or, The Pink Princess of the Palace With a Thousand Young
by Present Perfect
"I should probably tell you, seeing the baby might be a bit of a shock," Shining said before letting Twilight and her friends into the Royal Crystal Nursery. Twilight casually brushed Shining Armor's warning aside, as was her habit, with something glib about being the Princess of Babies.
Cadence sighed. There was just no living with that mare since she'd gotten her wings. Twilight used to be the sweetest little filly, even when she was studying in the School for Gifted Unicorns. Any other pony would have used a close relationship with... whoever her teacher had been as reason to brag, and many of her predecessors had done just that. But now that Twilight was a princess, everything was "friendship this" and "princess that", and she was just incorrigible.
But it wasn't like Cadence could help loving her sister-in-law despite those shortcomings. After all, she'd married Shining Armor to get closer to her. And anyway, what was likely to come next would doubtless be more taxing on all of them. Resigned in both spirit and drained, battered body, she closed her eyes, bowed her head, and stepped back to allow them entrance to the nursery.
A chorus of "Awww!" sounded from the six mares as they came upon the crib. The infant was swaddled crown to hooves in a blanket, after all, and peacefully sucking her hoof, the very picture of newborn adorableness. Cadence, knowing better, braced herself for the inevitable.
Sure enough, after a few more moments of cooing and gentle adoration, there came the sound of tearing cloth, and a pair of enormous wings sprang from the crib, accompanied by an equally oversized horn.
Pinkie Pie screamed. Her head began quickly rotating on her neck. Fluttershy's eyes rolled back as she gibbered in an ancient language lost to ponykind. Blood poured from Rainbow Dash's eyes, ears and nose, while a manic smile stretched tighter and tighter across her face. Rarity chipped a hoof. Beyond all explanation, Starlight Glimmer was oddly passive.
"Wow," said Twilight, immune to the infant princess's aura of unworldliness thanks to her own princess-ness. "Wow. I've princessed some babies in my day, but that is the princessiest baby I ever princessed."
"We stand 'pon thy left hoof, thou knowest," intoned Princess Luna. She was, of course, referring to herself in the Royal Plural. There might have been something next to her.
"Uh-huh," said Twilight, backing away from the crib. "Well, that was certainly... surprising!" She turned to Cadence with a thin, plastic grin. "What's its... I mean, her name?"
Oh shit. Panic welled in Cadence's chest. Name? You didn't name these things. They had names that were whispered in the etheric void between nowhere and nothingness, names that could not be printed lest they summon Great Old Ones to annihilate reality. A name for this creature would lay mountains low and drive the most stolid pony mage mad in a heartbeat with just the suggestion that someone might speak it. In hindsight, however, it had been a mistake not to come up with some kind of cover, if only to appease ponies like Twilight. Quickly, Cadence tried to make something up.
All she could think about was the fast food ice cream cravings she'd had while pregnant.
"Flurry!" The word tumbled from her mouth like drool off the lip of a brain-dead camel.
Stupid! That filly had nothing to do with snow! Sure, they lived in the middle of an arctic wasteland, but thanks to the Crystal Heart, the Empire never seemed like a waste. Plus, they made good ice cream. Twilight was still looking at her expectantly, with a half-smile on the verge of pity.
Eureka! The Crystal Heart!
"Heart!" Cadence barked, and the pity waned from Twilight's smile.
"Princess Flurry Heart?" Twilight repeated. "What an... unusual name! Ha ha!" She shook her head and looked at the filly. "Imma just call you Fluttershy Two, okay?"
The baby made no protest.
"Well," Twilight continued, gingerly patting the long, sharp horn, "that's enough babies for today. What do you girls say?"
They said very little, though at least the spinning and gibbering and bleeding had ceased. Three of the mares huddled in the corner, sobbing as Rarity stroked their manes and cooed softly in their ears. Only Starlight remained, staring impassively at the crib.
"Good!" Twilight trotted over to her friends and tapped Fluttershy on the head. That seemed to do the trick, as she and the others roused from their stupor, shaking their heads and blinking. They were, Cadence was pleased to see, none the worse for their ordeal. "C'mon, girls, let's get out of here. Thanks for letting us see your weird baby, Cadence!"
As they left, their chatter rang in her ears.
"That was crazy-go-nuts!" Pinkie said. "I don't remember seeing a baby at all!"
"I do," said Fluttershy softly. "At least, I think I do. I kind of feel my sanity slipping away when I try to remember."
"Maybe you should stop thinking about it, then," Starlight Glimmer said.
"An excellent idea, darling," said Rarity.
"Yeah, good one, Ess-Gee!" Rainbow Dash crowed. "You're a way better friend than old what's-her-name!"
Starlight growled. "If you don't want to find out how many ways I know to remove pegasus wings, you'll keep quiet about her!"
The talk faded away, and Cadence let out a breath. She glanced over at Princess Luna.
"Aye, verily we thank thee," she pronounced. "We shall keep in touch. Be mindful, Princess Miamore Cadenza!" With that, she faded into the shadows like a fart on the breeze.
Beside her, something that may or may not have been there stirred. After a moment, it was definitely no longer there. Cadence shivered, looking around for Shining Armor. He was nowhere to be seen.
"Probably drinking again," she mumbled to herself, moving to the crib and re-wrapping the newly christened Flurry Heart. The child gave her a look that said "mere cloth cannot contain my power". Cadence grimaced, grateful that her time had come to leave the nursery.
"Weird baby," she muttered under her breath. "If only Twilight knew..."
"Twelve!" the doctor said, holding the squalling bundle aloft in his magic. "I think that's the last of them. Congratulations, everypony!"
Cadence lay back on the birthing gurney, panting, her entire body drained of strength as though something had been sucking away her life essence for the last month. As it happened, that was not far from the truth. In her pain-addled state -- no amount of magical epidural could fully ease what she had undergone -- she could only wonder how the doctor was so blasé. He was nearly cheerful in his gross, willful ignorance of what had just occurred. Perhaps it was from having done this so many times. For her, certainly, it had never gotten easier.
"Good news, Cadie," Shining said softly from her side. He stroked her mane, smiling through his surgical mask. "There might actually be a good one in this batch."
"Finally." She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing.
The first time around, she'd given him the old "You did this to me!" line. But after the third clutch, she had to face the facts: being the Princess of Love came with some odd side-effects.
All of this had been tipped off with but one act. Oh, sure, she and Shining had made love plenty of times when they were young; their families were hardly conservative in that regard. But once they'd been married and the natural magics forestalling early pregnancy lifted, their initial consummation had unleashed a torrent neither of them had been prepared for.
"Are you ready to see them?" the nurse asked, her eyes soft and kind behind the mask.
Cadence cringed. She was never ready. But months of hiding constant pregnancy, non-obvious though it tended to be, and foaling from the world had taken their toll on her. That was why she and Shining had dropped the news on Twilight when they had. Hearing that one of them would be usable brought a sense of tremendous relief. Finally, they would have something to show for their year of suffering and heartache.
Cadence nodded, and the nurse wheeled her to the viewing area.
Long ago, she had stopped thinking of them as her children. The first time, she had been overwrought, struck through with a sense of loss and wrongness. Those couldn't be her foals! Certainly, few of them even looked like proper ponies, and the staff of the Royal Crystal Hospital had been sworn to highest secrecy about the circumstances of her unexpectedly early birth. As far as the Crystal Empire, or anypony outside of it, knew, Cadence had only been pregnant the standard amount of time and just given birth today.
She shuddered. One batch had been made of entirely black things. Others had had birth defects so severe, the creatures shouldn't have been able to live for as long they had. Gnashing teeth, tentacles in place of horns or wings, extra legs, body parts from other creatures: every horror imaginable, she had seen birthed from her womb. One particularly horrifying example had been misshapen as well as mismatched, a collection of bulging eyes, patches of differently colored fur and hairless skin, oversized hooves and flappy hands. What had happened to that one, she had no idea.
She shuddered again. She didn't like thinking about what they did with the creatures. The ones not locked in Tartarus, anyway.
"Here we are," said the nurse, her tone calm and even.
Cadence jostled a bit as the gurney came to a stop in front of a large plate-glass window. The observation room was in a sealed section of the hospital, along with the room she had birthed in, and the glass had been magically treated to prevent shattering. They'd learned that lesson the hard way, four birthings ago.
Shining Armor was there, doing his best not to look frazzled. These days, he could rarely hold it together while sober. He took her hoof and gave her as reassuring a smile as he could muster before they both turned to look through the glass.
Cadence wanted to throw up, and it wasn't just because of the drugs still coursing through her system. Maybe half of them looked like ponies; that was an improvement over the last event. The rest were slimy things covered in scales, many of which appeared to be rapidly decaying. The ones that were at least shaped like proper foals fared little better. One had too many eyes; another, too few. There was one without a head and one without a face. Another seemed like it might be what Shining had been talking about until it rolled over; Cadence felt the nausea rise anew as she glimpsed its back and had to turn away.
"Over there," Shining whispered, pointing to a single crib in the far corner of the room.
She looked, and for a tiny, fleeting moment, Cadence knew what it was like to be the proud new mother of a sweet little filly.
She was asleep, as most of the things were, sucking on a hoof that was neither misshapen nor pocked with sores. Cadence gave an involuntary gasp as she noted the angelic face. Tears sprang to her eyes.
She blinked them away as the nurse on duty undid the wrappings. With the filly's form fully on display, Cadence's heart sank.
"This is the best we can do?" The words fell from her lips like brittle paper into the ocean.
"It's not that bad, considering," Shining said, gripping her firmly. "Who knows? Maybe she'll grow into them."
"All right." Cadence let out a long, slow breath. "Tell the doctors to dispose of the others in the usual way. We'll take this one."
Shining gave her hoof a squeeze. "Do you think this will be the end?"
Cadence gave the filly a long, slow look. She thought back to foalsitting Twilight Sparkle, to seeing families with happy newborns lunching in the park. Maybe, just maybe, she and Shining could put on the proper faces and pretend that they were one of those happy families.
"I don't know." She turned away as the nurses began wheeling the other cribs out of the room.
Cadence stopped before a random door in the castle, trying to remember which room it led to. There were so many, and it was so hard to keep track of anything at all these days.
She leaned her forehead against the cool surface of the door, mindful of her horn. She really did hope this would be the last time, but there was no way to know for sure. It was the lack of knowing that got to her. The idea that she might have to go through this all over again...
Well, at least they got Flurry Heart, or Fluttershy Two -- whatever she was -- out of the ordeal, for whatever it was worth.
Cadence became aware of chanting within the room. It started out low, like the murmur of a quiet ritual but quickly rose to heights of crazed ecstasy.
"Shub! Shub! Shub!" The chanting reached a fever pitch.
Seized with the kind of insanity only being the mother of endless eldritch horrors can bring, Cadence gripped the handle and flung the door wide.
Upon seeing the room, something in Cadence broke. She stormed in and seized the crystal pegasus guard, who had been doing the chanting, in her magic, flinging him against the wall.
"How dare you!" she shouted, vision reddening around the edges, heartbeat pounding in her ears. "In my home? On the day of my daughter's wedding?!"
She went to lunge for the guard, but was held back by an aqua shimmer of magic, quickly joined by a pair of strong forelegs around her chest and neck.
"Cadie, you trippin'," Shining Armor slurred in her ear. "Calm the heck down, babe! What's wrong?"
With a cry of rage, Cadence ripped the guard's helmet from his head and smacked him with it. It clattered to the ground, but the guard only stammered, not meeting her gaze.
"By abolobeez, yah highbez."
Huffing and puffing, Cadence slowly regained her senses. "What did you say?"
Shining relaxed his grip, leaning down to nuzzle her cheek. "Glossy Gleam has a cold, Cadie. He can't say hardly anything right. He was just, y'know, urging me to chug my crystal beer."
Cadence's eyebrow raised. She looked from her husband to the endtable behind him, covered in empty crystal decanters, to the still-sheepish guard slumped against the wall. She noted the red rime around his eyes and the snot leaking from one side of his nose.
"You poor thing," she said calmly, stepping toward him and producing a hankie. "You've obviously got the Crystal Flu. Forgive me, Glossy Gleam. Lately, things have been... stressful."
"Doh deed, ya highbez." Glossy Gleam coughed pathetically, but took the hankie and blew his nose.
Something small and brown floated into Cadence's view, catching her attention.
"Why wait?" Shining said, wearing his winningest smile. "Grab this."
"What is it?" She glanced at the wrapper, but, never having been the best at reading upside-down, couldn't make heads or tails of it.
Said wrapper crinkled as it was removed by Shining's magic, and a brown, lumpy thing was revealed.
"Chocolate!" Cadence said, and jammed the whole thing in her mouth.
"You turn into a real ancient horror from beyond the stars when you're hungry," Shining said with a laugh as she chewed. He turned to the side, as if addressing someone invisible in the corner. "But with the energy-packed peanuts, caramel and nougat of a chocolatey Snickers™ bar, you'll feel like a princess again in no time!"
He winked. Cadence followed his gaze, but there was nothing there besides the decanters of crystal beer he hadn't yet drunk.
"Shining, who are you talking to?" she said, though with the Snickers™ in her mouth, it sounded more like "Finmg huh wuh tugguh puh?"
"Our corporate sponsors?" Shining shrugged. Somewhere in the distance, a cash register chimed.
Cadence swallowed. "You've been drinking again. You know I don't like it when you drink."
He shrugged. "There was an unknowable entity present in the Royal Crystal Nursery a couple hours ago, and the two-hundred-something-th spawn of my loins may or may not be a nameless harbinger of the end times. Why wouldn't I be drinking?" He giggled and hiccuped.
Cadence frowned. She turned to see how Glossy Gleam was doing, but he was nowhere to found. She sighed, sitting back on her haunches. How absolutely like a crystal pegasus: when the going got rough, he crystal flew away.
That night, the Royal Crystal Nursery was host to an intruder. When the lights were off and the Crystal Heir soundly asleep, a pink unicorn mare stole silently through the door. The only sign of her passing was the blue glow of the sound-dampening spell on her hooves.
She crept up to the crib in which the royal child slumbered, watching it with the same mild detachment she had earlier in the day. Her gaze roved over the infant: the pink coat, a shade lighter than hers; the horn, oversized for a baby, yet perfectly fitted to a grown mare; and the hair, in the same teal-and-purple as her own.
Her eyes grew hard.
"Tonight," Starlight Glimmer whispered, "the cycle ends."
Her heart stopped as the child's eyes popped open. She gazed into the creature's soul, a soul she knew all too well, and beheld the infinite blackness within.
"Mowe," the tiny filly said, and her mouth opened impossibly wide. A force like the vacuum of space tugged Starlight towards the crib.
But she had been prepared for this.
Frantically, Starlight used her horn as a loom shuttle, weaving together the threads of mana to counter the filly's preternatural powers. The suction grew, reversing direction. The filly's eyes widened as the lower half of her body was pulled into her own mouth.
"Flurry Heart!" Starlight shouted, heedless of who might hear. "Fluttershy Two! Names I cast off decades ago! Living in exile for ages, without family or friend, again and again trying to undo the very fabric of reality! At last, little pony, I have seen the light. On this night, our endless reign of terror is at last over!"
With a choked-off scream and a flash of light, the filly Flurry Heart vanished in her own spell.
Starlight hadn't planned for the spell to continue once the filly was gone, however. Tears tracked down her cheeks as she was pulled into the black hole churning above the crib. She threw every spell she could think of at it, but none had any effect. With a sob that was half laugh, she noticed her hooves were beginning to vanish as they scraped along the floor.
"Ah well," she said. "It seems I was doomed not to survive the night, either."
When at last she was devoured by the tear in reality, it closed with a burp and a ding. All was still in the Royal Crystal Nursery. Starlight Glimmer's betrayal and the princess-shaped hole it left in Equestria would not be discovered until morning.
Their corporate sponsors were gonna be so pissed.