Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

by Dropbear

First published

After being banished by Celestia for his misdeeds, the alien Emperor of the Crystal Empire is back... and out for revenge.

(15/10/2015) Turned status back to incomplete pending an Epilouge and Alternate Endings chapter as per comment suggestions.

After being banished by Celestia for his misdeeds, the alien Emperor of the Crystal Empire is back... and out for revenge.

Emperor Chalmers is not a happy space man. After being stabbed in the back by Equestria, he was sent to the depths of the Underworld. Kicked out for causing too much trouble for the wardens, Nigel now has the chance to take back his empire and show Celestia just how disappointed he is with her.

This time things will be different. This time he has friends.

Friends Make Everything Better

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The sun blazed down on a small village in the Zebra Lands, the majority of the huts covered in a layer of dirt. The villagers were all hiding in their homes, save for two foals trapped between a well and a monster.

The brother and sister had been frozen in terror for what seemed like years while the dirty biped yelled at the sky, vowing to get revenge on a ‘Filthy, Backstabbing, Conniving Horse.’ The creature clutched a bloodstained sword and wore a scaly red hide around its pale skin. He reeked of a smell that matched his appearance, a mix of sulphur and a drunken night’s fry-up.

A true nightmare.

“Make it go away,” Zassy sobbed into her older brother’s stripped coat. Zebu hugged her tighter, shivering as he stared at the monster that had clawed its way out of the ground to yell with rage. He had never felt so scared in his short life.

It was impossible for this to get any worse.

“Never doing that again. Elijah, fuck you and your teleporter.”

“It’s not my fault, Orthodox,” a male voice, just as muffled as the first, replied. “Whichever imbecile programmed this was a degree out. A degree! Do you have any comprehension of how big a mistake that is to make with inter-universal teleportation to an unknown location? We could have been killed! Torn asunder! Had our very physical forms turned into nothing but individual particles and erased from-“

“Can you both just shut up?” Both arguing beings were roughly pulled out from the sandbank by the legs, a third voice grumbling while they shock the sand off their armour. “We knew the risks, and I swear you’ve both gotten even more irritating since I left the Internal Security Agency.”

“At least you haven’t lost your talent for whining,” Orthodox pointed out as he shook the sand out of the segmented black armour covering his tail. “That’s all you ever did. If it wasn’t classy enough for James then we were sure to hear every detail.” Orthodox’s head snapped to the side as a hand covered in identical black armour slapped him on the helmet.

“Moron,” James insulted.

“Prick,” Orthodox returned, standing up off the ground and dusting himself off. The dragon-shaped alien tried to puff out his chest to intimidate the psionic warfare operative, however the effect was ruined as he only came up to James’ waist. Seeing that his attempt had failed, Orthodox pointed his plasma rifle at James instead.

“Go ahead, pull the trigger,” James taunted as his hands tapped the pistol holstered at his waist. “You’ve got one shot before I paralyse you and put a gauss round in your face.” He tapped an armoured finger between Orthodox’s blue eye optics. “We all know why you use rapid-fire weaponry that you can spray everywhere.”

“Come now you two,” Elijah interrupted while pushing Orthodox’s rifle barrel towards the ground. “We didn’t cross universes to shoot each other in a desert.” A panel on Elijah’s white armour opened, the scientist withdrawing a square data-pad. “We still have to find Chalmers after all.”

“Bastard missed my Birthday,” Orthodox muttered, gazing out across the harsh desert.

“A rare thing indeed,” Elijah agreed while he tapped on the pad’s glowing screen. “Gone for more than a month and no communication. I thought that the ISA would have noticed it sooner.”

“We have better things to do than worry about agents on leave,” Orthodox defended. “So let’s just find him, smack some sense into him and then go back to my place for my party. Then we can all go our separate ways again until James’ is due.”

“I look forward to having drunken fools in my house every year,” James remarked dryly. He joined Orthodox as they stared out at the desert, searching for a sign of their missing comrade. The tall and lanky James was a direct contrast to the squat Orthodox, the human and alien’s sensors unable to find any trace.

“There we go,” Elijah spoke up as he waved the pad, facing the direction behind them. “He’s alive and only a few kilometres from here.” Orthodox immediately rushed past the scientist, his rifle hitting against Elijah’s armoured leg in his haste.

“Last one there has to buy a round of drinks when we get back!” he called out.

“The one thing I didn’t miss,” James muttered before following, his armour glowing a slight blue as he increased speed. Elijah watched his two friends race off into the desert, chuckling as he ordered his armour to boot up his inbuilt teleporter. Being a high-ranking scientist with Research and Development had its advantages.

Setting the co-ordinates to just a few feet away from Chalmers; Elijah grinned inside his visored helmet as his teleporter activated.
He wasn’t going to be the one buying any drinks, unlike the fools that had run off without him.

“Disease-riddled Harlot!”

Nigel’s insulting of Celestia was interrupted by a sound that snapped him out of his blind fury. A sound that he knew all too well.

The sound of a UIP teleporter.

He whirled around, trying to spot the source. His eyes ran over huts, sandy ground and a vast expanse of desert outside of the village he was in. He couldn’t see anything, but he knew that the sound was close.

“Well, that was off by… I would say a degree.” Nigel’s eyes fell on a well, a muffled male voice rising up from it. He briefly noticed two zebra children alternating from gazing at him with fear and nervously eyeing the now-speaking well.

“Move it,” Nigel ordered, pointing towards a group of huts to the left. The two foals did exactly as told, hurriedly getting to their hooves and galloping off as if a demon was after them. He spent little time wondering about them, Nigel walking over to the well to peer down into its murky depths.

“Elijah?” Nigel inquired, able to recognise the voice of the bookish scientist. “What are you doing in a well?” A light turned on, the glow allowing Nigel to see the white helmet of his friend.

“Oh, we came to rescue you,” came the reply. “Orthodox and James decided to race each other across the desert, so I did the smart thing and teleported instead.”

“I can see that,” Nigel responded, his anger simmering down as he went over the information. “So, did you want me to leave you there so you can get out yourself or…?”

“Assistance would be appreciated, yes,” Elijah finished for him. Nigel turned away from the well and walked over to a hut, leaning his head inside a window.

“Got a rope I can borrow?” he asked, the four zebras hiding in the building cursing the fact that their window was just a hole in the wall. One of them, a stallion, shakily fetched a coil of rope and tossed it at the human. “Thanks,” Nigel acknowledged, returning to the well to rescue Elijah. The rope was tossed down after being tied down, Nigel waiting until the scientist climbed up and out.

“Well, thank you for that.”

“No problem,” Chalmers replied. Both stared at each other, Nigel examining Elijah’s armour while the scientist started at the red cloak that Nigel wore. “I see you’ve got armour.”

“Oh, this?” Elijah replied while glancing down at it. “It’s just a project I was working on a few years ago. It’s actually the prototype for a new line that the military are looking at. I’ve added some extras that would certainly not be stock, and I thought that this little excursion would be the perfect testing ground.” Elijah pointed at Nigel. “I see you have a… nice cloak and sword.”

“The sword was made by my subjects,” Nigel informed while showing off the dirty blade. “You’ll love them, they use magically charged gems for all sorts of things.”

“Subjects?” Elijah inquired; the excited curiosity evident in his voice.

“I rule a local Empire,” Nigel stated proudly before his eyes narrowed. “I mean, I did rule an Empire. I was betrayed by the ruler of another country and she banished me to their Hell.” Nigel ran a hand down the rough skin. “I picked this up while I was down there, idiot tried to jump me. Great thing I still had my sword, and I needed something to wear.”

“So, a good trip then,” Elijah remarked cheerily before retrieving his pad from his armour. “This Hell, what kind of creatures inhabited it? Was it similar to the commonly accepted Judaeo-Christian underworld or did it differ immensely?”

“I didn’t like it,” Chalmers answered. “They didn’t like me. I don’t want to go into it now; I have to take care of a few things.” Elijah smiled under his visor, the pad staying in his hand. From the brief explanation and the mannerisms, Nigel was not pleased at all with what had happened and that often lead to a wealth of scientific knowledge.

Well, either that or hilarious acts of violence, both of which were appealing to the scientist.

“I can only assume that you wish to return to your Empire, take back control and punish the one responsible for your incarceration?” Nigel nodded, popping his neck and rolling his shoulders.

“Oh yes, I have a list of people who I am very, very displeased with. I assume that the ISA wants me back right away though.” Elijah chuckled nervously at this, rubbing the back of his helmet with a free hand.

“Well, they hadn’t… really noticed that you were gone. You were on leave and you apparently have a habit of disappearing when not needed. It was Orthodox’s birthday-“

“Shit,” Nigel cursed. He was not going to hear the end of it.

“Indeed,” Elijah confirmed. “We noticed that you hadn’t shown up and Orthodox was a present down. You know how he acts sometimes when he doesn’t get his way. To save ourselves the associated problems that come with such a happening, we decided to find you.”

Elijah shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. “We used an array to find your sub-dermal signature, saw that you were in an unknown location and so we… ‘liberated’ an ISA sub-space teleporter.”

Nigel rubbed a hand on his face.

“You stole a teleporter,” he muttered in disbelief. “Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re going to be in when we get back?” Elijah nodded.

“Oh, I do, but I have a plan!” The scientist pointed a finger to the sky. “We don’t use it to get back, but I made sure to subtly inform the ISA that you were missing. They come, find us, we claim that the teleporter malfunctioned while I was examining it as a possible cause for your disappearance, and then I use my contacts in R and D to make the entire issue go away. You get found, the UIP gets to explore a new planet and everyone wins.”

“I take it that they don’t find us straight away,” Nigel stated, wise to Elijah’s methods.

“Well, I needed to make sure that we had ample time to find you,” Elijah tried unconvincingly. “Oh, and of course it gives me more time to examine everything before the other scientists get here to stick their fingers or other frontal appendages into it.” He gave Nigel a pat on the shoulder. “Also, it means that we can help you get back your throne. Even if starting a separate Empire is considered treason.”

“It was more a case of ‘I took it’ than started it. Besides, I would have no issue with leaving but there are… personal matters involved.” Elijah knowingly nodded his head.

“Ah, just like I remember when I was in the ISA. You found a nice local girl didn’t you?” Chalmers nodded before glancing at his sword again.

“Well, yes, but there are other issues as well.” Nigel was just about to explain that he actually liked the crystal ponies and changelings, but was interrupted by a cry of victory.

“Ha! Suck it Orthodox!” James taunted as he dashed around a hut to stand in front of Nigel. Orthodox followed soon after, his gun still in hand.

“It’s not fair!” he protested. “You used your evil witch-mind powers to trip me all the time!”

“I did not,” James defended with a hand on his chest. “You must have been imagining things. If anything I’d say that your short legs were the main issue.” Orthodox glared up at James, blue optics meeting blank, black metal.

“What the Fuck did you just say about my legs?” Orthodox hissed dangerously, Nigel interrupting the argument before it could go any further.

“Settle down,” he advised, putting his sword between the two. The two turned their attention to him, Orthodox transferring his glare to Nigel.

“You!” the alien accused as he pointed his finger. “You missed my birthday!”

“I was stranded on an alien planet,” Nigel stated bluntly.

“I don’t care,” Orthodox complained, walking up to Nigel and poking him in the gut with the tip of his tail. “One less friend means one less gift. And not going to lie, James and Elijah are just not meant for parties.”

“I do well at parties,” James butted in.

“Not fun parties,” Orthodox continued before pointing at Elijah. “And before you say it, Nerd, playing ancient role-playing games with dice is not considered fun either.”

“Orthodox,” Nigel sighed. “Calm down. There is more important things to worry about than your party. I promise that once we take back my Empire, we’ll have a massive party with booze and females. Hell, I’ll even get you a magical weapon as a present.” Orthodox eyed Nigel’s sword, in particular the gems on the hilt.

“Fine,” he relented. “But it better be a giant ‘fuck-off’ stick that I can use to smack people and make them explode.” Nigel silently wondered if that was even possible, and if it was then why would he waste it on Orthodox. Still, he attempted to smile and nod.

“I’m sure something can be arranged,” he bluffed, Orthodox staring at him for a second before relaxing. “We still need to actually get to my Empire, take it back and then defend it.” Nigel looked around the village, the others copying his action. “And considering that my city is covered in snow, I doubt we’re close by.” Elijah stepped up and raised a hand.

“Allow me,” he began. “Judging from the huts, the inhabitants are going to be fairly primitive. Primitives are often scared of strange aliens so you have to act nice, be courteous and pretend that you are their friend if you want to get what you want.”

The others watched, Nigel shaking his head as Elijah directed his attention to the largest group of huts. The scientist cleared his throat, scared eyes peering out of darkened windows at him.

“Hello, my name is Elijah,” he began. “Me and my friends look scary, but we mean you no harm. All we want is to find out how we can get to…” Elijah glanced at Nigel.

“The Crystal Empire, near Equestria.”

“Yes,” Elijah continued with a brief smile at the names. “The Crystal Empire which is near Equestria. If you give us directions, we’ll be gone and you can continue on with your lives. I would be most grateful and I might even compensate anyone willing to help.”

All four waited patiently, Elijah losing his smile as more and more time went by. None of the villagers moved from their hiding places, still too scared of the intruders to help. Orthodox had been tapping his foot impatiently, but soon he lost his temper.

“You have no clue how to interact with primitives,” Orthodox informed while pushing past Elijah. “You have to be firm with them, they respect strength.” After he said this, Orthodox pointed his gun up into the sky and pulled the trigger.

Rapid shots of blue plasma soared up to the heavens, Orthodox letting go of the trigger and pointing the gun at the huts.

“Alright you Motherfuckers, listen up!” Orthodox thumped his armoured tail on the ground to punctuate the point. “You are going to come out and help us find this Empire, or I swear to God I will come in there, slaughter every living thing and then skull-fuck your corpses! Apparently, the one who actually has the balls to even talk to us gets paid! So what the Hell are you waiting for!?” A door immediately opened, an elderly zebra stallion dressed like an African Chief pushed out by many hooves.

“See?” Orthodox commented as the Chief hesitantly approached them. “You have to be firm.”

“Normally I would be pissed off at you,” Nigel told Orthodox. “But given my plans, I think you’ll have a great time. This is probably one of the only times that I’ll let you go to town on the enemy.”

“I can’t wait,” Orthodox stated as he stroked his rifle’s grey body.

“You need directions?” the zebra stammered, Elijah crouching down in front of the creature and petting the black mane with his armoured hand.

“Fascinating, it’s like a Terran zebra but with many differences in appearance that support its sapience. It also speaks English, an unexpected occurrence considering that no UIP operations are present in this area. One must wonder if we’ve stumbled upon another alternate Terra where the inhabitants are equine in nature.” Nigel cleared his throat as Elijah continued to pat the nervous zebra.

“You can research all the natives you want when we take back my empire,” he lectured. “Right now we need-“

“Yes, I know, directions,” Elijah muttered sadly while withdrawing his hand. “So then, sapient zebra, would you be able to direct us to this Empire that my comrade desires back?” The zebra gulped and nodded nervously, his eyes darting amongst all of the aliens.

“I can’t,” he answered carefully. “I’m the chief of this village and I have many maps stored in my house. I don’t know about the ‘Crystal Empire’ but traders from Equestria come here occasionally. I have maps showing the way to Equestria, but you’ll have to get a boat to cross the sea.” Nigel stepped forwards, Elijah standing up and jotting down notes on his pad.

“That’s fine, we can work our way from Equestria and getting a boat will not be an issue,” Nigel replied. “I assume that there is a port town in your country?” The chief nodded, starting to move towards the largest hut in the village.

“There are many ports; we have much to trade with the other nations.” The zebra was talking more and more openly, evidently their plans to leave as soon as possible were something that he wanted to help achieve. “If you just give me a moment I can find one for you to take.” Elijah followed him, waving his pad in the air.

“There is no need for us to take one, I can copy it in seconds,” the scientist reassured. “The entire thing will cost you nothing.” Both he and the Chief entered the large hut, Orthodox making exaggerated sniffing noises as he glanced at Nigel.

“You smell like shit,” he observed, Nigel rolling his eyes. “Just what did you do? I caught something about an Empire.”

“Long story,” Nigel answered. “I’ll tell you about it on the way there.” He glanced down once again at his sword, still having neglected to clean it. “I promise you though; it’s going to be fun taking revenge.”

“Someone pissed you off again?”

“Oh,” Nigel replied as his fists clenched. “You have no bloody idea.”

“So you step down from the throne, leave the Empire with all Equestrians and never return.”

Cadence sighed as the group of crystal ponies finished their list of demands, it had only been a few weeks and this seemed like the tenth-thousand time. At least they had stopped rioting a week ago; she didn’t know the exact number of guards sent back to Equestria but she knew that the newspapers had dubbed the Crystal Empire the ‘most dangerous place in the world’. It was over-exaggeration, but it still didn’t help the Equestrian civilian’s opinion of the ongoing peacekeeping.

“That’s not going to happen,” Cadence replied as the ten guards by the throne kept a steady eye on the crowd of civilians. “Princess Celestia tasked me with ruling this Empire and I intend to do that. Please, I only want to have a happy empire. I know you all want the Emperor back-“

“We do!” a mare shouted. “We want him back, we want our Crystal Heart back and we don’t want any Equestrians in our Empire!” Cadence sighed again. The words would have hurt more, but after constantly listening to them she had gotten used to being hated.

“He’s not coming back,” Cadence stated, a little harsher than she intended. “Celestia banished him forever. She placed me in charge, and like it or not it’s the only choice you have. We have to work together to restart the Crystal Heart and stop the winter winds.”

“Everything we try doesn’t work!” a changeling spoke up, pushing his way through the crowd to glare at Cadence. “We’re running out of crystals and with all of the crystal unicorns gone we can’t make more! Not all of us can love ponies and both the Emperor and your Princess promised that we could stay here!” Cadence’s face remained blank, her hatred of changelings increasing ever since Reflection had attacked her again.

“It’s not up to me, if you want the Heart to work then ask the crystal ponies. As long as they remain unhappy, then the Heart will never start.”

“We’ll be happy when you’re dead!” A stallion yelled, the crowd bursting into insults and jeers. Cadence lowered her head and waved a hoof, her guards moving to push the crowd out of the throne room. As the ponies and changelings were ejected from the castle, Cadence left her throne with a huff.

“I’m retiring to my chambers,” she informed a remaining guard, the unicorn nodding his head as he observed his subordinates kick out the protesters.

“Do you wish for me to inform Captain Armour?” Cadence snorted while she moved towards the stairs.

“You can tell Shining that he has to learn to face his subjects someday.” With that Cadence climbed the stairs, the unicorn rolling his eyes after she left.

Shining Armour passed the two unicorns guarding the prison door, the guards lowering their heads and staring at the ground.

“Guards,” Shining coldly greeted before walking down the lines of empty cells.

“Sir,” the unicorns both acknowledged.

“I told you it was a bad idea,” one of the guards whispered to the other.

“Not now,” the other hissed, the two watching as their Captain reached the end of the cells.

Shining frowned as he looked into the last cell, a silver necklace with a dull gem lying on the floor. Just what was Cadence thinking when she ordered the guards to force-feed Reflection the gem? He was worried about Cadence; she was acting so different to what she used to. Her time spent amongst ponies who hated her was only damaging her self-esteem and bubbly personality.

“Reflection?” Shining asked as he peered into the cell. “I wanted to talk to you about what happened today.” He got no response, Shining sighing and sitting down. “I already punished the guards who did it, and Cadence is still not speaking to me after I yelled at her. I know it meant a lot to you, but at least you’re not starving anymore.” Two green eyes opened to stare at him silently.

“I know my excuses probably don’t mean much,” Shining continued. “I just… it’s not Cadence’s fault. She’s having a terrible time, and it’s only because of the mistake Celestia made that she’s acting so weirdly. Do you remember when we were at the bar? It was a great time, and you two were getting on well.” Shining winced as soon as he said this, remembering who else was at the bar.

“He was a good guy,” Shining stated after a pause. “I know he had problems but he wasn’t as bad as Sombra apparently was. If I could bring him back I would, but I can’t. The crystal ponies are continuing to refuse to work, Sparkling Scroll refuses to even speak to us and the changelings are worried that they’ll run out of food. Even with him gone, the Empire still needs you.”

He still didn’t get a response, so Shining stood up and did what he had come to do.

“Cadence is not going to like this,” he grimaced. “But I owe Chalmers this much.” With that, Shining levitated a key out of his armour, unlocking the cell door and opening it up. He stepped in, walking over to the changeling that was curled up in a ball at the back of the cell. “Come on, I managed to find a spare house. It’s small, but at least you’ll have it to yourself and it’s far better than a damp cell. We’re working on somehow getting more love, but I still haven’t heard back from Equestria.”

Reflection didn’t budge, Shining wrinkling his nose at the smell of the cell. She had been imprisoned for over a month, Shining still thinking that the punishment Cadence had ordered was unfair. Not even the ex-Captain of the Crystal Guard had gotten that long after starting a movement to overthrow Cadence. The only positive thing was that the citizens didn’t seem to hate him as much as Cadence and Celestia, although he still got dirty looks and glares whenever he was in public.

Seeing that he was getting nowhere, Shining took a deep breath and exited the cell. He left the door open, taking a final look back at the unmoving changeling.

“You can leave anytime you want, I’ve already told the guards that you’re a free mare. If you ever want to talk about Chalmers, I’ll be willing to listen.” Still no response. Shining didn’t bother saying anymore, instead he walked away and left the cell behind.

He passed the two guards, the unicorns wisely not saying anything as he left the dungeon. Shining made his way to the staircase, trudging up the crystal stairs towards the living quarters. He headed towards his bedroom, one door down from the banished Emperor’s room. It was still too soon to move in, and Shining didn’t think he could ever sleep in it. Chalmers was a friend after all, and the thought of sleeping in his bed just felt strange.

Shining opened the bedroom door, the stallion walking into the darkened room. He entered and closed the door, sighing as he saw that Cadence was already asleep in the four poster bed. He still climbed in, making sure to stay on the edge away from her. Cadence had developed a tendency to lash out if he slept too close to her, a result of the failed assassination attempt a few weeks ago. The failed assassin had managed to escape capture, and Cadence had lived in fear of the pony returning one night to finish the job.

Shining slipped under the red covers, turning his back on his wife. He made sure to face the door, the sword sitting on his bedside table a necessary measure. As he drifted off, Shining wondered what was so important in Equestria that they couldn’t send any more help.

“The Griffons refused the trade agreement, Princess. They say that Equestria can no longer to be trusted and that they, quote, ‘don’t want to be banished if they displease you’, Your Highness.”

Celestia sighed and rubbed her temples with her wings. Banishing the Emperor of the Crystal Empire had proved to be a big mistake. Not only did every other nation distrust Equestria, but she still felt the weight of guilt even after a month.

“I take it Luna was also unsuccessful in negotiating with the Zebras?” Celestia asked her advisor, Civil State. The stallion slicked back his grey mane before answering.

“Actually, she managed to negotiate the use of the East Sea.” Celestia perked up at the news.

“So she’s already back?” Civil State shifted on his hooves, not sure how to inform Celestia of the news.

“Uh, she has retired to her quarters and does not wish to be disturbed.” Civil State coughed into his hoof. “There are words that she is still… upset regarding the Crystal Empire incident.” Celestia closed her eyes, taking deep breaths to calm herself down. Luna had been distant ever since the banishment of the Emperor, Celestia knowing that helping banish another being had done something to her sister. Luna never talked to her anymore, all communication between them was done with servants.

“It’s understandable,” Celestia acknowledged as she leaned back in her throne. “It’s no secret that I regret what I did, but there’s no reversing the spell. Once the demons of Tartarus have a prisoner, there is no escape.” She looked down at the stone floor. “If only he had listened to me… or if I had only been a little more reasonable.”

“You did what was right at the time,” Civil State attempted to reassure before looking at his tan hooves. “From what I heard, the battle was horrifying. Thanks to your intervention, no more lives were lost.” Celestia let out a humourless chuckle.

“There was one more life lost,” Celestia mumbled. “Not to mention the ones he left behind.” Her mind still couldn’t shake the image of the sobbing changeling; it had been so long since she had caused that much sorrow. “How is the situation in the Crystal Empire?”

“Captain Armour had once again requested more guards, a further twelve have been sent on medical leave since the last riots.” Civil State levitated a scroll out of his blue jacket pocket. “There are concerns amongst the changeling population that they will be chased out as soon as the supplies of love crystals run out. The new influx of changelings from our dungeons has increased the population to three-hundred and seven, placing further strain on the dwindling supplies.”

“Is that all?” Celestia asked, wincing when Civil State shook his head.

“No Princess,” he answered. “The winter blizzards are still strong, and we’ve had to start shipping in food to keep the crystal ponies fed. Some of the Nobility are asking why we’re feeding another country with our food. We also had word that Twilight Sparkle has been unable to find any solution in our archives regarding the failure of the Crystal Heart. The only information is that it relies on the happiness and joy of the crystal ponies.”

“That much we already knew,” Celestia mumbled before perking up. A scroll and inked quill levitated over to her, the Princess writing a note to Twilight. With a small smile she sent it off, the scroll disappearing in a puff of magic.

“Princess?” Civil inquired.

“Maybe Twilight will have some luck if she tries the Crystal Empire’s own library.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea, especially with the riots?” Celestia’s smile faltered at the reminder of the ongoing violence.

“I’ve asked her to take her friends, and I’ll send another detachment of guards with her.” She brought over a page of fresh parchment, Celestia scribbling another note down. “Captain Shining will no doubt be thankful for the new guards, and hopefully the Elements can cheer him and Cadence up.” With another flash, the scroll was gone. “I made a huge mistake, Civil,” Celestia admitted. “But it’s too late to reverse it, not even I am that powerful. The best I can do is try to fix it. Hopefully, one day the crystal ponies and changelings will forgive me for my actions.”

“I’m sure they will, my Princess,” Civil State supported, Celestia wincing at the unconvincing statement.

“That will be all for today,” she ordered as she left her throne. “We’ll continue on tomorrow morning. Can you please inform Princess Luna’s guards that I am about to lower the sun?” Civil State bowed before her.

“As you wish, Princess,” he finished before leaving the room with a brisk trot. Celestia sighed, hoping that maybe tomorrow would bring better news.

“A week, an entire bloody week stuck with you three.”

Nigel’s previous excitement at the appearance of his three friends had been short-lived. It was a reminder of why they had been separated into different divisions, the constant bickering could drive anyone into a violent rage.

“Calm your tits,” Orthodox replied as James and Elijah continued to argue over who was the most successful after leaving the ISA. “That merchant you threatened said that the Crystal Empire was close. Then you can walk in, splatter the rulers and then take it back. You sweep your squeeze off her feet-“

“Hooves,” Nigel corrected.

“Whatever,” Orthodox continued. “You rescue the girl and then I get my booze and party.”

“Also remember that we have to defend the empire, the Equestrians aren’t going to be too pleased about us taking it back.”

“Let them come, it just means more entertainment while we wait for the cavalry.” Orthodox grinned under his helmet, Nigel having told him about the Equestrians and his own subjects.

“I want you to behave around the changelings and crystal ponies, no killing.” Nigel knew it had to be said, he didn’t trust Orthodox to not do it unless asked. Orthodox grumbled and patted his rifle, the two pulling ahead of James and Elijah. Chalmers sighed, hoping that the Crystal Empire had enough alcohol to keep Orthodox occupied.

They trudged along in the snow, the cold not bothering either of them. After crossing the sea and finding their way to the northern wastes, tensions between the four had grown. Elijah had prattled on about his work in Research and Development, Orthodox had gone through all the ways one could kill a pony, James had constantly told both of them to shut up, and Nigel had gone over his plans for attacking the Crystal Empire.

Sure, he could just march in and kill whatever patsy that Celestia had placed in charge, but a month in Tartarus had given him time to think. He didn’t want to kill Celestia and her cronies.

He wanted to humiliate them, just like they had done to him.

“Yo, Nigel,” Orthodox stated, breaking Chalmers out of his thoughts of revenge. “Is that your Empire?” Nigel looked to where Orthodox was pointing, a snow-covered city sitting under the moon-lit sky.

“That’s it,” Nigel confirmed with furrowed eyebrows. “It’s… different. For one, there was this protective shield over it that created an artificial environment-“

“The Crystal Stone or something,” Orthodox interrupted.

“The Crystal Heart,” Chalmers corrected. “Have you not listened to anything I’ve said?” Orthodox waved a hand, glancing back to see if Elijah and James had caught up yet.

“I got the important stuff. There are good ponies that I can’t kill, there are bad ponies that I can, there’s bug ponies that I also can’t kill, there’s a magical crystal powered by positive feelings, and I get a party if I help you retake your Empire.”

“It’s the best I’m going to get,” Nigel replied while rolling his eyes. “It’ll have to do. Just… don’t kill things unless I say you can, just to be sure.”

“Who’s killing who?” James asked while Elijah stepped up next to him, both having reached their comrades.

“If you could leave a few specimens intact for my research,” Elijah requested. “I find live and cooperative research subjects to be far easier to work with.” Chalmers ran a hand down his face, wondering why he even bothered.

“For the last time, we’re not here to kill everything,” Nigel groaned. “In fact, don’t kill anything yet unless you need to, hostages might come in handy until we can organise a proper defence.” He received two affirmatives from Elijah and James, and a grumble from Orthodox. “I’m really ticked off with Celestia, but for now we can’t go around coating the city with Equestrian blood. I do, however, have a plan…”

Reflection woke up, her chitin cold against the stone floor. She blinked the remains of tears out of her eyes and shook her head, something not feeling right. She sat up in the cell and glanced towards the open door, the sounds of someone approaching echoing off the dungeon walls. She didn’t call out or ask who was there; instead she settled back down on the floor and stared at the wall. It was probably just another Equestrian guard checking up on her.

The changeling didn’t move as the sounds paused, before they moved into her cell. Reflection didn’t turn to greet her visitor, instead she remained where she was an hoped that they would go away. A soft sigh issued out from the intruder before they resumed their advance. Reflection shivered a little as she felt a hand rub her shoulder, it only reminded her of Nigel.

Wait, a hand?

Reflection moved her head slowly, wondering if she had finally driven herself insane. She saw a dirty hand running over her chitin, a hand connected to an arm covered in a strange red material. Her eyes traced the arm up towards a familiar face, Reflection blinking her eyes to make sure.

“Nigel?” she asked hopefully, getting a smile in return.

“You missed me?” Nigel joked, but Reflection could hear that the humour was stressed. She didn’t dwell on it for too long, instead she sat up and flung herself around him in a hug.

“I thought you were gone forever,” she sobbed into his shoulder, the crouching human stroking her dirty green mane and back. All the sadness that she had been soaking in was let out again, Reflection unable to do much else than cry at the moment.

“Nope, I conquered Hell and returned so I could see you again. I haven’t even killed whoever’s taken over yet.” Reflection managed to stop the flow of tears, a few sniffles remaining as she looked up at him. Her hooves traced his hide-covered body, afraid that it was all a dream.

“Really?” Nigel’s smile faltered, Reflection afraid that her fears were true.

“Uh, well less ‘conquered Hell’ and more ‘thrown out for being disorderly’. Other than that, I’m back.” Reflection ignored the information about his escape, the cold leaving her body as she felt a stream of warm emotion between them. She couldn’t believe it, he was real.

“It was terrible,” she started, sniffling as she continued to hug him. “After I found out you were banished, I was locked up by Celestia.” She saw Nigel frown at this, the head rub increasing.

“Why?” he inquired. “I thought that Celestia was okay with changelings?” Reflection smiled, sheepishly showing off her large front fangs.

“I… may have spat at her, and then bit her wing.” The frown remained on Nigel’s face, before he broke into a grin.

“You bit her?” he asked, this time the humour in his voice genuine. “What is it with you and Princesses?”

“She banished you!” Reflection answered, still sore about the event. “I would have killed her if I could but-“ she was cut off, her head being pressed into a chest as arms wrapped around her.

“Hey, I was only joking,” Nigel reassured. “I know it must have hurt you, and to be honest I still want to kill her.” Reflection sniffed as she waited for him to go on. “I have plans though, and I promise that I’ll hurt her as badly as she hurt you. Now, can you tell me who she put in charge?” Reflection kept her head pressed against his chest, her words coming out muffled.

“It’s Cadence and Shining Armour,” she informed. “I don’t know much about what’s been happening because I’ve been in her for the entire time, but Strategy was arrested a week after you were…”

“What for?” Nigel asked quickly, concerned for his former Captain.

“He started a group to try and forcibly remove Cadence from the throne,” Reflection replied. “He was only in for a week though, because every day he was imprisoned was a day that the citizens attacked guards on the street. I could hear the fighting from here. He was so angry about what Celestia had done to you, a few of the Equestrians beat him when he kept on insulting her. Shining Armour sent them back to Equestria and let Strategy out, but the new guards were just as bad.”

Reflection lifted her head to glance at her necklace, Nigel following her eye line to spot it on the floor. He removed his hand from her head and reached over to pick up the jewellery. He examined the dull gem attached to it, Reflection squeezing him tighter.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t eating and Cadence had told the guards to make me use a gem. A few of them thought that I’d like to use the one you gave me, and I couldn’t fight them off. They used the whole gem in one go, and I’d thought that I had lost the last part of you.” She watched as Nigel moved his hand to the gem, the crystal glowing as it recharged.

“There,” he said, putting the now-charged gem around her neck. “It’s back to full. To be honest though, I’m a little glad that they did make you eat. This would have been a fairly depressing reunion if I had found you dead in a cell.” Reflection looked down guiltily, knowing that she hadn’t been far away when the guards had fed her.

“I know,” she muttered. “I’m sorry, it was selfish.” She got a chuckle in reply, the embrace returning with full force.

“It was understandable, and I’m ashamed to say that I’m a little flattered. You know what I promised before I went out to fight that night?” Reflection beamed up at him, shifting in his arms.

“You said that we’d continue on once you got back,” she recalled hopefully.

“I did,” he agreed. “However I’m afraid that I lied.” Reflection’s face fell, but a scratch behind an ear convinced her that it wasn’t a break-up. “We both smell terrible, I think a long bath or shower first is in order. Wouldn’t you agree?” Now that it was pointed out, Reflection could indeed smell their aromas. It was a mix of dirt, dust, grime, and sulphur. Needless to say, it was far from pleasant.

“I guess that would be a good idea,” she agreed with a nod. “I need to wash my mane and tail as well. I thought that you said that you came here first, did you defeat all of the guards already?” Nigel rubbed the back of his head, Reflection noticing the bloody sword tied to his waist.

“Well, I’d love to say that I fought my way in, slaughtered all of the guards, kicked in the castle doors and headed straight to rescue you, but…”

“What?” Reflection asked.

“There were no guards in the city for me to interrogate,” Nigel replied. “The castle doors were locked, but I got in one of the windows with some help. There were still no guards, it’s like everyone just got up and left.” A light came on in Reflection’s mind, she remembered overhearing something about that.

“Oh, I know,” she began to explain. “After an assassin tried to kill Cadence in her sleep, and with all of the riots, the guards in the castle defend the second floor while the Princess is sleeping. The other guards apparently stay in the barracks at night; it’s not safe for them to patrol the streets after dark.” Nigel whistled at the news, his subjects certainly had taken his dethroning hard.

“I feel incredibly loved,” he murmured, Reflection sighing as she continued to feed off him.

“Everyone missed you,” she responded, before she looked at him curiously. “Hang on, you said that you got in through a window with help. Did you…” Reflection shivered at the possibility. “Did you bring back some Tartarus demons with you after escaping?” Nigel laughed, putting a hand down so he could get to his feet. Reflection held on with her forelegs around his neck, an arm going under her rump to support her as Nigel stood up.

“Oh, they’re no demons,” he told her while she nuzzled his neck. “I can tell you right now, they are far worse than the saps that your underworld calls demons. In fact, we better get going to the throne room.” Reflection broke the nuzzling to ask another question.

“Why the throne room?” she asked with a slight blush, her wings buzzing slightly as his hand moved to the area between her wings.

“Remember the help I mentioned?” Nigel asked, Reflection holding back a squeak and nodding while her flight muscles were
massaged. “Let’s just say that I asked them to arrange a meeting with the pony who took over my Empire.” Reflection understood the implication behind the word ‘arranged’.

“So Cadence and Shining-“

“Are in for an early morning surprise,” Nigel finished, grinning as he carried her out of the dungeon with the throne room their destination.

Cadence tossed and turned in her sleep, her dreams plagued with images of a burning Crystal Empire. She awoke with a start, jolting her head back from the first rays of the rising sun that filtered in through her window.

“It was all a dream,” she muttered thankfully, before remembering that the real situation was probably not far off. She sighed, rubbing her face with her wings. There was no sound of Shining snoring, so that must mean that he was already up. She raised one ear, a faint humming sound coming from behind her. A limb moved under the covers, Cadence blushing as it kneaded her cutie-mark.

Cadence rolled over to face the middle of the bed with a rare smile, wondering what had Shining suddenly act so playful towards her.
Her eyes bugged out and her mouth opened in shook, Cadence coming face to face with a strange black creature with blue eyes lying sideways on her bed facing her. The limb that had been rubbing her flank was revealed to be an armoured tail, the black object snaking up towards her throat.

“Morning babe,” the creature greeted while blowing a kiss. Cadence froze in shock, unable to figure out what was going on. “That’s right. It’s one of those mornings.”

“Shini- mphhm!”

“Nope,” the intruder stated as Cadence felt the tail twist around her throat and cut off her air. “Even with your pathetic excuse for guards knocked out, your husband still is occupied at the moment.” Cadence felt the grip on her throat slacken, allowing her to breath in a lungful of air. The creature on the bed moved over her, Cadence squeezing her eyes shut as his body passed over hers to press up behind her.

“Relax,” he continued as he patted her side. “I’m wearing armour so you don’t have to worry about anything lewd.” Cadence shivered as she felt his metal head move next to her ear. “Unless you want to of course, Nigel wasn’t the only one with eccentric tastes in the squad.”

“Really Orthodox?” an articulate male voice huffed. “Even after all these years you can still surprise me with how low you can go.”

“Shut up James,” Orthodox replied. “I may incredibly turned on right now, but at least the armour stops my-“

“Enough,” a third voice spoke up. “We have work to do. Miss Cadence, will you please open your eyes? We have a surprise for you.”
Cadence held back sobs as she slowly opened her eyes, her heart sinking as she set eyes on the ‘surprise’.

Shining was staring pleadingly at her, another black, metal creature holding him around the neck with an arm. This creature looked like the departed Emperor, with the exception that not a single bit of skin or clothing was showing. It was only metal, Cadence guessing that it was the same sort of armour that her captor was wearing.

The second creature had a strange object pressed up against Shining’s temple, a dangerous looking black object that it held with one hand. Cadence could only assume that it was a weapon, an assumption confirmed by a third creature wearing white metal that walked into her vision from the foot of the bed.

“As you can observe,” he stated, Cadence still staring at Shining. “We have your lover as a hostage with a gun against his head. Just to make things clear, a gun is a weapon which can end his life in a split second. My colleague, Agent James, is quite adept with the usage of such a weapon. From this we can deduce that your cooperation would be ideal, least you want to have a lover missing half of his skull.”

“That means do what we say,” her captor clarified, much to his fellows’ annoyance.

“Thank you Orthodox.”

“No problem Elijah,” the tail tightened as the owner taunted the sarcastic biped.

“Eyes on the prize guys,” the black creature holding Shining reminded. “Nigel wants them alive and down there before the morning crowd. Bickering is only slowing us down.”

“I’ve got my eyes on a prize alright,” Orthodox murmured, Cadence shivering as she felt the hand travel down her side and head to her flank.

“Orthodox,” Elijah sighed. “You know the rules.” Cadence breathed in relief as the hand left her, although the tail still remained wrapped tightly around her neck.

“I was only teasing,” her tormenter defended. “You insult me by implying that I would sink that low. I would rather shoot myself than have to resort to rape to get my rocks off.”

“Alright, enough with all of this,” the being holding Shining ordered as he stood up. Shining’s hind hooves just touched the ground, Cadence able to see the fear in his eyes as the weapon was retrained on his head. “We need to get these two downstairs. Have you got her Orthodox?”

In answer to his question, Cadence found herself pulled off the bed. She hit the ground with a thump, the tail holding her prisoner pulling her up to her hooves.

“I’ve got her,” Orthodox confirmed, Cadence shakily standing beside the bed as he hopped off it and stood in front of her. “Now Princess, you’ve gone and pissed one of my friends off. Here’s how it’s going to work between us. You move and you live, you resist and we kill your boyfriend, then you. You understand?” Cadence cried and nodded, the tail easing up slightly on her sore neck. “Good girl.”

“Ready to leave?” the white creature asked.

“Good to go,” the beast holding Shining answered.

“I’ve got the Princess and there’s no plumber in sight,” Orthodox acknowledged.

“Leave the references to Chalmers,” Elijah requested, before Cadence felt the tail pull her forward. She walked with it, her mind locking up as she finally comprehended what was happening and the name that the invaders had mentioned.

‘Chalmers?’ Cadence thought as she was pulled out of the bedroom, passing two guards that were knocked out and tied up. ‘No, he can’t be back!’

Nigel was sitting down on his throne, Reflection on his lap and tapping her hooves against the armrests. If Cadence had kept the same schedule, then the first ponies into court would be here in forty minutes. He hoped to get this over and done with before that happened, as he could see that explaining his return as well as the three new beings to the citizens would take a while.

He got his wish, the sound of armoured boots and hooves approaching from the doorway behind him. He grabbed Reflection’s hooves and gave her a wink, the changeling grinning as she sprawled herself across him. They had worked out a plan on how to announce his return to Cadence and Shining, a plan that was put into action as soon as the captive ponies were dragged in front of the throne.
Nigel and Reflection waited until Shining and Cadence looked up, both of the Equestrians’ eyes widening at the impossible sight.

“Surprise!” Nigel exclaimed while Reflection grinned triumphantly at Cadence.

“How?” Shining stammered, receiving a laugh in reply.

“Oh, the demons got sick of me and kicked me out,” Nigel glanced down and patted his cloak. “Taking out my anger on some of them and skinning them probably didn’t help.” He glanced down at the floor, searching for the one thing that was missing from the throne room. “Speaking of skinning, where is my Sombra-rug and crown?” Shining was still recovering from the shock, but he was far more coherent than Cadence was at the moment.

“I had them buried,” he lied. In fact, it was Cadence that had ordered them laid to rest, but Shining hoped that Nigel would dole out whatever punishment to him instead of her.

“Did you now, Shining?” Nigel inquired as he leaned back in his throne. “That’s a shame isn’t it? I so adored my crown and rug.” Shining gulped, the creature beside him still holding its weapon to his head. Nigel must have noticed his discomfort, the Emperor smirking and waving his hand towards the wardens. “Give them some space; if they misbehave then shoot their legs.” The weapon and tail were withdrawn from Cadence and Shining, both remaining still.

“I’m sorry,” Shining apologised. “After you were banished, we were told that you were never coming back.” A silence fell over the room, Shining wondering if he had just signed their death warrants.

“You want to know something Shining?” Chalmers continued after the pause. “When Celestia first banished me, I was completely livid. I kept myself entertained in the depths of the underworld by thinking of all the horrible things I could do to every Equestrian. I yelled, I screamed, I vowed to hunt down every stallion, mare and foal until I had wiped every last one off of the planet.

I was incredibly angry with everything, including you and Cadence. With that one spell, I had my Empire, my friends and my lover ripped away forever.” Reflection wrapped her hooves around an arm and squeezed to comfort him, Nigel rubbing her mane in return. “I wanted you all to perish, and I so desperately wanted your nation to die a long, slow, death.” Shining and Cadence trembled, the emotionless delivery only made the retelling more haunting.

“Over time I realised something, about the same time I got thrown out and was standing in a Zebra village screaming at the sky.” Nigel pointed at Shining and beckoned with his hand, Shining feeling a metal object poke him in the back of the head. Carefully he got up, moving over towards the throne. He was stopped in front and sat down, Nigel staring down at him. Shining’s eyes gazed over the well-used sword at Nigel’s side, and he lowered his head for the inevitable.

“It’s not your fault.” Shining did a double take at the words, feeling a hand on his head instead of a sword blade through his throat. He looked up, met with a thoughtful gaze from Chalmers. “You’re just a proxy, and I know you had no idea that Celestia would do what she did. By killing you I would only distract myself from the real enemy.” Nigel’s mouth regained a small grin, the human tilting his head downwards towards Reflection. “Besides, someone told me that you weren’t that bad a friend.” Shining looked at Reflection with surprise on his face, the changeling smiling back at him.

“You tried to help me,” Reflection spoke up. “I know it didn’t seem like it at the time, but I did appreciate that you made the effort.” Shining breathed out a sigh, visibly relaxing as he realised that he was in the clear.

“Thank you,” he uttered while shaking his head.

“You earned your forgiveness,” Nigel informed before his gaze hardened and he looked towards Cadence. “You on the other hand-“

“It wasn’t her fault either!” Shining protested, not liking the hate in the Emperor’s eyes.

“I know she is also a proxy,” Nigel replied. “However, what I cannot excuse is the treatment of Reflection and the rest of my subjects. It’s been…”

“A month and a half,” Shining provided when Nigel was unable to figure it out.

“A month and a half,” Chalmers continued icily. “The Crystal Heart is not working, the city is covered in snow and the military defence is sorely lacking.” Nigel pointed a finger at the throne room doors. “I mean, I was banished for being some ultimate evil, and I was able to just climb in a window. Where are the guards? The response teams? The law-enforcement officers?”

“Yeah,” Orthodox spoke up from his spot at the side of the room. “We’ve only taken out thirty guards. Thirty! All of them in the castle guarding your bedroom, and every one of them so easy to sneak up upon and knock out. What sort of operation are you running here?”

“Thank you Orthodox,” Nigel acknowledged while Shining and Cadence refaced him. “He raises an interesting point. What if the Elk came back? Would Celestia be able to banish them all as well?” Shining winced, the news he was about to give slightly embarrassing.

“We started out with three hundred guards,” he began, all eyes focusing on him. “With all the riots and protests, there were a lot of injuries. We kept on having to request new guards while we sent the injured ones back, but Equestria soon stopped sending them. The last ones we got were with a detachment sent to guard my sist-“ Shining stopped, hoping that Nigel didn’t catch his slipup. He was out of luck, Nigel smirking at him.

“Your sister you say? I would just love to meet her. Would she happen to still be here?” Shining didn’t say anything, prompting Chalmers to glance at Cadence. He caught her giving a worried glance up to the roof, Nigel’s smirk growing larger as he figured it out.
“Oh James,” he asked, Shining’s face dropping. “Would you please do me a favour and check upstairs for anymore… guests?”

“Sure,” James answered, giving Shining a parting ‘I’m watching you’ gesture.

“Non-lethal,” Nigel reminded, James nodding as he exited the room. “Where were we?” Nigel asked before raising a finger in the air. “Ah, that’s right, your guard issues. Now Shining, I really want for us to get back on friendly terms and you answering my questions will go a long way to achieving that. Is that something you want?” Shining swallowed a lump in his throat. It wasn’t just his life on the line, but Cadence’s and Twilight’s as well.

“I’ll answer them,” he relented, grimacing as he sold out his country.

“Good,” Nigel replied. “First off, how many guards are currently in the city?”

“Eighty,” Shining muttered.

“I didn’t hear that,” Nigel told him, Shining sighing before replying louder.

“I said eighty. Including the thirty in the castle, we have eighty guards in the entire Empire.” Nigel didn’t reply for a while, until he burst out into laughter.

“You’re kidding. Eighty? Only eighty guards to protect the entire city?” Nigel was joined by Orthodox, Elijah too busy writing down notes on his pad while Reflection was occupied with staring at Cadence.

“Yes,” Shining winced, ashamed. “With all of the injuries and desertion we have had barely enough to keep the peace,” Shining looked up at Nigel. “When your allies broke into our room, I thought that we were going to be lynched by a mob of subjects.” Nigel laughed again at this.

“Oh, rioting, assassination attempts and plots to bring down the government.” He wiped a tear from his eye while facing Elijah and Orthodox. “What did I tell you guys? My subjects adore me.”

“It appears so,” Elijah agreed. “It’s one of the rare cases where you’re liked and not seen as a plague upon existence.”

“How flattering,” Nigel deadpanned, noticing that Orthodox was too busy examining the room to pay attention. “At least you gave me a response.” Elijah nodded and Orthodox continued to ignore everything around him, Nigel breathing in through clenched teeth. “That’s how it is then. Moving on, what happened to the Crystal Guards and their equipment?”

“The guards were removed from duty and their equipment is stored in the armoury complex.” Shining grimaced. “Your giant arrow-throwing machines were all destroyed in a fire before we could examine them. Some say that your Captain was to blame.” Nigel smiled at the news.

“I knew I made the right choice to keep him,” he muttered happily. “How is Strategy?” Shining winced at the memory of a particular riot.

“He was arrested for plotting to overthrow Cadence,” Shining answered while glancing back at Cadence. The Princess was sitting on the floor like a statue, unresponsive. “After he was released, he just stayed at his house. He was allocated one with Sparkling Scroll, your advisor.” Chalmers leaned back as Reflection sat up, the changeling intrigued by the conversation.

“I’ll have to deal with them later,” Nigel murmured to her, Reflection nodding her head. Nigel turned his attention back to Shining. “One last question for now, a very important one,” Chalmers leaned forward. “Communications with Equestria, how often is news sent back to Equestria?”

“Only when she sends a letter or if we need help,” Shining admitted. “The last message I got from her was regarding a new detachment of guards that she sent.” He left out the fact that the guards were there to guard the Element Bearers, Shining still hoping that his sister and friends had managed to avoid detection.

“That’s all I need from you,” Nigel finished with a grin. He waved Shining away, the unicorn moving to embrace his wife. Reflection began to purr as a hand scratched her behind the ears, the changeling reminding Nigel of something else he had to do.
“I almost forgot, Elijah and Orthodox, come over and meet Reflection.” The scientist hurried over with childlike joy, Orthodox deciding to stay next to Shining and Cadence. Reflection sat up on Nigel’s lap, interested to meet the creature that had helped him see her again.

“Remarkable,” Elijah commented as he examined her up close. He removed his helmet, Reflection smiling as she saw that he was a human just like Nigel. He looked… more bookish than Nigel, with messy black hair, pale skin and a fat nose. His brown eyes were filled with interest, his armoured hand reaching out for a greeting. “Hello Miss Reflection, I’m Elijah Von Barker. Lead Researcher for the Occult Experimentation and Military Application Division, or just OEMAD for short.”

“Careful,” Nigel warned lightly while Reflection giggled. She reached out a hoof, Nigel having told her about handshakes before he was banished. Cool metal grasped around her limb, the scientist giving it three shakes before letting it go.

“I must say, when Nigel told me that he had a girlfriend I didn’t believe him. I believe that your race is called ‘changelings’ and that you feed on love?” Reflection nodded. “My, he was always a fan of the exotic ones.” Reflection blushed at being referred to as ‘exotic’; so far Nigel’s friends seemed nice.

“That’s right, Nigel let us live in the Empire with the Crystal ponies.” Reflection’s face hardened while she shot Cadence another glare. “Of course, that all changed when a certain group of ponies decided that defending ourselves was wrong.” Elijah nodded, watching as Nigel stroked the changeling’s back to calm her.

“I must say Nigel,” he commented as he turned to his friend. “I had expected you to be a bit more, well, angry at the situation.” Nigel laughed, Cadence and Shining staring at him worriedly.

“Oh, I am immensely angry,” he confirmed. “However, I’m saving it all up for a certain Princess who’s directly responsible for everything. As soon as I get my hands on her…” He trailed off, a wide grin on his face as he leaned back and closed his eyes. “Oh, I’m going to destroy all of her hopes and dreams.”

“You can do whatever you want as long as I get to study the leftovers.” Nigel opened his eyes to look at Elijah again, nodding his head in agreement.

“Sure, just don’t dissect any of ours and you can do what you like.” Nigel remembered something, following Reflection’s gaze back to Cadence. “Oh, and don’t think you’ve gotten away unpunished Cadence. Shining may have earned a reprieve, but I’m still disappointed in you.” He leaned forward. “Very disappointed.” Cadence gulped, Nigel drumming his fingers on the armrest of his throne. “Now, what should we do with you?”

“Cut off her wings,” Reflection provided, prompting Orthodox to chuckle from his spot near the two captives.

“Oh, I must admit I’m liking you more and more, bug-horse.” Reflection deflated at this, Nigel shooting Orthodox a warning glare before whispering in Reflection’s ear.

“Don’t mind Orthodox, he tends to say the wrong things.” With that done, Chalmers gave Cadence a thoughtful look. “I don’t know Reflection, I feel like we need to go less for the mutilation and more for the humiliation.” Reflection’s eyes lit up with an idea, and she leaned up to whisper it to Nigel. He grinned as she sat back down, glancing towards Elijah and Orthodox. “Say, did you two happen to bring a standard hygiene kit?”

Elijah rolled his eyes and pressed a button on his arm, a compartment on his suit opening to reveal a small black case. “I did, everyone should carry them.” All eyes went to Orthodox, the alien shrugging his shoulders.

“If I need to wash then I’ll just steal some stuff, carrying around useless junk only means that I have less room for important things like guns and ammo.” Elijah shook his head before tilting it at Nigel.

“Well, I have one and I assume James has one. Why do you need on all of a sudden?” Chalmers grinned at Cadence, Reflection joining him.

“Oh, well Reflection thought that as punishment, we’d s-“

“Princess Cadence and Shining Armour, we’re under attack from monsters!” Everyone whirled around to spot Rainbow Dash hovering in the air to the left of Nigel’s throne. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene, flying back a little as they spotted Nigel and Reflection. “You!” she yelled, pointing a hoof at him. “You’re supposed to be in Tuataras!”

“I got better,” Nigel explained, holding the pegasus’ attention while Orthodox snuck around behind her. “And just what are you doing in my throne room?” Nigel recognised her from the Gala, remembering that she was the pony that had initially confronted Reflection. Rainbow did a double take, looking down at Cadence and Shining Armour.

“Your throne room? I thought Princess Cadence was in charge?” Nigel felt a small twinge of amusement; this was going to be fun.

“Oh, she still is in charge,” he answered while Reflection held back a snigger. Elijah was to busy writing down notes about the flying pony to laugh. “I’m just sitting in the throne with my soldiers running around the castle while she’s sitting on the stone floor frozen in terror, but yes she is still in charge.” It took Rainbow a few seconds to catch the sarcasm, but when she did she glared at him.

“I knew you were trouble!” she accused. Nigel smirked at her, Orthodox preparing to pounce.

“Guilty as charged. However, you’re the one that’s under arrest.” Before Rainbow noticed that something was amiss, Orthodox tackled her out of the air. The two landed on the stone floor, Orthodox quickly straddling Dash’s back while she struggled and yelled.

“Get off me!” she fought, however Orthodox had the advantage thanks to his armour and training.

“Sorry pony,” he chuckled as he held her down. “But you’re not going anywhere.”

“Girls!” Dash yelled, hoping to rouse her friends. She grinned at Nigel as someone approached, the Emperor returning it with a knowing smile. “You’re in for it now.”

“Don’t bet on it,” Chalmers replied, Dash’s hopes fading as James reappeared through the doorway.

“Horsefeathers,” Dash cursed, James walking over to her and giving her a light kick in the side.

“Annoying little gnat,” he insulted while glaring down at her.

“James,” Nigel sighed as he placed a hand on his head. “You’re an ex-ISA agent now working for the psionic unit. I would have expected you to be able to control a few ponies.” James turned around to defend himself.

“Oh, all the other five are still sleeping, now they’ve just cuffs. This one wasn’t in her room, she was snooping around and spotted me leaving one of the rooms. Before I could blink she was racing down here calling for the guards.” James gave Rainbow another kick, Dash gritting her teeth as a tail prodded her in the back of the head. “Looks like her master plan failed.”

Nigel was just about to continue the ribbing, but a loud bang on the main throne room doors accompanied by angry shouts interrupted it.

“It appears as if my loyal subjects have appeared for morning court,” Nigel observed. “Orthodox, bring the pegasus over here. James and Elijah, you do the same with Cadence and Shining. Weapons to all of their heads if you please, I have a plan for dealing with the guards.” The two humans and alien did as asked, Orthodox roughly dragging Rainbow to the left of the throne while Shining and Cadence were placed to the right. All three soon had rifles or pistols trained on them, Nigel leaning back in the throne and petting Reflection on the head.

The heavy wooden doors opened, ten Equestrian Royal Guard backing into the room as a mob of crystal ponies and changelings tried to push through.

“Sorry Princess!” one of the guards called out as he started to look behind him. “They’re particularly violent this morning…” the guard trailed off when he saw that his ruler was not on her throne, but instead was sobbing on the floor with a menacing creature aiming a weapon at her head. The unicorn guard gulped as he saw that the Emperor was back and sitting on the throne, the changeling in the human’s lap grinning at the situation.

“Oh, that shan’t be an issue at all,” Nigel replied, the crowd stopping their yelling as they realised what was happening. “I like my crowds violent, it really livens up the place.” All of the guards trembled, stuck between an angry crowd and the creature that Celestia had banished to the Underworld.

Nigel grinned wider at their discomfort, gesturing with a hand towards Cadence and Shining Armour. “Now Gentlecolts, as you can see your former rulers are in a spot of bother. One step out of line and they die.” The guards didn’t know what kind of weapons that the creatures were wielding, but they knew that the Emperor wasn’t joking around. Slowly, one by one, they dropped their spears and swords, Chalmers’ grin increasing.

“We’ll be taking over security matters from here, please move to the left of the room and face the wall.” The guards hesitantly did what they were told, leaving the stunned crowd unhindered. Nigel smiled at his subjects, beckoning them with a hand.

“What are you waiting for? Morning court is in session.”

Elijah raised his data-pad to his face.

“Equines appear to be shocked at the revelation that Commander Chalmers is present.” In response to his noting of the situation, Nigel and Orthodox gave him annoyed looks. “Fellow UIP personnel appear to be annoyed with the taking of verbal notes. In keeping with ISA tradition for old times’ sake, I will continue to verbally record notes from now on.”

“Moron,” Nigel muttered under his breath. The crowd of civilians all alternated their gazes from the Emperor, Reflection and the three new creatures. The three captive Equestrians were ignored, the crowds’ anger having turned into shock. A lone stallion broke out of the crowd, his coat coloured copper. He advanced upon the Emperor, a grin forming on his face.

“Nigel!” the stallion exclaimed, causing Reflection and Chalmers sitting up.

“Captain Strategy,” Chalmers greeted, Strategy holding out his hoof for a shake. Nigel met it with his hand, Strategy backing off and saluting after it was done.

“We’ve missed you sir, the city is in a dire situation.” Strategy gave Cadence and Shining a stony look, Elijah once again bringing his pad up to record notes.

“New equine with a copper coat and dark blue mane seems to be a military officer. Rank is referred to as ‘Captain’, and name is confirmed by Commander Chalmers as ‘Strategy’. This equine appears to have a pre-established relationship with Commander Chalmers, and refers to him as a superior-“

“Elijah!” Nigel shouted, breaking the scientist out of his recordings. Elijah noticed that everyone was staring at him. Orthodox was standing near the rainbow pony shaking his head, while James was too busy staring at the crowd of ponies. “For once, can you just focus on something other than research!?”

“Oh!” Reflection spoke up suddenly. “I remember now!” she pointed her hoof at James, Orthodox and Elijah. “You three are Nigel’s friends that he used to be in that squad with; your names are on his tattoo!” Nigel sighed, Elijah raising the pad once more.

“The changeling named ‘Reflection’ has figured out that attending UIP personal have previous personal history with Commander Chalmers. Reflection recalls seeing names on the Commander’s tattoo. This is further proof that Commander Chalmers has managed to build an intimate relationship-“

“How is that relevant!?” Nigel yelled. Elijah stopped talking, deciding to wait until Nigel calmed down before taking more notes. Elijah slowly put the pad down; instead of speaking he’d just have to write down information again. Elijah recorded that the changeling enjoyed being scratched behind the ears, Reflection leaning back in bliss as Chalmers’ hand massaged her head.

“Excuse me, Emperor,” Strategy spoke up, nodding at Elijah and James. “I take it these are re-enforcements your people sent?” A laugh drew attention to Orthodox, the alien chuckling while he held his rifle barrel on Rainbow.

“He actually thinks we’re supposed to be here,” Orthodox mocked, receiving a glare from Strategy.

“Leave him alone Orthodox,” Nigel said as he told him off. “It was a decent assumption.” Chalmers turned to Strategy. “Excuse Orthodox, he’s just a little cranky.”

“Cranky I had to come and rescue your arse,” Orthodox grumbled, Nigel grinding his teeth before forcing a smile.

“Indeed,” he replied. “Anyway, I’ll get everyone to introduce themselves and explain what happened later. I’ll do it publicly, that way I don’t have to repeat it a thousand times. On that matter, would you be willing to re-organise the guard for me and arrest any more Equestrians?” Nigel shot a glance towards the ten guards facing the right wall, the unicorns quickly looking back at the stone as he glared at them.

“I’d be my pleasure. We’ve been preparing for an uprising anyway, so everyone is ready,” Strategy answered with a grin. Nigel raised a finger, the Captain pausing.

“Strategy, I’d prefer them alive and relatively unharmed. They still could prove to be useful as bargaining chips.” Strategy nodded, the stallion passing the stunned crowd on his way to assemble the Crystal Empire military forces. With the matter of the guards sorted, Nigel’s attention moved to the crowd of civilians. “Come on you lot, is that the welcome back I get?”

Reflection eeped and jumped off him, her wings fluttering to carry her clear as the Emperor was swarmed with excited ponies and changelings. Everyone else watched on with amusement and confusion as Nigel was smothered with hugs and questions, Reflection hopelessly glaring at any mare that came near him.

Elijah saw his chance, raising his data-pad again while activating the video recorder.

“As is documented, Commander Chalmers has formed a strong bond with the local population. One will surely question the circumstances surrounding the adoration of an ISA agent, and possible scientific exploitation is very interesting-“

“Elijah,” James spoke up while keeping an eye on Shining, Cadence and the Royal Guard. “Shut up. I mean it’s getting incredibly annoying.” Elijah allowed himself a small smirk, activating the recorder again.

“Psionic Warfare Officer James is annoyed by my notations, and is forgetting that scientific discovery is of the utmost importance.” James shook his head and looked away, Elijah smirking in victory before angling the recorder towards the ponies and changelings to pick up their joyful praises.

Nigel gave an emerald mare a final hug before raising his hands, the forty-strong crowd backing away from him and waiting for what he had to say.

“I’m actually touched, I glad that my return is welcomed by all of you.” He was drowned out as citizens started to recite everything that had gone wrong and why his rule was missed at a breakneck pace. Reflection made her way back to his throne, opting to sit in front of it instead of on him.

“I know that plenty has gone wrong and you all want answers, rest assured that I will fix the problems and give you answers.” Nigel looked behind the crowd as a line of Equestrian guards were marched in, most of the ponies not even in armour. The civilians decided to leave, all of them conversing about informing every one of his return.

“These were all of the guards in the barracks,” Strategy informed, leading a column of Crystal Empire soldiers who were in various states of readiness. Strategy himself was armour-less, the Captain only wielding a sword. “Do you want us to lock them in the dungeon, or do you have… other plans?” The Equestrians stared at Nigel in fear, many only having heard exaggerated tales of his cruelty. Nigel nodded, and Shining and Cadence gulped when they saw that all of the guards had been captured.

“Secure them in the dungeons and assign a detail to guard them. While your troops are at it, there is a bunch on the second floor that are in need of a nice cell. They should be already tied up.”

“You heard the Emperor!” Strategy barked, all of the guards including the original ten being herded at halberd-point towards the dungeons. Strategy waited until all had left the room, yet more Crystal guards filing into the throne room from the outside. They all saluted happily when they recovered from the shock of seeing the Emperor back, Nigel returning them while the three UIP operatives examined their friend’s native army.

“I still don’t understand why they like you,” Orthodox muttered.

“Yeah, you’re all evil so I don’t get it either,” Rainbow added. Orthodox placed a boot on her back and pushed down, Rainbow’s bravado faltering as his rifle barrel prodded the back of her skull.

“But Colourful Horse,” Orthodox replied with joy in his voice. “If I was evil, I’d just shoot you right here and send your body back to your family.” He leaned down, Rainbow gulping as he removed his helmet. An orange face was revealed, along with a fang-filled mouth set in a grin. “You know what? I think you may be right about my moral alignment.”

“Orthodox,” Nigel butted in. “Don’t go shooting the prisoner.” Orthodox huffed and replaced his helmet, Dash breathing a sigh of relief as the pressure on her back was lifted.

Nigel rolled his eyes as Orthodox looked at him, however Strategy drew the alien’s ire instead.

“What’s your problem?” Orthodox asked, having noticed the glare that the Captain was fixing him with.

“You’re disrespectful,” Strategy pointed out with a head tilt towards Nigel. “Emperor Chalmers is loved because he saved us from Sombra, improved our country and fought alongside us to protect it. I would have expected one of his friends to be a little more polite.” Nigel placed his head in his hands. While he appreciated the Captain’s compliments, the pony had no idea what he had just started.
Pointing out Orthodox’s flaws usually ended up with things getting weird.

“Disrespectful?” Orthodox replied with mirth in his voice. “I’ll tell you what pony, you’d certainly change your tune if you knew what your ‘Precious Emperor’ was really like. We go back decades; you’ve known him for, what? Two months? I mean, I’ve seen him naked. I bet you haven’t.”

“Straight onto that topic,” Nigel muttered into his hands. Strategy didn’t back down, the stallion approaching Orthodox. Despite the fact that he was holding a gun to an Equestrian, Strategy marched right up to him, the stallion a little taller than Orthodox.

“Actually, he was naked when we fought the Elk together,” Strategy informed, Nigel guessing what would come next. He was spot on, Orthodox taking advantage of the opening.

“Fighting Elk? Is that what you ponies call it?” Strategy got what the alien was implying, only a slight eyebrow twitch betraying his discomfort at the thought. Down by the throne, Reflection’s opinion of Orthodox was dropping fast.

“How childish,” Strategy shot back. “He’s a good friend, and a fine military leader. He’s a far better ruler than you’d ever be.” Orthodox laughed, glancing towards Nigel while using a thumb to point at Strategy.

“Wow Nigel, you’ve got them hooked! I’m surprised you haven’t started a cult where they lick your feet every day for just existing.” Nigel removed his face from his hands, noticing that Strategy was fuming at the continued insults.

“Let it go Strategy,” Nigel requested, Orthodox chuckling as the Captain snorted and moved to stand next to Shining and Cadence.
“That’s right, be a good little pony,” Orthodox teased. Strategy respected his Emperor’s request however, and didn’t respond. Nigel gave him an apologetic look before frowning at Orthodox.

“Captain Strategy is a competent military commander and has performed exceedingly well. despite multiple disadvantages with the Empire’s forces. Lay off him Orthodox.” Orthodox huffed and gave Dash a swift kick in a flank.

“Hey!” she protested, a glare from Orthodox shutting down any further protest.

“It’s your own fault Nigel,” he grumbled. “All of this talking and ruling is boring. I want my promised booze and party.”

“You need to be patient,” Nigel replied. “I know you don’t give a damn, but I need to sort this Empire out first. We need to get the Heart back up and running, we need to sort out the food shortages and we need to figure out how to start bringing down Celestia. Luckily, Strategy has swiftly gotten the Guard moving, so we should be able to defend against an attack.” Strategy beamed with pride, Orthodox rolling his eyes under his helmet.

“Whatever. I just want something interesting to happen.” As soon as he finished talking, a bright flash lit up the throne room. Everyone looked to the front of the throne, five differently coloured mares recovering from whatever happened.

“Quickly girls, we have to find my brother, Rainbow and Cadence before more guards-“ the mare that had been talking froze as she noticed that the throne room was not empty like she had expected. Nigel glared at James.

“I thought that I told you to secure them?” he asked, James tilting his head as he stared at the mares.

“I did…” he murmured, Nigel shrugging and glancing back at the new arrivals. The five were still staring at him, the purple one locked on the sight of Cadence and Shining Armour.

“Hi,” Nigel waved at the five, Rainbow Dash grinning as she tried to break out of the magnetic cuffs securing her hooves.

“Now you’re in trouble!” Rainbow announced gleefully. “We’re going to kick your flanks!”

“Oh, really?” Nigel asked, the five mares recovering from their shock. He swore that he had seen the purple and white ones before. “What are five mares and a restrained loudmouth going to do that Celestia didn’t?” The mares all winced at this, however Rainbow was emboldened by the presence of her friends.

“We’re the bearers of the Elements of Harmony!” Rainbow announced. “We defeated Discord and Nightmare Moon, so we can defeat you! Right girls?” Instead of the supportive agreements that she expected, the rest of the mares stared at her in shock.

“Rainbow,” Twilight stated slowly. “There’s an armoured… dragon standing next to you with a weapon pointed at you.” She quickly glanced towards Shining and Cadence, her fear increasing. “And there’s more humans pointing weapons at my brother and Cadence!”

“Did you just call me a fucking dragon?” Orthodox growled, his rifle aiming at Twilight. Nigel watched on amused as the white unicorn glared at Orthodox despite the threat.

“What horrid language in front of ladies!” Rarity lectured. “You should be ashamed of yourself, you uncultured beast!” Nigel saw that Orthodox was about to pull the trigger, something that Rainbow had said repeating itself in his mind.

“Orthodox,” Nigel warned. “Don’t even think about killing them.” All of the mares took a step back, however they found that some Crystal Guards had flanked them, a circle of halberds blocking all exits.

“Oh come on,” Orthodox pleaded. “At least let me off the white unicorn.” Nigel shook his head, much to the relief to the Equestrians.

“We need them all alive, let me explain,” Nigel answered while Reflection leaned back against his legs and stared at the ponies. “From what Rainbow pony has just said, I think it’s safe to say that these mares are part of Equestria’s most potent weapon.” Chalmers glanced down at Shining. “Is that correct?” Shining gulped, having hoped that remaining silent would have avoided attention.

“They are,” he answered hesitantly, Nigel clapping his hands together in glee.

“Great,” Nigel responded. “Guards, arrest them.” The five resisted to no avail as they were jumped on and chained up, Strategy fixing the two unicorns with a thoughtful gaze.

“The unicorns need magic inhibitors,” he informed Nigel. “I believe that the Equestrians brought some in case of the crystal unicorns tried to fight back.” Nigel nodded, having already been told about the escape of his unicorns, armour staff and most of the ministers.

“Fetch them,” he ordered, Strategy pointing to a fully armoured changeling. The soldier took flight and left through the doors, heading towards the empty barracks.

“Emperor,” Strategy continued with a glance at the mares. “I understand that depriving the enemy of a powerful weapon is good, but what do you plan to do with them?” Nigel pointed towards the door that led to the staircase, the same staircase that went down to the dungeons.

“We’ve got eighty Equestrian guards as hostages, in addition to Shining Armour and Cadence. By taking these six mares, we only need to feed and guard six, very important, mares and not trained soldiers.” The Equestrians all trembled, for different reasons.

“You’re not going to just kill the guards?” Cadence spoke up terrified, all eyes turning to her.

“What do you think I am, a barbarian?” Nigel huffed while placing a hand on his chest. “I’m going to let them go. After stripping them of their armour and any valuables of course.” Orthodox grinned and put up a hand.

“I claim one of the helmets!” he demanded, Cadence glancing up at Nigel with hope.

“Are you going to let me and Shining go as well?” she asked hopefully. She shrank back as Nigel and Reflection fixed her with glares, the changeling’s far more venomous than the Emperor’s.

“No way!” Reflection snarled. “Not after you ordered your patsies to feed me that gem! You knew how much it meant to me!” Cadence broke down into tears, Shining hugging her as she wept.

“I thought I was helping!” she sobbed, Reflection’s gaze not letting up.

“I’m not going to kill or hurt you,” Nigel reassured before winking at a surprised Reflection. “By that I mean I’m not going to hurt you physically at least.” Cadence stopped crying but stared up at him terrified.

“What do you mean by that?”

Nigel didn’t answer her at first, turning away to glance at Strategy.

“Captain, escort our new hostages, including the rainbow one, to separate cells for now. Also, I know they’ve barely been imprisoned for long but I want you to have the rest of the Equestrians ready to move out when I command. Prepare some basic winter survival rations and clothing for them.” Strategy nodded, the guards relieving Orthodox of his prisoner and taking the six mares down to the dungeons.

“You two,” Nigel ordered while pointing at two crystal guards standing at the doors, an unarmoured changeling and an armoured pony mare. “Take Shining Armour here to the southern city boarder, and wait there.” The two nodded, the pony pointing her halberd at Shining while the changeling’s horn glowed. Shining hesitantly got up, the stallion giving Nigel a pleading look.

“Nigel, what about Cadence? Please don’t hurt her, it’s not her fault and-“

“I already said that I won’t physically hurt her,” he finished while waving Shining away. As the stallion was escorted out of the room, Nigel gave Cadence a wicked grin.

“Well boys, I’ve got a great idea on how to punish the Princess here and send a message to Celestia at the same time.” Cadence started to sob again, Orthodox walking up to her and staring at Nigel.

“We’re going to rape her?” he asked. “Don’t you remember that rape earns you an instant death sentence?” Nigel smacked himself in the face with his hand while Cadence tried to scramble away.

“Orthodox, we’re not going to rape her,” Nigel stressed out, wondering why he even had to explain it. “One, it is illegal. Two, rape is one of the things you know I despise. Three, Reflection would kill me for it.”

“I could make an exception,” Reflection muttered darkly, forcing Nigel to question just how much the changeling hated Cadence. Even he thought that it was a bit far.

“We need to have a long talk,” he told her, Reflection lowering her head at the edge in his voice. Nigel turned his attention away from Reflection and focused once again on Cadence, the alicorn sobbing into her hooves on the ground. “No, nothing like that at all. I want to do something that will send a clear message to Celestia about how much I hate her, not her puppets.” With a grin, Chalmers looked at Elijah who had been busy taking notes the entire time.

“Elijah, about that hygiene kit…”

Crystal ponies and changelings chatted excitedly while they waited in the castle courtyard, news having spread of the return of the Emperor. Most didn’t believe the news at first; however the sudden return of armoured changelings and crystal ponies to the streets gave the rumour a lot of validity. The entire city was braving the icy winds and falling snow, everyone dressed in warm winter clothing as they huddled beneath the main balcony.

The crowd fell silent as the balcony doors opened, Reflection marching out by herself. The changeling put her forehooves on the edge of the balcony so she could be seen clearly, Reflection beaming out towards the waiting citizens.

“Fellow ponies and changelings,” Reflection started. “I bring you great news! The Equestrian occupation has been defeated and our oppressors are at our mercy!” The crowd erupted into cheers, most of them calling for the swift punishment of Princess Cadence. Reflection allowed them a few moments of celebration before waving a hoof, most of the crowd quieting down.

“That’s not all,” she continued, the citizens hoping that the rumours were true. “Our Emperor has returned from his unjust banishment!” Reflection flung her hoof towards the doorway behind her. The crowd roared with approval, cheers and victory cries filling the entire city. They soon died out however, citizens muttering in confusion when the Emperor didn’t appear. “Nigel,” Reflection hissed, the sound of running footsteps approaching.

Nigel burst out onto the balcony, Reflection eyeing the pink hair covering his vile cloak while the ponies and changelings below cheered their approval.

“Sorry, we just finished,” Nigel apologised, pausing to give Reflection a peck on the cheek. “Great job, I’ll take it from here.” Reflection nodded and got down from the edge, Nigel taking her place and waving out at the crowd.

“It’s true!” he yelled out so that all could hear him. “I have returned to help you once again! I must say, it’s certainly colder than when I left!”

No-one knew if it was the laughter at the joke or the general relief and joy, but it was then that a tingling feeling was felt by everyone present and a hum steadily grew in intensity. Ponies cheered while changelings wondered what was happening, before a bright flash emitted from a podium in the centre of the courtyard.

The dull crystal that had previously been sitting on it sprang back to life, the Empire being filled with positive energy as a large dome once again covered the city and shielded it from the harsh winter outside. Ponies stamped their hooves in applause, soon joined by the changelings as they realised what had happened. Joyful cries went up as the citizens celebrated, the air already getting warmer and the changelings drank their fill of positive energy.

“Okay, I still have more to say,” Nigel continued after a few minutes. The bubbly subjects all paid attention, his benevolence only strengthened further in their eyes. “I’m sure you all want Princess Cadence punished, and that you also want answers regarding the people that I brought back with me. The crowd shared murmurs, having heard of the three monsters that had been seen with their Emperor.

“These three are not going to hurt you,” Nigel announced.

‘I think.’

“They will seem a little strange to you at first,” he resumed after his private worry. “They’re old friends of mine, and so far they intend to stay in the Empire and help us strike back at Equestria!” Everyone cheered and applauded, the new-comers already accepted in their minds. “First up is James!” The cheers increased as James walked out onto the balcony, the psionic giving the crowd a brief wave.

“Uh… Hi everyone,” the agent glanced up at the shimmering dome above him. “Wow, I don’t remember that being there when we arrived.” Ponies and changelings thought that it was a joke, all of them laughing while James was left perplexed.

“Smooth,” Nigel teased before facing the crowd and gesturing towards the door again, a wince on his face. “We also have Agent Orthodox!”

Orthodox didn’t merely walk out of the door.

He swaggered.

Nigel and James groaned as Orthodox exited the doorway, his helmet off and his rifle across his back. The alien leaned over the balcony and was met with curious mutters, no-one having seen anything like him before.

“Yo, what’s up ya’ll?” He greeted, earning a curse from Nigel. “I heard that you were all sad about Nigel being sent to Hell, but I just want to let you know one thing.” Orthodox pointed his thumbs at himself. “The bastard missed my birthday, so he’s putting together a party and paying for all the booze.” Nigel closed his eyes and started to count to ten. Meanwhile, Orthodox finished up. “And guess what? All of you ponies and changelings are invited! It’s going to be sweet!”

The crowd cheered again, applauding and whistling while Orthodox basked in their approval like a lizard sunning itself on a rock.

“Arsehole,” Nigel insulted before pulling Orthodox back. He waved a hand, silencing his subjects again. “Last one is Elijah.” The scientist walked out onto the balcony into applause, his helmet still off.

“Greetings sapient equines and sapient insectoid equines, I am Lead Researcher Elijah Von Barker and I look forward to finding out all about you.” The cheers lowered slightly, the crowd a little confused at the introduction. “Nigel has told me all about your plight, but he knows remarkably little about your anatomy, culture, history and social customs. I aim to rectify this, and in doing so I need some volunteers to help me with my research. Now, I think we should start with ten of each sex and race to examine-“

“Elijah, save it for later,” Nigel requested quietly while placing a hand on Elijah’s shoulder. He wasn’t sure where the scientist was going, but one could never be sure with scientists.

Biologists in particular had a habit for not knowing what was inappropriate or not, Elijah even more so.

“Fine, but I would like to be able to do some research,” Elijah relented as he walked back into the castle. Nigel turned to the now-silent crowd.

“Give some applause for Elijah!” A mob mentality and a desire to please their Emperor prompted the subjects to resume their cheering; soon Nigel had to ask for quite again. “Now, after giving it careful thought, I have decided to keep a few hostages but I am releasing the majority of the Equestrians. We will struggle to feed a hundred mouths, but if we let some go then it’s less of a strain on our food stores while still giving us a hopeful defence against another invasion.”

“What about the Pink Menace!?” a mare yelled up. “She needs to be punished!” The crowd all voiced their agreements, Nigel waving them down again.

“Princess Cadence will be returned to Equestria, but as a warning!” Breaths were held as the Emperor turned towards the balcony doors, four guards leading a cloaked pony to the edge for all to see. The brown cloak was removed by Nigel, and the crowd erupted into laughter.

Cadence was standing with her head lowered and her cheeks flushed, the alicorn having been completely shaved of all her hair. All that the crowd could see was naked pink skin, however Nigel knew that not all of Cadence’s hair was gone. He had enough mercy to let her keep her tail for concealment of her privates, but the only other spot of hair was on the middle of her back.

James had skilfully shaved, ‘Celestia is a fat bitch, and we’re coming for you,’ in the hair, making Cadence a literal warning to Celestia.

“Alright, cover her back up and take her to the meeting point,” Nigel quietly ordered, the four guards covering Cadence with the cloak and leading her away. Nigel faced his citizens again.

“I have some business to attend to concerning the Equestrians, but I wish to make a final announcement. Orthodox has already stated his desire for a party, and I’ve come up with an idea.” Nigel raised a fist into the air, the gesture mimicked by hooves down on the ground. He shed a manly tear, the ponies and changelings looking like they were doing a Nazi salute.


“Today is now officially a public holiday, and is now known as ‘Viva La Crystal Empire Day’!”

“What does that mean?” a male changeling questioned, Nigel having to think hard. He actually didn’t know, he just remembered seeing it somewhere about a place called ‘Tropico’ back on old Terra. He would have to improvise.

“It means…” he found himself stuck.

‘Fuck it’.

“We won!” he cried, the citizens all celebrating and yelling their approval. “Everyone start the party! I’ll join in after I finish up with Emperor stuff!” Nigel remained for a few minutes as everyone began the celebrations, a few subjects already passing out food and drink. The party began to expand onto the city streets, the enjoyment not hampered by the rapidly melting snow.

Nigel had a grin on his face, holding a content Reflection’s hoof in his hand while he walked back into the castle.

“I apologise,” Orthodox stated with awe as he watched the massive party kick off. “Your subjects know how to start a street party. They’re already rolling out barrels of booze into the streets. Barrels!” Nigel gave Orthodox a mock punch with his free hand.

“We still have to see off the Equestrians,” he reminded. Instead of complaining Orthodox unslung his rifle and hurried down the corridor.

“Let’s hurry up and get it over with!” he exclaimed, everyone rolling their eyes at his sudden enthusiasm.

“You will never return, and you will tell Celestia that no Equestrian is allowed into the Crystal Empire. If she tries anything, her precious Element Bearers will be executed immediately.”

Nigel stared at the Equestrian guards, Shining, and Cadence. Nigel was flanked by four ten-strong squads of Crystal Guards as well and James and Orthodox, Elijah having elected to stay back and interrogate the six mares they had taken hostage. Reflection was at his side, the changeling still giggling at Cadence’s punishment.

The edge of the southern barrier was clear, luckily for the Equestrians no snow was falling at the moment.

“You have been given the standard winter survival coats and rations of my guards, more than enough to get you back to your own country. You head due south, and I never want to see any of you here again. If you turn back, you get shot. I’m back in charge, and you can tell your fellows that I will happily kill any Equestrian that tries to enter my country.” Nigel narrowed his eyes. “Your kind has already done enough damage. The six mares we have prisoner will be treated well, and if all goes well then they will be released unharmed.”
Shining Armour lifted his head from beside Cadence’s to stare at Nigel pleadingly.

“Please Emperor, let Twilight go at least.” Chalmers shook his head, remembering that Twilight was Shining’s younger sister.

“No Shining, I’ve already done you enough favours as it is. However, you have my word that she will not be harmed.” Shining looked about to protest, but Orthodox had gotten impatient.

“Alright, that’s enough!” he demanded while aiming his rifle at the Equestrians. “I have a party to get to! You heard Chalmers, head due south. Now run!”

When the ponies didn’t move, Orthodox let out a burst of shots. The plasma impacted in the snow just in front of the ponies, the noise and effect of the weapon driving them to bolt away. Orthodox kept firing as the ponies ran away, making sure that his shots followed them in the snow to keep them moving.

“Run ponies! Ruuunnn!” Orthodox only stopped shooting when the Equestrians disappeared over a snowy bank, the ISA agent dashing off back into the city as soon as they were gone. “Party time!” Nigel chuckled, waving at James. The psionic nodded and followed Orthodox, leaving Nigel alone with Reflection and the guards.

“Troops,” Nigel addressed to the assorted ponies and changelings, all fully armed and armoured. “I’m sorry to have to do this, but I require you all the remain on guard during the party.” The soldiers surprised him when instead of the grumbles he expected, he was instead replied to with salutes. Pleased and full of pride at their obedience, Nigel thought of a way to make it up to them. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll organise a guards-only party in a few days’ time to make it up to you, deal?”

“Yes sir!” the guards replied enthusiastically.

“Good,” Nigel sighed in relief. "Now, if you don’t mind I would like to have a private conversation with Reflection.” The guards nodded and left, a few smirking as they dwelled on what the conversation was likely about.

Reflection stared up at Nigel with puzzlement on her face.

“What do you want to talk about?” she asked him, Nigel smiling at her.

“You remember that promise I made you?” he questioned back, Reflection nodding.

“I wouldn’t forget it for the world, but didn’t you say that you had things to do?” She shivered in pleasure as fingers scratched her knotted mane, hitting the sweet spots behind her ears.

“I’ve already got all of the important stuff out of the way,” Nigel answered as he rummaged in his hide cloak. “The only thing I said we had to do was both have a bath.” Reflection’s smile grew as she realised what he was getting back, her tail swishing as she considered the idea.

“You don’t have any complaints from me if you’re thinking what I’m thinking,” she replied before she remembered something. “Hang on, at the risk of spoiling the moment, don’t yo want to go to the party?” Chalmers grinned at her, finding what he was looking for. He pulled a bottle from his robes, passing it down so Reflection could look at it.

“Four berry wine?” she read, moving her eyes from the label back to his face.

“I was thinking we could have a party of our own,” Nigel said with a wink. Reflection hummed in agreement, grasping her forehoof around his hand and pulling him along.

“I suddenly have a very strong urge to have a long, hot bath,” she breathed, the two hurrying along back to the castle like love-struck teenagers.

Rainbow Dash glared at the white-armoured human sitting in front of her cell, her friends all watching from their own cages. She beat her hooves against the bars, having already tried to throw her mattress at the door.

Needless to say, that tactic hadn’t worked.

“Just you wait until Celestia rescues us and banishes all of you like your evil friend!” Rainbow didn’t get a response, the human only staring at her as he leaned forward on his stool. She didn’t like being ignored.

“Are you listening!?” she yelled, the entire situation pissing her off immensely. “Answer me you Featherbrained, useless, annoying, ugly Cloudstain!” The human didn’t even blink his brown eyes, his hand raising a square, glowing device up to his mouth.

“Subject, dubbed ‘Crazy Flying Rainbow Horse’ by ISA Agent Orthodox, is currently showing intense signs of irritation and rage towards Lead Researcher Von Barker. Lead Researcher is going to attempt to clarify the situation.”

Rainbow jolted back as the device was pointed towards her, Rainbow not knowing if it was another of the aliens’ strange weapons.

“Crazy Flying Rainbow Horse,” the scientist asked, leaning in further towards the bars with a gleam in his eye. “Are you currently experiencing the emotion known as rage or anger?” Rainbow couldn’t answer, too shocked at the stupid question. The human took her silence for misunderstanding.

“Oh, I’m sorry, let me put it into layman’s terms.” The human showed the slightest smile.

“Are you mad?”

The Calm Before the Storm

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“Ow, what did I do last night?”

Reflection groaned and lifted her head off the pillow, her head thumping with pain. Everything was hazy, and her mouth was incredibly dry. Braving the light, she blinked open her eyes and searched for a source of water.

She froze when she noticed the surrounding room; the entire place looking like a tornado had torn through it. The empty wine bottles heaped on the bedside table hinted to the cause of her suffering, Reflection putting two and two together.

“Just how much did I drink?” she grumbled, before getting out of the bed to search for her Emperor. As her hooves hit the floor and a particularly nasty throb of agony hit her mind, she struggled to remain upright. Right then she vowed to never drink as much as she had the previous night, even if she couldn’t remember exactly how much that was.

Reflection made her way out of the wrecked room, intending to head to the kitchen to quench her thirst. She was trying to block out as much light as possible, and she nearly ran into an opening door because of the distraction.

“Oh, sorry about that,” a human with brown coloured skin apologised when he walked out of his room and noticed that he had almost hit her. “It’s one of those mornings, is it?”

“It is,” Reflection answered while trying to remember which human this one was. He wasn’t talking into a glowing thing about everything he saw, he wasn’t Nigel, and he definitely wasn’t the short one. She still didn’t even know what Orthodox was supposed to be, and to be honest she didn’t really care after his treatment of Nigel. That left only one human, and she struggled to remember his name.

“Janes?” she asked hesitantly, receiving a sigh from the man.

“James,” he corrected, placing his helmet on his head and completing his armour. “It’s okay; I can understand that after the party you may not be able to function for a while.”

“I didn’t go to the party,” she replied, the human leaning forwards to take a closer look at her.

“I thought that every- ah, I see now. You’re Chalmers’ new girlfriend, aren’t you?”

Reflection smiled at the reminder, her hangover temporarily forgotten. “That’s me.”

James didn’t say anything for a few moments, before he shook his head and muttered to himself.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, puzzled.

“No, it’s nothing,” he quickly reassured. With that, he made his way towards the staircase a few doors ahead. “Any surprise concerning Chalmers disappeared long ago. I suppose I better go and make sure that Orthodox and Elijah haven’t destroyed everything. See you around Reflection.”

Slightly surprised that he had remembered her name, Reflection shook her head and watched him leave. She made to follow, but a sudden wave of nausea hit her. Figuring that finding Nigel and then throwing up on him wasn’t the greatest idea, Reflection headed back to the room in a slight detour. Quickening her pace as the feeling of sickness increased, she raced to the bathroom and prepared to have her morning ruined even further.

Nigel reached down and plucked another handful of berries from the crystal bowl, the doomed fruit being devoured with a rapid pace. He paused only to take a gulp of water before continuing, yet more fruit disappearing down his gullet. Spending a month in Tartarus, living on nothing but cave fungus and the occasional demonic insect, worked wonders in helping him get over his dislike of Crystal berries.

Beside his throne sat another bowl containing a small amount of cheese. He would have had more, but with the current supply issue he thought that it would be wise to not eat more than he needed. With the dome restored the crops would have a better time, but still the next few months would be hard for all of his subjects. He mulled over asking Elijah if he knew of anyway to accelerate the growth process, only the possibility of the scientist somehow making things worse holding him back.

While chewing, he glanced around his empty throne room. Morning court was supposed to have started an hour ago, but no-one had turned up. He wasn’t surprised; his subjects had partied all through the night in celebration after all. It wasn’t a big deal, although he made a note to make today a public holiday as well. Perhaps something like ‘Viva La Crystal Empire Recovery Day’ or along those lines would work.

Chalmers smiled to himself, six guards entering the throne room and taking up positions alongside his throne. He had missed the main festivities, but spending the night with Reflection had more than made up for it. Instead of waking her when he had, Nigel had decided to let her sleep on without him. Reflection didn’t have a great track record with alcohol and she had drunk a fair amount, so he though it prudent to give her as much rest as possible.

Armoured footsteps drew his attention, Nigel glancing to the right and spotting James walk up to him from the direction of the staircase.
“Morning,” the psionic greeted, Nigel returning the greeting while offering the bowl of berries.

“Morning, want to try some berries?”

“No thanks,” James answered with a raised hand. “I already ate.”

“I still don’t call supplements and protein gel eating,” Nigel replied before taking another handful of berries. “You might as well eat while you have the chance.”

James grunted and pointed at Chalmers, specifically at the black dress uniform that he was wearing. “Nice suit.” Nigel, with a mouthful of berries, nodded and gave a thumb up. James stared at the gesture before looking away, the armoured soldier examining the crystal pony guards who returned the gaze. Nigel put the empty bowl down on the side table, drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair. His guards and James continued to exchange looks, neither comfortable with the other.

“Did you enjoy the party?” Nigel questioned to break the silence, James shrugging and walking over to examine the main doors.

“I didn’t really go. Those parties aren’t really my thing.”

“I’m sure the nobility would enjoy your presence at one of their dinner parties,” Nigel smirked, knowing that James wouldn’t be able to resist the bait.

“Where did that even come from?” James complained. “Just because I have slightly more class than the rest of you three, and don’t like booze-fuelled parties, doesn’t mean that I enjoy rubbing shoulders with nobles.”

“You wore a suit to a bar,” Nigel deadpanned, James about to defend himself. “Multiple times, and you refused to take it off even when those ladies asked you to.”

“I would hardly call the women in your usual haunts ladies,” James muttered, Nigel raising his eyebrows at the reply.

“And what does that mean?” he questioned, the six pony guards equally confused and amused at the conversation.

“Never mind, just stop perpetuating the idea that I lack the capacity to have fun. Orthodox is already bad enough without you adding to it.”

“Speaking of Orthodox,” Nigel moved on. “Where is the little bundle of joy? I haven’t seen him at all this morning.” James scoffed, returning to the throne and looking around for another seat. Seeing that there was none, he just picked a spot against the wall and sat down on the floor.

“He’s probably asleep on a park bench with a bottle or a female. I hope you told all of your subjects to lock up their daughters, you know how he gets when he drinks.”

“I sure do,” Nigel tittered. “He transforms from a self-obsessed, loud-mouthed idiot into a self-obsessed, loud-mouthed idiot with a silver tongue. I would think that he would at least have the decency to be somewhat subtle.”

“Orthodox? Subtle?” James started, Nigel rolling his eyes.

“Yes, I realised it as soon as I said it,” Chalmers answered with a sigh. “I guess that at least we can count on Elijah to maintain some dignity. He’s probably off examining a rock and writing an essay on the local geological formations and their potential use for science.”

Chalmers scratched his chin and glanced at his guards. “Say James, would you mind going over some basic combat drills with the guards this afternoon? I have to organise a few things and after a month they’ll need to get back up to speed.”

“Uh,” James hesitated while looking at the waiting guards. “Are we allowed to teach them combat techniques?”

“Just basic stuff, like tactics to use against a generally peaceful, quadruped nation who utilise magic and ancient weaponry in their wars. I’m not suggesting that we teach them how to operate UIP weapon systems or deciphering secure military communication codes.

Besides,” he glanced at his guards once again. “I highly doubt that teaching a non-space travelling civilisation how to use halberds and swords against another, non-space travelling civilisation is going to be a major threat to the UIP, especially when they just had an all-night party to celebrate my return. You’ll soon see that loyalty is a common trait here.”

The guards straightened with pride at the praise, only further proving the point. James kept on staring at them for a few moments, before he uttered a sigh of defeat which brought a smile to Nigel’s face.

“Fine, I guess it can’t really hurt. Don’t expect me to know the exact details of pony-on-pony mortal combat.”

“That’s okay sir,” one of the guards spoke up to reassure James. The bronze mare tilted her head at Chalmers and received a nod to continue. “Emperor, just a quick question, how should we address the three soldiers you brought with you?”

“This here is Agent James,” Nigel introduced, the guards nodding. “Since he’s in a different department of the UIP, I technically don’t have control over him, but I was his old squad leader when he was serving in the Internal Security Agency with me. Still, he’s second in command and he knows his stuff so you can rely on him to be an effective leader. Researcher Elijah, that’s the nerd in the white armour, is after James and Agent Orthodox is after that.” James stepped over and looked down at the mare who had asked the question.

“Don’t listen to Orthodox though. He’s a Prick.”

“Is that what species he is?” a male guard asked, Nigel and James struggling to hold back laughter.

“Yes, yes it is.” James’ delivery was emotionless and convincing, the guards accepting that Orthodox belonged to the species of Prick and that for some reason that meant that they were to not listen to his orders.

“If you six could please locate Agent Orthodox and tell him that I wish to see him,” Nigel asked, the guards eagerly following his orders. James and Chalmers waited until the room was empty of ponies, before letting out the laughter that had been building up at Orthodox’s expense.

“Oh, that was golden,” Nigel chuckled while shaking his head.

“I can’t believe that they thought I was serious,” James agreed, for the first time on the planet feeling genuine mirth. “Maybe they won’t be as boring as I first thought.”

“They’re good guys and gals,” Nigel defended lightly. “It’s understandable that they haven’t been exposed to all of our swears and insults. Also, the Crystal Empire has been gone for one-thousand years on this planet as it is, so they’re even behind the other nations.”

Nigel stopped laughing as soon as he thought of just how Orthodox would react if a naïve pony called him a ‘prick’. “Listen, James,” he addressed. “Do you mind catching up with the guards and letting them know it was a joke? If they ask Orthodox what his species of ‘Pricks’ are like…”

“Yeah, we’ll probably need all of the soldiers we can get,” James agreed before moving to pursue the guards. “Having Orthodox start killing friendlies is not the ideal situation.”

“Amen to that.”

Nigel leaned back after James had left, and he soon began to tap his hands on the armrests.

“Well, this is boring,” he remarked, regretting his choice to send all six guards and thus losing a chance at conversation.
His boredom was soon lifted however; when the tapping of hooves on the Crystal floor approached him from behind.

Reflection stumbled over to the throne, her stomach still churning.

‘Never. Drinking. Again.’

Her head still pounded with every hoofstep, and the journey to the throne seemed to take an eon. It was worth it however; as soon as she made it to the seated Emperor a direct flow of emotion began to steady stream to her. She didn’t know if it was a side-effect or not, but her headache seemed to lose some of its edge.

“Good Morning,” Nigel greeted with a grin. Reflection didn’t reply immediately and instead opted to attempt to climb up onto his lap. She struggled, but after a brief chuckle from Chalmers two hands assisted her in her goal. Reflection sprawled herself sideways, resting her pounding head on the cool armrest of the chair as she received a soothing head rub.

“There’s nothing good about it,” she complained with a groan. “My head hurts, I feel sick, I can’t remember anything past when I had the first glass of wine and it’s gotten worse since I woke up.” Reflection frowned when he laughed, not finding the humour in the situation.

“I told you to go easy on the alcohol, but you didn’t listen,” Nigel reminded her. “It’s your own fault.”

“That doesn’t help,” she grumbled. “Why didn’t you try harder to stop me?”

“I tried, but when I took your glass away you started to drink from the bottle.” There was a brief pause, Reflection not able to see thanks to her closed eyes but it felt like he was looking around to make sure no-one was in earshot. “Also,” Nigel continued. “We were focused on other matters, remember?”

“No I don’t-“ Reflection began to reply, before her eyes snapped open and she sat up to face him. Her head protested, but the pain was ignored as she figured out what he meant. “Wait, you mean that we…?”

“We did,” he confirmed, Reflection’s heart sinking.

“But I can’t remember it!” she lamented. “I waited more than a month, and I can’t even remember what happened!” She received a reassuring pat on the back, and she found herself pulled into an embrace.

“It’s no big deal,” Nigel tried to tell her, but Reflection didn’t feel that way.

“It is to me.” Her bad mood lifted slightly when she felt a hand begin to massage her back, her headache dulling further with a surge of love. Nigel clicked his tongue, and Reflection nuzzled her head into his shirt with a pout.

“We’ve got plenty of time to make up for it later,” he told her. “Besides, you should remember everything a little later on. That’s what happens when you drink as much as you did, especially when you’re not used to alcohol.”

“I don’t need a lecture,” she replied with a sigh. “I already know that I made a mistake, okay? Just… don’t let me make it again.” No reply came, but she didn’t mind that much. Her body shifted so that she could return the hug with her own forelegs, her mood improving as they sat there in silence.

He was right, she realised. They did have plenty of time and opportunities, and it wasn’t as if it was a one-time thing that she had missed. It’s wasn’t like anything major had changed, so she was probably just blowing everything out of proportion.

“What do you have to do today?” she questioned hopefully, sneakily aiming to convince him to spend some more time with her after his long absence. Her hopes were dashed when he raised a hand with five fingers raised, Nigel beginning to list off his duties.

“Well, first off I have to find the subjects who fled the city into the caves. After that I need to take stock of our supplies. Thirdly, I need to make sure my three comrades don’t destroy everything. After that I need to go around and do some courtesy visits.” One finger remained up-right, Chalmers grinning as he looked down at her. “And lastly, I thought that I’d try and see how the pub fared in my absence. I wonder if they still do those pies…”

Reflection smiled, knowing what he was saying. Going out to dinner would be nice, and a pub would mean that she wouldn’t have to worry about acting all fancy and noble-like. She nodded her head at the suggestion, shifting again so that her back was pressing into his chest and her head was resting up against his shoulder.

“That sounds good, no drinking though,” she added, her head offering a dull reminder of her record with alcohol.

“I can live with that,” Chalmers replied. Both glanced out over the empty room, Reflection closing her eyes again.

“Don’t you have work to do?” she asked, her mind now set on looking forward to the coming dinner.

“I do, but court is still in session for another hour.” The head rub resumed. “I guess we have to stay here in case someone comes looking for an audience.” Reflection cricked her neck, settling back in relaxation.

“I don’t have an issue with that,” she murmured, receiving a hum of agreement soon after.

“Mister, are you okay?”

Orthodox opened his eyes at the young voice; however he still was unable to see anything but brown. He tried to tell the child to bugger off and leave him alone, but it came up as an intelligible grumble. Orthodox could taste dirt, leading him to the conclusion that he had woken face-down on the ground.

Just like training all of those years ago…

And last Friday.

In an attempt to solve his problem, Orthodox rolled over onto his back, keeping his armoured tail out to the side. He tried again, opening his eyes and blinking against the sunlight. With a wince he turned his attention to the direction that he thought the voice had come from, being met with an empty park bench and a row of houses.

“Over here.”

Orthodox turned his head to his left, finding two young ponies and a smaller version of one of the black bug things staring at him. Grumbling to himself about Nigel and teleporters, Orthodox felt around him for a much needed object. Finding his helmet lying on the ground near his legs, he grabbed it and retrieved the half-full bottle of wine from inside of it.

“Why are you on the ground?” the bug asked, Orthodox searching his memory while taking a swig of wine.

“I could have sworn that I collapsed on the bench last night,” he informed them, before sitting upright. “I probably just fell off in my sleep.”

“You slept on a bench?” the female pony with an azure coat questioned with a strange look on her face.

“Yeah,” the silver colt added. “Why didn’t you sleep in a bed?”

“All of these fucking questions, in the morning as well.” The two ponies drew back at the swear, the changeling nymph confused at their reaction. Orthodox didn’t pay attention, too focused on trying to stand up with the aid of his tail.

“You said a bad word,” the filly whispered, slightly awed that the light-orange dragon swore just like a pony. Well, just like bad ponies according to her parents.

“I say bad words all the time,” Orthodox informed the trio. “It’s part of the job.” The nymph and foals watched on intrigued as he staggered to his feet, the children coming up to his waist. He searched around the area while patting himself down. He laid eyes on what he was looking for, Orthodox walking over to the edge of a fountain and grabbing his energy rifle from the crystal ledge. His weapon secured, he turned his attention back to the youngsters. “What are you kids doing out here anyway? You should be in school.”

“No-ones there,” the colt told him with a grin. “All the adults are asleep, so we came out to play. Harmony is my younger sister and we’re in the same class as Switch. We’re all going to play tag, do you want to join?” Orthodox stared at the three, guessing that Switch was the bug horse considering the facts that he was male and a different species to the ponies. He took another gulp of wine and shook his head, giving a mighty belch and then wiping his mouth with the back of his armoured hand.

“I can’t, I have to go and do stuff. Nigel’s going to be making me do things around this city and I’m going to be honest. Even if I didn’t have to help him rule this place, I still wouldn’t play. I’m likely older than your parents, after all.” His slight insult was ignored by the children, their eyes widening at the mention of helping Nigel rule the city.

“You know the Emperor?” Harmony breathed in awe, her fellows equally amazed by the revelation. Orthodox nodded and shifted his helmet under his arm, taking another sip from his bottle. He frowned and examined the green container, almost down to the last drops.
“He’s not that special, I still don’t see why all of you ponies and changemings-“

“Changelings,” Switch corrected with a huff, narrowing his solid blue eyes at Orthodox, a correction that was waved away by the uncaring alien.

“Whatever. Why you almost seem to worship the ground he walks on is just impossible to figure out.”

“He defeated Sombra, and turned him into a rug!” the colt cheered while rearing up and waving his hooves.

“He made the Heart work again!” Harmony added, adding to the posing with her older brother.

“He didn’t kill us!” Switch tried to join in, however he received shocked looks from his friends. “What? It’s true!”

“Kids these days,” Orthodox mumbled before draining his wine and heading off to search for more. “Now the castle should have some, I only have to find out where it is…” Orthodox looked up, the crystal fortress a few streets away. It towered up over the city, the top almost touching the bottom of the shimmering dome. “Well, that was easy.” He continued walking, not noticing the hurried hoofsteps clacking on the stone road behind him.


Orthodox sighed, briefly considering turning around. He didn’t, instead he hoped that if he kept on walking then they would leave him alone. The ponies didn’t let up, and it was only seconds before Harmony and her equally annoying brother were on his left and right respectively.

“Can you take us to meet the Emperor?” Harmony asked excitedly. “Glaze told me that he fought off fifty-hundred Diamond Dogs by himself!”

“I don’t think so, I’m probably in enough trouble as it is without the whole ‘Hey Nigel, guess what? I woke up on the ground and thought that I’d bring you three small children to annoy you. Surprise!'”

‘Hang on a second,’ Orthodox thought as soon as he replied. ‘Where’s the third one?’

His question was answered with a buzzing of wings and a thump to the back of his head. Orthodox stopped dead in his tracks when two small hooves desperately grasped him around the face, a set of hind legs banging down against his back.

“You better have a damn good reason for attaching yourself to me,” Orthodox stated slowly, Harmony frowning at his use of another bad word. He glanced down as the black, hole-covered hooves gripped him around the neck, the hind hooves going around his torso. Orthodox silently cursed his short form, his lack of height obviously the reason why these children treated him with such little respect.

“Sorry,” Switch spoke up from behind him. “I’m still trying to get used to flying and I panicked.” Orthodox didn’t buy it, but that didn’t solve the issue of the creature hitching a ride.

“Fine, get off me then,” he ordered. The nymph quickly buzzed his wings again and landed on the ground, the changeling receiving unamused looks from his ground-locked friends.

“I said I was sorry,” Switch muttered. Orthodox rolled his eyes and continued on, the topic of the three meeting Chalmers thankfully dropped. Or so he had thought.

“So…” Harmony began after the pause, the children matching his pace. “Can you at least get us into the castle?”

“Do I look like a tour guide to you?”

“You look like a dragon, an orange one,” Switch answered, stopping Orthodox in his tracks. “But… are you a ‘tour guide’? I don’t know what that is, or what one looks like. I know Emperor Chalmers is a ‘Human’, but I’ve never heard of a ‘tour guide’ befor-“

“Kid,” Orthodox uttered dangerously as he turned around slowly to face Switch. “The people I work for don’t have the phrase ‘War Crime’ in their vocabulary. I suggest that you stop talking, or I might have to smack-“


His threat to ‘smack you into the next plane of existence’ was halted by a shout from James, saving Switch from the unpleasant experience. Orthodox spat on the ground before turning back around to see James flanked by six armed and armoured pony guards.

“What? Can’t you see that I’m in the middle of something here?” The six guards halted, gazing at the three children in befuddlement while James merely shook his head.

“Orthodox, it’s not play-time now; Nigel wants you to see him so he can give you your animal crackers and juice-box.” James finished his taunting with a gesture to the foals and nymph. “Seriously though, I don’t trust you with children.”

“I wasn’t doing anything, I swear,” Orthodox lied, James’ blank faceplate holding an unbroken stare. Orthodox shifted uncomfortably.

Ever since his old squad mate had been snapped up by the Psionic Warfare Unit, Orthodox had been wary around him. He’d heard stories of mind-readers and mental controllers, so he couldn’t be sure just what James was able to do. The black man had never really discussed his abilities or their limits, but Orthodox didn’t want to test them.

“What does Nigel want me for anyway?” Orthodox asked in an attempt to divert the subject. It worked, James switching his attention to the new topic.

“He didn’t say, but I can tell you it’s nothing about you sleeping on the ground.”

“Stop that! Stop using your witch powers on me to read my mind!” Orthodox demanded, James pausing before pointing out the obvious.

“Orthodox, you’re covered in dirt.”

“Oh,” Orthodox responded, looking down to find that his armour was indeed rather filthy.

“Besides,” James continued. “I prefer novels, not single articles from lewd magazines.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Orthodox hissed, his hand edging towards the knife hidden in his waist armour. He couldn’t see James’ face due to the reflective visor, but he knew that the smug bastard was grinning underneath it.

“Nothing at all, forget I said anything,” James answered with no sign of fear. “You better run along, you wouldn’t want to keep Chalmers waiting.”

“I’ve been out from his command for years now,” Orthodox muttered, before walking past the group with a sneer. James moved over to the stunned children, while the pony guards gazed judgementally at him with disapproval. “What are you looking at?” After his loaded question, Orthodox winced when a small pebble fell out of the sky to hit him square in the middle of his hairless head. He glared at James, the psionic waving at him innocently before turning back to the three young children.

“Wanker,” Orthodox muttered, still able to feel the stares of the pony guards upon his back as he continued on to the castle.

“Subjects appear to be in an extreme state of fatigue, and Pegasus named ‘Rainbow Dash’ is currently baring her teeth in what is possibly an attempt at intimidation.”

“You’ve been watching us all night, you creep!”

Elijah looked up from his notes, Rainbow Dash glaring at him from her cell. He frowned and glanced at the time display inside his helmet, finding that it was indeed in the morning according to local time.

“Huh,” he voiced before returning to his notes. “Time sure flies when you’re having fun. Anyway, back to the topic, red or blue?”

“None of them!” Rainbow yelled, her eyes bloodshot. “Leave us alone!”

“Nonsense, science never rests, come rain, snow or hail. I shall find the answers, without fail. Red or Blue is what I ask, answering it a simple task-“

“And now he rhymes!” Rainbow Dash threw up her hooves and moved to the back of her cell. Elijah stared at her, wondering why she was getting so worked up over a simple question. The other five ponies had been good and quiet, with the occasional complaint against the forced imprisonment. It was expected, however he had thought that they would have been more willing to answer basic questions given that they didn’t have much else to do.

“I fail to see why you’re so irritated,” Elijah changed tact, hoping that conversation would calm down the subject so that the inquiries could continue. “Would you like to talk about your irritation?”

“Just leave me alone,” Rainbow muttered from the corner, Elijah rolling his eyes at her refusal.

“Be that way then, I have five other subjects after all.” While he stood up, Rainbow violently threw herself against her cell with a crash.

“You leave them alone!” she ordered, Elijah ignoring her in his eagerness to interrogate another pony. While Rainbow banged her hooves against the bars, he turned and stared down at the purple unicorn. The pony was watching her rude friend with a concerned expression, an expression that doubled when she noticed the scientist advancing towards her.

“Please,” she tried to reason. “I’m a scientist too, well, in a way. If you let us get some sleep, I’ll tell you everything about ponies that you want to know. I promise.” Her attempts at bargaining failed, Elijah crouching down and preparing his recorder and data pad.


“Twilight Sparkle,” the unicorn answered hesitantly.



This caused Elijah to pause and tilt his head. Intriguing, Chalmers had mentioned that the horned ponies and changelings were able to conduct magic so this ‘Twilight Sparkle’ would likely prove to be a valuable source of information. He decided to press on.

“When you say magic, what does that describe to you? Do you believe it to be a mystical force or a mental ability for example?”

“I can’t… argh! Look, I can’t think properly without sleep!” Twilight took some calming breaths before forcing a smile and gazing up at him. “If you let me and my friends out, and take off this magic inhibitor then I’ll… I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” Elijah sighed, yet another attempt to escape. At least they could not treat him like an idiot while trying it.

“That is not going to happen,” he told her, an eye twitching when he saw the lack of worthwhile notes on his pad. “Now, answer my question.”


“For the love of science,” Elijah muttered before turning around, three pony guards wheeling in a small cart the source of the interruption. “Do you have to do this now? They can go without food for at least another three days.” He gestured back to the cells, the occupants fixing him with horrified stares.

“I’m sorry sir, but the Emperor ordered it,” the lead guard apologised, Elijah taking note of the rank markings indicating that he was a sergeant. The other two ponies removed plates containing fruit and bread, beginning to pass them through the bars to the thankful captives within. “He also requested your presence in the throne room.”

“You do realise, Sergeant, that starvation and sleep deprivation are very effective methods of information gathering? The same methods that you have just effectively ruined in one swoop, all my hard work wasted?” The guard shifted uncomfortably, his two subordinates sharing a glance before continuing to pass out water and food.

“I’m just following orders, sir. Besides, why are you trying to torture them? The Emperor ordered that they be treated well-“

“Nigel is often incapable of seeing the big picture,” Elijah retorted with a finger wave. “Believe me, if you ponies actually spent more than a few months around him, then it would be apparent.” He went to continue the lecturing of the guard, but the stressed look on the pony’s face stopped him. Elijah lowered his finger slowly. After all, this guard was only doing what Chalmers had ordered.

If Elijah wanted anything to change, then he would have to talk to Nigel directly. Maybe then he would get somewhere with his research.

“Actually, I believe that I am done for now,” Elijah stated, surprising the guards with his sudden change of heart. He turned around to fix Rainbow Dash with a glare, the pegasus returning it with her mouth full of bread. She was his nemesis, and Elijah swore that he would break her and get her to tell him the answer to ‘red or blue’.

“I’ll be back,” he farewelled, strolling past the guards with his nose in the air.

“Creep,” Rainbow yelled after him, earning the displeasure of the guards at the disrespect. Elijah ignored it, having grown used to such weak insults. If only Rainbow Horse knew just how many other methods of interrogation that he knew and had used before. If it wasn’t for Chalmers’, admittedly sensible, plan to hold them hostage, then he would have broken out the batteries and electrical wire long ago.

He smiled to himself while he walked up the steps, remembering that Nigel would likely be with that changeling of his. The changelings and crystal ponies were fascinating, far more worthwhile test subjects than the ‘normal’ Equestrians. Alleged shape-shifting and a crystalline appearance beat ordinary, if sapient, ponies any day. Maybe he would be able to bargain with Nigel, and convince him that asking Reflection numerous questions was a good idea.

His grin remained in full force when he exited the guarded doorway of the dungeon staircase and emerged in a hallway. Waving merrily at the changeling and pony guarding the stairwell, Elijah continued on to the throne room. Pausing briefly to note down the increased numbers of guards around the area, Elijah strolled through the door and headed towards the throne.

Thanks to the facing of the throne and the placement of the door, Elijah was able to walk up unnoticed by the seated Chalmers. He received glances from the ten halberd-armed guards arrayed around the room, before the changelings and ponies went back to staring at the walls. Elijah noted that the guards were staring at everything but the throne, the scientist curiously walking up to peer over the back.

Chalmers and Reflection were enthusiastically exchanging saliva, the changeling squirming on his lap. Elijah took a brief note of the fact that Nigel was wearing a suit that looked surprisingly like an ISA dress uniform, before a plan formed in his mind. Switching his data pad to record visual data, Elijah angled the camera so that it was fixed firmly on the couple. Waiting a few seconds to ensure that he got ample footage, he initiated phase two of his plan.

“Seen here, ISA Commander Nigel M Chalmers is currently testing the romantic capabilities of the changeling species.”

The two stopped, a silence descending over the room. Reflection, looking up thanks to her position, slowly opened her eyes to spot Elijah before she drew her head back and broke the kiss. Chalmers remained still for a few moments longer, until he slowly rotated his head and shifted on his chair.

Elijah ensured to keep recording while Nigel stared at him, the scientist ignoring the blushing changeling who was currently burying her face into Nigel’s chest.

“That… is so many levels of disturbing and immature that I cannot find words potent enough to express my opinion,” Nigel remarked blankly. Elijah gestured around to the multiple guards, the recording continuing on.

“You seem to not mind your local guards witnessing your romantic actions. How am I, a close friend of yours for many years I may add, any different?”

“They’re not recording it,” Nigel replied while pointing at the data pad. “Also, they’re not making pointless remarks that only serve to incite trouble.”

“Recording?” Reflection whispered, raising her head up before her face morphed into an expression of anger. “You better not have! Get rid of it now!” Elijah chuckled when she jumped up, placing her forehooves on the back of the throne. This had the unfortunate effect of placing her navel right over Nigel’s face, provoking a muffled grunt from Chalmers.

“Changeling known as Reflection is annoyed and is demanding deletion of vital research material. Judging from the buzzing of wings, narrowed eyes and baring of fangs, one can see that she is disapproving of the scientific process.” Reflection’s scowl increased, prompting Elijah to smirk. “This evidence of aggression with little to no provocation leads to one, vital conclusion. The theory that Commander Nigel M Chalmers enjoys fiery romantic partners has been proven as a fact.”

“Why you!” Reflection growled while attempting to leap at him. She was stopped when two hands grasped her around the forelegs, the changeling being pulled back down to Chalmers’ lap. Elijah continued to record Nigel holding her to his chest and stroking her mane, the actions seeming to calm the changeling down. Pausing to catalogue the new information, Elijah was unprepared for Nigel to swipe the data pad from his grasp.

“Hey!” he protested once he realised what had happened. “Give me back my research!”

“No,” Nigel answered bluntly, tapping on the pad and erasing the captured footage of Reflection and him. “You’re deliberately trying to provoke reactions from people, I know how you work.” Elijah frowned and snorted when Chalmers tucked the pad into his suit. “You can have it back when you complete a task for me.”

“What task?” Elijah inquired, ignoring the glare that Reflection was sending his way. He needed his data pad back, how else would he record Rainbow Horse’s anguish?

Nigel beckoned a guard over, the nervous changeling not entirely sure how to act in the situation. “Private…”

“Ploy, Emperor,” the soldier answered, earning a hum for Elijah.

‘Interesting name, once again,’ he thought, before Nigel broke him from the thoughts.

“Yes, Private Ploy.” Elijah gave the guard a glance while Chalmers continued. “Elijah, I want you to go with Private Ploy to the Crystal Caves to help Captain Strategy search for my missing subjects. The cave system is extensive, which is why it’s used as an emergency fall-back point, and I suspect that your inbuilt sensors will be of great help.”

“Why me?” Elijah complained with a huff. “Can’t you send James or Orthodox? I have work I need to do and-“

“James is currently finding Orthodox for me, and after that Orthodox is receiving a special task that will hopefully distance him from the city for a while.” Chalmers grinned lightly. “Did I mention that the missing subjects include the last surviving members of the Crystal Unicorn race, and that they are the primary source of knowledge regarding those magical gems I told you about?” Elijah seized his chance, holding up an armoured hand.

“Three things,” he stated abruptly. “One, I get access to study the gems. Two, I get my data pad back. Three, you allow me to question a number of your subjects.”

“No harassment or personal questions about ‘sexual practices and reproduction methods’ like that time on Pavlona Four. I’m still not allowed within ten light-years of that Queen thanks to you.” Elijah nodded eagerly.

“Deal,” he agreed, smiling to himself.

‘There are many ways to ask a question,’ he mentally laughed, his own cunning still surprising. His grin increased when Nigel held out his pad, Elijah grabbing it and rushing to the main doors.

“Elijah,” Nigel called out, causing Elijah to pause and turn around. Chalmers was pointing down at Private Ploy, the changeling guard shifting in his armour. “You forgot Private Ploy, your guide.”

“Oh, how could I forget,” Elijah laughed before giving Ploy a wide grin. “I have questions to ask on the way to our destination, and the good Private will be a great help. Many questions.” The Private gulped, before he swallowed the lump in his throat and raised his head high. He steadily walked towards Elijah, earning sympathetic looks from his comrades.

“Behave,” Nigel lectured, before returning his full attention to Reflection.

“I always do,” Elijah replied, before he walked straight out of the throne room and into the castle entry hall. He glanced down at the changeling beside him, Ploy glancing up with worry evident in his solid blue eyes.

“So Ploy,” Elijah began merrily, his pad in his hands. “Red or blue?”

“I don’t like your friends,” Reflection muttered while she watched the scientist leave. “They’re strange.”

“Strange friends are better than boring friends,” Nigel answered. Reflection was going to tell him that there was a limit on the amount of strangeness, but a head rub silenced her. She huffed, slightly annoyed that a simple massage could hold so much power over her, but at the same time it was relieving to feel after her time spent alone in prison. She stared up at Chalmers while he gazed at the main doors, her eyes furrowed.

He hadn’t told her anything about what he had gone through, and he seemed to have taken her absence far better than she had taken his. She was conflicted on how to feel about this, his cheerful recovery was welcome but raised unwanted questions about her worth to him.

“You look a little down.” Reflection blinked, realising that he was looking directly into her eyes with a smile on his face. “Did Elijah really bother you that much?”

“N-no,” Reflection scrambled for an answer. “I was just thinking about… things.” His gaze remained on her for a few moments before his grin widened and the head rub intensified. Thankful that he had bought it without further questions, Reflection sighed and nestled into his chest. If she had her way, then she’d never have to leave the spot. However, just as she achieved perfect relaxation, her least favourite friend of Nigel’s walked into the room.

Well, more like staggered into the room.

Orthodox stared at the pair, the guards at the door glancing at him with concern. Reflection shifted on her seat so that she was facing him, and bared her fangs in warning. Orange eyes gazed at her, unamused.

“Nice try,” Orthodox stated, before he opened his own mouth. Reflection jolted back, the creature’s mouth filled with rows of pointy teeth that made her primary fangs look like harmless pony teeth. His eyes narrowed, and Reflection felt her heart jolt in fear.

“Orthodox, stop.”

Chalmers’ voice was calm, but Reflection could hear the edge to it. An arm went around her, the hug helping to banish the terror plaguing her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and when she opened them again Orthodox had closed his mouth. Reflection breathed out a sigh of relief, making a note to not challenge Orthodox like that again. Just the thought of him disturbed her, the way he acted towards his supposed friends leaving her puzzled as to why they put up with him.

“Your pet started it,” Orthodox both accused and insulted, Reflection feeling her anger boil over.

“I’m not his pet!” she yelled, glaring at him with her previous fear forgotten. “I mean more to him than that!”

“Sure you do,” Orthodox replied with a smirk. “That’s why you’re sitting in his lap like one.” This caused Reflection to glance down, her resolve wavering as she considered his observation. He was right, she realised. How could she expect people to take her seriously if she was always fawning over him? Also, was her own affection making the Emperor look unprofessional in return?

Hesitantly, Reflection glanced down at the floor, weighing up whether she should just sit next to him like she had done when she was just an advisor.

“You’re cheery this morning.” Nigel’s words and cold tone broke Reflection from her thoughts. “I love that you feel the need to make my girlfriend feel like utter crap for no reason.” As he said this, his hand began to rub her back, Reflection’s wings buzzing and her previous thoughts about sitting down on the floor were forgotten.

“You try waking up in the dirt, with annoying children pressuring you to take them to meet their ‘strong, capable, brilliant, wonderful, amazing, faultless and super-tastical Emperor,” Orthodox complained. “That’s all I hear, that’s all I’ve ever heard. ‘Oh Orthodox,’ the Assistant Director says to me. ‘Your old Sergeant, Commander Chalmers, is doing such a good job. You should be more like him, he doesn’t burn down entire cities for fun’.” Orthodox drained the last of his bottle, Reflection and the guards flinching when the glass was flung at the floor and shattered.

“Well that explains it,” Nigel observed with his coldness gone. Reflection tore her eyes away from the fuming orange alien and looked up at him. She traced his eyes to the broken glass on the floor, his small smile surprising her. “How much did you drink last night?”

“Not enough,” Orthodox grumbled, wiping his mouth and looking around. “You got any more lying around?” His sudden lack of venom and anger was the reason that Reflection’s jaw dropped. He was just complaining about Nigel before and all of a sudden they were best friends again?

“Not up here, much to my disappointment,” Chalmers joked, only heightening Reflection’s confusion. “I may have some in storage; however I need you for a special job.” Orthodox was about to complain, but Nigel cut him off. “A job that I think you’ll love. Hear me out.” Reflection waited curiously to find out just what Nigel was going to trust Orthodox to do.

No explanation came, the front doors being pushed open before a galloping of hooves drew near. Reflection turned around in time to see Sparking Scroll, Chalmers’ assistant from before he was banished, race past a surprised Orthodox. Nigel chuckled when Sparkling reached the throne, the cream-coated mare standing up on her hind legs to wrap both the Emperor and Reflection in a hug.

Normally, Reflection would have reacted badly to someone other than Nigel touching her like that, but as she was sandwiched between the joyful Emperor and her old friend she didn’t feel any anger. Granted, her face was currently buried in white chest fur with the only other thing she was able to see being Sparkling’s ruby red mane, but she still remembered when the mare had visited her in prison.

“I’m so sorry,” Sparkling began to apologise. “I heard that you were back, but I didn’t believe it until I saw you on the balcony. Then with the party I got caught up, and I slept in this morning, and I missed most of Morning Court-“

A chuckle from Nigel cut off the apology, Reflection taking a welcome fresh of air when Sparkling withdrew and sat on the ground in confusion.

“It’s okay, Sparkling,” Chalmers answered with a wave. “I didn’t exactly seek you out either, which I should have done. I’m glad that you’re back, and full of health as well.” Sparkling beamed up at him from her spot, Reflection looking out and noticing that Captain Strategy had also entered with her. The Captain was currently engaging in a staring match with Orthodox, the crystal stallion armoured in his full armour and armed with his sword in its scabbard.

“Well, Strategy looked after me once we were moved in together, so that helped me with everything.”

“I’m sure Chatter helped as well,” Nigel smiled, before nodding towards Sparkling. “Speaking of Chatter, where is the good Corporal? He still owes me a drink from that time I helped him bust out of hospital.” Reflection froze, remembering the news that Sparkling had told her about the changeling that had been set on winning her heart. How had she forgotten to tell Chalmers? She glanced up at Nigel; however he was focused on Sparkling.

The advisor was sniffling, Captain Strategy and the surrounding guards wearing sombre expressions while shifting on their hooves awkwardly. Orthodox and Nigel looked around puzzled, missing the implication of the mare’s emotions.

“Chatter, he…” Sparkling started, before sniffing and staring at Nigel with tear-filled eyes. “I’m sorry, Emperor, but Chatter died after the Elk attack. He was injured in the fighting, and he was found dead after the battle.” An uneasy silence descended over the throne room, ponies bracing for the Emperor’s reaction.

“How did he die?” Chalmers inquired calmly, seemingly unfazed by the news regarding the death of one of his friends. Captain Strategy stepped up, bowing his head respectfully.

“He died of blood loss, sir, from multiple wounds.” Strategy raised his head, the Captain scowling. “Apparently, it took a while, long enough that he would have been found and saved if the entire city wasn’t in an uproar with Equestrians patrolling the streets and detaining our soldiers.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Sparkling tried to defuse the situation, her eyes watching the unmoving Emperor. Her attempt failed, one of the door guards snorting and drawing attention to herself.

“Of course it’s true,” the mare spoke up, after a nod of permission from her Captain. “My brother died in the same battle. He was still alive when we found him, so I at least got to say goodbye, but he died from internal bleeding not long after. There was talk that because of the Equestrians’ rush to secure all of us to make sure we wouldn’t ‘kill every elk we could find’, that they also accidently arrested medics. Equestrian medics tried to help, but they seemed just as confused as we were about the situation.”

“They had no clue,” Strategy agreed. “They didn’t know who to heal or who to arrest, all because their precious princess wanted to stop us from killing some elk.” Murmurs of agreement rose up from all the guards present, the ponies and changelings firmly remembering their own experiences that day.

Reflection lowered her head, having missed most of this information thanks to her incarceration. She looked up at Nigel, placing one of her hooves on his arm. She started to rub, knowing that Chatter had been a good friend of his.

“Are you okay?” she asked, mentally kicking herself at the pointless question. Of course he wasn’t going to be okay, what was she thinking? Reflection was taken by surprise when instead of shouting, or crying, Nigel merely smiled and rubbed her hoof.

“I am, don’t worry about me,” he replied. “Thanks for the concern though.” The lack of reaction shocked the majority, with the exception being Orthodox. The ISA agent was observing the proceedings silently, his tail waving in the air behind him. “Thanks to all of you, I know it must have been hard.” Everyone nodded, Chalmers focusing on the female door guard.

“Soldier,” he addressed, the mare nodding at him. “What was your brother’s name?”

“He was Private Break, sir.”

“You seem to be taking it well, considering,” Nigel continued, earning a nod from the mare.

“He died for his city, something that I honestly thought I was going to do that day,” she replied. “Our parents were some of Sombra’s victims, so it was only me and him. The Guard has helped me with it though, and I didn’t walk away unscathed either.” The mare turned around so that her left side was facing the Emperor. With a hoof, she pulled back the light armour covering her rump; a long scar ran downwards along the cyan fur of her left buttock. “I got that from one of those elk when I was defending in the line.”

Reflection furrowed her brows when Nigel let out a low whistle. Sure, the guard was showing off her scar, and her tail was still in place, but she still felt uncomfortable with Chalmers admiring the rump.

“That’s certainly an impressive scar,” Nigel commented, Orthodox walking over and examining it.

“It’s decent,” he admitted before turning back to Chalmers. “At least your guards have some combat experience.”

The mare smiled at the praise, dropping her armour back and returning to her position. The mood of the room lifted slightly, the guards latching onto one positive thing.

“At least with the Empire back under our control, those deaths mean something.” Strategy voiced for all of the guards. “It’s ours, and we’ll fight for it to stay that way.”

“A noble line of thinking,” Orthodox spoke up, silencing the room. He walked up to Strategy, the Captain attempting to remain stoic. “However, I wonder how you’ll see things if the UIP wishes to claim your planet? Will you fight then, Captain Strategy?” Orthodox chuckled and walked back to his original spot at the left side of the room. His comments earned him glares, Reflection wondering if the agent was trying to make as many enemies as possible.

“Agent Orthodox,” Strategy called out, stopping Orthodox in his tracks. “Emperor Chalmers serves the UIP, is that correct?” Orthodox smiled and faced the stallion.

“He does, not nearly as highly ranked as an Emperor, though.”

“Higher ranked than you, Agent Orthodox,” Nigel rebutted, Orthodox raising his middle finger of one hand in a gesture that Reflection didn’t understand.

“So,” Strategy continued while ignoring the exchange between the two. “That means that the UIP would likely pursue diplomatic options first. We all respect the Emperor, and we have no issue with your empire. If they want this planet, then I doubt we could stop them, but at least we would be looked upon favourably.” Strategy and the guards glanced to Nigel for confirmation, Sparking and Reflection also joining them.

“The Crystal Empire would certainly come out of the situation without any negative repercussions,” Nigel informed them. “I do have some political pull after all.” The guards collectively let out a sigh of relief at the news, their faith in the Emperor strengthening after hearing it from him personally. Reflection felt him put his hands on her stomach, and she looked down with a slight blush when they began to rub. “Besides, how could anyone take over the city when they see how adorable some of its inhabitants are?”

“Ugh,” Orthodox commented with an eye roll, before he locked eyes with Reflection and smirked. “I wouldn’t get your hopes up, changeming-“

“Changeling,” Reflection and the two changeling guards corrected.

Orthodox muttered under his breath before giving Reflection a mischievous grin. “As I was saying, don’t get your hopes up. He says stuff like that to women he picked up in bars, don’t think your special.” Nigel was about to defend her, but Reflection silenced him with a look and a hoof over his mouth. She glared at Orthodox, before her frown turned into a smile.

‘If he wants to play it like that,’ she thought. ‘Then he should be damn sure that I can play like that too.’

“I think you’re just jealous that Nigel’s got so much adoration,” she taunted, gaining an encouraging grin for Strategy while Orthodox raised an eyebrow. “He’s got an Empire, as well as me.” Her smugness faltered when the alien laughed, Orthodox miming wiping a tear from his eye.

“I’m going to be honest,” he chuckled. “If I had done everything that he had, and no doubt could have had the pick of the litter, then it wouldn’t have been you.” Reflection scowled at him, before she looked to Nigel for support. He gave her a wink, before smiling and continuing to watch Orthodox. The lizard pointed a finger at Sparkling, the advisor still sitting on her rump in front of the throne. “It may just be my hard-on for redheads, but I’d have picked someone like her.”

“Enough,” Nigel ordered, stopping all arguing and insults. The guards all stood straight, with the exception of Strategy who moved closer to Sparkling. Silently, Reflection wondered just how close they had come.

“You can’t order me anymore,” Orthodox informed with a cross of his arms. “I moved out from your direct command years ag-“

“I can still arrange to have you reassigned to the most boring, war-free listening station in the deepest area of dead space,” Nigel interrupted, drawing all attention to him. “I may not be the most popular with the brass, but who do you think they would prefer to see away from anything important?”

Orthodox scowled but remained silent, knowing that Nigel had him.

“Now, if you behave and stop insulting my subjects, then I might just tell you something you’ll want to hear.”

“I doubt that,” Orthodox huffed. “What is it? Going to play nice with the ponies and changelings to make up for my mean wor-“

“I want you to go to Equestria, and cause as much damage as possible.”

Everyone was stunned at the order. Orthodox himself was left in the middle of his sentence where Nigel had interrupted him.
“Really?” he replied. “You really want me to go to a rival country, a country of more colourful horses I might add, to cause trouble? You want me to kill, steal, burn, crush and insult as much as I deem appropriate?”

“I do,” Nigel answered with a nod. “With a few conditions. You are not allowed to go after the Princesses, they’re mine. You’re not allowed to kill Shining Armour, he’s a cool guy. You are to follow the basic rules of the UIP. You must inform any changeling you encounter of the Empire, and let them know that they are welcome. We need as many soldiers as we can get after all.”

“Emperor,” Strategy asked while walking up to the throne. “Is this a good idea?” He glanced towards Orthodox, the alien’s eyes wide and full of joy. “As much as I… disagree with Agent Orthodox, we do need all of the soldiers we can get. Once the Equestrian prisoners we released reach their lands, they are bound to send a force to retake the Empire and punish us again.”

“Think about it this way, Strategy,” Nigel tried to explain. “With Orthodox causing chaos, and trust me, he can cause a lot of chaos, the Equestrians will be forced to commit troops to defend against him. In true ISA fashion, Orthodox will target supplies, troop commanders, and important leaders with the aim of creating as much fear as possible. Equestria from what I’ve heard and witnessed during the Gala, is unprepared for such warfare. A single trained and experienced agent undermining their morale and will to invade us can cause far more damage than an actual assault will.”

“He is capable of remaining unseen?” Strategy questioned, earning laughter from the target of the conversation.

“Unseen?” Orthodox chuckled before putting on his helmet, all eyes in the room examining the complete set of black armour. “It’s evident that you don’t know about the ISA, pony. We don’t really do unseen, unless we want to be boring.” Orthodox un-holstered his rifle, the ponies and changelings all eyeing the strange weapon. “No, the point is for the enemy to know exactly who is after them, and then watch as they figure out that knowing that information is useless. They’re dead either way.”

With that, Orthodox eagerly moved to the main doors, whistling a merry tune. He passed stunned guards, the menacing alien almost appearing to skip with joy.

“Orthodox,” Nigel called out. “Focus on military targets, no robbing jewellery stores this time if you can help it.”

“But my bling,” Orthodox protested lightly, giving Reflection the opinion that he was going to rob a store anyway. Why Nigel had to advise him to not rob stores she didn’t know, but it meant that Orthodox would not be in the city. That would also mean that she could spend more time with Nigel uninterrupted by the rude alien, a fact that brought a smile to her face.

“And do you even know where Equestria is?” Nigel followed up, Orthodox waving an armoured hand as he left through the main doors.

“I’ll find it,” he reassured, Nigel and Strategy shaking their heads as the doors closed behind him.

“Strategy, do you mind?” Chalmers asked, his Captain nodding an affirmative.

“I’ll try and point him in the right direction,” Strategy answered with a salute, before he left the room in pursuit of Orthodox.

“Is this really a good idea?” Reflection inquired, her ears twitching at the belly rub.

“Oh, it’s going to end terribly,” Nigel chuckled. “The question is who it’s going to affect worse.”

“So you head out south, and you should reach the border of Equestria within a day if you’re quick. Are you sure you don’t need supplies? Food is short, but you’ll need something-“

“My suit will handle it, thank you Captain.” Strategy frowned when Orthodox cut him off, granted the Agent’s previous spite was gone but it was still rude. The edge of the dome shimmered when Orthodox stepped through into the frozen wasteland outside. Strategy glanced down at his armoured hooves, the snow still melting with tufts of grass pushing their way up. He looked back to the Agent, one question still on his mind.

“Agent Orthodox,” he asked, the alien turning around to step back through the dome.

“What is it? I have a country to terrorise.”

“It’s about Emperor Chalmers,” Strategy stated with a glance around to check that no-one was in earshot. He was met with empty fields of snowy grass, not a pony or changeling in sight. “You probably don’t know this, but Corporal Chatter was a pretty good friend of his. The Emperor found out that he was dead and just-“

“Remained his normal, cheery self?” Orthodox finished, Strategy nodding hesitantly.

“I just find it strange that he’s not… well, acting like he’d been banished only to return and find out that his friend is dead. I was there when the city was attacked, both by Diamond Dogs and the Elk. He was in a good mood then as well, but he was also killing at the same time. Now, he’s just sitting there like nothing changed.”

Orthodox chuckled, Strategy noticing that it wasn’t mocking like the alien’s usual laughter, but somehow cold.

“Oh, pony,” the alien replied before turning around in preparation to walk back out of the dome. “That man laughs hardest when he’s trying to hide things. I advise you to not let his calmness fool you, he may act like the friendly joker that you ponies see, but he didn’t thrive in the ISA because of kindness and mirth.”

With that, Orthodox left the dome again, heading south towards Equestria. Strategy sat down on the snowy grass to watch him go, ignoring the chill in his rump. He had been left with more questions than answers, and the alien’s words made him wonder about his friend and his true motives. Just what was Chalmers planning to do, and how far was he going to go?

After a few minutes, Strategy looked up from his hooves. Orthodox had disappeared into the distance, a light snowstorm building up outside the dome. The new visitors were also an oddity, and Strategy glanced over to the east of the city. On that side were the Crystal Caves, the hiding spot for any other crystal ponies that had fled the Equestrians.

He stood up and shook the snow off his body and hooves, taking a second to straighten his helmet before he began the long walk to the caves. He had some citizens to find, and maybe one of the other humans would provide some more coherent answers to his concerns.

“Emperor Chalmers has returned, you’re not just trying to trick us?”

Elijah sighed, the voice hidden in the darkness still not accepting that he wasn’t a ploy made by the Equestrians. He took another step forward, regretting that he had snuck off into the caves while the guards were still preparing search teams. No doubt the presence of armoured crystal ponies and changelings would help him in convincing the hidden creatures to come out.

“Look at me,” he pointed out, raising his arms out to his sides. “I’m a human, see? I’m one of Nige- Emperor Chalmers’ friends. The Crystal Empire is no longer controlled by Equestria, and your crystal heart has been restored.”

“Or you’ve been sent here by the Equestrians!” a difference voice called out, the echoes hiding the position of the voices. Or normally, they would have. Elijah was wearing his helmet, and his armour’s sensors were picking up a group of forty-one ponies and changelings to the left of him.

“What would they gain, really?” he asked, aiming to gain their trust through logic. “Why would the Equestrians make an apparition of a human in armour, send it in here and then try to talk to you to lure you out? For starters, why would they only have left it to now? The reason I’m here is because I’ve been sent to tell you that everything is safe, and I knew that you were hiding in these caves because the Emperor and Captain Strategy told me.”

“Hello? Human?”

Elijah rolled his eyes at the Captain’s voice, the stallion obviously having forgotten his name and title.

“It’s Lead Researcher Elijah, and I’m over here.” Elijah held his ground when armoured hooves approached him from behind, a squad of guards led by the Captain moving beside him.

“Have you found them?” Strategy asked, prompting a hidden voice to call out.

“Who’s there, Equestrians!?”

Elijah made to step forwards, but Strategy held out a foreleg to halt him. The Captain moved up, his sword still held in its sheath.
“This is Captain Strategy, the Equestrians are gone and the Emperor has returned.” Elijah shook his head. Why did the pony think that would work when he had tried the exact same thing himself?

“Strategy?” A male voice asked, a form moving out from the hidden group. Elijah huffed before turning around with the guards, a lone crystal pony walking out from the gloom.

“Head Blacksmith?” Strategy inquired back, earning a grin from the rust brown stallion that appeared.

“Yes, it’s me,” the blacksmith cheerfully replied, before he stopped laughing and walked up to Strategy while keeping a wary eye on Elijah. “Is what this alleged human saying true?”

“It is,” Strategy confirmed with a nod and smile. “Lead Researcher Elijah here helped the Emperor return to the city, it’s safe to come out.”

“That’s a relief; I’ll go and tell the others.”

Elijah’s eyes twitched under his helmet, a little ticked that these ponies didn’t believe him. He was interrupted from his brooding when Strategy cleared his throat, Elijah glancing down at the stallion to find the soldier looking up at him hopefully.

“Lead Researcher, if I may ask you a few questions in private?” Elijah hummed in thought, deciding to seize the opportunity.

“You may, however I wish to ask some in return,” he negotiated. Strategy nodded, bringing a smile to Elijah’s face. “Great, I have already found out so much about changelings from my guide on the way here, but my knowledge of crystal ponies is limited. Chalmers has been rather… hesitant to allowing me to question ponies and changelings.”

“I see,” Strategy answered, the two watching as a line of ponies and changelings filed out from their hiding place. Elijah leaned forward when he spotted the equines with horns on their heads, the alleged magic users that were in charge of enchanted gems. The boxes and bags on their back perked his interest even more, his sensors picking up strong energy readings from the containers.

The ponies and changeling all stared at him when they walked past, the guards that had accompanied Strategy directing them to the exit. Elijah stared back, although they couldn’t see it thanks to his visor. He couldn’t wait to corner a few of them and find out all of their secrets, such gems could possibly drive his research forwards in leaps and bounds.

“Lead Researcher?” Strategy inquired, Elijah biting his lip and giving the unicorns and their cargo a final, longing glance.

‘I got plenty of time,’ he reminded himself. ‘Plus, I’ve got a willing pony to answer questions now. Unicorns and gems can wait, and Nigel did promise that I would have access to them.’ He smiled down at Strategy, forgetting that his helmet hid his face.

“Well Captain, let’s get to questions then.”

“Not here,” Strategy told him, tilting his head at the other guards. “My questions are not really for other ponies, or changelings, to hear.”

“Very well,” Elijah replied. Maybe his choice to stay with the Captain was going to be interesting after all. They began to move back out of the cave, navigating the twisted tunnels with their way marked by the groups of guards stationed along the route. Upon reaching the entrance they emerged into the warm sunlight, the caves still located inside of the dome. Strategy led him towards a supply cart, the wooden wagon loaded with crates.

“I want to ask you about Emperor Chalmers,” Strategy started once they were hidden behind the cart. “Specifically, why is he acting so calm and cheerful, even after he found out that one of his friends died?”

“A friend of his died?” Elijah asked, receiving a nod from Strategy.

“One of my soldiers, a changeling. The Emperor was fairly friendly with him, and this morning he mentioned that they had been planning to share a drink some time.”

“How did he die?”

“He was wounded in the same battle with the Elk in which Chalmers was banished.” Elijah continued to examine the Captain as Strategy’s face lowered in a frown. “He died from his wounds after, apparently he could have made it if our medics were allowed to attend the wounded, instead of the confused and ill-prepared Equestrians. Some of the changelings that were also wounded are claiming that the Equestrians shied away from them out of fear.”

“We shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that without proof,” Elijah warned while glancing up over the cart. No-one was near them; however the citizens that they had found were being guided back to the city by most of the guards. “Still, from what you have said, Nigel might already have adopted that point of view.”

“That’s bad?” Strategy inquired.

“In a way,” Elijah replied with a sigh, before he sat down on the ground against the cart. Strategy followed him, sitting down on his rump next to the human. The pony jolted when an armoured hand placed itself on the armour covering his shoulders. “Chalmers is probably the most stable out of us.”

“Really?” Strategy asked incredulously. “Don’t get me wrong, he’s kind to us, but the way he acted when fighting was-“

“It was like he enjoyed it?”

“It… it was,” Strategy admitted. Elijah sighed again, never in his life having expected to have to give this talk to a four and a half foot high pony.

“It’s part of the job,” Elijah informed him. “You can either let it get to you, or you can choose to go along with it. In the ISA, there are… special cases, and myself and Nigel are included in that.”

“You’re ISA?”

“I was ISA; I’m R and D now.”

“I know,” Strategy explained. “I still can’t see you or Agent James working for the ISA. Agent Orthodox I can understand, after all he seems to fit what I have been told about the ISA, but you other three seem like normal soldiers.”

Elijah smiled slightly, and turned so that his visor faced Strategy.

“Did Nigel tell you what my role in our old squad was, Captain?” He received a head shake from Strategy as an answer. “Well, it was scouting, sniping and interrogation.”

“Interrogation?” Strategy asked, electing a low chuckle from Elijah.

“Indeed, and trust me, if you knew what methods we used and still use, you would not believe me to be ‘normal’.” Strategy lowered his head in thought, the Captain staring down at his armoured hooves. “The ISA loves hiding things behind distractions and masks, so that the enemy never knows what is really going on. Take Chalmers for example. He acts like a fool, but he’s managed to thrive in one of the most brutal departments in the UIP. You don’t get there from being stupid.”

“I know he’s not as stupid as he sometimes seems,” Strategy agreed, looking up. “He rebuilt the Empire after all, managed to incorporate the changelings, taught us how to build better weapons and he’s loved by the citizens. I never once thought of him as stupid.”

“Then what is it about him scares you?” Elijah dived in, keying in on Strategy’s main concerns. The pony squirmed on the spot, before he found the courage to ask the question that he had been dreading.

“What’s he going to do? To Equestria, I mean. He acts calm, but I get the feeling that he hates them.”

“Oh he does, he hates them a lot from what I can see,” Elijah answered. “After what you told me about his dead friend, I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants to burn the country to the ground. He’s rather sentimental like that.”

“Oh…” Strategy replied, Elijah guessing that he felt unsure on how to feel about that goal. He knew that most of his guards wanted revenge, but he assumed that they hoped that their Emperor would hold back against Equestria. The Captain seemed loyal, so Elijah wasn’t certain about the pony’s willingness to command the forces if Nigel decided to really punish Equestria. Still, the concerns of the ponies and changelings weren’t his; he had other things to worry about.

“Now, can I ask my questions?” Elijah inquired, Strategy taking a second before standing up.

“Sure, we did make a deal after all,” the Captain answered while he watched Elijah get up. The stallion and human glanced around, finding that they were the last ones left. The cart was still there, Strategy sighing before walking over to the front harness. Elijah watched on with interest while Strategy hooked himself in, the pony pulling forward and moving the cart with him.

“Need some help?” Elijah asked out of courtesy, the Captain shaking his head.

“No, I’ve got it. Do you mind me answering your questions while we walk back to the city?”

“Not at all,” Elijah told him as he matched his walking pace with the movement of the cart. “Now, Captain Strategy, red or blue?”

“So are the Equestrians coming back?”

James exaggerated a hum, the young colt sitting in front of him looking up in worry.

He had made the mistake of giving in the demands of the three children he had rescued from Orthodox, leading to the situation he was in now.

Spending his morning sitting on a park bench, surrounded by ponies and changelings of all ages, was not his idea of a good time. The changeling ‘nymph’ lying across his legs had refused to move, James absentmindedly having removed the armour from his hand and begun to scratch the creature behind the ears. As much as it pained the trained killer to admit, the subjects that Nigel had managed to take over were almost sickening in their cuteness. Even the adult ponies and changelings were adorable, James unable to put his finger on the reason why.

“They might try to come back,” he told the young child, the crowd of ponies and changelings murmuring and whispering to each other. “But your guards will be ready for them this time, and I’ve been told that your guards are decent fighters.”

“They fought off the Elk!” a young filly chimed in, James nodding at her.

“They sure did. Also, you’ve got us here now as well, and your Emperor has told me to help train the guards even more. Isn’t that right, Sergeant Blitz?”

“It is,” the diamond-coated mare standing next to the bench replied, the guard apparently another friend of Nigel’s. She had been assigned to escort him around the city, the pony proving to be an adept guide and thankfully better with children than he was.

“How will we fight Celestia though?” A changeling stallion spoke up from the back of the group, James remembering that the changelings had adopted the gender labels of the crystal ponies. “She managed to banish the Emperor.”

“I can’t tell you the plans for security reasons.”

‘Also, I don’t happen to know them myself.’

“But I can say a few things that Nige- Emperor Chalmers told me. Celestia needed the help of her sister, Luna, to perform the banishment spell. However, that still doesn’t mean that she’s not a potent magical force. Luckily for us, the other human you may see walking around, Elijah, studies magic with other things. So, with the help of your unicorns and changelings, he could come up with a defence against Equestrian magic.”

In truth, James had no idea if Elijah was even capable of such a thing, but the crowd relaxed at the news. James looked around at the smiling faces, the sun shining down through the dome and lighting up the park they were in with warm light. He had to admit that Nigel’s citizens did seem happy, even with the events that they had gone through. James still couldn’t believe that Chalmers had it in him to successfully organise something, but apparently he could.

“Switch, come on and leave the human alone.” James glanced down, a changeling mare prodding the nymph lying on his armoured lap with a hoof. Switch grumbled, before reluctantly getting up and jumping to the ground.

“But it feels so good!” he protested, before the adult changeling, who James assumed was the mother, frowned down at the nymph.

“It looked like it does, but Agent James must have work to do with the guards. Just because school isn’t on doesn’t mean that you can run around annoying humans. Why don’t you go and play with Harmony and Glaze?” She looked up at James with an apologetic smile after Switch had huffed and run off. The rest of the crowd had begun to disperse, shops and stalls opening up around the park for the lunchtime business. “I’m sorry about him; nymphs can be a bit of a hoofful sometimes, especially with all of the positive energy in the air.”

“It’s no problem, really,” James reassured with a wave of his hand. “I’m sure Sergeant Blitz shares my opinion.” He turned to look at the Sergeant standing on his left, the armoured mare nodding her head.

“That’s right, I don’t mind either. Besides, I have a foal at home so I know how it can be.”

“Oh, what’s their name?” the changeling asked, Blitz smiling at the question.

“It’s Flora, she was one of the Equestrians that we found in the Diamond Dog den after the raid.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” the changeling murmured. “I… arrived in the Empire after that, but I heard that it was pretty brutal.”

“It was, I was one of the guards leading the counterattack by the Emperor’s side,” Blitz told her while straightening with pride. James sighed and stood up from the bench, the two females continuing their conversation.

“I see, do you think your Flora would like to come and play with Switch and his friends? I’ve been asked to watch them this afternoon.”

“They probably know each other from school, so I don’t see that as a problem,” Blitz answered enthusiastically. “Flora has been a little shy, for understandable reasons, so some more friends will be good for her.”

“This is wonderful,” James cut in. “But we do have commitments this afternoon, Sergeant.”

“Oh, I forgot,” Blitz muttered before looking apologetically at the changeling. “Sorry, but I have to go to training this afternoon. Flora will probably need me to introduce her, but thanks for the offer-“

“We can drop off your… filly before the training, Sergeant,” James sighed, hating to put the pony under pressure. “I was planning on getting some lunch anyway, and we still have some time before we are supposed to be at the training field.” He was rewarded with a happy nod from the guard, James glancing away from the shining blue eyes.

“Thank you sir!” she acknowledged, before turning back to the changeling. “Now, what time and where do you live?”

“I’ll be over at the food stands,” James told her, keen to get a move on. The guard nodded at him and went back to her conversation. The agent rolled his eyes under his helmet and moved towards a sandwich stall, one thought about the situation moving to the front of his mind.

‘It could be worse; at least Orthodox and Elijah are off somewhere else.’

Strategy eagerly made his way through the city, heading to training grounds. After answering Lead Researcher Elijah’s many, many questions, he had grabbed some lunch at the castle before leaving to attend the afternoon training session with Agent James. Strategy was looking forward to what the human could teach them, and it would be good for the morale of the troops. Granted, after the liberation of the city from the Equestrians, the troops were already feeling great.

Strategy himself also felt elated, the Captain merrily trotting down the cobbled road of the city. The snow was almost completely melted, and ponies and changelings were out in force during the nice day. A few of the adults still appeared to be recovering from the celebrations, but overall the city seemed to be one thing that it had been missing for a month.


He grinned to himself, his sheathed sword clinking against his armour while he walked. Despite the threat of an Equestrian attempt to retake the city and his questioning of the Emperor’s character, Strategy felt calm and at peace. Who knows, maybe the Equestrians would just give up and leave them alone? After the hostility they received, they might just decide that holding the Crystal Empire would be too much trouble.

With these, slightly positive thoughts on his mind, Strategy continued on his journey to the far west of the city. The crowds thinned when he entered the military district, less residential housing and more armouries and smithies. They lacked a barracks, guards traditionally living in their own homes, but Strategy was considering asking the Emperor for one.

He passed a squad of guards, the mix of ten ponies and changelings saluting him as he passed. He nodded and smiled at them in return, pleased to hear them joke and laugh after he had passed. Strategy was proud of his troops, and the speed at which they had bonded together. Whether changeling or crystal pony, all had become stronger after the occupation and he was incredibly proud of them for it. When he died, at least he could have the knowledge that he had served adequately as a Captain.

The amount of guards increased as he moved closer to the training field, all of them on their way to train. Strategy spotted something in the distance, over near the memorial cemetery that they had made for the military. He changed his course, moving closer while guards filed around him respectfully. As he closed, he picked up a conversation between two changeling soldiers in their plate armour.

“They’ve been there for an hour now.” One of them, a male, mentioned to his fellow.

“I think it’s sweet of them,” the other, a female judging from the voice, answered. “It’s good to see that they bothered to take the time to visit.”

“I know that, Shift, but don’t they have more important things to do? The Equestrians could attack at any time; the prisoners we released would have made it back by now.”

“What’s going on, soldiers?” Strategy interrupted, the two Privates whipping around and saluting.

“Captain, we were just commenting about the Emperor, sir,” the female that Strategy recognised as Private Shift answered. Curious, Strategy moved in-between them, looking around until he spotted the target of the conversation.

Sitting down side-by-side on one of the benches in the cemetery, was Emperor Chalmers and Advisor Reflection. Strategy, having memorised all of the different names engraved on the thirty-two headstones, realised that they were sitting in front of the grave that belonged to Corporal Chatter.

He stood in silence for a few moments, debating on whether he should join the pair or not. On one hoof, he himself had spent hours in front of the graves kicking himself for not being good enough to save his soldiers. Spending some time remembering with the Emperor might get rid of that guilt. On the other hoof, it was probably a good idea to let Chalmers and Reflection spend some time alone together, even if it was in front of the grave of their dead friend.

“Is something wrong, sir?” Corporal Shift asked, Strategy breaking out of his thoughts with a shake of his head.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he told the two soldiers before trotting off towards the training field. “Now come along, we have training to attend.”

Chalmers tapped his left hand against the armrest of the bench he was on, a light breeze blowing through the cemetery. His other hand was stroking Reflection’s back, his advisor silently sitting on the bench beside him. He was ignoring the guards moving around behind him, his focus set on one thing.

A single square headstone was in front of him, the headstone itself actually made of a transparent crystal. Chatter’s name and rank was inscribed on it, the date of his death below. Nigel had already visited the other graves, having saved Chatter’s for last.

“I’m sorry for not telling you earlier, I… I forgot with everything and you found out in a really bad way.” Reflection lowered her head, staring at her hind hooves with her forelegs in between them. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault he died,” Nigel told her, continuing to rub her back. He sighed, leaning back on the bench as he did so. “And it’s not your fault I didn’t find out; this is one of the first things I should have checked up on when I returned. Instead I acted irresponsibly. So don’t blame yourself, it’s my own fault.” He felt a head rest upon his shoulder, and a foreleg lay against his back.

“Hey, you were acting irresponsibly with me, so it’s not that bad.”

Nigel chuckled at Reflection’s attempt to lighten the mood, while it didn’t really help, he appreciated her trying.

“You know that’s going to change, don’t you?” he told her. She sighed, nodding her head on his arm.

“You’re going to have to work all the time, don’t you?”

“I will,” he answered regretfully. “No more strolling around the city I’m afraid. It’s going to be organising and planning day in, day out.” He turned his head, glancing down at Reflection while she rested on his arm. “I also won’t be able to spend as much time with you.”

“That’s not true,” Reflection answered, still keeping her head where it was.

“It isn’t?”

“No, and I’ll tell you why.” Nigel was surprised, two lime eyes turning to look at him. “You have to work; when we first started like this you told me that. I used to think that you meant that you’d be away for a long time, working in the city and things like that. But I just realised something. You have to work, but it doesn’t mean I can’t spend time with you.” Reflection grinned at him, the sombre mood lifting. “I’ll help you work! I’ve got to learn about ruling anyway, because I haven’t exactly been the busiest advisor. It’ll be fun, and after we finish work we still will have some time to spend by ourselves.”

Nigel wasn’t too sure about what to think. It wasn’t that he questioned her ability; after all, Reflection had managed to keep the initial group of changelings alive to make it to the Empire. She was determined, intelligent and while rash was capable of thinking ahead. It was more to do with the fact that having her around would be a distraction, and there was always the risk that she would get hurt.

“Are you sure?” he asked her, deciding to trust her on this. “You know we’ll both have to act a little more professional than we have been so far?”

“I’m certain,” she answered with a determined nod. Reflection grinned at him, placing her free foreleg on his right leg. “Besides, we’ll still eat and sleep together. We can be unprofessional then.”

Nigel chuckled at her boldness, one of the traits that he loved about her. He stood up from the bench, stretching his back while Reflection also got down.

“Well, it’s not time for goofing off now. I was planning on overseeing the training session, so now I guess that it means we’re going to see it.”

“That’s right,” Reflection agreed as she playfully bumped her side against his leg. “I promise to behave.” Nigel snorted at this, Reflection rolling her eyes and holding out a foreleg.

“Do you ever behave?” he teased, taking her hoof in his hand, before they walked out of the cemetery gate into an empty military district. As Nigel shut the iron gate behind them, he spared a second to look back over the graves. Instead of guilt or sadness, he felt pride for his dead soldiers. Despite being primitive and weak when he had found them, they had served better than he had ever thought possible. Briefly, his eyes wandered over to the large space of grass next to the graves.

He hoped that the space would never need to be filled.

“Come on,” Reflection told him with a tug. “We’ll miss the training, and I want to see what James will do.”

“Okay, let’s go,” Nigel gave in, letting her pull him towards the training field. “I think I’m already starting to regret this ‘bring your changeling to work’ thing.”

“Oh shut up, you love it,” Reflection dismissed, increasing her pace. Chalmers shook his head with a laugh when she bumped against him again.

‘Well, she’s right.’

“Shining Armour!”

Shining looked up from his steaming mug of tea at the voice of Princess Celestia, the troops beside him doing the same when the Princess herself walked into the town hall of Hayseed. It had been a long and cold journey to the northern border town, but they had all made it there alive. A messenger from the town had been dispatched to Canterlot, requesting Celestia and more guards.

“Princess,” he greeted, taking a welcome sip of tea. He was surprised when Celestia rushed over to him and wrapped her wings around him in an embrace, the mayor of the town and Celestia’s guards just as shocked.

“What happened Shining, to the Crystal Empire?” Shining winced at Celestia’s question, knowing that she wouldn’t like his answer. The form under the blankets next to his shivered, Celestia glancing towards it when he stroked it with a hoof.

“The Emperor has returned.”

Celestia froze, the roomful of guards watching her with worry. Shining felt a chill run down his spine when he saw her eyes, the normally warm orbs cold.

“Impossible,” Celestia whispered, more to herself than to anyone else. “The only banishment spell that is more powerful is the one I used on Luna; there is no way that he could have escaped.”

“He… he got thrown out,” Shining started to explain, Celestia’s eyes widening.


“He told me, after he had taken back control, that he had been thrown out.” Shining shivered again, and not from the cold. “He had three other creatures with him. Two were more humans, but the third is more like a small dragon. They captured Cadence and I, as well as Twilight and her friends. The Emperor then threatened to have the other humans kill us if the guards didn’t surrender, and they meant it.”

Celestia didn’t interrupt, everyone in the room listening to the retelling.

“After they found out that Twilight was an Element Bearer, and that they had all six, Chalmers let me, Cadence and the guards go.”

“What about Twilight and her friends?” Celestia asked with visible concern. “Surely he didn’t-“

“He kept them,” Shining nodded sadly. “He told me to tell you that they would be treated well, but if Equestria attacks then they’ll be executed.”

“Execute them…” Celestia mumbled, her calm façade dropping for a second. She looked back up at him, stepping back to give him some room. “Is it that bad? Surely we can negotiate, and get them released in return for leaving the Empire alone?” Celestia brightened a bit, nodding her head. “At least with Chalmers returned, we can hope to solve this peacefully. Now that he’s no longer banished, I can apologise to him and the citizens of the Crystal Empire for my mistake.”

Shining grimaced, Celestia gazing at him with her hope dropping. She took another step forward, although she refrained from touching him with her wings.

“What’s wrong Shining? Emperor Chalmers did often act with rationality, so it’s not that far-fetche-“

“There’s no way this will end peacefully,” Shining interrupted with a shake of his head. “The Emperor and the Crystal Empire hate us, and he told me that he was coming for you.”

“I refuse to give up,” Celestia told him, raising her head. “I already failed him, the Crystal Empire, my own sister and myself with my rash actions. I will not let violence break out, I will solve this even if it takes years.” Looking up at her, Shining hated to do what he was about to do. Celestia seemed so determined to set things right, to repair her mistakes.

“That’s not going to happen, Princess,” he informed her hopelessly. While Celestia stared at him, waiting for an answer, he nudged the mass of blankets beside him. “Cadence, show her.”

Celestia and the new ponies that had entered with her gasped when the pile moved, Cadence standing up silently from the floor. A dirty pink muzzle with tearstains poked out from the coverings, Shining standing up with her. Gently, and murmuring words of encouragement to her, Shining slowly removed the mass of blankets bit by bit.

Guards looked away, while Celestia’s eyes were locked on Cadence’s shaven form. Shining put a foreleg over her withers and led her forward, towards Celestia. Cadence’s head was bowed, not saying a word while Celestia’s eyes read the message that had been left on her. After she had finished reading, Celestia was silent for a few moments.

Once again, Shining found white wings wrap around him, this time they covered Cadence as well.

“I’m so sorry that this happened to you,” Celestia mumbled while she embraced them. “This is all my fault, and you two got caught up because of it.” Cadence let out a sob, sitting down on the ground and pushing her head into Celestia’s chest. Shining hugged her tighter, none of the other ponies daring to interrupt the moment between the three.

“What’s going to happen?” Cadence wearily asked between sobs, shaking when Celestia nuzzled her.

“I don’t know,” Celestia replied. “Hopefully Emperor Chalmers will see reason, and accept my apology.”

“If not?” Shining sighed, feeling the exhaustion of the journey catch up with him. Celestia pulled them both in closer.

“Then I shudder to think of what he will try to do to us.”

“I’m going on a pony hunt; I’m going to catch a lot of them!”

Orthodox sang to himself as he followed the mass of faint hoof tracks in the snow. Thankfully the snowfall had been light and his armour’s sensors where able to pick up the remains of the tracks. He eagerly jumped from track to track, taking his time and enjoying the solitude. His mind was filled with images of burning buildings, gold and jewels, alcohol, and lifeless bodies.

All of them brought him equal amounts of glee.

“Tis the season to be jolly,” he changed songs, twirling his rifle as he danced through the snow. “Celestia is full of folly.”

With his free hand he brushed over the multiple knives hidden in his armour, until it landed on another compartment. Pulling another weapon from the hidden internal holster, he briefly turned the gauss submachine over in his armoured hand to examine it. Debating whether it would be funnier to use solid rounds or energy, he twirled around on the spot with the dark grey weapon grasped in his left hand.

“Tra-la-la la-la, la-la la, la!”

The Fecal Matter Impacts Upon The Oscillating Cooling Device

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Weapons clashed, Halberd and sword colliding as the sound of metal on metal filled the air. Across the entire training field were pairs of guards practicing their combat techniques after a month of inactivity. For the first time since the Equestrian takeover, crystal ponies in their traditional crystal armour trained beside changelings armoured in enchanted steel plate. Despite the fact that they were here to train for what they assumed was the upcoming war, the air was jovial and soldiers remained in good spirits.

“I have to admit, they’re not half-bad,” James commented to Strategy, Reflection and Chalmers while the four watched on from the wooden observation platform. “While primitive weapons-wise, they have good discipline and work together incredibly well.” As if to punctuate his point, a mixed squad of five changelings and five crystal ponies approached a line of snow-bag targets in the centre of the field. Quickly, the five ponies crouched low with their halberds held out in a spear wall, while the five changelings behind them annihilated the targets with green magic bolts.

Strategy grinned at the display, remembering the testing of the tactic in the battle against the Elk. It was deadly and efficient, only possible through the co-operation of both species.

“You’ve… actually managed to hold an empire together,” James complimented the Emperor, sounding incredibly surprised to Strategy.

“Well, the good Captain is very good at his job,” Chalmers chuckled, not bringing up the fact that he was the one that had suggested the tactic. “We might have to offer him a commission.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Strategy replied, grimacing at the memories of what Nigel had told him about ‘modern’ military equipment and doctrine. “I’d rather stick with spears, swords and pole-arms than laser cannons and chemical gas.”

“Probably for the best,” James agreed. “Although I must agree with Nigel, you do seem to have things under control, Captain. I doubt there’s much I can really teach your soldiers that they don’t already know. Most of my expertise is in other areas.”

“I see,” Strategy answered, however Emperor Chalmers cut in with a wave of his hand.

“Wait one second, I have an idea.”

“Really? I doubt there’s much more I can do.” James nodded his head towards the drilling soldiers. “I mean, they don’t have access to most of our equipment or technology. They don’t have any ties to other military branches and to top it off they are not even bipedal.”

“True,” Nigel continued, Strategy listening on with interest. “But they do have something that we don’t, and that is military members that can disguise themselves as citizens of the enemy.”

“We do have cloaking,” James pointed out, Nigel shrugging the point away.

“Still, it’s not as fun as this. Listen, it’s simple. We take ten of the best changelings we have, probably the ones that were in their previous army, and you train them in infiltration, sabotage and other covert warfare. Then, we insert them into enemy territory to act as our eyes and ears in Equestria.”

“What about Agent Orthodox?” Strategy inquired. “He’s already in Equestria.”

“Orthodox is far less reliable than any of your soldiers,” James snorted with a cross of his arms. “Besides, he wasn’t sent into Equestria to remain stealthy.”

“So, do you think it’s possible?”

James turned away at Nigel’s question, and stared down at the training field. Strategy noticed that he was eyeing one group of three changeling soldiers, chatting to each other at the side of the field with their helmets off.

“How precise is the transformation?”

“We can look exactly like a pony and change our voices,” Reflection answered, the changeling having remained very quiet during the training session. “We haven’t had a need for it for a while now, thanks to the crystal ponies, but it’s innate so we won’t need any practice. One issue is that we have green blood instead of red, so we can get found out if we get injured.”

“It’d take some time,” James considered, still staring down at the group of three. “Probably a week and a half if we spend every day training, and that’s just for the basic stuff.”

“That works for me,” Nigel nodded. “It’ll give Iron some time to come up with any gear that they’ll need.”

“Iron?” James inquired, Strategy pointing a hoof towards a changeling dressed in a heavy suit of armour with a shield covering the front and a green glow coming from the sides.

“Iron Greaves is the Head Blacksmith, and he invented the ‘Infantry Suppression System, Changeling Model’, which is what that changeling is wearing. He also made the standard changeling armour and our siege weapons, with the ideas coming from the Emperor of course.”

“He’s quite the inventor,” Nigel confirmed. James hummed, before pointing to the three he had been observing.

“I’ll give it a shot, something to do I suppose. I want those three on the team however.”

“Why?” Strategy asked while he looked at the trio in confusion. “They’re just privates, and new ones at that.”

“It’s good to combine experienced with non-experienced,” Nigel answered for James with a knowing smile. “Also, those three appear to be decent friends with each other. The key to an infiltration squad is that they have to be able to naturally get along with each other, you’d be surprised at how fake some relationships can look like. If you combine them with, say, five of the more experienced guards and another two rookies, you get a team that learns with each other and from each other.”

Strategy gave his Emperor a hesitant look. Apparently, the two humans and Orthodox were his friends and former squad mates, and yet they fought all of the time.

“While training, they’ll develop a bond and get to know each other,” Emperor Chalmers continued on without noticing the stare. “This will ensure maximum efficiency during any operations they preform, as well as providing them with some autonomy. You pick a soldier who displays the most wits and intelligence, and you place them in command. The experienced changelings will aid their greener comrades with the finer points of changeling tactics, and James will cover the rest.” The Emperor’s hand patted him on the helmet, gaining a giggle from Reflection. “Don’t worry Strategy, we’re pro at this after all.”

He considered the idea, weighing up all of the points. Chalmers was right; the humans knew more about ‘covert warfare’ than he did, and likely the Equestrians as well. Combining the natural abilities of the changelings and human know-how seemed like a potent combo, and they would be far more suited to long periods away from the Empire than crystal ponies.

Except for one thing.

“What about food?” he questioned, looking up at James. “Changelings need to feed on love, and without the Crystal Heart…”

“We’re already looking at enhancing the crystals capable of storing love,” Nigel informed, crouching down next to Reflection. James and Strategy looked on while Chalmers held the gem attached to Reflection’s necklace, the changeling smiling at the attention. “Reflection’s here can last her for a week if needed, and already the unicorns say that they’ve managed to bump that up to three and a half weeks. A little more time and we can hopefully have ones that can last a month and are no larger than a fist.”

“They will also be prepared to use alternate methods to gather needed food,” James commented. “I don’t know about the specifics of changelings, something Miss Reflection and others could hopefully inform me about, but all ISA squads are able to live for years behind enemy lines. Obviously, the lack of time to train is a limiting factor, but the ones I choose must be willing to do whatever it takes to secure victory.”

“My troops are loyal,” Strategy replied. “While I can’t guarantee what they themselves will think, I’m sure that they would acknowledge the price of victory. I only ask that I be present during the training if possible, they are my soldiers after all.”

“That’s fine with me,” James answered. “They will face many tests, both physical and mental, but from what I’ve seen they should make the cut. I can’t make them do what they don’t want to, but I hope to help them understand that there are no such things as morals in war.”

“Don’t go too hard on them,” Chalmers spoke up while standing up. “We don’t need a legion of ultra-trained killers with no inhibitions, they’ll take our jobs.”

James and Nigel shared a laugh, leaving Strategy and Reflection confused. Strategy still couldn’t figure out what was going on with the Emperor, and it was bothering him. He glanced towards Chalmers, the Emperor beginning to discuss the details with Agent James.

“Advisor Reflection,” Strategy addressed, keeping his voice low. “Have you noticed anything… different about the Emperor?”

“Not really,” Reflection whispered back. “He’s the same as he was before, you know…”

Strategy nodded and let the issue drop. He was still uneasy about the Emperor’s behavior, and for some reason he felt like he needed to understand why. He turned when a hoof tapped his soldier, finding Reflection looking at him.

“I’ll talk to him about it later and let you know what he says,” she offered, Strategy about to thank her but the Emperor turned away from his conversation with Agent James.

“So Strategy, you think you can pick out another seven?” Strategy remembered the topic that he was supposed to be focusing on, only having a second’s pause before replying.

“Yes sir, I’ll have all of the ten soldiers organised by the end of the day.”

“Very good,” Chalmers praised while he gave one last look down towards the training field. “Well, I’d hate to keep you from your duties and your troops, and I have to attend to some other matters, so I’ll be off.” He stepped past, Reflection at his side before he paused at the stairs. “James, you should come along as well, I have something to show you.”

“That doesn’t sound ominous,” the fully-armoured agent muttered in reply, before following the Emperor.

“We’ll catch up later Strategy, see how the old pub has fared in my absence.” With a wave, the Emperor and his two followers left the observation area. Strategy gave a final salute before turning back to look over his troops.

He watched on as the training continued, officers giving orders to their troops and directing them. Most of them bore some scars, a large amount of them having been promoted after the bloody battle with the Elk. Then again, almost every one of the guards still bore scars from that night, physical or other. Strategy glanced down at his own left foreleg at the thought, a deep gash having been torn in the copper fur by an Elk antler-axe.


Strategy glanced behind him, Sergeant Opel Blitz climbing the stairs and looking around the platform.

“Yes Sergeant,” he replied. “Is something wrong?”

“No sir,” Blitz answered with a shake of her head. She must have never been up on the platform before, eying the inside of the small structure with interest. “I was just after the Emperor, and I heard he was up here.”

Strategy remembered that Sergeant Blitz was somewhat of a favorite with the Emperor, the mare having accompanied him to Equestria a few months back. He had a suspicion as to why she was after him, but he wanted to confirm it to be sure.

“You just missed him, but he only left a few minutes ago. What did you need him for, if I may ask?”

“I wanted to talk to him about Chatter,” she replied, lowering her head at the mention of the dead soldier. “You see, we were both part of the guard that went to the Equestrian palace with the Emperor, and Nigel was pretty friendly with him. Also, they came to house one night after he had helped Chatter escape from the hospital. I know they were good friends, and I just wanted to make sure that he’s okay.”

“The Emperor is fine,” Strategy answered, stressing the title of the ruler so that Blitz would stop calling him by his first name. His own concerns reared their head however, and he softened. “Still, I can understand your reasons. I won’t stop you, and last I saw they were heading back to the castle. If you want, you can leave early-“

“That’s not needed, sir,” Blitz interrupted hastily. “I’ll try and catch him after, when he’s less busy. Besides, I have my own squad now, so I better get back to them.”

Strategy nodded, her dedication overriding the fact that she had interrupted him. With a departing salute, Sergeant Blitz turned and left, her diamond-like crystal armour clinking slightly with her steps. He found himself smiling, the fact that others were also concerned for Chalmers was relieving. He focused back on the field below, teams of guards preparing to use the powerful crossbows that the Head Blacksmith had invented months ago.

A group of twenty-two new recruits, eighteen crystal ponies and four changelings, watched the veteran instructor demonstrate the loading and cranking of the weapons. With a twang, a steel-tipped bolt thudded into a snow-sack target and landed just outside the inner circle of the bulls-eye. Seeing the weapon in action brought back yet more memories of the past battle, and he grimly recalled that they worked just as well on living things as they did on targets.

Shaking his head to clear his mind of the distracting thoughts, he focused back on the field underneath. There was no time for idle thought, not with an attack possible at any time. Celebrations would be few and far between, and much work was needed after a month of inactivity.

Staring down at the hundreds of soldiers below, all training with equal enthusiasm, a small smile grew on his face.

If there was another attack, this time they would be ready for it.

Legal Tender glanced up from the pile of bits he was counting as the doorbell jingled. A small, sky-blue mare hurried into his tiny bank, Legal’s green eyes lighting up. Quickly, he slicked down his unruly brown locks with a hoof, before returning his leg to the wooden counter.

“How can I help you, Miss Honey Glaze?” he tried to sound suave, but unfortunately his banker genes hadn’t created much of a mare’s stallion. Still, he’d do anything to secure a date with the small town’s perky baker.

“I came in here to warn you,” she hissed, glancing back at the door while she walked up to him. Legal was at first too caught up in staring at the sparkling golden eyes framed by her matching mane to take any notice, before her words caught up to him.

“Warn me?” he stuttered, hoping that it wasn’t too bad.

“Keep your voice down,” Glaze pleaded. “He was coming this way, and he seems to be able to hear really well.”

“Who’s coming?” With a swipe of his yellow foreleg, the bits jingled together while falling into a small coin bag. “Is there a new pony in town?”

Hayside only had a population of forty and was a farming town, so visitors were uncommon. Looking back, moving from Fillydelphia and opening a bank wasn’t the best idea, but thankfully running the post office on the side managed to net him a nice income as well.

Besides, a banker was a position of respect, at least in his eyes, so there were more perks to be had than just money. Being the only unicorn in a town of earth ponies was also something he saw as an advantage.

“Not a pony,” she answered. “He’s about as tall as you, but he walks on two legs and is covered with this black, metal armour.” Glaze stepped closer, Legal’s cheeks heating up when she leaned on the counter and moved her head towards his. “There’s something about him, I think he’s a bad sort.”

“O-oh, you think so?” Legal stammered, Glaze seeming oblivious to his behavior while she answered with a nod.

“I thought, ‘where would I go if I was a bipedal thing that looked suspicious and wore armour?’, and I immediately thought of the bank. I doubt he’s here to buy some corn, or sample some of my cookies.

‘I’d sample your cookies,’ Legal thought to himself, a happy grin spreading across his face.

“Legal Tender?” He shook his head at Glaze’s voice, the mare tilting her head at him. “Are you feeling okay? You seem pretty happy considering the danger-“

“I’m not happy,” Legal quickly interrupted. “I’m downright shocked, what a nefarious character!”


“Oh, sorry,” he remembered, lowering his voice once more. “Do you think that maybe he’s just passing through?” In response, Glaze narrowed her eyes and lowered her head, glancing back towards the main door and straining to see through the glass.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he robs this bank, with what he looks like.”

“Now Glaze,” Legal tried to reassure, only now realising that this was the longest conversation he had conducted with her so far. “I lived in the city for years, there are a lot of strange creatures out there in the world. I doubt this new visitor will be as deadly as say, a griffon.”

It was at that moment that the doorbell rang again. Both ponies froze and looked towards the front door, the very creature that they were discussing entering the bank and post office. Legal found that his voice had fled him, his eyes staring at the intimidating black armour, the piercing blue optics meeting his gaze. Two bulky objects were clutched in his claws, both the same colour as his armour.

“Am I interrupting anything?”

The creature’s voice was surprisingly clear, with a slight grating tinge to it. It sounded jovial, and Legal found himself relaxing. Honey Glaze, however, flushed red at the newcomer’s comment, and she quickly took her forelegs off the counter and dropped back down to the floor.

“Ah… no you’re not,” Legal managed to get out, the biped walking around to browse the stationary and stamps that lined the wooden shelves.

‘Maybe he’s just here to buy a stamp,’ Legal thought hopefully, smiling when the visitor turned and walked up to the counter.

“What can I get you sir?” With his smile still strong, Legal gestured towards the set of stamps on the counter next to him. “We have some limited edition Princess Celestia stamps in, only two bits a piece!”

“I’m not here for stamps,” the creature replied merrily. “I was directed here and told that this is also the bank.”

“This… this is the bank,” Legal answered warily, his bank-manager senses tingling.

“Good,” the visitor responded, nodding his head. “Very good.” Quick as a snake, he raised his arm up and pointed one of the black objects right towards Legal. “I wish to make a withdrawal.”

Legal found himself staring into a wide barrel, Honey Glaze gasping at the motion.

“But you don’t have any funds,” Legal replied, confused at what the creature was doing. “Do you have a claim letter or a transfer notice-“

“Are you fucking dense?” Legal and Glaze both winced at the strong language, very out of place in the sleepy farming town. “I’m holding you up! Now, get me all of your gold and jewels!”

It was then that Legal caught on. The object pointing at him must be some kind of weapon, and now that he looked at it he could see that the creature was holding it in an aggressive manner. He must have seemed hesitant to the creature, one of the claws inching towards the trigger. Legal’s eyes widened, he hadn’t been a victim of a bank robbery yet, but he had heard tails of major hold-ups in Manehattan.

“Okay, just calm down,” he tried, remembering that keeping the robber calm and collected was the best thing to do.

“I am calm,” the robber replied. “Perfectly calm, I am a serene butterfly floating in the win- Hey! You there!” Legal peered around the biped to spot Honey Glaze sneaking towards the door. The second black object was raised towards her, the baker shaking as she was faced with the weapon. “Mare! If you even think about going for that door then I’ll put more holes in you than a changeling has on its legs! Get behind the counter!”

Honey Glaze quickly obeyed, moving beside Legal without a word. The robber stared at them for a moment, and Legal felt a shiver run down his spine.

“Now kiss.”

‘What!?’ Legal couldn’t believe his ears; did the creature just order what he thought he had ordered? Honey Glaze seemed just as shocked as him, but the mare quickly turned her head to look at him.

“You… you heard him Legal,” she trembled out.

Legal was torn. On one hoof, he was being robbed at weapon-point. On the other, he now had a legitimate excuse to kiss Miss Glaze. Trying hard to not show any enthusiasm, he leaned towards Glaze as she moved towards him. Instead of her silky lips, Legal instead met the cold, hard barrel of the robber’s weapon.

“Oh my… you were actually going to do it!” the creature laughed, tapping the other weapon against his thigh in mirth. “That’s hilarious! What, you think I was going to shoot you because you failed to kiss?”

“We didn’t know-“ Legal tried to speak, before he was cut off by a wave of the weapon.

“Yeah yeah, less complaining and more ‘getting me money’, I ain’t getting any richer with you just standing there.” The tone switch from mirth to threats prompted Legal to move. He quickly moved to the back wall and opened his small safe with practiced skill, his hooves only trembling slightly. With the awareness that the robber was staring at his back, he removed the sack of bits from the safe as well as the mint condition ‘Princess Celestia Summer Sun Festival Special Edition Stamps – Second Edition’ stamps. He placed the sack of bits and stamps on the counter, the robber holstering one weapon so he could pick up the sack.

“That’s it?” he uttered in disbelief, gesturing towards the stamps. “Only a small sack of coins and more stamps? I thought this was a bank!”

“It is,” Legal mumbled, put out at the lack of satisfaction. “That’s over four-hundred bits, and those stamps are worth five bits each! There’s only two-thousand of them made, and they’re a limited edition-“

“I couldn’t care less about stamps!” the robber shouted, kicking the wooden counter in anger. Glaze and Legal jumped back, a black metal boot emerging out the other side. Legal felt a pressure around his side, and when he turned his head he found that Glaze was holding him out of fear. At her terrified face, he felt his own courage swell. No, this would not stand, no petty robber would threaten his crush!

“Listen here, this is a small bank,” he informed, glaring at the rude creature. “We’re not the Canterlot Treasury, so we don’t have much money, but by golly we have a lot of stamps!” His voice raised, and he pointed his hoof at the robber. “Either take what we have and leave, or stay here and complain about it! It’s my bank, and nothing you say will belittle that!”

Silence descended in the small building, Legal and the robber staring off. With the rush over, Legal started to realise just how badly he may have screwed up. After all, the robber was armed and seemed fairly violent.

‘Oh Sweet Celestia,’ he thought while he watched the creature raise his weapons once more. ‘It’s over.’

“Canterlot Treasury, you say? I’ll make you a deal, pony.” Legal gulped when the robber stepped forward, the barrel of his weapon pressing against his forehead, right below his horn. “Tell me how to get to Canterlot, and I’ll spare your life.”

“It’s over a week’s walk away!” Legal blurted out, the cold ring against his head helping to loosen his tongue. “We don’t even have guards here, we’re that far away! Please, the only way to get there quickly is to fly, I swear it!”

“Well that puts a spanner in that plan,” the robber muttered, before glancing towards the front of the store. “Or does it…?”

‘Is he going to let us go?’ Legal hoped, the weapon leaving his head before the creature turned around and left the store, the doorbell chiming as he exited.

“Did he just leave?” Glaze questioned, the abrupt and bloodless resolution surprising both of them.

“Without the money and stamps as well,” Legal confirmed, smiling at the loot that the robber had ignored. “Whew, that was a close one.”

“You were so brave, standing up to him.” Glaze gave him a nuzzle, Legal going a beet-red. “Thank you Legal, I was sure that he was going to hurt us or worse!”

“It… it was nothing,” he stammered in reply.

“No, if you haven’t shouted at him, he wouldn’t have left!” Glaze encouraged. “He’s just a bully; as soon as you stand up to him he goes away!”

While Legal wasn’t convinced that it was his own performance that caused the creature to leave, he decided to seize the moment.

“I wasn’t scared for a second,” he bragged, puffing out his chest. “In my long line of bank managers, we’ve never given in to simple hoodlums, thugs or scoundrels! He won’t be back Miss Glaze, I can assure you of tha-“

“Oh no, I’m robbing the bank!”

The slow yell of the robber was punctuated by a loud ripping noise, and Legal pulled Glaze behind the counter as glass shattered. Woodchips rained down from the roof as something thudded into the ceiling, a full three seconds of deafening noise sounding out through the entire bank and town. Legal’s ears rang for a full ten seconds after the main noise had stopped, and when his hearing returned he could make out the screams of confusion and terror from the other townsponies.

“Oh no, I hope nobody heard that and is on their way to fetch the guards to arrest me and take me to Canterlot,” the robber cried out. “That would be horrible!”

“Well, this is sure something.”

James let out a low whistle when the guards had finished opening the vault door, revealing the huge room filled with all manner of gold, jewels and other valuables. There was probably enough wealth to buy a small battlecruiser, and since Nigel was the ruler of this empire that likely translated to being his.

“You got an upgraded paycheck,” James murmured while entering the vault itself, prompting a chuckle from Nigel.

“It’s not mine, really,” Chalmers tried to pass off, rubbing the back of his head. “It’s supposed to be used for the infrastructure, the paying of workers, the… staying in this room and looking shiny?” He ended his answer with a shrug, before holding up a finger. “It’s not this room that’s the important thing though; we have something far more valuable in the back, so to speak.”

‘What could be more valuable than an Emperor’s ransom of treasure?’

Deciding to not voice his thoughts, James followed Nigel and Reflection to a blank section of wall, only a small amount of golden and silver coins heaped around it. It was only when he neared the wall that he realised what was going on. The sensors in his helmet registered a wall of energy in an ideal door-shape, James guessing that it was some kind of magic illusion.

He was proved correct when Nigel reached out and touched a light-torch, or more specifically the glowing gem that helped light up the room with it’s warm yellow glow. With a shimmer, the section of wall faded and revealed another stone-walled room.

“Try and keep this a secret,” Nigel requested, before frowning. “Also, don’t tell Orthodox about this no matter what. I don’t want to know what would happen if he got his grubby claws on these.”

“On what?” James inquired before entering the secret room with Nigel and Reflection.

“Oh, only on the objects that will probably catapult our military technology up a few levels,” Nigel replied casually. James looked around, the room larger than he first expected. Rows upon rows of coloured gems were lined up on selves, hundreds of them seemingly grouped according to colours, size and shape.

In the center of the room was a line of wooden workbenches, ponies with horns on their foreheads working over dull gems in utter concentration. The trio watched on without a word while horns glowed, infusing the gems with magic. James turned away from the group of twelve unicorns and ran his eyes over the nearby shelves.

He saw labels such as ‘weight reducing’, ‘ignition’, and ‘strengthening’ under different groups of gems. It was then that it clicked, these must be the same sorts of gems that were infused with the armour of the local guards, such as the ones that enabled the steel-clad changelings to fly despite their armour.

“Ah, Emperor! It’s a wonder to see you after that horrible month!” James re-faced the work area, a golden-coated unicorn with a matching mane approaching after leaving his seat. Nigel smiled and held out a hand, the unicorn meeting it with a hoof.

“It’s good to see you as well, Golden Ring. I hope the caves weren’t too bad.”

“It was nothing, I’m sure you endured worse,” Golden replied, before quickly changing the subject. “At least the Equestrians didn’t find our supply of gems from what I can see, and we’re already back to full productivity.”

“Excellent work,” Nigel praised, before nodding towards James. “Golden Ring, meet Agent James.”

“A pleasure,” the unicorn greeted, offering his hoof. James instinctively reached out and shook it, the unicorn staring in awe at the sophisticated armoured digits that encircled his limb. “Your armour is certainly amazing, and all made without gems as well.”

“We’ve had a few years to work on it,” James replied, keeping his tone professional.

“I can imagine. Moving on, I heard that you are quite interested in the science of magic, I assume that you cannot wait for me to explain to you our processes in enchantment.” It took James a few seconds to work out that the unicorn was mistaking him for Elijah, and he quickly rectified the mistake.

“I’m sorry, but I believe that you are thinking of my colleague, Researcher Elijah.” James glanced towards Nigel, the Emperor focused on Reflection while he rubbed her behind the ears. “I’m certain that Chalmers only really brought me here to show off the gold and jewels.”

“Lies and slander,” Nigel responded lightly, still focused on pampering the purring changeling at his side. “I actually came down to talk to Golden about those love-storage gems, and how the progress on expanding their capacity is going.” He turned his head towards Golden. “So Golden, how’s it going?”

“We’ve made leaps and bounds, sir,” Golden answered happily, his horn lighting up with an orange glow. A roll of parchment floated over from his desk at the back of the room, a set of small reading glasses also floating over to settle down upon his muzzle. With a clearing of his throat, Golden’s eyes traced the words written on his scroll. “We’ve managed to create gems that will theoretically hold enough love for a solid two months, if the user is careful with how much they consume. Realistically, the actual time is more like a month and two weeks, and that is based on three ‘meals’ a day.”

“That will be more than enough,” James answered with a nod, another question coming to mind. “How large are these gems? We’re after something concealable preferably, or at least something that won’t attract attention.”

“One second, and I’ll show you,” Golden answered, trotting back over to his desk. James noticed that a few of the workers were waving at Chalmers, the ponies seeming to be genuinely happy to see him. He shook his head when Nigel waved back, he never thought that he would have witnessed the day that Chalmers would actually get along with other people for a long period of time.

He refaced Golden just in time to see the unicorn return with a small box. With an orange glow, the lid was opened and Nigel, Reflection and himself leaned over to stare into it.

“They’re pretty small,” Reflection commented, James silently agreeing while he examined the small gems that about half the size of his unarmored fist. It was still fairly large for a gem, but it should be easy to hide around three of them on one’s person.

“I was informed of the requirements,” Golden explained. “I wanted to go smaller, but unfortunately that is going to take some time. With the high possibility of war on the horizon, I’ve had to focus my team’s efforts on restocking our weaponised gems and developing new ones. We’ve only managed to get twelve gems enchanted so far.”

The lid of the box was shut, Golden keeping it held in his magical grasp.

“Twelve is enough for our needs at the moment,” Nigel reassured. The Emperor removed his hand from Reflection’s head and held it out towards Golden. “Thank you Golden, once again you and your team has performed above expectations. Agent James here is in charge of that particular assignment, and he’ll organise their collection when they are required.”

“It’s my pleasure to serve the city, Emperor,” Golden meet Nigel’s hand with a proud grin on his face. “I also look forward to discussing theories with… Researcher Elijah, I believe it was?”

“That’s right,” Nigel replied, before he turned to James. “Speaking of Elijah, where is he?”

James checked his suit’s sensors, Elijah’s I.D lighting up on the helmet display.

“Apparently, he’s in the castle dungeons,” James informed, staring at the blinking dot on the digital map of the castle. “He’s likely harassing those prisoners of yours.”

Chalmers sighed, James smirking at the reaction.

“We better go get him before he tries to vivisect one of them,” Chalmers grumbled while making his way to the door. “Goodbye Golden, I’ll check back with you later on.”

“Goodbye sir, you’re welcome anytime,” the unicorn replied, the rest of the workers taking the time to shoot off farewell waves. James returned them unenthusiastically, before he followed Nigel and Reflection out of the door.

He was not looking forward to having to deal with Elijah and his shenanigans.

Twilight sighed and stared down at her forelegs, the human scientist waiting for an answer to the question. Unfortunately, he had picked her as his favorite ‘subject’, subject in this case seeming more like ‘victim’. The barrage of questions had been going on since the morning, ever since they had been given their breakfast of toast, jam and water. Compared to the often befuddling questions, being stuck in the cell was actually not that bad. The food wasn’t the worst and the guards were fairly friendly, but the scientist was a different matter.

“Do you, or do you know of, the methods commonly referred to as ‘blood magic?”

She looked up at the human’s question, rolling her eyes at him.

“No, blood magic is outlawed and has been for hundreds of years.”

“And what about-“

“It’s the same with dark magic, necromancy, and every other type of evil magic,” Twilight interrupted, the stress evident in her voice. “There is no summoning rituals, no evil spells, nothing!” Her voice raised to a yell towards the end, the pure ridiculousness of the situation getting to her. Looking around, she saw that all of her friends were staring at her with alarm, while the human scientist just watched her with a smirk and pushed his recorded closer.

“Okay, let’s talk about this,” Twilight managed out between deep, calming breaths, her voice lowering. “Listen, if you let me write a letter to Celestia, and let us go, then I can ask her to let you read every book in the royal library including the ones in the high-security wing.” She looked up pleadingly into the white helmet’s visor, the owner silent for a moment.

“No,” he answered, leaning back on his stool and entering something into the glowing pad he held. “Although this library does sound interesting, I’ll make sure to visit it sometime. If you can’t tell me about any of these spells you foolishly label as ‘dark magic’, then you can begin to explain about your titles. What are these ‘Elements of Harmony’, and why are you integral to their operation?”

Twilight glanced towards her friends, all of them watching the interrogation. Rainbow Dash was glaring at the human, the exception to the others’ looks of worry.

“Don’t tell him anything,” Rainbow growled. “He’ll only try and do something evil.”

“I can assure you, my motives are far from evil,” the scientist assured, turning to face Rainbow in her cell. “For example, if I was evil, then I wouldn’t be talking to you so civilly.”

“You tried to starve us,” Rarity pointed out. “It was only thanks to those noble stallions over there that you stopped.” All glanced towards the three guards at the end, the crystal ponies shifting uncomfortably in their armour.

“Our orders are from the Emperor himself,” the sergeant spoke up, more to the human than to them, Twilight observed. “The prisoners are to not be harmed.”

“And thanks to that I have been getting nowhere,” the scientist muttered, before looking back at Rainbow Dash. “It is due to your refusal to cooperate that has kept you imprisoned in these cells. If you tell me the information that I require, then I could talk to the Emperor about getting you actual rooms. You’ll still be prisoners, but in your own rooms instead of cells.”

“Including a bathroom?” Rarity inquired, looking to be mulling over the deal while gazing down at the chamber pot in her cell.

Twilight shuddered with her at the memories. It hadn’t been a pleasant stay in the dungeon.

“Of course,” the human replied, friendlier than before. “A bed, a bath, a toilet, better food, all that you need to do is tell me about these ‘Elements’.”

Twilight looked around at her friends once more. Pinkie’s mane was deflated, her normal energy gone. Fluttershy hadn’t spoken much, the whole experience terrifying to her. Applejack had been worried about how her family would react upon receiving the news of her imprisonment. Rainbow had been defiant, but the lack of sleep was starting to show in her eyes. Rarity had surprisingly been the strongest, telling them all that there was no way Equestria would let the Emperor keep them hostage.

It was true that they were nearing their breaking point, the dank dungeon sapping their wills. Twilight sighed, hoping that at least this way, they would get the possibility of a warm bed to sleep in.

“Well, the Elements are magical artifacts that only we can use,” she started to explain, aiming to keep the information basic. “They are Magic, Generosity, Laughter, Honesty, Kindness and Loyalty. We’re the bearers and we use them to fight evil, like Nightmare Moon and Discord.”

“You say these Elements are magical artifacts,” the scientist questioned, recording everything down. “What form do they take?”

“Five necklaces and a tiara,” Twilight answered, confident that this information wasn’t really harmful for him to know. After all, pretty much everypony in Equestria probably knew about them. “Princess Celestia has them hidden, so you’ll never find them.” The human snorted, and continued to tap on the pad.

“You underestimate the abilities of my colleagues,” he informed before pausing. “Especially if the said items look valuable, ISA agents have a habit of… ‘acquiring’ shiny things on their missions.”

“ISA?” Applejack asked from her cell. As the human turned to face her, Twilight noticed that the guards were also leaning in to listen.

“The Internal Security Agency,” the human answered. “It’s one of the intelligence departments of our military. Nigel, who is Emperor Chalmers, is a high-ranking ISA officer. Agent Orthodox, who is that small, orange, dragon-looking fellow you may have seen, is a field agent. Agent James and myself are also former members, and we have moved on to other departments.”

“You?” Rainbow Dash began to laugh. “A spy? You’re too much of a nerd!” Twilight shook her head in disbelief at her behavior. Sure, he hadn’t exactly been nice to them, but insulting a being who was willing to starve them wasn’t the best idea. Thankfully, the human didn’t show any signs of being upset, although it was hard to tell because of his concealing helmet.

“I was indeed a ‘spy’, Rainbow Horse,” the human replied, Rainbow Dash stopping her laughter at the insult he leveled at her.

Surprisingly, the scientist put his pad down and held his left arm up in the air. With a hiss and a whine, the white armour separated at his shoulder. Twilight and the others watch on amazed while he removed it, a plain grey jumpsuit underneath. After the two halves of the arm armour were placed on the stone floor, the scientist removed the glove from his hand.

Twilight’s eyes widened when she saw the metal hand, nothing like the skin-covered hands that the Emperor possessed. It looked like it was silver, and highly advanced judging from the way it moved like it was real. Even the fingers seemed to work fine, Twilight not knowing a lot about the digits, but they clenched and unclenched in a disturbingly natural way. With a zip, the human pulled something up his arm and freed it from the jumpsuit sleeve. What Twilight saw next nearly made her gag, if it wasn’t for the scientific curiosity brewing inside of her.

Halfway up the upper arm, the metal met white flesh. It was evident that the arm wasn’t natural, a sort of metal ring halfway between the shoulder and elbow. The rest of the girls, and the three guards, stared at it in shock while the human swiveled around to show it off.

“Lost it on a mission, it was trapped under a pile of rubble and we may have had just initiated a countdown for a large explosive device a few minutes earlier.” The human paused and glanced towards the three pony guards. “It was your Emperor that cut it off, you know,” he told them. “He saved my life in a way.”

“Is that why you’re helping him to do this to us?” Fluttershy spoke up quietly. “Because he saved your life?”

The human laughed, surprising them all. “Help Chalmers because he saved my life?” the scientist repeated mirthfully. “I doubt it, considering he has directly endangered my life far more regularly than saved it. No, ponies, I’m helping him because I choose to do so. Well, that and the promise of examining your world before the rest of my colleagues from the Research Department arrive and squabble over it.”

“Oh,” Fluttershy replied, sinking back down in her corner.

“What is it made out of?” Rarity asked hesitantly. “It is horridly morbid, but that metal…”

“It’s a mix of alloys and numerous other materials,” the human answered. “However, due to my work, I had it plated with silver.”

“Silver?” Rarity repeated with confusion. The scientist must have interpreted it as a doubt of validity, another hissing sound audible before the metal part of the arm disconnected from the rest. Morbidly, the human grabbed the metal part with his armoured hand and pulled it away, leaving a stump behind. Twilight nearly heaved when he turned to poke the disconnected arm through Rarity’s cell bars, the stump turning towards her.

The metal ring was covered with a mass of plugs, bits of flesh visible through a clear cover of some sort. She could actually see the muscles and blood vessels of the arm, the stump a horrifying blend of machine and human.

“No, take it away!”

Rarity’s wail caused Twilight to tear her eyes away from the stump, the human removing his metal arm from the bars.

“It’s only a prosthetic arm,” he chided, plugging it back into his stump. As soon as it was in, his fake fingers began to move again. “It’s not going to hurt you, and besides, you wanted to see that the silver was real.” He glanced towards Rainbow Dash, who was silent and opened mouthed at what she had just witnessed. “Is that substantial evidence for you, Rainbow Horse?”

Twilight didn’t hear Rainbow’s reply, her mind focusing on something that the human had said.

He apparently worked for something called the ‘OEMAD’, in which the first word was ‘occult’. He said that he had his fake arm plated on silver because of his job. Twilight knew that silver was allegedly something that could hurt evil things like vamponies and other monsters like that, but those things only existed in foal’s tales.



Twilight was pulled out of her thoughts at the sound of the Emperor’s voice, and she noticed that the scientist had just finished putting his armour back on. The three guards saluted as the Emperor, the changeling and the other human walked down into the dungeon with another four guards in their wake. Twilight noticed that the changeling shuddered when its eyes glanced over them in the cells, and she remembered that it too had been incarcerated.

“Oh what is it, my glorious liege?” the human named Elijah replied sarcastically while standing up and bowing. He sounded lighthearted to Twilight, and judging by the Emperor’s chuckle he didn’t see it as an insult.

“Well, I came down to save the prisoners from you,” the Emperor answered, gazing around at them all. “But they surprisingly seem to be in good health. Did you find out anything interesting?”

“They are not the weapons themselves it seems, but merely some sort of conduct through which they act,” Elijah started to explain while glancing at Twilight. “The unicorn named Twilight Sparkle has told me that there are five necklaces and one tiara, and that they are guarded by Celestia.”

“It is no matter,” the Emperor dismissed. “Without their conducts, the Elements are assumed to be useless. We have other matters to worry about at the moment, and your presence is required down in the vault.”

“Ah, with the enchanted gems!” the scientist’s voice was filled with child-like glee. “I will depart immediately!”

“Elijah, wait-“

The Emperor was cut off, the scientist moving past him and disappearing out the door.

“Private Mirage,” he addressed, one of his changeling guards nodding. “Go after him, and actually show him where the vault is.”

“Yes sir,” the steel-clad guard confirmed with no trace of enthusiasm in his voice, before he turned and headed for the exit.

Twilight gulped when the Emperor turned to look at her, his smile not easing her concern. The fact that he was smiling was somehow more haunting, and he patted the head of his changeling.

“Emperor, sir,” one of the dungeon guards spoke up. “Mister, uh, well the other human in the white armour promised the Equestrians that if they told him about the information he was after, then he’d talk to you about moving them up into some rooms.”

“Did he now?” the Emperor muttered. “And let me guess, they gave him-“

They gave him the information,” the guard confirmed, eliciting a sigh from Emperor Chalmers.

“Of course they did,” he replied, crouching down and staring at Twilight. “Didn’t you, purple unicorn?”

“Twilight Sparkle,” she informed him, scooting back away from the bars. "And... I did."

“Indeed,” the Emperor continued with a roll of his eyes.

“You’re not going to give them a room, are you?” the changeling asked, moving her head up into his hand. The Emperor hummed, scratching her behind the ears.

“Well, they haven’t really done anything to me or the Empire,” he started, Twilight perking up at this. “And remember, you were in here too for a month. Wouldn’t you have preferred to be locked in a room instead of down here?” Twilight flinched when the changeling’s wings buzzed, but the creature didn’t advance. Instead she stood up on her hind legs and threw her forelegs around the Emperor’s neck, taking everyone by surprise.

“Don’t say that!” she asked him pleadingly. “Don’t remind me of that!”

“Okay, okay,” the Emperor reassured, patting her on the back and giving his fellow human a look. In return, the black-armoured human shrugged. “Do you want to go back up? I’ll meet you in the throne room after I’m done here.”

“I’ll go back up,” the changeling whispered back, Twilight having to strain to hear it. The changeling stopped hugging him and got back down on all four legs, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before moving towards the door.

“Reflection, wait.” The changeling stopped, the Emperor looking towards a guardmare. “Private, please escort her back up and keep her company.”

“Yes sir,” the guard replied with a salute, before moving to the changeling and ushering her along.

“Can we really afford to move them up to rooms?” the armoured human inquired after the pair was gone, tilting his helmet towards Rainbow. “Especially with multi-colored over there.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rainbow glared, the Emperor raising a finger in the air and waving it at her.

“Shh, quiet down there.”

“Why you-“

“The Emperor ordered you to be quiet,” one of the guards reminded forcefully, earning a glare from Rainbow but also her silence.

“Thank you soldier,” Emperor Chalmers acknowledged. “Now James, while we’d lose two guards for each room, we gain so much more. For one, we still have Celestia’s precious Bearers secured away. We’d have more compliance and better leverage when negotiating, due to the better conditions. Bar up the windows and there’s only one door each they can possibly escape from.”

Twilight wondered why he felt okay with freely talking about this when she realised something. Even if they did escape, where would they go? The entire city would recognize them in an instant, being the only Equestrians around. Then, if they somehow did get through the city, they would have to trek through snow and blizzards with no supplies. Once again she glanced around at her friends, hope in their eyes.

“We won’t try to escape,” she spoke up, earning the attention of the Emperor, the other human and the guards. “If you put us in rooms, then we’ll stay there.”

In truth, she was intending to try and figure out something while trapped, even if she could try and send Celestia a message somehow. The human Emperor grinned at her, his joy slightly unnerving.

“Good choice,” he replied, standing up from his crouch and clapping his hands together. “There’s not really any point in you being down here if you behave. You haven’t really done anything wrong, but being the servants of that back-stabbing bitch means we have to take some precautions.”

Twilight flinched at what he called Celestia, his cheery tone wavering for the briefest of instants. Looking back at what had happened, they were incredibly lucky that the Emperor just didn’t take his anger out on them.

“You can’t call the Princess that!” Rainbow shouted out, glaring at the Emperor.

“I can call her whatever I want to,” Emperor Chalmers shot back. “She lost all of my respect a month ago, and I never forgive traitors.”

“Rainbow,” Twilight added, giving her a look that said ‘drop it’. “Just don’t say anything.” Rainbow looked at her, disgusted. Twilight remained stoic, while she hated saying that to a friend, antagonizing the Emperor who was holding them hostage was not the best thing to do. They just needed to sit down, shut up, and hopefully Celestia would get them out of this soon.

“You should listen to your purple friend,” the human called James spoke up. “She seems to be a bit more level-headed.” Rainbow snorted at this, but thankfully sat down, crossed her forelegs and only glared at the humans and guards. The Emperor must have found her reaction humorous, the human smirking at Rainbow.

“Yes, that would be recommended.” He turned to the remaining three guards that had come in with him, nodding towards the door. “Please inform the blacksmith of the needed requirements; I’d like to have the rooms ready before this evening.”

“Which rooms, sir?” a guard asked, the stallion saluting while he did so.

“Six of the standard guest rooms on the first level should be fine, we’re not going too soft on them.” The guard nodded and moved to leave the dungeon with his two comrades in tow, the Emperor turning back around. “Now, Miss Sparkle, we’ll still need to ask you and your friends questions of course.” Twilight grimaced, not looking forward to more interrogation.

“I understand,” she said with a sour face, before getting an idea. “But, if we do, maybe the six of us could be allowed to eat together? If we’re going to be locked up in our separate rooms-“

“I see no issue with that,” the Emperor answered, giving his fellow biped a glance. He received a shrug in return, the other human raising his arm in an exaggerated motion.

“You’re the Emperor, it’s your call. We’ve still got a lot to do so we’d better get a move on.”

”Yes, we better,” Emperor Chalmers replied, before giving a final glance around the cells. “Remember; if you behave then you get more privileges, so I suggest cooperation.” With that and a wave of his hand, he made to leave. The other human followed him with a shake of his head, leaving the three guards alone to guard them. Twilight looked towards Rarity, the seamstress coughing into a hoof while Rainbow glared at the Emperor’s back.

“Well Twilight,” Rarity began, the others all looking towards her. “At least we’ll get our showers.”

“Taking their sweet time, aren’t they?”

Orthodox grumbled to himself, leaning back against the tree in the center of the town. It had been hours since he had ‘robbed’ the bank, and he had expected the local law enforcement to turn up ages ago.

He snorted and glanced around at the surrounding houses, ponies staring out at him from their curtained windows. They hadn’t been game enough to come out, even though he was unarmed. His two machine pistols had been concealed inside his chest armour, and after he had buried his plasma rifle behind a house he was ready to be taken into custody.

With a sigh, he ran an armoured hand down his face, the wait agonizing. He was half-tempted to set a house on fire to see whether that would bring the guards faster, or at the very least it would help to get rid of his boredom.

His right ear raised when he heard the clanking of metal drawing closer, and he let out a low whistle when he looked up.

A horde of flying pony guards were closing in on the town, their golden armour glinting in the setting sun. There must have been at least fifty, and as he watched they spotted him.

“Phase two,” he muttered to himself with a grin, placing his helmet on his head and making sure that it sealed. He ensured that his tail was limp and non-threatening, before knelt down to pick up a rock. “You’ll never take me alive!” he yelled, chucking the rock at one of the oncoming guards. The mare swerved and speeded down towards him with increased speed.

Orthodox ran as quickly as his legs could take him, down the main street of the town.

“Fly, fly, fly as fast as you can!” he shouted out. “You can’t catch me, I’m the-“

His taunts were cut off when a weight slammed into his back. While his powered armour would normally be able to compensate for something like that, since he was running at full pelt and wasn’t using his tail for counterbalance he ended up face-down in the dirt.

“Fuck,” he cursed, before trying to roll over with the weight still on top of him. He came face to face with one of his pursuers, the guard appearing dazed with a dent in the golden helmet. Looking at the pony closely, Orthodox saw that it appeared female. The pony’s blue eyes were unfocused, and drops of drool were falling from her mouth onto one of his eye optics. “At least buy me dinner first,” he grumbled, trying to wipe it off with his hand.

“There it is!” a male voice called out. “Private Streak has him!” Orthodox did the one thing he could think of.

“Police brutality!” he started to yell. “I have rights! Rape! Get me a lawyer!” Gold-armoured hooves pulled the stunned pony off of him, and with a few kicks he was soon facing the dirt again. “You can’t arrest me, my dad owns a dealership! I’ll sue you, you pigs! Just you wait until I get out; I’ll come for all of your families!” The guards must have caught on that his armour was harder than their shoes, and they stopped kicking. Orthodox felt something jab his back, and a surge of electricity crackled over his armour harmlessly. “Don’t tase me bro’!”

“What in Tartarus is he made of?” a pony questioned, Orthodox finding himself hauled up from the ground. He looked to his sides, two ponies flying and holding his arms. He smirked when he realised that they had handcuffed him, he doubted that anything they had could resist power armour. Still, he had a plan to go through with, so he had to resist the urge to break his bonds like they were paper.

“It doesn’t matter,” a gruff voice answered, Orthodox looking towards the front and seeing a guard wearing a helmet with a larger plume. “He’s our prisoner now.” The pony that Orthodox assumed was the guard leader stepped closer, the rest of the ponies crowding around. “Do you know why you’re under arrest?” Orthodox smirked, even though the pony couldn’t see it.

“Yeah, I plowed your mother last night, bitch likes it rough.” A barrage of hits landed on him, the guard leader watching while his subordinates attacked with no effect.

“Elegent,” the pony growled, waving a hoof and ordering the ceasing of the kicking. “But no, you’re under arrest because of your affiliation with the Crystal Empire. Princess Celestia is very eager to speak to you-“

“I bet she is,” Orthodox purred. “She can’t resist this hunk o’ spunk.”

He once again found himself on the ground, the guards laying into him with their armoured shoes. Orthodox made sure to disable his external speakers, as he didn’t want them to hear his laughter at how easy they were to rile up. After a solid minute of kicking, the guards all taking a turn, he was lifted back up again.

“Not so funny now, is it?” the leader smirked, Orthodox getting his chuckles under control before re-enabling his speakers.

“Your guards kick like schoolchildren. Actually, I’ve met schoolchildren that kick harder.”

That had been a strange weekend.

The guard leader’s smirk disappeared, a frown replacing it. “We’ll see how hard you’re laughing when you’re rotting in the Canterlot dungeon, Scum. Take him away.”

“Oh no,” Orthodox stated with a grin hidden under his helmet, while a barred chariot was flown down from the sky. “Anything but the Canterlot dungeon.”

Shining got out of the chariot and helped Cadence down; making sure that the cloak covered her completely. The shaving had been a huge blow to her self-esteem, and Cadence didn’t want anypony to see her like she was now. She had cried all through the trip back to Canterlot, and Shining had been at a loss at what to do before he had run into his father. Nightlight was the third pony to leave the chariot, the older stallion rushing to the oak door of the large house that they had stopped at.

“Come on inside,” he suggested, Shining giving the guards drawing the chariot a nod of thanks before he helped Cadence inside of his parent’s house. They left the front yard and entered the hallway, pictures of the family hanging up on the wall. They followed Nightlight into the living room, Shining helping Cadence onto the couch before moving into the kitchen with his father.

“Thanks for letting us stay,” Shining acknowledged, his dad smiling while he levitated the teapot down from a white shelf.

“You need time with your family, it’s far better than staying in the castle,” Nightlight reassured. “After what you and Cadence went through, some time in a nice, relaxing setting is the best thing.” The dark blue stallion shifted awkwardly on his hooves, a box of tea bags floating in mid-air. “They didn’t… do anything else to her, did they?”

It took Shining a second to process the question, and when he did he was thankful for the answer.

“No, they didn’t do anything like that,” he replied, opening the cupboard that contained the biscuits. “The Emperor’s not the nicest guy, but he wouldn’t do that.” His father gave him an incredulous look.

“He’s ‘not the nicest guy’? Isn’t this the same Emperor that killed and was banished to Tartarus by Celestia herself?”

“He was okay before that,” Shining defended. “I ate and drank with him, remember? He just… thinks differently to everyone else.” It was then that he remembered the other humans, and the lizard thing. “Okay, I think everything from where he comes from is strange, but he isn’t a madpony like Sombra was.”

“Didn’t he beat Sombra to death?”

“That’s not the point Dad,” Shining sighed.

“Well, I don’t see your point,” Nightlight finished, levitating the complete tray with everything they would need. “He’s an enemy of Equestria and shaved your wife as a warning to the Princess, not to mention he took Twilight and her friends hostage. That’s evil enough for me.”

Shining lowered his head at the reminder of his sister’s imprisonment, but something told him that the Emperor was going to keep his word about her safety. He followed his father back out to the living room, Nightlight setting everything down upon the small coffee table and taking a seat in a light-blue armchair.

“So I heard that one of the Emperor’s minions was captured today.”

“Yeah, he tried to rob a bank in a farming town,” Shining answered while sitting down next to the silent Cadence. “Why he did it I don’t know, but from my brief experience with him I think he’s possibly the worst out of all of them.”

“Why does a small farming town have a bank anyway? There’s apparently only forty ponies living there.”

“I don’t know Dad, I’m not a banker.” Shining knew what Nightlight was doing, the older stallion trying to steer the conversation away from anything to do with the Crystal Empire. He glanced towards Cadence, still wrapped up in her cloak. She had took it hard, losing her coat. With a small sigh, he poured her a cup of tea and levitated it towards her.

“Your mother should be out soon,” Nightlight informed, tilting his head towards the closed study door behind him. “With what’s going on, with Twilight, she’s been shut up in there since she found out. I told her you and Cadence were coming, so hopefully she’ll show herself.”

Shining nodded and took a sip of his own tea, not really knowing what else to say. He hoped that his parents didn’t blame him for Twilight’s imprisonment.

“Thank you for inviting us to stay,” Cadence mumbled, Nightlight glancing towards Shining before replying.

“It’s okay Cadence, it’s not like you’ve been a stranger to this house after all.” His words prompted a small smile, Cadence no doubt remembering happier times. Placing his tea down on the table, Shining put a foreleg around her and gave his father a thankful nod.

All three sat in silence for a few minutes, simply enjoying their tea. In truth, none could really think of anything to talk about, all wary about bringing up the trouble in the Crystal Empire. The chime of the wooden wall clock caused Shining to look up and see that it was seven o’clock. Nightlight also took notice, the stallion glancing towards the study door again.

“We’ve already got the guest room ready for you two, so you don’t need to worry about that.”

“Thanks,” Shining replied, the silence returning. With another glance, Nightlight rolled his eyes and placed his empty cup down on the table.

“Hang on, I’ll drag your mother out of hiding.” Nightlight left his seat and trotted towards the study door, Shining and Cadence watching while he knocked. “Velvet, Honey? Shining and Cadence are here and we should probably get dinner started.” He didn’t receive a reply, Shining furrowing his brows when his father knocked again. Nightlight and Velvet had always been talkers, and it wasn’t like his mother to be this quiet. Something in his gut didn’t feel right, but Shining dismissed the feeling. He hoped that nothing was wrong, they already had enough to worry about.

Nightlight tested the knob and found it unlocked, after which he walked inside.


Shining and Cadence waited, a few moments passing before Nightlight’s strained voice called out to them.

“Shining, could you come in here please?”

Giving Cadence a puzzled glance, Shining left her on the couch and walked towards the study. When he entered to small room he saw his father, the stacked bookshelf, assorted stationary and the prized family typewriter. However, there was no Twilight Velvet in sight.

“Where’s she gone?” Shining asked, the feeling in his gut increasing. Nightlight didn’t reply, and instead pointed to a piece of parchment on the writing desk with a stony expression on his face.

“Dear Nightlight,” Shining began to read out-loud to himself. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but I can’t stand the thought of our Twilight stuck in a cold prison cell with the possibility of…” Shining paused to suppress a shudder. “…execution. I’ve managed to organise a lift with a merchant to get me close to the Empire, so by the time you’re reading this I’ll likely be only a day away from seeing Twilight.”
He stopped reading, glancing towards his father who stared back at him. Soft hoof taps sounded out on the wooden floor, and Shining noticed that Cadence had come to the door. “She didn’t really…”

“There’s more,” Nightlight reminded, Shining returning to his reading.

“I’ve taken some food and winter coats, as well as the money from the emergency fund. Hopefully the Emperor holding her captive will accept it as a ransom, and let her go. I also know that the Crystal Empire includes changelings as well as whatever the Emperor is, but I don’t want you to follow or tell the guard. I don’t want to risk them trying to rescue me, and putting Twilight’s life in danger because of it. If Shining is there when you’re reading this, please tell him that I’m sorry, and also glad that he and Cadence are okay.

PS, I’ve cooked some nice stew and put it in the fridge, all you have to do is reheat it and it should last you, Shining and Cadence a few days. I’m sure that Shining and Cadence can help you cook if needed, and don’t forget that the observatory wants you to work on Saturday.”

Shining continued to stare at the letter, unable to believe the words that were written. His own mother had left to try and pay the Emperor to let Twilight go, and without telling Nightlight or anypony else.

“She always was a little overprotective,” Nightlight stated, Shining shaking his head in disbelief.

“Overprotective? Dad, she’s traveling to a country that hates Equestria at the moment, and sees us as untrustworthy liars and Princess Celestia as a tyrant on par with Sombra.”

“And the changelings as well,” Nightlight added, Shining placing the letter back down on the desk and moving to leave.

“The changelings aren’t the main worry,” he replied, dreading how Chalmers and the crystal ponies would react to an Equestrian entering the city uninvited.

“Where are you going?”

“To go and stop her,” Shining replied as he moved past Cadence and made for the door. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Son, wait,” Nightlight called, Shining pausing at the hallway. His father trotted up to him, and put a hoof on his shoulder. “Look, I’m just as worried about your mother as you are, but you know Velvet, is she going to stop just because you’ll tell her that it’s dangerous?”

“No,” Shining didn’t have to think about shaking his head, his heart sinking when he realised that his father was right.

“See? She’s a determined mare, she knows that it’s dangerous and yet she still went. It’s a parent’s job to look after their children, and I would be following her.”

“Why don’t you?” Cadence inquired softly, walking up to press against Shining’s side.

“Velvet’s gone to look after Twilight,” Nightlight began. “But I’ve got a responsibility to look after you two. Following her or telling the guards will only go against her wishes, and she’s right when she says that it will only cause unneeded risks. That Emperor is far more likely to hurt Twilight if an army turns up, instead of a mother. Even if there is changelings and evil rulers, Velvet won’t stop. Not even if you tell her to.”

Shining sighed and nodded, stepping away from the hallway. Nightlight was right, and it was likely that Velvet was already too far to be stopped anyway. There wasn’t anything he could do, and he was already run dry from the past two days.

“He’s right, Shining,” Cadence contributed. Shining gave her a smile, although it wavered when he saw one of Cadence’s plucked wings through a gap in her cloak. He wasn’t sure how Chalmers would react to Velvet, and he hoped that his mother would be able to remain calm and not insult or attack him.

“Come on Son,” Nightlight tried. “There’s nothing we can do but give your mother a chance.”

“I guess,” Shining replied, irked that he wasn’t able to do anything about it.

“At least she left us some dinner.”

Shining smirked at his father’s observation, Nightlight’s confidence in Velvet reassuring.

“I’ll go and heat it up,” Cadence offered, giving Shining a quick kiss on the cheek before heading towards the kitchen. “I don’t trust you in the kitchen, Nightlight, not after that one time when you set fire to-“

“Yes, yes,” Nightlight huffed in response before muttering to himself. “She sure perked up enough to take a shot at me.” The entire exchange increased Shining’s grin, things almost seeming like he was a teenager again and having Cadence over for dinner. “So Shining, while Cadence is doing that, do you want me to tell you about the new craters we found on Princess Luna’s moon?”

“Sure Dad,” Shining replied while he started to head back to the chairs. “I’d love to hear about them, anything to take my mind off things.”

‘Heh, what a bunch of suckers.’
Orthodox grinned to himself under his helmet, his hands still cuffed behind his back. The four guards assigned to him passed his cell, the dark-colored ponies with bat wings and eyes glancing at him and moving on with the only sound being their armoured hooves clacking on stone and their lacquered purple armour clinking against their short spears.

He looked down at his armour, scratched from when the ponies had tried to remove it from him. Unluckily for them, it was made to withstand harder punishment than hammers and chisels. One bastard had even managed to make a dent in his groin plate when the pony had levitated an anvil and dropped it, but they had given up after two hours and had thrown him in here with the promise that the Princess would interrogate him in the morning.

He didn’t plan on giving her the chance, and besides…

They had already given him what he wanted.

“Time to go to work,” he muttered, his previously limp tail rising up and twisting in the air behind him. With a thought, his helmet brought up a small screen that showed the feed for the small optic built into his tail’s armor. Normally it was there to let him peek under doors and small gaps before breaching, but now it served another purpose.

Using the feed to guide him, Orthodox moved his tail so that the pointed tip touched his chains, and he grinned when the tip slid into the lock that held his manacles on. “They always forget the tail,” he chuckled, having lost count of the amount of times that he’d been cuffed or tied up while having his enemies think that he had no control over own tail.

With a slight blue glow and sizzle, the powerfield-wreathed blade that emerged from the end of his tail cut through the lock like butter. Orthodox was careful to keep a firm hold on the broken lock and chains, his tail withdrawing and allowing him to step back and hide the broken bonds under the dirty mattress that served as the cell’s bed. He quickly but quietly returned to his previous position, letting his tail lay limp on the floor and placing his hands behind his back like he was still chained.

Just like clockwork, the four guards walked past again, giving him glances to make sure that he was still there before moving on in their patrol. He silently wondered why the bat-ponies didn’t just stand still and guard him, but he guessed that since they appeared to be the night guards they didn’t have much to do and got bored easily.

He waited until they were as far away as possible before he withdrew a dull grey combat knife from his suit, having kept the weapon in a hidden compartment much like his two sidearms. He decided against activating the weapon’s power field and instead relied on the knife’s monomolecular edge to cut through the cell lock.

The superior metal of the weapon, the sharp blade only an atom thin at the end, sliced through the pair of primitive iron bolts that held the door closed. He returned his hands behind his back, still holding the knife, while he waited for the guards to come around again. Despite the fact that it was late at night, and that he normally didn’t care for stealth, he wanted to keep things quiet until he found his true goal.

Once again the clacking of silver shoes on stone grew louder, Orthodox checking his helmet’s clock and preparing for his next move.

“Right on time,” he smirked, having turned off his armour’s external speakers. “At least you can’t say that they’re not punctual.” The blade on the tip of his tail silently slid back into the armour, a small trio of prongs emerging from beside it’s housing. He waited until the guards were almost upon him, before he pulled an arm back and then pushed violently, swinging the heavy cage door into their faces.

Or at least, that had been the plan.

Orthodox had forgotten about his armour’s increased strength, and instead of the door just pushing open, it flew off its hinges when it reached to end of its arc. A yell of alarm was cut off by the crunch of metal-on-metal, Orthodox actually wincing at the sound.

“Ow, that had to have hurt,” he chuckled before walking out of his cage to inspect the damage.

The cell door had clocked all of the guards and knocked them to the floor, all seemed to be out cold with a couple of broken muzzles and dents in helmets shared all round. He was just about to step over them and make his way to the exit, before a spluttering cough drew his attention. He spotted movement, and he pounced on one of the guards who had been at the back, with his deadly knife at the ready.

The pony tried to cry out, but Orthodox quickly clamped his armoured claw around its throat to shut off its air and voice. He stared into the slited yellow eyes, able to see the creatures fear through his optics as it struggled for air. He had his legs on either side of the pony’s body to stop it thrashing, and the leather-like bat wings flapped in a desperate attempt to get free.

Its dark-grey face started to turn blue, and Orthodox took a closer look at the face of his victim. It appeared to be a female, with a slender muzzle dripping blood and a young face. The pony stared at him pleadingly, and out of the corner of his optics he could see that her right armoured forehoof was reaching for her dropped short-spear.

“Nice try,” he told her as his tail flicked the spear away, the weapon clattering against the wall. “But if it’s any condolence, it wouldn’t have done anything to me anyway.” The mare’s eyes started to close, and Orthodox smirked. “I did appreciate the attempt, though.”

He released her, the pony’s chest heaving as her body tried to take in as much oxygen as possible. Orthodox kept her pinned while she coughed and spluttered, blood dripping down from her injured muzzle. After her breathing got back under control, the mare looked up to find his helmet staring down at her with a knife rushing towards her face.

Orthodox flipped the knife over before it made contact, slamming the handle instead of the blade onto the guard’s forehead. The mare went limp at the blow, joining her fellows in their unconsciousness.

“Sweet dreams,” Orthodox whispered, getting up off the guard and brushing himself down. Nigel hadn’t said anything about bat-ponies when he had been talking about the Equestrians, so maybe these hybrids were special or something.

Besides, when she was underneath him like that and wordlessly begging for her life, she was kinda cute.

“Damn it!” Orthodox grunted, smacking his helmet with the handle of his knife. “I should’ve gotten her to tell me where the bloody treasury is!” He paused, and lowered his knife. With a shrug, he continued to stroll towards the dungeon exit.

“Eh, just means I get to explore the castle I guess.”

He paused when he reached the heavy door, glancing back towards the four guards he had left knocked out.

“Might as well,” he muttered, walking back over to them and reaching into an armour compartment. He withdrew a marker, and bent down over the mare he had almost killed. “Communication channel three-six-alpha-five, call me baby.”

His message scrawled on her chest armour, Orthodox stood back up and gave her a nod.

“Alright, back to work,” he muttered, returning to the door and finally leaving the dungeon behind.

Outside in the palace gardens, the night air was cool and crisp. As such, the guards normally assigned to guard a special area of the gardens had opted to help their colleagues watch the castle gates from inside the heated gatehouse. Besides, it wasn’t like anything happened in the normally peaceful gardens anyway.

A single statue stood alone, a sign warning against fighting or arguing set up alongside it. The figure was locked in a standing pose, and covered with a liberal helping of pigeon excrement.

Everything was quiet and peaceful, nothing disturbing the night air.

About the same time that a being in the dungeon below the garden had finished scrawling his confusing and useless message on the armour of a fallen guard, a crack appeared in the hard stone of the statue.

A crack that slowly started to grow.

“Gold, wonderful gold, with emeralds, rubies and diamonds. With all of these wonderful jewels, I’ll be able to buy some islands.”
Orthodox sang as he heaped glittering loot into his chest armour, stuffing in all sorts of treasure. It had taken him a few hours to find it, but thankfully the treasure vault was one of the larger rooms and only guarded by a large metal door that had quickly fallen to a high-powered plasma-cutter. There had hardly been any guards at all, and he had managed to restrain himself long enough to sneak past them instead of just flat out clobbering them.

Not thumping them was probably the hardest part so far.

With the halls mostly vacant, likely due to the late time of night, no one had seen him to his knowledge. That meant less time fighting off guards and more time to nab treasure. While on the subject of treasure-nabbing, Orthodox realised that his chest armour was full to capacity.

“She canna take any more, Captain,” he mumbled to himself, turning to grab the white pillowcases he had ‘liberated’ from an unattended maid’s cart. There were four of them, each with gold trim and a golden letter ‘C’ in the middle. Overall, they looked expensive and fit for a queen.

Orthodox took out his knife and stabbed one of them, ripping the soft fabric apart to create three holes in the case. Sheathing his knife after the bout of pillowcide, he lifted the torn case up and placed it over his head. The three holes lined up with his optics and primary external speaker, the big letter C right in the middle.

Orthodox picked up a golden goblet, admiring his disguise in the reflection. He nodded to himself, now that he looked the part he could continue with his robbery.

Grabbing another pillowcase, he continued to greedily grab coins and jewels, laughing to himself while he imagined the sorts of things he could buy once he brought off all the valuables back home.

The entire galaxy would run out of narcotics when he was through.

The quiet of the night was broken with a series of cracks, stone flakes falling off to land on the ground.

Discord, Spirit of Chaos, cracked his neck and gave it a spin, ending up with it on backwards. Letting out a sigh, he grabbed and turned it around the right way, before popping his back and ending up in half. Glancing down at himself, he rolled his eyes when he noticed the white stains that peppered him. With a finger snap they changed into yellow polka-dots, before vanishing.

“Ah, it’s good to be back,” he grunted, re-attaching himself together and looking around. “Now, what is it this time?”

He swiveled around, gazing over the calm and peaceful gardens. He huffed at how… boring it all was. With a snap of his fingers the hedges animated, changing from green to red to blue, before repeating. He stopped when he laid eyes on the castle, sensing an absolutely delightful personality within. Something about it just seemed so volatile and promising.

“I do believe that I have found my knight in shining armour,” Discord grinned while floating up into the air, heading towards the castle and what would no doubt be an incredible source of fun. With a poof of pink smoke, Discord emerged with a pink dress and pointed fairytale princess hat.

“It would be bad manners not to thank them, after all.”

Orthodox gazed at the nearly empty vault, only a few stacks of coins remaining with the occasional jewel resting on a shelf. He was still wearing his pillowcase mask, and three bulging sacks were at his side. Necklaces were looped around his neck and arms, his form glittering gold while he struck a pose and grabbed his groin armour.

“You’ve been hit by, you’ve been struck by, a smooth criminal.”

“My, this is going to be more fun than I thought.”

Orthodox whirled around and drew his guns at the same time, looted coins and gems flying out as he pulled the weapons free. As the valuables hit the floor, he aimed at the…

Flying, dress-wearing, dragon-hybrid thing?

“I could have sworn that I didn’t take anything yet,” he mumbled, taking in the creature before him. Much to his alarm, it snapped its lion fingers and suddenly it was wearing a blond wig under its pointed hat.

“Oh, dear prince, I assure you that no substance clouds your mind,” the creature cooed while it swirled around him, tracing a finger along the armour.

“Look buddy,” Orthodox replied after slapping away the finger with a gun. “I’m not into that kind of stuff. Military college was a long time ago, I drank a lot-“

“What? Oh no, no, no!” Discord reared back, torn between being insulted or impressed by the amusing creature’s reaction. “I only wish to give my thanks for freeing me from my stone prison, you cause a delightful amount of chaos.” Orthodox frowned at the creature’s words.

“Well, you can ‘give your thanks’ over by the door,” he ordered with a gesture of a gun. With a poof, the strange hybrid appeared two metres away by the door, having teleported somehow instead of just flying. “Guess that explains about how he got in here,” Orthodox muttered to himself.

“What was that last part?” the hybrid inquired, his right ear enlarging.

“I said something about gold,” Orthodox answered while turning back towards his sacks and putting his weapons away. He didn’t have time to talk with this creature; he had treasure to steal, a castle to escape, treasure to bury, a map to make, and then the next step which he still had to figure out.

A low whistle rang out from behind him, Orthodox ignoring it and trying to heft up the sacks. “You’re actually robbing the entire treasury, I’m impressed. The last time I saw greed on that level was so long ago I can be bothered to remember it. What do you plan to spend it on, if you do manage to make it out of here of course?”

“Drugs,” Orthodox answered. “And girls, and booze, more drugs, an island on a nice ocean planet, some more drugs.”

“That’s all?” the hybrid followed up, snapping his fingers and suddenly the engorged sacks had roller skates.

“And a kebab,” Orthodox added, glancing down at the now-wheeled sacks. “Say, what’s your name?”

“You don’t know?” the creature asked incredulously.

“I’m not from around here,” Orthodox answered. “Humor me.” The creature twirled around in the air, his dress, hat and wig flying off around the room. He landed on the floor, standing on two legs and puffing his chest out.

“Why, I am Discord, Spirit of Chaos and Disharmony, and who am I addressing?”

“Orthodox,” came the reply. Orthodox tilted his head, this ‘Discord’ actually proving to be fairly interesting. “You mentioned prison. I didn’t see you down in the dungeon.”

“Stone prison, Tia and those accursed element bearers of hers managed to pull one over one me,” Discord threw his head back and stiffly held his arms out in front of him. “But I walk the earth once more!”

“Huh, funny.”

“I am known to have some talent in that field,” Discord began. “It all started when I joined the drama club in highschool-“

“No, not that,” Orthodox interrupted, earning a glare. “One of my friends has a beef with ‘Tia’ as well, if you mean ‘Celestia’, that is.”

“I do indeed mean Cakezilla,” Discord answered, his eyes widening in interest. “What did Tia do to this friend of yours to earn their wrath? Crashed his birthday to eat the cake?”

Orthodox wasn’t getting the cake jokes.

“No, she kind of banished him to Tartarus-“

“You’re friends with that grumpy centaur?” Discord questioned, scratching his back with his detached bird arm.

“What? No,” Orthodox replied, pulling the sacks along to test the wheels. “He’s actually less grumpy since he got out.”

“Ah, a different being then,” Discord nodded, before grinning and turning towards a wall with a number four painted on it. “He’s not out… yet.”

Orthodox didn’t even bother to ask just what he was doing, and instead opted to continue with his plan. Dragging the sacks behind him, he headed towards the door.

“Wait one moment friend,” Discord called, strolling out to stand in front of the door. “Where are you going? Things are just starting to get entertaining.” Orthodox nodded down towards the sacks.

“I’ve got to get these out and safe, secure my investment and all that.”

“Through the castle, crawling with guards?” Discord smirked before floating up into the air. “You’ll never make it.”

“Oh, I think I will,” Orthodox shot back while pulling out one of his sidearms and tapping it against his thigh. “I came prepared.”
Discord stared at the gun, Orthodox wondering if he even knew what it was for.

“Can that toy of yours wreak vengeance upon filthy pigeons?” he asked, shuddering for some reason.

“Only if the pigeons aren’t immune to super-sonic, fifty millimeter long armour-piercing gauss rounds that expand.” Seeing the blank look on Discord’s face, he followed up. “That means yes, they will ‘wreak vengeance upon filthy pigeons’ and then some.”

“Good,” Discord chuckled while rubbing his paws together. “Good…”

“Can’t you, you know, just ‘poof’ them away?”

“No, dear Orthodox, I can’t just ‘poof’ them away,” Discord replied, frowning and shaking a fist at the roof. “Once you have spent time as a stone statue, with those flying rats voiding their bowels on you every day, then you will understand my desire to see them suffer in a most violent fashion.”

“Okay then, I better be off,” Orthodox responded, deciding to get out while he was still sane.

Well, half sane.

“Wait, my dear fellow,” Discord halted, a scheming grin on his face. “How about I help you with that loot there, save you a trip through the castle?”

“What’s in it for you?” Orthodox warily asked while stepping back protectively. He reached down a hand and stroked one of the sacks like it was his own child, Discord smiling all the while.

“Nothing, well, nothing except that I wish for the chance to cause some chaos with a fine gentlecreature such as yourself. Come on, imagine what would happen when we turn the sun into Swiss cheese.”

“I’m fairly certain Nigel would try to seduce it, given his record.”

“Nigel?” Discord inquired, Orthodox quickly waving a hand to dismiss it.

“Just a guy I know with a thing for hole-riddled things, you know how it is.”

“Actually no I don’t.” With another finger snap, Discord conjured up two glasses of chocolate milk, with a slice of lemon at the top. He held one out to Orthodox, raising an eyebrow. “Anyway, some chaos, are you interested?”

“I don’t know…” Orthodox hesitantly answered. “I really should be getting this treasure to someplace safe…”

“Don’t worry about that,” Discord reassured before clapping his fingers together, summoning a floating rug with his own face printed on the middle. “I have a magic carpet.”

Orthodox was sold.

“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” he grinned, the pillowcases teleporting onto the carpet thanks to Discord.

The Spirit of Chaos and Disharmony, scourge of Equestria, held out his paw towards Orthodox, voted ‘worst ISA agent of all time’ ten years running.

“Partners in crime?” Discord inquired, a pillowcase mask matching Orthodox’s appearing on his head in a puff of smoke.

“May our spree go down in the history books,” Orthodox agreed, meeting the paw and giving it a shake.

Nigel jolted up in bed, his chest heaving. Reflection stirred with him, the changeling glancing up with worry evident in her eyes.

“Is something wrong? Did you eat too much pie and cheese at the bar and have a bad dream?”

“No, it’s not that,” Nigel reassured, patting her on the head and stroking her mane. “There’s no such thing as too much cheese and pie.” This earned him a giggle, and Reflection gave him a sleepy nuzzle before laying her head back down on the pillow.

“What is it then? I want to go back to sleep.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” he replied while laying back down, Reflection putting a foreleg over his chest and pulling close. “I just got the feeling that something very, very bad just happened and I’m not going to want to get out of bed in the morning to deal with it.”

Chaos, Plain and Simple.

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“Emperor, Emperor wake up.”

Reflection was dragged out of her peaceful sleep when the body next to her moved. Grumbling in annoyance, she lifted her head and blinked open her eyes with a yawn. Nigel had already sat up, the Emperor rubbing his eyes while three guards watched on.

“Okay, I’m awake,” he told them, wincing thanks to the sunlight streaming in through the window. “I could have sworn that I hadn’t slept that long.”

“You haven’t, Lord,” a yellow guardstallion answered grimly. “We’re part of the night shift tonight, and I can assure you that it’s only been a few hours since nightfall.” He looked towards her, the stallion nodding. “I’m sorry for waking you as well, ma’am.”

“It’s fine,” she dismissed, stretching her hooves. “What’s this about it being sunny at night?”

“Emperor, it’s probably best for you to see for yourself,” the guard suggested in response. “We don’t have a clue about what’s going on, and given that Celestia can apparently control the sun…”

“It might be an attack, or cover for one,” Nigel finished, throwing off the bed sheets to leap out. The guards averted their eyes out of respect, Reflection rolling her eyes at them. If Chalmers had cared, then he wouldn’t have done it. Speaking of Chalmers, the human quickly put on a plain white set of underwear and grabbed his bathrobe, this one lime green instead of pink.

Oh, how he had complained to her about it.

Still incredibly tired, she made to get out of the bed before a hand stopped her.

“Reflection, you don’t have to get up.”

She smiled up at him; however she continued to leave the bed. “No, I might as well. This sounds pretty important.” Her hooves hit the crystal floor with light thuds, and she cricked her neck and gave her wings a few flaps to test them. “We better go as soon as possible.”

“Agreed,” he agreed, before peering at the guard leader’s shoulder icons. “Lead the way, Sergeant.”

“Yes sir.”

The guards led them out of their room, Reflection letting out another yawn while she trotted along with the group. A hand scratched her ear and she let out a sleepy hum in thanks, and she shook her head to clear her mind of sleep. Now fully awake, she could see that guards were mobilising throughout the castle. They had learned from the past, and Reflection was confident that the Equestrians would pull one over on them again.

They descended the staircase, no one saying a word. This worried her just a tiny bit, mainly because it was unusual for Nigel to remain quiet. Was the situation bothering more than he let on? Sneakily, she decided to ask him something in the hopes that it would reveal his mood.

“So do you think it’s Celestia?” she tried, the group reaching the bottom of the steps to be met with another ten guards.

“I doubt it,” he replied, nodding towards the new guards who quickly joined the group. “For one, I don’t believe this ‘she controls the sun’ thing, as far as I know gravity would have something to say about it. Secondly, she doesn’t seem the sort to risk the life of her precious ponies, so unless it’s some kind of magical display of force before a negotiation I don’t think it’s her.”

Reflection nodded at his points. They made sense to her, although she wouldn’t put it past Celestia to just attack out of pure revenge. And while he didn’t think that she controlled the sun, she wasn’t so sure. After all, even the Queen had told them that it was that way.
‘Then again,’ Reflection thought with a scowl. ‘Chrysalis wasn’t very bright herself, looking back on it.’

“What’s wrong?” Nigel asked her, evidently having noticed her frown. “Besides the whole misbehaving sun, that is?”

“It’s nothing,” she dismissed, picking up her pace to pull ahead. “I was just remembering some things from before.” She hoped that he would accept the explanation, now was not the time for a long talk about exactly what she thought of Chrysalis. He didn’t say anything else, so she assumed that it had worked.

Looking back to the front, she saw that they had reached the main castle doors, four guards opening the two barriers for the group. Stepping out into the courtyard, they all stopped in surprise.

The moon was back up in the sky, shining brightly. Numerous guards glanced to each other, wondering just what was going on.

“It just… came up again,” a private explained, trotting over from the side. “Emperor… what is this?”

“I haven’t got a single clue,” Nigel replied, Reflection sharing his cluelessness.

“Something like this only happened once before,” she recalled, thinking back to that one day years ago. “The day was turned to night, and then back again sometime after.”

“Could this be the same thing, but in reverse?”

Reflection shrugged at Nigel’s question, the guards and Emperor looking towards her.

“I don’t know, it wasn’t long after I had matured and I hadn’t even seen the outside so all I know was what I heard from others."

“Oh,” Nigel replied, looking back up at the sky. “Has there been any sign of an attack?”

“No sir,” the guard sergeant answered. “Nothing is amiss aside from the moon and-“

The stallion was interrupted when the moon started to sink, soon disappearing behind the horizon. In its place rose the sun, the entire process only taking half a minute. There was no way it was natural, although Reflection was starting to have doubts about her first impression. Even if this was caused by Celestia, what did she stand to gain from this?

“This is chaos,” another guard muttered, murmurs of agreement sounding out from all of them.

“Change of plans,” Nigel stated. His eyes narrowed. “All of you ensure that the citizens remain calm. However, don’t neglect the watch either.”

“What should we tell them?” the guard Sergeant asked, tilting his head to the side.

“Tell them that my closest advisors and I are working on finding out what is going wrong, and we’ll keep them updated on anything we find out. Get them all to stay in their homes, and organise some patrols in the streets to show that everything is alright.” Chalmers glanced around, the frown still on his face. “Where is Strategy? I would have thought that he would have reported to me right away.”

“He’s setting up a defense on the outskirts, sir,” the Sergeant answered. “He sent me to inform you of the situation, and in the confusion I neglected to mention his absence.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Nigel dismissed before turning back towards the doors. “You have your orders, and I suspect that I’ll manage to find out what’s going on with one little call…”

Without another word, he stormed back into the castle. Reflection shook her head, the guards all scattering to carry out the assigned tasks. Wondering what was wrong, she quickly trotted after him, catching up just as he reached the staircase.

“Nigel, do you know something?”

“It’s a guess,” he answered, his voice hard. “But I’m fairly certain that somehow, someway, Orthodox took the meaning of ‘distraction’ a little too far. Hopefully he’ll still have his helmet on, so I can find out just what is going on.” He stomped up the steps, Reflection looking down while she remained at his side. “Hey,” he began to ask, slowing down and his tone softening. “Are you sure that you don’t want to go back to sleep? I can handle things.”

She smiled at him, thankful for the concern. “No, I’ll come along with you, it’s okay. With all that’s going on, I don’t think I’d be able to get back to sleep anyway.”

He didn’t answer, but a quick head rub convinced her that he was okay with the decision. They reached the top of the steps, Nigel heading straight for a corridor down the end. They both passed pairs of guards, each guarding one door of six doors. The soldiers saluted when they passed, Reflection straightening. She enjoyed the respect that everyone had been showing her, even though enjoying it made her feel a little guilty.

She didn’t have further time to dwell on it however, Nigel stopping at another door and opening it. He didn’t even bother to knock, and she followed him in warily while looking around. A black figure was resting on the bed, the room dark with the window blind shut. It was then that Reflection recalled whose room this was.

“James,” Nigel addressed, shaking the sleeping figure on the shoulder.

Now that she was closer, Reflection could see that James was still in his armour, although his helmet was resting on the bedside table.

He quickly awoke, his hand going towards the gun on his belt before he saw it was just them and relaxed.

“What do you two want?” he inquired. “It’s… well, I don’t know this planet’s exact time, but it’s late.” He glanced between them, confusion evident on his face.

“We’ve got a problem, look out of your window,” Nigel responded. Reflection stepped back to allow James access, the human leaving the bed before opening the blind. Sunlight poured in, James scratching his head while staring out.

“The sun’s out,” he stated blankly. “And if my guesses about the time are right, then it’s supposed to be one am.”

“First prize for the black gentleman!” Nigel announced, Reflection staring up at him with worry while James snorted with amusement. Nigel appeared to be a little strung out, so she moved to embrace a leg with one foreleg. A second later and she felt a hand start to rub her head, James looking at the two of them.

“Okay, so what do we do? I mean, it’s the sun after all.”

“It’s Orthodox,” Nigel answered. “I’m certain this is him.”

James shook his head and chuckled, before it became full laughter.

“Orthodox? He couldn’t organise a birthday party let alone change the orbit of the planet!” James continued to laugh, evidently not affected by a lack of sleep.

“Remember the planet in that binary system that we had to leave?”

Nigel’s response cut off all laughter from James, the psionic standing up straight.

“Bollocks.” He rushed for his helmet, picking it up and pressing a button on the side. “Orthodox, what have you done?”

A cackle of static sounded before a reply came. ”What do you mean? Why do you automatically assume that I did it?”

“Orthodox,” Nigel growled.

“Look you guys, it’s not my fault-“

“Well, just who are you talking to there, my counterpart in chaos?”

The voice that cut Orthodox off wasn’t answered, Reflection looking up towards Nigel. His hand was still on her head, although the other one was balled into a fist. She could sense the anger from him, but she didn’t know what to say to defuse it. She was completely and utterly lost, and judging from James’ look so was he.

“Orthodox,” Nigel slowly questioned. “Who is that with you?”

“Brrzt, oh sorry Chalmers, I think the- bzzt- wind is interfering with the communicator –bzzt-. Call you back later!”

The helmet went silent, Nigel dragging a hand down his face. Reflection thought quickly, hoping to take his mind off things.

“Did you want to get some tea?” she tried, the Emperor nodding while taking a deep breath.

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea,” he told her, slightly more relaxed. “Then I’ll have to deal with… this.”

“You know,” James started. “This could work in our favor. At least we somewhat know the cause, and Orthodox does seem to be in control of it, where’s the Equestrians don’t know anything. It will certainly buy us more time to prepare and put a few of our plans into action.”

“Plans?” Reflection inquired, tilting her head at him. James glanced to Nigel, silently asking permission to tell her.

“We’ll talk about them over tea,” Chalmers answered. He tightened the strap on his bathrobe and headed for the door, James and Reflection following.

“So, who were you talking to?”

Orthodox removed his finger from the helmet button on the side and put his pillowcase disguise back on, a gust of wind sending a slight shake through the magic carpet they were riding on. He refaced Discord, the creature reclining on one side with a matching pillowcase firmly on his own head.

“Just a guy wanting to know why the sun was out during the night,” he quickly explained. He may have not been the brightest, but he knew that giving out information about the Crystal Empire probably wouldn’t end too well. Discord seemed to accept it, and they went back to circling the panicking city below them.

“What shall we do now? Recreate a ruckus, construct a conundrum, deliver a dilemma?”

Orthodox scratched his chin, debating the debacle in his mind. Glancing towards his sacks of gold and jewels, he realised that they were missing something incredibly crucial.

'Would they even have it?’ he wondered. ‘Then again, that city that Nigel has certainly did…’

“Discord, do these ponies have alcohol?”

“I would assume so,” Discord answered, creating some form of cocktail in a coconut shell and taking a sip. “I certainly do.”

Orthodox could have just asked Discord to create a drink for him, but he thought of an even better idea It would benefit him, as well as appeal to the spirit. He wasn’t a complete idiot, Discord could prove to be a legitimate threat and so keeping him occupied in Equestria would kill two birds with one stone.

“Let’s rob a liquor store.”

Discord’s eyebrows appeared on his pillowcase, one raising up. “Rob a liquor store? Really? That’s your plan?”

“Think of the payout,” Orthodox defended. “We get booze, and we get to rob a liquor store. That means more gold, complete and utter chaos… and we get to rob a liquor store.”

Discord thought it over, humming to himself. Orthodox waited patiently, hoping that the idea appealed to the creature that seemed to have taken a shine to him.

“One problem,” Discord observed. “As Spirit of Chaos, I have knowledge of all sorts of schemes and tricks. However, I have not yet robbed a liquor store.”

“Just follow my lead. Trust me, I’ve done this before.”

Discord stared at him for a few moments, before bursting out into laughter. “Oh, this is well worth the wait. If only you’d been around a few months ago, then the fun would have been endless!” Orthodox noticed that Discord was glancing towards his gauss guns, and with slight hesitation he handed one over towards him. The Spirit turned it over in his paws, one claw resting on the trigger. Discord had watched with interest while Orthodox shot at random pigeons as they passed, so he had a slight idea of what to do.

“Be careful with it,” Orthodox warned. “It takes a lot of practice to get it rig-“

He was cut off when Discord turned the gun sideways, his free paw making a ‘w’ sign. A large golden 'D' popped into existance, hanging around Discord's neck from a golden chain. “Let’s go ‘pop a cap’ and rob this store.”

Orthodox grinned under his pillowcase.

They were ready.

Wet Whistle shook his head when the sun went down and the moon rose again, before going back to wiping down the counter. When he had woken up an hour ago, he had briefly checked to make sure that he hadn’t accidently sampled too much of his own product, but he was indeed sober. He then had recalled that this had happened a few months back, when some sort of ‘Discord’ had broken free from a park bench or something.

Doing the right thing, and anticipating good business thanks to the confusion, he immediately had left his home to open up his shop.
Some ponies may have questioned why the white unicorn was so upbeat during the chaos, but to Whistle there were a few upsides.

Living in Canterlot was normally a chore for ‘normal’ ponies, the ones that weren’t blessed to be born into nobility. It seemed that most public events were aimed towards the upper-class, meaning that if a shop owner or window cleaner wanted to have a good time then they needed to either attend some of the few pubs or drink at home with friends.

And that’s where Whistle came in.

Being the only liquor store that didn’t import in wines and brandy from the Zebra lands or the vineyards of the Minotaurs, Whistle found a large market with his fellow ‘commoners’. He knew his customers, and there was nothing more relaxing than a simple beer or a nice shot of whisky. Soon, the crowds would be flocking in to refill their stocks, and he was happy to provide medicine to help them forget that the sun and moon were currently fighting for control.

He busied himself with making sure the whisky bottles behind him were nice and clean, only stopping when he could see his honey-coloured eyes and mane in the reflection. The sound of the shop door jingling caused him to turn around with a smile, Whistle preparing to greet some desperate customers.

What he was not expecting was to be met with a strange metal lizard and a large monster that seemed to be made up of many different parts of animals. Both were standing in front of him, white pillowcases with a large metal ‘C’ in the middle on their heads. The pair were both pointing strange metal objects at him, the larger one wearing a large golden ‘D’ on a necklace around his neck.

“Listen up, this is a stick up!” the smaller creature informed with a gesture of what Whistle assumed was a weapon. “Hooves on the counter where I can see them!” Whistle complied, not wanting to test the creatures’ patience. “Good, now remain still and no one will get hurt-“


With a yell, the large creature aimed his weapon up towards the roof and waved it around, an almighty roar coming from the strange device. Whistle ducked behind his counter while his shop ceiling was devastated, wood chips raining down while bottles rattled on the shelves. The sound kept up for a full ten seconds, before he heard a clicking once his hearing had returned to normal.

“It’s not working anymore, did I break it?”

“Discord, you blew all of the ammo shooting the roof, it’s unprofessional!”

“Oh, I’m sorry your Highness, but here I was trying to do something for you-“

“For me? You’re the one who just ruined a perfectly good hold-up-“

Both of the arguing beings were interrupted by a loud crack, and Whistle covered his head with his forelegs when the building shuddered. Another loud crash rang out, the sound of smashing bottles accompanying it. He waited until the dust settled before peeking out around the side of the counter, the smaller robber trying to dig through the rubble.

“See? I told you!”

A loud pop and a flash of light later, and the dust-covered Discord appeared above the pile. The creature reached a paw into its pillowcase mask and removed a roofing tile, before looking up through the hole towards the clear night sky.

“That could have gone better,” he mused to himself, the small creature smacking his head with his own weapon.

“Yes, yes it could have. Can we now proceed with the plan?”

“Oh yes,” Discord replied, turning towards Whistle. He tried to duck back under his counter but found himself levitating up into the air. Flailing his hooves in a desperate attempt to get free, he froze when a large banana prodded his forehead. “Now, now,” Discord lectured while his disembodied claw held the banana firmly in place. “Your cooperation would be very a-peeling.”

A sigh came from the smaller creature, before it opened up a large sack.

“Just put him back and start helping me to get all of the top shelf stuff.” With those words the lizard started to fill his sack with bottles, going for the expensive wines and sherries on the left. Whistle found himself dropped on the floor, before all of the whiskies behind him flew off the shelves and into a sack held by Discord.

He looked up when he heard the flapping of wings, a most wondrous sight flying down through the hole in the roof.

A royal guard pegasus in the golden armour of the day guard with her spear at the ready.

“Freeze!” the pegasus yelled, pointing her spear towards Discord. “Creature of chaos, your rampage is at an end! Surrender or face the con-“

The guard was cut off with a smash, a large gin bottle flying through the air and hitting her square in the muzzle. The bottle shattered, spraying her face with gin and dropping her to the ground with a thud. Her weapon clattered down with her and came to rest next to her motionless body, the guard silent while she lay in the rubble.

“I panicked.”

Whistle looked towards the smaller creature, who was staring at the fallen guard.

“You got her good,” Discord complimented. “I’m impressed.” The mismatched serpent glanced over towards one of the whiskey bottles, a grin forming on his face.

“I-is she dead?” Whistle stammered out, the smaller creature walking over to the guard before peering down at her.

“Nah, she’s just out for the count,” the lizard answered, before pointing his weapon once again. “Also, shut up.”

“I’ve got it!”

“Discord, no!”

Whistle felt a chill go down his neck, and he turned his head towards the creature named Discord...

Just in time to receive a whiskey bottle to the face, knocking him out and sending him to join the fallen guard in her slumber.

“Ten points!” Discord chuckled with glee, having some of the best fun in ages. Who knew that such hoodlum behavior could be so satisfying? His companion, however, did not share his enthusiasm.

“What was that for?” Orthodox questioned, a bottle of sherry still in hand.

“We can’t have witnesses,” Discord explained, before returning to his task of gathering up the bottles. Orthodox seemed like he was going to reply, but then he shut his mouth.

“Fine, whatever,” Orthodox grumbled. A few more bottles went into the sacks. “Good shot though.”

“I aim to please,” Discord replied, before they both looked up to the roof. They could hear more wings approaching them. “I do believe that we may require more bottles.”

“Forget it, part of every good robbery is to know when to get out and run from the cops.” Orthodox increased his looting speed, bottles carelessly thrown into his sack. “Grab everything you can and we’ll book it.”

“Everything?” Discord enquired, his eyes raised.

“That’s what I said, wasn’t it?”

Discord looked back over the store and shrugged.

“Okay then.”

Velvet adjusted her plain brown coat and glanced towards the sky, the night once again turning to day. She shivered and continued on through the snow, her bags heavy with extra clothing and money. Being part of the Royal Court, even though she was only a lesser noble, Velvet knew that it was Discord again. The fact that it was her daughter and her friends that defeated him last time only drove her on further, the urgency of the situation increased. If the Emperor wanted to completely stop any chance of saving Equestria…

‘No, don’t think about it,’ she reminded herself. ‘Twilight’s safe, you’ve got three-thousand bits and some jewelry, you’ll get her back.’ Her thoughts about Twilight only brought up the other problem of what would happen to her friends. With Discord on the loose, they might be the only ones able to stop him. The issue was that the Emperor might not even know what Discord was, and if he refused to release them then it would be disastrous.

She pushed these thoughts to the back of her mind, continuing her journey. Snow began to fall once more, lightly at the moment but that could change at any time. Velvet paused to take a drink of water from a canteen she had purchased, before she continued on. Twice more, the day changed to night and back before she crested a snowy hill and looked upon a shining dome in the distance.

She had to admit that the Crystal Empire looked very beautiful, snowflakes shimmering when they touched the outside of the dome. Remembering her mission, she ceased her sight-seeing and made a beeline towards the city in front of her. She trudged through the snow for a further five minutes before a glint of metal caught her eye. She peered through the moonlight, and it was right at that time that night turned to day once more.

The rising sun illuminated five figures in front of her, all pointing swords and long spear-axes at her. She recognised them as the Crystal Empire soldiers, having been present at the Gala earlier in the year. There were three ponies in dull crystal armour, the stallions and mare glaring at her. Alongside them was the far more worrying sight of two changelings, the insectoid equines armoured in tough metal that covered most of their forms. Two swords held in a green glow pointed straight at her, one lifting her cloak’s hood off.

“Equestrian,” one of the changelings growled, its voice female.

“A spy?” one of the crystal ponies asked, hefting his weapon and glancing around. Velvet decided to act quickly, before they got the wrong idea and attacked her.

“Please,” she asked, hoping that they would act with reason. “I’ve traveled to your city because of my daughter. I only wish to see her and ask your Emperor for her freedom, I mean you no harm.”

“Harm?” the other changeling, male, chuckled without humor. “You’re princess had already done us far more harm, what would we have to fear from you?” His sword inched towards her throat, Velvet gulping while she kept her eyes locked on the gem-studded weapon.

“Private Molt, stop it,” the female changeling ordered. Hesitantly, the male lowered his sword but still kept it at the ready. The female turned towards her, and Velvet assumed that she was the leader of the guards. “Equestrian, do you honestly think that we’d take you to see the Emperor? What we should do is take you straight to the dungeon, or strip you and send you back into the storm. Our city has already been sullied enough with the presence of your kind.”

Velvet glanced behind her, the light snowfall increasing in intensity. Going back, even with the protection of clothes, would be incredibly risky. Without them she was dead for sure, so she had to try one last time. “I’m begging you, I’m just after one audience,” she bowed slightly, hoping that the soldiers would accept her terms. “I’m desperate, she’s my only daughter.”

It seemed to work, the leader turning back towards the crystal ponies and whispering to them. The other changeling kept a watch, his eyes filled with hatred. Velvet winced, she knew that the Crystal Empire didn’t like Equestria, but they seemed to outright despise her.

“We’ll have to ask the Captain,” the female changeling informed, breaking the conversation with her fellow guards. With a tilt of her head, two of the crystal ponies lowered their weapons to walk towards her. “Search the Equestrian.”

Velvet remained still while the mare and stallion went through her bags and hooves patted down her cloak. She grimaced when the stallion looked into the brown bag that contained the intended ransom, but luckily he closed the flap and left it alone. Soon both guards were done, finding no weapons or harmful objects on her.

“Walk up front,” the leader ordered with a gesture from her sword. “Sheen and Molt, you with her.”

“Yes Sergeant,” the mare and changeling male replied, Velvet beginning to move forward again with her escorts keeping a close eye on her. The remaining guards followed behind her, and she could feel their weapons pointing at her.

They made good time, soon reaching the edge of the barrier. Yet more ponies and changelings moved out to meet them, over twenty of the guards ready with their weapons. Velvet guessed that they were all on alert because of the sun and moon, meaning that the Crystal Empire likely didn’t know what was going on. That was bad, that meant that they didn’t know what kinds of devastation that Discord could cause.

“Sergeant,” a crystal stallion with more ornate armour called out while he approached the group. “Who have you found?”

“An Equestrian, Captain Strategy sir,” the changeling sergeant replied with a salute. The copper-coated stallion examined Velvet with his blue eyes, his face locked in a frown. “She claims that she’s here to ask the Emperor to release her daughter from prison, and she’s carrying no weapons or anything dangerous.”

“Release her daughter?” the Captain asked before turning on Velvet. “What’s your name, Equestrian?”

“Twilight Velvet,” she answered, the Captain’s eyes lighting up.

“I can assume that you’re the mother of Twilight Sparkle?”

“I am,” Velvet replied, pleading with him. “Please, is my daughter okay?”

“She’s safe,” the Captain told her, his tone slightly softer than his subordinates. It seemed like he didn’t share their hate towards her, although he still didn’t seem happy to see her. “So you traveled all of the way from Equestria to ask the Emperor…?”

“I wanted to ask him to release her, and her friends if possible.” She gestured with her head back towards her right saddlebag. “I’ve brought a ransom, and I’ll do anything to get her free. Please sir, you would want your mother to do the same.”

“Sombra killed my mother,” he growled in response, Velvet realising that she had hit a nerve. However, he sighed after a few moments and shook his head. “Okay, I think you can at least get an audience. I warn you, Emperor Chalmers is currently not to fond of you Equestrians for obvious reasons, so I suggest you act with the utmost respect.”

“I will,” Velvet reassured.

“You also might have traveled her in vain,” he told her, before waving a hoof at his guards. More soldiers moved beside her, all of them watching her carefully. “We’re at war, after all. Guards, take her to the Emperor, but not before telling Advisor Sparkling Scroll that she’s here to ask for her daughter’s freedom. If not warned, the Emperor may… react with rashness.”

“Yes sir,” the guards acknowledged, Velvet feeling one of them tap her on the flank.

“Move it,” one ordered from behind her, Velvet moving once again.

‘I’m coming, don’t worry Twilight,’ she thought when they passed through the dome, hoping that the Emperor would listen to her and accept her deal. There was no going back now.


“In here.”

Nigel looked towards the corridor leading to the throne room, Sparkling Scroll emerging from it. He smiled and put his tea cup down when he saw her, Reflection doing the same.

“I was told that you were up,” she continued, beaming at him. “This sky business is fairly concerning, isn’t it?”

“There’s not much we can do about it,” he told her, before gesturing towards the half-full teapot. “Want a cup?”

“No thank you,” Sparkling answered, her smile dropping. “I’m sorry to do this, but we need you in the throne room.”

“Why?” Reflection inquired, judging from her face and tone she wasn’t too pleased with having their alone time interrupted.

“The guards patrolling the perimeter captured an Equestrian mare.” Sparkling glanced up towards the ceiling. “Apparently, she’s the mother of one of the prisoners and she wants to ask you for her release.”

“Release?” Reflection scoffed. “We should throw her in prison as well. The last thing we need now is more Equestrians running free.”

“Now Reflection,” Nigel chided, wagging a finger at her. “She has traveled a long way; we can at least give her a short audience in return. Besides, it’s not like we’re going to get anything else done with the sun and moon acting up.” Reflection grumbled and took a sip of her tea, Nigel rolling his eyes and patting her on the head. “Come on, it’s not like she’s going to bring down the entire city.”

“Fine,” Reflection replied with a huff. Her horn lit up and she levitated her cup, before she left the table and stood on her hooves. Nigel made to follow her, but when he looked down at his own cup he saw that it was nearly empty. Not being bothered to refill it, he instead just picked up the entire teapot.

“Um, Nigel?” Sparkling began with a raised hoof. “Are you sure that you want to go out in a bathrobe while carrying a teapot?” He stared at her, before slowly taking a sip from the teapot. “I guess so,” she sighed, before turning back towards the corridor. “She’s waiting for you.”

Nigel and Reflection followed her, Reflection pulling ahead. Nigel watched while the two talked to each other, both mares seeming to enjoy the company of the other. He knew that they had been close before his banishment, and it appeared that the friendship had endured through it. He had also heard about Sparkling trying her best to cheer Reflection up while she was incarcerated, so he made a note to get her a thank you gift some time.

It was a short walk, and they soon reached the throne room. Guards were everywhere, guarding doors and patrolling hallways. Most were alert and energetic; however a few had droopy eyes and ears. He didn’t bother to pull them up about it, after all he was fairly tired himself at the moment. Walking over to his throne, he sat down and patted the cushion before his bare feet. Tea cup still in magic, Reflection smiled and laid down, resting against his legs. Sparkling sat down on her own cushion to the side after fetching an inked quill and some parchment, placing it at her hooves while she prepared to take notes.

“Morning everyone,” Nigel greeted to his guards, receiving smiles, nods and a few salutes in return. Their responses only increased his mood; he was glad that his guards were at the same time professional and friendly. He relished the feeling of holding their complete respect, and in return he looked upon them with pride.

Now was not the time for self-congratulating though, he had business to attend to. Glancing towards the door guards, he waved a hand. “Show her in.” They needed no further explanation, the large doors swinging open to reveal the entrance hall. A group of ten guards brought in the mare, two of them carrying a bundles of brown of their backs.

Nigel examined the visitor, from her purple and white mane to her cream coat and light blue eyes. He wasn’t too good with pony ages, but she seemed to be middle-aged. Despite her trip she still looked presentable, and he guessed that she was some kind of noble or at least fairly high up on the social ladder.

Meanwhile, she was staring back at him. Never taking his eyes off her, he took a long pull of his teapot and smacked his lips together afterwards. Reflection shifted in her spot, angling herself to face the mare so she could scowl. Inside he chuckled silently; Reflection was so adorable when she was cranky. He sought to rectify that, quickly pulling his feet from under her and resting them on her rump. It startled her and off-balanced his visitor, so he went for the attack.

“Well, Equestrian, I hear you have something to ask of me.”

Reflection once again moved underneath his feet, but she didn’t shake him off. The foreign mare was still for a second before she hurriedly bowed, the guards stepping back to give her some room. All of them still watched her like hawks however, ready to spit her on their halberds if she tried anything.

“I do, Your Highness. My name is Twilight Velvet; I’m a clerk in the Royal Court of Equestria and I’ve come here to ask you for the release of my daughter and her friends.”

Chalmers raised an eyebrow at the, frankly, incredibly bold demands. He expected just the daughter, but the entire group? All of them weapons of his foes? To be honest, he was willing to part with one of them as it still meant that they wouldn’t be able to use their elements together. The entire group though?

“I can’t do that,” he answered, shaking his head. “I give them up, and I risk having the Elements used against my Empire.”

“Please sir,” the mare pleaded, glancing towards the guards carrying the bundles. They looked to him for orders, and he gave them a nod in return. They placed the items down on the floor, and Velvet moved towards them. She grabbed a bag in her magic and brought it over towards him.

“That’s close enough,” a guard beside his throne ordered, the stallion lowering his halberd. Velvet did as commanded, her eyes not leaving the weapon. Nigel placed a hand on it and raised it back up, the guard stepping back into position.

“Here,” she said, opening the bag and placing it on the floor. It was filled with golden coins, a few gems and a small amount of jewelry. To be honest, while it may have been a large amount for her, he had more than a thousand times that in the main treasury, not even counting the secret vault. “Please let them go, they’re only young mares.”

He sighed, Sparkling Scroll looking up at him while she paused her scribbling.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but once again that’s not something that I can do. What use would gold be if my Empire is once again conquered and my subjects imprisoned in their own city like before?” Velvet’s head drooped, defeat evident in her posture. “I’ll let you have your daughter back though, Twilight Sparkle I assume?”

She remained silent for a few moments, Chalmers willing to give her some time to think it over. To pass the time he began to rub his feet, Reflection half-grunting half-purring while they massaged her behind. It probably wasn’t the most appropriate thing to do at the time, but he was tired, his sleep had been interrupted, the sun and moon were dicking around, he was only wearing a bathrobe and he was drinking tea straight from the teapot.

He was well past the point of not caring about professionalism.

He continued to wait for a reply, looking down towards Reflection. Her head was resting on her forelegs and her scowl had been replaced with a dopy grin. Changeling chitin was actually surprisingly soft, and she had told him that it only really hardened when danger provoked a biological response to strengthen it. It was still harder than skin, but at the same time it was also smooth and pleasant to touch.

“No, that’s not good enough.”

‘What?’ He stopped rubbing, tearing his eyes away from Reflection’s rump and tilting his head at Velvet. She was staring at him with a determined gaze, a few of the guards looking just about ready to thump her for her words.

“Just Twilight won’t do,” she told him, evidently having seen his confusion. “I don’t think you know just what danger has been unleashed.”

“On the contrary, I believe I know far more about it than you,” he replied with a smirk.

“Then you know that Discord is capable of ruining the entire world!” He fought to maintain his smirk, all of his guards, Sparkling and Reflection glancing up at him with worry.

‘Damn, she does know more,’ he mentally cursed, before letting out a light chuckle.

“Ah yes, Discord, that guy. Nasty piece of work really, but we all know how he was defeated the last time, don’t we?”

‘Come on, take the bait…’

“But without Twilight and her friends we can’t use the Elements to stop him again!”

“And who’s to say that they won’t be turned on us when Discord is defeated?” he pressed, trying to buy some time. Given the new information, it was fairly apparent that Orthodox had somehow released a being capable of changing the orbit of the planet.

A being that could only be defeated by the six mares and their super-weapon.

Six mares that he was holding captive as hostages.


He kept the curse silent, thinking of something to say. Velvet was still staring at him, unable to answer his last question. Nigel moved to take another calming sip of tea, but he found nothing but dregs. Looking around at his guards and the visitor, he could see that things were incredibly tense. He needed time to think of a plan, but he also needed to make a decision right now. Looking back down at his teapot, an idea popped into his head.

“Say, Twilight Velvet, would you like to briefly adjourn for a cup of tea?”

Orthodox looked down at the city below them, a mass of guards flying around trying to find them.

“That was close,” he muttered, a chuckle coming from behind him. He turned and faced Discord, who was still rolling around on the carpet in complete post-robbery elation.

“Oh please, I could have just have turned them all into a merry-go-round,” he let out another burst of laughter, holding his mismatched paws to his stomach. “That was the most fun I’ve had in centauries! Why didn’t I think of petty theft before?”

“It wasn’t petty theft,” Orthodox defended. “It was a proper armed robbery! Don’t debase what we did, have some pride in your work!”
“Don’t get tetchy,” Discord advised, wiping a tear from his eye. “You’ve still got your loot after all.”

Orthodox gazed at the huge sack, more than ten times his size, sitting on the flying carpet next to his two smaller bags. When he had told Discord to take everything, he had taken everything.

“We might as well partake in the spoils,” he suggested, standing up and walking over to the bulging cloth. He pulled down on the edge of the sack, expecting to be met with a nice bottle of whisky or some expensive port.

Instead, he received a pony guard pegasus in full armour, the pony still out like a light. She tumbled out and came to rest at his feet, still snoring with a small shard of glass stuck in her muzzle. He stared at her for a few moments, before bending down to pluck the shard from her face. A small trail of blood dribbled out before stopping, Orthodox turning around to look at his partner in crime.

“Discord,” he began with a low tone. “Why did you abduct a pony guard?”

“You said to take everything, my dear boy,” Discord defended. “Everything includes ponies you know. Don’t worry about the shop owner though, I already sent him to a… special someone.”

The Ponyville Library lit up with a flash, a sleeping unicorn with a note attached landing right in the upstairs bed.

‘To Twilight Sparkle,
Live a little.’

Private Streak shook her head, a dull throbbing ringing in her skull. Slowly she began to wake up, her side resting on a very soft surface.

“Great, now can you transport the guard to someone as well?”

She winced at the strange male voice, unable to remember what had happened. She assumed that she was the guard that he was talking about, and she tried to get up. Her muzzle let out a throb of pain, and she stopped trying to stand and instead moved her right wing to touch the sore spot. It came away wet, and she blinked open her eyes to stare at it. A few drops of blood stained the white feathers, and while she was looking at it another male voice replied to the first.

“Why? We need a figurehead for our carpet. Maybe we could dangle her from some ribbons below us and fly over criminals to scare the pants off them?”

All thoughts as to what ‘pants’ could possibly be were forgotten when she recalled just what had happened. She had cornered Discord in the liquor store, and then she had felt something hit her face. Judging from the cut, she assumed that she’d been bottled, hence her unplanned sleep. That of course meant that she had been captured, and the two voices likely belonged to her jailers.

With her mind still dazed, she stumbled to her hooves while the pair continued to argue about what to do with her. Everything was woozy, but she managed to see that she was standing on some kind of carpet with three brown sacks in front of her. She also saw clouds, and with a flap of her wings she prepared to fly to freedom.

Streak managed to flap twice before a weight tackled her to the carpet, the soft material remaining firm. She kicked her hooves and trashed, but the being on top of her didn’t let her go. She felt a long, slithering object wrap around her forelegs to pull her tight, and all of a sudden she found herself free from the attacker on top of her.

It was not to last, however. The object holding her legs pulled, and she was hosted up into the air by her forelegs. It was now that she got a good look at what was holding her, and her eyes widened in dread.

The thing holding her up was a long tail armoured in segmented black metal plates, a tail attached to the creature that she had tackled to the ground the previous day after he had attacked a town. He didn’t seem to recognise her, which was a blessing. It was already bad enough that she was his prisoner, she didn’t want him to know that the previous roles were reversed.

Standing behind the metal lizard was Discord, her primary quarry. He was grinning at her, a wide grin on his face and a pair of hoofcuffs in his paw.

“Allow me,” Discord spoke, snapping his claw. Streak muffled a curse when two sets of the cuffs bound her forelegs and hind legs, a coil of rope wrapping around her waist to hold her wings against her armour. She found herself dangled over the edge of the carpet, her eyes widening when she saw that the ground was a long, long way down.

“We seem to have a problem,” the creature holding her up observed. “I can’t have a guard up here with me, and you’ve already seen too much.” She felt his tail’s grip slacken, and she shook her head desperately.

“No, no please!” she tried, uncontrolled falling one of her biggest fears. “It doesn’t have to end like this!”

“She has a point, Orthodox.” Streak flinched when Discord leaned in towards her, his head separating from his body to stare right into her eyes. “Why should we waste such a possible source of entertainment? These guards are so easy to mess with, have you ever turned their armour into melted cheese before? Priceless!”

“I haven’t,” the captor she now knew was named Orthodox replied.

“Well, even then you shouldn’t act too hasty.” Streak wasn’t too sure, but she felt like Discord was trying to convince his fellow criminal to not kill her a little too much. He was the Spirit of Chaos; shouldn’t he be happy to be rid of one guard? Then again, now that she thought about it, there was never any mention of Discord actually harming a pony.

“Why not?” Orthodox argued, gesturing to her. “She’s a guard and an enemy to me. One less guard makes things better for me and a lot of other people.”

“My friend, my friend,” Discord tried again, patting Orthodox on the pillowcase head. “Killing is just so… barbaric, and a waste as well.”

Orthodox didn’t seem convinced to Streak, and his tail started to slip. Discord must have noticed, the Spirit hurriedly floating over to the large sack and retrieving a bottle of wine. “Besides, she makes this party less of a ‘sausage-fest’, I believe the term is.”

“How do you…” Orthodox started, before shaking his head. “You know what? I don’t even want to think about how you know that term. So let me get this straight,” Streak breathed a sigh of relief when she was dropped back on the carpet, the tail letting her go and not dropping her over the edge. “You want to drink the stuff we stole, right after robbing it, while the guards are still searching for us, and with a captured guard tied up on our carpet.”

“That is correct, my astute companion,” Discord answered, using his claw as a bottle opener and taking a sniff of the wine. “Also, I have yet to sample this ‘alcohol’ for myself, although I have seen the delightful effects it causes to others.” Discord finished his sentence with a large swig, draining the bottle in one go and letting out a massive belch. “Ah, I can already feel a slight tingle.”

“Great,” Orthodox sighed. “This can’t end badly at all.”

“Oh cheer up, you Square,” Discord ordered. “Grab a drink and join me in jolly celebration.”

Two more wine bottles levitated from the sack, one landing in Orthodox’s metal claw while the other went towards her.

“Um, I’m on duty?” Streak tried, before the cork vanished from the bottle and the neck was shoved in her mouth. She had no time to protest before the white wine flowed into her mouth and down her gullet, the bottle withdrawing to give her room to breathe. Streak spluttered and coughed, rolling onto her belly to spit off the side of the carpet.

“Come on!” Discord announced, already onto his third bottle. “A toast to Chaos, robbery, friendship and general amusement!”

Streak’s mouth was once again invaded with the bottle, more wine flowing into her and poisoning her bloodstream. The rate of it was already causing her to become very light-headed, and her world began to swirl again. Orthodox had finished half a bottle, and was currently staring at Discord. The Spirit had just began to chain-shot entire bottles, evidently finding the activity to be incredibly entertaining.

The bottle was once again withdrawn, giving her more room to breathe. She didn’t cough as badly this time, and she wondered just what she had done to deserve such torture at the claws of two of the nation’s most foul enemies.

With her vision starting to blur, she was vaguely aware of Discord announcing another toast in the name of hugs between friends, and the last thing she remembered was some muffled complaints from Orthodox.

“So the entire Treasury...?”

“Cleaned out, Princess. There are a few gems and coins left, but Equestria is essentially, well, broke.”

Celestia grimaced and waved away the guard, leaving her alone in the throne room. Capturing the Lizard known as Orthodox had proved to be a massive mistake, and she was now down a complete Treasury.

Adding to that, Discord had somehow been freed again, and the Element Bearers were trapped in the Crystal Empire. She was stuck, either she could do nothing and let Discord run rampant, or she could invade the Crystal Empire to rescue the Elements. Both presented issues, but she was hesitant to invade. Discord was a pain and powerful, but so far he hadn’t killed anypony.

The Crystal Empire on the other hoof was prepared for war, and they possessed better weapons as well as a burning hate for Equestria. An attack would see many ponies on both sides dead, and that wasn’t even taking into account the Emperor’s threats to execute Twilight and her friends if she tried anything. With the Element Bearers dead, there would be no chance of stopping Discord.

Likewise, any diplomatic attempts were likely to fail, given the attitude towards her. The Emperor was probably sitting on his throne laughing at it all, while her country fell apart around her. As far as she could see, the only options she had were surrender to either the Crystal Empire or Discord, both of which left a bad taste in her mouth.

“I just have to wait it out,” she mumbled to herself, glancing out of the window. The sun and moon had been increasing the time that they spent in the sky, sometimes for more than ten minutes a time. It seemed like Discord was for some unknown reason causing far less mayhem than normal, the only other oddity was the recent downpour of hard cider in Manehattan.

Tapping her hooves, she glanced around her empty court and made a decision. Leaving her throne, she began to make her way towards the Royal Archives; perhaps there would be a spell to fix all of this hidden inside a dusty tome.

“It’s still going on.”

“Crazy, well at least this time he’s not raining chocolate milk everywhere or turning the roads to soap.”

Luna moped on her bed while her two guards gazed out of the window. It may have be seen as immature, but the last two months had been sour for her. Everything had started to look up, ponies smiled at her, the nobles had started to treat her just like Celestia, but then the trouble with the Crystal Empire had started.

At first she had been fearful of the Emperor, having seen what lurked inside of his mind underneath that smiling façade. Then, she had realised that he went to great lengths to suppress his baser desires. Slowly she had begun to see him a bit like herself, trying to keep the madness inside from bubbling up. She also admired the fact that he was willing to take in the changelings, the creatures not liked at all throughout the world.

And then she had chosen to banish him.

This was what tore at Luna the most, inflicting the same fate that had been placed upon her all those years ago. At first she had blamed Celestia for it, as after all it was her older sister who had wanted Chalmers gone. Over time though, she had realised that it was as much her fault as Celestia’s. She hadn’t needed to help her, she could have stepped back and let the spell fail. Sure, the Emperor, the crystal ponies and the changelings would have slaughtered the remaining Elk, but was it really their place to interfere?

Silently, Luna still wondered if Celestia was trying to control too much, the reactions of the surrounding nations seemed to echo that.
Now, Emperor Chalmers had returned and seemingly had brought the wrath of Tartarus with him. Luna didn’t doubt that he was behind the release of Discord, the timing of the events was just too close together. Thinking about the alien named Orthodox that they had captured; Luna glanced to her female guard, Corporal Darkbane. The unfortunate young nocturne pony still wore a bruise on her forehead from where the creature had struck her, but she had avoided hospitalization unlike the rest of her team.

Now, they weren’t just dealing with an Emperor looking out for his Empire, they were dealing with an unhappy Emperor that had been expelled from Tartarus and had somehow brought along friends. This scared her, she had seen the images in his dreams and Shining Armour’s description of them matched the figures that were inflicting such horrible crimes. Was it only a matter of time before the large objects in the skies arrived to rain down death upon them all?

With a gasp, Luna removed her head from her pillow, drawing the attention of her guards.

“Princess?” Sergeant Lumen inquired, the stallion frowning at her. “Is everything alright?”

“I am fine,” Luna assured her, shaking her head. In truth, she wasn’t, her self-confinement to her room and the night court doing a number on her mood. She trotted over to join them, looking out of the window. The sun and moon had started to rapidly switch places again, however this time it was speeding up. As soon as the sun popped up, it would return and the moon would take its place.

Watching the strange ballet, Luna ground her teeth. She hated not being able to control the moon, and she was getting tired of Discord. At least last time he was gone within a few hours, it had been a day so far and she didn’t know how much longer she could take it. Everything had been building up and up, and she was fast reaching her breaking point.

Down below in the city, she could hear the panicked populace trying to get into the castle. They were calling out for Celestia to defeat Discord, but she knew that without the Elements it was pointless. There was nothing she or Celestia could do, not while the Element Bearers were trapped inside of the Crystal Empire.

“That’s it,” she mumbled to herself, her eyes lighting up with realisation. Her guards looked towards her, their wings fidgeting. “It just might work.”


“I have a plan to free the Elements from the Crystal Empire!” she announced happily to the Sergeant and Corporal.

“You do?” Darkbane inquired, her mouth opening in a smile.

“Indeed,” Luna replied, before unlatching the window with her magic and climbing outside.

“Uh… Princess, what are you doing?” Lumen asked, Luna turning back to her loyal protectors.

“I am going to travel to the Empire,” she announced, prompting alarm from her guards.

“But Your Highness,” Darkbane protested. “We only have eighty-six Night Guard, we’ll be devastated.”

“I do not intend to fight,” she replied to her worried guards. “It is fairly clear that such action wouldn’t go well for neither us nor them. However, I may be able to solve this without the need for bloodshed.”

“They’ll kill you on sight,” Lumen warned. “At least let the Guard come with you-“

“There is no time,” she interrupted, spreading her wings. “I will not need the protection; I believe that the Emperor will not be as hostile to me as he is to my sister.”

“At least let us come with you!” Darkbane pleaded, her wing touching the hilt of her silver short sword. Luna considered the offer, and it was likely that the two guards would alert the rest about her absence. As much as she hated to admit it, Celestia would not approve of her plan so the less she knew about it the better.

“I will allow that,” she gave in. “However, I must warn you that you may not be able to return for a while… or at all. I would prefer to not risk your lives.”

The two remained silent, before Lumen hopped out of the window to join her on the roof.

“We’re your guards, Princess,” he explained, Darkbane following out after him. “We will follow you into Tartarus if it’s needed.”

“That is pleasing to hear,” Luna smiled, the loyalty of her guards improving her mood.

‘We’re likely going to do something even more insane than that.’

“I don’t see why we should listen to you, you Equestrians have done nothing but cause us problems.”

Nigel sighed and took another drink of his tea, listening while Reflection and Velvet continued to argue their cases. The Equestrian had been refusing to back down, Nigel trying to subtly draw out more information about this ‘Discord’. Apparently, he was freed from a stone prison a few months ago, after a millennia of banishment at the hooves of the Princesses.

Nigel could understand why he might be a little miffed with them.

This Discord was some kind of reality-warper, a powerful one. Chalmers had encountered beings of that kind before, both allied and enemy, and the damage that they could inflict was huge. Adding in the fact that this Discord was apparently some kind of immortal spirit only made the situation direr.

“You don’t have a choice,” Velvet argued back to Reflection, her tea cup long empty. “What do you think Discord will do when he’s finished with Equestria?”

“We haven’t done anything to him,” Reflection pointed out with a snarl. “Unlike your Princesses, they seem to have a thing for banishing people.”

“Discord is the Spirit of Chaos and Disharmony, reason has no meaning to him!”

Chalmers took another sip, finishing his cup. He shared a glance with Sparkling Scroll, the advisor rolling her eyes while she wrote down notes. Wondering if he should step in, Nigel looked back at Reflection.

The changeling was showing her fangs to Velvet, her ears back and her eyelids narrowed. Thanks to her position next to him at the table, he could also see that her wings were starting to buzz. Remembering the last time that he had seen those signs from her, something that lead to the attack of a princess, he subtly moved a hand and placed it on her back. She didn’t visibly react, but her wings stopped moving at least.

“It’s either a possible attack from him or a certain attack from you once we release our hostages!” Reflection countered. “If we’re dooming ourselves, then at least we can take a chance with a being that we at least could reason with!”

“The Princesses only acted with what they thought was the right thing to do at the time,” Velvet began to explain, before Nigel sent a glare her way. She stopped talking soon after. He didn’t mind the mare, and although he’d never tell Reflection he actually respected Twilight Velvet. A noblemare used to the court, traveling across a snowy wasteland to confront a hostile Empire by herself? That took guts, and she made some good points.

However, he couldn’t admit that, they’d lose their only advantage. The plan he was seeking to enact would take time and planning, and if Celestia picked up on it than any hope of revenge would be taken from him.

“Their actions nearly destroyed this city, and killed some of us!”

“Reflection,” he spoke up, the changeling turning her glare onto him. “This isn’t helping, I highly doubt that Mrs. Velvet here had anything to do with that.”

Reflection continued to glare at him, before it softened and she lowered her head. “I know, I just…” She looked back up at him. “What are we going to do? We can’t let the ponies go, but this Discord worries me.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he reassured, stroking her back to calm her. “We’ve gotten through worse after a-“

A knock on the door interrupted him, the two armed guards next to it glancing at him for orders.

“Open it,” Nigel commanded, one of the guards using a hoof to unlock it and swing it open. Captain Strategy trotted in, slowly melting snow still covering the top of his armour. Nigel smiled at him, giving his Captain and friend a nod in greeting. “Strategy, good… morning to you I believe.”

“The same to you, sir,” Strategy answered, Nigel guessing that he was remaining formal due to the presence of the Equestrian. “I’m sorry for interrupting your meeting, but I must ask you to come to the throne room immediately.”

“What’s the matter?” Nigel inquired, picking up the teapot to refill his cup. “We can discuss anything here. If one of the subjects wants an audience about the situation then you can just let them in any-“

“It’s not that,” Strategy interrupted, with obvious hesitance. “I’m sorry for cutting you off, Emperor, but we’ve captured one of the Equestrian Princesses.”

Nigel paused for a second, before placing the teapot back down. He glanced to both Reflection and Sparkling, getting blank stares in return. He faced Velvet, the unicorn visibly shocked.

“Do you know anything about this?”

“N-no I don’t, Emperor sir,” Velvet answered. Convinced that she was telling the truth, he turned back to Strategy who was tapping his armoured hoof nervously.

“Which Princess?”

“The blue one,” Strategy answered. “She gave her name as Princess Luna.”

Chalmers resisted smiling at the fact that his guard Captain didn’t even know Luna’s name. To be honest, he himself had only met her once, but he also knew that she was a part of his banishment.

And now she was captured, this was going to be interesting.

“Well then,” he said while standing up, brushing down his bathrobe to look presentable. “It’d be incredibly rude to keep a princess waiting.”

Luna fought to keep the apprehension from showing, the magic inhibitor on her horn reminding her just how helpless she currently was. The multiple spear-axes pointed at her didn’t help, her two guards likewise fidgeting in their chains. She glanced over towards them, the nocturnes stripped of their armour and weapons leaving them naked in the entrance hall. Luna hoped that she hadn’t sealed their fate, the crystal ponies and changelings eying them all with glares and suspicious stares.

She looked back to the front when the two large doors opened up from within, the legion of guards surrounding her looking up while a single changeling guard stepped out.

“The Emperor and his advisors will see you now, Equestrian.” He spat the word ‘Equestrian’ with venom, and the murmurs shared among the guards showed that his sentiments about her were widely shared. The changeling eyed the nocturnes, his glare remaining strong. “Your guards will accompany you.”

“Move,” a female voice behind her commanded, Luna catching the glint of a spear-axe in the edge of her vision. With no other options she moved forward, her own steel chains clinking with her steps. With the guards surrounding herself and her guards, she moved up the steps and through the doors.

The throne room that she and her protectors entered was a thing of beauty. Made out of the same crystal as the rest of the palace, the walls glittered with the light from illumination gems. It was larger than the throne room back in Canterlot, and armed guards lined the walls with their weapons at the ready.

Sitting on the throne with a changeling at his feet was Emperor Chalmers. The human was, strangely, wearing a bright lime bathrobe, and nothing else. He held a teacup in hand, absent-mindedly chatting with a ruby-maned mare sitting by the side of his throne. The stallion that had introduced himself as Captain Strategy was on the opposite, a steely gaze constantly watching her.

“Kneel,” the guard behind her ordered once they had reached the throne, Luna grimacing. The wooden shaft of a spear-axe prodded her on the back on the knee, and reluctantly she kneeled before the throne. Her two guards copied her actions, the Emperor finally focusing on her with an amused look in his eyes. Eyes that also held an element of coldness at the same time, sending a chill down her spine. She was starting to regret her rash action.

“Well, well, well,” Emperor Chalmers began, taking a sip of tea from his cup. “Imagine my surprise when my guard Captain informs me that his troops had managed to capture an Equestrian Princess, and two bat-ponies.” He looked towards Darkbane and Lumen, an eyebrow raising. “At least, you two look half-bat, half-pony. Let me guess, more Equestrians?”

“No,” Luna spoke up from her position on the floor. Her guards shot her worried glances, but she continued on. “They are from another country, and serve as my personal guard. You have no quarrel with them and-“

“I decide who I have a quarrel with!” he shouted, alarming all around him. He took a few moments before his face relaxed, and his smile returned. “I apologize; I blame the lack of sleep for my mood.” He chuckled, swirling in the tea around in his cup. “I’m sure you’ve noticed the strange weather we’ve been having.”

Luna didn’t answer him, not wishing to provoke him further. He took another drink before leaning back in his chair and continuing.

“Moving on, your guards have trespassed with you, in the name of Equestria as well. Let’s forget about them though, let’s talk about you.” He leaned forward, setting his cup down on his armrest before clasping his hands together. “Now, Princess Luna, if you remember you helped to banish me, and as such you are fully aware that you are not welcome in my Empire. So, with that in mind, just why did my guards capture you right outside of our dome?”

“I came to offer you a deal,” she began to reply, still kneeling on the red carpet before the throne.

“Have you now?” the Emperor chuckled. “And what, pray tell, do you have that could possibly entice me?”

“I wish for you to release the Element Bearers so that they may defeat Discord.”

The room was silence for a few seconds after her words, before the Emperor started laughing. It started off slow, but it soon increased to a booming sound of mirth.

“Oh, oh that is priceless!” he managed out between breaths. “Not one, but two Equestrians come to me in the same morning to ask the same thing!”

‘Two?’ Luna wondered, shocked that another had made it before her. It was impossible, she had heard nothing about an organised trip and no one else besides her had a motive.

“Guards,” the Emperor ordered. “Bring in our other guest.” He smirked at her. “I’m sure Velvet would love to see her Princess.”

‘Velvet?’ Luna had heard the name before, but with the hundreds of ponies she dealt with it was hard to track. She waited, armoured hoofsteps approaching from a side corridor. A unicorn mare walked out with a further four guards, Luna’s eyes widening in recognition.

The mare was a records clerk in the castle, a member of the lower nobility. It was then that Luna realised why the mare could possibly be here in the Crystal Empire.

‘Twilight Sparkle’s mother,’ she thought, Velvet sending her a concerned look. She didn’t seem injured or mistreated, and Luna wondered just how long she had been in the Empire for.

“Mrs. Velvet her has also requested the freedom of my hostages, for the same purpose as you,” Chalmers informed. “She, however, at least brought some gold in an attempt to barter. It’s nothing compared to the wealth I already possess, but the gesture was worth far more. I actually offered to release her daughter, but Velvet wouldn’t let that fly.” He chuckled, Luna noticing that the changeling at the foot of his throne was scowling at Velvet. She recalled that her name was Reflection, both having met at the Gala.

“What do you have to offer?” Chalmers continued, still leaning forward. Luna took a breath and prepared herself, glancing towards her guards. Lumen and Darkbane hadn’t been told exactly what she was going to do, and she expected resistance from them.

“In return for the release of the Elements of Harmony, and the safe passage of Twilight Velvet and my guards, I will… replace them as your hostage.”


Surprisingly, it was Darkbane who raised her voice, the nocturne mare staring at her in shock. The guards surrounding her lowered their weapons towards her, preparing for her to try something. Luna hoped that she didn’t, Darkbane was one of the newest additions to her guard and she feared for her safety if she resisted.

A smash drew attention to the throne, the Emperor having rested both arms back on his throne. Pieces of shattered tea cup lay in a brown puddle, a few drops having landed on the guard Captain’s armoured shoes. Chalmers was staring straight ahead, trying to ignore the remains of his carelessness.

“Yes, what?” he continued, diverting attention away from the cup. “Are you seriously proposing that I release your nation’s greatest weapon, in return for hosting you in my fine palace?”

Luna had to act fast to convince him, and even though it brought a foul taste to her mouth, she bowed her head.

“I swear that I will comply with all directions, and my sister would never dare to invade your Empire with me as a prisoner. Discord is a threat to all, even you must see that.”

“Oh, I do see that,” he replied, before shrugging. “However, so far he has not done any harm to me or my subjects, apart from the disruption of the orbital bodies, but I am confident that I could solve that issue if I wished it.” Luna didn’t like where he was going, a wicked glimmer in his eyes. “Besides, it’s not like you’re able to get away. Now I can have the Element Bearers and a Princess as hostages. Guards, take her away to a secure room.”

Luna was yanked to her hooves by many hooves, and the chain around her neck was tugged on roughly. The guards began to steer her towards a staircase to the left of the room, despite her own guards’ protests.

‘I’ve got to get through to him,’ she decided, turning her head back to the Emperor for one last hit-or-miss attempt.

“Please, Discord will ruin us all!” she tried, receiving no acknowledgement. “Emperor Chalmers, listen! I know you have a heart, we are the same!”

“Halt.” The order was clear, calm… and cold, Luna looking into his eyes when he leveled a piercing gaze at her. Her guards stopped at his command, her chain yanked so that she was turned around to face him. “You think you know me?”

“I do,” she replied while remaining calm. “I know my sister and subjects believe you to be evil, and you are in ways, but I also know that you are not all bad.” Luna glanced down at Reflection, the changeling’s sneer softening when they shared a look. Looking back up at the Emperor, she continued. “I nearly brought death and misery to the entire world, out of my own immaturity, and I was also banished by my sister when I gave her no choice.

I can see that everything you have done is for your subjects and their wellbeing. Your methods are more suited to the time of our past, however, and not of the modern day where ponies have forgotten what things were like when not everyone lived in harmony.” Luna looked around to all of the crystal guards and changelings, their glares less hate-filled than before. “I’m sure that many here have experienced what those days are like, both under Sombra and more recently.”

The changelings in the room all muttered to themselves, Luna’s hopes soaring when the Emperor looked around at them. She was breaking through to him; she just needed one last push so she aimed for one of his weaknesses. “Discord is a threat to not just my subjects, but to yours as well. I implore you to accept my offer, as it is the right choice for all of us.”

She waited for him to think it over, the room descending into silence. Emperor Chalmers whispered to the changeling at his feet, and she got to her hooves to lean in towards him. The Captain and the pony taking notes did the same, all of them sharing muffled whispering.

Luna caught some of it, most of it being centered on the likely hood of Celestia attacking to get her back. To be honest, when she had said that her sister wouldn’t, she didn’t actually know for sure. It was a gamble, but one she was willing to take. Finally, after a few minutes with some heated words between the Emperor and Reflection sprinkled in, they broke apart and the Emperor faced her.

“We accept your deal,” he confirmed, much to her relief. “In exchange for the release of all Equestrian captives and the safe passage of them and your two guards, you will take their place and remain in the palace as a prisoner.”

The chain attached to her collar slackened, the guards backing off slightly to give her some room. “Thank you,” Luna acknowledged, thankful that her plan had worked. “You won’t regret it.”

“I somehow think that I will,” the Emperor mumbled, before turning to his Captain. “Captain Strategy, please arrange to have our side of the conditions fulfilled as soon as possible.”

“Yes, Emperor,” the armoured Stallion answered before turning towards the staircase.

“Wait!” Lumen called out, halting the activity and drawing the attention of the Emperor. “I wish to stay here with my Princess.”
“I do as well,” Darkbane added, Luna staring at her guards.

“No, you have been given your freedom so I wish for you to take it.” In return to her order, Lumen shook his head defiantly.

“No, forgive me Your Majesty, but we cannot leave you alone in this city.” He looked back towards the Emperor, the human smiling while he stroked the head of the changeling. “Our duty is to protect Princess Luna, so we respectfully request permission to accompany her through her incarceration.”

“You’ll only get one room,” the Emperor warned, Luna guessing in an attempt to dissuade them. The determined look that her guards were giving Chalmers showed that they would not back down so easily.

“That’s fine with me,” Lumen answered, Darkbane nodding her agreement. All eyes went to Luna, and she struggled with her thoughts before sighing in defeat.

“I also accept,” she answered, the Emperor pausing before shrugging.

“Fine, it makes no difference to me, it’s still half the number of mouths to feed. Besides,” he grinned ominously. “I’ve got a certain friend who would just love to ask you all some questions.”

“You have three days’ worth of food and water, your map will point you in the right direction and if you leave now you’ll make it back before tomorrow night.”

Twilight looked up to the sky, the sun that was currently occupying it wobbling side to side. She glanced back around at all of her friends, all wearing warm winter coats provided by her mother, and then back to the Captain and his twenty guards.

“Go,” he ordered pointing a hoof towards the horizon. “Don’t return, you have been classed as a dangerous weapon. Until stated otherwise, you’ll be kill on sight.”

Twilight gulped at the information, the stern Captain likely able to carry out the threat. Judging from the looks from the other guards, they would also have no issue with carrying out their Emperor’s orders.

“Come on Twilight,” Velvet told her. “Let’s go, Discord is still loose in Equestria.”

Twilight glanced back towards the castle, feeling guilty that Princess Luna and her two guards were taking over the imprisonment for them. Silently, she vowed to free Luna as soon as they could. There was nothing she could do now, however, not with pointed blades and changeling horns aimed at them. With nothing left but to escape, she refaced her mother and followed her out of the dome into the snow. Her friends trailed behind her, all of them not looking forward to the cold journey.

“Jerks,” Twilight heard Rainbow mutter when she left the dome.

She had to admit, this was one of those rare times when she agreed fully with Dash.

Nigel entered the underground treasure vault, Reflection and Sparkling Scroll at his sides. Straight after sending Luna and her guards to a guarded room, he decided to inform Elijah of the arrivals. No doubt the scientist would be keen to interrogate the Princess and her strange guards, and he was likely to be able to extract some useful information about the possible threat that Equestria presented.

With a hand pulling down the fake torch, the secret door to the gem storage shimmered and disappeared. The three walked in, Sparkling Scroll looking around in awe while she examined the underground area for the first time. Chalmers smiled when he noticed that all of the unicorns assigned to gem research and manufacture were hard at work, benches covered with glowing gems of all sizes and colours.

He returned waves of greeting, none of them bothering with formal greetings. He was pleased with their efficiency and dedication, well worth the sacrifice of some ego-feeding. He quickly spotted Elijah standing next to Golden Ring, the unicorn standing on his hind legs with his forehooves planted on the bench at the back.

Waving Sparkling and Reflection forward, he approached the pair engrossed in a glowing orange gem in the shape of a ruby. Golden’s horn was glowing, a steady stream of magic pouring into the gem lying in front of them. Nigel decided to not interrupt them; instead he waited until the magic had cut out.

“What’s going on?” he inquired, Elijah and Golden turning around to face him.

“Ah, Nigel!” Elijah announced with glee, pulling him into a hug. Nigel was shocked and confused, paralyzed while Elijah continued to grasp him. Reflection and Sparkling could barely hold back their laughter at his discomfort, and finally Elijah let him go to beam at him. “I must thank you for allowing me to work with Golden here! Already this has made up for the teleportation and entire rescue mission! These gems contain so much potential, the possible applications are astounding and-“

“Calm it down,” Nigel chuckled, holding out his hands in a symbol to stop. “I’m not going to be able to understand most of what you two are doing, so don’t even try.”

“That is fine, Emperor,” Golden added, moving the newly made gem in the air with his magic. “I have great news! This gem contains a very complex and powerful enchantment that infuses the surrounding crops with ambient magic.”

“Is… is that safe?” Sparkling spoke up, voicing Nigel’s concerns while she did so. Golden turned to her, while Elijah held out a hand.

“Ah, a new pony! I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I am Elijah Von Barker.” Sparkling glanced at his hand before reaching out a hoof, the scientist taking it and giving it a shake.

“Sparkling Scroll, I’m Emperor Chalmers’ personal assistant and court recorder.”

Elijah let her hoof go, smiling at her warmly. “Ah, I see. I must say, your mane is rather stunning. Nigel is rather lucky to be surrounded by so many beautiful females.”

Both Sparkling and Reflection blushed at the complement, Elijah quickly turning back to the bench and recording down notes. Golden Ring had been watching with amusement through the entire conversation, the unicorn likely already having adapted to Elijah’s eccentric mannerisms.

“To answer your question, Advisor, no, the magic will cause no ill effects. All creatures of this world, and others apparently, contain ambient magic.” Golden glanced towards Elijah when he said this, Nigel assuming that the scientist had already demonstrated some of his chosen field’s studies. “As of such, most of the magic from the gem works to increase the speed of crop growth and the leftover residue is harmless upon consumption.”

“Excellent,” Chalmers praised, causing Golden to beam with pride.


“Lead Researcher,” Elijah corrected while still focusing on his data-pad.

“Lead Researcher Elijah helped immensely with formulating the spell matrix. Although I declined his offer to include some of the more… darker methods of manufacturing.”

“Understandable,” Nigel nodded. “How effective is the gem? The sooner we can get off this rationing system, the better.”

“It still will take a few weeks, even with the gems,” Golden admitted.

“It’s still better than months,” Nigel observed. “Good work Golden, now do you have the items I requested?”

Golden placed the gem back down on the bench and nodded, turning to rummage in a draw. When he re-faced Chalmers he was hefting a small sack in his magic field, the brown cloth glowing a faint red.

“The gems as you requested,” Golden announced, passing it over. Nigel took it from the magic and peered inside of it, nine small rubies humming with power. “Each has enough love to provide a changeling with food for a month. Obviously, the more magic they use the more they’ll need to eat, so we’re still working on increasing production and capacity.”

“A month is still pretty good,” Reflection spoke up, her nose sniffing the air. “As these for…?”

“They are,” Nigel answered, glancing at the preoccupied Elijah. “But remember the other thing we talked about?” Reflection also looked at Elijah and nodded, Nigel taking the gems and stuffing them into his bathrobe’s front pocket. “Good work once again Golden, keep it up. I actually came down here to talk to Elijah.”

“Hmm?” Elijah hummed, his eyes not leaving his pad.

“Well you know the whole sun-moon switching places constantly thing?”

This caught Elijah’s attention, the scientist looking up. “What?”

Nigel paused, surely he knew? “Elijah, have you even been outside or near a window within the last thirty-six hours?”

“That would be a no,” came the answer, the scientist waving a hand around the room. “This place is such a bastion of knowledge, filled with like-minded individuals who understand the value of the scientific process!” Elijah’s hand descended to rub Golden’s head, the unicorn’s face stuck in a half-frown, half-grin.

“Well, what if I offered you something else to get you out of here for a few hours?”

“Like what?”

“It’s a funny story, really. Due to the previously mentioned moon and sun incident, we decided to let our six hostages go-“

“But Rainbow Horse!” Elijah shouted, clenching his fists. “She never answered the question, I have to know!”

Nigel didn’t know what question Elijah was talking about, but he decided that the less he knew about it the better things would be. “I know that you were making friends with them, but I have something new. Does an Equestrian Princess and two bat-ponies sound interesting?”

“An Equestrian Princess... and bat-ponies?” Elijah mumbled, his eyes gleaming. “My, the questions I could ask…”

“Yes,” Nigel agreed. “Questions. Now, they’ve just been shown to their ‘guest accommodations’, so if you could give them an hour to settle in before bothering them-“

“Of course you tell me of their existence, and then you make me wait for it,” Elijah crossed his arms with a huff. “How typical.”

“They’re on the first second floor,” he informed Elijah with a roll of his eyes. “Now, I’ve got to go and pay James a visit, so remember to wait.” He turned to leave, giving Golden one last wave. “See you later.”

“The same to you sir,” Golden replied merrily, before re-joining Elijah. Reflection and Sparkling said their goodbyes and the trio left the room, the door shimmering shut behind them.

James looked to the left of the room at a knock, his hand leaving the blackboard and it’s notes on observation and recording intelligence information. His ten changeling students also stopped taking notes to see what the interruption was, the native soldiers shifting on their cushion seats.

The door opened and in stepped Nigel, clad in a bright green bathrobe. James didn’t say anything; he doubted he’d get a coherent answer if he inquired about his choice of attire. Outside he could see Reflection and Nigel’s advisor chatting, the two mares obviously waiting for whatever business Nigel had to conclude.

“Evening all,” Chalmers greeted, the changeling standing up to salute. He waved them back down, James watching it all with interest. “Don’t bother with the formal stuff, I’m the one interrupting after all. Are you all learning fine?”

A chorus of ‘yes, sir,’ and ‘yes, Emperor,’ came in reply, Nigel nodding towards his troops. “Good show, keep up the important work.” Chalmers turned to face him, James raising an eyebrow. “So James, they’ve been going well?”

“Very,” he admitted, causing the changelings to beam with pride. James was quite pleased with their performance, the soldiers proving to be very obedient while at the same time not fearing to ask questions. They certainly had promise for the role intended for them, and he had actually been pleasantly surprised with the ability of all of the changelings and crystal ponies at training.

“Marvelous,” replied before tilting his head towards the rear of the classroom. “Do you mind if we…?”

“Sure,” he answered, before looking back at his students. “Class, take five minutes.”

Immediately, all ten put their pencils on the desks in front of them and got up, moving towards the door. They nodded at Chalmers while they passed him, in return receiving a prideful smile. James waited until all had left, a few stopping to talk to the two advisors outside the barracks, before he shut the door and walked with Nigel towards the rear of the room.

“Here’s the gems, nine of them,” Chalmers told him while removing a bag from his bathrobe. James took it with his armoured hand and looked in, confirming that there were indeed nine red gems inside. “Have you picked three?”

“I have,” he replied to Nigel’s query. “Private Meta, Corporal Buzz and Private Shimmer.” He had specifically chosen the two males and female for their independence and other qualities, traits that he deemed suitable for the planned mission. “It’s a little bit of a short notice though.”

“I’ll explain everything to them tomorrow evening, please tell them to meet me in the throne room after that day’s lessons and dinner.”

“I will,” James confirmed. Even though the changelings didn’t need to eat solid food, they apparently enjoyed spending time with their non-changeling comrades during mealtimes in the barrack’s mess area. He understood the advantage of having both races interacting well both on and off the battlefield, and he was glad that Nigel recognised this as well. Chalmers often wasn’t the most observant. “Is everything else prepared?”

Nigel nodded. “Maps, clothing, water, and money, everything needed for their trips.”

“Great,” James replied, before they both turned towards the door. They could hear the soldiers coming back, facing each other once more. “Well, I better get back to it.”

“I’ll let you go,” Nigel agreed while heading to the door. “Remember, after dinner tomorrow.”

James nodded, watching while Chalmers opened the door and let his students back in.

He had a lot of teaching to do, especially for the three chosen troops.


Orthodox blinked his eyes open, the sunlight hurting them and only compounding his headache.

“All this biological engineering,” he muttered to himself. “You’d think that they could make me immune to hangovers or something.”
He slowly returned to full consciousness, the feeling returning to his limbs.

‘How much did I have to drink?’ he wondered, feeling cool grass against the back of his head.

His question was answered when something moved to his left, a white hoof with a golden shoe moving further over his chest and pulling him deeper into the hug.

Too much, far too much.

He slowly looked over, his stomach dropping when he saw the captive guardmare lying beside him.

The pegasus was completely unbound, her mouth open a little while she snored. Her breath stank of alcohol, and Orthodox traced a saliva trail across his chest armour from her mouth up to his.

‘Shit,’ he mentally cursed, horridly searching around for his helmet which he found was still attached to his waist. Shifting slightly in the mare’s hold, he managed to release it and put it on, praying while his eyes strayed to his armour’s status display.

“Not removed in the last four days,” he breathed out softly, a thankful smile spreading across his face. “Thank you, Lord, for saving me from banging a mini horse while intoxicated.” With his helmet on he was free to speak his mind, a long time habit. He smacked his lips together, his advanced taste buds picking up alcohol, the saliva of the slumbering guard and strangely, cotton candy.

Almost fully recovered, he activated the system that injected stimulants into his body, clearing his headache and giving him a much-needed energy boost. To be honest, starting his day with combat stims pumping into his bloodstream probably wasn’t the healthiest. Still, such was the hold of addiction, and it certainly beat a cup of coffee.

His wake up completed, he glanced back over to his sleeping partner. They appeared to be in some kind of hedge maze, walls of green surrounding them while they lay in the large open area. Thankfully, it seemed like no one had seen them yet.

Good, that mean he didn’t have to bother about killing fleeing witnesses, that stuff was afternoon work, not morning.

“Dodged a bullet there,” he muttered while trying to escape the mare’s hold without waking her. He still had to escape with his loot, and having the mare remain sleeping would be a big boon. He was lucky to have escaped with only apparently making out with her, he was not going to sink to Nigel’s level.

He had no luck however with escaping, the pony pulling him in tighter when she detected movement. Sighing, he moved his tail towards her neck, the small, sharp blade popping out from its housing.

Just as he was about to quickly and quietly end her life, he hesitated. He’d gone on benders before, and even though he still couldn’t remember the last day and a half he doubted he and the guard were on unfriendly terms. After all, she wasn’t tied up and she was hugging him, and even though she was an enemy soldier he just couldn’t see her as a threat.

The blade slid back into its slot, and through the blurry memories of the drunken spree he recalled a disturbing fact. Wincing, he moved the now smooth metal tip of his tail to the guard’s back, slipping it underneath the cloth-padded armour. He slid it up her back until her reached her wings, and he began to rub the space between them.

The pegasus gasped in her sleep, her wings slowly expanding while the rubbing continued. Her grip relaxed while she squirmed and muttered. Orthodox kept on rubbing until he was able to get away, his tail withdrawing. He stood up and dusted himself down, before turning away from the guard and looking around the area. He did not want to remember what had happened.

The first thing he noticed was the pile of bottles next to an empty brown sack, a deep snoring coming from underneath them.

“Bastard drank the entire store,” Orthodox muttered in disbelief. He stumbled over towards Discord and began to remove bottles, taking a few minutes before his comrade of chaos was visible.

Discord was curled up on the grass, except that instead of a guardmare, he was cuddling a lamppost, a pink parasol, a rubber duck and a giant teddy bear.

Orthodox shook his head and walked away, not wanting to deal with it or the questions it created.

Spotting the two sacks of treasure by a hedge, he moved over to them and opened up one. It was still full, luckily, so even though Discord had drunken everything all was not lost. The second one was the same, his stolen gold and jewels safe.

‘All in all, a rather decent outcome.’

“There he is, bring up the Elements!”

Orthodox dived into the hedge, dragging the sacks in with him. His armour allowed him to remain unscathed, and he peeked out through the hole in the leaves he had created.

Armoured ponies, both pegasi and unicorns, were surrounding Discord and dragging their unconscious fellow away from the scene. They hadn’t appeared to have spotted him, which meant that they were targeting someone else.

Orthodox watched on while six multi-coloured mares entered from one of the maze ends, all of them wearing necklaces with the purple one was wearing a tiara. His concern regarding just how they had managed to escape the Crystal Empire was overridden by his desire to obtain their really shiny stuff, however he managed to hold himself in check.

“Is he… drunk and sleeping?” one of the new ponies inquired, a country accent that grated on Orthodox’s nerves filling the air.

“It makes it all the better to zap him, so be thankful,” one of the guards answered, the stallion sneering down at Discord and stepping back. “By Celestia, he stinks!”

“I… I think that he’s lying in his own, well, vomit,” the shy yellow one observed, the guards and civilian mares collectively wincing.

“Let’s just get this over with,” the flying rainbow horse snorted. “Then we can go and save Princess Luna.”

Orthodox didn’t know who this ‘Luna’ was, but while he watched the six mares begin to glow and levitate, he knew one thing.

Discord, his friend and crime-spree partner, was about to get blasted by six witch-ponies. No doubt he’d be imprisoned again, something about ‘those darn, meddling mares,’ surfacing in Orthodox’s memory. The six floating ponies were rising higher and causing some sort of electricity to arc everywhere. The sky darkened, but the guards didn’t seem more than a little nervous. Given this information, the mares with the glowing eyes and the helpless Discord, Orthodox could only do one thing.

‘Whelp,’ he thought while dragging his sacks out of the other side of the hedge and into freedom.

‘Thanks for the for the distraction, Discord ol’ pal.’

He ignored the booming crack behind him, and the bright glow. Whistling to himself, he made his way across the empty street and into an alleyway.

His work here was done.

“You all have your assignments, and you have enough food for three months each. You should complete your mission in a few days however, so if you need some extra power don’t be hesitant to use one.”

“Yes, Emperor!”

Reflection looked out towards the three changeling soldiers saluting in front of Nigel’s throne. All three wore simple grey cloaks and brown saddlebags, each containing supplies, maps and most importantly a single message each.

Nigel’s plan was daring, and she had almost not believed him when he had told her. Now here they were, about to send off three soldiers into danger with a grand goal in mind.

“I have faith in all three of you,” he continued, dressed in his normal suit. “If you succeed it’s a promotion for all of you, and leadership positions in the team that Agent James is assembling.” The three changelings grinned, their wings buzzing with anticipation. “Your missions are vital to the continued safety of this Empire, and all of your fellow citizens are counting on you. Return with victory, and you’ll be treated like heroes. Now good luck, and stay safe.”

“Yes sir,” they all replied.

“Good. Now go, speed is of the essence.”

“Good luck,” she added, receiving nods before the soldiers turned to leave through the main doors. Four guards escorted them, Reflection noticing that the crystal ponies were whispering their own wishes of luck. The doors shut behind them and no doubt the soldiers would soon be flying towards the, now behaving, setting sun. “Do you think they’ll make it?”

“I do,” Nigel answered confidently while giving her a pat on the head. “They’re some of the best we have, and James has done his best to prepare them.”

“I hope so.”

“Don’t worry,” he chuckled in response, before leaving his throne. “They’ll complete their mission and with any luck the messages will have the intended effect.” He started to walk towards the corridor leading to the dining room. “Now, why don’t we grab some dinner?”
“That sounds nice,” she grinned while standing up and following him. “I could use some relaxation. The last few days have been hectic.”
“I’ve got a feeling that they’re not going to change.”

With Nigel’s final words, they left the empty throne room behind.

Little did they know that things were going to get more hectic than either could imagine.

The Plot Thickens

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Luna looked up as the door to their prison opened, her two loyal guards also raising their heads from their mattresses on the floor. A single human walked in, armoured in a strange sort of white plate with a helmet attached to the waist. He possessed incredibly white skin and a black mane, a strange square device held in one hand. A guard walked in after and shut the door, the crystal pony mare standing to the left with her sword at the ready.

“I am quite capable of looking after myself,” the human told the guardmare, before moving over towards a wooden stool.

“I’m not here for your safety, sir,” the guard replied, remaining ramrod straight. Luna raised an eyebrow at this, the human didn’t look that threatening, at least when compared to the Emperor. Still, she had seen what their race was capable of, so she remained resolute to not underestimate him.

“Pfft, why would I harm such wonderful specimens?” the human questioned before sitting down awkwardly on the stool. His long legs were moved to the sides and he held his tablet down in the middle. “That reminds me, I still have to examine a crystal pony. Care to volunteer after your shift?”

The mare twitched, Luna noticing a mixture of confusion and embarrassment on her face. To be honest, she was unable to tell if the human was genuine or if he was using some form of strange innuendo.

“No, sir,” the guard answered, her voice remaining strong. “I have to… clean the barracks.”

“Another time then,” the human replied, before glancing down at the glowing square he held and looking back up at Luna. “Moving on, greetings Equestrian Princess and guards, I am Lead Researcher Elijah Von Barker and I wish to ask you all some questions.”

Hesitantly, Luna looked to her guards before replying. “Hello, Lead Researcher, I am Princess Luna.”

“A pleasure, Your Majesty,” Von Barker returned before gesturing with a hand towards the Sergeant and Corporal. “And you two are?”

“Sergeant Lumen.”

“Corporal Darkbane.”

The Lead Researcher’s eye twitched at Darkbane’s name, but he didn’t say anything and instead started tapping his fingers on his device. He did this for a number of minutes before Luna decided to hurry things along. Coughing politely into her hoof, her royal shoes having been removed from her, she drew his attention.

“May I ask what you are a Lead Researcher of and-“

“I’m asking the questions here!” the scientist yelled, causing her and the other ponies to all flinch. He seemed to recover, a hand brushing down his chest. “Sorry about that, since you asked I am a scholar of many sciences but I am currently focusing on the forces commonly referred to as ‘magic’, the ‘arcane’ and ‘occult’. Let’s forget about that for now and instead focus on the more important things.” He leaned forwards, his device at the ready. “What exactly are you, as in species?”

“I am an alicorn,” Luna answered, aiming to save her retainers the trouble of having to deal with the strange human. “My guards are Nocturnes; however they are commonly referred to as bat-ponies.”

“I can see why,” Von Barker commented with a nod. “They share many qualities with both species,” he peered intensely at Lumen. “And the fluffy bat ears in particular make them look very cute.”

His observation and opinion caused both Lumen and Darkbane to avert their eyes, a blush on both of their faces. Luna wondered just what method of interrogation this was supposed to be, was this complimenting of the prisoners some form of modern day information gathering? Von Barker left his seat, and before she could react he had placed his device on the bedside table and had begun to touch her wing with his hands.

“Lead Researcher,” Luna began, sending a look to halt her guards who were rushing to her defense. “Why are you touching me?”

“You have utterly beautiful wings,” he murmured, examining the feathers up close. She didn’t know what to think, let alone do. In her time, no-one would even dare to think about touching a Princess without permission.

“Um, sir?” the crystal guard asked from the doorway while Elijah continued to stroke the wing. “I don’t think that this is appropriate…”

“Nonsense,” Elijah replied. “It’s purely for science, and it’s only a wing.” He glanced over them, Luna trying to not show her unease at the unexpected pruning. “Besides, you equines don’t seem to be too concerned with modesty anyway.”

“Now just hold on!” Lumen announced, spreading his wings while standing up. Luna shook her head at him when both the human and crystal pony focused on him, the guardmare preparing to draw her sword. Her warning was ignored by the Sergeant, who continued to advance on the scientist. “You can’t treat the Princess like that, or insinuate things!” He reached out a hoof, poking Elijah in the stomach. The crystal guard began to move towards them, Luna about to interject to save the loyal Lumen from his own mistake.

She was beaten to it by Elijah, however.

Quick as a flash, the human’s left hand grasped Lumen’s foreleg and gripped tight. Lumen winced, before the scientist calmly pulled it away to the side. “Bad pony,” Elijah lectured, tapping Lumen on the snout and relaxing his grip on the foreleg. “You do not raise your voice or poke people. Bad.” Any further lecturing was cut off when Elijah noticed Lumen’s wings, his hand letting go of the foreleg.

Luna and Darkbane watched on as the armour covering the hand recessed into the main arm, leaving bare skin. It was with this hand that Elijah used to touch Lumen’s wing, the stallion going ridged while the fingers stroked the membrane.

“Amazing,” Elijah muttered to himself, not noticing the discomfort of all in the room. “It’s exactly the same as a bat’s, and realistically it shouldn’t be able to function as a means of lift for a pony this size.”

Seeing that Lumen was growing increasingly flustered, Luna tried to divert the scientist’s attention away from touching all of them. “Lead Researcher, you mentioned that you had questions to ask us?” The scientist reluctantly stopped his exploration of Lumen’s wing, much to the relief of all watching, before leaving them be to retrieve his glowing device. Lumen retreated to hide behind Darkbane, the Corporal looking at her superior with sympathy while Elijah resumed his tapping on the device.

“I suppose that questions are first on the list,” he shrugged, before leaning forward and fixing her with a sudden, piercing gaze. “Now Princess, first question: Red or Blue?”

Reflection watched James hesitantly try a slice of buttered bread, the dark-skinned human still wearing his armour but with his helmet attached at the side. It was a direct contrast to Nigel next to her, the Emperor eagerly consuming the bowl of red soup before him.
Sparkling Scroll and Captain Strategy were both glancing at Nigel every time he took a particularly noisy slurp of soup, their own eating far more subdued. She was happy to ignore it and just focus on her own cup of tea.

“Don’t be so hesitant,” Nigel told his fellow. “It’s just bread and soup, granted extremely good bread and soup.”

“Actually, I think it’s rather average,” Strategy spoke up, before awkwardly using the crook of his foreleg to lift up his spoon.

After another mouthful of soup, Nigel expanded on his opinion. “Well Strategy, after a month away living off a hellish landscape, I can safely say that any food would taste great to me.” Reflection flinched when a hand suddenly patted her on the back. “Come on Reflection, you should try some.”

“I’m fine,” she answered, taking another sip of her tea before briefly rubbing against his side. “Besides, I have access to more than enough energy.”

He chuckled in response, his hand rubbing her head before it left her alone. A cough gained their attention, all of the diners looking towards James who was sitting away from them at the end of the table.

“You’ve sent up some food to our guests?” he asked, Nigel waving a hand and nodding.

“Don’t worry about them, I asked the guards to give the Princess and her guards their dinner after Elijah was done with them.”

Reflection furrowed her brows at the reminder that Princess Luna herself was their prisoner, and she took another sip of tea in order to cover up her look of distain. Honestly, she felt like it was going to cause far more trouble than it was worth. Sure, they had possibly one of the most valuable hostages against Equestria, but she still had a feeling that it was going to end badly.

Even with a magic inhibitor that the blacksmiths had assured couldn’t be removed without the right tools; Luna still presented a major threat. Apart from the unpredictable reaction of Celestia that was due to come, something about Luna’s plan to switch places with the Element Bearers was off. Why did Nigel take the deal? After all, they had delivered their enemies’ most powerful weapon right back to them.

“Something still feels off,” she muttered to herself, however the others overheard her.

“What’s off?” Chalmers inquired, Reflection glancing up at him before looking back at her forehooves.

“The behavior of Equestria so far,” she answered, pondering the issue. “I mean, they should be charging at us with their armies, but we haven’t even seen a group of scouts. I just think that they’re planning something, and it worries me.”

An arm went around her side, and she smiled despite her worries. The hand attached to it began to gently rub her belly, the relaxing sensation calming her.

“Of course they’re planning something,” Nigel confirmed. “The thing is, we’re planning many things, and at the end of the day we hold many cards over them. We’ve got a VIP hostage, our soldiers are well equipped and experienced, the construction of the city walls is set to begin tomorrow and above all we’ve got some highly trained alien killers on our side,” he nodded at James, earning an eye roll. “We’ll be fine.”

“On that topic,” James cut in before she could reply. “Just what timeframe do we have for the walls?”

“A few weeks is what we’ve come up with, and that’s with almost the entire guard working on it,” Strategy answered, placing his spoon down in his empty bowl. “We’re looking at getting as many ponies and changelings from the civilian population to lend a hoof as well, with volunteers the work will go far more quickly.”

“Head Blacksmith Iron Greaves and his workshop have started constructing multiple devices to help us build it,” Sparkling added from her spot next to Strategy. Reflection found herself sneaking glances towards them, the two were sitting almost as close together as she was with Chalmers. “Already they two cranes made to help with heavy lifting, but we’ve come across another problem.”

“Go on,” Nigel urged, Sparking pausing before continuing.

“We’re running low on some crucial supplies, most pressingly strong rope, wood, and metal. With all of the commotion, we haven’t had a chance to even think about restarting mining operations and many ponies still feel apprehensive about mining.”

Reflection could understand that. From what she had heard, King Sombra had driven a lot of his subjects to their deaths in his quest to mine the crystal-rich caverns and mountains that surrounded the city. There was bound to still be a stigma, and adding to that there was the incident with the diamond dogs all those months ago.

It was then that she got a great idea.

“Why not use changelings?” she offered, finishing her tea and glancing around at the others. “We can use limited magic to help with the mining, we’re comfortable underground, we can see better in the dark than ponies, we can work for longer without food and water, and we don’t have any of the bad experiences that the crystal ponies do.”

“Your race mines?” James asked, Reflection nodding.

“Not really for materials, we can make most things out of biological matter, but when we need a hive and not a city it helps to be able to tunnel and dig. I can promise that changeling workers will perform well.”

“That may be so,” Nigel finally decided to step in. “But there is a problem with your idea.”

“What is it?” she asked with folded ears.

“Well, a lot of changelings already have jobs from what Sparkling has told me.” Reflection looked to the advisor at Nigel’s information, Sparkling nodding in confirmation.

“They do, and all of the changelings that I’ve spoken to are enjoying their lives as bakers, craftspeople, builders and other workers.”

“Indeed,” Nigel continued after Sparkling. “We’ve worked hard to ensure that they all find employment that they enjoy, and I’m proud to say that we’ve managed that both with me and without. I’d be a shame to suddenly assign them all to the mines and ruin that, all to satisfy a need for metal.”

Reflection cursed herself silently, how could she just forget that? Nigel obviously noticed, and the belly rub increased in intensity. “Now don’t be so down, it was a good idea and it would have worked if we had free workers. As the one in charge of changeling affairs, you should be proud that we don’t have enough free workers in order to run a mineshaft.”

This did cheer her up, and even though she hadn’t been as active a minister as she should be, it had all worked out well. The hundreds of changelings were getting along fine with the thousand crystal ponies, a win in anyone’s books.

“I guess you’re right,” she admitted, before sighing. “It still doesn’t solve our material issue though.”

“We’re working on it,” Nigel assured, before looking around the table. “For now, we can just spend this time to wind down after a hard day’s work. I now decree that we’re to no longer talk about work, but to instead just enjoy each other’s company.” This brought smiles to the faces of all, Nigel removing his hand from her stomach so he could rub both of his hands together with a grin.

“Now, with that out of the way,” he continued. “Who’s up for some dessert? I ordered us a very nice berry cheesecake from a baker in town so we could celebrate our capture of a Princess.”

Despite her worries about Princess Luna, Equestria’s reaction, the three changeling soldiers sent out of the country, her own future and now their lack of wood, metal and rope, she realised something. Here she was, eating in a castle dining room surrounded by friends and hopefully soon-to-be friends, with her amusing lover currently pressuring another human into eating a slice of cheesecake with veiled threats of bodily harm.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as she thought.

Emperor Augustus, Leader of the Griffon Nation, gazed at his throne room’s main doors with much interest. Seated on his marble throne, he observed as his heavily armoured guards escorted a single pegasus garbed in a simple cloak towards him. The pony was a light gray, with an equally dull mane. It appeared to be male, although admittedly his experience with ponies had only been with the Princesses of Equestria and their solely female diplomats.

The sound of hooves on the stone floor was a noticeable difference to the clack of griffon claws, and Augustus found it interesting to listen to. Adjusting his white toga and laurel, he peered down at the pony expectantly.

Luckily for the equine, it had the sense to bow before him and it lowered its head.

“Forgive us for the intrusion,” the lead guard apologised while removing his plumed helmet and bowing his head. “But this pony wishes an audience.”

“I see,” Augustus replied, examining the visitor. “He does not look like an Equestrian diplomat and he is remarkably underdressed. Tell me, Pegasus, why do you wish to speak to an Emperor?”

“I bear a message for you, Your Highness,” the pony answered while keeping his head lowered.

“Oh?” Augustus remarked with a raised eye. “How interesting, a message for me. To which master do you belong, I assume you’re another Equestrian attempt to fool me into compliance?” His tone sharpened towards the end, Augustus narrowing his eyes.

“I serve no Equestrian,” the messenger replied. “It’s actually quite the opposite.”

Augustus noticed that the pony now wore a small smile, and this intrigued him further. He motioned for the messenger to continued, the pegasus’ eyes following the claw before he answered.

“I serve Emperor Chalmers and the Crystal Empire. I bring you a message on his behalf.”

‘Now this is interesting,’ Augustus thought to himself, holding back a smirk at the information. ‘Are the rumors true, is that why Equestria has started pulling troops away from our border?’

“You say that you’re a representative of the Crystal Empire,” he pressed. “I don’t recall any news of Equestrians joining the city.”
Instead of answering, the pegasus took a single step back. Augustus’ wondering at the action was interrupted by a green flash, grey fur being replaced by black chitin. While his guards pointed their short-swords towards the changeling, Augustus merely leaned back in his throne and smiled.

“What better proof could I ask for?” he commented, his guards looking towards him for guidance. “Stand down, Centurion; I trust that our guest will behave himself.” He understood the reaction of his guards; after all, changelings weren’t welcome in the Griffon Empire.
The guards returned their weapons to their scabbards, the changeling not flinching at all.

“You have the air of a soldier,” Augustus observed, taking to time to get to know his visitor. It wasn’t often that he had the enjoyment of talking to other races in such cordial conditions. “You’ve served?”

“I have,” the changeling answered.

“In your former Queen’s army, in your current Empire’s forces, or in both?

“Just the Crystal Empire’s army, I joined a few weeks before the Elk attack. It was after a Diamond Dog raid, and I wanted to contribute.”

“You fought?”

“I did,” nodded the changeling.

“You killed?”

His visitor hesitated, before nodding again. “I did, three. It’s not something you easily forget.”

Augustus grinned, such talk was interesting indeed. “Your Empire has made many enemies, Equestria included.” His grin grew when he saw the changeling twitch at the word ‘Equestria’. “Yes, there’s a large amount of bad blood between your nations, I’ve heard about everything. I can assume that the reason for the panic on the part of the Equestrian’s is the return of your Emperor?”

This returned the smile to the changeling’s face. “It is, Emperor Chalmers is once again on the throne and the Equestrians are out of our country.” Nodding towards the saddlebag at his side, the changeling looked back up. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but I wish to complete the mission assigned to me as quickly as possible. As I have stated, I am delivering a message on my Emperor’s behalf.”

“Go ahead,” Augustus allowed, slightly disappointed that he was unable to continue his conversation. This changeling was quite interesting, nothing like the scum that they had turned back to Equestria. Still, he could understand the soldier’s urge to complete the task that he had been given.

The changeling’s horn lit up and withdrew a single parchment scroll, the blue-ribbon bound message making its way out towards him. Augustus plucked it out of the air with a claw, using a talon to break the red seal. His eyes scanned over the words, and his smile increased.

“Does your Emperor really think that I’ll agree to this?” he inquired to the messenger. “He does understand what such action would look like to… certain parties?”

“I am not privy to the information contained in the message,” the messenger explained. “I am sure, however, that Emperor Chalmers knows full well what he is doing.”

Pondering the situation for a few moments, Augustus gently placed the parchment down on his throne’s armrest, before letting out a peal of laughter.

“Oh, I had always been meaning to meet your Emperor since he came to power, even more so once I received news of his apparent return from Tartarus. This message has only reinforced the desire.” Gesturing for a guard to attend him, Augustus turned his head and relayed his order. “Tell my wife to prepare for a diplomatic trip to the Crystal Empire, and ready an escort.” Turning back to the changeling, he sat back in his throne and tapped his talons together. “Changeling, I thank you for this news and release you back to your master. Tell your Emperor that I’ll be at your city at the agreed time and date.”

“Thank you,” the changeling replied, bowing once more before leaving with an escort of guards. Watching him leave, Augustus smiled to himself and picked up the letter for another read.

‘This Emperor Chalmers is insane,’ he thought to himself, his tired bones filling with energy at the thought of Equestria’s reaction.
’I love it.’

Private Shill waited nervously while the three Zebra Priestesses looked over the message she had been sent to deliver. She focused on keeping her anxiety under control, the ten spear-armed zebra guards having kept a close vigil on her since she had dropped her disguise. The way that they were able to wield the weapons with just the crock of their hooves was amazing, the desert warriors obviously possessing great dexterity.

“This message raises many concerns,” the Head Priestess stated, her fellows nodding from their gold and glass thrones. “For one, it risks alienation from Equestria for mingling with their known enemy. Two, I have received troublesome portents regarding your Emperor. Three-“

“He and his comrades stole one of our prized vessels!” the Priestess to the left interjected, the charms on her headdress jingling.

“That is correct,” the Head Priestess confirmed, giving the one who had interrupted a weighted gaze. “He and three others stole a ship and numerous crates of ceremonial wine from one of our harbors. In addition, they utterly terrified a small village. Why should we agree to a meeting, when all evidence points towards it ending badly?”

Shill winced, the Emperor had neglected to inform her of those details. Still, she had a duty and she had to carry it out.

“The Emperor was understandably under a lot of pressure at the time,” she tried to reason. “I’m certain that he only did what he did in order to return as quickly as possible to the Crystal Empire. If you attend, you can discuss reimbursement-“

“Monetary matters do not concern us,” the last Priestess informed. “The theft of our wine was far more insulting. Many rituals were ruined that day because of it, and no amount of gold or jewels can make up for it.”

“That is also correct,” the Head Priestess once again took over. “I’m sorry, but at the current time we cannot see the benefits of such a visit. We’ll look over your Emperor’s message and discuss, Changeling, but I doubt that our minds will change.” An apologetic look, only brief, was sent Shill’s way. “I’m afraid that you will return to him with failure, I stress that it was due to no fault of yours.”

“I understand,” Shill replied, bowing her head before beginning to back away. “Thank you for receiving me.”

They let her leave without guards, Shill’s head lowered while she made her way to the exit of the mud-brick palace. Zebra servants and guards looked at her curiously while she left, Shill ignoring them and instead worrying over the Emperor’s reaction to the news. She had failed, and from the looks of things the Zebras wanted nothing to do with the Crystal Empire.

“Great,” she muttered to herself, looking up once she exited from the palace’s main doors. The occupants of the bustling Zebra Capital went about their day, the morning sun still rising in the sky. Resisting the urge to maybe kill some of her concerns with a relaxing walk through the markets, Shill instead sighed before buzzing her wings.

The guards stationed beside the main doors glanced up but didn’t stop her, Shill taking off to deliver the news of failure.

Reflection and Nigel exited their bedroom, only to be met with two guards awaiting them outside.

“Hmm?” Nigel wordlessly inquired, Reflection tilting her head at the two soldiers while letting out a final yawn.

“Captain Strategy has ordered that your chambers are to be guarded during the night,” one of the guards, a mare, answered upon correctly interpreting the gestures.

“That isn’t needed,” Nigel informed. “I’m quite capable of guarding my own bedroom.”

“That isn’t in doubt, sir,” the guard answered. “It’s just with the imprisonment, the Captain has ordered for security to be doubled both within and without the castle.”

“Great,” he mumbled, rubbing his face with a hand. “Has the good Captain decided to post a guard on every stairwell as well?”

“Not yet,” the mare answered, before wincing. “He has however ordered that you be escorted around during your duties.” She glanced to Reflection, a nod being sent the changeling’s way. “You will receive an escort as well, Lady Reflection.”

“She shouldn’t need one,” Nigel quickly stated, placing a hand on Reflection’s head. “I highly doubt that we’ll spend enough time apart to be in any danger.”

“Actually,” Reflection spoke up, Nigel looking down to meet her gaze. “That may not be the case.”


“I’ll tell you about during breakfast,” she explained with a sideways glance towards the guards. He got that she wanted some privacy, so he merely nodded and let the issue drop. That still didn’t solve the issue of the tagalongs, and while he appreciated Strategy’s concern, the guards could be better used in other areas. However, telling them otherwise would directly contradict Strategy’s orders, and he was trying to make the Empire less reliant on his input.

“Okay, now for you two,” he turned his attention back to the guards. “What exactly do your orders entail?”

“Two guards are to be with you at all times during the day,” the stallion soldier replied. “Two are to also guard the Royal bedroom during the night, swapping with the next pair at sunrise.” He looked back towards the room. “You slept in, sir, so we arrived an hour before to swap with the night guard.”

“I’d hardly call that ‘sleeping in’,” Reflection pointed out, furrowing her brows. “Nigel, can you just let them get on with their jobs so I can get some tea?”

“I can see where your priorities are.”

“Hey, I’ve just woken up, don’t try and push responsibility on me.” She smirked at the last part, before moving her head out from under his hand. Momentarily confused, he left himself open. Grabbing his hand in her jaws, taking care to not accidently bite him, Reflection tugged and prompted him to resume walking.

Sending the two guards a shrug, he followed the rather impatient Reflection.

“I guess you two get to stay,” he told them, both of the soldiers sharing a grin at the pair’s antics before taking up position behind their charges.

The four passed more guards and servants on their trip down to the kitchens, morning greetings shared by all. They passed a team of four guards heading in the opposite direction, two balancing silver trays upon their backs. The smell of toast that wafted out from a tray reminded Chalmers of the hunger that he felt, and he quickened his pace in order to reach the kitchen sooner. It didn’t bother him that he seemed to eat more lately; he put it down to his time spent away.

One trip down a guarded stairwell later and they were at the kitchens. It was a surprise to see that the kitchen staff had appeared to have doubled in number, and from the looks of things the morning bustle was already well underway.

“Good Morning, Emperor!” the Head Chef greeted with a bow of his head. “A bit of a sleep-in today?”

“I guess we did,” he answered, giving an early morning wave to the ten cooking staff. “Your staff size seems to have grown, Larder.”

“A step taken to better suit the needs of the future, given the extra mouths to feed as well. I also heard of some possible events happening in the future from Advisor Sparkling Scroll, events that will require a large amount of food.”

“I see,” Nigel replied. “I take it that Advisor Sparkling was the one who authorised the staff increase?”

“That is correct sir, in fact she insisted on it. She’s already in the dining room waiting for you Emperor; we’ll have your breakfast ready for you shortly.”

Nigel hid his wince behind a smile, he hated being waited on. Unfortunately for him, the crystal ponies and changelings insisted on serving him like… well, an Emperor. He appreciated it, but he wasn’t used to such pandering.

“Thank you, Larder, but please don’t rush on my behalf.” A though occurred to him, and he glanced back towards the two silent guards behind him. “Say, have you two had breakfast yet?”

“No sir,” the mare answered. “But don’t worry, we’re perfectly fine to-“

“I’ll take that as a ‘we’re happy to join you for breakfast’, then.”

The guards were surprised at his interruption, but didn’t object while they followed into the dining room.

Sparkling Scroll looked up from her tea when their group approached, a smile spreading across her face when he sat down opposite her. Reflection chose the seat to his left, and she scooted it closer towards him.

“Morning,” Nigel greeted, cricking his neck and lazily reaching out an arm around Reflection. “How’s your day going so far?”

“Pretty good,” Sparkling answered, looking over towards a sheet of parchment beside her plate on the table. “Construction of the city wall has started, we’ve got plenty of stone on hoof and we can reopen some of the old quarries if needed later on. We’ve had another two changelings arrive from Equestria, both are tired and weak but they have news of the Equestrian public’s reaction to the retaking of the Empire.”

“I’ll speak to them,” Reflection offered, both Nigel and Sparkling glancing towards her. “Well,” she continued, fiddling with her front hooves. “I sort of thought that I better start doing a little bit more to help.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Nigel reassured. “You’ve helped in the Emperor’s emotional healing and… stress relief.”

His attempts were rewarded with a smile from her, however she shook her head. “That’s not enough though,” she replied, before her grin increased. “Even if I do enjoy the stress relief, as rare as it is.” The giggle from Sparkling starkly contrasted the awkward faces of the guards, Reflection ignoring the reactions. “What I mean is that I’m apparently the Minister for Changeling Affairs, but I don’t really do much of that. I was thinking of spending more time helping out around the city, instead of lounging around.”

“But I enjoy your lounging around, it’s usually on me,” he tried to joke, however this one didn’t go down so well with her. Giving up, he patted her on the back. “Fine then, I can hardly complain about you wanting to help everyone out now, can I?”

“It won’t be all the time, and I will always be there in the evenings. There’s no need to worry,” she rubbed her head against his arm. “I enjoy spending time with you, so I’ll try to keep schedule clear.”

“I’ve been reduced to a calendar entry,” he mock lamented, Reflection tapping the arm around her with a hoof.

“Oh, stop your complaining,” she lectured, flashing him smile before turning back towards Sparkling. “Anything else, Sparkling?”

“A few more things, Lady Reflection.”

Nigel smirked at Reflection’s wince, she had not taken to her new title well.

“Go on,” he requested, Sparkling nodding before returning to her list.

“According to Researcher Golden Ring, the growth crystals are working better than expected on the crops, we should expect a faster and larger yield before the month is out. On a similar note, the Head Blacksmith has reported that they are proceeding with the rebuilding of the military equipment at an increased pace,” Sparkling lifted her head up. “The Equestrian invasion and our efforts to halt it have led to a rise in military recruitment numbers, the guard is receiving new applicants every day.”

“That’ll keep Strategy busy,” Nigel remarked, resting his free arm on the table. “Is that all?”

“No, Agent James left a message for you,” Sparkling answered, a grin on her face. “He said for me to tell you that ‘you’ve gotten lazy and soft, you should be waking up at the crack of dawn’.”

“Delightful,” he chuckled in response, joined by Sparkling and Reflection. Any further discussion on the matter was put on hold when four servants emerged from the kitchen, bearing covered silver trays. Placing them on the table, the lids were lifted to reveal an assortment of toast, jams, other spreads, fruits, and a tea set with a still-steaming pot. It was less food than usual, but due to the city’s supply issues they weren’t going to complain.

“Well then,” Chalmers announced. “Let’s get to the most important part of our day, a good hearty breakfast.” With Reflection already using her magic to pour herself and him cups of tea, he turned to the two guards standing at the doorway. “That includes you two, get over here and join in.”

Luna shifted on her bed when the four guards entered the room, this time with trays rather than weapons.

“Breakfast is served,” one stallion remarked with a false snooty accent, grins shared amongst the other two crystal ponies and changeling. Luna was surprised at their behavior, it wasn’t overly malicious yet was still more than what the Equestrian Royal Guards would do. Admittedly, her own guards were a little more liberal with their behavior, but the crystal pony’s joking would be a big no-no for a Solar Guard and from what she had heard of the Crystal Empire's military she expected airtight discipline.

“Thank you,” she politely acknowledged. Apart from her initial meeting with the Emperor, she was yet to detect any of the real hostility that she had expected. So far, they had been treated fairly well for prisoners. Granted, having to share a bedroom and bathroom with two others was something foreign to her but it wasn’t that bad.

The tray tops were removed, revealing a simple spread of toast, some muffins, assorted jams and honeys as well as a large bowl of fruit and berries. On another tray was, much to her pleasant surprise, a pot of tea and cups with assorted ceramic containers. Overall, it was almost like she was not a prisoner but a guest.

“We’ll be back for the trays in an hour,” the same stallion informed, this time without the joking around. “Then, you’re in for another visit from the Lead Researcher.”

This news almost killed her appetite, Elijah Von Barker was not an easy being to tolerate. His total lack of awareness regarding personal space, his strange questions, all combined made her dread their next meeting.

The door to their room shut, the four guards locking it from the outside and leaving them in peace.

“Wow,” Sergeant Lumen announced, sitting down on a cushion before the trays. “This is actually better food than we get in the barracks.” He glanced towards the barred window, sunlight streaming in. “Although we usually don’t have it during the day.”

Luna had to agree there, having her sleep cycle reversed was a strange feeling. It had surprised her to discover that it wasn’t too drastic a change, although she regretted not being able to raise her moon. She had no access to a balcony to do it, but it was still rising and falling normally so Celestia must have taken over it again in her absence.

Thinking of her sister, Luna wondered how she was taking the news, and hoped that Celestia’s calm and collected nature would prevent her from making any more rash decisions.

“They even gave us fresh fruit!” Darkbane observed happily, Luna smiling while the Nocturne mare stuffed a melon slice into her mouth. A cough from Lumen later and Darkbane was looking at Luna ashamed. “I’m sorry, Princess, forgive me for my rude behavior.”

Wondering what had the guard so subdued, Luna realised that she was yet to have any food herself, and thus the young mare had broken a social politeness by eating before her. “It is no matter,” she reassured, using her magic to select one of the slices of toast. “We are in an unusual situation; some mistakes are bound to happen.

Darkbane cheered up, and picked up one of the provided plates with her wings. Lumen followed her example, and while the two were busy selecting their meals Luna glanced between both.

The pair had been coping well with the situation, and she was proud of them for keeping their cool. Even now the two were conversing happily while they ate, and it made her feel strangely joyful. It was a puzzle, she was imprisoned and yet felt more relaxed then anytime she could remember.

Selecting herself a piece of buttered toast, she wondered once again how Celestia would react to the news of her imprisonment.

“Discord is still remaining frozen, it seems like the Elements have once again managed to subdue him.”

Celestia nodded her head, not really listening to the guard’s report. The bags under her eyes showed her lack of sleep, and while that normally wouldn’t be a problem the stress of the last two days had taken their toll.

“Your Majesty?”

“Yes, I’m listening,” she sighed, before glancing down at the cooling teacup on her throne’s arm. “Is there any news of my sister?”

“No ma’am,” the stallion answered. “The Element Bearers and Noblemare Sparkle told us all that we know. With the current paranoia of the Crystal Empire, and their military readiness, we haven’t risked sending any scouting parties.”

“Keep it that way,” she ordered, before glancing towards the empty throne beside her.

‘Oh Luna, why did you go and make such a decision?’

In truth, she was secretly proud of what Luna had done. Her reckless gamble had paid off, and thanks to her the Elements had returned in time to vanquish Discord once more. There was still the problem of the Crystal Empire… criminal, for lack of a better word, running around with the Canterlot Treasury, but that was a low priority.

More worrying to her was pure aggressiveness that the Crystal Empire was displaying, she’d truly gone and kicked the hornet’s nest. If all of the reports were true, then the entire Empire, not just Emperor Chalmers, saw Equestria as a major enemy.

“And the orders concerning Princess Luna?” the guard asked, his wings giving a brief flutter. “We have a battalion ready to mobilise, and if we hit the Crystal Empire while they’re still rebuilding their military-“

“No Lieutenant,” she interrupted. “Any attack would be a foolish waste of lives, both on our side and theirs. I am working on a few bloodless solutions, I just need more time.”

“As you command, Your Highness,” the Lieutenant replied, bowing his head and beginning to back away towards the throne room doors. “Just know that we will be ready to follow any order, no matter the cost.”

“Thank you,” she told him. “That will be all.”

Watching while the guard saluted before trotting away, she sighed and glanced towards the heavy spell-tome resting on the table beside her throne. The bookmark that sat only a third of the way in hinted at her fruitless efforts so far.

‘Time,’ Celestia scoffed to herself. ‘That’s one thing I might not have enough of.’

Sergeant Glimmer tried hard not to stare at the sight beside her; instead she tried to focus on her bowl of fruit slices. The Private she was in charge of, Topaz, was currently staring at his ruler with confusion in his yellow eyes.

The Emperor currently had the Minister for Changeling Affairs in his lap, the changeling almost purring while she received a very energetic belly rub. Glimmer still couldn’t work out how the conversation had switched from the depleting stores of iron to the subject of a ‘personal changeling feeding’. It had all happened so fast.

“Oh, right there,” Lady Reflection stated, in a very unladylike tone. Glimmer tried not to think about what was happening, and was thankful that it was only a belly rub. She’d heard from the other guards about the two’s often public displays of intimacy, the topic a favored one in the mess hall. Glimmer had to give the Emperor and his chosen consort credit; they certainly knew how to turn heads and enjoy each other.

“You two are terrible,” Advisor Sparkling spoke up, having been watching the pair with amusement. “It’s almost like you’re not going to be seeing each other for years.”

“I’ll be gone a whole… half a day!” Lady Reflection complained, shifting on her spot so that the Emperor’s fingers covered more chitin.

Advisor Sparkling shook her head at her response, before switching her gaze towards the Emperor. “And you, what’s your excuse?”

“She’ll be away for half a day?” Emperor Chalmers tried with a shrug, taking a sip of tea with his free hand. “It’s only a belly rub, relax.”
He raised an eyebrow at Sparkling. “Or, are you jealous Sparkling? Remember that head rub that you enjoyed? This is twice as good apparently.”

“No,” Reflection murmured from his lap. “Mine, it’s mine.”

“No thank you,” Sparkling told him, gathering up her parchment and quills. “Apart from not wanting to steal Reflection’s massage, I also have to get back to work and prepare for the morning court.” She left her seat and tilted her head towards him. “Hint hint.”

“You vicious taskmaster,” Chalmers retorted, finishing his tea and using the now-free second hand to contribute to the belly rub he was giving. “Fine, give me five minutes to finish up with Reflection here and I’ll be straight out.”

“No, you better go now.” To the surprise of all, Lady Reflection rolled over onto her front before leaving his lap with her words. The Emperor was visually surprised, but any objection was cut off when the changeling nuzzled against his hand. “I’ve got to attend to my duties as well; I’ll see you at lunch though.”

“Very well,” the Emperor relented, leaning down to give her a quick peck on the forehead. “We’ll go out to grab something to eat.” Glimmer sat up straight in her seat when he turned his gaze to her, her bowl of fruit almost finished. “Sergeant, could you please escort Lady Reflection around the city?”

“I hate that title,” Reflection muttered, making her way towards the room’s exit.

“Of course sir,” Glimmer answered quickly, forgetting the remains of her breakfast to leave her seat and stand at attention. “I won’t fail you.”

“Oh, I’m not worried about you,” the ruler informed, receiving a mock glare from Reflection for the comment. With a final nod to the poor Private she was leaving to the mercy of the Emperor, she followed her charge out of the room and into one of the many corridors that dotted the castle.

They didn’t speak while they journeyed through the castle, Glimmer not too keen to start up a conversation. To be honest, not much was known about Lady Reflection, she wasn’t nearly as active in military affairs as the Emperor was. However, judging from the breakfast and all of the other times she had seen the human and changeling fawning over each other, the Emperor obviously cared a lot for her so playing nice was the best thing to do.

They left out the main doors, the eight guards watching over them saluting with their halberds. While her charge nodded politely at them, Glimmer shared knowing looks with her fellow soldiers. All of them gave her looks filled with sympathy, everyone able to guess the reaction of the Emperor if something happened to his changeling.

Pushing the thoughts of such things away, Glimmer instead focused on following Reflection down the east street. Steadily, the surrounds changed with higher density of changelings in this section. She knew from her patrols that this was where the majority of the Empire’s changelings resided, mostly because it contained most of the newer houses that had been built to cope with the population growth.

It was the weekend and everyone was looking like they were enjoying the time off, lounging around chatting on porches while children played in the streets. Glimmer tried to follow Reflection through it all, having to stop to allow a swarm of nymphs and foals run across the street. The children stopped briefly to examine her, her armour and sheathed sword earning a barrage of questions before the children once again rushed off in their play.

Reflection stopped and paused, Glimmer looking over to what had caught her attention. It was a small crystal house with a large front window, evidently one of the original dwellings in the city. The curtains were drawn back and they could see a changeling stallion and a crystal pony mare inside, both sitting at a table talking.

“Let’s go say hello,” Reflection suggested, Glimmer not having time to give her input before the Lady trotted up to the front door. Catching up just in time for Lady Reflection to knock on the door, she stood at the ready while the door opened inwards and the sapphire-coated mare looked out.

“Oh, Minister,” the mare realised, bowing her head out of respect before looking back up with her golden eyes. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

To Glimmer, Reflection looked slightly uncomfortable with the mare’s bowing. “I was just passing through and, forgive me, but I saw through your window that you’ve got a changeling in your house and I thought that I’d say hello.”

“That’s very nice,” the mare replied, giving a polite nod to Glimmer. “I’m Vibrant Opal, pleased to have you here, Ma’am.” While Reflection’s eye twitched, Vibrant glanced back into the house. “It isn’t my house though, it’s Muddle’s.”


“The changeling you saw,” Vibrant replied, smiling warmly. “We’ve been together almost since he arrived in the city. I decided to move in with him last week.”

Glimmer raised an eyebrow when Reflection tilted her head with interest. “Sorry if it’s a bit personal to ask this,” the Minister continued. “But you don’t mind the fact that he’s a changeling?”

“No,” Vibrant answered with a head shake, before smiling again. “I’m sure you can understand that species isn’t everything.”
“I guess so,” Reflection confirmed, a grin gracing her own features. “Well, I’ve got plenty to do, so I better leave you two in peace.” She turned to leave, Glimmer starting to step back before Vibrant opened the door a little more.

“Are you sure?” the pony asked. “I’m sure Muddle would love to talk with you, and we’ve just made a full pot of tea.”

Glimmer watched when Reflection paused, the changeling Minister still smiling. With a silent groan, she guessed at what the answer would be.

“I’d love to,” Lady Reflection answered, much to Glimmer’s disappointment. Vibrant opened the door fully and stepped to the side to allow them entry, Glimmer wondering just how long this distraction would last while she followed her charge into the home.

Nigel surveyed his courtroom, mostly empty aside from his guards and Sparkling Scroll. The rush had already come and gone, mostly requests for increased civil funding and thanks for returning to help the Empire. He’d even received a few ponies and changelings requesting an audience merely for the chance to have a conversation with him, the topics of what Tartarus was like and the future of the Crystal Empire often coming up. He didn’t mind talking to them, and he was confident that everyone walked away satisfied with the answers.

He drummed his fingers on his armrest, waiting for Morning Court to end. He had plenty to do, and there was no more citizens seeking his guidance or permission.

It was then that he found the solution.

‘I’ve got it,’ he thought with a grin, standing up from his throne and smoothing down his suit.

“Emperor?” Sparkling asked, glancing down at an hourglass by her side. “Court isn’t over for another hour.”

“Ah, but Sparkling you forget,” he replied, beginning to stroll towards the main doors. “I’m the Emperor, I do what I want.”

“Sir,” she groaned, before giving up on her attempts to halt him. Nigel smiled to himself when he heard the sound of shuffling stationary, a few moments later Sparkling appeared by his side with ink pots and quills hastily placed in a saddlebag, and a roll of parchment clutched in her mouth.

“This is boring, Sparkling,” he explained, waving a hand in front of him while he exited the throne room. Two guards followed them, the changeling and pony stallions watching their ruler with restrained interest. “I’m a man of action, not words. If there’s no-one left to see, why should I sit down idle?”

“Because you tend to make things worse,” she answered bluntly, after placing the parchment in her bag.

“True,” he admitted, nodding to the servants and guards in the entrance hall on his way to the main doors. “But I’m only going to go and have a look at what Strategy is doing, nothing too hands on.”

“Strategy?” Sparkling perked up, a bounce in her step. Nigel noticed her sudden burst of enthusiasm but decided to not comment. He knew that Sparkling had been hit hard by Chatter’s death and he’d heard that his Captain had been a huge help in improving her mood. He also knew that Strategy himself was still feeling guilt over the loss of their soldiers in the previous battle. A time would have to be arranged to talk to the two about it, he couldn’t allow any remaining sorrow, no matter how justified, to jeopordise their plans for the future.

“Indeed, I believe that he is visiting Iron in the armory in regards to some new weapons that Elijah… suggested.”

“Elijah?” Sparkling frowned, briefly nodding to the door guards while they left the palace with their escort in tow. “Isn’t he busy helping the unicorns with the gem enchanting, and interrogating the Equestrian Princess?”

With a snort, he let out a dry chuckle. “One thing you have to know about Elijah: once he has his sights set on something, he’s like a rabid dog chasing a squirrel.”


“A small rodent,” he explained before continuing. “Regardless, you’ll find that he will have spread his tendrils to many an area in his pursuit of science. Apparently he managed to track down and speak to Iron without my knowledge, which leads to the current problem.”

“I don’t like this talk about problems; we have far too much already.”

“You’re telling me,” he turned down the street heading into the military district, the civilians nearby sparse in number but they still waved. “But I think we’ll be able to solve most of them fairly well with our cunning plan.”

Sparkling merely nodded, her face locked in thought while they continued to walk. Their two guards remained silent, and it wasn’t long before they reached the armory doors. Strolling through the empty parade ground, the guards all busy with the wall construction, they entered the armory itself and descended down the stairs to the main workshop.

Nigel was surprised to be greeted with a surge of noise. A horde of ponies and changelings were fussing over half-built ballista, laboring over benches with magic carefully manipulating fine tools and the unlucky few operating the busy forges to the far side. He was pleased when none ceased their work to bow to him, all of the workers glancing towards him and his three companions before returning to their toil.

“Iron sure upped his staff numbers,” he commented loudly over the noise, counting at least twenty new faces. “He can barely fit all of this stuff in here.”

“He’s requested even more workers if they’re free,” Sparkling answered, glancing around at the hive of activity.

“Not very likely with that wall we need to build.”

“Ah, Emperor!” All four turned at Iron’s greeting, the Head Blacksmith weaving past two changelings carrying a sheet of metal on his way to meet them. “It’s such a pleasure to see you.”

“Well I heard the word that you’d been talking to Elijah,” Nigel began cheerily. “He didn’t happen to give you any ideas, did he?”
Iron’s wide grin crushed his hopes that the visit from Elijah had gone without major interference.

“Actually sir, he was incredibly helpful and exceedingly nice,” Iron swiftly turned around, facing back the way he had come. “In fact, he shared some advice that I found very intriguing. Come on, I’ve been working on a few things in my office.”

Sharing a look with Sparkling, Nigel hesitantly followed the upbeat blacksmith through the chaos of the workshop. Passing through a metal door that Iron shut behind them, the noise of the workshop cut off abruptly.

“Sound-proofing?” Nigel inquired, gazing around yet another cluttered workshop except this one was devoid of workers.

“I can’t stand to work with the noise of others,” Iron explained while trotting up to a work bench. “So I made the modifications a while ago, I included it in my budget report.”

“He did,” Sparkling remembered with a hoof rubbing her chin. “It wasn’t that expensive, from what I recall.”

“I installed it myself,” Iron explained before retrieving a device from a workbench. “Moving on sir, I have here a new device that will prove to be most beneficial to us in the future.”

“Oh?” In response, Iron trotted over and presented a small shield with a network of multicolored gems surrounding a large red one implanted in the middle of the front face. Taking the small metal shield in his hands, Nigel turned it over with an appraising eye.

“The losses we incurred during the Elk attack, while statistically small, highlighted a problem with our military.”

“There are more to wars than statistics,” Nigel reminded evenly while the two guards stared at the Blacksmith, Iron wincing before nodding.

“I know that, but I hope that this device will prevent any more deaths.” Iron’s mouth twitched into a small smile. “Well, deaths on our side at least. I don’t exactly make a living out of peaceful enterprises.”

“Back to the device,” Nigel reminded.

“Of course, now you may have noticed that it looks like a shield. That’s because it is a shield.”

“What a shame,” Nigel sighed, briefly closing his eyes and rubbing the lids before opening them again. “Here I was thinking it was some new kind of sword.”

Iron paused before continuing, Sparkling rolling her eyes at the conversation.

“If you’d be so kind as to attach it to one of your guards, then I can show you what I mean.”

Nigel glanced from the shield in his hands towards the pair of, now very nervous, guards. “It’s not going to…” he tapped the glowing red gem with a finger. “Blow up, is it?”

“No sir, I already told you that it’s a shield.”

“Relax Iron,” Nigel reassured, picking the changeling guard. “Congrats soldier, you have been chosen to test Iron’s new thingamawhatsit.”

“It’s already been tested,” Iron explained, watching Nigel try to place the shield on the changeling’s armoured back. “No sir, there’s a magnetic plate that will connect to the right side of the guard’s armour.”

Nigel checked and found that there was indeed a smooth square of metal on both shoulder plates. Attaching it so that the many gems were facing outwards, Nigel and the others stepped away from the changeling.

“Should I be worried?” the soldier inquired, glancing towards his Emperor.

“I don’t know,” Nigel shrugged. “Probably.”

“Great help,” Sparkling murmured from her spot behind him.

“Shush you.”

“Ahem,” Iron cleared his throat, gesturing towards the changeling. “Soldier, could you please press the blue gem with your hoof?”
Briefly processing the request, the soldier slowly did as ordered. He flinched when a hum sounded and a dull red glow shot out of the center gem.

Nigel watched while the magic formed a barrier in front of the changeling, about half a meter away from the soldier’s face. The changeling’s horn was just able to point out over the top, other than that it formed a fine defense.

“I don’t believe it,” Nigel muttered, staring at the energy barrier. “You haven’t even invented electricity, and yet you somehow made a personal energy shield.” He turned to the proud Iron, Sparkling’s jaw dropped in awe. “Iron, do you enjoy living on this world?”

“I… I do,” Iron answered, his pride faltering at the unusual question.

“Then don’t tell anyone from Research and Development about this,” Chalmers continued. “They’d just love to recruit you.”

“It was mostly the ideas that Elijah gave me that helped,” Iron admitted. “I can hardly take all of the credit-“

“Pfft,” Nigel dismissed, walking around the changeling to get a better look at the shield. “You’re more than capable, if you ever want a job I’ll put in a good word for you.”

He left out that his word might not be that well received.

“Still, back to the shield, how well will it work?”

“Unfortunately sir, it only works inside of the Empire.” At Nigel’s raised eyebrow, Iron continued. “The shield itself is powered by the ambient energies given off by the Heart, thanks to the love-storage gems we can harvest that and turn it towards military application. It’s an endless supply of energy as long as there are crystal ponies, and it’s proven to be an exceedingly efficient energy source.”

“You’ve weaponised love and happiness…”

“For defense,” Iron made sure to remind him. Nigel didn’t care.

He loved it.

“Brilliant,” he murmured, before returning to Iron’s side. “How will it preform in combat?”

“A soldier can use a halberd effectively without having to drop the shield,” Iron explained. “The colouring is unfortunate, but we tried to make it as dull as possible. We’re still experimenting with the new gems so it’s all foreign to us. Still, it allows a soldier to defend themselves while facing an enemy front on and the other feature makes it great against a charging opponent.”

“Other feature?”

Iron walked up to the shield and tapped on it with a hoof. “It reflects the kinetic force back instead of absorbing it. Thusly, a large foe such as an elk would be knocked helpless upon making contact. A particularly strong opponent could shatter it however, and then it’d be up to the soldier to do without it until it recharges. That will be incredibly rare though, it’d have to take a huge amount of force to-“

Nigel stopped listening, he was certain that he could break the shield. He slowly began to back up and prepared to attack it, readying his shoulder. Sparkling caught on to his plan and went to protest, however he had already begun to charge.

If Chalmers had been a smart man then he wouldn’t have listened to his ego and felt the urge to prove Iron wrong while impressing those watching.

As it was, smart he was not.

The changeling guard’s eyes widened when he noticed his ruler rushing towards him and his shield.

His pupils dilated when the Emperor rammed the energy barrier, only to be flung back into the opposite wall of the room with a crash.

Slowly, while the ponies rushed to their ruler’s aid, he silently turned off his shield and decided to guard the door.

He was so getting fired.

Glimmer breathed a sigh of relief when they finally trotted back out onto the street. What was supposed to have been a short talk over tea had turned into hours of long conversation, Lady Reflection and Vibrant Opal had become fast friends. Annoyingly, the topic had quickly veered away from matters of changeling life in the Empire and into the territory of the two’s romances.

Needless to say, it had been incredibly interesting. The only condolence was that the changeling named Muddle had also appeared as uncomfortable as she had been. At least now she was free.

“Well that was nice,” Reflection commented, turning for another house. “On to the next one.”

‘Oh no,’ Glimmer winced. ‘Please, anything but another conversation about the Emperor’s ‘magic’ fingers.’

Her prayers were answered in a way, a group of guards rushing down the street with four nurses and a doctor in tow. Glimmer recognised her Captain leading them, Strategy skidding to a halt when he spotted her and Reflection.

“Captain, what’s wrong?” Reflection asked with a furrowed brow, Strategy nodding for the guards and medical professionals to continue on before turning to answer.

“There’s been an accident in the Armory,” the Captain breathed out heavily. “It seems like the Emperor has been hit by an experimental weapon and-“

“Nigel’s hurt!?” Reflection interrupted, already starting to gallop after the guards in the distance. Glimmer had no choice but to follow, galloping behind the panicked changeling. She turned her head to her left at the sound of a second set of armoured hooves, the Captain running next to her.

“Is it bad?” she questioned over the clopping of their hooves, worried civilians watching them while they passed.

“I don’t know,” Strategy replied, his eyes filled with worry. “I was on my way to talk to the Head Blacksmith when I received the message from a worker.”

At this information she decided to stop talking and just focus on the situation. Turning her head back to the front, she prepared herself to have to possibly control Reflection if things got out of hoof.

It took them a scant three minutes to reach to armory, Glimmer slightly panting with the effort of galloping at full pelt in armour. Captain Strategy seemed completely unaffected, and they passed groups of guards and smithy workers to enter the depths of the armory complex.

Rushing down the stairs after Reflection, Glimmer quickly glanced around the large space they found themselves in. Workbenches and devices were scattered around, a mass of guards clustered around a metal door at the back. Following Reflection, Glimmer and Strategy headed to the door while guards parted to make a path. Entering the back room, Glimmer paused when she laid eyes on the sight.

The Emperor was slumped up against the wall, a number of cracks showing on the surface. The medical ponies from before were fussing over the unconscious human, the doctor running a hoof over the back of Chalmers’ head while the nurses awaited with bandages and tools. Slowly trotting towards them, Glimmer noticed a single changeling guard with a strange device attached to him cower while a very angry Captain Strategy approached him.

“Oh Nigel,” Reflection whispered before hurrying towards him. Glimmer stayed back and watched while the concerned guards made way for the changeling, Reflection sitting down to place a hoof on the Emperor’s chest.

“He’s lost a fair amount of blood from a wound to the back of the head,” the doctor informed, his hoof coming away with a thick slathering of gore. “Surprisingly, the injury appears to be healing with the blood clotting at an incredible rate, but I’m not familiar with his physiology so I can’t say for sure if that’s normal.”

“Why… why won’t he wake up?”

“He’s received a heavy blow to the head, Lady Reflection,” the doctor answered while gesturing towards the nurses. A blue mare passed him a roll of bandages, the doctor beginning to carefully wrap it around the Emperor’s head. “He likely has a concussion at the very least, so I want to keep him under observation with plenty of rest.” The doctor turned to the Captain when Strategy approached. “Captain, are any of the other humans on their way?”

“No,” Strategy replied, gazing down at the Emperor with a shake of his head. “We had no time to inform them, and I’ve just sent off the messengers.” Nodding, the doctor returned to his task of dressing the wound while Strategy made for the door.

“Captain,” Glimmer whispered while he passed, Strategy stopping to look at her. “What happened?”

“It seems like they were testing a new type of shield,” he replied with a tilt of his head towards the, now reassured, changeling guard. “The Emperor decided to test it himself… by running into it.”

“Ah,” Glimmer said before biting her lip, Strategy nodding with a knowing look before leaving the room with most of the guards in tow.

“Excuse me soldiers.” Glimmer focused back on the doctor, one of the nurses reassuring the sniffling Reflection that everything was going to be all right. “Could we please get some assistance with returning the Emperor to his chambers?”

Looking around, she saw that she was the highest ranking guard there. Taking charge, she pointed an armoured hoof towards Chalmers. “You heard him, everyone lend a hoof.”

“Here, use this,” the Head Blacksmith offered, retrieving a stretcher from behind a workbench.

Glimmer didn’t bother to question why he had such an item.

The medical staff gently moved the Emperor onto the stretcher while Reflection watched on with worry. The Head Blacksmith moved to the changeling guard and removed the round object from the sheepish soldier, the changeling quickly moving to assist with moving the injured leader. She made a note to ask him just what the Emperor had done, the private still appearing guilty.

“Sergeant,” a corporal requested, Lady Reflection still hovering around the Emperor. Sighing at what was about to come, Glimmer moved towards the minister who was sharing an embrace with the Emperor’s personal assistant.

“Excuse me,” she addressed, Reflection and Sparkling Scroll leaving their hug to look at her. “If you wish it, I’ll escort you both back to the palace so we can meet the Emperor there.”

“But what if he-“

“Reflection,” Advisor Scroll cut in, laying a hoof on the changeling’s shoulder. “He’ll be okay, let’s go back and let these ponies and changelings do their jobs.”

“Are you sure?” Reflection sniffled again, glancing back to the Emperor.

“I’m positive,” Sparkling told her, leading her towards the door.

Following the two, Glimmer was thankful that at least one of them was thinking clearly and that she didn’t have to handle the upset Lady on her own. Leaving the still-unresponsive Emperor behind, the three began to ascend the stairs with the palace as their destination.

“Urrg…” Nigel mumbled when he awoke, his head throbbing with a dull ache. He tried to open his eyes but quickly shut them again with a wince. The light hurt, so he had to rely on his other senses. He was lying on something soft, and from the size of it he guessed that it was his bed.

Strange, he didn’t remember going to sleep.

Trying to work out just exactly how he had gotten to bed, he searched his memory in vain. It was hazy, and the last thing he remembered was about heading towards the armory. He attempted to sit up but quickly forgot that plan when a spike of pain shot through his skull. Grimacing, he laid his head back onto the pillow while something shifted beside him.


“Yes,” he answered, Reflection’s voice in his ear causing his eye to twitch as another throb went through his head.

“You’re okay!” she announced happily, and he felt her hug him. Unfortunately she made the mistake of nuzzling his face.

“Ouch, back off,” he told her, Reflection’s grip on him releasing.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” she apologised, a weight settling down on his chest. “Does it still hurt?”

“It does. What happened?”

She sighed, and he detected a hint of anger from her. “From what I was told, you were looking at a new shield that Iron Greaves had made and you tested it by charging at it. It flung you back into the wall and the doctor said that you have a concussion.”

Oh, he remembered now.

“Ah,” he replied, his throbbing head now explained. “Did I win?”

Instead of the laughter that he expected, he instead received a snort from Reflection. “No, you could have been seriously hurt or worse! Not only did you hurt yourself and worry us all, the poor soldier that you charged at thought that he had killed you. What were you thinking?”

“I wanted to test the new shield.”

“… You’re an idiot.”

“Hey, at least we know that it works,” he groaned, rolling over onto his side to face her. His headache let up a little at the motion but he still kept his eyes closed just in case. “Speaking of which, tell Iron to make more.”

“Is that all you can think about right now?”

“I haven’t got much else to think about,” he grumbled, moving a hand to his forehead. “There goes my day.” Silence was his only reply, not even a complaint coming his way. “Reflection?”

“I’m not talking to you,” she told him.

‘Great, just what I need right now,’ he grimaced. She was obviously cross at him for some reason, and he tried to work it out. Thinking back over their conversation, he stumbled across the obvious. ’Oh,’ he thought, cursing his own stupidity. ‘That’s probably it.’

“Look, I’m sorry,” he apologised, removing the hand from his forehead and placing it on what felt like her back. “I know you’re worried about me, and I should have thought a bit more about that before joking around. It’s kind of-“

“I know,” she interrupted him with a sigh, but she shuffled closer. “I know that’s who you are, but sometimes I wish you were just a bit more serious.” He flinched when her hoof caressed his face, lights still flashing in his closed eyes. “Although, I know that will never happen.”

“Serious is boring,” he informed her, and at least this time she let out a small chuckle. “You’re lucky you’ve got me, and not James.”

“Don’t even joke about that!” she laughed, now back to her usual self. “He’s friendly, but he’s far too dull.”

“You’d be surprised,” Nigel told her, pulling her against him. He knew what department James worked for, and why Orthodox was always accusing the dour black man of ‘freaky mind powers’. Reflection hummed in response and settled down beside him. “Speaking of James, please tell me that he and Elijah don’t know about the… incident.”

“At the armory, after your accident, Strategy sent messengers to tell them both about it. James came in to see you about two hours ago, but all he said was that you’d ‘be fine, at least apart from the ego’ before he left to go back to the wall.” She let out another snort, although this time it wasn’t directed at him. “Apparently Elijah was more interested in talking to the Equestrian Princess again than seeing if you were okay.”

“That’s to be expected,” he informed. “Elijah’s always been rather focused on his own concerns.”

Another snort from Reflection. “Like you can talk.”

“Hey,” he defended. “I’d like to think that I focus on your concerns as well, you can’t say that you don’t get a few good meals out of me. I’m like a curry shop to you, satisfying but you regret it as soon as you finish, and you can’t stop eating it despite knowing what will happen.”

“I don’t get it.” The nuzzling restarted, Reflection taking care to be far gentler this time. “Although the food is really more of a bonus to me. I have to admit, you do tend to make things more interesting and I love that.”

“Yeesh, I get knocked on the head and we both turn into saps,” he chuckled, Reflection joining in while she continued to rest up against him.

“I like it,” she told him after a pause. “It’s not wrong to be a little soft sometimes.”

He guessed that he could give her that, and to be honest he hadn’t exactly been a picture of masculinity when around her. It was funny in a way, he’d gone from dating her in an attempt to make her happy, and had become unable to resist fawning over her whenever she was around.

‘Maybe I have gone a little soft,’ he realised while he rubbed her back and delighted in the way that it made her wings buzz. She let out a noise of enjoyment at the attention, and her grip on him increased.

He was okay with going soft, just this once.

“The Doctor said that you shouldn’t move around a lot,” she told him. “If you’re hungry, I can go and get you something.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he dismissed, relaxing onto the bed. “What’s the time?”

“The late afternoon, we’ve got four hours until dinner. Sparkling cancelled the court for the rest of the day.”

“Then I think a short nap will be in order, I need my strength for dinner after all.”

“At least you’ve got your priorities straight,” she teased, bringing a smile to his face. “I’m not against a nap though, so if it’s okay I’ll stay here.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he answered, before adjusting his head on the pillow and awaiting for slumber, Reflection curling up next to him and humming in agreement.

Private Shill winced when the door guard patted her on the back, the pony stallion not noticing her nervous look.

Despite her fellow soldiers’ greetings and cheers, she felt terrible. Little did they know that she was no cause for celebration, having failed her mission and her Empire. A shudder went down her back while she passed through the throne room doors; the Emperor’s reaction was surely going to be terrible.

Maybe he’d be happy with just throwing her out of the guard, hopefully without much fuss. At least then she could sulk away and just find a civilian job for the rest of her days, it’d sure beat being pulled up in front of the entire guard and publicly humiliated. Granted, she already felt bad enough already so that probably wouldn’t be needed on his part.

“Wonderful, all three of you made it back safe and sound!”

She looked up at the voice of her Emperor, the human dressed in a simple green bathrobe. Lady Reflection, the most respected changeling in the Empire, was beside his throne on a cushion and receiving a head rub. Both looked like they had just gotten out of bed, understandable considering that it was about an hour past midnight.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Shill advanced under the watchful eyes of the guards in the room.

Somehow, this was more nerve-wracking than facing the Zebras.

Saluting with a tremble, she looked her ruler in the eyes and awaited for his nod. “Emperor, I have returned from the Zebra Lands.”

“I can see that,” he smiled. “You’re the last to arrive, and the third to wake us in four hours.” Shill struggled to hide her wince, that was not good news for her. “So, Private,” Emperor Chalmers continued. “Make your report. We’ve unfortunately been unsuccessful with the Minotaurs, apparently I’m ‘lacking honor’ and am ‘fully deserving of all that Equestria has done’.” He smirked, waving his free hand in dismissal. “Anyway, we don’t need them, the Griffons are more than happy to meet with us about Equestria. It seems that we’re not the only ones that have an issue with ‘good-intentioned’ interference.”

‘Oh, so at least Buzz had some luck,’ she brooded, the news less welcome to her than it should have been.


Snapping back out of her thoughts, Shill realised that the Emperor and Lady were looking at her expectantly. Remembering what he had asked of her, she braced herself and began to tell him what had transpired.

“I was less than successful, sir,” she told him with a wince, something he picked up.

“Don’t be so nervous Private. Now, what happened?”

“The Zebras are led by a trio of High Priestesses; the majority of the tribes listen to their every word. The allowed me an audience and I delivered your message.” Shill winced again, despite the prior reassurance. “They informed me that you… that you stole a boat from one of their docks, a boat filled with ceremonial wine and other supplies for their religious rituals.”

“I don’t remember any…” the Emperor started, before his eyes narrowed. “Orthodox.”

“Him again?” Lady Reflection spoke up, Emperor Chalmers looking down at his consort and nodding.

“It’s always Orthodox,” he groaned before looking back towards her. “Private, sorry for the interruption, please continue.”

Gulping, Shill followed the command. “They said that due to the theft of their boat and items, many important ceremonies were cancelled. I suggested that you’d be willing to reimburse them, but they claimed that it cost far more than money could pay for. They told me that they’d discuss it further, but they have no interest in working against Equestria and they said to tell you that they had declined.”

She waited for a lecture, and she found herself bowing slightly before him. With her eyes towards the ground, she could hear the Emperor and Lady whisper between each other. It wasn’t a good sign, she wasn’t aware of the entirety of the Emperor’s plan but she knew that the news was likely a blow. The whispering cut off, and she flinched when the Emperor cleared his throat.

“So, you delivered your message and they declined, is that correct?”

“It is, Your Highness.”

“And you’re worried that you have disappointed me, correct?”

She hesitated before answering that one. “Yes, I am.”

“Don’t be,” he announced suddenly, Shill looking up to find two smiles being sent her way. “You’ve done everything I’ve asked for, and you took a great risk for your Empire. I’m proud, and you’ll make a fine soldier, Corporal Shill.”

‘Wait…’ she thought, her brain working through the confusion. ‘Did he just… promote me, even though I failed?’

“I’ll inform Agent James about your new rank, as well as the other new Corporal and the Sergeant, in the morning. I’m sorry to rush you out, but I’m sure that you’re looking forward to a good sleep as much as I am.” He stood up from his chair, Lady Reflection rising with him. “I’ll let you go for the night, and take tomorrow off as well.”

“Th- thank you sir,” she saluted, before turning around and making for the door. Her mind was half-confused, half-elated. She’d been promoted, but for what? Maybe Meta would have a better idea of what the Emperor was getting at, or maybe she did just need a decent night’s sleep. The throne room doors were opened for her, and she exited out into the waiting area.

“Wait, Corporal.”

Turning around, Shill found Lady Reflection following behind her.

“Ma’am?” she questioned, not used to really seeing the high-ranking changeling without the Emperor nearby.

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m proud as well,” the Lady told her with a smile. “I was going to back there, but, well, his head rubs can be pretty distracting sometimes.”

“Okay,” Shill didn’t really know what else to say about that. Evidently, she didn’t need to say much as Lady Reflection gave her a nod.

“Anyway, congratulations on the promotion, you’ve come far for just a drone.” That was true, Shill realising that she had made a lot of progress in her life. Giving the Lady a salute, she felt pride when Reflection tried to give one back. “I let you get back to the barracks, Nigel’s probably waiting for me.”

“Yes Ma’am,” Shill answered and began to turn, before halting. “And Ma’am? Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lady Reflection grinned, before trotting back into the throne room.

Resuming her own trotting, Shill felt herself relax.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as she had thought.

Things were going bad, very bad.

Orthodox sniffled inside of his armour, continuing to trudge through the snow. It was terrible what had happened, having to leave one behind. It rocked him to the core with guilt, and he had only just stopped sobbing with sadness.

One of his treasure sacks had broken, and he had been forced to bury most of its contents in the snow to pick up later. Now he had only one sack of treasure to bring back to the Empire, a terrible blow indeed!

Looking up to the moon in the sky, he paused his walking to shake a fist in the air.

“Why!?” he yelled out, glaring angrily towards the celestial body. “Such cruelty has been visited upon me!”

Resuming his walking after the venting, he continued to grumble about his horrid situation.

Truly, there was no-one as worse off as he was right now.

Clicks, commander of Her Majesties Royal Guard, cocked an ear towards the sky. He could have sworn that he had heard a voice on the wind, one filled with incredible pain and anguish. Shifting in his heavy chitin armour, he resumed his trek through the snow at the head of the four-hundred and sixty-three changelings.

Glancing back past his subordinates, the many drones and other soldiers that they had reunited after the defeat at Canterlot, he made sure that their cargo was still undisturbed.

Clicks winced when his eyes settled on his queen, the former ruler lying battered and broken on a stretcher carried by four guards. It had turned out that she wasn’t that strong of a flyer, and out of all of them she bore the worst injuries thanks to the unplanned exit from Canterlot.

The few nurses among them had done what they could, but even with some pilfered bandages things weren’t looking good for the queen. They had been moving from hiding place to hiding place for two months, taking what they could from towns under the cover of darkness while trying to find a place to rebuild.

Chrysalis had been unconscious for the majority of the time, leaving him to make all of the decisions. He had no idea of what to do, until he had heard word of a city filled with ponies and changelings living in harmony. The extraordinary rumor had been made even more impossible with the information that the city was ruled by an alien demon, the few ponies that scouts had overheard claimed that not even Tartarus could deal with evil the likes of it.

Returning his eyes to the front, Clicks continued to lead them on. They all needed food and energy, lots of it, and they were lucky to have gotten as far as they had. The Queen’s breathing had grown weaker, however, so whether they would make it in time was another question.

That was also relying on the rumor turning out correct, although Clicks couldn’t see any other hope for them at the moment.

With weary hooves they marched on, guided in the snow by the moon light with only their chitin and a few scraps of rags to shield them from the cold. Cresting a hill, Clicks surveyed the horizon with weary eyes.

His jaw dropped when he saw a huge city, shielded from the harsh snow by a glimmering dome. It was a magnificent sight, and the soldiers that were with him halted and joined his staring.

Clicks could taste a hint of positive emotion coming from the city, faintly carried on the wind. It wasn’t nearly enough to eat, but it was more than enough to spark hope and rekindle his resolve.

Maybe, just maybe, they had one chance left, a chance that he had no choice but to take.

Taking another step forward, Clicks’ eyes never left the city while he led his companions forward towards their only hope of salvation.

Romans, It's Always Romans

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“Heads up, there’s something moving out to the left.”

Corporal Shift looked to where her sergeant had indicated, her helmet’s clear visor remaining frost-free thanks to the numerous enchantments on her heavy suit. Her fellow ten guards peered forward, the mix of changelings and ponies preparing their halberds and crossbows. The Sergeant, a dour crystal pony named Quartz, gestured her forwards with a wave of his grey foreleg. She followed the order, trudging through the snow to stand at his side.

“See there?” he told her, Shift leaning forwards. Through the light snowfall she could see a mass of black objects heading towards them, the shapes roughly the size of a changeling.

“There’s hundreds,” she observed, most of the incoming things in small groups traveling in a huge line. She turned to Quartz, tilting her head. “Your orders?”

“We need to get closer,” he advised, waving the rest of the squad forward. “I need you to be ready, however; if things go bad and they turn out to be hostile then we’ll be hard pressed to fight them off.”

“Understood, sir,” she acknowledged before locking her large shield into place. Quartz nodded and advanced with the others, Shift following them as fast as she could. They angled their approached so that they were coming in from the left, and when they drew into visual range she blinked her eyes in disbelief.

They were changelings, and there were hundreds of them. Her fellows were equally shocked, even Sergeant Quartz pausing when he saw what faced them. Granted, the fact that they were faced with almost the same amount of changelings as the current population of the entire Crystal Empire was staggering.

“What do we do?” Corporal Meta whispered, the changeling soldier shifting in his plate armour.

“Meta, head back and alert the Captain and the Emperor, and fetch Advisor Reflection as well.”

“Yes Sarge,” and with that Meta was galloping off back towards the dome that protected the city.

“The rest of you, support me while I try to see what’s going on.”

“Do you think they’re just here to join the city?” a pony stallion asked when they started to move again.

“I hope so,” Quartz answered. “However, we can never be to careful. Shift, if things get heated then I want you to act as a warning.”

Shift hesitated before nodding in understanding. While the thought of fighting her own was unpleasant, she reminded herself that a violent confrontation was very unlikely. After all, everyone knew that the Crystal Empire welcomed changelings readily.

She was broken from her thoughts when the buzzing of wings filled the air. Looking up, a mass of changelings were swarming towards their squad. She braced her armoured hooves in the snow when she recognised the blue chitin armour that marked them as soldiers, her horn lighting up while she peered out through her shield. Her fellows did the same with their own horns or weapons, Halberd points pointing out towards the oncoming foes.

Sergeant Quartz stood beside her and watched while the twenty changeling soldiers flew around them in a circle. Shift started to power her horn, the narrowed eyes and scowls of the other changelings a fairly good clue that they weren’t exactly friendly. She felt power course through her as the crystals in her armour did their work, and she prepared to defend herself.

“You are trespassing on the lands of the Crystal Empire!” Sergeant Quartz announced. “If you come in peace then stand down and keep your distance!”

The changelings didn’t listen, and they drew closer with their horns glowing green.

“Shift,” Quartz ordered. “Warning shots.”

She responded immediately, her horn letting lose with a barrage of magical bolts. They shot through the air, passing over the heads of the flying soldiers in front of them. The changelings scattered in the face of the barrage, diving to the ground to evade the attack. She lowered her aim, preparing to fire another salvo while magic continued to course through her.

“Halt!” a voice from behind the changelings called out, and the soldiers still flying stopped and landed.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Quartz mumbled, his sword still at the ready. Shift nodded and watched as another changeling soldier advanced through the snow. This one’s armour was shiny and tinged with gold at the tips, and he possessed an aura of command. Remembering seeing soldiers around the hive like that when she was just a drone, she realised that she was looking at a high up officer. The officer looked down at them, his blue eyes gazing upon them all.

“Changelings with ponies?” he questioned with a tilt of his head. “Is the rumor true?”

Shift realised what he much have been referring to, Quartz catching onto the same thing. “You are referring to the rumor that the Crystal Empire includes changelings?”

“I am,” the changeling officer answered, before stepping forwards. Shift kept her aim on him, and it wasn’t long until he was barely three body lengths away from them. He glanced towards her, Quartz remaining still like the rest of their squad. “Your weapons and armour are impressive,” he complemented, before looking towards the soldiers watching him from the sides. “I apologise for the less than friendly response, but we can’t be too careful.”

“I can understand that, and you can see that we think the same,” Quartz replied, before peering behind the officer. Shift followed his gaze, spotting the mass of changelings watching them. She spotted normal drones interspersed with yet more soldiers, but what was shared was the lean frames and worried looks. “You all seem to be hungry, are you here to join the Empire?”

“No,” the officer answered, his mouth twitching. “I'm still loyal to my Queen.”

‘What?’ Shift wondered. ‘Chrysalis… is still alive?’

“I hope that wasn’t a jab towards my soldiers,” Quartz stated, his eyes narrowing.

“Of course not, I’m just not willing to swear allegiance to anyone but my Queen.”

He appeared truthful to her, and she could understand his reasoning. Still, if the new were still loyal to Chrysalis, then how would they be able to integrate with the empire? She knew that Lady Reflection was not a fan of Chrysalis, and how Emperor Chalmers would react was a mystery.

“That is… something that we will have to work around,” Quartz informed the officer before gesturing back towards the city. “However, I can see that you all are in need of food. If you agree to cooperate for now, we’ll let you move inside the barrier and feed. The Emperor will have to talk to you after though, he’ll have the final say on whether you’ll be allowed to stay.”

The changeling officer thought for a few moments before nodding his head. “That will work.”

“Good, I’m Sergeant Quartz.”

“Commander Clicks.”

‘This will be interesting,’ Shift thought to herself, wondering how the fact that the officer shared the same rank as the Emperor would change things. Such questions were for a later time however, Quartz pausing before turning around back to the city.

“Okay then, Commander. Lead your people behind us and stay in a group, the Empire is not very keen on unexpected visitors at the moment.”

“We’ll follow your lead.”

“Very well.”

With that, Shift turned with her Sergeant, and their small squad began to lead the newcomers back to the city. Hopefully, there would be no more tense confrontations between them all.

Captain Strategy knocked lightly on the door to the Emperor’s bedroom, two guards waiting behind him. He received no answer, and due to the circumstances he opened it anyway. Trotting in, he let out a small sight before moving towards the bed.

The Emperor was lying on his back, fast asleep with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. Lady Reflection’s front half was resting on his chest, the changeling’s back legs twitching every now and then while she slumbered. Disappointed that he had to disturb the two, he stopped within a meter and cleared his throat.

“Emperor, Lady Reflection.”

The first to awake was Reflection, her light snores cutting off before she groaned and looked towards him. Her lidded eyes widened when she realised who he was, and she quickly sat up on the bed.

However, that also had the result of waking the Emperor in a sudden manner.

“The Hun!” Chalmers shouted, bolting up as soon as Reflection moved. Strategy backpedaled at the yell, Reflection falling off the bed in surprise and landing on her side with a thump. The Emperor paused and looked towards him, before pointing a finger. “Wait… you’re not Attila.”

Strategy dismissed the behaviour as a result of the recent head injury, and instead returned to the task at hoof. “No Emperor, but we do have another problem that needs your attention,” he started, before glancing down at the recovering Reflection. “More changelings have arrived in the city.”

“Great news,” Chalmers replied.

“Maybe not, at our last count there were six-hundred and sixty-three of them.”

The Emperor continued to smile. “Even better, more workers for the walls and smithy.”

“Well Emperor,” Strategy dreaded this last part. “They might not feel the same way. They have their Queen and are hesitant to become a part of-“

“Queen!?” Reflection rose to her hooves, her expression a mix of shock and worry. “Chrysalis is alive!?”

“As far as we know,” Strategy informed with a wince. “We weren’t able to get a good look, but it appears as if she is injured and unresponsive.” He watched while Reflection turned to Nigel, the changeling’s eyes narrowed.

“Nigel, you can’t let her stay,” she told him, Nigel cocking an eyebrow. “She’s a terrible leader, and she’ll ruin everything!”

“Now hold on,” the Emperor told her. “We still don’t know what’s going on yet, how about we go down and see what’s going on before we start banishing people?”

“You can’t, the doctor said you needed rest.”

“And rest is what I’ve had,” Nigel reassured, before he swung his legs over the side and stood up. Strategy let them sort it out amongst each other, he was wise enough to not interfere.

“You haven’t had enough, I’ll sort this out.”

“Reflection, I appreciate the offer, but I’m not confident that you won’t go and start a fight with this Queen.” Nigel brushed his clothes down before patting his scowling changeling on the head. “Relax, if it means anything I’ll let you do most of the talking as a compromise.”


“Yep,” Chalmers replied, Reflection dropping her frown to trot belong side him. Strategy waited for the pair to leave the room before he followed, the two guards also falling into line. “Just don’t go and insult the Queen.”

“I’ll try,” Reflection huffed. “I warn you, Chrysalis was never easy to get along with. She’ll likely try to take over the city if we help her.”

“But don’t you want to help your fellows?”

Strategy continued to listen as he trotted behind, Reflection pausing before continuing. “I do, but you don’t seem to understand the danger. She won’t accept you as an equal or anything like that, she’s convinced that she’s the most important being in the world. If we let her stay, then she’ll ruin everything.”

A hand came down to rub her on the head, the Emperor chuckling with a smile on his face. “Reflection, you think everyone is out to ruin everything,” he told her. “Relax, I’ll fetch Elijah and James, then we’ll work something out with this queen. See, we hold all the cards in this deck. They need food and likely protection, and we can provide that. Everything will work out for the best. Isn’t that right, Strategy?”

He jolted, not expecting to be questioned during the two’s conversation. “We are prepared for any violence, I’ve already placed the guard on high alert.”

The group continued down the corridor, heading towards the room that Strategy knew housed the captured Equestrian princess. Two guards outside the door looked towards them while they drew closer.

“I hope we won’t need it,” Reflection turned her head to tell him. “Do you think-?”

“I trust in you and the Emperor,” Strategy reassured, not even stopping to consider his words. Any response was cut off when they reached the door, the two guards nodding towards them.

“Emperor, Captain, Lady,” they greeted while shifting their halberds and saluting.

“Soldiers,” Nigel returned, before glancing at the door. “I take it that Lead Researcher Elijah is inside?”

“He is,” the mare answered, giving them all a sheepish look. “I feel like I should warn you, he seems to be rather…”


“Yes sir,” the guardmare answered quietly.

“That is not unusual,” Chalmers informed, patting the soldier on her helmet. “He’s… special in a few ways.”

“More like insane,” Strategy heard Reflection mutter.

“Reflection, stay nice,” the Emperor advised with a flick of her ear. He turned back to the guardmare. “Well then soldier, touchy or not, I require his assistance for a certain matter. Could you please inform him as such?”

“Certainly,” the guard replied, before opening the door and entering the room. While they waited, Strategy trotted up to the remaining guard.

“Corporal,” he greeted, the subordinate nodding his head.


“Any trouble from the Equestrians?”

“No sir,” the soldier informed. “They seem to be content to follow instructions, and haven’t made any attempt to escape. They’ve even be willing to put up with the Lead Researcher and his… questions.”

“Keep it up soldier,” Strategy whispered. “Hopefully something else, preferably outside the city, will draw his attention soon enough.”

“I’m hoping for it,” the Corporal agreed. “It’s certainly an experience dealing with his eccentrics.”

Strategy only had time to nod in agreement before the door opened again, the guardmare trotting out with Elijah following behind. Strategy had enough time to spot the three prisoners glancing out at him before his vision was filled with unstable human. He stepped back when Elijah smiled down at him, a glowing pad held in the white-armoured hand.

“Nigel, I hear you need me for something,” Elijah tapped on the pad while he spoke, Chalmers nodding in confirmation.

“Indeed, you’ll be happy to know that a further six-hundred changelings have shown up.”

“Really? My, what a number. But I still don’t see why it should concern me, I already have plenty of changelings to question as it is.”

“I think Nigel wants your help because of their queen, Chrysalis,” Reflection jumped in with a look of distaste.

“You don’t like her?”

“She’s let us down far too often,” Reflection answered. “You’ll find that a lot of changelings won’t trust her anymore.”

“We were just about to grab James and then we were going to meet with the new arrivals,” Nigel continued, beginning to head towards the stairs. Everyone except the door guards followed, Elijah matching Nigel’s stride. “Apparently their Queen is injured, so I thought-“

“That I’d assist medically?” James clapped his hands together. “Of course I accept, allow me to fetch my things and I’ll met with you outside.” With that, he was off strolling merrily down the corridor. Strategy watched him go, before looking up at the Emperor.

“On a scale of one to ten, how badly is this going to go?”

“I think eleven should cover it,” Nigel informed, before shaking his head. “Ah, what the hell, at least it’ll be entertaining.”

Clicks paced back and forth nervously, his eyes darting towards the lines of crystal ponies and changeling defectors watching them all.

He was having serious doubts about accepting their help, and looking at the forces surrounding him sent his nerves racing. The soldiers were all heavily armed with their intimidating axe-spears, the weapons likely more than capable of cleaving through simple chitin armour. Also of note were the crossbows possessed by both changelings and crystal ponies, the tips of the bolts tipped with pointed crystals instead of metal.

The large war machines aimed towards their group were also a matter of alarm. They looked like gigantic crossbows, the large bolts longer than his entire body length. He had been in charge of the Canterlot invasion under the Queen’s personal command, and the Crystal Empire was obviously much more war-like than their Equestrian cousins.

There were some good points that supported his decision, though. Sitting down on the grassy field while looking towards the glimmering city, every single changeling was able to drink in their fill of energy. The amount of ambient positive energy in the air amazed Clicks, and it appeared to be never-ending. A part of him was wary of the changeling defectors, but the other was envious that they had managed to find a place to live where food seemed to be a non-issue.

Taking his eyes off the opposing soldiers standing vigil, he turned and trotted amongst the lines of weary changelings. He weaved around fellow soldiers, nurses and drones with a gathering of elite guards his destination. A loose nymph darted out in front of his path before disappearing into a mass of nurses, Clicks paying it a passing glance before returning his eyes to the front.

The guards parted to allow him through, the sleeping Queen resting upon the stretcher. Click examined Chrysalis, observing how the Queen appeared considerably thicker than before. Her chitin and hair was starting to regain some colour, and her numerous bruises had started to fade. He breathed out a sigh of relief at the signs, hopefully she would just require some energy to recover fully. At the current time, he had no intention of having to lead the band of survivors by himself.

“How is the Queen recovering?” he inquired to the single nurse drone by Chrysalis’ side.

“Very well, sir,” the nurse replied with a bowed head. “Her injuries are improving, her heartbeat is stronger and her breathing is returning to normal. She is still unresponsive, but there is definite improvement in her condition.”

“Good,” Clicks told her, before glancing towards the left. He could make out a section of the Crystal Empire troops heading towards him. “Inform me if she wakes up.” Without waiting for an answer, he started to trot towards the oncoming ponies. Five of his soldiers joined him, all alternating their gazes from the approaching beings to him. He continued on, before he saw what approached and paused.

Three tall, bipedal beings were moving with the crystal guards. One in an all-encompassing suit of black armour, another in smooth white armour, and the strangest one of all was wearing what looked like a black suit. The latter creature had a changeling, a fellow noble judging from the mane and eyes, trotting alongside it. He also took note of the fact that the forty crystal guards mostly seemed to be changelings, all of them wearing the full suits of plate armour with the exception of three who were clad in the suits with large frontal shields.

He stopped and waited for them to approached, the two bipeds with fleshy faces looking towards him with smiles. The one from the suited creature was warm and welcoming, while the other… well, the best word he could think of to describe the white-armoured creature’s smile was ‘chilling’.

“Greetings,” he began, hoping to maintain some control over the upcoming conversation.

“Afternoon,” the lead biped returned. Clicks guessed that he was the leader, considering that the majority of the guards were surrounding him. The presence of the three bipeds was an oddity, Clicks unable to shake the feeling that there was more going on with the Crystal Empire than first appearances made apparent.

“I am Commander Clicks,” he introduced with a nod. “Servant to Her Royal Majesty Queen Chrysalis.” Clicks couldn’t help but notice a shudder from the direction of the female noble, and he noted with shocked surprise that she pressed her side against the lead biped’s side.

“Well, how interesting indeed, Commander. I am Commander Nigel M Chalmers, however I am the current Emperor of this fine… empire.” His first thoughts about the leadership structure were proved correct, however the fact that not just two but three races were coexisting was a surprise. “To my left is Agent James, and to my right is… Elijah?”

A shiver went up Clicks’ spine, a tapping sound coming from his helmet. He whipped his head to the side to find that the white-armoured biped was right next to him, one of its strange frontal appendages poking against his helmet.

“Elijah, no,” the Emperor lectured, rushing up to grab the arm of his fellow. Clicks backed away from the two, watching them while his heart raced. He hadn’t even noticed the biped approach, and judging from the looks on the faces of his soldiers they hadn’t either. “You are to not touch people without their permission.”

“Hypocrite,” the being named Elijah retorted, before shaking his arm free. “Besides, I wasn’t touching the Commander, I was only admiring his helmet.” Clicks found the eyes of the ‘Elijah’ turn on him. “Speaking of which, what is that material that it’s fabricated from? It does not appear to be a metal.”

“It’s hard chitin,” Clicks informed warily. “It’s specially created to form armour.”

“Fascinating,” the fiend nodded. “So it’s made from the improved substance that makes up your bodies, no doubt biological in nature. Another question, does the make-up consist of-“

“Elijah, enough,” the Emperor ordered, Click looking towards him. The Emperor nodded down towards the changeling by his side, the female taking a second before smiling towards him.

“Hello, Commander,” she greeted, her confidence appearing to grow rapidly. “My name is Reflection-“

“Lady Reflection,” the Emperor reminded, much to Reflection’s chagrin.

“Fine, Lady Reflection,” she rolled her eyes, Clicks watching while the Emperor flicked one of her ears with a digit. He also examined the necklace she wore around her neck, decorated with two shining jewels with the largest glowing red. “I’m the minister for changeling affairs,” she told him after a smile towards the Emperor. “So, I’m going to be in charge of helping you all.”

Remembering what the initial pony soldiers had said, Clicks guessed what manner the ‘help’ would be. “I thank you for the offer,” he told them, keeping an eye on Elijah. “But I cannot swear allegiance to you, my Queen-“

“Chrysalis, I’ve been told,” the Emperor interrupted, peering over towards the main mass of changelings. “Can we meet her? Maybe she’ll be willing to hear us out and make that decision.”

Brushing off the interruption and implication of the Emperor’s words, Clicks shook his head.

“I’m sorry, but Her Majesty is currently very injured and needs her rest.”

“I can assist,” the biped named Elijah offered eagerly, stepping forwards. Clicks jolted when a whirring blade in the shape of a toothed-circle popped out of the armoured forearm. “I am a Doctor, and well versed in the matter of fixing medical calamities.”

“More like well-versed in causing them,” Clicks heard the final biped mutter. Thankfully, the seemingly deranged creature turned his attention to his fellow, the saw retreating back into its housing.

“Now James, that is uncalled for,” Elijah defended. “You can hardly claim innocent when it comes to the matter of causing bodily harm.”


All arguing was cut off, Lady Reflection shaking her head at the both of them. Stepping forward, the female changeling advanced towards him with narrowed eyes. Clicks straightened and held his ground, his own blue eyes staring back into hers.

“Reflection-“ The Emperor started, before Reflection cut him off with a raised hoof.

“Commander,” she addressed with her tone strained. “I’m trying very hard to remain civil here, but you don’t seem to understand the situation. You, in service to Queen Chrysalis, are on our lands to feed off the Crystal Heart. A lot of changelings in the Empire, myself included, don’t like Chrysalis after what she did.”

Clicks narrowed his own eyes in response. “Regardless of any… mistakes that Her Majesty may have made in the past, she is still your ruler,” he informed. “She is the one that allowed you to be hatched, she is the one that led us, and she also decided to allow you the privilege of being her own offspring and as such granting you your status.”

“Wait, so you’re technically a princess, and this Queen is your mother?” The Emperor inquired towards Reflection, before she once again silenced him with a hoof.

“I couldn’t care less if I was born to Chrysalis or a drone,” Reflection hissed. “She is no longer my ruler, I have zero respect for her and that will not change.” Her snarl was replaced with a cruel grin. “Besides, this Empire already proves that she is terrible ruler. If we can stand against Equestria, then how did she fail with over ten-thousand at her command?”

‘Now that is just not on.’

“I’ll have you know that I was in charge of the Canterlot attack,” Clicks informed her. “Despite the Queen’s insistence that we attack the way we did, we still managed to take the city. It was only because of the pony magic that we were repelled. Something I’m sure you already know.”

With bared fangs she opened her mouth to respond, before the Emperor finally took action. Striding up to her, he placed his frontal limb atop her head. Reflection glanced up at him with a frown, but the Emperor continued on regardless.

“Now you two, arguing like this is helping no-body,” he lectured.

“Quite right,” the human in white armour agreed, inserting himself back into the conversation. “Why, you are all changelings, aren’t you?”

“We are,” he replied hotly, his flanking soldiers nodding their heads. “However, forgive me if I dislike being talked down to by traitors.”

“Why you!” Reflection started, before making a visible effort to control herself. Clicks should have stopped there, but the months of built-up stress were starting to come out. He turned his attention to the Emperor, the biped’s face expressionless while he rubbed the head of Reflection.

“What do your people do to traitors?” he pressed, spotting the corner of the Emperor’s mouth twitch.

“We execute them,” the Emperor replied coldly, a glint appearing in his eye. “Although, if you are even thinking of-“

“None of this is helping,” the last biped stepped in, his face absent under a helmet of metal. Clicks noticed the Emperor stop and take a breath, stepping back to allow his companion to take the focus. The biped, Agent James if Clicks remembered correctly, looked around at all of them with the Emperor and Reflection included. After the glance, he turned his attention towards the Emperor before continuing.

“Nigel, I don’t think the good Commander was implying anything of the sort.” The Emperor remained silent while the blank gaze was turned onto Reflection. “And you, control that temper. You’re not exactly keeping things civil with all of that arguing.”


“No buts. Now for you.” Clicks found himself the new target. “I can actually understand where you’re coming from. You’re obviously in need of food and energy, you’re leading hundreds of your people without your actual ruler, and you’ve arrived in this city to be met with fellows that have, in your opinion, sold out your Queen and race.” The biped started to pace, no-one else speaking while he kept on explaining the situation. “And to be fair, that is quite true.”

Clicks kept his eyes on the creature, the intimidating being stopping a bare body length away from him. “I get where you are coming from, all of us humans here are quite versed in dealing with traitors after all.” He looked towards his two comrades, receiving a nod from Elijah and a grunt from the Emperor. The blank faceplate turned back around, the unseen stare unnerving Clicks. “However, after having the opportunity to spend a large amount of time with the changelings that Nigel seems to have won over, I question just what their motives are, and whether you can really consider them traitors.”

“They abandoned the Queen.”

“From what I understand, they didn’t have much choice in the matter,” James informed. Clicks winced at the memory of the crushing defeat, but his stony face returned a split second later. “After being separated, they either found their ways to this city or were released from Equestrian prison cells in trades.”

Clicks raised his ears at the information, his soldiers muttering to themselves. Had these ponies really negotiated with Equestria to take in captive changelings?

“It’s true,” Reflection told him, still appearing bitter. “Nigel forgave me for trying to steal the Crystal Heart, and allowed us to stay. He and the crystal ponies then helped the others settle into the city. We even had to meet with Celestia and work out the release of everyone. Now, we can finally live somewhere where we can actually walk the streets without a disguise.”

“Reflection has hit it right on the head,” The Emperor picked up after she was finished. “Your race, thanks to the efforts of the first changelings to arrive, now can live in the Empire without ever needing to lie or hide to get food. All you have to do is-“

“Agree to obey the laws and assist us with a few construction projects,” James cut in, glancing towards the Emperor before looking back towards him. “You help us and don’t cause any trouble, we’ll allow you to stay within the confines of the dome and eat your fill. We’ll provide your Queen with any medical attention needed, and we’ll keep the option of citizenship open.” James turned to the Emperor a final time, receiving a nod in return.

He found himself seriously considering the idea. To be honest, the terms were probably the best they were going to get, and if he was lucky the Queen would soon recover and then she could take over this nightmare of diplomacy. There was one question nagging at him, though.

“What kind of work do you expect us to do?” Clicks questioned, the Emperor taking control of the conversation again.

“Building a wall, helping set up farms, constructing houses and roads.”

“And mining as well, possibly,” Reflection added, a glance being sent towards the Emperor. Clicks detected some subtle facial movements shared between the two, but the Emperor continued on before he could question it.

“That’s further into the future, and there will need to be plenty of planning regarding it. Anyway, Commander Clicks, to break it down even further: You new arrivals work for us, and we’ll give you safety and sustenance. Deal?”

He mulled it over again, biting his bottom lip before sighing and nodding. “I guess we really don’t have much choice. Fine, I accept your terms.”

“Wonderful,” the Emperor beamed with a clap of his hands, before looking up towards the darkening sky. “Hmm, almost time for dinner. You should join us Clicks, and we’ll discuss finer details of our agreement in a more relaxed setting.” The Emperor looked down towards his soldiers, in particular a pony stallion in ornate crystal armour. “Captain, do you mind-?”

“I’ll ensure that some shelter is provided,” the pony answered.

“Very good, although you should join us as well.”

“Yes Emperor, I’ll try my best.”

With a nod, the Emperor finished his conversation and looked back towards him. “Well Commander, I’ll let you inform your people of what’s happening. When you’re finished, my guards will show you to the dining hall. Good luck.”

With that, the creature turned on his heels and strolled away, Reflection trotting alongside while whispering to him. James waved a simple goodbye before following, the last biped nowhere to be seen.


Clicks nearly jumped out of his chitin as the quiet voice sounded in his right ear. He turned his head, laying eyes on the last biped.


“Oh, I just wanted to remind you that my offer to heal your Queen is still on the table,” the human smiled, before leisurely following his fellows. Clicks watched him leave, making sure that he was well out of range. The crystal pony soldiers trotted away to their lines, their Captain giving him a final warning look. The changelings were left alone, and Clicks began to head back to the main group.

“Commander,” one of his soldiers began. “Forgive me for questioning you, but was accepting their deal-“

“There are no other options,” he replied with a shake of his head. “With their apparent military strength, they could easily repel any attack we could make.”
“And there’s something… wrong about those three creatures,” another soldier added. “Especially that one in the white armour.”

His soldiers nodded in agreement, but Clicks wasn’t convinced. Sure, the creature known as Elijah was creepy, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the eccentric biped wasn't the only hidden threat out of the three. Even the articulate and well-spoken one in black armour seemed to possess a hidden danger. They would have to tread lightly, one wrong move and they could be in great peril.

“I want none of you to repeat anything that was said,” he ordered. “I also don’t want any talk of the three creatures, no matter how many ask you. Is that clear?”
“Yes Commander,” all replied, before they reached the main group.

“Good, ensure that the Queen is looked after,” he added, the soldiers returning to their tasks without complaint. Facing the crowd, he waited for silence. The chattering quickly died out, all eyes focusing on him.

“Now, brothers and sisters,” he addressed. “I’m sure you all want to know what’s going on, so here it is…”

Shining watched on with concern while Celestia paced around the dining room, the Princess fuming behind closed doors. Cadence, her coat and mane already growing back well thanks to some magical treatments, kept her foreleg around his back before coughing into her other hoof.

“Auntie, what’s wrong?”

Celestia stopped at the question and sighed.

“I’m sorry for spoiling dinner, but I can’t get over the plain ignorance of most of the nobles towards the Crystal Empire. Do you know what Green Paper asked me in court today?”

Hesitantly, Shining and Cadence shook their heads. A notorious businesspony, Green Paper wasn’t known for his grace or tact.

“He asked me, actually asked me, why we didn’t just ‘invade the Crystal Empire again, we won the first time’. I mean, does he not realise that the Crystal Empire is arming itself to the teeth with deadly weapons while receiving guidance from lethal aliens? Does he not realise that an invasion will only create another bloody war?”

“Besides, they have Auntie Luna as a prisoner.”

The three looked towards the door, Blueblood sheepishly sticking his head in. Shining instinctively went for a glare when the prince made to sit down at the table, but held himself back. To be fair, Blueblood seemed to be acting more subdued and less arrogant as of late. He had certainly become one of the more rational nobles, something that Shining had never thought he’d admit.

“Luna made her own choice,” Celestia nodded, a frown on her face. “Now that we have the Elements, we have a larger chance.”

“What are you going to do?” Shining asked, Celestia finally sitting down at the table and relaxing.

“For now? I’ve ordered for the border defenses with the Crystal Empire strengthened with troops from the Griffon border.”

“A good choice,” Shining agreed. “That post breeds tough soldiers, I’m sure the guards will soon be whipped into shape.” He clasped a hoof around a water glass, Shining frowning before taking a sip. “Still, we should avoid confrontation at all costs.”

“Those humans are certainly violent,” Cadence muttered, Shining shaking his head.

“The Emperor and his… friends, are certainly a concern,” he explained. “However, we can’t just dismiss the Crystal Guard. They’re well trained, well equipped, they include changelings in their ranks, and most of all they’re experienced in combat. We can’t ignore the fact that it’s not just Chalmers who’s fought and killed, but they have as well.”

“And they are incredibly loyal to him,” Celestia lamented, tapping her shoed hoof on the table. “As useless as it was, the suggestion that we try to turn the crystal ponies against him is never going to happen. He did defeat Sombra and free them, and the changelings are equally in debt to him.” The hoof paused. “Not to mention the matter of his changeling consort, that would have secured him a lot of favor with them.”

“Reflection,” Cadence hissed, Shining holding his tongue while his wife fumed at the memories. It was never something he’d tell Cadence, but he didn’t hate the changeling as much as she did.

“Well, I sure am starved!” Blueblood chuckled nervously, Shining inwardly smirking when he considered the Prince’s haste to change the subject. The quick topic change didn’t escape Celestia’s notice, and the sun princess raised an eye at her sweating nephew.

“Indeed,” she agreed. “A nice, relaxing dinner is likely welcomed by all.”

As if they had been silently summoned, four palace servants filed into the room with covered tray on their backs. They made multiple trips to prepare the table for the meal, plates and golden utensils adorning the pearl white tablecloth. Shining waited politely until Celestia had eaten a dainty forkful of a pasta dish, before he started on his own humongous bowl of salad. Beside him, Cadence commenced dining on her own bowl of pasta, Blueblood clearing his throat between mouthfuls of fine puff pastry.

“So, how have you two been coping?” he tried, Celestia raising another eyebrow in his direction. Shining nearly choked on his mouthful, Cadence fixing Blueblood with a stare.

“We’re going well,” she stated evenly, Blueblood thankfully wise enough to not continue down that line of questioning. Celestia took another bite of her meal, before sending a small smile towards the Prince.

“How is that nice mare in the court records going?”

This time, it was Blueblood that nearly choked. Celestia, Shining and Cadence grinned while he spluttered, for a split second it felt like everything was back to normal.

That was, until Celestia finished her meal and sighed.

“I’m sorry to ruin this all,” she apologised while standing up. “But I must prepare to lower the sun and raise the moon.”

With that reminder, the laughter stopped and they watched while Celestia left them alone. The doors shut with a thud, a servant rushing out of a side entrance to collect the leftover plate.

Shining picked at his salad while Cadence frowned and pushed her plate away. Neither had much of an appetite left any more.

Clicks stared at the plate of pie in front of him, his utensils untouched. He was completely stumped as to why he was served solid food; the energy in the air was more than enough. Looking up at his hosts, his eyes passed over the Emperor’s advisor before landing upon the Emperor and Lady Reflection.

The pair’s conduct during the dinner had been… questionable. There was now no doubt in Clicks’ mind that Reflection was Chalmers’ consort, the two constantly muttering to each other while exchanging backrubs and nuzzles. It certainly complicated matters, technically he would outrank Reflection but with her standing and bed-partner he knew that he held no power over her. The good things that came out of the revelation was that little attention was paid to him and evidence that the Empire obviously accepted changelings whole-heartedly.

Picking up his fork in his magic, he absentmindedly prodded the pie to at least make it look like he was interested in it. On his trip to the palace, surrounded by over twenty crystal guards of course, he had been treated to some peculiar sights. There was the large wall that was obviously under construction still, a large amount of new city blocks also being worked on, and most importantly of all was one particular suburb.

Clicks didn’t doubt for an instant that he had been taken through the changeling suburbs as a deliberate way to show just how great life in the Empire was. Sure, he’d been surprised that changelings and ponies were living side-by-side, and apparently with, each other in peace. The houses looked far more comfortable than the cramped space of a hive, and reminded him of stories of the west lands where changeling cities were rumoured to exist.

“Is the pie not to your liking?”

He looked up at the female voice, the Emperor’s advisor tilting her head at him from the other side of the table. Clicks took a moment before replying, the crystal mare was stunningly beautiful and even gave him pause.

“I just haven’t eaten solid food much,” he explained, placing his fork down on the table. “It lacks energy and it’s not worth eating normally.”

“Try it anyway,” the Emperor suggested after looking up from Reflection. “It’s rather good, and I know that changelings can still taste food. Reflection can’t stand food, apparently, but it can’t hurt to try.”

“I don’t hate it,” Reflection explained lightly, her mood much more improved now that she was cuddling the Emperor’s side. “I just don’t see the need.”

“For that taste,” Emperor Chalmers repeated, moving his fingers to his lips. “You know, bellissimo!” While saying the strange word, he kissed his fingers and moved them away. Clicks took a second look at his pie while Lady Reflection erupted into giggles. Hesitantly, he picked up his fork once more and secured a piece upon it. Staring at the pastry-covered purple insides, he raised it towards his mouth and popped it in.

Chewing, it wasn’t that bad to be honest. The berries, whatever they were, tasted quite nice and the pastry was crisp. He swallowed, but it still didn’t possess the satisfaction of drinking in a burst of love.

Although, it wasn’t like he was starved at the moment.

Thankfully, attention was once again turned away from him, the door down the end of the room opening with the Captain of the Guard trotting in.

“Ah, Strategy, good to see that you could make it.” Chalmers greeted and pulled out the free seat beside him.

“Thank you, Emperor,” the Captain replied, before politely shaking his head at the offer of the seat. The Emperor raised an eyebrow and everyone watched while the Captain trotted past and instead headed for the free seat beside the Emperor’s advisor. Not a word was said about it, however Clicks noticed the two crystal ponies share a look.

“So, how did it go?” The Emperor inquired, returning his attention to his pie.

“Very well,” the Captain replied, a crystal pony servant rushing out to place a plate of pie in front of him. “Temporary shelters were provided, and we’ve instructed them to use one of the nearby wells.”

Clicks noticed the Emperor shoot him a sideways glance. “They co-operated?”

“Yes Emperor,” Captain Strategy answered, looking straight at him. “The soldiers complied with all instructions without complaint, and there were no issues.” Strategy paused. “Well, there was one problem, sir. A number of the populace were attempting to… greet the new arrivals.”

“…Ah,” the Emperor nodded. “I see.”

“What happened?” Reflection asked, a tinge of worry in her voice.

“Nothing bad, we just informed them that they should return to their homes for the time being. However, we can’t keep them away forever. Sooner or later a changeling or pony will find their way into the camp, and then we could have a serious problem. We all know how some changelings might react to the news that their Queen is here.” The Captain looked towards Reflection, who narrowed her eyes and looked back towards Click.

“How is the Queen doing?” she forced out through clenched teeth, Clicks quickly placing another piece of pie on his fork.

“She’s recovering well,” was all he told her, quickly taking another mouthful before she could continue. Reflection turned her attention towards the Emperor at her side, but not before an annoyed huff was released.

“I still don’t want her here,” she muttered, the Emperor rubbing her on the head while finishing a mouthful. “Stupid Queen Chrysalis…”

“Hey,” the Emperor reassured after he was done, his fork placed on the table. “Relax, we’ve got it under control. And we still have to have that talk as well.”
Reflection’s brooding only increased, Clicks watching on with interest. Any information could be useful, and knowing what was going on with the Emperor and nobility was likely to come in handy. He continued to eat his food while they continued to converse, the four not really paying him much attention. That was something he was okay with; there wasn’t exactly much to talk about after all.

“Emperor,” the advisor spoke up, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a white cloth. “You do remember the date tomorrow?”

The Emperor and Reflection stopped fussing over each other, both freezing. “The Griffons,” Chalmers sighed while rubbing his temples. “I forgot that they were supposed to be coming tomorrow.” He leaned back in his chair. “We have to organise food, drinks, gifts, a tour, extra guards-“

“Already done, sir,” the advisor informed, glancing towards a list beside her plate. “We’ve also arranged for some music and entertainment,” her mouth formed a smile. “Some of which I think you’ll enjoy immensely.”

“Sparkling, you are a lifesaver,” Chalmers breathed out. “With everything that has happened, I guess I just forgot about it all.”

“On that topic, what are we going to do about the new changelings?”

All four sat and thought, Clicks still wincing after the mention of griffons. It was safe to say that changelings weren’t held in very high regard by the Griffon Empire, the straight-forward hybrids despising the way they hid and deceived. Thankfully an idea entered his head, hopefully one that would help them all.

“Do the griffons know that you have changelings here?” he inquired, Captain Strategy nodding his head.

“They do,” the stallion answered warily. “A changeling messenger was actually the one to invite them. They seem to be okay with the Empire helping changelings.”

“Well, how about this,” Clicks suggested. “We… pretend that we’re new citizens of your Empire, newly arrived from hiding in Equestria. I’ll tell everyone to say that, so if the griffons ask…”

“What about the Queen? Surely she’ll be a big giveaway that you’re not loyal to us.”

“Strategy is right,” Chalmers nodded. “I mean, we could always hide her in a house for you,” he smirked. “But of course, there would be certain conditions.”
Clicks didn’t like the fact that the Emperor possessed a mischievous grin, the others looking to the ruler with unease. Did Emperor Chalmers not fully realise what would likely happen if the Griffons found out about Chrysalis’ presence and weakness? Or, did he indeed know the danger and was using it as a way to further his own ends. He doubted it was the latter; the Emperor didn’t seem to be very cunning.

“What conditions?”

“First, your presence at the dinner and meeting with the Griffon Emperor would be nice, just so you can get a feel for how we run things around here.”

Him? Present at the meeting with the Griffon Emperor? Was Chalmers insane? Didn’t he realise that he wasn’t a part of his Empire? Judging by the looks of the other three, Clicks came to the conclusion that they were thinking the same thing. A conclusion that was soon confirmed.

“Nigel, is that wise?” Strategy questioned with another glance towards him. “Commander Click is not a citizen after all, so can we trust him around a foreign ruler?”
The Emperor waved a hand in dismissal. “Relax, I’m sure that Clicks will behave himself. Besides, he’s technically the leader of the new changelings at the current time, so it can’t hurt to have some friendly relations.” The Emperor turned his attention to him. “What about it Commander?”

Clicks winced, before nodding slowly. “If that is what it takes.” To be fair, the Emperor did make a decent point and the comfort of the Queen was paramount. “I have to ask, however. What are the other conditions you wish to lay down?”

“Oh, it’s not too much,” the Emperor reassured. “They just address some more security concerns and that, small details.” The Emperor leaned back in his chair. “Speaking of which, Strategy, I need to ask a small favor…”

Strategy spared a glance towards the full moon, wondering what was taking them so long. Pacing in the door way, he looked towards the four guards waiting in the living room. The three crystal ponies and one changeling had already set up their sleeping quarters in a side room, and Strategy’s own belongings had already been moved to the palace.

“Captain,” the changeling mare nodded, Strategy looking back towards the street at the gesture. A mass of guards were approaching the house, Strategy trotting out to meet them. Drawing closer, he could see that the guards were escorting a number of unarmored changelings carrying a single stretcher with them.

“Guards,” he whispered, a Sergeant nodding at him while she gestured for the group to move into the house.

“Captain,” she replied with an equally subdued voice. “As you can see, we’ve arrived with the VIP.”

“Any issues?”

“None, sir.”

“Good,” Strategy sighed with a smile. “No-one saw who it was?”

“Not a single pony or changeling, to my knowledge. I believe that we managed to make it here without anyone noticing.” She frowned. “The new changelings were restless at our departure, there is widespread concern about what we are going to do with her. It is known to them that our changeling citizens don’t have much sympathy for the Queen.”

“What about Commander Clicks, didn’t he reassure them?”

“Yes sir, but that only did so much.”

Strategy frowned in irritation. Nigel had been coy as to why he was imposing these conditions upon the new changelings. He knew that it must have had something to do with trying to convince them to join the Empire, but Strategy couldn’t see how sheltering the Queen in his house was really going to do anything.
‘I guess that we’ll soon find out if it will pay off,’ he thought to himself, before looking back towards the house. The guards, save for the four assigned to guard the Queen and her attendants, all filed out and nodded towards the two officers before leaving down the street.

“Well sir, permission to head back towards the barracks?”

“Permission granted,” Strategy told her with a salute. The Sergeant returned it before rejoining her troops. With that done, he returned to the house and walked through the door. Passing the four guards in the lounge room, he peeked his head into the master bedroom.

Four changeling nurses were just finishing putting bed sheets over the sleeping Queen, Strategy examining the unresponsive ruler for the first time. She looked larger than other changelings, Strategy guessing that she could probably almost match the Emperor for height. Like Reflection, she possessed a mane, however hers was the colour of teal instead of green. Before he could see anymore, one of the nurses noticed him.


“I was just making sure that you are all settled in,” he explained, the other three looking at him as well. “The Emperor wishes you to stay here until the Queen recovers, so you may as well be comfortable.” He glanced to another door towards the side, the nurses following his eye line. “That room is where you can stay, and the guards have already been instructed to provide you with anything you require within reason.”

“Thank you Captain,” one of the nurses, Strategy assuming that it was the leader, acknowledged with a bow of her head. “You do seem to know a lot about this house.”

Strategy smiled slightly. “Up until tonight, it was mine and a friend’s.” With that information, he left them in peace. Trotting back out, he gave his troops a passing nod before leaving the house with the palace being his destination.

Hurrying through the moonlit streets, he made good time. A few patrols passed him on the way with little greeting, everyone focused on their tasks thanks to the new arrivals and the impending griffon visit.

It wasn’t long until he had reached the palace and passed through the front guards. Seeing the empty throne room, he made his way towards the Emperor’s bedchambers to make his report. Climbing the stairs, he trotted down the corridor until he reached the royal bedroom. Seeing that the door was ajar, he knocked three times before pushing it open and looking through.

He shook his head upon seeing that the Emperor and Reflection were fast asleep on top of the covers. The Emperor was clothed in nothing but his underwear, and Reflection had curled herself up against his side. Figuring that his report was less important than interrupting their sleep, especially considering the tiring day, he quietly shut the door while backing out into the corridor.

Strategy searched for his own room, remembering where it was from the move earlier that evening. Trotting along, he eventually reached the quarters where he had requested to stay. Pushing open the door, he was met with light breathing and a darkened room. His eyes picked out someone already in the large four-poster bed, so he proceeded as quietly as possible.

Slowly shedding his armour and placing it on the nearby stand, he carefully climbed onto the bed and slipped under the covers. Pausing to give the snoozing Sparkling Scroll a peck on the cheek, he settled down for the night.

He would no doubt need a good night’s sleep for the impending chaos of tomorrow.

“Sleep well, your Majesty.”

Cherish, Nurse number three-hundred and seven, finished tucking the Queen into bed. Her task complete, she stood up and trotted over towards the door leading into the lounge room. Peeking out, she saw the four crystal empire guards sitting down on the chairs with books in their hooves. Turning back towards the room the pony captain had set aside for the nurses to sleep in, she headed towards it.

Entering through the door, she saw four mattresses on the floor with bedding, and her fellow three nurses crowded in a circle in front of a dresser whispering to each other. With a tilted head, she advanced on them and looked over their shoulders.

One of them was holding onto a framed photograph with both hooves, Cherish’s interest peaked. It was a changeling drone and a crystal pony mare smiling at the camera while sharing some sort of drink at a restaurant. The drone had the mare’s pearl-white hoof in his own, and the pony was rubbing her ruby-red mane against the side of his face with a wide grin.

“I wonder who they are?” another nurse wondered.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cherish told her, looking towards a clock on the dresser. “It’s late, and we’ll need to be up early to tend to Her Highness. That photo likely belongs to that pony that this house belongs to, put it back where you found it and don’t touch it again.”

“But it was behind the dresser,” the nurse holding it explained. “I think it must have fallen down.”

Cherish sighed and took it from her hooves, using her wings to fly up and place it on the top of the dresser. She paused after setting it down, noticing the dust on the wooden top. Multiple rectangles free of dust were on the top, Cherish guessing that there used to be other photos here as well. Fluttering back down to the floor, she fixed the other nurses with a gaze.

“You three, I don’t want any more messing around, it’s time to go to sleep.” They grumbled but complied with the instruction, laying down upon the mattresses provided. Cherish settled down upon her own bedding, resting her head atop the provided pillow. Briefly thanking the fact that at least she was able to get a good sleep for the first time in months, she quickly closed her eyes and dozed off.

Clicks tossed and turned, the supplied military cot doing nothing to help him get to sleep. Giving up, he sighed and rolled off the bed, his hooves landing on the canvas tent floor. He glanced towards the armour sitting on the floor beside the cot, but figured he had no real need for it. Pushing through the door flaps, he trotted out into the night air.

Shaking his head, he brushed the short-cut blue mane back into place before resuming his journey. He looked around while he headed towards the edge of their camp, tents pitched on the grass all around. To be honest, he doubted they really needed the shelter thanks to the calm conditions under the dome, but he appreciated the gesture.

A part of him questioned if maybe it was more than just kindness.

Reaching the end of the camp, he looked out through the edge of the dome. Snow was falling heavily on the other side, and he knew that if they had been caught out in it then they would have perished for sure.


Clicks leaned forward and squinted, a shape approaching through the snow. He couldn’t quite make it out, at least until it drew closer. He froze, his mind blanking at the sight.

“Sup,” the creature greeted while it passed him, a large sack bulging with gold and jewels dragged along behind him. Clicks didn’t reply, he could only watch as the short armoured dragon walked past him and headed towards the city. The creature continued on without pause, Clicks standing still for what seemed like an age. Soon it passed out of sight, and it was only then that his legs started to obey him again.

He turned around with haste and hurried back towards his tent. Rushing through the flaps, he hurriedly put on his armour and dived onto his cot. Memories of the stories about dragons the nurses had told him when he was a nymph flowed through his head, in particular the ones about entire pony settlements and changeling hives being incinerated at the claws of the scaly monsters.

Covering himself with a blanket, he hoped that the dragon would focus on the city instead of their camp.

He wasn’t going to be getting much sleep tonight.

Reflection groaned and opened her eyes, running her tongue over her teeth before raising her head. Nigel was still sleeping beside her, so she considered waking him up with her. Glancing out of the window, she saw that the sun still hadn’t risen yet. The first morning rays were peeking over the horizon, so it wasn’t that far off.

Yawning, she decided to just let him be for now. After his…‘accident’ the previous day, perhaps it was wiser to let him sleep. Her hooves hit the floor and she trotted towards the door, opening it and exiting the room while rubbing her eyes with a hoof. She traveled down the corridor before noticing an open door to her left. What was strange was that it was the room set aside for Orthodox, Nigel’s rude friend. With a frown on her face, she looked inside to see what was going on.
Her eyes widened in surprise at the sight she found.

Orthodox, minus his armour, was curled up over a huge amount of treasure. Reflection saw gold coins, shiny necklaces, glittering crowns, and gleaming gems. The orange dragon breathed heavily while he slumbered, Reflection’s frown turning into a grin.

She knew that it was unlikely to have come from the Crystal Empire’s treasury, as she could see that the coins were all Equestrian bits. That meant that, somehow, Orthodox had stolen from the Equestrian treasury. That also meant that any jewels were fair game.

Reflection spotted a pair of beautiful diamonds lying at the base of the treasure pile, both almost identical.

And both ripe for the taking.

Crouching down low, she slinked forwards stealthily. With her eyes on the prize, she ignored the sleeping alien and continued on. Moving closer and closer, she reached out a foreleg and snagged the two diamonds with her hoof. Not wanting to risk using her magic and possibly waking Orthodox, she maneuvered her hoof so that the two diamonds fell into a hole and stayed put. Slinking back, she froze when her hind hoof touched the door and caused it to smack against the wall.

“Hmmm,” Orthodox groaned while rolling over onto his back in his sleep. Reflection stayed absolutely still while his tail stuck itself into a pile of coins. “You like that, don’t ya bitch?”

She didn’t say a word, Orthodox snorting before resuming snoring, muttering to himself with a grin. After a few moments of waiting, and silently thanking that he hadn’t woken up, she looked behind her before backing out into the corridor. Hurrying down the hall, she headed to the stairs with the diamonds still in her leg and a smile on her face. She galloped down the steps, the underground vault and Golden Ring on her mind. Reflection knew for sure what she wanted to use the diamonds for, and she needed the unicorn’s help to make it work.

Reaching the bottom, she paused at a mare’s laughter coming from the dining room. Wondering who could be up that early, she trotted into the hall and looked at the table.

Sparkling Scroll was sitting at the table with Captain Strategy, both of them nursing cups of tea and plates of fruit. Strategy wasn’t wearing his armour for once, and Reflection could see that their hind legs were rubbing under the table. She smirked; their relationship was no secret to her. Feeling mischievous that morning, she moved quietly behind them with her destination being the stairwell leading downstairs.

“Morning you two,” she greeted with a grin. “Having fun I see.”

She smirked when she was rewarded with a thump, the sounds of Strategy and Sparkling scrambling apart soon drowned out by the clack of her hooves on solid crystal. Trotting down the stairs with her mood high, Reflection reached the bottom and followed the passage towards the treasure vault.

The presence of four heavily armoured and armed guards in front of the giant door proved that her memory was correct, the soldiers standing up straight when she approached.

“Lady Reflection, good morning,” a pony stallion greeted.

“Good morning,” she returned with a warm smile. “I’m wondering if Golden Ring is in yet.”

“He is, Ma’am,” the guard confirmed, before frowning. “It’s strange though, I never see him in there but he always comes out for his lunch. Come to think about it, the other unicorns always seem to be in and out as well.”

“Oh, I’m sure that I’ll find him,” she reassured, knowing about the secret room. “Do I need the Emperor to enter?”

“No Ma’am,” the stallion answered, gesturing towards the others. At the silent command, the other guards opened the heavy door. “I believe that you have permission.”

“Thank you.” She trotted into the vault, the horde of wealth glittering around her.

“Tap three times on the door when you’re done,” the guard told her, before they shut the door behind her and locked it. Reflection continued on, ignoring the treasure and heading towards the secret door. Her horn glowed and her magic tipped the torch, the door shimmering open. She trotted into the secret room, the workspaces empty save for the one at the back. A golden-coated unicorn was hunched over a bench with a human standing by the side looking over the pony’s shoulder. She recognised them as Golden Ring and Elijah, and she hoped that they would have time to help her.

“Oh, Lady Reflection,” Golden Ring greeted when he turned around and noticed her. “You’re up fairly late.”

She raised an eye. “It’s early in the morning, the day’s just begun. Have you two even gone to bed?”

“Hmm, no we haven’t,” Golden thought with a nod. “Elijah was kind enough to share with me these wonderful things called ‘stimulants’, I haven’t slept for four days and I feel great! The amount of work we’ve managed to achieve is amazing!”

“Indeed!” Elijah confirmed while turning around, Reflection wincing when she noticed that his eyes were bloodshot and more crazy than usual. “The amount of science had been astronomical! We invented a crystal that instantly cleans any number of dirty laundry in an instant!”

“That’s… great?” she replied.

“Correct!” Golden nodded enthusiastically, before he tilted his head. “Did you come down here for a reason, Lady Reflection?”

She glanced down towards her leg, the two diamonds still secure.

“Actually, I was wondering if you could make something for me and the Emperor.”

Orthodox snorted and returned to wakefulness, grunting when the sun’s rays assaulted his eyes.

“Stupid sun,” he muttered, rolling over and scratching his bare back with a claw. “I’ll blow you up like the last one…”

Rolling down the pile of coins, he cleared his throat and stumbled to his feet. Flying on early-morning autopilot, he stumbled over towards his untouched bed before removing the sheet from it. Lazy draping it over the pile of wealth, he continued out of his room with his treasure safely hidden from any possible thief. Pausing at the doorway, he looked back at the pile with tired eyes.

Strange, he could swear that it somehow seemed… smaller.

Shrugging, he continued down the corridor without bothering to re-armour. A servant mare, dressed in a maid uniform, was coming from the other way. She paused and gave him a strange look when she passed, Orthodox winking at her and making a clicking nose with his tongue. She hurried on past him, a red blush strong on her green cheeks. He chuckled to himself and spared a glance over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of her cute rump disappearing into a doorway.

‘Eh, maybe spending some time here might not be too bad.’

With that thought, he grinned and continued down the stairs. His stomach grumbled and he headed towards the kitchen, eager to get himself some food after his tiresome journey. He doubted that these ponies would have or eat bacon, but he had seen that the changelings had fangs and sharp teeth so there was still the possibility.

Scratching his taut and toned gut, he waltzed into the dining room and right into a surprised stallion. The crystal pony backpedalled and almost dropped the tray of dirty plates he carried, but he managed to maintain his balance. Orthodox ignored him and moved to the other side of the table, three occupants already there.
Nigel cocked an eye at him when he climbed up onto a seat, Orthodox not bothering with pleasantries and instead going straight for a plate of buttered toast. The pony Captain and the pretty advisor watched on amazed as clawfuls of food disappeared down his gullet. Nigel tittered and leaned back in his chair, Orthodox rolling his eyes and preparing for a lecture.

“You do realise that we have concerns about a food shortage?”

“Pfft, like you can talk,” Orthodox countered before annihilating a slice of bread with his razor-sharp teeth. “You haven’t exactly been going easy, either.”

“I, Orthodox, was trapped in this planet’s Hell for a month.”

“I, Nigel, have just finished terrorizing a country.” He paused again, tilting his head. “Which you haven’t even asked me about.”

Nigel took a sip of tea. “Oh, I heard about what you did. I mean, unleashing a Spirit of Chaos?”

“I didn’t know what would happen,” he retorted. “Besides, Discord wasn’t a bad guy, just naive when it came to the finer arts of wealth generation.”

“You mean ‘thieving’.”

“Same thing.”

Chalmers snorted with amusement, Orthodox looking around the table again. Pony Captain was watching him warily while eating his own toast, while Pretty Pony was tapping her hooves together nervously. “Say, Nigel, where’s your girlfriend?”

“I don’t know,” Chalmers shrugged. “She wasn’t in bed when I woke up, so I guess she was up early and has gone off to do something.”

“Um, Emperor,” Sparkling asked, glancing towards him. “Regarding your friend here…”

“Oh, that’s right,” Nigel seemed to remember. “Orthodox, I have another favor to ask. Before you guys arrived, we were attacked by some Diamond Dog raiders. We wiped out one lair, but they mentioned a larger pack before dying. Do you mind-“

“Cracking some skulls?” he finished, grinning at the thought of more entertainment. This time, it sounded like he was free to not hold back.

“In a nutshell,” Chalmers answered. “If you could possibly try to-“

“I’ll leave right away,” he announced, shoving a last slice of toast into his mouth before belching loudly. The mare at the table looked away while the Captain frowned, but Orthodox paid them no mind and jumped off his seat. “I’ll get dressed and then I’ll leave, I should be done in a day.”

“Oh, don’t feel rushed,” Nigel called out behind him, Orthodox licking the remains of his breakfast off his claws while he left the room.
He had a feeling that today was going to be a good day.

Sparkling Scroll tried very hard to hold back any criticism as she watched the yellow-orange alien exit the room. Such rudeness, not only to Strategy and her but towards the Emperor as well, and Chalmers considered him a friend? Not only that, but Orthodox seemed quite happy for the chance to kill something. She shuddered, but thankfully a hoof resting on her left leg broke her from those thoughts.

“He’s certainly a character,” Strategy mumbled to her, Sparkling glancing at the Emperor sitting away from them. Chalmers was finishing off his cup of tea, and he seemed preoccupied.

“I can think of plenty of better terms,” she whispered back. A spluttering interrupted both of them, the pair focusing on the Emperor. Tea had gone all over the table, the ruler rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Hrmm, excuse me, went down the wrong way.”

“That’s okay sir,” she reassured while he started to clean up the tea with a napkin. “Good work with keeping Orthodox out of the city for the griffon visit, by the way.”

“Why, Sparkling, whatever gave you the idea that I wish for the utterly delightful company of Orthodox to be absent for a meeting with the Griffon Emperor? He’s a very skilled diplomat, you know.” His grin at the end of the sentence clued her in, Sparkling giggling with Strategy joining in soon after. He laughed with them, before waving a hand. “I take it that I can count on you two gracing the dinner and meeting with your presence?” Another grin. “If you want, I can arrange a table in the corner with two seats.”

Sparkling and Strategy both blushed at the same time, and she nodded her head. “Of course, although I still have to organise everything for tonight.” She gave Strategy’s side a quick rub and left her chair, the Emperor receiving a smile while she gathered her lists and quills. “I have already organised most of it, so I’ll hopefully be done early.”

“I’ll have to try and work things out with the new changelings,” Strategy explained, also leaving his seat. “With permission sir, I’d like to show Commander Clicks our training field today. Hopefully he’ll start to warm up to us soon.”

Chalmers sat and tapped his fingers together, before he nodded. “Good idea, and it’ll also reinforce our troops’ military prowess at the same time. If they don’t want to join the Empire, then I’ll be happy if they continue to remain civil.”

“On that note,” Sparkling asked. “What are we going to do about the Queen? All the changelings I’ve talked to said that she is cunning and vicious.”

“And I’m a perfect picture of niceness and honesty?” Chalmers joked, before shaking his head. “No, despite Reflection’s and the others’ opinions on their former ruler, she could be a powerful ally against Equestria.”

“Did someone say my name?”

All of them turned to see the mentioned changeling emerge from the staircase at the back, a bounce in Reflection’s step.

“Oh, I was just saying that I hope you behave tonight,” Chalmers lied. Instead of the expected objection, Reflection instead smiled and nuzzled the side of his leg lovingly.

“Don’t worry about me,” Reflection told him. “I’m wise enough to not pick a fight with a massive griffon Emperor.”

“Does that also apply to his wife?”

Reflection froze, Sparkling able to see the corner of her mouth twitch. “He’s bringing along his wife… an Empress?”

“Now don’t be so down,” Nigel asked, picking Reflection up and placing her in his lap. “You’re more than an Empress to me.” In return, Reflection’s frown lifted but she still didn’t look as happy as before. Sparkling glanced to her left, Strategy nudging her in the side and tilting his head towards the Emperor and Reflection.

“We’d better be going,” she told them, getting Strategy’s hint. She and him quickly trotted out of the room, Sparkling pausing at the door. He looked at her, and so she waved a hoof for him to go on.

‘I hope they’re not going to fight again,’ she silently hoped, looking back to check up upon her two friends. Her fears were quickly waylaid, catching a glimpse of the Emperor sharing a kiss with Reflection before she gave him another nuzzle. Another two cups of tea were poured, and Sparkling was satisfied that they were getting along. Leaving with a smile on her face, she began to mentally go over what she had left to organise.

Clicks shifted from hoof to hoof, the weight of the borrowed armour an unusual feeling. Strategy had explained that he was to masquerade as a senior guard officer for the Crystal Empire, and to pretty much observe the evening. Clicks was okay with that plan, he had no issue with staying out of the way.

He glanced around the entrance hall, lines of crystal guards awaiting the arrival of the griffon forces. The outside night was lit up by a huge number of illumination crystals, the crystal entrance hall glittering. Red and blue banners decorated the ceiling, and tables lined with all sorts of treats and drinks were accompanied by a band consisting of antique stringed instruments such as lyres and harps.

Footsteps and hoofsteps caused him to turn to the other side, four beings approaching. There was the Emperor in a fancy black suit, his changeling wearing a flowing green gown, Captain Strategy with his full armour, and last but certainly not least was Advisor Sparkling Scroll in a dress matching her mane. Clicks had to admit that one thing the crystal ponies weren’t lacking was beauty.

“Nervous?” the Emperor inquired.

“A little,” he admitted as the four moved beside him. “Griffons aren’t really known for their love of changelings.”

“Relax,” the Emperor reassured. “He’s coming to make a deal with me, and the changeling messenger I sent returned in one piece. Just act like you’re one of the Captain’s officers and you’ll be fine.”

Clicks wasn’t so sure, but he guessed it was better than nothing. Looking back to the sky, he peered up at a speck.

“There’s something coming,” a guard pointed out, an armoured hoof pointing at the incoming dots.

Everyone peered up, guards snapping to attention. Out of the side of his eye, Clicks could see the Emperor grin.

A red and gold chariot flanked by ten griffons in armour descended through the top of the dome. It touched down in front of the palace, wheels touching cobbled stone. Two griffons opened the chariot door and stood to the side. A griffon with wearing a white toga with gold trim exited the transport, the greying griffon adjusting the laurels on his head with a ring-covered talon. He stopped and turned back to the chariot, reaching out a claw to someone inside.

With the Griffon Emperor’s help, a beautiful griffoness exited after him. Like the Emperor, she was also wearing an expensive toga and enough jewelry to buy a mansion. Unlike the Emperor, she looked like she was barely twenty-five years of age. With the two royal griffons out of the chariot, their guards shut the door behind them and moved back into line. Clicks straightened when the Emperor approached, two of the griffon’s guards moving with him.

“Emperor Augustus, a pleasure to finally meet you,” Emperor Chalmers greeted, his hand outstretched.

“Emperor Chalmers,” Augustus returned, looking up at the human with raised eyes. “You’re taller than I imagined.”

Both Emperors were silent for a moment, Clicks afraid that offence had been caused.

Then, both Emperors exploded into laughter at the same time. Guards and onlookers from both sides stared as their respective rulers wiped tears from their eyes. The Griffon Empress and Reflection both stared at their rulers, both females completely stumped.

“Ahaha, oh, I haven’t laughed like that for a while,” Augustus announced. “I’m glad that we both share the same sense of humor, it seems.” Clicks wasn’t sure, but he could have sworn that the Empress’s eyes briefly widened with worry.

“It’s a good start,” Chalmers agreed, re-extending his gloved hand. It was met with a talon, the two rulers shaking frontal appendages. “I’m glad that you were able to make it. I know that you were expecting a meeting, but you’ll have to forgive me as we’ve decided to prepare a small banquet to start things off.”

“Forgive you?” Augustus chuckled. “Why would I have to do something like that? I love a good party!” Augustus made to rush into the hall, but a coughing at his side stopped him. The griffon turned and saw his wife tapping her talon with a raised eyebrow. “Oh, silly me!” Augustus laughed nervously. “Emperor Chalmers, allow me to present my darling wife, Empress Cornelia.”

“A pleasure,” the Empress greeted with a dainty voice while she shook Chalmers’ hand.

“Indeed,” Chalmers returned, before placing his free hand on Reflection’s back. “Allow me to introduce my significant other, Reflection.” Both Augustus and Cornelia stared at Reflection, before the blushing changeling held out her hoof. It was soon met by both Augustus and Cornelia, and soon all four rulers had made their introductions. “Also, let me introduce Captain Strategy, my advisor Sparkling Scroll, and Major Clicks.”

“Wonderful,” Augustus said while nodding towards all three. He turned back to Emperor Chalmers. “Excuse me for my rudeness, but it was a long flight and…”

“Of course,” Chalmers agreed while stepping to the side, sweeping a hand towards the entrance hall. “Please, come in and enjoy the food, drink, and entertainment. I just have to attend to a small matter; I’ll be right in to mingle.”

“I understand, matters of ruling and all that.”

Emperor Chalmers grinned and nodded, before gesturing towards the griffon guards. “And by all means, your soldiers are more than welcome to join in as well.”
Augustus grinned before nodding to his wife and soldiers. All of the griffons filed into the hall, Strategy receiving a nod from the Emperor before following them with Sparkling. Clicks watched the griffons enter the palace while Emperor Chalmers walked outside. He could follow one and the other, the human or the griffons.

It was a hard choice.

Clicks hurried into the entrance hall and headed straight towards the drinks table. Earlier he had spied some crystal ponies preparing some barrels of wine, and he couldn’t think of a better time to try some of this ‘alcohol’ he had heard tale of.

Reflection stormed after Nigel, her mind utterly confused. Why had Nigel felt the need to rush out and lie about having something to do? She knew for a fact that he had solved all matters before the evening.

Rounding the corner, she found Nigel leaning up against the wall of a house. A spike of worry shot through her, was he sick or hurt? Maybe his head was acting up after the previous day? Her silver shoes clacked on the road when she ran to him, and she only slowed once she had reached him. Tugging franticly on his pants leg, she looked up towards him with eyes filled with concern.

“Nigel, Nigel what’s wrong!?”

His chest was heaving, and she held her breath as he turned around…

Only to find that Nigel was not hurt… but laughing so hard that he couldn’t speak. She was shocked, so there was nothing she could do but wait for him to calm down.

“Re… Reflection!” he managed out between chuckles. “Oh my… Reflection! It’s so funny!”

“What is it?” she inquired, the maniacal look in Nigel’s eyes freaking her out. “What’s so funny that you’re acting like this?”

“They’re Romans!” Nigel laughed while slapping his knee. “The Griffons are fucking grade-A Romans! Elijah is going to lose his shit when he sees them!”

In a comfortable bed, underneath a warm set of blankets, a figure stirred. Slowly, a set of luminous green eyes opened.

“Nggh, why do I feel like I walked into a door?”


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Elijah looked up from the chessboard, Luna staring at him from the other side. “Is something the matter?”

“I’m not too sure,” he replied after a pause, moving a pawn into place. “Check. Something tells me that I’m missing out on something, and that guard seemed to be hiding something when he provided us with this chess set.” He watched Luna examine the board, and while the game had been fun he was distracted with other matters. “It’s over in three turns,” he told her with a wave of his hand. Leaving his seat with his pad in hand, he headed towards the door.

“Are you sure there is something amiss? I was quite enjoying this ‘chess’.”

“It pays to be prudent.” Trying the door handle, he found it to be locked. Frowning, he touched the lock with a hand and muttered under his breath. Silently, the lock opened and he opened the door, the two guards on the sides looking towards him with wide eyes.

“I thought that we-“

“Locked the door on me?” Elijah finished, ensuring that a warm smile was on his face. He’d quickly learnt that people tended to be more afraid of him when he was kind, the guards proving the theory when they backed away a few steps.

“We’re sorry,” the bronze mare on the left apologised. “But the Emperor… ordered that you be kept up here.”

“Am I a prisoner as well, now?” he inquired, quickly continuing before the guards could offer a hasty explanation. “Don’t worry, I understand completely. I can only assume then that Nigel- sorry, Emperor Chalmers, is orchestrating something that he wishes to bar me from?” The looks of the guards were answer enough, Elijah still maintaining his smile. “I see. Well then, I might as see what it is now that I know he wishes it concealed.”

The mare, likely the senior, spoke once more.

“We’re sorry, but we do have orders.”

The guards shifted on their hooves uncomfortably. He found it genuinely amusing that the rather cute equines were scared of him despite his words and tone, maybe they still possessed some form of animal awareness that were setting alarm bells off in their wonderful minds.

Placing his helmet on a waist clamp and his pad into its holster, he reached out with both hands to pat the guards on their helmets.

“There, there,” he soothed, the armour covering his hands separating into pieces to slide back into the wrist armour. His artificial arm attracted their attention, and the ponies shifted again when the hands placed themselves on their unarmored muzzles. “I’m not worried about that, now be good little ponies and continue to guard the prisoners like your Emperor desires.”

At his words, a glow undetectable by normal beings briefly appeared around his hands. In addition, his fake arm lit up briefly when hundreds of tiny and normally invisible symbols embedded into the silver surface flashed red. The guard’s pupils shrank, and he removed his hands after a mere second.

“Uh… what?” the stallion muttered while he and the mare shook their heads. The stallion looked up at him in confusion.

“Oh, I was just about to see the Emperor like you requested,” Elijah lied nonchalantly. “Thank you, Private Shine, I’ll leave you to continue guarding the prisoners in peace.” He turned and smiled at the mare. “And you too, Corporal Jade.”

“Ah… yes sir,” both guards answered, moving to stand back in position. Resisting the urge to take their helmets off to ruffle their manes as a show of thanks, he instead settled for wearing a prideful smile while turning to begin his journey down to the lower floors.

‘Such wonderful creatures,’ he thought to himself, descending a staircase. ‘Interesting thought patterns as well, so full of life. I must admit, this city would make a marvelous tourist trap.’

Elijah’s thoughts turned to what he had just learned, his mood dropping. ‘Wishing for me to be absent during a diplomatic meeting with a local dignitary? Me? I am well versed in the arts of social interaction, and he knows it.’ The silent grumbling complete, he turned his attention towards his growling stomach. He hadn’t eaten anything solid for at least a week, and unfortunately he was still bound to needing actual physical sustenance. Hence his excitement at finding the changelings, subsequent examination of their capacity to subsist on emotion likely to prove very fruitful.

He slowed his pace upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, the sound of great revelry coming from the opposite end of the corridor. He paused to watch a flow of palace servants exit the kitchens, the ponies bearing platters of wine flutes and numerous refined party snacks. Elijah took a second to once again marvel at the balance they displayed while carrying the silver trays on their backs, before he held out a hand to stop a young stallion.

“It’s going well,” he commented, taking a wine glass in a hand and giving it a brief sniff. The smell of berries was strong, and he could tell that it was going to be sweet.

“It’s better than it ending up a disaster,” the deep-purple pony answered, attempting a smile of his own. “Those griffons are a little unnerving, just between you and me.”

Elijah raised an eyebrow at that. ‘Griffons, hmm? Intriguing.’

“Understandable,” he agreed, taking an experimental sip of the wine and giving it his silent approval. “Well then, I shan’t hold you up any further, I must rejoin the party myself.”

The pony nodded and resumed his trotting, Elijah following. He tried to hold in his excitement at the new information. ‘Griffons! Yet more creatures to study! They will no doubt be a majestic hybrid, half-bird and half-lion.’ He wondered if Hippogriffs existed on this planet, not unlikely given the present of sapient Equines and Griffons. There were so many questions to be asked, hopefully he’d find the time during the evening.

Taking his data pad from its resting place with his free hand, he readied it for the wondrous note taking that was no doubt imminent. ‘Diet, mating habits, cultural advances, bone structure!’ It was almost too exiting to contain, Elijah having to stop himself from bouncing on his feet while he followed the servant.

Approaching the large hall, he slinked off towards the side with glass in hand. The reason for his stealth was because of Nigel in the middle of the room, the Emperor relaxed and chatting with a large griffon in a toga while they both browsed the large table stacked with food and drink. Still, Elijah doubted that Nigel would be welcoming of his presence, for some reason it seemed like Chalmers believed that his presence was harmful to the ponies and changelings.

Wine glass in hand, he surveyed his surrounds for a suitable target.

Unfortunately, all of the griffons in armour were either staying near the griffon conversing with Chalmers or nursing drinks while interacting with the scattered changeling and crystal pony guards. A true shame, their metal armour reminded him of the old Romans of Terra and he would have to quiz them to confirm if military doctrine was the same. That would have to wait, discovery could lead to expulsion from the hall and the loss of all chances to learn.

His quest for a lone, unwatched hybrid was interrupted for a brief second. He peered closer at the commotion by a stack of what he assumed were wine barrels, two fully armoured changelings and Captain Strategy in obvious discomfort. A third changeling, this one with its helmet off, was swaying from side to side and gesturing widely with its forelimbs, much to the visible confusion of the Captain. Elijah felt a surge of mirth when the intoxicated changeling fell onto its side laughing, noticing Captain Strategy shake his head before trotting away.

Resuming his search, his eyes lit up when he spied two lone revelers. Reflection and what he suspected was a female griffon, judging from the slightly smaller form to the others and the opulent jewelry it wore, were talking amongst themselves while watching the rest of the celebration. Besides the opportunity to quiz a griffon, he was still eager to find out any information he could about Reflection and her dealings with Chalmers.

After a passing glance confirming that Nigel was still distracted, he made his way along the wall towards the two females. He made sure to smile warmly and nod at any ponies and changelings he passed, receiving smiles both forced and genuine in return. Avoiding the guards, he silently approached behind his quarry, catching a snippet of the conversation as he did so.

“Augustus means to be a good husband, but sometimes he can be the most insensitive buzzard. Forgetful as well, I’m constantly having to remind him about the names of our own children when they visit and lately he’s even been forgetting where he put his laurels before going to bed.”

Reflection giggled softly, Elijah silently recording everything with his pad.

“That sounds like it’s not very fun, luckily Nigel has a pretty good memory so far,” she paused, the female griffon listening with a nod. “Granted he has other… quirks, but I’m enjoying it so far. He’s so busy with ruling though, we hardly get any time to ourselves.”

“Tell me about it,” the griffon agreed. “While your lands are smaller, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be with maintaining a functioning empire containing changelings and ponies, while under threat from Equestria.” She smiled. “No offence, of course.”

“It’s okay,” Reflection replied before taking a sip from her glass held in a magical grip. “I can understand why you’d think that. To tell you the truth, I’d never have thought it possible myself.”

Elijah came to the conclusion that he had gathered all that would be useful via eavesdropping, and moved on with the second part of his plan. Announcing his arrival with a light clearing of his throat, he made it appear as if he had been walking up to them this entire time.

“Ladies,” he greeted to both.

Reflection’s eyes widened, the changeling forgetting her drink. “You… but you’re not supposed to be… I thought-“

“Ah, so you were in on the plan to keep me away from this wonderful celebration?” he asked with grin, Reflection shifting on her hooves while the female griffon tilted her head at the exchange.

“Well, Nigel thought that you’d…”

He tittered when she didn’t finish the sentence, before he turned to the griffon and nodded politely. “I apologise for neglecting an introduction, I am Lead Researcher Elijah Von Barker, pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Empress Cornelia, a pleasure.” She extended a claw, Elijah giving a small bow while he grasped the dainty limb. He used the brief second to take note of the ridges and jewels, before he let go and took a sip from his glass.

“I’m very honored that the first griffon I meet is an Empress,” he shared. Reflection seemed to sour at the repeated mention of the title, Elijah wondering “I must admit that your race is very intriguing from a scientific standpoint, I’d love to find out more about you if you have the time.”
The Empress smiled, a touch of mischievousness gracing her features. “My, what a risky thing to ask a lady while her husband is in the same room.”

Elijah blinked, trying to process her words. Then, it dawned on him, and he made a quick recovery.

“Oh, of course I was merely referring to scientific questions, for science and science alone.” Cornelia continued to smirk, Elijah moving on and preparing his pad. “For one, I’ve noticed that your people seem to share a very similar look with an old race from where I come from. You wouldn’t happen to know about the origins of your culture?”

“Of course I do,” Empress Cornelia answered, taking another drink. “Every griffon is taught our country’s complete history; we wouldn’t have it any other way. What did you want to know?”

“I’m going to get another drink,” Reflection muttered before trotting off shaking her head. Elijah gave her a parting glance, the loss of her company would be made up from the bounty of data about to come his way. Turning back to the Empress, he smiled and tapped on his pad.

“Well, why don’t you give me a general breakdown first? Then, we can move onto the intricate details.” She began to explain, Elijah listening and recording with joy.

Pfft, and people thought that he wasn’t good at parties.

Snow crunched under metal, Orthodox walking up to the large cave entrance he had spotted an hour ago. The area seemed to have recently received a heavy snowfall, judging by the covering of fresh snow covering all tracks. Glancing back from where he had come, he was unable to see the city at all.

‘This is where he said it was,’ Orthodox thought, remembering the directions that had been hastily provided by a guard. Apparently the cave had been home to a group of sapient dog raiders, and even though the den had been thoroughly wiped out, it had been hinted that there were larger numbers of the dogs in the area.

To be honest, he felt like this was more busy-work than an actual lead, but he wasn’t one to pass up the opportunity for some action.

Checking the dark-grey gauss carbine in his armoured hands, he did a final scan of the entrance before he delved into the murky entrance. Three skeletons wearing rusted sets of crude iron armour greeted him, Orthodox kicking one and watching the skull bounce down further into the corridor.

“The former owners, I presume?” he muttered, a frown under his helmet. The presence of the bodies, likely some of the creatures killed when the crystal empire guards stormed the cave, meant that the cave was likely empty of any remaining dogs and thus devoid of entertainment. Still, he had nothing better to do so he pushed on.

Orthodox didn’t bother with stealth, figuring the dour cave was unoccupied. He stamped down the corridor, sinking deeper into the earth. His tail flicked with irritation while he passed yet more corpses, wishing that he had been here during the fighting.

A flickering of light caught his attention and caused him to perk up, his hopes soaring.

Light meant habitation.

Habitation meant possible hostile creatures.

Hostile creatures equaled entertainment.

Increasing his pace, he dodged boulders blocking his path and carefully stepped over long-dead skeletons. Clutching his weapon in his claws, he hugged his back to the cave wall and peered into a large center cavern.

A large fire-pit blazed to one side, filling the cave with light and heat. Beside it, two iron cages held piles of coal in them, along with assorted chunks of metal ores. That was not what drew his attention, however.

No, the gleaming pile of gems in the middle of the cave held his upmost dedication.

All concerns about habitation were forgotten as he greedily clambered down the makeshift dirt ramp and headed straight towards the glittering gems. They were all shapes and sizes, Orthodox dropping his gun to the ground so that he could pick up the gems with his hands.
“Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, topaz!”

He laughed, beholding the pile larger than him. This was wealth, and free for the taking as well. Unable to resist, he dived right in, his joy increasing when he realised that the gems were resting partly in a dug hole. A tremendous clatter echoed out, but Orthodox didn’t mind. He was completely covered in gems, from the top of his head to the tip of his tail.

Surrounded by jewels of all sorts, he stopped his maniacal laughing and sighed happily. For some reason, this felt right. Any concerns of being discovered were forgotten, Orthodox stretching out his limbs and making a decision.

‘It’s going to be a lot of work carting all of these back, maybe a little rest is in order.’

Yawing, he clutched a particularly large ruby to his chest and grinned to himself as his eyes closed.

The echoes stopped, the cave returning to its usual silence.

“Glimmer, I told you that trying to take on those guards wasn’t a good idea. You’re lucky that giant crossbow missed you.”

“Oh, come on Spine, you know that those ponies must have a huge amount of gems hidden in that city.”

“Not enough gems to warrant getting shot in the head.”

“You’re such a pansy for the apparent alpha male. I should just start sleeping with Sentry instead.”


“Oh ha ha, very funny Glimmer. Sentry, you make a move and I’ll ripe off your spines and shove them where the sun won’t reach.”

The echoing voices caused him to awake, Orthodox instinctively going for his rifle. Unfortunately, all he was clutching was a giant ruby, and with a start he remembered that his rifle was sitting outside of the pile. Sitting up carefully, wincing when he displaced a numbers of gems that clattered to the ground, he spotted the weapon a bare half-meter away.

His armored tail snaked out to snare it with the tip, Orthodox pulling it back into his hiding place while the approaching voices paused.

“Did you hear that?”

He grimaced at the female voice, readying his rifle to point towards the entrance tunnel from within the pile.

“Hear what, Rux?”

“That clinking, do you think…?”

The voices stopped again, before the sound of heavy footfalls filled the air. Orthodox waited for the newcomers to show themselves, guessing that they wouldn’t be too happy to find someone sleeping in their gem stash.

His reaction upon seeing four bipedal lizards storm into the cave, along with two more flying above them on scaly wings, was understandably confused.

They looked nothing like the dogs he had been told about. With their wings, scales, and the smoke coming out of their nostrils while they huffed, they almost looked like…

“Dragons,” Orthodox muttered under his breath.

He hated dragons.

His eyes narrowed, remembering the hardships that dragons had caused him. ‘I can’t go out shopping without snot-nosed brats asking if I’m a dragon, Nigel still gives me a book about dragons every, single, birthday. Stupid Elijah always calls me ‘Puff’ just to piss me off.’

If it was anyone else looking at it, they might think that his reasons to hate an entire race were petty.

He wouldn’t care.

Even now, he could barely hold in his anger as the purple one approached him, dressed in a black jacket with an equally dark set of pants. A set of green head spines greeted him, the drake examining the gem pile.

“Someone’s here,” he announced, before standing up and looking around. “Rux, hold the entrance so they can’t escape.”

“On it,” the whitish-yellow dragonness replied, moving to block the only way out.

“Sentry, search the left. Edgy, take the right.”

A brown and green drake and another male with scales of black and a red underbelly followed the commands, beginning to examine any possible hiding place.

“Glimmer, baby, can you make sure that they’re not further down in the storage cave? Take Soulbate with you, just in case.”

“Is little Spines afraid to let his girly-wirly get in a fight?” a cyan dragoness teased, before a pure white one with sparkling purple spines grabbed her arm with a huff and pulled her to a second corridor.

“Shut up, Soulbate. I don’t see you surviving a crossbow bolt the size of a tree.”

“It didn’t even hit you!”

“Urgh,” the purple drake shook his head. “Why can’t everyone just get along?”

Orthodox watched the whole thing, resisting the urge to blurt out insults. They all looked so… angsty, like a bunch of spoilt teenagers. The worst part was that they were taller than him, almost by half. They were all split up and the purple drake, called Spine, was beginning to eye the gem pile with suspicion. He’d have to make his move, but luckily he had a plan in mind. One so cunning and genius that it would surely win him numerous awards for brilliant tactics if anyone else could see its full complexity and magnificence.

“Your gems or your lives!”

Spine’s eyes widened in shock when an armoured fist flew out of the gem pile to smack him in the snout, forcing him to fall onto his rump and clutch the bleeding snout with his claws.


The alarmed shout of the dragon named Rux was his cue, Orthodox holding his carbine high while he strode out of the gem pile. Gems clattered to the dusty ground as he emerged, the two foes sent to investigate the other corridor racing back at the sound to stare at him. During the rain of gems, he observed his surrounds and smiled wickedly when he saw that all six dragons were staring at him in shock.


He hit a button on the side of his carbine, a custom-fitted and concealed high-powered speaker emitting the signature ‘chuck-click’ of a pump-action shogun for all to hear.

Money well spent.

“Evening, all,” he announced with the aid of his helmet speakers. “As previously stated, this here is a good old-fashioned home invasion. Put all of the gems into sacks or bags and no one will die tonight, got it?” He waited for a response, growing impatient at the lack of one. “Get a move on, chop chop!”

“Are… are you real?” Spine questioned, almost with a small chuckle while he stood up. Orthodox let him, smirking at the fool.

“Maybe you should ask your nose.”

That wiped the smirk off Spines’s face, replaced with a determined expression. “No, these gems are ours, we found them in this cave fair and square.”

“He’s right,” Edgy the black drake chimed in, moving beside Spines. “We’re not going to let some little punk just walk in and take them.”

An eye twitched at the ‘little’ word, Orthodox raising his carbine. “You what? Do you think this is some kind of game?” While he watched, mostly out of a strange mix of confused anger, the remaining dragons took position besides their leader. As one, they made flourishes with their claws and focused.

Spine’s claws became covered with flames, green flames sprouting out of his nostrils with a flourish.

Rux put her claws together at her side, facing outwards with a ball off light growing brighter.

Glimmer made motions with her fingers, lines of blood leading from Spine’s nose bleed forming into ultra-thin blades in the air which she controlled with her movements.

“Really, Glimmer?”

“What? Why should I cut myself again if you’re already bleeding?”

“Fine, whatever. Let’s just get on with this.”

Sentry flexed his biceps, the muscles growing to four times their already generous size. Small rocks levitated off the ground around him, his face locked in a grin.

Soulbate flapped her arms really, really hard and summoned a buffeting gust of wind, even though it seemed to just appear from nowhere.

Last but not least was Edgy, the black dragon’s eyes glowing red as he moved his claws like a puppeteer. A line of shadows answered the call, forming into a row of spikes in front of him.

Their flamboyant preparations completed, the six stuck out their chests and smirked arrogantly at him, Spine taking a step forward while blowing out smoke rings.

“You’re in for it now, short-stuff,” he insulted. The flames around him grew hotter, his purple eyes glowing like embers. “You’ll forever regret messing with the Scales Six.”

“Scales Six…” Orthodox repeated. “Scales… Six? Are all of you hig-“

He stopped when he saw what the six were doing. All were twirling around, making various sounds with their mouths while their numerous powers grew in both power and luminance.

“Fuck it,” he decided, bracing his carbine at his side and shaking his head. “I’m not nearly drunk enough for this shit.”

His finger depressed the trigger, his suit already compensating for any recoil.

Supersonic gauss rounds, each one made to pierce advanced armour, spat out of the short barrel like a swarm of angry bees. There weren’t any bangs, merely a mechanical buzz while Orthodox sprayed the dragons with indiscriminate weapons fire in a wide sweeping motion.

Such were the velocity of the rounds, the rocky cave wall behind the lined up dragons soon looked like a street painting by a mad artist. In four seconds, two-hundred rounds had been expelled from the squat weapon, roughly half of them actually hitting their targets.

Each irritating dragon was flung back by the high-powered fire, poor Edgy even being cut in half at the waist when hyper-dense metal rounds severed flesh and tissue. The ragged bodies thumped to the ground, the charging of their attacks never even reaching the half-way mark.

The sounds of the carnage began to die down, the echoes of bullet impacts replaced by a clicking. Orthodox ejected the spent energy clip and swapped it with a new one, placing the empty clip into his armour for charging. He felt… he felt good, real good, the coppery smell of spilt blood causing him to salivate and his tail to flick playfully.

“No… Glimmer…”

He raised an eye and turned to the bodies, the whispered voice barely audible over the blood dripping off the wall and rocks. Boots crunched on bits of hard scales and pebbles, soon generously coated with red thanks to the rapidly expanding gore pool. He stopped beside the fallen bodies of the purple dragon and the pretty white one, Spine weakly stroking the deep-purple scales of his obvious and (very dead) lover. The wounded dragon was clutching his other claw to numerous holes in his torso, in a vain attempt to keep the vital fluid in.

“Glimmer, my love. You were so smar-. You were so interesti-. You had great characte-…” Spine’s finger raised shakily in success. “You had a rocking pair of tits.”

Orthodox spared a glance towards the dead dragoness, his carbine pointing towards the mortally wounded Spine.

‘Huh, she does have a rocking pair of tits. Wait… dragons have tits?’

“You monster,” his thoughts regarding the bewildering presence of mammary glands on a reptile were interrupted, Orthodox looking back to find angry eyes focused on him. Spine coughed, Orthodox stepping closer so he could see the light start to fade from the creature’s eyes. “You killed my girl, my friends… but you’ll never crush the dreams of the Scales Six.”

Orthodox blew a raspberry, pushing his gun barrel against Spine’s hate-filled face.

“Scales Six? You’re more like the Fail Six.” He made a point of glancing to the corpses. “Correction, you were more like the Fail Six.”

Spine let out a wheezing laugh, the laugh of a being that knew it was about to die.

“At least I’m not short and wingless.”

Something snapped, Orthodox freezing for a mere second.

“Short, huh?”

Spine’s chest was ripped into shreds, Orthodox lowering his gun-sights to target center mass. He emptied half a clip before pausing and then using the remaining rounds to effectively saw off the legs.

“Who’s short now?” he asked, staring into the wide open eyes devoid of life. Snorting, he once again changed the clip before holstering his gun and drawing a long knife he always kept in his armour.

He had a grim task in mind, but it was something that he needed to do.

It took him five minutes to remove his trophies, Orthodox thanking his years of practice before sheathing his knife and standing up to pop his back. He was almost completely covered in blood, the work messy but rewarding. Quickly removing his helmet, he took a pack out of his armour and enjoyed a nice, post slaughter smoke. Nodding to himself, he replaced his helmet and gathered his new prizes, locked deep in thought while he strolled out of the cave and into the tunnel leading up.

‘Boobs. Why do dragons have boobs?’

The pile of scattered gems sat forgotten, all thoughts of their removal forgotten for the time being.

Reflection brooded to herself, taking a sip from the second glass she’d had at the drinks table. She adjusted her green dress and her necklace, before glancing back at where she had come from. The unsettling human, Elijah, was currently smiling and nodding while Empress Cornelia happily talked his ear off. She shuddered, it wasn’t obvious at first but she had picked up something strange about him, and it wasn’t just because he was an alien.

Looking to the left, she grimaced when she saw that the griffon Emperor was still talking to Nigel like they were old friends. Judging from the rosy faces that both rulers possessed, and the number of servants that had been ferrying hard liquor to them, it didn’t look like it would stop anytime soon. She didn’t dislike Emperor Augustus, he had treated her with nothing but genuine politeness and respect, but he was a griffon and still held a threatening air.

Sighing, she decided to give it another ten minutes and another glass, hoping that the time and drink would soon restore her desire to join in. Without even thinking, she had levitated a small slice of cheese into her mouth and had begun to chew absentmindedly. Reflection tried to pass the time by watching groups of the crystal pony nobles and examining their fine clothes, the event a great opportunity for the social elite to interact and flaunt. Her mood brightened when she noticed a few happy changelings amongst their number, mainly by the sides of young pony mares and stallions.

Still, she had grown surprisingly bored of the situation, and now wished that she could trade it for the opportunity to just spend some alone time with Nigel. After all, despite him having been absent for so long they had been lacking time to focus on each other. Well, focusing on each other in the privacy of their bedroom. That thought only made the situation worse, Reflection remembering the rather spicy flavor that had appealed to her.

“Lady Reflection?”

Her daydreams were broken, Reflection turning around to find a crystal unicorn bowing his head towards her. The shimmering blue pony held a finely-made wooden box in his magic field, the box carved with wonderful images of crowns and gems.


“Head Artificer Golden Ring sends his regards,” the unicorn paused. “Granted, very quickly worded regards and before collapsing from exhaustion, but regards none-the-less.”

Reflection tilted her head, before placing her wine glass down on the table and taking the box from him. Using her magic to gently open the lid, her eyes widened when she beheld the contents.

Two diamond rings, constructed of glimmering gold and highlights of silver, sat within the cushioned confines. Looking closely, she could see incredibly fine etchings of figures on the surface, appearing to be both ponies and changelings. Gulping, she closed the lid and met the warm pink eyes of the unicorn.

“They’re… they’re beautiful. I don’t know what to say.”

“It was a group effort,” the stallion smiled. “Consider it as thanks to both of you.” He made to leave quietly, but not before a final whisper. “Good luck, Lady Reflection.”

She held her breath while she watched him slip out of the room, the box feeling far heavier in her hooves than it ought to. Slowly exhaling, she glanced once again towards Nigel, the human still chatting with Emperor Augustus.

Looking at the box once more, she gathered her thoughts and a plan. ‘Relax, this was going to happen someday.’ A part of her knew what she had been planning from beginning, after giving Golden Ring the diamonds and making her request. ‘Just get him away from everyone and a secluded place, then pop the question. There’s no possible way he’d say no.’

Her mental pep-talk completed, she placed the box on her back and used her wings to keep it in place as well as concealed. Taking a moment to smooth down her dress, she began to cross the crowded hall floor to reach her Emperor.

Mares and stallions alike bowed their heads while she passed, but she was too focused on her task to acknowledge them. Pressing on, she closed on the two emperors, a smile on her face while she moved to Nigel’s side.

“There you are,” he greeted, reaching out a gloved hand to scratch her behind the ears. She hummed, the gesture actually improving her mood and relaxing her for what was about to come.

“I was just getting another drink, and I didn’t know what to choose.” Struggling to maintain her focus, she gave Emperor Augustus an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, Emperor, but could I please borrow him for a few minutes for a private talk?”

Augustus brushed his beak with a wing and raised his eyes at Nigel. “Sure, what sort of friend would I be if I deprived him of a ‘private talk’?”
Reflection felt her face heat up at the implication of the griffon’s words, Augustus chuckling while he walked off to look for his wife. She looked up at Nigel, Chalmers shaking his head with a light laugh.


“Let’s just say that our alliance has already been secured, even without the meeting tomorrow,” he answered merrily. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Not here,” she replied, glancing around. “Can we go to the corridor?”

He raised an eye and smirked, but didn’t make any jokes. Unable to hold back her excitement, she quickly guided him out of a side door and into the almost vacant corridor, Nigel informing the lone guard to move inside and get some food. The mare complied with gusto, leaving them both alone for at least five minutes. Reflection hoped that it would be enough.

“Well, we’re alone,” he observed. “What’s the need for all of the secrecy, was Augustus right about your intentions by any chance?”

“No,” she replied. “Well, I mean, I didn’t think of it, but I’ve got something more important.”

“More important?” he raised his eyes. “I can’t think of many things on that list.”

She declined to answer; instead she took a deep breath before powering her horn. Carefully, she brought the box into view and held it out to him, shifting in her silver shoes while he looked at her questionably. He gently took the box and, with a final glance towards her, opened the lid and gazed inside.

Nigel was silent for what seemed like an age, a shred of worry gnawing at her. Was it normal for this reaction? Had she acted too soon? Did his people even have such a tradition? She knew that it was incredibly rare in changeling society so it was likely. Even worse, had she accidently offended him?

“Wow,” he whistled, before pausing again. The only sound was her clinking shoes, before he finally spoke again. “This certainly tops ‘Corridor Quicky’ on the list of important things.”

She held in a reprimand for the poorly-timed joke, seeing that it might damage the answer and also that he actually looked nervous for a second. The indecisiveness was over in a flash, and he nimbly removed both rings and placed the box on his knee after he knelt down to her level. He continued to look them over, the wait almost agonizing.

“Did Golden Ring make these?”

“Not just him,” she struggled to keep her voice and nerves steady. “I think most of the unicorns helped.”

“Well they did an outstanding job. I can even see the little nymphs and foals among all of the pictures.”

There was another period of silence, both unsure for words. She held her breath when he looked at her, before taking off his right glove. Her eyes tracked the ring as he slid it onto his fourth finger, Chalmers adjusting it before holding it out and appraising it.

“A little loose, but that can be easily fixed. A fine piece of, as I believe Orthodox would say, bling.” He gave her a look, glancing towards the other ring that he held. “Uh, I would ask to see how this one looks on you, but…”

She snapped out of her daze, her brain still processing what was happening. “Oh, it goes on the base of my horn.”

A gloved hand carefully cupped her chin, before the ring was worked over her curved horn. She felt the band travel down the sensitive area before it came to rest at the base, a very snug fit. Reflection couldn’t see it, but the knowledge and sensation of it was more than enough for her.

“It suits you well,” he complimented, making a final adjustment to its rotation. “I assume the gem goes up.”

She didn’t even consider confirming the question, a far more pressing matter on her mind.

“So… does this mean…?”

He paused, however he still maintained the contact. “It’s sudden, I have to admit. I’ve never really been a fan of… wed-“

“I’m not either!” she jumped in, noticing the difficulty he had with the ‘w’ word. “We don’t have to have one. Nothing major needs to change.”
Another pause, Reflection wishing she could see the thoughts running through his mind.

“No,” he answered, her heart sinking. “After all, a new Empress deserves some sort of celebration after all. We’ll do something small and without all the fluff, just a simple party behind closed doors and that will be it.”

It dawned on her, what had just happened. She felt all the tension she had built up about the question bleed away, a strange feeling welling up inside. It was almost like when he had first given in and begun to date her, only this time it was much greater. It felt nice, and she thankfully embraced him.

“Please don’t tell anyone else,” she requested through her euphoria. “Can it wait until we have some time to really enjoy it?”

“It’s your hatch-day in a week and a half, isn’t it? Why don’t we do it on the same day and use it as a cover until the last second?”

She had completely forgotten about the upcoming date, nodding her head while she nuzzled. “That works perfectly, but will you have time?”

“I’ll set aside the day… and the following three.”

A smile formed at his words, Reflection pulling away before looking sorrowfully at the box that the rings came in. “We have to take the rings off, though.”

“Relax,” he reassured, already moving to remove hers for her. “They’ll be back on soon enough.”

Humming, she knew that he spoke the truth, sitting patiently while he gently removed the jewelry that had redeemed the night and the entire past year in her eyes.

“How very appropriate,” James muttered to himself, watching while Nigel and Reflection returned. Alarm bells had gone off in his head when the two had disappeared into the small doorway and a guard had emerged soon after. Now, ten minutes later, both were wearing wide smiles and sharing conspiratory looks. “He’ll never learn, will he?”

Helmet at his side, he took another drink of water before shaking his head. How Chalmers had managed to even maintain a functional city, he still couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t like the Commander’s most becoming traits were his patience and focus.

Adding to that, the guards had reported that they had fended off a group of what appeared to be short dragons, the creatures having attempted to gain their way into the city. The dragons had fired off a volley of threats, and the guards had responded with a warning volley of ballista bolts that had swiftly put an end to the encounter.

Grimacing, he downed the last of the water before placing the glass down and hesitantly picking up a thin slice of cheesecake topped with berries. Mentally preparing himself, he began to walk towards the two while clearing his throat.

“Hrm, I see you two appear… rather happy.”

He swore that he caught a flash of apprehension across Nigel’s face, before an answer was quickly supplied by Reflection.

“Uh… we were just having a private talk about… what to do with Elijah.” The changeling looked to Nigel after the stammering, Chalmers giving her a look before backing her up.

“Yeah… he’s probably causing trouble in his room-“

“Over by the rear table,” Reflection quickly overtook. James slowly looked to the table and immediately spotted the scientist, Elijah quickly jotting down notes while the two royal griffons talked enthusiastically. Glancing back, he pointed an armoured finger at both.

“You know, for a shape shifter and an intelligence agent, you’re both terrible lairs.” With those words he left them, aiming for the rapidly nodding scientist. The hesitant foot and hoof steps led him to believe that they were following, but rather than check he instead focused a stare at Elijah.

“Elijah,” he greeted evenly, the three’s attention turning to him. “Aren’t you supposed to be interrogating Princess Luna?”

Elijah waved a hand in dismissal, before going back over his notes. “Oh, her. I’ve already gotten enough information about alicorns and bat-ponies for the time being, griffons are far more interesting.”

“How flattering,” Augustus hiccupped, chortling before taking another gulp of wine.

“Quite,” James agreed, before grabbing Elijah’s shoulder. “Please excuse us for a moment, I have to have some words with my colleague.”

“Hey!” Elijah protested, however he was soon dragged away from the two foreign rulers and his pad was taken.

“Elijah,” he began to lecture, after checking that Nigel and Reflection had distracted the griffons. “What are you doing down here, don’t you realise that by harassing the Emperor and his wife you put our plans in jeopardy?”

“I got bored,” Elijah explained, trying to make a grab for his data pad but James quickly jerked it out of reach. “I don’t see why you are so irritated, I was the one locked in a room with guards trying to keep me prisoner.”

That caused him to pause, he’d grown to like the ponies and changelings. “Elijah, what did you do to them?”

“Nothing major,” the scientist reassured. “Just some memory reshuffling, that’s all.”

“How did…” he shook his head. “Never mind, and here I was thinking I was the psionic.”

Elijah harrumphed. “Bah, don’t try and compare my superior methods to your simple mind tricks.” The insult was followed by the furrowing of brows, the voice gaining a curious edge. “By the way, what plans? I believe that I am entitled to know of any scheming going on.”

James considered the idea, weighing up the pros and cons in his mind.

“Alright, I’ll let you in on it, but you have to promise to leave the griffons alone from now on and also swear to never tell Orthodox any of it, he’ll ruin everything if he finds out.”

“I promise,” Elijah answered, before holding out his hand. Sighing, James returned the pad and glanced back over his shoulder to check up on things. Emperor Augustus was once again shaking Nigel’s hand, a wing draped over his wife’s back. His sensors picked up the conversation, a quick burst quite relieving to hear.

“We’ll find the room,” Augustus was finishing with a drunken grin. “Then, Tomorrow we will attend to business.”

“I look forward to it,” Chalmers replied, tilting his head towards two crystal guards. “Your soldiers can stay in the barracks for the night.” At the words, the two guards saluted before hurrying off to relay the news.

“Very good, if there is nothing more then we will retire for the night.” Augustus cricked his neck and adjusted his laurels with a claw. “You should be proud, one of the most enjoyable parties I’ve attended in a long time, isn’t that right dear?”

“Hmm,” Cornelia mumbled, almost asleep on her paws now that the excitement of the night had worn off.

“It was wonderful having you,” Reflection answered for Chalmers, both sets of rulers moving to exchange parting gestures.

“See?” James turned back to look at Elijah’s smirking face. “Everything turned out well, there were no complications at all.”

James was just about to admit that it was true, before a commotion by the main doors saved him. Glancing back, he quickly moved towards Nigel when two guards galloped through the murmuring crowd.

“Emperor!” the crystal pony stallion shouted, quickly stopping alongside the armoured mare with him. “I’m sorry, we tried to convince her to wait but she demanded to see you.”

James shared a confused look with Nigel, before putting on his helmet.

“I’m sorry,” Nigel began to apologise with a head tilt. “Who?”

“Where is the Usurper!?”

At the livid question, a much larger changeling stormed into the room and glared around at everyone. James took a moment to recognise her as the newly-arrived changeling Queen, Chrysalis he believed her name was. Evidently she had healed well, although her snarling face gave it away that she was not as pleased with her rapid recovery as would have been expected.

A tap on his shoulder drew his attention, Nigel gesturing down. James followed and saw that Reflection was grinding her teeth, her wings rapidly buzzing which he had learned either indicated irritation or excitement.

He doubted that it was the latter option.

“Keep an eye on her,” Nigel requested under his breath, before he raised an arm and walked forward. James silently wished him luck, not envious of Chalmers’ situation in the slightest. “Usurper? That would be me.”

Furious green eyes turned on Chalmers, the Queen stepping forwards and baring her fangs. James noticed that guards were beginning to surround the room and funnel out the nobility in an organised fashion. Griffon guards surrounded their rulers, eyes locked on Chrysalis with their claws at the ready.

“So you’re the creature that has stolen my subjects,” Chrysalis hissed dangerously. “I demand that you return them to me!”

Chalmers put up his hands in front of him, showing his palms and smiling. James wished that Nigel hadn’t drunk as much as he did, and prepared to intervene if things got out of hand due to any mis-chosen words.

“Now, now, no need to throw out accusations. Why don’t we begin with ‘Thank you, Oh Mighty Emperor Chalmers, for lending me lodgings so I could recover from my grievous wounds and then proceed to yell at you without any gratitude’?”

‘Damn it, Nigel.’ James shook his head, sensing Chrysalis’ anger reach boiling point. ‘You couldn’t even go for five seconds without starting something.’

Chrysalis made to go forward, but more guards and another three changelings rushed in behind her.

“Please, Your Highness,” one of the new changelings, female, pleaded. “They don’t mean any harm, they’re letting us all feed freel-“

“Silence Nurse!” Chrysalis ordered in the multi-tiered voice of hers, looking like she was barely holding herself back from tearing Nigel a new one. Her eyes were still focused on the Emperor, and they narrowed into slits. “This is nothing but a ruse, and I won’t be fooled so easily. No creature would offer such things so willingly.”

“You stubborn-“ Reflection began, making to advance on Chrysalis with harmful intent. James stopped her with a hand, looking down and shaking his head at her. She glared at him, James reluctantly resorting to another measure.

‘Let Nigel deal with her,’ he advised.

‘What? You’re in my head!’

‘I know, simple telepathy is something I’m trained to do. Now, calm down and don’t add to the fire.’

With visible difficulty she complied, settling down and holding her tongue. He removed his hand from her shoulder, noticing that her wings were still buzzing. Making a note to keep a close eye on her, he refocused back on the standoff. Chrysalis was still glaring and Nigel was still attempting to calm her down, although with questionable word choices.

“Listen to her,” Chalmers advised, nodding towards the changeling who had spoken in defense of them. “She’s right, we’re offering you and your subjects free sustenance to help you out, nothing shifty at all. If you just calm down, we can talk about it and discuss your concerns.”

“Concerns? Concerns!? You’ve taken my subjects and turned them from me, undermining their loyalty! Then, you have the nerve to try and take the moral high ground!?”

“I can understand why you’re upset,” Nigel continued. “But really, your subjects joined of their own accord. They were separated from their fellows, hungry, and in danger. Myself and the crystal ponies allowed them to live amongst us, and they did so as it was the right thing to do at the time. Then, we helped the rest get out of prison cells and wastelands, accepting them without issue. Changelings now serve in the military forces, work in jobs they enjoy, and live side-by-side in peace.”

Chalmers paused. “Well, live in peace apart from the few odd invasions and that one war. What would you had me do, turn them away? Did you expect them to die rather than survive to live wholesome lives?”

“They were fine before,” Chrysalis countered, pawing at the ground. “Everyone had their place, and it has been that way for centuries.”

“And after the invasion?”

James internally winced, wishing that Nigel hadn’t brought it up.

“…That was a miscalculation, nothing more!” Chrysalis shook her head, evidently the words had hit a nerve. “I will not stand by and let you destroy all that I have worked for!”

With that as her only warning, she leaped with the aid of her wings and aimed to pounce on Nigel with her sharp horn and fangs at the ready. Chalmers reacted, rushing forwards with his fists coming up ready. Reflection bolted, racing towards the centre of the room with a murderous look trained on Chrysalis.

After a quick glance to find that Elijah was too engrossed in recording everything down, James sighed. Nothing was every simple in his line of work.

A blue glow flared, lines along his armour becoming visible while the suit reacted to what he was doing.

Chrysalis, Nigel, and Reflection all found themselves paralyzed mid leap and charge. All three clattered down into a disordered pile, unable to move any of their limbs while guards and the griffons watched on in complete puzzlement.

“A little help,” he requested, turning his head to Elijah.

“Busy,” the scientist replied, a hint of humor in his voice.

“James.” He winced under his helmet, Nigel not sounding as amused as Elijah was. “You better not be doing what I know you’re doing.” James found all of the attention turn on him, everyone eyeing him and his glowing armour. “Let me and Reflection go James, and Chrysalis as well.”

“No,” he refused. “If I do, then you’re all just going to try to kill each other. The least we can do is act with civility at the current time and work this out like adults.”

“Civility? I don’t know about you, but having Reflection’s horn nearly invading my rear passage is not what I class as civil.”

“Sorry Nigel, I can’t… nrrgh, move!”

James relented, releasing his hold on them but quickly stomping forwards before they could get up. Standing over them, he glared down at them all through his optics. Reflection and Nigel decided to follow his advice and merely sit up, where’s Chrysalis glared back but made no hostile moves.

“Behave,” he warned, glancing around all three. “Nigel, you’ve got to start showing some more self-control. Reflection, the same goes for you, I warned you specifically. Queen Chrysalis, it doesn’t help your cause if you try and fight the one you have a disagreement with, at least one whom I know could easily hurt you badly.” He tapped his foot, crossing his arms. “Now, obviously there are concerns all around, how about we all agree to calmly discuss this over a nice cup of tea? I’m sick of playing the mother with all of these arguments.”

“Fine,” Nigel agreed, before smirking. “But I want ice-cream afterwards- Ow, bastard!”

James removed his armoured foot from the side of his friend, Reflection already rubbing the area with her forehooves while Chrysalis had lost some anger and gained a steady amount of confusion.

“That wasn’t a very civil thing to do,” Reflection growled, glaring up. James ignored her and focused on Nigel, the Emperor finally starting to sober up.

“Chalmers, behave.”

“Fine, fine… calm your tits.”

James didn’t bother, rolling his eyes and gesturing for everyone to stand up. The trio complied, all of them not saying a word while he watched them like a hawk. “Good, now if we all make it to the dining room acting just like this, then we can be done with this silliness.” A finger was pointed at Elijah. “You as well, I’m done with being the sole responsible one here.”

It was not to be, however, as at that precise time a side door was kicked open. James didn’t turn around immediately, taking a deep breath as he picked up the distinctive sound of an armoured tail dragging along the floor while ponies and griffons gasped.

“Murphy must hate you,” Elijah tittered, the reminder of the law only confirming James’ worst fears.

“It’s Orthodox, isn’t it?” James responded.

“Knock, knock!”

“That theory is confirmed,” Elijah answered before whistling. “My, are those severed heads he’s holding?”

Regretfully, James pivoted on the spot and confirmed it for himself.

Orthodox, covered with gore and minus his helmet, was wearing the largest grin possible. His chest was thrust out proudly, his tail waving in the air behind him almost in a wagging motion. Six bloody heads were clutched in his hands, James noting with revulsion that Orthodox’s teeth were bloody and a few of the heads looked chewed on. Typical, what could have been expected from letting him run around unsupervised?

James considered the choices open to him, and took the one he thought was wisest.

“Nope, I’m out.”

With that, he turned on his heels and headed for the exit and stairs, deciding that a nice shower was due.

Ponies wisely gave him a wide birth as Orthodox approached Nigel, Reflection and the new, large changeling backing away like they were going to throw up. Chalmers was impassive, Orthodox smiling proudly at the dumbstruck expression. Reaching his friend, he threw down the heads before his feet, the grisly trophies splattering onto the ground while flecks of frozen blood clattered on the crystal floor.

“Look what I got,” he announced with glee and his hands balled up against his sides. “I know they’re not the diamond dogs you wanted, but they were talking about trying to steal your gems.” He kicked the purple one’s head, smiling with ecstasy while he remembered the death. “I decided to sort them out for you, teach them some manners.”

“… And then deliver their severed heads to me, in front of foreign dignitaries?”

Orthodox glanced towards the creatures in togas and armour, all but the largest one wearing shocked expressions.

“You can thank me in the morning by lending me a few ponies or changethings with a cart.” Walking past Nigel, he strained to pat the human on the shoulder. “I’m tired as hell and it’s late, I’ll see you at breakfast.” Whistling, he left Nigel to deal with the mess, happy with himself and the good work that he had done.

Nigel stood still, trying to calm himself down. He was only dimly aware of Elijah moving to stand next to him, a million thoughts on how one can kill a short alien racing through his head.

“Excuse me, Nigel. I know this is a bad time, but I was wondering if-“

“Take them,” he croaked out in response to Elijah’s whisper. “Just… hurry up and take them.”

Holstering his data pad and clapping his hands together gleefully, Elijah quickly moved to bend down and gather up body parts.
“Oh my, such wonderful scales, and look at the inner workings of the throats…”

Nigel shut his eyes while Elijah muttered to himself, only opening them again when the scientist rushed past him with the grisly prizes in his arms. The small smatterings of blood still remained, Nigel staring at them silently.

Claws clacked on the floor, a griffon talon patting him on the side.

“As I said, amazing party,” Augustus chuckled, guards quickly ushering his wife and he away towards the rooms, taking care to use a different staircase than Orthodox and Elijah.

After a few more moments, Nigel brushed himself down, wiped his nose, nodded to himself, and then turned around to face the shaken Reflection and Chrysalis.

“Righto,” he announced while rubbing his hands together, guards hurrying to secure the area and clean up the mess. “Tea and a chat sounds rather nice right now, don’t you agree?”

Chrysalis stared at the cup of steaming tea that had been placed between her hooves by a servant, the other two at the table watching her intensely. The scene earlier had convinced her to act a little more civil as had been suggested, the arrival and actions of the short and obviously insane dragon providing a great incentive to cooperate. It didn’t prevent her from disliking it, however, and she communicated this by glaring at both the apparent Emperor and his traitor changeling consort.

“So, Queen Chrysalis,” the Emperor began after taking a sip of tea. “I’m either Commander or Emperor Nigel M Chalmers, depending on who I’m speaking to. This here is Reflection, who currently owns the much-disliked title of ‘Lady’.”

“Not for long,” the changeling noble muttered, sharing a glare with her.

“Ah, don’t give it away,” Chalmers chuckled, not noticing the stare off. “Anyway, I suppose we should get down to the main problem at hand. You obviously believe that what has happened is wrong.”

She focused back on him, frowning while taking a short drink. “You’ve stolen a large number of my subjects, leaving me with only a few hundred loyal ones.” Eyes narrowed. “If what you say is correct, then you and your…” she glanced distastefully at Reflection. “Helpers have succeeded in gaining control of them, control which isn’t likely to change. That makes me weaker, so forgive me if I’m not too happy about it.

“We were starving and desperate,” Reflection cut in, banging a hoof on the table which earned her a warning glance from the Emperor.

“Would you have preferred us to just die rather than try and continue to live? Are you that selfish that you’d want us to suffer rather than live the type of lives that you’ve been promising us for as long as anyone can remember?”

“Don’t you dare say anymore!” she thumped both forehooves down, seething at the perceived slight. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve worked to keep those promises? Do you know how difficult it is to try and keep thousands fed while all the lands despise or fear you!? I tried, Reflection, the Canterlot invasion was a sure thing and would have secured us food for life!”

Reflection visibly fumed. “A sure thing? How many changelings actually made it back after being flung out from your ‘sure thing’!? We still have injured and weak survivors making their way here, from all over the lands! You talk about improving lives, about unending food?” Reflection stood up with her forelegs on the table, her wings buzzing while she hissed. “Well, we’ve got that all here, and now you want to take it away out of… out of pure selfishness?”

“Reflection,” Chalmers placed a hand on the fuming changeling’s back, carefully setting his tea down. “Calm down, we can work this out-“

“No, Nigel!” Reflection growled, brushing his hand away. “Chrysalis will never work with us to help all changelings, not if it means she doesn’t have all of the power. All she cares about is control, control over everything and everyone. If we let her stay, then she’ll ruin everything!”

“You act like I wish to stay here,” she fired back, earning the attention of the Emperor.

“You may not have a choice,” he told her, once again placing a hand on Reflection’s back in an attempt to calm. “The changelings who have been living here for months have adapted quickly, and are enjoying living with the crystal ponies without having to worry about fear or going hungry. Working together, pony, changeling, and of course myself, we’ve transformed this city of fear into a beacon of civilization.” He sighed.
“You’re correct in saying that your subjects are rather taken with us, but it’s through no wrongdoing on my or the crystal ponies’ parts, we merely offer safety and security.”

“An offer that we can actually deliver,” Reflection added mockingly.

The Emperor sent her a look that prompted Reflection to fold her ears back apologetically, before he looked back to her. “Despite the way she’s putting it, Reflection is right. We have given what we promised, and your former subjects appreciate it greatly.” He hesitated, glancing towards the changeling by his side. “That offer of course is extended to yourself and your subjects.”

Reflection ground her teeth, while Chrysalis snorted.

“What makes you think I’d accept such a generous offer? I’d have to give up my power and refer to you as a superior, what’s the incentive when I can just take… other options?” She ensured to bare her fangs at the last two words, the Emperor and Reflection narrowing their eyes.

“I can assure you,” Chalmers answered. “Our military forces are small, but elite and experienced. Even without the help of myself and my quite capable colleagues, they are a fighting force to be reckoned with.” Chrysalis repressed a shudder, guessing that the short dragon was such a colleague. “We’ve already taken down one invasion force, we’re prepared to defeat another. However, I’d like to avoid the deaths of changelings if you don’t mind.” He leaned over, wrapping an arm around Reflection. “As you have probably guessed, I’ve grown rather fond of them.”

She maintained a fierce face while she watch Reflection nuzzle his face lovingly, and she grinded her teeth when the other changeling sent her a smirk unseen by the Emperor. To say her position was an uncomfortable one was an understatement, Chrysalis rapidly going over her options.

On one hoof, even the thought of bowing a knee to another left a sour taste in her mouth. That wasn’t even taking into account the Emperor’s and Reflection’s air of superiority, or the fact that the rival ruler didn’t even seem to realise what he was demanding of her.

Then again, what they offered for her and her subjects was tempting. She had seen the guards, taken in the intimidating armour that the changelings wore and the sharp weapons that they wielded. The creature in the black armour also keyed her in to the fact that she wasn’t dealing with a weak people, after all they must possess some power if they had taken over an apparent empire.

Her thoughts darkened, Chrysalis realising that they had no obligation to let her go. There were a number of guards outside of the door, and doubted that escape would be likely if they wished to detain her.

Pursing her lips, she continued to think while the pair opposite watched and waited. If she joined them, she was sure to lose total control of her changelings. On the other hoof, maybe she was thinking about this in the wrong way. Rather than a problem, she could try to turn this around, taking the opportunity to likely secure power and influence. From what she had seen, the city was very warlike and prepared for violence. These ponies and creatures could prove to be a useful asset in the future, but only if she acted quickly and with great cunning.

“After giving it some though, your… offer has some merits.”

The Emperor chuckled lightly. “Figured out that I could just chuck you in the dungeons?”

Her mouth twitched, but that was her sole reaction. “There’s that, but securing the safety of my subjects is appealing.” She noticed Reflection narrow her eyes, but continued on. “There are some conditions of course, if I agree to join your little Empire.”

“You’re in no position to set conditions,” Reflection growled, Chalmers moving to rub her head but was pushed away. “No, Nigel. Are you really doing this? Can’t you tell that she’s only trying to use us?”

“Reflection, we have to give her a chance.”

“I don’t agree, nothing is forcing us to.”

The Emperor ran his hand down his face, sighing. “Look, it’s complicated, just go along with it.”

Reflection paused, staring at him before nodding and leaving the table.


“I’m going to bed,” she shot back with venom. “I’m obviously not needed here, after all.”

Chrysalis raised an eye at the spat, the Emperor hesitating for a few moments while he held a finger up. Evidently he decided that it wouldn’t achieve anything, the door slamming shut behind Reflection before he turned back to face her.

“I’m sorry for that,” he continued on without a smile. “She’s got a lot on her mind currently.” She was wise enough to not say anything, waiting for him to continue. “Well, let’s hear these conditions.”

“One,” she began to supply while quickly thinking. “I want a high-up position, and partial control.”

“I can offer you the job of Minister for Changeling Affairs,” he countered. “After a week and a half, that’s when the position will become free. You’ll be offered either a large room in the palace or a house by yourself, a generous wage, and access to a wide range of services. You will be required to attend court and meetings.” He placed his hands on the table. “Control, however, will be limited.”

“Two,” Chrysalis continued, deciding to leave the arguing for now. “You must make it look like I managed to work out this deal with you, at least in front of my subjects.”

He paused before nodding. “I can do that, a general face-saving measure.”

“Three, I don’t wish to have any dealings with Equestria or their accursed princesses.”

“That won’t be an issue, Equestrians are no longer welcome in this Empire due to… prior disagreements.”

That gained her interest, what exactly had gone on while she was out? A city of ponies she had never heard of, not on friendly terms with Equestrian ponies? There was also the fact that their ruler was of a previously unseen race, and they also had assimilated changelings into their ranks. She got the feeling that something iffy was going on, but she felt like it was also a golden opportunity ripe for the taking. After all, she could feel the power coursing through her thanks to the seemingly unending supply of positive emotion in the air. Even the knowledge of how that was possible would be well worth acting like this Emperor was her superior.


“Look, Chrysalis,” the Emperor interrupted, glancing towards the door. “Can I request that we continue this tomorrow, after my morning meeting with the griffon delegation? Personal matters to attend to, and stuff like that.”

Her mind went to the changeling noble that had stormed out, the reason for his uneasiness easy to work out. Chrysalis made a note to try and befriend the admittedly irritating female, a high-up changeling on her side would be a boon to her efforts. It would be difficult however, she got the slight feeling that there was little appreciation for her efforts from that individual.

“That would be okay,” she answered, before glancing to the door.

“Thanks, you’ll of course be happy to stay in the house already provided for the time being?”

That was an issue, she hadn’t actually taken the time to examine her resting place in her haste to confront him earlier that evening.

“Of course,” she said with an even face, hoping she wasn’t making a mistake.

“Great, I’ll tell the guards to escort you back and provide you with anything within reason.” He hastily left his chair, not bothering to push it in before he reached the door and knocked, four guards opening it to stare in at her.

Chrysalis hoped that she was making the right choice, knowing that the next few days would be a strain.

Reflection didn’t roll over when someone else entered the room, the door shutting gently.

“Look, Reflection, I know you don’t like her but she can prove useful to-“

“I don’t want to hear it right now,” she cut him off. “She’s dangerous and will only plot to take us down, so I’m going to stay out of it until you see her for what she is.”

Thankfully, he was smart enough not to argue and to keep quiet, and it wasn’t long before the bed sheets were drawn back and a weight settled down next to her. Nothing more was said, the lights turning off and soon the sound of heavy breathing was the sole sound in the room. Waiting two more minutes, she finally lifted her head up and looked beside her.

Remembering the box sitting in their set of draws, her glare softened. While she didn’t like the idea of letting Chrysalis stay, let alone thinking about any cooperation with the failed tyrant, he obviously thought it was a good idea.

She just wished that he’d trust her a little more, it was obvious that he had a secret plan and the fact that he wasn’t telling her about it hurt. It was likely because he didn’t think that she would be able to get along with Chrysalis, something that was probably correct.

Lying back down with a sigh, this time facing him, she acknowledged that she’d have to talk to him about it in the morning. Hopefully he would let her in on it if she promised to behave in exchange. Her eyes narrowed, a darker thought entering her mind. ‘After all, I actually got along with Cadence for an evening.’

The slowly spreading warmth, courtesy of body heat, caused her to yawn and fall deeper into drowsiness. Shuffling closer, she pressed up against the sleeping Emperor and relaxed. It didn’t take long for sleep to take her, and despite the ending of the night she slumbered with a smile on her face.

“So, in exchange for two cartloads of gems delivered to your palace, you’ll give us one-hundred hectares of land to the north of your country?”
Nigel paused to take a gulp of tea, going over the scroll on which Augustus had written to proposal. The griffon nodded, the two rulers sitting at the table alone save for Sparking Scroll to the left.

“Prime mining land, it’s next to a huge mountain range full of deposits of iron ore, or so my scouts tell me.”

“I don’t know, it seems a little too good to be true.”

“Ha!” Augustus chuckled. “Do you know how difficult it is to get griffons to work in the cold? Even forgetting the fact that we already have plenty of existing mines in warmer regions, the cost of using hired labor would just be unfeasible. We weren’t going to use it, so I might as well get something out of it.” The Emperor leaned forward, a grin on his beak. “Besides, more iron for you means more lovely steel weapons for me. It’s win-win.”

Nigel grinned, evidently Augustus remembered the suggestion of the Crystal Empire trading steel weapons to the griffon legions. He wondered what other information the griffon had retained despite his drunkenness the previous night. Nodding towards Sparkling, he watched her record the offer down.

“It sounds good, however we should return to it later. I already have someone in mind to lead the mining operations, and I have to discuss it with my advisors.”

“Very well,” Augustus finished chewing a bite of sugared puff-pastry. “Why don’t we talk about a much easier topic, tourism. I may have said that griffons don’t like to work in the cold, but I have to admit that the views around your city are impressive indeed. If you open your boarders to griffons, I guarantee that you’ll receive a very healthy amount of visitors. Visitors with plenty of money to spend.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Why, hopefully some of my wife’s friends will like it so much they’ll stay!” Augustus laughed deeply, before calming himself down and shaking a talon. “But seriously, there doesn’t need to be a direct payoff involved all the time. Cooperation between us both can only make my own Empire stronger, and secure my popularity with the Senate.” Augustus’ smile wavered for a brief instant. “The gods know that my firstborn needs all the help he can get in that regard.”

Nigel decided to not comment on the new information, and instead pushed on. As surprisingly entertaining and productive the meeting had been, he still had to have a talk with Reflection and then another meeting with Chrysalis that he wasn’t looking forward to.

“Speaking of cooperation, a military alliance…”

“Would be more than welcome,” Augustus finished. “The Equestrians have been encroaching upon our closest borders for years now, with or without permission from Canterlot I can’t be sure of. Still, a show of unity with our two nations’ militaries would go a long way to putting a stop to any official incursions, for both of us.”

A talon was extended across the table, Nigel shaking it with a thoughtful look. There was something else that the griffon wasn’t telling him, so he decided to go for the easiest option. “There’s something more, isn’t there?”

Augustus removed his talon and sat back, shrugging his wings. “Well, from what I’ve seen, you and your fellows don’t seem to be locals, if you get my drift.” A gleam was in Augustus’ eye, a wide smile spreading across his face. “I may be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that you’ll… know and possess certain things that others in the surrounding areas may not. If a show of good faith on my part builds a potential foundation for any future deals with any other parties not yet widely known…”

“A foundation like that is entirely possible,” Chalmers replied, tapping his fingers on the desk and glancing towards Sparkling. His assistant had stopped recording their words down, Nigel sending her a thankful nod before focusing back on Augustus. “I can’t promise anything concrete at the moment, given certain situations, but I can assure you that I will endeavor to put in a good word for you in the future. I have… influence in more than just the Crystal Empire.”

Augustus nodded with a satisfied smile, before looking back over his own list. “That is all, from the looks of things. I suppose that we have an agreement on all terms?”

“Indeed,” Nigel decided, the two once again shaking on it. “As of now, a treaty of cooperation is in effect and we’ll no doubt find it to be mutually beneficial.”

“Happy to finally to have some diplomatic success,” Augustus agreed. “Now, I’d love to stay for longer but my wife and I must be getting back.”

“I understand, I’ve already organised for some messengers to be organised for any communications we need.”

“All will be welcome.” Augustus left his seat, stretching his limbs before turning for the door. “Good luck to you, may we both prosper from this deal.”

“I’ll make an effort to visit,” he waved in farewell, watching while Augustus left the room. When the Emperor was gone, he relaxed in his seat and sighed. “Well, that went better than I hoped.”

Sparkling laid her quill down on the table, giving the list a final look-over. “We certainly managed to make some good agreements, that mining land could prove to be very useful given out lack of supplies. I’m surprised they let us have it for so few gems, even with that explanation about griffons not liking the cold.”

“Trust me, Sparkling, Emperor Augustus is more observant than he appears at times. He’s looking for more than just gems, he’s wise enough to already start gaining favor with me specifically.”

She tilted her head. “You think he knows about your ‘UIP’?”

“I think he’s managed to figure out that we’re a potential route to power unobtainable on this planet, and he’s willing to take a risk for a chance to secure some.” He leaned back in his chair, a grin on his face. “And I must say, he’s given me a wonderful idea regarding our Equestrian problem.”

Sparkling looked like she was waiting for him to tell her, but after a few moments of silence she gestured to her lists.

“Do you want me to stay for your meeting with Chrysalis?”

“No, thank you. I’ve got to find Reflection and try to solve some problems from last night, and the meeting with Chrysalis will contain some… confidential information. Sorry Sparkling, it’s not that I don’t trust you-“

“I understand,” she thankfully reassured, gathering her things. “I’ll make a few copies of this agreement and see Emperor Augustus off for you.”

He smiled at her. “Thanks, I better go and find Reflection.”

“I’m already here.” Both turned to look at the dining room door, Reflection walking past the guards on the outside to stand before him. She didn’t upset, something that he was thankful for. She’d woken before him that morning and had been absent at breakfast, so he had assumed that she was still cross. “Sparkling, could we please have some privacy?”

“You couldn’t pay me to stay here for what I think is about to happen,” Sparkling said as she rushed out, scrolls trailing behind her. Nigel focused on Reflection when the changeling shut the door, swiveling in his seat to face her.

“Reflection,” he began as soon as they were alone. “About last night-“

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, surprising him by taking flight and settling down on his lap with her forelegs wrapped around his neck in an embrace. “I know that I’ve got a short temper and I don’t do well with people I don’t like. Sometimes though, it just seems like you don’t even trust me enough to tell me what’s going to happen. This cooperation with Chrysalis doesn’t sit right with me,” she looked right at him. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you again, why can’t we just… send her away with some love-gems as a bribe?”

He sighed, shifting in his chair in an attempt to make it more comfortable for her. Placing his hands on her sides, Nigel sighed.

“Look, I know you don’t like Chrysalis and you don’t trust her,” he replied. “I can understand why, after all you see what she did as foolish and believe that it almost led to the end of your race. I know I didn’t listen to you last evening like I should have, but please trust me when I say that I have a plan in mind for occupying Chrysalis and ensuring that she’ll be no threat.”

Reflection lowered her head, shaking it sadly. “I’m sorry, Nigel, but I can’t accept that. I trust you on everything else and I know that you only mean well for me.” She smiled, Nigel able to feel her body relax. “I did give you that ring, after all. It’s just that Chrysalis… she’s manipulative, since anyone can remember. So whatever it is, can you please just tell me now so I can stop worrying?”

He stared at her for a moment, considering which was more important. Should he preserve secrecy, or go against his gut feeling and tell her what she wanted to know. Reflection nuzzling his chest helped him decide, and he pulled her back up so he had her full attention.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what I think we should do. But I warn you, this won’t exactly stop you from worrying…”

Chrysalis waited while the nurse drone changed the bandage around her left foreleg, tapping her free hoof on the carved wooden table. The house she and the three nurses were occupying was simple, but she grudgingly had to admit that it didn’t lack comfort. She’d slept in late that morning, but her injuries were fast improving. The love in the air was indeed prevalent, and she figured that before long she’d be back to full strength.

While awake, she had listened to the information that her nurses had gathered during their brief trip back to the main camp the previous night. Her concerns about the strength of the Crystal Empire guards were confirmed, the ponies and changelings appearing to be very disciplined and organised. Squads patrolled the city streets and boarders constantly, pole-axes and heavy armour clinking as they did so.
Curiously, she had noticed that most bore some visible scars, so the possibility existed that they had already seen combat on a massive scale.

“There you are, Your Highness,” the nurse spoke up, Chrysalis glancing towards the unwrapped leg. “All better from the looks of it.”

“So it seems,” she agreed, turning the limb over to examine it.

“Do you need anything else?”

Chrysalis glanced out of the doorway into the living room, two crystal pony guards visible outside the front window. All of a sudden, they straightened and saluted, so she craned her head to see who was approaching.

She almost cursed when she recognised the self-titled Emperor, and the changeling noble trotting alongside him with an even face. Now was not when she wanted to deal with them.

“No, please return to the room allocated for you and stay there.”

The nurse almost seemed like she was about to ask why, but a knock at the door convinced her to obey without the question. Chrysalis waited until the changeling was out of the room, and prepared for the mistake she was about to make.

“Come in.”

The door opened and closed, Chrysalis tapping her hoof on the table while she waited for the human and Reflection to stop and stare at her.
“Excuse us for the interruption,” the Emperor began. “But we were due for a meeting and I’d though that now was a good time to finish off last night.”

She stared at Reflection, the lesser changeling struggling to maintain a neutral face. The mental link she shared with her subjects was unresponsive with Reflection, indicating that the noble was actively blocking it out. A pity, Reflection seemed much more prone to showing emotion compared to the Emperor, and would have been a useful source of information during the meeting. Without asking, the Emperor carefully sat down on a free chair and pulled out another for Reflection.

While Reflection clambered up onto the offered seat beside him, Chrysalis took the time to properly study her hosts.

Reflection wasn’t that different to any other changeling noble, Chrysalis remembering that there were a small number of twenty-three back at the main camp serving as military officers. It was plain to see that Reflection led a pampered life, an admittedly beautiful necklace around her neck and a shiny carapace that indicated a healthy diet. Considering that Reflection was the consort of the Emperor and always by his side, in addition to the constant supply of energy in the very air, Chrysalis wasn’t very surprised.

The Emperor on the other hoof, was quite an interesting creature. The nurses had told her that he was a ‘human’, and that two other humans were in the Empire. Chrysalis assumed that they were the large black one with the refined voice and mind powers, and the bespectacled one in white armour who was creepy even to her. There was also the dangerous dragon-creature, another reason why she was holding off on just attempting to take over.

Chalmers himself was not too unusual in her books, possessing standard features for a mammal and not looking much like an ‘alien’ that her nurses had claimed him to be. Granted, he held an unmistakable presence in his simple black uniform, and she silently cursed that he was so smitten with Reflection. While seducing him wouldn’t have been very enjoyable, it would have led to an impressive amount of power once he was under her control.

“So, Chrysalis,” Chalmers spoke up, breaking her from her thoughts. “We’ve thought of a way to allow you control of your current subjects, as well as feed them while still contributing to the Crystal Empire.”

She shifted her eyes from one to the other, trying to spot any hints in their posture. It sounded suspicious, she could tell that a plot had been hatched.

“Really?” she answered evenly. “Forgive me if I doubt that.”

Reflection glared, but didn’t say anything. Nigel however raised an eye, before shrugging his shoulders. “Doubt all you want, it’s either this or you’re going to be removed from the Empire and we’ll keep any changelings that want to stay.” A faint smirk became apparent, and it was then that she realised that he wasn’t quite the fool he first appeared to be. “From what I’ve heard, a lot of the ones that arrived with you are very impressed with our ‘feed every changeling’ policy. It’d be a shame to have to resort to a petty popularity contest, don’t you agree?”
She growled, he certainly had a point there. It was true that her defeat by the Equestrians had strained the loyalties of her subjects, and at the moment she doubted that many would stick by her if offered what the Crystal Empire promised.

“What are you suggesting?”

The Emperor leaned back, tapping his fingers together. Chrysalis became worried when Reflection smiled at her, the positive expression setting off warning bells. Even worse, the Emperor nodded to Reflection before going back to watching her.

“It’s simple,” Reflection began. “Thanks to our deals with the griffons, we’ve traded for a large area of land next to some mineral-rich mountains. They’ll let us mine for iron and other metals in return for weapons made from our steel.”

“We require a workforce that are well suited to underground conditions, and can stand some cold temperatures,” Emperor Chalmers continued.

“Let me guess,” she replied, keying in. “You wish for me and my subjects to mine these mountains for you?” She almost scoffed, did they think her a simple overseer?

“We do. You’ll be provided with guards, weapons, supplies, equipment, and support whenever we have hands to spare. You will be in charge, and you’ll act pretty much like a protectorate. The mines run, the metals are transported back here…” he leaned forward. “And we’ll even let you keep any precious gems you find for any trade that you may wish to undertake.”

“You will also be given a permanent room in the palace for when you’re in the city,” Reflection admitted with a less than pleased tone. “You’ll be treated as a member of the upper-nobility when it comes to court matters, and houses will be set aside for any changelings that want to visit.”

Chrysalis was honestly considering the terms, intrigued by the offer. In return for managing a mining operation, she would be guaranteed a constant supply of love with the chance of extreme wealth? A room in the palace and the title of noble was less appetizing, but it still wasn’t a bad deal. She’d have, in effect, her own country away from the observing eyes of the Emperor. It couldn’t be as bad as the Hive she was running before, and it would give her ample time to build a core of loyal subjects.

“There are, of course, a few conditions,” Chalmers spoke up, ruining it all. Chrysalis eyed him carefully, no longer taking any chances with him.

“The guards sent will be chosen from loyal members of the defense force, and they will be evenly distributed between changelings and crystal ponies. If you perform well and stay… civil, then I see no issue with removing that condition in the future.” He paused, his smirk increasing.

“You’ll also be accompanied by Lead Researcher Elijah, he volunteered himself as soon as I told him that you’d be digging up rocks.”

“Really?” Reflection mentioned quietly, looking towards him. “You didn’t tell me about that.”

“It’s true, he’s always been a fan of geometry or whatever it’s called, so I thought-“

“No, I meant that I didn’t know you were sending him.”

Chrysalis didn’t like where this was going. “One moment, isn’t he the one in white armour?”

“Yes,” Chalmers sighed, waving a hand in dismissal. “He’s the guy who took the dragon heads. Look, just try and avoid talking to him and you’ll be fine. As soon as he sees shiny rocks, he’ll be as happy as… well, a mad scientist with shiny rocks. Relax, he won’t be there forever and I’ll tell him to leave you alone.”

Both Reflection and the Emperor settled back in their chairs and waited. Chrysalis mulled over the suggestion, taking stock of both the negatives and positives. In the end, she had to admit that it was indeed a fair offer, and if she gained an ally against Equestria then it couldn’t be too bad. Actually, she could convince her subjects that she had been the one to broker the deal, maintaining and regaining her dignity. It would take time to recover fully, but it would happen in the foreseeable future. They also told the truth when they hinted that she had no better options.

“I will accept, on one condition,” she answered, earning another glare from Reflection. “I wish to be able to rule as I see, making decisions without needing to consult you first.”

Chalmers raised an eye, but was quick to answer. “That’s fine, as long as you obey our laws and don’t jeopordise our relations with the griffons, understand? No invasions.”

“Fine,” she growled out, before forcing herself to relax. “Am I to sign something?”

“Don’t bother,” Chalmers waved away while getting up from his chair. “If you betray us, it will be dealt with swiftly,” he glanced at her before making for the door. “I hope that doesn’t need to happen, and I know that you don’t. Come on Reflection, I believe that a nice spot of lunch is in order.”

“Coming,” Reflection answered, watching him walk out. Chrysalis could see that Reflection was waiting for Chalmers to get out of earshot, before leaning across the table. “Seriously, if you even think about ruining this great chance we’ve given you, I’ll be there to make sure you’ll pay.”

‘How cute, the noble thinks she can intimidate the Queen of the Changelings.’ Chrysalis bared her teeth in a wide grin, and likewise leaned in.

“I can see that you believe to possess power, purely because you’ve chosen to spread your legs for the creature in charge,” she hissed, Reflection growing angrier.

“Like you can talk,” Reflection fired back with an equally venomous voice. “You claim it to be the ‘Changeling way’, after all. I think you’re just jealous that I’ve managed to help my fellow changelings without needing to trick a male into loving me.”

Chrysalis ground her teeth, the insolent upstart!

“You better watch yourself, Lady Reflection,” she warned with an emphases on the lower title. “Speaking like that to your betters can get one into trouble.”

Instead of the outburst of anger that she was expecting, Chrysalis was surprised to instead be met with a knowing smile on behalf of Reflection.

“Oh, just you wait, Queen Chrysalis. In a week and a half, you’ll find out just what it means to be confronted with someone higher than you.” Reflection leaned in closer, he snout almost touching. “I promise you that.”

“Reflection,” the Emperor’s voice came in from outside. “You’re not causing trouble in there, are you?”

“No Nigel!” Reflection replied. “I’m coming out now!”

A final, foreboding glance was sent her way, Chrysalis watching the confident changeling trot out of the house. Evidently Reflection thought that something would give her the upper hoof in their jostling for power, and was confident that it would come to pass.

It mattered not, she intended to be out of the country and running her own before the week was over, anyway.

Reflection trotted out of the house with a hum, moving alongside the waiting Nigel.

“What took you so long?” He narrowed his eyes, his face going hard. “Chrysalis wasn’t giving you any grief, was she?”

“No,” she reassured, surprising him by buzzing her wings and flying up behind him. Reflection looped her forelegs around his neck and her hind ones around his torso, resting her head on top of his. “Don’t worry; I’m not too concerned about her anymore. Let’s go get something to eat.”

“As you command,” he said while beginning to move down the street and towards the crowded markets, before he let out a chuckle and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Empress.”

Reflection grinned at the reminder of her future title, the previous encounter making it that much sweeter.

‘Maybe this Chrysalis thing won’t turn out to be so bad after all.’

Elijah looked up from his borrowed iceboxes at the knock on his door.

“You may enter,” he granted, his voice filled with happiness thanks to his acquisitions the previous night. The door pushed open and Orthodox, the last creature Elijah had expect, entered the modest bedroom. “Orthodox, what are you doing here?”

“Oh, well, you see…” Orthodox paused, gathering his thoughts.

“Yes?” Elijah raised an eye.

“Well, I know that you’ve been looking at those heads I brought back-“

“Ah! Yes the dragon heads, a very nice find,” he interrupted. “I do love dragons, the myths of mighty creatures soaring through the skies and bathing their foes in fire.”

“Sweet,” Orthodox perked up, taking a seat on his bed. The poor furniture squeaked under his armour. “So you’ll know a lot about them?”
Elijah adjusted his glasses, puffing out his chest. “Well, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert, but I have dabbled in certain information pertaining to them. I take it that you’ve got a question to ask regarding them?”

Orthodox nodded, Elijah eagerly awaiting the questions. It was strange that the normally simple Orthodox would seek learning, about dragons no less! Was this a turning point in his ignorance, a new leaf that was turned over? No matter, he would answer all queries and seek to educate his friend as best as he could, Elijah taking a personal oath the milk this rare occasion for all that it was worth.

“Okay then. So when I killed those dragons I saw that some of them had boobs.”

For the first time in as long as he could remember, Elijah was stumped.

“…Boobs? You think you saw mammary glands associated with mammals… on reptiles?”

“Yeah,” Orthodox responded, making imitation breasts on his armoured chest with his hands as if it would help clarify. “You know; knockers, tits, sweater-melons, baby-buffets. Boobs.”

“I know what they are.”

Orthodox tilted his head in disbelief. “Really?”

“This is no time for insults,” Elijah mumbled, rubbing his chin. “This information, if true, could rewrite our knowledge of animal classification. It could lead to the naming of a new species, topple the works of great thinkers who came before out time. This is serious business, Orthodox.” He looked up. “Has Nigel been informed, and James?”

Orthodox was silent for a moment. “…No?”

“What are you waiting for?” Elijah hurried, turning back to the iceboxes and beginning to undo their latches. “We must act on this immediately! Go, go!”

He was aware of Orthodox groaning, before the bed creaked and the door opened once again.

“Fuck, why is it so hard to find out if dragons are supposed to have boobs?”

The door slammed shut, Elijah barely even noticing.

He had important work to do, the entire future of biology rested on his shoulders and the mammoth question he had been asked.
The future of the world, nay, existence, rested on him and him alone.

“Do Dragons have boobs?” he muttered to himself, preparing for a long day and night of constant research.

All Work And No Play...

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“This cannot be allowed to progress any further! We must take action against the Crystal Empire and punish the creatures responsible for these heinous crimes!”

Celestia maintained a strong face while the assembled nobility voiced their support for Hard Line’s call to arms, the vast majority of the court supporting the motion.

“First they take over the Crystal Empire and subjugate the helpless citizens, they fight wars and then riot and injure our guards. Then, they directly attack Equestria itself, robbing our treasury like simple bandits and then abducting Princess Luna! The creatures controlling the Crystal Empire need to be dealt with severely, so I move to mobilise our armies and gather our allies! If the Crystal Empire won’t listen, then we’ll make them listen!”

More shouts of agreement filled the halls, Celestia glancing towards the few loyal supporters by her side before focusing back on Hard Line.

‘Naïve fool,’ she thought while the nobility began to discuss the exact nature of their decree. ‘Does he really think that the Crystal Empire will just give up if we threaten them?’

“That’s not good.” She looked down to her left, Captain Bastion frowning at the ongoing proceedings. “Ten bits says he calls for draft to be initiated, and another ten that they’ll all agree to it without question.” Celestia didn’t take the bet, she knew the chances.

“I can still order them not too, it would cause an immense uproar but it would prevent any rash military actions.”

“You could,” agreed Bastion with a nod. “But I know for a fact that Hard Line won’t back down and will hammer you for the next year about it. This is why politicians should not be able to decide on matters such as this. All they do is try and increase their own power and wealth.”

Celestia sighed. “I know, but that’s the price I pay to keep them happy. Still, there is one thing we can do.”


“We give them what they want,” she whispered with a sly smile. “But we… take the proper time to ensure that we’re ready for any possible confrontation.”

“I can probably stall them for a few weeks if I ‘double-check’ the draft laws to make sure they’re still up to date,” Bastion offered. “Then, of course, I’ll need a month to organise the appropriate amount of guards to oversee the recruitment and training progress. There is still the issue of what we’re actually going to do about this mess, however.”

“I’m working on one plan,” she replied softly. “First we need to ensure that Luna and her guards are safe from any retaliation. I’ve found a spell that should do what we need, but it carries a massive risk.”

“Do you need anything from me?”

She thought for a few moments, making up her mind with a frown. “Yes, actually. I need Twilight Sparkle to be escorted to the old castle in the Everfree forest tomorrow morning, I shall require her assistance in securing an artefact. Then, we will need a chariot and an escort of guards to fly us to the edge of the Crystal Empire.”

Her loyal Captain nodded, getting up to leave his seat. “Very well, Princess. I’ll organise everything immediately.”

“Thank you.”

She watched Bastion leave the meeting hall before turning back to observe Hard Line once again take the centre podium.

Compared to this, a mission to the hostile Crystal Empire was actually welcome.

“Here you go, Your Highness.”

Chrysalis frowned but still took the goblet of water from the drone serving her, the changeling remaining still with the tray of drinks balancing on his back. She leaned back in her chair and took a sip, continuing to grimace despite the refreshing taste of the crystal-clear liquid.

Currently staying in a large tent, she had declined the Emperor’s offer of a house and instead rested with her loyal subjects out in the fields. After the conversation with Reflection, she wasn’t going to tolerate even being within twenty body lengths from the self-righteous upstart. To think that her own daughter would turn on her!

She glared down at the cup held in her magic, the gem-encrusted gift just another mockery in her eyes. The Emperor had acted like it was a small gift, waving off her protests that it seemed much too extravagant for a simple drinking cup.

‘They’re doing it on purpose,’ she glowered while taking another sip. ‘Chalmers and Reflection, working together to undermine my rule.’ Her glare increased when she thought of the changelings that had disappeared from the camp over the night, certain that already there were deserters lulled by the promise of life in the Crystal Empire. In the future they would be dealt with, but for now there was not much that she was able to do.

“Thank you,” she murmured, placing the empty cup back on the tray. “I am no longer thirsty. Fetch Commander Clicks for me.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The drone retreated out of the tent, Chrysalis going over her words with another glare.

‘Did I just thank a drone, for the chance to serve me no less? All of this love must be getting to me.’

Hoping that there’d be no further slip-ups, she had to be content with awaiting the arrival of her military commander. Clicks had interacted with the alien ruler the most, as well as having been treated to a view of the Crystal Empire’s military practices and equipment. In her mind, that had been a very misguided move on the part of her opponents, but since it benefited her she supposed that she could let it go.

The approaching trotting of hooves approached her tent, then stopped outside the flaps. “Your Highness, you wished to speak to me?”

“Enter,” she allowed, Commander Clicks trotting in to stand in front of her makeshift throne. He saluted and then bowed, Chrysalis rolling her eyes. She was not in the mood for the usual protocols at the current time, waving her hoof as a signal for him to rise back up. “Commander, I desire some more detailed information from you.” She raised an eye, unable to resist a chance for some fun. “That is, if you have recovered from the embarrassing circumstances you found yourself in two nights ago?”

Clicks blushed green, stammering as he tried to answer. “I-I had a rough morning, My Queen, but I assure you that I am fit for service once more.” He tried to smile, rubbing the back of his head with a foreleg. “You must understand, I was merely trying to blend in to extract more information from the-“

“Clicks,” she interrupted. “You got drunk and had to be removed by guards of a rival nation, do not attempt to lie to me.” Still, she couldn’t resist a small smile. “It was a decent try, anyway. However, I did not call you here to discuss your wellbeing.”

He bowed again. “Thank you for your forgiveness.”

“Yes, yes,” Chrysalis muttered before tapping her hoof on the chair’s armrest. “Now, given the… issues over the last two days, now is the time that I want you to tell me about the Crystal Empire. You can start with their military strength.” She didn’t like the sombre look that appeared on Click’s face at her request.

“It’s powerful, my Queen. While they have a lesser amount of dedicated troops, all are equipped and trained exceedingly well. Their Captain told me of their previous battles, and a number of their soldiers showed me their battle scars. They are ponies, but they are far from soft-hearted.” He took a breath before continuing. “As you likely have already noticed, they are primarily armed with the spear-axes and swords, with a number of powerful crossbows also. In addition, they have constructed deadly war-machines that fire bolts tipped with magical munitions. All of these have been tested in the heat of battle, and they train daily.”

“I see,” Chrysalis nodded, frowning at the information. It was worse than she had estimated. “And the more pressing matter, the traitors?”

“Numerous. Apparently after the Equestrians occupied the city, the amount of changelings seeking to enter the Crystal Guard doubled. The ratio is about one third, the traitors serving mostly as scouts, ranged attack, and light forces. They showed me a tactic where a group of ponies would form a wall with their weapons and some traitors would fire from within.” Clicks narrowed his eyes. “It has apparently proved deadly, and I do not doubt it. In addition, the armour made for changeling troops is strong and light, the traitors are a great threat indeed.”

He was waiting for an answer, but she didn’t give him one. It was clear that attempting to compete with military strength wasn’t an option, but luckily she had plenty of others. Manipulation was key, and with a growing grin she figured out a way to get her spies into the inner circles of the rival leadership. Her smile wide, she looked back down at Clicks and stopped tapping her hoof.

“The crystal ponies, and traitors, they are loyal to the Emperor are they not?”

“Extremely,” Click tilted his head. “And that’s another problem. It’ll be incredibly difficult to convince any to work for us, crystal pony or changeling.”

“That’s not what I’m thinking. Tell me, Click, the Emperor seems rather fond of you, doesn’t he?”

“Well, I would say fond, but he doesn’t appear to be threatened by me.” He seemed to catch on, shaking his head at the idea. “But Ma’am, I’m afraid that I’m still carefully watched while around him-“

“I wasn’t talking about you, I was suggesting that we have some… ‘deserters’ break off to join the Empire, deserters who’ll have skills related to research and governance.”

“You’re suggesting that we plant scholars into their government as spies?”

She smiled at him. “Yes, I am. The Emperor has already displayed his fondness for changelings, and it’s just ripe for exploitation.”

Click shuffled on his hooves, her smile dropping when she sensed doubt from him. “Click? I can tell that you’re hiding something.”

Immediately he froze, before wincing. “Forgive me for asking this, but why are you so intent on spying on the Crystal Empire? If we get caught, then we’re going to be thrown out for sure, or worse.”

Chrysalis laughed, waving a hoof in dismissal. “Caught? Please, with all of the changelings in the city already, how are we going to get caught? You worry far too much, Click. I have this matter under total control and this Chalmers is too trusting for his own good.”

“And what of the other humans? That one in black seems to always be watching everyone closely, and the one in white is just plain creepy.”

“I know,” she agreed with a low voice. “They are both a concern, the one named ‘Elijah’ especially. There is the reek of something around him, although I am unable to put a name to it.”

Click shivered. “You noticed it as well?”

“Of course I did,” Chrysalis snapped, before glaring again. “And of course he is the one that is going to be keeping an eye on us while we are away in the Griffon lands.”

“We could always arrange an… ‘accident’?”

“Possibly, although I doubt it will be easy.” She raised a hoof to her chin in thought, leaning back and nodding. “But your idea has merit, continue to think of ways in case we need to be rid of him. Now, be gone, I wish to rest.”

Click bowed before retreating from the tent, leaving Chrysalis to sit and brood.

“Yes,” she muttered to herself. “I may have need of a number of ‘accidents’…”

“That’s looking a little better.”

Reflection took a second to re-ink the quill she was using, before returning to the binder of parchment she was working on. A few final strokes finished off her plan for the decorations, her promised and upcoming hatchday party at the forefront of her mind. She had been sitting alone in their bedroom since the morning court had ended, Nigel having gone off to examine the construction of the city wall. He had been a little disappointed that she wanted to stay behind, but it had been her only option.

After all, her project was a secret even to him.

In truth, the binder full of decoration ideas, entertainment plans, guest lists, and carefully drawn layouts wasn’t for the hatchday party that Nigel was planning to throw for her in a week and a half’s time.

It was for the wedding that she had insisted they didn’t need.

It had pained her to have lied to him, but she was still unsure as to whether the ‘W’ word would put him off his promise to wed her. So she had resorted to planning it in secret, keeping it to herself and hoping that she would have it all ready by the time he planned to announce their marriage plans. If she presented it to him all ready to go, then it could only increase the chances of him agreeing to it.

If all else fails, she was confident that she could pull off a sorrowful gaze and guilt trip him into it, but that wasn’t the preferred option. Her dream was for it to be a wonderful day for both of them, preferably a day without Orthodox and Elijah.

“Knock knock!” Reflection scrambled to close her binder, Sparkling Scroll entering through the door and trotting over to peer over her shoulder. “Hey, what are you working on?”

“Nothing,” she quickly explained. “Just… stuff.”

“Ah,” Sparkling said with raised eyes, her tone and smile showing that she wasn’t convinced in the slightest. “So, why are you up here and not with the Emperor?”

Reflection shrugged, forelegs still protectively around her binder. “I just wanted some time alone, you know, to think and relax without having everyone’s eyes on me.” Sparkling nodded, taking a seat on the end of the bed. When she took her saddlebag filled with parchments off, it was a sign that she was intending to stay a while.

“So, Reflection, we haven’t really been talking as much as we used to so I’d thought I’d say hello.”

“I know,” she replied, swinging around on the chair to face Sparkling with a smile. “I’ve just been caught up with everything that’s been going on. Griffon Emperors and Empresses, Chrysalis showing up-“

“The usual?” Reflection couldn’t help but laugh at that one, admittedly it was quite on the money. Sparkling grinned like a fool, before looking behind her at the still unmade bed. “Rough night?”

“In a way,” Reflection kept it coy. “Although the maids did have some interesting stories to tell me about the fact that you haven’t slept in your own bed for a week, and there were some very strange sounds coming down the hallway the other night. From Strategy’s room, no less.” Sparkling’s wide eyes prompted her to push on. “Strange too, those rumours that you and him being in the laundry early in the mornings with piles of sheets and-“

“Okay, okay!” Sparkling hushed, her eyes going towards the still open door. Reflection smirked, her horn lighting up and a flash of green shutting the door. A sigh came from Sparkling, the Emperor’s personal assistant tapping her hind legs against the end of the bed. “Yes, so we may be closer than we try to show.”

“Pfft,” Reflection dismissed. “Really? You’re both all over each other constantly.”

“We try to show,” Sparkling repeated before fixing her with a stare. “Also, you’re one to talk.”

“Fine, okay I admit it, we’re both guilty. You started it.”

Sparkling placed a hoof over her heart and raised her snout into the air. “I never, all I did was make one teeny-tiny comment about your messy bed and that was it.” The crystal pony then stopped joking, raising a hoof in the air as if she had just remembered. “Oh, so enough of this teasing each other, I was actually here for a reason.”

“Go on.”

“As you probably know, Strategy is spending the whole day with Agent James and the soldiers. We haven’t really had the chance to talk with all of the drama going on, so I thought we could get some lunch at a city café and have some ‘mare-time’. I know you don’t like eating food, but there’s this place next to the markets that does all kinds of juice.”

Reflection brightened at the suggestion, nodding her head with a smile. “Sure, I’d love to!”

“Great,” Sparkling replied, placing her saddlebag back on. “I’ll head down and put this away, meet you at the main entrance in ten minutes?”

“Works for me, just remember that if we’re going to talk then we can’t exactly share this sort of stuff in public.”

Sparkling, already trotting for the door, shot her a grin. “Why, Reflection, I’d never even consider doing such a thing. See you downstairs!”

Reflection shook her head once Sparkling had gone, leaving the desk to try and find a place to hide the binder.

Those plans had taken a backseat at the current time.

“So, as you can see we’re making good progress.”

Nigel nodded, Strategy pointing out different spots around the half-built wall. Around them toiled crystal guards and civilians alike, great stone blocks cut from a quarry in the nearby mountains being hauled up via wooden cranes. Occasionally a team of four crystal unicorns would fuse a number of differing gems into the stone blocks, the exact nature of the enchanted gems unknown to him.

“Yes, it’s a shame we’ll be losing all of those workers so soon.” Nigel glanced over towards the changelings as he spoke, honestly unable to tell which ones were citizens and which were loyal to Chrysalis. “They work fast.”

“Just think of what the mines will bring in, Emperor, it will be more than enough to make up for it.”

“I know Strategy, Iron’s been lamenting the metal ration he’s been placed under. The sooner we get more materials the better, I suppose.”

Strategy paused and gestured for him to follow, Nigel obeying and continuing on while Strategy led him around the corner of the stonecutter’s workshop. Strategy was glancing around, and Chalmers got the impression that his captain was aiming to talk away from any changelings. They didn’t stop until they had reached a vacant storage shed, far away from any of the activity. Both waited until a team of six changelings finished flying by overhead, a large block of stone suspended beneath them with ropes.

“Okay Strategy, what’s so important?” Nigel leaned up against the wooden shed wall, waiting while Strategy finished making sure there were no eavesdroppers.

“It’s about the mining business, Emperor.”

“Ah-ah, Strategy, remember the rules?”

The stallion rolled his eyes before continuing. “Nigel, I don’t trust Chrysalis one bit. I’m all for helping out her subjects, but we should really think about the risk of betrayal.” Strategy glanced around again. “I know that others also have their doubts, and Lady Reflection shared some very concerning things regarding the Queen.”

Nigel pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “Look, Strategy, I wouldn’t take much of what Reflection says about Chrysalis at face value. Those two have been constantly at each other’s throats, I’ve seen both of them act unreasonable, and Reflection hasn’t exactly helped to foster good relations if you get my drift. Chrysalis is, understandably, pissed at losing what she sees as power to us. However, I know that we currently hold the high ground over her, we’ve already had another twenty-three leave her group to join us.”

Strategy nodded, but wasn’t giving up that easily. Nigel could see that he was genuinely worried, the stallion shifting anxiously on his hooves. “I realise that we have her cornered, especially with the threat of enticing more of her subjects away from her, but a cornered enemy is one that knows they have few options. Chrysalis just oozes malice, and I personally wouldn’t trust her to manage a store let alone her own mini–country.” Finishing voicing his concerns, Strategy sat down and looked up to him for an answer.

“You make good points,” Nigel granted. “I can understand your concerns, I have the exact same feelings about her.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely, which is why I have put certain measures in place in case of… issues that may arise.”

“I take it that you mean Researcher Elijah?” Strategy guessed, correctly. “If so, then I don’t doubt his loyalty, I’m just curious as to how capable he’ll be if something does happen.” Nigel raised an eye at that, a smile growing on his face. Strategy must have taken it as a sign to justify his answer, the stallion raising a placating hoof. “I’ve realised that he must have some ability, but he does appear to be incredibly bookish and, forgive me for putting it bluntly, unbalanced.”

Nigel sighed and searched around for a clean spot to sit down, before giving up and just sliding down against the wall to sit on the grass. Patting a spot beside him, he waited for Strategy to also sit, the captain eyeing him curiously. “So, I guess I probably should let you in on some information,” he admitted. “Information which I want to stay confidential, understand?”

“As always.”

“Good.” This time, it was he that checked to make sure they were alone. “Now, this may come as a shock to you, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Out of all of us; Elijah, me, Orthodox, and James, Elijah is hands down the most dangerous.” Immediately, doubt showed itself on Strategy’s face. “I know, he seems mostly harmless, but perhaps you need to know a little about the department he works in for it to sink in. Tell me, Strategy, how much do you know about the forces commonly called ‘magic’?”

“Not a lot,” Strategy admitted. “I’m not a unicorn, so it’s never been a big focus for me. I do know that it can be used for incredibly amazing feats, good or evil.”

Nigel chuckled at that, reaching out to pat his captain on the armoured shoulder. “Ha! You and me both. You know, I think it’s easy to ignore or scoff at magic when you’re surrounded by technology which is seen as magical. But you ponies and changelings are surrounded by magic every day, just look at the city itself. Hell, I’ve even seen Reflection use it like it was nothing.” Focusing back on topic, his good mood fell. “However, you’re right in saying that there’s ‘evil’ magic as well. Normally I’d scoff at calling something evil, but there’s some stuff that man should never have discovered.”

Strategy remained silent, however Nigel could see the silent agreement in his eyes. He guessed that personal experience with magic used for evil purposes was not something that the stallion lacked.

“All of this leads to our main point, and that is Elijah.” Nigel drummed his fingers on his leg, wondering just how much he should let slip. “Now, you’ve no doubt heard him bang on about how he’s ‘Lead Researcher’ at a place called ‘OEMAD’.”

“I have,” Strategy nodded. “Not that I really know what it means.”

“Well, ‘OEMAD’ stands for ‘Occult Experimentation and Military Application Division’, and don’t ask me much more about it because I myself don’t even know what they do.” He gave Strategy a pointed look. “And considering that my job is to know things, that should highlight how serious those OEMAD guys are. I’m talking enough political clout that an OEMAD researcher can commandeer entire military fleets and armies without any prior approval, and that they’ve got their own little slice of deep-space somewhere unknown to anyone not in OEMAD.

It’s known that whenever there’s something arcane discovered or captured, an OEMAD agent won’t be far behind to snatch it up and carry it away. They’ve even been known to raid immense enemy and even allied fortresses to get their mitts on a magical artefact. There’s also rumours of OEMAD consorting with things such as demons and devils, trading captives for knowledge or other dark goods and services.”

“That’s… horrible,” Strategy shuddered, Nigel not liking the idea either. “It’s only rumours, though. Those things don’t exist do they?”

“No,” Nigel answered, before muttering to himself. “Although I have seen some strange stuff around him.”


“Ah, nothing,” he covered, before continuing. “Anyway, long story short, OEMAD are people you don’t want to get involved with. We’re talking assassins that can leave you as a mindless husk, strike teams that can turn entire continents into desolate wastelands without a weapon, and scientists that wear all manner of unscientific symbols while being swathed in a foul presence. Elijah is one of them, hence why I don’t want this repeated to anyone else.”

Strategy shook his head, a frown on his face. “I’m sorry, but we’re talking about the same Elijah?”

“Yes, yes we are. He’s ex-ISA, a great sharpshooter, but he is indeed OEMAD. Trust me, Strategy, I’ve seen some of the stuff he can do. It’s bad ju-ju, that’s for sure." He left it there, both he and Strategy sitting and thinking about what had been said.

“Is he a threat?”

Nigel laughed, although it was really more of an attempt to relax Strategy than a result of actual humour. “A threat to you? Well, I’ll be honest. Elijah could kick my arse without breaking a sweat, but out of all of us he’s the least likely to resort to violence. He’s incredibly hard to irritate, and I can assure you that he’s got no malice for changelings or ponies.”

“That’s a relief,” Strategy admitted, turning his head briefly to glance back at the wall construction. “I’m sorry for taking up all of your time with these questions.”

“It’s no problem. After all, you are my guard Captain so you deserve to know this sort of information. Really, I should have told you sooner.” Chalmers shrugged, making up his mind. “So, do you want me to tell you about James and Orthodox? I’ll try to keep it short.”

Strategy nodded intently, so he continued.

“First off is James. He’s with the Psionic Division and also ex-ISA, but our departments are pretty tight-knit. I mean, most of their agents transferred after a few years with us, so that’s understandable. Out of us four, he’s probably the more reasonable.” He cracked a smile, turning to Strategy with a grin. “Also, he’s the one true gentleman amidst sea of rabble.”

“I have noticed that he seems, well, more…”

“Sophisticated?” Nigel finished for him.

“Yes, not that you’re not, of course.”

“Forget about that, Strategy,” Chalmers countered. “Don’t feel the need to sugar-coat it, I know I’m a scummy bastard.” Strategy grinned, Nigel leaning back and continuing on. “Anyway, James is pretty much the watching, waiting, ‘can bend spoons with his mind’ guy. He’s also kind of a stick in the mud, but don’t tell him that.”

“I wasn’t planning to.”

“Good man… or rather stallion.” Strategy seemed to wait for him to finish, but soon realised that he was done.

“Nigel, what about,” Strategy grit his teeth. “Orthodox?”

“You make his name sound like a curse,” Nigel chuckled, before waving a hand. “Orthodox is nothing special, just your standard short-guy with short-guy problems. I’m sorry for the way he’s been carrying on, but he’s like an attack dog. He has to be pointed towards a target and unleashed; otherwise he turns around and bites you. Just let me know if he causes you issues, and I’ll sort him out.”

“I’m surprised you're friends with him, given how he treats you and everyone else.”

“I’m his old squad leader, and I’m ranked above him. Despite his attitude, he’ll listen if I order him to, but it’s usually not needed. He’s an arsehole, but he does do what he’s supposed to when needed.” He remembered the numerous charges for looting on the battlefield. “Even if he does have a few issues regarding the hording of shiny things.”

“So, he’s like a dragon-alien then?” Strategy supplied. “Luckily we haven’t had to deal with many dragons thanks to the cold, but from what I heard they look a little like him and also hoard.”

“That’s pretty accurate, but a word of advice.” Nigel grew serious. “Never, ever, call him either ‘short’ or a ‘dragon’, or any words similar. Orthodox is a powder keg, lots of issues floating around in that noggin of his.”

“So what is he?”

“I don’t honestly know,” he shrugged. “Dragon-alien?”

“You’ve never asked?”

“Nope, I don’t even think he knows. ISA found him when he was young, apparently, and thought that it was a good idea to raise him.”

There was no more said after that, both resting for a few minutes. Eventually Nigel got bored, and stood up while brushing himself down. “Late lunch?”

Strategy joined him, getting to his hooves and shaking some blades of grass off of his armour. “Sure, where were you thinking?”

“Eh, I don’t really know. You pick.”

“Okay, there’s this pretty decent place near the barracks, apparently the soldiers love it.”

The two walked and trotted off back towards the city, all other subjects apart from lunch being pushed to the backs of their minds.

“So, Princess, what are we here for again?” Twilight inquired, stepping carefully over a mossy stone brick. She was following Princess Celestia into the entrance of the crumbling Everfree castle, the four guards attached to their chariot waiting in the forest clearing behind them. It was not Twilight’s idea of a fun time, whipping her head to look backwards as a lone timberwolf howl rang out in the creepy forest.

“We, my dear student, are searching for an artefact that my sister and I left in our old castle.” Celestia wasn’t the least concerned about their position in the forest, trotting into the foreboding entranceway without a single shred of worry.

Twilight was perplexed. Surely leaving something important, like a magical artefact, unguarded in a run-down castle wasn’t the best way to keep it secure?

“I know what you are thinking, Twilight,” Celestia explained, glancing around before heading to a stairway on the left. “But I assure you, this castle is still the safest place in the entire forest. It was warded to keep away creatures with evil intent, so there is no need to fear timberwolf or cockatrice within its walls.” Shoed hooves clacked on the stone steps, Twilight gulping before following Celestia down into the darkness. A twinkle of magic later and a golden glow from Celestia’s horn lit up the surrounding area.

“I was wondering why it is so steeped in magic,” she said, trying to keep her mind off of her memories of the castle. “Are the wards to do with this artefact we’re after?”

“Not exactly,” Celestia answered, reaching the bottom of the stairs. “They were set up as a general precaution. This artefact isn’t a massive danger or a weapon, so I and Luna deemed it safe enough to leave hidden in our old castle.” She entered the first room on the left, Twilight following with hushed anticipation.

Laying eyes upon the dusty study, her excitement fell. “In here?” She looked around. “But the desk is missing three legs, and the bookshelf is completely empty!”

Celestia smiled knowingly, approaching the empty bookshelf and scouring the shelves. “Twilight, often all is not what it seems.”

It was then, while browsing the third empty shelf, that Celestia’s muzzle stopped with a dull thud. Smiling, the sun princess reached in with a hoof and felt around, before the same empty hoof was withdrawn from the bookshelf. Twilight’s eyes widened, an object becoming visable when Celestia pulled her hoof out.

Shimmering into view, it was a small crystal cylinder, hewn from what seemed to be a combination of emeralds and diamonds. Celestia held it out towards her, the smile gone from her face.

“It’s sad in a way, considering that this was once a gift from the very same city that we seek to use it against.” Twilight could see that, the artefact obviously originating from the Crystal Empire. Streaks of diamond broke up the green surface, giving the simple shape an air of beauty. “Now Twilight, watch closely.” Celestia’s horn glowed softly, before a stream of the golden magic flowed into the crystal held in the hoof. The diamond streaks shined brightly, Celestia continuing for ten seconds before her glow died out.

“Princess?” Twilight asked, Celestia huffing lightly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Celestia waved off. “This item is a magic storage device, of sorts. A unicorn, or in my place an alicorn, can transfer their magic into it and keep that portion for later use. As you can see, the process is exhausting.” Taking a moment to catch her breath, Celestia resumed with a nod. “They were intended to be used by magic-users in battles, long before our lands knew peace. A spell caster could prepare for a fight or duel by sinking in magic, so they could draw on it later when needed.” Celestia held it out. “We intend to use it the same way, except we will be powering our teleportation instead of battle spells.”

“Teleportation?” Twilight asked, taking the cue and pouring in her own magic, managing to last the same time as Celestia before she had to stop. Taking a few breaths, she looked back up. “Why do we need this to teleport?”

“We will be not just teleporting ourselves, but others as well. It will be two trips over a considerable distance to a very specific point, so the amount of energy needed is more than even you and I can normally hold.” Celestia levitated the magical crystal out of her hoof. “Our magic will rejuvenate during our trip to the destination, meaning we will have a greatly increased reserve in case something goes wrong.”

It was then that Twilight figured out the plan, her eyes widening. “Princess, are we planning to teleport into the Crystal Empire, find Princess Luna and her guards, and then teleport out?” At the answering nod, she began to panic. “But that carries so much risk! One miscalculation and we could end up in the middle of a group of guards, or…” she shuddered. “Right in front of their Emperor and his friends.”

Her mind going over the previous experiences in the Empire, she was oblivious to Celestia’s approach until a hoof rested upon her withers.

“Twilight,” Celestia began with a reassuring smile. “I know that there are risks involved, and I know that it will be difficult to do correctly.” The smile widened. “It’s why I asked you to help me, after all. In truth, I do not trust myself to accomplish such a task by myself.”

“Really?” Twilight replied, amazed. “You trust me to help you teleport?” At Celestia’s nod she filled with pride, nodding her head immediately and vigorously. “You can count on me, Princess!”

“I know I can,” Celestia laughed warmly, before trotting out of the room and heading back up the stairs. “We must act quickly though, the sooner we rescue my sister, the better.”

Twilight couldn’t help but agree while she followed her mentor, knowing full well that Luna’s predicament was very dangerous indeed.

“Really, Nigel?”

He sighed standing still while Reflection fussily brushed grass off of his clothing, Strategy and Sparkling watching with embarrassment as the surrounding crowd whispered amongst themselves.

“It’s just some grass,” he explained with rolled eyes. “Coming from someone who’s not even wearing clothes, I question just why you have a problem with it.”

“I have a problem with it because you look more like a slob than the ruler you are supposed to be.”

Her hooves continued to get rid of the offending vegetation, Nigel giving up on arguing the point. The plan to have a calming work-lunch with his captain had been torpedoed when they had run into Sparkling Scroll and Reflection. The two had been sitting down at their own chosen venue, Sparkling snacking on a plate of sandwiches while Reflection had been nursing a colourful fruit smoothie. The result exchanging of surprised greetings had devolved into a public lecturing over the state of his clothing.


Things only got more awkward when she noticed the grass stains from where he had sat down.

“And look at these stains!” she lamented, grabbing a napkin with her hoof and rubbing the offending area. He froze in place, Strategy shaking his head while Sparkling fought to hold in her laughter. “You really need to be more careful.”

“I know, I know,” he sighed, before focusing on the gathering crowd. He inwardly winced when he remembered that it was a market day, throngs of ponies and changelings staring while Reflection cleaned him down. Slowly, he raised a hand and waved at them. “Hi, everyone… nice weather we’re having?”

He was met with a few distracted answers, but unfortunately the feeble attempt did nothing to remove that attention from him.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d bet that she’s enjoying this,’ he suspected, glancing around behind him. The smug smile that Reflection was giving him only lent credence to his theory, but it was only another few moments before the napkin was removed and discarded into a nearby bin.

“There,” she grinned. “All better now.” Obviously enjoying his unamused look, she turned to the watching crowd. “Okay everyone, show’s over.”

The observers quickly dispersed, Reflection using her magic to pull out a chair for him while Strategy chose one next to Sparkling. Sitting down, Nigel sighed while Strategy remained quiet.

“And here I was, hoping for a quiet lunch,” Chalmers muttered.

“Oh, cheer up,” Reflection urged, before taking a victorious sip of her drink. “You would have done the same and gloated about it. Besides, me and Sparkling were having a quiet lunch before you two walked in.” She glanced over to her café-ally. “Right, Sparkling?”

“I don’t mind,” Sparkling murmured back, her eyes locked firmly on the still-uncomfortable Strategy. Reflection rolled her eyes in response and turned her attention back to Nigel, smiling while a waitress scrambled to serve them.

“So, how’s the wall going?”

“Pretty good,” he replied, before glancing to the puffing waitress. “Just a cheese and tomato sandwich, thanks. Anyway, Reflection, it’s going along well. We’ll of course be losing a lot of workers at the end of the week so-“

“It’ll be so worth it,” she interrupted, tapping her fore hooves on the table. “Both Elijah and Chrysalis gone for months.”

“Hey,” he stopped her, levelling a glare. “… Chrysalis isn’t that bad.”

It took her a second to process the joke at Elijah’s expense, but when she did all tension disappeared. Sparkling giggled and even Strategy cracked a grin.

‘Speaking of Elijah,’ Nigel wondered. ‘I hope James and Orthodox are getting along…’

“Orthodox, put down the gun.”

“No! Never!”

James sighed while Orthodox waved around the weapon, the group of ten changeling scouts watching on with complete confusion at the standoff.

Each of the changelings held small crossbows in their magical grips, the three bolt-ridden targets down the end of the range a testament to their accuracy. The morning’s training had been going well, until the arrival of Orthodox had heralded a storm of overcompensation and unwarranted violence.

“Look, I’m sorry,” James tried, holding out his hands with his armoured palms facing out. “You can shoot better than they can, okay?” He risked a glance towards his trainees, the changelings nodding their heads with knowing looks in their eyes. James was thankful that they got what he was trying to do. “There’s no need to demonstrate it.”

“Sure there is,” Orthodox countered, swinging the energy rifle around to point at the hapless targets. “You’re just lying so I won’t go ahead and shoot, proving you wrong!”

“Orthodox, don’t you dare destroy another targe-“

It went unheeded, Orthodox depressing the trigger with a snarl. Looking back, James realised that giving the order to stop wasn’t the best idea, Orthodox’s eyes narrowed in a hateful glare. The changelings wisely retreated behind a cart loaded with spare bolts, the very air sizzling with the sound of the rifle’s discharge.

The targets didn’t stand a chance.

Bright-blue bolts of condensed plasma destroyed wall, target, and snow bank alike. Orthodox sprayed the entire end of the range with super-heated fire, evaporating snow and hitting almost everything in his sights. James shook his head and looked away, hoping that no pony or changeling had been stupid enough to venture into the arc of fire. He doubted that there was any real danger, and when the sound of Orthodox’s weapon died down to a dull whine he looked back to assess the damage done.

Pockets of melted snow and scorched ground were everywhere, Orthodox living up to his reputation for terrible accuracy. Great clouds of steam obscured the targets, James watching and waiting while Orthodox turned around and eyes the hiding changelings with a grin.

“See? That’s how you shoot things! Kill everything and that’s one mission accomplished with maximum efficiency!”

Orthodox continued to brag, James ignoring him while he stared at the dispersing steam.

He couldn’t believe it.

“Orthodox,” he called out.

“Yeah?” came the reply, Orthodox not even turning around to see what the issue was.

“You missed… well, all of them.”

There was silence, before a barely-tempered, rage-filled growl broke it.


James had to hold in his laughter while Orthodox stomped up to see that, yes, all of the targets were still standing and scorch-mark free. The armour-clad tail flicked dangerously, Orthodox visibly fuming as he glared at the objects that had dared to defy him.

“So much for ‘mission accomplished’,” one of the changelings whispered to another.

Unfortunately, Orthodox heard it as well.

“Stop mocking me!” he yelled, once again levelling his rifle at the targets.

James’ eyes widened under his helmet when he saw the claw go for the second trigger, taking a step back when he realised that Orthodox was going to use the weapon’s grenade launcher.

‘This is going to cause a few problems,’ he concluded, Orthodox jamming the trigger down and launching the deadly plasma grenade towards the end of the range.

Reflection looked up, ceasing her cuddling of the Emperor’s arm when a booming thud echoed around the city. Ponies and changelings ceased what they were doing to look up in worry, Strategy and Sparkling pulling apart with their lunch forgotten.

Curiously, Nigel was completely unaffected and merely continued to munch on his sandwich.

“What was that?” Sparkling murmured with concern, Reflection focusing on Nigel.

“Is it an attack?”

“Emperor,” Strategy joined in. “I suggest that we assemble three squads to investigate-“

“No need,” Chalmers replied in-between bites. “I’ll deal with it after lunch.” They all continued to stare at him, Nigel stopping when he noticed. “What?”

“Shouldn’t we,” she began with some force. “Be slightly concerned about an explosion loud enough to be heard around the entire city?”

A hand reached out, patting her on the shoulder. “Reflection, it’s fine, trust me. I know what made it, did you hear the slight fizzle sound at the end? It’s just a standard E-54 plasma grenade, and it came from the south-east.”

“The firing range,” Strategy realised with a nod. “Where Agent James is teaching the new infiltrator squad. How were you able to distinguish the sound?”

“Experience,” Nigel explained, gesturing for them all to sit back down. “When you spend enough time around Orthodox, you tend to be able to learn the ins and outs of explosive devices.” He finished his sandwich with a happy smile and a pat on the belly. “That was a damn good lunch. Anyway, speaking of Orthodox it was probably him that fired it, James despises having to resort to such ‘messy’ devices.”

Reflection shuddered. “That doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Nigel reassured, rubbing her head to help calm her nerves. “I’m sure James is tearing out Orthodox as we speak.”

“What is wrong with you, you utter imbecile!?”

“Nothing except for you yelling your head off! No harm was done so what’s the issue!?”

“The issue!? You’ve blown up half of the range!”

Shill poked her head out from around the side of the cart they were sheltering behind, watching the two argue back and forth while what was left of the range smouldered.

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” Buzz murmured to her from his spot. “How they stress that ‘proper teamwork is the way to succeed.”

Looking at the scene, Shill found it hard to disagree with him.

Her agreement only strengthened when Orthodox took a swing at their instructor.

"So, you doing anything tonight?"

Private Sheen turned to Private Mirror, the changeling female cricking her neck after asking the question. "Not really, I'm assigned to the wall construction tomorrow so I can't really do anything too fun."

"A shame," Mirror returned. "Me and another group of privates were going to hit the bars," a smirk was sent her way. "Browse the night-life. Hey, speaking of night-life, maybe we can ask the Emperor if we can take those two bat-ponies with us. They're kinda cute."

Sheen rolled her eyes at her fellow's teasing, Mirror already having a reputation around the ranks for being a massive flirt. Glancing back at the door they were guarding, she snorted. "What, you can't just ask one of the others to change into one for you?"

"It's just not the same as the real thing, Sheen. Besides, one is good, but those two in there..."

"You're such a perv," Sheen chuckled with a shake of her head. "I half expect you to try and get that Equestrian Princess to come along as well."

At that, Mirror winced.

"No thanks, far too tall. Now, not to knock Lady Reflection-"

"Don't even start on that again," Sheen cut her off. "That's her business, and I don't want to hear about it any more."

"Fine." Mirror huffed and returned to looking forwards at the wall. They stood in silence, Sheen tapping her forehoof against the hilt of her sword absent-mindedly. Guarding the hostages was possibly the most boring duty she had been placed on. Luckily it was only her second time, but secretly she wished that something would happen to break up the dullness. Not even the creepy science guy had been by, and that was unusual.

All of a sudden, Mirror shifted beside her and her horn lit up. Green magic pulled out the sword sheathed at Mirror's side, the changeling's armour clinking when she turned to face the door.

"Something wrong?" Sheen asked, placing an armoured hoof on her own sword. The enchantment in the shoe locked with the grip, enabling her to pull it out and join her comrade. "Mirror?"

"I heard something," Mirror replied, placing an ear against the wood. Sheen leaned forwards, trying to pick anything up. All she heard was silence.

"I don't hear anything."

"Not any more."

Both shared a look, before Sheen nodded and turned around. Lining up a kick, she waited until Mirror was standing at the ready with her sword raised.

A mighty crack echoed around the corridor, the door flinging open to reveal the worrying sight.


The room was completely clear, no hostages in sight.

"Oh no," Sheen murmured, quickly moving in to check the bathroom. It was also empty, and upon turning back around she saw Mirror staring out of the window.

"We're so screwed," Mirror told her. "There's magic all over this room, and the hostages are gone."

"They can't have gotten far," Sheen tried to reason. "Maybe they're just..."

The sight of a shape outside the window, half hidden by snow, caused her to trail off. A single blur moved up into the air, before disappearing completely. Evidently Mirror had seen it too, the changeling looking towards her with clenched teeth.

"So... you're all good to tell the Emperor about this then?"

Fourth Time Lucky

View Online

“I bet it was Orthodox,” Reflection grumbled under her breath as the four leisurely walked and trotted down the path towards the training field’s smoke plume. “Just as lunch was getting interesting as well, typical.”

“You’re looking a little grouchy there.”

She gave Nigel a glare at his comment, huffing indignantly. “Wow, I can see why you’re an intelligence agent,” she stated with a roll of her eyes. “You’ve got amazing observational skills. Nothing must slip past you.”

His chuckle only served to infuriate her more, although the head pat that accompanied it did help to calm her down somewhat.

“Come on, despite the circumstances a walk isn’t going to hurt either of us. Tell you what, to make it up to you, why don’t we go into the markets after this?” She was about to point out that they had just been in the markets so it was hardly a consolation, but he managed to follow up first. “We’ll look at some of the jewellery stores.”

‘Why that-‘ she narrowed her eyes when he brought up her weakness for shiny things, but she couldn’t rightly fault him for the offer.

“Fine,” she mumbled. “I suppose that can make up for having to go with you to whatever mess your friends have caused.”

“Wonderful,” he replied while side-stepping an upturned cobblestone. “Did you want to invite Sparkling along as well, or make it an ‘us’ thing?”
Reflection glanced behind them, spotting Sparkling and Strategy talking to each other as they trotted a few paces in the rear. Looking back to the front, she shook her head.

“I somehow think she’ll be preoccupied with someone else.”

He didn’t say anything in reply, only a hum with a slight nod. Focusing on their destination, Reflection eyed the rising smoke with a wary gaze. Even though Nigel may have been confident with passing it off as part of the training, she doubted that it was as simple as that.

That suspicion was only confirmed when a single changeling flying out from the target range spotted them and made a beeline towards them. Reflection recognised the soldier as the Corporal sent to talk to the zebras, the female landing before them and raising her foreleg in a quick salute.

“Emperor, Captain,” she addressed to the two in-between pants. “There’s an incident happening at the range, it’s bad.”

“The explosion?” Strategy inquired, moving alongside Chalmers.

The Corporal shook her head. “No Captain, that was just a… demonstration. The problem is-“

“Let me guess,” Nigel cut in with a sigh. “Orthodox blew something up, James lectured him about it, and now they’re locked in a battle to the death. Something along those lines?”

The Corporal was stunned.

“How did you know?”

“Trust me, once you’ve lived with them you can pretty much predict this sort of stuff,” Nigel explained. Waving a hand in dismissal, he tilted his head. “None of you are injured? If not, it’s best to just let them tire themselves out. An occasional brawl is a good way for those two to let off some of their pent-up disagreements and such.”

“Ah, about that,” the Corporal continued with a wince. “That’s kind of what we thought… until Agent Orthodox pulled out the knife.”
Reflection glanced up to Nigel, finding that he had closed his eyes. The Emperor took a deep breath, before reopening his eyes and smiling at the soldier.

“Thank you, Corporal. If you’d please return to the rest of your squad, Captain Strategy and myself will be there immediately to deal with the situation.” The Corporal nodded before taking flight again, Nigel’s smile dropping immediately after. “Bloody Orthodox, always taking things too far.” He resumed his walking, although this time at a faster pace than before. Trotting along to keep up with him, Reflection kept her mouth shut.

Pointing out that she had been right about the problem wasn’t exactly the best idea at the current time.

James glared at Orthodox while dabbing at his cheek with a white cloth, the bleeding gash in his black skin starting to close. His trainees were watching from the sidelines, eyes wide at the scene playing out before them.

“You stupid fucking witch!” Orthodox growled, swinging his combat knife in vain while attempting to fling rocks with his tail. James had him held a metre away, Orthodox straining against the invisible force holding him back. It was essentially like putting a hand on the head of a rampaging short-person, except this way Orthodox couldn’t even attack the arm. The rocks were even less of a worry, James needing minimal concentration to deflect them away. “I’ll fucking cut you!”

“Do you need any help, sir?” Buzz asked, the changeling sergeant hesitantly stepping forwards.

“I’m fine,” James reassured, not wanting him to get hurt if Orthodox broke free. “Just stay there and let me deal with this, and then we’ll resume our training.” He glanced towards the end of the range, the targets utterly annihilated by the energy grenade. Maybe they’d have to rebuild them first.

“James,” Orthodox grunted, armoured feet straining against the ground. “Let me go and fight like a man.”

“No,” James replied, once again dabbing the cut Orthodox had given him. “You’re acting like a tantrum-throwing child.”

“Arsehole!” Orthodox hissed.



“Immature degenerate.”

“Syphilis-infested, pre-ejaculating warlock!”

James had to pause at the sudden inventiveness and increased viciousness in insults.

“… Short-tempered midget.”

Orthodox froze, before resuming his efforts to attack with his mouth almost foaming.

“That’s it! I’m going to gut you like a fish and wear your intestines like party streamers!”

James couldn’t help but smile a smug grin. Despite the new level of rage on Orthodox’s part, there was no chance of him breaking free.

He had the situation under total control.

“Oh come on.”

Nigel sighed when he witnessed the ‘fight’ between his two friends, the both of them standing in the middle of the destroyed target range with the changeling spy squad watching in utter confusion.

“Wow,” Strategy remarked, tilting his head. “So that’s what James can do.”

“This is pretty basic stuff for him from what I gathered,” Nigel explained while coming up with a plan. “When he does big stuff, his armour glows a lot more. Something about the suit systems assisting his mental capacity or along those lines. Damn thing’s even made to keep him alive for hours if his organs fail.” That information caused a collective shudder from Strategy, Sparkling, and Reflection.

“That was something I needed to know,” Strategy remarked without enthusiasm. “All talk about organ-failing aside, how are we going to tackle this problem?”

Grinning, Nigel began to unbutton his dress shirt.

“It’s simple, really. We identify the problem-“

“Orthodox,” Reflection cut in with a low snarl.

“Indeed, it seems,” he granted, giving her a quick pat on the head before slipping an arm out of the shirt. “And once it’s identified, then we tackle it.” The black shirt was removed to reveal his plain white undershirt, Nigel carefully folding up the dress shirt and gently placing it onto Reflection’s back. “Hold onto this for me, will you?” He bent down to give her a peck on the forehead as payment, before standing up and glancing towards Strategy. “Also, all of you let me handle this, things are probably going to get violent.”

“James, you’re dead! Do you hear me!? Dead!” Orthodox’s threat rang out like a gunshot.

“… Okay, more violent.”

With that last sentence he turned, faced his target, and raced off to enact his plan.

Tackle the problem. Literally.

Orthodox was too slow to react, barely noticing the running human before it was too late. Nigel rapidly closed and jumped, spear-tackling Orthodox while narrowing avoiding the swinging tail. Both crashed to the dusty ground with a thump, Nigel using Orthodox to cushion his fall with the knowledge that the scales and armour would protect the rampaging alien from any serious harm.

The impact still shook Orthodox up, Chalmers taking full advantage to first pin down the hand holding the knife, pin the other arm, use his legs to stop Orthodox from using his tail, and most importantly of all using the weight of his main body to hold down the head with the fang-filled jaw.

“What the fuck is this!?”

“James,” he began calmly when Orthodox thrashed and struggled. “Please relieve Agent Orthodox of his knife.” The weapon was yanked out of Orthodox’s armoured claw, James levitating it back into his own and stepping away with a chuckle under his breath. Still maintaining a firm hold on the pissed-off alien, Nigel looked down into Orthodox’s furious eyes. “Now, what have we said about pulling weapons on friends? Either fight with your fists, fairly, or don’t fight at all.”

“Fair?” Orthodox spat on the ground beside them. “He’s got freaky mind powers! I need something to even the odds!”

Nigel sighed. “Well Orthodox, the moral of that story is to not pick fights with psionic operatives.”

“Moral of the story is to finish him when he’s asleep.”

Orthodox’s dark mutterings were of little concern, both he and Nigel knowing that it was nigh on impossible to catch an ISA agent unawares. Still, the thrashing had stopped, and Orthodox had ceased yelling out insults.

“So, you’re good?”

“Yeah,” Orthodox gave up, going limp. “Just… I’m so bored.”

“I thought you had booze… and plenty of my female subjects to try and woo for a night.” He lowered his voice so Reflection couldn’t hear. “Some of my guards informed me that the tavern in the market district is a good place to go for that sort of thing.”

“Meh,” Orthodox grunted. “Not really my type.”

“Pfft, like you’re picky.”

A grumble was the reply, but Nigel was confident that Orthodox had significantly calmed down. Just in time, too. The sound of approaching hooves caused him to look up to meet a set of green eyes. “Having fun down there with your ‘friend’?”

“Hardy-har,” he got up quickly, Orthodox following. “I never pegged you for a comedian, Reflection.”

“I’m also not a shirt rack,” she returned, gesturing with her head towards her back and his shirt.

Dusting himself off before taking his shirt and redressing, he cast a glance towards James. True to form, the psionic agent had made his way back to the changelings and was leading them away from the range like nothing had happened. Strategy and Sparkling followed James, the Captain making sure that Nigel saw the pointed shake of his head. With Reflection’s glare focused on Orthodox, he turned his attention to the midget as well.

“Orthodox,” he began, wincing at the thought of how Reflection was going to react to the next part. “You said you were bored, so did you… did you want to maybe tag along today?”

“What?” Reflection got in before Orthodox even had a chance to protest. “You’re letting him actually near you for a day?”

“Hey, High and Holey, I don’t exactly want to spend the day playing third wheel while you two grind against each other.” Reflection growled and stormed up towards him, Orthodox barely taller than the changeling female. Baring her fangs, she uttered a low hiss and narrowed her eyes. Nigel breathed a deep breath when Orthodox ignored her and looked up at him with a stupid smile. “Heh, you always did like the fiery ones.”

A hoof was stamped on the ground.

“Killer alien or not, I don’t care,” Reflection twitched. “I’ll kick your orange rump, you… you bitch.”

“Ohhhh…” Orthodox taunted. “Do you blow your boy-toy with that mouth?”

Nigel thanked his artificial reflexes, Reflection’s angry hoof caught before it made contact with Orthodox’s face.

“No. Reflection, that’s a bad move.”

“So is letting her near your dick with those fang-“

A swift kick to Orthodox’s gut stopped him from finishing the sentence, Nigel not taking his eyes off Reflection.

“Just ignore him,” he advised, still holding her foreleg to keep the peace. “Focus on me and don’t rise to the bait, and he’ll stop. Okay?”

Pulling her hoof out of his slackening grasp, she maintained her glare. “I doubt that.”

“You should.” Orthodox spoke up from the ground. “That’s if I even want to hang around you two.”

That was the limit, Nigel turning around and beginning to walk back towards the city.


“You can both choose to follow me, or you can both stay here and fight. I’m done. Make up your minds.”

With that, he left them behind.

The sound of hoof beats and armoured footsteps following promised him more trouble to come.


Reflection stared at the amethyst bracelet through the clear glass, the glittering purple gem set into the finely-wrought gold calling to her. Placing a hoof on the glass, she was fixated on the jewellery so much that she didn’t even pay attention to the protests of the store owner until he leaned over the counter.

“Um, Ma’am,” the grey stallion spoke up while adjusting his spectacles. “Please keep your hooves off the glass, if you may.”

Looking up, she gave him a sheepish smile before quickly taking her hoof off the glass. “Sorry, I was a bit caught up with looking.”

“Understandable,” the middle-aged owner nodded. “It’s a very fine piece, very suitable for a noble of your standing.” He pointed to the gold. “I think it would suit you very well, most likely on the left foreleg. The gold will go well with the green of your mane, and the amethyst itself will look stunning when paired with that beautiful necklace of yours.”

At the reminder, Reflection glanced down at the item. At the sight of the pink gem and emerald already sitting on the silver chain, she sighed.
“It is nice,” she admitted. “But, I already have more than I need. Thanks for letting me look, but I just don’t think I should really be getting any more.” The jeweller cast a glance over towards Nigel and Orthodox, the midget-alien trying on, for some reason, a pair of diamond earrings.

“I believe that it’s well within your price range.”

Reflection focused back on the bracelet, biting her lip in thought. It was a valid point, after all she had been inside the treasure vault. The secret one that is, the Crystal Empire didn’t exactly want for wealth so she had no doubt that the main coffers were well stocked.

‘It’s just one,’ she thought to herself. ‘I don’t exactly get paid a salary for the… occasional work I do, so it’s fine to just ask for one. It’s downright generous, really, asking for so little.’

“It would look really swell on you,” the jeweller pressed on, before leaning closer. “It also sets up a nice pairing for a certain, other item for your opposite foreleg in the possible future.” His slight smile grew. “A future which I suspect is very near, if I may say so.”

‘You don’t know how right you are,’ Reflection silently agreed, smiling to herself. Looking back at the bracelet, she tried to think of a way to ask Nigel to pay for it while maximising her chances of a yes. The hand placing itself on her rump distracted her, Reflection smiling when it began to rub up along her back.

“So, you’ve found something I take it?” She nodded at Nigel’s question, still eyeing the bracelet. He let out a low whistle, evidently having noticed her focus. “Jeez, and I was told that you changelings didn’t place much emphasis on ownership or art. Look at that thing, it could probably buy the whole of Equestria.”

Reflection rolled her eyes at the observations and exaggerations, but the humour was evident. Eyeing it hungrily, she nodded towards the gem.

“So… I’ve been good, and I let Orthodox come along with us…”

Orthodox scoffed from his corner of the store, although that was it.

“Surely this one bracelet isn’t too much to ask?” She prepared her long list of reasons. “I mean, I’ve done some work and I’ve-“

“Sure, I don’t see why not.”

Reflection stopped and glanced up, finding a smile in return. “Really? As easily as that?”

“Of course,” Nigel moved his hand to rub her head. “You have been very well-behaved, you’ve been helping out the Empire, and it’s nearly your hatchday anyway.” Looking at the jeweller, he nodded and received a bow from the stallion before the pony got to work with carefully removing the bracelet from the case. “Also, it means that we’re putting more money back into the economy anyway.”

She had to resist the urge to snort at that, after all if that reasoning helped get her shiny things then what was the harm? Almost drooling, her wings buzzed while she stared at the Jeweller placing the bracelet into a padded box.

‘Why does it have to take so long? I’m only going to put it straight on anyway.’

Finally, after what seemed like an age to her, the purple box was passed over the counter.

“I hope it’s to your liking, Emperor,” the Jeweller said confidently.

“It’s not me that it needs to satisfy,” Nigel smiled, before taking hold of the box and turning down towards her. “Although, I think that it’s safe to say that it’s already done its job in that regard. Now,” the box’s lid was opened. “Let’s see how it looks on you, Reflection.”

Sitting her rump down on the wooden floor, Reflection held out her left foreleg while trying to control her swishing tail. She watched with glee as Nigel fumbled with the clasp, before he managed to undo it and guide the bracelet to a spot where it wasn’t overlapping any holes in the leg. The gold touched chitin and the clasp was done back up, Reflection pulling her foreleg away once it was on securely.

Examining the jewellery close up, she had second thoughts. It was big, maybe a little too big, and a part of her felt guilty for getting such an expensive item even though she hadn’t really earned it. Still, it did look very pretty, and her chitin even reflected a portion of the jewel’s glow. Then, Nigel put her doubts to rest.

“I think it looks very good on you,” he bent down before whispering. “It’s more than suitable for an empress.”

Her heart fluttering at the reminder of the upcoming title and circumstances that allowed it, she smiled a wide grin while beckoning him closer. With a hesitant glance to the Jeweller, who quickly and politely adverted his gaze, Chalmers knelt down further to give her an embrace. Snuggling into it, she smiled and gave him a thankful kiss on the cheek.


Both broke apart and turned to look at Orthodox, the armoured creature rolling his eyes at them while a fabulous pair of diamond earrings dangled from his orange ears.

“What a bunch of saps.”

Golden bits fell out onto the wooden table from a cloth bag gripped in a talon, the owner of said talon muttering under his breath while he began to count them. The lone stallion at the bar table, sitting opposite three cloaked griffons, tapped his forehooves together nervously. He was beginning to regret his choice to meet the gruff creatures in the bad part of Canterlot, and he raised a grey foreleg up to wipe a bead of sweat from his brow.

“Hmm,” the leader of the griffons uttered after taking a gulp of ale from a course mug. “A little light, considering what you’ve asked.”

“That’s just the upfront payment,” Hard Line reassured, patting his vest and pulling out a signed roll of parchment. “Upon completion, you’ll be provided with the full reward from the treasury. As you can understand, the safety of your target is of the upmost concern.”

He hoped that the Griffons didn’t know that the entire treasury had almost been completely emptied by a random robbery.

A scarred beak chuckled a low laugh, the two griffon mercenaries at the leader’s side not even flinching.

“Oh, I understand fully. Trust you Equestrians to lose one of your precious Princesses to a single city.” Another gulp of ale was taken. “Don’t worry, we’ll get Princess Luna back all safe and sound. Although, I still wonder why you’re talking to me in this bar instead of using your own army to save her yourselves.”

Hard Line narrowed his eyes at the comment, although his anger wasn’t directed at the Griffon. “My attempts to take action have been blocked,” he explained sourly. “The proposition passed through the court with record support, but I know that the guard Captains are bogging down the process for some reason. They tell me that they’ll be ready in a few months, a few months! The princess could be dead by then, and we’d look like foals thanks to the Crystal Empire.”

The mercenary leader tapped his talon against the table, his dull yellow eyes filled with indifference.

“How patriotic of you,” he snorted, earning a gruff laugh from the griffon to his left. “I’m sure that your sole motivation rests with rescuing your ruler.”

Hard Line glared at the accusation, although he didn’t mention that he owned some stakes in a few vacation businesses that would likely benefit if the Crystal Empire was brought into line. Tapping his own hoof on the dirty table, he continued to frown. “I’m not paying you to be sarcastic.”

The leader waved a talon. “I know, I know. Calm down, we’ve got this handled.” The same talon was raised in the air, continuing to be waved around as the griffon spoke. “We sneak into the Crystal Empire, either sneak or fight our way into the palace while killing as few crystal ponies as possible, find the princess, then escape with her and bring her back to Equestria while mentioning that you were the one who hired us.”

Hard Line winced at the leader’s use of the word ‘killing’. It wasn’t the fault of the crystal ponies in his eyes, but instead he placed the full blame on the supposed ruler who had turned them against their fellow equines. He could still remember the ape-like creature making the horrid scene at the Gala, the brute no doubt only good for violence and violence alone.

It was no wonder that the crystal ponies, a peaceful people and old allies of Equestrians if the dusty history books were correct, had been influenced by yet another tyrant. The presence of the changelings only confirmed the evilness that had befallen the once noble city, although he was secretly pleased that the bugs were not likely to return to Equestria at all.

“I think it would be best if you tried to be subtle,” he suggested. “Harming crystal ponies is not a goal of mine.”

“What of the creatures that you have told us about? As well as the changelings that also inhabit the city?”

Hard Line’s mouth twitched. “With changelings and the humans, do as you will. I care not for them.”

“I myself,” the leader responded. “Also have no love for those shapeshifters. Since you are likely not aware of this, we griffons have had problems with them over the last few decades. I have fought against them, and unless they are in a coordinated large group then they are of little threat.” The talon was once again drummed on the table. “However, I take little pleasure in fighting inadequate foes, so a non-violent path is one that I’d rather take if I can. The thrill of slipping in and out unnoticed will be more than enough.”

“Whatever suits you.” Hard Line coughed into a hoof, growing impatient. “So, you believe that you can solve this problem?”

In reply, the leader grinned while nudging the mercenary on his right. On the cue, the griffon pulled down the top of his cloak, revealing the solid breastplate underneath. Hard Line recognised the spread-wings symbol of the griffon army, as well as catching a glimpse of a sword pommel. His stomach churned when he also noticed that on the breastplate were five lines over crudely drawn griffon-heads, a tally of kills.

“We’re… ex-army,” the leader grinned before finishing his ale. “Me and my boys didn’t take kindly to being stuck guarding a useless fort in a desolate mountain path. Needless to say, our garrison commander and his fellow officers didn’t share our decision to leave, so… measures had to be taken. Sure, we’re now kill-on-site in the griffon empire, but thanks to our new freedom we can help upstanding folks like yourself.”
Hard Line was frozen, the griffon patting him on the foreleg before all three moved out of the table.

“Relax, my good Noblestallion. We’ll have this job done in no time at all. I guarantee it.”

Watching the three walk out of the near-empty bar, he decided to sit in the dark for a few minutes and wait.

“Why does this feel like a big mistake?” he asked himself under his breath.

Luna looked out behind them, the Crystal Empire fading away behind them as the chariot soared through the snowy sky. Looking back beside her she observed that her two guards were both still shaken, understandable considering that their game of chess had been interrupted by her sister and Twilight Sparkle suddenly teleporting atop of the game board.

“Luna, are you alright?” She turned to look at Celestia at the question, her sister examining her with concern-laden eyes. “I’m sorry that you were imprisoned for so long, I did not want to risk anything until I had a solid plan in place.”

Shaking her head, Luna tried to relax Celestia with a smile. “There is no need to be concerned, sister. My captors were fair and just, no harm has befallen my guards or I. I can see why you wished to be cautious, and it was I that decided to take rash action.” Her smile faltered, glancing back outside the window before returning her attention to Celestia. “Although I feel that my rescue will not go over well with my former captors.”

“You mean Emperor Chalmers?” Twilight spoke up from her seat next to Celestia, a shudder going through the librarian’s body. “I bet he wasn’t very nice to you at all, considering how mad he was when we were there.”

“He actually bothered us little,” Luna explained. “Apart from our hostile meeting with him, we saw little of him. Even his cohort, the scientist named ‘Elijah’, eventually seemed to lose interest.”

“Lucky for you,” Twilight murmured. “He’s so persistent… and strange.”

Luna nodded with a frown. “Strange indeed, even amongst his ilk. He told me things,” she shivered at the memory. “Terrible things that I hope I will never have to witness personally.”

“He gave you information?” Celestia leaned forward.

“Far more than I gave him,” Luna confirmed, glancing to her wings. “He was more enthralled with my form than what I was actually saying.” Her face heated up, but she managed to keep from showing a blush. “I must admit, the digits they have are very suitable for the pruning for one’s wings.”

“He touched you?” Celestia’s eyes narrowed, Luna raising a hoof.

“Not inappropriately,” she explained. “They don’t seem to be very knowledgeable regarding the proper treatment of royalty. If anything, it was more…” she struggled to find the right words, Sergeant Lumen stepping in.

“He said we were ‘cute’,” the nocturne grumbled, his wings flexing. “Adorable, even.”

Luna had to hold back a smile at that, the memory of the unstable scientist bending down and making ‘Eek’ sounds like a bat at an attempt to provoke Lumen an amusing one regardless of the insult to her guards. “You were very well behaved, both of you. Despite strenuous circumstances you refrained from worsening the situation.”

Both Lumen and Darkbane perked up at that, sitting straight with pride evident. Celestia relaxed but still remained quiet, Luna glancing to Twilight Sparkle. “Once again, thank you both for our rescue. I just hope that it won’t lead to any violent reprisal.”

“They don’t seem to be the forgiving type,” Twilight shared. “Although now that there are no Equestrians left in the city, we can stop them.” Luna watched with slight concern while her sister’s student looked up determinedly at Celestia. “Princess, give me and the others a chance. With the Elements, we can put a stop to this.”

“How do you intend to approach close enough to put this plan into action?” Luna questioned.

“We can use the same crystal that we did to rescue you.” Twilight was on a roll, gesturing with her hooves wildly. “Of course, it’ll be tricky teleporting the six of us in there, finding our way to the Emperor while avoiding his guards, using the elements on him, then using the elements on the other three aliens, then we’ll-“

“Twilight,” Celestia interrupted, a warm smile on her face. “I appreciate the plan and your willingness to do what is right, and I have full confidence in your abilities, but I’d prefer to not have to take that option unless absolutely needed.”

Twilight’s ears flattened. “Did I make a mistake?”

“Not at all,” Celestia reassured, unfolding a wing and patting her student ton the back. “I have to admit that it would certainly catch them off guard, but I’m afraid it’s not as simple as just getting rid of the Emperor.” An apologetic smile was sent her way, Luna giving her sister a slight nod in understanding. “I made that mistake, and I underestimated his standing amongst the crystal ponies and changelings.”

“That is correct,” Luna agreed. “They see us as an enemy to fight, and they are fiercely loyal to their city and people. They have accepted him as one of them, so any action we take against the Emperor will also be seen as action against the Crystal Empire as a whole.” She shuddered, remembering the outcome of the previous attempt. “We have all experienced how unpredictable ponies can be when they feel threatened.”
There was silence in the cabin, all of them thinking about the issue they found themselves in. Then, it was Celestia who spoke.

“I hope that we can peacefully resolve our differences,” she began. “I don’t just hope, but believe we can.”

Luna nodded. “I share that belief, sister. All we need is to be able to show them that we are not going to fight them.”

“But the crystal ponies and changelings hate us,” Twilight pointed out sadly.

“No, Twilight Sparkle, they do not hate us. They are afraid of us, of what we will do if we occupy them again. The Emperor and his fellows are a different matter, but I know that the Emperor will do the best for his subjects as long as he believes it to be the right path.”

There was silence again, all knowing that swaying the alien ruler was going to be a monumental task. Luna grew uncomfortable after a few minutes, so she turned to Twilight Sparkle and cleared her throat to get the unicorn’s attention. “So,” she began hesitantly. “How is young Spike doing, Twilight Sparkle?”

Reflection strode out of the jewellery shop with her head held high and a smile on her face. The bracelet on her leg glittered in the sunlight, more than one mare glancing at it while they passed. Glancing behind her, her grin widened when Nigel exited the store while still shaking his head, a grinning Orthodox following behind. Reflection fought to keep the smile when she once again saw the large diamond ring on the orange finger, silently reminding herself that Orthodox wasn’t the only one who’d extorted a flashy item of jewellery from Nigel today.

“Well, we now have bling,” Orthodox stated while admiring his ring. “Let’s get food and booze.”

Reflection sighed. “I was hoping to have a nice lunch with Nigel, actually,” she explained while looking up at the mentioned human. “Can’t you just give him some money so he can eat… somewhere different?”

Nigel was about to answer, but Orthodox got in first. “Money? I’ve just been going around and they’ve been giving me stuff.”

“What?” Nigel frowned as he paused his walking. “Please tell me you haven’t just been stealing from the ponies and changelings.”

“It’s not stealing,” Orthodox defended, crossing his arms. “I thought it was like medieval Europe. I know the King, so I get to take stuff from the peasants.”

Reflection frowned at having her fellow citizens referred to as ‘peasants’, but she was confused as to what ‘Medieval Europe’ was. Looking towards Nigel, he seemed just as puzzled.

“Wait… most humans don’t know much about Terra any more, let alone pre-colonial Europe. How can you possibly know about European way of life in the medieval times?”

Orthodox shrugged. “Hey, they had maces and spent most of their time fighting each other, that shit’s interesting.” The midget then muttered to himself. “Damn, now I want a mace…”

“Idiot,” Reflection heard Nigel mutter under his breath. She tried and failed at holding back a laugh.

“Don’t you have a mace?” she teased, earning a smirk from Orthodox. “And I seem to remember you naming it.”

“That’s different,” Nigel huffed. “As Emperor, a mace is needed for me to maintain my image of an upstanding royal.” A hand was placed on his chest, Reflection rolling her eyes.

She knew where this was going.

Not giving him the chance, she shot him a mischievous look before she quickly turned and hurried off into the crowed street. Ponies and changelings parted for her with surprised looks, but she paid them no mind. Checking behind her to make sure he was following, she could see him laughing at her softly while carefully weaving through the street after her. She was so fixated on taunting him further, that she didn’t even see the panting guard before it was too late.

Reflection winced when she made contact with the armoured shoulder, jolting her back while the owner halted with a gasp. “Lady Reflection, I’m so sorry.”

She shook her head to clear her daze and looked at the changeling guard she had run into. The female was staring at her with concern, so she waved it off. “It’s fine, I was the one not looking after all.”

“I wasn’t either,” the guard admitted. “I’m Private Mirror. I was looking for the Emperor with urgent news.”

Reflection didn’t like the way the guard was acting. “Urgent? Is it bad?”

Mirror winced. “Well, it’s about-“


Nigel had finally caught up. Orthodox following alongside while chewing a muffin. Straight away a hand was placed on her back, Chalmers chuckling while dusting down his front. “Jeez, even with that mane you’re hard to spot in a crowd. What’s the deal, anyway?” He focused down on the guard, smiling and nodding after looking at the rank marking on the right shoulder. “Private, forgive me but I don’t recall meeting you before.”

Reflection held her tongue, knowing that he often relied on her to remember the names of all the changelings he’d met.

“It’s Mirror, Emperor,” Mirror answered with a hasty salute. “I’m sorry sir, but I need you to come to the palace right away.”

“Oh? Is something the matter?”

Reflection glanced towards him when Private Mirror lowered her head, the armoured changeling looking like a misbehaved puppy.
“I’m sorry, Emperor,” Mirror answered. “But I’ve failed you and the Empire.”

“What!? Where in the bloody depths of hell is she!?”

Mirror winced while the Emperor shouted at the room he was standing in, the guards watching from outside the door being very careful to not utter a word. Sheen was standing over by the bathroom door with her head bowed, the crystal pony guard accompanied by Lady Reflection.

“The… the Equetrians must have snuck in and somehow teleported out,” Mirror explained while she shook and held onto her helmet, the furious Emperor turning his glare onto her. “I… I was talking to Private Sheen when I noticed a faint trace of magic. It was too quiet inside so we both went in. The room was empty and when I looked out of the window I saw a chariot flying away. I’m sorry, it all happened so quickly.”

She waited for an angry outburst, the Emperor’s fists clenched and his face going a slight shade of red. Ears folded down, she prepared herself to be chewed out and told to turn in her armour. The appeal of being a soldier was a dream come true to a low drone like her, but evidently she just wasn’t cut out for it. Gritting her teeth, she silently cursed herself when she realised that she hadn’t just doomed herself, but had distracted and thusly also screwed over Sheen.

Eyes on the floor, she shifted in her armour while she heard the trotting of hooves and hushed whispering before her. No doubt Lady Reflection was just as disappointed in her, Mirror sniffling at the thought of being ostracized by the respected changeling leader.

“Private…” the Emperor began, Mirror raising her head at the surprisingly warm tone. He was looking down at her with understanding, not the anger that she had been witnessing. “Look, I can’t really blame you and Private Sheen for the Princess escaping. From what you’ve told me it appears as if she had outside help and that it was done with magic, something we honestly lack enough knowledge of. Just… you and Sheen should take the rest of the day off, get some rest and don’t worry about this incident. Okay?”

Nodding her head, Mirror quickly replaced her helmet, stood up, and bowed.

“Thank you, Emperor.”

He waved a hand at her, Mirror deciding to not overstay her welcome. Hurrying out of the room, she was aware of Sheen following closely behind. Both pushed through the group of fellow guards while avoiding eye-contact, eager to escape the prying eyes of their comrades. Exiting into the corridor, they both headed to the stairs and didn’t speak until there was no-one around but a few maids paying them no attention.

“That could have gone worse,” Sheen murmured while starting to trot down the stairs. “I was expecting him to just start yelling at us.”

“How’d you think I felt?” Mirror shuddered.

“I didn’t envy you.” A sigh escaped from the mare’s mouth. “So, I guess you aren’t going to still be going out tonigh-“

“Son of a bitch!”

The yell and sound of shattering wood caused them to both stop and glance back to where they had come from, a mass of guards quickly filing out of the corridor like Cerberus himself was after them.

“How about we talk about that back at the Barracks?” Mirror suggested, before hurrying down the stairs as fast as her legs could take her.

Reflection stared at Nigel, one hoof raised in the air with her mouth open. He was positively livid, his shoulders heaving while he glared at the half-finished chess game sitting on the table. The remains of the wooden stool lay shattered against the far wall, Reflection breaking out of her shock and moving forward so as to preserve the remaining furniture.

“Nigel?” she tried softly, trotting up and touching him lightly on the back of the leg. “Can you calm down?”

“Calm down?” he laughed, Reflection flinching at the lack of humour. “How can I calm down, Reflection?” He turned around to look down at her, his fists still clenched. “As if it wasn’t bad enough that I’ve lost my hostage, apparently the Equestrians can now infiltrate the palace with some unknown means! That means more guards inside of the palace itself, meaning less builders on the walls, less patrols at the edge of the city, less scouts to keep an eye on the Equestrians, less guards to make sure Chrysalis doesn’t try to pull something…”

He brushed her hoof away, sitting down on the edge of the bed with a kick to the table. The chess pieces clattered down, with a few falling to the floor itself. Reflection flinched but didn’t draw back, instead she flew up to sit on the bed beside him.

“Fuck’s sake,” Nigel muttered, eying the second stool. “That’s what I get for getting lazy, leaving this entire Equestrian problem on the backburner.” He drummed his fingers on his knees. “I should just chuck on my armour, gather the guys and go shank Celestia and Luna once and for all.”

Reflection frowned. While she wasn’t adverse to the plan, in her mind there were more important things that he needed to do with his time. Leaning up against him, she gave him a comforting nuzzle before stating her case.

“Please don’t,” she requested. “At least not yet. I don’t want you to go off unprepared and lose because of it, like last time. That’s what they’re probably trying to do, bait you to make you act rashly so they can force you to make a mistake.” She rubbed his thigh with her foreleg, the other one going around to pat the middle of his back.

“I doubt it,” he grumbled, although she could feel him start to calm down. “So far they haven’t made any hostile moves yet, apart from this trickery.”

Another nuzzle, this one rewarded with reciprocation. “But look at their army,” she reasoned. “They’re so afraid of us that they feel the need to try and outnumber us, and even then they’re unprepared. Our soldiers are well trained and prepared, thanks to the work that you, Strategy, and Agent James have done.” A hand went to her side, her wings buzzing when it rubbed. “Equestria is scared of us, and even with their princess back, what can they do? All we need to do is trust our guards, take our time, and plan out our attack.”

Reflection gave him time to think her suggestions over, Chalmers remaining silent.

“Besides, it’s my hatchday in a few days. I’d hate to have it spoiled by not having you here for it.”

“What will spoil it will be if Equestria tries to take this city again,” he muttered. “Except this time they’ll be able to just teleport inside.”

“They won’t,” she told him, continuing to pat his back. “If there’s one thing I know about Equestrians, then it’s the fact that they’d fight only as a last resort. We’ve got them scared, so you can relax.” Rubbing her head against his shoulder, she flicked her tail. “Also, I hate it when you’re tense like this.”

At last she had some success, Nigel’s muscles relaxing and his shoulders slumping while his fists unclenched. “I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. “What can they do, after all? We’ll double the guards and be ready for the next time they try to get in.” He gave her an apologetic smile. “Sorry for losing it there, it’s hard to continue the ‘Nice Guy’ shtick with all of this stuff going on.”

She smiled back, waving a hoof in dismissal. “It’s fine, really. I know that you’d never hurt me, so I was more worried about you and the furniture.” He glanced around the room, Reflection quickly using her hoof to turn his chin back around so he was focused on her instead. “Don’t worry about it, okay?”

“Fine,” he sighed, before leaning back on the bed with his hands behind his head. “I guess I’ll just take five minutes.”

Joining him, she made sure to cross her hind legs before turning to lay on her side and face him.

“This may be a bad time,” she pressed, resting a foreleg on his shoulder. “But do you think there will be a time where we don’t have to worry about anything like this? You know,” she shuffled closer. “Just some time where we can spend it together without interruption and more interruption on top of constant duties, and we don’t have to worry about others?” Sighing, she smiled when she imagined all of the things they could do.

“It’s likely,” he answered after a while. “Granted, probably for only a few days at once, but when I’m finally not Emperor any more then we’ll have so much more. I promise.”

“Not Emperor?” she questioned, sitting up. “But… what about the Crystal Empire?”

He smiled at that, briefly rubbing his nose.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he reassured her. “I’ve got someone in mind for the job when the time comes.”

“Soldiers, the mission you’re going on is of massive importance to the Crystal Empire’s security. It’s risky and you’ve only been given the smallest time in which to train, but I believe in you.”

Strategy once again glanced around at the ten changelings lined up before him in the training field, all without armour with a few sporting hats typical to Equestrians. The saddle bags at their sides contained golden bits ‘borrowed’ from a certain alien’s stash, enough love gems to last each two whole months without supply, as well as fabricated personal items to further support each changeling’s carefully rehearsed cover story.

Agent James was standing off to the side, Strategy thankful that the one sane member of the Emperor’s friends was the one who had primarily trained the spies. The black human had his helmet in his hand, the other one tapping the side of his armour.

“You all know your mission,” Strategy continued. “You are to travel in your groups to the town of ‘Haybuck’, blending in with the population and keeping an eye on the guards. According to the scouts it is one of the primary gathering points of the Equestrian army, so if any attack is launched you’ll know about it.” Taking another look at the troops, hoping that it wasn’t for the last time, Strategy cleared his throat. “I’ll repeat that you are to take no action but warn us as soon as possible, understood?”

All ten saluted.

“Yes, Captain!”

He returned it, face stony but chest full of pride. “Excellent. Now, the Emperor apologises that he is unable to be here to see you off.” Everyone, even James, glanced up towards the palace from where the smashing sounds had rung out from. Strategy returned his focus to them, the changelings likewise looking back at him. “I assure you that he wishes you the best, and that he shares my confidence in you.” The ten gave him a final salute, Strategy nodding. “Dismissed.”

In pairs and threes, the soldiers took one last look at their city before their wings buzzed. Strategy watched them all take to the skies, splitting up and flying out towards the south of the city with no pomp or fanfare. His face hardened, while not doubting his soldiers he hated the thought of sending more to their deaths. The memories of the prior battles against the Elk were still fresh in his mind.

“They’ll be fine.”

Strategy looked up, Agent James standing beside him and watching the departing changelings.

“I wish I could be as confident,” he admitted, shifting in his armour. “I hate having to order them to do this.”

“It’s their job,” James pointed out, thoughtfully rubbing his chin with an armoured hand. “And, after all, they are naturally equipped for the task. They’ve been trained, they themselves are confident in their own abilities, and it is a risk that is well worth taking.”

“How so?”

James paused. “What happens if they get caught? Will the Equestrians execute them?”

“No, that’s not likely.” He grimaced. “But there is still a chance. Who knows what the tension will drive them to do?”

James hummed to himself, before placing his helmet back on. Strategy watched as the dull eye lenses glowed a steady blue, the human turning to walk back into the palace.

“Well, let us hope that our confidence in them proves true, just in case. Have a good evening, Captain Strategy.”

Watching the agent walk away, Strategy wondered where he was going to go. The guards had told him that Agent James was a bit of a recluse from what they could tell, the dour human spending most of his free time in his room. Remembering the dinner that he was due to have with the Emperor that night, Strategy raised a hoof.

“Wait, Agent James.” The addressed man halted and turned, Strategy gesturing towards the city. “The Emperor and his advisors were going to have dinner in the city, myself and… a friend included. I’m sure that you’d be welcome to join us all.”

James seemed to consider it. “I’m afraid I will have to decline, Chalmers’ choices in dining venues are… not to my taste.” He went to turn away again, but Strategy could guess as to what the agent was alluding to.

“It’s at the fanciest restaurant in the city.”

That stopped James, Strategy hearing another hum come from within the helmet.

“Very well, Captain,” James farewelled with his walking resuming. “I might as well use the opportunity to sample some of the local cuisine. I shall see you there.”

With that, Strategy watched him leave, wondering exactly what had compelled him to extend the invitation.

“This is a mistake, I just know it.”

“Reflection, relax.” Nigel patted the changeling sitting next to him on the back, taking care to not mess up her mane-matching dress. Across from them sat Strategy and Sparkling, the two now not even attempting to be coy about their relationship. “Remember the promise.”

Her frown only lifted by the smallest of margins.

“I expect the full thing, the bath will only be the introduction,” she asserted, Chalmers holding out his palms.

“Okay, understood.”

A giggle from Sparkling led to Reflection poking her tongue out at her, Strategy sighing while Nigel chuckled. Patting Reflection’s foreleg while she lightened up, he glanced around the rest of the restaurant.

It was small but fancy, the owner having placed them on a table on the second story despite his protests. It was empty save for their group and the occasional waiter or waitress, Nigel suspecting that the owner had taking his joke about ‘wanting a quiet dinner for once’ too seriously. Still ,the others seemed to be enjoying it, even Reflection had been enthralled by the indoor fountains and marble walls.

Tapping his free hand on the pearl-white table cloth, he shook his head at the golden cutlery before them. Apparently the establishment was so upper-class that even non-unicorns were expected to use the provided knives, forks, and spoons. Hence, he pitied Sparkling and Strategy, the two already having tried to practice with the tricky devices.

He looked back to them at a cough from Strategy, the Captain wearing a nice tux and black bowtie that looked incredibly out of place on him.
“So, I heard that this place does amazing food,” Strategy shared, glancing towards Reflection with an eyebrow raised. “Apparently they’ve also been experimenting with dishes designed for changelings are well. Are you going to try them?”

Reflection shook her head. “No, I’m just going to stick to the drinks.”

“Oh, come on,” Sparkling goaded with a smile. “You’re going to miss out on the chance to try some actual changeling food? Have you seen this place? If the building looks this good, then just think about the food!” Her smile softened. “Besides, remember the last time you drank without eating? I heard you drank so much that Nigel had to carry you out.”

“Lies and slander,” Reflection scoffed with a hoof to her chest. “It was purely part of my plan.”

“Yeah, your plan to get wasted and to try and show up Cadence,” he reminded her lightly, earning himself a soft slap on the arm accompanied by her laughter.

“Oh, like I was the only one trying to show off,” she shot back. “I remember you going through three drinks in five minutes.”

“Given your state of intoxication that night, I highly doubt your ability to remember.”

“That’s not nice!” she laughed again, her foreleg making to hit his arm again but it was caught in time. While he gained vengeance by tickling the leg-holes at his mercy and making her giggle uncontrollably, he was aware of eyes on him. Glancing up, he stopped teasing Reflection when he noticed the looks that Sparkling and Strategy were giving them.


“Oh, nothing,” his assistant replied with a smile. “You two just make an adorable couple. An alien ruler and a shapeshifting changeling, sitting there like it’s completely natural.” The smile widened, Reflection’s laughter dying down. “So, when’s the wedding?”

Nigel noticed out of the corner of his eye that Reflection seemed to pale, and upon turning to make sure she was alright he witnessed an oddity. Quickly waving her forelegs in front of her, Reflection was very frantic in her attempts to answer the harmless teasing.

“Wedding?” Reflection chuckled nervously. “No, there’s no wedding. What wedding? How did you find out about th- a wedding?”
Nigel shared a look with Strategy and Sparkling, both equally as confused as he was.

“…It was a joke,” Sparkling informed slowly. “I was pointing out that you two are always acting like you’re married.”
Reflection stopped and nervously fiddled with her forehooves.

“Hey,” Nigel decided to step in to save her from the confused gazes. “I take offense to that, we’re happy.”

It took a second for them to get the joke, but then all four laughed or chuckled while shaking their heads.

“That’s not true, surely,” Reflection smiled. “I mean, it’s supposed to be with the one you love above all else after all.”

“Yeah, well I’d think I’d know, considering I’ve gone through three of them already.”

He realised what he had just said as soon as he had said it, the chuckles going dead silent. Reflection had her mouth opening and closing, no words escaping while she stared at him. Strategy was in the middle of raising his hoof to ask a question, while Sparkling was more focused on the shell-shocked Reflection.

It was right then that Nigel wished that the restaurant would hurry up and serve them drinks already. However, it looked like he was going to have to use a different method to cover his slipup.

“It’s a… joke?” He tried, Reflection finally closing her mouth. She stared at him, Nigel smiling back innocently.

“A bad one,” she finally muttered, looking back to the middle of the table and beginning to brood.

‘Well, it could have gone worse,’ he figured, deciding to let Reflection be for the time being. Focusing back on Sparkling and Strategy, he froze when he noticed the look Sparkling as giving him.

The mare’s eyes were narrowed, there being no doubt that she had seen through his charade. Sparkling made a pointed glance towards Reflection, before looking back at him. Nigel shook his head, obviously the wrong response as Sparkling’s frown deepened. Giving him a final glance, she turned to Reflection and went to begin speaking.

“Excuse me, Emperor.” Sparkling was interrupted before she could begin, all four looking towards the stairs. A lone waiter in a black and white uniform was standing to attention, the cobalt crystal stallion bowing his head. “Your final guest has arrived.”

From the stairs ascended James, the agent without armour but wearing a simple white dress shirt and black pants. He made his way towards them, pulled out the chair between Reflection and Sparkling, before sitting down with his hands in his lap.

“Good Evening all,” he greeted. “I must say, the suggestion that this place is fancy is not far off. It’s actually quite appealing.” He smiled at them all, before he noticed the general tension. “Is something the matter?”

“No, not at all,” Nigel was quick to get in, earning stares from the other three who had witness the night’s incident. “Just… not used to such an upper-class place yet. Right?”

“That’s right,” Strategy backed him up, ignoring the look that Sparkling gave him.

“Ah, I see,” James continued with a raised eyebrow. “How are you all liking it? I myself particularly enjoy the beautiful marble walls that they have and-“

“Was Nigel ever married before!?”

The blood froze in Nigel’s veins, even the waiter at the end of the room going stock still. Slowly turning his head, he saw that Reflection had her eyes locked firmly on the psionic soldier. James in turn glanced at him.

“Have I missed something here? That question is not one that is usually so frantic.” He looked back to Reflection. “It is however one that should probably be answered by he alone, truthfully.” James glanced towards Nigel again at the last part, before reaching out a hand to pat Reflection on the shoulder. “I still don’t see how that would change things. I heard that you two were planning something, but I would assume that if it’s about what I think it’s about then I would be sure that he informed you of what it would mean if it went ahead.”

There was silence save for Nigel coughing into a hand, Reflection slowly turning to glare at him.

“Oh dear,” James muttered, before glancing towards the waiter who was still deciding on approaching them at the current time. “Waiter, we may be in need of some drinks…”

“So, she left after I was away for seven months without calling her. Stupid bitch didn’t even accept the fact that I was trapped in a bloody bunker on a bloody planet covered with bloody radiation for like… six out of those seven months.”

Reflection watched while Nigel drained his wine glass, before placing it back down next to his half-eaten salad. Immediately the waiter rushed over to refill it from a fat bottle, before retreating back to his spot.

“Oh…” she mumbled, prodding at her own food with a fork. It was very good salad, apparently cooked with a love gem inside the pot so it made it more appealing to changelings, but his explanation of his past failed marriages had killed her appetite. Her wine glass likewise stood untouched, Reflection feeling guilty that she had forced him into talking about the sore topic.

“Thankfully for me, I’d taken Elijah’s advice and invested most of my paychecks, so she only managed to screw me out of a few million credits. Far as I know, she’s out on some paradise world somewhere enjoying my money.” He stabbed his fork into the salad, before lifting it up to devour the leafy greens. “I feel sorry for the poor sod that gets her next.”

When he paused to take another drink, she quickly glanced over to the others. Strategy and Sparkling were likewise picking at their food, while James seemed unaffected. Still, while the so-far quiet man ate his own meal and drank his own drink, Reflection could see that he was keeping an eye on Nigel.

“And the third,” Nigel began after finishing yet another glass, his eyes unfocused. “Well, we don’t talk about her.” His tone darkened but she could pick up a hint of sadness in it.

“No we do not,” James agreed while removing his glass from him. “For many reasons, as well. Now, I know we’re just on the entrees, but you have already gone through a large amount of wine and-“

“I know, I know. I’m drunk and spoiling it for everyone.”

Putting her hoof out to touch his hand, her magic died out as she placed her fork down. “No, you’re not. I’m sorry for asking the question.”

“Don’t be,” he sighed, pushing the hoof away and standing up from the table. “It was really something I should have told you anyway. Now, I’m going to leave you guys to enjoy the rest of your dinner, just…” he wobbled on his feet before placing a hand down on the table to steady himself. “Let them know to send the bill to the treasury.”

Turning around, he stumbled his way towards the stairs. James sighed and made to get up, but Reflection shook her head at him. Leaving her seat, she waved goodbye to the three remaining before catching up to Nigel.

“Here,” she told him, moving up alongside. “Put your hand on my back to steady yourself.”

“You should be back at the table,” he told her, but his hand was placed where she told him to anyway.

“No, it’s my responsibility to help you home,” she replied, nodding at the silent waiter as they passed and began to descend the stairs. “Besides, the other three will still be able to enjoy themselves. Watch that step there, good.”

It was slow going, but they managed to make it down without any tumbles. Leading him out of the restaurant, she was thankful that it was quiet and the streets were almost clear. The less who saw Nigel in his current state, the better. She made sure that they stuck to the darker streets, and before long they had reached the castle gates.

“Nearly there,” she encouraged, the groups of guards that she passed on the way through the main doors giving them glances but not saying a thing. A pair of guards approached once they had entered the palace proper.

“Do you need any assistance, Emperor?”

Reflection nudged Nigel in the side of the leg to keep him moving.

“No thanks,” she smiled. “I’ve got this. Thank you though.”

“No problem, Ma’am,” the guard nodded, before he and his fellow returned to their post by the door.

She continued on, helping Nigel all the way up the stairs while declining more offers of help from multiple groups of guards.

‘When he said to double the guards, he meant it,’ she acknowledged, guiding the human around a group of six crystal ponies conducting a patrol of the corridor.

At last she made it to their room, shutting the door behind her with a kick. Leading him to the bed, she helped him lie down before she started to prepare for the night.

The silver shoes on her hooves were taken off and placed in their spot in the wardrobe, followed by Nigel’s shoes which she removed for him. Then it was a simple matter of removing her dress and jewellery, the amethyst bracelet going into her drawer while the dress was set aside for the laundry staff to collect in the morning. Her necklace remained on as she climbed atop the bed, as she never removed it unless absolutely needed to.

Not bothering to get them underneath the covers, she snuggled up against his side and tried to ignore the smell of wine. He didn’t make any attempt to move so she assumed he was asleep.

Reflection didn’t fall asleep immediately, instead she was stuck awake by herself. Her thoughts drifted to her upcoming hatchday, only a mere two days away. A smile graced her face at the thoughts of what it would bring, and she wasn’t thinking about the presents or party that had been promised.

Then Nigel, who she had thought was asleep, sloppily moved an arm around her. “I’m sorry for not telling you about that stuff before,” he managed out.

“It’s fine,” she replied with some surprise at the out-of-the-blue apology. “You did say that you couldn’t tell me everything back when we first agreed to date, and I guess that I got a little… well, hurt that you didn’t trust me.” Placing her own foreleg over him as well, she sighed. “I think we both had a moment of silliness.”

“But I do trust you,” he murmured, Reflection sighing again.

“I know, I know that and I trust you too.”

He was silent for a few moments, almost long enough to make her believe that he had fallen asleep again before he continued on softly. “It was orders, Reflection. I did it because of the orders.”

“Huh?” she mumbled back, sitting up to look at him. “What do orders have to do about this?”

It was too late, however. Nigel was out like a light, leaving only Reflection to ponder his seemingly meaningless words.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure that they’ve just overslept and it isn’t a deliberate attempt to avoid you.”

Chrysalis continued to frown at Elijah’s failed attempt to explain the lateness of the Emperor while he knocked lightly on the bedroom door. In just an hour she was due to leave with her loyal subjects to the new land the Crystal Empire had acquired from the griffons, along with all the needed supplies and unfortunately a number of disloyal changeling guards who would be keeping an eye on them.

While she would have loved to have just left already without having to spend another irritating moment with the Emperor and his pet traitor, for some reason she felt insulted at the snub. To think that she, Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings, wasn’t worth the time for them to get out of bed!

‘The nerve of them,’ she thought while grinding her teeth. ‘Considering that I even considered going along with this plan, I’d expect some more respect.’

“Hrmm, Nigel, Miss Reflection?” Elijah tried again with another knock. “You’re late, it’s almost lunchtime and myself and the Queen are leaving soon.”

Chrysalis rolled her eyes at his pitiful attempts, a forehoof tapping impatiently. The so-called scientist in his strange armour would no doubt prove to be a troublesome supervisor, and she was certain that his seemingly-bumbling demeanour wasn’t as simple as she had suspected.

The fact that his priority had been the safe stowage of the containers of dragon heads indicated that he had numerous issues that could prove dangerous.

She even almost felt pity for the drones tasked to carry the morbid boxes during their flight.

Chrysalis’s ears picked up when she heard muffled hoofsteps from the other side of the door. The owner fumbled with the lock and latch, Chrysalis using to time to ask a question that was on her mind.

“Why did the guards not wake them sooner?”

“From what I heard, it was a rather rough night for the pair, so the guards decided that letting them sleep in was better than waking the Emperor and possibly having him grumpy for the day.”

Chrysalis snorted. “And they didn’t discuss this decision with their Captain?”

“Well,” Elijah hummed. “I believe that he was also out with the Emperor last night.”

‘Idiots.’ Chrysalis shook her head with the thought. ‘It’s a wonder as to how this city is still no invaded yet.’

Finally the bedroom door opened, Chrysalis’ frown narrowing when she saw that it was Reflection. The sleepy-eyed traitor looked out at them, Chrysalis wrinkling her nose at the faint smell of wine in her mane.

“Hm?” Reflection uttered sleepily. “What’s the matter?”

Chrysalis was just about to lecture Reflection on respect towards one’s betters, but unfortunately Elijah got in first.

“We’re sorry for waking you,” he began with a smile.

‘I’m not.’

“But I’m afraid that Nigel and yourself are needed down in the west fields. Queen Chrysalis’ group is about to depart, along with me, towards the Griffon lands. I believe that we are to depart in an hour, or to be more precise in fifty-three standard Imperial minutes given the planet’s orbital period.

“The planet’s what period?” Reflection questioned back, for once Chrysalis agreeing with her.

“He means that we’re running out of time, and you and your… Emperor are late.” A glare rose up from the upstart, Chrysalis ignoring it. “So, hurry up.”

“Bitch,” she heard Reflection mutter under her breath, before a fake smile was directed at her. “Oh, but of course Your Highness. I’d just hate to have one of our subordinates leave to our new protectorate without seeing them off, especially when I respect them so much.” The smile dropped. “We’ll be there soon, bye.” With that, the door closed and left Chrysalis and Elijah standing in the corridor.

“Why, that… that…!” Her wings buzzed angrily, eyes narrowed into slits at the slight. “Ungrateful spoiled brat!”

“Just let it go,” Elijah advised, shrugging his shoulders and turning on his heels to walk away. “I mean, you weren’t exactly the picture of civility in that circumstance either. Besides, my dear Queen, our departure awaits and we still have much to do!”

Grumbling to herself, Chrysalis followed him as he marched off back to the staircase, still trying to figure out if he had just belittled her or not.

“Nigel, Nigel wake up.”

Chalmers groaned and attempted to batter away the hooves shaking his chest, but it was a weak attempt that was only rewarded with tired laughter.

“Come on, we’ve each got to take a quick shower, we’re supposed to be saying goodbye to the guards you’re sending with Chrysalis.” Reflection leaned in and kissed him before drawing back again, and upon opening his eyes he was met with her smiling face.

“You look just as tired as me,” he groaned, earing another laugh from her. Despite her half-lidded eyes, it was bubbly and genuine.

“I am just as tired as you, but I know that we really should get up.” Reflection returned to all four hooves on the ground, looking at him from the side of the bed with a sly smile. “Come on, if you get up and have a shower, I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Thanks for the offer,” he groaned while wiping his face with a hand. “But we both know that we won’t really have time for that if we’re that late.”

Reflection sighed but nodded. “I suppose that you’re right.” Sitting up on bed with difficulty, he gave her a quick head rub in apology.
“Go on, you go in first and I’ll take second, then we’ll quickly go to…”

“The West area,” she reminded him, pulling away from the rub and trotting into the bathroom.

Nigel listened as the shower turned on, remembering with a smile at how fascinated the crystal ponies had been when he had explained the basic idea of it. Considering they had gone from no indoor plumbing at all to showers, all with only his minimal assistance, it was quite a feat in his mind.

The smile faded when he found that the previous night was blurry, only small snippets making themselves known. He remembered stumbling, Reflection being worried, and something he had said making them all uncomfortable. Unable to puzzle it out himself, he looked across to the open bathroom door and wondered at how to best phrase the question.

“Hey, Reflection, I didn’t say anything stupid last night, did I? I can’t exactly remember it all and I could have sworn that you were worried about something.” He winced, thinking of one possibility. “You aren’t still mad about that whole ‘I’ve been married before’ thing, are you? That’s about all I can remember.”

Her pause in replying was longer than usual, Reflection not sounding too certain when she answered, either. “No, we already sorted that out and I understand. It was… something else.”

“What?” Nigel grimaced, not knowing much that could top the mentioned topic. Whatever it was, it’d have to be major.

“Well…” the shower turned off. “You may have… discussed them. Vividly.”

He froze, before he had to ask. “Even… even the third?”

“No,” Reflection informed him, allowing him to sigh in relief. “Although that’s when James stopped you and you got really… strange. Then we went back, because you’d been drinking a bit more than usual.”

“Ah, righto.”

Well, it explained why he had felt the need to drink so much, and now he was thankful that he couldn’t recall the conversation. Leaving the bed, he began to take off his shirt while the sounds of Reflection brushing her mane could be heard.

He was just thankful that she seemed to think nothing more of it. That was not something that he wanted the relatively innocent changeling to learn about.

Nigel stood at the front of the field, the air alive with the buzzing of wings warming up and the massed chattering of the hundreds of changelings loyal to Chrysalis. Reflection and Strategy were beside him, only the Captain looking fresh and fully alert.

“How do you do it, Strategy?” Nigel asked as a group of forty steel-clad changelings marched past with chests of love-gems between them.

“I don’t drink five bottles of wine the night before,” his Captain fired back, Reflection laughing at the jab.

“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed, rubbing his temples. “I screwed up, was late, all of that. Besides, I’m here now aren’t I?” Nigel looked out at the field, changelings being loaded up with tools, equipment, and raw materials. “Why do you even need me out here anyway?”

“Why, for your troops of course.”

All three turned as Elijah joined them, the scientist armoured up with his helmet on. Nigel raised an eye at the various boxes tied on with ropes to multiple points on the scientist’s body, but didn’t even bother to question it.

“What do you mean?” Strategy asked with his head tilted. “While the Emperor is liked by the guards, he is right in saying that he’s not really required.”

“Ah, but he’s watching over them as they prepare to leave alongside someone they see as an enemy. Chrysalis is not liked by any of them, and by having Nigel here, it’s saying that she is under his eye.” Elijah tapped his own chest. “As their temporary leader on this expedition, it also helps my standing to be seen with their ruler.” To highlight his point, Elijah looked at the nearest group of guards and waved in their direction. The chosen group of seven took a second to hesitantly wave their armoured-hooves back, the pause lost on Elijah as he turned back with a thumbs up. “See?”

It was at that moment in time that Nigel felt pity for his guards.

“You, Elijah.” Chrysalis stormed past a changeling drone, moving to face the scientist. “We are ready to go, but there is one thing that you have forgotten.”


“We’re going to fly there,” Chrysalis reminded slowly. “You. Do. Not. Have. Wings. All of my changelings and your guards are carrying items already.” She turned her mocking gaze onto Nigel. “Some fine planning you have done.”

“Hey,” he defended, using one hand on Reflections head to hold her back. “I had nothing to do with it. It was all Elijah’s area.” A finger was pointed towards Chrysalis. “Besides, you can hardly call yourself a strategic genius.” Chrysalis was just about to bite back if her glare was anything to go by, but Elijah swiftly both defused the situation and answered Chrysalis’ ‘concern’ at the same time.

“Both of you relax. One does not need wings to fly,” Elijah explained, stepping back and placing his fists on his hips. “Not when one has… Science!”

At his shout, two short wings and a small pair of thrusters popped out from his back, another set of smaller jets emerging from the back of his armoured boots.

“You, ah, you still have wings,” Nigel pointed out, but it was brushed off in Elijah’s enthusiasm.

“Wings of science, my dear friend.” Turning to Chrysalis, Elijah swept his hand across in a bow. “Shall we depart, Your Highness?”

“I… I am ready?” Chrysalis answered while taking a confused step back. Glancing up towards Nigel, she was met with a disinterested shrug. “Sure?”

“Very well, good to go!” Merrily, Elijah raised back up. “Stand back, I shall inform everyone that we are leaving.” He nodded towards Nigel, Reflection and Strategy also looking towards him but their looks were ones of confusion. “I shall send word via James of any updates.”

“Have fun,” Nigel replied, sneaking a victorious grin at Chrysalis.

She had no idea of what she was in for.

“Very well. By the power of physics!”

The thrusters glowed a bright blue, before Elijah lifted off with only whine instead of a roar. It gained the attention of everyone present, the scientist hovering up into the sky while spreading his arms wide.

“Attention all, today is a great day for you, me, and discovery!”

Shaking his head, Nigel turned around and began to walk back to the castle.

“Nigel?” he heard Strategy call out after him.

“I’m going back to bed,” he answered without looking back. “My head is killing me.”

"There sure are a lot of guards, I hope the others made it through okay."

Shill nodded at her Sergeant's observation, Buzz looking around the markets and whispering to her while they trotted.

Masquerading as a married couple from Manehattan touring the region's renown beekeeping industry, the two pegasi had generated little attention. Sure, the guards had gone through their bags and questioned them, but thankfully their faked personal belongings, false bag bottoms hiding their love-gems, and rehearsed cover stories had diverted any suspicion.

Besides, they had trotted up from behind the town, not from the north border which the two hundred royal guards were watching like hawks. Having changelings infiltrating such a place was so risky that it appeared to have been pulled off, even the townsponies expecting a frontal assault from the Crystal Empire.

"They'll be arriving in the town over the next few days," Buzz continued, brushing back his long, red mane with an orange hoof. "We've already got an inn room, so we'll get settle and start taking notes on the Equestrian build-up." Both stopped talking when a guard passed by, Shill making a cover.

"So, Heartflame, dear. Do you want to try some of the local food? I hear they do wonderful breakfast."

"That's a great idea." He extended a wing, placing it over her dark-blue back. "Anything for my lovely Raindrops." He leaned in an nuzzled her, Shill maintaining her cool and returning it like a loving mare would. The guard passed without even noticing them, Shill pulling away when they continued trotting on.

"A little enthusiastic there, Heartflame," she commented softly.

"I like being thorough, Raindrops honey," he whispered back, Shill smiling at how easily they had slipped into the facade.
Maybe this assignment wouldn't be as bad as she had feared.

Reflection slowly awoke, grunting while she stretched out her limbs under the soft bedsheets. Cricking her neck, she took notice that the space next to her was empty, odd considering that she had joined Nigel in bed the previous evening. Opening her eyes, she searched the empty room for him to no avail. Figuring that he had already left to do something, she yawned before regretfully leaving the comfortable bed.
Hooves hitting the floor, she ambled over towards her drawer in the dresser. Opening it, she stared at the bracelet inside for a few moments while something clicked in her mind.

‘Bracelet…’ she thought, before her eyes widened. ‘It’s my Hatchday!’

A grin blossomed on her face, giddy at the thought of the upcoming party. She had finished off her secret wedding plans, and the binder was just waiting to be presented to Nigel for his hopeful approval. It took all of her willpower to stop herself from just grabbing it and taking it to him immediately, Reflection forcing herself to calm down and be patient.

Levitating the bracelet onto her left leg, she turned around to leave. A note placed at her eyelevel greeted her, Reflection leaning in to study the yellowed-parchment. On it was an arrow pointing towards the large wardrobe, and upon following it she noticed a second note. Trotting up to the second parchment, she smiled to herself when she recognised the picture of a birthday present.

“He better not be hiding in there naked,” she muttered with a smile, not entirely adverse to the idea.

Slowly opening the door, she found to her slight disappointment that there was no nude Emperor waiting to tackle her into a day of unrestrained carnal lust. However, when she did indeed see the actual present, Reflection forgave him instantly.

Right next to her single green dress and his standard uniforms, hung an amazing dress made from black fabric. Reflection reached out a hoof to touch the tiny, glittering diamonds that covered it. Each one returned a reflection, the symbolism not lost on her as she touched the priceless item.

“How much did this cost?” she murmured in awe, guessing that the Royal Tailor wouldn’t be wanting for much for a while. It was like a starry sky she could wear.

Figuring that it was better to save the dress until her party that night, Reflection closed the wardrobe door and made her way outside of the room.

“Morning Ma’am,” one of the guards outside of the door greeted, the green stallion tipping his helmet.

“Happy Hatchday,” the changeling male on the other side added with a grin. “Are you looking forward to the party tonight? I hear the whole city is invited.”

“Thanks, and yes I am,” she smiled back. “Even if I’m betting that he’s gone and overdone it.”

“The Emperor? Overdone it?” the crystal pony guard chuckled. “Impossible, I only saw them rolling over twenty barrels of cider from the brewery.”

“Only twenty?”

“Well, for the inside of the palace that is,” the changeling joined in. “The rest of us only have, well, I believe the Captain said it was only a few hundred we had to guard tonight.”

Reflection couldn’t believe her ears. “Hundred? Do we even have that much in the city?”

The crystal pony shook his head. “Nah, a shipment of griffon ale arrived last night. Let me tell you, the Emperor went all out on this one.” The smile was once again directed to her. “You’ll have a good time, happy Hatchday.”

“I somehow think I’ll will,” she nodded. “I hope that you two get some time off to enjoy it as well. Bye.”

They gave her a farewell wave, Reflection trotting off with a bounce in her step. It was shaping up to be a hectic day, but she was confident that it would end amazingly well. She was in fact so caught up in the excitement that the trip down to the ground floor was over without her even noticing, Guessing that it was still early going off the lack of activity in the courtroom, she immediately made her way towards the next likely area.

Entering the dining room, she was greeted with Nigel's back to her and the sound of him nosily munching on his breakfast. Grinning, she slinked low to the ground and was careful on her hooves, sneaking around the side of the room while he was focused on what looked like waffles.

A waiter carrying a tray of tea on his grey back stopped as she sneaked by him, Reflection first pointing at the oblivious Emperor before miming with a hoof in front of her mouth for him to stay quiet. The waiter, instead of just obeying, smiled and trotted around to the other side of Nigel.

"More tea, Emperor?"the stallion asked, sending a wink Reflection's way as Nigel was busy selecting a cup.

Smiling back, Reflection ducked under the table and bided her time. Within moments the waiter was leaving out of the door, and she heard Nigel place his tea down on the table.

She had learnt from the last time she had tried this and he had been holding a hot beverage.

Moving forwards again, she eyed his legs just waiting to be pounced on. Stalking up to them, Reflection waited until he leaned back before she leapt up and placed her forelegs on his panted thighs.

"Morning!" she greeted, lunging forwards again to embrace him around the torso.

"Ah, the bir- hatchday girl," he chuckled, wiping his hands off before using them to rub her ears."Good morning to you as well."

Nuzzling his stomach, Reflection pulled her head away and ducked out from under the table. Coming from around the side, she buzzed her wings and used them to help her climb onto his lap, sitting with her hind legs dangling down the sides with her forelegs wrapped around his neck.

"You're affectionate this morning," he observed, waffles forgotten on the table while she kissed him.

"Well, someone bought me a wonderful dress," she murmured happily, licking the trace amounts of honey off of her lips. "You're also a bit more chirpy than yesterday."

A hand went to her back, Reflection melting into his shirt with a sigh as her wing muscles were rubbed.

"My sleep, uninterrupted by occultists and cranky changeling queens, helped restore me to my usual cheery manner," Nigel explained, before taking a sip of tea. "Also, having you there during it made it that much better."

She laughed at that. "We wasted a whole day just sleeping."

"Hey, it made today come faster, didn't it?"

She couldn't argue with that, but unfortunately it brought up a gnawing feeling in her gut. Remembering the reason of the day of rest, her mind went to the question of just why his third ex-wife had provoked such a reaction where the other two were just met with the expected scorn. Reflection was bright enough to not bring it up at the current time, but she couldn't help but wonder if another method was needed.
'Just ignore it,' she told herself, nuzzling his shaven face in an attempt to force the question away. 'Enjoy the day, he's fine so it's all good.'

"So, any hatchday plans?" His sudden questioned jarred her mind away.

"Well, not really," she admitted. "Apart from the party and us spending some 'special birthday time' after, no." At the last part she grinned, shuffling on her seat which only got her an unamused look.

"Tonight, not now at the breakfast table," he told her off lightly. Stopping with a shrug, Reflection tilted her head at him.

"Well, it's my Hatchday. Have you planned any surprises for me?"

"A few," he admitted with a wink.

"Tell me."

"No, it won't be a surprise if I do."

She mock-frowned at him, but both turned their attention away when a panting Sparkling Scroll entered the room with parchment flying.
"Morning," Sparkling huffed, taking a seat at the table and wiping her brow. "Happy Hatchday, Reflection."

"Thanks," she replied with raised eyes. "Are you okay?"

"I'm feeling great," Sparkling wheezed, shooting a glare towards Nigel. "It's not like a certain someone first canceled morning court five minutes after it started, ordered me to reserve a table for you both at that juice place for lunch, requested that I organise official invitations for your party even though everyone will know it's on, asked for a list of all the decorations for said party, then-"

"Waffles?" a waitress offered Sparkling, the changeling female levitating a plate of the honey-drizzled food up to the table.

"Thank you," Sparkling politely acknowledged with a smile, before turning to her plate. Not even bothering with the provide cutlery, Sparkling dived her head in and started munching, shocking both Nigel and Reflection.

"Uh... Sparkling?" Reflection asked with a raised hoof. "Are you okay?"

Waffle after waffle disappeared down pony throat, Nigel letting out a low whistle.

"Damn, Strategy sure can pick them."

Right after Reflection elbowed Nigel in the side for the comment, Sparkling took a breath in between waffles and shook her head.

"No problem Reflection, I just really don't have the time to sit here." The final waffle was devoured, leaving a clean plate and a not-so-clean crystal pony. Sparkling wiped the crumbs and honey off with a napkin before leaving her seat with a burp. "Excuse me, but duty calls."

Hurrying back out of the room, she called back to them. "I'll see you at the party!"

"Okay," Reflection replied, but Sparkling was already gone. Looking back to Nigel she raised an eye. "Please tell me you're not overworking her just to try and make me happy."

He tapped his fingers on the table, sucking air through his teeth. "I'm not overworking her just to try and make you happy?"

She sighed, but still smiled at the attempt. "Good try, but not good enough."

"Well, I'd love to try and bluff you like a professional," Nigel responded while placing down his tea cup. He then gestured for her to get off, Reflection hesitating to leave her comfortable seat. "But I have to go into the city and prepare a few more surprises for tonight."
That prompted her to move, Reflection following his request and looking up as he bent down. She met his brief kiss, the contact filling her with warmth before it was regretfully taken away.

"I'll catch up with you in a little bit," he reassured, rubbing the side of her neck. "And as you no doubt heard, we'll go out for lunch. Okay?"

"As long as it's for surprises, then I'm fine with it," she told him with a grin. He smiled once more before giving her one last ear scratch. Then, he left out of the door with a whistled tune on his lips.

Happy that he was feeling better, Reflection took his spot at the table and sniffed at the abandoned half-waffle that remained. For some reason, she really liked the taste of waffle and honey after that morning.


Reflection whipped her head around, finding the same stallion from before looking at her with the tea set on his back.


"Would you like some tea?" he asked, gesturing to the tea set. "And maybe some fresh waffles, right from the oven?"

Glancing back to the waffle in front of her, she debated the question.

'Well, it can't hurt.'

Reflection took another sniff of the rose garden, breathing in the pleasing scent before entering through the palace's back entrance. All the servants were in the front section preparing for the party, leaving her in relative peace. She planned to make the most of Nigel's absence, heading back up to their room after her nice walk to double-check that her wedding plans were ready to be presented.

Upon making it to the top of the stairs, she came across a curious sight. Orthodox, back towards her, was backing out of his room while dragging a large sack in his claws. At first afraid that he had a body in there, an entirely reasonable suspicion given his character, she then heard the jingling of coins and jewels.

"Oh," she muttered, causing him to stop and turn. "It's you."

"Bugsy," he greeted with a huff. "Happy whatsamaday, or something."

Reflection made an attempt to calm herself, after all he had at least tried. Tilting her head, she nodded at the sack. "What's with the...?"

"I'm just moving my stash," he explained, seemingly surprised that he hadn't provoked her. "I suspect that someone's taken a whole bunch of coins from it, those pretty golden ones. So, I have to hide it all somewhere else." He let the sack go, wiping his claws together. "You? I'd thought Nigel and you would be stuck together considering the occasion."

Reflection held back a frown, hoping that he had meant that he assumed they'd be out together and not the dirtier alternative.

"He's out organising 'surprises'," she explained. "So I'd thought that I'd spend some time getting ready for tonight."

Orthodox grunted in response, before once again taking hold of the sack and moving back towards her. "Yeah, he'll be doing that. Surprisingly, he's actually a charmer when he likes a girl."

While he moved past her and down the stairs with his haul, Reflection debated with herself silently.

His words had reminded her of her question regarding Nigel's reaction to the mention of a third wife, and her brain was working out a way to find out. She couldn't ask Elijah, he was away looking after Chrysalis. James was obviously not going to tell her, considering his words two nights previous. Nigel... seemed to act strange when it was brought up, so that left Orthodox as the last possible information source. Granted, he wasn't exactly her friend, but at the moment her was tolerable.

Moving back towards him, she moved alongside him while he was in the middle of the way down the staircase. "Orthodox, can I please ask you a question?"

"As long as it's not 'are you a dragon' again,' he grumbled, pausing and letting go of the sack. "Damn kids..."

"It's not," she reassured him, wordlessly pleading that he'd be truthful. "It's actually about Nigel."

"My second guess."

She gave him a glare, before refocusing on her task. "Well, why is he so strange whenever his third wife is mentioned?"

Orthodox froze, even his tail ceasing its movement. Reflection took a hasty step back when he approached, Orthodox leaning in with a serious expression. "How did you find out about his third wife?"

His dangerous tone shocked her, Reflection struggling to reply. "He... he mentioned it the other night, before he got real quiet. Later, when we were about to fall asleep, he told me something about orders." Her ears folded, and she scuffed the red carpet with her forehoof. "It worried me, he seemed so... sad."

A sigh came from Orthodox, the alien looking around before pointing back up the stairs. "Come on, I guess I can tell you about it, but in your room only. This isn't exactly something that I'd want someone else to find out about." The sack was abandoned, Orthodox starting back up. Surprised that he had agreed, and even left his precious treasure, she followed.

Upon entering the room, Orthodox shut and locked the door behind them before pointing a finger at her. "Now, just to make it clear, I'm not your friend. I'm not doing this for you, but because you seem like you won't stop asking until you have an answer I'll tell you for Nigel's sake."

"I underst-"

"No Reflection," he interrupted forcefully. "You need to understand this clearly. If you had asked the others, they wouldn't have told you and it would have caused a huge shitstorm, I'm telling you so that doesn't happen. You are not to tell anyone about this, you won't ask any more questions about it, and you can never, ever, even so much as mention it to Nigel. Got it?"

Stunned into silence at his utter seriousness, she nodded at the finger only a hair's breadth from her face.

"Good," he continued. "Now, to make this sharp and quick. As far as I know, Nigel had this girlfriend he picked up on a campaign, right? I forgot her name, something with 'S', but that doesn't matter. So, a few months and all of that, and they marry on this moon orbiting a blue star. So, they're happy for a year, until the higher-ups find out she's a spy."

Orthodox paused.

"And not one of ours, not even a rival departments. No, were talking full on enemy infiltration, so naturally they reacted as suspected." He once again checked the door. "It would be a complete embarrassment if anyone outside of the ISA found out that she managed to slip through. They decided that a quick and easy neutralisation would be the best solution."

Orthodox paused, before moving towards the window. Opening it and looking out, he nodded to himself before returning. Reflection was too caught up in the story to even take notice of the paranoia.

"Given the fact that he already knew her and was trusted," he continued while keeping his eye on her. "The bosses decided that Nigel was in the perfect position to do it, and as a bonus it would mean one less agent would know about it."

Reflection's heart paused for a beat.

"But... but she was his wife. he loved her. How can they possibly have asked him to..." Reflection was unable to finish, shuddering at the thought of being in that situation.

"Sure he loved her," Orthodox nodded. "But that shit doesn't matter. What matters was she was an enemy, and a filthy fucking traitor to him, and at the end of the day all that mattered was the security of the Empire."

"Surely he-"

"He snuck in to their house late at night, after he had told her that he was going to be away on an assignment for a month. She was making something to eat for dinner, some kind of casserole I think." Orthodox continued to stare right at her. "She didn't even notice him. He just went up and blew her brains out all over the stove, then called the Director himself and confirmed that it had been done. An hour later, her body was unfortunately burnt to nothing in a house fire."

Reflection felt woozy, her blood pumping in her ears as she listened to the explanation. She swayed, feeling a scaly hand on her shoulder in an attempt to steady her. Falling down onto her rump, the full realisation of what Orthodox had said hit her. Tears started to fall from her eyes, not wanting to believe that it was true but at the same time knowing that it wasn't a lie.

"We're in a dirty business," Orthodox told her. "We've all killed so often that we've lost track. But I don't think anyone can remain sane after having to do that. I wouldn't be surprised if he can still remember it like it just happened."

Reflection sniffed, the tears carefully wiped from her eyes by Orthodox.

"That's why we don't talk about Chalmers' third wife," he informed her softly. "Sorry to ruin your day, but you wanted to know and it was better you asked me now rather than eventually ask him. Trust me, he's not great when it's out there directly."

"But..." she sniffled again. "But what can I do to help him?"

"You do nothing. You get up, stop crying, I walk out of this room and you never mention it or even think about it again." He lifted up her chin."Trust me, if you do actually love him, forget that I even told you about it. Forget that he even mentioned it and get on with your life as his happy girlfriend. You don't know it, but you're already doing him far more good than talking to him about it ever will."

He waited for a few moments until she had control over her crying, before he patted her on the shoulder and stood up. "I better get back to my treasure, before someone nicks anymore. Happy Hatchday."

With that, he unlocked the door and left, the door shutting and leaving her alone.

At first Reflection tried to think of what to do, before she came to a decision. Getting to her hooves, she used the corner of their fresh bed sheets to dry her remaining tears, and then trotted over to her drawer. Removing the binder from the back, she gave a final sniffle before opening it.

"Decorations," she whispered to herself. "Green and red with a backing of silver..."

"Hey, great hatchday party!"

Nigel smiled while he watched Sparkling and Reflection hug, Strategy standing beside Sparkling in his full armor.

"It was all your work after all," Reflection laughed back, the two separating while the sound of celebration continued on throughout the courtroom.

It had been converted to serve as the main party room, almost full with ponies and changelings in assorted formal ware. Drinks and food was plentiful, and the atmosphere was so relaxed that a number of foals and nymphs were even taking turns sitting on his throne. The guards posted around the room even blended in to the carefree scene, accepting non-alcoholic drinks and various items of food from servers from time to time.

Multi-colored gems set in the ceiling filled the hall with light, music provided thanks to a number of musicians using assorted string instruments. Reflection and he had been busy saying hello to all of the guests that approached, many actually bringing gifts that were beginning to form a mountain behind the throne. Her dress had received much praise, Reflection obviously chuffed with the attention. Despite a strange bout of unease earlier, she had swiftly returned to her bubbly self as the party got into swing.

"I'm sorry we only managed to make it to you now, we've been stuck for hours in all of these conversations."

"Completely understandable," Nigel waved away. "We've been caught up as well."

"It's been fun, though," Reflection commented. "I know I keep on saying it, but it's the best night of my life."

Nigel smiled at that, looking towards the band and nodding at the conductor.

'It's about to get better.'

The crystal unicorn got the hint, the music finishing smoothly. Nigel stood up straight and raised his wine glass, tapping the half-full beverage with a breadstick. The crowd slowly quieted and paid full attention to him, Sparkling and Strategy watching on while Reflection's eyes widened with hope.

"Hrm, excuse me everyone," he began, giving a quick nod to James, Orthodox, and Iron the blacksmith talking at the far rear of the room. "I'm sorry to interrupt the party, but I have an announcement to make." Whispering rose up, and he grinned at Reflection while checking his pocket. Happy that the box holding the two rings was still there, he continued on.

"As you all know, I haven't exactly been the best ruler." At that, a mass of reassurances from his subjects rang out, Nigel waving them down with a hand. "Despite your reassurances, I could have done things better. Now, tonight, things change." A hush settled over the crowd, Nigel withdrawing the small box and flipping it over in his hands. He could see Sparkling's eyes widen with realisation, his assistant quickly keying in.

"Every Empire needs either an Emperor or an Empress," he resumed, gazing out towards the crowd as more ponies and changelings filtered in from the outside party. "My home one currently has an Emperor as well, although it's gone through Empresses as well. I, however, believe that one ruler is just not enough for the Crystal Empire, despite our humble size."

The ring box was held up. "Some days ago, Reflection asked me to marry her. I agreed."

The crowd exploded into excited chatter and cries of congratulations, Nigel gesturing for Reflection to approach.

"Hey," he told her over the noise while placing his hands under her torso. "Just a head's up..." With only that as warning, he lifted her up and gently placed her down on a space of the buffet table next to them. Standing up above the crowd, Reflection appeared far too elated to be embarrassed at all of the sudden attention.

The noise died out to quiet whispers when he opened the ring box, the guests able to see it properly ahhing at the rings it held. "She actually had these made," he continued on, taking out one ring and moving towards her. "Thanks for that, Golden."

"No problem, Emperor!" Golden's voice called out from the crowd, Nigel smiling while placing the ring around Reflection's horn. He made sure it was on snugly, before he held the box out towards her. Her horn glowed and the remaining ring levitated up, so he held out his finger.

"Now, I know you're usually supposed to get a priest or judge to do this," he told them all while Reflection carefully guided the ring onto his finger. "But as Emperor, I suppose that I'm high enough to do it as well." Reflection finally finished, the changeling's giddy grin betraying her utter thrill at the moment. "So, as Emperor, I now proclaim Lady Reflection to now be Empress Reflection." He paused, before turning to smile at the crowd. "Oh, and my wife too, I suppose."

Collective laughter filled the hall, Reflection jumping into his arms with a giggle. Her joy erased any doubts he had about the decision, her forelegs around his neck while she peppered his face with kisses. Twirling around, he returned them with a single long one, Reflection blushing at the attention along with whoops from the crowd.

He swore that he even heard a few wolf whistles.

Breaking it away, he grinned again when Reflection leaned in to his ear.

"Hey, can we go upstairs, I have something to show you."

Suspecting what she wanted, he nodded before pulling away and refacing the crowd.

"Enjoy the rest of the party, folks. I have some Emperor duties to attend to."

Reflection sighed in relief when they finally made it to their room, having successfully managed to dodge everyone offering their congratulations. Nigel sat down on the bed, beginning to unbutton his shirt. "So, what does the birthday girl slash Empress wish to show me?"
Grinning, she trotted over to her drawer, much to his confusion.

"Not anything lewd," she smirked. "At least, not quite yet. It's actually something really important to me, and I want it to be important to you as well." She removed the binder from the drawer, bringing it back over to him and sitting down on her rump. "Here."

She waited while he flicked through it, his eyes locked on the pages within. Tapping her forehooves together, she started to get nervous.
"I know you didn't want a wedding," she blurted out. "But, well, I really like the idea of them. I have everything already planned, including decorations and cake, so you don't have to do anything at all. I'll take care of it, I've even..." She trailed off when she saw his stare, her ears drooping. "Although, I understand if you don't want them."

Given the topic, his laugh surprised her.

"Wait," he chuckled. "You think that I'd deny you a wedding, after all of this effort you've obviously put into it, just because I'm not a fan of them?" She nodded, prompting another burst of laughter. "Oh, of course we'll have a wedding if you want one. It's the least that I can do for a new Empress, after all."

Reflection instantly perked up, jumping up onto the bed and pointing out a picture she had drawn. "Really? You even like the cake I designed?"

"Of course," he reassured, ruffling her mane with one hand while closing the binder with the other. "But, discussion regarding it can wait. I believe that I owe you a final birthday gift, a night of anything you want to do."

"Well, when you say anything..."

Reflection grinned and hopped off of the bed, looking back at him as she trotted into the bathroom. "Hang on, I'll be out in a second."
She left him to undress, a fairly kinky plan in mind to make her first birthday with him a one unlikely to leave the memory.

'Damn, accursed button.'

Nigel struggled with the last button on his shirt, not even having stared on his pants. He paused when he heard the sound of magic flare up in the bathroom, craning his neck in an attempt to see what it was.

"Reflection, are you okay?"

"Sure I am," she replied saucily. "I'm coming out now."

Nigel expected a dress-less Reflection, ready to help him with his shirt so they could both get on with the deed.

What he did not expect was Sparkling Scroll to trot out of the bathroom with a lust-ridden gaze.

"Gah!" He scrambled to cover himself, or at least make a show of it. "Sparkling, what are you doing in here?" He stopped dead when Sparkling giggled, the laugh one he could pinpoint despite her form. "Wait... Reflection?"

"Yep!" she replied, hurrying over before leaping up atop of him. Nigel grunted when the Sparkling-Reflection landed, another bout of laughter coming from her. "We're not called changelings for no reason, you know."

"I know that," he managed, out, Reflection going lower as two pearl-white hooves rubbed his bare stomach. "I just... is this a good idea? I mean, it's kind of an unusual thing to do and-"

He stopped when Reflection skillfully undid his pants clasp with her mouth, piercing purple eyes staring out from a ruby-red mane. Grinning, Reflection sensually rubbed her chin against his panted groin.

"Are you really going to object?" she questioned with a smirk. "We both know that it's just an illusion."

"I know," he began to object. "It's just..." Reflection began to pull down his waistband, pausing with an eye raised.

"Fine," he finished. "Why the Hell not? Just not one word to her about this, or anyone else you plan to copy."

"Done and done," she mumbled back, before she resumed with her task. A grin was plastered wide on her face for the entire time.

"Damn it, I knew she couldn't be trusted. Stupid changeling."

Orthodox muttered to himself, storming towards Nigel's room with his fists clenched. He'd seen Reflection drag him away from the party, and given the previous words he'd had with her it was highly suspicious. So, he had regretfully broken off his rather successful flirtation with a pink serving mare to follow them to ensure that the peace was kept.

It was a price he was willing to pay to prevent Nigel from finding out he had told Reflection about... that.

Unfortunately the crowd had thickened, slowing down his exit. He could only hope that he would make it in time to stop Reflection from spilling the beans.

Upon reaching the door he didn't even knock, turning the handle to burst into the room.

"Hey, I- oh, shit."

Sparkling Scones or whatever her name was, was currently riding Nigel full-on cowgirl. The panting and moaning as she rocked back and forth and up and down confirmed that it was no innocent act, both of the participants too caught up in their own pleasure to notice his slack-jawed figure standing in their open door.

Slowly, Orthodox backed out and quietly closed the door, before turning around and letting out a breath.

"Damnnn..." he muttered to himself. "Cheating on Reflection with his advisor, on her birthday night, right after announcing their marriage and crowning her Empress."

He walked off down the corridor, planning to tell James immediately.

"He really has lost it this time, fucking grade-A off the deep end."

We Forgot a Wedding Gift

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Orthodox descended the stairs, claw under his chin while he muttered to himself. “Do I tell her, do I not? Do I tell her, do I not?”

He tried to imagine just how Reflection would react upon hearing the news of Nigel’s infidelity. It ranged from her breaking down into tears and storming out, to Nigel receiving a changeling-horn to the balls. In other words it wasn’t likely to be a good thing, no matter the reaction.
On the other hand Nigel had already been in enough hasty marriages that had ended sourly and didn’t need another on the record. If he was already sleeping around, then it was on a certain course for failure. Telling Reflection wouldn’t be pretty, but it would avoid years of disappointment for the both of them.

‘Who knows, maybe they’ll even have one of their big sappy moments and forgive each other?’ He huffed at the thought. ‘Even if he’s too good for her anyway. What’s he thinking, going for her? She doesn’t even have a rack.’

All concerns about Nigel’s apparent lack of regard for fine tits were pushed aside, Orthodox re-joining the party. It was in full swing, even the richer ponies in their fancy clothes downing drinks and stumbling around on the dance floor. An intoxicated young mare bumped against him, the emerald pony giggling before moving off again. Ignoring her, he made his way through the crowd while attempting to avoid any of the living obstacles.

He kept his eyes looking out for James, figuring that the tall man would easily stand out among the crowd of comparably short creatures. James would know what to do, or at the very least would have some clue as to how to approached the problem.

‘How the hell can he not be here?’ Orthodox mentally cursed. ‘Don’t tell me he’s pussied out because they broke out the booze.’ Eyes roaming the room, his gaze passed over the stairwell and spotted the source of his problem.

“There you are,” he growled under his breath, narrowing his eyes when he spied Sparkling Scroll at the top of the stairs coming down.

Retracing his path, he ducked and weaved through the party-goers with the advisor square in his sights.

Orthodox reached her just as she stepped off the bottom step, Sparkling smiling at him before she must have noticed his anger. She took a step back but it was too late, Orthodox grabbing a foreleg and covering her mouth with his other hand, before roughly pulling her to the side. Sparkling’s eyes widened as he pulled her into the darkened side corridor, Orthodox forcing her back against the wall and staring into her eyes. As soon as her rump hit the crystal wall, Sparkling tried to bite down.

Unfortunately for her, his smooth scales were more than a match against herbivore teeth. All Sparkling could do was kick angrily and yell into his hand, but the noise of the party eliminated any chance of someone hearing the muffled shouts.

“Now you fucking listen here,” Orthodox growled, shutting her up. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but you’ve gone too far. I don’t want to have to deal with either a shitty Nigel or Reflection, okay? There’s already been far too much drama and ‘feelings’ for my taste. I’m onto you, bitch.”

Sparkling tried to bite down again, her kicks growing all the more fierce. He was about to smack her in the side with his tail to get her to settle down, but he unfortunately found himself moving through the air with it raised mid-strike.

‘What the-‘

He impacted the opposite wall with a crunch, his shoulder making a crack in the crystal. He had no time to protest or even hit the floor before he was soaring upwards.

A grunt escaped him when his face slammed against the ceiling, before he was pulled back down towards the floor.

“Fuck!” Orthodox growled, slamming back down onto the hard surface with a cough. Blood trickled from his snout, and he could feel a loose tooth. “I can taste my everything.” He was granted no respite, footsteps approaching before a hand gripped around his neck and raised him into the air. Orthodox tried to move his tail and arms but failed, and when he was brought into eye line with his attacker he could figure out why. “James,” he spat, staring into the black man’s eyes. “What the fuck?”

“I should be asking you the same thing,” James stated evenly. “I walk in on you terrifying Ms Sparkling in a manner that I find very disturbing. I shouldn’t have to remind you of what Nigel does to people who harm those he’s in charge of.” Orthodox glanced from James to Sparkling. Sniffling, Nigel’s advisor was fixing him with a death glare while rubbing the red mark around her neck with a hoof, but so far she hadn’t run away.

“It wasn’t my fault!” he protested, struggling to raise a claw towards her. “She’s a marriage destroyer!”

“I’m a what!?” Orthodox was met with one very angry crystal pony storming over towards him. She glared at him, eye twitching. “Why would you even think to call me that, you stupid dragon!?”

“I’m not a dragon, pony! And I saw you up there, in his room on his bed. I thought you and Bugsy were friends, then you go and do that to her and Nigel!” There was a moment of silence.

“Well, I’m completely lost,” James admitted.

Sparkling’s glare was also tinged with befuddlement. “I am as well.”

“Liar!” Orthodox accused. “What is there to be confused about? I walked in on you screwing him like it was the last chance you had.” He bared his teeth, causing her to take a step back. “It’s a pretty dog thing to do, fucking him right after their marriage speech or whatever. I’m fucking pissed off at him as well, but when I saw you riding him like a complete and total slu-“

His insult was cut off, Sparkling jumping up onto her hind legs and smacking him in the face with a sideswipe from her foreleg. Orthodox’s cheek stung, and he spat at her while she dropped back down onto all four hooves.

“You’re the liar!” she shouted through her tears. “I went to the bathroom for five minutes, and you accuse me of this! Reflection is my friend, I’d never do that to her or Nigel! He wouldn’t either, and you claim to be one of his friends! You’re horrible!”

“I’m horrible!?”

He didn’t have the chance to finish, Orthodox finding himself dropped on the floor. Rubbing his head and looking up at James, he clenched his fists. “Once again James, what the… James?”

Both Orthodox and Sparkling stared at James, the human pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing. “I… I can’t actually believe that this has just happened. At once, I’m stunned by the sheer idiocy of some, and the mildly disturbing actions of others.” He looked towards Sparkling. “I honestly can’t say which you’d prefer to hear, Orthodox’s false accusations or the reason behind them.”

Sparkling’s eye widened, her pupils shrinking to pinpricks. “Oh… oh, you mean that they…” Coughing into a hoof, she took a second to compose herself before nodding. “Excuse me,” she said in a strained voice. “I’m going to have to have some words with some certain rulers.” She trotted past the both of them, pausing with a glance towards Orthodox. “While I still expect an apology for the way you treated me, I can understand why you did so.”

“What?” Orthodox mumbled, as Sparking disappeared to turn and climb the stairs.

“You moron,” insulted James with a shake of his head. “They’re called ‘changelings’ for a reason.”

“They’re fairy children swapped with human babies?”

James looked at him like he was retarded. “No, that’s just… amazingly stupid. What I mean Orthodox, is that you’ve just accused Sparkling Scroll of copulating with Chalmers, when in fact it was Reflection disguised as her.”

“Oh.” Orthodox pondered the now likely-hilarious consequences for the two randy royals, before a questioned pounded at the forefront of his mind. “Wait… those bug-things can shapeshift?”

“So, who do you want for round two?” Reflection murmured, snuggling in closer with a grin accompanying the heavy blush on her face. Taking a moment to ruffle her ruby-red mane, Nigel thought to himself. To be honest, there were many choices, but one stuck out above the rest.

“Can I ask for you?”

“That’s no fun,” she laughed lightly. “I’m in the mood for some transformations, and you just want the original?” He received an affectionate nip to the ear, the flat teeth far more gentle than the usual fangs. “Although I must admit that I’m flattered at the choice.”

“I’m a boring man,” he chuckled with her. “You should know this by now-“

He only had time to hear the rapid knocks before the bedroom door was kicked open. Scrambling, he covered himself with the bedsheets while pushing Reflection under. She didn’t resist and he could feel her hide down beside his legs without a sound. It was just in time, Sparkling Scroll trotting into the room with a frown.

“Why, Sparkling,” he greeted with a wave and a forced smile. “Evening. You know, I could have sworn that the polite thing to do when knocking is to wait an-“

“Nigel, with all due respect, cut the ‘all innocent act’,” she interrupted sternly. He noticed her glance towards the bottom half of the bed.
“Reflection, you might as well come out now.”

“Just give me a second and-“

“No,” denied Sparkling with narrowed eyes. “I’m not giving you the chance to change, you’ll have to face me as you are.”

Nigel was stunned, a nervous chuckle covering the rising fear. “Ha… so why did you feel the need to come up here again? Is there… an attack?”

“There was,” Sparkling raised her head so the red hand mark was visible. “A very angry friend of yours pulled me aside to have a chat with me, in which he accused me of attempting to ruin your recent marriage. Do you know where he got the idea from?”

Nigel slowly shook his head, and could feel Reflection freeze under the covers. ‘Welp, looks like we’re completely fucked.’

“Apparently he had walked in on me ‘riding’ you, and naturally was worried about the consequences.” Her gaze locked on the middle of the bed. “Reflection, you still haven’t come out yet.”

Seeing that Sparkling wasn’t going to just forget about it, Nigel nudged Reflection with his leg. Slowly the lump under the sheets moved, before two white forehooves left the covers. Reflection’s head followed, although to Sparkling it must have been like looking in a mirror.

Sheepishly, Reflection swallowed a lump in her throat before biting her lip. “Uh… hi.”

There was silence for a few moments, Sparkling’s face blank when she suddenly asked the next question.

“Whose idea was this?”

Just before he was about to point towards her to save himself from the wrath of Sparkling, Reflection bowed her head and raised a foreleg. “It was my idea,” she mumbled. “Nigel didn’t know about it, and then it was…”

“Kind of too late,” he finished for her.

There was another stretch of silence, Sparkling still examining Reflection’s mimicked form. After a few minutes she sighed, shook her head, and made her way towards the door.

“Reflection, change to something else.” A flash of green followed the request, the magic dying out to reveal Reflection in her natural state.

“Thank you. Now, I’m going to leave this room and return to the party where I shall attempt to drown this memory out with all the drinks I can consume. I expect you two to apologise tomorrow and I also expect you to not do… that ever again while Reflection is a copy of me. Understood?”

Nigel nodded, Reflection joining him with a hurried confirmation. “Yes Sparkling, I will never take your form again.”

“Good.” With that Sparkling left, shutting the door behind her.

Both Nigel and Reflection didn’t know what to say after that, the faint sounds of the party filtering up.

“That wasn’t as bad as I expected,” he commented, Reflection glancing at him with disbelief.

“Are you kidding? Sparkling caught me screwing you while looking exactly like her. That’s… that’s such a disaster!” Burying her face in her forehooves, she sank back into the bed. “She’s going to give me so much for this, I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“At least she didn’t seem too mad about it, more surprised.” He tried to smile. “Maybe… she’s even flattered?”

Despite the situation, he still managed to get a mirthful snort from Reflection. “Wow, really?” Removing her face from her hooves to look at him, she rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I’m sure she’s flattered.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”


“Marriage destroyer.”

“Ouch,” Reflection cringed. “No need to remind me of that. Who would even-“

“Orthodox,” he didn’t even need to think about it.

Reflection shuddered. “That… that only makes it worse.”

“That it does.”

More silence, Nigel beginning to twiddle his thumbs. He hoped that the accusations had been kept private, otherwise he’d have to deal with more than just a disappointed Assistant. He tried to think up ways to make it up to Sparkling, but none came to mind before Reflection spoke again.

“So…” she ran a forehoof down his unclothed chest. “What now? I mean, now that Sparkling’s gone…”

“Really? Even after that you’re still in the mood?”

“Hey, don’t blame me. You did pick this form after all, and the night is still young.” She flicked out her tongue, brushing it against his ear while smiling. “Or, we could always decide on a different form if you-“

“I’ll pass on that,” he quickly interrupted, sneaking a hand under the covers and grabbing a rump-cheek before she could transform again. “I’m more than happy with your form right now.” He gave it a squeeze, Reflection grunting with a shudder.

“Well, I –ah!” the second cheek was grabbed, all thoughts of changing now forgotten. “I guess that can work just fine.”

Chrysalis glared at the drone bowing before her, the changeling shivering under her baleful gaze.

“They what?” she repeated icily, shifting on the plain cot that served as her bed in the burgeoning mining camp.

“They refused your… request, my Queen.”

Chrysalis gave the drone that had spoken a withering gaze, having heard his mental replacement of ‘request’ with ‘demand’. “They refused to furnish me with the love gems owed?”

“Yes, the Lieutenant was very clear on the matter. He said that you’ll eat with everyone else, not at your leisure.” The drone looked up warily. “His words, not mine.”

“Who do does he think he is?” Chrysalis seethed, her teeth grinding. “Get out and tell this lieutenant that I am still his Queen, no matter how treasonous he is.” The drone scurried out through the tent flaps, leaving her alone to brood.

‘Eat with everyone else,’ she thought with a scowl. ‘What am I, a simple drone?’

She crossed her forelegs and waited, hind leg tapping against the ground. She almost, almost regretted trading the relative comfort of the crystal city for a measly tent outside of some mountains. She couldn’t wait until they had mined out some of the old tunnels and formed a new hive, so they would no longer have to rely on the Crystal Empire for shelter.

The area she had been given to administrate was small, the stretch of sparse rocky ground surrounded on all sides by the rising peaks of mountains. It was cold, and the few trees and vegetation were all hardy breeds with little to-no-green in their leaves. Thankfully the barren nature was of no concern for her changelings, but the knowledge that she was here to serve another left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Her head looked towards the tent flaps, her eyes narrowing as three steel-armoured changelings trotted in instead of the drone she was expecting. Taking note of the golden rank markings on the shoulders of the leader, she took a guess as to who it was.

“Lieutenant,” she greeted, her voice icier than the wind outside. “What a… pleasant surprise.”

“I heard you were in disagreement with my logistical decisions,” the Lieutenant stated, his two fellow soldiers shifting beside him. Chrysalis eyed their swords at their sides, but it was the Lieutenant himself that drew the most attention.

The changeling’s face was marred by a hideous scar, the long line almost perfectly horizontal underneath his eyes yet above his mouth. His snout was a jagged mess, whatever had hit him had almost rent it completely in two. It made her slightly uncomfortable, but it didn’t stop her from berating him.

“That’s the nice way of putting it,” she replied. “Your Emperor promised me supplies, which includes the energy contained within the love gems. You have denied me access to them.”

“The Emperor did promise you supplies, but he has left their method of distribution up to me. The love gems are vital to all of us save the Lead Researcher, so their use must be monitored and rationed.”

“But I am the Queen!”

“You are not my Queen,” the soldier pointed out. “I used to serve you, and personally I still respect you ma’am, but my loyalty is to a different ruler and city now.” He must have seen her begin to rely, raising a metal-clad hoof with a nod. “I understand your frustration with the decision of many to change allegiances, but there was no choice at the time.”

Chrysalis continued to glare at him, the Lieutenant unshakable in his stance.

“You are in charge of the everyday operations in this place, but I am not under your authority. If you wish to discuss matters with me then I am open for suggestions, but I ask you to not waste time with personal concerns.” Despite his professional tone, his eyes narrowed slightly.

“Your comfort is, in my eyes, no more important than the comfort of the other changelings under my watch. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some patrols to organise.”

Without waiting for a reply, the Lieutenant turned and trotted out with his guards in tow.

Chrysalis’ anger only increased, her concerns not just ignored but outright dismissed. ‘Ungrateful fool!’

Her mind worked, a plan already forming in her mind. Out here, she was far from the Emperor’s control. All he had were a few patsies watching over her, and they were outnumbered five-to-one by her loyal changelings. She had a measure of trust from the foolish human, and her time spent in the Crystal Empire had allowed her to soak in the ambient magical energy that was her source of power.

“Yes, of course it will work,” she mused to herself, a smile forming on her face. Leaving her bed, all four hooves hit the floor while she trotted for the exit. Leaving through the grey tent flaps, she trotted out into chilly wind of the valley containing their camp.

Around her there was only a small smattering of activity, a few changelings exploring the surrounding area while a number were gathering what dry wood they could to compliment the stores of firewood provided.

She assumed most were idle in their tents, and unlike hers there were four changelings to each tent. The notable exceptions were the military guards gathered in their own mini-camp area, their identical tents surrounding the stockpiles of mundane supplies. A small spring ran past to the left of the tents, Chrysalis spotting two of the traitorous soldiers filling canteens with the fresh water.

The other stand-out was the largest tent of them all, sitting out to the far right. Unnatural light filtered out from the flaps and it had an eerie glow around it, Chrysalis noticing that no other tents were near it and that any changeling groups kept well away. It was no surprise that it was the domain of the apparent ‘scientist’.

‘At least I haven’t seen him around,’ she thought with a wince. ‘He must already be satisfied for now.’

The trip here had been a long one, the human having spent it asking her all kinds of inane or unimportant questions.

Searching around, the subjects out and about ignored her, Chrysalis not paying them any mind. Spotting a tent with three helmets sitting on a box outside, she recognised it as her goal. Approaching it, she didn’t bother to announce her arrival to the voices inside before she pushed open the tent flaps and entered.

“-so I said to him…”

Four changelings turned to stare at her, three of them rushing off their assorted bedding and saluting while the forth one who had been speaking bowed instead.

“Y-your highness,” Commander Clicks managed out. “I’m sorry, we weren’t expecting you.”

Chrysalis examined the inside of the tent, most of the space taken up by the sleeping area. A small section at the back contained pieces of chitin armour and a few water canteens, but other than that it was not interesting in the slightest.

The two unknown soldiers and the drone were also of no interest, Chrysalis’ attention turned back towards Click. She frowned down at him, still not understanding why he chose to share a tent instead of having one to himself like she had allowed.

“Commander, I wish to speak with you in private.”

Click glanced around at his fellows, before looking back at her. “About what, if I may ask my Queen? I can assure you that we are all loyal to you.”

Half-tempted to instead lecture him about obeying orders, she instead snorted. “Huh, like I can trust so-called ‘loyalty’ anymore.” She glared at the three other changelings. “What I am about to say is important, if any of it is repeated to another than I shall punish you all severely.”

They all nodded, Chrysalis continuing on after a moment of consideration.

“It is apparent that we are still under the iron rule of the human Emperor, even out here. Just before, I was informed by their military leader that the love gems are to be harshly rationed. It should come as no surprise that they intend to keep most for themselves.”

She resisted a smile when Click’s eyes widened in alarm, her lies having worked. Not all of what she said had been true, but it had needed a little… deception to pose as threatening to the underlings. Only through fear could she achieve her ends, and fear was what she could feel from the four before her.

“Harsh rationing?” Click repeated, wincing. “But… if we’re to work in the mines, we’ll all need as much energy as we can get.”

“I know,” she agreed with a fake look of concern. “I too brought up that point, but the Lieutenant confirmed my worst fears.”

“The one with the scar?” the female drone shuddered.

“I heard it’s from an axe,” a male soldier explained, glancing to the Commander. “They say that it was during one of the Crystal Empire’s fights with invaders. He took a full hit to the face and it nearly split it in half, he shouldn’t have survived.”

“It doesn’t matter where he got it from,” Chrysalis quickly growled, even though the news only made the Lieutenant more threatening to her plans. “I intend to seize control of this place, without any of the fools in the Crystal Empire suspecting a thing.”

“A takeover?” Tapping his forehoof on the ground, Click lowered his voice. “Your Highness, I doubt that is a good idea. They have more trained soldiers, there’s the human, and we require assistance from the Crystal Empire to survive.”

She raised her head proudly. “I have taken into account those factors. We outnumber them overall, we shall deal with the human first, and then we will masquerade as if nothing has happened until we are ready to once again forge our own domain. After we dispose of the Lead Researcher, we will take the traitors by surprise and I shall assume command.”

There was silence, before Click once again questioned her.

“Isn’t that incredibly risky? Even if they are rationing our food, we have a chance to no longer have to hide from others. I even overheard a few of the guards saying that there were plans to award us with citizenship after we were done. Why throw that away for a small chance?”

‘Because it will not be a changeling leading you, it will be a human or pony.’

Her actual thoughts were not given as the answer, Chrysalis merely looking down at him. “Click, I am your Queen and ruler. I know what is best for my subjects, and I know that we are seen as nothing more than tools by our former-fellows. Do you not trust in my judgement?”

Click visibly struggled for a reply, but eventually he sighed softly and nodded. “I do trust you, my Queen. What would you have me do?”

“Assemble a force of soldiers, all that we have,” she smiled. “Meet me at my tent at midnight tonight. We will act while they are not expecting us, and we will need to be swift.”

At that, Click nodded his understanding, Chrysalis grinning to herself before leaving their tent with a spring in her step.

As the four’s whispers grew fainter, she pictured the look on the Emperor’s face when he would hear of her victory over him.

‘That will teach the smug biped. Never mess with Queen Chrysalis.’

Click, along with his gathered squad of thirty soldiers, left their assorted hiding places once the figure of the Queen could be seen in the moonlight. Chrysalis approached them with another one-hundred changelings in tow, Click wincing as she drew near.

He could feel her anger.

“Cowards,” Chrysalis spat, before fixing him with a glare. “You also had little luck I see. Our numbers are drastically reduced thanks to it.”
Wise enough to not mention that she could have expected most of the changelings to not feel up to assaulting two-hundred of their armoured and armed fellows along with a scary human, Click instead thought of his own way to avoid a crushing defeat.

“We could always call it off for now, and instead try to gather more support over the next few-“

“No,” she interrupted. “That will not do at all! I am tired of these simpletons denying me my pow- I mean controlling us like slaves. We will continue with the attack, is the human asleep?”

Click shook his head, lowering his voice at the mention of ‘human’. “No, my Queen. He has been gone for most of the day, only to return an hour ago. Just ten minutes ago, we saw a strange flash of green from his tent.”

Chrysalis scowled, the Queen glancing towards the mentioned tent with a sour face.

“No matter, we will need to be fast and quick. You along with myself and ten of your most capable soldiers will enter the tent. I will subdue him with magic and then take control of his mind. Then, we shall move on our guards and quell any opposition to me.”

Click’s doubts were quickly growing.

He had no time to voice further concerns, however. Chrysalis, a determined glare on her face and a charge in her horn, stormed off towards the human’s tent. Click and the rest of the changelings hesitated, having heard the ominous sounds and seen the ghostly glows from the tent.

There was no doubt in their minds that something evil lurked within, an evil that in their minds was far worse than Chrysalis.

Sighing while he watched the Queen continue to move towards the tent, Click quickly pointed at ten soldiers before following her. At first there was nothing, but soon there were the sounds of the ten he had picked galloping to catch up. They reached him just as he joined the Queen, Chrysalis merely glancing back before barging her way through the tent flaps.

‘This is it,’ he thought to himself. Wincing, he followed with the selected soldiers in tow.

The first thing he noticed was the sheer amount of stuff taking up the space in the tent. There was so much that he couldn’t even find a bed amongst the clutter. Boxes covered the floor, a massive fold-out table taking up the majority of the bench space. On it was yet more boxes, cases, a few illumination gems, unidentifiable items, and items that Click wished he couldn’t identify.

A suit of full white armour was carefully arranged on a roll of canvas to the side, Click recognising it as the human’s. The strangest item was, without a doubt, the cage containing four sleeping rabbits of various colours. Next to the cage and hunched over an item on the table was the human, dressed in a long grey lab coat and shiny black boots. The strange green glow cut out while he turned around, the entire group being met with a warm smile from the bespectacled face.

“Ah, welcome friends,” he greeted with a look at all of them. “Settling in fine? I’m afraid you’ve caught me in the middle of something, and my tent is a tiny bit messy, so I apologise.”

Looking up at Chrysalis, Click saw her facial expression change from a glare to confused then back to glare.

“We are here for a reason, human,” she stated with far less venom than usual. She peered around him at the bench, before she froze and paled. Clicks was too short to see what had sparked the reaction, but already his mind was telling him to run.

“Oh?” the Lead Researcher questioned, turning back to the table. “Please be quick with it, I have much work to do and time is rather pressing.”
While he bent down to retrieve a sleeping rabbit, Click had the opportunity to see what was on the table.

He nearly dry-heaved at the decapitated dragon head sitting in a clear dish of red slime, the dull and lifeless eyes open wide. It was less disgust at the actual white-scaled head, after all he had seen lethal combat before, but more as to the fact that the Lead Researcher had it sitting on his table.

“It’s a shame Orthodox eliminated Miss Dragon before I could speak to her; I have so many different questions.” The human acted as if they weren’t even there, standing back up with a rabbit clutched in a hand. The bunny was beginning to wake, but it made no sound or attempt to escape. “So, unfortunately I have to use different methods that some would find… distasteful.”

The rabbit in the hand went stiff as the human tightened his grip. The other hand caressed the dragon’s head, tiny sparks of green and black energy lancing off the fingers to touch the scales. They could only watch as the bunny seemed to shrink, no sound uttered even as it wasted away. A noticeable green glow began to build around the Lead Researcher, before it died out to nothing.

The shrivelled rabbit carcass dropped from the researcher’s hand into a box by his feet, Click’s eyes following it the entire time. As the lifeless body made a muffled thump, he noticed the tips of tiny furry ears sticking out from the top of the box.

Behind the human, Click could see the dragon head twitch.

Then, the left eye fluttered.

“One more should do it,” the Lead Researcher muttered to himself, before glancing back towards them. His green eyes were glowing with wicked power, but yet they still held that same accursed warmth from before. “I’m sorry, what was it you wished to talk about again?”

Clicks knew when to bug out from a dangerous situation. When his ten soldiers all ran for their lives, he didn’t even think about Chrysalis as he joined them in flight. Racing out past the flaps of the tent of nightmares, he bolted straight for his own in the hopes that the thin canvas would protect him from the monster he had left behind.

He didn’t even register the fact that Chrysalis hadn’t joined them.

Chrysalis had, in layman’s terms, don goofed.

All thoughts of seizing control of the camp in a bloody coup had fled along with her soldiers, and this time even she couldn’t find fault with their actions. As the previously lifeless head shook and trembled, the human’s smile never faltered.

“Is something the matter?”

She was unable to move, unsure whether it was some form of trickery or just her own racing heart. Elijah moved towards her, a bare finger reaching out to touch her right on the tip of the snout. She shivered when it made contact, a small arc of the sinister energy running across her chitin. The finger tapped twice, before it ran up to rest right between her eyes.

“Well, why I’ve got you here we might as well take the opportunity to discuss a few things.” His smile remained, seemingly genuine. “Now Your Highness, I know that you see yourself as subservient to my comrade in this position, but I hope you refrain from any rash actions. Nigel may act like a blundering fool at times, but from what I can tell he actually enjoys interacting with your race.”

The finger moved, running up towards her head while he stepped closer. “It’d be a shame, for someone to shatter the relative peace between the changelings and ponies that’s formed in the Crystal Empire because of their own power-mongering.” After a brief scratch behind the ear, the digit trailed down her back towards the point right above her heart where it halted. “Such an individual would not last long.”

There was a pause, before she felt the finger begin to circle. She could feel tingles wherever it travelled, Chrysalis not daring to move lest she provoke a deadly reaction.

“Life is a fickle thing,” the topic shifted. “Useful and essential, but fickle. I’ m sure I don’t need to lecture you about wasting precious energy on foolish pursuits, so I won’t. Still, I will urge you to think more clearly before you set out to complete you goals, as a general hint.” She felt his hand go down, the soft surface at once soothing and horrifying upon her back. It rubbed, and she could feel the energy inside of the creature touching her.

For a moment, she wondered what effect it would have if he… ‘ate’ something much larger than a rabbit.

Something like a changeling Queen.

He seemed to almost sense her fearful question. “You have a very strong lifeforce, very healthy. I’m glad to see that you’ve recovered from your malnourishment in such quick time. Your race is a very intriguing one, needing to take from others to function correctly. The evolutionary path is most confusing, and I regret that I have not made enough time to fully explore just what makes you tick.”

Her eyes glanced towards the head on the desk, the scientist’s hand pausing as he followed her gaze. The twitching was almost faint, the human sighing.

“Our time is up sooner than I expected, a shame.” Drawing away, he patted her twice on the cheek. “If you have any grievances with the way things are being run, then please don’t hesitate to let me know as I’d love to help you and the other changelings work things out.” Chrysalis shivered again when he leaned down to whisper into her ear. “Oh, and next time, don’t bother to try and bring your soldiers. I assure you, hostile actions would be rather unwise… and such a risk to your precious life-force.”

Standing back up, he returned to his bench without another word.

But the same, warm smile was still on his face.

Bending down, he picked up another rabbit. Standing on her spot, Chrysalis silently watched while it shrivelled just like the last. More energy was transferred to the head, and she could smell the same smell that only occurred when lightning struck during a thunderstorm.

She turned and trotted out of the tent as soon as the once-dead and lifeless eyes opened wide in shock, more than enough evidence for her.
Chrysalis wasn’t stupid like many of her former subjects thought.

‘Maybe being in total control can wait for a few months,’ she realised, staggering back to her tent with the hope that her dreams wouldn’t be plagued with the night’s witnessed terrors.

“Wow, I wonder what he did.”

Lieutenant Enigma at first didn’t reply to the Sergeant’s hushed question, the two soldiers watching the Queen from their spot behind a pile of storage boxes. Queen Chrysalis’ gathering of goons had dispersed long before, the Queen herself shaken to the core.

Enigma had served in the military under her rule, and could not recall a single time when she had been intimidated or lacking her constant egotistical tone.

It seemed that the record was shattered.

“Should we report this back to the Emperor?” the Sergeant inquired, Enigma waiting until Chrysalis had disappeared back into her tent before shaking his head.

“No, that won’t be needed. I doubt she will attempt anything foolish for a while.” Glancing back at the tent Chrysalis had left, he wondered briefly about the activities happening within.

‘Better to not think about it,’ he decided, turning away while another green flash broke the night’s darkness.

“There, there, and there.”

Sparkling pointed out the locations for the banners to be hung, the three changelings taking flight around the throne room to follow her orders. Checking her list, she surveyed the rest of the workers to ensure that everything was going fine and according to the plan.

Ponies rushed around on the ground, readying tables and gem-speckled decorations. Changelings buzzed around at the top, hanging banners and streamers from the crystal walls. They had all been working since breakfast, close to one-hundred of them assisting with getting the throne room ready for the upcoming wedding.

She had forgiven the two for the scene that she had walked into a week ago, Nigel and Reflection having sheepishly presented her with a ‘we’re sorry’ gift of a shining ruby necklace. Glancing down at the jewel on the golden chain around her neck, Sparkling smiled slightly.
In return, she hadn’t told anyone else. Not even Strategy.

Looking back at the list of things still to do, she frowned to herself. The two hadn’t really given everyone much time to prepare for a massive, city-wide wedding. She could bet the Griffons were more than happy to be trade partners, considering the amount of ale that had been purchased for all of the recent celebrations.

Unfortunately she was the one that had been stuck with organising everything, including the rapidly-changing ideas of Reflection and Nigel on how a wedding should be run. Eventually they had decided to just stick to Reflection’s original plan, and were currently at the tailor getting their clothing for the night made.

“Typical of them,” Sparkling murmured to herself while trotting towards the kitchen. “Always leaving things to the very last minute.”
Leaving the organised chaos of the pre-wedding preparations in the throne room, Sparkling trotted through the side corridor to emerge out into the palace kitchens.

Nodding at the two crystal pony guards stationed by the sides of the door, the Emperor not taking any chances with security, she headed immediately towards the head cook. Dodging junior cooks and other kitchen staff while they careened around the kitchen with pots and pans, Sparkling focused on the tallest hat in the place and persisted on.

A young changeling mare in an apron bumped against her saddlebag of parchment and quills, the unfortunate cook spilling a bowl of flour onto the floor. Wincing, Sparkling continued on without looking back.

“Ah, Advisor Sparkling! Good to see you!”

She poked her head up, a doughy brown crystal pony waving her over. The tall white hat marked him as the Head Chef, Larder returning his attention to the massive layered cake in front of him once she veered towards him.

“It’s a bit…” she paused to fully take in the monstrosity. The white-icing covered cake was taller than the Emperor, the multi-coloured frosting looked like a multitude of sparkling gems and probably had enough sugar in it to kill a pony. “…big.”

“Well, of course it’s big,” Larder responded, mumbling around the icing bag in his mouth as he squeezed on another glob of blue icing. “It’s the wedding of the Emperor and the Empress, I can’t think of a single more important occasion that I’ll have to cook for. Frost, here’s another one for you.”

Sparkling watched while Larder shuffled to the left, another much younger stallion with a blue coat and mane moving up to take his place. He was a unicorn, horn glowing while he shaped the glob of frosting with a flat knife. She had to marvel at his skill and attention to detail, the blob soon turning into the form of a wonderful sapphire gem.

“I can guess that you’re not just here to say hello or watch the cooking for tonight,” Larder continued, carefully placing on another dollop.

“I’m here to make sure everything is going to plan,” she explained, glancing to the side as a mare passed with a tray of steaming muffins. “From the looks of things you’ve got it all under control, but the cooking’s a bonus.”

“Under control is not the term I’d use,” Larder snorted, placing the icing packet on a tray to the side and picking up a new one. “But we’ll be ready. I do wish the Emperor and Empress wouldn’t be so spontaneous with the date. I really should have been given more than a few days for a project this large.”

Sparkling couldn’t help but chuckle in agreement, pausing to tick off the box on her checklist before flashing Larder a smile. “Yes, well at least we can be always be certain of their spontaneous ways.”

“Ha!” Larder rolled his eyes. “Little comfort there.”

Shaking her head, Sparkling waved her hoof at him. “Well, goodbye Larder, I’ve got to go check up on the most important preparation.”

“Why,” Larder paused his work to mock glare at her. “Advisor, for you to insult my work so-“

“It’s the alcohol stores.”

Larder paused. “…Oh, okay then. I suppose I’ll have to be ready for another night of drunken debauchery and the resulting missing staff the morning after.” Shaking his head, Larder waved her away with a hoof. “Don’t let me keep you then, good luck.”

“You too.”

Trotting out of the kitchen, Sparkling shook her head at the situation.

‘Well, at least everything is under control for once.’

Levigust examined the bustling city below him, the three soldiers flying beside him likewise hidden by the clouds. The shimmering dome and their convenient cover didn’t impede his sight, his predatory eyes picking over every detail.

The ponies and changelings below were obviously preparing for something, decorations going up while the streets were swept clean. It was city wide, the faint but excited general noise reaching his ears even at the height he was at.

‘They’re all getting ready for a big party,’ he realised, spotting carts full of food being delivered to the castle. ‘Perfect, this may be our chance.’

It was their second day of observing the city, and so far things had been looking grim. The city’s military strength was extraordinary considering its size, ballista mounted on the walls while full squads of guards tirelessly patrolled the walls and streets. Groups of armour-clad changelings buzzed around the castle methodically, Levigust having noticed that they paid particular attention to the upper palace floors.

‘My money’s on the Princess being kept up there,’ he figured, scratching his chin with a talon. Most nations he knew of would generally refrain from imprisoning royalty in the dungeons along with the commoners, and it would be fairly easy to hold a Princess within a bedroom with the appropriate measures and guards. ‘Hang on, if that’s the case…’

He peered closer, smiling when he noticed the one window with an oddity. On the second floor was a number of metal bars covering one such opening, the addition looking quite recent. ‘There we go.’

Snapping his talons, he gained the attention of his subordinates. “Okay, I take it that you all noticed the same things as I did?”

“They’re getting ready for a party,” his second-in-command, former-Sergeant Swiftius nodded. “I also noticed the inns and taverns were receiving many deliveries. With any luck, the guards of this city will also partake in the festivities.”

“The perfect time to slip in and out,” the soldier next to him added.

Levigust smiled, pointing with a talon towards the direction of the palace. “Anything else, maybe something to do with the windows on the second floor?”

All three strained their eyes, before Swiftius grinned wide. “Well spotted Boss, that makes our job far easier!”

“Do you believe that we can cut through the bars?”

Swiftius rubbed his chin, before shaking his head.

“No, but there are rooms to the sides. All we’d have to do is break into one during a gap in the guard patrols, disable or kill any guards that try and stop us inside, grab the pony Princess, leave through the same window we came in, then it’s back to Equestria and hello payday.”

“I concur,” Levigust praised his second. “Timing of course will be an important aspect, and we must get our ratio of soldiers participating on the assault right, but it certainly is preferable to a frontal attack.”

Taking a last look at the wall in progress, along with the sheer number of guards in armour, he doubted that even their force of a hundred-and-twelve experienced griffons could take the city without massive casualties. One thing was for sure, Equestria was certainly seeming to be sensible with their tactic of stalling their war-hungry politicians.

‘Still, money is money,’ Levigust thought to himself, turning in the air to fly back to his hidden body of troops on the ground. ‘And this will net us quite a nice haul for such a simple snatch-and-grab.’

“Damn it all, curse this cursed suit!”

“Then, Your Highness, might I recommend that you stop moving so much?”

“Moving, I wasn’t moving at all!”

Shimmering Sequins, Royal Tailor, rolled her yellow eyes at the Emperor’s pettiness. Of course he was moving, she could see him doing it and that was why his suit was getting so crinkled. Brushing back her blue mane with a hoof, she waited for the human to finish patting out all of the creases he could see on the black suit he wore.

She had no clue as to why he requested such a dour shade like black for a wedding, but apparently it was because of ‘tradition’. In her mind, he looked more far more suited for a funeral but orders were orders.

“Nigel, listen to Sequins and be still. I could see you moving as well!”

She turned to look at the new Empress at the laugh, the changeling already ready to go with a brightly-coloured and flowing red dress neatly folded by her side. Reflection was sitting on a soft seat with her legs crossed as per the usual norm for ladies, although the way she stuck her tongue out at the Emperor was far from lady-like.

“Shush,” Chalmers snorted. “Just because you don’t need to worry about creases.”

“I do too, I just know how to wear clothes properly. Pretty strange too, considering I’ve only been wearing them since I met you and you’ve been wearing them for… actually, how old are you exactly?”

“Not now, there are more important things to focus on and- stupid button!”

Sequins repressed a tired sigh and went to help the Emperor with the apparently massive issue. The ruler froze when her hooves brushed his hands away in preparation for her attempt to do up his pants for him.

“Ah… Sequins, I can do it fine by myself.”

“Oh come on already.” Her assistance blocked by the ruler, Sequins moved back while Reflection left her seat to storm over. A quick burst of magic later and the button was through the hole, Reflection giving Nigel a teasing look while he sheepishly did up his zip. “See? Not that hard at all.”

“It’s about this time that I should make a comment regarding your practice in undoing my buttons,” he mumbled in response.

“What was that?”

“Oh, I just was saying thank you for doing up my button.”

‘How the country hasn’t fallen apart I don’t know,’ Sequins silently thought to herself while glancing towards the clock on her wall. The simple session of ensure that the wedding clothes for the night would fit had taken much, much longer than she had first expected, all thanks to the Emperor and his numerous complaints. If she didn’t know better, she’d bet that he was actually nervous about the upcoming ceremony.

“It only took you three hours to be happy,” sighed Reflection, moving around and examining the suit. “It looks good on you though, and I like the…”

“Cufflinks?” Sequins guessed, Reflection nodding while glancing at the items mentioned.

“Yeah, those.” Continuing to trot around, she paused at the Emperor’s rear with a lecherous grin. “But as I already said, it looks good on you.”

The Emperor sighed. “Perv.”

“Hush, you love it.”

Rolling her eyes once again, Sequins decided to break it up before the two got so distracted that they’d miss the actual wedding. Coughing into a hoof to gain their attention, she made a pointed glance to the clock. “Well, now all that’s left is for you to take the suit off and get yourselves ready. You’ve only got a few hours until the ceremony starts.”

“We have left it late,” Reflection winced, returning to her seat.

The Emperor meanwhile, was staring at his pants with a shocked look. “But… but I just got it all on…”

Bracing herself for what was no-doubt to come, Sequins took a second to close her eyes and think happy thoughts regarding her own wonderful dress already made.

She reckoned that they would be here for another few hours at least.

James tapped his foot impatiently while standing off to the side of the tightly packed throne room, the sound of the metal on stone drawing the attention of several excited wedding-goers. He ignored the whispers, continuing to glance around at every area of the throne room and what he could see of the entrance hall through the door.

He had neglected to bother seeing anyone for a suit, preferring to stay in his nice and secure armour despite being Nigel’s best man. Honestly, James hated the timing of the city-wide wedding celebration. Considering the events that happened less than two weeks prior, and the increased alert level of the guards, turning everyone’s attention away from defense towards having a massive party once again was just stupid and asking for trouble.

Of course, when he informed Chalmers of this opinion multiple times, he had been met with numerous excuses and hand-waving.

All in all, if James was the one looking to invade a single city then he’d be doing it when everyone was nice and drunk.

“You’re looking a bit down.”

He glanced down to his right, Sparkling Scroll looking up at him with a warm smile. He couldn’t resist giving a small smile back, tapping the helmet he held against his side. The cheery mare often seemed to be one of the saner individuals in the city, along with Captain Strategy. Secretly, he was currently finding her absolutely adorable in her flowing red dress and glittering necklace; obviously she was looking forward to the ceremony.

“I’m often told that I’m a rather dour individual,” he replied, taking another glance around the room. “I’ve got nothing against Chalmers and Reflection deciding to form a union personally, but I’d prefer them to possibly have waited a month or two when we aren’t expecting a sudden attack at any time.”

Sparkling laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Good luck telling them that. I swear, they both seem to just suck the common sense right out of each other.”

“Bah,” he snorted. “If that’s the case then it’s a good thing changelings feed on positive emotion, otherwise Reflection wouldn’t be getting much of a meal from Nigel.”

“Ha, and I thought you said you were dour!”

His smile increased, the conversation relaxing him slightly.

It still didn’t stop him from checking the door once again, however.

“Still,” continued Sparkling after she had paused to wave at a passing mare. “Fears of an invasion-“

“Not fears, caution at a possible hostile situation,” James corrected.

“Fine, caution of an invasion forgotten, surely you must be a little happy for them. Timing aside, you can’t argue that they don’t suit each other. I don’t know how weddings work where you’re from, and I’m told changelings don’t have them, but in the Empire they’ve always been a symbol of two ponies who’ve realised that they want to spend their lives together.” She smiled, a glance going towards the doorway leading into the entrance hall. “And, despite their many faults, those two are happy with each other.”

James briefly considered reminding Sparkling that Nigel had already gone through three failed marriages, but decided that it benefited everyone to not bring it up. “I can’t deny that, I suppose.” Seeking to get his mind off suffering through yet another of Nigel’s ‘in love’ phases, he subtly shifted the topic. “In all honesty, I expected you and Captain Strategy to be walking up the aisle first.”

“I… what caused you to think that?” Her pause gave it away, James smirking in response.

“You are both not as subtle as you believe,” he hinted, before shrugging. “Besides, Strategy has been keeping me up to date with all of the, as some would say, ‘juicy’ details.”

“He what?” Sparkling sighed, closing her eyes briefly before opening them again with a pleading look. “Okay, that’s fine I suppose. He did tell me that he liked talking to you, but please don’t tell Reflection anything.” Her voice lowered. “She already knows far too much to use against me.”

“Relax, it was nothing intimate.” James nodded, before raising an eyebrow. “You said Strategy enjoyed talking to me?”

“Well, yeah. I think he likes having another guy in the military to speak to who, well…”

“Doesn’t go out to battle in a bathrobe?” James finished, Sparkling nodding with slight surprise. “I heard all about that incident. Surprisingly, that’s not even close to some of Chalmers' more… eccentric choices.”

Sparkling tilted her head. “Oh, like what?”

He was about to reply, but faint cheering from the crowd outside the palace stopped him. Frowning, he glanced towards the staircase behind him. “Wait, weren’t they upstairs?”

“No they were not,” an orange stallion answered as he rushed past them towards the throne. “I believe they were at the tailor.”

James watched as the pony, the city’s sole judge if he remembered correctly, focused on discussing the final details with another two officials. Turning back to Sparkling, he nodded towards the doorway. “I suppose we must get ready then to do our part.”

“That’s why we’re here, good luck.” She waved a golden-shoed hoof at him, and James returned it before he moved off.

He passed the eager rows of nobles and officials given the privilege of being in the throne room, a few military officers in full armour also interspersed throughout. Their entire attention was paid to the doorway, James moving behind them before making his way towards the side.
Nodding at the armed guard standing to attention next to him, he waited while the cheers of the crowd grew louder and louder.

‘They sure do seem to like him,’ he wondered briefly, smiling and nodding to Sparkling who was standing on the opposite side. ‘Strange indeed, but at least he’s been somewhat more rational.’

Well, aside from wooing and marrying a emotion-draining equine alien.

He brushed himself down and kept his helmet firmly pressed against his side as the cheering grew closer still, until it was right in the entrance all. Over the din of the crowd of hundreds all loudly giving their congratulations to the pair, he could hear clanking of armour.

Out of the doorway, much to the delight of the guests inside the throne room, Captain Strategy advanced with ten halberd-armed guards in tow. It was a mix of five crystal ponies, four changeling guards, and one changeling in very heavy armour. James recognised her as Corporal Shift, the glowing love-gems that powered her suit just visible under the armour plate. He noticed that she in particular drew the amazement of the crowd, not surprising given her armour and the large shield locked in place before her.

Then, behind the honour guard came the main pair of the night.

James almost burst out laughing when he noticed that Nigel’s pants button was not done up, and judging from how hurried they looked he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had quite literally been at the tailor still getting their clothing organised. Reflection at least appeared properly dressed, even if the red dress and silver shoes she wore were far from the wardrobe of a traditional wedding based on what he knew.

Then again, there were many other differences to what he knew of Terran-based weddings.

For one, both the bride and groom were walking to the raised step side by side at the same time, there were of course no parental figures to ‘give away’ their daughter, and overall it seemed to be very rushed despite the days of preparation. Still, his role in the ceremony hadn’t really changed, and as the pair came into proper view he moved to walk beside Nigel.

Nodding towards Chalmers, he tried to put on a smile and attempted to appear cheerful.

‘Just smile, play the Best Man, give your short speech, then it’s onto the balcony to finish up their ceremony and it’s over.’

He noticed Sparkling moving next to Reflection just like he was to Chalmers, the two females exchanging words that were inaudible thanks to the noise of the crowd. They both seemed far more comfortable with the situation then he, even Nigel was smiling and waving to the crowd. James just stared straight ahead and walked with the group towards the front.

The soldiers broke off and moved to the sides of the room, leaving the path to the empty throne wide open. The judge standing in front of the throne waited for them beside a set-up podium, James and Sparkling hanging back while Nigel and Reflection moved ahead without them.

‘Surely this won’t take that long,’ James thought as a hush fell across the crowd and the judge adjusted his glasses.

A groan almost escaped James’ mouth when the judge unrolled a sheet of parchment long enough to reach the floor, the stallion clearing his throat as a hush descended across the crowd.

“… And so these two beings are to be united in a mutually-beneficial union that will bring them much happiness throughout their…”

Reflection zoned out again, her thoughts drifting away from the judge droning on and on. In truth she had expected a wedding to be less… well, boring. From what she’d heard from infiltrators during the years, weddings were always about a party and kissing, not judges going on about what it meant.

Glancing up at Nigel, she noticed that while he remained smiling with the occasional nod, his eyes were distant. Following his eye-line, she couldn’t help a smirk when she saw that he was completely focused on the buffet tables at the back of the room.

She’d normally be irritated that he wasn’t paying attention to such an important thing, but the food was looking appealing even to her.
‘Why can’t we just hurry up and get to the ‘I do’s’ and the kissing?’ she thought with a slight huff.

“Empress, is something wrong?”

She snapped out of her daze at the judge’s question, the stallion and the entire crowd looking right at her. “I… uh no, nothing’s wrong. We’re were just at…”

“The vows,” Nigel added for her. The judge glanced between both of them, one eyebrow raised.

“That’s correct. Now, the vows are a very short affair and then it’s onto the speeches.” Clearing his throat, he shifted his glasses before returning to the list. “Ahem. Do you, Nigel…”

“It’s just ‘M’.”

“Right, I apologise for not checking prior.” A few in the crowd chuckled lightly, Reflection letting out a small snort in humour with them. The judge was unperturbed, and continued on as if nothing had happened. “Nigel M Chalmers, do you vow to always be faithful towards this mare?”

“I do.”

Reflection straightened when the judge turned to her. “And do you, Empress Reflection, vow to remain faithful to this… human?”

She smiled at Nigel, nodding. “I do.” There was a pause, before the judge looked up from his lists.

“That’s actually the only one for now, the rest you requested are to be done on the balcony. So, I guess that means we can move on right to the speeches.” He gestured to the left side, two seats with plump red cushions sitting ready and empty. “If you’d both like to take a seat, we’ll proceed with the ceremony.”

Eagerly moving to the seats, Reflection clambered up with some difficulty thanks to her dress and turned to face the area. She waved briefly at the crowd before turning to Nigel when he sat down.

“Psst,” she whispered to him. “Is it supposed to be this… boring?”

Nigel nodded. “Yeah, usually. I think on Terra it was something to do with both suffering through a tedious event or something. Trust me when I say that this wedding is extremely condensed as well. What, did you think it’d be all food, drink, and snogging?”

Furrowing her brows at the strange word, she glanced towards the podium as Sparkling stepped up. “Well, I kinda expected something along those lines.”

There was no more time to reflect on it however, Sparkling clearing her throat while facing the crowd. Reflection gave her an encouraging smile when she turned to face them, wondering just what Sparkling would say.

“Hello, everyone,” Sparkling began, facing the crowd while reading from the notes on the podium. “Most of you already know me as the Emperor’s assistant, and I’ve likely harried some of you if you work in the palace, but for those who don’t my name is Sparkling Scroll.” She took a breath.

“I served as Sombra’s assistant before Emperor Chalmers took the throne, a change I’m sure you’ll all agree was for the best… kind of.”

Despite the subject matter, the crowd all laughed along at the joke.

“It’s certainly been interesting, I must admit. There’s been lots of trying times, but it’s been fun as well. Emperor Chalmers is rather… difficult to keep up with most of the time as many of the palace staff know, but I think we can all agree that it’s more than worth it.”

A chorus of agreement met the statement, a few even stamping their hooves in approval.

“Well, and he’s also my boss so I better not talk too harshly about him.”

Another round of laughter, Reflection joining in while Nigel shook his head and gave Sparkling a mock glare. Waiting until the crowd quietened down, Sparkling controlled her own chuckles and cleared her throat once more.

“Speaking of difficult to keep up with, how about the new Empress?”

‘Oh she better not…’

The grin that Sparkling was giving her indicated that, yes, a thorough ribbing was indeed coming her way. “I remember the first time that Reflection met the Emperor, in particular the insults she threw out.” There was a loud snicker from one of the stallions in the honour guard, his armour baring the rank of sergeant. “I was so shocked that she could stand in front of this… creature that had killed Sombra, and bare her fangs at him.”

Reflection sank down a little in her seat with a blush on her face when the crowd laughed again. ‘Why did she have to bring that up?’

“Now look at them,” Sparkling pointed towards them with a hoof. “Getting married in front of the entire city.” She turned back to crowd with a wider smile. “Being his assistant, I’ve seen some things.” There was a pause for effect. “And trust me, around them, I’ve seen some things.”

Reflection covered her face with her forehooves, shaking her head which only upped the crowd’s amusement. She felt an arm go around her back, so she reopened her eyes and shot Sparkling an unamused look. Her friend’s slightly apologetic smile soon stopped it however,

Reflection rolling her eyes with a huff before sitting back.

“Still,” resumed Sparkling. “She’s a wonderful changeling, and he’s a decent human. Despite their issues, I’m proud to call them both my friends. I know that they will probably still have problems from time to time, but I’m confident that they’ll be able to get through anything that tries to get between them.”

Sparkling smirked. “And speaking of getting in-between…”

Thankfully for Reflection and Nigel, the punch-line was interrupted.

Unfortunately, the interruption was Orthodox belching loudly as he stumbled out from behind them.

Everyone turned to face the source of the disturbance, the crowd letting out a few whispers and chuckles as the unbalanced and completely naked alien midget struggled to make his way towards the podium. The sloshing keg under his arm was a likely hint to his behavior, Orthodox keeping a tight hold on it while he barged up to the podium with his eyes unfocused. Sparkling, visibly confused, backed away to give him plenty of room.

“This is going to be… something.”

Reflection turned to Nigel, seeing that his brow was furrowed as he watched at Orthodox sway on his feet. “You asked him to give a speech?”
In return, he gave her an incredulous stare. “Orthodox? Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t ask him to speak.”

Reflection looked back to Nigel’s friend.

She doubted it was going to end well.

‘Should I stop him, should I not?’

Nigel continued to debate with himself over the wisdom of letting Orthodox speak. On one hand, a drunken Orthodox in front of a crowd of relatively innocent equines was a likely recipe for disaster. On the other, getting up to remove him would certainly cause a massive fight to break out due to the effect of alcohol on Orthodox’s already volatile temper.

He could still remember his second wedding and the ‘Andronium rum’ incident.

The keg of what Nigel assumed was Griffon ale was placed on the floor, Orthodox leaning over the podium with a finger pointed in the air.
“Hey all,” he greeted with a slur. “Hows you all doing?” There was a smattering of confused ‘okay’ and ‘good’ in reply. “Great, cause I… I feel wonderful.” He pointed down to the keg. “Have you guys tried that stuff? Fucking grade A.”

Many of the nobles and officials flinched back at the harsh swear, Orthodox not even noticing while he continued.

“So I guess it’s up to me to say some words, or something. Both Nigel and Erection-”

Reflection,” came the correction from the mentioned changeling, eyes narrowing at Orthodox.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

Only one stallion at the back of the crowd even uttered so much as a chuckle. The rest were frozen in silence, Orthodox gazing over them all.

“They’re both fucked up,” he put bluntly, a finger pointing towards Nigel. “Take this arsehole. Do you know how surprised I was when I found out he was actually liked by you lot? Very surprised. I mean, given his day job and all of that.” The unfocused eyes were turned onto a fuming Reflection. “And she, she’s a bug… horsey thing that changes shape and eats like, emotion or something.” He leaned forwards over the podium, his voice lowering but still audible. “The fuck’s up with that? That’s just weird.”

“Nigel…” Reflection growled, Nigel leaning closer to whisper to her while the crowd muttered.

“Just let him wear it out, he’s only got another few minutes in him. Trust me, it’s far better than trying to remove him.”

Her glare remained, but Reflection turned back to watch Orthodox without further complaint.

“Now, on the topic of Nigel marrying the emotion-eating change-horse, that’s kind of less surprising. He’s always been more of an exotic guy, right. Personally, I’d have fucked his assistant instead, you know?” As shocked gasps sounded from the crowd, an elderly noblemare even fainting over backwards, Orthodox let out a low whistle. “I mean, damn, she’s a babe even for a pony.”

Nigel was starting to reassess his decision to let Orthodox talk. Slowly, he looked over to were Sparkling was standing. Wincing at the glare from her that was soon directed back at Orthodox, he made a mental note. ‘Will probably have to buy a bracelet to help her forget that one.’

Orthodox himself was swaying on the spot, his tail flicking erratically. Most of his weight was resting on the podium, the finger in the air still waving about.

“Now, even though she ain’t nearly as pretty in my eyes, I guess that Erection is solid.”

Nigel tried to not let his own snicker escape, struggling to maintain a straight face while beside him Reflection breathed in and out deeply.

“She’s got absolutely no fucking clue what she’s in for, but like, who really does?” He belched, leaning forwards once again. “And, hell, after a few drinks even I think she’s pretty fu… fuckabl…”

He didn’t finish, falling face-first down onto the parchment.

No-one moved or spoke when a loud snore rose out from Orthodox, Nigel rubbing his temples while Reflection had again gone an embarrassed shade of green.

“Well, that was certainly something.”

Nigel looked up when James spoke, and watched while he moved towards the podium with a blank face. The crowd was still quiet save for a number of hushed whispers, everyone looking on as James picked up the well-and-truly out Orthodox in his arms and began to move towards the staircase.

“What about your speech?” Nigel asked, James pausing as he was going past.

“I think Orthodox gave more than enough speech for the both of us,” James returned dryly. “In addition, I am currently carrying a naked lizard-alien in my arms who’s blood is likely ninety-percent alcohol at this point. I believe that it would be in the best interests of the entire city if I immediately put him to bed, my speech wasn’t anything special anyway.” James glanced to Reflection, then back to the crowd as Sparkling Scroll began to move towards them. “Besides, I’d rather not be here for the explaining you need to do.”


With a snort, James continued on without a retort, Nigel sighing. He was aware of Reflection staring at him from her seat, so he turned to meet her narrowed eyes.

“You have some serious making up to do,” she told him. “That was a stupid thing to let him do and-“ Reflection stopped talking when he placed his finger against her mouth.

“Shh,” he shushed with a gesture to Sparkling who was almost upon them. “One second.”

“Well, that certainly was something,” Sparkling growled, glaring at him while he still had a finger over Reflection’s mouth. “I know for a fact that he wasn’t to speak, and yet he did. Was this something you planned as a joke? Because as you can guess I didn’t find it very-“

“Shh.” Sparkling’s eyes focused on his second finger, the digit placed over her mouth as well. “Now, first off, I can assure you both that I in no way planned for that drunken idiot to appear at all.” He turned his focus onto Reflection. “Secondly, the last time Orthodox got drunk at a wedding, he nearly killed a rear-admiral with a grenade when people tried to drag him away from the podium. That’s why I didn’t stop him, he gets unpredictable when sloshed.”

He took both fingers away, holding out his palms to them. “Look, I’m sorry that he said those things about you both, okay? James is taking care of him, so we can all go back to the party without worrying about him coming down again and embarrassing us all.” Both weren’t glaring now, but the mood was certainly at a low-point for the day.

With only one idea what to do, he tried to smile and gestured towards the buffet tables where the crowd had disbursed.

“For starters, we could all grab something to eat and drink, and mingle before heading up to the balcony. Sounds good?”

James sighed while he dropped Orthodox onto the bed, the sleeping imbecile not even stirring when he hit the messy covers. While it certainly wasn’t the most disastrous wedding he’d ever witnessed, Orthodox had certainly managed to mess it up amazingly.

“At least they all seem semi-reasonable,” he mumbled to himself, thinking of the crowd. “Hopefully the party will distract them from what happened.”

Sighing again, he sat down carefully upon the single chair by the side of the bed, the wooden furniture creaking under his armoured weight. He rested his head against the wall, staring at the sleeping Orthodox as the light snores continued.

‘And at least he won’t be causing any more trouble for at least another few hours.’

“Under the power granted to me through my office, it is my upmost pleasure to announce you as legally married.”

Chalmers smiled down at the beaming Reflection when the judge said the last words, the crowd all watching below the balcony cheering their support. He’d had his doubts about the entire ceremony, especially after Orthodox’s blundering, but he figured that he was more than capable of enjoying the current moment like it was meant to be.

‘I hope this one lasts for more than a few months.’

“You may now kiss.”

Taking a second to compose himself in front of the crowd of thousands, he barely had time to straighten his bowtie before the buzzing of changeling wings signalled Reflection’s flight. Chalmers stood his ground when she threw her forelegs over his shoulders and pulled him into a deep kiss, much to the delight of the watching crowd.

Whistles and cheers continued, the kiss lasting for over five seconds before she pulled away. A happy giggle followed, both looking down when the judge cleared his throat.

“Congratulations to the both of you.”

Nigel nodded. “Thanks, for both that and doing the official side of things.”

A hoof was waved in dismissal. “No thanks is needed, it’s part of my job after all.” The stallion smiled widely. “Besides, how many judges can say that they’ve married an Emperor and an Empress?”

“Not a lot I can imagine!” Reflection laughed, before glancing back to Nigel. “Speaking of that, now that we’ve just been married…”

He rolled his eyes. “Like it really changes much in that regards. Keep patient, we’ll spend the rest of the evening celebrating with my- our subjects and then we can focus on sating your carnal desires. Deal?”

“Pfft,” she huffed, but the smile remained. “Fine, but I expect something extra special.”

“Relax, I’ve got something planned.” Chuckling, he moved them both over towards the balcony edge. Looking out over the crowd, he and Reflection both waved out to everyone, Nigel grinning while he waited for the uproar to die down to a reasonable level. “Excuse me, everyone!”

The crowd paid him attention at the shout, all ears waiting to hear what he had to say.

“Reflection and I would both like to thank you all for the support, and for all the work you put in to make this a great wedding.” Another round of cheers went up, Nigel waiting for quiet again before continuing. “There were a few issues here and there, but overall it’s been a gigantic success.” Grinning, he gave Reflection a look. “Also, your new Empress has something to say.”

Reflection left his arms, standing up on her hind legs so she could look out over the balcony edge. “Hi everyone,” she greeted with a wave. “Like Nigel said, thanks for all the work you did. We’re both amazed by the dedication you’ve all shown, and I must admit that you’ve all helped to make this the happiest day of my life so far.”

The crowd remained quiet while she took a breath.

“As the new Empress, it gives me great pleasure to be able to officially announce the start of the post-wedding celebration. All the food and drink is free for all, and of course…” she paused, smiling out knowingly. “Tomorrow can be counted as an official day off work for you all, so enjoy yourselves to the fullest.”

The loudest cheer of them all was the reply to the announcement, Nigel shaking his head at just how much joy a single public holiday after a party could bring. Reflection gave the crowd a final wave before landing back on all four hooves and trotting back towards him with a glint in her eye.

“Come on,” she ordered, passing him and grabbing his hand in her magic to lead him downstairs. “I want to get all of this mingling out of the way as soon as possible.

Shaking his head once again at her demand, he couldn’t help but dismiss his earlier concern.

He was sure this one was going to last a decent while.

The darkness of night had fallen hours ago, yet the city beneath them was still alive and rowdy with the lights and sounds of wild celebration. The streets were all packed with ponies and changelings alike, the taverns and restaurants the main hives of activity for the nightlife. Still, even street parties were easily recognised thanks to the crowds, laughter and mirth audible even to the thirty heavily armed and armoured griffons that were waiting up high in the sky above the palace.

“Go time,” Levigust mumbled to himself, his talon going over his equipment.

Iron breastplate, dulled with ash from their fire, over a warm winter coat? Check.

Short-sword to deal with any particularly difficult guards? Check.

Magical inhibitor to go over Luna’s horn in case she didn’t want to leave with the thirty griffon mercs? Check.

Levigust put on his helmet, the metal ringing when he flicked it with a talon.

“Check, check, and check,” he nodded, glancing back towards Swiftius and the other troops talon-picked for the mission. “Everyone ready?”


“Yes Sir.”

“All ready, sir.”

He nodded at the affirmatives, gesturing down with a talon towards their target. “You all know which windows we’ll go for. My team will take the left, Swiftius’ will lead the assault through the right. Once inside, we’ll have two minutes until the external guard patrol returns, and if they see us then we’ll be testing the real strength of the Crystal Empire military.”

Levigust glanced around at them all, in particular at the soldiers with maces and war hammers. “I’ll remind you that we should avoid killing any guards we find inside, even the changeling ones. For sure, smack them around if they try to stop you, but given the nature of this mission the least amount of casualties, the better.”

He smirked at the end, another thought coming to mind. “Besides, maybe after this job they’ll be able to forgive us enough to offer us some lucrative work stealing the Princess back.”

The troops all chuckled lightly at his suggestion, Levigust turning back around to gaze down at the palace. His eyes tracked the flying patrol of changelings, ten in number, pass the barred window with their destination being the far end of the city.

“Time to work,” he instructed, angling himself down towards the destination.

His powerful wings propelled him through the air, yet at the same time his descent was almost silent. He could hear his soldiers behind him, the force of griffons grim yet confident in their abilities.

Levigust was thankful for the almost-absent moon, the clouds blotting out the light and disguising their attack from any eyes happening to look up from the ground. The group passed through the dome surrounding the city, the air instantly becoming warmer and fresher. With a gesture with his talon he split off, half of the attack force following his lead while he soared towards the window to the left of the one with bars.

He came to a halt just a mere inch from the crystal wall, his troops waiting behind him. Doing a quick survey, he heard and saw no sign of alarm from any pockets of guards that he had missed.

“Clawigula,” he ordered while moving away from the glass window, a burly soldier with a war hammer moving up to swing it’s blunt edge against the fragile barrier.

Private Sheen immediately went for her sword when the sound of smashing glass rang out from around the corner of the corridor, the magically-enhanced shoe grasping the hilt with ease. Pulling out the spotless blade from its scabbard, she shared a glance with the changeling soldier next to her who had likewise drawn her weapon.

“Let’s check it out,” Private Mirror whispered while softly trotting towards the noise, her face deadly serious. Sheen glanced back towards the door they were guarding, briefly considering informing the Emperor and Empress within.

The two had ordered that there was to be no disruptions to their evening before they had retreated into the bedroom, Sheen having assumed that they were planning a decent wedding consummation. Weighing up the risk of the noise just being a careless maid and then disturbing the two during an intimate time because of it, she decided to back-up her fellow guard instead.

Advancing behind Mirror, Sheen carefully trotted onwards until the changeling halted with a hoof raised. What really clued in Sheen was the way the changeling’s wings buzzed lightly, Mirror doing a quick double check of her armour before pointing forwards.

“I can hear voices.”

Moving up next to her and straining her ears, Sheen nearly dropped her sword when she heard the tell-tale clinking of metal and… something else.

“Intruders,” she whispered, Mirror nodding while taking a deep breath.

“Time to earn our pay.”

With that, Mirror broke into a gallop, Sheen following right behind with her heart pounding. The two rounded the corner of the corridor with their weapons pointed out, both freezing at what they found.

Griffons, many of them, were pouring out of two of the vacant bedrooms. All were armoured and were carrying weapons of multiple kinds, all of their predatory eyes fixing the two soldiers with stares. Mirror was frozen, Sheen trying to control her shaking sword before doing the only thing she could think of.

“Halt! Intrude-!”

She didn’t even register the griffon soldier move, he was that fast. Her shout of alarm was cut off when the weighty mace smashed against her crystal breastplate, not breaching the protection but knocking the air out of her lungs. Sheen could feel some her ribs break, her sword dropping to the floor as she tried to deal with the pain.

The griffon didn’t give her a chance, the mace once again coming down upon her. Sheen collapsed to the floor as he head rung, her left cheek meeting the red carpet as she saw Mirror charge forwards with her sword point aimed at the griffon’s throat.


The changeling’s enraged yell was swiftly followed by a second griffon rushing in to save his comrade, the end of a sleek war-hammer denting the side of Mirror’s chest armour and knocking the changeling off course. The hit was followed up by a particularly brutal backswing, Sheen’s eyes widening despite her own disabling pain as the sharp point on the rear end of the hammer punched through Mirror’s steel plate to embed in her chest.

Her friend and fellow guard’s white pupils shrank to pinpricks, the griffon pulling the spike of his hammer out with a fresh coat of green gore. A small spurt of green followed it out, before the frozen Mirror collapsed onto the ground with a chocking wheeze.

“Dishonest beast!” the griffon roared, raising his hammer for the final blow.

“Clawigula, it’s not a threat anymore.” A talon grabbed the limb holding the hammer and pulled it away from Mirror, who was shaking on the ground.

Sheen was unable to make out faces, a fine film of blood slowly seeping down to cover her eyes. She tried to move towards Mirror but was unable to even accomplish that. Instead, she could only lay in agony with the hope that help would reach them soon.

There was the sound of splintering wood before a muffled expletive of some kind, then the clack of sharp talons approaching her. She winced and held back a cry of pain when a claw grasped her chin, lifting her head up which only aggravated her pain.

“Where’s the Princess?”

Sheen’s mind tried to work out the question as the pair of yellow eyes glared into her own, her brain still scattered from the earlier blow.

“Tell me, pony. Where are you keeping Princess Luna of Equestria?”

She tried to blink the blood away, but failed dismally. Was the griffon really asking that question? Figuring that her life, and Mirror’s if she was still alive, depended on cooperation she struggled to provide the griffon with the answer he was after.

“She… she escaped. Some Equestrians tel-teleported in and took her away.”

The grip around her chin tightened, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut. “When?”

The low growl terrified her, Sheen’s teeth chattering when she answered. “Two weeks ago, at least. I swear, she’s probably already back in Equestria now.”

Her head was released and it smacked back down against the floor, the griffon above her hissing through his beak.


“We’ve been had,” the same voice who had interrogated her replied.

“But can we trust h-“

“She’s telling the truth, I can feel it. Besides, we’ve already squandered enough time, and we have to get-“

“Lieutenant, guards coming up the left!”


Sheen heard the clang of metal and the sound of a changeling’s horn firing, a squawking scream to her left sounding out over the sudden din.

“All forces, fighting withdraw!”

Clacking talons rushed past her, almost drowned out by the sounds of armoured hooves pursuing them. Even in her state, she could hear griffons clambering out of the window to escape with the sound of flapping wings.

Then, from the corridor behind her, she heard a voice she clearly recognised.

“The flying fuck is going on!?”

Reflection idly circled the tip of her foreleg over bare chest-skin, the other resting in the warm and bubbly water. A light smile was on her face, and she shook her head before taking another sip of wine from the glass she held in her magic.

“No, I don’t want it. It’s weird.”

The plump, chocolate-covered strawberry was waved in front of her, the top grasped between two fingers. “Oh come on, it’s great. Sure, it’s a little crystal-y, but it tastes just like a normal strawberry.”

“I don’t like solid food,” she tried to deflect, even though she admittedly enjoyed chocolate. “Eat it yourself.”

“I’ve already had enough, it’s your turn now.”

She rolled her eyes, but her grin still remained. Light from the candles around the large bath flickered, the strawberry’s bumps and shiny flesh sparkling in the warm glows. Needless to say, when she’d been brought up to the room by to find a platter of fruit and chocolate, wine, candles, a fresh bubble-bath, and most importantly two guards to stand outside and keep any distractions out, she’d been overjoyed.

Even if Nigel insisted that they both ate every single bit of chocolate-drenched fruit.

“Why are you so insistent?”

“Because it’s romantic,” he replied, shifting next to her. A bare leg brushed her rump, Reflection biting her lip before sighing and giving in.

“Fine,” she placed the wine glass down and took the fruit from him. “If it makes you happy.”

Magically levitating it towards her mouth, she looked him in the eyes before biting down and chewing.

The surprisingly pleasant burst of flavour caused her to pause, before she ate the remainder eagerly. The combination of sweet juice and chocolate was amazing to her tastebuds, her eyes immediately going towards the rest of the plate.

“Told you,” Chalmers scoffed from beside her. “And you didn’t trust me.”

“Oh, shut up,” she snorted back, a green glow taking another strawberry and dipping it into the bowl of chocolate. Her hoof on his chest went down lower, trailing under the water as the second strawberry was eagerly devoured. The hoof paused just above its target and she licked her lips, a grin going his way. “They’re good, but I want a different kind of treat right about…”

She paused, her ears picking up a faint sound. Nigel evidently heard it too, straightening in the bathtub with one hand placing itself on the edge.

Reflection winced, recognising the sound of glass breaking.

“Let me guess,” she began with a huff.

“I’ll be just a second,” Nigel reassured, pulling himself up out of the water and stepping out of the bath. A white towel was wrapped around his waist, and a kiss was planted on her forehead. “Given the last month, it can’t hurt to be sure.”

“I swear, this is beyond a joke.” Reflection sank down into the water with her forelegs crossed. “You always have to leave at the good bits.”

“Hey,” Nigel reassured with a pat on her head. “As soon as I can go home, I’ll book us a nice room in a resort on a paradise world and we can have as much ‘good bits’ that we can in-between the margaritas to make up for it. Now sit tight, I’ll see what’s up then come right back.”

With that, he left the bathroom and shut the door behind him.

Reflection was left alone with only the company of the candles, a sigh escaping her mouth before she levitated up another strawberry to munch on while she waited for his return.

Nigel shut the bathroom door behind him and headed towards the locked bedroom one, aiming to be as quick as possible. He’d have stayed and let his guards handle the matter, but to him the smashing glass had sounded suspiciously like a breaking window and he was a man of action at heart.

He unlocked the latch but paused with his hand on the door-handle, a muffled shout coming from the corridor followed by the splintering of wood.

His right hand immediately went for the stand holding his armour, the mace sitting on the belt ring being pulled off.

“Just in case,” he muttered, testing the weight to re-familiarise. “It’s been a long time, Macey my dear.”

He pulled open his door and stepped out, water still dripping from his naked body. Pausing to adjust his towel, not wanting to be caught out in combat with a poorly-sitting groin covering, he glanced to both sides of the door to find the two guards he had posted missing.

“Damn…” he muttered, before a yell caused him to whip his head up to the far end of the corridor.


“Fuck’s sake,” he grumbled, one fist clenching around the mace handle while the second hand held up his towel. Braking into a run, he dashed down the corridor as the sound of fighting echoed off the crystal walls.

Skidding around the corner, he was faced with an unexpected sight.

A squad of his guards were advancing down the opposite end of the corridor, one of the changeling’s horn smoking much like the hole in the griffon laying at her hooves. There was a mass of other, still alive, griffons all beating a hasty retreat towards two bedrooms in the face of an advancing wall of halberd points.

Looking down, Nigel saw the two guards he had posted on the ground. The changeling was bleeding from a hole in her chest, while the crystal mare had blood covering her face and head. He was well and truly ticked off now.

“The flying fuck is going on!?”

He gained the attention of his guards, and more than a few of the retreating griffons. It proved costly for one, the distraction opening him up to a halberd strike that cleaved his head clean off.

“I was in the middle of a bath with my wife, you ungrateful and traitorous pricks!”

Whether it was the towel, his mace, his words, or the sheer rage in his tone that caused the raiders to route, no-one knew.

However it didn’t matter, the griffons scrambled back in a slightly-more disordered fashion than before. Nigel and his troops gave chase, another death-screech from a griffon sounding from the room the guards rushed into.

He was not so lucky, the very last griffon already out of the window and flying away. Nigel ran to it and leaned out, lining up his shot and letting his mace fly.

The weapon clipped the feathers of the wing but did nothing save the griffon banking to the right, his mace falling down towards the streets below and onto the roof of a house.

“Fucking come back here!” he called out while shaking his fist at the retreating soldiers. “I’ll pluck out your feathers myself!”

His threats were ignored, however what the griffons couldn’t ignore was the squad of changeling guards that buzzed towards them from the flank. A volley of green magic downed three more foes, the remainder diving to the left and towards the city square. Turning around to rush down and pursue them himself, he paused instead at the sight outside the door of the room he was in.

‘My soldiers can handle it,’ he decided, his anger dying out while he moved to check on the two injured privates.

The first was the changeling, Mirror if he remember correctly. She was sitting up with a grimace and an armoured hoof held over her chest. He could see the green blood dribbling out around the sides, and out through the gap at the bottom of her armour. She saw him approach, and immediately gestured with her head towards the motionless pony.

“I’ll live, but h-help Sheen,” she rasped. Nigel moved straight onto the downed crystal pony while the other guards rushed around with barked orders. He had just enough time to register two stallions move to help Mirror, before he knelt down next to Private Sheen and checked to see if she was still alive.

He couldn’t even tell what colour her short-cut mane was because of all of the blood.

Sheen was drifting in and out of consciousness, the taste of copper in her mouth however was sharp and vivid.

The clatter of battle had been changed with other noises now, but all the words sounded far off and distant. She was only vaguely aware of something touching her, before something big lifted her gently off the ground. There was a long thing under her head, and she could feel something take off her helmet.

The last thing she felt before she blacked out completely was the smooth and slightly wet thing she was held against, and the steady heartbeat that pulsed through it.

‘Crap, crap, crap!’

Levigust swerved to avoid another crossbow bolt, the crystal pony that had fired it not able to reload before he had been passed. Looking behind him, Levigust cursed some more when he saw that only three griffons remained behind him, two of them being Swiftius and Clawigula. The other he couldn’t recall at the current time, but he bore the rank markings of a corporal.

‘I hope the others got out,’ he thought, another group having split off from his in an attempt to lead the dangerous changeling guards away. ‘This attack is a shambles.’

He fought hard to supress his rage. It wasn’t directed towards the Crystal Empire, even though they had killed a number of his soldiers.

No, in his mind was the image of the incompetent and possibly malicious Equestrian politician that had sent them to rescue and already-rescued princess.

‘I’m going to skin him alive,’ Levigust vowed, dodging around a cluster of houses while drunken and unaware citizens underneath watched with surprise.

“What are we going to do!?” Swiftius yelled to be heard. “It’s a death-trap above and chaos below!”

He surveyed their surrounds, the group flying towards the town square. Amid the dark sky, he spotted a gap in the unbuilt wall. “There!” he commanded, pointing a talon towards the breach. “Well keep low and fly out, then circle around and meet up with the main force!”

A glint caught his eye, Levigust pausing when he caught sight of the large and, more importantly, unguarded gem in the shape of a heart that was sitting on a podium. It pulsed and throbbed with light, almost calling to him.

“A quick detour!”

Swerving, he dived down towards the gem, the few unarmed civilians below scattering into buildings.

“Sir!?” Swiftius called out. “Are you mad!?”

“I won’t leave here empty-taloned!” he shouted back, snatching the gem off of the podium with both talons and flying back up.

The effect of the removal was immediate, the dome above shattering into fragments of nothing. He paid it no mind, his thoughts set purely on just how much revenge he could buy by selling the large and obviously magical gem to the highest bidder.

His three soldiers followed him while he soared towards the gap to freedom, cold wind and snow already descending upon the city without the protective energies of the gem to keep the weather at bay.

Nigel stormed towards Strategy, the Captain barking orders to squads of guards. He ignored the stares of those that saw him, instead he pointed a finger right at the military leader.


The Captain turned and froze at the sight of him, Nigel mostly ignoring it as he continued to approach.

‘It’s probably the blood.’

A glance went to the empty podium that used to house the Crystal Heart, Strategy rushing over after picking up on it.

“I’m so sorry, Emperor! The guards rushed off to help the patrols fight off the griffons, and a few must have slipped past!”

“I don’t care about the guards,” he growled, fists clenched while he glared down at Strategy. Either the Captain knew that his anger wasn’t focused at him or Strategy was just plain brave, the pony not flinching back at all. “I’ve just dropped off a soldier with a section of her skull cracked like an egg to the medics, and the Crystal Heart is stolen. I want all available changeling forces to scour the surrounds for the enemy, the rest of the army to prepare for full-scale war, and the activation of the reserve guard forces!”

Strategy nodded with a stern face. “I’ve already ordered scouts to hunt down the thieves, and the guards are coming onto full alert.” His expression darkened. “But Emperor, although I understand your urgency, we don’t even know where to march to. The Griffon Empire is far too big to take on with our number of troops and it will leave the city undefended by experienced soldiers.”

Nigel was just about to clarify, before an armoured stallion galloped up towards them.

“Captain, Emperor! There’s a griffon survivor we’ve taken prisoner around the right side of the palace! He claims that they were mercenaries hired by Equestrian!”

Nigel fixed the green-coated soldier with a cold stare.

“Take us to him.”

“No, no please, I’m telling the tr-uurgkk!”

Strategy watched with ten of his shocked troops as a blood-soaked Chalmers squeezed the griffon’s throat tighter, before relaxing his grip. The unfortunate hybrid’s talons were shackled behind his back and his hind legs were dangling in the air while the Emperor held him up in the air with one arm.

He winced when the naked muscles in Nigel’s arm bulged again, the grip once again cutting off the griffon’s airflow before relaxing again. “So let me get this straight,” Nigel replied with his voice and eyes cold. “You’re a mercenary, led by a Lieutenant Levigust, and with orders to rescue Princess Luna from my palace.”

“Yes, that’s right!” the griffon soldier hastily nodded with his wings weakly flapping. “But she was already gone!”

“I know that already,” the grip tightened again. “What I don’t know is where you’re taking the Crystal Heart.” The griffon was nearly turning blue before he was allowed to breathe again.

“I… I swear that… I know nothing about that!” he panted out desperately. “An Equestrian hired us with money to rescue and return Luna, that was all I was told! He promised to pay us our second payment when we returned her, and there was no mention of this ‘Crystal Heart’! Please, I’m telling the truth! You said that if I did, you’d let me go!”

Strategy nearly gulped when Chalmers looked down towards him, his ruler nodding towards the griffon. “You think he’s lying?”

Looking at the soldier who was staring back with pleading eyes, Strategy shook his head after a moment of thought.

“No, I think it’s the truth. If it is true then there was either a massive mistake on the Equestrian side, or they’re trying to get us to fight against the Griffon Empire. Plus, it would suit mercenaries to just loot a big, shiny gem.”

“I agree,” the Emperor concurred, his hand tightening once again. The griffon started to struggle as his face got bluer and bluer. “Still, to be sure send their Emperor a message with a question stating that there was an attack by a ‘Levigust’, and if he has any explanation.”

The griffon stopped moving, Chalmers glancing at him before tightening his hand even more. Strategy winced at the crack of bones breaking, before the corpse was dropped to the floor.

“I thought you told him you were going to let him go.”

Nigel turned away, eyeing the palace. “I lied.” Beginning to walk away, he paused to adjust the blood-stained towel around his waist. “Organise the troops like I asked. If it’s true, then Equestria is well and truly on my shit-list now. I’m going to end the annoyance they’ve caused us even if I have to march into the Capitol and stab Celestia and Luna in the face by myself.”

Strategy watched his ruler storm off, desperately hoping that it was just the anger talking.

If not, then he honestly did not look forward to the battles that were certainly to come.

The Drums of War

View Online

“Move it! Pull harder and watch those wheels!”

James frowned under his helmet while he watched the squad of guards pull the final ballista into place. Now a full twenty of the siege machines were lined up on the staging grounds, each accompanied by a covered cart containing their spare ammunition. The weapon operators were already trotting about, preforming some final checks and ensuring the devices were ready for the coming war.

Standing on the wooden observation platform, he turned to gaze at the source of armoured hoof-beats.

Aligned in ten blocks of fifty and each led by a sergeant, hundreds of crystal pony guards performed a co-ordinated marching drill over in a cleared field. The midday sun glinted off of their crystal armour and halberd points, the mass of guards moving with the impeccable timing that only military training could produce.

Behind them followed the changelings picked to march out upon Equestria. They numbered less at only three-hundred, and moved in loose formations rather than in organised columns, but James knew they fulfilled their vital role of light infantry with distinction. With light steel plate, flight, and limited magic they brought manoeuvrability and a surprising ranged punch to back up the main lines, and that was not even taking their swords into account. They were ideal skirmishers, and he knew from personal experience with them that they’d prove to be deadly to the unprepared foe.

Making to turn for the stairs leading down, he paused at the unified sound of splintering wood. Over to the south was the archery range, a full one-hundred lined up awaiting their turn to shoot. He watched the next ten crystal ponies step up, aim their crossbows at the target boards, then let loose with their bolts.

He continued on down the stairs, not needing to watch the results to know that the soldiers had quickly learned the relatively new weapons.

Despite the combat prowess that he had just witnessed, James still had a frown on his face when he reached the bottom of the stairs.

‘Of course something had to go and set him off,’ he thought, walking through the snowy field that separated the training grounds from the city’s western district. ‘Such a shame, things actually seemed to be getting along fine for a while. Now he’s gone and plunged this city into a war it doesn’t need, or have much of a chance of winning.’

James didn’t doubt the training, equipment, or resolve of the Empire’s troops. In his opinion they made fine warriors for such a technology-lacking race. The problem in his mind was pressing, and obviously not one that Chalmers had paid much attention to.

‘While Equestria doesn’t know what we’re bringing, neither do we know what they possess.’

He sighed, almost half-way towards the first building that made up the city’s military district. The very fact that the city had until the day before been covered by a magical environmental barrier was proof enough that the upcoming fights were not going to be as simple as Chalmers likely expected. Sure, they had enchanted gems on their side, but from what he had heard from the changelings was that the Equestrians were even more versed in magic.

If Equestria’s citizens incorporated various forms of magic into their daily lives, then what would their military forces bring?

“I almost regret not taking Elijah’s place,” he muttered under his breath while continuing to walk.

It was half true. While the occultist would have been infinitely more useful with analysing and neutralizing the opposing army’s arcane armaments, James had no desire to be watching over the irritating Queen Chrysalis. She was far too hot-tempered for his liking, and he already had one tantrum-prone ruler to deal with.

On that point, he looked up once he heard his boots clack on cobblestone. He’d reached the city limits, the snow-covered buildings unusually silent. No laughter or any other joyful sound echoed through the empty streets, not even that of the off-duty guards that usually populated the district in their free time. The city was effectively dead, the cold and snow driving many to shelter inside of their warm houses.

Such cold didn’t bother him thanks to his armour, James not even flinching when a heavy gust blew snow flacks through the street. Instead he continued for the largest building dedicated to the military, the towering command centre’s sparkling new grey stone blocks easy to spot despite the snow.

No one rushed to stop him when he reached the heavy wood and metal door, not a guard in sight. He knocked on the front of it three times, and waited for entry.

A vision slot in the middle of the door opened, James not even having to kneel down and look through it before it was hastily closed and the lock on the door unlatched. It swung open a crack and a halberd was pointed out, accompanied by a helmeted head and a pair of dull pink eyes.

“Apologies, sir,” the red-coated stallion muttered. The halberd was withdrawn and the door opened all the way to allow entry, James brushing the snow off of his armour before stepping inside.

“I understand,” he nodded, noticing the second guard standing beside the first. Also a stallion, the pony’s grey coat was likewise missing its crystal sheen. Even the armour somehow seemed duller, almost matching the guards’ spirits. “These are worrying times after all.”

“You don’t say,” the guard murmured, before trotting to the second locked door at the back of the short corridor. He knocked on the metal surface, a vison slit opening just like before. “Visitor for the Emperor, the other human.”

“He should come back later,” a female voice replied.

James frowned, already put out by the behaviour of the guards, and walked towards the door. “Why?”

He was close enough now to be able to see the set of blue eyes that looked out at him from the slit. “The Captain’s here,” the guard on the other side of the door answered. “He’s been arguing with the Emperor for a while now. Also, that orange dragon-thing is with them and causing more trouble.”

“Orthodox,” James sighed. “As if things weren’t bad enough.”

As if on cue, muffled yelling could be heard from somewhere behind the door.

“I’d recommend you come back later,” the guard repeated.

James thought it over, but only for an instant. While the suggestion was sound and honestly the choice he would have taken in different circumstances, he had a duty to ensure that Nigel didn’t completely lose control of the situation. He counted his ex-squad leader as a great friend, and they had both gone through a lot together, but Chalmers’ mood was temperamental at the best of times.

In addition, the guard had mentioned that Captain Strategy was present. Knowing the Captain, and able to guess that Strategy was likely voicing the same concerns that he was planning to, only added to the problem. James had a decent respect for Strategy and the creatures that inhabited the city, but it was like a midget throwing a rock at a professional boxer. Chalmers wouldn’t back down easily, and James feared that his current mood wouldn’t prevent him from lashing out at Strategy if the wrong thing was said.

“No,” he answered after thinking it through. “I’m somewhat obligated to keep the peace, and despite my better judgement I believe it would be best for me to speak to the Emperor.”

The vison slit was slid shut, and the lock on the second door was undone. “Suit yourself then, don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

James waited for the door to swing open before he moved forwards, with a nod to the guards he let behind. He emerged into the new room, the large main area of the command centre seeming… off.

The guard with a green coat shut the door behind him, the mare locking it once again before returning to attention beside it. James looked around, his mood not improving at what he saw.

The room, lit up by flickering illumination gems and filled with tables laden with maps and plans, bustled with dour activity that was far from the liveliness that he had come to expect from the Crystal Empire citizens. Ponies dragged their hooves when they moved, kept their heads bowed, and seemed to refrain from conversing with one-another. The few changeling officers among them seemed just as melancholy, although James supposed that it was less to do with the loss of the Crystal Heart’s effects and more to do with the results of the loss upon their crystal pony comrades.

There was little chatter or general noise save for the clinking of armour, which allowed the raised voices from the small back room to be heard even more clearly.

“Once again, with the assault underway there would be no need to hold back most of our forces for defence! A small number of guards to watch over the city would be-“

“With all due respect, Emperor, that’s far too risky. The Crystal Empire is at its most vulnerable, and we can’t afford to commit all of our troops to a war we likely can’t win!”

“We have to win it, without that Crystal Heart this city is completely fucked!”

Shaking his head, James gathered himself and moved towards the room at the lull in the conversation. Pushing open the unlocked door, he stepped in to be greeted with a unusual sight.

Captain Strategy had evidently leapt up onto the large central planning table, crystal figures of castles and ponies were scattered on the table and floor while the Captain’s four armoured hooves were planted firmly on a map of the Crystal Empire and Equestria. Nigel was dressed in plate armour that looked like it was straight from early Terran history, a sword and mace holstered on his belt. Both were staring off at each other, James guessing that Strategy was using the table so that the difference in height was no hindrance to the argument.

“Sup James,” Orthodox greeted, the lizard lazily lounging on a cushioned chair. Going off the way Orthodox was carefully sharpening his teeth with the blade on his armoured tail-tip, the argument had been going on for some time. “Don’t even bother, Nigel’s got one of ‘those’ things going on and the pony’s almost as bad. I can’t even get a word in edgewa-“

“Orthodox,” Nigel snarled. “Shut it.”


“You’re not helping,” Strategy followed up, visibly straining to keep his anger in check. A hoof was pointed towards Nigel. “I’m trying to explain to the Emperor as to why leaving the city nearly defenceless to attack Equestria is a bad idea, but he just refuses to listen. Having you chime in with nonsense helps no one and achieves nothing.”

James stared at the Captain as the tirade finished. He’d never seen Strategy act with such hostility, and he noted that the Captain’s coat also lacked its crystal shimmer. ‘Has the loss of the gem really affected them magically? At first I thought it was just a general sense of loss, but now…’

“I’m actually here regarding that, and I was hoping-“

“Good,” Nigel cut him off. “Maybe you can convince Strategy.” After a glare from the Captain, Nigel continued. “It’s simple. The Equestrian town on the border is an obvious first target. It’s close to the city, full to the brim with their military forces, and even sits near a few iron mines. If we attack there it will be a decisive victory, we take out lots of their guards and show the Equestrians that they’ve gone and fucked up.”

“The problem is,” Strategy cut in during the pause. “The Emperor has taken over nine-hundred of our troops for this attack, an attack that will really achieve nothing substantial. That leaves only a few hundred to defend a city that is worried and in trouble. The crops are dying thanks to the snow, Equestria could very well march in like they did before, and that’s not even ruling out a possible betrayal by the griffons.”

Strategy sighed, before his face hardened again. “Trust me, I have nothing against finding the Crystal Heart and retrieving it, but attempting a full-on assault against a prepared Equestria is a fool’s folly! They outnumber our entire population by hundreds of thousands!”

“We don’t retrieve the Crystal Heart, and it’s game over anyway,” Nigel growled with his arms crossed. “So far Strategy, you’ve failed to come up with anything better.”

James was getting sick of the way both were acting. “I agree.”

“See?” gloated Nigel with a smug smirk towards Strategy.

“Actually,” James continued with a finger raised. “I’m agreeing with both of you on this one.” Before either could interrupt him, he explained further. “Strategy is right in saying that an attack is foolish, because quite frankly it is. I don’t know what’s set you off Nigel, but charging your army at the enemy is not the way to go without a better plan. I seriously think that you’re underestimating our foes, and you need to remember that any rash actions could lead to large casualties on our side as well.”

“However, I’m sure that both of you agree that the priority we need to focus on is the retrieval of the Crystal Heart. In my opinion, a straight up attack is useless at the current time and it will achieve nothing.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Nigel grunted.

“Simple,” James nodded towards Orthodox. “Why send an army in when you have some very capable agents on hand? For starters we have a squad of spies already situated in the border town that will be able to provide us with any information about troop composition, or even about the Crystal Heart if we’re lucky. Myself and Orthodox are more than capable with a simple item retrieval leaving the main forces free to def-“


James sighed at Nigel’s interruption. “What?”

“It’s too late for that; this is something that we have to do ourselves. Equestria has stepped over the line this time. I was actually almost about to just let them be, but then they go and pull this shit. We’ll march upon their town, devastate their troops there, then take it and force their hand. We don’t need to be sneaky, it’s time to show them that they can’t just push us around. Now James, you can either help or you can stay back here and dig in, I don’t care which.”

‘He’s finally lost it, hasn’t he?’

“Nigel, don’t be-“

“Enough!” Slamming a fist down upon the table, Nigel glared at them all. “Tonight we march on the town, and catch them unawares.” The Emperor walked up and tapped him on the chest with a finger. “Nothing you can say will stop this from happening, if the equestrians want a war then I’m happy to give them one. Now, if anyone wants to stay here and continue to argue then fine with me, but I’m going to actually go and get things done.”

With that, Chalmers stormed out of the room without bothering to shut the door behind him.

“Stubborn fool,” James muttered, before he looked back up at the sound of a chair scraping along the ground.

“Sorry bro,” Orthodox smiled while he walked out to follow Nigel. “But you know me. He’s promising a war and I intend to enjoy myself a little. Good luck with your whole ‘wait and see’ approach.”

It didn’t bother him overly much, expecting Orthodox to take that line of thinking. However, it was when Strategy sighed and made to follow that he interjected.
“Captain? I’d have thought that you would have more sense .”

“I do,” Strategy answered with a shake of his head. “However, I have a duty to my Emperor and to my troops. If he’s made up his mind to make this reckless attack against Equestria, then at least I can be there to try and minimise the damage.”

Nodding, James reached out a hand towards the pony soldier. “I understand, good luck.”

Strategy returned the nod and met the hand with a hoof. “Thanks, I’ll need it.” Withdrawing his hoof, Strategy gestured with his head towards the open door. “Listen, while I’m gone I’d appreciate it if you could help supervise the defences and… if I don’t… well-”

“I’ll ensure to look out for Advisor Sparkling as well.”

For the first time that day, James saw Strategy smile. “Thanks Agent, hopefully things won’t turn out as badly as I fear.”

Watching Strategy trot out after Chalmers and Orthodox, James shook his head again.

‘I honestly doubt that anything good can come from this, Captain.’

“Shill, wake up.”


Blinking open her eyes, Shill yawned and looked around the gloomy room. The darkness was no barrier to her thanks to her changeling eyes, so Buzz was easy to spot while he stood by their window.

Or rather, the pegasus Heartflame was easy to see.

Taking note of her Sergeant’s use of his pony disguise, she rolled off of her side of the queen bed and changed to her own once all four hooves were on the ground. A faint flash of green later and Raindrops was there instead. Trotting over towards Buzz while giving her blue pegasus wings a ruffle, she paused behind him. “What is it?”

“Look,” Buzz whispered, moving across so she could look out of the curtains as well.

Thanks to their inn room being on the third and tallest floor, Shill could see a large swath of the town they had been assigned to and even see into the sprawling Equestrian military camp that had formed over the past week. Searching the lines of blue and white tents, she couldn’t spot anything suspicious.

“Down by the café where we had lunch yesterday, the Griffons.”

Following his directions, she looked down just in time to catch sight of the last of roughly sixty griffons in armour touch down upon the paved street. Noticing what looked like blood covering a few, her breath caught in her throat when she realised that they had flown in from the direction of the Crystal Empire.

“What are griffons doing here?” she mumbled, more to herself than to Buzz. “Aren’t they on our side?”

Before she could puzzle it out or Buzz could answer, a horde of equestrian guards rushed towards the landed griffons with spears and swords drawn. The dark street lit up with the glows of horns as unicorns prepared combat spells, armoured pegasi filling the area and blocking off all escape routes. Moe ponies continued to flood in, and within moments the griffons were outnumbered by at least two-to-one.

Buzz cracked the window, but all they could interpret from the shouts, yells, and angry squawks was that everyone was confused as to what was going on. Trying to listen in, with zero results, Shill almost jumped out of her fake fur when Buzz suddenly darted for the door.

“B- Heartflame?”

It was no use, Buzz already gone with the sound of his hooffalls on wood getting fainter.

Shill looked out of the window again, searching for what had set him off.

She quickly made to follow him when she too spotted the large heart-shaped gem that one of the griffons was showing to an Equestrian guard.

Buzz forced himself to slow his pace when he drew closer to the commotion, taking care to remain unseen. Slowing to a trot in the deserted side-street, he darted to the left wall when he spotted five equestrian soldiers up ahead. Their backs were towards him while they focused on the griffons, but he didn’t want to risk it. Instead, he flapped his feathered wings as quietly as he could manage and gently flew up towards a balcony just ahead of him.

Softly landing next to a flower-pot, he glanced at the curtain-covered glass door and hoped that the adjacent room was either empty or that any occupants would continue to sleep. Peering out over the edge, he managed to catch some legible words thanks to his closer proximity to the griffons.

“-telling you that this is the real Crystal Heart! Look you stupid pony, I’ve lost much of my soldiers thanks to your treacherous politicians in Canterlot and I intend to get something out of it!”

There was more uproar, Equestrian guards and griffons shouting at each other once again. Buzz’s heart jolted when someone else landed on the balcony behind him, before he felt Shill’s familiar presence over the hive link.

‘It’s just me,’ he heard in his head. His fellow moved to crouch alongside him. ‘What’s happening?’

‘So far it seems like these griffons have stolen the Crystal Heart and are trying to convince the Equestrians that it’s the real one.’

‘Is it the real one?’

‘It sure looks real to me,’ he replied, before he stared at the Heart. The gem had caught more than just his attention, the ponies and griffons also ceasing their arguments and looking towards it as a soft blue glow lit it up. Buzz froze when he felt a brief burst of energy from it, before the glow died out to leave a dull crystal once more.

‘Yeah, that’s the real one, all right.’

Guessing that Shill had felt it too, Buzz watched two unicorn guards take the gem from the apparent griffon leader. It was placed down upon a table belonging to the nearby cafe, one guard keeping an eye on it while the other returned to watching the griffons.

He didn’t know what to do. Making a move on the gem would certainly blow their cover, but they couldn’t just stand by and let it be bartered away by some griffons.

‘We could always gather the others and attempt to steal it back during transport. There would be less guards, we could easily overtake any convoy, and it’d likely be the most successful plan. Then, we’d all have to return to the Crystal Empire immediately in case the Equestrians take the opportunity to attack.’ He grimaced at the odds. ‘What do you think, Shill?’

There was no response, Buzz turning around to see that his comrade was no longer there.


Touching down upon the street, Raindrops eyed the mass of guards ahead of her.

She crept forwards, sticking to the shadows with the hope that her dark blue coat would help her stay out of sight. Keeping her hooffalls quiet, she stalked towards the table that contained the Crystal Heart while maintaining careful watch over the ponies and griffons while they continued to argue with each other.

A single guard was overlooking the Heart, a young pegasus stallion who was obviously far more concerned with being shanked by a griffon to properly pay attention to the dull gem. He had his back towards the table, Shill almost scoffing at how safe the Equestrians assumed it was.

‘Shill, what are you thinking!?’

She ignored Buzz, knowing that he’d just try to stop her. Continuing to sneak forwards, she came within just a few body-lengths of the table. Up ahead, three of the griffons started to make threatening gestures towards the guards corralling them. It was a needed distraction, the guard before her starting forwards to assist in quelling the unrest.

‘Shill, stop. Now is not the time.’

‘We have no choice,’ she thought back. ‘If the Heart is stolen then we’ll be under Equestria’s command once again!’

Thinking of all of the ones relying on her back home, crystal ponies and changelings alike, she took a deep breath and reached out with her wings. Grasping the gem in her feathers, she grunted at how heavy it was. Straining, she struggled to bring it towards herself and finally managed to remove it from the table.

Shill stared at the Crystal Heart, the gem held tightly with her borrowed wings.

She’d done it.

Looking up, she started to back away from all of the commotion.

Not a single soul had noticed.

Turning around, she began to quickly trot and then gallop down the street, a giddy grin forming when she realised that there was no sound of armoured hooves pursuing her.
‘I’ve done it!’ she thought out loud, ducking around a corner with the rear entrance to the side street that Buzz was hiding in her goal. ‘I’ve got the Heart!’

‘I saw,’ Buzz congratulated. ‘I can’t believe that you just trotted up and took it!’

Shill felt a surge of pride at his words. ‘I’ll make my way around to you.’

‘No, don’t. Take the gem to the first exfile point and wait for me. The Equestrians will be scouring the entire town once they realise what’s happened, so I have to order the others to leave. We’ll make our way back to the Crystal Empire via Hoofsdale.’

‘Sounds like a plan,’ she thought back, skidding around another corner. Back from the street with the café, she could hear numerous shouts of alarm rise up. ‘Uh oh…’

‘We’re out of time, run!’

Shill drove herself forwards even harder, her hooves beating a furious pace upon the road. Panting, she ignored the fatigue and pressed on, knowing that she held the fate of the Empire in her wings. There was a measure of fear at being caught, but she squashed it down and used it to provide a massive boost of motivation instead.

She was so close, the sounds of the searching guards getting fainter and fainter.

Until she heard it.

“Stop! Thief!”

Looking back behind her, Shill’s breath caught when she spotted the three large griffons pursuing her at a fast pace. The gap was rapidly closing, the heavy armour on the large apex predators not even seeming to slow them down.

‘Shill? What was-‘

‘I’m sorry, get the others to safety and apologise to the Emperor for me,’ was all she had time to reply. A sharp blow to the back of her head halted her escape then and there, Shill thankfully passing out before she tripped over her own hooves and came crashing down upon the road.

Levigust pulled his fist back and relaxed his claws. Touching down onto the road with Clawigula and Swiftius beside him, he glared at the unconscious pegasus that was still cradling the gem in her wings. Taking note of the green blood that was oozing out of the many small cuts in the fur, he distastefully gave the fallen creature a poke with his left talon.

A flash of green magic flared up, revealing the true form just as the first waves of Equestrian guards caught up with them.

“Of course this place is infested with changelings,” he growled, soon surrounded by Equestrian guards. “Typical Equestrian security.” Before any could beat him to it, he picked up the crystal from the ground and passed it to Swiftius. “Do not repeat their mistakes, from now on that gem doesn’t leave your talons until I say otherwise.”

Swiftius nodded, Levigust stepping back just in time when two unicorns rushed past him. Both went for the changeling, the first keeping a close eye on it while the second put his ear to a chitin-covered chest.

“It’s still breathing,” the guard stated with a nod to his colleague. “Get some chains.”


Both looked towards him, Levigust pointing a claw towards the changeling. “It’s my prisoner, the same situation as my gem.”

“I think not, Griffon.”

Scowling, he turned around to face the pony Lieutenant who was named ‘Stampson’. The prissy unicorn daintily trotted up to him, meeting his gaze with the cold distain of a noble looking upon a peasant.

“They are mine,” Levigust argued back. “If you want them, you give us the payment owed to us as well as that weasly bureaucrat that got my soldiers killed! Good help doesn’t come easy, you know!”

“I am not in the position to pay you anything, let alone-“

“Then take me to your thrice-dammed Princesses then!”

The stare from Stampson turned into a glare. “You will not refer to either Princess Celestia, nor Luna, like that ever again.” Levigust stepped towards the pony. The other guards around the Lieutenant jolted back, but surprisingly Stampson stood his ground.

“Make me.”

Stampson’s glare never wavered.

“I have enough soldiers to arrest you all right now,” the Lieutenant calmly replied. “I’m sure the Griffon Emperor would be very interested to receive you back in his talons, considering your attire and apparent career choice.” Levigust followed Stampson’s eyes, the pony pointedly glancing at the laurel wreath symbol of the Griffon army.

“Go ahead and try it.”

“Ha, such fire!” Stampson scoffed and moved back. “No, honestly I would prefer to see you properly reimbursed for your troubles. After all, you have brought us the legitimate Crystal Heart and aided in the apprehension of a spy.”

Levigust raised an eye. “So, you’ll meet our demands?”

“I can’t, but I’m sure the Princesses can. That gem,” Levigust glanced to the crystal that Swiftius held tight. “Is exactly what we need at this current time. I’m sure that Princess Celestia would be more than happy to work out a deal for it.”

“I’m sure she can.” Relaxing slightly, Levigust pointed towards the changeling. “And the spy?”

“We’ll be more than happy to provide transport for it,” Stampson smiled. “After all, I’m sure it will prove to be good value to you… and to us.”

A cold wind blew through the valley, Lieutenant Enigma wincing at the chill while he continued to trot towards the Lead Researcher’s tent. His armour helped keep him warm, but it was his exposed snout that was the real problem. The cold irritated the scar that made up a large part of his face, Enigma resisting the urge to scratch it.

Plodding along, he passed a group of five changelings that swung left to give him a wide berth. Enigma smirked to himself at their efforts, the Queen’s attempted rebellion having died a very swift death once she had confronted the human that he himself was now seeking an audience with.

Moving up towards the tent, he paused at the entrance. From within came a clink and a brief burst of laughter, Enigma doing the polite thing and clearing his throat.

“Hello, Lead Researcher? I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have an urgent message from the Crystal Empire.”

There was a brief moment before the human’s voice raised in reply. “Ah, very good. Come in, Lieutenant, we’re just having tea.”

’‘We’re’?’ he thought, moving through the tent flap. After making sure that it was closed behind him, and taking a second to sigh happily at the welcomed warmth, he turned around to see just what was going on.

He had to admit, it was far from what he had been expecting.

A steaming kettle sat upon the top of a glowing orange cube in the middle of the room. Also on the table along with it was numerous containers and spoons, their contents a mystery. At opposite ends of the small round table sat the Lead Researcher and the Queen, Elijah daintily sipping from a tea cup while Chrysalis held hers in her magical field.
“Ah, Lieutenant,” Elijah greeted. “Come, sit down and join us for tea! The Queen and myself are spending this wonderful morning discussing the plans for the future, isn’t that right?”

Chrysalis jolted in her seat, Enigma noticing her tea cup shake in her magical grip.

“Y-yes,” she nodded, lacking all trace of venom in her voice. “It’s a… wonderful morning.”

Enigma raised an eye but didn’t point out her odd behavior. Instead, he moved towards the offered fold-out seat and took it. The Lead Researcher passed a plain white tea cup towards him, the steamy brown liquid within not exactly appealing.


“No, thank you,” he replied with the hopes of getting the meeting over quickly. “It’s fine as is.” Taking a sip, he managed to resist wincing at the taste. “Sir, we do have a problem we need to talk about.”

Elijah raised his eyebrows. “But Lieutenant, I assure you that Chrysalis here has promised to be on her best behavior.”

“…I’m sure she has,” Enigma answered after a hesitant look towards the silent queen. Putting his tea cup down, he took a breath. “But, I’m afraid that it’s more than her…” he glanced at Chrysalis again. “Ah, ‘grievance-solving’ attempts.”

“It was dead then alive again…” was all Chrysalis murmured to herself Enigma doing a double take.

‘Wait… what did I miss?’

When the Queen took a long draught of her tea, he decided to just push the unanswered question out of his mind. “What I mean, Lead Researcher, is that I’ve just received news from a Crystal Empire messenger. The city was attacked by a mercenary force and, while they were beaten back, some of the surviving attackers managed to steal the Crystal Heart while the guards were occupied with the fighting.”

“Well,” Elijah muttered. “That is a rather concerning set-back.”

“Correct, and to make matters worse the Emperor has made plans to attack Equestria within the week.”


Both looked towards Chrysalis, the Queen actually seeming to brighten.


“Ha!” she laughed, a wicked grin crossing her features. “Maybe he is not as stupid as I thought!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t count on that.” Elijah’s slight smile grew while Chrysalis halted her laughing and shrunk in her seat under his gaze. “Nigel is… a rather impulsive individual. I very much doubt that he has acted with much thought unto the matter.” He paused to take another sip of tea. “Take for instance his acquiring of the title of ‘Emperor’, his rather unusual choice to marry a member of a non-aligned species, his general timing, and now this spat of his with Equestria.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a ‘spat’,” Enigma cautiously corrected. “There is some heated history surrounding it, after all.”

“Regardless,” dismissed Elijah with a hand wave. “Compared to the usual business we deal with, it seems far more like a personal issue to me. However, he theft of the Heart is rather concerning, when you consider its effects and the resulting loss of such. What else accompanied this news, I’m assuming that a request for more supplies was attached?”
Enigma winced. “Not quite. Due to the plans to march out, the Emperor has ordered that we send back half of our soldiers in order to bolster the defences of the city. Of course I intend to refuse, given the recent attempts-“

“Send them back,” Elijah interrupted with a hum.

“Sir?” Enigma tilted his head.

“We will have more than enough troops, Lieutenant. The majority of the changelings have settled in and have already begun work in the mines, we have ample supplies of food, our location makes it easy to defend from any external threats, and any internal disorder has been… rather mute since I had my talk with the Queen.”

Enigma glanced at Chrysalis, the Queen keeping quiet with her head bowed.

“I can assure you that she’s no longer a threat to our plans or the future of your race. Queen Chrysalis has proved to be rather pleasant company and I’m actually considering allowing her some additional privileges in return for her promised cooperation with our efforts.” Elijah smiled warmly at Chrysalis, who only shrunk further. “Isn’t that right? You’ve been very cooperative.”

Chrysalis’ cup was shaking in her grasp. “O-of course,” she answered, avoiding eye contact with the human. “I only want the best for my subjects and… the Crystal Empire means us well.” Then, her gaze was turned to him. “I’m…”

“Your Majesty…” Elijah prompted when she hesitated. Enigma caught the brief flash of green that flared up from a finger. “Do go on, I’m sure you remember our previous talk?”

“I’m sorry for my behavior and attempts to take over,” Chrysalis rushed out as if a knife was held to her throat. “I was rude to you and treated you and everyone else like an inferior. All I desire is for you all to be happy and safe, and that’s why I’m deciding to help the Crystal Empire.”

The green glow died out, Chrysalis visibly giving a sigh of relief.

“Very good,” Elijah praised. “Nice behavior and politeness when talking to other changelings is wonderful, and so good to see from you. We’ve got some work to do, but improvement is certainly possible.” Enigma had so many questions he both wanted and feared to ask, but had no chance to think further before attention was once again paid to him. “Is that all, Lieutenant?”

“There is one thing,” he began to answer, wise enough to not argue the human’s decision. “Are you not leaving to lend assistance? Equestria is powerful, especially in the field of magic.”

“I would love to,” sighed Elijah with a nod. “There would be so much to learn, as well as tracking down Rainbow Horse…” he seemed to drift off for a few seconds, before he shook his head. “But alas, I have responsibilities here. If Nigel required my presence then he would have requested it, as it is it seems that he believes himself capable of handling it himself.” There was a shrug. “Besides, he still has your comrades at his side, and both Orthodox and James are more than proficient with causing carnage on, and off, the battlefield.”

When Elijah started refilling his cup with more tea, before doing the same for Chrysalis, Enigma took it as a sign that the meeting was over. Pushing his barely-touched cup away, he forced a smile and nodded. “Very well, I’ll organise for the troops to leave and oversee the preparations.” Leaving the seat and standing up, he saluted the both of them before making to leave.

“Very good,” Elijah spoke from behind him. “Oh, one more thing…”

Enigma paused and turned. “Sir?”

“You don’t need to drink tea if you don’t like it.” Elijah took a sip of his own, his eyes never leaving him. “It’s hardly something I’d kill for.”

Chrysalis choking mid-mouthful provided the distraction needed. While Elijah was busy fussing over her with a napkin, Enigma took the chance and hastily made his way out through the tent flaps and into the freedom offered by the outside.

‘I actually feel sorry for her,’ he thought, rather keen to occupy himself far away from the large tent.

“There, all clean. Next time, remember that the tea goes inside and not out.”

Elijah pulled away, all remains of the tea that had spluttered onto Chrysalis’ front gone. Tossing the napkin aside, he picked up his own cup. While Chrysalis was trying very hard to keep herself calm and regain control of her breathing, he chuckled lightly.

“Ah, that was quite the spot of fun that the dear Lieutenant afforded us, was it not?”

Chrysalis glared at him in response, Elijah’s smile never wavering.

“Oh, cheer up Chrysalis. No one likes a sour puss.”

Nigel paced around outside, the soldiers around him occasionally glancing at him with worry.

“I’ll show them,” he muttered, swinging his mace at an innocent sapling that was already dying from the cold. “Try and ruin my Empire…”

The wood shattered under the weight of the mace, frozen leafs falling onto the snow-dusted ground. They were soon crushed under his steel boot, and he glared at the metaphor he saw.

‘Just beginning to get going, and then of course it just has to go wrong.’

He resumed his pacing, glancing up at the sound of clanking metal.

A detachment of a hundred assorted guards was filing onto the rally field. There were five large wagons amongst them, the covered and steel-plated carts loaded with boxes of crossbow bolts, extra weapons, armour, food, love-gems, medical supplies, and water. Behind them he could see another group of wagons, no doubt also filled with the much needed supplies for an army.

Captain Strategy hadn’t been very happy with his plan, but Nigel couldn’t fault the stallion’s ability to organise an army in outstanding time.

Already the field was filled with close to a thousand soldiers and twenty ballista, more than enough force to crush whatever measly troops Equestria had to offer. All he had to do was wait until his extra defenders arrived from the changeling camp, a compromise he’d worked out with Strategy.

‘It’s been a day since I sent that messenger,’ he grumbled quietly. ‘Surely it doesn’t take that long.’

Troops continued to fill the field, joining in with the training drills already being conducted. Halberds and swords were being sharpened, armour was cleaned, marches were taking place, and to the far left squads were practicing the proven ‘ruby’ formation, with changeling troops firing from behind a wall of halberds at some very unfortunate snow-bags.

The air was filled with energy, far from the peaceful effects of the Crystal Heart. Changeling, crystal pony, and livid human alike were ready for the trails to come. They were finally striking back at the foe they all despised, and for the first time in two days Nigel actually cracked a smile.

They were ready.

“Emperor, I’m sorry.”

Nigel turned towards the male voice, and he spotted a crystal pony guard and a fully-armoured changeling trotting towards from the direction of the city. The changeling looked a little unsteady, the soldier accompanying it occasionally glancing back.

“Sorry for what?” he asked, smile evaporating. Staring at the guard, perhaps more than needed, he frowned when the changeling almost tripped over. “Is that soldier drunk on the job or something?”

“Uh…” the young crystal stallion begun, stopping just before him and seeming to shrink down. “It’s not… I mean…”

It was then that the changeling lifted the helmet visor, Nigel sighing when he recognised her.

“Don’t be so mean to Private Shale, I ordered him to help me.” She grinned, giving a very awkward spin. “So, how do I look?”

He met her smile with a deadpan stare, already guessing as to what she was planning. “No.”

Momentarily taken aback, Reflection quickly recovered and nodded at the private who had assisted her. “Thank you soldier, if you could just leave us.”

“Certainly, Empress,” Shale rushed out, snapping off a salute before briskly trotting towards the rest of the soldiers. Reflection waited until he was out of earshot before continuing.

“I’m not arguing this with you. If you’re going to go off and fight then I intend to be at your side through it all. I am not, Nigel, going to sit back while you get banished again or worse.” She hardened her stare. “I made some stupid decisions in that prison cell thanks to it, and I’m not going to take no for an answer.”

“You are not going to go, it’s too-“

“Dangerous?” Reflection rolled her eyes. “You don’t think I don’t know that? I’m ready, and as long as it’s with you then I’m ready for whatever danger awaits.” She gave a pointed glance downwards to herself. “I had Iron give me some fitted armour, I know how to remove it and put it on, and one of the guards even gave me a basic lesson about swords.” Another glance, this time to the sword sheathed at her side. “Adding to that, I’ve been taking lessons from the soldiers on how to use my magic offensively.”

“How?” Nigel remained firm, not wanting to give in to her demands. While she was determined and he was admittedly not thinking straight, it was too much risk.

Somehow, judging from the look in her eyes, even he doubted that he’d win this one.

Reflection maintained her glare. “In my spare time when you were away doing Emperor things. After I’d gone out to talk to our subjects, I’d always head out to the training area for changeling magic. The Sergeants taught me how to focus, hence why I can do this.”

With that as the only warning, she turned to the left and aimed her horn at the ground. A sharp crack rang out, drawing the attention of several soldiers, as a fizzling green bolt shot from the horn to obliterate a circle of snow. Nigel stared at the head-sized hole she had made, blackened ground visible amongst the melted snow.

“See? I can defend myself easily enough.”

Looking back from the hole towards her, he shook his head. “An enemy soldier is very different from the ground, Reflection.”

“I don’t care,” she growled. “I’m going. If you don’t want me going with you then I’ll just wait until the army leaves then follow.” It was another stare off, Reflection adjusting her stance while Nigel glared at her. Her return gaze was equally stubborn, the two not speaking for a while before Nigel snorted and broke eye contact.

“Fine, do what you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned and stormed off towards a gathering of army officers, the clanking of metal that followed him an obvious indicator of Reflection’s decision. Nigel scowled, his frustration at the current circumstances burying the pride that he had secretly felt over her choice to stay with him despite the danger.

Still, he refused to acknowledge her all the way to the officers, the five crystal ponies and four changelings hurriedly saluting once they had noticed his presence. Strategy was also there, however the Captain was too busy examining a map on a small, portable table to either notice… or care.

The officers, Nigel currently being unable to remember their names, all radiated unease while his gaze scanned them.

“Soldiers,” he greeted sternly. “The reason for this chit-chat?”

“I’m going over our plans with them,” Strategy spoke up, not taking his eyes off of the map.. “We need all of the help we can get, after all.”

“We have plans?” Reflection asked, trotting up to peer at the map. Strategy turned to her, paused for a second, then just shook his head before looking back at the map.
“Aside from ‘attack and hope for the best’? Not a chance.”

Before Nigel even had a chance to defend his strategic genius, a flurry of activity from the left of them drew their attention. Even Strategy looked over when a mixed group of guards raced towards them with the upmost urgency.

“Emperor! Captain!” the guard at the lead shouted over the clattering of metal. Nigel shared a look with Strategy, before moving forwards to meet the oncoming group. Reflection followed behind, leaving the ten officers behind at the map.

“What is it?” he asked, momentarily forgetting his anger. At his words, an unarmored changeling pushed his way through and bowed.

“I’m so sorry, Emperor, but I bring terrible news.” Nigel didn’t say anything, the changeling resuming after a pause. “I’m in charge of the infiltrators assigned to watch over the pony border town. Last night a large number of griffons landed and were involved in an argument with the equestrian guards. These griffons had the Crystal Heart in their possession.”

“So they did go that way…” Strategy murmured, Nigel neglecting to gloat about being right at the current moment.

“One of my subordinates, and the soldier I was partnered up with, attempted to retrieve the Heart while our enemies were distracting each other.” The changeling winced. “Unfortunately, she has been captured and was taken away in a chariot by the Equestrians. They also took the Crystal Heart and the Griffons, with Canterlot being their destination.” Once again the spy paused, awaiting a reply.

‘Damn,’ Nigel thought to himself while maintaining an even gaze. ‘Canterlot, that certainly complicates matters. Those princesses have us by the balls, so we need to stack the decks.’

“So, you didn’t go after your comrade to save her?” he inquired, frowning slightly.

The changeling shook his head. “No Emperor. Believe me, I would gladly have attempted a rescue, but I was unable to do so at the time.” Shuffling, he shifted so that the cloth bag he was carrying fell to the snow. His horn lit up and five scrolls of parchment floated out from the top. “I had an obligation to ensure the rest of the recon team managed to get out, a choice I’m sure was correct considering how the Equestrians began to search for more changelings. In addition, this information had to be safeguarded.”

Snatching the first scroll from the magical grip, Chalmers unfurled it with a scowl. His eyes went over the details listed down, accompanied by a sketchy map with numerous areas circled. Numbers were placed next to dates, the last one being two-thousand and twelve.

“Troop movements, garrisons, and an approximant number,” explained the spy. “As you can see, Sir, the Equestrians have been steadily building up their troops.”
The second and third scrolls were also snared and examined, Nigel pursing his lips while everyone watching awaited his commentary. Then, after a few minutes, he calmly rolled the scrolls back up and returned them to the provider.

“You did well,” he finally acknowledged with a nod. “The capture of one of our soldiers is a blow, as is the continued theft of the Heart, but all is not lost. The information that you and you’re team has retrieved will serve us well.” Nigel then turned and started to walk off towards the main army, a slight smile on his face.

“Emperor, what are we to do?” Strategy enquired from behind.

“It’s simple, we attack them at once.”

He ignored the murmurs while he continued to walk away, the clanking of Reflection’s armour soon starting up to follow him once more.

‘Yes, and after we take that town, we’ll have hundreds of bargaining chips that Celestia and Luna will be completely unable to ignore…’

Chalmers chuckled at the thought, secure in the knowledge that this plan had no possibility of failing at all.

‘It shall be glorious.’

Celestia stared at the excited guard-stallion in front of her. A small smile was on her face while she nodded silently and took a sip of tea.

‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck-‘

“I see,” she nodded again, taking a gulp of tea. “So, we have the Crystal Heart in our possession then?”

“Yes, Princess,” the Sergeant replied. “The mercenaries that retrieved it are currently still in the courtyard guarding it, although they are demanding that we pay them a hefty sum if we wish to keep it.”

‘I don’t want to keep it. I want that thing as far away from Equestria as possible.’

“And if we don’t pay?”

‘Not that we really can, with the treasury practically empty.’

“Then they claim that they will take their prize and sell it to the next bidder. Their leader believes that such a large and unusual gem will fetch a pretty price on the open market, and from what I can gather he is convinced that he is owed for his troubles either way.”

“Then he’s a fool,” Celestia accidently muttered out-loud, the guard tilting his head at her.


Sighing, Celestia placed her teacup down on the table beside her throne. “It’s like this, my little pony. The Emperor of the Crystal Empire is not going to be happy that we are suddenly in possession of the artifact that means so much to his people. Since the mercenaries have brought it here first, it will appear to an outside observer that we in fact hired them for the task.”

“But, Princess, forgive me for the question. Isn’t having the Crystal Heart a good thing for us? We could use it to force their surrender, or even maintain some sort of control over them.”

“Out of the question. It was those lines of thinking, and the mistakes made because of them, that led to this situation in the first place.” Pausing to calm herself before she showed any emotion that would panic the guard, she refocused on him. “Besides, that plan may work against a rational enemy, but the Emperor is currently far from rational.” Tapping a hoof against the throne, Celestia sighed. “Still, I suppose that the effort in securing the Heart deserves some commendation. Please, send in the mercenary leader so I may speak to him.”

“As you wish.”

While the guard trotted off, Celestia frowned and concentrated on her breathing.

‘Such a horrid turn of events, this will bring the Crystal Empire to our door for sure. One can only hope that the Emperor does not hastily make a decision that leads to all-out war.’

To be honest, she realised that it was a rather unlikely hope.

Her thinking was broken by the sound of hooves on stone approaching, Celestia glancing to the left to spot her sister yawning wide.

“Did I miss much?” Luna inquired, Celestia giving her an even look.

“Well, aside from the Crystal Heart sitting in our castle courtyard and the Crystal Empire about to declare all-out war, not much.”

“Ah, good.” It took Luna a few seconds to catch on, her eyes widening. “Wait… the Crystal Heart?” Celestia nodded. “Truly, sister? How in Tartarus-“

“Griffon mercenaries apparently attempting to sell it off,” she interrupted with a visible frown. Luna must have noticed.

“You care not for them?”

“I dislike the idea of mercenaries,” admitted Celestia, while Luna sat down in the throne beside her. “Creatures that provide violence in exchange for coin are dangerously close to criminals in my mind. There was mention of the griffon leader demanding compensation for some loss, so I doubt their acquisition of the Heart was peaceful.”

Luna shifted in her seat. “But, Sister, you cannot deny that such creatures often can prove useful.”

“True,” she conceded with a sigh. “But it is risky to put one’s trust in such dubious sources. Granted, they have delivered a great blow to the Crystal Empire and chose to offer us a chance to purchase an admittedly useful bargaining piece, but there is always the fact that a mercenary only obeys coin and nothing else. Currently, we want for wealth while the Crystal Empire has plenty.”

“You’re worried that the griffons may stray from our side if they are not compensated accordingly?”

“I am.”

“And that the Crystal Empire would have no qualms with hiring such unsavory characters?” Celestia nodded. In return, Luna hummed and sat back in her throne. “Well, then it seems obvious that we must out-bid the Crystal Empire, or at least convince these mercenaries that switching sides would prove less than ideal for them.”

‘If only it was so simple, Luna.’

Celestia had no time to word her thought correctly, before there was the clacking of armoured hooves and talons upon stone. From the main doors, five armed pegasus guards and three griffons entered the throne room in silence. Eying the newcomers, Celestia shifted in her seat and ensured that she re-enforced her calm demeanor.

While unarmed, she knew that griffons were dangerous creatures. Their natural claws were as deadly as any dagger, and the scars that adorned her guests hinted at a past where such natural tools were likely used. Each griffon had heavy iron breast-plates on, and her guards watched the mercs warily while simultaneously saluting.

“Princesses,” the guard Sergeant from earlier greeted. “The mercenaries, as you asked for.”

‘I believe I requested just the leader,’ she thought, the pegasi moving to the sides of the room. Eyeing the three griffons, she took note of their large frames and, more curiously, the defaced symbols of the Griffon Empire that adorned their armour.

“Princess Celestia,” greeted the middle griffon with a surprisingly graceful bow. “My name is Levigust, and I’ve been brought here by your guards in regards to the proposal I have.”

“As I’ve been told,” she replied with a nod and a smile. “I must say, it is a… interesting one.”

“We were surprised to hear of such an achievement,” Luna chimed in. “It mustn’t have been a simple task, to retrieve such an item from such a prepared city.”

Levigust frowned. “I lost over twenty-five of my troops, that crystal is all I have to show for it.”

That gave Celestia pause. ‘Twenty-five?’ It was a terrible number to think about, and evidently the question hit a nerve with the griffon leader.

“Yes, twenty-five of my griffons cut down in their prime for naught,” Levigust almost spat, the pegasi guards watching him with much care from the sides. The griffon’s narrowed eyes gazed first at Celestia, then rested on Luna. “All lost in an attempt to retrieve a princess that had already been rescued!”

She had to concentrate, only a slight eye twitch giving away her confusion. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Don’t give me that!” Levigust growled with a talon pointing right at her. The guards at the sides rested their wings on their weapons. “Your contact assured us that we would be paid the rest of our fee upon completion of our mission, from your treasury no less! So, imagine our surprise when the Princess your government hired us to rescue was already long gone!”

Things were going from bad to worse. With not much left to say, and still reeling from what had been said, Celestia gave Levigust a sympathetic look. “I understand your grievances, and I’m incredibly sorry for your loss, but I’m afraid…” she paused, glancing at her guards and back. “I’m afraid that I never authorised any such hiring or rescue attempt. Whoever you spoke to was acting on no authority of mine.”

Levigust took an enraged step forwards, the royal guards moving to combat him. He paused, however, although his talon was still outstretched.

“Lies! That’s impossible! Of course you had to… had to…”

He trailed off, Celestia sharing a glance with Luna. Levigust however was clenching and unclenching his talons, a deadly calm soon overtaking his features. “How could I have let that rat trick me so?” After the muttering and a few moments, he looked back up. “Well then, it seems as if I’ve been deceived by either yourself or your nobles. Given what I know of your… naivety, I doubt you’d have the cunning to betray me so.”

Celestia let the rather untruthful insult go, considering it seemed as if she had been given a way out.

“Fine,” Levigust stepped back, maintaining his calm façade. Celestia, however, could tell that inside he was seething with pure rage. “My offer still stands.”

Sighing, there was only one reply she could give.

“I’m sorry,” she apologised. “Despite what we stand to gain from such a transaction and my genuine wish to see you somewhat repaid for the deception you suffered, we are unable to pay any large amount at the current time.”

“Not able to pay?”

Celestia kept a close eye on Levigust, the griffon almost shaking on the spot while his eye twitched.

“I’m afraid so.”

There was no violent outburst like she, and evidently her guards judging by their ready stances, expected. Instead, Levigust merely spat on the floor in a severe show of disrespect and glared at her.

“Fine, have it your way, Celestia. We’ll take the Crystal Heart and prisoner, and sell them to whoever will pay us enough!”

“An unfortunate turn of events,” said Luna, her voiced tinged with a tone of warning. Celestia however was too taken-aback to even think ill of Levigust, her mind playing one of his words over and over again.

‘Wait… what prisoner?’

Chains clinked and the magical inhibitor tingled when Shill moved to adjust her spot on the cold grey stone. Sitting on the cell floor was far preferable in her mind, the harsh surface a better alternative than the simple bed of pokey straw. For the tenth time that hour she raised her foreleg to her head, rubbing the sore spot on the back of her head. Her hoof met bandages, either the Equestrians or Griffons at least having had enough compassion to bandage it up while she was unconscious.

For the hundredth time she examined her cell guards, two pegasi standing on each side of the cell door with two unicorns guarding her from the opposite wall. They had neglected to even try to communicate with her, but to be honest Shill didn’t really expect them to. It was an open-and-shut case, she was an enemy of their country and was not likely to be getting out of the cell anytime soon.

Once again, her eyes switched to staring at the simple water bowl at the side of the cell. The water within was fresh and clean, having been changed naught but an hour ago, but despite that and her growing thirst there was no way she was going to take a drink.

‘It’s probably drugged,’ she thought to herself, staring back at the cage bars. ‘Some attempt to get me to spill information. Well, water or no water, these ponies won’t be getting anything from me.’

Almost on que, her stomach growled. Shill scowled and tried to ignore it. ‘I won’t give in.’ She had left her supply of love-gems in the inn room, and that meant that there had been none for the Equestrians to bring back with her. She figured that she had about a week, two at tops, before starvation would begin to take a toll on her resolve.

“… although it’s said nothing at all. It’s just been sitting there.”

Shill’s ears pricked up at the approaching female voices.

“Well, Lieutenant, one can hardly expect casual conversation considering the circumstances. I trust that no harm has befallen the changeling?”

“No, Princess. Aside from the minor initial injuries sustained during the arrest, nothing at all.”

“Good, keep it that way. What do you think Luna?”

“Information is power, Sister. We should use this chance while we have it.”

The hoof steps drew closer, accompanied by an odd clacking sound.

“Good luck with that,” a single male voice huffed. “Judging from the way their guards fought us, and your own lack of spine when it comes to the violent side of conflict, you won’t be getting much out of it.”

“I assure you, Levigust, as Princess of the Night I am more than capable of interrogating a single changeling.”

With that, Shill looked up when her new visitors turned the corner to step in front of her cell. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw the Equestrian unicorn officer, the griffon mercenary leader, and not only one but two Equestrian princesses.

“So, this is the changeling,” Princess Luna scoffed. “Hardly a terrifying adversary.”

Shill elected to remain silent, merely staring right back at them.

“I don’t know if it’s a soldier or not, but I’m glad you have disabled the magic,” added Levigust with a glance towards her horn. “Do not underestimate them, Princess of the Night, I’ve seen soldiers lose half of their heads to changeling magic bolts.” At his words the pony lieutenant took a quick step back, and Luna remained stoic while Celestia leaned forwards.

“Very correct,” the sun princess murmured, before attempting a smile. “Hello there, changeling. Please, I do not wish you any harm. Could you please tell us your name so we may stop referring to you as ‘it’ in your presence?” Shill didn’t respond, Celestia nodding her head after a few moments. “I see. I’m saddened by your choice.”

“I can make her talk,” the griffon, Levigust, threatened.

‘Just you try it, feather-brain.’

“That will not be needed.” Celestia sighed, giving Levigust a side-ways look. “It…” the Princess paused to give her a quick examination. “She is safely secure in this cell, so there is no need for any unsavory actions.”

She is my prisoner, and if I wish to remove her from this cell that’s what I will do. I hear that certain parties are always interested in purchasing… exotic goods.”

The long, hard look that Celestia gave the griffon said more than any words, Levigust quickly shutting his beak.

“My Sister and I seek to remind you that such transactions are now strictly forbidden in Equestria,” Luna said with an even gaze. “One would do well to take heed of that, lest one finds himself on the same side of the bars as our current prisoner… except in a cell with only the darkness for company.”

Celestia made no move to counter her sister’s threat towards the mercenary, instead she merely smiled and refocused on Shill. “I doubt such occurrences will even happen, even less so if our guest eventually co-operates. So, let us try again. Changeling, what does the Emperor want?”

Shill turned her glare from Levigust towards Celestia, pursing her lips at the query. After all, it wasn’t really a secret…

“The Emperor wants what the Crystal Empire wants,” she replied even, noting a raised eyebrow from Luna. “He wants revenge for what you both did to him, revenge for what you both did to us the Crystal Empire, and he wants to make sure that nothing threatens the Crystal Empire again.”

Luna stepped forwards. “Does your Emperor want what the Empire wants, or do the crystal ponies and changelings merely think that they want what he wants?”

“The Crystal Empire was the happiest place I had ever known,” Shill bit back. “Was, before you and Celestia went and ruined it for us all. Now you’re faced with the consequences of your attempts to rule us, and it’s not going to be pretty.” She smirked at Celestia, crossing her forelegs in defiance. “You’re scared, aren’t you? You know that our army is better, and that the Emperor will know how to use it.”

“Are you scared, little changeling?” Luna narrowed her eyes. “You speak much ill against us, while locked in a cell far away from your armies and your Emperor.”

She didn’t let Luna’s veiled threat faze her. The chains clinked when she sat up straight and looked Luna right in the eyes.

“I’m not afraid of dying here, Princess. I don’t fear you, your sister, or whatever you can hope to do to me. I’ll die for my city if needed, and I’m ready to do that right now.”
There was silence for a long moment, even Levigust not speaking. It was broken by an unexpected and soft laugh from Celestia.

“And that’s the real problem, isn’t it?”

“Is something funny?” Shill hissed. Likewise, Luna and Levigust were also looking at Celestia in confusion.


The cell lock was unlatched by a golden glow, the barred door swinging open on perfectly oiled hinges. Shill held her ground when Celestia trotted in, the alicorn towering over her sitting form. Then, in a move that took even her by surprise, Celestia sat down upon the cold stone. The sun Princess didn’t even flinch when her rump touched the dusty floor, and she merely extended a shoed foreleg towards Shill. It was quickly withdrawn when fangs were bared in warning, Celestia sighing and shaking her head.

“You don’t understand, do you changeling? Your… death, and the death of any pony or changeling, is something I would deeply love to avoid. The very last thing I want is for you or your fellows to throw your lives away, and take the lives of my subjects, all over a matter that I desperately wish had never occurred.”

Shill snorted. “No, you just want to rule over us so we can be ‘good’ little ponies and changelings.”

“That’s not correct,” Celestia replied. “I admit that I once held that line of thought, and while I still believe your Emperor to be a danger to the safety of my subjects, I can see that what I did…” there was a pause, Shill noticing that Luna was staring at Celestia during it. “…was wrong. My decision created a rift between our two nations, a divide that grows ever wider as time passes.”

There was another sigh from Celestia.

“Please, all that I want is for our peoples to co-exist in harmony again like we used to. Back before I made that misguided decision to banish your Emperor and install an unpopular ruler in his place.” She straitened up. “But, I still do not accept that your Emperor’s attempted decision to butcher the fleeing elk was correct. However, I must admit that my judgement at the time was clouded by my own panic and horror.”

Shill made to interject, but Celestia beat her to it.

“A judgement that wasn’t mine to thrust upon your nation, I now admit.”

The trotting of armoured hooves interrupted the conversation, a single guard approaching Celestia from around the corner. Both princess looked towards him, but the solar guard predictably went for Celestia and stopped to whisper in her ear for a few moments.

The Sun Princess’s face fell, even her mane seeming to deflate. “How many dead?”

There was another set of whispers, Celestia relaxing somewhat. “I see, any signs of further attacks?” The guard shook his head, Celestia biting her lip. Then, the Princess looked towards Shill, her eyes suddenly lighting up. “Thank you Sergeant. My sister and I shall be back in the throne room to discuss our moves shortly. Please keep us informed of any other developments.”

Shill watched the guard stallion salute and leave as ordered, hope brewing deep within. From what she had gathered, some kind of attack had happened.

She’d happily bet her chitin that the Emperor had heard of her capture from Buzz, and was currently in the process of tearing Equestria apart to get both her and the Heart back.

Celestia appeared to have arrived at the same conclusion, however the warm smile was remarkably out of place.

“All of that time searching for a desperate spell, wasted,” Celestia softly chuckled.

“Sister, what do you mean?” inquired Luna with a tilt of her head.

“Can I have my prisoner already?” demanded Levigust, evidently annoyed enough to finally speak again.

They were both silenced when Celestia held up a foreleg.

“I have a solution that will benefit all parties involved,” Celestia started to answer. “It is admittedly based on the faint hope that Emperor Chalmers will even speak to me without attempting to take my life, but it seems to be the best and most bloodless way to end this conflict.”

“I don’t give a feather about your conflict, I just want-“

“You will get plenty of money as compensation if this works,” Celestia reassured. Shill remained silent, not liking where the conversation was going. “It’s a simple agreement that we must all reach. Luna, you and I will travel to meet with the Emperor in person, on behalf of Equestria. Levigust, you will also be present. With us shall be the Crystal Heart and the changeling before us.”

Luna raised an eye. “Sister, you don’t mean to…”

“In exchange for the return of the Crystal Heart, the changeling, and the withdrawal of Equestrian troops from the border, I will seek for the Crystal Empire to cease any hostility and sign a non-aggression pact with us. In addition, I will request that they adequately compensate the griffon mercenaries considering that the Crystal Heart and changeling were secured by them.”

“Pah!” Levigust laughed. “So your big plan is to use my goods to barter for your gain? You’re not well known for humor, Celestia, but this certainly seems like one big joke.” He snorted, talons clacking on the stone while he turned to leave. “I expect my prisoner to be released back into the custody of my troops within the hour. I might as well just sell them back to the Crystal myself, and leave you fools to get whatever comes to you.”

He began to walk away. Celestia merely sighed, and cleared her throat.

“Excuse me, Levigust, but how exactly do you plan to sell the Heart and changeling back to the Emperor?”

“Simple,” Levigust scoffed, having paused his exit. “I approach him as a mercenary, state my price which is well within his means to provide, and commence the transaction. If no deal is reached then I simply go elsewhere like I originally planned.”

Before he had the chance to turn away again, Celestia refocused on Shill. “Changeling, how would your Emperor react to such a proposal?”

Shill, already immersed in thinking about what Celestia had thought of, looked up. Hesitating, she glanced at the griffon. “When you took the Heart, did you kill any guards?”

Levigust shook his head. “No, we did not. I specifically ordered so that there was a chance of future employment with your nation.” Glancing towards Celestia and Luna then back, he scowled. “Some guards were injured, however that hardly makes up for the numbers that I lost.”

“Then the Emperor’s reaction will be to just kill you, then take the Heart,” Shill informed. “He’s a kind ruler, but as with the Elk and the Diamond Dogs, if you hurt any of us then he won’t hesitate in killing you.”

Celestia nodded, a knowing look in her eyes. “She tells the truth, I have seen such actions before.” The shudder that ran down her wasn’t missed by anyone. Levigust paused, before turning around to face Celestia once more.

“So, you are proposing to make the deal on my behalf, in exchange for adding in your own terms?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

Luna stepped into the cell. “Sister, while I admire your plan, there is one thing overlooked. How will we even get close to Emperor Chalmers without being placed in mortal danger? Their army possesses much in the way of combat magic and war machines, any Equestrian including us would be shot out of the sky long before our shouts for armistice would reach their ears.”

“We are lucky enough to have a messenger that will have no issue getting to the Emperor safely,” reassured Celestia, her focus going back on Shill. “That is, if she wishes to help us end the war before any more blood is needlessly spilt.”

Initially scowling at the way Celestia worded it, Shill thought the proposition over. While she doubted that the Emperor would accept a deal that essentially only returned stolen property and herself, she remembered when they weren’t at war and constantly fearful of an Equestrian attack.

‘Well,’ she thought to herself. ‘All that’s she asking me for is to request a meeting with the Emperor for her. That’s not too much to ask, is it?’

Five-O Clock

View Online

“Everyone to your posts!”

Major Rust jolted awake at a loud crash followed by the shout of one of his subordinates. He rolled off of the cot and landed on his hooves, having fallen asleep in his full armour. Only pausing to grab his short sword and his helmet from the plain wooden table, he rushed out of the room that had served as his accommodation for more than a month.

Descending the bakery’s steps, he gritted his teeth as he listened to yet more crashes and thumps. He could guess as to the cause, the Crystal Empire no doubt retaliating due to the capture of their spy.

“Damn fools,” he muttered, rushing out of the bakery-turned-makeshift-barracks. Rust emerged out onto the main street, squads of armed guards hurrying to their assigned posts with the clattering of metal. Pausing, he looked up just in time to see a giant red-tipped spear fly through the night sky with an eerie whistle. It passed out of view behind a row of buildings, before a loud cracking sound joined the panicked noise and a fiery glow sparked to life.

‘Seems like they’re not going easy,’ he thought with a grimace. Taking a moment to get his bearings straight, Rust headed for the south entrance while projectiles continued to rain down upon the city.

On the way he passed groups of terrified civilians fleeing in the opposite direction, guards escorting them towards the chariot landing grounds. Eying the hurried evacuations while he moved past, Rust resisted the urge to scoff.

‘They can’t say we didn’t warn them.’ A stallion with two foals on his back pushed past him, Rust not stopping to berate the pony. ‘They decided to not leave earlier with the others, so they’re no concern of mine.’

He had no time to worry himself over the civilians that had refused to leave despite his directions during the previous week. Right now he was mostly concerned with halting the Crystal Empire attack, and while the Princess had urged that the civilians were to be top priority during such an invasion, he only saw it as a waste of troops that he desperately needed at the frontlines.

Rust looked to his right, a fire blazing in a dress shop. Three guards were attempting in vain to put out the magical flames with buckets of water, but Rust could already see that the blaze was spreading to the stores on either side.

As if on que, overhead another volley of four bolts flew into the town. Multiple cracks rang out and the glow of fires increased, Rust gritting his teeth.

‘At this rate, we won’t even see the enemy before we burn! This is what happens when nobles get to decide if I need catapults or not!’

The courts had decided that their town only needed two catapults for defense, despite the confirmed reports that the Crystal Army possessed numerous ranged war-machines. The fact that incendiary bolts were hammering the town at the current moment only further drove the point home.

Rust could see the defensive line up ahead, and he headed towards the backs of the hundreds of guards. Spears were dug into the ground and unicorn horns charged, the soldiers standing firm for an attack despite the chaos that surrounded them.

Then, temporary salvation came in the form of a light blue bubble springing to life. The magical shield was just large enough to cover the entire town, two bolts hitting the defensive barrier and unleashing their magical payload harmlessly above them. Rust looked back towards the town, a steady glow coming from a group of four unicorns standing atop the highest building.

‘Mage Knights,’ he realised, relaxing somewhat. ‘Good, that will only better our chances.’

It was true, the elite cadre of unicorn guards a welcome addition to any fight. Top graduates of Celestia’s school for gifted unicorns, Rust had served alongside many a mage knight during brief clashes with rampaging monsters.

“Major, it’s good to see you safe!”

Rust returned his attention to the front, Lieutenant Stampson trotting out to meet him. “Quite, I must admit that I didn’t have a very appreciated wake-up.” Stampson didn’t even crack a smile, the Lieutenant only giving him a single nod. Sighing, Rust gestured towards the fires raging behind them. “How bad is it?”

“We managed to get a team of messengers away, and we’ve formed a capable battle line. There’s not much we can do about the fires, but I’ve got five squads working on it. All civilians have been accounted for, and we’re flying them away on chariots as fast as we’re able.”

“And the Crystal Empire forces?”

Stampson frowned. “Nothing but a few scouts we drove off with crossbow fire. Their artillery seems to be located behind that hill,” a hoof was pointed towards a far-off mound in the distance. “Which is very infuriating.” Almost on cue, there was a loud thwack from the left. A large rock shot towards the very hill mentioned, but it only fell short and smacked into the front face. Rust glared, almost envying the Crystal Empire’s weapons.

“They managed to hit a lot of our supply storages and the armory early on, almost as if they knew where to fire,” Stampson continued. “Now we’ve at least got the shield up, but I feel that if a siege were to happen then our chances of victory would be non-existent.”

Rust nodded. “They must have had more spies that managed to escape. Typical changelings, there’s never just one of them.” When no comment came from Stampson, he huffed and refocused on the hill. It appeared as if their enemies were biding their time to strike, even the number of magical bolts impacting against the shield slowly starting to lessen.

“I guess we just have to wait and watch for their next move,” he finished, sniffing at the harsh smell of smoke that was already starting to fill the air.

Reflection shifted in her armour, still staring out at the town they were attacking. Behind her, the artillery batteries were restocking their ammunition from the wooden carts and the soldiers were ranking up in preparation for an advance.

Although the bombardment had been stopped due to the shield, the destruction already done was chilling enough. The shield that had been formed kept in all of the smoke from the many out of control fires, the glow of the flames almost hidden by the murky darkness.

Footsteps behind her caused her to turn her head, Reflection watching Nigel warily while he approached to stand beside her.

“Enjoying the view?” inquired, the small smile he had on his face rather unsettling.

“It’s… certainly something,” she answered, looking back at the town.

“I did warn you, and if you don’t like it then you should have stayed in the city.”

Any trace of her unease vanished, and she frowned. “I’m fine. I’m just wondering why we don’t continue to attack. That shield can’t last forever.”

In reply he scoffed, glancing back at the soldiers behind them. “There’s a few reasons. One, it’s a waste of ammo. Two, we’re letting the fires spread for now. Why spend more time attacking when we can just let the blazes destroy our enemies’ defenses, numbers, and moral? Three, the crystal ponies have some sort of aversion to large bodies of smoke for some reason.”

“It’s because of Sombra.” Strategy trotted up to join them.

“How so?”

“He possessed the ability to turn to smoke, and would often use it to terrify those that displeased him. Every crystal pony alive can remember the stories of a thick cloud of black smoke snatching up ponies from their houses and taking them away forever.”

Reflection shuddered, despite not ever having met the before-mentioned tyrant. Nigel merely scoffed again.

“He didn’t turn to smoke when I saw him.”

Strategy rolled his eyes. “I doubt he expected some human to attack him with a table leg, either.” There was no response to that, Strategy refocusing on the town. “Back to the current matter, I’d prefer it if you’d allow me to resume the bombardment. The Equestrians could have sent for reinforcements, and I’d prefer to have the defenders in the town beaten before having to face a second force. With the shield up, any advance by our troops wouldn’t go very well.”

“I’d prefer to just let them burn,” muttered Nigel with a scowl.

Reflection noticed Strategy briefly close his eyes and take a breath, before the Captain nodded. “Fine, as you wish Emperor.” With that, he turned and trotted back to the main army, Reflection watching him leave while Nigel’s smirk grew.

‘I wonder what he’s up to?’

“You know, you guys really need to cheer up.”

Orthodox grinned while the crystal mare stared at him, the yellow pony leaning against the halberd that was dug into the ground.

“Why?” she replied with a lack of emotion. “The Heart’s gone.”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on,” he dismissed. “It’s just some crystal after all. Look at all of the flames!” The mare followed his armoured claw, looking out towards the fire-lit sky out in front. “We’re going to war, pony! Lovely, exciting, war! Just think of all of the fun and loot that is to be had in that town!”

The guard really didn’t seem that impressed, and she let out a sad sigh. “I don’t know. I just want for this to all be over so I can go home.”

Orthodox, halfway through a leap for joy, huffed and flicked his tail. So far all of the ponies he’d talked to had been completely sour, the equines moping about with the dull disinterest that was starting to test his patience.

‘But… war…’ he moped, frowning at the pony before moving on to the next guard in line. This soldier was armoured in snow-dusted steel, Orthodox perking up at the realisation that it was a changeling. They looked evil enough to spark a decent conversation.

“So, this upcoming battle…” he began, the bug-horse watching him warily. “You pumped? Good to go? Putting on the A-game? Ready to rumble? Itching for a lynching? Full steam ahead for a fun-filled session of pillaging?”

“N-no?” the changeling answered, glancing to the crystal pony for guidance. Orthodox glared.

“Why not, you’re a solider aren’t you?”

“Well, yes,” the bug-horse admitted. “But it doesn’t mean I have to look forward to fighting. I fought the Elk and I’m ready to fight Equestria, but a soldier shouldn’t aim to fight just so they can steal stuff.”

“Pfft,” Orthodox waved off with a hand. “Even you changelings are soft.” Frowning, he gave up on trying to get the guards to find some common ground and instead decided to bother Nigel.

‘Or Reflection,’ he thought to himself with a nod. ‘She’s always good for a laugh, and it’s bonus points if I can get Nigel to fight me over it.’

Humming to himself, he started to look around for the two ‘royals’ with mischief in mind. Unfortunately, his searching was halted when Captain Strategy stepped in front of him. “Excuse me, Agent Orthodox.”

Giving him a glance-over, Orthodox took note of the Captain’s equally dour look and expression. For once deciding to not make an insulting comment about how ‘strange’ the crystal ponies were acting, he merely crossed his armoured arms and glared. “What?”

“I need your help.”

“Not happening.” Orthodox smirked and turned away, but paused at Strategy’s next words.

“It involves war.”

That got his attention. He turned and smiled, tail flicking in anticipation. “Oh, in that case do go on.”

Strategy stared at him, before clearing his throat. “Look, I think you’re a violent, irresponsible, bloodthirsty monster-“

“Valid points.”

“-but I do admit that you have a specific skill set that can be useful. The Emperor is quite happy to just let the town burn-“

“He did always like fire…” Orthodox mumbled, Strategy narrowing his eyes at yet another interruption.

“Can you stop that? Anyway, I shed no tears for the Equestrians that threaten us so, but I don’t honestly think that we can win this war. They have vast magic and numbers on their side, as well as any allies they can muster. Therefore, I want this battle to end as quickly as possible.” Strategy paused. “That’s where you come in. I need that shield down and it must be a unicorn powering it.”

“Hold on a sec, you don’t want war but you need me to help you get into the town quicker?”

The Captain nodded. “That’s correct.”

“Ha!” Orthodox chortled. “You’re almost as bad as Chalmers. No wonder why he likes you so much!”

He didn’t notice Strategy’s face harden, the pony taking a step forwards. “Unlike the Emperor, I don’t think sacrificing a bunch of Equestrians that we could use to buy the Heart back with is a good idea. I don’t care about revenge, about humbling Celestia, about drowning Equestria in blood.” Another step forwards. “I care about my city, and while I can see why he wants the Princesses to suffer, I don’t share his desires. All I want is for the Heart to be back, that’s all.”

Orthodox stepped forwards as well, nearly staring at Strategy face-to-face. To the pony’s credit, he didn’t flinch.

“So, you want to capture the town, keep most of the ponies within it alive, then trade them back