Quantum Gallop
by Bernard Doove

This is the sequel to The Growing Years.

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Chapter 1: A Glitch in Time


Her eyes closed.

“How many days has it been? I've lost count. Still those damn ponies continue to dig, to uncover my entire hive. If I had the power, I would destroy them all!”

… … … …

“Why won't they give up?! I can hear their picks, and mallets, breaking through the rocks, most likely taking all the treasures that I rightfully earned...”

… … … …

“They are asleep…. I'm so tired. Why won't they stop digging? Will they find my retreat after all?”

… … … …

“I won't let them win! I won't let them have the satisfaction. I won't rest until I have all their heads on pikes!”

… … … …

“So hungry… No love left to sustain… So very, very tired….”

… … … …

“Left my escape… too late…. Too weak…”

… … … …

“H-help me…”

“Your pain, your hate, your sadness – they are so strong, my dear. You should put it to better use.”

“Who are you?!”

“I am but a moth drawn to your flame, my dear.”

“Get out of my head!”

“As you wish.”

… … …

“Come back… Help me...”

“You want my help, my dear?”

… … … “Yes.”

“Aren’t you the slightest bit curious what the cost will be?”

“If it gets me the heads of those who have crossed me, then no cost is too great.”

“My dear, when we are done, you will have the finest alicorn horn necklace, your daughter and granddaughter will be loyal and at your side, and the one who started it all will be a soulless husk to play with as it suits you.”

“Yes! Make them puppets! Make them suffer! Make them pay!”

“All you need to do is accept my offer.”

“I accept your offer!”

… … …

“It hurts!”

“As it would, my dear.”

“My mind – it's splitting apart!!”

“That's just the change happening; the pain will be over soon.”


“Your pain will be felt ten thousand times over by those who have wronged you.”

“T-too much…. I-I can't....”

… … …

“It's time we woke up; there is work to do!”

Their eyes opened.

A swirling hole opened in mid-air and several bodies tumbled out onto the floor of a large room filled with devices mostly of arcane nature and unknown purpose. With various groans and expressions of annoyance, the pile started to resolve into separate forms – a large blue earth pony stallion, a female hippogriff, a golden dragoness, a dark blue and red maned alicorn stallion, a female ponyling, and a grey pegasus mare.

Blue Streak looked about him and growled, “Okay, what the hell just happened and where are we?”

“Hi there, Blue Streak! Ready to save the world?”

WHAT?!” Blue yelped. He stared incredulously at the tan earth pony stallion with the hourglass cutie mark who had just walked up to the group.

“Well, not just you, of course, but you were the one to ask. Welcome to my humble workshop. Derpy, my dear, would you get our guests some refreshments?”

“Sure thing, Doctor!” the grey pegasus replied brightly and trotted out of the room.

Pif was looking with great interest at the equipment. She pointed at one and asked, “What does this do?”

“Oh, you don’t want to bother with that old thing. Just a souvenir I picked up in my travels.”

Destined peered closer at what had attracted Pif’s attention, and his eyes glowed briefly. “Quite a souvenir, Doctor. It seems to have a four-dimensional structure.”

The Doctor grinned at the alicorn. “Quite. That’s what makes it so interesting. Also, it’s a lot less likely to destroy a city while it’s in my collection.”

Both Destined and Pif jerked away from the device.

Pif looked at the Doctor incredulously. “Wha…? You can’t be serious?”

However, the stallion turned away as if he had suddenly lost interest. “Now I asked my lovely partner to fetch Blue Streak and Destined Path because they are essential to fixing this little problem that has cropped up, but it seems that you other three are so intertwined with events that you’ve been drawn into it as well.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that, Time Turner?” Lucida asked sternly. “Miss Hooves said something about the timeline changing just before she conjured a hole in space and dumped us here. I want to know what’s going on!”

“Ah, Lady Lucida Path – future head of the House of Path, warrior-scholar and negotiator – you have perhaps your greatest challenge ahead of you.”

“That didn’t explain anything,” Lucida said with a growing frown.

“True, I admit, but I did want to impress upon you the importance of what I’m about to tell you all. Someone is meddling with time, and history as you know it has been changed.”

All five of them stared at the Doctor with looks that varied from stunned to incredulous.

Cinder spoke up first. “Prove it,” she challenged.

The Doctor shrugged. “Step out of my workshop and see for yourselves.” As a couple of them started forward, he held up a hoof to halt them. “First, you have to stay for tea. My dear Derpy would be most offended if you left without enjoying the refreshments she has prepared, wouldn’t you, darling?” he asked the pegasus who had suddenly arrived with trays held up on her outstretched wings.

“I made some muffins just for you. I’d hate to have to eat them all myself,” she replied with a touch of disappointment.

The Doctor continued, “And while you’re enjoying muffins and tea, I’ll explain a bit more.”

Each of the Path family members guiltily took a muffin and a mug from their hostess.

The Doctor took one of each also, but he started talking again after just taking a sip of his tea. “Now, as I said, history has been changed. I barely had time to drop out of the time-stream and isolate us from the changes. Then I had to find the nexus of probability that could undo the change, and imagine my curiosity when it pointed at you. Well, Blue Streak and Destined Path in particular, but there are obviously other elements in play that I haven’t determined as yet.” He took a bite out of his muffin, chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. “Apple-cinnamon – my favourite! Thank you, my love.”

Derpy smiled radiantly. “I know you always like them in a crisis.”

“You know me too well. Anyway, I had you fetch our heroes, and hopefully we’ll sort this out in time for dinner.”

Lucida looked unimpressed. “Sounds like a tall tale to me, especially since we should have already been affected by this fanciful time-change of yours. That hole in space was a neat trick though.”

The Doctor shook his head vehemently. “No, no! It’s not just a hole in space, but in space-time! Derpy went back to before the change had affected you.”

“Cut it a bit close, Doc,” the cross-eyed mare complained.

“Oh? Sorry about that, dear. It was right at the limit of the vortex manipulator.”

“S’okay. I got ’em, and that’s what counts.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek before she trotted out of the room with the empty trays.

The Doctor watched her leave with a happy smile on his face before returning his attention to the group. “Anyway, you need to figure out what happened to change history, and then fix it.”

“Why don’t you do that if you’re so clever?” Cinder asked.

“I have to maintain this stable nexus, or else the changes will become permanent for you. You won’t know what history used to be.”

Destined’s eyes opened wide in realization. “It’s like the map table in Mom’s castle! She told me how it was always still there whenever Starlight Glimmer changed the past.”

The Doctor grinned happily. “Now you’re getting it! That table is an object of such high probability that it exists in the majority of all possible alternate histories.”

“Then you’re familiar with my time theory?” Destined asked.

“Sixteen-dimensional space-time? Every possible permutation of events exists at all possible times, and what we perceive as history is merely the most probable path between them. Someone has changed that probability and thus changed history. The map table is such high-probability that it remains in that new history. What I have done is lock the probability of my workshop at that same level, so it also remains unchanged.”

“But how?” Pif demanded. “What you’re describing seems to be beyond even what Starswirl the Bearded was capable of doing, and he invented the spell that Starlight used to go back in time.”

The Doctor chuckled. “Oh, I remember him – such a prankster. You know he made this time spell that would take you back only a few days to meet your past self for only a few seconds before returning you? Can you imagine the reaction of their past selves trying to convince others of what they had seen, or their future selves trying to say anything meaningful in that short time? The cheeky colt got away with the joke for quite a while before Celestia had the spell put away in the restricted archive.”

Pif boggled at the thought of Starswirl being described as a colt, and the intimation that the Doctor seemed to have known the wizard who had died centuries ago. There was something decidedly odd about this stallion. “You didn’t answer my question – how did you stop your workshop from being affected by history being altered?”

“Your whole world has changed, but you want to talk about that?” the Doctor asked, throwing up his forelegs and waving them incredulously, while deflecting her inconvenient enquiries.

“If you’ve finished your refreshments, I think it’s about time you find out for yourselves what has been changed. All of you, assume nothing, and you, Princess Epiphany, I suggest that you hide your changeling nature.”

Pif eyed him suspiciously but shifted to one of her Ponyville unicorn forms anyway.

The Doctor ushered them to the door and let them out, saying, “Remember – don’t trust anyone or anything until you’re sure they are what they are supposed to be!” He then firmly closed the dark blue door in their faces before they could protest.

They all stood around, a little bewildered for the moment, barely taking in the fact that they were now in the middle of Ponyville after having been in Griffonia a short time ago.

Blue said dazedly, “I’m the fastest pony on Equus, and I still feel that things rushed by me too quickly.”

Cinder nodded in agreement. “Anyone get the feeling that there are things he’s not telling us?”

Lucida shook her head. “No – I feel there’s a huge amount he’s hiding from us.”

“Like the equipment in his workshop,” Pif said. “You know it’s my forte, but I didn’t have a clue what most of that stuff is supposed to do, and the ones that I think I can figure out seem far more advanced than is possible.”

“Whatever he’s hiding, I think we had better start taking him seriously,” Destined stated with finality.

“Why’s that?” Lucida asked.

Destined raised a hoof to point in the direction of Twilight’s castle. “Where’s the Chrome Hive?”

They all stared at the mountainside close to the castle where the new hive had been built, only to see pristine slopes and no sign at all that there ever had been anything in that location.

“Oh boy,” Blue said with dread chilling his spine.

With no particular goal in mind, they all nevertheless headed in the direction of the castle. It quickly became apparent to them that more than the disappearing hive had changed in Ponyville. The town had always been lively and pleasant, with ponies greeting friends frequently, streets bustling with ponies going about their business, and the neighbourhood bright and cheerful. Now, however, most ponies they encountered did their best to ignore them, hastening about their errands, and those that did look seemed to regard them with suspicion or fear.

“What’s with these ponies?” Lucida complained. “It’s like they’ve never seen a hippogriff before?”

“Maybe they haven’t,” Destined replied. “Have you noticed the double-takes they make when they realise I’m an alicorn? If the hive was never built here, maybe we never visited here like whenever Papa Free used to attend it.”

“Well I don’t like the way they cringe whenever they look at me,” Cinder sulked. “I’m a warrior-scholar of House Path, not one of their uncivilised dragons.”

Pif picked up the pace. “We’d better get to Mom’s castle before somepony freaks out.”

Whether any of the ponies did more than scurry away from the group remained unknown as they arrived at the castle without anything more significant happening. They slowed down as they approached the great doors, perturbed by the sight of the squad of Royal Guards posted outside of them.

“What’s going on?” Lucida wondered. “Momma Twilight never had this many Guards at her castle outside of a big royal event.”

“Yeah,” Blue Streak agreed. “She always reckoned they didn’t fit in with a Princess of Friendship.”

They continued onward anyway until Epiphany suddenly bumped into an invisible wall which flared brightly. Immediately six of the Guards approached her – two pegasi with spears lowered, an earth pony with sword drawn, and three unicorns with horns charged.

“Halt, changeling! Why are you trying to enter the Princess’ castle? Who is this changeling’s keeper?” The unicorn officer who had spoken looked accusingly at Destined before blinking in confusion upon realising that he was looking at an alicorn.

“She’s with me,” Destined answered, not sure what the Guard meant by keeper, but sensing that it was best to play along.

The unicorn suddenly cast a spell at Destined who automatically threw up a shield against it, but because it was not an offensive spell, it remained unaffected. The Guard looked even more puzzled.

“Not an illusion, so you really are an alicorn. What is your business here?”

“We’re here to speak to Mo… umm… Princess Twilight about a threat to Equestria.”

“Why are you bringing a disguised changeling? And who are these foreigners?” the Guard asked as he pointed to Lucida and Cinder.

“They are members of the House of Path from Griffonia, as am I. This changeling is part of the reason why we are here, but I was unaware of any restrictions regarding them.”

“Since when do the griffons accept ponies and dragons into their nobility? No matter – where are your credentials? If you are an envoy from King Glimfeather, your visit should have been advised to us in advance.”

“We are not from the King’s Court. Our House serves the world, not the King.”

The Guard looked even more sceptical. “I have never heard such nonsense! You are strangers bearing supposedly alarming news bringing an undocumented changeling in disguise. You will see the Princess alright, but as our prisoners. Sky Staff and Thunderbolt – confiscate this changeling. The rest of you will come with me to escort these four to the Queen. You are authorised to use force if any of them try anything suspicious. You – the blue one – relinquish your sword.”

The pegasus, Sky Staff, poked Pif with his spear, and she flinched from the sharp point. “Move it, changeling!” the Guard commanded, prodding her again in the direction he wanted her to go.

Pif looked at the others helplessly. While she had options, none of them would help their cause at this time, and she decided to play along for the moment.

“Don’t worry, Pif, we’ll get you back soon,” Destined tried to reassure her, but the Guard’s amused chuckle made them think it would not be as simple as that.

Blue Streak glowered at the unicorn who had stepped up to him to take his sword. The Guard cringed a little, intimidated by the big and powerfully muscled stallion despite his training and the other Guards backing him up. Blue reluctantly surrendered his sword, wondering what the quivering unicorn would have done if he had seen the warrior pony decked out in his full battle gear. He amused himself with that thought as the group was chivvied inside.

It was a strange feeling for the group as they entered the familiar castle hallway. Royal Guards lined the length of it, and they could feel the suspicious stares following them. They passed into the map table room and were relieved to see that it was still there, although the chairs were all absent from around it. They were led off into another room which Twilight normally reserved for royal functions. This had a dais at one end with a fancy throne upon it, and there they finally saw Twilight Sparkle. She was dressed in some kind of gold robe, and had a crown upon her head, one far bigger and more imposing than she had ever worn previously. Her attention was focused on a book held up in her magic, and there were two piles of books beside her throne.

The officer stopped the party just inside the doorway and stamped a hoof before announcing loudly, “Your pardon, Your Majesty, but something has come up that requires your attention.”

“What is it, lieutenant?” Twilight asked without taking her eyes off the book. Her voice was cold and hard, unlike what any of the group had heard before.

“An alicorn claiming to be representatives from the House of Path say that they wish to talk with you about a threat to Equestria.”

Twilight’s head snapped up upon the mention of the House of Path, and she stared at Destined who had retained the lead as nominal head of the mission, although Lucida was the true ranking leader.

“The House of Path died with my herdmates! Who are you to claim to represent it, and why have I never heard of an alicorn stallion before now?”

Lucida was the one to answer however. “The House could not die while I still live, nor for that matter while you still lived because you were one of its founders.”

Twilight looked properly at the hippogriff for the first time, and her eyes widened in surprise. “Lucida Path? What are you doing here? You vowed that you would not come back to Equestria while I still sat on the throne.”

It was becoming clearer to Lucida what changes to history had occurred because Twilight recognised her but not Destined. “I am not the Lucida that you know. Someone has been tampering with time, and history has been changed.”

“What kind of fool do you take me for? The key to travelling through time is Starswirl’s scroll, and that has been safely hidden away for decades.”

“Obviously somepony else knows a method. We are proof of that. You say that your herdmates died? For us, they were our parents who raised us, and we saw them hale and hearty mere hours ago. To answer your question about this alicorn, he is my half-brother, son of Long Path… and Twilight Sparkle.”

“WHAT?! How dare you claim kinship with me and Long Path! I have borne no children, and if I had, it would have been with my husband, not our herd stallion.”

Both Destined and Lucida took a half-step back from the furious Queen Twilight. However, an undaunted voice behind them took up the argument.

“As I heard it, your gestalt with the herd led to your pregnancy with Dad, something that you never regretted… Momma Twilight,” Blue said as he pushed between Destined and Lucida.

Although she had noted the presence of the huge blue-furred earth pony, Twilight had not paid close attention to him yet. She took in his mane pattern and cutie mark before gasping in shocked recognition. “No! You’re dead! I saw you die in the Crystal Kingdom!” She stumbled backwards, tripping on the dais and falling over backwards.

Blue Streak said, “I did not die in that battle, Momma. You protected me after I was injured saving Dad, and you all defeated Chrysalis.”

Twilight stumbled to her hooves, staring wildly at the group. “No! This has to be a trick! I don’t know who you really are, but you have to be some sort of agents of the changelings trying to trick me. What are your true intentions? Did you seek to use my memories as a means to get close enough to assassinate me?”

Blue and Lucida were flabbergasted. “That doesn’t make sense…,” Lucida began.

“They were in the presence of a changeling when they arrived,” the unicorn officer interjected.

Twilight latched onto that statement with obsessive determination. “Ha! And now the truth comes out. Well, your plans have failed, and for your crime, I sentence you all to death. Lieutenant – take them away!”

“What?!” Blue exclaimed, but then his expression hardened. “None of us will die today.” Before the lieutenant could react, Blue whirled and lashed out with a devastating kick. The armour saved the Guard from being killed, but he was knocked unconscious as he slammed into the wall.

The other Guards moved in with weapons at the ready, and more started pouring into the room moments later, led by a familiar pegasus.

Twilight screamed, “Captain Dash – execute the prisoners! The blue one first!

“You got it, Your Majesty!” Rainbow Dash yelled as she dived at Blue. She was surprised when he easily dodged her. “Oho! This is gonna be fun!”

The other Guards left Blue to their captain while they concentrated on the rest. However, given the opportunity to recover due to Blue’s quick reaction, they all went into defence mode. The Royal Guards did not know it, but they were up against elite warriors of the House of Path. Even Lucida, who preferred words as her weapons, was more highly trained than the average soldier, and her talons precluded the need for an actual weapon. Cinder was used to making herself look unintimidating so as not to agitate ponies, but now she reared up, spread her wings, and roared in defiance. Destined powered up his horn, ready to defend them all.

Twilight did not leave everything to her Guards though. She lashed out with a blast from her horn, but was blocked by Destined. She sneered at him. “You think that you can stand against a true alicorn? I slaughtered thousands of changelings, and I won’t stop at one of their sympathisers!” She fired again with a stronger bolt, but believing that he was a fake, she still underestimated Destined’s power and the attack failed again.

The alicorn stallion was hard pressed despite his strength because he also had to Guard against attacks by the Royal Guards on himself and his companions, and he had no wish to exert his full power which would have been fatal to most of the occupants of the room. His siblings and Cinder were wreaking havoc on the Guards, but more kept pouring in. They might have had even more trouble if Blue had not been able to keep Rainbow Dash preoccupied. As fast as she was, the dimensions of the room confined her movements, while Blue had no such problems, able to make short but vision-blurring moves. He had quickly recovered his sword from the Guard who had taken it away, and the only thing that had saved the pegasus so far was the fact that Blue did not wish to harm his long-time friend. However, when the opportunity came to take her out without permanently harming her, Blue did not hesitate. Rainbow crashed to the floor, unconscious but relatively intact, and Blue turned his attention to the other Guards.

A Guard screamed as Lucida slashed him with her talons before she yelled to the others, “We can’t keep this up all day; we have to get out of here!”

“What about Pif?” Destined grunted as he blocked yet another deadly blast from Twilight.

“We’ll just have to come back and fetch her later,” Lucida decided reluctantly. “Take us away, Destined.”

The alicorn stallion hated the idea of leaving his half-sister behind, but he saw the sense in a retreat. “Cinder – grab Blue!”

The dragoness snaked out her tail at an opportune moment to snare Blue. When he was in warrior mode, it was dangerous to try to interrupt the earth pony, but his mate was safe from the repercussions. She folded a wing about him, their private signal to him to stand down, and drew them closer to the others. A moment later, Destined’s horn flared and they teleported out of the room.

Twilight screeched in frustration. “Find them! Find them and kill them!” she yelled, even as she started tracing their magical trail.

Epiphany meekly complied with the Guards’ directions as they led her to a fortified compound close to the castle. Upon entering its gates, they made a left turn towards a drab building with few windows. Once inside, they were confronted by a security checkpoint, and the Royal Guard behind the desk looked at Pif suspiciously.

“Another changeling who thinks she can sneak in disguised as a unicorn? Not too bright, are they?”

Sky Staff replied, “This one was a little different. She came with an odd group who claimed to be coming with a warning of a threat to Equestria.”

The Guard snorted. “OK, that’s a new one. Maybe it deluded them somehow. Anyway, not our problem. You know the drill.” He opened the door that led further into the building.

Row upon row of cells confronted Pif as she was herded inside, each of which was occupied by changelings grouped by their hives. She saw Reds, Violets, Greens, Oranges, and Yellows, but not a single Blue. She did not know whether this was a good thing or not, but she strongly suspected that she would not like the reason. What puzzled her though were the small tables with colourful tablecloths that were directly adjacent to each cell, and the balloons and streamers that decorated the entire facility.

“Drop your disguise, changeling. It’s time to put you with your buddies.”

Showing her uniqueness was the last thing that Pif wanted, but she had a feeling that if she tried to deceive them, she would be caught out and punished. Any prison specialising in holding changelings could not be underestimated. With a flare of green fire, she revealed herself.

Thunderbolt gaped and exclaimed, “What the hay is this?”

“I’m from the Chrome Hive,” Pif explained.

“I’ve never heard of a Chrome Hive,” Sky Staff said suspiciously.

“I come from Griffonia,” Pif explained, neglecting to mention that the actual hive should have been just a short distance away but for the meddling with time, nor did she look anything like the Griffonian changelings.

Thunderbolt snorted. “Bad enough that we have the Equestrian hives – now we have the foreigners coming in also. At least that explains why this one thought it could get into the Queen’s castle.”

“So where should we put it?” Sky Staff asked.

Thunderbolt shrugged. “Pick the block with the most empty cells. That should make the party a little livelier.”

Sky Staff chuckled, and Pif wondered what amused the pegasus so much. And what did the other mean by a party? Did it have something to do with all those decorations? It didn’t make sense to her.

Pif was taken into a row containing Red Changelings and locked in a cell. Her captors then walked off, leaving her to consider her fellow inmates. She scanned their faces until she came to one that was more than familiar. “Queen Carpacia?” she gasped.

The Red Queen regarded her curiously. “You have the advantage of me. Chrome Changeling you claim to be, but I have never heard of such a hive from the eastern lands. You strike me as being a mutant, and seeing as none of the other Equestrian Hive Queens have mentioned an offspring like you, I would have to say that you’re a Blue.”

Pif was impressed by Carpacia’s reasoning. “You’re mostly right. I am the daughter of Gossamer, and granddaughter to Chrysalis. Gossamer was the mutant, but it seems her trait breeds true and all her offspring are chrome like me. So yes, I was telling the truth about there being a Chrome Hive, except for one important detail.”

“Besides the fact that you’re the kin to the insane Queen who brought ruination upon all changelings?” Carpacia said coldly.

“Don’t compare me or my mother to Chrysalis! She denounced her and fought against her, as have I. No, the important detail is that we won! Someone has meddled with time and changed history so all this…” Pif waved her hooves to indicate the cells and beyond, “…never happened. Chrysalis’ invasion of the Crystal City was defeated and my mother took over the Blue Hive. She and House Path rebuilt it into a modern and progressive Hive right here in Ponyville. I was conceived after that battle, so if Chrysalis had won and my mother was defeated, I probably would not exist.”

Carpacia regarded Pif with scepticism. “You spin a wild tale, and yet one thing that you said makes me think that you’re telling the truth.”

“What’s that?”

“What makes you think that Chrysalis won the battle?”

“Huh? But why would Equestria turn against the changelings otherwise? From my history studies, I know that our kind was making great strides towards integration with pony society at that time.”

“Because before Chrysalis was eventually killed, she caused so much harm that Queen Twilight Sparkle sought revenge on all changelings.”

Pif gasped in shock. “That… that doesn’t sound like Mom at all!”

“Mom?” Carpacia asked with a quizzical tilt to her head. “I thought you said your mother was Gossamer?”

“I come from a herd family. Momma Twilight was one of my herd mothers, as was Momma Roseclaw. Long Path was my sire, and Gossamer was my birth mother, but her normal form was Free Agent, a male griffon who was more of a second dad to me.”

Carpacia was startled. “Free Agent was Chrysalis’ daughter? I heard about how mightily he fought against Chrysalis before he was killed. His body was so obliterated that none of my surviving ’lings ever knew.”

“Although Queen Dianthia and a few others knew before the battle, Free Agent revealed his true nature to everyone only after the victory at the Crystal City.”

“Remarkable. So you belong to the House of Path; did Lady Lucida send you then?”

“You know of Lucy? No, she was with me when we were snatched away before the time changes could affect us.”

“This talk of changes to history still seems unreal to me, and yet you are an obvious contradiction to what I know as fact.”

Pif nodded in agreement. “I know – it all seems unreal to me too. It’s only just happened, and I haven’t adjusted to it yet. I especially can’t understand how Momma Twilight could turn so much against changelings. We were one of her dearest projects as Princess of Friendship! Can you tell me exactly what happened to change her?”

Carpacia smirked. “Well, my appointment list seems to be empty, and the party won’t start for a little while, so I suppose I can squeeze you into my busy day. Where should I start?”

“It sounds like whatever happened to change history occurred during the siege of the Crystal City, so I suggest you begin there.”

“That makes sense as that’s when everything went sour for us. No one knows all the details because Twilight Sparkle hasn’t sought fit to tell us, but apparently all her herdmates were killed. Free Agent was the last to go up against Chrysalis, but although he fought magnificently, she had an advantage over him that he could not overcome, and eventually he was slain also. Chrysalis’ strategy of overcoming the might of the alicorns by swamping them with sheer numbers worked excellently, and she was able to take the time to build up a huge amount of power to blast the shield several times. The strain on Shining Armor caused him to suffer a ruptured aneurysm, and he collapsed along with his shield. The prince suffered brain damage, leaving him mostly unresponsive to anyone. This, combined with the deaths of her foster son and many of her friends after doing so much killing that was against her pacific nature, finally caused Twilight Sparkle to snap.”

“Blue Streak died too?” Pif murmured. “Mom had always been paranoid about his safety.”

“Twilight Sparkle perhaps cared too much,” Carpacia continued. “She was unable to cope with the mental trauma, and she went insane with rage. It was known for a long while that she was the Avatar of the Element of Magic because magic is her special talent, and one day she was likely to exceed both Luna and Celestia in sheer power. Well, the events of that battle brought forth that well of power, and she unleashed it on her enemies. Chrysalis died in the first blast, then hundreds of ’lings died in the torrential blasts of magic fire that she unleashed into the skies. Every being in their paths died, including the red Changelings who fought on her side, and any griffon warrior who was unlucky enough to be in the way. Twilight did not care. She fired bolts of magic until the skies were empty. Only two of my ’lings who were on the ground survived to tell me about these events.”

“What’s with calling her Queen Twilight though, and taking revenge on all changelings?”

“I meant it when I said that she snapped. Twilight Sparkle went insane that day. She blamed Celestia and Luna for not being strong enough to turn away the enemy, and usurped their power. Don’t ask me how she did it – I just know that the only things that they can do now is manage the heavenly bodies that are their birthright. Although they are effectively prisoners in Canterlot, they maintain the day and night out of a sense of duty towards Equus. Twilight took the title of Queen of Equestria, and started the program of incarceration or elimination of all changelings. In her mind, we had all become the enemy. Such are the thoughts of the insane.”

“What about Princess Cadance? Surely she could have helped Twilight?”

Carpacia laughed without humour. “No, she made it worse. Cadance suffered the deaths of her subjects after the shield fell, but she was totally lost in grief when she realised that Shining Armor was a living vegetable. She used her power to try to heal him, but failed. She wanted to use the Crystal Heart to try again, but ironically it was destroyed in the battle. Now she obsessively tries to repair it to heal her lost love, and we are instrumental in those efforts.”

“That makes some sense. I remember learning how the five Hive Queens had combined power with Cadance to repair the cracked Heart. And years earlier, Flurry Heart actually shattered it, but the combination of a powerful restoration spell and a Crystalling ceremony was able to put it back together again.”

“That won’t work now. The Crystal Heart was not merely cracked or even just shattered; it is beyond repair, which makes our situation hopeless.”

“What is our situation then? Why bother to incarcerate us?”

“Because Cadance is so lost in her grief that she no longer has a grasp on reality. She continues to try to repair the Heart, and Queen Twilight helps her because it gives her some measure of revenge against the changelings that destroyed her world, or so she thinks anyway.”

“So what happens now?”

Carpacia smirked. “We party.”

Pif blinked uncomprehendingly for a several long moments. “What? That’s the third time a party has been mentioned. What in Tartarus do you mean?”

“You’ll see. It’ll start soon.” Carpacia walked over to her cot and lay down upon it, apparently losing interest in the conversation.

Pif mulled over what she had learned. She now knew when history was changed, and she knew what the consequences of that change were – now all she had to find out was how it was changed. It seemed that even with the benefit of a couple of eye witnesses and subsequent events, Carpacia was unaware of the cause, so she was unlikely to learn more about that. She still had to understand what Cadance was doing to the changelings though, and especially what the hay this party was supposed to be!

Destined, Blue, Cinder, and Lucida popped back into reality at the foot of a bridge over a ravine that led to the ruins of a castle surrounded by a dense forest from which strange sounds emanated. They were all still hyped up with adrenaline from the fight they had just escaped, and they just stood there for a long moment to calm down and reorient themselves.

Cinder took her wing away from around Blue and as she furled it up, she said, “Shards! That meeting went to Tartarus quickly. Has Twilight gone completely insane?”

Lucida nodded gravely. “I believe that’s exactly what has happened. The Twilight Sparkle who raised and taught us would have been fascinated by our tale of time changes, and she most certainly would not have ordered anyone’s death.”

“The same might be said of Rainbow Dash,” Blue said. “She has always been headstrong, but she would not have so readily carried out orders to execute us. Did anyone else besides me see her eyes?”

“We were kind of preoccupied,” Lucida commented.

Destined shook his head. “I didn’t see her eyes, but I did have a sense of an enhancement spell on her. If I was to make an educated guess, I think her innate loyalty to Twilight has been boosted to obsessive levels; she will do anything that Queen Twilight tells her to do.”

Lucida nodded. “More evidence that Twilight has gone totally nuts; she’s always hated the idea of imposing spells on people without their knowledge and consent. Something about an experience with a ‘Want it, Need it’ spell I once heard about in a lesson, I believe.”

Blue growled. “Well, we now know for sure that history has been changed, and we know that it had something to do with the battle at the Crystal City. Now we have to figure out exactly what and how to fix it. First we have to rescue Pif though.”

“Yeah,” Cinder agreed. “So where did they take her?” She looked around and added, “For that matter, where are we?”

Destined replied, “I took us somewhere that I was familiar with and not too far away but wasn’t likely to have too many ponies to deal with. Welcome to the Castle of the Two Sisters.” He waved a hoof at the ruins.

“Bit of a dump,” Cinder opined.

Lucida sighed sadly. “It is in this version of history, it seems. In the proper timeline, Twilight and others have been working to restore it, and the last time that I visited here, it was looking very nice, and some maintenance staff had actually moved in on a permanent basis. Nobody would want to live here now though.”

“Ah wouldn’t rightly say that, sugah,” came a voice from behind the group.

While the four had been preoccupied with looking at the castle, a large number of people had quietly emerged from concealment with weapons trained upon them. Blue cursed himself for his carelessness even as the others gasped in surprise, not only for the ambush, but who those ambushers were. Several changelings of various colours stood alongside ponies, and at their head was the one who had spoken.

“Applejack?” Lucida said with surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“Well, it seems you know me, but I don’t rightly know you, missy. Who are you and your companions?” While the question was asked pleasantly enough, there was a strong hint of threat behind the inquiry, and the weapons aimed at them never wavered.

Lucida knew some of what they were up against this time, and it was going to be hard to convince this hostile group of their intentions. However, this time she had one advantage – the apple farmer herself. “I am Lucida Path, and these are Destined Path, Blue Streak, and Cinder. In another time, you knew us all, but history has been changed, and we’re trying to find a way to fix it.”

The cream-coloured earth pony standing next to Applejack with a crossbow aimed at Destined spoke up. “This one’s an alicorn – where did he come from? We have no reason to trust any alicorn nowadays.”

“Ah reckon that’s a pretty good question, Bon Bon,” Applejack agreed, looking pointedly at the alicorn.

Destined took a step forward. “I am the son of Long Path… and Twilight Sparkle.”

That statement caused quite a stir among the group, and several looked ready to attack right then. Applejack held up a hoof to restrain them.

“Y’all don’t look like ya wanna commit suicide, so why’d you claim kinship with the Queen?”

“Because if history had not been warped, she would be a friend to changelings and not a queen.”

“Not being convinced here,” Applejack stated coldly.

Lucida motioned Destined back and stepped up as closely as she dared to the earth pony. “Applejack Apple, former Bearer of an Element of Harmony, Avatar of the Aspect of Honesty, I call upon you to heed my words and know that they are true. We four and my sister Epiphany were taken out of the time stream before a change in history could affect us. We believe that something happened around the time of the attack on the Crystal City by Chrysalis that changed events leading to what drove Twilight Sparkle insane. In our proper time, she and her herdmates in the House of Path went on to build relationships between Equestria, Griffonia, and the Hives. We are the children of Herd Path, and we are here to set things right.” Lucida let those words hang there while Applejack regarded her intently.

There was a very long and tense silence before Applejack nodded. “Ah believe ya. Stand down, everypony,” she ordered.

The changelings and ponies lowered their weapons, some more reluctantly than others, but it was obvious that Applejack was very much in charge.

“So, children of Herd Path, hey?” she said with an eyebrow quirked as she looked at Cinder.

“My mate,” Blue explained.

“Fair enough. How about some better introductions now that we ain’t gonna have ta lock ya away?”

“I’m the daughter of Long Path and Roseclaw,” Lucida explained. “You should know of me because I was born before the battle at the Crystal City.”

“Come to think of it, your name does ring a bell. It’s been a long time though since I heard it mentioned.”

“Dad conceived three foals soon after that battle. Destined was Mama Twilight’s son, my brother Flix was Mama Roseclaw’s chick, and Epiphany was Free Agent’s daughter.”

Applejack was startled. “Free Agent? But he’s a…”

“Changeling queen,” Lucida interjected. “She went into breeding mode and Long Path consented to sire a child with her. Pif is our sister, and she was with us when Queen Twilight’s Guards identified her as a changeling and took her away. We need to rescue her before we try to fix history.”

“Well, y’all got your work cut out for ya. Ain’t nobuggy ever come back outta their changeling facility.”

“If anyone can, she will. Anyway, your turn now. How come you’re in league with changelings when Queen Twilight seems determined to capture or kill them all?”

The hippogriff grunted as Applejack clapped her on the back and grinned proudly. “Welcome to the Resistance! We’re dedicated to bringin’ down the usurper queen and freein’ the innocent.”

Lucida snorted in amusement. “As I recall the past, you were the last of the Mane Six to warm up to the changelings, and yet here you are apparently leading a group of them.”

Applejack smirked. “Yep, Ah’m aware of the irony, but Ah ain’t got time for repressin’ them just for what they are. And that’s not the only thing Twilight Sparkle has changed for the worse. Equestria suffers daily under her reign.”

“So what are you doing about it?”

“Twilight knew the location of only two of the hives – the Red and the Green. She raided those and captured their Queens, but some of the changelings managed to escape. By that time, Twi and Ah had parted company because Ah could not stand what she had become. Ah discovered some Red Changelings hiding in mah barn, and from there Ah started collectin’ more refugees. Ah couldn’t hide them all on the farm, so Ah brought them here to the old castle. It looks bad, but we’ve fixed up the insides, and the Everfree protects and hides it. Ah’ve been recruiting ponies to find and help any other buggies they find. Bon Bon here was mah first, and she’s mah right hoof mare.”

“So Queen Twilight doesn’t suspect this at all? How do you support all of these people?”

“We have our sympathisers in town who help.”

“Do you suppose they can help us get Pif?”

“If you’re thinkin’ of breaking into the changeling facility, forget it. We haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”

“Maybe we won’t have to. Pif is pretty resourceful. We just need to be on hoof nearby when she makes her move.”

“Hmm… Well, Ah reckon we can smuggle ya’ll back into town if ya can’t get back the way you came. How did ya’ll get here without us noticin’, anyway?”

“Destined teleported us here.”

“Are ya sure Twi can’t follow ya?”

Destined spoke up. “I obscured our mana path. Mom… er… Queen Twilight should not be able to trace us.”

“Good. Ah gather ya can’t just teleport back? Too conspicuous, Ah reckon. Your flashy arrival drew us here.”

“Exactly right,” Destined agreed.

“Well, Ah reckon Ah have the answer for ya, and a chance to show ya’ll some hospitality at the same time. Looks like our daily provisions have arrived.” Applejack motioned towards the bridge that was on the approach to the castle.

A butter-yellow pegasus with a pink mane was drawing a cart covered with a tarpaulin over the bridge. She approached the group and came to a stop as she stared at the four newcomers. “Oh! Oh dear! Strangers have seen me.” She shrunk down, trying to hide behind her mane.

“Don’t ya worry none, Fluttershy. They’re friends too.”

“Oh? That’s nice,” she replied as she cautiously got back to her hooves. “You can’t be too careful. If Twilight ever found out that I’ve been bringing you food, she would lock me away, and then who would feed my animals?”

“You’ve been a lifesaver, Fluttershy. We appreciate everythin’ ya do for us.”

Fluttershy smiled shyly. “I try, but I couldn’t do it all by myself.”

“Bravin’ the Everfree every day just for us? Ah’d say that you’re the real hero.”

Fluttershy blushed fiercely. “I… I’d better get this food inside.” She hastily trotted off to the castle.

“Still can’t take a compliment,” Lucida commented.

“So ya know Fluttershy too? Ah suppose that makes sense. Anyhow, she’s your way back into town. She can fit maybe two of ya in her cart.”

Lucida smiled. “No, one would be enough. If we can get Destined to some secure place close to the changeling prison, he can fetch us back there.”

“Yeah,” Destined agreed. “Once I have a place locked in, I can teleport back and forth easily.”

“Sounds like a plan, and Ah think Ah know just the place. Now we just have to convince Fluttershy to do it for ya.”

“Great! Let’s do that.”

Applejack led them off in the direction of the castle.

“So what does Fluttershy bring you?” Cinder asked.

“Mostly food donated by sympathisers. A lot comes from Sweet Apple Acres,” Applejack replied.

“Are you able to work your farm at all now?” Blue asked.

The earth pony shook her head sadly. “Nope. Twi figured out Ah was part of the Resistance, so Ah can’t go back home. Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh keep it goin’ now with the help of cousin Braeburn.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Doesn’t Queen Twilight suspect that they’re helping you?”

“Probably, but Sweet Apple Acres feeds a lot of the town with more’n just apples, so for now they’re tolerated.”

Once they passed within the dilapidated walls of the castle, the condition of the structure rapidly changed. It became apparent that much covert reconstruction had been done, and the castle was very liveable. One large hall had become a common dining room, and in a room to one side, a kitchen was busy starting to prepare the food that Fluttershy had brought in. While they were waiting for her to finish unloading, they watched the activity of the other occupants of the castle.

Lucida said, “I notice that almost everyone travels in pairs – one pony and one changeling.”

Applejack nodded. “Yep. Standard procedure is ta give everypony a suitable partner. They work together at all times to provide each other backup. The changeling gets the positive emotions they need to feed on, and they keep their partner happy in ways that work best for them.”

“So where’s yours?” Cinder asked curiously.

“Closer than you think,” Bon Bon said before magic fire engulfed her to reveal a Red Changeling.

“Told ya she’s ma right hoof mare, didn’t Ah?” Applejack said with a smirk.

Lucida blinked in surprise. “Makes me wonder which other ponies who I know in Ponyville are also changelings.”

“Not as many as you might think,” Bon Bon replied, “but there were representatives of the Green, Yellow, Violet, and Orange Hives there too. That is until Twilight started sniffing them out with a changeling detection spell. I escaped before I was discovered, but others weren’t so lucky.”

When Fluttershy was finished, Applejack pulled her aside to discuss their request. They noticed that the pegasus shivered a bit at the risk, but she nodded.

“Alright, I’ll do it,” Fluttershy declared quietly but firmly.

They followed her outside once more, and they decided that Destined would walk along with Fluttershy until they were near the edge of the Everfree Forest, where he would conceal himself in her cart. The rest of the group watched them depart until they disappeared among the trees.

Lucida turned to Applejack and said, “While we’re waiting for Destined to return, how about you tell us all you know about what happened at the Crystal City battle? Every bit of information that you can give might help us figure out what was changed and how we might be able to fix it.”

“And how do ya plan to do that? Goin’ to catch the train to the past?” the apple mare asked sarcastically.

“I’m not sure yet, but I suspect a certain Time Turner might have the answer to that.”

The cart was not the most comfortable form of transport, but if the bumps and bruises he endured were the worst to happen, Destined would be more than satisfied. The cart came to a stop without incident, and he heard Fluttershy undoing the harness. A moment later, her soft voice came to him under the covers.

“Wait here while I make sure that the coast is clear.”

Destined desperately wanted to stretch his legs and wings, but he endured for a few more minutes. It wasn’t long before Fluttershy returned, and he heard her say, “Here’s your shipment. I hope it’s everything you needed.”

“I’m sure that you did a fine job, darling. Let me get that for you.”

Destined was certain he knew the owner of that second voice. He almost yelped when he felt himself being magically lifted and carried away with the tarpaulin still draped over him. He was soon put down on a floor and he heard the sound of a door being closed and locked.

“It’s safe to get up now, dear.”

Destined pushed off the tarpaulin and stood up to face the owner of that cultured voice, unsurprised to see a white unicorn with a carefully coiffed purple mane. “Rarity!”

She smiled at him. “I see my fame precedes me, but you have the advantage of me, sir. Who is this handsome alicorn stallion that I see before me?”

“My name is Destined Path, and in a different history, we knew each other well enough. You were, after all, one of my mother’s best friends.”

Rarity’s eyes narrowed. “Am I to infer that you are Queen Twilight’s son?” she asked with a touch of suspicion.

“No, I am not Queen Twilight’s child – I am the son of Princess Twilight Sparkle of Herd Path of the Griffonian House of Path. History has been changed, and my siblings and I are on a quest to rectify it. My sister has been captured though, and we need some help to retrieve her before we can continue.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow. “An interesting heritage and an intriguing goal. Where is this sister of yours?”

“In the changeling holding facility.”

“Your sister is a changeling?” Rarity asked with surprise.

“Half-sister if you want to be pedantic, but we have the same father – Long Path.”

“Then who is your sister’s mother?”

“Queen Gossamer, but you probably know her better as Free Agent.”

Rarity gasped. “Free Agent was a Queen changeling?”

Destined grinned. “Yep. That’s something that most people didn’t know until after the Crystal City battle.”

“Oh my! I had no idea. You poor dear – if your sister is the daughter of a changeling Queen, she is in worse danger than you might think. Queen Twilight is obsessed with capturing all queen changelings for her nefarious plans.”

“Are you able to tell me more about where she’s being held?”

“Oh, darling, I wouldn’t be caught dead in there.”

“Then we’re going to have to wait for her to get out on her own.”

Rarity gave him a flat look. “Really? I believe in optimism, but you really should base your hopes on more than wild expectations.”

Destined smiled knowingly at her. “You don’t know Pif like we do.”

“I do hope for your sake that you’re right. What are you hoping to do in the meantime?”

“First I have to fetch the rest of the group. Will it be okay to bring three more here?”

“Yes, as long as you are prepared to stay concealed upstairs and not give Queen Twilight any idea that I am connected with the Resistance.”

“Of course not! Umm… what do you do for the Resistance anyway?”

“Oh, good heavens, darling, you don’t think the Resistance runs on apples alone? I use my business contacts to procure all kinds of other essential matériel!”

“And you’re happy to work against your friend?”

Rarity scowled. “Queen Twilight is no friend of mine. She betrayed everything our friendship stood for. I would never have believed that I would find more in common with those uncouth changelings than her, but that is the case, and for the sake of the good of Equestria and all free species, I will do my utmost to see that she is brought down!”

“Nice speech, Rarity.”

“Thank you, dear. I’ve been rehearsing it for a while.”

“Pardon me for a minute while I fetch my friends.”

“Of course. How do you…” She paused as Destined teleported away. “Ah – he really is an alicorn, Rarity,” she gently castigated herself for forgetting.

It was just a bit longer than a minute before four figures flashed into existence.

Rarity was startled by the mixture of beings, but her eyebrows really rose at the sight of the huge muscular blue stallion. “Oh my! Where have you been all my life?” she asked Blue Streak.

“Ummm…” was all the disconcerted earth pony could say.

Cinder stepped between him and Rarity. “Mine!” she declared with a toothy grin that held no humour whatsoever.

“Really? Oh well, I thought it was too good to be true. Now I really must ask all of you to move upstairs so that I can reopen the shop. If I stay closed too long at this time of the day, it might look suspicious.”

The foursome moved in the direction of the stairs that she indicated.

“The spare bedroom is the second on the left. Please don’t touch anything!”

They found themselves in a room that had obviously last been used by a filly, but not for some time. There was a photo on the dresser of Rarity with her sister Sweetie Belle, taken on the day that she had gotten her cutie mark. Destined picked it up and looked around at the other objects in the room, wondering where Sweetie was now. Perhaps there was more than one reason for a fashionista to be so actively opposed to the tyrant Queen?

Pif reclined on the cell’s cot and considered her options. She had to escape, of course, but this changeling prison facility was proving to be a mine of information so far, and she suspected that she would learn a lot more before this day was done. She at least needed to know what this party that they kept mentioning was all about, and why she sensed that Carpacia was dreading it.

Just then her thoughts were interrupted by a bright and excessively cheerful voice. “Hi there, colts and fillies! Do you know what time it is?”

There was a chorus of groans, curses, and various replies such as: ‘Time for you to drop dead’, and ‘Time to shove a cactus up your sphincter’, as well as some even more unpleasant suggestions.

“That’s right – it’s Party Time!” was the exuberant response, utterly undeterred by the attitude of the changelings.

Pif recognised the owner of that voice, and she moved back over to the bars in order to peer as best as she could up the corridor. There she spotted an extremely cheerful Pinkie Pie pushing a cart laden with cakes, donuts, cream buns, chocolates, sweets, and other sugary treats, plus bottles of various flavours of soda. She was heading down one of the other corridors though, and she quickly disappeared from view. However, her voice continued to carry to Pif.

“I know what you’ve all been waiting for, and here it is fresh from Sugarcube Corner! Now don’t push – there’s plenty for everyone.”

Pif wondered what the hay she was talking about. She had not heard any cells being unlocked, so there was no way that any ’ling could be crowding the pink pony.

“Well, it looks as if I won’t starve, at least,” she said to no one in particular.

A derisive snort came from Carpacia’s cell. “She’s here to feed us, alright, but it’s not what’s on her cart.”

Pif recalled the times that she had met Pinkie, and how the bubbly mare was always a font of joy and laughter. Her positive emotions were plentiful and tasty, and Pif had often overfed on them as a child, causing her parents no end of grief until Free drained the excess from her. At least she had a lot more self-control now, so she would not over-indulge this time. “So we get a meal plus dessert – what’s so bad about that?”

Carpacia chuckled humourlessly. “That’s all the physical food that you’re going to get.”

Pif considered that statement. All of the energy needs of changelings were supplied by consuming the ambient energy of positive emotions, but they still needed some solid food and drink to supply their need for mass to build their bodies and replace worn-out parts. And one other thing…. “Wait – are you saying that we won’t be getting any vegetables, meat, or fruit?”

“Nope – those aren’t party foods.”

“But what about vitamins?”

“You catch on fast; none of us are getting any. Several of us are sick due to vitamin deficiencies.”

“That’s ridiculous! Have you tried asking for other foods?”

“We gave up trying. You’ll soon find out for yourself.” Carpacia then lost interest in the conversation once more.

Pif resigned herself to waiting until Pinkie returned. Meanwhile she tried to listen to what was happening. Most of what she could hear was Pinkie’s exuberantly loud voice, exhorting them to eat up, play games, or sing songs. The sing-along was particularly bizarre as it consisted of the pink mare singing all the parts herself. Eventually she turned into Pif’s corridor, and even from a distance the changeling was inundated with a flood of laughter and joy. Reflexively she consumed it even as she watched the mare work her way down the corridor, putting party treats on the shelves outside the bars of each cell. Finally Pif could see what she had only surmised until then – Pinkie kept telling the inmates to stop crowding around and that there was plenty for all, despite the fact that no ’ling could get out of their cell, and in fact several completely ignored her.

When Pinkie got to Pif’s cell, she gasped in delight. “OH! A new foal! Happy birthday! I have a special treat for you.” She dug around on the lower shelf of the cart and pulled out a huge birthday cake with six candles on it already lit.

“What the hell are you talking about, Pinkie?” Pif asked. “I’m not a foal nor is it my birthday.”

Pinkie seemed to not hear a word she said though, and she slapped a party hat on Pif and started singing the birthday song. “Make a wish, it’s your birthday…!”

Pif was about to try again when she noticed Pinkie’s eyes, and she shuddered. The pupils were contracted to pinpoints and a swirling miasma of magic coloured the rest. “She’s under a spell!” Pif gasped.

“Now you’re getting it,” Carpacia said. “To Miss Food Feast here, we’re all foals here for a never-ending party, and any new prisoners are foals who have been sent to join the party as a special treat for their birthday. You can literally say anything to her, and she will either not hear it, or she will interpret it in some party fashion in her delusional way.”

Pif decided to give it a test. “Pinkie, can I have some vegetable soup for my birthday?”

“You want ice cream? Sure! Which flavour is your favourite?” Pinkie replied as she whipped out several kinds from seemingly nowhere.

“Tuna and onion.”

“Pistachio it is then!” Pinkie replied, doling out a generous dollop. “Enjoy! Now who’s next?” Pinkie pushed her cart to the next cell where the ridiculous behaviour continued.

Pif was feeling a bit bloated from all the emotional energy that she had gained from Pinkie, and she really wasn’t in the mood for the sugary treats. She didn’t plan to stay too long if she could help it. “What’s the point of all of this? We’re kept prisoner, but then treated to a feast of joy and party food – it doesn’t make sense!”

“You’ve only seen half of it so far. You’re not going to like the second part,” Carpacia replied snarkily.

Pif frowned in annoyance. “Well, how about you telling me instead of being so mysterious about it?”

“I have to get my entertainment somehow.”

Pif regarded her with pity. “How low have you sunk, Carpacia? You used to be the queen of a powerful hive, and now you’re just an apathetic shell of your old self.”

Carpacia snorted. “When you’ve been in here as long as I have, I’ll bet you won’t be so self-righteous.”

“So you’re not going to tell me because you’re sulking. Okay, I’ll remember that in future.” Pif decided to eat some of the food anyway – Pinkie’s food was always delicious, and vitamins or not, she could do with a bit of solid food to keep herself at maximum potential.

Eventually Pinkie had fed every inmate, sung several more songs, played games with them (a bizarre sight in itself), and then finally left them to recover from the emotional overload. Pif reclined on her cot, trying to digest it all when she heard the cell block’s door being opened again. She got up to observe what was happening this time, hoping that Pinkie had not returned already. Her eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected visitor.

Princess Cadance walked slowly inside, turning into Pif’s corridor. She looked positively awful. Her mane looked so unkempt that it probably had not been cared for in years. Her face fur was damp with tears that never seemed to cease, and her expression was of bitter woe. She wore a sack strung around her neck, and strangely, she was also carrying a white pony on her back. As she got closer, Pif recognised Shining Armor, although barely. The stallion had an utterly vacant look on his face, and was drooling onto Cadance’s fur. It was immediately obvious that his mind was gone.

Cadance stopped outside of Pif’s cell and looked her over. “So it’s true – they’ve caught another queen. She’s young and healthy, Shining; she’ll be able to give us lots of love energy. With her, we’re closer to healing the Heart and restoring you.” Her horn lit up.

“Auntie Cadance, what are you doing…?” Pif began before she was struck by a beam from the horn. She screamed in agony as she felt the love energy that she had digested being ripped from her. She had eaten so much of it that it took a very long time to drain it from her, and she writhed in severe pain on the cell floor until it was almost all gone and the drain stopped. She was left gasping and weak, and she barely was able to whisper, “Why?”

Cadance was utterly unmoved by Pif’s plight, and the changeling only then noticed that her energy was being fed into the sack before she moved on to Carpacia’s cell and repeated the performance. Pif listened to the Red Queen’s screams even as she lapsed into semi-unconsciousness from tiredness. She still heard the cries of agony as the former Princess of Love used her talent to rip it out of the rest of the inmates.

Pif woke up, stiff and sore from sleeping on the hard concrete floor of the cell. She struggled to her hooves and barely made it to the cot to collapse onto it. Cadance had left her barely enough emotion energy to stay alive, but she suspected that that situation would soon change. In fact she was only lying on the mattress for about ten minutes before Pinkie’s voice echoed through the cell block once more.

“Who wants hot chocolate?!”

Sure enough, the pink mare was pushing her cart once more, but this time laden with mugs of steaming hot chocolate with marshmallows floating on top. Along with the mare came a wave of joy and laughter which re-energised Pif, but not nearly enough yet. She made her way over to the cell bars to get as close as possible to Pinkie and consciously tried to consume as much energy as she could, but without actually being able to touch her, it was still limited. However, now that she was partly restored, Pif was able to think clearly again.

“Pinkie! Remember me – the birthday filly?”

“Ooh, yes! Are you having a super-duper funtabulous day?” Pinkie asked eagerly, her eyes swirling with magic-induced madness.

“I am, but one thing could make it even better.”

“Oh? What is it? Another cake? More games? Wanna play with Gummy?”

“No – all I want is a big long hug from my favourite party mare.”

“Ooh, clever,” Carpacia murmured just loud enough for Pif to hear.

Pinkie was thrilled. “Sure! I love hugs!” She thrust her forelegs through the bars and embraced Pif, who promptly began draining her positive emotions as fast as she could. The Avatar of Laughter seemed to be an almost limitless font of energy, and she didn’t seem to notice Pif’s affect upon her, but eventually she regretfully broke the hug. “I have to give the rest of the colts and fillies their hot chocolate now.”

“Thanks, Pinkie,” Pif said sincerely. It was not Pinkie’s fault that she was ensorcelled. Pif was feeling almost one hundred percent again though, and she could go ahead with her plans. There was still one thing that she needed to understand first, however.

When Pinkie had given Carpacia her hot chocolate, and incidentally fed her some emotional energy to revive her, Pif confronted the Red Queen again. “Okay, tell me what that was all about, and don’t give me any shit this time.”

Carpacia looked as if she was going to ignore her again, but something in Pif’s expression changed her mind. “That sack around Cadance’s neck contains the remnants of the Crystal Heart which was destroyed during the invasion of the Crystal City, which meant that population had to be evacuated to Equestria. As I said before, Cadance believes that if she can restore the Heart, she will be able to cure her husband, and she’s trying to do that by draining love energy from us changelings. She fell in with Queen Twilight to capture and incarcerate us in this special facility in order to drain changelings for that purpose, bewitching their good friend Pinkie Pie to do so. They continue to pursue this goal even though it’s utterly futile.”

“But the Heart has been shattered and restored before, so why do you reckon that it is completely futile now?” Flurry Heart’s example was more than sufficient, and Pif refrained from mentioning how the damaged Heart was repaired by Cadance in conjunction with the five Hive Queens in the proper time-line.

“Shattered, yes, and repaired with a combination of a Crystalling and a special restoration spell. However, the Heart isn’t merely shattered this time. It was burned out by the excessive draw upon it during the battle. It’s a sackful of slag and rubble that cannot be repaired under any circumstances, and so we are doomed to our miserable existence. Cadance can’t use Pinkie’s energy directly, so she uses changelings to process it into a useable form which she then extracts from us. While we can share that energy easily with our drones, Cadance does not have the hive-link to enable her to do so also, so she rips it out of us the hard way.”

Pif nodded thoughtfully. So Cadance had endured so much mental trauma that she had probably gone insane, and there would not be any help from her. Maybe Twilight was using her to punish the changelings? It didn’t really matter because they had two crazy alicorns to deal with in any case, and two helpless ones to rescue. It was time to rejoin the others and compare notes. Hopefully they had found out some useful information too. She certainly wasn’t sticking around for another round of binging and purging!

“Thanks, Carpacia. Now that I understand what’s going on, my siblings and I can do something about it.”

“Did that energy drain twist your mind or something? There’s nothing that you can do here.”

“You’re absolutely right – I can’t do it here, so I have to leave. I’m sorry that I can’t take you with me.”

“What are you blathering about?” Carpacia asked irritably.

“I have enough energy now to teleport out of here.”

“HA! You have gone nuts. Changelings can’t teleport.”

“I am the child of an unusual mutant changeling conceived in a gestalt with all four of my parents, including an alicorn. I am not your normal changeling queen. Unfortunately I need to be touching you or someone else touching you to take you along, so I have to leave you behind. I can only do this once before needing recovery time too, so I can’t teleport to your cell and then teleport out again.”

Carpacia shook her head. “If you can get out and do something about our situation, then do it! That’s more hope than we’ve had in years.”

Pif was now seeing the Changeling Queen that she was more familiar with. “You have my word that we will fix this. Goodbye, Queen Carpacia.”

Pif first changed to a unicorn form before she closed her eyes to concentrate. Her range was very limited, and she intended to put as much energy as she could into the effort to get as far away from the changeling facility as possible. Fortunately her familiarity with Ponyville let her focus better and extended her range a bit. She poured her energy into the magic and flashed out of her cell.

A pink-maned and tan-furred unicorn popped into existence in the middle of the parkland. As Pif had hoped, it was deserted, and her arrival had not been noticed. Now she had to try to find the others while avoiding identification as a changeling, but where to find them? Getting close to the castle again was too dangerous, and Sugarcube Corner was out of the question. Who knew how her mother’s other friends were like, but maybe she had to take a chance? It was still a better alternative than trusting a stranger. She made up her mind and headed for Fluttershy’s cottage.

Pif looked carefully about when she reached her destination, but Fluttershy’s home and yard looked exactly as she remembered them. She extended her senses to try to detect any inimical emotions, but found nothing except for a small but intense angry spot that she recognised as Angel Bunny. Situation normal then. She took a deep breath, marched up to the door and knocked. After a slight wait, the top half of the door opened slightly.

“Yes? Can I help you?” came Fluttershy’s timorous voice.

“I’m looking for some friends of mine, and I was hoping that you might have seen them.”

Pif felt the butter-yellow mare’s fear skyrocket. “M-maybe. Who are they?”

“A blue earth pony, an alicorn stallion, a hippogriff, and a dragon.” Pif was committed now. If Fluttershy was siding with Twilight, she could have given herself away.

“Umm… just one moment.”

There was a confusing mess of emotions that Pif could make no sense of before the door flew open wide, and a paw shot out and grabbed her by the throat. She was pulled inside the cottage before she realised that Harry the bear had grabbed her and was moments away from crushing her throat.

Fluttershy peered from behind the bear’s legs. “Who are you?” she asked suspiciously.

Pif was both terrified and impressed. Who knew that the timid pegasus would prove such a threat? “My name is Epiphany,” she choked out, “but my family calls me Pif.”

Fluttershy seemed to recognise the name. “Umm, could you prove it… if you don’t mind?”

Pif certainly didn’t mind! But did this mean that the mare knew what she was as well as who she was? Time for a leap of faith. Pif’s form flared with green fire and revealed her natural form.

“Oh! Harry, you can put her down now. Thank you, my friend.”

The bear actually seemed to smile at Pif as he put her down carefully and shuffled off. Pif sighed with relief.

Fluttershy smiled shyly at the changeling. “Your friends are safe. They are staying with Rarity at the moment while they look for you. I never expected to see you come to my door though.”

“In another time, you knew me well, so I hoped that we could at least be friends here too. Anyway, I need to rejoin my brothers and sisters. We have to find a way to fix this situation.”

“Applejack explained to me what they told her. How can you do anything though?”

“With the help of a certain Time Turner, I expect. That pony has some explaining to do.”

Fluttershy looked confused, but eventually just shrugged. “I’ll take you to your friends.”

“I know where Rarity’s place is – I can get there by myself.” She resumed her unicorn disguise.

“But you don’t know where the hidden changeling traps are, and you have to dodge the Royal Guards who have changeling detection spells.”

Pif wondered what a changeling trap was like. “Okay, I can see the need for a guide, if you think you’re up for it. I wouldn’t want to impose on you.”

Fluttershy straightened up and looked proud. “It’s no imposition for the Resistance!” she said in her small but determined voice.

Now there’s a phrase I would never have believed I’d hear from Fluttershy,’ Pif thought. “Okay, let’s do this.”

Pif’s nerves were somewhat frayed by the time they reached Rarity’s home, and she wondered how Fluttershy could stand it. Adversity certainly had toughened the mare, it seemed. They entered the building, and as the doorbell announced their arrival, Rarity’s voice floated to them.

“Welcome to the Carousel Boutique… oh, Fluttershy dear, who would your friend be?”

Although the question was asked in Rarity’s normal tone of voice, her suspicion had flared instantly at seeing the stranger. Pif went back to her changeling form as Fluttershy said, “This is the changeling our friends are looking for.”

“Hi, Rarity. My name is Epiphany, but you can call me Pif.”

Rarity gave her a genuine smile this time. “I am delighted to meet you, dear Epiphany. If you would like to hurry upstairs, I think you will find what you’re looking for.”

“Thanks!” Pif turned to Fluttershy. “And thank you for your help too. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

Fluttershy glowed with embarrassment but smiled and nodded. “You’re welcome, Pif. I better get back to my animals – it’s nearly feeding time.”

Pif waved to the pegasus before heading upstairs. The first person that she saw was Blue Streak anxiously pacing up and down the hallway. His eyes widened in surprised delight.

“Pif! You’re safe! Thank Celestia!”

The two embraced as the others poured out of the bedroom after hearing Pif’s name called out, and they joined in the hug. Eventually Lucida spoke up.

“Come into the bedroom and take a load off. We have to compare notes and decide our course of action. As the Doctor said, it looks like we have to save Equestria.”

“Let me sum up,” Lucida said. “With what we have learned from Mom… I mean Queen Twilight, plus Applejack, Rarity, and now Carpacia, we can determine that something happened at a crucial moment during the battle at the Crystal City to drastically change the outcome, resulting in Chrysalis killing Path, Free, Roseclaw, Blue, and other close acquaintances. Shining Armor was rendered brain dead and Cadance suffered a nervous breakdown from which she has never recovered. Twilight went insane from all the killing combined with the loss of her herdmates, son, and close friends, and usurped Celestia and Luna’s power and authority. I still find that part incomprehensible, but we have to deal with it anyway. Ironically, Chrysalis still was killed when Twilight used all that power to attack her. Changelings are not only persona non grata, but are actively captured and tortured for their ability to process emotional energy for Cadance’s futile quest to repair the Crystal Heart. The Kingdom suffers under Queen Twilight’s heavy-hoofed rule, and Harmony is disrupted. So, the question is – what are we going to do about it?”

Pif replied, “It seems obvious to me that the Doctor hasn’t told us everything as yet, but then again he probably had good reason not to do so. We now know what has happened, so the trick is to find some way of going back to that moment and fix it. From what the Doctor has told us so far, I believe he has the means to do that.”

“Then why hasn’t he done so himself?” Cinder asked.

“Good question,” Lucida admitted. “I think it’s time we go …”

This building is surrounded! All rebels come out and surrender immediately!” The voice thundered through the building, shaking everyone to the core.

Blue dashed to the window and peered out. “It’s Queen Twilight and a company of Royal Guards! They’ve surrounded the building alright. What are we going to do?”

“Teleport out,” Destined replied. “We’ve found out what we needed to, so let’s waste no more time.”

“What about Rarity?” Pif asked.

“We leave her. If we fix history, nothing will ever happen to her,” Lucida replied pragmatically. “Or ever have happened. Time tenses are confusing.”

They gathered together and Destined’s horn glowed, and then… nothing.

“BUCK!” Destined swore. “Twilight’s put up an anti-teleport field. We’re stuck here.”

“We can’t be captured – we might not be able to escape and undo all this,” Cinder said.

Blue scowled. “I want to know how they found us.”

Just then, Rarity’s voice came up to their window. “Whatever is the matter, darling? What’s this talk of rebels?”

Twilight replied, “That is Your Majesty to you, Rarity – not darling. Don’t play me for the fool. My spell has detected the alicorn in your home. He is one of the rebel group that tried to trick me this morning, and I have no doubt I’ll find the rest with him.”

“Ask, and you shall have your answer,” Lucida said with an ironic look at Blue. “No need to pussyfoot around anymore.”

“Why, Twilight Sparkle, I have never heard such nonsense! Why would they have any reason to trick you?”

“Why would you have any reason to conceal them? Stand aside, Rarity.”

“If our friendship ever meant anything, you will not do this, Twilight.”

“Friendship got my fiancé killed, my herdmates slaughtered, my foster son murdered before my eyes. I will not tolerate anything that threatens Equestria ever again.”

“Many of the changelings were your allies and no threat to Equestria, yet you imprison them and abuse them in spite of the fact that your own fiancé was one.”

Free Agent was not like them! I betrayed his trust once and swore I would never do so again!” Twilight screamed at Rarity before she quieted down a bit. “Free was different. He never let me down like I did to him.”

“For shame, Twilight. When did you ever give the others a chance?”

Twilight glared at Rarity. “Enough! Either step aside, or we go through you.”

“I will not step aside for a monster.”

Twilight screamed and engulfed the alabaster unicorn in her magic, hurling her away to crash into the wall of a nearby building. Rarity slumped to the ground, unmoving. Twilight then made the signal for the Guards to enter, but they had only just started to comply when an enormous shockwave scattered them like leaves in the wind, knocking most unconscious. Twilight had a basic shield spell up, but even she was stunned because it was not well-suited to blocking shockwaves.

While Rarity had stalled Twilight, the group had hastened downstairs and prepared to fight their way out. As usual, Blue would lead the charge, but his kind of charge needed a bit of a run-up. Back when he first broke the sound barrier, that meant several hundred metres to build up momentum. Years of practice and experience had pared that down, but he still could not do it from a standing start. Everyone hastily made a clear path between the front door and an adjacent room that more or less lined up with it. With furniture out of the way, Blue took off his two front shoes to draw up as much power as he could quickly. When it became apparent that Twilight’s patience had expired, he slipped the shoes back on and braced himself. The moment the front door opened and the first Guard entered, he took off. He slammed the first two Guards aside as if they were nothing, pushing the final amount to break the sound barrier just a few metres past the door.

The others had been protected by Destined’s force-field, and they charged out as fast as they could after the speedster. More Guards poured around the building which had protected them from the shockwave, and pegasi dropped from the sky. Twilight had come prepared for a big fight, but still she had underestimated the group. Whereas they had originally fought in confined space and with a view to not causing unnecessary harm, the warriors were now free to act within their full capability, and with the knowledge that if they were successful in correcting the time changes, any harm they caused now would never come to be. The Guards never stood a chance.

Pif took full advantage of her natural queen changeling abilities to blast her foes, but she also called forth her spirit weapon. Far from the dark and dangerous tool that she had manifested when escaping from Chrysalis, this one had been crafted carefully to be in tune with chi, and she had practiced long and hard with it. Spears, swords, and even arrows were deflected until she could get in close to deal a disabling strike, the gleaming scythe temporarily paralysing the victim without actually harming them.

Cinder’s hide was impervious to all but the most powerful blows, and she had the fighting skills pounded into her by Warfist to not let her enemy get the chance to do that. Between her fire-breath and her talons, she wreaked havoc on the Guards.

Although she was also gifted with deadly talons, Lucida fought with a more intellectual and calculated style. She moved with grace and precision to dodge and disable opponents. She took on more of the pegasi as she was the superior aerial fighter, and was aware of their weaknesses.

Blue had circled back, and while he was a graduate of Warfist’s intense training methods, he also had the advantages of strength and speed. He never needed to block an opponent’s attack because he simply moved out of the way of it faster than they could comprehend. He backed up his brother, sisters, and mate whenever it looked as if they were getting overwhelmed.

Destined, ever the pacifist, was loathe to fight, but part of being a warrior-scholar was being able to do so when necessity called upon him. He used his wings to batter and confuse the Guards, then used his alicorn-level power to blast them with intense stun spells that overloaded their armour’s protective enchantments.

However, they did not waste time fighting more than they needed to. Lucida knew that Twilight could call upon more Guards until they were eventually overwhelmed, and that was without taking into account the alicorn herself. Twilight was already showing signs of recovery when Lucida directed the group to head to the Doctor’s workshop. Ideally, they would not have led the enemy there, but she realised that they had extremely little chance of escaping without being tracked. It was a calculated risk to box themselves within his workshop, but she believed that the enigmatic Time Turner could deal with their problem in a timely manner.

Destined brought up the rear of the group, projecting a shield to protect them from missiles and magic blasts, and they made their way very swiftly to the workshop. To their surprise, the Doctor was standing in the doorway, watching them approach. He stood aside to let them dash inside, and then calmly closed the door behind them.

“Good! Right on time. Preparations are complete,” he declared.

“On time?” Pif asked between pants. “How could we be on time if we didn’t even know that we were going to come here until a few minutes ago?”

“Oh, I had confidence that you’d make it,” the Doctor replied with a smile.

“Well, I hope you have confidence in your workshop’s integrity, because we have a pack of pissed-off Royal Guards plus Twilight Sparkle on our tails!” Cinder snarled.

“Not to worry – this workshop exists in a state of grace. Nothing can break in,” he replied with a confident smile.

The whole workshop shuddered as if hit by a huge mallet.

The Doctor’s smile slipped a little bit. “On the other hoof, I never did fully understand this magic stuff. All that power coming from a single being is quite remarkable!”

Derpy trotted up to them. “Now Doc, there isn’t time for that. These people need to be on their way.”

The Doctor’s confident grin returned. “Quite right, my dear. Come along!” Without waiting to see if they complied, the Doctor led them deeper into the workshop. He took a device off his workbench and held it out to Blue. “Here – strap this onto your foreleg.”

Blue regarded it with suspicion before complying.

“That looks like the device that Derpy was wearing when she rescued us from the time-changes,” Lucida observed.

“Excellent! Quite right, my dear. Well, mostly right. It’s a vortex manipulator, but with a vastly greater range than the one my darling Derpy was using. Also, it needs a far more powerful energy source than can be contained within the device.”

“Then what good is it?”

“Aha! That’s where it gets clever! It’s been adapted to draw on Blue Streak’s earth power. He need only charge himself up, and the vortex manipulator will do the rest. Well… not all the rest; it still needs to be guided, and that’s where you come in, Destined Path.”

“Me? What am I supposed to do?” Destined asked with a perplexed look.

“You do know what a septendecapetadakon is?” the Doctor asked.

Destined was startled. “Are you talking about my model of space and time in sixteen dimensions?”

“What else? You know how it is constructed, and that means you can navigate. You will provide the guidance for the vortex manipulator.”

“Are you crazy? I can barely visualise it, let alone navigate it.”

The workshop shuddered once more.

The Doctor looked up with the barest hint of concern. “It’s either that or deal with your friends outside.”

Destined looked over to Lucida, pleading with his eyes for some support.

Lucida hated the pressure of dealing with important decisions on short notice, but she was very good at it. “If the Doctor says you can do it, I believe he’s right, and I have confidence in you.”

The Doctor grinned. “Great! Now that that’s settled, Blue Streak, take off your shoes. All of them please.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Doc,” Blue replied even as he slipped off his two front shoes.

“You’re going to need a lot of power…”

The Doctor was interrupted by another more powerful blow to the workshop.

“… and you’re going to need it fast. You’ll only need to keep it under control for a short time before activating the vortex manipulator.”

“Okay, if you say so.” The rear shoes came off also. “That’s odd – the power isn’t flowing into me as quickly as it should.”

The Doctor shrugged. “Can’t be helped. The same thing that is protecting my workshop is interfering with the flow. Just do your best.” He turned back to Destined. “Meanwhile, you should know when you need to go back to.”

“Yes, the day of the Battle of the Crystal City.”

“No!” Lucida immediately contradicted. “At least three days prior to that. We need to scout around and set ourselves up first to observe. We know roughly when, but we don’t know exactly how and who did what. And another thing – will this vortex manipulator take us to the Crystal City also?”

“Yes… well… no – spatial displacement limits the temporal. You could get to the city, but not back far enough in time. Or you can go to the right time but have to travel there.”

“Right, I figured something like that could trip us up. We have to allow time to travel there by our own means, and I know Destined can’t teleport all of us that far. Better make it a week to allow for unknowns.”

Destined looked at the Doctor with an eyebrow quirked. “That seems to be a strange limitation considering the space-time theory.”

The Doctor shrugged. “Best I could throw together in a few hours. Do you have something better?”

Destined looked away in embarrassment. He was quibbling with a pony who seemed to know more about time than anyone including Starswirl the Bearded, and he was complaining that he didn’t get the luxury model.

The workshop shuddered again.

The Doctor raised his eyebrows. “My! Twilight Sparkle is taking her time and building up a lot of power to hit us with. It might be a good idea if you depart sooner rather than later.”

“I’m pulling power as fast as I can,” Blue replied testily.

“And you still haven’t shown them how to work the vortex manipulator, Doc,” Derpy reminded him.

The Doctor facehoofed. “I knew I was forgetting something. Alright, pay attention. It’s simple enough, and it has a failsafe, but you could end up in real strife if you’re counting on it but you screw it up.”

“Like now,” Cinder commented.

“Yes, exactly.” The Doctor then showed them the functions of the device, and how Destined was to interact with it as navigator. He had just finished when another attack made the workshop shudder the worst yet, and deep-toned bell started tolling somewhere else in the building.

“Well, that seems to be all that we have time for,” the Doctor said. “Put your shoes back on, Blue Streak, and give it a whirl.”

Blue complied, and then allowed Lucida to activate the vortex manipulator. They all gathered in a huddle and Destined let his consciousness extend until he meshed with the field from the device.

“Let’s get this over with,” Blue said impatiently.

“Goodbye, Doctor, and thanks,” Lucida said.

The Doctor smirked a little. “Have fun!”

A large swirling hole in space-time suddenly manifested underneath them and, with startled yells, the five dropped out of the universe.

“Oh bother,” Derpy said with a pout, “I forgot to pack muffins for them.”




Chapter 2: Proceeding To The Past


The grass was soft on her hooves.

… … …

“Where are we?”

“Far, far away from that awful place my dear. Think of it no longer.”

“Think of what no longer?”

“Hmm? Oh nothing…”

… … …

“It appears there are still some faint stars on the horizon. That band of miscreants was not able to destroy everybuggy it seems. Should we bring them to us?”

“It would be best that we did so; regroup before we can go about a plan of action.”

“Oh, there will be plenty of time for that. There are things I must teach you so that you can grow in power to rival the combined alicorn forces.”

“My Queen!”

“You’re alive! Why was it so quiet!”

“Where is everyone!?”

“I was so worried!”

“SILENCE! You are the last of a proud hive; you will not sully it by acting like hatchlings!”

… … …

“Who would have guessed – the Mad Queen likes to keep watch as her brood sleeps.”

“I... I wasn’t watching them for any of those reasons. I was trying to pick which one I was going to test the new technique you taught me on.”

“Oh… just one?”

“I wouldn’t randomly test something on all of my hive members, not when I have so few left. But you make a good point.”

“Nngghh… What is it? I’m still so tired...”

“What’s going on?!”

“What’s she doing? AAAAaaaaaAAA!”

“M-mother… It hurts…why…?”

“This power... I want it! I WANT MORE!”

“Ah, they always do.”

“Such power… I didn’t have this much even when I was harvesting the Shining Cow. No wonder it took me so long to get it under control….”

“Too bad four of your hive were not fast enough to evade you.”

“Ah, they are just passed out; that happens when they are drained of emotions. They will get up in a few hours and be exhausted but otherwise okay.”

“But Chrysalis, draining in your old way would not have given you that much power. No, my dear, you have done something far, far worse. But as you said before – whatever it takes to end them, right?”

“Hmm, so how long will it take for them to wake up? Or are they going to come back via the Great Circle?”

“Oh no, my dear, what you did, you drained their very essence, their very soul. Death will not come for them because there is nothing for him to reap. You have consumed their very eternity; nothing is left of them now.”

“Y-you monster!”

“I am not the monster; I just gave you a tool. You then promptly lost control and abused it. But now that this learning experience is finished, sleep for now. We will be heading east in the morning where some… fans will be helping us gather more… followers… willing to give tribute, shall we say?”

“I… I have to do that again?”

“Many, many more times, my dear. It is necessary to power what we are going to do. But as I said, rest for now.”

Four stars faded, never to be seen again. The Queen did not sleep well that night.

The journey through the vortex took longer than their first trip, although the very concept of duration when moving through time itself made Pif’s head hurt. She could hardly imagine how Destined could even begin to envisage a sixteen-dimensional pathway to their destination. The vortex itself was an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and colour as they fell helplessly through it, her mind unable to comprehend what she was seeing. Blue and Destined were ahead of her, perhaps because they were the instigators of their journey. Blue’s expression was determined, while Destined… it was difficult to say. Blank was perhaps the best description, as if his mind was elsewhere… or possibly everywhere. Pif hoped that meant that he knew what he was doing.

Abruptly they burst out of the vortex and into darkness. Blue and Destined hit the ground first, closely followed by the rest of them piling up on top of them.

“Cinder, love, please get your foot off my face,” Blue’s muffled voice came from underneath the pile.

“Oops! Sorry!” The dragoness hastily moved off the stallion.

“Why is it so dark?” Pif asked.

“My fault,” Lucida said, removing her wing from over Pif’s head and rolling onto herself upright.

That didn’t make a huge amount of difference though, and Pif realised that it was night, and all the light available came from the moon overhead. She looked around, surprised at not finding herself in the workshop still. “Where are we?”

Destined seem to come out of his dreamlike daze just then. “I displaced us spatially a little bit. I thought that it would be wise not to pop into the Doctor’s workshop unexpectedly. I can’t quite figure that stallion out, but I have a suspicion that it would be best not to cause any complications involving him.”

“And it’s night too. That’s good – nopony will have seen us arrive.” Blue commented as he struggled to his hooves. His legs wobbled and he collapsed back to the ground. “Why am I so weak?”

Destined replied, “I needed to use all your energy to make the trip back through time. Just rest for now and regain your strength.”

“But I should be able to recharge just from contact with the earth,” Blue objected.

Destined shook his head. “You didn’t have time to store enough extra energy, so I had to draw on your body’s resources too. What you need is something to eat.”

“That explains why I feel as if I’m starving. Anyone got a snack on them?”

Just then, a connection was made in Pif’s mind, and she gave a tremulous sigh of relief. “Oh, thank the stars!”

“Huh? What’s up, Pif?” Cinder asked.

“The hive-mind – it’s here and I’ve just re-joined it. You don’t know how awful it was for me to not have that connection. It’s like a piece of me was missing.”

“You didn’t have it back there… then… whatever?”

“No. Chrysalis was killed and never passed it on to Dad, so it was completely gone, and I couldn’t connect to the other hives’ networks.”

Lucida nodded in understanding. “Just be careful not to give yourself away. Remember that it’s still controlled by Chrysalis at this time.”

“I know. I resisted the impulse to send an enquiry through it. All I have is the normal background murmur, and because I’m technically a Blue Changeling, my presence is not unusual. As long as I don’t draw attention to myself, it’ll be safe.”

“So what’s our next move?” Destined asked.

Lucida replied, “Now that we aren’t running for our lives and have the luxury of time to think, we will need to make some firm plans. We need to get to the Crystal Kingdom, so that’s our first priority.”

“That’s not hard – the train will get us there,” Pif said.

“And how are we going to pay the fare? Have you got any bits on you? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t pack a pouch when I got up in Griffonia this morning… whenever… you know what I mean.”

Pif had to admit that she had not done so either. Neither did Cinder nor Destined. Who needed money when wandering around their own estate?

“I’ve got some coins stashed inside my smilodon vest,” Blue admitted. “They’re Griffonian Crowns though, so I don’t think they’re going to be much use here.”

“Then we’re going to have to get some money, and we could do with a sponsor,” Pif declared.

“Sure! Let’s walk up to the first pony we see, tell them we’re poor time-travellers, and could they spare a few bits,” Cinder said sarcastically.

Lucida grinned before turning to the north where a castle on the mountainside could be seen gleaming in the moonlight. “No, I think I have a better idea. Destined, think you can get us to Canterlot?”

“I’ve taken a couple of ponies that far before – I think I can manage four.”

“Good. Whenever you’re ready, take us to the Canterlot market.”

“Not the castle?”

“We’re trying not to draw attention to ourselves. Can you think of a worse place to appear?”

“Good point. Hang on, everybody!” Destined’s horn lit up, and they disappeared in a flash of light…

… and appeared again in a deserted marketplace.

Lucida nodded in satisfaction. “Good – I judged the hour correctly. Nopony is here at this time. How much Griffonian coin do you have, Blue?”

“It’s my stash in case I need to leave at a moment’s notice, so I have enough for a few meals plus a few extras.”

“Perfect! Now we find us a Griffish restaurant. I don’t know about everyone else, but I could do with a meal.”

Pif shuddered. “While I’m not that hungry, I think I could top up my reserves. But is having dinner really our first course of action?”

“Blue needs to eat to help replenish his strength, and I think the rest of us should have a proper meal considering what we just went through. Besides, the person I intend to approach for sponsorship will be available for quite some time as yet.”

Pif’s mouth opened in an ‘Oh’ of realisation. “Do you think that’s wise?”

“Do you have a better idea?”

Pif did not right then, and she shook her head.

“Okay – if I remember correctly, the Hunter’s Feast is this way,” Lucida said, pointing up one of the streets out of the market. “It’s certified to serve non-sapient sources of meat for the griffon population. Destined – could you carry Blue? He can’t make it there by himself right now, and he would hide those wings of yours if we encounter anypony. Having a dragon in our party is going to be difficult enough to explain, but an unknown alicorn stallion would stand out way too much.”

“Sure!” Destined replied, levitating the earth pony onto a comfortable position on his back. Blue’s size currently exceeded the alicorn’s, but Destined’s own earth pony strength was enough to cope.

The group started moving in the direction that Lucida had pointed out. As they passed through the market, Cinder spotted a small tarpaulin that had been left behind, and she grabbed it.

“What’s that for?” Blue asked curiously.

Cinder grinned. “Unless you plan to eat while draped across Destined’s back, I think we need something else to hide his wings.”

“Good thinking, Cinder,” Lucida commented.

Although they had hoped to get to the restaurant without incident, they encountered a patrol of the Night Guard. It was too much to hope that they would not draw attention to themselves, and sure enough the squad moved to intercept them.

“Halt! Please identify yourselves,” the squad’s leader demanded.

Lucida stepped forward. “I am the daughter of Lord Path of Griffonia, and we’re on a diplomatic visit to Canterlot. My friends and I wished to sample some of the local cuisine, and Epiphany here has consented to show us around.”

The stallion thought about that for a moment before pointing a hoof at Blue. “And what about him?”

“He sampled too much of something else earlier,” Lucida said with a grin.

Blue gave the Guard a lopsided smile and said with a slur, “Evening, ossifer!”

The Guard rolled his eyes before turning to Cinder. “We don’t see too many dragons here, and we don’t like to get any trouble from them.”

“I am a civilised scholar,” Cinder replied coldly.

“R-i-g-h-t,” the squad commander said a little sceptically. He came to a decision. “Okay, you may all go.” He gestured to the Guards, and they continued their patrol.

“Phew!” Pif said when the Guards were out of earshot. “Thank Celestia there wasn’t a Red Changeling among them to see through my unicorn disguise.”

“How did you know that they would buy your story, Lucida?” Destined asked.

“I didn’t, but how many hippogriffs do you know? I stand out as the result of a union between a pony and a griffon, and that makes me exotic. My words fitted their preconceptions, so they believed me. They obviously don’t know that I’m still little more than a chick in this time period. Cinder is obviously not from around here, so it makes sense that she came with me. As we weren’t making trouble, they had no reason to hold us up anymore. Oh – and a nice pick-up by you, Blue. A little drunkenness just made us seem a bit more normal.”

“Glad to play a part,” Blue replied. “Now can we please hurry up and get that food?”

“We’re almost there,” Lucida replied.

A minute later, the group entered the restaurant. It was about two thirds full, and they had no trouble securing a table for five despite the dubious looks that Blue got from the griffon who seated them. As soon as the griffon left, Blue slid off Destined’s back and Cinder threw the tarpaulin over the alicorn’s back. Blue immediately grabbed the basket of bread rolls on the table and started stuffing them into his muzzle. He only paused long enough to pour some water from the jug into a glass to wash down the bread before resuming eating. The others let him eat them all, and they still lasted only a very brief time.

“Blue, could we have your coin purse?” Lucida asked when the earth pony had finished the rolls.

“Yeah – just give me a moment.” He rummaged under his vest, drew out the purse, and passed it to Lucida.

She looked inside and nodded in satisfaction. When a waiter approached and handed out menus, Lucida asked, “We wish to pay in Griffonian Crowns – will that be a problem?”

“Not at all,” the she-griff replied. “We’ve been getting many more visitors from Griffonia lately since Princess Twilight Sparkle opened up relationships with that nation, so it’s become worth our while to accept their coins. I gather that you’re visiting our country too?”

“We are, although this is hardly our first time here. It’s always nice to get home-style cooking though.”

“I’m sure you’ll find our selection to be excellent. Can I interest you in drinks first?”

“Beer,” Blue said.

“I’ll have beer too,” Cinder and Lucida both agreed.

“Have you got hard cider?” Pif asked.

When the waitress confirmed that they did, Destined asked for that also.

“And some more bread rolls!” Blue called out as the griffoness turned to leave.

For the first time, the group completely relaxed as they contemplated their menus. The waitress soon returned with their beverages and bread rolls, and she asked if they were ready to order.

“The King’s Feast, please,” Blue ordered first.

The griffoness looked at Blue dubiously. “Are you sure you want that? You do understand what is in it?”

“I do. And I want all the sides.”

The waitress blinked in surprise before nodding and writing down the order. “If a pony is going to eat meat, I suppose a big stallion like you can manage it all. Who’s next?”

“I’ll have the sirloin steak,” Destined said with a grin.

The waitress shook her head in wonder. “Two meat-eating ponies in one night. Who would have believed it?”

The orders were completed without fuss, and the waitress departed. Blue had already started on the rolls again, but the others grabbed one each for themselves before he ate them all.

“I always like to order a steak in Griffish restaurants that I’ve never been to before,” Destined said with a grin. “I love watching their reactions.”

“Obviously they don’t realise that ponies don’t eat meat more because of ingrained cultural reasons rather than because of an inability to do so.”

“It’s about the only time I ever see you do so,” Lucida commented.

“I’m not as fond of it as Dad or Blue,” Destined admitted.

“Enough about food,” Pif interrupted. “What are your plans, Lucy?”

“Simple, we visit Princess Luna’s Night Court and petition her for assistance.”

“What?! I thought we were supposed to be keeping a low profile?”

“We will be as much as possible, but we need as much support as we can get. We only have enough money to cover a good meal for all of us with just a little left over. We don’t have enough for train fare for the five of us to the Crystal Kingdom, and we certainly don’t have enough to keep us going for food and accommodation for the time that we’ll be here. I believe that Luna is our best bet.”

“But we’ll have to tell her the truth about time travelling and changes to history,” Cinder protested. “You know how hard that was when we were in Ponyville.”

“I know, but I have faith in Luna.”

“Okay, you’re the boss,” Blue declared, pretty much ending the discussion.

While Blue Streak was the oldest, Lucida was the unspoken leader of the group. As the chosen successor to the leadership of House Path, and due to her command qualities, it was her natural role, and Blue was more than happy to serve as her military commander, and Cinder as his second. Pif was always more interested in her academic studies, while Destined chose more philosophical pursuits.

The meals were all brought out in a reasonable amount of time. Their waitress hung around long enough to see for herself that the ponies were indeed eating the meat that they had been served, and she was impressed by just how fast Blue was putting away his gigantic portions. After washing it all down with a couple of tankards of beer, Blue finally leaned back in the seat and burped.

“Damn, that was the most serious case of the munchies I’ve had in my life!”

Lucida nodded in agreement. “I’ve seen you burn through lots of energy with your super speed galloping and not get that hungry. Time travel is seriously energy intensive, it seems.”

“And I still feel relatively weak. I’m going to need to digest this food and get a good rest before I do anything drastic for a while.”

“I hope you feel up to going with me to meet Luna.”

Blue looked surprised. “Why me, Lucy? I’m sure Destined would make a better argument than me.”

“Because you’re you,” the hippogriff replied enigmatically.

While Night Court officially continued for another hour, the list of supplicants for this evening had been worked through, and Luna was already contemplating what she could do with the free time. Scribe approached her to announce the final people on the docket.

“The next petitioners are Blue Streak and Lucida Path!”

Luna blinked in surprised amusement at recognising the names. ‘I did not know their family was visiting Canterlot. I wonder what those foals are doing here this late at night? Maybe a little joke on me?’ Luna was more than a little puzzled though when two adults entered the throne room. Even more perplexing was that these adults seemed to be grown-up versions of the children that she knew so well. The hippogriff appeared to be calm and confident, however, and the earth pony had the demeanour of a warrior, albeit a strangely weary one.

Lucida stopped at the foot of the dais and bowed. She then straightened up and made firm eye contact with the Alicorn of the Night. “Your Highness, we beg a private audience of you. It is a matter of great temporal importance.”

Luna cast a keen eye on the hippogriff. “What mischief is this? I know but one Lucida Path, and she is naught but a mere child, and yet I see thou hast her colours. And this blue stallion is the spitting image of the swift colt that I know well. Thou dost speak of temporal importance? Hast thou no idea how foolish and fraught with peril that it is to meddle with time?”

Lucida stood up straight as she spoke, projecting her voice firmly; she could not match Luna’s authority, but she was making a point of being earnest. “That is why we are here. Someone has changed history with dire consequences. We have come back in time in order to prevent that change from occurring. I am indeed the Lucida Path that you know, except I’m from sixteen years in the future. To ensure that history is corrected, we need your assistance. Shall I continue?”

Luna considered the huge magic surge that she had felt mere hours ago, leaving her puzzled as to its source. Her horn lit up with an analysis spell, and she scanned the pair of them, detecting eddies of the time magic still echoing in them. In doing so, she also verified that this Lucida and Blue Streak were indeed the very same hippogriff and pony that she knew. She frowned in deep concern. “Guards – leave us and seal the throne room. There will be no more audiences tonight. Speak naught of that which you have just seen and heard. Scribe – delete this meeting from the records and depart also.”

Scribe bowed and said, “As you command, Your Highness.” She then left with the guards.

When the doors closed and they were alone, Luna turned her attention back to Lucida. “So, thou art truly little Lucida all grown up. And Blue Streak is now a mighty stallion, but why art thou so weary?”

“It comes of being the energy source for our time jump, Princess,” Blue replied respectfully as he realised that Luna was not yet the family member that she was fated to become if history was restored.

“I see. How didst thou avoid the change to the timeline?”

Lucida replied, “As you already realise the possible consequences of interfering with the timeline, I will tell you the absolute minimum that I can, but you will still learn things you should not. No matter how horrible, I need you to not act on the information that I am about to release until the proper time.”

Luna frowned. “I cannot make that guarantee without hearing what thou hast to say, but I am not unaware of the dire possibilities of paradox and time-alteration. Tell me that which thou can, and I shall listen.”

Lucida cleared her throat while she considered her words carefully. “In a few days, there will be a full-scale mobilization for war. Lord Long Path and his House will unify the combined Crystal, Equestrian, and Griffonian forces, and even New World Thestrals and Red Changelings against a common evil – Queen Chrysalis. In the battle that will be known as the Siege of the Crystal Kingdom, many lives will be lost, but the mad queen will ultimately be defeated by House Path. As a consequence, the House will be propelled into prominence, bringing an unprecedented era of peace and cooperation. At least that is how it should happen. Something will occur during that battle that will change that history, and the opposite will happen. We were taken out of the time-stream before the changes could affect us though. I’m sorry, but I cannot reveal how; that is non-vital information.”

“Dost thou seek to prevent this battle then?”

Lucida shakes her head. “No, that is how history is supposed to play out, but since the interloper intervened, the damage that was caused was great. I can tell you this next part because if we do our jobs correctly, it will never come to be.” Lucida sighed and swallowed a growing lump in her throat. “The final attack that the herd launches that should defeat Chrysalis, instead fails. As a result, my father dies, as does my mother and Free Agent. The shield protecting the Crystal City is overcome, and the resulting strain is too great for Shining Armor to cope with, and he suffers an aneurism, leaving him effectively brain dead. With all the forces overwhelmed, and all those nearest and dearest to her killed, Twilight’s mind snaps. I won’t go into the details, but by the end of the day, the Crystal Kingdom is destroyed and Twilight turns against Celestia and yourself for your failure to protect her family and all the others who lost their lives in the invasion. She allies with Cadance to take control of Equestria and begins a tyrannical purge of all changelings while imposing martial law on all citizens. We intend to make sure this doesn’t happen, but we need things from you to make sure of it.”

Luna was shocked. “Twilight Sparkle doth turn against us? How fearsome must be her loss and grief. This must not come to pass! What service must I provide that the course of events be undisturbed?”

“We request immediate discreet transport to the Crystal Kingdom, and the funds needed to feed and accommodate five of us for several days. I cannot disclose the identities of the other three as they have yet to be born at this time. We also ask that you cooperate with House Path as much as possible when they call. They will have a plan that will eventually succeed if history proceeds as it should. It is up to us to ensure that it does, and we will be looking for the source of the temporal interference.”

Luna was deep in thought for a long moment before she replied. “It is right that thou dost not tell me too much. The path of time can proceed as it should with what thou hast revealed to me so far, but there might be problems if I learn too much. Thy request for transport will be honoured. I will assign a discreet servant to attend your needs, but tell them naught of what you do. I will also persuade my sister to listen to Lord Path’s requests and suggestions. Beyond this, I cannot do more without also becoming a potential paradox in the time-stream. Tell me where you are staying, and I will send my agent to meet you there.”

“Hotel Astrid, suite 401,” Lucida replied, relieved that they would actually be able to pay the bill.

“This audience is at an end. We must all prepare for what is to come.” Luna paused as her expression softened. “I am pleased to see that thou dost grow to be a beautiful and competent adult who doth do credit to thy House. I look forward to watching thee grow up, my dear Lucida.”

Lucida returned Luna’s smile. “Same here, Auntie Luna.” She then turned and left the throne room with Blue Streak.

Luna watched them leave and then shook her head and sighed. “Who art thou, our terrible enemy who wouldst meddle so capriciously with time itself? And if e'er I find out, dare I tell Lucida and risk yet more disruption to time? There can be no good to come of this.” She got up from her throne and made her way out of the room. There was much to get done before this night was ended. If nothing else, she could at least command a report on the disposition of Equestria’s military forces so that when the call came, she would be prepared.

Destined finished levitating the last of their luggage onto the rack in the train compartment that he was sharing with Blue. While Cinder had wanted to share a berth with her mate, she had reluctantly conceded that he needed to keep building up his strength, something he was not likely to do as effectively if they engaged in their usual nightly activities. Although Blue had gotten a good sleep after he and Lucida had returned to the hotel and he could now walk about normally, he knew he was far from being able to use his full super speed as yet. While Pif and Lucida shared a compartment, the dragoness had gotten one of her own, plus a warning from the conductor that she would be charged for any fire damage incurred. Ruefully, Cinder had to admit that it was probably a good idea that she and Blue stayed separate on this long journey.

Luna had been as good as her word, and her agent had supplied them with the money and equipment that they had requested of him which they thought might be needed for their upcoming task. Destined had been provided with a proper cloak to hide his wings so that he could easily pass as a unicorn. They all carried papers from Luna in case they needed to approach the authorities to show that they were on a royal assignment.

The overnight train to the Crystal Kingdom was the most convenient way to get there short of teleportation by one of the princesses, but as that conspicuous display of powerful magic might attract unwanted attention, it had been dismissed as an alternative very quickly. Train travel with sleeper compartments was also very restful, so they all anticipated being in top form by the time they arrived, with the exception of Blue. Unfortunately, that was the big drawback for the earth pony. Like all his kind, he drew strength from the earth, but he was out of contact while in the train carriage. The only other way that he could build up strength was by eating, and he made a beeline for the dining car.

None of them had ever visited the Crystal City before by train, and the view was enjoyable until night fell. They all had an early night, and they breakfasted as the sun rose the next day. They watched as the snowy scenery abruptly changed to verdant fields, and they realised that they had entered the outskirts of the Crystal Kingdom.

“We’ll soon be coming to the place where Papa Free and Mama Twilight stopped Chrysalis’ first attempt at invading the Kingdom, won’t we?” Blue asked.

“Yeah,” Destined confirmed. “I wouldn’t mind having a look around, but we have a job to do.”

The train’s whistle blew, signalling that it was bypassing the siding which serviced the security checkpoint. Lucida’s eyes widened in shock as she realised something they had all forgotten. “Destined! Grab Pif and teleport out of the train NOW!

Destined was surprised, but barely hesitated. He threw a hoof around his sister and they blinked out with a small bang.

“What the hay was that all about, Lucy?” Blue demanded.

“The changeling shield! If Pif had stayed on the train, she would have been splattered as we passed through it.”

“Oh, buck! I forgot all about that. We’ve never had to worry about it before.”

“Why didn’t you just tell Pif to teleport herself?” Cinder asked.

“She’s nowhere near as fast as Des, and she can only do it about once a day. Hopefully they’ll figure out what the problem was and rejoin us. Teleportation bypasses the shield, which makes it fortunate that Pif is the only changeling who can do that.”

“Papa Free did it,” Blue pointed out.

“But only while in gestalt with Mama Twilight,” Lucida reminded him. “He used her power to do it.”

Just then, Destined and a very shaken Pif teleported back onto the train.

“Sweet Celestia, that was a near thing,” Pif said as she slumped onto the cushion of the nearest seat. “Thanks, Lucy.”

Lucida nodded in acknowledgement. “Good work, Destined. Everyone – let this be a reminder that we are out of our time, and things aren’t always going to meet our expectations, so be alert for problems. Pif, make sure you have your love absorption under control.”

Pif rolled her eyes. “Just like all the other times I’ve visited the Crystal Kingdom.” Free had taught his daughter that trick as soon as she was capable so they didn’t have to worry about her when visiting family.

The incident sobered them all, and they talked very little until they arrived at the station in the Crystal City.

Oddly enough, it was Lucida who drew the more stares. It seemed that dragons were unusually popular in that city due to Spike’s influence upon the citizens. Griffons – or hippogriffs in this case – were a much rarer sight. Lucida wasted no time in hanging around and letting them memorise her looks though, nor did she want Pif exposed for any longer than was strictly necessary. This was no place for a changeling to be caught right now.

“Blue – take us near where the final battle takes place,” she said quietly to him. “We’ll try to find some sort of accommodation there and settle in for observation.”

Blue nodded and trotted off down one of the streets leading from the station. He had revisited the city many times since, and was fairly familiar with the layout. He eventually drew up outside an inn that looked like it catered to the tourist trade. “How about this place? I think this is pretty close.”

Lucida looked it over. “Looks good to me. Do you know if it gets wrecked in the battle?”

Blue frowned in thought. “Umm… I don’t think so, but things looked a lot different before the battle. We arrived when it had already been going for a few hours, and a lot more damage was done later. It’s been too long for me to remember even half of what was destroyed.”

“I think I can help with that,” Destined said. “I know a meditation technique that can reveal buried memories.”

Lucida held up a wing. “It can wait. We’ll check in here for now. If we need to, we can move to a more secure place later.”

They went inside, and despite the proprietor’s surprise at some of the guests, they had no trouble getting a couple of rooms. This time Cinder firmly insisted on one shared with Blue. They all gathered though in the other room which Lucida shared with her siblings.”

“Okay, what now, boss?” Blue asked Lucida.

“First – let’s try out Destined’s idea for getting your memories of the destruction.”

Blue shrugged and turned to Destined. “So how do we do this?”

“Ideally I would train you in meditation techniques, but we don’t have the luxury of the months it would take for you to reach that level, so I’m going to cheat with a hypnosis spell. That will put you into a state of receptivity that I can use to draw out your memories. All you have to do is look into my eyes and relax. Look into my eyes… and… relax.” His horn glowed softly as Blue’s eyes slowly closed. “Relax… and remember.”

Blue opened his eyes to find himself standing in a formless void shared only with Destined. “Whoa! This is a bit like one of Luna’s dreamscapes.”

“It’s a similar principal, but you’ll be supplying the details. All I need you to do is picture this inn, and I’ll draw the memories from your subconscious starting from there. Is that okay with you?”

Blue smirked. “If I can’t trust my little brother, who can I trust?”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Destined replied with a smile.

A miniature image of the inn appeared between them, and then the surrounding structures started to appear. Details appeared on them as seen from Blue’s perspective both on the ground and from when he was observing from the Sky Shark, while the rest remained blurrily indistinct. A very large portion of the south-eastern side of the city with some of the rest was mapped out in three dimensions before Destined sighed and said, “That’s everything that I can pull from your memories, Blue. You can relax now.”

“Huh – I’m impressed. I didn’t realise that I remembered so much.”

“Most stuff we learn gets overlayed by stronger and more recent memories. Meditation is the preferred way of reaching them because then you can access them again at will. Doing it this way, you'll be back to the way you were before I started this session, and you're going to be surprised all over again.”

“Maybe I should take a few lessons from you then?”

Destined smirked. “Like I've been trying to get you to do with me for years?”

Blue chuckled. “Ah, yeah. I sorta had different priorities.”

“I’ll remind you later. Right now we have to get back to the others, so wake up!

Blue blinked, and suddenly he was back in the room with everyone else looking at them expectantly.

“So… how did it go?” Lucida asked.

Blue tried to recall the session, and realised that it was already becoming fuzzy in his mind. “Good… I think.”

Destined nodded. “I got what we needed. Clear a space and I’ll project a map.”

Everyone crowded aside to leave the maximum amount of space between them. Destined’s horn glowed, and a replica of the map that he and Blue had built appeared in amazing detail.

Lucida gave it a satisfied smile. “This is perfect. Okay, let’s go over what we know about the battle and choose some suitable observation points. Then we can scout around and check them out as they are now to make sure they are still suitable. We’ve only got a couple of days to get this right, and then the hard part begins.”

Waiting was the hardest part. It did not take them too much time to scout out their preferred observation posts, and that left them with time on their hooves and claws. Blue used it to concentrate on bringing himself back to full strength, and they all did martial training sessions together. While it was their intention to stay out of the coming battle if possible, they needed to be prepared for those plans to be thrown out at a moment’s notice. After all, it was an unknown quantity that had changed history, and as such it could not be accounted for. On the fourth day after they had arrived in the Crystal Kingdom, so did several battalions of the Equestrian Army, and the word started spreading that Princess Cadance had ordered all civilians to evacuate to the castle. At this point, the five of them split up to take their hidden vantage points. Lucida paired off with Blue, and Cinder with Pif, while Destined headed off to the castle to observe what happened there. Cinder had wanted to remain with Blue, but Lucida had decided that these pairings were the best combination of their strengths.

Even though they were all familiar with what happened that day, to witness it unfolding before their eyes was another thing entirely, and all of them struggled to restrain themselves from interfering even as they saw allies cut down by the indifferent enemy. Events played out as expected for a long time. Chrysalis’ swarm was initially repulsed by Cadance and Shining’s love-powered blasts, and they spotted the rainbow beams of Harmony, but as they knew would happen, it did not deter the changelings. Pif had very cautiously monitored the Blues’ hive-mind, remaining on the fringes to remain unnoticed, but sensitive enough to read the instructions passed to the swarm.

Blue Streak and Lucida had taken a spot under an awning on the rooftop of their accommodation. Amazingly it had remained mostly unscathed in the original battle, and it was very convenient. It also had an excellent view of where Path, Twilight, and Roseclaw were preparing their trap. Despite knowing exactly how that would turn out, Lucida still cried as she watched her father being battered by Chrysalis after the entrapment failed. She forgot, however, that this was also the time that Blue first broke the sound barrier in defence of Path’s life, and was startled by the sonic boom.

“Whoa! That was awesome, Blue.”

Blue Streak nodded grimly. “Thanks. I’m just sorry I didn't manage to kill the bitch then.”

“If you had, things might have turned out a lot differently. For starters, Des and Flix might never have been born. This is when the herd first formed a gestalt, remember?”

“I do. I bet you still want to go out there and kill Chrysalis right now though, just like me.”

Lucida nodded. “And that’s why I’m here to stop you if that urge gets too overwhelming.”

In spite of her fears, Blue’s discipline held firm as they watched the battle continue. They saw Free arrive in his alicorn guise and take up the fight with Chrysalis, and still nothing had changed that they were aware of. Lucida was beginning to worry that they had missed something important.

Pif was wondering the same thing. She and Cinder were holed up in a shop that was just outside the shield covering the city. History had shown that it had come through the battle unscathed, and while they did not have the broad view that Lucida and Blue had, they were a lot closer to the later fight between Chrysalis and Free. Cinder was carving long furrows in the timber of the window frame with her talons as she tensed repeatedly during the confrontation. Pif strained her senses mightily to try to get a hint of what was taking place, and still nothing unexpected happened. They witnessed Twilight huddled with Roseclaw around Path as they started to glow with the immense power that they were channelling through the earth pony to Free. Pif felt tense enough to snap as she realised that the winning blow was about to be dealt. Free was accumulating the energy being sent to him as Chrysalis cautiously prepared a defence. Suddenly Free disappeared.

Chrysalis – behind you!

Pif nearly jumped out of her skin as that message thundered over the hive-mind. She watched as Chrysalis whirled around to see Free reappear behind her, and she hastily threw up a shield even as she tried to dodge. Free’s power was unleashed in a mighty blast, but it failed to connect. Instead it was deflected by Chrysalis’ shield and hurtled almost directly at where Pif and Cinder watched in horror. The shop exploded around them just from being grazed, but the majority of the power slammed into the city’s shield. It shuddered and flickered.

Inside the castle, Destined had been watching Shining Armor. The unicorn seemed to be barely coping despite the reinforcement from the Avatars of Harmony. He was already wavering on his hooves in spite of what his Auntie Cadance had told them of how he had stood firm until Chrysalis was defeated. Destined suddenly felt a gigantic impact on the shield and watched in shock as Shining Armor screamed, swayed on his hooves for a few long moments, and then collapsed. The Avatars fell apart, and the shield soon collapsed. Changelings started to pour into the city as Cadance rushed to her husband’s side. Royal Guards hastened to surround them all to defend against the oncoming horde, and Destined knew that his aunt would survive. He was surprised though when he saw Shining start to struggle upright again despite pleas from his wife to let the Guards defend them.

Then Chrysalis flew in. She took out the Guards with very little effort, and then with a triumphant cry, she headed for Crystal Heart, only to bounce off a shield that abruptly enveloped it. The changeling queen’s eyes shot over to where Shining Armor lay, his horn glowing once more, but this time crossed with Cadance’s.

“Fools! Do you think you can stop me when I’m this close to winning it all?” Chrysalis unleashed a mighty beam of magic which slammed into the shield, eliciting another pained cry from Shining Armor, but he held firm with his wife’s assistance.

Chrysalis stepped up the attack, profligate with her power because she was drawing love energy at a prodigious rate from the Heart to replace it.

“No!” Cadance yelled, “You’ll destroy the Crystal Heart!”

Chrysalis was oblivious, however. She would win, whatever it took.

Destined could not tell if the Heart shattered first, or Shining Armor succumbed to his aneurysm, but abruptly the shield was gone, and the Crystal Heart lay in half-melted pieces on the floor. Cadance, who had still been connected with Shining, screamed and collapsed on top of him, rendered unconscious.

Chrysalis realised that the Heart was useless, and she started cursing. She cut it off abruptly and raised a shield just in time to block a blast from Twilight Sparkle whose emotional state glowed like a beacon to the changeling. Chrysalis snarled, enraged by her failure to take the Crystal Heart, and being constantly hounded by the alicorn. Without the Heart to re-supply her with energy, she had to try a different tack. She unleashed a blast at Twilight who naturally raised a shield against it, only to have it pass through virtually unhindered. Before she had time to think, it struck and wreaked its havoc on her.

Destined shuddered at not only the sight of what was happening to his mother, but what he could feel it doing to her. He was mildly empathic, and he could tell that Twilight had been subjected to a concentrated form of energy derived from hate, fear, despair, suspicion, and many other dark emotions which could not be blocked by a shield designed to stop mana blasts. Twilight’s howl of pain and terror made him weep as he watched her drop to the floor.

Chrysalis threw back her head and laughed maniacally. She had finally beaten the alicorn with a weapon that only a changeling queen could wield, and only another changeling queen could defend against. Her enemy was as good as helpless.

Destined’s eyes opened wide as he noticed that Twilight was far from beaten. Her entire form started to glow brighter and brighter, and she looked up at Chrysalis with utter hate and loathing. Destined suddenly realised that this had to be the true cause of Twilight’s insanity, and not just grief from the loss of her loved ones. It was also going to be Chrysalis’ downfall. Twilight, despite all the fighting that she had done, was ultimately still the Princess of Friendship, and there was always something restraining her from cutting loose without any compunction as to the consequences. Chrysalis had unwittingly released all those limitations on the Avatar of Magic.

Twilight screamed incoherently and her hide and mane burst into eldritch fire, the shockwave scattering the ponies far from the alicorn, and ironically saving them from what happened next. Twilight unleashed a blast of magic that dwarfed any that she had utilised at this battle. Not since her fight with Tirek had so much power flowed through her, but this time it was all hers. Chrysalis was vaporised instantly, and so were half the supports of the castle. Miraculously it did not collapse. Twilight then flew away, unleashing her fury on all the changelings despite the fact that they had ceased hostilities the moment that their queen had died.

Destined had seen enough. He knew what would happen from this point of the altered history, and he had no wish to witness any more. He teleported back to join Lucida and Path.

“What happened?” Destined cried the moment he arrived.

“We don’t know exactly,” Blue answered as Pif continued to watch Twilight through her binoculars. “One moment, everything was going exactly as expected, and then just as Free did his teleport, Chrysalis turned around and deflected the winning strike. Free was depleted and still trying to fight…”

“Free's dead,” Lucida interrupted grimly, putting down the binoculars. “Chrysalis dealt the coup de grace before she turned on the others. I watched Dad die, and without the support of Free, Twilight, and the medics, he never was revived. Mom attacked Chrysalis, trying to take revenge over Dad’s death, but she was quickly struck down out of the sky, and the changeling bitch then headed to the castle. Mama Twilight took off after her when she recovered sufficiently. I think you know better what happened after that.”

“I do,” Destined replied, “and I have some important new facts.”

“They’ll have to wait; It’s time to get out of here,” Lucida decided. “Let’s join up with Cinder and Pif before things get completely out of claw. Des – be prepared to time-jump as soon as we’re together again.”

Destined teleported them all over to where the changeling and dragon had hidden their selves, only to be confronted by a pile of rubble.

Lucida gasped. “Sweet Celestia! We forgot to take into account what buildings might be destroyed in the alternate future. Pif! Cinder! Can you hear me?!”

The three didn’t wait for an answer, beginning to dig their way into the wreckage of the shop using a combination of strength and magic. They had managed to clear away a heavy beam when the rubble started stirring in one spot. It heaved upwards, debris falling off to the side, revealing a golden dragon’s back, wings slightly spread to protect the person underneath her. With a defiant roar, Cinder stood up, clearing the remainder of the detritus, and Pif stumbled out unharmed.

“Cinder! Thank heavens you're alive,” Blue cried as he made his way over to the dragoness. “Are you and Pif okay?”

Pif replied, “I’m okay. Cinder’s quick thinking saved me.”

Cinder wrapped the blue pony in a fierce hug. “Cuts and bruises, but I’m too tough to be hurt that easily. I was just stuck until you got something heavy off of me.”

“I’m happy that you're both okay, but we have to get out of here now!” Lucida said urgently.

An explosion nearby emphasised her words, and they all turned to see Twilight burning with more power than ever, streaking around the city and laying waste to allies and enemy alike with no regard to the homes and shops that were being destroyed at the same time. Her glowing form was starkly contrasted by the dark clouds that even now were encroaching on the kingdom, no longer held back by Crystal Heart.

Destined stared in horror at his mother, appalled by what he was seeing. He already knew that this would occur, but to see it actually happen before his eyes was extremely disturbing. He was only torn away from the view when Blue Streak physically picked him up and turned him away.

“Snap out of it, Destined! We have to get out of here!” Blue yelled at the alicorn.

Destined shook his head to try to get the images out of his head and clear his mind. He reached out for Blue’s power as the five huddled together, and a moment later a vortex formed beneath them and they slipped out of time and space.

It was not quite the close shave that their escape from the first time-change had been. This time they left a whole seventeen seconds before the former shop was reduced to slag.

Five bodies fell out of thin air into a pile on a hillside overlooking the Crystal City. There were various grunts and curses as they piled on top of one another before pulling apart from the others.

“This is getting real old, real fast,” Blue grumbled.

Lucida ruffled her feathers before settling her wings back into place. “Not the most dignified way of travelling, I agree, but that’s not important now.” She turned to Epiphany. “Please tell me that you discovered something, Pif. We saw nothing out of the ordinary.”

The changeling nodded. “You wouldn't have seen anything, because the critical change was a warning to Chrysalis that came through the hive-mind. Actually more like screamed through it. Someone or something yelled out ‘Chrysalis – behind you!’ and foiled Free’s surprise attack. That’s all it took to change the outcome of this battle.”

“But who and how?” Destined asked.

Pif shrugged. “I couldn't tell.”

“Buck!” Lucida cursed. “Okay, we don’t know who our enemy is, but at least we now know the critical change. Des – when are we?”

“I took us back two days as planned,” Destined replied.

“Good. Time for us to get alternate accommodation and make new plans. Somehow, we have to figure out a way of counteracting that warning so that Free wins the fight with Chrysalis.”

They started heading towards the city again, all of them wondering how on Equus they were going to do that.




Chapter 3: History Rewrites


“Why have you brought us to this desolate place?”

“The Zebrican plains are hardly desolate, my dear.”

“That did not answer my question.”

“I have given you the power to enact your revenge, but now we need the means. We shall find that here.”

“In a dirty hut?”


“Who’s the old geezer?”

“Your words you should choose with greater care, lest I have no time for the nightmare.”

“Oh great – a rhyming idiot. Wait! How did he know what I was saying?”

“Knowledge is the means by which deeds are hung. Ask instead how I know your tongue.”

“You use mind speech! You’re not a changeling, so how is that possible?”

“You prattle needlessly upon things you need not see. You and I instead must conspire to bring our mutual foes a fate most dire.”

Now you’re talking my language!”

“How are you feeling, Blue?” Cinder asked with a tinge of concern.

“Just a little tired. That small time-jump used very little energy compared to the first one.”

“Well, you can rest and recharge as soon as we get to our rooms. I’ll even give you a massage if you like?” the dragoness added coyly.

Blue just grinned, knowing exactly what one of her massages always led to.

The five time-adventurers passed through the outskirts of the Crystal City and Lucida started leading them away from the inn where they had been staying.

“Why do you want to find alternative accommodation, Lucida?” Destined asked. “What’s wrong with the inn? The rooms are already paid for, and we’re all settled in there.”

Lucida stopped and stared at the alicorn. “What about paradox? We can’t be meeting ourselves there!”

“Is that all? Paradox doesn’t work quite the way that you think it does. If it did, Pif and I wouldn’t be here right now.”

“I thought the Doctor did something to keep you here?” Lucida replied with a puzzled frown.

“He isolated us all from the changes to history – still trying to figure out how he did that. Otherwise none of us would be here. The paradox that you’re thinking of doesn’t exist though.”

Lucida sighed in resignation. “Explain to us in words that we can all understand, then.”

Destined gulped. It had taken him a lot of time and study to grasp the basic nature of space-time enough to be able to navigate their time-jumps. The only pony who approached his understanding of the subject was Luna, and perhaps Celestia. And then there was the Doctor…. He tried to frame it in the most simplistic of terms. “I’ve mentioned the sixteen dimensional nature of space-time, right?”

“Yeah, and don’t even think of inflicting the name for it on us again,” griped Blue.

“OK, but it’s important to understand that it encompasses every possible event in time and space. Every event has a probability of coming into being as a result of the probability of other events coming into being and all of those depend on their previous events, and so forth.”

“I already have a headache trying to picture that,” Cinder commented.

Lucida nodded in agreement. “Keep going.”

“Well, what we call history is actually the transition from one event to another along the path of highest probability. If someone like our unknown foe goes back along that path and changes the probability of an event, then the path changes, and history as we know it changes with it. However, it is important to remember that those events have not gone away – they have merely been reduced in probability.”

“Which is why we’re here trying to change things back to exactly the way things were,” Blue said.

Destined shook his head. “That won’t happen, at least not exactly.”

“What?!” Lucida exclaimed. “Are you saying we can’t fix this?”

“No, I’m saying that we can’t fix this to be exactly the way things were. Changes have occurred that have altered the course of history, but while we can get it back to mostly what we know of history, it will still be a different course of history. For example, we know what caused the change in history to alter the outcome of the fight between Papa Free and Chrysalis, but we don’t know how to prevent it, so we’re intending to nullify that change instead. That will be part of the new history in spite of everything else working out to be the same.”

“So how does that affect us and meeting ourselves at the inn?” Lucida asked.

“Because we’re now on a different path through space-time. Paradox can’t exist because that group of us is now on a different path than the one we’re on now. We’ve altered probability merely by coming back here to this moment.”

“But I clearly remember our entire stay there!” Lucida protested.

Destined shrugged. “And we all clearly remember what our lives were like before history was changed. Essentially it’s no different.”

“My head hurts,” Cinder complained.

Blue gave her a consoling hug. “Mine too, love. That’s why I usually leave the thinking to Destined and Pif.”

“But… we saw young Blue at the same time!” Lucida objected.

“We’ve looped back through time so that we see him. We’ve altered that loop so that we won’t see ourselves,” Destined tried to explain. “If we did meet ourselves, that would change the probability of events in a paradoxical manner, and I’ve already explained that paradox can’t happen. We simply would not end up in this situation. Sorry, I can’t make it clearer.”

Lucida dithered for a moment before she sighed. “Okay, let’s try the inn. If we meet ourselves there though, I’m never going to let you live this down, Des.”

They made their way to the inn, but just as Destined had predicted, nothing odd happened, unless you counted the fact that the innkeeper found nothing unusual about the five of them coming in despite not having seen any of them leave. They settled into the one bigger room as they had previously done to plan.

“Okay, has anyone thought of anything yet to counteract the warning that caused Free’s attack to fail?”

“I don’t think we can,” Pif replied. “Even though I know it will come, I can’t stop it, and Dad’s not linked to the hive-mind, so I can’t warn him similarly.”

“And if we try to warn your parents in advance, they’ll think we’re crazy,” Cinder lamented.

“Not if it’s Blue who tells them,” Lucida suggested.

“Bad idea,” Destined replied. “That big an alteration to probability would surely have repercussions of its own.”

“Would they be bad repercussions though?” Pif asked. “If Blue warned them what would happen if things continued as they are, but let them know the finishing move that would win the day, they could use it earlier before Dad got burned out and almost killed. The war would be won and Dad might still have his earth pony magic!” she explained earnestly.

“That’s a good point,” Blue agreed.

Destined shook his head. “I hate to be a downer, but you’re only hoping that might be the result. You have to realise that anything big like that could just as easily blow up in our faces. Look at it this way – it was a tiny change that radically altered history. One well-timed warning changed everything. Think what could happen from a major intervention!”

“How can you be sure that it would go bad though?” Pif objected.

“I can’t; that’s the point. None of us can know for sure what the consequences of any of our actions might be, so that’s why we’re all trying to cause as little interference as possible.”

“Sooner or later, we’re going to have to act in some way, and that will have consequences. Otherwise there’s no point to us being here,” Lucida argued.

“Yes, I know – there’s no getting around that. However, it’s better to react to a known event than to create a new one with unknown results.”

Lucida sighed in resignation. “So we’re back to square one – any ideas?”

“Well, I can’t warn Dad because I’m not linked with him here,” Pif began, “but I reckon I might be able to affect Chrysalis through the mind-link.”

Blue spoke up. “Cinder and I had a good view of what happened. I saw Chrysalis jerk in response to something which I now know was that message over the hive-mind, so naturally I couldn’t detect it. Two things happened then – she threw up a shield and she also dodged to one side. That’s why Papa Free’s attack hit a glancing blow that was deflected in our direction. We not only have to counteract that shield, but also compensate for that movement.”

Pif nodded. “I’ve been deep into Chrysalis’ hive-mind before, or if you want to be pedantic I will be in the future, so I know what it’s like. I think I know what I can do about the shield.”

“And the movement?” Lucida prompted.

Pif shrugged. “Not a clue, sorry.”

“Blue?” Lucida looked at him hopefully.

“From where we were observing, we had a great view, but were a bit too far from the action to affect it. Perhaps if we got in close enough, we could do something about that?”

“It would be a lot more dangerous too. There was plenty of magic being thrown around there, not to mention all the changeling drones that were acting as a shield around Chrysalis to prevent interference from others. They were enough to drive off even Celestia.”

“Do we have another choice?” Blue asked bluntly.

There was only silence from Lucida that was matched by all the others. Eventually Lucida nodded. “Barring coming up with an alternative before the event, that’s what we’ll do then. We’ll scout out a suitable place to work from and improvise from there. I wish that I could be more specific, but that’s all I can think of for now.”

“If it fails, we can always go back and try again a different way,” Destined pointed out.

“Going through all that twice will be bad enough. I don’t want to do it a third time.”

That was something that they all could agree on.

The waiting was difficult. They all knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and there was no hastening those events. It didn’t stop them from feeling tense and worked up about it. Cinder and Blue retired to their room after the meeting, and distracted each other with some physical intimacy. Cinder gave Blue the promised massage, her talons delicately stimulating pressure points on his body, relaxing him nicely. Then he returned the favour, only his massages were far from delicate. His hooves ground into the tough dragon hide and kneaded her tense muscles, making her groan in pleasure. By the end of their mutual rubbing and stroking, they were considerably aroused, and they took care of that too.

Epiphany had a different way to relax. She propped herself in a corner and assumed her full natural form. She then turned down the block on the ambient love to allow a steady trickle of the emotional energy to feed her. She luxuriated in the pleasure of the positive energy filling her, feeling the tension melt away.

Destined resorted to his old stand-by and meditated. He considered the nature of time and their situation, seeking any possible alternatives that might be advantageous. Not only was it a worthwhile effort, it was also a good way for him to find relaxation.

Only Lucida could not find a way to be at ease. She felt the burden of responsibility for leading the group, and the pressure to get history right again. She went over and over what they had learned from their previous scouting trips, trying to come up with viable plans that did not have their own perils attached. The one thing that kept her from complete frustration was that at worst, they could go back and try again and again until they got it right.

Lucida decided on making a base at a bar that was located roughly halfway between the decisive fight and where Long Path, Twilight Sparkle, and Roseclaw were situated. There were very few other public buildings in that area, and none where they were justified in loitering around. They all sat around drinking the mildest of alcoholic drinks while waiting for the evacuation orders to come through, and then they concealed themselves until everypony was gone. They settled themselves in for the wait until the first of the defenders started to pour into the city.

The bar was an upscale affair with two levels – the upper horseshoe shaped balcony open to the lower. They located themselves beside windows on the upper level which afforded them the best view. Although they could not see the actual train station from there, they could spot the train approaching from the distance with the first load of soldiers from the Equestrian Army. A contingent of Royal Guards had beaten them there though, teleported in along with Princess Luna who was coordinating the defence effort.

“You know that they could not have gotten this many troops to the Crystal City this quickly without having them ready to depart on the train virtually from the moment that they got the word from House Path,” Blue remarked. “There are only so many that even the princesses can teleport here.”

Lucida nodded. “Undoubtedly Luna found pretexts to move them to convenient locations for rapid transport.”

“Doesn’t that mean that we’ve already affected history?”

“Quite right,” Destined replied.

“What about before all this history-changing craziness? Were they as prepared then?” Blue asked.

Destined shook his head. “Not relevant. As far as history is concerned, we always have done so.”

“Ugh! There’s that headache again.”

Pif looked thoughtful. “If no matter what we do becomes a history as it has always been insofar as everypony else is concerned, is there also such a thing as destiny where things inevitably happen in spite of what we do?”

Destined considered the question. “Well, if you define destiny as the sequence of space-time events that are of the highest probability to become history, then yes.”

Cinder groaned. “Would you please stop with this stuff! I think you’re going to make my head explode.”

“Sorry,” Destined said with a sympathetic smile. “It’s kind of my thing though.”

“Says the pony with a thought-bubble cutie mark and the name of Destined Path,” Cinder grumbled.

“That’s always made me wonder,” Pif remarked. “Why did our parents name you that?”

“Beats me,” Destined admitted. “There’s still a lot that I’ve barely touched on. There are more forces at work in the universe than just those determining space and time. For example, the power of Harmony seems to supersede most other physical laws, and the princesses’ role as its agents in bringing about a balance seems to indicate divine intercession, despite Auntie Luna’s protests that she’s not a god.”

“Didn’t she also say that all alicorns are agents of Harmony, which means you too?” Pif asked slyly.

Destined’s ears flattened in embarrassment. “I’m definitely no god!”

“Nah, just a Prince of Equestria,” Blue said, unable to resist having a dig at his younger brother.

Destined’s cheeks were beginning to glow almost as red as his mane. “I was just a foal then. Besides, I asked Auntie Celestia to rescind the title later, but she wouldn’t. ‘Once a Prince or Princess of Equestria, always a Prince or Princess, she told me.”

“Sure sounds like Destiny to me!” Blue chortled.

Destined pouted and gave up. Silence settled in again for a while.

“I just had an idea,” Cinder suddenly spoke up.

“Out with it!” Lucida ordered.

“Well… if Pif is connected to the hive-mind all the time, why can’t she send a series of false messages during her fight with Free, so when the real warning comes, she could ignore it?”

“Cry wolf!?” Lucida replied. “That sounds like an intriguing possibility. What about it, Pif?” She looked at the changeling unicorn expectantly.

Pif considered it for a moment before replying. “In principle, it sounds good. However, that one warning was short, unexpected, and Chrysalis had no need to follow up on it. If I was to send out a series of false alarms, Chrysalis could and probably would trace them back to me, and we would have a heap of trouble. There’s also the matter of ‘voice’. My voice in the hive-mind is different, and Chrysalis might notice something odd. Then there are all the changes we would make in the fight before the decisive moment that might make have unwanted effects. We already decided that the path of least interference is the most desirable.”

“So you’re saying we shouldn’t try it?” Lucida asked.

“Heck, no!” Pif replied emphatically. “It just has several negatives to be aware of. In fact, if we don’t succeed this time, I suggest that we try that next time, and see if there are indeed undesirable consequences.”

“Okay, that’s officially our Plan B,” Lucida decided. “Plan A remains attempting to counteract the effects of the legitimate warning.”

Silence settled onto the group once more. They were back to waiting for the appearance of the first wave of changelings that wasn’t repelled by Cadance and Shining’s barrier. Each prepared as best they could. Pif soaked up as much ambient love energy as she dared, balancing it out with some of her siblings’ courage, loyalty, and determination to help maintain her control. Blue took the special shoes off his forelegs to soak up energy from the ground outside until he was fairly buzzing with energy begging for release. Destined prepared some shield spells ready to be triggered in a blink of an eye. Lucida did some limbering up exercises in case she needed to defend herself by more traditional physical means. Cinder scoffed several bowls of chips and a bottle of high proof rum. She noticed the others staring at her when she was halfway through chugging the alcohol.

“What?” she asked as if there was nothing unusual about what she was doing. “I need something to help fuel my flames.”

Lucida rolled her eyes. “Sure, Cinder. Just leave some bits to pay for that bottle.”

“You mean this history-fixing gig doesn’t come with any perks?” Cinder asked with a smirk.

Lucida just shook her head and let the subject drop.

As bad as waiting for the fighting to start was, standing by and doing nothing while it raged was even harder. The intensity ebbed and flowed in their area, but they remained focused on their goal. That is until a brawling pack of ponies and changelings burst into the bar below them. They rushed over to the edge of the balcony to observe what was happening, hoping that it would not spread upstairs and disrupt their plans.

Pif gasped in shock. “Those ponies aren’t military!”

The others saw that she was right. Three civilians were fighting the berserker drones, and even as they watched, one of the ponies was slain. Another was fighting desperately, but his coat was already thickly coated in blood. The third, however, was making a mockery of the drones’ attacks, grabbing anything and everything at hoof to use as a weapon. Even Cinder winced as the orange crystal pony nearly took the head off a changeling with a vicious swipe of a chair. The pony laughed and attacked the next changeling, and it was clear that they weren’t going to let him take them on one by one. He was fighting magnificently, but he was going to be overwhelmed.

Blue roared in defiance and leaped over the railing, thudding to the floor below with a crash that shook the building and drawing the attention of several drones. He was followed closely by Cinder and Pif. Muscle, magic, claws and flames rapidly dealt with the invaders, leaving the crystal pony standing there, panting for a moment before he dropped the lampstand that he had been wielding, and went over to his companion.

The pony had collapsed, and the floor beneath him was acquiring a pool of blood. He looked up as the orange pony and said weakly, “Sorry – I ain’t gonna be able to…” He started to cough, hacking up some blood before he settled down and continued with a wheeze in his voice. “Ain’t gonna pay ya back, Cit….” His words failed.

“Dammit, Garnet! Don’t die on me! You’re my right hoof, you buckin' idiot!”

“Sorr…” the wounded pony managed to say before the air sighed out of his lungs and the light left his eyes.

The crystal pony grimaced and closed the dead pony’s eyes. “Buckin' bastard's gone and left me. What the hay is a pony posse of one supposed to do?” He turned around and saw the three watching. “Well, what do you want? If you’ve got nothing better to do than stare at a mare, I’ve got five dead friends to avenge.”

It was only then that the House Path team realise that the lean and unkempt crystal pony with a short-cropped mane and tail was actually a female.

“Well, you could at least thank us for saving your life,” Cinder replied, unimpressed by her rudeness.

The crystal pony waved dismissively. “I could have handled them.”

“Like your companions did?” Blue asked.

The young mare strutted up to Blue, lifting her muzzle up until she was nose to nose with him, glaring defiantly. “Listen, Big Blue, if you’re a street pony, you either cope or you die. As you can see, I’m not dead.”

“A street pony?” Lucida asked as she joined the others. “You’re a gang member?”

“Don’t call us a gang! We were a pony posse – we looked after each other to survive.”

“You didn’t have homes and families?” the hippogriff asked incredulously.

The crystal pony frowned. “Some of us lost everything when Sombra took over the empire. Some of us still had nothing when we returned.”

“But Princess Cadance….”

“Look, sister!” the pony said, poking Lucida with one forehoof, “We don’t need any help from any namby-pamby princess. We had each other, and we survived well enough.”

“That namby-pamby princess is my aunt.” Lucida’s words practically had icicles on them.

“Huh! Could’ve fooled me,” the mare replied, obviously unimpressed.

“What are you doing out here anyway? Everypony is supposed to have been evacuated to the castle.”

“We have our own rules – we don’t tell them what to do, and they don’t tell us what we can do.”

Lucida sniffed contemptuously. “Anarchists who care for nothing but themselves.”

Pif spoke up. “No, Lucy, you’re wrong. This mare does care, even though she’s trying not to show it.” She faced the crystal pony. “I felt how you were torn up over your friends’ deaths. I feel how afraid you are of being alone now. You don’t have to face it all by yourself though. You are welcome to stick with us for now.”

Lucida looked askance at the disguised ponyling. “Really, Pif?”

Pif nodded. “Trust me, Lucy.”

Lucida nodded. “Okay. Everyone back to watching the battle. We have a mission to accomplish.”

Pif turned back to the crystal pony. “My name is Epiphany Path, but you can call me Pif. My grumpy sister is Lucida Path. The… unicorn… is Destined Path, and the earth pony is Blue Streak Path, my brothers. Cinder is Blue’s mate.” Pif wasn’t prepared to reveal Destined’s true nature, nor hers as yet.

The mare grinned. “Never would’ve guessed you were all family. The name’s Citrine Quartz, famous throughout the Crystal City!”

“On all the ‘Wanted’ posters, I bet,” Lucida mumbled.

“Don’t mind her,” Pif said with a glare at her sister.

Citrine laughed. “Like I care. Just out of curiosity though, why aren’t you five hiding behind that shield out there?”

“We’re here to right a wrong,” Pif answered vaguely.

Citrine’s expression abruptly shifted to grim determination. “Well, now so am I! Those bugs are gonna pay for what they did to my posse!”

“Stick with us and you’ll have a better opportunity to do that and survive.”

“Pif!” Lucida exclaimed.

The hippogriff didn’t need to say another word; Pif knew exactly what her sister was objecting to. “Lucy, it’s already too late to worry about that. We’ve already gotten involved and she knows about us now, and I’m not going to let her go out there alone and get herself killed.”

Lucida fumed silently for a long moment before she sighed. “Okay, but if she screws up our objective, I’m blaming you for this. And Blue too. Had to play hero, didn’t you?”

Blue shrugged. “I still think it was the right thing to do.”

“So how’s skulking here gonna get me my payback?” Citrine asked.

Pif waved a hoof at the scene outside. “Those bugs, as you call them, are changeling drones, and while they’re dangerous, it’s their queen, Chrysalis, who is the true enemy. We’re here to stop her when we have the opportunity.”

“Great! I want a piece of her!”

“I can’t promise that, but maybe you can help indirectly. The fighting could get intense and we’ll need defending.” Of course Pif knew for sure that they were at the upcoming epicentre of the battle, but she could not tell Citrine that.

“I’m gonna kill me some bugs, one way or the other.”

Pif could taste her utter determination. “Just be aware that there are more than one type of changeling involved in this battle. The Blue Changelings are the enemy, but the Red Changelings are our friends and allies.”

“Gotcha. No point in killing someone on our side – that won’t get my friends their vengeance.”

Everyone settled back to watching the battle. They already knew all the important events that would be happening, and so they paid more attention to the lesser ones until the critical moment. When the fight with Chrysalis eventually began, Blue frowned in concern.

“Something’s wrong,” he said quietly to Lucida, not wanting to let Citrine overhear what he had to say.

“Why’s that?” Lucida asked, worried that they had missed something important.

“Very soon I should be doing my supersonic run up that street to clobber Chrysalis.”

“Yes – so?”

“I could only get up to that speed because it was almost totally clear of obstacles, but just look at it now.”

He waved a hoof in its direction, and all the others could see the multitude of changelings on the ground that were battling unicorns and earth ponies. There was no way that was going to clear up anytime soon.

Lucida looked grimly at the scene. “If you don’t get there in time, Dad dies then, and there’ll be no chance of defeating Chrysalis. We have to do something about that.”

Blue got up. “I’m going out there. With me, Cinder?”

“Of course,” the dragoness replied.

“You can’t go, Blue – you’re too distinctive. You could be remembered! You could make unwanted changes to history!” Lucida protested.

“I’ll have to take that chance.”

Pif spoke up. “Can Des give Blue a magical disguise?”

All eyes turned to Destined, and he gulped nervously. “Personal disguises aren’t my specialty, guys.”

Blue frowned. “Didn’t Mama Twilight teach you anything?”

“Yes,” Destined admitted. “I just wasn’t terribly good at that sort of thing.”

“It’s just like that map projection, for buck’s sake! DO IT!!!” snarled Blue.

Destined’s horn flared and Blue’s coat abruptly changed to pale yellow. The alicorn’s eyes opened wide in surprise at his immediate success. “I made your coat colour match your lightning bolt cutie mark, so it won’t be distinguishable,” he said with a touch of pride.

“Good enough,” Blue replied. “Let’s go, Cinder!” He dashed out the door in a blur, closely followed by his partner.

“Holy buck!” Citrine exclaimed. “How can that big stud move so fast?!”

The remaining four watched as the duo ploughed into the densest concentration of changelings, scattering them like leaves in the wind. The Equestrian defenders were puzzled by the yellow blur that they could not focus on, but seemed to be making their job much easier. More disconcerting was the dragon that was slicing some drones with her talons and burning others with gouts of flames, but as she seemed to be taking her wrath out on the Blue Changelings only, they decided that she was an ally.

“I can see young Blue,” announced Pif who had adjusted her eyes to farsight. “He’s just jumped from the Skyshark and started heading this way.”

“Cinder and Blue have almost cleared the street,” Lucida replied. “It’s going to be a very close thing.”

Citrine looked at Lucida through narrowed eyes, suspecting that there was something that she wasn’t being told, but she decided that this was the wrong moment to press her for more answers.

The problem wasn’t merely defeating the changelings along that street though, but drawing the fighting away as more drones poured in to take the place of the fallen. Nevertheless between Blue, Cinder, and the armed forces, the street slowly emptied. Moments later a blue blur streaked past, followed a fraction of a second later by an ear-shattering boom. Having anticipated it though, all of the watchers except for Citrine had their ears covered, and they witnessed yet again the teenage colt saving the life of their father. Before long, Blue and Cinder re-joined them.

“Did everything go right?” Blue asked.

“Yeah, history is still on track,” Lucida replied forgetting about Citrine in the heat of the moment. “I seriously don’t want to know how it is that it worked out originally if it needed us here to fix it.”

“I’ve decided to let Des have that headache. I’ll stick to making sure it all stays on track.”

Citrine, whose ears were still ringing from the sonic boom, said, “What did you say?”

Lucida realised her potential slip-up and replied loudly, “The battle plan almost went wrong but Blue fixed it.”

“Oh – right,” Citrine replied, only half-believing what she was told.

Lucida opted for a quick change of subject. “Destined, I think you had better go keep an eye on Uncle Shining now. If one event we were relying on didn’t go right without our intervention, perhaps another will also. It can’t hurt to be prepared.”

Destined nodded. “Agreed. Be careful, sis.” His horn lit up, and a moment later he teleported out of the room and into the castle, slipping past Shining Armor’s shield as readily as his mother had done.

Citrine had heard that unicorns could do that trick, but had dismissed it as a tall story brought in from Equestria. She was impressed and intrigued. Whatever else this strange group were up to, at least they weren’t boring. She was still getting fidgety from having nothing to do though. She itched to get her hooves on some of those invaders!

Just then, something smashed through the roof of the bar. Several bodies crashed to the floor on both levels, and it took the startled watchers several moments to comprehend what was happening. Several fiercely fighting Red Changelings were engaged with a large group of the invading drones, and the violent struggle had taken its toll on the roof, and now the contents of the bar.

Citrine cried with glee and hurled herself into the fray, picking up and swinging a bar stool in one easy motion, breaking the neck of a Blue Changeling before it even noticed her coming.

Lucida called out, “Pif! Don’t get involved! You’ll be needed soon. Blue and Cinder, make sure that lot doesn’t interfere with our primary goal, but otherwise don’t engage!”

As loath as they were to not fight the enemy, both the earth pony and the dragoness recognised the higher priority of their mission, and focused on defence. Fortunately to assuage their frustrations, on several occasions drones would attack them directly, and it gave them much satisfaction to show the changelings the error of their decision. At first they had been worried about Citrine, but not only was the mare handling herself well, she also seemed to be getting more and more dangerous as time passed. She had no discernible style, but she was a brawler without equal, and anything she laid a hoof on was a deadly weapon. Her coat gleamed ever brighter as the fight continued, and to their surprise, they saw a spear shatter on her flank, the crystal hide acting like armour.

Pif’s attention was divided. She could not afford to ignore the Blues which continued to swarm through the open roof, but she also had to be aware of the progress of the battle outside. Timing was going to be critical. As before though, she heard nothing over the hive-mind except basic instructions despite turning up her sensitivity this time around. She was still going to have to react nearly instantaneously when the warning to Chrysalis came, but that was still some very nerve-wracking minutes away, and those Blue drones were right here, right now. However, she had one big advantage over them – she was a queen, and she could do something that she had witnessed Chrysalis do. It was going to be tricky though.

Pif carefully extended her senses along the hive-link to locate the drones that were closest to her. With so many others swarming around the building, it was not a simple task, but eventually she was confident that she had identified at least the majority in the vicinity. Then she activated the power that she had very assiduously been trained not to use as a child. She drew the love energy out of the drones as fast as possible, and they start dropping from exhaustion. The Red Changelings were only momentarily startled by the sudden turn of events, but they did not hesitate to despatch the Blues as quickly as possible. Left alone, they would have quickly recovered due to the large amount of ambient love energy this close to the city.

With the immediate danger dealt with, Pif turned her attention back to the fight between Free and Chrysalis. She was buzzing with the extra energy that she had drawn from the drones, but she focused it with all the strength of her will so that she did not lose control. She could use it to help her deal with Chrysalis.

Citrine stove in the skull of the last of the drones that Pif had missed and looked around for more. She had only managed to kill four of the changelings in exchange for each of the five lives of her companions, and while most would be satisfied with a score of kills, her loyalty to her slain comrades demanded more. For now though, the fighting was ended, and she watched as the Red Changelings gathered about one of their own who was lying on the floor. She went over to see was happening, and a couple of the Reds looked at her and nodded in acknowledgement of her help.

“Let… let her through,” came a weak voice from the 'ling on the floor.

The other Reds parted reluctantly and Citrine had her first good look at the stricken changeling. It was significantly larger than the others, and possessed a mane with curious voids in it rather than the finned crests of the others. The eyes were slit instead of the overall red glow of its… no her companions. She looked at Citrine with firmness that her injuries belied, and smiled.

“You are… a fountain, a geyser of loyalty… and it sustains me for the moment… but it is too little, too late for me, pony…. My time is passing.”

Citrine was rarely impressed by strangers, but she had seen this changeling fight, and they had even had each other’s backs for a brief time. This was someone she would have been proud to have in her posse. “Who are you?”

“I am Princess Vindictia… of the Red Hive. I’m also known as… General Iron Chitin of the… Red Changeling forces defending…” She broke into a cough, hacking up a worrying amount of blood. When she got it under control, she continued, “Defending the Crystal City. … I’m in your debt for helping my squad. … I would ask you to keep helping them… as I can do so no longer.”

Citrine stomped the floor in defiance. “There is still fight in you, I know there is! Your team needs a leader, and the Crystal Kingdom must not fall!” As she spoke her emotions became more and more intense, and the six remaining changelings were healing themselves from the overwhelming excess of their preferred type of emotional energy.

“You fight with… such determination. Why?”

“They invaded this land, killed ponies, changelings, and griffons alike! Most of all, they killed my posse! This demands retribution!!” the orange crystal pony shouted.

“You have fought hard… as hard as the best of pony warriors.” She paused to cough once more, visibly weaker this time. “I sense a kindred spirit in you. … I am going to die… but we can help each other… before I fade to the Great Circle…. Will you consent to fight with me?”

Citrine’s face set with grim determination. “I’ll do anything that will get my vengeance!”

The princess hacked and coughed for a worrying length of time until, with one quick mental motion, she severed her own connection from the Red Hive. “Lieutenant Graxx… tell mother that I am doing… the Rite of Transference…. Six days remain.”

The red battle drone’s eyes widened as he hastily saluted. “Yes, Princess Vindictia!”

Pif looked at Graxx. “What is this Rite of Transference?”

Graxx replied, “In the Red Hive, we believe in no 'ling left behind. This is a spell cast by the dying 'ling that temporarily allows a host to hold their essence until they can be given their last rites and returned to the Great Circle. This aids the host by giving them the power to complete their final task. The duration of the transfer depends on the 'ling doing it. A drone like myself could manage three or four days, but a princess can manage up to a week. In either case, our queen must separate the fallen and usher them back to the Circle.”

Pif blinked. “And if more than a week passes?”

Graxx averted his eyes. “The body dies and both souls are trapped inside, so they can't pass on.”

Citrine’s confident grin returned. “Ha! Piece of cake. Let’s do this!”

While Vindictia’s body was trembling with weakness, her gaze at Citrine was like steel. “If you want to fight… you want to win... repeat after me….” she coughed again as blood started to leak down her muzzle, but her horn started to glow with the energy that she was reaping from the determined crystal pony. “On my honour… I will never betray my integrity… my character… or the innocent masses…. I will destroy evil… and protect the innocent…. I swear this to my Queen… and the Great Circle.”

As Citrine started to repeat the oath, Vindictia’s horn glowed brighter and brighter. When she finished the oath, the princess shakily raised her hoof and placed it against Citrine’s chest, and a strange emblem was burned onto her hide. The red glow of the changeling princess’ magic surrounded the crystal pony’s head before it faded and Vindictia collapsed, her now lifeless husk lying motionless on the floor as Citrine stood there, strangely energised.

Hello, Citrine.

‘Vindictia? How are you in my head?’

A temporary transference – one body cannot sustain two souls for long, but it will be enough time for us to complete our mission, and get to Mother where I can be released to the Great Circle. Now, we have much work to do. Allow me to guide you.

The building shook once more as one of the battling queens wreaked havoc nearby.

Citrine gestured with a hoof at Pif and the others. “This bunch seems to have a secret plan to take out Chrysalis.”

Graxx looked over to where Pif was surrounded by her defenders. “Is this true?”

Lucida nodded. “I can’t tell you everything because it’s secret and we don’t have the time for a lengthy explanation, but it’s our purpose to take out Chrysalis at a specific moment in the fight. Lord Path will supply Free Agent with the power to overcome Chrysalis, and it’s up to us to ensure it succeeds. That moment will come soon, and our sister, Epiphany, is critical to its success. She cannot be distracted at that time or we may fail, so we defend her.”

“I taste the truth in your words,” Graxx replied. He turned to Citrine. “What do you wish us to do, Princess?”

“We will see to it that she succeeds,” Citrine answered with Vindictia’s voice, startling the crystal pony. She addressed all the Red Changelings in a commanding voice, “This building must be defended at all costs. Spread out around the building and ensure that no Blue Changeling enters or causes harm!”

The changelings saluted and took off.

Citrine started to follow on hoof, needing no urging from the princess that she hosted. Nevertheless, Vindictia had something more to say.

I sense the power within you. I saw it manifest while we were fighting together.

“What are you talking about?”

The crystal shell that protected you. You’re a latent crystallomancer. I can bring that power to the fore if you allow me.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but if it helps me fight, do it!”

Citrine’s body started to glow, and the crystal dust in the air and the shards on the ground started to move towards her. They attached to her coat, building up more and more until she was encased in a thick, living armour. She laughed in delight. “This really rocks! Let’s kill us some Blues!”

Destined was worried. Like the last time around, Shining Armor seemed to be under considerably more strain than had been reported, and the young alicorn knew what would happen if the shield was overloaded again this time. He could not reinforce the shield directly as that was not how the spell worked. The Avatars of Harmony were doing their best to supply Shining with power, but that was not how that preternatural force was intended to be used, and it was not as effective as it could have been. In spite of the desire to not interfere any more than could possibly be helped, Destined was left with only one choice – he would have to help directly. Fortunately from his place of concealment, he should be unobserved. His horn lit up and he pointed it at Shining, funnelling his alicorn power to the unicorn.

The effects were immediate. Shining’s shaky stance firmed up and his expression eased. The trembling of the castle due to the impacts on the shield lessened. Destined was confident that the shield would last this time, at least until his siblings could help Free take out Chrysalis. He did not know how long he could keep this up if they didn’t, but he refused to worry about that right now. The only other thing that nagged at the back of his mind was whether this was going to have any aftereffects on his uncle.

The fighting with the Blue Changelings was fiercest in the vicinity of the battling queens as the drones followed Chrysalis’ orders to keep all others away from her fight with Free. As the House Path team was stationed where they knew that battle would culminate, of course the fighting was at its most intense there. Citrine was loving it. She was fighting with more power and strength than she had ever known before, reinforced by the power of the changeling princess within her. Instinctively, she used her power to form long and wickedly sharp blades extending from her forehooves, and she tore into the thick of the fighting, mercilessly mowing down her foes.

The princess’s squad were also fighting at their utmost peak. Already empowered by the ambient love, they were being supercharged by the energy of fierce loyalty and devotion to her cause that the crystal pony was radiating. Wounds incurred in their clashes with the Blues were healing almost as fast as they were inflicted. The squad at that moment were wielding power that was only matched by the alicorn princesses and the two mighty queens fighting their decisive battle.

It’s time!” Pif suddenly yelled, pointing towards Path and the others huddled around him.

He was glowing with the power that was being fed into him by Twilight and Roseclaw, and in turn he was channelling to Free. They looked up to see Free hovering there, letting the power build, with Chrysalis watching warily.

Pif let her own power build and she focused on the connection to the hive queen, waiting for the inevitable moment, wondering if it would come this time.

Free vanished.

Chrysalis – behind you!

The mental shout came, and once more the changeling queen automatically started to dodge even as she began throwing up a shield.

Pif latched onto Chrysalis’ mind and mentally hauled with all her might. The shield shattered, leaving the queen vulnerable, but to Pif’s horror, her attack did not physically move her at all, and she was still out of alignment with Free’s pre-planned angle of attack.

Just then, screaming like a banshee, Citrine flashed through the air, surrounded by the telekinetic glow of half a dozen Red Changelings. She had a coffee table in one hoof, and she swung it with all her might, smashing Chrysalis in the side and shoving her back into the path of Free’s unleashed power. The beam ripped through the changeling queen, fatally injuring her, and she plummeted to the ground, her aura of power fading.

“VICTORY!” Free yelled and followed his mother down to the ground, even as Blue drones started falling out of the air as they lost the driving force behind them.

Citrine was lowered back to the ground, and she trotted over to Pif with a huge grin on her face. She held up a leg to give a hoof-bump to the startled disguised changeling. “Hey, we do good work, don’t we?”

Pif was nearly overwhelmed by the energy coming off the crystal pony. She suddenly hugged Citrine tightly. “You’re amazing! I've never encountered a pony like you before! Thank you! You have saved the Crystal Kingdom, and all of Equestria.”

Citrine was for once a little taken aback, and she actually blushed. “Nah, it was all of us. Me 'n the gang here work great together. I’m just glad to get a shot at the bug queen.”

Lucida stepped up and said to Pif, “You know that we could have done something similar if we looped back again.”

Pif smiled at her sister. “Yes, but she was the one to do it now, and she did it well. I think it’s only right that it was a crystal pony that was instrumental in saving the Crystal Kingdom.”

“No argument from me,” Lucida replied as she looked over to where Free was having his last words with his dying mother. “And I think our task is complete. Everything looks to be back on track.”

“I agree…” Pif suddenly lurched. “Whoa!”

“What’s wrong?” Lucida asked with a frown of concern.

“Nothing. Chrysalis just transferred control of the hive-mind to Free. I can feel Dad again, thank Celestia!”

Graxx looked at Pif with suspicion, his horn lighting up. “You were connected to Chrysalis’ hive-mind? What are you? You seem to be like a Blue but different.” He started to advance on Pif.

Lucida suddenly reached out with her talons and grabbed Graxx by the horn. She flipped him over onto his back with a thud. “No threatening my sister!” she said with a snarl.

The other Reds were wary now, and Vindictia spoke up through Citrine, “Please explain yourselves before my squad is forced to act.”

Pif held up her forehooves to show she wasn’t going to make any dangerous moves. “I’m related to them, but I’m not a Blue. Look!” She allowed her unicorn disguise evaporate in magic fire, revealing her chrome chitin.

All the Reds were surprised, even Vindictia. “What are you?” she echoed her lieutenant’s question.

“I’m a Chrome Changeling, but that’s not something that will be revealed to the public for a little while yet, and I will need you to keep it a secret until then. I will tell you this much though – I have far more in common with Free Agent than Chrysalis,” Pif replied as she pointed out her progenitor who was currently kicking and cursing his supposedly dead mother.

Vindictia nodded. “I believe you. Squad, stand down.” She then relinquished control to Citrine. Well, what now?” Citrine asked in her own voice.

Lucida replied, “We’re going to wait for Des to return and then we’ll leave. As for you, I believe you have a promise to fulfil to Vindictia.”

“Yep, but I don’t think we’ll get anywhere until tomorrow after they sort out this mess, so I’m going to have a drink.” She turned and headed for the ruined bar, and the six Red changelings followed dutifully.

With nothing better to do, and still needing to conceal themselves from general sight, the others followed also. They scavenged bottles from the wreckage and were enjoying a second round of drinks (or a fourth in Citrine’s case) before Destined teleported in.

Lucida got up from her chair and walked over to Destined. “What took you so long?” she asked quietly.

“I stayed to watch Uncle Shining ascend,” Destined admitted.

“That would have been worth seeing,” Lucida agreed. “So, how did it go for you?”

“I had to support Shining Armor otherwise the shield might have fallen before Chrysalis was defeated.”

“Supported? You were only supposed to watch out for and prevent interference! What did you do?”

“I supplied him with some of my own power. He was able to carry the load of the shield easily after that.”

Lucida stared at Destined with shock. “You supplied alicorn power into him while he was already being infused with Harmony? You know Mama Twilight and Auntie Luna have always wondered if that was all that caused him to ascend. Do you realise that it might have been your power that pushed him over the line?”

Destined’s eyes widened in realisation. “Sweet Celestia! I never thought of that.”

Lucida shuddered. “Too much has happened because of us. Let’s hope that our future has been properly restored. We have to get back now before we have any more effects on time.”


Lucida went back over to the others. “Time for us to leave.”

“Aw, I was enjoying the evening,” Pif complained. The changeling had let her control slip after the battle had been won, and she was slightly drunk on both the liquor and the intoxicating emotions that kept pouring out of Citrine. She had one arm around the crystal pony and the other hoof held up her bottle of beer. “I think we can celebrate a bit longer, right Citrine?”

“Bloody oath!” she concurred.

“Sorry, but it’s not up for debate. We’re leaving almost immediately. I don’t know about you, but I want to get home again.”

“Spoilsport,” Pif sulked. “Okay, just let me finish this drink.”

“Blue has to power up anyway, so go ahead.” Lucida looked at Blue who nodded and put down his beer. He walked outside, took off his shoes, and started to draw in the power that they would need for the time-jump.

“What is your brother doing?” Vindictia’s curious voice came from Citrine.

Lucida considered her words carefully. “We are going to make an exceptionally long journey that will require a lot of magic. Blue has the ability to soak up incredible amounts of energy, so he serves as our power source.”

“I have never heard of such a spell. At least I will witness it before I pass on to the Great Circle.”

After a few minutes, Blue Streak declared that he was ready, and the others gathered around him. He activated the vortex manipulator and Destined reached out with his mind to link with it and determine their destination. “Ready,” he declared.

“Okay, let’s go. Farewell, everyone,” Lucida said to the Red Changelings and Citrine.

Citrine suddenly tipsily trotted over to the group and raised a leg to hoof-bump Pif. “Bye, shinybug!”

Pif automatically lifted her hoof to respond.

“No, don’t!” Lucida yelled.

What are you doing?!’ Vindictia yelled in Citrine’s mind.

It was too late. Hooves touched just as the time-jump was triggered, and they all plunged into the vortex.

Lucida’s eyes were locked onto Citrine for the entire journey through the vortex. Had they accidentally screwed up history again?

Long Path accompanied Free Agent, Twilight Sparkle, and Luna to the chambers for the regular meeting with the changeling queens at Canterlot, along with their retinue. Free didn’t even bother taking his natural form anymore. As far as he was concerned, taking serious responsibility for his hive did not require divesting himself of his self-identity as a griffon. They stopped outside the chambers when they saw two alicorns waiting for them – one a pink mare and the other a white stallion.

“BBBFF! Cadance! It’s good to see you again!” Twilight exclaimed, rushing over to give them both a hug.

“Hey, Twily, how are things?” Shining Armor asked as he returned the hug.

“Still wondering where our children have disappeared to.”

“No word about this ‘secret mission’ of theirs?” Cadance asked.

Twilight shook her head. “If it wasn’t for that letter they sent, I would be worried sick right now. Still, none of them are foals anymore, so I’ll just have to trust them.”

“Meanwhile, life and duties go on. Ready for the meeting?”

“Not really. Epiphany was supposed to be demonstrating a new development this time, but that will have to be postponed now. There’s not much more than standard business aside from that.”

“Nopony ever said royal business was exciting,” Shining commented.

Twilight stuck her tongue out at him. “At least you don’t have to attend the meetings.”

Shining grinned. “That’s all you know. Us guys have our own meeting out here while waiting for you.”

Cadance smiled at her husband. “Try not to lose too many bits this time, dear.”

Shining just grinned back at his wife.

“Daddy!” a young voice squealed in delight from behind them.

The group turned around just in time to see a small crimson form dash into their midst and latch onto Path.

“Oho! My little princess!” Path declared as he bent over and picked up the changeling nymph who giggled and lapped up the love he was projecting at her. “How’s my little Fifi doing?” he asked as he rubbed his muzzle into her tummy, making her laugh.

“For the last time, her name is Fidelitas,” came Carpacia’s exasperated voice.

‘Seems more like a Fifi to me,” Free commented.

Carpacia glared at him. “It’s your fault that they call my daughter that. It’s not dignified.”

My daughter prefers her nickname,” Free riposted.

Your hive always does things strangely,” Carpacia complained.

“It didn’t stop you from making us technically in-laws,” Free replied smugly.

By this time, the young Red Changeling queen had climbed onto her sire’s back and was clinging to his neck while nibbling an ear while Path patiently indulged her. Fortunately experience had taught them well, and he had a spell on him to ensure that she did not accidentally start draining him of emotional energy. She got plenty of the freely given type though, and she loved spending time with her dad.

Shining Armor eyed Carpacia’s contingent and smiled in recognition. “Ready to hoof back those bits you won from me last time, Major Graxx?”

“I didn’t even bother bringing them with me, Prince Armor. I’ll need the room for the rest of your bits,” Graxx replied with a tight smile.

“We’ll see about that!” He started urging Path, Graxx, Leatherwing, and Nox to join the rest of the changeling guards who had already arrived. Chairs had already been drawn about a couple of tables and decks of cards awaited them.

Carpacia rolled her eyes at the sight. “Well, it would seem that everyone is early today, and I’m the last to arrive. Shall we proceed?” she asked the princesses and Free.

They nodded and followed her into the chamber. Two Royal Guards closed the double doors behind them, and then set aside their weapons to take places at the tables.

The Council of the Queens was in the middle of a rather boring report on the status of the expansion of the Yellow Hive into another city’s public health service when suddenly a wind blew up from nowhere, and papers on the table started flying around the room. The air above the table distorted and crackled, then suddenly opened up with strange light effects before indecorously dumping a number of bodies onto the table. The vortex then disappeared as if it had never existed.

Citrine jumped up. “Whoo! Now that’s what I call a ride!”

Carpacia stood up suddenly and held out a hoof, her eyes wide and already starting to water.

“Pony! Who are you transferring?!” she asked as she indicated the symbol on her chest.

Citrine I need to talk to my mother, please!

Citrine let go of control and her body posture changed.

“Don't you remember your eldest daughter, Mother?” Vindictia asked with fake hurt feelings.

“Vindictia!” Carpacia exclaimed, hardly daring to hope.

The Red Hive network suddenly erupted into activity once they heard the name of their princess, Vindictia.

“How many hours remain, Daughter?” Carpacia asked.

“Rest easy, Mother; we have several days before this body fails. We have plenty of time to get to the hive so I can be properly sent away and the pony can recover,” Vindictia replied.

The Red Queen sent out an urgent message over her hive-network as she stood up. She then took Citrine in her arms and hugged the pony, tears leaking from her eyes.

“Will somepony please tell us what is going on,” Celestia calmly but firmly asked.

“They’ve just returned from their so-called secret mission, I would guess,” Twilight commented. “You have a lot of explaining to do.”

The others were still in the process of disentangling themselves. Lucida managed to get herself free first and looked around to see Luna. “It has to do with a very timely intervention on our part,” she said earnestly.

Luna’s eyes widened in surprised realisation. “You, Blue, and three others – dost this mean that the mission was a success?”

“Yes, Auntie, I believe so.”

Luna stood up. “This council is at recess! We have more important matters to discuss.” The Moon Princess noticed that chamber doors were ajar, and the concerned faces of husbands and guards were looking in, wondering what the awful commotion had been. Path was surprised to see the wayward children. “Come in, Prince Armor. Thou too, Path. This concerns you both.”

Pif suddenly recognised one of the changelings. “Graxx! Come in here also, please.”

The Red Changeling’s mouth was agape as memories from years ago were awakened. “Chrome princess?” he asked disbelievingly even as he stepped inside the chamber. Then he got a good look at Citrine as Carpacia finally relinquished her hug. “Princess Vindictia!” he shouted.

“Yes, Graxx, it’s us,” Vindictia replied.

“It’s been over nineteen years since you disappeared!” he protested.

“So that was some kind of time vortex?” Vindictia asked, looking at Lucida for confirmation.

The hippogriff nodded before saying, “We need to close the chamber. What we have to say should not leave this room until everyone is informed, and only what we feel is necessary.”

Luna looked at the guards at the door. “Leatherwing, Nox, attend us. Everypony, speak of naught that you have heard or seen just now.” Luna felt a brief moment of déjà vu. “Close the doors and let no one inside unless it is of the utmost importance.”

The guards closed the doors while everyone sorted themselves out.

Shining Armor stared at Citrine in vague recollection. “Do I know you?”

Citrine took a good look at him and her face lit up with a roguish grin. “Hey! If it isn’t Prince Shinybutt! Where’d you get the wings?”

The alicorn’s memory was jogged and he frowned. “Citrine Quartz! What’s a troublemaker like you doing involved in this?”

“Saving your shiny butt, that’s what,” she replied impudently.

“A likely story. What happened to your gang?”

“My posse ain’t around anymore to keep you on your hooves, so I’ll just have to do it all by myself.”

Shining was about to retort when Cadance put a hoof on his shoulder and said, “Let it go, Shining. We have more important things to concern ourselves with right now.”

“Quite right, Cadance,” Twilight said as she turned her attention to her children. “So, are you ready to explain why you have been missing for fifteen days?” she asked with some acerbity.

Lucida looked at Destined. “Fifteen days? How did you miss by that much?”

Destined scratched the back of his neck with some embarrassment. “I forgot that it would take far less energy to move with the flow of time as opposed to going back against it. I had to shunt all the excess energy into spatial movement instead, which is how we ended up in Canterlot instead of the Crystal City, and I still apparently overshot by a fortnight.”

“I thought you couldn’t move us like that?”

“Give me a break! It’s not like I’ve had much practice at manipulating time and space!”

“Children! Calm down and start explaining, please,” came Celestia’s voice with a hint of gentle rebuke.

“Sorry,” Lucida replied. “It’s about time….”

“So I became an equicidal tyrant?” Twilight said sadly.

“As I said, Mom, I don’t think it was your fault,” Destined replied earnestly. “Chrysalis’s emotion blast distorted your mind.”

“Still, I had rather hoped that I would have been able to resist better. It would seem that would be a false hope.”

Cadance looked miserable. “At least you have an excuse, Twilight. It sickens me to hear what my alternative history self did.”

“Auntie Cadance,” Pif begun, “I think you do have an excuse. You had become too bound up with the Crystal Heart by the time of the Siege of the Crystal Kingdom. Destroying it had a terrible effect on you as well. The first time that it was shattered by Flurry Heart, it was still repairable, and you were still new to the kingdom, but as time passed, you and the Heart became more dependent on each other, so when it broke, so did you.”

“That’s little reassurance, Pif. It means that my state of mind now forever depends on the wellbeing of the Crystal Heart. Must I now always surround it with guards to ensure its safety? Must I keep away the very citizens who revere it merely to quell my own fears?”

Pif’s face reflected her uncertainty. “I honestly don’t know, Auntie, but I don’t think that’s the answer. Maybe there’s another way that we have yet to think of.”

“I will give it a lot of thought.”

Celestia spoke up. “As terrible as those events were, they have been relegated to what might have been. Of more importance is the one overriding fact that somepony interfered with history for their own dark purposes. Considering the nature of the interference and the consequences, I strongly doubt that it was the result that they desired. That means that the culprit might try again, and right now we are helpless to prevent it. Are you absolutely certain that you could not identify the antagonist in any way?”

Pif shook her head. “I was listening very closely the second time around, but I could not identify the one who sent the warning beyond that it was a changeling linked to Chrysalis’ hive-mind. It was a very strong link, but not a familiar one.”

“I hope that you are not suspecting that it was an infiltrator from one of our hives,” Queen Orlare said with a frown.

Pif shook her head. “No, I think the mental touch would have been different. Besides, I have no reason to believe that any of the five other Equestrian Hives, nor even the Western Hive, would do this.”

“So it seems that we must rely on this Doctor Time Turner to forestall further attacks,” Luna stated. “Who is this pony who has such remarkable knowledge of time?”

Celestia looked as if she was struggling with herself on how to react to her sister’s question. She eventually answered, “Sister, this Doctor is known to me. He has come to Equestria’s aid on several occasions.”

“Then why have I not heard of him?”

“Most of the occasions have been during the last thousand years when you weren’t there to help me.”

Luna blinked in surprise. “Is this Doctor an alicorn in disguise?”

Celestia shook her head. “No, he isn’t an alicorn. He is… unique.”

“And immortal like us, apparently.”

“I cannot answer that, but I do know that he is a friend to Equestria.” Celestia turned to Lucida. “Can you describe what he looks like?”

Lucida gave the best description that she could, but a light brown pony with a medium brown mane was hardly distinctive. Only his hourglass cutie mark was significant.

“So, he’s changed again,” Celestia murmured.

“What’s that, sister?”

“Never mind, Luna. I will tell you more later. Meanwhile, it seems that you have left something untold for the best part of twenty years.”

Luna blushed. “Thou dost refer to Lucida and Blue Streak’s visit to my court before the invasion?”

“I do. I have always wondered how you just happened to have some troops conveniently on hoof to send to the Crystal Kingdom when word came from House Path.”

“While I could not speak of the visit for fear of inadvertently interfering with the course of history, I felt that judicious troop movements were low risk. After seeing the results, I stand by my decision.”

Celestia nodded. “I do not question your judgement, Luna. It was your decision to make, and likely a wise one. Still, I wonder if you had ever had to make that decision before, or whether it became a part of the new history.”

“Thou dost believe that it previously never happened?”

Instead of answering her, Celestia turned to Free and said, “Could you please describe the moments that led up to your defeat of Chrysalis at that battle.”

Free looked a little surprised. “It’s not as if I haven’t told it dozens of times before. Path was sending me his energy as well as Twilight’s and Roseclaw’s via our bond, and I was accumulating it for one devastating blow as well as to power the teleport that would take Chrysalis by surprise. Then I made the 'port and started to fire my shot only to belatedly discover that she was already turning and moving out of my aim while trying to put up a shield. That failed, but my shot was still going to miss until a pony unexpectedly smashed into her and put her back in the path of it. Chrysalis was mortally wounded and the battle was won.”

Celestia then looked at Lucida. “As Free Agent just said, he’s told this tale often. How do you recall it?”

Lucida replied, “Up until the teleport, everything was as Papa Free described it. However, Chrysalis never got a warning, and so she was taken totally by surprise. She did not move, and Citrine did not play a part in it at all.”

Path came to the conclusion quickly. “So history is still changed. Should we be concerned?”

“No, Dad,” Destined replied. “While the probability path was altered by interference from various parties, the timeline appears to have resumed a high-probability course that we recognise. While some events unfolded differently, the sum of them has led to the same basic conclusion, I believe. Unless we five find anything to contradict it later, I would say that probably everything is virtually the same as before we left.”

“Ha! How about that?” Free said with a smirk. “I never expected that my kids would ever get to watch me kick Chrysalis’ butt, let alone become part of my victory.”

“You might yet get to do it again,” Pif said.

“What do you mean?”

“While we can’t positively identify who gave the warning, we do know that it was almost certainly a Blue Changeling, and most likely under the orders of its queen, and since we’re dealing with time travel, that was very likely Chrysalis herself trying to change the result of the battle.”

“Isn’t she supposed to be dead though?”

Twilight interjected, “Remember the anomalous results that we got from the autopsy?”

There was silence as everyone digested that uncomfortable fact. It was Carpacia who finally broke it.

“I feel that we have learned as much as possible from this debriefing. If you would excuse me, I have a daughter to return to the Circle.”

Luna nodded and said, “If there are no objections, I declare this meeting closed.”

Carpacia held out a hoof to Citrine. “Come with me. It is time to fulfil your promise.”

“May I come also, Carpacia?” Path asked. “I feel a bond through our daughter.”

Carpacia nodded, and they departed with little Fifi still riding her father’s back.

“So what are we supposed to do now?” Cinder asked nobody in particular.

“I believe we have an appointment with our Doctor,” Lucida said with a smirk.

“I swear that this is where his workshop was!” Blue declared with annoyance.

“Not arguing with you, Blue,” Lucida replied as they all gazed at the empty lot in the midst of Ponyville.

“So what happens now?” Cinder asked.

Destined pointed at the vortex manipulator still clasped to Blue’s leg. “If we’ve been left with that, I suspect that our adventures in time might not have ended.”

Pif shrugged. “If so, bring it on. We still need to catch the villain after all.”

There was a murmur of agreement before they turned and headed home to Twilight’s castle.

Citrine looked around in fascination as she was led deeper into the Red Hive. She seemed to be attracting a crowd, although she knew that they were really here for the princess that she carried within her. She had been having quite a conversation with her since they had left Canterlot.

“Once you are sent to the Great Circle, will I still have all of those abilities that we used against the Blue Hive?”

While you still have the abilities, you have to discover the pathways to them yourself. The only reason why I could was because I was able to explore both your conscious and subconscious at the same time. It was a desperate move that paid off. You are a crystallomancer – you just need to unlock the power within yourself, Citrine.

“You know, I think I’m going to miss you. How does the sending process work?”

You’ll see.

The group ended up in a huge hall that was nearly totally filled with Red Changelings. There was a dais in the middle to which they made their way and mounted the steps. The murmuring of the gathered drones died down in anticipation. Path stood to one side while Fidelitas stood on his shoulders and watched curiously.

Carpacia turned to Citrine. “I request that you relinquish control to my daughter, Citrine Quartz.”

Citrine nodded and did so. “I am here, mother,” came Vindictia’s voice.

“Are you ready to move on to the Great Circle, Vindictia?”

“In a moment, mother. First, I have to do something.” She turned and walked over to Path, but it was Fidelitas whom she gazed at. She reached up a hoof to stroke her cheek. “I am happy that I got to see you, my sister. May you grow to bring this Hive, and your sire’s House, great honour.” She lowered her eyes to Path and continued. “I have known you for too short a time, but I am honoured to meet the sire of my sister. While it has not been the Red Hive’s practice to let a pony help raise one of our princesses, I think that the time is right for a change, and you are the right pony to do so. Treat my sister well.”

“She is part of my family, and I can do no less,” Path replied gravely.

Vindictia nodded in acknowledgement, and then turned back to Carpacia. “I am ready, mother.”

Carpacia took the opportunity to give her one last hug before turning towards their audience. “My eldest daughter, Princess Vindictia, has come back to us! Unfortunately it is not to stay, as she fell in honourable battle and has used the Rite of Transference. This pony fought together with Vindictia with determination and bravery to make sure that Chrysalis’ invasion failed. Now she has returned her essence back to us.” She turned towards the crystal pony. “Beloved daughter, it is time for you to unite with us one last time before joining the Great Circle.”

Carpacia’s horn lit up, immediately followed by those of all the changelings gathered to partake in the ceremony. A red glow started to build around the crystal pony, growing brighter and brighter until she lit up the huge cave. At this point, all present were connected to their princess, and one final word came to them all.


Carpacia touched the mark on Citrine’s chest, and Vindictia’s consciousness flowed into the hive-mind, leaving her knowledge for future generations, then her spirit dissipated into the ever-present life-energy of the world as she joined the Great Circle.

The glow about Citrine quickly faded, and she was left with an unexpected sense of loss.

Carpacia sighed tremulously before addressing the crystal pony once more. “Thank you for bringing my daughter back to us, Citrine Quartz. Know that from this day forth, you are a friend of the Red Hive and ever welcome to visit.”

Citrine gave the changeling queen a lopsided grin. “You’re welcome. Thanks for fighting to save my home.” She faltered then as she realised something. She snorted with derisive laughter. “My home,” she repeated. “Not really my home anymore. All in my posse died about twenty years ago. No family to go back to, and nothing in common with those left. I’m not sure what to do now.”

Path stepped up to Citrine. “If a home is what you are looking for, the House of Path would welcome you. You’ve shared some bad times with my children, so how about sharing some good times in the future?”

Citrine looked uncertain. “I dunno. This hive looks pretty inviting. These bugs seem to like me for some reason.”

Carpacia smiled indulgently. “It’s the delicious aura of bravery and loyalty that you radiate. You would always have appreciative companions here. Nevertheless, I think it would be best if you lived with a pony family, even an odd one like Lord Path’s.”

Citrine looked at Path, and he raised an eyebrow in silent query. “Pif’s your daughter, right?” she asked.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“She’s cute. I think I might take your offer.”

Path chuckled. “Not quite what I expected, but welcome to House Path.”

Citrine took a deep breath, let it out in a huff, and grinned. “Enough of this seriousness. I’m hungry – wanna go get something to eat?”

“Well, that was a useless waste of effort.”

“Patience, my dear. While the results were not what we hoped, the method was not at fault. We merely have to choose another event to influence.”

“Hmm… I believe I know the perfect one....”




Chapter 4: Fitting In


It was pleasant for the five adventurers to be back in the familiar surroundings of Ponyville with its mixture of pony and changeling inhabitants. The time spent in the past in the Crystal Kingdom had taken the edge off their unpleasant experiences in the alternative timeline, but it still bothered them all that history could have been so much different, especially for Epiphany. While she would not have even been conceived in that timeline, she felt deeply for all the changelings who were affected by the meddling in history. She let her disguise slip and resumed her changeling princess form. Today she wanted to feel proud to be the future Queen of the Chrome Hive.

Passing changelings gave her respectful nods rather than the groveling obeisance or slavish servitude that Chrysalis imposed on the Blue Changelings. That was exactly how her mother, Gossamer/Free Agent, and she herself preferred. Cooperation was their strength, not blind obedience, and Equestrian society was reaping the benefits of the open relationship between ponies and the shape-changers. A whole generation had grown up in Ponyville not knowing what it was like not to have a changeling companion. New social dynamics had been created, and the concept of a family was changing with emotivores like herself providing insight and stability previously practically unheard of. The first open three-way wedding of a mare, a stallion, and a changeling had caused quite a stir in the rather traditional rural town, but it was now an unremarkable common occurrence.

All of this had only come about due to her parents – all four of them – and the enormous effect that they and House Path had made on society in both Equestria and Griffonia, with inroads being made in many other nations. All of this threatened by someone with the power to make history-altering changes for their own selfish desires. She expected that there would be other attempts to alter their destinies, but she and her brothers and sisters would do their utmost to foil those plans while they had the power to do so. She heaved a sigh of relief as they entered Twilight’s castle, their home away from home, with nothing more exciting than the guards at the door saluting them. Yes, they would have to be on their guard, but for now, it was time to unwind.

“Who wants to join me in the hot tub?” Pif asked the others.

There was a chorus of replies as everyone felt that it was great idea.

Lucida frowned. “All five of us won’t fit in the tub though.”

“I have a suggestion,” Blue Streak replied. “With all the physical training that I did, I needed a bit more attention to my body, and Mom often took me to Lotus and Aloe’s Spa. Not only do they have a gigantic tub, but they also have masseurs. Let me tell you that it’s heavenly to have a mare kneading away your tension.”

“Sounds divine,” Destined agreed. “I’ve never been so tense in my life.”

Pif grinned. “Well, while you boys get massaged, I say we girls get some pampering. Like Auntie Rarity says, battle is no excuse for not looking fabulous!”

Cinder snorted in amusement. “That is one strange mare. Still, it’s been a while since I’ve had my talons trimmed and my hide buffed.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Lucida decreed. “Everyone drop off your stuff in your rooms and we’ll gather back here in ten minutes before heading over to the spa.”

Aside from the vortex manipulator that Blue refused to leave behind, he and all the others had divested themselves of all their accoutrements. The spa was fairly busy that day, but both Blue and Destined would be able to be fitted into the schedule for massages in a short time, so they spent the first quarter hour soaking in the tub with the others. Aloe came over to them to announce that their timeslots were now open, and she led them to massage rooms. She indicated the first room to Blue who looked inside to see an earth pony mare who seemed pleased to see him.

“Hey, Orchard Blossom! Good to see you again.”

“It’s been a while, Blue. You haven’t been seeing other masseuses, have you?” she asked slyly.

“The only massages I’ve been getting have been from my mate, I assure you!” Blue replied with a laugh before Aloe drew the privacy curtain.

Destined chuckled as Aloe took him to the next open room. Somehow he reckoned that he had better not mention this to Cinder. The dragoness barely tolerated even harmless innuendo when it came to her mate. He hoped that the mare massaging him would refrain though. He did not feel comfortable with the thought.

However, the young alicorn was surprised to see that his massager was not a mare. In fact he was the least likely pony that Destined expected to find there. The masseur was a thestral with a light brown coat and floofy beige mane. He wore an apricot-colored ascot around his neck, and he had sparkling blue slit eyes and a devastatingly charming grin.

Aloe said, “This is Silk Touch, our newest masseur, but I assure you he’s just as talented with his hooves as any of the others.”

Destined was quite intrigued by the bat-pony and he reassured Aloe that he would do nicely as he stepped up to the massage table.

“It’s quite an honor to get to work on royalty, Your Highness,” Silk Touch said as he adjusted the sheet on the massage table.

“Oh, please, just drop the titles,” Destined replied, his ears folding back to his head in irritation. “I might officially be a prince, but most of the time I’m just Destined Path, okay?”

“As you like, Just Destined. Make yourself comfy, and I’ll make you feel like a king, even if you like to slum with us peasants,” Silk replied jauntily.

Destined chuckled even as he spread himself over the massage table. “So, what makes a thestral take a job as a masseur? Or is that a racist question?”

“Oh, you’re not wrong about the unlikelihood, but I enjoy getting hooves-on with my clients. I just love to make them feel good. But while we’re asking species-related questions, is there anything that I should know about alicorns before I start?”

Destined shook his head. “Not massage-wise, no. If you’ve worked with pegasi, then you should be fine.”

“And what about non-massage related things?”

Destined turned to look at the thestral who just gave him an innocent grin. The alicorn had to smile. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?”

“I certainly hope so, but until then....” Silk placed his hooves on the calf muscle of one of Destined’s hind legs. “Each client is slightly different. If anything that I am doing bothers you, let me know. I can already tell that you have some muscle tension, and I can deal with that, but if you feel there’s a problem, don’t hesitate to say something.”

“Okay, I’ll do that. This is the first time I’ve had a massage though, so hopefully I don’t overreact.”

“If I’m doing my job right, I don’t think you will. Let’s get started, shall we? I will be using warm oils to make the experience both more pleasant and effective.”

“Okay.” Destined relaxed and let the bat-pony get to work. It was quite a novel experience for him as he felt Silk’s hooves massage knots out of his muscles, and the feeling got quite sensual at times.

“You seem to be very tense,” Silk commented conversationally. “Have you been having difficulties lately?”

Destined snorted. “You would be right. I’ve had a hoof in events that could have changed the world.”

“Sounds drastic. Why haven’t I heard about them then?”

“You might say that too much time has passed since then.”

“Ooh! Cryptic, are we?” Silk said as his hooves slid between Destined’s wings which popped out to full extension.

“Oops! Sorry about that.” Destined’s blush burned brightly on his cheeks.

“No, that’s perfectly normal, especially if you’re on edge like you seem to be. Let me help with that too.” With careful strokes, Silk worked on the wing muscles, and Destined groaned with relief as he felt the tension melt away. The master masseur gradually worked his way up past the alicorn’s shoulders and then to the neck muscles before his task was completely done.

Destined felt as limp as a soggy noodle, and felt better than he had in ages. “Why haven’t I ever done this before?” he murmured.

“I take it that you’re satisfied with the service?” the bat-pony asked with a knowing grin.

“Oh, shut up – you already know what I feel like,” Destined responded languidly.

Silk laughed. “Be that as it may, your session is up and I will need my table back.”

With an effort of will, Destined rolled off the massage table. Only then did he get a good look at himself glistening with the massage oils. There was even a full length mirror in the room so that he could admire the effect. He did not think a mirror would be standard equipment, but he had to admit that it was a nice touch.

“As gorgeous as you look, I suspect that you’ll want to wash off the oils. One of the ladies will show you to a cleansing bath.”

Destined saw the thestral’s appreciative looks in the mirror and his blush returned. He was not used to feeling like this, but he liked it. “Thanks, Silk. I reckon I’ll be back soon. I think I’m already addicted to those talented hooves of yours.”

The privacy curtain was drawn aside just then, and Lotus smiled at Destined and indicated that he should follow her. As he walked away, Silk Touch admired the alicorn’s rear, licking his lips, his long tongue sliding hungrily along one of his fangs.

Oh, my! I hope he does come back soon. What a find!’ He began cleaning up in preparation for the next customer. When Lotus returned with another client, a mare this time, he pulled the spa owner aside briefly. “Do me a favor, boss – if Prince Destined comes in for anything, tell me. I want to give him my personal service.”

Lotus nodded knowingly. “I will do that, as long as you don’t neglect your other clients. Now back to work!”

Silk managed to do his usual professional job for the mare, but part of his mind remained on the hunky blue alicorn for the rest of the day.

Upon Queen Carpacia’s return with Path and Citrine, the discussion of the recent events began anew between, although this time it included Path and Shining Armor. However, while there was a great deal of concern over the matter, there was very little that they could actually do.

“How are we going to find Chrysalis when up until now we did not even realize that she was still a threat?” Dianthia asked.

“We will need to send out agents everywhere to look for unusual activity,” Carpacia replied. “Each hive must send out infiltrators with just this goal in mind.”

Queen Lamina spoke up. “I have a multitude of drones in the police and emergency services that can be put to the task.”

“House Path has a lot of contacts in foreign lands now, and I can ask Cinder to talk with the dragon nomads to ask them to keep a look-out also,” Path suggested. “I can also approach Queen Aquila to do the same. She is aware of how dangerous Chrysalis is to all of Equus.”

“What if Chrysalis makes another time-change before we can locate her?” Shining asked.

“There is absolutely nothing that we can do to prevent the change; we will not even be aware of it,” Celestia replied. “Even Starswirl the Bearded had huge difficulty crafting time spells, and there were none that I am aware of that could prevent a change in history.”

“What of this Doctor fellow that thou mentioned, Sister? He hast done the impossible already, judging by our nieces and nephews’ tale.”

Celestia shook her head. “Even if he could help us, it’s not a matter of finding him. He finds you! Or in this case, he found Blue Streak, Prince Destined Path, Lucida Path, Princess Epiphany, and Cinder to be his agents.”

“That doth seem most unreliable,” Luna grumbled.

“I have learned not to question his methods, bizarre as some have seemed to be at the time.”

“Is there no other way that we can be proactive about this threat?” Queen Orlare asked. “I fear for the wellbeing of all those under our care.”

“Well I see one loose end that should be dealt with,” Queen Dianthia replied with a frown. “That crystal pony does not belong here in this time. For all we know, she could be disturbing history simply by being here.”

“Oh, come on!” Free protested. “Destined is about the closest thing that we have to an expert on this space-time stuff, and he wasn’t concerned about her.”

“He also hasn’t had the time to think about the ramifications. It was an accident that brought her along with them.”

Twilight said, “I think that you’re right about looking into the ramifications, Dianthia, but I also agree with Free’s opinion about Destined’s evaluation of the possible threat.”

Dianthia frowned. “You are Queen Gossamer’s mate and inevitably biased.”

“Dianthia!” Carpacia exclaimed. “You’re talking about the Avatar of Magic, and her son, an alicorn whose talent is metaphysics. Surely they would know far better than any of us about any danger!”

“You’re all talking about her as if this hypothetical time stuff is the only threat,” Shining Armor said. “She’s a street urchin and a troublemaker. She doesn’t belong here!”

Cadance looked disappointed with her husband. “Are you saying that we can’t do something about that now that we have the opportunity? Besides, wouldn’t sending her back in time be interfering with history yet again? We don’t know what kind of trouble that would cause.”

“That’s the point!” Dianthia shouted. “We don’t know what kind of trouble she would cause either by being left here or sent back, but the past is where she came from, and that’s where she belongs!”

Carpacia’s ire was rising along with Dianthia’s. “You don’t know or understand her at all. She is a beacon of bravery and loyalty to us. My daughter chose Citrine as her vessel because of it. She deserves better consideration!”

Lamina nodded in agreement. “She does deserve special consideration, but that does not mean that we should not examine the possible negatives of not sending her back.”

“I was already going to discreetly watch over her,” Twilight objected. “I see no reason to do so in a hostile manner!”

“Twily – you don’t know her like I do. She’s never been anything but a pain in the butt to the Empire Guard.”

“Shiny – you may be the Alicorn of Protection, but I’m the Princess of Friendship, and I say that everypony deserves the chance to prove her worth!”

“It’s not her worth that we’re judging, but her threat!” Dianthia yelled.

“And I’m saying that she’s not a threat!” Carpacia yelled right back.

“Please, Your Majesties!” Celestia tried to intervene. “We’re trying to have a reasonable discussion here.”

HEY! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” came a livid voice from the doorway.

Everyone turned to see two Royal Guards struggling to hold back Citrine who had an absolutely pissed-off expression on her face. Having caught their attention, she continued in a slightly less loud voice, but no less angrily.

“Think I’m deaf or something? I hear you arguing over what to do with me, but what makes you think you have the right?” She lifted a hoof to point at Celestia and Luna. “You’re not even the rulers of my country!” Her hoof shifted to point at Shining Armor and Cadance. “And you two came along and said you were the Crystal Empire’s new rulers – who asked you? I sure didn’t, and neither did the rest of my posse! No ruler ever gave a toss about us, and we sure didn’t give a toss about you. All you thought about us was as troublemakers, but you never really understood us.” Her attention then turned to the Green Queen. “But at least they are ponies who I can tolerate. You, however, a nosy bug who is so obsessed with an idea that you’re willing to push until you get your own way. I’ve got news for you, Queeny – you’re not my boss either, and I don’t care what you want because I’m not listening to any of you.”

She put her left hoof on her right arm and bent the arm to give a jerky upward gesture with her right hoof. “So buck you!” She shifted her attention to Shining and did the same obscene gesture to him. “Buck you!” Towards Celestia. “Buck you, too!” She looked towards Carpacia. “You’re cool. So are you,” she added while looking at Free. She turned to Lamina. “And buck you too!”

Citrine finally allowed the Guards to remove her from the room, but she did not stop there. With a flare of crystal magic that made her coat glitter, she wrested free of them and galloped away.

Twilight cried out, “Citrine – wait!” She leaped up and flew off after her.

Free looked around at the shocked faces and chuckled. “I believe that ends this discussion. Now I’m going to join my wife. Toodles!” He then launched himself in pursuit of the others.

Luna grinned wryly and banged her gavel. “Meeting adjourned.”

Twilight caught up to Citrine as the crystal pony exited into a courtyard and slowed down, having lost her sense of direction in the unfamiliar palace.

“Citrine, wait up, please!”

Citrine turned to face Twilight. “Why? Are you going to tell me what I should do too?”

Twilight alighted beside Citrine. “No, but I will offer you a place to stay. Be honest with yourself – have you anywhere to sleep, or to find a meal, or to be with friends?”

Citrine knew that she didn’t, but she stubbornly didn’t want to admit it. “I’ve always managed to cope on my own.”

“Didn’t you say you had your... posse to support you?” Twilight pointed out as Free landed beside them.

“We helped each other if we needed to, but we were always strong by ourselves too.”

Free said, “You don’t have to sacrifice your independence, Citrine. Path said that he already welcomed you into our House, but that doesn’t come with strings attached. What we do is help you reach your full potential while staying with us. You challenge yourself. You can be strong, but also have help when needed.”

Citrine had started to calm down, and what they were offering was quite tempting.

“Please say you’ll come home with us,” Twilight pled sincerely.

Free gave the crystal mare a sly grin. “Pif will be there.”

A smirk broke out on Citrine’s face as her normal buoyant nature returned. “Sold! Let’s go!”

Twilight looked at Free. “Pif?”

Free winked at her. “I’ll tell you later.”

Twilight shrugged. “Home it is then.” Her horn lit up, and they teleported away.

Techbird entered Long Path’s Griffonian office, nodded to the others gathered there, and took a seat on an available cushion.

Path smiled at her and said, “Now that we’re all here, let’s get this under way so we can all get to dinner on time. As I mentioned earlier, I called this meeting so that we can share our impressions of Citrine Quartz, and give our preliminary evaluations of her aptitudes. It has only been two weeks since she joined us, but her unusual circumstances necessitate that we ensure that she is not disadvantaged because of them. Unlike most who have joined House Path, Citrine did not join as a dedicated student and apprentice warrior, nor did she go through the normal selection process to determine if she was suitable. She is a refugee both through time and life circumstances, so please bear this in mind when you voice your opinions. Techbird – would you care to start us off?”

The griffoness sighed. “I would love to start off more positively, but it’s fairly obvious that Citrine has neither the interest nor aptitude for the sciences. She has a basic understanding of mathematics which I suspect she acquired before whatever happened to turn her into a street foal. She has not been inclined to talk to me about it though, so I can’t confirm that. My preliminary evaluation is that she is not suited for a career of any technical nature.”

Path nodded in agreement with her assessment. “Thank you, Techbird. Twilight – you’re next.”

Twilight shuffled her notes before starting. “I agree with Techbird’s impressions. She does appear to have a basic education, which means she’s literate and numerate, but her knowledge is nowhere near as comprehensive as it should be for someone of her age. Compounding the problem is the fact that she’s a young adult, and not inclined to partake in classes with students much younger than her. Indeed, she has openly said that she sees no point in going back to school. I have managed to do an assessment on her magical aptitude, and aside from the crystallomancy that she demonstrated, she seems to be very average. On that one talent though, I sense great potential, but at present it seems to be escaping her conscious control.”

Warfist cleared his throat. “If I may interject here, I have witnessed the crystallomancy effect while assessing Citrine’s combat capabilities. It appears to manifest when she’s in a certain frame of mind, and that matches with the reports from the incidents in the Crystal City and at the Royal Council.”

Twilight nodded. “I thought as much too. Anyway, in line with Techbird’s assessment, I feel that Citrine is not suited to extensive academic studies. However, she should be encouraged to find ways to develop her control of her special talent. Considering what Warfist has just said, that might lie in his field, at least in part.”

“Would you agree, Warfist?” Path asked.

“I have seen encouraging signs to that effect. Again, Citrine is very undisciplined when it comes to combat, and I found her to be woeful when it came to any more rigidly defined styles of combat. She is also terrible with a number of weapons, and could not hit the broad side of a barn with a bow and arrow. I was ready to dismiss the reports of her battle prowess at the Crystal City, but I recalled what Lucida said about her being a brawler, so I put her into similar situation with a few of my better students in the gymnasium full of equipment. When she was told what was expected of her, she actually grinned at me, and I could feel her eagerness. I wondered if it was overconfidence, but she quickly dispelled that idea. She wiped the floor with her opponents. Her lack of style is her style. She excels at unorthodoxy, and uses nearly everything that she can lay a hoof on as a weapon. Her unexpected moves and unusual armaments were enough to throw off the other student warriors long enough for her to press home her advantage. Despite her being an amateur, I came away very impressed.”

“So, do you feel she should be trained for a career as a House Warrior?” Path asked.

“She is already warrior, but I believe that she is currently too undisciplined to be a House Warrior who needs to be able to fight as part of a team. However, we would risk losing her unique style if we put her through normal training procedures. I would like to try some more private sessions with her while I get a better feel for her capabilities, especially the crystallomancy that was previously mentioned. That could be her biggest asset. It was while she was at the peak of her fight during the test that it manifested, and I believe it not only enhances her strength, but the crystalline hide is in effect a form of armor. I witnessed one student land a telling blow on Citrine while it was in effect, only to have it almost totally ignored.”

“That sounds extremely promising,” Path said. “Go ahead with those extra sessions. I’ll coordinate suitable times with you once we complete her assessment.” He turned to Roseclaw. “What about you, Rose? Did you find any other hidden talents in Citrine?”

“I would not say talents, but she certainly took a great interest in history, especially Griffonian. I suspect that she’s a fan of the more, shall we say, exciting events which griffons are a little infamous for, but she has paid attention in social studies also. I’m not certain yet though if the latter is because of her field of interest, or whether she’s just trying to get a feel for the novel situation that she’s in now. She could lose interest tomorrow if she thinks she’s learned a sufficient amount to fit in.”

Twilight spoke up. “I gathered some of that impression too, but I wasn’t sure. Still, I’m glad to see that she’s taken any interest at all in those subjects.”

“Perhaps you’re all too focused on your pet subjects, Sparkles,” Free said with a smirk. “How about we talk about the arts for a bit.”

“Go ahead, Free,” Path agreed. “Have we a budding artist in our midst?”

“Well, art is often in the eye of the beholder, but I believe she’s more suited to forms of expression rather than that of learning. I gave her the opportunity to try a few things. Her painting was very raw, but she put a lot of emotion into her work. One changeling student claimed that he could taste the positive emotions emanating from it, and I had to agree. She’s very emotive, which is why those three Red Changelings that Carpacia sent to watch over Citrine like hanging around with her a lot. I also tried her out in the music department, and while I think she could learn to play several instruments, I don’t believe she will because she lacks the patience and discipline for that. There was one notable exception though – she’s taken to the drums like you wouldn’t believe!”

“That’s because she likes hitting things!” Twilight grumbled.

Free grinned. “Yes, I suppose she does, but what better way to put that urge to use than with things she’s supposed to hit? In the short time that she has been here, she’s practically matched the current drummer’s skills. I hope to have her have a drum battle in an upcoming concert if she’s interested, and I think she will be.”

Path nodded thoughtfully. “It does sound like Citrine would be better off with more arts-related subjects. We need to have her be more engaged with the House goals.”

“Actually, I think we need to pay more attention to Herd goals,” Free said.

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve established that she’s very emotive, and we also already know how strong-willed she is. I think that can be a positive thing for us.”

“How do you mean, Free?” Twilight asked.

“It would be easier to show you.” Free turned to face the window and pointed. “Have a look out there.”

They all looked, some shifting to see better.

Free continued, “That’s Citrine out there with the three Red Changelings and a number of the griffon and pony friends she has already made. There’s one more person – a certain asocial daughter of ours. When was the last time that you saw Pif wasting her precious laboratory time with chatting and other ‘non-productive’ activities?”

Pif was not only animatedly chatting with the group, but she was obviously enjoying herself. Something that Citrine said caused her to laugh long and loud.

“I can feel Pif’s good mood, and I am reveling in it. And this is hardly the first time this has happened. I don’t care if the only thing she ever achieves here is getting Pif to be more social. That alone is worth it. However, this is what Citrine does all the time. Sure, she’s random and a little wild, but when she’s not being provoked in some way, her standard mood is unreservedly happy, and she laughs a lot. She loves to make others laugh too. In chatting with her during classes, I learned that she did much the same with her pony posse, and put together with other clues, I believe that she was the lynch-pin of that group – its heart and soul. Now she’s doing it here too, and I reckon it’s just the thing that House Path needs.”

A smile was plastered on the faces of Twilight and Roseclaw, and even Path was pleased by this turn of events.

“She also said that she found Pif to be cute,” Path noted. “Perhaps it might go a little deeper, do you think?”

Free grinned. “I think that Citrine is a mare who knows what she likes, and goes wholeheartedly after it.”

“Then let’s give her more opportunity to find out what she likes,” Path decided. “I’ll adjust her classes with regards to what has been discussed, but as for her relationship with Pif, I think she might have that well in hoof.”

With the meeting completed and new schedules arranged, Path, Free, Twilight, and Roseclaw were able to get to the family dinner in a timely manner, although their children had all beaten them there. The House staff were ready to serve the meal immediately, and they ate and conversed as they normally did. The only surprise was when Luna walked into the room just before they had finished dining. Twilight was the first to see her enter.

“Luna! You’re very early today – is there something wrong?”

Luna shook her head. “Nay, there’s another matter that I wish to bring up, but 'tis of a personal nature.”

Path frowned in puzzlement. “But normally at this time you would be involved with the handover of duties with Celestia and then raising the moon before teleporting here to Griffonia. What could be so important to change that?”

Luna took a seat at the table beside Free who looked at her with a slowly growing grin on his face. The Moon Princess poked disinterestedly at a plate of carrot sticks. “There are problems that are unique to alicorn kind, some that Twilight has yet to experience. One of them has to do with the fact that we do not age....”

“Oh no!” Twilight interrupted, “Has some old friend passed away?”

Luna shook her head and chuckled. “Nay, far from it, Twilight. Although we are described as immortal, in fact the truth is although we do not appear to age, we nevertheless continue to grow at a very slow rate, hence our stature. Many other things get slowed down almost to a stop also. Almost. One such thing has come around again after many centuries. Would you care to speculate which?”

Free smiled knowingly and asked, “When did you last come into season?”

“Today!” Luna almost shouted, her calm demeanor shattering as she grinned widely. Her horn lit up, and Path found himself floating out of his seat.

“Whoa! Luna – what are you up to?!” the earth pony yelped as the alicorn started towing him out of the room.

“Guess!” was Luna’s gleeful reply.

As the duo left the room, Path called out while reaching desperately to the others, “If I don’t survive the night, I love you aallll....”

Free and Roseclaw fell into each other’s arm, laughing their heads off. Twilight rolled her eyes and said, “What a ham!” She snickered before adding thoughtfully, “I wonder if Luna will have an alicorn foal? Considering that both Cadance and I did, I suspect she will too.”

Blue Streak cleared his throat. “Speaking of foals, Mama, there’s something that Cinder and I have been talking about lately.”

Twilight looked at her son, then at Cinder who had a hopeful look on her face. “Are you considering having a foal also?”

Cinder nodded. “I think it’s time.”

Twilight considered the idea. “Aren’t you rather young by dragon standards to be considering laying an egg as yet?”

“By dragon standards – yes, considerably so. However, that is more of a social thing because we live so long, and we can’t afford to breed too often, so we defer it for decades. But I’m not living as part of a dragon society at the moment. I have a pony mate, I live in a pony-griffon society, and I am an adult who desires to have a child with the one that I love.”

“You don’t have to convince me, Cinder,” Twilight replied with an understanding smile. “I suppose that you and Blue just want to hear it from me that I don’t think that it’s a bad idea.”

Blue chuckled nervously. “Yeah, you got that right. I mean, I find the idea of having a son or daughter to be awesome, but is it going to work out for us?”

Twilight looked over at Free who gazed back fondly. “I married a changeling queen, and that has worked out pretty well. Don’t let your differences hold you back.”

“Well, there's one thing that is holding us back,” Blue admitted.

“You need a compatibility spell, right? My dear son, I’ve had one ready for you since the day you and Cinder committed to each other. I’ve been waiting for my first grandchild for quite long enough, don’t you think?”

Blue looked at Cinder who actually blushed. He looked back to Twilight and said, “We’ll do our best, Mama.”

Destined, Lucida, and Pif all got up out of their seats to congratulate them, and talk excitedly about the couple’s plans for a family.

Twilight smiled at the sight before turning away, and her thoughts turning inwards. She was drawn out of her reverie by the feeling of a wing wrapping around her torso. She looked to her side to see Free gazing at her while giving her a warm hug.

“Something’s bothering you, isn’t it, Sparkles?”

Twilight gave a wry chuckle. “All this talk of foals has brought up something that has been on my mind for a while now. We’ve both given birth to children, but we haven’t actually had a child between us yet.”

“You always said that you wanted the kids to grow up before having another,” Free pointed out. “So I’ve waited until you were ready.”

“But now they’ll be thinking about families of their own. Blue took longer than I thought, but I can easily see Lucida falling for some handsome cock or stallion soon. I don’t think I want to have a foal who is younger than their niece or nephew, but I’m not even sure that we can.”

Free’s expression turned serious. “Yeah, we know that my biology will adapt to other species so that I can get pregnant, but will it work the other way around?”

“And a reliable compatibility spell for changelings has yet to be devised,” Twilight added glumly.

“Of course that only really applies to Harvester drones,” Free pointed out. “We haven’t really tried to find out if we are compatible without a spell.”

“There’s the added problem that Luna brought up. I haven’t gone into heat naturally since before our children were conceived.”

“But whenever we have a foursome, we go into the gestalt, and you and Roseclaw go into heat then. Me too if I switch to female form.”

That was certainly true, and they’d had to practice contraception assiduously to prevent unwanted pregnancies. “I know, but although I love our herdmates dearly, this is something that I want to do with just my husband. This is going to be something special between just you and I.”

Free smiled tenderly and kissed Twilight. “I’d like that too, Sparkles. I think we’re just going to have to be patient and wait for your season to come around naturally. No more foursomes for you though until then though; they probably mess with your natural rhythm.”

Twilight giggled and nodded. “I think I’ll survive.”

“Besides, I think Luna can take up the slack,” Free said with a mischievous smile.

Twilight whapped him over the head with a wing and poked her tongue out at him. Then she snuggled him. “Don’t ever change, Firetail.”

“I’m sorry – you can’t enter.” The chrome changeling guarding the entrance to the lab stared resolutely at Citrine.

“You can either call the lift, or I'm going to jump. I'm getting that recluse out of here and we're going for a night out!” she barked at the 'ling before she took a few steps back.

“There is no way you can be that stup– WAIT!” The horrified 'ling did not have the time to finish his sentence before Citrine charged past him, jumped the railing, and fell through the hole leading down to the deep labs.

“Woohooooo!” The crystal pony plummeted through the floors even as the entire hive was alerted to her presence. “Wait... how deep is this hole anyway? I didn’t think this throoo....”

Elusive Clue was idly working in his lab; discovering new metal alloys wouldn’t happen on its own! He was in the middle of mixing an experimental compound before the network connection lit up, with various 'lings screaming about a crazy pony jumping into the entrance. And then he heard it:

“....bbbbbbBUUUUCKKkkkkk....” In an instant, Citrine shot though the shaft in the centre of his lab and kept heading towards the lower levels.

Elusive rolled his eyes as he used the hive connection to access the drones that controlled the lift, thinking to himself as he did, ‘Looks like department X92-12-B is going to be able to test their rapid vector system after all.’

Citrine had stopped screaming at this point, and was just free falling. ‘Eventually I’m going to go spla–” The wind was knocked out of her as an unseen force rapidly decelerated her, and then pushed her in a different direction. Now moving laterally, she was able to briefly spot a shocked 'ling’s face occasionally. Then she felt herself start to slow down, and she endeavored to get her hooves below her. If she was correct, she was going to touch down very soon.

Zavak was focused on the clipboard before a loud sound of scraping hooves made him wince. Looking over towards the intrusion, he saw Citrine grinning madly.

“Whoa! What a rush!” she said. “I’d pay to do that again!”

She then looked over to Pif who was grouped with the rest of her core changeling staff, seemingly oblivious to Citrine’s abrupt arrival. All their horns were lit as they networked, and the lesser members were starting to look exhausted from the exertion. Citrine frowned at the scientist. “Zavak! Get her out of the thing! We're going out for the night!”

“What?! She’s in the middle of an important calculation. She can’t be disturbed,” he said with finality.

“Oh, yeah?” Citrine walked over to the center of the network and looked at Pif for a few moments as a mischievous grin appeared on her face. She moved up close to Pif, stuck her tongue out, and began to lick her from the bottom of her face up to the top. Before she was even halfway up her face, Pif’s horn began flickering irregularly, and then she started screaming.

“AAAUUUGGGHHH!” Pif flailed around a bit, her concentration broken, while the other members of the group collapsed, panting hard.

“Hi, Shinybug!” Citrine grinned as Pif looked at her, eyes wide.

The changeling princess blinked. “Wha–? How did you even get down here?”

“I jumped!” Citrine said proudly.

“I... wait... what? Okay, ignoring that for a moment, I can't leave. My team and I are working on something very important and–” Citrine cut her off.

Everything you do is always vitally important according to you, but this is why you're gonna go out with me tonight.” Citrine leaned in and whispered in Pif’s ear. As she did, Pif started to blush, and then the network around her began to match her.

“And then I’ll–”

Pif pushed her away. “Okay! Enough! I don’t want to give my associates any more of that mental imagery. When did you want to go tonight?”

“Well, right now, since it's night-time already. Come on – let's go!” Citrine started to walk back toward the exit port and Pif hastily followed her. This time though, they made use of the normal transit system.

Once they had left, the associates all looked at each other. “I am so glad she came along,” the smallest 'ling panted out. “Much longer and I would have dropped.”

Zavak sighed. “It's true we're making great progress, but we're all at our limits. Maybe some time out is called for after all. It will be good for her and give us time to rest.” He looked back to the chalkboard figures. “This can't be rushed.”

Pif idly walked with Citrine down the path leading from laboratory, already putting out of her mind the glares that the entrance guard had given her.

“What in the Hive’s name possessed you to jump down the shaft?”

Citrine gave her a chagrined look. “I thought the platform would be waiting there like the time you brought me here to visit.”

Pif rolled her eyes. “The platform is parked where it’s taken last – in this case at one of the lower levels. It would be a waste of time and energy to always take it back to the top.”

“So what caught me?”

“The defense field. Obviously pegasi, griffons, and other winged creatures could just fly down the shaft when the platform isn’t there to block them, so there are magical security barriers in place to prevent unauthorized access.”

“Shouldn’t it just stop me then? I should’ve gone splat!” Citrine gesticulated with her hooves to add emphasis to the fact that her organs would have been splattered everywhere.

Well, if it had been a flyer, they would have been stopped hard, but not fatally. It wasn’t intended to catch people at freefall speeds.”

“So again – why didn’t I go splat?”

“Because you have the dumb luck of being the benefactor of the research team’s experiment with using the mana fields as a rapid vector system. As soon as you were identified by the hive-mind, the team switched the fields to redirect you rather than stop you. They were ridiculously pleased with themselves when it all worked exactly as they had boasted,” Pif replied with a hint of admiration.

“Tell 'em I’d be willing to do some more testing for them. What a ride!” Citrine proclaimed with a huge grin.

Pif shook her head in amazement. “Why'd you even go to such lengths to fetch me? You've gone out of your way on a number of occasions to be with me, and I can taste your feelings, but why do you like me so much?”

Citrine shrugged. “I think you're cute, and I like you.”

Pif frowned. “That’s not much of an answer. Hell – you weren’t even fazed when I showed you my fangs! Most ponies nowadays are used to undisguised changelings and our fangs in particular, but we were back in time long before then, and you had not ever seen a changeling previously. Ponies found them scary then!”

“Heh! I like the thrill they give me. It makes you more... exciting!” Citrine whispered the last word huskily in Pif’s ear, and the ponyling blushed.

Pif hastily changed the subject. “So, what are we going to do?” she asked Citrine as the crystal pony moved a little closer to her.

“Oh, we're going to hit up my favorite tavern,” Citrine replied with a grin.

“How do you already have a favorite bar?” Pif asked.

“Well once I got situated here, I started to make friends. I can't just bug you all the time, after all!” Citrine laughed. “Sometimes there are fights at the bar, but all things considered, it's a pretty awesome place with pretty awesome griffons, some ponies, and even a few changelings.”

“It’s a long walk into town,” Pif pointed out.

“If you're tired, you can ride me,” Citrine replied with a smirk.

Pif rolled her eyes at the innuendo. “I've got a better idea.” Green fire engulfed the changeling’s hybrid form, and it was replaced by a silvery griffon – a very large griffon. Pif took off straight upwards and over the crystal pony, grabbed her around the barrel in her strong talons, and then started beating strongly towards the city lights in the distance.

“Yeehaaa!” Citrine yelled loud enough to shatter the quiet of the evening. “Now this is travelling!”

Pif’s beak dropped in a laugh before she replied, “Better show me the way, or we might just have to settle for my choice instead.”

Citrine managed to recognize landmarks from the air and guided Pif to an establishment unfamiliar to her. The changeling put Citrine down before shifting back to her normal earth pony/changeling hybrid form that she preferred. The crystal pony opened the door for Pif who looked around at the scene inside as they entered. It hardly seemed to be an upscale tavern, and she was unsure about being there when Citrine suddenly yelled out behind her.


The bar staff cawed back at her, as did a few patrons. As the emotional energy that suffused the place seeped into Pif, she realized that the atmosphere was friendly and warm, which came as somewhat of a pleasant surprise to her. Even though it was crowded, they were able to make their way to the bar with little problem. One of the bartenders turned to the pair with a grin, and only then did Pif notice that it was a changeling from the Western Hive, as evidenced by his metallic blue chitin and red Mohawk mane.

“Oh it’s you,” he said to Citrine. “Oho! And it appears that you were finally able to get the girl you've been talking about out of the mind-cave, hey?”

“Yeah, and it just took a near-death experience to get it to happen. So line them up! I want to start her off easy. Let’s try a lager?” Citrine looked to Pif for approval.

“What’s a lager?” Pif asked.

The bartender just stared at Pif and then back to Citrine. “Oh, this is going to be interesting.”

Between the friendly warm atmosphere calming her down and settling her social phobias, the pint after pint of beer she had drunk, and the bands that were playing, the cozy club was getting more and more energized, and Pif was really picking up on it. It didn’t take long before she began to sway a bit on her hooves.

“Hey, Pif – do you wanna try something awesome?” the bartender asked.

“YES! Yes she does!” Citrine exclaimed as the tender moved down under the counter for a few moments, only to come up with a thin, tall glass along with a jar and a bottle.

“I know a 'ling who knows a 'ling, so I was able to get a jar of this,” he explained with a satisfied smile.

Citrine just leaned down to look at the jar, and blinked in disappointment. “So you bought jam?”

“No, Citrine, it’s not jam. It's Royal Love Gel. And this is thirty year old Eyrish whiskey. It's part of a drink that I call Royal Excellence. It’s the first of its kind,” he said with pride.

Citrine’s eyes went wide. “I want it!”

The tender put his hoof to her head to keep her away. “You can't have it. Royal Excellence is a changeling-only drink. If you drank it, you would die, end of story.” He pushed her back and she huffed in frustration. She sat back down and watched the mixologist create.

Pif just blinked and looked at the drink in front of her, then up to the bartender as he smiled and tapped it with his hoof. The love gel reacted with the whiskey and it started to shift colors like a rainbow storm.

“Now down it in one gulp,” he instructed.

Pif nodded and picked up the glass. She braced herself and then downed it rapidly. Then she let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Oh... oh wow... Oh WOW!” Her eyes went wide and her earth pony guise shimmered as she started moving to the music in the room.

Citrine looked back to the bartender. “How is she getting so drunk so fast?”

“As far as I can figure, the alcohol in the drink causes the love gel to be nearly instantly metabolized, so instead of minutes, you have seconds before it kicks in.”

“Another!” Pif demanded.

The bartender nodded and made a second drink for Pif who downed it instantly. He also poured a normal shot for Citrine.

Citrine eyed her drunken companion and then said to the bartender, “Better make it a double. I need to catch up... oh crap! Where did Pif go...?” Citrine looked around, then up to the stage as she heard a loud eagle cry pierce the room. She recognized the silver griffon form that Pif had worn earlier, and she was clutching a microphone tightly in her talons as if it was trying to escape her. She gave the band an encouraging grin, and they started to play something smooth and exciting.

“I'm rapidly losing control of this situation,” Citrine said, starting to make her way to the stage just as the band ramped up.

The changeling princess pointed at Citrine, singling her out in the crowd, and making her freeze. It was then that Pif began singing with her naturally synthed voice. “Baby, I'm preying on you tonight... Hunt you down and eat you alive....” She grinned, her green eyes locked on the crystal pony as the crowd cheered and moved along with the beat. Citrine gulped as Pif continued to sing.

“Baby, you think that you can hide... but I can track your scent for miles....” Pif started to move around on the stage and the crowd danced along with her.

Citrine could now actually feel the princess emitting a strong emotional field, causing the crowd to get more energetic and excited. The earth pony let herself go with the flow, deciding that even though it was not what she had planned, things were working out fine anyway.

Pif was showing a surprising talent for improvising lyrics to the band’s music, and Citrine was more than a little aroused by the allusions to sexual predation that were aimed at her. The crowd was egging her on, and feeding her more positive emotional energy while she was already drunk on the surfeit. She barely managed to finish her improv before stumbling off the stage.

Citrine steadied Pif and supported her back a table. Along the way, the changeling lost control of her transformation and slipped into her natural form without even noticing. “Okay, just sit down and take it easy for a bit. I didn’t realize that you could get so high on that stuff.” Citrine signaled to the bartender to bring over two beers. “Better stick to beer for now.”

Pif threw an arm around Citrine and spoke with words slurred almost to the point of it being nonsense, “Do you know why I like you so much, Citrine? Do you? Do you!?” She swayed, almost falling off of her chair. “It’s because you don’t expect me to be anything.... You just want me to be... I don’t need to pretend... I can... I can just be me... without holding back.... I don’t have to worry about Moms, or Dads getting on my case... or Iridia reporting me to her mom.”

Citrine was pleased to hear that, and she gave Pif her widest and happiest grin. “What do you want to do right now? Let’s do it! Don’t think – just do it!”

Pif grinned and her horn lit up, lighting up the entire bar for a brief moment before the pair disappeared.

They reappeared in the air – high in the air. They could see the entire House Path compound far beneath them as they started to fall.

Citrine held onto one of Pif’s hooves, laughing. “Skydiving? You wanted to skydive?! I’ve already done that tonight!” Citrine asked with incredulity mixed with humor. She hung onto Pif as she spun and flipped.

“I love this feeling!” Pif declared with a laugh. “Let everything go... close your eyes... just... be in the now....” Pif closed her eyes and leaned her head forward to kiss Citrine.

The crystal pony half-closed her eyes and let herself go deep into the kiss for a few moments before she opened her eyes. “I don’t want to be a mood killer, but the ground is coming up close.”

“I didn’t think that far ahead,” Pif admitted. Her gossamer wings buzzed, but at that time she was not up to the job of slowing down the fall of both of them. Weak green magic flames flickered around her, and it seemed that she was about to shape-change, but then the effect died. “Hee! *Hic* Don’t drink and fly!” she said in a sing-song voice.

“How about teleporting us down then?” Citrine suggested urgently.

“Mmm, nope. Don’t have enough energy for another teleport.” Pif said as she laughed.

“Oh... we will see about that.” Citrine grinned as she moved in, wrapping her hooves around the princess as she kissed her deeply and let her unshielded feelings for Pif pour out.

The princess’ eyes opened wide in response to the flood of affection empowering her. “Oh, Citrine... let’s make this a night to remember!” Pif’s horn began to glow as she drunkenly cast the teleport spell again.

The night watch-keepers saw a glowing mass hurtle down from the sky, only to disappear a mere moment before it impacted the ground. It would be the source of confusion for many days.

The pair appeared in the air near the ceiling of Pif’s room, but while the teleport had killed most of their velocity, they still slammed into her bed quite hard before bouncing back up to nearly as high again. By the time they bounced to a stop, Pif was already snoring.

Citrine slowly sat up with a groan, rubbing her back. Her face held a huge grin though. “Best date ever!”

She slipped off the bed and covered up Pif with the blankets before pausing to observe the unconscious changeling. She rubbed her head thoughtfully before murmuring, “Mmmm...I'd love to stay, but it’s too soon.” Citrine turned to walk out of the room, her thoughts turning back to the tavern. “I’m gonna need to win a few matches in the honor fights to pay off that bar tab, but it was totally worth it!” She slipped out of the room and headed for her own quarters.

As Citrine moved down the stairs a pair of light blue eyes opened up in the shadow near Pif’s room, then a grin slowly followed. “Good girl.” The grin faded and the eyes disappeared.

The family looked up as Pif stumbled into the dining room and virtually collapsed onto a seat. With her right forehoof draped over her aching head, she dully looked over the table’s contents.

“Why are we having fish and fries for breakfast?”

The others stared at her for a moment before they all burst out laughing.

Pif clutched her pounding head. “Not so loud, pleeeeeze!”

Path put a comforting arm around his daughter. “Pif, it's dinner time. You’ve missed both breakfast and lunch. When Citrine told us that you'd had a big night out, I didn't think you had it in you.”

“If it's always going to be like this, it's going to be the last,” Pif groaned.

“I kind of doubt that, Sis,” Blue Streak said with a knowing smile. “Don't worry though - you'll learn moderation, I'm sure.”

Lucida nodded in agreement. “Next time we invite you out, we won't accept no for an answer. We'll show you how to have a good time without overdoing it.”

“Not that letting go of your inhibitions is a bad thing. It did start us on the formation of this House, after all,” Roseclaw remembered fondly.

“Not trying to start a new House or Hive,” Pif grumbled as she reached for some food, hoping that she could keep it down.

Twilight poured her a glass of vegetable juice. “Here – this should sit well enough in your stomach, and help rehydrate you too,” she said sympathetically.

“Thanks, Mama.”

Free said quietly to Path, “For the first time in ages, her sub-net is idle, so she's not thinking about her projects. All twenty-four members of her team are relaxing, either doing something personal or sleeping. I was worried that she was going to tax them too hard.”

“Excellent. When Luna reported how Citrine had taken Pif out for the night, I was happy that somepony had finally managed to break her away from her projects.”

“I’m happier that she seems to have a growing emotional attachment to Citrine. Our little girl has improved since the incident with Chrysalis, but she still could do with a bit more to balance her out.”

“So do you think Citrine will make a good companion for Pif?”

Free grinned. “Don’t you see? They’re a lot like us. We needed each other to balance out our needs and desires. Heaven knows what we would have turned out like if we had never met. Citrine might be the answer to Pif’s needs.” He chuckled. “Anyway, I like having her around. She makes me laugh.”

Although the rather wild crystal pony had caused him and the House some problems, Path had to begrudgingly admit that Citrine often made him smile also. And if even Twilight could tolerate their daughter’s indiscretion, then perhaps this episode was an overall positive one. Now if only he could restrain himself from grinning so much at Pif’s hangdog expression!

“Could you please make up your mind and finish so that we can go back to Ponyville!” Destined complained, ears lowered and a pathetic look on his face.

He, Pif, Lucida, Cinder, and Blue had taken Citrine on a shopping trip in Canterlot. While it was not the crystal pony’s first time there, she had seen little more than the palace during their impromptu arrival during the meeting of the Queens, and this was the first time that she had gotten the chance to see more of the magnificent city, having spent the majority of her time at the Griffonian House. Today though, the family had come to Canterlot to attend an event, and the youths had taken the opportunity to bring along Citrine and get her a few things while showing her around. Unsurprisingly though, the two stallions in the group had quickly grown weary of the endless shopping. Destined just happened to be the first to crack.

“You just want to see your coltfriend at the spa,” Pif said with a smirk.

“Silk’s not my coltfriend!” Destined protested. “I just enjoy his massages a lot, and he’s always booked up. I don’t want to miss my appointment!”

“Sure, sure!” Lucida said agreeably, although her grin completely belied her words. “Tell you what – you can all go to the last stop while I finish up here. That’ll save us ten minutes.”

“Great idea!” Destined exclaimed, already starting to chivvy out Citrine and Pif.

Blue brought up the rear with Cinder, an amused smile on his muzzle. He was glad that his little brother had brought up the complaint first because he had been loath to spoil Cinder’s fun.

The last place they visited killed two birds with one stone. Twilight had asked them to pick up a few treats and say hello to friends of the family. Thus they soon found themselves at the True Brew Café.

“Hey, Mixxy!” Blue called out as they entered the cafeteria.

A Violet Changeling in the café’s uniform looked around and smiled. “Blue Streak! Sweet Celestia – you keep growing bigger every time I see you.” She looked at the others following him. “And you’ve brought your siblings. Come in! Come in! Hey, Frothy – House Path is visiting!”

“My wife could see that, Mixitkl. Speaking of which – go fetch her for me,” the coffee-colored unicorn said as he walked from behind the counter. The stallion walked up to Blue and hoof-bumped him, then nodded to the others with a smile. “Hello – is this a new face among you?”

“This is Citrine Quartz, Frothy,” Pif replied. “She's a crystal pony who we met while on a mission in the Crystal Kingdom... and my... companion.”

“Welcome to the True Brew Café, Citrine. I don’t know how you got Epiphany away from her work, but keep it up.”

“I intend to!” Citrine replied with her best grin.

“Now, is it too much to hope that Princess Twilight is coming also?”

Destined shook his head. “Sorry, but Mom's busy, but she asked us to pick up some of Cherry’s treats for tonight. She says she hopes to stop by next week.”

Frothy nodded. “A Princess’s work is never done, I suppose. So, are you stopping for coffee and cake?”

“They had better be,” came a mare’s voice from behind him. Cherry Delight stepped up to the group with only the slightest guiding from Mixitkl. “It has been a while since anyone from House Path dropped by to tell us the news.”

Destined replied, “That’s what we’re here for. And some of your desserts too. We’re entertaining some special guests at Mom’s castle tonight.”

“I’m flattered as always. Frothy – could you make me some tea while I’m getting them their order?”

“Of course, dear,” Frothy replied, stepping back behind the counter. “The usual for the rest of you?”

There was a chorus of assents even as Frothy got to work.

“And for you, Citrine?”

“Tall black espresso for me, please!”

Cherry smiled. “You sound as if you hardly need the caffeine, dear.”

Citrine examined the mare closely. “You’re blind,” she concluded.

“I know,” Cherry replied with an amused smile.

“Yet you baked those cakes and desserts I see over there?”

“I did.”

“Cool! Can you guess what I like?”

“Someone like you seems to need a lot of energy, so something really sweet, I assume. Hmm... I would guess... everything.”

Citrine guffawed. “Yeah, you got me!”

Most of the group made their way to a large table, while Pif went to the baked goods display with Cherry and Mixitkl. She read off their requests while the two selected and carefully packed the cakes and desserts for transport. The ponyling then paid for them before taking them to the table. Cherry joined them, followed moments later by Mixitkl levitating a tray of drinks with her. Frothy was momentarily delayed as he dealt with another customer.

“So,” Cherry began, “tell me what’s been happening lately.” She took a sip of her tea.

The others found that they had quite a thirst and sipped or slurped their own drinks.

Blue was the first to speak up. “Dad's thinking of putting together a mission to Zebrica. With relationships improving over the past few years, he thinks it’s time to go to the next level.”

“From what I have heard of the zebra culture, I think even House Path will have its hooves full with that quest.”

Blue chuckled. “Yeah, you’re probably right, but that’s never stopped us before.”

“How about something that you’ve already done? I think I overheard something about a mission to the Crystal Kingdom?” Cherry prompted.

“Oh, yeah. Umm... we can’t really say much about that. It involved some very scary consequences, but it’s also where we met Citrine....”

There was a sudden burst of light above the table, and a sparkling swirl surrounding a dark hole in mid-air appeared. Moments later a grey mare fell through it, landing butt-first on the table and scattering much of its contents.

“...and that happened,” Blue finished almost automatically.

“Oh, there you guys are!” Derpy proclaimed happily. She looked over at the cake display. “Aw – no muffins?”

“Derpy!” Pif exclaimed. “Don’t tell me it’s happening again?!”

“Yep! The Doc wants you back as soon as possible,” the messenger mare replied cheerfully.

“But Lucida isn’t here with us!” Cinder protested.

“Can’t wait – the time-change is almost here. Gotta go now!” Derpy tapped the device on her foreleg, and the vortex opened again, pulling them in.

“Oh, horsefeathers! Here we go again!” Destined exclaimed.

Frothy pulled Cherry back just in time to not get engulfed by the vortex also... then suddenly it was quiet again, and nothing was left to show that the youths had been there except for their abandoned drinks.

The bell on the door tinkled, and Lucida walked in with a couple of shopping bags tucked under her wings. “Whoo, sorry to take so long.... Where's everypony?”

Frothy turned to the hippogriff with a nonplussed look on his face. “They left in a hurry. Looks like you have to deliver some cakes and desserts, and one heck of an explanation for what just happened here!”




Chapter 5: This Day...


“I should have done this the first time.”

“Are you sure that this is will achieve all your desires, my dear?”

“Without a doubt. This time it’s going to be perfect!”

Six bodies fell out of the vortex and sprawled in a heap on the floor with a mixture of groans and curses.

“I’m complaining to the management about their shuttle service,” Epiphany grumbled.

“Yeah, this is getting old fast,” Blue Streak agreed as he scrambled to his hooves.

“Just the ponies I wanted to see!” came an overly cheerful and very familiar voice. “Well done, my dear. Hopefully we can nip this little problem in the bud early.”

“You’re welcome, Doc,” Derpy said as she fluttered over to his side and gave him a peck on the cheek.

The Doctor blushed slightly before focusing on the House Path ponies again. “Come, come! Surely you knew that our little problem wasn’t over yet. We have work to do!”

“But why us, Doctor?” Destined asked. “Surely you have other ponies and resources at your command?” He gestured at the contents of the Doctor’s workshop. “You obviously know a tremendous amount about many things that we know nothing about.”

“Isn’t it obvious, Prince Destined? Your alicorn ability to sense time and space like no other pony is vital to the mission. However, you are still growing into your power, so you need a secondary power source, hence Blue Streak’s inclusion. Additionally, he and his lovely mate are warriors, and provide the defensive capabilities for your team.” He turned away from Blue and Cinder and indicated Pif. “Epiphany has her shape-changing abilities for covert operations, and of course Lucida has her remarkable planning and leadership skills to guide your group….” The Doctor paused as he stared uncertainly at Citrine. “Didn’t you used to be a hippogriff?”

The crystal pony grinned and posed. “Like my new look, Doc? I thought I’d give it a try and see what it’s like.”

Pif rolled her eyes and said, “This is Citrine Quartz. She was with us when Derpy fetched us, but Lucida hadn’t caught up with us yet.”

“Oh dear! This is bad,” the Doctor muttered.

Cinder frowned in annoyance. “Hey! It’s not as if we aren’t capable of running a tight operation without her.”

The Doctor waved his hoof dismissively. “You don’t understand. Yours was a near perfectly balanced group. This just throws it all out of kilter!”

“Then get Derpy to fetch her too,” Blue suggested.

“Too late – I can’t release the time anchor now to fetch her, or else the changes to history will overtake us too. I’m afraid that you’re going to have to deal with the problem without her input.”

“Don’t sweat it, Doc!” Citrine said with a confident grin. “Me and Pif have got it covered, whatever it is.”

The Time Stallion sighed, and then smiled. “Nopony ever said things had to be easy. Shall we get this show on the road?”

“Not without tea and muffins!” Derpy announced cheerfully as she entered the room with trays balanced on her back and partially spread wings.

“Shouldn’t we get on with our task?” Blue asked.

“History has already been changed; ten more minutes won’t make a difference,” Destined replied. “Besides, I hardly started on my drink and snack back at the café.”

“And there was a disturbing lack of muffins there!” Derpy added with deadly seriousness.

“Eat and drink while you can,” the Doctor advised. “Who knows what it will be like out there?”

“Why don’t you go look?” Citrine asked with her mouth half full of muffin.

“I’m keeping this pocket of reality stable, my dear. If I leave, it will collapse, and history will be irrevocably changed.”

The crystal pony snorted. “Must be tough having to let others do your dirty work.”

The Time Stallion cast his eyes to the floor and murmured sadly, “You have no idea.”

“Can you give us any clues at all, Doc?” Blue asked.

“The nature of the time meddling leaves me very little window of opportunity to fetch you, let alone gather intelligence. However, I can tell you that the epicentre of the time change was almost two decades ago. Other than that, same as before – go out and reconnoitre to try to identify the change.”

The refreshments were soon consumed, and the group readied itself for the task. Pif changed from her default earth pony/ changeling cross to her incognito unicorn guise.

“Why the change?” Citrine inquired. “I thought you preferred your earth pony form?”

“I do, but I might need my magic in a hurry, so it’s better if I take unicorn form now. And it would probably be dangerous to go in changeling form.”

“Have you got the vortex manipulator, Blue Streak?” the Doctor asked.

“Yep. I always have it with me in my saddle pack, along with some basic weapons. As a warrior leader, I need to always be prepared.”

“Yeah, he even brings that lot to parties!” Cinder added with an affectionate grin for her mate.

The Doctor led them to the front door of the workshop and opened it for them. “Good fortune to all of you. Allons-y!”

Blue led the way, saying, “Take nothing for granted. Remember what happened last time. Be discreet and watch out for anything strange.”

The others followed Blue out, and the door closed behind them. Despite bracing themselves for the unexpected, they were all still surprised when they realised that they were standing in a Canterlot back street. They turned around to see the familiar workshop of the Doctor, but positioned alongside the architecture of the nation’s capital instead of the Ponyville dwellings that most had expected.

“What the hay?” Pif exclaimed.

“Remember it had disappeared from Ponyville,” Destined reminded her.

“One more thing to figure out about that strange pony,” Pif said with a sigh.

“Okay, everypony focus!” Blue commanded. “We’re on a mission now. Time for mysteries later. Let’s go!”

They ventured cautiously out of the unusually quiet back street towards a large thoroughfare. It was also far less busy than it normally would be, but what they saw had them immediately ducking for cover.

“Those are Blue Changelings!” hissed Destined.

Pif was already seeking a surreptitious link to the hive-mind. “I know! Give me a moment!” she replied irritably.

While they waited, the rest observed from their place of concealment. Blue Changelings were in abundance wherever they looked, most of them with a pony in tow, some actually on leashes. Every pony had a collar, but none looked happy about it. Even the vendors without a changeling obviously in attendance had collars.

“Okay, first guess,” Blue said quietly, “Chrysalis won the invasion of Canterlot.”

Pif nodded, her eyes unfocused. “From what I can tell from my private connection to the hive-mind, your guess is right. The Blue Hive controls this city, and perhaps more. Yes… I see. Chrysalis used the unicorn population of Canterlot to help subdue the rest of Equestria. All the ponies are enthralled, feeding their changeling keepers their love, like Shining Armor did to Chrysalis while she was disguised as Cadance.” Her eyes snapped back into focus and she frowned. “We have a big problem. I can disguise myself as a Blue Changeling because although I’m a mutant, I’m still basically a Blue. However, every pony I see has a collar, and you will stand out badly without one.”

“Auntie Luna taught me some illusion magic; I can make a fake one, and hide my wings at the same time,” Destined said, putting words into action.

“That’s fine for you, but what about us?” Blue Streak asked.

“Eh! I don’t like this sneaking about anyway,” Citrine said.

Pif looked at her with concern, tasting the rapidly growing anger that the changeling drones were evoking in her. “Citrine – calm down! You’ll get your chance to act once we figure out what went wrong.”

Citrine sullenly nodded, but her anger barely subsided.

“What about me?” Cinder asked. “I don’t see any other species here, not even a griffon.”

Pif shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I can’t even tell if Chrysalis has kept any of the other species around.”

“Do we even need to go out among them?” Destined asked. “If we agree that the invasion of Canterlot was the critical change, perhaps we should go then immediately?”

“Two things – first Blue has to build up energy for the jump. Second – I’m not absolutely sure that that was the event. I can’t dig too deep into the hive-mind without setting off an alarm. Subtlety takes time! Besides, maybe we can learn a lot by looking around.”

Destined looked uncertain, but eventually nodded. “Okay, I’ll come with you then. Cinder, Blue, and Citrine – you three stay here and stay out of sight while we scout around.”

“No way! I’m coming with you!” Citrine declared.

“But…” Pif trailed off. She could taste Citrine’s utter determination. “Okay, but try to stay out of the direct view of the drones.” She looked at Blue and Cinder. “Sorry about this.”

Blue shrugged. “Sometimes it’s the warrior’s lot to just be patient and prepare.” He took off the shoes that helped him control the inflow of power through his hooves. “I’ll be ready by the time you return.”

Pif nodded, and then her magic flared as she took on the appearance of a Blue Changeling drone. “Okay, let’s head for the palace,” she told her companions.

Pif stepped back out onto the street, and Destined followed, hanging his head in imitation of the other ponies plodding down the road. Citrine had a harder time following suit, but she did keep the other two between her and most observers. In any event, they did not cause an alarm.

As they progressed towards their goal, Pif and Destined surreptitiously studied everything around them. Destined leaned close to his sister and murmured, “This feels so wrong. It’s like walking through a crowd of zombies.”

“That’s a pretty accurate assessment. Every pony here seems to be feeding their keeper constantly, while obeying their every command.”

“That doesn’t seem sustainable to me.”

“It isn’t. Everypony is enthralled to a changeling, so they have no love to give to a mate, which means that there won’t be any new foals, and eventually ponies will die out unless some escaped to other lands.”

“What about the other hives?”

“Good question. Maybe they were forced to reveal themselves to fight back against Chrysalis? Judging by how things seem utterly under control here though, I don’t think they fared well. They might still be a problem though. The fact that all the ponies have a collar must be significant. Perhaps there are rebels, and the collars are what are used to subdue them? Or at least mark them as being enthralled.” She looked over at Citrine. “That’s what’s making me nervous about Citrine being without one.”

The whispered conversation lapsed until they approached the gates to the palace.

“Are you sure we should do this?” Destined asked.

“I… we have to know,” Pif replied grimly.

The gates were flanked by changeling soldiers who halted them. One with an officer’s markings approached Pif.

“What is your business here?”

“The Queen has summoned me,” Pif answered, hazarding an educated guess as to what would work.

The officer nodded. It did not occur to him that a drone would lie about that. Instead his attention turned to Citrine. “Why has this slave no collar?”

“The fool pony damaged hers. I was in the process of getting it replaced when I was summoned.”

The soldier’s tongue flickered out briefly before he turned back to Pif. “I can taste her love for you, so the enthrallment is still intact. Have the collar replaced immediately after attending to the Queen. You may proceed.”

Pif was surprised by the officer’s candid statement about Citrine, but hid it and gestured to the two ponies to follow her. When she was sure that they were out of earshot, she turned to Citrine. “You emulated love for me to fool the guard?”

“Who was emulating?” she replied with a wink.

It was too risky to pursue that revelation for now, but Pif intended to follow it up later. She led the way to the throne room where she logically assumed that she would find Queen Chrysalis. Despite her fears, they had no further confrontations until they reached their destination. They did not even have to be particularly careful there as the throne room was filled with drones attending to various business with their Queen, some of them accompanied by pony thralls, and some not, so Pif’s companions did not stand out.

Chrysalis was conspicuous as she lounged on the throne in the middle of the dais, issuing orders and taking reports. Also conspicuous was the fate of the nation’s rulers, with Celestia and Luna also present, seated on smaller thrones on either side of Chrysalis. It was a mere mockery of their status though as each wore a thrall collar in place of their royal peytral. Pif snorted in grim humour. Of course she would reserve the two most powerful ponies in existence to feed her personally.

They worked their way closer, intent on trying to pick up clues on how these circumstances had come about. They were almost up to the dais when Chrysalis stood up.

“Enough!” the changeling Queen declared. “I declare this day complete. Celestia, lower the sun immediately.”

Without a word in response, Celestia lit her horn, and the three adventurers saw the rays of the sun coming through the windows start dropping, turn red, and then fade away.

Well, that answers what they do about maintaining the day-night cycle,’ Pif thought to herself.

“Luna – I want a full moon over the gardens tonight. I wish the celebration of my latest conquest to be perfect.” Then she turned to crowd in the room and said menacingly. “And there had better not be one bucking cloud in the sky, or else some drones are going to get recycled!”

Chrysalis started marching from the dais to head for her chambers, only to stop abruptly as she was passing Pif. She turned and stared intently at the disguised princess before demanding, “Who are you?”

Pif reminded herself that she had dealt with Chrysalis before, and she could learn things from the conquering Queen. She gave Chrysalis her most confident smile before resuming her natural changeling form. “Don’t you recognise your own granddaughter, Gramgram?”

The revelation shook Chrysalis. “What is this? It cannot be! But your chitin – it’s the same as Gossamer’s! Does this mean that she still lives? Why have I not heard of it before now? Tell me, child!” she screamed at Pif.

“You have not heard of my mother’s whereabouts because your drones killed her while she was disguised as a griffon during your invasion of Canterlot.” Whether that was true or not, Pif had no idea, but that did not matter right now.

NO!” Chrysalis wailed as she sank to her knees.

Pif smiled internally. This was going well. Chrysalis was off-balance and not thinking clearly, and no ’ling was paying the slightest bit of attention to Destined or Citrine. “Yes, Queen Chrysalis, you are responsible for your daughter’s and my mother’s death. If only Twilight Sparkle had managed to stop your invasion, we would not both be grieving for our loss,” Pif accused.

Chrysalis threw her head back and screamed incoherently. Even Pif was surprised by the intensity of the reaction, even though she knew that it was the loss of her last hope for a successor that had ultimately driven her to madness. What the Queen said next though was a bigger surprise.

“He told me that I could only succeed if I killed Sparkle! He promised that I would rule Equestria only if I rid myself of that one unicorn. But he killed my daughter!” she snarled.

Pif realised that there was a lot more to this than what Chrysalis had just said, but with little doubt, this was the source of the time interference, and they now had a target to seek out. They had gotten lucky, and it was time to leave before that luck ran out. However, it was not going to be that easy.

Chrysalis abruptly got her hooves and threw one foreleg about Pif. “At least I have a granddaughter and an heir,” she said with terrible intensity.

Pif shuddered and tried to disengage from the Queen’s grasp. “I want nothing to do with you, Grandmother!”

“I’m not giving you a choice!” Chrysalis said with finality.

The changeling princess was suddenly afraid that things had gone badly awry. However, just as Chrysalis started to drag her away, Destined flung himself upon Pif wresting her from the Queen's grasp, and then teleported them both to safety.

Citrine had hung onto Destined’s tail and had been brought along also, and the three safely materialised back where they had left Cinder and Blue in concealment. Pif staggered as through the hive-mind, one powerful demand came screaming:

FIND THEM! FIND THEM OR ELSE HEADS WILL ROLL!” Chrysalis’ virtual voice was accompanied by an image of all three.

All the drones within view suddenly went into a frenzy of searching.

“We have to get out of here now!” Pif said, switching to unicorn form again.

“I’m ready,” Blue replied.

“And I know to when we need to go,” Destined added.

“Do it!” Pif ordered, just as two drones spotted them.

The fivesome abruptly dropped into the time vortex, leaving the danger behind.

Canterlot was a picture of normality – except for the four ponies and one dragon that suddenly appeared out of nowhere and sprawled over the roadway. If it wasn’t for the dragon, the citizens would probably have passed it off as some bizarre event that was no business of theirs, but they were more than a bit uneasy about Cinder.

The dragoness noticed their stares as she got to her feet, and she sighed. She held up one arm to focus attention on her and said, “No need for alarm, folks. Just visiting your beautiful city and had a minor incident. No harm done!”

The ponies remained wary but mostly mollified, and they continued with their business.

“I am never going to get used to this,” Blue complained as he shakily got back onto his hooves, his energy severely depleted by the trip.

“It’s still better than dealing with a dangerous changeling horde,” Cinder pointed out.

“Not as much fun though,” he quietly grumbled.

Pif smirked before turning to Destined and asking, “Exactly when did you bring us back to?”

“A couple of days before Shining Armor put up the shield to protect Canterlot before the royal wedding. Or at least I think so. Practice makes perfect, I hope.”

A quick inquiry of a passing pony soon confirmed the date, and they wandered off to find somewhere to have a meal… or two in Blue’s case. It was off peak meal times, so they were able to have a quiet table by themselves while they discussed their plans.

“So, all she said was that he told her to kill Mama Twilight?” Blue asked between mouthfuls. “No hint of who this ‘he’ is?”

“None, although I suspect it’s a drone sent by Future Chrysalis, just like the one that gave her past self the warning at the Crystal Kingdom,” Pif replied.

“And that not necessarily in person,” Destined added.

“True enough,” Pif agreed. “The question now is when he will do so, and how can we either prevent the message getting through or it being successfully acted upon.”

Destined nodded. “Mom hasn’t arrived here yet, so nothing will happen until after Chrysalis meets her for the first time. From what I recall, Mom was never alone with her until after she confronted her in front of everypony and denounced her as being evil.”

Blue said, “After that, Chrysalis banished Mama Twilight to the caverns with Cadance, right? Wouldn’t that be the perfect time to kill her instead?”

“If I was a deranged changeling Queen, that’s when I would,” Pif agreed.

“Then that’s what we need to prevent,” Cinder decided.

“It’s not that simple,” Destined said with a shake of his head. “We will need to do it without alerting Mom to future knowledge, while deceiving Chrysalis into thinking she succeeded so that the rest of the events can proceed without change.”

“I know, I know!” Cinder said with a scowl. “But any result is better than letting Twilight Sparkle be killed.”

Blue sighed. “Really, Cinder? If everything doesn’t go virtually exactly as it should, we will never meet. Do you want that?”

Cinder slammed a fist on the table. “Of course not! It’s… just that I feel so useless this time.”

“Sometimes it’s not our fight to win, my love.”

Cinder nodded in resignation.

“That said, does anypony have a plan yet?” Blue asked the others.

“Actually, yes,” Destined replied. “It’ll take some tight timing, but I think I can switch out Mom at the last moment.”

“You think?” Pif asked sceptically.

“Give me a break, sis. We’re working blind until we see exactly what Chrysalis does.”

Citrine spoke up for the first time. “Hey! If you don’t get it right the first time, you can always go back and try it again, right?”

Blue chuckled. “Yeah. What’s the point of being time travellers if we let one failure stop us?”

The mood lightened among the group after that, and they were able to enjoy their meals. At least this time they had Equestrian Bits to pay for them.

“What’s next?” Cinder asked.

“We settle in somewhere and wait, and give Blue time to recover,” Pif replied.

“And I have the perfect place to do it,” Destined said with a grin. “Everypony hold onto me.”

Each put a hoof or a talon on the stallion, and a moment later, they disappeared in a flash…

… and reappeared in familiar quarters.

“Isn’t this Mama’s room in the palace?” Blue asked.

“Yep,” Destined replied, letting the illusion that hid his wings fade away. “It’s permanently reserved for Mom’s use, so it’s left untouched in her absence. As long as we’re quiet, nopony will know we’re here. We will only need to leave when Mom and her friends arrive, and the servants come in to freshen up the room in preparation.”

“Great idea, Des!” Pif said, taking a cue from him and relaxing into her preferred ponyling form.

“If only we could call for room service. I’m hungry again,” Blue lamented.

Everyone else chuckled, but Pif found him some oat snacks that Twilight had stashed away, and gave him the lot to nibble on until they made a supply run.

“And now we wait,” Blue said as he made himself comfortable on the opulent bed, and Cinder climbed in beside him.

“Got any ideas how to pass the time?” Citrine asked Pif with a leer and a cheeky wiggle of an eyebrow.

Epiphany just laughed nervously.

While they waited, Pif and Destined took turns scouting the palace on general principles. While they were familiar with the important events of that time, they did not want to be tripped up by some minor point that did not bear mentioning, and yet could have a significant effect if ignored. Their familiarity with palace procedures enabled both to blend in easily, especially Pif with her shape-changing abilities. As a consequence, she found out just how many of the staff were also changelings. She knew of the Red Changelings that took positions in the Royal Guard, but had not paid much attention to the rest of the work force that kept the castle and the grounds functioning smoothly. It made her realise just how easy it was for Chrysalis to slip in and replace Princess Cadance because back then, Blue Changeling staff were no more unusual than ones from any of the other hives. Each hive tended to mind its own business, and did not usually interact with any of the drones from the other hives unless it was because of their alter ego’s tasks. Back in her normal time, they cooperated more openly, although as a consequence of the invasion, changeling staff levels had plummeted drastically and never quite recovered. Neither Pif nor Destined spotted the switch being made, although their observation of ‘Cadance’ led them to suspect that it had happened before they had arrived.

Cinder was put to use scouting the caverns to locate Cadance. If, as they guessed, Chrysalis intended to kill Twilight rather than transport her to join the Princess of Love, they needed to know exactly where she was in order to get events back on course. The extensive system of tunnels and huge caves had caused Cinder to take two days to find her, and she had nearly given herself away after stumbling upon her prison accidentally. Fortunately Cadance had thought that it was Chrysalis coming back to taunt her, and had yelled at her before Cinder was revealed.

It was with a little relief that the fateful day arrived, and they could finally act to deal with the imposter, and save their mother’s life.

“Okay, let’s review,” Destined told the others. “I’ve found a good place to conceal myself in the throne room. From there, I will be able to clearly see Chrysalis interacting with Mom. I have a few spells prepared to counter anything that I can think of that Chrysalis might use, so it’s mostly a question of timing. Whatever she does, Mom has to end up in the caves below and think Chrysalis sent her there. Although I’m almost sure that she intends to kill Mom then, just in case, Cinder stands by with her comm and waits for confirmation from me.”

Cinder nodded and took up the review, holding up a pendant with runes upon it. “Once Des confirms that it was he that sent Twilight to the caves and not Chrysalis, then I will use this joke voice-modifying charm to imitate the fake Cadance and taunt Twilight from concealment in order for her to break down the wall of Cadance’s prison, just as Twilight said she had done. After they start making their escape from the caverns, then I let Des know and he will teleport me back up.”

Pif spoke up next. “Because the sequence of events might be altered from that point, Citrine and I will spy on Chrysalis to ensure no surprises happen. If so, I will report with my comm and /or try to deal with it without betraying myself to her. However, if all goes smoothly, nothing should happen before Cadance and Mom burst into the throne room to reveal Chrysalis as a fake.”

Blue Streak adjusted the Royal Guard armour that Destined had borrowed, its standard enchantment making the big earth pony look just like all the other guard ponies. “I will be standing by in the throne room to protect Mama Twilight from a second attempt to kill her. Destined, Pif, and Citrine will also join with me to protect her in the fight that occurs when they try to fetch the Elements of Harmony. We continue to do so until Twilight gets the opportunity to free Cadance, and Chrysalis gets expelled from Canterlot, along with all the Blue Changelings. Pif must make sure that she teleports as far away as possible before that though, because although it won’t affect a Chrome mutant as much as the Blues, from what Papa Free told us, it will hit her hard.”

Destined said, “Sounds like we’re ready. Okay – places everypony!” He teleported Cinder to the caverns below, and then the rest of them set about their tasks.

It had been galling to witness his mother be humiliated when she could not offer proof of her suspicions to Celestia and the others, and as Destined watched her weeping on the steps of the throne’s dais, his heart went out to her, and he wanted to go to her to offer comfort. Instead, he had to wait in concealment as ‘Cadance’ approached her and patted her solicitously on the head.

Twilight looked up with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry!”

Cadance’s smile abruptly changed to a frown. “You will be!” she declared, and her horn flared with green-coloured magic.

Twilight was surrounded by a sphere of magic flames, confining her completely. At this point, it should have phased her through the floor and down to the caverns. Instead, Cadance snarled and said, “Now die!” and the sphere started contracting inexorably.

Despite his mother’s peril, Destined was relieved to recognise the spell that Chrysalis was using. He immediately had the counter-spell ready, but he had to disguise his actions at the same time. “I hope all your lessons on illusions have paid off, Auntie Luna,” he murmured as he simultaneously cast two spells.

To Chrysalis’ eyes, the sphere continued to contract until it flared up and disintegrated Twilight. In reality, the disintegration spell was nullified and Twilight was teleported to the predetermined place in the caverns, while an illusion showed Chrysalis what she wanted to see. The Changeling Queen nodded in satisfaction, and then headed out of the throne room.

“Step one completed successfully,” Destined said quietly into his comm. “She’s all yours now, Cinder.” He then started to discreetly follow the fake Cadance.

They had anticipated a couple of destinations for Chrysalis after she had dealt with Twilight, but they weren’t sure because there had been no accounts of the changeling’s whereabouts after she had banished the unicorn. When Destined reported that she was heading towards her chambers, Pif and Citrine concealed themselves on the room’s balcony. From there they could observe, but if by chance Chrysalis came out onto the balcony, Pif could fly them both out of sight.

The fake Cadance entered the chambers with a broad grin on her face. After she secured the door though, she surprised her watchers by what she did next.

This day is going to be perfect,
The kind of day of which I dreamed since I was small….

“Is… is she really singing about this?” Citrine whispered incredulously.

Every pony will gather ’round,
Say I look lovely in my gown,
What they don’t know is that I have fooled them all!

“Apparently so,” Pif eventually replied,

They listened as she continued her gloating song, and Pif could taste the growing anger in her companion.

I could care less about the dress,
I won’t partake in any cake,
Vows – I will be lying when I say
That through any kind of weather,
I’ll want us to be together,
The truth is I don’t care for him at all!

“Citrine! Calm your emotions, or else she’ll notice you!” Pif hissed urgently.

Suddenly Citrine’s emotional radiation died away, and Pif sighed in relief, turning back to watch Chrysalis. She failed to notice when the crystal pony slipped away. Moments later, something entered Pif’s peripheral vision, and she turned to look. She gasped in horror and she saw Citrine advancing upon Chrysalis with a coat rack firmly in her teeth.

“Citrine!” Pif hissed urgently, but was ignored. She desperately leaped up to grasp Citrine’s tail to drag her back, praying that Chrysalis would not notice. Pif might as well have been trying to hold back a train as Citrine advanced inexorably towards her target. Astoundingly, the disguised Queen remained totally self-absorbed with her singing.

No I do not love the groom,
In my heart there is no room,
But I still want him to be all–

Citrine swung the coat rack and connected hard with Chrysalis’ head. The changeling Queen collapsed instantly. Green flames flared, revealing her true form.

What have you done?!” yelled Pif. She looked at Chrysalis closely. “She’s still breathing…”

The coat rack came down again with a sickening crack.

“Now she’s not,” Citrine said with finality.

Pif just gaped in shock for a long moment before she started fumbling for her comm. She quickly made a connection and said, “Des! Get in here now!”

“What are you talking about, Pif? Where’s Chrysalis?” Destined’s voice came back.

“Everything’s gone wrong. Get in here!” she repeated.

Destined wasted no more time and complied. He burst into the chambers and immediately spotted Chrysalis’ lifeless body. “Oh, shit. What happened?”

Pif indicated the crystal pony. “Citrine clobbered her with a coat rack – twice!”

Destined stared at Citrine in disbelief. “I can’t believe you did that!”

Citrine nodded. “I helped kill her in the Crystal City; I actually killed her here. What’s the problem?”

“The problem?! She was supposed to be defeated in the Crystal Kingdom, but she was supposed to be alive this time. Do you know what disasters that you’ve just caused?!” he yelled.

Citrine shrugged. “All I know is now my pony posse won’t be killed.”

That statement shocked both Pif and Destined as they both suddenly understood Citrine’s motivations. Several ponies who had been near and dear to her would now never have to deal with a changeling invasion. They would go on to live their lives, and Citrine could go back and be with them once more.

Pif looked over at her brother and said, “Des, take us to Mom’s room and fetch the others too. We have to reconsider our course of action.”

Destined swallowed and nodded. His horn flared, and the three of them were back in Twilight’s chambers. A call was made to Blue, and the puzzled earth pony was soon making his way back to join them. As soon as Cinder was ready, Destined fetched her too. When Blue arrived, they explained what had happened while Citrine remained sullenly tight-lipped.

Pif sighed and said, “We’re going to have to go back and see what history has turned out like.”

Destined frowned. “You can’t possibly think that things will be okay? So many factors went into the chain of events that brought about House Path and our family just from this one event.”

“No, I don’t think things will be okay. I think that Citrine needs to see just how not okay things will be due to her actions.” She sighed. “But we also have to think about ours too.”

“Ah, I see. Blue – are you powered up?”

“I've been ready all day.”

“Time to go home then… if we still have one.”

They gathered together and triggered the time vortex. Once more, they fell endlessly through the time continuum, not knowing what they would find at their destination.




Chapter 6: Different Lives


As usual, the time-travellers were dumped unceremoniously out of the vortex and into reality. Most ended up in a pile on the floor, but Blue Streak sprawled on Twilight’s nearby bed instead. He pushed himself up, looked around, and grinned.

“Score!” he proclaimed happily before he sank back onto the sheets, drained as usual from the time journey. “Wake me up when you need me,” he said drowsily.

As the rest picked themselves up from the floor, Destined said, “I’m going to check on something. I’ll be back in a minute or so.”

The young alicorn stallion teleported out of the room before anyone else could comment.

Pif headed for the balcony. “While Des is doing that, I’m going to see what Canterlot looks like now.”

There were murmurs of agreement and they all went along except Blue. Pif cautiously peered through the glass doors before proceeding outside. She moved to the rail and looked out over the city, adjusting her eyes for keener distance viewing. She was chilled to see Blue Changelings walking amidst the ponies still, but then she realised that there was a significant difference this time. Instead of being in charge of the ponies, they seemed to be either just accompanying them or even doing the work.

Just then, Destined teleported back into the room. He noticed that the rest of the group was out on the balcony, and headed that way. “Good news! Mom’s castle is there in Ponyville. That means that she became an alicorn as she was due to. However, there’s no hive there, although I’m sure I saw some changelings among the ponies. I was looking from a great height to try not to be spotted, so I can’t say what was going on precisely.”

“Probably the same thing that’s happening here,” Cinder replied, pointing down to the streets.

Destined took a look and nodded. He turned to Pif and asked, “Have you been able to connect to the hive-mind and figure out what’s going on yet?”

“I didn’t want to rush into that, but I’m doing so now. Just being cautious,” she replied even as she sought out the comforting link to the hive. She then sent tentative queries before her eyes widened in surprise. “Dad’s in control! He’s the Queen of the Blues! How did that happen if Chrysalis was killed before she even knew Gossamer was alive and well?”

Destined replied, “That’s great news, as long as he’s still the good person we know him to be.”

“Take a look again, Des – don’t they look peaceful to you?” Pif pointed out.

“Let’s go down and have a closer look,” Citrine suggested.

Destined looked at Cinder who rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know: hide the conspicuous dragon. Go on! I’ll stay here with Blue.”

Destined nodded and lit up his horn. His wings disappeared under an illusion, and then moments later, he, Pif, and Citrine reappeared in a quiet alleyway. He looked around, satisfied to see that their arrival had been unobserved. “Okay, let’s go, but don’t make any assumptions just because things look normal except for the Blues.”

They walked nonchalantly out into the main street and went with the flow. They were almost disappointed that everything seemed mostly normal. After about a quarter of an hour, they stopped in a public park and settled down on the grass to discuss what they had observed.

Pif started first. “Between what we’ve seen and what I have gleaned from my cautious queries, the Blue Changelings seem to be in a symbiotic relationship with the ponies. They’re providing help and companionship in return for sustenance in the form of love and other positive emotion energy. It’s actually a pretty good set-up, although though not as ideal as the equality that the Council of Queens, the Princesses, and House Path have worked toward. I’m very curious how that came about.”

“Well, while you were focused on the changelings,” Destined said, “I’ve been looking for other differences. There’s a much stronger military presence here in Canterlot, although nopony seems to be too concerned about it at this time.”

“Did neither of you notice that the Blue Changelings are the only ones that you can see?” Citrine asked.

Pif blushed a little in embarrassment. “A-heh. I was too focused on my hive. But you’re right, there’s… urgh!

“What’s wrong?” Citrine’s brow wrinkled in concern.

“N-nothing! Nothing except Queen Gossamer just detected me and pinged me hard. I blocked her, but I’m shut out from more info gathering for the moment.”

Destined got up to his hooves. “Time to go back to the castle, I reckon.”

“Let’s grab something for Blue to eat first until we can all have a meal somewhere,” Pif recommended.

One quick stop at a food stall later, and they were soon back at the castle. After passing the food to Cinder who tended to her mate, the three settled down on the luxurious rug. Destined and Pif faced Citrine who knew that she was going to be lectured, but she stared defiantly back.

“This is not our time,” Destined started. “It is not our future. The critical point in history occurred after several other significant events, thus why Mom is still an alicorn princess. However, without Chrysalis, the invasion of the Crystal City never occurred, and so many deaths never happened, including those of Citrine’s friends. This is a very good thing.”

Citrine was surprised by this candid admission, but held her tongue as she felt there would be more. She was not disappointed.

Destined continued. “However, without the fight with Chrysalis in Canterlot, and the subsequent repulsion of all the Blues from the city, significant changes have been made. I’m postulating that the lack of visible changelings from other hives means that they were never exposed, and that would also mean that Papa Free was never revealed as being a changeling. Seeing as this was a major factor that eventually led to the formation of House Path, it stands to reason that Mom, Dad, and Papa Free never became part of a herd, and never had any children. In this future, Pif and I would never have been conceived.”

Citrine wilted at that revelation, but still kept sullenly quiet; a far cry from her normal boisterous and opinionated self.

Pif took up the lecture. “Worse yet, House Path had contributed enormously to the furthering of peaceful relationships between other nations, especially Griffonia. The House was also responsible for freeing the pony slaves there, as well as ameliorating the influence of the warlike nobles. King Glimfeather often talked about the narrow line that he flew to balance out the aggressive faction, and the peacemaking efforts that he had been engaged in for a couple of decades before House Path existed. Who knows how that has been affected now?”

Citrine finally spoke up defiantly. “You can’t know that it’s gone bad. You do know that my posse should still be alive. What gives you the right to choose the future?”

Destined frowned. “Citrine, we’re not choosing the future – we’re restoring it as best we can. Your very existence shows that we’re not perfect at that because you should have died too. But in the end, we achieved an optimum result, with the greatest benefits overall, not to mention our very existence.”

“I’m not arguing about that! I’m saying that you don’t know that this future is bad – you’re only speculating.”

Destined looked at Pif who nodded. “She’s right – we are speculating, even if the evidence is strong. We need to confirm our suspicions before we make our conclusions. However…” Pif turned to frown at Citrine, “we will do what is best for the world, no matter the pain it might cause you… or me.”

Once again, Citrine looked uncertain. “Pif… I… I don’t want to see you hurt, and I know you’re only trying to do the right thing, but I had to do this, don’t you see? Even if it made you angry with me. Frankly I don’t know why you’re not shouting at me and telling me how wrong I am.”

Destined snorted. “Trust me – she’s angry, and I’m furious, but it’s because we do understand that we won’t be putting you somewhere that you can’t interfere with us while we go back and try again. But I’m a Prince of Equestria, even if I don’t really want to be, and that means that I have a responsibility to all citizens of Equestria and its allies. That means that we will be investigating this timeline before we act, and if things are better off this way, then we’ll consider changing our plans. That’s the best that I can do for you, Citrine, so don’t get your hopes up too high.”

Citrine nodded. “Thanks anyway.”

Destined turned to Pif. “I suggest we seek out Dad and Papa Free. We might get a good idea of what happened after history diverged.”

“What if Free recognises me?” Pif asked.

“He, or maybe she now, has already sensed you, so perhaps it won’t matter. If we need to reset history, the point will be moot, and if we don’t – well, I reckon you might need some family.”

“I have you and Blue – I’m not lacking for family.”

Destined smiled. “Thanks, sis. I think I’d want to have Papa Free though also.”

“So how do we go about finding them?”

“We can try looking at the apartment where they were living during Chrysalis’ invasion?”

“That’s a good idea. Then there are the places where they worked.”

“How about I go take a quick look at the apartment first?” Destined suggested. “I can do that in a minute.”

“Makes sense. I wish I could teleport as readily as you can.”

Destined smirked. “Hey, only one of us can be the Alicorn of Time and Space!” he said with a wink.

Pif’s magic flared, and she changed into a duplicate of Destined. “Only one of us can be the Alicorn of Smart Flank,” Pif said in Destined’s smug voice.

Destined poked out his tongue at Pif and disappeared in a flash.

Pif resumed her normal ponyling form and sighed. “Yeah, so envious,” she admitted.

Sooner than expected, Destined reappeared.

“Well, that’s a bust. Somepony else is living there now.”

“So, should we try the gymnasium where Papa Free used to work, or try to track down Dad next?”

Blue suddenly spoke up. “I want to be there when you meet Dad.”

Destined looked at Blue with concern. “You’re still too exhausted from the time trip.”

“Then put it off until tomorrow. I’ll have recovered enough by then. It’s not as if we have to know right now. Time is on our side at the moment.”

“You have a point. Okay, I’ll see if I can find Papa Free at his old gymnasium, but we can try to find Dad tomorrow.” Destined’s horn lit up and once again he teleported away.

“Show-off,” Pif grumbled before she headed over to a sofa and sprawled upon it.

Citrine walked up to the sofa and hesitantly asked, “May I join you?”

Pif’s eyebrow lifted in curious surprise. “You’ve never bother asking before.”

“I’m not certain I’d be welcome this time.”

Pif sighed. “Citrine, I might be mad at you, but I don’t hate you for what you did.”

“So, is that a yes?”

“Oh, for buck’s sake! Get up here! I could do with a cuddle.”

Citrine wasted no time in getting up next to Pif and cuddling up to her. Pif immediately tasted the sweet affection that Citrine was oozing.

Pif eyed the crystal pony uncertainly. “What that changeling guard said when we entered the castle – he could taste your love for me; is that what you truly feel for me?”

“I… I like you, Pif. I liked you from the day we met. But I don’t even know what it is to love somepony.”

“But you don’t like me enough to correct history so that I will be conceived?”

“You don’t know that! Path and Free could have become mates in this timeline too!”

Pif nodded. “That’s a possibility, but would I be the same Pif? Would I be the changeling princess that you found attractive? If this hypothetical Pif was raised by Queen Gossamer differently, would that Pif find you desirable?”

“You find me desirable?” Citrine asked hopefully.

“There must be something that I like about you that I find attractive, or else I wouldn’t let you keep dragging me away from my work so often.”

Citrine’s long-absent grin returned at last. “Making ponies get a life is my specialty.”

Pif chuckled briefly. “Yeah, that’s true. And perhaps it’s something that I really needed in spite of what I used to think.”

“I think you do,” Citrine said, leaning in to nuzzle Pif, only to have the changeling’s hoof push her head away.

“But right now, I’m still mad at you.”

Citrine sighed and settled for cosying up to Pif.

Cinder chuckled darkly. “I can’t say I blame her. However, while there’s a small chance that Path and Free mated in this timeline, there’s virtually none that Blue and I met.” Her expression turned deadly serious. “I won’t let you take him away from me that easily, Citrine!”

The crystal pony hardly knew the meaning of fear, but even she was a little cowed by Cinder’s draconic intensity. She gulped and said, “Understood, Cinder.”

Cinder nodded before cuddling up to her mate once more. Blue had succumbed to fatigue by this time, but even in his sleep, he smiled slightly at the warm contact.

They waited in silence for Destined’s return, and eventually the stallion reappeared in the middle of the room.

“Well, did you have any success?” Pif asked.

“It took me a while to find the place; after all Papa Free might have mentioned it to us, but he never bothered showing it to us. Anyway, I managed to track down the manager and asked him if he knew Free Agent. I was informed that, and I quote, ‘the miserable ingrate quit and started his own gymnasium’. When I asked where, I was told in no uncertain terms that he was not in the business of steering potential customers towards his competitors. That’s when he slammed the door in my face.”

“Ouch. It makes me wonder if there was something that caused them to have a falling out,” Pif speculated.

Destined shrugged. “Maybe. Anyway, while I don’t know exactly where yet, at least we know what to look for.”

Pif said, “We can do that tomorrow while we go looking for Dad. I think we should rest up for now though. We can go out for dinner in a few hours. Blue should have recovered enough to accompany us then.”

“Sounds like a plan. I need to destress for a while anyway. I think I’ll take a shower.”

“Just don’t sing like you usually do. You don’t want to attract the castle staff with your caterwauling.”

“Oh, ha-ha. Silk Touch reckoned that I sung very well at that charity karaoke event last week.”

“So you went out on a date with him?” Pif asked with a smirk.

“I keep telling you – he’s just a friend, not a coltfriend!” Destined exclaimed before stalking off to Twilight’s personal en suite bathroom.

Citrine grinned and said, “You just love getting a rise out of him, don’t you?”

“Pfft! He’s too easy,” Pif replied.

“So, does he really like Silk Touch?”

“More than he will even admit to himself.”

“Want me to give them a nudge?”

“What? And spoil my fun? I’m really enjoying the way he keeps dancing around the idea and thinks he’s keeping something hidden from me. I’m his sister and know him too well. I don’t even need my changeling abilities to tell that.”

“Then how come it took until now before you realised how I feel about you?”

Pif’s grin faded. “Maybe I don’t know myself as well as I should either. I don’t know how to feel about that, Citrine. I’m not a pony, even if we share much in common. Loving a changeling is a very different thing.”

“Is it? You might be right, and I know next to nothing about the subject.”

“Oh for buck’s sake, you two!” Cinder grumbled. “Go get some counselling from Princess Cadance when we get back home. You’re both hopeless!”

Citrine and Pif both chuckled self-consciously before Citrine leaned over to lay her head on Pif’s back. The young changeling sighed but tolerated it, even as she said, “I’m still mad at you though.”

All five set out the next day, although Cinder was careful to stay in the midst of her four pony companions. While she still drew the eyes of many citizens and not a few soldiers, her calm demeanour and the fact that she was in the presence of four unconcerned ponies seemed to reassure the watchers, and she was not detained at all.

Locating Path had been much easier than the group had estimated. It had seemed probable that they would find him still doing research at Canterlot University, and that was their first target. A careful inquiry or two soon pointed them to the faculty wing and the office of Professor Long Path. A sign saying ‘Hippology Department’ had them confident of a quick meeting, until they met the roadblock that was Path’s office assistant. The nameplate on her desk proclaimed her to be Ancient Text, and the old unicorn mare looked the part with her mane tied back in a bun, and spectacles balanced on her snout. She gave the group a tight smile as she asked them their business, giving Cinder a wary glance.

Destined said, “We are doing research, studying unusual interactions between ponies and other cultures. We were hoping to consult with Professor Path in the hopes of exchanging information.”

“The Professor is always happy to acquire new information. I suspect he would be quite interested in what your companion has to say,” Ancient Text replied while looking pointedly at Cinder.

“Oh, I believe we can tell him a lot about several other species,” Pif added.

“That does sound promising, Miss….”

Ancient Text and Pif’s eyes locked, and both widened in recognition. The secretary’s demeanour immediately changed.

“… but I’m afraid that the Professor is currently unavailable.”

Pif sensed a pulse in the hive-mind, and she knew that the disguised changeling in front of her had probably just sent off a message. “That’s not quite true, is it, ma’am?”

Ancient Text frowned. “Regardless of what you think, you will not be seeing Professor Path today. Please vacate the office.”

“Can we make an appointment to see him soon?” Destined asked, unaware of what had just happened.

“The Professor is a very busy stallion, and has many projects in his hooves already. I doubt that he would have the time to fit you into his schedule.”

“Just five minutes would do!” Destined protested.

“I have asked you to leave. Please do so before I call for Security.”


“Forget it, Des. This drone has no intention of letting us see Path,” Pif announced, glaring at Ancient Text.

“She’s a changeling?” Destined asked with only a little surprise.

“So you know your companion is a changeling too?” The secretary’s body language suddenly looked a lot less clerical and a whole lot more dangerous. “I cannot place your allegiance, but I assure you that you will not be causing Long Path any trouble.”

“That was never our intention!” Destined protested.

“Then why is the blue one looking like he’s about to start a fight?” Ancient Text snarled.

A glance at Blue Streak showed that he had taken a ready stance in reaction to the changeling’s hostility.

“I am a warrior and their protector. I am merely responding to your belligerent attitude,” Blue replied calmly but firmly.

“I am Long Path’s guardian, and I suspect your motives. Last warning – leave this office now.”

“Wait a minute, please! Give us a chance to explain!” Destined protested.

The mare’s horn lit up. “I warned you…”

“Stand down, Text!” came a familiar voice behind the group.

Path’s guardian looked at the newcomer, and she immediately powered down her horn and backed off.

Having recognised the voice, not one of the five was surprised to see Free Agent standing in the doorway. His appearance startled them a bit though. The griffon was larger than he normally preferred, at least according to their memories, and he was a great deal more buff. His powerful muscles rippled beneath his fur and feathers as he strode into the office, and it was obvious that he made good use of the gymnasium that he owned. He did not possess a cutie mark like in their timeline, but that was hardly unexpected. The only thing out of place was the obvious signs of tiredness about his eyes. His voice showed none of that though when he addressed the group.

“What’s this commotion all about, then?”

Pif stepped forward. “We need to talk with you, Free Agent.”

“Then why are you here at Long Path’s office?” he replied before looking harder at Pif. Then he pinged her hard over the hive mind. “YOU! Who are you?!”

Pif winced under the mental onslaught but quickly rallied. “My name is Epiphany, and I am like you. I will only say more in private. As I said, we need to talk.”

Free frowned in thought for a long moment before he suddenly smirked. “Sure! Bring your friends and let’s chat about what you are and what your business here really is.”

Ancient Text spoke up. “Sir, I must protest!”

Free winked at her. “Don’t worry so much, Text. After all, there are several guards outside now, and more on their way,” he reassured her.

That had obviously been said for the benefit of the group as well, but as none of them were actually a threat to Free, it did not concern them unduly.”

“Do you have an empty office that we can use?” Free asked Ancient Text.

“Second on the left. The occupant has left for the day, so you should be able to use it as much as you wish, sir.”

“Good. Okay, everypony follow me.” Free paused as he regarded Cinder. “I suppose dragonesses too.”

They made their way to the indicated office and Free firmly closed the door. “Now, I asked this once already, but I’m not satisfied with your answer, so tell me, Miss Epiphany, who and what are you, and what is your business with Long Path?”

Pif stepped forward. “My full name is Epiphany Path, and Long Path is my father, and you…” Pif’s form flared with green magic flames. “You are my mother.”

Free stared with beak agape at the chrome-carapaced young Queen that so strongly resembled his natural form. It took a long time to find his voice. “That… that’s not possible.”

“No, it’s paradoxical,” Pif replied.

“You can’t be my daughter; I’ve only ever sired drones with the breeders!” Free protested.

“In this timeline, perhaps. Not in mine.”

“What in Equestria are you talking about? What timeline?”

“Someone has been tampering with critical events in the past which is affecting how events proceed from those points. What you know as history is a lot different from what we know it should be. In ours, your life with Path went in a different and more amazing direction, which resulted in me being born. But in this version, we stopped one change from happening, but…” Pif paused and glanced at Citrine before continuing. “But a mistake was made. That affected a different critical event, and here we are.”

Free stared at Pif for a long moment with various emotions crossing his face before finally saying, “You have to be kidding me? Do you know how fantastic your story sounds?”

“And yet you’re still listening because you see the evidence of me before your eyes,” Pif retorted.

“You could still be deceiving me in some way!”

Pif nodded. “Yes, I could. You can’t read me like you can a pony, so I’ll let my brother tell you more.”

“Brother? But none of these others are changelings,” Free said with a frown.

“To be pedantic, she means half-brother,” Destined said as he stepped forward. “I am Destined Path, son of Long Path and Princess Twilight Sparkle.” He let the illusion hiding his wings drop.

Free’s eyes bulged. “A male alicorn? Wait – Path also mated with a princess?!”

“Yes, and you married her.”

Free abruptly sat down hard on his rump. “This… is getting confusing.”

Destined nodded in sympathetic agreement. “It is to us also, and we have the benefit of some experience. Papa Free, I know that you can taste deception from a pony, so please pay close attention to what I have to tell you and you will know that I’m not lying. Long Path, Twilight Sparkle, and you should have embarked upon a quest that would have led you to learn more about yourself, brought you closer to Twilight, and caused Path to meet and mate with a griffoness named Roseclaw. You four created a noble House in Griffonia which became a powerful force for peace and understanding in much of Equus. You became a herd which gave your children two beloved fathers and mothers. But none of this happened now because Queen Chrysalis did not live to trigger a critical event.”

Free looked at Destined sharply. “How do you know about Chrysalis? The Princesses covered up those events in order to not cause panic in the population.”

“How could they not know of Chrysalis? The streets are filled with Blue Changelings!”

“I asked first.”

“In our history, Chrysalis almost succeeded in conquering Canterlot, but was expelled along with all her drones by the combined magics of Shining Armor and Princess Cadance. That same event revealed your true nature to Path, which was the catalyst for further events.”

“Path knows what I am in your history? You mean he never was revolted by the thought of having a changeling so… intimate with him?”

Pif’s was stunned. “Are you telling us that you have never told Dad what you are?”

Free slowly shook his head. “I… I was too afraid that he would reject me. He’s my life, my soulmate. It would kill me if he left me.”

Blue spoke up for the first time. “That would explain the guardian you have placed with him as his assistant.”

Free nodded in agreement. “He is too precious to me to let anything happen to him if I can prevent it.” He then examined Blue Streak more intently. “You’re an earth pony – are you his son too?”

“He is my foster father,” Blue answered proudly.

Free looked at Citrine. “And you?”

Citrine grinned. “I’m the daughter he deserved but never had.”


Pif glared at Citrine. “Ignore her. She’s a crystal pony and my aggravating companion.”

Cinder added drolly, “And in case you couldn’t guess, I’m only related by being mated to Blue.”

Free chuckled. “Now I’ve seen everything – a pony and a dragon mated. I wonder what your babies would be like?”

“Working on it,” Cinder replied with a satisfied pat of her belly.

There was a long moment of silence while Free seemed lost in thought. Then he drew a deep breath and seemed to come to a decision. “Okay, I believe you. What I don’t understand though is why you’re telling me all this?”

Pif replied, “Because we have to understand the consequences and ramifications of the critical change. Can we work with it to bring about a satisfactory conclusion? Or will we have to go back and fix things again? Above all, we need to be convinced that we are doing the right thing because lives depend on it – some of them very important to us.”

“I see, I think. So what do you need to know?”

“Tell us what happened from the royal wedding and Chrysalis’ death.”

Free thought for a moment. “Hmm… Some of this I only learned later from the changeling drones, but when Twilight rescued Cadance from the caves below the city, they checked the Princess’ room and found Chrysalis’ corpse. They had no idea who killed her, but they soon found out what she had planned. All the drones that had amassed to invade were rendered nearly helpless by their sudden traumatic disconnection from the hive-mind. Aside from the Harvesters who promptly fled, most just dropped where they were, dazed and disoriented. Of course that gave the citizens of Canterlot a great deal of concern, which is why Celestia and Luna decided not to tell them about Chrysalis. It would have caused a huge panic if they had known they had nearly been invaded, and the invaders were still there. However, without Chrysalis to guide them, they were nearly helpless. Worse yet, without the Harvesters and their Queen, they started starving.”

“Is that when you got involved?” Pif asked.

“No. It was Princess Cadance who took pity on them and found a way to put them to use in a manner in which they could glean some love energy for themselves.”

“Then how did you end up being their Queen?”

“While that plan worked for some, it didn’t for all. And even for the ones getting fed, they still did not deal well without being connected to a Queen. Some were literally dying because of it. Then one day, one of those wretched drones bumped into me, and I felt sorry for it. I instinctively fed it some of my love energy. That not only livened it up, but also caused it to nearly explode with joy.”

“Why was that?” Cinder asked.

It was Pif who answered. “It was because it recognised what Free is. Only Queen changelings can feed their drones that way. Despite being a mutant, it knew that you could be its new Queen.”

“Got it in one, only back then even I didn’t know I was a Queen. That drone started bugging me persistently, and then it was two, then four, then twelve, then fifty. It got so bad that I was afraid that they would betray my nature to Path, let alone other ponies. I consented out of desperation, and suddenly I found dozens of minds pressing into mine. Knocked me for a loop, I tell you!”

“So what did you do now that you were their Queen?” Destined asked.

Free snorted. “Learned what it was to be a Queen first! Then I started organising them to integrate them into Equestrian society. That was a huge headache. I was forced to quit my job at the gymnasium because the owner objected to all the drones that kept turning up there. I started my own gym because of that, but also because it gave me the opportunity to establish a new hive for all those drones. It sits on top of an old mine shaft that leads to the caverns underneath the city.” Free chuckled. “I wonder what all those stuffy nobles would think if they knew that a changeling hive was right under their hooves?”

Pif grinned then asked, “How do you feed them all? What happened to all the Harvesters?”

“Many of them came back when they learned about the new Queen and hive. Some never returned, but I believe many established new lives for themselves. Only Harvesters have enough independence of spirit to be able to shake off the need for being part of the hive-mind.”

“We know a couple like that,” Pif confirmed.

Destined said, “So what happened after that?”

“What didn’t?” Free said with a roll of his eyes. “It’s been nearly two decades now, and I’m still learning. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy being a Queen and running a gymnasium too.”

“I thought you looked tired,” Pif said with concern.

Free waved it away. “That’s life. I envy the other me though. He apparently didn’t have to become the Queen of a hive.”

“Actually, he did, but in an entirely different way. However, he had a lot of help to cope.”

“Crap. Looks like I’m stuck either way.”

“Okay, we’ve basically covered what happened to you and the changelings, so now we know why they’re so prevalent in the streets. Can you hit the high points since then?”

“Okay, let’s see…” Free pondered. “Stop me if anything sounds unfamiliar. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance got married, of course. The Crystal Kingdom appeared, and Cadance was sent to govern it. Twilight Sparkle became an alicorn and made a Princess. Tirek attacked everypony and killed many changelings who couldn’t live without their innate magic. Cadance gave birth to an alicorn filly. Ambassador Roseclaw caused an international incident when she refused to return to Griffonia. King Ravenwing declared war on Equestria....”

“Wait! What was that?!” Destined demanded.

“We’re at war with Griffonia. Surely you’ve seen all the soldiers in the streets? They’re the ones on R&R from the battle front.”

“Yeah, we’ve seen them and wondered why, but what’s this about King Ravenwing?”

“Ravenwing was the successor to King Glimfeather when he died unexpectedly. After that, the relationship between Griffonia and Equestria quickly soured. It’s been speculated that the new king was the reason why Roseclaw refused to return home, and why Ravenwing suddenly started up hostilities with us.” Free’s eyes widened as he suddenly realised something. “Hey! Didn’t you say that Path was supposed to have mated with Roseclaw?”

“Yeah, and she definitely wanted nothing to do with Ravenwing. He didn’t live to be king either.”

“Wow. So in your history, this war never started?”

Destined shook his head. “No, and our House worked with King Glimfeather to promote peaceful relationships. Considering that he is a hale and hearty griffon still, I find his death in this timeline to be very suspicious.”

“Believe me, you aren’t the first to think that Glimfeather was assassinated.”

“So what happened after Ravenwing declared war?” Pif asked.

“Actually, it was more a case of what Ravenwing did that was the declaration of war. He sent his navy to invade Equestria, and Baltimare was his first target. Because the city was not expecting a military conflict, the local Guards were quickly overwhelmed. Thousands of ponies died in just the first day.”

“What?!” exclaimed several of the group.

“Why so many? Surely they would have surrendered in the face of overwhelming odds?” Blue queried.

“Of course they did, but Ravenwing wasn’t interested in captives who could cause his troops problems. He ordered them to kill all ponies on sight on the first day. Sheer terror kept most of the remaining ponies out of the conflict. On the second day, they started rounding up the ones who hadn’t been killed yet, and kept them as hostages. We lost the city to the griffons, and it’s been their foothold on Equestria ever since.”

“And you say that the war is still progressing?”

“Yes. They’ve made many incursions against our forces, but fortunately the next nearest city, Fillydelphia, got sufficient warning and enough local military forces to save it from the same fate. Every time we make any progress against them though, they retreat to Baltimare where the hostages prevent us from breaking out the heavy artillery. Basically we’ve been at a stalemate for years.”

“And ponies keep dying in the meantime,” Blue said somberly.

“Yes. Yes, they do,” Free affirmed.

Pif turned to Citrine with a grim look on her face. “Hundreds died in the battle of the Crystal City, including your friends, but in this timeline, thousands have died, and continue to die because of one important change to history. Citrine, we can’t make this timeline work. Too many innocent ponies have suffered and died already. Too many griffons who could have led honourable lives allied with Equestria are now its enemies, and many of those have also died. Too many are paying the price for the sake of your posse. I can’t justify our not going back and fixing this.”

Citrine’s eyes had been downcast, but she raised them to show that they were full of tears. It shocked Pif to see the tough street pony reduced to this.

“I just wanted to see them again! Is that so wrong?”

Pif shook her head sadly. “No, it isn’t, but making a lot of innocents pay the price for it is. I need you to understand that, and come to terms with it.”

Citrine’s eyes welled over and she leaned up against Pif and started bawling. Pif hesitantly put her right foreleg over the mare’s shoulder and pulled her into a hug. There was an awkward silence while Citrine let out all the anguish that she had bottled up since the death of her friends. Consigning them to that fate once again was just too much for her to keep in any longer. For several minutes, she wept until she was reduced to sniffles.

Eventually Pif drew back to gaze at the crystal pony sympathetically. “Citrine?”

With a deep shuddering sigh, Citrine looked up and nodded. “Do it,” she whispered.

“Thank you, Citrine.” Pif gave her a big hug and turned to Free to say something, only to notice that he appeared to be distracted.

“Free?” she queried.

Free looked at her and said, “I’ve just been Texted. Path has just left his office and has informed her that he intends to take an early lunch as soon as he deals with one last matter. She wants to know if she should tell him that I’m here.”

Pif looked at Destined questioningly, and he nodded in understanding. He turned to Free and said, “Tell her yes. It no longer matters if this timeline’s Path knows about us.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Go back in time and fix things properly this time.”

“So what happens to Path and me?”

“You’ll still be you, but with a different history. You’ll still be soulmates, but also a part of something bigger. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

Free gave him a lopsided grin. “Makes me feel as if I’ve wasted all these years.”

“Wasted? I could point out that there are alternate versions of you that have had it worse, or you two never met, or this war went badly and you were killed in the invasion. However, I’m just going to say that you have had many wonderful years with your soulmate. In your own words – he is your life.”

“I suppose that’s true. I think that I would have liked to have put aside that one lie between us before now.”

“Then do it, Papa,” Blue said fervently. “I need to gather energy for a couple of days to power our time travel, so why not make the most of it?”

Free smiled proudly at Blue. “Now I know why you’re Path’s adopted son. Your words are wise. I think I’ll do just that. Pif, would you mind resuming your unicorn guise? I would prefer not having your natural form distracting Path.”

Pif smiled and complied, and Destined hid his wings as an additional measure.

It was not long before the office door opened and a familiar stallion stepped in. It was quite obvious that it was Path, but rather than the well-toned warrior and proud leader of a noble House that they were familiar with, this version was slightly overweight, had an unkempt mane, and wore spectacles. This version still had his cutie mark though. His eyes sparkled with intelligence as he glanced at the group before walking up to Free. With a complete lack of concern for his audience, Path nuzzled the ruff of feathers on Free’s chest, and the griffon responded by stroking the stallion’s head with his beak. The sheer amount of love that Path was emitting made Pif shudder in delight as she took it in, but the bulk of it was absorbed by its intended target. Path’s weariness dropped away as he was energised by his soulmate’s true love for him.

Path stepped back and said, “Ancient Text told me that you came to see me, and got side-tracked by this interesting little group.”

“Yes, and they have revealed some astounding things to me, some of which has led me to make a decision. There’s something that I should have told you long ago, but I was too scared of the consequences to go ahead and do it.”

Path smiled softly. “You should have had more faith in me. You should know that I would listen and understand.”

Free gulped and steeled himself. “I know I should have long ago, but I’m doing it now. Long Path, my beloved soulmate, I am and always have been a changeling.” With a flare of green fire, Free assumed his natural form of a changeling Queen, and he braced for the reaction.

I know,” Path said in the changeling language, his smile never fading.

Free’s eyes widened in shock. “You know?! When did you find out? How did you find out?”

Path’s eyes had been wandering curiously over Free’s form, but he returned his gaze to meet the changeling’s. “Oh, come on, Free. I didn’t get to be head of the Hippology Department by being stupid. I saw what was happening to you after the changeling invasion, and I observed and investigated when you wouldn’t confide in me what was troubling you. When I discovered the truth, I was impressed by what you had taken on, and I’ve tried to support you discreetly. I figured that you’d tell me one day when you were ready.”

Free started shaking his head and chuckling. He resumed his griffon form and embraced his soulmate. “Path, you’re a bloody wonder. What did I do to ever deserve you? I’m sorry for not telling you sooner.”

“You’re forgiven, but I’m curious to know what brought about this decision.” Path looked at their audience. “You said that these youngsters had something to do with it.”

“They had everything to do with it. Epiphany, if you will?”

Pif resumed her changeling form and smiled at her sire’s alternate self, and Destined revealed his wings too.

“Path, meet our kids!” Free said with a grin.

One of Path’s eyebrows rose considerably as his curiosity was aroused. “I sense an interesting story coming up.”

“Make yourself comfortable, Dad,” Pif said with a grin. “We’re going to blow your mind.”

After proving who they were once again, they conversed for a long time until Path had to go back to work. Before he did though, he and Free invited them around to their home for dinner. Free gave them instructions on where to find his gymnasium, which was also where the pair had made their new home. That made a lot of sense to the others as it was convenient to both his public job and his hidden hive. As Free also had work to do, the group elected to spend the afternoon relaxing in the relative familiarity of Canterlot before proceeding to Free and Path’s home.

Dinner was an interesting affair. Free had prepared meat for their dragon guest, and she had been impressed by his culinary skills.

Cinder cut a piece off her steak and held it up on her fork in front of Blue. “You have to try this! It’s mouth-wateringly good!” she urged.

Free started to laugh at the thought of any pony besides Path eating meat, but his eyes bulged in surprise as Blue casually leaned forward and took the piece and chewed it thoughtfully.

Blue nodded and said, “You’re right – that is really nice. How come my Papa Free never cooked this before?”

Free shook his head and gave him a lopsided smile. “If there were any doubts that you’re our kids, that just put them to rest.”

He was still a little surprised when Destined admitted to eating meat also, although the alicorn had no particular preference for it. A curious question from Path to Cinder about the sharing of the meat soon morphed into an impromptu lesson in draconic.

“You pick up the language remarkably quickly,” Cinder said with admiration.

Path smiled self-deprecatingly and shrugged. “It’s my special talent – that’s how I got my cutie mark.”

“Ah! That could be why you’re better than the Path I am familiar with. He lost his cutie mark, and has no magical amplification of his talent.”

“I feel a bit sorry for my other self for that.”

“He never let it hold him back. In fact, I could suggest that it pushed him to take a more affirmative course that did not rely on magical help, and that’s why he became such a respected noble and House leader.”

“While I’m just a rather unfit scholar,” Path said with a sigh.

“You aren’t just anything,” Free said. “You’re a respected academic, and moreover, my rock. I would never have been able to cope with the hive if it wasn’t for you.”

Path’s appreciation for Free’s compliment added a bit of spice to Pif’s meal. She considered an idea briefly before she said to Free, “How would you like it if I help you out with the hive for the next couple of days until we’re ready to go? After all, I have the benefit of knowing how mine is run.”

“That… is a great idea, but is it worth bothering? After all, you told us that history as we know it will change when you fix past events, and none of this will matter anymore.”

“Are you going to stop work with your hive or your gym for that reason?” Pif asked.

“Of course not.”

“Then it’s not a waste of time. Besides, I can’t just sit around and do nothing when I can be helping.”

“I’d be happy to give a few more lessons in Draconic,” Cinder offered.

“Could I use your gym tomorrow?” Blue asked. “I want to get back into optimum shape again before we go. I hate all this laying around doing nothing.”

“That seems a fair exchange to me,” Free agreed.

Conversation devolved again into a discussion of the differences between their histories, and all involved later said that it was just like they had always been family. The time-travellers were quite reluctant to leave when the evening got late. Pif was the last out the door, but before she left, she turned to Free and Path with a sly smile.

“You know I’m the child of your alternate history selves; so, might I suggest that you find out for yourselves what it was like to conceive me?” She winked and joined up with the others, calling out, “Bye, Dads!”

The very startled griffon-changeling met the gaze of a furiously blushing earth pony and gulped.

Two days later, Blue declared that he was back to peak fitness and powered up. The group bid a reluctant farewell to Free and Path, before returning to their base of operations in Twilight’s castle suite. They went over their plan of action one last time before Blue powered up the time vortex, and they journeyed into the past once more.

Destined again foiled Chrysalis’ attempt to kill Twilight, and Cinder was in position to goad Twilight into blasting the walls using the joke charm to imitate the changeling Queen’s voice. They had agreed that Chrysalis was not going to do anything significant before the wedding ceremony, so instead of staking out her room, Pif and Citrine backed up Blue in his Royal Guard armour for when Twilight returned with Cadance. They had to ensure that the Queen did not try a second time to kill Twilight. However, Chrysalis was sufficiently distracted by Celestia to pass up the opportunity, but when Twilight left with the other Element Bearers, she had called out, “You can run, but you can’t hide! Bring the Element Bearers back, but kill Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight and her friends fought remarkably well for non-warriors, but it was the discreet intervention by the House Path warriors that foiled several attempts to assassinate Twilight. However, the mares were eventually overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and five of them were led away while Twilight’s lifeless body was carried on the back of one of the changeling soldiers.

A very confused mare tried to reorient herself after being snatched abruptly from the mêlée. “What’s going on here?” Twilight whispered fiercely as she watched herself being taken away.

Destined had cast a spell of invisibility over them both while Pif had assumed Twilight’s appearance. Because she was a changeling, Pif didn’t leak any emotions to betray the fact that she was very much alive. This had been by far the trickiest part of their operation, trying to make the very fewest changes to the sequence of events that they could manage under the circumstances.

“No time to explain, Twilight. I’ve got to get you back to the throne room where you can free Princess Cadance. Without the Elements of Harmony, it’s up to her and Shining Armor to save the day.”

“But Shiny’s under Chrysalis’ control!” Twilight protested.

“Have a little faith in your brother and future sister-in-law. They have a power that can overcome Chrysalis.”

“Who are you?” Twilight demanded of her invisible rescuer.

Destined smiled even though Twilight could not see it. “I’ll tell you later. We have a city to save right now. Hang on!”

Destined teleported them both to the throne room to an inconspicuous spot that he had predetermined to be safe.

“Wait until your friends arrive. When Chrysalis is distracted, you can go to Cadance and free her.”

“You won’t get away with this!” Cadance vehemently told Chrysalis. “Twilight and her friends will….”

The throne room doors burst open and the Element Bearers were brought inside, to Cadance’s shock. She gasped when she noticed Twilight’s still form.

“You were saying? You do realise the reception has been cancelled, don’t you?” Chrysalis gloated. “Go! Feed!” she exhorted her drones.

Chrysalis walked up to where ‘Twilight’ had been dumped on the floor. She placed her hoof on the pony’s head and said, “It’s funny, really. Twilight here was suspicious of my behaviour all along. Too bad the rest of you were too caught up in your wedding plans to realise that her suspicions were correct. I fooled you all!” she said with a chuckle.

Applejack bowed her head over Twilight’s body. “Sorry, Twi, we should have listened to you.”

Chrysalis then walked over to the window to observe her drones taking control of the city and feeding on their captives. She started to sing:

This day has been just perfect, The kind of day that will never ever pall.

‘She’s singing again?!’ Pif thought to herself as she lay on the floor. ‘I never knew how much of a nutcase grandma was!’

Every pony I shall soon control, Every stallion, mare, and foal. Who says a girl can’t really have it all?

As Chrysalis laughed maniacally, Destined pushed Twilight out of the invisibility spell, saying, “Go free Cadance. Tell her to go to Shining.”

Twilight crept forward, trying not to attract attention. Cadance noticed though, and her eyes widened and jaw dropped in surprise.

“Quick! Go to him while you still have the chance!” Twilight said before using her horn to free Cadance from the changeling resin that trapped her hooves.

Cadance nodded and went over to Twilight’s bewitched brother. From that point, everything resumed taking its proper course. Cadance freed Shining’s mind, and Twilight urged Shining to perform his shield spell. He was too weak though until Cadance fed him the power of her love. Pif teleported as far as she could out of range well before the lovers unleashed the love blast that expelled Chrysalis and all her minions far from Canterlot.

Twilight rushed over to Celestia’s side, forgetting for the moment her curious invisible rescuer.

Destined heaved a sigh of relief that everything had gone as planned, and then teleported back to Twilight’s room where the team was to rendezvous after the mission. They had to wait a while for Pif to fly back from her teleport though.

“Damn – I have to get the hang of teleporting more than once,” Pif grumbled as she flew in the window.

“Are you okay?” Citrine asked with some concern.

“I’m fine, but now I know why Papa Free was knocked out. At least I was out in the open and wasn’t slammed into a wall like he was. So, I take it that everything went well after I left?”

“According to what Mom told us about the invasion, history is exactly on track again,” Destined confirmed.

“Then it’s time we went home, don’t you think?” Blue asked.

“It is… if you haven’t used up too much energy while fighting?” Destined queried.

“I’m good to go, so let’s do this!”

Blue put actions into words, and activated the vortex manipulator. The five adventurers disappeared into the depths of time once again.

“Would you all get off me right now!

Twilight’s command of the Royal Canterlot Voice had improved over the years, and the five youths scrambled to get off the irate alicorn. Quite apparently, Twilight’s castle suite was not unoccupied this time.

“Sorry, Mom!” Destined said as he helped her to her hooves.

Twilight straightened her ruffled feathers, brushed her mane back into place, and then regarded them sternly. “So, back from your time trip, I take it? Just because you sent a message to say that you went on another mission, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been worrying about you for the past few weeks!”

Destined looked at her curiously. “Y’know, that’s the second time that you said we sent a message, but we didn’t. We couldn’t.”

“Maybe the Doctor sent it?” Pif suggested.

“All I know is that our mailmare, Derpy, said that she had a message from you,” Twilight explained.

The five looked at each other and nodded. “That makes sense,” Destined agreed. She would have known to tell you after history was corrected. Wait! You said weeks – how long have we been gone?”

“Nineteen days, to be precise,” Twilight answered.

Destined glared at Blue. “I knew you were too tired! The energy imbalance threw off my navigation.”

“Sorry, Des. I just really wanted to go home,” Blue said contritely.

Destined sighed. “No, don’t be. I wanted to go too; otherwise I would have stopped you. Besides, I’m supposed to be the time-space expert, and I need to improve my control to compensate for things like that.”

“Well, you’re back now, and apparently none the worse for it,” Twilight said happily. “Can you tell me what event you had to fix this time?”

Pif grimaced before saying, “You were assassinated at Cadance and Shining Armor’s wedding.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

Citrine grinned. “Yep. Chrysalis won the invasion without you to foil her plans. I got to clobber her in return.”

“But… Chrysalis was still alive after the wedding,” Twilight pointed out.

Pif gave her companion a stern look. “We had to make a do-over. We’ll explain the details when everyone else is gathered. We have quite a story to tell.”

Destined said, “Mom – do you remember the part that you told us about the wedding just before you freed Cadance from the resin in the throne room?”

“You mean the bit where I was hiding under an invisibility cloak with the mysterious ally?”

“Yes. You never worked out who he was though.”

“He said he would tell me later, but he never returned.”

“Sorry that it has taken me nearly twenty years to do so.”

Twilight blinked in surprise. “You were him?”

“Yep. I saved you while Pif took your place. Actually, that was the second time I saved you. Chrysalis intended to kill you rather than send you to the caves as she did before the time meddling.”

Twilight sat down abruptly on her rump. “Sweet Celestia! What a revelation!”

“Just wait until Dad and Papa Free hear about their alternate selves,” Blue said with a grin.

“You can tell us all about it at dinner tonight,” Twilight said. “We’re all here in Canterlot for a meeting with Queen Gilda. Griffinstone’s increased prosperity has meant great changes in trade and… well… that can wait, can’t it? I was just freshening up a bit before the next round of talks. I have to get back to that. I’ll let Lucida know that you’re back; she’s been fretting since you left her behind.” Twilight headed for the door. “You can all rest up here in the meantime if you wish. Don’t touch my oat snacks!” she shouted as she disappeared down the hallway.

Blue chuckled. “I wondered if she’d miss those. I’m going to have to get Mama some more later,” he said as he fished the packet out from where Twilight stashed them and headed for the bed. “Call me for dinner,” he told the others as he laid down for a long nap to recover his energy.

“At least we can get room service now,” Cinder pointed out.

“Buck that! I’m heading for the kitchen!” Citrine exclaimed. “Coming, Pif?”

Pif returned the crystal pony’s smile. “I doubt that you’d accept a ‘no’, right?”

Citrine put a foreleg around Pif’s shoulder and began pulling her in the direction of the door. “At last you’re getting it,” she said happily.

Destined and Cinder looked at each other, laughed, and followed the others.

Lucida had been involved in the talks, of course, and had to wait until they were done for the day before she could see her siblings. They told her all about what she had missed, but when they got to the part where Destined had assigned Citrine and Pif to watch Chrysalis, she interrupted them.

“Don’t tell me you seriously left Citrine practically alone with Chrysalis! Surely you realise that Citrine is emotionally compromised and could well have attacked her in revenge for her friends?”

Destined and Pif looked chagrined and gave her a guilty smile.

“Yeah, we found that out the hard way,” Pif said.

“We really missed your analytical leadership,” Destined added.

“What’s done is done. Hopefully if there’s a next time, and I’m fairly certain there will be a next time, I’ll be there with you.”

The others fervently agreed.

They completed the description of what they did to correct history, but left their encounter with alternate Path and Free for a later conversation.

“It’s almost dinnertime,” Lucida pointed out. It’s a formal one that the Princesses are holding for Queen Gilda and her entourage, so I suggest you spruce yourselves up a bit before coming down. I’ll introduce you to Gilda’s son, Glenn. She brought him along to learn something about trade negotiations, but I have a feeling he’s not the slightest bit interested in any of it.”

They made their way down to the banquet hall, arriving after the griffon delegation. They recognised Queen Gilda immediately as they had met her on several occasions, but this time a young male was by her side. He had light brown fur, purple and brown feathers, plus a yellow crest and patches around his eyes. His eyes lit up when he saw them arrive, and he needed no urging to come over and greet them.

“Hi, Lucida! These are the siblings that you told me about, right?”

“That’s right. These are Epiphany, Destined, and Blue Streak. Cinder is Blue’s mate, and Citrine is Pif’s companion. Guys, this is Prince Glenn of Griffinstone.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the young cock replied with a genuine smile.

Pleasantries were exchanged before Glenn invited Lucida to sit with him at the banquet table. Pif hung back, giggling softly.

“What’s so funny?” Destined asked while the others followed after Lucida.

“Glenn has the hots for Lucida, and our super smart leader is totally clueless!” Pif replied.

Destined looked over to where Glenn was pulling back a chair for Lucida to sit upon, and he grinned. “After all the teasing that I’ve been getting about Silk, it’s about time I got a little revenge. Care to help me, sis?”

Pif gave him an evil grin. “Count me in!”




Chapter 7: Royal Activities


“You have a strange idea of ‘perfect’, my dear.”

“I don’t know how my agent failed me. It was a simple task, and yet the time ripples seemed to show that I died instead before history returned to normal.”

“We are dealing with something that is both powerful and fragile. Your choices of events to influence so far have obviously been too easily circumvented by other events. Perhaps we should concentrate on the here and now?”

“No! I made our bargain to remake things my way. We will rise to power, but I will also take my revenge on those who bested me and bind my progeny to me!”

“Then choose your target well. Our resources are not without limit.”

“I will. This time I will fix things before they can go wrong.”

Luncheon had been an enjoyable affair. Queen Gilda had been happy to discuss what had been happening in her kingdom since the youths had last met her. Lucida was preoccupied chatting with Glenn, much to the amusement of her siblings. They did not have much of a chance to do anything at that time though because it would have been poor timing doing it in front of Gilda, but also because they were equally distracted by one of their dinner companions.

“…So Queen Gilda thought that if Glenn could find his special purpose in life, he would then be able to focus more on the kingdom that he would rule someday. That’s when Her Majesty contacted me. As the local member of the Cutie Mark Crusader Guild, I was thrilled to be requested to help Prince Glenn.”

“But Gabby, Glenn’s not a pony – how are you supposed to learn his special purpose without one?” Destined asked. “Not even my sister, Lucida, has one, and she’s half pony!”

Gabby was totally undeterred. “I wanted a cutie mark too back when I first met the Crusaders. They showed me that a cutie mark was irrelevant, and it’s helping and understanding that’s the real point. Once they opened my eyes to that, I was proud to wear the badge of a Cutie Mark Crusader. Now the Guild has grown to include several other species, but we all have the same goal.”

“What have you learned about Glenn, then?” Pif asked curiously.

Gabby looked over at the Prince. “For starters, he’s very different from his mother, and most other griffons for that matter. He’s quiet and introspective for the most part. In fact, this is the most animated I have seen him until now. Your sister seems to have brought out some hitherto repressed parts of himself. He seems to be less inclined to squabble and fight like most young griffons, which is a very good trait for a ruler, but sets him aside from his peers.”

Blue nodded in agreement. “Yeah, Lucy has always preferred to discuss and mediate rather than argue and fight. She’s been working with Dad almost since she could talk! That’s why she’ll be House Leader one of these years.”

Gabby cocked her head curiously at the stallion. “You’re the eldest – shouldn’t that title devolve on you?”

Blue laughed. “For one, the House is not like a monarchy – the eldest does not necessarily inherit the title. For second, I have no desire to be Lord of the House. I am a warrior, and it’s my place to act on behalf of the House and its members, both at home and in the field. That’s my special purpose.”

Gabby smiled. “It’s good to see that you understand that and are comfortable with it. What about you, Epiphany?”

“Please call me Pif, and I have my own destiny. Eventually I will take over control of the Chrome Hive, but until then, I have much research that will occupy the majority of my time. That’s our Hive’s specialty, and I am quite comfortable with that too.”

Gabby chuckled. “I see that my skills won’t be needed with you two. What about you, Prince Destined?”

The alicorn looked a bit startled at being asked. “I… I’m uncomfortable with that title. I only got it as a result of a prank when I was still a young colt; now Auntie Celestia insists that I keep the title and rank.”

“So you have no desire to rule?”

“Buck, no!” Destined blurted out.

His outburst caught the attention of his mother. “Watch your language, Destined,” she admonished.

“Sorry, Mom,” Destined said sheepishly.

Gabby smiled at the exchange. “I see that you’re quite adamant, but Princess Celestia is normally wise in her decisions.” She eyed his cutie mark, noting the simple thought bubble. “Would you be more philosophically inclined?”

“If you mean, do I like to think a lot? – Yes, I do. It’s enabled me to discover new aspects of time and space, and proven… rather useful lately.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Sorry, but I can’t discuss that matter.”

“That’s a pity. It might help me guide you.”

Destined chuckled. “Maybe later when this is all over. Right now, with some exceptions, I’m not unhappy with my life.”

Gabby giggled. “I’ll give you a rain check.”

When the luncheon was finished and everyone was starting to get up from the table, Celestia stepped over to House Path youths.

“Destined, Epiphany, would you mind joining your sister for this afternoon’s talks with the Griffonstone delegation?”

“Me?” Destined asked, a stunned look on his face.

“A Prince of Equestria should get some experience with these matters,” Celestia explained.

“But Auntie, you know I have no interest in these things!”

“Sometimes we all must do things that we don’t enjoy, and it’s important that you have some personal knowledge of what happens at these meetings. One day you might be called upon to act on Equestria’s behalf.”

“Not like I’ve already been doing that lately,” Destined muttered.

“What was that?” Celestia asked.

“Nothing. Okay, you win.”

Pif patted his back. “Cheer up, Des. I’d like to get back to my work too, but the Princess has a point. Besides,” she added in a whisper, “we can see what Lucida and Glenn do during the meeting.”

The corner of Destined’s mouth turned up slightly. “Yeah, there’s that.”

Blue asked, “Do you need me, Princess?”

Celestia shook her head. “You may stay if you wish, but we won’t be discussing anything of relevance to you today.”

“No thanks. Cinder and I are going to go check out something. We have some catching up to do too.”

“I’ll be looking forward to hearing about your recent adventures later when my sister is up to hear them at the same time.”

“We’ll see you later then, Princess.” Blue gave her a short bow, then he and Cinder left.

Citrine said, “What about me? Can I stay with Pif?”

Pif looked at her companion in surprise. “Won’t you be bored to tears?”

“If you can stick it out, I can too. I’ll keep you company.”

Pif smiled gratefully and hugged the crystal pony who grinned in response. “Companions through thick and thin, hey?”

“Yeah, companions,” Citrine agreed.

Destined shook his head and wondered how even an emotivore could be so oblivious.

Blue and Cinder stared at the deserted storage shed.

“Are you sure this is the right address?” Cinder asked.

“Absolutely,” Blue replied.

The shed was very obviously not the Doctor’s workshop.

“He’s done it again, hasn’t he?” Cinder stated with resignation.

Blue sighed. “Yep. I think it’s going to take Des to figure this one out.”

Cinder nodded. “Agreed. Let’s go before our heads explode.”

Without a word, Blue turned and headed back to the main street with Cinder following close behind. First stop after this would be a shop to buy some aspirin to deal with his headache.

That evening, Celestia met with Luna and House Path to discuss the latest time adventure. Twilight was summing up.

“While there was little doubt that Chrysalis was behind the first attempt to change history, this second attempt virtually seals the deal. Both attempts were clearly made to further her ambitions. Unfortunately, we still have not acquired any information about how she is accomplishing this other than it appears that a male agent seems to be involved. Worse yet, we can be sure that she won’t give up trying to change history. We can only be grateful that Doctor Whooves seems able and willing to consistently help deal with the effects of time-meddling and enable a team to go fix the problem.”

“The Doctor is a mystery in himself,” Pif said. “How is he able to isolate us from the effects of the changes to history, and how does he move his workshop around like that?”

“Some form of powerful magic, I suppose,” Lucida replied.

Destined shook his head. “I can’t be sure, but I don’t detect such strong magical potential about him. The one thing that does impress me is that he seems to know a lot more than he’s telling.”

“Perhaps I should summon the good Doctor to explain himself,” Luna suggested.

“Good luck finding him,” Blue grumbled.

Celestia gave them one of her enigmatic smiles. “I believe that the Doctor should be left to his own devices. He has been known to help Equestria on more than one occasion. He tends to show up when he’s really needed.”

“But isn’t he supposed to be just a clockmaker in Ponyville?” Twilight asked. “He’s been there since I moved to the town.”

“So that’s what he’s been doing with himself lately,” Celestia said with a smile. “It’s been a while since we had tea together.”

“You know the Doctor?” Lucida asked.

“For quite some time now,” Celestia confirmed.

Lucida gave the Princess a suspicious glance. “How long?”

Celestia look thoughtful for a moment. “Hmm… I would say that we first met over twelve hundred years ago.”

“What?!” several exclaimed.

“But he’s not an alicorn!” Lucida objected.

“No, he’s not,” Celestia replied with equanimity.

“But… but how?”

“You are dealing with a stallion who has some mastery over time. Perhaps that’s the answer you seek? Or perhaps not. I do not know the answer either. I do suggest that you listen well if he tells you something.”

“If we could find him to ask,” Blue griped once more.

Celestia giggled. “Be patient, Blue Streak. Not all answers come so neatly.”

“Is there anything you can suggest, Princess?”

“Beyond the obvious – no. You can only try to be prepared to leave on a mission at any moment.”

Blue nodded. “I’m already always carrying the time vortex generator. I’m just going to make sure that I have some other equipment within hoof’s reach from now on. I was caught short last time.”

“I’ll be studying up some useful spells,” Destined added. “The invisibility spell was invaluable this time, so who knows what will come in handy next time?”

Celestia said, “I think that covers everything for this debriefing. I suggest you all get a good rest and enjoy a day off tomorrow.”

“Amen to that,” Blue said fervently.

After Spike served breakfast to everyone the next morning, the family sat around the breakfast table and discussed what their plans were for the day. The ongoing talks at Canterlot meant that Twilight, Path, and Free were still tied up there, and Lucida wished to continue being involved. Pif wanted to get back to her think tank, but was firmly reminded that she was supposed to be relaxing.

“But my work does relax me!” Pif protested.

Citrine cuddled up to her and said suggestively, “I can think of a more fun thing to do than work.”

Pif’s cheeks coloured as she stared at the crystal pony. “Wh… what are you talking about, Citrine?” she asked nervously, conscious of several pairs of eyes and ears watching and listening for the response.

“Ooh, something that involves a lot of grasping and moaning and cries of joy,” Citrine said breathily, her muzzle mere inches from Pif’s.

Twilight was staring at the two, her face turning even redder than Pif’s, while Free looked like he was struggling hard to keep a straight face. Path had one eyebrow raised, gazing suspiciously at Citrine.

“Huh? Wha-? I d-don’t know what you m-mean,” Pif stammered.

Citrine grabbed Pif by the arm and started to drag her out of the room. “There’s a hoofball game starting soon, and we’re going to it!” she said gleefully.

“But… but I don’t know how to pl-a-a-a-y….” came Pif’s voice from the hallway as she was carried away by her over-enthusiastic companion.

Free fell out of his chair, laughing. Path just shook his head at Citrine’s antics, while Twilight nearly fainted in relief.

Because they were more used to Citrine’s shenanigans, Blue, Cinder, Destined, and Lucida merely grinned. The dragoness had a bit more to say though.

“I wonder why Pif is so blind to Citrine’s affections? It is clear to me that Citrine is wooing Pif in her own… unique fashion. Citrine should be forthright and declare her intentions.”

Blue nuzzled his mate. “We can’t all be dragons, love. Ponies have to do things their own way, and it’s easy to forget that Pif is a changeling, and reacts differently to either of us.”

“It still does not explain why an emotivore cannot comprehend the love that is being sent her way.”

Free smiled and said, “You said it yourself, Cinder. Pif is not only an emotivore, but our hive specifically finds love the most palatable of positive emotions. She’s consuming Citrine’s affection without even noticing it, and so she’s only reacting to the surface observations. That’s the drawback to the changeling species – we have to be practically overloaded with love before we feel it, rather than eat it. I was lucky in that my parents were exceptionally loving, and Path and I were such good friends that we became soulmates. I’ve always had enough love to feel it too. Pif has always had a loving family, but she went astray for a while because of various reasons, but one significant factor was emotional confusion. I reckon Citrine’s unorthodox approach might succeed where more straightforward ones would fail. She certainly manages to get and hold Pif’s attention.”

“She certainly got mine,” Twilight muttered.

Free chuckled and pulled Twilight over to nibble on her ear, saying, “Love you too, Sparkles.”

She slapped him with a hoof and blushed. “Not at the table, Free!”

The others laughed, used to the couple’s relationship.

Destined changed the subject before his mother melted down from blushing. “I’m headed to the spa. I feel in the mood for a bit of pampering after the past few days.”

Blue said, “Mind if I tag along, Des? I’m still regaining my strength from the last time trip, and I’m in the mood to relax.”

“Be my guest. It’s not as if it will bother me.”

Blue and Cinder merely looked at each other and grinned.

Destined was disappointed to find that Silk was not at the spa that day.

“It’s Silk’s day off, darling,” Lotus told the alicorn. “You will find him at the hoofball field today,” she added slyly.

Destined brightened as he recalled Silk’s interests. “Thanks, Lotus. I’ll come back for a later session.”

“Have fun,” Blue told his brother. “I still want to relax though.”

Destined grinned and waved goodbye. As soon as he was out of the spa, he spread his wings and hastened to the hoofball field. He spotted Silk and made a careful landing as close by as he could before trotting up to greet the bat-pony.

Silk’s face lit up. “Des! Great to see you! Where’ve you been?”

“Unexpected mission that took longer than expected. Sorry that I missed my last appointment.”

“Well, you’re here now, and your timing is good. Want to help out as usual?”

“Of course! I just wish I hadn’t forgotten my cap.”

“No problem! I have a few spares here suitable for horn-heads like you.” He rummaged around in his sports bag and pulled out a Ponyville Pounders cap. Destined’s magic took it and slotted his horn through the hole to settle the cap on his head. Silk nodded in satisfaction. “Good! Now you look properly official. Ready to get to work?”

Destined grinned. “After you, boss!”

As much as Destined liked hoofball, he was terrible at playing it. Until he met Silk, he had always been just a spectator. Then he discovered that Silk volunteered his services as a physical therapist for the Ponyville team, and the bat-pony had invited the alicorn to join him one day. Now Destined helped Silk and used his healing magic on anypony who was injured during play, and helped out the rest of the time with all the other things that a non-professional team needed doing but relied on volunteers to fulfil. Destined still got to watch most of the game, but with the added satisfaction of helping out the local team.

In fact, Silk had opened his eyes to a number of things that needed doing in the rapidly growing township of Ponyville. The bat-pony was generous with his spare time, helping out many causes, and Destined had taken to partnering with him lately. He had once commented to Silk that he wondered when the thestral ever found time to relax. Silk had merely grinned and replied, “Helping ponies is what I do to relax.” Ever since then, Destined had tried to emulate the masseur, and spent a lot of time with him. It was no wonder that his siblings all thought that he had the hots for Silk. It was all quite innocent, really. No ulterior motives whatsoever. Nope. Not at all.

“The negotiations with Queen Gilda have concluded,” Twilight told those in the family who did not already know after dinner that evening. “We will be headed back to Griffonia after dinner. Captain Kerbarok has been notified to have the Skyshark ready for departure in two hours.”

“What?!” Epiphany exclaimed. “I’ve only just resumed my research at the hive!”

“Pif, dear, you can do that at your lab back at the House.”

“But I will lose all those hours in travelling time!”

“I’m sorry, but this was planned long before you made your reappearance. We have obligations there, too.”

“But I don’t. I can continue working with my team right here at the Chrome Hive.”

“Pif, with all that has been going on lately with your time travels, you really need to keep together with your siblings at all times. Blue needs to resume his training with Warfist, so he can’t stay here either.”

“Des can teleport me!”

Destined rolled his eyes. “You know I can teleport myself that distance, but not with a passenger. One day I will have the power, but not yet.”

“Even I can’t do that,” Twilight added. “Celestia and Luna have had centuries to grow in power to let them teleport others those kind of distances, but I haven’t yet. Destined might be a prodigy in this field, but you’re still asking too much of him so soon.”

Pif slumped in her chair and sulked.

“Cheer up, Pif,” Citrine said, giving the ponyling a cuddle. “We can enjoy some time together before you get lost in your work. I won’t bug you all day after we get back,” she promised.

Pif blushed a little. “Okay,” she said meekly.

“There will be another travelling with us,” Free said. “Prince Glenn requested enrolment at House Path.”

“He did?” Lucida’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “What did Queen Gilda have to say about that?”

“She’s quite enamoured with the idea. She’s been trying to get Glenn more interested in his future duties, and she thinks that this might help him learn more to that end.”

“I wonder what changed his mind about this sort of thing?” Lucida pondered.

Pif nearly choked on her drink. “Gah! Are you dense, Lucy? He likes you! He can barely take his eyes off you!”

“What? No, I would have noticed,” Lucida scoffed.

“He’s the quietest griffon that I have ever met, and he tried to hide it, but he can’t fool me. He has a raging crush on you!”

“It’s true,” Destined said with a smug smile. “Looks like you have a coltfriend.”

“He’s not a colt!” Lucida pointed out needlessly, desperate to deflect the teasing that she saw coming.

“And your point is…?” Free said drolly.

Lucida’s eyes darted between her dad and mom, and wisely decided to shut up.

Path tried hard to repress a smile. His daughter might be an adult, but she still had a bit of growing up to do. To take the pressure off of her though, he changed the subject. “There’s one other that you’re going to have to get used to seeing more frequently.”

“Who’s that, Dad?” Lucida asked with relief.

“Watchful Eyes.”

Lucida blinked in confusion. Watchful Eyes was the pony name for the changeling guard that Carpacia had assigned to protect little Fidelitas when she was visiting with Path. “What has Fifi’s guardian got to do with us?”

“Carpacia is concerned about these time attacks, and since they can affect the future of her children, and especially Fifi in this case, she has decided that when Fifi is with her, Watchful will keep her eyes on you instead.”

Blue frowned. “Doesn’t she think that I am good enough?”

“I told Carpacia that, but she reasonably pointed out that another warrior in the group can only be of benefit.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Blue conceded.

“I like her,” Cinder commented.

“Me too,” Destined agreed.

Lucida shrugged. “As long as she doesn’t get in our way.”

“She was watching Destined, Pif, and Citrine today at the hoofball match. Did any of you notice her?” Path asked the three.

“A changeling deliberately trying to be inconspicuous? Hardly!” Destined scoffed.

Path smiled at Lucida. “I don’t think you have to worry about her getting in the way. That said, I would like you all to invite her to be included in your social events. That will make it easier to do her job, and at the same time instil some of our values in her.”

“Still trying to influence the Red Hive, Dad?” Lucida returned the smile with a knowing grin.

Path shrugged. “Carpacia is trying to gain something from me, and I’m trying to gain something back from her; I think that’s a perfectly reasonable arrangement.”

“I’ll just head over to the hive and fetch my team,” Pif said, getting up from the table, Citrine following suit.

“We’ll go pack our stuff,” Blue said as he and Cinder also got up to follow the others.

Twilight got up and looked at Lucida, “Shall we go make Glenn welcome?” she teased.

“M-o-o-o-m!” Lucida protested with a renewed blush.

Destined smiled in satisfaction, very happy to have the heat off him for a change.

For a griffon who had spent virtually his whole life in Griffonstone, Griffonia was a bit of a culture shock with its radically different society. While griffons all over the world tended to be aggressive and proud, the way it was expressed was very different from that he was used to. His mother had taken the lessons of friendship quite well, and she had strongly influenced Griffonstone society since being crowned Queen of the city-state and allied itself with Equestria. The martial attitude and honour system of Griffonia were uncomfortably alien to the young prince, and what was expected of him as royalty was even worse.

Fortunately for Glenn, Lucida had gotten over the teasing about being the object of his attention, and had focused her efforts on helping him fit in between her normal duties. By the time a second Friday informal dinner had rolled around, the young cock had begun to enjoy himself. Without the constant pressure of his mother’s expectations, he was able to explore his own interests and take advantage of the subjects that House Path had to offer.

He almost freaked out though when Flix brought Discord over to meet him. The Spirit of Chaos was most amused by the griffon’s reaction, and naturally made the situation worse until Lucida came over and scolded the draconequus. Glenn was in awe of Lucida’s courage, and if he had not already been infatuated with the hippogriff, this certainly sealed the deal. To her surprise, Lucida gained herself a dedicated student from that moment.

One of Glenn’s strongest supporters was Blue Streak. After, being well-rested after the trip back to Griffonia, Blue had thrown himself back into intense training with General Warfist, conscious of the extremely high standards that the martial expert had set for him. To relax after those sessions though, Blue would always seek out his siblings and their companions, and Glenn had always found the older earth pony to be willing to chat and share a laugh with him. He admired the straightforward and honest friendliness of Blue, while in turn, Blue liked how the griffon refused to conform to stereotypes, and never failed to follow his kind impulses. They rapidly became firm friends.

The one that was taking the longest to blend in was ironically the changeling. Watchful Eyes, despite taking the form of a nondescript unicorn, was too focused on her assignment as a guardian for the group to spend time actually fitting in with them. This was despite the fact that absolutely nothing of significance happened for several weeks after their last adventure, and they were beginning to wonder if Chrysalis was ever going to try again. Finally Citrine got tired of Watchful’s aloofness and hatched a plan with the others when they next visited Canterlot.

After the evening meal, Blue, Cinder, Pif, Citrine, Destined, Lucida, and Glenn excused themselves from the table en masse, forcing Watchful to hastily follow suit. To her surprise, they were all waiting for her in the hall beyond. The emotions that she could taste from them were very suspicious.

“What’s going on? I need to know what you have in mind,” Watchful stated seriously.

Citrine stepped forward. “We’re going out to a nightclub, and you’re going to join us.”

Watchful drew herself up stiffly. “I am on duty, Lady Citrine!”

Normally Citrine hated to be addresses as ‘Lady’, a title that the Red Changeling insisted on using because of the crystal pony’s high status with Queen Carpacia and the Red Hive. Tonight though, she intended to make full advantage of it. “Watchful, as a Friend of the Hive, and favoured by your Queen, I am ordering you to let your mane down and enjoy the evening with us!”

The Red Changeling was conflicted – she had her orders, but Citrine’s had genuine authority also by her hive’s own code of ethics. She stood there uncertainly for a long moment before she rationalised that she would still be guarding them while at the nightclub. In fact, with all of them in one place, she could do so even better, rather than assigning priorities. Yes, that would work! “As you wish, Lady Citrine,” she replied with her most sincere smile (#3 was always a winner).

Citrine grinned. “That’s the spirit. C’mon, let’s go!”

As Watchful followed, she had to wonder about the taste of deviousness oozing from the crystal pony.

Destined teleported away, but joined up with the group again at their destination, accompanied by Silk Touch.

The club was the largest in Canterlot, and featured several sections such as the dance floor with blood-stirring, pounding music, a bar, and a quiet restaurant. The establishment sought to be a one-stop place for an evening of entertainment, and it attracted a huge number of the working class of the city, and not a few of the nobility also. It was favoured by more than just ponies also, and several griffons, changelings, and even a couple of minotaurs could be seen there. Having already eaten their meals, no one went to the restaurant. Cinder and Blue immediately headed for the bar. Silk took off with Destined to hit the dance floor though. Glenn was a little put off by the loud music, so Lucida took him to the lounge where it was quieter, but they could still get some entertainment and a drink. That left Citrine and Pif with Watchful.

The changeling guardian had not anticipated the group splitting up, and was torn as to what she should do. As the power and the guidance for the time travelling, Blue Streak and Destined Path were her primary concerns, but they had gone in opposite directions, and in this crowd, she would have great difficulty trying to split her attention between them. Her mind was quickly made up for her though.

“Watchful, you’re with us!” Citrine said emphatically, grabbing her by the hoof and dragging her towards the dance floor.

“I was trained as guardian, not a dancer!” Watchful protested.

“Anyone can dance, and that includes anyling,” Citrine replied, undeterred. “I taught Pif to dance, and I am going to do the same for you.”

Watchful gulped nervously, and wished she was facing a horde of assassins instead.

The group had gathered again around one of the larger tables in a corner of the lounge after the dancers had tired themselves out and joined up with the others. Cinder had indulged heavily in the alcohol, and was currently rambling to the others about relationships.

“Don’t think I don’t see the hens all giving my Blue the eye! Just because he comes from a herd, doesn’t mean that we’re starting one too! Blue’s mine!” she growled into her beer mug before taking a swig.

Despite the best of intentions, Pif had gotten quite drunk too. She giggled, transformed into a dragoness matching her natural colours, put on a mock serious scowl, and grabbed Citrine. “Nobody is taking my crystal pony away!” she declared in imitation of Cinder’s exact tone.

Citrine laughed and smooched Pif’s scaly cheek. “I’m a dragon treasure!” she declared.

That made Cinder snort and chuckle.

Destined was feeling quite mellow, and completely forgot that he was in denial of his own feelings. He toyed with Silk’s mane and said, “I know h–hic– how you feel, Pif.”

Silk unfurled one of his leathery wings and enfolded Destined with it, drawing the alicorn to him with a happy smile. Destined nuzzled Silk on the cheek and then his chest, oblivious to the grins of his siblings.

Lucida’s smile soon faded though, and she said glumly, “You’re all lucky. I’d like to meet one suitor that didn’t have his beak up his arse. They all brag about the honour and status that they could bring to the House. What I want seems to rate rather low on their list of expectations.”

“At least the Griffonian status system lets you reject them,” Blue reminded her. “Besides, it’s not all their fault that their kind is all you see. You spend too much time on your career, and not enough on socialising. You’ve become almost as bad as Pif before Citrine knocked some sense into her.”

“Gee, thanks, Blue,” Pif said with a pout.

“Do you know that you transformed into a male dragon?” Blue asked with a smirk.

Pif blinked owlishly before glancing down. “I did?”

“I’m fine with this,” Citrine declared, her hoof stroking Pif’s slick hide.

Lucida was about to protest that she socialised a lot more than that when the table was overshadowed by several uninvited guests.

“Hey, pretty bird, how about ditching these losers and come join some real warriors.”

Everyone turned their attention to the newcomers – three very large male griffon warriors. Cinder snorted contemptuously, while Blue’s eyes narrowed dangerously. Citrine was already reaching surreptitiously for an improvised weapon, but Lucida merely rolled her eyes at the one who had spoken to her. He was the very personification of the jerks she had just been complaining about.

“Let me know when a real warrior comes in,” she replied.

That did not sit well with any of the griffons, but especially not the one speaking. He fluffed up his feathers and partially spread his wings in a threatening manner. “You don’t get to talk to a warrior like that, hen!” he snarled.

Lucida had to remind herself that these were not Griffonians who, even if they were jerks, nevertheless adhered to a strict honour code. These were not even Griffonstone subjects. No, these were probably either Canterlot residents, or more likely visitors from one of the Equestrian eyries. “Fair warning, we are warrior-scholars from House Path, and we are capable of dealing with obnoxious fools.”

All three griffons hissed in anger, and their leader advanced menacingly. “Never heard of this House of yours, and I certainly won’t take your insults.”

Watchful was about to take action, despite knowing that the House Path members probably had a distinct advantage in fighting skills. It was her task to see that no harm came to them though, and that meant that she would be the first to come to Lucida’s defence…. Only, she wasn’t.

Glenn had gotten up and put himself between the warrior and Lucida. He frowned at the belligerent griffon and said, “I am Prince Glenn of Griffonstone, and I do not like your attitude. Leave the Lady Lucida alone.”

The warrior stared down at the much smaller griffon and smirked. “You’re not my prince, puny hatchling. Get out of my way before I break your wings.”

“I don’t think so.” Glenn flicked his wing at the warrior.

“What’s that supposed to – .”

The warrior collapsed to the floor. His companions stared at him in shock, and then disbelievingly at the small griffon who calmly regarded them back before leaning over and removing a tiny dart from the fallen griffon’s neck.

“Did you know that there is a newt in Griffonstone that secretes a paralysing toxin?” Glenn asked conversationally as he carefully replaced the dart in a small pouch. “No, he won’t die, but for the next half a day, he will be absolutely helpless. If you choose to continue your hostilities, I will not hesitate to have you join him, whereupon you can reconsider your attitudes towards beautiful ladies.”

The warriors were not completely stupid. Each grabbed a foreleg of their companion who was already drooling on the floor, and dragged him away.

Lucida gaped in awe at Glenn. He was much younger than her, too young even to be allowed alcohol, but he had stood up to warriors twice his size and not only faced them calmly and bravely, but also disabled one in mere moments while cowing the other two. Suddenly she began seeing a lot more in the prince. He might be a youth, but he definitely was not stupid, nor lacking in moral fibre. And most certainly didn’t have his beak up his arse!

As Glenn seated himself once more, Lucida leaned over and stroked her beak against his cheek feathers. “Thank you, Glenn. That was much better than starting a fight in this club.”

Glenn’s blush nearly burned through his plumage, but he didn’t hesitate to return the familiarity.

“Well, I think we’ve achieved a lot tonight,” Citrine declared with a grin. “We’ve taught a changeling to dance, and while she’s as graceful as a drunken loon, she put a lot of heart and effort into it, so I give her a pass. And we seem to have scored a bonus in opening Lucy’s eyes to the blindingly obvious.”

“Oh, shut up,” Lucida said, turning away to avoid seeing her siblings’ knowing grins.

Destined got to his hooves, swaying a little. “Yeah! Great night! Let’s go –hic– home now.” He lit up his horn and started a teleport spell.

“No!” several of the group cried in alarm.

However, Silk had already got up too and he licked Destined’s horn, disrupting the spell matrix.

“Hey! Why –hic– why’d ya do that?” the alicorn whined.

“Friends don’t let friends teleport drunk,” Silk replied with a serious smile.

“Thanks, Silk,” Cinder said. “Shard knows where we would have ended up if you hadn’t stopped Des.”

“Who taught you to –hic– to do that?” Destined asked sulkily.

“Your dads did; they seem to know you quite well.”

Blue chuckled. “I think I taught them to watch out for drunken shenanigans back when I was a teen.”

Destined stuck his tongue out at his older brother. “Spoil–hic–sport.”

Cinder got up and said, “I’m all for calling it a night. At least for the nightclub anyway,” she added, giving Blue a smouldering look.

The others agreed and got up from the table.

As they started leaving the lounge, Citrine said to Pif, “Are you going to stay a dragon?”

“Huh? Oh, right. Umm… do you want me to?”

Citrine grinned. “Why not? Sounds like fun.”

Pif was not so inebriated that she did not realise what kind of fun the crystal pony was referring to. She blushed a little, but to be honest with herself… or more accurately right now… himself, he was more than a little curious too.

Blue did not get to sleep for a while after getting home, but he was well and truly worn out by then. He slipped easily into slumber, and before long, he started dreaming.

At first it was the usual random nonsense of a typical dream, but suddenly the dreamscape faded and darkened, leaving just the glow of a phantom fire. Slowly the ghostly flames lit up a familiar sight – the Dragon Seer in her yurt, and his own younger self swaying on his hooves before collapsing on a pile of soft pelts. The fire suddenly flared up as the Seer faded from view. Emerging from the pyre was a fire pony, its pelt blinding white, and its eyes electric blue.

The older Blue Streak gasped in recognition of the old memory as the vision he had witnessed replayed before him once more.

The fire pony fixed young Blue with its piercing stare. “Do Not Fail!” its voice boomed out.

“W-who are you…?” Blue squeaked out.

Do Not Yield!” the white fire pony bellowed.

“Yield to what…?” Blue whispered.

The Darkness. Do Not Give In!” it bellowed louder.

“Give in to what?” Blue whimpered.

“What could have been,” it growled before it moved in closer to Blue, to whisper something in his ear. “Live... Win... Die...”

Young Blue collapsed unconscious, and his older self thought that would be the end of the memory, but the fire pony shocked him by turning its gaze upon him. It swelled up in size until it looked more like a dragon than a pony. It leaned over him, and Blue could feel the heat of its breath.

“YOU ARE STILL WEAK!” the being boomed as Blue involuntarily stumbled back a few paces. The fire creature stepped out of the pyre and drew closer once more.

“EXPAND YOUR STRENGTH!” The dreamscape shuddered with the power of that voice.

“Who… who are you?” Blue yelled out, unfamiliar panic gripping him.

“YOUR ONLY CHANCE!” the fire pony-dragon bellowed one last time before exploding in a blinding flash, shattering the dreamscape, leaving Blue tumbling dazed and disoriented through endless nothingness.

Luna had always taken her duties as Princess of the Night very seriously, and her role of the Guardian of Dreams especially. Since her return to Equestria though, her duties with the Night Court had slowly grown until it had made it difficult to keep up with both roles. Fortunately she had a fairly adept apprentice in Destined Path, and he had been a considerable help to her lately. Tonight though, the dreamscape served the second purpose for which he and Luna met up there. The young alicorn was amazingly talented, but still naïve and inexperienced in other matters, in particular personal ones. To the point – Destined was just now discovering his sexuality, and his true feelings for a certain bat-pony, and he had turned to his Auntie Luna for reassurance as his waking self was in no condition to do so right then.

“But I’m nineteen,” he wailed. “Why am I only feeling these things now?”

Luna put a reassuring foreleg around Destined’s shoulders. “Thou art an alicorn, Destined. For our kind, many of life’s processes are slowed down. It’s why my heat took so long to come around, and it’s why the effects of puberty are only now having their effect upon thee. Thou art mentally a young adult, but emotionally only a young teen. Flurry Heart had much the same problem, although the nature of her mother and being female made for differences.”

“Then are you saying that what I am feeling for Silk is just hormones? I’m just a randy colt?”

Luna grinned. “Well, there is a bit of that too, but thine adult part is better able to judge what is happening to thee than a mere colt would. No, I believe that the confusion about thy feelings is merely because thou hast never had them before, and perhaps thou had been expecting something different. Most colts grow up with the expectations of finding the mare of his dreams, but thou hast found a stallion instead.”

Destined stared at her for a long time before he gulped and nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he said softly. “I really like Silk. He’s great to talk to, and I like working with him when he goes and does one of his charity events. I thought of him as a great buddy, but tonight…. Tonight I just wanted to cuddle and fondle him. I know it was the alcohol that loosened my inhibitions, but what does that say about me? What did he think of me with my hooves all over him?”

“Did he shrink from thee?” Luna asked pointedly.

“No. He just smiled and petted me a little.”

“It seems to me that mayhap he has feelings for thee too.”

“How can I know that he has those feelings for me? How do I know that he wasn’t just humouring a drunkard?”

“Ah, my young apprentice, even I cannot know that. Mere centuries of experience does not mean that one cannot make mistakes and interpret feelings correctly. Take it from one who had to learn the hard way. One piece of advice that I can give thee though – do not shy away from thy feelings. If there is something true between Silk and thee, give it a chance to bloom and grow.”

“You have no problems with me falling for a stallion?”

“Love is love, Destined. Although Long Path is my Herd Stallion, I joined thy parents’ herd with the expectation that I would love both the mares and stallions that comprised it, or hens and cocks too I suppose I should add. I have had no cause to regret my decision.”

“Then perhaps you can tell me….”

The dreamscape shuddered, drawing the attention of both alicorns.

“Our discussion must wait, Destined. Something odd is happening.”

“I agree,” Destined said as he got to his hooves to face the direction that they both sensed the disturbance coming from.

Soon they approached a sphere of darkness that was the source of the turmoil. Luna reached out with one hoof to enter the dream, only to be halted as a dragoness covered in runes materialised out of it.

The dragoness gave Luna a respectful bow. “My apologies, Your Majesty, but I can’t allow you to enter the dream as yet. My mistress is not yet done.”

Luna frowned before recognising the dragoness. “Thou art Altered Seer, apprentice to the Seer of Cinder’s clan, and those are Concentration Runes, Centring Runes, and Disconnection Runes, enabling you to remain in and control parts of the dreamscape. What doth thy mistress do that disturbs it so much?”

“She is guiding Blue Streak in a vision, one that portends the need for him to grow. I do not pretend to understand its meaning, as visions always relate most to those experiencing them, but I do know that its urgency has grown since the first time he experienced it in the Dragonlands.”

“Why doth a Dragon Seer feel she has so much claim over my nephew? Hath he not myself and other ponies to guide him?” Luna asked, her expression growing thunderous.

Altered Seer bowed her head. “With respect, Queen Nocturne, Blue Streak became so much more than just a pony since his first visit to the Dragonlands. We not only have the right, but also the responsibility to guide his path, especially as my mistress has had her own vision of what would happen if Blue Streak does not achieve his full potential.”

“I would have words with thy mistress. If this is of such great importance, my sister and I should know about it.”

“I believe you already do, and it involves him.” Altered Seer looked at Destined.

Destined blinked in surprise at having the focus turn on him, and Luna’s eyes widened in realisation.

“Thou art talking of the time-meddling! How come thou to know of such things?”

“As I said, my mistress had a vision, and now its events are coming to a head. The fate of Equus itself might come down to what Blue might or can do when the time is right, and Destined Path might soon earn his name.”

“And what might or could Blue Streak do to determine Equus’ fate?”

Altered Seer smiled. “As my mistress says – ‘Everything’.” The dragoness then backed up and faded into the dream sphere.

Luna was lost in thought for several long moments, and Destined was too confused to offer any comments. Abruptly the dark sphere evaporated, leaving a blue earth pony endlessly falling, although simultaneously never going anywhere, a dichotomy that only made sense in the dreamscape. Luna’s horn glowed and snatched Blue from the air and placed him down on his hooves in front of them.

“Wha–? Luna? Des? What’s going on?” Blue asked in confusion.

“Thou didst just have an important vision, I believe,” Luna replied. “Dost thou recall it?”

“I… Yes, I do. I’m not sure what it means though.”

“Such is the nature of visions, Blue Streak. Perhaps if thou dost wish, we can discuss it with thee.”

Blue grinned gratefully. “Every bit helps, Auntie.”

“That is what family is for, my dear nephew.”

“…so Luna had a talk with the Head Seer later, and they both agree that I need to increase my power storage for some reason that remains unclear, but they believe is related to the time-travelling that we’ve been doing lately,” Blue explained to the others at breakfast the next morning. “All the jumps that we’ve done so far have required me to take in a lot of power, and I’ve noticed that each has become a little easier each time. The Seer is worried though that my progress is a little slow, or at least the vision seems to support that idea. If Luna and Celestia can’t find a way of expanding my ability, then she wants me to come to the Dragonlands for training under her.”

Lucida frowned. “But we all need to stick together in case of another history change.”

“Yeah, I know, and I don’t like the idea either.”

At that moment, Celestia walked into the dining room. “Good morning, everypony. How are you doing today?”

“Aside from pounding headaches, not too bad I guess, Auntie,” Destined replied.

“Good, because I have a task for you, Prince Destined.”

“Uh oh,” Destined said with a gulp. He hated it when his aunt addressed him by title – nothing ever good happened then. “What task, Auntie Tia?” he asked with a nervous smile.

“Representatives from over much of Equus have gathered to discuss what to do about the growing hostilities from the Zebrican kingdoms. Even the smaller independent tribes are turning against the traders who have dealt with them for decades. I will be unable to hold Day Court today, so I am delegating that responsibility to you.”

Destined’s jaw dropped and his widened like moons. “Me?” he squeaked.

“Yes, you,” Celestia said with a patient smile. “You are a Prince of the Realm, and I think it’s time that you got a taste of real responsibility and experience.”

“But… but I don’t know anything about that sort of thing!” Destined protested in a pleading tone.

“True, but I still need you to use your judgement on several petitions that are due to be heard today. Of course, even I have my advisors to provide me with up-to-date information when I hold court, so if you perhaps choose a suitable advisor of your own…?” the alicorn added slyly.

Destined’s eyes immediately turned to Lucida. “Lucy! Be my advisor!”

Lucida put on a very serious face and saluted. “Yes, Your Highness!”

“Aw, don’t give me that crap, Lucy. I’m asking you, not commanding you.”

Lucida burst out into laughter. “I’m just winding you up, Des. I’d be delighted to act as your advisor. It will be interesting to see how this compares to moderating negotiations.”

Celestia said, “There is nothing of huge importance on the docket today, so I don’t expect that you will be too burdened. The Court Recorder will assist you in keeping things running smoothly as per standard protocol, and if all else fails, you’re a prince – delegate responsibility appropriately.” She turned her attention to Twilight, Path, and Free. “The conference is due to start on the hour,” she reminded them. “I suggest that you be prepared to deal with all the ambassadors. Herding cats will be a lot easier.”

“Lucky Roseclaw,” Free griped. “She gets to stay at home in Griffonia and mind business there instead of dealing with this lot.”

“Your fault for being royalty,” Path cheerfully reminded him.

“I never asked to be a Queen. It’s all Chrysalis’ fault,” Free concluded with his standard scapegoat.

Path shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe Chrysalis is behind the Zebrican uprising?”

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Free conceded. “I’d have a great excuse to thump her again.”

The others all chuckled at Free and started heading off to make preparations for the day, some more reluctantly than others.

The throne room did not make Destined nervous; after all these years, it was almost as familiar to him as his home. It was getting up onto the throne itself that was freaking him out. Even though by both blood and decree, he was a genuine Prince of Equestria, he still felt that like an impostor taking Celestia’s place. The very simple crown that was his badge of office seemed to weigh heavily upon him, and the golden hoofguards that he wore made him feel ridiculously overdressed. Lucida’s ever-growing smile at her brother’s discomfort was only making things worse. At least the Court Recorder and the Royal Guards were doing their usual efficient jobs, leaving him less to worry about. It was the remainder that was making him break out into a sweat.

Destined looked nervously over to his left where Lucida had propped herself next to the throne, holding various documents pertaining to the first petition. She had composed herself, but he knew she was still grinning at him.

“Are you ready, Des?” she asked.

“Are you going to keep asking silly questions?” he shot back.

“Yep, you’re ready.” She nodded to the Sergeant-at-Arms who saluted and marched to the throne room doors. The Royal Guards stationed on either side of the massive doors drew them open upon his command.

“Day Court is now in session; Prince Destined Path presiding!” the Sergeant-at-Arms bellowed. “The first petitioner shall step forth!”

A golden-coated earth pony stepped inside and made her way up to the dais, giving the young prince a suspicious look. Destined knew that the mare had been expecting to talk to Celestia, but had gotten him instead.

“We’ve both been dealt a bum hand,” he murmured to himself before plastering on his best fake confident smile. “What can I do for you, my little pony?” he asked formally. He cringed inside. It was going to be a long day.

Destined collapsed over the arm of the throne and heaved a sigh of relief as the Sergeant-at-Arms ordered the throne room doors closed. The last petitioner for the day had been dealt with, but it had been a doozy. In fact, it was probably more complex than Celestia had allowed for when assigning the petitions to him. He thanked the heavens that he’d had Lucida there to sort things out and present solutions for him. The hippogriff had remained cool as a cucumber throughout the entire proceedings, a testament to her training and experience at the negotiating table with House Path. He then spotted something that cheered him up a lot.

“Hey, Lucy, I have proof that you would be better sitting on this throne than me.”

Lucida chuckled. “Come off it, Des – it only seemed that bad because you have never done it before. You’ll get the hang of it.”

“I don’t want to get the hang of it. Besides, I told you I have proof.”

She looked at him curiously. “Okay, I’ll bite. What proof?”

“Look at your flank,” he replied, pointing with his eyes.

Lucida looked, and her eyes bulged in shock. “I’ve got a cutie mark?! I didn’t think hippogriffs could even get cutie marks!”

Sure enough, a pair of crossed scrolls with ribbons now adorned her flanks. Sometime during the proceedings, they had appeared unnoticed, probably as she had unknotted the problem from the last petition.

“I’m twenty-one! Who gets a cutie mark when they’re already an adult?” she questioned disbelievingly. “Why now? I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years!”

“Maybe because for the first time, you haven’t had Dad there as your back-up? This time it was all your own work, sink or swim, and you handled it with ease,” Destined suggested. “Or maybe because you’re only half pony that might have slowed things down? Even Papa Free got one, and he’s a changeling. Nobody fully understands the magic of the cutie mark.”

“Well, I’ve got one now. It’s going to take a bit of getting used to having one.”

“Mom’s gonna want to throw you a cute-ceañera, y’know?”

“What am I supposed to do? Invite foals to it?” For once, Lucida was at a loss. She could handle treaty negotiations with ease, but a celebration of gaining a cutie mark was outside of her sphere of experience.

Destined just grinned at his sister’s discomfort, happy to have turned the tables on her for a change. “I’m exhausted, and I plan to head off to the spa and get a massage to relax. Wanna join me?”

“I think I will. In fact, let’s ask everyone to the spa and I can show this thing off to them all at once and get it over with.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll zip ahead and book the hot tub for a private session for us.”

“What if the tub is already booked?” Lucida asked with a raised eyebrow.

“If Celestia wants me to be Prince for a day, I’m going to make it a royal command instead.”

Lucida looked sceptical. “You wouldn’t!”

“Try me. I’ve gone mad with power!” He chuckled melodramatically.

Lucida rolled her eyes. “Oh, get out of here and see your coltfriend already!”

Destined stopped his silliness as he considered Lucida’s words. “My coltfriend? Yeah, I think I’m beginning to like that idea.” He winked at Lucida before blinking out in a flash and a bang of teleportation.

“It’s about time!” Lucida murmured with relief.

As always, Silk had reduced Destined to the consistency of jelly with his expert massage. By now, the masseur knew the alicorn’s body intimately, and understood how best to relieve Destined’s stress. The kiss on the cheek was not a usual part of the treatment though.

“Come on, Des, the next client will be needing this room soon,” Silk said. “The hot tub awaits.”

Destined had blushed at the unexpected kiss, and he made the effort to get up in order to hide it. “Thanks, Silk. I really needed this after today.”

“My job is easy compared to being a prince, eh?”

“It sure seemed like that today, but I know how hard you work.”

“Well, I’m finished for the day, so I get to relax now too.”

“Want to join us?” Destined asked hopefully.

“Sure! Let’s just wash those massage oils off you first.”

Silk accompanied Destined to a shower, and rather unnecessarily helped him wash the oils off the alicorn’s coat. Not that Destined objected in the slightest. They then wandered into the hot tub room where they found Lucida, Blue Streak, Cinder, Epiphany, and Citrine already immersed in the bubbling warm water, conversing casually. The only oddity was Watchful Eyes who was not enjoying the tub with the rest of them, but was seated on a lounge mat to one side near the door. Destined paused to speak to her.

“You know that you can join us in the tub, don’t you, Watchful?”

The changeling unicorn smiled but shook her head. “I can’t act as effectively as your guardian if I am in the tub.”

“We appreciate that you’re dedicated to your duty, but with all of us here together, don’t you think we’ve got this covered?”

“The degree of danger does not mitigate my responsibility.”

Destined sighed. “While that’s true and you’re beholden to your Queen’s orders, you’re attached to House Path for now, and we do things a little differently here.”

“I know, but I must do my duty as I see fit.”

Destined sighed and gave up. “We’ll loosen you up one of these days. You don’t know what you’re missing.” He turned and headed for the tub, and he and Silk climbed in. The others moved over to make some room for them.

Pif grinned at the thestral. “Nice of you to join us, Silk. I hear Des has finally stopped denying the obvious.”

The bat-pony returned the grin unabashed. “Yep, but I was willing to wait for as long as it took to be sure that he felt the same way about me as I do about him.”

Pif snorted in exasperation. “Nobody listens to the emotivore! I could tell ages ago.”

Silk just gave her a knowing smile. “Sometimes it’s the journey and not the destination that makes it worth it. Right, Citrine?” He gave the crystal pony a wink.

Citrine grinned and nuzzled Pif, making her blush. “It’s been a lot of fun,” she agreed.

With all the affection going around, Cinder and Blue didn’t hesitate to cuddle also, leaving Lucida alone and thoughtful.

They had been all been enjoying a quiet soak for several minutes when abruptly the air above the tub split open with a swirl of light and something fell into the middle of the tub with an enormous splash. Moments later, a pony surfaced, spluttering in surprise. They all stared in shock.

“Derpy?” Lucida was the first to identify her. “Oh, no! Don’t tell me it’s happening now?”

The cross-eyed mare grinned apologetically. “Yep. Gotta hurry!”

“Wait!” Blue shouted. “I have to get my stuff!” Luckily he had gotten into the habit of always keeping everything within easy reach, and his equipment was piled on the deck just behind him. He grabbed it just in time as the vortex reopened, drawing them in.

The unorthodox arrival had caught Watchful Eyes by complete surprise, and she hesitated a moment before leaping into action. She dashed over to the tub and leaped up to join the others… just a fraction too late. The changeling splashed into an unoccupied tub as the vortex closed behind the group. She sputtered and stared as the extraordinary phenomenon disappeared. She groaned in frustration.

“My Queen is going to going to demote me to tunnel-maker for this.”




Chapter 7.5: Timely Interlude


Luna could not help smiling to herself as she entered the throne room, thinking for a moment about how her Night Court had become so much more popular than it had used to be. Before the days of the House, only a hoofful of ponies would seek her out each night, but now her court was almost as packed as Celestia’s until it closed mid night so that she could attend her dream-watching duties. In fact the Night Court was on the verge of becoming too successful as she was finding it harder to devote the necessary amount of time to the dream realm. That problem would need to be addressed very soon.

As she made her way onto the dais to take her place on her throne, she noted this night’s attendees. One thing that differed significantly from Celestia’s Day Court was that hers primarily had the three main pony types attending, while she frequently saw more of the other races, anything from thestrals to diamond dogs. As she had once been perceived an outsider, so did many of them, so she welcomed all, and so they came. Pony nobles, however, did not like how she had thrown out the pomp and circumstance, not to mention being far less tolerant of their fawning ways, and therefore they visited her less. This suited Luna just fine; let her sister deal with those ninnies!

With a shake of her head, she cleared it and looked over at her court’s right-hoof mare. “What is on the agenda for tonight, Scribe?” Luna asked with a smile.

The disguised changeling pored over way too many scrolls. “We have forty-one in the line so far, with topics ranging from a property dispute, a lineage claim, and a proposal for... a changeling tax?” She looked at the last scroll, somewhat confused.

“A changeling tax? A tax because a person happens to be a changeling? Why would they think I would ever pass such a thing?” Luna started to scoff.

“Ah, my mistake. It’s not a tax on being a changeling, but a tax on changeling love-gel so that the Crown can begin to build up its own store of gel in case of a disaster, or if Hive Aid is needed,” Scribe said as she read the details from the scroll. “Apparently the one wanting to enact it is a changeling from the Yellow Hive.”

Luna nodded in understanding. “See them in, I wish to tackle this matter first.”

Scribe went to get the changeling who had written the proposal. However, just before she made it to the door, a fierce wind started to blow in the throne room as a rift started to open in reality itself. Luna flared her wings open and readied herself to act as necessary, and the Night Guards formed up around her, clearly alarmed by the opening. Then a large draconic snout came out of the side, followed by a draconic body, and soon a large dragon was grinning at Princess Luna, amused at the reaction she was getting, but otherwise ignoring the guards that were in full defensive formation.

“My apprentice said that you wanted to speak with me, Your Majesty. However, we do not have much time; the course is about to be shifted. Please come with me, Stellar Aspect.” The dragon stood next to the rift, her tail still inside to prop it open.

Luna’s eyes went wide, both at what the dragoness was doing, as well as the warning. She quickly got up to her hooves and launched herself off of the throne, yelling in the Royal Canterlot Voice so that all could hear her, “Night Court is in recess until my return!

Luna nodded at the Seer, and both of them disappeared within the rift which promptly closed behind them.

Scribe looked at the confused guards and shrugged. “Anyone want to play poker until she comes back?”

The guards just blinked in confusion until one of them spoke up. “I’ll deal!”

The dragons were among the most unique of the life forms on Equus. The Boons and the Banes they were given by the Primes were unique to themselves. The Seers were a subclass of dragon that had the ability of ‘The Sight’, although neither sister fully understood what that really meant. Luna had believed that this was their rift magic, the draconian way of going between two places that were a great distance apart. The sisters knew of this magic quite well, but this was proving to be something else. As Luna travelled through the rift, she felt something she had only experienced in the most intense of dreams, or when talking in depth with Destined: The Methodical Deconstruction of the Self.

Luna was gone. Titles, form, function, all of it fell apart when she entered this place. Only the Stellar Aspect of the Moon existed. Here she had only Presence.

Where are we?” it asked in an awed thought.

A draconian thought replied, “It has been a long time since you have been here, so it makes sense that you have forgotten. We are outside of everything; the ultimate plane of the Seers – a place where I can only bear witness. I have seen your student; I have seen your nephew. Look there – the divergence begins.

Cause and effect – it was not linear like most thought. In the infinite web of probability, something moved sharply, and a ripple moved through the web, changing the connections as it moved. However, one point removed itself from the fabric just before the ripple reached it, moving to the source of the ripple.

Your student fights to keep the fabric stable. He is wise for someone so young, but in this he is but a pawn. While you may be a Queen, we are all still but pieces on the board. The players are the ones jockeying for positioning.” The draconian thought continued before pausing for a moment. “You know the Order of the Aspects, do you not?

Of course. Twilight, Cadance, Shining Armor – they are all lesser aspects, the embodiment of an Idea. Their existence is tied to the people that believe in it. If there was no Love, Cadance would fall; no Friendship, Twilight would fall; no Justice, Shining would fall,” the Lunar Aspect replied.

And above them?

Myself and my sister – the Stellar Aspects. Our magic, our ascension, is tied to the bodies that we govern. Our existence will last as long as the sun and the moon.

And above you?

The Greater Aspects, of which there are only two known. Entropy, of which Discord is the Aspect, and Order… I have never talked to her, but there have been times when I have caught a glimpse of her red mane or her white coat. She chooses to remain hidden, but she and Discord will outlive my sister and me since they are tied to the fundamental rules of the universe.

Above them?

The Prime Aspects – Creation, and Destruction. I know they exist, and are second only to the Great Architect, but I know nothing more about them.” The Lunar Aspect growled. “Enough! Why doth thou question me so?!

I needed to know how much you remembered from the time before your banishment so I would know how much I needed to explain.” The draconian thought paused for a moment. “I believe that the ripples in the fabric of reality are being caused by the ‘players’ in my chess analogy. So far it has only been Destruction moving its pieces, but now with the vision that Blue Streak experienced, I believe that Creation is starting to make its move.

We have deduced that Chrysalis is the one causing the changes to time. She is not an Aspect, nor do we believe that she has ascended. My sister and I would have felt that change no matter where she was.

You are right – she is not an Aspect. But there is one last piece you are forgetting about, a piece that you should know intimately.

The Lunar Aspect thought for an unknowable amount of time, since time did not exist in the conventional way where they were.

The Nightmare.

Indeed. Destruction’s champion has aligned herself with the Mad Queen. We do not know what her ultimate plan is, but as of now, the pair seems content on causing shifts to the timeline. What she hopes to achieve by this, I do not know. What I do know is that while Destruction has chosen a champion, I believe that Creation has its eyes on Blue Streak. Please aid him in his path. I will do what I need to do when it is to happen,” the draconian being stated.

The fabric rippled a second time as the series of points started to rearrange themselves once again.

The young ones have begun their efforts to repair History. Keep in mind that since we are outside of time, you will not know how history has changed, as your memory of it has not been altered by the ripples in the fabric. It is time that we depart this plane for now.

Gradually Luna came back into being as a rift opened into her chambers, and the dragon Seer and the alicorn stepped out of it. Once it closed behind them, the Seer collapsed on the floor with a heavy thud. Luna lit her horn, and the Seer was lifted off the ground and onto her bed. The massively oversized bed that could easily fit Luna’s herd was just barely big enough for the dragoness.

The Alicorn of the Night gave the Seer a serious look . “Before thou doth return to the Dragonlands, we have yet to discuss the incident with Blue Streak, but for now rest for the night. When thou waketh, we shall eat and talk about the meaning of Blue’s vision before thou must depart.”

The dragoness grinned back with all of her imposing teeth. “I look forward to it, Queen Nocturne.” The Seer promptly drifted off to sleep as Luna teleported back to the throne room.

“I’ll deal!” the Guard said happily, not noticing Luna reappearing next to her throne.

“Just one round, Silent Knight, but then we must get back to the schedule for Night Court,” Luna said with a grin.

The Guards nearly jumped out of their armour in surprise, and Scribe just looked at Luna with confusion.

“I would be more perplexed if this didn't happen so often,” Scribe said with a wry grin as she gathered her documents once more.




Chapter 8: Power Shift


Several forms hit the floor with loud splats and splashes of water everywhere.

“What?! Great whickering stallions! What’s going on here, Derpy?”

The grey mare disentangled herself from the sodden pile and gave the Doctor an apologetic grin. “Sorry, Doc. They were in a hot tub when I arrived, and we didn’t have time to dry off.”

The Doctor sighed. “I suppose not.” He frowned as the others got up from the floor, sending splatters of water everywhere. “Would you please be careful – that’s important equipment that you’re getting wet,” he said irritably.

Cinder glared at him and replied, “It’s hardly our fault that we arrived here soaking wet.” She concentrated, and her hide seemed to glow a little. The water on her started to evaporate into steam.

“I wish I could do that,” Blue said as he carefully set aside the bundle that he had managed to grab before being drawn into the vortex.

“You don’t have sodden feathers to deal with,” Lucida griped as water poured off the tips of her wings.

“At least you’re here this time,” the Doctor commented. “Let me help you with that.” In a quiet mumble to himself, he added, “And save my poor workshop!”

The Doctor took a device from a workbench nearby and adjusted a setting on it. Then he pointed it at Lucida and it made a shrill noise. Lucida felt an odd sensation, and all the water that was saturating both feathers and fur vibrated off, leaving her dry and not a little fluffy. The Doctor repeated the task with the others until he came to Silk. His eyes widened in surprise.

“Who are you?”

Silk gave him a tight smile showing the tips of his fangs. “I could ask the same thing of you.”

The Time Stallion turned to his companion and raised an eyebrow. “Derpy?”

The cross-eyed mare shrugged. “He was in the tub with all the others.”

The Doctor shook his head in resignation. “Can’t be helped, I suppose.” He dried off Silk as he had with the others. “I’m Doctor Whooves, and you’re now involved in big trouble, so listen to what your friends tell you.”

Destined stepped forward and said, “It’s alright, Doctor. Silk Touch is my companion, and I’ll take care of him.”

Silk raised an eyebrow at Destined’s words and smirked. “I’m pretty good at taking care of myself.”

“You’ve never been in this situation before,” the Doctor snapped.

“Any clue what we’ll be up against this time, Doc, or are we going to have to figure it out as usual?” Pif asked.

“I’m afraid it’s like the other two occasions – I only had enough time to isolate us from the history change. We should be near the epicentre though.”

Silk’s eyes grew wide in shock. “History change?”

Citrine grinned. “Yep! Last time, Queen Chrysalis defeated Princess Celestia, and then we stopped that from happening.”

“And the time before that, Chrysalis won the battle of the Crystal City, and our father was killed in action,” Pif added.

Silk blinked in shock. “And you fixed that? How?”

Blue held up the vortex manipulator that he had just extracted from his bundle. “With the help of this device, power from me, and guidance from Des, we can go back to those moments and fix them. It’s tricky though.”

“Whoa! So what’s happened this time?”

“That’s what we have to figure out,” Lucida replied.

“But muffins first!” Derpy cheerfully announced as she came back into the room after departing unnoticed.

Blue grinned and eagerly reached out for a muffin from the tray that Derpy was carrying. “We didn’t have a chance to have dinner, so I’m pretty hungry.”

“There’s plenty more,” Derpy said cheerfully.

“You always have great muffins,” Blue mumbled through a mouthful.

Derpy blushed and left the tray on a bench to go fetch some more.

Soon everyone was happily getting their fill of muffins and tea, while Silk was getting a bit concerned.

“If history has been changed, shouldn’t we be getting to work?”

“For starters,” Pif replied, “it doesn’t matter how soon that we start because the change would have been made years ago. We’ll have to go back anyway once we figure out what it was. For seconds, what’s this ‘we’? That’s our family’s task, and you should stay here with the Doctor until the rest of us are done.”

Silk glared at the ponyling. “I’m involved now, and you’re not going to leave me out of it. Besides, I’d just be worrying about Destined while you’re gone.”

The alicorn blushed a little before replying. “Come on, guys – Silk could be an asset.”

Pif rolled her eyes, but Lucida nodded. “A thestral on the team could be helpful. If Silk wants to join us, I will let him.”

As the nominal leader of the group, the others readily acceded to Lucida’s statement.

After Blue finished equipping himself with everything that he had brought along, the team lined up at the exit to the workshop.

“Good luck, everypony,” the Doctor said cheerfully as he opened the door.

“Try to find the source of our problems, Doctor,” Lucida said as she followed the others.

The Doctor nodded glumly. “If only I could,” he said quietly. “Sometimes though, others have to do it, and pay the price.”

Fortunately, no one heard that last part, and they all were gathered in the street outside.

“We’re back in Canterlot,” Citrine said.

Blue looked around and said, “More to the point, we’re exactly where we were the last time. Notice the surrounding buildings, Cinder?”

The dragoness nodded. “Yes, and the Doctor’s workshop is exactly where that abandoned warehouse should be. How does he do that?”

“Something for us to try to figure out later,” Lucida said. “First – a bit of careful reconnaissance. Destined, I want you to teleport over to Ponyville and see what it’s like there from high altitude. Just a quick survey and come straight back.”

Destined nodded and disappeared in a bang and a flash.

Lucida continued, “Blue, go have a look around and see if anything looks wrong.”

Blue immediately headed out of the quiet side street to do his surveillance.

“I’ll check the hive-mind situation,” Pif said, her eyes unfocusing. After a moment she said in a puzzled tone, “That’s odd – there seem to be two Blue networks.”

“What’s different about them?” Lucida asked.

“One seems to be closed up tight and shunning connections, but the other appears to be its opposite, and it’s warm and inviting. I should be able to join that one easily enough.”

“Stop!” Lucida commanded. “You’re far too eager to get into an unknown situation. Wait for the others to return before we proceed any further.”

“Okay, but don’t leave it too long. You know how I hate being disconnected.”

“I do. Be patient.”

Blue returned and reported. “As far as I can see, there’s nothing significantly different about Canterlot this time. Ponies are going about their business as usual, and I even saw a couple of griffons passing by with no exceptional reactions. Whatever has been changed, it doesn’t appear to have made an obvious difference here.”

Lucida accepted the information thoughtfully, but Destined reappeared before she could comment.

“I’ve found one significant difference already, and it’s one that has happened both the other times. The Chrome Hive is absent. Other than that, though, Ponyville seems utterly normal. Mom’s castle is there, and life in the town seems to be like any other day there.”

“Okay, that still square’s up with something that Chrysalis would do to affect history, but leaves us with no clues so far as to what did happen,” Lucida said.

“Time for me to check out the network?” Pif asked hopefully.

“It would seem so. Be careful though – I find this dual Blue network quite disturbing.”

Pif nodded and concentrated. “I’m in. I’m feeling around the edges of the network now…. It seems to be localised here in Canterlot, while the closed one felt much further away…. I don’t perceive any presence of Chrysalis so far, but I am coming across many links to a Queen Gossamer….”

“Gossamer? Isn’t that what Chrysalis called Papa Free?” Blue asked.

Lucida frowned. “I don’t like this. Pif, I think you had better...”

The hippogriff was interrupted by a scream of pain from Pif, and her eyes flared white with power. Her form shuddered and started to shift. The hybrid pony-changeling form that she normally wore started to change colour and grow feathers, until eventually a magnificent female griffon was seated before them. They all gasped in recognition – aside from the gender change, this was Free Agent who now faced them, or at least the same person who would have called himself that.

“Well, isn’t this interesting?” the griffoness said, eyeing the group before her.

“Would I be correct in assuming that we are addressing Queen Gossamer?” Lucida asked sternly.

“You know me?” How intriguing! My little honeypot seems to have attracted some very unusual characters this time. You’re an unexpected but interesting variable, so let’s see how much fun you can be. Welcome to Canterlot!”

Gossamer’s form flared with green flames and a chrome changeling collapsed to the ground.

Citrine rushed to Pif’s side and picked her up. “Are you okay?”

Pif groaned and replied, “I feel burned out. So that’s what that’s like at the other end.”

“I thought only you have ever been able to do that communications trick?” Lucida asked.

Pif nodded. “Yeah – the other Queens tried and failed. We figured it’s because I’m a mutant and have some special trait that the others don’t have.”

“But you could have inherited that trait from your mother who has the same mutation,” Lucida pointed out.

“And Gossamer figured out how to do it too. Dad never tried.”

“Papa Free has never been terribly interested in that sort of thing,” Blue observed. Maybe we should encourage him to learn how, just in case it comes in useful for House Path.”

“But only for emergencies,” Pif added. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a cart, and I’m weak as a kitten.”

“At least we now have a clue where things have gone wrong,” Lucida said. “If Cirrus Ironbeak never grew up to be Free Agent, but became Queen Gossamer instead, there must have been some major influence that prevented Cirrus from ever making friends with Dad, and all the events that led up to the formation of House Path have never happened.”

“So, should we pay Gossamer a visit and ask her about her past?” Citrine asked.

Lucida shook her head. “Not yet. Pif needs to recover, Blue needs to start accumulating energy for the trip back in time, and it’s getting late and we’re all wanting dinner. I propose we find ourselves a restaurant and a place to stay for the night. If Mama Twilight is here as normal, she might be using her room, and we don’t want to stir things up, even if anything we do right now will be neutralised by the history change later.”

Blue extracted a coin bag from his pack. “I’ve got plenty of bits stashed for just such an occasion.”

“Great! Is everyone fine with our normal favourite restaurant?”

There were nods all around.

“Pif, can you manage a disguise?” Lucida asked.

“I’ll try, but I’m low on energy.”

Citrine hugged and nuzzled Pif. “Borrow some of mine.”

The dose of love was enough for Pif to shift into her common unicorn form, but she staggered on her hooves. Citrine steadied her until Cinder walked over.

“Put her on my back,” she said.

Destined lifted Pif with his telekinesis and settled Pif on Cinder’s back, between her wings.

“Right, let’s get going,” Cinder declared.

The seven adventurers set out on the start of their quest for food.

After their meal, the team checked into a hotel, booking two suites to hold them all. Blue, Cinder, Pif and Citrine shared one suite, while Destined, Silk, and Lucida shared the other. They settled in for an early night so that they could get off to an equally early start in the morning, and soon they were all asleep.

One of the team was restless, however, and got up from bed and wandered around the room, stopping by the other bed. After a while, they made their way back to their own bed and settled down once more.

As they were finishing breakfast the next morning, Lucida asked, “Does anyone have any suggestions as to where to start looking for Queen Gossamer?”

Not unexpectedly, Pif raised her hoof. “After that intimate contact yesterday, I think I can practically take us to her doorstep.”

“That’s convenient, and probably deliberate on her part,” Destined commented. “What will we do when we get there?”

Lucida said, “Well, that depends on what we find there. Although Gossamer evinced no threat, her use of the term ‘honeypot’ indicates to me that she is actively attracting Blue drones. We have to determine if that is of any threat to us, or merely something that has to do with the Blue Changelings only. Of course, Pif being technically a Blue too has made her a factor that we have to take into account. Ideally though, we go to Gossamer and request an audience. A little careful questioning, and hopefully we’ll have our answers.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Blue said. “Hopefully we can get through this one without a fight for a change.”

“Speak for yourself, Big Blue,” Citrine said. “I’m itching for a tussle with some changelings.”

“Don’t start anything, Citrine,” Lucida ordered. “I know that you dislike them because of their association with Chrysalis, but things might be a lot different with Gossamer in control.”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s not as if that’s different from Free’s hive,” Citrine griped.

The group made its way out of the dining room and checked out of the hotel. They exited the hotel and then looked to Pif for guidance.

“This way,” the disguised changeling said, heading off up the street.

As had happened the previous evening, only Cinder drew the occasional stare and concerned look. Destined had hidden his wings as usual, and the rest of the group did not attract any attention. Only Silk was discomforted by the bright morning sunlight, having left his shades behind at the spa.

Pif led them into the high-society end of the city where even the shops exuded wealth. However, it was a large and ritzy club that they eventually stopped outside of.

“Gossamer is the queen of a nightclub?”” Blue asked sceptically.

Lucida shrugged. “It makes as much sense as anything else. The club might be just a front for her hive. She certainly has a prime position here.”

“Shall we go in and find out?” Destined suggested.

With no other suggestions, they went ahead with that plan. To their surprise, it seemed as if they were expected. The doorpony nodded at them and let them inside.

“I suppose that Gossamer let him know what we looked like. It seems our visit won’t be a surprise,” Silk commented.

Lucida nodded. “That could be a good thing. If Gossamer feels at ease in her position of authority, then she might be more accommodating to help us.”

They were met inside by a smiling unicorn. “Please follow me. Madam Gossamer wishes to talk with you.”

Cinder grinned. “Looks like you were spot on, Lucy.”

The unicorn led them into one of the rooms which looked like a large dining and events area. Some staff were there apparently still cleaning up and re-setting the tables after the previous night’s events, but they totally ignored the newcomers. The group was taken to the foot of a stage which only held a large plush chair which was little short of a throne.

“The Madam will see you shortly,” the unicorn informed them before stepping aside to supervise the workers.

They did not have to wait long before a side door opened, and Gossamer strode through it. To their surprise though, she was immediately followed by a very large and familiar figure.

“Princess Celestia!” Blue gasped in surprise.

The alicorn did not even appear to notice Blue’s outburst, nor paid the rest of them any attention. As Gossamer climbed onto the chair, Celestia took a position in front of her.

Gossamer smiled at Celestia and said, “You were most satisfactory this morning, my dear. You may go and get ready to attend to your royal duties now.”

Celestia bowed her head low. “Yes, Your Majesty.” Her horn lit up and she disappeared in the flash of teleportation.

The entire team was shocked, not only because of Celestia’s words and attitude, but because she clearly smelled of sex, and there was no doubt with whom she’d had it.

Gossamer gave them a broad grin. “Thank you for coming. I’m sure that you’re wondering what is happening, considering that you are unfamiliar with this version of history.”

Lucida’s eyes narrowed. “So, you gleaned that information from Pif’s mind, I assume.”

“Correct! That and so much more. It’s been quite fascinating.”

“Then perhaps you’ll understand and be willing to help us correct the situation?”

Gossamer chuckled. “Oh, I understand alright. That’s why I can’t let you continue.”

“What?!” several of them exclaimed.

Gossamer’s visage hardened. “Let me lay it out for you. I am the true power in Canterlot, and through Celestia, I control Equestria also. Why would you think that I would do anything to change a perfect situation for myself?”

Lucida’s blood ran cold, and she realised that she had made a mistake. She had imagined that Gossamer would be like the other changeling queens, but Free Agent had never done anything like his peers, and neither did Gossamer, apparently. “This history only exists because of meddling by Chrysalis and her agents. You should be so much better than this.”

“Better? I don’t think so. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re talking about, with your stupid ideas of friendship and love. I get all the love that I can consume, and I have everything else that I could want. I don’t need friends when I have so many loyal subjects.”

“Loyal? How many are enthralled like Celestia?”

Gossamer gave Lucida a wicked smile. “Lots. Even more than you suspect. That’s what makes them so loyal.”

Lucida glared back defiantly. “I’m afraid that we’re going to have to upset your plans.” She looked over at the others. “Come on, let’s leave. She’s not going to help us.”

“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t let you leave,” Gossamer said malevolently. “Epiphany, please detain them.”

Pif’s eyes suddenly glowed green, and she shifted to her full changeling form and positioned herself between the others and the exit.

Lucida stared at Pif in shock before whipping her head around to glare at Gossamer. “You enthralled her! Let her go!”

“Ha! Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Don’t make us fight our way out of here. We have more power here than you.”

Gossamer’s grin grew nastier. “I think not. Epiphany, activate your minion.”

Pif’s horn glowed, and Blue grunted. His eyes lit up with the same green light as Pif’s, and he stepped over to the changeling’s side.

“Blue! What are you doing?!” Cinder cried.

Lucida gaped. “What…? How?”

“While you slept, I instructed Pif to enthral the strongest in your group. Granted, I thought it would be the alicorn, but the young one seems to be very literal-minded, and for some reason chose the blue pony. No matter – I believe you are at a disadvantage now.”

Lucida looked around and realised that all the staff had stopped working and were focused on the rest of the team now. Some had shed disguises to reveal themselves as drones, but Lucida suspected that the rest were enthralled ponies. Suddenly they were facing stiff odds. Nevertheless, they could not afford to be captured – they had a whole history to save. She leaned over to murmur to Destined, “Be ready to teleport us out of here.”

“Uh-uh!” Gossamer chided. “I know what you’re thinking, and I can’t let you do that. Blue, take out the alicorn!”

Blue streaked forward in attack. Destined was no slacker in the speed department, but he barely managed to dodge before firing a stun spell at Blue. The earth pony avoided the beam with ease and turned to attack again. Destined threw out a barrage of spells, only to have them all miss the speedster, but at least slowing him down enough for the alicorn to dodge again and again. Destined realised that Blue was not fighting at his full capability though, otherwise this fight would already be over, and he reasoned that the enthralment was preventing his brother from acting to his total potential. It mattered little though because he knew that Blue could keep this up far longer than he could avoid his sibling while firing off spell after spell. In their sparring sessions at House Path, Blue had always beaten him easily, but that was exactly what was normally expected of the warrior pony. Now Destined had to figure out a way to beat him, all while trying desperately not to get hit by his aggressor.

After the initial shock of watching her mate attack Destined, Cinder tried to intervene, only to be blasted by Pif. The magic-resistant dragoness was not so easily taken out though, and she shook it off and turned to confront Pif. The changeling was already powering up for another blast though, and there was not enough time to avoid it. The blast came, but was intercepted by another. Citrine’s form had gone crystalline, and the energy of the attack was partially deflected. The young mare grunted from the impact, but immediately recovered.

“Go help the others!” Citrine shouted. “Pif is my responsibility!”

Cinder did not waste time arguing, and she turned her attention back to the rest of the group. In the meantime, Lucida had decided to strike at the heart of the problem, and surprisingly, Silk had unhesitatingly followed suit. Gossamer saw them coming for her, but merely smiled. Suddenly, every staff member in the room surged forward to protect Gossamer, and both Silk and Lucida were almost overwhelmed before Cinder came to their rescue. The three of them fought with the skill of their training, but not only were some of their foes competent fighters, but all of them fought with the single-mindedness of the enthralled. Despite the pain and injuries inflicted upon them, they kept coming back.

Destined barely noticed his companions’ problems as his kept getting worse. In desperation, he tried levitating Blue so that the speedster could not run, but momentum kept bringing him into contact with walls or solid furniture, and the earth pony would kick off them and come bulleting towards the alicorn. Destined realised that was no better than before, and he was burning power for no reason, so he stopped that course of action. He only managed to survive the last charge because Citrine had knocked Blue off course.

The crystal pony had not planned on the saving move; she had been pushed off balance by Pif’s attack, and had blundered into Blue’s trajectory. It did have the side benefit of also knocking her away from Pif’s next blast, and she had a moment to brace herself. House Path had been training her fighting skills, but most importantly they had also been trying to develop her latent crystallomancy talent. She now called upon it like never before, and a crystalline shell formed around her. When Pif’s next blast hit her, she winced reflexively, but although a few shards of crystal shattered off her shield, she was untouched. Citrine fixed her gaze on Pif and decided on a course of action. She leapt at the changeling, while Pif futilely tried to blast her again. The crystal pony grappled her, pulling her into a wrestling hold. While Pif had reluctantly taken courses in hoof to hoof fighting, it was her weakest ability, but Citrine’s best. Citrine quickly had her helplessly locked down, putting the changeling out of the action. Unfortunately, so was the crystal pony until assistance came.

Destined finally called on his own special talents to make some headway against Blue. He had touted himself as the Alicorn of Space and Time, but now it was truly the moment to prove it. While he could not speed himself up like Blue, he could extend his perception of time so that it passed much more slowly. Suddenly Blue seemed to be fighting at a much more normal rate, and Destined was able to counter the attacks rather than merely dodging them. He realised though that he was still unlikely to win this fight at this rate because Blue was an extraordinary warrior even when apparently slowed down. However, now the alicorn had the time to think. Taking him on directly was futile. Wearing him out was not an option. He had to have the enthralment broken, but the only way to do that was to get to Gossamer, and now that he had a chance to glance at the state of the battle, he could see that was not likely to happen either. There was no way… wait! Yes, there was! Every time they went through the time vortex, Pif’s link broke, so if he could send Blue through it, that would break the enthralment too. But could he do it? Destined said a short prayer and leaped at Blue.

The earth pony had not expected that manoeuvre, and he reacted a fraction too late to stop Destined from grappling with him. If this had been intended to be a hoof to hoof fight, that would been a bad mistake on the alicorn’s part, because Blue was already making a counter-manoeuvre. However, Destined did not wait for that. Even as an elbow painfully pounded into his ribs, the alicorn tried something that he had never done before – activate a time vortex without the help of the vortex manipulator. He managed to ignore a couple more blows before the power built up sufficiently to initiate the time-jump. There was an extremely brief sensation of falling, and they both fell to the floor.

“Sweet Celestia! What am I doing?!” Blue exclaimed.

Destined heaved a pained sigh of relief. They had jumped forward in time a mere second or so, but it had been enough. “Pif was enthralled, and she apparently did the same to you. We have to break hers too.”

They looked over to where Pif was still entangled with Citrine, blasts from the changeling’s horn futilely reflecting off the crystalline armour.

“I’ve got this,” Blue stated. He dashed over to the duo and put his forehooves on either side of Pif’s head. Then he started drawing power out of her, just as he normally drew it from the earth. The blasts immediately failed, and soon the struggling stopped too as the changeling collapsed unconscious. Blue looked over to Destined and said, “Can you do for her what you did for me?”

“I think so, but I’m going to be pretty tired out after that.”

“Do it! I have to help the others.”

Blue raced off to join the melee while Citrine got to her hooves.

“Is she going to be alright?” the crystal pony asked.

“She’ll be completely back to normal, only still unconscious because Blue drained her. Give me a moment.” Destined put his forelegs around Pif and concentrated on repeating his time-jump trick. This time it was easier as he now knew how to initiate it, but the jump was just as short as the first time because he did not want to waste energy.

To Citrine, it was as if the two had blinked out of existence, only to reappear a moment later. Destined rolled to the side, panting from the effort. Citrine then took Pif into her arms and poured her deepest feelings into the changeling. In very little time, Pif’s eyelids fluttered open, and she turned her head to look at the crystal pony.

“Citrine… I… Thank you. I’m….” Pif seemed stuck for words, but then she reached up and pulled Citrine’s face towards hers and kissed her. It was brief but meaningful, and she smiled at her companion. “Our friends need us. Shall we?”

Citrine grinned hugely and pulled Pif to her hooves. “Let’s go!”

Citrine joined the battle, while Pif drew on some more positive emotions to power up and then join her. Destined wished that he could replace his consumed energy so readily, and decided to stay back from the fight unless he was really needed.

The tide had turned quite strongly against the Queen’s minions, and Gossamer had lost the amused look on her face. Real worry had replaced it, and she shifted form in a blaze of green fire. She started using her horn to attack the House Path team, but made the mistake of targeting Citrine first because she was the nearest. Her blast deflected from the crystalline armour just as had Pif’s, and Gossamer was forced to retreat. A shot at Blue proved just as ineffective as the earth pony instantly held up a hoof to block it, absorbing the power into himself. Gossamer decided that discretion was called for, and started to make a retreat, heading for the door through which she had entered earlier. Her way was unexpectedly blocked by one of her minions though.

“What are you doing? Get out of my way, fool!” Gossamer demanded.

“As you command,” the unicorn mare replied, stepping aside to let Gossamer pass.

The changeling queen pushed past, but suddenly felt an excruciating pain penetrate her side. She gasped and stumbled, collapsing to the floor. She turned her head to see a blade buried nearly to the hilt in her chest, and her lifeblood pouring from the wound. She looked back at the mare, only to see her form change into the one she hated most.

“Hello, daughter,” Chrysalis said with a malicious smile. “It took me forever to infiltrate your seat of power. It was very kind of you to provide this golden opportunity to take you down. Now I will be the ultimate power in Equestria.”

“Curse you, mother!” Gossamer managed to say before starting to cough up blood. She then gave Chrysalis a sinister smirk. “Perhaps you haven’t won at all…” Gossamer coughed again and shuddered before her head slumped to the floor and life left her eyes.

Abruptly, all Gossamer’s minions stopped fighting, and so did the House Path members when they realised that they were no longer being attacked. Lucida looked over to the stage and saw Gossamer’s corpse, and Chrysalis standing over it.

“Fall back!” she commanded the others.

As they backed away from the stage, Chrysalis’ attention was drawn to them.

“I do not know why my daughter brought you here, but I doubt that I should let you leave,” Chrysalis said thoughtfully. “I have invested far too much time and effort to smash my rival’s hive, only to have you odd visitors reveal everything.”

“We only came here to talk to Gossamer. We don’t care what you do here now,” Lucida replied, fully aware that anything Chrysalis did now, they could easily undo by going back in time.

“So you just want me to let you go? Hmm? No, I think I have better use for you.”

“Then I hope you’ll pardon us for declining your invitation and leaving,” Lucida stated firmly.

Chrysalis laughed. “You might find that a bit difficult. With the death of my daughter, my drones can now enter this building unhindered. As we speak, they have been pouring in and will soon greatly outnumber you. Additionally, even as we have been chatting, I have been attaching Gossamer’s drones to my hive network.”

The quiescent drones around the group started turning to face them, eyes staring intently. It was clear that the odds were starting to get very bad.

They were all bunched together now, and Lucida glanced towards Destined, who nodded and fired up his horn. The magic sputtered and died though.

“Oh, by the way, I have set up an anti-teleport spell,” Chrysalis said in a matter-of-fact manner. Her nasty smirk made Blue snarl.

“You made a big mistake, Queenie. We could have left quietly, but now I’m going to make sure you regret making us stay!”

An angry hum grew among the drones in the room, and more disturbingly, louder from outside.

“Bring it on, fool!” Chrysalis snarled.

Blue braced to make a super-speed charge, when the wall to his left abruptly exploded. At first he thought it was Chrysalis’ reinforcements, but the look of shock on her face soon disabused him of that notion. As the dust cleared, the real reason was readily apparent.

Princess Celestia stood among the unconscious forms of dozens of drones, her eyes flaring white with power, and her normally ethereal mane and tail were blazing infernos. Behind her, Royal Guards were pouring into the building. Chrysalis stumbled back from the sight, taken completely by surprise.

Villains! I have been used and defiled, and you shall pay for my humiliation and the harm that you have done to Equestria! Surrender or be destroyed!

Lucida realised that Celestia’s enthralment had ended the moment that Gossamer had died, and while the hive network was transferred to Chrysalis, the enthralments were apparent bound to Gossamer alone. Celestia clearly remembered everything that had been done to her for however long she had been enthralled, and she was probably in no mood to distinguish between Chrysalis and her minions, and the House Path group. She turned to Destined again.

“Can you time-jump?” she asked urgently.

“Yes. That won’t be affected by an anti-teleport spell.”

“Do it!”

“How far?”

“Doesn’t matter – just get us out of here!”

“No!” Pif interjected. “Go back thirty-seven years!”

Destined wasted no time in querying Pif’s figures. Blue had already pulled out the vortex manipulator, and Destined activated it even as his brother poured power into it. They had attracted the attention of the Royal Guards though, and they started to move in on the group, but the vortex abruptly formed and drew them away just in time.

The bizarre and inexplicable sensation of falling through time ended abruptly as the team fell out of the vortex and onto a moonlit field of grass. They started disentangling themselves with the usual groans of annoyance.

“Where are we, Des?” Lucida asked.

“I shunted us slightly sideways so that we wouldn’t end up in the club again. This should be the Royal Canterlot Gardens.”

“It is,” Silk confirmed. “My night vision can see everything clearly enough. Now can someone explain just what happened?”

“I’d like to know also,” came an unfamiliar voice.

They all turned to face the one among them who had spoken, only to recognise in the dim light one of the Royal Guards who apparently had also gotten caught up in the vortex. He held his sword somewhat unsteadily, but determinedly.

“Peace, Guardpony. We mean you no harm,” Lucida said soothingly.

“That is for me to determine. Answer my question, miscreants!”

Although it was obvious that he was very much outnumbered, they were very impressed by his dedication to his job. Then Pif noticed something.

“Guys – that’s a Red Changeling.”

That explained his fierce devotion to duty. Red Changelings would rather die than fail to do their duty.

The Guard looked at Pif closely. “What are you? I have never seen your like before.”

“Something very different,” Pif replied. “And for now, that’s all I can say about myself. As for the rest of us as a whole, we are travellers caught up in events, and now so are you.”

“Why has my connection to the hive network been broken?”

“Because you fell through a time vortex,” Destined explained. “You became disconnected from previous reality.”

“Time vortex? What is going on?” he asked again.

Lucida sighed. “I will explain everything as soon as you stop threatening us with your weapon. On my honour, I swear that we intend no harm to you, or to those to whom you have sworn loyalty. I also swear that we had no association with the group that Princess Celestia came to take prisoner or destroy if necessary.”

The Guard stared at Lucida for a long while, weighing her words carefully. Then he nodded and sheathed his sword. “I cannot taste any deception coming from you, so I believe your oath. Now can I have that explanation?”

“Certainly, but first I just need to ask my sister a question. Pif, you told us to go back thirty-seven years. Why?”

“While Gossamer had enthralled me from the time she took me over to talk to us, she drew on my knowledge through the hive network, but it wasn’t entirely one way. I caught glimpses of events that led me to believe that I know the source of the interference to history, and it’s right about now.”

“That makes sense. We’ll discuss it more in a moment. Meanwhile, we have a Royal Guard to placate.” Lucida turned back to the changeling Guard. “What I am about to reveal to you has the ability to radically affect the future of the Princesses, Canterlot, and all of Equestria. If you feel that you cannot refrain from acting upon this knowledge in a premature fashion, say so now, because the consequences if you don’t could be unbelievably severe.”

“Do you think so little of me that you think that I would do that?”

Lucida shook her head. “Not really. I just intended to impress upon you the seriousness of this situation… What is your name?”

“I am Sergeant Sterling Shield of the Her Highness’ Royal Guard,” he said proudly.

“Well, Sterling Shield, you are now caught up in a time battle that is damaging the fabric of History, and we’ve just jumped back in time thirty-seven years to try to fix it. Want to join the team?”

Sterling looked around at the serious faces watching him and gulped nervously for the first time in his life.




Chapter 9: Stake-out


Sterling Shield sat and listened carefully as Lucida gave a comprehensive explanation of how history had been changed from the one that he had known, with the other team members throwing in bits of information. Lucida left out certain critical details that she felt might compromise the changeling Guard’s views, but otherwise informed him as fully as possible. He asked a few questions to clarify a couple of points, but then fell into thoughtful silence as dawn’s first light lit the sky. Blue, being energy-depleted, fell asleep on the grass halfway through the explanation, and Destined felt inclined to join him after the solo time-jumps that he had pulled off.

Eventually Sterling seemed to come to a decision. “As I see it, I cannot re-link to my hive network without compromising history due to my knowledge of future events, including the ones that you say won’t happen if you achieve your goal, but would still influence decisions. I also cannot take up my position as a member of the Royal Guard because not only does Sterling Shield not exist on their rolls, but I also have not even been hatched yet! It seems to me that until I can decide on a course of action, I had best throw in my lot with you. I warn you though that if I perceive anything that I regard as a threat to that which I have sworn to protect, I will act to stop it.”

“We wouldn’t expect otherwise, Sterling,” Lucida assured him.

“Then what is your first step?”

“That’s a good question. Pif – how close to the critical event do you think we are?”

“I’m sorry, sis, but I can’t say anything more accurate than between one week to three months from now. I do know that the event is after Cirrus started school for the first time.”

“Then we had better find out exactly what the date is now, and when Cirrus starts school. I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

“That should be easy enough,” Sterling said. “Unless they did things a lot differently thirty-seven years earlier, I could always get the Canterlot Gazette first thing in the morning. It’ll have today’s date right on the front page.”

“Good point,” Pif said with a nod. “What about you though? Are you going to keep wearing your Guard outfit?”

Sterling frowned. “Although the uniform has stayed the same for at least half a century, my rank marks would ensure that many should know me, but of course none will. I’m afraid that this could be a liability rather than an asset, so I will remove it for now.”

“At least you don’t need to change your looks,” Pif said as she pointedly changed form into her normal unicorn guise.

“What about those three?” The red changeling pointed toward Cinder, Destined, and Silk. “Thestrals were virtually unknown when I first started in the Guard, an alicorn stallion will draw lots of unwanted attention, and a dragon is right out.”

“No problem for either of us,” Destined replied as he lit up his horn. “I’ve been practicing illusion spells for just this kind of occasion. I’ve already hidden my wings before, but I can now do the same for Silk.”

“Hey! I want to keep my wings!” Silk protested.

“Don’t worry, Silk. Not only will this be only an illusion, but you’ll still have wings.” Destined’s magic flared, and he soon looked like a slightly taller than average unicorn stallion, but Silk now looked like a pegasus with feathered wings instead.

Silk held open his new wings and examined them. “Well, they don’t feel any different, but it sure is weird seeing feathers instead of membrane.”

“I changed your eyes too, and your fangs shouldn’t show.”

“That still leaves Cinder; are you going to hide her under an illusion also?” Sterling asked.

Destined shook his head. “I could, but a dragon moves so much different from a pony that that if I disguised her as one, she would still draw attention by her gait alone. However, after the last time, I devised a different solution. Cinder – you already know what this entails.”

The dragoness nodded. “You want to do this right now?”

“Are we ready to head into the city, Lucy?” Destined asked his sister.

“Nothing more that we can do here. We need to determine the date first and go from there.”

“Okay. Cinder, please step away from everyone else.”

Cinder stepped away a few paces.

“Everypony else, look away from Cinder and myself until I complete the spell. It will work better that way, and you won’t catch any side-effects.”

Everyone did as Destined asked, and then his horn lit up with the complex spell that he had prepared earlier. He cast the spell, and then informed the others that they could look once more.

Sterling turned around and failed to see Cinder. “You made her invisible? That should work.”

Destined grinned, as did the watching dragon. “Nope. Invisibility is a high-energy maintenance spell, and you also run the risk of ponies running into you. This spell is a lot more subtle and easy to maintain. It makes the observer’s eyes fail to notice her, and lose interest in looking in her direction. You’ve looked past her twice already, but failed to see her.”

Sterling looked again, but even when he strained his senses, he barely noticed anything amiss. “That’s a very clever spell. That would make the job of the Royal Guards very difficult.”

Destined smiled and shook his head. “Don’t worry too much about it, Sterling. Only alicorns and the very most powerful unicorns can master this spell to perfection. And even if you had a unicorn enemy capable of casting it, they would also have several other ways of getting around the typical Royal Guard.”

“That’s… not quite as reassuring as you think it might be,” Sterling said with a concerned frown.

“We live in a world of magic; you will never have a perfect solution to everything.”

“I suppose not. Shall we go, my new compatriots?”

After waking up Blue and reassuring him that Cinder was still with them, the group headed out of the gardens and into the city proper. Even at that early hour, many citizens were already making their way to their jobs, and of course the newspaper sellers were there to cash in on them. Blue bought a copy of the Canterlot Gazette even though they could have just glanced at the date that was clearly printed underneath the paper’s banner.

Lucida nodded in satisfaction. “If I recall correctly, the school term in Canterlot should start in nine days. I think we can afford to rest up and use those days to do some careful observation just in case there are other factors involved that Pif didn’t catch.”

“How long after school starts do you think it will take before we have the history-changing event?” Cinder asked.

“Not sure, but soon,” Pif replied.

“I hope so,” the dragon replied with a worried frown.

“Is anything wrong, Cinder?” the changeling asked, tasting the intensity of her emotions.

Blue replied for his mate. “Cinder is due to lay her egg soon. We had arranged with Egg Warden to be available when that happened, but this is going to cut things mighty fine.”

“We’ll try to get this mission completed in time for you to lay your egg back home,” Lucida reassured the dragon.

Cinder nodded her head, glumly accepting the harsh reality of the situation.

“So, what’s next, boss? Food, I hope?” Blue asked.

Lucida nodded. “I haven’t forgotten, Blue. Let’s all find a place serving breakfast, and then somewhere to stay for a couple of weeks.”

“Sounds good to me,” the blue stallion said with a happy smile. “Food and sleep are what I need badly. However, we had better watch the bits. I packed plenty to cover a lot of contingencies, but not a severely extended stay.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Come on – I think I know a place to eat that has been around for at least four decades, so it should be here for us now.”

They had to go all the way into the outer suburbs before they could find accommodation that wouldn’t drain their resources too quickly, but fortunately the boarding house had several rooms available, allowing various couples to have their privacy. Blue was soon sound asleep on the bed with Cinder snuggled up beside him. Destined stretched out on his bed too, intending to nap, but an offer of a massage from Silk was too tempting to pass up. Pif said she needed to replace some of her lost emotional energy, but really she wanted an excuse to snuggle with Citrine for a while and unwind from recent events. She was still recovering from having been enthralled, and felt the need of some comfort. Citrine didn’t need an excuse though. That just left Lucida and Sterling, and the hippogriff was uncertain about sharing a room alone with just the changeling.

“You’ve obviously never hot-bunked before,” Sterling said to Lucida with a grin.


“One shift rolls out of bed and the previous one rolls into it while it’s still warm. If we’re keeping watch on a target, I’m sure we can arrange to be on different shifts.”

Lucida was relieved that the Guard was understanding of the situation. “Yes, that will work fine.”

“Since neither of us are particularly tired though, may I suggest that we do a bit of scouting around? I suspect that neither of us know too much of the current circumstances. Perhaps we can check the location of Cirrus first of all?”

“That’s a good idea. I believe Cirrus’s parents have always lived in the same house, so that should simplify things. I’ll leave word with the others as to our intentions.”

After slipping notes under the doors of the three couples, the pair headed off to their destination. Lucida had no trouble finding the house, but there was nothing to be seen from the outside.

“I can taste some strong emotion from the back of the house,” Sterling said, “but only one source. Of course Cirrus won’t be leaking emotion, and his mother should be at work by now if she’s a City Guard as you say.”

“Perhaps a little aerial reconnaissance is called for?” Lucida suggested.

“Good idea. Allow me to make a discreet change first.”

Sterling found a place to change forms unobserved, and a pegasus soon replaced the unicorn.

“Okay, let’s go.”

He and Lucida took off and gained a little altitude. It was considered bad taste to fly too low over private property, and they did not wish to draw attention to themselves. They were soon over the small yard behind the house, and soon spotted a male griffon playing with his child. Lucida had to smile at the sight.

“Papa Free’s dad was always a good father. With such loving parents, it’s no wonder that he grew up to be like he is… or should be. I wonder what could possibly happen to change this?”

“Even from this distance, I can taste the love the griffon has for his son, and from the way Cirrus is acting, he is responding in kind. It’s hard to reconcile this with the image of Queen Gossamer that you described.”

“That’s the tragedy of all these history changes – they all end up making things so much worse for everybody, and not just our family.”

“The instigator must be a very selfish person.”

Lucida nodded. “Extremely so. Anyway, we now know that things appear to be normal so far. We can set up a watch on the family, but I’m not expecting anything to happen before Cirrus starts school, if Pif’s information is accurate. If something does happen though, one of us should be around to observe it.”

“I can start right now, if you wish,” Sterling offered.

“I don’t think that’s necessary. We can both rest up to get to work first thing tomorrow.”

“I don’t mind. It’s better than some of the boring jobs that a Royal Guard sometimes has to do.”

Lucida looked at him closely. “Something is bothering you, isn’t it?”

Sterling looked for a moment as if he was going to deny it, but then he sighed. “I’m disconnected from my hive network, and I’m feeling very uncomfortable. I need something to do to keep my mind off it. If I try to sleep, I’ll just have nightmares. Any 'ling who gets cut off from the network always does.”

“You're only putting it off, you know?”

“I know, but I’ll deal with it then. Right now, I’d rather do observation duty.”

Lucida nodded in understanding. “Okay, but when Cirrus’s family has their dinner, come back to the boarding house and join us for our dinner and report.”

“Will do, ma'am!” Sterling started to salute out of habit, chuckled self-consciously, and headed off to find an observation post.

Lucida smiled at the changeling’s dedication to the task that he had set himself as she headed back to join the others.

As expected, nothing abnormal happened that day, and Sterling returned for dinner. With the whole team rested, they gathered to go out for their meal with disguises in place and aversion spell once again active. Like the previous day, they chose al fresco dining to get around the problem of seating a dragon without arousing suspicion. The waitress wondered why Blue was ordering two full meals, but other than that, they did not have any trouble. Because the restaurant was so full and their conversation could readily be overheard, they kept the talk to harmless subjects until they returned to the boarding house. There they all squeezed into one room to discuss their plans for the next day.

Pif spoke up first. “After what happened last time, I’ve refrained from connecting to the Blue network all day, but I believe that I should now. You know that it could give us valuable insight.”

Lucida considered her words seriously before replying. “You’re right, but what are the chances of you being enthralled again?”

“Virtually none.”

“That seems awfully confident of you,” Lucida replied sceptically.

“I know, but I have my reasons. For starters there’s our theory that only my parent and I can do it because of our mutation, and Cirrus certainly isn’t in a position to do that at his current age. However, putting that aside for now in case I’m wrong, I was only enthralled because it was totally unexpected. After Chrysalis used it on me to force me to do something against my nature, I developed countermeasures for it. If I’d had them in place before connecting last time, Gossamer would not have been able to even communicate with you that way, let alone enthral me. This time I won’t make that mistake.”

“That sounds reasonable. Go ahead.”

Pif did not hesitate a moment to reconnect to the Blue Changeling network. She spent a few minutes carefully scanning for anything of interest before sighing in disappointment. “Not a thing. I can’t detect a single activity that isn’t totally normal.”

“Maybe Chrysalis’ agent has not arrived as yet?” Destined suggested. “Or maybe he hasn’t bothered to connect to the network?”

Sterling spoke up. “Drones can’t reconnect themselves to the network; only a queen can do that.”

“Huh? That can’t be right. Our very first history change was caused by an agent shouting a warning to Chrysalis over the network, and just like you, he would have lost the link because of the time-jump.”

“From the moment that I was disconnected, I yearned to rejoin the Red Changeling network. That was before I realised that I shouldn’t due to my presence being paradoxical. The point is that I would have if I could, but I can’t, and neither can any of the other hives’ drones.”

Pif shook her head. “Although you’re technically right, in this case I believe you’re wrong. We’ve already discovered that Chrysalis has been breeding radically different drones, such as a soldier-harvester, and a special breeder that we believe she’s been making for spare bodies.”

Sterling was shocked. “Are you telling me that Queen Chrysalis has found a way to transfer her mind between bodies?”

“That’s our current theory, yes. We have lots of evidence, not the least of which is the fact that she has supposed to have been killed twice.”

“That’s a considerable achievement, and I withdraw my objection. If Chrysalis can do that, I see no reason why she can’t breed a drone to do other extraordinary things such as being able to connect himself to the network.”

Lucida said, “So we’re back to the possibility that the agent either hasn’t arrived yet, or hasn’t connected to the network for some reason. With this in mind, we will start full surveillance as of tomorrow. However, let me stress this for our newbies – you are not to act on what you see. We not only have to find the cause of the history change, but we also need to understand its full ramifications before we jump back and fix it with absolutely the least interference with other events. Right now, we can afford to let the changes happen, but when we go back, we must get it right.”

While Lucida had addressed them all, she looked especially hard at Silk, Sterling, and Citrine when she said this. They all nodded solemnly in agreement.

“Right – let’s assign duties. Cinder – between trying to keep you hidden and your pregnancy, we can’t use you for surveillance duties. You will have to be our base operative.”

Cinder sighed in resignation. “It’s not so different from my House Path operations anyway. How many comms did you pack, Blue?”

“Only four,” the stallion replied as he rummaged in his pack. “I didn’t anticipate getting extra team members.”

“Comms?” queried Sterling.

“Long distance communication devices that Mom invented,” Destined explained as Blue passed one to him.

Sterling stared at it in fascination. “How does it work?”

They explained the principles behind them, and how to operate one. Sterling was extremely impressed.

“I can see these being very useful to the military.”

“Yes, but they’ve been improving communications for the general public also,” Lucida replied. “Now enough about them. We’ll take shifts on watching the house, and following Cirrus if he leaves it. His father usually stays at home, but his mother is a City Guard and is on duty most days. Although she is likely to be able to look after herself, we still need to keep an eye on her just in case. Pif, I want you to go to the City Guard’s station and determine her roster if possible. Follow her around until you’re relieved. Make sure you change forms frequently; Zephyr is quite observant and might spot you otherwise.”

Lucida turned to Destined. “You get to watch the house for the first shift. Use invisibility or the aversion spell, but I want as close a watch on Cirrus as possible.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!” Destined said with a salute.

Next she addressed the Royal Guard. “Sterling, you will relieve Des on the next shift. Use your changeling talents to achieve the same aims.”

“Yes, Ma'am!” he replied crisply.

“Citrine,” Lucida said, turning to the crystal pony, “I want you to relieve Pif. Use those street smarts that you boast about to stay inconspicuous.”

“Piece of cake!” Citrine replied with a grin.

Lucida next addressed the batpony. “Silk, you were very helpful to us at Gossamer’s place, but this really isn’t your job. You just got tangled up in this mess with us….”

“Stop right there,” Silk interjected. “I’m just as involved as you are, and I have personal reasons for making sure history is set right.” He looked meaningfully at Destined before continuing. “I’m not a delicate flower either. There’s a lot more to me than even Des knows yet. Anyway, count me in for whatever you need me for.”

“Thanks, Silk. You’re the obvious choice for the night shift.”

“I would have pointed that out if you hadn’t. Do you need me to watch all night?”

“No. If anything happens, it’s almost certain to do so within an hour of them going to bed at the latest. However, we will still have someone watch until the dawn shift starts.” She turned to look at Blue.

The earth pony’s ears drooped. “Really?”

Lucida gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, brother, but you are neither subtle nor inconspicuous, so that’s the best time for you to do some watching. However, you don’t have to watch alone. Cinder is also too conspicuous to be out and about Canterlot on a regular basis, and until she lays her egg, I don’t want her getting into any potential trouble either.”

The dragoness opened her mouth to object, but was cut off before she managed more than “Hey!” as Lucida pointed a talon at her and said sternly, “And no back-talk, Cinder. This is going to be run like a proper House Path mission this time. You won’t get involved unless it becomes vital that we need your fighting skills, and as this is a reconnaissance mission, that should not happen.”

She turned her attention to all of them. “I’ll be on call if anyone needs a backup. If Cirrus and his father separate for any reason, you will call me so that I can watch Thundercloud. If for any reason you see a problem on your shifts, call it in immediately.”

“Do you want me to start tonight?” Silk asked.

“No, I still believe that the critical moment won’t happen for a while yet, so tomorrow is soon enough. We will start refining our observation techniques then. I suggest that everyone gets a good night’s sleep, and we get off to a good start in the morning.”

“Sounds good to me,” Citrine said cheerfully, tugging on Pif to have her follow. The changeling waved her hoof goodnight to the others, even as she blushed at the randy feelings the crystal pony was emitting.

“Seeing as neither Blue nor I will be needed that early, we’re going to take a long, hot bath together. Coming, Blue?” Cinder asked coyly.

Blue visibly brightened. “Coming!” He hopped up and followed his mate eagerly.

“Somehow I think she has more than just a bath in mind,” Sterling commented with a smirk. “Such an odd couple!”

Silk smiled too. “Don’t need to be a changeling to know what those two are feeling. But she has the right idea. How about it, Destined?”

Destined blushed furiously but nodded and quietly followed.

Sterling looked at Lucida. “New lovers?”

“Yep. Silk is self-confident, but Des didn’t even realise that he was gay until recently. My brother is a little bit dense when it comes to his sexuality.”

“Oh? And what about you?”

Lucida turned her face away. “I… I’ve been too busy to find a special someone.”

“I see.” There was an awkward silence for a long moment before Sterling continued. “Well, since you need to be on duty early in the morning, I suggest that you hit the sheets now. I’ll bunk on the couch a bit later.”

Lucida nodded gratefully, happy to be spared the awkwardness of having to share a bed with a near stranger. “I’ll have a quick shower first. It’s been a heck of a day.”

Considering that their day had started thirty-seven years in the future, that was quite an understatement, but the hippogriff was feeling more mentally exhausted than physically. A hot shower was just what she needed to be able to settle down first. She exited the bathroom feeling a lot better.

“Need help preening?” Sterling asked.

Lucida blinked in surprise. “What do you know of preening?”

“Well, I do occasionally become a pegasus, but that’s not why I learned. I share barracks with a pegasus who enjoys the attention, and I consume the pleasure he emits from the attention.”

“I see. That makes sense. I suppose I could do with a bit of help.”

Lucida settled on the bed and spread her wings. Sterling squatted by one side and worked on her left wing while she worked on the right.

After working quietly for a while, Lucida asked, “Does that pegasus know that you’re a changeling?”

Sterling chuckled. “No. He just thinks I like fondling his wings.”

Lucida laughed, then asked, “Well, do you?”

“Yes, but only for the pleasure it gives him. A 'ling has to eat, you know?”

“Yes, you do. I’ll let you work on my other wing too. You’re just too good at this.”

Sterling smiled. “Thank you, Lady Lucida.”

“Buck that! If you’re going to fondle my wings, you have to call me Lucy.”

“Your wish is my command, Lucy.”

“You’re terrible. No wonder Frothy liked you.”


“Forget I said that. Different history,” Lucida murmured as she sank into the pleasure of the preening. She fell asleep before Sterling finished the second wing.

Lucida was woken in the middle of the night by cries coming from the sofa. She found the changeling Guard tossing and turning in midst of a nightmare, and she shook him awake. He apologised for interrupting her sleep, blaming the nightmare on disconnection anxiety. Lucida understood and told Sterling not to worry about it before they both resumed their disrupted slumber.

It was the disciplined Royal Guard who actually made sure that everyone was woken on time. In spite of the nightmare, Sterling was well rested and quite used to starting dawn shifts, so after waking Lucida, he went to the other rooms to rouse the inhabitants, only sparing Blue and Cinder because the earth pony still needed to recover more energy and neither would be needed until much later.

Some food saved from the previous day served as breakfast for Destined and Pif, and they were soon on their way to their appointed tasks. Pif accompanied Destined to Cirrus’s home, intending to follow his mother as she left for her job in the morning. She reasoned that it would be a lot easier to find out Zephyr’s schedule and the people the griffon interacted with if she simply followed her from the very start. Destined found a high observation point that let him see both the front door and the back yard. Any visitors to the house could readily be seen, but his aversion spell ensured that he would not be similarly observed.

Pif found it disappointingly easy to discover Zephyr’s roster and responsibilities. She had secretly hoped that her first real try at being a changeling infiltrator would be more exciting. Nevertheless, keeping the griffon under observation without being spotted made the task more interesting.

Both checked in with Lucida on a regular basis, and the hippogriff brought more food and drink for Destined halfway through his shift. Pif supplied her own, buying refreshments from various places as part of her undercover operations.

Sterling and Citrine relieved Destined and Pif, and neither had any trouble maintaining their watches. When Citrine reported that Zephyr had returned home, Silk flew in for his watch and relieved both the changeling and the crystal pony.

At dinner that evening, Lucida summed up the day’s activities.

“As expected, nothing of significance happened today, but we did get a good feel for their normal daytime activities. Hopefully this will remain a stable pattern as it will not only make our job simpler, but it could also make it easier to spot something out of the ordinary. I’ll switch around your shifts so that you can all get familiar with each position, which hopefully might also make your jobs a little less boring. If things go as expected and nothing happens until Cirrus starts school, I don’t want carelessness setting in due to….”

Lucida was interrupted by an incoming comm call which Cinder answered.

“Operations. What’s wrong, Silk?”

The bat-pony’s voice came to them all with the comm in hoof-free mode. “Nothing wrong per se, but Cirrus and his parents have all taken off for a flight. Considering the casual nature of their flight, and Cirrus’s playfulness, I am thinking that this is just some family bonding time. I thought I had better let you know anyway.”

Cinder replied, “Thanks, Silk. Stand by for further instructions.” She muted the comm and looked over at Lucida.

The hippogriff gestured at the comm and said, “Here’s a perfect example of the unexpected. While this is probably a perfectly harmless normal activity, it is one where all three are in a position of vulnerability. If this is something that they do every evening, then it would be wise to have a second observer to watch for trouble and provide back-up for the first if necessary. For tonight though, I’ll let it slide. Tell Silk to carry on, Cinder.”

The dragoness nodded and unmuted the comm. “Silk – continue normal observation but report any further anomalies. Let us know when they have returned to the house.”

“Understood. Silk out.” The connection dropped.

Lucida said, “Cinder, do you think you can fulfil the role of secondary observer? The skies are fairly empty at this time, and with Destined’s aversion spell, you should be able to watch without being spotted.”

“I’d be happy to do so. Anything is better than sitting here all day with nothing to do but answer the comm occasionally.”

“Great. You can start that tomorrow.” Lucida then turned to Blue. “Are you rested enough? I don’t want you falling asleep on your late watch.”

“Don’t worry, Lucy. I’ve recovered plenty of energy by now, and don’t forget that I have been trained to deal with these situations too.”

Lucida nodded. “Okay. Good work today, everyone. Let’s hope that every other day goes as well.”

As it happened, the following days were equally unremarkable, with only minor variations such as visits to the market to shop for food or paint supplies for Thundercloud, and on Zephyr’s day off, a family outing. Each of the House Path observers rotated their shifts so that they all got familiar with the day-to-day routines, although Silk still took most of the evening shifts. Even Blue got a chance to play watcher among the crowd while the griffons were enjoying themselves. One thing that they all noted was just how much the adults doted on their son. It was no wonder that Cirrus had grown up to be such a happy and loving adult. It only made them wonder even more what could happen to make such a drastic change that he would become Queen Gossamer instead. They wondered, and they dreaded.

And so the day came that Cirrus was to start school. The routine changed then. Instead of heading off to work, Zephyr got Cirrus ready for his first day, and the young griff was very excited. His mother took him to the school and showed him the basics, reassuring him that although she was leaving him there, she would be back later that day to take him home. Unlike many of the foals that were also there for their first time, he did not cry, nor even the slightest bit upset. Zephyr did not realise it of course, but Cirrus was consuming her love and reassurance, calming any fears that he might have had.

Destined got to watch Cirrus for the first watch at school, relieved later by Pif, while the other kept watch on his parents. It turned out to be a pretty typical day for first-timers, and Zephyr was standing at the main entrance, waiting for Cirrus when school ended. The walk home was uneventful, with Cirrus talking excitedly about his day while his mother smiled indulgently.

“Day ten, and nothing suspicious,” Lucida summarised. “Are you sure you can’t narrow down the date further, Pif?”

“For the hundredth time, Lucy, no!” Pif replied with obvious irritation. “I might not have access to the hive network, but I can still search my own memories quite thoroughly, and there’s nothing more.”

“Sorry. I’m just worried that we’ll miss something.”

Destined said, “I have a feeling that when it happens, it will be very hard to miss.”

Little did he know how right he would be.

The next day was equally uneventful, and the day after Destined was doing the afternoon observation of Thundercloud – an extraordinarily easy job as the artistic griffon spent the vast majority of the day in his studio, painting. He was easy to see through the studio window from Destined’s vantage point, and the real challenge was not falling asleep on the job. He did notice an odd anomaly though when it happened, and he got out his comm.

“Hey, Pif – has someone picked up Cirrus from the school yet?”

Zephyr just left with Cirrus a minute ago. I’m following them now. Why do you ask?

“Because Zephyr is here right now without Cirrus, entering the house as I speak.”

BUCK! Something’s going down! Get in closer and don’t miss anything happening. I’m calling in the others.

The connection dropped, and Destined swapped his aversion spell for invisibility for its greater security, and flew up to the window in time to hear ‘Zephyr’ calling to Thundercloud.

After a short delay while the painter put aside his tools, the griffon cock came downstairs to greet his wife. He reared up on his hind legs in order to give her his customary hug, smiling happily. “Where’s Cirrus?” he asked.

“He’ll be here soon.”

“I thought you intended to bring him home from school each day?”

“No, that was the other me.”

Thundercloud blinked in puzzlement. “What do you– AWK!” He staggered back from Zephyr, only then seeing the knife that had been plunged into his chest. He looked at the griffoness and tried to say something before his eyes rolled up and he collapsed to the floor.

‘Zephyr’ pulled the knife from out of the griffon’s heart and wiped the blade on his feathers. “Don’t worry about Cirrus – he’ll soon be in safe hooves.”

Destined barely managed to not give himself away as he retched in distress. The cold-blooded murder hit him far harder than the battles that he had been involved in. Thundercloud had always been a jovial and wonderful grandfather to him and his siblings, and to see him so callously killed by someone pretending to be his grandmother had made his stomach turn. As he spat out the last of the bile in his mouth, he activated his comm. “Thundercloud is dead. We’ve found the changeling agent,” he reported tersely.

Lucida replied, “Oh, Tartarus! Keep watching, Des. The real Zephyr will be home soon with Cirrus, so Pif and Sterling will join you then. I’ve already sent Blue as reinforcement because he can get there fast. Remember – don’t interfere with events.

“I haven’t forgotten.” Destined switched off the comm and grimly returned to watching through the window.

The disguised changeling made no effort to dispose of Thundercloud’s corpse, but instead took his form and then left the room to wait by the entrance, calmly but with a hint of a smirk on his beak.

Destined could almost predict what was about to happen, and the minutes spent waiting for Zephyr and Cirrus to arrive were some of the longest of his life. When Pif made her way to the side of the house where Destined was invisibly lurking, he knew that the moment had come. Pif had stopped close to the window, knowing that Destined was nearby. He moved over to her and reached out a hoof, extending the invisibility spell to her. Then they moved back to the window together to observe once more.

“Where’s Sterling?” Destined whispered.

“Watching the front door for now,” Pif replied. “If the agent leaves with Cirrus, we need someone on them right away.”

They saw the front door open, and as Zephyr stepped inside, she reacted with surprise to see Thundercloud there as he was normally in his studio when she got home. Nevertheless she gave him a hug as Cirrus looked on in puzzlement. The watchers knew what was wrong; the young changeling-griffon could not taste his father’s affection, or any feelings for that matter, and could not understand why. He did not even know at this age that normal griffons could not taste emotions.

Zephyr headed off to the living room with ‘Thundercloud’ close behind. She had barely passed through the door when she stopped in shock at the sight on the floor before her. A moment too late, she whirled to face her husband’s doppelganger, only to feel the same knife that had slain Thundercloud pierce her heart. Her last conscious sight was seeing Cirrus staring, frozen in shock at what had just happened.

As tears welled in Cirrus’ eyes, the fake Thundercloud was engulfed in magic green fire and was replaced with a changeling drone. Unlike the typical drone, this one was a lot more strongly built and had subtly different markings, but it was still obvious to the observers that this was a Blue Changeling, and Chrysalis’ special agent.

The drone grinned in satisfaction and said, “Don’t worry, Your Highness. I will soon have you back in the hooves of your real mother. Her Majesty, Queen Chrysalis, will be delighted to be reunited with her only surviving royal offspring, and the Blue Hive will become stronger for it.” He moved up to Cirrus to take him by the hoof, but the youngster backed away from him in horror.

The drone paused in puzzlement. “Princess Gossamer, you must come with me. Your time with these foster carers is done, and it is your destiny to make our hive great.”

With tears pouring from his eyes, Cirrus glared at the drone. “You killed my dad and mom!” he screeched. “I hate you! I HATE YOU!” For the first time in his life since he had unconsciously taken the form of a griffon chick, Cirrus shape-changed into his natural form, and a chrome-carapaced young Queen glared at the target of her hatred, her eyes shining with power. Her horn glowed, and without even realising what she was doing, Cirrus lashed out at the agent.

The drone gasped and shuddered, and then sank to his knees. “Wait! Stop, Your Highness!” he pleaded weakly.

To Destined surprise, he felt Pif also slump down beside him. “What’s wrong, Pif?” he whispered urgently.

“Cirrus is draining the agent’s energy, but it’s so unfocused that she’s doing it to me too. I have to get away.” She tried feebly to move, but fell to the ground instead.

Destined was about to abandon his post to help Pif, but Blue arrived just then, casting around for a sign of his siblings.

Destined moved away from the window to allow his invisibility shield to drop in order to use his telekinesis. He lifted Pif onto Blue’s back before his brother could react, and said, “Take Pif out of range now! Check out the front for Sterling – he might be affected too.”

Blue knew when there was a time for questions, and a time for action, and he immediately complied without a word. Destined was able to re-establish his invisibility and go back to watch. He was just in time to see the agent reach out weakly to Cirrus and croak, “Please….” The drone shuddered, his eyes dimmed, and then he lay still. There was no doubt in Destined’s mind that the agent had been drained to death.

Cirrus’ eyes lost their glow, and then the young Queen shifted back into the form of a wretched griffon child once more. Cirrus wailed in grief, throwing himself on the still forms of his parents, oblivious to the blood that was being smeared on feathers and fur.

It tore at Destined’s heart to witness this, but there was nothing that he could do to ease Cirrus’ burden at this time. Anything that he could do would only interfere with the sequence of events, and it was vitally important that they understood everything that had led to the horrible future that they had seen. He knew one thing for sure already though, and that was why Cirrus had taken the name Gossamer later in life. It was surely burned into the mind of the grieving child.

Blue returned without Pif, and Destined took him into the invisibility screen.

“Is Pif okay?”

“Yes, and so is Sterling. Once we got out of range, whatever was affecting them stopped. I gave Pif some of my energy, but Sterling said that he would be okay. Naturally I left them back there though. What happened?”

“Cirrus drained the agent of all his energy thereby killing him. Pif and Sterling just caught the fringes of the effect. Now we wait to see what happens with orphan Cirrus.”

The unceasing heart-wrenching crying eventually attracted the attention of a neighbour, and after the unicorn mare had stopped throwing up after witnessing the sight, she called the City Guard.

The officers were equally shocked, and dismayed to find one of their own was a victim. The body of the drone perplexed them as they had no idea what it was, and an investigation was launched. In the meantime though, two city officials came to take Cirrus away, and Destined and Blue followed. Destined contacted Pif and Sterling by comm, and Pif replaced Blue. Sterling immediately went to watch the house again in case anything of interest happened there, and he took on his Royal Guard appearance complete with illusory uniform in anticipation of having to deal with authorities.

Lucida was updated on all events, and had recalled Blue. The three best at inconspicuous observation were already on the job. She anticipated that Cirrus would be taken to the Royal Canterlot Orphanage which she knew was headed and run mostly by disguised Yellow Changelings, which would be the ideal place for the bereft Cirrus. However, as further reports came in from Destined, she was surprised to find that he was taken to a different facility. Canterlot Child Services apparently dealt differently with children of non-pony species, and while the place that they took Cirrus had many pony children, it also had a minotaur calf and a zebra foal. Cirrus was the only griffon, however.

When it became clear that Cirrus was not going anywhere for now, Lucida recalled Destined, leaving Pif to watch over the orphaned child. It was a rather subdued dinner that evening as they reviewed the day’s events.

“This is my hypothesis so far,” Lucida announced. “Future Chrysalis was aware that Free had spent his early years in Canterlot after his parents moved there, but although she knew roughly when, she did not know exactly where. The purpose of fostering Gossamer with her biological father was to overcome the problem that killed all her previous royal offspring, so she obviously did not want to interrupt that process. We can’t know exactly how long Chrysalis had intended for Gossamer to remain in their care, but judging by the timing of this incursion, she judged that her child would be strong and ready for reintegration into the hive at this age. She knew that Cirrus had attended school here, so all she had to do was have her agent watch the school to locate Cirrus. The agent followed Zephyr and Cirrus home, and then used the next day to establish their schedule, just like we did. Then he acted today, as we witnessed. However, neither Chrysalis nor her agent foresaw that her child would have such a negative reaction to the way it was done. In hindsight, they would have been far better off just kidnapping Cirrus, or at least not letting him witness the deaths, but Chrysalis is an extremely poor judge of pony and griffon character, and we know that Cirrus strongly identifies as a griffon even after he becomes an adult in full knowledge of what he is. Any comments?”

Sterling said, “That sounds plausible to me, but it burns me that none of us picked up on this agent yesterday or the day before.”

“Don’t be too hard on us, Sterling,” Destined said. “After all, you of all 'lings would know that Blue Changelings specialise in infiltration and uncovering secrets, and we were probably dealing with one of Chrysalis’ new elite.”

Sterling nodded. “Yeah, but it still bothers me that I somehow failed in my duty.”

Lucida shook her head. “No, Sterling, that’s not true. We’re here to find out what went wrong, and that’s exactly what we did. Stopping the murders is what will be done when we jump back in time.”

“So what happens now?” Citrine asked.

“We watch Cirrus for a while. We already know two factors that will influence his future. Number one, of course, is the murder of his beloved parents. Number two – he knows that Queen Chrysalis was responsible. As he learns more about himself and what he is, he will surely come to hate her passionately.”

“How long will it be before we know enough to be sure that we have covered every important element? We’re cutting things a bit fine with Cinder’s egg,” Blue said worriedly.

“Hopefully only a few days. We could even make a few short hops forward if necessary, but I think we pretty much know what we need to know to fix this history change permanently,” Lucida reassured him.

Cinder put a reassuring hand on Blue’s shoulder, talons that could easily rend his flesh playfully caressing his coat. “Don’t worry so much, love. It will work out.”

Blue smiled at her. “I don’t know what it’s like for dragon males, but pony fathers tend to be more involved.”

“Especially first-time dads, right?” Cinder asked with a grin.

Blue laughed. “Yeah, you got me there.”

Lucida said, “I’ll reorganise the schedule to watch Cirrus, but we’ll play the rest by ear. Celestia knows what happens next.”

“Pony foals can be complete monsters,” Pif growled.

Destined cocked a curious ear in her direction. “What brought this on?”

“Not one whole day in that institution, and they’re already tormenting Cirrus.”

“Griffons are not known to put up with that sort of thing, not even chicks,” Lucida commented. “Of course Cirrus isn’t purely a griffon, and he could be reacting badly to the foals, especially as he’s still depressed at losing his parents. Any particular reason why they’re tormenting him?”

Pif snorted in disgust. “Because they’re bullies. I found out why those foals are there instead of the Canterlot Orphanage. They’re all problem children who need to be watched carefully. Cirrus has been dumped in with the delinquents.”

Lucida nodded thoughtfully. “We might be witnessing reason number three why Cirrus grows up a villain. Lots of ponies’ lives have been soured by childhood experiences. Depending on how the authorities handle this, Cirrus could become very embittered in that environment.”

“Those so-called authorities seem very biased against non-ponies, if you ask me. I’m going to have words with Auntie Celestia when we get back.”

“Just don’t forget that thirty-seven years will have passed, Pif, and the situation might have changed since.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, but if I find the same thing in the future that I have here and now, heads are going to roll.”

Two more days were spent watching with no change to Cirrus’ status, and Blue’s patience was being sorely tested.

“We’ve got our answer!” Blue said vehemently at dinner that night. “Cirrus grows up bad. It’s time we went back and fixed things.”

“You’re half right,” Lucida conceded.

Blue’s eyes widened in surprise. “I am?”

“I believe that we’re not going to see anything more significant in the next few days. However, I want to jump ahead and see how things progress.”

“Is that really necessary, Lucy?” Destined asked. “Stopping the murders will stop those events ever happening.”

“I admit that I don’t know for sure, but that’s really an argument for doing so anyway. Lack of knowledge has always been our weakness in these time changes, so understanding their cause and effects can only be of benefit to us. Besides, I don’t think that we need to stay for more than a few hours each time. Would that suit you, Blue?”

“Anything that gets us back home sooner is fine with me.”

“Have you got the energy needed for a jump?”

“Since having that vision, I’ve been practicing storing more power. A small jump into the future will hardly affect it. We could leave right now!”

Lucida shook her head. “No. Although the quick surveys that I have in mind won’t be much trouble, once I’m satisfied, we’re going to jump back and stop the murders. For that I want everyone fresh and ready to do their part. So what I’m saying is that everyone gets a good night’s sleep, and we leave in the morning.”

Sterling got to see exactly what was involved with a time jump this time, but because they only jumped ahead a few months, the duration spent in the time vortex was far briefer than the thirty-seven year jump that he had first experienced.

Pif was despatched to check out Cirrus’ status while the rest idled in a nearby park. She returned in just under three hours, and her expression was far from happy.

“Want to know what happens if you get bullied?” Pif said without preamble. “You either get to be the eternal victim or hit back. Guess what? Cirrus did the latter, apparently using his changeling abilities to get dominance. He’s already top dog in the institution. It would be hilarious to see such a youngster in control if it wasn’t for the horrible things that he’s now doing.”

“Well, that confirms reason number three,” Lucida said thoughtfully.

Sterling frowned. “But if he’s just being a bully and cowing the others, how is he getting enough love to survive?”

Pif rolled her eyes. “He isn’t, but you know he can get by on other positive emotions. Here’s the worst part – Cirrus keeps all the other troublemakers in line, which makes him the darling of the administrators. Cirrus reaps energy from the pleasure and satisfaction that they have in him. He’s not too subtle about it though, and they don’t understand why they are so tired lately. After I witnessed that, I’d seen enough.”

“That’s okay, Pif. That answers a lot of questions. Let’s all have some lunch and give you time to cool off before we jump forward again.”

The group jumped forward a few years this time. Pif reported that Cirrus was the de facto controller of the institute, having apparently enthralled the director without even realising how he did it.

“Cause number four,” was Lucida’s conclusion before they jumped forward again.

This time, Cirrus was of the age to be released from the institute, and Lucida assigned several of the team to follow up several leads over the next few days. They discovered that while he could have easily have stayed there with his control firmly entrenched, he had become ambitious. Pif’s extremely cautious exploration of the hive mind had shown that Cirrus had encountered a Blue Changeling and had wrested him from the hive network. The drone had taught him everything that he hadn’t known about changelings. When he learned that Chrysalis was the Queen of the Blue Hive, he vowed to destroy her, and set about a campaign of finding and stealing any of her drones in Canterlot.

Lucida accepted all the reports and sighed. “Well, it’s pretty obvious now what happened. Cirrus came to understand exactly what he was, and pretty much abandoned everything about his past except for his intense hatred for Chrysalis and preference for the griffon form. At that point Cirrus became Gossamer, the name that he had heard the agent call her, probably as a slap in the face towards Chrysalis. Gossamer built a power base from stolen drones and Chrysalis tightened up her network in response so as to not lose any more. Gossamer didn’t stop at that though; she kept on extending her power base until someone in the palace took notice. At some point, Princess Celestia got involved and confronted Gossamer, only to be enthralled also.”

Pif nodded in agreement. “That’s what I figure too, and without an investigation that could take months, I doubt that we’re going to find out much more.”

“We’re not going to do that, are we?” Blue asked, almost in a panic at the thought. “This has already taken longer than I hoped.”

“No, Blue. I’m satisfied now, so it’s time to set things right,” Lucida reassured him.

“Thank Celestia! Can we please leave right now?”

“First we discuss our plan of operations, then we leave.” Lucida gave him a reassuring smile. “Shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Let’s do it!”

‘Zephyr’ entered the house and was mildly surprised to find Thundercloud waiting there to meet her. The changeling agent was pleased that she did not have to fetch him down from his studio, although she did not want to kill him this close to the front door. She had to lure him into the living room first.

Taking off her helmet, ‘Zephyr’ moved toward the living room, saying, “It was quite a busy day, today. Come give me a hug, dear.”

“With pleasure, darling,” Thundercloud said with a smile, following her into the room.

The disguised changeling came to an abrupt halt when she realised that there was a pony waiting in the living room. “You didn’t tell me we had a guest, dear.” She turned to look at Thundercloud, but he had an odd expression on his face that set off an alarm in her head. Then she finally noticed something else wrong. ‘Why can’t I taste his love?’ She decided to leave, but before she could take a single step, she found herself surrounded by a violet sphere of magic that was emanating from the horn of the blue unicorn.

“Uh-uh! Leaving now would be quite rude, darling,” Thundercloud said with a nasty smile before green flames engulfed him, revealing Pif in her natural form.

The changeling agent’s eyes widened in shock. “What are you?”

“Would you believe your Queen’s granddaughter? Let me show you a trick that I had the displeasure of learning from her.”

Pif’s horn lit up, and the agent’s eyes glowed green. The disguise dropped and the changeling stood there rigidly.

“You can drop the force-field now, Des,” Pif said before she addressed the agent once more. “Who do you serve?”

“You, Your Highness.”

“Right. You will also obey every order given to you by my siblings and friends as if they were given by me.” Pif sent the relevant data over the mini-network.

“Yes, Queen Epiphany.”

Pif stuck out her tongue in disgust. “Bleah. I feel unclean now.”

Destined said, “We’ve got the agent – time to get out of here.”

Pif nodded and assumed Zephyr’s form, then said to the changeling, “Assume a pony disguise and follow me.”

The agent shifted to a unicorn form and followed Pif to the front door, with Destined close behind. As they exited the house, Destined dropped the silence spell that had prevented Thundercloud from hearing what was occurring downstairs, and then firmly closed the door behind them. Anyone who had seen Zephyr arrive without Cirrus would see her leave again and return with him a little later, assuming that she had come home earlier to meet the two unicorns that she left with. The team had gone to great pains to ensure that history was changed to the minutest degree that they could manage.

Sterling and Lucida were waiting outside just in case of unforeseen circumstances. They joined up with the others and they all rendezvoused with the rest of the team back at the room that was their base of operations. Pif entered with a grin and cry of triumph, only to be brought up short by Blue’s expression.

“Why the long face?” she asked.

“Cinder has laid her eggs,” he replied soberly.

“Oh, no! Wait! Eggs? Plural?”

“Yes, she laid two. We didn’t expect it, but there’s the result.” Blue gestured to where Cinder was on the bed, curled protectively around two gleaming eggs.

Lucida took in the sight and said, “Don’t worry, Blue. We can head home virtually immediately now. We can interrogate the agent later.”

“No!” Cinder said firmly.

Lucida blinked in surprise. “No? Why not?”

“I’m not risking the eggs in the time vortex.”

“You’ve been through the vortex several times while pregnant – it’s no different now.”

“It is different, and I won’t let you take my eggs through it.” Cinder curled even more tightly about the eggs.

“It’s no use, Lucy,” Blue said. “I’ve already been over this with her. You have to realise that dragon mothers are extremely protective of their eggs, and the only exceptions that they might make are to let their mate mind them for a while, or the specialist egg-minders. Small male dragons have always been poorer hunters, but good at caring for unhatched eggs, so it has been ingrained into the dragon psyche over the centuries that the eggs are safe with them. We had Egg Warden lined up to care for Cinder’s egg back home so that it could free up Cinder for her duties, but other than that, she won’t risk them for anything.”

“Go back without me,” Cinder said firmly.

“We can’t,” Destined replied.

“Why not?” Citrine asked.

“For starters, I don’t know exactly how the Doctor’s state of grace works yet, but I believe we have to all finish together. Even if I’m wrong about that though, there are a couple of other problems. First, I would need Blue’s power to take us forward that far. I can’t manage that by myself.”

“I’m not leaving Cinder!” Blue said with finality.

“Even if you did and I brought you back, then I would be stuck here. Then there’s the other possibility. Even if I could take the rest of us back and leave you two here until the eggs hatch, if a time-change was made at the wrong moment, you could get lost to me. History follows the path of highest probability, and the time-jumps always follow that path. I can only go back and forth, not sideways. You could get lost in an alternative history, and never be found again!”

Everyone was shocked by Destined’s exposition, but finally Lucida asked, “Are you sure about this, Des?”

Destined’s voice grew higher and more stressed, and he waved his forelegs dramatically. “No, I’m not! That’s the whole point! I can’t be certain about any of this, and that’s why I think it’s too risky to split us up.”

The hippogriff stepped over to Cinder and the dragoness gave a soft growl of warning. Lucida said, “Are you sure I can’t persuade you to come back to the future with us, Cinder? I promise that we will take the utmost care with your eggs.”

“No,” was all Cinder said before turning away from Lucida to lay her head over the eggs.

Lucida sighed and said, “Well, if Cinder won’t go, and it’s too risky to split us up, that just leaves one alternative – we all stay until the eggs hatch.”

“And how long is that?” Silk asked.

“Ten months,” Blue said mournfully.

“Ten months! We’re stuck here for most of a year? What are we supposed to do in that time?”

Blue said, “I have a better question. What are we to do for money? My stash has almost been used up. I never anticipated anything like this.”

Lucida gave them a wry grin. “There’s one answer for the both of you; it looks like we have to get ourselves jobs. Any suggestions?”

Nothing but stunned silence answered her.




Chapter 10: School Days


“Are you nuts?!” Pif protested. “How are we supposed to avoid making unnecessary changes to history for ten months, especially if we have to take jobs?”

Lucida grimaced. “It’s not like we have any choice.”

Blue’s expression clouded and he gave Lucida a glare. “We should have had a choice! I kept telling you that Cinder was close to laying her egg… eggs. I might not have anticipated this exact situation, but I feared that something could go wrong.”

“We still needed to understand how history went so bad, so we could look out for other problems,” Lucida insisted.

“No we didn’t! We knew the final result, and we could guess at reasons, but the exact causes weren’t important enough to risk Cinder and the eggs! We could have gone home ages ago, but no, you had to satisfy your curiosity.”

“Blue’s right,” Pif interjected. “We had enough information to perform a perfectly surgical operation that we pulled off without a hitch and the absolute minimum of interference with History, but that all could be ruined if we have to stick around. We should have done this after the first check jump.”

“It was a calculated risk…” Lucida started.

Blue snorted, his ears lowering in anger. “Risk?! You talk about risk when you’re talking about my mate and children?” He came up to Lucida and started poking her in the sternum with a hoof. “Your first and most important consideration is to family. Once we knew how to save Cirrus’ parents and catch the agent, our next priority should have been getting Cinder home. Anything else should have been secondary to that.”

Lucida slapped away Blue’s hoof. “Don’t lecture me! I never forgot about Cinder. I just overestimated the time we had to spare. She should have laid the eggs at least another week away.”

“And what makes you such an expert on dragon pregnancies? What do you know of the effects of time travel on her? Did two eggs cause a premature laying? Did the stress of this situation have anything to do with it? I didn’t know. Cinder didn’t know. How in Tartarus did you think that you could know any better?!”

“I… I… couldn’t.” Lucida hung her head in shame. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t good enough, Lucy,” Blue said, his anger easing off. “Figure out what to do about this mess. Now everyone leave this room. Cinder and I need time to ourselves.”

Lucida nodded and headed for the door. The rest of the team followed suit, leaving Blue alone with his mate. He went over to the bed and climbed up next to Cinder. Unlike the wariness she exhibited a short time ago, she welcomed him, spreading a wing over Blue to draw him closer in a protective snuggle around the eggs.

“Thank you, Blue. I hope our children have your strength of character.”

“I hope they are as beautiful and precious as you, my love.”

They nuzzled and admired the eggs, neither admitting to the worries that the situation had caused.

Everyone trooped into Lucida and Sterling’s room. As soon as the door was closed, Lucida spoke up.

“I know we have a difficult situation to sort out, but first I think we had better deal with the changeling agent. We paid a price for this information, so it had better answer a lot of our questions. Pif, can you bring it forward, please?”

Pif instructed the changeling agent to stand in the middle of the room, surrounded by all the others. It stood there utterly quiescent until addressed.

“Is he completely under control, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“Who do you obey, agent?” Pif asked.

“You, your siblings, and friends, Queen Epiphany.”

“You have now met them all now, agent. No others may give you orders that override mine. Do you understand?”

“I understand and will obey, my Queen.”

Pif turned to the hippogriff. “Satisfied, Lucy?”

Lucida nodded. “For now. Time for answers. Agent, what is your name?”

“I am called Zark.”

“Zark, who sent you to take Cirrus?”

“Queen Chrysalis.”

“Well, that’s hardly a surprise,” Citrine muttered loudly.

“Not now, Citrine. We need to be thorough, even if we think we know the answers. Zark, what were you supposed to do with Cirrus after you abducted him?”

“Cirrus is Princess Gossamer, daughter of Queen Chrysalis who wanted her returned to the hive and into the Queen’s care. My task was to take Gossamer to the hive by any means necessary.”

“Why did you intend to kill Thundercloud and Zephyr instead of just abducting Cirrus?”

“Queen Chrysalis wanted her daughter’s relationship with her foster parents completely severed so that she would not desire to return to them. Death was the simplest solution.”

Destined snorted in contempt. “Once again, Chrysalis shows how little she understands griffons and ponies. That was never going to work the way she intended.”

Lucida shrugged. “She probably thought that since Cirrus was really a changeling, he would not react as he did, but we all know that Papa Free has always had more in common with his griffon parents than his changeling heritage. Perhaps it’s part of his mutant nature, or perhaps it’s because of how deeply loved he was by Grandpa and Grandma. Maybe both. Anyway…” She turned back to Zark. “How were you going to return to the future?”

“I cannot return to the future.”

“What?! Do you mean that you were to take Cirrus to the present-day hive?”


“Have you ever done previous time-jumps?”


“What were you supposed to do once you brought Cirrus to present-day Chrysalis?”

“I was supposed to connect to the Queen’s old network, explain how I came to be here, and stand by for further orders.”

Pif said, “As far as Zark is concerned, past-Chrysalis and future-Chrysalis are the same Queen, and he’s essentially right. Our Chrysalis doesn’t need to fetch Cirrus back to the future to accomplish her plans.”

Lucida nodded. “Zark, are you aware of other agents performing time-jumps?”

“I know nothing of them.”

“What do you know of Chrysalis’ plans?”

“I only know what Queen Chrysalis told me for this mission.”

“What of the other drones? What are they doing?”

“I don’t know.”

Lucida was getting a little frustrated. “Why not?”

“I was given the information needed for my mission while I was being educated over the network as a nymph. As soon as I changed into an adult drone, I was sent on the mission.”

“Sheesh! This drone’s barely more than a foal!” Silk exclaimed.

“That’s not all,” Pif said. “It sounds like Zark was bred specifically for this mission. He might not know anything of use to us.”

Lucida shook her head. “No – you’re forgetting that future-Chrysalis instructed Zark to tell her past self how he came to be there with Cirrus. Zark – pretend Epiphany is Chrysalis of this time, and tell her what you were instructed to say.”

Zark turned to face Pif and began reciting, “My Queen, I am special agent Zark, sent by your future self to correct wrongs done to you in the future. I have returned your daughter, Princess Gossamer, for the glory of the hive. Within my mind is stored all the knowledge that will enable you to conquer Equestria. I am at your command.” The changeling stopped abruptly.

“That’s all?” Lucida asked.


“What is the knowledge that you were to give Chrysalis?”

“I do not know.”

“How could you not know?”

“I have been mind-locked.”

“Oh, Sweet Celestia!” Pif exclaimed. “She didn’t!”

“Didn’t do what, Pif?” Lucida asked with a frown.

“The only reason to put a mind-lock on a drone is if there’s too much for the drone’s mind to contain. Chrysalis must have poured a significant portion of the hive’s knowledge into Zark and then locked it off so his brain would not burn out.”

“So if Chrysalis was to access it?”

“She would drain everything into the hive’s network, but Zark would not survive the process.”

“That’s cold,” Destined said with a shudder.

“Since when did Gramgram ever care about what happened to her drones?” Pif asked with a snarl.

“And the side-effect is that he can’t give away any secrets,” Lucida said with frustration written on her face. “He only knows what he needs to accomplish the mission, and no more.”

“Are you sure about that, Lucy?” Destined asked. “Zark, where is future-Chrysalis?”

“I do not know.”

“How did you get to the past?” Destined persisted.

“Queen Chrysalis took me to a room where several zebras were seated in a circle. I was placed in the middle of a pattern of stones inscribed with runes. A fire burned in the centre, and an old zebra threw something on the flames that filled the room with sweet smoke. The zebras started chanting, and a shadow grew out of Queen Chrysalis to surround the old zebra. I became dizzy and found myself endlessly falling until I emerged in the Canterlot Gardens.”

Destined looked at Lucida. “Are you thinking of Zebrican shamans too?”

“Their rune and potion magic is so much more different from pony magic, it’s not hard to believe that they have a way of time-travelling that we haven’t discovered. What I find interesting is that there were so many of them. I have never heard of more than two outside of their lands in any one place.”

“Sounds like there’s a strong possibility that Chrysalis fled to Zebrica and found allies.” Destined turned back to Zark. “Is Chrysalis’ new hive in Zebrica?”

For the first time, Zark hesitated before answering. “I have heard the name mentioned while I was nymph, but I do not know if that is significant.”

“Buck!” Pif swore. “Well, at least we still know more than we used to.”

“Could you tap Zark’s knowledge, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“I could if I had a network to work with. If I tried to take it all just by myself, I probably could, but it might be too much for me also.”

“So if you had access to the Chrome Hive’s network, you could get that information?”

“Easily, but Zark would still burn out.”

“You seem awfully concerned for a drone that would have killed Cirrus’ parents without compunction,” Lucida said with a frown.

Sterling spoke up for the first time. “Zark was apparently programmed to do a task from nymph-hood. He knows no other way of doing things. Queens can do that, but only Chrysalis practices that abomination.”

“How would you know that they don’t, Sterling?” Lucida asked.

“It is one of the Rules of the Forbidden that every 'ling knows, and to which all the Hives subscribe, excepting the Blue Hive apparently since Chrysalis stopped attending the Council of the Queens.”

“What other rules are there?” Silk asked curiously.

“Do Not Impersonate Royalty, for example,” Sterling replied.

Destined snorted and said, “That makes Chrysalis zero for two so far.”

“Really? You need to tell me about it.”

“I’ll tell you about a certain wedding later. Any other rules?”

“Plenty. Live and Let Live – do not interfere with another hive’s harvesters, or else they might interfere with you.”

“I don’t think I heard of her doing that.”

“We are Changelings, Not Animals – do not forcefully drain emotions like parasites.”

Pif laughed derisively. “That one’s such a big fail, it ought to count as two strikes.”

“Do not Dishonour the Queens – you do not have to follow their orders, but you should respect them, lest your Queen be disrespected by others.”

“I’d say that rule went out the window after Chrysalis went bonkers,” Lucida commented.

“We are felt but never seen – Every 'ling leaves their mark, but make sure yours is unseen.”

“Ooh! What’s that swarm of bugs?” Silk said melodramatically as he pretended to observe the Canterlot invaders. The others chuckled at that.

Sterling smiled too before saying the next rule. “Do Not Soil the Well – if another Harvester is collecting there, move on. His harvest will be richer, as will yours when you choose new territory.”

“Chrysalis wanted it all,” Destined commented. “However, I think we’re getting off subject here. What are we going to do about getting at Zark’s knowledge?”

Silk said, “Guys – I think you’re overlooking something else that Zark mentioned. What about that shadow that he said came out of Chrysalis? Is that significant?”

Destined screwed up his face in perplexity. “Yeah, that doesn’t seem to fit with anything we know about either the zebras or Chrysalis.”

Pif said, “It seems that Chrysalis is doing a lot of odd things lately, and this is just the latest. I’m going to guess that she’s found something new to augment her power though. Time-travelling is no easy task.”

“I suppose that’s one more thing that we won’t understand until we unlock the knowledge that Zark is carrying,” Lucida said as she turned to face the quiescent drone once more. “So much is tied up in this one changeling; perhaps even the way we can end this time-war forever. Looks like we’re going to have to wait another ten months before we can find out though.”

Pif cleared her throat, drawing the attention of all. “Well… not necessarily. If I can get hold of enough drones to build a mini-network, we can access it much sooner.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Sterling asked. “I can’t even contact my own hive because of this situation, so how are you going to get some drones, and Blues at that?”

“We know that in this time period, Chrysalis had already gone mad and had started her plans to take over Equestria. She was placing infiltrators in various positions to help make that easier. I have no qualms about taking them out of the picture, just like we did with Zark.”

The Red Changeling frowned in thought before responding, “Of course we’ve noticed Blue Changelings before, but always passed them off as Emotion Harvesters. This is a perfectly normal thing, as we’ve always ignored them as we have all the other hives’ Harvesters.”

“Probably most are just that,” Pif agreed. “However, a significant number are actually sleeper agents.”

“So you’re suggesting that we hunt them down, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“Yes. At worst we won’t lose anything by trying, and at best we can learn a lot more a great deal sooner.”

“You can’t just snatch the disguised drones!” Sterling said. “Their absence will be noticed, and won’t that cause a lot of disruption to History that you’re trying to avoid?”

Pif grinned smugly. “You’ve never met my lab assistants. I have a dozen drones that used to be part of Chrysalis’ network, but who now are faithful to me. I’m a Queen, Sterling, and I can swap those infiltrators to my network because even though I’m a mutant, I’m still a Blue. I’ve found that most drones will willingly work with me because, unlike Chrysalis, I treat them with respect. Once I have their cooperation, I can send them back to their assumed lives and they can continue doing whatever they are supposed to be doing. They just won’t respond to Chrysalis when the time of the invasion comes around, and by then it will be too late for Chrysalis to do anything about it.”

Sterling nodded thoughtfully. “I see what you mean. That sort of thing would not have occurred to me because utter loyalty is a hallmark of Red Changelings, but Chrysalis’ aberrations are an entirely different situation.”

“How do you intend to tell the Harvesters from the Infiltrators?”

“Oh, I have an idea. I’ll just ask them to report.”

Sterling blinked in confusion. “Report? What do you mean by that?”

“It means that I know my grandmother pretty well.” Magic fire swirled around Pif, and in her stead stood Queen Chrysalis. She now towered over Sterling, and she leaned down and said in exact imitation of the Queen’s imperial voice, “Drone – report your status!”

Sterling took a reflexive step backwards, and his jaw worked soundlessly for a few seconds before he shook his head to clear it. “Amazing! In spite of the fact that you’re not my Queen, I almost responded to your command.”

Lucida laughed in Chrysalis’ evil manner before shifting back to her normal guise. “Exactly. The drones will report without even realising that I’m tapping into them. If they’re normal Harvesters, I will tell them to carry on and to forget that I had been there. However, if they’re Infiltrators, they will reveal themselves, and I will take control of them like Zark. Once I have them debriefed, I will send them back to their normal pony lives, only they’ll be part of my mini-network from then on.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” Lucida declared. “Go ahead and do it, but please take utmost precautions, and try to let me know before you snatch any of them.”

“Why? You think I don’t know what I’m doing?”

“I’m just trying to keep this situation under control, Pif.”

“Yeah, we found out how well that worked out last time, didn’t we?” Pif replied snarkily.

“Are you going to keep nagging me over one mistake?”

“One huge mistake, and yes – I’m not happy at all to be stuck here because of it.”

“At least you’re stuck here with me,” Citrine said with a grin and a cuddle for Pif, trying to lighten the situation.

“I think we’re all frustrated due to this situation,” Destined said. “I suggest that we all take a break for now; perhaps get a start on finding a job. Anything to get our minds off this for a while.”

“Great idea, Des. Let’s go, Citrine.” Pif inclined her head towards the door and her companion took the hint.

“What about Zark?” Lucida protested.

“He’s not going to do a thing!” Pif shot back before she pointedly slammed the door.

After the couple had left the room, Destined said, “I’ll get back to you later, Lucy. Silk, how about we go out for dinner? We haven’t had a chance to… have a date… since we’ve been here,” he added shyly.

Silk brightened considerably. “Don’t mind if I do, Des! Thanks for asking!”

The two quickly followed in Pif and Citrine’s hoofsteps.

Lucida’s shoulders slumped when the door closed behind the two stallions. “The team’s falling apart, and it’s my fault,” she said morosely.

Sterling came over to the hippogriff and put a reassuring arm around her. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it from me – a commanding officer is never going to be perfect, and as your team’s leader, you will inevitably make mistakes like this time. You have to own those mistakes, learn from them, and move on.”

“But I’ve lost their confidence! They’ve all just walked out on me!”

“Take it from a Red Changeling – you haven’t lost the loyalty of a single one of them. They’re just angry, but I’ve been with this group long enough now to know that they’ll get over it. Trust in your team members’ judgement and cut them some slack. Know when to command and when to let them do their own thing independently. You have family, not drones.”

Lucida sniffled a bit as she laid her head against his neck. “Thanks. Now I know why your alternative history self was so instrumental in pony-changeling relations when you started going about undisguised. You really understand us.”

“Comes of emulating a pony for so long. Still gives me the creeps thinking about walking around in public in my natural form though,” he added with a chuckle.

Lucida giggled. “You would survive it, just like I’ll survive this incident.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, I reckon Destined had the right idea. Let’s go find some comfort food.”

Lucida gestured at the silent changeling drone. “What will we do about Zark?”

“He’s enthralled to Epiphany, and under orders to obey you. Do whatever you wish.”

Lucida went over to Zark and pointed to a corner of the room. Go over there and sit down. Don’t do anything until I return.”

Zark walked over and sat down without a word.

“That’s just a little bit unsettling,” Lucida said.

“If it makes you feel any better, I find it disturbing too. Still, he’s harmless for now. Let’s go eat.”

“Lead the way!”

All of the couples went straight back to their respective rooms that evening, and Lucida decided to let them sleep on the problem for now. She was happy to see them all gather as normal in her room the following morning, with the obvious exception of Cinder. When Blue arrived, Lucida gave him a questioning look.

Blue gave a deep sigh. “Look, I’m still annoyed by what you’ve got us into, but what’s done is done. It’s time to deal with this new situation and move on. Don’t try to talk to Cinder for a few days though. You should know by now how long it takes for dragons to calm their anger.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind, Blue. Now, before we go to breakfast, has anyone come up with anything new that’s relevant to this situation?” Lucida looked hopefully at Destined.

The alicorn shrugged. “Yes and no. I wracked my brain last night, but there’s no way that I can think of avoiding a ten-month stay short of forcing Cinder to come back with us. Stop glaring at me, Blue! I’m not proposing that we do that. Just saying, is all. However, if changing History is our sole other major problem, I’d like to point out that after the eggs hatch, we can jump back in time to just after we had caught the agent, and start a new History track that omits whatever we do in those ten months. We can then jump forward to our proper time.”

Lucida nodded. “If that’s the best you have to offer, then I suppose we will have to go with that. Anyone disagree?” She looked around at the others’ faces, but they had nothing to offer. “Okay, let’s go get breakfast before we talk about what we’re going to do for the best part of the year.”

“For now, I’m going to keep a watch on Cirrus,” Sterling declared when they had returned from breakfast for a team meeting. “If he was a target for Chrysalis now, it stands to reason that she could try again.”

“That’s a good point, Sterling,” Lucida said with a thoughtful nod. “In fact, that gives me an idea about what I could do for a job if I can pull it off. Seeing as Cirrus is going to school now, it would be good to have someone on the inside there to watch him during school hours. I’m going to apply for a teaching job.”

“Are you sure, Lucy?” Destined asked. “I know you’ve taught a few classes for our House, but those were all older students.”

“Not all of them. Parents have been enrolling their foals and chicks at much younger ages nowadays as House Path’s prestige has grown. Admittedly none as young as Cirrus, but at least I have had some experience with youngsters.”

“If you reckon you’re up for it, then I say go for it. As Sterling said, Cirrus could be targeted again, and it would save us a lot of trouble if we can deal with it immediately rather than go about it the long way again.”

“I’ll check it out this morning. Anyone else have any ideas about what to do to earn some money?”

“I’m going to check out any spas and such to see if I can put my skills to work,” Silk said.

“Aren’t you concerned about standing out too much?” Lucida asked.

“Look, I know thestrals were rarely seen in Canterlot before Luna returned and brought in some for her Lunar Guard, but we aren’t a complete anomaly like an undisguised changeling would be. I’d like to get back into my profession again.”

“Fair enough, I suppose.”

“And I am still prepared to do evening shifts watching over Cirrus. Sterling doesn’t have to do all the work.”

“Thanks, Silk. You’ve really become a useful member of this team, even if you came by accident.”

“Don’t mention it, Lucida. Believe it or not, I’ve been enjoying myself. Worse things than being stranded with your coltfriend,” he added with a wink at Destined who blushed furiously.

Lucida came to her brother’s rescue. “So, Des, have you thought of something to do?”

Destined shook his head. “I’ve been too preoccupied with our predicament to give it much thought. Maybe I’ll do the same as you? I’ve always been in an academic situation, and seeing as this is a primarily unicorn city, perhaps I could teach elementary magic?”

“That would certainly be your forte. Let’s go together and apply this morning.”

“Umm… do you realise that a hippogriff teacher would tend to stand out in Cirrus’ memory as he grows up? Wouldn’t he find it strange that Lucida Path looks exactly like a former teacher?”

“Well, we should be going back to the future before we cover that time track again, but you do have a point, Des. Could you do a disguise for me with your illusions?”

“I could, but you do know the limitations of them? They require constant upkeep, and there’s always the possibility of being seen through, especially in the long term. I do have an alternative to suggest though.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a spell that I have concocted that combines transmogrification with illusion that will have a permanent effect until the spell is used again. I designed it specifically with our missions in mind, but up until now, such a drastic spell hasn’t been needed.”

“What’s the drawbacks? Any side effects?”

“Nope! I’ve thoroughly tested it in Mom’s laboratory. She helped me tighten up the formula, and has approved its usage.”

“Oh. You had me worried there.”

“Yeah, there’s absolutely almost no chance of me turning you into a chicken,” Destined said with a wink at the others.

Lucida glared at Destined as everyone chuckled. “Alright, smart-ass. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Destined smiled confidently as Lucida placed herself right in front of him. His horn lit up as he wrote the spell in his mind and funnelled mana into it. A beam of magic enveloped Lucida, and when the glow died, a very different hippogriff now stood before him.

Lucida looked at herself and noted the bright white feathers of her griffin half, and the golden coat of her pony half. “Hmm, so much different from my normal looks. I like it! What about my cutie mark though?”

Destined shrugged. “Cutie marks have their own special magic, and Mom advised me to never meddle with them. Yours isn’t so unusual that it will stand out too much anyway.”

“Okay, I can live with that. What about you and your wings though?”

“Maintaining an illusion on myself is a lot easier, but I do have another idea. Seeing as a large proportion of Canterlot ponies prefer to wear some form of clothing, I’m thinking of getting some sort of coat to keep my wings covered. Not only would I look more professional, the extra bulk would also make me look a bit more solidly built.”

Sterling said, “Take it from me – subtle changes like that make very effective disguises. You will still have to control your reactions though. Pegasi and alicorns tend to be expressive with their wings.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be the hardest part. Anyway, that’s my plan for now. Anyone else?”

Blue said, “I’ll be wanting to spend a lot more time with Cinder, but I’m thinking that a good part-time job for me would be as a courier. Even without stretching my super speed, I can navigate the streets of Canterlot as fast as a pegasus, and get into more awkward places. It’s the kind of job that I don’t have to be doing all day, so it would give me flexibility.”

“That leaves Pif and Citrine,” Lucida said. “Any ideas, girls?”

Pif snorted. “Oh, yeah. I came up with the perfect idea last night. Remember how I was so pissed off with that institute that orphaned Cirrus was put into? Well, I’m going to do something about that.”

“But if we go back to the future after looping back in time, anything that you do there won’t happen.”

“Don’t care, Lucy. I’m not going to spend ten months here knowing what’s going on in there, and not do anything about it.”

Lucida held up her talons in surrender. “I won’t stop you. In fact, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t let you even if we weren’t going to cover our tracks later.”

“Thanks. If nothing else, I might know what to do about it when we get back to our own time. I’ll also be keeping a watch for Blue Changeling infiltrators.”

Lucida looked at Citrine. “That just leaves you. Got something in mind yet?”

The crystal pony looked thoughtful for a moment. “Remember that griffin tavern we went to the other night, Pif?”

“The Broken Beak? What about it?”

“I saw a sign that they’re looking for bartenders.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s the roughest and rowdiest bar in Canterlot, and maybe one of the worst in Equestria! Why do you think they’re looking for staff? Because they don’t last in a place like that!”

“Think I can’t handle myself in there?” Citrine asked with a confident smirk.

Blue said, “You’ve seen her fight, Pif; Citrine’s a brawler without peer. I think she’ll be able to hold her own in there.”

Pif nodded reluctantly. “Just be careful, okay?”

Citrine grinned and hugged Pif. “I’ll always be back for snuggles at night.”

The way she said snuggles left no doubt in the minds of all the others that she had something else in mind.

The big hawk-faced griffin threw back his head and screeched in laughter. “You? A little pony bartending here? You wouldn’t last five minutes!”

Citrine gave the bar owner her biggest and most confident grin. “Try me! If I can last a shift, you hire me full-time. If I don’t, you don’t have to pay me a single bit. Whaddya say?”

Garth chuckled some more. He had to credit the pony’s audacity, and he was curious enough to see what happened. “Deal. See Gail behind the bar. She’ll show you the ropes.”

Citrine headed off to the bar, and Garth watched with a grin. He noted one of his regular customers and equally regular trouble-maker had already noticed the pony. “Five minutes?” he murmured. “She’ll be lucky to make it to three!”

Sure enough, even as Gail was showing Citrine the various liquors that they had available, the golden eagle/leopard-spotted griffin that Garth was watching meandered up to the two. He put his talons up on the bar and loomed over them. “What the fuck is a pony doing in here?” he growled.

The griffin was easily almost double Citrine’s size, but she grinned up at him undeterred. “I’m the new hire. Can I help you, sir?”

“You can help me by getting your puny pony ass out of here!” he roared in her face.

“Sorry – not going to happen. Can I interest you in a drink?”

Gail was trying hard to stifle a laugh at Citrine’s impudence, while the customer’s face was starting to grow darker with anger.

“I’ll drink your blood!” the griffin screamed, reaching for the irksome pony.

A minute later, the griffin found himself outside in the street, sprawled upside down among the planter boxes decorating the road, blood dripping from a smashed beak. “Wha… what happened?” he asked dazedly.

“That’s why they call this place The Broken Beak,” Citrine informed him cheerily before going back inside.

Garth stared at the pony incredulously. He had seen it all happen with his own two eyes, and still couldn’t credit how the pony had so effortlessly dealt with one of his worst customers. He didn’t care if she was the worst bartender in history – he had just found his new bouncer!

The school principal looked at the odd pair seated in front of her. “Brother and sister, you say?”

“Same father, different mothers,” Lucida explained.

“Obviously, Miss Lightgiver. You’re only the second hippogriff that I have ever seen, but I do know how it works. Anyway, this is most unusual as we have already started the new school year. However, due to an unexpected retirement of one teacher, and another having been called away to tend to a very ill father, we have found ourselves a bit short-staffed.” She shuffled the papers that they had given her for references. Destined had enchanted them with a spell that made her see what she expected to see in those documents. “Your details seem to be in order, and I believe we can take you on. I am particularly pleased that you have indicated that you enjoy working with young foals, Miss Lightgiver, as we have a class full of them that have need of your skills. Instructor Lengthy Numbers is a little out of her depth,” she added with a wry smile.

Lucida chuckled dutifully.

The principal then looked at Destined. “As for you, Mr. Fate, while you indicate that you have degrees in advanced spellcasting, I hope that you will be able to assist in teaching the fundamentals to the young unicorns also.”

Destined a.k.a. Inevitable Fate smiled at the principal. “All advanced knowledge is built on a firm foundation of basic magic theory. I would be happy to teach that as well, Miss Chalkboard.”

“Excellent! It’s almost time for the lunchtime break, so I will be able to introduce you to the other members of the teaching staff, and we can devise a new schedule to fit you in. You can both start tomorrow morning. Welcome to Canterlot Junior School.” She stood up and shook hooves with both of them.

The despatcher blinked in disbelief. “You’re back already?”

Blue passed the receipt to him.

The pegasus stared at the proof, then looked back up at Blue Streak. “You’re hired!”

Pif nodded politely as she was introduced to her new co-workers. She had almost not gotten the job, and it had taken the application of a bit of changeling magic to get the boss to change her mind. Pif did not intend to tell Lucida that she had temporarily enthralled the boss to get the position though, but this was too important to her for her to be prevented from helping the powerless children in the institute’s care. She had taken on the responsibility of righting a wrong, and if she had to be a bit pragmatic about how she accomplished that, then so be it!

Silk glared angrily at the sign in the spa’s window that advertised for staff. At least the manager had been honest about it, unlike all the other places that he had tried.

“Nobody is gonna want a creepy bat-pony putting their hooves on them,” the manager had told him bluntly.

Silk knew that attitudes towards thestrals had improved a lot over the years, but until now he had no idea how badly they were regarded before Luna had brought them back into the community. Now he wasn’t sure what he was going to do if that was the kind of response he was going to get from all potential employers. He had to think about the situation more.

The thestral spread his wings and flew off to somewhere secluded, and considerably more shaded, to ponder his dilemma.

That afternoon before they went out to dinner, they gathered as usual in Lucida’s room. Sterling was the last to arrive, having waited until Cirrus was safely at home with his parents, plus a bit more time after that. Lucida addressed the changeling Guardsman as he entered the room.

“Looks like you and Silk are the only ones not to get a job.”

“Funny that you should mention that,” Sterling replied. “I can’t rejoin the Royal Guard because they don’t know me at this time, and I’m too old to be accepted as a new recruit, but seeing Zephyr reminded me that the City Guard could use somepony with my experience, so I went by Zephyr’s watch house to check out the possibility. They’re having a recruitment drive next week, and I believe I can get a position there.”

That sounds good, although it isn’t really necessary. Enough of us have jobs now to cover our costs with a bit to spare.”

Sterling frowned at Lucida. “Do you think I would shirk my duty just because of these unusual circumstances? I swore an oath to the Crown that I would protect the princesses and the people of Equestria. If I can’t do that as a Royal Guard, I will do it in whatever other way that I can. The money is irrelevant.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that, Sterling. You’ve done and are still doing lots for the benefit of Equestria.”

Sterling shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. I overreacted. It hasn’t been easy for me being disconnected from my hive and my career.”

Pif said, “I know exactly how you feel. I’ve had more practice with it, and I still hate it.”

Silk sighed. “I don’t know about hive-networks and such, but I am feeling a bit isolated too. I’m the only thestral here, and I’m pretty much unwanted.”

“That’s because you’re looking in the wrong place,” Citrine said with a smirk.

Silk gave Citrine a hard look. “What do you mean?”

“I know a place where they won’t give a damn what you are, as long as you can hold your own.”

“And that is…?”

“The Broken Beak Tavern, of course. Bar of choice for some of the rowdiest and liveliest griffons in Canterlot. Only took disposing of one obnoxious griff for me to get respect there. I’m gonna enjoy that job. So can you if you want. Garth was advertising for more than one new bartender, and he still needs someone for the evening shift. Think you can handle it?”

Silk smirked. “Well, I know my way around a bar. I didn’t exactly grow up in the lap of luxury, y’know? Life was tough for many years, and I had to be tougher.”

“That explains how you were able to fight so well when we were dealing with Queen Gossamer’s minions,” Blue commented. “I didn’t catch much of it due to being enthralled at the time, but I noticed you came through unscathed.”

“Yeah, I’ve had my share of fights when growing up. I also have my secret weapon.”

“Secret weapon? You never told me about that,” Destined said with curiosity written on his face.

“Believe me, you don’t want me to demonstrate,” Silk said with a smirk.

Garth stared at the odd bat-winged pegasus for a long time before saying, “It must be my day for getting surprises. Okay, why do you think you’re good for the job?”

“Yellow Quartz sent me. She said the job would suit me,” Silk replied with a grin, name-dropping Citrine’s alias.

The pony had fangs! And Quartz recommended him? This he had to see for himself. “Okay, pal, I’ll give you the same deal that I gave Quartz. If you last a shift, you’re hired. If you don’t, I won’t pay you a single bit.”

“Sounds good to me. Want me to start right away?”

Garth gestured toward the bar. “Go see Giselle. She’ll get you up to speed.”

Silk nodded and headed to the bar.

Garth surveyed his customers. As it happened, he didn’t have any of his rowdiest customers here at the moment, but that would change soon. He noticed that his current clientele were giving the bat-pony cautious looks. Considering his odd appearance, they didn’t know what to make of him right now. That would quickly change, especially when a couple of his evening patrons turned up. Garth found himself unexpectedly looking forward to that. For now though, he turned back to the actual business of running the bar.

It was about half an hour later when a grizzled griffoness entered the bar. She wasn’t as big as the cock that Quartz had thrown out of the bar, but she was easily the worst of his customers to ever cross. She hated anyone not a griffon, and not a few of those too. Garth constantly wondered what kept the hen in Canterlot; sheer stubbornness he supposed. She regarded the tavern as a sanctuary against all she despised. Garth put aside his work and propped up his head on one taloned hand to watch the entertainment.

The griffoness stomped up to the bar, and then froze when she spotted the bat-pony. Her hackles rose and tail lashed, and she hissed in anger. “Shards! What the fuck is this thing doing in here?!

Silk turned to the griffoness and smiled. “This thing is here to bartend. How can I serve you?”

She smiled nastily. “You can serve me by letting me work out my frustrations on you.”

“Wouldn’t you prefer a nice strong drink instead?” Silk suggested, his smile only slipping a little.

“Fucking smart-ass!” The she-griff grabbed Silk by the jacket that Giselle had given him that had the tavern’s logo stitched on it. It was meant for a bigger griffon and not for a small pony, so there was plenty of slack for her talons to latch onto. She hauled Silk over the bar and her other arm swung back to rake him with her talons.

Silk opened his mouth wide and emitted a super-high-pitched screech.

Garth slapped his hands over his ears in pain, as did the rest of the customers in the bar. However, the screech was focused on Silk’s aggressor, and she screamed in agony, dropping the bat-pony and covering her ears also. The damage was done though, and she stumbled away from the bar, extremely dizzy. She fell over and tried to get back up again, but fell over once more, groaning in pain. Try as she might, she could not get her balance.

Silk walked around the bar and hooked a foreleg around the griffoness’ tail. He then dragged her to the entrance as she squawked in pain and frustration. Garth and the customers heard him loudly speak to her, presumably to get past the ringing in her ears.

“Come back when you’re ready to order a drink, and not give me attitude!”

The bat-pony then strolled back into the tavern and looked at the stunned griffons. “Sorry about that, guys. Some griffs just don’t wanna behave themselves though. Personally I would have settled for an Eyrish whiskey, but if it’s a fight she wants….” He shrugged.

He let the sentence hang, and the clientele got the hint – don’t mess with the bat-pony!

Garth chuckled. He hoped that the griffoness would be back – she was always a big spender. This day’s entertainment had been priceless though. “I wonder if Quartz has more surprising friends?” he muttered before getting back to work.

The team soon settled into a new routine. Sterling successfully applied for a position in the City Guard and soon made himself popular by taking the undesirable evening shifts. That left him free to watch over Cirrus during the daytime while the others worked. When Cirrus was at school, the main responsibility fell on Lucida and Destined until school was done for the day, and then Sterling resumed his watch until Cirrus had his dinner. Then one of the other team members would take over for the evening watch until midnight while he went to work. He would come back to Lucida’s room in the early hours to curl up on her sofa to sleep for a few hours until it was time to get up and start all over again.

One morning, Sterling woke up to see Lucida watching him with concern.

“Is something the matter?” he asked.

“I’m worried about you, Sterling. You work long hours and barely sleep any.”

Sterling smiled reassuringly. “Changelings don’t really need much sleep. As long as we have sufficient positive emotional energy to keep us going, then we’re able to go on with only an hour or two of sleep at most. Pif is really spoiled in that regard. Or maybe Queens need more sleep than drones? I really don’t know, but I assure you that I am fine.”

“But are you really getting enough energy? You don’t have a partner like Pif does.”

“For starters, as a Harvester, I usually have to drain off a large proportion of the emotional energy that I gather so that it can be sent to the hive. Cut off from my hive like I am, I get to keep all that energy for myself, and believe me, with all the love and loyalty this family of yours has leaking from them constantly, I am very well fed.”

Lucida looked relieved. “That’s good, but surely that sofa isn’t the most comfortable bed?”

Sterling laughed. “I admit I’ve slept on far better, but it’s okay.”

“Well, I won’t mind if you use the bed. It’s more than big enough for the two of us.”

Sterling raised an eyebrow that he didn’t have in his natural form, but couldn’t help using in his unicorn guise. He opened his mouth to taste the emotions in the air – admiration… dedication… attraction? He didn’t know how he should take this. He was significantly older than her, and of a totally different time. They were thrown together by circumstance rather than as a consequence of socialising, but they worked together well. She was with her family and yet still alone while the others had partners. Should he encourage this, or gently steer her away? It was not as if he needed her affection – as he had told her, he was well fed. A relationship would only complicate his work. And yet the idea was appealing, and she would not have to be alone. He decided that he would take this one step at a time, and see what developed.

“Thank you. I think I’ll take advantage of that offer.”

Lucida smiled happily. “Good. I’ll go make us some breakfast.”

Sterling watched her go, enjoying the sweet happiness that she had exuded. This was a nice start to the morning. He looked forward to seeing what happened in the coming days.

Pif discovered her first Blue Changeling that morning, but was disappointed to find out that it was an ordinary Harvester. A little ashamed of having terrified the innocent drone, she erased the incident from its mind before sending it on its way. As she made her way to the Displaced Foundlings Institute, she pondered her technique. She had to be extremely careful not to alert the current-day Chrysalis to her presence, and impersonating the Queen focused the drone’s attention on herself rather than the real Chrysalis’s presence on the hive network. However, she had not anticipated the level of fear such a confrontation would cause. She had only ever known what it was like in Chrysalis’ new hive built after her defeat by House Path, and she did not have normal Harvesters anymore. No wonder Elusive Clue and Whirring Cogs had defected from the Blue Hive after the Canterlot Wedding disaster. Pif decided that she would have to try to be more subtle next time.

As Pif mounted the steps of the DFI, she shuddered at the foul taste of the emotions leaking from within. She took a deep breath and braced herself to endure it for the day. “Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without some sacrifice, Epiphany,” she reminded herself as she opened the doors and stepped within.

Lucida spent the morning familiarising herself with the pupils. Her first class did not include Cirrus or Long Path, but giving lessons to a slightly older group of foals helped settle the butterflies in her stomach. The second class was the first-grade students, and as most, if not all, of the students had never seen a hippogriff before, Miss Chalkboard introduced her to the foals first. As Lucida had expected, she had spent that initial period talking more about herself, although she had to concoct a few stories to cover the parts she could not tell them. By the time that she was done, virtually all the students had gotten comfortable with their odd new teacher, which was exactly as Lucida planned. This was going to work out beautifully!

This was a disaster! She never knew what a bunch of brats so many unicorn foals could be! They were never this bad in Ponyville! Lucida had always thought that her parents had exaggerated the degree of snobbery that the Canterlot unicorns exhibited, and surely foals this young would not be affected? Lucida groaned. It seemed the teacher was the one learning the lesson today. Her plan had backfired mightily. They had gotten so comfortable with her that they did not respect her authority. She was not a unicorn, after all. If it got any worse, Miss Chalkboard might suspect her supposed love of teaching youngsters. Now what would her parents do in this situation?

Then Lucida recalled some of the delegates that she had negotiated with. Despite their greater age, more than once she had mentally compared them to bratty children, and she had to play to their foibles to reach mutually acceptable agreements. This time she had actual children, but would the same techniques work with them? She shrugged. If they were this class-conscious at their age, they were probably susceptible to the traits that went with it. It was certainly worth a try.

“Attention, class!”

It took a little while to get the foals quiet enough for her to continue, but eventually they settled down.

“Who hopes to go to Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns one day?”

Every unicorn foal stuck up a hoof, and Lucida grinned to herself. Of course they all did. They were perfect and talented foals – their parents said so! Of course they were going to Celestia’s school. The fact was that many of them could not even levitate anything as yet, and few if any would make it that far. They did not have to know that however.

“Miss Chalkboard has asked me to look out for particularly talented foals to recommend for extra training to help them get into Princess Celestia’s school.” Lucida put on a sorrowful face. “I’m so sad that I have not found any yet. All I seem to have in this class are naughty fillies and colts who are not interested in learning and becoming great unicorn mages.”

That was laying it on a bit thick, but it seemed to be doing the job. Several of the foals were already protesting that they could too be great mages.

“Well, if you really think you can do it, then you had better show me that you know your numbers and letters first. I won’t recommend any foal who can’t read or add and subtract at the end of the year.”

That did the trick. Those who genuinely believed that they were good enough for Celestia’s school immediately started paying more attention. Others who were not so confident, but who would not be caught dead looking as if they anything but the best, also began to take things more seriously. Lucida heaved a sigh of relief. She had them under control for now, but tonight she was going to talk with the rest of the team and get their input on how best to handle young students. This was not going to be easy, and she was going to need all the help that she could get.

Recess came as a relief to Lucida in spite of the attitude improvement, and she sighed as she sat down to watch the foals at play. Soon she was joined by a blue stallion with a white mane.

“How’s it going, sis?”

“Just be glad that you’re a unicorn, ‘Fate’,” Lucida replied. “At first I was a curiosity, but then I became one of the lower-class species who could be ignored. I reckon that if I wasn’t half pony, they wouldn’t have paid any attention to me at all. What do these Canterlot unicorns teach their foals?!”

Destined put a reassuring arm around the hippogriff. “It’s just your first day, and those foals are still feeling you out to see how much they can get away with. I think you lack that experience, whereas I got to grow up with more ponies, so I remember what it’s like. First time it has been an advantage for me being the younger brother though.”

Lucida chuckled. “I suppose you’re right. I think I have them under control for the moment, but I’ll be wanting to have a family chat about this tonight. I could use some of your insight into…”


“What the…?” Destined gasped.

They looked to the right in the direction of the noise and saw a rapidly spreading ring of rainbow colours.

“Sweet Celestia!” Lucida gasped. “That’s today!” She leapt into the air, spread her wings, and rapidly headed towards the castle.

All the students were distracted by the rainboom, and Destined ducked back into a doorway, shucked his coat, and switched illusions to show him as a pegasus instead. Intense training enabled him to do all this in mere seconds, and he was quickly in pursuit of his sister. He had almost caught up to her when another noise was heard.


Lucida had not been heading towards the castle itself, but a building adjoining it – Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. A dragon’s head had just burst through the roof and rubble was showering down the sides. Fortunately no pony was close enough to be harmed, but it sure was attracting attention. Destined spotted a white alicorn heading towards the source of the disturbance and entering the building. He joined Lucida who was now hovering over the hole in the roof where the huge but youthful-looking dragon was sitting quietly. They could clearly see through the gap where a very small purple unicorn was glowing with immense power, power that she clearly could not control.

“That’s Mom!” Destined said with astonishment.

“Yeah. This is the day that Celestia takes her in as her personal student,” Lucida replied.

They watched as Celestia approached Twilight and placed a hoof on the filly’s shoulder, calming her down. The immense aura of magical power faded and the various effects of it reversed. The dragon suddenly shrank down to the baby that was Spike, and they had an even better view of the events. They were too high to hear Celestia ask Twilight to be her protégée, but they knew exactly what she said, and what would come next. Celestia pointed at Twilight’s flank, and suddenly the filly was bouncing around the alicorn in joy at the discovery of her cutie mark.

After Celestia led off Twilight along with her parents, Lucida said, “We’d better get back to the school.”

Destined nodded as he turned to follow her. “I never thought I’d get to see that moment in Mom’s life.”

“Me neither. I never thought I’d be thankful for Chrysalis’ time-meddling, but for once it’s brought something positive into our lives.”

“Yeah. No wonder Mom became the Avatar of Magic and an Element Bearer. I never did anything like that as a foal.”

Lucida giggled. “No, you only teleported between continents when you were just twelve years old, and can manipulate time without a spell. Momma Twilight never did that. I reckon you could be a great Avatar of Magic.”

Destined snorted. “What? And go around with Mom’s friends using the power of Harmony against Equestria’s enemies? Yeah, sure! Besides, Sunset Shimmer has the backup Avatar position sewn up, and Starlight Glimmer has got to be another potential Avatar Mom’s age.”

Lucida swung close by to punch Destined in the shoulder. “Stop putting yourself down. Who says it has to be Mom’s friends anyway? In theory, it just takes six ponies with the required attributes.”

“All I’ve got is smart-ass siblings,” he replied with a smirk.

Lucida would have retorted to that, but they reached the school grounds then, and had to discreetly rejoin the foals. The task was made a lot easier by the number of other pegasi who had left to gawk at the spectacle, and served as a distraction. Destined was able to resume his Inevitable Fate guise without a problem just as the end of recess bell rang out.

“Well, let’s see if the rest of the day is half as interesting,” Destined said as he left for his class.

“I’d settle for calm and uneventful,” Lucida muttered as her foals headed in her direction.

“I brought home steaks!” Pif announced. “Who wants one?”

There was a chorus of replies in the affirmative. Because meat-eating ponies stood out too much when they were trying to be unnoticed, the steaks were a rare treat for most of those who enjoyed the odd inclusion to their diet. Both Cinder and Lucida needed some meat regularly, but the others had no such excuse.

“What’s the occasion, Pif?” Blue asked.

“Well, I could say that it’s to celebrate Momma Twilight getting her cutie mark today, but really it’s because I felt like some comfort food. I had a rough day.”

“Sorry to hear that, sis. Want to talk about it?”

“Not really. You’ve already heard what I discovered about the DFI. Now I have to worm my way into that mess. The sooner that I expose the corruption in there, the better. Right now though, I want something special to take my mind off it all.”

“Want me to cook them up for you?”

“Thanks, Blue. I know you’re the best steak chef among us.”

“And I know all your preferences too. Did you get an extra marbled one for Cinder?”

“Of course. The butcher was rather surprised that I wanted so many lean steaks though. I couldn’t tell him that most of them were going to be eaten by ponies. I was in griffon guise, of course.”

Blue headed off to the kitchen with the steaks while Pif settled with a sigh of relief on the sofa next to Citrine. The crystal pony put an arm around Pif and kissed her.

“Need a recharge, love?”

“You know it, hon.” Pif returned the kiss and carefully extracted the love energy that Citrine freely offered. The crystal pony sometimes seemed like an unceasing font of love and joy, and the changeling blessed the day that she had come into her life. Pif could not understand what about her had attracted Citrine, but she now felt the same way about this pony, and would never harm her. She drank enough of emotional energy to deal with the effects of the negative emotions she had endured all day, and then kissed Citrine some more with passion rather than thirst.

“Hey, you two! You have your own room, y’know?” Lucida scolded, but with humour in her voice.

Citrine grinned unapologetically, and Pif leaned back into the sofa with a contented sigh. “Ah! Much better!” she announced.

“Good,” Lucida said with a nod. “While Blue is cooking the steaks, I’d like to have a family discussion. Silk has to leave for work straight after the meal, so I’d like to get this done now.”

“Probably a good idea,” Pif agreed. “I’d like to spend the rest of the evening not thinking about what happened today.”

Lucida told them all about her experiences with the young foals that day, and then asked for comments and suggestions. Silk proved to be surprisingly helpful because of his own experiences, although from the perspective of the student rather than the teacher.

“I grew up in a rough environment, and the teachers had to be tough to do their job. Let me tell you about my favourite ones.”

By the time that Blue served up the steaks along with vegetables that had been prepared earlier, Lucida had been able to formulate a few strategies to deal with her students. Tomorrow was looking a lot more promising.

Blue Streak had saved up the large marbled steak for preparing later when he went back to the room that he shared with Cinder. He cooked it up along with a lot of mushrooms in a pepper sauce that she liked, and served it up at the table.

“Come and get it, Cinder!” he called.

“I’m not leaving our eggs!” she called back.

Blue went into the bedroom where his dragon mate still lay coiled around the two eggs. “You know, you can’t spend the next ten months like that.”

“I can, and I will,” she retorted firmly.

Blue chuckled. “Even dragons need to use the bathroom occasionally.” He climbed onto the bed next to Cinder. “Here, let me protect them for a while,” he said earnestly.

Cinder lifted her head from where it had lain on top of the eggs. She gazed into his eyes and smiled. “My warrior. My mate. Protector of our children.” She leaned forward to kiss him. “I trust you.” She uncoiled from around the eggs and slid off the bed.

Blue arranged himself around the eggs as best as he could, not possessing a dragon’s flexibility. It earned a nod of satisfaction from Cinder though, and she left the room to enjoy her meal.

This was the first time that Blue had gotten so intimate with the eggs, and he felt a sudden upwelling of emotion. Despite their plans, he had never felt as much of a father as at this moment. Two lives conceived by him, and now dependent on him to protect them until they hatched. It was humbling and uplifting all at the same time.

Blue noted how much warmer the eggs were than him, just like Cinder, and he began to worry if he was keeping them warm enough. Maybe if he did a super-speed gallop, he would be hot enough to make up the difference, but he couldn’t leave the eggs to do that. Then he recalled an incident on a camping trip when he had nearly set fire to the tent as he had idly vibrated his hoof on some firewood. At his abnormal speed, those vibrations generated enough heat to cause the branch to burst into flame, and he had flung it away in surprise, landing right next to the tent flap. A swift response had saved their tent, but it still earned him a scolding. However, with some care, he could put that experience to use today. He carefully vibrated his limbs around the egg, and felt the heat being generated. When Cinder returned, the eggs were nicely toasty warm. Unlike tents, dragons and their eggs were fireproof, so at least Blue did not have to worry about overdoing it.

Apparently Cinder found the scenario very hot in more than one way, because what followed was some awkward but passionate love-making. Sometimes Blue wondered what it was like for normal ponies, but he decided that he didn’t care enough to find out. As far as he was concerned, this was perfect.

Sterling came home that evening and hung up his cape, using the Blue Changeling agent like a coat rack. Since it had been told to stand in the corner and await further orders, the enthralled 'ling had stood there unmoving, and it amused the Red Changeling to put it to practical use. Sterling was not concerned about its welfare – there was enough ambient love to sustain the agent indefinitely.

Lucida walked out of the bedroom and said, “Welcome home. Do you want something to eat?”

“That would be nice, thanks.”

“I’ll cook it up right now then. Give me ten minutes.”

“I’ll have a shower while you’re doing that.” Sterling headed for the bathroom. Upon his return, Lucida was just serving up the food. “This looks great. I hope you don’t think I expect you to do this for me every day though?”

Lucida giggled. “Not really, but Pif brought home steaks, and he brought enough for you too, so I wasn’t going to let someone else snag it first.”

“I see. Well, I’m grateful anyway. However, I’m a little surprised that a noble of your stature can cook so well.”

Lucida passed the salt shaker to Sterling and replied, “Neither of my dads started as nobles, and Mama Twilight didn’t start as a princess either. All of us kids got a very down-to-earth education, and we all can cook a little bit at least. Washing the dishes instead of the House staff was a favourite punishment. Consequently none of us are too proud or incompetent to do ordinary stuff like this.”

Sterling chuckled. “I commend your parents. Anyway, how was your day?”

Lucida sighed. “I’d rather not talk about it anymore. Let’s just say that it was a learning experience, and I expect tomorrow to be a lot better. How about you?”

“Uneventful; just the way I prefer it. I saw you take off after that rainbow explosion this morning. Naturally I stayed to watch Cirrus.”

“I figured you would still be playing guardian despite him being at school with us.”

“Neither you nor Destined will be his teacher for every period, so I will still be on watch at those times.”

“You are amazingly dedicated, Sterling.”

“I am a Red Changeling – that is what we do.”

Lucida shook her head. “Even for a Red, you’re exceptional. Your alternate history self was remarkable also, so I think you’re being a little too modest.”

Sterling smiled slightly at that. “Perhaps, but it makes me happy to do my duty.”

“And it makes me happy to reward you just a little for doing that,” Lucida replied before she yawned widely. “Pardon me – it’s been a long and difficult day for me. I’ll be getting off to an early start tomorrow so that I can make some preparations before class, and I’m going to head off to bed now.”

“Rest well, Lucida.”

The hippogriff paused before the bedroom door. “Remember, you can share the bed with me if you wish.”

“I remember,” Sterling said with a reassuring smile.

The Red Changeling finished his meal and took the dirty plate and cutlery into the kitchen where he washed them and put them in the rack to dry. He then turned off the light in the kitchen and the living room before heading for the bedroom. A small nightlight showed Lucida apparently asleep already on one side of the large bed, and he paused to watch her for a moment. Sterling had known fellow Harvesters to take on pony partners, sometimes even going so far as marrying them. He had never considered that option for himself, instead choosing to focus entirely on the Royal Guard to extract the most positive emotion out of that career and his fellow Guards. Looking at Lucida right now though, he wondered if that had been the best alternative. He felt comfortable with the hippogriff and her family, and his current situation showed that it would be anything but boring. He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming his thoughts. They had ten months of this to look forward to, and he would decide by then whether a permanent change of lifestyle was called for.

He pulled back the covers on the empty side of the bed, and slid in with care not to disturb Lucida. He had just gotten comfortable when the hippogriff shimmied over and put an arm around him, snuggling up close. She emitted a soft purr, and the burst of half-asleep contentment was like a sweet kiss goodnight. He smiled and relaxed. Yes, he could get used to this.

When Silk Touch came home from his shift at the tavern after 1:00 a.m., he had not expected to find Destined up and about, but he gave the stallion a kiss and a hug anyway.

“Why are you up so early in the morning, Des?” Silk asked as he nibbled on the alicorn’s neck.

Destined shivered in pleasure before answering. “I figure that if you’re going to be away most evenings, I might as well go to bed straight after dinner so that I can be awake when you got home. Then you can go to sleep only when I have to go to work. That way we can have plenty of time together.”

“So you’ll go nocturnal for me?” Silk asked with a smile that showed off the tips of his fangs that thrilled Destined.

“I’m still discovering what it’s like to be in a relationship with somepony, and it would be hard to keep it up if one or the other of us is always either at work or asleep,” Destined replied with that touch of shyness that Silk adored.

“You’re taking this very seriously,” Silk observed.

“Am I doing it wrong?”

The thestral shook his head. “No, I think you’re doing just fine. Let’s snuggle on the sofa and I’ll tell you about the fun I had this evening at the tavern. Maybe even give you a massage if you like? I need to keep in practice, after all.”

Destined thought that was a great idea, and their time together passed so quickly that it came as a surprise when Destined’s alarm clock told him that it was time to get his work day started.

As usual, the team gathered at Lucida’s room for breakfast, sans Cinder of course. Pif and Citrine were the last to wander in, and Blue gave his sister a curious look.

“Rocking the stallion look this morning, Pif,” he said with a grin.

Pif paused in surprise and looked back at herself. Although in the usual unicorn guise, Pif was most definitely male. “Oops!” she said before shifting form back to female.

Citrine, who had been following close behind, laughed as she headed to the table, walking a little oddly.

Blue’s grin widened. “No need to ask why though.”

Pif blushed, but kept her mouth shut.

“Whose turn to make breakfast?” Citrine asked. “I’m starving!”

“Silk volunteered,” Blue replied. “Worked up an appetite already, Citrine?”

“In the best possible way!” the crystal pony replied, utterly unabashed.

“Stop teasing Pif,” Lucida said sternly, although she was secretly amused too.

There was laughter all around, but they let Pif off the hook and settled down to eating as Silk started bringing out the food. The acrimony and frustration of a couple of days ago had all gone by now, and the team had pulled together once more. It was going to be a long ten months, but they would get through it united as family.

Fortified with her game plan, Lucida quickly gained control of her class over the next few days, and the lessons flowed well from then on. It enabled her to spare more time watching Cirrus and Long Path as was her original intention. Although she tried to involve them in the classroom activities, anything social in nature saw them snubbed by the unicorn foals, just as they had told her it was like when she was growing up. She was ever so grateful that she had been raised in such a loving and nurturing environment, and it hurt to see how different it was for her two dads.

Recess time was especially sad as she watched the normally excited and playful griffon-changeling get constantly ignored by the foals, and excluded from their games. Meanwhile, young Path sat quietly playing by himself. Lucida could see now how he managed to grow up into an unassuming university professor in another timeline. Perhaps they were destined to get to know each other eventually, but she could not see a reason to put off that meeting much longer.

When lunchtime came around and the unicorn foals tore out of the classroom, Cirrus started forlornly following them until Lucida called out to him.

“Yes, Miss Lightgiver?” Cirrus asked.

“You’re having problems with the foals, aren’t you?”

Cirrus hung his head. “They’re mean! They don’t like me 'cause I’m a griffin.”

“Yes, I’m afraid that many of these unicorn foals have had a bad upbringing, and the rest just go along with the crowd. Don’t think that all foals are bad though.”

“But they are all like that!” Cirrus protested.

Lucida shook her head. “No, other ponies can be treated badly too. You just happen to be the easiest target, so you don’t see it happening to others.”

Cirrus looked at his teacher quizzically. “What do you mean, Miss?”

Lucida steered Cirrus around to point at the one foal who had not left the room with the others. Path was quietly playing with blocks at the back of the room, unnoticed by all but Lucida. “Long Path is the only earth pony in this class, and one of the very few in this school. He not only gets ignored like you, but he also gets teased as being a mere mud pony. That can be very hurtful to young foals, and he could do with a friend.”

Cirrus looked at Path hopefully. “What should I do, Miss Lightgiver?”

Lucida smiled. “Why not try offering to share your lunch for starters? See how things go from there.”

Cirrus’ smile returned, and he said, “Alright!” He walked over to Path and sat beside him. “Hey! Wanna eat lunch with me? Mom made me some great sandwiches.”

Path looked at the griffin with surprise. He was the first person besides his teachers who had ever tried to talk with him at school, and his curiosity was aroused. “Okay. I’ve only got some grain bars and fruit though.”

“Hey, I like them too. Do you like ham?”

“Dunno. Never had it. What’s ham?”

“I’ll let you try mine. Let’s go!”

The little griffin excitedly started tugging Path, and the foal came along. Lucida followed them as they went to their lockers to fetch their lunch boxes, and then to the lunch room where the other foals were eating. They found a table for just the two of them even as the unicorn foals stared at the odd pair. Cirrus took a thick sandwich out of his lunchbox and held it out for Path who took it and sniffed at its contents.

“So, this is ham?” he asked.

“Yep! Try it!” Cirrus said, quite aware that he had been told that ponies did not eat meat. He loved its taste though, and was sure Path would too!

A gasp came from the nearby table as a filly apparently recognised what ham was. Path took no notice, and he took a bite out of it. He chewed it thoughtfully, swallowed, and said, “I like it.”

“Yes!” Cirrus said with glee. “I knew Mom was wrong when she said that ponies wouldn’t eat it.”

There was a strangled cry from the filly who knew what Path had eaten, and she got up and raced out of the lunchroom to find the bathroom. A few more at the table who had heard Cirrus mention meat grew aghast as Path happily took another bite of the sandwich. The two started chatting, blissfully oblivious of the chaos that they had started among the foals.

Lucida watched with a smile plastered on her beak. She had witnessed the start of a relationship that would grow into one of the strongest in Equestria, and she was proud that one would someday be her sire, and the other her second father.

Six weeks later…

After Silk turned up to relieve her at the tavern, Citrine headed home feeling pretty good about the day. She’d had two new customers today who had not met her before, and tried to assert their dominance over her. She had introduced them to the pavement outside. Then they came back in and bought her a drink. Nice guys!

As she entered the apartment that she shared with Pif, she was greeted by the concerning sight of her marefriend slumped on the sofa with her eyes closed, with an undisguised changeling drone looming over. She immediately thought that Chrysalis’ agent had broken the enthralment and had attacked Pif.

“Hey, ugly!” she shouted, leaping at the drone.

The Blue Changeling turned to look at her with a mixture of confusion and shock just before Citrine’s hoof connected with its cheek and sent it flying across the room.

Citrine was about to press her attack when a commanding voice yelled out, “STOP!”

Citrine turned to see Pif glaring at her, and it was her turn to be confused.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Pif asked her.

“Umm… rescuing you?” the crystal pony replied uncertainly.

Pif rolled her eyes. “You just pounded my newest acquisition. Spark, come over here and introduce yourself.”

The changeling twitched and groaned.

Pif sighed. “Oh, great. I hope you haven’t broken her. I was making some nice progress when you interrupted.”

Citrine shrugged and gave her a half-hearted grin. “Maybe you can explain while she’s recovering. I don’t think I broke her too badly.”

“I suppose that’s best. This is Bright Spark, or at least that’s her pony name. She’s my first infiltrator. I was feeling depressed after another bad day at the DFI and thought I’d get myself cake and coffee to tide me over until you got home. Imagine my pleasure when I detected a Blue drone coming into the café just as I had finished my treats. I latched onto her and took control as soon as I realised that she was an infiltrator rather than just a harvester. I brought her here to try a trick that I have been working on. Rather than the rather blunt method that I originally planned, I was using her as a Trojan Pony.”

Citrine tilted her head and frowned in puzzlement. “A what?”

“Oh. I’ll explain that later. What I was doing was connecting to Chrysalis’ network via Bright Spark. That way, if any of my enquiries were noticed, they would be traced back to her instead of me. As she has legitimate access because of her task, she would then be ignored. I’ve gotten access to a lot of the Queen’s network with no trouble at all. I had to put my full concentration into it though, so I made myself comfortable on the sofa while I scanned the network.”

“You realise that it looked completely different to me?” Citrine protested.

“But she’s an infiltrator, not a harvester! Can’t you tell the difference?”

Citrine looked hard at the drone who seemed to have started recovering. “Umm… no?”

“She has a notch in her horn! Harvesters don’t have notches!”

“How was I supposed to know that?”

“Didn’t I ever show you?”

“I’ve seen all the notches and twists in yours, but I don’t know what difference it makes.”

“Oh. Apparently the more power that changelings have, the more convoluted the horns get. Infiltrators are one step above harvesters.”

“I’ll have that cappuccino now,” came a strained voice from the direction of the drone.

“Go help her up, will you?” Pif asked.

Citrine helped the drone to her hooves. “Sorry about that. I thought you were attacking Pif.”

“S'alright… Protecting your Queen… Gotcha,” Bright Sparks replied as she wobbled unsteadily. Then she focused properly on Citrine and she looked surprised. “You’re not a changeling.”

Citrine grinned. “Nope.”

“Then why…?”

“She’s my marefriend.”

“You’re Her Majesty’s consort?”

Pif spoke up. “No, Spark. I’m not like Chrysalis or the other Queens. I’m in a real relationship with Citrine.” She looked at Citrine and her eyes shone with affection. “In fact, when we eventually get home, I… I'm going to marry her… if that’s what she wants?”

Citrine gasped and her eyes widened. She pounced on Pif and started kissing her madly. “Yes!” she cried between each kiss.

Pif was nearly overwhelmed by the love that flowed into her, washing away the malaise of the day spent at the DFI. She started kissing Citrine back until they eventually parted, panting.”

Bright Spark watched with bemusement until they were done, lapping up the overflow of love energy. “Congratulations on the engagement, my Queen.”

Thank you, Spark. Are you feeling good enough to resume your disguise?”

By way of an answer, green magic fire engulfed the drone to reveal a yellow unicorn mare with a silver mane.

Pif nodded. “Good. We’ve done enough today, so let’s go out and I’ll buy us all a coffee. I believe I owe you a cappuccino, wasn’t it?”

“My Queen, you don’t need to give me anything!” Bright Spark protested.

“Lesson number two about Chrome Queens – we do a lot of things differently from what you might expect. My drones are my friends, not merely servants. I don’t desire blind loyalty. My drones stay with me because they want to, not because I order them to. If I want to treat a new friend, I will do that too.”

Bright Spark looked a bit dazed. “I… suppose so, Queen Epiphany.”

“Pif. Friends call me Pif.”

After being on the job for a few months, Lucida decided that she was almost getting the hang of dealing with young foals. They in turn had gotten used to having a hippogriff teacher, and a reasonable balance was reached between them. Today was one of the better days so far though. Nightmare Night was fast approaching, and the class art project was to design and make costumes. While it certainly wasn’t something that Lucida had trained for, she had always greatly enjoyed the Nightmare Night festivities, and she was happy to help the foals have fun with it too.

She had just finished helping a filly fasten her costume together when two very familiar voices called for attention from behind her.

“Miss Lightgiver, our costumes are ready,” Cirrus announced.

“Yeah, how do you like them?” asked Path.

Lucida turned around to look at the boys, and her heart nearly burst with the cuteness she beheld. Path had cardboard wings fastened around his barrel with feathers crudely drawn on them, and a cardboard beak held in place with tape. Cirrus had his paws and talons stuck inside four large tin cans, a cardboard muzzle with brown crayon colouring to look like a pony’s muzzle, and a red cape covered his wings. The friends had swapped species!

The two struck a heroic pose and simultaneous chanted, “Never fear! We are here!”

Then Path said, “I’m Captain Cluck!”

“And I’m Commander Trotty!” Free immediately followed on.

Then together they chorused, “We are the Champions of Canterlot! Ta-daaaaaaa!”

When Lucida managed to suppress her giggles, she asked, “Aren’t your paws hurting like that, Cirrus?”

“Commander Trotty!” he insisted. “My hooves never ache!”

Lucida supposed that could even be true. Although Cirrus would not discover what he actually was for several years yet, he could still be unconsciously using his shape-changing ability to make his paws fit better inside the cans. Lucida smiled, knowing that one day Cirrus would be able to give himself real hooves, and Path would have his magitek wings, but they were never going to be as cute as they were now.

“It’s an honour to meet the world-famous heroes of Canterlot,” Lucida said.

“Call us if you are in peril!” announced ‘Captain Cluck’.

“We’re off to protect Canterlot!” declared ‘Commander Trotty’.

The pair turned and galloped off to do their duty, the tin cans on Cirrus’ paws making a mighty racket.

Just wait until I tell the others about this tonight!’ Lucida thought with a giggle before turning to the next foal looking for her help.

The rest of the team certainly got a chuckle out of Lucida’s description of Cirrus and Path’s costumes, but it was not until the class photographs had been developed and printed that they got the opportunity to actually see them for themselves and the hilarity was renewed. Lucida did not need the photos to remember though, because even after Nightmare Night had come and gone, Commander Trotty and Captain Cluck still made frequent appearances at school over the following days. Some instances were more memorable than others.

Lucida was on yard duty this particular lunchtime, and her attention was being drawn to a commotion in one corner of the play yard in the shelter of some trees. She walked over to investigate and the students parted to let her through. Her eyes widened in shock when she spotted Cirrus tied up in a rope and hanging upside down from a tree branch.

“Cirrus! What in Equestria happened? Why are you tied up like that?” She reached up to untie the griffon.

To her surprise, Cirrus just grinned and said, “I’m bait.”

Lucida blinked uncomprehendingly. “You’re what?”

Suddenly, a form fell from above and landed on Lucida’s back, and she squawked in surprise. Limbs wrapped around her neck and torso, clinging tightly.

I have you now, villain!” shouted a familiar voice. “Nopony expects Captain Cluck!

Lucida looked back to see Path in his costume. “What?! How did you get up into that tree? Earth ponies can’t climb trees!”

Captain Cluck is the master of all things! Caw!

The hippogriff decided to roll with it. “You’ve got me, Captain. I surrender.”

“YES!” Path yelled before jumping off Lucida’s back. “Once again, Captain Cluck is victorious over the forces of evil!”

The small crowd of foals around them cheered.

Lucida finished untying Cirrus, and he hoof-bumped Path before they charged off on their next adventure, followed by their entourage of followers.

Another teacher walked over with a disapproving look on her face. “I saw all that. You really should have scolded them and gave them detention.”

Lucida scowled at the unicorn mare. “I most certainly will not, Lengthy Numbers! Those two have blossomed ever since they became friends, and they’re the happiest and brightest of my students. But that is far from all that they have achieved.” Lucida gestured in the direction of the departed group. “Look at all the foals that look up to them. Before they became friends, none of the unicorn foals wanted anything to do with them, either through prejudice or peer pressure. One by one, they started joining in with the fun that those two were having, and now most of the class are their friends also. They might be a bit rowdy sometimes, but they’ve been an enormously good influence on the students. Just you watch – one of these days, they’re going to do great things.”

Lengthy Numbers sniffed condescendingly. “Foals should be taught discipline and respect, not allowed to run rampant.”

“They are foals, Lengthy. This is when they should be learning to socialise, as well as words and figures. They will respect you if you respect them and let them grow to be themselves and not a reflection of what you want.”

“Humph! On your head be it. They’re your problem.” The mare turned and stalked off.

Lucida shook her head sadly at the aged unicorn’s old-fashioned attitudes, and then she went to watch over whatever Cirrus and Path were doing now. As much as she had defended the two, she still had to ensure that the dynamic duo did not go too far. Everyone had their limitations, and it was up to her that they learned them without being hurt doing so.

She groaned a little at the mild backache that she had gotten from Path jumping on her. She also had to try to not let others get hurt either. And to think, she still had over half a year of this to go! She chuckled to herself. ‘I hope I survive!




Chapter 11: Ten Months


Silk sighed in relief as he walked in the door of his home for the past several months. There was a certain degree of comfort in having a steady job that was not dull, but being a bartender in a griffon tavern was hardly his idea of a life goal. And while the situation at the bar had improved considerably since he had started there, some nights were still worse than others. Tonight had been such a night, and he looked forward to relaxing with his coltfriend.

He spotted Destined lying on the sofa, resting with his eyes closed, but just as Silk was about to call out a greeting, the alicorn suddenly disappeared. There was no flash and bang of teleportation; Destined just quietly blinked out of existence. Silk was only stunned for a moment until he figured out what had happened, and then he grinned as an idea occurred to him. He made himself comfortable on the opposite side of the sofa from where Destined had been, faced in his direction, and then waited. Silk had to be more patient than he had anticipated, but suddenly Destined blinked back into existence and opened his eyes.

“BOO!” Silk said with a toothy grin.

“Waahaaa!” Destined flailed in surprise and fell off the sofa onto the floor.

Silk laughed as he looked down at the stallion sprawled haphazardly on the rug. “Sorry about that, Des, but the opportunity was too good to miss, and I needed a laugh.”

Destined grumbled as he righted himself. “Happy to have been of service. How come you’re home so early?”

“Early? For such an expert on time, you sure have lost track of it. If you have been practicing those time-jumps a lot, you probably have skipped an hour or two.”

Destined looked over to the wall-clock and noted the time. “Oh, horsefeathers! I didn’t mean to do that much.”

“I think you managed to jump ahead a whole five minutes that time. That’s pretty impressive.”

Destined snorted in disdain as he climbed up next to Silk. “I can jump way further than that! I’m just restricting myself to very small jumps for a few reasons. First, I still worry about getting out of sync with History, so I’m reducing the risk with small jumps. Also, I was concerned about losing too much of the day, as I just did apparently. Lastly though, I’m focusing on building up my endurance. It’s taking a lot less effort to do that five minute jump than when I first did it.”

Silk pondered that, then asked, “So, are you going to try to take us home without the power that Blue supplies?”

Destined laughed. “Not a chance! Maybe one of these decades, but not anytime soon. However, my goal is to be able to take our entire team at least a few minutes away from harm in an emergency. Chrysalis showed how teleportation can be blocked, but I’m unaware of any way to block a time-jump.”

“That’s a pretty good idea, and pretty damn amazing,” Silk said admiringly. “I have a really talented coltfriend.” The thestral put his foreleg around Destined and pulled him into a hug and nuzzle.

Destined blushed, but returned the nuzzle before kissing the bat-pony and hesitantly asking, “Silk… did you have any… other coltfriends before me?”

Silk looked at Destined curiously. “What brought this on? Yes, I had a couple. Does it matter?”

Destined bit his lower lip uncertainly. “Can you tell me about them?”

Silk had an inkling of what was bothering the alicorn. “Well, my first was when I still a teenager in school. I’d known that I was gay for a while, but I hadn’t been interested in doing anything about it until I met an earth pony in class who was similarly inclined. We… experimented with each other, discovering what it was like to be with another stallion. We had some good times, but when school ended, we went our separate ways. While we were friends, we really didn’t have much in common, so we parted amicably. The same can’t be said for the next.”

Silk sighed sadly. “I was not particularly interested in pursuing a relationship for a long while, so it was a couple of years before I fell in with a pegasus that I met at a dance club. For a while, we had a good time together, but he slowly started getting more aggressive, and then abusive. One night it got so bad that I used my sonic blast on him, and then promised to do a lot worse if he ever came near me again. Thankfully he took the hint and stayed away. I was rather soured on any sort of relationship for quite a long time after that.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I learned a lot from both of those, and I made sure that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. For a time, I concentrated on making friends rather than coltfriends.”

“So what attracted you to me? I know I was pretty much in denial about my own sexuality back then, but even so I was aware that your interest was more than professional. That’s what made me so nervous and excited about visiting you at the spa.”

Silk grinned roguishly. “Aside from you being drop-dead handsome and sexy?” He kissed Destined on the cheek. “I think it was your innocence and completely unfeigned niceness. I had dealt with a variety of attitudes over the years, but yours was so refreshing. I selfishly wanted to have more of it.” Silk chuckled. “I even made a deal with Aloe and Lotus so that I would always be available to you whenever you visited the spa.”

Destined stared at Silk in surprise. “So that’s why I never had a problem getting an appointment with you!”

“Yep! I would have done even more to encourage you, but you seemed to want to come anyway.”

Destined blushed again, even more than before. Silk found that so adorable! “You were the sexiest stallion that I had ever met,” the alicorn admitted. “You started awakening something in me that I had never felt before. My brother, Flix, and my sister, Pif, are the same age as me, but both were in some sort of relationship before I even got started. Pif is a changeling and doesn’t even respond to affection the same way as a pony, and she still got a marefiend before I ever thought about a relationship with anyone. I didn’t really know how to go about having one, so I just started hanging out with you as much as I could.”

Silk chuckled. “Silly stallion! That is one way you can start a relationship. I loved that you liked sharing my activities outside of the spa. Those weeks before we went back in time were some of the best in my life, and to be able to spend these past few months with you has been an unexpected blessing. You’ve made this an adventure rather than a trial. As long as you are with me, I’m happy.” Silk’s happy smile melded into one of curiosity. “So what brought on these questions?”

For a moment it seemed that Destined was not going to answer, but he was actually trying to find the right words. “I have… fallen in love with you, Silk, and I think I’m ready to… go to the next level.”

“You mean you’re ready to have sex?” Silk asked gently.

Destined blushed and merely nodded in reply.

“Are you sure, Des? It’s a big step to go from coltfriends to lovers.”

“Is anyone really ever completely ready? Were you?”

Silk shook his head. “That’s why I said we experimented in school – we were learning too. I know enough now that I believe I can show you why good sex is called making love, and I would be honoured to teach you.”

Destined lowered his eyes shyly. “Please do, Silk.”

Silk got up from the sofa and gently pulled Destined along with him to the bedroom. “I will do my very best, but let me say this first. I love you too, Destined Path. I have been sure of that for a while now but I have been waiting for you to feel the same way too. I promise that I will do my best to make that true for the rest of our days together.”

“And I’ll make that same promise,” Destined replied as he sat on the edge of the bed. “So, how do we start this?”

Silk smiled tenderly. “How about with a kiss?” He leaned forward to bring his lips to Destined, and the alicorn met him partway.

They had kissed often enough before, but this time they both let their feelings rise, and they embraced with growing passion. Then Silk began to show Destined greater intimacies, and the alicorn colt finally learned to be a full-grown stallion lover.

Pif woke with a jerk and sat up in bed, wondering what had disturbed her. Citrine was still peacefully slumbering by her side, so that wasn’t it. There was no unusual weather either. Then her fuzzy mind cleared and she tasted the heady mixture of true love and lust wafting through the wall from the apartment next door. She slowly grinned. “Way to go, brother,” she murmured as she settled back onto the pillow. She giggled softly. “Seems like I won’t be getting too much sleep for a while.”

“My Queen, I have found another,” Bright Spark said to Pif as she exited the DFI building.

Pif’s tired expression lightened. “Great! I could do with some good news.”

“Another hard day?” the changeling infiltrator asked as she led Pif away to her discovery.

“Aren’t they all? I’ve been doing a lot better though ever since you’ve been able to supply me with love gel sandwiches to fortify me during the day. So which one did you find, Spark?”

Bright Spark smiled happily. “The one you most hoped to get – one of Princess Celestia’s mares-in-waiting.”

“Excellent! How did you get her out of the castle?”

“I didn’t have to. It seems that one of the other mares-in-waiting is celebrating her engagement at a local restaurant, and she invited all the off-duty ones to participate. Of course, the infiltrator accepted as part of her cover.”

“I gather they are at the restaurant right now?” Pif asked, picking up her pace eagerly.

“Yes. Depending on how much they celebrate, I estimate that they should be still there anywhere from half an hour to an hour. I believe the crowded nature of the venue and the necessity for reservations would preclude them from dallying longer.”

“Good. I’ll get our little trap laid by then.”

Spark stopped outside of a fairly high-end establishment in restaurant row and pointed through the window. “The mare with the light blue coat and pink mane. She goes by the name of Cotton Doily.”

Pif nodded after fixing the changeling’s pony guise in her mind, and then she sent a message over her mini-network. Pif now had seven infiltrator drones attached to her hive-mind, thanks to the assiduous work of Bright Spark who knew the identities of many of Chrysalis’ infiltrators. As each had been added, it had gotten easier to isolate and assimilate them, and she had a plan worked out to deal with the one infiltrator that had eluded her so far due to being staying constantly in the castle where it was difficult for her to follow and act.

Forty minutes after Pif arrived, the celebration party seemed to be breaking up. Three of the mares at the table got up and headed for the door, including her target.

Everyling – the operation is about to commence!’ Pif sent over her network.

As expected, all three mares headed off in the direction of the castle. Pif and Spark discreetly started following, and the remainder of the team was given the signal to start the operation. As the threesome came to an intersection, a large wagon being drawn by two burly earth ponies abruptly turned into the path of the mares. Surrounding pedestrians dived out of the way, shoving the mares-in-waiting apart. In the chaos, one of them was shepherded aside into an alleyway which was promptly blocked off by another pony with a cart.

Tea Service and Layer Cake stared after the offending wagon with a mixture of consternation and disgust.

“What do you suppose that was all about?” Tea Service asked.

“I have no idea, but I hope the City Guard apprehends those ruffians!” Layer Cake replied.

Tea Service looked around. “Where’s Doily?”

“Over here,” the blue mare replied, walking up to join them. “I was shoved to the other side of the street.”

“Let’s get back to the castle before anything else happens,” Layer Cake said.

“I agree totally,” replied Bright Spark with Cotton Doily’s voice as she fell in with the mares.

The real Cotton Doily was still trying to get reorientated, but just then she sensed a surge of changeling magic and green flames briefly lit the alleyway. She turned around and gasped at the one she saw standing there.

Doily shook with shock. “Queen Chrysalis! What are you doing here, Your Majesty?”

‘Chrysalis’ walked up to the mare and said imperiously, “Transform and report!”

Obediently, Cotton Doily assumed her true form and was about to speak when ‘Chrysalis’ leaned forward to touch horns with her. The drone’s eyes widened and glowed with the power of the Queen that flowed through her. Within moments, her knowledge had been gleaned and the connection to her hive severed. Chrysalis’ form flared once again to reveal Pif’s chrome carapace, and she backed away from the shaking drone.

“Whom do you obey, Infiltrator Bezzet?” Pif demanded.

Doily bowed low. “I obey you, Queen Epiphany.”

“Resume your normal pony duties, but avoid all unnecessary contact with other Blue Changelings other than those on my network. Chrysalis must not be made aware that you are no longer hers. Be prepared to join us soon for a full induction into my mini-network.”

“I will obey, Your Majesty.” Bezzet resumed her pony form.

Epiphany shifted to her unicorn guise. “Believe it or not, I’m sure that you will quickly come to enjoy being part of my hive, as have all the others.” The cart that was blocking the alley was pulled aside by another of Pif’s drones upon a mental command, and the chrome changeling started to leave. She paused and turned her head to give Doily a warm smile. “Welcome to the team. And call me Pif.”

“So you’ve got eight infiltrator drones now?” Lucida asked.

“That’s right,” Pif replied. “Enough to make a sufficiently large network to safely download the information in Zark’s head.”

“Are you going to do that tonight?”

Pif shook her head. “I’ll let Doily settle down for now. Like the other seven, she will be a little disoriented and coming to terms with the change of leadership. While her loyalty isn’t suspect, her execution of my commands will improve as she gets comfortable with the new arrangement and realises how much better her life will be without Chrysalis.”

“So – in a few more days then?” Lucida suggested hopefully.

Pif sighed. “Look – I know that you’re eager to get this intel, and so am I, but it still bothers me that I will most likely destroy Zark in the process.”

Lucida looked at her sister sympathetically. “I understand, but not only might that information save untold lives in the future, but that particular drone might also be too great a risk to keep around. He’s not like the other infiltrators; he’s one of Chrysalis’ specially bred drones with unknown capabilities. I might be a bit paranoid, but there are too many risks involved with keeping Zark. Remember General Breezon?”

Pif groaned in frustration. “I know! That still doesn’t make it any easier!”

“Perhaps we’ll find an alternative. Forget about my impatience, Pif. We’ve got until Cinder’s eggs hatch for us to find a solution.”

Pif hugged her big sister. “Thanks, Lucy.”

Lucida returned the hug willingly. “No problem, sis.”

Pif was unwinding after another hard day at the Displaced Foundlings Institute, sprawled on the sofa of her and Citrine’s room, with a love-gel sandwich bolstering her energy level. She heard the apartment’s door opening, and she could already taste her companion’s emotions. Something was not quite right.

“Hi, Piffy!” came Citrine’s voice, cheerful as usual, but a bit more subdued than normal.

“Hello, love. Is something wrong with – GASP! What happened to you?!” Pif stared aghast at Citrine’s bruised and battered form, one eye swollen shut.

Citrine waved a hoof dismissively. “I’m okay – just a little altercation at the tavern today. Should’ve seen the other guys!”

Pif came over to Citrine to look over her more carefully. “You’re far from okay. How did you get so beat up?” she persisted.

Citrine sighed in resignation. “Three buddies ganged up on me. If I could have armoured up, I could have coped, but I knew Lucida would hit the ceiling if I went crystal.”

“For Celestia’s sake, Citrine – we don’t expect you to get yourself killed trying to keep the secret! We could have passed it off as some sort of protective charm or something. We need you. I need you!”

“Aw, c’mon, Pif! It looks worse than it is. I’ve got friends watching my back too. The regulars came to my rescue. Pretty much pounded the punks into paste and plucked them naked.”

“I’m glad to hear that they got what they deserved, but I’m still concerned about you. Just because you think you’re okay, doesn’t mean that you are. Come on!” Pif hooked a foreleg around Citrine’s and pulled her towards the door.

“Where are we going?”

“To Destined’s room. He’s home already, and he can use a healing spell on you.”

The alicorn was equally shocked at Citrine’s appearance, and he needed no urging to start a healing spell immediately. After several minutes, the worst of the bruising had subsided, and Citrine could see through both eyes again, even if one was still recognisably blackened.

As he worked, Destined asked, “Why didn’t you go straight to the hospital and get treated? The doctors there are better at specialist healing spells than me, and it’s obvious that you had to be in some pain.”

Citrine scoffed, “I’ve had worse when I was with my posse in the Crystal City.”

“I doubt it. It’s a good thing Pif brought you to me, because I detected some internal bleeding. I’ve stopped it and you’ll be okay now, but you’re not going to work tomorrow.”

“I second that,” Pif added.

“Okay! Okay! Stop nagging me!” Citrine said irritably. “Garth told me to stay home anyway. Can’t fight you all, I suppose.”

“Could you consider quitting that job? I worry about you,” Pif asked earnestly.

Citrine just grinned broadly. “Not a chance, Piffy. I like my job. I’ve made a difference there too. Even the City Guard has noticed that there have been a lot fewer brawls there lately.”

Pif shook her head helplessly, then leaned forward to rest her forehead against Citrine’s, taking a bit of comfort from the positive emotions her companion was radiating. “You can’t cure everything with a laugh, you know?”

“I’ve been doing okay so far. You worry too much.”

Pif poked a sore area with her hoof, and the crystal pony flinched. “I don’t think so, Citrine. I can’t marry a dead pony, so try to be more careful, please.”

Citrine’s expression grew a little more serious than usual. “I promise, love.”

“All done!” Destined announced as his horn’s glow died away.

“Thanks, Des,” Citrine said.

“Anything for my future sister-in-law, Ms Quartz.”

Citrine mock-glared at Destined. “You cruisin’ for a bruisin’, future bro? Nopony gets stuffy and formal with me!”

Destined grinned, waggled his eyebrows, and said, “First you gotta catch me!” He promptly disappeared in a flash and bang of teleportation.

“He’ll keep for later,” Citrine said smugly. “Right now I think we’re missing some serious snuggling time.”

“Amen to that,” Pif replied as they headed for the door and back to their room.

Sterling came home as normal after an uneventful evening shift, expecting to find a light meal waiting for him before he went to bed. Instead he was inundated with a wave of roiling emotions that made him hesitate for a moment before bracing himself and heading directly for the bedroom.

Usually Lucida was fast asleep, and only woke enough to snuggle up to him when he climbed into the bed to get some sleep. The hippogriff never did anything else, but even in that barely conscious state, she radiated some mild happiness which he ate like a tasty snack. It definitely helped him to go to sleep easily, especially if it had been a difficult day’s work. He was happy that he could be a source of comfort to her as she had the responsibility of being the team’s guiding claw, and the big mistake that she had made still weighed heavily on her as she considered the effects the unplanned stay were having on the others. Sterling had yet to decide if he wanted to fan that pleasure in his being with her into something more, but tonight he might have to do something that might sway that decision.

Lucida was tossing and turning on the bed, the covers mostly in disarray on the floor. She was moaning and panting, and her scent was overwhelming. The hippogriff was in the throes of oestrus, and if he was any judge of mares after all these years, she probably had been for much of the day. He wondered how she had managed to do her job if it was this bad.

“Lucida,” Sterling said gently but firmly.

The hippogriff jerked at the sound of his voice, looking up and noticing for the first time that he was there. She made a visible effort to collect herself, striving pointlessly to conceal her sexual distress.

“Sterling! I… I didn’t realise that it was so late.” She attempted a laugh. “Haven’t made the bed up yet….”

“Stop it, Lucida. I know that you’re in heat. How bad is it?”

Lucida’s face fell. “Can’t hide anything from you, can I? It… it’s bad. I’ve never had it so strong before. I thought that I could get through it like I have all the other times. I’ve already had three cold showers!”

“So, that implies that you’re a virgin. It’s not unusual for an unbred mare to have a stronger heat. It’s your body saying that it’s more than ready to make foals, and it doesn’t want to be denied.”

“Blunt but true,” Lucida conceded even as she shuddered as another wave of desire surged through her.

“Trying to ignore it obviously isn’t working. You really have only two alternatives – medication or satisfaction. Like most mares, you apparently have spurned the former, so why not try the latter?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t got a special someone that I could do that with.”

“That’s not a problem for most mares. Be honest – you’re nervous because you’re a virgin, and you can’t make a decision because of it. Making decisions is what you do all the time, and the fact that you can’t is just making the situation worse.”

Lucida sat on the edge of the bed, her arms wrapped around herself, trying to contain her feelings and refusing to look him in the eyes. “You don’t pull any punches, do you?” she replied without acknowledging the truth of his statements.

“I’m a soldier, not a therapist.” He moved up to Lucida and placed a hoof under her chin. He raised her head so that she had to look at him. “Lucida, you know what I am and what I do. I am your friend, and if you wish, I can offer you the relief that you need.”

There was a long silence from the hippogriff as she considered his words. Finally she asked, “Have you done this with other mares?”

“Several times, although they all asked me first.” He chuckled. “Something about being a Royal Guard attracts the mares. This is the first time though that I have offered before being asked.”

“Why now?” Lucida asked.

“Because I care for you. I enjoy being with you, and it bothers me to see you like this.”

“So it’s not the chance to have some sex?”

“I believe you know better. Changeling drones are not driven by sex, as most species are. Yes, we can enjoy sex, but we don’t need it. You do though. I can offer this with pure intentions. Lucida, let me relieve your sexual tensions.”

Lucida blushed fiercely, but nodded. “Can I ask one favour?”

Sterling tilted his head curiously. “What is it?”

“The chances of me meeting another hippogriff, let alone a male one my age, is extremely small, but I’ve often fantasised about having one as a special someone.”

“Say no more,” Sterling said with a smile. Magic red fire engulfed his unicorn form and in its place was a magnificent hippogriff stallion.

Lucida’s heart leaped as a surge of lust swept over her. She rose up into Sterling’s embrace and kissed him fiercely, beaks locked together and tongues entwining. Then she fell back onto the bed, pulling him with her. She broke the kiss and said hoarsely, “Make me a real mare!”

Pif sat up in bed, her eyes widening in surprise before she realised what was happening. There was still just one emotional signature coming from Lucida’s room, but with the unmistakable feelings only generated by a couple. ‘Looks like I’ll be able to get to sleep tonight after all,’ she thought. ‘Although, considering Lucida’s needs, maybe not too soon,’ she added with a giggle.

Four weeks later. Lucida watched in consternation as Destined galloped past her into one of the empty classrooms. She followed him inside before he slammed the door closed. She regarded the cardboard wings that were stuck askew on his back over the jacket that he wore to conceal his real wings.

“Hail the mighty alicorn!” she said with a giggle.

Destined rolled his eyes. “I caught Cirrus trying to give Captain Cluck flying lessons, so I confiscated the wings as a reminder that Path can’t really fly with them. Big mistake! Cirrus immediately declared that I was an evil sorcerer who had stolen Captain Cluck’s wings, and they had to defeat me.”

“So? You’re trying to tell me that you can’t handle two foals?”

“Two?! Try most of his class! You of all people should know that those two have corrupted almost all the foals in his class and they’re all now minions of Commander Trotty and Captain Cluck. They all decided to join in conquering the evil sorcerer.”

Lucida laughed. “Yes, those two made school time so much fun that the foals just wanted to be part of it despite turning their noses up at them originally Cirrus and Path went from being two lonely souls to the centre of attention. They have quite a following now, as you have found out.”

Destined pulled the wings off his back and levitated them to Lucida. “Well, you can tell them that you defeated me and return the wings. I’m staying here until it’s safe!”

“Coming to your rescue again, Des?” Lucida asked with a huge grin.

“Yeah, yeah!” he acknowledged with a dismissive wave. “Return wings now; gloat later.”

“You owe me, brother,” she said as she exited the classroom to look for the mischievous duo.

Lucida looked forward to telling Sterling about this later. The two had found a new dynamic – not quite lovers, but more than friends. She had enjoyed sex with him a few times since the night of her heat, but it was a source of comfort and mutual pleasure rather than as passionate paramours. She confided in him the difficulties and accomplishments of the day, and he did the same. While she still looked forward to going home again, she was happy for now with a true friend sharing her life.

Three weeks later. Pif stumbled into the Broken Beak Tavern, ignoring the stares of the clientele as she headed straight to the bar. Citrine spotted her and her eyes widened in shock at the sight of her distressed lover. She practically leaped over the bar to go to the disguised changeling.

“Pif! What’s wrong?!” Citrine enfolded her in her forelegs and concentrated on feeding her some of her love.

Pif drank it in hungrily and her shaking slowly stopped. Eventually she whispered, “Stop, Citrine. I don’t want to drain you.”

“Tell me what happened to you.”

“Not here,” Pif replied.

Citrine looked up to see Garth staring her way curiously. “Boss! Gotta go!”

The griffon nodded. “If you see Silk, ask him to come in early.”

Citrine supported Pif as they left the tavern and headed home. The changeling sank wearily onto the sofa before anything more was said.

“Okay, now spill it!” the crystal pony demanded.

“It was horrible, Citrine. I’ve told you of the misconduct at the DFI, but today was the worst. One of the new griffon chicks was almost maimed as she struggled against the abuse of the staff. It was enough to cause a minor revolt among the other orphans, and the staff… they… Oh, Citrine, what they did to them!” She burst into tears.

Citrine tried her best to comfort her beloved, but Pif was refusing to take any more emotional energy from her. “Enough! You have to expose the DFI now. You owe it to the orphans. You owe it to yourself!”

Pif nodded. “I can’t go on like this, but I think I have enough evidence collected to prove my allegations. I’ll take it to the authorities tomorrow.”

“No, you’ll take it to Princess Celestia! She has to be good for something!”

Although Citrine’s opinion of the alicorn had improved since her first encounter, this past version of Celestia had not earned that respect as much, and Citrine did not usually want anything to do with her. It had to take a serious situation for the crystal pony to consider dealing with the monarch of Equestria. Pif appreciated that fact, and she nodded again. “Okay. I’ll take my evidence to her court tomorrow morning.”

“Good! Now I’m going to see if Silk can go to work early, but I’ll be straight back. You and me have to work this sickness out.”

Pif smiled at her lover as she headed for the door. “Thanks, Citrine. I love you.”

Citrine paused at the door to look back with a happy smile. “I love you too, Piffy.”

Pif was unusually nervous as she approached the throne the next day after being announced. She had detected a Red Changeling among the Royal Guards on duty in the throne room, but as this was happening before the invasion by Chrysalis, if the Guard realised that she was a changeling also, he was probably merely curious rather than concerned. No, the nervousness was more due to the fact that she was about to cause a massive upheaval in the bureaucracy that had allowed the horrendous situation with the DFI to come about, and Princess Celestia was not going to be pleased at all.

Pif bowed before the alicorn princess. One day in the future, Celestia would be a beloved aunt, but for now she was a stern ruler, and Pif a loyal subject.

“What can I do for you, my little pony?” Celestia asked formally with a gentle smile.

“Your Highness, I bring evidence of severe corruption and abuse that is prevalent in the Displaced Foundlings Institute. I seek your intervention to correct this situation and bring justice for the orphans held there.”

Celestia frowned. “Those are very serious allegations. I trust that you have the evidence to back them up?”

“I do – far too much, in fact.” Pif levitated a large stack of papers up to Celestia who took it in her magic.

The alicorn started leafing through the papers, and her frown grew stronger. Not even a third of the way through, she stopped and turned to her Sergeant-at-Arms and said, “Court is now in recess.” She looked at Pif and said, “Come with me, Agile Mind; we have work to do.”

The DFI was raided the next day, and all the staff arrested. A crew of temporary helpers were brought in to take care of the orphans until they could be permanently dealt with. It had been decided that the Institute was a lost cause and would be shut down, and to her surprise, Epiphany had been appointed to oversee the transition.

“Me?” Pif had blurted out when Celestia had given her the job.

Celestia had smiled and replied, “Who better than the pony who went to much trouble and risk to expose this terrible situation? It’s obvious that you care for the welfare of those foundlings, so why not complete the job?”

Pif could not argue with that, and found some satisfaction in being able to personally take the orphans into a better situation. That was why she was now in the foyer of the Canterlot Orphanage.

“Agile Mind to see Director Guiding Hoof, please,” Pif told the receptionist.

The mare nodded. “One moment, please.” She left to go to the director’s office, and returned moments later. “Director Hoof will see you now. He has been expecting you, Ms Mind.”

“Thank you.”

Pif went to the indicated office and stepped inside. As she closed the door behind her, she took note of the pony behind the desk. The stallion had a light yellow coat with a very pale yellow mane. He had a kind face and a gentle smile that she liked immediately. Then his eyes widened in surprise as he recognised something.

“Well, well,” Guiding Hoof said. “I did not expect Celestia’s representative to be a changeling.” He narrowed his eyes and peered at her more closely. “Although I can’t seem to determine which kind you are. I would have to say Blue, although that hive is not usually associated with this kind of work.”

“You’ll find that there’s a lot that’s unusual about me, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline satisfying your understandable curiosity. I was already aware that you are a Yellow Changeling though, and I have no problems with dealing with that.” Pif did not add that she had met Guiding Hoof in the future when Twilight had introduced them on one occasion, and although the director still maintained his pony guise then, Twilight was privy to his secret, and had explained the yellow changeling’s role in the care of all of Canterlot’s orphans, as well as those from the many Equestrian towns and villages that did not have orphanages of their own. Guide, as he insisted on being called, was a trusted and worthy protector and nurturer of those entrusted to his care.

“Excellent. So let’s get down to business, shall we? Was the situation at the Displaced Foundlings Institute as bad as I have been informed?”

“Probably a lot worse. I was physically sickened many times by the negative emotions while I was working there to gather evidence against them.”

“I admire your dedication. Could I interest you in a position here once we have concluded transitioning the orphans to our care?”

Pif smiled. “Thank you for the offer, but I’m afraid that I won’t be able to take a permanent position because I will have to move on in few months.”

“I see. Nevertheless I would be happy to have your help until then. A familiar sympathetic face would aid in settling the orphans into our system here.”

“I think I would like that, Director Hoof. I only insist that you do not pry into my background.”

“That is not my way of doing things, Ms Mind. Your privacy is assured. We can find where you best fit in once we have completed our immediate task. Shall we get started then?”

Pif nodded and pulled out of her saddlebag the inevitable bureaucratic material that was involved in transferring the responsibility of so many foundlings into the care of the Canterlot Orphanage. “As always, everything starts with the paperwork.”

Ten months and four days had passed since Cinder had laid her eggs. While the team eagerly looked forward to the imminent hatching, none of them were awaiting it without some regret. They had all found places for themselves where they were happy and useful, and it was going to be a big change to go back to their old lives. Nevertheless, only the parents looked forward more to seeing the eggs hatch.

It was the weekend, and all but Sterling were gathered as a family. They had done so yesterday also, hoping that that would be the day, but unfortunately they had been disappointed. Once again today they held out hope for a hatching, but the day was rapidly running out and they thought that they were out of luck again. However, a shout from the bedroom raised their hopes.

Blue rushed into the bedroom, and soon he and Cinder returned, each carrying an egg. Scratching sounds could be heard coming from the inside of both as they laid them onto a nest of bricks that had been made in the living room. The purpose of this odd arrangement became clear as Blue backed away and Cinder leaned over the eggs and started belching fire over them.

As the room rapidly warmed, Blue explained, “The heat gives the dragonlings the energy to crack the shells, and it also makes the shells more brittle. All dragons are born in fire.”

Before the temperature in the room got unbearable, the first egg cracked, followed moments later by the second. Shards started to break off both as the chicks began to break through, then the top third fell off one egg and tipped over, spilling the dragonling halfway out. Cinder continued breathing her flames, but of course the child was unaffected. A species that could bathe in lava was hardly going to be bothered by a little fire. The second egg split in half, and the other dragonling crawled out into the welcoming flame. After a few more seconds, Cinder stopped exhaling fire and the watchers got a clear look at the two children.

The first to hatch had a golden hide similar to Cinder’s, and clawed feet like a dragon’s. However, the face was very definitely pony shaped, complete with a blue mane that apparently was as fireproof as the hide. As the dragonling wobbled to its feet, it became apparent that it was a female, and her build was very much like a pony’s also.

The second dragonling was a male, and again there was a mixture of pony and dragon traits. His head was reptilian, complete with a webbed crest and ears. Golden-membraned wings adorned his back, but he had blue coat of hair all over the rest of his body, and his rear legs had hooves although the front legs had taloned feet. Unsinged by the flame like his sister, it was evident that he was equally fireproof.

The dragonlings were startled as the assembled watchers burst into cheers and began congratulating the new parents.

“Have you decided on names for them yet?” Lucida asked.

Blue replied, “We’ve had plenty of time to think of some, but we have settled on calling them Eon and Era.”

“Which is which though?” Pif asked.

Blue looked at his mate. “Cinder? The choice is yours.”

Cinder fondly watched the hatchlings start playing with each other. “Our son will be Eon, and our daughter, Era.”

“Time to celebrate!” Citrine declared. “I’ve got a party ready to go in my room. Anyone else want to leave this oven and join me?”

There was a chorus of agreement, although Cinder scoffed at the implied complaint about the heat.

The parents each picked up one of their children and they all left the room to cool off in their absence. Citrine was true to her word and had provided all sorts of party foods and drink for everyone. Even the hatchlings got a first feed of suitable food sourced on the advice of Cinder. For a while, everyone ate, drank, and laughed, enjoying the family atmosphere. The hatchlings quickly tired though, and they were tucked away in Citrine and Pif’s bed while the adults continued to party. However, eventually the inevitable was brought up.

“I suppose this means that we will head for home now,” Silk said.

“Yes,” Destined replied. “As long as Cinder doesn’t object?”

The dragoness shook her head. “The children are strong. There won’t be a problem.”

“Actually, I’d like to finish off the school year before we leave,” Lucida said.

Several of them looked at her in surprise.

“Weren’t you the one who wanted us to leave as soon as possible originally?” Destined asked.

“I know, I know. I just feel that I would leave things incomplete if we leave now.”

“We’re going to go back in time – it won’t make a difference.”

Pif cleared her throat. “Umm… speaking of making a difference, I hate the thought that all my efforts to save the abused foundlings will count for nothing.”

Destined frowned. “You knew that before you started, Pif.”

“Yes, I did, and I don’t regret it one bit, but that still sucks for the orphans.”

Citrine weighed in. “Piffy isn’t the only one to make a difference, y’know? The Canterlot Business Association has told me that they are going to give me an award for my work in bringing about a positive change in the griffon community, and making the tavern a better place to visit for all.”

Pif looked at Citrine. “You didn’t tell me that.”

“They only told me on Friday, and it’s a silly thing anyway. I just wanted to make the tavern a fun place to work.”

Silk spoke up. “Actually they talked to me too after Garth told them that I was Pif’s friend and she recommended me. They seem to regard it as a team effort.”

Destined sighed. “Look, it’s a great accomplishment, but in the end it’s just a tavern and some relatively minor incidents in terms of History. We have to look at the bigger picture.”

“Des, before we came here, did you ever hear anything about the DFI?” Pif asked.

“Umm… I don’t think so.”

Pif looked around the room. “Anyone? Most of us are pretty familiar with much of Canterlot.” She got a lot of blank looks. “Who hasn’t heard of the Royal Canterlot Orphanage?” Pif asked.

Only Citrine held up a hoof, which was understandable seeing as she had not visited Canterlot much. Even Cinder had heard of it before.

“Has it occurred to anyone that the reason why no one has heard of the Displaced Foundlings Institute is that I was responsible for getting it shut down, and that’s how History has always gone?”

“You can’t know that for sure, Pif. Somepony else might have done something later,” Destined argued.

“You don’t know how tight that group was. If it wasn’t for my special abilities, I would never have been able to get in and gather the evidence without being discovered.”

Lucida spoke up before Destined could reply. “Des, there’s another thing we do know about History, and that is Cirrus was introduced to Path by his teacher, which is exactly what I did. However, we were only able to get the positions because they were short on teachers, and Cirrus and Path’s temporary instructor was Lengthy Numbers who had little interest in the loneliness of a little griffon. Who introduced them if I didn’t?”

Destined opened his mouth to reply, but found himself stuck for words. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

Blue snorted in amusement. “Looks like both our time expert and our team coordinator have made themselves part of History whether they intended to or not.”

“What’s your opinion, Blue?” Pif asked. “Should we go back and cancel out what we all did, or go forward and straight home.”

Blue sat back on his rump and folded his arms. “I’ll be honest, guys – I don’t care if we have affected History. I only care that we have foiled Chrysalis and haven’t hurt anypony in the process.”

“But we have no right to make those decisions!” Destined protested.

“Who made you the arbiter of what is correct History? Our dads and moms taught us to respect everypony and everygriff, and do our best to make life better for all, but they each had their different ways of going about it. What we did to correct History in one circumstance isn’t necessarily the right way to do it for every instance. If our going back in time and cancelling out our achievements does evil for so many, how can you argue that it’s the right thing to do?”

Destined pondered that for a while and then replied, “What if we go home and find things have gone wrong because we didn’t go back and erase our interference?”

“Then we go back and fix it, just like we’ve been doing.”

Lucida said, “I think that’s the most telling argument. We can take advantage of our ability to fix mistakes. So who thinks we should go straight home?” She raised a hoof.

Pif raised her hoof immediately, followed by Citrine and Silk. As soon as Blue put his up, Cinder raised a claw in agreement with him.

Destined looked at all the raised hooves and sighed. He raised his also. “I’m still not totally convinced, but I can’t say that you’re completely wrong either. We’ll see when we get back.”

“Great!” Citrine said cheerfully. “Now that that’s decided, can we stop being so depressing and get back to partying? We’ve barely begun celebrating Blue and Cinder’s new kids!”

The others laughed as the tension left the room. The party was still going when Sterling ended his shift, came home, and joined in the celebrations. No one got much sleep that night.

Lucida and Destined finished the final two weeks of the school year. To her surprise, her pupils gave her a going-away gift, and she was moved to tears. It had not been an easy ten and a half months, but it had been a truly fulfilling time.

Citrine and Silk had already put in their notice, but it did not stop Garth from trying to dissuade them from leaving anyway. Citrine compensated his loss a little by recommending one of the regulars for the job, but there was little else that either could do.

Pif wound up her work with the Royal Canterlot Orphanage, but she was still left with one major dilemma – what to do about Zark.

“I give up,” Pif admitted to the others. “The best that I can do for Zark will still leave him a vegetable after I download his data.”

Lucida clucked sympathetically. “The hardest lesson to learn is that we cannot win every time. Zark was always a pawn, and while he might deserve better, his fate was always sealed.”

Pif sighed. “I know. Well… I suppose there’s no point putting it off any longer. Seeing as I can’t take him back with us because it would break my hold on him, I have to download the information now. I’ve called in all my agents, and the last of them will be here in about an hour. After I’ve finished transferring the data, then we can leave for home.”

“What’s going to happen to the agents?”

“I thought we’d take them with us.”

“What? No, we can’t do that. Eight highly-placed ‘ponies’ all disappearing at once will have a huge impact on History,” Lucida explained.

“Oh. I forgot about that; I was worrying too much about Zark. But if I leave the agents here, their link to a hive-mind will be broken without me there as the hub.”

Sterling said, “Believe me, it hasn’t been fun living without the link. Sure, I learned to live without it, but if I had the opportunity, I’d link up again in a moment. Without that link, those same highly-placed ponies would cause a stir due to their strange behaviour. Depending on the individual, they might even accidentally betray their nature.”

“Damn!” Lucida swore. “Why has nopony thought about this before? Pif – tell me that you can do something about this!”

Pif didn’t seem to hear her though as she had the faraway look that she wore whenever she cogitating a problem. To Lucida’s surprise, a smile slowly grew on her sister’s face.

“I think I have a solution to two problems, if I can pull it off,” she finally announced.

“Let’s hear it then.”

“What’s one of the most significant differences between ordinary drones, and Chrysalis’ special agents?”

“Umm… they’re all enhanced in several ways… Oh! They can connect to the hive-mind by themselves.”

“Correct! While Zark’s mind will be burned out, his ability to connect will still exist. I can make a mini-hub out of him for my mini-network. My agents will still be able to link in my absence, and Zark will still be able to be useful.”

“But useful doesn’t mean whole,” Sterling pointed out.

“No, but we already conceded that would always be the case. The lives of everyone on Equus could depend on getting that information. It’s horrible but true. However, if my guess is correct, we might have something new and wonderful as a consequence.”

“What do you mean, Pif?” Lucida asked.

“Wait and see. It’s not something that has ever been tried before, so I can’t guarantee success.”

“Okay. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Thanks for not fighting me on this, Lucy.”

Lucida shrugged. “I learned my lesson, Pif. Sometimes you have the confidence to let your team members do their thing without interference.” She smirked a little. “As long as you remember that it works both ways.”

“Been there, done that, sis. Trying not to do it again.”

Over the next hour, Pif’s agents arrived and were fortified with some love-gel sandwiches for their task. When the eighth finally arrived, they shifted into their natural forms and made a circle around Pif and Zark. Pif strengthened the links between them all so as to facilitate the flow of information. There was just one last thing to do.

“Even though he’s under my control, Zark has been keyed to unlock the mind-lock to Chrysalis alone. Therefore I’m going to take grandma’s form for this purpose. Don’t be concerned by anything you see.”

“Can we help in any way while you’re doing this?” Destined asked.

“No. In fact it will probably be very boring because I’ll be taking it as slow as I can in order to minimise the damage to Zark’s mind. You might want to go and do something else while we’re working.”

“Okay, we’ll probably do that. I’ll have some refreshments for all of you when you’re done.”

“Great, thanks! Now, let’s get started.” Pif’s magic flames flared and moments later she was the exact image of Chrysalis. “Agent, report!”

The drone had been totally passive until that moment, but he seemed to come alive then. “My Queen, I am special agent Zark, sent by your future self to correct wrongs done to you in the future. I have returned your daughter, Princess Gossamer, for the glory of the hive. Within my mind is stored all the knowledge that will enable you to conquer Equestria. I am at your command.”

“Release the mind-lock!” Pif/Chrysalis demanded imperiously.

Zark stiffened, as did all the other drones. Pif frowned in concentration as the information poured out of the drone’s mind and she distributed it throughout her mini-network. This continued unchanged for a while before Destined headed for the door.

“Let’s leave them to it for now. Like Pif said, this may take a while.”

“You go. I’m going to watch over Pif,” Citrine replied firmly, her gaze never leaving her beloved.

“No problem, Citrine,” Lucida said as she followed the others out.

Pif had been correct – absolutely nothing changed for a long time, but Citrine waited patiently. Seventy-two minutes after they started, the information exchange finally finished, and Pif’s agents relaxed with a sigh. However, Pif’s concentration seemed to intensify, and Zark collapsed. The agents watched with interest as their Queen worked on Zark, their expressions flickering as Pif drew upon each of them for her mysterious secondary goal. Pif eventually sighed and relaxed before changing back to her unicorn guise. Then she addressed the special drone.

“Zark, how do you feel?”

Zark’s eyes opened and he stood up. He faced Pif and said, “We are feeling fine, Your Majesty.”

Zark’s voice was multi-tonal, almost as if several were talking at once in perfect synchronisation. Pif smiled in relief.

“What is your purpose?”

“We are our network’s hive-mind,” Zark replied in that same strange tone.

“What is your goal?”

“To enable the Hive to work towards protecting Equus and its inhabitants,” Zark replied with equanimity.

“Are you hungry?” Pif asked with a smile.

That question seemed to rattle the drone for the first time. “We… are, Your Majesty.”

“Good – so am I. Let’s go eat.” She gave a tilt of her head to her agents and headed for the door. “Coming, Citrine?”

“Of course! What’s going on with Zark though? He sounds weird.”

“I’ll tell you along with all the others.”

They all made their way to Destined’s room for the promised meal. It was rather crowded with everyone in the one room, but they managed to fit. The rest of the team was curious to see that Zark was apparently okay, and they immediately pressed Pif for answers.

Pif grinned proudly. “You’re looking at the first-ever multiple-mind personality. As I said, Zark’s original mind would be mostly burned out, but I built a replacement by using the mind-links with everyling attached to him. Zark’s mind is actually all of ours in fusion, shaped by what remains of the original.”

Lucida asked, “So this is in effect a whole new person? Are you sure that he can’t be used by Chrysalis now?”

Instead of answering, Pif said, “Zark, why don’t you answer that?”

Zark faced Lucida. “We are the gestalt of all those linked to me. We cannot act against you any more than you could act against yourself.”

“That’s reassuring. So you’re going to serve as the hub for the other eight while Pif is gone?”

“That is correct.”

“That’s great. It also explains why you refer to yourself in the plural.”

“We are one, but many,” Zark replied cryptically.

“That’s going to take a bit of getting used to,” Lucida admitted. Then she frowned. “What are you doing?”

Zark had suddenly squatted. He hesitated before relying, “Our body has been programmed to execute a task upon successful completion of the information transfer. We cannot stop this.”

“Everypony get back!” Lucida ordered. “Destined and Pif, be ready with your magic.”

Everyone watched with wary concern for Zark, but he only groaned and then stood up again. Leaving something deposited on the rug.

“Is that an egg?” Citrine asked.

“It sure is,” Pif answered.

“I thought Zark was male?”

“Zark is in male form, but like all drones, he’s infertile. No, it seems he’s been used as an egg-bearer.”

Citrine looked at Pif with incomprehension. “A what?”

“Drones can be used as mobile incubators. If the hive is under threat, or moving, eggs can be stored within the drones and kept there until circumstances are favourable, no matter how long it takes.”

“So why does Zark have an egg?”

Lucida interjected. “Actually that’s not hard to figure out. I’m betting that egg has one of Chrysalis’ super-drones that she sent to her past self to improve her hive with the goal of conquering Equus in mind.”

“You are correct,” Zark said. “That knowledge came to the fore upon activating the egg-depositing procedure.”

“What are we going to do with it?” Blue asked. “We can’t have one of Chrysalis’ super-drones among us. It’s too great a risk.”

Pif shook her head. “Sorry, Blue, but you’ve got that the wrong way around. The loyalty of drones is not fixed until they hatch and bond with the Queen. If we take this back to the Chrome Hive, the hatchling will bond with Papa Free. The egg will be utterly loyal to Queen Gossamer.”

“Please don’t use Dad’s birth name, Pif,” Blue said with a shudder. “It creeps me out after our experience with his alternate self.”

“Sorry, Blue,” Pif said contritely.

Lucida said, “This is an exciting development. Rather than enhancing her past self’s hive, Chrysalis has inadvertently given us the means of enhancing the Chrome Hive instead. We will also have a super-drone to study at our leisure.”

“That’s going to please our parents,” Blue said. “This calls for a celebration! Who wants a drink?” He headed for the alcohol.

There was a chorus of replies, and Blue was kept busy for a while, serving up many glasses of various beers and spirits. Meanwhile, Pif shifted to alicorn form, gathered up the egg, and tucked it under a wing for safe-keeping. Then she joined in on a move to the table loaded with food.

As they enjoyed the repast, Lucida asked Pif, “So, what did you learn from Zark?”

Pif finished the mouthful of food before replying, “I’m still processing the data, but I can confirm that Chrysalis is allied with the Zebras. She is currently based in a Zebrican village. However, I have learned one more critical piece of information. We’ve been wondering where Chrysalis has found the power and means to pull off some of this stuff. Wonder no more. The Nightmare is responsible.”

“The Nightmare?!” exclaimed Destined. “As in Nightmare Moon?”

“Yep. It seems the Nightmare has found another pawn to further its goals.”

“Doesn’t Chrysalis realise that she’s being used?”

Pif shook her head. “No more than Auntie Luna did until too late. The Nightmare enhances and feeds on its host’s negative feelings until it takes control, so if we can’t stop the Mad Queen soon, we will inevitably be dealing with Nightmare Chrysalis, and that’s going to make her doubly dangerous.”

“Well, that’s a bit of a downer,” Citrine said sadly.

“That’s why I was going to save it until after the celebration. Sorry about that,” Pif said.

“I choose to look at this positively,” Lucida said firmly. “Until now, we have merely been reacting to events. Now we can start being proactive. We deserve to celebrate.”

“That’s more like it!” Citrine declared.

There was a definite party atmosphere which continued until the changeling agents prepared to leave. Most of them had positions that did not allow for their extended absence. Pif had some final words with them before they departed.

“As I have said already, you are to carry on as much as possible as if you are still following Chrysalis’ directives, short of giving her any really useful information. Your true purpose is now the reverse – you are to gather as much intelligence on her operations as possible, as well as any other possible threats to Equestria. I have given you the important events to watch out for so that you don’t otherwise interfere with History, but can still keep abreast of Chrysalis’ plans. Get out of Canterlot before the invasion and do not return until the Chrome Hive is established and Blue Changelings are loyal to Queen Free. Above all, don’t let yourselves be caught by Chrysalis; I want you to all have long and happy lives.”

They thanked Pif, and Zark prepared to leave with one of the female agents, having taken the form of a blue unicorn.

“I live alone,” Bright Spark said, “but it would be of advantage to my cover to be in a relationship with a stallion. Zark can live with me and fulfil that role.”

Pif nodded. “Sounds like a good plan. I think that it will be good for Zark too as he learns more about himself. Right now he’s a blend of your personalities, but I believe that he will grow to be a true individual, although that is a bit of a misnomer considering his gestalt nature.” She smiled at Zark. “Good luck, Zark.”

“Thank you,” Zark said. “Farewell, My Queen.”

“Call me Pif!” was her last command to the unique changeling drone.

Lucida got up from the sofa and called for everyone’s attention. “That takes care of the last important detail. Now if everypony will help clear up, we can be on our way back to our proper time. I’ve booked cleaners to thoroughly cleanse the apartments tomorrow, and one of Pif’s agents is going to do a final inspection before returning the keys and getting our deposit back. Blue can collect that again in about thirty-six years.”

There was a round of chuckles.

“Okay, let’s get to work. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can go home.”

Everyone did their bit to clear the plates and glasses, or tidy up various items. This was the last apartment to be readied, so the task was quickly completed. As the rest waited for Blue to come back after taking out the trash, Lucida turned to Sterling with a smile.

“Are you as excited as I am at going back to the future?” she asked.

Sterling hesitated, and then shook his head. “I’m not going back with you, Lucy.”

Lucida blinked uncomprehendingly. “What?”

“Your future is not my future, and I would not fit in there any better than here. I’ve decided that I will continue with my duty and stand guard over Cirrus. If Chrysalis tries for him again, I will try my best to ensure that she does not succeed.”

“But… I thought… maybe…?” Words failed the normally eloquent hippogriff.

Sterling smiled fondly at Lucida. “You thought that perhaps we would form a more permanent relationship? I once seriously considered that also. After we made love for the first time, I thought long and hard about it. The truth is, Lucy, you needed the comfort of a companion, and you certainly enjoyed sex with me, but do we really have that much in common? I am much older than you, for starters, and we have very diverse interests. I’m also absolutely dedicated to my work, and that would not give me time to properly devote to a family. There’s a good reason why Red Changelings form far fewer personal relationships with ponies than the other hives. I am very fond of you, Lucida, and I have enjoyed every moment that we spent together, but you know in your heart that it’s time for us to go our separate ways.”

Tears started rolling down Lucida’s cheeks, but she knew he was right. She did not love him like that. He was a friend, a lover, and a protector, but not her soul-mate. She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek. “Think of me occasionally while you do your duty,” she said softly.

“I doubt that I could do otherwise, but don’t let your memory of me stop you from seeking out a suitable mate. Promise me that you won’t turn a blind eye to somepony or somegriff just because he’s not me.”

Lucida sniffled a little. “I promise.”

Blue returned at that moment, and the two stepped apart. Lucida wiped away her tears while Sterling called for the attention of the others.

“My friends and loyal companions, as I have just told Lucida, I will not be returning with you to the future. Instead I intend to continue my duties in this time.”

Pif said, “I suspected that you might stay, which is why I made a point of telling you a lot about future events. Try not to screw them up for us,” she added with a grin.

“I believe I will know when to get involved, and when not to interfere,” Sterling said with a matching smile. “For that reason, I will be taking the new name of Steady Gaze so that there won’t be two Sterlings in the future.”

“You realise that you can never reconnect to your hive?” Destined pointed out.

Sterling nodded. “It won’t be easy, but I promise that I will not.”

“You could always join my mini-network,” Pif offered.

Sterling hesitated. “A Red linked to a Blue hive-mind? Such a thing has never been done.”

Pif shook her head. “No, this is a Chrome network, and we specialise in doing new and different things.”

The Red Changeling paused as he considered her words, but then slowly shook his head. “Thank you for the offer, but no. My loyalty remains with the Red Hive, even if I cannot be one with it.” He smiled proudly. “I am honoured to have met you all and to have served with you. I wish you every success with your future endeavours.”

“And the same to you, buddy,” Blue replied.

The others added their sentiments and a few parting hugs or hoof-bumps. Sterling then stepped aside to watch them depart.

“All set, Blue?” Destined asked.

“All powered up and ready to go, Des.”

“Then let’s go!”

Blue fed power into the vortex manipulator, and Destined shaped it to point to their destination. The group plunged into the time vortex, leaving the room empty but for one unicorn-changeling.

“Farewell my dear friends,” he murmured as a tear trickled down one cheek. He wiped it away before leaving the apartment, firmly closing the door on it and a chapter in his life.

Watchful Eyes was still berating herself while sunken up to her muzzle in the otherwise empty hot tub. The soothing jets were doing little to calm her frazzled nerves as she pondered how Queen Carpacia was going to punish her for her failure. To her surprise though, the vortex that only moments ago had taken away those she should have been guarding suddenly reappeared. With no further warning, several forms fell out of it on top of her. There was a mighty splash, and Watchful found herself struggling to hold her breath under water as several persons thrashed about her. With a gasp, she made it back to the surface to stare disbelievingly.

“Des!” Lucida sputtered indignantly. “When I told you to get us back as close to when we left as possible, I didn’t mean this close!”

“Sorry, sis. Would you believe I forgot where we were after all this time?”

Watchful boggled at that statement. “How long have you been gone?!” she blurted out.

Lucida looked at the changeling guardian in surprise. “What are you doing in the hot tub, Watchful?”

“I dived in trying to follow you! What did Destined mean by ‘all this time’? And what in Tartarus happened to your feather colour?” she asked.

“A-heh! We had to stay in the past a teeny bit longer than planned.”

“Yeah! If you call most of a year a teeny bit!” Citrine chortled. “Get a load of these!” She pointed in the direction of the two dragon hatchlings who were delightedly splashing in the warm water.

Watchful looked at the dragonlings in shock. “A year? Queen Carpacia is going to kill me, then revive me and kill me again!”

Citrine threw an arm around the distressed changeling. “Aw, we won’t let that happen. Where would we get another watchdog like you?”

Somehow Watchful was not particularly reassured, but she sighed and stopped stressing over it. The damage was done; it was time to see what could be salvaged.

“Let’s get out of here and head home,” Blue suggested as he began climbing out of the tub. “Cinder and I have got to show off our children to their grandparents.”

“Good idea,” Destined agreed and started following suit.

Soon they had all exited the tub and were towelling off. Destined obliged with some quick-drying spells, and they headed out. Aloe and Lotus were quite surprised to see Blue and Cinder carry out a hatchling each, but with the experience of long-time inhabitants of Equestria’s most incident-prone town, they quickly shrugged it off and returned to their work.

The sun was just setting, but there was still plenty of light to take in the sights of their Ponyville home town. It buoyed the spirits of all the time-travellers, and they grew more excited as they approached the crystalline tree-castle. Lucida was wearing a huge grin as she talked with Citrine about something, but Pif was not paying attention. As the others made their way into the castle, she paused and opened her mind to hive network, revelling in being fully connected once more. Then she sought out a discrete mini-network and sighed in relief when it connected.

Zark – report!’ she commanded.

At your command, Your Majesty,’ came an immediate reply. ‘Welcome home, Pif.

Pif’s happy grin was so wide, it threatened to split her face in two.

“Hey, Dad! Papa Free! Guess who I bumped into while in Canterlot!” Blue announced excitedly as he entered the living room where their parents were relaxing at the end of the day before the evening meal.

Path smiled at his son’s excitement. “I’m guessing that I’d never be able to guess, so give us a clue.”

Blue grinned. “Better yet, let me introduce you.”

On cue, Lucida walked into the room, still in her new colours. “Long Path! Cirrus Ironbeak! I’m still waiting for that final class project, and I won’t believe that General Mayhem stole it this time,” she said sternly.

Path and Free gaped at the sight of someone whom they had not seen in three dozen years.

“Ms Lightgiver?” Path said disbelievingly. “You… haven’t aged a bit!”

“Now, now! A student should not be complimenting their teacher on their looks,” the hippogriff chided.

Free’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward as if to examine his old teacher more closely. Then his eyes flew open in surprise and his talons flew up to his beak to choke off a response. Only a tiny ‘snrk!’ escaped him, but it went unnoticed by Path.

“I have no idea what project you’re talking about, Ms Lightgiver, but I’m happy to see you again. Free and I owe you a lot!”

“Who is this Free person?” Lucida asked in apparent puzzlement.

A much louder choked-back sound came from Free, and Path glanced at him in puzzlement before replying, “Cirrus changed his name to Free Agent. Surely you have heard of him? Married Princess Twilight?”

“I heard she married a male alicorn. Surely you wouldn’t have me believe that mischievous griffon could ever be taken seriously by a princess?”

Free couldn’t hold it in anymore, and a laugh exploded out of him. “HA! Hee-hee-heee!”

He continued giggling as Path looked at him with consternation, as did Twilight and Roseclaw.

Destined walked in at that moment in his Inevitable Fate colours and wearing his wing-concealing jacket despite it still being damp from the plunge in the tub. “My dear, what have you been doing to our former students?” he asked with a slightly deeper voice.

“Finding out that Cirrus is still his irrepressible self, apparently,” Lucida replied.

“Instructor Fate? You and Ms Lightgiver? So is that what happened to you two after that one year?”

Free totally lost it then. “Bwa-ha-ha-haaaaa!” he whooped with laughter, pounding the floor, tears streaming from his eyes.

“Will somepony tell me what’s so funny?” Path demanded.

Lucida walked up to Path and hugged him. “It means you can’t fool Papa Free for long, Dad.”

Finally Path realised how familiar Lightgiver’s voice was. “Lucida?”

“Yes, Dad,” she replied with a grin.

“What happened to you? Why do you look like my old teacher?”

“Because I am your old teacher. I am Ms Lightgiver. Don’t you remember what my real name means?”

Path looked at her in shock, and even Free calmed down to listen curiously.

“Ms Lightgiver was our teacher for a whole school year! What happened? And since when did you have a cutie mark?” Path asked.

“It’s a long story, Dad,” Destined said as he shucked his coat and let the colour illusion drop. “We’ll tell you all about while you have dinner.”

Twilight said, “I’d like to hear about that cutie mark first. I never knew that Free’s teacher had one. Although hippogriffs are half-pony, I haven’t met one with a cutie mark before. Is it even real?” she asked Lucida.

“Yes, Mama. I got it literally just before we went back in time. It surprised the heck out of me.”

Free put an arm around Lucida and started steering her towards the dining room. “You can satisfy your mother’s curiosity while we eat, Ms Teacher.”

“Think you can pay attention in class, Commander Trotty?” Lucida asked with an eyebrow arched sceptically.

Free chuckled. “As long as Captain Cluck doesn’t need my help.”

Path stuck his tongue out at Free, but laughed anyway.

Their puzzled wives followed, wondering what craziness was about to be unleashed this time.

Blue, Lucida, and Destined took turns relating an abbreviated version of the events of the latest history change that they had to fix. Free was dismayed to hear what had happened to his alternate self, but absolutely livid when he learned the cause.

“Chrysalis tried to have my parents killed to get me back? When I get my talons on her, she’s going to regret ever laying my egg! Death is way too good for that bitch!”

“Calm down, Papa,” Lucida said soothingly, giving him a warm hug with plenty of love.

Free sank back into his chair with a groan. “Alright, but I meant what I said.”

Destined said, “Stopping their murders and catching the agent was a simple task once we knew what had happened. Pif was able to get a huge amount of information out of the agent, and he’s now Pif’s loyal minion, so please don’t think of harming him if she brings him here.”

“None of this explains why you and Lucida were our teachers for so long though,” Path protested.

“Well, you know that Cinder was pregnant? She laid the eggs, and refused to risk them in the time vortex. We had no other safe option than to wait until they hatched.”

Twilight sat bolt upright, her ears sharply bent forward, eyes wide as saucers. “Eggs? More than one? Hatched?!

Blue called out through the door to where Cinder had been patiently waiting out of sight, with Citrine and Pif helping to keep Eon and Era quiet and amused. “That’s your cue, love!”

Cinder walked in with a grin on her face, the dracopony hatchlings clinging onto her back. Twilight bolted out of her chair and around the table, almost colliding with Roseclaw who had done the same. The two started squealing with delight, and picked up a grandchild each, and hugged and cooed over them, and pointing out to each other the characteristics of their hatchling, and comparing to the other.

Blue and Cinder just watched and smiled proudly as Path and Free came over to have a closer look also.

“Congratulations on being grandparents,” Blue said to them.

Path put an arm around Blue’s shoulder. “What’s it like for you being a parent for the first time?”

“Kind of awesome. Also a little weird. It’s a bit like they were born twice – once when Cinder laid their eggs, and a second time when they hatched.”

“I suppose when you have a dragon for a mate, you’re going to have more than a few weird moments in your life,” Path conceded. “As long as it’s a good kind of weird, I think you’ll survive.”

Blue chuckled. “I think we all grew up in a weird family. What’s a little more?”

“True. Now, let’s see if I can pry one of them off my wife for a moment. So what are their names?”

“Mama Roseclaw is holding your granddaughter, Era, and Mama Twilight has your grandson, Eon.”

“How old are they?” Free asked. “They look too lively for being just hatched.”

“They’re a couple of weeks old. It’s amazing how strong they’ve gotten in such a short time, but I suppose that’s their dragon heritage.”

“It’ll be interesting to see how much of them is pony, and how much is dragon, aside from just their looks,” Free commented as they watched Path take Era into his forelegs, careful to not get raked by her claws. “Take it from a changeling raised by griffons with an alicorn for a wife – you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

By mutual consent, they decided to put off a thorough debriefing until the next day, preferring instead to enjoy some quiet family time. After nearly a year away, the time-team wanted nothing more than to just spend a relaxing evening chatting with their elders. Eventually Cinder left to put two tired children to bed. Free and Path excused themselves for the moment, saying that their wives had had their turn, but it was time for the grandpas to tuck in their grandchildren. They were gone for quite a while though, and Lucida and Destined were beginning to wonder what was taking them so long.

Suddenly the doors to the living room burst open and two figures leaped into the room.

“Never fear! We are here!” proclaimed one.

“Let evildoers beware!” exclaimed the other.

The time-travellers stared in disbelief at Path and Free. Path had cardboard wings with a few feathers sticky-taped onto them, and a paper beak taped to his muzzle, while Free was wearing his status cape and with a paper pony muzzle taped over his beak plus large soup cans over his talons and paws.

Lucida cracked up and started rolling on the floor, howling with laughter. Destined guffawed too, while the rest chuckled in amusement, having only heard about the adventures of Captain Cluck and Commander Trotty from the others.

Free looked at Path and said, “I believe our work here is done, Captain.” He held up one foreleg.

Path hoof-bumped him as he replied, “Indeed, Commander. Let us away!”

They made a dramatic exit, leaving Lucida still helplessly giggling on the floor.

Destined wiped the tears of mirth from his eyes. “Three dozen years, and they still haven’t completely grown up.” He shook his head in wonder. “Thank Celestia!”




Chapter 12: Relatives and Relationships


The evening morphed into a party to celebrate the new grandchildren, and Destined’s first day as acting Prince of Equestria, even if for him it had been nearly a year ago. The celebrations grew even more exuberant when Pif took the opportunity to formally proposed marriage to Citrine in front of her parents, as she had promised to do months earlier. Only Destined was a little quiet after that, and Free noticed him sitting away from the others, looking thoughtful.

“What’s wrong, son?” Free asked quietly as he sat down beside the alicorn.

“Nothing,” Destined denied.

“Must be an awful nothing to make you mope this bad when you should be as happy as the others.”

Destined sighed and shook his head. “Ever feel like a fraud, Papa?”

Free cocked a curious eyebrow at his son. “What do you mean?”

“I mean… I never would have gotten through that court without Lucy’s help. She even got a cutie mark out of it, for Celestia’s sake! She’s so much better at it than I am, but I was the one on the throne pretending that I knew what I was doing.”

Free chuckled. “And yet you successfully got through the entire Day Court without a glitch. Do you think Celestia does it all by herself? She has a horde of advisors, researchers, and specialists to help her make the big decisions. She only makes it look easy because she’s been doing it for centuries. How do you think she must have felt when she was first crowned and told that she now had the responsibility of leading an entire nation?”

“There was probably a transition of power. They couldn’t have just dumped her into the deep end of the pool!”

“And did she give you any really major tasks to handle? Did you have to deal with them by yourself? No, Celestia gave you a relatively easy session with the guidance of someone with more experience. She knew what she was doing and she believed in you. Was she so wrong?”

“I suppose not.”

“And yet I can taste that unpleasant glumness hanging about you still, so what’s really bothering you?”

For a long moment it seemed that Destined was not going to reply, but then he looked away from Free and said quietly. “What will the nobles think of their Prince if they knew he was gay and in a relationship with a commoner?”

Free was startled and not a little annoyed by that answer. “First of all, even if those nobles in Canterlot would be shocked at you being in love with a commoner, it wouldn’t be the first time. While I was considered royalty by some standards as I am a Queen, others never accepted me because I am a changeling. Guess what? It didn’t matter! Twilight and I still got married and have been happily ignoring those jerks ever since. So Silk definitely isn’t royalty, but who cares? None of your family cares, not even Luna who comes from different times with different attitudes. Anyone who really matters doesn’t care. Frankly all of us would prefer to see you happy with someone who shares your love rather than someone politically expedient.”

“And the fact that he’s a stallion?”

“It’s not as if gay relationships are that new to Equestria either, so what if you’re in love with a stallion? We knew you had the hots for him ages ago, and it didn’t bother anyone. Not even your mother was upset, although she is disappointed that you won’t be giving her any grandfoals.”

Destined snorted at that. “Yeah – look at how Mom’s obsessed over Cinder and Blue’s kids, and they aren’t even blood-related! She’s going to keep harping on how disappointed…”

Free planted his talons over Destined’s muzzle to stop him from talking. “Don’t disrespect your mother over something she hasn’t even done, and probably won’t anyway. And just because you feel nervous about how others will see you doesn’t mean that they are right. I’ll tell you right now without fear of contradiction from any in my herd that we will be happy and proud to see gay Prince Destined ruling Equestria with his husband by his side. Now, are you going to stop moping and join in the celebrations?”

Destined chuckled at the picture Free’s words had projected in his mind. He looked at his father and smirked. “No.”

“No?” Free echoed questioningly.

“Gotta do something first. Back soon.” With that, Destined teleported away.

Free suspected what Destined was up to, and he smiled.

Several minutes later, Destined reappeared with Silk at his side. The showy entrance drew the attention of the others, which the alicorn took advantage of.

“Dads, Moms, Auntie Luna, you all know Silk Touch. We would like to announce our engagement. Silk has consented to marry me.”

Twilight squealed in excitement, and was first to throw her arms around Destined to hug and kiss him. To Silk’s surprise, she did the same to the bat-pony, saying, “Welcome to the family!”

Roseclaw and Luna followed suit, and for the first time the self-confident thestral grew embarrassed by all the attention. After Destined’s siblings had added their congratulations, Silk was more than happy to join in with the ongoing celebrations.

Eventually, the need to get at least a few hours’ sleep drew the party to a close. Before everyone left for their rooms though, Path asked about their plans for the next day.

Lucida replied, “We’re going to Canterlot to check for any adverse changes due to not undoing our influence on History. I know that so far everything looks good, but we have to be sure.”

Pif added, “While we’re there, I’m going to meet up with my special agents. We have a lot of catching up to do.”

“I want to drop in on Auntie Celestia too,” Destined said. “I think we have some things to discuss. And I want to introduce my fiancé to her too,” he added with a blush.

“I’ll let the others sort out those things,” Blue said. “I have a lot of training to catch up on with Warfist. He’s going to think I’ve gotten soft!”

Cinder said, “I have two children to look after now. Between my House duties and them, I think I’ll be more than busy.”

“I think I’ll accompany you, Lucida,” Twilight said. “If everything is okay, we’re going to have to organise a summit to discuss these latest developments.”

Path nodded in agreement. “I’ll reschedule everything to allow for that. We’ve learned a lot tonight, and things are going to change drastically soon. Chrysalis will soon learn that she can’t hide from us anymore.”

The time-travellers allowed themselves the luxury of a late morning sleep-in, although it might have been considered a necessity rather than a luxury after the late celebrations both with the family and then later in the bedrooms. Despite their stated intentions of the previous evening, both Cinder and Blue took the rest of the morning to wander around Ponyville, ostensibly to check for unexpected History changes while the others checked in Canterlot, but mostly because they wanted to show off their children. Explaining how Cinder went from being pregnant to having hatchlings overnight was a little tricky, but Ponyville residents were used to far stranger things than that.

The group that teleported to Canterlot stayed together initially, with Twilight curious to see if they picked up on anything different. After a couple of hours, they had all but one hundred percent concluded that if there were any changes, they were so obscure that it did not matter anyway. Lucida was extremely relieved because although she had pushed to skip the retcon of their ten months or so then, as the leader of the team, it was still her responsibility ultimately. They then split up – Twilight, Destined, and Silk heading for the castle, while Lucida and Pif headed for a rendezvous with the changeling’s special agents. The hippogriff wanted to hear what the agents had to say about the intervening years, and perhaps add that to the final report.

A conference with Zark over Pif’s mini-network had arranged a meeting with him and the agents at the Canterlot Café where they could have lunch while catching up in person. They stopped in the coffee shop section first to say hello to Frothy Brew before going next door to the dining section. There they found a large table surrounded by nine changelings – some in their original disguise, a couple in new guises, and one actually in natural form. Once upon a time, Frothy would have cheerfully strangled the Blue Changeling, but the intervening years and Free’s control of the new hive and its legacy of Blues had changed that gradually. Now all Frothy asked was that they stay disguised or at least out of his sight.

The faces of all the agents lit up with pleasure at seeing Pif, and a blue unicorn with a silvery mane got up and approached her. He gave a brief but respectful bow.

“I am so happy to see you in person again, Your Majesty. And yes, that’s the last time I’ll address you by title, Pif. After thirty-six years, I just wanted to express my gratefulness and loyalty in person.”

Pif smiled and hugged him. “It’s so great to see you doing so well, Zark, so I’ll forgive you for the excessive formality. I notice that you’re referring to yourself as ‘I’ now though – have you changed that much?”

“Not in that way. We are still a gestalt mind, but that gestalt developed its own personality that qualifies it as a being distinct from its component parts. That individual personality is me, Zark.”

Pif was beside herself with glee. “You have no idea how happy I am that my experimental procedure worked out. I hope you have enjoyed getting to know yourself over these years.”

“It has been a unique experience, and I have my fellow agents to thank for their help and encouragement. To put it mildly, I have had a remarkable life, and one that I have been more than happy to experience.”

“Excellent!” Pif turned to the others. “Hey! Don’t I get a hug from you lot too?”

The others had been hanging back to allow Zark and Pif to enjoy their reunion, but the dam broke then, and they all surged toward their queen and friend. It took a while to give satisfactory hugs and nuzzles to all of them before they settled down at the table.

“Before we place our orders, there’s one last thing I want to do, Pif,” Zark said. He looked over at Lucida. “When you told me that you would be coming with your sister, I made one other arrangement.” His eyes went to the doorway.

Apparently waiting for his cue, a brown unicorn stallion with a two-tone blue mane streaked with grey entered and walked over to them. He smiled gently at Lucida and Pif.

“It’s good to see you after all these years.”

The hippogriff and the changeling princess’s eyes widened and they gasped in shock. “STERLING!” they chorused as they almost bowled him over as they crash-tackled him in a hug.

“Whoa! Easy there! I’m not as young as I used to be,” he said with a chuckle, even as he returned the hug willingly. “Oh, and it’s been Steady Gaze all these years. Don’t want to be shouting that name in this café.”

“Don’t care!” Lucida said with a sniffle. “I wasn’t sure that I was ever going to see you again after we parted back then. What have you been doing all these years?”

“That’s a long story. Mind if I join you for lunch?”

Lucida rolled her eyes. “As if I was going to let you leave without a meal and a lot of conversation!”

Steady Gaze grinned. “You’ve talked me into it.”

It was a good thing that Pif and Lucida were friends of the Brew family as they were quite used to various House Path members using the café as an informal meeting place. The staff members were discreet, and coffee and other refreshments were supplied without fuss. While they ate, Pif learned what each of the agents had been doing in the intervening years, but it was after the meal that they all settled in to listen to Steady Gaze’s tales.

“As I said I would do after you left, I dedicated my life to ensuring that Cirrus had a life free from meddling by Chrysalis, and whatever else could threaten the future that would bring a beautiful hippogriff into being.”

Lucida blushed but did not interrupt.

“The first significant incident happened only a few weeks after we parted….”

# ~ # ~ # ~ # ~ #

Cirrus was a little unsure of what his uncle wanted. In fact he had not even known that he had an Uncle Jetstream Ironbeak until very recently. He wanted to chat with Cirrus on the way home from school, and the young griff did not mind that, but he wondered why the grown-up had turned them into this quiet alleyway.

A City Guard abruptly moved into their path, seemingly out of nowhere. “Halt! Where are you going with this child?” he demanded.

Jetstream was irritated by the delay. “We are merely making a slight detour on the way home, officer.”

“This is not the way to this one’s home,” the unicorn Guard replied, stepping forward, scowling at Jetstream.

The grey griffon’s eyes narrowed as he recognised something. “This is none of your business, Red!”

“On the contrary, agent of Chrysalis, it is very much my business.” Steady Gaze looked at Cirrus. “Go back and hurry home to your parents. I must have words with this griff.”

Cirrus was confused and slightly frightened, and he wished Path was here to be heroic with him right now. Instead he nodded, turned, and hastened away.

Jetstream glared angrily at Steady Gaze. “It is not your place to interfere in the affairs of other hives!” he spat.

The unicorn frowned. “That’s rich coming from you. I know your agenda, and you are nothing less than a threat to all of Equestria. I will not allow it.”

“I will complete my Queen’s commands, whether you like it or not.”

“Then you leave me no choice.” Steady’s horn lit up.

“Is that a threat?” Jetstream said, readying himself for combat. “I am far superior to even a Red Changeling. You will not stop me. One of us will not be leaving this alley alive.”

“I have had the occasion to meet your brother, and you might be correct, so it forced me to plan ahead.”

A large crate that Steady had levitated under the guise of preparing a magic blast was hovering over Jetstream. Steady’s magic ceased, and the crate silently fell upon the unsuspecting ‘griffon’. He barely had time to squawk before his life was snuffed out.

Steady Gaze pushed the crate off the Blue Changeling corpse that remained. He powered up his horn with an immolation spell, and cast it upon the body. Soon there was nothing but ashes left, and the Guard sighed. Killing was always his final option, but he would not hesitate to do his duty. He was a Red Changeling with the sworn task to protect the future, and he would not be found wanting.

# ~ # ~ # ~ # ~ #

Cirrus carefully pushed open the door of the art supplies shop, his arms full of the painting materials that his dad had asked him to pick up on the way home from school. The young teen had not minded, but had not realised just how much his father had ordered. It was quite a juggling act to hold everything in his front limbs, his view partially obstructed as he moved into the open where he paused to spread his wings to fly home. Before he could though, something crashed into him, sending the supplies flying instead of him.

As Cirrus picked himself off the ground, he looked around to find the source of the disaster. A white unicorn with a golden mane and a compass-rose cutie mark was also getting up, and he was furious.

Look at what you’ve done, you fool!” the unicorn roared. Streaks of various coloured paints ran down his face and barrel.

“Calm down, Blueblood,” his companion said as she tried to help him get back in order.

“Calm down?!” he spat back at the mare who shrank back in shock. “This clumsy idiot covers me in this hideous mess, and all you can say is calm down?!”

“Sorry about this,” Cirrus said as he started to gather up the scattered goods, “but you were the one who ran into me, not the other way around. Perhaps you should have been paying more attention to where you were walking instead of your marefriend.”

Blueblood turned his gaze on Cirrus, and if looks could kill, the griffon would have died that instant. “Do you know who I am, catbird?” he hissed.

“If I can believe what I just heard, you’re Blueblood,” Cirrus replied.

“That’s Prince Blueblood to you, cretin! How dare you accuse me of being at fault! I will haul you before the Royal Guards and have you thrown in a cell for this!”

Cirrus paused to look at the ranting unicorn. He could see veins beginning to pop as his face turned red from fury. “It takes skill to run into someone who can barely move due to the load he’s carrying. Perhaps that compass on your butt is pointing up your ass?”

Blueblood gave a strangled scream before he shouted, “I will have Auntie Celestia lock you up until you’re old and grey! I will make sure you’re fed nothing but mouldy hay! I will….

“What seems to be the problem here?” A stern voice interrupted.

They all turned to see a Royal Guard officer who had approached unnoticed.

Blueblood grinned maliciously. “Officer, I want you to arrest this griffon!”

“On what charge, sir?”

“Assaulting royalty, namely myself, threats of violence to me and my companion, and malicious vandalism for starters. I will have more when he is booked.”

“Hey!” Cirrus objected. “That’s a load of horsefeathers!”

“I see,” the Guard impassively replied. “Do you realise that those charges, if upheld in court, could result in his incarceration for something like twenty years?”

“Of course I realise, you idiot! That’s the idea!”

“And you would swear to all these charges in court?”

“Of course. You would have the word of a Prince!”

“I must advise you, Your Highness, that I witnessed the entire incident. I would be required to testify also.”

Blueblood abruptly froze and then began to look nervous.

The Royal Guard continued calmly. “I saw you chatting with your marefriend, focused on her and not looking where you were going. The young griffon was standing there, preparing to take flight when you ran into him. As a member of the Her Highness’ Royal Guard, I would have to give my sworn testimony in front of Princess Celestia that not only were you at fault, but you also sought to bear false witness against this griffon, accusing him of serious crimes that he did not commit, and sought unlawful imprisonment of a minor. Now, do you wish to amend your version of the incident?”

Blueblood glared at the Guard for a long moment before turning his head away. “It was an unfortunate accident,” he mumbled.

“I thought as much,” the Guard replied. “Perhaps you could replace the paints that you spilled in order to make up for it?”

Blueblood seethed but nodded.

“Excellent. I will help the lad get his goods back in order while you make the purchases.”

Cirrus grinned and passed the spilled tubes of paint to Blueblood. “And don’t buy the cheap crap. Dad’s a professional artist!”

Blueblood was lucky that he did not see his marefriend cover up a snort of laughter at his expense, or else he might have had a stroke on the spot.

“Thanks!” Cirrus said to the Guard as they collected the last of the intact materials.

“Just doing my sworn duty, sir, but you’re welcome.”

After receiving the replacement paints, Cirrus took off for home, and Blueblood stomped off to his too. A long shower to get out the paint was uppermost on his mind, and the mare was forgotten. She watched him leave, shrugged, and departed in another direction.

The Guard smiled, knowing that the mare had probably dodged an arrow. He trotted off down the street and turned into a quiet alleyway. A red flare of magic went unseen as he changed from a unicorn to a pegasus, and the Royal Guard armour illusion dropped to reveal genuine City Guard armour underneath. Steady took off to follow Cirrus once more, his never-ending duty to fulfil. Not every threat to his ward would necessarily come from Chrysalis, but with all of Equestria at stake, he would be there to deal with them all.

# ~ # ~ # ~ # ~ #

“I tell you I have an invitation! It’s just been mislaid somehow. I was told to come to this entrance and I’d be allowed in,” Free insisted.

The Royal Guards flanking the doorway looked bored and unconvinced.

“Sir,” one of them replied, “As I have already said, we have had no notification with regards to you. We will not let you in without proof of this missing invitation.”

“And what do you suppose Princess Celestia will say when she hears that two Guards can’t even check for this invitation, and stopped an esteemed guest from participating in one of the most important diplomatic events of the year?”

The Guard rolled his eyes. “If you are so esteemed, sir, why are you here by yourself, with no staff, and again, no invitation?”

“How many griffons do you know in Canterlot? Who else would be coming to a Griffonian diplomatic function?”

“I’m sure the Griffish Butcher might have had occasion to supply appropriate food,” the Guard replied with some distaste. “However, I don’t believe he has an invitation either.”

“Look, just let me find the mare in charge, and have her send back confirmation. It’ll only take a minute!” Free pleaded desperately.

“Please move away from the entrance, sir,” the Guard replied firmly.

“But…” Free started, but could not find another argument.

“What is going on here?” came a voice from behind the Guards.

The Royal Guardspony who had been talking to Free turned to look at the newcomer. “Sergeant Sterling Shield! This griffon claims to have had his invitation to the Griffonian diplomatic function mislaid, and has been trying to gain entrance. I was just turning him away, sir.”

Sterling Shield looked at Free. “Ah, yes. You must be Free Agent. I was sent to find you when we realised that your invitation was not properly delivered. If you would care to follow me, I will escort you to the event.”

The two Guards were very surprised, but stood aside to allow the griffon to enter.

Free was no less surprised that somepony was playing along with his bullshit story, but he rolled with it. He gave the Guards a condescending sneer as he followed the Sergeant. It did not take him long to notice something about the Guard though, and he stopped while they were alone in a long hallway.

“Okay, first of all, thanks for getting me in. Second, I know you’re a changeling, but you’re one of those obsessively loyal Reds, so why did you do it?”

Sterling faced Free and said with deadly seriousness, “You have a destiny to fulfil. Don’t blow it.” He then turned back and continued onwards without further words.

Free was left even more mystified, but did not push his luck. He was shown to the door of the soirée and then suddenly the changeling Guard was gone. Free shrugged, put on his most ingratiating smile, set his sights on Princess Celestia, and murmured, “It’s show-time!”

# ~ # ~ # ~ # ~ #

“What?!” exclaimed Pif. “You mean to tell me that you were responsible for Dad getting a hoof in the door at the palace?”

“Yes. I’ve watched over nearly every aspect of his life over those intervening years, and I clearly remembered all the highlights of your family’s history that you and the others told me over those months that we spent together. When I saw that Free’s attempt to talk his way past the Guards was going to fail, I stepped in to ensure that he would get that chance to ingratiate himself with the Princess that first time.”

Pif shook her head in amazement. “Do you realise that you have single-hoofedly put into motion the events that eventually led to the formation of House Path?”

Steady Gaze smiled. “Not quite. I could never have done that if a certain team of time-travellers had not put me into that position, and with the necessary knowledge to act upon it.”

“But that’s circular reasoning!” Pif protested. “We would not have travelled back in time to preserve history if House Path did not exist, and it only existed because certain events occurred due to your intervention!”

“I gave up trying to understand it long ago. No doubt Destined might have a better understanding of it than a mere changeling drone.”

“You aren’t a mere anything, Sterl… Steady Gaze. But Des manages to confuse me too, so I think we’ll both be better off not thinking about it too much.”

Steady chuckled. “Agreed. So now that I have no more historical foreknowledge to act upon, what do you think I should do now?”

“Lucida and Mama Twilight will no doubt organise a summit soon. I believe that you should attend.” Pif smiled slyly. “Queen Carpacia will be there.”

Steady’s gaze took on a distant look. “I have been close to her on previous occasions when she and Free came together. You don’t know how hard it was to not say something then.”

“The time for secrecy has ended. I don’t know of any changeling more deserving than you to claim his just reward for services rendered.”

“I need no reward – I just did my duty. Re-joining the hive-network will be enough for me.”

“Yeah, I can imagine. Hey! I just realised something – we’re related.”

Steady looked at Pif curiously. “How do you figure that?”

“Carpacia sought out Dad to sire a princess with her. Fidelitas is my half-sister. That makes you and me kind of cousins, right?”

Steady Gaze laughed. “I guess it does. Never thought I’d have a Chrome Changeling relative.”

“You’ll always be welcome in my hive, Cuz!” Pif replied with a grin and a slap on the back.

“My sister informed me that you would most likely be visiting me about lunchtime,” Celestia said. “May I suggest that we discuss things over an extended lunch break?”

“That would be fine, Princess,” Twilight replied.

“Excellent. I will meet you in the dining room soon when Day Court goes on recess.”

Twilight bowed formally and then left the throne room as the sergeant-at-arms called for the next petitioner.

Twilight joined up with Destined and Silk again, and they made their way to the dining room. The staff was more than familiar with the frequent unplanned guests that the royal sisters had, and food and drink was rapidly prepared for them all. It was not long before Celestia was finished with the final petitioner, and she arrived at the dining room also. She seated herself at her usual spot at the end of the table as she greeted her guests.

Silk was a little nervous about meeting Celestia, but Destined firmly brought him up to meet the Princess.

“Auntie Celestia, I’d like you to meet someone who is very near and dear to my heart. This is Silk Touch, and last night I proposed marriage to him, and he accepted.”

Celestia gave Silk a beaming smile. “It is wonderful to meet the pony who has made my nephew so happy. I’d say it was awfully sudden, but my sister mentioned that your recent trip together was quite extended.”

As there were still servants in the room who were not privy to the time-travel events, they had to speak discreetly about them. “Yes, Your Highness. We had quite the opportunity to get to know each other better, and I was very happy to find out that his feelings for me matched those of mine for him.”

“There is no need for formality, Silk. We are all family here, or at least in your case, very soon to be. Have you planned a wedding date yet?”

Destined made choking noises, and Silk looked at him with a grin before turning back to Celestia. “I think my fiancé is still getting used to the idea of us getting hitched. We’ll worry about the actual ceremony when he’s ready.”

Celestia smiled in amusement. “I see. Well, I do hope you keep me in mind as the celebrant.”

Silk’s smile slipped a little. “You?” he squeaked.

“It is a royal wedding, after all.”

Silk suddenly sat down hard on his rump. “Somehow that never really got through to me before now,” he said dazedly. “He’s virtually always been just Des to me, not Prince Destined.”

“And that is one of the reasons why you are such a good match for him. While we eat, I’d like to hear some more about you.”

The servants served up lunch to Celestia and her guests, then discreetly retired from the room, leaving the occupants free to talk about the recent time-travel events. Destined and Silk gave the same condensed version of events that they had related the previous night, but they also expanded upon their personal experiences. Celestia was discomforted by the fact that she had been so thoroughly used in that alternative History though.

“Free Agent has been a powerful force for Harmony, but things could so easily have gone the other way. Let us all be thankful that the Queen Gossamer that we know today is nothing like the one that you met back then.”

“Papa Free really hates it when you call him Queen Gossamer,” Destined pointed out.

“I know,” Celestia replied with a sly smile.

Twilight chuckled. “Free and Celestia have been teasing each other since before you were born, Destined. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”

“Indeed. Ever since he managed to crash his first diplomatic party, we’ve been enjoying a bit of byplay with each other. He certainly livened up the castle on many an occasion. Thank the heavens he made a family to carry on the tradition.”

The others laughed, and even Silk joined in. He really liked this unseen side of the royal family.

Twilight arranged a suitable time for a summit to be held with the usual people who were in the know. As some of them were known to be far away at this time, the meeting was scheduled to occur in three days. The extended luncheon ended and Celestia headed back to the throne room for the afternoon session of Day Court, although not before offering Destined the opportunity to hold it in her place. The young alicorn stallion vehemently declined, and the alicorn princess left with a smile on her face.

“Your aunt has a wicked sense of humour,” Silk observed.

“Tell me about it!” Destined said with a sigh of relief.

After they left the castle, Twilight, Destined and Silk headed for the Canterlot Café in order to rendezvous with Pif and Lucida, not to mention making a social call on Frothy and family. Needless to say, Destined was delighted to see that Sterling/Steady Gaze had made it through the intervening years successfully.

“You’re looking good, although I see some grey in your mane,” Destined said.

“Well, I am in my seventies, you know,” Steady Gaze replied.

“And you’re a changeling who can look like anything he wants,” the alicorn retorted.

“I prefer to look my age. Besides, it helps keeps up my secret identity.”

“So what have you been doing lately?”

“I’ve been telling Lucida and Pif about how I’ve kept watch over Cirrus/Free over the years. Aside from that, once I was forced to retire from the City Guard due to my age, I kept myself busy with freelance security. I had a lot more freedom in the later years once Free got involved with House Path.”

“I suppose it would have been hard to keep up with Papa Free once he started travelling overseas?”

“There was that, but there was also the fact that he was starting to travel in powerful circles, and he had a lot more protection than just me shadowing him. Once he met up with Princess Twilight Sparkle, I knew my role was diminishing.”

“So you saw Dad and Papa meet Mom for the first time? What was that like?”

Steady chuckled. “Free hit on her, and she teleported him out of the café. He persisted after that, and Twilight was amused.”

Destined laughed. “Papa never told me that bit about being teleported away.” He paused thoughtfully. “Have you revealed your true self to Frothy Brew?”

Steady shook his head. “I saw my alternate History self on a few occasions. He and Frothy were such good friends and I was a little envious, but I am not that Sterling, and trying to take over that friendship would not be right. I don’t think Frothy would appreciate my taking Sterling’s place. As Steady Gaze, Frothy and I have a cordial relationship, and I am content with that.”

“I understand. Has Lucy told you that we’re arranging a summit to discuss our History change?”

“Yes, she did.”

“Then you know that Queen Carpacia will be there?”


“The moment that you and she meet is what I look forward most to seeing.”

“Believe me, I am too.”

“Meanwhile, you are going to be joining us in Ponyville, right?”

Steady grinned. “Frankly, I doubt that anypony would let me get away with not joining you.”

“You got that right!” Lucida agreed emphatically.

Twilight spoke up then. “In fact I believe that we’ll want to celebrate with all of you. Will that be a problem?”

Zark replied for all of the changelings. “As we knew that Pif would be returning to the present yesterday, we have all arranged to have a few days free. On behalf of my companions, I accept your invitation.”

“Well, if you’re all ready now, I’ll teleport everyone to my castle right now.”

There was no dissent, and so Twilight lit up her horn and teleported them all to Ponyville. Once there, Twilight had Spike arrange guest rooms for everyone. Zark and Cotton Doily shared a room. Apparently their cover relationship had grown into something a bit more, and they were a genuine couple now. Considering their need for emotional sustenance, that came as a surprise to Pif.

“We’re in a herd relationship with another couple,” Zark explained. “We get all the emotional energy we require from them, and the four of us have made a family between us. Like your own parents, we are father and mother to three children. Unlike your family though, only Morning Glory has borne the foals.”

“So, they know that you are changelings?”

“Yes. They had been sympathetic to changelings and worked to help integrate them into Equestrian society after being inspired by others such as Frothy. As part of the overall task to investigate all changeling-related events that you set us before leaving for the future, we checked them out, but ended up making friends instead. That friendship grew until one day Morning Glory proposed a herd relationship. While Cotton and I were attracted to the idea, we could not agree to it without being honest with them, and so we confessed that we were in fact changelings.”

“But you’re Blues! Surely that would have been a sticking point?”

“You underestimate Morning Glory and Radiant Beam. Thanks to Princess Twilight’s research and their own investigations, they know everything there is to know about changelings, including the fact that even the Blue Changelings once coexisted with ponies peacefully, and they reasoned that not all of them might agree with Queen Chrysalis’ ambitions. While that was true for the Blue Harvesters, it was not completely true for us, but rather than disabuse them of that notion, we told them that we had been actively opposing Chrysalis for years before the invasion. They took our word for that, and after some more heart-to-heart discussions over the following days, they renewed their proposal and we have been happily herding ever since.”

“You’ve led a wonderful life, Zark. I wish that I had been able to watch it unfolding.”

“I wish that you had been there too, Pif. Anyway, I have a question for you now. What’s happened to my brother?”

Pif blinked uncomprehendingly. “What brother?”

“The egg…?” Zark prompted.

“Oh! The egg is in the Chrome Hive nursery. Actually, let’s all go there now. The Chrome Hive will be your hive too.”

Zark smiled but shook his head. “I think you will find that the only hive we belong to is the Pif Hive. We are loyal to you, not Queen Free.”

“But I am Princess of the Chrome Hive,” Pif replied.

“One day you will be its Queen, and if we are still around then, we will become part of the Chrome Hive too. For now though, you are our Queen and your loyal servants.”

“And friends – never forget that!”

“We won’t, because that is one reason why we are loyal to you.”

Pif was getting embarrassed with all this praise. “I still need you to pass on all the data that you’ve accumulated for me, and that will be stored in the Chrome Hive network.”

“We connect to you, and you connect to the Chrome Hive. Not a problem.”

“No time like the present then. Let’s go see your brother, and then get to work on this data. We’ve got a lot to sift through before the summit in three days.”

Day Court was cancelled three days later to allow the entire day to be devoted to a summit meeting of all the Hive Queens, all the alicorns, the House Path leaders and time-team, Pif’s special agents, and Steady Gaze. Queen Carpacia had been informed ahead of time about the latter’s inclusion, and the story behind the Red Changeling who had devoted a lonely life to his duty. She waited almost impatiently in the hallway leading to the conference room for Steady to arrive, and when he stepped into view, their eyes met and locked for an eternal moment. Then Steady stepped forward while his companions waited. He stopped before Carpacia and bowed his head.

“Your Majesty, I am honoured and overjoyed to see you. I have performed my duty as best as I could for many years, but now I wish to come home.”

“Kirrabek – Sterling Shield – Steady Gaze – so many names for one amazing 'ling. Your other self was remarkable enough, but you have done so much more. Rarely have I seen such dedication even among the best of our kind. Sterling’s loss was a blow to us, but by a quirk of time and fate, we have the same person back, and our Hive is the better for it. I am proud to welcome you back, my child.”

Carpacia leaned forward and touched her horn to his head, connecting him to her hive’s network for the first time in thirty-seven years. Through the link, she poured the love that was the Queen’s gift to him – not just the energy that it imbued him with, but also the true emotional experience.

Steady Gaze shuddered and his eyes opened, glistening with tears. “Thank you, Mother.”

Carpacia embraced him then, and he returned the hug fervently.

Lucida looked at Pif questioningly. “Mother?”

“Don’t look at me! I didn’t know any more than you did!” Pif protested.

“Know what though?”

“Well, you know that the majority of drones come from eggs laid by the breeder class drones whom the queen fertilises, like Papa Free does with his breeders, and if a queen wants to breed an heir, she mates outside of her species for genetic variance like Carpacia did with Dad, but if she needs any special types, she gets a male breeder to fertilise herself, and her magic shapes it as required. That’s what Chrysalis has been doing to make the special agents. What we’re apparently looking at though is something unique. Steady Gaze seems to be a changeling Prince!”

“But… he’s always just been like any other drone!” Lucida protested.

“Has he? Carpacia wasn’t exaggerating when she praised Steady. Perhaps the Red Changelings do things differently from the other hives?” Maybe princes lead by example?”

“I think we’re going to have to have a long talk with him later,” Pif concluded. “One thing looks likely though – he’s not my cousin but more like my half-brother!”

Lucida giggled. “I’d say quarter-brother at most. You’re only technically related because Dad mated with Carpacia.”

Just then, a strong voice came from the doorway to the conference room where an earth pony Royal Guard was calling for their attention.

The summit is due to begin in two minutes! Please make your way into the conference room for a prompt start!

“Our curiosity will have to wait,” Lucida said. “Let’s go!”

The time-travellers were allowed to give a full report on their entire trip to the past without interruption except for a couple of requests for clarification. Not even the House Path leaders had heard all of what was reported then, and everyone was left thoughtful by the end. Twilight was the first to comment though.

“Well, that clears up a mystery that I’ve been wondering about since Shining and Cadance got married.”

“What’s that, Twily?” her brother asked.

“Chrysalis was the Queen of the Blue Changelings who were known for their investigative abilities, and yet Chrysalis in her disguise as Cadance was such a poor imitator of her that I became suspicious from very early on. Her infiltrators should have told her about me and my friends at the very least, and yet she knew next to nothing about us. Her knowledge of wedding customs and behaviour was terrible too.” Twilight turned to Zark. “So how could this possibly be?”

“Because we didn’t pass on that knowledge and fed her disinformation,” Zark replied.

“Exactly! And now we have another piece of evidence that the time-team’s actions during those ten and a half months not only became History, they always have been!

“Mom’s right,” Destined said. “We remember her telling us all about that, and we saw for ourselves how Chrysalis behaved then. She always lacked the knowledge to avert suspicion.”

“But how is that even possible?” Shining Armor asked. “Most of you hadn’t even been born then. You had to make a trip into the past to make it happen! Isn’t that a paradox?”

Destined shook his head. “Time is far more complex than that. You are thinking of the cause and effect as a circle, but in reality it is more like a loop made by a rollercoaster. This present that we know is almost exactly the same as the one we left when we looped back, but it isn’t the same History path. It can’t be, because that’s your paradox. However, it can be so similar as to make no real difference, and more importantly, it can also re-join the original path after the diversion. History says something happened in the past because of an event in the future, and that’s fine because probability says so.”

“I don’t follow,” Carpacia complained, and several others murmured agreement.

Destined struggled to express a very complex situation in the simplest possible terms. “I’ve described for you before how History is actually the path taken by the highest probability events, but that probability varies a great deal. It can point strongly forward, or weakly, or partially sideways, but always forward… usually. It’s possible though for probability to point backwards instead, and that’s where the time loop happens. The mathematics that proves this is exceedingly complex, and I don’t know of anypony aside from the Doctor who could understand it fully.”

“'Tis true,” Luna agreed. “Prince Destined once showed me a model of the timescape, and it exceeded my ability to comprehend fully. I suggest that unless thou dost wish to tempt frustration, merely accept that which has been stated to be true.”

“Agreed,” Celestia said. “We should concentrate instead on what concerns us now, not then. I will attempt to sum up. Chrysalis is now located in Zebrica where she is working with some militant factions to destabilise all peace initiatives, and inciting uprisings against all non-zebra species. In particular, she is in league with a shaman group that is using their form of magic to enable sending agents back in time to work Chrysalis’ will. The power to do so has partially been enabled by the Nightmare who has taken Chrysalis as her latest pawn. Chrysalis does not realise that the Nightmare is only using her until it can take control. When that happens, it will begin its own agenda, and because it’s an agent of Destruction, you can bet that it will be something terrible. Last time as Nightmare Moon, it wanted the night to last forever, which would have killed every plant, and eventually every animal because there would be no food.”

Celestia let that sink in, then continued, “Up until now, Chrysalis has been in control, hence her attempts to regain what was lost and to strike out against her enemies. The Nightmare cooperates because House Path is a direct threat to its plans. It will continue to strike against the House and Equestria until such time as it makes its final move. Pif’s changeling agents have ascertained that Chrysalis is constantly on the move within Zebrica, but there is one location where her efforts are focused. I propose that it is time to bring the fight to Chrysalis, be proactive in our response to her machinations, and prevent further time-meddling. I open the floor to debate.”

There was an outburst of voices that continued until Lucida called the meeting to order and began handling the meeting as acting chairperson while Path watched on proudly.

Much was discussed that day, and a plan of action devised. Much of it still relied on House Path, but it would receive the full support of the Equestrian Princesses and Hives. It would take some time to put everything into motion, but overall there was an air of confidence where once was uncertainty. They were no longer fighting blind, and their enemies would not find things so easy from now on.

It was a weary group that returned to Ponyville that afternoon. Many of the time-team opted to visit the spa to unwind, and only returned to the castle for dinner. To their surprise though, Twilight called Destined, Lucida, Pif, and Blue to her office first.

They entered to find a familiar couple already there – a grey pegasus and a light green unicorn.

“Uncle Cogs! Auntie Lavender!” Lucida said upon seeing them. “What are you doing here?”

“Apparently having an unexpected whole day off from work,” Cogs grumbled.

Lavender rolled her eyes and said, “What he means is that we came here this morning to see your parents about something, not realising that they had all gone off for the day for some special meeting. We had to wait until you returned before we could get to talk to Twilight. It wasn’t worth the effort to return home and come back here again later.”

“And here’s why they came,” Twilight said as she put an arm around the other newcomer, a brown unicorn colt. “Forest Breeze wants to join House Path.”

“Hi guys,” Forest said with an awkward wave.

The Path children had grown up with regular visits either to or from Cogs and Lavender because Twilight was godmother to their foals. Their daughters, Dandelion Dreams and Sky Fern, had been occasional playmates too, but they had both long since gone on to adult pursuits. Forest was the youngest, and always had been more than a hoofful, so it was with some suspicion that his request was met.

“Why do you want to join our House?” Pif asked.

“Let’s just say that I have had a life-changing experience, and I want to make something more of myself,” Forest replied.

Twilight said, “I would like you five to give Forest your attention. He’s got a bit of catching up to do at his age, so if you could give him some extra lessons, I would appreciate it. Consider yourselves his personal tutors.”

Blue smirked at Forest. “Somehow I reckon that he’ll think he’s been hit by a ton of bricks when he finds out what he’s let himself in for.”

Lucida punched Blue in the shoulder and said, “Don’t let him get to you, Forest. After all, you’re just going to a higher level of schooling, not the end of the world.”

Forest grinned back nervously. “A-heh! Yeah.”

“Twice! Twice!” Chrysalis raged. “Twice my agents were foiled in my attempts to get my daughter back! How is that even possible?!

“The House of Path seems to have its own allies in this time war. While they exist, you may continue to be frustrated,” the Nightmare replied.

Path! That name vexes me! It has brought me nothing but pain and failure!”

“Then perhaps it’s time to deal with them instead of attempting to change your past?”

“Oh, I’ll deal with them alright! I’ll destroy them! I’ll wipe them from the very face of existence!”

“Shall we start making plans, my dear?”

“Oh, we’ll do far more than that. We’ll start a war this world has never seen before!”

The Nightmare smiled to itself – death and destruction was music to its ears. ‘My plan proceeds perfectly,’ it thought to itself with great satisfaction.




Chapter 13: New Battles


To say that a plan had been put into action was speaking only in the broadest terms. Unlike reacting to the imminent invasion of the Crystal Kingdom decades ago, this time Celestia and Luna were planning nothing less than a war with another nation as well as its changeling allies. This would take a great deal of time and effort. Also this time they did not have a time-traveller give them forewarning from the future to enable them to move troops into place in anticipation of the need. Therefore, days after the decision to carry the fight to Zebrica, details were still being worked out, soldiers were being transported to rendezvous points, reservists were being activated, supply lines were being established, and the great ships of war brought up to full battle-readiness. The Skyshark’s sister ships, the Orca and the Stingray, were recalled from their current assignments to be ready at a moment’s notice to carry the first wave of troops into the field.

Blue Streak had of course wanted to get more involved, but had been told in no uncertain terms that his responsibility still lay with House Path.

“Up until Chrysalis and the Nightmare are defeated, we are still vulnerable to time warfare, and you are the House’s source of power for time-travel, not to mention the team’s foremost warrior,” Path stated. “You will continue with those duties until further notice. Besides, didn’t you promise both Prince Glenn and Forest Breeze some personal lessons to help them both get up to speed with unarmed combat?”

Blue glumly accepted that his father’s logic was unassailable, not to mention his orders were clear. In one way though, he was happy for a good reason to stay behind. He was a father now, and while his children were too young to do anything yet, he would be there for them and for his mate. He had spent years without parents, and nothing was going to stop him from ensuring that the same would not happen to Eon and Era.

Prince Glenn had already ingratiated himself with much of Ponyville’s House Path school, but in particular with the family. Like Cogs and Lavender, Queen Gilda was a friend of the family, and her son was treated as such also, sharing mealtimes with the herd. Forest was a lot quieter than Glenn, almost to the point of shyness, but his familiarity with the Path children allowed him to relax and be more sociable than if he had to live in the dormitory and share dinner with the rest of the students. Of course Path and the others had other motivations also. Keeping Glenn and Forest in close acquaintance with Blue, Pif, Lucida, and Destined meant that they could bond better and be able to put more time and effort into their education. They both had a lot of catching up to do in comparison to the long-time students.

Glenn surprised them one evening though when he announced that he had arranged a special meal for everyone. They sat down at the dining room table, utterly mystified. Nobody had caught wind of the griffon’s surprise, and they all peered curiously at the covered dishes that the servants had brought in.

“Griffonstone is not noted for many things,” Glenn began saying before revealing the food, “but there is one thing that our culture has recovered from the past, and that is its cuisine. Admittedly this is something that we adapted from the Neighponese, but that merely means that it’s suitable for ponies as well as griffons.” He curled his talons around two of the cover handles. “May I present to you my preparations of Griffonstone sushi!”

Glenn pulled off the covers, revealing a rich assortment of rice-based food, covered with everything from avocado and cucumber, to salmon and squid. Accompanying it were bowls of seaweed salad and tempura vegetables, as well as small dishes of freshly grated Neighponese wasabi root and bowls of soy sauce. The servants uncovered the rest of the trays, revealing even more.

They all oohed and aahed over the food, and they quickly started helping themselves to the feast. Twilight had long since been converted to enjoying fish, and there was little among the selections that she would not touch. Glenn grinned in satisfaction at the obvious enjoyment that they were all getting from the fare. He had spent considerable effort arranging for the various ingredients to be shipped to Ponyville, not to mention the time spent this afternoon in preparing it all with the complicity of the kitchen staff. Merely finding a gap in his busy student schedule had been a feat in itself.

“Did you make all this yourself?” Free asked.

“Yes, although I had the assistance of the chef in preparing some of it under my direction. I really owe him a lot of thanks for being so cooperative.”

Twilight said, “I know many chefs are very protective of their domain, but I chose ours for his ability to be cooperative and friendly. After all, this is Friendship Castle first and foremost, even if it’s also House Path’s base of operations in Equestria.”

“So how come you know so much about making this stuff?” Free asked.

“It’s my favourite food. I kept bugging Mom so much about having it more often that eventually she told me that if I wanted it so much, I had better learn how to make it, so I did.”

Twilight nodded. “Gilda started making an influence on Griffinstone not only with her attitude, but also with her baked goods. I think perhaps you’re continuing a family tradition.”

Glenn grinned. “I think it’s a great and tasty tradition.”

“Hear! Hear!” Blue agreed enthusiastically, and echoed by the others.

After-dinner conversation was always a big thing for the family. Frequently the topic of conversation revolved around what they had all done that day, and Lucida had just finished telling about the lessons that she had taught.

Path nodded thoughtfully and said, “You’ve become a fine teacher, Lucida, or should I call you Lightgiver now? You still have your new coat and feather colours. Are you going to revert to your natural colours?”

Lucida shrugged. “I’ve become quite used to these colours after a year, and I’ve always liked them. I think I’ll hang onto them for now. I can always ask Des to change me back if I get tired of them.”

“Speaking of changing, I would like to see the spell that Destined used,” Twilight said.

“I can easily give a demonstration if you’d like, Mom.” Destined got up and looked around before fixing his gaze on his father. “Dad, want to be my subject?” he asked with a grin.

Path looked a little sceptical, but nodded. He got up off the sofa and stood in front of Destined. “What do I do?”

“Nothing. Just don’t look at what I am doing.”

“Why not?”

“It’s distracting!”

“Oh. Okay.”

Destined’s horn lit up as he drew out the power needed for the spell. He built it slowly so that his mother could observe its formation, and then he cast it.

Twilight gasped, as did a few others who could see what Destined had done.

Path looked around and looked disappointed. “I’m still grey and my mane is still green. What did you do?”

Destined pointed with his hoof at his father’s hindquarters. “Look closer.”

Path looked and his jaw dropped in shock. His flanks had been blank for years since the Battle of the Crystal Kingdom, but now a pair of double-quote marks the same colour as his mane adorned his hide – “ ” “How… how did you do that?” he gasped.

“That should be impossible!” Twilight said incredulously. “The magic of the cutie mark is impossible to control. I should know – I tried to give a filly one long ago. It can’t be done!”

“And you’re quite right, Mom. That’s not a real cutie mark. It’s just the equivalent of a coat-colour change but just in that one spot on each side, and in that shape. The reason why you can’t give a pony a real cutie mark is the magic of the mark itself, but because Dad lost all his magic and thus his mark, I’m able to make a false one in its stead. It’s based on what he used to have, so I think this is a good substitute.” He turned back to look at his father. “I hope you like it.”

Path looked away from his new mark and set his gaze on his son. His eyes brimmed with unshed tears as his emotions choked him up. “Destined… Son… this is the best present you’ve ever given me.” He threw his forelegs around Destined’s neck and hugged him fiercely.

Destined hugged him back as the others cheered. “You’re welcome, Dad. Happy early Father’s Day.”

After a discussion with Twilight about the spell that Destined used, conversation shifted as it often did to the missing member of the family.

“Anyone heard from Flix lately?” Path asked hopefully.

Roseclaw nodded. “As a matter of fact, I heard from him today. He’s completed his journey across the ocean, although he says he’s not exactly sure where he is. Amazingly different was all he could call it.”

Twilight smiled. “I hope that he makes notes. When he returns, he’ll have so much to show me!”

Roseclaw nodded even as she hoped that Twilight was not being too optimistic. Their son had barely begun speaking to some of his parents again, and he had shown no inclination to return home anytime soon. She was just grateful that Twilight’s amazing comms worked equally well no matter where in the world that Flix happened to be. “I’m sure he will. Oh – and Orlonda also says ‘hi’, and she hates the ocean.”

Free chuckled. “The Orange Changelings’ greatest weakness – seasickness!”

The family laughed along with him, but they knew that he was using humour to cover up just how much he missed Flix too.

Even in the midst of war preparations, time needed to be taken out to de-stress and relax, otherwise the troops would not be at their peak when the time for battle came around. This was equally true for the upper echelons, and this day found an odd assortment of Princesses, Queens, and nobles engaged in a friendly game of poker at Canterlot Castle.

Fifi was perched with her hind legs on Path’s back and forelegs resting on his head so that she could see his cards. She pointed at them and Path passed them up to her. She then floated them down to the table with her magic.

“Full house! Special Hat wins!” She laughed as the others surrounding the table groaned.

“I know she’s not psychic, so how can she be so good at this? She’s still a foal!” Shining grumbled as he watched Path move the large pile of bits toward his part of the table.

“She has been sitting on Path’s head for so long that she has absorbed his poker skills,” Luna replied. “Why dost thou think she is nicknamed Special Hat at these games?”

Graxx was about to say something before the Red Princess started squealing. She jumped off of Path’s back and slid to a halt in front of a rolling table with a giant red velvet cake sitting on top of it. “I want it!” she squealed as a pair of ponies dressed up in chef outfits walked around from behind it.

“This is a Royal Red Velvet Cake,” the head chef explained. “It is painstakingly crafted, and takes hours to perfect. We only create it once a year for–” His explanation was cut off as Celestia walked over to the serving cart.

“Ah! The cake is finished!” Celestia said with delight as she approached, but the little Red Changeling cut her off.

Fidelitas puffed herself up to make herself look bigger. “My cake!

“Little one, this is my ca–”

“MY CAKE!” Fifi screeched.

“But I perso–” Celestia tried to explain.

MY CAKE!” The little 'ling screeched out louder.

Path walked over to Fifi and she climbed up onto his back so that she could glare defiantly at the tall alicorn.

Path looked over to Free and gave him a wink.

Free grinned and went over to Celestia and whispered something in her ear.

It took a few moments before Celestia started to smile. “It seems that Special Hat wants my cake, but can you defeat me and take it for your own?” Celestia challenged the little red 'ling with a smirk.

Carpacia was curious as to how her daughter would handle the challenge. She was expecting her to yield before the powerful alicorn, but instead she felt the Princess’s connection flare up in the network. Fidelitas was drawing on some of the locally connected drones! The Queen smiled proudly at her daughter’s strong will.

My cake!” Fifi repeated defiantly.

Path then spoke up. “The battle for the Royal Red Velvet Cake will commence in the Royal Gardens in twenty minutes! Pick your side!”

Everyone started to get excited for the play fight and already people were choosing their allies.

“Of course I will be at the side of the Solar Princess. Where else would I be?” Shining huffed out.

“Well if Shinybutt is going on her side, I’m siding with Princess Special Hat.” Citrine declared as she walked over to join Path.

Soon everyone had chosen their side and called in allies to fight on their team. They then headed off to the field of play.

Twilight parked a cloud over the field of battle, and she, Free, Carpacia, and Cadance made themselves comfortable on it to watch the event. They saw Fifi riding Path as usual, arriving with a group of Red Changeling drones headed by Graxx, with Citrine by her side as her general. The crystal pony had a baseball bat slung over her shoulder and a confident grin on her face.

“What does Citrine intend to do with a mere wooden pole?” Carpacia asked curiously.

Twilight replied, “Master Warfist found that Citrine was poor at handling classic weapons, and broke them more often than not. However, she excels at freestyle fighting, and can use almost anything that she lays a hoof on as a temporary weapon. With that in mind, Warfist supplied her with a bat made out of ironwood, which comes from a tree that only grows in Griffonia. It’s virtually unbreakable, and Citrine loves it. Needless to say, her sparring opponents hate it.”

Celestia marched up with her team, Shining Armor by her side and her allies rallying behind her.

A small tent in front and between each of the teams held the prized cake.

Twilight stood up when it appeared that both sides were ready, and announced in the Royal Canterlot Voice, “On my mark, let the contest for the Royal Cake begin. Team Celestia versus Team Special Hat. The first team to get their leader to the prize will win. Mark!

Citrine led the charge, screaming, “My bat is hungry!

Shining Armor moved to intercept the mare, firing a stun blast at her. Amazingly, Citrine swung her bat and knocked the beam aside.

“Did I mention that I spell-proofed it also?” Twilight commented.

Meanwhile, the rest of the players had advanced on the field, but Shining Armor was focused on his rival.

“Is Fifi using Citrine as a distraction?” Cadance asked.

Carpacia nodded. “My daughter avails herself of the network and hive knowledge.”

Citrine had closed ranks with Shining who threw up a spherical shield about himself. Citrine’s bat slammed into it, but although the shield reverberated loudly with the impact, in no way was it weakened.

Shining grinned. “Got to try harder than that,” he gloated.

Citrine whacked the shield again and again with no better result.

“Why don’t you give up now and stop embarrassing yourself? I held a much bigger shield all day against a horde of changelings – do you think you stand the tiniest chance of breaking it?”

Citrine stopped and smirked. “No, but I can keep you out of the fight. You can’t do anything while you’re stuck in that bubble.” She resumed beating on the shield.

Shining’s face fell as he realized that he had been suckered. He could not drop the shield now or else Citrine could attack him directly. He couldn’t even fly out of range while within his protective bubble. The mare had him trapped!

“Graxx! To me!” Citrine yelled as Shining tried to think of a way out. The Red Changeling and several drones under his command diverted to her, and moments later a red glow of power surrounded Citrine’s bat. “Crystal pony takes out smart-ass alicorn!” she growled as she swung the bat with all her strength and it connected with a loud ‘BOOM!

Of course the shield held, but it lost the fight with gravity. The bubble flew far away off the field of play, taking along with it a lenticular-shaped piece of the ground, and the hapless alicorn stallion who had been standing on it.

“Home run!” declared Citrine with satisfaction.

Shining Armor has been eliminated!” Twilight announced in her capacity as umpire.

Meanwhile, Destined flew directly to the tent, dodging attacks from various winged opponents. By agreement, no one was allowed to teleport within the tent, otherwise Celestia or he could simply have 'ported there and claimed the cake without actually having to compete for it, which was against the spirit of the competition. He was surprised to find Path was there only moments later, but he grinned and said, “Looks like we’re going to win.”

“You think you have won? The Great and Powerful Path thinks otherwise!”

Destined blinked in confusion. “What…?” he said as Path threw something onto the ground.

“Nap time!” Path said as a green cloud burst out and surrounded the alicorn.

Destined’s head swam and he slumped unconscious to the ground.

Path’s form shimmered as the glamor spell wore off to reveal a smirking blue unicorn.

Destined Path has been eliminated!” Twilight declared.

Free blinked in confusion. “Wait… what?”

“Trixie teaches illusionary magic, remember?” Twilight said. “I’m a little surprised that she decided to join in, but she certainly knows her stuff.”

“So where’s the real Path gone?”

Carpacia said, “It would seem that while we were distracted, he and Fidelitas have managed to disappear. The impressions that I am getting from her point towards a cunning ploy.”

“Which I suppose you’re not going to tell us?” Free asked drolly.

“Of course not,” Carpacia replied smugly.

Blue Streak had allowed Citrine to make her diversionary move before he took to the field. Carpacia’s soldier drones clashed with Celestia’s Royal Guards, but as they were both restricted to fighting in a manner that would not cause injury, they were pretty much stalemated. Blue intended to break that stalemate. He summoned his power and took off in a blur of speed. He picked a target and simply tackled them. They not only did not see him coming, but they also failed to recover before he had picked them up with his earth pony strength and carried them off the field of play. One by one, he picked them off, but just as he was lining another up, he was brought up short by a lance of magic that cut across his path. He glanced to its origin and saw Celestia smile back at him. He grinned. Challenge accepted!

Blue took off again, dodging and weaving, but this time his target was the Solar Diarch herself. Nothing in the rules stopped him from treating her any differently. More stun beams came his way, but he dodged them as he closed in. “Sorry, Auntie 'Tia,” he said as he tackled her.

To his surprise, he went right through her, and the mirage shimmered away out of existence as he tumbled on the ground. Even with his superior recovery speed, he was unable to get up in time to dodge the stun beam that rendered him unconscious.

Blue Streak has been eliminated!

Free shook his head. “Still overconfident. Blue should have known that he wasn’t going to be able to take Celestia that easily. She’s survived several real wars unscathed, after all.”

“Nevertheless it was a valorous effort,” Carpacia replied. “Against virtually any other opponent, he would have been victorious.”

Luna alighted beside Trixie. “Well done, Trixie Lulamoon. Let us take the prize to my sister.”

Trixie gave a triumphant smile and turned towards the tent, only to be stunned by a beam from Luna. The unicorn collapsed onto the grass and Luna stepped over her to enter the tent where she spotted the cake on a table on the other side. Just as she moved towards it, a dark mist suddenly rose from the ground, and a form materialized within it.

“The cake shall be mine forever!” the dark mare declared.

“Nightmare Moon?!” Luna gasped before she was stunned by a blast from the newcomer. She fell unconscious as green magic flames flickered over her body to reveal Epiphany’s natural form.

Nightmare Moon snickered and resumed her real appearance. “Nice try, imposter,” the genuine Luna said before turning to her prize.

Unnoticed by her until then, a hole had quietly opened up in the ground and a large diamond dog hauled himself out, followed closely by Path. Even as Luna laid eyes on him, he reached out with his token weapon and tapped the alicorn with it.

“You’re out,” Path declared.

Luna pouted and said, “Oh, phooey!” She sat on her rump and crossed her forelegs and sulkily watched as Path turned toward the cake. He abruptly found himself treading air. The glow of magic surrounding him had levitated him off the ground, and now rotated him to see Celestia entering the tent.

“Where my sister goes, I will never be far behind,” Celestia declared. “It seems that I win, Lord Path.”

Path just grinned back at her. “Are you so sure of that, Princess?” He tilted his head to indicate the cake.

Celestia looked at her prize, only to see it slump over as a little Red Changeling started eating large chunks of it. She sighed as she put Path down and said, “Well done. I believe I will have to ask my chefs to prepare another and keep it hidden from Fifi.”

“Sounds like a plan. Shall we leave Fifi to her prize?”

“Yes, I think I will get depressed if I watch her scoffing my cake for much longer.”

Fifi looked up. “My cake!” she said proudly through a mouthful of said cake. Then she sensed the alicorn’s sadness at losing her treat, and Fifi waved her over.

Celestia approached curiously and asked, “What is it, little one?”

“Share cake!” Fifi declared, and stuffed a hoof full of it in the Solar Princess’s snout.

Celestia was startled, but licked the cake off her face, enjoying its rich taste. She swallowed the mouthful and said, “Thank you, Fifi.”

Carpacia was still monitoring her daughter through the hive-mind, and she sensed what Fifi had done. The Queen smiled and murmured proudly, “Honour in battle, and honour your opponent.”

“I’m going to have to watch out for that little one, aren’t I?” Celestia asked as they exited the tent, followed by Luna and the broadly grinning diamond dog.

“Of course – she’s my daughter, after all,” Path replied proudly. He looked up to the spectators on the cloud and gave a signal.

Team Celestia has been defeated. Team Special Hat has claimed the cake!” Twilight announced, and all combat on the field ceased.

“That diamond dog was a surprise,” Celestia admitted. “I had not realised that you had one in House Path.”

Path nodded. “Boris is a recent addition. He’s smarter than average, and a bit bored with the typical diamond dog lifestyle. We offered him a challenge, and so far he’s been enjoying himself. Right now I bet he’s mighty pleased that he was instrumental in winning the game.”

“And rightly so. You and your House continue to impress me. Keep up the good work.”

“As you command, Your Highness,” Path replied with a smile.

The alicorns went around the field, reviving all the magically stunned combatants. Destined took a bit longer to revive as Trixie’s sleep gas was very effective. Everyone started heading off into the palace, chatting about the tournament, often with their foes of a moment ago. Path was quite satisfied with the turn of events because everyone seemed much more relaxed after the excitement of the spontaneous competition.

However, it was time to concentrate on the serious preparations for combat once more. Soon Celestia would send an emissary to formally declare war on Zebrica – they might have started clandestine attacks on House Path and Equestria, but Celestia would not hold to similar duplicitous methods. Not that she truly expected to be surprised, but one could always hope that a firm statement of intent would sway the enemy.

Destined, Blue, and Lucida met up with Glenn, Forest, and Watchful who had been spectating. Pif and Citrine paused briefly with them to announce that they were going off to dinner to celebrate.

“Dinner for two!” Citrine added.

They got the hint, and left the lovers to themselves. That did not stop them from going off on a victory celebration of their own.

“Want to detour and pick up Silk while we’re at it?” Blue asked.

Destined shook his head. “He’s still at work right at the moment. He might be engaged to a prince, but he still needs to earn a living for now at least.”

“Have you decided on a date for the wedding yet?” Lucida asked.

“Are you in a hurry to get us hitched, Lucy?”

“Oh, come on, Des. We waited long enough for you to pop the question – how much longer before you actually get married?”

Destined grinned, happy to be able to tease his sister for a change. “Give us time, Lucy. We’re happy with the pace right now.” He was not about to tell her that they had been discussing the possibility of a double wedding event with Pif and Citrine, and had almost settled on a date. The upcoming war was the only thing that had prevented them from committing to it so far.

The group was ready to leave, and they started to head out of the castle. As they turned into the corridor to the main gate, a swirling and flashing hole appeared in front of them. Derpy flew out of it and skidded to a halt on all four hooves.

“Woohoo! Nailed it!” she crowed in delight.

“Oh no! Not again!” Destined moaned.

“Yep!” Derpy said cheerfully. “Let’s go!”

“Wait!” Lucida cried. “Glenn and Forest aren’t….”

The vortex reopened and drew the seven of them in, and a moment later the corridor was empty and quiet once more.

Seven people sprawled on the floor of the workshop.

“… supposed to come… oh, damn it!” Lucida finished saying.

“Whoa! What was that?” Forest asked as he looked about himself.

Glenn was equally confused, and he stared at the Doctor as he approached the pile.

“Derpy, love, who are these three?” the Doctor asked.

The grey mare looked at the griffon, unicorn, and red changeling, and shrugged. “They were with the others.”

Of the three newbies, only Watchful was aware of what had happened. “We are friends and comrades of Destined, Blue, and Lucida. I am charged with safeguarding them for the duration of the time war.”

The Doctor arched an eyebrow at her. “Are you now? Well, in the absence of Epiphany, I suppose you’ll have to do.”

Watchful was a little miffed at the Doctor’s dismissive attitude, but it wasn’t her place to object.

Lucida asked, “Can you tell us what’s happening, Doctor, or is it like all the other times?”

“I’m afraid so. Sorry about that.”

“Can somepony tell me what’s going on?” Forest asked.

“It’s a long story, Forest. I’ll explain it while we snack on Derpy’s muffins,” Lucida replied.

Right on cue and as expected, Derpy returned with drinks and a tray of steaming muffins fresh from the oven. “Watch out – they’re really hot!” Derpy warned.

The visitors ate and drank while Lucida and Destined took turns to explain what was happening and what had happened on previous trips. When they finished, Glenn said, “So this is another time-attack, and we’re all going to travel back in time to fix it?”

“You got it,” Blue replied. “Nervous?”

“Of course!”

Blue nodded in satisfaction. “Good. That will help keep you alert. We have no idea whatsoever what we’ll find when we go out the door.”

“And it’s time that you did so,” the Doctor said. “I suggest that you try not to do anything to make you stay in the past for so long again. It tends to… complicate things.”

“We’ll try, Doc. No promises though.”

The team gathered at the workshop door, some more nervous than the others, but none knowing what they would find outside. Destined used his magic to hide his horn, while Watchful assumed the form of a unicorn with a red coat and yellow mane. The Doctor opened the door and Blue took the lead, cautiously peering out the door before proceeding. They gathered outside the doorway and looked about.

“So – we’ve just moved to Ponyville?” Forest said with a touch of disappointment in his voice.

“Just?” Blue echoed. “Tell me – where’s the Chrome Hive?”

Forest looked again. From this position, they could see the top half of Twilight’s castle, and they should have been able to see an equal amount of the hive, but the mountainside was untouched.

While Blue had been taking the long view, Lucida had been observing close-up. “Everything looks normal otherwise, but you know that could be misleading. We’ll walk through town and look for clues for what has changed. Even if we don’t find any, I want to head for the castle. Unless we find a reason to do otherwise, I intend to consult with Princess Twilight.”

“Are you sure that’s wise, Lucy?” Destined asked.

“While we had a bad experience the first time, that involved a very specific set of circumstances. I suspect that it’s far more likely that Twilight will be a valuable source of information. Again, I want you all to look for clues that I have judged this poorly.” Lucida looked at Glenn, Forest, and Watchful. “Just because this is your first time doing this, I don’t want you to be afraid to speak up if you notice something that you consider to be odd. It could save our lives.”

They all nodded and assured her that they would.

“Okay, let’s go.”

They moved off, and Blue noted that the workshop was back in the same place it had been on their first adventure.

At least something is consistent,’ he thought.

At first the township seemed absolutely normal. The market was busy as usual, ponies were going about their lives cheerfully, and there were no unusual structures. Eventually though, one oddity stood out.

“Is it my imagination, or are there more changeling Royal Guards than usual?” Watchful asked.

“I think you’re right,” Lucida agreed.

Blue had paused at a newspaper vendor, and he walked up to the group while scanning the headlines. “I think I’ve found our history change.” He held up the newspaper.

New Changeling Incursion from Crystal Kingdom,’ read the headline.

Destined said, “Sounds like Chrysalis’ invasion of the Crystal Kingdom succeeded this time.”

“Yes, but since she wasn’t killed by Twilight this time, it has resulted in a totally different future. All the changeling Royal Guards are probably here to watch out for Blue Changeling spies or assassins because changelings can always detect other changelings if they’re close enough. And because the Guards are regarded as allies, that means Twilight has no hate of them in this alternate History. We need to find out what was changed, so it’s time to check out Friendship Castle.”

The team headed towards the castle, although they slowed to cautiously scan for problems before entering. Ponies were visiting the castle’s library as normal though, and they found Spike helping them find their books and checking them in and out. Aside from a few curious looks at the griffon and hippogriff, the situation seemed safe, and Lucida approached the dragon.

“Excuse me, Spike, but could you help me, please?”

Spike gave her a friendly smile and said, “Sure! What book are you looking for?”

“Not a book, actually. I want to consult with Princess Twilight in regards to the changeling invasion.”

“Oh. The Princess is quite busy. Can you come back at one of the scheduled public courts?”

“I suppose I could, but my friends and I believe we have information that can end the changeling war.”

Spike blinked in surprise. “Uh… I think I’d better check. Give me a minute, okay?”

They waited several minutes, but Spike did not return with Twilight. Instead he was accompanied by a familiar Chrome Changeling princess.

“Pif? How did you get here?” Glenn asked.

The changeling looked at the griffon coolly. “My name is not Pif. It is Hypotenuse.” She looked at the others. “Are you the ones who claim to have intelligence that can end the changeling war?”

Lucida replied. “Yes. We have information and evidence of this nature.”

Hypotenuse nodded before focusing on Watchful. “Red Changeling – why are you part of this group?”

Watchful stepped forward. “I am assigned by my Queen to watch over the safety of this team.”

The Chrome Changeling considered that and nodded. “Acceptable. Please accompany me.”

The group followed, and as they did, Blue said to Glenn, “You’ve probably only seen Pif once in her natural form, so it’s easy to make that mistake, but Pif has a pale green mane, while this one has a pale mauve.”

“Her attitude and speech are a whole lot different too,” Destined added.

They were shown into an office and asked to wait. Before long, Twilight Sparkle joined them. She smiled and welcomed them, and they introduced themselves by first name only. Then Twilight sat on the chair behind the desk, folded her forelegs on its surface, and assumed a serious expression.

“My daughter informs me that you have intelligence that can turn the tide of the war with the Blue Changelings. As she could detect no evidence of deception from any of you, I am ready to believe that this might indeed be possible. Please don’t disappoint me.”

Lucida stepped up. “I am about to tell you some facts that I am prepared to back up. The fact that you have had experience with similar events with Starlight Glimmer should lend credence to my words. History has been changed. The invasion of the Crystal Kingdom never succeeded in the timeline that we come from. We have been waging a time war with Queen Chrysalis who has been meddling with past events in order to gain control of Equestria. This is her fourth attempt, and we are here to fix it.”

Twilight stared at Lucida with a touch of shock. After a long moment, she said, “I concede that what you say is possible considering what you said with regards to Starlight’s attempts to change the past. You say that you have proof?”

Lucida turned to face her brother. “You’re up, Des.”

Destined stepped up and dropped his illusion, revealing his horn. “As you can see, I am an alicorn and, in the correct timeline, I am your son.”

Twilight’s eyes narrowed and she sprang up from her chair. Her horn glowed as she scanned Destined, and then she slumped back in the chair in shock. “It’s true – you are an alicorn. There hasn’t been another since Wandering was born.” She stared at him in wonder. “And you say that I am your mother? Who was the sire?”

“Long Path.”

Twilight blinked in confusion. “Long Path died in the arena when we visited Griffonia.”

Lucida said, “No, he did not. Or at least he should not have if History was not tampered with. My full name is Lucida Path, daughter of Long Path and Roseclaw.”

“I remember Roseclaw. She tried to help our cause for peaceful relationships between Equestria and Griffonia, only to have her efforts sabotaged by the griffon nobles.”

“In our timeline, Roseclaw fell in love with Long Path, and his win in the arena secured him a noble House in Griffonia. From those beginnings, he, Roseclaw, you and Free Agent built House Path which has had a profound effect on world events, the first of which was to be instrumental in Chrysalis’ defeat at the Battle of the Crystal Kingdom.”

“And that’s what you have come to correct. Wait – if Path mated with Roseclaw, how is it that I am supposed to have had a son by him?”

“It’s a long and complicated story which I am willing to tell later. Path also sired a child with Free. That changeling princess was named Epiphany, although Free promptly nicknamed her Pif.”

“So that is why you called me Pif,” Hypotenuse said. “I resemble her, but I am the daughter of Free Agent and Twilight Sparkle.” She looked at Twilight. “Dad, I believe they are telling the absolute truth. I have not detected a shred of deceit among them.”

“Dad?” Blue said questioningly.

Twilight blushed. “When Free went into breeding mode, he… she needed a male partner. As Free’s wife, I felt obligated to use a gender-swap spell to oblige. That’s why Hype calls me Dad and Free Mom.”

“Hype?” Blue questioned again.

Hypotenuse replied, “Like your time’s Free Agent, he nicknamed me also. I am far more often called by that name.”

“That’s Free alright. So are you an only child?” Blue asked.

“No. Wandering Free is my younger brother.”

Blue looked at Twilight and asked, “So you did succeed in having a child by Free. Mama Twilight has been trying for a while, and has been worried that it wouldn’t work.”

“Mama?” It was Twilight’s turn to question the appellation.

“I was adopted into the Path family,” Blue explained.

“What about you two?” Twilight asked of Forest and Glenn.

“No relation; I’m the son of Queen Gilda of Griffonstone,” Glenn replied.

Forest said, “I’m the son of Whirring Cogs and Lavender Dreams.”

Twilight gasped. “You’re Cogs’ son? Do you know what happened to him? He disappeared…. No, wait. You couldn’t possibly know. Cogs fled Equestria with his family when the Blue Changeling purge happened after Chrysalis conquered the Crystal Kingdom. It was so unnecessary too. They only ever found one other Blue, and he was a Harvester too. They killed him before I could get to interview him though.”

“That was Elusive Clue,” Lucida said sadly. “He hated what Chrysalis did as much as Cogs did. It’s awful what ponies will do out of fear. Our Elusive now works for House Path. He helped design the Chrome Hive which was built into the mountainside near here. We noticed that there’s no such hive here.”

Twilight shook her head. “Free has never been interested in being a Queen. The breeding compulsion resulted in Hype, but she’s the only other Chrome Changeling. So far, anyway.”

“Yeah, Papa Free will probably eventually go into breeding mode again, and I suppose you will be the sire once more,” Destined said. “Was it really that awful being a stallion?”

Twilight blushed far more than she did before. “No. No it wasn’t,” she quietly admitted.

“Where is Papa Free anyway?” Blue asked.

“Free is my manager. He helps coordinate my studies with my duties as a Princess of Equestria. It means he needs to get around a lot.” Twilight sighed. “You might hardly recognise him. When Path was killed, it was like a part of Free died too. We left Griffonia immediately to bring his body home so that his parents could give him a funeral. I had to support Free emotionally for a long while, and I suppose that dependency is what drew us together. He eventually asked me to marry him, and I said yes, and we have been happy together since, but he never regained that spark that first attracted me to him.”

“He and Dad are bonded,” Destined said. “Long Path would have been equally devastated if Free had died. I hope I never encounter a timeline where that happened.”

Lucida said, “It sounds like Long Path’s death is definitely the key change to History that we’re looking for. Twilight – could you describe the events leading up to his death so that we can compare?”

“Very well. Long Path had this vision of investigating other cultures to better understand them in order to make friends and have peaceful relationships with them. To this end, he and Free attracted my interest in the project….”

Twilight retold the story of how the three of them first investigated the Crystal Kingdom before heading to Griffonstone on the invitation from Roseclaw’s father, the ambassador to Equestria. Then there was the challenge by Ravenwing that led to the honour duel at the arena.

“Path was in bad condition, but he seemed to have a plan in mind. He had turned to buck Ravenwing, but nothing happened. Ravenwing’s attack on the next pass made Path lose so much blood that he never recovered, and he died on the arena floor.”

“Stop there,” Lucida said. “Dad never talked about it in the early days, but he had worked with his unicorn Mage mother to try to adapt earth pony magic. He had developed what he named the Thunderhoof. That buck should have sent out a magical shockwave that would have disabled Ravenwing. Path then maimed Ravenwing, thereby winning the duel by the stipulated conditions. He won all of Ravenwing’s possessions, including title and holdings. That was what started House Path. That is the turning point in your history.”

Twilight sighed. “So, you say that you can correct this and stop the invasion of the Crystal Kingdom?”

Destined cleared his throat. “Not exactly. You see, History is merely the course of highest probability through every possible event at every possible moment of time. This History that you know is one that was of a lower probability, but forced into existence. When we go back into the past and correct the course of events, this reality will be relegated to lower probability once again, and the original returned.”

Twilight frowned. “So what you’re saying is that this invasion won’t merely be overturned, it will cease to exist.”

“No, the invasion happened, but Chrysalis was defeated.”

“And everyone lived?”

“Dad nearly died, but he survived to start a family.”

Twilight looked over at Hypotenuse. “But Hype was never conceived?”

“No, she wasn’t,” Destined admitted.

“I… I can’t allow that,” Twilight said quietly.

“Mom, you have no choice. We need to correct History.”

“I don’t know you, Destined Path. I know my daughter, and I have no wish to lose her.”

Lucida took up the argument. “Mama Twilight, if we don’t correct History, thousands will have died in the Crystal Kingdom, and an invasion of Equestria will be inevitable.”

“Don’t call me Mama! I don’t know you either. I only know my daughter and my son, Wandering. What are his chances of ever being conceived in your History anyway? He should be about sixteen by now if it was ever going to happen!”

“Our Twilight is trying for a foal, as was said earlier. With regards to Hype though, I doubt that it will happen. With Long Path as herd stallion, Free might never require our Twilight’s help in conceiving.”

“Then I will not allow you to change History!” Twilight cast a spell that surrounded the group in a glow.

Everyone in the team immediately felt weak. “What have you done?” Lucida asked.

“I have blocked your mana flow. Without magical energy, you cannot time-travel, and I won’t lose my daughter.”

Lucida looked at her sadly. “That’s twice now that you have let your emotions let a terrible timeline persist.”

Twilight flinched but did not relent.

“Dad – stop this,” Hypotenuse calmly told Twilight.

The alicorn looked at Hypotenuse with anguish on her face. “I’m doing this for you, Hype.”

“They are right – they need to correct History. The deaths of thousands will be on your conscience otherwise, and it will break you. I cannot allow that to happen to you. Let them go, Father.”

With a sob, Twilight dropped her spell.

“Thank you, Hype,” Lucida said gratefully, and the others murmured in agreement.

“Don’t thank me. Just go do what you must.”

Lucida nodded and turned to Blue. “Are you ready, Blue?”

“Give me a moment, sis. Twilight’s spell drained some of the power that I had already built up.”

“Destined?” she asked her other brother.

“I remember the date. I’ll allow some time for travelling to Griffonia.”

There were some long, awkward moments while Blue was still recharging for the time-jump as Twilight lay her head on the desk and softly cried.

Hype put her hoof on Twilight’s shoulder and said with a voice much warmer in emotion than ever previously, “It will be okay, Dad. I promise.”

Blue eventually said, “I’m ready.”

“No sense putting this off any longer. Goodbye Princess Twilight. You too, Hypotenuse. Okay Des, let’s go.”

The time vortex started to form, but just then Hypotenuse leaped into their midst, and before anything could be done about it, they had all plunged into the time-stream.




Chapter 14: Illusion of Victory


Seven people fell out of nowhere onto the grounds adjacent to Twilight’s castle. They landed with the typical lack of grace and smattering of bruises that travel by this method usually entailed. Lucida rapidly disentangled herself from the others and glared at Hypotenuse.

“Do you know what you have done?!” she demanded.

The stoic changeling calmly replied, “I promised my father that everything would be okay. Travelling with you was the only way that I could keep that promise.”

“We can’t be dragging people from alternative Histories along with us!”

“I am not giving you a choice. I will not be forced to go back to my future with you, and if you abandon me here, I will affect this reality.”

Lucida growled, but saw no flaw in her logic. “Okay, you’ve got me there, but if you are to be a member of this team, you have to be prepared to take orders. By common consent, I am the nominal leader of this group. Will you follow my directions?”

“I will. Will you listen if I tell you that there might be a better way?”

“That’s supposedly my specialty. Feel free to remind me if you think I’m not doing things right. Celestia knows I have made one huge blunder already. Meanwhile though, I suggest that you change form; Chrome Changelings aren’t known in this year.”

Hype nodded and green magic flames flared, leaving behind a mauve unicorn mare with a red mane and tail.

Destined, who had already hidden his horn again, commented, “Coat like Mom and mane like Papa Free?”

“Coat like Dad and mane like Mom,” Hype corrected. “This is my preferred alter ego.”

“Right, I forgot that you have the reverse parents,” Destined said.

Lucida grimaced. “That’s going to take a bit of getting used to.”

Blue chuckled. “I want to see Mama Twilight’s reaction to being called ‘Dad’.”

Lucida sighed and shook her head. “Hype should not be around to do that.”

“And what are we going to do about it? You heard her – taking her back is not an option. Bringing her with us is all we can do.”

“I don’t know. I’ll try to think of something.”

“Well, while you’re thinking, let’s find a restaurant. I’m starving as usual.” Blue did not wait for Lucida’s agreement before heading off.

Considering that the only thing that any of them had eaten for a while was one of Derpy’s muffins, the rest were in complete agreement with Blue, and they quickly followed him.

Hype looked around with interest. “Fascinating. So familiar, and yet so different. Ponyville looks so much more rural than I am used to seeing.”

Blue snorted in amusement. “Be glad that’s the only significant difference. You don’t want to visit some of the alternate realities that we have so far.”

“Nevertheless, I would like to hear about them. If I am to be involved, I will need to better understand what I might be required to deal with.”

Destined said, “We’ll fill you in when we have plenty of privacy. Meanwhile, remember that nobody knows you or us. We’re all just a group of strangers passing through.”

“Speaking of which,” Lucida said, “we need to figure out how we will get to Griffonia. There aren’t exactly regular boat trips there in this era, and it’s too far for Des to teleport us there.”

“Why not?” Hype asked.

Destined smirked. “I’m a powerful teleporter for my age, but while I can do it by myself, that’s too far for me to teleport with a passenger as yet.”

Hype looked confused. “Am I missing something? Am I correct in understanding that Destined Path controlled the time-jump while Blue Streak supplied the necessary energy?”

“That’s essentially correct, although I am capable of small time-jumps without Blue,” Destined replied.

“Then what is the essential difference in providing the energy for teleportation instead?” Hype asked.

Destined froze, his eyes widening in shock. Then he face-hoofed and said, “I am such an idiot!

“Oh, great!” Blue said with a roll of his eyes. “I hope you give me a chance to recuperate before we try that.”

Lucida chuckled with some chagrin. “Considering that I asked Des to allow for some travel time, I think we can use it to rest up instead.”

“Rest later, eat now!” Blue insisted even as he opened the door to the Yellow Arches Restaurant.

“Really? Fast food, Blue?” Lucida asked.

“Fast is the word, Lucy. Not waiting for á la carte!” Blue replied as he made a beeline for the order counter.

“Is he always like this after a time-jump?” Hype asked.

Lucida nodded. “First time we practically had to carry him, he was so exhausted by the jump. He’s actually coping a lot better lately because he’s been training himself to store energy better.”

“Is that his special talent then? I note the energy bolt cutie mark.”

“No – that came as a result of an incident that nearly killed him as a youth. However, it’s of benefit to his real special talent which is speed.”

Hype eyed the two trays that were being piled up with food for Blue. How fast can an earth pony be if he constantly eats that much?”

Forest snickered and Glenn grinned. The griffon said, “We wondered the same when we first saw Blue eat. Believe me, he burns it up fast.”

Lucida smiled too. “I’m sure Blue will be happy to give a demonstration of his true ability once he’s recovered. Right now though, I think it’s finally your turn to order.”

Having decided that they would try teleporting to Griffonia with Blue’s energy boost, they realised that he would still need a good night’s rest and a recharge before they attempted the journey. Ponyville was a little small to provide guest accommodation for seven people, none of whom were couples, although some were prepared to double up in a room, so Destined teleported them all to Canterlot and they booked into a hotel for the night.

Lucida chose Hype to room with her, while Glenn and Forest were given a room to share, and Destined and Blue took another. Watchful insisted on staying with the latter though as her duties required.

“Two stallions sharing a room with a mare – what do you think our parents will say?” Blue asked with a grin.

Watchful rolled her eyes and shape-changed into a stallion instead. “Better?” he asked.

“Not exactly helping,” Destined said with an exaggerated leer.

Watchful glared at him and snorted in annoyance before throwing himself on the couch. “Do what you want, but leave me out of it!”

Destined and Blue laughed while the changeling unicorn’s complexion grew redder from embarrassment.

As Blue headed off to the bathroom to have a shower, Destined said, “Welcome to the time-team, Watchful. Consider yourself hazed.”

The changeling calmed down as he soaked up the positive emotions of his companion. “So, would you prefer I stay a stallion or change back to a mare?”

“Our preference has no bearing on what you decide, but if it makes you feel better, while I think you’re cute, I am totally committed to Silk, and of course Blue is dedicated to Cinder. Which sex you are makes no difference to us.”

Watchful thought about it for a bit and said, “If for no other reason than that Cinder is the jealous type, I think I’ll stay male for tonight. Blue will have complete deniability.”

“Good thinking,” Destined agreed. “Aggravating a dragon is never a good idea. And I get to tell Silk that I slept with a handsome stallion while I was away.”


The alicorn laughed again. “Lighten up, Watchful. Your loyalty to us and your mission are great, but don’t forget that we’re supposed to be friends too. Learn to give as good as you get.”

Watchful sighed. “Reds are warriors, not comedians.”

“That’s a cliché and you know it. No changeling is a one-trick pony; Papa Free is the ultimate example of that. Be what you want to be. Take it from someone who needed that lesson pounded into his head.”

“I’ll try. It’s not as if my Queen has not said similar things. A hive can’t survive with warriors alone – many different abilities are required, and the relationship of the hives to the rest of Equestria has needed to be adaptable lately too. I think that’s why Queen Carpacia chose me to guard Princess Fidelitas, and now you.”

“Because you’re a good foalsitter?” Destined asked with a smirk.

Watchful snorted. “No. Well, yes, but mostly because I am more likeable than the average Red. You see, Fifi chose me more than the Queen did. She noticed how her daughter liked to be with me whenever I was on duty, and so I was given the job regularly. Same with House Path – everypony liked Fifi’s guardian, so I was assigned to the House team.”

“Carpacia’s a smart one,” Destined conceded. “However, I thought she disliked anyone calling Fidelitas by her nickname, Fifi?”

“Not as much as she says, but Fifi seems to like it, so I keep using that name.”

“And that’s something that we prefer too. Besides, today… relatively speaking… you found out how different Fifi is from her mother, and what a bond she has with Dad; you need to be flexible to deal with that. You have the changeling side down pat – you just have to work on the pony side a bit more. As I said before – loosen up and don’t be afraid to have a dig at us occasionally. As Mom likes to say – ‘friendship is magic’, and you’re our friend as well as our teammate.”

Watchful smiled and replied, “I’ll try to take your advice.” Then he shifted his position on the couch into a sexy pose. “So would you prefer to spend the night on the couch with me, my Prince?”

Destined chuckled. “Now you’re getting it. And I’m going to tell Silk that you tried to seduce me.”

“Aw, Des!” Watchful pouted before they both broke out into laughter. “Goodnight, Destined.”

“Goodnight, Watchful.”

Hype looked thoughtfully out of the window of the room that she was sharing with Lucida. “This feels so strange – the last time that I stayed in Canterlot, it was in a room in the castle next to my parents’ suite, but today I am a stranger.”

“Does it bother you?” Lucida asked.

“No – my father never let her station go to her head, and she brought me up to be the same. It’s merely an odd experience.”

Lucida considered Hype’s reply and then said, “I may not have the ability to taste emotions like you, but I’m pretty sure that something is upsetting you. Do you want to talk about it?”

Hype turned away from the window and stared at Lucida for a long moment before turning back to the view. “I miss my parents.”

“If all goes well, you will soon see them again.”

“I thought that you were unhappy with me returning with you?”

Lucida sighed. “Look – I know what I said, but it was the shock of the moment. Frankly, I understand what you did – self-preservation combined with wanting to comfort your mother… I mean father… is a powerful motivation. Besides, it’s not as if we haven’t been monumental failures at keeping History pure. So far it seems to have worked out for the best, so I’m just going to hope that it will again. Besides, I’m beginning to want to see Pif’s reaction to getting an instant changeling sister.”

The slightest of smiles graced Hype’s lips. “I find myself curious about that too.”

“We come from a herd family, you know? Twilight might not be my biological parent, but she’s as much as a mother to me as Roseclaw. That means that you would be my sister too. How do you feel about that?”

“I have lost a brother,” Hype said softly. “Should I be expected to welcome a sister in his stead?”

“I would never take Wandering’s place, Hype, but I hope that I could be a supportive older sister. I can’t pretend that your life would be the same with us, but I would like it to be a happy one.”

“Thank you. I hoped that I would not be a burden to you. This is more than I could expect.”

“You’re Free’s daughter and yet you’re that pessimistic? You certainly are different from Pif; she gets a bit too optimistic occasionally. Anyway, you might yet get your brother back. From what I understand of Destined’s time theory, History seems to converge on high-probability events, and it’s likely that Mama Twilight and Papa Free’s attempts to conceive a child might just result in that same foal being born. Um… he was a foal, right?”

Hype nodded. “A male alicorn, but with a changeling’s horn.”

“Oh, that’s right – Twilight said that Wandering was an alicorn. Slipped my mind. Everyone’s going to boggle over yet another alicorn being born if I’m right. I’m even more convinced that Auntie Luna will have one also.”

Auntie Luna?” Hype repeated with a touch of surprise. “You are related to the Princess?”

“Luna is part of Herd Path also. She joined when we were children, so she’s always been Auntie to us, rather than Mama.”

“That… is amazing. Princess Luna has never seemed interested in finding a husband, let alone joining a herd. How came this to be?”

“The House and Herd have always been something special, which is probably one reason why Chrysalis is trying to destroy it. Luna has been extremely happy as part of Herd Path, and when she went into heat, she most enthusiastically had Dad sire a foal for her.”

“I see. More than ever, I see that your History must be righted.” She paused and slowly a genuine smile grew on her face. “And I accept your offer. I will try to be a good sister to you.”

Lucida giggled and hugged Hype. “Welcome to the family!”

Forest bounced on the bed and said excitedly, “Can you believe it? Only a few weeks at House Path and we’re already involved in a secret mission through time!”

Glenn grinned back and held up his fisted talons for Forest to hoof-bump. “It’s pretty awesome, alright! I can’t wait to find out what happens next!”

Some things are just simpler for some people than others.

Blue indulged in a long sleep-in the next morning, but pronounced himself fit after a big breakfast. He then headed out of town to get a bit of exercise. The rest of the team accompanied him to a quiet pasture that seemed devoid of witnesses.

“Why did we have to come out here for Blue Streak to exercise?” Hype asked.

“Blue needs a bit more room than most, and we don’t really want witnesses. Besides, we’ll all do a bit of training with him after he’s warmed-up,” Lucida answered.

“What sort of training?”

“Except for Watchful, we’re all warrior-scholars, although Glenn and Forest are only new students. All of us are expected to maintain our fighting skills, so we reserve a certain amount of time each day to train. Blue is our most powerful warrior though, and he needs all of us to give him a decent workout.”

Hype looked at Lucida with surprise. “What? Even against an alicorn?”

“Yep. Last time they fought seriously, Des barely managed to defeat him, and under different circumstances, he might even lose.”

“I find that difficult to believe.”

“Judge for yourself when we spar. Will you join in?”

“I am not a fighter. My parents have trained me in leadership and science.”

“Well, sister, that might have to change when you come home with us. For now though, maybe we can teach you a few self-defence moves.”

“I am a queen changeling – I have powerful defences already.”

“We’ll see.” Lucida smiled to herself. Her new sister was in for a bit of a shock.

Blue announced, “I’ll warm up with a hundred laps of the pasture. Be ready for a training bout when I’m done.”

“No worries, Blue,” Destined replied, already starting on some stretching exercises.

“A hundred laps?” Hype echoed, eyeing the broad field. “Will the training start before or after dinner time?”

Blue just grinned. “I like to start off slow to loosen up, but I think I’ll be done sooner than you think.”

“I am quite aware of how fast earth ponies can gallop. I think my estimations are conservative.”

“Let me know if you need more data,” Blue said with a wink. Then he took off.

Hype’s jaw dropped and eyes bugged out as Blue sped away. He was halfway around the pasture before she gasped, “What the…?!”

Half a minute later, Blue roared past them and began another lap.

“Better do some warm-up exercises or you won’t be ready. He’s only going to get faster,” Destined advised the stunned changeling.

Hype could not credit her eyes – what she was witnessing was impossible. She started counting the seconds when Blue passed her again. The next lap was faster, and the one after that faster again. Without taking her off the blue blur, she said, “You weren’t exaggerating. How fast can he go?”

“He’s broken the sound barrier several times. We don’t know his limit yet because he’s always surpassed his previous record every time we measure it. Now do you understand why Des had such a hard time fighting Blue?”

Hype nodded wordlessly even as her mane was whipped by the wind of Blue’s passing once again.

“Hype – stop staring and do some stretches. Time to get serious,” Lucida said sternly.

The changeling managed to tear her eyes away from the lightning fast stallion and looked at what her companions were doing. She then tried to imitate them, and Destined came over to guide her to do the exercises more effectively. She was actually engrossed in them when Blue pulled up, barely breathing hard.

“Ah! That feels good! Okay – who’s up for a game of tag?”

“Tag? I thought you were going to practice fighting?” Hype asked.

“We are,” Lucida said. “We’ll be trying our best to take down Blue by any means possible. You may use your horn from a distance if you wish. Until you have some basic self-defence experience, it might be a bit risky for you to do close-up combat.”

Hype agreed fervently, and stood back as the rest of the team arrayed themselves around Blue.

“Go!” he said.

Watchful had been carrying weapons when they had been abducted by Derpy, and she leaped into an immediate attack with them. Lucida took to the air to make diving attacks with her talons outstretched, with Glenn at her wing to try to tag Blue as he dodged her. Destined teleported from spot to spot to fire a stun blast and move out of range again. Forest’s form shimmered with illusion, making him extremely hard to locate, and his own horn blasts seemed to come out of nowhere.

Despite all this, Blue dodged with supernatural ease. Hype couldn’t even follow the action fast enough to make an attack of her own, and she began to wonder if she was going to be a liability rather than an asset if this was the degree of competence needed just to be a student warrior.

After several minutes of this, Blue yelled, “Halt!” All attacks ceased and the griffons came in for a landing. Blue walked over to Forest and pushed the colt’s mane away from his face to reveal a bloody cut.

“You came in too close there, Forest. You don’t get points for bravado – you need to think. Your superior attack is from a distance, so give the close-in fighters room to work. Up close, you might help limit your enemy’s movements, or they might simply go through you instead. We don’t want to have to tell your parents that you died doing something silly, do we?”

Forest shook his head. “Sorry, Blue.”

“Don’t apologise – just remember next time.” Blue looked at Destined. “First aid for our student, please.”

Destined stepped up to Forest to apply a healing spell to the cut which closed up without a mark, leaving only a little blood to indicate where it had been.

Meanwhile Blue went over to the overwhelmed Hype. “I noticed that you could not seem to decide what to do.”

Hype raised her hooves helplessly. “I could not even follow the action, let alone act. I can’t do it!”

Blue shook his head. “No, you just lack training. We chucked you into the deep end to show you what you could be up against, but you saw how our young students still managed to put up a good fight. Once you have had sufficient training, you too will be able to act. Part of what you need to learn is stuff that you will practice until it’s automatic, so you can concentrate on your combat moves. From here on, we’ll start basic training for you. If you are serious about it, you won’t be found wanting when it counts.”

“I’ve never had anything to do with fighting – are you sure I can even do this?”

“Forest didn’t either, but even as a novice, he’s not bad. I think a changeling princess could do at least as good, don’t you think?” Blue gave her a serious look as he raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Hype gulped and nodded. “I’ll try my best.”

Blue grinned. “Great! That’s all we ask. Now, let’s get you started.”

“Aren’t you tired?” she asked curiously.

“I can fight all day in armour if necessary. It takes an enormous energy drain like time-travel to tire me out.”

“Could anyone ever hope to match you?” Hype asked as Watchful came over.

“Let me start Hypotenuse’s training, Blue. As a changeling warrior, I think I have a better idea of suitable methods for her.”

“She’s all yours, Watchful. Have fun.”

“What have I gotten myself into?” Hype wondered before focusing her attention on her new trainer.

That evening, they made the decision to make a small time-jump to bridge the days that they would otherwise have spent travelling to Griffonia. After shopping for provisions and equipment the next morning, they made the time-jump and then allowed some recovery time for Blue, spending one last night in Ponyville. They then prepared to teleport to Griffonia.

“Because the only ponies that were officially in Griffonia at this time were Twilight, Path, the ambassador and his staff, and the airship crew, some of us need to be careful not to be seen,” Lucida said. “Therefore Des will take us to the forest that is facing the House Path castle, although at this time it belongs to Ravenwing of course. We’ll make camp there and use it as our base of operations. Is everyone ready?”

After everyone affirmed their readiness, Lucida said, “Okay, Des – you’re up.”

Destined looked at Blue and said, “I don’t think this will be significantly different from when we use your energy to power the time-jump, but don’t be surprised if it feels odd anyway.”

“Just get on with it, Des,” Blue replied.

Without further ado, Destined powered up his horn, and the group disappeared in the typical flash-bang of teleportation….

… and reappeared in a clearing amidst a forest.

“Well, that was a lot easier than I thought,” Destined commented. “How are you, Blue?”

“Hardly fazed, Des. Apparently teleporting a quarter of the way around the world is nothing compared to time-travelling.”

“Something to keep in mind for future needs,” Lucida commented. “Anyway, now that we’re here, we must take all precautions. Although it’s unlikely that anygriff will come here, we must prepare for the possibility. Disguises, please.”

The two changelings shifted into griffon forms. Forest used his illusion ability to take on the appearance of a griffon with the same colours as his pony form. Destined cast a disguise spell on himself, and a ‘Do Not Notice’ spell on Lucida that caused observers to fail to realise that she had a pony’s hindquarters instead of a feline one.

“Aren’t you going to be disguised too?” Hype asked Blue.

He shook his head. “Maintaining a disguise spell is hard for Des, and I won’t need it. I’ll just pretend to be your servant.”

Hype blinked in confusion. “Why would you be our servant?”

Lucida looked at her curiously. “You mean that you don’t know? Earth ponies were kept as slaves in Griffonia before they were emancipated through the efforts of House Path and King Glimfeather.”

“Equestria has been at an armed truce with Griffonia for years. King Glimfeather died years ago; King Ravenwing now rules. We are unaware of any ponies in that kingdom other than the occasional emissaries to his court.”

“That sounds like an awfully familiar situation. It seems without House Path, Ravenwing will always end up assassinating Glimfeather,” Lucida said. “Anyway, Blue was the son of a slave couple who were killed years before this day, but our parents adopted him after gaining the House. He is familiar with the practices of the time, and he should be able to pull off the role.” She eyed the weapons that Blue was carrying. “Although perhaps not while he looks like a warrior.”

“I’ll pack them away in the saddlebags,” Blue replied. “Don’t worry; I won’t blow my cover unless any of you are threatened.”

“Good. Anyway, time to set up camp. It’s already afternoon here, so we’ll rest overnight. Tomorrow is the day of the honour duel between Dad and Ravenwing, and that’s when the fun really begins!”

“You can’t come to the arena with us, Blue,” Lucida said firmly.

“Why not?” Blue replied with a frown.

“Back in this time, ponies were not allowed in the city. They were always the dirty secret of the nobility, and almost always kept on their estates. Even posing as our servant would be very risky.”

Blue fumed but could not counter that argument.

“Besides, we need someone to watch our encampment,” Destined added.

Blue let out his breath in a deep sigh and waved them off dismissively. “Just go, okay?”

Lucida hated to do that, but she had a more pressing reason not to bring Blue along. He was dedicated to his foster father so fiercely that it was likely that he would react badly to watching Path being killed in the arena. Satisfied that he would stay, she turned to the others and said, “Let’s go. The honour duel will start soon.”

They spread their wings, but before they could take off, Forest spoke up.

“Hey, guys! Have you forgotten that I only look like a griffon?”

“Oops!” Destined said. “I can levitate you all the way. Just have your wings imitate ours so your flight doesn’t look unnatural.”

“I can do that.”

“You’re not afraid of heights, are you?”

“Nah. Dad used to take me on joy-flights all the time.”

“Won’t your magic show, Des?” Lucida asked.

“The glow is a side-effect of using magic, and it can be suppressed if you have sufficient ability.”

“Ah, good. Okay, let’s try this again. Time to go!”

They all took off and headed towards the city. Lucida watched Forest’s illusory wing-action, but could not fault it. The young unicorn had not been boasting about his skill with illusions, and she was reassured that he would not be detected as a fake. At least, not that way.

Destined took the lead, with Lucida bringing up the rear. Both of them were very familiar with the layout of the city, and the approaches to the arena. Watchful had familiarised herself as much as she could for the short time that she had been assigned to the team, but kept to the middle of the flock so that the two newcomers were safely bracketed. Both Forest and Hype looked about with keen interest during the flight.

Destined took them into one of the public galleries that he knew would have a good view of where Path, Free, and Roseclaw would be, and they jostled with the spectators for preferred vantage points. They were careful to keep Forest between them so that his true nature would not be betrayed by touching his illusory form. Because they had allowed a safety margin, they watched three matches before the honour duel was announced. At this point, their attention was riveted on Path as he departed King Glimfeather’s private reserve seating area and made his way down the steps to the arena, pausing only to have a word with a couple of the griffons standing in the corridor that led under the seats. He was let onto the arena floor and the master of ceremonies announced the honour duel.

Despite the fact that Path had told the tale of his battle with Ravenwing in great detail, it was still painful to watch him being slowly ripped to shreds by his challenger. It was obvious that Ravenwing was stretching things out to make it as painful for Path as possible before he finished off the pony, but that was supposed to be his undoing. The moment came when Path turned and made as if to buck the griffon as he dived at him. However, no glow of magic surrounded his hooves, and Path’s face looked shocked at the failure.

Ravenwing disdainfully dodged the abortive buck before wheeling tightly around and pouncing on the unfortunate pony. Talons tore open Path’s hide, and a massive spurt of blood came from a severed artery. Path staggered and fell to the arena floor as Ravenwing landed nearby to watch with a sneer on his beak.

Lucida had to turn away, and she noticed that Destined had done so already. Forest apparently had been sick, although the screaming crowd had not noticed, fortunately. Glenn had his eyes jammed shut. Both changelings stoically kept watching, although there was no point anymore. Whatever had changed in this History had already happened. Watching Path die was not going to help.

“We’re leaving now,” Lucida told the others, and they made their way out of the arena.

It was a quiet and thoughtful group that made its way back to their camp and settled down next to a fretting Blue Streak.

“What happened?” he immediately demanded.

“Exactly what Twilight described,” Lucida replied. “Dad went to use his Thunderhoof technique, and nothing happened. Ravenwing then killed him.”

“And you have no idea why?”

“That’s what we’re going to discuss.” Lucida turned to the others. “Did any of you see anything that looked unusual?”

Hype said, “The only thing that would have looked out of place would have been this Thunderhoof technique that you described. Everything proceeded exactly as I would have expected otherwise.”

“Same here,” Destined replied.

“Don’t look at me – I stopped watching soon after Ravenwing started cutting Path up.” Forest shivered. “All that blood…!”

“I have a question,” Watchful said. “Is it possible that whatever was changed, it happened before Path reached the arena?”

Lucida considered the question and nodded. “Yes, although the arena would seem to be the best place for Chrysalis’ agent to do something due to the large crowd to blend in with.”

“Path was mostly isolated from the crowd until he left the private seating area though. If it happened at the arena, it would most likely have happened before he reached it or after he left it. I noticed that he was out of view very briefly while making his way down. Is it possible that something happened then?”

Lucida shrugged. “Anything is possible, I suppose. Do you suspect that’s where whatever happened was done?”

“I have three possibilities – the first being that it happened before they reached the arena, which would make our job very difficult because it would require us to look for something unusual over a large period of time and in many places. The second is that it happened as they joined the crowd as they entered the arena. This narrows the focus a great deal, but would require us to observe in difficult conditions. The third is when Path left the seats to head for the arena floor. This would be the easiest to observe for anything unusual, and I would recommend that we try eliminating it as a possibility first.”

Lucida admired Watchful’s thorough assessment of the situation. Although the changeling was young, it seemed that Queen Polistae knew what she was doing when she had assigned the drone to them. She nodded in approval. “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. We’ll jump back in time and return to the arena, but take up positions where we can clearly observe Dad’s movements from the private seating. Blue, are you ready?”

Blue nodded. “I’ve packed everything up, and I have tons of spare energy for a tiny hop like that.”

“Everyone grab something to carry and prepare for a time-jump,” Lucida instructed.

Glenn obeyed, but asked, “Why don’t we just leave everything here if we’re just going to go back a few hours? The camp will be there for us, won’t it?”

Destined replied, “We’d be dealing with a bit of paradox if that was true because we would be there also. Seeing as we didn’t meet our future selves, it’s likely that probability changes will send us to a slightly different time-stream. Different probability – different History. So if we want our equipment, we better play it safe and bring it along with us.”

“You remember that I did see my younger self on our first time-trip, don’t you?” Blue reminded Destined.

“I remember. I never said it wasn’t possible; I just take the most cautious approach to time-travel due to its complexity.”

A short time-jump later, they were winging their way back to the city, sans Blue of course. This time they managed to get various seats positioned to observe the entire route down from the reserved seating area from various vantage points. They saw Path pass out of the restricted area and walk over to the steps. He made his way down them to the corridor where several griffons waited. One merely indicated the way to Path, another ignored him, while the last talked to him for a few moments and gave him something before he entered the arena. After that, the fight played out exactly the same way as before, but while most watched to the end, Forest refused to watch any further.

The team travelled back to the campsite once more to discuss what they had seen.

“I’m stumped,” Destined said. “If anything happened then, I didn’t see it.”

“Me neither,” Lucida admitted.

“Umm… is it normal for griffons to talk to the duellists before they go out onto the arena?” Glenn asked.

“Totally normal,” Lucida answered. “Many griffs like to give last minute encouragement to friends or favourites. You heard how many supporters Dad had among the crowd. I suppose one was particularly enthusiastic.”

“And what about the object that the griff gave Path?” Watchful asked.

“Good luck tokens. Also very common,” Lucida replied.

“Okay, common, but did Path originally get such a token?”

Lucida blinked a couple of times and then looked over to Destined. “Do you recall Dad ever mentioning that?”

Destined shook his head. “I suppose it might have been trivial enough that he never thought to mention it later.”

Watchful said, “I want to check out that token and the griff who gave it to him. If anything happened, that’s where and when.”

“Okay. How do you want to go about this?”

“I’m going to make my way into the corridor and get close enough to the griff to detect if he’s a changeling. I’m not sure if I can do anything about the token though, and if I get too close, he will notice that I’m a changeling too,” Watchful replied.

Destined said, “I can use an invisibility spell to get right up close to Dad.”

Watchful shook his head. “No. If that token is responsible for cancelling Path’s magic, it might do the same for you.”

Destined nodded. “You could be right. If the token has a nullstone in it, I would be exposed.”

“What’s a nullstone?” Forest asked.

Lucida answered, “It’s what they use to make the rings that they put on the horns of criminal unicorns so that they can’t use spells to resist the law.”

“So it just breaks spells?”

“Yes. That’s all it needs to do.”

“Let me go check out the token. My illusions aren’t spells.”

Hype was startled by that statement. “How can that be? Even alicorns can only do illusions with magic spells.”

Forest grinned at Hype and replied smugly, “Not if your sire’s a changeling. My sister, Dandelion, inherited Dad’s shape-changing ability, my other sister can sense emotions, and I got the illusion ability. It’s a natural trait, not a spell!”

Hype gaped in surprise. “Dad told me about her changeling friend, Cogs, and how she helped him conceive foals with his wife. The foals were very young though when the Blue Changeling purge occurred, so she never heard from them again after they fled. Dad would have been fascinated by that development.”

“Mom certainly was,” Destined confirmed. “Cogs’ family has always been close friends with ours, which is one reason why Forest is here with us now.”

Watchful turned to Forest and said, “You can pose as another well-wisher. Talk to Path after he has received the token and try to remove it.”

Forest’s smile grew wider. “I can do better than that. I can put an illusory token of my own and cover up my taking the real token.”

Lucida frowned. “Sounds tricky. Are you sure that you can do that?”

Forest’s smile fell, and he blushed. “Umm, yeah. I kind of got too good at that sort of thing. That’s what eventually led me into the situation that nearly got me and my parents killed, and I swore off it.”

“Oh. Sorry if I brought up old wounds.”

Forest shook his head. “No – it was all my fault, and I will never forget that lesson. I don’t go around deceiving anyone nowadays.”

“Not even in this situation?” Lucida prompted.

“This is righting a wrong, not tricking someone. I know the difference.”

Lucida nodded in satisfaction. “Okay, that’s what we’ll do.”

“I’m coming with you this time,” Blue announced.

“What? Why?” Lucida queried.

“If that is the solution to our problem, we can leave immediately for the future. I also want to watch my father defeat Ravenwing.”

Lucida stared at her brother for a long moment before sighing. “You’re not going to budge on this, are you?”


Lucida turned to Destined and asked, “Can you manage another illusion and levitate two ponies at the same time?”

“I’ll just draw on Blue’s power like I do for the time-jumps and teleporting,” Destined replied confidently.

Lucida drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff. “I seem to be out of arguments. Alright, get him disguised and let’s go.”

Watchful had no difficulty taking up a position in the corridor. While fans of the fighters were apparently welcome to come down and give them encouragement, it was no wonder that it was not too crowded there – the view of the arena was terrible! However, that was the least of Watchful’s worries. She had her eyes on three other things – Path’s progress down from the seats, the griff who was going to give Path the token, and Forest nervously waiting next to the possible agent. Unfortunately their target was just a little too far away for Watchful to sense if the griff was a changeling due to the arena drowning her in a flood of emotions, and she did not wish to risk getting closer as yet. However, the griff would have to come back her way, and she would get a good chance then.

When Path came close to their suspect, the griff stepped up and said, “On behalf of those who have witnessed your growing popularity, I wish to present you with this good luck token. Will you accept it?”

Now there’s a statement that has a huge double meaning!’ Watchful mused.

Being unfamiliar with Griffonian customs at that time, Path decided to just go with it. “Okay,” he said as he bowed his head for the griffon to put it on him.

The suspect hung the token around Path’s neck and smiled with a little too much satisfaction. “I am sure that this fight will end most gratifyingly.”

I bet you are,’ Watchful thought.

The griff then headed Watchful’s way, but Forest moved up before Path could go.

“On behalf of the friends that you made at the pub, I want to present you with a token of ours too,” Forest said with a genuine smile.

Despite the situation, Path was charmed by the more honest attitude of the young griff, and he smiled and bowed his head.

To ensure that Path did not notice his token was missing by the lack of weight around his neck, Lucida had stopped long enough at the nearby market to pick up something suitable. Forest made a show of putting it on, while disguising the blade that slit the cord that held the other token. He slipped it off while adding the illusion that it was still there. That illusion would quickly fade without his presence, but by the time it did, Path would be in the arena, and no one would notice. Forest then hurried to join Watchful.

The Red Changeling had not been idle. She had stepped back out of notice until the griff passed her. As they had suspected, it was a Blue Changeling, and that meant almost certainly the enemy agent. She started following him through the corridors towards the exit. With an honour duel just starting, every griffon’s attention was focused there, and the area was empty but for the two of them.

Just before he reached the exit, Watchful called out, “Stop right there!”

The agent stopped, turned, and glared balefully at Watchful before a spark of recognition lit his eyes.

“What is a Red Changeling doing here?”

Watchful stopped at a cautious distance from the agent. “I could ask the same of a Blue Changeling, but I already know why you’re here, minion of Chrysalis.”

The agent smirked. “And you think you can handle me by yourself, fool?”

“She doesn’t have to!” Forest declared as he trotted up to join Watchful.

“You are still outmatched, but I’m not wasting my time with you.” The agent turned to exit the building, but was struck down by a bolt of magic. His griffon form faded to reveal his natural appearance.

Destined stepped into the corridor and said, “And we’re definitely not wasting time subduing you, murderer.”

By prior arrangement, if the agent went down the corridor as expected, Destined would make his way outside of the arena and cover the exit and await confirmation provoked by Watchful. He would then take the agent by surprise and subdue him. The plan went off without a hitch. Hype followed Destined soon after.

“So, do you think you can enthral him as we discussed,” Destined asked Hype.

“As I have said, I have never done that before, so I don’t know. I will, however, render him harmless.”

The Blue Changeling groaned as he already started to regain consciousness. Destined had not hit him too hard as they needed the agent to take orders as soon as he was enthralled. Hype stood over him, and her horn lit up.

The agent started wailing, but the cries rapidly died away until he slumped limply to the floor again.

Destined said, “That didn’t seem right.” He walked up to agent and lowered his horn to the changeling. A moment later, he raised his head and said, “He’s dead.”

Watchful frowned. “I thought that enthrallment was supposed to be harmless?”

Hype coolly looked at her. “It probably is, but as I said, I don’t know how to do that, so I rendered him harmless by extracting all his love energy. He will trouble us no more.”

“That’s mighty cold, Hype,” Destined said.

“You need to be more pragmatic,” Hype replied. “What would you have done with him if I had enthralled him? We cannot take him with us, nor can we leave him here. He remained a threat for as long as he was alive. Now he’s not a threat anymore.”

Destined understood the logic, but marvelled at how different this child of Queen Free was so much different from Pif. “What’s done is done. I’ll get rid of the body.” He teleported it far from the city, deep into the forest where none but scavengers would find the corpse. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I intend to watch my father’s victory, if we aren’t too late.”

“I haven’t heard the thunder that’s supposed to accompany his special attack,” Watchful replied. “I think we’ll be in time.”

They all managed to get back to arena before Path unleashed his Thunderhoof to defeat Ravenwing. They all heaved a sigh of relief when they knew that they had been successful. Actually, Forest heaved a little more than a sigh. The sight of all the blood still sickened him, and Ravenwing’s pulverised appendage pushed him over the edge once more.

Blue was ecstatic to have witnessed his father’s great victory, and Destined and Lucida were not much less delighted. The positive emotions had a buoyant effect on the changelings in their party as they headed away from the arena to somewhere secluded where they could head back to a future which they fervently hoped would be back to normal. Or at least normal to five of them. Hype was wondering what her parents were going to think of gaining a new daughter, and for the first time since her great adventure began, the Chrome Changeling princess started to feel nervous. She knew that the others were not comfortable with the way she had dealt with the agent, but she could only surmise that it was because of the way they were raised. But if they had the same parents, how much different were that Twilight and Free going to be from the ones that she had known all her life?




Chapter 15: Late Night Conversations


Glenn sidled up to Watchful as they headed out of the city. “You make a very beautiful griffon.”

Watchful looked at him with surprise. “Thanks, I guess.”

“Don’t you like being called pretty?” Glenn asked, a little put off by the tepid reaction from the changeling.

“It’s not that, but when you can change into whatever you want to look like, things such as beauty are of little relevance to a changeling personally. Of course, if I want to impress someone, it becomes important.”

“Oh? Then why did you become a beautiful she-griff when an ordinary-looking cock would possibly have been less conspicuous?”

Watchful opened her beak to answer, but paused without replying for a long moment. “I… don’t really know. Female is my usual default form, but I really had no need to make myself particularly attractive.”

“Does it bother you?”

“As a guardian, I need to suit my form to the need. As you said, an ordinary cock would have been ideal. That I chose an attractive hen instead means that I subconsciously influenced the choice.”

“So, does that mean that you like someone?”

While Watchful’s cheek feathers were too dark to show a blush, the inside of her ears were a different story, and Glenn found it fascinating that a changeling emulated a griffon to that degree. He found it even more telling that she did not reply to his query.

“Are you going to stay like that?” he asked instead.

“No sense wasting energy transforming until I’m sure I won’t need this form anymore.”

Glenn smiled. “Fine by me.”

Watchful just flew on in silence.

The team alighted in a secluded spot and Destined dropped the spells that concealed Blue and Forest, while Hype resumed her natural form. However, for reasons she kept to herself, Watchful stayed a griffon.

“Everyone gather together for the teleport back to Equestria,” Destined instructed them. The alicorn drew on Blue’s energy stores, and a moment later they were back in a field outside of Ponyville.

“Are you ready to make the time-jump, Blue?” Lucida asked.

“I’ve built up quite a store of energy today. I’ve plenty left for Des.”

“Good. Des – aim for a few minutes after we left.”

Destined nodded. “Okay, here we go!”

The time vortex opened up and they plunged into the familiar chaos once more.

As they disentangled themselves from their landing pile, Hype asked, “Is it always like this when you travel through time?”

“Sadly, yes,” Destined answered. “With absolutely no sense of physical direction in the vortex, there’s no way that we can orient ourselves to make a landing on all four legs. Only my very brief jumps have left me still almost exactly as I was oriented when I departed. Jumps of several years mean anything can happen.”

Hype looked around, curious to see how the new present varied from hers, and she frowned a little in puzzlement. “I thought you said that Ponyville was very different in your time?”

The others were looking around now, and looks of dismay broke out all around.

“Uh-oh. Something is very wrong,” Blue said.

“You said a mouthful, Blue,” Lucida replied.

To the best of their knowledge, Ponyville looked no different from when they had left on their mission.

“We’re going to Twilight’s castle. We’ve obviously missed something,” Lucida decided. As they started moving off in that direction, Lucida turned to Hype and said, “This is why we interrogate our enemies instead of executing them.”

“I still don’t know how to enthral a changeling, so how would we have gotten him out of the city to question him?”

“Did you even try to enthral him? It seems to be a common ability for queens.”

Hype did not answer, and Lucida decided not to press her anymore. It was not as if she was an official part of the team even though she had agreed to cooperate with them.

Spike was surprised to see them walk in without having seen them walk out, but he did not stop them from heading for the office where they had been talking with Twilight. The door was open, and they walked in unannounced. They found Twilight still there, but being comforted by Free. She was crying with her head buried in his chest feathers, so only he saw the group arrive. He was about to query them when he noticed that Hype was among them.

“Twilight, love – look up,” he said softly.

Twilight snuffled and looked around to see her daughter stepping towards her. “Hypotenuse!” she exclaimed, and she leaped to her hooves and flung herself at Hype. “I thought you were gone forever.”

“I thought so too, Dad. I’m sorry, but something has gone wrong. We went back in time and stopped Path from being killed in the arena, but nothing seems to have changed. We don’t know what has happened.”

Twilight blinked a lot and wiped away her tears with one hoof before she replied. “What are you talking about, Hype? Path wasn’t killed in the arena – he was assassinated in King Argent’s throne room. You know that!”

Free stepped up to his wife and daughter and said, “It’s not as if I haven’t told you that story several times, how Path died in my arms with a crossbow bolt through his chest.”

Lucida exchanged glances with Destined and Blue, and they came to the same conclusion as each other. “There was a second agent,” Lucida spoke for all of them.

“What are you talking about?” Free asked with a frown.

The time-team members gave Free a good look, and it became obvious that this alternate present’s version of the Chrome Changeling was significantly different from the one they were most familiar with. Their Free Agent had spent time optimising his griffon form and training it to a large degree, although not quite as much as one of the alternate timeline Free’s had done. However, this Free definitely had not. He was no bigger than Twilight, and certainly was not as muscular. Just as telling was his body language. While their Free almost always had a smile and slightly carefree attitude, this one was serious and seemed to be clinging to Twilight almost much as she had been to him. It was looking more obvious why Hype was so different from Pif.

Lucida explained, “When we were here before, Twilight told us how Path did not survive his honour duel with Ravenwing, so we went back in time to find out why. We discovered an agent of Queen Chrysalis who blocked Path’s Thunderhoof technique which would have defeated Ravenwing. We neutralised his interference and restored History to what should have happened. Or so we thought.”

Free said, “Yes, that was a magnificent victory by Path. Perhaps if hadn’t been so great, he might not have been called to the court by the king to be assassinated there,” Free said bitterly.

“Can you describe to us what happened? If we have those details, we can figure out how to prevent Path from being killed.”

“You can save Path? Truly?” Free asked with frightening intensity.

“Yes, we should be able to,” Destined replied.

“Who are you people?” Free demanded.

“Twilight didn’t tell you?” Destined queried with some surprise.

“She has been too upset to tell me more than some confusing talk about time-travellers and fixing time.”

Destined nodded. “She’s right. We’re from an alternate timeline. Long Path is my father, and Twilight is my mother.”

Lucida said, “And Long Path is my father too, but with Roseclaw as my mother.”

Free gasped. “You’re Path’s children? That’s how his life was supposed to go?”

Twilight grasped Free’s arm. “Free, if they change time, we’ll never see our daughter again!” she wailed.

Free looked at Hype and asked, “Is that true?”

Hype nodded sadly. “Yes, Mom, it’s true. You and Dad never had me in their timeline. That’s why I left with them. I promised Mom that it would be alright. You two will still be there, and I’ll be there too when we get back from fixing time.”

“But that Twilight won’t know you!” protested the alicorn.

Hype moved up to hug her parents. “I will know you, and I believe that they will feel our affinity. Not even time can erase our love for each other!”

Twilight started crying again, and Free started sniffling as well, but this time they seemed to be accepting of what she had told them.

When it seemed that they had calmed down, Lucida said, “Please give us an exact description of the events that led up to Path’s death.”

Free sighed and nodded. “Well, you know how Path won the honour duel. King Argent summoned us to his court to formally pass him Ravenwing’s title and possessions because he was of Argent’s House. It seems Ravenwing was a very sore loser though, because he pulled out a crossbow that he had hidden under the wing that Path hadn’t ruined. He shot Path before anyone realised what was happening, and then made his escape. He didn’t get far before Argent’s guards caught him though. He was dragged back to the court, condemned on the spot, and promptly executed. Fat lot of good that it did Path though. He had already died despite Twilight’s best efforts to heal him.”

“The damage was far too great to repair,” Twilight said disconsolately.

Free continued. “The diplomatic team was immediately withdrawn from Griffonia, but despite Argent’s apology on behalf of his kingdom, the diplomatic damage was too great, and the Equestrian nobles refused to have further dealings with Griffonia. Things went from bad to worse when Argent lost power due to the loss of status caused by Ravenwing, and the new king effectively renewed hostilities between our nations. Since Chrysalis invaded the Crystal Kingdom, Equestria has been in an armed stand-off with two big enemies.”

Lucida nodded gravely. “Neither of those events happened for us. The thing that stands out most is that Ravenwing never tried to kill Path in the court that day in our History, and somehow I suspect that he didn’t this time either. Considering our enemy’s tactics, I believe a changeling replaced Ravenwing and left him to suffer the consequences.”

Twilight gasped. “Ravenwing always protested that he didn’t do it, right up to the moment he was executed. With the entire court witnessing the murder, of course no one believed him, but if it was a changeling, none of us would know otherwise.”

“He was too far away for me to sense his true nature,” Free said. “An agent of Chrysalis, you said? I won’t stop until I kill that bitch!”

“Your other self wants the same,” Destined reassured him. “We’re going to make sure you get that chance.”

“But not today,” Blue said. “I’m too depleted to make another jump right now.”

Hype said, “Dad, Mom, can my friends stay here at the castle tonight? Blue needs to store up energy for the time-jump.”

“If it gives me one more day with my daughter, then certainly!” Twilight replied.

“And you can tell us all about this alternate time of yours over dinner,” Free added.

“Considering all that you have told us, I agree that History should be righted. Anything that will bring back Path, I can stand behind,” Free said.

“Our daughter has to leave us though,” Twilight pointed out sourly. “And Wandering has not even been conceived in their timeline.”

“Sorry, Twi, but as I see it, we will still have our daughter, just in another reality, and they’ve told us that their version of us are trying for a foal. I think Wandering might be a little later, but he’ll still be born.”

“Glad to hear it,” Wandering Free said with a smirk. Like most teenagers, he had little concept of his mortality, let alone the non-existence of a lesser probability timeline. Mostly he felt that he was missing out on an adventure that his sister was enjoying.

The colt had joined the family for dinner, and the time-team got their first look at him. He was an alicorn with a dark red coat and a mane that was blue streaked with white. The most obvious evidence of his heritage though was his horn. It was twisted like a changeling queen’s, but evidently it didn’t affect his magic.

Destined said, “If Mom has a male foal with your colours, we’ll insist on naming him after you. However, since he’d be born into our herd, he would be Wandering Path, not Wandering Free.”

“I can live with that.”

“You obviously have some of your Father’s heritage,” Lucida said. “Did you gain anything else from him?”

Green magic flames flared around Wandering, and Lucida found herself regarding her doppelganger.

“You could say that,” Wandering replied in Lucida’s voice.

“He’s like my sister,” Forest said.

“She’s an alicorn changeling too?” Wandering asked with evident interest.

“No, she’s a pegasus. And she’s married.”

Wandering looked disappointed, and Lucida could not help but chuckle, even though there had never been any chance for the colt. “Could you stop looking like me now, please?”

Wandering obliged with a laugh.

“So, what do you plan to do?” Free asked.

Lucida replied, “From what you have described, I believe we can intercept the agent before he waylays Ravenwing. At worst, we’re pretty familiar with the castle, so we should be able to stop him there with a minimum of fuss. Just in case something goes wrong, we’ll have one of us standing guard over Dad anyway to block a crossbow bolt.”

“You make it sound easy.”

“In some ways, it is. If we didn’t have to worry about influencing the past, it would be simple. Foreknowledge is a powerful advantage.”

“Well, when you fix things, tell your Free that he’s a lucky bastard,” Free said with something like the grin that they were familiar with.

“We’ll do that, I promise.”

Conversation lapsed into less serious matters before they eventually decided to call it a night. Hype showed them which guest rooms they could use, but of course they did not need any other help because this castle was identical to the one that three of them had spent a large portion of their lives in, and even Glenn and Watchful knew it by now. A good night’s rest was indicated for all.

Rest eluded Hype, and she eventually gave up trying to sleep. Recent events kept swirling through her mind, but perhaps the most disturbing was the return home. Her decision to leave behind the world and parents that she knew had been very much spur of the moment, but once made, she had resigned herself to it. However, here she was, back with a mother and sire that she knew, even if the past was marginally altered. Would she have the courage to leave it again?

She wandered out of her room, heading for the balcony in the hope of the cool night air clearing her mind. As she approached the doors though, she noticed the silhouette of another person already out there. She cautiously approached, failing to even get a hint of a taste of the person’s emotions to identify them. Then they moved out of the shadow and into the full moonlight, and Hype was able to identify who it was, and why she could not sense their emotions. She stepped out onto the balcony and walked over to join them.

“Can’t you sleep either?” Hype asked.

Griffon ears swivelled her way, although Watchful kept her eyes on the moonlit scenery. “I’m not tired, so I keep watch.”

Hype snickered. “Dad’s castle might just be the safest place in Equestria, and that’s even taking Canterlot Castle into account. Between Dad’s spells and the Royal Guards, I think you can stand down for the night.”

Watchful grunted, and then replied, “Then what would I do with myself tonight?”

“Something else is bothering you besides the safety of your charges, isn’t it?”

Watchful did not answer, but the set of her beak grew firmer. That prompted another question from Hype.

“Why are you still in griffon form? And don’t give me that pile of horsefeathers about not wasting energy in changing. I’m not sure if they bought that explanation, but you’re not fooling another changeling.”

For a very long moment it seemed that Watchful was not going to reply, but eventually she sighed and said, “I don’t really know.”

Hype rolled her eyes. “Just how young a drone are you? How can you be so inexperienced to understand what you’re feeling?”

“I was chosen because my abilities suited the task, not because of my age,” Watchful replied defensively.

“So, you’re young and serious about your assignment, therefore you get blindsided when someone expresses interest in you personally,” Hype concluded.

Watchful turned to glare at Hype. “I’m their guardian, not their love interest!”

“Your words say one thing, but your form says another. Glenn is genuinely attracted to you, and you don’t know how to handle it.”

“But Glenn is attracted to Lucida!” Watchful hissed. “He can’t be attracted to me too!”

“Glenn is a young male who also has some confusion about the opposite gender. From what I have heard about Lucida, he likes her because she’s pretty and smart, but she’s several years older than him. Then you come along and you’re pretty too, and attractive in other ways, but close to his age. Of course he’s going to feel something, not to mention he’s probably confused about his feelings too. However, he’s not here and you are, so how do you react?”

“My Queen has given me a task! I can’t afford to have my feelings involved!”

“What a pile of cow patties! Do you think your Queen didn’t know what she was doing when assigning you? You’re not with them purely as a guardian; you’re there as part of a team, and the best teams have close relationships. How close depends entirely up to you. If Glenn really likes you, and you really like the taste of those feelings, give him a chance. Maybe it will work out, and maybe it won’t, but there’s no real reason for you not to try.”

Watchful turned away from Hype and returned her gaze to the scenery. The changeling princess let her ponder that for a while before she asked her another question.

“So, what do you really think of Glenn’s feelings?”

A smile slowly grew on Watchful’s beak. “They were delicious, and I want to taste them again.”

Just taste them?”

Watchful closed her eyes and sighed. “No, I want to feel them too.”

Hype chuckled. “Given the number of Harvesters that I know that have ended up in serious long-term relationships with ponies, I think your odds are good. Just because Glenn is a griffon instead should not make a significant difference. Even though you come from a warrior hive, there’s still plenty of room for love.”

“And what of Lucida? How do you think she will feel if Glenn turns to a fake griffon instead of a real hippogriff?”

“Do you think Lucida is that shallow? Anyway, if she has any feelings for Glenn, she’s an adult who can make her own moves to show her interest in him. And remember that she comes from a herd, so the concept of multiple partners is hardly novel to her.”

Watchful grimaced. “I don’t know if either of us is interested that way. I’m still trying to get it through my head that I find Glenn appealing.”

“Well, I’ll just leave you with one last piece of advice then – relationships take time to build, and Glenn has barely started getting interested in you. Time might answer all your questions for you. Meanwhile, show Glenn some interest in return – he’s not exactly being subtle with his intentions.”

Watchful nodded. “I’ll try. It would be helpful if I knew what I was doing though. I’m a warrior, not a… whatever this is.”

“Guess what, Watchful – none of us know what we’re doing the first time. Just deal with it.”

The Red Changeling gave the Chrome Changeling a sceptical look. “How about you – why don’t you have a special somepony?”

Hype reckoned that she should have seen that coming. “Let’s just say that being the mutant changeling daughter of an Equestrian Princess makes for added complications. Nothing has worked out so far. Nevertheless I live in hope of meeting someone who can deal with my… eccentricities, shall we say?”

Watchful looked curious and grinned. “What eccentricities are we talking about?”

“Well, for starters, are you aware of how organised Twilight Sparkle is?”

“Yes, I am. I was once caught up in one of her re-shelving events.”

Hype chuckled in sympathy. “Okay. Let me just say that I sometimes make Dad look like a slob. I’m severely O.C.D. about some things. Please don’t come into my room and touch things because I’ll probably freak out.”

“Oh? Now I’m really curious.”

“I’m going to regret telling you that, aren’t I?” Hype said with a sigh. “It seems I can dish out the advice, but suck at taking it. Plenty of potential colt-friends have told me so.”

“If you want to talk about it, I think it’s my turn to listen.”

Hype turned her gaze to the lovely moonlit night and said, “Y’know, for the first time, I think I’m ready to talk about it.”

The two spent a couple of hours in girl-talk before they finally called it a night and headed to their respective rooms. Both settled into sound sleep soon after hitting the sheets.

Breakfast was uncomfortably awkward. Even though Twilight had apparently come to terms with the situation, she was still feeling the incipient loss. The team did not dawdle over the meal for this reason. Hype had taken the opportunity to pack some personal items this time, although she had to struggle with herself not to take everything. Although logically she knew that virtually anything could be replaced in the alternate timeline, that did not stop her O.C.D. from making the choices nearly impossible. It was only Lucida’s threat to leave her behind that managed to break the impasse.

Hype gave her parents a long hug goodbye. Twilight cried again, but did not try to interfere with either the team or her daughter’s decision. In fact, as Hype had predicted, the alicorn was comforted that their firstborn child would have a real future. Hype stepped back to join the group and nodded at Lucida, indicating that she was ready.

“Farewell, Mama Twilight,” Lucida said. “Let’s go, Des.”

Once again, they dropped into the temporal void, leaving behind this alternate History.

After leaving Blue and Forest in concealment, the rest headed into the city. As planned, they arrived at a moment that was a little before the honour duel at the arena. They were not there to watch the fight this time though. Instead, they were going to keep track of Ravenwing from the moment that he was taken from the arena by the medics after his defeat. They had no idea when Chrysalis’ agent would replace the griffon, but it was extremely unlikely that it would be before Ravenwing had been treated for his injuries. However, as they did not know his movements between the duel and the following morning at King Argent’s court, they had to keep track of him for every moment between. As this was an intelligence-gathering mission, Watchful was given the task of tracking him.

Although Ravenwing’s injuries were severe, they did not require a stay at the hospital. He left with his ruined right wing strapped to his body, and the broken left wing in a sling. Medication for the pain left him able to cope by himself, but a friend nevertheless arranged for a pony-drawn cart to pick him up and take him to his former home.

When Watchful reported this via comm, Hype was puzzled by an apparent inconsistency. “I thought that you said that Ravenwing had forfeited everything he owns. How is that he is still going back to his castle?”

Lucida explained, “While it’s true that the castle does not belong to him anymore, this will probably be a good demonstration of the difference between the absolute application of the law, and the practical application. While everything now belongs to Path now, even he cannot claim things of a deeply personal nature. For example, if Ravenwing’s mother’s cremated remains are in an urn, he is allowed to take them with him. He is even allowed to beg to keep other items that are precious to him, although Path would be under no obligation whatsoever to grant those wishes. However, the biggest exception would of course be any living relatives that reside in his former home. If he had a son or daughter, he would be allowed the time to move them out, along with anything of personal nature to the child. Same rule for a parent living with him. That’s why the official final turnover of the possessions isn’t until the next day.”

“Did Ravenwing have any children?”

“Not that I am aware of. He was seeking betrothal with Mom at the time, and would have had chicks with her if he’d had his way.”

Hype nodded thoughtfully. “I see. That makes sense. It’s also a good time to replace him in the confusion of the situation.”

“Exactly,” Lucida agreed firmly. “The dispossessed griffon would no longer have anyone to order around, nor care what happens to him. I can assure you that the staff have already been informed of the result of the duel, and will give no cooperation unless out of the goodness of their hearts, and considering how Ravenwing treated most of them, I doubt very much that is going to happen. Anyway, I am predicting that he will be taken by the agent after he leaves the castle for the last time. He needs to find a place to stay for the night, and that means going back to the city, or more likely a room at his friend’s place. I’m hoping that’s the case because it will make our task a lot simpler. If we have to deal with a last-moment swap at the King’s court, we will have soldiers and staff making the situation very complicated, with a higher potential for things to go wrong. However, although we have dealt with complex arrangements before, I think we should be able to pull this off with a minimum of difficulty.”

While they watched the castle, a messenger from the King’s court arrived and spoke briefly with Ravenwing. As Lucida predicted, Ravenwing did leave his former home shortly after with his friend, Razorbeak, and they went to that griff’s house. Watchful’s final report for the evening was that Ravenwing had settled down for the night in a guest bedroom, and the changeling had found a good observation post. Hype volunteered to relieve Watchful because she wanted to make herself useful to the team, and because, like the Red Changeling, she would not betray her presence to the agent with leaking emotions like any of the others could.

To Hype’s complete surprise, Destined joined her in the middle of her watch.

“How did you sneak up on me?!” she whispered loudly after recovering from the shock of the alicorn literally walking up next to her.

“Perception filter spell,” Destined replied. “If I’m going to keep watch for a changeling agent, I need to be imperceptible to his senses, but of course that means I was to yours also until I made myself known to you.”

“Oh! Don’t scare the horse-apples out of me next time, okay? What are you doing here in the middle of the night anyway?”

“I’ve spent a lot of time doing lessons with Luna, and I’m used to being up at night. Besides, I thought you might like the company.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Because of how you chatted with Watchful for so long last night,” he answered with a grin.

Hype was startled. “How do you know that?”

“I just told you – I’m used to being up at night, especially since my fiancé is a thestral.”

“Oh… right.”


“So what?”

“So what would you like to talk about?”

“Shouldn’t we be keeping quiet?”

“Sound-deadening is part of the perception-filter spell. As long as you don’t raise your voice too much, you won’t be heard.”

“Oh. You’d think that with a father like Twilight Sparkle, I’d know those things.”

Destined looked at her curiously. “How could you not know more than the average pony? From my own experience with Mom, she was never shy about giving me magic lessons.”

“Maybe because you’re an alicorn and I’m a changeling?”

“My father is an earth pony with a mage-level unicorn as his mother. He learned to adapt earth pony magic to specialised spells with her help. I certainly can’t see why you couldn’t learn something similar. Heck! My sister, Pif learned how to teleport, the first changeling to ever do so, and something not even Papa Free can do.”

“It seems like your family got a lot better breaks than mine. I can’t get over how casually you treat changelings, other than these agents of course.”

“What do you mean? I’ve seen plenty of changelings around Ponyville in your timeline, especially the Royal Guards.”

“Your History didn’t have Queen Chrysalis invade and take over the Crystal Kingdom, and then constantly try to do the same to Equestria. We suspect that she’s doing the same to other nations, and might even be manipulating the Griffonians already, which might be why Mom has had zero luck making any progress towards a treaty between us. The rest of the hives might be our allies, but ponies can’t forget that there’s an entire swarm ready to take them over if we let our guard down for a moment, therefore suspicion about our kind is rife. There’s a lot of hostility towards them… towards me.”

“Ah, I see. You’re right. I’ve grown up with a whole generation that has never known what it’s like not to have undisguised changelings among the community. However, I’m not entirely ignorant of it either. Frothy Brew, a friend of the family, owns a coffee shop in Canterlot, and his daughter married a Red Changeling. She fell in love with him at a time when changelings had barely started appearing regularly in public. Red Archer has told us stories of what that was like, and finding acceptance.”

Hype nodded. “Right. Now imagine that attitude persisted for us right up to the present, and there I am, the half-breed daughter of Princess Twilight Sparkle and a mutant changeling Queen. I’m all sorts of wrong in the eyes of ponies.”

“Well, for starters, technically all changelings are half-breeds because the Queens all seek mates outside of their own kind, usually a pony, but a griffon in Papa Free’s case. Anyway, that should make the half-breed tag rather irrelevant, except of course we’re dealing with pony biases. Did we tell you that my family got its start due to an investigation started by Dad into various cultures so that we could better understand them, and reduce or eliminate our cultural biases? Believe me, they can be changed. However, I can see the pressures that were put on you, especially since you didn’t have the large family support base that we did. Still, I can’t imagine Mom… or Dad in your case… not doing her best to educate you. It’s kind of her obsession.”

“Maybe she got distracted when Wandering was born,” Hype muttered.

“Oh. And he’s not only an alicorn, but hardly has a visible trace of his changeling heritage. And considering your age difference, Mom had to spend a lot more time with him at a critical time of your development. So, let me guess – you were jealous of your brother, and you rebelled against your father?”

Hype’s ears folded down and she turned her head away in shame from Destined. She nodded without replying.

Destined sighed. “It seems that you’re on much better terms with Twilight now though, but the damage was done. You became more introverted, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and somewhat obsessive about some things. Mom tried to help, but he grew up as a griffon and never had to deal with the same problems as a child. Then along comes your group, and one of them is a Red Changeling who is agonising about choosing a relationship over her duty. She’s totally oblivious to the fact that in my worldview, changeling relationships with ponies are virtually impossible in public. I don’t know of any that aren’t concealed behind a pony guise. I’d kill to have Watchful’s problems!”

Hype’s voice had been steadily rising, and Destined had to shush her before replying. “Well, seeing as you’re coming back with us, you will get that opportunity, but I suspect that you’re going to have to learn how to interact better with others.” He paused to chuckle. “Listen to me – I’m giving advice like an expert. You wouldn’t think that I didn’t have to have some sense pounded into me too. In fact, I don’t believe that single one of us hasn’t had their relationship problems. Pif was not interested in anything until Citrine made her realise that she was missing something. Blue was swept off his hooves by a possessive dragoness. Lucida has never had anything like a serious coltfriend. My brother, Flix, seems to have the most normal development of a relationship out of all of us! So keep your hopes up, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. After all, you’re going to be part of the family now, and technically as much my sister as Pif is.”

Hype blushed. “Thanks, Destined. If you weren’t my brother, I’d try my luck with you and kiss you.”

“Heh! I might be gay, but I’ve enjoyed many a kiss from mares before I realised my leanings.”

Hype smiled mischievously and her magic flared. Moments later, a pony stallion with Hype’s colourations leaned over to kiss Destined on the cheek. “Thanks, Destined,” the changeling said in a sexy masculine voice.

The alicorn blushed in surprise. “Call me Des, and I’m taken!”

Hype chuckled and resumed her normal form. “It was worth it to see the look on your face.”

Destined smirked. “Now you’re being like a real sister. I think you’re going to be okay, Hype.”

Hype nodded. “I certainly hope that you’re right, Des.”

The night passed without incident, as expected, but as the dawn lit up the horizon, the two watchers stopped chatting and focused more of their attention on Ravenwing’s bedroom. Although they had positioned themselves to be able to see if the door to the room opened in case the agent was imitating someone inside, they thought it was unlikely. Because the window was open, it seemed far likelier that the agent would choose the simpler approach. They were not disappointed. A very ordinary-looking griffon flew in low in the early morning gloom and alighted by the window which was not readily visible from the street. He peered cautiously inside before easing the window open enough for him to slip inside without disturbing the sleeper. Then the intruder moved out of direct sight of the window, apparently not taking any further risk of being spotted. There were flares of green light though, and shortly a doppelganger of Ravenwing headed to the door, while the original remained asleep in the bed.

“Watch the front door in case the agent leaves,” Destined instructed. “I think he’ll play it like normal though, and have breakfast with Ravenwing’s friend first, but it pays to cover all bases. I’m going down to check on the real Ravenwing.”

Hype shifted to a spot where she could observe the front entrance while Destined flew down to check on the griffon. He quickly returned and settled down next to Hypotenuse.

“Well…?” she asked when he didn’t say anything.

“Well what?”

“Is Ravenwing okay?”

Destined shrugged. “I suppose so.”

“What do you mean by that? You said you were going to check on him.”

“I did?” Destined frowned in concentration, and then his eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I did! Ha! That’s clever,” he said ruefully.

“What’s clever?” Hype asked curiously.

“There’s an aversion spell on the room. Get close enough and you trigger it. Nobody is going to disturb Ravenwing while the agent is impersonating him. It’ll probably fade just in time for Argent’s soldiers to come looking for him.”

“Won’t Ravenwing wake before that and spoil that plan?”

“I’m guessing a sleep spell will stop that from happening. I could check it out, but I’d have to break the aversion spell to do it, so I won’t. It’s more important that we ensure that we know how this plays out. You’ve already seen what happens when we make assumptions.”

Hype nodded, and they settled in to wait patiently.

Eventually ‘Ravenwing’ left the house in the company of his friend, and they headed off in the direction of the king’s castle. Hype took off immediately to follow as closely as she dared, while Destined called on his comm to alert the others before following from a distance.

Watchful was in place at the castle to observe Ravenwing’s approach. Judging by his direction, she guessed how he would enter, and headed in before him, taking the form of one of the castle guards. She followed discreetly when the griffon-changeling entered and headed for the throne room. The agent obviously had done his research as he confidently made his way to his destination. Soon he met up with the king, and Argent gave him a curt nod.

“Good, you’re here. You will conduct yourself honourably as you formally forfeit your possessions.” The king signalled one of his assistants, and they headed to the throne room.

Meanwhile Destined and Hype entered the castle via the public entrance, comfortably anonymous among the crowd who had come to witness the historic occasion. While they had to be content with the view from the public gallery, they could still see everything they needed to from there. They saw that Path, Roseclaw, Free, and Twilight were already in place, awaiting the arrival of the king. Argent soon arrived with Ravenwing following close behind, standing to the king’s left as he settled on his throne.

The group bowed, including Path in his wheelchair.

“Long Path, step… er… roll forward,” Glimfeather commanded.

Path did so, but just as he stopped at the foot of the dais, the disguised changeling reached under the sling of his left wing and withdrew a crossbow. Before anyone could react, he fired, and the bolt went straight through Path’s chest, shattering his spine.

The crowd screeched in shock at the assassination, and Ravenwing took advantage of the surprise to dash for the door by which he had entered. As Roseclaw leaped to her betrothed side, the guards finally reacted and took off in pursuit of the assassin. Destined could watch no more as blood stained his father’s hide and his herd mother’s feathers. Hype was sickened, not only by the sight, but also by the strong negative emotions from the disguised alicorn. She led him away and they made an exit from the castle.

Watchful had been waiting in concealment in the empty corridor from the throne room. When the fake Ravenwing burst through the door and rushed down the corridor, she followed as he ducked into a side room. Moments later, the guards arrived, and some started checking all the rooms along the way. An unknown griffon exited the room that the agent had entered, and was ignored by the guards. Watchful did not bother following him though. The scenario had played out virtually exactly as expected, and there was no point in trying to catch the agent now. That was a task for later. She headed for the rendezvous point, and was shortly joined by Destined and Hype.

After Destined was sufficiently recovered from witnessing his father’s murder, they made a time-jump back just a few hours. The agent had made it very easy for them, and they were in place for when he arrived to take Ravenwing’s place. Instead of entering the window though, he found himself ensnared in a magical trap laid by Destined, and was knocked unconscious. He was carried away, leaving the real Ravenwing to take the correct path in History.

When the agent regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by the time-team who had gathered in a disused warehouse that Glenn had scouted out earlier. He hissed in displeasure.

Lucida stepped forward and said, “You’ve lost, puppet of Chrysalis. What have you got to say to that?”

The agent snarled, but then laughed derisively. “My Queen knows that you have been defying her will. She says to tell you that House Path will fall, but you will fall first.”

The agent triggered a spell, and suddenly all the energy that changeling had stored was released all at once, radiating out with enough destructive power to instantly kill everyone nearby. Eventually the smoke cleared away, and the ashes of the incinerated changeling floated to rest on the bottom of the invisible bubble that had surrounded the agent.

Destined looked at Lucida and said, “You were right – he was a trap.”

Lucida nodded. “Double-jeopardy. Either he killed Dad or he killed us – a win for Chrysalis whichever happened. If this hadn’t been so easy, I might not have been so suspicious, but I’m learning not to underestimate her now.”

“We might not have learned anything from the agent, but at least that solves the question of what to do with him.”

“That’s true. Anyway, let’s go home and see if we’ve fixed things properly this time. Are you ready, Blue?”

“While you’ve been yakking, I’ve been charging. The energy from that little hop back in time has already been replaced.”

“Great!” Destined said. “Second time’s the charm!”

The alicorn teleported them to Ponyville before they made the time-jump to what they hoped was the correct present. They heaved a sigh of relief upon spotting the Chrome Hive in its familiar place.

Hype gaped. “Whoa! That’s impressive!”

“We’ll give you a tour of your mother’s hive later,” Lucida said. “Right now, it’s time to meet your family – both new and familiar.

Hype’s head kept swivelling as she noted all the differences between the Ponyville that she had grown up in and this one. The noticeable absence of Royal Guards everywhere was pleasant, but the various undisguised changelings that she occasionally saw going about their normal lives was startling. She passed close enough to a mare though to spot that she was a disguised changeling, so she knew that some still preferred the old ways. The cream-coated mare with a dark blue and pink mane stared at Hype for a long while before shrugging and entering the candy store.

They arrived at Twilight’s castle just before dinnertime, which was when they would have been going off on a victory dinner before they had been abducted by Derpy to go on another time adventure. They headed for the family room, hoping that everyone had returned from Canterlot after the big cake battle. Luckily all four of their parents were there, which meant that Luna would probably be joining them for dinner soon too. They greeted the time-team normally, unaware that they had been gone for a few days by their reckoning. They said nothing though, allowing Hype to take in her impressions first.

Hype took in the pleasant but unfamiliar domestic scene with Path and Roseclaw cosying up together on the sofa, while Free was discussing the cake battle with them. Twilight was reading a book as usual. Free was the person who riveted Hype’s attention though. The griffon-changeling was larger and stronger-looking than the mother who she was familiar with, and his attitude was shockingly different. This was a bolder and brasher person than she had ever known. Eventually Free noticed her stares and grinned at her.

“Something bothering you, Pif?”

Hype stepped up and smiled softly. “Hello, Mom.”

“Mom? Since when have you started calling me that?”

“I’m not who you think I am, Mom.”

Free frowned in puzzlement and leaned forward, peering at her intently. Then his eyes widened in surprise. “You’re not Pif! But you are a Chrome Changeling princess. Who are you?”

Lucida spoke up then. “Dads, Moms, may I introduce Hypotenuse, daughter of Free Agent and Twilight Sparkle.”

“WHAT?!” squawked Free and Twilight simultaneously.

“We have just returned from fixing another time-change,” Lucida continued. “In that History, Dad was murdered in two different ways, both resulting in Mama Twilight and Papa Free returning from Griffonia by themselves, and eventually getting married. When Papa Free went into breeding mode though, Dad was not there to be the sire, so Mama Twilight used a gender-swap spell to breed her. Hype was born from that union.”

Hype smiled shyly. “So, that’s why you’re Mom,” she explained, and then faced Twilight. “And that’s why you’re Dad.”

Free and Twilight stared at her in wonder for a long moment before they looked at each other. A nod of agreement passed between them and they both got up and hugged the changeling.

Hype was startled to taste a flood of affection for her, and she drank it in thirstily, even as she wondered at the unreserved nature of the emotion. These two alternate History people had accepted her without hesitation, and she started to cry as she hugged them back. No matter what else the future brought her, she had her parents to share it with.

The time-team gave a detailed account of their adventures while having dinner. The agent’s threat from Chrysalis did little to dampen the elation that was felt at foiling Chrysalis once more.

“I’ll be glad when we finally take the fight to Chrysalis,” Path said. “She’s declared war on us personally now, and I can’t wait to show her how wrong she was to do that.”

Just then, Pif and Citrine arrived. They gave a cheery greeting to the others, and would have moved on to whatever they had planned to do next except that Pif spotted Hype staring at her. Pif had been taking to using her natural form around home more often since getting into the relationship with Citrine, and it was obvious that the two changeling princesses were almost mirror images of each other except for their mane and tail colour.

Pif walked over to Hype and looked her up and down before grinning and saying, “Hi, time-twin!”

Hype gave her a crooked smile back and said, “More like half-sister, actually.”

“This I gotta hear! Mind if we hang out here for a bit, Citrine?”

The crystal pony was grinning madly. “I get two Pifs! What’s to mind?!”

The family laughed as Citrine put her forelegs around the waists of both Chrome Changelings and hugged them together. Hype almost started crying again – she was truly home once more.




Chapter 16: Team Growth


“You have got to be kidding me!” Pif exclaimed as she stared incredulously at Hype.

Hype shrugged. “No, I really have never been in a hive network.”

Pif was lost for words for a long moment. “But… you… Dad… er, Mom… you’ve got to have linked up!”

“Well, we have our bond, I suppose, but that’s all. Come to think of it, that’s what I was missing while we were in the past. I seem to have re-established that with this History’s Free Agent. Is it like that?”

Pif rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure; your bond is like a hive link, just like a match flame is like the sun.”

“Oh. Well, I’ve heard of the hive networks of our allies, but I’ve never explored that because we didn’t have a hive of our own. With just Mom and myself, there just didn’t seem to be any point.”

“No point? Sheesh! I hate being disconnected from our hive network. It’s so much a part of being a changeling that if it wasn’t for Dad growing up a griffon, I wouldn’t have believed that it was possible. I’m going to have to link you into ours as soon as possible.”

“No, you’re not,” Path interjected.

Pif looked at her father curiously. “Huh? Why not, Dad?”

“I got lost in Dianthia’s network the first time that I was linked up to it. Even though Hype is a changeling, she needs to be introduced to a network gradually if she has zero experience with one.”

“Oh, I see.” Pif nodded thoughtfully, and then brightened. “I know – I’ll hook her up to my research mini-network. With just twelve drones in it, it will ease her into the experience. After that, I’ll add on my nine intelligence operatives. By then she should be ready for the full experience, and I’ll be there to guide her around.”

“Let me know when you’re ready to do that,” Free said. “I’m going to block her off until then. I really don’t want to have to mind-dive after her like I did with Path.”

“Okay, Dad,” Pif replied.

“That’s weird, you know?” Hype said.

“What is?”

“You calling your mother, Dad.”

Pif grinned. “He’s almost always in male form, and been a father to me, so I have very rarely called him Mom. What’s going to be really weird is you calling him, Mom, and Mama Twilight, Dad.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the others.

Hype shrugged. “That’s what they are – current gender has nothing to do with it.”

“Hi, everybody!” came a cheery call from the doorway. “Hello – this is new.”

Destined got up to greet Silk who had just finished work and had come to the castle to have dinner with the family. After giving him a hug and a kiss, Destined turned to Hype and said, “This is my fiancé, Silk Touch. Silk, this is Hypotenuse, Hype for short, and my brand-new sister.”

“A pleasure to meet you at last,” Hype said.

Silk smiled back at her and said, “Sounds like there’s quite a story to this, Des.”

“We’ll tell you all about it over dinner, but the short version is that we’ve just returned from another History fix.”

“And I missed it? I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.”

Citrine grinned. “They brought home the best bit anyway!”

Pif poked the crystal pony. “Calm down, girl. She might have other ideas, y’know?”

“Never hurts to ask,” Citrine replied unrepentantly.

“You’ll get used to that,” Silk said to Hype sympathetically.

“I was beginning to wonder,” the Chrome Changeling replied.

“So, how long were you gone this time?” Silk asked Destined.

“Only a few days; long enough to miss you though.”

“That’s sweet of you. I’ll do something special for you tonight to make up for those days.”

Just then, Spike came in to announce that dinner was ready to be served, and that everyone should make their way to the dining room.

As the family trooped out into the hallway, there was a flash and bang of teleportation, and the Lunar Princess appeared. She smiled at seeing everyone and said, “Good evening, everypony. My timing is perfect, it would seem.”

Path chuckled. “You always seem to know when we’re about to eat. Anypony would think that you joined our herd for the food,” he said as he walked over to the alicorn to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“I have heard worse reasons over the centuries,” Luna riposted as she returned his favour.

Twilight, Free, and Roseclaw all came over to give their herdmate an appropriate greeting too. They then continued on to the dining room, but not before Luna spotted Hype. An eyebrow raised in curiosity was all the reaction she gave, confident that she would soon hear all about this new changeling. She made it a point to find a place at the table that was close to Hype though, and smiled benignly at her as the servants brought in the food and served it up.

Hype was a little overwhelmed by having Luna sitting across the table from her, sharing their mealtime just like she was just an ordinary pony. Although she knew the Princess from the many royal occasions and meetings with Twilight, the Alicorn of the Moon had always seemed like an untouchable near-godlike being. But here she was chatting and laughing along just like a member of the family… no… as a member of the family. Technically, Luna was now her herd-mother too after she had been welcomed into the same family. She was still boggled by that thought. She hoped that the Princess wouldn’t catch her staring!

“You’re staring,” came a deep feminine voice from beside Hype.

The golden dragoness smirked at Hype as the Chrome Changeling blushed at being caught out. “I can’t help it,” she admitted. “Even after being told about this family by the others, it all seems so surreal.”

Cinder nodded understandingly. “It was a bit of a culture-shock to me also when I first joined House Path, and they didn’t even have Luna in the family then. Don’t worry – she doesn’t bite, and the rest will become familiar also.”