• Published 20th Dec 2012
  • 47,566 Views, 3,126 Comments

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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36) Ice and Snow, With Plants

Cultural Artifacts - Ice and Snow, With Plants
Dan's Comments
DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of Hasbro, Inc.
Day 70

The statue of the pony shuddered, then the skin of stone shattered and fell away, revealing a green and blue unicorn, who suddenly looked around worriedly. She picked herself up off the stone floor and let her eyes acclimate to the darkness.

"Well, Tear Twirler," the voice of her mentor sounded through the cavern. Dragons, dozens in the same blue-veined green rustled their wings at the sound, but the unicorn couldn't fix a location for the voice, "Has captivity dulled your senses, or has being in the proximity of too many ponies dulled your mind?"

The unicorn looked around, trying to decide which of the dragons had spoken. Then her eyes fell on the tree that dwarfed even the dragons in size. She extended a trembling forehoof towards the tree.

"Excellent, you have not lost all acumen," the tree told her, "But now you must be readied for a new mission. And I'm afraid that you are totally unsuitable."

"I regret not being able to adequately serve, master," Tear Twirler said and bowed. She controlled the trembling that would only have brought wrath.

"You misunderstand, you will perform the mission, but not as you are now. It seems I kept something from you," the tree told her, "Maybe now you can understand. You were never more than a fragment of me. A cutting of my root and branch as it were. Since my pony body produced only traitorous offspring, I decided to avoid mixing fluids with a male, and create from a pure source."

A light enveloped Tear Twirler. She screamed as her horn withdrew and she felt the pathways of magic shifting within her.

"And sometimes even favorite tools must be remade to fulfill a more important function," the tree told her, barely audible over her screams of agony as her body and self were shattered into a dozen pieces, each then shaped to a new purpose.

Lyra and Bonbon walked out of the ship's cabin, they leaned heavily against and nuzzled each other. Bonbon occasionally snickered at the grin Lyra wore. Both froze as Derpy approached. Lyra couldn't look at her, and Bonbon nervously shied.

"Hi," Bonbon said, and bowed her head.

"I'd say yes," Derpy said as she raised Bonbon's chin with a gentle hoof.

Bonbon and Lyra were stunned.

"It was okay?" Lyra blurted out.

"I'd say that's about right," Derpy said, "If it was good you'd be like." Derpy fluttered around upside-down near the ceiling. "If it was terrific, you'd be like." Derpy settled on the floor legs and wings splayed out and her tongue lolling out.

Bonbon and Lyra were blushing furiously.

"I meant is it all right?" Lyra said.

"I already said it was better than all right," Derpy said, "If it was all right then you -"

"THANK YOU," Bonbon said, then facehoofed, "All right, it was okay, and okay for you."

"It hasn't been okay for me in a while," Derpy said, and grinned at the furiously blushing pair.

"I thought he wasn't into ponies," Electric Cookie said as she arrived, "And do you want brunch? Seeing as though you're through feeding the crew. Thoroughly by the look of them."

"Oh, if he was into ponies, then it would be good or terrific, but when he isn't, it's okay," Derpy said.

"Does he give lessons? My husband could use some," Electric Cookie asked, and ignored Bonbon's attempts to cover her face with both forelegs while Lyra playfully nuzzled her marefriend.

"Oh, lessons are easy," Lyra said.

"Communication," Derpy said.

"Experimentation," Lyra added.

"And a safeword," Lyra and Derpy said together and giggled.

Bonbon looked at Lyra. "We didn't have a safeword."

Lyra kissed Bonbon's forehead. "You had a spotter."

Bonbon grimaced. "You wouldn't have 'spotted' a buffalo in a tutu dancing on your muzzle."

"No, for you I would have," Lyra said and kissed her again.

Bonbon blushed and kissed her back.

"I think I understand the bit about feeding the crew now," Electric Cookie said, "Does he - with Sapphire?"

"No, she'd pop," Derpy said, "But Luna on the other hoof."

"Pop like in pop?" Electric Cookie asked then pointed at Lyra and Bonbon, "Or pop like in pop?"

"Pop like in pop," Lyra said, "And keep popping. So until we get the Empire rescued, the Crystal Heart in place, and figure out the effects on Changelings, she's not even okay or all right."

"Okay," Electric Cookie said, "I'd be happy if my husband was okay."

"You'd be ecstatic if he was okay," Derpy assured her, "You'd be happy if he was all right."

Electric Cookie nodded and sighed. "Now, about brunch."

Celestia had taken far longer to untangle the mess with Twilight. He was right, every time I tried to admit error, Twilight made it her fault for not being good enough, she thought as she trotted as fast as propriety allowed, What disaster has he cooked up in court?

Her greeting to the guard was perfunctory, but they opened the door. Strangely, they only opened it a crack, so she could look in, and not be seen. She was terribly uneasy about what she saw.

There was no bedlam or chaos. The nobles were reviewing the cases, and bringing them to the throne. Her throne was occupied by a poster of her waving, and the legend 'Your Princess is in another castle.' Luna's throne was unoccupied and the Lunar Alicorn seemed as stunned as the suppliants were. Woona was there, looking like a Celestia-sized Luna. She was running through the details of the dispute, legal precedents and shocking all with the depth of her knowledge. She'd get a nod on the correctness of her conclusions from the suppliants, the senior noble, and then with Luna, approved the solution.

Celestia was utterly stunned at the smooth operations of the entire court, and the effective introduction of Woona as Luna's replacement. The door closing shocked her a little, she'd wanted to keep watching.

"Luna and Woona are doing fine, so is Equestria," Discord said, the guard's helmet ill-fitting on his head, "Someone who is your sole responsibility needs you a lot more."

Celestia was caught in a whirlwind, made worse that Discord seemed to be the firm rock on which the whole world was revolving. "What would you have me do?" she asked.

"Take off that silly costume, and be who you need to be for once," Discord said, setting aside the helmet and guard's uniform, "There's a person who desperately needs you a lot more than the state needs you right now."

"Twilight," Celestia said, "This hasn't been easy on her."

"She's your apprentice, you don't want what Vladimir and the Big Guy said to you to be true, then treat her as a friend, and not as a talented lackey. Someone told me once 'That friendship isn't always easy. But there's no doubt it's worth fighting for.' Odd that not learning that lesson has cost you far more than it ever cost me."

Celestia bowed her head. "Do as you will," she said.

"A wedding is inappropriate at this juncture, but a picnic is fine."

"A wedding?" Celestia gasped as they vanished.

And reappeared in the courtyard of the old Castle of the Pony Sisters. Twilight was with them, and Discord had a huge picnic basket under one arm. He spread a large blanket on the stone floor. A moment later, Zecora and Fluttershy entered.

"Hello?" Fluttershy called, then spotted them, "Oh, you brought them. Tom said you would."

"Have I ever lied to you?" Discord asked then turned to Celestia and Twilight, "To Fluttershy, I've lied to both of you plenty of times."

"No, you haven't," Fluttershy said and she approached the blanket, she started to bow, when Discord interrupted.

"Ah, ah! She's not wearing her hat, so she's not really a princess right now," Discord said as he picked up Fluttershy and set her next to Celestia, then he teleported Twilight beside Celestia on the other side. "Better, just friends on a picnic, girls' day out style."

"What of you, Mister Hoodoo do?" Zecora asked.

"Mortal enemies, works the same," Discord said and shrugged, "After the latest disasters in Canterlot diplomacy, I think our two ladies will want to hear about an unqualified success."

"It's not 'unqualified'," Fluttershy said, "But they are sending roots out to the tree that was the Alicorn Amulet. They are at least willing to talk."

"Fluttershy, that's wonderful," Twilight said, regaining some of her usual sparkle.

"I couldn't have done it without Zecora and Tom," Fluttershy said, nodding to both and blushing slightly.

"Where did you get humus and wild honey?" Zecora asked as lifted the cover on the bowl that Discord had set in front of her, then each of the ponies.

"Same way your mom did, I made it," Discord said, "Pineapple with cottage cheese for Fluttershy."

"Don't you mean cottage cheese with pineapple?" Twilight asked.

"Not really," Fluttershy said as she uncovered the pineapple with the top cut off and the inside hollowed out to hold the cottage cheese.

"Crackers for her Highness," Discord said and removed the cover with a flourish, revealing the bowl heaping with soda crackers.

"Wouldn't her Majesty -?" Zecora began.

"Nope," Discord said, "What you can't have, is what you often really want. And 'something fancier' is the default option in Canterlot."

"It's fine," Celestia said, "Thank you, Discord."

He nodded.

"I'd feed you a book, but that would leave a bad taste in your mouth," Discord told Twilight, who frowned at him as he uncovered the bowl, "Gingered carrot and cabbage soup, careful, I made it really spicy."

Twilight tasted it, and turned plaid. "Perfect," came the strangled gasp.

While he roasted a hot dog on a stick over Twilight, he suggested, "Maybe you can ask your friend for a few crackers to break up in your soup." Discord winked at Celestia.

Twilight grinned and turned, and her face froze. She stared at Celestia and desperately tried to put the simple sentence together, and get it out of her mouth. She was utterly failing.

A tiny Discord kicked Celestia on the ear.

"Twilight, I'll trade you some of my crackers for some of your soup," Celestia said, and was relieved when Twilight managed to nod.

Discord set a bowl between them and a small plate. The transfer made, he sat back, and became aware of the raised eyebrows on the zebra sitting beside him. He struggled with a smirk, and failed. But the same little Discord kicked him in the back of the head. "Friends do for each other," he said quietly, then turned and gazed at his smug simulacrum.

Celestia and Twilight stared at him goggle-eyed and their manes were completely disheveled. Discord merely looked at them and shrugged.

Fluttershy glanced up at Celestia, then she explained what she'd talked about and how she'd helped the former Alicorn Amulet and the surviving trees start a dialog. "I don't know if they'll be friends after all this time. But they might be," she told them, "I also told them I was a pony." She bowed her head and picked at her food. "That seemed to frighten them, until I explained I was the great, great, great descendant of those who attacked them. They seemed to find the idea ludicrous, but accepted I believed it. I can't imagine what they would have thought if I told them the whole truth."

"A week ago, I would have put down their assumptions as pure fantasy," Twilight said, as she glanced worriedly at Discord, "Now I'm not so sure. They may even be accurate."

"That's terrible," Fluttershy said, "Are the librarians really that mean?"

She sighed sadly. "You have no idea," Twilight said.

Discord nodded as he set up a pink cloud over a punch bowl with a dipper and cups. The cloud rained chocolate milk into the punch bowl and Discord served, ladling out a cupful to each of the equines.

"So are my house and Sparkle's, their long lost family?" Zecora asked as she accepted the cup and drank without hesitation, "Or are they only hollowed out, and just another tree?"

"I don't know," Fluttershy admitted as she took a sip, and drank the rest down in a gulp, then sheepishly looked at Discord who refilled her cup, "And I'm kind of scared to find out. When talking with them, I feel like I'm falling into that, like a great, big hole and falling forever. Them thinking and talking to me pushes me back. If those trees are asleep, or worse, empty, I'm not sure I could come back."

"Then don't do it," Discord said as he refilled everyone's cup, "You're more important than this mission. Let the trees do it if it needs to be done."

Fluttershy nodded eagerly. Discord again looked up at Celestia as she and Twilight stared at him in stunned amazement.

"You're letting your soup get cold," he told them.

The pony looked up at the tree, then glanced around and saw the others, indistinguishable from her, save that some were earth ponies, some pegasi and the rest unicorns. She recognized the expressions on the familiar faces, one of realization.

The tree laughed. "Did you expect me to destroy you?"

Tear Twirler stared at the tree.

"You were never my cleverest servant. But you have always been my most faithful," the tree told her.

"But, am I not a pony?" Tear Twirler asked and gasped as she saw dozens of much older, even ancient versions of herself entering the cavern.

"No. Ponies fade far too swiftly," the tree said, "Although the alicorns last too long. So I created the perfect 'in-between'. I'll admit that I stole an idea from my traitorous spawn, but you aren't ready to learn how to be all you can be."

Tear Twirler looked around, and she asked, in the voice of Legion, "What are we to do next?"

"Many things," the tree said.

Bonbon entered the bridge of the ancient battleship and glanced around nervously. The Big Guy noticed her and waved her in. "Uhm," she began, "I've got a bit of a personal question, if you don't want to answer it that's ok - understandable."

"Go ahead and ask," the Big Guy said, the ship was running smoothly and nothing needed his immediate attention.

"Uh, is Princess Luna, okay?" Bonbon asked, she bowed her head as if ashamed of asking.

The Big Guy nodded, remembering getting the nervous alicorn settled into her quarters and shipboard routine. Selene had been calmer about the whole thing. "She'll be all right once she settles in, but she's good."

"She's good," Bonbon lifted her head and said. She paused a long time before asking, "What about Celestia?"

"She's all right," he told her, and wondered at the mare's expression, "She's used to having her sister around, but Woona's taking that role."

"But she's okay, with Luna?" Bonbon asked.

"Frankly she's not all right with Luna, but she'll get used to it," the Big Guy said, "Maybe she'll eventually be okay with it."

"Eventually be okay," Bonbon said, with an expression usually reserved for kindergartners hearing quantum mechanics. Disbelief and utter confusion.

Diarchal worship? the Big Guy wondered, Or ponies' need for stability?

"How is Cadence?" Bonbon asked.

Definitely alicorns, he thought.

"You'll have to ask Shining Armor," he told her.

She facehoofed. "Right, right."

"Are you and Lyra okay?" he asked.

"NO," Bonbon blurted out, "I mean, no, we're good. We're really, really good. No complaints."

"I thought the pregnancy might be causing some problems," he offered.

"No, we're good," Bonbon said, "Thank you again for that. It was something we always wanted. After we got it, it was terrific."

"Glad to hear it," he said, and watched Bonbon depart. He glanced around at the changeling crew, and for once wished he could 'see' emotions so he could figure out what that was about.

Bonbon walked back into the quarters she was sharing with Lyra. She was glad Derpy was there, and no one else was. " 'Luna's okay, but Celestia's all right'," Bonbon said, her horror plain for everypony to see.

"Well, that does explain why Luna's here, and Celestia isn't," Lyra said.

"Is that why Princess Celestia is so hostile?" Derpy said, "Although when he would have found out, I don't know." Her face screwed up with concentration.

"He was only out of your sight for a little while?" Lyra asked, "Maybe that's all the time it took to find out she was all right, and that's why she's just all right."

"I can't believe it, Celestia, all right," Bonbon said.

"Of course she's all right," Sapphire said as she entered the cabin, "Dinner's in a little while, the Big Guy and Luna are dining in her room."

"You know Celestia's all right?" Lyra asked.

"I checked this morning," Sapphire said, "Before we left. She was asleep, but she was all right." The changeling queen looked at the mares. "What's got you three so agitated? Celestia's all right, Luna's okay, heck even Chrysalis was okay."

"Chrysalis is okay, not good?" Lyra asked.

"She got turned into a baby, of course she's not good!" Bonbon shouted.

Lyra facehooved. "Right, right, bad image."

Sapphire looked at them and backed out of the cabin.

"Princess Celestia, all right," Bonbon said, "She's so beautiful, I would have thought she'd be okay."

"She's beautiful to us," Derpy said, "But the ponies he really likes are kind and gentle to him. She wasn't. Even you wanted what was best for him."

"Well, yeah," Bonbon said as she scuffed at the deck with a hoof.

"You were jealous," Lyra said and nuzzled her marefriend.

"You forget, maybe Princess Celestia has been alone for a long time. Maybe it's been so long, she . . . forgot, so she's all right and not okay," Derpy said.

"How do you forget?" Bonbon asked.

"A thousand years?" Derpy said, "I know what nobles will do to get what they want. Princess Celestia is a lot smarter than me, she probably said 'no' a lot."

"Did you ask about Discord?" Lyra asked and waggled her eyebrows.

"And if he said she was terrific?" Bonbon asked.

All of them reacted to that. "Let's quit talking about it while we still have an appetite," Derpy suggested. The others nodded.

'Colonel Vladimir' yanked open the hatch cover where 'strange scratching' had been reported. Glorious Mystery looked up from his quill and parchment at dozens of spears and angry soldiers.

"Uhm, hi," he said and drew back.

"What are you doing here?" Green Grass demanded, not lowering her spear a whit.

"He's a spy," Blueblood said, "For Celestia, the Griffon Kingdom or both is what's hard to tell."

"What makes you think I'm working for Celestia?" the griffon asked as he looked at the 'Colonel Vladimir' with an odd expression, as if seeing him for the first time.

"Only one of Celestia's spies would hide in a black-water trunk," Vladimir said.

Mystery looked at the pipe he was hiding in and then at Vladimir in confusion. "Can you say that in Equestrian?"

"Water you drink is potable, water down the sink after washing is gray water," Vladimir told him, "And water that goes down the toilet is black water. The hatch is clearly labeled. My team labeled it."

Mystery gingerly stepped out of the pipe and the hatch was closed and rebolted after him. "It didn't smell like black water."

"It's never been used," Vladimir replied, "That still doesn't explain what you are doing aboard this ship." He stomped a hoof for emphasis.

The griffon shrugged. "Spying on you. After all, this ship tips the balance of power. The two, senior alicorns were neutralized, and this ship and crew did most of the fighting. The Griffon Kingdom is very interested, Celestia requested the help."

Vladimir shrugged. "Put him on the next transport back to Equestria," Vladimir said, "He can tail Cadence and Shining Armor, their antics will be far more entertaining."

"Wait!" Mystery called, "You might need me. My skills as a linguist and cryptographer may come in handy."

Vladimir considered, then shook his head. "The - no, send him back now," Vladimir said, "Everything we're going to do was laid out before Princesses Celestia and Luna, try your winning ways on them. If they haven't shared with anyone, which may let you deduce why I'm leaving." Vladimir gestured for them to take the griffon away.

Sweetie Belle looked at the tree swaying and twisting with not a breath of wind, and turned to an equally confused Applebloom. "Is it supposed to be doing that?"

"Never saw Zap Apple trees doin' that," Applebloom said.

"Maybe we should tell someone?" Scootaloo asked as she watched the ground heave like a mole tunnel straight towards the Ponyville Library.

"Great idea!" Sweetie Belle said.

"Who?" Applebloom asked.

Spike cringed suddenly and looked around the library. "I thought someone called my name."

Twilight looked miserable. "I failed. I let Discord trick me into bringing those awful ponies from the past," Twilight said, "Most of them have more magic than I could ever hope to master, and they are so anti-harmonious, even Discord is revolted by them. And I did it."

The others started chuckling.

"I didn't fool anyone," Discord said, "I gave a gift with a heavy price attached." He looked at Celestia. "Someone might have mentioned what those people were like, but your yearly festival should have warned you."

"Discord, that wasn't very nice," Fluttershy said.

"I did it to teach you all a little bit about Celestia. How she became a monster hunter, and above all how patient she's been all her life," Discord said.

"How?" Twilight asked.

"Because the first monster she dealt with wasn't me, nor Tirek, nor Sombra, nor Nightmare, nor the Lorax, nor the IRS," Discord said, and looked right at Twilight, "It was your ancestors." He savored the horrified expression on Fluttershy's and Twilight's faces, Celestia looked sour, and Zecora looked like she wanted to say something, but was holding her tongue. "You are having a hard time with a handful. Imagine dealing with thousands. You really believe in that 'friendship-stuff' and you want to give up. She had no choice and no one to hand the job off to. You've underestimated her, as have others. I just wanted to highlight that point."

Twilight looked guiltily at Celestia, who nervously pawed the ground in response. "I should try harder," Twilight murmured, and had a tiny Discord kick her in the ear.

"No one likes a spotlight stealer," Discord said and banished the imp. "Wrong answer Stalactite, if you're gonna hang around here, you need to try again."

Twilight nearly growled at the draconequus as he made beckoning gestures. "I need to ask for help," she ground out.

Discord planted a sticker on her forehead that looked like Celestia's cutie mark. "Gold star," he said, "Now, can you think of what kinds of friends you need? And since this is advanced placement, I'll give you a hint: morphology."

Twilight's eyes strayed over to Zecora. And Discord stuck another Celestia sticker on Twilight's head.

"Twilight! Twilight!" "Fluttershy! Fluttershy!" "Alley-alley-oxen-free!"

The picnickers stared in the direction of the commotion. The Crusaders, Spike and the rest of the Elements of Harmony raced into the old castle. All of them froze and bowed at sighting Celestia.

Celestia was about to admonish them, when Discord whispered, "Let them, they're disturbed enough."

"Twilight!" Applebloom said as she approached, "It was the tree, it started 'wee-woo'." She waved her forehooves in the air. "And them the ground started heaving up, and all these spiky roots, but they turned into normal roots, and then they buried themselves again, but we saw lots near your house, and a lot headed over here."

"Black vines, with thick thorns, like giant rose bush stems," Discord asked, his ears back and actually looking concerned.

When Applebloom nodded, Discord let out an angry shout, "That's insufferable sneak! I knew I couldn't trust him!" Discord began pacing. The others looked on with concern. "How could he know? He could have known? Nobody knew but me." Discord stopped and stared. "No, when I was inside, he read my mind. Good reading but he couldn't have figured out . . . "

There was a rumbling under the castle. And as Celestia realized the direction it was heading, her expression of horror matched Discord's.

"No," she whispered and galloped deeper into the castle. The rest of the group followed.

"What's going on?" Dash demanded,

"We shall find out," Discord said as he raced after Celestia. They headed down a set of stairs and into a natural cavern.

They arrived at a grotto, with a tree growing in it. Here and there, the ground heaved up, and the black, thorny vines writhed, before becoming green and supple, and burying themselves in the ground.

"My plunder vines! He's coopted my plunder vines!" Discord shrieked, and collapsed onto Rarity's fainting couch.

"What is that?" Twilight asked as Celestia approached the radiant tree, "And why are those holes shaped like our cutie marks?"

"The Tree of Harmony," Celestia said, "And this was where Luna and I originally got the Elements." She held up a hoof to shade her eyes. "But it wasn't so bright before."

Fluttershy had been looking at the roots and at the tree. "Umm."

"We've got to do something!" Rainbow Dash said as she too retreated from the brightness of the tree.

"Tree of - TREE!" Applejack shouted and turned, "Applebloom!"

"Ah didn't think this would happen!" Applebloom replied, "How'd I know that apple tree would wanna talk to the other trees?"

"What?" Twilight asked as the entire group retreated out of the grotto while shading her eyes.

"The Big Guy's tree, Applebloom used Zap Apple pollen on it, and then this happened?" Applejack said, "That cain't be a coincidence."

"Excuse me," Fluttershy said.

"Maybe it wanted to be friends," Discord said, "With all the intelligent trees of Equestria. The Big Guy said the animals weren't intelligent. He was strangely silent about whether the plants were or not. For someone who liked to talk as much as he did . . . "

"He knew this would happen?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"I think it's okay," Fluttershy said.

"Of course he knew," Discord said, "It was all a deep, dark plan to corrupt all my plunder vines to the cause of - blech! - Friendship."

"I knew it," Dash punched one hoof into another.

"Rainbow, no one knew," Twilight said, "What are we going to do about it? That's the question."

Discord tapped Fluttershy on the head.

"We gotta chop up these plunder vines," Dash insisted.

"If they're planted here, through the Everfree, and Ponyville - " Rarity began.

"All over Equestria," Discord added.

"Then we have a bigger problem," Rarity concluded.

"SILENCE YOU NATTERING FOALS!" Gray-Fluttershy said, then Discord tapped her again and she returned to her normal butter and pink coloring, "Thank you. I don't think it's a problem. No rumbling, everything's quiet. I think the Tree is enjoying having someone to talk to."

Everyone stopped to listen. There was a faint chiming coming from the tree, but aside from that the grotto was quiet.

"If answers you seek, on branch and limb; to the other trees, with vigor and vim," Zecora suggested.

"Excellent idea!" Discord said, "Sunglasses everypony!"

Very dark sunglasses appeared on everyone, and they appeared in the grove. Near the tree that had been the Alicorn Amulet. It was glowing, and in the distance, several other trees could be seen if the glasses were raised.

"Well, someone has been spectacularly thorough," Discord said angrily, "I bet he didn't leave even one."

"What are these 'plunder vines' you keep mentioning?" Celestia asked.

"Oh, a little contingency plan in case your Elements actually worked on me," Discord said, "They'd keep the Tree occupied, while I regained my freedom."

"And you didn't think this was worth mentioning?" Twilight asked.

"Not really," Discord admitted, and leaned down to face Twilight, "There are worse things than Chaos, Sparklettes."

"Like what?" Rarity asked.

"Apathy," Fluttershy said, "For all of Discord's tricks, he does care. Not caring at all is worse." Fluttershy gestured at the tree. "Our ancestors didn't care about these trees, and look what happened. I disapprove of Discord's tricks, but he has been trying to help, in his own way. Sometimes it hurts to help."

"More that strictly necessary," Spike added, "But if the trees are talking again, what are they saying? And what about Twilight's home, and Zecora's?"

"We could," Discord said and then took up a thoughtful pose.

' We could?' everypony said.

"Go look," Discord replied and they appeared amid Ponyville's nonpanicking population. The glow from the library wasn't as intense as the glow from the other trees, and the apple tree that had started it was also softly glowing.

"No riots! No screaming! No looting! It must have mind-controlled them all!" Discord wailed.

Occasionally a pony would gallop up to the library, shrug and walk away. The group headed in that direction. Carved in the door was a clear message. 'Experiment underway, don't mind the lights.'

Rarity snickered, while Rarity and Rainbow covered their smirks with their hooves. "Face it Sugarcube," Applejack said, "After the last couple months, the panicky'll panic, but everypony else jist takes it in stride."

Twilight frowned and looked at Pinkie who'd been strangely quiet and subdued. "Pinkie, are you okay?"

"Just practicing," Pinkie said and bounced over to Twilight, "See, I found out that quiet works for friends too, and if being quiet lets you all be better friends, then the trees must be being quiet to be better friends and that means we'll soon be able to be better friends with them, and since it was kinda your and my fault for being loud and all that the Big Guy had such a rough start, cause he thought friends could be quiet together, weird huh, but it worked and so if being quiet worked with him, then being quiet might work with the trees, since Fluttershy being kinda quiet around them helped them, and the Big Guy's tree must have been like him or else it wouldn't have been his tree, he would have planted something else, so you got two votes for quiet and none against I decided to try it and it seems to be working, although the Tree of Harmony was making a little noise, so many a little noise would be good." Pinkie grinned.

"Well g'night y'all," Applejack said as she herded Applebloom away, "If they's talkin' ta the Zap Apple trees at Sweet Apple Acres, maybe they'll be in a talkative mood in the mornin'."

Twilight opened her mouth, but looked at Celestia's and Discord's expressions. She took a deep breath, and let it out. "Goodnight Applejack, Applebloom, everyone." She carefully opened the library's door and walked in with Spike trailing her.

"Now, tell me about these plunder vines?" Celestia said, and smiled at Discord.

The rest of the ponies made themselves scarce.

Selene stepped out of the Big Guy's lap. She was still staring at the television he'd set up in their quarters. "Did all that weird stuff he talks about make that guy's mane that way?"

"His hair? No, aliens did it," the Big Guy said, "Like I said, that's the kind of people who believed in magic back home. 'Not with modern machinery could we place stones with that accuracy'. We did it with stuff a lot more fragile than stones, and to greater precision," the Big Guy said, "While their conclusions were all wrong, it is a good catalog of the weird stuff that happened on my homeworld."

Selene shook herself. "Is that why all this stuff doesn't bother you? You're used to weird?"

"I'm used to having to make critical decisions on short notice with enormous consequences," he told her and scratched her behind the ears with one hand, while he did the same to Luna with the other, "So a lot of the things I've faced aren't as difficult as they are to people not used to having to make those decisions. But tomorrow, we start having to coordinate lots of difficult pieces and get them all to work together. That's where the fun begins."

"You have an interesting definition of 'fun'," Luna said as she raised her head to press harder against his fingers, "But I do admit, the plan doesn't lack audacity. But whether it will work is the question."

"It's all about buying time to come up with something better," the Big Guy said, "After all, none of this will complete the job, until we hit that sucker with everything."

Luna nodded, then caught Selene's yawn. "Time for bed," she told the filly.

"Yeah, lots to do tomorrow," the little alicorn said.

"What makes you think you're going to be part of it?" Luna asked.

"Because we can't do it without her. Every bit of power will help, and she can transmit the power of the Changelings better than Fragrance can," the Big Guy said, "So while we're standing in the cold, she'll be with the Changelings getting the wall."

Luna frowned. She didn't like involving Selene, but the very arguments she'd used had been turned back on her with references to her treatment at Celestia's hooves a millennium ago. Said treatment had made her so resentful she'd given in to Nightmare Moon.

"Well, I need to do some work," Luna said, "Turning over that part of my job to Woona was never part of the agreement."

"Enjoy," the Big Guy said and picked up Selene, who giggled at that, "I'll get her ready for bed."

Luna watched and wondered, If we'd stuck with the original plan, Fluttershy and Derpy, how would things have shaken out?

She put the thoughts aside and moved to another room so she could begin dream walking. Many ponies hadn't completely recovered from the Changeling Invasion. Oddly, those most active in the defense had already recovered and their nightmares were on familiar subjects. Applejack on the fate of the farm. Pinky Pie on having her inventions discovered and everyone laughing at her. And so on. It was the ponies of the capital who'd done nothing to defend themselves whose nightmares require her greatest attention.
Day 71

The winds were brutal, and being completely alone didn't help. The stake, a '6-foot' iron rod, was in the ice, and Celly awaited the next step. The arrival of a chunk of ice a mile high, two miles thick and 80 miles long. It required exact placement, so Celly had to be here, and so did the stake. Luna, Woona, Fragrance, Vladimir, the Big Guy, and Glory Belle. Vladimir had a bit of a conniption when he'd discovered she, Holly Hock and Forget-me-not had been added to the 'staff'. Electric Cookie and the Big Guy had settled things, they needed the expertise, and better to have the spy you knew, than the spy/saboteur you didn't.

And I keep remembering those things so I won't remember what's just a few miles away, Celly thought, and shuddered not at the cold and wind, but being this close to the Shmooze, and being utterly helpless against it, I wonder if we could adjust Sombra's spell, and put it back to sleep again. She stamped a hoof. No, that's what got us into this mess in the first place. We have a problem, we have to deal with the problem, not foist it off on someone else in the future. That's the lesson Celestia hasn't learned, and I have to keep from slipping into. You deal with problems.

She couldn't see the next ponies in the line of 'rod-watchers' who would provide the target for the 'wall-launchers', because both were 10 miles away and the windy air had enough snow in it that even she couldn't peer through the distance. She waited, watched, checked the sun and wished the launch team would hurry up, instead of sticking to the timetable. I want to be out of here, with a bulwark between us and that thing, she thought.

Sapphire looked at Tom and Discord, the two fillies, and the immense number of Changelings assembled. Their power was manifest, the precision was what was taking the time. Ironically, Selene and the Changeling Empress were the leaders there. Dinky provided the link to the Big Guy and Celly, Selene did the same with Woona and Luna. That gave the end points and the center of the curve. The other awaiting the arrival of over 600 billion tons of ice would have to be patient, even Discord wasn't eager to 'wing it' on this try.

"We've got them?" Tom asked, Discord was to busy pacing and muttering to himself.

"Still locked on," Selene said.

"Strong on our end points and at the apex," Dinky said, "Between is a little hazier."

"Good enough that we won't squash them," Selene assured Tom, and Discord.

Derpy flew up to hover beside Discord, rubbing his nose with a forehoof. "You'll do fine," she assured the draconequus, "And just think about how everyone will react when they hear about it." When he paused, she stroked his ear. Derpy had been stunned when the Big Guy warned her that Discord might be frightened by the task. She remembered her incredulity at Discord of all beings to be frightened of anything.

'He's afraid of losing, and in losing the mission, he's afraid of losing his friends', she remembered.

She took a different tack. "Just do you best. This is a temporary measure, and if it's not perfect, we'll come up with something else. It's not like we'll be lacking in ice and snow."

Discord turned and nodded, looking more comfortable and confident. Derpy checked her watch. "Seventy seconds, is everyp - everybody ready?" she called. She and the Big Guy had synchronized watches, so each group would act at exactly the same time.

"Standing by," Tom and Sapphire said, almost in unison.

Derpy nodded and watched the timer count down. "60. 45."

"Thirty second warning," she shouted.

"20. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1."

For the first time in a thousand years, the ancient city and the Changeling tunnels were exposed to sunlight and fresh air. The air that rushed in to fill the hole was warm, even inviting. There were few clouds and those were high cirrus, wispy and delicate.

Derpy marveled at the huge hole they'd bored through the massive ice cap. Hotaru and her wolf-friend were looking after an exhausted Discord. Green Grass was doing the same with Tom. She shook herself after a moment, remembering part of the job. "Status?" she asked Selene and Dinky.

The two fillies tried to keep a straight face, but were struggling. "The air displacement was more violent than expected," Dinky said, then dissolved in giggles.

Derpy wondered what the wind resulting from having that much ice appear would have been like. Worse than expected, she thought.

"Okay, have them come on home," Derpy said, "We've all done enough for one morning." She considered flying out there herself. With her new wings and stronger magic she might have been able to do it. But having the alicorns bring the team home was safer.

Grass Light looked at the mare who'd 'rescued' his officers from the asylum Celestia had been holding them in. She seemed too cold to be anything but a professional. "Not to seem ungrateful, but nopony pulls the strings you have to get us out," he said and looked at his officers, "And doesn't demand something in return."

"What you do from this point on, is your business," the mare said, apparently ignoring that she'd been surrounded, and none of these ponies were the nonviolent, lightweights most ponies were, "But I think we have one area of interest in common."

"What's that?" he asked as several of his officers moved into position to jump the mare if she tried anything.

"The one who orchestrated your incarceration," the mare said, "My employer doesn't like him much either."

Grass Light waved the others back. "Shining Uptight Armor isn't my favorite pony, but taking on the Chief of the Equestrian Royal Guard? That's a suicide mission, even if his sister wasn't Celestia's latest, special bed warmer."

"He's been replaced, and it isn't he who planned this out. But one who's made a habit of hiding in plain sight. Vladimir Blueblood."

He twisted his head, to try and see which way the world had shifted. "That fop!?" Grass Light asked.

"That fop gave Armor the authority to arrest you, he arranged for your capture by the bandits, he obtained the evidence to discredit your most powerful employers so they couldn't release you on their own, and all while remaining invisible to anyone looking," the mare said, "He fooled even Celestia, and has now renounced his ties with Equestria and hitched his wagon to the Big Guy's star, and that worthy has also left Equestria."

"I'm listening," Grass Light said.

"The spells that held the Crystal Empire apart from the rest of the world are fading. Vladimir has amassed considerable magical talent and intends to bring them down early," the mare said, "That's not in anyponys' best interest. Can you imagine an actually smart Blueblood ruling an entire nation of ponies who've only known slavery? Celestia's plan was to place Cadence on the throne. Blueblood threatens that."

"So if we give her his head on a platter, she may see clear to pardoning us," Grass Light said and smiled.

"Why not keep it yourself?" the mare asked, "Sombra had soldiers, bullymares and stallions to enforce his will. With them either defeated or convinced to join your ranks, why bother to hand the land to anyone?"

"So what's in it for you?" Grass Light asked, "I get to be king, what do you get?"

"Blueblood's head on a platter, and the death of the Ponyville Monster," the mare said, "In return. I'm authorized to give you the antidote to the poison they've been testing you for." The mare smiled at their amazement. "It's a simple thing, if you know the trick. And who do you think taught him that trick?"

"Okay, so, we take out Blueblood, and the Ponyville Monster, and we just walk into this ancient kingdom, and keep it?" Grass Light said, "There's gotta be a catch."

"You have to wait until he's freed the kingdom, and you have to complete your job before Cadence arrives to contest the throne," the mare told them, and she finally smiled, "You get to keep what you earned, nothing more. We just want to give you a chance to earn it."

"Deal," Grass Light offered his hoof, and the mare took it and shook. The smiles from both would have warmed Pinkie's heart. But not the Colonel-General's.

Tear Twirler watched the puppet that had been sent shake the stallion's hoof. She turned to her master. "He agreed, but we aren't going to let him hold the Empire?"

"Only until the Crystal Heart can be put in place. With what that stallion and his cronies feel, they'll taint all of Equestria with their bigotry. The peace among the tribes will be over and Celestia will be too busy dealing with feuding ponies to cast her eyes northward, while I complete what that fool botched."

"Ascending to alicorn status won't let you defeat Celestia," Tear Twirler reminded her.

"I just have to be strong enough that she can't challenge me without it costing her far more than she'd get out of it," her master told her, "But keep thinking, with so many piece in play, even I need loyal help to keep them all moving as I design."

"Yes," Tear Twirler said as she felt her other selves going about their own business. It bothered her that the dozen or so simulacra she'd dispatched to Ponyville had vanished from her awareness, but she had more important things to investigate.

Twilight woke, and slipped out of bed. The brilliant glow that had suffused the library had faded as she and Spike had gotten ready to go to sleep. Now it returned, weakly at first, as if it were letting her acclimate. Below, was the next cause of concern. The vines grew out of every bookshelf. They seemed to select a book, scan it, and then replace it in the shelves. As if they were trying to read the entire contents of the library.

A letter to Princess Celestia confirmed that the same was taking place in the Canterlot Archives, and the 'foreign' Apples had come to see her about the apple tree outside sending roots in to read the Big Guy's books. Twilight wasn't sure if they should stop it, or how the tree would react if they tried. Especially if they tried and failed. Celestia was taking a 'wait and see' approach, and Twilight wasn't ready to argue.

She felt rather than heard Spike approach.

"Still at it?" he asked.

"Still at it," she replied, "And I don't know what's going to happen when they run out of books."

"Twilight, you remember a few days ago?" he asked, and when she nearly blurted it out, he covered her muzzle with his paws, "Good, you remember. Any word on those?"

Twilight felt a panic rising, and breathing exercises only brought her back so far.

"Spike, take a letter. 'Princess Celestia,' uhm, ah, 'our expedition recently, has anyone checked on the condition of what we got? Immediate 'yes' or 'no' reply requested. Your student, Twilight Sparkle'," she said and watched Spike dispatch the scroll.

"I added a note that the walls have ears, er, branches," Spike said, "So she'll know why 'yes' or 'no'. Have we checked the castle? There are, ah, stuff there too."

While Twilight considered, he continued, "Should we tell anyone else about this?" Spike asked, "Princess Cadence? The royal guard? Discord?"

"Cadence is off on a mission, and I think Discord is otherwise occupied," Twilight said, "I think we're okay, as long as no one wants to check a book out from the library." She chuckled, but it sounded forced even to her, and Spike absolutely wasn't buying it.

"How is he?" the Big Guy asked Derpy as she emerged from Discord's bedroom.

"I think he's sleeping, really sleeping," Derpy said as she settled beside the Big Guy and snuggled against him.

"I put wards around him to keep anyone from eavesdropping on his dreams," Selene said, "And to keep anything he dreams inside." She looked at the Big Guy who'd arrived with the other alicorns and the rest of the 'pole-watching' team a few minutes ago. "What happened, you look like you lost a hoof-fight?"

"I compensated for the wind that would be generated by displacing 160 cubic miles of air," the Big Guy admitted, "I just didn't realize there'd be all that loose material. Most of the areas we picked were hard-packed. But the areas in between the survey points had pockets of loose ice and snow."

"You got snow blasted," Derpy chuckled, "I thought only I made mistakes like that."

"I had a spiderhole built in case it happened, so did everyone else, but I wasn't prepared for most of the stuff to come from directly above. It was like being in a hail storm."

Derpy snuggled closer. "You're also freezing. Are you sure you don't want to . . . warm up . . . first?" she asked and smiled shyly.

He kissed her forehead. "Yes, but I can't. Whatever Cadence has planned, it depends on us staying on schedule, and we've no easy way to put Trixie on hold, we need to keep to the schedule so we can complete our work. I will accept a few hours' rest. I think everyone will be better if we finish the job late this evening."

"Our troops are ready, and we've been drilling the maneuver while you have been working on the magic," Green Grass said, "How exactly is this going to work?"

"The most ferocious enemy troops of my first war were only afraid of three kinds of troops: the Gurkhas, the U.S. Marines, and the Canadians. All three had hurt them pretty badly the last war. As ferocious as they were, they were bullies. They fought because they believed to lose was to die. Take away that, and like any other bully, you can break them. It's all a show of overwhelming force to break Sombra's troops. Once we have them on the run, our overwhelming force can capture them intact. Some might be able to be rehabilitated. Or use them as convict labor."

"I still think they're going to be more trouble than they're worth," the officer said.

"Then we lock them in a room with the ancient librarians and let two problems solve each other," the Big Guy said.

"I'm not sure Princess Celestia would approve of that," Derpy said.

"Just a suggestion, after all, ponies are all about peace and love and friendship," the Big Guy suggested innocently, Derpy and the officer snorted in disgust, "They wouldn't tear each other apart just because they were pig-headed bigots would they? Besides, they're all Earth Ponies. I don't think the Windingo thing works if they're all the same tribe."

"Somehow, I don't think they'd get along no matter what we did to soften the blow," the officer said, "What I'd like to know is what's Cadence's 'plan'."

"She's trying to earn her place at the table," the Big Guy said, "I'll leave it to you if she has, or not."

Derpy led him to another bedroom to rest until the moon rose. Then they'd have more work to do.

Cadence tried to remain calm as the dragon representative looked at her proposal and deeply considered it. She'd had butterflies before her wedding, and had a near-panic attack before the battle, but this was worse. Lower-intensity, but the knots in her stomach hurt worse. So much depended on her doing well, appearing to be placid, that too felt horrible.

With expert shape-shifting magic, the full-grown dragon was perhaps the size of the Big Guy. It would be easier if he was openly hostile, she thought as she sat in the diplomat's spartan office and tried to neither squirm on the elegantly understated seat, nor throw up from the tension on the extremely tasteful carpeting, It's going to work. You're ready for any counter-argument. The dragon queen owes the Big Guy a favor, maybe you can arrange for this to be it. This would seem to be his way. Stay calm, Cadence. Just like you taught Twilight.

"It is an unusual proposal," the representative said without raising his gaze from the papers, "And frankly, we'd be well rid of them." His expression soured as he looked at Cadence. "All they think about are toys," he confided.

Cadence nodded sympathetically and the tension drained out of her. Just smile and be sympathetic, she thought as she smiled and patted the dragon's forearm.

"I do wonder why you even want them," the dragon said never blinking, just staring at Cadence.

"They'll need to have representatives from all the major races," Cadence said, "And a few 'unusual' ones to get them used to the changes in the various races from a thousand years ago. I'll be talking to the Minotaurs and Diamond Dogs as well. The griffons have already agreed."

And if they've advanced their technology, I don't want to be accused of hoarding it, she thought.

"I understand you've been collecting unusual ponies as well," the dragon asked, "Are there any other class of ne'r do wells you'd care to relieve us of?"

"I will have a better idea when I arrive there," she said, her stomach clenched in a different way.

It shouldn't be this easy: depriving them of some of their citizens, she thought, but kept her expression placid.

"That leaves the real question," the dragon said as he briefly looked away, when he looked back, his expression had become more intense, "How do you know that this plan of Blueblood's will work? Lost for a thousand years, nothing the diarchs could accomplish, and these newcomers think they can overcome Sombra's spell so easily?"

"Sombra was still alive when they attempted it," Cadence said, "With him gone, and Tom backing their play, I think they may have the upper - hand."

The dragon's expression softened and he nodded. "But, it denies you the straightest route to the throne," he said.

"To be honest, I look forward to earning it," Cadence said, "Rather than getting it as a gift. Everyone else has earned theirs, I want to earn mine."

The dragon smiled knowingly. "True."

The Elements of Harmony had assembled in the anteroom of the Canterlot Royal Library. They and Celestia peered in at the ivy-encrusted bookshelves that dominated the area. "The vines, they're doing what you saw them doing in the Ponyville Library?" Celestia asked Twilight, who nodded.

"Nothin' against book learnin'," Applejack said, "But them trees got anypony I ever heard of beat for readin'."

Rarity raised an eyebrow at Spike, who shrugged in return.

"Fluttershy, did you check up on the other trees?" Celestia asked.

"Uh, no, should I go and do that?" the pegasus asked.

"No, I was just trying to determine if they were hostile, or not," Celestia said, "They haven't stopped any of the other patrons from taking the books out, but they seem to close in on any shelf the library tries to clear." She looked worriedly in the direction of the stored archive they'd recently rescued.

The others just nodded.

"Highness?" Pinkie asked, "Has anyone looked at Nistag's lab? The Alicorn Amulet certainly knows about it."

The Alicorn Princess looked suddenly stricken.

Shining Armor had watched most of the snow of the avalanche being cleared by ponies, or melted by Celestia's sun. But here was one of the few places no one had taken specific action to clear. The decision was not to decide, Shining thought, Considering what lay buried beneath these mounds, everyone wants to make certain they had frozen 'to death' before they are cleared of snow and disposed of. Yet nobody wants to go in with a few gallons of weedkiller and do the deed themselves.

Armor smirked at that. His smirk became a smile as he spotted Cadence trotting towards him. She seems happy, he thought.

"Everything go well?" he asked and gave her a peck on the cheek when she frowned.

"They seemed almost too eager to get rid of the people I was asking for," she said and looked in the direction of the complex housing the ancient librarians. "Have we really advanced so little?"

"Discord made everypony frightened of change. Is it a stretch to think that extended to all the other races," Armor said, "If it is working well-enough, don't fix it?"

"And it falls to a tiny handful of the 'unusual' to swoop in and save the save the rest of us," she said and frowned, "Doesn't that seem unfair? What did those mares get for having to put their lives on hold? Compensation? Training? A stained-glass window and then the out-of-sight/out-of-mind treatment. Rarity got more mileage out of telling off Blueblood than she does as a hero of Equestria umpteen-times over. Applejack can't expect any more help harvesting for what she sacrificed." She glanced at Armor. "I'm aware of the guard taking many of the same risks, and at more frequent intervals." She tapped the armor he still wore. "But they are trained and equipped to deal with it, and as cruel as it sounds, they all volunteered. They knew what they were getting into from the start. I heard the sergeants telling you about 'the long boredom, punctuated by moments of terror'. What training did Twilie get?"

Armor took her chin in his hoof. "You're taking this awfully personally," Armor said, "What's the real problem?"

"Do you think the nobles of Canterlot would hesitate for one moment to get rid of a neurotic student, an overly enthusiastic party-planner, a reclusive veterinarian, and a fashionista from the sticks with delusions of standing?" she asked, she wiped away the tears forming in her eyes, "If they weren't also the Elements of Harmony?" She broke down and hugged Armor. "I was ready to fight, implore and strategize hard to get the people we needed. Instead, everyone was eager to throw them away!" she sobbed as she nearly crushed Armor.

Glad the mane hides my grin, he thought as he held her and murmured that everything would be all right, Everypo - everybody is important to her. Sometimes I have to forget that, I'm glad she can't.

They stood that way for a while. After a few moments, Cadence released him, and got herself squared away. "Sorry, but it was getting to me. After the revelation about Blueblood not being a self-absorbed idiot, revealed by Rarity of all ponies, a lot of things started falling into place. I'm afraid I was taken in by his game, even when he was a child. I'm supposed to be better than that." She shook her head. "Canterlot's number-one foalsitter let a child who would have been Twilight's perfect companion, slip between my hooves, because I believed what I was told, rather than using my own eyes and heart to see."

Armor nodded. "I'm just as guilty. I saw a crack unit suddenly appear where there'd been a pack of 'also-rans' and never put two and two together. It seems that he managed to get them drilled up and first-class, without anyone ever realizing it. Even the soldiers themselves. Until they started getting ribbons in all the competitions. Then they attributed it completely but not completely correctly to their hard work." He looked at Cadence. "Is that what this is about, trying to find the middle ground between doing as Her Highness commands and not inflicting another insult on Blueblood?"

"Not an undeserved one at least," Cadence said, "I said he would have been perfect for Twilight. He's a terrible coward, and might have curbed some of her more - enthusiastic - early experiments."

"Does Celestia still have that tail-wig?" Armor asked.

Cadence nodded. Then as one the pair turned as something began heaving itself out of the snow. Four of the mounds broached, and the odd plant dragons raised themselves up and snapped the dozens of tendrils that had attached to them. All four launched themselves into the air and flew away, in formation, and headed north.

"The Crystal Empire," Cadence whispered and took off at a gallop.

Armor fell in behind. "Rainbow Dash? Is she fast enough to reach them in time?"

"Is there anyone faster?" Cadence asked.

Armor doubted they could get someone faster over sustained distance in the time they had.

Octavia set her bow aside and watched as the conductor considered the alien music they had been practicing all morning. She noted that Trixie was watching them with her partner, they were whispering to each other and considering.

"I heard they used a theater orchestra for a similar trick down south," her fellow cellist whispered, she nearly squealed, "Imagine, us winning a battle! By playing!"

"All right everyone, from the top," the conductor called, "And I know what a catchy tune it is, but stop with the hoof-tapping. You are all professionals, and it's distracting."

There was some grumbling as everyone prepared.

Hoof-tapping, Octavia thought, I'm ready to gallop to this song. She heard the brass fanfare, and prepared.

Green Grass blew her whistle and the troops performed the maneuver. She couldn't train the entire Changeling force, but if she trained all the 'sergeants', the others would get it automatically. The maneuver was simple, the center pony in the line trotted forward, and when his or her hip passed the shoulder of the ponies to the left and right, they'd begin trotting forward. The trick was at the second whistle, the entire formation that was moving, no matter where, would break into a gallop and the others would start off galloping.

"Okay, back to places, that was better, but let's get it completely right," she shouted over the drumming hooves, "Remember, the point is to get the enemy to abandon their positions and break. We aren't going to do that looking like a Future Farmers of Equestria parade."

There was grumbling, but the unit was quickly back in formation and ready.


The central pony started forward, a pony and a changeling moved correctly, more, and more, then she blew again. This was the trick part. The line lost some cohesion and there was a bit of confusion as ponies and changeling mentally prepared to trot, and suddenly had to gallop.

It was acceptable, but she wasn't about to let them know.

"Hold it!" the Big Guy said as he entered. Perfect use of the 'parade ground voice' as he entered. "Colonel, I think it might make a difference if they heard what they're going to be moving off to." He raised a large, black box that would have been mistaken for a tool box, if not for all the knobs and switches.

"All right you heard the man, form up. Ears open, mouths shut!" she called and they were soon surrounded.

"Hear it goes," he said, and smirked at the pun.

The piece definitely did make your hooves want to start moving. It was short, but she could feel the places where the moves would take place. He touched a control and the piece started again.

"Discord will be playing this fanfare, he's been working on the horn a while, but I kinda doubt even he's got that much wind," the Big Guy said, "Here's the trot. One, two more, two more, two more, two more, two more, two more. Gallop."

Green Grass saw the looks on the faces of her troops. I think the music will carry them. I can barely keep from running around myself.

"What happens if they're still running when the song ends?" one of the changeling queens asked.

"Use your imagination. Just imagine your whole formation charging out of the sun, down a slope at them, with that playing in the background," the Big Guy said.

And predator grins all around, Green Grass thought of the faces around her.

"This will be a victory for the ages," she said, "If it works."

"If it works, no one will ever hear the song without remembering the battle and this tactic," the Big Guy said, "Poor Gioacchino will never forgive me." He sighed sadly, then perked up. "Don't forget to practice the second part. The triumphal march into the city."

"That's for after lunch," Green Grass said, "While you lot are resting." She shook her head. "Those instruments are damn scary though."

"Best kind, the open hand, with the scabbarded sword, especially with Discord leading the formation. You'll have to be your very prettiest."

She snorted at that. But it'll be a day nopony ever forgets.

Rainbow Dash raced along, they'd needed the fastest pony, so it was obvious who'd be chosen. She'd arrive in the location where the Crystal Empire had been, locate Prince Blueblood's ship and crew, and warn them about the dragons. The cold weather gear was a hindrance, but she'd handle it.

Barely need it now, she thought as she flew on, Warmed up enough. She'd already unzipped the jacket and stuffed the hoof covers in the pockets. Her eyes scanned the skies and she was beginning to realize one thing. "Where the heck are they?" she asked no one.

She could pick out a cloud from the open sky, but there seemed to be very little in the way of big, flying battleships about. Or green, blue-veined dragons. Or really anything.

As she flew, she spotted something that drew her attention. A wall, miles wide, miles thick, and at least a mile tall. "What could have built that?" she wondered as she flew beside it, "If Sombra built this, I'm almost sad we never got the chance to kick his butt," she said, then another thought intruded, "And what's it supposed to be for, keeping things in, or keeping them out?"

She flew on, searching for signs of the battleship, or an army on the move. Or something! she thought, If they're already done with those dragons, Pinkie'll never let me hear the end of it.

The lunch was magnificent, and many of the diners had retired to their staterooms. There would be a lot of work once the sun went down, and even more before it rose again in the morning.

Sapphire noted that Celly, Luna and Derpy had collected the Big Guy. And of course Selene and Dinky collected me, she thought of the two fillies clinging to her back as she trotted through the ship, checking on things.

She felt her organs shift again and thought, They weren't kidding about 'feeding the troops'. If I couldn't send this direct to the other changelings, I'd bust wide open. She wasn't sending this nectar to the caches and reservoirs. She was sending it directly to the changelings under her authority. Which meant all aboard the ship, even the other queens. Noling would get a lot, but it was as good as several good meals and a complete night's rest. The Changelings would be ready for tomorrow.

She looked back on the pair and felt fondness. A Changeling really couldn't love another, but she was well aware that they were valuable to her personally, and to the Changeling race as a whole. The nectar her entire 'family' had caused her to generate was the effect of pretty much what they were planning to do with the Crystal Empire, breaking the last chains of an outmoded belief system. Nothing we changelings can do about our biology, she thought, We now know love or affection directed at us, as who we are, is stronger than any stolen essence from others.

The bridge was crewed, and quiet, the small patch of clouds hid the ship from prying eyes and was 'moored' close enough to the ground, they resembled nothing so much as a patch of persistent ground fog. The troops were rotating through their drills. Those who'd drilled this morning were bunking out, and those who'd had the morning to sleep late were getting trained. The whole thing would come together in a few hours.

I should be on pins and needles, but I almost can't imagine how we'd lose, she thought, So much for the one who'd never fit in. It was your vision of who and what we were that I don't fit in. The waste of time, talent and resources.

She stifled her anger at her mother who was far beyond her reach and was going to be someone else's problem for a while. I'm not interested in playing her game anymore, Sapphire thought and moved off to check on the teams checking the hull. The 'holes' weren't getting worse, but they were getting slightly more numerous. Hence keeping the ship out of the fighting. Discord could probably fix it, she thought, But there's more important things for him to do for the moment.

She found Tom going over the plans, 'one last time'. "Aren't you supposed to be resting?"

"Like you, the immense amount of chaos precludes my need for sleep or food. Discord's sacked out because he is overfed and he worked harder than he's ever worked before. I had a sliver of his power, so I've got better magic tone than he does. Plus the idea of being one of the good guys has him in a quandary."

"Well, I can always think of him as a treacherous fool who will betray us any moment, if that would help," Sapphire said.

"I think he's past that," Tom said, "He's actually starting to enjoy it. Which is even more confusing."

"The Big Guy had tomes on myths and folklore, he talked about 'Coyote'," Sapphire said, "Maybe Discord should read up on him. He was a trickster, but benevolent. Just a little hard on those around him."

"He read it, or rather the Big Guy told him all the stories. Discord wants to be admired, but he wants to be the one everyone gets shivers about, and he can't have both. Ponies don't work that way."

Sapphire nodded, and glanced at the pair on her back. "Don't I know it?"

"You should rest," Tom said, "Despite the nectar, you're going to need all your mental clarity, and I've experienced that dreams sometime show up problems your conscious mind does not."

"I can't think of any problem we can't overcome and don't have a contingency for," Sapphire said, "Maybe you should take your own advice. Something seems to be bothering you."

"Perhaps," Tom said, "To be honest, I'm more worried about Fluttershy. Or rather, I'm worried about her reaction to me."

Sapphire felt the change in Tom when he mentioned the pegasus, but just nodded. "If you're after advice on how to approach her, the Empress has a host of techniques. And before you say it, they aren't lying to her, they're how to approach openly and honestly. Just not completely. And it's the completely part I suspect is bothering you." She smiled. "You are really taken with her."

"She's quiet, and thoughtful, unlike most of the people around here for whom deep thought is two seconds to reaffirm their preexisting biases," Tom said, "And frankly, she's a lot braver and more open-minded than people give her credit for. I find that refreshing. She's only really frightened of one thing: her own anger. Everything else is a projection of that."

Sapphire nodded and trotted off. She suspected that like the Big Guy, it was going to have to be the females who pushed the issue. For people who are nest-wettingly terrifying, they sure are cowards about some things, she thought.

Fluttershy didn't like the idea of flying so far or so fast. Night was falling, Rainbow hadn't returned, and the dragons hadn't been sighted since they left Equestrian territory. The border guards that had seen them were on a direct line with Canterlot.

Fluttershy didn't like flying at night, most creatures didn't, but she had a couple friends in her saddlebags who were small and light enough to carry the long distance, and had no problems flying at night.

The bat let out a high-pitched squeak and pointed with a wing.

"Are you sure?" Fluttershy asked as she banked to follow his directions.

The bat reaffirmed his certainty, seconded by the other bat. Explaining what she was looking for had been the hard part. The bats had been certain they could avoid the dragons and lead Fluttershy to the battleship. She saw they were as good as their word. The cloud of fog was her destination, and she hadn't seen the dragons at all.

While the bats gave warning, Fluttershy allowed the Changelings to intercept her before she got too close. "Um, hi," she said, "Some of the plant dragons woke up, and, uhm, we thought they were on their way to attack you. Now that you know, I'll just be going. Eep!" Fluttershy started as she realized she'd been quietly surrounded by five more Changelings. "I don't want any trouble."

"Miss Fluttershy," the leader of the new arrivals said, "We'd be in trouble if we didn't get you safely in, and then a proper escort back to Ponyville."

Fluttershy bowed her head. "Oh, I wouldn't want to get you in any trouble," she said and meekly followed them.

Not like I had a choice, she thought.

The ship was pretty much as she'd seen it before. The changelings were polite, a couple corralled a few moths for her bat friends to eat. That didn't keep them from being quite firm in escorting her to the 'main hall'.

She gasped at seeing the sheer number of changelings. Several thousand briefly became her and waved more like Pinkie Pie would have. She smiled at that. At the center of the mass were Discord, Tom, the alicorns, the Big Guy and the Changeling Queens and Empress. They surrounded a small table with a model of a city covered by a clear bowl.

Tom floated down to greet her. "Welcome, you came at a good time. We're ready to raise the spell."

"Really?" she asked, "Is that the Crystal Empire, is that why no one could find it?"

"No, it's a model. We're trying sympathetic magic. Doing a spell near a copy, and the effect will be on the full-sized version. We're parked next to the shield, so the magic will affect the real shield, but we can't surround it like we can the model here."

"Oh," she said, only sort of understanding what he'd said.

"If you'd like to help, you can join Derpy," Tom said and indicated a number of other ponies, all pegasi or earth ponies.

"Sure, oh! There's a flock of dragons coming this way," she said, "They were the plant dragons from the Canterlot attack."

"They passed by hours ago," Tom said, "Paid us no mind whatsoever. But our patrols are up in case they return."

"Oh, that's good," she said, feeling her mission was for nothing.

"Why don't you join the others? We need all the help we can get, and we welcome it."

"Oh, okay," she said feeling her spirits lift as she joined Derpy.

"What do we do?" she whispered to Derpy as she settled next to the pegasus.

"We concentrate good thoughts to the people in there. For you 'people' might include all the new animal friends you'll make," Derpy said and then returned to concentrating.

Fluttershy grinned, then concentrated on all the stories of Sombra she'd heard recently on all the ponies and other creatures who'd need all their help soon.

She felt odd, as if her thoughts were pressing against a flexible wall. But when she pushed hard, she could feel pain, fear, suffering, and other dark emotions through it. She knew it wasn't the wall that was hurting, but the things beyond it. She steeled her resolve and pushed as hard as she could. She Stared at the wall in her mind, and pressed with all her might. When she felt the wall was trying to resist by hurting those within worse, she lost it. She imagined herself fighting a giant bubble with some of her animal friends trapped inside. Big Dumb MEANIE! she thought as she tore into it. Hooves and teeth, battering with her wings, growling and snarling.

The bubble popped suddenly, and she saw her animal friends and rushed over to comfort them.

She opened her eyes and looked around. Derpy and a few ponies looked at her curiously. No changeling was within ten feet of her. "Um," she said nervously, "Did it work?"

"Yes, very successfully," Tom told her as he drifted over.

She saw the bowl that had covered the city was gone, not broken pieces, not there anymore. She shrank back. "Did I do that?" she asked, ashamed at her outburst.

"Yes," Tom said, "With some help. But that's what we wanted to do, so it was the right thing to do."

"Okay," she said, feeling a bit less embarrassed.

"Do you want to be here for the charge into the city?" the Big Guy asked as he approached, "It's going to be your kind of battle."

"I don't like battles, there's too much fighting," she said, trying not to insult him.

" 'For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill'," the Big Guy said, "I intend to show the acme of skill."

Fluttershy nodded. "Oh, yes that would be nice to watch," she said. She glanced around nervously at the chuckles from the uniformed soldiers around her.

"They think you won't be able to stay out of it," the Big Guy told her, "And don't feel you have to."

Fluttershy stared at him in confusion.

Rainbow had seen something that had chilled her to the marrow. Not getting lost and flying around everywhere. But when the Crystal Empire had finally revealed itself, it had been at the hooves of an immense cloud of something. It was Fluttershy, angry, she thought and shook herself, I know it was. Like when she took on that dragon, and just like then, as soon as it was over, I swear she hugged the entire city. The city itself was pretty enough, glittering in the dark, but it seemed kind of boring to Rainbow. Nothing she could see flew over it. Everypony was in their homes with the lights off. The shine came from a few street lights and nothing else.

The nets dropping over her from above brought her out of her thoughts. They tightened around her, fouling her wings and keeping her from flying. A trio of earth ponies, all standing on flying carpets dropped down into sight. Others she couldn't see held the ropes to the nets.

"That's cheating!" she shouted, and they laughed at her.

"Look, it's a lost pegasus," one of the ponies with a more ornate uniform lowered her carpet until she could look Rainbow in the face. "Wings don't give you the right to sneak around our Empire, at night."

"Your - you ponies are touched. Your empire's been missing a thousand years. And I found you!" Rainbow told her, and struggled in the net, "And this is the thanks I get?"

"This one's working on an insanity defense already," another of the rug-riders said.

"We'll just clip her wings and see if she's too crazy to run a shovel," the leader said.

"My wings?" Rainbow said, her normal bravado fading.

"Yes, you can tell everyone you're a pegasus from the future, where they don't need wings," the leader said, and the other two began laughing.

Rainbow suddenly wished her friends were here.
Day 72

The day began very early. The orchestra's stage had to be set up. A fast review of the topography of the Crystal Empire's capital showed only one place that the advance could be made from. A high ridge outside the city. Behind the ridge, the troops set up, and behind the troops, the orchestra set up.

The troops were silent as they marched. Surprise was the greatest weapon they had, and if it worked, there'd be no battle, but a rout. The Big Guy's truck arrived, unexpectedly, by Discord express, with the orchestra, and some other stowaways.

Pinkie, Applejack, and Glorious Sunrise were either under arrest, or in protective custody. At the moment, they sat in the bed of the truck, watching.

Fluttershy arrived at the truck. "How much trouble are we in?" Pinkie asked quietly, glad she hadn't brought the chainsaw.

"That depends," Fluttershy told them, "You haven't given anything away, and I think if this works, everypony will be in a good enough mood that nopony will be too angry. I already suggested you brought the truck because it's fast and can carry more than a wagon. So they may toss you out and load it up with clean uniforms and armor. That's part of the plan too."

"What the devil are they playing at? They have the troops, why not storm into the town right now?" the griffon asked, back to being the Colonel-General, master of the Griffon Military for two generations.

Now Fluttershy smiled. "They are going to win without a battle," she said, "After all, this is a rescue, not an attack."

Vladimir walked by, he was checking on the armor and equipment of the troops. For once, there was no rolling of the eyes as the amateur checked up on the professionals. He was in battle kit, as they were, not the parade-ground armor the Royal Guard always wore around the palace. They were soldiers, and so was he. Although a few chuckled quietly at his reminder that a general's proper place was just behind the lines.

Pinkie watched, and wondered. I've been in fights, but never in a real 'battle', this is as complicated a set up as a party, and they are planning it just as carefully, and like me, they already know what they are doing, what they did and what they need to do, but they're checking up on things anyway, she thought, I don't think my party cannon will get us out of this one.

"They haven't found Rainbow, but they haven't really been looking," Fluttershy's low conversation penetrated Pinkie's thoughts, "The dragons passed them by. Maybe they were looking for something else."

"Rainbow's a big girl," Applejack said, "She can take care of herself."

"She was taken by the local guard," Discord said as he approached, carrying a collection of brass tubes ending in a half-dozen flaring bells.

"That looks like the conjoined offspring of an orchestra's entire brass section," Glorious Sunrise said.

"Very astute, because that's what it is," Discord said, "Our vedettes picked up a trooper who got too close. The Big Guy persuaded him to talk, and he said they took 'a crazy pegasus' last night. They thought she was faking being crazy, but now they're sure she is."

"How'd they persuade him?" Applejack asked, not looking certain she wanted the answer.

"Have you ever noticed how no matter how bad you are as individual singers, you ponies all sing in perfect harmony?" Discord asked, "Imagine singing, as a group, in discord?"

Even Glorious Sunrise shuddered at that.

"The songs of the paratroopers are really not for pony ears," Discord said, "No matter how cruel and battle hardened they are." He waved and headed off to take his place with the orchestra.

Fluttershy looked at the horizon. The promise of a new day just lightening the distance. "Well, I want to watch, but you stay here, and stay quiet, and everything will be all right." She flew off, but stayed very low to the ground.

The group looked at the army, two lines of troops. Nearly all changelings, but pony units were spaced here and there. As it grew lighter, they saw just how far in both directions the line stretched. Behind them off to the side a ways was the orchestra. The conductor at ease, checking the sun and waiting. The players settling in and watching him intently. Only Discord seemed nervous as he stood before a music stand and clutched his instrument tightly.

Pinkie looked at her friends, not sure what to think. She felt she had to say, or do . . . something, but nothing seemed appropriate. In the distance, Colonel Green Grass mounted the step to look down on the sleeping capital. Behind the lines, the Big Guy had a telescope and several cameras, all on tripods, and all ready to observe and record the events. Dinky and Selene were with him. Pinkie noted Derpy was part of none of the groups. She watched, and waited with a serenity Pinkie wished she could share. Pinkie could almost feel the dice rolling, that a big gamble was occurring, and it would pay off here. Like a surprise party, she thought, But not. Or maybe, it is, for all those poor ponies that Sombra held. Their liberation day. She considered the party that they should throw, but decided to wait. They may just need help throwing the party they already have planned, she realized, Well, I'm here.

She looked again at her friends, who looked at each other, at the army and its preparations, then back as the promise of dawn crept ever closer.

The Big Guy took one look back at the assembly. The troops were a given, they knew the maneuver and could perform it in their sleep. The other musicians were anxious to start, and the conductor looked as cool and collected as the Big Guy was trying to appear. He knew that the conductor had assured him '30 years conducting for Her, then Their Highnesses has taught me how to deal with stage fright.' He still felt sympathy for Discord. The normally braggadocios creature was part of a plan now, and while he could appreciate the chaos it would cause, it required meticulous order to create. The fussy pony had quietly lectured the large creature, and Discord seemed to be holding it together.

He knew he could achieve the same goal with brute force, but the whole point of all this was to break the army, without breaking the captive civilians. "No plan survives contact with reality," he quietly reminded himself and looked to the horizon, "This would be the day Celestia slept in."

He looked through the telescope at the barracks that held Sombra's command staff. Nothing untoward was occurring. "Which should mean, we took them completely by surprise."

But he remembers a line from Battlestar Galactica 'Apparently it was not as big a surprise as we had hoped for.'

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