we might not be able to vouch for you."

"Right," Cadence replied, "I didn't think about the idea. I am rather proud that no one really dislikes me."

"Makes sense," Rarity said, "Are you holding up?"

"Knowing that we can win," Cadence replied, "Has given me the strength to go on."

They ran, ignoring the odd looks from the ponies out strolling on the streets.

"Why don't I head off to the palace?" Rainbow asked.

"The 'temple' where the Elements are kept is not far from where we came out," Twilight said, "Closer than a quick run than to the gatehouse of the palace. And we need all of us to use the Elements."

"And we cain't risk gittin' out of each other's sight!" Applejack said as they ran.

They stormed up the steps to the temple and threw the doors open.

Twilight stormed in, along with her friends. Suddenly the doors she'd thrown open slammed shut and the entire wide open, pillar-filled room went dark.

"Uh oh," Pinkie said.

Cadence/Chrysalis and the old queen stared at each other, fighting a contest of wills. One seeming to hold to the old ways, the other to the new. Luna briefly considered intervening. And the 'intervention of others' would have worked so well when I was conflicted with Celestia's adoration, Luna thought as she watched the two seemingly staring at each other, but she could feel the mental push and shove going on between them.

"You are correct, this is not the way it should be," Chrysalis said.

Everyone relaxed slightly.

"I should do this!" A brilliant flash of light and cloud of smoke accompanied Chrysalis/Cadence's declaration.

"Search the palace," Celestia ordered as she summoned a wind to drive the smoke away.

"For whom?" the changeling queen asked.

"Let's start with Cadence and Shining Armor, and work out from there." Celestia turned and relayed her orders to the guard.

The changeling queen walked up beside Luna. "Have you seen that crazy little ball?" the queen asked.

"Tom?" Luna asked, "He said something about 'going pear-shaped' and left after we started talking."

The queen nodded and with Luna's small entourage accompanied the Lunar Princess through the halls of Canterlot Palace.

Chrysalis smiled, checked that her disguise was perfect, and carefully entered Shining Armor's chamber. She felt the webs she'd spun within his mind were eroding, as they normally did. But he is still mine, she thought.

"Shining, the enemy I warned you about is here," she said, "They are shape-changers, and they've even confused Celestia. We have to get you out of here. As long as the shield remains up, we are invulnerable. But they may try to convince you to drop it."

"How do I know you aren't a shapechanger?" Armor asked.

"Why would one of Equestria's enemies tell you to keep up the capital's ultimate defense?" she asked, and felt the merest flicker of suspicion drop away.

Shining bowed his head. "What can we do? If they've gotten to Celestia . . . "

"I'm more worried about them taking the shape of someone you trust, and telling you they've convinced Celestia to drop the shield," Chrysalis/Cadence said, "I know a few bolt holes we can hide in where they won't even know to search. The advantage of growing up here. You'll be safe there. I can slip out among them, and find out what's really going on. If they get you, then we've lost."

He nodded. As addled as he was by her spell, he still thought as best he could. "All right, but if you come back, my favorite dessert is raspberry tart."

"You hate raspberries," Chrysalis/Cadence said, "Everyone who knows you knows that."

"Yes, and so any of them will give the wrong answer," he said and grinned at his cleverness.

"Okay, I'll remember, and tell no one," she said, "Hold tight, we'll be where it's safe in a moment."

They briefly flickered out, then back into an attic. It was a storeroom she'd hidden in during her weeks of observing the Equestrian nobility and waiting for her moment to take Cadence's place. She laid him on a cot she'd scrounged. "Rest. I'll be back. Trust no one without the password."

Her flanks secure, she headed off to ensure that the nymph who thought herself a queen would find an army of changelings were still a tool for the strongest queen to use. With luck, I can take this city without the 'help' from my 'new friend'. I'd rather keep the city intact, Chrysalis thought, I don't require vengeance on the Pony Sisters.

Tom found Discord atop Discord's statue. Broken, mini-mining tools lay strewn around. "This is going to be tougher than I thought," Discord said, and kicked the statue, "Why must you be so hardheaded."

"We could always tell 'Why did the toast cross the road?' jokes, you hate those," Tom said as he selected a point and fired into it.

"Let's not!" Discord said.

"How about explosives?" Tom asked.

"How about I beat you against my skull?" Discord asked and looked around. "I guess we aren't discordant enough."

"I think once the battle gets underway, we'll have more than enough discord to free him. If you don't mind, I'm going to try to coordinate the forces. I think the ceremony made me different enough that I won't simply be absorbed, but I'd rather be far away when that happens."

"Good luck," Discord said as he selected a new pick to apply to his main-self's stony covering.

"We make our own luck now," Tom said as he flew off.

Blueblood was getting the sick feeling that shaking was the ship's natural state. Through two miles of solid ice while trying not to intermix their molecules he could understand. But we're just flying through the air now, he thought as the vessel shivered beneath him, It shouldn't be doing that now, we should just push the air aside. I think there were other reasons they never moved forward with this design.

"Sir," one of the changelings with his form said, "We just generated a rainboom."

Blueblood noted that the ride had steadied considerably. "Thank Celestia and ancient engineering for that. How soon will we reach the Equestrian coast?"

"Ah, I don't know sir, we're still accelerating," the changeling said.

"What?" Blueblood moved to the helm control. He saw that the engine controls were just a hair over 'off', but the displays showed the engines at full output.

"Engineering?" he called to the changeling linked to Fragrance.

"She's working on it, but the controls aren't working. They may not have been installed correctly," she said.

Blueblood knew that Fragrance would be working on it, and the filly was the only one with even a clue about how the engines worked was working on it.

"Are there any manuals or documentation on this ship?" Blueblood asked.

"You want something to read, at a time like this?" the changeling/Fragrance asked.

"This ship has twelve engines. If it gets to be a problem, we can shut the engines off," Blueblood said.

"We'd never get it restarted," the changeling/Fragrance said, the filly's exasperation clear on the changeling's borrowed face.

Blueblood smiled, knowing one of the changelings facing the real Fragrance was showing his grin. "We don't shut down the energizer, just the engines."

The changeling wearing Fragrance's form showed the filly's incredulity. "That's brilliant."

"I may not be the Princess' Personal Student, but I'm not stupid, and neither are you," Blueblood told her.

"There should be plans in the chief engineer's or the captain's office," the changeling told him.

He nodded. "If any of the engines show trouble or we start to shake apart, shut them down. Otherwise, let's see how fast this thing can go." He headed towards the offices.

The huge force assembled in the cavern containing the Big Guy's 'top' home. As they began moving out, Trixie looked at the massive assembly.

"We could have gone forward with a smaller force," Blossom said.

Trixie shook her head. "There's times to tease the audience, and there's times to pull out the show stopper. This is that time. If Chrysalis really has five thousand changelings, we'll need all fifteen thousand we have. She has the most aggressive and vicious, we'll need the numbers." Trixie could almost feel the changeling queens staring. "My uncle was in the guard his whole life. I was one of the few who enjoyed his stories. He could really tell a story."

"What are we going to do once we face them?" Blossom asked.

"What kind of military training do changelings have?" Trixie asked.

"None really," Blossom said.

"Find some good sergeants," Big Mac said as he trotted up. "Do changelings learn what the person they're copying knows?"

"Yes, but it tends to confuse them, because the link goes both ways. So a person suddenly is spread all over the place," Blossom said.

Big Mac smiled. "That might be an advantage."

"Come on! I'll take y'all on myself!" Rainbow shouted as she struggled against the bonds that held her, and all her friends. Twilight, Rarity and Cadence all had a black, metal ring on their horns. The others were struggling against their bonds. Pinkie was off in a corner playing a harmonica, despite being tied up.

They hadn't moved her from the temple, but the sheer number of changelings in the building made escape by brute force impossible.

"Aren't you the least bit worried?" Rarity asked.

"Nope, see, they aren't' the real thing to fear in the darkness," Pinkie said. The changelings shivered at her tone and began watching the shadows. Pinkie grinned, until five struggling figures were dragged into the light.

"Are these the ones you were hoping might rescue you?" the changeling who asked was bigger than the others and white, "We have had dealings with more cunning foes that you have. It was instructional."

"Sorry," Glorious Sunrise said, "Overconfidence was our undoing."

Applejack started to ask a question, then shoved her own hooves into her mouth. "Sorry, not polite to laugh," she explained.

"Actually," Pinkie said earnestly, "I was thinking of someone else. Someone else, someone who has been killing to protect his people since he was a young boy. If you let us go, and surrender to Celestia, I think I can convince him to leave you all alive."

It wasn't just the changelings who stared at her in stunned amazement. Pinkie noted that Glorious Sunrise, the experienced warrior, took her seriously.

Chrysalis/Cadence moved across the floor to where Armor lay in the bunk shuddering as he 'dealt with his headache', really trying to throw off the spell she had on him.

"Armor, are you awake?" she asked, and he focused on her. She had to take this carefully. She sensed the swirl of emotions within him, and that her control was tenuous and would need reinforcing soon. She would have to treat this gently. "Your favorite dessert is plain cheese cake." She grinned. "But the password is raspberry tart."

He returned her smile. He'd briefly become suspicious, but on the release, he dropped to an even lower level than he'd been when she'd left him earlier.

It was games like that which let her gain mastery. "Twilight is coming in, and she's being pursued," she told him, "I know 'I must do something.' I'll help. How fast can you drop the shield, and then raise it again?"

"A few moments, but why not come in the gates?" Armor asked.

"Her friends are carrying her, and she's trying to get to the Temple of the Elements," Chrysalis/Cadence said, "Direct route, you know Twilight."

He nodded and winced. The headache was getting worse, which meant his mind was breaking loose of her webs. He'd need a reapplication soon enough. But letting him betray his word to Celestia for the fate of his sister would be a weakness she could use when she struggled against him next. Each subtle betrayal and failure gave her greater force than she would have had without them.

"Can you watch?" he asked.

She grinned and lifted the binoculars around her neck. "Trust me." She sent the signal to her changelings. They would be swarming over the barrier now, when it 'blinked' the Equestrians' ultimate defense would mean no one could help them from the outside, and they would be trapped within. The ultimate betrayal that would let her bind even Celestia to her will.

The swarm was up and formed around the shield. Ponies were starting to panic, but the soldiers were telling them that they had nothing to fear. I don't know where they got the fairy story that I had five thousand. I'd be lucky to have eleven hundred. And where are they going to be getting two thousand? Let alone twenty, or forty, she thought.

"Ready," she said, "Now!" And her changelings were through. "Raise it!" she shouted, and the shield reformed. She felt a deep visceral satisfaction as she felt the terror of the populace spread like cancer. The failure of their ultimate defense, and therefore of their rulers spread the panic faster and farther. "Armor, rest," she told him, "Twilight and the Bearers can carry the burden now."

He nodded and closed his eyes. She began casting her spells to reassert her control over him. She eagerly waited for the bittersweet taste of his despair when he realized what he had done.

"I think we can hover on one engine," Fragrance said as she accompanied Blueblood as he disembarked.

Both of us hiding just how frightening the flight had been, she thought as the changeling gazed at the pair with concern, While they knew, they had also felt our efforts to contain the situation. Now have to show absolute confidence, or the scheme and the rescue will completely fall apart. She looked over at Blueblood. He still seems confident, despite knowing how knife-edged this gambit is.

He nodded, the regiment had turned out in full battle array when this monster appeared in the skies. "Captain!" he called out as he disembarked with a small contingent of changelings.

"Sir?" The captain stared at him in amazement, then, with no other ideas, she saluted.

"The enemy you've heard rumors about, we've got confirmation, and many of their people are here to put a stop to these renegades. You've all been trained to operate well above your nominal rank, but you're going to have to really punch above your weight. We have ten thousand troops, and only twenty minutes. Mainly try to keep the units coordinated. How many effectives do we have, that includes all clerks, cooks, everypony."

"Seven hundred thirty-five," Captain Alfalfa said, "You're asking the impossible."

"We outnumber the enemy two-to-one, if we can coordinate our forces, we'll win. The changelings have a sort of web of communications, pick a changeling for company communication. I can coordinate the entire force from the ship." Blueblood sighed. "Now, I know you are all required to uphold the laws of Equestria and the dictates of the Diarchs, and what we are doing violates all manner of laws and standing orders. Not the least of which is my exile from the capital. Anypony who wishes to voice their concerns, I will take note of it and provide the documentation as part of your defense."

Alfalfa chuckled. "Colonel, I think I can speak for the entire regiment, living and dead, to Tartarus with our 'orders'." The regiment cheered as they picked up their gear and headed up into the vehicle.

"What are they going to manage in twenty minutes?" Fragrance asked.

"The North Border Fusiliers are known for miracles," Blueblood said.

"You aren't going to accompany us?" Alfalfa asked.

"From the ship, I have realized I can manage the battle better from aboard," Blueblood said, and ignored the knowing looks passing among the officers and senior noncoms of the regiment.

"Care for some assistance in your miracle?" Celly asked as she and Woona arrived. She let out a deep breath. "Reporting for duty." Celly saluted.

"What was that?" Woona asked as she stared. "The city had a shield like Shining Armor's, but it disappeared for a moment, then reappeared."

"Maybe Chrysalis' changelings knocked it down," one of the changelings said, "We can do the same if we need to when we get there."

"I think we need those engines up and running!" Fragrance called back as she galloped onto the ship.

"If you don't mind being degraded to brigade commanders, I think Alfalfa would like the assist," Blueblood said.

"Gladly," Celly said and stared at Blueblood, "Different universe, amazing."

"Perhaps not, your Majesty," Blueblood said as he walked onto the ship, "Perhaps not."

"Chrysalis!" Celestia thundered as she, Luna, Selene Dreamer and the changeling queen confronted her in the Grand Dining Salon. She got ready to challenge the revealed changeling, then Celestia saw the changelings chasing the citizenry through the streets, saw the Guard had been overwhelmed, and Chrysalis herself had a squad of her own guards. "What have you done? The shield is still up!"

"Princesses Celestia and Luna once rulers of Equestria, I am here to accept your immediate and unconditional surrender," Chrysalis told them.

"We will never surrender to you!" Luna announced.

"You will, if you want Princess Cadence and your precious Bearers alive and unharmed. After all, there are worse things than changeling rule. Your ponies will still need the Bearers' protection. You can't afford to lose one. You can barely afford to lose Cadence," Chrysalis said, "Once you've surrendered, I'll call off my troops. This can be done in a much more civilized manner. Like what you do with cows and sheep. They seem to enjoy their lives. Your people will come to enjoy it, especially if you lead by example."

Celestia turned to face her. "Never," Celestia told her and advanced.

Selene finally obeyed her mother and ran from the room.

Chrysalis laughed, "You forget, love is our power," Chrysalis told her, "And I was the most beloved alicorn in Equestria. You are more feared than loved, a good means to rule as a tyrant, but not good for inspiring the loyalty a ruler needs."

"Says the tyrant," the Changeling Queen said.

"I have not the merest sliver of Celestia's talent for inspiring terror and compulsion," Chrysalis said, "Even your own sister is frightened of you. Frightened you will find her unfit and steal her daughter away."

"I'd -" Celestia was interrupted as Chrysalis struck.

"VILLAIN!" Luna shouted as she fired back as Celestia fell.

"Careful," Chrysalis chided, "You might collapse the building on your precious subjects." She vanished into the shadows. A blast raced out of the darkness to deter pursuit. Luna still charged after her.

The Changeling Queen looked at the trio of guards. "And whose side are you on?"

"Sapphire's," they said, "She was the only one who was ever nice to us."

"I think she'd want you to take Celestia someplace safe, away from Chrysalis," the Changeling Queen told them.

"Will do."

"You can count on us."

Once she was gone, the third added, "Let's not screw this up, again."

Luna blind fired and advanced. She's right, she thought, I could one-shot her, but I don't dare use my full power. And subtlety was never my strong suit. She walked among the pillars of the eponymously named 'Hall of Pillars'. Light and shadow alternated. Plenty of places for either of them to hide. And she can be anyone, Luna reminded herself, So no one can be trusted, and she might even send ponies after me. 'Celestia demands you attack the changeling disguised as Princess Luna. This was not well thought out by me. I should have vaporized her when I saw her and hang the consequences.

She dodged a blast and returned fire down the same line.

"Very close your Highness, but with all the mirrors in here, how do you know that's really where I am." Chrysalis' voice taunted her.

Luna filled the room with power, sending beams ricocheting off every wall and polished surface. She was rewarded with a yelp and the clattering of hooves. So much for 'you can't see me, when I can blanket the entire room.

Luna dashed after the fleeing bug. Intent on making a swift end of her.

Derpy saw the changelings fly through the shield, but it was up before she could follow. "What so we do?" she asked as she fluttered outside the city as the changelings within ran rampant.

"I suspect the guards are going to be occupied," the Big Guy said, "We fly in the gate. Drop me at the palace, you and Dinky head for the house entrances and get the changelings moving if they haven't already."

"Got it!" Derpy said as she dove for the gate, in a moment she saw it was abandoned. "Special delivery!" she cried out as she sailed through it. "I always wanted to do that!"

She dodged easily among the changelings who ran and flew here and there. They seemed to ignore the very weird sight of a pegasus carrying a strange creature, a pegasus who wasn't shocked and running away in terror or attacking them. "This is very weird," she said as she landed and let the Big Guy put Dinky on her back. She turned as he ran into the palace, but before she could get airborne, a pair of changelings landed.

"You can change into anypony?" she cried out in her best Pinkie Pie tone, "Do me! Do me!"

The changelings reappeared as a pair of Derpys. Both immediately reeled as the effect of her strabismus hit them. The last thing they saw clearly was a bluish-gray hoof before their faces, then only darkness.

Derpy looked at the two, unconscious changelings. "It's not so easy now is it?" she shouted at them and took to the air.

Luna stalked through the maintenance halls. Her fury grew by the moment.

"Poor widdle Woooona," the voice taunted, "When Celestia wins the day, everyone will ask where you were. It's no wonder everyone sees you as a freak."

"Show yourself and I'll show you what a freak I am," Luna replied, and covered the entire area in blinding light.

"Too slow, too foolish," the voice came from the left. Luna glanced right, then left, she'd been fooled often enough. "Just let out by Celestia when she needs something squashed. Does she call you into her chambers to kill spiders for her too?"

"I am an equal partner," Luna growled.

"As long as you do what your big sister wants. Do you really think she'd use the Elements on Chrysalis? She wants them on hand incase you enjoy the hunt too much. After all, Chrysalis would keep her ponies all alive, and let her rule over them. You're the real threat to her power."

"Lies!" Luna shouted at the darkness.

"Really, so why isn't she down here helping?" The silence dragged on as Luna struggled to come up with an answer while she searched. "Leaving you to do the dirty job while she stands out in public to be seen as the hero."

Keep talking, Luna thought as her ears swivelled, mentally eliminating echos from the sources, Got you! She fired. There was no yelp. She trotted towards where her shot had landed. Chalked on the wall was the message 'the castle surrenders'.

"You really are as stupid and old-fashioned as I've heard," came the infuriating voice, "But tricking stupid creatures is what we changelings do, so I shouldn't hold it against you. Maybe we should put the sheep in charge, they've got to be more intelligent than you alicorns."

"Guards," one of the three changelings carrying Celestia on the litter hissed.

"I got this," another said, and became a guard, "You're my prisoners."

"What if it's one of ours?" the third asked.

"Then she and I are your prisoner," the first replied.

The guard was a changeling. "What are you doing down here?" it demanded.

"Following orders, same as you," the second changeling said in disgust, "If you want us to understand, you've got the wrong lings."

The guard nodded. "What are you going to do with her?"

"Stash her someplace safe. Must be politics, I'd stick her in a cocoon and be done with it," the third changeling said, "Have we taken the city?"

"Nearly," the guard said, "Just the old queen and her entourage left. And her Highness Temper Tantrum the First. I think I'm going to let her Highness Chrysalis deal with her."

"Another cocoon job," the second changeling said.

The guard nodded as he left.

"Let's get out of here before we screw this up," the third changeling said.

"Again," they said together.

Chrysalis felt the team she'd left behind to cat-and-mouse Luna was weakening, she mentally sent a half-dozen veteran infiltrators to replace the current team. She could hardly believe her luck, or the Lunar Diarch's pliancy and ability to be led by the nose. When an enemy is being stupid, let them, she reminded herself, To correct them is impolite.

She looked around Cadence's room. The massive windows gave her an excellent view of the entire city, and the hopelessness of the ponies' defense. She'd won against them, but her real challenge was approaching fast. Even this is a victory, the ultimate victory, she thought as she sent her mind out to touch the changelings who were breaking out into the open from the caverns under the city. She was staggered by the numbers, but in their midst she felt her discarded daughter's presence. They were in the realms they'd talked about. An army of thousands. She grinned at the ne'r-do-well leading the largest force of changelings ever assembled, outmatching the 'horde' Chrysalis had assaulted and taken the city with.

But there is still the forge, here she will be tempered, or broken. If I must use my friend's gift, so be it, she thought and sent her mind forward to communicate with all the changelings.

"Welcome, Sapphire, I can see you, is it to be hide and seek, or will changeling war against changeling? For pony lives?" she asked, and laughed as every changeling in the huge army paused as they heard her voice as well.

Sapphire looked around. "Chrysalis," she hissed, then looked at Trixie's expression. "My dame, hardly my 'mother', we have . . . issues."

Trixie rolled her eyes, tried and failed to urge the changelings forward.

"Queen's challenge," Sapphire said as she centered herself, "They cannot interfere, but at least that also slows Chrysalis' army as well."

"What's that mean?" Applebloom asked as she threaded through the forest of holey legs.

Every changeling staggered as if they were trying to stand in an earthquake.

"That," Sapphire said as she stood, "She'll keep battering, and I have to protect them." Sapphire turned to Trixie. "Take the ponies and get to the Temple of the Elements, that'll be where the Bearers are." She grinned. "The side-effect of hitting so hard is I can read some of her thoughts. Like reading the sale tag on a hammer someone's pounding your face with."

Trixie turned. "I'll head for the palace, I might have a trick or two of my own. You all head for the temple."

"I know where it is," Cheerilee said, "I can lead us there."

"We'll keep her attention here," Sapphire said, then staggered under another invisible mental blow.

Derpy landed near the Temple of the Elements. The number of changelings guarding the building warned her against going straight in. She and Dinky peeked over a low wall at the guard force who were just standing around staring.

Then she looked sideways at the foal who'd joined them.

"Hello, Selene," Dinky said.

"Hi," the little alicorn said as she peaked over the wall and dropped down, "I know that the Bearers and Princess Cadence are all in there. So are the Elements, but only mom and auntie have the key."

"Perfect place for an ambush then," Dinky said as the three of them slumped behind the wall. Both of them glanced at Selene. "The Big Guy and I have been playing games. Oh, and he talks Equestrian now."

"He went to the palace?" Selene asked excitedly.

"Yeah," Dinky said, "Wait a second, let me teach you a little spell the Big Guy came up with. It's completely useless, but it sure doesn't look that way."

"Great!" Selene said.

"So you scatter the guards, we charge in, and Selene scatters the guards inside?" Derpy asked.

"And we get ready to run, in case the guards aren't totally stupid," Dinky agreed.

Twilight was feeling particularly foolish as she stared at the vault door, behind which rested the Elements. I couldn't have gotten the door open even if there hadn't been all these changelings waiting for us, she thought.

"Buck up, Sugarcube," Applejack whispered, "Ah think these changelings gonna be as unhappy as you are in a moment."

"How do you know?" Twilight whispered back.

"You ever wonder about why the Crusaders' clubhouse was already there?" Applejack whispered back, "Just git ready."

Outside, she saw dozens of changeling flying past the windows. Not flying, fleeing! she realized, then saw a green ball of fire chasing after them.

The doors blew open, Twilight recognized Lyra's magic color. There's not way - she thought as the changelings reacted to having their door breeched so easily.

"Special delivery!" Derpy's voice came, and Dinky popped up just long enough to loose a spell.

Twilight panicked at the sudden appearance of the huge, green, pulsating ball of flaming death the little unicorn had loosed. The changelings were even less sanguine about it, especially as it separated into five, pulsating balls of green, flaming death that started chasing them.

While the changelings scattered to avoid the attack that chased, and selected the largest concentrations of changelings, the entire population of Ponyville charged through the door and began kicking the changelings' flanks.

Sand Cobra dropped behind the Bearers and began slicing ropes. "Sorry about the delay, but I thought I should wait until our numbers could do some good."

"Not a problem," Glorious Sunrise said, "I think we should consider where to retreat to."

"Attack," Big Mac said as he approached, "Only us, against the whole changeling army."

"We get to the palace and rescue Princess Celestia," Derpy said as she landed and Lyra approached.

"The Crusaders got nothing on our crazy," Lyra said happily.

"I'm jist glad I remembered the hoof signal," Applejack said, looked at Twilight trying to round up a few more unicorns.

"I've got this one," Derpy said as she flew to Twilight's side, "Twilight, we have to rescue Princess Celestia."

"We'll need the Elements," Twilight said.

Derpy grabbed Twilight's head in her hooves and shook it. "We have to rescue Princess Celestia, understand?"

Twilight's eyes spun around. "We rescue Princess Celestia first," she said woozily.

Satisfied, Derpy returned to Applejack and the other bearers. All of them were staring at her worriedly.

"Now why didn't we think of that?" Rarity asked.

"You haven't spent a couple crazy days with Discord and the Big Guy," Derpy replied.

"Trixie said -" Big Mac said.

"Trixie?" Twilight shouted, "Trixie's leading this invasion?"

"Trixie's leading the relief," Lyra said, "Until Prince Blueblood can get here with the reserves."

"And Blueblood?" Twilight said as she fainted.

"I think I shook her too hard," Derpy said.

"Okay," Glorious Sunrise said, "We have changelings in the city, where and who are these relief forces."

"More changelings," Lyra said.

"Naturally," the old griffon said. Pinkie glanced at him and shrugged.

Lyra continued, "They have a sort of civil war going against Chrysalis, or whatever her name is. She's the one we have to get. But she and the other changeling queens are fighting a duel, so that neutralizes most of the changelings on both sides."

"So we have the only active force," Sunrise said, "When are Blueblood and these reserves to arrive?"

"Soon," Lyra said, "We really don't have a timetable."

"Then we charge the palace, secure their highnesses and plot a counterattack," the griffon said, "How many changelings on our side?"

"About 20 to 40 thousand," Lyra said, "Give or take."

Pinkie waved a hoof in from of Sunrise's face before turning towards the others. "I think he and Twilight are in conference."

Luna moved slowly, forcing her rage back so she wouldn't storm forward into an ambush. The darkness around her shouldn't have hidden this creature as effectively as it did. The draped furniture and supplies gave anypony ample hiding places and direction to ambush from.

"So she has a daughter by him?" Cadence's voice asked from the shadows.

Luna froze, letting her ears and passive senses locate the source of the voice. Picking the location out from all the echoes. Her ears swivelled as she listened.

"Yes," Celestia's voice replied, "Fortunately, it was an adoption. I doubt my little sister would know what to do with a stallion."

Keep up the insults, Luna thought as she localized it, I'll locate you. You unwashed -

"Celestia, of course she would," Cadence's voice replied.

Keep talking, I will find you, she thought.

"Order him to cover himself and get her a coffee," Cadence said. Celestia's and Cadence's voices tittered at their witticism.

Luna fumed as she searched. It's as if they're coming from multiple directions. They probably are, throwing your voice by magic, she thought and began moving forward.

"Oh, Cadence, I thought you were going to suggest something naughty," Celestia's voice laughed

Laugh now, once you go to sleep, you'll find out who gets the last laugh, she thought as she closed in on Chrysalis.

The explosion threw her back and would have injured her if she hadn't sensed it at the last moment.

"Are you having fun over there little sister?" Celestia's voice asked, "Should I come over there and show you what to do with a stallion? Or are you waiting for permission before bedding him?"

Luna picked herself up out of the heap she'd landed in. She winced at the numerous small injuries. "Keep talking," she said.

Have to be more careful, she told herself as she moved stealthily forward.

"Now Celestia," Cadence's voice chimed in, "She's just being the dutiful little sister and letting you have the first taste. After all, he might want a mare who knows what she's doing, instead of a clumsy child."

Luna nearly growled at that as she stalked.

"Woona's a big girl! Got's lacey panties 'n everything!" a childish version of her voice echoed out of the shadows.

I wonder if they can hear my teeth grinding, she thought.

"You don't suppose she'd actually . . . enjoy it?" Cadence's voice called in horror.

"I can hear you!" the child-Luna complained.

"My pristine little sister?" Celestia's voice replied with equal horror, " 'No not my pee hole!'"

Celestia's and Cadence's laughter infuriated Luna more. The pair was just killing themselves laughing.

Right, they're delaying me, but Shining Armor and Celestia should be seeing to the defense. If I can keep her occupied being snide, I've taken their heaviest hitter out of the battle, she thought as she centered herself and tried not to charge in screaming and blasting.

"You suppose you should give her lessons?" Cadence asked.

"Whatever for?" Celestia replied.

"Well, considering that the Bearers are running out of targets, you're going to need a new set of monsters. They can start with that little abomination Selene, and Luna can pump out a whole series of new monsters," Cadence said.

"Oh, Cadence! He can pump her sorry ass, and pop out another monster! You're a genius," Celestia's voice replied.

I won't - the Hell I won't! Luna thought, then filled the room with fire.

"Trixie? What are you doing here?" the Big Guy asked as he slipped out of the shadows. Trixie had been skulking around the palace, dodging changelings.

"So that's how you do it? Just walk down the middle of the corridor like you own the place?" Trixie asked.

"I keep telling them to keep moving," he said as both of them slipped back into a darkened alcove, "No one wants to be around a sergeant with a bad attitude."

"I should have expected that," the changeling queen said as she approached, "I know where Chrysalis is, I can't take her alone."

"Well, I think someone can draw her fire, and keep her distracted," the Big Guy said and frowned.

"Who else are you going to get?" Trixie asked.

"Oh," he said as he removed a device from his pocket, "Not without an equalizer." He handed her the Alicorn Amulet.

Trixie looked at the green eyes of the Amulet. "So this is 'safe'?"

"No, but the threat is within, not from the amulet itself," he told her.

Trixie suspected that there was more to that statement than it appeared.

Chrysalis watched the huge vehicle approaching and sighed. "Well, have to hold the city. I'd hoped not to have to give my 'ally' any credit, but such is life." She sent the mental signal to bring in her reserves and reached out her mind to the approaching vehicle, and the changelings she could sense within.

Blueblood was not pleased that the shield was up, the allied changeling army was nowhere to be seen, and that there was a good reason for it.

"So she's pinning the army with her mind powers," he said far more calmly than he felt as he turned to face the assembled queens. He surveyed the ship's bridge and the numbers of changelings who now crowded it. "Are you up for giving her something else to shoot at?"

The collection of changeling queens nodded.

"Celly, Woona, take the regiment through the main gate, ordinary pony troops shouldn't be affected, and even outnumbered, we can add our numbers and discipline to the fight. How to batter down the shield?"

"We can slam into it en masse," a changeling looking like Blueblood suggested, "If our queens can dilute Chrysalis' attack, we can do it. Hitting a city will be easy, fighting anything smaller will be beyond us."

"Get it set up," he said, and grimaced as the queens' knees buckled.

"She packs a wallop," one of the queens managed, all dropped their disguises to focus on the battle.

"Hold on, we're nearly there," Blueblood urged. He saw the others were doing their jobs, so he returned to overseeing the ship.

Trixie watched as the old queen and the Big Guy marched through the palace as if they owned the place. Outwardly, she matched their absolute confidence. Inwardly, she thought about the magnitude of what they were doing. I've fought bandits before, even faced a few real monsters, she thought, But if the Pony Sisters haven't dealt with this Chrysalis, is it possible she's dealt with them? Then what are we going to do? They entered the royal apartments. Except they looked, and smelled, distinctly unroyal. There was plenty of evidence in sight and smell that the 'better-than-you' Canterlot nobility hadn't made a determined last stand. They'd been dragged, probably in small groups or lone individuals, from their hidey-holes. The determined pair in front of her picked their way across the royal apartments the way a city-slicker picked her way across a cow pasture, and for the exact same reason.

"This is it," the queen said, "Hiding in Cadence's quarters. With the obvious evidence of this wing being cleared, nopony would look here for her."

He would, for exactly the same reason, Trixie thought.

Then she interrupted him about to say exactly that, "What is Trixie to do? As formidable a performer as Trixie is, attacking a creature on par with Nightmare Moon exceeds her abilities."

Both the Big Guy and the queen chuckled. Then he squatted in front of her and scratched her behind the ears. She nearly melted into his hands, and remembered how much she'd missed the simple act.

"A changeling queen can be in the mind of all her hive, feeling them and directing her thoughts to them," the old queen said and grinned evilly, "It also works in reverse."

"You don't understand, we are the diversion. You're the main attack," the Big Guy told her, he stopped scratching and gestured out the huge window at the end of the hall that enclosed the peak of the Canterhorn like a picture frame. "They're desert dwellers mostly, I think you know what to do."

The absolute, sheer audacity of it staggered Trixie.

"All we are is to buy time," the Big Guy said, "You're going to hammer them."

You really are this mad all the time, Trixie realized, And it's spreading, she added as she understood and agreed with exactly what he was suggesting.

"You are fools, I have crushed Celestia herself, what hope do you children have against me?" Chrysalis taunted the queens who were barely holding their own. Dozens and she battered at them, keeping their troops immobile and impotent. Her own troops were stymied, but the levies she had were still working.

"Surrender now, you have brought troops and weapons enough to hold not just the city, but all of Equestria. We will have our nation. I will be magnanimous. Swear fealty to me, and you will have your own provinces within the land." She felt their resolve weaken.

Then she felt her daughter's defiance rage and the wavering defenders shored up their crumbling defenses. She hammered them again, and enjoyed feeling the new buttressing buckle. "You can struggle until you die, none of you can possibly stand against me as a committee. You will have to select one and duel one queen against another," she told them before slamming the full force of her mind against their patchwork defense. She felt an intense sting of pride that her daughter, alone at the front and poorly supported by dregs not worthy of the name 'queen' still managed a better defense than the collection of real queens aboard the huge vehicle.

"Well I have a surprise for all of you," Chrysalis told them, "You have your chance to surrender."

She watched the odd dragon-like creatures burst out of the ground. Six, huge leviathans of blue-veined green stalked the ground, firing flames or lightning at any resistance. Their wings began filling out as they walked and soon they'd take to the air.

"They will finish off the army inside, and then slip out to deal with you. You no longer interest me, goodbye," she said as she released her hold on them. She nearly staggered from her daughter's counterstroke, but she was far too experienced to fall for such a trick.

Blueblood looked grimly at the creatures. "Get that shield down, then have half your force begin cutting clouds. There are spots in this ship to channel lightning. If she wants to hit hard, we can hit well above even those pseudo-dragons." He looked back at the worried queens. "Your majesties, move," he said, breaking the draw of the monsters.

In truth, he was as terrified as they were. I can't show it. Besides, with Woona, Celly, Celestia and Luna in the town, they're each a match for a dragon or two. And if by some insanity, the Big Guy, Tom and Discord are in Canterlot, this conqueror's 'winning' throw of the dice will only reveal that we're actually playing cards.

"Begin diverting power to the weapons," he ordered and moved to the weapons' console, "Let us see what this thing can do."

Celly caught the captain as they entered the city and sighted the dragons. "We will take them. There's nothing you or your troops can do except die gallantly." The commander nodded and stepped back.

"Three on one is not good odds, even for us," Woona said in their native tongue so the others would not hear.

"What choice have we?" she asked as both of them lifted into the air.

Thousands of changelings slammed into the shield, shattering it completely.

"Did you feel that? Maybe we have a chance," Woona said.

Celly felt the traces of a massive spell. Both of them realized where the spell was being directed. Celly turned towards the regiment as they steeled themselves for battle against a dragon. "Turn! Get under cover now!"

Celly and Woona raced through the streets shouting to any pony who would listen to get back in their homes and barricade their doors and windows.

Trixie noted the arrival of the dragons, and the markings. They remind me of Nistag's, she remembered the description Blueblood had related, I wonder . . . But she continued directing the spell. Letting it build to a climax. The Amulet was magnifying her power, but she felt only detached, almost empty as if her body no longer mattered and only her magic existed.

The Big Guy led the way through the door, and spotted Chrysalis. She began a pronouncement, only for her eyes to widen in shock as a huge, green, pulsating ball of fire raced from the Big Guy's pistol straight at her. She dodged frantically, but the ball chased her. The queen used her distraction to fire shot after shot into her, scoring Chrysalis' chitin, burning a wing, and making her evasions more frantic. Chrysalis fired shot after shot at the ball to no effect, the spells faded to nothing within it. Unfortunately, she turned to stand. The ball hit, and didn't even singe her.

She turned to the pair. "You mock me?"

Her answer was a hail of bullets and energy bolts. She answered by hurling the Big Guy through the large picture window. The old queen took her moment to flee.

"Foals, you think to escape my dragons? My army? And soon, my nation? More fool you!" She trotted outside and saw Trixie. The mare calmly stared at her. "Well, perhaps I'll let you live. You didn't attack my person, and I'll have need of a jester."

"I'm afraid I must decline," Trixie said and gestured as the shield shattered, "They were my diversion. A magician always keeps her audience looking in the wrong place while the work is done."

"And what work did you do?" Chrysalis asked, and felt the deep crack and rumble, far greater than what had preceded the revelation of her dragons.

Trixie felt like cooked noodles, she could barely keep her head up. Despite the Alicorn Amulet, her magic had been stretched beyond any previous limit. Worrying, she hadn't cared while she had been casting. But the effect will be worth it, she thought as a lifetime of performances let her show none of the terror of a creature who should have sent a sensible mare screaming in panic. Best of all, nothing she does can stop it, Trixie thought, I expected it would trigger when they knocked the shield down, I never expected someone would bring it down early. And she can watch, that will be enjoyable.

"I beat you," Trixie said, "You should have accepted their offer to surrender."

Chrysalis' sneer died as she ran to the window and stared out. The huge snowpack of the Canterhorn had broken loose. Chrysalis wasn't stupid, once the initial shock wore off, she figured out exactly what was happening, would happen, and that Trixie had done it.

"Beaten by a jester, too bad for you," she said and gazed calmly at the incandescent rage on the queen's face.

Her placid reaction infuriated the changeling queen. I know the spotlight is off me, but every moment I have her undivided attention is another moment for the others to move freely, Trixie thought as the first of many hoof blows rained down on her, This is a three-ringed circus and the main act is now elsewhere.

The trio of changelings had broken cover and stood out under the sunlight. They cheered as they set down the litter, then saw the blue-veined, green dragon staring down at them.

But it wasn't that which had them screaming in terror and trying to retreat back into the building. Their charge had woken up enough to scramble in another direction. They turned and tried to keep the dragon's attention as Celestia escaped. What they saw behind the dragon froze their souls in fear.

Blueblood watched the avalanche spread itself out, forming a huge, threatening cloud. The brimmed hat and cape marked the figure as Trixie as much if not more than the face did. The figure looked down at the changeling army staring up in horror. The army panicked, the dragons tried to lift off on their malformed wings. "Get our forces out there to catch anyone swept off the edge," Blueblood ordered, then added, "I'm going topside to coordinate."

Several changelings followed so they could keep relaying messages.

"That's impossible!" Twilight exclaimed as she stared at the huge Trixie figure, face contorted with righteous rage and moving as if to stomp her hooves on the city. The figure descended like the avalanche it was. Applejack and Cadence dragged Twilight back to where the rest of the Ponyville army was running, the Temple of the Elements. It had armored shutters and a good, stout door.

"Snap out of it!" Applejack shouted through gritted teeth, finally she just flipped Twilight onto her own back and ran for the temple.

The impact of all that snow broke Applejack's grip on her friend and sent her tumbling end over end.

Changelings raced through the air, catching the screaming ponies, griffons, minotaurs, mules, zebras and even changelings swept over the edge. Blueblood stood on the roof of the huge, ancient vessel and plucked figures out of the snow for the myriad waiting changelings to pluck them from his grasp and carry them to safety far below, or onto roofs sticking up above the snow.

"Why don't you reel them back aboard?" Fragrance asked as she plucked the fallen and terrified from the gouts of snow that cascaded over the edges of Canterlot.

"Because then I'd completely lose my reputation as a blithering buffoon," Blueblood answered, "And that would shock their little, pony minds."

Fragrance glanced at him worriedly, then went back to saving the victims for the changelings to pick up.

Luna popped out of the snow that had poured in every window. She looked at the five stunned changelings, and instantly fired on the two who were up and around. "I am an idiot," she whispered, "If they can be anyone, they can be each other." She tried and failed to shake all the ice from her feathers. "While they had me occupied, they did this?" She trotted out across the snow and tried to collect a force to search the palace for Chrysalis, and to regain control of the city.

Celestia soared above the thundering snows. Ponies, changelings and others were covered by the drifts, but others were helping them out, including a fair amount of changelings rescuing those in danger.

She raced for the Temple of the Elements, and caught a glimpse of lavender. "Twilight!" She dove for the figure and plunged into the snow, dragging Twilight out and swinging her onto her back. She then tried to climb back into the air, but ice had fouled her wings. "Someone enchanted it to do just that," she realized. She unraveled the spell while she swam through the torrent of snow.

She turned and saw the edge of Canterlot itself fast approaching. She realized that the spell needed to free her wing of ice would harm Twilight in her state and position. She used a lower power spell to melt the ice and then dry her wings to usefulness, as she surged through the torrent of snow. Racing her magic against the approaching edge. But she didn't beat it. She and Twilight were swept off the edge. She floundered as she tried to fly, and teleport, only for Twilight to slip from her back.

Anger flared and she dried herself completely, reducing the torrent near her to steam. Before she could dive after Twilight, a familiar trio of changelings appeared, carrying Twilight in the litter they'd carried Celestia in.

"I told you it would work!" one announced as they hovered up towards Celestia.

"I said it was risky, not that it wouldn't work," another complained.

"Do we put her back on her back, or follow?" the third asked its companions.

"How am I supposed to . . . know, woah that feels really weird," the first said.

Celestia realized they were feeding on her gratitude for having saved Twilight. "Please keep carrying her, and follow me." She turned towards the Temple of the Elements as the last of the snow cascades trickled off to nothing.

Big Mac hoofed Applebloom off to Granny Smith. The filly had been livid that he'd not allowed her to rush out and rescue Applejack. He shouldered the door open and stared at the pristine white that surrounded and covered everything.

Dinky's horn glowed, and Applejack appeared slowly emerging from a snowbank in the lee of a building. "I bet that's the biggest apple anypony's ever picked!" she said delightedly as she set Applejack amid the Crusaders. Several others began applying warming spells.

"Yep," Applejack said between her chattering teeth, "I lost my grip on Twi though."

"I believe I have her," Celestia said as she arrived, the three changelings carefully set the bewildered unicorn among her friends to warm her back up.

"I'm sorry, Princess Celestia, I couldn't get the Elements," Twilight said.

"I think we have another solution," Celestia said to the ponies bowing to her.

The cry of raw rage that echoed across the snow-covered city had even Celestia looking around in fear.

Sapphire and the others pushed down the barricades they'd hastily constructed, and began searching for people buried in the snow. Changelings owing allegiance to Chrysalis were taken into custody. Others were sent to the various assembly areas.

Then they heard the cry of fury echo from the mountains.

"Let's link up with the regiment, and head to the palace," Sapphire said, "That wasn't Chrysalis."

Luna had seen the figure break through the cap of snow and ice that had covered the statue garden. She had thought to confront Discord, only for him to stare at her with an expression of utter rage. Then he'd looked away, dismissing her from his thoughts as he gestured and stalked away. Luna followed him at a discreet distance.

Why is he walking, instead of just appearing where he needs to go? Luna wondered as she moved from cover to cover to watch him.

Oddly, the changelings who were digging through the snow noted him, got out of his way, and returned to their rescue work. He paid them little mind either.

Then she saw his destination. Celestia and the Element Bearers, as well as many of their friends and family. They saw him and assumed defensive positions.

What little good it would do, Luna thought as even Celestia shied back from Discord's grim expression.

He pulled a box from his sleeve, flipping it open with his thumb. Inside were the Elements. While he seemed to offer them to Twilight, only Derpy seemed brave enough to take the box from the draconequus and give him a 'thank you' before moving back the hoove the box to Twilight.

Then Derpy and Dinky cantered after Discord.

Derpy was catching up to Discord when Rainbow swooped down in front of them and flared her wings. "Derpy, hello, you're following Discord?"

Derpy normally accepted that Rainbow outranked her in the weather patrol, and Rainbow was a hero of Equestria, but she was through accepting that Rainbow could treat her as if she were stupid.

"Maybe you have so many friends you can abandon them when they need you, but I don't," Derpy told Rainbow as she stepped past and cantered after Discord.

I saw his expression, Derpy thought, And I've spent enough time with him to understand that he doesn't understand what he's feeling. Something hurt him. Derpy shuddered but tried to stay positive that the Big Guy was merely badly hurt, and not dead. Something hurt him by hurting his friends. He needs us more than ever. She and Dinky flanked Discord as he walked back to the palace. She ignored whether the others were following or not. At the moment her world was her, Dinky, Discord, and whoever had hurt him.

She was overjoyed to see Tom, whole and unaffected, after all the concerns with him possibly being absorbed.

"He's stable, but he'll need rest. Trixie is in worse shape, but the local magics are more agreeable to her," Tom reported, as if speaking to someone he knew wasn't listening.

Derpy looked at Dinky, and the filly's frightened expression. She's figured out who 'he' is, if Trixie was also mentioned.

"We'll look after Discord," Derpy promised, and nodded to Dinky, who nodded back. "But I think Hotaru and the Sphinx might need to be with 'him'."

The grapefruit-sized sphere bobbed as if nodding, and raced away. Discord continued marching, as if the act was all that was left him beside the anger he didn't understand.

Derpy didn't need to be a genius to figure out where Discord was going. "If you saved them, they'll be all right," she told Discord, causing his steps to falter.

Dinky added, "He'll be disappointed if you kill her."

Discord stopped and glared at her. "You didn't see what I saw," Discord growled, "You didn't - "

Dinky gulped as his expression but still pressed on. "I didn't say punish, I said 'kill'," Dinky said, "He'll be disappointed if you kill her. You're Discord, an Elemental force, she chaosed you in a way you didn't like, but your friends lived. You can chaos her back, but she has to live. And isn't it better if she can be aware of it?"

Discord's anger didn't wane, but it redirected itself back to its original target. "You're right, and there' so many terrible things you can live through." He started back towards the castle his mood lightened and he began singing.

"Let me tell you how you will be: There's hoof for you, and feet for me. Cos I am Discord, yeah, I am Discord."

"Should chocolate rain appear for all, then yummy scones from sky do fall. Cos I am Discord, yeah, I am Discord."
"A wagon drive, I change the street
Down you sit, I'll hex your seat
If you get a cold, I'll hex your heat
If you try walk, I change your feet."

"Discord! Cos I am Discord, yeah, I am Discord."

"Don't ask me I do it for (Princess Celestia)
If you don't want to play some more (Princess Luna)
Cos I am Discord, yeah, I am Discord."

Now my advice for those I spy: declare your preference loud and high.
Cos I am Discord, yeah, I am Discord."

"And you're playing for no one but me.

"Mister Discord," Dinky said.

"Yes?" Discord asked.

"Are you singing especially discordant on purpose?" Dinky asked.

Discord frowned. "Everyone's a critic," Discord said.

"You wouldn't want us any other way," Derpy told him and butted her head against his hip.

Rainbow put on her Element as they cautiously followed Discord. Everywhere they went, changelings were digging the citizens and visitors to Canterlot out of the snow. "Abandon my friends, I'd never abandon my friends," Rainbow grumbled as she walked, for once not eager to be the first one to reach a place.

"It appears neither would Derpy," Rarity pointed out, "And considering that she's been with the Big Guy for quite a while, I doubt Chaos is as terrifying to her as it would be to most ponies."

"What are the North Border Fusiliers doing supervising these changelings?" Luna asked as she marched beside Celestia.

Celestia made a strangled sound. "It can't be," she said, "It can't be."

"Can't be what, your Highness?" Rarity asked.

Celestia gave her best, knowing smile, but had a feeling that the impossible was happening far too often and easily.

As they approached the palace, a huge force of changelings had assembled before it. A few royal guards noncomms were trying to straighten things out.

"All right you lot, eyes right, triple file," the bewhiskered sergeant suddenly was facing hundreds of himself, all in precision formation, every button polished and crease of the uniform perfect. "No comedians, please."

"Sir, just getting into the role, sir," dozens of the changelings called out.

"I'm a sergeant," the bewildered pony replied hotly.

"As you were, sir, officer on parade, sir," several more changelings called out.

"Attention to left, and salute!" the sergeant order, and the entire formation turned with a machine-like snap, then the salute.

"We may not be able to get the guards to give them up," Luna teased, "If they can be trained this quickly."

Celestia shook her head. "Well, we do need an escort," she admitted.

Chrysalis turned as the formation approached her. The bloodstained hooves and legs gave some explanation to why Discord had reacted as he had.

"You are under arrest for breaking the laws of Equestria, making an illegal war and threatening the lives of Equestrians and Changelings," Celly told her.

"I defeated you once," Chrysalis said, and glanced at Woona, "And your little dog too."

"You may have defeated Celestia," Celly said, "But I'm not her, and everyone here is quite durable. The rematch would be quite a bit more than the first was."

"Oh, then I surrender," Chrysalis said, "I've already won. She may be skulking at the back, ready to rush up and support, but I sense Sapphire there among you."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Celly asked.

"The 'Empress' is old and will transfer the reins to the best contender," Chrysalis said, "Whatever happens, my line will rule the changelings as a single nation." She laughed. "It wasn't exactly how I wanted to win, but it's a win in the long run."

"I'm glad you feel that way," Discord said and waved at Chrysalis.

The would-be changeling empress sat and blinked at the collection of stunned ponies.

"Maybe your daughter can raise you better," Discord said and left the newly created nymph to face her other accusers.

Celestia and her 'army' of ponies and changelings arrived a moment later, and took the nymph into custody.

"Now it's time for a party!" Pinkie declared.

Derpy had thought the celebration unnecessarily enthusiastic and thoroughly misdirected. After seeing the Unicorn capital, the sheer scale of Canterlot no longer impressed her, and the nobles and functionaries speaking when they thought she couldn't hear reminded her too much of the records in the ancient, unicorn city. That none of her friends was in attendance made her feel more and more irrelevant. Celly and Woona were 'elsewhere'. Discord and Tom were off discussing something. Angrily, if the lightning in the clouds was any clue. Blueblood hadn't shown up, and Trixie was still in the hospital. The Sphinx had entered the city and with Hotaru and the wolf, made a beeline for the Big Guy's hospital room. The Ponyville folks had by and large been confined to the hospital for a myriad of minor injuries. Her own wing had been sprained, but she was 'well' enough to attend. First time I ever wished to have a broken wing rather than a sprain, she thought.

'The less said about Sapphire and the changelings the better' and 'out of sight out of mind', seemed to be the attitude of most of the celebrants. That the common people were grateful for their help, and had dozens of less fancy parties for them going on across the city proper, was immaterial to the nobles and guards who had just had the inadequacy of their preparations and themselves dragged in front of everypony and stamped with a big red 'Return to Sender'. We haven't changed as much as we think we have, Derpy thought as she made her way to the perimeter. Dinky either sensed or shared her mood. She had heard more complaints about 'what are we to do with all the snow' than she'd heard discussion about rewarding, or even thanking the changelings for their efforts.

"You aren't leaving already, are you?" a pink alicorn asked her as she made her way through the last line of decked out nobles and functionaries between her and the exit.

"Not my kind of party, majesty," Derpy said and bowed.

"Cadence, please," the alicorn said.

Derpy struggled hard not to tell her 'my name is Derpy. I have been hanging out with Discord too long, she thought.

"As you command Princess Cadence," she replied, "You have enough Ponyville heroes who enjoy the attention, one fewer who doesn't won't make a difference."

"I'm sure there're ponies who'd love to meet you," the pink alicorn said and gestured back towards the party.

"Princess Cadence, they didn't care about me when I was the best, most decorated mailmare in Ponyville. I do not have to care about them, when the ones who did the work are denied the very thing they would most benefit from, the accolades and gratitude. I beg your pardon, but I'd rather be with people I chose and chose me, who saw me as special before I had a hand in proving how empty all this is."

The pink alicorn seemed taken aback by Derpy's blunt speech. It had gotten her in trouble before, but she was tired, angry and her aching wing was making her too cross to go along with the grinning fools congratulating themselves on their utter failure. She and Dinky had excused themselves at the earliest possible moment.

"Are you okay momma?" Dinky asked.

"No," she admitted, "While all of you were reading about deeply magical secrets, I read a few of the newspapers of the time. Some of the things they said about pegasi, and about unicorns has me a little irritated seeing it replayed in there."

"I don't understand," Dinky said.

"Good," she said and nuzzled the little unicorn, "Because we're going to see the Big Guy. Which is where we should have been all along."

"Yay!" Dinky said as she pronked happily.

There were a pair of guards in front of the room, and a unicorn doctor. He was confronting the Sphinx, Hotaru and the wolf. He seemed completely oblivious to how angry he was making them, and the guards weren't much better.

"He must have absolute rest," the doctor was insisting, "And his sleep has been troubled enough."

Derpy facehoofed. "We want him to rest quietly, and the people he rests quietly with are being denied entrance?" she said intentionally loud enough for the doctor to hear.

"And where did you get your medical degree? Same place you got your lazy eyes?" the doctor asked.

Derpy turned to Dinky. "Blast him, you know the spell."

A huge green, pulsating ball formed and raced at the doctor. He and the guards ran off, the ball separating and chasing them.

"Ladies," Derpy said to the shocked trio, "I have had just about enough of that for one day."

"You first of course," Hotaru said and held the door open for her.

Derpy nodded and grinned. Dinky followed her in. Hotaru closed the door and lay down beside it to block it closed. She then exhaled some vapor.

"Guards," Hotaru said, "They'll look and act like ponies."

Derpy decided not to ask. Her own wings were vastly stronger since the ceremony, Hotaru might have gotten a boost as well. She watched him toss and turn, deep in the grip of nightmares. One arm was strapped to a board so his restlessness didn't pull out the tubes going into that arm. Derpy lifted Dinky up into the bed. The filly had to step carefully as the legs twitched and moved as he shifted positions.

Derpy climbed up after her, and settled against him. She nearly squeaked in surprise as his free arm seemed to crush her against him. But that seemed to settle him as he breathed in the scent of her mane and snuggled against her.

Dinky giggled as she settled on his now less mobile feet.

Derpy nuzzled him, feeling safe, needed and wanted. She let herself drift off into sleep.

Celestia had received the reports from Cadence of Derpy's reaction to the celebration, and she was also concerned that Canterlot's most eligible bachelor had skipped the party. The reports coming in drew him as the mastermind and much of the driving force behind the entire rescue plan. She needed to confirm or deny it. That this All-Mother of the changelings also had made no appearance, despite being aboard the huge vessel that hung some distance off of Canterlot worried Celestia. She was only too aware that Discord, Tom, Celly, Woona, the Big Guy and an absolutely huge army had come arrayed for war, and none of them had any particular reason to love her. She had decided to start with one she thought she might have some influence on.

She and one bodyguard had been allowed aboard the battleship. The changelings had been unfailingly polite, but like good soldiers, they could politely shoot her, if that was their orders. The entire vessel was large, even for her. The scale of the passageways exceeded all but the most elaborate hallways in the palace. But these passageways are for the passage of material, not ponies, she realized as they moved steadily aft, Is the bridge aft?

Celestia looked nervously at the various changelings working on the inner mechanisms of the battleship. Her guide stepped into one vast room in particular, and nodded for her to wait. The bug pony trotted to a large machine that occupied one entire wall and buzzed something into the hatch in the side of it.

It returned a few moments later and nodded to her again. A disheveled, dust and grease spattered pony crawled out of the mechanism. Celesta was utterly shocked.

"Get the splines of the rest of them aligned like that one. That's why we had the engine trouble," Blueblood called into the mechanism before focusing on her. He bowed and seemed to regard her coolly. "Your Highness."

Not 'Auntie', she thought.

"You weren't at the celebration, I was wondering if you'd been injured," she said.

"I'm still under exile," he said, "I assumed that the invitation was a sop to my family, a political maneuver, nothing more."

"But, the Big Guy is in the palace hospital, yet you're here on this ship," she said.

"The Big Guy conquered Canterlot, with an army, Discord and a battleship at his beck and call, his banishment doesn't matter." He looked around. "Alien warships have always been treated as sovereign territory, like embassies. So even though I'm in Equestrian territory, as long as I remain on board, I'm in foreign territory." He smiled.

"You could have asked me to raise it, I've offered before," she said.

He grinned and tapped the side of his snout, transferring grease between the hoof and his nose. "No, you see Princess Celestia never makes a mistake, everything is part of her grand, master plan. Since you've been locked in a game with my mother for as long as I've known both of you, I realized that the invitation and the exile remaining in place was just another cunning exchange between you and mother, and had nothing to do with slighting the pony who helped rescue your city at all."

She blanched at the quiet, amused tone, and that having delivered it, he used his horn to pick up several clip boards and begin making notes on them. The dirty, disheveled and determined stallion in front of her clashed strongly with her image of him. A changeling infiltrator would be easier to believe, she thought.

He glanced up at her. "Oh, don't distress yourself, Your Highness, I'm used to it by now. My real service to the crown almost requires it."

" 'Real service'?" She wished he'd driven a nail into her instead.

He took on a wistful air, the likes of which she hadn't seen since he was a colt. "You see, in the days of my innocent fascination with you, I thought you were lonely, and frankly even as a child I was no fan of my mother or her machinations. I thought all you needed was a clever pony to be your friend. Someone close enough to your rank that he wouldn't have to grovel at every step. So I studied, everything about you, everything you were interested in. I learned it all. Offered it to you. And you know what, I found out I was right," he said, and the cheerful demeanor dropped away, "Because you immediately went out and found a shinier, or should I say sparklier model. Then to make sure I understood my place in your world, you stuck her in my class at the School for Gifted Unicorns. It wasn't enough to just have her in the school so I'd continually hear about her latest wonder, it had to be continuously in my face."

"I put her in the class with the highest . . . achievers," Celestia protested, then realized the implications.

"Yes. I know that, now. But as a child, if you had sought out a rebuke to me, my childish offer of friendship and all I tried to do, you couldn't have managed a better one," Blueblood said calmly, "Even my mother was impressed by that one. She actually allowed me to cry about it, for an entire afternoon."

Celestia bowed her head.

"So, for the next decade, I was perpetually reminded that even if I broke all previous records, I was still second best, and as a 'Prince Blueblood' second rate. No one ever broke 100 in the academic decathlon, and certainly not against students an entire grade above his. Twilight broke 120 against them and 100 against two grades above. I got the first triple first in fifteen years, since they toughened the curriculum. Miss Sparkle got the only quintuple first in history. I could understand I had the bad luck of being in the same class and same year as a truly gifted prodigy. All my triumphs, which would have made me an invincible conqueror any other year in the school's entire history, made me a distant also-ran in that class. So I tried desperately not to take it personally. I am ashamed to say, I only mostly succeeded, shunning rather than insulting Miss Sparkle more often than not. Although that didn't take much effort on my part, she shunned the entire school when it wasn't academic. I mean, who were we? Ordinary ponies. Nothing compared with the splendiferous radiance of her personal teacher: Her Solar Highness Celestia Regina Magnificant."

She flinched at her more formal titles, and was glad when he finished.

"Then for some unknown reason, the salutatorian didn't get the congratulations letter that was traditionally received from the hoof of the crown. While others remarked on the anomaly, no one was less shocked than I was. You were showering Twilight with all the praise she justly deserved, and there was simply none left for anyone else."

Celestia looked at him. He wasn't angry, which she could have understood. His tone and posture was indifferent. He didn't care she'd done it. He just wanted her to know he knew she'd done it.

"It had taken years of repetition on your part, and maturing on mine, but I finally got the lesson. I could never be separated from my family. I was only a link in a long chain of irritating, idiotic Prince Bluebloods in your world. You were just like my mother. Nothing I did would ever make you love me. I was a chess piece in your great game. Indistinguishable from the last Prince Blueblood and interchangeable with the next when you or my mother picked the right mare for me to breed with."

"It wasn't like that," Celestia said.

"I really need to thank Miss Sparkle, she showed me with perfect clarity the one thing I don't think even she's learned. Yet." Blueblood looked at Celestia. "That worshiping the very ground you tread upon is an empty and hopeless life. And it warps everypony who tries it."

Celestia let her anger show. "Twilight Sparkle- "

"Nearly destroyed all her friends and neighbors because she was afraid of disappointing you!" Blueblood thundered back. "Every mare or stallion who worships you goes insane! Because they can never match your splendiferous triumphs, meticulously perfect manners or keep up with your discordant sense of humor. The dichotomy was enough that she assaulted the young sisters of her closest friends, then dragged the entire town into that insanity. Accuse me of every sin that has even been breathed about me. I! Do Not! Enslave! Foals! For! My! Desires! EVER!" He glared at the clearly stunned Princess. "Fine Twilight Sparkle is your unsullied perfection. What about Sunset Shimmer? And Katydid? Even your own sister couldn't handle the strain. All of them tried to live up to the standards you set, and all of them failed and went mad. Twilight Sparkle nearly exterminated the friendship among the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony because she was terrified you wouldn't love her anymore."

Celestia felt her mouth dry. She couldn't say anything.

"Except it's all a lie. You don't have good manners, whatever you do in your puckish sense of humor instantly becomes good manners. All your 'great triumphs' are buried in history beyond the ability of even bookworms like me and Sparkle to find. Nightmare Moon, a candy-eating bogeymare, not the evil spirit trying to exterminate us all. Discord, a funny statue in the gardens personifying squabbles, not a mad god and torturer. King Sombra, completely unknown and his kingdom with it, except for an odd title here and there. And why? To keep hidden the fact that your triumphs were pyrrhic victories one and all. Sombra, oops, the ponies you were trying to rescue, gone and under Sombra's spell since then. Discord, hastened Luna's descent into madness. Tirek, held in Tartarus until he could find some way to escape, then released and currently in your statue garden. A manavore awaiting release into a capital city full of unicorns. Nightmare Moon, forced you to become unworthy of wielding the Elements, the very embodiment of Harmony. And all that meticulously hidden from prying eyes. Funny how ponies' eternal shame is repeated winter after winter until we all understand what flawed beings we are. How many other calamitous 'victories' of yours have you covered over 'for the good of your little ponies'? How many of your own students have broken their minds and spirits trying to please you?" He took a deep breath. "And have you bothered to tell Twilight that she was just the last in a line of placeholders until Luna returned?"

Outrage drove her to speak. "That's not true," Celestia told him, "She's studying friendship in Ponyville."

"She never learned it from you?" he asked softly.

She retreated as if slapped.

"You try very hard, I'll give you credit for that. But your heart only has room for one, your sister Luna. All the rest of us are mayflies you refuse to let loose, for fear you'll lose us too early. Is that why every time I applied for military service, diplomatic postings, even simply studying abroad, it wasn't my mother who quashed the idea, it was you?"

Celestia straightened up. "You weren't ready, and you obviously couldn't have handled the role," Celestia said.

"Many would point out the very experiences I was requesting would have cured that. And isn't it strange, I managed to play the role of exactly who and what you wanted and needed, and had you completely fooled for fifteen years," he said, "It was the only thing I ever did which you appreciated. I molded myself into the shape of that mental image you had for me and every other Prince Blueblood throughout history. You needed me to be the foppish, self-absorbed, slightly undiplomatic idiot you had to suffer through. So you could yell at me, and no one thought you a monster. So you could vent a month's worth of pent up spite on me, and everyone still thought you a saint. But whom did I permanently hurt when I did it? Did I ever reveal secrets that weren't already known to those I 'revealed' them to? No, but you never noticed that, because I fit the outward image you'd convinced yourself of. It was the only service I ever gave which you accepted gratefully, and don't think I didn't hate every moment of it. I would have preferred being stationed on the border rather than surrounded by nincompoops jockeying for a position they would never get a sniff of and being spun like tops for your amusement. If you'd once put your hoof down, you could have enacted the reforms the Big Guy put in place in one week. If you'd been interested in ending the game, you could have declared my mother an exile and banished her from the capital, or even Equestria. I know for a fact you could have gotten a conviction on a dozen counts of high treason. Yet, I'm the one who handed you that particular sword to use against her." He shook his head. "I'm through dancing to your tune in the unending Canterlot Chaconne. I'm free. I can go where I wish. Be who I wish. Laugh at what's actually funny. Call something stupid, short-sighted and cruel when it is. And get out from under your thumb and my mother's."

"Do you really hate me so much?" Celestia asked.

"To be perfectly honest," Blueblood replied, "Yes I do. I hate how you force everyone and everything that you drag into your orbit into neat, little shapes that you are comfortable with and never let them out, and I hate myself for going along with it rather than not caring what you wanted and living my own life. I hate the games you play with our entire race. At least Discord's games could be seen. You play yours across such a scale that no one realizes it is a game, and you can sit back and laugh at us trying to do what we think you want, when it's all a mockery based on someone who irritated you six hundred years ago. The part I hate most is the grinning contempt for us, while you refuse to even acknowledge your hoof in all the trouble. In his world all us 'Little Ponies' were toys for children, to run through our behaviors based on the whims of juveniles. Here, it's the same. You don't want us to be adults because we'll quit playing your games and play our own. It's why you're so terrified of him. He might make a bunch of us grow up and quit wanting to please you and decide live instead of play."

Blueblood paused to let her reply, his anger had been creeping up during the entire speech, now he mastered it. She found she couldn't even look at him.

"I hate your support of the soft tyranny of only the unicorn nobles, who never actually do anything, being exalted above all others. The reason they are exalted is their proximity to you, the reason they never do anything is that them actually doing something would require they break their proximity to you, and yet you despise them for acting exactly as any rational creature would when the djinni granting everyone in reach their every wish, ignores everyone not in earshot and holds the wishers in such utter contempt. You created this entire mess and whine to anyone who'll listen about how terrible it is. You're absolute monarch, since not even Luna can find the fortitude to speak out against you, and you'll edit history so in a hundred years all the textbooks will trumpet your brilliance and wipe away the anguish it caused. So change it yourself. Change yourself. Abolish the court, move yourself out into the Everfree, leave the ponies to govern themselves, disguise yourself and go be a wandering miracle worker."

Celestia stared at him in horror. "Who'd raise the sun?"

"Unicorns did it before, they can do it again. Let the weight of this vast, clunking bureaucracy you've created be the force behind common sense. Our mistake was venerating a pack of self-absorbed ninnies as leaders. But with the Changelings, no race has a monopoly anymore. That was the real problem. Now it has a real solution. That's the other reason you want them gone. As long as you and your sister are the solution to every problem, you've got us in a stranglehold. The instant we grow up, we realize we don't need you, we can't afford you. And you can't have that."

"You seem very brave to say this, if I am the tyrant you say I am," Celestia replied.

"You are a tyrant. If you had the courage, you would be a bloody one. And if you were," Blueblood said as he leaned close, "Then I would die free. As it is, no one will know about this conversation and my departure will be me being a spoiled brat, again. Not me despising you and your city with every fiber of my being. But fear not, I shall not return in vengeance, that's a fool's option." He stepped away from her and gestured around. "All these beings realized that whether they cared about ponies or not, doing nothing to stop this would be a stain on their national honor. They came not for glory, not for ponies, and not for you. They came because it was the right - thing - to - do. Now leaving is the right thing to do. So they and I will do that also. Section Leader, escort her Highness back to Canterlot."

The changeling bowed and gestured for her to follow back out the way they'd come in.

"What about you? Where will you go?" she asked.

"I'm free, that is no longer your concern, your Highness," he said and stepped back into the machine and began giving orders to the work crew.

Celestia felt the door between them close. The closet she'd forced him into, because of his family and title. Now he was free, and he despised her. Perhaps rightfully, she thought, I didn't see him, I saw only who he was supposed to be.

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