“Equestria to Whirring Cogs! Come in, Cogs!” a loud voice shouted practically in his ear.
The grey pegasus with a blue-green mohawk-style mane and tail was startled by the familiar voice, and he banged his head on the hatch of the machine that had so totally occupied his attention. “Ow! Geez, Blue Arc, don't sneak up on me like that!” Cogs complained as he rubbed his sore head.
“Sneak?” the incredulous white pegasus with a bright blue mane and a cutie mark of an electric arc between two spheres asked with a roll of his eyes. “I've been trying to get your attention for a minute already! Once you get engrossed in a mechanical job, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Anyone would think that you don’t want to quit work for the day.”
“It's quitting time?” Cogs asked, looking around at the clock.
“It was quitting time a quarter hour ago, and you were supposed to be joining me for our usual Friday evening get-together.”
“Oops,” Cogs said with a sheepish grin. “Did it again, didn't I?”
Blue Arc laughed. “Frankly I'd think there was something wrong with you if you didn't. Now if you put that much effort into finding yourself a pretty mare, you’d have a whole herd by now.”
“And then I'd have several mares nagging me for being home late, instead of just my best friend,” Cogs retorted.
“You have a point,” Blue Arc admitted. “For now though, you’re single, the weekend is upon us, and it’s time to have some fun!”
“You got it! Give me a few minutes to pack up, and I'll be with you.”
Cogs secured the hatch on his repair job and hung an ‘Out Of Order’ sign on the catch. It wasn’t a critical job and it could wait until Monday to finish. He then carefully packed his precious tool kit. He took great pride in his quality tools, some of which were very specialized for certain jobs. Between them and his talent for repairing machinery, he had earned an excellent reputation for his work. Not that he worried too much about the reputation – he just enjoyed his work a lot, even if it did make him forget about little things like keeping track of time. But even that was not enough to distract him from what was really important to him right now – his friend and their regular night out together.
Cogs put his tools away in his locker, and then took off his coveralls and threw them in with the tools. He quickly washed up and gave his signature mane a brush to tidy it up. “Ready!” he declared with a grin.
“About time! Come on, let's go.”
The pair spread their wings and took off. They headed through the factory complex to one of the exit portals. Because Cogs was so tardy, at least they did not have to contend with a large crowd of pegasi all heading home at the end of their shift. They exited the weather factory where they had both been working for years – Cogs as a mechanic, and Arc as an lightning wrangler. They had started there at the same time, supporting each others as newbies, and building a great friendship from that point.
Cogs had one other reason to be grateful for Blue Arc’s friendship though that the other did not – the stallion had provided Cogs with emotional sustenance while he had been establishing himself in Cloudsdale. After all, a changeling could not survive on food alone. Now they were as close as brothers, although his true nature was the one thing that Cogs had never shared with Arc. By now however, Cogs felt that information was irrelevant to their relationship, even if it did help him achieve his true purpose for his presence in the cloud city.
“So where should we go tonight?” Blue Arc asked.
“Where else? Blue Haven is always a good choice.”
“We went there the last three Fridays.”
“So? We go there often because it has everything we like – great coffee, great live music, great company. What more could you want?” Cogs asked.
“A bit of variety, perhaps?”
“Ha! You do the same thing wherever we go. You end up going home with a pretty mare or two and leave me to fend for myself. If you want to do something different, stay for the evening.”
“Why ever would I want to do that? You're the one who should be going home with a mare of your own instead.”
“I don't need a mare complicating my life, thank you very much. I don’t know how you get away with leading on so many of them.”
“Who's leading them on? We have similar desires that are satisfied to our mutual pleasure. No one goes home unhappy.”
“Well, I don't have your talent for that, so I'm going to leave that well alone.” Not that he had ever intended to have any sort of relationship other than a platonic friendship. There was too much of a risk of being unmasked, and besides he simply could not be bothered. He did not have to have a relationship with a mare to get what he needed.
“Your loss,” Blue Arc said with a shrug.
They soon came to the Blue Haven café, a name that understated its true size and scope. It had several sections – a coffee lounge, a bar, a restaurant, and a small stage for the live music acts that played there Friday to Sunday. Neither of them were much interested in alcohol, so as always they started in the coffee lounge where they looked around and found the inevitable group of mares having a night out together. They stepped up to the group where Cogs started with his usual tactic for getting some company.
“Hello, ladies! Could I interest any or all of you in free coffee and cake?”
“What's the catch?” asked one suspicious pink mare with a red and yellow mane.
“Only that you share an evening of conversation with me and my friend here. Anything else is up to you,” Cogs reassured them.
“What do you think, girls? Should we take a chance?”
A purple mare with a white mane and starry cutie mark replied, “It's okay – they’re legit. I’ve been with them before.”
“Hi, Stargleam,” Cogs said with a grin. “You're becoming almost as much a regular as we are.”
“Yeah, Cogs, although this time the girls brought me along.”
“Hey! It's not as if we had to drag you here,” objected the pink mare with a knowing smirk.
“True enough; so are we going to take up their offer?”
“If you say they’re okay, then I’m all for free food and drink.”
There was a chorus of agreement from the other three mares, and the two stallions joined the group. Cogs attracted the attention of a waiter, and everyone placed their orders. Then the conversation began, and Cogs relaxed and took pleasure in the evening. However, while he enjoyed the chat, that was not the true source of his interest. While the others consumed their drinks and treats, he was consuming an entirely different sustenance. The love of friendship was tasty, and gave him a good steady flow of the desired emotion, but it was not the only nor best source. Blue Haven was a popular venue for young couples, and all around Cogs they were exuding their love for each other. He was getting quite a buzz from all the high-grade love that he was soaking up unbeknown to all the pegasi in the room. Yes, there was a very good reason why he kept returning here on Fridays, even if he could never explain that to Blue Arc.
As usually happened on these evening, the group suffered attrition as one mare after the other had to leave. They were down to two when Blue Arc said his goodbyes also and left in the company of the pink mare. That left only Stargleam and Cogs, and he turned to her with a more serious look than he’d had all evening.
“So tell me, Stargleam, why are you really here tonight? That makes it three Fridays in a row that you’ve turned up here without your coltfriend. What's his excuse this time?”
“His best friend’s birthday, and tomorrow it's going to be a stag party,” she confessed.
Cogs sighed as he tasted her unhappiness. “Are you sure that he's the stallion for you? It seems to me that he's more interested in his own wants and needs rather than yours.”
“I'm beginning to wonder. He was so attentive when we first started dating. Now he's just taking me for granted.”
“I'm hardly the one to talk about relationships, but it seems to me that if he doesn't make you happy, then you shouldn't be trying to hold on to it.”
Stargleam slumped in her seat and nodded. “Yeah, I just needed someone to tell me that to my face. I'll tell him it's over tomorrow, or more likely the next day if he stays true to his current form.” She examined the empty coffee mug in front of her. “I could do with something a bit stronger than coffee right now, I think.”
“I'll buy you one if you promise that it'll be your only one,” Cogs offered. “Drowning your sorrows in alcohol isn’t the way to go either.”
Stargleam snorted in a mixture of amusement and resignation. “Deal. You're about my age, Cogs – how did you get so much wiser than me?”
“Don't ascribe too much wisdom to me, Starry. I do these coffee groups almost every Friday, and I have learned a thing or two. Sometimes I had to do it the hard way.”
“You make it sound so easy though. You’re always comfortable with the mares, and yet you never go home with one that I have ever seen.” Stargleam looked at him coyly. “Would you like to do so tonight?”
‘Oops! This is getting a bit too intimate for comfort,’ Cogs thought. “Don't get me wrong, Stargleam, but that's not my thing. I'm not looking to get into any sort of relationship. I'd recommend my friend, Blue Arc, if a one night stand is all you want. He always treats mares well, but he's not interested in being tied down as yet. If you're determined to find a stallion interested in a long-term relationship, you would find that I'm not the right kind of pony, but I'm sure that there's one out there for you.”
“I can't say I'm not disappointed, but I'm not surprised either. I'd like that drink now, please.”
Cogs flagged the waiter and ordered Stargleam’s drink, and one for himself. They continued to chat while sipping the drinks, neither of them in a hurry to bring the evening to a close. Eventually though, Stargleam decided that it was time to go home. She got up from her seat and leaned over and gave Cogs a kiss on the cheek.
“Thanks for being a friend. Goodnight, Cogs.”
Cogs watched her leave with mixed feelings. A mare like her could provide him with a lot of love sustenance, but it would also complicate his life greatly. Sometimes he wondered if it might be worth the hassle though. He shrugged and looked about the room. It was getting close to closing time, and the number of pegasi left were few. Besides, he felt quite full with a night’s worth of love that he had imbibed. It was time for him to go home also.
The fresh evening air felt pleasant as it sifted through his feathers while he winged his way to the small apartment that he called home. Filled to capacity with love energy, he always felt exceptionally good coming home from these evenings. It was a pity that he could not retain it all for himself, but such was the lot of changeling emotion harvesters. Nevertheless he could not complain because it gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion in life, as well as always having a good meal of love whenever he wanted. Mostly it was the mechanical stuff though, he had to admit to himself.
One of the reasons that Cogs never invited mares home for anything intimate was set up in his bedroom. The window to that room was always completely covered in heavy drapes as well as a blind so that nobody could ever witness what happened in that room. With a flare of magical green fire, Cogs resumed his natural shape of a changeling named Zevan. There was little to distinguish him from other members of his hive, possessing the same black carapace with the blue wing casing, crest, and tail as the others. Only the arrangement of the voids in his legs and ears were unique and recognizable to his fellow changelings. It was his mechanical aptitude that had set him truly apart and gained him this job as an emotion harvester, but to complete that job he needed the receptacles that so prominently took up one corner of his room.
They were ordinary-looking barrels, deliberately as common as could be found. It was the contents that made them extraordinary. Removing the lid of one revealed it to be filled with a green gel-like substance. Zevan stared at it for a long moment, taking this last opportunity to enjoy the feeling of repletion before his ebony horn started to glow with a greenish light. The stored-up emotion – mostly high-grade love, but a smattering of other emotions to give it spice – was transferred into the storage medium. Zevan kept up the flow until he reached his basic level, and then he replaced the lid. Without the extra energy that a full load of love had been giving him, Zevan felt a great wave of lethargy come over him. He stumbled over to his bed and practically threw himself on the sheets.
As he slid gently into slumber, Zevan thought once more about Stargleam and her offer of companionship. He wondered how she would feel if she could see him now.
* * *
Saturday mornings always meant a good long sleep-in for him, revitalizing him in body and spirit. The first thing that Zevan did was to resume his pegasus form. He rarely changed out of his Cogs persona, but charging up the emorphic gel had left him feeling too drained to change back last night. He actually preferred this form now after wearing it for so long and enjoying the company of ponies. He had chosen to be a pegasus because he also enjoyed flying a lot more than the average changeling, and today was the day he got to indulge that pleasure. After grooming his fur and brushing his mane into its familiar mohawk, he made himself a quick breakfast before heading out. He always made a point of firmly securing his door first – it would be a bit hard to explain the barrels of gel if he had any unwanted visitors. Then he took off up into the sky, striving for altitude before heading off in some random direction.
Cogs lived for just a few things – his job, his nights out with friends, and flying. Of the three, only flying was completely unstructured and commitment free, and he flew where he wanted, however he wanted, for as long as he wanted. Sometimes he was joined by fellow pegasi also reveling in the joy of flight, giving them both the opportunity to play or show off. While he was flying, nothing else in the world mattered. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and on this day, he had an appointment to keep.
Cogs alighted next to the door of his apartment about mid afternoon. He only had to wait about twenty minutes before the expected visitors arrived. A pair of pegasi pulled up at his door with a sky-cart laden with barrels like those in his bedroom. One of them came up to his door and knocked while the other started unloading a barrel. Cogs waved the pegasus inside and led her to his bedroom. He indicated the barrel that he had filled the previous evening, and the changeling mare then lifted the lid to inspect the contents.
“I see that you barely made minimum quota once again,” she said.
Cogs shrugged. “As long as I make at least the minimum, I've done my duty.”
“That's a poor attitude for a hive emotion harvester. That quota is the minimum needed to justify your placement here, not a goal. You should be able to produce far more than that, like other emotion harvesters do. Have you formed a relationship with a mare yet? That will always boost your output.”
“No, I haven't, and like I said the last time that you suggested it, I'm not interested in any relationship.”
“Well, I've got bad news for you, smart-ass – your quota has just been raised thirty percent. You might want to reconsider your objections.”
“What?! You can't do that!”
“As your supervisor, yes I can. However, this isn't just from me. Every harvester’s quota has been increased by order of Queen Chrysalis.”
“But… but why?”
The supervisor frowned. “It is not your place to question the queen’s orders. You will fulfill the new quota or be replaced by someone who can. Got it?”
Cogs nodded with a sullen look on his face.
“Good. Now let's get this barrel loaded.”
Barrels were exchanged, and the two fake pegasi departed. Cogs gloomily watched them fly off until a voice from his left spoke up.
“I see you've gotten another shipment of pickled herring. You sure must love them fish!”
Cogs plastered a smile on his muzzle and turned to his neighbor. “Can't get enough of them, Mrs. Dewdrop. I'm thinking of placing an even bigger order next time.”
“Never seen a pegasus who loved their fish as much as you do, Mr. Cogs.”
Cogs sighed. ‘Maybe you will if I can’t meet the new quota,’ he lamented to himself.
* * *
Cogs’ nice tidy life was now in shambles. He’d had everything ticking over nicely with his regular job at the weather factory, his carefully planned social outings to gather love energy for his covert job, and time off to enjoy flying. Something was going to have to give, otherwise the new quota was not going to be met. That meant cutting down on flying and stepping up the socializing. He still could not get enthused about the prospect of starting a relationship with a mare, even though that would easily make up the bulk of the difference. He believed that Stargleam would probably jump at the chance of a stable relationship if he asked, but he could not do that to the poor mare. She deserved better than someone who mostly needed her for the love that he could harvest. You did not do something like that to a friend!
In the end, Cogs had to cut out most of his recreational flying and spend more time in clubs and bars. His normal tactic of buying food and drink for a group of mares was getting very expensive though; he still had to eat and pay the bills. He realized that he would have to reconsider his approach if this quota remained in place, and he mostly did so by relying on his gift for conversation. It was not easy, but nevertheless by the time the next collection came due, he had acquired the requisite amount. Not that it seemed to please the supervisor anyway.
“Barely made the new quota, I see,” she said.
“Oh, come on!” Cogs protested. “Thirty percent more than my past shipments isn't good enough for you?”
“Not when the queen demands every emotion harvester’s best effort, it isn’t.”
“What could the hive need that much more for? We have fed love to the whole hive efficiently at the same level for longer than I've been alive. Why the sudden change?”
“The queen has her reasons, and you might just find them out soon. All you harvesters have been ordered back to the hive for a briefing.”
That took Cogs by surprise. Normally a visit once a year was all that was expected, and his last had been only four months ago. Something definitely was very odd. “I'll have to arrange a couple of days off from the weather factory.”
“Whatever. The briefing is in three days. Be there or else.”
The supervisor did not bother waiting for a response from Cogs. He did not know what to say anyway. His queen had ordered him back to the hive and he would obey. It was unthinkable to do anything else.
* * *
Cogs carefully packed his tools into his sky-sled. He did not have a clue why Chrysalis wanted him back at the hive, but if she wanted to take advantage of his mechanical skills, he was not going to be caught unprepared. Some food and a jar of charged emorphic gel completed his preparations. He did not expect this trip to require anything more than that.
His journey started at first light – he had a long way to fly, and if he did not want to overdo things, he would need to pace himself. His destination lay roughly northwest of Cloudsdale, and he knew the route well. He waved to the occasional pegasus weather team that he passed along the way, but they grew fewer and fewer until he reached virtually untouched territory. He stopped only once to eat, drink, and recharge his energy with some of the emorphic gel, and then continued for a couple more hours before spotting a trading post located far from civilization. He landed beside the building, unloaded his tools, and headed inside.
The trading post was typical of its kind, supplying frontier ponies with goods and equipment not available anywhere else for many miles. The proprietor was a sturdy earth pony, brown of fur, black of mane, and sour of demeanor. He recognized Cogs and gave him a curt nod towards the back store room.
“About time you got here. Job's out the back.”
“I'll get on it right away,” Cogs promised.
Cogs entered the store room and closed the door behind him. The exchange of words had been solely for the benefit of the customer who had been perusing some of the goods. What awaited him though was not a repair job, but a hidden entrance. Firstly however, Cogs had to shed his pegasus form. With the usual flare of green magic, it was Zevan the changeling who stepped up to a hidden switch that caused one set of shelves to swing away from the wall, revealing a tunnel that dived into the side of the hill, leading down to the hive deep below. It also revealed the two guards stationed just inside the door. Recognizing that he was not only a changeling, but also one belonging to their hive, he was allowed to pass, and the concealed door swung closed behind him.
The passageway was broad, allowing for a large number of changelings to pass through at the same time if necessary. However, it was just him, and his hoofsteps echoed along the walls as he made his way down. The tunnel eventually opened up into a series of chambers, bringing with them the noise of hundreds of changelings going about their lives, completely unbeknown to the ponies who lived above. It was a familiar place to Zevan, of course, but he had no particular emotional attachment to it. His loyalty might still lay with the hive’s queen, but his life was now among the clouds, and the sooner that he could return to them, the better.
Zevan made his way to the chamber where the emotion harvester controller’s office was located. He was not too surprised to recognize a couple of other harvesters there already.
“Quertz, Karazen, have you any clue what's going on?” Zevan asked.
Both shook their heads, and Karazen replied. “We are as much in the dark as you, Zevan. The controller says that he'll only let us know when we're all here.”
“If I'm only the third to arrive, that's going to be a long wait.”
“There are a few others,” Quertz said. “They went to get something to eat and said that they'll be back before the appointed time. You have the same choice – take a break or wait here with us.”
Zevan chose to stay and talk. It was not often that he had a chance to have a real conversation with fellow changelings. His grumpy supervisor was hardly worth the effort. They exchanged tales of their pony lives, and speculated on the nature of the recent developments and how they might affect those lives, but in the end they knew that they would have to wait to get the answers they wanted. Meanwhile other harvesters started arriving, first in a trickle, then in a rush as the appointed time grew near. The chamber was very crowded by that time; normally it did not have to accommodate all the harvesters simultaneously. The last harvester arrived with just ten minutes to spare, and it was evident that the drone had been rushing to get there in time. A sympathetic co-worker handed the drone a drink to help it recover in time for the briefing.
To the surprise of everyone in the chamber, it was not the controller who stepped up to give the harvesters their briefing, but the queen herself. The buzz of conversation that had been going on until then, rapidly dropped to zero as the changelings prostrated themselves before Queen Chrysalis.
“Arise my faithful children,” Chrysalis said imperiously. “I bring great news and a new direction for the glory of our hive. You have recently been given larger quotas to fulfill, and naturally you have wondered why. This is just one part of our preparations for our glorious plan to wrest control of the surface world from the ponies. Soon we will go to war with them, and it is your task to supply our soldiers with the extra love energy that they will require to build up their strength for the coming battle.”
There were gasps of shock and dismay among the emotion harvesters. Some simply gaped in horror at their queen’s words.
Chrysalis continued, oblivious to her subjects’ dismay. “Beginning immediately, the quota is now raised to fifty percent above standard. Additionally, all harvesters will cooperate with my intelligence agents to provide details of defenses of their designated territories. While the attack will commence in Canterlot, from there we will spread out to each town and city in turn, at which time you will report to the area commander to forcefully extract emotional energy from prisoners of war. The emotion harvester controller will give you the details of your particular responsibilities.”
Zevan was horrified at the thought of ripping out the emotions of defenseless ponies. Harvesting ambient emotional energy did no one any harm, but the unwilling surrender of emotions could do untold damage to the psyche. Before he could stop himself, Zevan blurted out, “My Queen, this is wrong!”
Chrysalis’ expression hardened, and she glared in the direction of Zevan. “Who dares challenge my orders?”
With many of the harvesters looking directly at him, it was impossible to just shut up and pretend that he had said nothing, so Zevan decided to commit himself wholly. “Your majesty! Why must we do this to ponies who have never done our kind any harm in all our history? We need them, and we have co-existed with them peacefully to our mutual benefit. Revealing ourselves, stealing what is not ours, and harming ponies can only lead to disaster.”
Contempt laced Chrysalis’ voice when she replied. “We get by with what they have to spare, forever at their mercy even if they do not know it. They hold power in the land above by virtue of that fact, not because it rightfully belongs to them. Well, no more will I let that stand. I have in place a plan to wrest power from the high and mighty alicorns, and we will claim our rightful place on the throne. We will take from the ponies what we want rather than what they carelessly discard, and it is your duty and honor to provide our army with the means of accomplishing that.”
Zevan found himself trembling from his inner conflict. It was wrong to attack the ponies, but his loyalty to his queen told him that he must. Slowly, painfully, he replied. “Your majesty, I regret that in all good conscience… I cannot agree with your plans.”
“Then you are of little use to me,” Chrysalis said coldly. “Guards, take this treasonous drone to the barracks, strip him of all his possessions, and train him to fight. He will be of some minor use to the hive, whether he approves or not.”
“Your majesty, please!” another harvester spoke up. “Zevan has merely voiced what we are all thinking. Surely you can see that we are not the right kind of your subjects to do this job? We were chosen partly because we can empathize well with ponies. Attacking them is abhorrent to us.”
“Yes, we are gatherers, not hunters,” another agreed.
Chrysalis was furious. “So much disloyal talk! Very well, you two may join Zevan. Anyone else wishing to question my commands may join them. For the rest of you, your tasks begin immediately. Dismissed!” She then stalked out of the chamber, and her guards stepped forward to seize Zevan and the other two objectors.
Zevan was numb with shock, and allowed himself to be led away without resistance. His queen had seemingly gone insane, and now his life was in ruins. Why couldn’t he have just kept his mouth shut?
* * *
The Captain of the Guard was not interested in Zevan’s mechanical skills, and his precious tools were confiscated. All it seemed that he was good for now was as the lowest and most disposable of soldier. Basically he was now arrow-fodder. Nevertheless he and the other conscientious objectors were trained to the best of their ability. Over the following weeks, more disaffected drones joined their ranks as the queen’s demands took their toll on their principles. Zevan commiserated with his fellows, but none could see a way out of their fate. A mixture of rumors and facts percolated down to their level, and they learned how Chrysalis had stolen the identity of the youngest alicorn, Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, and was building up her power with love drained from the princess’ fiancé. They learned more as the date of the takeover approached, and were acquainted with the identities of some specific targets. Some drones were assigned to undercover sabotage, and Zevan hoped that he might get this duty instead, only to find out that the queen had specifically ordered that he and his fellow objectors were to be put on the front line of attack. He found himself hoping that Chrysalis’ mad plans would work out, because otherwise he probably had little chance of surviving the battle.
On the night preceding the planned wedding of Princess Cadenza and Shining Armor, the hive’s army flooded out under the cover of darkness and winged its way towards Canterlot, charged up as much as possible on a feast of emorphic gel. Zevan’s troop was in the vanguard, ordered to attack any unfortunate pegasus that they might encounter in the dead of night. To his relief, no insomniac ponies were seen during the entire journey, and the changeling army rendezvoused in the woods around Mount Canterhorn without incident. It had been risky for so many to gather there, despite the concealing darkness, but the softly glowing spherical shield that was Canterlot’s major defense against aerial attack was also a hindrance to observation, especially at night when it spoiled the Guard’s night vision. All that remained was to await the signal to attack.
It was late into the morning before the signal was given. By then it was obvious that the majority of Canterlot’s population had been distracted by the spectacle of the marriage ceremony, and they could approach virtually unnoticed. Their first task was to break through the shield. This should have been impossible, but they had been assured that it would be severely weakened by that time. As he had been taught, Zevan focused his energy to make his carapace rigid like armor, and dived into the shield. He connected with a painful jar, but of course it was scarcely affected. It would take many such hits by all the army to break through, but that’s what they had been ordered to do, and that’s what they would accomplish. Again and again, Zevan smashed into the barrier, and eventually he began to notice cracks developing. He slammed his aching body into the shield a couple more times before it finally failed and crumbled away, laying Canterlot open to invasion.
“What are you waiting for? Attack!” shouted their commander.
The moment of truth had arrived for Cogs. Up until this moment, he could obey orders without hesitation, but now he was expected to actively engage with Royal Guard. With a scream of self-loathing, he launched himself at a target. The dive-bombing technique sent a unicorn guard flying, saved from worse injury by a hastily thrown-up magic shield. Zevan did not know whether to be relieved or frustrated at his failure. He did not have time to think about it for long though as the attack turned into a chaotic mêlée.
It became obvious to even Zevan’s untrained eye that the changelings were winning. Too many of the Royal Guard had been tied up with the royal wedding, just as Chrysalis had planned. Whatever else she was doing inside the castle was delaying reinforcements for the unfortunates outside. Most telling was the failure of Princess Celestia to appear and lend her mighty power to Canterlot’s defense. There were still others to beware of though.
“The Element Bearers have been sighted!” came the cry from one spotters.
By bad luck, Zevan’s troop was the nearest, and their commander was quick to send them in pursuit.
“Under no circumstances are the Bearers to be allowed to get their Elements of Harmony. Confuse, attack and capture them all. Queen Chrysalis wishes to feast on their emotions tonight!”
Zevan soon spied their quarry. All six ponies were making haste to the Elements repository, smashing aside all opposition as they went. He dived down along with the rest of his troop to confront them. Unlike the Guards, the queen had specifically required that they capture the Element Bearers alive, so safer attacks could not be used. Instead, they pulled out one of their best trump cards, and transformed their appearance to match those of the six ponies. Then when the drones attacked, the resulting confusion would cause the ponies to hesitate in case they were attacking their friends. Despite this, the six seemed unstoppable. Zevan was repulsed twice before he got into a position that would guarantee him capturing the white unicorn. Just before he could though, he caught a glimpse of an orange-colored hoof, and his world turned black.
* * *
Zevan did not know how long he had been unconscious, but the migraine he was enduring made him wish that he still was. He painfully got back onto his hooves and looked about. There were several changelings still lying where they fell – some unconscious, and some probably dead. He counted his blessings that he was not one of the latter. There were still some citizens being chased by changelings through the streets, but it seemed to Zevan that the fight was basically over and the changelings were in control of Canterlot. He hoped that meant that he would not have to fight any more, at least for now. If Queen Chrysalis’ plans had indeed worked out, then it would mean moving on to the next town and subjugating that, and then the next, and the next. He had gotten lucky and survived this attack, but how long before his luck ran out? Maybe it was for the best if it did. This attack was an abomination that sickened him, and he wanted no more part of it.
With a great deal of effort, he lifted himself into the sky, unsure of his next course of action. Perhaps he could disguise himself and sneak out of Canterlot? Probably not – too many changelings around who would recognize him for what he was, and question his actions. Rejoin the troop? Was there even anyone else in his troop still surviving? Maybe he should just fly around and assess the situation to better make a decision? That seemed like a good idea, so he did.
It depressed him to see what it was like in the streets of Canterlot. He shuddered when he saw a harvester ripping the emotions from a helpless unicorn mare. He started to fly away before disgust with himself made him turn back. Grabbing a flower pot from a nearby balcony, he dropped it on the changeling’s head, knocking him unconscious. Zevan changed into his Cogs persona and shouted at the mare, “Run! Run and hide before another one gets you!”
The unicorn looked up dazedly, and nodded. “Thank you!” she managed to say before stumbling away as fast as she could in her depleted condition.
Zevan reverted to his natural form. He was too big a target as Cogs, but he still wished that he could have remained that unassuming grey pegasus instead of a horrible changeling invader. With a sigh, he continued on his tour of the city.
Suddenly a bright flash caught his eye from the direction of the castle. Turning towards it, he gaped in surprise as a pink globe of energy burst forth from the castle. It was brighter and stronger than the shield had been, and it was growing! It seemed to him that every changeling that the sphere encountered was relentlessly swept before it, but before he could be sure, the sphere reached him, slamming into him and pushing him inexorably out of the city. He was helpless before its onslaught, unable to control his flight in the slightest, and sent tumbling through the air in a way that was making him rapidly dizzy. Through that chaos though, he recognized one startling fact – it was pure love energy, but of a level that was way beyond any he had ever encountered, or had heard of for that matter.
Zevan was still laughing over the bitter irony when his flight was finally stopped by slamming at great speed into a tree, and for the second time that day, he lost his grip on consciousness.
* * *