The two enemies watched each other and neither of them was happy to be in this situation. Their eyes crossed and they knew that while the white alicorn would be content only by complete eradication of the other creature sitting at the table and said creature would be happy only if the alicorn was swinging upside down in a green feeding cocoon there wasn't going to be another chance like this.
Two quills eventually stopped scratching the parchment which was rolled up in a purple glow and levitated away by a purple alicorn smaller than the white one. Princess Celestia set her quill aside into an ink bottle and levitated her changeling counterpart's one into a hole in her chitinous foreleg where it stood, imitating Celestia's writing implement.
"Very funny," said queen Chrysalis in a voice capable of freezing the ink on the fresh peace treaty.
As much as she hated having to stoop this low she had to admit there was no other choice. In truth, there were more than enough choices starting with blowing up the stuck up alicorn's guard and turning her into a very nutritious dinner but none of them was safe enough to ensure survival of the scattered remains of her swarm. The only positive thing about current situation was that the last two hundred or so changelings wouldn't be hard to feed.
Princess Celestia was watching her foe. She wouldn't call the changeling queen a loser despite her situation. The strength and courage which changelings had shown in defending their territory against an overwhelming force rivaled that of Celestia's best warriors and their dedication to the queen made the solar princess just a little jealous.
"I apologize. There was no ill will in my little joke as I'm overjoyed by your decision. Changelings and ponies finally at peace. I'm sure you will be just as pleased to hear that my sister is working on a solution to your feeding issues which should suffice unless your population begins growing rapidly again."
Queen Chrysalis' ears twitched when she heard that. The one responsible for everything was just telling her that she would finally solve one of the problems she caused and was expecting thanks apparently. It was as one pony saying went though - beggars couldn't be choosers.
"I'm glad you're having your sister work on the problems you caused," Chrysalis said in a passive aggressive tone which would put a chineighese mother to shame.
The origin of changelings was supposed to be a secret but no matter how Chrysalis had found out there was no point in denying it so Celestia just nodded. She didn't like the stab at her younger sister but she could also see the queen's point of view. There was also a little lesson the queen might learn if she tried hard enough.
"As long as the problem is getting solved I'm happy."
The changeling queen scowled and let Celestia enjoy her moral victory. It's not as if she cared about the princess' feelings.
"Now for the other concern," began Chrysalis, "We need to keep an eye on something as powerful as the Elements of Harmony. My suggestion is to build trust by sending three Element bearers to live in my hive for some time so they can see our life with their own eyes."
Chrysalis wasn't expecting Celestia to approve of this and the entire proposal was meant to be dismissed so that her second one would be more likely to work. Unfortunately for her, Celestia had way more experience in diplomatic talks thanks to her visits to Saddle Arabia and her having to deal with Canterlot nobles on daily basis.
Princess Twilight interjected before Celestia could formulate a refusal which wouldn't sound inflexible.
"No way we're sending my friends into your underground prison," growled Twilight, remembering the time Chrysalis tried to take over Ponyville which almost caused her to lose her friends and her magic as well.
Chrysalis smiled on the inside, hotheads were always easy to manipulate. Hotheads who thought they were smarter than anypony else doubly so.
Celestia raised her hoof.
"I must, despite her choice of words, agree with Twilight. The bearers are normal ponies who have their lives which aren't connected to the crown and I have no right to order them to do such a thing. I understand your concern though and you have my word that the Elements will not be used against your nation under any circumstances."
The victorious expression of queen Chrysalis told Celestia that her student got her into hot water and that to continue this negotiation she would have to agree to whatever Chrysalis demanded next unless it was something completely preposterous.
"Trust is not easily given but must be earned," Chrysalis' pearly fangs reflected light straight at Twilight, "I can see that you care about your weapons deeply so all I ask is to have a chance to watch them closely."
"What do you mean?" asked Celestia. She was expecting Chrysalis to ask for territory or changeling presence in Equestrian politics and this was something that felt off.
"I want to station a unit of my best changelings near Ponyville."
"That seems... plausible," said Celestia in defeat, "How many changelings are we talking about?"
"What?" the sun princess continued. Nothing made sense. Such a small number was insufficient to take over Ponyville no matter the element of surprise or their combat prowess.
"They will, of course, have to feed but they will not have the permission to capture anypony. They will also require free access to the town," continues the queen, safe in knowledge that her plan would work.
"You can't be seriously considering this!" burst out Twilight, further lowering Celestia's chances of getting out of this as a winner.
"Calm down, my faithful student. If the queen ensures the safety of the citizens then I'm willing to trust her."
"None of the citizens will be harmed, they might just feel weak from time to time as a side effect of feeding. If they get caught outside and fed on then they will be delivered safely to their homes and my soldiers will not target young villagers."
There had to be a catch. Despite Twilight's interjections this all seemed too good to be true. Perhaps the changeling queen wasn't as good at negotiating things as Celestia believed her to be. Maybe she would be able to squeeze a bit more out of the deal.
"Would it be too much to ask if I could send over an overseer to live there stationed with your subjects?"
"Of course not," smiled Chrysalis, "Said subject would have to be experienced in being around changelings though. We wouldn't want a diplomatic incident to happen now, would we?"
There weren't any ponies of that sort. Despite it being an open secret that there were changelings living in Canterlot in disguise with their pony partners there wasn't a single one Celestia could think of that would fit the bill. Then it hit her that she underestimated the queen completely.
She leaned to Chrysalis.
"Alright, we both want this peace to last so who do you want there?" Celestia whispered.
"My my... where would be the fun in telling you?" whispered Chrysalis back, "It would be so much better if you and your precious little alicorn filly worked that out by yourselves. I think I've given you enough clues already."
Celestia's grinding of teeth stopped and her carefully practiced expression of peace and calm stopped the twitch in her eye. She was angry at Twilight for her interruptions. She was angry at Chrysalis for using her own hive as a bargaining chip and most of all she was angry at herself for making such a mistake.
"I agree to your blackmai- I mean your request but I will have to think about a suitable envoy."
"I'm sure you will find the best match possible. You wisdom and intelligence are unmatched, your Highness," hurled the grinning changeling more diplomatic insults at the royal sister.
With the diplomatic meeting over, the very polite, very peace-loving, and so very smug changeling queen left Canterlot to set things up. Princess Celestia, on the other hoof, kept trying to think about the right pony for the job which was difficult with the sound of her student's angry fuming and her pacing around the office.
"CRAP!" Celestia's hoof slammed the table, leaving a visible crack. Alicorn strength was something the usual furniture maker wasn't thinking about.
Twilight stopped, her eyes clearly wide from hearing her teacher use such language.
"Have you worked it out, princess?"
"I'm afraid I did. I would like you to give me your guess in case I'm wrong though."
It wouldn't have been Twilight if she didn't have a theory of her own.
"Well, there was the bronze-"
"Different one. Think about why Chrysalis said that it was up to me and YOU to find the answer."
Twilight kept thinking and suddenly her wing shot up with a *pomf* and launched one of ornate vases decorating the office at her mentor.
"EXCREMENT!" she exclaimed and proved she came to the same conclusion as Celestia.
"Cadence is going to hate this," both princesses agreed.
Princess Cadence was stomping angrily through the halls of Crystal Castle. Her husband was nowhere to be found and it had worried her at first but now she was just angry. It wasn't like Shining to wake up before her and she loved to lick his edible mud mask off him every morning.
She was pissed at the breakfast she had missed.
The Crystal Guard training grounds were devoid of her marefrie- husband and the guards themselves were of no help whatsoever... as usual. All of them were shining more than their armors, too bad they were completely useless as anything other than a decoration. Perhaps she should hang them all and use as disco balls.
"I swear that if you're locked in the bathroom again washing your mane I'll confiscate your supply of crystal berry shower gel," she muttered and one of the guards she passed snickered.
The snickering was stopped by a fiery glare from the princess.
Maybe she could show the entire guard Shining's crystal thong, that would teach him to hide from his wife. Despite the fact that it had been her who asked Shining to wear it that one time it wasn't her fault he enjoyed it so much and loved the feeling of silk on his... nevermind.
Should she make that a standard attire for the Crystal Guard?
Just the idea made her want to pull out one of the crystals in her special drawer. Let's say that the Crystal Heart wasn't the only magical crystal bodypart around. After rummaging through Shining's room she was resolved to ravage his crystal cavern for natural resources when she found him.
She loved her husband, she really did, but sometimes he was the sole reason her job was so difficult.
In the end she arrived in the armory from where loud clanking could be heard until the point of her actually opening the door. The dusty and rusty room was full of ponnequins wearing heavy platemails which were dissolving from disuse. A strand of blue mane was swinging from behind one of the statues.
"Shiny?" Cadence asked carefully.
The shaking pile of white fur with blue mane moved and crawled out of his hiding place in the knowledge his peace was over.
"What's going on, did the guards make fun of your combat bra idea again?"
Shining shook his head and presented the cause of all problems, a letter from Canterlot.
Reading every word very carefully, Cadence suddenly had a feeling that she needed to share a bit of questionable and downright forbidden love with Celestia, perhaps accompanied by a group of minotaurs, angry griffons and maybe a manticore. Screw it, she would bring the Crystal Heart, charge it with magic and shove it up Celestia's...
For once she had to agree with her husband that the situation was dire.
"It's an order from Celestia herself, you can't keep hiding," she encouraged Shining by patting his head.
Shining just whimpered.
"I'll have the castle baker send you a batch of crystal berry muffins every week."
The unicorn looked at her with watering eyes and whined that they'll get there stale and crunchy.
"You will be protecting your sister and her friends."
Shining knew it was over when his wife found him. He knew everything was over when the letter came but the thought of his sister in danger sparked a surge of courage in him.
"You're the only one who can do this," said Cadence.
Her husband struck a heroic pose.
"Helmet!" said Shining firmly.
Cadence handed him the most fierce looking bucket with horned crown and no unprotected spot.
Married couples are often well-attuned to one another and Cadence handed him the heaviest platemail in the armory, hoping there's some air inside his helmet.
"Mrrmbfle!" Shining visibly sagged when the armor landed on him.
After looking through the trash heap, Cadence now made Shining's hooves indestructible along with his legs. Probably immovable too.
Cadence tilted her head. Some things weren't that easy to understand.
"Mumble," was a hushed whine from inside the metal golem.
Before sliding the backplate over his rump, Cadence bit him playfully and licked the spot.
As a final precaution, a bubblegum pink barrier appeared around Shining.
"What?" the princess looked at him questioningly.
Cadence left the armory and returned with two strongest guards she could find in a hurry. They had been practicing oil wrestling while armed with two long and thick black clubs as was the tradition of crystal guard stallions. Come to think of it, there weren't many mares in their ranks.
Their clubs were gone when they arrived in front of the combat-ready Shining Armor. He looked as if he could withstand a meteorite strike but that left him with some fair disadvantages which his wife had to take care of.
"Lube him up and roll him to the train station!" Cadence ordered.
The two guards began wiping their bodies on the bubble with complaining Shining inside a little too enthusiastically but she wasn't going to question their devotion to the crown. They were suddenly armed with the clubs again and were using them very craftily to speed up the oil spreading process.
At least Cadence thought Shining was complaining but he might as well have been moaning. She knew her husband and two wet guards rubbing his barrier might have been right up his crystal cavern.
Back in Canterlot, Twilight was pacing in Celestia's office again.
"I could make clone soldiers to replace them after we nuke their camp!"
"For the last time, Twilight, we aren't opening hostilities just because we don't know them. Wait, clone soldiers? Where did you get clone soldiers?"
"Eeerm, magic of friendship?"
"Twilight, you can't use that to answer everything. Why have you got a massive underground laboratory under Golden Oaks Library? To study friendship. Why are there test tubes lining the walls and why do villagers wake up from time to time with dreams about being probed? Friendship of course!"
"How do you know?"
"Luna told me and you also sent me some goo via Spike which tried to take over Canterlot and spread. Some royal guards still shake when they see a jello cake, not to mention those who immediately run to the barracks and lock themselves in the bathroom."
"Oops, sorry. Spike thought the jar was full of strawberry jam and got scared when it tried to mate with him."
"Your unholy experiments aside, we have to resolve this peacefully no matter what Chrysalis' real plan is. Maybe she really just wants to keep tabs on the Elements and not steal them for herself."
Both Twilight and Celestia burst out laughing.
"Good one. Well then, how about we send a group of specialists to Ponyville ourselves to help in case of trouble? Some of your guys might enjoy a camping trip with all expenses paid. There should be enough guards boiling over with hatred for changelings."
"First of all, great idea. I know exactly the right ponies for the job. Secondly, why don't you just clone Shining Armor and send the clone to the changelings?"
Twilight shooed away the memory of long lines of tubes filled with white blue-maned unicorns created for her personal use.
"The clones aren't exactly the best and brightest."
"Neither is Shining Armor."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that."
"And I'll keep on pretending that most Ponyville problems don't arise from your failed experiments. As for a personal concern, did you finally manage to grow some of those tentacle plants made by Discord?"
"They are currently being tested by Spike to find out if they can survive abnormal body temperature to suit your tastes... also to test how far can Spike stretch."
"Just don't break him."
"Pfff. Considering how blue-balled he's from Rarity's lack of attention I think he enjoys his time down there... erm, in the lab which totally doesn't exist."
A loud pop came from thin air and princess Cadence appeared followed by a group of minotaurs, griffons, and what looked like a smaller version of king Sombra.
"CELESTIA! HOW DARE YOU!"
"It's about Shining, am I right?"
"Of course. What in Tartarus were you thinking when you ordered Shiny to go serve that succubus?"
"It's for the good of Equestria. Twilight, what are you doing?"
Twilight stopped her prodding of one of the minotaurs.
"How are you with botany you big hunk- sorry, princess. Friendship research. If those loincloths are something to go by then it's going to be a very close friendship research."
"Good. Cadence, send your thugs back before Twilight begin bang- experimenting on them."
"Fine, this guy is staying though," Cadence pointed at the grey earthpony with godlike physique who looked similar to king Sombra but without the horn and magical marebelline mane.
"Right, who's that?"
"One of Sombra's Blackguards. We found a stash of them trapped in stasis under the castle. Heavens know they are the only competent guards in the Empire. From what I've been told Sombra infused some crystal ponies with dark magic so much that they are practically indestructible."
"What's your name, mister?" asked Twilight, absolutely mesmerized by every inch of the Blackguards muscles.
"Let me guess-" Celestia rolled her eyes.
"Yeah," agreed Cadence, "according to some pictures which are currently locked away, Sombra was very well-endowed and remade the mouths of their guards to suit him."
"Why did you lock the pictures away?"
"Well, they used to hang in the Crystal Guard barracks and the smell there was unbearable. STOP STALLING! I want to know how we make sure Shiny is okay."
"The current idea is to send a group of ponies to stay in Ponyville as well and keep an eye on the changelings, right Twilight?"
"Hmm yeah yeah," Twilight ignored the question and kept poking the Blackguard's flank.
*Poke* "Grawr." *Poke* "Grawr." *Poke* "Grawr."
Then she recovered and stepped into a puddle of her drool on the carpet.
"Aah! Ehm, how smart is this guy, on a scale from Spike to me?"
"No idea," Cadence waved her hoof, "I usually just have them standing guard where it's really important or beating up crystal soldiers."
"Where is Shining by the way?" asked Celestia.
"On a train that will be arriving in Ponyville in few hours."
"Good. I'll have time to contact the ponies I intend to send there."
"I want to send some of my forces to protect Shiny!"
"We can't draw attention to us so no army."
"Two guys then!"
"I'll send Blackie here-"
"- yes yes, good abomination."
"I'll teleport the last guy here when he's ready and don't forget that the minotaurs here will have your ass if Shiny gets hurt."
With that Cadence and her group disappeared leaving only the grey supersoldier.
"Why can't they ever threaten me like that?" pouted Twilight.
"You need a coltfriend."
Princess Cadence appeared in a room overly decorated by Twilight Sparkle posters and photos.
"Flash Sentry, I have a mission for you!"
"T-Twiliiiiiiight!" came from the bathroom.
An orange pegasus with blue mane followed shortly and tried to hide his new edition of Princess Monthly under his wing.
"Are you up for the trip to Ponyville?"
"Y-yes, princess. That's where Twilight lives, right?"
"To live in a camp there and keep an eye on some dangerous changelings."
"A camp? But... that's dirty. Where will I get crystal berry mane spray there?"
"You know I used to be Twilight's foalsitter and I'm her friend now, right?"
Flash Sentry perked up.
"I may have forgotten to return some of her underwear I mistakenly borrowed during my last visit to Ponyville and I just might leave it lying unattended around."
"I WILL BRAVE DESERTS AND SWAMPS FOR... PRINCESS TWILIGHT!"
Princess of Love used her powers. It was super effective.
A white, muscular eartpony was standing in front of a statue of a batpony in the middle of Everfree forest. There were some flowers lying in front of it presumably left by some other visitors. The earthpony was being watched and he knew it but he didn't even twitch his blue tail. He was more than adept in dealing with any danger the forest possessed and changelings knew not to bother anypony visiting the stone memorial.
"Your experience in dealing with changelings and your cool head is needed," said princess Celestia appearing with a flash behind the earthpony.
"As you wish, your Highness," he said, recieving an unmarked letter.
Without another word or regard for princess Celestia he nuzzled the statue's chest and left towards Ponyville.
One of the door of the train from the Crystal Empire to Ponyville opened with a hiss of hydraulics followed by boing boing boing of a pink ball with something inside it rolling out and almost crushing few overenthusiastic observers. They would have investigated the object further but they had places to be, the train to be precise. The glowing bubblegum piqued the attention of none other than the local mailmare who swooped down to have a closer look. It seemed to her that a metal statue was trapped inside the bubble and a close examination revealed a piece of paper hanging from a nail piercing the pink surface.
To be delivered to the changeling camp in Ponyville.
- Princess Cadence -
Derpy's job ofter left her returning home in nighttime hours and for past few days she had been seeing a campfire on one of the higher hills overlooking Ponyville in Sweet Apple Acres. This was obviously a delivery and as the local mailmare it was her job to deliver the pink superball to its destination.
The night came.
Three figures were sitting around a campfire in a small clearing surrounded by apple trees. All of them were just silently eating out of bowls which they occasionally filled from a big bubbling pot hanging above the fire pit.
Dust rose from a small crater short distance away from the trio.
"MORTARS!" screamed the tallest pony-looking creature and jumped behind a bench which she turned over to create a barricade. The fact that the bench was at most reaching her knees didn't seem to bother her.
The second inhabitant of this small camp just refilled his bowl, levitated himself a spoon without the apparent use of a horn, and just kept eating.
The third figure whose coat was shining white even in the evening gloom rolled her eyes, lit up her horn, stood up and carefully walked over to the pink, shimmering ball and knocked on it. Two points of blue glow appeared on what looked like a metal bucket with horns on it and the entire metal statue inside the ball moved a fraction of an inch with a horrible screeching noise.
"Noooooooope," the white unicorn leaned backwards and slowly backed away to her tent.
"THE MISSION HAS BEEN COMPROMISED! PLAN GAMMA!" yelled what looked like a queen-grade changeling still ineffectually hiding behind an upturned makeshift bench and threateningly holding a dripping spoon near her mouth.
"Commander-" began the only pony still sitting calmly but warily by the fire.
"DON'T LET IT GET CLOSER OR I'LL DO IT!" she moved the spoon closer to her mouth.
"Firstly - It's not even moving. Secondly - no matter what you might have heard changelings don't die when they eat normal food. Thirdly - the mere though of using my cooking as a cyanide pill is making me reflect on my life choices."
"YOU'LL NEVER GET INFORMATION OUT OF MEEEEEEEEEEEE!" the queen figure threw the spoon at the pink ball and ran away deep into the orchard.
The only male in the changeling encampment kept glaring for a while in the direction his commander ran away. In the end he just finished his bowl, carefully put it down, and walked to the lightly buzzing pink sphere.
"What have we here?" he knocked few times at the surface, read the letter pinned to it and then took a deep breath.
Shining Armor could only stare in shock as the one standing in front of him - a batpony with grey coat slightly turning blue and a purple, spiky mane - focused and a green glow swirled around a nonexistent horn proving without a doubt his changeling nature. Shining could suddenly physically feel the presence of the changeling's hoof on his barrier as it slowly pushed in and ended the existence of his defensive barrier in a crack of shattering glass. Finally with just a flick of grey hoof Shining felt a weak impact on the back of his head and his helmet dropped to the ground.
The batpony-changeling smiled.
"Prince Shining Armor, am I right?"
"Theo Cross," the batling presented his hoof part of which flickered green and revealed its real chitinous nature, "Pleased to meet you."
Shining tried to move, resulting in another ear-splitting screech from his armor.
"Somepony should have been oiling this thing regularly. Little help?"
The clips and knots on his armor unraveled one by one as Cross examined it.
"Thank you, mister Cross."
"Cross or sargeant, please. I've never really been... a mister."
"Okay then. What about your other companions?"
"The commander will be fine. You can meet her and Starlight in the morning. If you don't want to bother pitching a tent at this hour then you can sleep in mine for tonight. I'll just crash in commander's. Oh... don't worry about your friends, they're already here."
Heavy Hoof kept sneaking through the apple orchard. He'd found the changeling camp some time ago and now he was trying to find a place where the best spot for the camp of his group would be. He wasn't really skilled in outdoor survival but despite his short history of pounding the pavement as a Royal Guard in Canterlot his circumstances had led him to one of the brightest mind in military strategy who was unfortunately not among the living anymore.
He hoped that none of the changelings had spotted him snooping around their camp earlier but even with his white coat and blue mane he was almost sure he hadn't made a sound. Operating on improvisation alone he eventually found a spot which was sheltered from heavy rain and had a clear line of sight of the changeling camp without being too visible itself. The problem was that somepony had beaten him to it already.
A grey earthpony with black mane and a muscle structure sure to make Celestia herself lay off the cake and begin drooling was sitting noiselessly next to a dark fire pit and staring in the direction of the enemy camp. Hearing Heavy approach the grey paragon of physique picked a piece of paper with his mouth and presented it to Heavy.
There's going to be only three of you against four changelings. With my husband in their hooves you're going to need somepony capable of real combat. I'm also sending you Flash Sentry in case you go hungry or need to harvest his kidneys to buy some mission-important equipment.
Heavy looked at the second occupant of the wannabe camp who was snoring softly with crayons scattered all around... it.
"Is that Flash Sentry?" asked Heavy uncertainly while looking at the changeling drone apparently sleeping on a sheet of paper with colorful 'WELCOM' written on it.
"Grawr," the Blackguard, or Blackie for short, shook his head, looked around, and shrugged.
Careful not to wake up the drone undistinguishable from any other Heavy picked up the drawing. The WELCOM was drawn over some other writing done in perfect cursive.
I'm sending you drone six to help with setting up camp in the best place one looking for us would choose. When you're done sneaking around, mister blue and white, and your camp is ready feel free to visit for some tips and tricks.
Heavy muttered something very offensive under his breath. The mission of carefully observing the changelings to find out their real purpose for being in Ponyville went bust before it could even start, one of his guys was missing, replaced by a changeling drone, and he was getting really tired after walking through the Everfree forest and riding to Canterlot and back to recieve the rights to withdraw funds for the mission from Ponyville bank whenever necessary.
He shrugged. It was a stroke of luck that there was no snow yet so he unhinged his saddlebags and began setting up the frame for his tent.
"Where are you going to sleep, erm... Blackie?"
"Grrwr," the dark guard picked up an oil-impregnated, waterproof, and by the looks of it arrowproof sheet of cloth from his bag, spread it on the ground and sat down.
"What about snow?"
The sheet was now draped all over the pony like cotton candy.
Heavy looked to the fire pit at the sleeping drone who was actually curled around a saddlebag big enough to hold...
... a full set of cooking supplies and a tent. At least somepony from his group was prepared for tonight. It was just an unlucky set of circumstances that said creature wasn't a pony and was in his camp without his involvement.
When his tent was ready Heavy looked at the roll of cloth with a black-maned head sticking out of it stoically watching his efforts and at the changeling drooling from the corner of its mouth and twitching its leg from time to time. He could build a second tent from the drone's supplies but he was too tired so he just picked it up, brought it to his tent and rolled Blackie out of his cloth tube.
"Come inside. It's a bit of a squeeze but with three of us inside it won't be cold at least."
With the sound of a zipper the tent closed and after moments' worth of concentration comparable to that of a tetris grandmaster the movements inside stopped.
When a set of strong legs wrapped around him Heavy completely forgot about one missing pony and had the best sleep in weeks.
An orange blue-maned pegasus was wandering through the apple orchard. As the darkness began setting in his steps got faster and more erratic. He had no idea how long he'd been running but now that he couldn't see a thing he just hugged a tree and rammed his helmet tightly on his head.