• Published 2nd Mar 2013
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A Long, Winding Road - GentlemanJ



The marshal's gone, cutting all ties and making clear his intent never to return. Why? What compels the grey eyed soldier to leave? To find the truth, Rarity and the girls start down a long, winding road that will hopefully bring him back. Hopef

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Chapter 12

Chapter 12

The Changeling Nation is vast, but insidious. Disguised as ordinary men, women, and children, the members of the hive dwell amongst every tribe and every people, gathering the positive emotions that serve as food for their queen and brood. To a Changeling, its existence is merely an extension of the whole, its being merely a means of serving the body. But of course, for there to be a whole, there must be a center, and to have a body, there must be a heart.

Deep within the jagged Snowspire Mountains, far beyond the reach of common man and civilization, stood a massive onyx monolith, a conglomeration of needle-like spires and soaring towers that seemed a construct designed to stand in defiance of the sun. Though it seemed more monument than building, this lone structure was in fact the Hive: it was the birthing chamber from which all Changelings spawned, the nexus which direct their lives, and the home of their one and only, the metamorphic Queen Chrysalis.

Surrounded on all sides by wind-swept crags, the Hive was all but unapproachable, a fortress by virtue of its solitude and location. But even these natural barriers, enough to deter all but the hardiest of souls, are not enough for the Changeling. Dispersed around the stony barricades, numerous fortresses and strongholds stand, bristling with soldiers and spell weavers ready to release unholy fury on any who would dare approach. To defend the Queen was paramount, and the fanatical loyalty of the Changeling forces, in conjunction with the impenetrable walls of iron and stone, made the Hive a fortress among fortresses, an impenetrable bastion and unbreachable core of a nation.

Until now.

In the still of time just before down, the misty silence between the mountains was rent asunder by thundering explosions that rang to the heavens. Like steel hammer shattering stone, the gold clad armies of Equestria crashed into the Changeling perimeter, storming a single stronghold with the relentless force of a typhoon focused with the precision of a surgeon’s blade.

The xenomorphs fought back, but every officer knew it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed. With the fortress all but cut off from the rest of the world by dissonance charms hanging heavy through the air, the Changeling commander selected four squads to sneak through the encirclement and contact the other bastions for reinforcements. The chance of capture was high, but certainly with sixteen well-trained shapeshifters, at least one would be able to return with aid.

One did return, but he did so alone.

Brought back before the commander, the lone survivor began his disjointed report, luminescent green eyes wide with panic bordering on dementia. They’d been hunted. It had been slow at first, so subtle that they almost hadn't notice. But by the time they did, a whole squad had already disappeared. One squad decided to break off, hoping to increase their chances in a smaller group. As soon as they’d peeled off and disappeared into the mist between the trees, the remaining two had been met with screams of terror and booming thunder. Then, silence.

They tried to fight. Forming a circle, several Changelings charged their verdant flames as others chanted the incantations to seek and find that which assailed them. But before the spell could fully form, bolts of lightning had struck, striking the mages and searing one of their members with electric agony. Emerald fire flashed out, but no sooner had the burning blasts surged forth when another bolt of lightning struck again, only this time from the completely opposite direction.

They tried to run, changing shape between every tree, hoping to throw off their unknown assailants with their shifting forms. But they were hunted. One by one, they dropped, some with screams of agony as they were struck by lightning from above. They tried to disperse, to create distractions by spreading attention to many targets instead of one. But as soon as one disappear into the mist, the horrible cries and the booming thunder roared into silence.

As the numbers had dwindled, the terror increased. Panic set in and soon Changelings were sending blasts of fire in every direction, desperately seeking to find what it was that attacked them. But it was as useless as trying to attack the mist itself. Whatever it was that hunted them was a ghost, a being without form or shape, something that couldn’t be hurt and couldn’t be stopped.

And thus the Changeling stronghold fell.

*****

Through the gloomy halls of the palace, a single soldier drone ran, green ichor clouding his vision as he threw open the doors to the cavernous palace center. Running half way forward, the drone fell to his knees before the soft, verdant glow of the massive crystalline throne that sat on the high dias overlooking the expansive space.

“What news?” a voice called out. Cold and regal, a pair of emerald eyes considered the prostrate creature from beyond the shroud of darkness.

“Your Majesty,” he gasped, gulping down air as he forced out his report. “The Solids approach. They breach the palace walls even as we speak. Our soldiers do everything they can to repel them, but it is only a matter of time before they are upon you.”

The voice said nothing as the viridian eyes continued watching, waiting.

“Your Majesty, you must flee at once,” the drone called out. “The Seventh Guard has secured the lower tunnels for your escape. If you leave now, you can –” the rest of the statement was cut off by laughter, as rich and sonorous and it was full of contemptible mirth.

“Flee? Flee from my own castle?” the voice called out with a smile full of fang-sharp teeth. “I think not.”

“But your majesty–”

“Enough. I will not be driven like some helpless cur from my own palace. And besides,” she added at the sound of rushing wind, “I believe we have guests.”

The massive doors to the throne room burst open and unleashed a tempest into the cavernous hall. There, standing in the eye of the storm, azure hair unruffled by the gale that raged around, strode in Guard Captain Shining Armor.

“Insolence!” the drone snarled as he charged, his arms morphed into jaggedly hooked scythes. “You will pay for–”

A flash of silver, a tiny spray of green blood, and the Changeling fell to the ground as the young swordsman sheathed his blade. The winds died down and Shining Armor stopped, looking upwards into the gloom where the viridian eyes peered out from their black silhouette.

“Well well well, what an unexpected surprise,” the voice purred, pleasant with just the faintest hint of mocking. “I didn’t expect a visit from my old lover so soon. What, regretting the fact we never got to the honeymoon?”

“Hardly,” the captain replied with tones as dry as old parchment. “And technically, I don’t think you can call me that, on account of you were brainwashing me while disguised as my fiancé. Not exactly the basis for a solid relationship, wouldn’t you say?”

“Details, details,” the queen laughed, the sound echoing through the darkened chamber. “It hardly changes the fact that you’re here before me now, does it?”

“Strictly business,” the crimson clad captain replied. “By authority of Princess Celestia, I am placing you under arrest for violation of the Equestrian-Changeling Armistice. You will be brought back to Canterlot, where you will be tried for your crimes.”

“Interesting,” the voice replied, the flash of white teeth revealing the sneer that came with it. “And what if I choose not to come with you?”

“As much as I hate to use terrible clichés,” Shining Armor smiled, “we can obviously do it the easy way or the hard way. Your choice.”

“In that case,” shes replied with uplifted hand, “I choose hard.”

At the snap of her fingers, two monstrous ogres leaped out from the shadows and lunged for the singular soldier, faster than a charging bull and with more than enough force to reduce their target to unrecognizable stains on the stone floor. The young captain didn’t even move a muscle.

Flashing light, roaring thunder, and the pair of ogres fell to the ground in spasming heaps, slowly reverting back to their original Changeling shapes. From high upon the dais, the xenomorph queen’s eyes widen ever so slowly in surprise.

“Not bad,” Shining Armor intoned as he looked down at the fallen drones. “Always thought you lot could only morph into creatures of the same size. Looks like you’ve been holding back a few tricks, haven’t you, Chrysalis?”

“I should say the same to you,” came her reply, as cool and unruffled as a swan gliding across a lake. “Spells of that destructive force with no gestures or incantation. As your one-time fiancé, I’m rather hurt you never shared that talent with me before.”

“How inconsiderate of me,” Shining Armor answered in tones as bland as unflavored gruel. “Except, I’m not the one who did that.”

“Oh?” An eyebrow arched in curiosity. “And pray tell, who did?”

Raising fist into the air, the crimson garbed officer flashed a series of quick hand signs and from nowhere, seeming to coalesce from the shadows themselves, came a lone soldier with hard, grey eyes and a very big gun.

“So, you brought company,” Chrysalis intoned, casting an appraising eye over the new arrival. He certainly didn’t look like much, what with his rifle slung over one shoulder and body slouched under his long brown coat. “What’s the matter, didn’t trust yourself to be alone with me?”

“A sentiment you’ve already shown to be well-placed,” Shining Armor replied. “Don’t worry, he’s just here to make sure you don’t try anything funny. Well, anything funnier than you’ve already tried, I guess.”

“Oh, Shining Armor,” the Changeling queen chuckled. “You mean to tell me that you came into the heart of my palace with only a single companion?”

“Don’t need any more,” the gunman said, his gravelly voice rumbling like his shots had in the vast hall. “I’m more than enough to keep you in check.”

“Is that so,” Chrysalis replied with a slow smile. “And who said I was alone?”

The xenomorph raised her hand once more–

“Wouldn’t bother,” the grey-eyed soldier intoned, tugging his hat down low. “Nobody’s gonna answer.”

“Really,” Chrysalis smirked, hand still poised in midair. “You think I wouldn’t be prepared for a situation like this?”

“Four bowmen, two barrier mages, two additional pyromancers, plus a squad of other assorted soldiers waiting in reserve,” the gunman drawled with all the interest of reciting a grocery list, “stationed at the four corners of this room, behind your throne, and in various alcoves. They're gone now. Nobody’s coming.”

“Except for one mistake, the queen replied with a triumphant grin. “There were three pyromancers; you missed one.”

“No. I didn't.”

For a moment, Chrysalis froze, somewhat taken aback by the response. Normally, such an answer would ring of petulance or obstinance, but this one… he spoke as if it were simply disinterested fact. To call her bluff out with such confidence and such indifference… who was this man?

“It seems you keep better company than I thought,” the xenomorph replied as she slowly lowered her arm back to the side of her throne. “There’s more to this mutt than meets the eye.”

“Yeah, he’s got a nasty growl, alright,” Shining Armor smirked. “And his bite is ten times worse.”

“I see,” Chrysalis intoned dryly. “I suppose I am outmatched then. I concede defeat.”

“So you’ll come along quietly?” the guard captain inquired, hopeful, but hand never straying from the saber at his side.

“Not just yet,” the queen replied, her voice all regal aplomb and calm collection. “I may concede to superior force, but I still admit to nothing. Tell me, what crimes have I committed?”

“You’re really gonna act like you don’t know?” Shining Armor asked with the utmost of incredulity. At Chrysalis’s silence, he sighed and continued. “Approximately two weeks ago, on the eve of the Grand Galloping Gala, several Changelings infiltrated the palace and made an attempt on the Princess’s life.”

“And how would doing that benefit me?” Chrysalis yawned. “I seek to gain her power, and to end her life would mean I could not feed.”

“But you did, or at least tried to,” the guard captain responded. “The Changelings used a quarrel loaded with Hearts Desire to induce a comatose dream state, where the curses on it would siphon the ensuing energy right back to you.”

“Hmm, that would explain the odd burst of energy from a few weeks ago,” the xenomorph intoned, “but it was certainly nowhere near the level of Celestia’s power.”

“That’s because we stopped you. Or at least, he did,” Shining Armor replied, pointing a thumb at his silent companion.

“Ah, so this pup intercepted the bolt and took the dear Princess’s place, did he?” Chrysalis chuckled. “Not many get a chance to live their wildest dreams like this one has, so it seems that he should be thanking–”

A needle-thin lance of lightning shot by the queen's face, scoring her cheek and shattering one of the crystal growths on the back of her throne.

“That was a warning,” the soldier replied, his voice hard enough to cleave through iron and cold enough to freeze the sun. “There won’t be another.”

“… I’ll keep that in mind,” Chrysalis nodded with tones that almost seemed bored. But even her highness’s regal demeanor couldn’t prevent the drop of sweat from trickling down her face to sting the now bleeding cut.

She hadn’t even seen him move.

Shining Armor gently placed a hand on his companion’s shoulder to signal a lowering of the gun. Though from all outward appearances he still seemed relaxed, the guardsman could feel the tension in his palm: Graves was like a coiled spring, every steely fiber of his being taut and ready to lash out with pure destructive force at a moment’s notice, as he’d already so aptly displayed. A deceptively calm demeanor for a man so ready to do violence.

“Look, Chrysalis,” the captain said once he was reasonably assured Graves would not fire again. “If you’re going to play dumb like this, there’s not going to be much in the way of leniency for you.”

“I’m not playing dumb!” the xenomorph snapped from her throne, her royal equilibrium finally cracking. “I did not order any such attack on your precious Celestia!”

“So what, you’re saying a bunch of Changelings just decided to launch a highly risky operation that could and very well did incite a full-scale war simply on a whim?” Shining Armor challenged. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“You seem to think I have complete control over my subjects,” Chrysalis replied, her voice now back to its normal, haughty composure.

“You’re saying you don’t?”

“While I do have a high degree of… influence,” the queen explained, “my minions do have the capacity for autonomous thought.”

“Which are always colored by your interests,” the guard captain countered.

“Indeed,” the xenomorph conceded. “And in such trying times, some of the more radical elements may be tempted to act out for my good in less than predictable ways.”

The young officer’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“Trying times? What are you talking about?”

After a moment of consideration, Queen Chrysalis finally stood up from her throne and descended the dais stairs to meet the two Equestrians face to face. Stepping into the light, the Changeling sovereign revealed herself, emerald eyes flashing beneath her silken hair as she stood with arms crossed in elegant defiance.

Shining Armor blinked.

“You’ve… er… lost some weight,” he stated dumbly. “Been working out?” Chrysalis replied with a throaty laugh.

“Ever the eloquent one, as always.”

Though still strikingly beautiful in a cool, imperious fashion, even the queen’s royal demeanor couldn’t hide the frailness of her body. Her arms were thin, her cheeks sunken, and though her eyes still shone with almost arrogant confidence, there was no hiding the darkened circles that bespoke of exhaustion just beneath.

“What happened?” Shining Armor asked, his stoic military face now softening to show signs of concern.

“Things have not been as cheery as one might think,” Chrysalis smiled, the expression losing some of its bite in light of her almost infirmed look.

“Have you not been able to eat?” the guard captain inquired. “I thought that your drones were still gathering sufficient energy to sustain your subjects.”

“They were,” the queen nodded. “But this last year has been different. We harvest and feed as we always have, but… it is not enough. We waste away.”

“Why? Are you all sick?” Shining Armor asked, professionalism thrown aside in light of genuine worry. “Is there some sort of plague or disease spreading among the Changelings?”

“A plague? Perhaps,” Chrysalis chuckled. “But not just among the Changelings. We are merely the first to suffer its effects.”

A sudden spark of dreaded realization lit up the officer’s azure eyes.

“Is it the west?” he asked, though with more statement than question. The queen confirmed his suspicions with a nod.

“The darkness spreads and grows stronger. My powers sustain us as best it can, but even I will not last forever. It would seem that some of my subjects grew concerned and acted rashly in an attempt to aid me. Foolish, and in violation of our treaty as you say, but out of concern for me above all else. Please keep that in mind.”

Shining Armor fell silent, his mind working furiously as he considered the revelation before him.

“… I’m still going to have to insist that you come with me,” he finally said, the corners of his mouth turned down in distaste as he pronounced it. “Rest assured, we’ll consider everything you said as we conduct a thorough investigation. If what you say is true, then in light of the circumstances…” he paused and shrugged. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do what I can to make sure you’re treated as fairly as possible.”

“Such a sweetheart,” Chrysalis laughed as she reached out to pat him on the cheek. “Almost makes me wish I’d stayed on as Cadance.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said as he politely – but firmly – removed her hand. “We still need to confirm your story, so remember that any cooperation you provide will go a long ways in helping your case.”

“Anything for you, dear,” the queen smirked with obvious sarcasm. “All you have to do is ask.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Shining Armor dryly replied. “So anyways, Graves, I think we’re all done here, so why don’t…” Upon turning around, the guard captain realized that the grey-eyed marshal had already vanished.

“Impressive,” Chrysalis nodded in approval. “One would think he were more specter than man.”

“Yeah,” the young man agreed with a sad grin. “Makes you think that, doesn't it?”

*****

Back at base camp, Graves silently made his way through the hustle and bustle of military activity towards his tent. Not that he had to try particularly hard, mind you. There were enough veterans around who recognized the marshal to help clear a path out of respect for his reputation. For the others, one look at his grim, steely-eyed face and the way he strode on, silent as a shadow and implacable as nightfall, was enough to convince them to steer well clear.

Back inside his tent, Graves tossed off his hat and coat and went to rinse himself off in the basin of clean, cold water. He’d only been out in the wild for a week, but he already felt grimy and unclean: it seems like his time in Ponyville had softened him up more than he’d-

No. He wasn’t going to think about that anymore.

Toweling himself off, Graves took a seat at the small desk and examined the stack of documents that awaited his attention. Now that he’d successfully played his part in the Changeling incident, he had to find his next assignment. The various notices stacked before him represented not only marshal specific missions, but also aid requests made by various divisions and branches of the armed forces scattered across the world.

“Um… sir?” a voice called from behind. Turning around, Graves, caught sight of a young lad, probably some cadet brought out to help with odd jobs and chores to give him a taste of the battlefield.

“What is it?” he asked, almost sighing in exasperation as the cadet visibly jumped upon being addressed. Granted, it wasn’t exactly fair, considering he couldn’t what he looked like himself; the thunderhead of his expression could have frightened a scylla.

“It’s um… a guest sir,” the lad stammered, quailing under the pressure of those gunmetal grey eyes. “You have a visitor.”

“Not interested,” the marshal replied as he turned back to the documents. “Now go away, I’m busy.”

“But… sir…” the cadet replied. However, one backwards look from those piercing eyes was enough to send him scampering on his way.

Sighing to himself, Graves returned his attentions to the documents. He needed a change of pace. A new location, something that would get him out of Equestria and give him a chance to clear his mind. The reports of mummy activity in Saddle Arabia sounded promising: a good tussle with upper tier undead and their ancient curses might be interesting. Or perhaps mediating a civil war between some of the minotaur tribes would be better. Of course, there was always...

The gentle rustling of the tent fabric served to announce the arrival of his unwanted visitor.

“I’m busy,” Graves grunted, not even bothering to turn around. Bucking cadets. Couldn’t even follow a simple order. Honestly, what were they teaching in schools these days?

“I’m sure you can make some time,” the musical voice of a young lady called out. “After all, I’ve come an awfully long way to visit.”

The marshal froze, every muscle, every sinew, every nerve completely seized up in uncontrollable surprise. It seems liked he’d finally gone off the deep end and started hallucinating about things that weren’t even there.

But upon taking a deep breath to calm himself, that sweet, intoxicating, and completely unforgettable smell of lavender filled his nose.

No, he wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t hallucinating.

She was really here.

**********